Return to Fearful Symmetry Chapter Four

Fearful Symmetry

Author: CaptMurdock
Rating: PG-13. Warnings for violence and some spicy talk.
Disclaimer: The characters of Willow Rosenberg, Tara Maclay, Charles Gunn or the reasonable facsimilies that I employ in this story, are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy productions. The setting for the story is within the universe of Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry and owned by Paramount Pictures, Inc. No infringement of copyright is intended. The other characters are the creation of either myself or several colleagues who don't care what I do with them. The song in this chapter is copyrighted to Beth Slater Whitson.

Agarashima, Japan, Earth
The past

After seven years of living in the House of Onada, the boy felt it was time to leave.

A large part of this desire was the acceptance letter from Starfleet Academy. He knew Shikiku disapproved, but this was going to be the embodiment of his dream to be a starship pilot, not the destiny he felt she was forcing onto him. He had passed the preliminary exams that he had managed to take on the sly...not easy, considering how busy Obuchan kept him.

Still, the thought of leaving the house, even to go merely across the planet to San Francisco, had been daunting, until he had received the communiqué from his parents...and his brother.

The news that he had a three-year old brother was, to say the least, a shock, given his feelings of abandonment that he had thought he buried long ago. First they leave me behind, he mused bitterly, now they've replaced me!

"You cannot run away from your life, Anjin-san," his grandmother admonished him as he was packing his articles. "Remember, no matter where you go-"

"There I am?"

The old woman's expression momentarily darkened as she considered an angry reply, then twisted in confusion as she considered his words. "That's one way to put it, yes. Someday, however, you are going to have come to terms...not only with your parents, but with yourself. With your destiny."

"And did you ever consider," he countered angrily, "that this...going to Starfleet the way I do that?"

She was silent for a long time after that. Finally, when he was nearly done packing, she said in a resigned tone, "You must do as you think best," and left his room. It took him a minute to figure you that this was her way of saying good-bye.

Later, as he made his formal farewells to the family elders (and the informal handshakes and hugs with the younger members of the household) in the courtyard of the great house, he saw his grandmother, the Master of Onada, standing in the doorway of the house, half in shadow. Marshalling his inner strength, he expressed a thought towards her: I will always remember, Grandmother.

Even as he sensed the thoughtcast shatter against her icy resolve, he could feel her secret pride in him, that he had learned so much in so few years.

Then she was gone. And, then, so was he. It was ten years before he went to see her again...and that was when all the trouble truly started.

Seriffe-sen, Adigeon Prime
The present

The Master of Onada walked through the alleyways and roofed arcades of Seriffe-sen, Adigeon Prime's capital city. He choose seemingly random routes that would have discouraged any potential casual muggers and shaken any active pursuit. His eidetic memory, honed through long years of meditation and practice, served him well in preventing him from getting lost.

At a casual glance, the city was impressive, bordering on breathtaking. Tall skyscrapers were interspersed with elevated walkways and public-transit tubes. The architecture was a mish-mash of styles from several worlds, upswept Rigellian inverted pyramids sharing the skyline with Zebelian rococo.

The old man remembered an old two-dee motion picture, one that Cassius had shown him years before. The story took place in an imaginary metropolis, where immense structures, like ancient ziggurants, dominated a skyline where rain constantly fell. The light from garish advertisements reflected off the rain and the flying cars that floated through it. Down below, ground-dwelling workers scuttled in and between the buildings like rats.

Cassius had called this form of entertainment "psi-fie," whatever that was. It was certainly bleak. The story itself was somewhat interesting, regarding a police officer who had to hunt down artificial humans, ironic because the man seemed hardly human himself.

While Seriffe-sen was certainly not as bleak or as filthy as that fictional city, there was an undercurrent of malice afoot.

The old man knew that the direct approach he used on Farius Prime would not do least not yet. He spent much time in one local tavern or another, his sharp ears and lip-reading eyes picking up the odd tidbit of information that might lead him to Kaiser Muldoon, or to the illegal genetic engineering that Muldoon was heading.

He divided the remainder of his time between meditating in his modest room at a low-key hotel and checking out the spaceport and cargo docks. He was bemused by the motley assortment of ships that passed through.

