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Ethan Neufeld

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About Ethan Neufeld

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  1. What's in Your Wallet? 12 JUN 2388 (Immediately following the events of "Playing with Fire") As a child, Security Inspector Olan (né Olanrewaju) Adisa Lowell had idolized the legendary career of Captain James Tiberius Kirk. Commanding the Enterprise from the treehouse his father built in their backyard—while dad played all the other roles—forged some of the best memories from his formative years. He admired Kirk's sense of adventure and responsibility—above all, the ownership he exercised for his mistaken biases. He had not anticipated also sharing an allergy to the drugs that treated age-related macular degeneration. The grizzled Londoner with Nigerian roots peered at the screen, rectangle-rimmed prescription eyeglasses perched low on his nose. Like many before him, the adrenaline rush of hunting bad guys had started off Olan's career. He believed he had a calling: the sheepdog protecting the lambs of society. But deep beneath his coarse exterior, he cared about everyone. He wouldn't have persisted in the profession if he didn't. The job was grueling, dreary, repetitive. That bold line between good and evil he perceived readily as a child had blurred into a mess of socioeconomics and psychology, churning out more malcontents than anything. He could scarcely claim he had met more than one or two evil people in all these years while malcontents lived on a merry-go-round. A dime a dozen. Deal with one: know them all. The same busted pattern over and over. You had to be a nutter to expect better results. But he had convinced himself he could make a difference someday in at least one person's life. He hadn't seen it yet, but he kept at it because he cared. He knew he had a softhearted vein under the gruff, salty manner. That didn't mean he wanted to show it off, and he was sorely aware that the eyeglasses sitting on his face smothered his hardened veneer. Whenever he wore them, the piercing gaze he honed over the years became rather unintimidating. He struggled to command the respect of delinquent kids these days. One morning, he complained to his lovely wife that he looked like some softie granddad, and she patted his cheek, saying that she loved seeing the real him. The absurdity. It still made him laugh. "Alright, let's start from the top," he droned, tapping the field he wanted on the report form. "What was the suspect's name?" "Jah Quee," said the fellow male Human seated across the desk. Olan shifted his head to line up the screen through the readers, slowly parroting the name as he typed. Easier than dictating to the computer in his experience. The old girl struggled to get it right sometimes in a galaxy awash with innumerable languages, accents, vocalities, and transliterated spellings. He had argued like a madman with her on a few occasions before he settled into the habit of doing it himself. "J-a-h. Q-u-e-e. Correct?" The man dipped his head affirmatively, so Olan moved to the next fields. "Do you remember what they looked like?" "She's in the Deck of 52." Olan froze for a second, eyes darting between his hands hovering above the virtual keyboard. Officially known as Personality Identification Playing Cards and based on a three-hundred-year tradition, the Deck of 52 constituted the Federation's Most Wanted criminals. He gazed over the terminal and the rim of his eyeglasses, sizing up the reporting party again. The spectacles weren't all bad—made for a nice sophisticated air of disbelief. He could see its effect reflected in the narrowing of the other man's gaze. At first, Olan sensed kinship in the man who introduced himself as Ethan Neufeld. He exhibited self-possession and awareness. The swagger of someone who had a sense of purpose, knew what he had done and could do, and didn't feel the need to tell anyone, much less sign a book deal about it. Olan admired that silent confidence. Everything appeared to match the identity on the screen tagged by the DNA scan. But an attached Starfleet dossier showed Neufeld held the rank of lieutenant senior grade, and he didn't have an active post. That piqued Olan's wariness a bit, questioning what motivated someone not to introduce themselves fully. JAG had also marked the lieutenant as a special witness and person of interest in an ongoing internal case and court dockets linked to his file. But Olan's clearance couldn't get into the contents or much else. Aside from dates coinciding with a general court-martial that recently leaked in the press, Olan couldn't guess the sort of trouble in which the man had become involved or started. He only suspected he wouldn't want to become wrapped up in it. From that point, he felt less eager to trust the lieutenant out of some misplaced professional propinquity. Neufeld was a little over a decade younger than Olan. Northwestern European ancestry from the look of him: short brown hair, blue eyes, light complexion weathered by UV exposure. More than the average spacer got. Despite the paleness he had now, he must have spent a lot of time in the elements until recently. He was slightly taller than Olan, broad-shouldered, lean, and hefty. Possibly a bit vain, given how he filled out the button-down shirt and slacks. Keeping up with fitness routines between the demands of space exploration and defense required time that a lot of fleeters couldn't spare. He didn't have the overbulked stiffness of a bodybuilder wearing one-size-too-small, yet he clearly worked at his fitness more than most. But the lieutenant balanced all of it forward in the balls of his feet, which raised Olan's hackles. He looked fast, sitting there on the edge of the chair. The veteran officer had visualized a dozen scenarios in his head within the first few minutes of meeting Neufeld, deciding what to do if the guy balled up. Olan knew he would be in a world of hurt no matter how it played out. The sort of fight shown in the training holograms of real incidents. Visions of those officers pinned to the ground, just barely holding on until help arrived, must have flashed through his head a dozen times. So far, the lieutenant had behaved courteously with a faint aloofness. But Olan held no delusions about how quickly someone could flip. That didn’t mean he wouldn't call out the other guy's mistake. Beyond pride, it was a warning to a fellow professional not to pursue a bounty that no longer existed. "No, she's not," he retorted. Neufeld's brow furrowed. "She's the five of diamonds." Olan pursed his lips in a drawn hum, giving a headshake. "No. Not anymore." He almost missed the lieutenant's close-mouthed sigh. "Either way, she's here—or someone pretending to be her," Neufeld said flatly. "The woman on the five of diamonds." "Hmm." Olan set aside the readers and pressed a thumb to the lock on the single drawer. He couldn't use a nonexistent wanted poster to fill out his report. "Here, have a look for yourself," he said, tossing a swelling tuck box. It skidded into the middle desktop. "Telling you your suspect's not in there." Neufeld had shown up at the commerce-level office with a story about a Chameloid seducing a Bajoran female to fill a bounty that would likely end in the latter's death. Even for Aegis, it rang oddly to Olan. Most of the time, the most bizarre stories turned out to be nothing more than delusions. But Neufeld related it in such a dry conviction that it was hard to dismiss. He had met Olan's assertion about the suspect's nonexistence in the 52 with pragmatism instead of arguing. So the recovery of the abductee had to mean more to him than trivia. It convinced Olan that the man had witnessed something. But what he had seen was still a foggy question to Olan. Whether Neufeld wanted to debate the existence of Jah Quee or not, Olan thought he needed to know. He wanted to see what the other man would do. Neufeld returned Olan's annoyance with a look he couldn't decipher and unhurriedly picked up the box. Folding back the top flap uncovered the edges of fifty-two cards: oil-stained, crinkled, notched. A subdued realization filled Neufeld’s face—perhaps he had accepted his gaff. "How often do you look at these?" "Every damn day. More on poker nights. I've committed every face in that deck to memory, but" — Olan urged him on — "best you see for yourself." Olan reckoned it wouldn't take the lieutenant long to find the fives, given he had kept the cards in numerical order. He watched Neufeld joggle the deck into his palm and fan it out in a line. Sliding the four-of-a-kind above the rest, he plucked out the diamond. "Errol 'Bad Guy' Flynn,” the lieutenant faintly scoffed at the name before setting it down. Olan let the man scan the rest out of pity. Anyone could get a copy of the deck off the black market. Despite all attempts to prevent it, given those decks often included errors or even endangered innocent people. Or Neufeld could have just heard the rumors from loose lips. The hazy anecdotes: that's where conspiracy theories derived a lot of their staying power. But official decks only got distributed to intelligence and security types, and Olan couldn't shake the feeling Neufeld should have been on that list. Yet the guy was way behind. Olan wanted to know why. Headquarters had issued this deck just one month ago. The second deck since last year in which Jah Quee hadn't appeared after almost a century and a half. Sometimes only a portion of the deck contained faces. It was full for several years before but, this time, they had added a few extra cards. Regardless, it was always informally known as the Deck of 52. The cards had become worn by Olan's relentless work to memorize the new faces. But he vaguely remembered the woman Neufeld mentioned because so many rumors surrounded her. She had taken on mythical proportions. Hardly a reason to believe myths. Starfleet Intelligence only removed targets for conviction, acquittal, or a confirmed death. Once her face showed up in the 52, she couldn't shuffle out for grand monastic vows of pacifism, much less pinky-swearing to "be good and stop killing." Given how long she lasted in the deck, Olan had bets on a death certificate with a DNA match gathering dust somewhere. Chameloids suffered from mortality like everyone else. Not to mention that printing a Chameloid's natural face or name on a card bordered on absurd. Non-shifters could have the same names and look alike. Sure, the holoimage contained a few of the most well-known faces the shapeshifter had worn. But expecting to catch her wearing any of those faces again was madness. Chameloids didn't have the ability to hide as inanimate objects—zero chance of finding her unawares in a bucket of torpid goo like the Founders. But they could look like your friendly neighbor and lie about it for a lifetime. They had but one tell in the unchanging color of the iris, and cosmetics had solved that, too. That didn't invalidate Starfleet's reason for adding a Chaneloid to the deck; it only implied the difficulty and risk in chasing one. Olan reckoned a genius would save their favorite look for private moments and mimic a new face regularly in public. Cover their tracks with the witness accounts of innocent people so they would take the fall. Or at least bog the system in false sightings and ID thefts. They were security nightmares, to be sure. No one knew where they originated or exactly how many Chameloids lived or passed through Federation space at any given time. Olan couldn't begin to guess who had talked to Neufled or why they had impersonated a dead criminal. "Just like I told you," Olan remarked after the other man sat back. Neufeld sighed deeper this time, chafing his jaw. "Yes, yes you did." Curious. Olan didn’t see the anger or disgust of wounded pride he had anticipated. Maybe Neufeld’s expression read closer to anxiety. "Jah Quee is probably dead. Odds are the Chameloid you saw was a copycat," Olan remarked. "Yeah." Olan heard acknowledgment in Neufeld's tone but couldn't pick up much beyond that. "You have to know our chances of finding her aren't good." "Her or the Bajoran," Neufeld said. "Was too preoccupied to see it." "Right. You were focused on getting the information about your kidnapped niece." "Hmm." "Well, let's hope she's good for it. From what I hear about Sovana, be a fair trade for a little girl's life." He said it without a lot of forethought and cringed inwardly. Neufeld didn't appear fazed, and Olan spun back to the terminal, replacing the readers on his nose as he finished musing darkly, "Bring balance back to the universe." Olan snuck a peek from the corner of his eye. The lieutenant still chaffed his face and stared at the cards. Huh. Must not be into pop-culture history. Or the guy just had other things on his mind. Olan resumed typing, filling in a few details about the suspect as Neufeld recalled them: height, weight, and other minute observations about her. “Is this what she looks like?” Olan asked of the AI-drawn composite that he would compare to surveillance later. ”Yeah.” Swiveling the monitor back, it struck Olan that the description Neufeld gave didn't match the faces he remembered on her card. That made him uneasy, despite having expected it. Even if this suspect didn't share a name with a known deceased criminal, she must have borrowed it, whoever she was. She couldn't possibly be the real Jah Quee, he thought. "Is the nightclub the first place you saw her?" "Yeah." "You never saw or talked to her before tonight?" "No." Neufeld's head shook, lips pressing a bit. "Not that I know, at any rate." Olan nodded. That was always the eeriest thing about shapeshifters. You could meet one a million times and never know it. Next, they discussed the alleged victim, Sovana. Neufeld related that they had first met at a holo-café after the recent station-wide blackout. The lieutenant didn't know her surname, but Olan could get that from the holo-café—if she hadn't used an assumed name, too. They moved on to the incident at the nightclub, which Neufeld meticulously recounted as he gathered the cards. While Olan typed out notes in the pauses between questions, Neufeld fell back to silence, studying the faces of the Federation's least favorite people. Olan half-thought any semblance of conversation had flatlined before Neufeld asked out of the blue, "What've you heard about Sovana?" Olan blinked. "Oh, just a few complaints. Can't really discuss it—confidentiality and all that," he said, giving a token smile. "Hmm." "Why," Olan pressed on a hunch at Ethan's pensiveness. "Do you have a complaint about Sovana?" "Nah," he answered casually. "Alright," Olan accepted. Mostly accepted as he looked over the paperwork once more. "Well, that's that. I just need your signature here." He spun the monitor around, pointing where Neufeld would sign biometrically. Neufeld stood and pressed his thumb to the screen. The lieutenant's shoulders had dropped slightly, Olan reckoned out of fatigue. "Thanks for your time," Neufeld said. "Of course," Olan nodded. "Rest assured, Mr. Neufeld. We'll do our best." "I know." Neufeld gave a wan smile before he pivoted around for the exit. The doors hissed behind him, leaving Olan alone. He regarded the deck of cards, tucked back inside the box laying on the desk, and wondered what he would have done in the lieutenant's position. Neufeld struck Olan as someone out of place, who should have been hard at work somewhere else but was here without a post or command for mysterious reasons. Though Olan didn't have all of the details, he could imagine quite a bit. Envisioning himself in Neufeld's shoes—an honest cop sidelined in some undisclosed controversy—by the end of an otherwise quiet shift, Olan had concluded that he would have done the same thing.
