Fraser had realised from the moment that Jannel had decided to stay that this evening would have to happen sooner or later, and it was better that it happened sooner. He felt slightly uncomfortable at first, it seemed that they both had things they wanted to say to each other, but not before the other had said it first. Fraser decided to change his strategy. He walked over to the single shelf at the back of the room and took down an odd looking green box. It was not the first time that evening that Jannel had noticed it, but they had been too busy discussing other things for her to make a remark on it.
Alborell's only comment prior to his fetching it seemed to indicate that it held a game of some kind. He set it down on the cheap and rather unimpressive table that served every need a table had to, without necessarily being nice to look at. Perhaps with the funds that recent activity looked set to provide, that would change.
As soon as Alborell had put the box down, Jannel picked it up. She examined it with the authority of an elderly arhaeologist. The surface was a deep green with the depth and colours equal to the oceans back home. She dragged her finger accross it and half expected to get her hand wet. It hardly seemed to touch her skin at all and where she would normally see the trace of her finger print, there was none.
"What's it made from?" She asked, dropping any appearance of knowledge on the subject that she may have had.
"Wood." Replied Fraser. Jannel looked a little more closely. "It's from a very rare tree, on a seldom visited planet, and no, I haven't been there." Alborell took the box back. "This was given to me by a Vulcan ambassador I met while I was on the Morgan." he lifted his hand until the box eclipsed the light in the ceiling. Jannel could just see the light through the material of the box. The lights hazy outline showed its contents, a number of small rectangular pieces. They slid about loosely as Fraser lowered his arm back down, placing the box onto the table once more. The lid was removed and Alborell started to pull the pieces out.
"I'm not very good at games." Confessed Jannel, still puzzled, by the unusual artifact and Alborell's sudden interest in it.
"This game's different." Alborell reassured her. Jannel picked one of the small tiles up and looked at it more closely. The small red tile was evidently made of a similar wood to the box, its texture and weight seemed about right apart from the obvious difference in colour and on its face was a neat inscription, a symbol of some kind. Jannel watched as more tiles were brought out onto the table.
Amongst the many reds, greens, blues and yellows was a single tile of the darkest black. It seemed to soak up light and looked as if it were simply a hole in space.
"Whats that?" She asked in amazement.
"The T'Peen, the 'Shadow Piece'," said Alborell mysteriously. He looked at it for a moment, and then tossed it onto the table with the others.
"It is the one piece that no one controls, capturing it wins the game." Jannel still didn't understand. As they bagan to play, Fraser explained.
The alien symbols and terminology danced merrily before Jannel's eyes, infecting her brain with the ancient culture that had spurned the oddity. Her gradual understanding of it helped her little, but Alborell seemed to have the skill of a grand master. It was really most unlike him to be good at anything.
"I didn't think you liked games." Recalled Jannel.
"I don't." Confessed Alborell.
"Except this one?" She continued. Alborell picked up an Orange rectangle and placed it next to the three blue ones that he had collected.
"I told you, this one's different, your move." Jannel picked a piece up and put it on her own pile.
"You see there, you've made a classic error." Jannel looked down, but didn't understand.
"You've developed a strategy." Alborell explained.
"That's bad?" Jannel asked. Alborell dropped one of the blue pieces into the square that was drawn onto the playing cloth.
"That's probably why I am such a good player, there, I have T'Peen" He announced confidently.
"You've won." Said Jannel with some relief.
The two of them decided to move to the more comfortable recliners in the middle of the room. Fraser seemed a little less relaxed than usual, the impact of Rex's information on Alborell was becoming more observable.
"Don't worry about it, you'll work something out." said Jannel.
"Perhaps I will, I'm sure things will seem different in the morning." Said Fraser optomisticly. He didn't look as if he was in the mood for a conversation and so Jannel got up to leave.
"You're not going already?" Fraser looked disappointed.
"I'll see you in the morning," Jannel could see that this wasn't the time to discuss their future together, if they had one.
The two walked awkwardly to the door and stopped. This was how they used to say goodnight on Coriollis, but in those days Fraser was on the other side of the door, about to leave for his ship.
"I would understand if you were mad at me, I know I shouldn't have left like I did." Said Alborell. The apology seemed more for his sake than hers. Jannel obviously wasn't mad at him. She leant forward and kissed him affectionately, and left.
Fraser slept despite his concerns, but was almost interrupted by the loud bleeping noise of the computer's alarm. Unfortunately the audio output system that would have normally carried the sound from the Bridge to all of the other areas of the ship, had suffered a malfunction and the arrival of a newcomer to Eros therefore went unheralded. It was not until the morning that the message on the computer screen caught anyones attention. It showed a brief but definate record of a small vessel as it entered the planets atmosphere, skimmed it's surface and then disappeared into the city. Where it had gone after that no one knew as no further trace of it could be found and the thick concrete of the settlements structures prevented any further readings from here. Everyone had there own different theories of course, but they could all agree on one thing; Eros needed no more visitors.
Breakfast was followed by a healthy stroll and a breath of fresh air for Captain Fraser. He stood for a moment with the ship behind him, out of sight, trying to imagine that he was alone. The city was off to his left and the road that had once led to it disappeared into the sand about half a kilometre away. The rest was totally empty. Nothing more than dirt and dust. It was hard to imagine that life had ever been present in amongst any of it. It was so peaceful now. The wind seemed reluctant to disturb the air and even the sky couldn't offer any break in it's perfectly clear blue apart from the hot redish sun beating down relentlessly.
The scene was in many ways idylic, but it was finally disturbed by the voice of the ships computer. It contrasted harshly againt the scene.
"Captain, Sensors are Picking up an Energy Source in Orbit." The 'Human' voice of the computer was nothing like any Human that Fraser had ever met, but it served its purpose.
"Can you tell what it is?" Said Fraser.
"Negative Captain." The most likely explaination would be a vessel of some kind, an orbital probe would not generate enough power for the Cougar's sensors to detect it. The Captain walked into the cargo bay and stopped at terminal in the wall. Surely this couldn't be another ship, two in a day? This was too much to be a simple coincidence, something must have alerted them their presence. Fraser eventually prised a little more information from the ship's sensors. There was indeed a ship of some kind in orbit, small by classification, but still fifty times bigger than the Cougar. Alborell realised that he would need a cover story. He looked forward to hearing it. It would no doubt be one of his finest.
About half an hour later the sensors picked up the characteristic energy beam of a transporter. Rex, who was now standing by the terminal, muttered to himself.
"Starfleet, it had to be- didn't it." It seemed to Captain Fraser that Drakes talents were unending, if only he could use them a little bit earlier. The three beams decended swiftly, apparently quite accuately, and the shapes of three humans coelecsed inside them. The first and obviously highest ranking form was that of a woman. She seemed quite young, although these days you never could tell. Her uniform bore three gold dots, a Commander. The crewman next to her was dressed in blue and could well be a doctor or a science officer, thought Fraser. Given the circumstances it seemed most likely that they would want to check the area for any signs of harmful diseases, after all, even Starfleet was in the dark about what had gone on here on Eros. The third form was a male Lieutenant, of a race unknown to Alborell. He looked a little younger than the Commander, his build and stance suggested a security officer of some kind. A small away team, well balanced with command and support personnel, supporting the theory that they were expecting anything to happen. The Security Officer took out the small electronic device attached to his belt that Fraser had been so familiar with in his days in the service, and began taking readings with it.
The red suited Commader looked around and stepped towards the Captain. She spoke with clear intentions.
"I am Commander Gerros Carter of the Federation Starship Liberator," she seemed oddly familiar, "I want an explaination mister." He recognised the tone, certainly.
"I am Captain Alborell Fraser of the Cougar," Alborell returned, attempting to regain some authority,"if you and your officers would like to step inside, I'll be glad to answer any of your questions." If his approach was meant to put them off balance, it had worked. Carter's expression was already beginning to show signs of her sudden confusion. With a nod from Harno to show that it was clear to enter, they stepped aboard.
