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[JP] Lt. Sienelis, Lt. Marshall, Lt. JG Josett & PO Johns - Do Andorians Dream of Ketracel Sheep? (Parts 1-10)


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It's another monster multi-parter from Quinn and Jo, and as always, it's a fantastic read.

Hope everyone enjoys this as much as I did!

---

Part I

((Conference Room, USS Azetbur))
 
The steady craft dropped through the layers of atmosphere, thick like fog, into the oppressive skies above Centennial City. Once a fine and thriving metropolis in the days before the Mother Road, the dilapidated towers and unfinished construction projects showed how abandoned the place had become. South-east of the city, visible through the expansive viewscreen window as they took in the panoramic desolation, the Lakosha Fire River flowed lava from the mountains in red and black, spurting off the yellow fire. From above, the city looked a mix of orange and brown, the rust of the metal structures seeping into the air. 
 
They’d have to breathe that soon. Enthusiasm waned.
 
Small shuttlecraft moved up and out of various points of the city, landing points scattered around, sanctioned or not. The transport hub for customs control had made them wait on the fringes, subjected to checks and balances, before they’d allowed the craft to start the descent. The decline of tourism and mining had taken its toll on the hub, and somehow, they had to find Valesha’s brother down there. As much as it pained to put their situation in the hands of the Shoals' flat foots, palms needed greasing. 
 
O. Marshall: Are we heading straight into Centennial or reporting to the CMC at Opportunity?
 
Valesha stood in front of the main windows, staring past her reflection at the neglected city beneath them. Her fingers dug into the palms of her hands, jaw set, eyes dark. "A hard place" was how Teller had described it, and the grim database images hadn't contracted him.  But now she could see it in person, her heart turned to lead. This was where her brother was? Had been all this time? 
 
Sienelis: I— ::She dropped her gaze, a grimace coming and going before she looked toward Bear.:: I don't know. What's best?
 
O. Marshall: It’ll go in our favour if we do our due diligence. ::He exhaled a heavy breath, crossing his arms as he stood beside his Romulan friend.:: Get planetside, report that we made it, ask about the situation in Centennial before we go walking into the unknown looking like tourists. It doesn’t look too… friendly. 
 
Sienelis: That's an understatement. ::She uncurled stiff fingers from their grip and ran a hand through her short, dark hair, cheeks puffing out with an exhale.:: And I don't want to give the Marshals any more reason to be suspicious.
 
O. Marshall: Playing host to a formerly wanted criminal, interdimensional starship thief, and yours truly would give them enough reason. ::He bumped her with his elbow and a flick of his eyebrow.:: Then there’s Lena. 
 
Valesha heaved in a breath, releasing it in a quiet huff that almost made it to laughter, the sound accompanied by the tiniest uptick of eyebrows and lips. A strange turn of affairs that all the officers in the group had something in their history to make law enforcement narrow their eyes and squint. Meanwhile, it was the Petty Officer who had a clean record and party of a family that helped keep the colony in business. 
 
Sienelis: So what you're saying is we put Chris out front and hope he's respectable enough that no one looks at the three reprobates behind him?
 
O. Marshall: Trust the obnoxious Starfleet officers to send their Petty Officer to do their official introductions. 
 
The idea had merit. Chris was clever, charismatic, and had all the earthly charm of someone ready to have a sit down and coffee with local law enforcement over the impounding of his personal shuttlecraft. Once they were in the city, broadcasting they were Starfleet officers would be the wrong move. He’d spent enough time in the Shoals to understand there were places they just didn’t go, and the inner hive of Ketar V was one of them. 
 
O. Marshall: Opportunity first, if only to check in, then down to the big smoke stack they called a city. Try that diner place Chris keeps ranting about. Blend in with the locals. ::He raised one blond eyebrow to Valesha with a moderate amount of frown.:: And who the hell is Teller?
 
One corner of the Romulan's mouth quirked up at the mention of the short, ginger engineer, her first genuine smile since they started the approach to Ketar V. He was the reason they were all here, the unwitting keeper of the keys. Months ago, during the official testing of the Warp XV on the USS Juneau, she'd sat with him in one of the ship's empty science labs. Using storage crates as seats, they'd shared fresh, homegrown coffee and talked about the places he'd visited and the people he'd met. Including Ketar V.
 
Including Taeval.
 
Sienelis: Geoffrey Teller. He's the Thor's First Officer now, but I met him when he was still the Veritas' Chief Engineer. ::She gestured toward the city below.:: They did some relief work here, rebuilding homes that had burnt down. That's when he met my brother.
 
O. Marshall: Starfleet doing half a relief job, as usual, I see. 
 
Whatever they’d done to the city, it made no noticeable difference from their position overhead. Everything had a murky texture to it, like oil slicked over paper, or grease smeared on a window, a layer of smoke happy to remain floating atop the world like a weather system. He’d spent time there as a Ranger, back in the heady days of working on the fringes of space, bringing relief where needed. Bear wondered what kind of reception they would walk into, what kind of impression the Veritas had left behind when they’d left it behind, happy to fly off into the ether while Ketar V remained in the state it was. 
 
O. Marshall: I’ll let Lena know to head for Opportunity and we’ll go from there. Might be best if we plot a land approach to Centennial City instead of taking the bird. Less graffiti to scrub off when we get back. ::He glanced at the Romulan again, the look on her face a telling one.:: Do you want a minute alone with the dusty planet view?
 
Just in case. 
 
She stared ahead for a few moments in silence, brilliant green eyes tracing over the rusting towers of a city in decline, piercing the skyline like skeletal fingers reaching for a last grasp of life. Somewhere in that industrial sprawl was her brother, eking out life as a refugee on a planet that resented his presence. Discrimination, segregation, hate crimes, even talk of forcible relocations for "failing to integrate"; all things her people had to deal with on Ketar V. Kicked to the bottom rung of life and stood on to ensure that was where they remained.
 
Sienelis: I've seen enough.

---

Part II

((Approach to Centennial City, Ketar V))

 

The dust of the road kicked up all around them as the hovering craft sped across the terrain. Overlapping segments of plating made the shuttlecraft look like an armoured vehicle, and the way Lena drove it, one could understand if something launched their way. The city towered ahead, bloated and orange, rust-coloured spikes and spires reaching for a sky darkened in murk and grime. The tiniest of red lights blinked at the top of the tallest tower, telegraphing the location for all incoming on shuttlecraft higher than ground level to see. 

 

As they neared the city, the lights changed. Still like someone had dipped the city upside down in a vat of gagh grease, but flickering with intense blues and purples, violets and reds, pinks and greens, large screens visible like a thumbnail. Squinting through the dusty window, Chris leaned forward a little, elbows on his knees as he watched the edge of the horizon melt away, the full, epic size of the city appearing piece by piece. 

 

Johns: Is it… ::he squinted a little harder,:: is it raining?

 

Beside him, Valesha stared through the side window, unseeing, focused on nothing. She'd barely spoken since they'd made landfall, taking in the sights with all the cheer of someone surveying a natural disaster. At his question, her gaze darted first to the Russian, then in the direction he was looking. Her stone-faced gloom didn't shift, and a long sigh pulled out of her lungs, her lips thinning.

 

Sienelis: What a shock. Even the weather is miserable.

 

Johns: Looks muddy, too. 

 

In the way something wet could when strained through the grey and orange filter of the sky. From the skies rained down the summer shower, quenching the earth, turning it from a dusty orange to a dustier brown. Sky scrapers stretched toward the sky, and Chris watched a spire turn into the beginnings of an orbital platform, disappearing into the clouds. 

 

O. Marshall: Aren’t you glad we came over ground? Imagine trying to land in this. ::The engine roared underneath their feet, fighting against the weather on the open plain.:: Where did the CMC say we should start? 

 

Sienelis: Little Ki Baratan in Romulan Town. ::She shifted and crossed long legs, wrapping her arms around her middle.:: Despite the name, somehow I don't think it's going to reflect the imperial might and majesty of our former capital city.

