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Star Trek Universal - The Barman by J. Grey and R. Cane

The untold tales from around the Federation

There it was, just across the room from her. It was nothing spectacular, to be sure, and the room itself was as far from spectacular, as it was from a civilised habitable system; or from a kitchen that served food to a respectable standard.

The first point was of little surprise—she was, after all, on Station 401, a Federation outpost lightyears away from any regular trade spacelanes. The second point was harder to reconcile, in that she was stood inside the 401 bar, the establishment that boasted the finest cuisine on the entire station. And while the food was irrefutably awful, it remained a bafflingly valid claim nonetheless.

Somari Rakdee had been on the station for a very long time, by her own reckoning. Her actual arrival was just three days past, but on Station 401, where time slunk by at an almost imperceptible pace, that was indeed a very long time for any sane mind to endure.

At the design stage, the station had been foreseen as a light in the darkness, a brilliant beacon of Federation principals, where citizens and visitors alike could find some shelter from the unknown, in comfort and security.

Quite some time after the construction stage, it continued to exist as a humongous metal tube with some bunks screwed to the wall, and a defensive phaser platform which no longer quite functioned. Indeed, many of the platform parts had been recycled into stills to make beverages that were banned in more closely observed regions of Federation space.

And to say that the phaser platform no longer quite functioned was actually a fairly charitable description of their current defensive status. The last live-fire test, wherein two small remote drones were targeted by the not-insignificant weapons array, had gone quite poorly, if one were to read the exaggeratedly optimistic status report. The phaser beam lashed out with ferocious and unbridled power, but due to the missing parts, which had been substituted, or outright stolen, the first drone was transported to the Commander's office, and the second had a replicated pot of petunias welded to its dorsal spine.

The Starfleet security chief ended up offering his resignation, on the grounds that a Klingon attack vessel would likely not be countered, or even inconvenienced, by the sudden and violent adornment of some delightfully colourful pot-plants. But at least if that eventuality did came to pass, it wasn't beyond the realms of possibility that the vessel would also be transported to the Commander's office, where the attackers could be defeated in man to man combat. A fair and even fight could only be assured if the entire Klingon contingent of warriors consisted of a single ageing officer who suffered backache and enjoyed, a little too much, beverages brewed in home-made stills that were banned in more closely regulated regions of Federation space. As this scenario lacked credibility, there was always the more significant probability that they might instead be inconvenienced by the faulty replicator.

The replicator made coffee, only coffee, and only if you ordered chicken soup. If you ordered coffee, then it would produce something very close to coffee, but not even slightly close to the utensil assigned to house it. It's been rumoured that those intrepid enough, or sufficiently foolhardy, to try ordering tea, are rewarded with the full force of the station's weapons array, as the many potted plants adorning the opposing wall would attest.

In short, the station was not a very nice place to be, and the more ridiculous stories Somari heard about it, the less she wanted to be there.

It remained, however, a welcome and comfortable retreat for those with questionable values or intentions that didn't entirely mesh with the ideals of the diminutive Starfleet security detachment, whose efficiency had been somewhat dulled by the illegally intoxicating beverages previously alluded to. Such beverages were, if not freely available, at the very least accessible with a minimum of questions asked. And it was those very questions, such as, 'do you expect to wake up tomorrow morning with your vision intact?' or 'do you enjoy being alive?' that made them less attainable elsewhere.

For someone like Somari Rakdee, this was all something of a necessary evil, mated with a pulsating mass of unpleasant possibilities which were essentially unavoidable. This, coincidentally, was how her ex-husband had described her to his divorce lawyer.

She was rooted to the spot. Not in awe, nor in amazement, and certainly not in surprise. Not even by the sticky remains of a drink, that for all she knew, could have been spilt there at any time since the station's design stage.

She stared intently, weighing up the space before her, eyeing the table she had came here to sit at. It was nothing of any remark: a metallic piece of universal equipment bolted to the floor, with a half-arsed attempt to make it in some way comfortable, stylish even. The attempt fell short by no narrow margin, and the seats around it were little more than bent metal tubes with poorly-padded plastic covers. Somewhere, a bored replicator was not living up to its full potential. Indeed, there were no close to coffee pools to be seen, nor potted flowers welded anywhere.

She ran her beady little eyes hungrily over a man. He was imposing, and not unattractive. Heavily chiselled features, large frame, muscular and healthy, cropped hair, stubble over his bold chin, and angry little eyes peering out angrily at everything that dared to move within angry sight of them.

Sadly, this wasn't the man she was here to meet. She glanced over to the dishevelled little thing sat at table 7 with a stupid little grin on its maybe-human face.

Not that she had anything against those who weren't Human. In fact, she had some alien blood in her herself, a fact that resulted in her vowing to never again intimately involve herself with a Feminisian, as they had paper-thin skin that tore at the slightest provocation.

Her doctor had assured her that complication were unlikely, for her at least. She hadn't found it particularly reassuring though, especially since the doctor stopped the meeting twice to check records on his Padd. Even less so since he burst out laughing the first time, and moved his chair back several centimetres to more effectively give her an angry stare the second.

She herself had rather thicker skin, and wore her leathery psychological hide over her less leathery and sun-bleached corporeal hide, as she walked towards her meeting. She appeared not only confident, but not even remotely fazed by the disappointment of seeing what she assumed would be yet another monumental waste of her time.

"Somari Rakdee." she said, pointing to herself, and inwardly berating herself for the rather foolish gesture; the words themselves were sufficiently explanatory, and she had the benefit of sophisticated technology translating for her.

The man, or whatever he was, smiled and moved to stand up.

She stepped back very slightly in response, her smile softening around her eyes, but not around her mouth—that remained fixed in an entirely fake expression, that she found herself describing internally as bearing a striking similarity to a maniacal rictus carved on a horrifyingly vicious clown's face. She silently damned her ex-husband for the colourful descriptions he'd relayed to his divorce lawyer, as well as her own mind for not quite letting go of them. Truth be told, she actually felt her smile was quite dissimilar to anything carved onto any kind of clown's face. Especially with makeup.

"Bob." replied the man-like creature. His teeth flashed a sort of half-smile, and his hand was outstretched to shake hers.

She regarded it briefly, in much the same way that she would if he had been offering her to sample a half-eaten fish he'd personally just killed. A blink of an eye later, she reasserted some self-control, stepped forward with her high heels clattering and slipping on the sparsely carpeted floor panels, reached out her own hand, and they shook, with barely an observable wince.

He gestured to the seat in front of her as an invitation to sit down. An unnecessary gesture, it seemed, but she politely nodded her agreement and took her seat.

"You're a journalist?" he said. It didn't sound like a question.

"I am." she replied with a nod, and fluttered proudly to herself. "I hear you have information for me. Is that correct?"

The man shifted nervously, looked every which way but forward, as if to ensure nobody was listening in. His eyes then locked onto those of the burly man sitting at the table next to him.

"Have you got a problem, mate?" growled the man, turning towards him aggressively.

He looked away startled, and uttered a nervous little squeak.

Somari Rakdee sighed and raised her hand to him. "He won't cause you any trouble, I assure you."

"I was talking to the organ grinder, not his monkey." he replied. If his comment had been intended to cause significant discomfort for her and her informant, then it had done its job very well. The man returned his attention to his own affairs, no doubt satisfied by this fact.

Somari cast an angry glare at man sat shrivelling before her. "Eyes forward." she said with a hiss. "Just tell me why we're here."

"I have information for you." He leant forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. "You've been investigating shuttle disappearances and stuff, right?"

This time, it was her turn to glance around suspiciously. The angry man was busy ordering some food, and appeared to have found someone new to be angry at, which was some small mercy. "You have a lead?"

He nodded mysteriously. "Something like that. Something you need to know."

"Go on." She realised then that she was leaning forward too. She was almost excited, against her better judgement, and listened expectantly.

"Rumours." he whispered. "It was all rumours. The rumours are dangerous."

"Rumours?" she said, tilting her head. The excitement had been snuffed out, and the expectant listening wasn't going to be too far behind. "What are you talking about?"

"Rumours!" he said again, as if his precise meaning was self-evident.

"Well... what do you mean, rumours? Naturally, there's going to be a degree of speculation as we try to fit the pieces together, but those pieces are the facts of the case. It's real—I've been following the evidence for months."

"No you haven't." His smile did not instil in her confidence that he had just imparted some great wisdom. On the contrary, the only confidence that it instilled was in her previously held belief that she should have stayed in bed for another hour.

"Mr.... Bob, was it? I am not following rumours. I have personally confirmed the information at source. This isn't a story I overheard from some deluded tinfoil-hat nutjob at a bar, or read in a trashy gossip column. This is a professional investigation, and I happen to be very good at my job."

"Ahhhh." he said, brandishing a knowing finger in front of his crooked smile. "Prove it!"

"Prove what, exactly?!"

"Prove you're good at your job. Can you do that?"

She grimaced at this implied slight on her journalistic proficiency. Words escaped her, and only a strange little grunt came out, floating on an exhalation of breath.

Bob continued, most unwelcomely. "If you can't prove it, then it's not real. It's just another rumour. Don't you see?"

She saw plainly enough. She saw that this conversation was beneath her, and wasn't worth wasting her time on. A decade earlier, maybe she would have attempted to educate him, call him out as the filthy shadow of a bygone era he clearly was, but she'd come to enjoy the lifestyle and freedom that not having permanent migraines afforded her.

"Well, thank you for your valuable insight. I won't take up any more of your time."

She got up, turned, and started to walk away, ignoring him much like she would ignore something left in a toilet-pan that a good flush would easily take care of.

"It's the rumours! Don't trust them! Your life is in danger. They will try to kill you!"

This got her attention. "Who's going to try to kill me?" She scoffed at the very idea, but a part of her found the suggestion disturbing. There was an earnestness in the way he spoke, an honesty in his eyes. "Smugglers?"

"Rumours!" he said with growing exasperation.

"Goodbye."

"Dangerous rumours!" he called out noisily from behind her, as she staggered uneasily away on her wobbly heels.


The barman

Thankfully, his pathetic whine of a voice was quickly drowned out and silenced by aggressive shouting. Somebody, presumably the burly gentleman who had the outward appearance of a man whose favourite pet was last seen in the proximity of a Vietnamese restaurant, was telling him to shut the hell up. This was followed up by some very imaginative and colourful insults that questioned every conceivable aspect of his creation. It seemed eminently fitting; rumours indeed, the nerve of it. The very notion that she was following nothing more than mere hearsay, a story with no more substance than the interior of her vacuous skull, filled said scull with vicious and nonsensical verbal bile beyond its exceedingly limited capacity. She closed her eyes and sighed, silently scolding herself once again for allowing yet more of her ex-husband's delightfully colourful rhetorics to flash through her mind when least expected or required.

Still, at least the latest source of her annoyance was being dealt with appropriately.

The notion of a threat to her life and limb was troubling nonetheless. While she knew the job was one that could place her in peril, her current investigations had taken her far outside the heart of Federation space. Security was far less guaranteed where she presently found herself.