"Lietenant Polski, check those crates." Commanded Carter. The Lieutenant obidiently began a sweep of the crates in the hold with his tricorder.
"I still haven't heard you're explaination Captain, you must be aware that this planet is quarantined?" Fraser continued walking to the lift and paused at the doors to issue his well rehearsed reply.
"Any port in a storm Commander," he smiled.
"Storm?" Carter's senses were telling her something, but too many months of disuse had dulled them.
"I am perfectly aware of this planets status, but unfortunately I have an engine failure." The lift doors slid open and the two remaining officers stepped in with Fraser. "Landing here was my only option."
She didn't look convinced.
"Then why not remain in orbit while you make repairs, or issue a distress call?" Clearly Fraser had done neither, she was trying to corner him.
"Options we considered, but my ship is not as able as yours Commander, once we have lost our main engines, life support soon follows." The doors opened again and revealed the fore-deck. "I decided it was safer to land here, than to trust our emergency systems." Carter was beginning to get the picture.
"You know that it's a violation of the FSS regulations to operate with non-approved life support systems?" There were a number of these rules, as Fraser recalled. Too many to mention, least of all implement.
"As for the distress call, well I suppose I hadn't considered the matter serious enough." Gerros looked around for anything that might give away the true nature of this visit.
"Why do you suppose Eros is quarantined Mr. Fraser, you may have picked up an highly contagious disease, perhaps even caused an epidemic through your reckless actions." Fraser showed them the way to the small lounge just accross from the Bridge.
"Well, you're here aren't you, and none of my crew have shown any signs of ill health." Fraser hardly used this room and had only had it fitted out to impress the visiting finance clerk who had granted his loan. "I confess that I have strayed from the regulations a little here Commander, but what harm have I done?"
"Your straying is all too evident Mr. Fraser, as for harm, well that is what I intend to find out." Carter was looking forward to a lengthy investigation, hopefully at great inconvienience to Captain Fraser. "In the meantime Captain I will assign some engineers to your vessel so that we may more accurately assess your claim." The Commander tapped the insignia on her chest and waited for a reply to her request.
With characteristic speed, two engineers appeared at the bottom of the Cougar's ramp and with the Science Officer, who had now satisfied himself that all was as it appeared in the Cargo Bay, they made there way up to their Commander. Fraser eyed the plain grey case carried by one of the engineers, knowing that it contained enough sophisticated hardware to uncover every flaw and every obfuscation. If only Rex Drake had a case like that. With further alacrity, Lieutenant Harno was despatched with the engineers to the Engine Room. For Carter and her trusted science officer, all that would be necessary to get the answers they wanted was Alborell Fraser.
When the thick bulkhead door slid aside to reveal the interior of the Engineering section, the small group of officers could see Chief Engineer Rex Drake, down in the 'pit' with the main engine. He looked up in surprise.
"Who the hell are you?" He asked, though it was immediately obvious who the hell they were.
"I am Leiutenant Harno of the U.S.S. Liberator, we're here to examine your power plant." The Lieutenant's bold manner managed to convey this statement more as an order than a general decription of fact. Drake said nothing, but decided he would like to be within reach of all of them, he got rid of the oily rag that he had been wiping his hands with and started to climb the ladder to the upper level. "You will not be required." Announced Harno, abruptly. Rex looked at the other two officers and then back at the Lieutenant.
"Are you addressing me?" Harno seemed to nod. The engineer put his heavy case down and looked at the many computerised guages on the panel that filled the wall in front of him. Everything looked as it should be. "There's a fuel block," Drake finally reported, in an attempt to remain in the conversation. The second engineer leaned forward and tapped a few keys next to the display panel.
"Run them," said Harno, clearly uninterested in what anyone else thought.
"Are you mad, you'll blow the whole system." Harno wasn't sure if Drake meant 'Star' system or 'Engine' system, but it didn't matter. This was all an elaborate ploy.
"He's right sir, if the fuel system is blocked the pressure could cause a system overload." The engineer had looked at the safety systems, there weren't any.
"Can you find evidence of a fuel block ensign?" Harno sounded like one of those instructors at the academy, too unstable for assignment aboard a real ship, but ideal material for training cadets. The Engineer had to reply that he couldn't find the block that Drake was so sure was there, but that didn't mean that there wasn't one.
"Then I suggest that you do as I ask and start the engine." Rex looked back at the engines and folded his arms.
Things of an explosive nature were also the topic of conversation in the lounge. The Commander had just been looking at the earlier readings of the crates in the hold and had reached the conclusion that they were not all that they seemed.
"So Captain, tell me what you know about antimatter cannisters." Fraser tried not to be concerned by this sudden discovery. The chances were that none of them had ever seen an AMP grenade before.
"Very little Commander, my Cargo Specialist is away at the moment, but I'm sure that he will be able to answer your questions when he gets back." Fraser began to wonder exactly where Ricky was. He had'nt seen him since before the Commander's arrival and Jannel he hadn't seen since last night.
"And do you think it's normal for cases of computer components to have antimatter in them?"
"I didn't think it was illegal to carry antimatter." Alborell said jovially.
"It isn't, that's why I'm so puzzled as to why you're smuggling it." Carter looked once again at the tricorder and then back at Fraser. "Smugglers usually try to smuggle things that are illegal."
"Exactly," replied Alborell, trying to throw a spanner in the works, and wondering also if it wasn't time for something similar in Engineering.
"Well failing an explanation Mr. Fraser, I would like to see the documentation for your cargo." She stood up and beckoned the Captain over to the terminal that was neatly placed by the rooms only view port. Alborell started towards the console, fully aware that it contained no such records. According to the log his ship was carrying simple computer spares, there wasn't even the slightest mention of antimatter.
His fingers started to numbly trapse over the keypad, miskeying here and delaying there, until what he had been waiting for finally came drifting down the corridor. The Science Officer, who had remained seated throughout the interrogation, suddenly stood up and spoke with due alarm.
"Captain, can you smell something?" Carter sniffed the air. "Smoke?" She looked behind her at the doorway, sure enough there was a thin wisp of smoke drifting into the room. Before she could say anything, the artificial male voice of the computer cut in.
"Red Alert, Fire on Deck Two, Engine Room." The word 'Fire' struck fear into Alborell's heart. Was this Drake's doing, or for real?
"Evacuate the ship!" Carter shouted into her communicator, she knew all too well what could happed if the fire spread to the hold, and she had no desire to place the Cougar's survival above any of her crew.
"Fire Surpression Systems Initiated." The computer was working better than ever. As they ran to the lift the voice of one of the Engineers came down the hall,
"Everyone got out sir, all accounted for." Carter looked to see three other figures running close behind the Ensign.
It took less than a minute to get everyone outside, where a thick cloud of smoke could be seen billowing out of the vents of the ship's aft section. From out here, the fire didn't look too bad. Fraser found Rex and got the answers he wanted while the Liberator's landing party were still making a head count.
"Anything you'd like to tell me Drake?" The Engineer was smiling to himself.
"Impressive, eh?" Said Rex.
"I'm sure it's one of your finest, what did you do?" Alborell enquired.
"I stuffed a rag in the coolant pump," Drake shrugged his shoulders, "it worked." Fraser was still wondering where Ricky and Jannel had got to, but before he had a chance to ask, Commander Carter bustled over. Rex got the first word.
"I take it that you're in charge here Miss." Gerros was about to say something, but managed to compose herself and decided not to say anything. "I just want you to know that your superiors will be hearing about this." Drake ranted. "I said it would blow, but they wouldn't listen to me, oh no, they just went right ahead and stastarted the engines anyway." Carter caught Fraser's gaze, he couldn't fool her, "What would I know?" By now the other, slightly blackened, members of the away team had joined their leader, the next move was hers. Gerros ran her fingers through her hair and drew in some clean air.
"Captain Alborell Fraser, you are hereby ordered to remain at your present location until you and your crew have been cleared medically safe by a Federation associated phycician, and your vessel has been examined by a Federation registered technician." Fraser listened intentley. "I will return later to continue our conversation and I would appreciate the registered documents to your cargo, Liberator, five to beam up." With the customary grace and style the transporter beam whisked the visitors away before further questions could be asked.
