The Illusion of Self
by Scribe

Main Characters: All Seven and OFCs

Type of story (Gen, Xover)

Universe (Star Trek)


A distress signal from a Federation ship in deep space brings the Maverick to a world where nothing is where it seems and the secrets behind them can kill you.

Second story in the Star Trek: Maverick series Follows The Front Lines.


�If the truth was known, Chris Larabee was bored.�

Of course, while he considered this a fact known only to himself, everyone else on the bridge had a fair idea of it as well. In fact, they had such a fair idea their Captain was bored,� the current odds over who would throw him bodily into a torpedo tube was starting to run increasingly high among the senior staff. It started simply enough, a little drumming of fingers against his command chair, followed by regular wistful sighs of boredom waiting for something to happen. This soon followed with inquiries of the communications officer every two minutes if there was anything to hear until the youth was so jumpy each time the captain moved, Ensign JD Dunne, flinched in fear. The ensign was starting to think he had somehow disappointed his Captain by not producing the desired signal to end the man�s tedium.

After a while, he moved from harassing JD to the science station where Lieutenant Commander Styles was currently running sensor sweeps of the local area, seeking scientific anomalies and coordinating with stellar cartography to get a more precise map of this sector of space. The second officer seemed to answer all his questions in stride. As always, she wore that mercurial expression on her face�telling everyone they had better have a good reason for approaching her. Still, those who came to know the Commander personally would see that she was not so glacial but rather reserved with her opinions. Thus, everyone was mystified at how she was capable of tolerating his questions over and over again.

"Chris," Vin Tanner spoke up in an effort to take the Captain�s mind of his boredom. He noticed Lieutenant Commander Ezra Standish was idling with his phaser, probably thinking what the odds were of getting away with justifiable homicide if he were to use it on his commanding officer. "You up for some mountain climbing on the holodeck?"

The statement was of no surprise to anyone because the Captain and the helmsman had spent a great deal of off-duty time engaging in all sorts of outdoor activities. Last week it was white water rafting on the Colorado River and the week before it had been hiking up Mount Seleya and now the flavor looked to be mountain climbing. A small sigh of relief passed through the bridge as breaths were held in anticipation that the mention of a holodeck adventure might get the Captain off the bridge.

"Sure," Chris remarked with a sigh since not much else was happening on the bridge. "When does your shift end?" He asked, staring at the viewscreen ahead and seeing to his disappointment, nothing but stars flying past the ship as the Maverick cruised languidly at Warp 3.

"In about an hour. I thought we might try the Machupuchare." The Vulcan suggested.

"You intend to scale those heights?" Ezra exclaimed with something akin to horror. The infamous fish hook mountain in the Himalayas was one of the most challenging goals for even the most seasoned mountain climber. The real Machupuchare had claimed many lives in its long history as a venue for climbers and Ezra could not imagine anyone undertaking such an arduous form of entertainment.

"Yep," Vin said thinking nothing of it since Ezra seemed to have a complaint about any form of recreation that required breaking a sweat. "It�s been done by others."

"Take it easy Ezra," Chris drawled, aware the Security officer's main concern was the fact that Vin preferred to disengage the holodeck safety protocols when he performed any adventure sport. Takes all the fun out of it if you can't get a scraped knee, the helmsman had said to his Captain after Nathan Jackson had dragged Vin into his ready room the last time the man had been forced to treat the Vulcan for broken ribs, apparently from a fall. "Safeties will be on."

"I am gratified to know that," Ezra said after a moment. "I do not relish having to face my security team and inform them I have to assign someone to guard you, captain, while you are climbing a mountain."

"Although," JD grinned speaking up despite himself. "It would have been fun to see their faces when you did."

A small titter of laughter moved through the bridge and the earlier tension had dissolved for the moment. Chris glanced over his shoulder and asked. "Anything interesting Commander?" He looked at Alex since she had been somewhat silent during this exchange.� The question seemed to irk her and she straightened up and gave him a look.

"Captain," she said neutrally. "You realize that I have the greatest respect for you."

The Captain exchanged a mystified glance with Ezra and Vin over the remark before replying. "I assume so, why?"�

"So you understand when I say with all due respect, if you do not keep asking me that same question at every 2.34-minute intervals, I will have to throw you into the warp core."

Another ripple of amusement went through the bridge although in this instance it was more restrained since no one wanted to be caught laughing at their science officer�s statement, even though it was surely deserved. Ezra was suddenly busying himself with his security console, Vin faced front even though he was biting down as he watched the stars flying past them with absolutely no interest. In the meantime, JD found it necessary to make a slight course correction.

Chris frowned and replied somewhat quietly. "Point taken. You�ll let me know if something is up."

"The minute it happens." She answered, letting out a sigh of relief that he did not take too much offense at her words since some commanders would.

"Mr. Dunne, Mr. Tanner," Ezra looked at his fellow bridge officers. "I do believe you both owe me ten credits each."

"Ten credits on what?" Chris glared at them suspiciously.

"That Alex would be the first one to break," Vin said with a little smile which saw him rewarded with a mock glare from the science officer.

"Have I been that annoying?" Chris cast his gaze around the bridge, daring them to respond.

Vin, Ezra, and JD looked at each other in silent agreement before they all answered in perfect unison.

"Absolutely not Sir."

"Cowards," Alex said under her breath.

Unaware of how close the ship had actually come to mutiny, Commander Buck Wilmington was presently at Four Corners with Counselor Josiah Sanchez going over the monthly crew evaluations. It was a task he hated doing but discovered, much to his chagrin, that the duty fell solely within his purview as the first officer of the USS Maverick. Much of his dislike arose from the fact that Buck hated to think any member of the crew was a lost cause no matter how overwhelming the evidence might be. If it were not for Josiah helping him�make the necessary decisions, Buck would never be able to file a bad report on anyone.

"Well, Vin�s situation is improving." Buck commented as he went through the Vulcan�s evaluation. "Mostly because Chris has made it his business to make sure he speaks his mind a little more."

"Being caught between two cultures can be very difficult," Josiah commented. "However, he holds up well under pressure and I think he�s starting to come out of that shell of his a little more, not just with the captain and Commander Styles. He had something of a problem I told him to see Lieutenant Travis about."

"I see." He looked at Josiah and noted that the Counselor did not choose to elaborate which meant asking would be a waste of time. Instead, Buck merely nodded in response before taking a sip of his coffee and adding further. "When he gets talking, you can�t shut him up and he�s got quite a temper on him. Keeps it inside most of the time but when it goes, it goes."

"That�s just the Vulcan in him." The Counselor explained. "Most people seem to forget that the reasons Vulcans subscribe to non emotion is because of just how heated their passions can be when they are provoked. Case in point, the Romulans."

Buck had forgotten. Romulans and Vulcans, though similar in appearance, were so diametrically opposed in culture and way of life, it was impossible to imagine that they were once the same race. Vin came from a stock that was extremely volatile and it was easy to forget even though he appeared human in every way, he was not. "I suppose so."

"What about Mr. Dunne?" Josiah inquired, moving to the youngest member of the Maverick�s bridge crew.

A genuine smile of pleasure stole across Buck�s face at the mention of the Ensign. "Well, his performance on the bridge is exemplary. He�s conscientious, eager, still green as all hell but he listens." The pride in Buck�s voice was just as unmistakable as the smile on his face. Since coming on board, it had been Buck�s responsibility to train JD and the kid had not failed to disappoint. Seeing the world through JD�s eyes made Buck remember what it was like when the galaxy was a fresh, exciting place to him. In some ways, it still was but experience had changed Buck too much for him to enjoy like he had when he had first emerged from the Academy.

"Well they weren�t wrong when they deep seated him as potential captain material," Buck concluded with more than just pride. This time, he was speaking as JD�s superior officer. "A couple of years under his belt and he�s going to be good. I can't believe how he beat the Kobayashi Maru."

"Yes," Josiah nodded, having read that in the young man�s records. "I hear that Starfleet Academy is still mourning."

The Kobayashi Maru was a test scenario offered by Starfleet Academy to evaluate graduating command cadets to decide which one of their number would be viable candidates as future captains. The test, which revolved around the fictitious ship called the Kobayashi Maru, offered a no-win situation. The program offered a scenario where the cadet would be required to rescue a ship in the Neutral Zone. There was no solution that would allow either the Kobayshi Maru or the ship rescuing her to escape safely. It was designed as a mental problem to see how potential command officers would handle themselves even in dire circumstances and those results usually decided who would wear captain�s gold and who would not.

Before JD Dunne, only one person had successfully beaten the Kobayashi Maru and that was James T Kirk whose solution was to sneak in the night before and reprogram the simulation so a solution could be reached. However, when JD had tackled the problem, he had offered a unique solution in that he had challenged the simulated enemies in the Neutral Zone, in this case, the Klingons, to a duel between captains, warrior to warrior with their ancient bathlet weapons. Klingon honor could not allow such a challenge to go unanswered and thus the Klingon commander had no choice but to accept the duel and thus both the Kobayashi Maru and the Federation ship sent to rescue her were saved. The solution had never been tried and the programmers of the Kobayashi Maru had to cry defeat because the essence of the test had been solved and Starfleet had a very important question answered regarding the future of Mr. Dunne.

"How�s he doing in the head department?" Buck asked, knowing performance alone could not judge the well being of an officer.

Josiah flinched at the use of the word but Buck seemed to have a lot of such sayings which Josiah was slowly becoming accustomed to. "He was a little nervous to begin with but then he�s fresh from the Academy, you can�t expect him to be any other way. His mother died shortly before he graduated so he�s still feeling the loss but I think you�ve been a great help to him."

"I have?" The first officer looked at Josiah with a hint of surprise JD would have credited so much to him.

"He looks up to you." Josiah replied, unafraid for Buck to hear this because the man needed to continue supporting JD for the youth to reach his full potential. "And I take it you�ve been making an extra effort for him to not feel too homesick?"

"I remember what it was like shipping out for the first time. It�s hard enough when you got family but to�to have no one," he lapsed into deep thought because he never did have a family when he joined the Academy. His mother had been dead and gone for years by then and if it had not been for Chris, Buck would have spent a lot of his furloughs alone.

"I understand," Josiah answered, well aware of Buck�s history. "What about you?"�

Buck choked in mid swallow not expecting the question and raised his eyes to the Counselor in a display of astonishment. "What about me?" He asked, waiting for Josiah to clarify what he meant by that inquiry.

Josiah smiled faintly, finding some amusement in Buck�s reaction. The first officer tended to play big brother to everyone, whether or not they needed it. As the ship�s Executive Officer, Josiah supposed that quality came part and parcel with the job but the position of the first officer made it difficult for him to confide in anyone else about his troubles other than the captain and he could understand why most chose not to.

"How are you doing since taking the job as first officer?" Josiah repeated himself, deciding he would have to be a lot clearer than he had been if he wished to garner some form of an answer from Buck.

"Fine, I guess." Buck answered, not really understanding the need to bring up this subject since the role of the first officer fit him rather comfortably and Buck saw no difficulties yet to emerge. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, this is your first command on a ship as first officer. It�s not like any other job and save the centre seat, it�s probably the hardest there is on this ship. You�re responsible for all the details the Captain doesn�t have time to deal with but has to be done if the ship is to function."

"When you put it like that you make me nervous," Buck said adjusting his collar. "It�s harder than I thought," he admitted after a moment�s reflection seeing no need to bottle it up. "I feel like I�ve got to keep everything running smooth all the time so that Chris can do his job and it�s the details that worry me. If I miss something it could affect the whole ship." After a moment, he looked at Josiah and gushed.

"How do you do that?" Buck stared at him. "How do you just get people to start talking. One minute I say everything is fine and the next thing you know I�m unloading on you."

"Its what I do," the Counselor said with a smile. "I get people to unload and most of them who have something to say, will find a way to tell me eventually."

"It�s sneaky but to answer your question, now that you got it out of me. I�m doing okay actually. I was scared to death the first few weeks but I�m getting the hang of it and in the rare occasions when I ain�t, there�s plenty of female company around to see me through the rough spots."

"Right." Josiah rolled his eyes, remembering what a sweet tooth Buck had when it came to the ladies on board the ship.

It was no wonder the man took his vacations on Risa.

Vin Tanner was on his way back to his quarters when he found Lieutenant Mary Travis waiting for him outside his quarters. Vin had not expected to see her so soon even though he requested a private audience earlier today. As the only person on board the ship who had some knowledge of Vulcan culture, Vin had no choice but to approach the protocol officer in order to deal with a personal problem he had been ordered by Josiah to handle, for the sake of his own mental well being. As soon as he saw her, he wished he had not asked her to meet him when his duty shift was over. Fortunately, in a short time, he would be joining the Captain on the holodeck to make their rock climbing appointment so he had an excuse to get this over and done with as quickly as possible.

"Vin." Mary greeted upon seeing him approach his door. "I called the bridge at the end of your duty shift and they said you were heading down here."

"Yes," Vin nodded quietly, always feeling uneasy around her. As someone who knew how Vulcans should behave, Vin was always wondering whether or not she was judging him according to their standard. Her son was an entirely different matter and on the occasions he had joined Chris Larabee and young William for their fishing trips on the holodeck, Vin found it easy to deal with the child.

Entering his quarters, he cursed slightly that his room was somewhat untidy. In those respects, he was terribly human and had not an ounce of repentance over that trait. Better that then to be so fastidious he would spend all his time picking up after himself.

"I�m sorry," he said picking up some stray clothes from the sofa. "I was not expecting company."

"That�s all right," she smiled. "I have an appointment myself so I can�t stay long. What can I do for you?" she asked, aware he would be happier if they could get straight to the point.

Vin swallowed, wishing he did not have to do this but had no choice in the matter. It was easier to speak to her about this than it was with any other Vulcan on the ship because they tended to find him something of an oddity. Vin did not need his differences pointed out any more than they already were. "I�ve been having trouble keeping myself from melding with people I touch." Vin managed to say after a moment, aware of how Vulcans felt about melding with other races, particularly without permission. To them, it was almost like mind rape.

"I see," Mary said quietly, aware of how serious a problem this was. "How can I help?"

"Josiah said you knew something about Vulcan mental disciplines." He continued speaking wondering if she knew how very hard this was for him because he was not accustomed to asking for help from anyone. People seemed to offer it readily because he appeared fragile at times without understanding how much strength lay beneath that veneer of silence. "I thought you could teach me."

"I know some things." Mary admitted readily. Living on Vulcan and being married to one for as long as she had made the study of such disciplines a necessity. While her telepathic ability was awakened, it could never be as strong as a full-blooded Vulcan�s, like Vin. "I could help you with mental exercises and certain techniques about shields if you like."

"That would be good." Vin said with relief, grateful she could help him because he could not imagine going to another Vulcan about this problem. As it was, they all considered him something of an anomaly because he had not learnt any of their ways even though he was Vulcan in every aspect. His upbringing had changed him from Vulcan to human and somehow, Vin felt as if they blamed him for it. As if he had any choice in the matter.

"When would you like to begin?" She asked, knowing how hard it had been to seek aid of any kind about something like this. In that respect, he was typically Vulcan. They liked to keep their personal affairs just that, personal.

"Tomorrow?" He offered because he had to go meet the Captain soon and he really did want to climb that mountain with Chris.

"Tomorrow it is then." Mary agreed with a nod. "I�ll see you here at the same time?"�

"That will be fine." Vin flashed her a grateful smile and let out a sigh of relief when she finally left the room. After her departure, Vin had to take a few moments to compose himself, praying he made the right decision. If not for the seriousness of the situation, he would have preferred to handle this himself as he had handled all things about his heritage over the last few years. In private.

Sometimes, it was so hard to be Vulcan, even for a Vulcan.

When Chris finally decided it was time to walk off the bridge in order to join Vin on the holodeck, he had come to the firm conclusion nothing was going to happen today. It looked as if the same old boring routine that had been taking place, ever since they began the ordeal of mapping the local area was going to be with them for at least another day. Besides, he was starting to believe he was indeed infuriating his bridge crew by his expressions of weariness and boredom and while he had tried to curb it after Commander Styles had threatened him with bodily harm, Chris could not help but continue pestering her after awhile.

After all, he had to have some fun.

"Well this has been fun," Chris sighed as he rose to his feet from his command chair. "But I guess I�ll turn the bridge over to you for awhile Commander." He said to Alex with something of a smug expression.

"Thank you Sir." Alex�replied,"Shouldn�t you be running along to the holodeck?"

"If you think that nothing is going to happen." Chris gave Ezra a look of mischief as he asked and saw the security chief trying to stifle his laughter but somehow the snigger managed to show on his face.

"Captain, there�s nothing out there!" She barked. "Go, climb Machupuchare! Hell, do Everest if you can, just go! If there is even the slightest chance that something is going down I promise that we�ll let you know immediately!"

It took quite a bit to wear her patience but Chris was very pleased at his success. "If you say so Commander." He grinned and walked towards the turbo lift. He was still wearing that satisfied expression when the doors slid open and he stepped inside to be spirited elsewhere in the ship.

"You know," Alex mused to herself as she prepared to go back to work on her charting project with stellar cartography now that she was ensured she would not be interrupted with ridiculous questions. "If he wasn�t my Captain, I�d shoot him."

"Uh...Commander." JD Dunne suddenly exclaimed. "I�m receiving what appears to be a distress signal."

Alex let out an audible groan about the same time that Ezra burst out laughing unable to contain himself after being presented with the piece de la resistance on this whole situation. Even JD was laughing openly as Alex smouldered and replied sharply in a low voice.

"Get the Captain." She fumed and then added, giving Ezra a cold stare. "You want to lay odds on whose the first person to get their nose broken if they say a damn word?"

The Leonov

It was approximately thirty minutes following the discovery of the distress beacon and most of the bridge officers were inside the conference room, preparing to deliver their reports on the preliminary investigations made so far. The ship was presently heading for the source of the signal at warp five and the estimated time of arrival would allow them to answer the call for help in less than three hours. While the location of the signal was not more than a few light years away, there was some concern at the presence of a Federation type distress signal calling to them from so far within uncharted space.

As Chris found himself in the captain�s chair at the head of the conference table within the Ready Room, he tried to keep the satisfied smirk off his face each time he looked in the direction of Alex Styles. Even though much humor had been wrought already by the fortuitous appearance of the distress signal just after she had sent him off the bridge, convinced that no situation would arise to require his attention, Chris could not help laughing inwardly at the whole episode. Alex on the other hand, wore the same stony appearance, not about to show anyone she felt the least bit repentant for her earlier actions.

Since a full staff report was not required at this time, only the bridge officers were attending for the briefing. Chris sat at his customary seat at the head of the table with Alex and Buck flanking him on either side. JD took up position next to Buck while Vin sat between the science officer and Ezra. There was no need to broaden the scope of the meeting just yet, not until they had some idea of what they would be facing when they finally arrived at the source of the signal.

"Okay," Chris glanced in Alex�s direction with the same gloating expression on his face he had worn since learning about the signal. "Assuming under the personal assurance of our science officer that nothing else is going to happen today, let�s get this meeting under way." He remarked, displaying a smug grin as he said that.

With the exception of Buck and Alex, the other three men in the room could not help but enjoy the whole situation. Even Vin was sniggering and hiding his mouth behind his hands as he did so in order not to be heard but his amusement was apparent. Ezra was not so furtive and the dimpled smirk on his face was enough to show just how much he was being entertained at Alex�s expense. JD who was not about to incur the wrath of a senior officer under any circumstances was biting the inside of his cheek, trying to keep his need to laugh under control.

Buck looked around mystified wondering what was the joke he missed, especially when his oldest friend, not to mention his Captain, was staring at the only female in the room like a mischievous boy who had just pulled a particularly delicious prank. Alex, who was frowning, did not appear annoyed, merely chagrined by what happened on the bridge and was allowing the captain his amusement at her expense for the time being.

"What did I miss?" He looked around in puzzlement.

"Don�t ask," Alex grumbled giving the rest of the officers at the table a dark look, which ensured their silence for the moment at least. She had no doubt the minute the meeting was over, Ezra would be gleefully filling Buck in on all the details if JD did not do it first.

"I�ll let you on it later," Chris said with a smile before deciding it was time to get down to business. Besides, he had no desire to test the boundaries of Alex�s patience. "So JD," he looked at the young ensign who also happened to be his navigation and communications officer. "Have you traced the signal?"

"Yes Sir," JD nodded clearing his throat and reminding himself of the time for playful mischief was over. "It�s definitely a Federation homing beacon. Mostly deployed in the DY500 series. They�re old ships but the recognition pattern is the same. I�ve run it through the registry and the frequency matches that of a ship called the Leonov."

"Good work." Buck complimented, once again feeling that familiar swell of pride at how well the young man was doing under his tutelage. Most officers his age would be scrambling to maintain their balance in such experienced company but JD was holding his own even though his lack of years showed at times. Buck was always certain to let him know that those whose respect he wanted so much to earn, noted his ability to handle himself.

"What do we know about the Leonov?" Chris turned to Alex since this was her field of expertise.

Alex, who had done a thorough investigation prior to this meeting of all the data accumulated on the subject, was quick to make her response. "Until its disappearance more than six months ago, she was mostly a commercial freighter owned by a Tellerite trader named Dar Kelisan. Deep Space Five reports Kelisan did most of his business with the Lysians. According to station logs, the Leonov�made a supply stop just before the recent Borg invasion. Nothing of them has been heard of them since and it was assumed they had abandoned that part of space following the disaster on Lysia. However, I checked with the�Spacing Guild�and they have not received any flight plan from the Leonov for quite some time."

"It could be possible that they ran into the Borg when the Collective attacked Earth," Buck suggested.

"But they don�t leave anything behind." Vin countered. "If they could take a starship apart like paper, there would not be much left of a DY500 series ship if they encountered it, not enough to leave a homing beacon still operational."

"Mr. Tanner is correct," Ezra agreed readily. "A ship like that would have no chance against the Borg. I believe whatever caused the Leonov to emit its distress signal is not due to the Collective but something else altogether."

"Do we know where they are?" Chris asked Alex once again.

"Yes. Judging by the source of the transmission, it's coming from a star system with an earth type black star and four M class planets. Beyond the notation of its existence, nothing else is known of the system. However, we are the first ship assigned to make comprehensive stellar charts of this area in almost twenty years, so naturally what�s on record is going to be out of date and not all that useful."

"So we have no information on what�s waiting for us when we get there, other than an old ship thought to have been destroyed suddenly having resurfaced." Chris frowned, disliking the lack of intelligence. He hated going into a situation blind and when there were civilians involved, he liked it even less.

"More or less." Buck shrugged, sympathizing with Chris�s feelings on the subject. "How many were on board the Leonov?"�

"Two hundred and fifty crew," Alex replied. "Mostly Tellerites and humans."

"Could they still be alive?" Vin ventured to ask. "If they didn�t run into the Borg, it is possible there could be survivors."

"Unfortunately," Ezra added. "Having no knowledge as to the nature of their difficulties, we cannot assume anything at all." The security chief did not wish to sound pessimistic but the purpose of such discussions was to put all possibilities on the table, and the notion of an unknown threat in this remote corners of space was not unheard of. The Borg are not the only hostile aliens to emerge from the Delta quadrant as they had learned when they encountered the C�Kaia only a few weeks ago. The lack of discovery did not mean the absence of danger.

"I�d like to operate under the assumption that someone is still alive for us to find." Chris replied after hearing all the opinions of his officers. "The DY500 class ships were made to last and if I�m not mistaken their life support systems were pretty formidable. They were constructed for deep space missions so two hundred and fifty people may be able to survive for six months or more if they�re smart." He glanced at Vin. "How long until we arrive?"

"At present speed of Warp 5, three hours."�

"Let�s take her up to Warp 9," Chris decided. "I think that the Leonov has waited long enough for someone to find her."

No one could disagree with that.

With the increase in speed to Warp 9, the Maverick significantly cut down its expected time of arrival at the Leonov�s position from three hours to one. In anticipation for a possible rescue, the appropriate departments were mobilized for action. Doctor Nathan Jackson�s medical team was prepped and ready to beam to the ship the moment survivors were confirmed to warrant their presence. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Julia Pemberton had organized a team of engineers and technicians in order to assess the status of the Leonov once they found the ship. If all possible, Chris wanted to salvage the vessel.

The view screen offered a breathtaking view of an Earth-type solar system and the yellow star though unremarkable in comparison to the slew of others like it that populated the galaxy, was nonetheless a spectacular sight in the distant space. The amber waves of light it illuminated seemed to enhance the speckled beauty of the stars around it and the silhouette of several planets could be seen through the sea of color.

"Have you located the ship?" Chris asked, having anticipated Alex would have already sought out the ship.�

His confidence in his bridge crew was beyond reproach. Even though they were only weeks into their tenure on board the Maverick, Chris was pleased to know that they metamorphosed from a group of individuals to�become accustomed to sharing the same space into a well-oiled machine that was capable of anticipating each other's actions. He could not hide the pride he felt at how quickly they had forged their bonds since coming on board and knew that such unity did not come easily. There were officers on other ships who served together for years without acquiring the level of camaraderie that was achieved on the Maverick in a matter of weeks.

"Yes," Alex nodded staring at the console with some measure of concern. "It does not appear to be coming from any of the planets or its moons."

"Then where?" Buck asked before Chris could.

"According to my scans, the signal is emanating from what appears to be a planetoid, possibly an asteroid just beyond the gravitational pull of their second planet."

"Confirmed." Ezra declared, having made his own sensor scans of the system while in search for possible dangers to the ship. "There are no other ships in the system or anything resembling technology. If something is transmitting a beacon in this system, it has to be the Leonov and it is coming from the location Alex has pinpointed."

"Take us in at half impulse," Chris ordered and Vin immediately complied. Before them, the stars started moving past them on the view screen as the great ship sailed forward like a giant leviathan in the watery depths.

"I didn�t think there was an asteroid cluster in this area to be able to trap an asteroid in this system," JD remarked, hoping that his query might be answered by his more experienced crew mates.

"It�s unusual." Buck had to admit. "When they�re speeding through a system like this, they�ve usually got too much velocity to be caught by a planet�s gravity and if they do get caught, there should not be any fragments left to be floating in space."

"Asteroid coming into range," JD announced.

"Let see what she looks like," Chris ordered and the view screen shifted its gaze from the expanse of stars to the planetoid that was the subject of the discussion at the moment. Although it was small in comparison to the planet by which it was trapped in orbit, the planetoid was nonetheless sizeable for its type. Its shape was not spherical but rather elliptical. Its surface was marked by large craters indicating that prior to its permanent settlement around the planet, several smaller members of its kind had bombarded it.

"I have a fix on the Leonov," Ezra exclaimed.

"Magnify," Buck ordered before Chris could do so. The image on the screen changed once again and the bridge of the Maverick was treated to the sight of a ship that had more or less landed badly on the surface of the planetoid. Several portions of its hull had been breached as well as extensive scorching on its upper pylons and damaged nacelles.

"We are not going to be able to get that off the ground." Vin found himself remarking to no one in particular even though most of the bridge shared his sentiments. The ship�s landing on the surface of the planetoid did not appear to be kind although he was not an engineer to be certain the Leonov was entirely lost. "There are structural breaches everywhere," he observed as his keen Vulcan senses studied the image before him. "Is it possible to seal those?"

"Let�s find out," Chris replied and tapped his com badge. "Lieutenant Pemberton, have you been monitoring the situation."

"Yes Sir," the cheery voice of the Chief Engineer sang across the bridge, bringing an instinctive smile to the lips of the seasoned security officer. "She�s in pretty bad shape but I don�t think she�s a lost cause. I need a closer look but we might be able to save her."

"Good." He said pleased. "Get a team ready, we may be sending you down there." Chris knew Julia would be itching to get to the Leonov. The DY500 ships were considered to be something of a classic and he could imagine the engineer was eager to inspect the vessel, even in its dilapidated condition.

"No problem." She answered eagerly.

"Captain," Alex who had been quiet all this time suddenly made herself heard. The astonishment in her voice was plain as she looked at him with nothing less than a mystified expression on her face that immediately alarmed everyone on the bridge because she was not a woman prone to panicking unless the situation was dire. "I believe that there is an atmosphere on that asteroid."

"That�s impossible." Buck declared without even pausing to consider the possibility because when he was on the Nimitz, he had played the role of science officer enough to�know her claim sounded incredible.

"I�m telling you," Alex repeated herself. "My scans are showing a rich oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, not to mention a gravitational field not dissimilar to ours. There seems to be some kind of strange energy field surrounding the planetoid that might be responsible but I�ve never seen field fluctuations like this. It�s like a cocoon around the entire body of the asteroid."

"Is it natural?" Buck asked starting to realize they might be faced with the impossible and was just as awed by it as she was.

"I don�t know." She mused and that surprised just about every body because I don�t know was not a phrase that was common to Alex�s vocabulary. The science officer always had some kind of an answer, even if it was a wild hypothesis.

"Is it a weapon?" Ezra asked, his instincts as a security officer kicking in with this sudden development. Even though he could not see how it could be deployed that way, Ezra was always cautious about any unknowns capable of harnessing the great power and the ability to provide an asteroid with an atmosphere seemed to fall into that category.

"I don�t think so," Alex replied. "Whatever this energy field around the asteroid is, I have no idea how it's being generated. The sensors won�t even penetrate it. It some kind of intense disruption field the scanners can�t get through. I doubt we will be able to get a transporter lock through it.

"You mean if there are survivors down there we�re going to have to rescue them by shuttle?" Buck looked at her.

"More or less." Alex shrugged, displeased she was unable to give them any better news. Besides that, however, there was something about the planetoid � asteroid, that just did not feel right. She could not put her finger on it and yet Alex was reluctant to cast aspersions when all she had to base her suspicions upon was a gut feeling.

"JD," Chris who had been silent all this time finally spoke. "See if you can hail them."

"Yes Sir," JD nodded even though he did not feel very hopeful about their success. If their science officer was right and she was very rarely wrong about these things, an energy field capable of locking out a transporter signal would be able to keep out a subspace signal with just as much ease. As he tried to comply, he was not surprised when his attempts to contact the Leonov was met with cold silence.

However, the young ensign refused to give up so easily and spent the next few minutes altering numerous bandwidths in order to reach the damaged freighter. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent there was no response forthcoming and he was forced to concede defeat.

"I�m sorry Captain," he looked at Chris apologetically. "I can�t raise the Leonov and I�m not sure its because there�s no one receiving us or because we can�t break through the interference on the asteroid�s surface."

"Its all right," Chris assured the youth with a nod of acknowledgment to his efforts. "This whole thing is pretty strange. In truth, I didn�t expect it to be so easy."

"Okay we can�t reach them," Buck stated refusing to admit defeat by their inability to contact the crew of the Leonov. "We�re just going to have to go down there."

"Captain I object to that." Ezra retorted and Chris more or less expected it considering the circumstances. "We have no idea what is taking place on board the Leonov, not to mention this asteroid. It displays none of the characteristics of a spacial body of its type and as Commander Styles pointed out the energy radiating from it is just as suspect. Traveling to the planetoid may put us in a compromising situation."

"I agree." Alex lent her support because she did not at all like the idea of anyone venturing into that asteroid with so much about it remaining elusive. Her senses were tingling with alarm over the idea of any of her crewmates landing on it. It had nothing to do with fear because death was a part of life in Starfleet. One could not be apart of a space-faring race without appreciating that beyond the safe surroundings of luxurious starships was a cold, black vacuum that would kill you in seconds of exposure.

"There are 250 people down there who are already in a compromising situation," Buck stated firmly, meeting Alex and Ezra�s eyes with a hard stare. "We can�t just abandon them because it�s a little dangerous."

"All right," Chris interceded before the conflict on opinions became something more than it should. He was aware of the tension on the bridge over this issue and unfortunately, it was always going to be his call as to what should be done. While he was mindful of Alex and Ezra about their concerns, since he had to take into account any danger that might effect his ship or his crew, he also had a responsibility to the people that Starfleet was charged to protect.

"Buck�s right." He glanced at the two lieutenant commanders. "There are people down there and we have to see that they are safe. So this is what we�re going to do. Buck you will take an Away team to the planetoid, Ezra, you and a full security complement will go with him. Lieutenant Pemberton will accompany you to assess the state of the Leonov. Once you have made contact with the survivors if any, I want you to move the shuttle off the planetoid�s surface and give us your report. If you do not report within one hour of your arriving at the ship, we�re coming after you. Is that clear?" The tone in his voice indicated there was no room for negotiation on this point. He was willing to listen to their ideas but the Maverick was not a democracy.

Ultimately, the decision was his and they would do well to remember it.

"Aye Sir." Buck nodded, taking note of the authoritative manner of Chris�s voice to know that he expected to be obeyed on this point. Glancing at Ezra, he saw the security chief was satisfied with the Captain�s order by the nod of approval he received when he met the man�s gaze. "If you don�t mind, I�d like JD to come with us."

JD�s face brightened immediately despite the somber mood on the bridge. It was obvious the thought of going on his first away mission had overridden the previous tension and no one could be unaffected by the smile on his face at Buck�s suggestion. He immediately looked over his shoulder upon mention of his name, like the wide eye youth he was, secretly pleading for Chris to agree to Buck�s request because he really wanted to go.

"I don�t see why not." Chris could not help feeling a slight curl to the ends of his lips at the hopeful expression on the young man�s face. It was obvious he was itching to go on an Away mission and as Chris met Buck�s eyes, he wondered if they had ever been that young and eager when they had first left the Academy.

Of course, they were, just like every cadet who shipped out the first time.

"I don�t see why not." Chris turned to JD. "You up for your first away mission?"

"Yes Sir," JD said with unabashed enthusiasm. He gave Buck a thoroughly grateful smile even though Chris was certain he had completely forgotten about the danger that had been the point of so much discussion prior to this moment.

Vin Tanner, however, was not watching the interplay between Captain, First Officer, and the young ensign. His attention was focused on the disturbed expression on Alex�s face. Even though he had not meant to do so, he knew he was physically in tune with the second officer because of his ability to meld. Thus he had a sense of the emotional changes in her psyche and at the moment, he could tell that she viewed this mission with extreme concern.

Whatever gut instinct was making her afraid, Vin could feel it too and he prayed that she was wrong.

Leonov's World

Less than an hour after the Maverick had arrived at Leonov�s World, the appellation given to the planetoid�offering temporary shelter to the injured ship of the same name by the bridge officers, the runabout Perlman launched out of Maverick�s shuttle bay. The Maverick kept a close eye on its departing child, ever vigilant in the knowledge there�was always danger in the unknown and the planetoid towards which the runabout was presently headed was about as unknown as they could get.

Despite the strenuous objections of the chief science officer, Chris had held firm in his decision to allow Buck to take an Away Team to Leonov�s world. Although he understood she was cautious, for the life of him, he could not understand the level of apprehension Alex had shown at his decision. Still, Chris could understand her concern. Everything about the planetoid did not make sense and yet they were bound by the rules of humanity as well as duty, to investigate the possibility of survivors within the wreck of the old ship. When Alex found she could not convince the Captain to change his mind, she instead requested permission to accompany Buck on the mission before being refused once again.

