Monday, May 19, 2014

"Starting Over"

Background w/ Firefly by Gilles Nuytens. Firefly mesh by Sean P. Kennedy. Alex O'Loughlin courtesy of CBS.
Eliza Dushku, Indira Varma, text, and full cover by Christina Moore.
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Crossroads Bar, Glintara – May 2376


She hadn’t come here to get into a fight. She came here to chill and have a few drinks. But from the looks of things across the room, a fight was in the making…

…even if it was only in her mind.

She had her damn sense of feminine solidarity to blame, she mused as she casually made her way across the room to where a green Orion female had just been stopped by a clearly drunk man who could be anything from Betazoid to Human to Argelian. So many species were indistinguishable from each other on first look, she couldn’t tell from this far away. What she could see was that the green wasn’t at all interested in the man’s sloppy advances and she seemed to be trying to politely extricate her arm from his grip.

Politely, Jodhaa Ra’kir scoffed silently, simply doesn’t work out here.

“Look, if you’re somebody’s property, point ‘im out t’me,” the drunk was saying as Jodhaa drew closer. “I’ll gladly pay fer yer services. Who’s yer boss, hmm?”

“I am,” Jodhaa declared firmly, stepping in between the two with her arms crossed. “And she’s not on the job tonight. So make like a starship and warp out of here.”

Her words had no affect—in fact, her presence only seemed to excite the fool more. “Oh, look—it’s the Christmas sisters!” he said loudly, drawing attention from a number of the bar’s other patrons.

In the next instant, though, he was squealing a high-pitched, girly alto—because Jodhaa had taken a firm hold of his genitals and given them a painful squeeze. She inched closer as she said, “Call us that again, and what’s in my hand won’t be attached to your body anymore. Now get the frack out of here, moron.”

With that, she shoved him away and took the taller green by the arm, leading her away.

“Thank you so much,” the woman gushed in an accented voice. “I simply didn’t know what to do about him.”

Jodhaa stopped back at the table she’d left and turned to face her. “Did you forget to take your pheromone suppressants or did he come onto you just because you’re green?”

The taller woman blinked. “Am I supposed to be on some sort of medication? I didn’t know that.”

Jodhaa stopped in the midst of raising her drink to her lips. “You’re kidding me, right? Every independent green female I’ve ever met—albeit there are few—takes pheromone suppressants. Keeps the idiots, drunk or sober, from pawing all over you. For the most part. Some of them are just stupid enough to try anyway.”

“Oh,” her companion said. “Well, I’ve had a bit of an accident, you see—at least I think I have. I must have, as I suddenly found myself wandering around the streets out there, not knowing where I was or where I was going. I don’t even remember who I am.”

Jodhaa did her best to stifle a groan. I sure know how to pick ‘em, she grumbled silently, but her response was cut off as she noticed the drunk who’d accosted the green a few minutes ago headed their way with a couple of buddies in tow. Setting her drink down on the table she grabbed the green’s hand and pulled her resolutely toward the door.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Out of here,” Jodhaa called over her shoulder. “Dickhead Number One found Dickheads Two and Three, and they don’t look too happy.”

As they were nearing the threshold of the old-fashioned swinging door, the red-skinned Orion could hear a commotion from behind them, and figuring the drunk and his friends were pushing their way through the Friday night crowd, she quickened her pace. As they passed a couple entering the bar, she heard a shout, and tightening her grip on the woman’s hand, broke into a run.

They were passing an alley between two buildings when suddenly the green stopped running, jerking her down into the alley.

“What the hell are you doing?” Jodhaa demanded, even as the other woman was pulling a Starfleet-issue tricorder and a small device she didn’t know the purpose of out of her shoulder bag. Opening the tricorder she pressed a number of the controls and scanned their immediate surroundings, then attached the device to the top of it. A moment later Jodhaa saw a flash, then her companion pressed another button on the scanner, silencing the tell-tale trill it made.

“What did—?”

“Shh!” the green hissed, and Jodhaa could hear the three goons clamoring down the street toward their hiding place. Though she flattened herself against the wall, she nevertheless reached to the small of her back for the pulse-phaser pistol she kept concealed there, withdrawing it slowly. She instinctively pushed the green back as the three men suddenly appeared at the open end of the alley. 

“Are you sure they went down here?” asked one of the first man’s companions.

“I could have sworn I saw them duck into this alley,” said the first drunk.

“Well, Gerro, they ain’t here,” said the third man.

“I can see that!” the first bellowed, turning on his friend as though to strike him. With a disgusted glance over his shoulder at the alley, he growled and started back in the direction of the bar. His friends followed, and they could hear the first saying as they walked away, “I swear, if I ever see that red bitch again she’ll get more than a handful of what she grabbed!”

The green glanced at Jodhaa and held a finger to her lips, to which she nodded. They waited, Jodhaa counting the seconds silently in her head, until she’d counted five minutes. Then she stepped away from the wall and turned to face the green.

“What the hell did you just do and how did you do it?” she asked incredulously. “I thought you said you didn’t know anything?”

“On the contrary, my red-skinned friend,” her companion replied as she pressed a button on the tricorder she held. Jodhaa saw another flash, then the woman took the small device off the top of the tricorder and put them both back in her bag. “I said I didn’t know where I was, where I was going, or who I am. I seem to remember most everything else. In any case, I looked in my bag before I went into the bar, and when I saw what I had, I knew right away what each was and how to use it, so not everything’s lost, you see.”

“What did you do just now to fool those guys?” Jodhaa pressed. 

“Projected a hologram of the alley, only without us in it!” the green said excitedly. “That little device I put on the tricorder is a miniature holographic projector. Its range is limited, though, and had they actually come into the alley, they would have seen us.”

“Where did you get a holographic projector that small?”

The green blinked, and seemed to actually think about it a moment. “I don’t rightly know,” she said at last. “I just knew what it was and how to use it.”

Shaking her head in frustration, Jodhaa then asked, “Why did you go into the bar, anyway? You obviously didn’t need to drown your sorrows in swill so you could forget them—you’ve already done that.”

“I suppose I have,” the woman agreed. “Truth is, I went in there hoping someone might recognize me.”

“Well, Tweedle Stupid recognized you, alright, but not for who you are. Just what you are.”

“And what is so significant about me? Is it my green skin?”

Jodhaa’s eyes widened again. “Uh, sort of. You’re a green Orion, or at least I assume you are given the black hair, green eyes, and green skin. And the fact that that clown was all over you almost from the moment you walked in. Green Orion females produce extremely potent pheromones with which they can exert control over a person’s mental faculties. They’re called Orion Animal Women because of the pheromones and supposedly renowned sexual prowess.”

Good grief, she could not believe she was explaining what an OAW was to an OAW. This chick must have been in one hell of an accident to make her forget who and what she was, but not how to use a tricorder.

At that moment, the woman reached into her bag again and withdrew the tricorder. She held it out to Jodhaa and said, “Will you scan me, and tell me for sure? If I should be on—what did you call it before? Pheromone suppressants?—then I want to know so I don’t have a repeat of that business back at the bar.”

Her eyebrows raised, Jodhaa nonetheless re-holstered her pistol and took the tricorder. Opening it up, she pressed the controls for a biological scan and held it toward the woman. A moment later it beeped, signaling the scan was finished, and she checked the screen.

“Yup. Orion,” she said, turning the device around and handing it back.

“Oh, well that’s good to know, at least,” she mumbled as she took the tricorder back and studied the screen herself. Then she looked up. “What species are you?”

“I’m a horse of a different color, to borrow a Human phrase,” Jodhaa said jokingly, but apparently she hadn’t heard that one—or didn’t remember hearing it. With a sigh, she clarified, “I’m an Orion too. But as you can see, I’ve a slightly different genetic code than you have. And I don’t have the same ability to use my pheromones to make a person do what I want—only green females can do that. And red males, actually, so you have a counterpart on my side of the divide. Just a different gender. And that jerk at the bar? Even if you’re on meds, guys will come after you, though perhaps not as aggressively. Exotic-looking females always draw male eyes, and especially tall, gorgeous, exotic-looking females.”

“Thanks for the tip,” the green said as she put the tricorder in her bag once more. “And once again, thanks for your help. It really was kind of you to step in.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Jodhaa said. She started to turn away to head out of the alley, then stopped herself, and turned back. “You said you looked in your bag before you went into the bar—you didn’t find any kind of identification in there?”

The green-skin shook her curly black hair as she shrugged her shoulders. “No. Just the tricorder, the mobile projector, and a necklace.”

“Necklace?” Jodhaa asked with one eyebrow raised.

The woman reached into her small bag again and withdrew a glittering gold chain, on which hung a locket about the size of an Earth walnut. The light from the streetlamp at the end of the alley showed Jodhaa that the front and back were inlaid with intricate, scrolling designs. “Very nice,” she said, handing it back. “Did you open it?”

“No. Think I should?”

Jodhaa shrugged. “You can, but I don’t know if it will do you any good, to be honest. From what I can tell, that thing’s an antique. Probably doesn’t have a holo projector or a voice recorder in it. Just a little slot for a picture.”

The green looked at the locket for a moment, then shrugged and put it back in her bag. “Wonderful,” she said bleakly. “How am I supposed to find out who I am if I nothing I have can tell me?”

“There are a few hotels nearby. Nothing fancy mind you, but you could check them, see if anyone recognizes you.”

With a nod and an obviously forced smile, the green nodded. “Thanks. Guess I’ll do that.”

She started to walk away, and Jodhaa fell into step beside her. 

“Where are you going?” 

“No offense, but a chick in your condition is in no condition to go wandering about these streets on her own,” Jodhaa replied. “For that matter, nobody should go wandering these streets alone. Safety in numbers, my friend.”

*****

The two women lucked out at the third hotel they came to. The clerk at the desk in the lobby said he remembered seeing the green come out of the lift and leave the hotel, though he didn’t recall seeing her enter. When she’d left, he said, she did seem “dazed,” which said to both of them that whatever had happened, it may well have happened in her room, or sometime before she checked in.

After a check of the computer register, they found out her name: Purnima Chvatal. She had been assigned room 204 and she had paid for just the night. The clerk muttered as he handed her a spare key card to her room, trying to remember when she’d checked in, and chastising himself for being forgetful. The hotel, Jodhaa had noticed, didn’t seem very modern or secure, and she wondered why her new acquaintance had chosen to hole up here, even if it was just for one night.

Purnima smiled and thanked him for the compliment even as Jodhaa was pushing her toward the lift.

“What?” Purnima said with a glance over her shoulder. “It’s only polite to thank someone for a compliment.”

Jodhaa shook her head. “Polite doesn’t really work out here. Get too nice, and people either think you want something or you’re simple and easily manipulated. Hardly a person out here that isn’t above taking advantage of people, especially someone in your condition.”

The green turned to her even as the lift doors opened to admit them. “So you’re saying I should be worried about you taking advantage of me, then?”

“No,” Jodhaa said with a chuckle as they stepped into the lift—and she was further proved right about the lack of modernization when she realized they actually had to press a button on the panel by the door to control it. She reached over and pressed the button marked with the Romulan symbol for the number 2 and the doors closed.

“I’m not planning to take advantage of you,” she said as the lift began it’s slow, lumbering ascent. “To be honest, I couldn’t really tell you why I’m being so nice—I’m blaming feminine solidarity. Us girls gotta stick together and all that.”

Jodhaa shrugged. “It’s either that or Beks rubbed off on me more than I care to admit.”

“Who is Beks?” Purnima asked as the lift stopped and the doors opened.

“My old boss—she had this philosophy of always helping out someone who clearly needed it. Which is odd, when you consider we were bounty hunters at the time.”

“Are you not still a bounty hunter?” the green asked as they started down the hall.

“No,” Jodhaa replied firmly. “We both got out of that business a few months back.”

Purnima clearly wanted her to elaborate, but the red-skin remained silent, refusing to even think of precisely why in her own head.

A moment later, Purnima shrugged, and as they’d come to the door of room 204, she slipped the key card into the slot over the handle. The light switched from red to green as an audible click was heard. Jodhaa reached for her phase pistol, holding it in the low-ready position in one hand while she placed her other over Purnima’s on the door handle.

“Let me check it out first,” she said in a low voice.

“Whatever for?”

Jodhaa raised an eyebrow. “Humor me, okay? Whatever happened to you could have happened in this room, and if it was a person who did it, he or she could still be in there.”

Purnima raised her eyebrows. “Hadn’t really thought of that. Well, if you’re certain, be my guest.”

Nodding, Jodhaa slowly turned the handle and pushed the door open just enough to slip through. She swept the main room quickly, noting a single bed, a desk with a computer on top, a replicator (the only real sign of 24th century technology she’d seen in this place), and a wooden wardrobe. There was one other door, which she assumed led to a bathroom. After checking under the bed and inside the wardrobe (which held a number of shirts, slacks, and skirts, presumably Purnima’s; there was also a small, unopened box), she ducked her head into the bathroom. It was empty.

When she turned around, she nearly started to find Purnima had entered the room. She watched her drop her shoulder bag on the desk and approach the wardrobe.

“Go ahead and come in. All clear,” she deadpanned.

Purnima opened the double doors of the wooden wardrobe. “I remember these clothes, this wardrobe!” she said, her accented voice liberally laced with excitement. “These are all mine.”

“Glad to hear it,” Jodhaa replied.

“I mean all of this, the computer there and the wardrobe as well,” the other woman went on, then bent and retrieved the box from the bottom of the wardrobe. She was opening it as she turned away, and sat on the edge of the bed to examine its contents.

The box, they learned, contained ten books. Actual books, Jodhaa mused as she holstered her gun and stepped closer. One of the books was the Klingon version of the Earth story Hamlet, eight others were volumes of poetry, each in a different language (Romulan and Orion among them), and the one book in Standard was titled The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Jodhaa cast her glance at the wardrobe. “How appropriate,” she said, then turned her countenance to the woman beside her. “Are you sure that thing is yours? Because I honestly don’t see how you hauled it all the way up here.”

“I’m sure of it,” Purnima said as she put the books back in the box. “All of the books are mine, the clothes, that computer on the desk… Seeing them, I somehow just know they’re my things. I can only guess I brought the wardrobe up in the lift.”

“Okay, I believe you,” Jodhaa said, then stood. “Look, I am glad to have helped you. Now you at least know what your name is even if you don’t remember who you are. And you’ve got your own stuff here.”

“But apparently only enough money to pay for this room for the night,” Purnima mused. “Guess I’ve got until morning to figure out where I’ll be this time tomorrow.”

Setting the box aside, she stood and held out her hand. “Thank you once again for helping me out. I truly do appreciate it, and I wish there was some way I could pay you back for your sense of feminine solidarity.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jodhaa said with half a smile as she shook the woman’s hand firmly. “I was glad to be of service.”

“You know,” Purnima said then, “I’ve just realized you never told me your name.”

“I guess I didn’t. I’m Jodhaa Ra’kir.”

Purnima smiled and inclined her head. “Well, thank you, Jodhaa. Hope the rest of your night is much more pleasant.”

Jodhaa nodded. “Same to you. And I hope your memory comes back, too.”

With a small wave, she turned then and walked out the door, leaving Purnima alone.

*****

Su’Mal Landing Yard – Glintara


As Jodhaa approached the small, slightly ungainly ship, a smile began to spread on her face. It was a bittersweet smile, for it reminded her of days past, on another ship very much like this one. But so fond she had grown of that ship that looked like an animal (she’d spent ten years aboard her, after all) that she had been unable to resist buying one of her own, even if it did take nearly every bit of latinum she had to her name.

For the memories of the first were not all filled with sorrow.

When she reached the ship, she pressed a button on the personnel door in the center of the much larger cargo loading ramp (which could only be lowered from inside the vessel itself). A small panel beside the button opened and a hand scanner folded down, upon which she dutifully laid her right hand. Once her handprint had been recognized by the security system it then asked for her access code, and as she entered it via the numbered keys below the palm plate, she once again silently approved the previous owner’s mild paranoia—the double layer of security went toward ensuring that no one could open the hatch that did not belong onboard. As the old Andorian trader had said,

Your hand can be cut off by anyone, but not everyone can get inside your head.”

Once the steps were down at last, she started up them, stopping at the top for perhaps the dozenth time since she’d purchased  the ship to take in the expansive, two-deck tall cargo hold. Directly ahead of her going aft, up a short flight of stairs, was the hatch leading toward the infirmary and passenger cabins. To her right and left were two more flights of stairs, called gangways on this class of ship, which led to a catwalk surrounding the sides of the cargo hold. From the catwalk could be accessed the fore and aft sections of the mid-deck, the airlocks for the two atmospheric shuttles the ship came with, and another gangway leading to the main deck.