"Round one to me," muttered Alborell into a silence broken only by the sound of a heavy metal plate rising from the cracked and hardened sand behind him.
Unfortunately, for the moment, all that this information did was make the chore of reporting back to Starfleet more difficult. Carter's heart sank as she thought of what Captain Henson would say when she told him where she was. She was troubled by the thought that another ship might be sent to assist in, or even take over, the impromptu investigation. The chance for her, and her crew, to at last demonstrate that they were worthy of more than freight runs might be lost, simply on her choice of words to the Captain.
Stepping out onto the bare surface of the bathroom floor, feeling refreshed and clean again, she reached for the towel. There before her, through the small view-port in the hull, was Eros. Its dull brown surface was scarred with grey-blue mountain ranges and huge impact craters, rock formations spread from long extinct volcanoes in petrified rivers and minature canyons. It reminded her of Mars, once her home before she had joined the service, but unlike Mars, Eros was graced by oceans. Not large expanses of water, but meagre green patches covered with wispy cloud formations. Sometimes an enclosed weather system would gather enough strength to escape the confines of its birthplace and embark on a rampage across the land. Was it so implausible, she wondered, that two ships would come to the same restricted planet, for entirely separate reasons, at exactly the same time? Certainly it wasn't impossible, but it was very unlikely, there had to be some kind of a plan. Alborell Fraser, she had to admit, did not appear to be capable of such large scale strategies. She was usually able to tell, her years of service in security had endowed her with enough psychology training to be able to appraise these things. Fraser was no more than he appeared to be, dishonest and misleading, but obvious and conspicuous too. Her analysis prompted another question; if Alborell Fraser hadn't come here because of an engine failure, what had he come here for? As Carter pulled out her clean uniform she studied the lines and contours of the once inhabited world carefully, there lay the solution to the puzzle. Surely there could be nothing of use to anyone on that depopulated globe, what was it that was so unique about this cursed sphere? They would find the answer.
With a fresh red shirt and polished duty boots Carter marched onto the Bridge. The First Officer greeted her with customary deference and gave up his seat, Commander Carter, however was not in the mood for sitting down. She perceived a mood of expectancy, each officer at their station was poised for action and eager to finally be occupied. The Conn Officer monitored the view screen intently, while to his left the Operations Manager studied the sensors. At the Science and Engineering stations to the back of the bridge the junior officers sat anxiously, not sure what they were supposed to be doing, aside from the mundane and obvious, and on the platform behind the guard rail she could see Harno, in position at the Tactical & Security Station. Carter knew that look, undoubtedly he was about to give her the results of half an hours research. The Commander closed in on the awaiting Lieutenant.
"What can you tell me Mr. Harno?" He cleared the screen at his workstation and retrieved the information that he had found.
"I believe I have located some significant facts about the Planet Captain," he sounded no more exited than usual, the steady rhythm of his voice was undisturbed, "the quarantine period on Eros is almost at an end, to be more precise, it will cease in two years, eleven months and four days." Carter raised an eyebrow. Harno had given her a curious detail that had added a whole new dimension to the mystery.
For a moment, Carter held her attention on the display screen, reevaluating what she already knew. Another small detail caught her eye, the bridge crew waited for their Commander to say something. A single tap on the surface of the computer terminal brought forth the library file on Alborell Fraser, his image was as clear and precise as it was on every other Starfleet record.
"Captain Alborell Fraser, formerly Lieutenant of the U.S.S. Morgan, Starfleet *serial number**17346732-A*," Carter smiled, "I was his department head for six months." Another coincidence Gerros wondered? Harno asked the question that had concerned him when he first saw the file on the Captain of the S.S. Cougar,
"Shall we bring him in sir?" Carter didn't consider it for long.
"No, at least not yet, we all but have Fraser anyway, let's concentrate on that other ship." Harno seemed just as content with this task as any other and he produced one more screen of data. Carter looked impressed. "Well, Mr. Harno, you have been busy." Carter studied the map and saw that it depicted the city below them.
"A likely starting point for our search Captain?" Gerros nodded in approval, there could easily have been a dozen ships hidden in it.
"We should leave immediately," She announced. Her eagerness was welcomed by the Security Officer, but Mr. Locke clearly had something on his mind.
"May I respectfully remind you that Starfleet Command has not yet been alerted to our situation Captain." The First Officer was quite right, but what should she say, her uncertainty about what the real facts concerning this case could cause problems. She stepped down to the command chair, deep in thought, and turned around as she reached the back of the Conn Officer's position, the intervening distance had been enough for the formulation of her plan. She turned back to Harno.
"Open a channel to Captain Henson, as soon as you're finished, meet me in the transporter room with a small security detail." She walked swiftly across to the turbo-lift. "Mr. Locke, the bridge is yours." Locke looked startled, suddenly realising that he had been given a job that no other officer would, or could, take.
"What should I tell Captain Henson?" Carter's reply was prompt.
"Tell him everything, but most of all tell him that we have the situation well in hand." Carter carried on into the lift, pausing in the doorway.
"Oh, and if he asks, I'm out, getting my hands dirty."
The four occupants of the large and cumbersome armoured truck lurched forwards as it brought them to a halt. Its tracks bit into the crumbling ground sharply, reminding all of it's passengers of the inadequacy of the vehicle as a means of transport, a fact that they had all discovered during the needlessly arduous journey here from the ship. The scorching heat of the noon sun didn't help matters much, the metal box of the cab was excellent for preventing the intrusion of small projectiles and all but the most carefully aimed phaser shots, but it had the disadvantage of being like an oven when the weather was hot, and like a fridge when it was cold. Fraser had made vague allusions to the presence of an air conditioning system, but no one had ever felt any evidence of its effects. The only person who didn't emerge in a breathless sweaty stupor when the ponderous machine eventually reached its destination, was Ricky Hawkins, who had been elected by the others, typically unaware of what torture awaited them, to travel in the rear of the vehicle. The building that Fraser had chosen as the beginning of their exploration was, in his opinion, the most logical starting point. The almost illegible lettering above the entrance proclaimed it to be the City Hall, a location that Alborell thought would provide them with, at the very least, a detailed plan of the area if not extensive information on the cities more intimate workings, as they would once have been. On entering, however, his expectations were somewhat lower. The dark interior, where the entrance lobby should have been, had not fared well this ninety-eight years. Many of the marble slabs that used to make up the floor were sunken into the basement and hefty chunks of ceiling had smashed their way through walls and pillars. Substantial portions of the upper stories of the building had tumbled onto the ground below, some outside, some inside, so that in places, the only way to tell where the original structure had formerly stood was to trace the tops of the remaining walls. The building had been almost completely wrecked along one side, probably over a number of years, but some of the damage looked quite recent, the infrequent rain had not yet penetrated into all of the ground floor through the large holes above.
Despite its dilapidated state, however there was enough shade to maintain a cool climate inside, and it was this that the group found singularly welcoming about the place.
"Quakes," said Rex, mopping his feverous brow and walking further inside. No one offered any comment. "Eros had a tectonic redistribution platform before the disaster, without it life here would have been impossible." The irony of his statement obviously wasn't apparent to him.
"These tunnels, would they have been part of that system?" Alborell was referring to the subterranean passages that Ricky and Jannel had discovered in their timely departure, just as the Commander had arrived. The network of underground passageways and operation centres ran under the city and even extended several kilometres out into the surrounding dessert. Jannel nodded in affirmation,
"Coriollis had a similar system, everything was down there; water, power, weather control." Ricky recalled his earlier youth, "Sometimes we used to go down into the tunnels and hide out from the militia, no one knew those tunnels like we did, not even the technicians," his voice trailed off, guarding what thoughts he had for a while longer.
