Fountain
by Scribe

Main Characters: Seven, OFCs

Summary:

While attempting to negotiate membership for Hadir Prime to join the Federation, Chris Larabee and the crew of the Maverick discover the Hadir have their own ways of testing the Starfleet officers. Reduced to ten-year olds, the senior staff are sent on a mythical quest to find the Fountain that will turn them back to their adult selves. Meanwhile, JD Dunne finds himself in charge of the Maverick, just as a group of Orion raiders arrive to plunder Hadir.

Author's Notes:
- Please note that Setlan and Veer are homages to my favourite characters on Babylon 5.
- The names of the supporting characters in Chapter 7 are people dear to my heart. I apologise for misappropriating you :)

Tenth story in the Star Trek: Maverick series Follows Mirror.


Prologue: Mission to Hadir

"Captain's Log, Stardate 2378.84:

It is good to be back on the bridge of the Maverick after two months away from my ship. The damage caused by the Vrihan fleet has been repaired, with our cloaking device restored and our armaments boosted now that there is a possibility of a rogue Romulan presence in the Frontier. Our complement of quantum torpedoes has been increased, along with an additional phaser array fitted to our saucer section. Our remaining systems still utilising isolinear chips have been switched over to the bio-neural circuitry. Thanks to the revised treaty of Algeron, we are now authorised to use our cloak whether we engage the Borg.

Our current mission has the Maverick on route to the planet Hadir Prime, located on the far side of the Setisar Nebula. Hadir Prime, a planet rich in pergium deposits, has begun tentative inquiries to the Federation about acquiring membership. Since the collapse of the Romulan Empire, they have been plagued by raiders who are taking advantage of the situation to conduct raids on their mining operations. In exchange for membership, the Hadir are offering the Federation exclusive rights to all pergium manufactured on the planet. As pergium is a vital energy source for most of our colonies and starbases in this sector, Starfleet has charged me with ensuring Hadir Prime's application for Federation membership goes forward smoothly."

*******

"What do we know about the Hadir?" Vin Tanner asked from the conn as the Maverick continued at high warp towards the planet they would be arriving in less than a day. The helmsman asked no one in particular, simply wanting to make conversation, as he stared at the stars rushing past the view screen while the Maverick journeyed through the warp field.

Mary Travis looked up from the data pad she was perusing. As always, she was a picture of elegance as she took up her customary position flanking the Captain's command chair.

"Not much," she answered Vin. "I have tried to conduct as much research since we were handed this assignment but there isn't a great deal to know about them. Over the years, our contact with them has been limited due to the extreme distance of Hadir from the core worlds. There are reports of them being highly advanced, having made the most of the pergium on the planet to eliminate most societal problems of overpopulation, hunger and disease. From all accounts, they're an intelligent, peaceful people with no established military of their own, which is unusual but does explain why they're asking for membership."

"That's odd isn't it?" JD Dunne asked from the navigation station. "I mean I would have thought most races would have had a military, even a small one." The younger man looked to the senior officers in question.

"It is," Alexandra Styles replied from her science station. "Purely pacifistic societies are usually highly advanced, we've seen this in the Argelians, Grazerites, Metrons and Organians. Although I have to admit, those species usually have some form of protection that doesn't require weaponry. In the case of the Metrons and the Organians, they've evolved beyond the needs for physical bodies and are classified as a higher order of life."

"Is that what the Hadir are?" JD asked, thinking it would be fascinating to meet life forms like the Organians, whose abilities were almost Q like in power, but were a benevolent people abhorring any form of violence.

"We're not sure yet JD," Buck Wilmington answered the young man, remembering what it was like to be new to exploration, and filled with a thousand questions. "However, we can assume that by asking for our protection, they must be corporeal at least."

"I wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth," Chris Larabee provided his own input in answering the ensign's question. "I for one am pleased to meet a peaceful race, who just want to go about their business and keep the dogs off their lawn."

"Captain," Ezra Standish made a face from his security console. "I do wish you would use another reference, I despise being relegated to the role of animal control."

"Oh, come on Ezra," Vin remarked, "ain't you gotten over having to retrieve that hamster from conduit 32?"

A small ripple of laughter moved across the bridge with Ezra responding with the greatest dignity. "For your information, it was a gerbil and what exactly is the moratorium on that particular incident?"

"Oh, I would say never," Buck grinned, sharing a playful smirk with the helmsman from the First Officer's chair. "Cheer up Ezra, I for one am looking forward to sampling all the delights of a new, alien race."

"Oh great," Alex rolled her eyes, "do we need to give you a snorkel, so you can go diving?"

She did not say for what, but it was implied. Another burst of laughter moved across the bridge from those present. After two months away from the Maverick, it was obvious the bridge crew had missed their interaction and Buck and Alex's verbal sparring was always amusing to hear. While the duo were almost best friends, Alex's view on Buck's mating habits was well known.

She considered them a notch above randy goat.

"We do not even know if Hadiran women are humanoid," Ezra pointed out. "For all we know, there could be tentacles and sucker pads."

"Would that matter?" JD quipped, flashing a grin at Buck as he said so. More laughter followed, and Buck grinned at JD's comment, not at all offended and pleased to see the kid gaining more confidence around his senior peers and allowing himself to be heard, even at the first officer's expense. What the hell, Buck thought, he was big enough to take some gentle ribbing.

"Buck," Chris weighed in good-naturedly. "Starfleet wants Hadir Prime to gain Federation membership. I don't want the candidacy process to be compromised by having to deal with a dozen angry fathers after your head."

"It won't be his head they're after," Mary remarked with a sly smile.

Buck could only offer one response after the imagery flashed in his mind. "Ouch."

*******

Adam Larabee sat in Four Corners, slightly dazzled by the rush of stars sweeping past the window as the ship travelled at warp, sipping hot chocolate and contemplating the strange course his life had taken. Six weeks earlier, he had been a soldier in the Resistance, fighting Romulans in an alternate dimension. Now, he was just a teenager, without responsibility, with a father he'd never known, in a place that was paradise in comparison to where he had been. Even after five weeks in this universe, it was still taking some getting used to.

As if the state of the universe wasn't disconcerting enough, he was still accustoming himself to the different versions of people he was meeting. Most notably, of course, was Vin Tanner, whose incarnation in Adam's home universe was the Commander of the Tal Shiar, Svinak. Yet, one only had to spend five minutes in Vin's company to know he was nothing like his other version. While Adam was still getting used to not searching for a weapon every time he saw the man, Adam had to admit Vin Tanner seemed like a good guy.

Ezra Standish too, took some getting used to and while the man played cards like a Denebian sabretooth raptor, he was nothing like the opportunist Adam had known and found of all the people on the Maverick, it was Ezra whom Adam felt most comfortable talking to. Just as surprising was the presence of JD Dunne, who in that other life was a good friend and it stung a bit, this version didn't recognise him. Considering what they'd gotten up to in their youth on Ceti Alpha, it was somewhat disappointing JD didn't know him.

Then, of course, there was his father, Chris Larabee.

The crew had accepted he was Chris Larabee's son without question, their loyalty to their Captain allowing none of them to taint his happiness by reacting to the peculiarities of the situation. To distinguish him from the Adam who passed away five years ago, Adam was given a middle name, something he never had before. So now he was identified in official records as Adam H Larabee, the H standing for Henry, the name of his grandfather on his mother's side.

After his rescue from the alternate dimension, his father had taken him to Earth and Adam saw for the first time, the world of his birth. He saw the place where his father had grown up, the Texas ranch Vin Tanner had been good enough to let them use, the Pacific Ocean and as many sights of Earth that could be managed in the scant time afforded them. During the trip, Adam got a chance to know his father and found the Captain of the Maverick to be a little overprotective, but generally cautious about crowding in on him. Adam couldn't say he minded because his mother had been the same way.

Now that the Maverick had shipped out of Deep Space Five, Adam found he had time on his hands and that was something he was unaccustomed to. Everything had been a fight for survival for most of his life and now that he was faced with an existence when he could simply live, he wasn't certain what to do with his time. There seemed to be so much of it now.

"You look like a young man with a lot on his mind," he heard a voice rising above the chatter of the other visitors to Four Corners, addressing him specifically. It was midday by the Maverick's chronometer and most of the occupants in Four Corners were a mixture of families and off-duty crew. While the place was nowhere busy, there was just enough chatter for Adam to tune it out like the drone of white noise.

Josiah Sanchez stood in front of Adam Larabee's table, smiling at the boy who looked somewhat pensive as he stared into the stars ahead. Considering the upheaval in his life of late, Josiah couldn't blame Adam for feeling a little out of his depth.

"Josiah," Adam greeted with a smile and then remembered this was a different version of the man. "You look different without an eye patch."

Josiah crooked a brow. "An eye patch? Like a pirate?"

"No," Adam shook his head. "Like a badass who kicked nine colours of Klingon butt and lost his eye in the process."

"I did tangle with a Jem'Hadar once," Josiah admitted. "But I managed to keep my pretty face intact."

Adam laughed at that. "Would you like to sit?" He asked politely, his association with the Josiah he knew too strong for Adam to react to the man with anything but instant liking. "You're the ship's counsellor, aren't you?"

"I am," Josiah took up the invitation and sat across the young man at his table.

Adam stared at him for a moment, trying to equate this eloquent, soft-spoken man with the hard, grizzled war machine he knew for most of his life. That Josiah had been a gruff, hardened warrior with little patience to suffer fools, but Adam had adored him after they encountered each other in the colony he grew up in. He wondered if he would like this version as much.

"I don't need a counsellor," Adam pointed out. "Just saying, my head's fine. Nothing rattling in here."

"Doesn't have to be for me to listen," the Counsellor said smoothly, seeing the similarities in his behaviour that was so much like his father, it was uncanny. Like Chris, Adam's determination to solve his problems on his own was very much a Larabee trait, Josiah realised.

"I'm okay, really," Adam assured him. "I'm just getting used to all this." He swept his gaze across Four Corners, at the sight of the pristine locale, the drop dead gorgeous bartender and the crew and families who did not know a day behind the high wire of slaving camps.

Even though this was a different Josiah, Adam found him easy to talk to, mostly because of his affection for the other Josiah Sanchez, masters of arms in the Resistance. The old warrior had always been happy to listen and impart truths to Adam when he needed it. He was one of the few male influences Adam had in his life. He wondered if this one would have similar pearls of wisdom.

"I can appreciate how overwhelming it might all be," the Counsellor regarded the young man. "After where you have been, peacetime is hard to take. "

"Yeah," Adam had to admit. "It's strange, not having to worry about who's watching me, whether the person I speak to next could be a Rommie spy. Hell, I have a bed now. I've never had a bed, it's always been a bunk or a bedroll."

Despite himself, the Counsellor felt his stomach lurch at that. He thought of his two daughters, Mara and Thalia, how he'd love walking into their bedroom when they were children, seeing the delightful evidence of their childhood hanging on the walls, the stuffed animals and toys, covering the floor and bed. No matter how many times he and Alya would tell them to pick up after themselves, that perennial mess would remain and only after the girls had moved out on their own, did Josiah realised how much he missed that chaos.

"How're things with your father?" Josiah asked, aware there was a vast difference between acknowledging the relationship and cohabitating. The boy was still grieving for his mother and in a short space of time, he acquired a father he never knew. While Adam seemed comfortable enough with the situation, it had to take some adjustment. Not just for Chris, who had to contend with a teenager, but for Adam who had to deal with a father, which was a very different dynamic than the close relationship he shared with the Mary Travis of that other universe.

"We're getting along fine," Adam answered neutrally. Although inwardly, Adam thought they were tiptoeing around each other, uncertain of how they ought to be behaving. It wasn't like the familiarity shared with his mother and Adam sort of missed it, but he was uncertain of how to bridge that gulf and he suspected neither did his father.

"No problems at all?" Josiah hid the scepticism in his voice.

"No," Adam replied, certain the man could see straight through him. "No problems at all."

*******

Seated at the bar not far from where Josiah and Adam were currently discussing the younger Larabee's cohabitation with the master of the vessel, was the Chief Engineer of the Maverick. Julia Pemberton was taking a much-needed break as she stared into the tall glass of the Pina Colada she had yet to touch, trying to find enlightenment in the swirl of rum, pineapple and coconut milk. Lamenting its inability to provide her with answers, Julia was accustomed to being able to work around most problems. However, the answer to dealing with the impending calamity coming towards her at warp speed remained elusive.

Taking a sip of her drink, she wondered if she was overreacting.

"I know it's only synthehol," Inez Recillos paused in front of her, catching a glimpse of the titian-haired beauty's sombre expression and felt compelled to investigate. "But isn't it early for drinks with little umbrellas in it?"

"It's never too early for drinks with umbrellas in it," Julia grumbled and raised her emerald coloured eyes to the sultry Latin beauty who ruled supreme over Four Corners. "I have a serious problem."

Inez raised a brow and looked at her suspiciously, although it was difficult to take seriously the problems of a woman drinking a Pina Colada. "When the Chief Engineer of the Maverick states we have a serious problem, that gives me concern Senorita."

"Oh, the ship's fine," Julia took a deep sip from the swirly straw and pulled the cherry from the toothpick attached to the edge of the glass, with her teeth. "The Maverick is the one man in my life who doesn't give me trouble. No, I'm talking about the other one."

The other being Ezra Standish, Inez guessed and listened intently. It certainly could not be any worse than listening to Charlotte Richmond claim she would never get promoted because Alex Styles was punishing her for almost sleeping with Vin. Or Drew Katovit's fears his new girlfriend was moving too fast because she'd started replicating his clothes. Worse yet, trying to offer solace to Ensign Plyford's who was worried about her expertise with the oboe may not be up to the standards of Commander Oxley who ruled the ship's classical music society.

"You mean Ezra?" Inez rosed a brow. "I was under the impression everything was going well between the two of you."

"It is," Julia frowned and decided perhaps a friendly ear might serve better than the non-existent advice in her relationship bible, the Cosmo News Feed. "My parents want to meet Ezra."

After a year together, Inez was rather surprised it hadn't already happened. Of course, it was difficult for her to make such a judgement since Inez and Raphael had been childhood sweethearts who lived in the same village and whose families were so intertwined, it was a redundant gesture.

"Why is this a problem?"

Aside from being one of the most respected investigators in the quadrant, Ezra Standish was the Security Chief on one of the most prestigious ships in Starfleet. While it was not the flagship like the Enterprise, the Maverick certainly ranked as a plum assignment, most would be happy to get. Furthermore, Ezra was a senior bridge officer and a lieutenant commander, certainly good material as a potential suitor in the eyes of any parent.

"Are you kidding?" Julia threw her hands up in exasperation. "You should have seen what it was like when we got Huxley! When I mentioned the possibility of living together, Ezra jumped in a runabout and went to another dimension! If I told him he had to meet my parents, he'll take the first shuttle to the Gamma Quadrant and I'll never see him again. The man has serious commitment issues!"

"Haven't you two been seeing each other for a year now?" Inez inquired.

Like the rest of the ship, Inez was aware the Security Chief had been smitten with Julia Pemberton the instant he came on board the Maverick and laid eyes on her. While the two had weathered some difficulties over the last year, particularly after the invasion by the Accrans, theirs was probably one of the least turbulent relationships on board the Maverick. It was obvious to anyone who saw them together, how much in love with each other they were, but Inez had to admit, after a year, they should be moving to the next level of the relationship. And owning a cat together didn't count.

"Yes," Julia nodded. "I thought he was ready after we got Huxley, but I don't think he likes cats. How can a man not like cats? What if we have children and he doesn't like them! According to my Cosmo News Feed, that is the sign of a man who isn't ready for commitment!"

"There's a big difference between children and a Persian that apparently feels the need to destroy fine fabrics," Inez pointed out, having heard the Security Chief grumble about the feline once or twice in the bar. Apparently, Huxley had little respect for Ezra's refined tastes and had laid waste to more than one piece of furniture.

"But Cosmo..."

"For the love of God, stop reading that junk!" Inez said exasperated, noting the data pad in front of her. She picked up the thing and perused the articles displayed. "How to land a man who loves too many women?" She stared at the article for a moment before shaking her head and putting it down again. She'd read it later.

"It's a guilty pleasure!" Julia declared. "I mean, look at Vin and Alex, they didn't have any problems with commitment. They met the same time as me and Ezra and now they're married!"

"Oh yeah," Inez rolled her eyes, "let's use Vin and Alex as an example, I mean forgetting the whole Pon Farr thing where he went barking mad and she had to fight him to the death. That's real normal."

"My parents will be at Deep Space Five the next time we put in," Julia sighed draining her glass. "They want to meet Ezra and I just know if I tell him about it, he's going to let himself be assimilated by the Borg to get out of meeting them."

Chapter One: Eccentric

From space, Hadir Prime seemed like an oasis in the wilderness.

Staring at it through the view screen once the Maverick arrived at the planet a day later, the display presented a lush, green world through swirls of snow-white clouds, with half the surface covered in oceans, not unlike that of Earth. On the far side of the planet, the crescent shape of twin moons peered back at them almost shyly. The beauty of the planet tugged at those of them on the bridge, still longing for Earth after their recent shore leave.

"It's a pretty place," Buck commented as the bridge crew took in the sight of the iridescent jewel displayed before them. "One of the more hospital M-Class planets we've come across in the Frontier."

"Definitely," Chris agreed, studying the world and then looked over his shoulder at Alex. "What do your scans say."

"Definitely Minshara Class," the science officer did not look up from her science station as she gave her report. "Fifty per cent of the planet's surface is water, with a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, with abundant life readings. One of the two moons is capable of supporting life. There is a population of two billion people and at least five major cities. I'm detecting a highly sophisticated pergium energy system, far more advanced than we're currently employing in our colonies. I'm having trouble scanning below the planet's surface but that would be consistent with the interference from pergium radiation."

"Can we get a view of their capital?" Mary asked Chris. "I believe it's called Azalea."

"JD?" Chris glanced at the navigator.

"Sure Captain," JD replied and tapped his console. No sooner than he replied in the affirmative, the image of Azalea appeared before them.

The capital of Hadir Prime, Azalea reflected a highly advanced civilisation on par with the core worlds of the Federation such as Earth, Trill, Andoria and even Vulcan. With tall, gleaming towers of marble and glass, the city was punctuated by numerous plazas, parks, statues and gardens, making it not only an inviting place to live but a great place for the crew while they conducted their negotiations with the Tribunal, the ruling authority on the planet. Aside from the recreational facilities, the city boasted shops and restaurants, places of interests that included museums, zoos and large markets.

"Shore leave?" Buck asked Chris, as they took in the sight of the sprawling city before them.

"We can ask," Chris remarked in agreement.

"Captain," Ezra spoke up. "I've scanned the planet and it is as they have claimed, they do not appear to have any kind of weapons. I have detected a number of orbital platforms but from what I can discern, they are mostly for the purposes of communications and environmental study."

"So, they're out here totally defenceless?" Vin remarked. The world was quite beautiful and judging by the sight of the city, quite prosperous. It was no wonder they were having trouble with raiders. Hadir Prime looked ripe for plunder.

"It appears so," Chris answered. "With the collapse of the Romulan Empire and the Neutral Zone, Romulan ships that used to patrol this side of the border are now gone, raiders are trespassing through their space to reach Hadir. I can understand why Hadir would be asking for protection. If they get Federation membership, we may be able to establish a base in this area, the same way we've established one over Lysia."

"We should be within sensor range by now," Buck commented when almost on cue, the familiar beep from JD's communication console filled the air.

"Captain," JD spoke up a second later, "We're being hailed."

"I guess they know we're here," Chris threw a glance at both Mary and Buck one after the other. "Put it through," Chris nodded at the ensign.

The view screen flickered to life, revealing a humanoid looking man in his sixties, with snow-white hair and an ornate tattoo on the side of his face. With a round nose and rosy cheeks, the cerulean coloured tattoo which ran from his temple to his chin resembled a bird of some kind. The man did not look at the screen. Instead, his attention was focused on a pin on the lapel of his tunic, tapping it insistently with growing annoyance, unaware he had an audience.

"Is this thing on? Can they hear me? Well, of course, I know how it works! I didn't get to be a Head Tribune because of my pretty face you know?" The man snapped heatedly at someone beyond the view of the screen. "If you can get it to work, then come down here or else you can kiss my big hairy..." he turned his head just enough to notice he was facing the Captain of the Maverick before he burst into a wide smile. "Oh, there you are! Hello!"

With supreme effort, Chris managed to maintain a straight face, even though the rest of his crew was struggling to remain composed. Buck had to cover his face with his hand, suddenly clearing his throat. Mary was suddenly examining something on the skirt of her dress with deep scrutiny, while Alex was tapping furiously on her science station console while Ezra, ever the consummate gambler, maintained his perfect poker face. Vin's unflappable expression managed to hold firm too, while JD simply stared, too astonished to imagine this was anything but someone's idea of a joke.

"Hello," Chris returned the greeting, albeit with less exuberance, although his amusement was apparent to all who knew him. "I'm Captain Christopher Larabee of the Federation starship USS Maverick. We're pleased to meet you."

"Well that's too much of a mouthful to say if we are to be friends Captain," the man continued to smile, exuding a warmth that somehow managed to cross space to fill the bridge. "I'll just call you Chris. That's alright isn't it Chris? I mean if we're going to be a part of one happy Federation, we might as well start off on the right foot."

This time, Chris couldn't help but smile. "Not at all. My friends call me Chris and you are?"

"My name is Corban Setlan, I'm the Head Tribune of Hadir Prime and once again, on behalf of my planet, we welcome you and your crew. As you can imagine, our remote location does not allow us to get many visitors, so we are extremely excited to meet all of you...Oh my is that a Vulcan?" The man exclaimed suddenly.

Vin stared blankly at the screen and looked over his shoulder at Chris, uncertain whether he ought to be upset or amused at being singled out. He hated anyone taking notice of his Vulcan heritage, especially when he was completely severed from his people.

"Yes," Chris exchanged a glance with Vin, somewhat taken back by how easily distracted this man appeared to be. "Lieutenant Tanner is a Vulcan."

"How fascinating," Setlan grinned. "The lieutenant must come down. We've never seen a Vulcan before. Is it true they only mate once every seven years?"

Vin just about choked on his spit while Alex who was at her science station muttered under her breath. "Thank God, no."

The comment reached Ezra's ears and succeeded in cracking the Security Chief's impenetrable facade and he flashed her a dimpled smile, which Alex returned with a dark look.

"Uh," Chris was struggling hard not to laugh at this point. "Well, I'll let Lieutenant Tanner answer that question later. Tribune Setlan, we should meet to begin discussions on your application for Federation membership." He cleared his throat, daring not to look over his shoulder at his bridge crew or at his best friend who had to be dying with embarrassment by now. As it stood, Vin hated being reminded he was Vulcan, having little or no contact with his people due to his past circumstances, and the comment about Vulcan sexuality made so openly, had to be mortifying.

"Of course, of course," Setlan remarked dismissing the comment with a wave of his hand. "We have plenty of time to do that. We have prepared a celebration for you and your senior staff in anticipation of your arrival, we should like all of you to attend. My assistant... VEER!" He barked on top of his lungs at some hapless assistant who appeared meekly in view, a similarly rotund young man with plump red cheeks and a much put-upon expression. "This is Veer, my assistant. He will send you all the requirements for your attendance at our celebration."

Veer could only offer Chris and the bridge a very subdued wave before Setlan shoved him off the screen and faced the Captain again. "Well Captain," Setlan beamed widely at them. "We look forward to seeing you very soon."

"Likewise," Chris answered, still trying to wrap his mind around the whole encounter. "We look forward to it."

With that, the connection was cut, and it was done followed by a loud exhale from everyone on the bridge before a burst of riotous laughter. Even Chris was grinning as he stared back at Buck and Mary and had to ask. "What the hell was that?"

From all accounts, the Hadir was a highly advanced culture but the exchange from the leader of the planet no less was an exercise in farce.

"I have no idea," Mary shrugged helplessly, unable to shed any light on Setlan's amusing behaviour. "They are certainly..." she paused trying to find the correct word. "Eccentric."

"Eccentric?" Buck laughed. "That's one way of putting it."

"I thought he was kind of funny," JD remarked. True, he was new to diplomacy, but even he had to admit, they stood out.

"Well if nothing else," Ezra remarked, "our time on the surface will be quite entertaining. Right Commander?" He winked at Alex.

"Are you alright Vin?" Chris asked the Vulcan who had yet to comment. Knowing Vin, he was still recovering from having such a personal question being blurted out in such a public forum. Alex, on the other hand, was jabbing Ezra in the ribs now that the Security Chief was free to make use of his rapier wit on the science officer.

"I ain't going down there," Vin turned around and looked at his Captain. "Christ only knows what they are going to ask me." His usually unflappable self, appearing like a child throwing a tantrum.

"Sorry Vin," Chris said sympathetically, "the Federation Council wants the Hadir, so we're going to have to play nice with them. I'm guessing if you don't show, Setlan is going to notice."

"Don't worry Vin," Buck grinned, "Just mention, its once every seven years to make the women insatiable and that ought to do it."

"Oh, Christ!" Vin groaned visibly, meeting Alex's gaze helplessly.

"I'll just tell them that Vulcan's view questions about their sexuality as a challenge of combat to the death," Alex said with a completely straight face.

Vin's eyes widened before he slapped his face with his hand, wishing the deck would open and swallow him whole even as the rest of the bridge broke out into laughter, with Chris chuckling quietly at his best friend's dread at what their visit to Hadir was going to be like. Particularly if the natives appeared as fascinated with the Vulcan as he imagined they were going to be.

"Don't you dare," Mary gave Alex mock warning once she was suitably composed herself. As it was, this had the makings of one of the more unusual diplomatic missions, she'd undertaken in her career. "They might take you seriously."

"Oh Christ," Vin groaned even louder. "I don't want to be challenging half the planet to a fight!"

"What are you worried about?" Ezra grinned. "Is it not usually Alex who defeats you in the holodeck."

"I let her win," the Vulcan defended himself promptly, even though he was only half telling the truth.

"Sure, you did," Chris said with a straight face.

"Some friend," Vin threw Chris a look, reminding himself the next time the Captain was in danger of falling into a river when they were white water rafting, Vin was going to let him. Exchanging a look with Alex, he gave her a good-natured wink and let out a sigh. "I suppose if nothing else, this mission won't be dull."

"Captain, do you think they'll let us go down to the planet for shore leave?" JD asked, eager to look at the planet itself. From what they were seeing from orbit, it looked like a nice place to visit, what with those wide oceans and lush vegetation.

"They did invite us to visit," Buck reminded Chris.

"We'll put it to them," Chris answered and then sobered up, remembering the Hadir had another reason for wishing Federation membership, other than ending their self-imposed exile. They had been beset by enemies who were raiding their pergium operations. For all their quirky behaviour, these people needed help. "Let's not get too relaxed. The reason they've asked for membership is because they're being attacked by raiders."

"That's true," Vin agreed, glad to move onto a more serious subject and not the ordeal he would have to endure this evening. "Have they any idea of who these raiders might be?"

"Not according to the reports," Buck explained for Chris. "They used to sell their surplus pergium to the Romulans but since the collapse of the Empire, they've been keeping stockpiles of the stuff at a facility on their second moon. The raiders have been targeting the place to get their hands on the pergium."