  2. Playing with Fire 12 JUN 2388 (Just before the Pakled Plant-Eaters Convention and the Great Blip of Aegis.) Ethan leaned on the table, the lung-battering pulse of EDM chiseling at his brain. Heads undulated like a rough sea on the dance floor below. The engineering that went into isolating the compartment, preventing the bass from bleeding across the station's frame, must have cost a penny or two. He could barely hear himself talk, much less think. Lifting his tumbler for a sip, he scanned the nearby faces. At the very least, the other patrons were too deafened or engrossed to eavesdrop. "Who is this snitch?" "I told you: private investigator," Gage answered irritably, hunched over and looking uptight as hell. The more he tried to avoid notice, the more people noticed him. Telling the guy to relax was about as helpful as pissing on a supernova. Gage could barely muster more than a vague “play it cool" before dragging Ethan to the club. Mercifully, Ethan's natural personality lent a bit of a my-angry-buddy-is-in-a-rough-patch vibe. It warded off most patrons, who only cared to rubberneck. He smiled casually, lifting his drink at yet another pair of curious passersby. "Yeah, no. What's his name?" "Jackie." "Just Jackie?" "Yeah. Not everyone has a last-name, you know," Gage retorted, only to crumble under Ethan's subtle frown. "Ok, so I didn't ask. ******* sue me." Ethan grunted scoffingly, cringing as he swallowed another mouthful of synthehol. He disliked it as much as alcohol. But when in Rome, you compromise a bit. "We're meeting him here: why?" "Her" — Gage hesitated — "sounded like a girl, I think. And this is where she said she’d be. She ‘likes the ‘atmosphere’ or some ****.” Ethan heard implications in that story. "What're we looking for?" Gage shrugged. "Beats me. She said she'd find us." "You didn't hire her," he fished. It was that, or he had just craigslisted the whole thing. "No. Your parents did." That surprised him, raising his brow a bit. Ethan knew they had paid a few investigators over the last year and a half to look for Rebecca. But this one's peculiar behavior would have provoked second thoughts about hiring. Maybe they didn't know. He glanced from the crowd to his watch. The time for their meeting had come and gone unmet. Plenty of theories why but little to ground or narrow them down. He mused whether she was a paranoiac, given the lack of information she volunteered. Maybe she wanted to observe from afar before she decided to approach. He glanced at Gage, puzzling over which of them would intimidate her more. “You have a way to track her down if she's a no-show?" Gage hesitated, a cringe betraying that he hadn't considered it. "Nope." Ethan hummed short of commenting on his cousin's haphazard way of doing things. Always charging like a blind linebacker. No changing it mid-play. Tossing back the last swig, Ethan spotted her in the crowd over the rim of the glass. She wiggled her fingers in a wave at him. He just about choked. “Hey, look. It’s your favorite rapist," Gage quipped. "Oh, and she has a friend.” The so-called friend had just lip-locked a ring of five guests before wrapping an unearthly arm around the Bajoran. Freely sharing saliva was unremarkable these days. Evolve enough humanoid species in an ever-expanding universe, and eventually, someone's culture would hello or goodbye you on the mouth without hesitation. A bit like the French and their old-world cheek-kissing. Or that resort-planet, Risa: because hedonism loves company — or just a lot of bodies. But the intimate way the Bajoran's companion held her as they bussed and whispered in each other's ears definitely went beyond a new-age Faire la bise. Abruptly, the pair aimed at them, wearing giant smiles. Gage's expression fell, echoing his dread. “****, that can’t be good," Gage said. "You're gonna have to tell them off." Ethan blinked. "What?" "After I told Jackie you were coming, she said she'd back out if anyone else showed up." He remarked dryly, "Should tell me these things before they happen." "I just did," Gage snarked incredulously. "Doesn't count." "Come on, cuz! Don't hang me out." "I'm not. You tell them off." He clapped Gage's shoulder. "I've got your back." "I can't. People like me. But look at you: you're cold as ******* ice right now. Born-*******-natural at being unfriendly. And I don't want to ruin my chances later." Gage mumbled the last part, but Ethan heard it. He couldn't help the flat stare that drove Gage to shift uncomfortably. "What? I can shop the market. I'm divorced." More accurately, devour all the sample trays at the grocer. Now it made sense: why it took him all this time to track his daughter and her mother of a kidnapper. That was the unkind thought Ethan had to shove down, at any rate. He focused on the pair of approaching women instead. Or possibly a man and a woman. "Is that a dude?" Gage blurted. So he saw it, too, the way the companion's facial structure seemed to morph between masculine and feminine beneath the assorted lighting. The hips swayed exaggeratedly as s/he walked. Otherwise, s/he presented a curveless, spindly figure in a skintight black gown and towered like someone who had matured under a fraction of Earth's gravity. The big gray and pink irises, achromic complexion, and cropped hair — not just hair: feathers or scales — popped in the blacklights. Contrasted by pitch-dark sclera and body tattoos etched in the blackest ink that gave the illusion nothing held the bright parts together. "Oh, that's creepy as ****," Gage drawled a bit too close to earshot for comfort. The Brobdingnagian pulled up at their table across from Ethan and took stock of the men, vacant chairs, and surroundings. "I assume this is where you want us to sit? With our backs to the door?" Cynicism shaded the question, despite the attempt at maintaining a practiced urbanity. She spoke Standard, accented by a native tongue with fewer phonemes, in a high-pitched and delicate timbre by human standards. Or he or however they wanted to identify. But Ethan understood why Gage had thought it sounded effeminate. It was easier for him to follow in his head that way, at any rate. "Yes." It took a second for Gage to glare at him the inevitable: what the **** are you doing?! "I suppose it can't be helped. Hello, Gage." She flummoxed him with a pat on his cheek and took a seat next to him. "Well, it seems that one of you is smart, and one of you is — mmm — passably handsome." Ethan paid little to the remark, glancing narrowly at the Bajoran as she slipped into the remaining chair between him and her companion. He had tensed for a moment, expecting to fend off another round of molesting. But the woman who accosted him yesterday just sat there. Uncharacteristically quiet, almost demure, and content to drape from her companion's taller shoulder. As much for closeness as balance, given her unsteadiness and the smell of fruity cocktails. While he appreciated the lack of attention—aside from her leering—it felt off. Ethan slouched back, hanging his left arm over the back of the chair. The gears in Gage's brain clicked. "Wait. You're Jackie?" "Yes. I am," Jackie confirmed and looked at Ethan. "Before we get to business, why don't you tell me how you made me?" "Why the **** does that mat—" Jackie held her palm to Gage's face. "Quid pro quo. From one professional to another. Please, regale me." The seconds ticked by as they stared at each other. Gage twitched. He never had the patience to sit out these silent spells. "Dude, tell her so we can ******* get on with this ****." Ethan's gaze dropped to the neon drink in her hand. He tipped his empty tumbler on the tabletop in her direction. "Don't smell like alcohol." Bit of irony in the history of synthehol. Invented by Ferengi, who used it to dupe clientele drink-for-drink into making deals while drunk. One day, corporate spies busted the secret, and an entire galaxy of potential business victims fell in love with it, opening an unintended and far more lucrative market. Ferengi got over that injury pretty fast. Until Bajoran synthale entered the scene, which lit off a bit of a rivalry. He remembered one who considered it near-unholy for religious people to invent non-alcoholic drinks solely for promoting sobriety. Sacrilegious in the face of profits, maybe. All synthetic ethanol benefited from the taste, smell, and feel of the real thing without the inebriating effect. Most humanoids could overindulge and never reach a buzz. The appeal baffled Ethan. Some thought it milder than ethanol, but he found the stuff just as unpleasant. Overwhelmingly bitter and often accompanied by a burn that flooded the nose like chlorinated water after a bad dive. Friends would ask if he could taste the spice in this or the sweetness in that. It all fell flat behind the alcoholic or vomitus sapor. Over the years, he had come to appreciate that inability to "savor the bouquet." It likely saved him from developing an alcoholic habit common to his profession. More than he could say for the Bajoran at the table. He wondered whether she knew what her situation suggested — what Jackie had in store for her. Gage boldly sniffed Jackie's glass. "Smells like it to me." "Her breath." "Whatever," Gage tossed back, eyes rolling and folding his arms. A few humanoids in any species, people blessed with those uncommon receptors, could tell synthehol and alcohol apart. But it didn't take an evolutionary superpower. While both left a temporary scent in the mouth, synthetics and ethanol metabolized divergently. Drinking the real stuff faster than the body could process it allowed some unmetabolized excess to enter the blood. Ethanol circulating to the lungs meant most humanoids exhaled it, producing that distinct, mildly sweet breath no mint could hide. Jackie's smelled untainted. Maybe a bit onion-like. Assuming she didn't have some rare gene, either the glass contained something synthetic, or she had a motive to nurse that drink fiercely. He had a fifty-fifty chance at guessing that part correctly, but the crux rested in her desire to stay sober. It also took one to know one, and both could spot a poser. Sorry — rookie. She tended to paint her target with body language and gaze, among other things. But something about her made him reluctant to give her pointers. Their mutual scrutiny had grown severe the longer they stared. For only tenths of a second, the skin of Jackie's face rippled upward into a few hundred feather-like scales, revealing depthless black underneath, and smoothed back to seamlessness. Probably the most patent microexpression he had ever seen. It reminded Ethan of a startled bird. "What the ****?" Gage breathed in recoil, drawing glances from both. Ethan glimpsed the server trolling the seated area in his periphery as he stopped and surveyed the tables. Then, with the rapidity of a shark that smelled blood, the server stood next to him. "Need a refill?" "Uh, yeah. Water, thanks." After the others shook their heads, the server smiled and withdrew with the tumbler. Jackie revealed a mouthful of perfect teeth as she gushed velvety laughter. "It seems we think alike: you and I." He smirked wryly. Gage slapped the table. "Ok, spy hard convention's over. Where's my daughter?" "That's not the first order of business," she replied smoothly. "First, we will discuss my fee—" "The **** we will. You were already paid." "I'm afraid your case has cost me more than I anticipated. I need passage off Aegis." "Passage is free," Ethan interjected. "For citizens." She glared at him, a yellow sheen in her eyes. "And those who don't care about leaving a record." Ethan scoffed under a half-smirk. “How much?” “One bar of latinum.” "The ****?!" Gage’s fist slammed the tabletop, the vein throbbing in his forehead. “We’re talking about my kid!” "You're not the only client who wants results," she shot back. "The people who took your daughter are very difficult and dangerous to track down. Some of us can't operate off charity." Distain curled the corner of her lips. "You *****—" Gage lept to his feet, toppling the chair behind him. The impact of Ethan's shoulder to Gage's mouth muffled whatever else came next. "Hey!" Ethan barked, pressing backward from the table. "Cool it." The upturned chair nearly tripped Gage. He wrestled against the grip Ethan had on his shirt. Struggled to regain his footing and counter. Gage's half-drunken state made it easier to manhandle him. Ethan had pushed him several tables away before Gage could dig in enough to break free. Patrons looked on with wide eyes, but none attempted to intervene. "******* stop!" Gage dabbed his lower lip, a film of blood on the end of his finger, thumping Ethan's. "What the ***, Ethan?" "Not going to work this way, Gage," he cautioned, sidestepping to block Gage from going back with opened hands in the air. "******* rich," Gage laughed as he spun in agitation, jabbing toward Jackie. "That ***** is holding Rebecca hostage for more ******* money, and I'm starting to get the impression you still don't give a ****." "Wouldn't be here if I didn't care," Ethan said flatly, cutting any chance to air old grudges about the last time Gage asked for help. "Listen, fighting with her isn't going to get you answers. You can't save Rebecca from jail." His cousin deflated, tension giving way to anxiety. He chafed at his face and head. "Where am I going to get a ******* bar of latinum? I don't have a hundred thousand ******* credits. Emptied my bank just to fuel up. I'm ******* broke!" "I know. I'll take care of it. Just do me a favor and go get your ship ready." He flashed a small but confident smile. "No, I'm her dad," Gage stabbed a finger at his own chest, hissing through his teeth as his eyes glistened. "I should be the one—" "You will be. You will be," Ethan assured, squeezing his shoulder. "This is just the pregame. Get the ship ready. We need to leave sooner rather than later." Gage mulled it over for a second before heaving a sigh. "What are you gonna do?" "Whatever I have to," he promised. "But that's going to be a lot harder with you here." "****," Gage spat, cuffing the crown of his head. "Don't worry." He squeezed again. "I've got your back." After tossed a grudging, "******* better," Gage left without causing more of a scene. In his wake, Ethan took a moment to breathe and collect his thoughts. Someone had uprighted the chair, and the Bajoran had disappeared by the time he returned to his seat. "What happened to your friend?" "Her name is Sovana," Jackie stressed, "and she went to the toilet." The straw from her drink swayed near the corner of her mouth. She held it pinched between her fingers like a cigarette while she assessed him with an amused expression. "Quite the feat you performed over there. The server brought your drink while you were gone. I told them you had everything under control. I see I wasn't wrong." Ethan glanced at the glass and decided he felt unthirsty. "He's lucky you're here to temper him. He's a very angry man," she said of Gage. It struck Ethan as off-hand and unwelcome. "I suppose that's reasonable in his situation. But no one in my profession wants to work with him after the last contact." She caught the rise in Ethan's brow, adding: "Ah, so he didn't tell you. Well, let's just say that one of my colleagues is a coward—" "You accept credits?" He held up a PADD, and her countenance flattened like he had dropped a bomb. She fished out hers—who knew from where in that fitted gown—and swiped upward with the straw still in hand. A request