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Burning The Edges Pt. 2

Just over three weeks had passed and the couple in the bed were panting heavily, their bodies covered with sweat. They had just made love for the third time in the space of an hour and a half and both participants were showing signs of wear. Jean-Luc had stuck to his guns and refrained from going anywhere near Beverly while either of them was on duty, but off duty was another thing entirely. Sometimes they made simple, uncomplicated love, enjoying the true intimacy and emotional connection, but mostly they used the stimulant and although they did their best to prolong the act by indulging in protracted foreplay, it was only postponing the inevitable and they ended up fucking hard and fast. Both of them were looking forward to the time when it was no longer necessary to use the stimulant. Jean-Luc rolled off Beverly, wincing as he did. Flat on his back he closed his eyes and frowned, not opening them when he felt Beverly leave the bed, then quickly return. He knew exactly what she was going to do and, as she gently lifted his penis, his breath hissed through his teeth and he muttered, “Gently, Beverly, gently.” Having used the stimulant earlier, she knew just handling him would cause him to gain another erection, but both of them needed to utilise the regenerator. Very, very gently, Beverly eased his foreskin back and grimaced at the dark red skin of the abraded glans. “Just the head?” She asked softly. “Yes.” He sighed. He was beginning to stiffen and Beverly had to be quick. She finished just as he became fully erect. “What about the shaft?” Shaking his head, Jean-Luc slowly sat up, taking the device from Beverly and easing her down onto the mattress. As he gently encouraged her to spread her legs and lift her hips he said quietly, “No, the shaft is tender, but not too sore.” He used two fingers of his left hand to carefully spread her labia, his nostrils flaring at the combined scent of her juices and his semen, which was dribbling out, reached his nose. Just as Beverly had been, he was very gentle as he eased the flesh of her mons up to expose her clit. It was dark red and his gaze went to the opening of her vagina to see it too was inflamed and red. He said nothing as he applied the regenerator to these areas, but when Beverly sighed and asked, “What about your balls?” He offered a half shrug and a rueful smile. “Like

my shaft, a little tender, but I think that’s to be expected. Things are going into overdrive down there.” Having restored Beverly’s tender flesh he put the device on the bedside table and stretched out alongside his lover. They looked into each other’s eyes and eventually chuckled tiredly. It was Jean-Luc’s insistent erection that made him frown and remark, “You haven’t menstruated yet.” “No.” Beverly sighed. “In fact, I don’t know if I’ve even ovulated yet.” She reached between them and gently ran her hand over his penis pulling his foreskin up and down, making sure it covered then exposed the sensitive head, making him hum with pleasure. “Oh...yes, Beverly....gently, gently...” “You like?” She purred. “Mmm, you know I do, but ease off a bit or I’ll come in your hand.” “Oh no, don’t you even think about it, Jean-Luc. We can’t waste a drop; I want all of it inside me.” He reached down and hooked one hand under her knee, drawing her leg over his hip. Nuzzling under her ear, he rumbled, “I’ve no intention of coming anywhere but deep inside you, Beverly.” His fingers made their way to Beverly’s clit, the ample lubrication making it ridiculously easy for him to stimulate it to hardness and bring her very quickly to the edge. He had been watching her intently as her eyes drifted closed, her body beginning to shudder and with exquisite timing, he slid his large penis inside her just as she came. When she’d calmed a little, he said huskily, “You like?” Smiling dreamily, Beverly hummed then slowly began to rotate her hips. Growling softly, Jean-Luc reciprocated by thrusting, slowly at first, but soon picking up the pace and force. It wasn’t long before they were clinging to each other, trying to get their breath back. Some minutes later, Jean-Luc mumbled, “Maybe you should have Selar scan you?” He smiled to reassure his lover. “I for one will be only too pleased when we can dispense with this kind of...” “Fucking?” Suggested an equally tired Beverly. “Well, yes. I mean it has its rewards obviously, but I’d rather be...motivated, not chemically compelled to have sex with you my love.” They separated, both wincing again. By now there was a sizable wet area on the bed and as much as he tried to disguise it, Jean-Luc found it distasteful. Beverly knew how he felt, but until the stimulant had run its course, there simply was no option but to put up with it. On her

back, waiting while Jean-Luc rolled over to get the regenerator, Beverly said quietly, “I know what you mean, Jean-Luc. At the beginning, I thought this would But as much as I adore making love with you, even I have my limits.” She sighed wistfully and closed her eyes as Jean-Luc carefully lifted her hips, this time placing a pillow under her. As he went about repairing the abraded tissue she said softly, “Before, even if it was a quickie in the shower or over the table or...” Jean-Luc chuckled softly, muttering, “Up against the wall?” Beverly chuckled too. “Oh, now that was memorable! My God, I hadn’t done that in years.” “Well, you may be surprised to know that I hadn’t done it that way for a very long time either.” Gently placing the implement in Beverly’s hand, Jean-Luc lay beside her as she gently went about healing him. “Really? I’d never have guessed. You were so passionate; the whole thing was so urgent and so damned fantastic!” “Hmm. Want to know why?” Now intrigued, Beverly put the device on her side of the bed and lay beside him. “Yes.” “Because I had spent that entire day thinking about you and how much I wanted to make love to you. Of course that in itself was nothing new; I did that all the time, in fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Sometimes, not often mind, but sometimes when I was in my ready room, I would go into the bathroom and masturbate.” “Really?” Said a sufficiently scandalised Beverly. “Oh, yes and that day in particular I was very tempted. You see, my love, I’d wanted you for so long, all I had was endless mind fuck. I was so used to easing my sexual tension, well; I suppose I was my own worst enemy. If I hadn’t fantasised about you so much, I wouldn’t have had to masturbate as much as I did. Anyway, on that day we were of course by then a couple and I had finally found out what you were like to make love to and I wanted you all the more! It was one of those happy, but rare occasions when reality far exceeded fantasy! So, the tension grew all day until I was so aroused I just had to have you.” Smiling wistfully, Beverly began to slide her fingers up and down his shaft, taking time to caress the head and spread the precome. “And so the minute I walked in the door...” “I ravished you.”

“Yeah. And oh, was so fucking good!” He gasped softly and reached down to gently grip her wrist. “Steady, my love, I’m still a bit sore.” “You’re not as hard.” “No, I think this will be the last time for tonight.” “Okay, that’s fine by me.” Later, as Beverly was again carefully holding Jean-Luc’s flaccid penis, she squinted in the dim light and winced. “Shit.” He lifted his head to peer down his body, his voice carrying his concern. “What? What is it?” Beverly sighed and offered a sympathetic smile. “We’ve really done it this time, Jean-Luc. You’re bleeding.” Lifting himself up onto his elbows, Jean-Luc frowned, his gaze settling on his penis. “You mean the head?” “No.” Said Beverly worriedly. “From inside.” Having had the abraded skin of his glans healed, Jean-Luc sat up and took his penis in his hands, lifting it gently and seeing the small amount of blood ooze from the urethral opening. “Where’s the blood coming from?” He tried to keep his tone bland, but he was deeply worried. “Probably your testicles, but it could be your prostate or one of the seminal vesicles.” “And the treatment is?” Beverly shrugged, doing her best to ease his worry. “Well it depends. If it’s something simple, like a tear of the urethra or either of the vas or just a matter of overuse of the entire system, then deep regeneration will suffice. But...” She took a deep breath. “If it involves the epididymis I’m afraid that will take surgery to repair. Either way, you’re going to have to go to sickbay. I can’t treat it here.” His scowling face prepared Beverly for his displeasure. “Oh, Jesus, Beverly! I don’t want the entire sickbay staff knowing my...genitals...are going under the bloody microscope!” Keeping her tone gentle and reasonable, Beverly said softly,

“You know that’s not how my sickbay works, Jean-Luc. You will be afforded the same amount of privacy any one of our patients receive. also know we won’t be using a microscope! You will be scanned and treated, just like anyone else. Surely you must realise I’ll make sure your treatment is discreet? I mean, even if you require surgery; you’ll be out of sickbay in an hour or so. It’s not as if you’ll be in there for days with your genitals on display for all to see.” Her words took the wind out of his sails and he sighed, offering a rueful and apologetic grin. “You know, I don’t think it’s ever going to matter how evolved humankind becomes, men will always be paranoid about their tackle.” “Tackle?” Beverly chuckled. “I haven’t heard that one before.” Jean-Luc’s grin widened. “It’s an old Earth term for a man’s genitalia.” Rolling her eyes, Beverly gave him a look that said ‘really’. He snorted. “It’s short for ‘wedding tackle.’” Blinking in surprise, Beverly snorted. “You’re kidding.” He shook his head. “No, that particular description was once quite popular.” Shaking her head, Beverly gently pushed Jean-Luc, encouraging him out of the bed. The by now established routine of changing the bed and showering was undertaken by rote. As they worked, Beverly said sardonically, “I would’ve thought a man who could speak...fluently...nineteen languages could come up with something better tackle.” He said nothing until the bed was freshly made and they were heading into the bathroom. As Beverly opened the shower stall and activated the water, he said softly, “Would you like me to begin the litany of slang descriptions for the genitalia of both genders? In all nineteen languages?” Beverly laughed out loud and shook her head. “No, not now, but after, when things have settled down and we can throw the stimulant out an air lock, you can use your command of languages as foreplay.” He grinned, then sobered a little. “Agreed, on one condition.” Too tired to argue, Beverly simply said, “What?” “That you have a scan tomorrow.”

She shrugged her agreement. “Okay, we’ll be at sickbay in the morning anyway and I suppose it’ll pass the time while you’re treated.” She saw Jean-Luc looking down at his penis and she gently kissed his neck. “It’s okay, my love. It’ll bleed a bit overnight, but it shouldn’t trouble you.” He smiled his thanks, but dreaded the coming day.

Despite her promise, Beverly delayed her scan, mostly because she knew JeanLuc would be extremely uncomfortable with anyone but her doing the scan and treatment of his injuries. To his great relief, Beverly scanned him through his briefs, although having to strip down to his underwear hadn’t really gone down too well, but the alternative of being completely naked was enough to stifle his complaints. With a thoughtful look on her face, her eyes directed at the interesting contours of the contents of his briefs, Jean-Luc could see she wasn’t actually seeing anything. As if on autopilot, Beverly’s hand put the scanner module back into its housing at the top of the medical tricorder. Her silence was beginning to worry the captain, so he quietly cleared his throat. It didn’t work, making Jean-Luc frown. His next move was to speak. “Beverly?” Nothing. Louder and with some authority, he said, “Doctor!” Snapped out of her reverie, Beverly blinked and offered a crooked smile. “Well, did a bit more damage that I thought, Jean-Luc.” She glanced back down at his package and sighed. When she said nothing more, Jean-Luc said with exasperation, “What is the damage, Beverly? How bad is it?” Scratching her head and looking slightly embarrassed, Beverly said sheepishly, “The epididymis of both testicles has suffered ruptures, the vas deferens on the left side is torn, the prostate is very swollen and the left seminal vesicle has split.” At seeing Jean-Luc’s shocked face, she continued very quietly. “And both Cowper’s glands are in a very irritated and swollen state. I doubt very much they’re functioning.” Before he

could ask, she tried to take the shock and fear out of her diagnosis by smiling and gently running her hand up and down his arm. “It’s all fixable, Jean-Luc. You’ll be here just a few hours and given a day or two, you’ll never know you were...injured.” Trying his best to get his head around what she’d told him, he kept glancing down at his briefs and their contents, a look of worry and fear on his face. Very quietly he said, “So what’s bleeding?” Beverly shrugged and lifted her eyebrows. Unfortunately her tone wasn’t as serious or sympathetic as Jean-Luc would’ve liked. She actually chuckled, making things worse as she replied, “Take your pick! Any one or all of these...” She proffered the tricorder, as if Jean-Luc wanted to see the images. “Could be responsible.” He scowled, saying darkly, “I don’t find this particularly amusing, Doctor.” Taking a deep breath and letting it out through her nose, Beverly bowed her head and placed her hand on Jean-Luc’s thigh. “Sorry. It’s just that I can’t stop thinking about how you came to acquire these injuries.” She looked up slyly and snorted. “I mean surely you’re not complaining?” Shaking his head in annoyed exasperation, Jean-Luc said very quietly, “While I take your point, Beverly, it’s not your reproductive system that’s been...battered into submission.” The Doctor had the good grace to at least show some sympathy. Looking into his eyes, she said gently, “Really, Jean-Luc, you’ll be as good as new in no time.” His annoyance eased and he sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Very well. Let’s get this over with, shall we?” Three hours later, Jean-Luc was lying naked and quiet on the bed in his private room in sickbay, the blue beams of the regeneration equipment aimed at his genitals, which were discreetly covered by a square, silver cloth. As Beverly had assured him, the surgery was relatively quick and uncomplicated. His head was turned to one side as Selar ran a quick scan over Beverly’s lower belly. Looking suitably bored, Beverly’s eyes wandered around the room, studiously ignoring her lover who watched with growing amusement and interest. Selar had already told Beverly she had internal damage that required treatment and as the scan progressed, Jean-Luc was quietly anticipating more news of further damage, feeling smugly pleased. Not that Beverly was injured per se, that actually worried him, but that her internal parts had proved to be just as vulnerable...and delicate, as his. What neither Jean-Luc nor Beverly was prepared for was Selar saying,

“A morula, three day’s gestation, measuring 0.14mm.” Offering the tricorder, Selar said with quiet detachment, “I believe it is customary to congratulate the prospective parents. I offer my congratulations to you both.” Confused, Jean-Luc sat up, frowning deeply. “A what?” Absently, Beverly muttered, “A morula, otherwise known as a blastomere.” “Meaning what, exactly?” Jean-Luc’s tone was becoming exasperated. Looking at him, Beverly’s smile was lopsided, her eyes twinkling. “We’re pregnant, JeanLuc.” He quickly assimilated that, but still frowned. “Those terms. Elaborate, what the hell do they mean?” With a look and a smile, Beverly dismissed her colleague. Moving to Jean-Luc’s bed, she showed him the image on the tricorder’s screen. “See that little grey blob?” He nodded. “That is a three day old morula. The cells have gone through a lot of division and now are a mass of 32 cells and it measures 0.14mm in size. At the moment it’s still in my fallopian tube, but within the next 24 hours, it will travel into my uterus where it will attach itself to the uterine wall.” She grinned then and said sarcastically, but not unkindly, “I think you know the rest, Jean -Luc.” His eyes wide, Jean-Luc whispered, “And it’s all right? It isn’t an ectopic pregnancy?” Beverly’s grin grew until she chuckled. “Nup, it’s perfectly normal.” He looked at Beverly with utter delight, then just as quickly frowned. “Your injuries?” She shrugged. “No problem there, none of them extend past my cervix. Selar will use an intra vaginal probe to gently treat them, then it’s a simple matter of a bit of very carefully focused regen.” Jean-Luc’s frown deepened. “Carefully focused? Why? Why very carefully focused?” Sighing, Beverly resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “We do have to be careful using regeneration beams on pregnant females, although it’s of more importance in the very early stages rather than later when an embryo has formed and is developing into a foetus.” His eyes narrowed making Beverly sigh. “Is it dangerous to you or”

“Not to me, but exposure to regen beams at this very early stage of the development could cause problems in the morula.” “Like what?” Exasperated and becoming annoyed, Beverly waved her hand. “Jean-Luc, relax! Selar knows what she’s doing. Everything will be fine.” Shaking his head, Jean-Luc refused to be mollified. “Tell me what problems can arise.” Bowing her head, Beverly held up her hands. “Okay. There is a slight...very remote...chance of spontaneous abortion, disruption of development of the forming embryo or, and this is exceptionally rare, the developing collection of cells can split, forming two individual embryonic forms, neither of which would be viable.” Jean-Luc folded his arms across his bare chest and shook his head, his expression hard, bordering on his captain’s persona. “Well it seems to me that the risk is too great.” Now becoming irritated, Beverly put her fisted hands on her hips and glared hotly. “What the hell do you think we Doctors are, Jean-Luc? Witch doctors? Sharman? The technology is sound! It is used very day, thousands of times, all over the Federation on pregnant females of all stages of pregnancy. You are not the first man to father a child! Stop being such a bloody drama queen and let Selar do her job!” Somewhat taken aback by her outburst, Jean-Luc didn’t know quite how to respond. The captain would most certainly not be spoken to in such a manner, but an over protective lover who had just been told he was going to become a father? Hmm. Different thing entirely and requiring a very careful approach. In the end, Jean-Luc allowed his love for Beverly to guide him. Taking her hands in his, he looked into her eyes and said softly, “I’m sorry, Beverly. Forgive me please.” Relenting, Beverly smiled, then narrowed her eyes. “Just don’t think for a second that you can hover over me for the next nine months! I’m pregnant, Jean-Luc, not disabled. Pregnancy is not an illness. Just remember that and we’ll be fine.” He lowered his eyes and smiled. “Very well, but I can still pamper you, can’t I?” An impish smile emerged. “Well...yes...” He looked up and offered one of his rare full grins. “Good! Now...” He looked at the door and pointed. “I believe you have a treatment to undergo.”

Her glare lacked any real venom, but she said darkly, “You can be insufferably smug sometimes, Jean-Luc.” He simply chuckled and nodded. “I know.” He was still highly delighted and amused well after Beverly had left the room. “We’re pregnant. I’m going to be a father. Good Lord!” If any of Beverly’s staff or indeed any of the ship’s crew could see the usually austere captain now, they would not have believed their eyes. Goofy grins were not something he ever did and would not have been recognised for what it was. Only Jean-Luc knew and that was just fine by him.

As the pregnancy progressed, Beverly began to glow. Just as she’d been with her first confinement, she was disgustingly healthy and it was a very happy and contented couple who enjoyed the regular scans, showing the slow but steady development of their child. After making gentle, intense love, they lay together, Jean-Luc on his back, Beverly stretched along his side, her head resting on his shoulder as she idly played with his chest hair. An hour passed in quietude, both just enjoying the peace. When he eventually spoke, his deep voice rumbled through his body, stirring Beverly from her post coital daze. In fact she didn’t hear him at first, making him repeat himself. “I said; it might be nice to take some time off.” Her eyes opening fully, Beverly raised her lower lip. “Well I suppose a few days resting and using the Holodecks might be nice, but I do have a lot on at work at the moment.” Tucking in his chin and tilting his head so he could see Beverly by the dim light of the passing stars, Jean-Luc’s voice carried slight caution. “I wasn’t thinking about a few days, nor was I thinking about staying on the ship.” Lifting her head, Beverly frowned. “What were you thinking?” He raised one hand and gently ran his fingers through Beverly’s hair, careful not to tug on any tangles. One thing their lovemaking always did was to turn Beverly’s lovely red tresses into a rat’s nest. “How about a month on some out-of-the-way planet?”

Her reaction was to rise up and gape. “Who the hell are you and what have you done with my lover?” He chuckled and rose up on one elbow, lifting a hand to trail his fingers down Beverly’s face. “You and I have both got a tremendous amount of leave owing; we could, if we so chose, take almost two years off!” Before he could say anything more, Beverly shook her head. “Nup, I don’t believe it. No way.” Frowning, Jean-Luc said gently, “What don’t you believe?” His tone carrying signs he’d been offended. Beverly frowned too, shaking her head. “You! detest taking leave! And now you’re suggesting we take a month off? What the hell’s got into you?” He summoned a smile, trying his best not to be hurt by her stinging words. His voice was very deep and gentle as he said, “I admit you are correct in that in the past I may have been somewhat reluctant to take leave...” He silenced Beverly with a raised finger. “But a lot has changed, my love. Not only do I have you in my life, not just as my best friend, but as my lover and mother to our developing child. My priorities have shifted, Beverly. My life had undergone a fundamental change, for the better. Mt captaincy is no longer the most important thing to me any are! You and our child.” He gently laid his hand on Beverly’s belly and sighed. “I know you’re perfectly well and for that I’m eternally grateful, but soon enough your body is going to begin to feel the effects of this pregnancy and I thought it might be nice to spend some private, personal time together before that happens.” Tilting her head, Beverly considered his words. She’d certainly never thought he’d confess to anything being more important to him than his captaincy, but on reflection she had to admit she had begun to feel the same way. Being the CMO, in fact staying in space was slowly becoming less attractive. Before she and Jean-Luc had become lovers; that is after their difficulties, she had slowly realised that what she’d always assumed, that being that she’d stay on in Starfleet until such time as she retired and then found somewhere quiet to continue to practice until she no longer wanted to, then...She sighed. She’d never got past that point. An aged facility? Euthanasia? Her eventual demise wasn’t something she’d ever given much thought to, mainly because it frightened her for no other reason than she’d long come to the conclusion she’d most probably be alone. Of course it was all moot anyway. Living and working in space was inherently dangerous and one could die at any time, that was the nature

of the job and something that was accepted by those who chose to serve. It had never occurred to her that perhaps Jean-Luc had entertained the same thoughts. And of course he was right, although she hated to admit it; the latter stages of the pregnancy, given her age, were going to tax her, both physically and psychologically, so even though she was shocked by his suggestion, it did have its merits. Warming to the idea, she was still reluctant to accede quite yet. “Okay, but what about our work?” In the dimness of the room, she saw him shrug. “As for me, there’s nothing in the near future that requires my personal attention, certainly nothing Will can’t handle and, forgive me Beverly, but I’ve checked and I know for a fact there’s nothing that actually requires you to be present either.” Anger spiked, making her voice cold. “You’ve been checking up on me?” Without a trace of contrition or fear, Jean-Luc said with quiet equanimity, “Yes.” Before Beverly could launch into an outraged tirade, Jean-Luc placed two fingers on her lips. “Beverly, I didn’t do it because I lacked faith in you, or to show any concern that you might be finding it difficult to do your job, considering your circumstances, I know that’s not the case, nor does anyone know I’ve been checking. I simply needed to know that when I broached the subject of taking leave that I could do so with the knowledge that despite your predictable excuse of having too much work on, I knew differently. Think of it this way. I’m either being a dedicated Captain, concerned for one of his senior staff, or a man hopelessly in love with his partner and wanting to spend some quality time with her while we still can.” It took a few minutes of brittle silence while Beverly slowly subsided. Eventually she sighed and made an attempt to tame her hair. “Okay, you may have a point. But what about after?” Pleased she was being reasonable; he was still a little suspicious. Narrowing his eyes he said cautiously, “After what?” Rolling her eyes, Beverly rose up completely and sat cross-legged. Jean-Luc couldn’t stop his gaze wandering appreciatively over her breasts. She didn’t smile, but her amused eyes showed she knew exactly what he was doing. With her hand in front of his face she snapped her fingers. “Hey, my face is up here.” He grinned and lifted a hand to gently tease out her nipple. She could see he was quickly losing track of the conversation. Her voice showed slight irritation. “Jean-Luc.”

He blinked and snorted softly, realising what he was doing. “Sorry, my love, but seeing you like’s every one of my fantasies made real and sometimes I just can’t believe you’re really here, in our bed, naked and looking so damned...fuckable.” Chortling softly at his comment, she reciprocated by pushing the covers off him and teasing his slowly hardening penis. In a lightly conversational tone, completely at odds with her growing arousal, Beverly said, “To answer your question, I was referring to after the baby’s born. We’re going to need to take quite a bit of time off. If we’ve already taken leave now, how is Command going to take our further requests for more leave so soon after this one?” His intense gaze was back on her breasts, his eyes darkening as her nipples stiffened and his erection grew under her teasing fingers. He shrugged and Beverly knew the conversation had reached an end. Their lovemaking however, was just about to resume. Later, their sweat soaked bodies cooling slowly, Jean-Luc said softly, “I don’t give a damn.” Keeping her eyes closed, a confused Beverly tried to put his words into some kind of context. So languid and relaxed, her brain refused to do the work, so she merely grunted and said, “What? What don’t you give a damn about?” Sighing, Jean-Luc turned over and pulled her to him, entwining their legs and slowly tracing the nodes of her spine. “Command. If they won’t grant us leave after the baby’s born, I’ll tell them to go fuck themselves and we’ll take it anyway.” Beverly giggled, not believing what she was hearing. Never had she thought she’d ever hear him say anything remotely like that about his superiors. Lazily she nibbled his earlobe and said softly, “You wouldn’t dare.” His voice was just a deep rumble. “Wouldn’t I just?” They slipped into sleep, but not before Beverly thought, “My God, I think he actually means it!” Jean-Luc put in the request for a month’s leave for both of them the next morning and he worded it in such a way as to give command little option but to agree, although he made no mention of Beverly’s pregnancy. If his standing in Starfleet had gained him anything, it was the right to be somewhat forceful when he thought it appropriate and his superiors recognised this and afforded him quite a bit of latitude. How much that relaxation of protocol extended would be tested after the baby had been born. Time would tell.

With the thin metal tube connected to her portal, Meredith interfaced with her suite’s computer, up linking to the very sophisticated computer on her vessel, now housed in a private and guarded large hangar at a secluded flight terminal, and scanned the latest communiqués between Command and the Enterprise. She had been staying in the hotel for just over a month and her new home was almost ready. Time, she thought, to check up on her Beverly. Reading faster than any normal human could, Meredith skimmed over the usual boring communications traffic, but suddenly sat up, her eerie eyes narrowing. Using the power of her mental connection, she stopped the flow of information and backed it up until the particular communiqué that had caught her attention was displayed. As she read, a furious scowl formed. She rose to her feet so abruptly she almost disconnected herself. “Fuck!” She shouted. “You can’t do this to me!” Her voice rose to a shriek. Everything was in place, months of intricate planning and all she’d been through all depended on the Enterprise sticking to her schedule. But somehow it had never occurred to her that, although the ship might not alter its schedule, her captain and CMO might. Reaching up, she tugged the solid tip of the tube out of its portal under her ear and began to pace around the room, her long strides only accentuating how confined she felt in the hotel suite. “Leave? You and the fucker?” She yelled. “What the fuck does that mean? Where are you going?!” Unable to contain her fury, Meredith went into her spacious bedroom, retrieved her trusty knife and began to slash and stab anything and everything within reach; wishing with every gram of her being that it was living flesh she was mutilating. It was over an hour before she calmed. Righting the overturned seat, the beautifully embossed fabric gaping open, revealing the padding underneath, she straightened the skewed monitor and reconnected the tube. She still wasn’t thinking clearly, had she given the problem sufficient thought she would’ve done some specific digging in the Enterprise’s computer, sniffing around to see what might have precipitated this unusual state of affairs through the personal logs. But clear thinking had long ago deserted Meredith Bower, she now functioned on instinct and desire alone, her only imperative was to achieve her goals and nothing would stand in her way. So she concentrated her efforts on any flight plans for shuttles, runabouts or the captain’s yacht that might’ve been lodged, but came up empty. She felt the ferocious fury rising again and shook her head, savagely pushing it aside. “No! I’ll save it for Picard.” That brought an insane grin. “After all, he deserves to feel the full force of my outrage. How dare he put his fucking cock inside my Beverly! Oh, God, how she must hate it!” Incredibly, sadness made Meredith’s face crumple. “Oh my poor, poor Beverly. You must be such deep despair! Do you think I’ve forgotten you? Abandoned you to

that fucking piece of shit you’ve had to endure?” She sighed and closed her eyes, leaning her head back and trailing her long fingers down the column of her neck. “Not long now, Beverly, just hold on a little while longer. I’ll find you and then, once you’ve been made even more beautiful...” She chuckled and let her fingers slide down her naked body. “When you’re like me, I’ll bring you home and we will be so happy, my sweet Beverly. I’ll show you things, teach you things that will delight and astound you. I will show you true ecstasy, my lovely Beverly, my beautiful Beverly.” Lost in her delusions, Meredith sat at the computer for half an hour before she sighed, opened her eyes and stared blankly at the screen, deep in thought. “I’ll check three times a day until I find out where you’re going, my sweet Beverly and once you get there, I’ll come for you.” She grinned and allowed her tongue to extend, long, narrow and hardened to a sharp, solid tip. “Both of you, after all, one has to be allowed some recompense...some fun after all the trouble I’ve gone through.” Her demented laughter rattled around the ruined rooms.

“Well,” Sighed Jean-Luc, squinting at the PADD. “There’s...” Beverly silenced him by holding up one finger. “Don’t tell me their names or what system they’re in; just give me the most relevant details.” Jean-Luc grinned and shook his head. “Very well. Snow, surf or rainforest.” “Hmm,” Mused Beverly, idly tapping her index fingernail against her teeth. “Cold, hot or humid.” Eyeing her lover, she chortled and rolled over to cover his naked body with hers. With her elbows near his shoulders, she folded one forearm over the other, then lowered her chin to her hands. Their noses were almost touching, their faces only separated by the PADD and his erection which was trapped between them. This particular game had been in progress for over two hours and she privately marvelled at his ability to restrain himself while maintaining his composure and his erection.

He had honoured his promise, reciting all the slang terms in every language he knew to describe the genitalia of both genders. Beverly wasn’t sure whether it was the content, even though she didn’t exactly understand the words, or the deep sensuous timbre of his baritone, but as she had suspected it would, it aroused her. But, feeling capricious and in the mood for play, she had, by gestures and looks, let Jean-Luc know that it was going to be some time before they actually made love. Surprisingly he accepted this, even teasing Beverly as subtly as she teased him. The discussion about where to take their leave, for instance. They had sat cross legged on the floor of the living area, both naked and Jean-Luc’s cock stiff while he calmly accessed the computer via a PADD. Beverly drizzled honey over the head of his cock, then slothfully licked it off. He didn’t falter, the only overt reaction was his penis twitching and becoming harder still. To see if she could distract him some other way, Beverly had uncrossed her legs and, bending at the knees, parted them while leaning back, supporting herself on her straight arms behind her. He kept his gaze fixed on the PADD, but let one leg free to span the distance between them to tease her sex with the toes of his foot. It was a very gentle invasion, not enough to bring her to orgasm, but certainly enough to heighten her desire. The smell of sex was permeating the room and Beverly was aching inside. She slowly stood and, using her foot, gently placed it on Jean-Luc’s chest and pushed him backwards. He went willingly, still holding the PADD, his eyes never leaving the screen. Once on his back, he straightened his legs and at Beverly’s careful encouragement, parted them so she could stand between them. His cock was lying along his lower belly, visibly throbbing and slightly curving to the left over his hip, a bead of pearl liquid had left a trail down one side of his shaft from the slit. Showing her well-refined dancer’s balance, she stood on one foot and used the other to caress his penis, spreading the fluid and pushing her great toe gently upwards where the frenulum met the glans. She’d felt sure that would get his attention and in a way it did, just not as she expected. Drawing one leg up until his knee was almost at his chest, he extended his leg up until he covered her sex with the ball of his foot. She wondered if he would push her backwards, but he had a much better idea. Gently rocking his foot from side-to-side, the sensation of having her clit massaged made Beverly gasp. That was the first sound either had made for some time. Her mind turning over, trying to think up something that would break him down, Beverly took his foot and eased it back down. He obliged and lay quietly, still seemingly engrossed in the PADD. Stepping outside his legs, Beverly straddled him and walked up his body until she was standing directly over his head. Lowering herself, she presented him with her wet, deep red and open sex.

Jean-Luc’s response was to take the PADD in one hand, hold it to one side and turn his head to continue to read. With his free hand, he idly but gently penetrated her with two fingers and slid his thumb around, but not touching her clit. Although incredibly frustrating, it was exactly what Beverly wanted. It kept her just where she wanted to be. Highly aroused and with growing anticipation of what would eventually happen. She reached behind her and used her fingers to tease the head of his cock and finally he sighed, his eyes momentarily fluttering. Just as Beverly was about to mew triumphantly, he brushed his thumb over her clit. The sudden... “Oh!” That escaped Beverly made Jean-Luc grin in what she could only describe as Gallic smugness. With a huff of mild annoyance at having been bested at her own game, Beverly stood and held out her hand. To his raised eyebrow, Beverly said sultrily, “Let’s take this to the bedroom...but bring the PADD.” He looked down with dark eyes as she took hold of his stiff cock and led him into the room. She let go of him, fully expecting him to lie on the bed, but Jean-Luc was well equipped to tease too. Lowering the PADD, he stared into Beverly’s eyes, transfixing her as he again slid his fingers through her folds before pushing then inside her, but what he did next made her moan involuntarily. He curled his fingers inside her and led her to the bed. Her mouth was agape and her eyes wide as he lay down, his fingers still embedded in her. She joined him on the bed, straddling his hips and rocking back and forth, achieving two things. She increased the pressure of his intimate caress and rubbed both her sex and his own hand over his cock. They were both becoming lost in the sensations when Beverly abruptly rolled sideways, dislodging Jean-Luc’s hand and stretching out beside him. With no outward reaction, JeanLuc merely lifted the PADD and once again began to read. Beverly’s smile was both wicked and filled with admiration. For a while she was content to rest her head on his shoulder while she slothfully eased his foreskin up and down his penis, with the occasional caress to his balls. She had never had a lover quite like him. Without touching her, or saying a word, he was somehow keeping her deeply aroused. Her eyes drifted over his lean body, her desire increasing as she watched as she slowly stroked him. Eventually she knew she was reaching her limits. That was when she rolled back on top of him and asked about their leave destination options. Bumping her nose against the PADD he lowered it and she almost gasped at the dark desire in his eyes. “Snow.” She said huskily. “Excellent choice.”

He knew the game had reached its end. Dropping the PADD to the floor, he rolled and pinned Beverly under him. Taking her hands, he trapped them beside her head as he shoved her legs apart with his knees. Lowering his head until he could trace the contours of her inner ear with his tongue he whispered hoarsely, “Now you will pay for teasing me so shamelessly. I’m going to fuck you, Beverly, hard and fast.” He had never spoken to her with such blatant sexual menace and although Beverly knew she was perfectly safe and that he would never hurt her, some part of her, deep inside, thrilled that he seemed to know what she both wanted and needed. He rose up on his arms and pushed with his hips, sliding the head of his large cock through her saturated folds, continuously slipping over her clit. She glared up defiantly, baring her teeth and hissing, “If you want me, you’ll have to take me!” He grinned, his eyes glittering. “Oh, I will, you can be sure of that...but when I’m ready, Beverly and not before.” Her eyes blazing, she spat, “Fuck you!” Lowering his head he bit her neck, then said sharply, “No, Beverly, fuck you!” He shoved himself inside her with such force Beverly was pushed up the bed. Her head craned back, her mouth wide open in a silent scream. As he pounded in and out of her, she didn’t hear his grunts and softly gasped profanities; she was too lost in sexual overload. Having both been so deeply aroused for so long, it was over quickly, but that took nothing away from the potency of their orgasms. As Jean-Luc’s sight and hearing slowly returned to him, he became aware of Beverly softly moaning his name over and over. Utterly spent, but knowing he couldn’t keep lying on Beverly; Jean-Luc rolled to his side, his cock slipping out with an audible wet, sucking sound. He’d come so hard, his balls were still aching and through the head of his cock, small shocks made him grimace with both discomfort and intense pleasure. It was some time before either of them spoke. It was Beverly. “Jesus, I had no idea you could be like that, Jean-Luc. I haven’t been fucked like that before.” Opening his eyes, Jean-Luc sighed. His voice contained a trace of regret and embarrassment. “There was a time, my love, when that was the only way I knew how to have sex. I was young and I thought I was God’s gift to women. I fucked anything remotely female and willing. I had yet to discover the difference between having sex and making love.” Lazily rolling onto her side, Beverly frowned at her lover. “You don’t regret what we just you?”

Turning his head he offered a rueful grin. “Not in the least, mainly because I know we love each other and what we just did was to express ourselves in a slightly different way.” He rose up on one elbow and tucked an errant strand of Beverly’s wild hair behind her ear. By his guarded expression she knew he had become serious. “However, although it was extraordinarily satisfying, may I ask that we don’t do it that way too often?” Before she could ask why, Jean-Luc supplied the answer. “Our first priority for the foreseeable future is your pregnancy and maybe such...forceful sex might not be such a good idea.” Nodding her agreement, Beverly knew there was more. “And?” He sighed and closed his eyes, suddenly embarrassed. Intrigued, Beverly said gently, “JeanLuc?” Very softly running his fingers down her neck and over her breast to tenderly caress her nipple, he said very quietly, “I know this is going to sound archaic and lame, but I love you, Beverly and I want to demonstrate that love when we enjoy intimacy. That’s not to say that games don’t have their place, I would be the first to say I never want our sex life to become boring or predictable, but...” He sighed and shook his head. “Let’s just say it’s a hold-over from my wild days. I don’t want to fuck you, Beverly, not even when we’re having a quickie. At least I don’t. You can do as you please; I’m only offering my perspective. Don’t feel you have to be constrained.” Beverly gave Jean-Luc a long look and slowly nodded. “I understand, Jean-Luc, and you needn’t worry, after all in our case it takes two to have sex and I really don’t want to not synch with you...I want to be in the same place, the same mindset as you when we make love. So as long as I know, once the baby’s born that we can occasionally play games, then that’s fine by me. We’re on the same page, my love.” Sighing deeply with satisfaction and love, Jean-Luc smiled, saying mildly, “So, snow?” Rolling onto her back, Beverly raised her arms above her head and stretched, enjoying the feeling of Jean-Luc’s large warm hand as it drifted over her still hot skin. “Hmm, log fires, big beds with lots of covers and cold, crisp air.” Watching his hand, marvelling at the perfection of her skin, Jean-Luc asked absently, “Do you ski?” “Nup.” His eyebrows rose. “Really?” Gently cupping her chin, he turned her face to him and kissed her tenderly. “Would you like me to teach you?”

With dancing eyes, Beverly grinned. “You ski?” “Uh huh. Water and snow.” Reaching down to pull the covers up, Beverly snuggled into his embrace, saying sleepily, “You never cease to amaze me, Jean-Luc.” Gently stroking her hair, Jean-Luc moved his head until he found a comfortable spot on his pillow and sighed. Silently he thought, “Oh, but Beverly, my love, you astound me!” They slipped into sleep and dreamed.

Meredith’s eerie eyes gleamed as she read the subspace traffic between command and the Enterprise. “Marena? So, my lovely one, you want to play in the snow? How delightful! You would look so gorgeous all bundled up and so in need of unwrapping All those layers! Fuck, what a tease.” She abruptly scowled then and her face lost its happy animation. “But you won’t be alone, will you.” She plucked the tube out of its portal and strode around the confines of her suite, savagely kicking and throwing the broken furniture out of her way. “Why? Why do you stay with him?! You could’ve left him long ago, or even killed the fucker!” She came to an abrupt halt and grinned coldly. “You could’ve cut off his cock! Ha! Now that would’ve sent a message. I bet he’d let you go then.” But still the thought of Beverly seeming to be willing to stay with Jean-Luc rankled the insane woman. No matter how much she tried to rationalise Beverly’s behaviour, she always came back to the same conclusion. “You’re biding your time, aren’t you? Waiting for me, lulling the prick into a false sense of security so that when I come for you, you will present me with not only your incredible self, but a plaything...a reward for my dignified patience.” The conclusion made such clear sense to Meredith that she no longer bothered to think about it. It took only half an hour to pack and transport her bags to her vessel. Payment for both her stay and the damage to her suite was done remotely and in trace as usual...before she lifted her hand and spoke softly to her wrist.

“Computer beam me aboard.” Safely within her craft, she organised payment for her vessel’s guards and the rental of the hangar, again with latinum. If asked, no one, not the hotel staff or the flight terminal workers would be able to offer any information as to who employed them or who owned the craft. Indeed, even the vessel was registered in such a way as to make it untraceable. Not even its warp signature could be identified. To all intents and purposes, Meredith Bower was invisible; certainly the human Meredith Bower no longer existed, not physically or in any recent records. She had simply disappeared. Still naked, Meredith took only a few moments to input the course, destination and speed into the computer, before leaving the living area to stretch out on her bed to begin her ritual of rubbing in the creams. If she felt the vessel move out of the hangar, slowly gain height then, once out of the planet’s atmosphere jump to warp, she gave no sign, too immersed in sensual distraction. Three clinical orgasms later she sighed and said whimsically, “Computer, ETA at Marena?” “At present speed, six point four days.” “Well,” she sighed wistfully. “No need to hurry then.” She rose from the bed with languid grace and settled at the monitor in the living area, quickly connecting herself. Within seconds she had access to all the resorts and main accommodation establishments on the planet. But she very quickly found there was no record of any bookings under either the name of Picard or Crusher. Insidious anger quickly spiked, but she shoved it away. “So either you haven’t booked yet, you’ve chosen a different name to book under,’re not going to stay in the main areas. Hmm, which one, I wonder? Where are you going, my lovely one, my Beverly?” She sat back, watching with mild amusement as she scrolled effortlessly through all the available accommodations, even the most remote cabins had to log any booking. Nothing. She sighed and smiled. “No matter, you’ll turn up soon enough.” Checking her ETA again, a nervous action she didn’t recognise, she compared her vessel’s arrival time with that of Beverly’s and quickly realised she would get there almost two full days before her intended lover. Meredith grin was so wide, her exposed startlingly white, large, square teeth so odd, it made her face look grotesque. “I’ll have plenty of time to prepare. Oh, what fun!”

She felt so happy she spent an hour accessing historical information about erotic paraphernalia. It was nothing she didn’t already know, of course, but it was just so titillating to see these ancient objects on the screen she actually laughed out loud. She had something in mind and the more she thought about it, the more delighted and amused she became. “Oh fuck!” She giggled coldly. “How appropriate for a so-called history expert!” Her laughter went on and on, growing evermore manic.

Jean-Luc was slowly losing patience. The ‘goodbyes’ had been in progress for over half an hour now and he was becoming increasingly restless. Taking Beverly’s hand in an uncharacteristic display of public physical contact, he gently pulled his partner to him and leaned so his mouth was near her ear. “Beverly,” he whispered. “We’re only going to be gone for a month. It’s not as if we’re never going to see our friends again.” Keeping her smile in place and her dancing eyes on Deanna, who was wearing a knowing smile of her own, Beverly half-turned to whisper back, “You might not enjoy demonstrations of demonstrative affection, Jean-Luc, but I do!” Will grinned at his captain, knowing full well what was going on. It earned him a cold look, but Will knew there was no real venom in it. “Everything’s aboard, Captain. The Southern Cross is standing by.” “As she has been for some time now.” Jean-Luc commented dryly. Will shrugged. “True, but Captain O’Donnell had no problem diverting to rendezvous with us to pick you and Beverly up. I mean you’re both Starfleet officers and this is the Enterprise, sir. It’s not as if it’s taking on board private individuals. They wouldn’t divert a prestige luxury ship like the Southern Cross for that. I don’t think they mind waiting, sir.” “Yes, well that may be so, Number One, but we’ve kept the good Captain waiting long enough, especially as we’ve chosen to travel as civilians.” Having said that, Jean-Luc gently took Beverly’s elbow and guided her up onto the transporter pad. The room was somewhat crowded with Will, Deanna, Geordi and Data all in attendance. Jean-Luc summoned a warm smile and said to Will, “Well, Number One, the ship is yours. Please see to it she’s returned to me in the same pristine condition I leave her with you.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.” For some reason, Will was wearing his shit-eating grin which gave Jean-Luc cause for deep suspicion. Nevertheless, he ignored it to say dryly, “One ‘aye’ will suffice, Commander.” If anything Will’s grin grew. “Of course, Captain.” With one final speculative look at his exec. Jean-Luc said firmly, “Energise.” As the group filed out of the transporter room, Deanna dug Will in his ribs. “Out with it, Will!” Raising his eyebrows in feigned innocence; Will couldn’t hide that trademark grin. “Out with what?” Deanna’s look was frankly disbelieving. “Whatever it is you find so damned funny that you’re just about giving yourself a hernia in your efforts to contain it!” At that Will burst out guffawing. He eventually had to support himself with one hand planted on the wall as he regained his composure. “Okay”, he gasped, wiping his eyes. “The Captain thinks the Captain of the Southern Cross is a male. He’s wrong. Captain O’Donnell is an old friend of mine. And Kerry O’Donnell has had a thing for our Captain for years! In fact she’s been wanting to get into Captain Picard’s pants for so long...” He began to chuckle again, his eyes filling with tears of amusement once more. Deanna didn’t find it so amusing. “Will!” she said harshly. “This isn’t funny! What about Beverly? How do you think she’s going to feel having a woman...a Captain of a luxury cruiser, virtually on the prowl and with our Captain in her sights? Beverly’s pregnant with Captain Picard’s child, remember. This leave is for them to spend some quality time together.”

Will shook his head. “Oh, Dee,” he said, still wheezing. “Beverly can look after herself, God; she can hold her own in any situation. What I find so damned funny is how our reserved, buttoned-up Captain is going to do to fend Kerry off! Jesus, I wish I could be there!” He dissolved into laughter again and a disgusted Deanna left him where he was, stalking to the lift and saying over her shoulder, “When you get through your second adolescence, you can come back to our quarters.” It took a good five minutes before Will finally realised just how annoyed his lover was with him. Suddenly serious he muttered, “Oh, shit.” And made his way to the lift, but once inside a half-smile lingered. He shook his head, thinking, “Oh, yeah, you’re going to have to be quick on your feet to avoid Kerry O’Donnell, Captain.”

It had been a scant fifteen seconds since rematerialising in their suite on the cruiser that the door annunciator chimed. Jean-Luc had just placed the fourth bag (only one was his) on the huge bed, and he grimaced at the musical sound. He sighed fatalistically, saying to Beverly, “That’ll be Captain O’Donnell.” He frowned. “Although it was made clear when I booked that we wish to travel as civilians, I suppose it’s inevitable that a fellow Captain should wish to give us a tour of the ship.” “Yeah, I guess.” Said Beverly with a trace of annoyance, which made Jean-Luc’s frown deepen. “We can refuse, Beverly. There’s no rule that says we have to do anything. We’re on leave and travelling as civilians.” He reminded her gently. “You keep saying ‘we’, Jean-Luc. I’m no Captain.” Realisation dawned. “Ah.” He said with a rueful smile. “I see your point. Very well, I’ll ask for a brief tour and be back before you know it.” He moved to the door, but before pressing the release he looked over his shoulder and winked. “Half an hour at most.” He said confidently. He pressed the tab and was still looking at Beverly when the door opened. He could see by Beverly’s expression something was terribly amiss. His head snapped around and he had to clench his teeth from stopping his jaw from dropping. Before him stood one of the most stunningly attractive women he’d ever seen. Statuesque, voluptuous, with lustrous brunette hair which cascaded much like Beverly’s in soft waves, but longer, amazing, intense green eyes, ample breasts which were only just contained by the tastefully tailored bottle green jacket with gold piping around the sleeve ends, denoting her rank, and a dark tan skirt, which nicely accentuated her hips and long legs and, Jean-Luc knew with certainty, once she turned would no doubt afford him a view of her predictably perfect, pert backside. He could almost feel the frost forming on his back as he swallowed and plastered some sort of smile on his face. “Captain O’Donnell, I presume?” “At your...pleasure.” She actually batted her long, dark eyelashes. Her voice was surprisingly deep and husky and Jean-Luc almost took a backward step. He’d met his fair share of predatory women in his past, truth be told, he’d once actively sought them out, but that was

long ago and in his new and precious relationship with Beverly he felt not only protective of her but nervous. Here was a woman on a mission, and there was no doubt he was the target. “I’m here,” she smiled, her full lips parting to show the obligatory perfect snowy white teeth. “ offer you...” she tilted her head slightly to look past Jean-Luc and send Beverly a perfunctory smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “...and your...companion, a tour of my ship, Captain Picard.” Jean-Luc took a steadying breath, careful to disguise it. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Captain, but we...” he gestured to Beverly and sent her what he hoped was an encouraging smile. “...have chosen to travel as civilians. So perhaps it might be more...appropriate if we were treated as any other passengers.” “Oh, but you’re not just any passenger, Captain! You’re Jean-Luc Picard!” Beverly had come forward to stand by her partner. Although she wasn’t ‘showing’ much yet, she placed her hand on her lower belly as she threaded her arm through Jean-Luc’s. “It’s for that very reason we’ve decided to travel incognito, as it were.” Beverly smiled coldly. “You’ve no idea the things...the people...Jean-Luc has to put up with as a Captain, especially one as famous as he. The Enterprise is the flagship of the fleet.” Smiling with equal chilliness and studiously ignoring Beverly’s protective hand on her belly, O’Donnell returned her gaze to Jean-Luc. The transformation was startling. Back came the almost coquettish fluttering of her eyelashes and provocative posing. “Well, I’m sure JeanLuc would enjoy a look at a vessel designed purely for a specific purpose, much like his Enterprise but in this case... pleasure, rather than exploration, although some could say the seeking of pleasure is an exploration in and of itself.” The double entendre wasn’t lost on either officer and Jean-Luc had to tighten his arm against Beverly’s to keep her silent. “Actually, I think it more appropriate, under the circumstances, that I be addressed as Mr. Picard and my life partner as Mrs. Crusher.” For the first time, the calculating hardness of the woman showed in her remarkable green eyes. “I see. Well, that’s a pity...Mr. Picard. I would’ve liked to share some...experiences with you.” “Some other time, perhaps, Captain O’Donnell.” Inclining her head, the woman smiled. It was not a pleasant sight. “Call if you need anything.”

“We will. Thank you, Captain.” Kerry stepped back and the door slid silently closed. The couple stood in silence for several long seconds. Jean-Luc actually counted them. He’d got to eight before Beverly exploded. “What a bitch! Did you see that way she looked at your crotch? My God...she undressed you right in front of me!” He sighed and turned, intending to take Beverly into his arms, but by the fire in her blazing eyes he knew that probably wasn’t such a good idea. Until Beverly had finished venting, he’d best just keep his mouth shut and keep a respectful distance between them. “And don’t think for one second that I didn’t see you ogling her tits! Jesus, Jean-Luc! If I’d not been here, you two would’ve...” He’d heard enough. Beverly had a right to feel threatened and jealous, but Jean-Luc wasn’t about to stand idly by while being falsely accused. “That is not true!” he barked. By the vehemence of his outburst, Beverly knew she’d overreacted. Calming herself somewhat she made a moue. “All right, that may have been unwarranted, but you can’t tell me you didn’t find her attractive.” Reaching and taking her hands in his, Jean-Luc looked into Beverly’s eyes with nothing but love. “Beverly, there’s a huge difference between attractive and beautiful. Women like O’Donnell are a dime-a-dozen. I’ve seen my fair share of them over the years and I can tell you that they’re mostly shallow vessels. Outwardly attractive, yes, but empty inside. You, on the other hand are beautiful, inside and out. O’Donnell holds nothing for me., not visually, physically or emotionally.” The smile that slowly grew on Beverly’s face matched the gleam in her eyes. “She’s had work done, you know.” Jean-Luc’s eyebrow rose. “You can tell just by looking?” “Well, no...” Beverly admitted. “To be certain I’d have to scan her, but you can’t tell me a women of her age...and that I can give a fair estimate of...can look like she does without the judicious use of some surgical help.” “More’s the pity then.” Remarked Jean-Luc. “Why?” “Because she’s forever in pursuit of the unattainable and has to rely on fakery to try and find it.”

“Hmph!” Beverly grunted softly. “I doubt she really knows what she wants...long-term, I mean. Although her short-term goal is obvious.” Beverly’s smile was warm, but her eyes were troubled. Jean-Luc gently took her into his arms and embraced her. “Forget O’Donnell, Beverly. If she wants to go through her life in a never-ending quest for fulfilment, sobeit. That’s her problem, not ours.” They stood communing for a while before Beverly sighed and lifted her head. “Okay, but we can’t stay in our suite for eight days, Jean-Luc. I’m not going to hide from that woman.” “Nor should you...or me. Tell you what. If she makes any further unwanted...advances, I’ll make it patently clear, in public if necessary, that it’s unwanted and unacceptable.” “Deal. Now how about some food? I’m starving.” Jean-Luc’s grin was wry. With one eyebrow raised he asked rhetorically, “Room service?” Beverly just laughed.

Happily over the next two days the couple had only encountered captain O’Donnell once more. It’d been in the main dining room and Jean-Luc had been so cold the woman had quickly got the message and left them alone. Having enjoyed a sumptuous lunch, Jean-Luc and Beverly had retired to their cabin, napped and made love. Jean-Luc was quickly discovering that as Beverly’s pregnancy progressed, so her libido increased, which was ironic considering what they’d gone through to get pregnant in the first place. Still, he had no complaints. She seemed to sleep longer and deeper afterwards too. Jean-Luc slept well after sex, but not so much during the day, so when he woke after only an hour to find Beverly still deeply asleep he decided to make use the luxurious bathroom. Having stripped, he caught sight of his naked body in the full-length mirror and paused, studying himself critically. His eyes settled on his stomach, one hand coming up to press the firm flesh lightly. “You, Picard, could do to lose a kilo or two, me thinks.” He twisted sideways and frowned at his waist. “Yes, definitely. More exercise and healthier food.”

With that thought in mind, he gave up on the idea of a shower and dressed instead in swimming shorts, sweat pants, T-shirt and sandals. He left quietly, his destination, the ship’s gym. He had swum fifty laps of the pool and, still clad in just his shorts was working out with the weights when he sensed he was being watched. Unfortunately he had a fair idea who it was. Her perfume, surprisingly subtle for one so obvious reached him before she did. “My, my, Mr. Picard, you are a fine specimen, aren’t you.” Not looking at the woman, Jean-Luc said flatly, “I would’ve thought you’d got the message by now, Captain. I would prefer if you left me alone.” Her soft chuckle was sultry. “But you are alone, Jean-Luc.” He placed the weights back in their rack and bent to scoop up his towel. Still not making eye contact, Jean-Luc made his way back to the pool area where he’d left a super-absorbent cloth. He was wiping the sweat off his head when he felt her finger trail down his spine. In one smooth, graceful movement, Jean-Luc turned, gripped O’Donnell’s wrist and pulled her forwards sharply, overbalancing her. She teetered at the pool edge, windmilling her arms while trying to keep purchase with her moderately high-heeled shoes, but it was a hopeless gesture. She fell into the water as if in slow motion and came up spluttering and cursing, dragging her sodden hair from her face. Jean-Luc hunkered down and said quietly. “That was your last warning, Captain. Leave me and my partner alone.” He straightened, ignoring the shocked looks from the other gym users. Having gone to the locker room, he quickly showered, dressed and was back in his suite in fifteen minutes. Beverly was still fast asleep. For the rest of their journey they had the run of the ship and didn’t spot O’Donnell once. She didn’t even come to the transporter room to see them off, as protocol demanded, when they reached Marena.

Meredith’s ship was in orbit, not around Marena itself, but one of its three moons. Well hidden from prying sensors, Meredith had waited, still unaware of how JeanLuc and her beloved Beverly were to arrive. All she did know was when they would arrive. Through her intracranial portal she was connected to the planet’s intraweb, monitoring every

resort, hotel and lodging. She felt sure there was no way they could find accommodation without her finding out where. On the day they were due to arrive five ships entered orbit of the planet at different times to beam down passengers. In her demented state, Meredith didn’t think to check the ships’ transporter logs. She merely logged the identity of each ship and waited, expecting at any time to find the booking she sought. The arrival of the Southern Cross was no more interesting to her than the preceding ships. Yes, it was by far the biggest and most luxurious, but that in itself was enough for Meredith to discount it. Her Beverly would never be so blatantly obvious as to travel in such a prominent and opulent pleasure ship. No, her Beverly would choose something subtle and understated...tasteful. Yes, that’s what she should be watching for. Something small and unobtrusive. Then a sudden and very unsettling thought intervened. “But what about that fucker, Picard? He’d want to show off, openly display his trophy! Oh, God, my poor be made such a spectacle of!” Concentrating fiercely, Meredith trawled through the intraweb, but still nothing came up. Abruptly standing, the mad woman shrieked, “Where are you, Beverly? Where are you going?” She was shaking with rage as the Southern Cross left orbit and the system before making the leisurely jump to warp.

Because they rematerialised outdoors and not in the lobby or interior of any building, Jean-Luc and Beverly had taken the precaution of dressing appropriately. Bundled up in thick insulated under clothes and padded and also insulated outerwear, Jean-Luc cast a look of forbearance as Beverly once again failed to contain a giggle when her eyes drifted up to his head covering. He sighed expansively, a cloud of light grey condensed air surrounding his face. “It’s just a hat, Beverly.” “Oh...but it’s so cute!” Beverly’s gloved hands rose to stroke the side-flaps. “The peak really sets it off. All it needs is a pompom and you’d look like some kind of...I don’t know...elf?” He sighed again and turned, squinting to see in the moderately heavy snowfall. “Over there, if I’m not mistaken.”