This time, Chris� decision had to do with the possibility of Alex being right. If there was something amiss on Leonov�s World and their crewmates were endangered upon finally arriving at the mysterious asteroid, then it was likely that Alex�s expertise would be absolutely essential in order to retrieve them again. He had worked with science officers during his service in Starfleet and Chris could say with utter confidence that Alex was one of the best and if she was right about the planetoid, he would need her on the bridge.

"Perlman ready to launch." Commander Buck Wilmington�s voice spoke over the com system on the bridge.

"All right Buck," Chris answered from his position in the command chair. "Keep an open com signal at all times. I expect once you enter the gravitational field of the planetoid that strange energy disruption will knock out your communications, so remember what I said about reporting in."

"Aye Sir," the first officer replied seriously, aware that on this matter Chris expected to be obeyed and could not count on their long-standing friendship to assuage his captain�s anger if he did not do as he was told when it came to the safety of the crew. "One hour after we land, I�ll take the Perlman into orbit and give you a report."

"Good luck Commander," Chris said hating the fact that he was trapped in this chair and not out there with Buck, leading this away mission. That was the hardest thing about making the transition from the first officer to captain. When he had been on board the Rutherford, Chris had been just as adamant about keeping Captain Savil on the bridge, as Buck was insistent that he remain on the bridge taking center seat. Sometimes, Chris longed for the days when the captain could lead every away mission. Thanks to Starfleet protocols, captains were now required to remain on the bridge as much as possible and allowing landing missions to be undertaken by their capable first officers.

Progress, he snorted.

"You okay Chris?" Vin�s voice suddenly pierced through his ruminations.

Chris blinked and saw the helmsman looking at him with concern. Vin had the uncanny ability to read what was on his mind and Chris wondered if he was the only one who shared this symbiotic relationship with the Vulcan or did this extend to anyone he cared for deeply. Vin did not make friends easily and could only count true camaraderie among the senior staff of the Maverick. According to Josiah, he was slowly learning how to interact with other crewmembers but his main support seemed to be the senior officers with whom he shared the bridge.

"Yeah I�m fine," the captain drawled. "Just not used to taking the back seat that�s all." He sighed longingly. "I rather be out there."

"At the risk of using the same argument you used on me a minute ago," Alex spoke up, "we need you here in case anything goes wrong."

Chris could not disagree with that and she was right, he had used the same argument to make her see reason when he refused her request to allow her to accompany Buck to the surface of Leonov�s World. Now he had to accept that those rules applied to him too. More so because he was captain.

"I know." He nodded and eased back into his chair. "It's just that I have a bad feeling about this."

"Tell me about it," Alex said under her breath and as he glanced at Vin, could see the young man sharing the same distaste for this mission. Like all good officers, they were accustomed to relying on instincts that were unexplainable to guide their actions and everything about the planetoid seem to cry danger. However, like all conundrums, it offered no plausible explanation as to what form that peril might take.

"Unfortunately," Vin added, sharing the same discomfort. "Buck was right, there are people down there who need our help. Maybe they can explain all this when he finds them."

Chris nodded silently, hoping it was indeed that simple. However, with Alex�s concerns lingering in his mind, not to mention the fact the planetoid was unlike anything they had discovered in almost three hundred years of space exploration, Chris could not be so certain that simple was ever going to be apart of the equation.

"I don�t see why we have to wear these things." Julia Pemberton complained as she reluctantly put on the enviro-suit. She hated the cumbersome suits that were supposed to protect them against the elements and not drive them insane with awkwardness. "I thought we had confirmation there was an atmosphere on the planetoid�s surface."

Through the cockpit of the runabout, the surface of Leonov�s World, not to mention the ship itself was a shapeless image that was gaining focus the closer they made their approach to the planetoid. As a precaution, Ezra had ordered everyone into their environmental suits just in case the atmosphere was not as hospitable as the scanners had claimed. While he had every faith in Alex�s determination that Leonov�s World had a rich oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, Ezra was still unable to forget that the presence of such a phenomenon on the planetoid was an impossibility in accordance with every piece of scientific theory there was.

"Give it a rest lieutenant," Buck who was at the pilot�s seat retorted before Ezra could try a more tactful approach. Buck was perfectly aware when it came to Julia Pemberton, Ezra was not exactly firing on all thrusters. Besides, after hearing about their disastrous first date some weeks ago, Buck seriously doubted Julia would be very partial to anything Ezra had to say. "We�re wearing the suits because we have to. This whole planetoid is one big mystery and until we have at least some answers, we�re going to take every precaution. Besides, while our scanners on the Maverick say that there�s an atmosphere, the sensors on the runabout can�t confirm it." The tone of his voice indicated that he was not addressing her as the good-natured friend who made her laugh in their off-duty hours, but rather as her commanding officer, requiring her to remember she was a Starfleet officer.

Julia really hated it when he did that.

"Okay," she grumbled. "But I do this under protest." She declared before snapping her glove into place and flexing her fingers experimentally within the protection of the soft fiber gauntlet.

"Julia," Ezra glanced at the redhead while in the process of suiting up himself. "I cannot see why you have such an aversion to a rather necessary safety precaution?"

"You wouldn�t," she snorted, giving him a cold look as she reached for a helmet.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Ezra looked at her and noticed his security team was trying very hard to keep a straight face. JD who was next to Buck at the cockpit was wearing a similar expression on his face. Just about everyone on the entire ship was aware of Lieutenant Commander Standish�s feelings towards their Chief Engineer and the results of their first romantic evening together. Julia had complained to one of her engineering officers following the event and the rumor mill soon delivered that tasty morsel of gossip to every corner of the ship.

"Okay you two," Buck spoke up, this time his tone was less authoritative but warning nonetheless. "This isn�t the time or the place. I suggest you curb it until we get back to the ship."

"Yes, Commander." Julia nodded with a hint of guilt on her face for behaving in less than a professional manner.

"We will talk about this later, Lieutenant Pemberton," Ezra said firmly, determined to find out what it was he had done was so wrong. After all, Las Vegas as a venue for a first date was perfectly reasonable. He had programmed the holodeck to recreated Caesar�s Palace right down to its Corinthian columns. How could she find anything offensive about that? Of course, his attempt to be completely authentic had sprung some interesting glitches in the program he had been completely unaware at the time until the date was underway and too late for him to salvage.

"Don�t count on it." She muttered, giving him a look of pure ice.

Ezra rolled his eyes, hating the fact she was mad at him even though he could not fathom how she could have believed the fiasco of the night had been his fault or his intention for that matter.

Buck ignored the interplay between the duo and returned his attention to the planetoid that was looming larger in the cockpit window. As they neared their landing site, they could see the shape of the Leonov in walking distance. The damage she had suffered upon her landing on this small world did not appear as severe and Buck could actually believe in the possibility of making the ship suitable for space travel again.

"Julia," Buck called out to the chief engineer. "Come take a look at this."

She came forward immediately, trying not to let the bulky suit hamper her movements, as she stepped into the cockpit at the behest of her commanding officer.

"What is it, Buck?" She asked as she stood between him and JD, peering out at the view screen as they penetrated the atmosphere of Leonov�s World and began the descent to its rocky and crater ridden surface.

"There she is." Buck pointed at the ship.

Julia had already found it and as she observed the ship that�was the object of their quest, she noted it was in better condition than she originally thought. Although Julia had every confidence earlier she would manage to get the dilapidated wreck of the ground, she had to admit the ship was in very bad shape and would require a lot of man hours from her engineering team before it could be made spaceworthy again. Yet now, it looked like her estimation had been a mistake. The ship was not in such terrible condition after all and the work required seemed merely cosmetic.

"You know," she mused looking at it and tried hard to imagine how she could have made such a mistake in her earlier judgment. It was not in her habit to be so wrong about her determination on a ship�s condition and while she might have been reluctant to condemn the vessel, she did not think her judgment would have been so erroneous. "The damage does not look so bad upon closer inspection."

"Yeah," JD agreed with her. "It sure looked a lot worse than it did when we were on the Maverick."

The first officer did not say anything because he was carefully observing the ship himself. Like Julia Pemberton, he too had estimated the damage to the Leonov being more severe than it now appeared. However, logic dictated it could not possibly be that, because a ship did not suddenly become less damaged than it was an hour ago. Alex had spoken about some kind of distortion field surrounding the planetoid. Perhaps it obscured the imagining sensors and their view of the Leonov had been exaggerated with particular emphasis on the ship�s damaged areas.

"The field around this planetoid was probably affecting the view screen image," Buck replied but could not keep the skepticism from his voice. Something strange was going on here and for the first time since he left the ship, wondered if he had been too hasty dismissing Alexandra Styles�s concern when it was obvious that she had good reason to worry. "So do you think we can get her off the ground?" Buck asked, deciding to return to the subject at hand since this speculation would avail him nothing.

Julia turned her emerald colored eyes on the ship and Buck found himself admiring the powerful strobe-like effect of those amazing irises, speckled in gold and could appreciate why Ezra was so lost. She pursed her full lips as she considered his question.

"As I said, the damage doesn�t seem so bad. The hull has been breached in several places but we�ve got duranium plating on the Maverick� I can use to seal those but I�ve got to get inside to take a look. The structure seems to have survived the crash; she didn�t break up on impact so I�m assuming it was a fairly decent landing. The breaches in the hull seem to be from some kind of collision but I�d need to examine it with a tricorder to be sure."

"That would mean the probabilities of survivors is high," Ezra remarked entering the cockpit after he had given his security team their orders once they reached the surface.

"Well, that depends entirely on how their life support systems fared after the landing," Julia answered. All traces of her previous hostility towards him had evaporated mostly because her mindset was focused firmly on the job at hand.

"Are we getting any readings JD?" Buck asked, hoping that their proximity might produce better results with their scans.

JD let his fingers fly over the keypad on the controls before him, trying to circumvent the wall of disruption that hampered Alex�s attempts to scan the planetoid from the Maverick not to mention his attempts to contact the survivors of the Leonov. Whatever this energy field was, it could not be penetrated and yet there was nothing like it on record.

"I�m sorry Sir," JD looked at him apologetically after a moment. "I can�t get through it. It's like the severest ionic field disruption I�ve ever seen."

"Its okay," Buck said in understanding. "I guess we�re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way."

The runabout landed less than a hundred meters away from the Leonov. As Buck and the Away team stepped out of the smaller vessel, they found themselves on a landscape�perennially in the dark. However, the illumination from the planet around which Leonov�s World remained trapped in orbit did offer enough light to keep them from wandering about in pitch-black darkness. This was just as well because the terrain, what they could see of it, was covered in large craters and even though the runabout was only a hundred meters away, the distance between it and the Leonov would be by no means easy to traverse.

The space between them and the ship was rocky and irregular, with a number of smaller craters that required crossing since going around them would take too much time. Even though the sensors read an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere prior to their arrival on the surface, Buck was taking no chances since their tricorders were next to useless now that they were here. The possibility of contagion or some other danger presented by the odd radiation emanating from the planetoid was not something Buck was going to risk exposing any member of his team.

"What a charming place," Ezra remarked as he cast his gaze across the barren landscape of peaks and jagged rocks.

"You�re the last person to talk about charming places," Julia muttered under her breath inside the confines of her enviro-suit when she walked past him to join JD.

Ezra paused a moment and swore quietly when Buck sidled up alongside of him. "You realize of course you�re going to be paying for this for the next six months."

"I am starting to see that." Ezra sighed loudly as they started towards the Leonov,�nestled in a large crater only a few hundred yards away. "I was under the impression that Caesar�s Palace was a tasteful place."

"Oh really?" Buck looked at him skeptically. "Let me give you some advice about women."

"I do not require advice on the feminine gender of our species, Commander," Ezra said stiffly.

"Of course not," Buck retorted without missing a beat. "That�s why you took your lady to a casino where the girls dance with just about nothing on and two homosexuals perform magic tricks with large, domesticated cats who require audience participation."

"I had no idea that she was going to have to put her head in that tiger�s mouth!" Ezra cried out helplessly. "The program was supposed to contain this extremely charming and elegant hotel where there were roulette wheels and baccarat tables. How was I supposed to know that Caesar Palace had been turned into some odious refuge for blue-haired matrons with colorful blouses and sequined eyewear?"

"Caesar�s Palace is your idea of a romantic place?" Buck stared at him in disbelief. "Paris is a romantic place. You take a woman there and I guarantee you, you will not be sleeping alone. Same goes for London, all that fog and upper crust finery, Rio de Janeiro during Mardi Gras and for the more exotic, Jamaica. Trust me, the bikini factor is rewarding enough."

Ezra gave Buck a look. "It terrifies me to know if anything happens to the Captain, you will be in charge of the ship."

"You�re just saying that cause I�m right." Buck grinned before facing front again.

Julia and JD were almost to the edge of the crater where the Leonov was presently located. They could see the top of the ship and noticed its communications array and main sensor grid�was destroyed. Jagged edges of metal, darkened by heat and fused steel was all that was left of those two vital systems and partially explained why the Maverick had been unable to raise the Leonov during its hail. There was simply no way for the ship to have picked up the starship�s attempt to communicate.

"Wait a minute." Ezra declared suddenly realizing something upon seeing that damaged transmitter. "Commander." He switched to a more formal tone because this was indeed serious and glanced at his security team. "Watch yourselves, ladies and gentlemen," he said without any hint of doubt in his voice as he gave his warning. "I am certain nothing here is as it seems."

"What is it?" Buck paused and looked down at JD and Julia making a brisk pace towards the ship.

"That is their communication array is it not?" Ezra asked Buck slowly once his commanding officer turned to face him.

"Yes," Buck's patience evidenced even through the glass of his helmet. "So?"

"So how did they send us a distress signal to bring us here?"

Buck turned around immediately and shouted. "JD, Julia!" His voice was loud enough to force both officers to freeze in their tracks and halt any further advance towards the ship. "Hold position immediately!"�

When the duo had turned around and faced him, confusion in their faces at the sudden order to cease their progress, Buck felt it safe to take his eyes off them and gesture Ezra and his security forward.

"You know the drill," Buck looked at Ezra who nodded in answer because he did indeed know what was the best course of action when the possibility existed they had been led into a trap. Although this derelict spaceship offered no immediate danger, Buck was not about to take any chances in light of Ezra�s statement and the fact he was now more than certain�ever, they had not been wrong about the level of damage incurred by the ship�s forced landing on this world.

"I surely do," Ezra remarked and had to see for himself Julia was staying right where she was before he issued his orders to his security team. "I want all of you to spread out in pairs and create a defensive perimeter around the ship. You will hold position here for one hour. If for any reason, Commander Wilmington, Lieutenant Pemberton, Ensign Dunne or myself fail to emerge from inside this steel behemoth, you are to follow the Captain�s orders and take the Perlman back to the Maverick and give the Captain your report. Is that clear?"

"But Sir...." someone started to speak up. No doubt to voice their opinion they disliked leaving him or the officers named, to whatever dangers that might prevent them from leaving with the rest of the security team.

"You heard the commander�s orders," Buck replied before Ezra could. "If something goes wrong, you return to the Maverick. This is not up for negotiation. Understood?" He looked at the faces around him with hard eyes until he got the nods to the affirmative he wanted.

On that note, Buck motioned Ezra forward and they continued walking towards the ship, hoping that no one would have reason to put that order to the test.

Once the security team had taken a defensive perimeter around the large ship, Buck and Ezra joined JD and Julia and resumed their journey towards the hulking mass of steel�at rest inside the crater for the past six months. As they neared the ship, Julia tried once again to determine the extent of the damage with her tricorder, beyond what she could see with her eyes. It was not an easy proposition considering the tricorder seemed to indicate there was nothing before them but static.

"It's no good." She sighed as they searched for a visible sign of entry into the ship�s interior. "The tricorders are absolutely useless."

"This is a alarming possibility but....."Ezra�s voice drifted off as he reached for his phaser and aimed at an indiscriminate rock lying on the shale like ground before firing.

Energy lashed out from the weapon and disintegrated the offending rock, leaving nothing in its place but a darkened stain of charred earth. No sooner than he had discharged the phaser, the ground beneath them�heaved. Julia lost her balance and JD managed to grab her arm before she fell to the ground while Buck tried to remain on his feet. The tremor rumbled through the ground, causing a shudder to run through all their bones before it ceased all together.

"What the hell was that!" Buck demanded.

"I don�t think the planetoid is entirely stable." Julia said straightening up and flashing JD a smile of thanks for catching her.

"I wanted to ensure that we still had weapons." Ezra replied, feeling a little embarrassed at causing the commotion but it was a necessary test. At least he know knew their weapons were not as useless as their tricorders.

"Sir, are you all right?" The anxious voice of one of his security officers was soon asking over the communicator inside his helmet.

"Yes Mr. Katovit." Ezra said wearily. "We are all in good health. Maintain your post as instructed and try not to fire your weapons unless absolutely necessary. Apart from everything else, this planetoid is not stable."

"Aye Sir," the response came back promptly and Ezra returned the phaser back into its holster.

Buck Wilmington was studying the surroundings closely, trying to understand how an asteroid capable of maintaining an atmosphere and gravity was so unstable a single blast from a hand phaser could destabilize it. Once again, he wondered if he had not been too hasty convincing the Captain they come down here. No sooner than the thought crossed his mind, he brushed it aside. There could still be survivors here and until they knew otherwise, this was always going to be an inevitable course of action.

"Ezra, don�t do that again." Julia retorted, feeling a sliver of concern run up her spine.

"Or at least give us some warning." Buck reiterated.

"Buck!" JD called out. He had been busy studying the hull of the ship while his older companions discussed what just happened when he noticed what they had been searching for towards the front pylon of the ship. The access hatch seemed undamaged and functional. Judging by the corrosion of cosmic dust, it had not been used in some time.

"What is it kid?" Buck turned to the youth and moved to join him.

"I found an entry hatch." JD said unable to hide his excitement as he hasten his pace to the opening in question.

"Hey slow down." The first officer barked at JD. The last thing he wanted was to see the kid get hurt running head long into doing something stupid. Everything that transpired so far had convinced Buck they knew nothing about this planetoid at all. Right now, the best thing they could do was to find out if there were any survivors left from the crew of the Leonov and get the hell out of here as quickly as possible.

While they still could.

JD forced himself to stop running even though the urge to answer that question for himself was overwhelming, not simply because he wished to depart this strange place but also because he hated to think his first away mission was going to end in tragedy. He waited for the others to reach him when suddenly, he heard the sound of metal scraping against metal behind him. Turning around, he saw the lever that opened the hatch starting to turn and instinctively, took a step backwards, reaching for the utility belt�housing�his phaser.

The door�creaked loudly, bits of dirt fell away from the edges as it opened. JD raised his weapon to fire, no longer trusting what would emerge from the inside of the Leonov based on what they had seen so far. Thanks to the strange energy field surrounding the planet behind its impenetrable cloak, JD was not about to trust anything he saw before him. When the door finally swung open, JD could only stare in wide-eyed surprise as the aim of his phaser dropped immediately to the ground.

Standing before him and no more than sixteen years old he estimated, was a girl.

She looked at him with dark colored hair and a smile of welcome. "Hello, my name is Aislynn."�


At first, no one could speak even though the young girl stared at them in anticipation, waiting for a response. There was no reason for them to be so astonished, after all the entire reason they had made the trip here was in order to rescue the survivors of the Leonov and yet there was something about seeing that hope come to fruition that was slightly disconcerting. Perhaps it was the combined elements of mystery that had pursued them the moment they sighted this planetoid in space. Beginning with the inability of the Maverick�s sensors to scan the spatial body, to the discovery that what they had seen of the Leonov from space, was very from the reality of it.� This latest�development�seemed to be just another peculiar turn in this entire mission.

Finally, it was Buck who broke the silence when he reached JD who was waiting for him to take the lead since he was feeling his way about the protocols of behavior during an away mission. As Buck approached him to address the young woman before them, he saw JD letting out a sigh of relief at his arrival.

"Hello there little lady," Buck offered the girl a smile who had recoiled a little and was staring at them anxiously, no doubt a little unnerved by these strangers in their alien looking enviro-suits, who had yet to respond to her greetings of welcome earlier. He estimated that she was no more than sixteen if that and she stared at him as if trying to see past the glass�covering his face. She was probably wondering whether or not they were human and in these bulky suits, she could be forgiven for her uncertainty.

"I�m Commander Wilmington of the USS Maverick.� We picked up your distress signal."

"Our distress signal?" She looked at him blankly and did not really absorb his words for a few seconds. "We sent a call for help but it feels like we�ve been waiting for so long for someone to come."

"We�re here now," Buck said with a smile and noted the young lady seemed to be surviving quite in the planetoid�s strange atmosphere with no difficulty whatsoever and made him feel somewhat ridiculous they were still trapped in these cumbersome suits. "This here is Ensign Dunne, Lieutenant Pemberton, and Commander Standish." Buck introduced the rest of his party to the young girl who noted their presence with a shy nod of acknowledgment.

When the introductions were complete, Buck observed how well she was breathing in the atmosphere and chose to make a leap of faith. Taking a deep breath, he decided he was going to risk taking off his helmet. It was apparent the Leonov�s survivors were somewhat traumatized by their lengthy isolation and there was no need to exacerbate the problem by keeping their faces hidden behind imposing helmets.� The atmosphere did not appear lethal to young Aislynn who was just as human as he was.

"Commander, what are you doing?" Ezra demanded as he saw Buck starting to remove his helmet.

"Taking this thing off." He replied, without pausing as he twisted the helmet out of its snap lock fastenings. "It�s pretty obvious the air�s breathable."

"How long have you been here Aislynn?" Julia asked as she stepped forward. The girl�s attention was very much focused on Buck and she jumped a little upon hearing a secondary voice speaking to her.

"The ship crashed about seven months ago," she replied after a moment, still watching Buck as he removed the helmet and ran his hands through his hair once he was freed of the protective headwear.

"What did happen to the Leonov, young lady?" Ezra inquired. "We seem to be a little unclear on that point."

"We went through some kind of cosmic storm that breached our hull plates." She said slowly as if considering her words carefully so she might impart to them the correct information because she did not quite understand what had happened herself. "Berthold rays flooded most of the ship." Her lips quivered as she�explained and Buck could well understand why that was. Berthold rays were extremely dangerous to organic life forms and would have likely killed anyone who came into contact with it. There was no known cure for the radiation poisoning it wrought, and Buck was hardly surprised when the young girl seemed visibly distressed talking about the event.

"Most of us were killed." She whispered. "There�s only a few of us left."

"It�s alright," Buck put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a little smile. "Why don�t you show us where the others are and we can start thinking about getting you off this rock."

Aislynn immediately broke into a radiant smile and Buck had to confess she was a pretty little thing and would be quite something to look at when she was a few years older. She had long dark hair worn almost to the waist and looked at him with inquisitive brown eyes and full lips. Her cheeks were a little sunken but Buck estimated this was mostly due to being undernourished during her tenure here. He would not be surprised if she had survived during all this time on ration packs since food replicators were too much of a luxury item in an emergency situation.

Judging from the smile on her face at his suggestion, the idea of leaving this imposed exile was a welcome one. He supposed this was hardly the ideal environment for a teenager and wondered what she would be doing on a commercial trading ship so far away from the core systems.

"This way," she urged them to follow as she slipped into the open hatchway that led into the heart of the Leonov. Buck went in first with Ezra following closely. The expression on the security man�s face revealed he was still dubious about their success at finding survivors so easily. Of course, Buck did not point out Ezra was a born skeptic in all things and for a man who believed in luck to win his card games, he was decidedly lacking in faith.

The interior of the ship was dimly lit with emergency lighting. Buck assumed the Leonov�s reactor core was still be functioning, although by now everything must be running on minimum power to conserve as much of the ship�s resources as possible. "How many of you are there, Aislynn?" Buck asked as they started down the narrow passageway running�up the length of the ship.

"Ten." She answered after a pause.

"Ten?" JD exclaimed in shock. "But there were 250 of you according to the ship�s crew manifest!"

"JD," Julia intervened quickly because she had seen the extent of the hull breaches and knew that level of damage would have allowed for a substantial part of the ship to become contaminated with Berthold rays.

"Its okay Lieutenant Pemberton," Aislynn replied. "Most of the ship was effected, I was on the bridge with the Captain and the senior crew when we ran into the storm. The captain knew I wanted to see the bridge which was lucky for me I guess cause everyone else�." Her voice drifted away and it took no feat of genius for the Starfleet officers to deduce what had been the fate of the others on board the Leonov.

"We�ll need a skeleton crew from the Maverick if we�re going to get this ship off the ground," Julia remarked. These old freighters aren�t as automated as the new ships, not as much computer memory." She explained as they moved deeper and deeper into the Leonov. It appeared as if the attempt to purge the ship of the harmful Berthold rays was only partially successful as bulkheads�were sealed and cordoned off, evidence of the contamination.

"We�re going to bring the ship back with us?" Aislynn looked at Buck in question.

"I don�t see why not." He answered. "She�s taken a beating but it�s not anything that can't be salvaged. Besides, I think your captain might like the idea of saving his ship."

"I don�t know," she shrugged. "I think Captain Kelisan is just as sick as we are of this ship.� It must be something to travel around in a starship."

"Well, you�re gonna find out soon enough," JD remarked.

"Yes," she smiled. "Very soon."

Ezra who was trained at observing people by their body language and by what they tried to show, immediately picked up something in the girl�s manner at how she had made that statement. He had no idea why he was being so suspicious but her response to JD was not what Ezra would have expected from a young woman trapped on a ship like this for so many months. Of course, his suspicion had no basis in fact but the feeling lingered, like a bitter aftertaste that would not go away. For the moment, however, he shook caution away, deciding he would keep his eyes open for anything that might give this nagging doubt in him reason for being.

As soon as they approached the heart of the ship, they could hear voices emanating from further up the corridor. Moving closer to the bridge, it was plain to see this had been the main area of occupation for the Leonov�s crew since her unceremonious arrival on this planetoid. Since this location was surrounded on all sides by other decks, it was the most well-guarded place on the ship, not to mention the most protected enclave from the Berthold ray contamination.

Hearing footsteps echoing down the corridor, the voices sought to meet them and very soon the Away team found themselves confronted by a group of people, whose species varied between Tellerite, human and one Andorian. The remains of the Leonov�s crew looked very much the survivors of a lengthy ordeal. They appeared just as malnourished as Aislynn herself but their faces did not display the same eagerness she had, at being found. After seven months trapped on this barren rock with nothing but the insides of the ship as shelter, Buck could very well understand their lack of optimism.

"Look Captain!" Aislynn said grabbing Buck�s hand and towing him gently towards the portly Tellerite who was staring at the Starfleet personnel along with the rest of his crew in shock and some measure of disbelief. It was obvious morale had been low judging by the expressions on those faces before him, but decided that they could be forgiven for believing that since they were marooned so far away from Federation space lanes. "They�ve come! They�ve finally come!" She beamed and looked over her shoulder to flash an adoring smile at Buck.

The rest of the Away team caught the look and held their composure in place even though it was hard not to see the humor in the situation. A small smirk�stole across Ezra�s dimpled features which he was determined to maintain since it would not do much for his reputation as security chief to go around laughing out loud when he ought to be at his professional best. Julia however, caught the look and nudged him in the ribs gently, her emerald eyes telling him silently he had better not embarrass the girl just because she had a little crush on their first officer.

"Don�t you dare." She hissed a warning in his direction.

"I beg your pardon." He looked at her with complete innocence. "I have no idea what you mean."

"Right," she snorted derisively and turned to face Buck who was conversing with the Tellerite captain and introducing them to the survivors of the Leonov as he had done earlier when they had first encountered Aislynn.

"How does he do it?" JD whispered in her direction as he saw the look the young girl was giving their commanding officer.

"The mating instincts of some women can be decidedly askew when it comes to Mr. Wilmington. I hardly see what is so captivating." Ezra remarked with just a hint of crow in his voice.

"You wouldn�t," Julia met his eyes and then added with a devious smile of her own before shifting her gaze to Buck as she looked over the man with interest more than just passing. "However, speaking for the rest of my sex, there are more than one of us who would not mind us sinking our teeth into Mr. Wilmington."

Ezra turned to her sharply just as she started moving away. "Julia, you are joking are you not?"

She did not answer.

"That is hardly funny," he retorted. "I insist you tell me...�

"It was a cosmic storm." Dar Kelisan started to explain after the Starfleet officers and the survivors of the Leonov had gathered into what appeared to be the conference room for crew briefings. Kelisan, like all Tellerites, was a stocky, heavyset people with full brown irises and snouts that did not look too dissimilar from the porcine variety found on Earth. It was very obvious Kelisan had kept his people alive through sheer determination and ingenuity. Buck found himself admiring the seasoned space veteran for managing to keep the mortality rate of the survivors steady following the devastating loss of almost 240 people. He tried to imagine what the man must be feeling to lose that many under his command and came to the conclusion he never wanted to know.

"We had just left one of the colonies on the rim and were heading back to Lysia and Federation space when it came at us, almost at warp speed. We knew we did not have the escape velocity to outrun it so there was little we could do but prepared to bear the brunt of it." He let out a heavy sigh and swallowed thickly.

"Please take your time," Buck said gently. As someone who considered the crew of his ship his responsibility, he had a great deal of empathy for Captain Kelisan and had a feeling that when the Leonov�s crew were safely on board the Maverick, the Captain would be spending a great deal time with Josiah coping with the loss.

"Thank you, Commander." Kelisan offered Buck a grateful smile and cleared his throat. "It was a Level 9 shock wave that went straight through our shields. A starship could have probably taken that kind of impact but the shields of a DY500 crumbled like Ferengi honor. We had multiple hull breaches all across the ship as you have probably seen when you approached us."

"Yes," Julia nodded in answer. "That kind of damage I understand has a tendency to fry circuits on these older ships. Your emergency bulkheads would have probably failed throughout the outer decks."

"Yes," a human who had been introduced to them as Janice Auel and was also the navigation officer on the Leonov, responded promptly to spare the captain the ordeal of explaining further. "We lost almost a third of the crew after the initial impact."

"God," JD whispered. He was still too young and too fresh to adequately deal with the kind of death that those poor souls must have endured. Berthol poisoning was meant to destroy tissue on the cellular level and was said to be one of the most painful ways to die. The only consolation for those who suffered contamination was quick if not agonizing death with a massive dosage.

"It was terrible," Kelisan nodded somberly. "Some managed to survive the contamination. It was they who manually sealed the bulkheads in parts of the ship where decompressive purge was able to dissipate the Berthold rays."

"And how did you come to be on this curious little oasis," Ezra asked, still unable to shake that feeling of imbalance that had dogged him from the moment they had come on board this ship. Actually no, this feeling had its origins in the Maverick in solidarity with those shared by Alexandra Styles when she claimed there was something about the planetoid that was not quite right. Still, he had to admit, these poor folk had survived their ordeal without further misadventure since arriving on this lonely half-world. Thus Ezra was forced to concede that perhaps, his suspicions were unfounded.

However, while he would concede the point, he was not about to abandon it.

"Well our warp engines were offline and with our engineer dead," the Tellerite continued. "There was no way to repair it. We were drifting aimlessly and we knew that without warp engines, Lysia was years away. Impulse power was down to a minimum and with what was left of our sensor equipment, Janice scanned for a suitable landing site."

"Our shield strength was down," Janice took up the narrative once more, directing her answers at Ezra. The security chief wondered if his skepticism was showing because he had no wish to offend these people, who had undoubtedly been through something of an ordeal in their exile to this place. "We knew we could not make it through the atmosphere of a planet without burning up and so we were exceedingly lucky to find this planetoid have breathable air. We knew we could make a safe landing if we diverted all remaining power to the shields. Unfortunately, this meant that once we landed we could not leave."

"All that was left to do," Kelisan sighed, "was to send an automated distress signal and conserve all the power we had left once we landed. We had emergency rations for a crew of 250 and everyone even slightly affected by Berthold ray contamination soon grew sick and died."

"There�s a ridge out there," one of the survivors cast a glimpse away from the main group to the unseen place he was describing. "We used it to bury the others." The human said quietly. "It�s got a pretty nice view of the planet. It was the best we could do for them."

"I am sorry," Buck reiterated, unable to think of anything else to say in condolence that wouldn't sound trite since he could not imagine what it must like for them to watch friends and family die while being powerless to do anything about it.

"You have nothing to be sorry about," the Tellerite answered, seemingly grateful for Buck�s attempt nonetheless. "You have found us and for that, we can never be grateful enough. However, I am wondering if it is possible to salvage the Leonov. With the resources of a starship, I am sure that she could be made spaceworthy again. This ship," he glanced over the room and the people in it with him before looking at Buck again. "She has been our home for almost a year and I would hate to abandon her now that we are free to leave. It just wouldn�t be right."

"Well, that ain�t gonna happen," Buck said happy to bring some good news to Captain Kelisan on that note. "Lieutenant Pemberton also happens to be the Chief Engineer of the Maverick and has agreed that the Leonov is salvageable."

The Tellerite brightened considerably at that piece of information. "You think she can be repaired?"

"Yes," Julia nodded with a smile, feeling the mood of optimism at returning the Leonov to its past glory to be quite infectious. "We have duranium plating on the Maverick which can be quite effective in temporarily sealing your hull breaches until we reach Deep Space Five.� A high-level baryon sweep should be able to decontaminate the decks affected by the Berthold radiation."

"How long would it take?" Buck asked Julia as a ripple of excitement moved through the survivors of not only leaving this world but also doing so in the ship they had arrived here in the first place.

"With a full engineering crew and a little help from Mr. Dunne here, I�d say a few days. That is if you don�t mind getting your hands dirty doing some real work Ensign." The red-haired lieutenant gave the young man a wink of mischief.

"I could rough it for a bit ma�am." JD grinned, eager to help. He was just as encouraged as the rest of the Away Team by the joy they had brought to the survivors, not only by their rescue but the salvage of the Leonov as well.

"Commander," Ezra spoke up, taking note of the time. "We need to make our report to the Captain. Our hour is almost up."

"Yes we do," Buck agreed readily because he knew Chris Larabee well enough to be certain if the report they were required to give was not received on time, Chris would tear the planetoid apart attempting to ascertain their fates. He also knew that if Chris learned the reason for the absence of a report was because Buck had forgotten to deliver it, then Chris would be tearing something else when Buck returned to the ship.

"Ezra, I think you can do the honors. You and Julia return to the Maverick to round up her engineering crew. Let the Captain know that the situation here is nominal and that JD and I will stay here. I don�t think it�s such a good idea to leave these people alone again so soon after finding them don�t you?"

"Of course not," Ezra said stiffly, hiding the fact he did not at all like the idea of leaving the First Officer of the Maverick here alone for one damn minute. However, Ezra was not one to act rashly nor did he believe in making unfounded accusations, especially when he had no reason to doubt the tale imparted upon them by the crew of the Leonov. The story Kelisan told him was perfectly plausible and Ezra was wondering if his nose for trouble was not a little inaccurate this time.

"However, if you do not mind Commander," Ezra found himself saying a moment later. "I would prefer to leave my security team here. I am certain that they could be invaluable assisting in whatever minor repairs the Leonov might require, leaving the engineering crew when they arrived, to attend to more important matters."