"I'll conduct a scan of the second moon Captain," Alex suggested. "There may be residual warp signatures left behind we can use to identify who they are."

"My guess is they will be the Orion Syndicate or perhaps some criminal element operating in the Empire, now no longer constrained by the Romulan military." Ezra speculated, more than familiar with what criminal element might find the remote location of the Hadir an inviting target. "We should anticipate trouble."

"Agreed, put us on Condition One alert, Ezra," Chris ordered, accepting the security chief's recommendation. Prior to the fall of the empire, the Romulan kept a tight rein on its people, with its dreaded Tal Shiar network and draconian approach to civil liberties. While they were not thugs, they did not have much patience for legal trickery and the burden of proof in any Romulan court of law rested with the accused with only severe penalties for the guilty. "These raiders, whoever they are, may try to derail Hadir's application to the Federation if they know we're here. Once Hadir becomes a part of the Federation, their free ride will be over."

"Aye Sir," Ezra replied, grateful for Captain's desire for precaution. As the Chief of Security, the eccentricities of the Hadir were too much of a distraction, particularly when there was a credible threat in existence.

Suddenly, the familiar beeping of an incoming transmission filled the air, with everyone recognised it for what it was as it emanated from JD's station. It took no more than a second for the young ensign to look up and to confirm their suspicions.

"Captain, I'm receiving an incoming transmission from the Tribune's office. Shall I patch it through to your ready room?"

"It's probably the details of the function we're meant to attend," Chris replied. Feeling in no hurry to study the endless rules and customs they were required to observe, he smiled wickedly to himself before responding. "No need JD, transfer it to the Protocol Officer." He flashed her a smile, telling himself she was better at unravelling the peculiarities of the Hadir, better than he was.

"Thank you," Mary replied, perfectly aware he was fobbing off the job on her, under the guise of delegation because he detested reviewing cultural data. Chris preferred she studied the content first and then give him an abridged version of how he needed to behave, like which salad fork to use at a state dinner or during one occasion, how complementing a delegate's distinct nasal ridge could result in interplanetary war.

Who knew Alkamarians kept their genitals on their faces? Chris had found trying to keep a straight face after Mary made that revelation harder than facing off with the Dominion fleet trying to destroy them.

"Transferring it now," JD informed dutifully.

"Christ only knows what they're going to make us do," Vin grumbled, already expecting a plethora of embarrassing questions when he met these people face to face if Setlan's reaction was any indication.

"I think it will be a hoot," Buck grinned. "I mean, for once we got folks wanting to join who might be a little colourful. Hell, that can't be bad."

"True," Chris agreed, remembering some of the more painful diplomatic errands he had been forced to endure since obtaining his captaincy. Anything outside of the norm would be welcome. "Trust me Vin, after you've been to a music recital by the Binars, you die a little inside."

"Damn straight," Buck agreed, recalling having to attend that function right along with Chris. "I never wanted a hand phaser so badly in my entire life."

"Not to mention the Binars are hermaphrodites, so you could not even charm any of them into your bed, although considering their size..." Ezra remarked, aware how bereft Buck felt when he was on any planet without a population of curvaceous alien beauties to charm.

"Oh my God." Alex managed to wince at the visual imagery that was produced in her mind after the logistics of human Binar coupling was suggested. She gave Ezra a dark look of distaste. "It's official, I'm assigned to a ship of idiots."

"I wouldn't go that far," Chris grinned, enjoying it greatly when their usually reserved and composed science officer became ruffled. When Alex had come on board, she had been nicknamed the Ice Queen and Chris alleviated his boredom during dull stellar mapping assignments by seeing how much he could affect a thaw by annoying her. Meeting Vin's gaze, Chris grinned because they had scored another direct hit. "I'm sure what the Hadir have planned for us will be vastly more entertaining than the concert of algorithm music performed by the Binars."

"You don't know the half of it," Mary replied suddenly, her voice thick sounding chagrined. It drew Chris's attention to her immediately and he swung around in his command chair to see her lowering her data padd onto her lap, her expression disbelief and puzzlement.

"What?" Vin asked, catching the look on her face, dreading what she was about to reveal to them. After the Hadir's inquiry about his sex life, Vin was bracing himself for an even worst indignity to be visited on all of them.

"The celebration in our honour," Mary announced, aware this was going to be received with a chorus of questions and complaints. "Is a costume party."

"A costume party? For a diplomatic function?" Alex baulked. "Are these people taking these negotiations seriously or are they just trying to mess with us?" She hated playing dress up.

"For the amount of pergium we are gaining out of their candidacy, one assumes they can make all the demands they like," Ezra remarked. "Besides, I see no difference between this and our sojourns in the holodeck."

"They want us to dress up as what we wanted to be when we grew up as children," Mary said with a sigh, having no intention of going anywhere dressed up as Batgirl.

That did make Chris stare. "You're joking."

"I wish I was," Mary said handing him the padd, so he could see the transmission for himself.

Chris studied the instructions provided by Veer and had only one thing to say. "I call dibs on starship captain."

Chapter Two: Celebration

"I find it extremely unfair, you get to wear a uniform." Mary Travis complained hours later when she arrived at the celebration on Azalea at the arm of Chris Larabee, who was wearing his formal uniform while she, having forced to adhere to the conditions set by Corban Setlan, was in costume.

"That's why I called dibs," Chris wore a smug smirk and felt doubly satisfied because the costume she had chosen to wear, met with his approval in every way. Even though she was covered from the neck down, the figure-hugging leather bodysuit she wore accentuated every perfect curve and Chris could only let out a sigh, as he charted every inch in his study. "So, who are you again? Batgirl?"

Mary's eyes flashed. "I swear I will kill my mother," she growled under her breath. Only Adelaide Sheridan could have imparted to Chris that particular 20th-century superhero had been her idol until she reached her teens. "And no," she made a face, "Batgirl has a cape and cowl, I'm Black Widow..." she saw the widening grin on his face and bit back. "Oh, shut up."

Chris tried to imagine his elegant and poised Protocol Officer, imagining herself jumping off rooftops and fighting outlandish villains in her youth and couldn't keep the chuckle from escaping his lips. Just when he thought he knew everything about the woman, she'd surprised him with another interesting facet of her personality. How on Earth did she manage to keep that irrepressible spirit restrained when she was married to Syan. It was no wonder Mary's mother Adelaide, had such difficulty with the union. No wonder, she feared her daughter's spirit would be crushed under harsh Vulcan practicality.

In any case, he had to work out a way to get her into tights and a cape.

"No kidding," Vin grumbled, having transported with Chris and Mary at the same time, along with Alex who was at his arm. He was not looking forward to this at all. He envisioned an evening of poking and prodding, not to mention being bombarded with embarrassing questions about his mating habits. Fortunately, he was a little more comfortable with the costume requirements of the party, having opted for the clothes he wore in the Magnificent Seven holo-program. With slouch hat and buckskin jacket, he took on the persona of the unflappable tracker even if the Officer of the Conn was dreading this event.

"Hey what are you complaining about?" Chris gave him a look. "You get to come to a party with the Queen of the Nile."

Chris was, of course, referring to Alex who was costumed in the persona of an Egyptian Queen, complete with ornate neck piece and a falcon headdress. Against her dusky skin, she looked decidedly exotic and very capable of living up to the reputation of Cleopatra, one of history's most alluring women. However, if that was what Alex wanted to be when she grew up, then she was more ambitious than he knew, and Chris had better start watching his ass.

She might be after his job.

"I thought you wanted to be a ballerina when you were little," Mary declared and then winced because Alex might have wanted that little morsel kept secret, especially from present company.

"A ballerina?" Both Chris and Vin said in unison.

"Oh, thank you very much, Batgirl," Alex growled, her face reddening under her dusky colour and groaned inwardly when she saw both Captain and helmsman staring at her with a mixture of astonishment and amusement.

"Sorry," Mary apologised and waited for the comments from the two men, she surely knew was coming.

"You're kidding, you mean with pointed shoes and a tutu?" Vin tried not to smirk, but it escaped him nonetheless. Just when he thought he knew everything about her...

"If you ever want to have sex with me again, we will not speak of this," Alex warned with menace, but Vin continued to smirk, mostly because he knew what an empty threat that was. He had the fingernail marks on his back to prove it, he thought with a satisfied smile.

Fortunately, he could rely on Chris to pick up the gauntlet and make the comment he could not.

"Why Commander, I had no idea you were so inclined," Chris said unable to keep the laughter from escaping his throat. Alex spent her spare time on the holodeck fighting monsters with bath'lets and had to be the most abrasive female he'd ever met. Trying to imagine her doing pirouettes and twirls was enough to break Chris Larabee's usually controlled demeanour.

"I was eight! It was either a ballerina or a trapeze artist."

"Trapeze artist?" Vin couldn't keep it down now and started laughing harder, with Chris joining in.

Alex scowled and gave Mary a look. "Remind me to tell the Captain about all your embarrassing childhood memories."

"It's alright," Chris said with a smug smile. "After learning her name is Marigold, nothing much else is going to shock me."

Mary smouldered and once again, promised secretly she was going to kill her mother.

They were the last to arrive at the Tribunate Hall, where the senior staff had been invited to the 'celebration' as Setlan called it, in their honour. It was a splendidly grand room, with a floor and columns of rust coloured Valencia marble, ornately carved walls, with wide windows providing a spectacular view of the city, from the hill the Tribunate was situated, not to mention the exquisitely painted murals on the ceiling. Along with the senior staff were numerous dignitaries from the Tribunate of Hadir, along with guests and significant others. They were similarly decked out in colourful costumes although Chris could not imagine what all of them were meant to portray.

Chris immediately caught sight of Buck who was holding court with several Hadir, unsurprisingly women. His First Officer was wearing the costume of a pulp serial character Chris couldn't place, wearing a sable Fedora, a leather jacket and a bullwhip hanging at his hip. The women were eyeing him like he was tastier than hor 'd oeuvres being ferried about by servers on silver platters.

Next to him was JD, who was dressed in a New York Yankees baseball uniform, wearing the jersey belonging to Babe Ruth, the greatest baseball player of all time. JD was watching the master at work, fascinated as Buck managed to talk the quintet of women into God only knew what, but was certain Chris would hear about in the morning. Either from Buck himself or from Nathan when the doctor was required to administer the penicillin hypospray.

Meanwhile, in another corner of the room, Ezra was with Julia Pemberton talking to another group of dignitaries. The Security Chief was dressed like a 20th-century noir detective, complete with trench coat, dark suit and a grey fedora. Chris was rather surprised he wasn't dressed as his favourite gambler from the Magnificent holodeck program but the could imagine the man as a hardened P.I. in the vein of Sam Spade. Of course, the intensity of the Dashiell Hammett character was somewhat blunted by the medieval princess he was standing next to, complete with pointy hat and flowing sleeves.

Even Nathan was in costume, Chris noted. The healer wearing the uniform of a WWI fighter pilot and was trying to shield Rain with his jacket, to cover the exposed parts of her genie costume which Chris had to admit, she wore well. So, few women could make harem pants and veils work for them. Josiah on the other hand was dressed like a space pirate, complete with sidearm, long coat and high spaceman's boots. Chris suspected Josiah had imagined flying the spaceways like some ranger during his years trapped in an office on Earth at Starfleet Medical.

It was a pity Chris couldn't bring Adam to this celebration but supposed the boy would be bored by all this palavering. Even though they'd spent a month together, their relationship still felt fragile, with both walking around each other on eggshells, uncertain how to deal with this new normal between them. Chris made a mental note to spend some time with him during these negotiations because he knew Adam was still feeling a little displaced.

Then again, Adam was also seventeen years old on board a ship with a lot of teenage girls and just so happened to be the Captain's son, so Chris had an idea he might be able to entertain himself. Suddenly, Chris was struck with the memory of how he'd entertained himself at seventeen and wondered if he ought to have Ezra sent out a ship-wide alert, for all crew to lock up their daughters.

"Chris!"

The booming voice of Corban Setlan exploded in his ears as the man approached them, arms outstretched, wearing a wide grin on his face. Following two paces behind was Veer, who looked as if he were dressed in some kind of harlequin's costume, his face painted white. Setlan appeared as if he were trying for the Emperor of the Known Universe by the ornate embroidery on his tunic. There were epaulettes on his shoulder and thick chunky jewellery on his fingers, to say nothing of the ridiculous looking hat that resembled something Napoleon might have worn before riding into battle.

As he approached, he waved over a server carrying a tray of brightly coloured drinks in their direction.

"Tribune Setlan," Chris greeted, wearing a bemused expression as he took one of the flutes of bright blue fluid and took a sip. Behind him, Chris was certain Vin was physically shrinking to avoid being seen by the bombastic leader of Hadir. "It is good to meet you in person."

Setlan, who obviously didn't understand the notion of personal space on any level, gave Chris no time to react before he was wrapped up in a bear hug.

"Mr Vulcan!" He shifted over to Vin and repeated the same gesture, giving the helmsman no chance to escape, unaware that even if Vin was not raised Vulcan, he still had some of their sensibilities and found unwanted physical contact, (unless it was from ballet dancing science officers who regularly kicked his ass in combat), distasteful

Fortunately, Vin endured it without creating an intergalactic incident by knocking the man on his ass.

When Setlan pulled back he immediately launched into an impassioned apology. "Mr Vulcan, Veer has told me it was extremely rude to mention your mating habits in public."

Veer quickly hurried up to Setlan and whispered in the man's ear.

"And to refer to you as Mr Vulcan." He concluded with a frown.

"Uh that's okay," Vin replied, wishing he were anywhere else but here. "You can call me Vin."

"Vin! How wonderfully economical." Setlan smiled broadly and turned to the two females in the group.

Inwardly, Chris hoped Setlan didn't go grabbing Mary in the same way because he knew for a fact, she would not appreciate it and God only knew what Alex would do. Fortunately, Setlan merely tipped forward gallantly in a bow and smiled at Mary and Alex respectively. "Please introduce me to these charming ladies."

Breathing a sigh of relief, Chris quickly made introductions. "This is my Protocol Officer, Lieutenant Mary Travis and my second officer, Lt Commander Alexandra Styles."

"How lovely to meet you both," he smiled. "I must say, Captain, you have filled your ship with some fascinating crew. I was just in conversation with Lt. Rain. Do you know she has another organism living in her body?"

"Yes," Chris uttered a small laugh, finding Setlan's enthusiasm difficult to dislike. "She's a Trill and the organism is a symbiote. She's probably got more lifetimes than all of us put together."

"Yes," Setlan remarked with an enigmatic smile. "Tell me how you are enjoying the Blue Vale?"

"The Blue Vale?" Mary inquired.

"Our finest cider," he gestured to the flutes they were all drinking from, specifically the blue concoction that seemed to have properties making it glow. "It comes from the Blue Vale plant that is harvested once every five hundred years. We take the fruit and make it into the cider you are now enjoying. It is something we serve only our most honoured guests."

"We appreciate the regard," Mary replied with a smile. "Perhaps we can return the favour with the selection we have on board the Maverick."

"Absolutely," Chris agreed. "Have you had much contact with other cultures, Tribune Setlan?"

"Unfortunately, not," Setlan admitted, his expression revealing his distress by this. "We've remained cloistered away here because we found Romulans were somewhat disagreeable and had a tendency for duplicity. We are peaceful by nature and love our freedom. The Hadir cannot conceive of a way of life where authoritarianism is the rule of the day. The Romulans were too rigid and hostile for our liking. We traded with them out of necessity because one must sometimes compromise to keep the peace. Unfortunately, they tend to keep extremely tight control of their territory, so many of the races who might have been inclined to buy our pergium were deterred by their presence."

"I can believe that," Mary nodded in understanding. "They are not known as a race that likes to share."

"Yes," Setlan frowned. "But I was nevertheless distressed to hear of their troubles. Death on such a scale is beyond our comprehension and yet it has happened to them. One of the reasons we approached the Federation for membership is because we are in a position to offer the Empire some of our pergium stockpile, free of charge of course. We hoped the Federation could act on our behalf on this matter."

"That's very generous of you," Chris said with mild surprise. "I'm sure the Federation would be pleased to assist in any way we can."

It was a genuine sentiment because the pergium would go a long way to restoring some of the colonies, crippled by the destruction caused by the nova. Many were without power or necessities. Despite the odd behaviour of the Hadir, Chris could sense their offer was genuine and was rather touched by it.

"We are fortunate to occupy a world that has furnished our needs for two millennia. We have not had a war in almost that long. In fact, our people tend to be rather spoiled in that regard. The last despot we had was Kervis the Irritating."

"Kervis the Irritating?" Alex had to ask, while next to her Vin was convinced they were trapped in some alternate universe where instead of everyone being evil, they were just insane.

"Yes, he went on this planetary wide crusade to make sure all statues wore pants," Setlan explained, shaking his head as if he was explaining some national shame.

"You mean carved with pants," Vin clarified because his mind rebelled at any other possibility.

"No, wearing actual pants."

*******

In the event he did not marry Inez and have a mess of children and possibly retire to a llama farm on Risa, (he hadn't made up his mind yet), it was quite possible Buck Wilmington might eventually settle down on Hadir. Apparently, the Hadir did not practise monogamous relationships and considered a one-night stand something that had to include at least five different people, only one of which had to be male. He discovered this approximately ten minutes after talking to a quintet of women who were a dance troop of some kind, who invited him to partake in something they called the Dance of Inferno, in which he could take a central part.

While the concept of taking on five women in a night was something he hadn't entertained in recent years. He'd done it once during a weekend rager on Risa that involved semi-legal aphrodisiacs and a LOT of liquor. Buck was uncertain if he ought to be indulging in such debauchery during a diplomatic mission. Mindful of Chris's reminder about angry fathers and severed appendages, Buck managed to tear himself away and drown his sorrows in the tasty Blue Vale that was being served so prodigiously.

"What happened Buck?" JD managed to ask, "I thought you were going with those girls, to do their Dance of Inferno."

JD looked over his shoulder at the five disappointed women, a wonderful picture of diversity with their creamy, bronzed and pale skins, spilling out of tight dresses, filling him with thoughts that would only get him in trouble. At the moment, the love of his life was suffering from Rigellian flu and looked kind of gross, even though he'd lied through his teeth and told her she was pretty.

Girls.

As it was, he promised to get back early from this celebration, because he wanted to lift her spirits a little, since she was thoroughly miserable when he left her. Besides, she was especially annoyed at having Yeoman Shavila to take on her duties for the Captain during her illness and was last seen plotting some form of Bajoran water torture on the Andorian if she tried to take Casey's job.

"Nah," Buck shook his head. "Not this time JD. We're on mission and I don't want to put my foot in it if something goes wrong."

"Your foot Buck?" JD couldn't help but smirk.

"Very funny," Buck yanked the baseball cap on his head further down his face. "You're picking up bad habits from Vin."

"I'm going back up to the Maverick," JD replied, setting down the glass of Blue Vale he'd yet to touch. For some reason, the drink reminded him of blue toilet water.

"Say hi to Casey for me," Buck said good-naturedly, aware the girl was unwell. Truth be told, if he could leave early, he would too. For some reason, he felt like seeing what Inez was doing.

As JD started to head off, they both heard Rain calling after them. "Hey JD, are you heading back to the ship?"

The lovely transporter chief had left Nathan with Josiah and was closing the distance to the younger man and the first officer.

"Yeah, you are leaving too, Rain?" JD asked.

"I'm on duty in an hour," Rain said with a sigh. It was the reason she had stayed away from any alcohol all night, despite her wish to try the Blue Vale cider. "Besides, I don't think the Doc can handle anyone seeing my belly button. I think he might be an outie and my innie is just upsetting his delicate sensibilities."

"Yeah, that's what it is," Buck remarked, trying not to laugh at her description of Nathan's phobia which had more to do with her exposure than the unfortunate cut of her umbilical cord at birth. The doctor had swept in faster than the Red Baron with his jacket in an effort to protect her modesty, much to everyone's amusement.

"See you later Buck," JD bade the First Officer goodnight before he and Rain took off to a discreet corner of the building, to request transport back to the Maverick.

"Keep the Doc out of trouble for me," Rain threw in and JD gave her a look, wondering if she was asking the right person for that particular job. The last time Buck took care of Nathan, Vin or the Captain for that matter, Mary Travis had been forced to bail them out of jail and make some impassioned apologies to the town elder they'd inadvertently insulted, while in a state of extreme inebriation.

"You're asking him?" Buck heard JD hiss at Rain as they walked away.

Buck shook his head and turned back to the celebrations, taking note of a group of matronly women, surrounding Vin like he was the zebra at a lioness luau. They were all trying to get a look at his ears while Alex was temporarily distracted by her discussion with some science type who was gawking at her like the queen she was.

Something told Buck, this was going to be a long night.

Chapter Three: Rude Awakenings - Part One

Chris woke up in his bed feeling strange.

It wasn't the kind of strange one experiences after waking up in an unfamiliar bed, wondering why you had the taste of chocolate syrup in your mouth, or the fact there was a furry tail wrapped around your waist and the bodies lying next to you were both male and female. There wasn't even the raging headache that came with the drinking to have precipitated such a situation in the first place. He just felt strange.

Blinking his eyes open, Chris was vaguely aware he was in his bedroom on the Maverick after enjoying what ended up being quite an entertaining party, after the initial awkwardness had been hurdled. The Hadir knew how to throw a party with copious amounts of Blue Vale cider being served, allowing everyone to relax by the time the entertainment began, which included everything from dancing girls, acrobats and magicians.

Even Vin had relaxed when the novelty of his ears had worn off, particularly after Alex in a drunken slip, had revealed the tips of Vulcan ears were an erogenous zone, inviting every woman in the place to test the theory. Meanwhile, the last Chris saw of Josiah was when the Counsellor disappeared with five women. At some point, there was dancing, and it was rather surreal seeing Sam Spade engaging in an intimate waltz with a medieval princess.

Needing the urge to make a visit to the bathroom, Chris shifted in his bed and found the covers especially uncooperative this morning. He wondered if he had gotten cold during the night. He seemed to have buried himself in his blankets. Shoving them aside roughly just to escape the warm clutches of his bed, Chris stood up and noticed everything seemed somewhat higher. For a moment, he thought he'd landed on his knees and then looked down at his feet. Except they weren't his feet.

They weren't the feet of a man who wore size 11 shoes, instead, they were the feet of a...

Chris crossed the floor of his bedroom and nearly tripped because halfway there, his briefs started sliding past his hips. Making a wild grab for them, he pulled them up to his waist and discovered the treacherous things wouldn't stay up. Stumbling towards the mirror in almost blind panic, with one hand clutched around the elastic to keep it from slipping, Chris was fully alert now, even though he was convinced he was still dreaming.

Staring into the mirror, he realised he was not.

"HOLY FUCK!"

His outcry was such that he heard footsteps a few seconds later, reminding Chris, he no longer lived alone in his quarters.

"Dad, is everything alright?" He heard Adam ask.

"Adam," Chris called out and his voice, like everything else, sounded bizarre. He didn't sound like himself at all but a like a ...no, no, this wasn't real. Couldn't be. Needing someone else to tell him he was hallucinating because he could think of no other explanation, Chris called out. "Come in here, please."

The doors to the adjoining living room slid open and Adam Larabee stepped in, already dressed for the day. The young man was an early riser, Chris had learned, due to his years in the Resistance.

Taking a step into his bedroom, Adam froze at the sight of him. "Who're you?"

"It's me!" Chris exclaimed, and it sounded high pitched like a... nope still couldn't say it.

"Kid I don't know who you are, but I'm pretty sure you'll be grounded forever if the Captain finds you messing around in his bedroom. How did you even get in here?" He demanded of the young boy standing in his father's bedroom, no more than ten years of age, with light hair and piercing blue eyes, apparently trying on his father's briefs, (which was ten kinds of messed up), staring at him with a mixture of panic and expectation.

"I am the Captain!" Chris snapped. "It's me, Adam! It's your father!"

"Yeah right," Adam snorted. "And I'm Admiral of the Known Universe."

*******

Thanks to his Vulcan physiology, Vin handled alcohol better than most humans so when he woke up the next morning, he didn't expect to be suffering a hangover. Alex, on the other hand, was a different matter entirely and Vin made up his mind to rise early so he could go to Sick Bay and get something for her head when she woke up. Nathan usually prescribed some quick fix treatment to save them after a particularly spirited evening of inebriation. Christ knew he had certainly needed something after his bachelor party or else he would have been unable to stand up at his wedding.

Next to him, Vin could feel Alex's warmth pressed up against his back and once again, was filled with that sense of joy at how wonderful it was to have her as his mate. For some reason, the term wife never felt quite accurate when describing their relationship to each other. They were bonded not only physically and emotionally but spiritually too. He could always feel her and with time, Vin was convinced she would share their connection the same way Mary did during the Protocol Officer's marriage to Syan of Vulcan.

When he first came on board the Maverick little over a year ago, he had been terrified of being on a ship with almost a thousand people. It was Alex who made those first few days tolerable. With or without the Pon Farr, he loved her since that day and hearing her tell him the same was still the best moment of his life, even if it had been riding the coattails of his worst. Rolling over, Vin wanted to look at her for a moment before he climbed out of bed.

What he saw lying next to him, made him fall out of bed in a mad scramble.

There was a little girl in the bed. Not only that but a naked little girl on his bed.

Already envisioning the dishonourable discharge and the death he would earn from just about everybody for this child's presence, Vin gaped in horror as he tried to remember how she had come to be in his bed of all places? And where was Alex? How drunk was he last night that he couldn't remember how this happened?

His abrupt retreat from her woke the girl up and Vin saw her eyes widen in shock, no doubt preparing to utter a scream of fear in finding herself in this unimaginable situation when instead she exclaimed loudly. "Who the hell are you and what are you doing in our quarters?"

Vin blinked. "Your quarters!" He barked back indignantly.

Then he heard his voice except it wasn't his voice. It sounded high pitched and nothing like the too soft tone that was his normal speech. Before he could further ponder this weirdness, the girl's next words immediately discontinued his line of thinking.

"Yes! Our quarters! How did you get in here?" She demanded imperiously, sitting upright and immediately covering herself with a sheet. "Vin! Where are you?" She looked over her shoulder and called out to someone who was not somewhere else but right in front of her.

What the hell? "I'm Vin!" He barked back.

Once again, he was confronted by that strange voice. What the hell was going on? Did this little girl wander into the wrong room? At this point, Vin realised Alex was nowhere in sight and there was something rather familiar about this child. She had sheeny black hair and dusky, golden skin. She was staring at him with brown eyes full of indignation and annoyance. With a flash of insight, against every logical thought in his ordered Vulcan mind, (well mostly ordered), Vin found himself asking. "Alex?"

Alexandra Styles's eyes widened as she stared at the naked young boy in front of her.

"That's Commander Styles to you. What are you doing in here? Did you get lost? Put some clothes on for God's sake!" She demanded, her mind too discombobulated by the wholly unacceptable situation she was in, to watch her tone when addressing a child. Yet when she spoke, she realised her voice was equally strange. Not to mention, it was a Vulcan child. She could see the tips of his pointed ears peeking through his unruly dark hair and he was staring at her in astonishment with his cobalt coloured eyes.

