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Commander Sonya Gomez was pinned down, crouched behind a boulder, firearm drawn, her heart pounding with anticipation and dread. Her shipmates, engineer Fabian Stevens and deputy security chief Vance Hawkins, had already been gunned down by the enemy. The other members of her team had been captured.
She was itching to peek over the boulder, to see if she could spot any movement among the enemy forces and perhaps fire off a lucky shot or two and scramble to safer territory. But she suppressed the urge and again took in her surroundings, looking anxiously, almost desperately, for any possible escape route that could enable her to turn the tables on her adversaries. But the arid, desolate, sand-engulfed terrain that extended as far as her eyes could see offered no such salvation. If she left her spot behind that boulder, she would be picked off right away, no doubt about it.
This was not how she thought she would be spending her time when she and the U.S.S. da Vinci first arrived at Federation Outpost 32, on the planetoid Joras along the Romulan Neutral Zone. It was supposed to be a simple, routine engineering assignment. But having served as first officer of the da Vinci -- and head of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers team aboard that ship -- for over a year now, she was fast approaching the conclusion that there was no such thing.
Kept life interesting, that was for sure.
She thought briefly about the captured members of her team, Panajiotis Parides of Earth and Brilson Lodine of Argelius II. She barely knew them -- they were technicians stationed at the outpost who seemed like they were capable and would remain coolheaded under stress, which was why they were recruited for this little jaunt. She couldn't believe her judgment could be so off the mark. Her first impressions had almost always served her well in the past.
But now, Gomez was the last member of her team standing. She knew she couldn't stay behind the boulder forever, and under the circumstances, getting help from the da Vinci was out of the question.
Worst-case scenario, she thought to herself.
Then she heard something: the crunching of sand beneath booted feet. Getting closer, closer, coming upon the boulder. She would be found. It was unavoidable. But if she was going to go down, she would go down fighting. Her finger tightened on the trigger of her rifle. She braced herself, took a deep breath, popped up from behind the boulder, and fired.
A small orb blasted out of the rifle, hitting its target square in the chest and exploding on impact -- splashing pink paint all over the top half of the person's body.
Gomez smiled, but only for a split second. Because she realized that the person she'd just blasted was her commanding officer, Captain David Gold. And he hadn't even been taking part in the game.
Oh God, Gomez thought. Now would be a good time for the ground to swallow me up whole.
But no such luck. She remained there, standing before her pink-headed captain.
"Gomez," Gold began in a neutral voice, maintaining his composure -- outwardly, at least -- as pink paint dripped from his hair, nose, and chin. "I think blue is more my color."
Gomez stepped around the boulder and approached him. "Captain, I am so sorry."
He didn't say another word. His eyes alone asked the question.
"We were playing war games," she explained. "With splatter guns."
He remained silent. His eyes told her to go on.
"We were getting bored, sitting around waiting for the delivery ship to show up with the equipment for this project. It's three days late, after all. We understand -- engine trouble. But until they arrive, there's really nothing for us to do, so since we're all off duty until the supplies come, some of us thought it would be fun -- and beneficial -- to come out here and put ourselves in a combat situation. I mean, we are bordering the Neutral Zone. You never know when the Romulans might start acting up again, especially with a new praetor. So it was a way to keep us on our toes."
Gold remained silent. Gomez kept going.
"We established a worst-case scenario -- da Vinci presumed destroyed, total loss of communications capability. We wanted to make it a real challenge. Stevens, Hawkins, and me on one team, Corsi, Abramowitz, and Tev on the other. Even some of the outpost personnel joined in -- they're really good sports, very friendly."
She broke into a very strained smile, trying desperately to lighten the mood.
"So, uh, what was it you needed me for, Captain?" she asked.
Gold finally spoke again. "Before you shot me? Nothing. I was off duty, too, so I decided to get some fresh air. Then I got a call from the da Vinci. It seems the supply ship has finally arrived. I was heading back to the outpost and this was the shortest route. And the messiest, it seems."
The captain's entire tone was calm and matter-of-fact. Gomez winced. Oh, he's not going to let me live this down for a long time.
"We're supposed to meet with the crew of the supply ship in one hour," he told her. "You, me, Corsi, Stevens, Tev, and Soloman. Main conference room at the outpost. I'm going back to the ship to take a shower and change my uniform."