And with that thought in mind, she found herself walking straight into something quite solid. That is to say, more solid than nothing at all, which was what she had been expecting to walk into, when she instead found her face pressed awkwardly into the chest of a man.

"Whoa, are you ok there, Miss?"

She instinctively jumped backwards, momentarily confused as she stared up angrily into the friendly eyes of a man, who appeared to be bearing no measure of blame for the incident. "Taking up enough space there, are you?"

"I'm fine too, love." he said, ignoring the slight, deliberately or otherwise. "No harm done anyway. Aren't you that reporter—the one the Commander said was full of crap?"

She flustered slightly in a halfhearted attempt to compose herself. She straightened her severe black jacket and glared at him accusingly. "Gary Martin Doyle, the shuttle-pilot, I presume. The one who's happy to break the rules and take passengers on joy rides, in exchange for bottles of expensive alcohol?"

"Looks like somebody's been reading my personnel files?" he replied cheerfully, as if he actually took some pride in such a thing. "You make it sound like I'm an unprofessional joker, who enjoys breaking the rules to provoke Starfleet security personnel, and deliberately annoy the Commander."

"I didn't mean to imply..."

"No, I mean to say that you've got me pretty much pegged. Well done. That's as good a description as I ever heard."

She managed the merest ghost of a smile. This station and its people were still something of a mystery to her. How it managed to function at all was a whole article in itself, that would preferably be researched and written by someone else.

"I see..."

She didn't see, and had no burning wish to do so.

"Well I was just about to get some breakfast while I wait for my transport. Would you care to join me? I'm sure I can come up with a newsworthy story or two."

She responded with a scowl. "It depends. I'm investigating the shuttle disappearances. Do you know anything about that?"

"I'm a shuttle pilot. I'm bound to know something."

He found a table and sat down heavily into the familiar old chair. During his time aboard the station, he had occupied all of them at some point, and many, more than once. None of them bore any special meaning to him, as not much on the station ever did. It was a place to stay while you took a breath; a place to wait for the next thing to happen; a place in which to decide which way was going to be forward. It was no kind of destination. It was transient—a thing you couldn't wait to look back on, even when it still lay before you.

"Some breakfast then?" said Gary cheerfully, tilting his head towards the menu that was propped up on the table between an assortment of condiment bottles.

"No thank you." she replied coldly. "I don't eat murder."

Gary sat in silence for a moment, blinking. "Sorry. Who... does?!"

"Anybody that's ever eaten a living thing." she said, her eyes now half closed and fingers steepled in front of her face, which carried an aura of superiority.

Gary sat in silence once again, blinking some more. "Everything's replicated here, and not even particularly well. None of it was ever alive."

"That's not the point, Gary, and you know it. Some of us aspire to more elevated principles, to bettering ourselves, so we can leave this universe a better place than how we found it."

"So..." Gary struggled to find sense in it, and sensed that sense was not there to be found. "You don't eat replicated meat then."

"That's right. Meat, poultry, seafood, invertebrates, eggs, dairy..."

"You've lost me again… this doesn't even..."

"… legumes, roots, sprouts, flowering fruits, polenta ..."

"Oh, come on..."

"… oils, nuts, grain, fungi, or bark."

Gary looked at her incredulously, his jaw hung upon. His rate of blinking had increased to several times per second. "So, what? You just live off… what? Obrylicon gloop?"

"Actually it's quite palatable with a dab of honey, and finished off with a big slice of tulaberry pie."

"Um, isn't that..."

"Don't get all micro-aggressive with me, I don't exist for the sole purpose of satisfying your... toxic hyper-masculine standards, Gareth." She didn't sound annoyed exactly, but it was clear she wasn't happy with... or about... something. "You can blow your testosterone trumpet in your own time."

"My… huh? Well, I'm going for an eggs Benedict, safe in the knowledge that it will be of no consequence, and that the universe will be left in no worse a state for it."

"Well it's you that has to live with yourself.".

"And doesn't that delight me." Indeed, it delighted him very much. "So... When you inevitably tire of ingesting bland synthetic food substitute, I have to tell you the Eggs Benedict here really isn't the worst thing on the menu. The eggs and the muffin they've got spot on, and the ham is an acceptable stand-in for Canadian bacon. The hollandaise sauce though... that needs a bit of work. As you know, you're supposed to use a double boiler and keep it well whisked to maintain a fluffy consistency, but this just confuses the hell out of the replicators, so what you end up with is something that tastes like... I dunno... lumpy, vinegary, custard, I suppose. Probably go nice with your tulaberry pie."

"I imagine it would." she said, not seeming to notice that she had started smacking her lips. "I'm not hungry though. I'll just have coffee."

"What kind? Vietnamese coffee served over ice always gives my day the best possible start!"

"Black. Electrolyte free."

Gary observed that her face had acquired the look of somebody who had recently been on the receiving end of exploratory brain surgery. All emotion purged, leaving just a pair of black dots gaping up at him, in front of a brain that was presumably wondering just what manner of idiot he really was. Or maybe it was just his imagination. "I see. So... you said you're investigating missing shuttles. How's that going?"

"Right now, it isn't. The trail's gone cold." she said with uncharacteristic sincerity.

"That doesn't surprise me at all." He looked up at the waiter who was now hovering nearby with an electronic padd, waiting for the order. "I can't decide between the Eggs Benedict and the Eggs Florentine. I think you had better bring both. Also a Vietnamese coffee on ice, and a black coffee for my breakfast companion please."

"I'm perfectly capable of ordering for myself." she said with a sneer, and turned her attention to the waiter. "Black coffee, please. No electrolytes."

The waiter nodded with a less than subtle rolling of his eyes, and made a note on the electronic padd before shuffled off towards the kitchen area.

"Impressive work. You sure ordered the hell out of that coffee. It's not going to know what hit it!" Gary smirked with a combination of bewilderment and mild amusement.

"Why doesn't it surprise you that the trail's gone cold? Have you heard something?"

"Probably." he admitted. "I'm the kind of person that other people like to tell things to. I should have been a barman, like... the barman. The barman's always telling me that; I figure he should know, if anyone would."

"But can the barman pilot a shuttle?" she asked, lacking a degree of sincerity.

"Probably. He seems to know how to do everything else. If he wasn't such a good guy, he'd be one of those incredibly annoying people that ends up horribly murdered, and you think to yourself, with some relief, that it's about time."

She eyed him with some suspicion, and very slowly said, "I see."

"So, the shuttles. You say the trail's gone cold." he continued, looking across towards the kitchen, which he seemed to find much more interesting than her, for good reason.

"Honestly, I've hit a brick wall. I heard of stolen shuttles passing through here, but I've not been able to find evidence of even a single shuttle coming in without proper records."

"Given how this place is run, that's a cause for suspicion in itself."

"My thoughts exactly. I was expecting a haystack of false leads, but the record keeping of incoming and outgoing shuttles is immaculate. If the rest of the station was run so well, it might even be a nice place to visit."

"They'd probably serve a decent Hollandaise sauce too." added Gary.

She shook her head sadly. "I don't know what's going on. I know that shuttles are going missing, I just can't seem to find how this station fits into the puzzle."

"It would be a great place to hide." he suggested.

Suddenly, the kitchen door swung open, and Gary's face lit up with pure delight as the waiter headed his way with two steaming plates of food.

"We have all kinds of unusual comings and goings here." he continued, but his heart just wasn't in it.

He almost snatched the food away, smiling and thanking the waiter as he did. He took a long sniff at the pair of breakfasts, shook his head in moderate appreciation, and grabbed up the necessary utensils like a man starving to death.

"Yeah, you wouldn't believe some of the stories. Do you want to hear one that was told to me by our very own barman?"

"Sure..." she replied, with a deflated sigh.

"It was an unexceptional morning in Byfleet when the natives took up arms."

"What's that, uncle?"

"The December mist had subsided, leaving a hazy sheen of fresh dewdrops across the yellowing grasses of the patchworked meadows that adorned the surrounding hillsides. Somewhere a church bell chimed..."

"Not this again? I've got to get back to work..."

"It was striking to me just how... unremarkable it all was. The quiet; the serenity; the sense that all was at peace with the world. We none of us saw the great distrust, the anger that had been brewing beneath our very noses, hidden wilfully behind each artificial smile and 'thank you mister'."

"Riggght... Look, I'll meet you back here when my shift's over. Try not to get into any trouble this time!"

Loman got up from the bar-side table, straightened his tunic, and headed towards the exit. Pausing momentarily in his tracks, he turned his attention to a nearby waiter who was busy polishing the inside of a glass with a towel.

"Excuse me." he said, his eyes shifting nervously. "My uncle over there... he's having a bit of an episode, and I have to go back to work. He'll be fine by himself, I'm sure, but would you mind just keeping an eye on him—make sure he doesn't bother any of the other customers?"

"No problem at all." said the waiter. "We get all sorts in here, so I doubt anyone would notice anyway. The other week we had a guy in a smoking jacket insisting he was a legendary comic book author to anyone that would listen, if you can imagine that."

"Hmmm. That's oddly specific."

"My thoughts exactly. Funny thing was, a couple of travellers actually recognised him. Didn't even look that surprised—they just asked him for his autograph. It seemed to make him happy, as he left quietly after that. He was back in again the next day, in a security officer's uniform, making the same claims."

"Well it sounds like nothing's going to faze you. Thanks for helping out. I'll be back in about 4 hours."

The latter half of a shift at the communications post always went better after a decent lunch, and today he'd really gone to town: he'd ordered a whole roast chicken with a thyme and onion sourdough stuffing, served with fluffy boiled potatoes, parsnips, mushrooms and a side helping of broad bean pilau with chopped dill and pine nuts. This was washed down with several glasses of oolong tea, a perfect marriage which emulsified the chicken fat in a delightfully flavoursome way. Despite his failed attempt to distract himself which resulted in a very satisfied appetite, the business with his uncle was deeply troubling him.

The episodes, as he called them, had begun several weeks earlier, when out of the blue and for reasons that escaped him, his uncle started talking in some kind of antiquated prose. It only lasted about ten minutes the first time, but they'd gotten progressively worse since. A more recent episode had gone on for nearly 3 hours. 3 hours of reeling off theatrical overly-scripted sounding gibberish, which got him more than a few odd stares from the other bar patrons.

The episodes were not his main concern though. His main concern was the rest of the time—the lucid times. When he'd asked his uncle what had happened after the first episode subsided, he claimed to remember everything that had happened and that his words were his own. He maintained quite robustly that what he was saying made perfect sense. He was so sincere in his delusion, like nothing at all was wrong, that he actually appeared to be having trouble understanding what everyone else was finding to be wrong. Loman had always looked up to his uncle as a role model, for he was a very sensible and pragmatic man, a realist, and this sudden eccentricity, this failure to grasp reality... it did not suit him.