As they trudged through the pristine knee-deep snow, avoiding the cleared and groomed pathways, Beverly asked, “So how do you know him?” “Actually, I’ve known Liam since my Academy days.” Still digging and enjoying the game, Beverly grinned, the expression hidden by the soft, thick scarf she’d wrapped around her lower face. Jean-Luc had been cryptic about the details of their holiday since Beverly had made her choice. Now that they’d arrived he was beginning, albeit piece-meal to come up with information. “So he’s a fellow officer. A Captain? Or higher? Admiral maybe?” Jean-Luc’s smile was knowing. He was enjoying the game as much as Beverly was. “He’s not in Starfleet any more, hasn’t been for years.” Linking her arm with his, Beverly chewed her lower lip. “Okay, but you’ve stayed friends. In regular contact?” “Not regular, no, but in contact, yes. Over all these years, Liam and I have stayed in contact.” The occasional snow-laden tree released quantities of snow in clumps, falling with a soft muted thump as they passed. “Does he know about us?” She placed a hand over her wellpadded belly. “The baby?” “Yes and yes.” “So, he’d be invited to the wedding then.” Just as Beverly had spoken they’d reached their destination. Out of the white swirl of falling snow a modest building appeared. It was clear of snow, the shimmering of a force field providing the explanation. They came to a halt beside a squat bollard, the top gently glowing with subdued blue light. Jean-Luc didn’t look at his partner as he said quietly, “There’s going to be a wedding?” “I’m thinking about it, although that’d mean you’d have to be willing.” They stood in silence for a few moments before Beverly said softly, “Are you, Jean-Luc?” He heard the hesitation and underlying fear in that one seemingly innocuous question. Turning to face her he said quietly, “Are you proposing, Beverly?”

“I’m not sure, Jean-Luc, but I do know I’m thinking about it. However, you haven’t answered my question. Would you be willing?” His smile was a tender one. “Yes, Beverly, yes I would.” He couldn’t see the relieved and joyous grin on Beverly’s face but he did see her eyes dancing and he knew what expression she’d be wearing. “Well, that’s good to know. It’s always nice to have something pleasant to think about, isn’t it.” “Hmm.” “So, do you know the code?” “Indeed I do.” At the pressing of a button, a panel slid back giving access to an alpha-numeric pad. Jean-Luc inputted the correct code and the large double doors of the front of the building swung open. As they entered, Beverly unwound the scarf, her eyes wide. She whistled softly. “Wow! Now that is some flitter!” “Top-of-the-range, I believe.” Remarked Jean-Luc. “Well that means he’s either very wealthy, which puts him as living outside the Federation or he’s so important he carries enough clout to have the use of one of these.” She gestured to the softly gleaning craft. “Let’s just say he carries clout and leave it at that.” Catching Beverly’s look of refusal at being stymied, Jean-Luc sighed and added, “For now.” Mollified, but only a little, she watched as Jean-Luc entered another code and smiled as the flitter’s doors popped open and the reactor powered up. Once inside and with the doors sealed, Beverly nodded her appreciation. “It’s warm in here.” Jean-Luc smiled enigmatically. “Liam is very thorough and no matter what he does it’s always done thoughtfully and to the best of his ability. The flitter and our eventual destination have been on a warming cycle for the last 24 hours.” “You’re enjoying this way too much, Jean-Luc. I’ll get it out of you, all of it, you know that.” He chuckled and passed his hand over the console, bringing it to life. “Yes, Beverly, I’m aware of that, in fact I’m looking forward to it. Your...interrogation methods are always...delightful.”

Before Beverly could respond, Jean-Luc said quietly, “Computer. Home.”

The falling snow, which had become more pronounced didn’t faze the flitter. With state-of-the-art technology it had no problem navigating through the, at first sparse covering of bush, then, when the forest thickened, it rose above and went unerringly across mountains, down into valleys following rivers and canyons at high speed. Three and a half hours later it glided into the forecourt of a modestly substantial home set in a shallow caldera, mountains rising on three sides behind and, down a bare slope, a river in front. Jean-Luc beamed their luggage into the house and exited the craft, going to Beverly’s side to assist her. Once empty, the flitter rose and silently parked itself in the open garage. Having settled to the floor and powered down, the garage doors closed. There was no force field over the home, snow covered all the outer surfaces thickly, but the forecourt was clear, although it was achingly cold and still snowing heavily. Going through the same procedure of inputting a code, the front door clicked, allowing a very curious and excited Beverly to slide off one glove and grip the old-fashioned handle. She pulled it down and gently pushed. The door obediently swung inwards and warm air sighed out. “Oh, Jean-Luc!” was all she said as she stepped inside boldly. Jean-Luc kept his amusement to himself; he’d been here before and busied himself in taking off his outer wear, specifically the damned hat. Even though they’d been in comfortable warmth for some hours in the flitter, the short stay outside had reminded them of just how cold it was. Jean-Luc quickly felt far too hot inside, even once he’d taken off his protective clothing, so, with a slightly sly grin, he divested himself of his thick shirt, trousers, socks, shoes and boots, leaving him in nothing but his light grey briefs. Beverly had been exploring, poking her head in every room, making comments to herself, the sound of her voice carrying easily to the listening man and by the time she rejoined Jean-Luc, who was now in the kitchen, she too had stripped off to her underwear. When they saw each other they both laughed. Sashaying up to her lover, Beverly grinned saucily. “Well, as it seems we’re mostly there anyway, why don’t we take advantage of our...unclothed...state and go try the master bed.” Jean-Luc surprised and delighted Beverly by scooping her up into his arms. He grunted and yes, he staggered a little, but he managed to carry her through the home and into the master bedroom.

Just over an hour later, after a great deal of laughter and passion they lay naked, spent and content. Jean-Luc was on his back, spread eagled; Beverly sprawled across his midriff at right angles. They’d been silent for some time, just enjoying the afterglow. That was until Jean-Luc said softly, “ you ever think about Meredith Bower?” There was a hint of wariness and unease in her voice as she replied, “Not if I don’t have to, no.” The tacit warning to drop the subject was heard, but Jean-Luc needed to ask something that had been dogging his thoughts of late. “This may sound disingenuous, but do you think she’s insane?” There was a sightly tense silence before Beverly said tightly, “If she’s not insane, her actions are. If she’s something other than insane, it’s a distinction without a difference.” “So you think perhaps she’s killed again?” “Probably.” “I just wish I could understand.” Sitting up and dragging her fingers through her hair, Beverly frowned down at her lover. “There is nothing to understand, Jean-Luc. Meredith Bower is a mentally disturbed individual who I doubt has any hope of ever being...‘cured’. She’s a force of nature, Jean-Luc, beyond comprehension by the likes of you and me and you know what? I’m glad! I’d prefer our minds weren’t sullied by even thinking about her.” “Still,” sighed Jean-Luc. “There must’ve been something...something in her past, perhaps...” “Tell that to her victims.” Beverly spat. Jean-Luc sat up, and moved to face her. They were both cross-legged. “It’s not like you to be so uncaring, Beverly.” Relenting, Beverly sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Okay, that’s a fair comment. I just can’t separate the sick, disturbed woman with the same person who nearly killed you, Jean-Luc. Not very caring, certainly nothing near upholding the Hippocratic Oath, but when I had to kiss her...” Beverly shuddered at the memory. “...if that d’ktahg hadn’t been in her hand but in mine, I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t’ve used it to slit her damned throat. And...” Beverly raised her finger. “Six more, and who knows how many more lives would’ve been spared.”

Jean-Luc’s expression was one of shock. He’d seen Beverly’s protective side before but he’d never heard her utter something so overtly aggressive. But he didn’t get the chance to respond, because Beverly pushed him backwards and straddled him, placing two fingers over his parted lips. “No! No more talk about that damned woman! Make love with me, Jean-Luc, blow her out of our minds with our shared ecstasy.” Jean-Luc took her fingers into his mouth and sucked them provocatively. Beverly’s eyes drifted closed as she felt him begin to harden. “Oh...yes...” Later they slept, soundly and for what remained of the day and right through the night.

Night was falling on the populated region of Marena and Meredith knew no more ships were scheduled to arrive until the following day. In a fit of unhinged fury, she wrenched out the cable, ignoring the shard of pain and the accompanying dribble of blood from the portal to stalk around the interior of her craft, kicking and shrieking in demented rage. It was only when she spotted the bright line of her own blood as it made its way over her shoulder that she stopped and snarled, “Shit! Now I’m going to have to run a diagnostic! Fuck!” Plonking down into her seat, she used more caution in re-situating the end of the cable into the portal. She winced in pain and closed her eyes. “Instigate diagnostic. Run repair protocol.” Her head craned back so far her mouth opened wide and exposed the rings of cartilage in her toughened, elongated throat. Her body stiffened and she both defecated and urinated. In all, it took just on two hours before the procedure was complete. In her mind she heard, “Diagnostic and repair complete. Recommend reboot.” Knowing she had the time, Meredith rose unsteadily from her seat, totally ignoring the putrid mess and lay on the deck. She composed herself and thought calmly, “Commence reboot.” It was some time after dawn that Meredith woke. At first she simply lay still, waiting while her conscious mind reawakened. It happened slowly and over forty-five minutes Meredith became aware of herself. Once again in control, she disconnected and rose without so much

as a tremor and set about cleaning her craft. She didn’t stop at the mess she’d caused, but replicated the necessary tools and products to give the entire interior an old-fashioned scrubbing. Only when she was satisfied the inside was pristine and gleaming did she stop. She then showered and spent almost two calming, sensuous hours rubbing in her creams. Now, feeling relaxed and in control, she sat naked and glowing at her monitor and reconnected the cable. “All right. I must look at this in another way. You were scheduled to arrive yesterday, my lovely Beverly. Somehow you did and somehow I missed you. So...if you’re not in one of the resorts or hotels and not in one of the outer lodgings, that could mean you’ve found something private that doesn’t require logging in....or...” A very unpleasant smile appeared and Meredith’s unnaturally bright blue eyes gleamed. “ could I have missed that? Me!” She laughed as if it was so preposterous it was beyond consideration. “ Beverly. My love for you has clouded my superior thinking! Let me see. How many people...human people and of what gender beamed down and where did they go?” Within seconds the information appeared. “Everyone accounted for except a human male and a human female...travelling together! Ah hah! I have you, my lovely. You and that fucking lump of shit, Picard! Now then, if you’re not within the populated areas, where did you go and how did you get there?” The flight plan of the flitter came up, but Meredith scowled at the encryption imbedded in the information. “What the fuck! That’s illegal! They have to file a flight plan on Marena!” She sat forward, using a physical closeness to the monitor to accentuate the level of concentration she was using. But as hard as she tried, she couldn’t ‘crack’ the encryption. Defeated, for the moment at least, Meredith sat back and shouted, “You think you can hide her from me, Picard? I’ll slice your cock off slowly and shove it down your fucking throat! How dare you try to keep her from me? She pines for me...she yearns for me! Every time you stick your disgusting cock in her she wants to vomit! She thinks of me while you rape her, just to stay sane...every time you fucking bastard!”

A sleepy Jean-Luc cracked open one eye and frowned at the very gentle beeping sound coming from somewhere near the left side of the bed. The covers, sheets, pillows, everything was strewn haphazardly around, Jean-Luc and Beverly only covered with enough bedclothes to ward off the slight chill of night. Apparently the owner preferred to lower the internal temperature of the house at night.

Careful not to disturb the gently snoring Beverly, Jean-Luc eased himself out of the tangle of sheets and covers and began to rummage through the articles on the floor. He vaguely recalled everything on the bedside table being swept off at one stage and the memory made him smile. “Ah, yes.” He grinned. “The interrogation.” The beeping was getting louder, encouraging Jean-Luc to keep looking. Eventually he found the source. It was a small round device, hidden under the bed where, no doubt, it’d landed having been knocked or swept off the top of the bedside table. He retrieved it and slowly turned it over in his hand, while knuckling his eye with the other. Finding a small recessed button, he pressed it and the device opened up, very much like a slowly blooming flower. A small crystal-clear screen activated and a message appeared. “Attention. Unauthorised attempt to access encrypted information. Level five security initiated.” Keeping his voice soft, Jean-Luc asked, “Location of attempted access?” “A vessel. Location is, as yet, unknown. However, the vessel is close, within the Marena system.” “Method used to attempt access?” “Unknown, but highly invasive.” “Can you maintain security lock-out?” “Unknown. Level five is the highest level this system is set for. Suggest contact owner. Awaiting instructions.” “Keep trying to block access, but if access is gained, inform me at once. And send information and request for contact with owner. Code, kilo, pi, one eight, Canis Majoris.” “Acknowledged.” The beeping had ceased and the device closed, once again resembling a small, dull metal ball. Looking around at the carnage of their bed, Jean-Luc felt guilty putting the device on the bare tabletop, but he had little choice. Rather than wake Beverly, he did his best to restore some order to the chaos of their bed and settled bedside her. “Well now,” he mused sourly. “Who could be wishing to attempt to circumvent Liam’s security? What has he been up to now, I wonder?” It never occurred to him that it wasn’t Liam that was in mortal danger, but he himself.

Commodore (Ret.) Liam Dogovich scowled darkly as he read the highly encrypted message that appeared on his softly glowing screen. He sat back, chewing at the fingernail of his right little finger. It was a longstanding habit, left over from one of his experiences of being tortured. Once all his fingernails had regrown, they were misshapen and weak. It wasn’t until he’d finally returned to Federation space that he’d been able to have them treated. And yet, even though all his fingernails were now perfectly normal, he simply couldn’t get the image of that one nail on his little finger out of his mind, and so, whenever stressed or in deep thought, his right hand went automatically to his mouth where his little fingernail was chewed. How badly depended on the problem. Sometimes until it bled. As his incisors took hold and tore the remnant of nail, he never felt the accompanying slice of pain it caused, nor did he taste the blood that oozed from the freshly exposed flesh under the nail. “Who the hell are you and how the hell did you manage to get in this far?” The information he’d read was stunning and very alarming, something he’d assumed to be impossible, but, as his life’s experiences had taught him (and quite painfully at times) nothing was impossible. If someone wanted something badly enough, they’d find a way to get it. The question was...who was the target. Him or his old friend and comrade, Jean-Luc Picard?” It had been over a year since he’d last visited Marena and he’d had no plans to go there any time soon. He had luxury homes in many places, in fact his Marena home was only used when the whim took him, he wasn’t really all that keen on the perpetually cold climate. He shuddered involuntarily. “All that bloody snow!” A native of Australia, he’d grown up in the harsh, hot, dry interior and somehow he never quite felt comfortable unless he was hot. He chuckled softly, wondering what Jean-Luc and his lovely partner had made of the temperature he’d set for the house. He may have liked to be hot, but for sleeping, he conversely wanted cold. The small, well-appointed office he occupied was overly warm. It suited him of course, and as he had no staff or visitors, he thought nothing of it, in fact dressed as he was in a simple pair of shorts and nothing else, he felt both comfortable and comforted. “Earth.” He sighed. “So complex. I don’t know why I couldn’t have my office at home.” He grimaced and shook his head. “London! Even with the weather control grids this place is too bloody cold for my liking.”

Shaking off these extraneous thoughts, he redirected himself to the mystery he now faced. A very dangerous mystery. Though ‘retired’ from Starfleet, he was still active and ‘allied’, acting as a freelance ‘fixer’ operating in situations where it wasn’t quite politic to have a Starfleet officer in the mix, but not so deeply clandestine as section 31 or as distasteful. Being non-aligned, at least that’s how he presented himself, he could more often than not unravel diplomatic knots or circumvent brewing unrest without Starfleet or the Federation Council having to show their hands. It was an elegant solution as he was an honest man, a man with integrity and with the Federation’s best interests at heart. Unfortunately, there were those who saw him as a major problem. A man who wielded the kind of power he did inevitably gained enemies, thus he was afforded the state-of-the-art technology in the form of security from his Federation employers. That someone had enough information to not only find his Marena home, but to attempt to gain access to his private flitter’s computer...He sighed again, the same question rolling over and over in his mind. “Who are they after? You, Jean-Luc, or me? And who the hell is it? An individual, a group or a government?” As Jean-Luc had intimated, then confessed under her ‘interrogation’, Liam and he had been close friends for years. Their contacts had been deliberately was a mutually agreed strategy for each other’s protection. Jean-Luc knew what Liam did just as Liam knew Jean-Luc’s job put him at the pointy end too. “Enemies.” He sighed. “Like ticks on a razorback. They gather, the longer you live, the more you have.” He leaned forward slightly and said around his mangled fingernail, “Computer, increase security to level seven at my Marena home. Uplink with home’s system and open a channel using level seven protocols.” He sat back and took his little finger out of his mouth only long enough to take several long draughts of frosty-cold beer. The ring of water left by the large wet glass on his desktop went unnoticed. There would soon be many more. His one vice was Australian beer, drunk as tradition demanded, so cold it made his head ache, but in his native country, so welcome in the oppressive heat of the outback. His instruction to the computer had initiated a subspace burst, neatly bypassing the ‘official’ relays and beacons. What would have normally taken over three days to reach its destination, took a mere eighteen minutes. He could tell, as soon as he heard Jean-Luc’s voice that man had been asleep. “Liam?” Jean-Luc’s roughly voiced question was laced with caution. The man sat back and put down his glass. He rarely allowed visual communication, especially dressed as he was now, but Jean-Luc had seen all the scars, at least what was left after the doctors at SFM had finished. But even their expertise couldn’t totally eradicate scars of injuries gained by the use of corrosive chemicals. They changed the skin in a way that

made it impossible to completely restore. He’d had the option of a complete dermal replacement, but he opted out. Not a vain man, he wore his disfigurements with a modicum of pride. Some, he knew, like his friend, Jean-Luc, wore their scars inside. As far as Liam was concerned, he felt he had the better part of that particular ghoul. Better to see the evidence and know it than be haunted by unseen demons. “Computer. Visual.” He grinned at Jean-Luc’s bleary look and the grin turned into a leer as he peered past him to see Beverly turn over. He couldn’t see her head but one creamy breast was exposed. Seeing the well-known look on his friend’s face, Jean-Luc quickly covered his lover and shook off the last remnants of sleep. “I see you’re still up to it, Jean-Luc.” Liam grinned wolfishly. The captain sighed and gave Liam a look of frank reproach. “It’s Beverly, Liam.” The man’s face rearranged itself into something resembling apologetic, but his dark grey eyes still danced. “Yeah, I know, but Jesus, Jean-Luc...nice tits.” “Liam.” The warning note to Jean-Luc’s soft, deep voice banished all frivolity. Holding up his hand, Liam inclined his head. “We have a problem, Jean-Luc.” “What kind and from whom?” “I don’t know who, but the problem is a big one. As you know, a vessel, hiding somewhere within the Marena system has done a damned fine job of accessing info they have no right to have and to make matters worse, I can’t find least not they’ve got in as far as they have.” Jean-Luc was sitting on the side of the bed, naked, but with a corner of a sheet drawn across his lap. His fingers went to rub his lower lip as Liam began to once again gnaw at his little fingernail. “ it me or you?” Liam withdrew his finger and made a fist. “I don’t know! Either one of us could attract this kind of attention. We both know we have some powerful enemies.” “True.” Agreed Jean-Luc. “Have you been active lately? Doing anything particularly annoying?”

“Not enough for this kind of attention, at least I don’t think so. But you know the drill, JeanLuc. I can’t elaborate on my work any more than you can.” “I know, but I can tell you we’ve been quiet for a while now. The very fact I’m able to take this month-long leave speaks to that.” “Yeah, I thought as much. Well, if neither of us has stood on anyone’s toes recently, then what about the past? Anyone you know that’d hold a grudge long enough to get together the wherewithal to embark on this kind of infiltration attempt?” Shaking his head, Jean-Luc’s eyes showed he thought he knew where the culprit lay. Liam held up his hands. “Oh come on! Give me a break! If any of my enemies wanted to bump me off they’d have done it years ago.” “True,” nodded Jean-Luc, “But you said yourself, it’d take time to put together the kind of technology we’re seeing here. Unless...” “Unless?” “Well we can’t dismiss the chance it may be someone we’re unfamiliar with. Someone...hired?” “A mercenary? A group or an individual hired from a species we don’t know about?” “Why not? Can you explain what’s happened so far?” Asked Jean-Luc. “No, I can’t.” Liam said thoughtfully. “But it still leaves the big question. You or me?” “I don’t see that it matters. I have only two choices. Leave or stay.” “Well, I’ve upgraded your security to level seven and...” “Level seven?” Jean-Luc interrupted incredulously and a little too loudly. Beverly mewed softly and moved closer, her hand sliding across his thigh. “Who’re talking to?” she mumbled. “Liam. Go back to sleep, my love, I’m sorry I woke you.” “‘Kay, as long as you join me when you’re done.” “I will, I promise.” He waited until she settled again before redirecting his attention back to the small screen held in his hand.

“Level seven?” he repeated softly. “Liam, I wasn’t aware our security went to level seven! Since when...?” The tanned, sinewy man held up one hand. “Now you know I can’t tell you about that.” By the glower on Jean-Luc’s face, Liam knew he owed his friend. Payment, however, would have to wait. “All you need to know is that level seven security protocols are now in effect and that my entire property, all two hundred hectares including the house are covered. So you can ski, hunt, fish, walk....” he leered again “...or indulge in some more horizontal dancing. As long as you stay within the boundaries of my property, you’ll be safe.” Giving the information some long thought, Jean-Luc eventually sighed. “Very well, we’ll stay.” He stared intently at his old friend’s eyes. “You’ll keep me updated.” “You know I will, and just as you know I’ll keep looking. I’m just as ‘curious’ as you to know who’s behind this, Jean-Luc, and put a stop to it.” “Agreed. Thank you, Liam.” “No worries, mate...but on another note...and this is only a suggestion...don’t you think Liam is a beaut name for a boy?” Shaking his head, Jean-Luc couldn’t contain a soft snort. “If we have a son and we named him Liam and he turned out like you....Beverly wouldn’t hesitate in having me castrated!” “Ha!” the man barked. “Oh, well, it was worth a try. Dogovich out.” Jean-Luc did as Beverly asked and stretched out beside her. She stirred and her hand found his penis, but she didn’t really wake. It took a while, but Jean-Luc finally slipped back to sleep, his penis still gently held in Beverly’s warm hand.

It had taken over seventeen hours of intense concentration, breaking through level after level of security before Meredith finally came up to level seven. She’d thought having broken through the encryption of level five that her task was complete. She screeched in frustrated fury when she was confronted by yet another level, this one even more complicated and convoluted. And when she’d eventually conquered that one, another took its place.

But her determination had taken over her rage. So subsumed by her tenacious doggedness was she, she neither ate, drank, nor bothered to leave her computer interface to relieve herself of her bodily waste. The reeking mess was smeared on her backside and thighs and lay on the seat of her chair and puddled on the deck beneath. When the encryption of level seven finally gave up its stranglehold of its systems, she sat back in her seat and had only enough strength to carefully disconnect before collapsing sideways off her seat and fall unconscious to the deck. It would be many hours before she recovered either her mental power or her physical strength. Such was the toll her intense concentration had taken.

It was late in the afternoon and the two well-clad people were using their legs as snow ploughs to push their way through knee-deep snow. It was hard going as they were making their way up a fairly steep incline. Both superbly fit individuals, they were still somewhat out of breath as Jean-Luc stopped and caught Beverly’s elbow. “Let’s rest a minute.” He said in a cloud of greyish-white steam that escaped from his scarf that covered his lower face. His cap, much to Beverly’s continued amusement kept the upper portions of his head and his ears warm. Normally Beverly would’ve said something cheeky, but she was too winded to bother. She knew her pregnancy was taking some of her strength and it annoyed her a little. That annoyance was compounded because she was aware Jean-Luc knew it too and if there was one thing she detested it was being mollycoddled. For any reason. Still, the evidence was there. Yes, Jean-Luc had stopped to get his breath too, but he recovered a hell of a lot quicker than she did. It only served to rub her nose in it...or that’s how it felt to her, so her inevitable arch remark came as no surprise to either of them. “I don’t know why we had to go down to the damned stream in the first place! Like everything else, it was frozen! It’s not as if we’d see a lovely, happy little mountain stream, gurgling and skipping along.” Her sarcasm was lost on Jean-Luc and she knew it, but she just couldn’t help herself. And his calm, soft reply only made her even more annoyed. “You said the frozen waterfall was gorgeous.” “Yes I did, but that was before we had to make the damned climb back up the bloody mountain!” “Beverly,” Jean-Luc said mildly. “You know creeks only exist at the bottom of valleys and, may I remind you, it was your idea to descend to see said creek and this...” he waved his

gloved hand upwards towards the crest, just visible through the lightly falling snow. “Is not a mountain, but merely a largish hill. Now, are you recovered enough to continue?” “I hate it when you do that!” spat the incensed doctor. “Do what?” said Jean-Luc with seemingly endless patience. “Go all Vulcan on me.” She could only see his eyes, but the puzzlement was plain. She sighed, waving an irritated hand at the cloud of condensed air it caused. “Logic, Jean-Luc! That and using my own words against me!” He chuckled softly and wrapped a padded arm around her waist. “Come on, Beverly. The longer we stay here, the longer it’ll be before we can get back indoors. I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to feel the cold, especially my feet.” She bumped him with her shoulder and huffed. “I suppose a piggyback is out of the question?” He seemed to give it some thought before shaking his head, and by the playful twinkle in his eyes, Beverly knew he was highly amused. “Ah...although I can think of nothing I’d rather do more, unless you have a full medical facility to repair the inevitable physical damage such an action would invariably inflict upon me, then alas, no, my dear Beverly. I cannot piggyback you.” “Hmph!” snorted Beverly. “Some knight-in-shining-armour you turned out to be!” “We all have to accept our limitations, Beverly. However, think of it this way. The energy I preserve by not piggybacking you can and will be put to far more...pleasurable pursuits later...should you so wish.” He watched in delight as her eyes, which were all he could see of her face, darkened and became smoky. Enough for him to say hastily, holding up both hands, “Not here, Beverly. There are some parts of my anatomy I do NOT wish to fall victim to frost bite.” She knew he was right, of course, but she was rapidly becoming aroused and she’d always loved a challenge. “Chicken. Where’s your sense of adventure?” “Back at the house, mon amour in that lovely big bed. Now come on, it really is getting colder and the snow is falling heavier.” “Yeah, well you just remember it was your idea and that you chickened out!”

The jousting over and happily ending in a draw, Jean-Luc helped Beverly as they made their laborious way back to the crest, across the sparsely wooded plateau and out into the open area in which the house stood. They entered gratefully, immediately peeling the layers of clothing off. Jean-Luc was easing his boots off when he heard the gentle chiming of the message system. Dressed only in his thermal underwear long pants he went into the study and activated the comm. unit. What he saw made him softly swear. “Oh, merde!” The message read, “Contact me ASAP. Level seven security protocols of the flitter have been breached. Liam.” Jean-Luc instructed the computer to make the connection and waited. Beverly soon joined him, sitting on the arm of his chair as she handed him a mug of warmed mead. “What’s up?” she asked, knowing by the tense set of his shoulders and the telltale deep crease between his eyebrows that something was amiss. He was loath to worry her, but if they were in imminent danger, she had a right to know. He turned to her and sighed. “The security system of the flitter’s been breached.” “Meaning what?” said an obviously confused Beverly. “Has someone tried to steal it? Make it fly remotely to some unknown destination?” “No.” Jean-Luc said softly. “It’s a little more serious than that, my love. The flitter, indeed this entire home and all the surrounding property is under a protocol.” “There’s no such thing as a level seven there?” “Yes, there is, but only a very select few know about it. So I don’t have to remind you...” She held up her hand. “My lips are sealed. But what has this to do with us? How does the flitter’s security being breached affect us?” “I’m not sure. The thing is, Beverly, we don’t know...” He got no further. “Who’s ‘we’?” “Liam and me. We don’t know what’s going on. Whether or not one of us is a target and if so which one. Liam or me?” “So what’re you doing about it?” Jean-Luc gestured to the monitor. “I’m waiting to speak to Liam.” “Oh.” Said Beverly, her eyebrows raised. “So he’s not far away then?”

Jean-Luc took a deep breath and swallowed. “Um...actually he’s on Earth.” “Well what’re you doing waiting for him? It’ll take days to...” she trickled to a halt and pulled her lips to one side. “He has access to technology us mere plebs don’t know about, doesn’t he.” Before Jean-Luc even tried to reply, Beverly shook her head and held up her hand again. “No! Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know. Just tell me how long you’re going to wait?” “About another 15 minutes.” “Fifteen minutes! Jesus!” She stood and swallowed the rest of the small amount of mead she’d allowed herself. “Okay, while you wait, I’m going down to the basement. There has to be a way to alter the temperature of this house. The damned computer won’t do it, at least not by vocal command and I can’t find a climate control pad anywhere. Maybe there’s a master control downstairs.” Jean-Luc took her hand and kissed it. “Very well and once I’ve concluded the ‘business’ side of my call, I’ll ask Liam about how to alter the temperature, but be warned. He likes a very warm ambient temperature; I doubt he’ll allow it to be altered.” As she neared the door, Beverly turned to say cheekily, “What is he? Some kind of rare, hothouse orchid?” “No.” Called Jean-Luc to her retreating back. “He’s no orchid, hothouse or otherwise, but he is a rarity.” “Whatever.” Came the ever diminishing reply. Jean-Luc’s smile faded as the ramifications of the security breach became evident. He and Liam had a lot to discuss.

The deep frown on Jean-Luc’s face was becoming a permanent feature as the discussion continued. The more he heard, the more alarmed he became. “But, Liam...surely a level seven security protocol shouldn’t’ve been able to have been...?” Holding up both hands, the man shook his head. “I know! And I agree with you, but that’s not the point! It’s happened, Jean-Luc. What we have to do now is deal with it. So far I’ve

been able to ascertain a craft emitting no warp signature entered the Marena system about four days ago. My bet is that’s where our friends...or operating from.” Jean-Luc scowled. “If this craft emitted no warp signature, how was it detected?” Liam bared his teeth and grimaced. “Can’t go into details, Jean-Luc, you’ll just have to trust me. But I can tell you it was bloody difficult to find the minute trace it did leave. As to where, exactly, this craft is? No idea, all I do know is that it’s close enough for some kind of uplink to the planet’s intraweb.” Jean-Luc’s sneer was derisive. “That’s not exactly difficult, Liam. Any ship’s computer can do that. God, a simple voice command would suffice and at some considerable distance.” “Yes,” Liam said patiently, “But you’re forgetting whoever this is used the interface to crack ALL the levels to get to and crack level seven. Now are you going to tell me a normal ship’s computer can do that?” “No.” Admitted Jean-Luc. “In fact, from the little you’ve told me, I’d’ve thought it’d require an AI.” Liam’s dark grey eyes narrowed, accentuating the crow’s feet on his deeply lined, tanned face. “I’m smelling a rat, Jean-Luc. Why are you bringing the possibility of an AI into the mix?” “Because, old friend,” Jean-Luc’s tone was sarcastic. “You’ve not told me everything...and I understand that, but I’m no fool. I’m aware, at least fairly well-informed of the level of technology the Federation’s been dabbling in and even though I had no idea that a level seven encryption or security protocol existed, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t expecting it to emerge some day.” He shrugged. “It’s a natural progression, after all. We have to keep in front, lagging behind in any kind of technology; even benign technology such as medical science makes us vulnerable. Now taking all that into effect, I find your inability to either find the perpetrators or discover how they managed to get in right through the that tells me we’re dealing with something a little out of our league. And from what I know of alien technology, at least those we know of, I can’t think of any species, friend or foe who could’ve done this. And that, Liam, leaves but one conclusion. If it’s not a living person or persons then it must be an AI.” Liam sat back, chewing furiously on his fingernail. Jean-Luc waited patiently, he knew his friend would speak when he was ready and not before. Fortunately the urgency of the situation made for brevity. “Okay...let’s say you’re right. To a point.” “Meaning?”

“Have you ever heard of the Fen?” Pulling the corners of his mouth down, Jean-Luc shook his head. “No. What is it? A person? A computer system?” Liam shrugged and scratched his thinning sun-bleached, gingery-blond short hair. “To be absolutely honest, Jean-Luc, we don’t know. All we do know is that if one has enough latinum...and our sources tell us that means a shit load, you can get to this...Fen.” “And?” “I don’t know what happens, but if the ‘client’ survives whatever it is that takes place, they’re left with their brain...augmented.” “Augmented.” Jean-Luc repeated flatly. “Meaning what, exactly?” Liam pounded his fist on the desktop, but he wasn’t directing any of his anger and frustration at Jean-Luc. “We don’t know! All we have is rumours, fifth-hand anecdotes...hearsay. Not one shred of hard evidence...but think about this. If an individual, a person with all the latinum they needed had a grudge and visited the Fen, whatever the hell that is and survive the encounter, wouldn’t you say they might now be in possession of a brain that resembled an AI, only not artificial, but organic?! A walking, talking, living AI with ALL that entails, including the ability to bypass anything we throw up in the way of security.” “Merde!” “You can say that again. Look, Jean-Luc, we’ve been reliably informed that a particularly nasty but filthy rich Ferengi by the name of Nrug has been effectively rolled. He was tortured in his own home and left destitute and mutilated but alive. He’s in Rog prison...he’ll never leave alive but my point is, someone with an immense amount of nous did this. You don’t walk into a Ferengi’s home and brazenly fuck him up, then rob him blind. He’s mostly off his head now, but he keeps babbling about some woman...a human woman...but from what little coherent spells he has, whoever this woman is...she’s been...changed.” “Are you intimating she’s been to this...Fen, you speak of?” asked Jean-Luc with growing dread. “Probably, but Nrug’s descriptions seen to suggest this woman has had a LOT of surgical work done. As I understand it she barely resembles a human now. Thing is, along with her unusual appearance, she possessed every scrap of knowledge necessary to enter, torture, mutilate and steal...from the bugger’s own strong room, and you know how the Ferengi value their security...and take the lot! Every single bar of latinum! Then she manipulated things so that he was left with no one to bail him out. He was one of Ferenginar’s wealthiest individuals, more wealthy than the Grand Negus himself. Now how do you think she managed to do all that if not with an augmented brain?”

By the look on Jean-Luc’s face, Liam knew he’d hit a raw never. “Does that bring someone to mind?” “Perhaps.” “Well, my advice is for you and Beverly to get out right now. Don’t bother to pack, just get in the flitter and get the hell off the planet.” “It’s that urgent?” “Jean-Luc...whoever it is has cracked our highest ever security. Now it was only the flitter’s computer, but think!” Jean-Luc blinked and paled. “Anything connected to that system...” “Exactly! Now when you get in the flitter, do not activate the automated systems. Input your coordinates the old fashioned way and fly the bloody thing like an old aeroplane.” He held up his hand. “And before you ask, yes there is a duplicate system just for this kind of emergency and yes, even though it’s just a flitter, it’s not only space-worthy, she’s capable of ‘special’ speeds and she won’t emit a warp signature.” Jean-Luc was on his feet. “And where are we to go?” “Obviously this communication system’s probably been compromised, so I won’t say or send the coordinates. Just let me give you a little clue. Remember the hyacintho avian?” Jean-Luc’s smile was grim. “Not only do I remember it, I vividly recall the three-day headache afterwards. I’ll see you there in eight days.” Liam’s smile was wry. “Actually three would be closer to the mark and I’ll have the cavalry waiting.” Jean-Luc gave a curt nod. “Understood. Thank you, Liam.” “Don’t thank me, Jean-Luc. I might still be the target. You and Beverly might end up as collateral damage in this by whoever it is that’s perpetrating this...hunt. My first priority is to keep you and your lovely partner safe and sound.” “And you?” The man winked. “I can look after myself, mate. We’ll have a cold one and a laugh when this is sorted.” “Not that damned Australian beer of yours, Liam. A good red, yes, but not that elephant tranquiliser you drink.”

“Dogovich out, you old bastard, Jean-Luc.”

Having failed to find any kind of master control for the home’s computer system, Beverly spent the better part of half of an hour poking about in the basement. It had one of the most well-equipped private gyms she’d ever seen, including a heated pool. She tried out a few of the apparatuses and was dabbling her toes in the water when she heard Jean-Luc’s voice call softly, “Beverly? Where are you?” “Over the pool.” He reached her in seconds and she knew immediately something was very wrong. She didn’t bother to ask Now was not the time. “We must dress and leave straight away. Don’t pack and don’t use any of the computer systems in the house. Dress for outside, we’ll be using the flitter, but I suspect the temperature inside is going to be only barely warm enough to stave off hypothermia.” She had a million questions but quelled the urge to ask. Moving with alacrity, they went back upstairs and began to dress.

Meredith hadn’t bothered to clean up the mess, not from the chair and its surrounds or from her own body. On awakening she’d accessed the home’s security and, armed with her new knowledge, easily circumvented it. She found the latest communiqué between Jean-Luc and Liam and growled menacingly. “Oh, no, you’re not going anywhere, Picard. You’re going to hand over my beautiful Beverly and then...” she smiled her demented smile. “...the fun begins! But I doubt you’ll enjoy it, you fucker. No, definitely not. We will though. Beverly and I will laugh ourselves sick while you scream and beg! I’ll even make a vid for our later enjoyment and amusement. Ha! It’ll probably be very arousing...” As she stared at the monitor, the thin tube connected, she chuckled while she set about orchestrating the capture of her prey. Being so immensely intelligent, she expected no trouble.

The first sign that something was terribly wrong was when the flitter doors refused to open. Jean-Luc, not willing to use the craft’s computer, tried the manual release, but the handle, recessed in a circular steel port wouldn’t budge. It was as if it’d been welded in place. He tried every access point, even the aft exhaust but to no avail. Swearing softly, he turned to Beverly and said quietly, “It’s no use, I can’t gain access. We’d best go back to the house.” Through thickly falling snow and a rising wind they made their way back to the front door only to find the exact same thing. They were locked out. Beverly fumbled with her gloved hand to find one of Jean-Luc’s similarly covered hands. “What’s going on, Jean-Luc?” “I’m not certain by any means, Beverly, but there’s a chance, a remote one, but a chance nonetheless, that Meredith Bower is after us.” “Oh, shit! Why do you think she’s behind this?” “Some information from Liam and a healthy dose of gut feeling.” “Okay, so what do we do?” Jean-Luc looked up, squinting his eyes against the falling snow. “I don’t see the point in trying to find a way into the house. I’ve no doubt it’s locked up tight. I told you Liam was thorough. Seems this time it might’ve backfired.” “So that leaves what?” said Beverly with growing alarm and dread. Her question was answered as Jean-Luc turned to look into the wooded area above the incline that led down to the creek. “You can’t be serious?” “Do you have a better idea? If I’m right, that mad woman’s going to make an appearance very soon and we don’t want to be anywhere near her. If we hide in the countryside...keep on the move, it’ll be that much harder for her to find us and with this amount of falling snow, we’ll leave no tracks.” “Have you gone completely mad?” hissed Beverly. “Don’t you think she’ll just use a scanner? Our bio signs will register easily...I mean, God, a thermal detector would make us stand out like beacons in this cold!”

“Beverly I know this is hard, but if we can stay on the move, avoid her for just three days, help will be sent. Liam is expecting us at the Blue Parrot Cafe in three days. Now he’ll be looking for the flitter and...” “The flitter?” interrupted Beverly incredulously. “We were supposed to go through space in that personal land craft? Flitters are not space-worthy, Jean-Luc! They’re not even warp capable.” Talking her by the elbow, Jean-Luc said, “Come on, we have to get going. I’ll explain as we walk, but we must hurry!”

By the time Meredith had finalised her plans she was tired but elated. Taking only enough time to wipe her soiled body clean and quickly apply her creams, she dressed in a stunningly beautiful, shimmering light blue sheath. She drank almost a litre of water and lifted her head, sighing with deep happiness. “Here I come, my Beverly. Your long wait is over.” She raised her wrist and said “Beam me to the house.” When she rematerialised outside in the now blizzard-like conditions, she ignored it, walking with long, graceful strides to the front door. She passed her hand over the pad and the click of deactivation made her grin. She opened the door and stepped inside with the same boldness Beverly had shown. “I’m here, my lovely! Come to me! Don’t be afraid, Picard can’t hurt you any more.” By the way her voice echoed slightly, Meredith had a very unwanted and rare sinking feeling in her stomach. “Beverly!” she shouted. “There’s no need to hide! I’ve come for you!” In the eerie silence, Meredith screamed. “Hiding her from me is only going to make it much worse for you, Picard! Let her go!” It was slowly dawning on Meredith that she was alone in the house. Her scream of rage broke two internal glass panels.

Although they had been trudging through the slightly less deep snow by the creek for three hours, the blizzard was hampering them. The woods were providing some protection but the going was very difficult and already, even through their insulated boots and thick, thermal socks, the cold was creeping in insidiously. At the exact moment Meredith had let forth her primal scream of insane rage, both Jean-Luc and Beverly had come to an abrupt halt, both simultaneously looking back in the general direction of the house. Of course they hadn’t actually heard anything, that would’ve been impossible, but some kind of primitive, subliminal shiver of fear and the unmistakable warning of impending danger hit both of them. They looked into each other’s eyes and Beverly said softly, “She’s there, at the house.” Jean-Luc nodded and increased his grip of Beverly’s elbow. “Come on. I think I have an idea.” Wishing to conserve her energy and knowing she had more than her own life to consider, Beverly didn’t bother to ask any questions. Unless she came up with something useful of her own, it was best to leave the details to Jean-Luc. She sighed and glanced morosely at the accompanying cloud of steam. “We’ll either survive this...or die.” She thought, placing her free hand on her belly. “No way will I allow that mad bitch to have me...or our baby if she kills Jean-Luc. One way or another, we or I will beat her.” It was only after about twenty minutes that Beverly realised they were following some fastfading tracks. She only knew they were animal by the size and number and the scatterings of piles of manure. Jean-Luc saw her staring and explained. “Liam mentioned, among other things, that hunting was an option on his property.” “Hunting?!” said an outraged Beverly. “How dare he...” Jean-Luc shook his head. “No, not that kind of hunting, Beverly, there’s no killing. One can either stalk to take vids or stills....or one can immobilise the target animal with a tranquiliser, have your picture taken with it, then it’s left to recover. The entire process takes about ten minutes. Same thing goes for fishing. Catch and release. The skill is in stalking your target. These creatures are wild and very canny. Believe me, it’s not easy getting close, but my dear doctor, that’s exactly what we’re going to do...if we’re lucky.” They continued to follow the deep depressions made by multiple sets of cloven feet. Beverly’s mind was working quickly. “I see. If we can get close enough, even within the periphery of the herd?” Jean-Luc nodded. “We may be able to disguise our bio signatures, at the very least we’d give off no more thermal output than one of these creatures...I’m assuming there’re large?”

“Uh huh. And unfortunately rather grumpy when disturbed. But there’s another reason for getting close to them. This snow...” he flapped his hand and looked upwards. “Isn’t the same as the snow you’d find in most cold environments on an M class planet. Believe it or not, it contains a high amount of hydrogen. Now that works in our favour in one way and against us in another.” “So you have good news and bad.” Beverly’s tone was sardonic. “Yes. While the hydrogen present will help mask our bio signatures; that is it’ll make the scanning device confused, it may not be able to discern between human and animal, the downside is was have no water source. We can’t eat the snow, nor can we drink from any watercourse.” “Oh, that’s just great!” said an angry Beverly. “So not only are we in danger of hypothermia, but dehydration is a real threat...not to mention the demented murderous virago hunting us! Tell me, Jean-Luc. Are there any more little snippets you’ve left out? Or am I supposed to guess?” Jean-Luc took a deep breath and did his best to control his rising anger. “Look I’m doing my best. Unless you have any better ideas...” They stood, bent slightly into the hard wind. Beverly’s eyes suddenly brightened. “As a matter of fact I just might.” “And that is?” Even with his voice muffled by the scarf wound around his lower face, Beverly heard the appreciation in his tone. “Am I right in assuming any water coming from a source not involved with the surface would be potable?” “Most probably...but...” “Underground, Jean-Luc.” He began to shake his head, but Beverly shook his arm. “No! Listen and think! I’m not suggesting we dig for water, I know that’d be contaminated, but if we could find water the rose from underground, like from inside a cave or a thermal spring...”

Jean-Luc thought hard. “Well, it would depend entirely on where the water originated, but I think you’re on to something, Beverly my dear.” He couldn’t see the grin on her face, but he did see her lovely blue eyes sparkling. His own eyes narrowed. “And you know what? These creatures have been studied for years. Their physiology is basically mammalian with some understandable adaptations. The thing is; I

don’t think they can tolerate the hydrogen quantity in the water. And if that’s so, then they must know where there’s drinkable water.” He squinted and Beverly knew he was thinking hard. If not for the scarf covering his face, she’d no doubt he’d be rubbing his gloved fingers over his lower lip. “You know, it explains why they tend to frequent specific areas. They don’t migrate and they don’t have a large range. I bet it’s because of having to stay not far from drinkable water.” “So,” Beverly said; her smile in her voice. “We make like the animals.” “Indeed.” As the couple renewed their dogged tracking of the spore, in the house, Meredith had gone on an insane rampage.

The first thing she’d done was rip the clothing from her body, then having picked up and smashed a heavily built, solid wood table, she snatched up one leg of the ruined piece of furniture and began to move from room to room, using it as a club to smash everything she found. Her trusty knife, worn in an elastic band around her long, muscled thigh was used occasionally to slash and stab. Even though in an insane rage she was surprisingly methodical in her destruction. It wasn’t until she’d made her way down to the basement that she suddenly paused. Breathing steadily, her inhuman eyes scanned the room, taking in all the equipment and the pool. A weird smile emerged exposing her unsettling teeth. “This should do quite nicely. I’ll bring what’s left of the bed down here and have my computer interface transported down.” Her smile faded and a frown developed, although it didn’t disturb the smooth perfection of her golden, hairless skin. “Why are there no mirrors? There’re always mirrors in gyms.” She stalked around the complex, searching for any hidden pads or controls that might give access to any mirrors that might be hidden, but found nothing. “Hmph!” she snorted. “I’ll soon put that to rights. My lovely Beverly will want to see what we’re doing...” the smile came back. “...what I’m going to be doing to her...What it is I’m doing to bring her to such exquisite ecstasy...Oh! And vids! We must have vids! If this is where we begin to explore our love, then it’s here that my lovely one should witness the slow destruction of the fucker who’s been defiling her! apt. The ever-so-physically-fit Jean-Luc Picard will die on an exercise apparatus! ” Her laughter was maniacal. “Without certain body parts, of

course!” She laughed until she was breathless, but no tears formed in her eerie eyes. “I wonder if Beverly would like to be the one to emasculate him?” she grinned again, gently rubbing the pad of her thumb across the keen edge of her knife’s blade. “Oh, but I do so want to be the one to do that...” she sighed, tilted her head back and closed her eyes. In her mind the images of all she wished to do to both Beverly and Jean-Luc scrolled like a vid making her Bartolin’s glands spontaneously exude lubricant and her clit to erect and protrude it’s thick length from inside her body. Her hand moved automatically between her legs and the orgasm washed over her within seconds. She sighed and opened her eyes, staring sightlessly at the wood-panelled ceiling. After a few long moments she blinked and lowered her head, one again assessing the gym. “Well,” she muttered darkly. “We won’t be staying here all that long anyway. Once Picard’s done away with, we’ll spend a day or two getting acquainted,” she giggled at that, “ then once I take her up to my ship and set course for the clinic, she can begin to choose her enhancements. And while she does that, I’ll set in motion the means to obtain her appointment with the Fen.” Meredith slowly raised her arms out from her body and pirouetted, the light of madness in her extraordinary eyes would’ve chilled the blood of the fiercest warrior. “Oh...My Beverly...My Goddess, how we will soar. Wait until I finally take you home! Home...” She seemed to come back to some semblance of what might be called rationality. “But first my red haired lovely, I have to find you.” Back upstairs she went to the front door and opened it, only to hold up a protective arm and bow into the howling wind, the snow driven horizontally. She immediately retreated, slamming the door so hard it snapped one of the hinges. “Fuck!” she seethed. Then lifted her hand and shouted at her wrist, “Computer! Send down clothing appropriate for current weather conditions at my coordinates. Also a scanner, inputted with the personal bio signatures of Doctor Beverly Crusher and Captain Jean-Luc Picard!” The neat stack appeared almost instantly at Meredith’s feet. She hated clothing, but she had no other option. Even she, with all her superior strength and resilience couldn’t survive for long outside without adequate protection. She seethed with resentment and anger as she dressed, detesting the feeling of the clothing. The scanner was picked up as she shrugged into her padded and insulated coat. Before she’d put on her gloves, head covering or scarf, she activated the device and turned a slow circle, fully expecting at any second for the device to find, then lock onto the requested targets. Meredith was perplexed, then insanely furious when no such thing occurred.

“Where are you?! Fuck! Don’t tell me I have to go and find you! That is completely unacceptable! You should’ve been here waiting for me, not off somewhere with that fucking shit pile Picard!” She then stopped and stood absolutely still as her unhinged mind found the reason for Beverly’s absence. “He knows! He knows and he’s taken you! So, I will have to find you, Beverly my beloved. Find you and rescue you. I will bring both of you back. Yes...yes...then we can begin. Once you’re with me, you’ll understand, my Beverly, my sweet love. You’ll finally understand what love and devotion, ecstasy and exaltation really mean. And it’ll begin with Picard’s death.” With her head covering and gloves on, she was winding the scarf around her face as she left the ruined home, her eyes glued to the scanner. It took mere seconds for her ferocious rage to return. On the scanner’s screen were multiple targets, seemingly in loose groups spread over a large distance. She lifted her hand and screeched, not only in fury but to be heard over the howling wind. “Computer, I gave you specific instructions to locate the bio signatures of Beverly Crusher and Picard! What are all these targets?” “I am unable to discern any specific bio signatures.” “So what are you telling me?” yelled Meredith. “Are these targets all human or animal or both?” “I am unable to make that determination. All I can advise is that all located targets are emitting life signs and are approximately the same or similar body mass.” “Then define your fucking search parameters! Discard those readings that are not animal and concentrate on human!” “Unable to comply.” “Why not?” Screamed the demented woman. “The presence of an over abundance of hydrogen in the...” “Shut the fuck up! Can you or can you not tell me if any of the targets are human?” “No, I cannot.” “You fucking cunt! Useless, that’s what you are, fucking useless! How the hell am I supposed to find her if I can’t locate her bio signature?”

The question had been largely rhetorical, but the computer answered it anyway. “Although I cannot achieve this function, I would advise you to search for potable water.” The calm voice of the computer seemed to bring some semblance of control back to Meredith. She began to think again. “Why?” “The falling snow, indeed all the available above-ground water is not fit for consumption, not by humans or the dominant grazing animals indigenous to this area. Thus, the animals must know of a safe and permanent source of water.” “And so that fucker Picard must know too! Jesus, he thinks he’s so fucking clever! Well I know now too and I’ll find you using your own conceit!” She looked back at her scanner, trying to decide which group of animals to approach first, but suddenly her head shot up and the non-existent frown emerged. “Computer, if the native animals can’t drink the more abundant water, how is it they can graze? Surely the water content in the grasses would be toxic to them?” “Extensive investigations over a period of...” “Just tell me!” “The native herbivores can metabolise the over abundance of hydrogen present in the grasses which in turn utilise photosynthesis to break down the...” “Fine! Now shut the fuck up unless you have anything useful to say!” Having studied the readings, Meredith chose the most logical route. She knew they couldn’t climb the rocky mountains that rose around the home so that left but one alternative. Downhill, towards the valley floor. Once there she would have to make the decision whether or not to cross the creek and move left, right or straight ahead, or not cross the creek and go either left or right. As she trudged off, bent against the wind, once she was out of the clear forecourt, she found herself in thigh-deep snow. It was no impediment, she simply lengthened her stride to compensate, but she had to keep her hand near her ear to hear anything the computer had to say. It remained silent.

“Humph!” sneered Meredith as she thought cruelly. “I should force Picard to eat some grass...see if he can metabolise it! The result would be fun to watch!”

She began to giggle and it grew to become maniacal laughter. She didn’t stop this insane expression of her unhinged state until she entered the more heavily wooded area. Here she found some protection from the wind and with her long, powerful legs made light work of the less deep covering of snow. Having reached the creek, she swept the scanner in an arc, picking up five different, loosely scattered, but generally grouped targets, each containing around twenty to thirty individual bio signatures. “Well, well, which one are you hiding my lovely Beverly in, Picard? Hmm?” she sighed, the cloud of steam briefly hiding her head before the wind whisked it away. She peered to her left and nodded decisively. “Yes, that way. I can feel you,’re calling for me, aren’t you? Well, I’m coming, my love, hold on, I’m coming.” Fortunately for Jean-Luc and Beverly, Meredith went the wrong way.

He couldn’t see her wrinkled nose but Jean-Luc could easily see the disgust in Beverly’s eyes. Though muffled, her softly spoken voice clearly carried her revulsion. “What is that dreadful smell?” Behind his scarf, Jean-Luc smiled. He’d been smelling it too for some time and had been waiting for Beverly to make mention of it, as it’d been growing stronger as they carefully approached the grazing herd. “That, Beverly, is the male animal’s aftershave...or the equivalent thereof.” He whispered. “You have to be kidding! It stinks!” “Indeed, you’ll get no argument on that from me, but the females find it very alluring.” “Okay, but what is it? Are they exuding something from a gland?” “No. It’s far more basic than that. During the rut, the males produce a potent pheromone and excrete it in their urine, which they roll in, making sure their long, shaggy coats are covered it a mixture of urine saturated mud.” They were circling the scattered herd, keeping downwind and using the forest as cover. They were getting close, the herd members on the outer reaches only fifty metres away. Having

found a large fallen log, they squatted down behind it to assess the situation and take a breather. Jean-Luc knew he’d have to impart the next bit of information carefully, first warning Beverly to make no noise. “You recall you remarked we should...’make like the animals’?” “Yes...” Beverly replied warily. Not liking where the conversation was going. “Well,” said Jean-Luc softly, “You must remember to stay quiet, but I have to tell you our best hope of...blending to do just that.” The ensuing silence was ominous as Beverly processed his words. The realisation showed clearly in her shocked and repulsed eyes. “No!” she whispered vehemently. “Please don’t tell me we’re going to have to...” “Yes.” Jean-Luc said apologetically. “We’re going to have to cover ourselves in the urinemud mixture.” “Oh, that’s just lovely!” Beverly’s tone was both sarcastic and angry. “And just how is that going to help? Surely we don’t want to attract any females?” “Or males.” Jean-Luc pointed out. Beverly groaned softly. “You’re going to tell me the males compete for the females, aren’t you.” There was a definite twinkle in Jean-Luc’s eyes. “Yes, but even though we may be...discomfited by what we’re required to do, a providential choice a suitable male’s...patch of mud will be crucial to us.” “Why?” Beverly’s one worded question was curt. “Because,” Jean-Luc said patiently, knowing the information he was about to impart would eventually override her annoyance. “Like most males of a species, there’s competition amongst the males to win the dominance required to be the one to mate with all the available females.” “Natural selection.” Muttered Beverly in a bored tone. “I hate to be the one to deflate your balloon, Jean-Luc, but we’ve known about this kind of behaviour for centuries.” “Yes we have.” He agreed. “But things work a little differently here. These Marenan herbivores have a completely contrary system. Yes, at the first sign of females coming into

oestrus, the males compete, but...the triumphant male only mates with the females fertile at that particular time. After a few days a new batch of females reaches the peak of their breeding cycle and the males compete again...however...the initial male does NOT take part! The eventual winner of the next competition is the one to mate and this system carries on until all subsequent females of breeding age have been mated. The entire sexually mature female population of the herd may take up to a month before they’re all mated and each ‘batch’ by a weaker male.” As he knew it would, Beverly’s analytical mind slipped into gear. “But that’s genetically counterproductive. If less and less physically superior males are mating, why aren’t the species showing signs of weaknesses? What’s their birth rate like...the rate of attrition of their young? How many of their young reach sexual maturity?” “Given the natural rate of attrition due to predation, environmental factors...” “Wait! Stop right there! Predation? What kind of predation?” Shrugging in the thick, padded and insulated clothing robbed the gesture of its impact. “The usual kind. Carnivores.” Jean-Luc had to quickly cover her mouth with his gloved hand as Beverly blurted loudly, “Carnivores?!” “Yes!” he hissed quietly. “Think, Beverly! You can’t expect a species like those,” he inclined his head towards a group of three females some sixty metres away, diligently digging through the snow to reach the frozen ground cover. “To have no predators? How do you think their numbers would be kept in check? Without predation, the entire area would be overrun with them. And we know they’re dependent on potable water. One would have to speculate just how many animals that water source can support.” “So where does that leave us?” said a tightly annoyed and alarmed doctor. “Well, for starters, we choose a mud patch used by the weakest male, that way we shouldn’t attract too much attention. As for predators, I know of three types. Staying close to a herd of herbivores, especially smelling like them does put us at a disadvantage in that we’re going to smell like likely prey to any predator, but unlike the herds animals, we have this.” He tapped his temple with his gloved finger. “Tool use, even the ability to climb a damned tree puts us above that of ordinary prey.” Beverly gave her lover a long look and shook her head. “The very fact you’ve not described these carnivores tells me it’s not going to be quite as easy as that, Jean-Luc. Can we, for instance, tell when we’re being hunted?”