Julia was about to respond when she saw the serious expression on Ezra�s face and immediately halted any protest she was going to make on that subject. While Ezra Standish might have been the galaxy�s worst judge of venues to take a woman on a first date, he was a first-rate Chief of Security. Whatever his reason might have been for keeping his security team close to Buck and JD, Julia had no doubt they were very good ones and was not about to counteract his suggestion. Swallowing thickly as she closed her mouth to rephrase herself, Julia raised her eyes to meet Buck�s gaze a moment later and replied. "I think that would be a marvelous idea."

"All right," Buck answered, seeing nothing of the momentary indecision that had crossed her features and expressed an affirmative to both their suggestions. "You two better get going if we�re going to make the Captain�s deadline."

Ezra flashed Julia a look of thanks as they both complied with Buck�s order, hoping that he was simply being paranoid and the seemingly dignified manner in which they found these survivors was not a facade�hiding something darker beneath the veil.

Anger Management

With the news that the Away Team had arrived on the planetoid without incident and there were survivors from the Leonov, the Maverick returned to its normal routine while at the same time carrying out their rescue operations.

Following Julia�s report that the Leonov was indeed salvageable, an engineering team was dispatched to the surface to make the repairs necessary to the ship and render her spaceworthy again. Chris had also sent Nathan and a medical team to the surface, following Ezra�s revelation the survivors did need medical attention and a wealth of supplies, to replenish the strained resources of the Leonov during her long isolation here.

Vin Tanner could not deny he was uncomfortable when he found himself seated across Mary Travis on the sofa inside his quarters for�the first session of his education into Vulcan disciplines began. Until this point, Vin did not have much contact with the Protocol Officer which was hardly a surprise since he was not particularly comfortable around women in general, except for Alex but Vin knew that their Science Officer was not just any woman. Most of his friends on the Maverick were the male members of the senior staff and the women were an unknown element he was slowly becoming accustomed to. However, Vin could not deny that when it came down to it, there was no person he dealt with on a day to day basis that made him as nervous as Mary.

He knew it was not her fault and the reason he had sought her out was that Vin believed she would not be so judgmental of him despite his lack of knowledge of all things Vulcan. He supposed he had been a little afraid of her because she might think him to be something of an oddity since he was Vulcan and yet appeared to be nothing like one. He hoped her empathy in the human side of him would allow her to give him the aid he needed to get the psychic side of his Vulcan heritage under control.

She had brought some objects with her for use during this session and one of those items included a Vulcan meditation flame. The candle sat on a small but ornate candleholder made of wood and engraved with intricate patterns Vin recognized as being Vulcan. As the wax began to melt, the candle gave off an aromatic scent Vin could not place but found strangely soothing and decided this must be its intended purpose. As the silky texture of sweet fragrance filled the room, Vin found himself relaxing and the discomfort he felt began to bleed slowly away.

Taking a few minutes to observe her closely as she prepared the lesson, Vin could understand why the Captain was as taken with their Protocol Officer as he had been. Vin sensed that it took quite a bit to get past the hardened exterior of Chris Larabee�s heart and yet Mary had done so easily. She was a very beautiful woman, Vin found himself admitting, with the kind of eyes one could lose themselves within, trying to understand all the nuances in its speckled brilliance. While he himself found her enchanting, he knew that his preferences lay elsewhere but could still appreciate why the Captain often did nothing but gaze in her direction when he thought no one was looking.

"How are you feeling?" Mary asked, sensing Vin was anxious about this lesson.

"Fine." He said quietly, trying not to show he was nervous. Mary who had been around Vulcans for so long probably thought he was an unschooled child as it is, since a real Vulcan would have at least understood the most rudimentary aspect of mental shields.

"Vin," Mary said gently. "It's not that hard. I�m sure you�ll learn the disciplines in no time at all."

Vin met her gaze and saw there was no reproach in her voice, just the genuine belief he would be able to master the lessons she would be teaching him. Vin felt gratified at her faith in him even though he did not believe it was going to be so easy.�"I hope so. It�s been very disturbing."

"I can imagine." She said in understanding. When she had first married Syan and their close link had been formed, she found it extremely disorientating he could know her thoughts almost as soon as she had them. While Mary had become accustomed to the feeling, she knew it had been just as difficult to let Syan into her mind as it was to have free access of his. In the beginning, she had thought it to be invasive until she understood, it was part and parcel of Vulcan love. However, for a novice and unbonded male as Vin certainly was, it must have been something of an ordeal to find oneself entering someone else�s thoughts without permission or desire.

"I wouldn�t like it if someone knew what was going on in my head all the time and I know that people wouldn�t like it if I was doing it to them."�

In truth, he was mostly concerned about displaying such tactics with Alex. Because of his strong emotional attachment to her, he could the feelings from her more clearly than anyone on the ship, save perhaps Chris Larabee. However, while the bond with the captain was one forged of friendship and reliance, the one he had unwittingly established with Alex was far deeper and certainly more intense. However, Vin did not need any clairvoyance to know if Alex even suspected he�was reading her, the Science Officer would be furious and he did not want Alex angry at him for any reason.

She simply meant too much to Vin for him to stand inspiring her ire.

"I don�t want to invade Alex�s thoughts." He found himself confessing. "There�s so much there she doesn�t want anyone to know."

"Do you read her thoughts or just sense feelings from her?" Mary asked somewhat fascinated by the level of sensitivity she could feel emanating off him. No doubt had he ever been schooled in the full Vulcan mental disciplines, he would have been quite an adept.

"Mostly feelings," Vin confessed, feeling even that was too much. "I don�t like it. It�s like feeling the heat from boiling water. You know it's going to hurt you if you get too close and yet you can still see the steam coming at you the closer you get to it."

"I see," Mary nodded, absorbing the imagery to better appreciate what he was telling her.

"Well," she raised her eyes and met his gaze. "Then we better get started."

Placing both her hands flat on the table with her palms facing upwards, she took a deep breath and spoke once again. "Take my hands."�

Vin complied immediately and listened to her soft voice as she began her instruction, secretly praying it was enough.

An hour later and Mary did not have to be telepathic to know their progress was less than stellar. No matter how much she tried to teach him the rudimentary basics taught to young Vulcan children, Vin had trouble grasping those lessons and his lack of ability to understand was deepening his frustration with every new failure. Mary did not expect him to immediately comprehend what she was saying since he had never been raised as a Vulcan, to have those inbred instincts nurtured to the path he was forcing himself to take now. However, she did wonder if it was not her teaching skills and he needed to be under the tutelage of a true Vulcan master of the craft. Vin had enough trouble approaching her,�let alone be forced to put himself under the somewhat unforgiving scrutiny of a Vulcan teacher.

"I can�t do it!" He leaned back into the sofa, annoyance oozing from every pour as he let out another groan of exasperation.

"Its okay Vin," Mary assured him. "You can�t expect immediate results." She did not want him to be discouraged after just one hour of trying to learn a discipline that required years to fully master.

"I want to get this thing under control!" He snapped back. "I mean, its humiliating enough as it is to be so different, to have other Vulcans look at me like I�m some kind of freak! The last thing I need is to start pissing off the humans on board too."

Mary could understand his fears but she was not about to let him give up on himself. "Vin, I�m sure that�s not true. Vulcans don�t think that way and your friends will know that it is not your fault this is happening to you."

Vin let out a deep breath and closed his eyes, trying to focus the furious thoughts running through his mind. He knew he was fast approaching a mindset that would make it impossible for him to learn anything, but Vin could not help it. He felt that at least on some level, he ought to have some understanding of what she was trying to teach him. After all these lessons were designed for children. It incensed him beyond belief that what was commonplace to Vulcan children was too much for him to cope with.

"I hate this." Vin managed to say after a moment. "I know I�ll never really be Vulcan and I can accept that. Its hard sometimes to want to be a part of something and knowing you never will be without having all these abilities turning up to ruin what life I�ve managed to build!"

"It�s not ruined yet," Mary said gently. "You have a long way to go but I know you will make it." She looked at him confidently. "Real Vulcans�.." She stopped herself too late when she realized what she had just said and was mortified by her choice of words.

"Real Vulcans?" He glared at her taking it as badly as she thought he would, the moment the words had carelessly passed her lips. "I am a real Vulcan!" He exclaimed standing up abruptly. "I just ain�t no heartless, unfeeling mechanical machine!"

"Vin�" Mary tried to say something, anything, to calm down the fire inside his eyes but he was not listening. Before she could apologize or explain herself, he was half-way across the room and out the door.

It was not often� Alexandra Styles saw Vin Tanner angry.

However as she rounded the corner of the deck and saw him storming towards the turbo lift with an almost visible cloud of rage following him, she felt immediate concern and hastened her pace to catch up with the lieutenant. It took quite a bit to inspire the rage she was seeing in his face and she knew he was not used to displaying that level of anger, nor was he accustomed to reigning the heated impulses that came with that kind of emotions.

Alex did not understand the feelings she had for Vin Tanner, why she felt this need to protect him.� It was just that there were times when he seemed so vulnerable he sorely needed someone to give a damn. Yet beneath that simple need to keep him safe and guarded against those who would take advantage of his naivet� was an attachment she had not expected to feel for him, or anyone else for that matter. Still, ever since they had met that first day in Four Corners, the bond between them was strengthening and evolving into something uncharted with the passage of time.

Alex could not deny there was more to her feelings for Vin than she would care to admit and even though their relationship was hardly sexual, it was extremely intimate in the sense that there was more than just friendship in the equation. It was this unknown that made their relationship so special, she supposed. While Alex was still too raw inside to feel more for the Vulcan just yet, she did know he was her friend and anything upsetting him, warranted her immediate attention.

"Vin." She called out and saw him pause.

Vin turned around slowly and the look on his face was indeed furious. She wondered what on earth had inspired such rage. He was normally so unflappable about everything. Even insults seemed to bounce off him once Vin collected himself enough to react. "What�s wrong?".

"Nothing." He replied shortly, his cobalt colored eyes still seething in anger.

"Come on," she urged hating to see him like this. "Talk to me. You looked pissed."

"You want to know?" He demanded, turning on her. "You really want to know?"

Without giving Alex any warning, he had her neck in his hands and slammed her into the wall. Alex was too stunned to offer any resistance and Vin was at least four times stronger than she was. Before she knew what was happening, his hands were on her cheekbones and suddenly, her head started to swim as she felt a torrent of memories swirling in on her as the past closed in with such force she was gasping for breath.

Vin found his heart fist up in a wave of black rage so potent it made the anger inside him pale in comparison. Without hesitation, he penetrated the wall of sheer will keeping�the hateful demons inside of her trapped, venturing into the fortress where Alexandra Styles had kept her innermost self, hidden. As he breached that secret place, he could hear the despair and sorrow, the tears of humiliation and pain weeping in the mist. He was nearing the heart of something vile and terrible before he realized what act of utter rape he was perpetrating upon her.

"ENOUGH!" She tore his hand from around her throat and slammed her fist into his face with enough force that Vin dropped immediately to the floor from the power of that one strike. He felt a warm gush of blood ooze from his broken lip and looked up at her to see the fury in her eyes. His heart sank and wished he would just die from the shame of what he had done. His souls screamed inside his chest and Vin curled up into a ball, aghast he had hurt the one person who always seemed to understand, no matter how inexplicable it was for him to explain it to her.

"Don�t you EVER do that again." Alex hissed at him, with a glare in her eyes, not quite human. She had sensed the anger in him as he had attempted to meld with her and while she empathized with his insecurities, he had no right to do what he had just done. Alex looked at Vin, who was twisting himself in disgust at his actions and then understood nothing she said to him could make him feel any worse than he already did. Seeing him so torn up inside and filled with shame went a considerable way to dousing the outrage inside of her and she took a deep breath to steady herself and let her anger dissipate. She stared at her hands and saw she was still shaking before seizing control of her emotions until the trembling was driven away.

Fortunately, no one was in the corridor so the incident still remained between the two of them for the moment. Alex was grateful for that for she had no wish to explain what had happened to anyone else.

Feeling her anger abate in the face of his incredible guilt, Alex dropped to her knees to help him up.

"Come with me." She said quietly.

He raised his eyes to her and Alex felt her anger evaporate completely at the pain she saw in those pools of blue, as well as the intense sorrow etched in his handsome face. At that moment,� Alex realized she could never really stay angry with him for very long. Furthermore, it was a testament to her feelings for him�that she was able to forgive Vin�for what he had done when Alex would have torn anyone else apart for such an act of intrusion.

"I�m sorry." He whispered, clearly horrified with himself.

"Its okay," she placed her hand on his cheek and once again, Vin felt that familiar flutter of excitement whenever she touched him. He loved the feel of her skin against his and knew he would do anything to make it up to her.

"You�re angry." She declared, holding his gaze as they both rose slowly to their feet.

"Yes," he admitted. Even though he was mortified by his actions with Alex, his guilt only served to stoke the fire precipitating his unspeakable behavior in the first place, not quash it. The rage had not disappeared despite his determination to make it up to her. He could feel it churning under the skin, bubbling in its need to escape and realized this was probably why Vulcans chose a life of non-emotion centuries before when the alternative was an uncontrollable tide of anger�capable of destroying�the entire species. Suddenly, he started to understand what an affront to them he must be. He was a constant reminder of the past they had left gratefully behind.

"Killer angry?" She guessed accurately.

Vin nodded again, wondering if she was trying to make him suffer by forcing the truth from him. However, there was only that same caring affection in her eyes, which only made him feel worse. "Alex, I�m sorry�" He started to apologize again.

"It's okay Vin. I know what it feels like to be so mad you can�t stand it." Alex gestured for him to follow her as she took Vin�s hand in hers and pulled him gently towards the turbo lift. "Now come with me and we�ll see if we can�t do something about it before you really do something you regret."

"Where are we going?" He asked, hoping it was not to the nearest airlock so she could launch him into space without a suit.

Alex did not answer.

"Computer,"�Alex�instructed the main computer as she and Vin found themselves standing outside Holodeck 1 a few minutes later. "Load Styles combat program 21." She answered, meeting his gaze and saw his brow furrow in confusion as she waited for the computer to let them know that all was in readiness for their pleasure.

"Program initiated." The dulcet tones of the ship�s computer responded and the doors to the holodeck slid open.

"Coming?" Alex asked as she entered first, not waiting for him to follow while perfectly confident he would, despite his inability to discern what she was up to. Good, she thought with a smile. He deserved a little bit of confusion after intruding on her thoughts. While she had forgiven the trespass on her privacy for what it was, she was not about to let him off the hook so easily. If Vin was so angry he could lash out at one of his commanding officers, Alex knew it was her responsibility not only as his friend but also as a superior to do something about it before he actually hurt someone.

Someone who did not feel as much for him as she did.

The world that had been created for them was not what Vin expected. He expected to find an earth type environment and instead what they had stepped into did not at all look like the planet of Alex�s birth. Instead, the skies were red and hot, with molten rivers of heat flowing in the distance while the ground was baked and rocky. For a minute he thought it might be Vulcan but the images he had seen of his homeworld told him that this, whatever this place was, definitely was not it.

Alex saw Vin�s gaze trying to identify their location and she waited until the holodeck doors slid close before she revealed. "It's Corvix."

Vin turned to her sharply with a brow raised. "The Klingon moon?" His surprised showed.

"Yes," Alex looked around, relishing the heat of the make-believe facsimile of the world on her skin. While the Maverick�s climate controls ensured the temperature was never uncomfortable for the thousand people who called it home, Alex sometimes missed the unpredictability of uncontrolled weather. "Corvix�is one of their combat training centers."

"The heat is nice," Vin said enjoying the warmth himself. After growing up in a wilderness that was almost tropical in its climate and then later on living in Texas, he had found he preferred warm temperatures. It had never occurred to Vin of course that much of his appreciation for the heat had to do with his being Vulcan than anywhere he might have spent his youth. Unfortunately, as Vin had never been to Vulcan since he was a child, he did not make the connection his homeworld was one of the warmest planets in the Federation stable.

"My father was the Federation ambassador to Kronos when I was growing up," Alex explained as she took a long look about her and was revisited by memories of happier times. She supposed at some point, she was going to have to speak to William Styles but their relationship had not been the same ever since she returned from Cardassian space. "We lived in the capital until I was sixteen."

"You lived on Kronos?" Vin�s eyes widened, unaware of that bit of news regarding her past. Then again, he was hardly surprised because she seldom spoke about her past and for that matter, neither did he. If he thought to fit in with humans was difficult, he could not imagine what a human female must have endured being surrounded by Klingon warriors.

"It wasn�t so bad," she smiled, guessing what was running through his mind as he stared at her in astonishment. "I learned how to deal with anger quite effectively thanks to the Klingons." She answered and then spoke up in a louder voice. "Computer, adjust safety protocols to maximum tolerance and produce two bathlets."

"You�re kidding," Vin exclaimed as the weapons materialized before the two Starfleet officers and Alex walked towards them.

"What�s the matter, Lieutenant?" She met his gaze with a playful smile. "Scared I�ll hurt you?" She replied as she leaned down and picked up the curved blade before handing one to him.

"No," he retorted, feeling something he could not define bubble inside him at the idea of meeting her in combat. If Vin did not know better, he would say it was almost excitement and had it been remotely possible, it could have even been arousal. "I�d hurt you." He stated, trying not to come out and remind her as a Vulcan he was more than a match for her.

"I know you�re a lot stronger than I am." She said as Vin took the bathlet from her. "However, I trained to use these things with Klingon opponents and I�ve managed to hold my own so if I were you, I wouldn�t be so sure that you�re going to beat me."

"Alex..." Vin started to protest, genuinely believing he was going to hurt her if they fought, despite the stirrings of desire fed by the possibility of what she was suggesting. He was still trying to convince himself this was a bad idea when suddenly, he saw Alex swing the blade into a neat arch, heading straight for his skull. Without thinking, he swung his own bathlet to counteract the weapon�s intended blow with a defensive maneuver of his own.

"Heads up Vin," Alex warned once the clanging of metal faded away�after the first blow was struck.

"You could have taken my head off." Vin protested as their bathlets met once again, metal against metal, clashing loudly with each blow.

"Of course not," Alex said smoothly, not at all bothered by the fact she could have injured him. "I wouldn�t do anything to that pretty face of yours." She�winked and took the stance to strike once again.�

"Pretty huh?" Vin frowned and swung the blade again, once again countering a very skilled move by Alex which told him he had better start paying attention or he was going to get his ass effectively kicked. "I�ll show you pretty..."

Holodeck Fun

She hoped staring at the wide expanse of stars beyond the plexiglass window of Four Corners would make her problems with Vin Tanner seem insignificant, perhaps providing her with a solution to how she might proceed with her next lesson. Unfortunately, while the view was rather breathtaking, offering an amazing picture of the yellow sun in the distance against the backdrop of myriad stars, no answer was forthcoming. She began to wonder if the task of teaching Vin all things Vulcan was beyond her. Mary Travis hated admitting defeat in anything but she was playing with a very fragile psyche that had enough trouble dealing with his Vulcan heritage, without her pointing it out to him with every faux pas she made in his presence.

Following the ugly scene in his quarters, Mary had no choice but to leave the room, scolding herself repeatedly at how she could have made such a statement to him about being a real Vulcan. As if he was not enough of a pariah among the Vulcans on the ship, without her having to set him apart even further. She was mortified by her insensitivity and wished she could make it up to him. Mary was aware it had taken quite a bit for Vin to approach her for help. Despite the fact she wanted more than anything to believe that Vin could be readily accepted by other Vulcans, Mary knew it was untrue. He was a throwback to a past they abandoned centuries�ago�and his embrace of the emotions they denied themselves, was more than they could tolerate.

Letting out a deep breath as she stirred her cup of chamomile tea for the umpteenth time, Mary was starting to enjoy being among humans again. While Vulcan tradition was very secure at times, she confessed to missing the unpredictability of human behavior. Even though she missed Syan greatly, she could not deny that being on the Maverick had given her life the boost it sorely needed following his death. Of course, the restoration of her humanity had much to do with the master of this vessel, who at the moment was the black hole at which she stared fascinated, but was unprepared to journey into.

She cared for Captain Chris Larabee a great deal and he cared for her that much was undeniable to anyone who saw them together. She felt a connection to him that was far stronger than anything she had felt for Syan and inspired her guilt somewhat. Syan had been her husband and the father of her child and yet she felt more of an emotional bond with Chris then she had ever felt in the eight years of marriage to him. When she was around Chris, the mercurial aftereffects of living in a world of passionless logic seemed to melt away and the heat of all too human desires would waft through her mind with his heady scent.

Mary�s affection for Chris had been heightened by the fact he was willing to wait for her to come to him, aware Syan was too fresh in her heart to supplant, no matter how deeply she might feel for him. They had a comfortable relationship edging towards something far more intimate but he was not pushing. At this time, they existed in that limbo between friendship and love. Whenever there were social functions, she was always at his arm and he was a frequent visitor to her quarters to share dinner with William and herself. Then there were their weekly chess games where they would sit across each other, secretly studying every sparkle in each other�s eyes.

Part of the reason she�was so determined to help Vin had to do with Chris as well. It had been a project undertaken in part for him. Despite the fact Buck Wilmington was Chris�s oldest friend and his first officer, she knew like the rest of the ship, it was the helmsman who was the captain�s best friend. Chris kept his professional relationship with Vin Tanner quite separate from his personal one and during their off-duty hours, they spent much time together, usually on the holo-deck or engaging in some other dangerous pursuit that would see them risking life and limb whenever they went on shore leave. What effected Vin would ultimately effect Chris and this made Mary more determined to assist the Vulcan.

"You seem like a woman with a problem." A voice interrupted her ruminations and she cast her gaze upward into the kind face of Counselor Josiah Sanchez.

Mary immediately broke into a smile and responded without any hint that he was intruding. "I am."�

Mary knew Josiah Sanchez by reputation even before she arrived on the Maverick and met the famous psychiatrist in person. Josiah had more or less wrote the book on interspecies relations for the last twenty years with expertise in human-Klingon relations, which was still being used as the textbook of choice at Starfleet Academy. On a personal level, he was perfectly suited for what he did and had a soft, calming voice that could salve even the most troubled soul.

While Mary had yet to find any reason to consult him professionally, she did like talking to him and found he often had an interesting insight into whatever difficulty usually occupied her mind. From what Vin told her, it was Josiah who had sent the Vulcan to see her and Mary wondered whether or not he had erred in that advice since she seemed to do nothing for Vin except inspire his anger.

"Join me?" Mary asked and motioned to the empty seat across her.

"You seem to have the best seat in the house," Josiah remarked, indicating the view before�he nestled himself comfortably on the seat with a cup of coffee in hand.

"I was hoping it would offer me a little insight."�

"I take it things are not progressing well with Vin." Josiah ventured a guess.

Mary straightened up and gave him a look. "I thought it was your wife who was the Betazoid telepath."

Josiah grinned and nodded. "She was. I�m just naturally gifted."�

Mary chuckled softly before her expression changed into something a little more somber. "I messed up Josiah. I was trying so hard to show him he could be Vulcan that I forgot the whole point of the exercise."

"It happens," Josiah replied with no reproach in his voice. "It�s not easy dealing with Vin. There are times when he seems very at ease with who he is and then there are other moments when something crops up, he is not prepared to face and shakes that security to the core."

"Are we speaking from personal experience?" Mary looked at him with a raised brow as she sipped her tea and found the aroma of chamomile almost as soothing as Josiah�s presence.

"Every person is different," Josiah stated, unprepared to reveal any more about his sessions with Vin than necessary, beyond telling her what she needed to know. "Vin has spent a lot of time alone. He lost his parents when he was five years old. That�s extremely young for a Vulcan. He was fostered temporarily while Federation authorities attempted to trace his family through the Vulcan registry, only that ship developed engine troubles on route to Federation space. It was ultimately marooned on an undeveloped M-Class planet for almost twelve years. Vin spent the last two of those years alone because his foster parents did not survive the harsh environment. Being Vulcan and at his age, he was stronger and more capable of surviving the terrain but that�s left him socially undeveloped. He knows how he feels about things and he�s come to accept even though he�s Vulcan, he�ll never be accepted by them."

"That�s a hard pill to swallow," Mary confessed. "Most people couldn�t."

"Vin manages because he has friends and because he refuses to let any situation get the better of him. When he�s upset, he withdraws and deals with it on his own but anger is not something he has a great deal of experience with. When you suppress the hurt for as long as he has, it becomes extremely difficult to cope when the suppression fails."

"And it's worse when his Vulcan abilities just overtake him because he has no experience with it and there is no Vulcan about to help him." Mary nodded in understanding. "Except me."

"Except you." Josiah declared. "You are the closest thing to being someone he can approach�for all his questions. At this point, we are not even sure about how old he is so pon farr could come about any time and he won�t have the slightest clue what will happen to him."

"That is worrying," Mary pointed out. As the wife of a Vulcan, she was perfectly aware of what pon farr was and how dangerous it would be for Vin. "Normally Vulcans would be bonded to a mate at a young age to prepare for that time but if it happens to Vin and there is no mate prepared for him, it could be exceedingly bad."

"Deadly if I am not mistaken," Josiah added.

"You�re trying to make him comfortable enough with me to bring up pon farr and anything else like this, aren�t you?" Mary guessed, having played negotiator enough times to have a little bit of insight herself.

Josiah eased into his seat and shrugged. "Guilty."

"You are wasted in psychiatry. You should be in espionage" Mary said with a smile. "But I thought Alex would be more appropriate. They have a closer relationship."

"They do," Josiah agreed. "But no one has the insight you do into Vulcan traditions and the dynamics of his relationship with Alex is completely different. I think we both know why."

"Yes we do," Mary nodded. "Okay, I am willing to help him in any way I can. I just don�t know whether I won�t do him more harm. Our first session today was disastrous. I kept trying to teach him things that even Vulcan children should know."

"I understand what you were trying to do Mary," he interrupted gently. "However, you have to remember to him Vulcan is the reason his ears aren�t like anybody else�s and that�s all the connection he has to it. For most of his life, he�s been raised human. He thinks like a human being and he sure as hell feels like one."

And suddenly Mary understood. "I�ve been a fool."�

"I wouldn�t put it that way," Josiah replied warmly, pleased she could finally see a way to helping Vin.

"I would." Mary frowned. "I of all people should have known that the way to teach him was not to teach him like a Vulcan but like a human. Like how I was taught!"

"I won�t argue with you there." Josiah agreed. "Your husband taught you quite a bit about shields and mental disciplines even though he knew you did not have the slightest bit of understanding but you managed."

"And if I can manage without�any�ability at all," Mary started beaming. "Then Vin, who has the natural ability, should be able to handle it with no problems."

"Lieutenant Travis," Josiah grinned. "You�re a natural."

Mary rolled her eyes. "Let�s just reserve judgment and see if he stays for the whole lesson this time."

Despite the fact the repairs were going smoothly on the Leonov down on the planetoid below, Chris was begrudgingly forced to admit with Ezra Standish and Alexandra Styles there was something unsettling about the whole situation. While he could not for the life of him pinpoint why he felt ill at ease with the fact there were survivors to rescue despite the small number, he knew that much of it had to do with the planetoid being an impossibility in every sense. As Alex had taken the opportunity to remind him on numerous occasions, nothing about the small asteroid presently held in place beyond the orbit of the planet in the distance adhered to the laws of physic as they knew it.

There should be no atmosphere on the surface and yet there was. While cosmic storms were known to happen, Chris had never heard of one being severe enough to wipe out a crew of almost 250 people and yet it must have happened because the evidence of it was right before them. The more they learned about the Leonov, the more questions it seemed to pose.

"How long until Buck has to make his report Ezra," Chris asked as he studied the contents of the datapad�requiring his signature. Yeoman Casey Wells was waiting patiently for him to complete the inanities of bureaucracy, not even a starship Captain could escape, while occasionally glancing at the communication and navigation station, usually occupied by Ensign Dunne. The young Bajoran was trying to hide her interest but just about everyone on the ship knew the duo was seeing each other in a very tentative romance.

"According to his last scheduled communications with us, approximately one hour."

"Have we been given any indication on how long these repairs are going to continue Alex?" Chris asked�the�third officer who had occupied her time on the bridge with attempts to penetrate the cloak that kept them from scanning the planetoid with any definitive readings. Chris knew Alex liked it even less than he did, they could not breach the mystery that the Leonov and the planetoid had hidden behind.

"According to Julia, another two days." Alex looked up long enough to respond. "The outer hull took a severe beating and the engineering crew is attempting to seal all the punctures."

"Perhaps it would be prudent if we just removed the survivors and return for the Leonov at a later date," Ezra suggested further.

"With more specialized scanning equipment," Alex said under her breath.

Chris saw Vin turn around and both men offered each other a knowing smile before Chris remarked. "You two are a breath of optimism aren�t you?"

"I just don�t like anything I can�t understand," Alex�spoke up in her defense, aware the Captain and his helmsman did not share her suspicion about the planetoid as deeply as she and Ezra.

"Well, everything about this planetoid must qualify then." Chris drawled, conceding that much.

"Of course," Alex gently added. "If you let me down there, I�m sure I could sort things out in a minute."

Chris swiveled about in his chair and met her innocent expression with one of his own that told her he was perfectly aware of what she was attempting to do and was not falling for it for a minute. "I don�t think so, Commander. I need you here in case the crap hits the fan."

"That was charmingly put Sir," Ezra said with a frown.

"In the meantime," Chris changed the subject for a lighter topic. "Maybe you show us how you kicked Vin�s ass in the holodeck."

Vin let out a visible groan and looked at his captain. "Does everyone know about that?" He saw Alex�s attempt to stifle a smile.

"He claims he let me win." Alex flashed Vin a playful smirk which he returned with one of his own, laced with annoyance.

"I am the captain Vin," Chris chuckled, enjoying the helmsman chagrin immensely and almost wished he had been present to see Alex and Vin battling it out on the holodeck with a pair of bathlets. "When one of my officers hobbles into sickbay with a number of injuries, the chief of staff usually lets me know."

"Nathan has a big mouth," Vin grumbled.

"Actually," Ezra cleared his throat and looked at Alex. "If you two should wish to consider a rematch in the near future, I would appreciate it if you were to let me know. I am certain that there are individuals on board who would be quite curious to see which of you emerges the victor."

"For the uninformed," Chris spoke up. "That means he wants to lay bets on the outcome."

"I guessed." Alex gave the security chief a look.

Ezra offered her a grin, showing no signs of repentance at the Captain revealing his true intentions. "Well there�s just so little to occupy our time here, I thought I might boost morale a little..."

"Forget it," Vin said firmly. "I�ve just lost my dignity, I don�t need to help anyone else lose their money as well."

"Chicken," Alex said smugly indulging a side of herself she rarely displayed to anyone except the helmsman and engendered a small ripple of laughter throughout the bridge.

Vin looked over his shoulder at the Science Officer and remarked sarcastically. "I�m gonna make you pay for that next time and it just so happens I did let you win." He made that statement with a smug smile so she would not know if he was joking or not and would suffer the question until she had an answer. Well, who said she was the only one who could play this game of gentle ribbing.

"I�m sure you did," Chris said with a perfectly straight face.

"Thanks a lot, Chris. I�ll remember that when you�re dangling off the side of a mountain and need a hand up."

"I have no idea how you two can find that recreational," Ezra shook his head, unable to imagine how climbing mountains and indulging in all kinds of dangerous activities could be considered as fun. Leisure sports were one could end up with broken limbs or worse, seem more trouble than it was worth. "I think I rather prefer Mr. Wilmington�s latest holodeck simulation of the Old West."

"You mean the one where you guys are cowboys?" Alex asked, wondering if there could be anything more indicative of human males than the need to play cowboys and Indians.

"I am not a cowboy." Chris looked over his shoulder from his command chair and gave her a somewhat pointed glare. "The correct term is gunslinger."

"You like it cause you�re a smooth talking gambler." Vin pointed out to Ezra.

"And tell me you do not love being the wild and woolly tracker?" Ezra returned just as sarcastically.

"What about you captain?" Alex asked, having heard of the program but had no desire to participate. A woman, being trapped in the 19th century, seemed like a most unpleasant place to be. "What part do you play?"

"Oh, the captain plays the mysterious man in black." Casey offered, allowing herself to be heard since she had something to contribute in the way of this conversation.

"You�ve taken part in this Casey?" Alex asked somewhat surprised the young Bajoran would partake of an adventure and a time period so alien from her own.

"Yeah," Casey grinned. "I�m the plucky and capable tomboy who hangs around town sometime."

"Perhaps you ought to join us," Ezra suggested, thinking Alex would look absolutely delicious in the costume of the period and for that matter, so would Julia. Ezra reminded himself to bring up the subject with the lady when he saw her again. In either case, the rough and tumble simulation of the Old West could not possibly be as offensive to her as the infamous Caesar�s Palace.

"Not on your life. I can�t stand getting into all those corsets and petticoats. Not to mention, standing by and looking pretty while you men save the day."

"It�s not that sexist." Chris defended the simulation even though he could not deny it was not entirely friendly towards the ladies but that was the sentiments of the day. He could hardly be blamed for playing the program in its proper historical context. "Besides, I think you�d be right at home looking pretty." Chris gave her with a schoolboy grin, knowing that she would just hate the concept of being clad in lengthy skirts and confining hairstyles.

The Science Officer rolled her eyes, giving them all that familiar expression saying clearly she was washing her hands of them.

An hour later, Buck Wilmington made his schedule report to the Maverick. Chris was glad to see his First Officer well and once again bristled in annoyance at the technical difficulties requiring Buck to be in orbit before he could inform them was happening on the surface of the planetoid. FFor the most part Buck seemed to be quite relaxed on the view screen and his report was somewhat non eventful if anything.

"Julia tell us that the repairs will take another two days." Chris stated as he looked at Buck on the large screen in front of the bridge.

"That�s right," Buck nodded. "Most of the circuitry in their engine core was fried when the ship was caught in the storm. Julia�s got the engineering crew working round the clock to repair what they can and replace the rest. By the way Ezra, your security team is doing a great job helping out with getting the hull breaches sealed."

"I�m glad they�re of some help." Ezra answered automatically. However, there was enough tension in his voice to reveal to those paying attention he was not happy his security team was so focused on aiding the repairs of the Leonov that they had forgotten why he had left them down there in the first place. Ezra had wanted them on the planetoid for the specific purpose of keeping an eye on things not merely to act as extra hands for the repair work being undertaken.

"Captain," Alex spoke up while Buck was present. "Doctor Jackson has made another request to start sending some of the survivors up to the Maverick for medical evaluation."

It was not an unreasonable request as far as Chris was concerned and one which the captain felt should have been taken care of immediately. "Buck," Chris regarded his first officer on the screen. "Nathan wants to have a look at the survivors and give them an examination. Tell them that we want them to come aboard the Maverick."

"They�re pretty reluctant to leave the Leonov Chris," Buck explained since this request from the doctor was nothing new. "Now that it looks like that we might be able to salvage her, they�re determined to help as much as they can with the Leonov."

"That�s very commendable," Chris said broking no more delay in this matter since he had heard enough excuses already. "But this is not a request. I want those people seeing Nathan soon."

"Aye Sir," Buck nodded, understanding completely. "I�ll relay it to them and get them ready to come aboard for our next supply run."

"Alright, talk to you at your next schedule report." Chris concluded, gesturing to Ezra behind him to terminate the signal since they had discussed everything that was needed for the moment.