for mobile payment blipped on his screen. "Send it there." "Five grand," he said flatly. "The rest after we verify your intel." "That's fair." Not as desperate as she claimed. She agreed to it too quickly. That she could keep clients or earn decent reviews with extortion sounded improbable. He wondered what had inspired her to shakedown a grieving father and felt her stare boring a hole in his head while he typed. "You know what they say about Jack?" she asked. "No, who's Jack?" "All work and no play?" Her simpering soured at his indifference. "The Shining?" "What's that?" "You do watch Human movies, don't you?" He preferred reading and didn't feel like discussing his hobbies. "No." Her device chimed at the completed transfer, and she scrolled as she mused aloud. "I watched a lot of your movies when I was learning Standard. I particularly enjoyed psychological horror." She paused to grin at him. Good to know, he mused ironically. "There," she said, "I've sent you a copy of everything I have on Rebecca." He stuffed the PADD in his pocket. "Thanks. Check it later." His plan to leave then derailed as he caught sight of the Bajoran, plodding a (mostly) straight route to the table. He inclined his head, drawing Jackie's gaze over her shoulder. "What's Sovana on?" "On? Ah. She said that she wanted to have an extra good time when we make love tonight. So I let her try some of my stash before we came here. Q, what I would give for one of my smokes right now!" A shiver ruffled her scales, and she blew dramatically out of the corner of her mouth. "But, of course, your Federation doesn't allow smoking in public spaces." Ethan stared blankly, and Jackie pointed at him with an underscoring chuckle. "I saw how she abused you yesterday. You should thank me for taking her off you. I like her." She added with a shrug, "It's a shame that she has a bounty." "Bounty?" She frowned. "Allegedly, she slept with some alien matriarch's fifth husband and failed to appear for the trial. His story starts a bit like yours, actually. But, as they say, 'innocent before guilty.'" She smiled to herself. "Who knows, this could be the beginning of a charming relationship." Ethan said nothing, resting a hand over his mouth and jaw. She spoke so openly that he began to doubt his suspicions, but that quiet feeling persisted. Bounty hunting skipped bails was legal in the Federation, he reasoned. Sovana, the Bajoran, managed to reach the table on her feet and nuzzled Jackie. "Let's leave now, Quee." "Yes, ja'ahkayah." She patted Sovana's hand with a faint grin and looked at Ethan. "We're done here, right?" Ethan briefly lifted the hand from his face in agreement. He couldn't say he felt sad to see them leave. Sovana had other ideas and pitched across the table, sending the tumbler of water in a slide he barely stopped. "You can come, too, Lieutenant," she purred, caressing his chest. Fortunately, her condition had her too awkward to do much else. "Sovana, you promised it would be just the two of us tonight." Jackie pried her up, looping an arm around her. Stronger than she looked, given how easily she supported the more buxom Bajoran. "Ok," Sovana bobbed sloppily. "But I want him to come tomorrow." Jackie pressed her lips to suppress the laugh that puffed her cheeks. "I'm sure he'd love to," she said, the patronizing tone lost on the drunk. She winked at Ethan as if to say: Look, I saved you again. It irritated him. She steered the pair for the exit, twisting a few steps into it and contorting in a swipe at her PADD. "Here. Something extra for your trouble. From one professional to another." Then she carried on, moving quickly despite the deadweight hanging off her side. He watched them merge down the short staircase into the crowd on the dance floor. His skin crawled at what had unfolded. The product of a hundred and fifty planets and a half-million diverse cultures in the most hedonistic and sexually liberal century to date. Trillions of law-abiding citizens freely living their lives how they wanted. Not the first time he had run into someone with values that didn't mirror his. He defended basic freedom. He didn't have to like everything they did with it. The PADD in his pocket shuddered a second time, finally rousing him to fish it out. The last message Jackie sent contained a single black playing card. Ethan recognized the metallic logo of a syndicate called the Band of Blackout Brothers. Nearly impossible to track, almost fabled, and most certainly at odds with the Federation. He felt a chill. No one could get ahold of these cards without trading blood for their trust. That she possessed one painted Jackie in a dubious light at best. He flipped it over. Aces. Highest priority and risk: biggest payout. Several million credits worth that devalued with time to up the ante. He blinked, but his face was still there, staring back in holographic definition. Bold white letters flashed his name across the bottom, underscored by a warning in red: Former Special Forces. Wanted: dead. Ethan's jaw flexed, the temperature dropping around him further as he read the timestamp near the countdown. Just hours after he requested leave. It hit him all at once. Not Jackie. A misquote of Jah Quee. That elusive Chameloid from the Deck of 52. She weighed a five among the most wanted when they added her in 2244. Never climbed or dropped in the reshuffle. Higher targets got all the task forces, and lesser ones practically stumbled into cuffs daily. Everyone joked she was so average that she couldn't even get out of the deck after she had likely died of old age. They couldn't have gone far. Ethan half-vaulted the table, gave the crowd a hasty scan before he sprinted onto the dance floor. He forced his way through a dozen patrons. Ignored the shouts and brushed off the few who got pushy. He hadn't thought to ask from where Sovana had skipped bond. But the Blackouts operated in places far outside the Federation, and he could think of one staunchly matriarchal society that would want her head shipped on ice. They would mount her on a stake as an example. No fair trial awaited, not even the sham of one. Say by some anomaly the male half of the affair had consented: he didn't possess the rights to defend her. No doubt, given her behavior, she had brought it on herself through hubris or folly. But Ethan couldn't let someone just abduct and murder her. The idea went against everything he believed, the fundamental right he had fought and sacrificed harder than ever to preserve in the last year. He rushed through the lobby into the passageway, threading between clusters of people to the nearest junction. Then he backtracked to the opposite side. "Scheiße," he gritted, panting as he propped a hand against the joint of the bulkheads. He lost them.
  3. Eighteen months ago… According to the debriefing conducted via hyper-channel aboard the ibn Majid, the operation on Canopus Major had dead-ended on faulty intel after thirty-six-hour days of monsoons, mud, and little rest. But Ethan barely managed to shower, and crawl into a pair of sweats and bed, let alone think of drifting to sleep before the comms beaconed in the darkness. "Your cousin, Gage Silver, is calling. He says it's an emergency." Sure he did, Ethan thought irritably. Gage had developed a penchant for exaggeration to bypass comms routing and do-not-disturb settings over the last couple of years. In addition to the drinking habit that he had picked up to cope in his crumbling marriage. Ethan felt sympathetic most of the time. At the moment, he stared at the holographic ID projected overhead weighing between skeptical and too drowsy to care. "Would you like to answer?" the AI pressed for a response. "Hmm." The sound didn't entirely make it past his throat. Chirping in acknowledgment, the computer's heuristics selected audio-only based on his eye-rubbing. He listened for a second after the channel opened, nearly dozing off while summoning the energy to speak. Gage blurted as though he thought the line had closed, "Hello?" "Yeah?" he mumbled. "Don't hang up, okay? Okay? She skipped court. They can't find her. She's gone. She ******* took Rebecca." Every joint ached as Ethan sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, endeavoring to stay awake. "You're drunk." "Shut the **** up and listen. You're not listening—" "Where are you?" "At home: where the **** else?! If I knew where she was, I'd ******* be there. But I don't know where she is!" A replicator buzzed in the background, followed by the clink of bottles and a metal cap falling to the floor. He heard Gage swill. "I told you she was going to do this. I ******* told you." "So what's your plan?" Ethan grazed an unshaven face, already suspecting the answer. "Plan? ****," Gage sputtered on his beer. "That's what I called you for." "At three in the morning." "Oh—well, ****, you never tell me where the **** you are." Of course, Gage thought it convenient to ignore why. Ethan checked an urge to attack that solecism behind a deep breath. "What'd the judge say?" "I got custody, and he issued a warrant. But like that means **** after she left the ******* planet." Defeatist but likely accurate: the farther she went, the longer she successfully hid, the harder to find her. Ethan gazed quietly, unwilling to acknowledge Gage's motives and provoke the discussion he didn't want to have right now. "You're going to help me, right?" Gage snapped uncomfortably at the silence. "Do what exactly?" "****, you're a ******* mind-reader, but you always play stupid. You know damn well. I'm gonna resign; get a ship—" "Should let the police handle this, Gage." "You're joking, right?" "It's what they do." "Yeah, at the speed of ******* molasses. I can't wait that long. Remember last year? I had to haul *** home from the other side of the ******* quadrant because the neighbors found my daughter living by herself and called the cops. That ***** left for three ******* weeks! Took a ******* trip to Free Cloud where she and her dumb*** side-**** gambled our entire savings." "Yeah," Ethan exhaled into the hand he brushed across his face. "I remember." "I need you, Ethan…" Gage faltered, likely chafing the back of his head the way he always did when exasperated and restless. "****! Rebecca needs you. You're the only one I know who can do what you do." "I can put in for leave in a few weeks—" "That'll be too ******* late. We're talking about my daughter's life." "Is what it is, Gage," he said more firmly. "Can't go right now—my guys need me." "Son of a *****, Ethan. The judge ruled her unfit. Un-*******-fit. I've got scars—that ***** put me in the ******* hospital, Ethan. How long's it gonna be before she ******* loses it on Rebecca?" "Might not," he shrugged faintly. "I don't know." "Then why aren't you coming with me?" Ethan responded with silence. Even sober, Gage would refuse to accept his position no matter how much he explained. He hated arguing. "I thought blood was thicker than water," his cousin shot through clenched teeth. "Fine. You ******* do you. I'm gonna get my daughter back." The call disconnected. Ethan raked his hands over his head and fell back on the bed, wrestling to empty his brain and sleep right up to the moment the ship's bells chimed at zero-four-thirty. *** In many ways, Gage Deforest Silver and Ethan Neufeld epitomized the cliché of oil and water. The kinship mostly began and ended at cousins who lived under the same roof through Gage's teens. The only son of Ethan's maternal uncle started life with an affectionate nature, a pair of gifted archeologists and geologists for parents, and good prospects. No one doubted they loved Gage for all the doting and extolling of his precociousness. But the passion for deep-space expeditions that rationalized their frequent absence inflicted a wound. Seven years later, Gage had strayed toward attention-seeking and self-absorption. His parents' presumptive death certificates stung like salt. The trip and his attempts to comfort the inconsolable towheaded cousin formed the clearest early memories Ethan had. After the memorial service, Gage remained under the guardianship of their grandfather on his South Dakota ranch. Four-year-old Ethan and his mother returned to his paternal grandparents' home in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany. Who the boys would become and remain into adulthood pivoted on the few holidays and summers they spent together. Gage's deteriorating behavior often undermined his desire for a buddy. It drew an assertiveness and antipathy from Ethan, astonishing a mother accustomed to parenting a docile, easygoing child. On the occasions that Gage didn't drive his younger cousin to solitude, Ethan possessed a fierceness that more than made up for Gage's age and size. They called a few draws, but Ethan lost only once. One Christmas, Gage had shot a dart in Ethan's knee after he had quit playing Gage's game. Then Gage all but pissed himself in retreat, taking a dart from the same gun in the ***. A combination of pride and fear sealed Gage's lips, and Ethan simply didn't care to talk about their fights. He had done what needed doing. Neither stopped to wonder whether their guardians knew. Gage's redemption came at the outset of his freshman year of high school. The elderly Silver finally admitted he had long since aged beyond the ability to care for his business and meet his grandson's needs. Gage joined the Neufelds in San Jose, California, on the heels of uncle Robert's retirement from Starfleet. Under his aunt's patience and uncle's sternness, Gage sloughed the manipulative and self-serving armor over the next few years. He matured good-humored and selfless as his emotional cup filled. Ethan grew to respect his charisma, enjoy his company, and even tolerated his irreverent sense of humor. A poor academic performance transformed to honors, propelling him straight into a brilliant career as a Starfleet engineer. But his marriage to a charming linguist and daughter's birth—who they named Rebecca after Ethan's mother—became the hallmark of his life. He enjoyed a nice, smooth streak until their grandfather passed away, and Gage's wife appeared to take a volte-face. Eventually, it became clear that she had lived a double-life for some time, preying on Gage and neglecting their daughter until she grew too careless. In the days leading up to their divorce, she gaslighted and spun lies to absolve herself from ending the marriage she no longer wanted. Once the lies snapped under scrutiny, she panicked and ran with the only thing Gage believed he had left. For the first time, Ethan had trouble holding ground against his cousin's highly emotional reasoning. Primary operations on the berthing deck had ceased for the night by the time Ethan arrived. He headed toward the solitary glow spilling from the open hold of a yacht several slips down, half a dozen stacked crates at its outer doors casting long shadows. "My Wicked Bones" by Nick Nolan blared, echoing in the cavern, accompanied by a coarse belting and the racket of moving cargo. In search of a particular crate, the tall, stocky singer waltzed out in a sweat-stained khaki tee, jeans, and scuffed roughout boots. Shaggy dark hair that hinted auburn stuck to his forehead, and his beard needed a trim. The malty-sweet odor of whiskey hung several meters around him. Caught mid-refrain, he pulled up sharply at Ethan's approach. "You. Mother. ******. So you were in Sol." Ethan met Gage’s indignation with a flat expression. "When are you leaving?" "Midnight—why? Thought