Cobalt coloured eyes?

Almost afraid to ask, she recalled his words since waking up and asked almost fearfully. "Vin?"

"Alex," Vin tried to remain calm because he was two steps away from full-blown horror. "You're a kid!"

"What do you mean I'm a kid?" Then Alex looked down at herself and lifted the sheet she was covering herself with. Where were her boobs? She'd waited an entire year for those things to show up! Now they were gone! "I'm a kid!' She gasped, "And so are you!"

"What do you mean so am I?" Vin lowered his eyes to down at himself before exclaiming. "Aw hell!"

*******

This was a bad dream. It had to be.

Of course, if it was a bad dream, it was an extremely bizarre one. At present, the normally poised and elegant Protocol Officer the crew was accustomed to seeing, was stomping her way down the hallway of Deck Nine where most of the quarters for the command crew were located. Wearing a robe that was dragging behind her like the train of a wedding dress or ornate ballroom gown, her blond hair, normally held perfectly in place with pins and clips was sashaying around her shoulders, almost waist length.

Of course, while they noticed the strangeness of the scene, they did not at all equate it with Mary Travis, because what they were seeing was a ten-year-old girl, with blue-grey eyes and a frown twisting up her face that looked cute more than stormy.

After Mary had woken up to this discovery and when she stopped screaming, which had done nothing but terrify her son to no end, she had tried to get in contact with Chris only to find out he wasn't answering his com badge. When she demanded the computer to give her his location, the computer had helpfully told her it did not recognise her voice patterns and referred the matter to security to update permissions. Using a litany of words, she usually reserved for her mother, Mary left her quarters intending to find Chris.

Continuing down the hallway, with her robe threatening to trip her, Mary lifted it off the ground like some genteel woman of ancient times. She continued to swear a blue streak that made the crew walking past her, question her upbringing. Clearly, the insanity that turned her into a child appeared to only affect her, since everyone around her still maintained their drinking age status. Sooner or later, she expected some crewmen to stop and ask her if she was okay and needed help finding her mommy.

That person would get punched in the throat.

Suddenly, she stopped short at the sight of a boy emerging into the hallway from what she knew to be Buck Wilmington's quarters. He was even shorter than she was, with thick, curly dark hair, hazel eyes, and a scowl that mirrored her own perfectly. The t-shirt he was wearing was so big for him, it swirled around his knees like a dress. He caught sight of her and knotted his brow in confusion, before realising, she might be sharing his predicament.

"Mary?" He asked cautiously, recognising the golden hair.

"Buck?" She returned with similar care. He was so short! Mary was so accustomed to seeing the man standing taller than any of them, viewing him like this was rather jarring.

"Did you wake up like this too?" He asked, giving her the once-over before repeating the action on himself as if he needed to confirm this nightmare was actually happening and not the product of a mass hallucination or collective insanity.

"Yes!" She exclaimed, realising that whatever happened to them, had started as soon as they went to bed. "I was fine last night but when I woke up I looked like this...!" she sputtered. "Well just look at me!"

"Look at you?" He bit back. "Look at me!"

"Yeah," she did remark finding it odd to have to look down at him. "You are kind of little."

"I had a growth spurt when I was twelve okay?" Buck bit back. "Have you tried contacting the bridge, Sick Bay or the Captain?"

"I tried, but the computer isn't recognising my voice. It keeps telling me to refer to security to update my voice pattern permissions!" Mary said with exasperation.

"Me too!" He showed her the com badge in his hand.

"Hey, kids are you alright?" A familiar voice suddenly asked, and Mary was about to deliver that punch in the throat when she realised who asked the question. It was followed by a groan of embarrassment from Buck.

JD Dunne was on his way to the bridge when he saw the two children bickering in the hallway. He knew most of the kids on the Maverick. After a year, you became familiar with all the faces on board and these two were children he had never seen before. Perhaps they had come on the Maverick recently, he told himself. Even so, it didn't explain their odd state of clothing. Both were wearing adult clothes and appeared to be in something of a state.

Both Mary and Buck straightened up in annoyance, but it was Buck who barked back first, even though he was secretly relieved it was JD who found them in this condition and not anyone else. The whole situation was humiliating enough as it was.

Glaring at JD, Buck snapped at his prot'g'. "Do we look alright to you Ensign? We're ten years old!"

"Uh Buck," Mary tugged at his shirt, trying to remind him JD had a very good reason for asking the question since they looked nothing like themselves. "He doesn't recognise us," she whispered in his ear discreetly.

Buck pulled back and stared at her, before grimacing because she was correct. Why would the kid recognise them? Calming himself even as JD stared at them with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment, Buck tried to muster all the dignity and authority he possessed to sound remotely like himself.

"JD, I know this looks kind of strange but it's me, Buck. This here is Mary. We woke up this morning in our quarters, looking like this."

"Oh, real funny Buck," JD declared with clear amusement on his face. For a moment, Buck almost thought he'd succeeded in convincing the younger man he and Mary were who they claimed to be, until JD looked into the air as if he were addressing some unseen god and continued speaking over his head. Not hard to do when Buck was now barely four feet tall.

"Buck, I know you're watching and I'm not falling for your pranks!"

Buck swore in exasperation while Mary slapped her face with her palm.

"JD, this is not a prank!" He burst out angrily, his voice rising an octave. "It's me! I'm Buck and this is Mary!"

"Buck, if you're listening," JD continued to speak. "I'm due on duty. I don't have time for this." JD was convinced the Commander was somewhere watching this entire scene, getting a good laugh at JD's expense.

While Buck might not mind him turning up to the bridge late for duty indulging in one of his jokes, JD was fairly certain Chris Larabee would be a different matter entirely. There were standards the Captain of the Maverick demanded from his officers, no matter what their personal relationship. Besides, JD wasn't comfortable taking part in pranks involving children.

Buck was starting to get furious. It was bad enough that he was this... this... whatever the hell this was! He was pint-sized, shorter than Mary was and thanks to his clothing, feeling a little chilly, he did not need JD's disbelief on top of it. Worse yet, the First Officer in him realised JD had every reason to be sceptical. If he were presented with the same situation, Buck knew he would behave no differently. However, understanding JD's point of view did not lessen his ire one damn bit.

"JD!" Buck roared. "I am Buck Wilmington! This is Mary Travis! We went to bed last night and woke up like this!"

"Together?" JD asked without thinking.

Mary kicked JD in the shin for the sheer stupidity of the question.

"OW!" JD glared at her. "Wait til I tell your parents!"

"Good luck with that," Buck snorted, realising there was no help to be found here, even though her assault on JD felt quite satisfying. "We're wasting time with him," he looked at her, ignoring JD who was clutching his shin in pain. "Let's just go find Chris."

Mention of the Captain made JD straighten up because he couldn't imagine Chris would be happy for Buck to be involving children in his prank and Buck knew this too. As the two kids turned on their heels and started heading in the direction of the Captain's quarters, JD started to question the possibility this wasn't a ruse. In fact, the last time, they thought Buck had pulled a practical joke, it turned out the First Officer had nothing to do with the situation at all, and it had all been the handiwork of a cosmic entity.

"Computer," JD tapped his combadge, still watching the two children heading down the corridor. "Locate Commander Wilmington and Lt. Travis."

"Commander Wilmington and Lt. Travis are on Deck 9, Junction 13. The computer answered helpfully.

The response did nothing to alleviate JD's confusion because it was exactly where the two children were walking through at the moment. This was insane. How could this possibly be true and yet, he could feel himself tipping towards the edge of belief, because his affection for Buck Wilmington and Mary Travis, demanded he at least give them the benefit of the doubt.

"Hey wait up!" JD hurried after them, hoping he wasn't making a fool of himself. Still, even as the thought crossed his mind, JD knew if he was wrong, the worst that would happen was he would have egg on his face, and he could live with that. However, if this was really happening, then there was no way he was abandoning his friends no matter how insane the situation, especially when they were so vulnerable and in need of help.

Both Buck and Mary paused long enough to look over their shoulder at him. "Unless you're helping, go away!" Buck snapped. "We don't have time to deal with your scepticism. We have a situation."

Well if the kid wasn't Buck Wilmington, he certainly was a good actor, JD thought to himself. "Okay, assuming I believe you two, how could this have happened?"

"We have no idea!" Mary threw her hands up in frustration. "I went to bed normal! This morning I woke up like this!"

Her distress certainly sounded real, JD thought. "Have you tried raising the Captain?"

"We can't," Buck grumbled, his anger easing off a little because JD was starting to give them the benefit of the doubt. No, that Buck could blame him for his disbelief. He had trouble believing this himself. "The computer doesn't recognise either of our voices which makes sense of course since we both sound like we just came from Oz!"

JD could understand that and decided that was something he could do at least. Tapping his combadge, he spoke into it. "Lt. Dunne to the Captain."

There was no answer.

When the seconds continued to tick by without a response, all three of them stopped in the middle of the hallway, feeling a sensation of uneasiness crawl up their spine. Chris was never far away from his com badge. Hell, Buck sometimes thought the man took it into the shower with him. Suddenly, a voice responded, but it wasn't the voice of the Captain.

"Uh hi JD, this is Adam. I'm afraid I've got a situation here. The Captain is...." he paused and then added, "throwing a tantrum."

This was followed by the furious growl of someone in the background. "THAT'S NOT FUNNY!"

JD's eyes widened. "Oh boy."

Chapter Four: Rude Awakenings - Part Two

For the most part, Ezra Standish slept well.

Julia had an early shift the next morning and after seeing the titian-haired beauty to her quarters, he remained for an hour or two where they enjoyed each other's company before returning to his own bed, before falling into a fitful sleep. When he did awake, it was to the sensation of feline paws against his back. Fortunately, Huxley's attempt to become comfortable on top of his person did not involve unsheathing her sharp claws while he slept.

Ezra didn't mind. He was getting somewhat accustomed to the animal and they had reached a kind of detente in their cohabitation. Both had mutually reached an agreement that Huxley should limit her claw sharpening to the scratching post provided and he would stop making threats to jettison her into space.

When his slumber was interrupted, however, it was not by feline machinations but by the insistent chime of his door to his quarters. Diving beneath the pillows did little to drive away and the annoying sound and through the stupor of sleep and the mild hangover, he was suffering, Ezra promised all kinds of death on the person daring to intrude on his peaceful sleep. Eventually, even Huxley found the noise too hard to bear and dug her claws into his back, providing the necessary incentive to Ezra to awaken and chase away their noisy visitors.

For once, Ezra was in complete agreement with her desire.

Aware her master was about to climb out of his bed, Huxley took the pre-emptive step of jumping off Ezra's back as the Chief of Security got to his feet and wondered what was so damned important, someone couldn't use a combadge. Still, the absence of a combadge was the only reason Ezra was not immediately alarmed by the insistent chime at his door. If there was truly a crisis, no security officer under his command or any member of the bridge crew would waste time with a face to face call to arms, when the combadge would have alerted him instantly.

Even though his head still throbbed from the effects of last night's libations, Ezra promised himself he was leaving Hadir Prime with a crate of Blue Vale. It was a singularly smooth concoction and one of the best ciders he ever tasted in his life, even if the pounding inside his head felt like a Wagnerian opera. Reminding himself to make a trip to see Nathan to relieve his discomfort with one of the doctor's magical remedies, Ezra grabbed his robe and slipped it over his shoulders.

For a moment, he couldn't find the sleeves and spent a few seconds wrestling with the silk robe before he finally draped it over his shoulders and tied the cord around his waist. It did not occur to him at that point, how low the material was hanging off the ground as he approached the door.

"Come in!" He barked with uncharacteristic annoyance.

"Voice pattern recognition unknown." The computer returned automatically.

"" What?" Ezra looked up sharply, his keen investigator's senses surfacing like a predator lurking from beneath the depths.

"Voice pattern recognition unknown." The disembodied voice repeated itself and if Ezra did not know better, he would have sworn the computer sounded unhappy at having to repeat itself.

The chime continued its insistent beeping, interrupting Ezra's train of thought. Perhaps the security updates he made prior to their departure from Deep Space Five had been the cause of this sudden glitch. Frowning, because he would have to reset the permissions if this was the case, Ezra decided he would deal with it after he attended to his insistent caller. Closing the distance to the door panel, he pressed a finger against the display and allowed entry to his guest, the old-fashioned way.

"What in the name of Perdition's Fire is the reason for this interruption?"

The first thing he noticed was how odd his voice sounded. This was followed by the discovery his visitor was a young boy with flawless chocolate skin, sporting a head of impressive dark hair, staring at him with a storm cloud on his face.

As Chief of Security, Ezra made it his business to know everyone on board, their families, and even their pets, which included one Kendarian pot belly pig named Porky, though the officer who chose that name deserved keelhauling just for their lack of originality. The boy standing in front of him, who appeared no more than ten years old was wearing a Hawaiian shirt too large for him, and a pair of boardshorts that looked like trousers on his short frame.

"Oh, God! It's you too!" The boy threw up his hands in exasperation.

It was at this point, Ezra realised he was not making his observations from his height of five foot eight, but rather at eye level. Looking down, he did not see the feet of a full-grown man but rather that of someone a good deal younger. On reflex, he looked down at his hands and was met with the same results. Understanding exploded behind his eyes like artillery shells as these clues quickly formed a picture in his head that had him retreating into the room, not bothering to invite his guest entry.

As always, Huxley took advantage of the situation and slipped past the open door, causing Ezra's visitor to jump out of the way before the Persian disappeared down the hallway to do some exploring.

"Oh, my Lord," Ezra gaped at himself in the mirror, trying not to unleash a barrage of profanities that would have resulted in Maude washing his mouth out with soap if she were present. Every logical impulse in his head told him this was madness, that he was not seeing his ten-year-old self in the mirror. Unfortunately, one pinch of the chubby cheeks that had been an invitation to blue-haired old ladies in casinos everywhere, proved he was not seeing things.

"I don't think he had anything to do with this!"

Ezra turned to his visitor and after a few seconds of observation, guessed to whom he was conversing. "Am I wrong to assume, you are Doctor Jackson?"

"Yes," Nathan snapped. "Just call me Doogie Jackson, MD."

"Who?" Ezra asked and then decided he didn't want to know. "How... how in the name of God is this possible?"

"Do I look like I know?" Nathan demanded. "I woke up like this ten minutes ago! Thank God, Rain is still on duty because if she had seen me like this in bed with her, I don't know who would have been more traumatised. You were nearest to my quarters and I was hoping you could tell me we were being attacked by someone who is capable of doing this! I can't even get my combadge to work!"

"Speech pattern recognition," Ezra groaned, realising why the computer had behaved as it did earlier on. "It prevents unauthorised persons from attempting to access the ship's functions or use the combadges without proper permission."

"Who cares?" The healer exploded. "You need to fix this!"

"Fix this?" Ezra stared at him, wondering why on Earth the healer would think him capable of dealing with this situation when he was similarly disadvantaged. "Of course, permit me a moment to retrieve my magic wand and end this nightmare before I go do battle with Lord Voldemort!"

Nathan exhaled loudly, conceding Ezra was probably in the same panicked state as he was but being the chief of security and consummate gambler that he was, possessed a better ability to hide his panic at their current situation. "Sorry, sorry, I was hoping it wasn't just me. Everyone else seems normal."

"That is a matter of opinion," Ezra snorted, too cynical with that word after growing up with Maude and being in security to ever believe anyone was truly normal. Turning around, he stared at his reflection further, trying to wrap his mind at the sight of the face staring back at him. Even though he looked like a ten-year-old, for the moment, his mind retained its true age and Ezra supposed it was a blessing, because he was going to need his faculties to extricate himself and Nathan from this situation. "Could we be hallucinating?" He ventured a guess.

"We could be," Nathan refused to rule out the possibility, "I don't know. I was so shocked when I woke up and saw myself like this, I tried to contact the Captain, but I can't seem to raise either Chris or Buck. I suppose I should have headed to Sick Bay but finding myself looking like a pre-teen with a big ass Angela Davis afro can make a man a little crazy."

"A what?" Ezra stared at him blankly and then shook his head deciding he did not want to know this either. He was trying to remain calm but every time he heard his voice or saw his face in the mirror, his well-crafted facade was developing another crack. "Is there any way this could have been carried out by some medical trickery?"

"Oh yeah," Nathan gave him a look. "Didn't you know? We doctor invented the fountain of youth and decided not to tell anyone about it!"

Ezra glared at him. "I withdraw the question."

"Good," The healer said making a face at him. "But I think going to Sick Bay might be a good idea. Maybe if I can run a tricorder scan, I might be able to figure out what has happened to us."

"A tricorder scan," Ezra replied, just as sarcastically, "what makes you certain you will be able to operate such a device if you cannot even induce a combadge to function?"

Nathan stuck out his tongue at him.

"Oh, very mature!"

*******

Elsewhere Lieutenant Rain had come off duty after having a rather long shift. Aside from manning the transporter room for a few hours, returning to the ship the senior officers save Josiah, who apparently must be having a real good time on the surface, Rain had run a maintenance diagnostic on the transporter pad in Cargo Bay 3. A glitch had been noticed and Rain did not wish to leave it unattended for too long. The task of replacing the damaged coil took longer than expected, so she missed a meal. With her symbiote threatening to leave her body and go get a snack without her if she didn't get some food soon, Rain chose to stop at Four Corners.

Very soon, Inez presented her with a meal and Rain was about to dig into the stack of pancakes with maple syrup, when her combadge started trilling softly in expectation of her touch to activate it. Cursing the Gods of Calorie Intake (a deity of the Fudcomas), she tapped the badge and spoke tautly.

"Off duty Lieutenant Rain here. I repeat that's OFF DUTY AND HUNGRY Lieutenant Rain, to whoever is taking their ability to shower without interruption lightly."

"Uh Lieutenant," the voice on the other end of the channel sounded very hesitant now that threat was made but eventually summed up the nerve to speak. "Ensign Frank here."

Ensign Lars Frank was one of the newer members of her Transport team, having come on board after the Maverick completed its refit at Deep Space Nine. He was a rookie kid, fresh from the Academy with only one posting prior to landing starship duty and she could appreciate why he might be a little anxious. The Maverick was a plum assignment and most cadets dreamed of serving under a Captain like Chris Larabee so he was prone to second-guessing himself.

"What is it, Lars?" Rain inquired, keeping watch over the tendrils of heat rising from her pancakes to ensure not too much heat was lost before the things needed reheating. Settling for cold pancakes ought to be punishable by death in her opinion.

"I've just received a request for transport from the Hadir Transport Centre," Frank explained. "Apparently, Counsellor Sanchez has asked to be beamed back on board."

"That is odd," Rain wondered why the Counsellor was going through the Hadir when his combadge would have gotten him to the Maverick far more efficiently. "Is his combadge working?"

"It is," Frank answered, "but he's not answering. That's not all Sir," the younger man replied. "I was set to transport him on board, except there's something wrong with his pattern. It doesn't match the one going down."

"Excuse me?" Rain thought she heard wrong. "How could that be?"

"I don't know Chief, but I ran a DNA scan on the person at the Transport Centre and it is Counsellor Sanchez, but somehow his body mass reading is wrong. It's registering a loss of fifty per cent."

"WHAT?" Rain exclaimed while all her hosts were uttering a collective 'what the hell' in different voices in her head. "Have you contacted the bridge?" She asked as this was fast becoming a situation that required the input of a command officer.

"I did but no one is responding," Frank said hesitantly.

That was impossible, Chris Larabee did not ignore calls to his combadge. In fact, none of the senior staff did. "No one? The Captain? Commander Wilmington? Commander Styles?" She stopped before she rattled off the entire list of names belonging to the senior staff.

"Nobody," Frank repeated himself.

"What about Ensign Dunne?" Rain asked. While technically JD was an ensign, he was also a bridge officer and that put him in the chain of command, albeit temporarily.

"I haven't tried him yet," Frank confessed, admitting he didn't think to contact Ensign Dunne.

"It's all right," Rain said kindly. "I'll do it. Standby for the moment."

No sooner than she ended her conversation with Frank, Rain tapped her combadge to get in touch with JD whom she hoped was more accessible than the senior officers did. She knew they were all probably still recovering from the celebration the night before, but even suffering the worst hangover in kingdom come, would keep them from being at their stations when their shifts began.

"Ensign Dunne, this is Lt. Rain, please come in."

The response took a few seconds to come. When it did, Rain flinched at the sound of voices, young voices, several of her hosts who were once parents quickly identified, chattering excitedly, overlapping each other into a loud din. They sounded like the blather one heard from a playground and Rain had to wonder what the hell was JD doing hanging around the school at this time of the day. Was there even school this early?

"This is Ensign Dunne, I'm a little busy right now, but what can I do for you Chief?"

"I've got someone trying to beam on board the Maverick, with a DNA match for Josiah but a completely mismatched transporter pattern."

"Aw hell!" JD cursed before shouting on top of his lungs. "EVERYONE SETTLE DOWN!"

Thankfully, Rain was the only person at the counter so no one other than she heard the Ensign losing his marbles. Her eyes widened, wondering what on earth was going on before he responded a moment later, a good deal calmer. "Rain, that's most likely Josiah. I know this sounds weird but just transport him to the Maverick and escort him to Sick Bay, I need some help..."

"...babysitting?"

She did not have to see JD's face to know he was probably giving her the finger.

*******

Josiah had really thought the Dance of Inferno was some quaint Hadiran dance routine.

Unfortunately, by the time he learned otherwise, Josiah had imbibed enough Blue Vale to lose any ability to make sound decisions and simply allowed the night to drag him along on his journey to debauchery. What followed was a night of such decadence Buck Wilmington would have been proud to stand with him to get his distemper shots.

Aside from being utterly mortified to have engaged in such cavorting, particularly when he was exploring a tentative romance with schoolteacher Audrey King on board the Maverick, he remembered nothing beyond the party. Nevertheless, when daylight arrived, Josiah found himself on around, king-sized bed, surrounded by women, in various states of undress, with his space ranger costumed strewn about the place while he was clad in nothing, living out some sybarite fantasy.

Except he was suddenly ten years old.

It was difficult to say who was more horrified by this fact, him, or the ladies he apparently spent the evening with. Nevertheless, after the screaming, cries of indignation and outright horror had been exhausted, Josiah was able to extricate himself from the situation, despite the refusal of his combadge to cooperate and contact the Maverick. Miraculously, they transported him back to the ship despite his strange appearance.

When Josiah finally returned to the Maverick, he was still trying to get a grip of his situation.

The first thing he saw when the shimmer of the transporter beam faded was Rain's eyes widening in shock at his ten-year-old self. Josiah couldn't blame her, he had been no less stunned himself. He didn't recall his hair being quite so unruly or feeling quite so puny. Then again, compared to what he had been, it was understandable.

Rain, who often wore an expression as inscrutable as Vin Tanner's, had simply stared at him and Josiah supposed he ought to be gratified that for once, her 300-year-old self, had been taken by surprise. He guessed with all the things she saw in her life, this one had to be one for the books.

"Oh my God," Rain said approaching him smiling widely, her fingers brandished in front of her like a lobster about to enter the arena for a battle to the death. "You are so cute!"

"Touch my cheeks and I'll submit the request for your lobotomy," Josiah warned as he stepped off the transporter pad, in no mood for levity. He was a grandfather for God sakes! He had no wish to be ten years old again, no matter how inviting the possibility. As it was, he had been forced to wear his space ranger costume back to the ship and it was barely hanging onto his small frame while his feet were bare, because there was no way he would fit the boots.

"Okay, okay," Rain smiled. "Although you are kind of young to be doing the walk of shame."

Josiah glared at her. "Very funny, I have no idea what I did last night to be ashamed."

"Well, apparently it involved five women..."

"I remember that part!" Josiah snapped. "Well actually I don't remember that part but I mean this!"

"Yeah," Rain looked him over, still somewhat astonished by what she was seeing. There was no trace of the Counsellor she had come to know over the past year. He was a little under five feet tall, with slight shoulders and hair that seemed to defy gravity and stick up on top. "Come on, let's get you to Sick Bay."

"What's that going to do?" Josiah grumbled. "I need a change of clothing, I can't wear this down there!"

"Look," Rain turned to him, understanding his apprehension. Dispelling the humour of the situation, she spoke in a tone devoid of any levity. "It isn't just you this has happened to, almost all the senior staff have been affected. "

"All?" Josiah's eyes widened, "you mean Chris, Buck and ...."

"All of them," Rain nodded grimly. "I haven't seen Nathan yet but according to Li Pong, he's being especially obnoxious so I need to get there before she gives him a time out."

Josiah rolled his eyes and muttered, "Lovely."

Chapter Five: Unhinged

Since coming on board the Maverick, JD Dunne had seen a lot of weird things.

There were situations that were downright terrifying and others bordering on bizarre. For every moment of wonder, there were incidents leaving him in head-scratching puzzlement, while others provoked a range of emotions from anger to disgust. Of course, they were also moments of great delight where one could do nothing but simply ride out the insanity.

For instance, JD recalled the time the Akari came on board the Maverick after the Captain established first contact. The Akari, whom according to their customs, could not travel without their pets, came on board the ship with a menagerie of colourful animals, one of which was a six-foot-tall creature resembling a highland gorilla of Earth. The species called the kanzi, selected mates by scent, which unfortunately in this instance bore a remarkable similarity to the perfume Chris Larabee had bought Mary Travis for her birthday.

What followed next resulted in the Captain creating an entry in his log he called that 'King Kong Incident'.

There was also the time Alex chose to sample some local cuisine on Antares III, whose adverse reaction to human physiology turned the Science Officer's skin bright green for an entire week, and until it cleared was forced to endure repeated requests (especially from Buck Wilmington), to perform Orion slave girl dances. Meanwhile, Chris had threatened Vin with blinkers if he didn't stop gawking at Alex when he was at the Conn after he almost crashed into an asteroid.

Even more ridiculous, was Ezra's penchant for flowery speech being mistaken for a marriage proposal by the warlike Camasi, a reptilian race, closely related to the Gorn. It required his entire security team to keep the wife of the Chieftain from disembowelling him, after Ezra inadvertently made the proposal to her husband, during a diplomatic dinner. To say nothing of the occasion, when Chris Larabee was forced to address their Council, wearing nothing more than a loin cloth made with feathers.

According to Casey, Mary had pictures.

None of that, however, was equal to the weirdness he was confronted with right this minute in Sick Bay.

Scattered across the numerous examination beds in the consultation room of Sick Bay, was most of the Maverick's senior staff. If they came in pre-teen models, that is. If not for their identities confirmed by Doctor Zheng Li Pong, the Assistant Chief Medical Officer of the Maverick, JD would have been certain this was some kind of prank, conjured up in the devious mind of Buck Wilmington.

Except, he had laid eyes on none of the children in front of him before. While he might be willing to admit, there had been some new arrivals to the crew since their departure from Deep Space Five, it would explain his inability to recognise one or two of them, not all. Furthermore, Doctor Zheng had conducted her medical scan and confirmed, the children were a perfect DNA match to their supposed adult versions.

"How did this happen?" JD asked when Doctor Zheng finally gave her report.