He began to walk away from the boulder, passing Gomez and ascending the steep hill beyond. On the other side of that hill, in a valley both deep and wide, sat the Federation outpost -- a bustling oasis of civilization and technology on an otherwise unremarkable world.
As Gold reached the top of the hill, he turned back to Gomez. She could see a devilish smirk under the drying paint on his face. "Oh, and to send a message to Captain Picard on the Enterprise and let him know it finally happened," he added.
"Do you have to?" she asked ruefully.
"Oh yes," he told her firmly, and then he turned again and kept walking.
Suddenly, da Vinci security chief Domenica Corsi came up alongside her, having emerged from wherever she had been hiding during the game. Corsi was followed by the other da Vinci crew members -- Stevens, Hawkins, cultural specialist Carol Abramowitz, and the Tellarite second officer, Mor glasch Tev. The four members of the Outpost 32 personnel who had joined them for the excursion -- Parides, Lodine, and a man and a woman whose names Gomez had, regrettably, forgotten -- stood off to the side, huddled together and talking among themselves.
"That conversation couldn't have been comfortable," Corsi said.
"Nope," Gomez replied simply.
"I'll bet he tells Picard," Stevens offered, the slightest trace of amusement in his voice.
"He will," Gomez said flatly. She did not relish -- in fact, she downright dreaded -- her current captain informing her first captain about this incident.
"Wow," Stevens continued, unable to resist ribbing her. "First you spill hot chocolate all over Picard and now you blast paint all over Gold! You'd better hope you never serve under Admiral Jellico -- you'll end up knocking him into a swimming pool or something and getting busted back down to ensign!"
"Thanks. Your support is greatly appreciated," Gomez replied with a tight, humorless grin, trying her best to just let it slide off her back.
Silently, she said to herself, What was I saying before about worst-case scenario?
An hour later, Captain Gold was in Outpost 32's main conference room, dressed in a new, clean uniform and fairly confident that he'd managed to get all of the pink paint out of his thinning hair. The crew members he had requested earlier were seated at the long conference table. The da Vinci's Bynar computer specialist, Soloman, had beamed down from the ship just moments before to join them.
Gold stood by the head of the table and conversed with Eugene Palmer, the outpost's young human commander. Palmer, in his early thirties with wavy brown hair and eyes to match, looked far younger than his years and exuded enthusiasm and confidence.
"I'm glad to see this project finally move forward," he told Gold.
"Well, I know the R & D phase took longer than was expected," Gold replied. "Everyone involved wanted to be absolutely sure all this new sensor and communications equipment was going to work right."
Palmer nodded. "I agree with that. We have to make sure the Romulans don't try anything sneaky. Sure, we've been allies since the Dominion War, but who knows how long that'll last, especially with Praetor Neral dead. If they start sneaking into Federation space using cloaked vessels, we need this new equipment to let us know about it."
Suddenly, the door to the conference room slid open and two crew members of the delivery ship entered. Their casual, stained, well-worn work outfits were in sharp contrast with the crisp, clean uniforms worn by the Starfleet personnel. The first to enter, a somewhat short, stocky, middle-aged human with thick dark hair, stubble, and the bushiest eyebrows Gold had ever seen, introduced himself with a smile.
"Captain Gavin Moon," he said as he shook hands with the Starfleet captain and the outpost commander. Nodding toward his companion -- a tall, lumpy-fleshed Arcturian male -- Moon continued, "My first mate, Adjani...uh, well, I'm afraid I still can't pronounce his last name. I'm only human, after all."
"Adjani is fine," the Arcturian said with a slight smirk, bowing his head.
"Pleasure to meet you both," Gold said. Then he turned to Palmer. "Commander Palmer, shall we get down to business?"
"It's really your meeting, Captain," Palmer replied amiably. "You have the floor."
Palmer took his seat at the table. Gold did the same and began the meeting.
"We're a little behind schedule, as I'm sure you know," he told Moon, trying not to come across as accusing.
"Yes, and my sincerest apologies, Captain," Moon replied as he and his first mate sat down. "Clearly, our engines are in greater need of an overhaul than we thought. I hope we didn't inconvenience you too much."
Gold smirked. "Some of us made more productive use of our time than others." He glanced over at Gomez, who immediately blushed and, amazingly, willed it away almost instantly. "But no, we weren't overly inconvenienced. So let's talk about this project."
