Alfred Constantine McBain cursed, and slapped the faulty communications panel in disgust. He was definitely picking up a distress call on a Federation frequency, but as usual, his hopelessly antiquated ship was letting him down. Sometimes, a sharp kick or slap startled the circuits back on line, but this time, the control board merely hissed at him.
McBain cursed again, this time in Klingoneese, then tried an ancient Ferengi expletive while shaking the board in frustration.
His fat, ruddy face broke into a delighted grin when suddenly the background distortions and static abated, to leave the frequency relatively clear. It was a voice-only transmission coming from Starbase 10 through a series of relay stations. He listened intently to the faintly accented voice issuing from the speakers.
McBain had developed a peculiar talent over the years. He could tell a lot about a person by just hearing their voice. Right now, he was forming a mental image of the person who was speaking.
Bolian, Prduek province, High born - probably of the clan Shalmak'lar.
He could probably have identified the individual's ruling family, given time, but right now, the words themselves were of more interest.
The Bolian was asking for aid from any ships in the vicinity of Veridain III. It appeared that a Federation Starship had crash-landed there. McBain's beady eyes lit up.
A Starship? Think of what all that state-or-the-art technology would be worth?
His mind began to cycle through a mental list of contacts that would be interested in acquiring that kind of merchandise.
Arak - the Ferengi arms dealer- certainly. The renegade Klingon Mordak and his green skinned consort, Leyana - definitely. Maybe even the Cardassians?
The possibilities were endless. McBain hastily checked his Navcom. He could be there in 40 minutes, if this space-borne, compost heap of a ship didn't break down on him. Overt looting was not a viable option. The place would be swarming with security. His best bet was to volunteer to join the rescue parties, then help himself to the technology when no one was looking.
He crossed his chubby fingers and sent his message of compliance. The irritating, female voice of his shipboard computer informed him that the transmission had been successful. McBain quickly tapped the co-ordinates into the helm, and sat back in his chair, which squealed in protest. He didn't notice.
His entire life had constituted a series of knock-backs and disappointments ever since he had first signed on a freighter at age 14, but he had always believed that one day his ship would come in. And today it had - both literally and figuratively.
Reaching the edge of the valley, they made stealthy progress through the thickening belt of trees and undergrowth. Spock suddenly froze and beckoned Kirk to stop. Too faint for human hearing, the voices came from a break in the trees some distance away.
Quietly the two men picked their way forward and came to the clearing in a matter of minutes. A small, shabby, interstellar craft sat in its centre. The voices belonged to the vehicle's pilot, and three Starfleet Security Officers.
The tallest of the officers spoke in a tone of command. "Look friend, I can't make it any more plain to you - if you won't follow Starfleet procedures, then we can't use your help, Okay?"
The pilot, a small, stocky man, with very little in the way of hair, was shaking his head. "Starfleet procedures!" His words dripped scorn. "I got no time for rules and regulations buddy. They said they needed ships and pilots so here I am. Been in the salvage business for near on 50 years now with no complaints from no-one - till now."
The Officer rubbed his forehead in a gesture that spoke both of exhaustion and irritation. "This isn't some piece of space garbage pal. It's a Federation Starship. You follow Starfleet procedures or you leave. Understood?"
McBain regarded the man through narrowed eyes. Human - American, possibly from Chicago. Looks about 40. Definitely a career soldier. Impossible to bribe.
"I hear you buddy. Can't see what all the fuss is about. I know my job."
"That's what worries me. Look we don't need privateers sloping off with Starfleet technology under the guise of salvage. My orders are to ensure that this ship gets back to Starfleet HQ in its entirety. That might mean in several thousand pieces, and it may take me the next 10 years to accomplish, but Enterprise will make it home. Do I make myself quite clear?"
The stocky man shrugged and hitched one foot onto the front of his craft. "As crystal. You won't find so much as a pincer clip missing from your precious ship. Well it's been a blast but I really gotta get moving. I shoulda had this stuff up to the Hood twenty minutes ago."
The Security officer favoured his antagonist with one final icy glare. "Rest assured, I will be checking with the Hood. If you don't make your rendezvous - I'll hunt you down myself."
Then he turned and strode off, his men falling into step behind him. McBain gave a toothy grin and mock saluted his retreating back. "Starfleet bloody regulations. That boy's gonna disappear up his own ass one of these days."
With that, he turned and reached for the button that would activate the door release. His hand froze an inch from the button as he sized up the two men that seemed to have come out of no-where.
The tall one - obviously Vulcan, well dressed, from a high family. Can't place his region unless he speaks. Hair too long for Starfleet - so he's a civilian. Still there is a military bearing about him. The other one - Human, again not Starfleet - if that's a uniform, I don't recognise it. But he is a soldier - has an air of command about him. Looks amused, but that's an act. He's tense - tightly controlled....
McBain let his hand drop to his side, and regarded the men through narrowed eyes.
They've been roughing it. Some stubble on the short one's chin, hair untidy, clothes dirty. Are they Enterprise survivors? Cant be - the last of them went up hours ago.
