The Captain's stomach shifted as the turbolift slowed to a halt. For a moment Jean-Luc thought he was succumbing to dizziness again, but managed to hold himself upright and still. Standing in the center of the lift car, with Geordie on his left and Worf on his right, he had no desire to show any sign of infirmity.
Of course Picard rarely let slip, even to the face in his shaving mirror. From time to time, he privately wished he had no soft spots; but knew without some vulnerability, he would be little more than a machine. Picard had been forced to try that once and had not liked it at all but even then, he was still one step away from the machine lying inert in his brig.
As he evaluated his opponents in this battle of wits, the Captain considered himself nearly outmatched. His adversary was a heartless, emotionless machine, which would continue a mission until it was completely deactivated. It offered no quarter, no mercy, unless restraint was programmed in. A soldier that blindly followed orders, yet could react and improvise if necessary.
Mister Barclay's brief rundown had told him that much, at least. Although accidentally shorted out, the android's onboard computer systems were, according to the lieutenant, easily sophisticated enough to allow creative thought. Picard assumed the computer circuit fusing was wholly unavoidable; a last ditch security measure meant to keep such technology out of alien hands.
It was possible one of the androids had posed as one of his crew and had itself beamed aboard but so far, standard intruder control procedures had turned up nothing. Much as he'd like to, the Captain couldn't afford to assume his ship had not been boarded. He supposed the intruder had made a number of costume changes, in its efforts to avoid security patrols.
For a brief instant, Jean-Luc asked himself how he hoped to catch a phantom which changed identities at will. Despite Lieutenant Barclay's report, the intruder was apparently able to mask itself from internal sensors---still assuming, of course, one had somehow got aboard.
Captain Picard had barely set foot on the bridge when Mister Data popped out of the center seat and reported, "Sir, Captain Matthews has just beamed herself to the planet surface."
Picard suddenly felt dizzy again, but managed to steer himself to his station. As he dropped into the big chair he ordered, "Lock on and beam her back immediately."
"Not possible, Sir," Data politely informed him, before assuming the Ops position. "All transporter controls have been locked out."
Jean-Luc muttered, "Damn," as he mulled over Matthews's security background. Picard ordered, "Override, Mr. Data."
Data acknowledged with, "Aye Sir," then set about the task. However a few seconds later, the operations officer reported, "The transporter lockout has expired. Apparently Captain Matthews only intended to giver herself a, head start?"
From Tactical, Worf added, "The Commodore's transponder signal is fading---unable to lock on. Native rock is masking her signal."
Rubbing his temple, Picard silently swore again. He knew Matthews was far too disciplined to simply disregard an order, and pondered what sort of twisted logic she'd employed to justify leaving the ship. After due consideration, the Captain came down to a pair of choices; he had not made her assignment a direct order, or Matthews decided her Starfleet orders took precedence. Neither excuse held water for Picard.
Once again, he had to decide whether to send someone after one errant starship captain. Twice in one day Matthews had gone off half-cocked, and would up requiring assistance from Enterprise. Picard knew Worf had been all too happy to lend a hand, and he was almost certainly hoping to be sent after Matthews again---but that wasn't the point.
The Captain mentally reviewed the orders Matthews had brought aboard. While she had technically been given the authority to use any means necessary to accomplish her mission, beaming down without authorization was...something he might have done, in her place. The stakes were higher for Angela Matthews; her grandfather's life could very well hang in the balance. Picard set aside the dark half of that particular equation.
Jean-Luc found himself thinking about the addendum to their orders, and discovered the last of his dizziness had been boiled away by anger. Starship, rowboat or anything in between, a vessel master had to first command respect if he or she were to function. He had to wonder who tasted the worst of this particular insult; Matthews, whose abilities were being surreptitiously questioned, or himself, for accepting the order that required him to keep his evaluation of Matthews’ performance from her. In the end, he considered it a toss up.
Then again, this mission had not really presented a true test of Matthews’ command abilities. For that, Picard told himself, he would have to look over her shoulder as she commanded her own ship. On this assignment she was free to act…irresponsibly? Perhaps, but that wasn't as bad as some could make it sound. Unencumbered by his duties and desperate to rescue a loved one, Jean-Luc believed he would've beamed himself down against orders.
He had almost justified sending Lieutenant Worf after Matthews again when the security officer reported, "Captain, I'm detecting energy discharges on the planet surface, but I cannot lock in on the source. Location: the governor's residence."