The tall, porcelain beauty revealed her bewilderment as she answered. "I have no idea. Physiologically, they're all ten years old. I can't even begin to understand the science that might explain this. There's no trace of radiation or any kind of mutation. I am at a loss to explain how it could have come about."

"I don't care how it goddamn happened!" Chris Larabee's patience snapped hearing her conclusion, yelling loudly on top of his voice, which in his current state was quite a shrill noise that made everyone flinch. "Fix this!"

"Dad, take it easy!" Adam spoke up automatically, trying to maintain a straight face when he was fighting like hell to keep from smirking. As bizarre as this entire situation was, Adam had to admit, he never thought life on the Maverick could be so interesting. "I'm sure Doctor Zheng is doing her best."

"Don't tell me to take it easy, I'm a frigging ten-year-old!"

"Come on Pard, calm down," Vin said as he was seated between Chris and Alex on the examination table while wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, while Alex was dressed in a bodysuit. Fortunately, having a wife with a Class 1 Advanced Programmer Rating, meant she could easily get around the computer's security protocols to replicate them some appropriate clothing.

"We're all in the same boat. I mean it took years for me to grow into my ears. If I have to grow my hair twice as long to hide these," he gestured to his ears, that did look more prominent than normal, "I'll look like a girl."

"Lieutenant Tanner, your lustrous locks already accomplish that now," Ezra said sourly, arms folded, looking as if he were about to throw a tantrum. Possessing the same programmer's rating as Alex, Ezra had replicated appropriate clothing for himself and Nathan, so they did not look like scamps from Oliver Twist.

"Ezra it will be alright," JD tried to assure the Security Chief, unaccustomed to the normally in control southerner appearing so disgruntled and devoid of calm. "We'll figure it out."

"You have an idea how to figure this out? Look at us!" Chris bit back petulantly. "We're children!"

"Well you are certainly behaving like one at present," Ezra muttered under his breath.

"Are you trying to go on report Commander!" Chris snapped, aiming the Larabee glare at the security chief, which had lost its ability to intimidate anyone.

"I apologise, Captain," Ezra replied, "but my humour is in as good a state as your patience at present."

Chris exhaled loudly, aware he was descending into mild panic and started rubbing the bridge of his nose. Nathan Jackson opened his mouth to offer yet another helpful suggestion to Doctor Zheng about what she could do to determine the cause of their predicament. Not that she hadn't already subjected them to a battery of tests.

"Oh, for the love of God Nathan, she's run every test there is! This isn't something that just happens medically, something weird is going on here!" Alex snapped, hating the situation she was in but capable of being a little more logical about this. Her mind had been fixed on the problem since she managed to stop screaming at the naked Vulcan boy, she realised was actually her husband.

"Well then you explain it Science Officer," Nathan stared back at her sarcastically. "You are supposed to be the smartest person on the ship."

"You are?" Vin stared, sitting next to her, examining his hands at how small they were. Turning over his palms, even the scars he acquired during his time in the savage wilderness had reappeared after fading away with time.

"I try not to let it get to my head," she dismissed the thought because she certainly didn't feel smart right now.

Suddenly the Sick Bay doors opened and stepping through was a little girl clad in a sarong, tied at a knot in front of her chest. With red hair bouncing off her shoulders in tight ringlets, she looked like Shirley Temple, the child star from five hundred years ago.

"Hey, I need some help in here!" Julia Pemberton called out, staring at the children in the consultation room with some distress before she rubbed her eyes as if trying to banish the image from her mind. "Someone has slipped me a hallucinogenic because it's making me think I'm seeing ten-year old's everywhere, myself included. I swear, if this is Alex's idea of a joke, I'm telling everyone she secretly loves bodice rippers!"

"HEY!" Alex barked from where she was seated, mortified as her cheeks turned red. "Shut up Julia!"

"Really?" Mary stared at her with a brow raised. Alex didn't look the type to enjoy erotic, historical novels.

"Romance novels and a ballerina?" Buck grinned, unable to hide the smirk on his face. He was going to get a lot of mileage out of this for the next ten years. "I always knew you wanted to wear a corset."

"Oh, shut up Tiny," Alex snapped and turned back to Julia as Buck began spouting some nonsense about growth spurts and being a late bloomer with an air of defensiveness. "Julia You're not hallucinating! We're all like this!"

Julia's eyes widened and then surveyed the faces in Sick Bay, the awful realisation settling in on her this was not the product of some narcotic resulting in making her see things. "Ezra, is that you?" She asked, her stomach sinking, recognising his sea green eyes.

"I'm afraid so Julia," Ezra grumbled, although he was rather fascinated by Julia's bouncy curls. "I had no idea you bore such a striking resemblance to Orphan Annie."

"That's insane! And I don't look like Orphan Annie!" She exclaimed dismayed, looking at herself again and realising what she was seeing was not some trick. It was the reality she refused to accept when she first saw herself in the mirror this morning after waking up. "This can't be real!"

"No kidding," Adam who was standing next to JD, couldn't help remarking as Li Pong walked over to the Chief Engineer and began scanning the redhead. "I'm too young to raise a child. It's going to put a real crimp on my dating possibilities."

Chris shot his son a glare, "that's real funny."

"No, it's not funny!" Mary cried indignantly, tossing her blond hair behind her dramatically. "I scared the hell out of Billy this morning!" She was still trying to get the expression of confusion and disgust out of her mind after her encounter with her young son.

Despite himself, Chris could not help but smile seeing her gorgeous blond hair swinging about her like a cascade of gold. He admired those glorious tresses when she first came on board but seeing the wild, untamed version was an especial delight. If it wasn't completely inappropriate (not to mention somewhat creepy) he would run his fingers through it.

"Because you looked like a kid?" Buck asked with surprise, not thinking it would have been that traumatic. At worst, Billy would assume a strange little girl had simply wandered into the quarters he shared with his mother.

"No," Mary frowned a little embarrassed. "It was because I kissed him good morning before I realised I turned into... this! No eight-year-old boy likes getting kissed by a strange girl!"

"Yeah, that kind of thing only works out when you're older and if she has a sister," Buck admitted wearing a shit-eating grin that spoke of sin and made the men or rather the boys in the vicinity groan with collective exasperation.

"Stop that!" Alex tossed the small examination pillow at Buck, her face wrinkling in revulsion. "It is creepy hearing you talk like that when you're in that little body. It just sounds wrong!"

"Stop calling me little!" Buck bit back, hating the fact at this moment, he could get beaten up by Julia Pemberton. "I told you, I had a growth spurt at twelve!"

"That's one hell of a growth spurt," Chris couldn't help but tease his old friend, especially when the man wore that smouldering scowl on his face. "Seriously Buck, how the hell did you get so tall when you started out so short?"

"Captain or not I'll kick your ass," Buck snorted, forgetting his rank or the fact he was the First Officer.

"Good luck with that Bucklin," Vin couldn't help but laugh.

"I still can't believe how cute you are," Mary stated, still marvelling at how small he was. Next, to the rest of them, Buck looked more like an eight or seven-year-old. "I just want to pinch your cheeks!"

"Captain's girlfriend or not, I'll brig you Mary," Buck warned, hating the fact he was the smallest. It had been the cause of a good deal of bullying when he was younger until puberty facilitated the vengeance he craved by allowing him to dip all his tormentors' heads in the lavatory.

"Don't call me the Captain's girlfriend!" Mary hissed, hating how childish that sounded.

"Just calm down Rapunzel" Buck grinned, getting her back. "I didn't mean to rile you up."

"What do you mean don't call you the Captain's girlfriend?" Chris stared across the space between them, his icy gaze eying her critically. "Technically, that is what we are."

Mary's jaw dropped open as she declared indignantly, "Chris Larabee, we have been turned into children! This is hardly the occasion to discuss whether or not we're going steady."

"Well are we, or aren't we?" Chris felt the need to insist. "I mean sure we're not having sex or anything..."

"Okay, that's it," Adam threw his hands up in the air and exclaimed aghast at JD. "I'm traumatised."

"Oh at least he wants to talk about your relationship," Julia spoke up. "My parents will be at Deep Space Five in a few weeks and they want to meet Ezra."

"What?" Ezra shot her a look, his youthful face hiding nothing, and all Julia saw was panic. "At what point were you going to tell me this delightful snippet of information?"

"When you couldn't escape into an alternate dimension!"

As the room descended into further levels of chaos and farce, JD tugged at Adam and gestured for the younger man to follow him to a discreet corner of Sick Bay. It spoke volumes that none of the afflicted senior staff, noticed their discreet withdrawal. As it was, JD was trying to tune out the heated discussions about commitment, relationship status and how anyone could hate the Magnificent Seven holo-program but still read Gone with the Wind. Meanwhile, Nathan's voice could be heard offering Li Pong more helpful pointers about what to do next and JD swore he heard the woman curse in Chinese.

Adam who found himself naturally warming to JD and taking his lead because of his friendship with JD Dunne's other universe counterpart could tell the ensign had something serious to impart and adjusted his manner accordingly. Even though Adam was considered just a teenager in this universe, in the one of his birth, he had been a seasoned soldier.

"What's up?" He asked, keeping his voice low, so they would remain mostly unheard by the children.

"Is it me or are they sounding unhinged?" JD asked seriously, having not spoken during the last few minutes because a very unpleasant possibility had started to rear its head in his mind and JD had observed them to prove his theory. While he often felt eclipsed by his more accomplished comrades, JD graduated Starfleet Academy with honours and was the only other person, besides James T Kirk, to beat the Kobayashi Maru.

Adam's expression darkened, and he glanced briefly at his ten-year-old father, (he couldn't believe how weird that was), and studied Chris Larabee for the moment.

This was the Captain who led his ship through more dire situations than any commander could find himself, now arguing with Mary Travis, who for once didn't make his heartache from sadness, about their relationship. As ludicrous as this situation appeared, JD's question reminded Adam, there was a darker reality lurking beneath the humour of this incident. Almost the entire senior staff of the Maverick was now incapacitated. Under any circumstances, this would be considered an attack.

"Considering what they've woken up to, I can see why they'd be a little testy but they're running on pure instinct. They're not using their heads at all. They're just reacting like..."

"Children?" JD finished the sentence and Adam's eyes widened in realisation at what the ensign was getting at.

"Oh crap..." he whispered. "You think their bodies turning into children is only the first step? Their minds are going to follow?

Before JD could reply, his combadge beeped loudly, making him tap it on reflex. No sooner than his fingers contacted the gold device, he heard Rain's voice on the other end of the channel.

"This is Ensign Dunne, I'm a little busy right now but what can I do for you Chief?"

Rain did not waste time getting to the point. "I've got someone trying to beam on board the Maverick, with a DNA match for Josiah but a completely mismatched transporter pattern."

"Josiah too!" Buck groaned, rolling his eyes in dismay as the situation went from bad to worse with every passing second. Who was next?

"It's everyone at the party, Chris!" Vin exclaimed, eyes narrowing and resembling a surlier version of Puck as he stared at Chris in accusation. "I'll bet those crazy Hadir did this to us!"

"How?" Mary demanded sceptically. "And for that matter why?"

"I don't know why Mary, but it's happened!" Vin burst out, his cheeks tinged with green, a sure indication to anyone who noticed, his hot-blooded Vulcan temperament was making a rather unwelcome appearance.

"Vin calm down!" Chris barked perfectly aware of how volatile that could be.

"I don't want to calm down!" Vin retaliated. "I'm Vulcan, being ten years old mean things are going to start happening if I stay like this!"

"Oh no," Alex's eyes widened as she exchanged a glance with Chris, knowing perfectly well what that could mean. "It's okay, we'll figure it out..."

"Figure it out?" Vin balked.

"EVERYONE SETTLE DOWN!"

JD's voice sliced through all the bickering and panic. It was not often the young man exerted himself this way and the first time he'd ever done it to the senior staff. It made everyone except Li Pong, whose own nerves had frayed beyond no return, fall silent.

"... and furthermore, Doctor Jackson, we have no idea what effect this change has had on your mental faculties, so I ask you please to sit down and let me handle it...." her voice drifted off when she realised JD was waiting for her to be quiet. She reacted by pointing Nathan to the examination bed with an expression indicating she expected him to stay there.

"Rain," JD exhaled, trying to explain to the Transporter Chief what was going on... "That's most likely Josiah. I know this sounds weird but just transport him to the Maverick and escort him to Sick Bay, I need some help..."

"...babysitting?"

JD glared and terminated the signal.

*******

Now that everyone was quiet, and he could think, JD turned his attention back to his friends and comrades, trying to remind them, they were all in the same boat.

"Alright," he said, refusing to let things descend further into chaos. "Look I know you're all kind of freaked out right now, but you need to take a breath. We got to figure out how this happened to you and shouting at each other, isn't going to help."

"Agreed," Chris gave JD an appreciative look, glad the young man was keeping his head during this mess. At least someone was, he thought feeling embarrassed by his own behaviour. JD had just reminded Chris he might be wearing the body of a child, but he was still the Captain of the Maverick. "Let's think this through, all of us."

Nathan who returned to his seat on the examination bed after being banished to the ranks of the afflicted spoke first. "There's just no way this could have happened, medically I mean. We're ten years old. The kind of regression we're experiencing is impossible, even with our current level of technology. There is no fountain of youth treatment capable of doing this.

"I'm afraid I must agree with Doctor Jackson," Li Pong gave the CMO a sigh of apology at the loss of her temper which Nathan returned with a nod of his own, accepting they were all getting a little crazy.

"People just don't go to bed and turn into children overnight. Something happened to you last night. Something that may not be biologically induced at all." JD suggested.

Buck felt a swell of pride at how well JD had taken charge of them. He was so glad he took the time to offer the young man guidance and support over the last year because JD was rising magnificently to the occasion.

"Forgive me for saying this Captain," JD spoke up reluctantly. "We don't know if it's just your bodies changing."

"Oh God," Mary exclaimed guessing what he was implying. "You mean our minds may devolve as well?"

She didn't know what was worse. To be ten years old again or having to live with her mother if it happened.

"He's right dad," Adam pointed out, leaning against the wall, his arms folded as he offered his opinion, even if he wasn't a member of the command staff. However, Chris Larabee was his father and he wasn't going anywhere. "From where I'm sitting, it may have already started."

Chris's stomach clenched, hating the idea that all his experiences and knowledge may vanish overnight, like the last thirty years of his physical development. Once again, he reminded himself he was the Captain of the Maverick and he had a thousand lives relying on his judgement. Before this condition worsened, he needed to act now to protect them.

"Then we don't have a lot of time. JD take us to yellow alert."

"A wise course Captain," Ezra agreed. "I am concerned by the timing of this. If the raiders plaguing the Hadir chose this moment to attack, we would be at a decided disadvantage since the entire senior staff has been neutralised."

"Which may be their plan, to begin with," Chris returned and faced JD. "Until we resolve our predicament," he looked at himself and his pint-sized comrades in distaste. "We cannot leave the bridge in its current condition. JD, you have command."

JD stared at him. "I do?"

"Damn straight you do," Buck confirmed, already confident in JD's ability after the last ten minutes. "You can do it."

"Thank you, Buck," JD smiled in appreciation for the vote of confidence.

"Chris," Nathan spoke up. "If Josiah has also been turned into a kid, then it's only those of us who were at the party last night, who were affected."

"But I was there," JD reminded them.

"You were," Buck agreed. "But you left early and so did Rain."

"So, whatever happened to us," Alex sighed, "It happened after that."

Vin cursed. "I knew we shouldn't have gone to that party... "

Chapter Six: Cavern of Azcax

There were many milestones JD looked forward to after graduating from Starfleet.

Getting his first commission, going on his first away mission, taking part in his first battle, meeting his first Orion slave girl, (Buck told him that one was a must), and of course, getting his first promotion. What he did not include in that list was being put in charge of the bridge because his Captain and the rest of the senior staff had been turned into children.

Seated in the command chair, JD felt like a little kid himself, the one that had climbed into a grown up's seat and would get their ass kicked when discovered. He swept his gaze across the bridge and found the faces present alien, even though he knew all of them by sight. Charlotte Richmond was at present manning the science station (at Alex's recommendation), while Lt. Drew Katovit was at tactical. Seated in Vin Tanner's customary position was Ensign Tsang Wo Chin, the helm officer who often took the helm after Vin's shift was done. The seats occupied by Buck and Mary remained empty and JD never realised how strange the bridge felt without them.

"Charlotte," JD glanced over his shoulder, "please hail the Hadir."

"Aye Sir," she said affording him the respect he earned by taking that chair and gave him a little smile of encouragement.

Charlotte was aware just how frightened he was to be taking centre seat. As it was, she was frankly stunned when she realised Alex Styles had recommended her for this position. To say their relationship had been acrimonious was putting it mildly and Charlotte knew it was mostly her fault. She had been cruel to Vin Tanner, not realising just how emotionally fragile he was when he first came on board, until much later. She assumed he'd been accustomed to the teasing between men and women and had no idea, everything she said to him, was humiliating.

Her relationship with men had always been playful, laced with gentle ribbing. When she had taken her shots at him, she was unaware just how dysfunctional his upbringing had been, how badly disconnected he was to people. Of course, the situation was further compounded when they ran into each other at the cusp of his sexual awakening. Once again, Charlotte who knew Vin's Vulcan physiology had yet to mature, should have stepped away when he made his advances to her, instead of indulging him. The entire incident had been embarrassing with neither being able to make eye contact, even after his marriage to Alex.

Charlotte was convinced Alex was refusing her request for transfer because she intended to make Charlotte suffer for that sin, except it was Alex who wanted her to step in as acting science officer. At first, she believed it was JD's request. During the Dominion attack, the two of them had fought side by side, defending Sick Bay against the Jem Hadar. They had become friends and she liked the young man who was going to be one hell of a Captain someday.

"I'm patching Tribune Setlan on screen," she announced.

"Thank you," JD said taking a deep breath, summoning up an air of authority as the image of the Tribune appeared on screen.

As always, the man's appearance raised brows. Setlan appeared to be lying on some sort of divan, wearing a satin embroidered robe and a Victorian styled smoking-cap on his head. He was holding what resembled an ice pack against his temple, looking as if he was suffering an extremely bad hangover. JD's eyes widened, wondering if this was an act because no head of state could appear so buffoonish on purpose.

"Chris, I hope your head feels a good deal better than...Oh!" He sat up straighter, realising it wasn't Chris Larabee he was addressing. "Ensign Dunne, wasn't it?"

"Uh yes Sir," JD shook his head, noticing from the corner of his eyes, his temporary bridge crew trying to process the scene themselves. "I'm sorry to be bothering you Tribune but we have a situation, which I am hoping you can shed some light on?"

"Where is Chris?" The Tribune demanded. "I realise I may be a little out of sorts but surely any conversation of importance ought to be carried out by the Captain, not an underling. No offence of course young man, I am sure you are very capable but I have socks older than you."

JD tried not to make a face, remembering the comportment required by the chair he now occupied and replied calmly. "The Captain and the rest of the Senior Staff are presently suffering an unexpected condition, we were hoping you might be able to help us with."

"Condition?" Setlan snorted. "Is that what you Starfleet people call hangovers? My prescription, whatever drugs your medical officer can provide to silence the pounding feet of ten thousand Katarian tap dancers in your heads. We have a local remedy involving Jala juice and the milk of a Torisan rat goat."

JD quickly interrupted, never wanting to know what a rat goat was...ever.

"The problem is a little bit more serious than that," JD addressed the Tribune, clearing his throat and trying to sound as serious as possible as he summed up the courage to speak. What he was about to tell Setlan was next to preposterous and there was every possibility the man might just laugh in his face after hearing it. "It appears the entire senior staff who attended the party last night, have regressed into'" JD paused a moment, still unable to believe he was reporting this intelligence with a straight face, "'children."

Instead of laughing in his face, Setlan's eyes widened and his expression turned utterly serious. The man sat up abruptly, reminding JD of a walrus rolling over to the sunny side of his rock, his cap tipping comically to the side of his face as he lowered the ice pack and stared at the Ensign.

"Did you say, children?" He gulped visibly and suddenly JD realised, this might not have been as big a surprise to the man as he thought.

"Children," JD repeated, now eyeing the man suspiciously and glanced over his shoulder to Charlotte and the others, displaying their shock at the revelation of what had happened to their superior officers. Until now, they were aware of the Senior Staff contracting some odd native illness but now the whole truth was laid out to them. However, like all Starfleet officers, they took their cues from the person in the command chair and said nothing for now. JD was grateful for that and made a mental note to explain once he was done talking to Setlan.

"Chronologically, they're all ten years old." JD resumed speaking. "And no, this isn't a joke. It's been verified by DNA scans." He said firmly, suspecting Setlan might have an answer and had no patience to wait for it. As humorous as this situation might seem at first glance, he was certain the Captain and his friends did not feel the same.

"No, no, I believe you," Setlan assured him earnestly, staring back at him. His expression revealed both shock and astonishment, but not surprise, JD was certain now. "Are you absolutely sure, it is them?"

"Trust me," JD replied with a slight shudder, "no child impersonating Chris Larabee could manage to be that mad."

Setlan winced at that revelation, all signs of his buffoonish behaviour vanished now. Instead, he appeared like the leader he was, one who was quite concerned about the situation. "I take it, this transformation took place overnight?"

JD sat up straighter in his seat. "Yes, how did you know?"

"Well I don't know how to tell you this but it isn't the first time we have heard of such a strange occurrence transpiring on Hadir," Setlan explained, his expression genuinely apologetic and somewhat embarrassed.

"What? When?" JD blurted out and then remembered himself. "Please continue."

"Well," Setlan inhaled deeply before hollering off-screen. "VEER! BRING ME A CUP OF HOT KAVFEE! I need my faculties if we are to resolve this matter!"

JD was starting to think he should have gotten drunk last night too and tried to exercise patience with this man when the urge to shout was becoming overwhelming. Now he was starting to understand why the Captain was as grouchy as he was sometimes.

"Tribune?" He prompted gently, working hard to restrain his youthful impatience.

"Yes, yes, sorry," Setlan said dismissively before facing front again. "You have to understand we haven't had contact with off-worlders for five hundred years and we certainly did not believe the Blue Vale could affect you so adversely. We've heard stories of such things happening but that was almost three thousand years ago! Such occurrences were only recorded as mythological tales of our past."

The Blue Vale, JD's mind was whirling and suddenly he remembered how he'd stayed away from the stuff and Rain had opted out of drinking the night before, because she was going on duty. Was that why he and Rain had escaped the transformation because they abstained the night before? His ma was right, drinking just got you into trouble.

"You mean it was the cider that caused this?" JD exclaimed, unable to hide his incredulity.

"Well if the legends are to be believed, yes." Setlan nodded. "It never occurred to us it might have an adverse effect on any of you since we've been drinking it throughout our history. However, the cider was supposedly first fermented when off-worlders came to our world, thousands of years ago and tried to rule it. As we had no weapons, one of our best minds, a spellcaster, we are told, used the magical properties of the Blue Vale to chase them away. All we know from the stories handed down to us from those times is that the off-worlders became incapable of fighting and left soon after. If there is a cure to this, it has to be found in the Cavern of Aczax. It is where the spellcasters lair is supposed to be. It is believed to be located at the very end of the Narrow Caves."

"You're kidding," this came from Charlotte. Fortunately, she said it low enough to not be heard.

JD couldn't blame her, sharing the same sentiments himself. If he didn't know better, he would have sworn Setlan was pulling his leg but the man was absolutely serious. "Spellcaster? Like a wizard?" He tried to keep the scepticism from his voice.

"Exactly!" Setlan said pleased JD grasped his meaning. "There is a pathway there but it's seldom taken because it's so narrow. Grown men will not fit."

"What about blasting?" Drew asked. "Surely you must have drilling equipment for mining pergium that will reach the place." Even as the man spoke, the temporary security chief did not like the implications of what this would mean.

"It would be difficult," Charlotte spoke up, even before Setlan could reply. "Pergium is usually found in caves with osmium. It's harder than diamond and takes forever to cut. It's why Horta miners are in such demand when mining pergium."

"We couldn't cut through and without having a destination, we can't transport anyone either," JD added. "Not to mention, I wouldn't like to try it with the pergium radiance interfering with the transporter signal."

"This is insane," Charlotte declared. "We have no idea if this Cavern of Azcax even exists. We're talking about mythological references three thousand years old!"

JD tapped his combadge and spoke quietly. "Captain, have you been monitoring our conversation with Tribune Setlan?"

"I have," Chris Larabee replied and once again, JD had to remind himself this was his captain he was speaking to, not some kid. Still, even if it was the voice of a child, the gloominess in it was unmistakable. The Captain was no happier about what he was hearing than JD.

"What are your orders Captain?" JD asked.

There was a pause before Chris answered. "Hell knows."

In the background, JD heard a voice that was undoubtedly Adam's. "Dad, language!"

What Chris was said next was something not to be uttered by any ten-year-old.

*******

"Surely this is a joke," Ezra declared as they sat in the conference room, that at present, looked like a classroom with the number of children present.

Following JD's conversation with Tribune Setlan, they'd gathered in the Conference Room trying to decide what was to be done with the information provided by the man. JD, Adam and the senior staff, such as they were, considered Setlan's report about legends and magic, not to mention the cure to their predicament, lying in some place called the Cavern of Azcax which lay at the end of something called the Narrow Caves.

Chris kept wondering at what point he was waking up because none of this could be real. It felt like some bad dream or worse yet, an equally bad kid's movie where he had somehow landed a starring role.

"If it's a joke, I'm not laughing," Chris said annoyed.

"Captain," Alex said with a sigh, her long hair tied into a ponytail, Chris noticed. "Perhaps we need to think about going down there and finding this place."

"You gotta be kidding!" Buck burst out. "You expect us to go down to the planet in our current condition and try to find something called the Cavern of Azcax? It's insane! We don't even know it exists. You heard Setlan, it's a legend handed down from three thousand years ago?"

"Geez, you're pretty excitable for a little guy," Vin pointed out, unable to resist at how upset Buck was getting when they were all in the same boat.

Buck Wilmington shot the Vulcan a stormy look. "Don't make me come and grab you by your pointed Vulcan ears!"

"You'd have to get on a chair." Vin returned smoothly, somehow managing to wear his unflappable expression despite being ten years old.

"That's it!" Buck shouted. "Anyone makes fun of my height again...."

"You'll make short work of us?" Ezra could not resist commenting and received a murderous glare from Buck that only made the First Officer look constipated instead of angry.

"By all means," Josiah threw up his hands, "let's act age appropriate."

"ALL RIGHT KNOCK IT OFF!" Chris snarled and he said it with enough command in his voice to transcend the limitations of his current age, to sound very much like the Captain of the Maverick.

Everyone fell silent and Chris glared at Buck, Ezra and Vin respectively. "Calm the hell down! No one is thrilled about this situation! The last thing we need to do is start behaving like...." he stopped himself from saying the obvious. "Inappropriately."

Taking a deep breath after the min-Larabee glare cowered the trio into submission, he returned his attention to his science officer, wanting to hear the thought she had voiced earlier. "You were saying."

Alex shook her head, ignoring the antics of her comrades and husband before speaking in a tone that was very much in keeping with the delivery of her reports at briefings.