you weren't comin'. Some bull**** excuse about your job or whatever," he remarked as he flexed a crate to the deck and then returned Ethan's silent gaze in a scowl. "Look, if you're here to feed me more of that ******* moral **** about leaving this up to the police, you can **** off the way you came.” A wry smile tugged at the corner of Ethan's mouth as he shook his head. "Nah, not here to waste your time." "Good," Gage shot back forcefully and then tailed off, looking apprehensive. "Good." Hefting a crate of ready-made rations, he carried it inside the hold while Ethan followed in observation. Gage handled his liquor well enough to walk a reasonably straight line. The inebriation manifested more in the clumsy hands that struggled to secure the bulkhead straps. He swiped down the music's volume at the control panel. Then plucked up a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels, holding it out by the neck. Ethan pressed his lips in a headshake. "No, thanks." "You're still a boring ****," Gage ribbed and chugged a mouthful with a dramatic gasp. "You just get back?" "Yeah." Ethan pivoted into a stroll around the edge of the hold. "See your parents yet?" "Not technically here." "Wow," Gage's brow furrowed. "So you came all this way just for me? " "Something like that." "Why?" He sneered, tossing back the bottle again. Ethan exhaled, coming to a stop between Gage and the inner door that led into the ship's cabin. "Can't let you fly like this, Gage." "****!" He choked, amber liquor spraying out around his mouth. Bent over in a throat-seared coughing fit, he wiped the back of his hand across his face, tears in his eyes. He needed a moment before he could pull a deep breath and rasp, "*** ******, that hurts!" "You okay?" Gage hawked phlegm, pointing at Ethan with the bottle still in hand. "You better not be ******* with me right now." "I'm not," Ethan replied flatly. His cousin's countenance darkened considerably. "Get the **** off my ship.". "Listen." Ethan held up a staying hand. "Not saying you can't go. You have to go. Just need to sober up first." He watched his cousin's fists ball up as he spoke, the carotid in his neck visibly pulsing beneath the skin. "Don't do it," he warned at the forward shift in the other man's balance. He ducked the haymaker and shoved. Gage stumbled backward on his haunches. The bottle clattered from his grip, spiraling whiskey across the compartment. He scrambled up for a low charge. Ethan kicked back asprawl over his shoulders. Drove his torso into the deck, knocking the air out of him. Ethan's weight shifted. He felt Gage push up but he couldn't roll out of Ethan's foothold. He jabbed and pried at Ethan's arm. Swatted at his head. Threw glancing elbows. The more he struggled the tighter Ethan's chokehold. But Gage struggled to the point his vision would likely gray and just about tunneled to nothing before he tapped the deck. He stayed down after Ethan let go, looking too dizzy to stand as he wheezed and barked for air. Ethan came to a knee, catching his breath. "We good?" Gage managed a nod, and Ethan waited for him to recover a bit. "Listen," he leveled again in his typical fashion. "Call port control. I'll help you load the rest of this, and we'll talk for a while. Or you can sleep it off." Gage groaned, feeling tetchy in his surrender. "You're a real ***hole, you know that?" "Yeah, get that a lot," he countered dryly and wore an equally wry expression as he offered Gage a hand. Ethan watched the yacht zip away in the morning from the public observation deck. Minus the crate of whiskey that he had ensured would remain stranded on the berthing deck for some lucky traveler or dock worker to find. He knew the gesture could end up fruitless. The probability favored Gage purchasing more liquor somewhere else or bypassing the replicator's default for synthehol. Still, the yacht's captain departed that day clear-headed, in good-humor, with another embellished story, and a belly full of food. It amounted to all Ethan could do. With any luck, it had impressed on him the value of sobriety while he searched for his daughter. *** 11 JUN 2388 Commerce Sector, Aegis Present-day… Ethan's morning had plummeted to a new low: groped by a nymphomaniac whose manipulation of an antiquated parti pris would make Phryne envious. So-called enlightened culture still conditioned society to assume evolution wired men for unbridled carnality and, therefore, incapable of feeling sexually harassed or anything but flattered. That women and beautiful women above all evolved too fragile for the capacity of predation or victimizing men. Moreover, proper masculinity must bear these kinds of abuses from both sexes while wearing a smile. Anything short of stoicism emasculated and stigmatized. Whereas many victims failed to report cases out of fear of reprisal or shame, the masculine fallacy led more male victims to mischaracterize the experiences as bullying or, at worst, obligatory. Criticism often focused on the victim's power to say no or other forms of shaming at the expense of acknowledging that the offense had occurred regardless. That the definition of harassment relied almost exclusively on the victim's opinion further clouded the issue, given some tolerated significantly more than others. Through his teens and early twenties, the amount of (mostly) female attention Ethan received had blended flattering and bizarre. Most of it came off as polite socializing. Some ventured a bit further than that but nonetheless harmlessly if they respected his space. He castigated the few who got too pushy. Sometimes repeatedly, until he had sharpened the skill to a ruthless art form—of which he never felt all that proud. Rarely had a girl forced him to resort to self-defense. Aside from Tiffany, an average dirty-blonde in his sophomore class, who offered to let him do whatever he pleased to her. She laughed it off when he dryly asked if he could push her from a roof. Not until he shoved her in the face while trying to kiss him did she finally get the message. She may have cried; he hadn't bothered to look back and check. Realistically, a few girls may have cried over the years. By his mid-twenties, he had shifted away from cruelty as he grew desensitized to most of the ogling and risque comments. Even a degree of physical contact. At times, he couldn't help but smirk or laugh at their awkward desperation. The Bajoran had won his aloofness at the holo-café. Today, she crossed a limit that should have provoked more than a verbal flaying. Two factors had tempered his response considerably. He sensed that telling her off would likely do more to encourage than discourage — she had that ravening type of presence. Secondly, his exhaustion had him reluctant to risk her filing a complaint. He didn’t care whether the charges would stick, nor feared the plausible deniability she had created. Another investigation was the last thing he wanted. After months of interrogations and (virtual) appearances in court as one of the prosecution's key witnesses against Admiral Farragut—and more upcoming—he wanted to be left alone. Apparently, everyone had missed that memo. Farragut's daughter had merely iced the cake. Ironic metaphor, equating irritants to desserts. Then again, he lacked a fondness for sweets, and she had struck him as unbearably saccharine the first time they met a few years ago. An ignorant true believer who lived so far up her mother's shadow that she couldn't see daylight. On the other hand, the court of public opinion possessed an insatiable bloodthirstiness, and the situation understandably frightened her. He felt a bit empathetic but mainly let her vent on him out of apathy. In her agitated state, no one could possibly reason her out of a lifetime of false hero-worship within a few passing minutes. That would take days at best if he cared or had the energy to try. The moment she telegraphed an intent to hit him, however, his indifference evaporated. Fortunately for her, Gage saved her wrist from a potential sprain. Ethan blew out a deep breath as Captain Chirakis passed through without much fuss. He couldn't describe the relief he had letting Gage run interference on the last of one too many social calls. The walls had finally stopped closing in for a minute—long enough that he realized his cousin didn’t smell like a distillery. Gage rapidly glanced between the two, sounding confused and equally irritated by his confusion. "What the **** was that?" "When did you get in?" "Dunno," Gage scratched his head in thought, unfazed by the change in subject. "Maybe thirty minutes ago?" "Your ship here?" "Yeah, at the dock? Why?" "Let's check it out," Ethan said, flicking toward and then starting in that direction. "Uh, okay," Gage drawled, eyes darting about and narrowing as he mulled over Ethan's interest. Short of an answer, he surged to catch up in a couple of long strides. "It's still the same ship you saw last time." "I know." Gage's brow furrowed upward, and then his lips pressed in a semblance of comprehension. "Well, all right. Let's go check out my ship then," he relented cheerfully. Before falling into an uncharacteristic silence, he tossed over his shoulder, "Just F-Y-I, customs was a ***** to get through." "Counting on it," he remarked, which elicited a wary look from Gage. Ethan fully intended to test how far he could push the boundaries of his confinement. It disappointed Ethan a bit that he met no resistance at all. The agent wore a friendly smile as she gave him the go-ahead to pass the gate, and no one stopped him as he boarded Gage's yacht. Someone clearer-headed may have interpreted that as a sign of Chirakis's trust and a middle finger to Ethan’s enemies in Starfleet. But elements of Special Operations had pushed him far enough that cynicism became the only filter he wore. He saw a carrot on a stick. The hangman feeding out the rope so that he would tangle himself up for the captain to rescue and gain an insuperable debt. At that moment, he abandoned any of the vague notions he had to escape. He refused to play what reeked of a game. A Qowat Milat nun could offer him a good morning and he would question their motive if not impugn their philosophy. Gage sealed the inner door, sending a dramatic flair at the living space amidship between the cargo hold and the cockpit. "Here it is, mi casa on cohetes mágicos." "Heh." Ethan nodded minimally at the motif of glossy white fiberglass, Padauk inlays, and stainless steel accents. A recess in the port bulkhead housed a set of coffin bunks that butted up to a concealed laundry and the head. Storage lined the starboard beside a niched kitchenette. The only furnishings consisted of an anchored couch, a small round table with chairs, and exercise equipment. The cleanliness of it surprised Ethan. Though far from slobby, Gage had never reached the level of clean-freak, either. Astern, a gray deck hatch marked with red letters led to the engine and Gage's natural domain that spanned the craft's length beneath their feet. "Pick a seat, take a load off, grab a drink… and try smiling," Gage urged, maneuvering for the kitchenette. Ethan made a half-scoffing chuckle. "Doing okay?" "Uh, yeah, I'm doing all right. Sober" — Gage appeared to count — "most of the time." He opened the small cooler and grabbed a cold bottle of old-fashioned Reed's Ginger Ale. "How about yourself?" "Eh," Ethan shrugged and dropped gingerly into a chair at the table. He could feel the tightness now. The Bajoran had wrenched his lower back when she jumped on him. “Wow, calm the **** down, chatterbox, I can’t keep up.” Gage popped the cap off of his drink and gestured with it. “Want one?” “No, thanks.” “All right,” he accepted, taking a long draw and a seat. “Why’d you want to see my ship anyway?” “Being watched—“ A spasm cut him off, drawing a hissed, "Scheisse." "Scheisse? Wait, isn't that German for ****?" "Hmm." "That bad?" Eyeing Ethan’s posture, he added, "****, must be bad if you're cussing." "Think the rapist pulled something." Gage nearly choked. "The what?" "Long story." "I like long stories,” he pressed, wearing a goofy look. Ethan only offered the typical, dismissive, "Hmm.” “Or not,” Gage relented and then quipped at the silence, "I’ll take five hundred for the rapist, Trebek.” In a terrible impression of Darrell Hammond impersonating Sean Connery on Saturday Night Live. Sure, why not? "Who is the chick that grabs ***? Ah, never mind, Trebek. Your mother answered the question." Ethan rubbed at the start of a tension headache, somewhat goaded by his cousin’s irreverent humor. "Any news about Rebecca?" “Yeah, actually. She’s here, in this sector.” “What? Where?” “Dunno exactly, yet. I’ve been trying to call you the last couple of weeks, but they said you were unavailable. Gonna use Aegis as my jumping-off point. I was hoping you could ride shotgun this time. Never thought I’d actually find you in this ****hole. Aren’t you supposed to be off saving the galaxy someplace?” “Not anymore.” The statement came out heavily. “Really?” Gage looked shocked. “Thought that was like your ‘calling’ or some mystical-destiny nonsense. You quit?” “No and I can’t talk about it.” “Oh,” he griped, “more of that bull****.” The tone piqued Ethan like it never had before and he leaned back irritably. Gage knew he couldn’t share confidential information. After more than a decade, he needed to get the **** over it. “Well that explains it, I guess.” “Explains what?” “You. You’re all like… ****, I dunno. ” Gage shrugged, at a loss for words to describe the difference he saw in Ethan’s demeanor. Not so much persistently angry as discomposed and easier to irritate. “Maybe the rapist’s got exactly what you need.” “Shut up.” Given the giant grin on his face at that moment, he found ease with which he could push Ethan’s buttons very amusing. "Well, you should at least see a doctor.” “Already know what they’ll say.” “Yeah, but, they could give you something— Oh, wait, you’ve got that weird thing with painkillers, right? How did you figure that out again?" "The hard way." "That never gets old,” he chuckled. Ethan scoffed unamused. “That must suck, though.” “Mmhmm. Upside is I can’t develop an addiction.” “I dunno. Addiction isn’t all that bad—takes the edge off sometimes. Hey, now that I think about it, I’ve got something that might help.” Springing up from the table, Gage fetched an unopened case of a dozen pint glass bottles filled with a viscous purple liquid. “What is that?” “X’hazi.” “Isn’t that normally pink?” And very high-proof like Everclear. “Yeah…” he floundered a bit. “Guy I bought it from said it’s got flavorings and **** added to it—kind of like, uh, vermouth.” “Hmm.” “Want some?” “Nope.” “Seriously, you’re still one of those… whatever-tea-people—” “Teetotaller.” “That’s what I said,” he feigned sourly. “Well, if all this classified **** you’re dealing with ever changes your mind, you know I’ve got good stuff.” “Hmm.” Ethan rubbed away more of the stress on his face. “How long are you staying?” Gage finished off his current drink in an appreciative gasp and tossed the bottle in the recycler. “Uh, about a day or so? I’m here to meet with the ex’s snitch.” “Mind if I crash here?” “Yeah, sure.” Then it dawned him why Ethan had asked. “**** yeah. Knock yourself out. But” — he held up a finger — “only if you help me out.” The grimace on Ethan’s face betrayed the difficulty of that stipulation. But to Gage’s surprise he heard the words he had only dreamed of before today. “Yeah. I’ll see what I can do.”