“Jodhaa Ra’kir?”

Startled by the sound of a voice in the quietness of the landing yard (the crews of the ships surrounding hers were either asleep our carousing at bars and clubs in the area), and annoyed with herself for the fact that she hadn’t even heard the stranger approach, Jodhaa reacted instinctively, drawing her weapon as she spun around to face the man who’d spoken her name.

“Whoa, lady, what’s with the gorram gun? Are you always this jumpy?” said the fairly tall, brown-haired man at the bottom of the ramp, his arms raised in a posture of surrender.

“Who the frell are you?” she countered.

“Lucas Peck.”

Human, she mused silently, judging by the name. “What do you want, Luke?”

“It’s Lucas, actually,” he corrected her, lowering his arms as he spoke.

“Whatever. You know, you really shouldn’t sneak up on people like that. It’s likely to get you killed around here.” After a moment of studying his face by the light of the lamps in the yard and that shining over her shoulder from inside her ship, she cautiously lowered the pistol, but kept it ready in one hand. “How do I know you’re not here to kill me?”

He surprised her by laughing. “Lady, if I had come here to kill you, we wouldn’t be having this pleasant conversation right now.”

“Is that so?” Jodhaa challenged with one eyebrow raised.

“Yeah. Had I come here to kill you, you’d be dead on the deck and I’d already be on my way to parts unknown. You’d never even have known I was here.”

Jodhaa scoffed. “You sure are a cocky bastard, aren’t you?” she said rhetorically. “So what do you want?” she asked again.

He grinned what she figured was supposed to be a disarming smile. “I’m here about a job.”

She raised her eyebrow again. “Who says you’ll find one here?”

Lucas flashed that grin again. “Varrk at the Crossroads Bar told me where I could find you, said you’d mentioned needing to hire a couple of hands for your crew. I happen to have a couple of hands.”

He demonstrated by lifting both of his again, as if to prove he was telling the truth.

Biting back a chuckle, Jodhaa said, “And you’re a smartass, too,” she commented. “Say the pugnacious Tellarite was telling the truth—what is it you think you can do for me?”

“I know machinery, specifically engines,” he told her.

“You’re an engineer?”

Again that grin appeared, and in her mind she’d already labeled it as insufferable. But then just as quickly it disappeared, and his expression sobered.

“Among other things,” Lucas said.

“You ever worked with a Trace Compression Warp Drive before?” Jodhaa queried.

Lucas shook his head. “No, but I’ve studied the schematics of numerous starship classes, including the Va’leh. I’m sure I can handle it.” He glanced at the weapon she still held. “That’s a nice Beretta 3P, by the way. I’ve a Glock 3P myself, as well as the DDR.”

Both her eyebrows winged up this time. Her pulse-phaser pistol and the model he claimed to own were recent 24th century re-inventions of two handgun models from Earth’s 20th century, the kind that used to fire projectiles filled with a volatile substance known as gunpowder. The new incarnations looked exactly like their antique namesakes, though instead of a “magazine” full of “bullets” in the grip, there was a power cell that enabled it to shoot pulses of Type-III phaser energy. The DDR model fired depleted dilithium rounds.

“You know guns, too, Mr. Peck?”

“Truth be told, I know a lot about a lot of things—among them weapons, engines, war, and women,” Lucas replied casually.

This time she allowed herself a chuckle. “Figures you’d know about women,” Jodhaa muttered. With a sigh and a stifled yawn, she said, “Varrk was right, I do have designs on hiring one or two crew, but you might change your mind on hearing the ship ain’t quite up to specs yet. I just bought her a few days ago, and apparently she’s sat here a while.”

“The engines need work?” he queried.

Jodhaa nodded. “Can’t rightly check out my computer systems when I got no power,” she said honestly. “Right now the lights and life support are running on a portable generator. I can do some of the work myself, of course, but it’ll go faster with help. Plus, once she’s right for the stars again, I’m gonna need help with any jobs I take on.”

“You need help, I need a job,” her unexpected guest said succinctly. “Seems to me we’d both benefit from you taking me on.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“You don’t,” Lucas returned. “How do I know I can trust you?”

“You don’t,” Jodhaa parried easily. Studying him again for a long moment, she then made her decision. “Guess we’ll learn to trust each other at the same time. Welcome to the Lyriq, Lucas Peck. Come on inside and I’ll show you around.”

*****

As he’d said the night before after Jodhaa had given him a tour of the ship, Lucas was back early in the morning. Despite her late night, she’d risen early, and apparently so had he: as she was lowering the steps outside the personnel door to head into town at about 8 a.m., a hover taxi was pulling up outside and Lucas was climbing out. The driver exited as well and helped him unload two trunks. After swinging a knapsack over his shoulder, the Human handed the Romulan driver his payment, and the taxi glided away.

“Morning,” Lucas said with a jaunty wave at Jodhaa.

She scowled. “You are way too chipper. What say you can the sunny attitude until after I’m awake?”

“You’re the boss. Would it be too much to ask for you to come down and help me haul these inside?”

The red-skinned woman raised an eyebrow but nonetheless made her way down the steps and took the handle on one end of a trunk. They carried it up the ramp and set it down and went back outside for the other.

“What do you have in these things, anyway?” Jodhaa asked as they set the second trunk by the first.

“A couple of dead bodies. I plan to pitch ‘em out an airlock as soon as we’re up,” Lucas deadpanned.

“Which won’t be until we get the engine fixed,” she reminded him casually. “If your cargo starts stinking up my ship, I’m pushing you out the airlock right behind them.”

Lucas laughed. “Fair enough. Actually, I have a small arsenal and some clothes in one and the rest of my worldly possessions in the other.”

“What are you doing with a small arsenal?” she queried.

“I’m a collector of fine weapons.”

Jodhaa raised an eyebrow. “Hmph. I’ll say this just once: You bring trouble with you, and you get dropped off permanent. We clear?”

“Like I said, you’re the boss,” he said with a nod.

Damn right I am, she added silently. “I’ve got something I need to take care of in town. How about you stow your gear and then get started checking out the engine. I want to know why it doesn’t work. I just hope to hell any new parts won’t cost much. I put most of my money into buying this ship.”

“Then you probably paid too much,” said her new engineer.

“Maybe,” she conceded. “But I love the Va’leh-class. Served on one for ten years—a starship gets under your skin, becomes a beloved member of the family when you stay on the same one that long.”

Lucas grinned that damnable smile of his. “Same could be said of a weapon,” he said, bending to unlock and then open one of the trunks. Right on top were two cloth-wrapped objects, one of which he lifted and unwrapped to show to her. It was, if she were not mistaken, one of the new photon rifles Starfleet Security and Federation Marines were using, which had only gone into service about three years ago. Instead of emitting bolts of phaser energy they fired mircro-torpedoes, and as such had an in immense capacity for destruction.

“A man is taught to sleep with his rifle and treat it like a lover, make it an extension of himself,” he said, gazing at the weapon he held.

Jodhaa frowned. “I may not be a Feddie citizen, but I know what kind of rifle that is. Those things are military issue—meaning not available to the hapless population at large. So either you’ve served time in the military or you paid one hell of an exorbitant fee for it on the black market. I just told you I don’t want any trouble—”

“Relax, Cap’n,” Lucas said, re-wrapping the rifle and putting it back in the trunk. “I came by all my weapons legitimately.”

She cocked an eyebrow. “So you’ve a military background?”

A hard expression passed over what she could see of his profile. “Until recently, I was a lieutenant colonel in the Marines. And that’s all I plan to say on the subject.”

Jodhaa shrugged. “Hey, you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine with me. Just do the job I hired you to do and we’ll be alright.”

When he stood and faced her again, it was with his usual half-smirk. “No problem there,” he said.

She gave him a nod and started down the steps, in the back of her mind unable to help wondering just what it was that Lucas didn’t want to talk about.

*****

Purnima frowned only slightly as she rose from the desk, wondering who it could be at the door. She was pleasantly surprised to find Jodhaa, her rescuer from last night, standing on the other side.

“What a pleasant surprise!” she exclaimed. “Please, do come in.”

Jodhaa crossed the threshold, her eyes darting here and there. Purnima chuckled. “Are you expecting trouble?” she asked as she shut the door behind her.

“I’m a former bounty hunter—I’m always on the lookout for trouble. How’d your night go?”

Purnima’s smile fell a little. “Didn’t get much sleep, I’m afraid. Woke up every time I rolled over, so after about three or four hours of that, I gave up. I’ve been up most of the morning checking out the computer.”

“Find out anything more about who you are?” Jodhaa asked curiously. “Or why you’re here?”

Her host brightened. “Not about why I’m here, but I did find out something about who I am,” she said, darting over to sit at the desk. Tapping the keys rapidly, she pulled up a file and pointed to the screen. “Apparently I am an independent computer systems consultant—and a pilot of some skill. Most of the other files on the computer are notes I’ve made about previous jobs I’ve done, as well as, apparently, a journal.”

The file she showed Jodhaa held copies of her certification as a computer specialist and a Level 4 pilot. Her visitor looked impressed.

“You remember how to do any of this stuff?” she asked as she looked at her.

“I believe I do,” Purnima replied. “I actually repaired the replicator a while ago—it kept burning my toast. I scanned it with the tricorder and found out the thermal conductors were overheating. Took it apart, cleaned them—oh, looked like that thing hadn’t been maintenanced in quite a while—put it all back together. Now it makes perfect toast.”

“I’m sure the next occupant of this room will be delighted to get a meal that’s actually edible,” Jodhaa said. She folded her arms across her chest and looked down at her for a moment, so long that Purnima raised her eyebrows and said,

“What, have I got toast in my teeth?” She turned then to the mirror and inspected her perfect white teeth and green gums.

“No, it’s not that,” Jodhaa replied. “I’m just considering something.”

Purnima looked back at her. “Like what?”

“Well, if no one’s contacted you by now, you might just be passing through,” her companion said slowly. “Though why you’d be hauling around a wardrobe through the borders of Romulan space is beyond me.”

“Maybe I didn’t have a trunk?” the green-skin suggested.

Jodhaa chuckled as she shook her head. “In any case, you don’t know why you’re here and you need money. I can help you out.”

Purnima’s eyebrows winged up. “Really? How?”

“By giving you a job,” Jodhaa replied. “I’ve just recently acquired a Va’leh-class cargo ship—it’s small, and it’s old and in need of some repairs, but I’ve no doubt she’s a good, sturdy ship. Once we get her fixed up, she’ll fly true. You could be my pilot-slash-computer systems person. I’ve already got an engineer, and then there’s me.”

“Will three people be enough crew for you? How many were on your last ship?” Purnima wanted to know.

She was not remiss to the fleeting look of pain that crossed Jodhaa’s features, which made her feel bad for mentioning her old crew even though she didn’t know what had happened that would cause such a reaction.

“We had five,” Jodhaa replied somewhat stiffly. “But I figure as long as I’ve someone to fly it, someone to fix it, myself to manage the business, and we all pull our weight hauling cargo, we should be alright. If there comes a time we need more crew, I’ll hire one or two more people.”

Purnima tilted her head as she thought about it. Jodhaa was right—she had no idea why she was on Glintara. The files in her computer gave no indication of her travel plans’ intent, said nothing about whom, if anyone, she was supposed to have met here. She didn’t have any more money to continue renting this fleabag hotel room, and if she were honest with herself, she rather liked the idea of working to earn her keep. She had the sudden inclination that she’d always done that.

She also knew, without a doubt, that she loved to travel.

“Alright then, mate!” she said cheerfully, quickly closing down the computer and tucking it into the carrying bag she’d found on the floor next to the desk. “All my things are in the wardrobe—” she started to say, slinging the shoulder bag over her arm and picking up the handbag she’d been carrying the night before.

She stopped when she noticed Jodhaa eying her with one eyebrow raised. “I’ve just one question for you,” the red Orion said. “How do you propose we get your wardrobe to the shipyard?”

“Um… ask for help?” Purnima suggested.

Jodhaa looked at the wardrobe. “What about leaving it here? You could sell it to the manager, make yourself a little pocket money.”

“But what else would I pack my clothes in?”

“I suppose you’ve got a point. Besides, from the looks of this place,” Jodhaa said, glancing around with a wary eye, “you probably wouldn’t get as much as it’s worth. Looks like an antique, like that necklace you have.”

“You know, I thought so too. Perhaps the reason I haul it around with me is because it means something to me—you know, sentimental value, and all that,” Purnima told her.

Jodhaa grinned and shook her head. “Hell of a reason to haul a heavy piece of furniture around. Come on, we’ll check at the front desk about getting a hover taxi.”

“You know, you really are very kind to help a stranger out, giving me a job and all that,” Purnima was saying as they walked out the door.

“Don’t mention it. I guess it’s my way of paying it forward. I got the same kind of opportunity when I first signed on with Beks. It was a chance to start my life over again.”

“And now you’re starting over a second time.”

“Yeah,” Jodhaa replied, a distant look coming into her eyes. “I guess I am.”

*****

It took the efforts of the taxi driver and a maintenance worker, but they managed to get the heavy wardrobe out into the taxi. The driver had to put the convertible top down and it did look somewhat awkward, but Purnima sat next to it to keep it steady, and since there was no more room in the back, Jodhaa was forced to sit up front with the driver. The old Romulan didn’t look too pleased.

When they arrived at the Lyriq some twenty minutes later, Jodhaa told the driver to wait, as she would get her engineer to help him carry the wardrobe into the ship. Purnima climbed out as well and followed her inside, where her new boss led her to the engine room. Both women yelped as the man inside whipped around and pointed a pistol at them when Jodhaa opened the door.

“Bloody hell!” Purnima shouted.

“Christ, Jodhaa!” said the engineer. “You could get yourself killed sneaking up on someone like that!”

Her initial shock over, the red Orion crossed her arms over her chest and smirked at him as he returned his pistol to its holster. “It’s funny how familiar those words sound, Mr. Peck. I seem to recall having to say them to you just last night. You know, if you’d left the door open, we wouldn’t be having this pleasant conversation right now.”

Purnima saw that he was wearing an over-the-shoulder weapon harness with a holster on each side—both were occupied—then noted Jodhaa was also armed.

The green Orion shook her head. “One can’t help but wonder how bad things are out here when people walk around armed at barely 9 o’clock in the morning,” she muttered.

The man glanced over Jodhaa’s shoulder at her and smiled. “Sorry about that, it’s kind of a force of habit. I’m Lucas Peck, who might you be?”

“Her name’s Purnima,” Jodhaa interrupted. “Look, we can do the formal intros later. Right now I need you come out and help haul in Purnima’s wardrobe before the taxi driver takes off with it.”

Lucas laid aside the greasy cloth he held. “Sure thing, Cap’n. Lead the way.”

With a roll of her eyes, she turned and brushed past Purnima, who grinned and told him as they both followed, “My name’s Purnima Chvatal. Jodhaa rescued me from a rather amorous drunkard and two of his friends in the Crossroads Bar last night, then came to my hotel this morning and offered me a job. I’m going to pilot this fine ship and take care of the computers.”

He leaned over and whispered conspiratorially as they descended the gangway, “If you’re the fly-girl and computer whiz, and I’m the mechanic, what’s Jodhaa’s job description?”

“My job description is to tell you what to do, smartass,” Jodhaa called over her shoulder.

Lucas laughed. “And that includes eavesdropping on private conversations, Boss?”

“It’s hardly private when you’re three feet behind me.”

“I’m afraid she’s got you there, love,” Purnima told him with a pat on the shoulder, then stepped ahead.

The taxi driver was in a right foul mood when they finally made their way outside, and declared that he’d help Lucas get the wardrobe out of the hovercraft, but that he wasn’t going to help him carry it inside because they’d kept him waiting. Purnima could tell Jodhaa was annoyed, but she agreed, and after he’d done so, she paid him his fee so he could leave.

“No offense, but surely you don’t want me to carry this thing all the way to the crew quarters,” Lucas said after the taxi had gone.

“We’ll secure it in the cargo bay, and Purnima can haul her clothes to her quarters later,” Jodhaa answered. “Let’s get it inside and get to work, shall we? I’d like to get the ship fixed up as soon as possible so I can get off this derelict dustball of a planet.”

*****

Later that day, Jodhaa surprised Purnima by grabbing what looked to be climbing gear from one of the storage lockers. She stepped into the harness before lifting the rope over her head, the metal hooks clinking together like wind chimes, and then grabbed some magnetic grips and a bucket of…

…was that paint?