"Okay, so let's face it, we are in the state we are. No science we know can change us back. There's a possibility we may be able to transport back to the planet and using the transporters, with a previous pattern, return to what we were. Except that version of us will not retain memories of the period after the original pattern was recorded. Furthermore, without any idea of how this happened to us, I wouldn't risk it."

"Can this actually be corrected by the transporter?" Nathan stared at her in astonishment.

"It's possible," Julia spoke up. With her curls, she looked somewhat cherubic as she explained. "But it's not a procedure I recommend unless we can find no other way."

"Captain," Alex continued speaking. "I know this isn't the best solution, but the fact is, we have been altered somehow and as ridiculous as the idea of magic and sorcery may sound, this may be based on some science that at the time, seemed like magic. Three thousand years ago, this entire ship would have been considered the chariot of some divine being. We can't assume whomever this spellcaster was, didn't use a method that has a scientific basis. For all we know this Cavern of Azcax could be a lab. Whatever it is, finding it may be our only way of getting back to normal. I would suggest we at least give it a try."

"Alex, we're talking about trekking into mines that are miles below ground," Chris pointed out.

"The alternative is to wait here and hope this condition does not get worse," Josiah added. "At the moment, it's just our bodies but judging by the way our tempers seem to be flaring," he glanced at Buck and Vin in particular, "it may be our mental faculties are deteriorating too. We could end up thinking like ten-year old's, losing all our knowledge and life experiences."

"We can't go there looking like this!" Buck declared. "Chris, even if I believe Alex is right. We're not physically capable of doing this."

"You'd be surprised what a kid is capable of doing when they need to survive," Vin reminded and no one could disagree with him on that point because Vin had survived a hellish childhood with only himself to rely on.

"I'll go with you," Adam spoke up. "I may not be able to go all the way but I can stick with you as far as I can. Besides, I'm used to moving around narrow tunnels and mines."

"Adam, you're a civilian," Ezra pointed out. "It ought to be one of my security team."

"Well he's my dad and you've all been pretty good to me," Adam stated staring at Chris. "I'm going."

Chris exchanged a faint smile with his son, feeling warmly about the boy's determination to protect them all but felt he had to add, "Adam, we don't know what is down there. It could be risky."

"Captain," JD spoke up, "it's already a risk. To be honest, I feel safer about him being down there than all of you."

"Chris," Mary reached for his hand and though they were still children, her soothing manner penetrated his hesitation and he knew she was right. There really wasn't any choice.

"Alright," he sighed. "Get the details of this Cavern of Azcax, and all the data available on it for Alex to look at. Once we have that information, we'll decide what gear we'll need."

"Chris, what do we tell the crew?" Buck asked. So far, the crew had no idea of their condition, save those who needed to know. "They're bound to ask questions when they notice the entire senior staff absent."

"Captain, I would keep it quiet," Josiah advised. "I have enough trouble trying to wrap my mind around this situation, let alone exposing it to the crew."

"I concur with the Counsellor," Ezra spoke up. "I am still unconvinced this isn't some elaborate ruse to cripple the command structure of the Maverick. Even if it isn't, the ship is a decidedly vulnerable state should the raiders attack."

Chris didn't think this was the work of raiders Ezra's point was still valid. They didn't know anything for certain and until they did, they couldn't take the risk. While Chris had confidence in JD's ability to be in charge of the bridge, for the time being, he had no idea how the young man would handle the situation if the ship entered a combat situation, which was entirely possible given the circumstances.

"We tell them nothing," Chris declared. "We tell them, we're required on the surface to conduct negotiations with the Hadir and leave it at that. For the sake of morale and the ship's security, we need to keep this quiet."

"For how long?" Buck asked. "We're banking a lot on a bunch of myths and legends to get us out of this mess."

"Well like Alex says," Vin replied, lending support to his wife's theory, not because of his personal feelings towards her but because she wouldn't make assumptions without giving the matter serious thought. "Myths and legends usually have some basis in fact."

"Besides," Nathan remarked, "I rather be down there, doing something to get out of this mess than being stuck up here, trying not to let anyone see me. I keep expecting someone to wonder why we aren't in school."

Chris's eyes widened in horror. "That is not funny."

"No, funny is finding some strange kid in your father's bedroom, trying on his underwear."

Chapter Seven: Lower Decks

With the decision made to embark on this trip to Hadir, there was little to do for the senior staff but to remain out of sight. Buck, who was having the most difficulty with all this, wanted nothing more than to retreat to his quarters, where he could hide until it was time to go down to the surface. It wasn't just that he was the smallest, he thought glumly as he sat on his bed, it was just that looking like this surfaced some rather unpleasant memories of the past, he really didn't want to remember.

Being small hadn't been really a problem. Other kids at school were small. Being small, fatherless and the son of a local barmaid, was. Most of the bullying he suffered was based on his mother Tessa's supposedly unsavoury vocation and the kids in school on Utopia Planitia never let him forget it. Of course, he always told her they were picking on him because he was small because he couldn't bear to see the hurt in her eyes if she knew she was the reason for his torment.

Buck heard Aislynn's low purr in his ears and immediately smiled at the sight of the Selurian Minx cat. During the first few weeks of being First Officer, the Maverick encountered an old ship called the Leonov trapped on an asteroid. What followed was the discovery of an unknown alien life form with powerful telepathic abilities, capable of tricking humans into believing the livestock left behind in the ship, were crew. Aislynn had presented herself to Buck as a young girl who helped them escape the life form with their lives, resulting in her reverting to her animal form. Her last request of him before her humanity was taken, was her wish to see the stars.

Buck had brought her back to the Maverick in her true form and kept Aislynn with him ever since. Even if she was no longer that sweet child who surrendered everything to save him, she showed her regard by her soft purrs of affection whenever he returned to his quarters. Like at this moment, when she sensed his melancholy and settled on his lap, offering a purr of sympathy as Buck stroked her head.

"At least you know me," he sighed. The cat's golden eyes met his and another purr seemed to indicate her reply, making Buck feel a little better. "This whole situation is crazy Aislynn and it's not because I'm the smallest, it just reminds me of how it felt back then, being so helpless and not being able to say a word about it. If she'd known how I was feeling it would hurt her awful bad and I could never stand to see her cry."

Suddenly the door slid open and Buck stared at it for a moment as it parted, wondering who would be so presumptuous as to enter his quarters without asking. If it was JD, he was going to have a talk with the ensign about minding one's manners. He might look like a ten-year-old but he was still First Officer and would tolerate no one simply walking into his quarters.

Unfortunately, it was not JD.

From the moment Buck Wilmington had met Inez Recillos, he was smitten. Absolutely, irrevocably smitten. Unfortunately, the lady was taken by his old friend Raphael Castille of the Venture and so Buck had to nurse his disappointment in silence. When Raphael died, he'd tried to be a friend mostly because he understood the ravages of grief, having helped Chris Larabee through a similar trial. From that tragic platform, they'd developed a friendship on the cusp of becoming something deeper, something that would have him happily discarding his philandering ways forever.

"Aw hell!" He cursed as their eyes met and was fully prepared to hide beneath the bed to avoid being seen like this. Did this humiliation get any worse!

"Buck" Inez started to say, having yet to see him and then stopping short at the sight of the small boy with Aislynn, the cat Inez had taken to feeding for Buck when he was off the ship. Since he and the Senior Staff were on Hadir, Inez thought she'd better drop by and make sure Aislynn was fed. Inez who knew what Aislynn was to Buck, knew the First Officer, didn't like the cat trapped without contact for extended periods of time.

Inez stared at the boy on the bed, caught between astonishment and disbelief at the familiar blue eyes staring back at her with mortification and horror. As the realisation of who he might be, dawned on her along with the impossibility of it, Inez managed to speak. "Buck? Is that you?"

Buck covered his face with a pillow. "Don't look at me!"

The utter despair in his voice removed the smirk that wanted to split her face in half so Inez merely took a deep breath, controlled her most obvious reaction before she managed to stutter a response. "Buck, what...what happened to you?"

"I don't know!" He replied through the pillow. "I woke up like this!"

Aislynn looked up at Inez in resignation, the feline's golden eyes almost saying, 'I need some help with this'.

Combatting the bizarreness of this because even if this wasn't Buck, it was a child in a clear state of distress, she took a step towards the bed cautiously and lowered herself onto the edge of the mattress. "Buck, it's alright. I'm sure whatever this is, it will get fixed soon enough."

One couldn't live on a starship to know strange things happened sometimes. After all, this was the crew who had been transferred to a reality where their holodeck simulations were real, had half the crew taken over by alien consciousness, to say nothing about the effects of a cosmic storm that had all the crew breaking out in spontaneous song. The memory of Chris Larabee belting out 'It's a long way to the top if you want to Rock and Roll' and Josiah's rendition of 'Let it Go' still lingered in her mind.

No, Buck Wilmington being turned into a child was not the strangest thing she had ever seen on this ship.

"How did you know that it was me anyway?" He grumbled having noticed her quick acceptance. She had recognised him straight away when it had taken some convincing to get JD to even entertain the idea.

Inez smiled with affection. "I know those eyes anywhere, Senor Wilmington."

Buck lowered his pillow and stared at her, "you do?"

Inez took note of his face again, thinking much of that vulnerability and sweetness was often on his adult face, even if he did not know it. "I do."

"Come on," she extended her hand towards him. Buck frowned, cautious about approaching her. He still felt humiliated at having her see him like this but there was no derision in her eyes, just kindness. Buck took her hand and Inez drew her to him. They came together in a hug and she held him tight, sensing his fear and worry at being stuck like this, as she held him, sensing he needed it. No matter how old he was, he was still her friend.

Inwardly, Buck decided it was just like the universe to make it so the first time he got Inez into his bed would be like this. God hated him.

*******

"You think we ought to be walking around like this?" Vin asked Alex as the duo headed towards the holodeck.

There was nothing to be done until Setlan could send them all the data regarding the legends surrounding the Cavern of Azcax and sitting in their quarters, was making them both a little stir crazy. At least their ship's computer had been updated with their new voice patterns so they could get access to the ship's facilities without Alex needing to hack the system. Besides, no one was going to recognise two children walking through the corridors of the ship, not when the Maverick was a ship of families and their situation was still unknown to the rest of the crew.

"Who's going to recognise us?" Alex asked glancing at him. "Besides, you were going crazy staying inside and I was going crazy watching you."

To say nothing of the fact they were still technically newlywed and in their present bodies, the whole thing made Alex decidedly squeamish if not completely weirded out. Considering the attraction, they'd shown each other from the moment they came on board, their current circumstances would take some readjustment.

"Come on, we can go dive bombing in that creek on the ranch. The one we always go riding by."

"Dive-bombing?" He stared at her in amusement, never considering that bit of rock perched above the waterline in the deep end of the creek could be employed for that purpose. As an adult, it wouldn't be much fun but as a kid, he had to admit, the possibilities for mayhem were endless. Vin grinned at Alex, for being the one to come up with the idea. She always knew what kind of activities to interest him.

"Come on," she gave him a sly look, as she nudged him in the ribs. ""You know you want to. We can even disable the holodeck safety protocols." she winked.

Vin laughed. "You're gonna get us into trouble."

They were almost to Holodeck 2 when the doors slid open and stepping outside, with a diminishing locale of a tropical beach behind them were two members of Alex's science team, Lt. Terri Kearns and Lt. Cherry Sherman, whom she'd nicknamed the Terrible Twins, seeing how as they were close friends who almost always managed to pull a shift together, even when it required horse trading with the rest of the science team to manage it. Alex considered them the bright stars of her Science team.

"Hey kids," Terri saw them and broke into a little smile, "if you're next, we've got a pretty great surf program you can use."

Alex dropped her gaze and let Vin do the talking since she wanted neither to know she was their commanding officer, in this teen model. Vin who had no desire to give himself away either thought quickly and responded, performing his best imitation of young Billy Travis.

"Thank you but we were going to swim in a creek and go hiking." He replied, delivering those words with Billy's usual dour expression. Vin wondered if the child felt this way all the time and hated it if it were the case.

"Suit yourself," Cherry quipped brightly before the two women resumed walking down the corridor. As they drew away, the two adults returned to their conversation. "So, did you hear, the Ice Queen actually recommended Charlotte for bridge duty."

Alex froze.

Vin on the hand covered his grimace with a facepalm before glancing at his wife, who was slowly turning around, paying close attention to the words coming from her subordinates. Her expression was rapidly becoming stormy and Vin cringed as the subject of discussion continued to its horrifying climax.

"Yeah, I guess she must have forgiven Charlotte for almost bagging Vin Tanner." Terri giggled, with Cherry joining in the laughter a second later.

"Either that or all that sex must have thawed her out," Cherry remarked as the two of them disappeared around the corner. "You know what they say about Vulcan stamina. I bet he goes like a machine."

Vin turned dark green, not to mention was mortified, wondering if the incident with Charlotte Richmond would ever cease to haunt him. Next to him, Vin saw Alex smouldering. He didn't know what infuriated her more, the fact they were calling her the Ice Queen, something Vin never realised she was referred to, or the possibility Alex harboured any jealousy towards Charlotte for the unfortunate incident between them.

During the onset of Pon Farr when his sexual awakening was first manifesting, Vin had been terrified of approaching Alex for fear of harming her. Of course, that hadn't stopped him from embarking on a brief tryst with Charlotte and it was only before it went too far, had he realised what happened and ran out of her quarters, half dressed and thoroughly horrified by what he had done.

While Alex had been chagrined by the whole affair, she showed no ill feeling towards the woman and Vin was pleased when she recommended Charlotte to take up her post on the bridge during this crisis. However, now...

"Vin," Alex turned to him and spoke in a perfectly calm voice, her face devoid of expression. "Promise me you'll wait for me while I'm in prison. How long could they put me away for a double murder?" She was preparing to go after the gossipy duo. She drew away from him, four and a half feet of irate, prepared to rain Klingon whoop ass on two women who had no idea how much time they would be spending the next six months cleaning EPS conduits.

Vin rolled his eyes and didn't even bother arguing with her. Catching up to Alex, he swept her up in his arms and slung her over his shoulder without giving her a chance to argue. Alex uttered a squeal as she was carried away. He might look like a ten-year-old but he was still Vulcan and four times stronger than her.

"Vin, what the hell are you doing?" She demanded indignantly as he carried her towards the holodeck.

"Saving you from yourself, darlin." He said without pause and hoped he would be spared throwing her into the creek to cool her off. "Saving you from yourself."

******

"I'm hungry," Josiah remarked as he, Ezra Standish and Julia Pemberton headed out of the Conference Room towards their quarters where they would be sequestered away until their mission to Hadir.

"How can you be hungry at a time like this?" Ezra frowned, unable to think of food in this wholly unacceptable position, where he was reduced to a pint-sized version of himself, kept from the job he loved, in a condition that could have staggering implications if it were not corrected.

"According to my father, when I was ten I was always hungry." He pointed out as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "I might go down to Four Corners and get some food, I suddenly feel like waffles."

"Surely you can't be serious?" Ezra stared at him. "We're children!"

Josiah leaned forward and remarked. "You know," he said slyly, "apparently children have been observed in the wild eating waffles. Sometimes, if you watch very closely, they even have..." he raised his head and looked around furtively, in an exaggerated show of sneakiness, "blueberries on it."

Ezra glared at him through narrowed eyes. "I am glad you are finding this so amusing."

"I am not," Josiah stated firmly for clarity. "I'm a grandfather, or soon to be. I don't much like telling my grandchild why I'm younger than his mother if we're stuck like this permanently but I'm not going to drive myself insane because of it either."

The horror of being stuck like this was too terrible to imagine Ezra thought, but then Josiah did have a point. As if to drive it home, he felt Julia's hand in his, squeezing tight.

"It will be okay Ezra," Julia was aware that he hated any situation he couldn't control and this certainly fell into that category. "I know it's crazy, but we'll be fine."

"I suppose," Ezra said glumly. "And waffles do not sound too terrible a repast for the indignities we are facing."

"That's more like it," she kissed him lightly on the cheek.

Suddenly, a burst of giggles and hoots were heard from behind them with a decidedly juvenile tone to it. All three officers turned around and found themselves facing a group of children, of similar ages to them, (well physically), having caught the exchange between him and Julia with great amusement. The girls were giggling and the boys, well they were staring at Ezra in admiration. Josiah suspected it was likely because most ten-year-old boys had to do a significant amount of pushing and shoving before a girl realised she was being courted. That Julia had kissed Ezra seemed to imply the successful application of this technique.

"Hey, are you guys new?" A blond boy who stood a little taller than Ezra asked as he approached. "We haven't seen you on the ship before."

Ezra who was a master of covert operations answered. "Uh yeah."

Josiah rolled his eyes and Julia tried not to facepalm.

"I mean yes," he said glaring at them. "We just came on board at Deep Space Five."

"I'm Jimmy Seils," he introduced himself. "That's Becky Littleton, Glen McLean, Susie Mims..." Jimmy proceeded to introduce himself and his companions, even though Josiah knew all of them from his frequent visits to the school to see Audrey.

"I'm..." Ezra started to speak when he realised his name was pretty distinct and made another selection, "...Peter, this is Jo and that's Julie."

He glanced at Josiah and Julia to play along. The last thing they needed to do was traumatise the youngest members of the Maverick's crew.

"Hi," Julia waved and Josiah did the same.

"So, like is he your boyfriend?" Blond and curly Susie Sims asked Julia with a smirk.

Julia tried not to smile at Ezra's distaste at being referred to as anyone's boyfriend. It just sounded so, so high school, she once heard him stutter devoid of his usual eloquence. "Yes," she smirked, holding his hand and making the girls squeal in amusement. "We're going steady."

Jimmy found this whole situation quite disturbing but figured 'Peter' had to be cool if he could get such a pretty girl like Julie to like him. "We're going to the holodeck to play space pirates, wanna come?"

Ezra was about to say no when Josiah spoke up without an ounce of repentance on his face. "That sounds like fun. Come on 'Peter'," Josiah grinned ignoring the look of exasperation on Ezra's face.

"I'm going to be a Klingon warrior!" Becky declared proudly.

"Klingons don't let girls be warriors, stupid." Glenn pointed out.

Becky smacked him.

Julia held her tongue because she was certain Alex would have something to say to that fact. Ezra in the meantime simply glared at Josiah with an unspoken promise.

I will make you pay for this.

Chapter Eight: Adventures in Babysitting

It was well known throughout the Maverick; the Captain and the Protocol Officer were involved in a relationship set at an intensity of a slow-burning romance. Most of the crew understood much of their deliberation was due to the fact Lt. Travis had lost her husband at the Battle of Sector 001, the same engagement that delivered Chris Larabee his captaincy.

Still, the depth of their attraction was visible in the subtle touches they exchanged in public, the little smiles of tenderness and the smouldering gazes they shared across a crowded room. When it was possible, the lieutenant often attended official functions at the Captain's arm and anyone who saw them together could not deny they made a handsome couple.

Only Chris and Mary were aware of how intimate their relationship was. While they touched each other in kisses, hugs and innocent hand holding, the road to full intimacy had yet to be travelled. Chris had allowed Mary the time to mourn Syan and he himself, needed to adjust his own life to accommodate her. As Captain, there were lines they could not cross and once intimacy was finally reached, how he conducted himself as master of the Maverick, would come under great scrutiny.

Nevertheless, Chris expected the first time he and Mary spend the night in his quarters to be somewhat different than the reality he was experiencing right now.

Mary had asked to stay after arranging to have Billy spend the night with Audrey and Lilith King, preferring evasion rather than telling her son the truth about her situation. She had no desire to traumatise him with the knowledge his mother had turned into a child, at least until she knew it was reversible. However, after Billy had gone, Mary found it odd to be alone in her quarters when she felt like a stranger in her own body. She needed company and knew Chris was probably be feeling just as displaced as she was.

"You know," Chris stared at Mary as they sat on the sofa, lamenting their condition. "I imagined the first time we spent the night together to be a lot more different than this."

They were both stretched out, separated by a bowl of popcorn, watching a holo-movie on the Federation Net. It was. some god-awful thing called Love in the Time of Klingon Measles. The movie about a Klingon warrior's unrequited love for an Andorian female during an outbreak of Klingon Measles boasted some of the worst acting they had ever seen. Mary pointed out rightly, the Federation shouldn't have entirely abandoned the death penalty for such grievous mental harm. Still watching how bad it was had reduced them to laughter which they both sorely needed.

Mary gave him a look. "I find it extremely distressing talking about that in this condition Chris," she gave him a look.

"Lieutenant," Chris returned with a little smile. "I have only the purest intentions in mind."

"Cut it out!" She tossed popcorn at him. "This is strange enough as it is. I mean look at us!"

"Trust me," Chris sighed facing the screen again. "I'm trying not to think too much about it."

"I don't want to go back and do it all again," Mary dug her hand into the popcorn, paying little attention to the holo movie. "It was hard enough the first time."

"No kidding," Chris thought of his childhood and while there was a fondness in those memories, he could do without going through puberty again. "I worked my whole life to be here, to command my own starship and knowing I might have to start from scratch is kind of disturbing."

No that was not going to happen, Chris had decided resolutely. He was not staying like this. They had a solution and thought it was not one he was ready to take yet, if all else failed, they would have no choice but to employ it.

"Mary, if this crazy idea of going to the planet doesn't work, we'll go with Julia's plan of using the transporters. I don't like the idea of losing a few days from my memory either, but if it gets us back to normal, we'll risk it."

Mary let out a sigh of relief and leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you, Chris. I was really starting to get worried about what would happen to Billy if I stayed like this. Syan's parents are already unhappy that I brought him on board a starship. If I'm in this condition, they would insist on bringing him home to Vulcan."

Chris stiffened at the thought. Billy was like his own child and Chris had come to love the kid in the year since he'd met the boy. If he felt such an ache at the loss, he couldn't even begin to imagine how Mary would feel. "It's not going to happen. I promise you."

Suddenly, he heard voices outside the door and exchanged a puzzled glance with Mary before getting up to go investigate. Reaching the door, he activated it only to be confronted with the scene of Adam kissing Irene, the pretty teenage daughter of Lt. Anson Lee, the ship's geologist. At his appearance, both Adam and Irene stopped what they were doing and regarded him.

"Oh, you're babysitting?" Irene asked Adam, her arms still wrapped around his neck as she stared briefly at Chris before turning back to him.

"Babysitting...?" Chris gaped at both of them with nothing less than outrage at the suggestion. "I don't need a babysitter!"

Adam broke into a grin at Chris's reaction before facing Irene again. "I gotta go," he kissed her lightly on the lips. "I gotta put him to bed. If he doesn't get eight hours, he'll be cranky in the morning."

"That is not funny." The Captain of the Maverick said through gritted teeth, trying very hard to remember this kid was his flesh and blood and Starfleet tended to frown on keelhauling these days.

"Call me later," Irene said flashing Adam a radiant smile as she disentangled herself from him.

"You can bet on it," Adam gave her his most charming smile and Chris swore the girl positively melted.

Jesus Christ, Chris thought. I'm raising Buck.

Chris watched the teenager saunter down the hall, casting Adam a wistful look in the universal gesture of interested female before she continued down the hallways, leaving them alone.

"How's your playdate dad?" Adam asked, still smirking, finding the outraged scowl on his father's face to be quite amusing.

Chris's eyes narrowed. "I'm glad you're finding this so amusing."

"Just a little," Adam replied, following his father back into their quarters, hating to admit he enjoyed seeing Captain Larabee a little less in control of himself. "Actually, it's kind of interesting seeing you this way."

Chris stared at him. "How the hell can you find this interesting!" Once again, he glowered at the sound of his near high-pitched voice.

"Well it's the first time, I've seen you not so captainy," Adam admitted. "I mean it's all I've ever seen you be since I met you. You're always the Captain, it's nice seeing what you're like beneath it all."

Chris looked at him with a frown. "I'm not always on."

"Yes, you are!" Mary sang out helpfully.

Chris turned on her. "Am not. I know how to relax."

"Only when you're on the holodeck," she said helpfully, smiling at Adam.

Mary's appearance struck Adam almost as much as Chris. In that other universe, he had come from, Mary Travis had been his foster mother, whom he'd loved more than any other person. Seeing this fairy child with her golden tresses and associating her with the woman who raised him was somewhat jarring.

"Thanks a lot," Chris grumbled sitting next to her on the sofa. "When did you start dating Lt. Lee's daughter?"

"Oh, we're not dating," Adam shrugged and then stared at what was playing on the holo-screen. "Jesus dad, there's an entire library computer of holo movies on screen and this is what you're watching? No wonder Mary doesn't want to go steady with you yet."

Mary snorted and once again, Chris cursed that keelhauling was a thing of the past.

*******

After living several hundred years and being host to a symbiote who had already run through six or seven past lives, it was safe to say this was a first for Rain.

Fleetingly, she wondered how Vin and Alex were handling the situation and supposed it couldn't be as bad for them since they were at least the same age. While she was accustomed to thinking herself mentally older than Nathan Jackson, now it appeared it was the case in a physical sense as well. It was even more awkward since they were cohabitating. Right now, her lover was seated next to her on the sofa, trying to appear that he was perfectly fine with all this when in fact, she could see him twitching with anxiety.

"Nathan, it's not that bad." Rain assured him. "If you don't get to Mordor and destroy the One Ring, I'm sure Chanu and I will be able to cook up something using your previous transporter patterns"

Nathan gave her a look. "So, if I don't get myself killed going on this strange, Lord of the Flies adventure..."

Rain's eyes widened. "Nathan Jackson, Mordor is in the Lord of the Rings! Not Lord of the Flies." She stared at him in outrage. "Don't make me book another session in the holodeck so we can climb up Mount Doom again."

Nathan groaned and buried his face in the palms of his small hands. Agreeing to participate in the Lord of the Rings holo-program, was payback for all those occasions Rain played his love interest and typical damsel in distress in the Magnificent Seven program. Sure, she was kidnapped more times than was normal and on one occasion, was almost murdered by a band of deranged cannibal circus people, (not one of the seven's better antagonists), but it wasn't as painful as her favourite fantasy program. The last time they went into the Lord of the Ring's simulation, he and Rain played the title characters and forced to wear furry prosthetic feet to look authentically like hobbits.

It was damn weird.

Worse yet, the last time they were on Earth, she managed to get her hands on an extension pack to the original program, the Hobbit. For some reason, the scenario was three times longer than it had to be, and Nathan just knew he was going to end up dressing up as a dwarf.

"Anyway," he frowned. "You think this transporter procedure will work?"

"Sure," she said confidently. "It means we'll just transport all of you to the planet and then store your patterns in the buffer, and make sure it comes out in a configuration we've stored during a previous transport." In truth. it was nowhere that simple but Rain was trying to make Nathan feel better. "Think of it as being silly putty and then smooshed into a mould of your original shape. Of course, you'll lose time but at least you'll be back to normal."

Nathan shuddered and retorted with chagrin. "Lord woman, do you think you use another term other than smooshed?"

"Sorry," Rain apologised. "I thought I'd keep the analogies age appropriate."

"This is not funny!" Nathan said exasperatedly. "Look at me! I can't be a kid again!"