Thee was a pause of a few seconds after Ezra had cut communications, when he looked at Chris and remarked. "Captain is it me, or are those people somewhat reluctant to leave that planetoid considering they had been trapped there for all this time."

"Yes," Chris nodded in agreement, finding it just as suspicious as his security officer. It was starting to increasingly bother him more than he liked to admit, his people were down there with individuals they could not scan to verify if they were who they seemed. Their reluctance to see Nathan made that possibility all the more prolific.

"It isn�t you." Chris replied, still staring at the screen even though there was nothing further to see.

"Request permission to go down there Sir." Ezra asked again, because that bad feeling so often right, was pressing against his spine with particular insistence.

This time, Chris had no objections. Not at all.� "Granted Commander. Get down there and find out what�s going on."

Flash blindness

Work on the Leonov was progressing at juggernaut pace and Julia Pemberton felt somewhat gratified much of this was credited to the excellence of her engineering crew and the aid provided by Ezra�s security team. While the crew of the Leonov had been lending their assistance to the repair efforts as well, Julia found that their skills were quite lacking in the maintenance of the ship and most of the time, they had to be shown precisely what needed to be done. Despite this, Julia had no heart to refuse their assistance, particularly when they were so eager to provide it. However, she had to admit to wondering how they could have been so lacking in basic engineering skills and could understand why no repair efforts had been conducted prior to the arrival of the Maverick. No doubt, the engineer�s death had a great deal to do with their being marooned here indefinitely.

Most of the work up to this point had been conducted inside the Leonov in the form of re-routing circuits and replacing whole conduits when the power surge during the cosmic storm burnt out much of the circuitry around the engine core. However, with her engineering team focusing their attention on solving that particular hurdle, Julia decided she would examine the outer hull and take stock of just how bad the breaches were. While she had seen most of the damage when they first arrived on the planetoid, she had yet to make a closer inspection to gauge how much duranium they would need to seal the punctures.

It was a task she could handle on her own. Ezra�s security team was mending minor rips in the hull aware the major work would require her supervision. Julia emerged from the ship, still wearing her enviro-suit after Nathan had expressed his desire they continue wearing the protection, especially in the open atmosphere. Since so much about the planetoid was a mystery, the possibility of harmful contamination might still exist. Julia hated wearing these suits, feeling her body protest by producing tiny beads of sweat beneath her clothes, even though the temperature within the suit was supposed to be comfortable.

Stepping out of the ship, she took note of the repairs being conducted by the Maverick crew and started skimming the edge of the large ship, aware her tricorder was next to useless and her inspection would have to be done the old-fashioned way. She did not mind making a visual inspection of the terrain, after all, she was an engineer and spotting minor defects or major ones like this in the flow of the hull was her job. Besides, she did not mind escaping the claustrophobic confines of the Leonov for a while. She could not imagine how the survivors could stand being trapped inside that place for so long. Glancing up at the sky, she could see the faint glimmer of the Maverick in the sky and felt a pang of longing for the ship.

The Maverick was her first command as chief engineer and as so many engineers before her had said at varying junctures in history � there was nothing like being the Chief Engineer of a starship. She knew that Captain Larabee could have had anyone as Chief Engineer for a ship like the Maverick, since she was probably the most advanced galaxy class starship in the fleet, save for the Sovereign class Enterprise,�but he picked her. Julia knew it was motivated by her actions during the most recent Borg attack on Earth, on the engineering deck of the Rutherford. As far as Julia was concerned, she had done nothing extraordinary. The Chief Engineer had died when Engineering�was hit, with important decisions being needed to be made and at the time she seemed the only one who could do it.

The reward had been the Maverick and as far as Julia was concerned, no prize could have been sweeter.

She loved the ship. She had studied every written specification about the galaxy class ships before even coming on board the Maverick and even then, the texts, the specifications, and manuals were nothing like the reality of actually being on board. Julia was extremely protective about the Maverick and hoped things were not going to hell while she was down here.

Don�t be ridiculous, she told herself.

Lieutenant Chano was handling things fine in her absence. Her assistant chief engineer was a very capable officer and she knew that she was only complaining because she missed being on the floor of her Engineering Deck. She supposed the nice wide corridors and luxury of a starship was much more comfortable than the surroundings she had found herself in the past day or two. Perhaps when the Leonov�s crew returned to the Maverick to take their medical exams, she would tag along just to see how things were going on in Engineering without her.

Walking along the hull of the Leonov, she took stock of all the damage and found nothing out of the ordinary. The breaches in the hull seemed to be consistent with the kinds of damage inflicted by a violent cosmic storm. She could see the fused edges of metal where the heat had melted it and the bubbles under the finish were consistent with radiation bombardment. The tears were quite extensive and it was fortunate the ship held together as well as they did. While the DY500 ships were quite sturdy, Julia knew they had several design flaws in their structural integrity and were prone to collapsing if faced with enough stress.

She paused a moment and looked out into the landscape which reminded her very much of the lunar surface of Earth�s moon. It felt rather disconcerting to know that in this environment, there was air and gravity where everything about this planetoid should have indicated an airless vacuum. In the distance, there were the edges of mountains and craggy hills, covered with grey dust protrusions of rocks and pebbles across the plains. Glancing at her tricorder, she wondered if infra-red would function on the device and immediately began making the adjustments�offering that kind of scanning ability. It was hard to work on such fine equipment when her hands were trapped inside these cumbersome gloves.

Suddenly, a flash of light illuminated the screen with a powerful glare as Julia inadvertently short-circuited the tricorder in her attempt to adjust its inner workings.

"Damn!" She swore angrily as her vision was flooded with bright light and she dropped the tricorder on the ground. The helmet around her head made it impossible to rub her eyes and dispel the temporarily overload to her optical sense. Blinking several times, she tried to focus her vision when suddenly, the oddest thing happened.

In the distance, she saw what looked like another ship.

It appeared on the horizon for only an instant but it was enough to imprint itself on her mind. Julia blinked again to take a better look but when she did, the vessel was gone. For a moment, she simply kept staring at the empty space of land where a ship had been a moment ago and battled with herself at whether it had been real or merely such illusion created by the flash blindness she had received from the tricorder.

Julia was not a person who dismissed things lightly and staring at the horizon at where she had seen the ship a few seconds ago, she knew she was not imagining things. The ship had no quality of illusion or the obscurity that came with a hallucination. What she had seen came with definitive lines and form, she could tell instantly it was a light cruiser, probably Ferengi in origin with a damaged port nacelle. A hallucination did not have that kind of detail and Julia who relied upon what she saw explicitly, knew she was not imagining things.

Still, a hint of doubt remained she could not shake and as she leaned over to pick up her tricorder, wondered if she was not being a little intractable in her belief at what she had seen was real. After all, whatever that had been out there was certainly gone now and the mind was prone to playing tricks on a person on occasion. Dusting off the tricorder that had been the cause of her hallucination, whatever, Julia wondered whether that trip to the Maverick should not wait. Perhaps a�visit to Nathan might be warranted.

Glancing up at the Maverick once again, she saw the arrival of another runabout from the great ship in the sky. The vessel was descending steadily, its landing point not too far from where she was, Julia abandoned her inspection for the moment in order to greet the new arrival. She could not imagine who else it could be unless it was Nathan coming down here to drag the Leonov�s crew to the Maverick for their medical examination having grown tired of waiting for them to come of their own volition.

Tucking the damaged tricorder back into the utility belt of her enviro-suit, Julia started across the plain towards the runabout preparing to land.

It did not take Julia long to reach the spot selected by the runabout Midkiff as its landing site. It was only less than a hundred yards from where the Perlman had set down and Julia lingered a good distance away as the vessel made its landing on the planetoid. Once the small craft had touched the ground, Julia began walking towards it as its pilot went through the motions of shutting down systems within. By the time she arrived at the main hatch, it had already slid open of its own accord and its lone occupant made its emergence.

Julia could not tell it was Ezra because of the enviro-suit he was wearing until he greeted her with that usual suave voice so capable of taking her somewhere horrendous for a first date. Okay, so she was not quite ready to forgive him yet.

"Lieutenant Pemberton," Ezra said with a smile, glad to see her. Part of the reason he was so insistent on coming down to the planetoid was that he could not stand the thought of her being here when there could be trouble brewing in every single mystery about�the place. While his concern was for all his crew mates, Ezra could not deny he was singularly worried about her in a more personal level. "I knew you could not stay mad at me indefinitely. Was it a woman�s intuition that told you the love of your life was coming?"

Julia rolled her eyes and turned away at that statement. "Love of my life, give me a break. I was making an inspection of the outer hull."

"I will take that as a no." Ezra frowned and strode forward to catch up with her.

"I would," she gave him a look behind the glass of her visor. "What are you doing down here?"�

"Just keeping an eye on things." He replied, having no wish to make any accusations until he was certain he was right about his suspicions. "The captain is feeling a little trepidation about our lack of information on this charming oasis in space, not to mention the odd behavior of our castaways."

"Yeah," Julia had to agree they were a little odd. "I can see what he means. For a bunch of lifers on a space ship, they haven�t got the faintest idea how anything works. As far as I can see, a lot of the internal damage to the ship could have been taken care of before we turned up. Albeit there�s no engineer about to make the repairs needed for the hull but if I were stuck on this rock for all this time, I�d try to make the place a little more comfortable."

Ezra listened closely and had to agree with her on that point. "I think it is also their determination not to come on board the Maverick for their medical evaluations that has the Captain somewhat concerned."�

"You think something is going on don�t you?" She guessed, taking note of the thoughtful expression in those sea colored eyes.

"Have I become an open book to you Lieutenant?" He said with a little smile.

Julia knew he was flirting with her and she could not say she minded it even though she was still rather annoyed at his selection of a place for their first date. Still, she could not deny despite that disastrous outing, she was still extremely attracted to him and that damn smile which made it very hard to stay mad at him. "Don�t flatter yourself."

"It is me or are you more agitated than normal?" Ezra suddenly asked, taking note the cheerful personality� he had come to love�.no he was not admitting that yet, care for, was a little surlier than usual. Julia�s demeanor was always that of the optimistic. The cynic in Ezra found�it absolutely endearing which was why he felt so much for her and on occasion�felt responsible for ensuring her view of life was not altered by any unpleasantness taking place around her.

"Don�t tell me I�m becoming an open book to you." She frowned, clearly disturbed if the lines of annoyance in her face were anything to go by.

"One I would loved to spend a life time pouring over every single treatise and word." He said gallantly and more or less anticipated the look of sarcasm that crossed her lovely face.

"Oh please�" She grumbled and then declaring after a moment. "Its nothing."

However, Ezra knew her far more intimately than she suspected and could see it was not just that. Whatever was on her mind preyed on her thoughts and the security officer in him started to express an interest in her problem as well. "Julia," he said firmly in a voice she knew to be one he used when speaking to subordinate officers which she was, despite their feelings towards each other. "I am interested."

"Okay," she sighed, hoping he did not think she was imagining things just as she suspected of herself. "I thought I saw something in the distance."

Ezra looked at her, all semblance of playful mischief vanishing, replaced instead by the persona of one of the best security officers in the fleet and a trained investigator that had no peer in the sector. "What pray tell did you think you saw?"

"Well its probably nothing," she shrugged. "I shorted out the tricorder and got a bit of flash blindness in the eyes. For a few seconds I was seeing spots and colors and as I was trying to shake it off, I thought I saw a ship on the plains about a five hundred to a thousand yards from where I was standing."

"A ship?" Ezra�s voice became hard. "What kind of ship?"

The intensity of his voice clearly indicated he did not believe she was imagining things and Julia was quick to respond, hearing his confidence in what she had seen. "If I did not know better, it was Ferengi but it was there one second, gone the other."

Ezra did not believe in chance and he certainly did not believe it was her imagination at work. When they had first arrived in this location and observed the Leonov from orbit, the ship appeared to be in a state of severe dilapidation. The notion of salvageable had been problematic at best and yet upon landing on the planetoid and seeing the ship with their own eyes, they found the damage was nowhere as considerable as they�were led to believe. However, for all of them, there�was a moment when they were not entirely sure what they had seen had not somehow changed.

Now Julia was seeing ships that seemed to appear and disappear in a blink of an eye. It was too much of a coincidence for Ezra to dismiss. "Show me where you saw this ship."

"Ezra," Julia protested. "It�s not there now."

"I would have though you would like to know for certain what you had seen." He returned, waiting in expectation for her to obey his request.

"I do!" She exclaimed. "But it�s gone now."

"Well perhaps, it might chose to reappear if we go for a closer look." Ezra retorted. "Lead the way Lieutenant."

Thanks to the strange radiation emanating from the planetoid, there was no way Ezra could report to Buck what they were attempting to do. Although this was hardly a prudent course of action, the security officer was convinced Julia had inadvertently stumbled upon something of importance�capable of making headway into explaining the mystery of the planetoid and the Leonov. Ezra had made a career of being able to judge a situation and all his instincts told them it was vital they learnt the truth before it was too late

It did not take them very long to cover the distance to where Julia had seen the ship even though the journey would have been made so much simpler if they were not forced to wear the cumbersome environmental suits. However, Nathan had insisted upon it even though the suits had yet to reveal the evidence of any danger after they were put through the decontamination process on the Maverick. As the Leonov became more distant in the horizon, Ezra could not feeling a sudden chill run down his spine. There was something about this whole situation that upset his usual cool equilibrium and the security officer did not at all like how�it felt.

"This is roughly it." Julia announced when they finally reached the general location of where she had seen her phantom ship. "I told you," she regarded the empty plain around them. "Whatever it was it�s gone now."

Ezra kicked a pebble at his feet and thought deeply for a few seconds saying nothing as he considered their next move. "What exactly�were you doing when�you saw the ship?"�

"I was trying to jury rig the tricorder." Julia answered in a measured voice realising what he wanted by wishing her to describe in detail the events�leading to the discovery of that mysterious ship. "I was thinking maybe I could get the tricorder to scan in infra-red since nothing else seems to work." She�hated the fact that she had not managed to accomplish�the task because it would have been interesting to see if it was possible.

"And?" Ezra prompted her along.

"I short circuited the thing. It's these damn gloves," Julia complained. "I couldn�t get the dexterity I needed and�I got a bit of flash blindness following the surge. You know how it is when you�re stare at something that�s too bright."

"And that is when you saw your mysterious ship." Ezra remarked, considering her words and coming quickly to the conclusion what needed to be done for them to see it again. After a moment, he looked up at Julia who was waiting in anticipation of a response.

"Can you do it again?"�

"What?" She looked at him in question.

"Can you recreate those flashes." He repeated himself. "I believe whatever happened in the wake of that overload allowed you to see something I believe is still here, possibly concealed."

"That�s a stretch�." Julia remarked but saw� he was deadly serious and found herself drawn to what he was saying. It was possible if somewhat unlikely.

"But can you do it?"

"Yes," she nodded and then glanced at the phaser hanging from the belt of his enviro-suit. "In fact, if you give me your phaser I can do a little better than that."

"Do proceed," he said handing her the weapon without hesitation.

Julia immediately set to work on the phaser and explained what she intended as she conducted her modifications. "I should be able to manipulate the phaser frequency to widen its spectrum to provide the flash we need. I wouldn�t advise using it too many times though, its still a phaser energy spectrum I�m manipulating, so our optical nerves won�t be able to tolerate more than too or three flashes before damage sets in."

"Understood." Ezra nodded. He had no desire to harm his eye sight in any shape or form but he was determined to prove his theory about what Julia had seen was correct. He was certain they were on the verge of a momentous discovery and he was willing to risk a little discomfort to learn the truth, if that was what was awaiting them.

In a few minutes she completed what needed doing and beckoned him next to her, so they could both experience the flash at the same time. Julia aimed the weapon at the ground and took a deep breath.

"You ready?" She asked preparing to fire.

"As I will ever be." Ezra answered without any hesitation in his voice and as cool as ever. She admired his ability to maintain that facade of maddening calm and wondered if it was just the job or the fact he was such a skilled gambler, accustomed to hiding his emotions from his opponents.

"Here�s goes." She replied and fired the phaser. The flash of illuminated the world before them in blinding white glare, robbing them of all vision. Instinctively, they blinked in order to protect their eyes from the overload to their optical nerves. However, the effect lasted no more than a second�before they finally recovered their senses enough to notice their surroundings.

What they saw was beyond Ezra�s expectations.

Even thought the image before them lasted no more than a second in the short expanse of time it took for their eyes to recover from the brilliant glare of a minute ago, they knew this time it was no illusion. Neither of them could speak as they stared at what lay before them and continued to stare even after their eyes had adjusted themselves once again and robbed them of the added perception.

Ezra had thought they would see one ship. He was wrong.

There were literally hundreds of them, covering the landscape in the narrow margin of time that now seeemed�like an eternity once they were allowed to see it. In�those�brief seconds,�Ezra spotted the Ferengi cruiser that Julia had sighted earlier. There were also a number of older freighters in a similar state of dilapidation, an Andorian trading ship, a Tholian fighter and even a Vorta Class Klingon Bird of Prey.

"Oh my god." Julia gasped and blinked hard, hoping she could make her eyes see�it again, not that it was really required. What had been before them was burned into her memory now.

"I trust you saw that." Ezra wearing his best poker face because he did not want to show her what he had seen had shaken him a little. It was like a graveyard of ships and Ezra had the worst feeling that the Maverick might share that same fate if they did not report what they had seen here.

"I saw it." She nodded. "What the hell is going on?"

"I do not know," Ezra confessed. "However, I do believe it is in our best interests to depart immediately and let the others know what we have found."

"No argument from me." Julia replied as they started towards the Leonov. "Some of those ships are looked like they have been here for years."

"I would not be surprised." Ezra retorted when suddenly, the ground beneath them heaved violently. The tremor was so fierce� Ezra could feel it to his bones and caught Julia�when the violence almost knocked her off her feet. Both of them struggled to remain standing and saw the earth beneath their feet, literally tearing itself apart. Out of nowhere, a giant fissure appeared in the ground and started running towards them.

"Come on!" Ezra shouted, grabbing her arm as they began running to escape the calamity coming at them.

They both ran as fast as they could to avoid being swallowed into the earth as the fissure pursued them, almost as if what was happening was not a natural phenomenon but rather a directed attack. The enviro-suits made it difficult to gain any speed and Ezra knew they did not have the speed to escape it. If they were going to survive this, they would have to make a jump for it.

"Take my arm!" He ordered and glanced over his shoulder long enough to know they would only have one chance at this.

Julia nodded and felt herself being dragged along as Ezra jumped to the side of the fissure, trying to place themselves in a parallel position instead of being in front of it. The security chief made it to safety but Julia felt air beneath her legs and her entire body weight dragging her into the depths as she lost her footing.

"Julia!" Ezra screamed when he realized she had not quite cleared the edge he did. Without thinking, he lashed out and grabbed her arm, holding on for dear life as her weight pulled him towards the edge before he managed to stop himself from joining her, suspended over the edge of the abyss. Julia dangled precariously in the air, with only his arm to keep her from free falling into the deep crevasse that had opened up beneath the fissure. The split in the earth had halted but the ground was still trembling.

"Hold on!" He ordered as he fumbled for his utility belt and produced the tether line that was an absolute safety precaution when space walking on the outer hull. Aiming the sharp point carefully, he fired the tether into the ground and secured himself as he started to pull her up from over the craggy edge of the rock. The bottom of the crevasse was so dark he had no idea how far she would fall if he did not manage to hold on, thus�giving�him further incentive to strengthen his grip.

She stared at him wide eyed with fear, forcing herself not to look down, grinding her teeth as she clung to the life line that was his arm. After what seemed an eternity, Ezra finally pulled her up over the top and Julia collapsed alongside him, breathing just as hard from fear as he was from the exertion. Uncaring about how unprofessional it might be, she embraced him tight and clung to him for a few minutes, allowing her terror to bleed away by the�security of his arms around her.

"That was too close." She panted when her heart had stopped pounding long enough�to let her speak.

Ezra tried not to show he was affected by her closeness because they were far from being out of trouble just yet and this was hardly the time for him to be overcome by his feelings for her.

"And too coincidental." Ezra remarked, clearing his throat as he stood up and offered her his hand. Julia took it gratefully as he helped her to her feet. "We need to get back to the ship."

"If it will let us." Julia declared as the earth shuddered even more violently than before.

"We will no doubt make a most determined effort," he stated boldly when suddenly an explosion of sound filled their ears with a tremendous roar. The shockwave of noise swept them both off their feet and this time nothing was going to soften the impact of their landing. It felt like they were caught in the eye of a tremendous storm and as they struggled to upright again, Ezra heard another sound through the roaring in his ears. It was like the grinding of stone or the movement of something extremely large.

"Julia!" Ezra grabbed the engineer and held on to her, determined they not get separated while caught in the grip of whatever was happening around them. However, he need not have worried, for just as suddenly as the gale force winds and powerful roar had erupted, it stopped and everything was dead quiet once more.

"What the hell is going on!" Julia swore as she looked up from the crook of his arm.

"I think this more than just a coincidence." Ezra mused, somewhat dazed as his eyes looked upward at something over her shoulder. Julia turned around and gasped inside her helmet.

Standing before them on what should have been a stretch of flat plain leading back to the Leonov and the runabout, was a mountain.


It was difficult to take stock of time when one was in space. Without that most basic measurement of linear time, being sunrise and sunset, hours could go by before one would start to wonder if the day was actually progressing or where they trapped in amber. On the planetoid where the Leonov found itself stranded, it was particularly prolific even though it remained in orbit around a planet. It hung there in place, not even conducting its own revolution in the cycle universal for every stellar body that was known to exist in the vastness of space. The planetoid was a contradiction by every science they knew and yet it existed, its mystery deepening like the vintage of a fine wine.

Although Commander Buck Wilmington�s reports to the Maverick indicated everything transpiring on the Leonov was going according to schedule, he was by no means allowing himself to believe his own propaganda. Much of his words were to assure Chris the situation was nominal because his captain could be rather an alarmist especially when it came to the safety of his crew. Not that Buck was similarly complacent about the welfare of his people either. He was just as fanatical about keeping them alive as Chris but just did not show it as much.

He knew there was something odd going on with the crew of the Leonov even though for the moment, they had not made any move that could be considered suspicious other than their adamant refusal to go on board the Maverick to undergo their medical evaluations. Buck also noticed for a space-faring crew planet bound for almost a year, they did not seem terribly eager to get off the rock that had been their prison during that time. There were other little things, like their lack of skill in conducting even the most basic repairs to the ship�s system that raised his suspicion a little. Buck had known a few private ship captains�and knew they expected their personnel to be extremely skilled and multi-faceted.

He also noticed Julia�s engineering team had to show them how to conduct work on their own ship and while he said nothing, Buck was keeping them under a close vigil because something about all this did not feel right. While he was supervising the repairs to the bridge, his constant companion had been the young girl named Aislynn who was as curious as any sixteen-year old who had never been beyond the planet of her birth. However, Buck had the feeling she was staying with him not merely because he was interesting to listen to but for a more clandestine purpose.

Despite the ulterior motives, he did recognize she had some deeper feeling for him that went beyond surveillance. He could see the way her eyes sparkled when she listened to him speak and each word was swallowed eagerly, like a tasty morsel from a meal she could not get enough. She wanted to hear about the planets he had visited, whether space was really as vast as it was reputed to be and how she wanted to see its beauty. Yet despite this, she was just as reluctant as the others to return to the Maverick to pay a call to sickbay.

Buck could not say he minded her adulation since the attention of women, wanted or unwanted was something he�was very accustomed to dealing with in his life. As far as he was concerned, she was still a child and was to be treated as such even though when she grew to adulthood, he had no doubt she would be a stunning beauty. However, Buck had no intention of taking advantage of her youthful naivet� and said nothing to encourage her, even though he did not mind satisfying her curiosity about the outside world.

Buck spent most of his time on the bridge, repairing the damaged sensor grid since it appeared none of the senior staff of the Leonov could do it themselves. Kelisan claimed it was the job of the Chief Engineer to deal with such things and with the lack of skilled workers out there, he had to be satisfied with finding personnel who could perform their individual tasks and not the work of an engineering crew as well.

The Starfleet Away Team had been accustomed to dining together during their tenure on the Leonov mostly because it gave them a chance to appraise each other on the progress of the work being conducted on the older ship. While they invited the Leonov�s crew to join them, the offer was usually declined because Kelisan claimed his people were used to unusual eating habits following their lengthy incarceration. Apparently, their way of coping with the boredom was to abandon the concept of any routine and this included traditional meal times. Buck supposed it was not that surprising after all long-term isolation had a strange effect on people and Kelisan�s crew was probably trying to adjust to being around others again.

He assumed for the moment.

They gathered in the main cargo deck and broke out their ration packs. Buck observed the empty cargo hold had been modified to accommodate livestock. There were no signs of the animals confined within the area and Buck did not like to imagine what would have happened to those creatures once the Leonov�s food supplies had started to dwindle. With the Federation subsisting on a protein transformed by food replicators into the meal of choice, most humans no longer ate meat. However, Buck supposed when one was hungry enough, it was understandable they would be abandoned particular prejudice.

JD was the last to enter the cargo hold. The youth seemed a little troubled which always gave Buck reason for concern because JD�s was his specific responsibility and Buck could not deny feeling a little more for the boy than simple concern as his commanding officer. JD was a bright kid and he was eager to learn.� Buck also had a feeling he was viewed by the young ensign as something of a paternal figure, a role he never called onto play but felt singularly honored to be considered a such.

"Something up?" He asked as JD picked up one of the ration packs and sat down on a crate next to him. However, Buck noticed JD was making no mood to tear into the meal even though previous experience told the first officer JD had something of a voracious appetite and anything that could occupy his mind to�such an�extent, must have been important.

"Have you seen Lieutenant Pemberton around?"�

Now Buck thought about it, he had not seen her in a few hours. "No, I haven�t." Tendrils of unease ran up his spine as he tried to remember when was the last time he sighted the titian-haired Chief Engineer.

"She said something about inspecting the large breaches on the hull but that was a couple of hours ago," JD commented, trying not to let his lack of experience make him a worry wort but he could not help it. He worked with the lady closely the last few days and he�was accustomed to her checking in with him since they were working so closely with the repairs. The sudden silence from her, especially since their area of confinement was so small, worried him.

"Have you checked outside?" Buck asked, hating it more than ever the strange dampening field around the planet did not allow them to use their com badges. "Maybe she took a little longer than usual. You know what engineers are like when they get stuck into something." However, even as he said that he knew it was not true. He had given every member of the Away Team strict instructions about communication protocols because of the peculiarities of this planetoid and the answers about it they did not have.

"I checked outside," JD answered being as thorough as possible before he brought the subject up with Buck. Even though he had a close personal relationship with Buck Wilmington, the man was still the first officer and expected him to behave accordingly, their friendship aside. "She�s not out there. I also walked to the runabout, just in case she might have had to go back there, but she wasn�t there either and it looks like someone else came down from the Maverick, the Midkiff is there next to the Perlman."

"Someone else?" Buck looked at him. "Who?" Buck asked since the Captain said nothing to him about sending someone else down when they had been speaking to each other during his scheduled report. However, he was aware Chris had a lot of reservations about the planetoid and it would not be that much of surprise if Chris sent someone else down to join the Away mission if it were warranted.

"I don�t know," JD answered. "They weren�t there either."

"Well, this is damn strange," Buck grumbled and regarded the rest of the Away Team. "Anyone been in contact with Lieutenant Pemberton?"�

The collection of muted expressions and shaking heads confirmed Buck�s worst suspicion and that bad feeling started to swell in his chest with increasing intensity.

"I don�t like this Buck," JD said quietly when it was discovered no one had seen their chief engineer in several hours. "This ain�t like her."

"It isn�t," Buck frowned in agreement and then added. "And I�m with you about not liking anything about this either."

Following the discovery that Julia Pemberton was missing as well as the officer or officers who�came down on the runabout Midkiff, Buck promptly organized a search party to begin scouring the area for the missing members of the Away Team. As anticipated, the crew of Leonov was eager to aid them in their search but Buck decided for reasons he could not define just yet,� it was best they remained in the ship. Giving the excuse the repairs needed to continue and leaving a few token engineering officers behind to complete the facade, Buck and the rest of the Away Team fanned out from the Leonov and began their search.

He and JD made their way to the runabout, deciding to conduct an aerial search of the terrain to cover more ground. He did not want to alert Chris to the situation just yet, not until they were certain their concerns were not alarmist. However, Buck was more or less certain Julia was missing through no fault of her own. If there was one thing he had learned about their chief engineer, the woman was too much of a professional to simply go wandering off when there was so much about this planetoid they did not know.

"Why didn�t you want Kelisan to help us?" JD asked as they quickly crossed the space between the Leonov and the runabout.

"Someone needs to stay behind and keep an eye on things in case Julia comes back," Buck replied, not about to cast aspersions on the Leonov when there was no proof of their complicity in the lady�s disappearance.

"Who do you think came down?" He inquired as they sighted the second runabout in the distance.

"Well, the security code will tell me who was on board," Buck replied with every intention of ascertaining the identity of the new arrival. "My money�s on Ezra though."

"You think so?" JD asked, not as certain. "He�s got enough security people down here, why would the Captain send him down personally?"

"Because Ezra, apart from being the sneakiest son of a gun when it comes to card playing is also the most astute investigator I have ever had the pleasure of working with. If the man gets a scent of trouble, he�ll hang onto it like a bulldog to a steak. I know he�s been a little antsy about what�s happening here so he probably wanted to come down and keep an eye on things himself."

"So they could be together." JD pointed out.

"They could," Buck nodded in agreement as they reached the runabout, Midkiff. "However if I find out Ezra was here and they both went off somewhere without checking in then he�s going to be helping Julia clean the warp core with a toothbrush for the next week." The first officer said unimpressed if the duo had met up and taken off somewhere on their own without letting anyone know, particularly if they got in trouble because of it.

JD swallowed, hoping Ezra had a very good reason for their absence but could not imagine their actions to be a deliberate oversight. Ezra was the most measured person he knew and was confident the security chief would not have taken off without a very good reason. Upon arriving at the roundabout, they activated the locking mechanism and the runabout�s main hatch slid open awaiting their entrance. The locking mechanism on the roundabout was accessible only if the personal code of a Starfleet officer was keyed into its access panel. The verification process was a safety measure that prevented hostiles from taking command of a choice piece of Starfleet equipment.

Upon entering the small vessel, Buck immediately called up the last personnel code to be entered and was unsurprised that it was indeed Ezra who had brought the Midkiff to the planetoid. Despite his earlier words to JD about Ezra being negligent, in truth Buck did not believe it for a second and knew Ezra was much too smart to behave so recklessly especially if he was already suspicious.

"Okay," Buck said after a moment�s consideration. "We can�t assume they�re together even if it is the most likely possibility."

"If they aren�t together, then what do you think happened to them?" JD asked, not liking the concept of either Julia or Ezra coming to any harm.

He liked Julia who happened to be one of the few people on the ship who did not treat him like a kid, with Vin Tanner being another and Casey who really did not really count when he thought about it at great depth. Julia�took the time to listen to his ideas when he expressed them and had singled out his opinions during the course of the repair work needed carrying out on the Leonov. She made him feel as if he was every bit as talented as those lecturers at the Academy claimed, even though JD was not quite ready to believe anyone of them yet.

"In this place, who knows?" Buck grumbled until he noticed the concern in JD�s eyes and realized the kid was still too green to be able to properly handle the notion death was apart of life on board a starship and wondered what it was like to feel that young. In either case, there was no reason for JD to be faced with the darker realities of a being a career fleet officer just yet. He could stand to be given some time to grow the calluses they all did with experience.

"JD," Buck said gently. "I�m sure if they�re all right. I haven�t seen anything yet that has been able to get the better of either Ezra Standish or Julia Pemberton. I�ll bet by the time you and I done scouring the place for them, they�ll probably be back at the Leonov wondering what all the fuss was about." The first office gave the younger man a smile of confidence hoping that would be enough.

JD brightened a little, aware Buck was trying to make him feel better and was not so ungrateful he would allow the effort to go unrewarded. Besides, Buck could be right.

"Sure Buck." He nodded.

"Now close the hatch," Buck instructed, gesturing to the main hatch of the roundabout as he nestled himself into the pilot�s seat and prepared the vessel for launch.

One way or another, they were going to find Julia and Ezra, even if they had to turn over every rock on this asteroid.

Unfortunately, after a few hours of circumnavigating the asteroid from the air, the two Starfleet officers were rewarded with little that could be considered successful. It did not help they had to make most of their search through visual confirmation since the sensors on board the runabout were useless with the dampening field that seemed to emanate from the surface of the half-world. While JD was certain he�saw nothing as he peered out the window of the runabout as it skimmed the surface, Buck knew it was easy to miss things at the speeds they were traveling. No matter how thoroughly he had attempted to search, Buck could not omit the possibility they could have flown right over their missing comrades without the slightest clue. He only hoped the terrestrial search parties had better luck.

Upon returning to the Leonov, Buck found no such evidence and the security team who scoured the area as far as they could, discovered no sign of either the security chief or their engineer. Despite himself, Buck knew Julia and Ezra could not have gone far unless an outside force carried them away. Since no one had seen anything to indicate that, he had to assume however they might have become lost in the barren wilderness beyond the Leonov, they had reached that point on their own steam.

Kelisan somberly informed him after his return to the Leonov�it was possible that Julia and Ezra could have fallen prey to the treacherous ravines or gullies�littering the surface of the asteroid. A number of his own crew had fallen into newly formed fissures or some other hazard newly created by the unstable planetoid.�Buck found it exceedingly difficult to believe the Tellerite made no mention of such dangers prior to this moment. He began to get the impression Kelisan was almost trying to produce an excuse for the disappearance of his people and that deepened his disbelief even more.

As the time drew closer to the appointed hour of his next scheduled report to the Maverick, Buck decided he no choice but to tell the captain they were missing two crewmen, aware of how Chris was going to react. Not that Buck feared his response or anything. It was just Chris had a tendency to take it extremely hard whenever they lost an officer, no matter how much the circumstances were beyond his control.

He had been this way ever since Sarah and Adam had died.

Still, Chris was his Captain and Buck was his First Officer. The Captain needed to be appraised of the situation and it was Buck�s duty to tell him. Like a man about to face a firing squad, Buck returned to the runabout in order to take the small vessel into orbit and contact the Maverick. Sometimes, a firing squad was preferable to telling Chris Larabee it was possible they might not have only lost two valuable officers but also too good friends.

Captain Chris Larabee said nothing as he listened to Buck�s report, feeling the tension run through his chest as he heard the words and allowed it to seep into his consciousness. Vin Tanner and Alexandra Styles did not make comment as the words echoed through the bridge following the report of the disappearance of Ezra Standish and Julia Pemberton, further worsened by the fact their attempts to locate the duo were more or less useless. Buck tried to sound hopeful but the first officer knew just as everyone else on the bridge was perfectly aware without their scanning equipment, that hope was fleeting.

In the scale of the things, the planetoid was barely the size of the moon but when conducting a search without the use of multiphasic scanners, it might as well have been the size of the universe.