“Captain,” Purnima began, addressing her by the title so she’d get used to using it. “Might I ask what it is you’re doing?”

Jodhaa grinned. “It’s bad luck to sail a ship without a name,” she told her as she headed for the nearest airlock.

“But I thought you’d named your ship already?”

The other woman muscled the airlock door open before replying. “Technically, yes. But I’ve not put her name on the hull for everyone else to see. Painting the name of your ship on the hull distinguishes it from every other ship in the class.”

Purnima looked at her pointedly. “Aren’t most of these ships retired? Or scrapped altogether?”

Jodhaa placed the mag-grips on the outside of the hull and swung herself out of the airlock, holding onto them as she ducked her head back inside to say, “Key words there—‘most of.’ Now get back to the bridge and your inspection of the avionics compartment.”

With that she ducked back out, and Purnima could hear the clank-clank of the magnetic grips as she made her way along the hull.

As she was climbing out of the avionics compartment having finished her work a short time later, Purnima was surprised to see Lucas enter the bridge. She hadn’t seen him in a few hours, not since the three of them had carried the wardrobe inside and tucked it against the bulkhead out of the way. She couldn’t help but notice the Human looked rather rakish with his face and hands smeared with grease and that weapon harness around his shoulders.

She smiled. “Hullo, Lucas. What brings you to my end of the ship?”

He flashed a brief grin. “I’m looking for Jodhaa, do you know where she is?”

“Out painting the ship’s name on the hull,” Purnima replied, stepping up onto the deck at last. “Said it was bad luck not to do it before we sailed.”

He harrumphed before thanking her and ducking back out. Purnima stared after him for a long moment, wondering just what his story was.

*****

Lucas walked down the steps and turned left, heading aft, his eyes up on the hull looking for Jodhaa. He didn’t have to look far—she hung suspended by the rope attached to the magnetic grips, and was just finishing up the last letter of the ship’s name.

“You spelled it wrong,” he told her lightly.

Though he could tell she tried to hide it, he’d startled her, and Lucas couldn’t help grinning about that. His smiled widened when she looked down at him with a scowl on her face.

“No, I did not,” she replied tartly.

“’Fraid so, Boss. The word’s spelled with a c, not a q.”

Jodhaa looked at the white letters she had painted on the dark gray of the hull: Lyriq. She then looked down at Lucas and smirked. “It’s also spelled with a q. Why? Because I want it that way.”

Hooking the paintbrush on the side of the bucket, he watched as she prepared to move, presumably to the other side of the ship. “Was there something you wanted?” she asked as she worked.

“Yeah. I thought you’d like to know the reason the engines wouldn’t fire up,” Lucas replied.

She looked down again, her expression wary. “What is it?”

“The port compression coil’s going bad,” he answered.

Jodhaa groaned aloud, though Lucas had half-expected her to scream. A Trace Compression Warp Drive, sometimes called the Trace Compression Drive or TCD, was based on the unique concept of a rotary rather than stationary engine block, what on most other ships was called a warp core or main reactor. Since any starship drew its power from the main reactor, the reactor of a TCD system had to be continuously rotating in order to generate any and feed it throughout the ship’s systems, a concept Lucas had equated with wind turbines that generated electricity.

Although the technology was sound at the time of its invention nearly two hundred years ago, its one downside now was that it was such an old model of warp drive technology. Lyriq was a Series 3 model, also known as an Aught-3, and the Andorians had stopped producing them about 50 years ago—thus, no shipyard regularly produced the parts for it. The compression coils were key components in keeping the reactor functioning properly, and without even one, the reactor wouldn’t rotate—thus no power. Finding usable parts in scrapped ships was next to impossible and manufacturing one from scratch cost a lot of latinum.

Lucas knew from her own words that she’d spent most of her savings just buying the ship, and though he did feel bad for her, he also couldn’t stop himself from recognizing that she had no one but herself to blame for their predicament, as she’d made the deal for the old Va’leh sight unseen. Had she taken the time to come here and inspect it first, she might have chosen another ship, or at least been able to negotiate a much lower price and used what was left to buy the part needed.

After a long, loud groan, she took a deep breath, held it for a count of five, and said slowly, “If I didn’t love this class of ship, I’d hunt that stodgy old Andorian down and wring my money out of his neck.”

She looked down at him again. “How bad is it?” she asked.

“I give it two months, tops, before you’re going to need a new one,” he told her.

Jodhaa scowled. “Means we need to get it fixed and fixed quick, so we can get to work and earn enough to buy a new damn coil,” she grumbled.

“Got anything in mind?” Lucas asked.

Her expression changed again to one of cautious regard as she said, “Word has it that the Federation’s in desperate need of cargo haulers to carry relief supplies to regions devastated by the war. It might not be glamorous or exciting, but it’s steady work.”

Lucas crossed his arms over the black t-shirt he wore. “And why do I get the feeling you think I’m not going to like that?”

“Because we might have to work with Starfleet on a regular basis.”

For a moment he only stared, then flashed a grin and shrugged. “Don’t know why you think that would bother me, I’m a Marine. I got no problem with Fleeters.”

After a moment of silence, Jodhaa nodded. “Alright then. As soon as I get the other side marked, I’ll come and help you patch the engine up.”

Lucas nodded, acknowledging her words in silence, and headed back inside.



Hours later…


“You’ve got a big mouth, Pig Man.”

Varrk looked up from the beverage he was pouring only briefly. “And here I thought I was doing someone I like a favor.”

Jodhaa sidled up to the bar, Purnima at her side. “Depends on who you’re doing the favor for—was it me or him?”

“Lucas is a good guy, Jodhaa,” Varrk said, and if she weren’t mistaken, rather defensively at that.

“How well do you know him? How long has he been here? I don’t even remember seeing him in here last night.”

Varrk snorted, served the drink and filled two more orders before he could speak to her again. Stopping in front of the two Orion women, he planted his hands on the bar, saying, “I don’t know why he’s here—ain’t my business ‘less he wants to tell me, and he don’t talk about himself much. All I know is he helped me out first time he stepped through the door by breakin’ up a fight. I offered him a job bouncing, and he’s been doing that off and on the last few weeks, but I’ve always known his heart ain’t in it. I think he’s wanting out of any kinda life that involves violence.”

It was Jodhaa’s turn to snort. “Coulda fooled me, Pig Man. He claims to have a small arsenal and I’ve personally seen three of his guns myself—one of which is military issued.”

“Just ‘cause a man seeks to avoid violence doesn’t mean he ain’t gonna be prepared to hand some jerkoff his ass on a platter,” the Tellarite retorted. “Former military men are always ready for any situation, Red.”

Jodhaa only shook her head, then asked again, “Who’d you do the favor for, me or him?”

“Both of you.”

“Aw, you mean you’ve gotten sweet on me after all? Damn, and I thought I was doing such a great job with my ‘ball-busting bitch’ persona all this time,” she countered. Purnima widened her eyes in shock, at which both Jodhaa and Varrk laughed.

“How long have the two of you known each other?” the green-skin asked.

“Going on six years,” Jodhaa answered with a smile. “If he wasn’t so in love with selling watered-down goblin piss, I mighta asked him to join my crew.”

Varrk snorted again. “You love my watered-down goblin piss, Jodhaa. Don’t try to deny it.”

“I love getting a friendly discount,” she said then, and produced a slip of latinum from her pocket, slapping it down on the counter. “How about getting something for me and Purnima here to drink? It’s our last night on this rock.”

“Ah,” he said, appraising her with one eyebrow raised. “So sending Lucas your way turned out not so bad, eh?”

“Oh, go stuff an apple in your mouth and jump in a roasting pit.”

A hearty laugh boomed from his chest as he moved away to get the women a drink. They toasted their new adventure after he’d served them and sat nursing their drinks and chatting. It took Jodhaa a moment t realize it, but she soon noticed she was having fun. She hadn’t had fun in quite a while, and certainly not with another female. She simply hadn’t been able to relax ever since she and Beks had lost their friends.

It was, perhaps, the reason why her guard wasn’t up when she and Purnima left the Crossroads about an hour later. Just as they were entering the landing yard, the two were set upon, grabbed roughly by the arms with hands placed over their mouths before either had a chance to react.

Jodhaa, of course, tried to fight her attacker off, but he held her tightly in a vise-like grip, and nearly sent her to her knees when he brought his own up in a sharp jab at her kidney.

“Take us to your ship,” said a familiar voice in Jodhaa’s ear. “We want this to be a private party.”

Her eyes darting back and forth told her that indeed, it was the drunk and his friends from the night before. She hoped as she and Purnima were herded through the yard that Lucas was awake, because it looked like they would need his help getting out of this.

And yes, she sullenly recognized, that was a blow to her pride.

*****

Lucas lay on his bunk staring at the ceiling, his hands clasped together under his head. Try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself from analyzing the events that had brought him to this point in his life. “No good deed goes unpunished” was an old Earth saying that kept taunting him from the back of his mind.

So did “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

For the better part of the last 15 years he had been a Marine; had shed sweat, blood, and tears in defense of the Federation, and what was his reward? What thanks had he received? “Indefinite administrative leave” they’d called it, and all because he—

What was that?

Lifting his head, he strained his ears to listen. Upon hearing the noise again, he rose slowly from his bunk and crossed to the door. Being a practical man, he’d elected to take a room in the passenger dorm at the rear of the ship instead of the crew quarters at the front where the two women would sleep—not because he was anti-social, as Jodhaa had jokingly accused him of being, but because he believed as the engineer, he should be as close to the main reactor and the radion accelerator core as possible in case something happened to either while he was in his quarters.

Upon opening his door, he realized he was definitely hearing something coming from the direction of the cargo bay. It sounded like Jodhaa’s voice, and for the briefest of moments, he wondered if she’d gotten sloshed at the bar. He dismissed that idea just as quickly as he’d thought it; his new boss had said she wanted an early start in the morning, as it would take ten days at warp 8 to reach Efrosia, where she had been told some of the relief efforts were being coordinated from.

But she was definitely shouting, he mused as he passed through the infirmary’s waiting area and stepped up to the hatch separating the medical facility and the passenger dorms from the cargo bay. As he reached for the handle, he happened to glance through the small porthole, and immediately froze in place, before throwing himself to the side so that he wouldn’t be seen. Jodhaa and Purnima were being hustled into the cargo bay by three thugs he recognized as regulars from the Crossroads Bar. The ringleader he knew was Argelian, the other two were Human. Seeing what was going on, he knew three things right away:

One, that these were likely the men Purnima said Jodhaa had rescued her from last night.

Two, Jodhaa must not have let on that there was someone else on the ship, otherwise one of the three men would have been racing toward him the moment they stepped inside, which meant her too-loud shouting was a warning…as well as a plea for help.

Three, he needed to act fast before either of the girls got hurt.

Racing as quickly and quietly as he could back to his room, he unlocked the trunk with his weapons in it and picked up the photon rifle, a plan forming in his mind. His Glocks could certainly have done the job, he mused, as he made his way out again and headed up the gangway that would take him to the mid-deck—but a rifle was just more intimidating. He entered the access crawlway and made his way forward, stepping into the engineering shaft that separated the crawlway from the catwalk over the cargo bay. When he reached the hatch leading out to the catwalk, he peeked through the porthole, praying that the door didn’t make a sound when he opened it.

The sight that met his eyes sent white-hot bolts of fury shooting through him—one of the three assailants had just punched Purnima in the face, sending her crashing to the deck—and in an instant he was through the door, firing his rifle twice in quick succession and hitting the two Humans squarely in the chest. He’d set it on heavy stun with a focused discharge radius, allowing him to pinpoint his strikes and move quickly between each target without risk of hitting either Jodhaa or Purnima in the process—or killing his opponent. The Argelian, though he appeared to be drunk, had moved a little quicker than his fellows, drawing Jodhaa up as a shield with his arm around her neck, cutting off her air even as he held her own gun to her head.

Lucas held his rifle tight to his shoulder and stared hard at the man, knowing that from his position on the catwalk he had the upper hand.

“If you want to keep breathing, cockmunch,” Lucas said darkly, “you have five seconds to drop the gun, let go of the woman, and drag those sorry sacks of go-se you brought with you off my ship.”

The thug’s laugh was loud and coarse, and Jodhaa winced as he barked it so close to her ear. “No fucking way, man, this bitch owes me. And now so do you.” He laughed again. “No way you can hit me and I don’t shoot her. You ain’t that good.”

Getting more and more pissed with this guy, Lucas thumbed the setting up to 3. “You really want to try me on that, asshole?”

“Go fuck yourself.”

He watched as the man’s grip on Jodhaa’s neck tightened and her eyes bulged. He could tell now that she was not able to breathe at all, and quite frankly tired of this shit, he took aim even as the thug was swinging the gun in his hand up to shoot at him. Lucas fired a perfectly aimed photon bolt right at his extended hand, which combined with the phaser bolt fired from the gun. The micro torpedo, combined with the phaser energy, caused a small explosion in the air, and a flash of brilliant white-orange light forced him to shut his eyes against it.

He opened them again as soon as he heard the screaming. The man who’d held Jodhaa captive had released her and was flailing on the ground because his entire right arm was on fire. Jodhaa was on her knees gasping for air and Purnima was crawling toward her, a streak of green blood dripping from her nose. Lucas’ training allowed him to see all this in the space of a two heartbeats, after which he shouldered the rifle and flew down the nearest gangway to the cargo bay floor.

Once there he kicked the attacker hard enough to roll him over on his arm, which snuffed out the fire. He then grabbed his singed collar and dragged the whimpering jerk toward the exit, where he shoved him forcefully down the stairs—after which he showed same courtesy to his unconscious cohorts. He then pressed the control to raise the outer steps and close the door, then turned back to his shipmates.

Laying his rifle aside, he knelt on one knee and placed a hand on each woman’s shoulder. “Are you two alright?” he asked softly.

Purnima flashed him a grateful expression. He noted that her nose had stopped bleeding, but a bruise was already forming on her cheek that promised to be ugly. “I’m alright,” she said. “Thank you, Lucas.”

He only nodded, and turned his attention to their boss. “Jodhaa, can you talk?”

She took a few more ragged breaths before nodding. “Let’s get…one thing straight,” she rasped. “This is…my ship.”

With a laugh, Lucas patted her on the shoulder. He picked up her Beretta from where it had fallen when the Argelian dropped it and handed it to her, then taking his rifle in one hand and her arm in the other, helped her stand. “You’re welcome, Boss,” he said, still chuckling. “Let’s get you two to the infirmary, see if we can’t scrounge something up in there to fix you up.”

Purnima had stood as well and moved to Jodhaa’s other side. “If I might make a suggestion, mates, how about we not wait until morning to go? I don’t know about either of you, but I’ve about had my fill of Glintara for the time being.”

“You’ll get…no argument…from me,” Jodhaa agreed hoarsely.

“Of course not—you can barely speak,” Lucas observed as they made their way toward the back of the ship.

Her response was to jab him in the ribs with her elbow, at which he laughed again.

*****

Starbase Sjarron, Efrosia
May 12, 2376


“Lyriq, you are clear to begin docking procedures.”

“Thank you, Docking Control,” Purnima said, then flipped the switch to cut off the comm signal. She then pressed a couple of buttons, flipped another switch, and said to Jodhaa, who was sitting at the console to her left, “Setting turbines to VTOL position,”

Because the ship had no transporter of its own (something Lucas had suggested Jodhaa invest in when she had the funds), their only options for getting into the starbase were to allow the base’s transporter station to handle transport, or set the turbine engines on the ends of Lyriq’s wings to the vertical take-off and landing position, enabling an extendable gangway to create a magnetic seal with the outer hull at one of the mid-deck EVA hatches so that they could move freely back and forth.

Jodhaa clapped her hands together. “Be great to get out and stretch my legs after nearly two weeks of being cooped up in here,” she said.

“And here I thought you loved your ship,” Purnima told her, watching on a small monitor in her console as she maneuvered the Va’leh-class into position.

Her employer didn’t respond as the ship shook slightly when contact was made with the magnetic clamps of the gangway. After a moment a light on the helm changed from red to green, indicating at airlock pressurization had been achieved.

“I do love my ship,” Jodhaa said with a grin as she stood. She watched as her green-skinned pilot powered down the engines, then stood as well. “But a girl likes to walk around, see the sights, have something to do—you know what I’m saying?”