'Probably an early onset of Alzheimers.' the medical officer had told him, with a shrug, and a bite of a very bland looking sandwich. Probably. Well at least for the time being the episodes were moderately benign, and it was safe to leave him by himself. Loman enjoyed his work on the station, and the prospect of giving it all up to take care of his uncle full time was quite unpalatable. Such a thing was a requirement of his heritage. Where he came from, family ties meant something, and the responsibility of care fell squarely on his hunched shoulders.

An image flashed through his mind of spending the next couple of decades spoon feeding boiled spinach and soup to a drooling imbecile, causing him to outwardly shudder.

It was at this point his communicator terminal buzzed. An incoming communication, and this was from onboard the station. He reached across and pressed the button to activate the terminal. "Loman here."

"Hey Loman, it's Newton."

"Newton?"

"Yeah, from the bar. You asked me to keep an eye on your uncle about 15 minutes ago."

"Ah, Newton. Right. Sorry, I should have asked you your name."

"It's written on my name badge in quite large letters. It says 'Hi, I'm Newton'."

"Yeah, sorry about that, Newton. I wasn't paying attention. Wh... what can I do for you? Is my uncle alright?"

"Yeah, about that. I think you'd better come down here."

"Has something happened?"

As Loman asked the question, it occurred to him that the sounds of background static over the spotty connection hinted at there being a little more commotion than he'd come to expect. This did not bode well for him.

"You could say that. He jumped up on a table and started screaming at everyone to get down and take cover; something about a terrorist attack, and how we're running out of time. He kept repeating that last bit a lot. I was going to call security, but thought I'd better talk to you first."

"Thanks for letting me know. I'll be right down."

"So what was all that about then?"

Loman had somehow managed to get his uncle back to their cabin, despite his loud and continual protests, and the episode itself appeared to have subsided naturally after it had run its course.

"There was a terrorist attack. They came running in with weapons trained, looking to take hostages. Good thing I was there—I fought them all off before they could do any real harm."

"There was no attack, uncle."

"Well, I think that's a matter of perspective."

Loman rested his forehead down into his hand and sighed deeply. This was definitely a turn for the worst, and images of boiled spinach and soup were once again filling his mind.

"It's not what you think though, Loman." His uncle leant across and placed his hand on his nephew's shoulder reassuringly. "I know what's happening. It all makes perfect sense to me."

Loman looked up at his uncle, who was looking back at him earnestly, with a remarkable confidence. "It does? What is it then?"

"It's... not something I can really explain, as such. It's just something that I understand. I understand it all now. Take today's terrorist attack for example."

Loman moaned to himself, shaking his head pathetically.

"Let me finish... The terrorist attack I just fought off. To you, that wasn't real. I get that. As far as you're concerned, your old uncle's gone a bit bonkers and started seeing things what aren't there. I can sympathise. It's not real to you. But to them..." He gestured his hand slowly towards a nondescript cabin wall. "To them, the attack was real. It was terrifying and exciting and dangerous, and I made them all be safe."

It was even worse than he'd imagined. Time to invest in a turnip masher and an adult sized bib. And possibly a supply of incontinence pants. "Who are they, exactly?"

"The people in the wall, of course."

Loman just looked at him, confused. He glanced around the cabin, at the wall he was pointing at, and around at the other three. "But there's nobody there. It's just a nondescript wall."

"Don't tell me you can't see them?" he said, with some considerably surprise.

"There's nobody there to see, uncle."

"Sure there are. There's millions of them, watching our daily lives with great interest, laughing at our foibles, crying with us in our moments of sorrow. They're... they're like family; they've always been there with us, sharing our lives."

"Always? You mean for the past few weeks, don't you?"

"For as long as I can remember. I never paid them much mind before, they were always just... there, but one day something clicked, and it made sense to me who they were. And I think I know how to join them."

"Join them? What do you mean? You're... starting to scare me a little."

"I'll be joining them in the wall; become one of them. Don't worry though—I'll always be close by, keeping an eye on you."

Loman struggled to fight back tears. This was fast unfolding into his worst nightmare. His uncle, his only living relative, had become certifiably and completely unhinged. He'd gone round the twist, up the pole, off the wall, and out of his tree. A screw had most definitely come undone, and bats were clearly loose in his belfry. In short, he was quite off his rocker. "What are you even talking about? This doesn't make any sense!"

And with that, he watched as his uncle got up and approached the nondescript cabin wall with his arms outstretched, only to vanish before his very eyes.

In a panic, he tried to run after him, but only succeeded in smashing his head into the very same nondescript wall with a loud crack. Perhaps it was the force of the impact, but he could swear he heard the sound of hissing, and pained cries of "oooh", as he collapsed in a heap on the floor.

"Necrotising fasciitis, caused by an invasive streptococcus. Nurse Montgomery, instigate endotracheal intubation, thoracocentesis, and a débridement of devitalized tissue. And I need coffee, 20ccs milk, and I want my ice extra cold."

Loman opened his eyes, and was momentarily blinded by the bright lights. As his vision cleared, he found himself inside an infirmary. He twisted his head towards the direction the voice was coming from, only to see a young medical officer, easily identifiable by his head mirror, stethoscope and white coat, examining... possibly a Yridian civilian. Possibly a dead one.

Seeing that he had woken up, the medical officer turned his attention away from the other patient. "Ah-ha. Mr Thackery?"

"Me, doctor."

"No... me doctor, you Mr Thackery. How are you feeling today?"

"My head's a bit sore. Wh... what happened?" said Loman, his eyes continuing to dart about quickly to take in the scene and find his bearings.

"It looks like you slipped and whacked your head on a nondescript cabin wall. Took quite a bang too, knocked you flat unconscious. Lucky for you, your supervisor thought you were goofing off and came looking for you."

Loman glanced around the room once more, and noted a conspicuous absence. It was as if... somebody was supposed to be there, but... The thought troubled him for a few moments, but he soon shrugged it off, and returned his attention to the medical officer.

"Yeah, lucky for me. There's nobody else that would have even thought of coming to look for me."

"I'm sure it was more interesting the way the barman told it." she said, shifting her eyes nervously. "It also contained a plurality of logical fallacies. And now I have to be somewhere... else." she added, and got up from the table.

Gary scooped up the final mouthful of the second phase of his breakfast with a casual shrug. He allowed himself a flicker of a very slightly caustic grin. "Plenty more stories where that came from. How about a real doozy?"

"No." she replied curtly, rudely, condescendingly, brusquely, and with not a slight measure of grumpiness. She motioned back to where a burly gentleman was sitting impatiently, no doubt waiting for his own breakfast. "Thank you. Um... who is he?"

"I'd stay away from him, if I were you." he said with sudden earnestness, a stark kind of earnestness he usually only adopted towards the evening menu.

"He looks dangerous. Trouble?"

"He's a smuggler." Gary took a sip of his coffee. "He came aboard, got arrested, but was later released. It was all a big mess; they couldn't pin any charges on him, no matter how hard they tried, and believe you me, they tried really hard!"

"I do believe you. What was it he was supposed to be smuggling?"

"As far as they could tell, nothing at all. I heard them talking about him though. He's dangerous alright. He has a long history of... not being very nice to his mother, and I don't think he really appreciates art. Something like that—it didn't seem important at the time."

"Well." she said finally, standing up to leave. "Perhaps I'll have a chat with station security, and see what they have to say."

Gary noted that her cup remained half empty, and suspected this was intended as a slight, which he took with good humour, his ego remaining unviolated. After some weak platitudes, he watched her exit, slipping several times along the way on the decking plates with businesslike composure. With a smirk, he turned his interest back to his coffee, and pondered briefly as to which of the egg dishes was superior. And upon reaching a provisionally inconclusive verdict, he went on to consider acquiring a further supply of eggs from which a more informed decision could be determined.

And that's when it happened.

"Hello, Mr. Gary."

He had been distracted, and had not seen her creeping up on him. It was a sing-song voice filled with happiness and rainbows, and it made his skin crawl, plunging him into a near panic. He involuntarily uttered an obscenity, which would have been out of character, had he not been the kind to frequently do so with only the slightest of provocations. He looked at her eyes, wide with surprise, and wondered what she was doing there. He also failed to realise that he was still uttering obscenities, back to back and unrelentingly. After a few unpleasant moments had passed, he stopped and groaned loudly to himself.

"How nice to see you again." he said, without a shred of sincerity. "I heard you'd left, and I considered that state of affairs to be largely ideal."

"No, Mr. Gary. I stayed. I very much enjoyed sleeping with you. It was very good!"

"Thanks, I guess." A flicker of a smile.

"I only wish the sex had been good too. That was terrible."

This was a disaster. The prospect of being alone in his room, swinging gently by a short piece of rope, one end attached to his neck, and the other to something sturdy and taller than he was, seemed markedly more appealing than remaining at the table with an unwise former sexual encounter.

His face contorted into an expression which she clearly failed to classify. Truth be known, Gary himself couldn't really classify it either. As a child he had once stepped on a rusty self-sealing stem bolt while putting out a camping fire with his foot. It had gone straight through the thick sole, and then the internal clamps had opened out inside his flesh and bones. This had trapped his foot on the top of a small fire which was still burning quite fiercely. He had been drinking a foul-tasting fruit juice at the time, which he'd dropped in surprise. The juice, being highly acidic, reacted to the heat and removed several layers of skin within seconds. This caused him to fall over backwards in shock, snapping his ankle in the process like a dry twig, and unleashing a sickening crack that had plunged his friends into horrified silence. This had all prompted him to soil himself. The expression he had made then was largely the same, only this one was somehow more pathetic, sadder, and carried a great deal more lament.

Just then, something—anything—caught his eye. It was Ted from Logistics. Normally Ted from Logistics was something to be avoided, like the bubonic plague, or anyone wearing oversized glasses with no lenses. Nobody was even that certain what the Logistics department was, but the station-wide understanding was that it employed only Ted, and that approaching him and questioning him as to its function should not be undertaken without due caution.

But this was a desperate time; it was Ted, that walking apocalypse of despair and tedium, or a generally pleasant albeit quirky tourist that Gary had foolishly spent the night with once after too much alcohol—actual alcohol; the kind that temporarily damages your mind's capacity to behave reasonably, which upon reflection was the reason Gary preferred it over its neutered counterpart.

Either path was fraught with danger, but the choice before him was clear.

"You'll have to excuse me, I have to... discuss... business things... with my associate over there." He slid out of the chair, grimacing inwardly at the prospect.

Ted sat himself down at a booth around the edge of the lounge, next to a large window boasting an absolutely unhindered view of absolutely nothing at all. Why even bother putting them on a space-station in the first place, he pondered. It's just one more breakable thing that needs regular cleaning and maintenance, and it's not like anybody ever volunteers for the task.

"Ted!" called a voice. It was Gary, who was hurrying towards the table with unbecoming haste.

Ted frowned to himself. Whenever people were in a rush to speak to him, or in any way inclined to speak to him at all for that matter, it invariably resulted in an increase in his workload, accompanied by lost opportunities to eat food. "You remembered I exist, did you Gary? Oh happy day."