It had taken many trips, ferrying the walking wounded up to the orbiting medical ships, transporters being used only to move the more seriously injured. MaBain had grudged every minute of the wasted time, but had to grin and bear it. If security had become suspicious of his motives, he would have been kicked off planet with nothing more valuable that a wave goodbye.
Not survivors then. Must have come out of the forest. Opposite direction from crash site. So who the hell are they?
"Good morning. I wonder if we might have a moment of your time?"
Central American - Iowa? He's been around a lot - the accent is nearly gone.
The Vulcan was calmly examining his ship's battered hull plates. "Is this vehicle space worthy?"
Ah-ha - Shikahr province. Probably born in the capital itself. And definitely aristocratic.
McBain mentally applauded himself but the shorter man was speaking again "My friend asked you a question sir?"
"Who wants to know?"
"My name is.....Harry. Harry Mudd."
He's lying - hesitated too long on the name.
"And my friend is Solkar, a Vulcan trader in Kevas and Lithium."
He's used that line before - but it's still a line.
"We seem to be - um - temporarily without transportation Mr...?"
Two can play at that game. "Caesar, Julius Goddamned Caesar. Pleased to meet ya."
The Vulcan raised a puzzled eyebrow and turned to his companion. "Quite clearly a falsehood."
McBain laughed - a noise more like the death wheeze of a fatally stabbed man than one of genuine mirth. "If you boys need a lift, it'll cost you."
The two exchanged a quick look then the Vulcan reached into the folds of his robe and withdrew a phaser. Aiming it at McBain's head, he said calmly. "Failing to comply with our requests, will cost you - your life."
McBain gaped at the Vulcan as if he had just sprouted wings and proclaimed himself to be the Archangel Gabriel.
The shorter man seemed surprised too. He turned to his companion, and said affectionately, "I don't think that will be necessary Mr Solkar. Our new friend Julius won't give us any trouble... will you?"
The hazel eyes drilled into McBain's skull.
Not a question - an order. These two are definitely ex-military.
He shook his head reluctantly. "No trouble at all."
He reached out and pressed the door release button. Nothing happened. Cursing in Andorian, McBain kicked the hull three times in rapid succession, and thumped the switch with the heel of his hand. The hatch began to grind open, stopping barely half way up.
McBain shrugged and failed to meet the other men's eyes. "Won't go any further. Took a meteor hit about a year back - buckled the hull. Keep meaning to get it fixed."
The Vulcan raised a highly sceptical eyebrow at his companion, but the other man merely ducked through the half open hatch muttering, "Beggars can't be choosers....."
"My god Spock - what IS all this stuff? Kirk gazed in wonder at the somewhat battered selection of 24th century technology that Spock was currently examining.
McBain glanced quickly over his shoulder and scowled at the two men. "Hey - be careful with that. It ain't worth nuthin' to me damaged."
Spock shook the intradermal suture kit in disdain. "The internal circuitry of this piece of equipment is already beyond repair sir. In fact, the majority of your cargo is likewise damaged. Did you bother to check the equipment before loading?"
"With that tin-plated excuse for a security chief breathin' over me shoulder. What do you think?"
McBain turned back to the helm and stabbed at the console in frustration. "Figured, some of it would be worth somethin'," he muttered morosely.
Spock pulled a large metal box from beneath some loose containers and tried the lock. Apart from some dents, the box seemed intact and relinquished its contents in the same general condition.
Kirk looked at the phasers in appreciation. Not too dissimilar from the firearms he knew, but much more powerful and a lot lighter. He took the proffered phaser and measured its weight in his palm.
"That reminds me, where did you get hold of that other phaser?"
Spock retrieved his weapon from the folds of his robe and tossed it to Kirk. He immediately noted the difference in weight between the seemingly identical firearms.
Spock nodded, a slight twinkle in his eye "In my line of work, one cannot be too careful. However, a real phaser, falling into the wrong hands....."
"Say no more. It certainly looks authentic enough." Kirk tossed the replica back to Spock who plucked it from the air, left handedly without even looking up. Kirk grinned. "You have definitely developed a flair for the dramatic Mr Spock."
Kirk absentmindedly slipped the real phaser into his pocket as Spock finished his examination of the cargo and stepped back down to the passenger seating area behind the cockpit.
"I had hoped to find at least one salvageable tricorder - unfortunately this equipment seems to be mostly from the engineering section of the Enterprise. The phasers would seem to be the only find of any value."
Kirk nodded and squeezed himself into the navigators' seat next to McBain. " So - where were you headed Julius? Canopus II? Or maybe somewhere in the Neutral Zone?"
"You really think I'm stupid enough to lead you to my contacts? Think again farm boy."
Kirk glared at the stocky pilot and frowned. The man returned his angry regard with a toothy grin and turned back to his console.
Ha! That got him. He's wondering how I knew that. Smug bastard.
Kirk caught his lower lip between his teeth and bit gently. Feigning casualness he looked around the tiny cockpit. "Nice ship. She's seen better days of course, but cutting edge technology never the less. Did you steal her?"
