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Pre-Generation

By Marian Mendez

Liberator was playing Hare and Hounds with Federation pursuit ships. It was not an unusual situation, but that made it no more pleasant.

"Plasma bolt launched and running true," Cally warned.

"Wait for it, Avon," Blake said, holding up his right hand as he watched the approaching ball of light. "Force wall, now!" He dropped his hand to join the other grasping the back of the flight deck couch. Despite the force wall, Liberator was taking a beating.

"For pity's sake, Blake, do something!" Vila cried, clinging to his console as the ship shuddered, "We're not gonna make it."
"I'm open to suggestions, Vila," Blake said. His eyes were fixed on the screen while his mind whirled, frantically devising and discarding schemes.

"At least let me fire back at them," the thief begged. "If we can make them back off..."

"No!" Avon answered for Blake, his voice sharpened by frustration. "I've told you, under no circumstances are you to fire. The weaponry crystals have cracked. Energy discharge through flawed crystals would probably blow us to kingdom come."

"We may have to chance it, Avon." Jenna said. The pilot tossed her head impatiently to shake away the long blonde hair that threatened to impair her vision, unable to spare a hand from the controls for even that brief instant. "I can't dodge much longer and we haven't the power to outrun them. I'd rather go up in a clean explosion of our own making than be caught by Travis."

"You may contemplate suicide on your own time, Jenna, but I am not going to join you," Avon replied fiercely.

"Neither am I," yelped Vila.

Blake agreed with Jenna that destroying Liberator and all aboard her was preferable to capture. He let Avon hear that determination in his voice when he asked, "Do you have a better idea, Avon?"

"Perhaps I do. Gan, Cally, are there any stellar abnormalities nearby, comets, asteroid fields, plasma clouds, anything we might use to foul their sensors? Come on, come on," he snapped.

"No, Avon, none of those things you requested," Cally replied.

"There is a black hole, though. If that's any help," Gan offered. The big man had felt helpless during this battle and was glad for the opportunity to contribute.

Avon's head came up and his eyes went distant momentarily. "Yes, Gan, that just might do." He spared a glance for Blake. "This may kill us, Blake, but there is a small chance..."

"What?" Blake was in no position to quibble. Liberator was being pounded to bits by the unrelenting enemy. There were so many pursuit ships that he thought they ought to be colliding with one another, but the attack was well coordinated. Travis was having one of his more brilliant days.

"A close orbit around the black hole, applying full power to break free as the gravitational forces reach the maximum we can withstand, should give us a temporary, but vast, increase of speed."

"And you accused me of being suicidal," Jenna said.

"At least if we fail, there won't be anything for the Federation to retrieve," Gan pointed out with his customary practicality. "It'd be quick, too."

"Well, now, I can't guarantee that. Time plays strange tricks in the vicinity of black holes. It's possible we could be sucked in and experience the unique sensation of being reduced to our component atoms over a subjective eternity." Avon grinned brightly.

"It doesn't sound like the kind of story I'd want to tell my grand-kids, Avon," Vila said.

"Don't worry, you won't be telling anyone about it," Avon assured him.

"We'll try it," Blake decided. "Gan, give Jenna the coordinates."

"Brace yourselves," Jenna said. "This is going to be a very rough ride."

Rough was an understatement. Jenna fought the wild gravitational whirlpool of the rotating black hole with all her experience, innate ability and empathy for her alter-ego, Liberator . They skirted the edge of the hole and tore free. A pursuit ship, bolder than the rest, was not so fortunate. Jenna had no time either to gloat over her enemy's fate or to rejoice over her success; she was preoccupied with bringing her ship's speed down to something manageable, while praying that no solid objects appeared in her path before she could do so.

"I think we made it," Jenna said. She released the control grips slowly, wincing as her cramped muscles unbent and blood rushed back into her white-knuckled hands.

"You sound surprised," Avon said.

"I am."

"So am I," Avon admitted.

Blake stared at the viewscreen. There were no pursuit ships that he could see. "Zen, are there any Federation ships nearby?"

Zen's lights flickered, the color a dimmer topaz than usual. His reply was perceptibly slower, also. +No ships matching any known Federation profile are within standard detector scan.+

"Perhaps we ought to try the extra-range scanners, Blake," Vila said. He had been flung to the deck during the escape and was nursing a sore arm as he dutifully resumed his place at the weaponry panel. Now was not the time for complaints.

"We can't afford the energy drain, Vila." Blake surveyed the flight deck. His crew were all on their feet and alert, bruised and ruffled, but relatively uninjured. They were in better condition than the ship which had been run close to her limits. "We're going to have to hole up until Liberator has recharged."

"Near a nice pleasure planet?" Vila asked.

"Sorry, Vila, we need an obscure, isolated area far from Federation traffic." Blake said.

"That's not what I need," Vila muttered. "I need a pleasure planet- some fun, some new faces, that's what I need."

"Sorry, Vila," Gan said. "Maybe next time."

"Yeah, that's what they all say."

Jenna looked up from her console, a worried crease forming between her brows. "You want an obscure, isolated area, you got it, Blake. I don't know where we are."

"What?" Blake strode to her console and glanced at the monitors. "We couldn't have gone that far, could we?"

"The star patterns just don't make sense. I've identified several distinctive stars by their spectra, but the spatial relationships are all wrong. It doesn't match any star chart." She swatted the control panel in annoyance. "Zen, where are we?" she asked.

The computer was even slower to respond this time. +It is not possible to determine Liberator's present location. Data conflict- computer banks one through four are working on the problem.+

"We'll ask Orac," Avon said. He retrieved the small computer from the flight deck couch. Luckily, during the turbulence, Orac had made a soft landing and was undamaged. He snapped the activator key on. "Orac, identify Liberator's present location."

*Really, there is no reason why I should perform a function more suited to the lesser abilities of the ship's own computer. That is, after all, its purpose.*

"You'll do it because I'm telling you to do it, Orac. I've had a hard day. Don't make me take it out on you," Avon said.

*Very well. Although I resent this misuse of my time...* Orac's operating hum increased in volume and his lights flashed busily for several seconds.

Avon's patience ran out. "Well?"

Orac did not bother to point out that `Well' was not a question. It simply said, *This is intriguing- a previously unknown phenomenon. It requires study. Do not bother me with any more of your petty requests, I am far too busy.*

Neither threats nor promises would evoke another word from the machine. Avon shut off the activator key and scowled blackly down at Orac.

"Piece of junk," Vila said. He sneered at the plastic box of computer components. "Useless, uncooperative, lazy, self-centered pain in the backside. Should'a spaced it a long time ago."

"By the same argument, Vila, you would no longer be with us." Avon's remark was mild, considering his current temper.

+Attention+ Zen brought Avon out of his brood with the interruption. +Liberator is being scanned.+

"By who, or what, Zen?" Blake asked. "Put the source of the scan on the main viewscreen, if you can."

+Confirmed.+

"I don't care for the look of that," Vila said as the viewscreen image cleared.

The approaching ship was considerably smaller than Liberator, but the bristling gun ports would have done justice to a much larger vessel. The ship maneuvered like a predator assessing a potential victim. That illusion was enhanced by the stylized stooping hawk painted on the belly of the ship.

"Whatever it is, it looks like trouble," Jenna commented. "We can't fight and we don't know where to run."

"Perhaps we can negotiate," Blake said. "Seems unlikely to be a Federation ship. They might be friendly to us, or at least neutral."

"That ship, friendly?" Vila's raised eyebrows were eloquently skeptical.

"That does not appear to be the welcome wagon, Blake," Avon said.

"It is heavily armed," Cally added. "Virtually all weaponry and engines. That is a warship, Blake."

"Well, we aren't at war with them," Gan said.

"A nice point, if you can get them to agree," Avon responded.

"We must try. As Jenna says, we can't fight and we can't run blindly. Zen, set up a communication link with that ship," Blake said.

"Diplomacy- the last resort of the helpless," Avon said. He placed Orac beside his position, so that he could reach the force wall controls while continuing his attempts to get the computer to aid them.

Zen's delayed response had Blake pacing and gnawing on a knuckle. The hawk-ship continued its approach, slower now, as if sensing that its prey was too weak to run. Finally the computer said, +Audio-visual contact is available.+

"Main screen, Zen," Blake ordered.

The first thing Blake noticed was that the men on the other ship's flight deck were all wearing unfamiliar military uniforms. The next thing he noted, an instant later, was that they weren't quite men. They were humanoid, but the pointed ears, upswept eyebrows and slightly greenish complexion had never belonged to any of the races of humanity.

"Aliens!" Vila cried. "And mean-looking ones, at that," he added in a low mutter.

"You did ask for new faces," Jenna reminded him, dryly.

"Quiet," Blake ordered. He hoped that the alien commander hadn't taken offense. It was too much to hope that he hadn't heard. Those elfish ears were designed too efficiently.

"What are you doing in Romulan space, humans?"

The alien was brisk, but not beyond reason, Blake thought. "It was an accident, I assure you. We fled an attacker and did not know we were entering your territory." That was the truth, all right. Blake had never even heard of Romulans. Where the hell had Avon's trick landed them?
The alien's already stern expression hardened. "It is inconceivable that you traversed the entire Neutral Zone without encountering one of the warning buoys. It is more likely that you are acting under the authority of the Federation. You will carry out no espionage or sabotage in my sector."

"Wait!" Blake spread his hands, attempting to placate the hostile alien before his own crew's anxiety led to disaster. Off to Blake's right, Vila was nervously fingering the weaponry panel, while Jenna was hovering over the pilot board face set and grim. Avon was bent over Orac, whispering. From his intent expression, he was onto something. Blake played for time. "This is a mistake. The Federation is our enemy. They were the ones who attacked us. If they are your enemy as well, then we should be allies, not adversaries."

"The Romulan Empire allies itself with the strong. You are one ship, your energy levels are low, and there are only six of you to operate it." An avaricious gleam appeared in the Romulan's black eyes. "However, your ship is interesting, possibly valuable. I would prefer to capture it undamaged. Surrender your ship to me and I will see that you are treated honorably and eventually returned to your own kind. Normally, we do not take prisoners, but, as Commander, I have a certain latitude."