  4. 10 JUN 2388 Chez Antonio, Commerce Sector, Aegis “Relax, Lieutenant. Your tension is palpable.” He felt irritated that she casually pointed it out, much less that he struggled to hold it back in her presence. He heard the scoff-like chuckle that came from him before he could stop it, sensed dissonance in his curious look even as he tasted bitterness. He had written her off months ago, daring to hope on the flight to Aegis that he had more time to prepare for this conversation and more that it would never happen. “Lieutenant, do you know why you were sent here?” “Guessing you're about to tell me,” he countered, sounding more cynical than he had intended. “I would, but unfortunately I cannot. However, what you believe and the reality of it is... complicated. But I suppose you suspected that.” “Hmm,” he hummed wearily. “Apparently you were not wanted… for whatever reason. So I asked for you, and it was granted.” She reversed predictably from his perspective. “Though few know that, and it would be best to leave it that way. Does that disturb you?” She had dodged the question, like usual. He shook his head, unable to hide the flash of incredulity on his face as he verged ironically. “No. Surprises.” “I know your history, Lieutenant.” “Hmm.” He sounded almost dismissive. “What are you up to, Chirakis?” “Explain what you are asking. I am unfamiliar with ‘what are you up to’.” Irritation drew up a wry smirk. She knew exactly what he asked and exactly what she wanted, and he hated this dance. “Why did you ask for me?” “Ah... well, there are many who would like to see you hang - which is ridiculous. Then there are others who understand your abilities. You are a valuable operative, a leader among other things. This station.... is in need of quality officers, especially those who have 15 years of impeccable service as an operative. Some said that putting you here was a waste. I know otherwise. But you have a choice.” She looked relaxed, yet he felt her relentless focus on him as she turned the server away. “Hmm. You're not remotely concerned about how this will end?” After all, he mused, he had just contributed to the downfall of a once distinguished admiral and her entire organization. “How this might end? No one knows how things might end. You don't have to make a decision now, Lieutenant. Consider it more of an offer.” He sighed at her persistence and philosophizing around the question, nodding noncommittally as he still waxed ironic. “I'll think about it.” “Take as much time as you need.” He stared at her for a long time, picking at his order before the disillusionment and buried anger finally won over his laconicism. “It's been a while. Picked up an interesting package last time I was here. Everything still copacetic? “I am not Terran, Lieutenant. Explain ‘copacetic.’” He scoffed out of annoyance. “You know, it's not a disgrace to use a translator.” “I understand. I prefer to ask the question.” “Hmm,” he indulged despite feeling piqued. “Copacetic: Uh, is everything ‘in good order?’” “I see... as good as it can be.” “What about you? ‘As good as it can be?’” Ethan couldn’t help the hollowness in his gaze. It had almost slipped it into his tone. Everyone works an angle. Anyone who says otherwise is a Romulan selling state secrets. A mutual wariness had defined the so-called relationship between Ethan and Chiraks from the beginning. Or friendship, for lack of a better word. For all the long-standing success of her operations, Ethan had turned down posts under her command before, steering clear of direct involvement in her methods and connections. Until, laughably, her resources became the only force capable of deposing an admiral guilty of orchestrating extensive war crimes. The possibility that the captain would exploit the situation had crossed his mind over a year ago. Admiral Farragut and her project had critics, including Chirakis who played so close to the chest that he had never figured out why. At the time, he had hoped they shared the same justification for seeking Farragut’s dismissal as much as he worried that she coveted the power vacuum. In the months following the admiral’s indictment, while his unit fell from leaderless to suspended and finally disbanded, Chirakis had said nothing. Not even a call just to talk. She had ghosted him. Abandoned him while she reaped the advantage, masterfully backing him into an isolated corner. He felt like a fool to have gambled against this scenario, knowing that it fit her modus operandi. Her voice seemed to echo down a long chamber as he stared. “There is always something happening on this starbase. One never knows what might happen the next minute. So... things are well, as good as can be.” “Hmm.” A look of wry amusement pulled taut through his jawline as he nodded behind Chirakis, eyes on the short, babyfaced brunette who paid a tab for the beer she had just finished. “The kid at the bar—she one of your Geheime Staatspolizei, too?” Having almost inhaled a quantity of ale, she coughed a few times, then stopped to glance at Sierra, then back to Ethan. “Geheime Staatspolizei?” “Turn on your translator and listen,” he said levelly, leaning on crossed arms at the edge of the table. “Won’t play your games with my back to the wall.” “Qo’!” she replied casually, watching him seethe. “And it is not a game, unless you allow it to be.” He scoffed, settling against the seat to study the girl while he absently rubbed the side of his face and then sighed. “She’s not one of your spies,” he remarked dryly, more observation than a question. “Qo’ - she is not. She is an engineer, and a very good one at that.” Lips pressed in another exhale, he nodded as he found some other distant object at which to glower. “What do you want from me?” “That depends on what you want. Do you want to continue as an operative, or would you rather remain a civilian? It is your choice.” His head lowered in a shake, blue eyes briefly closed as he muttered, “Scheisse, wir reden im Kreis.” Rising to fix her gaze, he pointed between them. “This an official meeting?” “I suppose you could call it that. Perhaps more of a discussion that could lead to an official meeting,” she continued, her expression becoming more serious and her words sincere. “My question to you is, are you interested in joining our operation against the Alien Alliance?” She paused, leaning forward to rest her arms on the table for confidentiality. “Lieutenant, we are in great danger here, more than most realize. In fact, more than many in Starfleet realize. However, for me to continue this discussion I must know if you actually want to work with us.” A short, cynical chuckle spilled out as an excruciating sense of deja vu filled his brain. He could hear Admiral Farragut’s voice mingled below the captain’s like a bad overdubbing. The flatness of his tone couldn’t mask all of the profound disaffection he felt. “Permission to be dismissed, sir.” Relaxing into her chair, she nodded. “Permission granted.” “Thank you, sir,” he said, promptly standing. Then as he passed unhurried toward the bar to pay his bill, added neutrally, “Enjoy your lunch, sir.” Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
  5. 10 JUN 2388 Commercial Sector, Aegis Engineering had restored power to most of the station by late Thursday evening, a number of faults popping up that required more work than expected. The next morning, Security reported an uptick in domestic disputes, neighbors shared an awkward laugh over coffee, and things settled back into a familiar routine. More or less. Well, for most people, at any rate. After he threw the proverbial brakes a few months ago, everything had slammed to a fiery halt. Ethan couldn’t remember sitting this still in all seventeen years of his career, not even during shore rotations. Stripped of his team and routine. The entire unit disbanded. Requests to use the substantial leave he had banked denied. The right to travel restricted on an (unfounded) flight risk. The handful of brass who knew of his involvement, praising his actions in alignment with public opinion, feared and slandered him in private. His operational anonymity remained intact, yet no self-respecting command in his specialty had the balls to offer him a post. Someone had isolated him on Aegis for an indefinite standby-to-standby on the hope the untouchable would solve itself. Looked like they’d become the butt of this joke: he would never quit by choice. He focused on staying too busy or distracted to feed the restlessness skulking in his brain. Hanging on tenterhooks, waiting for that proverbial hammer or shoe — or whatever — to drop at any moment. After the defendant broke confidentiality to the press in desperation, networks unwittingly sermonized the superficial breadcrumbs that Starfleet PR released to sharpen public outrage. The rabbit he chased had dug the hole significantly deeper than he ever imagined, and virtually no one on this station had any ******* clue about the people buried in it. Starting roughly at noon following lunch, he soloed a two-person table in the “open-air” section of a café on the mezzanine. He sat in services-gold with sleeves rolled three-quarters, and a shined boot or two propped on the empty chair to dispirit wishful conversationalists. Idly twisting a yunomi cup beside a teapot on the tabletop while he pored over a copy of Tom Mueller’s Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud. Occasionally, he paused to people-watch and skim the captions of news broadcasts on the large wall display. Sipping fresh tea at a quarter ‘til, “Admiral Vera Farragut found guilty,” snagged him from the crawler during a segment on the acclimation of Romulan refugees. Messages swamped his PADD within seconds, the last of which yelled in all-caps: CALL NOW! He paid the tab and set off to find a booth or isolated place where he could talk in private, ending up in a stairwell. Ringing his squadmate, he almost cursed aloud and ripped out the earbud at the whoop that assaulted him the moment Don Hill answered. The shorter older bearded-ginger bounced wildly on the screen. “Did you see it? Did you ******* see it?! The **** IS DEAD!” He laughed at the Wizard of Oz reference from his belly. “We ******* won!” “Yeah, I saw,” Ethan cringed, rubbing around his ear. “Oh my ******* ***! It’s finally over.” Don sank to his knees, hands lifted dramatically to the sky. “Hmm.” Don frowned. “What do you mean ‘hmm?’ All that **** we went through to nail that ***** to the ******* wall. ****! Thought you were ******* crazy at first. But it finally paid the **** off. It’s over!” “For her,” he agreed soberly. “They added two more to the docket this morning.” “Two...? What? Who?” “Erős.” Ethan shook his head. “Haven’t heard about the other.” Don weaved a string of obscenities at the implication. Given how things had developed this far, Command would leave the undisclosed witnesses in limbo until the end of the final court-martial. Ethan felt a pang of regret that he had dragged his team into this mess. Panic choked Don’s curses as a tiny brunette in a sunflower dress toddled into view, who he scooped into his arms. “Oof. You didn’t hear that,” he said, briefly covering her ears and Ethan smirked. “Snuck up on me there, kiddo. Hey, don’t tell mommy daddy’s saying bad words again, ok?” “Ok,” came the soft reply. “I want ice cream.” Pushing off the wall, Ethan rotated to sit on the bottom steps and wait. “Ice cream?” Don had a wily look. “Uh-huh,” she nodded vigorously. “Ok,” her father pondered. “Well, if you don’t tell mommy what daddy said, daddy will buy you ice cream for life. How about that? Deal?” “Mmhmm.” she hummed through a smile. “Deal. Cross my heart.” “All right, my partner in crime,” Don cheered, exchanging a high-five. “Hey, do you remember Ethan?” The girl put a finger to her lips. “Mmm...I donno. Is that your best, best, best friend?” “Yup, the boss-man. Say ‘hi.’” Don pointed at the camera. “Hey, Lilly,” Ethan waved and smiled. Her head jerked at the sound of her name, and she returned the gesture with enthusiasm. “Hi, Eytan! Guess what, ’m three now.” “Hmm, bigger than the last time I saw you. How are you?” “Mmm… Good. Daddy gets to play lots now ‘cause he doesn’t haff to go to work.” “Good. Taking good care of dad?” “Mmhmm! Mommy doesn’t like it when daddy says bad words, so-so” — she took a breath — “I haff to tell him not to say bad words.” “Yeah, nice of you to remind him. He’s got a bad habit.” “Uh-huh!” “Hey, hey,” Don protested. “Didn’t call you ‘cause I was looking for a sister-wife.” Ethan scoffed. “But I gotta go. Kirsten’s gonna be home soon and it’s my turn to cook. Just wanted to celebrate for a sec—which you completely buzz-killed, by the way. Thanks.” “It’s what I do.” “Sure, sure. Hey, talk later. Watch your six, Brother.” “Yeah. You, too.” “Bye.” Don ended the call. Ethan tucked the PADD away and slouched across the knees, jaw tensed as he raked hands through short dark hair to clasp over his neck. “We do have chairs on the station, lieutenant,” said a voice behind him congenially. “And beds, if needed.” He calmly glanced over his shoulder at the tall sinewy Starfleet officer who leaned against the railing behind him. Black uniform and boots the left of which bore the muted outline of a dagger. A Starfleet captain’s insignia on her right, overhead glinting off the familiar insignia of SI-5 on the left. A faint scoff-like noise escaped him. He knew her. She may have considered him a colleague, if not a friend once. Before recent events had all but painted him persona non grata. He also knew that because he blocked the narrow end of the staircase, she had leaned against the handrail to wait out his call. “Already got one, thanks,” he said dryly as he got to his feet. “Allow me to introduce myself.” She stepped toward him, extending her hand congenially. “Chirakis Kirel, Captain and Commanding Officer of Sky Harbor Aegis.” He gave her hand a firm grasp. “Lieutenant Ethan Neufeld. But you already know that.” He played along despite not knowing the motive for pretending they required any acquainting. “Pleasure, Captain. Sooner than expected. Thought it’d be a couple weeks.” “A couple of weeks is much too long, Lieutenant Neufeld, but we have been busy lately. Now that it has passed and we can relax, I am free to roam the station and to have a decent meal. If you are not busy, you are welcome to join me at Chez Antonio. If you are busy, then you may carry on. It is your choice, Lieutenant,” she said congenially, as though she was not the captain. Lips pressed, his head tipped slightly, considering the offer as he quelled a bit of cynicism. “Nah, I’m not busy.” “And is Chez Antonio sufficient for you, or are you a…” She struggled for the word. “...pizza eater, or similar? As this is your first assignment aboard Aegis, it is your choice.” Bemusement narrowed his gaze at her characterization of his presence on Aegis as something more than a vocational purgatory. Or crucifixion. “What assignment?” After taking a moment to consider his question, she continued, “Walk with me, Lieutenant. These things are better discussed in private. Therefore, we will dine at Chez Antonio, in my private booth.” He made a skeptical nod and wordlessly fell in step. (Written jointly by Chirakis Kirel and Ethan Neufeld)