Picard ordered, "Hail them, Mister Worf," although he knew what Worf would say next.
As expected, Worf announced, "Communications are being jammed at the residence, Captain."
"Keep trying, Lieutenant," along with, "Mister Data, try to find a way around the interference," was all the Captain could offer. He considered bringing weapons on line, but with no clear target to shoot at---
"Airshuttle launch from the residence, Captain," Worf said. "On course for the cave entrance."
Picard realized he now had his target, but…"Let it go. Track it but don't interfere."
"Aye Sir," Worf acknowledged. "Governor Solek is hailing us."
Picard groaned softly, then told Worf, "On screen." Seconds later one badly rattled colony governor appeared on the main bridge viewer.
"Captain," Solek told him, "that thing, it's here!"
"We've just tracked its departure, Governor. Do you have casualties?"
Fear shifted to rage as Solek shouted, "Yes, we have casualties! That damned soulless monster shot up my house! At least three of my constables are dead!"
Picard responded by telling Worf, "Notify Dr. Crusher," then turned his full attention back to Solek. "Your needs are being tended to, Governor."
"I need bits of that thing spread over the rainforest!"
Picard tried to reason with the fuming administrator. "Governor it already survived being shot down once. As it seems intent on escape at any cost, it would be wiser to---"
"You let that murdering monster go?" Solek was beside himself. "What kind of---"
The Captain interrupted Solek's tirade with a bone chilling theory. "Should we fail to destroy it, the android would almost certainly attack again."
The wide-eyed governor stopped cold. "I see your point."
Picard thought of Matthews, and informed Solek, "Rest assured, Governor, we will deal with the situation. We know where it's headed, and have personnel stationed in an intercept position."
Solek backpedaled, "Well...whatever you think is best, Captain."
"Thank you Governor, Enterprise out." A weary starship captain settled back in his chair. Rubbing a hand across his forehead, Picard said, "Mister Data, find a way to boost our communication signal. We must try to warn Matthews." He didn't really think she could be reached, nor was there anything she could do; not against such a…sturdy machine.
When Geordie politely inquired, "Captain, may I see you and Mister Worf privately?" Picard had to wonder what came next. Regardless of the reason, he pulled himself from his chair, gave Data the Conn and shuffled to his ready room. Geordie's dilemma had to be important, but the Captain could not muster any enthusiasm.
When he heard his office door close, Picard turned and began a general question but LaForge cut him off with, "Computer, security isolation of Captain's ready room. Confirm."
When the ship's computer confirmed the room had been shielded from all recording and surveillance devices, Geordie continued with an apology. "Captain I'm sorry, I just went straight to the engineering station without looking around---it's here, on the bridge."
Whatever Angela expected, this wasn't it. She had scanned the cave entrance, wary of the light and noise her tricorder made. The compact scanning computer told her nothing; the cave appeared to be little more than an average hole in the ground. It was a tunnel that extended fifty-three meters into the hillside at a slight angle, and stopped. Hardly worth killing for, she believed.
Night had fallen about an hour ago and Sendatius Minor's only moon had not yet fully risen, which meant Angela was dependent on her tricorder for navigational information. Counting seconds in her head, Angela guessed there was very little of her ninety second head start left. She snapped the tricorder shut, took a few deep breaths, then drew her phaser and silently crept into the cave.
Matthews moved slowly, despite the transporter lockout's imminent expiration. She hoped she was far enough down the well to be shielded from a reluctant beam out, but stumbling in the dark would get her nowhere. She prowled along, allowing her eyes to adjust to the gloom and fine tuning her other senses, but what helped most was her weak right hand on the cave wall.
Matthews tried to focus on her surroundings, but the stopwatch in her head turned Angela's attention to the bridge of the Enterprise. She could see Picard and his crew trying to retrieve her, and believed she had blocked all contingencies. However, if she wanted to return to her own ship, Matthews knew she had to come up with some results. Even Captain Picard could forgive a successful, though insubordinate officer.
Eighty grains of sand had fallen through the glass when Angela finally reached the far end of the rocky tunnel. As she stared at a solid rock wall, anger and frustration welled up in her; she couldn't accept this was a dead end. She elected to chance using the tricorder again, which proved equally fruitless.