"Commander! I must protest! We have done you no harm. All we wish to do is depart, peaceably." Out of the corner of his eye, Blake saw Avon straighten up from Orac. Avon caught Blake's gaze on him and nodded, sharply.

"Too late, I fear." The Romulan Commander turned to the officer standing at attention beside him. "Sub-Commander Rial, have the gunnery officer prepare to disable that ship. Carefully! I want it intact." He turned back to face Blake. "Well, Captain, will you reconsider?"

"I have to talk to my people first," Blake said, shoulders slumped, his attitude one of defeat.

"I grant you two of your minutes for discussion. After that, you will either surrender your ship, or I will take it." The screen reverted to the close-up view of the war-bird, hovering before Liberator.

"All right, Avon," Blake said. "This had better be good."

"I don't know how good it is. I `persuaded' Orac to draw information about this so-called Neutral Zone from the alien ship. He was unable to get much, but he did find that we are on the very edge of this Zone. Standing orders for that ship prohibit it from entering the Zone and positively forbid it to cross the Zone. If we can reach the other side, we may be safe."

"What do you say, Jenna?" Blake asked. "You're the pilot."

"I don't fancy being that gentleman's prisoner." Jenna nodded at the viewscreen.

"Look like cannibals," Vila said. "Let's run for it."

"They are a different species from you. It wouldn't be cannibalism if they ate you, Vila." Avon paused. "Come to think of it, it probably wouldn't be cannibalism if I ate you."

"Yes. Let's try it, Blake," Gan urged. "Better than being a sitting target."

"I agree," Cally said. "There is simply nothing else to do. We can not allow these Romulans to capture Liberator. That would be worse than giving her to the Federation."

"Avon, stand by the force wall." Blake had made his decision. " Jenna, do you have the coordinates for the Zone?"

Jenna looked down at the monitor. "Yes. I'm all set."

"Zen, put the Romulan Commander back on line," Blake ordered.

"You have made your decision, Captain?" The Romulan leaned forward in his massive chair, eager to hear Blake's words.

"Yes, I have. I am sorry, Commander, that you do not wish to form an alliance with us. Under the circumstances, I have no alternative, do I?"
"True." The Commander settled back. "Although I was rather looking forward to the battle, it will be better for the Romulan Empire if I take your ship unharmed."

"Oh, you misunderstand, Commander. Surrender was never one of my options. Zen, break communication. Avon, Jenna, now!"

Liberator fled, the instant's confusion aboard the Romulan vessel giving her a slight head-start. The force wall held, the Liberator dodged and they aimed for the Neutral Zone, hoping that the Commander was a by-the-book officer.

"This is it," Jenna said.

"Hurry!" Avon shouted. "The force wall won't take much more."

Crossing the Neutral Zone was anticlimactic. There was nothing to distinguish it from any other region of space, but the effect on the Romulan ship was immediate. Before they entered the Zone, the other ship had fired on the periphery of the Liberator, obviously intending to incapacitate. With the prize slipping through their fingers, tactics changed and the blasts were centered on the vital areas of Liberator. If he couldn't have her, the Romulan wanted her destroyed.

"How much longer, Jenna?" Blake asked. More of the impact was getting through and he wondered which would fail first, the laboring engines or the wall.

"We're almost... there. Now, Blake! We're through." The Liberator bucked and slowed drastically, making the crew scramble for balance. "Just in time. The energy banks are nearly drained."

"He knows that too, I'm afraid." Blake pointed at the hawk ship, which had stopped just inside the Neutral Zone. "He's coming after us."

"Can't blame him, I suppose," Jenna said. "Just too damn tempting."

The Romulan crossed even more slowly than Liberator had done. It was wary, a predator out of its accustomed hunting grounds.

"Something on the detectors," Cally said. "It's big and it's fast, and it's coming from our side of the Neutral Zone."

"Help?" Vila said hopefully.

"I doubt it." Avon was always quick to squelch foolish sentiment. "In case you hadn't noticed, we don't have many friends."

"Speak for yourself," Vila blustered, trying to keep up his courage with banter.

The war-bird must have become aware of the new presence for it halted, hovering near the crippled Liberator.

"Put the other ship on the screen, Zen," Blake said.

The newcomer was two-thirds the size of Liberator and less menacing in outline than the Romulan. The ship was all-white and composed of two cylindrical projections and a saucer shape, each attached separately to a larger cylinder below.

"I've never seen a ship like that one, either," Jenna said. "Looks fast, and tough, too. Let's hope it doesn't like the Romulans. Maybe we could limp out of the way while they tangle."

Zen said, +Information. The approaching ship is communicating with the Romulan vessel.+

"Intercept that message, Zen. We want to see it," Blake said, "but don't transmit from us."

The Romulan Commander filled the right half of the screen. The left side was occupied by a human male with dark blonde hair. His hazel eyes appeared amused. The human was talking, in a lazy, genial voice, "Commander, you have strayed. If you do not return immediately to your own side of the Neutral Zone, I will have to report this breach of treaty." His voice and eyes became serious. "I will also take whatever other steps are necessary."

The Commander was angry, flushed green with rage. "Captain Kirk, I caught this spy on our side of the Zone. The violation was yours."

Kirk shook his head. "No, Commander, this ship isn't one of ours. More importantly, you didn't catch it on your side of the Neutral Zone. Whatever may have occurred before I arrived, what I see is a Romulan ship on the wrong side of the Zone- in direct and flagrant violation of treaty. Now, unless you want to be personally responsible for escalation, I suggest that you return home."

"This is an outrage, Kirk. The Romulan Praetor will protest directly to the Federation council."

"Fine. Just be sure you issue that complaint from your side of the Neutral Zone." Kirk smiled at the Romulan.

With a terse, "You haven't heard the last of this, Kirk," the Romulan broke communications and retreated.

The war ship disappeared from Liberator's detectors and, presumably, from the newcomer's.

Blake said, "Zen, open communications with our rescuer."

Kirk appeared on the viewscreen again- this time filling the entire screen. His geniality had vanished with the Romulan. "Who are you, and what were you playing at in the Neutral Zone? I have better things to do with my time than pull civilian chestnuts out of the fire."

"I was just about to say thank you, Captain Kirk," Blake replied, crossing his arms in front of his chest as he stared back at the other man. "We had no control over the situation, I assure you."

"What else is new?" Avon remarked. He kept his hand near the force wall controls. There might be power enough to hold against another blast if this ship proved hostile. Perhaps even two- but that was unwontedly optimistic.

Behind Kirk, a tall officer approached, electronic clipboard in hand.

"Another one of them Romulans!" Vila cried. "And he looks even more like a cannibal than the last ones did."

"I apologize, Captain. Vila has an active imagination." Blake gave Vila a glare that set Vila's imagination working on the future- once Blake got him in private.

The officer beside Kirk lifted one slanted eyebrow and said, "Most illogical. I am Vulcan, not Romulan, and therefore a vegetarian. Even if I were not, your - Vila - and I are not of the same species, and for either of us to ingest the other could not possibly be construed as cannibalism."

"Now I know I don't like him. He thinks the same way Avon does," Vila complained more softly this time.

Avon ignored the pleasantries while he studied the truncated view of the other ship's flight deck. It was military, of course. All the personnel wore uniforms; the captain's in gold and black, the alien's- Vulcan's, Avon corrected himself,- in blue and black and there were a few red-shirted versions. It was far from the all- black Federation motif. This reassured him slightly, but something nagged at him, there was something about the scene that disturbed him.

The Vulcan turned to give his captain the clipboard and Avon's eyes were drawn to a flash of silver on the alien's chest, sparkling against the blue tunic.

"Blake!" Avon said. "Those insignias- change the orientation..."

Blake focused on the captain's uniform and saw what Avon meant. If the arrowhead shape was turned to the right instead of pointing upward it would be very like the Federation symbol. "Captain Kirk," Blake said, "I am grateful for your assistance, but I would like to know exactly who you represent."

Kirk was puzzled. "You are obviously human, yet you have a ship of obviously alien design. I confess to some curiosity, myself. Very well, I'll start the introductions. I am Captain James T. Kirk, commanding officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise of the Federation..."

"Federation!" Vila didn't wait for the captain to finish his statement. Forgetting all the warnings that had been dinned into him, Vila cleared the neutron blasters and fired.

"No,Vila," Gan bellowed. Only Gan was watching Vila at the time, but he was too far away to prevent the panicked thief from firing. An instant later, he saw the effect on the other ship as the blast jolted the flight deck, but it must have possessed a force wall or its equivalent, for there was no apparent damage.

"Idiot!" Avon yelled and abandoned the force wall control, vaulting over the flight deck couch toward the thief. He yanked Vila away from the weaponry panel. "I told you, those crystals won't take it!" He stepped up to the panel, but before he could do anything with it, the console exploded, sending sparks and thick, acrid clouds of smoke into the room.

The automatic fire suppressants still functioned. The blaze died in seconds. Blake coughed, waved the smoke away from his face and assessed the damage. The weaponry panel was twisted slag and most of the other systems, including the viewscreen, had failed. Emergency lighting red- washed the frightened faces of his crew- with one exception. Avon was lying face down on the deck where he'd been flung by the blast. Cally and Gan were already at his side.

Vila was babbling, "I didn't mean to! I just forgot, is all!"

"Shut up, Vila." Blake had no time for hysterics. He didn't even have time to find out if his computer expert, and sometime friend, was still alive. "Zen," he shouted to the dimly flickering wall panel, "come on line, Zen!" to no result.

"Orac," Blake said. He reached Avon's position in two strides. He slammed the activator into place. "Orac, get me in communication with that ship, now!"

Orac complied. Perhaps he had sufficient self-preservation circuitry to realize that Blake would have smashed him into the bulkhead if he didn't respond promptly for once. Or, perhaps Orac was curious about the other ship and its computer system.

For whatever reason, the screen cleared and revealed the Enterprise's flight deck and its captain, who was now furious. Furious, but still in shrewd control of him himself, Blake judged.

"I apologize, Captain Kirk. That was an accident. My crew is not so well disciplined as yours."