 

O. Marshall: Unless your imperial might and majesty was a cover for industrial depression, I’d agree. 

 

It gave “urban sprawl” a new meaning, and if the filters of the craft were anything to go by, an unfamiliar smell. Modern looking buildings, marred by the stain of rot and disrepair, left to crumble while the city struggled onwards. If not for the gigantic orbital platform above the city, feeding down the continued revenue, it might not have survived at all. Chris shuffled in his jacket, flexing his scapula, hearing the [...] leather creak with the effort. 

 

Johns: Anything we should watch out for in Romulan Town? Anything we shouldn’t do? ::Hazel eyes flicked to Orson and Lena in the hot seats.:: Like avoid bar fights. 

 

Their driver breathed out a chuckle, throwing a glance over her shoulder at the dancer, the grin in her eyes as well as on her lips. He shook his head in return, expecting some wisdom from a hybrid pirate who had gotten herself out of more scrapes than he’d practiced first position. 

 

Josett: Good practice. ::She chuckled.:: Nothing makes you learn to dodge like taking a Romulan fist to the face.

 

Johns: The first time might be the last for puny human bones. ::An eyebrow arched to Valesha with a grin cracking through.:: Physiologically superior, as they are. 

 

Valesha glanced back toward him, a corner of her mouth lifted in a half-hearted grin. A running, shared joke, founded in an off-hand comment from the earliest days when they were still figuring out what they meant to one another. A friendship founded in a dream, the seeds of love and affection planted in an imaginary world.

 

Yet with that light moment also came the memory of their encounter with the Tal Shiar agent, S'Tokkr. Hauling a wounded, unconscious Chris back to the Qowat Milat house and hovering over him while the Romulan medics did their work. Not an experience she cared to repeat, especially in a place bereft of allies like her old mentor.

 

Sienelis: For all the good it's done for any of them here. ::She frowned, her gaze returning to the view ahead.:: I'd say try not to wind anyone up, but given how the Romulans here have been treated over the years, anger is probably their default response to outsiders.

 

O. Marshall: Punch first and ask questions later? ::He scoffed in the front seat, shaking his head as he looked out of the window at the sepia-toned landscape.:: Sounds more like Trill thinking. 

 

Chris breathed out a soft laugh as he sat back against the chair, sliding his arm across the back of Valesha’s, fingers messing with the loose threads of her jacket shoulder, content to be close and look overhead, the clear roof giving an unobstructed view of what they were heading into. The docking ring above made for interesting viewing, stretching out across the sky, several shuttlecraft heading down through the atmosphere despite the weather beating down. The inhabitants were probably used to it; spend long enough under a rain cloud, get used to getting wet. 

 

Meanwhile, up front, Bear’s stomach warbled from within his fleshy human prison. 

 

O. Marshall: Not to sound like a broken holodeck Badgey here, but I’m hungry. ::He angled his head toward Valesha and her leaning arms, eyebrow curving up.:: Little Ki Baratan famous for food, by any chance?

 

The question was, to no one's great surprise, met with a Romulan scowl.

 

Sienelis: Didn't you eat before we left?

 

O. Marshall: Of course I did, but you don’t get these, ::one arm curled, bicep bulging beneath jacket and layers,:: without an adequate amount of calories consistently throughout the day. And Chris wouldn’t let me bring snacks. 

 

Johns: I never said that, you… Bear-faced liar. 

 

O. Marshall: You said there’d be food. 

 

Johns: I said there was a diner somewhere in the city, that’s not the same thing. 

 

The blond one semi-turned around in his seat to point an accusatory finger into the back of the shuttlecraft while the dancer leaned forward, eyebrow making a swift ascension, elbow planted on his knee. 

 

O. Marshall: Because talking about the amazing burgers of that place was just idle chatter, was it?

 

Sienelis: Oh, for the love of— 

 

Interrupting the bickering, Valesha threw her hands up and rolled her eyes. All the while, pulling at the threads of her fraying temper was the grin Lena was wearing, the hybrid finding the exchange immensely entertaining. An agent of chaos, if ever there was one. The Romulan bit down on the rest of the sentence, pivoting to the path of least resistance.

 

Sienelis: Fine. If it will shut you up, we can stop and get a burger in this diner of myth and legend.

 

Silence descended as the two men eyed one another with deliberate caution, knowing it was safer to say nothing than to dig the grave ever deeper. Both returned to sitting properly in their seats — Bear looking out of the forward window, Chris looking at the floor — allowing the quiet to reign for a moment longer. 

 

The shuttlecraft bumped over the terrain; the engine flaring under the ministrations of the pirate pilot, the wind and rain battering the sides of the hull. 

 

O. Marshall: You know you want to go, too. 

 

Sienelis: I hate you so much.

---

Part III

((Welder’s Diner, Livernois Shipyards, Centennial City))
 
Rain hammered down from the sky and orbital platform above, giving the appearance of a mist in the air, somehow smelling like diesel and torched rubber had baked into an ozone-rich atmosphere. Scents of street food washed over them — fried hlai buns, warm vats of glakh, deep-fried strings of verethi and karlak bread — a blend of foods to stuff the senses and bellies, to make someone forget they lived and worked there. Suits in high collars pulled them tighter around their ears to protect from the downpour, whistled and hailed for cabs the size of an Argo rolling through the streets, looking to get from one side of the city to another. The planetside structure of the shipyards was very much alive. 
 
Amid it all, the squat diner sat squashed between two large scrapers on either side, hemming it in as though trying hard to cram it out of existence. Not one of the most appalling places in the known universe, it had a listing in the Ketar V guidebook of places to go and scored marginally better than the vast pools of liquid deuterium slush just outside of the city boundary. Sleepy travellers sloped inside, shuffling their bags and sacks, slipping into booths, the neon splash of menus illuminating tired faces. 
 
Chris flicked his finger over the glowing menu, each time adding an extra layer onto an ever-growing burger stack. A layer highlighted as “Don’t Go Bacon My Heart”, while another part of the menu suggested a recent addition, “The Wurst Dog”. 
 
Johns: Being a vegetarian in here would be a huge missed steak, right?
 
Lena chuckled, seemingly in competition with Bear for who could create the most outrageous burger. The light from the menu PADD painted the Bajoran and Cardassian contours of her face in a neon rainbow, a pirate in stained glass. Valesha dragged her attention away from the window, away from scrutinising the face of everyone who passed by, and sighed at her better half.
 
Sienelis: Really?
 
Johns: Really. The “Meat-E-Or”, “So, We Meat Again”, “The Apple of My Ribeye”... ::He looked up from the holographic burger assembling on the PADD to his Romulan and smiled, hazel eyes gilded in affection, querying eyebrow lifted.:: Are you going to order something to sustain your superior physiology or keep staring out the window?
 
Stretching his arm over the back of Lena’s booth seat, Bear pointed to Valesha with a finger gun over the hybrid’s shoulder, his monstrosity of a meal nearly completed and rotating holographically above the PADD on the table. 
 
O. Marshall: She does that. You should’ve seen her on the Unicorn. 
 
Sienelis: It was stare out of the window or set the back of your head on fire. 
 
O. Marshall: And these luscious blond locks thank you for the choice you made. 
 
The hark back to the good times the three of them had on the Labyrinth’s Scream didn’t hit the Russian in the same way that it used to. It had been the catalyst for what he had with Valesha, for confessed feelings on what would’ve been a death bed if it hadn’t been for the quick flying actions of the hybrid pirate and the rapid thinking of the blond mountain. He slid the PADD across the table toward her, lips twitching with a smile. 
 
Johns: They’ve even got a “Wind Beneath My Hlai Wings” burger.
 
She looked down at the menu, then her eyes flicked back up to meet his, green and hazel meeting in the middle. The Romulan's expression softened, the glacier beginning to melt under the warmth of her Russian's humour. One finger extended, she placed it on the corner of the PADD and slid it towards herself, looking over the burgers on offer.
 