"Eros had one of the largest underground water reservoirs in the Quadrant," added Drake. Fraser looked around the cracked and broken floor, they had not yet seen the interior that the outside promised, somewhere there had to be a way in. Suddenly he noticed a small gap in part of the rubble on the other side of the entrance hall. Picking his way carefully towards it, over the deep open caverns that extended into darkness, he reached the opening and indeed some of the building had survived, if only partially. Breaking through the breached wall he could see the sub-chambers of the Town Hall, dusty and shaded but also sheltered. Pushing away more rubble Alborell was soon back onto tiled flooring. This had much more potential.
With care, the others were able to make their way across, each one in turn expressed their own form of surprise as they clambered in. With four beams of light leading off into the cool and mysterious rooms, the party advanced. It didn't take long for Drake to find an old main computer terminal and with his oddly familiar power convertor next to it, he set to work. Fraser, on seeing the antique, doubted that even Rex would be able to get it working again but as was common in these matters, he was proved wrong within minutes.
The computer itself had suffered no more than cosmetic damage, but not so the data-banks, buried deep below. The screen listed fields of endless information and references to vital data, but they quickly discovered that they were no more than the product a local sub-processor, unaware that its memory had been severed. Rex unplugged the power coupling and slung the power converter over his shoulder again in defeat. They would have to look for their answers elsewhere. Turning back to the long hall and its multitude of rooms, Fraser resigned himself to the fact that they would probably have to search them all, at least they were out of the heat.
"Okay, let's split up, if anyone finds a map let me know." The huddled group turned aimlessly towards the corridor, like an uncertain amoeba, not quite sure how to divide itself. With a little guidance though, the collective was soon organised into searching the empty offices that ran the length of the passage. Jannel felt a little disturbed by it all.
"If I had to describe this planet in just one word, it would be 'ugly'," she said with sorrow in her voice. Alborell, wondered kind of a weapon could have done so much damage to a people that there was not even the slightest trace of them left behind. Had it been a silent death, over within the blink of an eye, or a long painful slaughter of millions, awake and aware. There was nothing here that could have told them, no one had survived to give a record and everything that the Federation knew on the subject had been as closely guarded as Eros itself. Would anyone remember this place, this one-hundred year old empty grave with no headstone? One thing was certain, if they held a census now they'd get a shock.
Drake's voice from one end of the corridor broke the uneasy silence.
"Captain!" His call bounced off the walls. Alborell, Jannel and Ricky headed toward the voice and entered the room, stepping over a pile of rubble that, by the looks of it, had fallen quite recently. Fraser checked to see if Rex was under it, but was pleased to find that he was not.
"Found something?" Said Ricky, with disdain.
"No, just a map," said Drake, with mutual disregard. Fraser noticed an old robot lying prone in the corner, a selection of its internal components were strewn about the immediate vicinity.
"Your work Rex?" Fraser pointed the mechanical worker out to him. Like everything else here, the robot had been the victim of the after effects of the Planet's mass depopulation. It's batteries had died long ago and a section of the wall had fallen onto it at some time, toppling it over, but something was evidently wrong with the scene. Alborell went over to examine it, for the moment ignoring the map. The robot had definitely been tampered with, the wires and circuit boards were not coated with dust, as was the rest of the machine and the panel on the back looked as though someone had rubbed against it, possibly in an attempt to remove fingerprints. Rex joined Fraser in his investigation.
"Looks like there's someone else here with an electronics project." Fraser could still see the lifeless eyes of the mechanoid, one of them was broken, the other stared at him blankly.
"Our visitor?" Said Alborell, sure that Rex knew more. He was right.
"That's what I thought, but this was done weeks ago," Rex affirmed.
"So, unless this visitor's a regular there's someone else here," it was hard to imagine, but a regular shipping run of old robot components didn't really sound plausible either. Fraser checked around him, they were still on Eros weren't they? The well noted and long established quarantined world where no one ever went was fast becoming the hot destination of the Sector. As the Captain walked over to the glass-less window behind the large desk, he peered out at the desolate street. The heat sizzled the air above the ground and made the buildings across the street look like they were melting. Ricky, engrossed in the map trying to find a bar with an undiscovered hoard of liquor buried in its cellar, gave his own input.
"Rex, can you tell what's been taken?" Drake answered without much thought.
"And what use they might be put to?" Ricky asked.
"Maybe." Said Drake, apparently happy to speculate, but not participate. Alborell turned back to look at the robot again. This was just the sort of information that he needed.
"Rex," said Fraser, the Engineer looked across to his Captain, "Do it." Drake immediately laid out his tool set on the ground and started work.
It took about half an hour of intense probing and cataloguing before the squat form of the Engineer raised itself above the robot and announced,
"Well, someone's been ripping this poor guy to bits for all kinds of spares, but I'm almost certain of what they're using them for." Expectant, Fraser stepped up to his companion and waited for him to continue. "I'd say that it was something like a subspace receiver or possibly a sensor of some kind." Fraser wondered. "Most of the stuff in here is ancient by our standards, but it does the job."
"Just like you huh Rex," said Ricky with self appreciated wit. The Captain turned to the robot, picked up some of the tiny pieces of circuitry that Drake had been examining and considered the implications of another Erosian inhabitant. What would Carter say when she heard about this? Where would it all end? Captain Fraser knew where his next destination was.
"Come on, lets go to the spaceport."
Alborell finally brought the truck to a halt at the foot of the rubble heap, getting out briefly, but diving quickly inside as a hail of rocks and other debris, disturbed by the intrusion of the tracked vehicle, bounced past him and thumped against the side of the well protected cab. The thick duranium panels suffered no apparent damage as a consequence, but the open and unprotected load area collected a reasonable portion of the deluge, as did Ricky. Fraser got out again and noticed the unfortunate condition of the contents of the truck. As Ricky groped for the side of the, Fraser jumped in and moved the small boulders aside, retrieving finally his toolcase. The few ships that stood on the landing area of Petriuv Stone spaceport were in as poor a condition as everything else on Eros. Most were standing in neat formation at the other end of the landing strip while a couple of the smaller shuttlecraft had been rolled over by the violent winds that often raged during the Erosian winter. Only one ship seemed to interest the Captain though, isolated and remote it seemed to have come down heavily at the very edge of the landing area. The lower half of its front section had buckled upon impact and the aft section of the four decked ship had long since been burned out by fire. Clearly if anything of any importance had survived the years, then it was going to be in the two remaining, upper decks, in the forward section. The problem was, how to get there.
Captain Fraser walked towards it and found the others following him.
"Is there something you'd like to tell us?" Rex called out, jogging to keep up.
"I have a theory," said Fraser. He could see that he had failed to peak Rex's curiosity, and so he continued, "if the population of Eros really had been wiped out by some kind of biological weapon, accidentally unleased by a ship crash landing, for example, doesn't it make sense that its effects would be short lived?" Drake looked at the others, they weren't interested either. "A metagenic weapon, for instance, would be designed to disperse quickly, allowing an invasion force to come in and take over effortlessly," Drake recalled what he knew about metagenics. It seemed to make sense, all of the damage that they had seen had happened as a result of the absence of people. Metagenics spread a potent and widespread vail of death that ignored no one, they left behind an empty world. All traces of biological life disappeared, there were no skeletons, no life, no exceptions. Whoever it was that had been here for the last several months, or longer, was probably using that fact as a form of protection, after all, Eros was the perfect hiding place. No one dared come here, except the foolish and the brave.
"So Eros is safe?" Jannel asked, looking on the scene before her with new eyes.
"Eros may be, but are we?" Fraser replied, mysteriously.
"If I knew what the hell was going on here, I think I'd probably want to leave," said Ricky. When all attempts at climbing into the long abandoned hulk had failed, Drake had recommended a more direct approach. Grabbing the Captain's phaser, another purchase that had been made in haste at Asmodeus, Drake cut a hole in the outer hull of the vessel. They stepped inside. The smell of smoke permeated everything, despite the passage of time and the constant attack from the elements, every blackened surface produced the stale odour of a long extinct fire. They moved forwards and upwards towards the Bridge, the small multicorder, that Fraser had taken from one of his many pockets, made a faint bleeping noise. He looked down at it, absently, but his eyes widened as he realised what he was looking at on the instrument's tiny screen.