Angela packed up her tools, folded her arms across her chest and kissed her career goodbye. The major was gone, and she would be slammed down on a broad range of charges. Any second she would be either beamed aboard or collected by a security detail, then dumped in a cell next to---
"No!" Angela shouted. There had to be a way underground from here. All evidence pointed to it and while she drew breath, she wouldn't give up on the major. Angela silently cursed herself for wasting even a second on self-pity, as she pulled her tricorder and scanned the tunnel's end, but found nothing.
"Damn!" Matthews stowed her tricorder and paced an angry little circle at what seemed to be the bottom of the well. "Some Ice Queen," she muttered, then pumped all her anger into a jump side kick at the back wall---and flew right through it.
As she touched down Angela chortled quietly, then whipped out her tricorder and scanned the smooth metal walls of the hexagonal tunnel where she found herself. Looking back, she saw a rock wall that oddly enough, did not yield to her touch. Technology was a wonderful thing but pure, dumb luck had its merits as well.
Angela flexed her shoulders and rolled her head slowly, mindful of the morning's mishap. Fortunately there was no further injury; Kate had done a better repair job the second time around. Matthews hoped her friend's expertise would not be needed again, as she shifted the tricorder to her right hand and drew her phaser.
Captain Matthews slinked along one side of the tunnel, probing ahead with the tricorder. Within minutes she left the entry passage, and was faced with a maze of large, square corridors. With no sign of life anywhere, Angela took a left turn and let her tricorder play bloodhound. She passed rows of sealed, gray metal doors too thick to scan through, but encountered no resistance.
"Should've brought a bag of bread crumbs," Angela grumbled, as she came to another dead end. Scanning the door she faced must have activated something, for the barrier moved aside to reveal a---lift, of sorts. Without a better option, she boarded what could pass for a freight elevator. The door closed behind her, but the lift didn't budge.
She assumed it was waiting for some sort of command, but couldn't find a control panel. With a shrug, Angela tried scanning the lift panels and sure enough, the car began a smooth descent. Just as quickly she altered the scan, looking for a way to stop the lift---and staggered as the car came to an abrupt halt.
Matthews shrugged again, then flattened against the car wall as the door opened. She had no idea where she was or how she got there or for that matter, if she was really operating the elevator, so caution was indicated. Angela peered out, then vacated the car as the door began to close. Edging away from the lift, she wished for a map; there was no telling how far this complex stretched. One of those floor plans with a you are here dot on them would do nicely. Even a tour guide, if she could find a friendly one.
After finding nothing but more sealed doors, Angela made her way back to the lift. Scanning the door opened it again, but this time she wasn't alone. The car was already occupied by yet another type of android, this one with a dull black body, gray metal hands and head. Round, solid black eyes on an almost human face locked onto hers, but the android remained otherwise motionless.
Her hand dropped to her holstered phaser, as Angela looked him up and down. The male mannequin stood, statue like, wearing an expression Angela could just about tag as curiosity. For several tense seconds she stared at it, as the apparently unarmed droid remained motionless, and stared back at her.
Angela took a deep breath, then calmly told the elevator operator, "No thanks, I'll wait for the next car."
As she turned to walk away from it, the droid made a downright polite request. "Come with me, please."
Matthews froze in her tracks, and turned to face it. The android stood still in the elevator, waiting for her. With blood pounding in her ears, she nevertheless remembered Starfleet's primary mission. "Well, you seem harmless enough." Angela put her tricorder away and boarded the lift.
The door closed, and the android turned to her. It slowly extended a hand, palm up, and said in a smooth, mellow tone, "You are trespassing. Please surrender your weapon."
As the lift began descending again, Angela replied, "Well, aren't you polite?"
"Please surrender your weapon," it repeated.
"Yeah, well," Angela hedged, "I prefer to keep it."
"Please surrender your weapon," it persisted.
Captain Matthews summoned her courage. "Suppose I don't?"
The elevator stopped.
"Please surrender your weapon," was all it would say.
Angela counted to thirty in silence before making her decision. "Okay, but only because you ask so nicely." Angela rolled her eyes as she handed her phaser to the android; the elevator continued its decent. "So what happens next?"
"You are being detained for questioning," the android told her.
Angela took a shot. "Is anyone else being detained?" When there was no response to her question, she repeated it in her most confident tone. "I came seeking another human. Is anyone else being held for questioning?"
"One other," it replied, after a short pause. "Humanoid male."