Sienelis: I'm not sure if that's an ingenious fusion or a cultural abomination. ::She found a small grin from somewhere and offered it to him.:: But I suppose there's only one way to find out.
 
Johns: Experimenting is the only way to science, so I’ve heard. ::He returned her grin with a wider one of his own, happy for the moment between, however brief.:: And I’ll eat it if you don’t. 
 
O. Marshall: It’s almost like you’re eating for two. Perpetually.
 
Chris shook his head and rolled his eyes at the man, tapping on the PADD to send the order through to the diner, anticipating the kind of legendary deliciousness Teller had promised. In the corner of his eye, he spotted a group at another table, conversing, occasionally glancing their way. 
 
Avoiding looking in their direction, Chris rolled his bottom lip between his thumb and forefinger. 
 
Johns: I think we’re being watched. 

---

Part IV

((Welder’s Diner, Livernois Shipyards, Centennial City))

Across the table, the hybrid pirate nodded at him. If it concerned her, it didn't show. Her focus seemed to be on completing a burger that could feed a family of four by itself, then choosing sides that could support another.

 

Josett: It's to be expected, given the company and the colony. ::She finished her order with a flourish and a smile, dropping the menu on the table.:: It's whether they'll restrict themselves to watching you need to worry yourself about.

 

Johns: What do you think? You’ve been in enough places to predict this kind of thing. 

 

The dancer shifted a little closer to Valesha, as if having his body in the way would protect her from anything the shipyard dwellers could say, or do, and realised with some internal amusement the Romulan could shatter bones as easily as he could slap someone hard. He might appear bigger, but all the muscle and tendon coiled around Valesha’s bone and sinew. Lena grinned knowingly at him, then picked the menu up again as though she were about to change her mind. Instead, she flicked the screen off, angling the glossy black surface of the PADD to capture the reflections of the offending dining party.

 

Josett: Could go either way. They're drinking; that's not usually a good sign. ::She flicked a glance toward Bear, then back down at the PADD.:: But they look like dockworkers, so they'll be used to working with Romulans. 

 

O. Marshall: Easy enough to handle if they are. ::He cleared his throat and drummed his fingers on the back of Lena’s seat.:: Let Vee loose, she’s like a coiled spring. 

 

As much as he joked, he was quite serious. The fury she’d unleashed on Tal Shiar agents underneath the dingy Dungeon dive bar was enough to know never to tangle with that temper lest he find himself on the sharp end of it. Bear and his baby blues glanced out of the window while his fingertips mindlessly picked at a loose thread on his wife’s shoulder. 

 

O. Marshall: What’s the plan? Fill the stomach and go for a wander around Little Ki Baratan? Have a sign made? Wave a banner?

 

Her gaze having wandered back to the window, Valesha once again tore it away from the faces passing outside. Careworn dock labourers, harried office employees, frazzled retail workers, all hunched against the rain and not a familiar face among them. Digging in her trouser pocket, she pulled out a small PADD of her own, flicking through the information with her thumb. Chris looked down at it, looping his fingers through the coffee mug as he watched. 

 

Sienelis: Check to see if he works at the docks, ::there was a note of disbelief in her voice, finding that scenario hard to imagine,:: and Geoff gave us a list of names. People who helped rebuild the tenement tower that burnt down. It's where he met him.

 

Johns: That’s central administration for the shipyard, ::he pointed through the window at the illustrious looking building, the only one standing starkly out of the rest,:: and Lisa sent an introduction for us. The Livernois family still owns it, so that’s something. Hopefully, we’ll walk into a PADD with all his current details on. 

 

Livernois had once been prosperous on this end of the Shoals, playing the broker of services and shipping from there to Risa, and the family called the shots in most of the galactic enterprise, much like the Yanovna clan did. Business rivals who worked hand in hand; Livernois took up the Shoals and the family business didn’t stretch inside those limitations. 

 

With any luck, they kept meticulous records of everyone who had ever worked for them, taken a paycheck, or so much as hung around for a cup of coffee. 

 

Unlikely, but the Russian could hope.

 

Across from them, a dockworker finished his meal and stood up. The familiar beep of his PADD transferring funds to the diner sounded, and he left through the door they’d come through, sending a last second glance toward Valesha. His friends stayed behind, looking over toward them, leaning in for quieter conversations. 

 

Chris couldn’t shake the notion that something didn’t feel right. An oily slick taste in the back of his throat, the odd smell of engine grease clinging to everything, the constant drumming of constant rain all added to the caution. 

 

The slamming of a body against the glass window made Chris jump; the side of a face pressed up against it, Andorian blue, peering inside with a wandering eye glassy and unfocused. Someone shouted, and the Andorian peeled away from the window, skin leaving an imprint behind in rain, grease, and condensation. 

 

Unphased by any of it, Lena blew out a sigh and glanced around the diner, looking toward the kitchen for any sign of their meal. She was rewarded with the sight of a waitress pushing through the doors with plates held in her hands and balanced on her wrists in an impressive display of dexterity.

 

Josett: At least they're letting us eat before they pick a fight. ::She shrugged, turning back to her dining companions.:: Looks like they intend to jump us outside with a few friends.

 

O. Marshall: At least when they do, I won’t be hungry. I’ve always had better fights on a full stomach. 

 

Small mercies delivered with a wink from Bear to Lena as the waitress delivered a plethora of food; burgers stacked like the leaning towers of some Earth place, like the spires of the orbital platforms above them, topped with a scattering of seeds. A brief array of holographic advertisements popped up from their table, advertising nearby establishments and some diversionary entertainments not for the fainthearted. 

 

Valesha murmured a thank you to the server, stealing a brief glance at the conspiring group. Meanwhile, Lena immediately tucked into her food with all the restraint of someone who'd spent half her life not knowing where her next meal was coming from. 

 

Sienelis: Maybe we should just wait it out. Have some coffee until they get bored and go home.

 

O. Marshall: Assuming we know what they want. We’re assuming it’s you, ::said as his gigantic hands wrapped around the burger with practiced ease, nodding to Chris,:: could be him. 

 

Johns: Why would it be me? ::A dark eyebrow arched upwards, the Russian not yet eating, surprising everyone, instead taking a pull from his coffee mug.:: What did I do?

 

O. Marshall: What name did you give at the CCMS?

 

The Russian paused for a moment, gulping the mouthful of coffee in one, locking hazel and blue over a stack of bread, meat and vegetables trying to pass itself off as a light lunch. Only one name opened doors for them down there, ensuring eyes wouldn’t look past him to the three record holders accompanying. And if that was the case, word got around Ketar V faster than a QSD ripped through space.

 

O. Marshall: See? ::Said with a flourish of burger toward Valesha.:: Could be him. 

 

Sienelis: It would be an interesting novelty to not be the intended kidnap victim for once.

 

Lena chortled, and Valesha shot a worn smile at her beloved, finding some dark humour in the idea after being subjected to more than one attempt to relocate her back to the Empire. Chris narrowed his eyes at both of them shaking his head slowly, though with a look on his face as if trying to work out what kind of ransom they’d expect from his untimely kidnapping by dockworkers of the Livernois. He scratched the back of his neck and slumped against the booth seat. 

 

Johns: Let’s not wish that on me. Once was enough. ::He sighed wistfully.:: I’ll never get those pants back.

 

Sienelis: Maybe we should see if there's a back door.

 

Josett: Bunk out through the bathroom windows.

O. Marshall: Ask if we can leave via the kitchen? ::His blond eyebrow took an upward sweep as he looked between the Romulan and hybrid.:: How many eateries have you two had to escape from?

 

Sienelis: Just the one.

 

Josett: Thirteen. ::She paused with her burger halfway toward her mouth, one finger raised as she thought about it, then she amended her total.:: Fifteen. Do street food stalls count?

 

Bear’s eyes rolled upwards, chewing down a mouthful of the gargantuan skyscraper on his plate. Between the third lettuce layer and pickles, it looked a little unsteady and structurally unsound, emphasised back down to a thumb coating of mayonnaise. Despite the hunger radiating in his bones, Chris still hadn’t touched his food, preferring instead to sit with his arm stretched across Valesha’s seat back, the mug of coffee in his hand, and hazel eyes transfixed on the outside. 