"There's someone here," he announced, as calmly as he could.
Ricky immediately reached down for his own weapon but was physically blocked by the Captain.
"Really, you must try and control these violent tendencies," Alborell didn't want trouble this early on. His voice had a mocking tone that he inwardly hoped would instil a great feeling of overpowering wisdom in all who heard it. Sadly his efforts fell short of this ambition, Ricky snatched his arm easily from the Captain's nominal grip, resuming his previous action. He was on the small ship's control centre as quickly and as quietly as the state of the deck allowed. Fraser caught up and assured the Boy that 'here' meant nearby. Ricky relaxed a little and somewhat less exuberant, Jannel and Rex rolled in.
The Bridge looked straight out at the space port and, owing to its height, showed a good deal of the surrounding area as well. Most of the damage in the ship's control centre seemed to be as the result of another small fire, obviously unconnected with the other and possibly due to a lightning strike or other catastrophe. It had burned away unattended for quite some time before being extinguished by the rain that must have found its way in through the shattered view port. Almost all of the computer equipment had been obliterated by it, with all but the more recessive panels surviving. Alborell and Ricky edged along until they could see down onto the blistered surface of the landing area. It was as deserted as the rest of the City, though that was very much a fact of contention. Fraser checked his multicorder again and reminded himself to get a more powerful model when he next got the chance.
"So, where is he?" Whispered Ricky, the assumption that their interloper was both alone and male was a little ahead of Fraser's information. Alborell's fingers played on the surface of the small device, as much for effect as anything else, before he forlornly placed it back in his pocket.
"Whoever they are, they must be inside the main building, any further away and I wouldn't be able to detect them at all, any nearer and we'd see them." They both leaned slowly toward the ledge of the window, trying to see more, but apparently there was nothing out there. By now Rex Drake had become interested in the service panel near to the door that they had walked through on their way in. Although covered in a black and sludgy film, it still looked in comparatively good condition, having been sheltered from much of the heat of the bridge fire. He took out a thin black instrument and poked it at the panel. The small object looked far too expensive for a simple ship's engineer to be able to afford, but the Captain resisted asking him where it came from and instead asked him what he intended doing with it now.
"This subsystem may still be active," Drake replied with enthusiasm. A few hefty knocks on the wall with his fist brought more remarks of a curious nature from Alborell, as did the large boot, belonging to the same person as the heftily knocking fist. It swung violently across the floor and into the partially decayed wall. One kick was enough to make a boot sized hole in the wall and a few more at various points created a rather larger one. Great bundles of wire ran in all directions inside the cavity.
"Now what?" Said Alborell finally in response to this typically destructive display.
"Nothing, yet," Rex seemed to know what he was doing, and so Fraser left him to do it. The Engineer stepped back through the doorway and clanked down the ladder to where they had entered.
Ricky had just turned around to investigate this latest modification to the ship when a rather disturbing bolt of energy struck its bow. His immediate reaction was to dive onto the floor, then, with more thought he rolled himself over to the front of the bridge, readying his counter-attack. Such instincts had not yet been developed by Alborell or Jannel and they stood in a state of curious bewilderment before realising the danger and following Ricky's former actions. For a brief moment, all was still, then the sound of two feet, crunching on the thin layer of dirt on the ground, could now heard, approaching. Fraser considered his options, but there were so few that he decided to not expend precious time on them.
Listening from their secure position, Fraser and his fellow floor bound associates heard the footsteps stop nearby. A pause was followed by a shout, from a familiar voice. Rex Drake was bellowing something of a derisory nature at someone and so far they hadn't shot him. Ricky, still unsure about what to do, waited for a more violent exchange to start, thus allowing him to initiate his own attack, but all he could hear was a measured and relaxed voice, seemingly unconcerned about anything. This unusual behaviour demanded closer inspection and Alborell Fraser bravely supplied it. As he peered out, and also failed to get shot at, the others stood up and looked out from the shattered view port. Below they could see the casually dressed and apparently rather unconcerned owner of the feet, the voice and the gun.
The Lieutenant had taken his command training of course, such as was necessary to pass through the academy, he had the minimum requirement of leadership skills, he could take charge, if the need be, but Harno was in no doubt as to where his true vocation lay. He was an order taker, he was good at it, why should he change? The role he had played in every mission he had ever been on had always enough to occupy his mind to the full, and this one was no exception. As the four officers that made up the away team materialised, thoughtfully placed by the Transporter Chief facing one of the city's main buildings, Harno deployed his tricorder and began taking readings. From its outward appearance, it seemed almost as though the importance of this city had been greater than the power of the calamities that had progressively attacked it over the last century. As if this city, the last but for its neighbour halfway around the globe, had a purpose, a message to deliver, but even though this much of it had survived, it was nothing compared to its former extent. All but a core, a few kilometres wide, remained. Yet, in somewhere in the minimised municipality, there was a ship. Harno had just a few seconds after his arrival to process the information he was getting before Commander Carter asked for a report, but he rarely needed much time to make his observations.
"Aside from ourselves, no life signs and no energy readings Captain, also no indication of any harmful chemical or biological substances and no sub-space or electro-magnetic radiation." Eros seemed to be as empty as it was supposed to be, but Carter knew that it wasn't. "Sir, I have an approximated map of the city compiled from the ship's sensor readings and data in the library computer," Carter listened patiently, "there is a substantial network of tunnels and maintenance passages below us, a likely hiding place." Sure that Harno had finished, Gerros looked around. The sun was low in the sky, casting long shadows over the ground, allowing the heat that had built up during the day to escape. This was the time of Eros' equinox, when its daylight hours matched its darkness. The planet's twenty hour rotational period created an interesting effect with standard shipboard clocks. Clocks that ran the artificial cycle of dark and light that was necessary to prevent most humanoids from becoming nervous wrecks. Studies had shown that even a slight deviation from the twenty-four hours that most crew members were used to created psychological problems, in many ways it was even worse than light deprivation.
"We should take a look, find the nearest access point Mr. Harno." The Lieutenant knew already.
"There is an opening seventeen metres to the north, in the Town Hall." It didn't need the keen eyes of the Liberator's Security Officer to be able to see the tracks that had scored the ground in front of the partially collapsed building, Carter knew exactly who had put them there.
"Fraser," the Commander turned to her faithful aide, "what was he doing here?" Harno paced up and down in front of the main entrance, scanning. Gerros looked more carefully at the tracks. They turned in the broken tarmac where the truck had obviously doubled back on itself. The small stones that had been moved slightly in the process pointed the direction of travel to her. This kind of observation and instinct was what Gerros had become noted for. They were abilities far more useful than any electronic instrument. Carter stood up again.
"I cannot detect anything sir," Harno was holding his tricorder ready for the next request from his commander, but Gerros had other ideas. Harno didn't seem to be connected to his surroundings like she was.
"A reliance on artificial aids can sometimes be a hinderance Lieutenant," said Carter. Harno looked at her blankly. "Be the master of your tools, don't let your tools be the master of you," the Commander continued. It sounded like good advice, but Harno still didn't understand. "Don't you have instincts or intuition Mr. Harno, your feelings about something are more important than the readings on your tricorder," Harno was at a loss for an answer, "Starfleet relies on people Mr. Harno, not computers and electronic gadgets." Harno pocketed his tricorder, interpreting his commander's words in the only way he could, as an instruction. "What does the scene tell you?" Asked Carter. The Lieutenant felt some relief at hearing a question, but then realised that it was one that again, he could not answer.
"I am not currently receiving any information sir," he said with genuine misunderstanding. Carter inwardly despaired, the two other security officers watched with interest.
"Are you blind without sensors Harno?" The Lieutenant knew that he wasn't, but somehow knew that if he said so he would be sorry. "Let me give you a piece of advice Mr. Harno," Carter continued, by now abandoning all hope of retraining the Lieutenant, "the world you see around you is no always as it appears to be, if you're going to catch the criminals you've got to use all of your senses." Harno seemed to understand.