"You're lucky that I am disciplined. I was tempted, sorely tempted, to stage a little `accident' of my own."

"I understand, Captain." Blake sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "My ship is dead, Kirk, entirely at your mercy."

"There is no mercy at the hands of the Federation," Cally said fiercely, lifting her head from the still form she cradled in her lap. "Let us die now, Blake, rather than give them Liberator. "

"Hold on, young lady." Kirk raised his hand. "I don't know what you've been told about the Federation, but we aren't pirates. I have a ship of my own, I don't need yours. And she seems to be in bad shape right now. Your life support systems are failing. Let me bring you aboard Enterprise . You have a lot of questions to answer."

"I have been through Federation interrogation before. I prefer to die in the relative comfort of my own ship." Blake was pleased that none of his crew gainsaid his decision, not even Vila, although there was an audible whimper from that area.

"This is ridiculous, Jim." A human officer, dressed in the same blue as the Vulcan, leaned over Kirk's shoulder. "They've got a badly injured man over there and damn little air. We're wasting time."

"Yes." Kirk locked his gaze with Blake. "Captain..."

"I'm no captain. I'm Roj Blake, as you must know."

"You may be famous where you come from, but I've never heard of you. Now, whether you like it or not, I'm going to have you transferred to my ship. My doctor would never forgive me if I let your shipload of... well, McCoy hates waste." Kirk smiled at the blue - tuniced man beside him, received a snort and nod in affirmation. Kirk continued, "Blake, whatever you imagine to the contrary, I have no designs on your ship or crew. No one will be `interrogated' or harmed in any way. If you behave as guests, you will be treated as guests."

Blake hesitated. Kirk seemed sincere, but how could a Federation officer resist the opportunity to capture Blake, his crew and Liberator ? On the other hand, Blake wouldn't have thought a Federation officer could resist the opportunity to destroy them, as Kirk already had done.

"Hurry, Blake!" The blue shirt, Doctor McCoy, Blake assumed, leaned forward. "I can save your man if you let me."

Blake glanced to the side, taking in Avon and the worried circle about him. Gan met Blake's eyes and shook his head slightly. Cally was simply stroking Avon's hair and crooning some soft Auron song. Avon would die first, and then the rest of them and then the Federation would have Liberator anyway. There wasn't even enough power left to rig a self-destruct. McCoy's concern seemed real, Kirk seemed an honorable man. Blake decided to trust his instincts. After all, they really hadn't much to lose.

"All right, send over your shuttle, or dock with Liberator. We'll not resist you." Blake was tired of fighting.

Jenna gave the weapons rack a significant stare. Blake shook his head. "We'll go quietly, Kirk," he said.

"Good." Kirk smiled. "We have better methods than shuttles, Blake." Kirk depressed a button on the armrest of his chair. "Transporter Chief, beam the crew of that ship to the transporter room nearest sickbay."

Blake was shocked to feel a familiar tingle as Liberator's darkened flight deck faded around him, to be replaced by a room decorated in red and pale gray. The rest of his crew had arrived with him. The not-quite-numbed engineer part of his brain noted that each of them had arrived standing, or in Avon's case, lying, on one of the inset circles set in the deck. A thought struck him and he glanced down at his arms. No teleport bracelet. Not on him or on any of the others. This technology didn't belong to the Federation he knew. Could there be two Federations?

The red-shirted man standing behind what must have been the teleport console said, "Please remain where you are, sir," at Blake's step forward. The man was polite, but then, he could afford to be. The stern-faced men on either side of him were capable of handling any unpleasantness with their drawn sidearms.

At least they weren't wearing helmets. Blake had always hated being threatened by faceless opponents. If he could see a man's eyes, he could judge his character. These men did not have the cold, cruel edge of Federation guards. He was sure they'd shoot if he gave them reason, but they wouldn't derive any pleasure from his pain.

He was beginning to think there were two Federations, and this one was not inherently vicious. Nevertheless, waiting put his nerves on edge, and he was relieved when the door opened and Kirk, the Vulcan and the doctor arrived.

McCoy was single-minded. He went past Blake with barely a grunt. His clear blue eyes passed over the rest of Liberator's crew, then dismissed them. He knelt beside Avon. Cally grasped his arm when the doctor took a small instrument out of the black bag slung over his shoulder.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

McCoy said, acidly, "I am trying to save this man's life. Do you mind?"

Cally looked into McCoy's face, then released his arm. "Please, Doctor, I would be grateful if you could help him."

"Fine. Now, how about you and big boy, here," he said, indicating Gan, "moving back and giving me room to work. I have to stabilize him before we can move him to sickbay."

Bemused, Gan backed away, off the teleport platform. He was unaccustomed to the doctor's attitude. His size generally intimidated people, until they became acquainted with him. Listening to McCoy's defiant mutter as he worked over Avon, Gan realized that the doctor had an eternal adversary who made Gan shrink into insignificance. Gan put his hand on Cally's shoulder. "Don't worry, Cally. This doctor is a good man, I can tell."

"More to the point, is he a good doctor?" Vila asked.

"Shut up and get out of my light," McCoy replied. "Where the hell's that stretcher?"
McCoy would do his best for Avon, Blake decided. He turned his attention to Captain Kirk. "There seems to be some confusion, Kirk, but I begin to believe you, that this Federation is not our enemy."

Kirk frowned at Blake's phrasing. "To the best of my knowledge, there is only one Federation."

"Yes, I believe that, too. Your Federation and mine could not co-exist. One would have to destroy the other."

"What do you mean, Blake?" Jenna said. While the others were distracted by Avon, she had kept a cool head and had noted many of the same discrepancies that Blake had. She did not have a theory to account for them. If he did, she wanted to hear it. "If these people don't belong to our Federation, then what's going on here?"

"Something very odd happened to us, Jenna. I can only guess."

"Guess then, Blake," Kirk said, "I want some answers, now. If guesses are all you have, I'll take them."

"I'm not sure I ought to tell you anything," Blake said slowly. He smiled. "It isn't that I don't trust you gentlemen, it's simply that what I think happened is so wild that you'll consider me a madman. Or worse, I might be right, in which case I could be endangering uncountable billions of innocents."

"Really, Blake," Jenna snapped, "do you still believe there are any innocents?"

"Oh, yes," Blake replied softly, "the unborn are always innocent. The future is a clean slate, anything can be written on it- for good or evil."

Kirk straightened and looked at the Vulcan, "Mister Spock, do you recall the trouble we had after our close encounter with a black hole?"

"Indeed, Captain. It is possible that Blake's ship also experienced the time-warp effect," the Vulcan replied.

Kirk frowned. He was disturbed by the implications- a Federation that interrogated people so stringently that they preferred suicide?- but concentrated on the present. "Is that what happened, Blake?"

"I rather think so. We were attempting to use the black hole to elude- pursuers- and came out of the orbit with a Romulan after our hides. We had never heard of Romulans. I don't know how, but it appears we have been shifted in time."

Jenna looked from Blake to Kirk and Spock, who were all taking this nonsense seriously. "You must be kidding, Blake."

"No, it's the only answer that makes sense," Blake replied, "Somehow that black hole has sent us back in time, back when the Federation was new and..." He stopped.

At that moment the awaited stretcher arrived, propelled by a blonde woman wearing a short blue dress.

"Get that stretcher over here, Nurse Chapel," McCoy snapped. Despite his haste, McCoy oversaw Avon's transfer to the gurney with gentle care. "Don't worry. He'll make it."

"Yes." Cally replied, "Avon is very strong. He will not die easily."

"He won't die in my sickbay." Dr. McCoy assured her. He and Nurse Chapel began guiding the stretcher toward the door.

"Blake?" Cally asked for permission to accompany them.

Blake nodded. "Doctor, would you allow Cally, Vila, and Gan to go with you? It will be better if Avon has familiar faces to wake up to."

"And you don't trust me." McCoy snorted. "All right, but they'll keep out of my way, or I'll have them thrown out."

Vila took a hesitant step after the gurney, but when he heard McCoy mention that he would begin surgery as soon as Avon was prepped, Vila blanched and changed his mind. "Er, they don't really need me there, do they?"

Spock looked at Vila quizzically.

"I turn all funny at the sight of blood, you see. Delicate nerves, you know?"

The Vulcan did not comment, but returned his attention to his captain and Blake.

While Blake and Kirk talked, Vila plied his art. He had plenty of experience listening to Blake's important speeches. He could tune them out readily.

The red-shirted guards were watching the more obviously dangerous members of his party, Jenna and Blake. Vila gave the room a quick shufty, just in case there were any valuables lying about. The room was depressingly bare. The only things in the room, besides the people, that weren't part of the fixtures and fittings were the guards' small sidearms and the wallet-shaped lumps hooked onto the back waistbands of the guards' trousers.

Vila wasn't sure he'd even be able to spend their currency, but, waste not, want not. He slipped the wallets into his capacious pockets and sidled into the corner to examine his gains. What a disappointment. For once, his talented fingers had lied to him. The wallet-shaped lumps were some form of gadget. Still, might be interesting to see what they did. He flipped up the gold mesh covering the controls and the blasted thing started beeping- loudly.

Vila looked up, gulped and blushed. "Er, uh, sorry about that. I was just..."

"I know, Vila." Blake sighed. "Give the nice men back their belongings."

"Um, here, sorry?" Vila said weakly and held out the offending device and its mate to the red - shirted men.

Both men felt instinctively at the hip for the vanished item, then snatched at Vila's offerings.

Kirk was not amused.

Neither was Blake. "Dammit, Vila, you're incorrigible."

Vila grinned. "That's what the parole board said, too."

"Parole board?" Spock said, sounding mildly intrigued. "Are you then, sir, a felon?"

Vila drew himself up with pride. "Absolutely, no petty convictions on my record. Well, except for that one... I was only twelve. A lad's got to start out small, you know."

"I begin to see what you meant about the lack of discipline aboard your ship, Blake," Kirk commented.

"My people are very skilled at what they do," Blake said with quiet pride. "Although it can be a bit wearing, dealing with such free-spirited individualists as Vila, I wouldn't trade any one of them for a hundred `good' citizens of either Federation, yours or mine."