 

O. Marshall: If we pay for what we’ve eaten, Lena, ::said with not a small amount of emphasis,:: we can ask to leave via the kitchen door. If they’re smart, they’ll be waiting near the bathroom windows. If they’re practical, it’ll be doors. It’s a mob, so I’m leaning more to the former than the latter, ::his blue eyes glanced to Valesha,:: unless you’ve got some fancy Romulan fighting style to break out. 

 

A scathing look was his only response, though even Valesha couldn't tell if she was avoiding the question or not deigning to answer it. His lack of interest in food was unprecedented, and it pulled her concerned gaze toward him. She nudged his knee with hers, trying to capture his attention. The harsh edges sanded off her expression and voice.

 

Sienelis: Not hungry?

 

A soft sigh escaped from the Russian to his partner. Gentle hazel tinged with concern meeting verdant eyes. The increased churning in his stomach related to the increasing time they spent on the colony. What if Valesha liked it there, surrounded by her people, with her brother? Chris leaned forward and attempted to pick up the burger, half-heartedly picking off a leaf of lettuce and dropping it onto the plate. 

 

Johns: Just… worried. ::He frowned and shook his head, offering her as much of a smile as he could muster.:: I’m fine, really. How’s the hlai tasting?

 

Her gaze didn't dart over to the human and hybrid sat opposite, but her thoughts did. She wasn't going to push the issue in front of them. As much as Valesha was glad they were here, some things were none of their business. When (if?) they got a moment alone, she'd press him for a little more information, but not here. She echoed his smile — thin, uncertain — a serpent of doubt coiling in her gut. Had she made the right choices along the road that led to Ketar? 

 

Sienelis: Much as I'm reluctant to admit it, it seems we're in the ingenious fusion part of the spectrum. ::She glanced down at the burger in her hand. Hardly small by any normal measure of a meal, miniscule in comparison to her companion's monstrous creations.:: Who knew that hlai goes well with bacon?

 

---

Part V

((Back Alley, Centennial City))
 
Cullo Zoren leaned his shoulder against one of the damp walls in the back alley, peeling the apple with the small shiv of a knife he usually kept down his sock. The patter of rain hadn’t deterred his excursion out into the nightlife of Ketar V, nor had it disrupted the business need to direct his goons in beating the Tellarite dockhand like a ten-year-old service droid. 
 
With a sniffle, he wiped his ridged nose on the back of his dock jacket sleeve and surveyed the streak mark. The milky pink residue on his sleeve was a symptom he’d had for a while now; milk nose got everyone in Livernois at some point — consequences of working within close contact with a lot of the materials. Harder still was a culprit to pin down. While trellium-d only seemed to cause issues with Vulcans, Bajorans seemed to absorb maladies through the skin like sun rays. 
 
Milk Nose lingered for a while, making the hands tingle and the nose secrete, and the worst part was the difficulty peeing on and off, but eventually, it went away. No one died from it, though plenty of dockworkers had died with it over the years. 
 
He slipped another slice of apple into his mouth and crunched down on it as a pair of boots thudded against the wet floor behind him. Turning to look, he caught the glowing neon sign as a truck rumbled past the alleyway entrance, “From the ground to the skies!” and sniffled again. 
 
Cullo: ‘Bout time you showed up. 
 
Taeval: My shift ran late. ::The voice of the curly-haired young man was low and soft, his accent an odd mix of aristocratic Romulan and coarse Ketarian.:: Milk Nose still bothering you?
 
Cullo: It’s in the ridges. Still urinating like a racing batos, though. ::He shrugged a shoulder up as the knife slipped through the apple skin again, puncturing juicy flesh, and mixing with the rainwater, dribbled down the back of his hand.:: Your name got thrown around in the Welders’ earlier. Someone’s looking for you. 
 
The Romulan didn't shift into immediate alarm, but there was a slow narrowing of tired green eyes, a deepening furrow between two dark eyebrows. It was the only outward sign of the ice coursing through his veins, shards slicing through his chest and stopping his heart. He was quiet for a moment, then spoke in the same steady, guarded tone as before.
 
Taeval: Do you know who?
 
Cullo: A group, four of them. The same lot that showed up in Opportunity at the CCMS office. Cardassian, two humans, and a Vulcan, so I’m told. 
 
Teeth plinked onto the concrete like the high notes of a tightly strung piano. The Tellarite slumped to the floor in a heap of hair, tusks, and dockworker’s garb, heaving in heavy condensation, groaning in a mixture of pain. Zoren cut another chunk from the apple and, sticking the pointy end of the knife into it, held it out to Taeval. The Romulan shook his head and his gaze fell on the unfortunate dock worker, his attempt to disguise a wince not complete in its success.
 
Taeval: What did he do?
 
Cullo: This time, I don’t know. ::The sigh that left the Bajoran deflated almost sounded remorseful.:: The boss didn’t like the cut of his tusks, maybe, or the guy didn’t want to pay union fees. Either way, here we are, there he is, and you should be staying away from Welders’.
 
Taeval nodded, his movements every bit as measured and restrained as his speech. Droplets of rain hung from his curls, and he ran a hand through his hair to shake them off. A Cardassian, a Vulcan, and two humans? It wasn't a combination that rang with familiarity and that worried him; motivations and affiliations unknown, they were unpredictable. 
 
Taeval: I will. ::He paused.:: If they made it to Welders' from Opportunity, they either knew where to look or figured it out in short order.
 
Cullo: I’d plug for the former. They don’t look like locals, look like they came here on purpose. ::Bajoran ridges fluttered with a sneeze he caught in his sleeve.:: Nobody just waltzes into Welders’ and starts asking around about…
 
The sentence ended there as he sneezed again, the milky white substance seeping from the ridged nose of his ancestral people, and wiped off with a handkerchief from his pocket. The Tellarite from the floor got himself up, wrapped an arm around his middle, and limped past them out of the alleyway. Taeval watched him go, pulling his collar up against the relentless rainfall, and then turned back to Cullo.
 
Taeval: Thanks, Cullo. I appreciate the warning. ::He fished in his pocket, pulling out a palm-sized cylinder and offering it to the Bajoran, the feather-faint rattle of its contents audible only to acute Romulan hearing.:: No more than four a day.
 
Cullo: You are a saint among sinners, sir. ::He snorted whatever lingered at the back of his nose and slipped the cylinder into his inner pocket.:: I’ll keep my ear to the ground. You keep your nose clean. 
 
With the small joke, his shoulders shook, and Zoren pulled his coat around him. A low whistle through his teeth and the broad shouldered Nausicaan goon cracked his knuckles from one hand to the other, sounding like a horse’s hooves on cobblestones, causing the wounded Tellarite to move a little faster down the street. The neon light sparkled in the rain, sending the showers of blue and pink through the night air. 
 
Cullo: If anyone asks, where should I say you’re not?
 
Taeval: My work, both of them. I'll see about staying with a friend for a few days in case they track down home. ::He frowned.:: If you find out any more about them, you'll let me know?
 
Cullo: I’ll do what I can. ::He spat on the floor, a milky splodge mingling immediately and washing away.:: Though it sounds like the start of one of those bad human jokes. “A Cardassian, two humans, and a Vulcan walk into a bar...” 

---

Part VI

((Welder’s Diner, Livernois Shipyards, Ketar V))

 

O. Marshall: ...You’d think one of them would’ve seen it. The Azetbur is hardly conspicuous. Reynolds might as well have painted nose art on it. 

 

Burger thoroughly demolished, Bear sat back in the booth seat and watched the small band growing outside. The Andorian looked as though he lived out there and didn’t have a home to go to, while the rest were dockworkers, milling around in their emblazoned uniforms, waiting for the team to make their move out of there. Valesha exhaled a leaden breath, shaking her head, finishing the last dregs of her coffee. Placing the mug down, she squared her shoulders and braced herself for the inevitable.