Carter led him up to the doorway and together they walked into the main entrance, staring into a darkness. It was difficult to see at first, but gradually the shapes started to appear. Carter studied the rubble on the floor, searching for clues.
"Take this scene for instance, where would our friend Fraser go if he were here Mr. Harno?" Carter asked, extending a flat hand into the lobby.
"That would depend on his motives sir," said Harno, with textbook accuracy.
"And what would you say Mr. Fraser's motives are?" Harno thought for a moment, what did they really know about Captain Fraser? All he had done was mislead them at every opportunity, so clearly he had something to hide. Even without knowing what it was that he was so secretive about, they knew that it was probably illegal.
"Mr. Fraser certainly has a talent for misdirection." Carter smiled, the Lieutenant was finally getting the idea.
"So whatever he does, or seems to be doing, has an ulterior motive." The climb down into the basement was surprisingly easy. Most of the debris from the collapsed building had collected in the small chambers below ground level, the large fractured blocks of construction material stacked randomly on top of one another formed a kind of stairway. The difficult part was finding the access panel to the maintenance tunnel. Returning again to his tricorder Harno located the door, and as he had expected, the way had already been cleared. The metal plate was unrestricted and lifted quite easily. The stale smell of sealed decay rose up past them and escaped out towards the surface, the mere act of opening the panel had disturbed the dust in the passageway. The palm beacons picked out the short ladder leading down into the tunnel that ran under the Town Hall. Expectantly Carter started down. Dropping into the tunnel, Carter swung the light around. Ahead of her, a little further along, was a small set of steps leading off into a cramped passage of conduits and cables. The main tunnel in front of her continued past it into darkness, likewise behind her. By the time the last man had dropped out of the ceiling, the Commander had made her decision. Without a word she walked over to the small steps and into the offshoot of the main tunnel.
Incomprehensible markings had been printed onto the wall beside arrows that pointed to coded sections of the underground network.
"Mr. Harno, try and make some sense of that code if you can," ordered Carter. The Security Chief immediately started to analyse the information, Carter didn't wait, she moved off along the passageway. Harno's map didn't extend to this subterranean maze, but with reassuring regularity they passed other tunnels, stemming off to unknown locations. The team pushed onward until they came across a sight that made them all stop in their tracks. In one huge cavern of excavated rock some fifty metres deep was a giant water tank. Around it sat six processing machines, monsters in their own right. A sizeable and terminal crack marred the base of the tank, it was empty.
"Water, the rarest commodity on Eros," said Gerros informatively. Harno peered over the railing and into the massive chasm below. "Lets take a look shall we," said Carter vibrantly. Harno tapped his communicator badge and hoped that they could still hear him on the ship.
"Liberator, this is Lieutenant Harno," the voice of his replacement echoed into the chamber. "Be advised, we are about to move deeper into the maintenence network, please monitor our signal and inform me if it degrades past fifty percent." By the time he had finished Commander Carter was already on her way down the old metallic stairway.
If Gerros had any doubts about the safety of the structure she was careful not to make them known. If the stairway had suffered to the same degree as everything else on Eros then it was surely deserving of great caution, but it carried them safely without incident to the halfway stage of the cavern, a small outcrop of rock with a control centre built into it, where Harno's communicator informed him that their signal was fading. They stopped and tried to determine exactly where they were heading. The floor was still only just visible although all the readings indicated that they were nearing it and when they looked up, they found similar difficulties in seeing where they had come from.
They were as blind to the presence of the figure standing below them, observing their every motion undetected. The thin and bearded denizen could not have anticipated what his reaction would be to seeing the four officers. The fact that they represented law and authority didn't seem to diminish his desire to call out to them, or to run up to them and embrace them. These were the first people he had seen in over two years. Each day he had woken, unsure if his pursuers would choose today to catch up with him, or if the day would be the one that he would run out of food, or water, or if he would just give up the struggle. He was an accountant, albeit a criminal one, and he was far from suited to this barren life, but the thought of what the Vinrinus gang would do if they found him was his biggest fear. Sometimes he hoped that it would be Starfleet that would reach him first. If he was to resist the overwhelming temptation he must leave now. Commander Carter hadn't forgotten about the danger posed to herself and her team, now almost completely out of contact with their ship, but she weighed it against the months of inactivity that she had been forced to endure. She was anxious about being here, they could easily become lost in these labyrinthine tunnels and stand little or no chance of being found again, but fear could be a useful emotion. As her foot touched the floor, Harno gave one of his frequent reports.
"There still seems to be nothing on our sensors Commander, however there does appear to be a certain amount of interference." Carter counted nine more exits from the section that they were in, the whole area possibly contained dozens more. It would be impossible to search even a small part of this network. She looked up, the broken storage tank stretched for an eternity towards the ceiling.
The group exchanged the few comments that this dismal and grim place prompted and turned back to the steps. They all heard the sound.
"Captain, there's something over there!" Called Harno, pointing. His tricorder had recorded it briefly and then shown nothing, but its presence was a certainty. The two, somewhat nervous, security officers readied their phasers, but didn't desire a pursuit. For a moment no one was sure what to do. There was nothing to fire at and nothing to chase.
"Could it be rats?" One security officer asked.
"Unlikely," Carter replied. Harno was trying to find the reading again, but the interference cut too deep into the sensors. "Whatever it was, it isn't here now." Carter had the feeling that this mystery would get less fathomable before what was really going on became clearer. As always, they would get answers. If not now, then later and if not here, elsewhere.
"Good morning," he suggested, extending his hand, the one containing the sandwich, and saluting. "Benco Codey, sorry if I startled you." Fraser assumed the former to be his name. He told him that he had startled them and asked why. Unfortunately the answer could not be heard and so the three, still safely on the Bridge of the ship, made their way down to ground level. The cable that Rex had been trailing from the truck to the ship, had clearly caused him some problems, and the reason for his uncharacteristic attempts at communication with the stranger were now clear. The heavy cable was wrapped around the Engineer's legs and pinned one arm to his side, but the almost completely immobile Drake was in no way being helped by the odd stranger, despite numerous requests. The Captain suddenly remembered that he was annoyed.
"What do you mean by shooting at us?" He demanded. Benco Codey clearly had some difficulty with this question.
"I wasn't shooting at you, I was shooting at the ship." Somehow that didn't make Fraser feel any better. "I really didn't expect to find anyone in it," so, they had been used for target practice, "what are you doing here, by the way?" Benco asked. Rex grunted, the same question had occurred to him. He was still wrestling with the thick snake that was the power cable, resolutely refusing to connect with the badly damaged opening of the burnt out vessel.
"We broke down," said Alborell. Benco's expression changed to one of query.
"Having trouble getting parts?" He asked. It seemed an odd question, but the Captain saw the logic behind it.
"So you've noticed that too." The shuffling behind Fraser stopped and he saw that Rex had been freed, the cable was now firmly fixed to the ship. Rex went back inside.
"What's he doing?" Asked Codey. The others shrugged and followed the Engineer on his private labour.
When Drake got back to the bridge, Fraser was surprised to see that a couple of the control centres were active. Rex was tinkering with one of them.
"Look, what is going on?" Said Ricky, vaguely, to anyone who was listening. Mr. Codey obviously felt that he had asked enough questions and decided to answer a few.
"I'm trying to find someone." He said.
"Who are you searching for?" Asked Jannel. Codey was clearly reluctant to answer the question directly.
"Je ne cherche pas, je trouve." It was as good an answer as any, Jannel seemed content with it. Captain Fraser, however, was not. This man had caused a lot of trouble, and Alborell was determined to get the information that he deserved, the groups attention was suddenly taken by Rex Drake, who had somehow managed to get the ships computer to talk.