"No kidding!" Rain returned just as annoyed. "This isn't fun for me either. While I'm used to being the older woman, what with my symbiote being several hundred years old and all, this isn't what I had in mind when I chose to take up with a handsome young doctor. I was hoping for one that was at least past puberty."

"Thanks a lot," Nathan grumbled.

His disconsolate expression tugged at Rain's heart and she sat down next to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

"Don't worry Doc," she said with a little smile. "We'll get through this. You'll go down there armed with all the knowledge you've learned from carrying the One Ring and going to Mordor, I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding this Cavern of Whatsits and get back to normal."

The doctor rolled his eyes. "Oh great."

*******

Following Inez's visit, Buck actually felt better and decided to leave his quarters. After all, no one would recognise him as being the First Officer of the Maverick and there was nothing to be done until they set out to Hadir in the morning. Besides, he could at least act like an adult even if he was trapped in this child's body. Tomorrow, they would go to Hadir and put this nightmare behind them and it would be over. There was no point sulking in his quarters in the meantime.

Making his way down to Four Corners, Buck decided to take up Inez's invitation to come down to the mess, where she promised to replicate him something special. He had to admit, he was rather taken by how amazing she had been through all this and despite his misery, she had been the only one who had the words to make him feel better. Once again, the connection that tugged at his heart from the moment he met her, made itself felt more acutely and Buck swore after he was back to normal, he was going to do something about it.

He was in such deep thought about this, he didn't look where he was going and ran into a gaggle of girls, of varying heights, the same age...well present age, as he.

"Sorry," he apologised and noted they were all staring at him with interest. No doubt they were trying to figure out who he was since they hadn't seen him on school. The school allowed all the children of the Maverick to become familiar with each other and they were no doubt puzzled why they hadn't seen him before today.

Buck tried to come up with an explanation in case they asked when suddenly, the leader of the pack, a pretty thing with tight blond and a smile that looked more like a smirk, stared at him with interest and fascination. Buck recognised her as being the daughter of Doctor Mims, the ship's dentist.

Susie was her name, he thought.

Buck realised he knew the others with her too. The one with the dark hair was Mary Ann. Buck remembered her because the girl was always wearing a bright blue windbreaker as if she expected the environmental controls to suddenly fail and was trying to avoid freezing to death. Buck didn't know where she came from but he assumed it had to be an ice planet of some kind.

Meanwhile, Vicki Swanson, Buck noted was minus her little dog today. While pets were allowed on the Maverick, the animal was an escape artist and somehow always managed to get out of the Swanson's quarters. The last time the animal absconded, it disappeared into one of the maintenance shafts and what it did in there put Chief Engineer Pemberton in the foulest of moods after she was done washing the poop from her hands.

The dark-haired beauty with the severe expression on her face, who looked like she was an admiral in training was Lt. Commander Girle's young daughter Pauline. She reminded Buck of Alex and the First Officer had the sneaking suspicion she would someday end up running the fleet. The few times the kid had met Chris during the Captain's question and answer sessions at the school, Pauline grilled Chris so thoroughly the Captain of the Maverick paused the practice for an entire month.

Susie seemed to be staring at Buck with a gleam in her eyes that made the First Officer of the Maverick decidedly uncomfortable. Of course, she couldn't know he was, in fact, a thirty-eight-year-old man, not a ten-year-old boy.

"You're new." Susie pointed out. It wasn't a question.

Buck decided playing along was probably the best idea. "Yeah."

"Are you a gentleman?" she looked over her shoulder, reaching some silent agreement with her friends he could not fathom before facing him again. There was a slight southern twang to her voice that sounded very much like the one used by Ezra Standish.

"I guess." He replied puzzled, wondering what an odd question to come from a little girl.

"We need help," she stated, glancing over her shoulder, once again gaining the unspoken agreement of her friends.

Even in this state, he was still the First Officer of the ship, and he could never say no to a lady in need, no matter how old she was. "Sure, what can I do for you."

"We want to learn how to kiss," she stated without any hint of embarrassment. "We need to practice on someone. Want to help."

One word crossed his mind and it was spoken with a voice that sounded a great deal like Chris Larabee.

Felony.

Chapter Nine: Regression

When JD Dunne asked himself yesterday, if things could get any worse, he did not expect Fate's reply to be "Challenge Accepted!"

As it was, the reports he read yesterday defied belief and at one point, was convinced he had stumbled into an alternate reality where nothing was sane. Unfortunately, he had no such luck. This was his reality at present and he was expected to deal with it. Occupying the Captain's Ready Room felt odd but he could hardly deal with some aspects of the job while seated behind the navigational console. The desk felt too large, not simply because it was, but also for the responsibility that came with it. Nevertheless, he had a job to do and as crazy as everything was, he wouldn't shirk his promise to Chris Larabee and the Maverick.

JD just wished what he had to deal with wasn't quite so crazy.

First came the bizarre report from temporary CMO Doctor Zheng Li Pong, informing him of the presence of Lieutenants Terri Kearns and Cherry Sherman who arrived at Sick Bay, covered in green goop sprayed on when they went to take a shower. Not only was the substance the cologne of choice for skunks everywhere, but it also left a stain against the dermal layer resistant to treatment and had to be worn off naturally, which usually took a week. Suffice to say, he agreed with Li Pong's decision to put them on medical leave.

Upon investigating how such a thing had come about, however, JD was informed by Lt. Chanu that someone with a Class A rating in computer programming had done the deed. Since only two people on board the Maverick was qualified, the field of suspects was somewhat narrowed. It was either the Maverick's Chief of Security or the Science Officer. From then on, JD just knew the day was going to get worse.

It did.

Not long after this, JD received a complaint from one Lt. Commander Judy Seils that her ten-year-old son had returned to their quarters asking if all Orion slave girls had huge breasts. When JD went to source out how this had come about, he learned the child had gone into the holodeck with 'some new kids', one of whom was capable of hacking the holodeck protocols to inject some realism to the children's adventure simulation they were playing. The newcomer had added enhancement to the program that was not at all age appropriate, including Orion slave girls, vicious Nausicaan bounty hunters and a setting of the seedy, dangerous world called Purgatory,

Naturally, the children loved it and JD was just annoyed enough to be tempted to call Maude Standish.

Elsewhere, another crewman had reported a case of bullying after seeing a child they did not recognise, being pursued across the ship by a group of ten-year-old girls, led by little Susie Mims, shouting 'we won't use tongue!'

Of course, that was yesterday. Today, he was wondering whether a career in Starfleet was worth it.

Standing in Transporter Room 1 the next morning, it was time for the senior staff (such as they were) to transfer down to Hadir to begin the search for the Cavern of Azcax. The first to arrive was the Captain, Mary Travis and Adam Larabee. All three were wearing travelling clothes for the day, carrying backpacks with the supplies for what they would need during their search. However, JD questioned the success of the mission, the instant the trio stepped into the room,

"I swear to God Chris Larabee, if you say you're Captain of a starship one more time, I am going to hit you!" Mary Travis declared imperiously at Chris, wearing a scowl on her face, her fists clenched at her sides. "You sound like a big know it all that's itching to get wailed on!"

"Well, I am the Captain of the ship!" Chris returned just as stubbornly. "And you're being way too mean for me to want to keep going with you. The Captain's girlfriend is supposed to be nice!"

"STOP CALLING ME THAT!" Came Mary's furious exclamation. Her small face turning red with annoyance.

Adam was rubbing the bridge of his nose, appearing as if he was suffering a headache and JD had the impression this bickering had been going on long enough to get on the younger man's nerves.

"Have they been like this..." JD asked, allowing the two to continue their argument as he stepped behind the unmanned transporter controls with Adam for a little privacy.

"Since this morning," Adam declared, wondering how two of the most affectionate people he knew had been reduced to this. "You were right about them starting to act their age."

"Great," JD groaned turning back to Chris and Mary.

"You kissed me!" Chris was pointing out to Mary. "If you kissed me that means we're going together."

"I am my own person, I can kiss whoever I like!" She turned her back to him, arms folded and nose in the air, looking most imperious.

"What do you mean you can kiss anybody?" Chris demanded. "As Captain of the ship...."

"OHMYGOD!" She whirled around and glared at him. "Quit saying that already!"

Adam said to JD. "I'm never having kids. Ever."

"Alright, that's enough!" JD barked at them both, his tolerance levels reaching breaking point because he couldn't bear to see two friends, not to mention officers, he cared for behaving this way.

"You can't shout at me!" Chris gave him the Larabee glare which only sounded petulant now that Chris was in this state. "I'm the Captain!"

"Oh, God..." Mary groaned behind him.

At this point, the door slid open and entering the room was Buck Wilmington and Josiah Sanchez. Josiah who was easily the tallest among them, made Buck look positively puny. Fortunately, the two of them looked a good deal saner than the Captain and Mary were being at present. Like Chris and Mary, both boys were similarly dressed. JD was grateful they didn't look like they needed a timeout.

"Please tell me you're sane," JD whispered under his breath.

"This is going to be so awesome!" Josiah was gushing to Buck who did not at all seem as enthused. "Hi JD!" The counsellor beamed happily at them. "Why isn't everyone here yet? How can you be late for going on an adventure? I hope we see a real-life wizard and maybe a dragon. Wizards have dragons, don't they? They always have a dragon to protect their stuff in the cave or go flying off to meet other wizards and fight evil bad guys."

Josiah said all this without taking a breath.

"Dragons?" Buck stared at him.

"Because this could be like Jules Verne. You know like Journey to the Centre of the Earth? Or the Lost World, or even the planet Mongo! When you travel deep enough on a planet, you get to see all sorts of neat stuff! Dragons, dinosaurs, giant man-eating plants! Flying sky crabs that spits out balls of electricity! How cool would that be? Imagine dragons or pterodactyls! Maybe even trolls! You know they live underground in big caves."

So not sane, JD decided.

"He's been like this all the way here," Buck grimaced, showing aged resignation despite his youthful face. "Who knew he had an active an imagination like this?"

Certainly not JD who was wondering how on Earth Josiah had become a counsellor with all this bottled up inside of him. His musing was not too different from JD's own as a kid but there had been never any doubt what JD wanted to do when he grew up. Listening to Josiah now, JD could well understand why the Counsellor had been so willing to abandon his life on Earth to join the Maverick's crew.

As Josiah went to join Chris and Mary, JD turned his attention to Buck and noted that Buck didn't sound as regressed as the others.

"How you doing Buck?" JD asked, having fought since this all began, to hide it was Buck whose welfare worried him the most when he ought to be concerned for everyone equally. Aside from Casey, it was the First Officer of the Maverick that meant most to him. Since coming on board the Maverick, Buck had been there for him, as a friend and mentor who made the transition easier to bear. He'd come straight from the Academy, still stinging from the loss of his mother and would not have been able to imagine it, if Buck had not been there for him.

Throughout this entire situation, it was not lost on JD it was Buck who had the most difficulty with the transformation, even more so than the Captain, and JD wished he had been more on hand to help Buck through it.

"Wanting to get this over and done with," he grumbled. "I still think we're all gonna get lost in caves and die horribly but I'll be okay." He offered JD a little smile.

JD had no doubt of that. He might be the smallest but at the moment, he seemed to be the one holding up better than all the others. With a flash of insight, JD suddenly realised that perhaps Buck didn't seem so childlike because he was never really a kid. In fact, now that he thought about it more, it occurred to JD Buck had always been used to taking care of someone, if not him or Chris before that, it was the mother who treated him like the man of the house.

"I know Buck," JD smiled at him, reaching for Buck's arm to squeeze it in support.

"And you'll do okay too," Buck reached for his arm and squeezed it. "You've been doing good so far."

"Thanks, Buck," JD said and suddenly found the need to add further., "Buck whatever happens down there, I got your back okay? You're not going to be alone in this."

Buck blinked and for a moment, he looked very much like the child he was, vulnerable and needed the assurance. "Thanks, JD."

Before anything further could be said, the doors to the transporter room slid open and stepping through first, carrying his backpack and what looked like a knife in a leather sheath attached to his belt was Vin Tanner. Of all the children, he looked like the one most accustomed to going on an extended trek and JD realised Vin had grown alone up in a rugged, treacherous jungle and survived. Remembering this, gave the ensign a great deal more confidence about the trip they were taking to Hadir. At least, the kids wouldn't just be relying on Adam to get them through the rough spots, it was entirely possible Vin could also be as resourceful.

As if to prove his point he was looking over his shoulder at Alex, who was peering into the room with eyes like a frightened animal.

"Come on Alex," he said to her kindly. "It's going to be alright."

"No, it'it.... won't." She stammered in her small voice, slinking into the room as if she would bolt at the first loud noise. "I... can't do this. I could get everyone hurt."

In stark contrast to how their relationship had begun, Vin placed both hands on her shoulders and met her frightened brown eyes. "It will be okay, I'll take care of you. I promise I won't let anything happen to you."

"Are you okay Alex?" JD asked, trying to equate this frightened, timid young girl with the spirited and abrasive child of yesterday. The ensign was reminded of how Alex had been when she first came on board the Maverick when all she wished to do was hide whenever she wasn't on duty. Later, they would understand why but in those first few days, it had been a mystery.

"She's just a little scared," Vin spoke for her, his hand still in hers. It appeared no matter what their age, the bond between the two was just as strong.

She offered JD an uncertain smile and seemed to slink closer to Vin when he looked at her. JD was trying to figure out how this child had become the woman he knew. Having met Alex's foster mother, Kellien, JD supposed the lady had to be responsible for bringing the girl out of her shell.

The door was still open and JD, Vin and Alex turned towards it when they heard new voices approaching the room. Nathan Jackson, whose unruly hair was concealed beneath a baseball cap, was looking disapprovingly at Ezra who looked like he was wearing an environmental suit. Every part of him, except his head, was covered. Next, to him, Julia Pemberton who was wearing cut-off jeans and a purple t-shirt, looked as if she was embarrassed to be standing next to the Chief of Security. Behind the trio of children, Rain was looking at the whole situation with amusement.

"You look ridiculous," Nathan complained. "We're going in caves, you're going to pass out in a minute from the heat and I won't be carrying you."

Ezra sniffed in his usual haughty manner. "Where we are traversing has not been visited by anyone for centuries, I refuse to be afflicted by whatever strange microbes that might be lying in wait for us down there, thank you very much."

"Ezra," Julia sighed, her slight shoulders bobbing up and down in frustration. "I'm sure it's not gonna be so bad. It might even be fun. Come on, how many chances do we get to go on a real adventure?"

"Real adventure? Fun?" Ezra gaped at her. "Pray to tell, what fun can it be, entering some unknown place where we could be in danger of being infected by germs and microbes, fall to our deaths or be maimed? There could be tiny insect life waiting to crawl into our ears at first opportunity and lay their progeny, not to mention the possibility of carnivorous life forms waiting for tasty morsels such as us."

"And you think all those things are going to be kept out by extra layers?" Nathan bit back.

Rain raised her eyes to JD and Adam respectively. "Yeah, that answers one burning question that was always on my mind," she said with a little smile. "Ezra always talked like this."

"Very funny," Ezra retorted. "Mock me if you will but when I am safe from whatever flesh-eating disease consumes you all., I will have the last laugh."

"Nathan's a doctor," Julia shook her head about to give up on this argument. "We'll be okay."

"I mean a real doctor! One whose taller than us." He snorted derisively.

"What do you mean a real doctor," Nathan shoved him. "I'm a real doctor. Give me a scalpel and I'll show you!"

"Hey!" Rain snapped, shoving both boys apart as they looked ready to get into a fight. Both glared at each other in their respective corners, they seemed to settle down, perhaps remembering themselves.

"Oh, this is gonna go well," Buck gave JD a look. "Maybe I ought to stay here with you."

*******

Rain took up position behind the transporter controls once the group had finally calmed down enough to pay attention. Once the cacophony of bickering, discussions of who was going steady with whom, precautions needed to prevent infections of flesh-eating disease and if there might be balrogs roaming the deep places of the earth, were concluded, JD managed to get the group ready for transport.

"You sure you want to do this?" JD asked Adam. "I mean I can ask Lieutenant Katovit to assign security personnel if you want to bow out."

Adam raised his eyes to his father who was at present on the transporter pad, adjusting Mary's backpack while she complained, she didn't really need his help since she was her own person. The young man still had difficulty believing the couple who could barely keep the affection out of their eyes whenever they looked at each other, in their adult states, could be reduced to this. If they were restored to their former selves, Adam knew he was going to be getting a great deal of amusement at their expense.

"No, I better go," Adam replied with a faint smirk. "Someone else might decide to shoot them."

"Are we going or not?" Josiah hollered from the transporter pad, having thrown a tantrum until he could go with the first group to Hadir.

"Hey, I say when we go," Chris spoke up annoyed, not at all pleased to have his position usurped, no matter how tall Josiah was. "I'm the...

"CAPTAIN!" Both Mary and Buck said in unison. "We know already!"

JD looked at Adam with a grin, not at all envying the task the younger man was about to embark on. "They're all yours."

Chapter Ten: Cavern

When the world materialised around Adam and his 'charges', the former resistance fighter found himself surrounded by the grey walls of Hadir's central mining complex.

The rest of the city, what he had seen through the view screen prior to their transport to the planet, was an urban sprawl of dazzling architecture, gleaming towers, artistic spires and domes. However, the mining facility was decidedly lacking in such aesthetics and designed purely for functionality. Like every other industrial complex Adam had ever seen, this one surrounded them with grey walls, an assortment of piping and conduits running across the ceiling and walls, carrying power, water and anything else required to carry out its mining operations.

People were going about their business, seemingly oblivious to their presence, some heading to other parts of the complex, while others were manning the machinery sitting on the floor, at respectable distances from each other, like a gridiron formation. The activity reminded Adam of an ant farm, where the goings on that did not involve them personally, was something they had little time to indulge.

Setlan and Veer were waiting for them when they appeared in what was the main thoroughfare of the facility. While Adam had never met the man before, JD's description had been extremely accurate. The man was... eccentric. He was on this occasion dressed in ornate robes, with a high mandarin collar, with a red fez perched on his head. His assistant Veer was a little more sedate in black embroidery and a sombre expression on his face.

"OH, MY GOODNESS!" Setlan exclaimed when he saw the children, his face splitting into a welcoming grin as he approached with arms wide open. He looked like an insane Santa Claus.

"If he tries to hug us, shoot him," Chris said to Adam.

"I'd be more worried about him going for the cheeks," Adam couldn't help remark.

Chris's eyes widened in horror.

"Aren't you all precious!" Setlan declared, giving the children a smile and nudging Veer. "Look at how cute they are! Why only two days ago, they were Starfleet officers and now look at them!"

Adam could almost feel the bristle of annoyance rippling through the group at that remark.

"We are still Starfleet officers," Ezra spoke up haughtily, almost on cue. "Our current situation is temporary. Once we unravel the mystery of the Caverns, I am certain we will return to normal."

"Of course," Setlan nodded, giving Ezra a look so condescending, the Security Chief of the Maverick was tempted to punch him in the mouth.

Julia, who was standing next to Ezra could see his jaw ticking in anger, grateful they were denied phasers before leaving the Maverick. With their current temperament the way it was, Setlan could have found himself inadvertently stunned if the Security Chief was annoyed enough. Which he was right now. Squeezing his arm, she gave him a look of sympathy, hoping it would defuse his annoyance.

Not that Julia could blame him of course. Glancing at Chris Larabee, she could see her Captain in a similar state of irritation at the tactless statement.

Chris was mad but he had the presence of mind to keep his temper in check, mostly because they needed Setlan's cooperation and he didn't want to be stuck like this forever. After all, he was... before he could even finish the thought in his head, he glanced at Mary and kept himself from thinking the 'Captain' again. Well, he'd show her, Chris thought snidely and ended that line of thinking before it went any further.

Although he was the Captain.

"And who is this?" Setlan regarded Adam, seemingly oblivious to the effect his enthusiasm was having on the children of the Maverick, eyeing the teenager with interest.

"This is my son Adam," Chris introduced the teenager, feeling ridiculous doing it in this condition. He should be a grown-up, so he could proud of telling people who Adam was, not feeling like a freak because Adam looked more like his babysitter than his child. This was just so UNFAIR!

"Ah'." Setlan took a long look at Adam, examining him as if he were a new specimen. "It's all in the eyes, isn't it?" Setlan nudged Veer next to him. "Welcome to Hadir young man, I am most impressed that you've chosen to accompany your father on this great quest. I am terribly sorry about all this. If we had known the effect of the Blue Vale on off-worlders, we would never have served it."

"That's right!" Mary burst out, revealing in the last few hours that she was quite the brat as a child. "You should have told us! Now, look at us! I have a son! I'm two years older than him now! How am I supposed to take care of him like this!" She marched right up to Setlan and glared at him, her small hands clenched into fists at her side, while her blond hair swayed behind her like a banner of war.

"Mary, stop it!" Chris groaned and went to silence her because he did not want anything to keep them from getting to the bottom of this situation and provoking the planetary head of state was never wise. "This isn't anyone's fault. I'm awful sorry Setlan, as Captain...OW! That hurt!"

Chris glared at Mary, holding his arm where she punched him.

"Stop saying that! You're not the Captain! You're a little kid like the rest of us!"

"OKAY KNOCK IT OFF!" Buck Wilmington barked, somehow managing to produce a bellow worthy of his adult self, despite his somewhat diminutive size at present. The rebuke made everyone jump, including Setlan and Veer. "This isn't going to solve anything. We gonna have to rely on each other when we go looking for these caves and we're not going to get anywhere if we behave like this!"

"Yes, please, please listen to him," Alex said softly and looked as if she might start to cry, clearly disturbed by the raised voices around her. Her brown eyes were glistening as she stood behind Vin. "This is scary enough as it is without all of you fighting."

"Were you born without a spine before you got to Kellien?" Mary bit back.

"HEY!" Vin immediately rose to her defence. "Quit being such a cow! No one's happy about this!"

"Oh, bite me!" Mary glared at Vin, more than prepared to punch him too. Vulcan or not.

"Man, your girlfriend's snotty!" Nathan shook his head, trying to remember that this was their protocol officer, who was an expert in diplomacy and tact.

"I'm not his girlfriend!" Mary declared.

"Are too!" Vin said smugly. "You kissed him, that means you're going together."

"Hey everyone, take it easy!" Chris snapped, ignoring the continuing issue of his relationship with Mary because right now, he didn't want her for his girl. She was kind of mean. "Look you have to do what I say! I'm the Captain...."

"Oh my God!" Josiah groaned in exasperation, impatient to begin this quest. "CAN WE GET GOING ALREADY!"

"This is very traumatising," Adam said with a straight face to Setlan.

The First officer of the Maverick exhaled deeply and seeing as to how he was the only one among the group, remotely reasonable, turned his attention to Setlan. "Maybe you better just show us the way to these caverns, so we can get started."

"Yes," Setlan nodded, somewhat shocked by the children, senior officers, whatever they were, behaving so badly. "I think under the circumstances that would be best."

*******

A short time later, they were descending into the bowels of Hadir, riding in one of the service elevators normally employed for transporting equipment from the surface. The beginning of the tunnel network supposedly leading to the Caverns of Azcax was at the deepest level of the mines and the journey down took several minutes, with each level passed marked by a flash on the elevator panel. Fortunately, Setlan had opted to leave Veer to guide them to the tunnels that were supposedly the mythological entrance to the Caverns, although no one had ever managed to explore it to know for sure.

According to Veer, the tunnel system was little more than cracks in the dense rock and appeared to be particularly resistant to drilling. The best mining equipment had done little more than excavate a few dozen feet and the time taken to do so was so laborious, it was simpler to abandon the idea, and move on to more easily accessible pergium deposits elsewhere. Besides, there was also the danger that prolonged attempts to widen the fissures by blasting and drilling, could result in bringing down the entire cavern.

"So, will our tricorders work?" Nathan had to ask, not liking the idea of wandering in scary caves when his medical tricorder wasn't working. As it was, no one had been happy to hear the transporters would be no good to them while they were down here either. The density of the rock not to mention the high pergium content made transporters unreliable resulting in Nathan being doubly insistent that the tricorders worked at least. While he might have the emotional control of a ten-year-old, he still had the knowledge of a doctor and even if Ezra Standish had apparently been a hypochondriac as a child, he wasn't wrong about the dangers they could face.

Of course, Nathan would rather be force fed Brussel sprouts than admit that.

"We cannot say," Veer answered honestly. "We know we are unable to use matter transference devices because of the interference but we have no idea how your devices will function there. We've never had anyone able to explore those tunnels to tell us whether or not they will work."

"Uhm...." Alex spoke up quietly. "We...we could uhm, configure the tricorders to make up for it."

"Sure!" Julia piped enthusiastically at the suggestion. "I can do that easily. No problem!"

"Well that's something," Chris grumbled. "Okay, we're going to get moving. Try to remember, despite this," he looked at himself with a frown, still unable to believe this situation, "we're still Starfleet officers."

He avoided using the word Captain and took a step away from Mary just in case.

"Adam, follow for as long as you can but if it becomes too narrow, turn back," Chris said seriously, managing to project some measure of authority in his voice. "I don't want you to get hurt. We'll be okay. I promise."

Adam wasn't so sure about that, not seeing how volatile their tempers were. However, there were some realities he had to face. It was very possible, he might have to abandon them if he could not fit in those tunnels.

"Okay." He agreed reluctantly, "but only if there is no other way through."

When the lift came to stop and the aging metal doors creaked open, the first one through was naturally Josiah. He had been fidgeting throughout the journey to the planet's depths and Chris wasn't surprised when he rushed out without waiting for anyone's permission. The Counsellor still viewed this entire trip as a journey of a lifetime and despite all the misgivings his comrades had about the undertaking, nothing seemed capable of dampening Josiah's spirit of adventure.

"Josiah hold up!" Chris called after him but Josiah was already gone.

"We're going to have to lasso him," Buck muttered, rolling his eyes in exasperation as they shuffled out of the elevator into the large cavern beyond.

As explained by Veer, the Hadir had managed to get their machinery this far because the cavern they had just entered was a natural formation. It was believed that within the narrow tunnels was a motherlode of pergium but the attempts at drilling and blasting had resulted in only a small penetration of the sheer rock wall. While they could use more powerful explosives, the danger of collapsing the tunnel completely or worse yet, igniting the pergium under such intense heat, made the whole effort pointless. In the end, it was simpler to seek out accessible deposits elsewhere.

Emerging into the cavern, they were immediately confronted with the speckles of glitter that was raw pergium across the ceiling and walls of dark stone. Against the almost indigo coloured rock, it was rather breathtaking. The failed attempts of mining were also evident by the abandoned machinery and equipment left in the lit corners, while deep concave grooves in the walls, revealed where the attempt at blasting had taken place.

The tunnel they would have to enter was little more than a crack in the wall, no more than three feet wide and five feet high. It was no wonder they were unable to mine the place, only children would fit in such a small space and even as Chris studied it, he worried about how Adam was going to fit its narrow confines.

"That it?" He looked at Veer unhappily.

"I am afraid so," Setlan's assistant nodded with similar dismay, probably having never seen the tunnel himself to realise just how confining it was.