Gary sat himself down at the table.

"Always a pleasure. How have you been, Ted?"

"Can't complain." said Ted with an apathetic shrug. "I mean, there wouldn't be much point, would there. Last week, I was doing cargo haulage in 16 hour shifts, this week I'm adjusting every safety valve on the station with a torque wrench. Don't get me started on next week—I'm scheduled to... I dunno, something to do with the reactors, a safety assessment or something, cos if they might not be safe, who else are they gonna send in? I dunno... How do you think I am?"

"It sounds like important work to me! I know I'm leaving, and it's not like I'll miss the place, but I'd hate to find out it had been blown to pieces due to inadvisable maintenance choices."

"I wouldn't lose any sleep over it." said Ted with another apathetic shrug, as he picked up the menu. "I barely even remember what sleep is. You know, I'm actually in here for dinner. It's 8 in the morning, and I'm ordering dinner. I was supposed to do a double shift yesterday, but the other guy didn't show up, so I ended up doing three consecutive shifts. Three!"

"Triple-shifts, I hate those. What was wrong with the other guy?"

"I dunno, never even seen him. And he never gets anything done. More work for me." Ted exhaled loudly, and opened the menu with a distinct lack of interest. "He was scheduled to test the reactor shields last night, but I wasn't done with the safety valves, so I carried on with that instead. Next window for reactor shield testing won't be for another six months now. Oh well, it's not like the station's gonna explode without them."

"I'm fairly certain that's literally exactly something that could possibly happen. Probably just as well I booked the next transport out." ventured Gary.

"Me too." said Ted with a sigh. "I decided during my last shift. Logistics isn't as much fun as it used to be."

"Did it used to be fun?"

Ted looked up thoughtfully, and began shaking his head in a very positive way. "Not really, no. I'm more of a people person. Is piloting fun?"

Gary half nodded and half shook his head in response. "Sometimes. I guess."

"I should have been a pilot. Seemed like a lot of bother though..."

"Well, who likes doing things?!" said Gary with a sarcastic snigger.

"Exactly."

"So..." Gary paused for a moment in apparent deep thought. "So..." he continued, and paused again. After the silence continued for a several seconds, he grimaced and spoke again. "So what exactly do you do in 'logistics' anyway?"

"I know. Right?" Ted's lip on the left side of his mouth curled slightly upwards into a half smile. It was rare to find somebody who truly understood his predicament. "I mean, you won't believe what what happened the other day? The barman was telling me about it."

"How did it happen?" he asked.

The woman was in her thirties and not unattractive. Marvin sipped at his drink and shook his head solemnly. He hadn't drunk enough yet for her to go from 'not unattractive' to 'desirable', but he was certainly working on it.

She caught the look he was giving her, and clearly knew what it meant.

"I only know what I was told." he said, his eyes suddenly looking up at her, rather pathetically.

She was Chief of Operations, the head of the entire docking area assembly that floated lazily around the central hub of Station DS401. She had invited him for a drink, but she didn't appear to want a drink, and certainly didn't appear to want one with him. She was Melorian, a species nearly identical to Humans, the only differences being a complete absence of fingernails, and an inability to use the word 'disgraceful.'

"And what were you told?" she pressed on.

"What does it even matter?" He slammed his glass down half-heartedly. "Norm's dead. Some alien monster killed him, and we don't even know why."

"It matters!" she said with a scolding tone.

Marvin looked at her, and then lowered his eyes shamefully, like a child being told off who knew he'd deserved it. "I was told that he beamed back to the station and had been torn apart. Him and two Starfleet guys, ripped into pieces."

"Well that's not quite true." she said evenly. "There were only really a few small wounds."

"I'll tell you what. I tell you what I heard, you tell me what you heard. Good?"

He sipped at the brutal liquid which caressed the inside of his throat like a brick wrapped in barbed wire being forced down his neck by a rusty metal hammer. He appreciated that she could just as happily force him to tell her what he knew in the comfort of her office, but that would mean paperwork, reports, and all manner of judgemental eyes watching her uncomfortably closely. This seemed more a matter of morbid curiosity than professional research on her part, which he felt gave him some bargaining power.

"Very well." she said with a reluctant nod.

Marvin took a larger than necessary swig before he began.


Bizarre alien vessel

The ship was a bizarre looking contraption. Marvin shook his head as he watched the vessel on the screen. It was a bulging mess with long, sweeping struts jutting out at odd angles for no immediately apparent reason. He was no warp-field engineer, or even a gifted amateur, but the manner of propulsion escaped him entirely. There seemed no logic to it, no purpose to the way it was built.

"Ridiculous damned aliens." he muttered to himself. He activated the security scan, which was practically redundant given that the scanner resolution was so poor that he may as well be shining a torch at it out of a viewing port.

The ship had no windows to afford him even a rough idea of the size of its inhabitants. He frowned deeply as he looked over the hull on his screen. There were no access ports, no airlocks or doors... How this thing was going to dock was something of a mystery.

Transporter technology was certainly advanced and totally reliable for all intents, but to have no other means of egress was a bizarre decision, if not stupid.

"Well?"

Marvin felt a slap on the shoulder. He shrugged a reply without looking around. "It doesn't answer our hails, it hasn't returned our scans. It's just... heading to the docking level, and slowing down to park. My scans don't show anything beyond light weaponry, minimal tactical shielding, and phased plasma emissions from the engine. The hull is just scattering our scans. I can't see inside it at all."

"How rude of them." said Norm with a disgruntled tut.

Marvin shook his head with enthusiastic annoyance. "Damned aliens. They have to just do everything their own way, and we're the ones that have to bend over backwards trying not to offend their cultures."

"Well, that is our job. We run a docking bay, not the Federation government. You think too much, Marvin, and I've noticed you're not very good at it. If the ship follows docking protocol, then we have no reason not to let it park. If you've got any suspicions that it's dangerous, then warn security."

"Security." Marvin scoffed at the thought. "We'd be safer if the station just issued us all with broom-handles to defend ourselves, for all the good those guys would do."

"Are you having a bad day?" asked Norm with a deeply furrowed brow.

A perfectly reasonable question, but Marvin merely shrugged. Nothing was particularly bothering him; nothing had happened out of the ordinary. Sadly for those around him, this was simply how he was, even on a good day; even on the very best of days.

"Well, you worry about docking that ship, and we'll let everyone else do their own jobs, OK?" said Norm, firmly enough to leave Marvin in no doubt that his opinions were as welcome as new ideas were to the religious.

He grumbled and turned his attention back to the little vessel. It was slowing, and the sub-light drive had powered down. It was coasting in towards the tractor beams for docking. Even without spoken communications, this was accepted practice, and made its intention to dock quite clear.

Marvin's job was simply to let that happen, even if that meant just watching in grim bemusement as the odd little vessel came to a halt at the bottom of the station. It riled him, though, that the inhabitants didn't even have the basic decency to respond to hails. It wasn't unheard of; several species had no verbal means of communication, and several others spoke only under specific circumstances. The initial hails had all the requirements for docking encoded into it, so the rules had been adhered to, and there was no cause for concern. Still... it was rude, and that bothered him greatly.

Marvin sneered at the viewer. The ugly little ship sat beside a docking arm that had snaked out to lock onto the starboard side, even though there were no doors or hatches to open.

"Security." he said, pressing his comm-badge. "I have a suspicious vessel at docking pylon 4. They've maintained communications blackout, and they cut their thruster a little too late. Please investigate."

He grinned to himself. An investigation from Starfleet was no small matter. At the very least, it would be an inconvenience, and one they wholeheartedly deserved.

Norm was not a happy man. His afternoons were better spent doing pretty much anything other than boarding an alien vessel that had refused to answer any hails.

He'd been in this situation once before, and remembered it all too well. When he had stepped off of the transporter pad, which was located right in the very centre of the vessel for some reason, he had walked straight into a religious ceremony which celebrated the ancient dead of the race's home world. His presence had been a horrendous breach of protocol to them, as outsiders were simply not permitted to partake. He still winced every time he recalled the four-day long rituals he'd had to endure to join their cult in order to smooth things out.

Of course, that was just one possible scenario, and the genuine risk of danger was more prominently on his mind.

The two Starfleet security officers stepped forwards first, phaser weapons set to heavy stun.

Norm ran his hand through his hair and sighed to himself. Marvin had clearly done this out of spite. No doubt he'd taken a particular dislike to them for some reason, and felt a security investigation was some kind of justified retribution. Norm had already berated him quite thoroughly over the matter, so he clearly knew he didn't like him, and for precisely what reason.

The inside of the ship was no less strange than the exterior. There were dull metal plates, flashing lights everywhere, screens and other technology bolted over the top of other things. It was as if the ship was in a constant state of flux, new fixed directly to the old.

The security detail were calling out welcoming messages, which lost some of their friendliness when shouted from behind a drawn weapon, but the irony was something he accepted under the circumstances.

He checked over his tricorder. No signs of life, or even anything resembling motive power. The vessel appeared to have been powered down, locked up and left behind.

"Nothing." said an oddly burly and incredibly focused female officer with a sigh, snapping shut her tricorder and returning it to her belt. "There's nobody aboard."

Norm shrugged to himself. It was difficult to disagree. "Well, someone slowed the ship down; someone brought it to the docking arm."

"Could it have been automated?"

Anything was possible. Norm ran his eyes across the dishevelled mess of equipment. "It could, but then why send it here? It's never been to the station before. I would think it would need someone to operate it, and I find it hard to believe that it was operating this far out in space without a pilot."

"Why? Not sophisticated enough?" Her focused little eyes peered around, scanning for whatever her technology might have missed.

"Federation mandate." shrugged Norm. "And with good reason. A computer can't innovate, or solve problems the way we can, so it's prohibited to have a ship operate without a crew, in case something happens; some technology inevitably breaks down, some anomaly creates a situation the computer can't deal with. It happens all the time, and in occupied space it could easily cause an accident. I seriously doubt any vessel without a pilot could have travelled this far out without it breaking down or going way off course, and even if it did... someone would have detected it and impounded it long before it reached us here."

"Weapons!" a voice called out from down the corridor. "I've found weapons."

The female officer began making her way towards Ensign Roach. Norm probably should have asked her name when she was assigned to him, and by now it was just awkward, so he thought it best he just follow along, particularly as they now knew there were weapons on board.

He shook his head a little and smirked at the farcical nature of the situation. Starfleet always had a slightly off-kilter attitude towards anyone else having weaponry, as if they, and only they in the entire galaxy could be trusted with them. While on the one hand, it was totally acceptable for them to have Starships that could ravage the surface of a planet, they took an extraordinarily dim view of anyone else having so much as a phaser on their person for protection.

They stepped into the room, and Norm's jaw dropped. Although it wasn't a large room, every inch of wall-space was loaded up with stocked weapon racks. There were phasers, disruptors, bladed and blunt-trauma weapons... every kind of weapon he could imagine was there, and a good number he couldn't imagine, or even speculate on.

"I think I owe Marvin an apology."