Moon held up his hand. "We should probably wait for the boss. Be here in just a minute. Finishing up some paperwork."
"The boss?" Gold replied with surprise.
At that, the door to the conference room slid open again and in walked a beautiful, regal-looking, older human woman. She carried a metallic briefcase and was wearing a tight-fitting dark green dress with a high-backed white collar that descended down the front and formed a V just above her ample bosom. Her hair, jet-black with streaks of silver, was long and lustrous, flowing across her shoulders.
"Patrice," Gold said, breaking into a smile. He rose from his chair and walked over to the woman. Damn, he thought. How come I keep getting older and she doesn't? She held out her hand and he took it in both of his and squeezed gently. He escorted her over to the table, where Palmer stood and greeted her formally.
"I'm sure you remember Patrice Bennett," Captain Gold said to his crew members. Indeed, they had met her on the planet Vemlar several months earlier, where she helped resolve a bit of business involving a particularly odious tycoon named Portlyn, whose efforts to cover up a sinister real estate scheme included an attempt to destroy the da Vinci and everyone aboard.
Gomez, Corsi, Stevens, Tev, and Soloman nodded and extended greetings to the woman, whom Gold had once described to them as "one of the sharpest, shrewdest, most successful business leaders in the Alpha Quadrant." He had also acknowledged that they had been romantically involved many years ago, well before Gold met the woman who became his wife.
Gold and Patrice took their seats, and the captain asked, "So what brings you out here?"
"Well, this isn't just any project," she began. "It's a big deal, helping the Federation develop all this new equipment for its outposts along the Neutral Zone. I was honored when my tech company was asked to work on it, and I wanted to be on hand to make sure everything went smoothly."
Gold was satisfied with that explanation, but, looking into Patrice's eyes, he could tell there was something more, something she was leaving unsaid. He wondered about it for a brief moment and then moved on.
Addressing everyone in the room, he said, "Our assignment is fairly straightforward. Now that Captain Moon has arrived with all this new sensor and communications equipment, it's up to us to install it and make sure it works perfectly -- and do all this without attracting the unwanted attention of our Romulan neighbors." He added, "I'm sure I don't have to remind you all that this project is classified, so we're all under orders not to discuss it with anyone who isn't directly involved. Any questions?"
There were none.
Gold continued. "Gomez, you'll of course be overseeing the installation process. Corsi, you and your security team are to make sure that no unauthorized personnel gain access to the new equipment."
"Understood, sir," Corsi replied.
"All right, then," Gold told everyone in the room. "Let's get to work. Dismissed."
Everyone began to file out of the conference room, though Gold remained behind. He believed that he had hid it well throughout the meeting, but the fact was, he was feeling anxious, impatient, and downright annoyed. The incident with Gomez and the splatter gun was hardly the reason. Gomez didn't know that, though, and Gold knew she had to be wondering where she stood with him. At that moment, he was not really in the mood to clear the air. He would get around to it eventually. For now, he was too much inside his own head.
But he snapped out of his private musings when he noticed that Patrice Bennett had also remained behind. She was standing near the door, looking curiously at him.
"Just collecting my thoughts," he explained with a chuckle.
"I've never really gotten a chance to see you at work," she told him with a smile. "You and your crew make a great team."
"Thanks. We have been through hell -- and worse -- together. But the bottom line is, they're a damn good crew."
"They have a damn good captain," she told him.
He smiled briefly. "Thanks again."
"It's been a long time -- far longer than I'd like to admit -- but I know that look," she told him. "Something's bothering you."
He looked at her sheepishly. He couldn't deny it. So he didn't try.
"Join me for dinner this evening, let's talk about it," she said.
"Oh, it's nothing, Patrice, don't worry about it."
"Okay." She shrugged cheerfully. "Join me for dinner anyway. We never did get a chance to catch up with each other, reminisce about old times -- and you promised we would when we saw each other at Vemlar!"
"You're right," he conceded. "Okay, dinner it is."
"Great," she said enthusiastically. "My personal chef came with me. Beam over to my ship at seven tonight -- that's what, nineteen thousand hours Starfleet time, right?"
"Nineteen hundred, actually," he said with a grin.
"Whatever." She laughed. "See you then!" She waved and exited the room.
Gold was grateful to have the diversion. But the thing that was troubling him had not gone away, nor would it.
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