Everyone was staring at the tunnel, all with their own feelings of anxiety, impatience, fear and concern. Adam was studying it to see how he'd move through it. He hadn't lied when he claimed to have crawled through such tight spaces in the past. He had and some were even worse than this. What concerned him was the children under his charge. Sure, they were the senior officers of the Maverick, but at this point in time, they were children. They had the knowledge but not the temperament and that worried him. However, to get them back to normal, they had to make the journey.

Adam didn't like the idea of his father or any one of them going through that fissure, but he was not going to let them out of his sight if they had to.

Taking the lead, Adam started towards the entrance, casting a glance back at Veer. "See you when we get back." He said.

"Wait," Buck Wilmington spoke up, once again using that voice of his, far more commanding than ought to be capable by a boy his size.

Adam looked over his shoulder and saw all eyes on the First Officer, who was stepping forward, head slightly dropped as if he was about to go to his own execution.

"What is it?" Adam asked, still trying to fathom how Buck Wilmington had ended up as tall as he did when he started as this little kid in front of him. Still, despite his size, Adam was very quickly concluding, Buck was the easiest to manage. Even more from his father, who must have known from birth he was going to be a starship captain since he allowed no one to forget it.

"I should go first," Buck stated reluctantly.

"No," Both Chris and Adam protested in unison.

"Yeah," Buck gave them both a withering look. "You're related alright. Look, I'm not any happier about this but I should go first. I'm the smallest and I can fit better than any of you. I can go ahead and scout it out."

"I should follow you," Ezra spoke. "I am Security Chief after all."

"Who's afraid to touch anything," Nathan quipped.

Ezra whirled around and shoved the doctor, at the same time shattering what was left of Chris Larabee's patience.

"STOP IT YOU TOO! OR I WILL KICK BOTH YOUR ASSES!"

"Because he's Captain," Mary couldn't help but add.

"Mary shut the hell up!" Chris barked, staring at her so sharply, he put the Larabee glare to shame and silenced her immediately. "Ezra, Nathan, you're both last. Adam stay with them so they don't kill each other! Josiah, you stay put and stop running off! The last thing we need is some monster eating your face off because you ran straight into it! Julia, have you and Alex figured out how to make the tricorders work yet?"

"Almost done," Julia asked, ignoring the antics of her lover and the doctor, who were both behaving like a bunch of dorks.

"Okay," he looked at Adam who seemed to be smiling faintly at him. "What?"

"Nothing, Captain," Adam remarked, glad to see some semblance of the father he admired showing himself, despite his current limitations.

Chris grumbled audibly before turning to Buck. "You sure about going first?" He asked his old friend. Despite the sense of Buck's suggestion, Chris still worried about him. He looked so fragile, Chris was genuinely worried for him if he encountered trouble.

"Yeah," Buck nodded, "I'll be okay."

"Don't worry Chris," Vin spoke up, coming up alongside Buck. While Vin was about the same size as Chris, his limbs were sinewy, possessing none of the baby fat normal to a kid his age. He had the look of someone who had gotten by on very little and had to work really hard to get it in the first place. Chris supposed growing up on that savage world had demanded nothing less of him.

"But Vin...." Alex said looking at him worriedly. Chris still couldn't get over the fact this timid little girl, was going to become his tough science officer who sparred with Klingons during her off-duty hours.

"It's okay," he assured her. "I'll be alright."

Chris also realised this was the Vin Tanner who hadn't known he was to become a pariah among his people. At this point in his life, Vin had been too busy surviving, with only his mother as company. She had loved him unconditionally and without the guidance of his Vulcan parents, Vin had loved her back, unaware of how much it would set him apart when he returned to the world. A part of Chris felt angry at what Vin had endured, because someone who survived that hellish childhood, deserved better.

"Okay then Adam," Chris said finally. "Let's do this."

*******

An hour after the senior staff left the Maverick, the proximity alert sounded.

Ensign JD Dunne, presently seated in the Captain's chair, while still coming to grips with the curious circumstances that saw him occupying Chris Larabee's place on the bridge, though he was daydreaming at first. Since being left in command of the Maverick, JD had been envisioning what worst-case scenario might come upon him during the Captain's absence and thought his imagination might have spilled over into paranoia.

He was nowhere that lucky.

When the perimeter alert sounded, screaming its warning across the bridge, JD realised he had been so preoccupied with the state of the senior staff, he'd all but forgotten there was a reason the Hadir wanted Federation protection in the first place.

"Go to yellow alert!" JD ordered once he'd recovered his senses enough to realise this wasn't some dream but a reality waiting response.

"Initiating yellow alert," Drew Katovit replied promptly from the tactical station. JD still found it odd to see the man there instead of Ezra Standish.

"Do we know what it is?" He asked Charlotte Richmond who had taken up position next to Drew in the same way Alex and Ezra often performed during battlefield conditions.

"Scanning," she replied promptly before looking up at him a moment later. "It's a warship."

"On screen!" JD said standing up from his chair.

"On screen," replied the enthusiastic voice of Ensign Jewel Chunn, the lovely young woman with the flawless ebony skin, recently transferred to the Maverick. JD had been pleased to see her, since they both graduated from the same class at the Academy.

The viewer came to life and appearing on the screen before them, was an Orion Marauder battleship. JD had never seen one but it was comparable in size to the Maverick. From what he knew, the Marauders were the ship of choice for the Orion Syndicate. As Ezra had guessed, the Syndicate was responsible for the raids on Hadir and JD knew of only one reason why the syndicate would come to Hadir with such a formidable ship.

The Orions thought they were facing Chris Larabee.

JD wished he didn't have to disappoint them.

Chapter Eleven: Shore

It was bad enough being an adult trapped in a child's body with the lack of emotional control that came with it, but now Buck Wilmington was singularly annoyed to realise he was also being revisited by memories of past terrors. Specifically, his dislike of dark places.

When he first made the offer to take point, he did it as the capable First Officer of the Maverick. It was logical. His size made it easier to travel up the crack in the rock passing itself off as a tunnel. It was only after he started walking through the narrow passage with its wall slick with moisture, breathing in the dank, stale air and hearing the unseen things moving in the dark, did the old fears start creeping up his spine.

Suddenly, he became conscious that the torch he carried was the only thing allowing him to see what was ahead. Beyond the range of the beam, the darkness was overwhelming. In space, the expanse of blackness never seemed as foreboding because no matter what, the stars were there to offer one assurance. While the environment might be hostile, each pinprick of light was a promise of life. In this tunnel, there was nothing. It was like staring down the mouth of a black hole, where there was no destination, just a crushing singularity that promised total annihilation.

They had been walking for two hours now and even the glitter of pergium had become lost in the black, illuminated only when the light of his torch reached it. The strobe also revealed the tiny droplets of water in the air and Buck had to wonder how the humidity was being generated this far down. So far, the tunnel seemed to be gradually descending deeper into the bowels of Hadir and Buck hoped this wasn't going to mean a journey of days, because they had supplies for only two or three. Any further than that, they would have to turn back.

"Alex, can we try again and see how far this tunnel goes?" Buck heard Chris, who was behind Vin, ask Alex. It wasn't the first time the captain had asked the question. When they first entered the breach in the rock, Alex had attempted to use the tricorder with middling results. While it did provide them with some readings, it was not enough to cover the full extent of the tunnel.

"Uhm...okay," Alex, who was a little further down their single-file formation, answered with uncertainty. "I'll try but I'm not sure if it will work any better. The best it can do is tell us if the tunnel is getting wider or narrower. The pergium is still interfering with the sensor signal."

"Pity," Nathan frowned from where he was in the line. "Mine seems to be working fine." The first thing Nathan had done when he entered the tunnels was to make sure the medical tricorder was functioning. Surrounded by all this darkness, the last thing they needed was to get injured in this place without any way to diagnose the problem.

"That's because you're scanning people, not rocks and they're up close. Pergium has less effect on biological matter than it does on an inanimate material. Poor conductivity," Julia answered dutifully.

The familiar rip of a Velcro flap being peeled back screeched across the air, followed by the insistent beeps and the soft tapping of a tricorder pad, told everyone Alex was attempting to make the scan.

"Where's all this water coming from?" Vin asked as they waited for her to give Chris his answer. "I kind of thought we were too deep in the ground for this."

"Could be from the upper levels," Adam commented. "You got a lot of operational mines that use a lot of water. They might have filtration systems that have created water flow from condensation."

"Or maybe there's an underground lake somewhere in here!" Josiah said excitedly, predictably going for the more outlandish reason. In the last two hours, Josiah had postulated they would find everything from Sauron's One Ring to the Lost City of Atlantis. That they were several dozen light years away from Earth, where much of this lore originated, did nothing to dampen the man's spirit.

"We could find a whole new ecosystem that was previously undiscovered." He added his latest theory.

In the darkness, Ezra Standish performed a facepalm to stifle the groan of annoyance that threatened to escape his lips, having grown quite sick of hearing Josiah's insane theories. In fact, the more Ezra listened to Josiah, the more he was convinced the man had no business treating patients. To Josiah's latest remark, Ezra found himself needing to comment, however.

"I have no wish to stumble into an unknown ecosystem Counsellor," Ezra stated hotly. Experience told him that after the initial novelty had worn off, the beauty of a new environment usually gave way to its deadlier aspects. "Usually such environments, unaffected by the outside world for aeons, are usually occupied by primordial creatures."

"Like dinosaurs!" Josiah quipped not about to let Ezra's pessimism dampen his imagination.

"Enough with the dinosaurs already!" Mary who had managed to remain silent for the last ten minutes, no doubt to give the whining that was getting on everyone's nerves a rest, finally broke the drought. "We're sick of hearing about dinosaurs, flying monkeys and talking parrots! Just give it a rest!"

"Oh great, "You got her started." Chris rolled his eyes and glanced behind him to see Josiah was nowhere offended. It must be his Counsellor's patience that kept him from telling her to shut up.

With a completely unrepentant smirk, Vin turned to his best friend and grinned. "Well you're the Captain, you make her keep quiet."

"I don't have a muzzle...OW!" Chris started to say when a small fist hit him in the bicep. For a girl, she could hit real hard. "You do that one more time and I swear, pretty or not, I'll knock you on your ass." He glared at her hard, perfectly willing to carry out the threat.

After all, it was the 24th century and equality meant you got to hit anyone you liked.

"Whether I'm pretty or not is none of your concern, Chris Larabee." Mary huffed haughtily but shrank silently at the threat.

Adam, who knew perfectly well what was going on between the two and told himself he was going to have a great time reminding his father and Mary of this situation when things were back to normal, drawled with a smirk. "I'd say get a room but, in your case, maybe a playground."

Both shot the teenager a murderous look.

"Knock it off you too!" Buck snapped, his patience wearing thin with both of them. It was so damn obvious Mary liked Chris but at this age, the line between love and hate was painfully thin. In any case, Buck didn't care for their bickering. He didn't want to stay like this and the sooner they got this quest, trek, whatever... over and done with, the better. Besides, in the last few seconds, Buck had noticed something, and he needed silence to hear it better.

"Shut up and listen."

Everyone fell silent and did not speak for an instant but when they settled down enough to do so, could discern exactly what Buck was calling their attention to. They heard the sounds of running water. It still seemed far away but the sound was being carried through the tunnel. It was steady and continuous as if it was a current that was more than accustomed to the path it was taking.

"That's water!" Josiah exclaimed. "I'll bet there's a river down here somewhere!"

"Is such a thing possible?" Ezra's voice asked through the darkness. "We are quite some distance from the surface."

"Uhm...yeah it is," Alex said in her stuttering voice, once again making everyone who heard her wonder how on Earth she had evolved into their science officer. "Well sometimes a river can get diverted underground and if the conditions are okay, can thrive. You can tell how long it's been down here by what we find in it. Usually, if the river's been here a long time, the things in it will change to exist in an underground environment. "

"There could be...." Josiah started to say when Ezra cut him off.

"Counsellor, one mention of dinosaurs and I shall not be responsible for what happens next."

".... piranha." Josiah declared smugly, not about to let Ezra's warning intimidate him.

Someone uttered a short laugh and stifled it. Buck was almost certain it was Julia. Nathan was nowhere that restrained and started to laugh out loud, no doubt infuriating their Security Chief to no end. Almost as much as Josiah's shit-eating grin.

"Quiet!" Chris snapped, cutting off any more arguments before they could get started, even though to be honest, he was getting sick of hearing about dinosaurs too. If there were dinosaurs down here, (which would be totally cool for about a second), their mission to find the cavern was going to become a great deal more painful. "Buck, can you see anything?"

"Not yet," Buck answered, already aiming his torch down the tunnel but could see only the walls of the passage and nothing else. At least, the width of the tunnel remained the same and had not narrowed since they set out. It allowed Adam to remain with them, even if it was still a bit of a tight squeeze for the teenager.

"Just be careful when you're going on ahead," Adam warned Buck, the only one of the troop who seemed to be holding onto his adult persona for dear life. Thank God. "If there's some kind of river or lake running through this place, the last thing we need is for you to fall into it."

"Especially if there are piranhas!" Julia quipped, frowning at the thought that Josiah had inadvertently put in her head.

Buck exchanged a look with Vin who was behind him before Buck shook his head in sarcasm. "Thank you for that comforting thought."

"Don't worry Buck," Vin said patting his back. "If there's anything like that, I've got a knife. I'll gut it before it can even take a bite out of you and if you go into the water, I'll be right behind you."

There was a gasp of fear that came from Alex and an equally frustrated groan from Chris. "How about neither of you going in?"

"Yeah," Nathan added. "Anything you get bitten off I'm going to have to put back together again."

"I got a reading of what's up ahead," Alex said after regaining her composure and overcoming her fears for Vin. "It's not giving me much of a signal because of the pergium, but it looks like the tunnel ends in about five hundred meters."

"Well that's something," Adam replied, hoping where they arrived was much easier to travel than this tunnel.

They continued up the passageway for another half an hour, moving slowly because they were mindful of the edge they were approaching. Despite being several miles beneath the surface, the tunnel felt humid and moist, no doubt because of the river they now knew to exist. Stalactites had started to appear above their heads. The pale limestone formations looked like serrated teeth which made no one happy, particularly Adam who was now forced to keep his head down even further, almost to the point where he was half bent over.

Piercing through the darkness, after what seemed to be an eternity, but was only another thirty minutes or so, was light. It emerged through a rough hewn doorway at the end of this narrow chute of a tunnel. It illuminated the walls with its radiance and offered a welcoming invitation to the group of travellers approaching it so cautiously. Beyond the doorway, Buck heard running water. The loud, rushing hiss gave away the size of the waterway beyond.

"I see light!" Buck exclaimed and Vin who was behind him, immediately craned his neck over Buck's shoulder so he could see for himself.

"I see it too!" Vin confirmed, his blue eyes widening with astonishment at Buck's discovery.

"How can there be light?" Nathan asked no one in particular. "We're miles from anything!"

"There could...uhm...be a lot of reasons," Alex volunteered. "There could be plants or animals with bio-luminescent characteristics."

"That's right," Chris agreed with her. "It's pretty common in a deep ocean environment," he flashed her a little smile of encouragement.

Mary caught the look Chris gave Alex and decided, she did not at all like it.

"All of which means there could be something in the cavern that could eat your face off right?" She stared at Alex pointedly.

"Yes," Alex nodded meekly, not liking the hard stare Mary was aiming at her.

Buck ignored the comments, his initial fear giving away to curiosity as to what they might find beyond the doorway. Approaching it cautiously and ever mindful of Adam's warnings to take it slow, Buck had to squint because the illumination from the chamber beyond was so bright, his eyes hurt seeing it after being in the darkness for so long. However, the pain slipped away, and he peered through it.

The cavern in which he entered was almost a hundred feet high, with stalactites covering the ceiling as far as the eye could see. The illumination was coming from the walls, generated by a luminous blanket of moss covering most of the cavern. It spread across the roof and down the walls, punctuated by bluish coloured flowers, that was quite breathtaking. The luminescence cast a strange, unearthly bluish-green glow across the area.

However, none of it was as astonishing as what he was staring right in front of him. What was before them did not look like a river. It was much too vast for that. The water seemed to disappear into the distance, with frothy waves rushing to greet the pristine white sand at the shore. The water crystal clear and Buck could see the bioluminescent creatures Alex had suggested earlier, swimming languidly beneath the surface, their glowing bodies adding to the light in this place.

And then there was the boat.

It sat at the end of a wooden dock at the far end of the cavern. With twin masts, the tallest of the two was almost fifteen feet high, with white sails hanging from the gaff, appearing as immaculate as the sandy shore. The vessel looked like it had sailed into being from another century, with its wooden panelling and bow spirit extended proudly, almost as if it were pointing in the direction it wished to go.

If Buck didn't know better, he would have sworn it was waiting for them.

"It's a schooner!" Vin Tanner exclaimed with excitement as he emerged into the cavern next to Buck and once the helmsman saw the ship in the distance, lost all good sense. He was overtaking Buck in a second, jogging up to the vessel, in his eagerness to reach it.

"Vin hold up!" Buck called after him, but it was no use. When Vin was on a tear like this, nothing short of a stun blast was going to hold him back.

"What did you..." Chris followed soon after and was about to ask when he caught sight of what Buck was staring at and Vin was heading to with such speed. He could see Vin's footprints in the sand as the Vulcan closed in on the craft. "Is that what I think it is?"

"It's a schooner," Buck explained. "At least that's what Vin says."

The others emerged soon after, all making the same exclamations of shock. The boat that awaited them looked in perfect condition although who knew how long it been down here, waiting for someone to come and discover it.

"Is that a boat?" Adam had to ask. He had never seen one look like that but considering his upbringing, it wasn't entirely a surprise. He knew little of Earth's history and had never been to the planet until Chris took him not long ago.

"I believe it is a schooner," Ezra explained. "Although it does seem rather small. I was under the impression they were usually larger."

"Vin!" Chris called after his best friend. "HOLD UP!"

Vin was almost to the ship when Chris's bellow halted him in his tracks. Almost impatiently, Vin stopped and turned around, frowning because he was eager to get to the craft. "Come on Chris, look at that beauty! I mean she's a schooner and yacht and she's cherry!"

Chris and Buck exchanged glances and rolled their eyes, sharing the same sentiment. Vin Tanner was a connoisseur of anything he could pilot. It didn't matter if it flew or sail, Vin considered himself a helmsman first and foremost. If it existed, he wanted to be at the wheel. Of course, the last time Chris gave into Vin's desire to pilot an ancient craft, it resulted in a lot of people losing their lives and it was a lesson burned into the captain's memory for all time. One he was not about to repeat.

"Oh wow!" Josiah gushed. "Look at it! It's like the Jolly Roger!"

"The what?" Adam exclaimed, suddenly wondering just how deficient his education was. While this was not the time to give thought to the subject, Adam realised it was something he was going to have to deal with if he was remaining in this universe permanently.

"It's the ship in Treasure Island," Julia declared.

"Well, what's it doing here?" Mary demanded. "That's an Earth ship! An Earth ship shouldn't be here. This is smelling fishy!"

"Take it easy," Chris gave her a look. "It might look like an Earth design but that could just be a coincidence."

"Yeah," Alex said meekly. "Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development says planets can develop the exact same way as another if the conditions are right. It could just be the way they built boats here is the same as Earth's."

"I think you're right," Chris agreed with her and once again, he found himself giving Alex a smile, trying to prompt more responses from her, mostly because her observations were usually very useful. Alex was the best science officer he had ever worked with and they needed that to get through this.

"Thanks, Captain," Alex replied, giving him a small smile.

"Don't encourage him," Mary grumbled darkly, not liking the attention Chris was giving Alex at all.

"What is that craft doing here?" Ezra asked. "I find it oddly disconcerting that it has been waiting here in pristine condition for us."

"One way to find out," Josiah said excitedly, "we gotta go on board." The Counsellor had overtaken them all and was now crossing the sand to join Vin.

"Dad, we're going to have to take a look at it anyway," Adam advised having scanned the area and saw no other path they could take to get beyond this cavern. There was only one way to leave the area and it appeared to be across the water. "There's no other way forward. I know it's improbable it being here, but let's face it, this whole thing is crazy anyway."

Chris could not disagree with that and turned to his First Officer.

"He's right," Buck shrugged. "The boats the only way we're getting ahead. Otherwise, we'll have to turn back."

"That's not happening," Chris said firmly, having no intention of giving up and nodded at Buck to proceed.

The first officer nodded, understanding Chris's order, even though they were both staring at each other as ten-year old's. Even in this state, they complemented each other as Captain and First Officer of the Maverick, enough so that Buck could still anticipate what Chris needed.

Looking at Vin and Josiah who were gazing at the ship longingly, Buck hollered. "Okay Vin, Josiah. Go ahead! Ezra you too. Make sure they don't do anything stupid."

"I'm a security chief," Ezra grumbled emerging from the group and hurrying after the two who were running towards the craft, wearing happy grins on their faces. "Not a miracle worker."

Chapter Twelve: Sailing

"Hail them."

JD wasn't certain who was going to carry out the order, whether it was Jewel at Navigation and Comms, the seat he normally occupied or Charlotte Richmond, sitting in for Alex Styles. In the final analysis, it really didn't matter because it wouldn't change the fact it was he in charge of the bridge now. Chris Larabee had asked him to keep his ship safe and JD would do it to the best of his ability.

Even if he was scared shitless.

"Aye Sir," it was Jewel's voice who replied.

JD's fingers instinctively dug into the comfortable material of the armrests, praying the captain didn't kick his ass for leaving nail marks in the upholstery. He heard Jewel's voice speaking in the background and wondered how the Orions were going to respond when they saw him instead of Chris Larabee.

"Drew," JD said calmly, "shield's up at your discretion."

Drew Katovit was an experienced security officer and someone who had Ezra Standish's utmost confidence. In truth, Drew probably ought to be occupying this seat instead of him, but the Captain hadn't left him in command, he'd given that duty to JD. Nevertheless, the ensign wasn't about to let it go to his head. Drew knew his job and JD was smart enough to let him do it.

"Thank you, Ensign," Drew replied with a hint of admiration at the young man's trust. As it was, Drew was singularly impressed by how JD had been conducting himself since this had all begun. Being given centre seat a year out of the Academy would have reduced most officers his age, to gibbering idiots but JD had learned well under Buck Wilmington's tutelage. Now, more than ever, it showed.

JD gave him a slight nod and then turned his attention front again. Without looking at the officer of the Conn, he added. "Wo, chances are when they work out why we're here, they're going to attack. Be prepared for evasive maneuvers when they do. If they want the pergium, they're going to have to cripple us so we can't stop them."

"Aye Ensign," Wo replied with a slight nod. "I got this."

"JD, I've notified Hadir of the situation," Charlotte added as well, aware he hadn't given her the order but wanted to ease the burden off him as much as possible. Since they held the line against the Jem'Hadar, when the Maverick was beset by a Dominion task force, they had become friends and like Drew, Charlotte was admiring how he was holding up. "They're standing by."

JD flashed her a look of gratitude and nodded.

"The Orions are responding JD," Jewel announced, her brown eyes shifting immediately to the screen in concert with the rest of the bridge crew.

The face that appeared before them, with long flowing black hair, well-shaped eyebrows, hazel eyes and exquisite features that included full lips, not unlike Alex's, made JD's Adam's apple bob up and down. She was, like all Orion females, stunning. She was clad in very little, her cleavage showing prominently beneath the scrap of a top she was wearing. JD supposed he ought to be grateful Buck was on Hadir. If Buck had been his adult self, they would have had to have broken out the smelling salts by now.

"You are the Captain of the Maverick?" She looked at him sceptically, her brow arched in disbelief.

"No," JD replied, telling himself they probably sent her here to get under the Captain's skin. The irony of Chris Larabee's current state was not lost on JD at this thought. "Captain Larabee is presently indisposed. I'm Ensign JD Dunne. You've entered Hadir space without authorisation, please state your purpose."

"State our purpose? To an ensign?" She balked at the suggestion, unwittingly raising JD's hackles at the same time.

"An ensign's all you got," JD stated firmly, not about to point out she didn't look much older than him either. "What is your purpose here?"

"I am Commander Navea of the Orion Syndicate and we don't need any authorisation! We've come to Hadir for pergium and I do not recognise Starfleet's jurisdiction in this matter. Hadir is not a Federation world!" She huffed angrily.

"Hadir is presently making an application to join the Federation," JD replied, recalling what Mary had explained on the subject of jurisdiction during one of their briefings, prior to arriving at Hadir. "Under the articles of Federation law, until such time as those proceedings are finalised, we will act on the behalf of Hadir, regarding the protection of its borders. You've entered Hadir space without authorisation, that is an act of aggression. State your purpose or leave."

"You dare! You dare accuse us of trespassing and thievery?" She barked back.

JD suddenly realised, she wasn't just as young as he, but also as inexperienced. Like most Orion females, she was probably more effective in a room with you. Their pheromones made it near impossible for males of most species (except Vulcan) to resist them and gave women, blinding headaches.

JD's eyes narrowed. "Trespassing yes," he said with a little smile. "But I didn't say nothing about thievery?"

Her eyes widened at the realisation of her unintentional slip and he could almost see the wince that crossed her face at that revelation. Instead of flaring up in anger, JD saw her eyes narrowing in the manner of a cat, just before it took a swipe at you, (goddamn Huxley!), before she spoke again. This time, her voice was sweet and enchanting.

"I have no wish to enter a quarrel with Starfleet over this matter. We are here to purchase legally, a shipment of pergium from Hadir. Perhaps we may meet to discuss the situation. I'd be willing to come on board your ship."

JD knew perfectly well why she was willing to do so. No doubt, she thought a face to face meeting would allow her to use her formidable sex appeal on him and get what she wanted. He debated whether to permit it. After all, if she was here, the Orion ship would be less inclined to take shots at them. Aware the Captain would prefer not to take the ship into battle without his being present, JD decided to take the risk and permit her on board.

With a few precautions of course.

"That shouldn't be a problem," JD responded after a moment, getting curious stares from Charlotte and Jewel at the same time. Drew and Wo were still staring at the lovely face on the screen. "I look forward to meeting you."

She broke into a smile and JD had to admit, she was awful pretty when she did. Of course, it had all the warmth of a crocodile's smile. No doubt, she was already thinking of all the ways she was going to get into his head and mess him up. It might even work except JD was more afraid of the scrappy little Bajoran with the ability to kick his ass if he even thought of looking at another girl.

Even if she looked kind of gross right now with the flu.

"I will transport to your ship shortly Ensign," Navea said with a triumphant smile. "Please stand by."

With that, the screen went blank and all eyes turned to JD. Naturally, Charlotte who was the most senior officer on the bridge spoke first.

"Ensign, I don't think it's a good idea for you to meet her face to face," Charlotte declared, perfectly aware of how powerful the pheromones of Orion women could be. It would be tough enough for the Captain to handle but JD was still a young man, with one girlfriend under his belt.

"I can handle it," JD frowned, not liking the sceptical looks on all their faces.

"Sure, you can," Jewel snorted, giving him a look of concern. She remembered JD's dating history during his cadet years at the Academy. "You nearly fainted the first time Maddie Stokes asked you out! That woman," Jewel stared at the screen as if Navea's face was still there, "is going to kill you!"