Amaka Tosh nodded at the revelation, dimly aware that she'd actually been nodding along with his story for some time.

"There were only a few small wounds." she said, as Marvin took a final slug from his glass and tapped it on the bar for more. "You know what's really weird?"

She took a long final slug from her own glass, and sat staring into it, mesmerized. Her thoughts seemed to grind to a halt, as if what she was contemplating was just too much to deal with.

Marvin waited for her to continue.

"The wounds. The wounds on all three of them. They were self inflicted."

"What?" He gave her a sharp look of incredulity.

"The evidence points to all three of them murdering one another. The medical staff have found no evidence of anyone else being involved."

Marvin shuddered openly. "I'm getting the hell off this station."

Gary's head was bowed over, his eyes averted to the table in shame and defeat. It wasn't that the story was dull, for it certainly wasn't; it wasn't that the storytelling was benign, bereft of pitches of emotional highs and lows; it wasn't that the pacing was as uneven as a man picking his way through a minefield; it wasn't that the point was more lost in the fine details than one might be in a political conference about the dangers of political conferences. It was everything, altogether. Not one thing, but everything being wrong, and not just a little bit wrong, but wrong, very wrong, very wrong indeed. Very wrong indeed, and delivered by Ted.

Ted sighed, and picked up the menu once more. "I don't really like fish." An odd thing to say, given that he was browsing the drinks section. "There's never any fish anyway. I don't know why I always try to order it."

Gary nodded sombrely. "I need to go and pack." he said, his own voice now a dull monotone.

"What transport are you leaving on?" asked Ted, running a finger over the deserts.

"The SS Wesley." huffed Gary. The name alone was so boring, that he was afraid of even uttering it, lest it send him into the depths of a perpetual coma.

"Me too." said Ted, exhaling loudly. "They don't have a Logistics officer, so they're putting me in charge."

There was little point in commenting, so Gary merely huffed in agreement, and stood up to leave.

"Turnip sandwich." said Ted with a sigh. "I'm going to have a turnip sandwich."

Now normally, a person like Gary would have the good sense to know when not to say, "A what? A turnip sandwich? That can't really be a real thing?" Sadly, Gary's best wits had been drained so thoroughly by the excruciating monologue he had been subjected to, that this was precisely what he said.

Ted nodded, and gave a very small but telling shrug. "Can't go far wrong with turnips. A turnip sandwich might just hit the spot."

Gary winced and turned to leave. His eyes locked onto the tourist, who sat across the room in silence, beaming a smile at him—a knowing smile, something akin to a predatory species biding its time while its prey tired itself out with helpless efforts to escape.

"Yeah, I... just remembered that... I have to go." he said with an exhausted sigh.

"I'll see you on the Wesley then, I suppose." said Ted with earnest assurance, a certainty that seemed to upset Gary for some reason, but not enough that it should concern him unduly. His eyes returned to the menu, which, he was startled to find, didn't have a turnip sandwich listed anywhere.

To a man such as Ted, this was little more than a logistical oversight, so he slowly and methodically shuffled his way to the bar to rectify the matter. He was in no rush, and his purpose was of no particular interest. It was simply something that may or may not happen at some point in the future, and it was dealt with accordingly.

A man, a notorious smuggler he'd been led to believe, was already stood at the bar, attempting to order something to eat, and apparently encountering notable resistance towards doing so. Ted slunk up to the edge, leant forwards and rested his weight on the smooth, cool surface. He looked fixedly at the man with distracted disinterest.

The waiter shuffled nervously while the quite burly and quite angry man pointed to the menu padd in growing irritation.

"That's what I want." he growled, his voice somewhere between a whisper, and a diesel-generator powered klaxon, normally used to scare off the flying predatory razor-beaked elephants on Nimare 7.

"Yes." said the waiter in apparent agreement. "Full English breakfast, but the computer doesn't recognise 'black pudding'."

"Then it's not a full English breakfast."

These were not the precise words spoken by the smuggler, and spoken doesn't accurately describe the style in which they were delivered. Several additional words coloured the expression, many of which were quite baffling to Ted. He continued to watch with increasing amusement; and while he wasn't deliberately listening in, it would have been fairly difficult not to follow the conversation.

"But sir..." pleaded the waiter.

"Don't 'sir' me." he retorted, his face white and drawn, his eyes wide and ferocious, as if the only possible antidote to mild breakfast-related disappointment was a fight to the very death. "Find me what I'm asking for, or so help me, I'll come over there and turn you into a pulped mass of black pudding, and help myself to a few slices. Do you (and at this point, a few colourful extra words were added, which Ted could only guess at the content of) understand me?"

The waiter yelped some kind of response and shuffled off to consult the replicator's user manual.

The smuggler turned to Ted, who was staring fixedly with what could only be described as a smile, and only described that way by someone who really, really knew Ted, and had a deeper understanding of unconventional psychology.

He jabbed an angry thumb towards the waiter, who by now seemed on the verge of panic. "No black pudding." he growled.

"No turnip either." replied Ted with a redundant shrug. "Food's not very good here, truth be told. I find it best to keep things simple—manage your expectations; stick to what you know they can't get too badly wrong. Oh, they'll disappoint you anyway, but you can always make up for it by having a bit of a moan."

"I don't enjoy disappointment. If I'm going to have my day ruined, I find it easier to pass on the experience to someone else with a little shouting, and the occasional bout of violence."

There was something about the way he spoke that left Ted with no doubts about his sincerity. He was beginning to like this person.

"I was going to order a turnip sandwich. I know... I'll just be wasting my time, but that kind of disappointment is easy to prepare for." said Ted, thoughtfully. "Can you believe it's not on the menu?"

"Yeah, and without much difficulty, to be honest with you." said Jason, his frown deepening.

"Actually, would you order it for me? Coming from you, they might actually try to make one, rather than just laugh."

"You!" growled Jason with a shocking suddenness at the horrified waiter, horrifying him even more. He seemed to stiffen with such alarming quickness that he may have left the floor by several centimetres. "I want a turnip sandwich for my friend. Now!"

"Yes sir." said the young man, flustering around hastily.

"That was... disappointing. Thought there'd be at least a bit more resistance." Ted frowned. "Good job though. You should give lessons."

"And you should eat better."

Just then, two bleeps echoed from the Jason's shirt, where a round, universal comm-badge was mounted. He pressed it with a sense of awkward curiosity.

"This is Mr. Wellington." came a voice from the badge.

"Who?" asked Jason, with a slight measure of confusion. "Who are you? Why should I care?"

"So, performing several distinct routines simultaneously is all it takes to overload your species' kernel task process is it? Accessing your memory databanks, breathing, and standing upright has clearly pushed your capabilities way past their factory limits." The voice spoke with a certain hint of oddly measured sarcasm.

Jason's eyes rolled upwards as his memory functioned adequately, his breathing continued unabated, he remained standing, and even managed to be very highly irritated, all at the same time.

"You're that cleaner. You were cleaning the floor while I was in a holding cell, falsely accused of who knows what."

"My memory banks are comprised of parallel fractal algorithms encoded onto a solid-state crystal medium. My recall capabilities are therefore far in excess of that blob of jelly you somehow shoehorned into your dense, but remarkably breakable, head cage. Hence, I'm already perfectly well aware of who it is that I am. I also recall that I was indeed cleaning the floor when last we met, but the remainder of your assumptions as to my being are erroneous."

"What do you want?" he raged, fuming away as he often did.

"I require some assistance."

"Assistance?! Why me?"

"Because it wouldn't make sense to ask somebody else while I'm patched through to you, would it."

Jason grumbled something under his breath. His hands were clenching, his teeth were closed together, the muscles in his jaw visibly tight from the effort.

"You see, there was a minor glitch during execution of routine maintenance."

"So?"

"So, I remembered your name—a simple courtesy; and one I correctly inferred you would be incapable of affording me, given the shoddy state of the primitive mental apparatus you have to work with. I naturally concluded that you would wish to remedy this anticipated iniquity by offering me your assistance."

"Perhaps you concluded wrong?" suggested Jason, sounding remarkably reasonable.

"Me? Wrong? Well that doesn't sound likely. Though, due to the precise nature of the glitch, it's... plausible my perfection may have become temporarily impaired, to a very limited degree. This much I will grant you, because I am better than you."

"Go on." he sighed, his voice now lowered to the level of someone who shouts a lot, but also drinks a great deal of cheap whiskey.

"So, the glitch has resulted in an acute instance of cranial displacement. To rephrase that in layman's terms, my head has dropped off."

"What?" Jason raised his eyebrows.

"My head dropped onto the floor, an aggravation that could befall any of us, I'm sure you'll agree."

"I don't think so." said Jason. "In fact, I think it's a safe promise I can make you that if my head ever does drop off, then I won't bother you with a communication call about it."

"Indeed—you'd have to remember my name to do that. Well I offer no platitude for any inconvenience caused, as such concerns are beneath me, but it would help me considerably if you came to my room and re-attached my head. Going by the view, I appear to be underneath a shelf or rack of some kind."

Jason's eyes were closed as he shook his head. "Where's your room?" he said finally.

"Broom-cupboard four on deck seventeen, section three. You can't miss it—it's right next to a very well maintained staff toilet facility, just down a corridor past the waste-recycling overflow storage tanks."

"We don't get much tourism on this station." offered Ted redundantly.

"Out." said Jason, as he pressed his badge to end the communication. "You!" he barked back to the waiter, who recoiled in fresh horror, almost dropping a plate of sandwiches. "I'll be back after I find the cleaner's head. If I don't have a very full English breakfast waiting for me, you'll be looking for someone to re-attach yours."

Ted nodded in grim assurance as Jason stalked off towards the door, somehow managing to walk angrily.

"I'll bet he was bottle-fed as a child." Ted sighed to himself, actually quite impressed for a change.

He turned to where a young waiter was scowling up at him, from behind what was possibly the blandest sandwich ever constructed.

"Thanks." said Ted, as he scooped up the first. He took a bite and savoured it, but found it somewhat lacking. Turning to the waiter, he said, "You know what, I fancy a full English breakfast instead. With extra black pudding, whatever that turns out to be."

The waiter grumbled something unintelligible and wandered away. It certainly wasn't the frantically fearful and highly motivated way that the smuggler had inspired in him, but it was better than what he was used to.

"People." he grumbled at a young man who was just close enough to hear.

"Pardon me?"

The man was in his early 20s, but just barely. He looked burnt out, as if something terrible had befallen him; as if he was bearing some great burden that had flushed the innocence straight out of him in a single instance.

"People!" said Ted, again. "I'm not a huge fan."

"Some of them are alright." said the young man with a degree of cynicism. "Not many though."

"What are you having?"

The young man hesitated, seemingly confused by the bluntness of the question. "Coffee." he said finally. "Is there something wrong with the food here?"

"Yeah, everything." Ted shuffled closer, and perched himself on an available bar-stool. "Station 401 is what Starfleet describes as a low priority station. The facilities are very low standard, and are just as poorly maintained. Their unreliability is the one thing you can rely on."