Chris listened to everything Buck said, letting the words seep into his mind as he made his decision. From the very onset, the mystery around the planetoid bothered him and now it appeared there was good reason for his concerns because his people were missing and there wasn�t a damn thing they could do about it other than scour the place on foot. Chris almost wished they had a few bloodhounds to do the job since they were faced with a search on the most primitive level.

"They couldn�t have gone far." Buck continued to say, trying to reassure Chris as much as he was trying to reassure himself. The stony expression on the Captain�s face did not do much to boost his confidence in the success of his ability to assuage the concerns of his commanding officer. "They�re on foot so we�ll find them."

Chris nodded as he came to a decision he had yet to impart on Buck or the rest of his bridge crew. It was the decision he should have made at the start of all this. Instead, he had taken a gamble on a worthless wreck of a ship when it was clear there was some force at work on the planetoid beyond their understanding and by the looks of it, beyond their control. He released the breath he had been holding when all the opinions were made and all the reports were given.

"Buck," he looked up as his fingers relaxed from where they had been digging into the arms of his command chair. "I want you to go back to the Leonov and abandon the plans to salvage her."

"But Chris..."

"I mean it, Commander," Chris said with just enough intensity in his voice to tell Buck not to argue with him on this point. "I want the Engineering team and the crew of Leonov on the Maverick within the hour. The security team will remain behind to continue the search but I want everyone else off that planetoid immediately."

"Captain," Buck cleared his throat, "I don�t think that survivors of the Leonov will agree to leave the ship behind."

"I don�t really care if they do or not." Chris continued. His voice remained neutral but it hardened even more if such a thing was possible. The bridge had gone deathly silent with no one daring to breathe too loudly for sake of intruding on the debate presently taking place between the Captain and the first officer. "They are leaving if I have to sent the entire security complement on board the Maverick to remove them physically. Explain to them Commander this is not subject to negotiation. I won�t risk anyone else down there. Do we understand each other?"

Buck nodded slowly and all expression bled out of his face. "Aye Captain."

Chris had no wish to speak so harshly to Buck but he had no intention of letting this situation continue. He should not have risked his people on that unknown in the first place and he was not making the same mistake twice. No ship was worth the price of his crew or the lives of civilians, no matter how stubborn they were.

"Buck," Chris� voice softened just so that his old friend understood the order was made from a Captain to his first officer, with no personal feelings involved. "You know I�m right."

"Yeah I do," Buck said with a sigh, begrudgingly forced to admit it was the wisest course of action. If he were the man in charge, he would be making the same decision himself. In some ways, he was grateful that he was not. "We�ll be back on the Maverick within the hour."

"Good," Chris offered his first officer a smile as their communication channel was closed but somehow, he knew it was not going to be that simple.

A sixth sense told him that their troubles with the Leonov were just beginning.

Vanishing Act

As anticipated, the crew of the Leonov was not at all happy to leave their ship behind hearing the latest orders from Chris Larabee following the disappearance of Julia Pemberton and Ezra Standish. Kelisan, in particular, was particularly vocal about the order to abandon the vessel. While Buck could appreciate the man�s passion as well as loyalty in salvaging his ship, it incensed the first officer the man could be so single-minded about an inanimate object when the lives of his crew might be endangered with what was taking place on board the planetoid.

"But you said you would be salvaging her." Kelisan barked, the full heat of his Tellerite origins surfacing in his face as he argued his point vehemently.

"Yes we did," Buck replied, reminding himself to maintain his calm despite the obstinate behavior of these people and their ludicrous attachment to a ship when the possibility of their existence being in danger by their prolonged determination to remain on board. "However, you must admit the circumstances have changed."

JD who was standing close by could see the first officer was very close to losing his temper with the Tellerite and was using extreme control to rein in his anger. Surrounding them, the crew of the Leonov was witnessing the debate taking place between Buck and their captain with open hostility to the idea of departing the planetoid evident on their faces. Just like Buck, JD was just as confused by their determination to stay. It was not as if they were abandoning the Leonov forever, they were merely leaving for the moment until it could be adequately determined what it was that had taken their crew members.

"You do not know the circumstances have changed in the way you have foreseen." The Tellerite accused. "Am I not to understand that Chief Engineer Pemberton and Security Chief have some kind of shipboard romance between them?"

Considering their last date, hardly. Buck thought to himself inwardly but bristled visibly at that being brought up. "Yes, they do." He answered in a cool, measured voice reminding himself losing his temper would avail him nothing.

"Then is it not possible they could be off somewhere together?" The man looked at him, daring him to say otherwise.

The ripple of outrage did not confine itself to just Buck Wilmington, the engineering crew who had packed up their tools and were waiting to depart were similarly disgruntled by such aspersions being cast on their very professional Chief Engineer. Not to mention the dark expressions being given off by Ezra�s equally loyal security team who knew their commanding officer well enough to know he would never indulge in such irresponsible behavior and took exception to the Tellerite accusing him of such.

"Starfleet officers do not �go off� somewhere while they�re on Away Missions. Personally, I find your tone offensive, Sir."

"He didn�t mean it, Buck." Aislynn who had been watching the exchange with just as much scrutiny as everyone else, immediately piped up, seeing that Buck was not at all impressed by Kelisan�s accusation.

"Stay out of this child!" Kelisan shouted at the girl and she shrank back in fear, giving Buck another reason to add to his growing dislike of the man�s behavior from his actions to date.

"Don�t take it out on her." Buck defended the young woman automatically. "You are out of line and she�s smart enough to know it. "My people do not go wandering about and if they are not here now, its because something has kept them from returning to this ship. Now everything about this planetoid doesn't make sense. We can't scan it, we can�t explain how it does any of the things that it does but its here and now its taken two of my officers. The captain feels no one else should remain on the surface while we are at a loss to explain what has happened to them. His orders are not made lightly and are certainly not up for debate. I am telling you Mr. Kelisan we are leaving, I am not asking."

"You can�t take us off this place if we do not wish to go." Kelisan retorted, his manner posturing itself in readiness for defiance.

"Under normal circumstances, you would be correct " Buck conceded, almost at the end of his patience at just how more time he was going to waste with the man on this point. "However, as you are all citizens of the Federation, Starfleet has the jurisdiction to remove you from a location if we feel that your lives are being endangered so I�m afraid that you don�t really have a choice in the matter."

"You would not dare!" The man fairly hissed in outrage.

"I have can have a dozen security officers down here in a minute who will say otherwise," Buck replied just as hotly. He was in no mood to waste time arguing this matter anymore when this should have been a moot point. While Buck would prefer not to waste the time of the security team whose efforts would be more usefully employed continuing the search for Ezra and Julia, he would be willing to get those dozen officers down to the planetoid just to make his point.

"So you would drag us off against our wills?" One of the Leonov�s crew exclaimed with pure dislike in her face as she glared at Buck.

"In a minute," Buck replied. "We are not abandoning your ship under any circumstances, we are simply taking the precaution of moving everyone the Maverick until we find out what�s going on. This is as much for your safety as it is for our ability to search for our missing crew without dividing our resources and guarding you at the same time."

"We do not need guardians!" Kelisan barked. "We have taken care of ourselves for the last year without Starfleet�s help."

"Yes but I am assuming," Buck turned a high powered gaze at him, watching the man�s reaction at his next words. "I am assuming none of your people have gone missing like this during that time or is there something Mr. Kelisan you're not telling us?"

Kelisan felt silent abruptly and at that moment, Buck knew whatever was happening on the planetoid was unknown to the Tellerite. Until this moment, the first officer had his suspicions about the intentions of the Leonov�s crew but Kelisan�s reaction of a few seconds ago finally confirmed it. While Buck was not prepared to take the man to task at this immediate moment, he was however on guard about how much the Leonov�s crew should be involved with the rescue operations and more or less agreed completely with Chris� desire to get them on board the Maverick immediately.

"Of course not�" Kelisan swallowed, trying to cover himself. "I merely stated we do not need to be guarded by your people."

"Of course," Buck replied, giving JD a look that told the young ensign he did not believe for a minute the excuse the man had just tried to give him. "I will expect you and your people, ready within the hour to begin transportation back to the Maverick. Am I understood?"

The Tellerite bristled at having to take orders from the Starfleet officer but Buck had given him no choice. For him to continue refusing to transport to the starship would indicate he and his people had something to hide. "Yes," he replied, determined to save face, however. "But just you know when we return to the nearest Starbase, I intend launching a formal protest against you and your Captain for your conduct in this matter, Commander."

The Starfleet personnel present were not at all impressed by the threat made to their captain and their first officer but being professionals, remained silent, allowing Buck Wilmington to handle the situation for himself.

"That is your prerogative Mr. Kelisan," Buck said coolly, not at all intimidated by the threat. As far as he was concerned, Kelisan was trying to save face in front of his people and made the remark for that effort alone, even if it was more or less an empty threat. Their reasons for rescuing these people who were almost out of rations and supplies from this rock was an act of mercy, not of kidnapping. "However, until that happens, I suggest you make ready to leave."

Kelisan gave him a hateful glare and made a loud snorting noise with his porcine appendage before turning on his heels and storming away, the rest of the Leonov�s crew going with him as they walked off the main deck. JD watched them go and did not approach Buck who was staring at the civilians as they left.

"I didn�t think they were gonna put up that much of a fight."�

"I didn�t either," Buck confessed. "But it proves something though."

"What?" JD looked at him.

"That they know what�s going on." The first officer replied, not meeting the ensign�s gaze as he spoke. "Whatever is going on this planetoid, they know all about it."

As Buck issued new orders to the security team in their search for Julia and Ezra, JD busied himself with helping out with the final preparations by the engineering team to depart the ship. As the technicians gathered their tools and collected any equipment they might have brought down from the Maverick to aid with the repairs to the Leonov, JD concentrated his efforts on the bridge where he and Buck had been attempting to reconstruct the destroyed sensor array as per Julia�s instructions. The crew of the Leonov was nowhere to be seen and JD assumed they were gathering their belongings reluctantly in order to leave the ship.

Most of the bridge systems were functioning after the last two days of repair and JD found himself idling through the log entries, ship manifests and other data stored in the computer core. Much of the information on record dealt mostly with the destinations and port of calls for the Leonov in the six months prior to their unceremonious arrival here. The Leonov dealt mostly with the Lysian homeworld, ferrying everything from rare spices to seed grain like quadratriticale and even to breeding livestock.

In fact, according to the ship�s manifest, the Leonov had been delivering animals to Lysia for the establishment of some kind of zoo when the Borg attacked. In the ship�s efforts to escape the Collective, it was inadvertently caught in the cosmic storm that saw it being marooned here. The animals that should have been transported to Lysia remained in the cargo hold and JD ruminated on that information for a moment. When they had seen the cargo hold, they wondered what happened to the livestock in the process of transport.

Initially, they had assumed the creatures had been killed during the contamination by Berthold rays however, the cargo hold sustained no damage. It stood out in JD�s memory because it was one of the few places that did not sustain damage on the ship which was something of a standout in itself. JD supposed the Leonov�s crew could have mercifully destroyed the animals if they had made it to the planetoid alive,� to conserve their meager supplies since eating them was impossible�and some�were definitely not meant for that purpose. Among the collection was a Selurian minx cat, an exotic animal that used to be hunted for its pelt. JD hated to think such a lovely animal would have been destroyed.

He would have liked to have asked Kelisan about what happened to the live cargo but at the moment the atmosphere with the forced departure of the crew from the Leonov made that ill-advised. Still, he wondered how absurd it must have been to have all that live cargo when so many of the crew died. It must have been a double blow to Kelisan and his companions. While JD shared Buck�s belief Kelisan was hiding something about the planetoid, JD could not bring himself to think the man would engineer the death of almost 240 members of his own crew.

"Hey JD," Ensign Antonia Starke, a youthful member of the engineering team just as new to the Maverick and deep space assignments as he was, called to him as she made her way past the open doors of the bridge.

"Hey Antonia," JD greeted the pretty blond. "You getting the last of the equipment in Engineering?"�

"Yeah," she nodded. "Low man on the rung gets to do all the dirty work."�

"I know what you mean," he laughed. "It ain�t all that much different from the bridge." It was nice to talk to someone his own�age and understood what it was like to struggle for acceptance around much more seasoned officers.

"At least you�re where the action is." She pointed out and JD could not argue with her on that point. It was not bad being around such heady company when that company included the Captain, the First Officer, and every command ranking officer on board the Maverick.

"Okay, you got me." He conceded defeat. "You need a hand?" He was�aware some of the equipment could be quite heavy.

"No, I should be okay, thanks though." She said gratefully at the offer. "Well, I�ll see you top side when I�m done." She flashed him a smile before continuing on her way down the corridor towards the engineering deck.

"Take care," JD called out as she disappeared down the corridor, pondering for seconds why he had said that before brushing it aside completely.

This place was getting to him.

JD was so cute, Antonia Starke thought as she continued down the corridor through the length of the Leonov. If it was not for the fact he was already dating Yeoman Wells, Antonia would not have mind asking him out. However, it was not in her vocabulary to infringe upon territory spoken for already, no matter how delicious his boyish smile was or how tempting the need to brush away that unruly strand of hair always falling over his face. Antonia turned down the metal stairs�leading into the engineering deck and descended deeper into the dimly lit bowels of the ship.

Despite herself, she could not say she minded getting out of this old wreck. There was something about its gritty insides and its surfaces of dull grey that made her skin crawl. Antonia, who preferred the well-illuminated cleanliness of a starship, could see little reason to�salvage this rather dilapidated and obsolete piece of spaceship. However, she supposed the Leonov meant something to the crew since they appeared so reluctant to leave it and wondered what it was about this rusty bucket of bolts that drew so much affection.

As she stepped onto the engineering deck, she felt a slight chill as she heard her footsteps clanging against the metal deck and suddenly became aware of how quiet it was. When she�was with the others, the ominous feeling of the place had not been so apparent. However, now that she was alone, the shadows seemed to loom larger than before and she felt her heart quickening in a fear a little. She knew she was being a little ridiculous but Antonia could not help it. Forcing away the slight flutter suddenly appearing�in her stomach, she looked to the heart of the engineering deck was the warp core was situated and made her way there.

Most of the work undertaken by the Maverick�s engineering crew�was focused on this particular area and the last of the equipment was stored in one place for easy collection when they were ready to depart. Reaching the equipment, she quickly knelt down and began collecting everything she was able to carry, trying to ignore the slight trembling that developed in her hands as she wrapped her fingers around the tools and packed them away in their appropriate cases.

Behind her, the silence was just as permeating and Antonia told herself again for the hundredth time she was being utterly ridiculous. This was a spaceship. It had no more ability to harm her than the tool she was holding in her hand. Besides, there was no one on this rock, they had established that fairly early on.

But Lieutenant Pemberton and Commander Standish were still missing.

Her inner voice made that statement, much to her chagrin, since Antonia was doing her level best not to encourage the train of thought her mind was suddenly embarking upon. There was nothing to fear and she was a Starfleet officer for goodness sake!

Suddenly, she heard a voice behind her and immediately, stood upright and swung around. Her heightened senses were playing havoc with her fears more than they should. However, upon turning around she found herself face to face with the Leonov�s navigator, Janice Auel.

"I�m sorry if I startled you," Janice smiled at the younger woman. "I just came to get a few things."

"That�s all right," Antonia let out a sigh of relief, feeling a little silly for letting her fears get the better of her. "I was starting to think my mind was playing tricks on me." The young woman confessed to the navigator who merely offered her another enigmatic smile.

Before she produced a phaser and fired.

By the time JD emerged from the Leonov, the last of the security teams searching for Julia and Ezra had returned. Judging by the somber expression on Buck�s face as the young ensign went to join his commanding officer, JD guessed they had not uncovered any trace of their missing crewmen. No one wanted to think the worst but it was becoming increasingly harder to not think that way when there was no evidence to disprove it. There was not the slightest trace of either Ezra or Julia anyway, not even tracks that might have given the others some idea of which direction they may have headed before they�became�lost to the others.

"No luck?" JD asked Buck as he went joined the first officer who was the edge of the group, staring into the horizon of the dead world, trying to see something past the craggy ridges and barren landscape for some idea of what might have happened to his friends.

"No," Buck shook his head. "The search parties have looked everywhere and turned up nothing."

"You know," JD sighed heavily, feeling the loss constrict his chest with the possible loss of his comrades and then forced away from�the emotion because he refused to give up on them just yet. "Don�t you think it�s kind of weird that we haven�t found anything?"

Buck looked at him, something in his words sparking interest immediately. "What do you mean?"

"Well," JD was grasping at straws but the idea has just arisen in his head and he wondered if it might not have some merit worth mentioning. "Even if something bad had happened to them and I�m not saying that it has but even if it did, we should find something."

The kid had a point. There was no evidence of anything to show what might have happened to them, not even a footprint in the dirt. While this atmosphere had breathable air, there was no wind or any kind of weather that would allow tracks to degrade. Buck had no idea what he had stumbled onto but he was certain it was important.

"You got a point kid."�

"I don�t know if it means anything." JD shrugged, not willing to take credit too soon when it was merely idle speculation, not anything important.

"Every little bit helps." He said with a smile, not above giving the kid his due even if the mood was less than cheery. "Keep making your observations. Enough of them might give us an idea of what�s going on."

"Thanks," JD said trying not to seem embarrassed but he was a little whenever Buck complimented him, even though inwardly he was a proud as hell whenever he pleased Buck. Letting his gaze sweep across the group that was preparing to leave, he noticed not all of the engineering crew was present even though the survivors of the Leonov was gathered reluctantly together, taking stock of their belongings.

"You sent some of the crew ahead?" JD asked.

"Yeah," Buck nodded. "I want to get the engineering crew out of here first on the Midkiff and we can take the civilians up on the Perlman." The first officer glanced at Kelisan and his people who did not at all look happy at the prospect of leaving. "The security team will stay behind, make another sweep of the place."

"And if they don�t find Ezra and Julia?" JD asked, not particularly desiring an answer but he was hoping Buck might have one that did not broke an unhappy outcome.

Buck let out a deep sigh. "Then we have to come up with another plan." He said with every indication he would tear this planetoid apart with his bare hands if it was what was required to find Julia and Ezra.

JD looked around and saw that Ensign Starke was not among the members of the engineering crew still with the main group. "Did Antonia go with the others?"�

"You mean Ensign Starke?" Buck asked, trying to place a name to a face and remembered a petite blond who seemed to have a little thing for JD until Casey had come into the picture.

"Yeah," JD nodded, "I saw her in the Leonov when I was finishing up on the bridge. Didn�t she come back?"

"No," Buck replied, his brow furrowing because he knew he had not counted her among the number of the engineering technicians sent to the Midkiff. "Hey, anyone see Ensign Starke around?"�

It was soon verified they had not.

However, if JD thought things were bad with the apparent disappearance of Ensign Starke, then arrival of the engineering crew who had been sent to the runabout Midkiff and by that extension back to the Maverick were soon to shed a new definition on the word trouble.

"What is it?" Buck demanded upon reaching the returning group. "I gave strict orders for you to return to the ship."

"I know Sir," a rather confused lieutenant struggled to explain. "But there�s a problem."

"A problem?" Buck did not at all like the sound of this. "What sort of problem?"

"The runabouts Sir," the younger man stammered as JD cast a brief glimpse at Kelisan and his people and noticed they were unsurprised by the sudden turn of events. If anything, they even appeared somewhat smug about it.

"What about the runabouts?" Buck asked, starting to feel something terribly ominous about to run into them with the speed of a comet.

"They�re gone."�

"Gone?" JD exclaimed. "How could runabouts just disappear?"

"It wasn�t that they weren�t there," the lieutenant struggled to explain. "It was just we couldn�t find where we left them."


The situation was worsening.

Chris Larabee sat at his command chair saying nothing but both Alexandra Styles and Vin Tanner knew exactly where the Captain�s mind was placed at this moment. The Away Team was one hour overdue from its scheduled return from the planetoid�s surface and as far as Chris Larabee was concerned,�it was an hour too long. Thanks to the dampening field surrounding the spacial body, there was no way to ascertain what�was causing the delay and with each lingering moment of silence, the Captain was becoming further unsettled. Every member of the bridge crew�was all too familiar with Buck�s professionalism and knew he would not allow such an extended period of silence to lapse without contacting the ship unless there was something being terribly wrong.

"Chris, maybe someone ought to go down there," Mary suggested when the silence on the bridge had become so thick tension it could be sliced with a knife. The backup crew who had taken the stations normally occupied by Ezra Standish and JD Dunne did not alleviate the pressure building on the bridge and seemed to worsen it in fact, by reminding everyone else of their missing crewmen.

"No one goes down there," Chris stated not looking at her.

More than anything, Chris wanted to go down to the surface and find out what was going on or himself but he could not because it would be irresponsible when they had no idea of what was waiting for them on the planetoid. Dispatching another Away Team would simply be adding numbers to those already missing and he was risking no other personnel on the unknown until they had more answers. As much as he wanted to find out what was happening down there for personal reasons, he could not in good conscience commit himself to a course of action that could endanger more lives on the Maverick.

Although Mary had no reason to be on the bridge, she found herself drawn here when she heard the Away Team had not returned to the Maverick as scheduled. She knew Chris had a number of reservations about the rescue attempt being undertaken on the planetoid and this latest development would bother him greatly. She hoped her presence on the bridge would offer some measure of comfort to him, even though she knew perfectly well it was not the most professional of reasons to be around him. Still, no matter how she might try to maintain her professionalism around him, she could not deny that she cared about the Captain.

"But if we�re expecting trouble...� She started to say.

"Do I have to repeat myself, Lieutenant?" He looked at her sharply, making no attempt to hide he did not wish to discuss the subject any further.

Mary felt her cheeks burn red with embarrassment at his harsh rebuke and turned away from him, the hurt in her eyes apparent not only to him but to everyone else on the bridge.

"No Sir," she said softly.

Chris winced inwardly and felt immediately awful for lashing out at her when the only reason he knew she had come on the bridge was in an effort to make her feel better. With everything else he had on his mind at the moment, Chris did not have time to deal with salving her feelings and made a note to take it up with her at a later time. Standing up suddenly from his chair and facing his crew, Chris cleared his throat and responded. "Maintain open hailing frequencies for another hour. I�ll be in my ready room until then."

Without saying another word, he strode off the bridge and into the confines of his private office, making no apologies and meeting no one�s gaze as he did so. An awkward silence followed his abrupt departure and no one said anything for a few seconds. When someone did finally speak, it was surprisingly enough Vin Tanner.

"Mary, I�m sure he didn�t mean nothing by that." Vin looked at her, feeling the need to explain Chris�s harsh actions. The Captain�s reaction must have surely stung especially when it was clear how they both felt about each other personally. As the Captain�s best friend, Vin knew Chris�s feelings for Mary would surely have the Captain berating himself inwardly by now, and did not want to make his burden any worse by having her be mad at him as well. Besides, he wanted to make some sort of conciliatory gesture towards the protocol officer considering his deplorable behavior the last time they faced each other.

"I know, "Mary sighed still sore from Chris�s manner but not entirely unforgiving when she was aware of the pressures he was facing. Besides, she thought with a little smile, if she knew her Captain as well as she did, she was probably due for a private apology later on. "I probably shouldn�t have pushed the point."

"He feels helpless not being able to do anything with Buck and the others down there and you know how hard the captain takes it when any of the crew is in danger," Vin explained gently.

Yes, Mary had to concede Vin was right about that and she had been prodding a bear with a sore foot by asking the question she did. Chris took it very hard when crewmen were lost and often saw it as some failing of his command ability or advice,� that led to the death. As much as he ought to be accustomed to it by now, Chris was not someone who could easily stomach the loss of those under his command. She supposed no Captain ever really overcame that particular aspect of the job, but in Chris�s case, it seemed to be particularly prolific. No doubt if she spoke to Josiah about it, the counselor would probably tell her it had much to do with the loss of Sarah and Adam Larabee.

"Is there nothing we can do to find out what�s happened to them?" She asked Vin but directed her question to Alex as well. Buck, Ezra, Julia, and JD were just as important to her as they were to Chris. It was easy to form such deep friendships in such a short time on being on board the Maverick. Mary was surprised at how easy it had been to consider the Maverick home. Even though the crew had served together for no more than six weeks, the bonds forged during that time seemed as if they had been strengthened over a greater period than just mere weeks.

"I�ve tried everything," Alex declared with no short amount of exasperation in her voice as she responded from her station. Ever since they had put in orbit around this mysterious planetoid,� Alex had spent every waking moment working on the problem of uncovering its secrets. Yet after all that expenditure of effort, she was nowhere close to finding an answer than she was when they had first arrived in the system. "Every piece of scanning equipment we have on the bridge won�t penetrate that field. I can�t even tell you what kind of energy it is, let alone how it�s being generated."

Alex strayed from the science station and leaned over the railing�separating�the workstations from the command chair before adding further. "There are times when I think I can almost recognize the energy pattern but then I lose it and nothing I�ve got in our database seems to match. I�ve tried using the library computer, the historical archives, every log entry of any Federation ship that has recorded for spacial phenomenon hoping to match it but I�m coming up with absolutely nothing at all. Whatever is causing it is unknown to Federation science."

"I�m sure you�re doing your best," Mary said trying to sound as encouraging as possible, being aware of just how dedicated Alex could be and by the looks of it, the science officer did not cope well with failure or mysteries for that matter. Although Alex was rather detached and only seemed to have a close relationship with the Officer of the Con, Mary could tell the concern she felt for everyone on the surface of that strange planetoid was real.

Mary had no doubt that Alex cared for them deeply; she just had trouble expressing it.

"I don�t know whether my best is enough." Alex frowned, folding her arms and looking most chagrined, hating the fact it was taking so long for her to figure this point. "At this point, we don�t even know how long this asteroid has been in this system. Our records of this area are patchy. Stellar probes carried out the cartography twenty years ago so there was little chance to make a detailed analysis. We�re the first Federation ship out this far."

"Too bad there ain�t anyone around on the planets to tell us if this asteroid�s been here for long," Vin remarked as he returned his attention to the controls and made a brief adjustment to the orbital path the Maverick was taking around the asteroid. He wished he could help but astrophysics was not his expertise, it was Alex�s and if she could not figure a solution to their problem, then it was highly unlikely that he was going to do it by fluke.

"Oh hell!" Alex exclaimed, turning sharply to Vin following his statement.

"What?" Mary stared at her.

"Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!" The science officer smacked herself on the forehead, garnering rather astonished responses from both Vin and Mary and the rest of the bridge crew as she hurried back to her console screen, the light of revelation on her face. She let out another exasperated groan, unable to believe she could have been so unbelievably short-sighted.

"The planets!" Alex swore loudly. "I forgot to take into considering the planets during my investigation! I�ve been so busy trying to pound my head against the brick wall that has been that stupid asteroid� I forgot to check maybe there�s something in the rest of the system that could explain what�s happening here."

"It�s an understandable oversight," Mary replied, exchanging a glance with Vin since neither of them had considered that possibility themselves and could hardly blame Alex for making the same mistake. It was certainly not the monumental error Alex thought and did not for one minute believe that her self-recrimination was justified.

"No, it�s not," Alex explained, grateful they had made the effort to try and make her feel better even though she still felt monumentally stupid. "These are M Class planets which means there ought to be life forms and a whole plethora of possibilities. When we entered the system, we traced the distress beacon to the Leonov. Since we assumed if there were life forms here, they would be at a pre-warp stage of development, otherwise they would have detected us and attempted to make contact."

"Which means the Prime Directive would forbid us to interfere with them," Mary concluded, very well aware of that since she was the protocol officer. The Prime Directive was something she was very well versed in.

"But that doesn�t mean they might not still know something about the asteroid." Vin guessed where Alex was going with this. "Even if they don�t know what it is exactly, they might have noticed it in the sky. Unless the culture is absolutely primitive, they might have charted astronomical phenomenon. We might be able to get the information without having to break the Prime Directive. It�s been done before."�

"Exactly." Alex grinned; feeling something subconsciously click in her mind that this was the clue they needed to get past this point in their search. Perhaps now, they would be on the right track to solve this thing and be in a position to help the Away Team if the reason for their delay in returning to the Maverick was because they were in trouble.

"Shall we tell the Captain?" Mary said eagerly, wishing to bring Chris some measure of good news since he needed badly to hear something positive.

"Not yet," Vin advised. "Not until we know there�s something to tell him about. At this moment, all we got is possibilities, nothing definitive."

"Vin�s right," Alex agreed with him, not wishing to raise any false hopes as her fingers began flying across her console in her efforts to scan the planets in the system. "There are four M Class planets capable of supporting life in this system, so it would not be unreasonable to assume at least one of them has specialized lifeforms."

As Vin and Mary waited for Alex to complete her scans of the system, the protocol officer turned her attention to Vin. Ever since their exchange of a few days ago, neither had spoken about the incident and with the current situation on the Maverick so tense, the opportunity had yet to arise. Mary did not want Vin to abandon the idea of trying to learn Vulcan mental disciplines�to avoid unintentionally melding with people he made physical contact with. She remembered what Josiah had said about her being his only link to Vulcan and there were important questions about himself he needed to ask someone who would not revile him for being different. She knew the�helmsman was extremely distressed by his inadvertent melds and while he hid it well, Mary�sensed�he was doing so only because it was inappropriate to show weakness while on duty.

"Vin, I know we did not get off to a very good start with those lessons..." Mary started to say.

"No that was my fault," Vin interrupted quickly, glad she had brought the subject up because it had been preying on his mind. He behaved badly and did not want her apologizing when it was his temper causing�the problem in the first place. "I shouldn�t have expected to get it right first time out."�

"Perhaps," Mary nodded in agreement of his assessment of how things transpired, but she was not about to absolve herself of all�responsibility either. "However, I could have been a better teacher at the same time. I kept thinking I was teaching a Vulcan when I should have remembered I was teaching a human."

Vin did not say anything but he supposed she was not far wrong in her claim. Everything about him was human, the manner in which he was raised, his feelings, his habits, even his perception of the world. He knew he learned faster than humans and while he could not do complex computations in his head, he could make a course correction faster than anyone on the ship without the use of automation. However, everything else about him was human and Vin found he did not mind so much.

"I guess it�s easy to make the mistake," Vin said with a smile. "It�s the ears."

Mary let out a short laugh. "Well," she met his gaze with her eyes dancing in genuine affection for this young man. "If you would care to let me have another crack at it, I think we should try again. This time, it will be a lot easier."

"I hope so," Vin confessed, remembering with shame what he had done to Alex and instinctively glanced in her direction, feeling a surge of warmth through his body for the science officer who was presently focused on solving the problem with the Leonov. "I got mad after what happened and I hurt Alex." Vin met her gaze, speaking so softly it was almost a whisper. "I don�t ever want to do that again."

Mary nodded in understanding, more aware of the helmsman�s feelings for Alex than even he would have guessed. "You won�t," she assured him, mostly because he needed to hear it. "I promise you we will get this thing under control."

Vin was about to respond when suddenly, Alex�s voice made an exclamation that shattered the intimacy of the moment. He held Mary�s gaze just a little longer before they both turned to the science officer who was looking rather confused at the readings on her console screen.

"This is damn odd," Alex repeated herself, her brow furrowing in puzzlement at this newest chapter in the saga that was becoming their mission to rescue the Leonov and its crew.

"What is it?" Mary asked, burning with curiosity.

"I am detecting abundant life forms, especially in the second planet. The usual kind of flora one would associate with a largely undeveloped world." She remarked, as her fingers continued to punch instructions into her console as if trying to gain better clarification of what she was seeing before her because what was displayed made no sense.

"Nothing strange about that," Vin commented, wanting to get more information from Alex about what she found so unusual. Like Mary, he was similarly curious. Actually more in fact, because he was a Vulcan and there was nothing more genetically ingrained in the race than the need to have their questions answered. Of course, had anyone pointed this out to Vin, he would have been the first to deny it.

"Except there are cities on the planet."

"Cities?" Mary exclaimed, her eyes widened. "I thought you said the planet was undeveloped."

"It is." She replied meeting their eyes. "According to my readings. There is evidence of cities but there are no traces of the people who might have built them. Not just the people but there is no evidence of any form of animal life."

"That is strange." Vin agreed, trying to imagine how that could be. It was universally known where there was vegetation there was usually animal life to accompany it. It was a cycle in the web of life and ecology proven over hundreds of worlds. "Could it be a plague may have wiped them out?"�

"I�ve never seen one so indiscriminate enough to completely wipe out every living thing," Mary remarked. "I mean, viruses are adaptive but not that adaptive."

"It could be one we haven�t seen yet." Vin pointed out. "It�s a big galaxy out there."

"Yes," Alex nodded. Anything was possible she supposed but her ruminations ceased when she saw new readings flashed on her screen and was given another piece of the puzzle�by which to re-evaluate�her hypothesis. "However, there�aren't many viruses�capable of spreading itself out�across space to infect the other planets in the system as well."

Mary turned to her sharply, "are you saying the other planets are devoid of animal life too?" The scope of the problem was starting to become staggering and she considered the enormity of what Alex was saying. It was not millions of creatures that were gone but possibly billions.

"Whatever it is that killed everything in this system, sentient or not, has a preference for animal tissue only. The natural vegetation is intact but nothing else is alive. Not birds, a reptile, even an insect. Everything is gone." Alex answered and then came to the only possible conclusion�she could with the facts she had been presented.

"Unless it is a virus and I don�t think it is," she paused as she came to grips with what she was thinking, before continuing again. "There is something out here�killing animal life in any shape or form."

"And yet somehow, the crew of the Leonov managed to survive just fine Why is that?" Vin�asked suspiciously, voicing the unspoken thought of everyone on the bridge.

"I don�t know," Alex replied having no answer as she let out a deep breath and met Mary�s gaze. "But now, its time to tell the Captain."


The irony was not lost on Ezra Standish�when�he stared at the formation before himself and Julia Pemberton. He prodded it with his finger as he stood at its gargantuan base, as if only touch would make what he was seeing before him real. There was a moment after its surprise appearance when both he and Julia were unable to believe what they were standing before was at all real and not just another illusionary effect of this strange planetoid. However, as Ezra felt the coarse strength of stone beneath his fingertip, there could be no doubt� the formation, though impossible in every way, was indeed steeped in enough reality to be a very large obstacle.

The length of the formation made it impossible for them to go around it and the despite the fact he loathed mountain climbing in any shape of form, the craggy surface provided just enough hand holds and footholds in the notches of rock for it to be climbable. While Ezra did not relish making the attempt, he soon realized� they had no choice but try if they were going to reach the rest of the Away Team and reveal what they discovered here.

"Though I am utterly loathed to say this," Ezra remarked, still staring at the mountain, watching its jagged peak stab at the dark velvet sky. "I believe our only course is to climb this monument. It would simply take too much time to circumnavigate it. "

"Oh I was afraid you were going to say that." Julia let out a deep sigh, about as impressed by�the prospect as he. Apart of her was still somewhat stunned�at the situation they now found themselves in. The bizarre was a fact of life in Starfleet but she had never at any point, expected to see a mountain simply uproot itself from the earthen depths to present itself before them in a matter of seconds.

"Believe me, I am no more looking forward to this then you are." Ezra frowned, sharing her sentiments exactly. Was it only a few days ago, he was wondering how anyone would put themselves though the torture of mountain climbing simply for the recreation enjoyment of it?� No doubt the Captain and Mr Tanner were going to find this a source of great amusement, if he ever returned to the Maverick to tell them.

