Chapter Four

Ando gingerly redressed Nitram's wounds in the cramped quarters of the turbolift, carefully avoiding the gaze of the Cardassians. Nitram was slowly regaining consciousness.

"Arrrrgghhh ..." Nitram groaned painfully, shifting position. "What's going on?"

"Well, we got away from the robot, but you passed out when we got to the bridge. That's when we got captured." Ando replied.

Nitram tried to sit up, looked around the turbolift for a few seconds at their Cardassian escort, and then slumped back to the floor. "Oh for chrissakes. Cardies? You got us captured by Cardies?"

"Sorry." Ando replied with an apologetic grimace.

"I take a nap and you get us captured by Cardies ..." Nitram grumbled. "Where the hell are we?"

Lucet interrupted. "You are in my custody, human. And you would be wise to show some respect."

Nitram rolled his eyes but said nothing. If Lucet noticed the gesture, he didn't seem to care.

"Anyway, both of our ships were destroyed by some kind of weapons fire from the ship-" Ando continued.

Nitram's eyes widened. "This ship's weapons are active?!?"

"Yeah, so we're stuck here." Ando replied. "The Cardassians are looking for a way off the ship. A shuttle bay, a communications console to call for help, anything."

"And you haven't been much help, human" one of the Cardassians interjected.

Ando ignored his glare. "So far, it's just empty levels and locked doors. Most places don't even seem to have lighting. Lucet ordered his men to skip all the way down to the lower decks. I guess he got tired of going through these levels one by one".

Nitram looked through the jagged hole in the door, mesmerized by the sight of the turboshaft walls rushing by. Each level passed, dark hallways followed by the solid metal of deck plates, faster and faster until they began to blur together. And then, just as it seemed to reach top speed, it began slowing down again. But something had changed. The rushing darkness was now flecked with lights, streaking up as the turbolift rushed down. The lights were obviously on in these lower levels, and he had nightmarish visions that any one of these floors might be full of homicidal war machines.

"What about that psychotic robot?" he asked.

"We barely got away from it. It was breaking through the blast doors into the bridge when we got out."

"So ... it's still after us?" Nitram's shoulders slumped. "Oh, this just gets better and better ..."

One of the Cardassians knelt down and shoved his disruptor pistol in Nitram's face. "Yes, human. And that thing killed a lot of my friends thanks to you! You're lucky I don't-"

"That's enough, soldier." Lucet said quietly, but firmly. The chastened Cardassian immediately returned to a standing position. "Count yourself lucky that we have some use for you. Otherwise, you'd be laying in pieces on the bridge right next to our fallen comrades."

Nitram groaned heavily. "I shoulda stayed in bed this morning."

"Shut up, human." Lucet growled, looking down at him. At that moment, the lift stopped. The corridor outside was empty and well-lit, but there was something else. There was sound echoing down the corridor, and it was not the dull thrumming sound that could be heard throughout the ship, but something more irregular, more distinct.

"There's someone here." Ardum said quietly.

Lucet nodded, and pointed to Ando. "All right human, you're coming with us. Ardum, stay here with his friend." he said, pointing to Nitram. "We'll stay in contact. If we miss a check-in, kill him."

Ando opened his mouth to object, but he knew it would be a waste of breath. This was Lucet's way of ensuring Ando's compliance, and it was precisely the sort of thing that a Cardassian would do. Lucet motioned him out, and he obeyed. He turned to stop just outside the door and looked back at Nitram, who smiled weakly. Both of them knew that their immediate prospects were bleak, to say the least.


The Maquis Raider "Starlight"

Dalton's small ship slipped silently through space like a wraith. They'd arrived at the last known location of their missing comrades an hour ago, but Dalton's refusal to use active sensor scans was slowing down the search. The Maquis had learned the hard way that the transmissions of active sensors are like the proverbial flashlight in the dark. So they slowly, methodically nosed through the asteroid field, searching for their missing men with nothing but passive sensors and luck to guide them.

"Captain, I think you might want to have a look at this."

Dalton came up from the rear of the ship to talk to Vympel at the pilot's area. "Whatcha got?"