  6. NAME (last, first middle): Neufeld, Ethan DATE OF BIRTH: 20 OCT 2352 (36) SPECIES: Human SEX: Male HAIR: Brown EYES: Blue HEIGHT: 191cm (6ft 3in) WEIGHT: 99.7kg (220lbs) ETHNICITY: Dutch, Irish, Scottish, English, German BLOOD TYPE: O+ KNOWN ALLERGIES: None IMMUNIZATIONS: Current MEDICAL CONDITIONS: None PSYCHIATRIC CONDITIONS: None ALCOHOL/TOBACCO/DRUG USE: No CONTRAINDICATIONS: Local anesthesia, sedation (general anesthesia recommended) REMARKS: Poor or no response to most analgesics PLACE OF BIRTH: San Diego, CA (USA), Earth FEDERATION CITIZEN: Yes LANGUAGES: English, Spanish, German, [...] MARITAL STATUS: Single FATHER: MCPO Robert Neufeld (retired) MOTHER: NOTABLE RELATIVES: Silver, Gage Deforest (cousin) HIGHEST EDUCATION LEVEL OBTAINED: Bachelor of Arts (University of California, San Diego, CA, Earth) ENLISTMENT DATE: 21 AUG 2372 PLACE OF ENTRY: Starfleet Technical Services Academy, Mars COMMISSION DATE: XX XXX 2383 (Starfleet Academy, San Francisco, CA, Earth) REMARKS:
  7. 9 JUN 2388 Commercial Sector, Aegis Ethan waited in the darkness for klaxons or the call to general quarters, replicated water puddling at his feet. A second ago, he stood on a twelve-meter cliff overlooking a vast human-made reservoir — mercifully all forced perspective via holographics, none of the actuality. Meanwhile, elsewhere a host of scientists and engineers had toiled anxiously over a micro-wormhole to correct a mix-up à la Soulminder or The Identity Matrix. Then blackout! He figured the build must have overloaded the grid. The dim emergency lighting kicked on, and he mused dryly at the stark latticework. He philosophized on the history of electricity, its socioeconomic impact, and the crippling effect of its loss in the proverbial tin space-can. But mostly whether he should return to quarters over thirty decks up or venture to the park less than twenty decks down. He had the self-assurance and fitness to push a five- to fifteen-minute climb up, traffic permitting. But climbing down tempted him after expending the morning and his energy in more or less a self-initiated aquathlon. Given the right circumstances, he could race to the park in a couple of minutes before engineering restored power. Or he could stay here and conserve most of an entire room of oxygen to himself for a day or two — one emptily morbid thought among dozens of contingencies that streaked through his brain. Contrary to his inclination for solitude, he preferred dying usefully to bored and alone. Though he believed the situation unlikely to go that far, they faced only the danger of inconvenience at the moment, given the lack of … anything. Fortunately, he had brought an oversized, quick-drying towel that he used to rub his hair and wring his boardshorts. Mopping up the floor as much as possible, he spread out the rest of the water for quicker drying. A force of habit — he knew the system self-cleaned under power. He pulled on a gray tank, slid bare feet into a pair of sneakers, and rolled the saturated towel over his shoulders. Before tucking his PADD into a hidden pocket, he paused over the first passages of chapter fourteen, African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Japan. He appreciated the full hour he had for a swim, at any rate. On the other hand, he hardly felt a loss for a knockoff in lieu of the real leave they continually promised and never delivered. A mild premonition somewhere between an imminent static shock and face-plant typically kept him out of holosuites, apart from the practical stuff or a wild hair. Falling just felt downright weird. Opening a panel beside the double-door, he cranked the emergency release lever, disengaging the catch. A gap popped in the doors, and he pushed one aside into its pocket. The murmur of upset crowds floated in the storefront from the massive commercial commons outside. He imagined the station's emergency services would have a hell of a time fielding all of the calls from the nosey to the trapped or paranoid. "Oh! You got out. I was just coming to open the doors." The cheerful voice belonged to the anorexic college-aged clerk who looked thrilled as she bounced toward him sooner than he hoped. The brown-eyed girl had wrapped her blonde mane in a giant bun. An understated helix and forehead suggested Romulan-Human. She wore a small bright-pink tee, black leggings, neon sneakers, and a bedazzled name tag that said N'alae in a stylized Federation font. Maybe someone somewhere else thought her a cute, sweet, even fun girl. The smiles and curiosity about his plans from the moment he requested a rental had touched more on the creepy side of flattering. Enough that he had intended to escape out the side exit after his time expired. He smiled flatly in response. "Sorry that the power went out. Did you get to enjoy your swim in Norfolk Lake, Arr-Kanzas, at least?" She giggled awkwardly at his damp state. Eyeing the curved row of doors, he wondered how long she had stared at that monitor to memorize the name of a place unknown to her an hour ago and feel cheeky about it. "Yeah," he offered nonchalantly, tossing a gesture over his shoulder. "Anyone still stuck?" "Um," she drawled in thought. "Yes, all of them except you, of course. The people in five and two" — she pointed — "they left a little bit before the power went out. And there's no one in four, which is out-of-service for maintenance." He glanced at the numbered placard of the suite he had rented — the last suite — and back to the front desk beyond the first suite. Then nodding, he stepped past the clerk, lips pressed in an accompanying, "Hmm." "So, um, will you be coming back any time soon?" She fell in behind him, mimicking reflexively as he stopped at the next suite to trace the seam of a panel. "I have some coupons I can send—" "You have the key?" he cut her off, palm up and extended. "What? Oh! Yeah, here," she stammered before she slipped in next to him, prompting him to back off. The magnetic lock clicked as she placed a flat, mushroom-shaped object against the wall and then pressed the panel open. As a design variance from Starfleet specs intended to protect consumer privacy, it created an inconvenience. Though a significant amount of pressure held the doors closed, she effortlessly pulled the lever, thanks to old-fashioned hydraulics. Ethan reached toward the opening, and someone behind it shrieked, "No! Balik! Don't come in — I'm still dressing!" A female from the sound of it but debatable between species, among other things. "Eww," the clerk groused, disgust wrinkling her face. "That's something I did not want to think about." He paid the context little thought and turned his back to the door; eyes focused down the hallway. "We'll be here for a bit if you need anything." "Okay, thank you! I'll be out in a minute," came the shouted reply, underscored by several hops, a hiccup, and grumbling. Scoffing faintly in amusement, Ethan arrived at the next suite by the time the doors released from the inside. A Human male of average size strolled out with a petite, voluptuous Orion female scampering behind him. They made an unexpected pairing dressed in elaborate nineteenth-century, decidedly British costumes and modern clothing draped in the crook of their arms. "So it is a power outage," the man observed after glancing around. The woman said nothing, her attention lowered at the deck as she clung to her partner's bicep. "Yeah," Ethan answered, his right eye narrowing briefly, pondering how to interpret the couple. Either she had abjured the Syndicate, or he had fallen in thrall to her wiles. Feeling the clerk brush up beside him, he lifted his arm away to find her glowering at the other woman. "I'm sorry, but we're closed now," she announced tersely. "Please make your way to the exit." Ethan saw the ire flex from the other man's jaw to his temples. His Orion companion — who had shown little interest in, much less made eye contact with anyone else — rested a hand on his shoulder. "We can come back tomorrow, Uta," she purred a mid-Atlantic-like flavor in his ear. "I don't like her tone," he gnashed. "Don't stress yourself over it, darling." She stroked the side of his head. "It's been hours since my last dosage. Maybe I've given her a headache — you know how it is." "No, that's no excuse," he retorted, shooting daggers at the clerk. "Wherever we go, they treat you like a freak show." "Please," the woman cut Ethan off at the verge of speaking and cast apprehension at him. "Let's just go home. I'm tired, and these shoes are hurting my feet." "Okay, okay," her mate gesticulated wildly for a ceasefire. "We'll go, but I'll be calling your manager." "Shh, how about we relax tonight and talk it over first," she cooed. Ethan could only gaze curiously as she gently persuaded him toward the exit. The man sighed heavily, petting her hand. "Fine, I'll do my best to let it go — for you." "Thank you, Uta," She raised on her toes to peck at his cheek. "I don't understand how you can be so forgiving." "But that's why it's so easy to love you," she chuckled lightheartedly. "I love you, too. Did you at least have fun?" She droned in affirmation, and the rest of their conversation blended into the clamor outside. A fascinating history had to exist for those two; nothing else could suffice. "Don't worry, Lieutenant. I'll snap you out of it," the clerk said abruptly, pivoting to face him. He deflected the hand she meant to stick in his face. "Snap out of what?" he asked coolly, nonetheless aware of her meaning. The girl looked baffled. "Um, the Orion spell? Pheromones…?" Her eyes flicked to the side as she faltered. "Or are you Vulcan" — then whispering — "Or maybe you slept with a Vulcan?" "What?" The clerk balked at the hint of irritation in his voice while he swiveled toward a woman's cackle. From suite nine approached a dusky Bajoran, slender and nearly his height, dressed in bright layered robes and affixing glossy waist-length brunette twists to her head. "Really! Prophets forbid we pretermit inoculation... Whatever moron convinced you that one xeno-pheromone, virtually new to every other species' evolution, can subjugate all male-kind? The whole idea simply belies the fact that there are some 420 billion possible variations in your genome." She paused at the clerk. "Make that upwards of 570 billion. You may have been affected, and I think you were" — she leered — "by something." This provoked an embarrassed eye-roll from the half-Romulan, which she matched in a triumphant smirk. "But," the Bajoran continued, sliding sideways in Ethan's direction. "Any number of mutations or rare genes would contribute to tolerance or even immunity." She stopped to appraise. "He could have a rare…metabolism. Just as for example, between two people, the sense of smell varies…" She faded to sniff at his opposite shoulder and sighed, "Mmm, hickory and a trace of...smokiness? Madam, please grant me this model next time.'" Depositing a hand on his chest, she dragged over his collar and darted out of reach, shrewd enough not to linger. Ethan scoffed, lips pressed in a flat smile blending wry and blasé. A loud gasp escaped the clerk. It took a few seconds for the younger woman to recover and snap, "You can't create holographs of living people without their permission." "Not if he consents," the other retorted in a sing-song, sashaying away. "Hah! Like he would." Her sniggering died in his aloofness; she had expected confirmation. "An-and if he doesn't, that's illegal!" The other woman wagged a finger in the air. "Only if you report me." "Nouhha, are you suggesting…? You are disgusting! Aren't you supposed to be celibate?!" "That's Deltans, chit," the Bajoran spat. "I know that. I was talking about your orange robes, you stupid monk!" "Bless your ignorance, child! You mistake me for a Buddhist," she spun, guffawing at the clerk's expense. "And besides, why worry yourself over the feelings of holograms? They aren't alive, remember?" "That's not the point!" she spluttered. "You had better not come back here, or I will report you!" The Bajoran sent up a rude, parting gesture, composed herself, and merged into the crowd. Best guess, the Bajoran either didn't visit often, or the clerk hadn't cared to memorize the name of a frequent customer that she just insulted. Ethan leaned toward the latter. "Dir haben sie wohl etwas in den Kaffee getan," he muttered in German, interpreted more or less as: you’ve got to be joking. That he had let the entire thing play out at all testified mainly to his overall apathy and confidence in any lack of peril. The real mystery remained in why so few of the holo-patrons had yet to self-extricate. Blind optimism or some form of helplessness weighed the most likely. Starting for the next suite, he abandoned the clerk to puff indignantly in a circle. "Can you believe her? She's sick! Shameless! How could you even stand her touching you?" She shuddered in a gag. Then it dawned on her, and she rushed him. "She touched you. Nouhha, that's … that's sexual harassment! I'm going to report that crone! She is not going to get away with this." "Hmm," he droned, barely listening. "Done?" He nearly winced at the coldness of his voice. "What?" "Unlock the door or give me the key," he said flatly. The clerk hesitated and then dumped the object in his outstretched hand. "Aren't you the least bit concerned about what she did to you? What she's going to do to you?" "Not at the moment, no." The lever snapped into place, and the doors parted. A stooping Cardassian male in a mullet and baggy clothes blinked just on the other side. His mouth hung open, head lowered in a way that he stared from the uppermost of his eyes at them. The clerk visibly shivered. "Damn! Does this mean the power isn't coming back?" "Dunno," Ethan shook his head. "Sure they're working on it." His brow rose at the use of an obscene native phrase he hadn't heard since the Dominion War over a decade ago. "Finally, got through all those freaking trash-mob zombies from last week, and I was this freaking close to kicking that petaQ's ***." The gaming addict weaved in and out of Klingon and English epithets like a pilot on amphetamines. He had the look of a dialysis patient. Trudging out, he slapped the door frame and boxed the air. "Ugh! I'm gonna be royally pissed if this thing didn't save my freaking progress!" "Ookay," the clerk drawled, lowering her voice until the Cardassian had left earshot. "So explain to me why you aren't remotely bothered by the rapist?" He gave a clipped chuckle at the nickname. "Not my problem." "But—" The squeal of a Ferengi from suite six drowned her out the very second Ethan had breached the door. He defied description save that he reminded Ethan of all the Ferengi he had met. Hobbling out into the hallway, every single step elicited an ugly ear-piercing wail. But his body language betrayed a bold bit of poor acting that had the clerk flinching as much as duped. She reached to help him reluctantly. "Nouhha, are you okay?" "My ankle! Your safety protocols failed!" He air-jabbed at the clerk. "Wait here, I'll go call medical." The Ferengi blocked her launch toward the desk, dazing her in a torrent. "Don't bother! The business bureau will hear of this! Everyone will hear of this! I'm going to sue this establishment for every slip of latinum." "What happened?" "Weren't you listening?!" He growled at Ethan. "I was walking down the stairs when the power went out. And your safety protocols let me fall! I know for a fact that my ankle is now broken and will require costly surgery to fix—" Finally, he noticed. "Wait, why am I talking to you? You don't even work here. But you" — he pointed at the clerk again — "you must answer for this-this…outrage!" "Looks