He did, however, find the trio of young people who had arrived in what was obviously a converted cargo shuttle interesting. The tall, dark-skinned man was obviously a man of keen instincts, keeping unobtrusively aware of his surroundings at all times. The old man knew of the weapon that this man carried because he himself was aware of it, his body language subtly changing to accommodate the quickest possible access.

The dark street warrior's two companions were equally intriguing. The curvy blonde woman seemed almost too fragile to be in such rough surroundings, but here again, the Master of Onada could sense that she was a much tougher cookie than she usually let on. Peering at her from his vantage point between piles of cargo containers, about twenty meters away, the Master could see that she was a quiet beauty, the kind that often required a second glance to see the diamond in the rough...

Abruptly, in the middle of helping out with the manifest, the blonde straightened, then looked in the Master's direction. A tenth of a second beforehand, however, he had already ducked back into the shadows, having picked up the mental wave emanating from her powerful mind. An empath, he thought, even as he employed mental disciplines to shield himself from her sense. Well well well. He stilled any further thoughts, just in case she could pick up anything more.

Cautiously, a millimeter at a time, he creep back to his previous viewpoint. She had apparently decided that she had been wrong; she was already back at her task.

The third "cargo hauler" was another young woman, who stayed mostly in the background where the old man could not get a good look at her. He could tell only that she was small and slim, with red hair, and reminded him strongly of...

The old man straightened, then ducked back once again. Working his way out of the cargo facility, the old man headed back to his hotel, feeling the need to calm himself

This was not the time to be thinking of one whom time had taken from him, long ago.

"I just had the feeling that someone was watching us."

Gunn nodded sagely as Tara told him and Willow about the brief empathic flash she had had while they were unloading the Led Zeppelin earlier this evening. They were in their room at the "transients' hotel" near the spaceport, provided for crewmembers of space vessels passing through the system.

"I'm so knowin' we were being watched," the chief petty officer replied, doffing his coat after checking out the room the three of them had been given. Truly, it was not a luxury suite on Risa, having only the basic amenities: bed, deskscreen, closet, refresher with autovalet ("No replicator? What about room service?" Willow pouted, before seeing the derisive looks from both of her companions.) and a reclining chair.

"You got that feeling, too?"

"'Feeling', nothin'. Everybody was scoping us out from the time we landed. Trust me, sirs, we've got the wretched hive here, complete with scum and villainy.

Willow and Tara exchanged glances at this. Neither of them thought that Seriffe-sen looked particularly threatening, as cities on non-Federation worlds go, but Gunn was far more experienced as an urban street warrior; they trusted his judgment on this. The two women also raised an eyebrow at their close accommodations. "Maybe we can get a separate room for you, Chief. I mean, we're getting enough credit for our cargo -"

"Unh-unh!" Then, remembering himself, the chief petty addressed his two superiors in a far more respectful tone. "I mean, with due respect, sirs, that's not a tactically-viable option. The captain assigned me to watch your backs. I can't do that if I'm down the hall."

Willow was about to retort that she and Tara were more than capable of taking care of themselves when the counselor replied, "You're right." She turned to Willow, cutting off the half-formed protest. "He's right."

Gunn had the good grace not to look smug, but he did affect a slightly vindicated air as he said, "We should probably hit the local hot spots once tonight before we sack out."

"No." This time, Tara had to disagree. "We've had a long trip and we're all tired from dealing with the cargo and stuff. We need rest...and that means you, too, Charles," she added as he appeared to counter her argument. "Consider it an order, mister," she concluded in her best Lieutenant Counselor voice.

"Yes, ma'm." In truth, Gunn felt too tired to really put up a fight on this issue. Still... "I do think one of us should stay up at all times, though. I don't trust the lock on that door. Electronic looks can be overridden from the outside." He pointed to the door of their room, a single slider with inset bevels, common on numerous worlds inside and outside the Federation. Its lock, to both Gunn's and Willow's eye, did nothing to make the Master Treasury Vault on Ferenginar seem jealous.

Tara's dark blonde brows furrowed for a second. Then, she stepped into the refresher. Willow and Gunn traded bemused gazes, especially as a couple of wrenching sounds came out into the room. Willow was about to enquire when Tara emerged from the refresher, carrying the towel rod that had been attached to the wall in there. Adjusting the length of the rod carefully, Tara wedged it tightly between the inset of the door and the interior of the doorframe, rendering it virtually impossible for anyone to go through the door quickly, short of using explosives.

