Chapter Nine: The Advertisement

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"If you scroll to item eight, I have the schematic cued up," Captain Pike says.

The officers of the Enterprise flip switches and a collective hum whirs in the air.

"What the—" Chief Engineer Olson exclaims as his PADD buzzes and flickers. All around the conference table, the other officers tap their PADDs and switch them on and off.

Only Spock's PADD is working properly.

Captain Pike looks at his first officer seated to his right and he says, "Mr. Spock, what's going on here?"

"Unknown, Captain," Spock says, taking the PADD from Pike and flipping it over.

Tinny music begins to play, first from one PADD, and then from each of the others in turn. Soon the room is a cacophony of ear-piercing noise.

"Turn it off!" Pike shouts over the music, and Spock pries off the back of the PADD and disengages the power cell. Nothing. The music continues as the other officers also try to disconnect their PADDs.

Abruptly the music stops, and Spock hears a collective sigh of relief. He flips the PADD over and taps the viewscreen.

Curlicue writing begins to appear, and a soft feminine voice speaking an alien language.

"What is this!" Pike says, taking the PADD back from Spock.

Leaning forward, Spock says, "Orion, Captain. I believe it is an advertisement—for human chattel."

Around the room the officers make various noises that Spock knows indicate surprise—snorts, mild curses, even uneasy laughter. Then the view on the screen changes to a picture of a green Orion slave girl, her tangled black hair trailing down her back, her scanty clothes of shimmery blue cloth revealing more of her anatomy than they hide.

Spock blinks. Such advertisements are banned by Federation law. Transmitting them is an offense punishable by fines or even incarceration. That they are appearing on Starfleet-issued PADDs is alarming—and fascinating.

The image of the Orion slave girl begins to undulate sinuously—and the tinny music begins again. Something in the girl's movements seem oddly familiar, though Spock is certain that he has never seen an Orion slave girl dance before.

She is turned away from the camera, her arms lifted first over her head, then out from her sides, as her torso writhes, her bare legs stepping to the left and then the right.

"Mr. Spock!" Captain Pike shouts over the music. "Get this thing turned off!"

Taking the PADD from the captain, Spock tries the fail-safe switch on the side. Curious—nothing seems to kill the feed. Perhaps if he looks more closely at the projection, he can discern the underlying display matrix and find the power source.

The Orion girl continues her dance as Spock peers closely at the screen. Suddenly the music fades and the dance is over—and the girl turns around and grins.

Then the picture, too, fades—not just from the PADD Spock is holding, but from all of the PADDs around the table.

"Captain, I—" Spock begins, but to his surprise, Captain Pike interrupts him.

"Not now, Spock, "Pike says. "I want everyone to listen to me, and listen to me carefully."

Around the table, everyone puts their PADDs down. When the room is still, Pike leans forward and says, "As of this moment, this epidemic of pranks has come to an end. Do I make myself understood?"

Pike surveys each of the officers, ending with Spock.

"It's one thing to swap out someone's lunch—"

At this, Pike looks again at Spock. Surely the captain doesn't suspect that Spock was behind the plomeek soup prank. Dr. Puri's involvement is almost certain—and yet the captain seems to insinuate that Spock is responsible. Either the captain believes it—or he wants the crew to believe it...

Picking up his now-blank PADD, Pike says, "It's another thing entirely to break the law. This goes beyond the pale. Trafficking Orions is despicable—and I'm ashamed that anyone here would imply otherwise—even as a prank."

"Captain," Spock begins again, but inexplicably, the captain holds up his hand.

"Olson," Pike says, and the chief engineer jumps, "this has your fingerprints all over it."

Blushing crimson, Olson says, "Captain, I swear! I never had anything to do with this. I wouldn't! Okay, so I might have pulled a joke or two in my time—"

Here Olson looks around, his face sweaty, his arms raised.

"But I wouldn't put my job in danger by importing contraband. I wouldn't! You have to believe me."

Spock watches Pike's expression—his eyes narrowing, his nostrils flaring, his cheeks blanching. He can't recall ever seeing anyone quite this angry—at least, not a human.

"I have half a mind to throw you in the brig for a few days anyway," Pike says, and Olson's face drains of color.

Once more Spock tries to get the captain's attention.

"Sir," he says, "this may not be an actual—"

To his astonishment, Captain Pike says, "Later, Spock. Right now, we have to make sure this prank hasn't been broadcast anywhere else. Edgerton, see if you can trace the feed from the operations terminal. Wu, get off your butt and help. Sizemore, snoop around—discreetly—and see if anyone else reports seeing this….thing. Get back to me by 1800, if not before. Dismissed."

X X X X X X X X X

All evening Spock has been quieter than usual.

Sometimes he is quiet because he is working on calculations or reviewing the logistics of upcoming events. Nyota has learned to recognize a peculiar glaze in his eye when he is mentally engaged and doesn't want to be disturbed.

Sometimes he is quiet because he is physically exhausted, or weary of words, and Nyota can sit beside him, rubbing her fingers down his arm or tracing the line of his brow, and feel his gratitude for her care.

But tonight he is quiet because he is puzzling through something—not the way he works a mathematical equation, but an examination of a confusing experience—and during those times, Spock is receptive to her gentle questioning.

As she hands him a plate of stir fry, she pulls up the chair near the sofa where he sits. Her own plate is already on the side table—and she picks up her fork and says, "How'd the meeting go today? You haven't said much."

She takes a bite of her dinner and waits. Spock holds his plate, unmoving, and for a moment, Nyota wonders if he is ill. She starts to ask, but she sees a change in his expression—as if he has come to a decision about something. He looks up at her.