The lift stopped, and the car door slid aside to reveal a brightly lit, rectangular stone tunnel. As they walked the length of the corridor, Angela observed no doors in the dark gray metal walls. The only way in or out of the passage was the heavy door at either end. Without consulting her tricorder, Angela had no way of knowing just how far down they had come, but took a guess based on her previous readings.
Matthews assumed she had been detected the instant she entered the tunnel, and her poking around spent the time it took to find her. Odd, she thought, it didn't meet her with guns blazing. The last droid she faced blew her off her feet, and the one before that tried to strangle her.
This one was downright courteous---the tour guide she had requested. Only problem was, it didn't seem to ever take no for an answer. Even more puzzling was it insisted on taking her phaser, but let Angela keep her tricorder and comm badge. Well, she wasn't going to bring it up.
Angela tried a different question. "May I see the other prisoner?" Prisoner was accurate, but she noticed it didn't feel right. Probably because she'd come along of her own free will but more likely because, once she found the major, she had no intention of staying.
"No," was all it said.
Angela shrugged again, and asked, "Why not?"
The android responded flatly, "Prisoners of war are not permitted in civilian detention facilities."
Angela wondered aloud, "So which am I?"
The android stared through Angela as it informed her, "You are a prisoner of war."
The android she started to think of as a military police officer, raised a hand as they neared the door. They paused, and the automated MP pushed an index finger into a socket in the doorframe. A second later it extracted the digit, when the big hatch began sliding up in its frame.
"Bet you never lose a key," Matthews commented as they entered the detention area. As they crossed the threshold, the door slammed down with an unnerving thud. Angela's attention shifted from the sealed passage to the table and chair before them, the only furniture in the room. Her escort slipped around the table, and stuck its finger into a box on the center of the tabletop.
Looking up at Angela, the MP said only, "Identify."
Angela took a deep breath, and told it the truth. "Starfleet Captain Angela Matthews, representing the United Federation of Planets."
The military police officer extracted its digit, and stood with its arms at its sides. "Identify," it said, "United Federation of Planets."
Realizing she was in a first contact situation Matthews breathed a sigh, sat at the table and informed her interrogator, "Oh, I can see this is gonna take some time."
The assault unit set the captured airshuttle down in the clearing near the cave entrance. It was aware the orbiting vessel had tracked it, and had expected as much. Yet the ship made no attempt to down the craft, nor were any ground personnel in position to attack. The intercepted transmission appeared to be false, but the warrior did not waste time on speculation. It had a report to make.
The automaton turned at the cave entrance and following standard operational protocol, prevented the airshuttle's recovery. With fire control completely inoperable, it took three shots from the warrior's heavy weapon to insure an all engulfing fireball.
Picard swept into the observation lounge, and glanced down the length of the conference table. In preparation for this meeting he had ordered an extra security team to both lounge entrances, then restricted access to the bridge and command levels. He had taken a last deep breath before entering the observation lounge, then exhaled an order he hated giving; Picard ordered the ship's computer to deactivate all command functions.
Regrettably, he could leave no chance his guest could do harm. Lord knew how long it had been aboard, and what it had already done or learned. For all Picard knew he could trigger the destruction of his ship, but attempting negotiation was his best option.
Jean-Luc hoped he had not singled out any one of the assembled bridge officers. Second officer Data sat quietly near the head of the table, studying his commanding officer. Across from Data, Counselor Troi also observed the Captain; as he seated himself, Picard noted her worried expression. So convincing was the impersonation, only Worf, LaForge and Picard knew which officer present was the impostor. However the Captain was confident his staff would react well when the android was unmasked. In the back of his mind, Jean-Luc could not help but compare the stage he had set to something fictional gumshoe Dixon Hill might prepare.
With apologies to Mister Hill, the Captain began by glancing at his security officer, who stood at the far door. He scanned his gaze around the room, hovering briefly on Mister LaForge. Geordie's almost imperceptible nod indicated the infiltrator had played along, and joined the briefing. Very well then, as soon as---
Doctor Crusher marched into the briefing, with a large padd under one arm. "Sorry I'm late, Captain," Beverly apologized, as she settled into a chair next to Lieutenant Barclay.
Barclay looked a bit more edgy than usual; but Picard marked it as his reaction to Ro Laren's cold stare wafting across the table. Reg had unfortunately wedged himself into a tight spot; between senior officers Data and Crusher, across from the unyielding Ensign Ro, and within the shadow of the formidable Lieutenant Worf.