“You mean besides getting flattened in three seconds by Lucas?” Purnima queried as the two women left the bridge and made their way down into the front hall. She referred to the sparring match Jodhaa had challenged their mechanic to just a few nights before. At first he’d been reluctant, given their recent experience on Glintara, but the red Orion had assured the Human man that she was more than capable of taking him on and that the thugs who’d assaulted her and Purnima had merely caught her in a rare moment of relaxed guard—it was certain not to happen again.

Lucas had still been hesitant, even going so far as to tell her that he knew 15 different ways he could kill her with his bare hands alone. He was as much a deadly weapon as his guns and blades, he said, but Jodhaa, suffering from a bit of cabin fever and perhaps just wanting to see what the former Marine was truly capable of, wouldn’t change her mind. So he had relented, and Purnima had watched from the catwalk as the two traded jabs and kicks down on the cargo bay floor.

After several minutes it was clear to both women that Lucas was holding back, and Jodhaa called him on it. He admitted that he’d been taking it easy on her, claiming he had no desire to hurt her seriously. Their captain told him that she wouldn’t have challenged him in the first place had she not understood there was a chance for injury. It was, she pointed out, an opportunity for him to teach her a little of what he knew so that she could defend herself all the better.

Lucas had shaken his head, his hands on his hips, then looked at her with a serious expression and asked, “Don’t hold back, huh?”

Jodhaa had nodded. “Give me everything you’ve got—except, you know, don’t actually kill me.”

He chuckled. “Of course not. How would I get paid?” he’d said, and then in a flash he was on her, and had her down on the deck, his knee over her throat, in three seconds.

This continued for another fifteen minutes—he would let her up, she would attack, he’d take her down. Purnima was amused at first, until Jodhaa grew frustrated and charged with anger instead of focusing her attacks. Following another take-down which must have hurt, given how hard he had thrown her on her back, Lucas had declared the match over. He couldn’t teach her anything if she wouldn’t learn from her mistakes. He would, however, be willing to try again the next day, once she’d cooled down.

It had become a nightly routine the last few days for Jodhaa and Lucas to grapple with each other in the cargo bay after the evening meal. Though she had yet to best him, Jodhaa was determined to do so at least once, no matter how many bruises she went to bed with.

Jodhaa scowled briefly at Purnima’s comment as she turned at the end of the hall and took the stairs down to the catwalk over the cargo bay. Turning and walking backward toward the airlock, she pointed a finger back at her pilot. “Hey, I’m getting better at holding him off, you know,” she said. “It takes longer than three seconds for him to take me down.”

“Yeah, it takes six now,” Lucas said as he stepped out onto the catwalk from the aft section.

The red Orion scowled at his smirk as he approached. “Just wait. I’ll surprise you one of these days.”

He grinned. “I’m still waiting for that,” he said.

Jodhaa stuck her tongue out at him before turning around to enter the airlock. Purnima and Lucas followed, and as the three of them started into the gangway, Jodhaa reached into the pockets of the floor-length black leather duster she wore and held out an object to each of them.

“What’s this?” Purnima asked as she flipped up the small gold grille and eyed the circular dial and buttons underneath it on a black casing.

“A communicator. Lucas ought to recognize it, it’s Starfleet issue,” the red Orion said over her shoulder.

“I’m a Marine, not a Fleeter,” he reminded her.

“You wear the same uniform, just a different color shirt.”

“Be that as it may, this is not like any communicator I’ve ever seen,” Lucas went on as they exited the gangway and stepped into the station. “Starfleet, Border Patrol, and the Corps have been using commbadges for nearly forty years.”

Jodhaa turned around as the hatch was closing and punched in a security code on the panel next to it that would keep anyone but the three of them from entering the ship. She then looked up at the mechanic, saying, “Didn’t you ever take a class on technology of the past?” She gestured to the devices the two held. “These are old Starfleet communicators from the late 23rd century—got ‘em at a surplus sale a few years ago even though we already had communicators on the EC. I figured since they still worked, they might come in handy someday. I’ve a couple more on the ship in case I ever take on more crew.”

“And you’re sure they work?”

“Yes. Our techie checked ‘em out when I bought them,” Jodhaa said as they headed toward the main part of the station. “They’re also already linked to each other, so all you gotta do is flip it open and say my name or Purnima’s, and we’ll respond.”

“Oh, it’s wonderful that we’ll be able to stay in touch while we’re here,” Purnima said cheerfully as she pocketed her communicator.

“Speaking of which,” Lucas queried as he slipped his own device into a pocket, “What are we going to do while we’re here? How are you going to go about get us lined up for work?”

“As soon as we reach the main concourse, I’m going to find a visitor’s terminal and look up wherever it is that they’re signing up cargo haulers,” Jodhaa answered as the three of them rounded a corner. “Purnima’s got the last of my latinum and she’s going to buy some groceries for the galley.”

“I still think you should put in a replicator,” Lucas said.

“You want Federation comfort, ride on a Ferderation starship,” Jodhaa threw back. “Food that’s cooked by hand is a hell of a lot better for you—and better tasting, too—than food synthesized from base proteins. If I ever put in a replicator, it’ll just be so I can replicate fruits and vegetables to go into the food I’m cooking.”

“I think Lucas just doesn’t like to cook,” Purnima said with a chuckle.

Jodhaa flashed a grin at her. “More like he can’t cook,” she corrected with a shudder.

“Hey, you don’t like Marine-style cooking, don’t let the Marine cook,” Lucas said then.

“Fine. You can do the dishes every night.”

The two women laughed at the scowl on his face, though they all chattered good-naturedly as they made their way further into the starbase. Once on the main concourse, they walked together to the nearest visitor’s terminal where Jodhaa called up the location of the Aid Services Center, then the closest fresh foods market so Purnima would know where to go. She then turned to Purnima and Lucas and said, “Wish me luck getting us work. I’ll see you two back at the ship in a couple of hours. Remember, if you need me or each other for anything, use your communicator.”

Lucas gave her a mock salute. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Are we allowed to take some time to enjoy ourselves while we’re here?”

“If you want to go off and pick up a Dabo girl at one of the gambling halls for a quickie, that’s your business,” Jodhaa said, a frown on her lovely red face.

Lucas scoffed. “No thanks. Why pay for sex when I can get it for free?” he said, turning around and merging with the crowd without elaborating.

Jodhaa stared after him for a moment, then turned to find Purnima looking at her with a concerned expression on her jade features. “What?” she said tartly, heading for a turbolift.

“I’ve just realized something,” the other woman said. “You like him.”

Jodhaa scowled as she pressed the call button. “He’s a good mechanic.”

Purnima shook her head. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I daresay that look on your face a moment ago bespoke of jealousy. You don’t like the idea of him going off to be with a woman.”

The turbolift door opened then, and Jodhaa stepped inside, turning around before she said with a smile, “Consider this correction. You’re wrong. I don’t care what the hell Lucas does with his own time, I just don’t want him bringing his whores onto my ship.”

Before Purnima could respond, the door closed between them. She scoffed as she turned away and headed for the market, mumbling to herself, “If she doesn’t like him, then I’m a monkey’s auntie.”

*****

“May I help you?”

It took some effort, but Jodhaa refrained from scowling at the saccharine-laced voice of the woman in the prim suit behind the receptionist’s desk. Instead, she plastered a benign smile on her face and said in the politest voice she could manage, “It’s my understanding that the Federation has a need of cargo haulers to carry relief supplies.”

Her irritation, she knew, was Purnima’s fault, because of her ridiculous belief that she had even the remotest interest in Lucas as anything other than an employee. As if, she told herself firmly.

The woman smiled. “Unfortunately true,” she said. “May I see your registration?”

Prepared for this, Jodhaa withdrew an iso-chip out of an inner pocket of her duster and handed it over. The woman inserted the chip into a slot in her computer terminal and rapidly tapped several keys. Her benign smile fell after a moment, which in turn caused Jodhaa to fail at controlling her own expression.

She frowned as she asked, “What is it?”

“I’m afraid that all this has on it is your certificate of ownership,” the woman said as she looked at her. “I need to see your CTL.”

Her frown deepened. “My what?” Jodhaa queried.

“Commercial Transport License. All vessels carrying cargo or transporting persons for the government or a commercially run business must have a CTL.”

Frack, she thought bitterly. “How do I get one of those?”

The woman smiled again. “Fortunately for you, Ms. Ra’kir, we’ve been authorized to register persons new to the cargo transport business and grant a CTL immediately—though you will have to submit to an inspection of your vessel by Starfleet—because we need all the help we can get. Otherwise you’d have to contact the licensing bureau and that would take weeks. Now, do you have the licensing fee?”

“Lady, I didn’t even know I needed a license to haul stuff around in a privately owned ship,” Jodhaa retorted. “How much is it?”

“One hundred fifty Federation credits,” the young woman replied.

Jodhaa muttered a string of curses. Where the hell was Lucas when she needed him? He was a Feddie, he probably had a credit account—she, on the other hand, did not. Plus, she’d given the last of her money to Purnima for food supplies, so there was no latinum to convert.

“I take it you don’t have a credit account?” the woman behind the desk said as she handed her back the iso-chip, suddenly eyeing Jodhaa warily, as if afraid she would lash out. Jodhaa supposed she couldn’t blame her, as the way she was dressed—black tank top, black slacks, black high-heeled boots and her black leather duster—probably made her look like a criminal (not to mention she was carrying a concealed weapon, which she did have a license for as she was still a registered bounty hunter).

“No, I do not,” she replied slowly as she put the chip back into her pocket.

Just then a man came into the outer office where she stood. Jodhaa noted he wore a Federation uniform with a purple undershirt, and racked her brain for the division that color represented. She came up empty, as the only divisional colors she recognized were red, gold, blue, teal, and green.

“Good morning, Janice, I’m sorry I’m—” He looked up then from the padd in his hand, stopping short at seeing Janice was not alone. “Hello there. I’m Commander Jeron Tallis, Starfleet Diplomatic Corps. Who might you be?”

A politician, Jodhaa determined, and Betazoid, judging by the black eyes. While she knew that Betazoid ethics (not to mention those of Starfleet) precluded reading a person telepathically without their consent, she nevertheless cleared her mind and thought only of what her next meal might be when she took the hand he offered and shook it. It might be paranoid, but she loathed the thought of anyone being able to look into her private thoughts.

“Jodhaa Ra’kir,” she said, introducing herself.

“A pleasure, Ms. Ra’kir,” Tallis said with a smile as he let go her hand. “How can we help you here at Aid Services?”

“I’ve recently acquired a transport ship and thought I would offer my services,” she replied. “But I didn’t know I needed a license to haul on a privately owned vessel, and I haven’t a credit account because I’m not a Feddie—er, Federation citizen.”

Tallis glanced briefly at Janice, then back at her. “Well, given that we are in need of your services—any willing cargo ship for that matter—I think I can help you out.”

Jodhaa raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“Well, first we need to set you up a credit account because we’d be paying you in Federation credits,” Tallis said. “You get twenty-five credits per light-year.”

She couldn’t help it this time, she scowled. Twenty-five credits a light-year only added up to 500 per sector. Seeing her expression, Tallis smiled sympathetically. “I know it’s not much, but it’s the best we can do, I’m afraid. Although—I’m sorry, what kind of ship do you own?”

“A Series-3 Va’leh-class,” Jodhaa replied. “Why?”

“An Andorian design. A bit outdated,” Tallis mused, “but sturdy from what I’ve heard tell. Only problem is they don’t have defensive capabilities beyond shields.”

“And that’s a problem…why?”

“Because anyone willing to haul into Cardassian space receives twice as much,” the commander said matter-of-factly.

Jodhaa raised her eyebrow again. “The Federation is sending relief supplies into Cardassian space? Are you kidding me? Weren’t they just trying to conquer you guys like, five months ago?”

Tallis exchanged a glance with Janice again, and when he looked back at Jodhaa, his expression was weary. “You’ve no idea how many times I’ve heard that since February,” he said. “And while I am not at liberty to discuss my own feelings on the matter, I can tell you that you’re not the only one who seems to think the Federation mad for helping the Cardassians out. But the fact remains we are, though one can’t help but wonder why when so many cargo ships have been attacked and the supplies stolen. Not all of them, but enough that it’s become a problem, and there aren’t enough Starfleet vessels in the Union to escort every cargo ship.”

He offered her a sheepish smile. “Sorry, that was my iron-clad control slipping there a bit,” he said.

Jodhaa shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. I can see your point. So you said double, right, if we’re willing to go in and out of the Union?”

Tallis nodded. “It’s the standard twenty-five up to any place on the Union border, and fifty for every light-year traversed inside Cardassian space. And in case of anyone trying to cheat the system—not that I’m saying you would, but there are those who have—we’ve already got every parsec of the border mapped out, so no matter where you leave from, we’ll know how far you have to travel, not to mention Border Patrol ships conduct regular inspections.”

“So how can you help me out, Commander?” Jodhaa asked.

“We can deduct your licensing fee from your first payment,” he said. “But given the type of ship you’re flying, we’ll probably keep you to Federation worlds.”

“I’ve got no problem flying into Cardassian space,” Jodhaa said.

“But how will you defend yourselves and the cargo if you’re attacked by pirates?” Janice spoke up then.

“I have an ace pilot, and I used to be a Fugitive Recovery Agent, so I’ve a few tricks up my own sleeve as well,” the Orion replied.

Tallis regarded her solemnly. “If you are certain…” he said slowly.

“I’m sure of it,” Jodhaa said.

“What about your crew?” Janice pressed. “Don’t you think that they should have a say in the matter?”

“Janice,” Tallis admonished the woman gently.

Jodhaa looked at her. “I may not be a Starfleet captain, but my crew is like any ‘fleet crew: they go where they’re told to go. If they don’t like it, they can look for work elsewhere. I ain’t out to please everybody, I’m aiming to make some money doing honest work.”

“And a fine outlook that is,” Tallis said before Janice could speak again. “Why don’t you come into my office and we’ll get you set up?”

Jodhaa nodded and followed behind the man, pleased that her expedition had proved fruitful.

*****

Despite Jodhaa’s belief that he was looking to get lucky, the first thing Lucas did was head for the nearest Replimat—he wanted a steak, and he didn’t care that it was 8:30 in the morning. While he’d gotten used to lean living these last few months of traveling (or running away, as Shaki had called it, which of course Lucas vehemently denied), he was a man who knew what he liked, and he liked a good steak. The meager food supplies they’d had on the Lyriq were enough to sustain the three-person crew, but barely, which was another reason they needed work as soon as possible. Whatever Purnima bought today probably wouldn’t last long, either.

Steak had not been on the menu once in the last ten days, and it had been about two full months since he’d had one. He intended to rectify that oversight as soon as possible.

After his meal, he mused, he might see about spending an hour in a holosuite if there were any available. A good run on the beach or a mixed-martial arts program would be ideal for a good cardio workout, as on a ship with no amenities, his options for working out were slim.

He had to smile, though, when he thought of his sparring matches with Jodhaa. She was good, and strong—and she was fierce, he’d give her that. He had to admit being impressed with her determination, even if it was only to best him and not actually learn anything—though of course, he knew she’d never do the former if she refused to do the latter.

At the sight of the food court ahead of him he grinned and increased his pace. Joining the line for the replicators, he rubbed his hands together, his mouth watering in anticipation of a two-inch T-bone and a fully loaded baked potato.

“My eyes must need examined, for surely I am looking at a ghost.”

Lucas turned his head toward the source of the voice, one he knew all too well. He knew his expression was a mix of trepidation and delight as he looked upon the blue face and quivering antennae of the uniform-clad Alvashaki Toh’kerron.

The Andorian grinned hugely as he came over and threw his arms around Lucas, drawing curious stares from passers-by. Lucas returned the bear hug with only slightly less enthusiasm—it was good to see his long-time friend, even if doing so would bring about the inevitable questions.

“Where the hell have you been, Paleface?” Shaki asked as he stood back. “Haven’t seen or heard from you in months.”

“I could say the same for you, Gunny,” Lucas replied, referring to Shaki’s Marine rank of Gunnery Sergeant in an attempt at dodging the question.

“Well if you hadn’t run away—”

Lucas narrowed his eyes. “I didn’t run away,” he retorted.

“Could’ve fooled me, pal,” Shaki threw back. “You sure as hell didn’t fight the charges, and you didn’t stick around after those morons back at HQ—”

“Look, can we not talk about this?” the Human said, stepping up to the bank of replicators when it was his turn and ordering his meal, adding an ice-cold glass of beer (albeit synthehol) to go with it. He carried the steaming plate and chilled glass that appeared a few moments later to a nearby table. Shaki followed.

“Lucas,” his companion said as he took the seat across from him. “I know you don’t want to hear this tired old argument again—”

“Then don’t bring it up.”