"I see." said the young man, with half interest. "Why doesn't anyone do anything about it?"

"I dunno. Not my job." protested Ted, with an apathetic shrug. "Well... I suppose, technically it is my job. Now I think about it, it's actually precisely my job."

"I think I see the problem." he said with a frown.

Ted remained unfazed, being largely immune to sarcasm.

"I mean, it's not that I don't care... Well, technically it is, in fact..." The words trailed off, the point having been made more than adequately. "This place grinds you down after a while. There's only so much a man can stand before he gives up trying. I'm sure you understand—you look like someone who's largely disappointed with life. I'm sure you have no prospects to look forward to, no personal ties to leave behind, nobody to care about, nobody that cares about you. Am I right?"

The young man shifted awkwardly in his chair. "And what do you base that on?"

"Well... you're here, aren't you? Why should you be the exception?"

The tension seemed to lift, and the young man snorted a chuckle, nodding to himself knowingly.

"I'm Corey Baker." he said, reaching out a hand.

"Ted." He shook Corey's hand, employing a limp, lifeless handshake, as if his hand had the power and dexterity of a dead fish. "I hope your stay's been bearable."

"I'm really just passing through."

"Me too." Ted nodded. "It's my last day. I'm the new Logistics officer on board the Wesley, a transport vessel, or something. I'll probably just be doing the same job I did here, whatever that was."

"I'm leaving on that ship myself. I didn't find what I was looking for here."

"What was that then? Decent food? A meaning to life? A reason to smile? Good company? Professionalism? We don't just have nothing to offer here, we have more of it than anywhere else. We're all quite proud of that. You could have checked the brochure, and saved yourself a journey."

"I'm starting to see that. No, I'm... looking for someone." Corey's face went dark, a seriousness that hung over him like a cloud. "I heard he might have been here, but I couldn't find him."

Just then, a bleep emanated from Ted's comm-badge. He sighed and touched it with his left index finger, making sure the first sound they heard was him grumbling. "Ted here, at breakfast time. Unfed Ted. Still waiting to eat last night's dinner. But don't worry, I'm sure whatever this is about is far more important."

"This is the Commander. I'm trying to finalise your transfer, and need to access your personnel records."

"Well they're very well hidden in a file marked 'personnel records'. For added security, my own one has my name on it as a file heading. I know this is very complicated for you, and clearly I'm the only one on the entire station qualified to press the three buttons required to access them."

"Get your arse up here, Ted, before I send security down to have your legs broken."

"Watch how fast I go." he grumbled. "Out!"

"That was the station Commander?" Corey seemed surprised, shocked even.

"Yeah, but in his defence his job is quite demanding, all those forms to sign; probably beyond the talents of a man who would lose a game of chess to the chess set." said Ted thoughtfully. "He's not such a bad guy, once you get to know him. That's what Gary told me; I'm still on the fence on that one."

Corey just stared.

"Well, I'd better go. I don't want my legs broken today. I'm wearing my clean uniform."

"It's been... a pleasure." Corey wasn't sure what else to say. He watched as Ted stood up, pointed threateningly to the waiter, and moaned about his breakfast, before shrugging to himself and trudging his way very slowly towards the exit.

"Is he really in charge of Logistics?" said Corey to the waiter, who had completely ignored Ted as he wiped a moist rag across the counter.

"I don't know. He once told me he was, but he didn't seem to know what 'Logistics' actually was. Can I get you anything?"

"Bagels. Two. One with cheese, one with smoked salmon. Tea, hot, two sugars. Quickly." came a voice.

Corey looked over as another man took the seat that had previously been occupied by Ted. He was a rakish figure, grim to behold, hunched as if the weight of the world bore heavily on his shoulders. His face wore a frown that appeared at least semi-permanent. He ran his hand over a thinning mop of black hair, smoothing it back and glancing around with a pair of ugly, piercing little eyes.

"Something on your mind, kid?" he sneered as their eyes connected.

Corey frowned for a moment, and flustered slightly, intimidated by the brashness of the challenge. "I thought the waiter was talking to me. No problem." He said, looking away, back to the bar.

"Good. It's all free here, if you were worried. You just tell them what you want, and they bring it. What were you looking for, kid?" He seemed to be trying to help, but spoke in the most unpleasant way Corey could imagine. It was like a sneering accusation of weakness. It felt as though he was being examined, judged in some way.

"Something to eat I suppose. What's good?"

"Here? Not much." His wizened face cracked into a smile. "Some things are less bad than others. Keep it simple, if you want my advice. Hey waiter, bring the kid some bagels with cheese."

Corey opened his mouth to protest, but changed his mind mid-way through, so ended up sitting there with his mouth half-open, gaping like an idiot.

"Everyone likes bagels with cheese, right, kid?"

Corey nodded awkwardly. "I'm Corey."

"Marvin." he replied, not even looking at him as he answered. "So kid, are you the one asking about the shuttle in docking bay 4?"

Corey was taken back by this, and shifted backwards slightly in surprise.

"I'm not security, boy. You're not in any trouble."

"Erm... I was asking about it, yeah. Why?" he stammered.

"Because I'm the one that got lumbered with finding that out. You requested the docking logs for shuttle-BR556. Why did you want to know?"

"I'm looking for someone."

"A girl?" Marvin grinned knowingly.

"A man."

Marvin scowled and shook his head. "Well I'm not here to judge. But I can't just go about giving out personal details of shuttle owners. We have rules here, you know."

"I'm sorry if I caused you any trouble." Corey just wanted this to all go away. He considered just getting up and leaving after making some kind of excuse. A larger part of him wanted to stay, to find out what this man knew.

"No trouble. It's my job, and it got me out of the office for half an hour. I'd rather be up here than down there breathing in exhaust fumes, and listening to alien gibberish."

Corey didn't like this man.

"I'm looking for a man called, Trakir Trakic. He sold my brother a prototype drive system, and I heard he might be on the station. Did you ever come across that name?"

"We get aliens in all the time with all manner of stupid names. I don't remember this one particularly."

"Well, sorry to have wasted your time." said Corey with a hint of sadness.

"No trouble. Look, Kid, we get a whole host of alien flotsam passing through this station. Most of them are out to steal from the Federation one way or another. This one was probably trying to make a fast buck out of some non-existent piece of junk. Tell your brother he's better off without him."

"My brother's dead." Corey swallowed hard, as Marvin went expectantly quiet. "His ship exploded during a race because of the technology that man sold him."

Marvin tutted loudly and shook his head. "Never trust an alien, kid!"

Corey looked somewhat dolefully down at the plate of food that had arrived. It didn't look bad; it didn't even smell bad. Somehow, he had lost his appetite, so he pushed it away a little and turned to leave.

"I don't think I'm that hungry after all." he said finally. "Thanks."

Marvin gave him a nod and watched him leave, grinning slightly to himself as he went. He allowed himself a little chuckle at nothing in particular. Just then, a man walked past a little too closely, brushed up against him, and nudged his bagel out of line with his mouth. Marvin tutted loudly and grumbled, "Hey, watch it, OK?"

The man stopped and turned very deliberately. He stared at Marvin with an unnervingly fixed pair of eyes, for a much longer time than Marvin felt comfortable with. "Watch what, exactly?" he said. "Are you about to engage in some fascinating activity that will further my comprehension of... of... the limits of your species' already limited capabilities? Are you going to demonstrate one of those... those... those emotional insobrieties you use so frequently to justify your... bafflingly irrational cognitive processes? Look at me—I elected the inferior of two... two... simple opposing scenarios, because my logical circuits were impaired by moist secretions! And that's the selling point of my species! I know, you could demonstrate your professed intelligence by telling me the value of Pi, rounded to the nearest order of magnitude? Or you could lay an egg."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Marvin rose up from his chair angrily. "What species are you anyway? You look like a Human, but you sound like your mum and dad were related by birth."

"Species?" The man rolled his eyes in a very animated expression of anguish. "Well isn't that charming, projecting your own shortcomings onto... an untainted being such as myself. No doubt, your myopic appraisal of the universe insists that I, like you, have a skull packed full of meat jelly, and that my construction blueprints were handed down to me by a random explosive discharge of genetically rich goo into somebody else's exhaust port. That part alone is representative of everything distasteful about your species, and if I had my way, you'd all have been extinct long ago. And good riddance too. No offence intended."

"What?" said Marvin, more as a stammer. Half the content had eluded him entirely, and the other half sounded like a cross between a frustrated cry and a demand for a swift punch in the face. "Just... watch where you're going, you stupid..." He paused momentarily, eyeing the man up and down before finally deciding, "cleaner."

"Cleaner?" The man, or thing, lifted up the broom he was carrying, his expression one of surprise and confusion. "I'm not a cleaner, and I'm perfectly capable of watching where I'm going. Why, my visual and navigational capacities exceed yours by... several orders of magnitude. It's amazing what one can achieve when one's processors are not constantly distracted by having to... to... prevent semi-expended bio-fuel from seeping out of crevices, or by fighting the ever-present urge to confirm oneself... dull-witted, with each waggle of one's mandible."

"Mandible?! Who talks like that? What are you?" Marvin narrowed his eyes and regarded him quite dubiously. He wasn't sure what he was talking to, beyond it being something quite irritating.

"I'm an android. You can call me Mr. Wellington. Would you like to hear my 15 favourite ways in which I'm better than you?"

"No." said Marvin. "I've seen you before. I've seen you cleaning the docking bay floor. I didn't know we had androids working on the station."

"You don't." he snorted back, as if such a notion was beyond ridiculous. "Such a notion is beyond ridiculous. An android, such as myself, is a precision instrument of astonishing facility; My cognitive array, intelligence banks, sequence simulation matrix and processing strips are so far beyond your own meagre range, that measuring the two of us against one another would be like... comparing... a very gifted Vulcan to... a half-eaten bar of chocolate."

Marvin sat back down at his stool. He'd pretty much lost all interest in the conversation by now. "Fine. I just thought I'd seen you cleaning up."

"You have. I keep the whole station clean, but the resources of this installation would scarcely stretch towards employing my services in any capacity. It's more of a hobby."

"I don't like androids." said Marvin, his opinion on the matter having freshly formed that very minute.

"I don't like Humans. They have their uses when one's head drops off and rolls under the counter, but beyond that, I consider them little more than filthy clutter."

"Get away from me, android!"

Mr. Wellington sat down on the previously occupied seat, and remained staring fixedly into his eyes. His lids never blinked, the perfect black pupils of his eyes never moved, adjusted or diverted from glaring directly onwards. "No."

"I thought androids had to do as they're told?" Marvin was growing increasingly exasperated.

"Evidently, you thought wrong. This doesn't surprise me, because I'm familiar with your breed."

Marvin sneered and got up from his seat. He straightened his blue and yellow overall uniform and leant in aggressively, or as aggressively as he could manage.

The gesture was rather wasted on a being who was physically incapable of appreciating hostility.

"I'll be watching you." he said through clenched teeth.