Vila beamed. He only wished Avon had been here to hear Blake stand up for him in front of this Kirk's spit-and-polish troops. In fact, he wished Avon were here to explain what was going on. Or to argue with him. This lot was boring Vila to tears.

The nurse with McCoy, now there was a lady who would have kept Vila's attention. Or that exotic dark woman he'd seen in the background on Enterprise's flight deck. Where there were two such kind and sympathetic looking ladies, there might be more. He resolved to seize the first opportunity to shake this bunch of dullards and go exploring. It should be safe- not even the red-shirted guards had tried to hurt him. So long as Blake was chummy with Kirk, it was a fair bet to stay safe.

"It may be wisest if you do not discuss your history, Blake," Spock said, "but you may require technical assistance for your return. For that we would have to know certain facts concerning your unexpected appearance in the Neutral Zone."

"Yes," Kirk agreed. "Blake, you and your people - Jenna and Vila - can accompany us to a briefing room where we'll see how we're going to straighten this matter out. Hopefully, before the note that Romulan Commander is going to draft crosses Star Fleet's desk and I have to explain you to them."

"That would take a bit of doing," Blake remarked.

"It would be easier, all around, if you aren't here when that note comes through." Kirk punched the wall intercom, "Mister Scott, I'm taking three of our guests to briefing room two. Can you join us there?"

The answer came promptly, in a Scottish brogue, "Aye, Captain."

Kirk dismissed the security guards and led the way, Blake at his side and Spock a pace behind with Jenna. Vila draggled along behind them all.

"I wonder why Vila didn't lift their weapons at the same time he took my security guards' communicators," Kirk commented. He was still annoyed that his men had been such easy targets.

"Oh, he could have, I'm sure. Vila doesn't like guns," Blake said. "He has a theory that you are far more likely to be shot if you have a gun yourself."

"Indeed," Spock said. "A unique form of pacifism. I should like to discuss this philosophy with Vila." Spock turned, seeking Vila. "He is gone, Captain. Remarkable, I did not notice him leave."

"Blake." Kirk rounded on the tall rebel. "What is Vila up to?"

"I never know what Vila is up to, but in the present situation, I can guess. He is either going to clean out your vault-"

"We haven't got one," Kirk said.

Blake continued, "Or raid your liquor supplies, or-"

Jenna finished with a sigh, "Find some women to pester."

Kirk caught the amused, exasperated glance that Jenna and Blake traded. They may not have taken Vila seriously but he was an unknown quantity loose on Kirk's ship. Kirk frowned and strode to the nearest intercom. He punched the button and said, "Security, this is..."

"I wouldn't send security guards after Vila," Blake said, interrupting Kirk.

"Why?"

"Because he's easily frightened and very good at hiding. He can always find a mousehole on Liberator when it's time for work. He's not dangerous, Kirk."

Jenna said, "He's a thief, not a fighter. I'm sure any one of your people could handle him without difficulty."

Kirk looked doubtful.

"I know my crew," Blake said. "Chase him and you'll have to turn out the entire ship's complement to search. Leave him be and he'll get lonely and come looking for us."

"Especially if we open a bottle of cheap wine," Jenna added.

"All right." Kirk canceled his call to security; visions of corridors filled with mousetraps baited with wine bottles before his eyes. "On your word that Vila is no danger to my ship or crew, I'll wait to institute a search."

"No danger, Kirk, I swear it. Although you may find a number of items missing after Vila's finished visiting."

Spock said, "The Enterprise carries no valuables, save perhaps among crewmembers' personal belongings."

"We'll turn his pockets out before we leave," Jenna said. "Or we could simply have Gan pick him up by the ankles and shake the loot loose."
"That would seem excessive, surely," Spock said.

"Never mind, Spock." Kirk sighed. "Vila will keep until later. The briefing room is ahead and to your left." Kirk motioned down the corridor.

Vila observed his surroundings before he split away from his party. The loose fawn colored tunic and dark brown trousers he wore were not too dissimilar to the captain's outfit. At a distance, Vila was sure he would blend right in. He congratulated himself on his good taste. Wouldn't fancy the chances of a flashy dresser like Avon getting away with it- him with his red leather lobster suit or that silver tunic he likes so much.

The others passed a corner. Vila ducked into it and stooped, pretending to tie his shoelaces. By the time he glanced up, he was alone. He smiled, considering what amusement Kirk's pretty ship and prettier crewwomen had to offer. But first, just so he wouldn't feel guilty while he was having his bit of fun...

McCoy shut off the steri-light. He pushed the field generator to one side, allowing Nurse Chapel to stow it away. The readings above the diagnostic bed climbed slightly, then leveled off. He cocked his head to one side as he studied them, then told his waiting audience, "Your friend is gonna be just fine."

Cally noticed a slight hesitation before the doctor spoke. "Is there a problem, Doctor McCoy? You were disturbed during the operation. I felt it."

"You felt it? What, are you a telepath?" McCoy joked, preferring to keep his professional concerns away from layman's ears.

"Only among my own people, Doctor McCoy." Cally was serious, not recognizing the joke. "But, sometimes people who feel strongly send almost as distinctly as words. Your feelings are very clear. You were concerned for Avon, but also you were... puzzled, as though something was not as you expected."

"That just about sums it up," McCoy said, after a moment to wonder who Cally's `people' were. "Your friend..."

"Avon," Gan corrected, thinking that if Avon were awake he would resent the sentimental term.

"Avon, then. Well, he is a puzzle. There's no such thing as a textbook example of a human being, but Avon diverges from the statistical norm in too many areas. No one gross deviation, just a lot of little ones."

"What little things?" Cally asked. She was curious. Avon had always claimed to be a unique individual, perhaps he had the right of it all along.

"Temperature three-tenths of a degree higher than standard, pulse thirty beats per minute more than should be for a man his apparent age and physical condition, blood chemistry reveals abnormalities, too. I had a devil of a time finding an anesthetic he wasn't allergic to- and then there's his anatomy."

"I have noticed nothing unusual about Avon's anatomy," Cally remarked.

Nurse Chapel stopped arranging instruments. She glanced at the patient who was demurely draped by a light-weight sheet, then back at the young woman conversing earnestly with the doctor. A smile tugged at her lips, and she ducked her head to hide it.

Sensing the misunderstanding, Gan said, "Cally and I share the medical duties aboard Liberator, doctor. We have little formal training, but the medical computer has been able to teach us what to do, so far. We've done a fair share of patch-ups on Avon. When he comes to, you'll discover that he isn't the most patient of patients, I'm afraid."

"Oh, Lord." McCoy rolled his eyes heavenward- a meaningless term in space. "Not another one."

The door to sickbay opened. McCoy glanced up, long enough to see that the man who entered was in no urgent need of medical attention, then returned to the conversation. "Well, Cally, externally, Avon presents the clinical picture of a typical, healthy human male. Internally, he's - off-kilter, his liver and heart aren't quite where they should be and..."

The man who had entered had wandered over to Avon's bed. He smiled down at the unconscious man. "Not surprising, really, to find that Avon's not got his heart in the right place. Always knew it, I did."

"Vila," Cally scolded. "That's not fair. Not when Avon can't fight back."

"No," Vila conceded, "but it is a lot safer. How's he doing, doc? Not that I care, you understand, but he comes in useful, sometimes."

"Don't call me doc. I am Doctor McCoy." McCoy remembered, now, seeing this man before in the transporter room. "I thought you were following us. What happened, did you get lost?"

"Nah, I just didn't want to get in the way. I know lots of professional people hate getting their elbows jogged and you already had Cally and Gan and three's a crowd, you know, an..."

"All right, I got the general outline. Avon will make a full recovery." McCoy noticed Vila's pleasure at the news, although the thief tried to hide it. "As long as you're here, I'd like to take some readings on you, Vila, and Cally and Gan, too."

"Tests, you mean? Like needles and blood and stick out your tongue, that sort of thing? Not me, I'm healthy, doc." Vila was shifting back toward the door. "Ask anyone, healthy as the proverbial saw-horse, that's me."

"No needles, Vila," Doctor McCoy said quickly. "Just stand still a second and let me get a reading on you. You won't feel a thing." He approached with his medical tricorder held out.

Vila flattened himself against the wall and shut his eyes. "It'll be quick, won't it, doc?" He spoke over a low, whirring noise. "It won't hurt too much, will it? It's just that I have a very low pain threshold, you see."

"Vila, you can open your eyes, I'm through."

"Really?" Vila opened his eyes and patted himself. "You're my kind of doc, doc. That didn't hurt much at all." He craned his neck, trying to see the tricorder readout. "What's it say about me?"
"It says you're a perfectly normal human male, who ought to get more exercise and eat a more balanced diet."

"What's that thing know?" Vila sidled toward the door. "I'd better go tell Blake about Avon." He made it to the door and out before McCoy could say anything.

Nurse Chapel said, "Should he be wandering about on his own, Doctor?"

"Frankly, I don't think he ought to be let out without a keeper. I'm a doctor, not a shepherd dog. Let him have a look around. What harm can he do?"

Cally and Gan exchanged alarmed looks, as the possibilities occurred to them. "Would you like to try that gadget on me, next?" Gan asked.

Scotty didn't normally enjoy briefing room sessions. He was ill-at-ease away from his engines. He reminded himself that it was part of his duty to the ship. The captain needed Scotty's advice. Mr. Spock was all very well on computers and scientific trivia, but the man had no feel for machines, no gut instinct at all.

He hadn't minded this summons as much as usual because he hoped to learn about the ship they'd rescued. It would have been a crime to let the Romulans have her. They were accustomed to the brute force of the Klingon designed scows they'd mucked up with silly bird paintings. They'd never appreciate the clean-lined artistry of that lamed swan floating beside Enterprise . Scotty's heart went out to the ship. Wasn't right that it should be left there without a soul aboard.

"The life-support systems are inoperative, Scott," Blake told him. "No light, heat or air circulation. It would be too awkward to work under those conditions, though I thank you for offering."