“Will you stop interrupting me?” Shaki said with a groan. “All I’m saying is that you should have fought back—you don’t deserve what they did to you.”

Lucas didn’t pause in the cutting of his steak as he said, “I notice they didn’t take you out of your uniform. Or anyone else for that matter.”

He watched through downcast eyes as the Andorian pulled nervously at his green shirt collar. They both knew that the reason he was sitting there in uniform and Lucas was not was because Lucas had been the unit commander—responsibility for their actions ultimately fell on him. Though he had made the decision on his own his men had backed him up, and thus could have been held just as responsible. But Command had either wanted to make an example out of him or they honestly didn’t know what to do about what had happened.

Lucas, given the amount of time that had passed, was certain they were making an example out of him.

He stabbed his steak a little more forcefully than he’d intended when he went to cut the next piece, stuffing it into his mouth as Shaki sighed and said, “It’s good to see you, brother.”

Lucas sighed as well and set his silverware down. He reached for his beer and took a long swig before echoing the sentiment. “It’s good to see you, too, Blueskin.”

“At least you haven’t lost too much weight loafing around. What have you been doing these past few months?” Shaki asked.

With a shrug, Lucas replied, “Odd jobs here and there, just what I needed to get by. Did some traveling. Ended up on Glintara about mid-March.”

Shaki frowned. “What the hell were you doing in the Rommies’ back yard?”

Lucas raised an eyebrow over the rim of his glass as he took another drink. It was no secret in their unit that Shaki had a very personal reason to dislike the Romulans—his younger sister had been kidnapped by one twenty years earlier, and the family believed her dead. When word got out that the Romulans had decided to join the Allies’ efforts to drive the Dominion back to the Gamma Quadrant, Shaki had grinned and said, “Great. Now we have cannon fodder.”

“Just happens to be where my last ride left me,” Lucas said non-committally. “Found this dive bar called the Crossroads that’s run by a Tellarite named Varrk, did a little bouncing for him.”

“So how’d you end up here?”

“Varrk led me to this red Orion chick that was looking for a crew for this ship she’d just bought. You’ll like it—it’s a Series-3 Va’leh.”

Shaki grinned. “My grandfather had an Aught-3. No weapons to speak of, but they hold up surprisingly well under most conditions. I bet it’s falling apart though.”

Snorting, Lucas nodded. “Got a bad compression coil, and about half a dozen other parts that could probably stand to be replaced. But you’re right, it’s otherwise pretty sturdy for a ship just over fifty years old.”

“Yeah, you might have to patch it up every so often, but they’re good little ships.” Shaki eyed him closely as he set the beer down and returned to eating his food. “And you’re really okay with being the engine jockey on an old rust bucket of a ship, when you could be fighting to get back in uniform?”

Lucas shot him a sour look. “MARSOC obviously doesn’t want me in the ranks anymore, despite everything I’ve done for them,” he said, bitterness creeping into his voice.

“If they really didn’t want you, they’d have cast you out completely, don’t you think?”

“Shaki, it’s been four months. I haven’t heard one damn word from Command about my status—and yes, I’ve been checking for messages. I do it once a week.”

“Oh really?” his companion challenged, crossing his arms over his chest as he sat back in his chair. “Then how come you haven’t responded to any of mine?”

“Because I knew you’d only harass me just like you’re doing now,” Lucas shot back.

Shaki shook his head. “If I’m harassing you, it’s only because I care. We’re brothers, man. I miss you.”

Lucas knew what he meant. Not only were they both soldiers who had saved each other’s lives more than once, they were friends—practically family. It meant something to hear him say it out loud.

“I miss you too,” he admitted. “You and the rest of the unit—who’s in charge now, by the way?”

Shaki scowled. “Lovak.”

Lucas chuckled. “Ah, your second favorite person other than me.”

You I like. Him, I just want to kick his ass and wipe that Vulcan superiority off his face. It’s a nightmare with that guy, honestly,” Shaki said morosely.

“No wonder you want me back so bad.” He cut another piece of the delicious steak and ate it, then dived into the baked potato. Savoring the flavor of butter, chives, bacon and cheddar cheese, he looked up at the man across from him. “What are you doing here, anyway? I thought our unit was headed for the Briar Patch to clean up that mess?”

“We are, or rather, the unit is there, on Ba’ku. I’m headed home on leave,” Shaki told him.

“If you’re on, leave, why are you in uniform?” Lucas asked, then the two looked at one another and grinned, both of them saying at the same time,

“Habit.”

Lucas laughed. “That’s almost too bad. Not that I begrudge you seeing your family, but I probably won’t be here more ‘n a couple hours, if Jodhaa secures us work.”

“Jodhaa is your…boss?”

Nodding, Lucas took another drink of his beer. “Yeah. She went to the Aid Services office to sign us up hauling relief supplies.”

Shaki snorted. “Have fun with that. Only pays twenty-five credits a lightyear, unless you’re willing to fly through Cardassian space, and I’d highly recommend not flying that rat-trap through there as word has it cargo ships are being attacked fairly regularly. Your ship will be luh-suh in no time.”

“My ship is not garbage.”

Lucas looked over his shoulder to find Jodhaa walking toward them. She looked rather imposing in her all-black get-up, the open leather duster flapping around her legs as she walked—more like stalked—toward them. She stopped at his side and glanced down at his plate.

“This is your idea of enjoying yourself?” she queried.

He popped a forkful of baked potato in his mouth, chewed and swallowed, and then grinned. “Damn right. Hell, ration packs would be better than the stuff we’ve been eating.”

“Hey, you knew living would be lean when you signed up,” she said with a shrug. “If you don’t like it…”

Lucas held up a hand. “I’m not saying that, take it easy. But a man likes a good steak once in a while, at least I do. That’s why I say you should install a replicator when you can afford it—you’ll make your mechanic happy.”

“If I say I’ll consider it one more time, will you quit whining?”

Shaki clearing his throat drew their attention. “Lucas, aren’t you going to introduce me?” he asked pointedly.

Stifling a groan, the Human complied and introduced his former team mate and his new boss. Shaki grinned, eyeing Jodhaa with a knowing expression. “Now I see why you’re not fighting to come back. Don’t know as I’d want to leave this behind, either.”

Jodhaa raised an eyebrow, crossing her arms as she stared down at the Andorian. Lucas stepped in quickly, saying, “It ain’t like that Shaki. She’s just the boss, nothing more.”

His friend glanced at him. “You sure about that?”

“Hey, you want to try and convince her to make purple babies with you, be my guest.”

For this he received a smack on the back of the head from Jodhaa, at which Shaki laughed. “What did I say?” Lucas asked.

“Purple babies?” she repeated, her eyes now boring into him.

“What? Everyone knows when you mix red and blue, you get purple.”

Jodhaa scowled. “You can stop pimping me out to your pal here. I’ll find my own man, thank you.”

“It was just a joke, will you relax? Wait, don’t tell me—you were turned down?” Lucas asked, his voice and expression concerned.

“Almost,” she answered. “Showed how much a newb I am at the cargo business by not knowing I needed a license to haul cargo for the Federation.”

“Not just for the Federation,” Shaki said. “Any commercial hauler flying through Federation space has to have a CTL, whether private- or corporate-owned.”

She looked at him. “How do you know so much?”

“My grandfather used to own an Aught-3 like yours. He worked for one of the larger shipping companies on Andor,” the Marine replied.

“I bet the Ferengi hate licensing,” Jodhaa said, moving around Lucas to take the third seat at the table. “I’m sure it burns their lobes to be stopped by Border Patrol for inspection.”

Shaki nodded. “And any hauler caught without a license gets fined and his ship and cargo impounded. No Ferengi I’ve ever met likes to pay out money.”

“So were you able to get a license?” Lucas asked.

Jodhaa looked over. “Yep. In the Federation database my ship is now known as the M.V. Lyriq.”

“M.V.?”

“Merchant Vessel,” clarified Jodhaa and Shaki at the same time.

“So we’re good to go then?”

Jodhaa nodded. “Commander Tallis—the Aid Services liaison from Starfleet’s Diplomatic Corps—was actually quite helpful. Or maybe just desperate. We’re also registered for Cardassian, Klingon, and Romulan space as well. The licensing fees are coming out of our first paycheck, which won’t be much as it is.”

Lucas finished off his steak and took a drink of the beer. “Yeah, Shaki told me the Federation’s only paying twenty-five credits a lightyear.”

“Tallis says that’s all they can afford due to the majority of resources being directed toward rebuilding the Federation fleet,” Jodhaa told him. “However, if we’re willing to fly through Cardassian space, we get double. Apparently it’s become something of a hotspot for pirates.”

“And are we willing to fly through Cardassian space in a ship with no weapons?” he asked her.

She shot him a pointed look, to which Lucas shook his head. “I guess we are.”

“If I may,” Shaki said then, scratching one of his antennae, “the Va’leh can also carry passengers. You might consider advertising transport services.”

“There’s an idea,” the Orion said with a nod. “Oh, and I have to report to the ship in,” she looked up at the clock on the wall over the bank of replicators, “twenty minutes for an inspection by Starfleet Security. Part of the deal is an inspection before first flight and of course the occasional inspection by Border Patrol.”

Both Lucas and Shaki grinned. “The Dogs do their best to make sure contraband doesn’t fly through Federation space,” Lucas commented.

Jodhaa raised an eyebrow. “Dogs?”

“Border Patrol officers are called Border Dogs, or sometimes just Dogs. It’s a nickname,” he explained. “They even have their own academy, although less-impressive performing Starfleet officers and Marines are sent to work Border Patrol as well, and sometimes the Dogs move on to Fleet or Marine assignments.”

“But why call them dogs?” she asked.

“Have you ever heard the expression ‘like a dog with a bone’?” Shaki asked. Jodhaa shook her head. “Well, Terrans claim the saying originates with them, but there are a number of worlds with various canine species. One trait they all have in common is tenacity—a dog will sit and gnaw on a bone until there’s nothing left. The Border Dogs have that same tenacity. If you’re stopped for an inspection, they will look ever every inch of your ship, stopping short of nothing except taking it apart. If you have secret compartments, they almost always find them. If you have contraband of any kind—”

Jodhaa put a hand up. “That part of the lecture I’ve already heard from Commander Tallis. It’s like getting caught without a license—if we carry contraband and get stopped by Border Patrol, the ship and cargo will be impounded and I’ll have to pay a huge fine. Rack up too many of those and my license gets revoked. Thanks, but no. I’m planning on running a legitimate business.”

“You need me onboard for the inspection?” Lucas asked then.

She tilted her head as she thought about that, finally nodding yes. “Probably a good idea with that small arsenal you have. I’ve no doubt Starfleet will want you to provide proof you have a legal right to possess your guns and whatever else you have in that trunk.”

“Well let me finish up here and I’ll head that way.”

Jodhaa nodded and stood. “Alright. I’m going to notify Purnima so she doesn’t walk in unawares.”

Lucas watched her walk away, pulling out her 23rd century communicator from a pocket as she did so. When he turned back to Shaki, he found the Andorian staring at him with both eyebrows raised.

“What?”

“You seriously don’t want her?”

“Man, I’ve known her all of eleven days,” Lucas said, reaching for his beer and draining the last of it.

“It takes less than one to determine sexual attraction, Paleface,” Shaki countered. “And you have willingly agreed to coop yourself up with her on a tiny little starship for goodness knows how long. If I heard her correctly—and you know I did, given my exceptional hearing—there’s yet another woman on the ship. How many people did she hire?”

“Just Purnima and myself at the moment—and no, I don’t want her, either.”

“Why not? What does she look like?”

Lucas groaned. “Orion. Tall and green,” he said shortly.

“Oh good heavens!” Shaki threw up his hands. “Figures you’d wind up on the only ship in the quadrant carrying two Orion women, one of each color. And you’re actually sitting there trying to feed me this bullshit that you don’t find either one of them attractive?”

A scowl came to the Human’s features. “I never said I didn’t find them attractive. I said I didn’t want them. Jodhaa is my boss and Purnima is someone I work with. Period. You know I don’t like to get involved with women I work with.”

Shaki sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know about this Purnima, not having seen her myself, but if she’s an OAW… Lucas, I honestly don’t see how you can stand to be around two drop-dead gorgeous women and not want either one of them. You should have your head examined.”

“I just have other things on my mind, things that are more important than getting laid,” Lucas countered.

“Maybe if you did you’d relax and be able to work out all the gobshite on your mind. Ever think of that?”

Lucas groaned again as he stood and picked up his dishes to take them to be recycled. “Remind me why I like you? First you harass me about not fighting harder to stay active, and now you’re telling me I need to have sex? What frelling business is it of yours, anyway?”

Shaki had stood and followed. “Like I said, Lucas: we’re brothers. And I care. You look way too wound up for a guy who says he’s not running away.”

Shoving the plate and glass into a replicator and pressing the recycle button, Lucas turned back to his friend with a stony expression. “It was good to see you, Shaki. Take care of yourself.”

He started to walk away then, but Shaki took hold of his arm. He let go quickly when Lucas looked back, his expression darker than it had been just a moment ago. Holding his hands up in surrender he said, “I’m sorry. Please don’t walk away angry.”

“You’re making it really hard not to.”

“I said I was sorry,” Shaki repeated. “I really do care about you like a brother, man, and I’m worried about you. This is the first time I’ve seen or spoken to you in four months. You won’t talk to me. You won’t talk to any of the other guys. We can’t help being concerned.”

Lucas sighed heavily. Looking at Shaki with a weary expression, he told him, “Don’t be. I’m fine.”

Shaki crossed his arms. “Prove it to me,” he demanded.

“How the hell do you propose I do that?” Lucas countered.

“I know just the thing,” Shaki said with a snap of his fingers. “I’m going with you on your first supply run.”

“Shaki, I don’t even know where we’re going yet,” said Lucas. “Not only do you probably not have enough leave to use up, you’d have to pay to ride on Jodhaa’s boat.”

“I’ve three months I have to use or lose, and I’ve got no problem paying her to come along, or working for my passage, whatever she desires. But I’m coming either way, to see for myself how alright you are.”

Lucas turned to face him with his hands on his hips. “And what if I don’t want you to?”

Shaki shook his head. “Only way I’m not going with you is if the ship’s captain tells me no. And we’ve already established that ain’t you.”

“You can be a real prick, you know that, Blueskin?”

Laughing, Shaki threw an arm around Lucas’ shoulders and steered him out of the Replimat. “But that’s why you love me.”

“Right now I’m re-evaluating that position,” Lucas said sourly.

At this, the Andorian only laughed more.

*****

When Lucas walked out onto the catwalk, he found Jodhaa leaning against the railing and staring down at the cargo bay. It was full near to the brim with the cargo they would be transporting to the Orias system, and consisted of six industrial air recyclers, ten industrial water purifiers, thirty prefab housing units (in pieces, of course), a couple dozen crates of ration packs, plus numerous crates full of seeds of various plants to be used in gardens.

They were ready to take off on their first job, except they were waiting on an unexpected addition: Shaki. He’d returned to the station to check out of his guest quarters and collect his things after Jodhaa had agreed he could join them—for a fee, of course. And manual labor.

Noting a smile on her face, Lucas decided not to use the snarky comment that had immediately come to mind. Instead, he sidled up to her, bumped her arm lightly with his elbow as he leaned against the railing facing the opposite direction, and said, “You look happy.”

Jodhaa nodded. “I am. This,” she gestured toward the cargo. “This makes me feel good. Its proof there’s work out there to be had, honest work.”

Okay, he obviously hadn’t put the smartass inside to bed fully, as he couldn’t resist saying, “Your work wasn’t honest before?”

“It was honest,” she replied. “But hard. I’m a registered Fugitive Recovery Agent, but after my old boss and I lost three of our crew in an ambush when we were away from the ship… I just can’t do it anymore.”

Lucas studied her with interest, his head tilted as he said, “You never told me you were a bounty hunter.”

She glanced at him sidelong. “Neither of us have been entirely forthcoming about our pasts, now have we?”

Although his expression fell at her words, he nodded. “I guess we’ve both got things we’d rather not talk about—or even think about, for that matter,” he said quietly.

Jodhaa nodded wordlessly. After a moment of silence she glanced at him again. “Was it a surprise seeing your friend here?” she asked.

Lucas chuckled mirthlessly. “‘Surprise isn’t quite the word.”

She turned toward him then. “Lucas, if you don’t want him to go with us, you tell me now. When he comes back I’ll tell him I’ve changed my mind.”