"Still no sign of our lost raider, but I'm picking up a Gaylord." Vympel replied. He was young and inexperienced, but he was one of the better Maquis pilots nevertheless.

Dalton glared at him. "A what?"

Vympel cleared his throat uncomfortably under Dalton's gaze. He'd forgotten about his distaste for off-colour nicknames. "Ahem. Sorry, sir. A Cardassian Galor-class cruiser."

"That's better."

"Anyway, he came in fast, so his warp signature was clear as a bell. And he's already blasting out scanning beams at high power. Looks like he's pretty hot to find whatever he's looking for, sir."

Dalton stared at the tactical display. "Can he see us?"

"No sir. We can track him as long as he keeps his active sensors going, but we're outside of detection range."

Dalton looked thoughtful. "We had them searching for possible base locations out here because it's so isolated. Nothing of value to either side, and certainly nothing worth sending a Galor-class cruiser. So why is it here? They wouldn't send a Galor-class cruiser just to track down two men!"

"Damned if I know why, Captain. Want to put some space between us and him? We won't last long against a Gaylord- er, Galor, sir."

"No, just keep your distance and shadow him. We're not giving up that easily. We'll use the asteroids for cover."

"Aye sir." Vympel's manner was nonchalant, but he knew the stakes had just been raised considerably. This region of space was desolate even by the standards of the Cardassian DMZ, so they were expecting a small Cardassian attack ship at most. The training of Cardassia's conscript starfleet was widely known to be among the poorest in the Alpha Quadrant, and this fact, more than anything, had given the Maquis a lease on life. But the vessel on their scopes was a full-blown warship, nearly 400 metres long with 300 crewmen. Regardless of their training, it would be suicide to challenge a Galor-class cuiser, and both men knew it.


Alien Ship

After wandering the hallways for more than ten minutes without encountering anyone, Ando was starting to grow fatigued of the tension. Each time they came to a new intersection or a new room, he tensed up, expecting to hear the familiar chud-chud-chud sound of heavy weapons.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the men stop to stare out a window, his mouth hanging open. Ando went to look, and caught his breath. It was an observation area just off the main corridor, and below them was a gigantic, cavernous room. It was dominated by a huge, bulbous armoured structure, and around it he could see androids. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of them in an almost dizzying variety, marching to and fro around its base and on dozens of levels above and below his own. Many of them were clearly maintenance robots, working on various pieces of equipment and not even appearing to notice anything else around them.

"Look at the size of that thing." one of the men muttered. "You could fit a small starship inside it."

"Must be the main reactor." Lucet said. "Look at all of the piping leading in and out of it. It's fully armoured, too. Very nice."

Ando stared at it. Catwalks and ladders wound around its leviathan mass, and huge pipes ran along the walls of the reactor chamber. A man could easily walk around inside those pipes, Ando mused. Unlike the transparent plasma conduits he knew, these pipes appeared to be as heavily armoured as the reactor, and for that matter, the rest of the ship. The entire vessel seemed to have been designed with the intent to use as much heavy metal as possible. It struck him as downright wasteful of resources, but it certainly conveyed an impression of solidity.

"So what do you make of it, human?" Lucet's voice came from behind him.

"Ummm, it looks like that android wasn't the only thing we woke up."

"Thank you for your brilliant insight, human. With such great powers of perception, is it any wonder that your kind has forged a superpower out of Vulcan hand-me-downs?" Lucet asked, to the sound of snickers from the other Cardassians.

Ando had grown tired of being constantly berated, and his anger flared. He glared directly at Lucet with fire in his eyes. "And yet our kind has soundly beaten yours every time we've ever had a stand-up fight, haven't we? So what does that say about you?"

One of Lucet's men moved to strike him, but Lucet stayed his hand with a gesture. "Such impudence from one whose life I hold in my hands!" he remarked with a smile. "I am impressed, human. There may be hope for your species yet."

Ando cast a glance at the other Cardassians, but Lucet seemed to be the only one who found this amusing. He ignored the rest of them and fixed his gaze on Lucet. "Gul Lucet, I suggest that we capture one of the smaller, weaker androids and interrogate it."

"And what happens when one of its bigger brothers comes looking for it, human?" one of the men snarled. "You whittle down our numbers some more? That's what you're hoping for, isn't it? You don't-"

"Shut up!" Lucet hissed. "Someone's coming!"