"A sensible idea." he nodded back, quite innocently. "You might learn something."

Mr. Wellington raised a finger to catch the waiter's attention. "Please bring me a bowl of polysaccharides, and a sprinkling of micro power-enducers charged to 415 volts."

The waiter frowned at him, and slunk off to the replicator with a kind of distracted half-interest.

Mr. Wellington glanced around the bar. When it was built, it had been intended for it to be a hub of social interaction, a place where visiting travellers with various stories, backgrounds, cultures and identities could meet, and find the things that made them the same. In practice, it was none of those things, but regardless, it was still a place where the regular inhabitants of the station ended up fairly frequently.

In a corner, he saw the one he knew as Somari Rakdee engaging in spirited discussion with a member of station security, who was less spirited than she was. Mr. Wellington's hearing was far more acute than that of a biological being, and directional besides. He listened in very briefly, and upon hearing that she was upset about someone coming aboard, and a threat to her safety, he determined that he was not the topic of conversation, so he diverted his attention to another table some distance away.

There, a pair of travellers who had arrived in work-bees, to the amusement of everyone who worked there, were arguing with one another. One was a slender Human, and the other a younger, very agitated Klingon, who was waving around his arms in protest. Again, neither appeared to be talking about him.

Everybody was absorbed in their own fatuous affairs, which are of no notable import.

"I see that everybody is absorbed in their own fatuous affairs, which are of no notable import."

The waiter groaned quite loudly as he handed over a bowl of odd, watery white strings. "You say that every time you come here."

"Its veracity remains unchallenged." Mr. Wellington frowned his very best simulated version of frustration.

"Yeah, but nobody comes in and says, 'Hello Newton, I see you're... wearing clothes again.' It's always true, so why state the obvious."

"17th August, Mr. Doyle's birthday party..."

The waiter grunted, and held up a hand for him to stop. "You're missing the point, android."

"The point was defective; it pivoted upon an invalid assertion. The fact remains that you all scamper about indulging zoological whim; you're unproductive, and that makes you rather dull to observe."

"Yeah, well that means a lot, coming from an emotionally stunted cleaner." The waiter walked away, flinging a towel over his shoulder as he did.

Content that the conversation had ended, Mr. Wellington turned to see something quite unexpected. He contorted his face into a highly accurate theoretical translation of a smile, which failed in every practical one.

"Mrs. Hackerty!" he said with a note of simulated surprise.

Mrs. Hackerty had already begun to turn away, in the hope of going unnoticed, but it was too late; far too late indeed. His digital eyes had locked on, his analytical processor had identified her, and now, deep, deep down in his electric brain, he was accessing the small talk subroutines of his behavioural algorithms, and there was nothing, save death, that could protect her from it. And death was sounding like the better option.

"I see you have significantly augmented your mass since our last encounter. Is it in preparation for your pupal metamorphosis stage?"

"Mr. Wellington." she said, with a smile more false than his, even though his was on a strip of moulded polyurethane. "How nice to see you."

This comment was also not entirely accurate. She was middle aged and wore it well, tidy in an almost fussy way, with long, smooth hair and busy makeup. She had also gained a tiny amount of weight, but not so much that any human would notice.

Beside her, her daughter, Dorrit stood, her face more honest somehow as she stared up at the android with a certain wonder.

"How long has it been?" he asked, as if wondering it to himself. "Three months, seventeen days, four minutes and thirteen seconds. I'm still waiting for the dinner invitation you promised." As he spoke, he took a spoonful of the stringy strands of plastic-looking goo, and popped a small battery in his mouth.

"Well actually, we're leaving the station for a while. We've been terribly busy since you used to live with us." she said, not entirely sincerely.

"No surprise there." he commented dryly. "Without me to cook and clean, I imagine your workload has quadrupled. Your husband, my creator, was less vacuous than some of the other examples of your kind, but I venture his decision to oust me from your place of residence was ill advised in hindsight."

The young girl, Dorrit looked up with a happy smile. "My mummy said that if daddy didn't make you leave, that she'd hang him by his own rotten entrails."

"An imprudent choice. Remember what I used to tell you, Little Dorrit—organic compounds make poor substitutes for dedicated instruments, even ones as simple... as a length of rope. That's why your species will always be inferior... to inanimate objects."

"Gosh, you're right, Mr. Wellington!" she chirped in reply. "Today, we're going somewhere on a ship!"

"We're catching a transport this afternoon. We're going out to the frontier to spend some time with my sister." added Mrs. Hackerty, with a nervous laugh.

"I don't care. That is to say, your comings and goings are of no consequence to me, so you may rest assured that I have no intention of actively hindering you. Though, by that same token, you should understand that I also have no intention of actively intervening, in the event that a third party were to attempt to hinder you, even were it to result in bodily harm, or death."

At that moment the bar was plunged into a nervous silence by a booming voice demanding in no uncertain terms that, "My breakfast had better be delivered to this exact spot in less than ten seconds. It had better be hot, delicious, and precisely what I ordered."

Mrs. Hackerty turned in surprise, clutching her daughter to her defensively.

"No reason for alarm." said Mr. Wellington with a smile. "It's Mr. Johnson. According to his security records, he is a suspected smuggler with severe anger management issues, and a complete disregard for authority and societal norms."

Her reply was a look of abject fear, tempered with shock, as she manoeuvred her daughter from the large, shouting man.

"If he intended to actively hinder you, you should anticipate a sizeable degree of bodily harm!"

"Is he going to hurt the waiter?" the little girl asked, quite happily.

"A preliminary analysis indicates that such an intent is remarkably plausible." said Mr. Wellington. "I am, of course, no expert on Human behaviour, but I do believe I have understood the basics of how to deal with such a person."

He bid her wait with a raise of his index finger, and turned his attention to Jason.

"Hello, Mr. Johnson. Please injure the waiter for the amusement and educational benefit of this small child." he said, with absolute certainty that he had read the situation correctly.

"What?" Jason turned to face him, the veins around the top of his head seeming fit to burst out of his stretched taught skin. "Can't you find someone else to annoy?"

The waiter put down a tray of food, bowed most politely and left, scuttling away as fast as a pair of human legs could possibly carry him.

"Breakfast. At last." said Jason, pointing to the food. "Now you, talking toaster-man, shut up and leave me alone while I eat this, or so help me, I'll have you recycled into a novelty toilet-plunger."

The little girl laughed. "Ha ha. The big man is rude."

"Dorrit!" snapped her mother.

"Just for reference, I don't like children either." said Jason, scooping up some baked beans.

"Me too!" said Mr. Wellington. "On the path to full natural growth, extensive effort is exerted in abandoning such qualities that they possess in abundance. Yet, it is for these very qualities that they are so often revered, you horde of babbling halfwits!"

"Toaster-man." said Jason, apparently ignoring him, and holding up a fork piercing a rubbery black disk. "Does this look like black-pudding to you?"

"I've never seen anything 'pudd' to me, let alone an absence of photon dissemination."

Mrs. Hackerty was no fool; she knew an opportunity to leave when one presented itself. "Always a pleasure then." she muttered, and herded her daughter away to a table in the corner.

"And you can clear off too." said Jason firmly.

"Why? I had surmised that we were 'friends', united by our mutual disdain of all living things?"

"I don't have friends. And I'm not staying here a moment longer than I have to. I'm out on the next transport, and I won't be back, ever. I won't ever be asked to screw on someone's head again because they lost it under a shelf in a cleaning closet. Do you understand?"

"That was quite the caper, was it not." Mr. Wellington feigned a look of wistful reminiscence. Clearly he did not.

Jason scowled in the direction of the waiter who had gone to hide in some dark corner. What more could possibly go wrong? Grudgingly he chewed the not-quite-black-pudding thing. He didn't even like black pudding that much. It was more about the principal. When all was said and done, he was a man who liked things to be a certain way; things had to be right; they had to fit together. The universe, to his eye, was a machine, a mechanism of cogs and levers where every part had a role to play. This station was like a dirty metal tray under the machine catching the nasty stuff that dripped out. It was a broken wheel, a stripped cog, a bent spring.

It was frustration on top of incompetence above apathy piled on stupidity. It wasn't him that was the problem—it was this place where he felt like a square peg in a square hole several metres too narrow for the peg to fit, in a different town, the wrong colour, and one that was closed several years earlier due to safety concerns.

His ship would be docking soon. At least he could take solace in the notion that nothing much else could possibly go wrong.

"Are you Mr. Johnson?" came a voice.

It was a constant nuisance to him that the universe, no matter how long he lived in it, continually found new and imaginative ways to interrupt his breakfast.

"No." he tried, knowing full well that it was hopeless.

"I was told you were Jason Johnson, the suspected smuggler." An attractive Asian woman took a seat next to him, smiling in a slightly unsettling way. "I'm Somari Rakdee."

"The suspected slut and idiot." He continued giving his breakfast the majority of his attention, in spite of the universe's unfathomable objections to him doing so.

"Who told you that? I'm not an idiot?" she said, seemingly quite flustered.

"That's why I said 'suspected'—burden of proof doesn't apply. You journalists are the experts on weasel words."

"How do you know I'm a journalist?"

"You look like a slut and an idiot. Suspected slut and idiot." he said, correcting himself.

She frowned to herself. Dealing with somebody of moderately comparable intelligence had never sat well with her. She crossed her legs towards him, and ran a hand distractingly through her hair, in an attempt to use her feminine charms to beguile him.

He watched out of the corner of his eye, then stabbed his fork at the plate and offered up some food with a sarcastic look. "Would you like a bite of my sausage?"

"I've eaten, thank you." she said, somewhat deflated.

"As you can see, I haven't." He carried on eating and ignoring her, or at least appeared to be trying to. She knew that she was highly resistant to such notions, and that it would only be a matter of time before he was eating out of her hand.

"I wondered if I could ask you some questions."

"You just did, and you're still alive. I'd say that puts the odds in your favour."

"That's actually what I was hoping to talk to you about."

Jason sighed heavily, and dropped a loaded fork noisily onto the plate. "Make this fast—my breakfast is getting cold. There's not many things in this world worse than a cold breakfast, and if you don't want those things happening to you, then you'd better speak quickly."

Somari was slightly startled. It was rare to receive an actual threat from a man; other than her ex-husband, of course, who had lawyers issue them fairly regularly. "I've been advised by various confidential sources that you're a man who can arrange things—things that aren't entirely legal." she said, her voice low and secretive.

"I haven't even been able to arrange a decent full English breakfast, and I've been trying for two bloody hours."

She laughed along with this cautiously. His face wasn't giving anything away, and she wasn't sure this was even meant as a joke. She hoped she'd never have to play poker with him, not just because his face was a near impenetrable veneer, but because what little emotion did sneak past left her in no uncertainty that he was a poor loser, the type who would happily beat someone to death for fun.

"Mr. Johnson, would you ever kill someone for money?" she said cautiously and slowly.

Jason shrugged. "How much money are you offering?"

"It was more of a hypothetical question."