"Not bad," Willow said, taking out her tricorder and inputting commands on it. "I'm setting up a warning system, in case anybody tries to beam in here - or beam us out. This'll detect any targeting scanners and shriek like the devil just got a hotfoot."

Setting down their various ordnance to be recharged by induction, the three prepared for sleep. Gunn doffed his outer coat, removed his concealed holster, and set his phaser within reach of the reclining chair. Settling himself down, he was asleep less than five minutes later.

The two officers looked quizzically at him; Willow mouthed to Tara Is he really asleep? Tara shrugged, then motioned to the bed. Nodding, Willow removed her jacket and shoes.

Tara did likewise, then reclined on the bed, on top of the covers; by mutual silent agreement, the two of them decided this would be the best way to be ready for any possible occurrence. Tara slid over to leave room for Willow to lie next to her.

For a minute, neither moved or said a word. Willow was feeling a knot of tension in her stomach; this was the first time she had been really alone with Tara since their altercation on the Led Zeppelin. Then she felt light yet strong fingers slowly intertwine with her own, and felt her tummy troubles melt away. She turned to her left, and saw a beautiful smile mirroring her own. "I wish..." she began, whispering to Tara.

"Shhh." Tara raised up slightly to look at Gunn in the recliner, a couple of meters away. She laid back and whispered, "Close your eyes and concentrate."

"On what?"

"Shhh! Um, I dunno...o-on me."

Shrugging internally, Willow did as instructed. It was actually harder than she thought to clear her mind of extraneous musings. She conjured an image in her head of Tara. She imagined golden strands of hair falling through her fingers, the scent of vanilla clinging after. The whisper of silk as it fell away from her skin, freeing the tiniest whiff of sweat. Rounded shoulders gave way to lean, well-toned arms, to clever fingers. The protrusion of collarbone led to wonderfully rounded delights, tapering down to a flat stomach, which in turn led down to...

Now you're getting it.

Willow was so surprised to hear Tara's voice in her head that her eyes opened by reflex. She glanced quickly at her girlfriend. Tara's eye were still closed, her breathing deep and regular. Hurriedly, trying not to break the spell, so to speak, she lay back and closed her eyes again. Tara...can you read me?

Willow...this isn't a subspace comlink.

Oh. Well, this is pretty cool.

I know, Tara answered. Her mental "smile" illuminated Willow's mind. I suspected it might get easier for us to communicate telepathically, over time. It does take a certain amount of mental discipline to do this.

Are you saying I'm undisciplined? do tend to have several simultaneous tracks of thought running through your head at any given moment. Sometimes, I'm glad not to be a full telepath...I think you'd drive me nuts.

Yeah, me and my dangerous brain. Is this something anybody could do with you, I mean, not that I want anybody else sleeping with...wait, that's getting possessive and jealous again, I just meant, can other people talk mind-to-mind with you if they concentrate hard enough?

Not really, Tara replied, marshalling her thoughts before Willow could go on yet another mental tangent. Most people don't have the kind of discipline to communicate telepathically, unless they have a high esper potential...which, by the way, you do.

Me? I mean, I do?

It's in your file, sweetie. All sort of things are in your file. That thought definitely had an amused "flavor." Similarly, Tara could feel the mental raised eyebrow from Willow.

The two lay in a companionable silence, verbal and mental, until Willow "spoke." Tara...I'm sorry we had that fight.

As attuned as they currently were, Tara's answer surprised Willow. I'm not., actually. Before Willow could reply, she pressed on. I mean, yes, I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings, and I know you feel the same, but...I think we, you and I, we need to tell each other when something' Relationships take a lot of work, once you get out of the initial stages...oh, God, now I'm sounding like Counselor Woman...

That's okay, you put up with Science Gal often enough...You're right. I just...don't like fighting with you. Makes my stomach all achey...

Mine too. But I want us to be together a long time, and if that means we have fight out our problems before we go to bed, then...

...we stay up and fight all night? Okay, but only as long as we have the required intense reconciliation afterward.

Tara giggled out loud at that, an odd sound for anyone who would have happened to be listening. Deal. Ohhhh, now I really wish we had our own accommodations...

Settling down into a peaceful, if frustrated, mental silence, Willow and Tara fell asleep.