fine to me," Ethan flatly rejoined. "Oh, and you fancy yourself some kind of expert, do you?" He faltered as Ethan swooped in at his eye-level and inches from his face, the air around him boding heavily. "Should I carry you out?" The Ferengi swallowed, licking his lips and backpedaling. "Don't you dare touch me. Don't. You. Dare. I can find my own way out, thank you very much." He bared his teeth at Ethan, then whirled on his heel. "Some customer service, humph!" The clerk stood speechless through the Ferengi's protest march that derailed in the throng of mostly taller people. Her confusion evolved to incredulity and she shook her head. But she didn't miss a beat, returning right back to the Bajoran. "How is it not your problem?" "Choose not to make it mine." He would count it a bonus if those holodeck fantasies kept that Bajoran too busy to even consider thrusting into his life. "But it is your problem. She's talking about turning you, I mean, your likeness into a" — her tongue smacked in distaste — "plaything." "I heard." "And you're seriously okay with that?" Shifting around the lever at suite three that refused to budge, he exhaled a growing weariness. "Real people look alike by chance. There's no rule in the system against that. All she needs is a decent memory and some skill in coding." "Wow." She glared at him with arms folded. A hard kick broke the release free, allowing him to push open the exit. He had no idea where he would have found an old-fashioned actuator in this place, much less a crowbar. "You talk like this has happened before." "Eh," he admitted in a drawn-out way. "Suspicions." "Not to rudely interrupt," said the Andorian man who had quietly emerged. "I would just like to say thank you and goodbye before I leave — according to your customs." "You're welcome." The blue, antennaed man looked pleased. "Ah, I believe a handshake is also warranted, is it not?" "Sure," Ethan smiled politely and initiated the gesture, bearing more of a resemblance to the Klingon custom, the Andorian grasping him near the elbow. "Goodbye," he nodded to the clerk. She returned it in kind, adding a wave. She waited for yet another of her customers to leave, rocking impatiently on her feet. "If I were you, I'd have sent all of them to jail," she continued tautly. "Civil." "Huh?" "It's civil," he repeated, clarifying, "as in lawsuits — no jail time. Only criminal offenses are for exploitation or rape." A hand lifted to quash what she would say. "Of real people." "Nouhha, I hate people," she said sourly and mulled over him for a bit. "How do you know all this anyway?" Ethan shrugged, disinclined to talk shop with anyone who lacked membership. Seeing no clue to pry what she wanted out of him, the clerk blessedly hushed for a while, and they cracked open the final suite. Here they encountered a voracious creature in its natural habitat, immortalized by the records of ancient civilizations as the Karen. "Well, it's about bloody time," the zaftig redhead grated in throaty Strine. "Do you even know how long I've been stuck in here while you two bludgers were out there mucking around?" Ethan made a perfunctory lift of his watch. "Uh, less than ten minutes," he countered flippantly despite himself. "Oh, you're a real riot — more like a real tosser. My son wet himself because of you." "Oh, geez," the clerk groaned behind him. "Your son?" For some reason, the sniffling only registered at that moment. Ethan peeked around the doorjamb for the source. "Yes, my son," she retorted, implying they should have known despite that she stood — and occupied the entire doorway — by herself. "What's more, we came here to celebrate his birthday, but you don't see any of that happening, now do ya? Didn't even get a bite of fairy bread because of you... "Where are you going?" she asked sharply as Ethan squeezed past her to the right. He found the small towheaded five- or six-year-old boy bowed, lightly banging his crown in the corner and wiping a stream of tears off his chafed face. At his arm's length, Ethan lowered to a knee. "Hey, buddy, how's it going? You okay?" The boy's head incidentally thudded against the wall as he shook his head. His mother cut in without missing a beat. "Don't talk to him: he's in time-out." "Scared?" A nod. "That's okay. Some days I feel scared, too." He gave him a moment. Then testing the residual dampness of the towel around his neck, he unfurled and transferred it to the boy's shoulders. "Don't put that on him!" He watched the child tense at first, gradually relaxing under the warmth and (figurative) cloaking powers of microfiber. "Are you even listening?!" the Karen shouted. Her son whimpered. "Maybe if you weren't such a *****, he wouldn't be crying," the clerk took a bite. The customer's face burned a deep red. "What did you say?! off, you ****. No one tells me how to parent my kids. I know your manager!" The clerk had scarcely parted her lips before Ethan pushed back to his feet. She swore the shadow that filled his wake had a threatening presence. It made more sense to her than attributing that darkness to the man who seemed downright phlegmatic. She almost missed the slight tension at his jaw that betrayed a seething. "I am the manager," he said evenly. The Karen gaped apoplectic, air squeaking from her in a struggle to form words. Her eyes ran him from head to toe and back. "I-I don't believe you." "Couldn't care less what you believe." One: he reserved most of his diplomacy for the job, as opposed to the personal time transpiring right now. Two: the drawn-out events leading up to his arrival on Aegis and in this mess had left him nearly empty of patience. Checked again. Nope, all out of ***** to give. "I-I don't have to put up with this…bullying," she said, pulling together somewhat. "I demand a refund, and I want her fired for being rude to me." "Nah, don't feel like it," he shook his head, transitioning smoothly. "But I know a counselor and a couple security officers who'll take your complaint." Mind stumbling in a confused rage, her mouth worked overtime like a fish out of water, and then the color drained from her face. "Come here, you," she squawked, trembling as she bundled the boy up in her arms and huffed in a beeline through the door. The clerk followed her out and slumped against the wall, watching the woman shuffle faster than she had looked. "Does that mean you're going to report her to social services?" "Yeah," Ethan exhaled deeply. "Someone'll stop by for her info after power's restored." "I'm technically not supposed to give it to you without a warrant, but it's for a good cause, right?" She winked and then cleared her throat, having steadily grown more aware and conscientious of where her eyes wandered in the last quarter-hour. "Hmm," he sounded, feeling no desire to engage with her to that degree. "Here." He held out the magnetic key, which she dropped it into a pocket and smiled. "Thanks for your help today." He nodded noncommittally. "Anytime." "Anytime?" The way she echoed and stared absently at him stalled his egress. "You got things from here?" Belatedly: "Ye-yeah, I'll just be locking up. I'll be fine, thanks." "Okay." "Wait. Can I ask you just one more thing?" "Hmm." Nearly out of the holo-café already, he backed a few steps. "I feel kind of awkward asking this now after the whole thing with the rapist. But, um" — she bit her lip — "would you be interested in dinner?" Catching his gaze narrowing, she quickly amended, "Or maybe just a drink…sometime?" "Heh, yeah, awkward doesn't do it justice," he scoffed mildly. Rubbing his face and slipping the other hand into a pocket, he sighed skeptically. "I'm old enough to be your dad." A smidge of an exaggeration. He estimated her birth had happened sometime during his junior or senior year in high school. "It only sounds bad when you put it that way. All that matters is that I'm old enough to drink." She counted on her fingers. "Me plus you, multiplied by a lot of good drinks, equals a great time. I don't see a problem with that math." He grimaced in a head-shake at the self-gratifying laughter that folded in the corners of her eyes. She might as well have divided by zero. "The problem is: I'm not interested." "Oh." A beat and then, signing with her fingers, "Not even—" "Nope," he said, an equally emphatic shake underlining his tone. "Go home, kid. Relax. Have a good night. Sleep for a better tomorrow." He channeled all the officer-in-charge aloofness he possessed, staving off the questions or bargaining by offering no sympathy. Iacta alea est: non-negotiable. Once decided, he loathed saying it twice, more than he disliked — or occasionally enjoyed — turning down those who handled rejection the worst. She deflated at the lack of appetence in his voice, pursing her lips. "Eh, yup. You, too." Weaving his way across the commerce deck, he sucked a breath of relief. He stopped a moment, listening as security organized the civilians to vacate the commercial sector to their homes. Then began a long, easygoing return to the one place he had authorized access and guaranteed solitude. Until the other junior officer's watch ended in a couple of hours, at any rate.
  8. Security Brief (excerpts) Computer System(s) (Gular only) Hybrid centralized-decentralized hub with ad hoc workstations and network storage. Advantage: Redundancy in ad hoc allows workstations to act as network nodes and as the central hub per se, providing high fault-tolerance should central hub and/or one or more workstations become compromised or fail. Data and System Security: Microkernal-based Operating Systems, System Verification and Authentication, Access Control Lists, Encryption, Firewalls, Security Software, Wire-Only Systems (ultrasensitive data), and Physically Isolated Storage Servers (ultrasensitive data) [...] Weaknesses: [...] Infared Detection Type: Passive Capabilities/Usage: Detection of changes and differences in heat. Primary detection generally used as a trip for active systems, but can be used independently. Automated target acquisition via Advanced Target Recognition software with 92% rate of accuracy and low false rejection requiring operator oversight to eliminate false accepts. Locations: Several thousand detectors in all public areas and secured locations. Weakness: Network. Heat. Competing security companies and lack of cooperation between proprietary monitoring networks. Radio and Tomographic Motion Detection Type: Active Capabilities/Usage: Detection of objects and motion tracking via subspace-enhanced radio waves. Does not require a visual line-of-sight, built into and hidden within overheads, bulkheads and decks. Exceptional motion tracking but no target acquisition. Primary detection generally used as a trip for UWB and FS Sensors. Location: Secured locations including Gular offices. Weaknesses: Network. Ultra-Wideband and Full Spectral Sensors Type: Active Capabilities: Target acquisition through solid obstructions. Uncompressed data collection across full subspace-enhanced electromagnetic spectrum and/or operator specified bands. Automated target acquisition via Advanced Target Recognition software with 99.9% rate of accuracy and low false rejection requiring operator oversight to eliminate false accepts. Usage: Primary long-range early warning and short-range detection on exterior. Primary detection at security checkpoints. Secondary detection tripped by primary detection in all other public and secured areas. Locations: Exterior and port sensor arrays. Total of 42 arrays in public areas. Secured locations including Gular and top-ranking business offices. Fee required for all other locations - clients unknown. Control: Sector Control, Flight Control and Port Security, Sheriff’s Offices and local. Weaknesses: Network. Competing security companies and lack of cooperation between proprietary monitoring networks. Video Surveillance System Type: Active. Capabilities/Usage: Decentralized wired and wireless digital high-definition infared cameras capable of on-site recording with mirrored storage on network servers. Automated target acquisition via Visual Target Recognition software with 99.9% rate of accuracy and low false rejection requiring operator oversight to eliminate false accepts. Locations: Total of 832 cameras in public areas and Gular offices. Fee required for all other locations - clients unknown. Control: Viewable in real-time at Sector Control, Flight Control and Port Security, and Sheriff’s Offices. Local control and viewing only for cameras in ultrasensitive areas at Gular offices. Weaknesses: Network. Competing security companies and lack of cooperation between proprietary monitoring networks. Biometrics and Behaviometrics Type: Active Capabilities/Usage: Combination of high-definition Retinal Scans, DNA Recognition and Voice Recognition used to identify parties authorized to access restricted areas. Advanced Recognition software with 99% rate of accuracy and low false accepts requiring operator oversight to eliminate false rejections. Locations: All secured or sensitive areas including Control, the Sheriff’s Office, and Gular Offices. Fee required for all other locations. Control: Local only. Weaknesses: Network. Competing security companies and lack of cooperation between proprietary monitoring networks. Implanted RFID Type: Active Capabilities/Usage: Identification of parties authorized to access restricted areas via radio-frequency identification using implantable nanotechnology. Activated by proximity and utilizes encryption and rolling-codes to preventing unauthorized parties from duplicating codes. Also capable of real-time lifesigns monitoring and will cease to function should the user die or chip is removed. Weakness: Network and proximity to receivers. Competing security companies and lack of cooperation between proprietary monitoring networks. Precision Asset Tracking RFID Nanotags Type: Active Capabilities/Usage: Asset tracking via radio-frequency identification using nanotechnology. Used primarily by Gular. Fee required for non-Gular users. Weakness: Network and proximity to receivers. Competing security companies and lack of cooperation between proprietary monitoring networks. Gular Sheriff’s Office Divisions: Law Enforcement (PRT and EOD), Detentions and Courts, Emergency Services (EMS and Fire/Hazmat) Law Enforcement Manpower: 266 (1:400) Detentions and Courts Manpower: 158 (1:126) Emergency Services Manpower: 56 (1:1903) Total: 480 (1:222) Issued Personal Equipment: Type III ballistic-energy vest, Type II pistol-grip handphaser with kill interlock, asp baton, environmental mask, digital encrypted trunked subspace-enhanced 800MHz Nexedge radios, flashlight, keyless handcuffs, zip cuffs [...] Agency Equipment: 14 motorized carts [...] Unit Dispersion: Patrol shift teams rotate 4 days on, 3 days off with an average of 38 members per team. Watches are 10 hours per day, providing a 2 hour overlap during each shift change. Patrol focuses on areas with upper-class and larger populations, allocating nearly 80% of a shift team’s manpower to these areas. [...] Gular Security Independent security responsible for guarding secured areas in Gular offices and homes of top Gular execs. Nothing further at this time. Gular Sector Control Independent agency that is responsible for and monitors environment and utilities, and dispatches maintenance and utility crews. Nothing further at this time. Emergency Procedures [...] Critical Incidents [...] Fire Alarm and Suppression System [...] Evacuation Routes [...]