In fact the only relaxed person at the far end of the table was Ensign Lin. While Lieutenant Commander Data had the bridge the tall, handsome, athletic young man had worked the Ops console. Across from Lin was Ensign Rager, the comely young woman who had run Tactical in Worf's absence. Lin looked excited, and was perhaps glad to be included in a briefing while Rager's smooth, dark brown features suggested concern and puzzlement.
All of it flashed through Picard's mind in seconds, as he quickly focused on his chief medical officer. "Your report, Doctor?"
"Doctor S'Lar led the trauma team, Captain," Crusher informed him. "She reports two dead and one wounded constable. There were no casualties among the governor's personal or housekeeping staff. Apparently only the armed constables were targeted. The third member of the residence security team received only minor injuries, and was able to make a detailed report." She set the computer padd on the table, and slid it toward the Captain.
Picard gave the report a cursory glance, then set it aside. "While our mission is predominately peaceful exploration and contact with new civilizations, we are trained to handle such unfortunate and destructive confrontations. Our task here is to safeguard innocent lives, and now I'm convinced we've encountered a similar organization."
The Captain scanned the faces of his staff; only Geordie and Worf did not silently wonder what he as getting at. Having prepared for the worst, Captain Picard decided it was time to end the masquerade and hope for the best.
Picard turned his full attention to the impostor, and implored, "You must understand we mean you no harm. We merely wish to peacefully negotiate an end to these violent confrontations."
The impostor sat motionless, as all eyes turned to it. The Captain waited a few heartbeats before he politely requested, "Please end your impersonation of Lieutenant Barclay."
It must have understood the value of shock and surprise, for when the chameleon showed its true colors it reacted simultaneously. The droid leapt from its seat, flung its arms outward and knocked Crusher and Data back. It vaulted the table as Worf drew and fired, but the android's momentum carried it into the Klingon feet first.
Picard rose from his seat as the android came up with Worf's phaser. The Captain grabbed for his own weapon, but felt Ensign Ro shoulder him aside. As Picard fell, he saw Ro take a phaser blast in the abdomen then collapse in a heap. Data got a grip on the infiltrator's weapon hand, but fell victim to a foot sweep and went down.
Several more shots were fired, and more bodies fell while Picard struggled to his feet. Before the Captain could even get to all fours the gray, faceless mannequin charged past him---toward the bridge. Captain Picard pushed off from the table's edge and ran after the automaton.
He caught up to the android as it stood near Tactical, staring at the inoperative control panels. In one instant the infiltrator spun and fired as Picard took a running leap down the ramp, firing a short burst as he flew toward the helm station. Both shots missed by mere centimeters. Picard rolled onto his back and leveled his weapon for another shot as the android leaned over the balcony, phaser ready.
Captain Picard instinctively rolled aside. Once again the drone's burst narrowly missed, but there was no follow up shot. Worf fired the next beam, which struck the infiltrator on the shoulder and sent it to its knees. Picard took an extra half-second to aim, and neatly shot the android's phaser out of its hand.
Worf glanced at his commanding officer. "Good shot," he said gruffly, then reported, "Ensign Ro has been taken to sickbay with a level four stun burn. No other casualties, Sir."
Picard got to somewhat unsteady feet, stared at his phaser, then powered it down and tossed it aside. Staring first at the android, then at Worf, the Captain ordered, "At ease, Lieutenant."
"Aye, Sir." The startled security officer nevertheless holstered his weapon, but Worf's attention never wavered from the intruder. Picard knew Worf would pull the weapon, with or without an order, should the android make any sudden move.
The Starfleet Captain stared at the intruder and demanded, "Why? Why force us to defend ourselves?"
It formed a nearly human, metallic gray face with solid black dots for eyes. "Invaders…captured…mission I-com…auto-destruct engaged."
Worf's eyes went wide. "Transporter room, lock onto---"
"Belay that order," Picard barked. He was taking an awful risk, but he had to convince it of their peaceful intentions. "Invaders? We believed this world to be uninhabited, and placed a colony---a community of civilians. Is that what this is all about?"
"Infiltration," the android told them. "Collect information, report, destroy enemy vessel."
"We are not your enemy!" Picard insisted. "Report that!"
The infiltrator seemed to think it over, then posed a question of its own. "Large contingent of noncombatants aboard...why?"
Picard's anger was overcoming his sense of intrigue. "Enterprise is not a warship.