"So, when do we get to kill somebody?"

Muldoon's blonde assistant rolled her eyes at Blood William, who sprawled on a nearby couch in Muldoon's office. Cilla, his dark-haired, chillingly lovely companion, gave the thin, platinum-haired youth the indulgent smile of a mother favoring a beloved child.

Near the transparent-aluminum window, a taller, broader man with dark hair turned away from the panoramic view of Seriffe-sen and snorted. "Y'know, William ... you just don't understand. There is an art to this sort of operation. It must be planned, examined...savored. You approach it with equal parts of intellect and passion. Intellect, because without it, we're animals; passion, because without that... we're dead."

The young man with the platinum-blonde bush cut smirked in derision. "Poofter!" he snarled in an exaggerated twang. "Seraph, you wanna just cut to the chase and wear that gingham dress now?"

Seraph turned, resplendent in his impeccably-cut suit of Tholian silk, and strode towards the other man with blood, so to speak, in his eye. Blood William bolted up from the couch and met him halfway, stopping just short of piling right on him.

Cilla giggled and clapped, the dark temptress sliding neatly into pre-adolescent Bad Seed. "Our Boys are going to fi-ight," she sang.

The blonde moved toward the prospective combatants. "Guys, whip 'em out later, the Boss is coming..."

In a perfect speak-of-the-devil gag, Kaiser Muldoon walked into the office at that very moment. Seraph and Blood William both tried to hide guilty-schoolboy-caught-by-the-headmaster looks, not entirely successfully. Muldoon smiled at the two of them, knowing perfectly well was about to transpire. "Gentleman...democracy in action, I see?" Without giving any of his minions a chance to respond, he continued, smile vanishing instantly. "Too bad this isn't a democracy."

Blood William, naturally, was the first one to recover his bravado. "So when do we get to pounce on the Starfleet geeks, chief?"

"Their ship arrives in orbit early tomorrow morning," Muldoon replied easily. "They've already contacted the governor's office for a audience," he glanced over at the blonde beauty, who smirked back, "with His Eminence."

"Are we capturing the landing party then, or later?" Seraph inquired.

"Oh, not immediately. I need to have time to do some research on the crew of the ship, see if there is any raw material worth salvaging. Starfleet will probably try to take the diplomatic approach, which is fine by me - let them waste all the time they want." He turned toward the blonde woman again. "I'll need you to keep an ear tuned towards those proceedings, dear."

"Oh. Joy."

"I knew you'd like it. Now, Seraph, Blood William: I want you to get your strike teams ready. In a day or two after the ship arrives, we'll take it by force."

Seraph looked a little doubtful. "Are you so sure we can breach their defenses? That's a Federation starship, y'know."

Muldoon smiled again.. "Oh yes. And the irony is, the starship itself will make it all possible."

The laughter that resounded in the office seemed to promise pain and destruction.

"Captain's Log, Stardate 50277.4: The Hannibal has arrived at Adigeon Prime. Commander Faraday is beaming down with Dr. Devereaux and Security Chief Thelvran for a meeting with Governor Telzar-Yali ."

"I really don't see what business the Federation has with anything that happens on this planet," Telzar-Yali muttered with a frown, an odd look for a normally placid Grazerite. "After all, Adigeon Prime is not a Federation member..."

"I'm aware of that, Governor," Faraday replied easily, sitting ramrod-straight in her chair facing Telzar-Yali across his desk, while Thelvran stood parade-rest off her right and Devereaux slouched in his chair to her left. His relaxed demeanor was in conscious counterpoint to Faraday's business-like manner, concealing his shrewd constant evaluation of the governor's emotional state.

Thelvran, meanwhile, occasionally glanced at various knick-knacks, gathered from dozens of worlds, that adorned the many shelves. None of the artifacts interested him, which was just as well as he needed to keep watch on both the ornate double doors that led to the governor's office and the window that led in the view of the capital city. He did not think any potential threat would be coming through the window, but that did not keep the Andorian from being ready for the improbable.

"We don't wish to be seen as throwing our weight around," Faraday continued. "After all, our highest law is based upon the principle of self-determination for all sentient beings. Playing God is not our way."