“, not exactly, but close observance of the herd will be crucial. They have a powerful sense of smell and hearing, Beverly, as do most prey animals. If we observe any skittishness, wariness, then we have to be on our guard too.” Closing her eyes briefly, Beverly sighed. “I can’t believe we’re doing this! Coating ourselves in revolting smelling urine-saturated mud, then hanging around the periphery of the herd, thus making ourselves prey, in order to avoid capture by another sort of predator...a mad human!” She sighed again. “Does that sound insane to you? Because it sounds absolutely crazy to me!” “I know,” Jean-Luc said regretfully. “But unless you can think of an alternative....?” “No.” Beverly shook her head. “I just wish there was another way.” “Well, the animals should be moving to their water source soon. Perhaps we might find some kind of shelter. As you pointed out, the water has to have a subterranean source, which could mean a cave or some other kind of rock fissure.” “Yes, but we can’t stay, can we.” “No, not if the herd moves away, but if I’m right...and I think I may be...the animals will stay overnight close to the water. And that would mean if we do find shelter nearby, we can stay in it throughout the night.” Beverly had to hand it to him; he seemed to have thought it through. “Okay, first things first. Our mud bath.” “Indeed. Cast your eyes over there, just beyond that snow drift.” Beverly squinted in the falling snow and just made out the dark mass of an animal’s back. “Yes?” “I’ve been watching him. He’s young and quite submissive. He’s made his patch over there and he’s rolled several times. Once the herd begins to move and as long as it’s in the right direction, affording us the downwind position, we can move in and coat ourselves before following the herd and rejoining the periphery.” “Lovely. What a charming thing to look forward to.” Beverly offered a very soft chuckle. “Can you believe mud baths have been used as beauty treatments for centuries? Across hundreds, perhaps thousands of cultures, mud has played a part and not just for beauty treatments!”

“Oh, I know!” whispered Jean-Luc enthusiastically. “Building materials, cooking ware, even medical mud!” “Uh huh.” Grinned Beverly, but only her eyes exhibited her mirth. “Mind you, if I applied mud that smells like that...” she tilted her head in the direction of the wallowing male. “I doubt I’d have too many patients!” “Be that as it may, that mud just might save our lives.” Said Jean-Luc soberly. “Yeah.” Beverly said fatalistically. Her eyes narrowed and she lifted her hand to point. “Hey, look...I think the herd is on the move.” “Hmm.” Agreed Jean-Luc. “Obviously we can’t see the sun, but my guess is nightfall isn’t too far away. They seem to be moving away from us, up that slight incline. Give them ten minutes then we move in.” “And make like an animal.” Jean-Luc’s eyes twinkled and he took Beverly’s hand. “Yes, and perhaps when all this is over, we might indulge our feral sides.” The smokiness in Beverly’s eyes was the exact reaction he’d hoped for. “I’ve always thought that buried deep beneath your urbanity beat the heart of a true animal, Jean-Luc. I’d love to experience it...feel the full all its fierce glory.” He bent to her and pulled his scarf down before doing the same to her. The kiss was awkward but lacked nothing in passion or intent. Having replaced the scarves he whispered huskily, “You have my word, Beverly. As an alpha male, I shall make my claim and take the alpha female for myself. And I do mean take.” “I look forward to it, Jean-Luc.” her whisper was every bit as husky as his. In fact he had to draw away, making Beverly frown. “What?” “Pheromones, my love. We’re supposed to be using the animal’s...not ours.” He couldn’t see her wickedly saucy grin, but he knew it was there as she whispered, “You’re hard, aren’t you.” His gaze was intense. “Yes, and you’re wet. And this must stop.” “Well I could always shove some snow down your pants.”

“True, but in the attempt, once you opened my trousers, I’m afraid nature would take over and I would have to ravish you. No, for safety’s sake, you keep your distance for a little while.” “And let things...subside.” she giggled softly. “You know, you could challenge one of the males once we’re all muddied up.” “Shut up, Beverly, you’re not helping.” They were quiet for a few minutes before Beverly added, “Of course having won, you’d have to take me immediately.” “I said, shut up, Beverly! This is not the time for verbal foreplay.” She sighed and offered a lopsided smile, which he couldn’t see. “Sorry.” He gave her a long look and grunted. “It would be nice if you meant it.” Before she could protest he rose into a crouch and took her hand. “Come on, the herd has moved far enough away.” All levity gone, they broke cover and made their way to the reeking mud patch.

Meredith was becoming increasingly frustrated. No matter how hard she tried, the animals seemed to sense her approach and bolted, leaving her in their wake. In the vast repository of knowledge she possessed in her altered mind she knew how to stalk a wild animal, but even employing all the known techniques she still failed. Repeatedly, and her failures were causing her to go further and further away from reality, something that had been tenuous for her for a long time anyway. As she stood in the disturbed knee-deep snow, her eyes glaring at the animal prints and scattered manure she smiled with grim anticipation. Into her wrist she shouted, “Computer, send down my Varon T Disruptor. I have a little hunting to indulge in.” The weapon materialised at Meredith’s feet and she stooped to pick it up, admiring yet again its innocuous design. “Who’d’ve thought you’d pack the punch you do?” She giggled. “No wonder you were banned in the Federation. ‘Too inhumane.’” She said in a derisive tone. “Too inhumane?” She parroted. “I don’t think you’re ‘inhumane’ enough! Things should die slowly and painfully! Life is fucking painful why should death be any different?”

She hefted the hand-held weapon and grinned cruelly. “If I have to eliminate every fucking living creature on this planet I’ll eventually find you, Picard, and when I do, I’ll find my lovely Beverly. What’s the old saying? ‘You can run, but you cannot hide’? I’ll find you, Picard; it’s just a matter of time.” She trudged off, following the panicked herd. What she didn’t understand was that even employing all the known hunting techniques, the animals instinctively knew something oddly disturbed...not natural was stalking them. But their vigilance and stamina eventually gave out. That’s when the slaughter began. By a simple process of elimination Meredith would eventually find her real prey. Beverly had been right. Meredith was just as much a predator as the natural ones...only far, far more dangerous.

Just over four thousand kilometres away, in the Environmental Conservation Department of the local government, an alarm quietly sounded on a console. The operator slid his wheeled chair over to the relevant screen and activated it. What he saw made him gape, then swear. He did some fast research before pressing the tab that would connect him to his immediate superior. “Yes, Narad?” “Madam,” said the worried ranger. “Something very disturbing is occurring as we speak in the Juroan Mountains Wilderness Park.” “Elaborate, please, Narad.” “Someone...or something is systematically annihilating all the mereks in the Varr valley area.” “What do you mean by annihilating?” “Just that, Madam. I’m registering significant losses, so far at least sixty three animals over a five hour time period.” “I’m looking at the information now, Narad. I don’t recognise the weapon’s you?” “I’m still checking, Madam, but from what I’ve learned so far is that in all likelihood, it may well be a Varon T disruptor.” “My God!” the supervisor said. “But weren’t they banned by the Federation years ago? In fact as far as I know, only a few were ever made.”

“That’s true, Madam, but if this is indeed a VT disruptor, then someone has either managed to acquire one or has somehow gained the schematics to construct one.” “But what would be the point of hunting with a VT? There’s no carcase, no trophy...and why risk hunting at all, especially within a protected area?” “ seems this area is a privately owned enclave, Madam.” “Privately owned? Within the Juroan Mountain Wilderness Park? I wasn’t aware there were any privately owned areas within the park! Who’s the owner?” Narad began to sweat. His supervisor was a nice person, but when faced with the killing of indigenous wildlife, she became very intense. She took her job very seriously. “I’m sorry Madam, but I cannot give you that information. All the documentation pertaining to the ownership of the property has been sealed, coded level five.” “A level five code? That’s Starfleet. What the hell is going on here? Has the owner ever taken game before?” “Not to our knowledge, Madam.” “I don’t like this; I don’t like this at all! Send out an investigation group, Narad...And inform them I wish them to be armed. Tell them whoever is perpetrating this outrage may possibly be in possession of a VT disruptor and act accordingly. I do not want to hear any of our rangers have been injured or killed because some maniac is on the loose with a grudge against mereks!” “Yes, Madam.” He was about to put her orders into effect when she spoke again. “And Narad; put me through to someone from Starfleet. Not some underling, I want to speak to someone in authority.” “Yes, Madam. Placing the call now.” “Thank you, Narad.” As the connection closed, Narad thought his supervisor sounded tired. He didn’t envy her next task. She was now duty-bound to report the incident to her superiors. They would not be happy. Marena was known for its pristine environment and its dedication to preservation, not only of its wildlife, but all aspects of its ecology. Tourism was strictly limited and controlled and to find that someone had managed to buy an area of land, and the supervisor had yet to find out just how much land, within a wilderness park...and possess enough clout to have the documentation sealed by Starfleet no less, thus keeping it from the local government...the implications were unpleasant and the supervisor had no doubt whatsoever that the entire

situation was going to be passed up to the central government. Somewhere, someone was going to be made to feel very uncomfortable about this...and soon.

Nothing had been said between Beverly and Jean-Luc once they’d managed to cover themselves in the putrid, stinking, disgusting mud, their protective clothing now a dull dark greenish-brown. The herd had crested the slight incline and were now out of sight, but the multitude of tracks and the steaming piles of manure were easy enough to follow, even in the quickly fading light. They were making their way across a small plateau when Jean-Luc grabbed Beverly’s coat and tugged her to the snow-covered ground. To her questioning look he pointed silently. She had to squint, but sure enough, at the base of an escarpment the herd had grouped around something, They seemed to be taking turns, most probably drinking, Those waiting wandered about, but didn’t stray too far from the body of the herd. Steam rose from the massed animals creating a thick cloud that didn’t dissipate as the escarpment afforded quite good shelter from the prevailing snow-laden winds. And that presented a very unwanted problem. Moving close, their heads touching, Jean-Luc put his mouth where he knew Beverly’s ear was and whispered. “I can’t see how we’re going to keep downwind. There is no ‘downwind’ here and it’ll be even worse, as the closer we get to the escarpment, the less wind of any kind there seems to be.” It was getting harder and harder to see with the falling snow and the fading light. Both people scoured the landscape and it was Beverly who spotted something that might just help. Adopting the same action as Jean-Luc had done, she whispered softly in his lined and padded, fabric covered ear, “Over there.” She said, pointing. “See? About fifty metres or so on the right of the herd.” He was about to say, “What am I looking for?” When he saw it. A dark crack in the face of the escarpment. He nodded slowly. “What d’you think?” “I think you’re bloody marvellous! With our...scent...we should be able to retreat back down the incline a little way, then circle to the right and approach through those trees we saw. With

any luck, the herd is going to be more interested in getting their drink than keeping watch. Although that’s not to say they won’t be on alert. Prey animals never lapse in their vigilance, but there are times when they are more vulnerable than others.” The wriggled backwards on the stomachs until they felt the downward incline. Then, at a crouch, they went crab-wise around the herd until they could make their approach. While waiting, hidden in the trees, Beverly whispered mildly, “You seem to know quite a lot about these animals. In fact you seem to know a lot about Marena in general.” “I’ve been here before, several times in fact.” “As a tourist...or as Liam’s guest?” His eyes glittered and Beverly got the distinct impression she was stepping on toes. However, undaunted as usual, she ignored it. “Come on, no secrets, remember.” Taking a deep breath and briefly closing his eyes, Jean-Luc gave in to the inevitable. “I have been here a total of five times and on each occasion as Liam’s guest.” “Alone with him?” “No, not always.” “I see. So...the times you two weren’t alone together...was the company male or female...or both?” “Beverly...” There was a note of exasperation in that one, whispered word. “Oh, come on, Jean-Luc. We’re adults. We can tell each other our...stories.” He seemed to be devoting all his concentration on the herd as the animals who’d had their drink were settling down for the night. It took a non-too-gentle poke in his ribs to make him return to the conversation. “Mixed.” He hissed quietly. “Really? And were you paired off?” “Sometimes, yes.” Resignation coloured his tone now, knowing his lover could be times. “ met some...interesting women?” He turned and regarded Beverly with frank assessment.

“Is this simple curiosity...or jealousy, perhaps?” He couldn’t see her gape, but he did hear her soft gasp. “Jealousy? Oh come off it, Jean-Luc! I’m just curious, that’s all.” “Well it seems to me a little more that simple curiosity, Beverly.” Whispered a disgruntled Jean-Luc. “Can you blame me?” Beverly’s eyes showed her irritation. “Those years between you losing the Stargazer and taking command of the ‘D’ are a little vague, Jean-Luc.” “Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean I was off world, attending damned orgies here with Liam. For your information, his home here wasn’t even built until about ten years ago! And as you well know, I was teaching at the Academy for most if not all of that transition time!” “Which makes your absences all the more intriguing.” He was about to vehemently protest when Beverly punched his arm. “Look, I know you did some quiet diplomatic work that was all hush-hush, and I also know over the years we’ve served together we’ve both had relationships. It’s just that I know you, Jean-Luc and the thought of you here, in the remote location and where you stayed, being...entertained by a woman...or have to admit it’s tantalising. You don’t go in for casual affairs, JeanLuc; you’re just not that kind of man.” He relented and sighed. “Your assumption is these...soirees were sexual.” “Weren’t they?” “All right. Yes, I did, on two occasions enjoy a physical interlude with a particular woman.” “There! See, that wasn’t so hard was it?” His gaze softened, although Beverly could barely see his eyes now. “I prefer your other forms of interrogation, Beverly. Much more pleasurable.” “And satisfying, but as illuminating as this has been, don’t you think we should make our move? The animals have all settled now.” His agreement wasn’t vocal, it was physical. He rose from behind the thick tree trunk they’d been crouched behind and stood absolutely still, studying what little he could see. Pulling down his scarf he sniffed the air, nodding slowly. “We seem to be blending in.” Beverly joined him, whispering, “If by that you mean we stink as badly as they do, then yes, I think we’ll fit right in.”

Taking her gloved hand in his, they moved slowly, crouched and wary, keeping a watchful eye on the heard and their ears tuned for any sounds of alarm from the sentry animals. They reached the rock fissure and had just enough room to squeeze sideways inside. It opened up only large enough to allow them to sit, but the absence of the ever-present snow was a huge relief. Under Beverly’s instruction, they removed their boots in the darkness and massaged their feet until they burned painfully with restored circulation. Muttering darkly, Beverly said quietly, “I wish I had a medical tricorder. I wouldn’t mind betting we’ve both got some damage here.” “Frostbite?” asked a concerned Jean-Luc. “If not mild frostbite then certainly cold burn. Either way, the circulatory systems of our feet have been compromised.” “Is there anything we can do?” “Only massage to encourage the blood to flow into the extremities. Warmth via that blood will help...but of course tomorrow...” “It’s back to square one.” He sighed in frustration. “Damn!” “No point worrying about it now, my love. Let’s make a bed with our outer clothing and wrap ourselves up. Our combined body warmth will help us get to sleep. I don’t know about you, but I’m beat.” Jean-Luc lifted one hand and caressed Beverly’s face. “You sleep, Beverly my love, I’ll keep watch.” “Nup. Either we both sleep, or we both stay awake.” Knowing arguing was pointless; Jean-Luc tried another tack. “What about hypothermia? If we succumb, the last thing to occur will be to fall asleep...a sleep which we won’t wake from. If I stay awake, I can make sure that doesn’t happen to you.” “Nice try, Jean-Luc but hypothermia isn’t going to be a problem in here.” “Why?” “You can’t feel it?” Beverly asked softly. He was about to ask what it was he couldn’t feel when he suddenly realised what it was. It was warmer inside. Frowning, he reached out the small distance and felt the wall with his bare hand.

“The water the animals have been must be thermal. Our body heat couldn’t possibly have warmed this space, small as it is, in such a short period of time.” “Precisely. Somewhere in this escarpment, coming from above, below of somewhere in between is thermally heated water...and it’s drinkable. I don’t have to remind you we need that water just as much...if not more, than those animals. Somehow we have to find a source.” The doctor said firmly. “Agreed. For now, we get warm and avail ourselves of some much-needed sleep. Once rested, we can explore....very carefully. The last thing we want to do is spook the herd.” “Okay by me. Now come on, we’ve made like animals, we stink, but now we make like caterpillars and cocoon.” Jean-Luc grinned as they settled down, swaddled in the outerwear, he chuckled softly, “Eminently better, a vast improvement.” “Jean-Luc? Shut up and go to sleep.” “Yes, Doctor.” Her soft kiss was the last thing he remembered as sleep rapidly took both of them.

Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, the head ranger’s eyes were trained below, although he could see nothing through the thickly falling snow, he knew they were flying above a densely forested valley that would soon give way to a more sparsely treed area and a river, upstream of which was the home they were going to use as a reference point. But his mind wasn’t on the white vista below and around their craft. His thoughts were directed at the terrible danger he and his fellow rangers were about to face. It’d been all very well for his superior to inform him to take ‘adequate precautions’ as there was a distinct possibility whoever was slaughtering the mereks was using a VT disruptor, but the problem was there were no ‘adequate precautions’ to take. The damned weapon was utterly lethal. There was no wounding by this weapon. One hit, even a glancing shot, would bring about a slow and exceptionally painful death, the unfortunate victim writhing in unspeakable agony, screaming as their body slowly disintegrated. It was for this very reason the weapon was banned in the Federation. He sighed and rubbed his brow before looking over his shoulder at his team. Six Marenas sat in the

body of the craft, three on each side. Four males and two females all dressed accordingly in well-insulated ‘intelligent’ camouflaged suits and...The head ranger sighed, each, like himself, adorned with lightweight but exceptionally strong body armour. It too was installed with the same ‘aware’ camouflage program and would stop a normal phaser blast up to but not beyond level fourteen. Levels fifteen and sixteen (the maximum setting) would kill the wearer but at least give them the chance of survival provided they could get to a medical facility post haste. As for other kinds of disruptors, even those with no ‘stun’ setting, such as a Klingon weapon, the armour would provide a modicum of protection...but a VT disruptor...The head ranger brought his eyes back to face front, slowly shaking his head. “Might as well be naked for all the good the armour’ll be against a VTD.” He muttered darkly, prompting the pilot to glace up from her control panel and give him a quizzical look. “Something on your mind?” She asked with a sympathetic smile. They’d been friends and occasional lovers for some time and she knew his moods well. He sighed again and made a show of tightening the straps of his backpack.

“No, not really.” He replied. “Just a sticky job, that’s all.” The pilot was no fool. Rangers in body armour was not a common sight. She’d ferried many teams into the wilderness and for many reasons over the years...after all, that was her job, but in all that time she’d never seen a team of rangers dressed in this particular type of body armour. It was military-issue. Leaning ever so slightly towards him and keeping her voice low, the pilot said, “Want to talk about it?” She looked meaningfully at the body armour and he frowned, his brow ridges just visible as they lowered under the eye slit of his helmet, its cover lifted until it was time to exit the craft. “Not much to say, really. Some nut job...or nut jobs have embarked on a killing spree. Apparently mereks are being wiped out on a grand scale.” Again the pilot made a not-so-subtle show of looking directly at the body armour. The head ranger knew exactly what her tacit question was. “I’m not supposed to say anything, but it looks like whoever’s responsible is using a VTD.” “And that is?” asked the nonplussed pilot. “A Varon T Disruptor.” “Never heard of it.”

“Nor should you. They have no place in any civilised society. The Federation banned them years ago.” “Then how...?” He cut her off, his anxiety making him curt. “I don’t know!” He then relented. “I’m sorry, Vlann, I shouldn’t’ve snapped. The VTD is a terrible weapon, one which we have no defence against.” Her face showed both her concern and confusion. “They why...?” “Because it’s our job.” The head ranger said, his wan smile hidden by his helmet. “We...All Marenas have a vested interest in protecting our world and everything on it. As rangers we’ve sworn an oath to that effect. This...atrocity...must be stopped.” “Okay, I get that.” Vlann said in a measured tone. “But why would anyone want to hunt mereks? Especially using such...overkill?” Morok, the head ranger sighed and shook his head again. “I’ve no idea. It’s not as if their meat is a delicacy; and their coats...” Vlann wrinkled her flared nose. “Oh they stink! Even the females’ pelts...I remember once as a child being taken to some museum with my parents and there was a display...a real one, not a simulation...of a typical merek herd. We could smell it even before we got into that part of the building! Despite all the efforts to cleanse and sanitise the pelts, they still reeked. Of course there were complaints from the public and eventually the display was removed. I tell you, Morok, it wouldn’t be hard to find where they’ve stored them.” Morok chuckled, grateful for Vlann’s efforts to lighten his dark mood. “I doubt they kept them, Vlann. If you delve into Marena’s history, you’ll find our ancestors hunted another beast, one that lived in huge proportions in the hinterland. The animal was bigger than a merek, the meat was more nutritious and...” He grinned...“No smell. They made clothing, shelters...” Vlann gave him a bored look. “I have read our history texts, Morok, I’m not a complete moron.” “I never said you were!” Protested the ranger. Then her saw the twinkle in the white-on-black eyes of his friend and shook his head. “You do that so easily, Vlann.” “And you fall for it every time.” Her smile was warm, but then she sobered. “We’re about ten minutes out. Secure for landing.” “You’ll do a sweep?”

“Oh, yes, but in this weather it’s going to be hard, even for our instruments to pick things up. That creek you pointed out? The one that feeds the river? I think your best bet is to start at the confluence. Go up the valley. The house will be close enough to keep your reference and I happen to I’m sure you do too...the mereks of the Varr valley make good use of the springs along the south side.” “The escarpment.” Murmured Morok. “Still that goes for a very long way, Vlann. Our scans showed the killing as taking place further north.” “Yes.” Agreed Vlann. “But if the hunter...or hunters are intent on wiping out all the mereks in the Varr valley, they’re going to run out of prey and have to move down, keeping the creek to the west. And that will bring them to the richest source of thermal water in the entire escarpment.” She abruptly ceased talking and concentrated on her console. Morok turned and said quietly to his expectant team, “Five minutes. Check your equipment.” The head ranger again looked down into the white shroud of snow, hoping against all hope he would lead his team out in one piece.

Just as Vlann had predicted, Meredith was running out of prey. So far she had eliminated four separate herds of the beasts, grinning with insane glee as each poor animal brayed in agony as it slowly disintegrated. The disgust Meredith felt for these creatures only increased as her hyper-sensitive olfactory system was assailed by the overpowering stench of the males. It certainly wasn’t a case of her justifying the senseless slaughter as a means of ridding the air of the dreadful odour, but more that she felt with each unfortunate animal’s death; she was getting that much closer to Beverly. After each annihilation of a herd, she would calmly check her device, the satisfaction in seeing the reduction of targets making her feel elated and excited. If not for the time it would’ve taken, she would have paused long enough to masturbate, such was her fastgrowing anticipation. Knowing the next heard was further down the valley, she made a mental note of their position and turned, the deep snow slowly lessening in depth as she entered the more heavily treed area.

She knew, even without the information on the device, mereks didn’t live above the tree-line. Without sufficient ground cover to sustain them there was no point, so the animals lived within the treed areas where they knew digging would reveal the frozen, but highly nutritious vegetable matter. When the females were due to give birth, the herds would move down into the hinterland, but once the young were weaned, only a few short weeks after entering the harsh, cold world, the herd would return to their ranges within the valley. Other herds in other valleys did the same thing, but interestingly, each herd returned to a specific valley and there were some very slight genetic differences between the herds of different areas. The genetic diversity of the species seemed to rely on breeding within the populations of the particular valley in which they lived, yet another scientific mystery. Such a small gene pool should’ve rendered the species unsustainable but the opposite was true. They flourished and were a very robust and successful species. If not for the penchant of the males to anoint themselves so disgustingly, they may have, in the distant past, been farmed. Their coats were of high quality, it’s just no one, not even with the advanced technology of the 24th century had managed to find a way to rid the animal’s coat of the smell. But that too was a saving grace. It had protected the animals from some kinds of predation and having to be domesticated. Just as the elephants of Earth were able to communicate sub-sonically over great distances, so the mereks had also broadcast the danger signal. As Meredith made her way down the valley, she was blissfully unaware that every herd in her path knew of her approach and began themselves to move en masse, further down the valley.

It was the restlessness of the herd that woke Jean-Luc. By now, having been assailed by the stench for so long, it had lost some of its impact but along with the everpresent reeking smell, Jean-Luc detected something else, a new subtle change. And somehow a primitive part of his brain recognised it. He gave Beverly a gentle shake and she woke immediately, taking only a few short seconds to orientate herself. “What is it?” she whispered. “Something’s disturbing the herd. I think they’re on the move.” He replied, also whispering. “What’s doing it?”

“Fear.” “How can you tell?” For the first time, Jean-Luc drew his eyes away from the narrow entrance and looked down into Beverly’s face, barely visible in the darkness. “I...I don’t know. I can smell it...I think.” “So...a predator?” “Possibly.” Jean-Luc said but Beverly knew he had something more specific on his mind. “She coming; isn’t she.” There was no fear in Beverly’s voice, only stoic acceptance. “I think so, yes.” Now moving within the confines of their small rock fissure, they began to dress. “So what now?” asked Beverly. “I don’t have to tell you we need to drink. Surely your thirst is as urgent as mine?” “Yes, it is, but we have to stay with the herd.” Beverly frowned. “Can you see what’s happening outside?” “I haven’t looked yet, but I can see from here that it’s still dark.” Jean-Luc replied. “Okay, well why don’t we use the cover of night to find the water source, drink our fill and then, if the herd’s moved on, we follow like we did before?” He considered the suggestion for a few moments. Beverly couldn’t quite see his face, but she did make out him shaking his head. “We would be too exposed.” “Jean-Luc,” Beverly said, barely containing her impatience. “If we go out there, back into the snow and freezing temperatures, we not only face hypothermia, you know that, but if we’re dehydrated too, just how long do you think we’re going to survive? We need everything going for us, all our senses and our bodies operating as best we can and that’s not going to happen if we don’t drink...and soon!” “I know that.” Jean-Luc replied, still trying to think and finding it hard. It slowly dawned on him this was exactly what Beverly was talking about. His mental faculties were being compromised by his body’s lack of sufficient water. It helped him to come to his decision.

“You’re right, of course. Are you ready?” “Yes. Do we have a plan?” “I think so. Once the herd moves off, we find the water, that shouldn’t be all that hard, even in the dark, the snow should be well trampled and the water emitting steam, we drink until we can’t hold any more, then as you suggest, we follow the herd.” They began to wriggle one-at-a-time through the fissure. Emerging cautiously, Jean-Luc peered into the darkness, but although he couldn’t see anything much, the lessening of the smell told him all he needed to know. “They’ve gone.” He said in a low voice. “Right, “Said Beverly in a no-nonsense tone. “Let’s go get our drink and get moving.” In silence they descended the short distance back down to the ground and quickly found the soiled and muddied snow where the animals had gathered to drink. Bubbling up and forming a shallow pool was the precious water, steaming in the still air and giving off a faint ferrous odour. They had to lie down on the mud, it was too deep and glutinous to step into to reach the pool and the water was surprisingly hot, but they did indeed drink until they could take no more before shuffling backwards and climbing to their feet. Unfortunately this had effectively removed a lot of their urine-mud mixture from the front of their clothes. It had dried in the warm confines of the fissure and Beverly screwed her face up in disgust as she watched Jean-Luc make his way to a male’s ‘patch’ to re-cover his clothing in the foetid mess. Silently she followed him and copied his actions. As they left the area, picking out the masses of prints and manure piles in the snow, Jean-Luc said, “I’ve no idea what status the male who made that patch had. We may run into some trouble as a result.” Beverly was just about to make a sarcastic remark when they left the shelter of the escarpment and snow began to fall, driven by a stiff wind. It was only then that both of them realised the snow had not been falling before. “Great.” Muttered Beverly darkly. “Oh, that’s just great!” Jean-Luc took her gloved hand in his and looked at her. They couldn’t see each other’s faces, but the falling snow picked out pin-points of light in their eyes. “It’ll help mask us, Beverly.” He said gently.

“I know,” she replied and he heard the gentle apology in her voice. “It just seems like everything’s conspiring against us.” “Come on, we’ll make do. We’re almost through day one. That leaves only two more days, Beverly. We’re well trained and resourceful. We’ll get by. Besides...” his grip of her hand tightened. “I have not only you to protect but our child. And that, Beverly my dear, makes me every bit as dangerous as that mad woman so hell-bent of whatever it is she has in mind.” They continued to trudge through the haphazardly trampled snow, left in the wake of the spooked herd. Silence reigned for a little while until Beverly said quietly, “But that just it, Jean-Luc. You and I know exactly what she’s got in mind. She wants me and she’ll take great delight in murdering you to get me.” Before he could respond to that, Beverly said with quiet determination, “I won’t allow it, Jean-Luc. If she manages to somehow take you, there’s no way in hell she’ll get me...or our child. I’ll take my own life before I let that happen.” Shocked, Jean-Luc halted, bringing Beverly to an abrupt stop. “You can’t mean that!” he said vehemently, the pinking light of dawn just penetrating the falling snow. “You must stay alive! You and our child...” “Mean nothing without you! Jean-Luc...she has no interest in children, especially any child of yours! She would see it as...I don’t infection? A defect? In any case I’ve no doubt she’d eliminate it and then what would happen to me? I’d be in the clutches of a delusional, completely insane woman who’s fixated on me. Believe me, Jean-Luc, not only would my life have no meaning without you...or our child...I would consider death preferable to being that woman’s...toy!” The full ramifications of Beverly’s intense words hit home and Jean-Luc suddenly pulled Beverly into a tight embrace, heedless of the stinking clothes. “It won’t come to that, Beverly, ma bien-aimée. I will protect you, both of you.” He eased his embrace and they pulled down their scarves just enough to kiss. Jean-Luc’s deep voice was rough with emotion as he said quietly, “Come, we must catch up with the herd before full daylight.” Nothing more was said as they continued, but their hands held tight.

Having completed three sweeps of the immediate area, Vlann grunted softly as she idled the engine and activated the hatch release. As Morok left his seat, she caught his hand and said sotto voce, “Come back to me, Morok. If you die, I’ll never speak to you again!” She could see by the way his monochrome eyes twinkled that he was smiling. “Now how could I resits that?” She watched silently as the team exited, then switched on the comm. system. Her voice was heard in their helmets. “You’re all aware of the safety protocols in this kind of situation. I will be hovering at an altitude of five hundred metres and I’ll be monitoring you as best I can. If I detect anything, you’ll be the first to know. Test your emergency summons activators now.” Each team member did so, and satisfied, Vlann gave a wicked grin. “I know it’s inappropriate, but...Good hunting!” The team stood back while the craft powered up its engines and rose, quickly disappearing in the falling snow. Morok turned to his team. Now, with their visors locked in place, he could only see their eyes through the polarised clear aluminium. They were all trained on him and he saw no trace of fear or hesitation in any of them. Pride and affection made both of his hearts swell. “Right!” he said with authority, his voice losing nothing over the comm. system that linked them. “You’ve read the reports, you heard the briefing, you know what we’re facing and the potential therein. We have a job to do, of that there is absolutely no doubt, but I want to stress...and I mean this...yes, we do our job, as we have sworn an oath to do, but we’re rangers. Nowhere in our oath does it say we have to die to carry out either our duty or our oath.” He paused to gauge the effects his words were having. No one was flinching. “A VTD is a disgusting demonstration of the worst kind of science. Whoever designed it was, in my opinion, murderously insane and it would appear, if our reports are correct, that a VTD is in the hands of someone...or some people who share that insanity. “You know what a VTD does.” He slapped his hand on the chest area of his body armour. “This will NOT help. If we encounter anyone with a VTD, we tranquilise and secure and ask questions later. Take no chances! And keep in mind a VTD will vaporise, albeit slowly, any living thing. That includes trees. So if you come under fire, your only hope of cover is behind

solid rock, but even then, a VTD will, after a few shots, shatter any rock, so either get your shot off and make it a good one, or keep on the move. Are we good?” As one, the team yelled, “We are good!” “Then let’s go. We move to the last known ‘killing’, approximately seven point six kilometres upstream of the creek. The killings have been confined to the Varr valley so far. Let’s try and keep it that way. If our perpetrators follow their pattern, they should be moving towards us, coming down from the tree-line. Stay alert, people and don’t be afraid to report anything you might find suspicious or unusual. Technology’s fine, but we’re Marenas and this...” he swept his arm in a wide arc. “Is our home!” Adopting their prearranged pattern, they spread out in a long line, each member dividing their attention between their heads up display on the interior of their helmets and their natural senses. Their hunt had begun.

Had Meredith been paying attention and not indulging in her fantasy world she would’ve seen the changes on the screen of her scanning device. But she felt so superior, she knew she was so superior, relying on a simple tool was, she felt, beneath her. Even its quiet beeping went unnoticed for some time; in fact it was irritation that finally drew Meredith’s attention away from her fantasies and back to the real world. Tugging her jacket pocket so hard she tore it, the furious woman gripped the device and held it up, scowling at it as if she could make it shut up with nothing more than a withering glare. It took several long seconds before she remembered the alarm deactivator. She found the button and pressed it savagely, baring her large teeth as the annoying sound was silenced. On the brink of shoving it back into her ruined pocket, a small, almost sane part of her megalomaniacal mind surfaced. She stared down at the device, saying in confusion, “Why the hell were you making all that racket? She had to wipe the snowflakes off the screen and peer. What she saw made her growl, a menacing sound that would chill any creature, hunter or prey. “Who are you and why do you dare hunt me?”

On her screen she could see the next two herds, moving away slowly down the valley, but coming towards her, in a skirmish line no less, were a series of seven dots, each one representing a potential target. “Oh, my, but what fun!” she yelled as she pirouetted in the knee-deep snow. Lifting her hand she called into her wrist, “Computer, identify targets, moving in a straight line towards my position.” “Unable to comply.” “Fuck you! Why not?” “The falling snow contains...” “I know about the fucking hydrogen! That’s not what I asked you.” “Please repeat your request.” Meredith’s screech of rage was heard quite some distance away. The senior males in the merek herds began to round up their herds, packing them into tighter groups and using the single horn situated between their ears to encourage stragglers to keep up. Tension was building. It wouldn’t take too much more for a stampede to occur. None of this was registered by Meredith. Had she just studied her screen for a few moments she would’ve seen for herself why her ‘targets’ were behaving oddly. Instead she allowed her fury to subsume her. “Computer!” she shrieked. “You fucking useless piece of shit! Those targets had to have come from somewhere. Is there a ground craft at the house? Or something flying reconnaissance?” “Yes, Although scans are hampered, enough information has been gained to identify a type 4 team mover. It is, at present, holding station above what appears to have been the ‘drop zone’.” “Is it private, corporate or government?” “Unknown but on the balance of chance, it is my opinion it is government. The killing of large numbers of merek within a declared wilderness area was always going to attract attention.” Rolling her inhuman eyes, Meredith said sarcastically, “So what you’re taking so fucking long to tell me is that my new targets are most probably rangers.” “Yes.”

Hefting the VTD in her gloved hand, Meredith grinned cruelly. “Well Marenan’s have no better protection from one of these than the stupid, plodding mereks. Still, I’ve no doubt they’ll scream just as loudly!” Throwing her head back, she laughed as she continued to make her way down the valley, only now she took the precaution of glancing at the screen every now-and-then.

Jean-Luc knew Beverly was tiring. The cold was creeping up their legs again and he knew they should stop, find some kind of shelter and take off the boots so they could massage the circulation back into their feet which neither of them had been able to feel for some time now, but what was of more immediate concern to Jean-Luc was Beverly’s physical well being. He could only see her eyes but they were dull and by the way she laboured through the snow, each lifting of her leg to plunge her foot into the metre-deep snow taking more and more out of her...and then there was her breathing. Even through the thick scarf that covered her lower face he could hear her wheezing. Whenever they stopped, her raspy breaths came out in short bursts, the condensation beading on the synthetic material of the scarf. He wanted to say something, make some kind of concession, even a token one, but he knew the minute the words were out of his mouth, she’d refute them, and even her pregnancy would be refused as a reason for slowing down or acting in any way other than what they’d discussed and decided on. Jean-Luc was rueing that discussion now. He’d allowed Beverly’s bravado, which he now knew to be false, to lull him, to make him forget she was woman of middle years experiencing a pregnancy. She shouldn’t be out in the elements, she should most certainly not be hunted and she shouldn’t be forced to do more than she was capable of. And that was the crux of the matter. She was always capable. It simply never occurred to Jean-Luc that Beverly Crusher would ever be in a situation where she couldn’t cope. “FOOL!” He admonished himself savagely. “You damned fool, Picard! What the hell do you think she is? Some kind of uber-Frau?” The wind had dropped to almost nothing but the snow was falling very heavily. So heavily the tracks they were following were being quickly obliterated. It was only the occasional stillsteaming half-buried pile of manure that gave any clue that they were still following the herd. Jean-Luc had been staring down at the white-on-white snow covered ground, deeply immersed in his self-flagellation when he felt Beverly tug his sleeve. Coming to an abrupt halt, he raised his head to peer into her eyes saying softly, “What is it?”

“I have to pee again.” This was the third such stop in the last hour. He knew that having drunk so much water and with her pregnancy, although still in its early stages, frequent urination was going to be a factor for her, in fact both of them, but it’d been Beverly who’d been most affected. So far he hadn’t felt the need, but he wanted to make her feel better so he smiled and said in a lighthearted way, “Well I’m glad you brought it up, Beverly, because I’m quite full myself.” Her snort let him know she didn’t believe him for a moment, but the gentle bump of her shoulder against his told him he was forgiven. They looked about but with the visibility down to less than a metre, it was a case of either try to find a tree, which was the wise thing to do to try and disguise their scent, or, rather than lose what little they could see of the herd’s tracks, do it right where they stood. Jean-Luc saw that Beverly had made up her mind when she began to undo her jacket which would give her access to her trousers. Sighing, he used his teeth to pull his gloves off his hands so he too could open his jacket and manipulate the fly. What neither of them knew was that the herd had circled around to the west. They sensed they were being followed and, although they didn’t equate that feeling with the general unease pervading the entire valley, the males had decided to usher the herd into a tighter pack and bring them around so that they were now behind whatever it was that’d been tracking them. No breeze carried any scent but as the herd moved to within twenty metres or so of the stationary pair, two things happened. The overpowering stench of the urine-mud mixture on their clothing mixed with the fresh unidentified scent of their urine, carried aloft but its own steam was enough to panic the herd and the inevitable stampede occurred. They were back-to-back, Beverly squatting, Jean-Luc standing, feet slightly braced when the ground began to rumble. Even muffled by the snow both humans recognised it for what it was immediately. Neither said a word, there wasn’t time. Jean-Luc turned and grabbed a handful of the back of Beverly’s coat, pulling her with all his strength as he loped through the snow, running blindly. Beverly did what she could to help, but with her pants down around her ankles and no time to stop to pull them up, all she could do was push with her feet, making long backwards jumps. The first impact with a frenzied beast tore Jean-Luc’s grip from Beverly’s jacket. He heard a brief cry then his world went mad. It took several long minutes and many painful blows from the horned males before Jean-Luc finally realised he had indeed made a bad choice in selecting the patch to source their urine-mud mix. It was an obviously subordinate male and one which the herd saw as expendable.

He knew it was vital to stay on his feet, but a well-aimed blow right in the middle of his back sent him sprawling face down in the hard-packed snow. The trampling was over mercifully quickly, the herd more interested in getting away than exacting revenge. In the eerie silence that followed, the blood from several head wounds stained the snow around the unconscious man’s head as it began to settle and bury him.

That first blow that had wrenched Jean-Luc’s grip from her jacket had sent Beverly flying through the air. The breath forced from her lungs in an explosion of sound. Incredibly she landed on the back of one of the mereks, further enraging it. It spun in a tight circle, flinging Beverly off and into a tree. She slid to its base, winded and trying to get her bearings while struggling to pull her pants up. All she could hear were the snorts and heavy huffing of the fast moving herd and the air was filled with steam, redolent with the now familiar stench. It was almost a sixth-sense warning that tuned Beverly’s head, but it probably saved her life. A male, large even for its kind, was charging. Head down, horn aimed, it would’ve struck her head, killing her instantly. With bare seconds to spare, she threw herself sideways. The horn missed its target, but the forefeet didn’t. The beast stomped on Beverly repeatedly. She had adopted a defensive curl, so many of the blows simply slid off but some didn’t and they hurt. Luckily the padding of her clothing absorbed much of the blows and also went some way to protecting her from the sharpness of the cloven hoofs, but she still felt her flesh being sliced. Then, as suddenly as it’d begun, it was over. The last thing Beverly thought before she slipped into unconsciousness was... “Oh, God...What do we do now?”

After moving with relative ease through the snow on their softly booted, splayed feet for some three hours, a quiet alarm sounded on Morok’s helmet. He knew the others of his team had received the same warning as everyone had stopped, absolutely still. Using hand gestures, he instructed his team to take up an arc, widely spaced and slowly moving forward. Their natural senses on alert, they fully expected to have advanced warning from both their technology and their innate inborn wariness, but the terrible, bright green blast of deadly energy that struck like a snake from out of the blank whiteness of the heavily

falling snow took them all by surprise. To Morok’s left, one of the female rangers, Javen was her name he recalled, screamed in unspeakable agony, her body writhing as it slowly disintegrated. The party would’ve remained standing stock-still in shock, sitting ducks to be picked off if not for Morok quickly regaining his wits. Not bothering with keeping communication silence, he bellowed, “Run! Take cover and identify target, return fire as soon as you have a shot to take!” It was as if the team had been struck with the same jolt. As one they turned and ran, their splayed feet never more useful than now as they effortlessly traversed the powdery snow. As they ran several of the team shouted together creating a cacophony of unintelligible sound. Morok’s barked, “Silence! Pimum, you’re 2IC. Take Klenn and Bruy, make for the creek, there’s a good rock cover down there. Hevruk, you Zeron and I will...” The sinister hushed whoosh of the discharging VTD was heard at the same time it appeared, as before seeming from out of nowhere. Hevruk pitched forward, grotesquely trying to reach for his foot which was already gone, the slow disintegration moving up his leg. Taking a stupendously foolish risk or conversely showing exceptional bravery, Morok ran to his friend, and wrenched up his helmet, exposing the band of dark honey-coloured skin of his neck. Moving with great haste, Morok placed the muzzle of his tranquiliser rifle within ten centimetres and fired. Merciful seconds later the hideous screaming ceased and Hevruk’s body lay still as it slowly disappeared. Immediately on the move again, Morok just avoided another blast from the VTD which struck the snow just where he’d been standing. He used the resulting cloud of steam and icicles to run at a zigzagging crouch, yelling, “Bruy, you’re with me! Down to the creek, all of us! Move! Keep jigging; don’t give them a clear shot!”

As they ran, Pimum panted, “I’m not seeing a target! The only thing that’s registered on my display is the fucking VTD and then only when the damned thing fires!” “Me too!” Morok said through gritted teeth. “I can’t even sense them!” A new voice interrupted. “Should we call Vlann to get us out?” “NO!” Morok’s reply was vehement. “That would only make her and the team mover a target. We need her safe and out of the way. She’s our ticket out of here. Keep that in mind if you’re thinking of activating the emergency summons, Klenn.” Nothing more was said as the team beat their hasty retreat.

Meredith sneered at her device, noting the scattered withdrawal of her targets. She debated following them and picking them off at will; she’d enjoyed the agonised screaming, that was until the last one had been cut short. From her readouts, as vague as they were, she could tell the victim had been alive when it died, so that meant one of its compatriots had rendered it unconscious somehow, thus denying her the pleasure of hearing its agony and that really irritated her. “Where’s the fun in that?” she said with puerile sullenness. “They’re like all the rest of them...they don’t want me to have any fun!” With a savage kick at the snow, she raised the VTD and obliterated a tree. She idly considered denuding the entire forest but eventually ditched the idea. There was no satisfaction in using a weapon like the VTD on targets that couldn’t feel anything. That was the whole point of a VTD. It was all about feeling the end of your life. Slowly and with as much pain as possible. Casting her eyes down at her device she frowned at what she saw. “Why are you doing that?” she said with annoyance. “You’re supposed to be grazing you stupid fuckers, not running around like fucking defective clockwork toys! Jesus! Do I have to do everything?!” Glaring down the wooded slope, her enhanced vision gave her a penetrating view even through the falling snow. It was that advantage that has so confused the rangers. She could see them but they, or more to the point, their technology, couldn’t ‘see’ her. She had been so altered she no longer registered on any scanner and as far as the Marenan’s natural senses went, because they’d never encountered anything as alien as Meredith before, they had nothing with which to compare. As Meredith’s madness continued to consume her she never noticed that the immense storehouse of knowledge she possessed, courtesy of the Fen, was being used less and less. So sure of her superiority, she was allowing her megalomania to override her knowledge, thus she didn’t recognise what she was seeing on her device’s screen. The mereks weren’t ‘running around like defective clockwork toys’, they were stampeding and if she’d accessed what she knew about mereks she’d’ve known about the subsonic warning system and the propensity for the males to draw in their herds and, if the threat they felt grew too imminent, then they stampeded. Meredith never gave any thought as to what might’ve caused the stampede; she didn’t give anything much thought any more, except of course, her pursuit of Beverly and what they would do when finally re-united. As she used her long legs to cover the distance through the snow, she hummed happily to herself, reliving in her grossly disordered mind the sounds of the dying rangers.

Beverly regained consciousness with a cry of fear. Although her body had relaxed, on wakening she curled up tight, her arms going around her head. It took quite a few long moments before her rational mind came on line. She slowly uncurled, moaning at the many aches and pains, her hands immediately going to her lower belly, partially exposed and very cold, the vivid bruising stark against her pale skin as were the lacerations, thankfully none too deep. Climbing first to her knees, then unsteadily to her feet, she struggled to pull her pants all the way up and fasten them, then restore her jacket and fasten that, taking care to pull the padded and lined hood snug around her head. She knew she’d been injured but felt it was more important to try and regain some body warmth before making any assessments. Besides she was fairly certain there was nothing seriously wrong, although the baby...she sighed heavily and did what she could to put it in the back of her mind. There was nothing she could do; of more importance right now was to find Jean-Luc. She knew better than to call for him. If the panicked animals were still nearby, hearing her would almost certainly cause another stampede and attack. It was still snowing heavily so she was effectively blind. There were no tracks to follow; even the multitude of tracks the mereks had made had disappeared under a fresh covering of powdered snow. She didn’t even have any clue in which direction to go. She vaguely remembered being hoisted up and into the air, but what happened after that? No idea. She shoved her hands deep into her pockets, mildly surprised to find she still wore her gloves. Giving the matter more thought, she decided to go back up the incline of the valley a little way to see if she could gauge where they were when the mereks had encountered them. It was a fair guess to assume that it was a mixture of the rut-scent on their clothing and their own urine that had begun the stampede but...something wasn’t right. Turning in a slow circle, Beverly tried to put her finger on it. It hit her so suddenly she gasped. “They came from behind us! Unless it was another herd...The herd we were tracking must’ve wheeled around to come up from our rear. But why?” Unfortunately that was going to have to remain a mystery, at least for now; her first priority was to find Jean-Luc. Now once again walking with difficulty through the deep snow downhill, she tried to stay in a straight line, not an easy task with no bearings, and cast he eyes left and right, searching for anything out-of-the-ordinary. When she felt she’d gone too far, she turned, went back up the incline, moved approximately two metres to her right and repeated her actions. On the next pass he moved to her left. She was counting but the ever-present cold was dulling her mind. Time slowly became a blur. Was it 15 or 16 times she’d moved down the incline

and was she to move to the left this time or right? Cursing into her scarf she spun around and began to trudge back uphill. She was so tired she was finding it ever harder to lift her feet clear of the snow to take the necessary steps. When her foot caught in a lump, sending her sprawling, her patience and her tenuous hold on her emotions finally broke. She dragged herself upright and vented her pent up anger and frustration by kicking the lump as hard as she could. She didn’t realise there was something solid in it until suddenly some of the deeper snow appeared and it was stained a bright red. She stopped immediately and fell to her knees. “Oh,” Digging with her hands she uncovered Jean-Luc’s upper arm and shoulder. More red snow appeared as she moved up to uncover his head. “No, no, no, no...” She cried both as a plea and a prayer. It was hard work, but eventually she had him completely uncovered. His hat was gone as were his gloves. His lips and fingernails were a marked blue and what other bare skin she could see also had a bluish tinge. Having pulled down her scarf, which had somehow miraculously survived, she used her teeth to pull off her gloves. As she placed two fingers on his carotid artery her heart accelerated so fast she felt light headed. “Be alive, please be alive!” At first she detected no pulse, but she knew sometimes if the body cooled rapidly enough, it slowed everything down. The cardio-pulmonary system, metabolism, brain function, everything including the atavistic systems, those which functioned independently of conscious thought, all went into survival mode. So she pressed her fingers harder, hard enough to bruise and was rewarded when she felt a weak, single pulse. The urge to do something...anything was almost overwhelming, but Beverly was too good at her job. Experience had taught her to wait, to count the pulses and measure the time between each gentle beat of his heart. She had no tricorder, no medical equipment, no time piece and no way to see the sun to even try to gauge the passage of time, but Beverly was fairly certain no more than twenty minutes had passed before she was satisfied Jean-Luc was in a stable condition. Desperately ill but alive, his body in a kind of stasis, what was once referred to as ‘suspended animation’. She was also aware his artificial heart was playing its roll too. His body may have shut down, but that marvellous piece of technology in his chest would beat where a natural heart may have succumbed. Her next problem was finding shelter and getting him there. But she was determined not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of those tasks. “One thing at a time, Beverly. Cover him up first. Then look for shelter. Once you find it, then figure out how to move him. Come on, get to it!”

It seemed an eternity before they reached the relative, though temporary safety of the rock-strewn creek all the while expecting the deadly energy to take them down at any moment. Zeron was panting hard, the vents in her helmet emitting streams of steam when she reached the outcropping. Dropping into place nearby, Morok watched as the rest of his team found shelter. So much condensed air was escaping their helmets, Morok was forced to say sternly, “Come on, get a hold of yourselves! You fitter than that! That’s fear. It’ll cloud your judgement and slow your minds!” One at a time each team member regained control until no tell-tale condensed air was seen. Feeling everyone was calmer, Morok said quietly, “Right. I’m going to contact Vlann, but I’m not going to call her in, at least not to the drop-zone. The closest place we can make a stand is the home two point three kilometres to the north east. If we can fortify that and gain a well-defended and controlled landing zone, then, and only then, will I call her in. In the mean time, I’m going to order her to summon the defence forces. We need land and air support. I told you before, when we set foot down on the surface; I didn’t expect any of us to die defending our oath. We’re rangers, not soldiers. Our oath is to protect the wildlife of Marena yes, but not at the cost of our lives. Now we’ve already lost Hevruk and Javen. We’re not going to lose anyone else, not to some maniac armed with a VTD!” “So you think it’s a single person?” Asked Pimum. “Not a group?” “Not a group, no.” Morok shook his head. “Unless there are more and they don’t have VTDs then it’s one individual.” “How...?” Began Klenn, only to be cut off by Pimum. “The vectors of the shots.” “Exactly.” Said Morok sourly. “Only three shots were fired and all from the same point. Different targets, yes, but same point of origin.” “So this house?” Bruy said, his perpetual sniffing heard over the helmet com system. “What’s the story there? How come there’s a privately owned home within the Varr Valley Wilderness Park?” Morok shrugged. “I can’t tell you all that much ‘cause I don’t know all that much. All I do know is that the entire property takes up 400 hectares and whoever owns it has some pretty heavy-duty links with Starfleet.”

“And you know that how?” Asked an angry Pimum. “‘Outside’ ownership of land on Marena was supposed to be illegal. And to know we find an ‘outsider’ not only owns a sizeable property on Marena but within a protected wilderness area...” Morok felt a ripple of anger and discontent ripple through his team. “Like I said, I don’t know much, but I do know the property is protected by a level 5 security system and protocol.” “Level 5? Shit! How the hell are we supposed to get in? And is this ‘owner’ the maniac responsible for this whole situation? ‘Cause if he is and I get my hands on him...” “Settle down, Bruy!” Barked Morok. “As far as I know the owner is not the one responsible and as for the level five stuff, once we bring in the military, they’ll liaise with Starfleet and we’ll be sent whatever codes are necessary to gain access.” There were few grumbles but the team seemed to accept Morok’s plan. He knew better than to check his heads up display but he did any way. All it showed was the three remaining herds making their way quickly down the valley. “Dammit!” He growled. “The mereks down valley...they’ve stampeded.” “Little wonder.” Remarked Klenn. “They’d know by now something deadly was hunting them.” “Yes, but the females...those not yet mated won’t get a chance if this situation isn’t brought under control...and fast. And with the decimation that’s already taken place...” Morok said angrily. “They’ll lose this season and there won’t be enough to replace this valley’s genetic stock. We’ll lose it.” Klenn’s tone was morose. “All because some nut job with a grudge against mereks went insane with a VTD. Shit!” “Yeah.” Morok echoed. “Shit.” He allowed a few minutes silence before he made the call to Vlann.