"If you had information about a prank, would you tell me?"

Startled, Nyota puts her plate down on the table and says, "What? What prank?"

Spock says nothing for a moment but looks at her intently. Then he tells her about the illegal advertisement and the captain's suspicion about Olson's involvement.

"Even if Olson said he didn't do it, that doesn't mean he didn't," Nyota says. She's never met Olson, but Spock's description of him makes her wary of him. "Humans are adept liars, you know."

Something dark flickers in Spock's expression.

"Nyota," he says, and she feels a prickle of concern at the chill in his tone, "why would Gaila Farlijah-Endef be wearing a wig on an advertisement for an illegal slave operation?"

For a moment Nyota can't speak, so many things flash through her mind at once.

"Gaila? My Gaila? Are you sure? A wig? How could you tell?"

Spock sits motionless, saying nothing, and Nyota feels a rush of annoyance.

"You don't think I had something to do with this, do you? I have no idea why Gaila would be—"

And suddenly the pieces fall together, like an old pachinko machine shifting gears and levers, the ball cascading down to the inevitable end.

Sitting back in her chair, Nyota says, "Captain Pike. He called Gaila earlier this week. She never told me why—I just assumed he needed some computer programming done—"

"Apparently he did," Spock says, steepling his fingers together.

"But—you said he was angry about the prank—"

"Perhaps I misread his emotional response."

"Or more likely, he's a good actor."

Nyota hops up from her chair and sits down on the sofa beside Spock, pulling up her knees and hooking her arms around them.

"Oh, my," she says. "The prankster of pranksters. Who would have guessed!"

Spock unsteeples his fingers and she slides next to him. She reaches up behind her and drapes his arm over her shoulder—and is rewarded by his look of amusement.

"It will be interesting to see if it works," she says, and she senses Spock's curiosity. "You know—if this really does put an end to the pranks."

"Captain Pike has forbidden any more pranks," Spock says, and Nyota snickers.

"So the one you were planning—" she says, reaching up and taking his hand.

"I was not planning one," he says, meeting her gaze.

"Of course you weren't," Nyota says. "But if you were, save it for later—just in case you need it."

X X X X X X X X X

Chris's office is almost deserted—his secretary long gone, the custodian who reprograms the environmental controls not due to arrive for another hour. Natalie sits in her customary seat in the corner of the room behind Chris's desk—her favorite spot when Chris is interviewing someone. From her vantage point she can judge someone's reactions—and send Chris subliminal messages with the squeak of her chair or the rustle from shifting her position.

Chris is sitting in his reflective posture—one ankle propped on his other knee, his arms resting lightly on the sides of the chair, which at the moment is swiveled to face Natalie. She holds out a small paper cup and Chris laughs, pulling out a silver flask from his desk drawer and unscrewing it.

"Can't wait?" he says as Natalie upends her cup.

"I'm no drama critic," she says, "but that was quite a performance."

Chris laughs and pours her another drink.

"If I do say so myself," he says, "I could have a career in the theater."

"Or a career as a software programmer."

"Oh, no—not me. You heard what Spock said—my encryption skills aren't up to snuff."

"He'll figure it out eventually," Natalie says, crushing her cup and throwing it into the recycle bin. "What are you going to do then?"

"Nothing," Chris says. He pours himself another drink and screws the top of the flask back on.

"You know," Natalie says, "in all the time I've known you, I can't think of another prank you've ever pulled. That was pretty impressive—for a beginner."

"My one and only," Pike says. "I'm done."

Rubbing her cheek, Natalie says, "Spock won't think so. He'll peg you as a prankster."

"Let him," Pike says. "Give him something to worry about—shake up that Vulcan confidence a bit."

Chris stands up and Natalie follows.

"Besides," Chris says, "he deserves a little payback for that crack about my computer skills."

"It's the truth, though," Natalie says, walking beside Chris as they make their way down the hall. "You could never have done it without Hannah—"

Natalie looks up at Chris in time to see him frown and shake his head.

"Nah. Hannah didn't help. She's...well, she isn't in the picture anymore," he says, casting a look at Natalie. "I'm not telling you anything you probably haven't already guessed. We decided not to renew."

Natalie stops walking and after taking a step, Chris stops, too, and turns to face her.

"I'm…I'm sorry, Chris," Natalie stumbles. Chris's relationship with other women is a topic she never broaches with him—for many reasons. A few months ago when he had mentioned the possibility that Hannah might not want to renew their three-year marriage contract, Natalie had put up her hand and stopped him from talking.

"I'm not your buddy you tell things to," she had protested, and when Chris gave her an odd look, she said, "You understand, don't you?"

They had said nothing more about it—until now.

Chris' recent behavior suddenly makes sense—his strange inattention to the quiet hazing Spock has been enduring, his quick departures from staff meetings with little of his usual banter with his officers.

Natalie reaches out her hand and touches Chris on the forearm. For a moment they make eye contact, and then Chris looks down and they start walking again toward the exit at the end of the hall.

"Now tell me," he says, "do I need to be on the alert for some Vulcan prank retribution?"

Reaching past Chris and pressing the button to open the outside door, Natalie smiles. "I certainly hope so."

A/N: Thus ends this little fic. If you liked itor if you didn'tlet me know! Reviews don't have to be fancy to be appreciated! Without your reviews, I don't know that anyone's reading!

If this fic DID tickle your fancy, my other stories are listed in chronological order in my profile. Keep an eye out for a new story soonit's an S/U story but Spock Prime makes an appearance.

Thanks as always to StarTrekFanWriter!