 

Sienelis: They are not getting bored.

 

Johns: Why would they get bored? It’s not like the weather's awful, there’s little else to do in the colony besides being racist, and Romulan is the prime target. ::He tongued his cheek with a frustrated sigh as he picked up his coffee mug, refilled twice now, burger barely touched.:: We should split up. 

 

O. Marshall: I agree. You two act as the distraction while we make a run for it. 

 

Johns: Not what I meant. 

 

O. Marshall: I know what you meant

 

Valesha's gaze darted between the pair of them, then toward the small crowd outside. They'd finished eating, they'd finished their coffees, continuing to wait would not do them any good. As sarcastic as Bear had been, it wasn't a bad plan; split up, use a distraction, let the pirate and the ranger seize the advantage. Planting her hands on the table, she pushed herself up and stepped away from the table, her intention to move toward the door clear.

 

Sienelis: Distraction it is.

 

O. Marshall: It’s so nice when you agree with me. 

 

He turned to watch her over his shoulder as Chris departed their table, following behind his partner with a hand gesture levelled back toward Bear indicating what he could do to himself. The blond sighed with the gravitas of the ages, wiped his hand over his face to free his beard from bacon bits, and arched an eyebrow at Lena. 

 

O. Marshall: Back door?

 

Josett: You know, we could just call the Marshals.

 

O. Marshall: No need, ::said with a grin,:: we’re already here. 

 

She laughed, flicking an errant crumb from his beard (or pretending to), and slid out from the booth, blue eyes following with quiet admiration. She looked toward the front door as the Romulan pushed through it, her human partner hot on her heels, out into the small crowd waiting beyond. A flicker of concern hidden with a grin, the hybrid threw her curls back over her shoulder and straightened her jacket, turning back to her partner in crime.

 

Josett: That is both why I married you and grounds for divorce.

 

O. Marshall: That too? It's such a long list I didn't bother reading it all.

 

Sliding out of the booth after her, he pressed his PADD to the edge of the table, their tab paid for in an instant and a small cartoon Bolian wearing a welding mask waved a torch in their direction, thanking them for visiting the “best place in space”. Music drifted around them from the grouchy looking jukebox at the far end and the Bajoran waitress bustled out with a smile to see them off. 

 

Wholesome. A little too wholesome. 

 

Josett: I'm feeling it too.

 

O. Marshall: Glad it’s not just me. 

 

Bear shrugged his jacket on, lifting the collar and squaring up his shoulders with a thin smile of thanks towards their waitress. Still smiling, the woman sneezed into a handkerchief, the colour of milk, and excused herself into the back. Frowning, Bear pushed at the door and held it open for Lena to slip beneath his arm, giving the place a last glance as they stepped into the drizzly street. She jammed her hands in the pockets of her jacket, peering back and forth. A rare frown pulled the ridges of her Cardassian brow together, her gaze darting up the claustrophobic walls of the alley. 

 

Josett: Either this is one of the most subtle ambushes I've ever seen, or they are definitely after one of the lovebirds.

 

Cullo: Well, if that isn’t a face I’ll never forget. 

 

The voice behind them ruffed out, accompanied by the warbling charging noise of a disruptor. Bear froze, his head dropping back as rain splattered against cheeks and beard, looking up into the murky skies and orbital platform of the Livernois Shipyards. The reassuring weight of his own phaser slipped in the holster strapped to the small of his back wouldn’t be helpful here. 

 

O. Marshall: Half right, lovebird. 

 

She chuckled and turned toward the voice and disruptor, living for the surge in her heartbeat and the adrenaline pouring into her veins. Amber eyes roved over the Bajoran lurking in the shadows, a hiding place well chosen. These things happened when the terrain was unfamiliar and the inhabitants unknown.

 

Josett: Mistakes are the spice of life. Friend of yours?

 

Cullo: I wouldn’t say a friend, but we’ve met once or twice. 

 

O. Marshall: Damnit, Zeron. I said I was sorry. 

 

The blond turned, the disruptor making the same whining charging noise as Cullo lifted it a little higher, though remaining at precisely the right angle to send a bolt of energy right through the procedurals. 

  

Cullo: She was my wife, you Rakonian swamp rat. ::He looked to Lena, eyes narrowing.:: Who are you?

 

Josett: I'm his wife.

 

Said wife of the accused grinned and [...]ed her head to the side, eyeing the disruptor and then Bear, finding the entire situation hilarious. Shifting her weight to one leg, there was a sharpness to her gaze, near invisible under the smile and cheer. Hands still in her pocket, her fingers closed over the phaser she had stowed there, thumb sliding toward the trigger.

 

Cullo: Hmm. ::His eyebrow [...]ed.:: Are you sure?

 

O. Marshall: Is that so hard to believe?

 

Incredulity marked through Bear’s tenor, as did impatience and a not unwarranted vibration of concern. Zeron wiped the top of his ridged nose with the back of his sleeve as the dribble tickled along the side. 

 

Cullo: Yes, actually, seeing as you’re Starfleet, ::he looked at Lena with a chuckle,:: and you look nothing of the sort. 

 

Josett: I'm a free spirit. ::She grinned back at him.:: So, what do you want, Zeron? What will make this situation go away?

 

The Bajoran tilted his head to the side, his eyes remaining on Lena as he shot a charge from the disruptor toward the blond. Bear shifted to protect his vital organs as the ball of energy whipped forward, fizzing through the air, until it delivered the equivalent of a punch to the groin, dropping Bear to his knees in the rain, groaning as he tried to curl into a ball. 

 

O. Marshall: Rol... xati’yan.

 

With a chuckle and a sniffle, Zeron slipped the disruptor back into the inside of his jacket and held his hand out to Lena, his other sneaking into his pocket for a handkerchief to wipe at his nose.  

 

Cullo: Few more of them wouldn’t hurt. Zeron Cullo. We grew up together.

 

Lena glanced toward Bear with a sympathetic wince and stepped forward, taking the Bajoran's hand to shake it. In one swift movement, she yanked him forward and drove her knee into the same delicate spot, her free hand pulling his disruptor from his pocket. The wind knocked out of Zeron’s lungs faster than the Gorkon zipped to warp, and he dropped to the floor beside Bear, writhing somewhat in pain, trying as hard as he might to adopt a foetal position.

 

Josett: Nice to meet you, Zeron. I'm Lena Marshall. What's mine is his, what's his is mine, and you just shot some of my most favourite property. ::She inspected the disruptor in her hand, then glanced toward Bear.:: Need a hand?

 

O. Marshall: That… would be… nice.

 

Making some necessary adjustments, and attempting to overcome the growing need to throw up in the pit of his stomach, Bear grasped onto Lena’s hand and hauled up, bracing himself against the diner wall. A few deep gulps of air, he toed Zeron until the Bajoran fell sideways, in a mixture of rolling pain and deep laughter. 

 

O. Marshall: See, aka tokka. Isn’t she great?

 

Cullo: A real chesei…

 

Josett: Sil, ah'no. ::She chuckled, stuffing the disruptor into another pocket in her jacket, the spoils of war. Jerking a thumb up the alley, toward the front of the diner, the hybrid looked toward Zeron.:: That crowd out front yours?

 

Hacking up something white into the gutter, Zeron stumbled up onto his feet again, righting whatever had come adrift in the pants department, and readjusting his jacket. One hand smoothed through his tangle of wet hair while the other leaned against the diner wall, breathless, beaten, and not entirely unhappy about it. 

 

Cullo: What crowd out front? Where’s your other two?

 

O. Marshall: They went out front, where there’s a crowd of dockworkers hanging around. They’ve got an Andorian who looks like he’s high on ketracel-white.

 

Cullo: Thori the Eyes? ::He frowned, looking at the two of them, then into the diner door.:: When did they leave?

 

Josett: Just before we did.

 

Angling to the corner of the diner wall where it curved from the alleyway — on a planet littered with replicators, somehow the back alley smelled of garbage — the Bajoran limped, glancing around to the front entrance. He made an indistinct sound, like a hum, as some milky white from his nose dribbled onto his cheek. 