The mereks, in their panicked flight had knocked down several smallish trees so it was not difficult for Beverly to find a suitable branch on which to place Jean-Luc. Although devoid of leaves, it still had enough density and width to make a suitable sled. Having very gently rolled her lover onto the make-shift sled, Beverly then had to decide in which direction to go. She was tempted to try and get back to the house. Even in its wrecked state it afforded shelter and there was always the possibility she could find a way to summon help. But the overriding knowledge that Meredith Bower was somewhere behind them, and probably getting closer made up her mind. No, she had to continue downhill. Besides, she was exhausted, cold and injured, the very thought of trying to drag the body-bearing branch uphill, even given the incline wasn’t all that steep was too much. Her mind made up, Beverly gripped the torn end of the branch, and giving the unconscious passenger one last look, took the weight and bent forward, lifting each foot out of the deep snow and placing it before repeating the action. It was her hope that once down the valley, the weather might improve and she could find some kind of shelter. Little did she know she had just passed an emergency summons bollard. Scattered throughout the park, these bollards could, if needed, provide an instant positional transmission which would summon immediate assistance. Although buried in the snow, those who wished to hike or walk within the park would have to register with the ranger station and would be given a compact device loaded with topographical, environmental and up-to-date meteorological information and the location of every bollard within the park. Even instructions of how to approach the wildlife for stalking and the correct way to deal with one’s own bodily waste was supplied. Had Beverly and Jean-Luc not been the guests of a private property within the park, they too would have has access to all this information. The irony was Meredith possessed all that information and more, courtesy of the Fen, but she was ignoring it. So as Beverly struggled blindly down the gentle slope she passed the one thing that could have instantly summoned help while Meredith was advancing quickly, bent solely on reaching the one thing that occupied her very existence. Despite her quickly waning strength and the growing cold in her body, which was slowing her both physically and mentally, Beverly still stopped regularly to check on Jean-Luc. She was encouraged to find his condition unchanged. As long as frostbite didn’t destroy too much tissue and he remained in his hypothermic, yet life-sustaining state, Beverly knew there was hope. In fact it was she who was in the greater danger, she and her baby. She knew she would have to rest soon and to do so she had to find some kind of shelter. But in the frigid white silence she could see nothing. Not even any trace of the long-gone herd. She had been struggling on, growing weaker by the minute when she quite literally walked into exactly what she needed. In her exhaustion she hadn’t noticed the snow had become less

deep and the falling snow has eased. She had been staring down, concentrating fiercely on putting one foot after another. It never occurred to her that the effort involved in picking up her feet and pushing them back down through the snow had become easier. It was her padded head the struck the trunk of the huge tree. Shocked at coming to such an abrupt halt, she looked up in confusion, her numbed mind taking long seconds to comprehend what had happened. Then, blinking rapidly, she looked around and saw she was in a forest, much larger than the one higher up the valley. But what made her offer a prayer of thanks was the large flattened area of snow, and the now familiar plume of ferrous-smelling steam she knew indicated potable water. By now she also knew there would be shelter nearby. The mereks would not have stopped to drink, not as a herd, without sufficient natural protection. Dragging her laden branch closer, she smiled at seeing the horseshoe-shaped outcropping of rock with its easterly overhang, offering shelter from the falling snow and the now much gentler wind. Of the herd, there was nothing but the signs of recent activity. The ubiquitous piles of manure, some still vaguely warm, and the trampled snow. Obviously they had stayed only long enough to quench their thirst before moving on. Beverly didn’t have that luxury, but having found thermal water, she hoped...prayed, she would find a rock fissure or...hopefully a small cave much like the one they’d found up the valley where she could use the warmth to ease Jean-Luc’s body back to a more natural state. It was all very well him being in a kind of stasis, but Beverly knew he couldn’t stay like that indefinitely. Long-term damage would be done and the more extensive that damage was; the more difficult and protracted his treatment would be. If she could warm him slowly, it would benefit him a great deal, but he wouldn’t thank her for it as it would mean he would begin to feel the pain of his injures. And for that Beverly had no remedy. Not for either of them.

Meredith had noted the isolated pair of targets and smiled grimly. “So,” she said with an amused sneer. “Are you two stupid plodding animals, injured perhaps and separated from your herd or one delightful, beautiful individual and a stupid plodding, arrogant fucking captor?” She peered into the falling snow, seeing it was easing. “Well, whatever you are, you’re only two klicks away. I’ll find out soon enough. If you’re mereks, you’re in for a world of pain

and I’m in for some fun...but if it’s you, my Beverly...and that fucker Picard, well, I’ll still have some fun, but I’ll have you! Your long wait will be over, my Beverly.” She quickened her pace, sensing she was near the end of her long search. “Yes...” she whispered reverently. “I’m coming, Beverly, my one and only, I’m coming.”

In all her years of ferrying rangers in and out of the wilderness parks throughout the vast northern land mass, Vlann had never had cause to summon the military. In fact, she had to ask the onboard computer for the correct access code to even open the appropriate channel, but the voice that responded was crisp and business-like, taking the burden off Vlann’s shoulders immediately. A quick five minutes passed before the disembodied voice stated, “Units 4, 5 and 8 have been deployed. ETA your position, twenty minutes.” Vlann gave a deep sigh of relief and replied, “Acknowledged, Central Control. Will relay, please wait for confirmation and further updates.” “Acknowledged. Standing by.” Morok was leading the two groups through the wooded area up towards the house. They went from tree to tree, their natural senses on high alert, their eyes flicking to the heads up on the helmets. The call from Vlann made Morok give the signal to halt and each member of the team melted into the background. Vlann responded, “The military are on their way. Three units, ETA twenty minutes to my location. Update?” “We’ve decided to make for the house. It’s supposed to have a level 5 security system and protocol so we’re going to need access codes. If we can get inside, we feel we can defend.” “Against a VTD? Are you sure?” Morok sighed. “Vlann, against a VTD there is no real defence, my hope is to hold out until the units arrive. Once they’re here, sheer weight of numbers should give us the advantage...I bring this maniac into custody. As far as defending the house, I’m hoping that anyone with enough pull with Starfleet to have access to a level 5 protocol has built a home that is more than merely a construct of natural materials. I mean, surely they’d beef it up?”

“Unknown, Morok, I’m in the dark here. The military is in charge now so what do you want them to do?” “Rendezvous with us at the house ASAP. And get me that access code! We’re out in the open here; I want my people in some kind of defensible position and the only one available to us is that house.” “Understood, relaying request now. I’ll keep communications silent unless I have more for you. Probably the next communiqué will be from the officer in charge of the units.” “Thanks, Vlann,” “Yeah, me too. Vlann out.” Morok knew that all the eyes of his teams were on him, so he rose and gave the visual signal to move. Like ghosts the Marenas moved through the thinning forest as they began to make the climb up to the house.

By the time Beverly had found a suitable and accessible site to drink from, her strength was almost gone. She had taken the time to dribble quite a bit of the hot water into Jean-Luc’s mouth and, as she knew he would, he swallowed reflexively. She noted the colour of his bluish skin lightened a little and under her fingers, his carotid pulse grew fractionally stronger. Peering around her she knew with a sinking heart she’d have to leave him while she made a quick search for shelter. She had no option, although the water had helped revive her somewhat, she was still exhausted. If she were going to have to drag the branch with its load to anything she found, she would have to conserve what little energy she had left. She stood, not bothering to waste the energy in dusting off the clinging snow on her clothing and stumbled towards the rocky horseshoe. She simply couldn’t believe her luck when she spotted a small dark hole in the jumble of rocks. Hot water was running out of it, not in any great quantity, but if she could get both of them inside... Having reached the hole, she saw on closer inspection it had formed by the surrounding rocks jamming into a tightly packed mosaic, affording a natural tunnel. Lying flat on her stomach, she wriggled inside, knowing her clothing was waterproof. The tunnel was short, only just

over two metres, then a small vaulted chamber opened up, the roof of which was open in places, allowing a tiny amount of diffused light inside. Not quite enough to see clearly, but adequate for her to see the chamber was big house them and the water had lifted the interior temperature significantly. It was perfect; all she had to do now was get Jean-Luc inside.

Meredith glanced at her device, more out of boredom that to actually gain any new information, but on seeing the two separate targets had halted it gave her cause to stop momentarily to think. Not rationally, of course, Meredith was way beyond that, but to weigh up the possibility of indulging in some And then there was they very inconvenient fact she was actually growing hungry. Her body had been so radically altered everything about her was different, including her metabolism. Yet she was still tied to the inescapable fact that her body required sustenance. So she slid her hand into her jacket and caressed the handle of her knife. “Fresh merek meat.” She smiled grimly. “The stupid thing’ll stink, but the meat won’t. And I’ll have the pleasure of slitting first its throat then its belly. Oh...the snow will look so pretty all red.” She then frowned. “Red? No...there’s something about them...” She shrugged and began to walk again. “Who gives a fuck? As long as they die badly and taste good.” She was only seven hundred metres away from Beverly and Jean-Luc.

The three lightly armed flyers swooped low, the pilots using a visual inspection to confirm what their instruments had already told them. The house was unoccupied and had suffered internal damage, but nothing structural. Using a prearranged and well-practiced manoeuvre, the three craft peeled off and settled quickly, disgorging their passengers with smooth proficiency before rising silently from the snow-covered ground to take up sentry duty high above. The three units, each comprising eight Marenan military members immediately activated their adaptive camouflage and blended into the surrounding terrain as they circled the house.

Using a highly encrypted and short-range communicator, the overall leader contacted Morok. “We have the house surrounded and under surveillance. We detect no occupants and thermal reading show no one has been here in some time...several hours at least.” “Acknowledged. You have the access code?” “Affirmative.” Morok looked at his team, only visible to him through the special material of the helmet’s faceplate and nodded. “We’re ready. Once you’ve secured the building, we’ll come in.” “Acknowledged.” Using hand signals, Morok passed on the information to his team. He knew the wait would be a short one, but the tension was uncomfortable to say the least. He saw the physical manifestations of this in his team, prompting him to say quietly over their comm system, “Settle down, it won’t be long now.” “Yeah,” Bruy said bitterly. “We sit tight while the military make sure everything’s safe-andsound so we can be nice and comfy as we await the arrival of some demented fruitcake with a VTD! Morok, I respect you...I’ll follow you, but you know as well as we do that house isn’t going to be defensible! Not against a VTD! It wouldn’t matter if the entire Marenan military were here, unless the maniac is taken down, we’re in for a load of shit!” Morok turned his head in the direction of the disgruntled ranger and said calmly, “All right, Bruy what would you suggest we do?” There was a tense silence before Bruy said grimly. “Go on the front foot. Be proactive! Hunt the bastard down. Look, Morok, there’s enough of us now. With the military...and their weapons surely we could...eliminate whoever it is?” “And violate the very essence of Marenan law?” Morok said questionably. “Don’t you think that would make us as bad...or mad as the one who’s perpetrated these outrages? Marenans do not kill! Not unless we absolutely have to, you know that Bruy.” Everyone on the team heard the derision in Bruy’s voice as he said, “And I suppose the military is armed with water pistols?” “Of course not!” Morok was rapidly losing patience. Bruy had always carried a thirst for what he described as ‘action’. “I’m quite certain they will be armed with the weapons appropriate for the situation.”

“Oh, of course.” Bruy said snidely. “We have weapons that are effective against someone with a VTD! Do think we’re stupid? Anyone with half a brain would know that a sniper, armed with a VTD could not only pick off each and every one of us and the military teams, but completely destroy the house, right down to its foundations! And very quickly. You want somewhere defensible? Then we need to get out of here! Either that or we hunt them down and kill them!” Seeing his team shifting restlessly as each member considered the argument, Morok said quietly, “No, Bruy, that’s not the answer. If we give in to blood-lust we’re lowering ourselves back to that of predators, something we have not been for a very long time. Look around you, Bruy. Do you think Marena would be the paradise it is today if our people had not changed...learned the value of being ecologically responsible?” He sighed deeply. “Look, I...we...don’t know how many beings we’re dealing with, but I do know there’s only one VTD. We isolate that and render the shooter incapable and the situation is over. Then it’s just mopping up, and that’s only if there’s more than one...unhinged being involved. And, Bruy? Don’t you think you’d be better served devoting some thought to how we’re going to redress the problem of the decimated mereks? Never forget you’re a ranger. That carries a lot of responsibility and as I know you’re well aware, a certain amount of prestige.” The implication of vanity made Bruy’s face glow, raising the temperature in his climatecontrolled helmet. But it was Morok’s last comment that defeated him and brought the rest of the team back to their correct mindset. “If you really do want ‘action’ Bruy, you should’ve joined the military, not the ranger service.” There ensued a few minutes while the team waited for the all clear from the units. Just before the call came, Bruy said with a trace of self depreciation, “Well, I admit I might’ve found some of our work a little dull, I mean the most dangerous thing we ever encounter is the occasional bad tempered volon, still, long fangs and sharp claws I can deal with. But a volon with a VTD? Now that’s an eyebrow raiser!” A soft smattering of chuckles rippled across the comm system, making Morok smile, but just as he was about to gently remind his team to be quiet, the call came from the units’ leader. “Building secure. You may enter through the main door, situated at the front of the building. We have fortified it and you will have excellent cover from us.” “Acknowledged.” Morok rose from his crouch and made a sweeping movement with his arm. “Move in, pattern delta at five second increments. “I’ll lead....Bruy...” “I know; I’ll bring up the rear. Don’t worry; I’ve got your backs.” No one said anything, they didn’t have to. The team moved out of the wooded area and crested the top of the incline, but what Morok saw made him give the silent ‘drop’ signal. He

contacted the unit leader immediately and opened his comm system so his team could be privy to what was said. “Unit leader, that forecourt is a killing field! Why is it clear like that?” “The owner utilised the natural flow of air off the surrounding mountains and augmented it with vaporising technology. The result is that the forecourt is permanently clear, no matter what the weather.” “So we have snow cover, both on the ground and falling until we hit that damned open and glaringly clear space?” “Yes, but I can assure you there are no, I repeat, no hostile targets within range, specifically within range of a VTD. You are safe to cross.” Morok spent several angry seconds in thought before he opened a channel. “Right, you heard him. Keep a low profile and jink! Once I go, you know the drill and the order of procession. Five seconds!” He took a deep breath. “I trust our military, but for what it’s worth...Good luck!” Morok broke cover and, keeping low, zigzagged out of the falling snow and into the starkly clear forecourt. He literally burst into the house, turning in one fluid motion and taking up a defensive position so he could see his team traverse the same ground. Thirty-five seconds later, the entire team was in the house. Whether or not they were safe was pure speculation.

As Beverly was struggling to drag Jean-Luc into the tunnel, Meredith consulted her device again. She had been concentrating on making her approach to the targets, she exuded no scent, but she wished to make use of the available cover to get as close as possible to the targets for if they were indeed mereks, unless they were injured, they would bolt at the first sign of her stalking. What she’d been ignoring or simply chose not to hear was the soft chiming her device had been making for some minutes. It wasn’t until she actually took it out of her pocket and glanced at it that she saw what it had been trying to tell her.

“What the fuck?” Meredith scowled at the screen. “What the hell is going on there?” Multiple targets were now displayed in and around the house. Although she couldn’t identify what she was seeing, it was obviously not an indigenous animal herd. “Not unless they’ve taken to living in houses and setting up sentry points.” She sneered. “Well, it seems the bar has been raised.” She hefted the VTD and grinned insanely. “Oh...I could have a field-day! And a humanoid would make a much more satisfying show of dying than some stupid, braying merek.” She sighed with contentment then gave the device another look. “Still, first things first. I’ll investigate these targets, eat as much as I need to, then make my way back to the house. I think you’re there, Beverly. I think that fucker, Picard has somehow summoned help...lot of good it’ll do. “She snorted, a cloud of steam streaming from her nose.”I wonder what Beverly will think when I vaporise all those Marenans for her? Will their death cries excite her as they do me? Should I give her the ultimate gift...the killing of Picard? Oh!” Meredith grinned, her other-worldly eyes gleaming. “So many questions! I can’t wait to discover the answers.”

Liam Dogovich studied the monitor intently, a frown creasing his already lined brow. His hand reached for and took the frosty glass of beer and guided it to his mouth where he took a hefty swallow before placing it back within the tightly grouped pattern of wet circles on his desktop. His eyes had never left the screen. “Come on, Jean-Luc...where are you?” Although their rendezvous at the Blue Parrott Cafe wasn’t for another 24 hours, Liam knew he should’ve been able to track his special flitter’s flight path. The journey was significant, Marena was a fair distance away, but with the craft’s augmentation, Liam knew that the three-day travel time was well within its capabilities and with that in mind, the tall, lean man couldn’t understand why he couldn’t find any trace of the craft. That left him with only one alternative, and it was one he was loath to take. Communication. Even with the newly initiated level seven protocols, he knew there was always the chance, albeit remote, that someone may have cracked it. The very fact it was in use made it vulnerable in its own way. Once word got out, and that usually happened with remarkable speed, any individual or group with a grudge against the Federation or Starfleet or even an single individual would begin immediately to find a way to break the new level. It may take days, weeks, sometimes years, but eventually someone, somewhere would get in. The question was...had that already occurred.

Liam wanted to think no, it hadn’t, at least he hoped that was the case. Level seven had only been in existence a short while and used rarely, for the exact reason he’d been mulling over...and yet...He sat back, again reaching automatically for his beer. While one hand tapped a devil’s dance, the other guided the glass to his mouth. He took two long swallows, put the glass down and lifted the other hand to resume chewing on what little remained of his fingernail. “So...if you’re not on your way, mate, where the hell are you?” Turning his head slightly to one side, Liam spat a miniscule sliver of nail onto the floor. He sat forward and pursed his lips, the silvery stubble of his cheeks catching the light from overhead. “Time, I think, to have a little chat with the Marenan authorities.” Just as he was about to issue the vocal command to his computer, an incoming message cancelled the process. Seeing the sender’s authorisation code and the level of security, Liam’s ingrained senses went on full alert. Five minutes later he was heading to the transporter pad within his building while issuing instructions to the hangar crew for an unscheduled launch of his private craft. Once climbing upwards and clearing the atmosphere, he initiated contact with the Marenan military.

The way Meredith glided from tree to tree was remarkable given her size, but with her body mass, she possessed an elegance and grace of movement, able to become almost fluid in her actions. Although there was little in the way of a breeze, Meredith had picked up the slightest of zephyrs and was making use of it to approach the targets from downwind. Only one hundred metres from their position, her eyes narrowed with suspicion. Flat wide nostrils flaring, she lifted her head and drew in a long breath, then expelled it to make a series of short inhalations. Her expression changed from concentration to absolute delight. “No mereks! Not now, before, hour or more...but not now. It’s you, Beverly my love, you and that pile of shit, Picard! I’ve finally found you!” No longer bothering to stalk, Meredith broke cover and strode boldly through the snow, her insane grin a rictus on her face. She covered the distance quickly and again sniffed the air as she got closer. “Human blood!” She exclaimed worriedly. “Are you hurt, my lovely?”

Quickening her long strides she reached the horseshoe of rock in mere minutes.

It had taken everything Beverly had left to get Jean-Luc inside the little rocky pocket. At first all she could do was lie beside him, panting and sipping the hot water that flowed in a small runnel across the uneven rock floor. Then, slowly she coaxed her stiff hands and arms into action and began to open Jean-Luc’s clothing. Her intention was to do the same and use her body heat and their clothing to make an attempt to raise his temperature. Just as she was struggling to ease his coat off his shoulders a chilling voice made her cease all movement. Although it wasn’t the voice she remembered, Beverly knew exactly who it was. “Beverly! Beverly my sweet love! I am here...I have finally come for you; your long wait is over. Come out; come out to me, Beverly.” Panic seized the doctor. She looked at Jean-Luc in the gloom and knew without a shadow of doubt if she didn’t find some way to negotiate for his well being, Meredith would kill him without so much as a hint of remorse. In fact she’d enjoy it. But how does one negotiate with the insane? Before Beverly could even begin to find the right words, Meredith spoke again and this time her impatience was clear. “Beverly, I haven’t got all day. We have things to do...important things and they can’t be done standing around in the fucking snow on this fucking ice-ball of a planet! Now get your arse into gear and get yourself out of that fucking hole!” Scrambling to find a way to buy some time, Beverly called out, “I can’t.” “Why the fuck not!” Meredith shouted. Then her tone changed. It was at once honeyed and at the same time deadly. “Are you being held captive, Beverly my love?” “No, it’s just that...” “Picard,” Meredith said with chilling venom. “Let her go and I’ll kill you quickly. Resist and I’ll make you pay. Believe me, I’ll make you pay.” “There’s no need for that!” Beverly called urgently. “I’m not being held captive.”

“Then come out!” Meredith yelled. “Beverly, I love you, you know that, but my patience has its limits! I’ve already told you we have important things to do. Now come on! Get yourself out of that fucking hole!” “I can’t.” Beverly said weakly. She was going to say more when Meredith said with flat calm, “I have in my hand a Varon T disruptor. How long do you think it would take me to destroy the rock around you until you were sitting there among the rubble?” Sounding a lot calmer than she felt, Beverly said mildly, “There’s no need for that, Meredith. I’ll come out, but I’m going to be bringing Captain Picard with me.” “What?!” Meredith almost screeched. “NO! You leave that fucking pile of shit right where he is!” “I can’t do that, Meredith, he’s hurt.” “So? He’ll be a hell of a lot more than ‘hurt’ if you bring him out!” “Meredith, you love me, don’t you?” “Yes.” The madwoman replied warily. “Then you want me to have whatever I wish?” “That’s me! You and me...together.” “Yes,” agreed Beverly patiently. “But I’m a Doctor, Meredith and I swore an oath. I can’t abandon someone who needs help.” “Fine!” Meredith said cheerfully. “Then I’ll remove your ...obligation. You bring him out, and I’ll kill him. Easy! Problem solved!.” “It doesn’t work like that, Meredith. Knowing that you intend to kill the Captain if I bring him out would make me responsible and that would violate my oath.” Meredith was seething. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Beverly should’ve welcomed her, both as her rescuer and her lover. Her saviour. Why was she behaving like this? “Meredith?” Beverly called cautiously. “If you let me bring the Captain, let me treat him, I’ll do whatever you want.” In a cold, menacing tone, Meredith replied, “You’ll do that anyway, Beverly.” “True, but wouldn’t it be nicer if I was...willing?”

“You would be anyway! You love me!” “Yes, but if you won’t let me have the Captain to...keep...then I’d feel you weren’t doing all you could to please me.” Her wide mouth agape, Meredith shook her head. “That’s not true! I would do anything for know that!” With her painfully stiff fingers crossed, Beverly said calmly, “Then let me keep him.” “WHY?!” Meredith screamed in frustration. “Because he...amuses me.” It her grossly disordered mind, that one explanation made sense. Meredith’s rage-contorted face settled into soft sentimentality. “Oh, Beverly. You are a minx! Of course you can keep him.” Just as Beverly began the arduous task of wriggling out backwards while dragging JeanLuc’s inert body with her, she heard Meredith say, “I can kill him anytime. After all, you’re bound to get bored with him eventually. It’ll be something we can both look forward to.”

There was an audible scratching sound as Liam dragged his fingers through the stubble on his slightly hollow cheek. The woman on the screen in front of him had a cold look; her eyes barely hid the anger which seethed just under the surface. In measured tones, the woman said quietly, but with chilly intent, “What you ask is completely unacceptable! I can’t see how you could even make the request.” Shrugging, Liam wasn’t fazed by her reaction, he’d dealt with her and others like her before and no doubt, would again. His ace-in-the-hole was his indispensability. Not only was he the best at what he did, he carried in his head many things the Federation Council hierarchy would rather he not make public. Not that he’d even so much as hinted he would, but even the danger of his capture by an enemy put the council in a very awkward position. Liam Dogovich was a loner, not just as a personal preference, but as an operative. For him to baldly ask for a contingent of black ops to accompany him on a mission he was sharing little by way of information on was not only unheard of, but completely at odds with the way the council liked to ‘handle’ the tasks they gave him.

He went where angles feared to tread. Never actually making it clear who it was he worked for, Liam inserted himself into situations where he could...’fix’...things and because he just happened to have an unshakable belief in what the Federation represented, at least as a philosophy if not in actuality, he could do things on an informal basis that the council sometimes could not. Since ‘unoffically’ leaving Starfleet many years previous, yet maintaining the rank of commodore, he’d built an unimpeachable reputation for loyalty and the ability to ‘get the job done’. So as he returned the woman’s cold stare with equanimity, he knew without a shadow of doubt, he would get his way. Her reaction was window dressing, a process that he occasionally had to go through to smooth feathers. He smiled to himself, furnishing the appropriate phrase. “Going through the motions.” But he was growing weary of these little byplays, rare though they were. He had dealt with too many alien species in far too many potentially lethal situations to be the least perturbed by the woman’s attempt to exert any form of superiority over him. And what was making him increasingly irritated was that they both knew there was only one person he answered to and that wasn’t the woman on the screen. And there was one more thing. The very mention of one of the two names he’d given should’ve been enough to grant him his request. That it hadn’t angered him and made him that much more determined to get what he wanted. He realised the woman was speaking. “You haven’t requested assistance before. You’re a lone operative. That’s your strength.” He shrugged again and greatly annoyed the women by casually picking up his glass and taking two long swallows. Running his tongue along his upper lip, he let out a soft ‘ah’ of appreciation. “Well,” he said quietly. “Not this time. We....and yes, that means the council too, are dealing with something out-of-the-ordinary here and it involves more than I can handle on my own. And,” he said, leaning forward lightly for emphasis. “If you won’t come to the party and they die...especially Captain Picard, and it....gets out...that the council refused to permit assistance to recover Starfleet’s most illustrious Captain...” He sat back and spread his hands. “I wouldn’t think that’d go down too well. Not with the Federation President or the people. They do like their heroes....the people...” The woman’s eyes became even more gimlet-like. “Are you trying to blackmail us?” Liam’s smile was broad, but his eyes were cold. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call it blackmail, exactly.” “What then?” “Incentive?” Liam’s eyebrows rose.

“Semantics!” the woman spat. Suddenly at the end of his patience, Liam lost all trace of humour, feigned or otherwise. In his eyes was the hint of the cold-blooded and ruthless killer he could be, if the need arose. “Look, I don’t care what you think or what objections you have. I’m leaving in one hour and accompanying me will be two units of black ops members.” The woman sat and stared implacably back, showing no emotion. Liam was about to terminate the channel when he said quietly, “And of course we’ll be using two of the new...craft.” He sent the smouldering woman a jaunty grin, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “Dogovich out.” He knew what he’d just done was going to cause a huge flurry of action behind the scenes, but he dismissed it from his mind. With single minded devotion, he continued the preparations already in progress. The call he’d just ended was a formality, he was going to get his way in any event, he was merely paying lip service, but it still annoyed him that he should have to do so. “We’ve both given you a life time of service,” He grumbled. “Jean-Luc and me...what more do you want? You owe him!” Then softer... “You owe both of us.” He stopped what he was doing and turned to gaze sightlessly out of the window, ignoring the fact it was sleeting, London’s buildings all but obscured. “All of us who owe us all.” Then silently, “Fucking politicians!” True to his word, an hour later, two craft which seemingly didn’t actually exist, at least not officially, left a small, nondescript orbital station and simply disappeared. Vessels were forbidden to go to warp anywhere within the Sol system, in fact even full impulse was frowned upon, yet these two craft not only vanished, but left the station at a speed not measured by warp factors. And they did so as they exited the station. To the monitoring sensors, two unidentified microsecond ‘blips’ would’ve registered. Nothing else. As Liam sat back in the single cockpit seat, he smiled at the thought of the computers trying to work that one out. Eventually they’d come up with something close to the mark, but by then, Liam and his crew would be far, far away. He looked at the blackness of space, their method of propulsion such as the stars themselves were invisible as the passed. He sighed, a lopsided grin in place as he mumbled around his mangled, almost nonexistent fingernail, “Well, Jean-Luc,” He said softly. “You and Beverly have got yourselves in trouble. Fair enough, that happens. But from what I’ve heard, this is a little out-of-the-ordinary and the fact the Marenans are involved...well, I think it’s time I stuck my nose in. We may have some explaining to do afterwards, but it’s not as if we haven’t had that happen before, eh, mate?” In the aft section of the utilitarian craft sat four beings. Their species could’ve been anything as they were all uniformly clad in adaptive camouflage suits which covered them from head-

to-toe. In the interior of the vessel, they blended in with the walls and the seats. To the naked eye, they were invisible. Covering the outer surface of Liam’s eyes were two specially adapted lenses. He could see his crew; in fact he could see a lot more than normal human eyes could. He blinked several times, distributing the special tears he produced from his lachrymal ducts. Glancing at the small mirror to his left he checked his crew. He then directed his attention to the screen on the minimalist console in front of him. Precisely one hundred kilometres to starboard, a sister ship, identical in every way, carrying another four beings faithfully kept pace. He had briefed the crews. They were primed and ready. All they needed now was to be set loose.

Just as Beverly’s body fully emerged from the rock hole, two strong hands grabbed her under her outstretched arms and hoisted her so violently; her grip on Jean-Luc was torn free. Before she could say anything but a yelp of pain and surprise, Meredith spun her around, wrapped one huge hand behind her head and cupped her chin with the other. Their faces close, Beverly got a glimpse of the frighteningly altered woman before she was brought forward and kissed. Beverly closed her eyes, the sight of Meredith’s unnatural, terrifying eyes enough to so unnerve Beverly that she was momentarily shocked senseless. Unfortunately, Meredith took this as Beverly willingly giving herself to her. The prehensile tongue pressed hard against Beverly’s clamped shut lips and teeth, but as the pressure grew, Beverly vaguely knew if she didn’t allow it into her mouth, it would split her lips and break her teeth. Operating on self-preservation, Beverly opened her mouth, but not before her upper lip had been slightly split. The taste of blood seemed to inflame Meredith even more. She let go of Beverly’s chin and slid her hand inside the doctor’s pants. That broke the daze Beverly had fallen into. She made a sound of protest into Meredith’s mouth, but as before, the insane woman misinterpreted it as an expression of passion. The kiss intensified, making Beverly want to gag, Meredith’s tongue was going too far into Beverly’s mouth. But when the woman’s long, powerful fingers probed and slid through Beverly’s sex, she tried to pull free. Still kissing the red head with heated ardour, Meredith chuckled and let go of her Beverly’s head to grab her hand. She guided it into her own pants, easily overcoming Beverly’s attempts to wrest her hand from the woman’s vice-like grip. Suddenly the tongue was withdrawn from Beverly’s mouth and Meredith’s mouth was nuzzling under her ear. “I know we both want so much more, my lovely one, but this will have to do for now. Pleasure me, my Beverly, as I pleasure you.”

When Beverly’s hand was placed on the engorged and erect clitoris, she was confused, not knowing what it was. But as Meredith guided her hand in an unmistakable sliding rhythm, Beverly had no choice but to comply. Even the fact the...organ...was lubricated confused the doctor. But she had little time for speculation. Meredith’s mouth descended on hers again and that disgusting tongue, vile to Beverly but something she was unable to deny entry, invaded her mouth again. While Meredith’s insistent fingers probed and rubbed Beverly’s intimate areas, she intensified the kiss then inhaled deeply, holding her breath before letting it out slowly. It was only then that Beverly realised the woman had orgasmed. When she pulled back slightly, Beverly was relieved to see her eyes were closed. But her relief was short lived. Those eerie, unnatural eyes opened and pinned Beverly like an insect to a board. “You’re not wet, love.” There was a not-too-subtle trace of threat in the softly worded statement. The doctor knew her life...and Jean-Luc’s rested on what she said next. Yes, Meredith had declared her love for Beverly, and was totally obsessed with her, but she was also insane and therefore utterly unpredictable. Raising her free hand, (the other was still gripping the still-stiff clitoris), Beverly softened her gaze and smiled apologetically. “I’m so sorry,’s just that I’m very tired, cold, pain...” She leaned forward slightly and kissed Meredith’s cheek. “Before I can really enjoy our love, I have to be comfortable and relaxed. Surely you understand?” Meredith stared into Beverly’s eyes, and the doctor had to suppress a shudder of revulsion and fear. As quickly as she’d become so terrifyingly threatening, she changed to a happy, smiling and compassionate lover. “Of course, my lovely. You’ve been through a lot.” She withdrew her hand and Beverly wished she could close her eyes as Meredith sucked her fingers with obvious pleasure. “You taste divine, Beverly, just as I knew you would.” She took Beverly’s hand out of her pants and began to walk away. “Come, my heart. We have much to do.” “Wait!” Called Beverly urgently. “What about Jean...the Captain?” Meredith came to an abrupt halt and stood motionless for a few long seconds. She then turned slowly and the demented ferocity was back in her glittering, pale blue eyes. “What about him?” Her tone clearly showed she cared absolutely nothing for Jean-Luc, other than how to kill him in a way that would amuse her and afford Jean-Luc the most agony. With fear so great Beverly’s bowel loosened, she nevertheless found the courage to say, “You said I could keep him. He has to come too.”

Again, like a chameleon changing colours, Meredith switched. The smile was back. “Oh, do like you’re little games, don’t you. Very well, he can come.” Keeping hold of Beverly’s hand, the woman went the few steps necessary to take her to the rock hole, bent and reached in grabbing the collar of Jean-Luc’s coat. She then unceremoniously dragged him outside and proceeded to stride off through the snow, Beverly on one side, being pulled along by her hand, Jean-Luc in the other, his inert body leaving a smear of blood on the pristine surface of the snow. They had only traversed about 500 metres when a soft chiming brought an annoyed Meredith to a halt. Uncaringly she dropped Jean-Luc, causing Beverly to close her eyes in worry and sympathy, her only solace was that he was deeply unconscious and unfeeling. Digging in her coat pocket a scowling Meredith retrieved a small device and studied it for a moment before directing her weird eyes off into the distance. Beverly knew that was where the house lay, but as to how far...she could only come up with a rough estimate. Eight....nine kilometres? How far had they followed the herd? She knew they had come down a fair way, the change in the thickness of the forest and the lessening of the snowfall told her that, but it was so hard to judge. Tentatively, Beverly said, “Where are we going?” Although she was fairly sure she knew the answer. Meredith confirmed it. “To the house.” But then she looked at the device again and sneered. “Then again...” Beverly wanted to ask so much, but dealing with an insane individual was always perilous. One wrong word, one misperceived intention and certainly Lean-Luc’s life would be forfeited, and even Beverly, the sole raison d’etre of Meredith’s being, could be...Beverly shuddered then had to cover the action as Meredith gave her a hard look. “Cold.” To accentuate the word, Beverly wrapped her free hand around her chest and hunched her shoulders, the condensed air steaming out of her mouth and nostrils as she blew out a long breath. “Freezing, in fact.” She grinned. Meredith grunted, then bent to grab Jean-Luc’s collar again. “Come on, Beverly. Time we had some well-earned fun.” The implied violence in those otherwise innocuous words chilled Beverly far more than the temperature. They walked in silence for a while, the uphill slog not bothering Meredith one iota before Beverly asked quietly, “What do you mean by ‘fun’, Meredith?” Turning to grace Beverly with her dreadful eyes, the woman’s face split into a hideous grin, showing her large square, gleaming white teeth. The overall effect was the most horrendously grotesque thing Beverly had ever seen.

“Oh, my sweet Beverly...we are going to have such fun! There are, at present, a number of little Marenans scurrying about, some holed up in the house. They think...” she giggled dementedly, “....they think they can withstand the not so gentle ministrations of my VTD! The fun is when I pick them off. Oh! The sound they make! It’s enough to make me come!” She sighed contentedly. “Anyway, once they’re all gone we can take the time to see to your injuries, warm you up and get something for you to eat...then my sweet Beverly, we can make love...for hours. Do you know...” she said with obvious excitement. “I can come in one long orgasm for as long as I want? I’ll teach you! Beverly, my Goddess...we will live in ecstasy, hour upon hour subsumed and exalted by our love!” “And...” Beverly swallowed, her free hand going protectively to her belly, happily unnoticed by Meredith. “...all this will take place at the house?” Rolling her freakish eyes, Meredith shook her head. “Beverly,” she said with playful reproach. “You know we’re not staying on this stupid ice-ball of a planet! We have our fun disposing of the Marenans, spend some time making love...after all we have waited a very long time...then I’ll take you to some very special people who make you as beautiful as me...” Her face changed to show serious compassion. “It’s not your fault you’re not as beautiful as me. For a human female you’re unsurpassed for beauty, but compared to me...” she pulled down the corners of her wide mouth and shrugged. “Well, there’s really no comparison, is there. And then there’s your intellect. That’s going to have to be raised quite a bit I’m afraid. For us to be a real couple, we have to be equals and at the moment...” she sighed. “But it’s okay, I’ll look after you and once you’re like me, I’ll take you home and we can begin our lives together as superior, evolved beings who will exist only for each other in a perpetual state of ecstasy.” Beverly thought it wise to not say anything, so she just smiled with what she could only hope looked like enthusiasm. They began to walk again, Beverly having to struggle to keep up with Meredith’s long strides and Jean-Luc’s body leaving a blood-stained shallow furrow in the snow.

It was the unit leader whose scanner picked up the approaching trio. She checked the life signs, frowning as one of them gave little by way of a reading. The other two were typical. One showed injuries and an unconscious state, the other also injured, but not badly. It was the third target that was confusing both the scanner and the unit leader. Using signals of muted shades of grey, the unit leader summoned her 2IC. It was only when her natural senses picked him up that she knew he was almost by her side. Her adaptive camouflage suit confirmed his presence by emitting a slight vibration. In silence she proffered the scanner. Her second in command spent several long moments studying it and

referring to his own device before he opened a very discreet channel between them. It only worked at very close range and was totally selective. “All right, you’ve got me. The two that register...they’re human, one male and one female. The male has some nasty injuries and is unconscious. What the humans call ‘frostbite’ has taken hold in his extremities, especially his toes. The female is also injured, but not so badly. She’s conscious and mobile. But the third...I can’t get a solid fix. I can’t even tell what species it is. As soon as I think I’ve got a lock, it’s as if the third target isn’t there, like it’s some kind of echo.” The unit leader sensed her companion sigh. “If it wasn’t for the fact your scanner is giving the same readings...I’d say it was a glitch of some kind...a technical snafu.” “This is no snafu.” The unit leader growled, holding up her scanner. “Whatever that third target is, it’s responsible for transporting the unconscious male...the female couldn’t do the male is either being carried or dragged. And judging by the speed at which they’re approaching...the third target can’t be human.” “So you think the female is being assisted too?” “Probably and using the third target’s passage through the snow as a track to follow. Whatever it is, it seems to be forging ahead, the two humans, one probably dragged and the other trailing along.” The 2IC grunted softly. “That’s consistent with what little we can see. If you assume the third target is in the lead, then we have an arrowhead formation.” “Uh huh. And at their present rate of progress, they should be within range of our sentries in approximately one hour...perhaps less.” “Our intel suggests the two humans are not responsible for the merek slaughter. It would seem they were the guests of the absent owner of the house. The head ranger, Morok, has informed me he believes there was only one individual the very least it would appear there’s only one VTD.” “Only one VDT?” The unit leader said sarcastically. “As if we weren’t in enough trouble with just one?” “I understand, ma’am, but if the two humans had no part in the slaughter, then we may be looking at a hostage situation.” The unit leader lowered her helmeted head and sighed. “Your ears only, Krav. The male is a Starfleet Captain...the female his CMO.”

“Oh, shit!” Krav said with feeling. “So this business with the house and all this land being owned by an outsider and protected with a level of Starfleet security we weren’t aware existed...What’s going on, Helis?” “I don’t know. I was provided with the code to access the house and precious little else. I only found out about the humans about half an hour ago...and yes Krav, you’re most probably right. This looks like a hostage situation.” “And the hostage taker is armed with a VTD. Lovely.” He took a few calming breaths then asked, “All right, we’re at the pointy end. Is Starfleet going to give us any help?” “Apparently, yes. My most recent update from central, informs me that a ‘team’ is en route.” “That’s it?” Krav said in exasperation. “And just what are we supposed to do in the meantime? A VTD has a greater range than any of our hand-held weapons. That ‘third target’ could pick us off at random. Even if we took up defensive positions inside the house, a VTD could destroy the house and us and the rangers with it!” He shook his head and Helis knew he wanted to spit, a Marenan custom indicating anger and frustration. “We’re in a no-win situation here, Helis!” “I know.” She replied softly. “But we didn’t join the military thinking it was going to be a safe career.” She placed a reassuring hand on the taller male’s shoulder. “Look, we’ve got some time up our sleeves. It may well be that our superior natural senses just might win out where all our technology can’t. Contact our sentries. Tell them to use our technology minimally, urge them to rely more on their own senses. This...” She gestured at the surrounding landscape. “Is our land. Marena. And we are born to it, Krav. We may be civilised...evolved...but inside us is all we need to survive here and that includes the ability to avoid prey and hunt. I’ll be damned if some outsider is going to get the better of us! Pass the word, Krav. We are going to hold our ground!” She couldn’t see his wolfish grin, but the firm punch to her shoulder said more than words could. Krav moved off, blending seamlessly into the falling snow. Helis turned and looked out wondering if she’d not been a little too overconfident. It was one thing to bolster morale, but lurking in the forefront of her mind was one inescapable fact. The VTD. She sighed and looked at her scanner again. The trio were coming, moving inexorably closer.

Liam was dozing, his long skinny legs stretched out, his crossed feet jammed into one side of the console in front of him. Although his eyes were closed and he was in a semisleep state, he was still aware. In his line of work it never paid to sleep too soundly. So when the soft chirrup came from the computer his eyes snapped open immediately and in one fluid

movement, he’d pulled his feet down and moved forward in his seat. He didn’t even have to blink as he read the information on the console. Looking up at the mirror he gave a short nod to the being closest to him. “ETA Marena five hours.” The being said nothing, but acknowledged the report with a nod. Liam checked a few things them settled back, adopting his former position. As his eyes closed he laced his fingers on his stomach and thought, “Hang in there, Jean-Luc, we’re coming.”

The silence was becoming too much for Beverly. It wasn’t the surrounding silence of the falling snow, that she had always found quite, it was what the silence implied. Beverly knew her life and that of Jean-Luc’s were in the hands of an insane individual who vacillated between loving kindness, coquettish flirting and ruthless, coldblooded violence. Beverly felt she may have a chance of surviving, provided she conformed to what Meredith wanted from her, but Jean-Luc? She despaired she would be able to continue to protect him from Meredith. Her complete disdain for him was obvious, but Beverly knew the mad woman’s feelings for Jean-Luc went much deeper than that and none of those feeling were even remotely compassionate. No, Meredith Bower hated Jean-Luc, hated him with such depth of passion, Beverly had no doubt whatsoever that given the slightest of reasons...or more likely no reason at all, Meredith would murder Jean-Luc and probably in a way as to make it as protracted and painful as possible. Somehow, Beverly thought, Meredith’s mind had divided into two separate thought processes. One half attributed everything positive, pleasurable and ‘happy’ to her obsession with Beverly and her unshakable belief that Beverly shared all these feeling with her. The other half...all the negative, ferociously angry and cruel attributes she placed squarely at JeanLuc’s feet. In Meredith’s grossly disordered mind, Jean-Luc was to blame for every single thing that Meredith didn’t like. Of course that made no sense, not to a sane person, but Meredith Bower was so far from sane, Beverly wondered if a new term should be coined to describe her condition. The snowfall was increasing as they worked their way back up the valley. The Marenan military members had been correct. Meredith strode ahead, shoving her legs through the snow. She held tightly to Beverly’s hand, pulling the sometimes stumbling doctor along in the path she made and to one side she dragged Jean-Luc’s inert body, his weight distributed

so that it made only a slight indentation in the snow. But the silence...Beverly had been frightened before, many times, but in nearly all of those instances she had the fortunate ability to be able to do something, if not to directly affect what was causing the fear, but at least to contribute in some way to assist those affected by it. She thought back and it was with a sinking feeling that the last time she felt terrible fear mixed with hopelessness and heartache was when her beloved Jean-Luc had been taken then assimilated by the Borg. She recalled when she saw him on the Borg Locutus...and later, after they’d ‘rescued’ him...still Locutus and connected to the collective. All had seemed lost. Earth, humankind...and Jean-Luc. In fact if they couldn’t defeat the Borg; that meant Jean-Luc would be forever trapped as that repulsive automaton, the very antithesis of her gentle and loving Jean-Luc Picard. Her own death or assimilation seemed abstract by comparison. At least a Borg drone was unaware of its former self. But after she’d been able to restore him, he had confessed he remembered everything. Not only the atrocities he helped the Borg commit as Locutus, but all the while railing against them, helplessly ignored. The knowledge of what he’d done and the subsumption he endured almost cost him his sanity. It took an immense effort by Deanna and Beverly to bring him back and she admitted; his own inner strength played its part. But now he was helpless again...and so was she. The silence grew oppressively as they kept ascending the gently sloping snow-clad land. Not even any sound came from Jean-Luc’s body as it slid along, the preternatural quality of the silence only adding to Beverly’s growing fear and dread. What was Meredith thinking? What did she have in store for them...for Beverly? The doctor stumbled again and would’ve pitched forwards, face down in the snow but for the sharp, painful wrench from Meredith, using sheer force to drag Beverly upright and keep her moving onwards. Too fast, but there was no way Beverly could get her to slow her pace. Even suggesting it, Beverly knew, would put both her and Jean-Luc in grave danger. Meredith, however expressed her irritation. “Fucking keep up, Beverly! It’s bad enough that I have to drag this fucking piece of shit with us without you being a fucking stumble-foot!” Teeth chattering, Beverly said in a cloud of condensed air, “Sorry, Meredith, I’ll try and do better.” “So you should! I’m doing this for you...for us!” Somehow Beverly summoned a smile. “I know.” “Then stop making it so fucking hard! I’ve a good mind to dump the shit-pile! We could move faster then.” Doing her best to not sound too desperate, lest she provoke the mad woman, Beverly said through ragged breaths, “Don’t, please, Meredith. You know how much I want to keep I said...he amuses me.”

“Hmph!” grunted Meredith. She cast a venomous look over her shoulder at the helpless and unconscious man. “That’s all very well, Beverly, but I might find it far more amusing to play with him myself.” Beverly let several moments pass while they continued on before she said quietly, “Yes, that’s true, but if you did that, I wouldn’t be very happy. In fact I’d be very unhappy.” Coming to an abrupt halt, Meredith turned her upper body and stared at Beverly, her expression, though unreadable still managed to clearly convey deadly danger. Beverly hurried to placate her. “I’m not for one moment saying he’s worth anything,’s just that I’ve been waiting so long...looking forward to this time..” She made a point of giving Jean-Luc’s body a look of derision and distaste. “I mean I’ve had to put up with so much...” Meredith’s expression softened immediately. She dropped Jean-Luc and pulled Beverly to her until their bodies met. She then kissed Beverly passionately, the doctor resisting the strong urge to gag. Some long moments passed before Meredith tapered the kiss then broke it. She then nuzzled Beverly under her ear, murmuring, “Oh, my poor love, my poor you must’ve suffered. Every time he touched’re so strong, my Beverly, I suppose you coped by thinking of me. When he touched you, kissed you...” she looked down at Jean-Luc and spat at him. “...fucked must’ve saved yourself by thinking of me. brave...” “Yes.” Beverly agreed quietly. “You saved me, Meredith, so you can see why I’d like to keep him. I have unfinished business with him.” Somehow Beverly refrained from looking at her beloved Jean-Luc. She kept eye contact with the deranged woman and even managed to look cold and disinterested. It made Meredith laugh. She tilted her head back, crowing and cackling. All Beverly could do was wait, hoping against all the odds that Meredith would let her ‘keep’ Jean-Luc. Her hopes were realised when Meredith placed one more soft kiss on Beverly’s lips before bending to grab the collar of Jean-Luc’s coat. She then took Beverly’s hand and said with tender love, “Come. I’ll take your deserve your fun.” Luckily Meredith turned and didn’t see the look of relief on Beverly face or the deeply concerned glance she sent at Jean-Luc. Once again they moved on.

It was the two sentries, placed seventy metres apart and just over the brow of the incline whose scanners first altered them to proximity of the targets. But they knew immediately something was amiss. The only targets they had were the two humans. Of the ‘ghost’ image they had nothing. The sentry on the left lifted her hand and slid the ‘armed’ selector on her rifle into the ‘active’ mode. Then, keeping in mind the orders from the 2IC, she lowered her sensors and scanners and cracked open the faceplate of her helmet. It offered a glimpse of what lay inside her camouflage suit...a sliver of her neck and chin She raised her head and sniffed deeply, slowly turning her head left and right. So intent was she, the quite whoosh of the VTD went unheard. The poor woman screamed as the blast hid her mid section. Her rifle flew from her hands and she fell onto the snow, writhing and screeching in hideous agony as her body slowly disintegrated. The alarm was given immediately. “Attack! We’re under attack!” The second sentry yelled over the now open communication system. Helis barked, “Conform! Give me target coordinates!” “I don’t have any!” The panicked sentry yelled; the sound of the still-screaming victim heard by all even without the comm system. “Alert!” Helis snapped curtly. “All members, alert, code alpha! Identify target and fire at...” She was cut off by the appalling screaming of the second sentry. Knowing he’d just been picked off, the ‘target’ clearly able to ‘see’ them despite their camouflage suits, Helis made the only decision she could. “Fall back! Unit one, set up a perimeter defence close to the house. Units two and three; take up positions inside the house...and arm the rangers. Tranquiliser rifles are useless in this situation. We’re going to need all the firepower we can muster.” Krav’s unsteady voice came through. “Are you going to request assistance?” He could hear the anger and frustration in Helis’s voice and she said curtly, “Affirmative! I’ll make contact with central once we’re in position.” “Understood.”

Beverly sat beside Jean-Luc, her gloved hands covering her ears, but still the sounds of the screaming victims reached her. Meredith had fashioned a rudimentary shelter of sorts from branches she’d torn from the trees and had informed Beverly she was to wait there, with Jean-Luc, until she returned. By the way she had stated this edict; there was no doubt in Beverly’s mind that if she disobeyed, the consequences would be dire, especially for JeanLuc. However, there was nothing to stop Beverly from examining her lover once Meredith had left. Not knowing when she’d return, Beverly made it quick, but it was enough. She was now certain Jean-Luc’s condition, though not as bad as she’d initially thought, based on the examination undertaken in the dim confines of the rocky pocket, was serious. That he’d remained unconscious as long as he had told her his head injuries were dangerously serious and his obvious internal injuries and broken bones were going to take more than simple first aid to treat. As for the slowly advancing frostbite...nothing short of a tissue regenerator was going to be able to restore the destroyed flesh. In fact provided Beverly could get adequate drugs and equipment, he was going to need quite a lot of regeneration therapy. She was just closing his jacket when the first of two shockingly hideous screams assaulted her ears. Closing her eyes, Beverly groaned softly. “No...oh, God, no...” There was no doubt what Meredith was doing...what she clearly intended to continue to do. Beverly felt her stomach clench and knew she was going to vomit. She’d just made it out of the shelter when the upheaval occurred. It left her breathless and nauseous. Covering the steaming mess with plenty of snow, Beverly returned to Jean-Luc and covered her ears.

Meredith was having immense fun. She knew the Marenans couldn’t see her, that she was invisible to their scanners and sensors...she even knew she was undetectable to their natural senses, at least in that she emitted no scent. She did acknowledge the Marenans could, like the mereks, sense the danger she posed, but they had no way to pinpoint it. She moved wraith-like through the falling snow, drifting with graceful ease from tree to tree, blending in until she positioned herself to target her next victim. Having disposed of the two outer sentries and witnessed with great amusement the withdrawal of the remaining military members to the house, Meredith had taken immense delight in slowly advancing on them, knowing the very fact she was taking her time was adding to the stress of her intended victims. She stared implacably at the unknowing target for several long moments before the insane grin appeared. She raised her arm, aimed and depressed the firing button. Her eerie eyes lit up as the beam was faithfully reflected across the surface of her eyes giving them an odd coloured cast of two hues. As the unfortunate victim began to scream and writhe, Meredith

took a moment to savour the experience before beginning to stalk the next. The quietly insistent soft chime from her pocket made her glower, but she stopped and took the device out. What she saw made her sneer and mutter a particularly vulgar curse. Meredith was insane, but not stupid. She knew when it was time to cut her losses and retreat. Turning abruptly, she made her way back to the shelter. In doing so many lives were spared a hideous death...not that Meredith cared. Her only concern was for herself...and Beverly.

Somehow Beverly sensed Meredith’s approach. She tensed and instinctively reached for Jean-Luc, but at the last second remembered how badly Meredith would take it if she should see Beverly showing any kind of concern for her best friend, so the doctor quickly withdrew her hand just as Meredith’s head appeared inside the shelter. “Come on...we’ve got to leave.” By the cold, curt tone, Beverly knew not to ask any questions. She assumed Meredith had completed her grim, horrendous task and was now going to take them to the house, but that wasn’t the case. Once Beverly had dragged Jean-Luc out of the shelter, Meredith cast him a look of pure hatred and muttered, “Does ‘that’ have to come?” Smiling with what she hoped appeared as warmth; Beverly shrugged and said quietly, “I’d like it.” Beverly had to look disinterested as Meredith toed Jean-Luc, shoving his body until it turned over to lay face-down. “Very well.” She said grudgingly. “But that doesn’t mean I have to look at the prick’s face.” Now confused, Beverly was wondering how Jean-Luc would fare being dragged face-down. The answer came when Meredith lifted her right hand and spoke to her wrist. “Three to transport. Initiate.” “...what?” Beverly was momentarily disoriented. They were within a moderately spacious area of some kind but Beverly didn’t know if they were still on Marena or on a ship. Once again her unspoken questions were answered when Meredith took her hand and smiled, gently pulling her off what Beverly quickly realised was a transporter pad. “Come, my love, let me get you comfortable. Our journey will only be a few days’ duration, obviously you’d like to...” Meredith wrinkled her flattish nose. “...get cleaned up. While you

wash, I’ll lay out your new clothing. All that...” She waved her hand up and down, gesturing to Beverly’s reeking outdoor attire, “ can dispose of in the reclimator.” When Beverly made no move, Meredith’s expression changed and Beverly knew instantly she and Jean-Luc were in danger. “What are you waiting for?” The question was asked quietly, but the underlying threat was clear. Scrambling to placate the unhinged woman, Beverly said quickly, “Oh...I just don’t know where the bathroom is...that’s all.” Meredith held Beverly’s gaze, her eerie eyes glittering, then she changed abruptly. Her smile; frightening as it was, made Beverly breathe a sigh of relief. “Of course! How silly of me. Come...I’ll take’s in the en the bedroom.” The openly lascivious look Meredith gave Beverly made her skin crawl, but she had to smile and look enthusiastic. “Sounds lovely!” She said brightly. As they left the room, Beverly found it almost impossible to resist the urge to look back at the unconscious form of Jean-Luc, but she knew to do so would only provoke Meredith, so with a Herculean effort, she looked forward, only shifting her gaze to give Meredith the occasional look of encouragement.

The channel to the Marenan military executive was a secure one and Liam was impressed by the unruffled, quiet efficiency he was encountering. Up-to-date reports were coming in and, although the situation looked dire, the request for more personnel, armed with deadlier weapons and, with the judicious assistance of Liam and his teams and a promise of more sophisticated scanners, it appeared the situation at his home would soon be resolved. But...not without further loss of life. Liam could only hope that didn’t include Jean-Luc and Beverly, not that he valued their lives above that of the Marenans, far from it, but Jean-Luc was a dear friend of many years standing and an important cog in Starfleet’s engine. Although Liam wished to preserve all those involved, he was particularly keen to save his friend...and his lover. “Then I can assume you have the situation under control?” He asked mildly.

“Yes. Our teams on the ground have secured the home and have established a solid perimeter defence.” The Marenan officer said. Liam made sure his tone and expression showed no derision. “That may prove ineffective against a VTD Are you sure there’s only one?” “Affirmative. All instances of deaths attributed to a VTD have come from one source.” “Despite the latest intel reporting fire vectors from three different positions?” The Marenan female military leader’s eyes narrowed. “Are you suggesting we don’t know what we’re talking about?” Holding up a placating hand, Liam shook his head. “No, not at all. I just want to know what to expect, that’s all.” The female sighed and briefly closed her eyes. “Damn.” She said softly. “I overreacted. You have my apologies.” She straightened and cast off her personal concerns. “As you know our intel shows three targets, two humans, one male and one female. The male is injured, the female also, but not as badly. The third contact has somehow managed to cloak itself. I don’t know how this has been done, all I can tell you is that we get the occasional ‘ghost’ but we can’t get a solid lock. It’s our hope your scanners will work better than ours.” “Indeed.” Liam nodded thoughtfully, then said aloud, “And I see there’s been no activity in the last two hours?” “Affirmative.” “And no ‘ghosts’?” “None, but that doesn’t mean the contact isn’t still active. With our perimeter defence being so well situated and the house fortified and defended, whoever it is may be biding their time, waiting for darkness, which is fast approaching.” “Agreed, but the other contacts...the humans...they don’t seem to be registering any more.” The female tilted her head in agreement. “True. It’s our feeling that they’ve been...withdrawn...moved out of sensor range to allow the third contact to have greater freedom of movement. That could also account for the hiatus...these last two hours have been without any activity. The target may well be either on its way back, or is already here, stalking or settling down to wait for night. Of course the frustrating thing is we don’t know either way.” “Yes,” agreed Liam. “I suppose all your people can do is sit tight and wait.”