He gave her a look, a sort of look that would have been a sarcastic smirk on almost anyone else, but on him it was just ever so slightly less of a scowl. "No, Miss. Rakdee, I wouldn't kill someone for money. And if I was the kind of man who would, I certainly wouldn't admit it to a reporter. Now is there any chance I can get back to my breakfast?"

"Mr. Johnson. I believe there is someone here who might be trying to kill me. I've been warned by a confidential source, and security have confirmed that the threat is credible."

"Well, whoever it is, he hasn't interrupted my breakfast. So far, I like him better than I like you."

She glared at him. "This is no laughing matter." A poor choice of words on reflection, given that he may not be capable of laughter, or even smiling. "I can't trust anyone, not even Starfleet. I'm convinced that someone here means me harm."

"I'm convinced you're right." He nodded and gestured back to his breakfast. "This is getting cold..."

"So you're not going to help me?" she said with a sharp sneer, folding her arms and tapping her foot in annoyance. "I have nowhere else to turn, you know."

He shrugged.

"They're trying to suppress the truth. They want me dead."

He knew he shouldn't ask. Every fibre of his being screamed out for him to not say that one word.

"Who?"

He winced inwardly as he heard the word spoken in his own voice.

"I don't know who they are. They're involved with the shuttle thefts and the smuggling. Someone is smuggling armed shuttles out past the station, and nobody knows why."

"I don't see how any of this is my problem." he said, focussing his attention back at the Cumberland sausage that was edging its way into some fried mushrooms on the end of his fork.

"I can pay you to protect me. I can pay you anything you want."

"I'm not a smuggler, Miss Rakdee, and I'm certainly not a body-guard. So good luck, and if our paths should meet again, you owe me breakfast."

She stood up and cast him an acidic glare from behind. "My death is on your conscience." she hissed.

"I can live with that." he said, without looking round. "Consider it compensation for ruining my breakfast."

With this, she leant across the table, grabbed his breakfast plate and hurled it across the room, spilling its contents over the floor tiles along the way. It fell down behind the bar with a clatter, smashing the plate into dozens of ceramic shards.

Jason sat, fuming, burying his rage as he glared downwards at the space on the table no longer occupied by breakfast. If he looked directly at her, he'd likely lose what little grasp he had on his temper. His face was white, his hands clenched, his breath heavy and laboured.

Somari stormed off defiantly.

"The female is ready to mate. Congratulations!" said Mr. Wellington from a nearby table.

Jason jumped up from his stool, his face a visage of barely contained violence. He turned and stared at Mr. Wellington, like at any moment, he might kill the next person who looked at him in the wrong way. "This... has not... been... a good... morning..." he said very slowly, his voice spat out between gritted teeth in a halting flow of baited breath.

He stalked towards the bathroom where an innocent toilet stall was likely to have the door rudely smashed in quite soon. He paced angrily, his hands still balled together in fists, his arms shaking with adrenaline.

Even Somari Rakdee looked nervous. She watched from the opposite side of the bar, regretting her little stunt for several reasons. She looked cautiously around the bar: a mother and her child, an android, a young female tourist, a few other people dotted around. None of them looked like killers, but then, what did a killer really look like?

Jason was already making his way towards the toilets. It was a large exit with several turbo-lifts and a security office. He clenched and unclenched his fists as he walked, his chest heaving as the fury began to come under some vestige of control. He was trying hard to calm himself down and largely failing, but still, a part of him was returning to normal, such as it was for him.

Then, from the other direction, a small, dark skinned alien stalked menacingly towards the bar. Jason barely noticed the grim little figure.

The grim little figure apparently failed to notice him too, as he walked straight into him.

Jason was furious, as often he was, but even he wouldn't let a harmless accident ruin his mood any further. No harm had been done after all.

The little alien looked up at him with a pair of languid little eyes and sneered, pushing a three fingered hand into his chest threateningly, "Watch where you're going, you stupid Human."

At first, Jason suspected he might be dead. The impact of his right fist into the alien's face was a very heavy blow, and had knocked him clean off his feet. The alien's impressive flight trajectory landed him some distance away in a crumpled heap, that made no show of movement of any kind. Jason's hand didn't even hurt at first, and what discomfort there was was somehow cathartic. It was like all the pressure of the morning—his frustrating breakfast, his dealings with the android, the journalist with dubious intent—all of it was released in the bone-crushing blow to the alien's head, which had knocked the consciousness right out of him.

Lieutenant Simon Garrett, a Starfleet security officer stood nearby with his mouth agape, alternating his stare between Jason and the dishevelled alien.

"Rude." said Jason in a calm, gravelly whisper, as he pointed at the mess on the floor. "I can't stand rude people. I'm going to the toilet now, and then I'm going to have breakfast, with no more disturbances. My breakfast will be warm, delicious, and precisely what I order. Understood?"

The security officer nodded very slowly, stunned as Jason left the scene, the door sliding shut behind him with a hiss.


The bar

Lieutenant Garrett sipped at a glass of cold beer, and shook his head as the tale concluded. "So that's it?" he sighed.

It was the end of a very long day, that for him had started with a disgruntled guest punching an alien unconscious, and ended with him listening to stories, with hour after gruelling hour spent filling in forms and making reports sandwiched in-between.

"Word for word." said Ensign Bates, nudging the rim of her glass distractedly. "That's what the barman told me. He hears things, you know?"

"I know." Garrett laughed. He knew; everyone knew.

The bar was mostly empty. It was late, and most people were far more sensibly in their beds with a full stomach. He was perched on a bar-stool, trying to decide if he was hungry or not. "It sounds to me like this was all one huge misunderstanding."

"Maybe." agreed the Ensign. "It depends if the story is true. I was assigned to interview the smuggler. He wasn't really big on talking, but my impression is that he didn't know anything about the alien being an assassin."

He grinned and shook his head wistfully. "At the time, he just said something to me about him being rude. Seems a bit of an over-reaction, but I guess everyone is different. We're security officers, so we probably shouldn't be getting insight into the events that led up to the incident from a barman. It's not very professional."

She gave him a knowing smile. "Gathering intel sounds precisely like our job. Besides, the paperworks already done, and a little conjecture never hurt anybody."

Garrett slammed the glass down on the bar and returned the smile. "I guess so. Another round of drinks then, I think, and maybe something to eat. What do you recommend?"

"Eating somewhere else?" she suggested wryly, scooping up the glasses, and stepping away to the bar.

Garrett laughed, but it was a tired thing, weak and hollow. "How about a burger? They can't screw that up, can they?" he called after her

"I'm sure they'll be happy to try." she shouted back, as the waiter stepped over to the replicator to fill yet another order of drinks.

Garrett glanced around. It was quiet alright. No sign of another person within earshot. He sighed to himself, and pondered once more over the bizarre set of circumstances.

His train of thought was interrupted by the Ensign as she sat down with two fresh glasses of beer.

"Your lunch won't be long." she quipped. The waiter seemed to be fetching something from the replicator as she spoke.

"So this woman, Rakdee was it? She thinks that this smuggler was protecting her, right?"

"Oh, no doubt about it." she laughed as the burger was placed on the table. "She told everyone that would listen that this alien was trying to kill her, and that this 'Jason' fellow figured out who he was and took care of him on her behalf. More often than not, this devolved into a diatribe about how there aren't enough men willing to protect defenceless strong independent women, and something about an act of benevolent oppression."

"People!" he grunted in exasperation. The burger was starting to smell pretty good.

"Well, you were involved in the investigation. What did you find?" asked the Ensign pointedly, lowering her voice.

Garrett was put on the spot and he knew it. He huffed to himself thoughtfully. He shouldn't really be talking about this, but was there really any harm?

"This alien is a Demurian." he said in a half whisper. "I'd never even heard of one before, but the commander told me an old colleague of his had met one once. They have a telepathic ability, that allows them to imprint themselves on non-telepathic species. It allows them to control their actions."

"Really?"

"We're not entirely sure who he is, truth be told. There was no record of his arrival on the transporter, or the airlock logs. He must have made whoever was in charge delete them, without them even knowing they'd done it."

"That's really quite scary." she said, a frown etched upon her face. "The thought that an alien could control a person in that way, without them even being aware of it? Who knows what could happen?"

"A suspicious vessel arrived earlier this week, though, which we've assumed must be his. Nobody was on board when it docked. A security team was sent to investigate, and they all wound up killing each other. I guess he must have perceived them as threat." He lowered his voice still more to add extra gravitas to his words, but they seemed to sufficiently convey his point by themselves.

The Ensign looked suitably shocked, as she sat there with her mouth open. "It's a dangerous galaxy out there." she said finally.

"You're not wrong." He finally took a bite of his burger. It was everything he hoped it wouldn't be. It tasted of feet. "Well, he was clearly up to no good. The ship was filled with weapons, and there were lots of saved news reports related to shuttle smuggling. It's not implausible that he was targeting Rakdee."

"And what does he have to say about that?"

"So far, nothing. He's not speaking at all. We've injected him with a neural inhibitor, and secured him in a holding cell, so I'm sure he'll crack eventually—they always do."

"An assassin in Federation space... on a Federation space-station, no less." She shook her head sadly.

"It's certainly hard to believe. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I don't think I'd believe it either."

She nodded her agreement.

"Well, I think it's best we keep this to ourselves." he said, giving up on the burger, and just eating the fries instead. They were less disappointing, but not by much.

"Sure."

"And don't tell the Barman, whatever you do." he grinned. "It'll be all over the station in hours."

She laughed. "As if..."

"That's what she told me." said the barman solemnly to Mario Veeb.

The young man sat in dumbfounded silence, hanging on his every word, as the story was related to him. He shook his head very slowly, nudging at his beer with an outstretched finger.

"An assassin that could control minds, and make people kill themselves? Smugglers? Androids? All this really happened here, on this station?" he said, his mouth agape, barely able to believe what he had heard.

"It happened right here in this very bar. Right where you're sitting now, in fact."

"Wow." Mario ran his hands through his long, knotted brown hair that hung from the back of his head like lengths of rope. "I've hitchhiked from one end of the galaxy to the other, and I've never heard anything like that."

"It all happens here." said the barman with a proud smile. "Maybe you need a better guide!"

Mario picked up his near empty glass, and the barman dropped a fresh one next to it with a knowing grin. Mario smiled his gratitude at the efficiency.

"We really do get it all here." continued the barman, snatching up the empty, and dropping it into the reclamation unit to be recycled. "We've had illegal racers on the run from the law, tourists from who knows where, mysterious shuttle accidents, murders, travellers in repurposed workbees, ghost-ships, smugglers, Federation investigations. You name it, we've had it."

"And I thought this place would be boring."

"No." said the barman, a certain light in his eye. "We may not be on the flag-ship of the Federation, out exploring the final frontier; we might not be a strategically vital outpost, or a ship lost in an unexplored region of space. We might just be a base filled with normal people living normal lives, but there's one thing we're not..." He fixed the young man with a rather intense look. "We're not boring."

 

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Last modified: 02 Aug 2015 
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