Sure enough, the light click-clack click-clack sound of a lone android's feet could be heard at the end of the hall. They all saw a gleaming silver-hued humanoid robot turn the corner, and froze. It was much smaller than the hulking war droid they'd encountered before, and it appeared to be unarmed. The android saw them too, and immediately began running away. Or at least, trying to. But the best it could manage was a hurried walk.

"Stop him!" Lucet ordered. "Before he can call for reinforcements!"

All of the Cardassians immediately opened fire. The gawky android was promptly hit in the legs and collapsed in midstride, its arms and legs awkwardly flailing on the deckplates with an insubstantial clatter.

"Hold your fire! I think we have our prisoner."


Cardassian Galor-Class Starship "Alkesh"

Gul Tain shifted uneasily in his chair. As a political appointee with a minimum of military training, he was unaccustomed to commanding a starship, never mind a Galor-class cruiser, and he tried not to let it show.

"Gul, we have the derelict ship on our scanners."

"Excellent. Hold position and try to scan for Lucet's ship."

"Gul, I'm picking up traces of tritanium and duranium composite fragments. Scanning ..." he said, working the controls, "it's a match. Cardassian alloy. Looks like Lucet's ship was destroyed, sir."

"The Maquis destroyed his ship?" Tain asked in surprise.

"Negative, sir. I'm getting some really strange energy traces in the debris. Doesn't match anything in the database. Definitely not any kind of weapons fire we've ever encountered. And I'm picking up debris from the Maquis ship too."

"How?" Tain asked with a combination of relief and fear. The idea of an ancient derelict ship was at once both intoxicating and frightening. Cardassian novelists routinely wrote horror stories about ancient, malevolent spirits being awakened on derelict starships, and while he tried to dismiss the idea as superstitious nonsense, it would not go away.

"Unknown sir, but I'm getting some strange power readings from that derelict, and they're ramping up exponentially."

The hairs on the back of Tain's neck stood on end. "Is it powering up weapons? Propulsion?" he asked nervously. It was quite obvious now why Lucet hadn't reported in, but if they had awoken something on that ship ...

The young crewman worked the controls without success. "I can't tell, sir. The readings don't match anything in the database. If I got in closer, maybe I could get a better-"

"No!" Tain almost shouted. He may not have been experienced in starship command, but every instinct screamed that they were in terrible danger. "Battle stations! Evasive maneuvers, now!"

The young crewman immediately complied, and the ship began to go into pre-programmed maneuvers. He turned to speak. "Sir, we're well out of range, and there's no sign that-" he began, only to stop in midsentence as the entire viewscreen lit up with a flash. A large asteroid near their position was struck by a green bolt of coruscating energy and exploded into a brilliant flare of superheated gas.

"Helmsman, get us out of here NOW! RIGHT NOW!!" Tain screamed in a strident, high-pitched tone, all pretense at decorum lost.

Alkesh's engines flared to full intensity, and the warship turned to flee from the slowly awakening and no longer derelict alien ship.


Maquis Raider "Starlight"

"Oh shit," Vympel blurted out. "The Cardies turned around and they're comin' right for us!"

"Hide behind that rock and go cold." Dalton ordered calmly, pointing at the largest asteroid in range.

"Aye sir," Vympel said, fingers flying over the controls. The diminutive raider slipped deftly out of sight, whipping dangerously close to the asteroid before he punched the retrothrusters and brought it to a safe but jarring stop. He immediately began shutting down systems, bringing the ship to an emergency cold-stop. Lights winked out, the familiar hum of the warp core went silent, and the small ship went dark. It was always a risky maneuver to shut a ship down that quickly, but Maquis pilots knew the drill by heart.

"Cut it that close again and I'll have you on waste recycling for a week, hotshot." Dalton grumbled. It was a calculated risk to "go cold". It took five minutes to start even the smallest warp core back up again, even if they pushed every safety regulation to the limit. If the enemy spotted them, they'd be helpless.

"Sorry, boss. But I don't think they spotted us."

Dalton's visage was pensive. "We'll see."