  9. Ethan and the Qob’s crew were working different angles but more or less for the same thing, and ‘checking in’ with Captain Manning presented a dilemma. He and his crew were toxic: their activities had drawn too much negative attention in too short of a time span. Reporting in person, by radio or messenger: any form of communication that might be observed and traced back to Ethan was a no go. If the Gular caught Ethan associating with the Qob’s crew, at best his position would be compromised, any progress made would amount to nothing, and the crew would draw more negative attention. At worst someone would sacrifice freedom or life. Ethan had discussed such a contingency with Joe prior to debarking the Qob. The solution came down to clothing and went into effect not long after the Qob’s crew passed through customs waving red flags. Blue tie: Ethan was making progress. Red tie: Ethan wasn’t making progress and might be in trouble. For Joe, showing up in the right place at the right time and spotting Ethan in the crowd wouldn’t be a simple task. But it worked and neither risked compromising the other more than he could compromise himself. Green tie: Ethan had intel to relay. Clearly the exchange couldn’t occur face-to-face, so they had agreed on a dead drop. It presented a few problems, given they couldn’t communicate and weren’t familiar enough with the territory to pick a location prior to arrival. The trick: determining the place that Ethan frequented the most sans meeting. The solution: establishing a routine that even the most amateur of operators could figure out just by paying attention. The place: a small Parisian-inspired cafe on the third level that served from early morning to late evening and offered patio dining. Ethan would stick a data chip to the bottom of his table that night at dinner.
  10. “What about him?” O’Brien asked, pulling his hand back and withdrawing a step to open the distance between them. “He and company are on your guest list for the Anniversary Gala,” Ethan replied plainly. “I’m here to assess your security precautions before they arrive.” “Ah ha,” O’Brien acknowledged. “Well... Mr. Neufeld, we appreciate your concerns, and I’m sorry if you had to make a special trip down here for me to tell you this, but everything is well in hand. I hope that you enjoy your stay here, as it’s likely to be uneventful.” Ethan smiled mildly. “Sheriff, between you and me, I hope that this is a waste of time. But I’ve been paid a large amount of money to ensure his security. I can’t make a favorable report if I haven’t seen anything.” “I appreciate that, I really do,” O’Brien answered. “But at the same time, if you really do what you claim to do, for who you claim to, you can understand why I’m not exactly open to just letting you walk in and help yourself to things. Nothing personal.” “Mm,” Ethan hummed in agreement. “Well, like it or not, we’re going to have to work together--” “No, like it or not, we aren’t.” “Maybe we can help each other,” Ethan calmly deflected. “And how would you think we could do that?” O’Brien asked, sounding mildly impatient. “This is a large, high-profile event: I imagine you want to avoid embarrassing incidents, but your resources are spread thin,” Ethan explained, gesturing minimally. “We’ve provided consulting and private security services to Mr. Dantinamede’s family for several years and take his security needs seriously. Recently, the life of a close family member was threatened and it’s my job to guarantee their safety while they’re here. Our company specializes in personal and asset security. We’re discreet and unobtrusive; we don’t want credit or attention. Allow us to handle the Dantinamedes' personal security while he’s here, and you can focus on the larger picture and present your best image for the media syndicates. If you’re concerned about my credibility, you can verify everything I’ve told you directly with Mr. Dantinamede, and I promise I won’t try to tell you what number to call.” “Tell you what son,” O’Brien answered. “I’ll make a few calls. If, and I mean IF, your story checks out, maybe we can talk. That’s all I have for you now, take it or leave it. I will call you later on.” Ethan nodded and smiled civilly. “Looking forward to it.” *** “I’ll transfer you. Please hold,” said the operator in a melodic voice, followed by several clicks and the hum of transfer protocols. Dantinamede wasn’t in the office, given the gala was less than two days away and he was currently in transit to Andus. Getting the operator to actually transfer the call had taken some convincing. The delay lasted for nearly forty seconds while the operator explained the importance of the call and O’Brien waited on a silent line. “Sheriff O’Brien?” the operator finally questioned. “Yes?” “You’re on the line with Mr. Dantinamede,” she said and then disconnected. “Sheriff O’Brien,” Dantinamede immediately greeted. “My secretary says you have an important question to ask.” “Yes, sir,” the Sheriff replied, an unseen smile on his face. “It’s about your private security here at the upcoming gala.” “My private security? Yes?” “Who are they, and what did you hire them to do?” There was a brief pause in the audio-only conversation and O’Brien could almost picture the bemused look on Dantinamede’s face. “Remington Executive Security and I hired them to do what any private security company does, Sheriff O’Brien.” “Who was sent here this time?” “Sent there? What do you mean?” “Someone claiming to be working private security for you showed up at my office today sir, and I want to know if I should pay attention to what he says, or throw him in my jail until his bones turn to dust.” Another pause; Dantinamede must have blinked at the caustic remark. “Who showed up at your office?” As O’Brien had expected, Dantinamede was confused. It looked like Mr. Neufeld’s story was crumbling. “Some man claiming to be Ethan Neufeld from Remington Executive Security,” O’Brien replied. “He says he wants to help me with the security here, in particular, yours. First I wanted to know if you knew anything about Remington Executive Security before I even bothered tracking down information on them.” From the sound of Dantinamede’s voice, he was smiling now. “I’d appreciate it if you allowed him to help you, Sheriff. I wasn’t aware that he had arrived before me, but trust Remington enough not to direct how they perform their jobs.” “All right, Mr Dantinamede,” O’Brien replied, “I need to look into a few other things, mainly to make sure this is a real Neufeld, or a fake, and if Remington actually sent him, or someone else. Just routine things, nothing to be concerned about. I’ll quit taking up your time. Enjoy your trip, and we will see you when you get here.” “Of course; thank you,” Dantinamede replied and hung up. *** Assistant Sheriff O’Brien was waiting when Ethan arrived at the main office. “Okay Mr. Neufeld, I did some poking around and everything seems okay so far,” O’Brien announced. “But before we do anything, tell me what you had planned for this trip.” “I’d like to look at your setup: incident plans, the extent of your resources, patrol routes, the location where guests are staying and, also, the complementary data security you’re offering guests during their stay.” “And I get in return?” “Potentially better data security, enhanced response plan and better asset dispersion,” Ethan replied smoothly. “All right, come with me then, and we’ll take a little walk,” O’Brien gestured and Ethan nodded, falling in step. The tour took the better part of the evening, but was a success and O’Brien appeared to be warming up to the idea -- as much as any honestly political man who encountered someone trespassing on his turf could. Returning to the main office, Ethan informed the Assistant Sheriff of a few initial concerns; including his impression of Emil Senz, citing a possible security hole in lack of investigative questioning on the part of the Customs Officer. They adjourned shortly after 2030, with plans to meet and discuss incident plans in more detail the next day. After a visit to the local Ataraxia Holdings branch and late dinner at a restaurant near his hotel, Ethan began conducting another casual tour of the promenades. He discreetly collected data on the evacuation routes - the routes Sheriff O’Brien hadn’t showed him, given they weren’t near the suites reserved for Dantinamedes or areas set apart for the Gala's events and guests - the district’s structure and traffic. He’d nearly finished scouting level 6 when patrols stepped up and rumors of a bomb threat surfaced. Evacuations were occurring on level 4 and directly above and below the medical clinic there. A murmuring panic set in the locals as a share of the patrons from the levels above filtered down and, predictably, Sheriff O’Brien called. “Ethan,” O’Brien greeted on Ethan’s radio, “It’s Pat. Look, I have a few things I need to ask you about -- have a minute?” “Go ahead.” “Those people you came here with on your pass, how do you know them?” “Not well,” Ethan replied honestly. “We just happened to be on the same transport.” “All of your passes came from Samus,” O’Brien pressed. “I can only assume you must know him to get his pass.” “Yes,” Ethan answered simply, eyes on the moving crowd. “But you don’t know those people very well?” “Honestly didn’t make it a point to become friends,” he said. “I know a few names and random details.” “All right,” O’Brien said, pausing a moment. “The customs thing and those passes were a little confusing. But so you know, those hooligans on that transport are raising all sorts of hell on my station, so you might want to look into things on your end in case of problems.” “Roger that.” “See you tomorrow at breakfast,” O’Brien concluded before hanging up. When you’re dealing with people, the results can be unpredictable. Some assets are easier to persuade and work with than others. But when you hit a snag, it’s always helpful to have an ace up your sleeve, a backup plan, or just plain backup.
  11. Thinking whatever war whoop she feels like making.
  12. And the razz mattered why?
  13. (following sim 04/22/12) When gathering intelligence - unless you’re flying a UAV at fifty-thousand feet, conducting reconnaissance kilometers from your target, or hacking networks from your couch - more often than not you’re dealing with people. The customs officer who thinks he has you figured out: “Name, please?” The question sounded apathetic - unlike the complacence of a retiree-on-duty, the officer gave the impression that he felt too confident in his presumptions to ask the relevant questions. Ethan considered the officer as the other man glanced at his ODRI. “Ethan Neufeld.” “Proceed,” Senz replied, waving Ethan through without reservations. Naturally, Ethan balked. “That’s it?” “Have a pleasant stay in the Gular District,” Senz smiled. Ethan’s expression narrowed in brief scrutiny. Then fishing out a palm-sized tablet from the pocket of his beige sport coat, he jotted a few notes on the screen with a stylus. “Thank you, Officer--” Ethan intentionally paused, glanced at the officer’s name tag and drawled as he finished writing: “E. Senz.” Bit by bit, the officer grew bemused, and maybe even a little uneasy as he witnessed the customer record details that might come back to haunt him. Giving a flat smile, Ethan slipped the tablet back into his coat and fell into an easy stride from the checkpoint. The kid eating ice cream on the corner who stared as you left customs, or the clerk at the information desk you asked for directions: “Can I help you?” “Hi,” Ethan greeted, still smiling as he withdrew from the attention of a charming woman nursing her cappuccino at a nearby cafe. “Yes, directions to the main Sheriff’s Office?” “Sure,” the clerk answered. “The office is on Promenade 1. Go down the hall here and take a right at the next junction; the stairs and lifts will be another two hundred meters on your left. Take a right out of the lift or stairs--” The clerk stalled and smirked, convinced by a stream of gestures that Ethan would likely get lost within seconds of leaving the desk. “Here, I have a map,” the clerk offered and pulled a pamphlet from the rack. The clerk described and traced a neat path in red ink before passing it to Ethan. “Have a pleasant stay in Gular.” “Thanks.” Ethan smiled and strolled away, winking at a towheaded seven-year-old as he crunched down the last of his ice cream cone. Only after he had entered the stairwell, did Ethan tuck the prop and valuable intel away in his coat pocket. And the Assistant Sheriff of the local law enforcement bureau: “Sheriff O’Brien, Ethan Neufeld,” he greeted as the official took his outstretched hand. “Remington Executive Security.” “Mr. Neufeld,” the Assistant Sheriff replied as they finished shaking hands. “To what do I owe your visit?” “Colton Dantinamede,” Ethan answered simply and received a shocked but predictably dubious look. You won’t get anywhere without dealing with people and odds are someone will remember you. You can’t control who and sometimes they'll remember the things you want them to forget. If they’re the type to hold it against you that can be a bad thing. But being memorable can also have its advantages. The key is knowing how to sell what you want people to remember.
  14. Scooter. For the cerebral chuckle.