“Hmm.” The female said dryly. “Your ETA?” “Three hours.” “I’ll meet you at the coordinates.” “Agreed. I’ll have the personnel and equipment your people require.” “Much appreciated. Controller Oprunn out.” Liam looked up at his mirror and saw the being closest to him had its head turned and was silently watching. “Three hours.” Liam said quietly. The being inclined its covered head and Liam saw the soft light of the internal communications illuminate. He listened silently as the team leader issued orders to begin preparations for deployment. It was a two-stage procedure. For now it was a matter of checking equipment and the sophisticated computer systems integrated into their adaptive camouflage suits. Once on approach to their deployment site, the ‘activate’ order would be given. As the teams deployed, either by beaming down or by exiting the landed crafts, they would be instantly ready, aware of all potential ‘hostiles’ and invisible to everyone except each other. Even their weapons would be undetectable. Liam redirected his attention forward and opened a secure channel to the sister ship. “Engage MHT” The barely discernible shimmer that enveloped the ship made Liam smile coldly. “Well...” he muttered darkly. “If you can detect us through our molecular hull transformation, then good on you, but we’re going to be coming in with a few surprises.”

It occurred to Meredith that it may be an appropriate time to hum. Yes, she thought to herself. Something jaunty...something that adequately reflected her uplifted mood. Her unnatural eyes stared implacably at the holograph floating in the air before her. The two ships, travelling at remarkable speed, well above what could be considered normal for any Starfleet vessel, made the woman grin.

“Oh, my, what have you been up to? That can only be a slip drive at work...and that means you can only be some kind of Federation rescue team. Well, seems I may have more fun after all.” She stretched, noting the tightness of her skin. Grunting softly she looked along her long, leanly muscled arm, then ran the fingertips of her other hand along its contours. “Too long without my creams.” She murmured with annoyance. But then she grinned. “Something my beautiful Beverly can...assist me with.” Lowering her arms she cocked her head and said quietly, “Computer, deploy a full spread covert mines, then engage hidden mode and take me home, maximum velocity.” “Deploying full spread of covert mines. Taking you home, Meredith. Maximum velocity. Hidden mode.” Taking one last look at the approaching ships, Meredith chuckled. “Ha! Stupid, plodding fuckers. You’ll find nothing here and no trace of me or my ship...except my little surprises! I’d tell you to piss in the wind...but that might freeze your cocks off.” She chuckled again and, as she turned to leave the cockpit, said off-handedly, “Hologram off.” She had intended to join Beverly in the shower, but spotted Jean-Luc, still lying on the transporter pad. Her superior hearing and sight caught his soft moans and weak movements. Having stripped off her clothing, the now naked Meredith strolled over to the injured man and stood staring down at him. She then quickly squatted and gripped the back of Jean-Luc’s head, cruelly digging her fingers into his scalp as she lifted his head and turned it. He moaned a little louder in pain causing the demented woman to say coldly, “If you think you’re in pain now, Picard, you’re sadly mistaken. You thought a d’ktahg shoved in your belly hurt?” She blurted out a bark of laughter. “Oh no, you stinking pile of shit! That was nothing! You just wait while my Beverly, the woman you’ve held captive so long...raping her, molesting her when you felt like it...touching her with your filthy hands...your disgusting cock...” With her free hand, Meredith pushed two fingers into Jean-Luc’s nostrils so far blood began to dribble out as he groaned loudly. “ just wait until my Beverly cuts your cock off. Slowly, sawing the not-too-sharp knife back and forth. Yeah...and then your balls. Oh, God...I can’t wait!” Pulling her fingers from his nostrils, Meredith used her bloodied hand to squeeze her Bartolin’s glands to coat her erect clit. She stared intently at Jean-Luc’s bruised and battered face as she came three times before she let go of Jean-Luc’s head, letting it drop to the metal pad. She stood and, looking down at him, she said disdainfully, “I bet you still stink when we’ve stripped you naked, Picard. You’re nothing but pure shit, inside and out.” Her bare feet were silent as she walked away, but Jean-Luc had cracked open one swollen eye to watch her. He cared nothing for himself. All he could think of was Beverly.

“Where are you, Beverly, what has she done to you? Are you safe? Is our baby all right?” He closed his eye and began to attempt to conserve what little energy he possessed. Unfortunately he’d begun to shiver and it was growing violent, eking out what meagre strength he had.

The ‘active’ signal had been given and the teams on both ships were ready. Liam was just about to order a drop out of slip drive when an alarm sounded. He quickly scanned the console before asking curtly, “Computer! Cause of alarm?” “Unidentified objects ahead. Possibly hostile.” “Elaborate!” “I cannot.” His body humming with anticipation and readying for action, Liam said with odd calmness, “Can you give me coordinates? A visual, perhaps?” “No.” “Then why do you think whatever is ahead may be hostile?” “I have detected minute traces of quartum.” That made Liam frown. “The chemical compound used in thruster packs?” “Yes.” “Right...but quartum on its own isn’t a problem.” “Correct, however when the normally stable quartum is exposed to radiation above 350 rads, it becomes explosive. Also, recent research suggests other factors may have an adverse effect on quartum. The general consensus amongst the scientific community is that any trace of quartum should be viewed with suspicion and treated accordingly.” “Shit.” Liam muttered darkly. He then asked an obvious question. “At our present distance from the Marenan star, what is the intensity of radiation we’re experiencing?”

As we have only just entered the Marenan system, I cannot give a definitive answer, as the level rises the closer we get to the star, however, at present we are experiencing between 1,387 to 1,392 W/m².” “Hmm.” Mused Liam. “So about 1,380 average watts per metre squared. And at this distance, are those levels producing rads anywhere near 350?” “No. For that level we would have to be further within the Marenan system, past Marena itself and significantly closer to the Marenan star.” Liam’s reaction was swift. “Computer, bring both ships to a dead stop!” He then sat back and stared out at the sudden appearance of stars. “Computer,” he said thoughtfully. “If the level of rads at our current position is insufficient to cause any instability in the traces of quartum you’ve found, then are you suggesting we may be in danger due to the ‘other factors’ you mentioned?” “Yes.” “Based on what?” “Quartum is not a naturally occurring substance. Taking into account our current mission, I cannot accept the traces, minute as they are, could be there via any other means but as a deliberate act. I advise due caution.” “So there’s nothing to suggest the traces might’ve come from thruster packs?” “No. I cannot detect any evidence of a ship or any extravehicular activity.” “Right!” Liam declared. “I want to move towards those traces, 500 kph. Bring the Teron C system online and initiate full-spectrum scan.” “Warning. The Teron C system has not yet been declassified. It is still in the developmental stage and as yet the Teron Project has not released the ‘C’ generation of the project. Its use is ill advised. The method is not yet fully tested.” “I know; I’m intimately aware of the project. How do you think this ship came to be equipped with one? The ‘A’ and ‘B’ systems worked superbly, there’s no reason to believe the ‘C’ won’t be every bit as good. Carry out my instructions.” Liam’s eyes, even with their full-lens covering, gleamed. There on his console screen a collection of bright yellow dots glowed. Spread out in a large area and all within the designated approach to Marena, Liam’s face became stony.

“Well, will you look at that!” He sat back a little, considering his options. “ that you can ‘see’ the objects, can you analyse what they are?” “Attempting to analyse.” By the time it took, Liam knew this was something the computer had not encountered before and that was disturbing because the computer system he used was familiar with things a standard Starfleet computer would know nothing about. “Warning!” As the computer delivered the word, both ships’ MHT changed, restoring normal hull configuration and the shields came up automatically. “Prepare for impact in ten seconds.” Everyone on board adopted the ‘secure’ position, but as Liam settled himself he asked, “Computer, what’s going to happen?” “The Teron C full-spectrum scan has activated the objects. They are some kind of explosive device, set to detonate once in close proximity to a passing ship. The premature detonations will create a blast radius of several thousand kilometres. The shock wave will arrive in two seconds.” Liam had just enough time to tighten his grip and clench his jaw when his ship and her sister were tossed end over end backwards. He knew the computer would re-establish attitude control, but it wouldn’t attempt to do so until the shock wave was well past. The inertial dampeners struggled to compensate, and were momentarily overwhelmed. Luckily only a few items got loose to fly dangerously about the interior. Those on board stayed in their seats. Liam had kept his eyes closed. Ever since his first experience in space, during his Academy days, the sight of the starscape crossing his vision in any way other way than a straight path, made him feel decidedly queasy. So rather than witness the wildly chaotic jumble of stars as they tumbled helplessly, he chose to shut it all out. Not until the computer calmly announced, “Attitude restored.” Did Liam open his eyes and the angry light in them boded ill for whoever had laid the trap. But before he could act he needed vital information. To that end he went again to the computer, ordering an intense analysis of what was left of the devices. His next move would depend on what he learned.

As soon as Beverly had entered the shower she was on her guard, expecting at any moment to have to contend with an intrusive Meredith, so when she actually joined the red head, Beverly wasn’t surprised, but she was both fearful and filled with dread. She closed her eyes as the woman placed her hands on Beverly’s hips and turned her. The hand that rose to gently grip her chin was oddly cool and when Beverly lifted her head, the grip increased to uncomfortable levels when she kept her eyes closed. “Look at me, Beverly, my lovely.” The words were softly spoken, but there was a very subtle undertone of menace. Beverly swallowed and forced her eyes open, stifling a gasp at seeing Meredith’s face so close to hers. She knew with a terrible sinking feeling that she was about to be kissed. Meredith tilted her head, but kept her other-worldly eyes open. Beverly understood she must do the same. How she managed to not only permit the passionate kiss, but reciprocate, Beverly didn’t know. All she did know was that should she fail to convince the insane woman of her shared ‘love’, both she and Jean-Luc would suffer. But whereas Beverly might survive, she had no doubt whatsoever Jean-Luc would not. Long moments passed as they kissed, Meredith’s hands moving provocatively over Beverly’s body, growing bolder by the second. When Meredith finally withdrew her tongue and took Beverly’s hand, the doctor knew what was to come. The shower shut off automatically as the women left the stall. Beverly was led without protest to the huge bed and gently encouraged to lie upon it. She did so and fully expected Meredith to join her, but she didn’t. At least not immediately. As a very frightened Beverly watched on, Meredith stood beside the bed and just stared down at her, Beverly not able to discern her expression or gain any idea of what she might be thinking. However, that soon became clear. “Do you know how long I’ve see you like this?” Meredith asked reverently. Beverly didn’t get a chance to reply as Meredith continued. “Of course it’d be better at our dreams always had us at home...but...” She shrugged and tilted her head. “This will do.” She then smiled and said quietly, “Computer, display.” The walls and ceiling of the room shimmered and as Beverly watched in sick awe, every surface she could see was covered with images of her face. Some of the images were close ups of one eye or others just her mouth, but above the bed was a highly detailed and enhanced image of her face, her eyes and lips having been highlighted. Meredith raised her arms and lifted her head as if in rapture. Indeed, that was exactly what she was.

“This is what has sustained me, Beverly my Goddess. I’ve been through a great deal to reach this finally be with you and through all my travails my only only comfort was this...It kept my hopes alive and allowed me to continue. I knew. Beverly, I knew we were destined to be together, to be one.” She lowered her arms and head and locking her intense gaze on Beverly’s eyes, she stepped forward and knelt on the bed beside the terrified doctor. “The love we’re about to make will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced, my Beverly.” The demented woman sighed, the chuckled softly. “But of course you don’t know what’s to come. Once you’re like me you’ll know true ecstasy. This will be just a prelude.” Before Beverly could react, Meredith moved quickly, covering her body and kissing her with raw passion. Meredith’s hands slid down Beverly to grip her hips, pressing down painfully and trapping her. Her long, lean, muscled legs forced Beverly’s wide apart and the doctor couldn’t contain and yelp of surprise as Meredith’s long, fat, elongated clit slid inside her. Meredith of course, took the vocalisation as a sign of Beverly’s passion. “Yes!” She whispered hoarsely. “I’m inside you, Beverly...we’re one. One heart, one soul and soon, one mind!” Beverly had to give the impression she was enjoying what was happening. She wrapped her arms around the hard, muscled back of the woman as she thrust, driving her hips down then pulling back, only to repeat the movement again and again. Beverly knew scant minutes later that Meredith was coming. The woman arched her back, eyes wide open and huge, square teeth clenched. “Ahh!” She said in a long sigh. If Beverly thought her ordeal was over she was sadly mistaken. Meredith withdrew, grinning with demented lust. Before Beverly could react, the woman moved down the bed and suddenly began to extend her prehensile tongue. As Beverly watched in sick fascination, Meredith formed her tongue into a phallus. As suddenly as it’d appeared, it vanished back inside Meredith’s mouth. The grin was back. She arched the muscles on her hairless face and winked. It was grotesque. “Once you feel my ‘special’ tongue inside you, Beverly my dear, any memories of cocks will simply disappear.” Her expression darkened as anger coloured her voice. “And any lingering memories of Picard and how he raped and molested you...His disgusting cock...” Like flipping a switch, her excited, happy expression was back. “But never again! Prepare yourself, Beverly, you’re going to be fucked like you’ve never been fucked before!” She plunged her head down between Beverly’s legs and she felt the tongue; in its phallus shape, penetrate her. Frightened she would be penetrated too deeply and harm her baby, Beverly grabbed Meredith’s smooth, bald head and said as provocatively as she could, “Not too love...I’m...I’m sore.”

Meredith hummed sensuously in response and tapered her thrusts, but while one of her hands played with Beverly’s breasts, the other was busy rubbing her clit. Not aroused in the least, this was very uncomfortable, bordering on painful. And, as she knew it would, the longer Meredith rubbed and pinched, it did indeed become exceptionally painful, But Beverly had no option but to feign passion, writing and moaning as if in the throes of ecstasy. Fortunately for Beverly, Meredith needed more for herself. First one, then both of her hands went to her monstrous clit and quickly brought herself to several short, sharp orgasms. Beverly was sure to ‘come’ at the same time. An immensely self-satisfied Meredith stretched out along Beverly’s side, idly rolling the doctor’s nipples in her long thick fingers. While nuzzling under Beverly’s ear, she said sultrily, “Now wasn’t that fucking fantastic?” She giggled at her pun and waited for Beverly’s reply. “Yes.” Whispered Beverly. “But I’m tired now and sore.” “Oh! My poor Beverly!” Meredith exclaimed softly. “I forgot about your injuries. I’m so sorry. You rest and when you wake, I’ll provide you with everything you need to treat yourself.” Meredith’s tone was so solicitous, Beverly almost grimaced. But she kept control and smiled her thanks. Her relief as Meredith left the bed was tempered by her worry for Jean-Luc. But she had to play along. Until she had Meredith’s permission, there was nothing she could do for her lover. Sleep was the last thing she wanted to do, but it was made moot when Meredith reappeared and without warning, injected Beverly with a sedative. As the doctor slipped into unconsciousness she thought, “Please let it be safe for the baby.” Meredith stood by the bed for a long moment, simply enjoying the sight of her sated, or so she thought, lover. Her gentle, dreamy expression suddenly vanished to be replaced by cold anger. Turning on her heel, she left the bedroom and went straight to Jean-Luc.

Liam Dogovich was by nature a patient man. In his line of work sometimes months, occasionally years might pass before a ‘situation’ could be resolved. At times like those, there was no point in trying to rush things...they just had to take their own course. But the current situation called for urgency. The trouble was he had to wait while his computer did an analysis that, judging by the time it was taking, was obviously a difficult task. He sat back, closing his eyes and thinking of his options. Of course they depended on

what he was told by the computer, so in a way it was a wasted effort, but it occupied his mind and calmed him. His eyes snapped open when the masculine voice of the computer said, “Analysis complete. The devices were constructed using several components, none having a single source. The quartum was a precursor, but not the trigger. It was a three-stage activation process. Arming, coalescing and detonation. The devices were pre-programmed to activate only when encountering a specific propulsion signature of a specific craft, or on detecting a Teron C full spectrum scan. At that time...” Liam sat up, his tone curt. “Stop! Computer, as you well know; the two craft we’re using don’t have a known propulsion signature and no one but me knows this ship is fitted with a Teron C scanner. How is it that the devices appear to have been deliberately manufactured to target us?” “Over the last three and a half months, it has become apparent there have been some anomalies in the ‘blue’ security system.” “Anomalies?” said Liam incredulously. “What’s that supposed to mean and why wasn’t I told?” “You were not informed, nor were any active ‘blue’ operatives informed. Until such time as the anomalies are explained, it was deemed unnecessarily burdensome to concern current ‘blue’ operatives.” “Oh, that’s just bloody marvellous!” Liam’s sarcasm was lost on the computer. “All right, it seems this situation we’re in now suggests the anomalies may well be evidence of a serious security breach. What are the chances I’m right?” “On the balance of probability, you may be correct.” “ is it possible that someone, a group or an individual, got in? Isn’t our security the best there is?” “No security system is totally impregnable. Given enough time, or the means, anyone could eventually breach any system.” Rolling his eyes, Liam growled, “I know that! But if these ‘anomalies’ have only occurred over the last three and a half months, that seems to suggest either the breach occurred when the first anomaly was noted and then continued, or the perpetrators have taken this long to achieve the break. Point is...the system has obviously been compromised.” “There is insufficient evidence to make that kind of determination.”

“Oh really?” said an increasingly angry Liam. “So just how do you explain the devices? If your analysis is correct, someone has access to our technology to the point where they can create and tailor explosive devices to destroy our craft...and only our craft! What more evidence do you require?” The computer remained silent so Liam continued. “And don’t forget it was the Teron C FS scan that initiated the arming sequence! How would any enemy know about that scanner if not through a security breach?” Again the computer refrained from replying. A sneering Liam said curtly, “I suppose our covert communications are suspect as well?” “That would be consistent.” “Well,” sighed Liam. “We have to let Control know. Taking into account we’ve been compromised, what would be the best way to alert them?” “Postulating that the enemy would be looking for our covert methods of communication, the most obvious way would be via open channels using current relays. Provided the audio only message was constructed with care and seemingly innocuous, there would be no reason a listening enemy would suspect it was anything but a routine subspace signal.” “Normal comm traffic.” Liam nodded thoughtfully. “And including the accepted code words...” He sat up and shook his head. “No! If they’ve been good enough to get in, they’d know everything. No, we have to get the dialogue right and direct the message to some normal, run-of-the-mill department, nowhere near ‘blue’.” His little finger rose to his teeth as he began to chew on what little that remained of his fingernail. Almost fifteen minutes passed before he began to smile. “Right. Computer, send this to Commander Gregory Allen at the Academy physical training department, but send it through the non-essential relays, make sure you use the ones used for personal communications.” Five minutes later he sat back and took a deep breath. “Continue to Marena and open a channel to the Marenan commander at my home’s location.” He knew as soon as he heard the female military leader the quarry was gone. He wasn’t surprised at all.

Jean-Luc didn’t hear Meredith’s silent approach. The first thing he knew of her presence was when she grabbed a handful of the back of his torn coat and began to drag him across the deck. He gritted his teeth, refusing to give her the satisfaction of knowing she was hurting him, but when she dumped him on the cold ceramic tiled floor of the bathroom and stood over him with a knife, he stared up at her through one eye and felt his stomach clench in fear and the sick anticipation of what she intended. Meredith saw his open eye and grinned with demented delight. “Allow me to introduce a dear friend.” She bent and ran the tip of the blade down his stubbled face, until she got to the soft, unprotected skin under his lower jaw. There she pushed the knife until the point entered his flesh. His mouth twitched, but that was his only reaction. It seemed to amuse the woman. “Ah, yes.” She grinned coldly. “The famed Picard stoicism. I wonder how stoic you’ll be when I slice your cock off?” Unable to defend himself, Jean-Luc endured her not-too-gentle cutting of his clothing until he lay on his side on the floor, naked, cold, helpless and shivering. Meredith took her time examining him, obviously enjoying the pain she caused when probing and pinching conspicuously damaged areas of his body. The blisters on his frost-bitten toes and tops of his fingers drew special attention. She pricked them with her knife, non-existent eyebrows raised in surprise. “Oh! Well, well...there’s still a little fluid in them. Still...being mostly black, maybe I should just hack them off Beverly the trouble?” Jean-Luc refused to react, but when Meredith carried out her threat he growled in protest. She looked up and grinned again. “You needn’t worry; shit-pile. I’m not cutting off your toes, not that you,d feel it if I did...unless I went for the unaffected flesh.” She winked and Jean-Luc felt nauseous. “No, I’m just slicing off the blisters. You only have second-degree frost bite and the tip of your nose...” She jabbed the point of the blade into the end of his nose, making his eye tear. “Is only frost nipped.” She giggled and made a show of wiping the blood from the knife tip over Jean-Luc’s whiskery cheek. “But it might be fun to slice off the end of your nose. I know how sensitive that area is...” She suddenly bared her enormous teeth and shoved Jean-Luc over, placing her foot on his bare stomach and using her knife to move his penis. Her expression changed from anticipatory glee to sullen disappointment. “Your cock seems to be unaffected. What a pity, I could’ve sliced it into little rings.” She bent lower and roughly handled his testicles. “Damn! Typical. A fucking male would rather

lose his fingers and toes than permit any damage to his precious cock and balls!” She shook her head and, without warning, kicked the helpless man. “Oh well, I’ll just have to find another way to amuse myself. I still have all these blisters to slice off. Once you completely thaw out, all those nerve ends are going to come alive. Then we’ll see just how much feeling you’ve got back!” She giggled cruelly. “And how stoic you are then!” Although she’d been correct in saying he had little feeling in the frost-bitten areas, he wasn’t without any feeling at all. As the knife blade sliced down to healthy flesh, he wanted to yell, to writhe in pain, but to do so would only give Meredith more incentive to cause further agony. So somehow he withstood it, even when, despite her previous comments, she did indeed slice off a small portion of the tip of his nose. Just when he had begun to think the ordeal was over, she grabbed him under his shoulders and dragged him unceremoniously into the shower. The bitingly cold water made him gasp and splutter, earning him three savage kicks and a hissed demand for silence, lest he wake Meredith’s sleeping lover. He was blue again when Meredith finally dragged him out of the shower stall. She flung an already-damp towel at him, sneering, “Dry yourself, you fucking useless piece of shit! And make sure you clean up the fucking blood you’ve left all over my fucking floor! When I return, if I see so much as a speck...” She grinned and the sight made Jean-Luc’s testicles rise. “Well, I think you can figure it out. Even a dumb, plodding shit-stick like you has some brains! Miniscule as they are.” With that she left the bathroom. It took Jean-Luc almost twenty minutes to dry himself then find and remove all traces of his blood from the gleaming white, tiled floor. With her usual disconcerting silence, Meredith reappeared. She made a show of minutely inspecting the floor before grunting and giving a nod. She straightened and looked down at the prone man, a terrible, predatory smile on her grotesque face. “Well, it seems you’re not as useless as I thought, Picard. Maybe I might keep you for a little while...use you to clean up around the house.” She cackled dementedly then suddenly held both hands across her wide mouth, her unnatural eyes wide. She stayed like that for a few seconds before lowering her hands. “Shh!” She commanded Jean-Luc. “I’ve already told you to keep quiet! If you wake Beverly you’ll be sorry!” A deeply disturbed and confused Jean-Luc nodded silently, but when Meredith abruptly squatted by his head and gripped his chin in a painfully tight grasp he felt sure he was about to die. But what she said was so bizarre he could only nod again. “Really, Picard! You simply have to stop all this shouting and laughing! I can’t be held responsible for what might happen if you wake Beverly. She...” Meredith looked fearfully at the bedroom. “She has a...temper.”

After Jean-Luc had nodded, Meredith’s demeanour abruptly changed again. The old Meredith was back. “You stupid fucker, Picard. It’s not Beverly you have to worry about, it’s me!” She was still cackling as she walked out of the bathroom, leaving the violently shivering man on the floor, dabbing at his wounds, fearful of what she’d do if his vigilance failed and he soiled the floor with his blood.

Beverly woke somewhat disoriented and with an unpleasant taste in her dry mouth. Frowning, she looked around the sumptuously appointed bedroom, confused and beginning to panic. But with a suddenness that shook her, her memory kicked into gear and everything came flooding back. Her right hand went instinctively to her belly as she recognised the aftertaste of the sedative, merfadon. Her worry increased as the drug was contraindicated in pregnant women. Had she been taking a herbal supplement, something like the makara herb, for instance, she could’ve negated the effect of the drug and merely feigned sleep, perhaps even found a way to free herself and Jean-Luc from her demented captor while she was lulled into a false sense of security, thinking Beverly unconscious, but luck wasn’t with her. Her only hope was that Meredith hadn’t used a heavy dose and by the way she felt, she had some confidence that was the case, but until she could discover the time, or more precisely how much time had passed since being injected, she couldn’t make as accurate assessment. Of course that meant interacting with Meredith...keeping up the pretence of the devoted lover. Beverly grimaced, then it suddenly occurred to her she might be under surveillance. She wouldn’t put it past Meredith to exhibit paranoia as well as her other over bizarre traits, so to make sure her grimace seemed to be due to physical and not emotional concerns, Beverly casually removed her hand from her belly and made a show of stretching and attempting to massage out residual stiffness. Her suspicions were born out when Meredith strolled in, conveniently within a few moments of Beverly’s ‘show’. They smiled at each other and Beverly had to resist the powerful urge to move away when Meredith sat on the bed and lifted a hand to gently caress Beverly’s face. In a way the implied intimacy and surprising gentleness of the gesture were more unsettling than it should’ve been when Beverly considered what she knew this unhinged woman was capable of. It seemed such a paradigm be able to express such love and devotion while at the blink of an eye being just as willing to become a rage-filled murderous fiend. And, Beverly thought grimly, if she couldn’t keep the woman ‘happy’ not only would her life be forfeited, but that of her unborn baby and Jean-Luc’s as well. So much was riding on her performance

Beverly worried that she may not be able to sustain it. Hard enough when fit and well, but weakened and under the duress and threat of such huge proportions...she sighed, then her heart missed a beat or two at her lapse. She chanced a look into the greatly disturbing eyes of the besotted woman to see if she had interpreted the sigh as anything other than contentment and was enormously relieved to find that she seemed to have done just that, missing the fact the sigh was due to the exact opposite. Keeping her adoring gaze on the doctor, Meredith turned her upper body with sinuous grace, reached down and picked up a med kit, obviously placed beside the bed as Bevery slept. Placing the kit on the bed, Meredith flashed what she thought was an encouraging smile and said with smooth unctuousness, “Tell me what you want me to do, my sweet one.” Returning the smile with what she hoped seemed genuine enthusiasm, Beverly suddenly realised she could use the situation to her advantage. Provided she could fool Meredith with medical gobbledegook, she could administer pharmaceuticals to herself that would give some protection to the baby to help ward off any further application of sedatives or other, as yet unknown drugs. Starting a conversational commentary, Beverly took the empty hypospray from its sculptured niche and not looking at the row of vials, selected one as she looked deeply into Meredith’s eyes. Having loaded the hypo, she lifted her hand to inject herself when Meredith’s hand suddenly seized Beverly’s wrist and although she didn’t squeeze or cause any pain, Beverly found she couldn’t move her arm. Not so much as a centimetre. Holding the same facial expression, Meredith said quietly, “I think you’ve made a mistake, my lovely one.” Had it not been for the chilly, flat cast to her eyes, Beverly may have tried to bluster her way through, but with a terrible sinking feeling, the doctor realised that Meredith knew exactly what she was doing. She could only hope the woman didn’t know why. “You recall I told you of my complete superiority?” Meredith asked. “How I am not only physically superior, but intellectually so as well?” Meredith said in the same quiet conversational tone. Playing along and feigning innocence, Beverly nodded, the smile beginning to tire her muscles. “Yes, of course!” Enthused Beverly. “And I think it’s wonderful.” She added. “I’m sure you do.” Replied Meredith and Beverly couldn’t tell if it had been said sarcastically or with real sincerity. “Well surely you must realise my vast knowledge includes all things medical? And if you realise that, then you must know that using beta leptose is definitely not the drug you require. In fact I have to wonder just why you did select that particular drug. I see absolutely no reason to justify its use; you simply lack the need for it. Now an anti inflammatory/analgesic like 3% hydrocortilene would be more in keeping with the treatment of your injuries, at least your skeletal ones. The soft tissue damage, as you well know, can easily be repaired with a

deep tissue mitigator, followed by a short spell of regeneration. The entire treatment shouldn’t take more than half an hour. And now that we’re here, at my...our...home...” Beverly almost gasped. How long had she been kept unconscious? And what of Jean-Luc? Resisting the urge to swallow nervously and somehow winning the battle against flushing, Beverly managed to look at the hypo with a very good impression of confusion and surprise. “Oh!” she said with the appropriate amount of shock. “Oh, God...I didn’t look! I was so enthralled by you, Meredith, my love...I should’ve been paying more attention to what I was doing!” “Yes, Beverly, you should.” Meredith’s eyes suddenly lost the threatening cast and began to sparkle with happiness and understanding. “But I can see how it happened. I too find myself under your spell, Beverly, and as I’m so much more experienced and superior, it’s little wonder you couldn’t cope. I know I’m very overpowering. But that is the strength of my love for you, my lovely one and you’re going to have to learn to deal with try and cope until we can get you to the Fen and be made like me. Then, as equals I won’t be such a daunting and overwhelming presence. Our love will soar, Beverly, giving and taking in equal measure. But in the mean time, I must insist you do your best to keep your mind on what you’re doing when you’re not...engaged with me. I know it’ll be hard, but you must try.” “God...the conceit!” Thought Beverly. “The ego!” But outwardly Beverly frowned a little and gave a tentative nod. “I’ll try, Meredith...but you’re right, it will be very difficult.” The woman grinned and gave a grotesque wink. “Being in the presence of perfection is intimidating, my love, but never fear, I’ll make allowances. Now I believe you’re about to change vials?” “Yes.” Beverly replied meekly, making a show of carefully selecting the correct vial and changing it in the hypo. She looked into Meredith’s eyes as she injected herself and sighed with seeming happiness. She added to the scenario by saying gratefully, “Thank you, Meredith. What would I do without you?” “I don’t know, Beverly, but I doubt you’d survive.” It was said so flatly and so cryptically, Beverly couldn’t help but feel directly threatened. She was once again reminded of just how unstable the woman was. She had to be more vigilant. Yes, Meredith was insane, but, and this was vitally important to keep in mind, she was not stupid. In fact she was highly intelligent which, of course, only served to make her that much more dangerous.

Liam closed the channel and looked up at the mirror. His penchant for using a rear view mirror was a well known within the close and tight community he moved in and over the years he’d become accustomed to the gentle ribbing he took because of it, but although he was derided, albeit in a friendly manner, no one could deny the mirror was handy. It was discreet and required no movement or technology. Perfect in Liam’s line of work. He saw the 2IC’s covered head was turned in his direction and Liam gave a small nod. The person lifted its hand and activated a selected link to the other team members, informing them to stand down for the time being. The 2IC then returned its attention back to Liam. Speaking quietly, Liam said, “They’ve flown the coop. Ground personnel are mopping up, but so far have found nothing to indicate who the aggressor or aggressors are, although I think I have a pretty good idea who we’re dealing with. But until I can confirm that, our first priority is to find whatever craft was used for their escape because as you know, so far there’s been virtually no trace. Now that could mean we’re dealing with an as yet unknown entity, or someone has got hold of technology they shouldn’t have and are exploiting it for their own purposes. But their agenda? Again, that’s something I hope to discover. So you and your teams can relax for the time being.” In a tiny receiver in Liam’s left ear a soft, deep voice was heard. Liam recognised the gender and accent immediately. Andorian, male. “Commodore Dogovich, would it not be more expedient for us to be at ‘ready’ status? If the aggressors have superior technology, it’s entirely possible an attack could be launched against us that may find us woefully unprepared.” “Typical Andorian thinking.” Mused Liam silently. He then smiled to himself. “Bless him, that’s just the kind of attitude I want.” Aloud Liam replied, “You’re quite correct of course, but as I said, I have a fair inkling of what we’re dealing with and if I’m right, I doubt an attack is imminent. More likely our quarry is on the run, thing what method and to where? And bear in mind, there are hostages involved. It would be preferable to retrieve them without them becoming collateral damage. But as unfortunate as that would be, we have to negate the aggressor.” “Aggressor? You believe it’s a single individual?” “I do, yes. But I hasten to add, I have no conclusive evidence, just a lot of loose threads that seem to be leading to the same source. Now that could be a really odd coincidence, but I don’t think so. I’ve been in this business too long to ignore what seems to me to be blatantly bloody obvious. Besides, it’ll do no harm to track this down. If I’m wrong, at least we can eliminate it from our search.”

“So,” said the calm yet hard voice, “how will you initiate the search? What are you looking for?” Liam grinned and shook his head. “Sorry, my friend. There are some things I can’t divulge. I can allow you to be privy only to that which you need to know to get your job done. Nothing more than that.” There was a momentary, tense silence before the 2IC slowly nodded. He said nothing. Liam directed his attention back to his instruments and, bypassing the usual voice-activated computer control, manually brought on line a rather remarkable example of cutting-edge Federation technology, something Liam had ‘bargained’ for, then ‘borrowed’ from an alien species and given to the Federation’s R&D department. The result was an astonishing example of cunning reverse engineering. In essence, his ship was going to literally sniff out the quarry’s flight path. From the bow of the sleek craft two thin, flexible, whisker-like rods appeared. Once fully extended to a length of seven metres, the ends deployed, turning clockwise and opening outwards with petal shaped cups. The ‘heads’ rotated slowly and funnelled any particulate matter, no matter how microscopic, into a collector which in turn, fed the matter down the tubes and into a analyser. The system exploited the one common factor in all space faring craft. No matter what kind of propulsion was used, there were always two tell-tale traces left in the ‘wake’. One was microscopic particles so small they had yet to be given a name and the other a miniscule disturbance of the fabric of space itself. Until the system had been studied and modified, these two factors were unheard of and the scientists involved in discovering them were understandably shocked when they were found. But the potential in terms of keeping ahead of any rivals on a technological basis was enormous. All that had to be done was to spread a rumour about the Federation and some kind of mysterious new technology. So far it had worked and none of the usual suspects had even stirred from their home worlds to harass the Federation. Its ships went unmolested within their own territory, although it was a false calm. Soon enough one of the discontented worlds would make a foray for no better reason than to try and goad a Federation ship into using the new technology it was assumed all Federation ships now had and therefore show their hand. Unfortunately, only a very select few ‘development’ ships possessed the technology. The trick was to hold off as long as possible before fitting the entire fleet, because the R&D teams had indicated there was more to come from the base system. Apparently the next generation of these sensory analysers would be even more sophisticated. Liam grinned as he watched the results scrolling across his small screen. “And all it cost was a traitor.” He thought with cold satisfaction. “And she got what she deserved.” He settled in and inputted a specific search pattern, his eyes never leaving the screen. There was nothing of note yet, but that could change at any moment and when it did he had to be ready.

The last thing Beverly wanted to do was eat. Having spent the last half an hour assisting Meredith in rubbing a variety of creams into the skin of her entire body, then enduring an thankfully brief sexual episode with the woman, when she’d suddenly announced they were to have ‘dinner’ a very reluctant Beverly had to put on an enthusiastic face and sit, naked, at a sickeningly romantically dressed table in a oddly stark dining room, candlelit and festooned with overly perfumed flowers and sentimental claptrap. The also naked Meredith sat at one end of the modest-sized table, her attempts at coquettishness making Beverly feel nauseous. She so desperately wanted to enquire after Jean-Luc but feared Meredith’s reaction. The mood had been so carefully stage managed, Beverly knew instinctively any intrusion into Meredith’s fantasy could prove fatal for Jean-Luc. So with an equally alluring smile on her face and making the mandatory overtly suggestive gestures in the way she ate her food, somehow Beverly made it through the meal, but if asked later what she’d actually eaten, she would be unable to say. It was over dessert, taken in the sumptuous lounge that Beverly risked saying, albeit obliquely, “I’ve been thinking about my medical skills.” Meredith raised one non-existent eyebrow and speared Beverly with a look the doctor found hard to identify. With her spoon poised half way to her mouth, Meredith said quietly, “You can’t seriously expect me to believe your medical skills have declined in any way?” The woman smiled, but it was a cold expression. “You know damned well you’re the best in the business, my dear Beverly. Even the fucker, Picard knows that. Why else would you be on his scow of a ship...apart from the fact he wanted you for himself, of course?” Maintaining a smile of her own, Beverly lowered her eyes and allowed a flush of modest delight at the compliments, despite the undercurrent of implied menace. “Yes, well that’s very kind of you, dear one, but I’ve been away from the ship for some time and I’ve had no access to the plethora of medical with SFM and fellow know...the usual chitchat. You’d be surprised at how much information is shared through intership communiqués.” Her smile taking on a superior smugness, Meredith rose from her chair with sinuous grace and perched on the arm of Beverly’s chair. As the doctor watched warily, but disguising her wariness with an expression of contentment, Meredith proceeded to spoon feed Beverly the remains of her dessert. Only when the bowl was empty did Meredith speak.

“Beverly...once you have been to the Fen, you won’t have any need for journals or any chitchat with your fellow doctor friends. As a matter of will see just how small their minds stunted and insular their thinking is. You will so far removed from their little world my sweet will soar, Beverly...with me among the pantheon of the Gods.” Risking an unknown reaction, Beverly said carefully, “Is that what you are now, Meredith? A God?” The woman stared down at Beverly, her expression unreadable, but her odd eyes sent shivers of dread down Beverly’s spine. “I might as well be, Beverly. Compared to anything you know...I stand alone, unique and precious. And soon you will stand with me and once you are my true equal mentally and physically, we will exist in a world never before dreamed of by mere mortals. If that’s not God-like, what is?” Lifting a hand and struggling to keep the tremor of fear from showing, Beverly tenderly touched Meredith’s cheek, saying reverently, “I can’t wait.” Then she sighed and said matterof-factly, “But alas, in the mean time, I really would like to keep my skills up to scratch.” Meredith stared down implacably for some tense moments before saying with obvious distaste, “Picard.” Shrugging as if the word meant nothing, Beverly said off-handedly, “Well he is injured. It’d be handy to use him as a test subject.” Meredith grunted softly through her nostrils. “A specimen more likely. Or...a lump of meat that just happens to be able to vocalise his pain! Ha! Yeah...I can see why you’d be interested. All right. Once we’ve finished our dinner, while I take care of can have a little play time with that shit-stick. Mind you, I want to hear him scream! That kind of music is my favourite.” The implication was clear. If Jean-Luc didn’t scream in agony, Meredith was going to come and see why he wasn’t and of course she would make sure he soon did...and she may not be too pleased with Beverly for not complying with her not-so-tacit instructions. Now painted into a corner, Beverly had no option but to smile riantly and give a sly wink, all the while combating a rebelling stomach. And of course...dinner was not yet over. Just what that meant, Beverly had no idea, but she doubted it boded well for her and by association, her baby.

As the smooth, cylindrical object was finally removed from Beverly’s vagina, Meredith’s tongue uncoiled from around the poor woman’s clit. How Beverly had managed

to make a convincing show of orgasmic ecstasy she couldn’t say. All she knew was if Meredith had cause for suspicion...if she had any inkling Beverly was ‘faking it’ Jean-Luc’s life would be forfeit. As for her own life...Beverly had no doubt she’d be ‘punished’ but she was fairly certain Meredith wouldn’t go as far as to kill her. Then again, the woman was clearly insane. Beverly could only hope her deep obsession with her would act as some kind of mental breaking system...a counterbalance to her incredible capacity for both violence and cruelty. The gently pressure of Meredith’s hands on Beverly’s head made the doctor close her eyes. She knew what the woman wanted and made the mistake of hesitating. It was only a very slight gesture, but Meredith picked it up immediately. The pressure of those unhuman hands with their unnaturally long fingers increased to a point where Beverly cried out softly, saying brokenly, “I was just recovering, Meredith. I didn’t mean to make you think I didn’t want to...” The terrible pressure on her skull ceased but the sudden gentle stroking of her hair was such a shift in behaviour, Beverly scrambled to keep up. “ sweet Beverly. I’m so sorry. How could I have thought otherwise? Of course you were overwhelmed. You get your breath back; I’ll amuse myself...for a few moments anyway, until you’re ready.” The inference was clear. Don’t make me wait too long. Bolstering herself with thoughts of her beloved husband, Beverly looked into Meredith’s eyes and smiled her gratitude. Then, after a moment or two, she slowly...doing her best to be provocatively kittenish, slid down the length of the woman’s extraordinary body and took her elongated and engorged clit into her mouth. It wasn’t in an classically phallic-shape, but was formed into a thick, short stalk with a perfectly spherical shape at its end. As it entered Beverly’s mouth it changed shape again, reforming into a sinuous, muscular shape that forcibly reminded Beverly of a very large Earth slug. It even seemed to exude slime, but Beverly quickly put that thought from her mind as she knew by now that Meredith could extract any amount of mucous from her Bartolin’s glands. What Beverly concentrated on, fiercely and single-mindedly was Jean-Luc and how he delighted in Beverly giving him this particular gift. Their lovemaking was never boring, it took many and varied forms and oral sex played its part for both of them. Indeed, both JeanLuc and Beverly were wont, without warning, to afford one or the other with an oral ‘assault’ as clear and welcomed signal of more to come. It may be within minutes or hours, but lovemaking was on the agenda and each hungered for it...and the building sexual tension the game elicited. Beverly had always been good at oral sex, she had always enjoyed the knowledge of the pleasure she was giving and yes, she also admitted she enjoyed the power she had over her partner. Jean-Luc, though, had proven a challenge. He was well endowed, but so had her late husband been, so making the necessary adjustment to accommodate Jean-Luc hadn’t been difficult, but this thing now in her mouth and writhing down her throat was testing even

Beverly’s strong willpower. The urge to gag was growing too hard to deny. Beverly could only imagine what would happen if she abruptly vomited the recently eaten meal all over Meredith’s genitalia. Fortunately it never happened. But Beverly came so close, she actually swallowed the vomit that shot up her oesophagus and hit the tip of Meredith’s clit. But as the woman was in the throes of her orgasm, Beverly was able to lift her head just a little and force the contents of her stomach back down. So Meredith couldn’t see Beverly’s greenish pallor, the doctor took the woman in her arms and held her, astonished when Meredith reached between them to continue to bring herself to several more orgasms. Finally, Meredith sighed and rolled onto her back, staring up at the images of Beverly that covered all the surfaces of the walls and ceiling. “You know...” She said absently, not even out of breath, “Once you’re like me, we’ll be able to stay in orgasm as long as we want.” The madwoman turned her head and Beverly couldn’t describe the look in Meredith’s eyes. “Do you understand, my sweet Beverly? Can you understand?” Beverly never got the opportunity to reply. With suddenness that completely disconcerted the red head, Meredith’s expression abruptly changed. And it was pity Beverly saw. “Of course you can’ poor Beverly, but soon...soon my love...” She rolled onto her side and ran frankly appraising eyes over Beverly’s naked body. It annoyed and angered Beverly, but she showed no outward sign. Meredith sighed and said grudgingly, “I can see why Picard would find you attractive.” She quickly held up one hand. “Don’t misunderstand me, Beverly, you are gorgeous, but men...” she said the word with distaste, “Are incapable of seeing a woman with all their senses. They see only a walking pair of tits with a cunt. Something to stick their cocks into while they maul the receptacle’s tits. No, Beverly, my sweet one, only another woman can truly see your real beauty, not just the physical, but the inner beauty...the essence of you.” She smiled then and Beverly couldn’t help but feel the sliver of dread and fear slide down her spine. “But of course once I take you to my friends and you can choose how you might like to look...” Her words said one thing, but her eyes clearly said another. This was quickly proven to be true as Meredith said casually, “But of course with me being perfect, I can’t think why you’d choose to look any different to me...” The smile stayed in place but her eerie eyes glittered with implied threat, “But still...the choice is yours....” The eyes cleared and shone with excitement. Beverly found it so hard to keep up with these shifts. “Then, after a visit to the Fen...”, Meredith enthused, Beverly dared to interrupt. “Meredith...who is the Fen?”

The muscles of Meredith’s jaw bunched and her large hands fisted reflexively. With a concerted effort the insane woman somehow regained control. “The Fen is...the Fen...” With a brusque shake of her hairless head, Meredith made a cutting gesture with her hand. “It doesn’t matter! Once you’ve been to see my friends and you have your new body and you’ve visited the Fen, you’ll be like me! Then, Beverly, my precious one, we will live as Gods. We will soar, Beverly we will experience sensual none other has ever even dreamed possible. We will have everything we’ve ever wanted, Beverly for we will have each other.” Keeping calm with a Herculean effort, Beverly smiled gently and asked, “And we will live here, in your home?” “Yes!” Meredith exclaimed triumphantly. Then again came the unsettling shift. Her eyes narrowed and malicious anger showed in her expression. “But before I can bestow my gifts upon you I have to...take care of one or two things. So I’m going to have to leave for a little while. Once I have ensured our privacy, I will take you on your journey of transformation. Then, Beverly my lover, when I again bring you home you will be...reborn. And our new lives together can begin.” Making herself comfortable, Meredith lazily raised one arm. “Come, sleep with me, Beverly.” The doctor took a terrible risk and smiled her refusal. “If it’s all right with you, Meredith, my wonderful one, I would really like to go and...” The undisguised malice and threat in the one word made Beverly’s heart race with terror. “Picard.” All Beverly could do was nod, but she did eventually find her voice. She chose her words carefully. “Meredith, may I please go my specimen?” The monosyllabic reply did nothing to alleviate Beverly’s fear. “Yes.” Still risking an unknown fate, Beverly asked demurely, “And may I have a medical tricorder, please?” “What for?!” Meredith spat. “You’re only going to practice on the fucker!” Yes,” Beverly said patiently, “But I need to know what to practice on. The obvious injuries I can see, but the internal ones?” She shrugged. “To see the internal damage I need a medical tricorder.”

The anger in Meredith’s expression turned abruptly to anticipatory glee. She nodded, saying quietly, “It’ll be on the bench.” The doctor smiled her thanks but it wasn’t until Beverly reached the bathroom door that Meredith’s quietly spoken, yet coldly threatening voice momentarily stopped her. “Just make sure he screams loud enough for me to hear. I like to go sleep hearing my favourite kind of music.” Plastering a smile on her face, Beverly somehow managed to wink. “You bet!” She said jauntily. As the bathroom door hissed shut, Beverly momentarily shut her eyes and regained control over her rebelling stomach. She knew when she opened them she would see her lover on the bathroom floor. Whether or not he was still alive...she was about to find out. She’d only had Meredith’s oblique references to suggest he still was.

Liam growled softly. “Shit.” And once again looked at the extrapolated course the computer had generated as a result of the ‘trail’ the unidentified vessel had left. As it seemed to be taking no evasive manoeuvres, he could only surmise the pilot was either unaware of the Federation’s new capabilities in tracking or was so arrogant as to believe their technology was sufficient to make them invisible which of course amounted to much the same thing. It was the evident star system the craft seemed to be headed for that had caused Liam’s softly spoken curse. There were few inhabited planets within it and of those one in particular, who just happened to govern the others, he knew was not going to be very helpful when the time came for the inevitable ‘enquiries’. “So,” He thought to himself. “I have about three days to create an individual who has enough demonstrable wealth to buy my way in immediately...with the obligatory resume, of course. Shit!” He swore again, then sighed. “Well, it’s not as if I haven’t had harder things to do in my time.” Shaking his head, he began his task, muttering softly, “At least I might not have to...eliminate any planetary officials this time...I hope.” Not being able to utilise his Starfleet contacts, Liam had to create his new persona, somehow compile a bogus but authentic looking portfolio of his ‘wealth’ and make it so both would withstand some pretty stringent scrutiny and put together an equally false yet water-tight resume, not an easy task with what he had at hand, But Liam was a man who had lived most of his adult life on the edge, going from one difficult situation to another. The ability to adapt

was one of his strengths. This situation was no different to so many others. Yes, it posed its own difficulties, but Liam knew he could overcome them. His only impediment was time. He knew, even before entering the star system, their vessels would be hailed. It would be then that the game would commence. He smiled and his nostrils flared as if he could smell the scent of his prey. It was a game, no doubt, but a very deadly one and the life of his oldest and best friend was in the balance. High stakes, but this time personal ones, not political. That changed the playing field as far as Liam was concerned. A predatory gleam lit his eyes as he worked. “Once I’m in, you’ll never know what hit you.” He murmured. The Andorian turned and looked at Liam through the mirror. Something was afoot and his body tensed. Soon he would know what was required of him. Until then, like his teams...he waited.

The interplanetary observation officer watched as the two small craft hurtled at astonishing speed towards the outer edges of her system. So fast were they travelling she barely had time to issue the polite but stern 'request' to halt before the vessels were actually at their borders. Liam grinned coldly, sat back and interlocked his fingers above his head on outstretched arms. "So, the dance begins." "Unidentified vessels; please come to a complete stop and provide your bonafides." That made one of Liam's ginger and grey eyebrows rise. "Bonafides? That's a new one. How euphemistic. "He thought to himself. He kept his derision from his voice as he said with confident surety, "Bonafides? I can assure you I am not accustomed to being asked to present 'Bonafides' or anything else!" The officer was unfazed. "That may be so, sir, but it is a requirement of entering this system that your Bonafides be presented for appraisal." Liam's grin grew, but it didn't show in his voice. "I see. And just what is involved in these 'Bonafides?" "We require a resume of all beings on the two craft, we require a current financial breakdown of the prime individual of the party and we require, should we find the prime individual acceptable, a payment to ameliorate your entry into our system. Once that has been received,

your vessels may enter, however, you will have no landing rights until all the produced information has been thoroughly checked and ratified." "I see. Well, I can provide all that information pertaining to myself, but all the other beings on my vessels are my staff. I do not intend, in fact I will not provide any information on beings who are nothing but my employees." There was a lengthy silence before the female voice sounded once more. "Very well, that is acceptable. Please send your information to the office I am sending input codes to." Adopting tight, annoyed impatience, Liam said bluntly, "And just how long am I supposed to sit here like some kind of flotsam? I have business to attend to, very important business! In fact..." His voice dropped to a deep rumble. "I would be...amenable to providing any individual or individuals who could...expedite matters." Liam had worked in his line of business too long to miss both the avarice and the prevarication in the female's voice. " it turns out, I know a family who've just suffered a terrible bereavement which has left them all but destitute. Perhaps if you could..." Liam's voice gave no hint of his disgust. "And how many of these poor souls are there?" "Oh! It was an unusually large family...fifteen in all, ranging in age from an infant right up to university age children. So you see their needs are many and varied." "So a 'gift' of say...a thousand bars of pure latinum would help?" The female actually spluttered. "A thousand bars? Of pure latinum? " "I believe that's what I said." Liam said casually. "Of course I would have to insist kept strictly confidential. If my business competitors learned of my...soft heart...well, I wouldn't be in business very much longer, now would I?" The female had quickly regained her composure. He could hear the smug smile in her voice. "No, they wouldn't. Well! If you would be so kind as to make the...discreet deposit into the account I am sending by an encrypted algorithm, I'll be sure to see the family gets it

immediately and may I say, on their behalf as you wish to remain anonymous, thank you. Generosity such as yours...well it's a rarity these days." "Not within the Federation, you avaricious bitch!" Liam thought to himself, his face contorted into a grimace of anger and disgust. His eyes made note of his computer's dismantling of the so-called encrypted algorithm and sent what was a completely bogus deposit. The female would never know, not until she tried to withdraw any of the 'funds' all for herself, of course. At that time the planetary authorities would be alerted. Not that it would do any good. An incentive payment by the woman or her family would soon have the entire situation disappear. By then Liam would have either resolved his situation, or had gathered the information he needed to carry on with his search. His permission to enter the system and indeed land on the prime planet was given within mere seconds. He smiled grimly. Looking up at the mirror he saw the Andorian was already watching him. Giving a slight nod, Liam let his 2IC know to adopt a 'ready' stance. The Australian felt the level of tension rise a bit further. His little finger nail became almost nonexistent within seconds.

Crouching beside her shivering, gently moaning lover, Beverly deployed the module from the medical tricorder she'd found just where Meredith had said it would be. Whispering urgently, she said, "Jean-Luc...can you hear me?" Before he could answer, Beverly said "Whisper, my love, whatever you do, don't speak aloud." He nodded and whispered huskily, "Yes, I can hear you." He managed to ease one hand free of his body and took her nearest hand. "Help, Beverly, me..." Blinking away her tears, Beverly whispered harshly, "Scream!" Confused, Jean-Luc was about to ask why when Beverly hissed quickly, "If Meredith doesn't hear you scream...and convincingly, she'll come in and make you scream for real!"

He frowned, but his implicit trust in his lover removed any doubt. Opening his mouth as wide as his broken jaw allowed, he screamed. It such a hideous sound, Beverly was tempted to cover her ears. Only the knowledge he was not being tortured helped her. As he took another shallow breath, Beverly advised, "Whimper...beg me to stop, combine everything to convince the mad bitch I'm hurting you." Jean-Luc nodded and screamed again, this time descending into piteous whimpering and soft pleading for mercy. Loudly Beverly said with uncharacteristic coldness, "You want mercy, you fucking bastard? Here, I'll show you the same kind of mercy you showed me!" With an encouraging nod to her lover he screamed again and again and while he did, Beverly scanned him thoroughly. As he carried on his sham, Beverly used the med kit to do what she could for his internal injuries. It was nowhere near enough, he was seriously injured, but it would do, it would prolong his life significantly...provided Meredith didn't decide to 'play' with him again. As for his external injuries she could do very little. If she healed them, Meredith would question why, unless she thought, in her madness that Beverly had restored the man so he could be tortured again. Mouthing, "Sorry." and with tears in her eyes, all Beverly could do was create a very thin seal over the raw ends of his fingers, toes and the tip of his nose. It wasn't enough to stop the intense pain he felt every time the damaged tissue came into contact with anything, but it would help a little. Jean-Luc was still screaming when Meredith made a sudden unannounced entry into the bathroom. Beverly moved quickly, her face a mask of cruelty. Shouting she said, "And as for fucking me time and time again..." She grabbed his testicles and squeezed viciously. This time Jean-Luc's s screams were genuine. The large hand that easily encircled Beverly's bicep hauled her to her feet with the same ease. "Enough! All that lovely music has made me want you. Come with!" Beverly was all but dragged to the bed and thrown onto it. As Meredith went to climb onto the bed, she bent and picked something up. When Beverly saw it she couldn't stifle the whimper. Fortunately Meredith took it as a sound of anticipatory lust. "Yes!" She said triumphantly. "Isn't it beautiful!" As she spoke she rotated the object in her

hands. It was a monstrous dildo, with protrusions and soft spikes all along it's length and at its base was a clitoral stimulator the likes of which Beverly had never seen. Meredith got on the bed and grabbed Beverly's ankles, forcing her legs apart. Reaching between her own legs, Meredith squeezed out copious amounts of mucous which she spread all over the huge sex toy. The shock that had taken Beverly's mind suddenly disappeared. "NO!" She shouted. Confused, Meredith spat, "Shut up! Once this is inside you the only thing I want to hear is you screaming in ecstasy!" She used the fingers of one hand to splay Beverly's labia and began to slide the huge instrument inside her. Beverly rolled sideways, yelling, "No! I don't want to!" Sighing, but not stopping, Meredith said impatiently, "Don't worry about me, I don't mind going second!" Using all the strength she possessed, Beverly hitched her hips backwards and scuttled up the bed, dislodging the dildo. A clearly furious Meredith shouted, "What the fuck are you doing? Get back here and spread your fucking legs!" Mutely, Beverly shook her head. Finally Meredith saw the fear in the doctor's eyes. "Hey..." She said in a much calmer tone. "It won't hurt...well not too much. Once you get used to it, especially once you've been reborn, you'll be begging me for it! Trust me, when it gets last your cervix and pushes up against the far wall of your uterus...oh God! If you think your clit and G spot give you the jollies, just wait until you come with all three combined. I'll have to peel you off the ceiling!"

Still Beverly stayed at the head of the bed, her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped defensively around her. Meredith began to grow suspicious. "What's the matter with you?" Meredith said with quiet deadliness. "You're hiding something! What aren't you telling me?" When Beverly said nothing, Meredith turned her attention to the gigantic dildo. Her eyes narrowed and Beverly's heart began to accelerate. The question Meredith asked was so coldly put, Beverly couldn't keep the tears from her eyes.