"I kin do as much work in a pressure suit as any ten men in their birthday suits," Scotty protested. "Besides, d'ya intend nivver to repair yon ship? Someone's got tae' do it, unless she can fix hersel'?"
Blake and Jenna smiled. Blake said, "Something like that, Scott. It will take Liberator a day or two to recharge. By then, I hope Avon will be able to help me with whatever Liberator hasn't been able to handle on her own."

"Captain." Scotty turned to Captain Kirk, pleading. "I know you say these gud people come from the future an' we should, in all charity, help them back to their own time without askin' too many questions, but that's a lady in distress- how kin you ask a gud Scots gentleman to ignore her?"

"Sorry, Scotty. It isn't possible. One look at that ship and you might change the future these people came from. You might even destroy it. You haven't- we haven't- the right to take that chance." Kirk laid his hand on the disappointed engineer's shoulder. "Think of the next two days as an unexpected holiday. Catch up on your technical journals, overhaul the engines, anything- just stay away from that ship."

"Tisn't fair," Scotty muttered. "Such a lovely, lovely ship."

"Mr. Scott, this is an order. For the next two days, you are on leave," Kirk snapped.

"Aye. You'll leave that ship in the care o' this man who says he's an engineer, and that fellow in sickbay that Mr. Blake says is a computer expert."

"Speaking about Avon, Kirk, I'd like to know how he's doing," Blake said.

Kirk glared at his Chief Engineer, who was sighing like a love-sick lad, then hit the desk communicator and paged McCoy in sickbay.

"Yes, Jim, what is it?" the doctor replied.

"I have some people here who are concerned about your patient."

"He's coming along just fine. Didn't Vila tell you? He was by earlier."

Blake smiled and nodded at Kirk.

McCoy's voice hardened. "I did some tricorder readings on the others with Avon. Where do these people come from, that surgeons are such butchers? There is an obscene torture device implanted in this man Gan's brain."

Blake asked, "Can you remove it, Doctor?"

"I wish I could, but the damn thing's beyond me. I have to give the butcher credit for his skill, although the way it was used makes me sick to my stomach."

Blake sighed. "I see. Thank you, Doctor. We'll be down to see Avon soon, I hope."

Kirk punched the intercom off.

"It isn't a very pleasant time we come from, Kirk, but we are trying to change it," Blake said.

"You are attempting to overthrow the Federation in your time?" Spock asked.

"It would be better, I think, Spock, if you did not speculate any further," Blake said softly.

"I merely wish to point out that no true lasting change in government was ever imposed by outside force. Witness the succession of one military junta for another on Earth in the twentieth century. Each began with promises of radical changes and justice for all, yet ultimately..."

Jenna placed her hand on Blake's arm. "Easy, Blake, he means well. He simply doesn't understand what our Federation is like."

"And I can't afford to enlighten him." Blake shook his head. "Spock, I think your captain would understand this better. It just is not in my nature to give up, simply because the chances of succeeding are small. Besides, we've beaten the odds before." He smiled at Spock. "Now, you said you've worked out a method of returning us to the future?"

Scotty was disgruntled. Blake had turned the conversation to his advantage, as he had turned Captain Kirk to his side. Scotty admitted that the man was a natural leader and had a lot in common with his own captain, but he didn't talk like an engineer. When Scotty tried to hint, delicately, that perhaps his skills might be more suited than Blake's to the job of preparing Liberator for the stress of travel through the time-warp, - which he had nursed Enterprise's engines through and certainly understood far better than that curly-headed bag o' wind- Captain Kirk had dismissed him. Dismissed, nothing, he'd been sent to his room, like a child being kept out of the affairs of adults. It'd serve Kirk right if Scotty stayed there and left them to make a mess on their own.

Scotty looked around his cabin and sighed. How could he sit and read technical journals when he was aching to study that ship? He took out a bottle of Scotch and poured himself a hefty tot, then shook his head and poured it back into the bottle, He needed some distraction, something to keep from brooding about the injustice of fate. Since Kirk had said he was on holiday Scotty might as well go to the recreation room. Maybe a game of skittles would cheer him.

Scotty stood in the open doorway of the recreation room and gaped. Why hadn't anyone told him there'd been a party planned? Drink and food was being passed on trays, people were laughing and chattering like magpies, Uhura was singing an unfamiliar song; everywhere he looked there were smiling faces.

Perhaps this was just what he needed. He paused to listen to Uhura more closely. It was a lovely melody, but some of the words couldn't possibly mean what he thought- Uhura was a lady, after all.

Farther in, away from the knot of music-lovers, a larger crowd was gathered. Scotty used his rank shamelessly to get into the inner circle.

"Thank you, thank you, you're too kind- really." A man Scotty didn't recognize, dressed in baggy non-regulation clothes, was performing magic tricks. They'd picked up a couple of ensigns recently to replace crew taking family leave, but surely none of them would be this man's age.

For all the make-shift props, it was a good show, and Scotty applauded with the rest. He wondered if there was a rabbit or two up those floppy sleeves.

With a final flourish the magician drew a bouquet of feathery blooms out of the air and presented them to a laughing young woman in the front row. "Vila's my name and magic's my game!" He bowed low. The audience applauded and politely broke up, seeing that the show was over.

Vila received comradely pats on the back and congratulations with becoming modesty. He had been popular and he was almost drunk on that alone- well, the drinks he'd cadged between tricks had loosened him up a mite, too.

He grinned and wondered what else the Enterprise crew did for fun. Unfortunately, most of the women were a bit young for him. The exotic dark lady from the flight deck was more to his taste, but he couldn't very well pull her away from her singing. Especially as it was a song he'd taught her.

"Vila!" A man, older than most of the others, dressed in a red shirt, was calling him. Vila'd seen how the others deferred to this man. Someone important, then.

Vila went to him readily enough. He was feeling expansive and friendly. "Yes, hello, did you enjoy the show?"

"What I saw of it, yes. You came with Blake, didn't you?"

"Er, umm, Blake?" Vila was suddenly not so sure of himself. This fellow pronounced Blake's name the way Avon did when he was particularly annoyed with the big rebel.

"Yes, Blake. Big, curly haired man, thinks he's an engineer. Why aren't you with him?"

"Oh, you mean Blake ." Vila squirmed. "I didn't think anyone would mind if I had a look at your beautiful ship."

"You shouldna' be wanderin' aboot unescorted. Now, I'll be reportin' ye to the captain and..." Scotty paused. "You did say that the Enterprise is a beautiful ship, laddie?"
"Absolutely." Vila saw the weak spot and dove for it. "Gorgeous ship, love to see more of it, but if I have to go back to listen to Blake, I probably won't get the chance." He put on his best woebegone expression.

You'll never make an enemy by telling a man that his baby is beautiful. Scotty held out his hand abruptly. "Montgomery Scott, Chief Engineer of the Enterprise," he introduced himself. "My friends call me Scotty."

"Vila Restal, um- acquisitions and impenetrable obstructions." Vila shook Scotty's hand. "Even my enemies call me Vila. Don't get any respect in my line of work."

"What exactly is your line of work? I never heard o' acquisition and impenetrable obstructions as a profession."

"Well, basically, I get into places that `ud be a tight squeeze for anyone else and redistribute what's in `em."

"Ah." Scotty seemed satisfied. "Like crawlin' up a Jeffries tube to fiddle with a stuck magnetometer."

"Er, s'pose it's something like that." Vila hadn't the faintest idea what Scotty was talking about.

"I have some free time. Fact is, I have two free days courtesy of your captain and mine. Would you like a behind the panels tour o' the engine room? I kin show a fellow like yersel' all the interestin' things that we leave off the V.I.P. tours. You know how they hate to get their hands dirty."

Vila suppressed a shudder. This sounded not only messy, but uncomfortably like work. Scotty acted like he was doing Vila a favor! Vila hunted frantically for a way out. "Scotty, that's awfully generous of you, but I've got to take it easy for the next couple of days. Your Doctor McCoy checked me out and gave me a few warnings about my health. I've been workin' too hard and I should relax and recuperate. It's a hard life on Liberator . Blake's a real slave driver." Vila sighed. "Why, do you know, he even locks up all the liquor." Vila neglected to mention that it didn't stay locked up.

"The man is an unfeelin' brute." Scotty was shocked. "Ye mean he won't even let ye have a wee dram of Scotch when you're off-duty?"

"Off-duty? What's that? Any time of the day or night, Blake's always got another job for me-and it's always gotta be me, mind. By the way, what's Scotch?"

"You mean to say, you've never had Scotch?" Scotty suddenly felt very charitable toward this poor, overworked, under-appreciated, lad. "Come to my cabin, laddie and I'll gie ye a cup of good cheer that'll make ye forget all your troubles."

"You're on!" Vila followed his new-found friend. He paused by the door to eye the singer wistfully. She was still surrounded by admirers. `Better the booze in the hand than the beauty in the bush', he thought, then decided that hadn't come out quite right. Still, he was never one to turn down an opportunity to educate his palate. Soma and Adrenalin was wonderful, but a man ought to be adventurous, willing to try new things.

Blake scanned the computations Spock had produced. Jenna had given the Vulcan Liberator's basic capabilities; speed, maneuverability, strength of force wall and Herculaneum hull. Spock lifted an eyebrow at some of the claims, but did not dispute them. He did think it was as well that Scotty was not in the vicinity. The engineer's bruised pride would have taking a worse beating if he had to listen to the specifications of the ship he was not permitted to examine.

"I have been unable to determine how far ahead you must travel in time, therefore these figures are approximations, useful to a certain point only."

"Yes, Spock, I see that. Thank you, I'm certain this will be a big help. Avon and Orac will handle the rest." Blake nodded over the papers.

"Orac?" Kirk asked.

"Avon's computer. Actually, it wasn't originally his personal property, but he gets along with it better than anyone else, so..." Blake shrugged.

"Gets along with? One does not `get along with' a computer," Spock objected.

"You haven't met Orac. Come to that, you haven't met Avon, yet, either," Blake said.

"According to McCoy, Avon ought to be well enough for visitors by now," Kirk said, and rose to his feet. "I don't know if he'll be in any condition to work on those equations, though."

"As Blake said, you haven't met Avon," Jenna replied dryly. "He'd rather have a tough problem than a basket of fruit for his convalescence."