Alien Ship

Ando and the Cardassians turned their heads at the muffled thump, the latest of many.

"What was that?" Ando asked.

"Ask him", Lucet grunted, pointing at the android. Its dismembered but miraculously still-conscious torso had been dragged into the turbolift.

"Well?" Lucet asked the android, holding the translator in its face. "What was that?" The android chattered back, but the translator was silent.

"Forget it," Ando said wearily. "We tried that before, and their language is nowhere in the database. Not even fragments. Translator's useless. Maybe Nitram can figure it out." he said, redressing Nitram's wounds.

"Hey, I'm no language expert-" Nitram began, and Ando froze. He glared at Nitram to shut up and prayed Lucet hadn't noticed.

"Well well well," Lucet began sardonically, "it looks like you lied to us about your friend's abilities. It would appear we have no real use for you two at all, do we?"

At a motion from Lucet, one of his men drew his weapon and pointed it at Ando's head.

"Wait," Nitram protested. "I'm a system hacker, and you need that too."

"I already have a computer expert, so it looks like you two are dead weight. Give me one reason to waste my limited manpower watching you."

No one had noticed how the android's gaze was fixed on Ando and Nitram. No one had noticed the low-volume sounds it was making as it tested certain vowels and consonants against the language it was hearing. But when it began to speak in perfect English, everyone noticed.

"Humans!" it said. "Well, I never thought I'd see another human again! It took a moment to retrieve your language from the database. It's quite obscure, of course-"

Lucet whirled around, his jaw hanging open in disbelief. "You ... speak their language?"

"Why yes! As a Kuat Drive Yards customer liaison protocol droid, I am fluent in over six million forms of communication. The base terms and syntactical rules for this language are very obscure and are really retained only for historical purposes, but it appears that it is still in use around this part of the galaxy. Quite fascinating, if I do say so myself. Now if you could re-attach my legs ..."

One of the other Cardassians grabbed Ando and shoved him against a wall. "I thought you said you didn't know who these people were, human!" he snarled.

"I don't!" he protested.

"You LIE!" the Cardassian retorted, drawing his pistol and roughly jamming its barrel against Ando's cheekbone.

"Let him go." Lucet said quietly. "The android knows Earth language. So do hundreds of alien species throughout the galaxy. So tell me android, what kind of ship is this?"

The android straightened its head to look directly at him. "Why sir, everyone in the galaxy can surely recognize an Imperial star destroyer on sight!"

"Star destroyer, eh? So it is a warship. What are its tactical capabilities?"

"Sir, I'm afraid that information is classified. Unless you have level 3 security clearance-"

"Where did it come from?"

The android had no facial expressions, but Lucet could swear that it was smirking at him. "Sir, if you are accepting delivery of this starship as a duly authorized representative of Moff Disra's third expeditionary force, you should already know that."

"And how would I prove that I'm a member of that force?"

"Imperial identity code, sir. But I highly doubt you have it, since Moff Disra's third expeditionary force has human officers."

All eyes immediately moved to Ando and Nitram. "Well, human," Lucet began, "it looks like we're partners again." he said with the most insincere smile Ando had ever seen. Lucet seemed to enjoy toying with them.

Ando ignored him and addressed the droid. "What kind of code clearance?"

"Perhaps if you re-attach my legs in less than 48 hours, I can help you." the droid answered.

"What's so important about 48 hours?" Lucet asked.

"The ship has been in a hibernation state for a considerable period of time, and it will take 48 hours for the main reactor to go on-line."

"And then what?" the two men asked in unison.

"We will regain full control of internal and external sensor and security systems, as well as shields, propulsion, and all weapons."

"Ha!" Lucet snorted. "You're lying, robot. The weapons are already on-line. Our ship was destroyed by them. And unless I miss my guess, that sound we just heard was more weapons fire."

"It would appear that one turret was manually activated. In violation of the cold-start procedure, I might add. Most improper! But I don't think you understand-"

It was Ando's turn to interrupt. "And what happens if we can't prove our identity before then?"

"Then you will be identified as intruders when the main computer goes on-line and activates the security droids." the droid replied calmly.

"And what will happen then?"

"Well sir, obviously ... you will be terminated." it answered, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Continue to Chapter Five