"You're pregnant?" All Beverly could do was nod. At first Meredith did nothing, then, in a blur of motion, she exited the bed and began to beat Beverly with the dildo, screeching, "You fucking whore! How could you let that shit pile fuck you and keep the parasite he left in you? You fucking cunt!" Then, as abruptly as it'd begun, the beating stopped and a contrite Meredith sat on the bed, tenderly taking Beverly into her arms and stroking her hair. " poor Beverly. He raped you so many times, didn't he. And he made you remove your implant, didn't he? poor, poor Beverly. What you've been through." She left the bed and looked down at the still defensively curled Beverly. "Don't worry, my precious one. I'll go and make him pay, then I'll rid you of the parasite." She winked and grinned. "I'll be back in a few minutes." She then frowned, looking at the dildo. "I would've liked more time..." She left quickly, Beverly again too shocked to move, but as she heard her beloved Jean-Luc's screams, she was spurred into action. She made it to the bathroom to find Meredith had kicked the poor man into semi-consciousness and was in the process of brutally shoving the dildo through his anus and into his rectum. Beverly grabbed Meredith's shoulders, trying valiantly to drag the vastly stronger woman from her lover, but Meredith merely chuckled and shouted, "How does it feel, you fucker? Eh? Not so good to be on the receiving end eh?" Just then Meredith froze, her head tilted to one side. In her mind she heard her computer say, "Warning! Hostile forces have breached planetary security. Discovery imminent." Coming to her feet abruptly, Meredith looked down at Beverly and Jean-Luc's battered and violated body. "I have to go." She said absently. "The house is secure, so is the property. Don't try to use the communication system, it's configured to my DNA and voice. I'll retune soon..." her eyes, as flat as glacial stones, she added," I'll take care of the parasite then."

As Beverly watched, Meredith lifted her hand and spoke to her wrist. "Bring me aboard." She disappeared silently.

The quiet alarm coincided with the softly strobing red light on Liam's console. He spoke around his little finger, the rusty tang of blood in his mouth. "Report." "Target vessel is leaving orbit. Propulsion is being engaged. I am not able..." As Liam looked on in awe the 'target vessel' simply vanished. There was no warp bubble, no evidence of slip second the vessel was there and the next...

Liam drew his calloused hand over his lips, wishing fervently for an icy-cold beer. "Well it doesn't matter how fast you can run...or where you run to. It may take us time...but we have the ability to follow you."

By now, Meredith was of course aware of the ability of her pursuers to track her. That was not a concern. She wasn't running to escape. She was readying to set up an this time she would ensure wouldn't fail. She would never admit to making a mistake or even the possibility she may have underestimated her enemies...yet she took particular care with her plans.

This time her...their...privacy would be assured, for nothing would be left of her pursuers, not even at the quantum state of a Boson. Having travelled the required distance, Meredith brought her vessel to a halt. Knowing her first attempt had malfunctioned...again she couldn't admit any failure on her part, she connected the cable to her portal and sat quietly, eyes closed while she concentrated. Her answer came relatively quickly and she smiled at both its simplicity and elegance. Humming happily to herself, she thought, "Well, seeing as you seem to have got your hands on some pretty whizz-bang technology, no doubt you'll be looking for something matching...or more sophisticated. I wonder if some really old fashioned ploys might work where sparkly, shiny technology wouldn't?" Her humming continued as she had her computer replicate two bodies, something, Federation replicators couldn't do. But of course, Meredith wasn't using Federation technology...she hadn't for a very long time. With both bodies lying on the deck, she stuffed the hollow insides with a very powerful, yet almost undetectable explosive, making sure the amount equalled the known weight of the..specimens. All that would be needed to trigger the matter was a tricorder. And seeing the two bodies were exact replicas of Jean-Luc and Beverly, the first thing the 'rescuers' would do would be to scan them to verify their identity...Meredith laughed delightedly. "The very thing you want to make sure the bodies are those of your 'dear' friends...will be the method of your death! How ironic is that?" She knew about Liam. Not everything, but enough. She knew it was no 'normal' Starfleet group on her tail, not even section 31. Just what Liam Dogovich did and with whom she didn't know, nor did she care. After all, like every other living being, he was no match for her! With the 'bodies' packed with their load of explosives, dressed appropriately in the clothing they were wearing when taken from Marena and their flesh showing the ravages of being in space, Meredith jettisoned the decoys then engaged her craft and left the area, knowing her superior sensors would tell her when the expected explosions occurred.

Lagging several hours behind, the 'sniffer' deployed, a tired Liam was sitting in the cockpit, his bare feet propped on the console while his seat, canted back, allowed him to rest his head on the padded surface. Balanced on his bare chest was a frosty glass, but each long sip brought a grimace. "Rat's piss." He muttered darkly. He lifted the glass and glared at it, as if he could magically transform the synthahol equivalent of his favourite brew into the real thing. The computer's soft, male voice brought Liam back upright, the glass tossed aside. "Two objects detected. Height and weight suggests organic bodies." Lima's stomach soured. "Life signs?" "None detected. Body temperatures near zero degrees." "No..." Liam whispered. Louder he ordered, his voice trembling, "Computer, once we're in range, beam one body into each vessel. If possible, beam the male body, if there is one, into this vessel." "Acknowledged." Opening a channel to the sister craft, Liam passed on his information. The instructions were to scan the remains with a tricorder, loaded with the biological information of Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher. Once verification was made, they would continue their pursuit.

It took just on an hour to achieve transporter range. As the 'body' of his old friend materialised on the deck, Liam couldn't stop the tears welling in his eyes. It was the sudden whooping of the sirens that made him whirl around. "Report!" While Liam readied himself to respond to whatever the computer told him, the Andorian

male had deployed his tricorder and was just about to begin the sad duty of identifying the remains of Jean-Luc Picard. "Red alert! Imminent danger of catastrophic explosion! Transport object back into space and engage the molecular hull transformation and full shields immediately!" Liam acted instantly while at the same time shouting, "Has the same warning been given to...?" He never got to finish his urgently shouted question. His ship was hurled end-over-end as a massive explosion occurred nearby. He didn't have to ask, he knew without a shadow of doubt, the sister ship along with her crew had just been obliterated. It wasn't until the on board computer had regained attitude control and the injured, caused by the occupants of the vessel being tossed about violently like corks in a turbulent sea that Liam was able to interrogate the computer. "Right! What the hell happened?" "The objects beamed aboard were organic, and almost indistinguishable from an authentic human cadaver, however, the 'C' variation of the sensor device picked up traces of a rarely used explosive material. Those two all be it seemingly unconnected pieces of evidence gave enough proof to issue the alert. Also, now having had the opportunity to further analyse the microscopic traces of the explosive material, I can inform you it was triggered by the electromagnetic discharge from the tricorders used to scan the 'corpses' to verify identification." "Bloody hell!" Shouted an incensed Liam. He was interrupted by the computer. "There were in fact, two explosions, almost simultaneous. The first was the sister ship, followed three microseconds later by the second detonation, which was the object you had successfully beamed off the ship. If not for the deployment of the molecular hull transformation and shields at maximum, this ship would not have survived either detonation." Wiping his hands over his recently repaired face, the facial cuts still tender and would in time, turn into yet more scar tissue, Liam stated the obvious. "A trap then.?�

"In the face of the evidence, I cannot see how it could not have been a deliberately orchestrated attempt to eliminate both ships and their respective crews." "A simply 'yes' would've sufficed." He said grumpily. His next question was curt. "Report!" "The sister ship no longer exists. The 'C' version of the sensor system is picking up what is thought to be phased Bosons, but in such small is a hypothesis only. As for this ship, it will require a self-repair and should be ready to resume space flight in approximately three hours. Awaiting orders to initiate self-repair."

"Do it!" Liam had spent almost his entire adult life maintaining control. Be it over himself, or his mission, control was the cornerstone of his character and his 'work'. But now he was furious....murderously so. Not only had his 'quarry' twice tried to kill him and his crews but now she -and yes, he was almost certain now-she had succeeded in destroying one of his ships and in the process, killed that ship's crew........ People who served faithfully under his command obliterated into mere nothingness. And his best friend...and his partner were still in her hands...or so he hoped. The fact she'd used facsimiles instead of the real thing to deliver the explosives...he could only hope was a good sign. To use the time it would take for the computer to carry out the repairs...another little 'innovation' on his ship, he decided to do some digging. "Computer, do we still have intrasubspace communication capabilities" "Yes." "Then I want to talk to Magenta." "Initiating." "Wait time?" "Seven minutes." "Fine. Decrypt as it arrives." "Warning! SOP requires current authorisation protocols!"

Liam sneered and spat some blood into his hand then wiped it on his pants. "Given the current circumstances, do you really think our adversary isn't fully aware of our security protocols? You do recall our level seven security was circumvented with seemingly little effort on Marena?"

"Your point is taken, Commodore, however, I wish it noted that this action is undertaken despite my explicit warning." Grumbling under his breath, Liam said sarcastically, "Since when did fucking computers get so damned high-and-mighty? Jesus, you'd think they actually ran things!" louder he said curtly, "So noted!" His sour anger vanished as a crew member, her uniform tattered and torn appeared at his side and said with quiet dignity, "Commodore Dogovich, Lieutenant Commander Varell-hos didn't make it, sir. And it's unlikely Ensign Barolli will either...but he’s a fighter..." Closing his eyes briefly, Liam felt the physical pain of losing those under his command. He had not yet allowed himself to register the loss of the sister ship's crew, but the Andorian, Varell-hos and the young ensign, Barolli were here, with him, only metres away. The fury resurfaced just as the computer said, "Connection established. Encryption disabled." Liam lowered himself into the broken cockpit chair and activated the screen of his monitor. It remained black, as he knew it would. Neither his code name or that of his superior would be mentioned. "Yes?" Came the disembodied voice, unidentifiable as male or female. "I have a serious problem." "Go on." "I require information. At this point secrecy and/or security is moot, she knows we're on to her." "Proceed."

"Her name is Meredith Bower." "She is known to us." "Then you would be aware she has all but disappeared off the radar. However it is my belief she was behind the recent incident on Ferenginar, involving ....Nrug, and the equally recent murder of Eron’i and subsequent infiltration of Starfleet's flight schedules for the Enterprise. So far, if I'm right, she's been responsible for the deaths of at least fifteen people and, again, if I'm right, she's holding two Starfleet officers, one highly placed and integral to...operations." "We understand. Your plan?" "She must've have altered her appearance significantly. If we can locate where it was done, we would at least know what she looks like now. However, I am almost certain she has been to the Fen." "That makes things difficult." "I know, but again, if we can find it, we may gain a way to control her." "Do you have any idea where she is?" "Yes. But at present she is in her vessel. As yet we have no idea what kind of propulsion it uses, other than the fact it travels faster than anything we've ever encountered. All we have to study are the sub micron particles and the subspace disturbance left in the ship's wake." "Yes, we know about that. We have discovered where she may have...obtained the technology. No doubt you will have work to do when you have resolved this...issue." "Then you will provide me with all the information you can get?" "Yes, although I should make it clear we are aware of the...personal nature of your motivation to resolve this matter. Do not allow that to interfere with your work." Ignoring the cold instruction, Liam asked calmly,

"Then I have your permission to proceed?" "Yes. Take whatever steps you deem necessary to bring this to a...permanent conclusion. In the interim, we will locate and provide the information you require" The screen reverted to its standby blue and Liam smiled with predatory satisfaction. "Right, you bitch. You're gone!"

Many light years away a furious Meredith, the cable snaking from the portal, glared as the information was fed into her brain. As the situation became clear she began to say, softly at first but with quickly growing volume.... "Fuck, fuck....FUCK, FUCK, FUCK !!! No! How could you have escaped?" She stood, wishing to pace, but remembered at the last moment the cable. Controlling herself only long enough to carefully remove it, once free she began to stalk about her vessel, kicking anything that came into her path until she arrived at a special locker. Inside was her knife. Beverly may be the love of her life, but the knife was her one and only friend. Usually she wore it in a specially made scabbard wrapped around her right thigh, but since Beverly had come into her life she had not felt the need to use it, besides, she knew it would make her beloved nervous. Still, had she had it with her before she left, it wouldn't have been the dildo she shoved up Picard's arse. And his severed genitals would've been stuffed down his throat. She sighed, the murderous fury subsiding. "So," She mused coldly. "The question is...who told you? Who gave you enough warning to prevent the destruction of both vessels? I know it was a near thing...both 'bodies' detonated, but one had been beamed back into space. And why wasn't your ship annihilated anyway? That close to that much explosive..." She whirled around and sat back at her computer, reinserting the cable. Her weird, glittering eyes closed as she began to concentrate.

Gently easing her hand under Jean-Luc's beaten and bleeding face, Beverly said softly, "Can you hear me, Jean-Luc?"

He moaned his reply softly and the doctor smiled, tears glistening in her eyes. "Before I do anything else, I have to remove the dildo from your back passage. I'll be as gentle as possible but there's nothing I can do to stop the pain it'll cause." Unable to speak, he gave a slight nod of comprehension. Beverly, having gently inspected the site and wincing at the blood and other matter around his anus grasped the end of the dildo, thankfully not inserted to its full length. Using the fingers of her free hand, she eased the tender flesh back a little as she exerted just enough pull to slowly extricate the hideous 'toy'. It came out covered in blood and faeces, having no lubricant used, the delicate mucous membranes of Jean-Luc's rectum and descending colon had adhered to the intrusive device and on removal, tore. He bore the pain as best he could, but was unable to contain his grinding moans of agony. When the dildo was finally free of his body, Beverly quickly rose to her feet, saying urgently, "I'll just get a med kit..." It was her very vociferous and colourful language that let the suffering man know that something was wrong. She reappeared by his side, crouching to speak to him. "I'm locked out, my love. I can't get access to anything...all the lockers are sealed with a voice recognition system." Barely able to make himself heard, and spitting out some broken teeth in the effort, Jean-Luc asked piteously, "There's nothing you can do?" With tears falling, Beverly replied brokenly, "Only basic first aid with what I have at hand." "Meaning?" The stricken man asked. "I'll use what little clothing...material of any kind I can find to make pressure bandages. But..." He couldn't open his swollen-shut eyes, but he knew, if he'd been able to see Beverly her expression would be disconsolate. "But what?" He whispered.

Her voice hitched as she told him the horrible truth. "I'm going to have to pack your rectal wounds. The dildo went further then it should've, Jean-Luc. The mucous membranes have been torn and are bleeding. Not too badly, but unless I can stop it, eventually you're going to lose too much and as you're already low on blood and with all your other injuries..." He simply gave a slight nod of understanding. Beverly left him briefly, inordinately relieved to find her nightie and a few other bits and pieces of lingerie left haphazardly about the bedroom. The material of the nightie was surprisingly strong, necessitating Beverly to have to employ her teeth to begin a tear. In all it took nearly ten minutes to rend the fabric into several 2.5 cm wide strips. She gathered them up and returned to her lover and knelt near his hip. He was lying on his side, his knees drawn up. He'd been like that when she had first found him and she had thought it was a protective posture, but it served her odious purpose. All she need do was ask the poor man to pull his knees higher to give her access to his bleeding anus, but as she gently gripped one of his knees he groaned loudly and attempted to grab her hand. "No...please..." He whispered hoarsely. Immediately apprehensive, Beverly said urgently, "What is it, Jean-Luc?" Tears trickled from under his swollen eyelids. "My testicles...she kept kicking them..." "Oh God...I'm so sorry, Jean-Luc. Do you think you could stand it if I had a look?" He swallowed and again offered a slight silent nod.

Very gently lifting his leg, at first all she could see was a mess of blood, hair and some cream-coloured, bloody matter. It was only when she used extreme care in moving his bruised, split and swollen penis that she realised the cream-coloured, bloody substance was the epididymis from at least one ruptured testicle. Whether or not both testes were as badly damaged she couldn't tell. Taking a deep breath, Beverly said softly, "Well I don't have to tell you how badly you've been injured down there." A strained grunt was his only response.

"There's nothing I can do for that, Jean-Luc, it's just not something I can treat without instruments of pharmaceuticals. And I still have to pack your anus and rectum." She sighed and wiped irritably at her tears. They weren't what she wanted now...all she wanted was to ease her lover's pain...and save his life. "If I rolled up one of these big towels, do you think you could stand it if I put it between your knees? The strips of cloth I'm going to pack inside you are a much thinner fabric and will be that much easier for me to get inside you. If I have just a little bit of room to work in..." Again the silent nod. Reaching behind her, Beverly snatched at the sodden, bloodied towel that was lying on the cold, tiled floor. She quickly folded, then rolled the towel until it resembled a thick round bolster. Steeling herself, she said quietly, "Okay, I'm going to do it now. Don't hold anything in, my love. If you need know...yell...then do so. You might find it may help you deal with the pain." What ensued may well have been the worst physical and emotional trauma for both of them. Yes, Jean-Luc had been abducted, mutilated and had his mind raped by the Borg and he'd been captured and tortured by the reprehensible Cardassian, Gul Madred and in both these terrible instances, it was Beverly who has to put the man she loved back together again, both physically and emotionally, but painkillers, no instruments and no back-up from Deanna Troi to help with the psychological trauma. No. What her beloved Jean-Luc went through, the unspeakable agony was at her hands. Twenty-five hideous minutes later Beverly, her hands covered in blood, sat with Jean-Luc's head cradled in her lap. The man was quietly sobbing, his voice ruined by his continual screaming. As Beverly stroked his sweat-covered scalp she cried her own tears, tears of pity, sympathy, anger and impotent self-recrimination. If only she'd have listened to Jean-Luc so long ago... She was surprised to hear him whisper brokenly, "Hindsight...never helpful. Always twentytwenty vision." "How did you know?" She asked incredulously. Somehow he managed a lopsided smile. "Because I know you."

She leaned down and kissed his brow tenderly. "I love you, Jean-Luc. Now I have to apply the rest of the pressure bandages, but it shouldn't hurt so much...okay?" "'Kay." Was all he said. When she was finally finished her lover was as comfortable as she could make him under the circumstances. She'd discovered a pile of five towels under an odd-looking basin. Why it wasn't locked she didn't know, but she used them wisely. Jean-Luc was no longer lying on the frigid tiles and he was covered in the thick, fluffy towels, his head resting on the soft material too. Beverly had managed to get him to drink three cups of water and was now lying beside him, adding her body warmth. After all they'd been through, it wasn't surprising they fell asleep.

Such was the level of concentration required, Meredith regained consciousness several hours after she'd connected herself and let her extraordinary mind expand. As before, her bodily waste soiled the deck and her lower body. She lay quietly for some time, allowing her mind to readjust. Rising slowly, she stretched languidly and moved to the shower. In an unhurried fashion she washed herself, then, after applying her creams, set about thoroughly cleaning her vessel. Then, supremely confident in her plan and expecting to have ample time to spare, she showered again, then, simply for the sensual pleasure of it, she again rubbed in her creams, bringing herself to orgasm five times. Relaxed and smugly happy she said to the air, "Set course eight-five, mark, two-eight. Engage propulsion at 30%. Upon arrival at set coordinates, activate phase shifter and take up a position within the asteroid designated Gamma 2-1. Once safely inside, re-engage normal configuration and bring online the KSI-1."

The computer's voice carried an inflection of disapprobation when it said "The KSI-1 is unproven technology. It is unwise to make its first use in the intended situation. The effect cannot be anticipated. It was agreed we would test the weapon in more...conducive circumstances" Swivelling her now clean chair, an unnaturally calm Meredith said with a trace of amusement, "Although it's true we had an...arrangement..." The computer tried to interrupt. "It was not an 'arrangement' it was... Meredith's glittering, eerie eyes lost their amused look. "Who do you belong to?" The reproach in the computer's voice was unmistakable. "To you, Meredith." "Yes, you do. Now I'm telling you it was an arrangement we had, not an agreement!" She took a calming breath, trying to recapture the feeling of smug superiority the supercilious computer had almost ruined. "Now of course I know the KSI-1 is experimental...who do you think funded the research? But consider this. Armed with what would all intents and purposes a Varon T disruptor on a fucking HUGE scale...why the fuck wouldn't I choose to test it on those who are determined to destroy everything I've worked for? Everything I endured? I have what I want now and those fuckers want to take it all away! Well I'm not going to let them! Once I utilise the KSI-1 there'll be nothing left for their petty little covert ops section to find! And while I'm at it, I just might send a little anonymous communiquĂŠ to the Federation Council telling them all about Section 31 AND the little cadre of black ops and what they've been up to. Now that should put the cat among the pigeons!" She stared at the ceiling, a frown forming. Before she could ask, the computer said with barely hidden superiority, "It is a metaphor. It means..." "SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Screeched Meredith. "Unless you want me to...rearrange your operating systems..." "That will not be necessary, Meredith. My apologies." The computer said hurriedly and in fear. Calmer, Meredith said with quiet deadliness, "Just remember your place and never overstep your bounds again. I was saying, once we reform inside the asteroid , bring the KSI1 online and as soon as the target in in optimum range, fire."

"Yes, Meredith."

Having tended to those of his crew who could be patched up enough to be effective once more, Liam grudgingly allowed one of the crew to tend to his injuries. Fortunately nothing too bad, but he was very annoyed to find the little finger of his right hand gone, torn off at the base knuckle much like he'd continually torn at the nail that had once existed at the tip of the now missing finger. Looking around his small craft, now cleared of the shambolic clutter and blood,Liam said solemnly, "Eject the bodies and all the organic residue. Then I want the sniffer repaired post haste. Until we can find that crazy bitch, sitting here, dead in the water and blind is giving me the shits!" As it turned out they were exceptionally lucky. The molecular hull transformation and shields had activated just in time, leaving them with more software issues than hardware ones. Still it took five and a half long hours in a poorly ventilated and cooled craft before success was found. The crew member in charge of the repair had taken her helmet off and grinned at her boss, the four rows of bright blue teeth taking some getting used to. "All up and running, sir." Liam gave a mock glare. "There's more to that very toothy grin than a job well done." Her face mottling puce and tan, the crew member sighed. "Well, yes. The air circulator and scrubber is now working as is the cooling system. Once we're underway, we should be very comfortable...sir." Liam tried to keep up the gruff persona, but couldn't help the small smile that emerged. "Well done. One thing though..." All eager, the crew member said enthusiastically, "Yes, sir?"

"Can you get me an authentic bottle...a glass bottle...of frosty cold Victoria Bitter?" A frown of confusion caused the brow ridges to almost cover her eyes. "A bottle of what, sir?" Sighing and rolling his eyes, Liam said tiredly, "It's a beer, crewman, an authentic Australian beer." "Ah...right. Umm..." With a wave of his hand, Liam shook his head. "Never mind crewman. Get your team settled, we'll be underway within ten minutes." Still confused and somewhat annoyed at not knowing what 'Victoria Bitter' was, the crew member went aft to organise what was left of the team. Three individuals, one not really at combat ready. Barolli had been saved, but was still quite weak. In the cockpit, Liam brought the sniffer online and squinted at the cracked monitor. "So, you mad bitch. Your trail is still there. Attenuating, but still discernible. Once we find you and rescue old Johnny, I'm going to make you pay for each and every life you've taken, sentient and animal. And for kidnapping Jean-Luc Picard and his friend, now that you'll be very sorry for and if there's anything left when I'm finished with you, you'll serve your time not in New Zealand, but on Rura Pentha. The Klingons know how to treat people like you. You'll die there you bitch and I'm going to make sure you're reminded of what you’ve done every damned day why you're there!"

The slip drive propelled Liam's vessel at a phenomenal rate, but it had nothing on Meredith's craft. What had taken her a mere seven hours to reach took Liam three days. Meredith was asleep, a dildo inserted and oscillating gently as her hand masturbated her engorged clit. A small device was attached to her right temple, a tiny orange light blinking. The soft voice of the computer was very apologetic.

"Meredith, I am truly sorry to disturb you, but the target has entered the belt." Her eyes snapped open just as yet another organism swept through her. She had been asleep many hours, the device inputting one erotic scenario (with Beverly of course) after another. The number of orgasms she experienced was countless, yet she woke clear headed and ready. Rather than remove the little device, she simply deactivated it, thinking once her 'business' was concluded she would induce another long sleep cycle and reactive the the device. While her vessel took her home, Meredith would spend the time in erotic and orgasmic bliss, her mind filled, as always, with her beloved Beverly. "We're ready?" She asked the computer. "Yes." The computer paused and Meredith's eyes narrowed. "But I must warn you again. My primary concern is your safety, Meredith. I am not supposed to initiate anything...indeed I am not supposed to follow any instruction that puts my owner at risk. I am aware you can deactivate me and if that is what must occur, then so be it. But in all good...conscience...I must warn you against this course of action." The mad woman stood and stretched, admiring the play of her muscles under her golden skin. "You know..." She remarked matter-of-factly. "If it wasn't for the fact that I am the most unique and superior being in the universe, I could take great offence at what you just said. Disobedience? From a computer I built with components I stole from those unworthy to have them?" She stared into the middle distance, not really seeing anything. Then she snapped back. "But I find I can't fault you for risking your own existence to protect me. All right. Considering the use of the KSI-1 is not-negotiable, under what circumstance would you say we could achieve optimum effect?" "As it would seem the use of the experimental weapon is take place, then doing so from within the confines of an asteroid is perhaps not a good idea. Not that I am questioning your wisdom, Meredith, I am not, but such is the raw power of the weapon, open space would be advisable as the...venue. That way, should there be any...unforeseen...malfunctions, we would have the opportunity to make our escape."

" may have a point." Meredith went into the cockpit and stared at the mineral walls of the interior of the asteroid. "What would happen if we left an obvious trace of our presence here?" "I can only assume the target vessel's commander would assume we were still here." Meredith's smile was grotesquely delighted. "Exactly!" A confused computer said tentatively, "I do not understand, Meredith." Rolling her eyes, Meredith said irritably, "We won't be here, but we'll be within range...and in open space!" "Oh! I see! Yes, a brilliant plan, Meredith. Well done!" Sneering at the ceiling, Meredith said quietly, "You can heap the praise on me once we're successful. For now, re-engage the phase shifter and take us out of the belt and into open space. Stay in the phased shifted state until I say otherwise." "Yes, Meredith, but I must warn you of the drain that will put on our systems." "It won't matter. The fuckers will be here soon...sniffing around with their clock-work equipment. Once they find the fucking HUGE signpost inside the asteroid...then we introduce them to a very unpleasant death." She stretched again and began to feel the arousal once more. "Let me know when the fun is about to start." "Yes, Meredith."

Liam Dogovich was many things, but most of all he was no fool. If he was he'd have died years ago. The ability to rely on his intensive training and his inherent instincts had not only kept him alive, but got him through more sticky situations than he cared to recall. His ship approached the asteroid cautiously, the incredibly small, as yet unnamed traces and sub space disturbances growing minutely stronger the closer they got. Liam glared down at the damaged monitor screen and shook his head. "No, I don't buy it. Why would you go into that mishmash of rock and detritus unless you knew we were on your tail?" He sat back and raised his right hand, scowling at encountering his missing little finger. "All right...if it's a deliberate ploy...what are you up to?" After sitting for ten long minutes, staring at the readings on his monitor, Liam entered a series of commands. The specially coded and separate section of the ship's computer went to work, aligning itself with the prototype sensor...Liam's 'sniffer'. The result made the man burn with sardonic satisfaction. "Thought as much. You chose the biggest asteroid...Gamma 2-1 and all of a sudden we're getting readings that're off the scale! Now that could mean one of two things. Either you're still there and something's gone wrong to make you haemorrhage particles...or you've deliberately dumped a load to do what? Bring us in? Why? What is in your scrambled brain?" Again he lifted his right hand and growled softly at being thwarted. "Computer!" He barked. “Come to a dead stop and hold this position."

The chime of acknowledgement went ignored. Liam sat back, placed his bare feet on the console and put his laced fingers behind his head, wincing slightly at the pain in his hand and a soreness in his right shoulder he'd been unaware of. "Right! You want to play games...I'm up for it. We'll just sit here and wait you out. Sooner or later you're going to have to show your hand. If you're not in the asteroid, which I'm pretty

sure you're not, then that must mean you're nearby, waiting. What for, I don't know, but one thing I share with Jean-Luc Picard is patience."

Just on two hours later a discreet light activated on Liam's console. His slitted eyes caught the subtle glow and he sat up, all torpor gone. His monitor remained dark and the voice was as it has been before, unidentifiable and the transmission deeply encrypted. "We have your position. You have been stationary for some time. We take it the target is close?" "I believe so. You've analysed the readings?" "Yes. They are...confusing. Can you guess her strategy?" The lean, tall man shrugged. "Not really, at least not specifically, but as you may have noticed, the strength of the particles within the asteroid is attenuating. That can only mean one thing. She's no longer there." "Or," Said the dispassionate, mysterious voice. "She may have managed to stop the...'leak', in which case she would still be there." "You say 'she'. You agree with me?" "Yes. Our enquiries have disclosed the wanted individual, Meredith Bower, has taken immense care in eliminating any and all traces of her former self, not only her identity, but her appearance. And, you were quite correct, she has indeed visited the Fen." "Shit!" Liam growled. "That makes my job that much harder. I take it she is the one responsible for the murders I mentioned." "Yes." "Then not only is she a walking, talking, fucked up computer, masquerading as a human, but

one with untold wealth and no restrictions on where...or how...she acquires whatever she wants!" "Through this communiquĂŠ I am sending you the only image we have been able to obtain since her...augmentation. Bear in mind the...alterations had not yet settled." Liam waited a few moments then grimaced. "Dear God...what does she think she is? Do you think she was aiming for a particular species, because I've never seen any living thing like that." "Our informant tells us she chose her appearance and I can tell you the changes are not only to her outward look. Her body has been altered inside as well. She now possesses immense strength and an almost physically asexual body assignment. Apparently she prefers her own gender and that was the cause of what happened on the Enterprise. It has been established she, as Lieutenant Meredith Bower, developed a fixation for the CMO, Doctor Beverly Crusher, who, coincidently, is in a committed relationship with the Enterprise Captain, JeanLuc Picard which precipitated at least three murders on the ship and the attempted murder of Captain Picard." "I thought as much." Liam said sourly. "Picard and Crusher are the hostages." "That has been confirmed by the Marenan authorities." "So...the Fen?" "Vanished, as usual. It seems in all the years we have pursued the entity known as the Fen, it has eluded us." Liam grunted his dissatisfaction. "Must be frustrating." "Indeed, especially as we know we were only two hours away from making our move. We had the location and reliable intel that the Fen was in residence. However, when our operatives arrived, the building was completely bare...down to the molecular level." Liam again lifted his right hand and bared his teeth at the futility of the action. He shoved his hand down, jamming it under his thigh and ignoring the spike of pain from the already aching injury.

"Do we know anything useful about the Fen? Is it an individual? A group?...a fucking AI computer?" Liam's voice clearly carried his anger. "You know, it seems to me, that with all our technology...all our 'contacts' the fact that we can't either capture or nullify an entity others seem to be able to not only locate, but utilise..." The voice, though made indistinguishable, was obviously irritated. "Do you think we don't share your frustration? Through the years we have pursued the Fen one thing has become patently clear. It...whatever it is, has knowledge of things we do not." Liam actually gaped. "Are you saying we have a mole?" "How else can you explain our inability to apprehend this...Fen when those who require its services can do so with impunity? The only criteria seems to be the ability to pay...and pay exorbitantly." "Then I suppose me asking if you've tried a well-latinum supplied plant..?" By the lengthy silence, Liam gained his answer. The next thing he heard made him grin, but it was a cold, deadly expression. "Once this current situation has been dealt with to our satisfaction, your next assignment will be the Fen. Find it and...nullify it as expediently as possible." "It'll be my pleasure and I can only assume our scientists will be delighted with bags I manage to...acquire...after the nullification?" Again a lengthy silence said more than any words could. Liam took a deep breath and said quietly, "The schematics I recently procured. In them, I believe, was a prototype VTD...a very big one. What are the chances my target has managed to put one together?" "Considering that would be nothing but pure speculation, I cannot say with any veracity that your suggestion has any merit. However, as we are quickly learning, it would seem nothing is out of Meredith Bower's reach. an educated guess...yes, I would postulate she does indeed possess such a weapon." Liam's eyes narrowed. "Has there been any evidence...anywhere...of a weapon of that power being tested? Used?"

"Not to our knowledge and believe me, if it had been activated, we would know." "Then given she has's unproven! She's just as likely to annihilate herself as us when she fires the damned thing!" "Indeed. My advice is to stay out of range...provided you can locate her ship." Liam's smile became wry. "Always good advice." The light extinguished indicating the transmission had terminated. Adopting his former pose, Liam stared balefully at the cluttered, crowded asteroid belt. If he was right, and he was sure he was, he was on one side and mad Meredith Bower was on the other. All he had to do was work out how to draw her out...and survive.

The woman in question has long ago passed anger. Now insanely enraged, she screeched at her computer, "What the fuck is he doing?" The question was rhetorical, but the computer answered anyway. "Obviously the commander of the target ship is suspicious. He or she is waiting to see what is going to happen?" "I know that you stupid cunt! What I want to know is how he knows! Yes, we know they have some kind of tracking system, I found that out months ago, but I specifically calibrated our propulsion..." She stopped in mid-sentence. "Oh...those fuckers! They must've come up with an new version! Fuck!" She lashed out with the side of her foot, smashing the front of the replicator. "They know! They fucking know I'm not in the fucking asteroid! Jesus!" She reached to the scabbard on her thigh and withdrew her faithful knife. With broad sweeps of her arm, the keen blade cut through anything softer then metal. It took fifteen violent minutes for the rage to subside enough for Meredith to begin to think again. But not necessarily clearly.

"Right! Bring the VTD online and blast a path through the asteroid field until I have a unimpeded shot at that fucking shit-pot of a ship!" Wisely, the computer waited a few seconds before carefully wording it's reply. "Although that is a stunning idea, and under normal circumstances would prove very effective, in the process of 'blasting a path' through the asteroid field, our target would be able to easily pinpoint our location, phase shifted or not." Meredith froze as her deranged mind came to grips with this new information. Her expression showed she'd finally understood. "We'd be lit up like a fucking Christmas tree! Shit! That means we can't use the VDT...not unless we get close enough so that one shot will do the job." "And we know the target ship can track us." The computer had spoken mildly, but the observation drew a sarcastic reply from Meredith.

"Oh really, Sherlock? Your purpose is to assist me not state the fucking obvious!" "My apologies, Meredith." An ungracious grunt was the only reply. Meredith sat amongst the chaotic mayhem of her craft and glared at the computer interface, muttering darkly, "I want to do this by myself! I don't want to have to connect!" But it was inevitable. As enhanced, both physically and mentally as she was, the only access she had to new information was through the portal. That it was connected vicariously to the Fen she didn't know. Had she been aware of this she may have thought twice about her visit to the Fen in the first place. What Meredith had wished for, wanted so badly caused actual physical pain, was total control. Autonomy on a level that surpassed anything yet known. She knew without a shadow of doubt, once she achieved that, be in a position to be unanswerable to anyone but herself, then having Beverly would complete her view of Utopia. And...with Beverly raised to Meredith's level....the woman smiled, her expression grotesque. "Two Gods, free to rule as they wish. No one...nothing can stand in our way. Combined we will be omnipotent!"

But, brought back to the here-and-now, Meredith righted her ripped and twisted chair, sat and eased the thin tube into the portal. She had done this often enough to be familiar with the sensation of her mind expanding. What she didn't feel or recognise was the subtle presence that came with the expansion.

The dream Beverly was having had been pleasant. She couldn't quite remember where they were, but Jean-Luc had been gently caressing her thigh. It wasn't a sexual caress, but one of warm, knowing familiarity. She smiled in her dream, wanting to turn, to encourage him to move his hand and turn the caress into something more erotic, but there was an odd warmth which, over some time was growing uncomfortably cool. And then there was that smell. She knew that smell...had smelled it many times before. What was it and why was she smelling it now? It made no sense. Casting her disquiet aside, Beverly reached for his hand, intending to place it where she wanted it, while at the same time, she reached for his penis, knowing that particular overt caress would quickly change Jean-Luc's mood from gentle affection to outright desire. His scream brought Beverly awake with such a fright she released a jet of urine. It took a few long seconds for Beverly's panicked mind sorted the dream from reality. It was then she realised what had happened. The warmth she'd felt was Jean-Luc's blood, the anal packing, soaked beyond its capacity to hold any more blood, was leaking. The blood, smeared up his thigh had rapidly cooled. And his scream? Her dream caress of his penis had actually occurred and the poor wretch of a man had endured not only Beverly gripping his badly damaged penis, but in her sleep, her questing hand had pressed against his mutilated testicles. Sitting up, Beverly wrapped her arms around the now sobbing man, saying over and over, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry..."

He calmed slowly as the pain reached its peak, then settled into a remorseless throbbing. He swallowed to try and wet his dry mouth and whispered, "Why, Beverly?" He did try to keep any recrimination out of his question, but for the life of him he couldn't understand why Beverly had done to him what she had. With tears streaming down her face, she said brokenly, "I was dreaming. At first it was...I don't remember it all...but you were caressing me and I wanted more...I wanted you to touch me in a sexual way and to encourage you I..." "It's all right,� He whispered. "I think I understand." Beverly looked down at the smears of blood on Jean-Luc's thighs and floor and wiped her nose with her hand as more tears threatened. "I'm going to have to repack your anus, my love. And this time I'm going to have to use thicker fabric." The ramifications of that weren't lost on the suffering man. "Oh, God..." He whispered. If having thin, easily managed fabric pushed up his anus was almost unbearably could he cope with having thicker, more robust material shoved up there? Beverly knew exactly what he was thinking, she was thinking the same thing herself. The only thing she had that was suitable was the towels. She had no doubt packing the torn membranes with the towelling material would definitely stop the bleeding...but... Before she could even begin to prepare, Jean-Luc whispered quietly, "Why didn't you use the stronger material in the first place? Reddening, Beverly admitted, "I was trying to cause as little pain as possible. But of course I outsmarted myself and now you have to suffer a worse fate because of my lack of courage." Somehow he managed a smile of absolution. "You, Beverly Crusher, are the bravest person I know. It wasn't cowardice Beverly, it was compassion and for that, I'm eternally grateful." Although said in a soft whisper, it was as if he'd spoken directly to her with his gorgeous mellifluous voice. "Oh, my beloved I love you."

"As I love thee. Now do what you must, Beverly. The only way we can defeat Meredith Bower is to survive." Even the sound of the ripping fabric, once she'd managed to get the remarkably robust material to tear, made Beverly feel ill with the thought of what was to come. But Jean-Luc was right and she'd be damned if she allowed Meredith Bower the satisfaction of knowing she had deprived Beverly of the love of her life...or their baby. Fortunately, at some stage during the packing, Jean-Luc lost consciousness. Beverly, who had been making regular checks on the wretched, suffering man, sighed in relief as the terrible, heart rending screaming suddenly stopped. She looked up, checked his pulse and respiration, then worked as fast as she could safely get away with. She knew this haste would cause bruising, adding to his pain, but she was able to do a more thorough job with him senseless. Satisfied and feeling more confident, Beverly rearranged the towels, making sure her lover was warm and comfortable before leaving him. She went into the bedroom and opened the wardrobe. Apart from some sex toys, there was nothing. The chest of draws opposite had no clothing either, just more dildos and sexual paraphernalia. A thorough search of the room revealed a hidden, closet like space. At the base she found a metre- square box, made of a material she's never encountered before. It was very strong, it shone, in fact it glistened in a silvery-blue colour, yet it was soft, like fabric, but when Beverly tried to open it, it remained stubbornly shut. She could find no latch, no hinges, no seams...nothing. It was simply a mysterious box, but the fact it was in an obscure hidden place and not accessible only served to increase Beverly's curiosity. She rose stiffly and checked on Jean-Luc before making a thorough search for anything she felt might cut the material the box was made of. All she came up with was a butter knife. All other cutlery and utensils had been very securely locked away. She glared at the table, neatly set with a plastic-like spoon, a plate, cup and saucer and the blunt butter knife she know gripped in her hand. "Damn you, you bitch!" Beverly muttered darkly. Still, a blunt, synthetic butter knife was better than nothing. Returning to the box, she decided to drag it out and was very surprised to find it was very heavy. She was half a frustrating hour into her fruitless quest when she head Jean-Luc softly groaning. Immediately abandoning the box, she went to him, finding he'd changed his

position slightly and had managed to reach both his hands between his legs to cradle his ruptured testes. Beverly couldn't contain her gasp of astonishment. "How the hell did you manage to do that?" The man swallowed, trying to find his voice, but he'd screamed too much, his once velvetysmooth voice now a broken croaky whisper. "Pain." He whispered hoarsely. "Too much as they were. Had to" Placing a gentle hand on his shoulder, Beverly nodded, her face clearly showing her anguish. "Say no more, my love, I understand, in fact I should've done something about it while you were unconscious. I know the pain of damaged testicles can be relieved a little by support." She sighed and bowed her head. "I'm so sorry...again, Jean-Luc. After I'd finished the packing, I got preoccupied with trying to find some clothing and a way out." "Any luck?" He whispered. Beverly grunted her frustration. "No on all accounts. There's not a stitch of clothing, nothing I can use as a weapon...oh...except a fake, dull butter knife, and the entire house is looked up drum-tight! Even the damned replicators have been programmed to give only food and drinks...all in containers that disintegrate after about twenty minutes." Her voice had risen as her anger and frustration grew Jean-Luc whispered, "A clear mind will solve more puzzles than a clouded one." "Ha!" Beverly spat angrily. "I've discovered this really weird box in the bedroom." She went on to describe it and her useless attempts to open it. In the ensuing silence that followed, Jean-Luc said with a barely audible whisper, "Audio lock." Trying to be patient and keeping in mind it was entirely possible her lover was not thinking clearly, considering what he'd been through and the pain he was in, Beverly said softly, "There is no lock, my love. The box has no external features whatsoever, not even any seams." Somehow Jean-Luc found a grimace-like smile. "That's what makes audio locks so effective."

He had to stop and take a few breaths. "Completely hidden inside and opened by a password. Perhaps even using voice-recognition as well." With more impatience than she intended, Beverly said tersely, "So how does that help me?" His strength draining rapidly, Jean-Luc whispered, "Think, Beverly! What's been the sole focus of Meredith Bower for a very long time?" Beverly's eyebrows rose in surprised comprehension. "Me!" All the man could do was nod. Tapping her index finger nail against her teeth, the doctor said worriedly, "Okay, the password might be obvious, but what about voice-recognition?" Almost at the end of his losing battle with unconsciousness, Jean- Luc said, "You'll just have to take your chances. Meredith's insane...she may not have thought of it." Beverly would've said more, but he was gone, once again passed out. As a doctor it worried her incessantly that he would lose consciousness so readily and frequently, but as his lover she was relieved he was finding a way to escape his agony. She left him reluctantly and returned to the box. She sat beside it, eyeing it suspiciously. Feeling very foolish, she cleared her throat, not even considering trying to imitate Meredith 's voice. "All right!" She thought. "This should be pretty straightforward." In a clear voice, she said, "Beverly." Nothing happened. Closing her eyes, the doctor shook her head. Aloud she muttered, "Insane or not, Jean-Luc, she's employed VR." But she had to admit he had a point. And giving up after only one try? No, that wasn't Beverly Crusher! So she tried again. "Crusher." Nothing. Five minutes later, Beverly had gone through every permutation of her name, professional title and rank she could think of and was on the verge of giving up when she said, as an

afterthought..."My precious Beverly." There was an almost in audible click and the 'lid' of the box silently rose. Beverly craned forward suspiciously, ready for anything dangerous or unpleasant, but all she saw was a largish assortment of dark, reddish brown metal items. At first she had no idea what these things were. It wasn't until she picked up one of the the things that she closed her eyes, nausea making her want to vomit. It was a 'choke pear'. A medieval torture instrument used anally and vaginally. Its name came from its shape. Like the fruit, it had a classically pear form, the narrow end being the one inserted. Then, using a worm screw mechanism, the instrument, which was constructed in two halves, began to open up, thus dilating the orifice it was in. It had the capability of splitting the orifice of the unfortunate recipient of the torture so hideously, either the unspeakable agony or blood loss eventually killed them, but as the screw was turned slowly, it was a correspondingly slow and agonising death. Beverly didn't bother to look at any other of the box's contents, their use was clear. Even if Meredith was a legitimate collector of medieval torture instruments, Beverly had no doubt they would have a sexual use and that they were meant for Jean-Luc. She went and checked on him before going through the house, absolutely gobsmacked to find nearly every locked system opened to the same three words. "My precious Beverly." She was now well armed, though not with anything like a phaser or disruptor, but she had an assortment of sharp, sizeable knives carried in a backpack she'd found. The only thing she couldn't find was any clothing. Obviously hers and Jean-Luc's had been destroyed. The communication system was the only thing she couldn't unlock, but that didn't matter. If they or even she could get out of the house, surely help could be summoned...somehow? Kneeling beside her lover she closed her eyes and said softly, with tears forming, "Forgive me, my love." She then gently pinched his broken nose and twisted it sideways. It had the desired effect. His swollen eyes opened as widely as they could and he cried out in pain. Stroking his forehead, Beverly said loudly, over his vocalisation of his agony, "Jean-Luc! I'm sorry, but I had to do that...I need you conscious!" Her urgent words broke through his agony. Somehow he curbed his reactions and quietened. Wishing to be as quick as possible, Beverly said in a rush,

"If I can find a way out of this damned you think you can walk? I know it's a lot to ask, but I can't carry you, my love and I really don't want to leave you. Not only am I worried about your medical condition, but I simply don't want to be away for you." The blighted man thought for only a few seconds before making a slight shake of his head. "No, Beverly, I don't think I could walk, with our without your help...or even crawl. The pain is just too severe." Although she expected this answer, she was compelled to ask. She smiled, letting him know it was all right. "Okay then," She said with a confident smile. "I'll just have to work something out. Mind you," She muttered wryly, "I haven't worked out how to get out of this...bloody mausoleum yet!" She'd tried for humour but was surprised when Jean-Luc whispered brokenly, "This house...all computer controlled?" Frowning and trying to work out where the question was leading, Beverly said cautiously, "Yes. But as you know, I have access to everything except communications and the damned exit doors and windows." "Ventilation?" Beverly shrugged. "I don't know. The temperature seems to be constant...warm without being too hot and the air itself seems clean. I haven't detected the taste of recycled air or any staleness." "Any aroma at all? Even the slightest hint of a scent?" Jean-Luc croaked. Closing her eyes, lifting her head and closing her eyes in concentration, Beverly let out her breath until her lungs were empty. She then drew in a new breath slowly, doing her best to analyse it. She was interrupted as Jean-Luc whispered, his speech beginning to slur. “Remember what I've taught you about the bouquet of wine. Separate the components of the air, and utilise your tongue." Repeating the action of emptying her lungs before drawing in another long, slow breath, Beverly did as Jean-Luc had suggested and, just as she was reaching full ling capacity her eyes flew open. "The sea! I can smell salt water!"

"Don't be too sure it's a sea. Saline can be used to..." Beverly finished for him. "...act as an air filter, I know...but, Jean-Luc this was more than just salt water. There was more...extremely subtle...but I think there was sand...grasses maybe...rotting seaweed..." “Might be psychological projection." He slurred. Beverly frowned at him; the subject of what she did or didn't smell forgotten. "Jean-Luc...what is it? Why are you slurring?" "Tongue going numb. Right side mild paralysis." Alarm made Beverly immediately examine her lover, saying as she gently scanned him, "Just your tongue or all of your right side?" "Jus...tong." "Right, that's probably your serious concussion showing itself. All the more reason to stay with you." "No." He managed. "We mus be gone befo she..." "Returns? I know!" Said a frustrated and angry Beverly. "But how the hell do I find a way out! I don't want to leave you, Jean-Luc! I don't think you realise just how badly you've been injured...and I'm not just referring to your genitals. You have broken bones...internal injuries which are bleeding...and those are the most recent! You were already in a terrible state when you arrived! You've got frost bite for Christ's sake!" He wished with everything he had he could let go with one of his supporting hands to take impart his understanding of her frustration and gut-wrenching worry, but he simply couldn't do it. Instead he looked up at the woman he loved beyond reason and said, "You either find a way out...or we...all three of us...will die." Somehow he'd found a way to speak clearly but it cost him. He let his neck relax and his eyes close. It took Beverly a second or two to realise he was, once again, unconscious. She wanted to scream in anger and helplessness...rail at the fates, but overriding all was two

things. Getting help for Jean-Luc and getting out. And one would serve the other. She sat on her haunches and looked down at the bruised, bleeding and battered man. "You just don't give up, do you. Well, neither will I! What was it you said? Ventilation? Why, Jean-Luc? If Meredith has had a hand in designing this home, she wouldn't be so foolish...or stupid as to leave such an obvious flaw in the security integrity." But then Beverly's eyes narrowed. "Yes, but we're not dealing with a same person, are we? She slipped up with the audio lock...could she have made. similar mistake with the ventilation system?" She rose to her feet and winked, blowing the unconscious man a kiss. "Only one way to find out, my love. Wish me luck!"

Liam's eyes were so slitted he seemed to be asleep. But the sudden bright glow of the warning light on his console had him moving with the grace of an uncoiling snake. "'re on the move? Finally!" His rear view mirror broken, he looked over his shoulder, saying sharply, "Status?" The female voice was rock-steady. "Three, ready and willing and mostly able, sir." Liam sighed. "Three." He said with a touch of defeat. "Equipment?" He asked more hopefully. There was the slightest hesitation before the female said "We still have the explosives, but the detonators no longer function. Of our personal weapons, two fully functioning, one we think we can repair and one unsalvageable. Our adaptive capabilities of our uniforms is no longer functioning and the oxygen replenishment system on all our suits have been somehow...nullified." More to himself than out loud, Liam opined, "An after effect. That blast radius from whatever it was she used...designed no doubt to affect as many systems as possible. Have we scrubbed?"

The female knew immediately to what he was referring. "The air scrubbers have done their best, sir, but as you rightly pointed out, as yet we don't know all of the constituents of the matter used to make the explosive. Therefore..." "We can't be certain we're clean." Liam finished. "No, sir. And the longer we stay..." Glancing down at the light, Liam's smiled coldly. "That seems to be about to change. Our 'target' appears to be on the move. Now, given we know she has access to weapons and the technology to go with them, I suggest we use the asteroid belt as a buffer. If she could get at us through it, she would've done so already. At least, that's my thinking. So we keep sniffing and watch." "If I may, sir...what are we watching for?" "A mistake. She's been very careful up 'til now, but the fact she's willing to show herself when she must know by now we can track's my hope she's either panicking or she's pressed for time. It matters not, as long as it causes her to fuck up. And if she does?" He slammed his fist on the palm of his other hand. Ignoring the pain. "Then we have her. So, obviously if and when that time comes, I'm going to need something powerful enough to send her packing! I doubt we're going to be able to destroy her, but if we can slow her down...or make her footprint bigger...easier to follow...well, you get the idea." "I'll get right on it, sir. And in the meantime?" "We play hidey." The woman frowned. "Hidey, sir?" "You might know it as hide and go seek." Liam smiled, his icy blue eyes scanning the asteroid belt. "We go in there, sneaking about, lurking here and there, all the while doing our best to frustrate her and hopefully drawing her into the mistake we need her to make. So, you go back to all you have to do and I'll play my game of hidey." The woman grinned and although Liam returned her enthusiastic response, inside he winced. "Why did you have to be so damned young?" He thought sourly. "Too many have already died on this mission. Too many young lives lost." He sighed again and grimaced, thinking

sardonically, "You're getting old, Dogovich, entertaining thoughts like that." He remained engrossed as he manually piloted his diminutive craft into the belt, plotting a random course that would take him deep within the belt, but still able to track the target. His eyes switched continuously between his course and the information coming in from the 'sniffer'. For over two hours little of any consequence happened until he suddenly sat up and stared intently at the sniffer information. "Oh, yeah...come on in...the water's fine!" Turning his head, but keeping his eyes glued to the screen, he said mildly, "You might want to go to alert status. The target is coming into the belt." He heard the gentle rustle of movement aft of the cockpit as the three members that constituted his team made ready. Mere moments later, a female appeared at his shoulder. A quick sideways glance showed him half of her helmet was missing. "Report." He said soberly. He didn't know her name or rank, it was how the teams operated. They knew who to obey, and that was all that counted. The command structure within the teams, indeed within the organisation they belonged to was a complete mystery to Liam and he was in no hurry to dispel those mysteries. As long as everything he was involved with worked, and he was in charge he, he was happy. After all, it wasn't often he worked with anyone. He habitually worked alone. That was when he was most effective...and deadly. "We are at alert status, sir. We can deploy instantly at your command." "And the weapons, the explosives?" "We have done all we can, sir, and I feel...I will be satisfied with the results of our work in those regards." Liam allowed a ghost of a smile and did something he thought he never would. He broke with protocol. "What's your name?" The one light hazel eye he could see widened, then narrowed. "I'm sorry, sir, respectfully, I have to decline to answer." Having long ago mastered any outward emotional responses, Liam didn't show the blush of embarrassment, but he felt it inside. Nevertheless, he gave a curt nod, giving nothing away. "Of course. My apologies."

The female returned to the cockpit leaving a very angry Liam ready and willing to take out his mounting anger on the woman he knew was on the target ship. "See what you just made me do? I'll just add that to the list, you freak. Once I've...extracted every gram of information from you...I might just leave you as a vegetable instead of doing away with you 'humanely'." He smiled with feral fury at that. Normally always in control and not easily provoked, this level of ferocious, murderous anger was evidence of just how hated the woman he knew to be Meredith Bower was. In dealing with political matters..even 'dirty' politics, it was more about brinkmanship, one-upness and ego. But not Meredith Bower. She was obviously insane, but her cavalier attitude towards slaughter, using a, this woman had managed to raise Liam's usually latent fury. That she had to die was moot. It was the manner of her death that interested the enigmatic agent. Either that or his idea to leave her in vegetative state. But that could prove ultimately futile. If she possessed the wealth and contacts she seemed to have, she just might have the wherewithal to be restored. No. Better to get what he wanted then vaporise her. His smile turned to a predatory grin. "No coming back from that!" His grin faded as he watched the target make its cautious approach.

Meredith scowled, her other-worldly eyes glittering with overt cruelty. "Oh, but you're going to be so surprised, Liam Dogovich! When I have you here, on my ship, you will learn there are levels of pain unknown to you, levels you have no idea can be endured while still conscious. And then, when you're absolutely sure you simply cannot take any more..." Her scowl morphed into grotesque grin. "That's when I'll introduce you to my 'special' toys. You'll die soon after, which is most unfortunate, as I do so enjoy my fun...but everything in your little pea-sized brain will be mine." She sighed and her right hand slipped between her legs to stroke her enlarged clit. "Oh, I can't wait. Just the thought of your screams..." She sighed through her orgasm, it barely disturbed her thoughts. "Now, this stupid little ploy of yours? I know what you've been doing...trying hide behind certain asteroids...ha!" She crowed. "I didn't even need to connect to work that out! It's so patently obvious. So, having made my analysis, I predict, correctly of course, you'll be..." She stabbed her finger at the screen. "Here!" Her triumphant exclamation caused her computer to say tentatively, "Meredith, forgive me, but perhaps you might consider reassessing your strategy? My analysis suggests a very different..."