 

Cullo: Well, they’re not there now.

 

Casting a glance toward Bear, Lena followed the Bajoran to the end of the alley. She was more bold (or perhaps cavalier) than he, striding a few paces out into the street and taking a quick survey. Her hands found her hips, pursing her lips in thought. Bear’s brow creased in concern, following both of them to the edge of the building and seeing the lack of Valesha and her sodding Russian outside of the diner where he expected them to be. 

 

Josett: They can't have gone far. ::She glanced toward Cullo.:: Who's Thori the Eyes?

 

Cullo: Andorian dockworker, has a bit of a, ::he gestured to his head, somewhere where antennas might be,:: drug issue. Makes his antenna act strange. Thinks he can pick up communication signals from space. 

 

---

Part VII

((Meanwhile, Livernois Shipyards, Centennial City))
 
Thori: They think they’re being clever by separating the network of fifteen triply redundant transceiver assemblies cross-connected by ODN and copper-yttrium two-one-five-three hardlines and linked to the main computer processors but if they were so smart about it, ::he flicked his right antenna forward as his eye twitched,:: I wouldn’t be able to hear them, would I?
 
The Andorian walked in front as four dockworkers huddled around them on all sides, pushing them forward down through the streets. Chris watched a shuttlecraft zoom low overhead, the underside dirty and scorched in burns, a number stamped underneath with the logo of the Livernois Shipyards glowing under the streetlights. Beside him, Valesha walked with an engraved scowl and an uncharacteristically heavy step, arms rigid by her side.
 
Johns: I don't think you can hear them so much a—
 
One of the larger workers slapped his hand down onto the Russian's shoulder, halting the rest of his words there. He looked to Valesha and flicked his eyebrows up, communicating phrases silently like “this guy is nuts” and “if we die, this is your fault”. His answer was a long-suffering expression of frustration and regret, lifting her shoulders in a slight shrug. 
 
Thori: I heard you were coming, oh yes. CCMS transmissions said you were on your way. Two for one. A syndicate pirate and a Starfleet Ranger. Didn’t think it would be this easy, if I’m honest, but the burgers at Welders’ are amazing. 
 
Sienelis: It wasn't that easy, you didn't get either. ::She rolled her eyes and shook her head, glancing to the beefy Hupyrian keeping her penned in.:: Look, he might be as high as the orbital stations, but surely one of you can see you've picked up the wrong people.
 
Johns: I’d go out on a limb to say a pirate and a ranger would be more inconspicuous about where they brunched, and wouldn’t have walked out front when you started licking the window. 
 
Thori: Or, is that exactly what happened?
 
The whites of his eyes looked bloodshot, as if he’d sniffed the contents of a uranium barrel a few times to really get a good smell of it. Splotchy skin in places and the skittish look of a Peek on Starfleet picture day, their Andorian captor looked neither competent nor cognitive, but that deadly combination wasn’t good either. 
 
As Thori continued to speak for the collective, Valesha sighed, his four goons content to follow in the footsteps of an addled Andorian without comment, question or complaint. Maybe the man was more clever —  or dangerous — than he appeared, or maybe they all answered to some higher authority. An addict earning his next fix. 
 
Johns: No, that’s not what happened. We’re just here to see family, see the landmarks, take a few tourist snapshots, and have breakfast in peace. 
 
Sienelis: What do you want with a pirate and a ranger, anyway?
 
 
((Meanwhile, Outside the Welders’ Diner...))
 
Cullo: Maybe he thinks he can get ransom for your friends. He’s not been right for a while now, but there’s no keeping him anywhere. CCMS picks him up every now and then and toss him back out, like they like him causing chaos down here for everyone else. Syndicate really did no favours there. 
 
Rain pattered against the leather jacket on Lena's shoulders, clinging to her curls like teardrops, slowly darkening the fabric of her trousers. If that was his intention, it gave them a relatively narrow window to work within — whether by design or sheer dumb luck, Thori had got his hands on someone worth a king's ransom. 
 
Josett: Does he have any favourite haunts or contacts he's likely to scurry to? If you're right, we'll need to catch him before he goes to ground and takes them with him.
 
Cullo: The Explosive Decompression Bar is where he usually ends up. Dealers in the alley behind, bartenders know him enough to cop free drinks, and the Marshals hardly ever venture inside. 
 
Zeron huddled down into his jacket, using his handkerchief to dab at the ridges of his nose before popping a pill from the small bottle. The prospect of going to the bar seemed to settle around the Bajoran’s shoulders like a sack of bricks, slumping them down, pressing the middle of his eyebrows into a dulled point. 
 
Bear felt for the reassuring weight of his phaser tucked into the hidden holster, mentally preparing to storm the place with two phasers and a Bajoran shield. He rolled his shoulders back and glanced to his wife, the arch in his eyebrow a questioning one. 
 
O. Marshall: Did you bring...?
 
Josett: A reckless disregard for personal safety? Always.
 
O. Marshall: Naturally. I expect nothing less. ::A shake of his head accompanied a wry grin.:: I meant a phaser. 
 
Josett: One or two. Three. Four, if you count Zeron's. ::Her grinned broadened with each upward revision of her personal armoury, patting her jacket pocket at the mention of her most recent acquisition.:: Onwards, to a daring and ill-considered rescue of our missing lovebirds?
 
A roll of the eyes accompanied a grunting reply of the affirmative, checking to make sure his bits were all in the right place. Phaser in the holster, knife in the boot clip; all he was missing was a few flashbang grenades and a handful of seismic devices. 
 
O. Marshall: It is starting to feel like a vocation. Maybe one day, they’ll repay the favour. 

---

Part VIII

((Explosive Decompression Bar, Centennial City))

 

The inside of the bar was as legendary as the outside, still displaying the large neon sign of a bygone time — an explosion in purple, pink and blue, lighting up the street and the sky — flickering as power fluctuated. Thori and cohorts dragged Valesha and Chris down a set of metal stairs, thick with a patina from years of grime and grease. The smell of smoke clung to the air, possibly to avoid touching anything or anyone. 

 

Heavy metal music bounced off the walls, something akin to Klingon, though it was hard to tell between the screams. A hundred voices, all speaking at once. Behind the bar was a wall of colourful glass bottles, an array of liquids tinted in a galaxy of hues. 

 

The beefy Hupyrian pushed them forward as Thori directed them to a booth, scratching at his antenna through patchy white hair, to a shrouded figure sitting behind the table, sitting in a cloud of vaporized liquid. It smelled a little like raspberry mixed with pillow stuffing. A smaller Andorian bent forward to pick up a whiskey glass from the table and pointed at the seat opposite with the vaporizer between her fingers, the hand shaking briefly, belonging to an older Andorian woman. 

 

zh'Rharia: Vithi, it’s for the Milk Nose. Sit down, sit down. Lemme get a good look at you. 

 

Valesha cast a look toward Chris, and for a scowling moment, it looked as though this was where she was going to plant her feet and refuse to comply. Then she rolled her eyes and dropped herself onto a seat, heavy with annoyance. It was a poor consolation that their kidnapping was a case of mistaken identity.

 

Sienelis: So someone can finally notice that neither of us is a pirate or a ranger?

 

The ageing Andorian leaned forward for a second, one wrinkled antenna bending just as much, dark eyes screwed as she looked them both over. Wrinkled lips covered the mouthpiece of her vaporizer again as she took another inhale, and sat back against her booth seat. The Romulan echoed the movement, if only to give her sensitive nose some distance from the mist the woman was exhaling.

 

zh’Rharia: You, I can believe. ::Her gaze flicked to Chris and she tilted her head.:: You, not so much. 

 

Johns: I’ll take that as some strange compliment. 

 

Said as the Hupyrian’s hand came down on his shoulder like a gargantuan, five-legged spider, and just as hairy, forcing him to sit down beside his partner. The Russian channeled Valesha’s scowl as he looked up at the guard. Thori tried to interject, fiddling with his fingers, picking at the skin beside his fingernails, only to be halted by a single brief look from the boss. 