"And yet, you're here to tell me, and the people that I represent, how to do business," Tezlar-Yali replied, then added diffidently, "I mean...well, more than that, you are...well, I don't even know that there is genetic engineering being performed on this planet. And even if there is - was - it's not as if we are bound by Federation law...after all -"

"-you're not members of the Federation, yes, I know," Faraday interjected testily, the cat-and-mouse exercise wearing her patience a bit.

Devereaux struggled to hide a smirk at the first officer's pique, while keeping a close watch on Tezlar-Yali. While he was not an empath like his assistant counselor, Devereaux could usually gain a keen insight into someone's state of mind fairly quickly.

"Nevertheless," Faraday continued, "genetic engineering, specifically on the scale that we've been discussing, has been outlawed by the Setlik III conference and the Khitomer Accords..."

"...which, again, we have never been signatories," Tezlar-Yali interrupted, his own calm manner starting to fray. After a beat, during which he seemed to visibly gather himself, the governor continued, "Commander, I'm at a loss to understand why you are so concerned with business conducted on our planet."

"This 'business', Governor, involves some of the most dangerous technology developed since atomic fission. On my homeworld, almost four centuries ago, a group of scientists, with the best of intentions, began a experiment to improve the human genome. They relied mostly on selective breeding to start with, as genetics was then in its infancy. The 'results' of this experiment led to the bloodiest war in our history up to that point -"

"Yes, your so-called 'Eugenics Wars,'" the governor said, interrupting her yet again and nearly causing her to grind her teeth. "A regrettable outcome, but your species obviously survived the experience. One would hope, Commander, that a culture as enlightened as yours would not stoop to a sort of...what would be the phrase...scientific Luddism?"

Exhaling in brief exasperation, Faraday nodded. "Yes, you have a point, Governor. However, my people were not the only ones to ban genetic engineering, except along very specific guidelines. The Vulcans, Andorians, Klingons, even the Romulans decided that the risks of trying to create superbeings outweighed any possible benefits.

"The most unfortunate fact about genetic engineering," Faraday continued, "is that once you have bred a line of enhanced individuals, more can made by the simple act of procreation. Unlike tricobalt explosives, which usually don't make more of themselves unaided, genetic 'augments' can and probably will make little augments that will grow up and more even more augments, and so on and so on. Each one capable of creating horrific weapons out of new technologies, assuming of course their intellect is augmented as well as their physicality."

"And it's not as if this problem is going to concern itself with lines on a starmap," Devereaux added, speaking up for the first time since introductions. "Weapons of any kind have a way of slipping from one planet to another, regardless of border patrols and customs inspections. Can you imagine trying to determine if a passenger on a transport ship is genetically engineered? Most augmentation is too subtle to detect by tricorder, unless you know exactly what to look for, and the thought of subjecting untold millions of travelers to genetic scans would put a serious cramp on your tourist trade."

The Grazerite's sarcastic expression would have appeared comical in less serious circumstances. " you're scaring me."

"Not a decent slice of pizza on the entire planet," Willow groused. "Now I know this place is evil." She, Tara and Gunn sat in one of the many bars that dotted Adigeon Prime's capitol city, simultaneously resting after several hours of searching for signs of an illicit medical facility and trolling for potential verbal clues to be hopefully dropped by one of the planet's delinquent element. Gunn was kitted out in his street-dog togs, long overcoat and concealed phaser holster; the two female officers, also in mufti, carried their small totes, now stashed under the table where the three of them sat nursing overpriced drinks.

So far, their search had turned up very little. Discrete tricorder scans of the various (well-equipped) medical facilities failed to produce any sign of the equipment or bio-substances Willow knew to be required for extensive genetic manipulation. Gunn had advanced the theory that said items were merely cleverly disguised amongst the standard biocomps and diagnostic gear; Willow, in great and nauseating detail, had shot that idea down.

"We've hardly combed the entire planet, sweetie," Tara countered gently. "We might find a pizzeria yet."

"I'm beginning to think we'll find a pizzeria before we find what the captain sent us to find," Gunn muttered.

Tara had made some inquiries at the various facilities, using the assumed identities backed up by Devereaux's counterfeited ident-cards...

("'Jessie'? 'Cheyenne?' Who came up with these tags?" Gunn asked in private.

"Jesse was a friend of mine, back on Centaurus," Willow answered primly.

"Cheyenne was the first horse I ever rode," Tara added, a little shyly.)