Rising with feline grace, Meredith moved the two metres to the computer main core. It was like nothing the Federation had, but that didn't concern Meredith in the slightest. All she was interested in was the ability to be able to disable certain functions of the computer. She had intended to just disable the voice interface, but on consideration, also disabled the combat analysis and strategy components. She wanted the victory to be hers alone. Manoeuvring between the sometimes tightly packed asteroids was difficult even though neither ship was anything near large. Meredith had identified an asteroid rich in the masking minerals she was certain her quarry was using to disguise itself. On her stealthy, zigzag approach, she squinted, peering intently at the schematics and analyses that scrolled endlessly with the diagrams and predictions...all calculated on her assessments. On seeing no evidence of Liam's ship, she frowned for the first time, the rare and unwanted feeling of doubt surfacing. She quashed it immediately. "No! You're there! I can almost smell you!" Her frown vanished and she snapped her fingers. "Of course! You're simply moving constantly, keeping just out of 'sight' behind the asteroid! Well, Liam, my little pet, that won't do." With one long stride she was in the cockpit, arming the prototype VDT and setting it's target. "If I can't see you, I'll simply remove what you're using to hide behind." She took a few moments, deciding whether or not to have her image recorded sitting, long, sculptured legs up, her feet resting and crossed at the ankle on the console and her long finger hovering over the 'fire' button, or standing in a dramatic pose, staring into the void, presumably at her victim, again with her finger poised and ready to initiate the firing sequence. She decided on dramatic. She took up an almost Valkyrian stance, shook her head as if shaking her non-existent hair back and surreptitiously took a digitised image of herself just as she depressed the firing button. The ship trembled as the VDT was brought on line. It took precisely five seconds before the massive discharge of energy took place. The sinuously twisting rope of hideously powerful energy raced away from the ship and struck its target faithfully, destroying the asteroid so utterly little but minute, atomic particles remained. Meredith crowed with delight, masturbating furiously. Had she not been so distracted...or complacent she would have noticed two things. One was the very rapid and equally dangerous build up of Alpha particles throughout her ship and the other, had she looked, would be the rapid approach of her

quarry...from directly aft. The first she knew of Liam's presence was the blast that hammered into the exhaust manifolds of her ship. Forgetting she'd disabled the vocal interface with the computer, she whirled around, striding back to her 'situation' screen, screeching, "Where did that come from and why aren't the shields up? Why didn't you warn me?" In the quiet ship, Meredith's enhanced hearing began to hear a rumbling. Very subtle at first, she tilted her head, frowning deeply. Again distracted, she said in confusion, "What the fuck is that?" Finally realising her position, she reactivated all the disabled functions of the computer, but before she could utter one syllable the computer blared several alerts. "Warning! Lethal build up of Alpha particles is in danger of interacting with the Corpus drive! Annihilation in..." "Shut up about that! Where are my shields?" “The corpus drive is directly connected to the shields. They cannot function with the corpus drive about to be catastrophically compromised." "FUCK!" Shrieked Meredith. Pounding her huge, iron-hard fists against the console smashed the screen and badly damaged the console. Lifting her head, the demented woman seethed, "What happened? Who shot at us?" "Sensors are non-functional. Ejection of corpus drive essential! Initiate immediately!" Meredith had never contemplated death, especially since her 'rebirth'. Facing her imminent demise, an addled Meredith said absently, "I must connect." Fortunately the computer had been constructed with in-built fail-safes. At all times Meredith's life was paramount and the computer would do anything necessary, including ignoring orders, direct or indirect to achieve that end. The corpus drive was ejected and the computer began the arduous and dangerous task of purging the ship of the built-up Alpha particles.

Meredith had connected but her dull eyes showed nothing was happening. At least outwardly. Inside Meredith's mind, the Fen was removing all traces of itself. The vast repository of knowledge would remain, but Meredith would never again be able to connect for new information or problem solving. And once the cable was removed, the portal would become inoperative.

Another blast rocked the ship as it made a sluggish turn, attempting to bring the only functioning weapons to bear on the attacker. But it is far too elusive. Ducking in and out of the asteroids, it continued to take pot shots, trying to bring the ship to a halt for boarding. Only the phenomenal skill of Meredith's computer prevented that from occurring, but it could not stop the seemingly insignificant package that the attacking ship launched. It hits the hull of Meredith's ship with a barley heard, dull thud. At first nothing happened, then there is a devastating explosion. A gaping hole was rent in the side of the ship, taking out crucial systems. The instant activation of the force field to maintain hull integrity was only achieved by the computer sacrificing part of its function, in essence, powering the force field at the expense of its own continued existence. Knowing the battle was lost, it used the little it had left to engage the latent excess corpus energy to power the emergency engines. As the ship moved off to clear the belt, the computer struggled to stay online until they were in open space and on course for 'home'. At that time the computer ceased to function.

Liam swore softly, the stump of his little finger leaving a trace of blood that had seeped through the bandage to stain his thin, lower lip. At his side was the female, just as frustrated. Her expletive ridden invective both shocked and amused Liam. "Fuck those Alpha particles. Shit, if not for them we'd be on the stinking scow with her commander in restraints!" "True," agreed Liam said mildly. "But it was those same APs that crippled the ship. We might not have been able to board it, but the damage caused to its engines..." He was interrupted . "About those engines? The computer's initial analysis is in the realms of fantasy. Apparently some time ago, some nut job came up with this outrageous idea of powering the engines of space faring vehicles with the amplified 'energy' of cadavers! Can you believe that? He called it the Corpus drive! Corpus! As in body!"

Liam's ice blue eyes glittered dangerously. "That's no fantasy, far from it! I only wish it was." The woman's mouth gaped. "Are you telling me it's real?" "Yep." Liam said with laconic fatalism, at complete odds with what he felt inside. "It works by gathering a certain number of bodies...the bigger the Klingons, Naussicans...all the big species are perfect. Then, once you have enough, and that depends on the size of your craft, the bodies are...processed in a very particular way and the harvested 'energy' is converted into a electromagnetic fuel. The engines that run on this new fuel are avant-guard as well, but oddly extremely efficient. An old saying would be they were 'economical' with their available fuel. They are capable of phenomenal speed too and, as we know, leave very little by way of a footprint." Aghast, the female said..."But that's grotesque! Murdering people to process their bodies for fuel?" Liam sighed. "Rest assured, the 'inventor' is no longer...inventing, but we were never sure we got him in time, that is before he sold his technology. Obviously we failed, 'cause that ship is living proof his invention got out. Oh...and by the way, word has it he somehow nicked his 'idea' from the Hirogen." After a lengthy silence in which Liam piloted the craft and set off in pursuit of the now glaring footprint, the female mulled over what she'd been told. Her question was inevitable, in fact Liam had been waiting for it. "So if I've got this right, if you're using one of these corpus drives, you'd have to calculate how many bodies would have to be processed. But surely the 'fuel tanks'? on the ship would have a finite size. So what do you do if you miscalculate or for whatever reason, deplete your fuel leaving you dead in the water...? Excuse the pun." Having little to do but oversee the progress of their chase, something not actually necessary, Liam gave the young woman a long look. The half of her face he could see paled significantly. "No..." She whispered. "Yep." Liam said with disgust. "The ships have redundant features to get them moving...that's

what's happening now, but under normal circumstances the commander would go...hunting for more fuel...and he/she wouldn't be picky either. Any’ body’ would do. The processing can take place in a limited fashion on board." "And is that what she's doing now? On the hunt for fresh bodies?" The tall, lean man shook his head and glowered at the stump of his little finger. "Nope. She's making a bee line for home." The one eye he could see hardened. "Then that's where we'll take her!" "Oh yeah, but just keep in mind the hostages. If they're still alive they'll be our first priority. We have unlimited access to all areas of the 'exclusive' planet where the woman, once known as Meredith Bower has her home. We're also making very good headway of stripping her of her wealth. It was illegally gained, involving murder and god knows what else, is making her hosts very nervous as it seems she spread quite a bit of her wealth around, greasing wheels. No doubt there are a lot of very nervous government officials at the moment." The young woman glanced over her shoulder and gave her pair a long look. Keeping her eyes on them, she said to Liam quietly, "I'm going to tell them. If they're going to put their lives on the line to rescue hostages from that...woman...then they should know killing her will be doing a lot of people a huge favour." Liam reached out and caught her sleeve. "The hostages first, then by all means..kill her, but not before I...interview her." His raised eyebrow said much more than words could. The young woman gave a curt nod accompanied with a quiet, "Yes, sir."

Not knowing how much time she had, Beverly began what she knew would probably be a fruitless search. There was no way Meredith, even deranged, mad Meredith would be so stupid as to make two fundamental mistakes. Not using voice recognition was so lax...Beverly just couldn't see how the woman could have a home constructed such as it had and miss such glaring errors. Still, she trusted Jean-Luc's judgement, even in his current condition, his brilliant mind was

on the job, trying to find the necessary answers. With her head up tilted, Beverly wandered from room to room. She could see where the inset was that carried the air ducting, but she could find no outlets. Idly rubbing the back of her stiff neck, she was about to give up when she noticed something odd in the kitchen. First of all, why have a kitchen in the first place. Meredith never cooked, she replicated everything and the replicator was in the dining room...where it should be. The more she looked, the weirder things became. She'd not noticed before, being to engrossed on arming herself and trying to find a way out, but now, as she looked it was as if she was looking back in time. This kitchen belonged in a museum! It was like something straight out of the early 21st century. There were...Beverly snapped her fingers repeatedly, trying to recall the right word...then two terms came to her. "Appliances and white goods!" She wandered over to the refrigerator and tugged on the groove, presumably where one placed one's fingers and was surprised when the large door opened easily. She swung it back and forth, noting the apparatus on the outside. A quick experimental prod had her hand drenched in freezing cold water. "Well, I'll be damned!" Utterly enthralled in what she was seeing she almost...almost made her lose track of why she was there. It was the strange apparatus over the cooking appliance that puzzled her. She went to it and studied it, eventually removing what turned out to be a light, a set of filters and a fan. With the parts strewn about on the floor, Beverly managed to squeeze on top of the appliance and insinuate herself up and into what she now understood to be some kind of flue. It was only the dull sheen of new metal that gave her the glimpse of a junction with a larger duct. With ever-increasing excitement, Beverly wriggled back down to the floor and went back to Jean-Luc. He was still unconscious, but his breathing was unobstructed and regular as was his pulse. Not as strong as Beverly would've liked, but under the circumstances, acceptable. She placed a tender kiss on his brow, frowning at the higher than she expected heat of his skin and went to pick up the tricorder. But time was her enemy. Finding out why his temperature was rising wouldn't help if Meredith returned before Beverly could get out. So with terrible misgivings, she left the tricorder where it was and kissed her lover again, saying quietly, "Either I'll come back with help, or I'll find a way to get you out." She began to rise, then paused , and said quietly, "I love you, Jean-Luc."

The slight bulge of her pregnancy didn't make it easy for her to hoist herself up through the

flue and then wriggle into the duct. It was surprisingly large and square, but still a very snug fit. She had given it a lot of thought, deciding on which direction to take. She had seen nothing of what lay outside the house, but she was absolutely sure they were either on or very close to the coast. Just because she hadn't heard any air reticular system operating, it didn't mean there was none. Fresh air was being drawn in and the circulated air constantly replenished. That must meant there had to be an inlet somewhere, big enough, she hoped, for her to exit the house through it.

Time had become an abstract concept to Beverly. She was covered in sweat, she'd voided her bladder and with a sinking feeling, knew she would soon have to empty her bowel. Being naked and in a very confined, square duct gave little opportunity to carry out such a basic human function, but she was so tired and thirsty, even the thought of going through the process of expulsion of solid waste was almost too much to contemplate. And she knew the longer she could hold off the expulsion, the more moisture, minuscule though it was, her body could extract from the waste. The length of time that had passed had been caused by the labyrinth of ducting that existed. At each junction, Beverly had a decision to make. Left, right or straight ahead? As the hours rolled on, it soon became obvious she was going around in circles. Many times she'd stopped to see of she could feel the movement of air through the ducts , and she could, but it was the same in all the ducts. There seemed to be no 'flow', no single direction and the ever-present and tantalising yet subtle scent of sea air only served to torment her. Exhausted and with pain growing in her lower gut, Beverly was on the point of giving up when she had an idea. "God!" She exclaimed angrily. "Why didn't I think of it before?" When the pain welled again, she didn't fight it, in fact she gave in to it and relaxed, allowing her body to finally expel the solid waste. Her medical experience had long ago inured her to the more unpleasant aspects of human digestive processes. Without hesitation she reached down and gathered up the thankfully solid bowel motions and, selecting a piece, began to move forward, using the waste to leave a brown stain on the side of the duct. She didn't have much, she would have to be very careful to use what she had judiciously, but now she had a way to know if she'd been in a duct before. Instead of making one continuous line, to conserve her 'recourses' she made only a line approximately ten centimetres long. Her strategy paid off within twenty minutes. Now moving with more confidence, Beverly

soon found the she was indeed feeling a stronger, fresher movement of air, but her goal was reached so suddenly she momentarily froze. Facing her was a one metre wide round frame, it's area almost completely taken up by a multi bladed fan. The blades were thin and each had a precise twist. As she watched, mouth agape, the rotating blades suddenly picked up speed and the passage of air they drew in increased exponentially. "A wind driven turbine!" Beverly said to herself. Spurred into action, she dropped the nutsized piece of excremental she had, all she had left and entered the larger area directly behind the spinning blades. "Right." She said with far more confidence than she felt. "All I have to do is break out...somehow." She began by running her fingers around the rim of the frame, looking for something she could either break or remove to disable the fan. But the metal frame seemed to have been made in one seamless piece. "Hmph..." Grunted the doctor. "Probably replicated." That left the fan. She sat and watched it for a while, trying see if there was a pattern of some sort, but although the fan would slow, it was just as likely to pick up speed remarkably quickly. At the vagaries of the wind, which wasn't constant, Beverly's stomach sank as she realised she was going to have to take her chances and use her feet to attempt to bludgeon the fan out of its housing. The thoughts of what might happen to her feet and legs she simply put out of her mind. It was just another obstacle to overcome to save the father of her child. The man she loved. Shuffling on her backside she moved close enough so that, with her knees bent she could deliver the most powerful double foot kick. She took a single deep breath and hoped that the wind would cooperate. Her first attempt did nothing but jar her feet and shins and slice a few superficial cuts to the soles of her feet. Not one to vacillate, she immediately kicked again, this time several of the blades bent. Beverly was elated until she realised she would have to aim for the same spot if she hoped to have the quickest success. So this time she had to wait, wait for the wind to die and then time the rotation of the fan. Her reflexes were good and she struck the right spot again, but the cost was beginning to mount up. The cuts on the soles of her feet were no longer superficial. As the twisted, thin blades bent, the sharp metal cut deeper and deeper. And she had to take out enough blades to fit her body through. It took an hour and a half and so much blood splattered around the alcove, the battered and now useless fan and Beverly herself, the area looked like a charnel house.

Uncaring of the pain in her feet and lower legs, Beverly stuck her head through the hole and closed her eyes as the ocean breeze buffeted her face and lifted some of her sweat-soaked hair. She got through the hole in minutes and dropped only a short one and a half metres to the sand below. Now outside she could hear the sea, but she felt that was not where she might find help. Standing upright was a lesson in self control. The pain, especially in her sliced feet was almost unbearable, but the blood that tricked and oozed from the wounds was quickly soaked up by the very fine sand, creating a shoe like effect on her soles. It was very little by way of protection, but it was better than nothing.

Drifting in and out of consciousness, Jean-Luc had heard the muffled booming of Beverly's kicks. Although he could only guess at what he was hearing, he was astute enough to make and educated assumption. He smiled to himself thinking, "That's it, Beverly my love, get out, be free and get help, I know if anyone can do it, it's you." His eyes closed as consciousness fled, yet the tender smile remained on his blathered and bruised face.

Meredith scowled at the readout and bared her huge teeth. "More speed! I need more speed!" In the ensuing silence, Meredith cast a malevolent glare at the defunct computer. "A lot of good you turned out to be! I'll be paying the fucker who sold you to me, you useless piece of junk. She's going to find out what happens to those who try to put one over Meredith Bower!" She smiled, her eerie eyes glittering. The more violent her thoughts, the wider her smile grew until she was grinning and giggling manically. The repeated masturbation was inevitable. Somewhat calmed, the demented woman shook her head to try and bring her mind on line, but without the ability to connect the portal, she was cast adrift. With no computer and no help from the Fen, she was faced with the unpalatable prospect of dealing with her problems on her own. Not impossible by any means, but not as easy as it should be. "All right. I have Dogovich on my tail and closing. It'll be sheer luck if I beat him home."

That one word made her scowl. "Home!" She said the word with a mixture of delight and disgust. Why soon became clear. "You're waiting for me, aren't you my love. Waiting for my touch...waiting for me to remove Picard's parasite from within your beautiful body. How grotesque!" She growled. "To soil your body with his filth! Well he will pay for that! And, Beverly my sweet one, I will give you the pleasure of emasculating him...slowly....with something blunt so you have to saw and hack..." Another masturbatory interlude passed before the woman sat back in her cockpit chair and glared at the blip that represented Liam's ship. It was growing larger every time she looked at it. "You fucking cunt, Dogovich! What business is it of yours anyway? You deal with governments and clandestine groups, not lone wolves like me." Her frown cleared and the grin returned. With a shrug she said happily, "Still, it's not my fault that your snooping is going to kill you. I mean I have a right to protect that which is mine...and my privacy." Her grin faded as she eased the front of the panel away from its housing. "I need more speed and I don't care what systems I disable to get it. As long as I reach home first, all will be well." The officer standing at Liam's shoulder inclined her head, the one eye he could see squinting. "Sir...what the hell is she doing? She's taking almost everything off line, she's barely got life support!" Liam sat back and happily sucked on his stump. "That, my friend it what desperation looks like. In order to keep her lead she's directing every gram of power into the engines." "But her engines sustained..." "Oh, I know and so does she, but we're only about two hours from our destination. She doesn't care about her ship, as long as she reaches her home first." "Why?" "Because everything’s there. The hostages, her wealth, all the connections for the 'work' she's had done...perhaps even a clue that'll lead us to the Fen. If she makes it home first, I can guarantee everything except one of the hostages will...disappear." The young woman frowned. "Sir, I don't understand. Why, after taking all the risks, going to all the trouble...why would she destroy it all?"

The smile on Liam's face was as cold as ice. "I didn't say she 'd destroy anything. I said it would all disappear. I have no doubt she has a fall-back strategy, she'd be a damned fool if she didn't. No, the only thing she might destroy is one of the hostages. But if I know her like I think I do, she's going to want time. Our Meredith enjoys inflicting pain. The more trouble you've caused, the worse it is for you." Shaking her helmeted head, the female squad leader showed her disgust. "We know who the hostages are. So who cops it? Captain Picard or Doctor Crusher?" Leaning back and placing his lean legs on the console so his bare feet could rest with crossed ankles, Liam smiled."Here's a little clue for you to work it out. Meredith Bower is gay," The woman's voice was flat as she said, "And can I assume Doctor Crusher isn't?" "Yep," "Then the hostage in the most imminent danger is Captain Picard." Snapping his fingers and pointing at the woman's armoured chest, Liam said sarcastically, "Brilliant deduction, Sherlock! Now, can you tell me how do we find him...or Crusher, when we'll be illegal interlopers in this system? My little game of I scratch your back, you scratch mine was only an introduction. Admittedly the threat of exposure and an investigation opened a lot of closed doors, but Meredith Bower has achieved citizenship. They'll protect her and they'll use that as an excuse to...eliminate us. Two birds, two birds with one stone." The female thought for a moment, then said with quite intensity, "Then we should even the odds, sir." Turning his seat, Liam gave the woman a speculative look. He remained silent. The female heard the unasked question loud and clear. "Our sensors are working?" Liam nodded once, curtly. "And we can discriminate between the indigenous inhabitants and any humans?"

Shifting in his seat slightly, Liam's eyes began to gleam. He nodded. "Okay, there're only four of us left, all told, but I wouldn't mind betting humans are kinda thin on the ground. If we can find them, we can set a trap and once it's sprung..." "All right." Agreed Liam. "that takes care of the after. What do we do with the before? How do we stop her 'disappearing’ all that lovely evidence we want so badly?" The female smiled, it made her visible eye crinkle. "Drones." Liam's pale blond eyebrows rose. "You have some drones?" "Yes, sir. Fully programmable and...with cloaking capabilities." "Tsk, tsk, tsk." Liam gently. "You are a naughty officer, aren't you? All right, we locate them and let lose the drones. I take it they can deliver pharmaceuticals?" "They can deliver anything you want, sir." "Good. Now here's what we're going to do."

It was an irony. Time was at once an enemy and a saviour. Beverly knew that Meredith would return and sooner rather than later, but every second she remained free, increased her chances of finding help. And yet...she sighed. She couldn't go too far from the house. Not only did she fear for her lover's health, but should Meredith return, Beverly wanted to be on hand to protect Jean-Luc. The pain in her lacerated feet had become a constant throbbing, burning sensation, one which Beverly came to ignore. Such was her determination to find help, her own injuries became irrelevant. She had quickly left the coastal dunes, it turned out they existed as a narrow band and soon found herself in the semi-coastal, low growing scrub. It wasn't until she'd covered a few hundred metres that the two natural features gelled in her mind. Such a narrow, sparsely covered strip of dunes with low, poor quality scrub land could only mean two things. The sandy soil had little by way of nutrients, common in coastal areas, or the area was frequently

blasted by high winds. "Or a combination of both." She thought morosely. "Great. Just my luck. I'm as thirsty as hell and I'm unlikely to find any potable water and should the weather turn, I'll probably be blown off my feet!" She looked up, making a visor with her hand and squinting in the brassy light. It was hot and getting hotter. But she saw a rise, not much...she wouldn't even call it a hill, but at least once she'd crested it, she hoped for a view that would show another dwelling. With renewed hope, she ordered her tired and damaged body onwards.

Jean-Luc Picard had always been a stoic man. And pragmatic. And he had long believed that the fundamental makeup of people could not change once those traits and attitudes were embedded in the person's psyche. However...though it made his injured lips split open and begin to bleed, he smiled. "I was very wrong! My changes began when my relationship with Beverly became a reality and I changed again with the news of her pregnancy." He wanted to sigh, but knew the pain that would cause due to his broken ribs wasn't worth it. "And they've been changes for the better, I'm sure. I'll have to ask Beverly, but I know I'm looking at things from a new perspective, that my set-in-stone attitudes turned out to be not so immutable. Who would've thought?" He smiled again, ignoring both the trickling blood and the sharp stinging pain. "And I know I'll change again once the baby's born. My God...a baby. Me, a father. Incredible." He lay on his side, curled in an almost foetal position, but he found that internal pain prevented him from curling completely. His smile faded as a new pattern of thought intruded. "What if I make a poor father? It's not as if I had the best role model in my own father. If I'm destined to follow his example..." He grimaced and would've shaken his head vehemently if he'd been able. "No! No matter what kind of example my father set, I would never do that to any child of mine. Besides, Beverly would never allow it! She'd make quite certain of that." He lay quietly for while, letting his body gather what strength it could. But still his mind wouldn't rest. "I know my father loved me...he just didn't know how to show it, yet he had no trouble showing his love for maman or Robert. So...a conflict in character? But I was just a child!" He thought a little more and actually gasped, then grimaced at the sharp pain that caused. "I was too much like him! He saw in me himself...and didn't like what he saw. Oh God, what if I do the same thing to..." He gritted his teeth and groaned piteously as his broken jaw complained loudly. "No! The changes...even if I see myself in our child...I am a better man

now. There will be no need to ostracise a child who has no hope of understanding why his father, who he knew loves him, treats him so deplorably." With that comforting thought, Jean-Luc allowed his mind to drift, going where it wanted. As he relaxed he never felt the seamless slide into unconsciousness. He didn't even stir when, mere moments later, he voided his bladder. The urine contaminated by blood.

Holding the drone gently between forefinger and thumb, Liam nodded with respect and appreciation. "An insect. What a bloody brilliant idea! Do we know if this species in indigenous?" The young woman, who had finally removed her helmet exposing a nasty gash from her temple to the top of her ear. Liam had treated it and she was just waiting for the pain to subside before putingt her helmet back on. Liam knew she would refuse and analgesic, lest it took the edge off her reflexes. That could prove fatal, if not for her, then perhaps one of her team...or Liam himself. "Unfortunately no, sir. We had to choose a generic fly. The fly exists on so many planets and has basically the same or similar structure and would be highly unlikely a few flys would be noticed, especially as they won't be in a group." "All right, that covers aerial surveillance, what about ground and indoor?" Turning, the woman selected a few more small insect-drones. "An ant, a wood slater and a few others.. Again, we have no idea whether these creatures exist on the planet, but the likelihood is that something similar to them should. One of the constants of M class planets, inhabited or not, is always a proliferation of insect life and in remarkably varied species." "Well, I can see that research and development has been busy. So you said they can deliver pharmaceuticals?" "Yes, sir. Because of their small size, the 'payload' it were, is tiny, relative to the size of the 'carrier', but to overcome this, the pharmaceuticals have been greatly altered to increase

their potency. Where it might take, say, ten milligrams of a common sedative such as melorazine to achieve rapid unconsciousness, the same effect can be achieved with point zero one micrograms. That's an enormous percentage decrease that will do the same job." "And," mused Liam, "The ‘subject’ would assume they'd simply been bitten by a 'fly' or whatever.� Grinning evilly, the woman nodded her head. "Until they hit the floor as consciousness is lost, yes, sir." Liam's eyes held an amused glint. "You know, sometimes I think you enjoy your job a little too much." The woman chuckled and shrugged. "It does have it's advantages, sir, but personally I prefer a more...traditional approach. This miniature drone stuff is okay, but there's little more satisfying than bringing down a really bad guy with a clean shot, whether it be a tranquilliser or a phaser rifle set to maximum." Liam's cold smile said more than any words could. The woman failed to stifle the shudder that swept through her body like an icy wave. She was grateful when Liam dismissed her.

The wind was getting stronger, lifting the rat tails that constituted Beverly's once gloriously lustrous red hair. She pulled the mass back irritably, trying to fix it in place somehow to keep it off her face. She failed. Her hair was oily and completely untamed, so with angry disgust, she held it back with one hand while she shielded her eyes with the other. The rise turned out to be a massive disappointment. All it showed from its barely elevated height was kilometre after kilometre of the same coastal, low growing, struggling scrub. She snorted and corrected herself. "Not coastal. The grasses on the lee of the dunes maybe, but this goes too far inland to be considered coastal vegetation." Disheartened, Beverly knew continuing was pointless. Not only would it take her further away from Jean-Luc, she could plainly see there were no other dwellings. In fact there was nothing of note, not even a tree to break the monotony of the scraggly scrub.

She turned and began to trudge back to Meredith's house, thinking sourly, "Figures. Of course she'd want isolation! Anti-social, megalomaniacal, totally way would she tolerate a 'neighbour." Still deep in thought, Beverly lifted her head and stared at the sea, some three quarters of a kilometre distant . "Which begs the was the house constructed? There's absolutely no sign of land vehicles having traversed the scrub and to bring in all that material, appliances, furnishings...not to mention the man power..." Her dull eyes cleared as the answer came to her. "The sea! They came by sea!" Ignoring the increased pain, she quickened her pace, eager to see if her assumption was correct. "If it all came by sea there must be some kind of landing....a pier maybe...and if we're lucky, a small boat." The scrub finally thinned out then disappeared completely as the sand and remarkably soft grasses took over. Having reached the base of the tall, fairly steep dune, she wished the grasses grew on the incline. Climbing up the lee side of the dunes was very difficult, the sand slipping at the slightest touch. It seemed to Beverly that each metre gained was at the cost of three metres lost. She had welcomed this phenomena when she was going down the dune and had she not been so focused on finding help, she would've noticed. Eventually she gave up trying to walk upright and fell gratefully to her hands and knees. At first taking the weight off her feet was such a relief she almost sobbed, but just as quickly as the relief had come the insidious agony of her feet filling with blood. It made her lower her head until her forehead rested on the sand and she groaned low in her throat. She did her best to regulate her breathing, riding out the worst of the pain until it settled into a dreadful throbbing, each foot in perfect sync. "I can do this!" She hissed through gritted teeth. Splaying her hands to their full extent, she also opened her legs to spread her total weight over as much area as possible. If this strategy didn't work, her only remaining option would be to lie flat on her stomach and somehow either wriggle or use her arms and legs to pull herself up the diabolical sand dune. As it turned out, her plan worked. She still slipped backwards with the localised avalanches of sand, but her progress was greater than her loss of metreage. Already desperately tired, Beverly tried not to think about what her raging thirst and depleted nutrients were doing to the baby. As a doctor she knew babies in utero often survived when

their mothers succumbed, the parent's body giving precious life-sustaining fats and fluids to the baby at the cost of their life. Of course that meant the baby had to be removed quickly, either by spontaneous natural birth, or intervention of some other kind, such as a Caesarean delivery. It mattered not. Once the mother was dead, the baby's clock was ticking and the time was severely limited. Beverly was still worrying about the baby and all the possible scenarios that might arise as she finally reached the crest of the dune. Had it not been for the sand and spume laden blast of cold wind that struck her full force on her face, she wouldn't have realised she'd made it. Squinting and blinking rapidly to clear her eyes of tears and fine sand, she cast her eyes up and down the beach as far as she could see. Her spirits plummeted when no jetty or pier, no landing of any sort showed itself. The beach was just as deserted as the hinterland. Careful to keep her balance and not disturb the sand too much, Beverly slowly turned sideways to orient herself in relation to Meredith's house. Having got her bearings, she turned her head for one last look. It was tiny, a mere flash, but it caught her attention. "A fish?" She wondered, not daring to hope. She stared at the same spot so long her eyes began to blur. With a sigh she muttered "Yes, Beverly, a damned fish." She was just about to return to the house when she saw the tiny flash again, in precisely the same place. "That's no damned fish! I don't know what it is, but I bet it's not a naturally occurring phenomena." She had a decision to make. Go down to the beach and swim seemed to be about one hundred and fifty metres off shore, although she was well aware of the distortion of distance of water as seen at an angle from above, and she'd have to negotiate the surf, which thankfully was mild, not too boisterous or cut her exploration and return to her lover. In the end her decision was made for her. Over the thump and distinctive roar of the beach came the familiar whine of a craft utilising thrusters to land. But Beverly's keen and experienced ears easily picked up the sounds of engines under tremendous strain. Normally when a craft executed a landing, the engines were left to idle as the thrusters were used to bring the craft down to a hopefully soft landing. This was SOP. If anything went wrong, the engines could always take over and quickly lift the craft clear of any danger. But although she could clearly hear thrusters at work, the engines of the vessel were struggling, making the most hideous noise, as if a foreign body was lose inside them. "Impossible!" Gaped Beverly as she hurried down the dune. She sensed the vessel was on its last legs and she needed to find shelter. And most pressing of all, the appearance of the ship meant only

one thing. Meredith had returned.

"Beverly!" Meredith called in a no-nonsense tone. "Beverly get in here! There's going to be an explosion and I want you with..." That's as far as she got. The house shook violently before the sound of the blast reached inside. It seemed to create a momentary vacuum, causing Meredith to drop to her hands and knees. She opened her mouth wide as she'd been trained to try to protect her delicate hyper enhanced hearing, but it turned out her super hearing system was too delicate. The intricate inner structures shattered, making Meredith fall to her side and curl up, her hands clasped to each of her ears. Blood trickled between her fingers.

On the cold tiled floor of the bathroom, the violent shaking, followed immediately by the massive explosion roused the desperately ill man. Jean-Luc's mind was not functioning as it should. He didn't know where he was or how he came to be there. All he registered with any clarity was the unbearable agony emanating from his the testicles. That was something he understood, but he had absolutely no idea how he'd sustained such a terrible injury. He barely remembered his own name,

Beverly's prediction of being blown off her feet had turned out to be eerily correct, but it wasn't a natural phenomenon like the wind off the sea, but rather a manufactured blast, caused when the craft had abruptly and violently exploded. There had been no warning..."Well, " muttered Beverly , manipulating her jaw to try and gain some hearing. "It did sound...sick, but it didn't even land. It must've been at least five metres off the roof pad when it went." She rose slowly, surprised at how tangled her limbs were. She had a vague memory of pinwheeling through the air before the wind was knocked from her lungs. Rising unsteadily and wincing, her face a grimace as her feet took her weight, she also felt new injuries, nothing serious, mainly soft tissue damage, but as she warily rotated her right shoulder she let out a

yelp of pain. "Dammit! That's a rotator-cuff tear. Getting Jean-Luc out of the house had just become almost impossible.� She looked at the debris that had rained down even finding its way outside the huge roof of the palatial house. "God..." Beverly grimaced again, her left hand gently massaging her right shoulder. "I hope that mad bitch was in that when it went up." Giving the broken, drunkenly hanging front door with a leery glare, Beverly took a few tentative steps towards the entrance. "We'll," she sighed. "At least we won't have to use that damned fan again!"

Liam's face gave absolutely no sign of emotion as he read the information pouring in from his ship's sensors and scanners. Only his eyes showed both the intense interest and the equally intense hope that his adversary had been on board when the explosion his ship had detected occurred. Such was the power of the blast, there was a 'dead' space for several minutes after the explosion similar to what was once know as "white noise'...or 'dead air'. This unavoidable byproduct of being too near a blast of that magnitude irritated Liam. He hated being vulnerable, and being effectively blind and deaf in space was exactly what they were. Easy pickings for anyone not affected by the blast. Precisely ten seconds later, the very quiet voice of the computer emerged from the tiny receiver in Liam's left ear. " Do you wish a change to our present course and speed?" "No." Liam said softly. "Maintain set course and speed. As soon as we have all our systems back online, I want a complete analysis of the explosion. ETA?" "We will be entering the Proxus system in seventeen minutes." "Activate the molecular hull transformation and raise shields to maximum and prepare the cloak." A feminine voice behind him made Liam scowl. "Expecting trouble, sir?"

Without turning his head, Liam delivered his rebuke. "For future reference, I do not like to be approached from behind, especially when I am obviously busy and any preparations I initiate are of no concern of yours. Is that clear?" He detected the tiniest tremor in her voice as she stiffened to attention and said quietly, but as crisply as she could, "Perfectly clear, sir. My apologies. It won't happen again." As she was speaking, Liam's mind had already dismissed the incident. As far as he was concerned it was no longer of any relevance. His casual question both confused and wrong footed the young woman. "We know the general topography of the area where we're fairly sure the house is...and I'd bet my left testicle that explosion came from the house...or very close to it. Now that could mean she's got another ship and has left, destroying everything remotely after she'd gone...or?" "Ah..." The woman cleared her throat, thinking frantically. Mood shifts like Liam's was not something she'd been trained to deal with. He swivelled his chair and smiled. "It's all right...I don't actually bite." He then frowned and scratched his short gingery-blond hair. "Well I suppose that's not entirely true..." Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, the woman wished to retreat aft and away from the unpredictable man. She thought furiously and almost let out a whoop of relief when the answer came to her. "Her engines, sir. We knew she was pushing way too hard, and dumping raw power from other vital systems was always going make the organic processor unstable." Grinning, Liam snapped his fingers and pointed at the woman. "Exactly! Well done." He sat back and tried to stretch his long thin legs. "Given that the atmosphere around the explosion's point of origin and for many kilometres in every direction and to a height of several thousand metres, and assuming this...pollution...will be a chemical soup, the kind nightmares are made of, will the drones still work?" Somewhat taken aback by the question, the young woman hesitated, then shrugged off her uncertainty. "Yes, sir. Their outer chitinous-like 'shell' is made of an incredibly durable yet flexible material. In my estimation, the drones will function perfectly for as long as you require them to." Nodding his head, Liam said distractedly, "Good...that's good...yeah."

Swallowing to wet her suddenly dry mouth, the woman said respectfully, "Sir, aren't we sure she either died in the explosion, or has escaped?" "Hmm?" Liam looked up and for a second or two, stared right through the unnerved woman. Then he abruptly snapped back. "You must forgive me, I am plotting, trying to cover all exigencies." The woman's eyebrows rose. "Oh, so sending the drones down is just a precaution?" "Yes. Now without sounding like a shitty old man, could you go aft please? I think better on my own." Offering a slight smile, a relieved woman turned and left, knowing Liam never heard her quietly spoken, "Of course, sir."

As one would expect, Meredith had designed her house and had had the construction done in such a way to afford incredible strength. But it wasn't all down to design and build quality. She had done her research and though it had cost an obscene amount of latium, she had found a building material that was almost impervious to anything. It was true entry could be gained their weak points such as the re-enforced windows and the exhaust fan but as for the windows, she had ordered triple strength clear aluminium. It would take some time to break through. As for the exhaust fans, she sighed. That was always going to prove bothersome. With no way to effectively house them and still leave them to do their job properly, she had no choice but to leave them unprotected. However she did have passive protection.

Her property was vast, encompassing an entire isthmus that extended out in a long, wide, slightly curved landmass surrounded by the sea except at the point where the isthmus joined the land and to complete her need for privacy and the paranoid obsession with her own protection, she'd paid to have a deep channel dug right through the neck of the isthmus, effectively separating it from the land.

Right throughout her property, including the waters surrounding it had sensors which would pick up anything larger than the biggest native species of bird. Anything bigger would have to be a biped and that she did not want. Her house too was under constant surveillance with tiny pin-hole cameras spread right throughout the house, several in each room, hallway and outer entrances. All the recording equipment had faithfully picked up all of Beverly's efforts to find a way out and no doubt striving to find a way to take her lover with her. This was proven by the fact she'd returned. But the explosion had changed everything. Inside the house some random objects had been shaken off their display stands, the base plinths askew. Meredith, closer to the epicentre of the blast was been more badly affected by the concussive blast, it having taken place directly above where she stood, albeit at a height of a modest few metres. Jean-Luc, on the other hand had the good fortune to be in the bathroom whose locked cabinets contained thick, insulating towels and the floor, with its heating elements, helped to dissipate the shock waves as they bludgeoned the house. He didn't escape unscathed though. Blood seeped from his deaf ears as the resulting tinnitus made him confused and nauseous. Meredith suffered similarly. She rose unsteadily to her feet, stoically ignoring the pain in her head. She understood why she was so profoundly deaf and knew that given the proper and adequate care, her hearing would be restored. What she wasn't prepared for was the sudden onset of severe vertigo. She staggered sideways, her hands held out in an effort to find the wall to try and control her violently spinning world, but before she made contact, she vomited. And kept vomiting until she could no longer stand. But even on all fours the uncontrolled upheaval of her stomach continued.

Beverly's survival, almost unscathed was mere fortunate happenstance. Experience had told her the strange craft was not going to last long. Not only was it making the most terrible sounds from it's engines, which should've been idling, not screeching in doomed protest, but the odd-looking exhaust manifolds, if that's what they were, began to glow red hot. With no time to waste, she turned and had begun to run as best she could on her sliced feet.

She'd only gone five or six metres when her world changed perspective. Caught in the blast radius, and tumbling through the air, she still had the presence of mind to wonder if she was going to be able to avoid the inevitable debris. And now, sore and super cautious, she eased her aching body past the askew front door and then stood absolutely still. Listening was pointless, her ears were ringing so loudly she wanted to yell "Shut up!" But having no hearing only meant she had to rely on her other senses. She felt certain that Meredith hadn't been on the ship, considering the almost absent evidence of any structural damage to the house, and the amount of time the ship had hovered before it's destruction, giving Meredith ample time to transport down, it stood to reason the insane woman was lurking somewhere in the house. Hoping that wasn't the case and that she had indeed died on the destroyed ship, Beverly still took no unnecessary chances. As she made her way on her bare feet, leaving bloody footprints, she paused at each open door, flattening herself against the wall then peeking inside until she was sure it was empty, then stealthily moving on. If Meredith had survived and was in the house, Beverly assumed she'd make her way to JeanLuc. She had unfinished business with him and the outcome was going to be incredibly painful before it turned fatal. Beverly knew where Jean-Luc was...or had been, she corrected herself. She might not be able to move him far, but with her vastly superior strength, it would be child's play for Meredith. But Beverly needed a plan, or at least a goal. Sneaking around the interior was doing nothing but increase her anxiety, especially as she had no hearing. That was when her penny dropped. If she had been rendered deaf by the blast, and she'd been outside, any person caught inside, where the sound and shock waves were concentrated by not being able to travel but reverberate and bounce off every surface, they would be deaf too, and more profoundly. Meredith's hyper hearing caused a momentary hesitation in Beverly, but her training as a doctor told her that to achieve the level of hearing Meredith had required incredibly delicate and tiny parts, the entire system certainly not robust enough to have survived the blast intact. So where she and Jean-Luc would, with the appropriate medical assistance, regain their hearing with no lingering after-effects, Meredith, on the other hand may well be left permanently and profoundly deaf.

Jean-Luc smiled, once again ignoring the pain, as his mind came online once more, of his split and bleeding lips. "I know what that was,� He thought with savage satisfaction. "All my years in space tell me that explosion, while not exactly standard for any conventional matter-antimatter engine, was still the feeling of a space-faring ship being destroyed and by the intensity and sensation of the explosion, I'd say it was very close and utterly and completely destroyed." He had woken only moments before the blast, the first thing he noticed was the chilliness of the room and the aching cold from the tiled floor. "Lovely," He thought sarcastically. "It's not enough to beat a man so brutally he has visited death's door...actually knocked on the damned thing, that wasn't enough, was it, Meredith, my dear." He wanted to sigh, but even that habit was denied him. His thoughts remained bitter. "Oh no, on realising he hasn't make it just that more distressing to bring in hypothermia into the mix, which you will no doubt control so he doesn't die." His dark, mossy green eyes only visible through the slits of swollen flesh that matched the rest of his face and most of his body. "But your little plan has backfired, Meredith." He thought with grim triumph. "We both know you don't want a short, relatively painless death while I'm asleep! If you're still alive, if you weren't on that ship, you'll be coming soon. And won't you be unpleasantly surprised to learn the cold has eased my pain considerably?" He frowned again, trying to unravel a particular out-of-character mystery. "You know so much, Meredith. How could you overlook the effects of cold on injuries? That's fundamental. Has something happened, Meredith? Did you simply forget? Because if you did, something is amiss...something has gone very wrong with you, and Beverly will have picked up on it." He was smiling still when he sensed a presence in the room. With some difficulty he looked towards the door and sure enough, there was the naked, statuesque, yet grossly hideous form of Meredith Bower.

She sauntered the few steps to bring her to her helpless captive and kicked him hard, just under the solar plexus, driving all the air from his lungs and causing instant nausea. She withdrew the foot and, having gained Jean-Luc's undivided attention, she pointed to her still-bleeding ears and said too loudly, "I can't hear a fucking thing!" She jabbed her finger at the retching man, doing his best to not vomit on the floor, lest he'd be made to clean up the resulting mess. Enunciating clearly she said one more word. "You?"

Jean-Luc was unable to shake his head in negation, so he did his utmost to enunciate as clearly as Meredith had, an almost impossible task given the state of his lips and broken teeth. "No." He croaked. Meredith scowled and said loudly, "Shit! I want to hear you scream in agony as I drag you outside and down to the beach!" Her scowl gave way to a malicious, sly grin, exposing her ugly, unnaturally large teeth. "Still, a trip to the beach is always nice, yeah?" She shouted. Jean-Luc did nothing. He'd not heard anything, but that didn't mean he wasn't aware she meant to do him harm and without Beverly, after Meredith had had her 'fun', she would most certainly kill him. Slowly. As if reading her thoughts, she looked over her shoulder, a deep, worried frown, the very fact she was able to crease her smooth, perfect skin, was testament to just how distressed she was at her inability to locate Beverly. "I've called and called, but she doesn't respond." As if quickly changing a theatrical mask, her expression turned from anxious and worried to angry and vengeful. "She's hiding! She's deliberately hiding! Well, we'll see won't we? Eh Picard?" She gave Jean-Luc an odd, unsettling look. He hadn't heard a word she'd said, but he knew she was tipping further over the edge of deeper insanity. He could feel it. "Stupid arsehole. You think refusing to answer will make me relent? You're out of luck you fucker!" Still unaware of what she was saying and the mercurial shifts in her expression gave him nothing on which to base any opinion of her mental state at that very moment. He soon found out. She provided a very clear demonstration in the form of two more savage kicks. One again aimed at his already traumatised solar plexus and diaphragm and as he was trying to regain some breath, the second kick was delivered. It was aimed at his groin. It was sheer luck he was still cupping his horribly damaged testicles. But still, the pain robbed him of consciousness. But not for long, with Meredith cruelly twisting his smashed nose, he cried out piteously. "Come on, shit stick we're off to the beach." Without hearing a word of what she'd said, he

had no way or time to even try to prepare. Meredith bent, grabbed his left ankle and began to drag him across the floor. No one heard his cries of agony.

Due to the high level of caution she had to take, and being unarmed, it had taken Beverly just over an hour to check the lower level of the curiously large split levelled home. It was as she ascending the largest stair case, which she knew led to the odd upper floor, it's rooms covered with pictures of her, many, like in the ship. Huge close-ups of her eyes, or lips, a series of her entire face, arranged in a jigsaw-like pattern that seemed to depict Beverly's face shattered. There were complete pictures, life studies and statuary, all devoted to the beautiful red headed doctor. But what unnerved Beverly the most was a large triptych on the wall to the right of the door that led to the master bedroom. Beverly had wondered why a paranoid, antisocial murderer like Meredith, could possibly want with four spare bedrooms, the beds always neatly made and fresh towels folded and placed on the end of the immaculate bed, as if awaiting expected visitors. But now wasn't the time for idle speculation, although Beverly couldn't suppress the shudder of disgust at the triptych. She and Meredith were depicted in the first in Starfleet uniforms, at work in sickbay, but, although separated by several metres, the look of love and lust on the faces as they stared at each other, including a astonishingly accurate representation of yearning in their eyes was sickening, yet beautiful at the same time. The second painting had them naked and walking towards the viewer in a meadow. They were holding hands and though their heads were slightly bowed, it was easy to see they were looking at each other, lost in their own world. But the hardest of all to look at was the third and final picture. They were lying tangled together on top of a bed, kissing passionately, while each had a hand buried in each other's sex. The look of rapture and the unmistakable signs of approaching orgasm was the final straw for Beverly. She was tempted to sneak back downstairs to get a knife...a butter knife would do, and destroy these disgusting parodies of Meredith's imagination. It wasn't until Beverly had entered the master suite and was making her way to the bathroom

that she suddenly realised that the Meredith in the paintings was the 'old' Meredith. The woman she was before her...change. Filing that away for later analysis, Beverly made it to the ensuite door. A quick glance at the floor made her heart momentarily freeze. There was blood, quite a lot of blood and, with mouth agape, Beverly slowly turned her head to see that it went right across the bedroom, skirting the bed and out the door, by then more of a smear on the carpet than the large amount at the ensuite door. Had she looked down and approached the ensuite from the other side of the bed, she would've seen it. Now positive the house was empty but for her, Beverly walked boldly into the bathroom and did her best not to sob at the sight of the pool of blood which clearly showed the outline of a body in it's clotting surface. Taking several calming breaths, Beverly said out loud, "Okay, you're not in the house, Jean-Luc and seeing as there's no way you could've got out under your own steam, that can only mean one thing. Dear, sweet Meredith, who loves you so dearly, has taken you somewhere to torture and kill." She rubbed her brow in frustration. "But where would she go?" She turned and looked speculatively at the blood trail. "Well that's a pretty logical place to start." After the trail had petered out, it was a matter of looking carefully for the odd small smear or rarer, a droplet. Slowly, her head bowed and concentrating fiercely, a limping Beverly, leaving her own bloody trail, made her way through to the back of the house and into an area she was unfamiliar with. It was compounded when the faint evidence of her lover's passage came to an abrupt end at a closed door. It was made of some kind of metal and beside it, on the wall was a small but elaborate security device. On close inspection, Beverly noted an alphanumeric pad, a retina scanner, a fingerprint scanner and a DNA scanner. Uttering a vulgar curse, Beverly turned and leaned her back against the cold seemingly impenetrable door, thinking, "Oh, shit. I'll never get that open." It was then that two things happened at once. The door creaked and shifted slightly, the security pad lit up, showing activation, then just as suddenly blew off the wall in a shower of sparks and hot pieces of its constituent material. Beverly had moved away from the door with alacrity at its first movement and she held her hands near her face until the flying molten bits and pieces has ceased before she dared look, then cautiously approach. Her eyes stinging from the acrid smoke, she suppressed the urge to cough as she put both hands on the door and shoved it...hard. She had no way of knowing which way the door opened, but as the door lacked any handle or apparatus to suggest it

opened towards in inside of the house, Beverly felt fairly confident she'd made the correct choice. This was vindicated only a few short seconds later. The door was stiff and reluctant to movement making Beverly realise it too had been damaged by the blast. "And the power supply to the house must be surging." Thought Beverly worriedly. "Well " said a now once again determined doctor. "If I end up outside, it won't matter a damn anyway. My first and only priority is to find Jean-Luc and get him away from that nut case of a woman, preferably before the bitch kills him!" She was definitely not prepared to find, after traversing a dark, small vestibule, the outer door opened relatively easily and light flooded in. Had she been able to hear, she would have heard the sound of the crashing surf nearby.

"I've got two sir...wait! A third has just appeared out of nowhere!" The young woman's voice was perplexed and excited all at once. Liam sat back, his tongue playing with his damaged right little finger. He gave the female a long, but not unfriendly look. "If I asked you to tell me your rank, you'd refuse, wouldn't you." She coloured a little, but her voice was steady as she replied, "With respect, sir, yes, I would." Liam sighed, uncrossed his feet and lowered his legs from the console in preparation to sitting properly. He spent a few moments inputting instructions to the computer via the console, then sat back and said, "Computer, do me a favour and show all images captured at the recent explosion we detected on the planet." The female was a little taken aback when the computer's feminine voice said, "Of course, Liam." The laconic Australian grinned and inclined his head towards the console. “We're on a first name basis, the computer and me." Although the woman was now wearing a new helmet which covered her entire head, Liam could sense her amusement, however he let it pass. Drawing his seat closer, he said as he

watched the screen, which he'd enlarged with tap of a fingertip, "Computer begin playback" To the watching officer he said quietly, "They didn't come out of thin air, nor were they transported down. They came from inside the house" "What house?" The confused female said. " Our scans showed no dwellings..." "Hush." Liam said, but not unkindly. "Just watch and at 4.82, watch very closely, as it doesn't last long and the glare from the explosion almost occludes it." At the specified time, the ship that seemed to be hovering in air, about seven metres above the house suddenly and inexplicably suffered a catastrophic explosion. At the apex of the blast, for only a second or two, a palatial home was visible. Then it was gone. "Well I'll be damned! It's cloaked!" "Not exactly." Liam corrected gently. "If you were there, you'd have no trouble seeing it. But our 'friend' has got hold of a 'sensor scatterer'. In essence the entire dwelling is enveloped in a bubble, for want of a better term, consisting of minuscule particles that act as reflectors...mirrors if you will. Now to the eye of anyone on the surface, their sight is unaffected, it was designed that way, but to any scanner, the reflective properties divert the scans to the ground around the object and assemble the images so that the scanner 'sees' just a patch of ordinary-looking ground." "Jesus! But what about a ground assault?" Liam shrugged his shoulders. "We're not yet au fait with every aspect of the SS but it seems obvious to me that blocking sensors originating in space would be useless in the event you were attacked on land. My bet is that it can either be adjusted, or it's able to morph into invisibility to anyone on the ground. But that’s just an educated guess." "Well it's not much help now. The computer has the coordinates and we can see the fact they're standing out like dog's balls...sir." Liam quietly laughed. "All right, I know you can't talk about yourself, but you must have some Aussie in you." The woman bent slightly and said softly, "My paternal grandfather, sir. I used to stay with him a lot."

"And you won't tell me where." It was a rhetorical question and no answer was given. Liam nodded and said with quiet steel, "Get your team ready, ETA, ten minutes." "Aye, sir."

The rough movement had made some of the more serious injuries Jean-Luc suffered begin to bleed once more, but once outside the sand helped clog the gashes and a point. As he continued to bleed the sodden sand would fall off in clumps of varying sizes. Where Beverly had encountered difficulties following his bloody 'trail' in the house, caused no doubt by his lowered body temperature, once outside she not only had the drag marks in the sand, but also the blood clumps to follow. She crested a small dune on the lee side of the large dunes that acted as a buttress against the wind and sea. She was just about to make her way down to the small valley between the dunes when a human-like shadow from behind her startled her, causing her to spin around and adopt a defensive pose. The male held up his hand and slipped the full-cover helmet off his head. He simply smiled, allowing the shocked doctor to regain her composure and when she did, she cried out, "Liam!" And ran to him. He engulfed her in a bear hug, surreptitiously casting a look at one of the small team who carefully but quickly scanned her feet and on up her body from behind. Had it not been for the helmet, Liam would've seen the raised eyebrow when the scanner picked up the pregnancy and her deafness. The team member tapped her helmet, indicating Beverly’s deafness, then placed a gloved hand over her lower belly. The messages were loud and clear. Disengaging, Liam placed his gloved hands on Beverly's shoulders. Enunciating clearly, he said, "First things first." He then touched his ears. Beverly grinned and nodded enthusiastically. An instrument was placed in each ear for three minutes and when the treatment was over, Beverly had enough hearing to converse and she knew with time, it

would improve until it was back to normal. "Well," Liam grinned. "It seems you and that reprobate mate of mine have been having a little adventure." With a snort, Beverly nodded, then snapped her head around to see she was being given a series of hypos sprays. To her raised eyebrows, Liam said quietly, but enunciating clearly, "You have the beginnings of mild infections in your feet, as well as foreign bodies. And, Beverly, you need a decent meal and a lot of rest." He looked pointedly at her belly and she blushed. "Does he know?" "Yes." Whispered Beverly. She then took two handfuls of Liam's camouflage suit. "You have to get him back, Liam! She's not only taken him to further torture him but she intends to kill him." Beverly looked over her shoulder at the widely spaced, but haphazard clumps of bloody sand and the drag marks before returning her attention back to Jean-Luc's long-time friend. "You do know about her, don't you?" "Meredith Bower?" Liam's eyes glittered coldly. "Oh yes, we know all about Meredith Bower." "Then you know she's insane!" Said a panicked Beverly. "She had surgical enhancements done, Liam, she's not the same..." Liam gently squeezed Beverly's shoulders. "We know, Beverly, we know. The enhancements, the Fen..." "The Fen?" Asked a suspicious Beverly. Then her face cleared. "The extraordinary knowledge? The astonishing IQ?" "Yes ", Liam said, noticing Beverly was already hearing with more clarity. "But we can't stay here talking. We think she has a vessel hidden and she's..." Beverly stood back and one hand came to her mouth. "The water!" Narrowing his eyes, Liam said with quiet intensity, "What do you mean by the water, Beverly?" "Come on! I'll show you!" Before Liam could stop her, Beverly turned and ran in her odd loping style, having adapted to the damage to her feet. Liam and his little party had no option but to follow. They could have easily stopped her but if she knew where the vessel was....

To anyone else, climbing up the near sheer, sliding and shifting sands of the large coastal dunes would be hard enough, but to do it while staying upright and dragging the dead weight of Jean-Luc Picard made her feat even more remarkable. She had one hand locked around his ankle, but in the other hand she had something she'd scooped off the bedroom dresser on her way out. It was a powerful remote which had incorporated into it a lethal, razor-sharp blade and a tiny columnated weapon, similar to a personal phaser, but much smaller and incredibly, more powerful. Having reached the crest of the dune, she unceremoniously dropped her captive's leg, lifted her head and spread her arms wide, while throwing her head back and yelling an incoherent sound of triumph. With that out of her system, she turned and looked down at the pitiful man lying helpless on the sand at her feet. He looked up at her through slitted, swollen and heavily bruised eyes. "Yes!" Meredith crowed. "You take a good look, Picard. I have the power of life and death...I am a God, so far advanced from your plodding existence I doubt you will ever truly comprehend what I really am, but it doesn't matter, because I'm not going to show you mercy. You are going to die, you fucker. For what you did to my Beverly, fucking her beautiful body and implanting your parasite and then fucking with her mind!" Meredith kicked Jean-Luc, but he refused to react. If he was to die, he would do so without giving his killer the satisfaction of seeing or hearing his pain. He wasn't sure whether or not Meredith remembered he couldn't hear and it crossed his mind she may have regained her hearing, but as she looked out to sea, he said her name as loudly as he could, it gained absolutely no reaction. "So," thought the captain. "She's still as deaf as I am." Before he could process that information and before he could use it somehow to his advantage, with no warning, Meredith stooped and gripped the back of Jean-Luc's neck, hoisting him to his feet, making no compensation for his injuries. As his ruptured testicle suddenly dangled, he cried out in agony, his bravado of only moments before lost in a grey mist of unspeakable pain. Meredith saw him about to lose consciousness and shook him like a dog would a rabbit. "No you don't!" She screamed. "Before you die, you will bear witness to my genius!"