He shook his head. “It’s not so much that I don’t want him to go. Shaki’s a great guy. He’s a very good friend of mine—like a brother. It’s just that he’s…”

When his words trailed off, Jodhaa supplied, “A reminder?”

Looking into her brown eyes, Lucas nodded. Jodhaa looked down for a moment, took a breath, then looked back up. “I’m gonna admit to being insanely curious about whatever the hell happened to you. But clearly it bothers you too much to talk about it so I’m going to stuff that curiosity in a box and throw away the key. It’s your private business, and if you feel like sharing, fine. If not, that’s fine too.”

He flashed a brief grin. “Thanks, Jodhaa. I appreciate it. Same goes, you know.”

She inclined her head at his words, then turned as the hatch from the airlock opened. The two of them watched as Purnima made her way along the catwalk, two full bags in each of her hands. Behind her, a standard-issue duffel hanging off one shoulder, was their Andorian passenger, who also carried two bags in each hand similar to those in Purnima’s hands.

Behind him, however, was a third person neither Jodhaa nor Lucas had expected to see: A Klingon male, young—probably mid-30s—dressed in simple civilian garb. He had a rucksack slung over one shoulder, black boots on his feet, and wore dark gray trousers and a black shirt underneath a long Klingon-style duster.

Jodhaa crossed her arms over her chest. “Who’s this?” she asked.

Purnima smiled. “This is Kresh, son of…” She looked back at the Klingon. “I’m so sorry, I’ve forgotten your father’s name.”

Kresh glanced at her briefly before turning his eyes to Jodhaa once more. “I am Kresh, son of J’Rahl.”

“And what, may I ask, are you doing here, Kresh?” Jodhaa asked.

“Forgive me, Captain Ra’kir,” spoke up Shaki. “I encountered Kresh in the lift on my way back here from my guest quarters. Perhaps due to my being in uniform, he asked if I happened to know of any vessels traveling into Cardassian space on which he might secure passage.”

Though he stood behind her, Lucas could tell that Jodhaa was annoyed. He tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder as he stepped forward, saying, “While your assistance in helping the captain’s business get off the ground is appreciated, Shaki, it would have been better had you actually cleared it with her before inviting this man onto the ship.”

“Oh, um…” Purnima broke in. “That would sort of be my fault more than his. I ran into these blokes at the station side of the gangway, and when your friend Shaki introduced Kresh and told me of his need, I told him to come along inside so he could speak to you.”

“Why didn’t you use your communicator to contact me? I would have come to meet you at the hatch,” Jodhaa said.

Purnima shrugged. “My hands were full.”

Feeling her muscles bunch under his hand, Lucas gave Jodhaa’s shoulder a gentle squeeze before finally removing it. “Next time,” the red Orion said in a tight voice, “put the bags down and call me.”

“I have latinum to pay you with, if that is your concern, Captain,” Kresh told her.

She turned her gaze to him. “Appreciated, Mr. Kresh. But be that as it may, I like to know who’s coming onto my boat before they step foot through the hatch.”

Taking a breath and lowering her arms, she went on. “I guess since you’re already here… Why are you here, anyway? May I ask why you want to go into Cardassian space?”

He raised a bushy eyebrow as he regarded her. “I suppose you’ve a right to ask, and I’ve as much right to not tell you. Such an attitude, of course, might bar me the passage I seek, so I will tell you, Captain: I’m on a pilgrimage. Part of my training includes making peace with my enemies. Recently, the Cardassians were enemies of the Klingon Empire.”

Lucas mimicked his expression and raised an eyebrow. “Are you on your way to becoming a monk or something?” he asked.

Kresh offered a toothy grin. “In fact, I am. I’m to spend the next three months working side by side with he who was my enemy, that I may know him as a brother.”

It was an effort, but Lucas managed not to laugh out loud. He cleared his throat around the bubble of humor that threatened to erupt, saying, “Lyriq’s a small ship. The guest rooms are spare. And there’s no recreational facility of any kind.”

“Not to mention it will be five weeks at our top speed to reach Orias,” Jodhaa added. “You’ve not even told us where it is, precisely, that you want to go.”

“Orias will do, Captain, as it is my understanding that all worlds in the Union are in need,” the Klingon replied, then turned his countenance to Lucas. “As to the amenities, it is but a small sacrifice to exchange creature comforts for humility.”

Kresh then swung his rucksack off his shoulder, lifted the flap, and reached into it, withdrawing a bar of what appeared to be gold-pressed latinum. He stepped around Shaki and held it out to Jodhaa. “Payment for my passage, Captain.”

Lucas looked down at the bar as Jodhaa accepted it, glancing up from the maker’s mark—one he recognized as being Klingon—to say to Kresh, “That’s a generous offer, Kresh. Where’s a monk-in-training get that kind of money?”

Kresh revealed another toothy grin, accompanied by a chuckle. “I’m also required to dispose of most of my worldly goods and my accumulated wealth, as men of the cloth lead simple lives, and seek not material possessions.”

Jodhaa wrapped both hands around the bar as she looked at him. “Your generosity is very much appreciated, Mr. Kresh. This will be put to good use, I can assure you. Lucas, why don’t you take our guests to the passenger dorm and get them settled in? Purnima, I’ll help you carry that stuff up to the galley.”

She reached for the bags Shaki held and he handed them over. Lucas watched the two women start up the gangway to the main deck, then turned and looked at the men left in his charge. “Come this way,” he said, leading them along the catwalk and down to the cargo bay floor toward the rear of the ship. As he walked them through the waiting area outside the ship’s tiny infirmary he explained that there were stairs leading to the mid-deck at the rear of the dorms and there in the waiting area, but since they led through the engine room, they were off limits. It was easier, he said, to simply take the catwalk. After describing precisely how to get to the dining room from the catwalk and pointing out the guest bathroom, he showed Kresh into a room on the lower level. The Klingon thanked him, nodded, and closed the door between them.

He remained silent as he led Shaki up the ladder that accessed the second level of the dorms, where he had taken a room. Lucas showed his friend into the room right across from his, where he asked in a soft voice, “You didn’t tell Kresh I’m a former Marine, did you?”

Shaki dropped his duffel onto the thin mattress of the bunk, turning to Lucas as he unfastened his uniform jacket. “You’re not technically a former Marine, Lucas. And no, I didn’t. When he asked if I knew of any ships on their way to Cardassian space, I only said that I happened to be on my way to one on which a good friend of mine was the engineer, and I had asked to come along for a spell. Then I mentioned that the ship did have passenger cabins and that her captain was interested in providing transport services, though I obviously couldn’t speak for her as to whether she would actually take him on as a passenger—he’d have to speak to her directly. I said he was welcome to come with me to your berth, and that was it. The rest is as Purnima said—we ran into each other at the hatch and she invited him into the ship herself. Oh, and she is gorgeous, by the way. Both your lady friends are. I think I’m going to enjoy this trip.”

The Andorian then angled his head, his antennae twitching as he regarded him. “Why do want to know if I told him you’re a Marine?”

Lucas frowned, raising a hand to rub his chin in thought. “Because I don’t want him to know. Call me paranoid, but something feels… off with that guy.”

Shaki rolled his eyes as he divested himself of his uniform jacket and tossed it on top of his duffel. “You know I usually trust your paranoid instincts, as they’ve saved my blue ass more than once. But this time, honestly, I think you’re off. Maybe you’ve been living on the fringe for too long and you’re losing your touch.”

A scowl was his immediate answer, followed by, “I am not losing my touch.”

“Fine, believe that if you want to. But I’m telling you, he’s just a guy. Nothing sinister about him.”

“I’m still going to keep an eye on him,” Lucas insisted. “And I’ll make sure to tell Jodhaa and Purnima not to mention my Marine past. Better he thinks we’re just friends and you’re hanging with me on your leave.”

Shaki glanced around the spare cabin. “I must be a glutton for punishment if I consider this a vacation,” he said wryly.

“Don’t act like you were duped, Blueskin. You knew what you were signing up for,” the Human reminded him.

“Yeah, and I’m paying for it—literally and figuratively,” Shaki replied, referring to Jodhaa’s request he pay her for his passage, as well as help unloading the cargo when they arrived. “Your boss might be new to the business, but she’s a pretty savvy businesswoman to talk me into paying her twenty-five credits a light-year.”

Lucas grinned then. “At least she’s not making you pay double for Cardassian space.”

“Oh, I’m paying,” Shaki said. “Only it’ll be in sweat instead of credits.”

Shaking his head, Lucas turned for the door. “You could’ve saved your sweat and credits, man. Don’t blame me for your loss.”

Stepping over the threshold, he turned back and said, “I’m gonna go check on our exact TOD. Shouldn’t be long now that everyone’s aboard. I’ll probably have to spend time in the engine room monitoring the systems, not to mention keeping an eye on the bad compression coil.”

“Not a problem, Paleface. Go do what you gotta do. I’m just here for the ride.”

Lucas chuckled, pulling the door closed behind him as he stepped out. He quickly ducked his head back in and said, “We’ll see about that,” before pulling it shut.

*****

“Lyriq, you are cleared for departure on vector 259 mark 36. Maintain sublight speeds until you pass the outer system markers.”

Jodhaa rolled her eyes as Purnima replied in a cheery tone, “Roger that, Docking Control. It’s been lovely.”

As the green woman was flipping the switch that closed the comm channel with the starbase, the red one scowled. “What the frell do they think we are, stupid? Like we don’t know to maintain sublight speeds inside a planetary system.”

“Don’t let the silly bureaucrats annoy you, Jodhaa,” Purnima said. “We need them to make a living, remember?”

Jodhaa smirked even as she was watching the co-pilot’s console, keeping track on the monitor there as the magnetic clamps of the gangway were released by Docking Control and Purnima effortlessly eased the ship away from the massive space station. “We only need them to make a living legally,” she said pointedly. “We’d make ten times as much smuggling contraband.”

A sidelong glance showed her Purnima, who was now inputting their heading into the nav-computer, had raised her eyebrows. “Are you contemplating becoming a law-breaker, Miss I’m-a-registered-bounty-hunter?”

“Of course not,” Jodhaa replied. “I’m just saying that we only need the silly bureaucrats to work legally. If I was willing to skirt the law—which I’m not for several reasons, not the least of which involves being skinned alive by Beks if she ever found out—there are ways in which we could be making huge profits and we wouldn’t need silly bureaucrats who treat us like ignorant apes.”

She sighed then. “Unfortunately, I happened to be stumbled on by a very principled woman, one who instilled in me those same principles. So I’ll not be breaking the law if I can help it.”

Purnima flashed a grin. “Well thank goodness for that. I would hate to have got caught up with a n’er do well.”

Lyriq’s captain rolled her eyes again, but this time she was grinning. “How long ‘til we reach the system border?” she asked.

With a check of her board, the pilot replied. “Ten minutes. I’ve already input the course and speed to Orias, and have the warp engines set to engage once we’ve cleared the system.”

“Good girl,” Jodhaa joked, reaching over to pat Purnima on the shoulder. She then leaned forward and flipped a switch on her console, one that accessed the ship’s internal public address system. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. In just ten minutes we will be clearing the Efrosia system and be on our way to Orias, which, as a reminder, we will reach in five weeks at warp eight. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. Thank you for choosing Ra’kir Starlines.”

Purnima laughed as she flipped the switch to shut off the loudspeaker. Jodhaa looked over at the woman who was quickly becoming a close friend, and though she wore a smile, a fleeting feeling of melancholy washed over her as she thought of Rini. And Marro. And Letva. All three of them had been the closest thing to family that she had known in the last ten-plus years, and their loss, when she allowed herself to think on it, still felt like a raw, open wound that just wouldn’t heal. And then there was Beks, who had been her savior, her mentor, her friend. In some ways, she was the surrogate mother Jodhaa hadn’t even known she needed. Beks wasn’t dead like the others, but she wasn’t here, either. The red Orion had always planned to set off on her own someday, and Beks had understood that. But neither had really expected it to happen anytime soon.

Or under such devastating circumstances.

She sighed heavily to stave off the tears she felt threatening, blinking rapidly so they wouldn’t pool in her eyes and give her away. Time to think of something else, something that made her happy. She glanced around at the walls, the dials and switches on their consoles. She glanced once more at her friend and pilot, the mysterious Purnima Chvatal, whom neither of them new much of anything about. She thought about the man she’d hired to be her engineer, the equally enigmatic and mysterious Lucas Peck.

As if summoned by her thoughts, Lucas entered the bridge at that moment. He nodded at Jodhaa and flashed a brief grin at Purnima when she turned around to say hello.

“How’s the coil holding up?” Jodhaa asked.

He shrugged. “Same. It’s doing its job, but the stress of keeping the reactor rotating is still going to wear it out eventually. First opportunity we get, you should use that bar of latinum Kresh gave you to have a new one manufactured. Should easily cover the cost.”

“Believe me, I plan on it,” she said. “I don’t like having the threat of a reactor failure hanging over my head. If Starfleet didn’t expect us to have these supplies delivered ASAP, I’d have done that before leaving.”

Lucas nodded, then looked back out the hatch, toward the rear of the ship. “Was there something else you needed?” Jodhaa asked.

He sighed as he looked back at her. “Shaki thinks I’m being paranoid, but even if I am, I’m going to ask anyway.”

Purnima looked over her shoulder at him. “Ask what?” she queried.

Sparing her a glance, he returned his hazel-eyed gaze to their boss. “Don’t say anything to Kresh about what I used to do for a living. I don’t want him to know I’m a Marine. All he needs to know is that Shaki and I are good friends who’ve known each other a long time.”

“You got any reason to suspect Kresh ain’t on the level?” Jodhaa asked, her tone indicating she was taking his request seriously.

Lucas shook his head. “It may amount to jack shit nothin’—he could be completely legit. I just have this feeling that something’s…off with that guy.”

Jodhaa looked at Purnima, who was watching her, waiting for her decision. She turned back to Lucas then and nodded. “Alright, nothing about it will come from either of us. Maybe we shouldn’t say anything about me being a bounty hunter, either.”

The soldier-turned-grease monkey surprised her by laughing. “Shaki would say you’re being paranoid, too,” he said.

Standing, she stepped across the small confines of the cockpit to stand in front of him. Looking up into his eyes she said, “I may not know much about you, but I’ve got a feeling too, and it’s telling me that you wouldn’t have asked this of us if you didn’t honestly feel there was a reason to be concerned. Maybe Shaki’s right and we’re just being paranoid. But it never hurts to be too careful, right?”

Lucas looked down into her yes, holding her gaze for a long moment, and then simply nodded. “I better get back to the engines. By the way, I told both Shaki and Kresh not to use the gangways that go through the engine rooms, said those rooms were off limits. Told ‘em that the best way to get to the dining room was through the infirmary waiting area and up the catwalk in the cargo bay.”

“That’s fine with me,” Jodhaa said. “It’s a good idea to keep passengers out of certain areas. They do it on Starfleet ships all the time, telling passengers they’re limited to places like their quarters and the dining halls and recreation areas.”

“In our case it’s the dining room and their quarters, as we have no ‘recreational areas,’” Purnima said with a chuckle. “Unless you count the former sparring room.”

Jodhaa laughed, glancing at Lucas to find him grinning as well. “Guess we’ll have to put off any more sparring matches for a while since the cargo bay floor is covered with all those relief supplies.”

He grinned wider. “Oh no, don’t think you’re going to get off easy. Five weeks without a workout will make you soft, dull your senses and reflexes. We’ll just have to make use of the catwalk—it’ll help you improve your close-quarters combat skills to be moving in a semi-confined space. You’ll never figure out how to take me down if you take time off.”

Jodhaa heard the challenge in his words, as if he was daring her to give up on that goal. “You still think I’ll never do it, don’t you?”

Lucas laughed as he started back out the hatch. “I guess we’ll see about that,” he said blithely, stepping through the hatch and out of the cockpit.

Jodhaa followed him off the bridge, stopping on the stairs as he was stepping off them, her hands braced on her hips. “You just wait, Lucas Peck! I’ll figure out your weak spot one of these days—everybody has one!”

His only reply was to laugh as he continued on his way back toward the engine room.

*****

Daily life onboard the Lyriq quickly fell into a routine for the three crew and their two passengers. Breakfast was at 8 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., dinner at 6:30.

Kresh, the monk-in-training, joined them for meals and took part in mealtime conversations, but for the most part stayed in his room. When asked why he spent so much time alone, he told them that quiet reflection and meditation were a part of the life he was soon to lead. It was best he get used to it now.