"However, it appears unless we get back to warn the others what we have found here, I fear the same fate will befall the Maverick.".

"I hear you." She nodded, arguing no more�with that sober reminder. "However, we can�t climb these things in these suits. I can barely walk upright on these things let alone try to go hiking." She pointed out. It was troublesome enough attempting to walk with the enviro-suits without attempting the strenuous and somewhat dangerous effort of climbing the formation as well.

"I agree." Ezra nodded in agreement with her about the suits. While he disliked taking the risk of discarding them, she was right about their success in scaling the mountain wearing them. The manual dexterity required for such an undertaking would be extreme enough without them attempting to do so wearing suits that could very well cost them their lives with one slipped footing. "I pray� Doctor Jackson was exaggerating about contagion," he remarked as he started to undo the fastenings holding his helmet to the rest of his suit.

"I think contagion is the least of our problems," Julia began doing the same, feeling some measure of consolation in being able to be rid of these cumbersome suits. "Notice everything seemed to go haywire after we saw those ship? First the fissures and then the sudden appearance of this thing?"

"I missed nothing dear." Ezra replied, painfully aware of that fact himself. He was convinced now what they were dealing with was an entity�capable of manipulating�its environment, having somehow taken refuge on this planetoid and conformed it to its own ends. An entity that was somehow drawing ships here and marooning them on its surface. The question�concerning Ezra most of all following what they had seen, was not the crashed ships but rather their crew. If they had survived as the crew of Leonov had survived, where were they now?

"I have been keeping a vigil on everything since we began our orbit of this planetoid."�

"What do you think happened to all those ships?" Julia asked as she continued the process of escaping the suit. "From the brief glimpse I managed to get of them, I think they crash-landed on the surface or made a very rough landing." The image of that ship graveyard left an indelible mark upon her and suddenly, a chill formed in her bones that would not dissipate, not until they and the Maverick were away from this place.

"I would not be surprised if we were to learn a little of both took place." Ezra ventured a guess, taking a deep breath of the planetoid�s atmosphere and finding it no different than breathing the air inside his suit. Just as well, on top of having to climb the mountain, he did not want to worry about choking to death either. "I believe� if we do not return to the Maverick, we will be acquiring a first-hand experience of what takes place each time a ship comes into this locality."

"Is that what happened to the Leonov you think?" Julia asked as tossed the last of the envirosuit away in a heap.

"More than likely." He answered as he stepped closer to the face of the mountain and let his eyes skim its base in order to ascertain which would be the best way to begin their ascent. The base was smooth but further along the mountain, the slope was gradual enough for a human to scale it.

"Then why would Kelisan lie to like that?" She replied sidling up next to him as he surveyed the terrain before them and began heading to the most likely place to begin their climb. "You would think he�d want to get off this rock, not fight us tooth and nail the way they have been since we got here."

"I have something of an idea even though I despise even considering it. However, there seems to be no other logical explanation." Ezra frowned inwardly before he turned around and met her gaze.

"And that is?" She looked at him, waiting in anticipation of what he had come up with in regards to the puzzling events they had witnessed today. Ezra had one of the most logical minds she knew and any hypothesis he reached would be sound and worth betting on. With a smile, she thought to herself that was probably the highest compliment she could pay the man and decided to keep it to herself, lest it went straight to his head.

He was cocky enough as it was.

"Perhaps he and Leonov are the bait." He revealed finally. "If you consider it, what perfect way is there than to lure another ship to this planetoid under the ruse of a distress beacon?. Look at how quickly we answered the call."

"That�s true," Julia admitted begrudgingly because he was right. The Maverick and her crew had been so eager to come to the rescue and so elated at the notion of finding survivors on the planetoid no one had ever stop to consider that the Leonov�s crew might not be what they seemed. "We found exactly what we wanted to find, survivors who had managed to endure despite the impossibility of it and accomplishing it with great dignity."


"But Ezra," she spoke a moment later, having considered the possibility of Kelisan�s complicity. "Some of those ships have been there a long time, far longer than the Leonov has been on this planetoid. He couldn�t have lured all those ships down."

"No," the security chief had to concede that point. "However, I do believe there is something about the Leonov�s crew that is not quite as it seems. They seem particularly adverse to allowing a medical scan and the only explanation I can perceive for such vehemence to our requests is that an examination by Doctor Jackson may uncover something we are not meant to know."

"I did notice that," Julia agreed. "And they�re not very smart either, at least not what I would expect from a veteran group of spacers. They did not even know how to run simple diagnostics on their main computer core, I mean I know engineers are supposed to take care of things on a ship but you think Kelisan would be more selective."

"I believe there is quite a bit about Mr. Kelisan that remains a mystery," Ezra remarked, finding the place to begin their climb before turning to Julia. "However, it is a question left for another time. We have larger concerns ahead of us." He knotted his hands together in order to give her a leg up.

"Was that a joke?" Julia gave him a look.

"Absolutely not." He replied with a straight face and glance upward. "Do you think you are able to make it to that slope there?" He gestured to narrow ledge of rock that would allow them to skim against the wall to a slope further up the hill, to continue their crossing with a little more ease.

"I should be able to." Julia nodded and secured her foot in his locked palms as she looked at the place he wanted her to reach before giving him a little smile.� "But I�m telling you, your choice of how we spend our dates has got to improve."

But Captain!"

"Whining is not going change things, Commander." Chris Larabee looked at Alexandra Styles with a stern, yet annoyingly patient eye as she tried once again to convince him sending her to the planetoid was the correct course of action. Unfortunately, it was perception Chris did not share despite the revelation she had made regarding the other planets in the system. If anything, Alex�s discovery had proved more instrumental in convincing him, it was unwise to risk any more of his crew by attempting an ill-fated rescue mission, when they had no idea still, what they were facing.

"But Captain," Alex continued to persist and Chris had learned by now it was one of the aspects of her personality that made her such a good officer as well as an unmitigated pain in the ass. "If we don�t get them out of there and soon. Whatever the hell it is that�s sucking the life out of all life forms in this system is going to reach them."

"Don�t you think I know that Commander?" He met her gaze sharply. "I am not happy leaving my oldest friend down there but I don�t have a choice. Somehow, the Leonov managed to survive for six months without this...whatever it is killing them, I have to assume the same goes for the Away Team."

Alex frowned, hating the situation as it stood because she knew he was right. They had a piece of the puzzle but not a complete picture and there was still no guarantee� Alex would not become similarly mired in the same trouble Buck Wilmington and the rest of the Away Team found themselves.

"I�m sorry Sir," she apologized, aware that her stubbornness could be considered insubordination by a less understanding commander.

Chris Larabee was a good captain because he allowed his crew to voice their opinions and not browbeat them with notions of propriety when such opinions needed to be spoken, no matter how unpleasant it may be to him personally. "The more I learn about what�s happening in this system, the more I think I need to be there to see for myself why that planetoid is doing what it does. By every science we know, that planetoid should not exist the way it has. It should not have an atmosphere and it should have been pulled in by the gravitational field of the planet."

"Understood," Chris replied, accepting her apology and making everyone on the bridge feel generally better now that the tension had passed. While they were still worried about their fellow crewmen, at least the command staff was keeping a cool head. "But we are not leaving our people behind." He said not only to Alex but also to everyone else present.

"Chris," Vin asked now that things had settled between the captain and the science officer. As much as Vin sometimes wanted to intercede on Alex�s behalf, he had told himself if he was to maintain a relationship with both, he would have to know when to pull back. The previous argument between the duo certainly qualified as one of those times. "If we can�t go down there and we ain�t leaving them on the planetoid, what do we do?"�

Chris let out a deep sigh and shook his head. "I don�t know yet." He answered truthfully, seeing no reason to lie. "It may be that we simply need to get more specialized scanning equipment as Alex suggests."

Chris was about to answer when Doctor Nathan Jackson made his arrival on the bridge. Chris swiveled in his command chair to face Nathan who wore an expression of concern on his features. Although it was not required for him to be on the bridge, Chris knew Nathan sometimes visited just for the conversation, or in this case to check on their progress at retrieving the Away Team from the planetoid. Nathan was never very good�sitting in Sick Bay, twiddling his thumbs while he waited for news of his friends. Coming to the bridge was his way of feeling apart of the effort to retrieve them and Chris would begrudge him that.

"Do something for your Nathan?" Chris asked even though he knew why Nathan was present.

"Just wondering how it was going," Nathan replied as he left the turbo lift and stepped further into the bridge. "Have we heard anything yet?"

"Not a word," Mary answered glumly before anyone else could.

"So what are we going to do?" Nathan asked, looking at Chris. The captain was starting to feel more than just a little persecuted and wished he had an answer for them but could only concede he was just as helpless as the rest of the crew in effecting a suitable rescue of the Away Team. "We can�t just leave them down there." The doctor declared passionately and Chris sighed wondering if the man knew just how many times that question had been put to him already.

"We�re doing everything that we can�but�at the moment, we don�t have much to go on. The only way for us to get visual confirmation of anything is to go down there. I�m not prepared to risk any more people by letting them get into the same difficulty Buck and the others are in."

"I can understand that," Nathan nodded even though he did not like it. As a doctor, he knew it was necessary to amputate to protect the whole body and while he was certain Chris�s present stance meant nothing that extreme for the Away Team, Nathan could appreciate the reasoning behind his actions. He wandered next to Alexandra Styles, feeling just as helpless as she probably did when suddenly he noticed what was on�the�console of her workstation.

"Any reason why you�re studying ECG waves Commander?" He asked somewhat confused why Alex would be expending her time indulging in such things when more important matters required her attention.

Alex turned to him sharply. "What?"�

"You�re studying ECG readings," he repeated himself, pointing to the strange zigzagging of lines on the screen of her workstation.

Alex looked at him blankly and it was at this point Nathan realized he had the undivided attention of everyone on the bridge. They were staring at him with their eyes wide and waiting for him to explain himself. "What? Why are you looking at me? My fly is undone again?" He attempted to joke but no one laughed.�

"Nathan," Alex asked slowly, not daring to breathe when she spoke, ignoring his less than stellar turn at comedy. "To me, that is the radiating energy signature from that planetoid. What do you call it?"

"An electrocardiogram reading." Nathan�answered�as if it ought to be plain to everyone and then decided he could not blame them of course. ECG�s had not been used in almost two hundred years old and only a physician would recognize them for what they were. "It was used in the late 20th until the end of the 21st century to detect heart defects. The method was abandoned with the invention of multi-phasic sensors in medical technology."

"Oh my God..." Alex started to realize.

"Jesus Christ," Chris exclaimed as she nodded slowly at him. "It�s not a planetoid or an asteroid, it�s goddamn life form!"

"How is that possible?" Mary asked horrified. "How could that planetoid be alive?"

"What we see is a planetoid." Alex started to explain, everything becoming apparent with that one discovery. "We�ve been so involved with the idea of that being a spacial body, we never cross referenced it with a medical database."

"That�s why we can�t figure out how it can hold an atmosphere and maintain its orbit," Vin�caught on just as quickly. "It�s probably something that was born in space."

"Are you saying that Buck and the Away Team are on a space alien the size of a small moon?" Nathan looked at the faces around him and saw the answer in their eyes.

"It's not impossible," Chris said quickly. "James Kirk�s Enterprise and Enterprise D reported such creatures in existence. You have the crystalline entity that wiped entire colonies by draining life force without ever touching the surface of the planets they were on. Kirk recorded the Enterprise encountering a creature that was basically a giant amoeba in space�drawing life force out of passing ships. I think the entire crew of the original Intrepid was lost to the thing. There are precedents in nature for such life forms. We know it is possible. I think this one draws life force as well, but only from animal tissue."

"That would explain why the vegetation of all the planets is still thriving," Mary replied, remembering what Alex had told her earlier. "It killed all the animal life on one planet and then simply moved on until it exhausted the supply throughout the entire system."

"Captain," Alex had been busily pondering the issue ever since they made this shattering discovery and her mind had more theories to offer in the face of what they now knew. "I think you are right about this creature needing life force but I also believe this one is capable of manipulating matter into whatever shape it desires. This too we have encountered before. When we established treaties at Farpoint, it was reported that a creature capable of altering its shape to look like a ship was sighted at the planet. It was capable of generating enough energy to simulate phaser blasts."

"And speaking of phasers," Vin added, remembering what he had read about Ezra�s report when the security chief had returned to the Maverick after his first encounter with the Leonov and the planetoid. "Ezra mentioned something about testing his phaser to make sure they weren�t affected by the dampening field by firing at the ground. The planetoid destabilized just for a moment."

"Like it was hurt." Nathan guessed accurately.

"Which means we can hurt it," Chris said feeling extremely pleased that after long last, they had a working theory. "That�s why it looks like a planetoid. It probably allowed the Leonov to land on it and maintained the illusion in order to draw others to it."

"As bait." Alex agreed grimly. "A distress beacon would be a good way to ensure that happening."

"This would all have to hinge on the Leonov cooperating with it," Mary spoke up because this was the part she did not understand. "I mean what could this thing possibly offer Kelisan and his people to keep them from telling us the truth and blasting out of there?"

"I don�t know," Chris answered. "But now that we know what we�re up against, Nathan, Alex, I want you both to work together to find a way to break through the dampening field. We need to pinpoint the exact location of the Away Team in order to beam them to ship before I authorize phaser bombardment."

"Captain." Mary looked at him in shock. "That is a life form out there. It may simply be feeding like any creature might do so in its survival. I agree we should do whatever we can to get out people back but is it really necessary to start shooting at it?"

"Mary," Chris met her gaze in a gentle tone, understanding what she was saying and in truth, he did not wish to take that course of action unless given no other choice. "I have to do what is best for my crew and if a light phaser spread will convince it to let our people go, I have to take that chance. The alternative is to let everybody still on that thing, die."

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

This will not do.

Ezra Standish thought several times as he grabbed another handhold and pulled himself up against the face of the mountain they were attempting to scale. He could feel the hard, irregular surface of rock scraping at his skin and felt a singularly chagrined he was�forced to indulge in this labor. They had been at it for several hours now, climbing the walls of the formation like arachnids without the benefits of�their skill. Their progress�was slow but they made it to the slope as intended and then continued on foot for some time before they reaching another steep obstruction that needed to be climbed in order to pass.

The formation was not very high, little more than 1500 meters but the trek across it was not easy when they were faced with high walls, passable only by climbing. Although both of them were physically fit enough for the task, neither had much experience in mountain climbing. Added to that concern, of course, was the fact this mountain had suddenly appeared out of thin air and might possibly vanish into the same, with them still on it. Ezra did not like dealing with unknowns, except when he was playing cards and even then, he had some measure of control over the situation.

It would not be so bad of course if his partner in misery was anyone but the titian-haired beauty who ran supreme in Engineering. Ezra�s feelings for Julia Pemberton were deep and he knew when emotions filtered into rational thought, a man was compromised the way he was now. He did not want his strong affections for the woman to cloud his judgment on what was the correct course of action. In truth, he wanted to spare her the hell of trying to cross this great obstacle but Security Chief Standish knew there was no other way. They had to get back to Buck and the others before it was too late.

Julia had stopped moving and immediately brought Ezra�s thoughts to a halt.

"Is something the matter?" he asked as he stopped climbing, his body pressed hard against the surface of the rock, with only a slim protrusion of stone to keep him from plunging down.

"No," Julia replied, breathing hard as she felt the burning pain on her palms as she kept her tight grip on the notch in the wall that was just large enough for her to grasp. "I�m just taking a breather."

She looked up, squinting even though there was no sun to be felt on this asteroid to warrant it but doing so mostly out of some strange instinct on her body�s part. They were almost to the top and she hoped the journey down would not be as laborious as the effort so far. She swallowed thickly, yearning for a drink of water desperately but the enviro-suits had not come with such provisions.� Even if they did, the suits were now at the foot of the mountain, where they had abandoned it to begin this journey. In any case, to satiate her thirst even if she did miraculously possess a canister of water, would require her using her hands and the moment she let go, she would fall.

"We are almost to the top." Ezra declared, trying to sound encouraging even though he was just as exhausted and tired as she was. He could see the sweat forming on her face and the dampness on her grey singlet. She had discarded the turtleneck earlier and her Starfleet tunic was tied around her waist. He himself had done away with his own tunic but kept the turtleneck on.

"I know," she nodded, looking down at him with a little smile. "I�m just a little winded that�s all."

"Who is not?" Ezra sighed, letting his gaze sweep over the terrain before them. As he looked on the plains where they had discovered the alien ship graveyard, he wondered how else was this entity able to control their perception and knew to defeat the life form, they had to find it. He wondered if Buck and the others had suddenly noticed a mountain in the horizon where there had been none before. Probably not, Ezra realized or else Buck would be here already to investigate.

"Okay," she said after a moment and felt ready to continue. "I�m good to get going."

With that, she pulled herself upwards once more, her fingers searching for yet another handhold and finding one that seemed even narrower than the others but had little choice but to try. She ignored the abrasive pain as she dragged herself over the rough stone, grunting as she felt her muscles ache and more sweat forming on her brow. The peak of the mountain seemed a thousand miles away even though in truth, she knew they would be upon it in less than an hour. It was the fact that some of the slopes were almost at 90 degrees angles that made it so arduous.

"I gotta say one thing for you Ezra," Julia spoke with a strained voice, trying to take her mind off the last leg of their journey with a little discussion. "You sure know how to show a lady a good time."

She did not even have to see his face to know that he was frowning.

"Are you ever going to let me forget our unfortunate first date?" Ezra asked with a slight groan engendered by more than just the strenuous activity they were indulging at the moment.

"Let me think," she paused a moment, pretending to consider her answer before replying less than a second later. "No."

"Lieutenant Pemberton," he sighed as he grabbed the jutting rock where her foot had been a second ago. "Why do I possess this sneaking suspicion that you are thoroughly enjoying my discomfort?"

"Because I am." She looked down long enough to flash him a dazzling smile. "Can I ask you something," she responded when she turned her attention to what she was doing. "What on earth made you think I would enjoy a place like that?"

"Well, I had brought that particular program with me when I had arrived on the Maverick. I won it from a Rigellian dealer who promised me that it was an authentic representation of a luxury resort in Earth�s 20th century. With a name like Caesar�s Palace, one assumed the program would mean a place of Roman style opulence, not a garish caricature of the same with live animals in attendance."

"Good call," she teased and heaved herself upwards again, feeling her exhilaration rising as she saw the jagged edge which signaled the end of their long climb. "Next time, if you don�t mind, I�ll pick the place."

"Next time?" Ezra looked up sharply, even though she was not facing him.

"Of course," Julia answered a little distractedly, concentrating her attention on reaching the top with renewed vigor. None of them were looking down now, not when they were so close to their goal. "I had always planned to go with you on a second date Commander." There was just enough of a lilt in her voice for him to be aware she was flirting with him.

"Why I am honored," Ezra said with a hint of sarcasm. "So everything until this point was just an exercise in my torture?"

"Oh no," Julia gazed down and gave him a sweet smile. "Everything until now has just been mental punishment, torture comes later."

"And what do you have in mind?" He asked, increasing his pace to keep up with her. The prospect of reaching the end of their lengthy climb had also instilled in him a desire to move faster.

Julia stared upwards again and said with a little smile that he could not see. "Now that would be telling, wouldn�t it? Trust me, you�ll be surprised."

What do you mean you can�t find it?" Commander Buck Wilmington demanded, following the report by the spokesman for the engineering crew he had sent back to the Maverick.

"I don�t know Sir," the lieutenant shifted nervously in his stance, unable to articulate the words that would make what he had said sound remotely understandable. "We headed in the direction of the runabouts and thought we were going the right way but we weren�t."

"How so?" Buck looked at him quizzically, starting to realize the man was genuinely perplexed like the rest of them.

"Well it looked as if we were going the right way but when we got to where the runabouts should have been, it appeared as if we had gone somewhere else because the terrain looked different. We spread out and continued searching, just in case it was close by but it was not."

"Yet you managed to find your back," Buck observed quietly, suddenly aware the fault did not lie with his people or any sense of lost direction. Is this what had happened to Ezra and Julia? They were wandering out there somewhere, unable to return to the Leonov or the runabouts because they had lost their way as well?

"Yes Sir," the lieutenant nodded. "As soon as we turned back, everything became familiar again."

Buck nodded; understanding now better than he ever did before. He looked at the group and then asked another question. "Is Ensign Starke with you?"

"No," the younger man shook his head. "Last we saw of Antonia, she was with the other team."

Buck took a deep breath and turned on his heels. Kelisan and his people were starting back towards the ship. Obviously, nothing that transpired was of any surprise to the man and Buck�s suspicion Kelisan knew more than he was telling was more or less confirmed. Striding across the gravel ground, drawing JD behind him who until this point had been asking around to see if anyone knew the whereabouts of Antonia Starke, Buck grabbed Kelisan by the shoulder and spun the Tellerite around to face him.

"All right, you win," Buck said harshly, his voice a loud hiss as he spoke. "We aren�t going anywhere. You want to tell me what�s going on here?"

"Going on?" Kelisan looked at the Starfleet officer with an expression of smug satisfaction. "Nothing is going on. Your terrible sense of navigation has nothing to do with us."

"Nothing to do with you?" Buck returned smoothly but the contempt in his voice was clear. "You have been playing me and my crew for fools ever since we arrived here. Now my people are starting to go missing so I�m through being nice." Without taking his eyes off Kelisan, Buck called out. "Lieutenant Katovit!"

The assistant security chief immediately stepped forward. Like the rest of security, the lieutenant had been searching the plains for Ezra Standish and Julia Pemberton without much success and had returned to the rendezvous point a short time ago. "Yes, Sir?"

"I want you to hold Mr. Kelisan and his crew here," Buck ordered firmly, keeping his eyes fixed on Kelisan and his people. "If they attempt to leave this place, shoot them."

"Yes Sir," the Lieutenant answered with an expression on his face that revealed he held no mixed feelings about that order. Ezra Standish had earned his loyalty as his superior officer and if this Tellerite had anything to do with the man�s disappearance, his security team would take great exception to that.

"We won�t go any here," Kelisan said with a smile, not all perturbed by Buck�s extreme response to the threat the Starfleet officer perceived them to be. "We shall remain here as you will remain here."

The confidence in which he said that did more to unnerve Buck than anything else that happened so far. What secret knowledge did he have that made him so sure of that fact? Buck did not intend to find out.

"Everyone else, stay here." He shouted the order to the rest of the Maverick�s crew lingering out in the open. To tell the honest truth, Buck was happier that they were not in the Leonov since he suspected there was something about the ship that was not all it seemed. However, as he was soon starting to learn, this entire place had the consistency of smoke.

"Come on JD," Buck ordered as he strode purposefully towards the Leonov.

"Where are we going, Buck?" The young ensign asked, starting to get unnerved by everything taking place.

"We�re going to the Leonov," he answered firmly, even though it was fairly obvious it was the only place they could go since the runabouts had either disappeared or their minds were being tampered with to keep them from reaching the small ships.

"We�re going to tear the place apart until we find Ensign Starke."

It did not take them long to reach the Leonov and somehow Buck was not surprised they managed to find the ship while the runabouts remained lost to them. Whatever was taking place on this planetoid, it seemed to find its focus around this ship and its crew. Buck had suspected there was something odd from the day he had arrived but he had given the Leonov and its crew the benefit of the doubt because the Starfleet officers had wanted so much to find survivors in their rescue operation. Perhaps the desire for hope had blinded them from the truth. He knew he was certainly guilty of that fact.

They entered the empty corridors of the Leonov and suddenly, alone inside the ship with its grimy walls and dark lighting, the place did not look like a hallowed place of a refuge but rather sinister and eerie. Buck noticed JD was keeping his hand close to his phaser, prepared to shoot at the first thing that made the wrong move. He could see the fear in the youth�s eyes despite JD�s best efforts to contain it within himself.

"You okay?" Buck asked as they proceeded down the narrow corridor, heading towards the engineering deck.

"Yeah," JD nodded. "I think so." He answered after a moment, meeting his commanding officer�s gaze.

"Good," Buck offered him a little smile, knowing this was a lot to take when one had no experience under one�s belt to handle the bizarre. It took officers years to fully appreciate the universe was a place of terror as well as wonder. "Just keep your eyes open and notice everything."

"Why are they lying to us, Buck?" JD asked as they reached the metal stairs that led into the depths of the ship. "We�re here to help them and they treating us like the enemy."

Buck could not answer that question well enough to give JD a satisfactory response. The kid was looking to him because he was the veteran of the two and yet in all his experience, Buck had never come across the peculiarities taking place on this asteroid since they had arrived here.

"I don�t know JD," he confessed. "They want to stay here really bad and I�m starting to think it�s not just because of the ship. The ship is the excuse. There�s something more at work here."

"Something they�d be willing to kill for?" JD spoke up, wondering if such a fate had befallen Ezra, Julia and now Antonia too.

"Nothing would surprise me right about now." Buck retorted. "I have a feeling if we could get a damn tricorder to work, we�d have an answer in a minute."

JD seemed to agree. It seemed terribly convenient none of their scanning equipment seemed to work as if that was part of the effort to keep the secret, just like their adamant refusal to go to the Maverick for a medical diagnostic. By now, there could be no denying the complicity of the Leonov�s crew in what was taking place on this planetoid. The question now seemed to be, however, how deeply were they involved?

They continued down the metal stairs, making quiet steps as they descended into the engineering deck when suddenly, what appeared like an animal growling rumbled through the hall and bathed them in its booming sound. For a moment, both men looked at each other, certain of they heard but not quite able to believe it. They held position for a moment, waiting to see if it would repeat itself. Seconds stretched into minutes and then it was heard again, only this time, it was followed by a guttural scream that ended as abruptly as it had begun.

"Move!" Buck ordered just before he started racing down the steps. JD followed him closely, their footsteps echoing loudly throughout the ship as their progress was charted by the clanging sound of their feet against the metal deck. Buck jumped the last few steps and landed heavily on the metal surface, his phaser already drawn as they entered the engineering deck. Like the rest of the ship, it was dimly lit and full of shadows only heightened his awareness the presence of danger was saturating the air.

When he came to a stop, Buck held his position for a brief moment, taking the time to listen carefully to the sounds generated throughout the deck or rather were not. He was certain of what he had heard, no matter how improbable and he slowly took a step forward, careful his movements remained stealthy. JD did the same. The younger man followed his lead, his phaser drawn as well but Buck could see the beads of sweat running down his skin.

They penetrated deeper into the engineering deck, hearing that same growl after a few seconds. It was not just a growl but something that made his skin crawl upon hearing it. It sounded like guzzling and tearing of something wet. The possibilities began to loom ominously in his mind at what it could be, the nearer Buck and JD approached its epicenter. The sounds of movement were clear now, with no effort made to hide it and the voice that had cried out in terror for a brief instance was no more.

They rounded the corner into the center of engineering and what they saw was enough to take them completely by surprise.

Antonia Starke was dead.

Considering what was presently happening to her corpse, Buck was somewhat glad of this fact. JD�s eyes widened and he had to turn away or else he would have become sick there and then. The creature who had committed this act of homicide stared at them with yellow eyes and opened its mouth full of inch long white teeth to utter an ear-piercing roar that was full of challenge, daring them to come and take the body from it. Striped with a fine pelt of yellow and black, the size of it was enough to give both men reason to pause. On its hind legs, it could easily match Buck for height and its muscles were thick and powerful, indicating that one swipe from its paw could most likely gut one of them.

"My God..." JD exclaimed, starting to feel sick as he watched the tiger feed on the dead body of Ensign Starke.

In a better state of mind to act, Buck stepped forward, uncaring of what it was; knowing only no one ought to be defiled that way. His movement prompted the creature to leave its kill and it immediately lunged at him. Buck dropped to his knees as the creature sailed over him and JD had to jump out of the way to keep the animal and its considerable bulk from landing right on top of him. Considering the reputed power known to exist in those jaws, JD decided he rather not be on the receiving end of the animal�s bite.

Fortunately, the tiger did not seem interested in remaining and took the opportunity while both men got to their feet to continue up the stairs. It moved with the slick and grace of a feline known throughout Earth�s history as one of its most fearsome predators. The creature bounded up the stairs without making a sound as the soft pads of its feet moved quietly against the deck. JD picked himself up and saw Buck approaching Antonia instead of going after the creature.

The young woman�s blood covered the immediate vicinity and as Buck leaned over to examine her, he saw the killing wound had been to her neck, or what was left of it. The tiger�s bite had more or less ripped away all her flesh right down to the vertebrae, he could see torn muscles, severed veins and the like, oozing blood as surely as the warmth in her body was bleeding away. She had not been dead long, that much Buck could tell because�when he touched the skin of her bloodied cheek, he could feel the fading heat of her body.

"Buck what we saw," JD stammered as he turned away from the scene, unable to look any more. "It was real wasn�t it?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded grimly. He stood up slowly, pained that there was nothing he could do for the young woman and angered that she had met her end in such a grisly way. "We saw a tiger."

"I thought the animals were all dead." JD swallowed, trying not to remember he had only talked to Antonia a short time ago, that in all likelihood, he�was the last person to see her alive.

"Apparently not," Buck said as he studied the paw prints on the floor, left behind by the animal when it fled because it had stepped in Antonia�s blood in its hasty departure. "Come on, we better find that thing before it kills someone else."

JD nodded and followed Buck who was moving up the steps, his eyes searching for signs of the creature�s tracks, going back up the way they had come in the first place.

"I read the manifest," JD said in an effort to occupy his mind with thoughts other than that of Antonia�s horrible death. "They were moving exotic animals to some zoo in Lysia just before they crashed."

"I want to know why the hell they didn�t say nothing about it," Buck growled angrily, wondering why it was a secret. He was furious they had kept the creature�s existence away from him when an engineering crew, not to mention a security team had been wandering around the place with no idea that something like that was lurking in the darkness. The terrible fate inflicted on Antonia Starke seemed inevitable in the face of that piece of non-disclosure. "That thing could have killed all of us."

"It killed one of us, that�s enough." JD declared, feeling his stomach churn with unease after what he had witnessed. He prayed that this was not the fate that had befallen Julia and Ezra.

"You�re right," Buck apologized as they emerged on the main deck once more, the bloody footprints having led them back into the corridor they had taken prior to their gruesome discovery. "Kelisan and his people have kept enough secrets from us, I�m getting really tired of their lies. I�m almost ready to leave them down here to rot since they seemed to want us in the same boat with them."

Buck followed the footprints down the corridor and the creature seemed to be heading towards the crew quarters occupied by the Leonov�s survivors. For a moment, Buck had this absurd idea the tiger might be someone�s pet but no animal after a taste of human flesh could ever be domesticated by one. Suddenly the paw prints came to a stop outside a set of doors and went no further. Buck looked at JD quizzically, unable to understand where the creature had disappeared to. Only the control panel on the wall could activate the door and unless the tiger had developed some advanced form of intelligence he was unaware of, Buck could not see how he would have passed this point.

As he and JD looked around the hallway outside the entrance for any more prints as to give some clue where the creature had disappeared to, the door slid open. The Leonov�s navigator, Janice stepped out of the room and paused at the sight of them outside her quarters.

"What are you doing?" She demanded as she saw the two men staring at her bewildered.

"There�s some kind of wild animal roaming around this place," Buck replied without hesitation.

"Wild animal?" Janice looked at him as if he were mad. "I haven�t seen anything."

"The paws prints go to your door." The first officer declared. His patience with every member of the Leonov had exhausted itself long ago. "Unless the damn thing sprouted wings and flew off, someone had to let it into your room."

"You�re free to search it if you like," she said coldly, unafraid to hide her disdain at his inference.

"I will," Buck brushed past her and activated the door panel. When the doors had slid open, he stepped inside, not waiting to be invited.

Inside the room, there was no sign of any life, human or otherwise. The tiger, like Ezra and Julia, had vanished.


Despite their claim of seeing an Earth-type predator roaming through the darkened halls of the Leonov, being met with nothing less than derision by the crew member they encountered, the fact remained Ensign Starke was still dead. It also stood to reason, she was mauled to death with something possessing jaws more powerful than any human. As Janice ushered them out of her quarters after they had lost sight of the creature, there was nothing left to do at present but to return to the rendezvous point and gather a detail to tend to the young woman�s body. Buck was reluctant to bury her on this lonely planetoid, not when there was a possibility of returning her to her family when they got back to the ship.

It further angered Buck, the callous dismissal of the navigator at the news that someone had died, especially when one considered the only reason Starfleet officers were on this rock in the first place was to aid the Leonov and its crew. Buck seethed inwardly in anger but reminded himself that a commanding officer had no time for such feelings, not when he still had two crewmen missing and a dangerous animal to track before it killed again. Despite his anger at losing one of his people, the question begged to be asked.

Where the creature had been all this time the Maverick�s crew had been on the surface?

Until now, they never had the slightest hint such a creature might exist not to mention the difficulties in caring for the animal. It was also a terrible strain on resources to keep a tiger fed, considering how voracious its dietary requirements could be. However, the question of why was not as important to Buck as the how. In their repair efforts, the Maverick�s crew had been right throughout the ship, even the parts of it supposedly contaminated by Berthold radiation and nothing they had seen supported the possibility of this creature�s existence prior to this day.

Buck knew that the timing of Ensign Starke�s death could not be coincidental since they had now lost their means to escape the planetoid. Even though he kept his observations to himself, he had the terrible premonition things were going to escalate now they were effectively trapped here with the rest of the Leonov. There was no reason to move in subterfuge now, the crew of the Maverick could not leave nor could they warn the ship of danger, now it was starting to expose itself, unafraid of the discovery. Buck wondered if Julia and Ezra had made some similar discovery. Had they found something that required their disappearance to hide?

As they made their way back to the rendezvous point where the Maverick�s crew was holding Kelisan and his people at bay, Buck noticed JD had become very silent. The young man was clearly disturbed which was unsurprising considering he and Ensign Starke probably moved in the same circles, being the same age and had probably known each other at the Academy since they were both newly commissioned.

Buck who had more than his share of fellow officers dying in the past could appreciate how difficult it was to absorb the death of a crewmate, especially when one was young and fresh from the Academy. The glamour of starship assignment was still fresh in one�s eyes and the danger of it had yet to sink in for one to understand that it was dangerous out here and people died, regularly. JD Dunne was one of the most promising young officers in the Maverick�s stable, if not the most promising and it�was Buck�s singular pleasure to nurse him through his formative years in Starfleet. However, there were some things he would have to take care of himself and all Buck could do was offer guidance.

Unfortunately, answers were another thing altogether.

"You okay JD?" Buck found himself asking.

"Yeah," he nodded quietly. "I just can�t believe she couldn�t care less." He remarked, referring of course to Janice�s behavior.

"Believe it," Buck remarked, his lips thinning into an unhappy line mostly because he was no happier�by the lack of compassion the woman had shown at Ensign�s Starke�s grisly death, not to mention accepting their explanation at how it had happened. All she had been interested in doing was proving she had not seen the creature that committed the act of murder, and yet the blood prints had proved the tiger could have gone nowhere else.