The infiltrator was still having trouble grasping the concept. "Defense perimeter penetrated," it insisted, "first strike response."
"What defense perimeter?" Picard demanded…then it hit him. "The cave? Is that the perimeter?"
"Perimeter penetrated," it said, "initial investigations inconclusive. Perimeter security met with hostile fire by enemy reconnaissance team."
Picard questioned, "Reconnaissance team?"
The android coldly confessed, "Recon team neutralized, one prisoner captured."
"It was an archaeological team," Picard corrected. "They wished to study---to explore, to learn. They were no threat to you."
The infiltration unit persisted, "Team fired on enforcers---threat assessment complete. Primary mission, the Electorate must be protected at any cost."
Once again, Picard's curiosity elbowed his anger aside. "The Electorate?"
"Civilians, noncombatants," said the android.
Jean-Luc sensed he was making progress. "Androids, like you?"
"Humanoid," the infiltrator replied. "Programmed to defend, protect, safeguard the Electorate at any cost. Destroy invaders, eliminate threat."
"Where is this, Electorate?" Picard wondered if he was negotiating with the correct representative.
"Safeguarded by program stasis," the infiltrator said, in its most informative answer to date, "noncombatants removed from harm, military free to act. Invaders destroyed, threat was eliminated."
The Captain seized on, "Was eliminated. How long ago?"
The android's answer shocked both Starfleet officers. "Nine hundred, thirty-seven thousand, two hundred eighty-one-point-seven solar orbits."
Picard remembered the pending self-destruct, and quickly found his voice. The Electorate has been in stasis for over nine hundred thousand years? Why so long?"
"High level of destruction to planet surface, unsafe radiation levels. Electorate remains in stasis until surface conditions permit retrieval."
It was all clear to Picard now. "Then we came along."
The android put the last piece in place. "Maintenance unit discovered perimeter breach. Enforcement, infiltration units---"
"And when your police officers were fired on," the Captain finished, "your military was activated. Now I ask again, can we negotiate a truce?"
"Invaders must be eliminated," it insisted.
Picard lost his temper again. "The war is over! You win!"
A heart stopping moment later, the android relayed, "Inquiry from Central, do you surrender?"
"My duty is to protect the colonists," Picard explained, "just as your duty is to protect your Electorate." The Captain saw no other way out. "Give me time enough, and I will eliminate what you perceive as a threat; I will evacuate the colony."
The android said nothing, it just took up space on the deck.
Picard repeated, "I will evacuate the colonists. We will leave you in peace."
It sat motionless, its dull, lifeless eyes staring at nothing. All Picard could think of was the android's auto-destruct system. After giving the apparently dead infiltrator a long moment, he reached toward his comm badge, intent on beaming the time bomb off his ship.
As Picard opened his mouth, the android replied, "Your terms are accepted."
Captain Picard breathed a sigh of relief, and was about to offer a sincere thank you when Mister Worf snapped, "Captain!"
Jean-Luc stared at the startled Klingon, then turned to face the source of a deep, gravelly baritone. "Permission to come aboard, Captain?"
Picard gaped at the tall, robustly built man, noting bright, steel gray eyes and the closely cropped, salt and pepper beard that matched his receding hairline. He wore the comfortable fit, earth-tone clothing preferred by cave explorers. Picard estimated the major to be about six centimeters taller than his granddaughter, who stood by his side.
"Permission granted," the startled Captain uttered, then turned back to the android---which had vanished. No sound, no flash of light, Captain and Major Matthews had been returned, and it was gone.
Picard was suddenly very glad Central was satisfied.
Enterprise Captain’s Log: All one hundred and ninety-one Sendatius Minor colonists have been evacuated. We have rendezvoused with a transport to transfer Earth-bound personnel and colonists, after which we will set course for station DS4. Commander Riker, Ensigns Ro and Booker have returned to duty.
Standing between the transporter control console and dais, Captain Picard chuckled as he asked Matthews, "You can't be serious?"
"Completely," Angela responded. "Now if you think that's outrageous, this one will numb your mind. Some joker in colony management thinks Galaxy-class saucer sections would make excellent settlement structures."
Picard cocked an eyebrow. "Now I know you're joking."
Matthews cracked a thin smile as she insisted, "Nope, not at all. The idea is to drop off a saucer, pick up another one and drop it off somewhere else---instant colonies."