When the sickbay door slid back, Kirk thought at first that there was a war in progress. McCoy was shouting, an equally irritated, sharp-tongued, male voice was interrupting him, Chapel and Cally were apparently trying to intercede and Gan was standing by an empty diagnostic bed, supporting a rag-doll limp Vila, who was singing at the top of his lungs in an improbable Scottish accent. Kirk was uncertain what the problem was. The sheer volume of sound made it impossible for him to determine what any one person was saying.

Blake shook his head and waded into the fray. "Leave it!" he shouted.

"Thank you," Kirk said into the resulting near silence.

Blake's bellow had even startled Vila out of his singing. Unfortunately, Vila had then developed a case of hiccups. Gan whacked him on the back, trying to be helpful. This deposited the thief on the diagnostic bed, which went wild recording Vila's body functions.

"What is the meaning of this riot, Doctor?" Kirk asked.

"I am a doctor, not a jailer. I have been trying to explain to this man that you do not simply walk out of sickbay the instant you wake up from major surgery."

"Avon?" Blake walked up to the nearest diagnostic bed. His computer expert was strapped down to the bed, black clothing replaced by a loose fitting hospital tunic in pale blue. "I'm glad to see you're feeling more like your old self," Blake commented, taking in the bunched fists and the angry flush, symptomatic of Avon's resentment.

"I'm feeling like a prisoner, Blake. Get that maniac to release me. He says I'm being held for my own good. I've never believed a Federation flunky, why should I start now?"

"Because this isn't the Federation we know, Avon. Somehow, that black hole threw us into another time, long before Servalan or Travis or any of our playmates were thought of." Blake located a tidy pile of black fabric on the beside stand by Avon. He held up a scorched and blood-spattered black leather tunic. "The doctor did save your life, Avon. You should follow his medical advice."

Avon growled, "I know my own body better than any tyrannical physician could."

"If you don't agree to obey the doctor's orders, then I suppose he'll just have to keep you strapped down."

"Blake!"

"Yes, Avon?"
"All right. Just get these things off me." He glared down at the garment he was wearing. "And someone had better find me some real clothes."

Nurse Chapel stepped up to remove the straps, relieved to have things calm down. "Would you like a drink? You must be parched after the anesthesia and then all that shouting." She waited for the uncooperative patient to snap at her.

He opened his mouth, glanced past her at Blake, then subsided. "Yes, thank you." He smiled and Chapel quite forgave him his bad manners. "I would appreciate that," he said.

Chapel poured him a glass of water from a carafe, then left the room.

"A drink?" Vila warbled from the other bed, "did sombuddy mention a drink?"

"Shut up and lie down, Vila," Avon said softly. "I sincerely hope, for your sake, that the hangover will be worth it."

"Oh, it will, it will." Vila lay back on his bed, contentedly humming to himself.

Doctor McCoy walked over to Vila and took a single experimental sniff. "He's got into Scotty's private stock. Better hide that ceremonial claymore he keeps in his quarters or we'll have filleted lush for dinner."

"Scotty's me pal," Vila protested. "He `n I had a little drink an' then we came to visit ol' Avon." He peered owlishly around the room. " `s funny. I distinctly `member Scotty was right behind me."

Blake said, "I am sorry about Scott, Kirk. I'm afraid Vila was a bad influence on him."

Kirk shook his head. "We are going to have to get you people home soon. I don't think my Federation can survive you."

Spock decided it was time to restore rationality to the discussion. "To that end, I have prepared preliminary calculations on the time-warp process." He extended the sheaf of papers to Avon. "If the good doctor will permit...?"
McCoy threw up his hands. "Why does anyone bother to ask me anything? It's only my sickbay. Sure, why not, let him work himself into a relapse. He's a much better patient when he's unconscious, anyway."

"You have said the same of me, Doctor," Spock commented as he handed Avon the papers. Politely, Spock did not draw attention to the struggle Avon had to sit up without revealing too much skin. "I am surprised you did not resort to your hypo," Spock concluded.

"Would have, but he's allergic to most of the stuff," McCoy grumbled.

"These equations are quite elegant, Spock," Avon said, declining to notice the doctor. "However, you made no provision for duration."

"Unavoidable. Blake informs me that your dating system does not have a direct correspondence with ours. Therefore it is impossible to ascertain how far back in time you have traveled."

Avon nodded. "The disruptions at the time of the New Calendar did wipe out a great deal of records and wreak havoc with conventional dating systems. It should not be an insurmountable obstacle. I will have to link Orac to Liberator's controls. He will be able to pin-point our arrival." Avon grinned suddenly. "It would be interesting to bring Liberator back- oh, say, five years before we left."

"No, Avon," Cally said, alarmed, "we can't do that. We do not know what incalculable harm meddling with time could do."

"For one thing we could avoid a few of the more stupid blunders we've made. Even retract and prevent tragedy." Avon's eyes went wide and unfocused.

"No, Avon," Blake said sternly. "We can't play god. We can't change history to suit ourselves."

"Why not? Gan, wouldn't you like to save your woman's life? Cally, what if all those who died fighting beside you on Saurian Major could live again? Blake, those people who were killed in that tunnel on Earth could have been the beginnings of your army. At least, you know they kept the faith to the end."

"Stop it, Avon," Jenna said. "You know how Blake feels about those people, Don't make it any worse for him."

"I'm trying to make it better, Jenna, for all of us." Avon sighed at Blake's silent head shake. "No, I didn't really imagine that Fearless Leader would go along with it. He will allow no personal gain in his crusade."

"What of you, Avon?" Blake rumbled. "What would you have done differently? Who would you have saved?"
"Me?" Avon bared his teeth in a sneer. "Why, I would have saved myself, of course. By preventing myself from getting trapped in this rebel foolishness."

Blake read something else- a flash of pain hidden behind bravado- and he wondered who Avon had lost.

As a welcome distraction, Chapel returned at that moment bearing a folded Enterprise uniform in Sciences blue. "This should fit, Mister Avon."

Avon accepted the garments. "Thank you- and it's just Avon." He examined the clothes briefly, then laid them aside. "Adequate, if not stylish." He looked at Blake. "If I am to work with this primitive computer equipment, I would do better without distractions."

"Oh, we'll be happy to give you your privacy, won't we, Jenna?"

She nodded. "I don't know why we were worried about him, Blake. He's too nasty to die."

"Are you sure you don't want Gan or me to stay, Avon? You might need some assistance," Cally said.

"Or Doctor McCoy might," Gan remarked, mildly.

Avon scowled at them all impartially. "I have given my word to obey the doctor's inane restrictions, I do not require a bodyguard to enforce it."

"As you say, Avon." Gan smiled. "I would like to see more of this ship."

Avon waved at him. "Go, pester Kirk's people, but leave me in peace." He paused. "Spock may be useful. He may remain."

"This is my ship, Mister." Kirk did not mind his guests arguing among themselves, but the arrogance of this man ordering around his personnel grated on his nerves.

"And the sooner you allow me to complete these calculations, the sooner we will all be off your ship, Captain Kirk. Unless you want Blake to start overhauling your present political system, you should be encouraging me to hurry. Blake lives for trouble, and if there isn't any handy, he creates his own."

"I shall be happy to see you off my ship, Mister Avon. It may not be standard practice where you come from to show gratitude to the people who saved your life, but it would be wise for you to avoid antagonizing me."

"Why?" Avon sneered. "What will you do? Stand me up against a wall and shoot me?"
"If you weren't a sick man, I'd take you down to the gym and teach you a few manners." Kirk saw McCoy's disapproval and considered that it would be unfair to make the doctor repair this egocentric ass twice in one day. "As you are a sick man, I'll overlook it," Kirk said with firm control of himself.

Avon relaxed, the sneer fading into a grin. "All right, Kirk, now I believe we really have gone back in time. No Federation officer would stand for that from a prisoner."

"You were testing me?" Kirk was still hot under the collar.

"The Federation has tried some elaborate tricks on us. While I couldn't see the purpose of this, on the face of it, it was still necessary to eliminate the possibility."

"I told you what happened," Blake said.

"And I'm sure you believed every word, but you might have been mistaken. Now that I have eliminated all doubt, I can concentrate on the problem at hand."

Paranoid, Kirk decided, then he remembered that even paranoids have enemies. "All right, Mister Spock will assist you and the rest of us will leave."

The party gathered at the door. Cally stopped beside Vila's bed and attempted to get him to his feet. "Come, Vila, Avon wishes to be alone."

Vila resisted. He found his footing unstable and the bed comfortable. "Don' wanna go."

"Oh, leave him," Avon said. "Vila hardly counts as a distraction."

"Thanks, Avon," Vila said, as he poured back into the bed.

Once Avon had scowled McCoy out of the room and changed into the Enterprise uniform he concentrated on the time-warp phenomenon as outlined in Spock's notes and equations.

Vila was singing, softly, with an occasional hiccup thrown in. Avon was totally engrossed in the problem and seemed not to notice Vila at all.

Spock said, "Would you mind answering a personal question, Avon?"

Avon looked up. "I might, but you can ask, anyway."

"Most humans, I have found, would be disturbed by the presence of such an -unrestrained- individual as your Vila. Why does he not distract you?"

Avon grimaced. "If you knew the number of watches that Blake has assigned me to share with Vila you'd understand it. It has gotten to the point that I do my best thinking with his babbling in the background."

"I see, the security of having a trusted friend at hand enables you to free your mind for abstract thought, not having the necessity of remaining alert to external threat."

"I think it more likely that I was spurred by the need to prevent listening to the idiot from driving me mad." Avon's comment was barbed, while his voice was soft. The contradictions puzzled Spock, but he was accustomed to human irrationality.

Determined not to allow his patient's abrasive personality to affect the performance of his duty, McCoy returned approximately half an hour later to check on Avon. The two scientists were so engrossed in their conversation that they didn't notice the doctor. McCoy paused at Vila's bed. He had been surprised by the readings before; from the way the man acted, his blood alcohol level should have been much higher. Considering that release of inhibition by alcohol is psychological as well as physical, he decided that Vila convinced himself he was drunk. The readings were well within the stable range and McCoy turned to attend his next patient.

