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By Marian Mendez
Page 2 of 10

"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."

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