If he had got it to talk in a comprehensible language, at a speed that didn't make it totally indecipherable, it would have been even more useful. One of the few unbroken screens was showing a sequence of broken images. The record of flickering faces with no accompanying voice were instantly recognisable as the ship's log, but Alborell found it frustrating. To see them still intact and yet so completely useless was annoying. He urged Rex to do something, but the Engineer assured his Captain that this was as much as could be done.
"The computer core's wrecked," said Drake. Fraser walked up to the front of the ship and stared out of the shattered view port again. Benco looked at the screen, trying to make some sense of it. It was as puzzling to him as the group of people that he had met.
"I'm sure this is all very interesting, but I don't think we should hang around here," he said with some urgency in his voice. No one was sure what, or who the stranger so wanted to avoid, his agenda would likely remain a secret for a while longer, but his suggestion seemed valid. Alborell wondered where Codey proposed that they go? Would they be taken to his ship?
"Of course, you're right," he said, "Rex, can you download these logs into the multicorder?" He handed the palm sized box to Rex whose expression was something like that of a Starship Captain who had just been assigned to a garbage tug
"Give me a couple of minutes," he said, not wishing to argue.
Ten minutes later they were heading back towards the bank of rubble, on their way to the stranger's ship. Fraser had agreed to take the wandering gunman back to the building where his vessel was 'parked' in the hope that he might learn more about the situation on Eros, but with each passing moment the Captain could feel himself becoming more and more involved with Benco's plans. Every time it looked as though things might be getting clearer, Codey added something else that threw all of their theories back into the darkness of mystery.
"So, have you really broken down?" Asked Benco, seemingly genuine in his concern.
"Would I lie to you?" Fraser replied, giving nothing away.
"Fortunately we're getting it fixed by Starfleet," Ricky added, unhelpfully. Codey went quiet for a moment then asked in a worried tone,
"you mean to say the Federation knows you're here?"
"Thanks to you, yes," said Fraser, bitterly. "It seems that they followed your ship here and then lost you, we weren't as lucky." Benco offered no apologies.
"So how come they let you go?" He continued.
"They didn't, exactly," said Jannel, wondering herself if they were in as much trouble as they appeared to be. Benco laughed quietly to himself.
Fraser brought the old tank to a halt outside the domineering building that Benco Codey had pointed out to them. The tower block was some twenty stories high, most of it was fairly well intact, the ground floor that would once have been faced with glass was an almost perfect docking bay for his cruiser. Judging by the centimetre precision that had brought the ship in without a scrape Codey was a fine pilot. With the ships landing gear down the ship was frighteningly close to the ceiling.
"I was worried about being seen." Said Benco finally, noticing the Captain's expression of amazement.
"Then why walk around shooting at people?" He asked. His question remained unanswered until they had walked to the side door of the ship.
"Shoot first, ask questions later."
"Not an idea that Starfleet likes too much," said Ricky.
"Yes, it's going to make life far more complicated now that they're here." Said Benco to himself, yet just loud enough for the others to hear. He reached the doors of the ship and delicately tapped his code into the keypad. It elicited no response. He muttered, this time out of earshot, and keyed in the code again. This attempt produced a loud bleeping noise from a tiny speaker below the pad. Benco stepped back and shouted upwards at something unseen.
"Computer, open the access door." A pause followed and then an impersonal reply came.
"Please Input Access Code." Codey shuffled uneasily and shouted up to the Computer again.
"I did input the code, but you've changed it again." The Computer obviously saw no reason to offer an explanation. Fraser stepped in.
"Problem?" He asked.
"Just a minor setback," said Codey, defiantly. The in-built pass code protection system had been set up to rearrange the ships command codes at random intervals, a neat idea, but a problem when you happened to be out when the codes were changed.
Rex, who was enjoying this immensely, walked up to the keypad and took out the device that he had used earlier. At more or less the same time he drew another of the thin white cigarettes from his jacket and lit it. He poked at the corner of the keypad, which subsequently fell open, and then poked again at several points inside the mechanism. Captain Fraser was about to ask him what he was doing when, to the complete amazement of Benco Codey, who had gone to some considerable expense fitting his ship with the latest and finest security systems, the small access door opened. Ricky and Jannel who had become completely disinterested, welcomed the change or scenery. Everyone was safely inside before the duped computer realised what had happened. They walked into an area that Alborell at first assumed was a cargo bay, a very well kept cargo bay, but he then realised that they were in some kind of lounge. The gloomy darkness of the room made it difficult to make out details, the five large view-ports that punctuated the opposite wall provided no light as they faced the scarred interior of the buildings lobby, the only source of illumination as the door behind them closed was the gap in the ceiling where an elaborate staircase led up to the other deck. Benco climb it and urged them all to follow.
As soon as Benco Codey had entered the upper deck, one of the many computer consoles situated throughout the ship inserted its smooth feminine voice into the conversation. It produced the same slow and impressively calm sound as it had moments ago, but now it exhibited a new trait; it was friendly,
"Benco, There Are Five Humanoids Attempting To Access The Main Door." Codey sighed. The vessel's small Bridge was separated from the rest of the lavishly decorated yet untidy lounge, by a small step. The step was nestled in between a thin and equally useless rail to help it achieve the effect of segregation from the rest of the room. Benco swore as he stormed over to the computer control, tripped on the step and banged his leg on the end of the rail. It was as he jigged about in a silent pain that he noticed something on the main sensor display. It distracted him from his anger.
"Looks like you're old friends are back Captain." Fraser went to look, carefully navigating past the troublesome rail. The viewer showed a register of four transporter beams, some way off in the centre of the city.
"Will they find us in here Benco?" Asked Ricky. Benco rubbed his leg.
"No, I checked this building before I came in, the walls and the surrounding buildings should shield us," Ricky seemed a little less nervous, "unless they come too close," added Codey. In keeping with the relaxed atmosphere, and at Benco's invitation, they all sat down.
The majority of the rooms clutter, and the majority of everyone's attention, was centred around the low table in the centre of the oval seating area, set lower than the rest of the room. Benco explained that this was because all of the computer and engineering systems, except the for most important and essential components, were embedded into the space between the decks, the seating area had been put amidst the ships various systems. It was a fact that held more fascination for Benco than anyone. Jannel cleared a large pile of junk from a chair and pulled it closer to the table that the others were becoming increasingly interested in.
"So why haven't you found who you're looking for yet?" Asked Jannel for the second time. Benco Codey thought carefully. There was a point when he had to trust someone, who knows, they may even be able to help him.
"Allow me to explain," he said, and began what promised to be, judging by the amount of material involved, a lengthy process.
Commander Carter knew that in order to show that procedure had been followed, a just consideration given the nature of her mission, she had to make an arrest. Following this there would be the inevitable interview, or perhaps interrogation, either way Fraser would have to answer some tough questions before Gerros was convinced that he was here by accident. Her expression, well rehearsed and well used, showed to good effect the determination and purpose that she had to this end. It was copied faithfully by her understudy, the ubiquitous Lieutenant Harno, it was this above all else that gave Alborell the greatest cause for concern.
There was no uncertainty in Fraser's mind about why the Liberator's officers had come to visit him for a second time, he knew that Carter would not so easily be distracted again.
"Captain Fraser, may I see your documents please," Alborell noticed that her hand was not held out in anticipation of the said documents. Fraser thought through the answers that he had prepared.
"Of course Commander, just as soon as my cargo specialist arrives, a man whom, I'm sure you'll agree, is of the highest integrity," he smiled in a carefree manner that he hoped would enhance the effect that he was trying to achieve.
"I wouldn't know, I've never seen him, frankly Captain I doubt that he exists." It was unlikely that she would enjoy being convinced. "If you cannot produce documentation for your cargo, I will have no choice but to take you aboard the Liberator until such time as you can prove your claims." Fraser passed the Commander the small device that he carried in his upper-left-inside pocket. On it was the only form of documentation that he had been given for his cargo.