Although Purnima spent much of her time on the bridge monitoring their flight path for any natural obstacles she might have to fly around, she also spent a lot of her time cleaning. Lucas and Jodhaa already knew she was a neat and fastidious person, but the bridge, dining room, and her personal space weren’t the only places she cleaned. Other rooms on the ship, even places they rarely had reason to visit, saw the touch of her dusting cloth once a week.

She also spent time watching the sparring matches with Shaki. The Andorian had actually offered to teach Jodhaa a few tricks when he’d understood what she and Lucas were doing, but she politely declined, saying she was determined to knock Lucas on his ass on her own merits. So he joined Purnima as a spectator, sitting happily atop one of the larger piles of crates in the middle of the cargo bay as Jodhaa and Lucas circumnavigated the room, moving along the catwalk in a dance that seemed to them both an attempt at domination, one over the other, and an attempt at fighting off their mutual attraction to each other. Shaki brought it up just a few days into the journey, leaning over to say lightly to Purnima,

“I can’t help but wonder—why do they fight it?”

The Orion looked over at her azure-colored companion, and just one glance into his eyes told her he was talking about the same thing she had noticed not even a week before.

She was grinning lightly as she turned back to watch the match playing out on their right at that moment. “Who knows?” she replied. “I can only guess it has something to do with a hardship they’ve both suffered in the past. From what little Jodhaa’s told us, she had a very difficult childhood. Plus, we know that she very recently lost three of her closest friends, all of whom were murdered. I can only assume that she’s afraid to trust her heart again. After all, surrendering your heart to someone means they alone have the power to truly hurt you.”

Shaki nodded, his eyes also following the fighters, listening as they traded good-natured insults. “Orions always seem to have hard lives growing up—I think you can consider it a blessing you don’t remember your formative years, my lady. Lucas, on the other hand, had what a lot of people would call a perfect childhood: loving parents, an older sister and a younger sister. Never wanted for anything, had access to all the best schools. He became a Marine because he wanted to serve the Federation, to protect the freedoms so many of its citizens take for granted. He’s honestly one of the best men I’ve ever met.”

She looked over at him. “What happened to him? I mean, why is he here, instead of with your unit—which is where he’d clearly prefer to be.”

Shaki returned her gaze. “If he hasn’t told you, I’m afraid I shall have to decline your request to explain. I know all about it, of course, because I was there when it happened, but… Needless to say, Lucas took it pretty hard, the suspension. I think his running away, his taking this job, is his way of not having to face an overwhelming sense of betrayal. I think he feels like Marine Command let him down, and after all he’s given up for them…”

He shook his head, returning his watchful eyes to the two combatants once more. “Lucas is afraid to trust his heart as well,” Shaki said after a moment. “He was very much in love with a fellow Marine once—she was a really lovely Bajoran whose fireteam we worked with often, and they’d even gotten engaged. But two weeks before the wedding, we were on a mission where her team and ours were separated. The situation got hot pretty fast, and MARCOM eventually ordered a full retreat. But it wasn’t really a full retreat, because Yula’s team got left behind. We didn’t want to do it but we didn’t have a choice—going back in to extract her team would have been certain suicide, which as you can imagine was of absolutely no comfort to Lucas. Intelligence reports told us later that all four of the team were captured and executed.”

He sighed. “Lucas hasn’t been quite the same ever since. He claims he has no interest in long-term relationships, and he absolutely refuses to become involved with a woman he works with.” Gesturing toward the objects of their conversation, he said, “But I’ve seen the way he looks at her. He might throw out sarcastic barbs left and right and deny it with every breath, but I know that man. I’ve known him going on twenty years. And I know he’s not only very attracted to Jodhaa, he’s starting to care about her a great deal. But he’s fighting it because he doesn’t want to risk feeling that pain again. It’s like you said, if he admits he cares about her, then she has the power to hurt him.”

Purnima nodded. “They’ve both suffered so much pain,” she said softly. “And yet neither one is willing to chance having that pain lessened in the comfort of each other’s arms. That’s really quite sad, if you ask me.”

*****

Although Lucas had expressed concern about Kresh, no reason for it became immediately apparent. He was polite for a Klingon. Rather quiet, actually, instead of loud and obnoxious as his kind typically were. Though he talked of himself little, volunteering no information, he answered every question he was asked. He also cleaned up after himself at meals and had on several occasions asked Purnima if she would like any help cleaning the ship. Since she and Jodhaa had agreed with Lucas that passengers should be confined to certain areas, she gave him the dining room to clean, and accepted his assistance in keeping the cargo bay tidy.

Trouble did eventually rear its head, though.

They were just about a week’s travel from Orias, their first mission nearly over. After a particularly vigorous sparring match with Lucas, Jodhaa had declared she was going to shower and rest before dinner. But exhausted as she was, she found she could not sleep, and after tossing and turning in her bunk for more than an hour, she decided she may as well get up.

Climbing the ladder that would take her to the forward hallway, she reached up to release the hatch. Nothing happened. She tried again, and a third time—and still the hatch would not budge. Frustrated, she stepped off the ladder and walked over to the door leading to the catwalk outside the crew cabins, by which she could reach the bathroom and the reverse thruster bay.

The door would not open.

Also trying the door a second and third time, and getting the same lack of results she had with the hatch, she marched over to her desk and snatched up her communicator, flipping it open and angrily calling Lucas.

“Jodhaa to Lucas, come in. Now.”

The communicator chirped and then she heard Lucas’ voice. “What’s up, Boss?

She felt herself scowl. “You and your blue-skinned best pal wouldn’t happen to be playing some kind of juvenile prank on me, would you?”

Lucas chuckled over the comm line. “No, why?

“Would you be honest and tell me if you were?”

He wasn’t laughing anymore when he spoke again. “Yes, Jodhaa, I would. What’s wrong?” he asked.

Stifling a groan, she replied, “I can’t get out of my room. Both the ladder hatch and the door are jammed.”

Maybe Purnima’s finally showing her mischievous side—have you contacted her? Maybe she’s the one who locked you in.”

“If she did, she’s picked a helluva time to bring it out,” Jodhaa said sourly. “Alright, I’m gonna contact her, she what she’s doing. Call ya back.”

With that, she closed the communicator in her hand, then flipped the grille up again and adjusted the dial. “Jodhaa to Purnima, come in.”

There was no response. “Purnima, this is Jodhaa, please respond,” she tried again. Her second hail was also met with silence, and her mood shifted from annoyance to alarm as she closed the communicator and re-opened it again.

“Lucas, this is Jodhaa. I haven’t gotten any response from Purnima,” she said into the device.

We’ve got another problem,” he replied, his tone increasing her alarm. “I also decided a rest wouldn’t hurt after our match, and now I can’t get out of my room either.”

“Shit,” she muttered. “Have you any way of getting hold of Shaki? I saw him wearing a commbadge when he first boarded.”

I still have my commbadge buried in one of my trunks, give me a minute.”

The wait for Lucas’ response seemed to take far longer than a minute. She felt like climbing the walls when she heard him talking to the Andorian over the open comm line, though she didn’t catch Shaki’s response.

“Sumbitch,” Lucas said then. “Jodhaa, Shaki’s locked in, too. What the fuck is going on here?”

Before she could reply, the PA system crackled on, and Kresh’s voice came out of the speakers.

I regret to inform you that this vessel and its cargo have been appropriated by the Maquis—we need the supplies you are carrying and sure as hell deserve them far more than those spoon-headed bastards do. God, I can’t fucking believe the Federation is helping them—after everything they’ve done?! This isn’t just about a border dispute anymore, people, this is about survival! They spent two years destroying and killing because they thought they were so fucking great, that they and their Dominion fuck-buddies were the greatest species of all and were gonna rule the galaxy together. Well look where it got them! Now their so-called superior military fleet is almost non-existent and their people are starving and dying in the streets. Well I say good fucking riddance to all of them! The only good Cardassian is a dead one, when he’s a rotting, stinking, putrefied corpse!

Jodhaa could not believe what she was hearing, and it chilled her to realize that Lucas had been right after all. Kresh stopped his tirade and took a breath, then continued.

I am afraid we will not be arriving at Orias as scheduled. The cargo is destined for another location. If you stay in your rooms and don’t cause any trouble, you’ll be dropped off on a suitable M-class planet. Any attempts to stop us from achieving our goal and you will be shown no mercy.”

With that, the speakers went silent.

Jodhaa uttered a long string of curses in all the languages she knew. She could hear Lucas doing the same over their still-open commlink. “Lucas,” she said, “we have to stop him.”

I know,” he said, and she heard hesitation in his voice. “Jodhaa, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but you don’t think Purnima’s in with this freak show, do you? That she’s been playing us all along?

“No,” she answered immediately. “I feel it in my gut, she’s not a part of this—at least not willingly. I think the reason she didn’t answer is because she can’t. Either he’s hurt her or she’s being forced to fly us wherever he’s taking the ship. This crazy fuck is not taking my ship!”

No he’s not. I’m not going to let him take it from you,” Lucas said firmly. “First thing we gotta do is get out of these rooms. Are there any hidden hatches that lead to the engineering crawlways? I’m ashamed to admit I never really studied the schematic that closely.”

“Bet you’ll make a point of doing that when this is over,” she said sarcastically. “And yes, there are. You’re on the second level of the dorms, so yours is in the ceiling. Not a lot of space there—you’ll come out right underneath the reactor, so be careful. I’m gonna have to go through a wall. I’ll meet you in the infirmary so we can figure out how to take this dickhead down.”

“Roger that. Be careful, Jodhaa.”

Flipping the communicator closed once more, she slipped it into her pocket. Next she grabbed her gun belt and hurriedly slipped it through the loops of her trousers, then clipped her holster to it. Taking one more moment to make sure the power cell was charged in her weapon, she holstered the Beretta and after shoving her feet into her boots, moved to the wall where the emergency panel was located. It would lead her to the starboard side airlock, from which she would be able to go straight through the cargo bay on the catwalk.

That was the part she worried about as she pried the panel out of the wall—going through the cargo bay would expose her to attack if she wasn’t on her guard, and she’d have to pass through the cargo bay as quick as possible in case Kresh was watching. As Jodhaa was finally pulling the small section of interior bulkhead out of the wall, creating a square hole that was barely shoulder wide, she wondered if she should go around to Purnima’s room and see if she was in there. The green Orion had taken the room directly across from her own, but the only way she’d be able to get to it now would be through the cargo bay.

Did she dare take the risk? If Purnima was also locked her room, wasn’t she—for the most part—safe there? As witty as her friend could oftentimes be, as smart as she was, Jodhaa had always figured her for a pacifist. Purnima just didn’t feel like a fighter, more like she’d find a way to solve a situation as peacefully as possible, leaving any kind of violence as an absolute last resort.

As she slipped through the hole, she refused to think of how she and Beks had found Letva murdered in his own bunk. She simply could not let her mind go there. Jodhaa acknowledged that she could feel a thread of panic slowly tying knots in her stomach—after all, it had been just eight months since three people who had been as close to her as family had been slaughtered in their own home, and she knew that if she let herself dwell on that or make comparisons to this situation, she would lose control and be of absolutely no use to Lucas and Shaki. She could not let that happen—she was Jodhaa Ra’kir, a bounty hunter trained by one of the best…

…and Beks had taught her that admitting she was afraid was the first step in controlling her fear, so that it did not control her.

Jodhaa took a deep, cleansing breath as she crouched on the deck outside the starboard airlock, her eyes closed as she inhaled slowly through her nose, exhaling slowly through slightly pursed lips. Yes I am scared, for myself and my friends—but I will not let my fear keep me from doing what must be done, she said to herself, reciting the mantra Beks had taught her years ago. And damn it, I’m frelling pissed off, too.

The last part was her personal addition, for that anger, she knew, would also help her keep the panic at bay.

So she drew her weapon, holding it in a two-handed grip in the low-ready position as she made her way through the airlock and the hatch leading into the cargo bay. Once she had stepped onto the catwalk, she immediately swept her surroundings, and finding no sign of Kresh, she quickly made her way down the length of the cargo hold. Instead of sliding down the rails and going through the main door that led to the infirmary, she walked through the hatch leading to the reactor core room. Shaki was standing at the top of the gangway leading down into the infirmary center with what she assumed was one of Lucas’ weapons, for it was some kind of rifle, one she wasn’t familiar with.

“What the hell is that thing?” she asked as she descended behind him.

The Andorian grinned over his shoulder. “Adjustable-Radius Concussion Gun,” he told her, “commonly called the ARC. We Marines love ‘em, don’t we Lucas?”

Lucas was across the waiting area, peeking out the porthole in the waiting room door, his eyes on the cargo bay. In his hands was the same photon rifle he had used to take out three drunken idiots on Glintara. The expression on his face when he spared a glance her way was full of tense concentration, but Jodhaa wasn’t blind to the fleeting look of relief that passed through his eyes upon seeing her. She twitched the corners of her mouth and offered him a nod.

She was relieved to see him, too.

Though he turned his attention back to the porthole, he replied to Shaki’s question with a muted, “Hoo-rah, Gunny.”

Shaki looked between Lucas and Jodhaa, then back to his friend. “So what are we gonna do to take back the boat, Colonel?”

Lucas’ shoulders tensed even more than they already were, which surprised Jodhaa as she couldn’t imagine seeing anyone more closely resembling a tightly wound coil ready to spring. To the casual observer, he may have appeared to merely be tense, but she’d known him going on seven weeks now. Many of the last 40 nights she had sparred with him to keep in shape, so she believed herself well-attuned to how his body moved, how he reacted.

He glanced at Jodhaa, then over at Shaki who stood beside her. “It’s just Lucas on this boat, Shaki. And I’m not her captain. Ask Jodhaa what she wants to do.”

Crap, Jodhaa thought as Shaki turned his twitching antenna her way. I am the one in charge, aren’t I? She needed to think quickly, to come up with a plan—to look like she knew what the hell she was doing and had every right to call herself a captain. Perhaps this was her first real test in that role—not getting the ship spaceworthy, not securing them work.

It was proving she could protect her crew in times of trouble.

What would Beks do? she wondered, then realized she already knew. She’d take charge, that’s what she would do. She’d stay calm, assess the situation, and she’d ask her crew for ideas on how to bail their asses out of the fire before deciding on a course of action.

Looking at the weapon in Shaki’s hands, she asked, “What does an ARC do, anyway?”

“Fires compressed air molecules at a very high velocity. Extremely efficient at settling crowds real quick,” Shaki replied with a grin.

Jodhaa tapped her gun against her leg, her free hand on her hip. “Assuming Purnima is in the cockpit with Kresh, she would be affected by it if you fired in there, right?”

“Oh, it can be set for tight-beam or wide-dispersal, so I can hit just him if my field of fire is clear. But are you even sure she’s up there?”

Jodhaa shrugged lightly. “No, no way to be sure, I’m afraid. Since your grandfather had one of these relics, I’m sure you know there are no internal sensors on this ship, which works to our advantage in that Kresh won’t know we’re moving around instead of locked in our rooms like he left us. The drawback is we can’t be sure where he and Purnima are because there’s no way for us to scan for them.”

Suddenly her eyes lit up, and a smile slowly formed on her lips. “Purnima has a tricorder—a Starfleet issue tricorder, in fact,” she said slowly.

“Where did she get that?” Shaki asked.

“No idea. She had it on her when I found her on Glintara, right after she’d had her accident, or whatever it was that made her lose her memory. But she doesn’t always carry it with her, so if we can get into her room, we can see if it’s there.”

“Good idea,” Lucas said with a nod, glancing briefly over his shoulder at them. “If her exits are jammed as well, then she’s probably in her room, and we’ll have to go in the same way Jodhaa got out of hers—but at least then we’ll have one more person on our side.”

“Purnima’s already on our side,” Jodhaa reminded him.

“Now come on, Boss, you know what I mean,” he said. “She’d be one more pair of hands to take this bastard down. But if the doors to her room are open, then we know he’s got her trapped in the cockpit with him. If her tricorder’s in her room, we can use it to pinpoint their exact locations, because we don’t know if he’s sitting at the co-pilot’s console or the jump seat or if he’s got himself positioned in front of the damn hatch.”

“Even if we can get in, what if the tricorder is not in her room?” Shaki wondered.

Jodhaa hefted her Beretta. “Then we come up with a new plan.”

*****

Instead of going back up through the engine room, Jodhaa, Lucas, and Shaki left the infirmary waiting area through the door leading into the cargo bay. Each of them held their weapons at the ready as they climbed onto the catwalk as quickly as possible, travelling toward the forward section on the port side. Lucas had insisted on taking point, and Shaki would have made her take up the rear if she’d not been quick enough to slip out behind her engineer.