 

zh’Rharia: Why'd you come to Ketar V? You look like bright kids, this ain’t the place for you. 

 

Sienelis: No kidding. Stop for a burger and we get dragged off the street for being someone we're not. ::She breathed out a terse sigh, holding her hands wide. While she wasn't a poor liar, the Romulan didn't like to do it, and the vague truth would serve them just as well.:: Look, we're only here to visit family.

 

Johns: And, if you don’t mind, we really should be getting back there.

Another hand raised by the elderly Andorian to the young Russian with a gentle nod of understanding. With a deep sigh, she gestured to Thori with two fingers, and two of the goons elbowed the jittering wreck forward. Thori rang his hands together, his antenna flicking downwards as he looked between the Andorian boss and the floor. A plume of coloured smoke floated up from the smaller matriarch as she consumed her crushed vithi bulb from the shores of her homeworld. 

 

Thori: They were with another two, zh’Rharia, I— ::He looked to Valesha and Chris, sneering in his snivelling fashion.:: Tell her who you are. Tell her you’re Starfleet. 

 

zh’Rharia: We have a problem, my dear. This one is a Romulan, ::she took a long moment to point to Valesha before moving to Chris,:: and this one is not. Neither are pirates. Neither are Starfleet. That much is painfully obvious. 

 

It was, perhaps, a good thing that the whole situation already aggrieved Valesha. She bristled at the woman's easy dismissal of the idea a Romulan could be Starfleet —  jaw clenched, fingers digging into her thighs under the table — but to anyone who didn't know how sensitive she was to such an assumption, it was just another spark flying from an already obvious fire. It was only Chris' presence that made her draw in a breath and bite down on a retort, pushing her shoulders down from the angry hunch they'd crawled into.

 

Sienelis: Great. Glad we cleared that up. So we'll be leaving, then?

 

zh’Rharia: As I said, we have a problem. 

 

Off in a corner of the bar, a few cheers erupted over a hologram table; two shuttlecraft racing one another to a finish line. Chris glanced over as two of the Orions in dockworker garb threw a handful of latinum slips onto the table and stormed out, up the very same stairs they’d come from. Simultaneously, the bartender appeared from a backroom and poured a new tumbler of the violet alcohol. Within moments, both latinum slips arranged in a small stack and the new tumbler arrived at their table. 

 

zh’Rharia: I expected a Syndicate pirate and a Starfleet Ranger, whereas what I have is a Romulan spy and a bearded backpacker who smells like sour milk. ::She reached for the new glass and swirled it around.:: You can see my problem. 

 

Valesha exhaled sharply, a humourless smile of disbelief painted on her face while she shook her head, eyes heavenward. If she had a credit for every time someone had accused her of being a spy, she could retire to her own private moon. Lips thinned, she glanced toward the supposedly milk-scented backpacker and raised her eyebrows.

 

Sienelis: I don't know who should be more offended here, me or you.

 

Johns: I haven’t drank milk in a long time. ::He scratched his fingers through his scruffed jaw.:: Though Vorin says the same thing. Humans emit this smell. 

 

zh’Rharia: Quite revolting, I assure you. Now, ::the glass went down, the cloud of smoke returned,:: the other two were with you. Where are they?

 

Sienelis: You mean the two people who are also not a pirate or a ranger? ::At least, that wasn't their present employment.:: I have no idea. Possibly filing a missing persons report.

 

The flicker of impatience crossed the Andorian’s face, her lips pursing to the side, her eyes narrowing a touch. A quiet dropped over them like a smoky blanket, curling into the air, coating in raspberry and the consistency of nylon fibers. Chris had a sudden urge to apologise for intruding on the woman’s personal space, which seemed to radiate several feet away from her. Even as she sensed the conversation pivot, Valesha was unrepentant — on the outside, at least.

 

zh'Rharia: My patience, stretched as it is, is rapidly dwindling, so, ::another inhale from the vaporizer lit up the table under the lamp,:: let me ask again in a language you may be familiar with. 

 

The gorilla-like hand came down again on Chris's shoulder, a thumb the size of a leather-bound cosh dug into the back of his scapula and the young Russian gave a pained yelp. Fingers gripped around the back of his neck as the Hupyrian hauled him up out of the seat uttering not a word but a low grunt, like a warbling rumble from a deep chest. Chris’ fingers scratched at the wrinkled hand and forearm, the Hupyrian with as gentle a look in his eye as if caring for a child, not strangling a young man to death. 

 

Muscles coiling, heart speeding into a drum roll in her lower chest, Valesha grimaced. Her eyes moved to her partner, following along the length of the Hupyrian's arm until they landed on his elbow. 

 

Silent. Calculating.

 

zh'Rharia: My business associates want your ranger. If neither of you are, logic suggests he is in the other pair, and since this one is now useless, we'll save the CCMS the trouble of searching for a missing person. 

 

Sienelis: Yeah, I know that language. Last time someone spoke it to me, he was dead a few minutes later. ::She hadn't killed him, but that little detail didn't fit the narrative.:: So I'm going to ask once. Let us go.

 

Cool eyes glared from underneath the wrinkles of old age, one antenna straightened while the other barely moved. Ice clinked in the glass as the Andorian placed it down onto the table, long white fingernails tapped against the side, skin once cobalt in youth now dulled over time. She glanced at the Hupyrian and, with a sigh that sounded sincerely like disappointment, she flicked her vaporizer hand to him. 

 

zh’Rharia: Mister Zurk, please take care of the housekeeping. 

 

Another grunt from the goon, a rumbling laugh through closed lips, and he tightened his grip around Chris’ neck. The table shot forward, a Romulan boot slamming into the central leg and driving it into the Andorian's ribcage with the full force of dense, finely honed muscle. Grace in violence, flowing from one movement to the next, Valesha snared the Hupyrian's wrist and rose from her seat, driving the heel of her hand into his elbow until it gave way with a wet crunch.

 

Zurk dropped Chris with a wailing groan of rippling pain as his wrist hung limp and loose, cradled in his other hand. With a loud cough, zh’Rharia pushed the table away from herself, in pain despite her aged Andorian strength catching the edge before it could do real damage to her innards. She crushed the glass tumbler in her hand, spraying shards in all directions. 

 

zh’Rharia: Guards! GUARDS!

---

Part IX

 

Chris took a deep breath and scrambled up onto his feet, in time to see the Hupyrian, enraged and embittered, lurch forward toward Valesha and another come racing out of the shadows. The Romulan let Zurk's momentum do the work for her, grabbing his other arm and throwing him over her shoulder onto the Andorian's table. He landed with a bone-jarring crash, the air forced out of his lungs by the impact, sent into the blissful black of unconsciousness by the punch that followed.
 
Valesha went sprawling to the floor in the next second, tackled by the second guard. A shard of the broken glass sliced across her cheek, eliciting a hiss of pain, and she rammed her elbow backward into his midriff. The replacement Hupyrian grunted, only to frown all the more as the Russian dragged him off his partner by the back of his jacket, throwing him into the table the Andorian had slipped out from behind. The thrumming of the Klingon metal music only intensified, drums hammering, or that might be blood in the ears.
 
Feeling weightless in his head, Chris tried to shake it off as he took hold of Valesha's forearm, his heart twisting at the cut of emerald blooming on her skin. Worry striking like an anvil in hazel, alongside a heap of admiration, heart slamming on his ribs. 
 
They could run. They should run. They could make it out into the alley upstairs. 
 
Her chest heaving, pupils dilated, she held onto his arm. His concern echoed back to him in green eyes, darting toward his neck where the angry red finger marks of his aggressor faded slowly, then toward the exit.
 
Sienelis: Are you all right?
 
Johns: Am I— Are you?!
 
Incredulity marked his voice as his thumb smeared green blood on her cheek. He heard the table scrape against the floor and reached beneath his jacket for his phaser, drawing it from the holster on the small of his back and aimed it at the Andorian stepping toward them. The charger sounded, the old woman stopped, stared down the emitter crystal, then up to the Romulan and Russian. 
 
zh’Rharia: You will regret this. 
 