...but nobody there seemed to be deliberately concealing any criminal activities, at least according to her professional observations and her empathic senses. All the same, she felt a disturbing pall over the area, like a haze preceding a thunderstorm.

Gunn ventured the opinion that information could be found at one of the local watering holes. Willow had cheekily countered that all the chief petty officer was really interested was a nice glass of Bottled Lightning, but overall concurred that somebody, especially in a state of inebriation, might let a juicy tidbit slip. Willow had to admit it: Gunn was a lot more adept at the Urban Gumshoe routine than herself for Tara.

Still, the trio had not really had much luck with this line of inquiry; nobody had really contributed any answers, useful or otherwise, to their tentative probing.

"Oh, there's something going on here, all right," Gunn had muttered, in response to Tara's half-hearted musing that Starfleet might have been mistaken about the genetic engineering. "If there were nothing to it, people would be spouting all kinds of rumors and myths and 'this happened to a friend of a friend o'mine. ' We haven't heard anything because people have been told not to talk."

Willow nodded sagely. Tara considered their options as the three of them sat at their table, keeping an eye on the area near the bar, populated with an assortment of beings from several dozen worlds throughout the quadrant. Some of these were no doubt independent traders, such as the ersatz crew of the Led Zeppelin pretended to be, just passing through, but many were obviously local barflies. Some of these locals might just give the undercover Starfleeters a hint in the right direction, but only if approached just right...

"Maybe we're going about this all wrong," Tara decided. "Not to spoil your thesis, Chief, but people usually love to talk. You just have to know how to ask."

"Absolutely," Willow agreed. She reached down to grab the small tote on the floor under the table near her feet. "I think it's time for 'Plan B'." She smiled at Tara conspiratorially.

The blonde appeared momentarily taken aback, then seemed to find resolve...along with a certain whimsy. Tara retrieved her bag, took a deep breath, and returned Willow's smile with one of her own. "Okay. Hold the fort, Gunn. We'll be back in a few."

Gunn was feeling more left behind by the second. "Wait a-- Where are you going?"

"We're just going to the ladies' room," Willow replied, in a tone that told the chief petty officer, more than words would have conveyed, that they were not going to powder their respective noses. "We'll be right back."

Gunn exhaled in exasperation as the two walked off and left him to fend for himself. He picked up and drank the local rotgut, feeling he was going to need to head off pain at some point. The captain and Thelvran both had warned him that these two had a knack for trouble.

Actually, they're not bad as officers go, he mused as he cast his glance back over the crowd in the bar. The two lieutenants had treated him pretty much an equal, and had even deferred to him on matters of security. Plus, they were pretty friendly on a personal level as well. Well, okay, Willow tended to give him the Evil Eye every time he so much as glanced at Tara...

He had been having difficulty for weeks acknowledging his attraction to the blonde counselor. The fact that Gunn knew she was gay, and so in love with Willow that it bordered on the nauseating, perversely made her even more desirable...not that he seriously considered making a play. After all, she was an officer. It was not The Done Thing, in Gunn's opinion.

Even as his musings cascaded through his brain, he kept scoping the bar for potential trouble, and was almost disappointed when none seemed to present itself. Of course, any potential troublemakers would be tripping over the power drinkers and the alien floozies attempting to sell their wares to same. Gunn grimaced. Some of these women may have been humanoid, but one could still not be sure where they had been in the recent past. Medical technology aside, one could catch some interesting social diseases out here on the fringes of civilized space. I'd probably grow a third a place I really don't want to grow one...

Two sets of high-heeled shoes walked behind him, heading towards the bar area. Gunn, inwardly tensed for trouble but outwardly relaxed, resisted the urge to turn to see who was walking behind him. The footsteps went past him without stopping, enabling the chief officer to observe, out of the corner of his eye, two sets of stocking-clads, topped with very short black miniskirts.

And what do we have here? Gunn thought, feeling a smile rising unbidden. Keeping his head still, he continued to observe the new arrivals surreptitiously, an old and beloved game. He watched as they sauntered towards the barflies, who by the vocalizations Gunn was picking up, approved heartily. Another sidewise glance gave him a view of two behinds, one slim, the other broader but still very enticing, especially in motion. Woah...does a burger come with that shake? Gunn turned back to his drink and drained it. Magically, it actually tasted better.