McBain favoured Kirk with a bemused frown. "Cutting' edge? Where the hell have you been? This old bucket is nearly 80 years old."
Oops thought Kirk.
"And no I did not steal her. Matter of fact, she's an heirloom, passed down from me father. Finally thought I'd have enough credits to buy a new ship."
McBain stared glumly out of the front viewport. Kirk sighed. He could have wished for a more reliable mode of transport too, but his original statement about beggars still stood. He only hoped that the security officer back on Veridian III didn't try to follow up on his threat. He could probably catch up with this flea-trap wearing nothing but a thruster suit.
Spock carefully prised open a service panel below the communications board and frowned. The tangle of jury-rigged circuits made little sense to the Vulcan, so he quietly replaced the panel and straightened.
"Mr Caesar, kindly vacate the helm station. I will take over from here."
McBain looked like he was about to argue but backed down under the Vulcan's calm scrutiny. Snorting rudely, he hauled himself out of the battered chair and turned back to Kirk. "Mind if I get some shut-eye? Been awake for nigh on 48 hours."
Kirk nodded distractedly, and watched as the pilot picked his way carefully over the piles of stolen Federation technology, to the ship's sleeping area. Spock had recently discovered that this area consisted of two bunks, an antiquated replicator unit, a non-functional sonic shower and a latrine, which constituted a definite health hazard.
Kirk waited until the connecting door had hissed shut behind the pilot then turned his attention back to Spock. The Vulcan was easing himself carefully into the pilot's seat, but the chair still squealed in protest as his weight settled.
Kirk laughed. "She's a beauty ain't she?"
Spock sighed and let his rigid back muscles relax slowly. The squealing abated and his long fingers began tapping instructions into the helm console.
Kirk glanced over his shoulder, to make sure that their unwilling host was really out of earshot. "Spock, can I ask you a question?"
The Vulcan glanced up at Kirk and seemed to be waging some kind of inner war with himself. Finally, returning his attention to the helm console, he nodded. "Ask."
"Have you considered the fact that my existence in this time line will represent a paradox?"
"I had... considered it, yes."
"And yet you came back for me. Why would you do this?"
Spock caught the faint flicker of amusement behind his friend's steady gaze. He was using Spock's own words, spoken many years ago to his Captain, on the day of his re-birth on the slopes of Mount Seleya. If he remembered the conversation correctly (and why should he not) Spock's next words should be - 'Because the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few - or the one' But those words would not be true in this instance. He had returned for his friend for purely selfish reasons. He could feel the tension begin to rise between them, and knew he had hesitated a fraction of a second too long. He turned in his seat and favoured Kirk with a small half smile. "What are friends for?"
Kirk, startled again by Spock's sudden grasp of the concept of humour, laughed in genuine mirth. But he quickly sobered, "Joking aside my friend - we have a problem."
Spock carefully swivelled the creaking chair around to face Kirk. Resting his elbows on his knees, he steepled his fingers and rested his chin on them.
Kirk waited. He knew from long experience, that the Vulcan would speak when he was good and ready. After a moment of quiet contemplation, Spock sighed and fixed his friend with a deep gaze.
"I have, quite literally, come back from the dead. I do not consider myself to be a paradox."
"Spock - what happened on Genesis was quite astonishing but it didn't create a paradox. As soon as the salvage operation is over, I would imagine that Starfleet will exhume my - remains - and take them back to Earth. When they lift up those rocks on Veridian III, they will find my body won't they? Two Kirks - one dead and one alive - Now that's a paradox old friend."
Spock's expression told the Captain that he had considered that. Kirk rubbed his weary eyes and tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. It had been quite a day. Understatement of the Millennium!!! Spock remained motionless, apparently deep in thought, and judging by the look on that normally impassive face, the thoughts did not rest easy with him.
Kirk regretted forcing the issue. Anyone could have seen that logic played only a very small part in Spock's decision to rescue his former commander from the Nexus. Kirk tried to break the contemplative mood.
"Well - the idea of a crazy super-being trying to protect me from an insane super-being doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. Your friend Q didn't seem too clear on how he plans to defeat Lien either. Options, Spock?"
Looking somewhat relieved to be back on less metaphysical planes Spock considered the question before answering, "I do not believe that we can defeat a Q, even a weakened one, in physical combat. The Q themselves do not appear prepared to fight him. We must therefore try to out-think him. In order to weaken him further, it will be necessary to lure him out of the nexus. The question is - how?"
"If we set a trap Spock, we'll need bait."
Spock stiffened. "Surely you are not proposing to offer yourself as bait?"
"Why not? It's me he wants, and I'm not supposed to exist here anyway."
Spock shook his head fractionally and tried another tack, "I see no way of returning to the nexus, but I have calculated, that by plotting a course skirting the more densely populated space lanes, at low warp speed, we can rendezvous with the Starship Fleming at a point in time slightly after I left her bridge. In that event, we can take passage on her to Vulcan."
"But what about me Spock? Exactly how do you plan to explain my presence?"
Spock would not meet his friend's eyes. "Q has said he will protect you Jim. We must have faith."
"Fine - you have faith, what I need is a plan."
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