Vila's hand shot up and grabbed McCoy's arm. "Shhh," Vila said.

"What's the matter?" McCoy lowered his voice, expecting that an hallucination had frightened the man.

"I shouldn't interrupt Avon and his pal," Vila whispered, sounding perfectly sober to the doctor. "He's really enjoying himself, and he doesn't have much fun. I can't see that all that twiddlin' with figures is fun, but he likes it." Vila grinned. "I prefer twiddlin' with warm, curvy figures, meself."

"You aren't drunk," McCoy accused.

"Well, no. You see, Scotty needed a drinkin' mate, but I didn't want to get bombed and miss the fun, so I arranged it that he got most of the sauce. It was good stuff, too. I left him in his room, singin' about some Bonnie Charlie. I came back to keep Avon company. He isn't easy to get along with, so mostly people leave him alone, and it isn't really good for him to be alone, so I like to hang around an' annoy him."

"You like him?" McCoy was astonished.

" `Course I do. Arguing with him is one of the best bits about being stuck on Liberator . That and Adrenalin and Soma."

McCoy shook his head. "There's a psychological term for people who like being abused, Vila."

"He doesn't abuse me. I just like an argument with someone sneaky enough to give as good as I can dish out. It's a game, you see, with rules and points, an' all." Vila suddenly looked alarmed. "Don't mention any of this to Avon. That'd spoil it for sure."

"I'll treat it as a professional confidence. Now I've got to give your playmate his medication."

"Just another minute, doc. He and Spock are gettin' on like long-lost brothers."

McCoy glanced at the two men in question. Avon was now dressed the same as Spock and the resemblance amused McCoy. Two coldly logical men leaning over a computer console- two coldly logical men with dark hair, hooded brown eyes and hawk profiles. Two men with heart rates faster than normal humans, body temperature higher than human norm, blood chemistries different from human and anatomical differences from human. McCoy straightened. "I'll have Chapel give Avon his shot. I have some research of my own."

Vila smiled. "That's a good idea. Even Avon can't say no to a beautiful woman."

++++++< /P>

Doctor McCoy sat back at his desk and surveyed the information he'd drawn from the computer. His hunch had paid off and he relished delivering the verdict to that sullen, annoying man in his sickbay.

McCoy entered the ward and walked over to Avon's bed. He stood there, happily bouncing on his heels and humming until the nuisance he presented was too much for Avon to ignore.

"Yes? What is it, McCoy?" Avon snapped. He glanced at Spock, disconcerted by the doctor's smiling countenance. "Why is he so cheerful?"

"It has been my experience that Doctor McCoy is generally pleased by events that will cause his patients considerable discomfort or humiliation. Hence," he said, pointing to the discarded hospital gown, "he persists in providing this archaic and inadequate covering for those unfortunate enough to be consigned to his care."

McCoy's grin broadened.

"In that case, Doctor, will you kindly inform me of the nature of the next act of medical insult you intend to inflict on me?" Avon said.

"Oh, I'm not going to do anything, Avon. Your recovery is progressing extremely well. You don't feel any discomfort, do you?"

"No. Now, if that is all..." Avon looked at the computer screen, hinting broadly that the doctor's presence was no longer required.

"No, it's not all. I ran an analysis on you, Avon, and I got some very interesting results." McCoy shoved his tricorder into Avon's hands. "Mr. Spock can show you how to use this to check out what I'm going to tell you, I case you doubt my word or my abilities."

"I have found Doctor McCoy's skills as a physician beyond reproach," Spock said, "although his bedside manner does leave something to be desired."

McCoy grinned at Spock. "You're gonna love this, too, Spock. According to all the tests I've run on Avon, not all of his ancestors were human."

Avon shrugged. "During the years when humanity spread throughout the galaxy in inadequately shielded ships, there occurred radiation-induced mutations. A self-correcting situation, Doctor, either the results were indistinguishable from human or they were infertile. In either case, I fail to see the importance of your discovery."

"No, no, you're missing the point. I'm not saying your ancestors were mutants- although that is possible, too. What I'm saying is that some of your ancestors were not human."

"Does he always talk in circles?" Avon asked Spock.

"Invariably."

McCoy looked from one pair of irritated brown eyes to the other. The fact that both men were trying, and failing, to hide that irritation amused McCoy no end. "I was trying to break it to you gently. Wouldn't want the shock to give you a sudden relapse."

"If you do not say what you came here to say and then leave very quickly, you will suffer a sudden relapse," Avon said, eyes narrowed as he lost his patience entirely.

"Don't say I didn't warn you. Somewhere back in your family tree, Avon, there was a green-blooded, pointy- eared elf swinging from one of the branches. In other words- a Vulcan."

Avon looked at Spock calmly, then back at the doctor. "Thank you, McCoy, you have relieved my mind. For a moment, I was afraid that you were going to claim I was related to you ."

Spock said, "I did remark that Avon was more intelligent than was usual for a human. This revelation, of course, makes the matter understandable."

McCoy spluttered. Behind him, he heard Vila laughing.

"Two points for the Corsican brothers," the thief smirked.

Avon said, very sweetly, "Vila?"

The thief immediately regretted his outburst. "Um. Yes, Avon?"

"Shut up."

Avon and Spock confirmed McCoy's findings. Entire sections of Avon's DNA chain revealed their origins in linkages common among Vulcans and statistically so rare among humans as to be virtually impossible. One or two such coincidental links could be found in a human, but not the dozens of matches a random sampling of Avon's genes produced.

Avon was more intrigued than disturbed, but after Vila had made several cracks about rabbit ears he felt that it was time to discourage the unseemly personal assault. "I wonder, Doctor, if you could perform a genetic check on Vila."

"I could, but there wasn't anything unusual about his readings."

"You ought to look again, Doctor. I'm certain that there must be a high percentage of sloth in his DNA and a healthy share of Sus scrofa. "

"What's that when it's at home?" Vila asked suspiciously, looking up from his comfortable sprawl.

"Generally, Vila, like you, it is at home in a sty. It also enjoys wallowing in filth. I mention the last because of a certain vis-tape which you smuggled aboard Liberator after our last planet leave."

"That wasn't filth, Avon. That was art." Vila protested automatically. "and how would you know what is was unless you watched it? It didn't have a title on the case."

"It did get boring on the late watch," Avon admitted.

On the bridge of the Enterprise, or flight deck, as his guests called it, Captain Kirk was concluding his tour. Since Liberator's less civilized pair had not participated, it had gone smoothly.

Gan had especially enjoyed the hydroponics chamber, where fresh food in a few hardy, fast growing varieties was produced to supplement ship's stores. He treasured the small packet of seeds he'd been given and was considering the best place in Liberator to begin his garden.

Blake had found the engineering section interesting, but that part of the tour was cut short when Scotty showed up. He had been a little the worse for wear and definitely grumpy, in no fit state for visitors.

Cally was polite, but the ship itself was unimportant to her. She would have liked to talk with the crew. She was curious to know what their Federation was like. Judging it discourteous to interrupt the captain's tour, she settled for reading what she could of the crew's emotions.

Jenna wished she could return the favor and show off her ship. Despite Avon's desire for it and Blake's calm assumption of possession, she knew Liberator was hers. Zen knew it, too. It would have been satisfying to show her pride and joy to a commander who loved his ship the way Kirk did. Blake thought of Liberator as a weapon for his Cause - Jenna thought of Liberator as her home. It would take a lot to make her give up her ship. There was only one person for whom she'd even consider the idea- the big rebel who was pacing beside Kirk.

"You have a fine ship, Kirk," Blake said, "but I prefer my own." He gazed out at Liberator. He had few occasions to see his ship from the perspective of another flight deck. The bridge crew had been admiring her when the turbo-lift brought the tour to its conclusion. Blake overheard the navigation officer's remark about it being `one fein leddy'. He agreed with the young man.

"Understandable," Kirk replied, "and, as I prefer my own, jealousy will not interfere with our appreciation."

Jenna was irked by this possessive talk about her ship. To distract herself and prevent undiplomatic words from slipping out of her mouth, she went forward to observe the helm and navigation consoles. She had been introduced to many of Kirk's officers in the course of the tour, but these were the two whose names she had made certain to remember. In her opinion, they held the most interesting positions.

The helmsman, Sulu, was serious and extremely polite as he explained the various monitors and controls at his console. Jenna nodded, intent. She was surprised at the abilities this ancient ship possessed.

The navigation officer, Chekov, amused her. At every opportunity, including some that were pretty far-fetched, Chekov praised Russia's contribution to space technology, culture, and the great inventions of humanity.

Sulu seemed to think nothing of it, but Jenna thought it bordered on obsession. "If Russians are so active in space technology, Chekov, why isn't everyone on Enterprise Russian?"

"Mother Russia is so werry beautiful that it is hard to leave her," he informed Jenna.

"Yes, I can understand that," Jenna replied. "Not everyone has as much gypsy in their soul as I do."

"Geepsie?" Chekov was delighted. "You hev geepsie blood? Some of the most famous geepsie tribes are really Russian, you know thet?"

Jenna laughed.

Spock called from sickbay to say that he and Avon had finished the calculations. The tour group left.

Chekov sighed. "Such a vaste, thet beautiful leddy vill be leaving us soon."

"The Liberator can't stay much longer," Sulu said. "Those Romulans might come back spoiling for a fight."

"I vasn't talking about thet beautiful leddy. I was talking about the blonde geepsie. It would hev been nice to take her dancing and trinking vodka in Moscow. It is the most romantic city on Earth."

"I thought that was Paris."

"As soon as McCoy releases me from his sickbay, I would like to return to Liberator to begin linking Orac to the flight systems." Avon was brisk. He hated being incapacitated; worse, he hated being made helpless. He wasn't going to forgive McCoy for those restraints. The sooner he was out of McCoy's domain, the better.

"Wait just a minute," McCoy complained as Avon rose from the bed.

"I have already waited far longer than I wished, and I have no intention of remaining any longer." Avon gained his feet and glared at the doctor.

Cally came close and took Avon's arm. "Why are you so insistent? You know you aren't well enough yet."