"Seems a bit prefabricated," Picard offered, "but…practical."
Angela rested a hand on the Captain's forearm as she clarified, "The expression you're looking for, Jean-Luc, is ‘cookie cutter’; and these are the reasonable proposals. We just have to face the fact that when a new ship begins construction, everybody and his sister has a new way to put it to good use."
"I suppose so," Picard agreed, and then his tone lowered. "Sometimes I wonder how anything gets done, but this run-in with an automated military has given me pause. Win at all costs, use any means necessary…"
"I'm just glad all the colonists saw it our way," Matthews observed. "I'd hate to think what would happen to anyone who stayed behind."
"The Electorate has the better claim," Jean-Luc reminded her. "I'm hoping we can make peaceful contact with the civilian government, if and when they're removed from stasis."
"I hope I'm around to see it." Thoughts of her deep space exploratory mission buzzed quickly through Angela's mind. Using an artificial wormhole generation technique dubbed "The Barclay Effect", her ship would take a flying leap across the galaxy. Tirpitz would then take the long way home, back to known space…in theory, anyway.
The attempt to re-create the graviton field distortion that had let Enterprise skip across the cosmos, was a bold experiment. Her crew was strictly volunteer, but Angela wished she could bring Reg Barclay along, just because he'd been through it before. However she was more disappointed Mister Data wouldn't be making the trip.
Her concentration was broken when the transporter room doors opened to admit Edwin Matthews and Doctor Sterling. "Late again, Kate," Angela announced sourly.
"Don't get twisted, Angela," Sterling shot back, "and I'll ask the transport captain if you can stop off at Capella-IV."
Captain Matthews retorted, "You vacation where you like, and I'll vacation where I like."
The major put a stop to their polite quarrel the same way he always did. "Behave now, or no one gets a snow cone."
Angela moaned, "Oh, this is gonna be some trip." She focused on Sterling, and the little padd she carried. "I thought you transferred all your gear?"
Sterling glanced at the computer notepad then explained, "This is a going away present from Doctor Crusher; it's her complete filing system." She cocked one eyebrow and complained, "Which reminds me, I understand giving Worf nunchaku, but Alexander? I'm late now because the little guy just whacked himself with your gift."
Angela shrugged. "He'll learn," she said, as she clambered into the transporter chamber.
The doctor offered a disgusted, dismissive wave, then turned to Picard with a smile. "However, I have a going away present for you, Captain," Sterling told him, then pulled a lollypop out of thin air. "After all, you were a good patient."
As he accepted it, Jean-Luc offered sincerely, "You will be missed, Doctor Sterling."
Sterling's smile vanished. "By some more than others, I suppose," she admitted, then began softly humming Moonlight Serenade as she stepped into the transporter.
Picard's puzzled look evaporated when the major extended a hand. "My turn to say goodbye, I suppose." As he closed a firm grip on Picard's hand, Ed Matthews added, "Thanks for coming to get me, Captain."
Jean-Luc's grin broadened a bit. "It was a team effort, Major. Between you, Angela and myself, we managed to convince the defenders a cease-fire was in everyone's best interest."
The major confessed, "I spent most of my time just thinking out loud; wasn't really sure anyone was listening. What surprised me most was my Angel's one-woman rescue mission."
Picard had to admit, "She did a good job, in my opinion. I'm not entirely convinced I could have negotiated the truce on my own."
"Starfleet trained her well. Angel showed a lot more sense than those damned fool constables Tal insisted on sending with my team." The major sighed, before he grumbled, "The poor devils had no idea they were starting a war."
Picard conceded, "On this mission, I’ve had my own restraint tested. In Angela’s place, there’s not much I’d have done differently."
"Including chasing off alone, after an old fool like me?" The major's steely eyes seemed to twinkle as he asked, "Wasn't exactly by the book, was it?"
Picard thought it over, then answered, "The manual allows for imagination and initiative."
The major smiled knowingly, then announced, "Well, I must be off." He stepped onto the pad between Angela and Kate and offered, "Safe journey, Captain Picard."
Angela was grateful when Picard replied, "And all of you," then gave the word.
As the transport sequence began, Edwin Matthews pondered Captain Picard's use of the words initiative and imagination. Angela's rescue effort was bold, to say the least; but if that was to be the tone of Picard's evaluation, the major couldn't wait to read it.
By the same author:
The Shadowmaster Series
of romantic, interstellar adventures