No way was she gonna pull up the rear when taking back her own boat.

They were in the port side airlock and she was kneeling to pry the emergency evac panel out in seconds. It wasn’t as easy to do from this side, given that the panel wasn’t meant to be removed from the outside, but from inside the room into which it led. In order to get the screws out, Jodhaa was forced to take her belt off so she could use the pin to turn them.

When she was ready to pull the panel out, Lucas turned to his rifle was pointed toward the room, and though she knew that Purnima was no threat to them, she also knew that they couldn’t take any chances—for all they knew, Kresh was in there with her. But when he nodded his readiness and she yanked the panel out of its hole, the Orion saw that his caution was unnecessary.

Purnima’s room was empty.

Grabbing up her belt and weapon after setting the panel aside, Jodhaa quickly squeezed through the opening, taking Lucas’ rifle so he could come inside. She handed it back to him and gazed around the room as she was putting her belt back on, noting how neat and tidy Purnima kept her personal space. Her eyes fell on the desk, and seeing that the top was clear, she stepped over to it to open the drawers.

“Yeah, baby!” she exclaimed quietly upon sighting the tricorder in the first drawer sitting next to the antique locket. She snatched the device out and opened it as Shaki was maneuvering his bulk through the small evac hole.

“Fantastic, it’s here. What’ve you got, Boss?” Lucas asked as he was handing the ARC back to the Andorian.

“Give me a second,” she murmured, tapping the controls on the device and then holding it up toward the ceiling. The tricorder beeped and she frowned, bringing it back down to eye level.

“This can’t be right,” Jodhaa said, tapping the keys and holding it up again.

“Do you even know how to use that thing?” Shaki queried.

Out of the corner of her eye, Jodhaa watched Lucas punch his friend in the shoulder. “Ow! What was that for—it’s a legitimate question,” he said.

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t just insult my captain’s intelligence by asking her that question, Blueskin,” Lucas said.

The red-skinned woman brought the device in her hand down to study it again, a frown on her face. “The problem, Mr. Ye-of-Little-Faith, is that I’m not picking up any Klingon lifesigns,” she said. “I’ve got Purnima on here, but not Kresh.”

“How the hell is that possible?” Lucas asked, his own countenance darkening as Jodhaa was adjusting the scanner. “We know he’s up there with her.”

“Perhaps he’s got some sort of dampening device on his person?” Shaki suggested.

“Possible,” Jodhaa said as she lifted the tricorder one more time. “I’ve set the scan to pick up all biosignatures in the cockpit and—”

When the unit trilled a third time, she brought it down to look at the results, and her eyebrows winged up at what she saw. “What the frack?”

“What is it, Boss?” Lucas asked, stepping closer.

Jodhaa turned the tricorder around so he could see the screen for himself. Shaki was stepping up next to him as she said, “According to this, Kresh isn’t Klingon. He’s Human.”

“What the hell?” Lucas muttered. “Who in his right mind would want to pretend to be a Klingon?”

“Obviously Kresh—or whatever the frell his name really is,” Jodhaa said as she took the tricorder back.

“My compliments to his surgeon,” Shaki said sardonically.

Jodhaa carried the tricorder over to the shoulder-height panel next to the door that led out to the bathroom, which was both a keypad to open the door and a comm panel. Closing the tricorder and slipping it into a pocket, she then reached up to try and pry the panel loose.

Lucas followed. “Jodhaa, what are you doing?”

She grunted as she jerked the panel off. Setting it aside, she reached into the open space and took hold of a couple of wires. “I’m going to try and tap into the cockpit comm system to see if I can hear what’s going on up there,” she replied as she jerked one set of wires out of a connector. Pulling the tricorder out of her pocket, she popped the back of it off. Setting that aside, she then poked at the wiring until she saw what it was that she was looking for. Pulling a small circuit board loose, she held it up close to the open panel.

“I’m gonna need both hands,” she said. “Lucas, come and hold the tricorder for a minute.”

Lucas handed Shaki his rifle then moved to stand next to her, holding the tricorder as Jodhaa twisted the exposed ends of the wires to a tiny prong on the circuit board she’d freed from the tricorder. “With this,” she explained as she performed the delicate work, “we’ll be able to listen in on the bridge, but they won’t have a clue we can hear them.”

“And we’ll be able to determine if Purnima’s okay or if Kresh is flying the ship himself,” Shaki added. “Too bad we can’t use that tricorder to sabotage the engines.”

“If only it had the power,” Lucas agreed.

Jodhaa held up a hand suddenly and both men fell quiet. After a moment of appearing to listen, she looked at Lucas. “Speaking of engines.”

“What is it?” asked Shaki.

Lucas looked over. “You don’t feel that?”

The Andorian shook his head. “Feel what?”

“We’re slowing down—coming to a stop, I believe. I spent ten years on one of these ships, I could tell you how fast or slow we were going just by the vibration of the deckplates. Lucas here has obviously learned that too—and rather quickly, I might add,” Jodhaa answered, flashing a grin at Lucas.

Shaki scoffed. “Well that makes no damn sense! What the hell is that cracker doing up there?”

“You think Kresh plans to offload the supplies onto another ship?” Lucas asked.

Jodhaa nodded. “I guess it’s possible, unless whoever it is he’s meeting with is simply going to send over some help for him.”

With that, she concentrated on finishing her work on the tricorder, then took it from Lucas and keyed in a series of commands.

“…wonder why we’ve stopped,” they heard Purnima say through the tricorder’s tiny speaker, and Jodhaa felt a small amount of her tension drain away at hearing the other woman’s voice.

Let them wonder,” the pretend Klingon replied snidely. “Soon enough I’ll be joined by other Maquis patriots, and then you can join them.”

You kept me up here because you can’t fly this ship yourself, Kresh,” Purnima said. “Do any of your friends know how to fly a fifty-five-year-old ship?

Don’t you worry about that!” Kresh snapped.

But how will you get where you intend to go if none of them know how to fly the Lyriq?

Would you shut up?!” their captor shouted.

For a brief moment, Jodhaa worried he was going to hit Purnima, but only silence followed his angry outburst for several minutes. Then they heard Kresh muttering to himself, his words unintelligible.

What’s the matter?” Purnima’s voice asked cautiously.

Fucking Quinton,” Kresh muttered, more to himself than in answer to her question. “Shoulda know that moron wouldn’t be here on time. He wouldn’t know a rendezvous from a hole in his fool head.”

Jodhaa raised a curious eyebrow at Lucas, who responded with a shrug.

An alarm was then heard sounding through the tricorder’s speaker. “What the hell is that?” Kresh said.

It’s just the proximity alarm,” Purnima replied, clearly exasperated. “A ship is approaching at high warp.”

Excellent!” Kresh said heartily. “Guess Quinton got that old Denobulan rust bucket of his working right this time.”

The man’s excitement was short-lived, as he was suddenly screaming for Purnima to go to warp. “Get us the hell out of here!

Are you bloody mad?” she returned. “That is a Klingon Bird-of-Prey, we can’t outrun them!

Jodhaa, Lucas, and Shaki all exchanged shocked glances. “Klingons? Real Klingons?” Shaki was asking as they could hear Kresh shouting for Purnima to go to warp anyway.

Lyriq’s captain could feel her ship moving again, and her eyes went to her engineer, who returned her gaze steadily. “What do you want to do, Boss?” Lucas asked quietly.

Before she could answer, the ship suddenly rocked, and she could only reach out to him for support so she wouldn’t fall. Jodhaa tried very hard not to think about how it felt to have Lucas’ strong arms go around her waist, holding her steady as the ship rocked again.

“I guess the Klingons aren’t in the mood to talk,” Shaki muttered.

Shaking herself mentally, she gave Lucas a curt nod by way of thanks and extricated herself from his grasp with as much dignity as she could muster. “They better not damage my ship if they’re not going to pay to repair it,” she growled.

“Obviously they’re after Kresh, or whoever he is,” Lucas pointed out. “Might just be that he’s impersonating a real Klingon. Or maybe that bar of latinum he gave us was stolen. Or both.”

“Well, shit,” Jodhaa said, steadying herself by laying one hand on the bulkhead. “There goes our repair money for the problems we had before that fucker came onto my ship!

Their attention was drawn to the jerry-rigged eavesdropping device when a sound that could only be weapons discharge was heard. Jodhaa grabbed the tricorder in one hand and held the other up for silence. The three of them could hear the sounds of a struggle going on up on the bridge. Letting the tricorder drop to hang by the wires, she pushed past Lucas and reached for the ladder that led up to the forward hallway, punching the release for the hatch as soon as it was within reach and scurrying as fast as she could out of Purnima’s room.

Once in the forward hall, she quickly withdrew her Beretta and started toward the bridge, tottering unsteadily as the Klingons fired again. Her eyes were on the bridge hatch as she made her way forward, noting in the back of her mind that Lucas was climbing out of Purnima’s room behind her. Knowing that an armed and dangerous man could be right this moment killing her friend, she broke into a run and tore her way up the stairs.

All the while praying she would not find a scene similar to the one she’d found eight months ago.

Lucas and Shaki caught up to her as she was about to press the control to open the door, but she paid them no attention. She could only think of getting to Purnima. Holding her weapon ready, Jodhaa reached over and keyed the door open, fully prepared to fire on Kresh as she rushed through it.

The Orion stopped short when she saw that Kresh had already been dealt with. Purnima had found a way to knock him unconscious, and was now in the pilot’s chair again bringing the ship out of warp.

“Hullo, Captain!” the green woman greeted her cheerily.

Jodhaa laughed and shook her head as she quickly stepped over to the co-pilot’s station, having no qualms about stepping on Kresh as she did so. Not her fault he was sprawled across the floor in her way.

“Lucas, do me a favor and take care of that piece of shit. Get him off my bridge,” she called over her shoulder as she holstered her gun and reached for the console in front of her.

“With pleasure, Boss,” Lucas said.

“Klingon vessel, this is Captain Jodhaa Ra’kir of the Merchant Vessel Lyriq. Please disengage your fire. We have the man you’re after in custody,” Jodhaa said, hoping like hell the Klingons were listening.

The small screen to her left flared to life, and she felt her eyes go wide to see the spitting image of their Maquis captor on the monitor. “I am Kresh, son of J’Rahl, commander of the Imperial Klingon Starship Traag,” he said.

Jodhaa raised an eyebrow. “Funny. This guy said almost the same thing to me a month ago. How do I know you’re not another impostor?”

“I would gladly draw my blood to show you what a true Klingon bleeds like, Captain,” the man on the screen said. “That peta’Q has no honor—he dared impersonate a warrior of the Klingon Empire! You will turn him over to me at once, that I may cut out his still-beating heart and feed it to my targ.”

He’s a Klingon, alright, Jodhaa mused. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Commander,” she replied. “This man kidnapped four sentient beings, two of whom are Federation citizens, in an attempt to steal my ship and the relief supplies we were transporting to Orias on behalf of the aforementioned Federation. I believe jurisdiction as to what to do with our prisoner falls under their purview.”

“Do not be a fool, Captain,” Traag’s captain said with a sneer. “My ship is far superior to yours, for the simple fact that we have weapons and you do not. I can cripple you in seconds and take him by force, and I will not give a damn about the Federation citizens or any other sentient beings who get in my way.”

“Captain,” Lucas said quietly, placing a hand on Jodhaa’s shoulder.

Jodhaa keyed the mute button and looked up at him. “What?”

“Let me talk to him,” he said. “I have an idea.”

She stared at the mechanic a moment and then nodded. Reaching over to switch the comm back on, she stood and gave Lucas the chair.

“Commander Kresh, I’m Lt. Colonel Lucas Peck, Federation Marine Corps. Perhaps we can work out a compromise that will benefit both parties.”

“I do not want to compromise, Colonel Peck,” Kresh snarled.

“Now wait a minute, just hear me out,” Lucas said. “Captain Ra’kir has a point—because of the crimes he’s committed against us, under Federation law we can’t just hand the impostor over to you. However, if you’ll agree to transport him to a Federation starbase, accompanied by my fellow Marine, we’ll be glad to turn custody of the prisoner over to you and you can haggle jurisdiction with Starfleet when you get there. There’s no need for any further hostilities.”

Kresh stared at Lucas for a long moment, so long that Jodhaa had a sinking feeling he was just going to tell his gunner to destroy the ship. Relief flooded through her when he spoke at last, saying,

“Your suggestion for compromise is an honorable solution, Colonel. Though I have no wish to argue jurisdiction with Starfleet, I also do not wish to engage in unnecessary bloodshed.”

“Much appreciated, Commander,” Lucas replied with a nod.

“Have that pile of targ dung and your man ready to transport to my ship at once.”

“Give us ten minutes, and we’ll be ready for you,” countered Lucas.

Kresh growled lightly, but he acquiesced. “Ten minutes, no more. Traag out.”

As the screen went blank, Jodhaa let out the breath she’d been holding. “Thank you, Lucas. I was not looking forward to being blown up today.”

“Neither was I, Boss,” he replied with a grin as he reached over and switched off the comm system. As he stood, Lucas looked over at Purnima. “Are you alright? That cockmunch didn’t hurt you, did he?”

Purnima smiled. “I’m fine, thank you. He only held that disruptor on me the whole time.”

She pointed to the Romulan disruptor on the deck by the jump seat. Jodhaa reached down and picked it up, then turned to her pilot and asked, “How did you get the best of him?”

“I’ve got moves too, you know,” Purnima replied. “Not to mention I’ve been watching you two go at it for the last six weeks.”

Lucas raised his eyebrow at her. “You’ve got moves, huh? How come you’ve never told us that before?”

“Because I have no desire to brag,” she replied with a grin. “And haven’t you got targ dung to get ready for transport?”

Jodhaa laughed at the expression on Lucas’ face. “Not to mention convincing Shaki to tag along,” she said.

“Oh, that I’m not worried about,” Lucas said as he headed for the hatch. “He’s the only person on this ship who will do whatever I tell him to do.”

*****

Once Shaki and the prisoner—who revealed his real name to be Gary Vernon—had transported to the Traag and the Klingons had taken off for Sanctuary, Jodhaa had directed Lucas and Purnima to assess the damage to the Lyriq.

Half an hour later, they met in the dining room to give her their reports.

“Alright,” she said, taking a breath. “Lay it on me—how bad is it?”

“Apparently Kresh—the real one—was sincere when he said he had no desire to shed blood unnecessarily. All that posturing must have been for show, because our engines are fully operational,” Lucas told her.

Jodhaa’s eyes widened. “Seriously? I’d have thought the engines would have been the first thing the Klingons would have taken out.”

“It is a standard procedure in the Rules of Engagement, but then when do Klingons really follow those rules?” Lucas countered. “Perhaps Kresh thought making us vulnerable by taking out our shields first would have put a kink in the getaway plan. Purnima was right, there was no way we could have outrun the Traag.”

“How do you know I said that?” the green Orion asked him.

“We were listening. Boss rigged your tricorder to the comm panel in your room,” he said.

Purnima looked over at Jodhaa. “Well aren’t you a clever girl?”

Jodhaa shrugged. “You can learn a lot from a bounty hunter besides ‘buckle your safety harness.’ How are the shields?”

“There we were damaged,” Purnima said. “Shields are down to fifty-five percent capacity.”

“Well at least they’re not gone completely. Estimated repair time?” the captain queried.

“I can get them back up to full in about ninety minutes.”

Jodhaa looked at the two members of her crew. “So, I guess the question is this: do we stay here and repair the shields before moving on, or do we conduct repairs on the fly? We still have a week before we get to Orias, after all, and I’m sure once the Aid Services people hear our story, they won’t be too peeved if we arrive a few hours later than scheduled.”

Lucas and Purnima exchanged a glance. Then Lucas looked at Jodhaa and said, “On the fly’s good for me, Boss.”

Jodhaa nodded, then turned to the woman on her left. “Purnima?"

“I’m ready when you are, Captain,” Purnima said with a smile.

Grinning, Jodhaa stood. “Alright then. You two get started on the shields and we’ll get going.”

“What’re you gonna do, Boss?” Lucas asked as he stood.

Jodhaa grinned again as she turned and started toward the forward hallway. “Who do you think is going to be manning the stick?” she said over her shoulder. “Get to work, Marine.”

Purnima laughed as Jodhaa left the dining room. “She did say it was her job to tell us what to do,” the Orion quipped lightly.

Lucas smiled as he stared a moment longer in the direction Jodhaa had gone. “That she did, Purnima…

“That she did.”


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