Gerros Carter looked at it and passed it to Harno, who took it and kept it. "This clears you for the computer components only, judging by the quantity listed here, and the amount actually in your hold, a cover. I didn't want to have to do this," Carter lied, "Captain Alborell Fraser, commanding officer and owner of the private vessel Cougar, I hereby place you under custody of the United Federation of Planets. You and your vessel will remain here under guard until such time as you are able to be taken to a formal hearing. A formal statement will be made aboard the Liberator immediately. You may inform your remaining crew members." Four security guards appeared at an obviously prearranged point and made their way into the ship. The Commander and the Lieutenant returned quickly to the Liberator with their quarry.
Within a few seconds Alborell was standing in the transporter room of the orbiting starship, his head still spinning. It brought back some memories, the months that he had been away from Starfleet seemed like years. The sights and sounds of the transporter room reminded him of how inadequate his own ship was. The latest equipment and technology, crewmen of the highest standard and a promise of a life of adventure. He remembered why he had joined, then the Commander's dialogue with her security officer reminded him of why he had left.
"Lieutenant Harno, you may go now."
"If I may voice an opinion, Captain," said Harno, formally. Carter nodded slightly. "I remind you Captain that Mr. Fraser has been placed under our supervision and though he has displayed no violence towards us yet, he should be kept under guard." Gerros gave it no consideration.
"Thankyou Mr. Harno, your opinion has been noted, you are dismissed." Gerros wondered why most of her conversations with Harno went this well.
With this the security officer left, not content exactly, but reassured that he had done his duty. Carter was now noticeably more relaxed, she turned to Captain Fraser and offered him the door. Together, they took the turbolift at the end of the deck, went up three more and finally reached a moderately sized room. These, the neatly finished sign proclaimed, were Commander Carter's quarters. Fraser stood in the doorway and looked around critically.
Three large and long windows looked out into space with an ornate table below each one. Fraser noticed that the one in the centre was carved from oak wood while the other two were formed from some kind of plastic. Probably from Magalen, a planet where that sort of thing was considered particularly fashionable. The floors standard covering was supplemented by a thick rug that stretched as far as it dared to another door at the end of the curved room. This door led to a bedroom and washroom and the open door gave Alborell just enough of a view to see that it extended at least as far as the room that they were in. The centrepiece was a low circular table made completely and seamlessly out of some sort of transparent material. On it stood a vase, and in that sat some flowers. Alborell didn't know what type they were, flowers were not his strong point, but they were pleasing to the eye.
"I'm sorry Commander, but you'll have do better than this, I have rights you know." Carter walked away towards a long mirror at one end of the room and after she had imperceptibly adjusted some aspect of her appearance, she walked across to the replicator unit.
"I didn't bring you here to insult my quarters Mr. Fraser, water, ten degrees." She offered a choice to Fraser, who declined. He still stood in the doorway, which was waiting patiently for him to move.
"Please come in Captain, sit down." Fraser nervously did so. Carter seemed less uptight. "And in case you're interested, this is not your formal statement," she said, seemingly aware of what he was thinking.
"Informal then," Alborell suggested, the seat he had chosen gave him a clear view out of the window, he noticed the sun starting to fall behind the planet, Carter sat herself opposite.
"No statement at all Captain, this is off the record," the Commander reassured.
"Call me Alborell," said Alborell, "I would hate you to think that I outranked you." Somehow he knew that she would never think he outranked her.
"I expect you'd like that wouldn't you," said Gerros, smiling for the first time since she had met him. Fraser decided to keep his mouth shut. "I got rather a surprise when I ran through your record," said Gerros. What had she found out? "I had no idea you were one of us,"
"I'm ex-Starfleet Commander, I left because-" he paused.
"Because of people like me?"
"Because I wanted to, I was going to say."
"I wonder, Alborell, what Captain Normic would have to say about all this." Carter was trying an old trick, trying to make him feel guilty.
"Why don't you ask him?" Alborell snapped with a wry smile. Carter could see that Fraser was not a man who fell easily into sentiment.
"You know, you're in a lot of trouble, this is rather a serious matter." What trick was she trying now? Fraser didn't recognise this one.
"What is?" Fraser said, quietly, still smiling to himself mischievously, yet somehow looking innocent.
"Well if you want a list." She bent forward and picked up the PADD on the table.
"Entering a restricted zone, carrying unlawful explosives, failure to produce legal documents relating to cargoes carried, misleading a Starfleet enquiry." Alborell didn't look threatened by any of it. "The list could go on." Gerros suggested, was it a prelude to something? A deal perhaps?
"Well, it seems then, Gerros, that I am in no position to bargain with you." He knew he had to be here for some reason.
"Is that a statement or a question?"
"I don't understand," Fraser feigned ignorance, Carter didn't find it a convincing performance.
"Well, if you want it spelled out," she paused, Alborell said nothing, Carter spelled it out. "You and I both know that there is someone else down there, I think I know who." Fraser wondered what weight this remark carried, was it a bluff? If he made an error and gave away too much before she took the bait, Carter might see his plan too early.
The Commander's face remained blank as she waited for a reply. Alborell recalled how much he hated poker.
"You think I know?"
"You know." Carter had been monitoring him. "You were there today, you went somewhere,"
"With someone?" Fraser finished her sentence for her. "I thought it wasn't Starfleet policy to negotiate in these situations."
"Oh, make no mistake, I won't let you go," Fraser had worked that out already, "but consider this, I don't like being in the dark, it makes me angry, when I'm angry I don't write good reports, favourable reports." The Commander could see the look of concern on Fraser's face.
"So you're saying, I'll be better off if I tell you," Alborell didn't make it sound like he liked the sound of it.
"Make no mistake, you're already in trouble, don't give me a reason to make it any worse."
Fraser gripped the arm of the sofa, it seemed as though he couldn't really win. Carter waited.
"His name's Codey, a Bounty Hunter," he blurted. Carter quickly took the information down and accessed the computer.
"Registered as active, searching for someone called Edlund." As one question was answered, five more replaced it. Gerros considered going back on her deal.
"He's been looking for him for a couple of years now, there's a substantial reward."
"With good cause, Edlund holds a lot of information about the Vinrinus gang." Gerros stood up and walked behind Fraser, who remained in his seat. "So Codey thinks he's here."
"Benco Codey knows exactly where Edlund is, and you can trust him to make a capture." Alborell could hear Carter tapping notes into her PADD. That was a good sign at least.
"If Mr. Codey thinks can get away with this, he is in error, the correct course of action would have been to notify the authorities as soon as he realised that Edlund was here, he can't expect to claim any reward now." Gerros still didn't feel that Fraser was telling her everything. How could he know all this?
"If you want Edlund, I advise you to allow Codey to continue."
"Who's side are you on Fraser?" Carter was becoming suspicious.
"You'll never find Edlund, not with every crewman in those tunnels, let Codey do your work for you, then arrest them both," said Alborell, "I didn't want to get mixed up in all of this, believe me."
"You seem pretty well informed for a bystander Fraser." Alborell knew that Carter needed this information more than she needed him. As for Edlund, His capture would secure her career for a very long time.
"Codey had no choice but to tell me," said Fraser, "if you must know, I threatened to turn him over to you." Carter sounded surprised,
"You mean you won't?" Alborell turned around to face the Commander.
"I made a deal." Gerros finally saw the beauty of the plan.
"Three arrests in one week, now I do like the sound of that." The fact that two of them presently eluded her was no longer of concern. It all fitted together very nicely.
"Just keep your side of the bargain," said Fraser, standing to leave.
Carter knew her obligation to Fraser entailed nothing, and began to feel uneasy, but oddly she knew it wasn't about that. She didn't know why she had doubts. Maybe Captain Fraser had given away too much for what little he had received? She could not be certain, some instinct within her felt that something was wrong.
"You've obviously given this some considerable thought," she concluded.
"You have me in a very awkward position Commander, I'm a man with a reputation for making the best of bad situations." Carter recalled Fraser's record,
"You've certainly been in a few." Alborell made his way to the door. "Now, I believe you have a statement to make Captain Fraser." Carter seemed quite prepared to forget about her reservations. The Captain turned back to the Commander.
"I have nothing to say."
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