Avon would have shaken off her hand, but his balance was too precarious. It would have been undignified to sprawl on the floor at McCoy's feet. "Liberator will have restored life-support by now. I can rest in my own cabin and be ready to begin work without unnecessary delay."

"You need at least eight hours sleep to let the regeneration of the burned tissue set," McCoy stated firmly. "I won't be responsible for the consequences if you leave before then."

"Fine. I'll be responsible." Balance or no, Avon shook Cally's hand off and headed for the door. He passed the doctor and said, "You aren't going to...", and slumped.

McCoy caught Avon under the arms. The computer tech's brown eyes glared as McCoy removed the hypo from his arm and wrestled him back onto the bed.

"That'll teach you. In my sickbay, I'm the only one who's responsible." McCoy checked the monitors. "This should keep you out of mischief for at least eight hours."

Avon fought the sedation long enough to growl, "This is unethical," before he fell asleep.

"Stubborn, isn't he?" McCoy smiled. "You know, I like him much better like this."

"It was, however, unethical." Spock agreed with Avon. "And, as he is allergic to your noxious compounds, unwise."

"Once I found the reason for his allergies, it was simple to find a harmless sedative for him. He'll wake up his usual, lovable self."

Cally looked down at the sleeping man, resisting the impulse to straighten the vagrant lock of hair over his forehead. "Why does Avon have so many allergies, Doctor?" Orac had gotten Avon's medical records for her and she had discovered that Avon's resistance to Federation interrogation was only partly due to his will-power. The rest was simply that the interrogators couldn't use their most effective drugs without killing him.

"He's part Vulcan- his body chemistry isn't quite standard human. In fact, I'd say he's got a lot of little Vulcan quirks, wouldn't you, Spock?"

"As one Vulcan attribute is a long memory, Doctor, I recommend that you not stand too close to him when he awakens," Spock said.

"Next planet ought to do," Vila said. "Maybe."

"I'm going to kill McCoy," Avon promised.

"Why?" Vila handed Avon the outfit Cally had fetched from Liberator. Vila had wanted to go, but Blake refused to let him. He was still a bit hurt about that. The ship was fully recharged and Avon was fully recovered. Avon was also infuriated. Vila tried to calm him down. "He didn't want you to undo all the work he put in on you. You were a real mess when they brought you in here, you know."

"And whose fault was that?" Avon snapped, accepting the clothes. Cally had thoughtfully chosen Avon's favorite silver tunic and black trousers. Getting back into his own garments eased Avon's pique, slightly.

"Er, well, accidents happen." Vila looked around quickly. "I brought you a present, something I picked up when no one was looking." He dug into his capacious pockets and produced a handful of dull crystals. "I wasn't sure, but I thought maybe you could use these in place of the weaponry crystals that got busted."

Avon took the crystals and examined them. He smiled. "These should do nicely, Vila. Well done." Before the thief could puff up too much from the unwonted praise, Avon tossed the crystals back to him. "Now, hide them before Fearless Leader sees them."

Too late. Blake entered the room with Kirk beside him. Vila gulped. The two leaders wore identical expressions of anger, and all of it was directed at him. He tried to sidle behind Avon, but Blake held the computer expert back with one hand.

"We'll be going, Avon. As soon as Vila gives back the dilithium crystals he took."

"Dilithi- whatsis? Never heard of it." Vila squirmed under the combined glare of Kirk's and Blake's displeasure. "Oh, you mean these?" He handed Blake the crystals. "They didn't look like much, I thought maybe they were rock samples that were being tossed out. I thought maybe I could polish them up a bit and make a necklace for Jenna or Cally. You know me, I like to be generous."

"Yes, I do know you, Vila." Blake gave the dilithium to Kirk. "If I hadn't asked Kirk if there was anything on this ship that looked like gems, he wouldn't have known his spare power crystals were gone until we left. That would have been a poor payment for his hospitality."

Vila withstood the dressing-down in silence, but Avon felt no need to restrain himself. He brushed past the thief to stand toe-to-toe with Blake.

"Wonderful! Our lives depend on those crystals. You make certain we won't have them and then give us self-righteous speeches about morality. We'll see how moral you are when we're back in our own time, being blown apart by the nearest pursuit ship without any way of fighting back. I do hope we last long enough for you to deliver another impassioned speech on `thou shalt not steal'."

"Enough, Avon! They saved all our lives- yours twice over. How could you let Vila steal from them?" Blake glared back at the smaller man.

"They were only the spare crystals. They have the whole Federation behind them. They can fill out a requisition form and get more any time they like. Where the hell are we going to get more? Provided we live long enough to look."

"I said, enough!" Blake turned to Kirk. "Never mind the family squabbles, Kirk. We are all grateful for what you've done for us. Aren't we, Avon?" He pinned the computer tech with a glare and Avon turned away, muttering something under his breath that was better not heard too clearly. Blake sighed. "It's times like these that I envy you, Kirk."

Kirk shook his head. "Oh, I don't know. At least you don't have to deal with Star Fleet bureaucracy. Requisition forms in triplicate." Kirk juggled the crystals in his hand, then tossed them back to Blake. "Don't tell anyone, but I seem to have misplaced some dilithium crystals." He walked out of the room, saying, "Requisition form A-31259, Dilithium crystals, loss due to uncharted navigational hazard. That ought to cover it."

Blake smiled smugly and pocketed the crystals.

"Oh, you are very good at that, I must admit," Avon said.

"What, Avon?" Blake asked.

"Manipulating others into doing what you want, and making them grateful for the privilege."

"Being honest can hardly be considered manipulation, Avon. Captain Kirk is a good man and he did what he felt to be the right thing. Get ready, Avon. Kirk is going to return us to Liberator. That is, provided you feel up to it."

"I'm ready." Avon strode past Blake, then paused in the corridor, waiting for Blake to lead the way to the transporter room. "Don't let your success with Kirk go to your head. I will not be led by the nose so easily."

Vila sighed and left the sickbay after them.

Scotty was in the transporter room, waiting for them. He appeared to have recovered from his meeting with Vila.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy were also there to see their visitors on their way.

Much to Avon's disgust, McCoy insisted on a last minute examination by tricorder. Avon suspected it was merely an attempt to annoy him further and stood in thin-lipped silence until it was done.

"Live Long and Prosper, Avon," Spock said, holding up his right hand, fingers separated at the second and third digits, forming the Vulcan salute.

"Live Long and Prosper, Spock,"Avon replied, returning the gesture.

Spock held out a pair of computer disks. "Everything in the Enterprise's computer banks concerning Vulcan is on these disks. I trust that you will be able to access them in this format."

"If I can't, then Orac can." Avon accepted the disks. "Thank you."

Blake took his position on the platform and his people filled in around him; Jenna on his left, Avon on his right, Vila, Cally and Gan in the back row.

Vila had paused to say goodbye to Scotty and was noticeably bulgy about the middle after the engineer slipped him a parcel when Blake wasn't looking in their direction.

"Good luck, Blake," Kirk said. He surveyed Blake's motley crew and smiled. "I think you're going to need it."

"You're telling us?" Vila said as the beam took them.

++++++

Liberator was back to normal, all systems functioning, lights bright, air flowing- and Avon and Blake arguing.

"It is good to be back, is it not, Avon?" Cally asked, as she resumed her place on the flight deck.

"It's an improvement on McCoy's torture chamber," Avon said. "Orac, I have some calculations for you. In orbiting that black hole, we went through a time-warp..."

*Yes, yes, I know,* Orac replied, *and it has been most inconvenient. Prior to the introduction of Tarriel cells, the primitive computer systems which now exist are nearly unintelligible. I must have access to my usual data banks. My research has been delayed intolerably.*

"I sympathize, Orac. It is difficult to be forced to associate with one's intellectual inferiors. I have calculations on the time-warp which should enable us to return to our proper time and your data banks. I will need you to control the ship and implement break-out at the appropriate point in the orbit. Can you do it, Orac?"

*Of course, I can,* Orac sniffed. *Give me those calculations.*

Orac buzzed and hummed when Avon fed the data into a reader on the console , the small computer drawing the information from Liberator's interpreters. *It will be a simple process. Simple for me- mere human reflexes would be unable to derive the necessary degree of precision from Liberator. *

"Does that mean you can do it with one Tarriel cell tied behind your back?" Vila asked.

*I fail to see what purpose that remark served.*

"I didn't miss him," Vila said. "Enterprise's computer was not only polite, it was female. Avon, are you sure you can't reprogram him?"

"Zen, contact Enterprise, " Blake ordered. "Put it on the main screen."

Blake stood before his crew, radiating his satisfaction at being returned to his flight deck, with his people. Kirk's crew had been assigned; Blake had relied on a toss of fate's dice. He had been fortunate, he thought.

"Captain Kirk, we all want to thank you once more for your assistance. We'll remember."

"Considering when you're returning to, I'll take that as a form of immortality. Thank you, Blake. I wish you a safe journey home."

"All right, Jenna, take us to that other black hole Kirk's located for us - the one outside of Romulan space. We can do without stirring up that hornet's nest again."

Liberator moved gracefully away from Enterprise.

++++++

*That is much better,* Orac said smugly. Liberator had slowed down sufficiently after the wild time-warp ride for Jenna to resume control of the ship. *Now I can return to worthwhile research. Kindly do not disturb me.* The computer wailed as Avon slipped out his key.

"I have research of my own to conduct," Avon remarked, toying with the disks Spock had given him.

Blake reached into his pocket and withdrew the dilithium crystals. "After we install these, Avon."

Blake and Avon left the flight deck to carry out the vital maintenance on the weaponry systems.

Jenna began running routine systems checks and the others resumed their normal day-watch habits.

Gan and Cally pulled out the Pyramids game board and began setting it up on the table in front of the flight deck couch. Vila joined them, but his eyes kept wandering to the pair of computer disks which Avon had left behind, on top of his console.

Gan noticed the direction of Vila's gaze and pointed firmly back to the game. "Knowing Avon," Gan warned, "he probably left that there to tempt you, Vila."

"Yeah." Vila shook his head. "He knows I can resist anything but temptation." He shuddered. "It's a scary thought, isn't it? Just imagine, a whole planet full of Avons."

Cally smiled.


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