Jean-Luc never heard the words, but he got the gist of what she'd said. His unsteady gaze following her stiff arm, a small device held in her fingers, she grinned her grotesque smile as she seemed to depress a tiny button. Approximately one hundred and fifty metres off shore, rising to the surface, then disappearing below the ocean swell was a shiny object. Meredith's unnatural icy blue eyes gleamed as the object went under the water and didn't resurface. She waited patiently, holding Jean-Luc's neck so he could see through the tears of pain he was unable to control. The first sign of something rising was a sudden roiling of bubbles and swirling, confused water. Emerging first was an oblong, silver tube. The rest of what turned out to be a vessel like nothing the captain had seen before, was floating on the surface. It was much larger than Jean-Luc had guessed it was. He'd speculated she had another craft when she seemed unperturbed when her other ship was destroyed. This, obviously, was it. He thought she may have a shuttle, big enough for two, but this was a ship. Almost seventy metres long and twenty metres wide, the captain could only guess the ten metres or so he could see above the waterline was either matched or dwarfed by what lay under the surface. He was suddenly propelled forward. Speaking in a conversational tone, Meredith seemed to have no idea her captive couldn't hear a word she said. "Initially," she explained patiently, "I was going to have it fully remote controlled, so I could bring it closer in so my Beverly wouldn't have to walk then swim too far, but that would've necessitated a bigger remote module...and we don't want that, do we?" She gave a demented chuckle and bent slightly to have a good look at the terrible damage to Jean-Luc's genitals. "Oh, but that's going to hurt. This sea has a higher salt content than Earth's seas and it also contains an acid not yet categorised. I call it 'Meredith's brew.'"Again she giggled insanely. "About the only good your little dip is going to do for your...damage is to clean it a treat and support it...not that it matters. I don't give a flying fuck, I'm going to kill you no matter if you're squeaky clean or filthy." By this time she was wading in knee deep water, her long strides carrying her into deeper water very quickly. Being shorter than Meredith, Jean-Luc was soon out of his depth and she'd been right about the pain. It was excruciating. Somehow he stopped himself from begging for mercy, she wouldn't hear him anyway, but he howled in agony, tears flowing copiously and unheeded down his battered and stubbled face.

Soon enough Meredith was doing a side-stroke, the pain of the vice-like grip on the back of his neck giving Jean-Luc a headache so bad he thought he'd vomit. With only a few metres to go to meet the vessel, Meredith stopped and tread water, admiring her creation. "It has an organic warp drive, you know. Much more efficient than..." The water only centimetres to her right kicked up in a large fan of spray. Whipping her head around, she saw the party on the beach, but what enraged her was what the tall, ginger blondhaired man was doing to her beloved Beverly. Holding her the same way Meredith held JeanLuc. The implication was clear. Let her captive go and she could have Beverly. But Meredith wasn't about to give up quite so easily. She swam the last few metres to the ship and scaled the retractable ladder on the vessel's side. Climbing gracefully, as sleek as an otter, Meredith stood to her full height and lifted a now semi-conscious captain and changed her grip of his neck. Now grasping his neck with both hands, her implication was clear. Give me Beverly and stay where you are, or I break his neck. The look of utter disbelief and astonishment when a phaser rifle blast hit her square in the stomach, driving her back several steps and making her reflexively drop her captive to cover the ugly burn with her hands made Beverly whoop with delight. Meredith didn't hear the whoop, but she did see Beverly punch the air. Moving with unbelievable speed, Meredith slipped down an open hatch, slamming it closed in emergency mode. The vessel then abruptly sank, leaving Jean-Luc to float helplessly in the swirling waters, in danger of being sucked down as well.

The instant Meredith had dropped Jean-Luc, Liam had shouted an order to his team to stay put, eased Beverly into the care of the team leader and was dolphining through the surf, diving under each wave and upon surfacing, adopted an easy, remarkably fast open water freestyle. He was with his mate in under seven minutes.

Cradling Jean-Luc's head in the crook of his elbow, he checked the captain's pulse and was greatly relieved to find one. By now fully unconscious, a blessing given the circumstances, Liam utilised the surf to gently bring his charge to shore, which was just as well, as Liam had not seen the full extent of his friend's injuries. Beverly was standing knee deep, ignoring the intense pain in her feet and helped Liam to float the man into shallow water until he grounded. Then, with Liam doing his best to not react to the ghastly injuries he could see, summoned all of the team to lift and carry Jean-Luc with tender gentleness. Having laid him just as gently as possible on the soft sand, Liam contacted his ship. "Computer, two to beam up on my signal." He then turned to the team. "Right! Who's the designated medic?" By the ominous silence and bowed heads, Liam knew that individual had been one of the unfortunates who had been killed. "I see." He said flatly and turned to Beverly. "Before she could protest he held up his hand. "I know you are torn, Beverly, trying to reconcile your desperate need to be with him and treat him against you deep desire to see...justice...carried out against Meredith Bower. But there're two things you have to know that might help you decide." He took a deep breath and delivered the bad news. "My ship has no medical facility, Doctor. It was never designed for the kind of work that necessitated one. We either complete our mission and do our best to return, or we die. In that event, the onboard computer, on detecting no life signs when it should, self- destructs. So even if you went with him, there is only a minimal med kit and no pharmaceuticals. And the other thing is that we need what you have up here." He tapped his temple. "We have plenty of intel about Bower, but dry facts don't hold a candle to the kind of information contained in your mind and in your position as a doctor, it gives us a unique and very welcome perspective on our target we rarely ever have." He looked deeply into Beverly's eyes and said softly, "I won't order you though. I do understand. Whatever you eventually decide, I will accept, but you have to make up your mind quickly. My ship can prevent Bower's ship from reaching the upper atmosphere, but not indefinitely." Beverly nodded, too emotionally caught to trust her voice. Liam helped by turning his

attention back to the team leader. "The drones. Any luck?" He never saw the savage grin of satisfaction. "Well, sir, as incredible as it sounds we have not one, but two drones on her ship. The instant the hatch opened the drones I had brought into the general area of the deck immediately entered. But only two. A small fly and an even smaller wasp-like drone." "And what sort of mischief can they get up to?" Liam said, his eyes showing his desire to create havoc. "Oh, sir." The team leader said, her voice clearly carrying her enthusiasm. "It's more like what can't they do! You name it. From interfering with the circuitry of the ship, creating false sensor echoes to delivering a potent condensed sedative..." She held up a device that looked remarkably like a tricorder. She noticed her superior's dubious look and smiled inside her helmet. "We had to make it look innocuous, sir, and what's more common...and benign than a tricorder?" With an appreciative grunt, he said, "Right! I want to play some games with the target's mind. We already know she's a sandwich short of a picnic, so I want her to begin to have doubts. Nothing to overt, start with petty annoyances, like a blown single unimportant console. Then slowly but surely begin to escalate. Go system by system until she'll have not a shadow of doubt she's either under attack, or someone has sabotaged her ship." Liam turned and looked at the swells that now rolled over the place where the ship had surfaced. He squinted, lifting his hand and nibbling on the little finger, the bandage removed some time ago. When he turned back to his team, the female leader could see he'd come up with something truly fiendish. "Can you tap into the central government communication network?" "Yes, sir." Said a now excited, yet intrigued female. "Bloody ripper! Right, I want a message, ordering her immediate deportation for a massive disturbance of the peace, one for which she had not notified the relative authoritative body, nor acquired a permit for whatever she did to create the explosion. Tell her there had been hundreds of angry residents clogging the usually smooth operation of the communication system. Remind her of the imperatives she'd agreed to in order to build on her land and stress, that by so blatantly violating one of the most important government by laws, she was no

longer welcome and her departure is expected to take place immediately. Any belongings left will be forfeited. Harassment! I want her hounded!" "Oh, wow, sir!" Said a very impressed female. " She'll blow a fuse!" "More like a gasket and if I'm right, she'll fly completely off the handle...and that's where our little drone insect friends will deliver their sedative." "Both of them, sir? With respect, that's a hell of a dose, certainly enough to kill a human." "Oh, I agree, but you're missing two rather important points. One: she's no longer what you could classify as human, and that lack of human reactions makes her unique and two: if we don't render her utterly unconscious, she's going to be so pissed off..." "I get the picture sir." "Good. Now Doctor Crusher, Captain Picard and I are going up to my ship, I may have an ace up my sleeve. In the meantime, take your team and secrete yourselves within the dunes where she can't pick you up, 'cause you will have buggered up her scanners and transporters. Are we all on the same page?" A soft chorus of, "Yes, sir." was heard." Liam walked over to Beverly, still assessing her lover's injuries. Speaking only loud enough to hear, after the team had left, he said, "My little ace is something a bit more...comprehensive than a med kit." Beverly smiled her gratitude and sighed. "Jean-Luc had often told me you were a rouge." Feigning innocence, Liam shook his head. "A rouge? Certainly not! A little unconventional perhaps, but that is a discussion for another day. Are you ready?" Beverly took Jean-Luc's right hand in hers and simply nodded. Liam's voice seemed to come from a long way away. "Computer, three to transport. Energise."

Beverly had never seen anything quite like it. Despite its interior battle damage, she could easily see this was a vessel well ahead in design and technology. But her very quick appraisal of the ship was made with quick glances during the time it took Liam to pick up his friend from the deck and lay him on Liam's own bed, although to describe the alcove with its half thickness mattress, (extra long to accommodate Liam's above average height.)

The doctor had no doubt it was comfortable, but Liam's bed was very utilitarian, the area around his bedroom was spare, devoid of anything deemed not necessary. While Beverly knelt beside her lover, casting aside his grim-looking state, she had to reach deep inside her mind to look at Jean-Luc's ghastly injuries to see them, not without her compassion, but objectively, something she had taught herself to do whenever he was the was brought to her sickbay. She smiled with the bitter sweet thought and, out of sheer habit, stroked his cool forehead. Just as Liam appeared at her shoulder, she said, " All up. 30 years." Liam's nimble mind had found what that number related to. He sighed as he went about setting up a machine. The last two items were stools, Beverly rising slowly from her knees to perch gratefully on its surface. As he worked he explained, “Oddly enough, I like to collect things...sometimes not exactly legally. This...” He nodded towards the machine. “Is my latest...acquisition.”

Now sitting higher, she could look down at her patient. Without taking her eyes off the man, she said firmly to Liam, "Have you any medical training above the standard first aid taught at the Academy?" "Indeed I have," Liam said and Beverly heard the trace of bitterness in his gravelly, deep voice. She risked a glance at the man to see his usually clear and focused eyes had clouded with dark and unpleasant memories. He saw Beverly's unassuming glance and explained. " Comes with the territory. Almost always I work alone, and sometimes," he gave a sardonic chuckle, "On some occasions I've been obliged to patch myself up. And of course, though rare, there're missions like this one." .He waved his hand to encompass the interior of the ship. Just as Beverly had inadvertently voiced an inner thoughts, Liam did the same thing..

"Kids...they're just kids and I've already lost too many." Then he was back, all business. The last thing he said on the matter was, "It's the main reason I prefer to work alone."

An uncomfortable, but thankfully short silence ensued until Beverly too slipped seamlessly into doctor mode. "Liam, I need some steri-pads...lots of them." "You want to clean all his wounds." "Uh huh. Taken individually, none of these injuries are life-threatening, but taken as a whole, he's in grave danger. I know he's bleeding internally too, but thankfully he's bleeding slowly and not in any dangerous quantity, but my main concern is infection. I don't know anything about this planet, specifically the pathogens. In short, I have no idea what kind of germs are floating about or, more importantly what they can do, let alone how to treat any infection caused by them. So yes, I, need to get these injuries, in fact his entire body and our hands as clean as possible." Liam grimaced. "They way you put seems to suggest even our attempts to clean and maintain some kind of sterility is just as likely to assist any nasties as easily as kill them." "Yep." Said Beverly angrily. "But I can only do what my training and experience has taught me." Liam gently grasped her shoulder. "It'll be enough, Beverly, I'm sure, but there's something I must insist on before we begin on Jean-Luc." Irritation coloured Beverly's reply. "And just what would that be?" "That you eat a decent meal and at least clean yourself, then begin treatment of your feet. You're just as much at risk as Johnny boy." "Liam, we really don't have the time! Now just go and get the..." "...meal. Good idea. Be back in a mo." Liam finished.

Though said lightly and in a friendly manner, Beverly was under no illusions. Liam was a long-time, very dear friend of her lover's and he had told Beverly a bit about him, certainly not enough to compromise the man, but enough for Beverly to know that to deny Liam even when his 'orders' are given so cheerfully was pointless. So rolling her eyes behind his back, the usually independent and rebellious Beverly bowed to Liam's proclamation with barely a whimper. With growing impatience, the now well fed and hydrated Beverly fidgeted as Liam methodically and with appropriate care, first cleaned her feet before removing the splinters as best he could and then applying an antiseptic lotion that would permeate the flesh once the tissue sealer did its job. Any remaining splinters would have to be either removed by hand, or beamed out. It just depended on where in the soles of her feet they were. Finally Beverly heard the words that allowed her to spring into action. "There you go!" Said Liam, proud of his handiwork. "Yeah, and about time too!" Thought the doctor. Not having to be told, Liam had placed a large stack of steri-pads, contained in a sealed holder right next to Beverly's right side. As they began their onerous task, Jean-Luc started to regain consciousness.

Hidden amongst the twisted, convoluted, wind-sculptured gullies between the huge front dunes and their smaller rear counterparts, the female leader was seated with her helmet off, concentrating intently. Placed at strategic places on the barely tufted crests of the tall ocean-facing dunes, the others of her decimated team watched the sea, the visors of their helmets set to a magnification of x10. If anything disturbed the surface, there was no doubt they would see it...and if their leader did her job correctly, there would be no cloak. In other words...a sitting duck...or so they hoped.

"Now my little beasties, so far you've done marvellously well. I think it's time to up the ante. You, my tiny wasp, will make your way into the main computer core and you, my clever fly, will find a way to get inside the cockpit main console."

The female inputted the difficult algorithms that set the drones on their tasks when she was hit with a very powerful need to see the fruits of her labour. However, her rank within this special group had been hard won. So although she might indeed wish to peek with her colleagues, her desire to not put a foot wrong, to successfully obey her superior and eventually, with a strong history of initiative, competency and courage, she hoped to advance in rank. And so she sat cross-legged in the hot, airless gully, her eyes glued to the screen of her controller and when she switched from dry, emotionless mathematics to pictures, she saw an extremely satisfying scene. Meredith Bower was having some kind of tantrum, at least that's what it looked like. The interior she could see was a shambles. Occasionally Meredith would appear on the screen, her oddly transformed face suffused with blood, giving her skin a melange of tan and dark red. The result was, thought the female, probably the most frightening and ugly thing she had ever had the misfortune to see. She was so glad the sound had been muted.

On board the ship, Meredith was at her wit's end. What began as minor hiccups had now become a serious impediment. As each system was ordered to activate, the same thing came from the computer. "I cannot comply, Meredith. My apologies." Meredith didn’t hear the apologies which only served to further enrage her. And the continuous text messages from the planetary government so incensed her, she smashed the screen, leaving only one left for any sort of communication. She suddenly felt the nose of the ship dip sharply downward. A small cry of alarm from Meredith quickly grew to outright rage. The beast was out and it vented its madness on anything and everything it could lay its hands, feet or mouth on. Before the vid feed was lost, the female saw that Meredith was arming some kind of weapon. "Time, I think, to call the boss. This is way out of my league."

Beverly watched with fascination as a series of pads were placed on JeanLuc's injuries, all except those too painful or too serious. The red haired doctor had a feeling she'd seen something like this before...pads placed in specific places on the patient, leads leading to a machine...she suddenly snapped her fingers! "Yes!" She blurted triumphantly, causing Liam to send her a look of slight irritation and understandable amusement, something Beverly had only seen Liam do and she didn't know him all that well. His craggy, lined and scarred face softened as he said, "Worked it out, have you?" Slightly chagrined, a blushing Beverly nodded. "Yes. I knew I'd seen a machine like that. It was in a medical museum. But if my memory serves me well, I think it's purpose to measure something...the heart, I think, and the machine part was bigger. I mean the first of these machines were so big and cumbersome, but by the early 21st century, humankind had really done a good job in streamlining the device using the primitive computers they had available to them." Nodding as he sited the last of the soft, malleable pads, Liam agreed. "Spot on, Beverly, well done. What you're thinking of was known as an Electro Cardiograph. Its job was to give a fairly accurate readout of the beating of the patient's heart. A whole raft of problems, serious or merely annoying could be detected. And you're quite right about the shrinking of the 'machine' as well. Those medical engineers really did a bloody good job. But...that's not what this device is." "No." Agreed Beverly. If you wanted to measure any of the body's functions, as an individual organ-by-organ scan or a total full-body scan, those pads you're using would be unnecessary." Liam's attention was now focused on the tablet-size 'brain' of the instrument. Absently he said, "Obviously this is no ECG. It's a restoration accelerator." Before Beverly asked the inevitable questions. "You docs will get your hands on these in about 8 months. They're something our med techs have been busy with. Like I said...I collect things."

"But we have instruments to do that. Tissue mitigators, osteo fusers, regen beams..."

Liam sighed. "Oh yes, no argument there, but can any of your instruments heal the entire

body at the same time? Because this one can. You know you've lost patients simply because of bloody time. With a badly injured patient, you have to decide which injury, which is almost always a vital organ, and while you're striving to repair that organ, the other damaged organs and peripheral injuries are happily killing the patient." "I see your point," said a slightly affronted Beverly. "But it's a rare situation when a doctor is the only person available to treat a patient. It's why we work in teams, precisely to avoid what you described." "Uh huh, but wouldn't you call our situation one of those 'rare' occasions? And this instrument is barely bigger than a PADD. " his eyes still on what Beverly assumed was the screen, he grinned. "And I can guarantee it will be made even more compact." He abruptly sat up from his bent position on the stool and stretched. "Right, Beverly, now you have a particularly nasty job to do. This..." He held up the tablet. "Is doing a very good job, but as a prototype, I'm not going to leave it on until he's fully restored. You can do that when we get back to civilisation. In the here-and-now, you've got to put that," he gestured to Jean-Luc's swollen and badly bruised testicle, "back where it belongs." Beverly was aghast. "But Liam, he's conscious! I don't know why he's not responding, but all my experience tells me he's no longer insensate." "Quite right. It's yet another very helpful function of this device. He can hear us and knows what's going on, but unfortunately the med tech boffins haven't worked out how to eliminate the pain the patient feels." "Oh God! Then why the hell is the patient brought to consciousness? Surely it'd be far more effective if the patient was out to it?" Liam's expression was hard, yet sympathetic, another dichotomy from the Australian. "Do you really think those med techs would deliberately leave it so the patients felt everything unless they had no other bloody option?"

Reddening only slightly, Beverly shook her head. "Of course not! But here we are, using the device on a badly injured patient and he can feel everything that's being done to him. My God, you might as well have given him curare." Liam's eyebrows rose. "You know about curare? I'm impressed."

"The pharmacology of plants is a...long time study of mine. But you haven't answered my question." Liam sighed and rubbed his eyes with the pad of each thumb. "You know this is a prototype." "Yes, you mentioned that." Liam ignored the sarcasm. "Then you know prototypes aren't perfect, they have bugs that need to be ironed out. Well one of the bugs is the pain thing. The estimation for a bug-free instrument is about 8 months. Hopefully then it'll be pain free, but right now this can't work unless it can accurately measure his pain levels. It's part of the system that addresses the most urgent injuries while still working on others. Now we really need to press on. Get his ball back in its sack as quickly as you can." On seeing the anger and disgust with his choice of words, and before she launched into a time-wasting tirade, Liam said pleadingly and as it turned out, judiciously, "Please." Mollified, but only just, Beverly, slipped on a pair of old-fashioned surgical gloves, offered by Liam. It was yet another anomaly she'd like to ask him about. Doing her best to try and ignore the thought of the unspeakable agony she must be causing her lover, she gently cleaned the sensitive testicle, another one of Liam's pre-emptive actions. Now slippery the naked testicle required even more tender handling, but that very slipperiness was what assisted it to slide relatively easily into the less swollen and bruised scrotum. Heaving a sigh of relief, Beverly asked, hoping for the right answer, "Okay. Is that all, or do I have to do anything else?" "No, except the removal of the anal packing," Replied Liam. "What's left can be treated as we go. This,� He indicated the device, "has done as much as I want it to. All we have to do now is make him comfortable and..." He was cut off by an urgent call from the team leader. "Sir? I think you'd better come down here. The target has blown a gasket and seems to be arming some kind of weapon." All business now, Liam said curtly, "Any clue as to what it is?" "Not yet, sir, but I doubt it's for our continuing good health."

"Hmm, well as it is, I agree with you. You said 'not yet'. Am I to draw from that you may know when?" The female's tone became guarded. "That depends, sir. The drones are still transmitting, but when she went screw loose, they sort of got caught in the backwash. We're trying to get them up and running again." "And the chances of that are..?" "Fifty-fifty, sir. The fact they're still transmitting is a good sign, but the target really did a job on her craft. It's a complete shambles." "Can you give me a time estimate? Anything would do, as long as I have something to work with." Liam's blue eyes had become cold. "Well...if we can't input commands the drones will obey within the next half an hour, I'd say they're not going to. The transmitting may be a default mode. Who knows, sir. They might be absolutely fried." Liam sneered and pressed his thumbs into his eyes again. "That would be unfortunate." He took a calming breath. "All right, do what you can. If you have no luck, in half an hour from now I intend to blast that craft into scrap." "Aye, sir." The channel closed and Liam leaned back, running his hands up his face and backwards through his short hair. Beverly's soft voice made him cease all movement. It was as if he'd forgotten she and Jean-Luc were there. "That's a little...extreme...don't you think?" He shrugged and studied his little finger, looking for a place on the stump he could begin to nibble. "Not really. Meredith Bower must be stopped. At any cost." "So we all die?" Beverly said bitterly. Again Liam shrugged. "Not necessarily. It depends on what she's got. We might be able to limit the damage to her immediate vicinity, but I suppose the flip side is that if she's got a

biological, or something that's going to render this planet uninhabitable, then yes, we all die." "And capturing her isn't an option?" Liam just stared at Beverly until she held up her hand. "All right, that was stupid. Me of all people knows what she's capable of." Liam's hard expression softened. "It's not just the need to eliminate her, Beverly. If she were to escape...again...have you any idea what kind of technology's available to her? She's loaded! We in the Federation don't use latinum, but everyone else does. She worked as a whore on a fringe backwater, filled with the hunted, the escapees and the dross of many societies. And Beverly, the numbers are...disgusting. One woman for every one hundred males. If the woman survived as she obviously has, the latinum she earned, and believe me, she earned it the hard way, would be staggering! Those females who survived that planet could name their price while they were there. "Then she orchestrated the theft of every gram of possibly Ferenginar's wealthiest being. Mind you, what she and her companion did to him was a form of justice...he was a notorious savage and cruel paedophile and had absolutely no remorse when his 'practices' killed the children that he procured. He simply ordered his minions to supply more. And even so, between prostituting herself and robbing the Ferengi blind, she visited one or two people she shouldn't have been able to get within ten light years of. So now we have an exceptionally wealthy individual who can do as she pleases. She no longer understands what excesses are, nor does she care. She thinks of something and within a very short time, whatever it is in in her hands. And to top it all off, she's as mad as a hatter with the hots for you and a hatred for Jean-Luc so vehement...well let's just say I've never seen anything like it...and I've been dealing with odious people for years. Hate I know well, at least I thought I did." "When you put it all like that, I can see why she needs to be...taken out of the picture. I was being very selfish, Liam. I was only thinking of her in terms of what she'd done to us. I had no idea..." "Sir? I have good news!" His body suddenly tense, Liam kept his voice calm. "And what would that be?" There was pride in her voice as she reported, "We have both drones online."

"Excellent! Well done. Have you any intel?" "Yes, sir, but we can't make head nor tail of it." "Send it to me, but keep watching. Under no circumstances are you to permit her to slink off unseen." "Yes, sir!" Within mere seconds the intelligence gathered from Meredith's ship was displayed on Liam's monitor. He frowned and tilted his head from side to side. "What the hell is that?" Moving closer, Beverly said quietly, "Do you mind if I have a look?" Gesturing to the screen, Liam said tiredly, "Be my guest." As soon as Beverly saw the bright column of twisting light she gasped, but she took the time to be sure. Liam knew something had just changed...for the worst. "Beverly?" She turned to face the enigmatic man and said softly, "It's a thaleron weapon, Liam. If she can get into orbit, she can utterly destroy every living thing on this planet." "Are you telling me that insane bitch has thaleron radiation to play with? Jesus! Where the fuck would she get that?" Beverly shrugged. "Like you said. With enough latinum you can have anything you want." "Oh Christ!" Liam shouted forcibly.� I can't do anything about a thaleron weapon! I could've dealt with anything else, but not that!" "Why?" Asked Beverly, alarmed. "You said you were willing to sacrifice all of us to stop her. So do it!" Liam spun around and the look of fierce anger actually made the doctor step backwards. "Because, Beverly, no matter what I do, she'll just flick a switch and negate anything I try. And then, with the way clear...she's free to leave. No one can stop her, Beverly! With a

thaleron radiation weapon she can destroy entire star systems..." He came to an abrupt halt and paled. "Oh shit! The Sol system! What's the bet she takes out all her demented hatred on the Federation, starting with Earth?" Beverly looked calmly into his eyes. "You're forgetting something, Liam." "What?" Liam spat, perplexed. "What have I forgotten?" Beverly smiled, but it was a sad smile. "Your ace up your sleeve. Three aces to be precise." At first Liam didn't understand, then the light of realisation dawned in his eyes. "No! I will not let you, Jean-Luc or your unborn child to be martyrs to that bitch!" "Liam...too much emotion! Come on, do the maths. Three lives against billions? It's a no brainer." There was very little the tall, lean man could say to that. They stood silently, looking into each other's hearts. When Liam finally did speak, it was a hoarse whisper. "Jean-Luc always chose the best. No matter what it was, always the best. Seems it went as far as picking his partner too." A quiet, gravelly voice from the bed said, "No question about it, Liam." Both Beverly and Liam went to Jean-Luc and sat on the bed. Before they could say anything, he held up a trembling hand. "No, don't ask. I feel like shit and yes, I'm in pain, but that doesn't really matter does it. Beverly's right. If there's any hope of pulling this out of the fire, it's us." He looked at the slight swelling of Beverly's stomach then into her eyes. Struggling to keep his voice from breaking he managed, "I'm so sorry, mon coeur." "Don't be, Jean-Luc. What was it you said to me once? Nothing's written in stone? We might prevail. Who knows? Thing is, we won't know until we try." "And therein lies your biggest hurdle." Liam said hopelessly. "She'll insist you remain as naked as you are now and unarmed. No doubt a full-body scan will verify that. So just what do you think you can do? She'll have everything she wants! A sex toy in you, Beverly, and the opportunity to take out all her madness and fury with protracted torture, followed by...eventually...death for Jean-Luc. Nothing will be gained. She'd be just as free to go on a rampage with that fucking thaleron weapon!"

"Not if she's dead." Beverly said flatly. "Oh, right! You're going to kill her. With what, Beverly? Cutting remarks?" She ignored the sarcasm and said quietly "The drones, Liam. They carry enough sedative to render her unconscious, yes?" "Yes..." Liam was warming to the idea. "And what would be the result of her receiving a double dose? Both drones delivering their payload?" "It would be lethal for a normal human, but her?" He shrugged. "I don't know." "But surely she'd be rendered unconscious." "Oh yeah, definitely." "Well there you have it. While she's unconscious...well, let's just say she'll never wake up." "Brilliant, Beverly." Jean-Luc croaked. "Do we have a time frame to work to?" Liam shrugged again. "I can't say for certain, but my guess would be as soon as she has the thaleron weapon balanced and functioning, she'll be out of here lickety-split." "Then we have no time to waste. Beverly, can you repair my body enough for me to walk?" The red head gave her lover a look of distress. "I can, Jean-Luc, but there'll be little I can do about the pain and I have to remove the anal packing." He summoned a wan smile. "Well I'll just have to grin and bear it." Before Beverly could say anything further, the captain turned his attention to his old friend. "Liam, can you contact her?" "We haven't tried, but I don't see why not." "Good." Said Jean-Luc emphatically. "If I may...get her attention. If she's her usual crazy self,

dangle the carrot. I guarantee she'll calm down and accept." "Carrot? Jesus, Jean-Luc..." "I know, Liam, but to get on board that craft that's exactly what we have to be. Now how much control does your team have over the drones? I recall hearing your conversation with the team leader." Frustrated at not having all the answers his old friend needed, Liam held up his hand. JeanLuc nodded his understanding. "Team leader." "Yes, sir?" "How much control do you have over the drones?" "Total, sir and as of about a minute ago, we have crystal clear vision from both of them." "And the delivery system?" "That I can't say, sir. We have no way of testing it without..." "Yes." Liam said, effectively cutting her off. On seeing a signal from the captain, he went to him and listened intently, then nodded. "What’s the effective range?" "Umm, about two kilometres, I think, sir." "Find out. I want an accurate breakdown on what those drones can do and what they cannot do. And I will be contacting you soon to send a message to the target." "A message, sir?" "Yes! A message!" "Aye, sir!" Liam closed the channel to see Beverly using a tissue mitigator to seal the side of Jean-Luc's

scrotum. Liam could easily see, although Beverly was being as gentle as possible, it was still excruciating painful. To break the oppressive silence he said lightly, "So, you found a tissue mitigator." "Mmm. It was in a med kit at the aft lockers. It's old, maybe a series five H, but it'll do the job." "No analgesics? "Nup. All the pharmaceuticals had been removed. Instruments only, I'm afraid." "Which is better than nothing." Muttered a sweating captain. "How much longer, Doctor?" By the use of her title, he was giving her a very clear signal they were now on a mission and, injured though he was, he was in charge. Beverly didn't even think of questioning his authority. "Nearly done, Captain, at least for the outer injuries. I can only hope Liam's magic medical machine did as he promised and went quite a way towards healing your internal damage, because if you begin to bleed after the packing’s removed..." "Well if it's any help, I do feel somewhat better. If not for the more...private...injury, I would be feeling almost chipper." As Beverly quietly chuckled, Liam shook his head. "You're a silly bugger, Jean-Luc, but I like you anyway." Somewhat embarrassed, the captain cleared his throat and said, "Yes...well." He was saved further discomfit when Beverly said, "Here we go, Captain. Hang on, I’ll be ass quick and as gentle as I can.” Liam had to move away, the deep groans of pain from his old friend too difficult to bear. Finally the onerous task was completed. Beverly checked thoroughly as was pleased to find little bleeding. Jean-Luc took a few moments to regain his composure. Sitting up gingerly and slowly pivoting, both Beverly and Liam, courtesy of their long

association with the man, could see the immense pain in his face. But he hid it well, not many would've picked it. He held out his arms in a silent gesture for assistance which Beverly and Liam reacted to immediately. They had to steady him on his feet, sweat ran off his body, its sour odour something odd coming from the usually impeccably presented man. But naked, injured and in pain, all he had was his dignity, which he carried undeniably. He swallowed and took a deep breath which Beverly recognised as his attempt to quell the rising nausea. Once he had established control over his rebellious stomach, he said with remarkable strength, "All right, Liam. Where to?" Liam looked at his old friend with renewed respect and Beverly's heart swelled. She didn't think it possible, but at that moment she loved him more than ever before. As they appeared on the beach and stepped into the dying day, Jean-Luc smiled through his pain and lifted his head to see if any stars were showing yet. His helpers, either side of him and holding his elbows, smiled too, both knowing what solace he drew from the stars. His voice was soft when he said "I didn't think I'd ever see them again....or you two." Beverly placed a chaste kiss on his cheek as Liam contacted the team. "Yes, sir?" "Are you ready to send a message to the target?" "Yes, sir." "Right. Well be with you in approximately 20 minutes. In the meantime, send this, audio only via standard hailing channel. 'Beverly Crusher and Jean-Luc Picard are willing to come aboard your ship at your convenience.' Send it on all bands within the channel." "Aye, sir." Seamlessly, Liam switched his attention to his ship. "Computer, the vessel submerged, presumably within approximately a two hundred kilometre distance from my position, search and target." There was a wait of less than thirty seconds before the computer responded.

"I have it Liam, however the target is significantly further from your estimation of its presumed distance from your current position." Liam was impatient, but he knew the computer would continue. So he quashed his urge to order the computer to hurry up. "The vessel is, at present, two thousand, eight hundred and..." Liam snapped, despite his knowledge that it would be best to let the remarkable prototype of a Starfleet ships' computer to do its job unimpeded. Like much of the technology Beverly, and to some extent, Jean-Luc had seen, she understood it would all eventually make its way into the fleet as standard equipment. It was a clear sign of Liam's importance that he had the most advanced devices, weapons, etc. "I don't need to know down to the last centimetre, dammit! Just get on with it! How is it that vessel made it so far in the time that's elapsed?" "Since monitoring your personal danger quotient as you came closer to the vessel, I initiated a discrete scan. The propulsion system is very advanced and quite unique, it's basic..." Again Liam was unable to curb his impatience. "I know about the propulsion system and what fuels it! Just tell me how the vessel overcame displacement and resistance under the water. Or did the ship rise and travel above the seas?" "The vessel remained submerged at all times. Displacement and resistance were overcome by the vessel's ability to change its shape. At present, it has elongated to a new length of one hundred and ninety four metres. The contours of the ship, now resembling a circular propelled projectile, can now, in this new configuration, allow speeds well above what would be expected for a submerged vessel. I do not have an exact readout of the ship's speed as once the vessel moved away from you and your personal danger quotient rapidly fell, I devoted all of my attention to you, however, I can give you an estimate of the average speed used to reach that distance." By now, Liam's head was lowered and his hands fisted at his sides. But he knew any more impatience would be pointless. The computer would divulge the information in its own time. "Therefore," the warm voice continued, “the average speed would have to have been approximately 1000 kph, give or take a variant of 47.2 kph to compensate for..."

"Enough!" Liam said curtly. Then in a much softer tone repeated, "Enough." Liam frowned deeply and swore under his breath and the listening pair of Jean-Luc and Beverly muttered noises of incredulity. Indeed, the captain said softly, "No, that can't be! That just can't be right. Almost two thousand kilometres in two hours, doing an average speed of 1000 kph? Submerged? Mon Dieu!" With his head still lowered, the tall, lean Aussie sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. "But it is, mate, it is right. If my computer says it's so, you can put a sheep station on it." At Beverly's puzzled expression, Jean-Luc offered a small, amused smile and a quick explanation. "He's saying that anything his computer says, you can bet on it being true and accurate." "Okay," said a still confused Beverly. "I get that bit...but a 'sheep station'?" "A very, very large farm that is devoted to animal husbandry, in this case, sheep." Unbeknown to the couple, Liam had been listening with growing impatience. "If you two are finished with your little chat, we have some difficulties to overcome." To Jean-Luc's raised eyebrow, Liam said the most important difficulty first. "Firstly, how to we get her to return?" Beverly's face was a study in anger. "Why the hell do we want that demented bitch closer?" Liam's face darkened and Jean-Luc knew he had to defuse the brewing argument, he quickly stepped in. "Beverly, think for just a minute. First of all, Liam is going to want to be close so he has some chance of protecting us and then there's the actual problem of getting aboard. Will she transport? Personally I don't think so." "Why?" Asked a calmer doctor. "Because if she could, she would've beamed aboard in the first place. But of course that's pure speculation on my part. It may have been that her vessel was powered down until she

boarded, then activated its systems." Liam nodded. "Still doesn't answer the question, though. Which means we could be standing here talking and you two might disappear. Or, on the other hand, if she can be coaxed into returning and has to surface to take you two aboard, that gives us a window." Jean-Luc's eyes sharpened. "The drones?" "Yep." Liam's expression was cold. "We've already been busy using our little friends and so far they've been causing just the right amount of mayhem. We pretty sure she's still unaware of their presence, and if that's so, then the best time to use them as a delivery system of the adapted drugs they carry would be when she was hove to and coming up the companion way." "Hmm." Jean-Luc agreed. "She's so obsessed with Beverly and so determined to kill me, I doubt she's be aware of anything else." "Oh, you bet!" Beverly said in a mixture of dread and fear. "My God, that woman is so single-minded...if she can be brought back to this area,� She pointed in the general direction of where Meredith's vessel had risen. "I can guarantee she'll be totally focused on getting us aboard." Liam's smile remained cold and it certainly didn't reach his eyes. "That's what I thought and that's precisely what we want. The drones are very small and silent. They can deliver their payload and I doubt she'd even feel it, she'd be so focused and even if she did, with the hatch open, a small insect or two biting her will hopefully pass as nothing more than a mild annoyance." Beverly was tapping her front incisors with her fingernail, a sure sign of both thought and worry. Jean-Luc was on to it immediately. "What is it, Doctor?" With a rueful smile, Beverly shrugged. "The same thing that's been dogging me ever since Liam told me about the drug." Before either man asked her to elaborate, she continued. "On paper it should work, with such a powerful sedative concentrated into a tiny dose that still has the ability to render any human senseless, I'm just not convinced about the efficacy of using it on Meredith. I can't help but have real misgivings." Liam was about to argue when Beverly held up one hand. "No, hear me out. We've..." She

indicated herself and Jean-Luc, "been in the company of this woman, Liam. Now you know what she's done to herself and you've seen visual evidence in the form of holo images and some vids, but you don't know, Liam. You aren't fully aware of what's she's done. You told me that the double dose of the drug that the drones carry has been specifically tailored to incapacitate an enhanced human, but as a doctor, I have to tell you I couldn't say with any certainty she is fully human...not any more." Liam's ice-blue eyes narrowed. "So if she's not human, what is she?" "Ah...the gold pressed latinum question. Truth is, I don't know. From what I've seen there is very little of any normal human, either physical or psychological left in her. As to what she is?" Again Beverly shrugged. "I doubt there's an accurate term for her. I mean..." She turned her attention to her lover, rolling her hand as she said, "That book you told me about ages ago. You know, the one where some mad scientist puts together body parts from cadavers...and there's lightning or something..." Jean-Luc's face lit up. "Oh! Yes, I remember that. It was called..." Beverly made a double handed angled stop signal. "Forget the title, what was the thing's name?" "It had no name, but eventually the creature became known by its creator's name, Doctor Victor Frankenstein." Snapping her fingers, Beverly then pointed to Jean-Luc. "That's it! That's what Meredith Bower has become. Some kind of Frankenstein, but instead of using parts from others, she has used her own body. But Is she human?" The doctor shook her head. "I don't think so, and that means the drug..." She turned to Liam. "What was it?" Liam frowned and gave an expression Beverly hadn't seen before. He was embarrassed. In a soft voice, Beverly said, "Liam?" He sighed and rolled his head on his shoulders. "I'm not exactly sure. When we spoke about this earlier, you know when you said you'd...once Bower was know, I assumed whatever drug that's been chosen would be adequate for the job. The only thing I knew for sure was that a double dose in a normal human would be lethal."

A frustrated Beverly began to pace, her feet still tender. She stopped and tilted her head. " Think, Liam. Were any drugs...specifically sedatives...mentioned?" Scratching his scalp through his short hair, Liam was about to shake his head when his head came up and he made a fist, shaking it. "Yes! Christ! What was it called?" Jean-Luc said quietly, "Beverly, give him some help. What are the most common sedatives?" Looking askance, Beverly said dismissively, "That'd be like the needle in the proverbial haystack, Jean-Luc." "I know how he thinks, Beverly. He'll know immediately he hears me." With a snort and arms akimbo, Beverly began to recite. "Okay. We have dylamadon, merfadon, melorazine, seda...." "Stop! That's it! " Narrowing her eyes, Beverly said warily, "Melorazine?" "Yes, I'm positive." Both men watched Beverly as she thought hard. "Well, under normal circumstances that would be a good choice, although concentrating it to increase potency alters the playing field significantly." "Significantly enough to make it ineffective?" Asked Liam. Beverly gave him a long look. "I don't know. If she were a normal human, yes, no doubt. But she's not a normal human...far from it." Folding his arms across his muscular, hirsute chest, Jean-Luc would've liked to pace, but he was too sore. Each step he took sent spikes of pain up into his damaged testicle. "So where does this leave us? How do we either kill the threat that a free Meredith Bower represents, or the actual person, thereby eliminating the problem altogether." Liam was first to reply. "Well Beverly was all for offing her; I don't see why that should change."

"It's true that I was keen to 'off'' Bower, but the doctor in me, quite apart from the first rule of the Hippocratic Oath, that being first and foremost, do no a medical curiosity, Meredith Bower represents a truly unique specimen to study. I know that sounds dreadfully callous, but the woman is insane, well beyond any help, and the medical community could learn so much..." "But at what cost, Beverly?" Asked the captain solemnly. "I understand what you're saying, what you're describing is another form of exploration, and you know how I feel about that. But Beverly..." She held up her hand. "It's okay, Jean-Luc, I get it, really. She's just too insane and intelligent. She'd escape from any facility we put her in to be left free to run loose around in space..." "And let's not forget her almost unlimited wealth, which we’ve run into problems eliminating." Added Liam. "So it's agreed? As soon as we get the opportunity we take her out." Beverly and Jean-Luc looked at each other, then nodded. The captain spoke for both of them. "First opportunity. Whether it's us, you or your team. And if we're compromised, take her out regardless." The two old friends shared a look that said far more than any words could. With a slight nod, Liam beckoned the team leader over. "Open the channel again and let Doctor Crusher speak." "Aye, sir." In a few seconds, Beverly had a small, compact device in her hand. She barely registered the quietly spoken, "Channel open, Doctor." Swallowing audibly, and feeling the tense stares of those around her, Beverly took a deep breath and turned her head slightly to look into the eyes of her lover. No words were necessary, they each knew what the other felt and thought, but still as Beverly began to turn her attention to the communication device nestled snugly in her hand, she caught Jean-Luc mouthing surreptitiously, "I love you."

She smiled and had to blink rapidly to clear her eyes of the suddenly gathering tears. A few moments later she was ready. "Meredith ? Meredith it's me, Beverly. I have Picard here, he fell for my ruse, thinking I had feelings for him. He's been injured, but you know that." Beverly forced a sly chuckle, almost gagging with disgust and barely hidden anger. But she had to forge ahead, hoping the computer on Meredith's ship would display her communication as text. As far as Beverly knew, Meredith was still deaf. When the hand-held device remained stubbornly silent, Beverly changed tacks. "In order to show you my sincerity, I'll hand him over to you and you can do as you please with him and with no objections from me." Still no response. She had to up the ante and Beverly knew exactly what to say, yet she dreaded saying it. It had absolutely nothing to do with Meredith's lesbianism. Like her and Jean-Luc's nakedness, there was no stigma, no embarrassment. The only reason for wanting to cover themselves was to either protect their skin from strong sunlight, or to keep warm and that was what they needed now. With the sun almost below the horizon, with its loss, so the heat went with it. Feeling a field cover being placed over her shoulders, she was greeted with a smile as she briefly turned and was surprised to see Liam. He gave an encouraging wink, and she took a deep breath. "Meredith? I have a wonderful idea. As a token of my absolute and undying love for you, I'll abort the parasite and together we'll make Picard eat it." All around could tell Meredith was still profoundly deaf as her voice came out of the device far too loudly. "Do you mean that, Beverly?! Or is this another of your fucking tricks?!" Taking a steadying breath, Beverly said quietly, now sure Meredith was reading the communications, "It's no trick, Meredith my beautiful, extraordinary love. Come back and take me and the shit, Picard aboard and I'll prove it to you." There was ten minutes of tense silence before the device boomed again. "I'm on my way!"

The team moved as a well-oiled machine. They melted into the dunes, taking up prime sniper positions. Liam and the team leader went left and right of the couple on the water's edge until they were hidden by convenient lumps of seaweed. There they lay in wait, weapons aimed and primed. For a few moments, the couple held hands before Jean-Luc said quietly, "Well, I'd best make like a subservient, beaten possession." He grinned rakishly and pecked Beverly on her cheek. She appreciated what he was doing, but his quiet bravery squeezed her heart. But she knew to refuse to go along with the charade would rob Jean-Luc of the courage he needed for what he was to face. Placing one fisted hand on her hip, Beverly stared imperiously at her lover. "First thing...get on your knees and bow your head!" As he gingerly lowered himself, Beverly whipped his field cover off. He immediately began to shiver. Beverly so wanted to apologise, but she had to maintain the pretence of superiority and ownership. Staring out to sea, wishing she could look at her lover, Berkley said quietly, "Do you think we'll have to wait another two hours? Do you think she has any means to see or sense us with any scanners or such like?" With his head lowered, the shivering man raised his voice only loud enough to be heard over the surf. "I doubt it. From what Liam said those drones of his seemed to have been successful in causing Bower difficulties. As to what kind, I can't say, but judging by the fact she seems to be unable to hear, or use any equipment to communicate with you other than to shout..." He shivered and Beverly heard his teeth chatter, and the soft moan the movement of his damaged jaw brought. Before he could continue, Beverly bent, as if to check the soles of her feet. While down near her lover she said quietly, "Tuck up further, my love, but keep your knees a little bit apart. That'll do two things. It'll stop any chance of you squashing your own testes, as your scrotum is very swollen, and the cooler temperatures will be able to circulate around that area and assist in easing the pain." He nodded surreptitiously and Beverly straightened. In the now fully dark, they spoke softly to each other, their hearing attuning so their voices could be heard just above the sound of the surf. With the dying of the day, the wind had dropped, but Jean-Luc had spotted a line of cloud out to sea before the sun had set and, unless the softer breeze shifted, a front was on its

way. How strong it would be, he had no idea. That was answered only a mere hour later. First came some desultory rain, large warm splats, welcomed by the cold couple, but as the rain became harder, it changed, cold blasts of wind, accompanied by odd, green coloured lightning. The thunder came slowly, seemingly not connected to the discharge of lighting, as it was on Earth. The reason soon became clear. Above the clouds, glimpsed only in snatches, was a bulbous mass of roiling, seething energy. It was from this climactic phenomenon that the lightning stabbed. There was no telling where it would strike, or how many times it struck. With the wind beginning to howl, Beverly dropped to a crunched position on her knees beside her lover. He yelled in her ear, "We have to find shelter!" Beverly nodded, one hand trying to hold her hair back as she assisted Jean-Luc to his wobbly feet. As they turned towards the dunes, crouched in the confused, gusting wind, Beverly looked over her shoulder with fear at the sea, now a raging, treacherous stretch of water. What she saw made her shout an expletive. "Oh, fuck!" Knowing his partner rarely resorted to profanity without a good reason or capricious humour, Jean-Luc turned too to see what had caused Beverly to shout. He said exactly the same thing. Then he added, "She's here!" "The sea!" Shouted Beverly. "It's glowing!" "Yes!" Shouted Jean-Luc. "But only in one area!" Sure enough, as the crouching couple watched, the glowing area of agitated sea began to bulge. The glow increased, as did the bulge until Meredith's ship began to appear. It seemed to be changing shape even as is surfaced and the hatch, just forward of the queerly misshapen structure amidships, banged open so loudly, it was easily heard over the storm. Like a mottled, naked eel-like creature, Meredith slid upwards without any of her former grace. Jerkily she staggered two or three metres forward and made spastic gestures, though sickening to see, obviously directing the couple out to the ship, which had come closer to shore than before.

Jean-Luc was unable to stand fully upright, but Beverly could. Using the guise of trying to gather her hair, she turned for a second or two, desperately searching for help from either Liam or his team. Nothing happened, so she had no option but to grab Jean-Luc's arm and feign handle him roughly into the sea. He played along, tripping and making it seem he was incapable of offering any resistance to his captor. With the surf and the sea beyond so rough, the increasingly disabled Meredith managed to fire a line. All it had on the end was a loop big enough to slip over one of Beverly's hands. She got a good grip of Jean-Luc, her arm across his chest and his head on her shoulder before she placed her hand within the loop. Her body began to move rapidly through the water as the line was quickly retrieved by the vessel's equipment. No care was taken to make allowances for Jean-Luc. Beverly's head was above the water...mostly, but Jean-Luc spent most of his journey to the ship under water. Mercifully the trip was relatively short, yet as Meredith bent in jerky movements to help Beverly up the ladder, she gave no notice of the red head's precious companion who was coughing and gagging violently. Propelled forward without preamble, Beverly was shoved when she hesitated at the hatch. She tumbled, but caught herself. Jean-Luc was not so fortunate. He too was shoved...and kicked and then upended so he went down the hatch head first. Somehow Beverly shoved her shoulder forward, tipping the man's falling body off kilter so he landed more on his shoulder and hip. Nevertheless, it was agonising. The hatch banged shut, Meredith's stream of obscenities was unbroken as she punched and kicked at consoles and screens. At one stage she glanced at Beverly, yelling, "Fucking bugs! Funking bit just before I came out! Gotta get out...gotta fucking, fucking...fucking..." She frowned as if she couldn't remember what it was she wanted to do. Beverly saw her chance and spoke quietly. "So, where are we going, lover?" Asked Beverly, batting her eyelashes coquettishly. Meredith looked at Beverly and her frown deepened. She tilted her head and Beverly saw that the portal was now as suppurating, foetid mess. The hole was now larger and by the deep scratch marks, it was obvious Meredith had been trying to do something to, or with it. Beverly took a step and Meredith screamed. "Stop, you fucking cunt! You did this!" She pointed to the infected portal. "And you caused this!" The demented woman screeched. She put her hands over her ears and Beverly knew the woman was still profoundly deaf. Meredith brushed past Beverly, pushing her savagely aside. "And you!" She screamed at

Jean-Luc. "You did all that." She was pointing into the gloom of the barely operating ship. "But I have something for you, fucker! Something very appropriate!" She staggered drunkenly back to the main flat console on which sat an opaque container. "Watch this, you fucking bastard shitcuntdickpus..." She staggered towards Jean-Luc who'd managed to rise to his feet. He was holding his right arm with his left hand and still couldn't stand completely upright, but he did his best to adopt a defensive posture. Beverly had manoeuvred around behind Meredith, but froze as some of the liquid she could hear sloshing in the container slopped onto the deck. It was clear and quite thin, much like water, but unlike water, it dissolved the metal of the deck instantly, then kept going, deck after deck, until presumably it ate through the hull just as easily as it ate the metal of the deck. The playing field had just changed, dramatically. Beverly caught Jean-Luc's eye to see he'd witnessed the devastating liquid as well. A cackling Meredith also saw he knew. "Yes! Bit by bit I'm going to dissolve you Fuckard! And I'm going to start with your disgusting cock!" She lurched forward and Beverly dashed to stop her. But Meredith had miscalculated. Instead of stepping up to Jean-Luc, knocking him down and beginning her torture, she slipped, her feet slipping on the sticky, molten metal from the spill. She screamed and her feet went out from under her as her body went backwards. There was a dull crack as the back of her head hit the edge of the main console. The container had left her hands as she fell, shooting one and a half meters in the air. Screaming, "Jean-Luc! Get back!"' Beverly, unable to get to the man, scuttled backwards, away from the now falling container, staring at it in sickening horror. Meredith's eyes opened sluggishly, no longer other-worldly blue, but now a milky white. She had enough realisation to whisper..."No..." When the container fell and smashed on her face. Fortunately there wasn't a lot of the acid-like liquid, perhaps 500 mls, but it was easily enough to dissolve Meredith's head and shoulders. Making his way gingerly around the sickening and stinking body, Jean-Luc grabbed Beverly's hand and shook it, bringing her out of the shock which had rooted her to the spot. "Come on! We have to get out of the vessel and away! Once that substance gets through the hull, this ship will go down like a stone!" Nodding vigorously, Beverly helped the captain up the companionway to the hatch.

Momentary panic ensued as they found they couldn't open it, but with a sudden whoosh and a inundation of cold sea water, the strong, sinewy arm of Liam appeared. "Come on, you two. This is definitely not the weather for boating!" With surprisingly gentle hands, Beverly and Jean-Luc were assisted into the water wearing live vests. Moments later they were standing on the shore, field covers wrapped around them, warming them quickly as they watched the ship. A sudden outrush of air heralded the vessel's doom. "There she goes." Liam said quietly. It was then that the couple realised the storm was abating. "Well, I don't know about you two, but I've had enough of Meredith Bower and all her shit. There's a coldie waiting on my ship with my name on it." He turned and looked at the bedraggled pair and sighed, rolling his eyes. "But I 'spose you two want something like tea, Earl Grey, hot." Very carefully easing one arm across his friend's shoulders, Jean-Luc quietly said, "Just take us home, Liam, old friend." On Liam's ship, as both received more medical help, Jean-Luc whispered worriedly, "Beverly, the baby?" Equally quietly she replied, "Fine. You'd be surprised how tough little unborn ones are." Closing his eyes in silent thanks, Jean-Luc allowed himself to relax for the first time in a long time. Half an hour later they were sound asleep, spooned in a too-small bunk, but to them it felt like the softest of all clouds.

The aftermath of what became known as the 'Bower Affair." was far reaching and politically volatile. Several unaligned planets had been involved and some within Federation space. The raid on the backwater world that the hunted took refuge netted some wanted criminals and helped clear the crime list on quite a few planets around the sector.

The downfall and eventual death of Nrug left a vacuum on Ferenginar that was filled by a very canny new Negus. The former Negus had...disappeared in the brouhaha that ensued with Nrug’s downfall. The Federation was still trying to establish some kind of working relationship with the ruling Ferengi as Jean-Luc and Beverly made their way back to Earth. Liam's office in London was typically hot and Beverly wrinkled her nose when he gently bullied her into having a sip of his icy-cold beer. Jean-Luc laughed until he caught 'that' look from his lover and covered the rest of his mirth with a cough and a long draught of his beer. Wiping his froth moustache off, he said to Liam, "So how much trouble are we in?" The tall tanned man frowned. "Trouble?" He said as if he'd never heard the word before. "Why would anyone be in trouble? Meredith Bower made all the trouble, mate. Even that last hurrah on the beach. That mad bitch had jury-rigged some kind of weapon blanketing field. That's why we didn't take her out...we couldn't!" Happier with a sparkling water, Beverly asked, "Has her body been recovered?" Liam's eyes lost their warmth. "Oh yeah. That freak's been dissected down to the atomic level...and you were right, Beverly. The changes she'd undergone had had altered her at a very fundamental level. And, as luck would have it, your prediction about the drug was spot on. Once it was in her system she began to go...haywire. Mentally and physically. But...we've gained a lot of very useful intel. We now know, for instance, what the 'surgeons' did and how. There'll be no more Merediths, at least not for a very long time" "And the Fen?" Beverly asked quietly. Liam sighed and rubbed his eyes, his new little finger with it's mangled nail making Jean-Luc smile to himself. "The Fen. Well, it's a case of good news and bad. We have leads we never had before, which is a big plus...I mean any new info is always welcome, but as for apprehending...whatever or whoever the Fen is..?" He shrugged. "I really don't know. But one thing's for certain. I won't give up." Giving Beverly a meaningful look, Jean-Luc downed the rest of his beer, drawing a hissing breath through his teeth. "Jesus, Liam! Why do you insist on drinking your beer so dammed cold?" The scarred, lean man grinned. "You know why, you pampered Frenchman. You've been to where I call home."

Placing his hand on his friend's shoulder and squeezing it, Jean-Luc looked into Liam's eyes. "That I have, old friend. Visit us, don't be a stranger." A glint of mischief appeared in Liam's eyes. "All right, on one...or maybe two conditions." To the captain's raised eyebrow, Liam grinned again. "Either to wet the kid's head or to attend your marriage. Whichever comes first." "Done." Jean-Luc smiled warmly. He helped Beverly up from her saggy but very comfortable chair and looked into her eyes. "Ready to go home?" Placing her index finger on her chin, Beverly seemed to be giving the question some thought. Then to the waiting men's amusement she said, "Are you asking am I ready to go back to the Enterprise to zoom around through space, never knowing what we might..." "Only until you reach seven months, as you already know, at which time we will leave the ship on an extended leave to have junior on Earth." "Oh!" Grinned the doctor. "Well in that case, okay, what are we waiting for?" They swore they could still hear Liam laughing as they returned home. End.

Burning The Edges Pt. 1  

A psychotic gay crewmember sets her sights on Crusher. Only Picard stands in her way of achieving a fantasy life with her intended lover.