Turning back to his new discoveries, angling his gaze a fraction more in that direction, he saw that the two women were wearing slightly different tops: the slimmer one wore a black leather "tube top," underneath a black open blouse; while her companion had a white blouse open over a black bustier. The girl in black showed a nice stretch of flat abdomen, while the one in the bustier - Have mer-cay! Gunn thought as he peeked at the cleavage presented there. And they say there's no heaven!

Judging by the murmurs of approval from the males (and some of the females) at the bar, Gunn was by far not the only fan these two young ladies had. Gunn decided there was no percentage in pretending that he had not noticed the commotion the two were drawing, so he stood up and prepared to sally forth. Maybe I should introduce them to Tara and Willow-

As soon as he took his first full look at the new arrivals, the thought was driven from his head with the force of a roundhouse kick. "Oh, hell no," he muttered, sitting back down as he felt the strength go out of his legs.

In the interim since they had left Gunn at the table, Tara and Willow had changed into the sexy outfits they had brought with them from the Hannibal and put on makeup. A lot of makeup. With the heavy eyeshadow, blush and lipstick they had put on, Willow and Tara looked like, as Thelvran would have put it, "common th'leruf'regs on payday."

His sense of duty reasserted itself as he realized the two of them might be in over their heads. Gunn forced himself on his feet and walked as unobtrusively as he could to the bar. He tried to make eye contact with Willow, to give her a what-the-hell-you-think-you're-doing-with-all-due-respect-ma'm look. The science officer smiled cheekily at him and, perfectly in character, pinched his cheek. "Hey, cutie." Tara's stifled giggle was all Gunn needed to know just who was running this particular show, so he faded back to the outer edge of the group.

Over the next several hours, while getting plied with drink and offers of intimate and illicit liaisons, the two ladies managed to ask enough questions of their admirers to give them leads of where to look next on their mission. Gunn, listening as discreetly as he could, became a little concerned when one individual, a Bajoran who had the hardened look of an asteroid miner, demanded, "How come you're asking us all these questions?"

Tara, without missing a beat, replied coyly, "We just find you interesting, is all."

Gunn smiled at that. This just might work, he thought, ordering himself another drink.

In the meantime, Faraday was getting absolutely nowhere with Governor Tezlar-Yali. A glance at Devereaux earned her a minute shrug from the counselor. This was getting nowhere.

A chime sounded in the office; the governor called out, "Come!" A young blonde woman stepped in through the door. She wore a red dress a shade skimpy for office personnel, Faraday thought. Frankly, if her oldest son had brought this specimen home for tea, said specimen would deflected back out the door on the point of Faraday's boot.

"You asked me to tell you when the Argelian trade mission arrived...sir," she added, a trifle belatedly. Devereaux studied Tezlar-Yali's body language; while he could not gauge emotional states nearly as accurately as Tara or any other empathy, he could definitely tell the Grazerite was positively tense.

"Yes, thank you. Commander, gentlemen, I'm afraid we need to cut this meeting short," the governor said, rising from his chair. Faraday and Devereaux both rose. The counselor gave a polite smile to the young woman, who returned it with a steely gaze. Faraday, for her part, gave her a look that would have cracked rhodinium alloy before making a polite leave-taking of the governor, gathering Thelvran by eye and walking out of the office.

"What did you make of that?" Devereaux asked conversationally as the three Starfleet officers walked down the corridors of the administration complex.

Faraday huffed. "She's not nearly as hot as she thinks she is."

Thelvran cleared his throat as Devereaux chuckled. "I think what Dr. Devereaux meant, Commander -"

"I know what he meant, Lieutenant. The governor was shoveling the waste products on us with both hands - but did you see his reaction when she came in?"

The older man nodded. "There's a lot more going on here than we think. And we already think there's major crap going down on this planet."

Faraday nodded. "I think I'll let the captain take a whack at Governor Tezlar-Yali next time. Playing Good Cop just stopped being fun for me." Tapping her combadge, Faraday requested three to beam up.

The blonde "secretary" turned back to the governor after the Starfleet officers left the room. "Will there be anything else...Governor?" Had anyone else been in the room, they would have been unable to miss the mocking tone in her voice.

Governor Tezlar-Yali, wisely, chose not to take umbrage. "No...thank you, Glory."

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