Sienelis: Lady, you can't even kidnap the right people.
 
zh'Rharia: Didn't I? That looks like a Starfleet phaser to me. 
 
The charge of a second, third, and forth energy weapon echoed around the small room, the doors to the wider bar sliding shut. Chris felt the push of a disruptor against the back of his head, saw the mentholated Andorian twitcher move out of the shadows to stand behind Valesha with a weapon in his hand, and the old woman blew another lungful of smoked bulb over them. 
 
Thori: I told you...
 
Johns: Just let us go. We walk out of here, we don't look back, we forget this ever happened. 
 
Sienelis: Or you can keep [...]ing us off. But you picked up the wrong people and you let us get in here with weapons. ::Emerald blood beaded and trickled down her cheek.:: You do not have the advantage of competence in this situation.
 
Considering the point for a moment made the older woman's jaw stiffen, her antenna tilt forward, then back, as though deciding on the situation based on the sensory information delivered through the appendages. She held her hand out, the bartender appeared as if from nowhere, slipping another tumbler into it, ice clinking with the movement. 
 
zh'Rharia: Very well. ::With a flick of her wrist, the goons disappeared back into the shadows, including the twitchy Thori, the sound of crystal emitters discharging.:: Be warned. You have  caught the eye of the Volna Viria and we are always watching. 
 
Sienelis: I hope you like ballet. ::Touching her fingers to Chris' elbow, Valesha jerked her head toward the door, not wanting to linger long enough for minds to change.:: Come on.
 
Chris didn’t lower the phaser, keeping it up as an extension of his arm, following Valesha’s lead as they moved out of the smoky, seedy bar. Up the patina-marred metal staircase, they burst out of the sliding doors into the evening rain of an unfamiliar city, neon sign flickering above them, shuttlecraft flying overhead. 
 
The Russian’s heart had yet to climb back down from the lofty heights it reached watching Valesha tear into the Hupyrian goons, and the second he could, he pulled her to him, kissing the dark, damp waves of her hair above a pointed ear. Relief was palpable, and she squeezed him back, far more gentle with her Russian than she had been with any of the bar's patrons.
 
Johns: Next time, you can choose where to eat. 
 
Sienelis: You know, I think that burger was worth it. ::She laughed in his ear, unease trilling through the sound.:: We should get out of here. I'm guessing they only let us go so they could try to follow us.
 
He agreed with a nod, hazel eyes watching the doors just in case, then to his wife-to-be as her laugh peppered his insides.
 
Johns: It’s exactly what we’d do
 
They made their escape, darting out of the street and into the main concourse that headed back into the shipyards. Rain battered down, making anything in the distance blurry and indiscernible from the lights of the rest of it. Slipping the secret communicator from the sleeve of his jacket — never rely on a ketracel twitcher to check hostages for equipment — Chris pressed the connector and the light switched to blue. 
 
Johns: =/\= Have you got a signal? =/\=
---
Part X

((Streets, Livernois Shipyards, Centennial City))

 

Josett: ...and then he said, "I now pronounce you partners in crime, don't forget to tip your Nagus."

 

Lena finished the story with a grin and a chuckle, looking toward Zeron as they progressed through the rain-soaked streets. It was a tale she'd told before — not all that long ago, in fact — though Zeron made for a very different audience to Ollie. Far less dashing. Much more coarse. Excess of nose dribbles. Still, she'd kept the company of far worse, and the Bajoran was even likeable now that his need to migrate Bear into the soprano range had passed.

 

O. Marshall: A treasured memory. We’ve even got a holoimage somewhere. 

 

Cullo: Question is, ::he sniffled, dabbing at his nose,:: did you tip your Nagus?

 

A faint buzz from inside her jacket, tickling against her ribs, alerted Lena to an incoming call. Under a video billboard that quite literally sang the tourist virtues of Meridian — a gut punch delivered in advertising to the former crown of the Shoals — she slipped the communicator from her pocket. A tap from her thumb and the message replayed, a familiar Russian accent rolling through the airwaves.

 

Johns: =/\= Have you got a signal? =/\=

 

Josett: =/\= Loud and clear. ::She chuckled.:: Are you calling to tell us how much the ransom is? =/\=

 

Johns: =/\= Not... exactly. ::The pattern of rain sounded on the other end of the line.:: We were taken to a bar. The Explosive Decompression Bar, outside the shipyards. Andorian called zh’Rharia. =/\=

 

Zeron visibly stiffened, heaving a deep sigh as he looked around in the rain, as if expecting the Russian and Romulan to come bursting around the corner at any second. Bear, however, was a little more concerned, stepping closer to Lena, slipping his hand to the small of her back and listening in on the conversation with a growing frown. 

 

O. Marshall: =/\= You both alright? Complete set of fingers and toes? No ear tips missing? =/\=

 

Sienelis: =/\= We're fine. They were after you. ::She paused, and the glare was almost audible.:: We think they let us go so they could tail us back to you. =/\=

 

If Bear could look surprised, the expression melded into the frown mingling together. It’d been a long time since he’d been on Ketar V, a long time since he’d been in the Shoals — long enough for his name to be scrubbed and old grudges to file off like starship serial numbers. Debts were paid in full with time to spare. 

 

Cullo: That’s what I’d do. ::The Bajoran tilted his head to the side as he ran his tongue over his teeth, as though thinking about something or someone.:: zh’Rharia isn’t someone to tangle with, she’s deep in the Volna Viria with the Syndicate. 

 

Josett: That makes things a little more interesting. ::The Cardassian ridges of her brow raised in concert with the corners of her lips.:: What did you do to catch the Volna Viria's eye?

 

Bear shook his head, frown only growing, deepening, as he racked his brain. He’d [...]ed off enough people while he was there way back when, but the Andorian arm of the Orion Syndicate wasn't on that list. That was a whole new one. 

 

Cullo: Word travels, debts get sold. Thori might have picked something up on the waves he feels. ::He sparkled his jazz hands toward the couple and sniffled, reaching for his handkerchief.:: We’ve got a safe house, if they can get to it. Send it securely. We’ll meet them there. 

 

Sienelis: =/\= Who is that? And who's "we"? =/\=

 

Frustration seeped through the channel, the transmitters picking up the Romulan's terse timbre with perfect clarity. Zeron looked between Bear and Lena, then massaged the bridge of his nose. 

 

O. Marshall: =/\= That is an old friend, and we, ::Bear gave Zeron a side glance,:: is what I’m not sure about, but if he was going to do us over, I’m sure he would’ve by now. =/\=

 

Clear as mud. A pause sounded on the other side of the line, as if Chris and Valesha had muted it while they discussed the options available to them. With a deep sigh coming through the link, Chris’ voice soon followed. 

 

Johns: =/\= Where are we going? =/\=

 

Cullo: =/\= We’ll send it via message shortly, keep your ears open and your nose clean. Try and not be followed. =/\=

 

Johns: =/\= Yeah, sound advice. =/\=

 

The communication link cut and the three stood there for a moment, under the rain, under the glow of the diner as the shuttlecraft whizzed by overhead throwing the sound around between the buildings. Bear huddled himself into his jacket, pulling his collar around his neck before running a hand through his damp hair and combing his fingers through his beard. Zeron blew his nose into his handkerchief and jangled a pill bottle in his pocket. 

 

Cullo: I’d ask you to blindfold yourselves, but… 

 

Josett: ...what would be the point?

 

fin (for now)

 

--

Lieutenant Valesha Sienelis

Science Officer

USS Gorkon

T238401QR0

 

&

 

Lieutenant Orson Marshall

Intelligence Officer

USS Gorkon

G239304JM0

 

&

 

Lieutenant (JG) Lena Josett

Intelligence Officer

USS Gorkon

T238401QR0

 

&

 

PO First-Class Christopher Johns

Operations Officer

USS Gorkon

G239304JM0

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