"I remember reading the manifest for all the animals," JD explained, emerging into the darkness outside the ship. Now more than ever, the oxygenated darkness seemed more foreboding than ever. JD had never realized how eerie it had looked to be on the surface of this planetoid like they were in space but not quite as if their minds were not ready to accept the environment was anything but hostile

"Manifest," Buck looked at him, remembering the youth had mentioned something but not paying close attention until now. "How many of them were there?"

"About eleven."

Something about that number struck him even though for the present, he could not imagine how. No more than he could imagine how it was possible for Kelisan to keep livestock alive when their own survival here had been so tenuous. While Buck would feel naturally grieved at having to destroy the animals, he would not hesitate to do so when that would have been more merciful than allowing them to starve. There was no way the Leonov could feed animals of this nature, even if they were willing to starve themselves. However, the Leonov crew did not appear starved, not in the least. Sure they were gaunt and a little hollow around the eyes but that was what one expected of people trapped on this planetoid for so long.

They were cresting the top of a slight mound when suddenly, Aislynn appeared before them. She appeared to have been running and was out of breath when she sighted JD and Buck.

"Aislynn!" Buck called out. "What are you doing here? You should be back with the others." Her presence here brought to mind other concerns immediately. How had she managed to get past his security team? As charming as the young lady could be, Ezra�s security officers were professionals and were trained by the Chief, himself not to fall sway to any entreaty especially if it came from a group of individuals whose intentions were suspect.

"I had to come!" She cried out, genuine concern in her eyes. "I had to warn you."

"Warn us of what?" Buck retorted. "How did you get past my security people?" His hands gripped her shoulders tightly and he was just angry enough after losing Ensign Stark to shake the truth out of her, which was mild in comparison to what he had in mind when he got his hands on Mr. Kelisan.

"You�re in trouble." She declared, clearly troubled by her presence here and she looked worried as she cast her gaze over the shoulder as if debating what she would do next. "I didn�t want them to get you too."

"Them?" Buck�s voice hardened into granite as the possibility of horrific proportions became to look in his mind over the possible fate of his engineering team and security officers. "Who's them?" He shook her and drew a cry from her.

"Please Buck!" She pleaded for him to stop. Tears running down her youthful face. "It was not my idea. I didn�t have a choice! We had to do what it wanted us to do. It needs to feed!"

Buck�s eyes widened and JD�s jaw dropped open as Buck said very quietly as he stopped shaking Aislynn and stared at her. "What do you mean it?"

"It!" She started to cry. "It lured us here the same way it lured you!" Aislynn swallowed thickly as she stared at him, with nothing less than guilt in her young eyes.

Buck could very well believe her claims that she did not wish to see him die and knew that she cared for him a great deal, as much as any young girl with her first crush tended to do. "But the damage to the ship�" He stammered.

"It lets you see what it wants you to see." She explained, knowing it was death if the others heard her speak this way. However, Aislynn was not about to let Buck Wilmington end up the same way as all the other poor unfortunates who had been lured to this world in the last six months. "The ship is not damaged. We landed because we detected a distress signal and saw a ship on the surface. Once we were here, it would not let us leave. It killed everyone except us."

"Where is it?" JD asked, his phaser drawn staring about apprehensively for their phantom creature.

"It�s all around us." She replied, her eyes darting about nervously like a terrified animal. "For those of us who were left alive, we found that after a while we could communicate with it. It told us it would keep us alive and maintain the air if we cooperated."

"Why didn�t you just leave?" The Ensign asked because Buck was too busy contemplating what Aislynn had told him already.

Aislynn did not answer and as she struggled to address JD�s question, Buck spoke up and spared her the embarrassment of forcing the truth from herself.

"Its because they don�t know isn�t it?" He looked at her. Now things started to make sense, Julia Pemberton�s observation that none of the Leonov�s crew were capable of making even the most minor repairs on their ship or even troubling themselves with the notion of making their habitat even the slightest bit more comfortable during the length of their incarceration.

Aislynn blinked and warm tears ran down her cheeks.

"No, we didn�t." She said ashamed and whispered after a moment as Buck raised her chin in his hand and wiped the tear running down her reddened cheeks. "I don�t like what we have done but I�m the weakest and the youngest. What I say doesn�t matter to the others."

"It�s not your fault," JD said understanding perfectly how it was to be overruled by his elders although he could not imagine being in the terrible situation Aislynn had been virtually locked into the moment the Leonov landed on the planetoid. "You couldn�t help it."

"I don�t like hurting people," she swallowed looking at Buck, needing him to understand most of all because of how she felt about him. "I like them and I don�t want to see them get killed. All I want is to be away from here. If I help you get away, will you promise to take me, Buck?" She asked hopefully, gazing into his strong face, hoping the kindness she saw there was not an illusion like everything else in her universe.

"Of course I will," Buck said tenderly, having no stomach to disappoint this child who was not responsible for the action of the adults of around her.

"Thank you, Buck," she smiled at him sadly and then added. "I am sorry about the others."

The first thing that Ezra and Julia heard, once they concluded their exhausting descent from the mountain that had sprung forth out of nowhere and barred them from their friends and crewmates, were the screams.

After the most back-breaking endeavor that either officer had undertaken in recent times, Ezra and Julia finally crossed the unnatural formation and saw the Leonov awaiting as they had left it, unconcerned over their ordeal as it continued to remain in its stranded location. They saw no signs of anyone as they made their way towards the ship and neither was there any effort to impede their progress by the mysterious force that saw fit to plant a mountain before them. Despite his gratitude they managed to cross the large rock obstacle without incurring any serious injury, the lack of interference gave him reason for concern. Ezra now wondered what was the real reason behind its granting them passage back to their friends, knowing the news they brought could only confirm the Maverick�s suspicion that nothing about this place was what it appeared.

Thus instead of going to the Maverick, Ezra decided the safest course of action was to get Julia to the runabout so she could return to the starship and inform the captain what they had discovered, while he, in turn, went to find Buck and conveyed the same. After everything that had happened so far and despite the seemingly benign state of their mysterious attacker for the moment, Ezra had no intention of allowing her to go to the Midkiff on her own and insisted on accompanying her. Only until he saw the craft in the air would he rest easy.

"Are you sure you won�t come with me?" Julia asked, hating to separate after their trek together. They were both similarly exhausted with Julia wanting nothing more than to drink in a long glass of water while indulging in a nice hot bath. There was dirt in places on her body, she would rather not name and could hardly imagine how disheveled she looked. Normally, she would not care less about such things but did this ordeal have to happen with the one person on the Maverick�s whose opinion about how she looked mattered the most?

"No," Ezra shook his head even though he would not mind being far away from this place. Despite himself, he had to confess he did not like this place and would rest easier being back on the ship but he was Chief Security Officer. That meant he had a responsibility to his crew which went beyond his personal feelings. "I have to find Commander Wilmington and tell him what we have learned, not to mention what we have endured. I for one am very interested in Mr. Kelisan�s explanation of things."

"Ezra he may not know anything." She pointed out as their course diverted from the Leonov and progressed towards the runabout. "If we couldn�t see those ships without flash blindness, it is completely possible that neither could the Leonov�s crew."

"I will give them the benefit of that doubt," Ezra replied and then paused a moment because it did not feel right, no matter how much he tried to think it possible her explanation might be the truth. "Julia, I have made a career reading people and learning what they are thinking, to know that Mr. Kelisan is lying and has been lying since we arrived here. It is as much as body language as what it is in his eyes and both tell me he is hiding something, something exceedingly dangerous and is near terrified of having us find out. I will know what that is, one way or another."

Julia nodded somberly; aware he had to do what he must and knowing secretly it was the reason she cared so much about him. Ezra Standish was such a paradox at the time. There were moments when he appeared as if he would trade his own mother for a quick dollar and then there were other times when he bore such a strong streak of nobility and honor, it was hard to imagine it coming from the same man.

"Is that right?" she brightened a little, trying not to dampen the moment with unhappy thought. "So tell me, what am I thinking?" She asked.

Ezra flashed her that dimpled smile that she found utterly irresistible before saying. "Well, you�re thinking I am a terrible charming man you must simply forgive for his trespass at our first encounter?"

"Oh really?" She looked at him skeptically. "I�d try again."

Ezra was about to respond when suddenly he heard a scream and several others, cutting through the moment and slicing through their ears with the piercing effectiveness of a knife.

"What the hell was that?" She demanded but Ezra was already running, phasers drawn. She fumbled for her own weapon and ran behind him in pursuit, wondering what else could possibly happen now.

The screams continued, blood-curdling chilling groans of guttural agony and as they ran across the sandy terrain against the blackness of space as their sky, there seemed to be something primeval soaking up the strange air coating this world. As they neared the sounds of screaming, they could hear other sounds, not quite screams but not quite voices either. If one had to put a definition to it, the best description would be a roar.

Through this windless harsh environment that looked like the lunar surface of a barren rock, they could hear an animal roaring in majestic fury. What they saw as they closed into on the sounds was enough to take them both by surprise and then horror. Both Ezra and Julia stood frozen in place for a few seconds as they came upon the scene, for a moment wondering if this was just another illusion produced by the entity that placed a mountain before them. Ezra wished more than anything that it was just that, an illusion but as he saw the tide of blood and the dying before him, he knew it was anything but a facade.

This madness was real.

The creatures varied from small to extremely large predators, the kinds of animals one would see in a zoo. A tiger was presently tearing out the throat of one his security officers while those who had not been overcome were firing at the creatures desperately, trying to chase them off their screaming comrades to little or no avail. The engineering officers who were not armed did not have the luxury of defense and as the jaws snapped close around one neck, ending everything person was in a spurt of blood, Ezra already shooting and offering defense in any way he could, saw something else. Upon death, something was bled away from the body that was not just life. It drifted out of the body like white smoke before sinking into the heaving earth.

Each death that came saw a repeat of this strange phenomenon. Mist-like, it lifted out of the body long enough to enjoy freedom for but an instant before the earth absorbed it once more like a magnet pulling in nail fillings, refusing to go and consume it whole. Ezra watched for a split second, watching the cycle take place, hollowing in the gut each time it happened because he knew it was one of his crewmates. Setting his phaser for kill since stun seemed to be doing little to stop the creatures from mauling those who were unarmed to death, he took careful aim knowing his shots had to be precise or he would be dealing death to whomever he was trying to save.

"Ezra watch out!" He heard Julia scream as he was adjusting his weapon and looked up to see the furry bulk of orange and blank stripes leaping at him with teeth leading the way. Ezra raised his arm to fire but the creature moved with incredible speed, all he could do was use it to keep the tiger from its throat. The power in those feline limbs dropped them both on the ground with the creature clearly in the dominant position. Ezra felt his phaser fly out of his hand just before teeth sank deep into his forearm. He let out a cry of pain as blood immediately spilled forth from broken skin, staining his turtleneck in waves of vibrant red.

Julia watched in horror as the animal prepared to move its powerful jaws to the tender flesh of his neck, which was customary for a tiger kill before she immediately lunged for the phaser that had been in Ezra�s hand. Around her pandemonium ensued and too many dead were lying on the soil for her to endure Ezra joining her number. She moved with more grace and agility than she had ever mustered in her life. Julia rolled onto her knees after diving for it and completely forgot she was an engineer with no taste for weapons as she fired the shot, praying her routine target practice was not a wasted effort.

A phaser set for kill left no trace of a body. When the beam struck the creature, its entire form glowed and its last act in the living world was to utter a roar of defiance and pain as it disintegrated before Ezra. The security chief let out a sigh of relief as the weight of the creature suddenly disappeared from on top of him and the other animals, seeing the destruction of one of their number immediately desisted in their efforts, startled momentarily by the sudden show of force by the prey. Scattering as large predators did until they had allowed themselves sufficient time to evaluate the encounter, Ezra saw the other animals disappearing into the darkness of the planetoid around them.

What was left in their wake showed Ezra that the Maverick�s crew had won no victory of any kind.

"Ezra, you�re bleeding!" Julia hurried over to him stating the obvious as he tended to his arm while at the same time surveying the extent of the destruction around them. At least half their number lay dead and most of these were engineering officers who had not been armed at the time of the attack. Hampered by their inability to shoot without a clear line of fire, some of his security team was similarly mauled to death

"I am fine." He said not at all caring about his minor injury, not when there was blood everywhere. Ezra had not seen such carnage since he was an ensign fighting the Border Wars with the Cardassians. The area before them looked like a field of battle with a victory being a matter of perspective.

"Oh my god," Julia looked at the faces of the dead and recognized some of those as being men and women she had worked with. She strayed from him, trying to remain detached about their deaths as Starfleet officers were meant to be but there was no way she could manage it completely. Her hand covered her mouth as she tried to hide her sorrow and blinked away open tears as she went to help some of the survivors.

"Commander Standish!" Lieutenant Katovit exclaimed from where he was kneeling over one of the junior members of the security team, looking as dismayed as Ezra did at this moment but lacking his Chief's poker face. Upon seeing Ezra, he rose to his feet and hurried to meet Ezra part way. "We�ve been looking everywhere for you and Lieutenant Pemberton." The assistant security chief declared relieved but at the same time wishing his commanding officer had been here. Perhaps if Ezra had been around, they might have not been caught as unawares as they had been

It was a sentiment that Ezra could well understand because, at the moment, he was feeling the same thing himself. These were his people! He was responsible for their safety! For them to die the deaths that they had received outraged him when they had come here on an errand of mercy. Ezra swallowed away the bile of his anger and met Katovit�s gaze.

"It is a long story," Ezra said in a measured voice because that was all he could trust himself to answer with at this time. He had not been this angry in a long time and Ezra was certain rage was not the best way to proceed. The main objective right now was to get everyone back to the Maverick before more lives were lost. "Suffice to say this planetoid is full of surprises. However, I am more interested in learning what the hell happened here."

Katovit at that moment had some inclination at how much restraint his commander was using by the use of such strong language from a normally erudite man "The captain ordered us back to the ship when you went missing," he explained. "We were gathered here preparing to leave when all of a sudden, it happened."

"Those creatures emerged out of nowhere?" Ezra looked at him.

"No Sir," Katovit said reluctantly. "Those creatures�were the crew of the Leonov."


"It�s simple really," Alexandra Styles explained to Captain Chris Larabee and the remaining members of the senior staff of the Maverick gathered within the confines of the debriefing room. "We know the life form radiates a dampening field capable of deflecting our sensors scan, jams our communications channels and also excludes the possibility of transporter lock, which effectively leaves us blind on all levels. Now, Ezra reported when they first arrived on the surface of the planetoid, the Away Team noted the Leonov was less damaged than what was initially thought. At the time, we did not think much of it but now I believe what he saw was not an aberration but rather an illusion."

"An illusion," Chris absorbed her words, finding her theory sound as he recalled every piece of information Buck and the others had reported to him during their mission on the planetoid. "I think you�re right." He nodded in agreement. "Julia more or less said the same thing when the Away Team first sighted the Leonov. Initially, she had estimated it was going to take a great deal of work to get the Leonov off the ground if it was even possible. However, once she inspected the ship on the planetoid, the damage was not near as severe and the repair time was reduced significantly."

"All life forms have some form of defensive mechanism," Nathan added his voice into the discussion. "The chameleon on Earth changes color to blend into the environment, the tree climbers of Altair are able to exude a body odor that has hallucinogenic properties, leaving its predators disorientated while it makes the escape. Just because this creature is significantly larger in size does not mean it does not have a defensive capability of its own, except this ability also acts as a lure for its food source."

"Could we please pick another way to put that?" Mary asked, wincing at the thought their friends on the planetoid were the main course at a banquet for an alien life form. As it was, she was still having trouble wrapping her mind around the idea the planetoid around which the Maverick had been orbiting the past few days was, in fact, a life form�planning to dine on their comrades trapped on its surface.

"Sorry," Nathan apologized with a sheepish smile, having forgotten there was no need to be quite so graphic in his description of the facts. Sometimes, it was necessary for him to remember being a doctor tended to make him forget not everyone could be as clinically accepting as he was about the grisly nature of some forms of life. "Force of habit." He remarked in Mary�s direction.

"Go on," Chris spoke up sternly over the sound of their conversation because he wanted to hear why Alex called this meeting. He assumed the purpose of the gathering was because the science officer had made some important discovery that might serve to aid the crewmen that were still trapped on the surface of the alien creature/planetoid. His concern for the safety of his people was such that he had no patience to tolerate the customary banter during their briefings. Nathan and Mary immediately fell silent as Chris turned his high powered gaze back to Alex and waited for her to continue.

"Thank you, Sir," she said gratefully and waited until she had their attention before speaking once again. "While we may have established what we see before�we are an illusion, there is no way an illusion could keep us from scanning it or finding our crewmates on its surface. By all rights, our sensors ought to pick up the Away Team with no trouble at all so we can get a transporter lock."

"So why can�t we?" Mary asked, finding herself rather intrigued by what Alex was implying.

"Because we assumed the creature is capable of exuding a powerful dampening field when in actual fact, I don�t think it's doing that at all. I don�t think its instrumentation or sensors, I think it's us."

"Us?" Vin exclaimed confused "How could it be us?"

"Telepathy," Chris said simply, guessing what Alex was driving at. In retrospect, it was the most logical explanation for what had been happening since they arrived in this system. Chris had yet to encounter any dampening field so powerful it could resist all forms of scanning. Throughout this entire situation, this was what Chris found so hard to believe, that nothing they had on board the Maverick was capable of penetrating the shell this planetoid surrounded itself with.

Telepathy was the only answer that made any reasonable sense. All life no matter how advanced or primitive was capable on some level of sensing one another even if that method was not immediately obvious to another life form. An organism as complex as the one they now faced, born in space would find telepathy the most expedient way to communicate with another of its kind. By the same token, it could no doubt use its telepathic capabilities to affect other life forms as well.

"But we heard a distress signal." Vin protested, finding it extremely unpleasant to accept that something could have been altering his view of things by means of mind control. It was not as if he did not have enough difficulties with his mental shields already, without having strange alien creature probing his thoughts and shaping his perceptions to suit its needs. "We were light years away when we detected that distress beacon. That couldn�t have been an illusion."

"The signal is probably real," Alex answered his question and understanding all too well why Vin was so repulsed by the notion of the alien affecting his mind by way of telepathy. Personally, she had not liked the idea any more than he did when Nathan had first brought up the possibility they may have been subjected to telepathic influence. If anything, she felt rather outraged the alien had free reign over her mind. That was a privilege she allowed no one, not even the person she cared for most on the ship. "I don�t doubt we heard a distress signal from the Leonov but once we got close enough to the creature, it was able to affect us almost immediately, giving us the illusion of self it needed us to see."

"To get us on the planetoid," Chris concluded, not having to hear the rest of Alex�s narrative because it was fairly obvious to everyone by now what the alien�s hidden agenda had been. "No doubt it would have manufactured some way to get the rest of the crew down to the planet and if that didn�t work, throw some illusion at us�to force the ship to land or worse."

"Exactly," Alex concluded.

"So now that we know why and how it does what it does, what can we do about it?" Vin asked, looking at the two senior officers for a solution. Like everyone else in the room, Vin was trying to work the problem of their stranded crewmen rather than focus on the fact that they had been stymied by their efforts of retrieving them. "We�re no good to Buck or anyone else down there if we are just as susceptible to whatever telepathy that creature is using on them."

"Well, I think I may have a solution to that," Nathan spoke up now that the discussion had broached that point and Alex sat down so that he could continue the briefing since it was Nathan who had been the one to formulate the idea he was about to present in the first place. "Judging from the ECG readings and all the data Alex has accumulated on the creature since we arrived, I believe there is a way for us to get around the illusionary effects of its telepathy."

"How?" Chris asked impatiently.

Sensing that his captain�s patience was waning, Nathan wasted no time in continuing. "Well at the moment our optic nerve is being bombarded with signals that only allows us to see what the creature wishes us to see. To counteract that effect, I can adjust the optic nerve to accept signals that come from only a visual source, like the light spectrum. It will be a little disorientating at first but will provide enough visual acuity for a person to function and perceive the creature as it truly is."

"It will do," Chris stated firmly not afraid of the risks when there did not seem to be any other alternative. Now he was aware of just what kind of danger Buck and the others were facing, Chris was willing to gamble on any chance they had of retrieving the Away Team, even if it meant an �adjustment� as Nathan put it. "Go on."

Nathan nodded after he was given leave to continue and resumed his explanation of the process he devised�to allow them to see through the illusions the life form so cleverly deceived them with. "The serum�s effects do not last for more than two hours and I estimate a human body could handle two dosages, no more. I would not recommend any more than that because the optic nerve is too sensitive for such continued manipulation. However, the effect should last long enough for us to go the surface and extract the Away Team."

"Good," Chris nodded and released a deep breath, glad they had a decisive course of action. "I take it the serum is ready for use?" Chris asked Nathan as he sat up in his chair, poised to move at a moment�s notice once he had the answer he needed.

"Yes," Nathan answered. "I prepared the hypos shortly before the briefing."

"Alright," Chris spoke up, allowing his gaze to move over the faces of his officers. "I want a minimum complement for our Away Team, Vin, you and I will take a shuttle down there."

Chris started to lift himself out of the chair when he noticed that no one else was doing the same. There was a line of tension running through the room, not to mention a feeling of awkwardness running through the senior officers that put him on guard immediately. Although Vin wore that typically unflappable expression on his face�allowing no one to know what was going on inside his head, Nathan was more telling in his features. The doctor was tense but was not quite ready to say what was on his mind. Alex remained impassive and was frowning, Chris guessed that was mostly to do with the fact he had not singled her out to be on the rescue team and Mary just looked plain uncomfortable.

"Okay," he sat back down. "What is it?"

Furious glances were exchanged back and forth across the room before settling on Mary, who let out a deep breath as a hint of crimson stole into her cheeks.

"Captain," she said after a moment, choosing to be the one who told him what they all had such trouble with because as a protocol officer, it was her duty to do so. "It is inappropriate for you to leave the ship."

Chris looked at her blankly for a moment before the realization of what she was trying to tell him sunk in. "Oh no, you don�t�." Chris started to protest, understanding what she was getting at. "You�re not going to start quoting me regulations about the Captain staying on the bridge."

"Then I will," Alex rose to Mary�s defense because Mary�s feelings for Chris was making it difficult for her to be blunt. "It's tactically unwise for you to leave the ship. As your acting first officer, it is my duty to inform you with half the command staff on the planetoid and unaccounted for, your place is here on the bridge. I am the one who should be going. The Maverick should not be left without her captain if it falls under attack. We have no idea what this life form will do once it discovers we can see through its fa�ade. It�s been responsible for the death of billions of life forms on several different planets, it could not have done that without some form of mobility. If worse comes to worse, it may be capable of putting a formidable defense as any hungry animal might do."

Chris swore under his breath and smoldered inwardly at her words, mostly because she was right. There were too many unknown variables at work here for him to risk himself and his ship over his own desires. A good captain had to know when to stand down and this was one of those times. "Point taken, Commander." He frowned conceding defeat. "You and Vin will take a shuttle to the surface of the planetoid. I want you to find our people and get out. No deviations. Is that clear?" He gave Alex a hard look.

"Yes Sir," she nodded, knowing how hard this was for him and had not wanted to take this course but he was the Captain and with Buck and Ezra off the ship, there was no other choice.

She was expendable. Chris Larabee was not.

Buck felt his heart pounding in his chest as he ran across the barren landscape, widening the distance between himself and his party as he raced towards the rendezvous point where he left the rest of the Away Team. As he neared it, he started to hear the sounds of phaser fire and noises not too dissimilar from what he and JD heard prior to finding Antonia Starke. When Aislynn apologized to him, he finally understood his security team as well as the engineering crew he left behind to go search for the Ensign, were in grave danger.

He barely noticed the Envirosuit he was wearing as he hurried forward, crossing the sandy dunes until he reached the top of a hill allowing him to see the place where he left the rest of the Away Team. Buck stopped short as his eyes widened in nothing less than horror as he saw their broken bodies, lying across the flat plain in the aftermath of the massacre, their blood seeping into the earth. Some were still standing but a great number of them were injured or dead.

"Buck!" Ezra called out as he saw the first officer staring in the scene he and Julia had stumbled upon a short time ago.

For a moment Buck did not answer and Ezra could only imagine what the man must be thinking because Ezra had the exact same thoughts when he was faced with this carnage. He saw Buck's gloved hands fist up as the first officer drew closer to what was left of his Away Team. Julia was helping the other security officers tend to the dead and administer aid to those who were still left alive. It was with a deep sense of outrage that Ezra realized there were going to be many of those.

"Ezra?" Buck seemed to snap out of dazed state at the missing security officer. "Where the hell have you been?" The taller man started to stride towards him. "We've been looking everywhere for you!"

"Trust me, Commander," Ezra let out a heavy sigh as Buck reached him. "It was not by our choice we were led astray. Julia and I had made an interesting discovery and went to investigate when we were beset up by some alien entity that placed a rather large natural formation in our way."

"Entity!" Buck looked at him and then remembered what Aislynn had told him about there being a creature on this planet that was communicating with the crew of the Leonov. "Is that what did this?" He looked around at the bodies around him and felt his stomach hollow in anger. These were his people! He should be able to protect them. Suddenly Buck understood why Chris was the way he was about losing crew. Seeing all the dead around him made Buck think this was his failure! He was their commanding officer! He should have been able to stop this or at least seen it coming!�

"No," Ezra shook his head somberly. "It was not some alien life form that perpetrated this atrocity." The security replied, feeling his jaw clench in anger just thinking about who attacked their fellow officers and crewmates. "It was the crew of the Leonov. According to Lieutenant Katovit, they metamorphosed into animals and wrought this massacre upon our unsuspecting Away Team."

Buck merely stared at him in disbelief but his response was cut short by the arrival of JD and Aislynn. The boy froze in his tracks and stared at what lay before him. Even though the faceplate of his helmet, Buck could see the horror and disgust in his eyes as he viewed the dead and wounded, not to mention the blood. The damn blood that was splattered everywhere, staining the earth and draining JD's face of color.

"JD." Buck started walking towards the young man seeing the panic strike him.

Aislynn was merely staring sadly at what lay before her like she had seen it all a thousand times before. Of course, if what Ezra suspected about that graveyard of ships he and Julia had discovered was true, and then it was not entirely an untrue statement. He followed Buck as the first officer hurried to JD, who was trying to reach the young ensign who had never been confronted by such a grisly scene like this and was reacting the way only a novice could.

JD could not breathe. He had tried to fight the nausea gripping his stomach but the sight of all those dead bodies pierced right through the walls of his control and he could feel bile snaking up his throat. Fumbling for his helmet, he almost wrenched its fastenings free before and hurled it aside before doubling over and retching the contents of his last meal into the sand, continuing to do so until all he could eject was the acid inside his stomach.

"Oh my god..." he stammered. "Oh my god..."�

"JD!" Buck came next to him and held his head down, helping him through the moment. JD felt humiliation overcome him just as easily as nausea, at the undignified display but he could not help it. He had known those people stretched out on the dirt, their bodies broken, their blood oozing out of them into the sand.

"Just breathe easy," Buck said gently, understanding completely what the youth was going through. No one could witness something like this for the first time and not be unaffected. If JD had reacted any other way, he would have been surprised.

It took a few seconds for JD to compose himself and Buck remained at his side throughout most of that time, gently offering the young ensign enough words to make him understand his reaction was natural and there was nothing to be ashamed about.

"I'm sorry Buck," JD said softly, wiping his mouth once he was able to control himself. Despite Buck's understanding, JD felt terribly embarrassed by his display and wished he had been more controlled when he�saw�all those dead bodies. "I've never seen anything like that before." He whispered, glad that everyone was not looking at him. He felt humiliated enough as it was, despite their compassionate understanding.

"Its okay JD," Buck patted him on the back, wanting to reassure him there was no shame in this. "That's exactly why it happened. You'll see a lot of worse things in your time and you'll handle it, I got every confidence in that. Its just going to take some time."

JD offered him a wan smile and Buck had to admit that helping the kid out had centered his own anger somewhat and gave him focus. Once he was assured that JD was all right, Buck strode back to Aislynn, gesturing Ezra to come join him. The security officer was performing what first aid he knew on some of the wounded and immediately complied with the order as soon as he saw Buck waving him over.

"Alright Aislynn," Buck said firmly, trying to keep the anger out of his voice as he spoke to the young woman because she looked so damn afraid. He reminded himself she was not responsible for the actions of her elders. After all, she had come to him and JD to warn them. Buck also had no doubt by allying herself with him and the rest of the Maverick, she had become subject to their fates if her former crewmates were to attack again. "I need to know what this thing is."

Aislynn's eyes glittered with tears as she looked at Buck and Ezra, trying to show them with soulful eyes this was not her intention, she had never been given a choice about this. "Its all around us." She explained.

"All around us?" Buck replied. "I don't understand. What do you mean by that?"

She paused a moment, trying to chose the right words and then decided that the best way to tell him was to just come out and say it. "This place," her gaze moved around the landscape before returning to Buck's face once more. "This place is the entity you are seeking. It is not a planetoid at all but a living thing."

"You mean this entire planetoid is a..."

"A life form." Ezra declared, staring at Buck with wide eyes. "It actually makes sense." He said with more than a hint of excitement. "The reason Julia and I had disappeared for all that time is because we discovered a graveyard of ships. Not simply one or two but dozens! We only managed to see it because Julia acquired a case of flash blindness and in the instance, it took for her vision to clear, the ships became visible to us."

"Okay, its a life form and its lured us here," Buck tried to wrap his mind around all this new data. "What does it what from us?"

Aislynn swallowed and looked at him. "It want to feed. It needs life force but it does not know how to kill to extract it. The body must die first before it can take the energy. It communicated with those of us who were left after it had taken all the life from the Leonov and offered us a chance to survive if we would do the killing for it. We were trapped here, we could not leave and we had no choice but to help it."

"No choice?" Ezra replied derisively, wondering how anyone could sell out others in such foolhardy venture. "All you needed to do was to leave in your ship or tell the poor innocents you kept here like fly paper the truth and they could have taken you."

"No they couldn't," Buck said softly, understanding at last the heartache and the sacrifice Aislynn made when she agreed to help them.

"What do you mean?" Ezra turned to Buck who was staring at the young girl with just as much sadness.

"They're not the crew of the Leonov, Ezra." Buck answered. "They're the livestock being transported to Lysia."


"How is that possible?" Ezra Standish stared at Buck Wilmington with nothing less than astonishment following his revelation regarding the true identity of the Leonov�s �crew�. It took quite a bit to leave the normally cool and collected security chief with his jaw wide open in amazement but Buck�s statement had that effect upon him and more. He thought about the people they had been interacting with the last few days were a little peculiar and while he found their body language displaying all the signs indicating some form of deception, even Ezra had not come to the conclusion Buck just presented to him.

"It lets you see what you wanted to see." Aislynn whispered again, unable to meet Buck�s gaze now he knew her secret. She had never thought it was possible to feel so ashamed in her life but she was. She cared for Buck deeply and she also felt a kinship with these space-faring individuals who lived their lives among the stars as she had always dreamed of doing. Aislynn did not wish to hurt them and she was sick of the killing. "You wanted to see survivors so you did." Her eyes filled with tears.

Buck placed his hand on her cheek, refusing to see anything else but the young woman who had placed everything at risk to help them, not just her life but also her humanity. "Tell us what happened Aislynn," he urged gently, showing her he bore no malice towards her. "The real truth this time."

Aislynn nodded and swallowed thickly. "I don�t know what happened to make the ship land here, I guess it did the same thing to the Leonov as it did to the other ships. We heard it talking to us inside our heads and it said Captain Kelisan did not want to stay here. There was a Betazoid on board who could sense a living thing and that made it impossible for it to trick them into killing themselves like it had done with the crews of the other ships and the planets in this system. It told us if we helped it, we could both feed. It changed some of us and told us what to do. It read Captain Kelisan�s mind and knew exactly how we could kill everyone on board. It told the rest of us to leave the ship while one of us, the one you see now as Kelisan, flooded the decks with radiation. All the crew died within minutes and it was able to feed."

"Dear Lord," Ezra gasped softly, having his questions answered finally even if he did not wish the answers to be this bizarre or gruesome. Now he understood why the supposed crew of the Leonov had such difficulties conducting basic repairs or improve their living conditions on the ship, and why they were so adamant about remaining behind. If they were to leave the planetoid and beam on board the Maverick, it was possible the creature�s powers might waver enough for their true selves to be seen.

"Then it was Janice who killed Antonia." JD who had been listening intently behind Buck exclaimed.

"Antonia?" Ezra gaze Buck a sharp glance. "Ensign Starke?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded somberly while JD�s gaze dropped to his feet. "She went missing right after the Captain gave us the order to evacuate. We found what was left of her in the engineering deck."

Ezra said nothing for a moment, showing his distress at the young woman�s death with little more than a slow blink and puff of air from out his lungs before that cool facade felt into place once again. Like Buck, Ezra felt the crew of the Maverick�his responsibility and losing anyone made him feel as if he had been deficient in his duty to protect them.

"So this thing has been using you and the others to attract other people onto the surface?" Buck asked, getting back to the subject on hand.

"Yes," Aislynn nodded, wishing they would ask her no more questions because she felt guilty enough about all those who died. "Most of the time the ships land and the others were able to make the kill. Your ship was different. It was not like most of the smaller ships that happened this way."

"Galaxy-class ships aren�t made for landing," JD explained. "They can�t enter the atmosphere."

"It could sense all the people on board your ship and hoped it might trap enough of you down here so we could feed but it had to be careful because it knew you could hurt it."�

"Your phaser." Buck replied glancing at Ezra, reminding the security chief of the experimental shot he had taken at the surface when they had first arrived. By testing his phaser to see if it would work, Ezra had caused the planetoid to rock violently, leading them to the conclusion the spacial body had been unstable. Now the answer appeared far simpler. "That was a reaction to pain not an unstable planetoid."

"So it kept delaying our departure, while it came up with a new plan," Buck concluded. "Then Ezra and Julia stumbled on the ships that�came here previously and things started to unravel even further when the captain decided we were to abandon the Leonov here and return to the ship."

"So is everything here an illusion?" JD asked, glancing at Aislynn as he tried to wrap his mind around what they had learned.

"Everything except the air. It makes that on its own." Aislynn replied.

"Commander," Julia Pemberton announced herself as she approached them. The chief engineer wore a worried expression on her face as she wiped the sweat from her brow and tried not to notice her Starfleet singlet was stained with the blood of injured officers. "We got a lot of wounded people here, we need to get them to the ship. Some of them are bleeding badly and if we don�t get them to Sick Bay, they�re going to die."

Buck only needed to look over her shoulder at the collection of prone figures to know her estimation of things was no exaggeration. He took a deep breath and considered what they would do next, aware all eyes were cast in his direction, awaiting orders. "Aislynn, do you think you can help us get to our ships?"

"I can sort of find it." She confessed. "I have a strong sense of smell that can give me an idea if we are going in the right direction but it won�t help because you won�t be able to see it."

"That doesn�t matter." Buck replied quickly, "Julia, Ezra said flash blindness caused you to see those ships the first time, is that true?"

"Yes," she nodded quickly seeing what he was getting at. "But it wouldn�t appear long enough for us to fly both runabouts out of here."

"We can work our way around that," he answered. "We�ll do it one person at a time. Aislynn will lead us to where the runabouts are, we�ll get on and keep repeating it for as long as it lasts until we can take off."

"This is going to require a great deal of coordination," Ezra said dubiously. "Many of our injured are in no condition to make the attempt."

"I agree," the first officer declared, having considered this already. "However, we only need one of the runabouts to take off and get to the Maverick. Once we tell the Captain what�s going on down here, they may know of a way to get us out of here, using the same method."

"It�s a plan," Julia agreed with the logic of his words. Besides, the alternative was to sit here and wait while they were all hunted down and killed one by one.

"Alright," Buck spoke up loudly, not just to those in his immediate vicinity but to the rest of the Maverick�s Away Team. "We�re moving out."

"Buck," Aislynn gasped out loud and captured everyone�s undivided attention as her eyes widened in fear. "We have to go now." She said in a hushed voice, her eyes darting around in fear. "They�re coming."

Vin Tanner blinked.

Even though he could see clearly enough, it felt as if his vision was being bombarded by far too many light rays. Everything before him was reflecting light to some degree and he had concentrate for a moment to regain his equilibrium. Even though it was impossible for him to feel the serum enter his veins through a hypospray, the adjustment to his vision made it clear exactly when Nathan�s concoction had done its work.

Glancing at Alex who was looking over the phaser rifles they had brought with them, Vin wondered if she having similar difficulties with her sight as he piloted the shuttle Worthy out of the Maverick�s shuttle bay. Her hands moved deftly over the metal, indicating if she were having the same minor disorientation he was experiencing at the moment, she certainly was not showing it. Her eyes studied the weapons carefully, ensuring they were in perfect working order if required during their rescue expedition.

The Worthy sailed out of the shuttle bay and Vin immediately keyed in the coordinates for the landing zone where the runabouts Midkiff and Perlman had put down. Among the inventory for their rescue mission was an ample supply of the same vision adjusting serum that allowed them to see through the illusions being cast by the alien life form, for use on the Away Team. Although not as versatile as the runabouts since it was designed as a short-range vessel, the shuttle maneuvered well once they left the shuttle bay and made a neat arc in space towards the alien creature.

"Oh hell�" he found himself exclaiming as he peered out of the cockpit window once the planetoid came into view. For a few seconds, he could only stare at the life form beyond the hull of the shuttle in astonishment. What he was staring at looked nothing like the planetoid it had claimed to be, far from it in fact. There was no adequate way Vin could describe it since there had never been a creature closely resembling it. All he could see was pulsing pink and lavender colored flesh, gigantic veins�running up and down the length of its body, no eyes to speak off and the ripple against its skin whenever it breathed.

"What?" Alex asked, having looked up when he made his exclamation of surprise and finding the speech in her throat die once she caught sight of the creature. "Oh my God." She whispered in similar awe. Suddenly, the scientist in her kicked in and she quickly spoke up. "Computer, begin scanning the life form."

"Unable to comply." The computer�s dulcet voice returned. "Dampening field is interfering with multiphasic signals."

"Continue to scan anyway," Alex said impatiently.

"What are you doing?" Vin asked as he set the course towards the creature.

"We�ve never seen anything like this thing before," Alex explained, her eyes still fixed on it and wondered if there were many other creatures like this in existence. Was it part of a race of creatures or was it a fluke of nature? "Federation xenobiologists will have a field day with the data we accumulate."

"Makes sense," Vin agreed, remembering once they were far enough away from here, the creature�s influence over their perceptions would be broken. He would not be surprised if all their scans�revealed a wealth of information about the life form which had previously been obscured by its illusionary capabilities. "It�s a shame we can�t help it by finding it some other way to feed. It�s not killing because its evil, it�s just trying to survive."

"I know," Alex sighed feeling the same way. The scientist in her was impressed by this remarkable creature, not only its ability to mask itself but truly space dwelling life forms were rare in itself. "Maybe those xenobiologists can learn enough about it to substitute its food source." She answered after a moment. "Best thing we can do right now, is to get our people off and put some distance between us and it without provoking it into attacking. I�d hate to fire on it unless we really have to."

"No kidding," Vin replied, his eyes still fixed on the creature's form as it loomed closer in the cockpit window. As they approached it, they could see the grooves of its skin, the veins that pulsed with life and no doubt internal fluids, resembling rivers as they snaked across the creature�s entire form.

"How are you doing?" Alex asked, now that they had a moment alone.

Vin looked in her direction long enough to realize that she was not talking about the optical adjustment they had both been subjected to but rather a more personal matter.

"I�m better." He said with a little smile. "Mary�s been showing me a couple of mental exercises and I�ve been managing to get this thing under control."

"Well, think of this way. You could be a Betazoid."�

"Christ," he said with a frown. "Don�t even joke about something like that."

"Hey Vin," Alex paused a moment, deciding this was a�good a time as anything to bring up something that had been preying on her mind since the incident between them when he had inadvertently invaded her mind. "You know you can talk to me about these things."�

Vin met her gaze once more and answered just as quietly. "I didn�t want to bother you with what�s going on in my head. I get the impression that you got troubles of your own."

Alex let out a deep breath and remarked. "I do," she did not bother to lie since he probably saw something inside her mind during their meld that probably gave him good reason to think that. "But it helps me if I can help you." Her eyes met his and for a moment, they held each other gazes as unspoken things passed between them needing no words to communicate. "You know something," she said with a bittersweet expression on her face. "You�re my best friend on this ship and I want to help you if I can. I know I�m not the easiest person to talk to sometimes but I�ll always be there for you. You can count on it."

"Friends huh?" Vin nodded and though he felt immensely pleased by her words, there was something about how she defined their relationship in the parameters of friendship that bothered him. She was more than just a friend to him. Vin did not understand what it was he felt for Alex, knowing only when he was with her, it�didn't matter if he was different and not quite Vulcan. She made him feel good about himself in a way no one had�done since his foster parents.

"Yeah," she flashed him a smile, not a mere shadow of one she often produced for everyone else but rather a real smile reserved only for him. "Friends."

Vin felt himself flush with feelings he could not describe, knowing only that it filled him with warmth whenever she looked at him that way and confirmed one thing most definitely in his mind.�

Whatever she was to him, they were certainly not friends.

They hurried away from the rendezvous point, certain the scent of blood from the wounded was doing nothing to hide their escape and sooner or later, they would be found. Despite being armed with phasers, there were too few of them who were uninjured who could repel the animals stalking them without endangering the wounded they were attempting to move to safety. With Julia and JD leading the way as Aislynn guided them to the approximate position of the roundabouts, Buck and Ezra took up the rear, keeping a close eye on the terrain to ensure nothing was approaching them for a sneak attack.

"You realize of course," Ezra said as his eyes skimmed the barren landscape before them and saw nothing stirring in the dunes. "That if this creature is so adept as to provide an illusion�capable of making�us believe animals bound for a Lysian zoo were actually the crew of the Leonov, then it is all possible it could allow those same animals to sneak up on us before we were even aware of it."

Buck�s gaze did not move away from the terrain but he did stiffen enough to respond in a slow drawl. "Are you trying to be pessimistic or does it came naturally?"�

"Why naturally, of course, Commander., Ezra responded with�similar sarcasm.

"You were right Ezra," Buck said after a moment with more than a little more remorse in his voice. His eyes was still fixed ahead, skimming over the horizon, trying to see through the image they�were presented with, to the reality beneath the illusion.

"About what?" Ezra looked at him mystified.

"About coming here in the first place. We didn�t know enough about the planetoid to make a landing. We should have been more thorough with our investigation."

Ezra sensed immediately this confession was coming from the first officer out of the guilt he felt for those who had died trying to rescue non-existent survivors.

"Buck," he said in a voice not so filled with smug awareness. "You were no more wrong than I was. We thought there were survivors and your desire to help them was not misguided. As Starfleet officers, it is our duty to render aid, no matter what the risk to ourselves personally. No one could have suspected the truth behind this place. I suspected something was wrong but while I always believed the Leonov�s crew had something to hide, I did not for one moment suspect they were any more than who they claimed to be."

"Thanks, Ezra," Buck responded aware the security officer was trying to make him feel better and if it were not for the fact there were so many of their number dead, Buck might have allowed himself to feel that way. "But I don�t think that�s going to be much comfort to Ensign Starke when its all said and done."

"Buck watch out!" Ezra shouted and shoved Buck out of the way when a tiger materialized out of thin air and lunged at the first officer. The first officer tumbled to the floor as the creature landed right in the place where he had been standing and snarled loudly, teeth bared as it prepared to lunge again. This time, the security officer was better prepared and he raised his arm to fire his phaser when another feral animal sprung out of nowhere, knocking him off his feet.

Buck scrambled to his feet and saw both animals preparing to converge upon Ezra as the man struggled to find the phaser knocked out of his hand with the appearance of the second animal. Powerful jaws widened, preparing to snap shut around Ezra�s arm when Buck fired at the nearest animal even though he could hear the low growl of a third. The phaser was set to kill and the beam struck its target, disintegrating the animal before it had a chance to bite down on Ezra. However the security officer was nowhere out of trouble since he had another big cat to deal with.

Buck swung around and fired at what appeared to be a Klingon Mountain cat, which was all tusk and teeth, not unlike a saber tooth tiger of Earth�s ancient past. He fired only once, halting the animal just before it was about to lunge and did not wait around to see it die, confident the phaser blast was more than up to the task of ending the threat. Instead, he turned back to see Ezra fighting for dear life with what looked like a timber wolf as he held the animal back by the throat, trying to keep its massive jaws from his neck.

Using all the strength that Ezra could muster, he flipped the creature over his shoulder, feeling warm blood on his body and legs from where the wolf�s sharp claws had dug into him while they had been wrestling. It landed on its back and roared in outrage as Ezra searched frantically for his phaser when suddenly he saw the creature struck with a beam of energy. It let out a howl of outrage as it glowed momentarily and then disappeared altogether.

"Ezra!" Buck hurried to him and helped the panting security officer to his feet. Ezra was covered in dirt and blood, there were deep laceration in his skin and the man looked visibly shaken.

"I could have done without that," Ezra remarked retrieving his phaser. "Thank you for your timely intervention Commander."

"My pleasure," Buck mused with a troubled expression on his face. "Is it me or should there have been more of those things?" He asked after a moment's thought.

"Now that you mention it." Ezra realized what he was getting at, forgetting the pain caused by the rips in his skin. The realization dawned upon both of them at the same time as their eyes widened in unison.

"Oh shit!" Buck exclaimed first, breaking away from the security officer as he ran after the rest of the Away Team at top speed. Ezra remained behind, keeping up the best he could even though he was bleeding in several places and the pain was affecting him more than he would like to admit. He saw Buck disappear over the crest of a dune when suddenly he heard the sound of phaser fire and voices shouting in alarm.

Hobbling in pain and leaving traces of blood as he struggled to keep up, Ezra felt his heart pound in his chest at the thought of harm befalling Julia. The creatures�posing as the crew of the Leonov had sent a trio of their number after himself and Buck, cleverly distracting them as the main group converged upon the rest of the Away Team. Probably able to smell the scent of blood from the wounded, the creatures were more or less assured of targets that could not be easily defended by the scant few officers that remained.

Ezra crested the hill and saw Julia helping a member of the engineering team with severe leg injuries out of the kill zone while JD provided as much fire as he was capable. Having learnt their lesson the first time around, the creatures were not engaging the armed Starfleet officers, concentrating their attention instead on the weaker members of the group. Ezra supposed they were following the typical hunting behavior of large predators in the wild.

Those armed were well protected but their number was too few and Ezra noticed in some instances, their attackers seemed to disappear and reappear, no doubt being given assistance by the alien life form upon which they were all trapped. Large, jungle predators appeared out of nowhere and Ezra was hardly surprised that none of the vegetarian exports to the Lysian zoo had survived, if the dietary requirements of these beasts were anything to go by.

Buck saw JD fending off a large bear-like animal that was moving at him with surprising speed and agility, having recognized the beams of phaser energy as something it should avoid. It was barreling towards the kid who was trying his hardest to keep the behemoth away from Julia and the injured officer. Buck knew instinctively he was not going to succeed, at least not until the animal got too close for him to afford making a mistake. As much confidence as Buck had in JD, he knew the youth was too green to have that much pressure forced upon him and he did not deserve to die for his inexperience.

Aiming carefully, he tried to fire and then heard a loud, powerful roar behind him. Spinning around as fast as he could, he barely had time to register from which direction the attack was coming before a great weight lunged at him and he was tumbling down the small slope, with no idea where his phaser went in the downward descent. He could feel the hot and fetid breadth of something extremely strong and aggressive scratching away at him with its power hind legs. Buck let out a cry of pain as he felt what he was certain were claws tearing at his flesh.

Both he and the creature came to a stop at the bottom of the hill. Buck saw a set of widening jaws preparing to take a healthy bite out of his neck before he raised his arms in a defensive posture, allowing those inch long teeth to sink into the skin of his forearm instead. As the mandibles closed with swift efficiency, a scream escaped him before he even had a chance to acquaint himself with the pain that came with the bite.

"Buck!" He heard JD shout and saw the boy's concentration waver long enough to let the bear creature narrow the gap between itself and JD. Buck's attention was snapped back to his current predicament when the animal tearing at his arm began to tighten its grip, digging teeth deeper into his flesh. Buck fought to dislodge it from on top of him but the animal was a mass of fur, wild and strong as it fought to stay where it was. He had to get to JD before that monster ripped him to pieces, Buck thought desperately when suddenly a blast from what was definitely not a hand phaser cut through the frantic sounds already charging the air.

The creature on top of his disappeared before his eyes as another blast was heard. Buck rolled onto his stomach, his arm oozing blood from torn flesh as his eyes searched for the source of this rescue. Standing not too far from the scene of the battle was Alexandra Styles and Vin Tanner. The officer of the con had been responsible for saving Buck's life but had little time to rest on that achievement. Vin immediately turned his attention to the creature stalking JD and took careful aim. Buck held his breath a moment because the shot would have to be extremely precise since the beast was no more than inches away from JD and the distance between shooter and target was considerable. Unsure as Vin might be about himself at times, there was no such hesitation when he pulled the trigger on the phaser rifle. The shot was neat and right on target, killing the creature in mid-step before it had a chance to advance any further.

Alex was also causing similar devastation with her rifle, shooting all the attacking creatures, even the ones they could not see. For a moment, Buck though she might have been firing at nothing but in death, he saw tendrils of smoke emerge out of nowhere, which did not have its origins from her rifle. As Buck understood it, it was the alien drawing the life force from the creatures dying; feeding on the servants that provided it with sustenance for so long. He had no idea how Alex and Vin were managing to see but he was not about to argue with the results.

Buck did not know how long it took before enough of the creatures were shot for the others decided the odds were more than they were willing to risk. Almost as suddenly as the carnage had begun, it ended just as abruptly with the remaining animals withdrawing. While the Away Team made a valiant effort to fight the threat as well as defend its wounded, there was no victory with the casualties that lay dead in the sand. Buck clutched his bleeding arm and struggled to get up when he saw Vin extending a hand towards him.

"You look like you could use a little help there Commander." Vin said with one of those little smiles of his which usually meant he was pleased as hell but too damn unflappable to show it.

"Oh just a little," Buck grinned, never thinking he could be so happy to see anyone as Vin pulled him up easily with his Vulcan strength. "Damn, I didn't know you were such a fine shot Elf."

Vin gave him a look and knew if it had been anyone else he might have had cause to be offended but Buck would never intentionally insult him. Besides, he supposed that he liked the first officer enough to allow Buck to use that nickname on him since it was meant in affection. "Well, some people try to do better with a phaser rifle than their mouth." He drawled sarcastically.

"You're spending way too much time with Alex," Buck chuckled as they walked over to join the others.

T hanks to Alex and Vin's timely arrival, the Away Team was soon led to the runabouts which were only a few short meters away from where the creatures had chosen to launch their final attack upon the escaping Starfleet officers. The Worthy had put down next to the runabouts after being located by Vin and Alex who were able to track them down by making a visual search of the area. It was not hard to find the Away Team once they had landed because the sounds of animal roars, screams, and phaser blasts were more efficient in attracting their attention that the brightest flare.

Almost all of the Away Team was in need of immediate medical attention and Buck wanted to get back to the Maverick as soon as possible to meet that need. It was strange to be told they had boarded the runabouts when all they could see was open landscape. JD had agreed to pilot the Midkiff while Buck was doing the honors on the Perlman. Of course, before they could make any move to return to the Maverick, Alex made certain everyone was inoculated with the serum Nathan had created to adjust their optical nerve to see past the illusion the alien had created for them.

Alex was about to press the hypospray to his arm when suddenly Aislynn came to him. Alex seemed to stare with something was akin to shock and�awe as the young woman approached him. Those who had been inoculated seemed to have the same reaction to her. He wondered what it was they saw.

"Buck, do you promise to take me with you?" She looked at him with those soulful eyes and he wondered what kind of creature she had been in that other life before the Leonov. The one she would soon be returning to.

"Of course I am going to take you with us, honey." He placed his hand on her cheek again, wanting to assure her he would not abandon her, not after what she had given up to help him and the crew of the Maverick. She was just a child, no matter what species she had been born and he believed her when she said she had no choice. "I know what you did for us Aislynn. I won't ever forget that."

"Thank you, Buck," she answered, tears in her eyes as she looked at him, feeling sorrow he would never truly understand and after this day, she would never be able to tell anyone because she would no longer be able to speak. The days of humanity were behind her now and she was ready to accept it. Perhaps she had been from the first moment he had looked at her. "I want to see the stars. I want to see the stars just once."

"I'll see to it." He replied, feeling the emotion in his heart for this young girl, this child who wanted so much and was doomed not to have it from the very beginning. "I promise you."

That was enough. She believed him because he was Commander Buck Wilmington, a man of honor and a man who would never consciously hurt a lady, even one like her. She stepped away and nodded to Alex as if she was ready now for him to see her. Alex gave Aislynn a long look before turning to Buck and pressing the hypospray against his arm.

A loud hiss followed and Buck waited for the serum to take full effect. According to Alex, it would take no more than a few seconds. His eyes moved across the barren landscape of the planetoid that had been the grave of so many ships and so many poor souls before the Maverick's arrival. He watched as the sandy dunes disappeared, watched in a mixture of shock and mild horror as craggy terrain suddenly drained i into living breathing flesh capable of producing the most amazing feat of deception Buck had ever known. He saw the dark sky against the alien's form and then he looked forward.

At Aislynn.

She was at his feet. A small bundle of fur, not at all threatening and dangerous as her fellow crewmates had been. She had not lied when she confessed to being the smallest. She was little more than a kitten and beautiful in her own way. Golden in color, her pelt gleamed under the light of the stars. She looked at him with feline eyes and when she opened her mouth, a soft kittenish purr spoke to him in words he could no longer understand.

The language of a Selurian minx cat.

Buck leaned over and picked up the small creature into his arms and offered her a smile because no matter what she was, he had made her a promise. JD, Ezra, and Julia wore the same stricken expression, sorrow in their eyes for a creature that made a most charming young girl and proved more far more efficiently than anyone could have possibly imagine, what it was to be human.

Sweet Revenge

Captains Logs Stardate 23.25.01

Following the rescue of our crewmen from the clutches of the space creature impersonating a planetoid, I have ordered the permanent establishment of a warning beacon in the system known as J12. The beacon will transmit a continuous automated signal to any passing ships, warning them of the creature and its powers of illusion. At the behest of Commander Styles, we have also sent all records regarding the creature to Starfleet Command in the hopes that the Xenobiology Department may be able to find some way to supplement its usual source of food with a substitute. It is our hope this would allow it to keep from preying on life forms that come across its path. After all, the creature can hardly be considered evil as the Commander informed me and it is an opinion I tend to agree with. Like any living thing, its need to feed is a natural function of survival and should no more be held accountable for its actions than a whale might be responsible for the plankton it eats. I suppose it's really a matter of perception.

"Since I have been rather accommodating with requests today, I have also granted Commander Wilmington's permission to send down a supply of food for the life forms still living in symbiosis with the creature. While we are unable to help the creature itself, we can provide sustenance for the animals left behind in the wake of the Leonov's destruction and food drops will be made periodically for as long as the life forms exist. Like the creature, they cannot be held accountable for their actions when their motivation was to feed. Starfleet Command may question my leniency on this matter but there is nothing served by destroying either the alien or the predators that exist upon it. It is my hope someday, we may understand one in order to help both."

"Under recommendations from Commander Wilmington, I have put in official commendations for Lieutenant Commander Standish and Lieutenant Commander Styles, if not for the foresight of both, we may have lost more crew than we had. I will also be penning letters to the families of the crewmen we did lose, including Ensign Starke.�

Chris ended his log entry and took a deep breath, easing back into his chair after the rather lengthy report. He glanced out the window of his ready room and saw the stars blurring past them at high warp. Chris could not say he was not glad for the quiet after the last few days. Following their return to the ship, most of the Away Team had spent a great deal of time under the ministrations of the chief medical officer being treated for a number of injuries. Most of these were severe trauma caused by animal mauling but fortunately, the return to the Maverick�saved their lives.

Josiah had called earlier this morning to inform Chris the Maverick's crew count had risen by one. It seemed that for the first time in his life, Buck Wilmington was actually having a young lady to stay permanently in his quarters. Chris supposed despite the fact the young lady was actually a Selurian Minx Cat, this was a big improvement for a man who got nervous if he had to buy more than one matching dinner plate because it felt just too much like commitment. Still, Chris had read Buck's report and understood his old friend's reasoning for taking responsibility for the creature and it was just like Buck to do something like that.

Chris was snapped out of his thoughts when he heard the familiar melodic chirping of someone at his door. "Come in," he responded automatically, beckoning them into his private sanctum.

The doors slid open and young Casey Wells peered through the sliding doors "Captain, you wanted me to remind you that you had an appointment with Lieutenant Tanner on the holodeck?"

Chris glanced at the chronometer on the wall and swore when he realized what time it was. He and Vin were going to try climbing the Machupuchare as they had intended to days ago before this had all began. As it was, he was due to be meeting Vin at the holodeck in ten minutes and was glad Casey had dropped in to remind him or else he would have forgotten completely. Finishing his log entry, Chris put down his datapad and decided to get moving. With a devious smile, Chris wondered if they ought to invite Ezra along. After all, the security officer was quite the expert at mountain climbing since his adventures on the most recent Away mission.

"Thanks, Casey," he offered the girl a grateful smile for the reminder as she advanced deeper into the office and took note of the data pad on his desk.

"Your log entry Sir?" She asked politely since one of her tasks as his Yeoman was to ensure that such documentation was stored away as well as copies made for transmission to Starfleet Command.

"Yeah," he nodded as he stood up from behind his desk. "You can file it away tomorrow if you like. I know you and JD had plans for the evening." He recalled hearing the youth discussing it on the bridge earlier and did not want to stand in the way of their plans with something that could wait until tomorrow. It would not make any difference if Starfleet Command received his report now or a day later; the outcome would still remain the same.

"Thank you, Sir," she brightened up immediately and brought an involuntary smile to Chris's jaded features. Despite himself, Chris found himself assuming a rather protective role over the�girl�who seemed far too young for life out in space on her own.

"Just beware of young ensigns with tall tales and mood lighting." He warned as he started across the carpeted floor toward the door, not entirely joking with her.

"Oh Captain," Casey giggled and blushed at the same time. "JD's not like that."

"I was an Ensign once Casey," Chris said, not believing that for one minute. "And I can tell you, they're all like that."

May I join you?" Josiah Sanchez asked Mary Travis who was finishing her cup of hot Vulcan tea while taking advantage of the panoramic view offered by Four Corners.

"Certainly," the protocol officer flashed him a radiant smile and Josiah could tell by the bright glow on her face she was in high spirits today. Josiah knew she had good reason to be proud of her efforts and justified in her equally good mood. Following his conversation with Vin Tanner this morning, Josiah knew much of Mary's elevated spirits had to do with the young Vulcan. Vin appeared a great deal happier than he had been when Josiah had last seen him and most of this�was due to his lessons with Mary. Mary's new approach to teaching him the Vulcan disciplines he had so much trouble mastering in the beginning, was proving to be a rousing success. It would not be long before Vin was able to exert the control over his telepathic abilities like other Vulcans and that gave the young man great peace of mind.

"Unfortunately, I can't stay long," Mary confessed to Josiah even though she allowed him to join her. "I've got to meet Julia at Holodeck 3 in about ten minutes. I am required to provide assistance in the name of sisterhood."�

"I won't ask," Josiah remarked as he nestled himself across the table with a cup of steaming coffee in his hand. "I just wanted to let you know I saw Vin for his scheduled appointment and without going into detail, I can safely say your lessons have had a marked improvement on his self-esteem."

Mary beamed despite herself, feeling singularly proud she was able to help him. "I'm glad." She admitted, taking a sip of tea and swallowing a little before she continued to speak again. "He's doing so well, now I know how to teach him properly. In a couple of weeks blocking other people�s thoughts is going to be as common to him as a reflex action. He's actually a very quick learner."

"Well, he has a good teacher." The Counselor offered her a warm smile. "You have done wonders for his spirits in that regard. You've made him understand he is out of touch as far as what a proper Vulcan is supposed to be, only by choice, not by ability. That makes a big difference."

"He has you to thank as much as me Josiah," Mary looked at him. "If you had not set me straight, it would never have occurred to me to take that approach. In fact," she stared at him with narrowed eyes�holding a hint of accusation. "I think that you are very Machiavellian. You sneak around our backs and give us this oh so gentle nudge in the right direction. I had no idea that you could be so sneaky."�

"Sneaky, I?" Josiah looked at her with complete innocence. "I have not idea what you mean, Lieutenant Travis."

"I'll bet you don't." Mary rolled her eyes skeptically. "Come on," she leaned closer to him. "What's your secret?"

"Being married to a Betazoid." Josiah finally confessed. "Either you learn to do things under the table or you get used to being in trouble a lot." He said looking about furtively as the words escaped him.

"And I thought being married to a Vulcan was hard," she laughed. "I'll never complain again."�

After a moment, she sobered up a little, remembering what had been the point of this exercise in the first place. Mary had not forgotten why Josiah wanted Vin to trust her, to bring to her the questions about his Vulcan heritage he could not ask anyone else.

"I'll be there for him Josiah." Mary declared without doubt or hesitation because she wanted to be there for Vin as someone else had�once been there for her when she had first arrived on Vulcan knowing nothing.�

She intended to be there for Vin Tanner, for all his questions.

Alexandra Styles wondered why she was doing this.

She would rather be in her quarters at this time of the day, listening to Puccini or Deborah Harry whichever came first, while soaking in a luxuriously hot bubble bath. She could just picture the soft scent of lavender in her nostrils and the delightful heat against her skin. Why on earth had she let Julia talk her into going to the holodeck to partake in some revenge�she had planned for their security chief? Then Alex recalled Julia had appealed to the worst common denominator, using words like sisterhood, women who suffered together in times past, all those feminist buzzwords that had been immortalized in the centuries before them.

Oh stop complaining, Alex told herself as she stepped out of the turbo lift into the corridor leading to the holodeck. If Mary could take the time to be supportive of Julia's plans this evening, Alex supposed it was not too much of an annoyance if she contributed an hour of her life to this enterprise. After all, it was not like she had any plans this evening. Not that Alex was upset she was free. She was perfectly aware if she wanted suitors, Buck Wilmington would be on her doorstep so fast she would not know what had hit her until breakfast.

However, Alex was not ready for dating yet and she doubted she ever would be. Of course, she was a grown woman and like any other, she had all the baggage that went with being a woman her age that did not have a significant other in her life. Which made her question why Julia was so intent on torturing Ezra when it was obvious to everyone the chief engineer was crazy about the man.

Ah well, Alex thought with a wicked smile. No accounting for taste.

She turned the corner and saw Mary ahead of her. Alex hastened her pace and caught up with the protocol officer since they were both headed in the same direction.

"Hello, Mary." Alex greeted as she strode up alongside the blond woman.

"Right on time for our joint flaming of Commander Standish?" Mary asked with a little smile as she fell into stride with the science officer.

"The things we do in the name of sisterhood." Alex rolled her eyes with a weary sigh.

"By the way," Mary remarked. "I didn't want to ask her this but perhaps you can tell me what exactly did Ezra do to warrant this torture?"

"Oh, you haven't heard?" Alex laughed, remembering the story Buck told her and the rest of the bridge�about the�disastrous first date between Julia Pemberton and Ezra Standish.

The story had Mary in stitches by the time Alex was done telling it and the blond woman held her hand over her mouth as she laughed. "Oh my," she said still giggling. "That poor man. I don't envy him."

"Neither do I," Alex agreed with her on that score. "Although I can't imagine what women of the 20th century found so fascinating about watching half-naked men with oiled skin and tight-fitting shorts, dancing to bad music."

As they said that, both women stopped short at the sight of Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner wearing form-fitting mountain climbing clothes that left nothing to the imagination standing in front of the holodeck doors, preparing to begin their mountain climbing adventure. Alex and Mary went very silent as the two men stepped through the doors, every perfect sinew, and muscle displayed under the thin layer of fabric covering�their bodies, oblivious to the fact they were being observed. In a second they were gone, leaving Alex and Mary releasing a long wistful sigh in unison.

"What time did Julia say we had to be there?" Alex asked with a perfectly straight face.

"Oh about now," Mary mused while she still staring at the closed door even though Chris and Vin had long gone.

"Let's hurry."�

Ezra Standish had a bad feeling about this.

The restaurant in which he and Julia Pemberton were currently dining was all very tasteful and yet there was something about the volume of women in the place that made the chief of security rather concerned. The setting was 20th century Earth and although they were technically alone since the women in the place were all holodeck creations, Ezra had this feeling of ominous foreboding even though Julia had been nothing but pleasant throughout most of the evening. Perhaps it was because he was naturally suspicious but something about the place, in particular, the stage in the center of the room, made Ezra nervous. The restaurant itself had a very curious name.� Le Bares.� It also seemed to be a popular nightspot for women, as he appeared to be the only man present.

The floorshow had yet to begin and as Ezra dined on the very fine meal of Duck L�Orange with charming Bordeaux to accompany it, he tried not to let his suspicious nature ruin a pleasant evening if he was wrong. After all, they had been through quite a bit during their last Away mission and it would not be unreasonable to think Julia had forgiven him for their disastrous first date. Deciding he ought to just relax and enjoy the evening, Ezra eased back into his chair and regarded Julia who looked simply stunning in the sleeveless emerald colored dress she was wearing that matched her eyes perfectly.

"I am surprised," he confessed taking a sip of the Bordeaux from his glass. "I thought you have envisioned some terrible revenge for me after what I forced you to endure at our first evening together."

"Well," she met his gaze with a little smile. "I knew it was not your intention to make me put my head inside the mouth of a very large jungle cat. After the week we�ve had, it just seemed like a dress rehearsal for the main event."

"Yes," Ezra frowned, having thought the same thing after it was all said and done. "It was rather coincidental, wasn�t it. I do apologize, I had no idea that Caesar�s Palace would be so�"

"The word is tacky," Julia said abruptly.

"Believe it or not, I was aiming for opulent." He countered, giving her a look that reminded her of a little boy asking forgiveness.

"Well, it was a good if somewhat misguided effort." She replied sweetly.

Suddenly the holodeck doors activated and slid open. The doors materialized out of thin air although none of the other holodeck�inspired patrons seemed to notice its presence. When the doors slid open, revealing the outside corridor, Alexandra Styles and Mary Travis entered much to Ezra surprise.

"Are we late?" Mary asked as they approached the duo�s table.

"No," Julia shook her head, unsurprised by their arrival since she had invited them. "You�re right on time."

"What is going on?" Ezra asked, being revisited by those ominous feelings again as both Mary and Alex pulled up chairs at their table and sat down, trying to hide the sniggers threatening to steal across their features and give the game away.

"Computer, secure all exits and encrypt activation mechanism in accordance to my authorization code. Pemberton 225471 and run upgrade program to current holodeck program Pemberton 4 and respond to voice command only from me." She said giving him a look of pure mischief and then eased back into her chair in order to enjoy the fun that would soon begin.

"What do you intend on putting me through?" He questioned, having guessed now this was the revenge she had promised him, as he saw the master of ceremonies appear on the stage floor.

"Oh, nothing that will hurt as much as sticking one�s head in the open jaws of a tiger." Julia deadpanned.

"And pray tell what are you ladies here for?" He turned to Alex and Mary.

"Sisterhood," Mary said without hesitation.

"Ladies, welcome to Le Bares." The MC captured all their attention when his loud voice boomed across the room. Upon his greeting, all the women excepting Julia, Mary and Alex broke out into riotous cheering that made Ezra very worried. "Tonight, we have something very special in store for you who have come to see the beautiful young men of Le Bares who are more than ready to perform for you."

"Beautiful young men?" Ezra exclaimed and then suddenly realized with a splash of cold water what Le Bares actually was. His realization made him stand up abruptly but Julia stopped him before he could flee.

"Hold it right there pardner," Julia ordered firmly in her best western impersonation. "You ain�t going nowhere." Without any hesitation, she pulled him back into her seat with a satisfied look on her face.

"Julia, let us discuss this like rational human beings." He began to stutter, having some idea of the horror in store for him now and knew he had a damn good reason to be very afraid.

"Rational hell," Alex drawled. "We want to see some skin."

"Yes," Mary added her voice to that request, remembering what it was that was so fun about serving with humans again. Vulcans just did not have any appreciation regarding the delicacy of strip clubs. "To be specific yours."

"Mine?" He stammered.

"Didn�t I tell you?" Julia looked at him innocently. "Le Bare�s special performance tonight involves audience participation and wouldn�t you know it? I program this entire place with only one male in the audience."

Ezra groaned and then grabbed the bottle of Bordeaux and poured himself a full glass, telling himself that there was only one way he was going out there. Blind stinking drunk. He just hoped no one had a holo-camera. As he drained the glass, Ezra could only think one thing;

The things a man did for love.

Whenever Buck Wilmington wanted to see stars, he normally went to Four Corners or to the bridge. However, on this occasion, he decided he would forgo the lively atmosphere of both those locations and opted instead to visit the seldom-used Observation Deck. He knew that Alex and Vin liked to come out here because they were both private people who had more than a passing need for solitude at times, while treating to themselves to the spectacular vista of stars when the Maverick was in high warp.

Unknowingly, he sat at the place normally occupied by Vin Tanner. Buck sat perched right against the glass, gently running palm across the fur of the creature curled up most contently in his lap while her wide eyes watched the stars outside with fascination. The Selurian Minx Cat was hardly the most conventional of choices for a first time pet, but then Buck knew he would never be able to see the creature as a pet. A part of him would never be able to cast his gaze on this magnificent animal without remembering the sweet young girl she had been once in another life. Buck had made that girl a promise and it was one he would die keeping because of what she�gave up out of love for him.

She, who was once a young lady, called Aislynn.

Aislynn, in her new guise, seemed aware of his mutual affection for her and raised her small head to let out a purr of contentment while her glowing eyes sparkled with the starlight that moved past them both. Buck made a mental note to do this again. He made Aislynn a promise he would not abandon her and it was a duty he was happy to keep because the memory of that young girl would remain with him as long as he kept this exquisite creature in his life.

And they could both see the stars.


Next story: The White

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