"I did not faint!" JD blurted out annoyed, recalling Maddie Stokes who was easily one of the prettiest girls in his class at the Academy. She with her wild, curly brown hair, her perfect skin and gorgeous smile, spent four years ignoring him until he'd defeated the Kobayashi Maru test and was the talk of the Academy. He'd stood there, tongue-tied as she asked him out and even though the date was pleasant enough, JD barely managed to get a word in through her incessant chatter about how he was going to be a starship captain someday, and he'd need an officer like her.

"Okay enough," Drew spoke up, reminding them all that despite his age, JD was presently acting Captain and ought to be afforded the same courtesy. Certainly, Chris Larabee would not tolerate his judgement being questioned. "Ensign," he looked at JD. "You sure about this? "

"Yeah," JD nodded, once again reminding himself to tell Ezra how helpful Drew had been when this was all over. "If she's here, they're less likely to open fire. In the meantime, we need to tell the Hadir to go to alert at their lunar mining facility because chances are, when she figures out I'm not going to play her game, they'll be going after the pergium. Charlotte, I'd appreciate you joining me when we meet her. Drew, you got the Conn til we get back."

JD started to leave the bridge, gesturing to Charlotte to follow.

"Where are we going?" She asked puzzled since the Marauder had yet to signal their readiness to transport their commander across to the Maverick.

"To make a little stop," JD said glancing at her over his shoulder as he made his way to the turbo lift. "At Sick Bay."

*******

The ship was beautiful.

Vin Tanner ran his hand across the honey coloured wood and relished the sensation of the smooth lacquered finish under his palm. He stood at the helm, staring into the dark horizon beyond the bow, wondering what lay at the edge of this impossible underground sea and felt the tug of excitement at the idea of exploring it. Overhead, the glitter of the strange, pergium enriched moss across the cavern roof resembled stars and for a moment, Vin thought he could use it to navigate like those old captains of hundreds of years ago.

With the wind from some unseen karst system blowing against the sails, the yacht which Josiah had christened the Jolly Roger, glided across the water away from the shore where they had found the craft. The cool air carried the metallic scent of minerals, far removed from the dank, mustiness they experienced when they first entered the fissure. It felt pleasant against the skin and as Vin stood at the helm, enjoyed the sensation of it whipping through his hair.

Chris Larabee stood next to Vin, seeing nothing ahead except darkness. The cavern they were in was so large, it was impossible to see where it ended. Even though they had illuminated the path ahead with their torches, they could only see the immediate area in front of them. As the shore behind them grew more and more distant, Chris grappled with the unreality of their situation. As if it wasn't bizarre enough they were trapped in the bodies of their younger selves but were now embarking on a quest that could have been lifted from any book he read as a child. Despite Josiah's annoying enjoyment of their present circumstances, Chris had to admit, he was starting to buy into its sense of adventure.

Just like Vin, Chris thought as he watched his best friend at the helm, proving once and for all he was able to handle any craft, whether it was on the water or in space. Between Vin's expertise at the helm and Julia's knowledge of sailing, a result of her Cape Cod upbringing, the Jolly Roger was making the crossing with remarkable speed. Even as he stood there, he could hear Julia's voice in the background, providing orders to Nathan and Adam on how to man the craft.

"When did you learn to sailboats Vin?" Chris had to ask.

"Oh, when I was on that planet," Vin volunteered, his blue eyes fixed ahead, trying to penetrate the darkness beyond the range of the torch lighting their way. Right now, all he could be certain of was there was still water to sail across as they journeyed ahead. "Me and my foster father built a boat, so we could go exploring down the river. We were hoping to find other people but we never did. The boat wasn't anything like this, but I liked the sailing well enough. He like sailing a lot and told me lots of stuff about it."

Vin's eyes misted over a moment, remembering the kind man who took Vin into his heart as the son he always wanted. He died too soon but he had meant enough to Vin for it to hurt, even after all these years.

"Sweet," Chris remarked and then noted the sadness in the Vulcan's eyes. He almost offered Vin comfort before realising Vin would probably prefer it if Chris didn't bring attention to it at all.

Instead, the Captain of the Maverick glanced over his shoulder to see how the others were faring. His eyes sought out Mary first and saw her leaning against the wooden rail along the port side of the craft. The wind was blowing through her long hair, making those glorious golden locks sway like a banner in the wind. She looked awful pretty when she was quiet, he thought with a smirk. Despite how infuriating she'd been, Chris couldn't help but find amusement in the discovery that little Mary Travis had been quite the brat.

If this nightmare ever ended and they were restored to themselves again, Chris knew he was going to get a great deal of amusement at her expense.

In contrast, Alexandra Styles was on the other side of the deck, holding her tricorder in her hands as her lovely features studied the display with the utmost concentration. Nevertheless, even with her focus on learning everything she could about their present environment, Alex still looked like she was ready to jump out of her skin at the slightest intrusion. It reminded Chris of her manner when she first arrived on the Maverick, a year ago. It had taken a lot of healing to bring out the confident young woman who had been so ravaged by the Cardassians.

Perhaps this was the reason why Kellien, the Klingon housekeeper employed by the Ambassador when Alex was a child on Qo'Nos, decided to take Alex under her wing. Kellien had raised the frightened young girl she had been and given her the confidence to become the able Science Officer they knew. Had Kellien been prompted to do so because she couldn't stand to see any child so afraid of her own shadow?

Whatever the reason, Chris never finished the thought because he noticed Ezra making his way up the short steps from the main deck towards them at the helm. The Security Chief's youthful face still wore the frown that had been present ever since Chris made known his intention for them to use the Jolly Roger to continue their journey. Not that Chris didn't appreciate Ezra's concerns. He did, as a matter of fact, but their options were limited.

"What's up Ezra?" Chris asked as the pernickety, germaphobe reached them.

"Commander Styles has reported an abundance of life form readings in these waters," Ezra answered, sounding no different than his adult self.

Not for the first time, Chris wondered if Ezra got beat up a lot in school for talking like that.

"How's she doing?" Vin asked, glancing over his shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of Alex before he gave up realising she was beyond his line of sight. Thanks to their reversal of age, the link established by their meld following the Pon Farr had been severed. After being attuned to her for almost a year, Vin found the lack of connection somewhat disturbing.

"She appears alright, although it is taking some doing coaxing a full sentence out of her," Ezra remarked.

"I can't believe that's the woman who almost threatened to throw me into the warp core," Chris said shaking his head in disbelief. "The wonders of a Klingon upbringing."

Ezra shrugged, concerned less with Alex's childhood personality than their current circumstances. "Captain, do you not find this all somewhat fortuitous? That there is suddenly a sailing vessel in pristine condition simply waiting for us to find it?"

"I do," Chris agreed. "This all looks too perfect."

As Chris swept his gaze across the craft, he was unable to ignore the improbability of Ezra's observations. For a vessel languishing here on its own for possibly centuries, the ship was perfectly preserved, without any signs of wear. It was more than just its picture-perfect state, however, that struck him, and he could understand why Ezra was so suspicious.

The absence of dust and cobwebs on any surface made Chris believe the ship was being regularly maintained. Wood panelling shined as if someone had recently polished it with beeswax and the sails which should have been blemished by time and wear, showed no such indications at all. Even the brass fixtures were gleaming and untarnished.

"Hell, nothing about this is right," Vin commented. "We're all kids, this boat looks like it's been lifted out of another century. The whole place," he ran his eyes across the cavern, "feels like something out of a book or holo-novel for kids. I gotta feeling when we get to the end of this rabbit hole, what we find is nothing like what we expected."

A thought struck Chris at that moment, so completely removed from their theories about how this happened to them, Chris considered the idea as being completely preposterous. Unfortunately, before he was able to ponder it further, the present calm was shattered by Buck's furious voice bellowing across the length of the craft.

"Get down from there!"

To no one's surprise, Buck was hollering at Josiah Sanchez, who was presently trying to get a bird's eye view of things by climbing to the top of the main mast. Considering it was almost fifteen feet high and the fall would probably kill him, Chris shared Buck's horror. At present, the Counsellor was hanging off the rungs like a monkey, with nary a care about his safety as he scaled the formidable structure.

I'll be fine!" Josiah hollered back, and Chris could see his happy grin from the mast. "Don't worry!"

Before Chris could get involved and threaten Josiah with the brig if he didn't get down from there, another frantic voice cried out on top of her lungs.

"CAPTAIN! We've got trouble!"

Alex's tense cry captured everyone's attention in an instant. All eyes turned to Alex who no longer wore the fearful mask of hesitation that had been hers since they set out this morning. Instead, she wore a face of worry, her eyes fighting the descent into panic. Leaning against the rails, she was holding out her tricorder, trying to confirm her findings on screen to what she was seeing.

Vin, Chris and Ezra exchanged looks instantly but it was Ezra and Chris who darted away from the helm and descended the stairs towards the main deck. Vin remained behind, wanting to go too, but forced to remain at the wheel, in case what caused Alex to cry out required them to navigate the Jolly Roger away from it. Gut clenching with conflict, Vin conceded Chris would ensure Alex was alright.

"What is it?" Chris called out to her as he and Ezra reached the main deck. Across the boat, the rest of the Maverick's crew were doing the same, converging on Alex from wherever they were.

Alex did not answer. She was still leaning against the rail, her eyes darting from the tricorder screen to the water, still wearing that alarming expression of fear on her face.

Before she could answer, the deck beneath them heaved.

The massive, undulating swell of water came upon them so suddenly, the Jolly Roger seemed to protest as doors swung open, the sails flapping uncontrollably, and any object not secured was sliding across the floor. Chris and Ezra both stumbled, as they lost their footing, while Alex clung to the railing to keep from going overboard. Everyone was holding onto something, whether it was the boom, mast or railing, to avoid being driven to the deck.

Adam had one arm wrapped around Julia while the other was coiled around the main mast. The young engineer was still clinging to the teenager while seeking out Nathan, who was bracing himself against the boom. At the helm, Vin was gripping the wheel tight, while Buck was steadying himself by holding onto the doorknob of the entry into the lower decks.

Josiah who had been on his way down the main mast, felt his foot slip off a rung and almost went plunging downwards. Fortunately, his reflexes much improved by his current condition kept him from such a catastrophe. Regaining his footing, the Counsellor descended the mast, even though his gaze was scanning the darkness, trying to see what had almost caused him to break his neck.

"Over there!" Alex pointed when Chris recovered enough to reach her side.

Less than fifty feet off the starboard bow, the dark water had started to churn and froth, creating white foam that was a stark contrast against the black. Large bubbles rose to the surface and popped, filling the air with the fetid stink of a sewer. As Ezra flashed a torch on the source of all this turbulence, they saw the luminous outline of something beneath the waves, something that was not shaped like a fish. Slick, elongated appendages began to break water, appearing briefly before disappearing into the depths once again.

"What is it?" Mary asked, standing next to Chris and Ezra, cringing when she saw what she was certain were the sucker pads found on tentacles.

"I'm not sure," Alex answered, looking up from the tricorder. "But it's big. The dimensions I'm reading make it out to be bigger than a blue whale."

"Oh, I do not like that comparison in the slightest," Ezra complained, cursing the fact that he had no phaser in his hand.

With a tremendous splash that felt more like the explosive birth of a waterspout, they were all soaked to the skin by the wave that crashed against the boat. However, no one noticed the wet. How could they, when what emerged from the depths resembled some Lovecraftian horror? The mythological Titan, loosely resembling an octopus, was covered with spines like a sea urchin, protruding from a body that was slick and black. Blood red eyes blinked open and peered at them while its tentacles flayed overhead, each the size of tree trunks.

"Okay," Chris stated as he stared at the behemoth before them. "Maybe piranhas wouldn't have been so bad after all."

Chapter Thirteen: Kraken

Chris Larabee had seen a lot of strange stuff since becoming a starship captain.

Not once, but twice had he stood in an alien hatchery with man-sized bugs and xenomorphs preparing to kill him. He once parked his ship next to a space-dwelling life form resembling a planetoid, had that same ship taken over by alien entities inhabiting the bodies of his female officers, to say nothing about finding himself in a real-life version of his favourite old west holo-program. Even his present circumstances did not exclude him from the bizarre since he was having this thought in the body of his ten-year-old self.

However, what was in front of him? This was new.

"Oh my God!" Julia squealed. "What is it?"

The Chief Engineer of the Maverick, who at the moment looked like Little Orphan Annie with her bouncing red curls, gaped in horror at the leviathan frothing to the surface of this underground sea. With a head almost as large as the boat they were in, and tentacles the size of tree trunks, the behemoth was closing in fast on the Jolly Roger. Chris found he couldn't blame her terror. As he took in the sight of the creature encroaching the distance between them, he wasn't too thrilled about it either.

"It's a Kraken!" Josiah cried out helpfully from the mast he was rapidly descending. Climbing down the rungs with a speed of a lemur, he finally set down on the deck, having concluded he would prefer not to be within easy reach of those tentacles if the beast reached the ship.

"A what?" Vin hollered from the helm. He wrestled with the wheel, attempting to steer the sudden appearance of choppy waves when he looked over his shoulders and saw what was fast approaching them. His eyes widened in a mixture of horror and fascination before he came to the split-second conclusion they better get the hell out of there. Fast.

"WHO THE HELL CARES?" Mary shouted in exasperation and managed to stomp over to Chris, not at all hindered by the sharp dips and rises of the deck beneath her feet. "Do something...CAPTAIN!" She punched him in the arm.

Trying to remember that in another guise, he really loved this woman, Chris swore at the pain caused by those small fists and snapped. "Well, we could feed you to it. That would choke it for sure!"

"Vin!" Chris ignored Mary sputtering and regained his composure long enough to come up with some course of action. "Whatever you do! Keep us moving!"

"I figured that pard!" Vin shouted from the helm, having no trouble at all carrying out that order.

"That's it?" Mary demanded. "That's your whole plan?" She glared at Chris.

"Oh, for Christ sake!" Buck swore as he stood by the rail, shaking his head to shed the water soaking him after the latest huge wave splashed over the Jolly Roger. One of those flailing appendages landed near the yacht and Buck ignored the spit-take both Chris and Mary were engaging in, to take more constructive action.

"Adam, you have a phaser. Shoot the damn thing!"

"No shit!" Adam retorted, wondering what the hell Buck thought he was doing.

He was in the process of setting the weapon's intensity to maximum stun while trying to run across the slippery deck and not fall on his ass. Reaching the rail, he took a second to stare at the 'kraken' a creature that sort of looked like a giant mutant octopus. Despite its bulk, it moved with surprising speed, causing waves upon waves of water to come crashing down on the Jolly Roger.

"Shoot it! Shoot it! Shoot it!" Adam heard Nathan shouting and looked up to see one of those tentacles rising out of the water, it's size easily dwarfed the Jolly Roger's twin masts as it reached towards them with clear threat.

Adam came to a clumsy stop against the hand railing at the starboard edge of the boat, keeping a firm grip of the weapon in his hands, fearing he'd drop the thing. At present, it was their only protection against the creature and even he was sceptical at its effectiveness against a beast of that size. Nevertheless, he took aim at the spiky curve of its head and fired.

The beam of energy struck the Kraken just above one of its, large bulbous eyes. The tentacles in the air stiffened and then spasmed as if it were jolted with electricity and a terrifying cry of pain, not unlike the squeal of whale song, except this was a sharper and more intense sound. They all watched with wide-eyed fear as the creature reacted to the stun blast, praying the one-shot would be enough to drive it away.

It didn't.

The momentary pause where the Kraken reacted to the pain ended abruptly. The leviathan shook off the blast and began to swim even faster towards them, its appendages thrashing the water so hard, everyone had to hold onto something because the craft was shaking violently. The tentacles intensified the turbulent chop in the water, sending larger and larger waves against the boat, making it near impossible for Vin to gain any distance.

"If I may hazard a guess!" Ezra shouted over the sound of the splashing water. "I do think we may have simply provoked it further!"

"Oh, you think?!" Chris snapped back, wondering why Ezra always felt it necessary to state the obvious.

"Hey!" Josiah suddenly exclaimed from behind them. Thankfully, his glee at discovering a real-life Kraken had been superseded by the realisation the thing was about to eat them and sounded a little less exuberant than before. "Look!"

Incredibly, Josiah was not bringing to their attention some other horrifying thing the Kraken was about to do to them. Instead, he was pointing to the bow of the ship. Mounted against the wooden deck, with the barrel pointed in the direction of the beast, was a harpoon gun. Chris thought it might have been lifted straight out of a history book because it resembled the type found on old Earth whaling ships. With its triangle pointed harpoon protruding from the barrel, it's appearance was a shock to all on board.

When they had first come on board the vessel and christened it the Jolly Roger, they'd inspected every inch of it and not one of them had spotted the harpoon gun. Now it was here, almost as if it had materialised out of thin air. Furthermore, why would a yacht need a mounted harpoon gun in the first place? A thought started to form in his head again when Nathan's voice tore him from it.

"Is that a harpoon gun?" Nathan asked yelling, voicing the unspoken thought in all their minds. However, he moved on quickly to a more vital question. "Does anyone know how to shoot it?"

By now, the Kraken's head was close enough to reveal its mouth opening. Easily six feet wide, it was full of serrated teeth, each as long as a man's forearm. The creatures were chomping menacingly as it approached. The action created more turbulence in the water. They were close enough to see the dark orifice of its gullet, the clear slime dripping off its sharp teeth. Chris heard Julia squealing in the background and wished she would shut up because that noise was almost as piercing as those sharp teeth were going to be.

Ironically, Mary reacted to it with less diplomacy than the Captain.

"Julia would you shut up already!"

"Oh, by all means, that will be of great help!" Ezra bit back at her, coming to his lover's defence. "I am certain abusing her will help the situation!"

"Enough!" Chris cut both of them off savagely. "Ezra you know how to use that thing?

"Yes," Ezra snapped back to attention, embarrassed he wasn't already moving towards it. "Yes, I can!"

"Then get to it!" Chris ordered, his hand reaching out and grabbing Mary who had almost fallen on her rear, just as another wave splashed over them, drenching them both further. "Adam! Set the phaser for kill and fire again! We need to give Ezra time to shoot that thing!"

"You sure?" Adam asked as he set the phaser to the required setting. Frankly, he wasn't optimistic about their chances but right now, they had little choice in the matter.

"What have we got to lose?" Chris retorted as he wiped the water out of his face. "DO IT!"

No sooner than the words left his lips, a tentacle slammed against the hull of the craft beneath the railing where Chris and Mary stood. The force of it tipped the boat dangerously to its side, almost submerging it up to the railing. Everyone slid across the deck at the sudden dip, while the captain and the protocol officer were slammed hard against the railing. Except in Chris's case, he went over.

"CHRIS!" Mary screamed in horror as she saw him disappeared into the same water being shared by the monster a short distance away.

Sharing her panic, Adam was about to dive in after him, when Buck halted him in his tracks.

"Adam!" The First Officer of the Maverick grabbed his arm before the young man could do anything foolish. "You need to keep shooting at that thing to keep it busy and distract him from your father. We'll get Chris! Josiah! Nathan!"

Adam wanted to protest but knew Buck was right. With prey in the water, this creature's interest would be on retrieving the tasty morsel in reach, unless Adam gave it something else to think about. As much as it went against the grain, he would have to let Buck handle this.

"Chris!" Mary continued to call after Chris, her small frame leaning as far as she could over the edge despite the turbulence beneath the deck. Her heart was pounding as she saw him disappear into the depths when a tentacle reached for him like a giant python. Screaming at them both, her face was a mask of blind panic. "Chris Larabee! Don't you dare drown!"

Vin, who was unaware they had a man overboard, was continuing to steer the Jolly Roger away from the beast, unwittingly leaving their captain behind. Mary watched as the starboard side of the ship pulled away from Chris. Julia, who had the most nautical experience among them, snapped back to clarity at the visceral realisation someone was in the water and shouted at Nathan and Alex.

"We have to stop the boat!" Julia exclaimed running to the mainsail to push it out to one side to bring the craft to a halt. "Nathan, help me! You need to do the same to the boom! Alex, tell Vin, we've got someone overboard!"

Alex nodded and hurried away from the starboard side of the craft where most of their party was congregated in their efforts to retrieve the Captain. The danger to one of their number shook Alex out of her complacency, and she shed her fear of the Lovecraftian creature attacking the yacht to reach Vin. Moving across the slippery deck, Alex was barely able to maintain her footing because the chop was making the boat beneath her seesaw until she was clutching every handhold to maintain her balance. Reaching the steps leading to the hull, she almost slipped as she climbed them to reach her husband.

Josiah on the other hand had seen a lifebuoy on the outside wall of the cabin and hurried to it. Retrieving it from its place against the hull, Josiah also glimpsed a boat hook and grabbed it since they would need it too. With both objects in his arms, Josiah hurried towards the rear of the ship where the others were gathering, engaged in the rescue of their captain who was in the water with a Kraken hell-bent on eating them.

The creature was closing the distance, although its tentacles reached them first. One of the long appendages had slithered around the railing. Python-like, the slimy black arm of the creature sought to get a better grip.

"Adam! Shoot!" Buck ordered. "If it gets a hold of us, it could tear the boat apart!"

Too late.

The yacht suddenly came to an abrupt halt as the tentacle found its handhold and pulled back hard, obviously trying to halt the craft's flight. The force of it was so violent, everyone standing was suddenly not. The boat veered sharply to the left, almost coming about at a 90-degree turn. Buck who slid across the wet deck, still battered by the tremendous waves, managed to grab the edge of a bolted down compartment on the floor.

Adam dropped to his knees, feeling the pain reverberate throughout his body as bone met wood but managed somehow to hold on to the phaser. He had been trying to get a shot at the creature's head when Buck's order had changed his mind. Wincing at the pain in his legs, Adam took careful aim and fired the weapon. The shot escaped the phaser as a pulse of amber energy struck the thickest part of the tentacle.

The reaction was immediate. A loud, deep roar filled the air, almost shaking him to his bones and the limb shrank back from the rail, retracting into the darkness, no doubt to soothe its injuries in the cool water. Almost in retaliation, the beast flung another tentacle against the hull once more. It impacted hard enough for the sound of cracking wood to register in all their consciousness and make them wince.

Buck exchanged a glance with Adam, sharing the same thought. Despite the ache in his knees, Adam forced himself to his feet, clutching the handrail and offering his hand to Buck who was staring at the Kraken's rapid approach now the boat was almost at a standstill. "Fire!"

Adam took aim at its head and fired, hoping the phaser set to kill would injure it since he was doubtful the size of the thing would allow him to end its life. As it turned out, he was right. The behemoth's tentacles shuddered again as the energy beam ran through its enormous body, the appendages spasming in pain. However, it did not retreat.

In fact, as Adam and Buck stared at the creature, it appeared to be regaining its second wind after that shot. "Oh hell," Adam muttered. "This is going to be very bad."

"No kidding," Adam said sourly. "I think we just pissed it off."

*******

Meanwhile, Chris was trying not to drown.

Seconds after he went overboard, he discovered the water in this mysterious sea, was not at all salty but fresh, although it was a discovery he would have preferred to have made without swallowing any of it. He sank into the depth because, during the initial shock and panic of falling off the Jolly Roger, he was able to do little else. Not to mention the fear of being in the vicinity of a giant sea monster that probably intended on doing him serious harm with those serrated teeth, compelled him to keep his head down.

He'd envisioned many ways he was going to die. The picture always included him onboard the Maverick, fighting some great battle that would be known throughout the ages, not as the bite-sized snack of a while he was still in the body of a child. When he did surface, he saw the monster looming behind him, its massive tentacles flailing so wildly in the water, he was barely able to keep ahead of the chop. As it was, sighting him had renewed the creature's determination to reach him.

If his epitaph read 'killed by a sea monster in child's body', Chris was going to be pissed.

"Chris!" He heard Mary cry out as she hung over the side of the ship, despite the sudden rise and fall of the deck, her hand extended towards him. "Chris Larabee! You get back here!"

Still bossing me around, Chris thought annoyed until he saw the raw edge of panic across her face. Her dove-like eyes were staring at him in fear, especially when she saw a tentacle snaking towards him. Chris saw it too and could only think to dive out of its reach, so the creature couldn't see him enough to grab him. Its eyes were above the water level and Chris hoped it had only two of them because if it had more, he was screwed.

Something wet and cold slid20th-centuryg and felt a surge of panic, wishing he had a gun. He was suddenly reminded of that old 20th century movie where the young farm boy gets trapped in a garbage masher with some unseen monster. Chris had always felt disappointed the Federation had yet to encounter any race capable of producing a weapon remotely resembling a lightsaber.

Damn copyright infringement.

Chris ducked under the water, wishing he had his torch, so he could swim beyond the sight of the creature when suddenly, the boat banked sharply and before he saw the hull rushing quickly towards him, allowing him no escape. The pain exploded against the side of his skull and before he could think to cry out, the black claiming him was not the darkness of the water.

"CHRIS!" Mary fairly screamed when she realised what happened and saw him disappear underneath the waves. Without considering her actions, she climbed over the side of the railing and jumped in before Josiah who was on approach, realised what she had done.

"Mary!" Josiah shouted after when he reached the railing and stared after her in horror, still clutching the boat hook and life preserver. She plunged into the water after Chris, her golden hair a stark contrast against the blackness below. For a few seconds, Josiah debated whether or not he ought to jump in after her before deciding perhaps it was not a good idea to have three people in the water instead of two.

"Mary! Are you crazy!" Josiah shouted at Mary, but she wasn't listening.

His voice became lost in the subsequent scream of pain that tore so loudly through the air, from the creature. Adam had started firing again determined to distract the Kraken, so they could save Chris. Mary glanced upwards and saw the stalactites hanging off the ceiling and was struck by the thought they might break free from all this ruckus and impale her and Chris in the water. However, her fear of this was immediately banished by the terror of being unable to see Chris.

Diving below the surface, she saw the faint outline of a tentacle and cringed, forcing herself to swim past it since the creature it belonged to was still reacting to the phaser blasts. She dove down deeper, determined to search the area where Chris hand sunk. Fortunately, she had been a strong swimmer as a kid. Having rich parents who lived by the sea, Mary was accustomed to taking morning swims with her father and felt a pang of sadness at the memory.

It was just like Chris to be such a bother, she thought with annoyance as she sought him out in the dark depths. Yet inwardly she knew if anything awful were to happen to him, she couldn't bear it. Finally, Mary glimpsed something in the dark that wasn't a monster's limb and kicked hard towards it.

Upon reaching him, she saw the dark gash across his brow weeping blood against his pale skin. Her stomach clenched realising he was entirely unconscious. Grabbing him by the arm, she swam towards the surface and saw a tentacle swoosh past them, the power of it sweeping them aside, and almost made Mary lose her grip of Chris's arm. Close up, the appendage looked even more menacing when she saw some of the sucker pads had teeth.

Despite their buoyancy, Mary's arm was almost pulled out of its sockets as she dragged Chris through the water, before finally breaking the surface. When she was ten she was petite, and nowhere did she regret that fact more than right now. Nevertheless, she refused to let him go. Gasping loudly, her lungs bursting, she saw Adam continuing to fire at the creature, whose furious roars had been muted when she was underwater.

Meanwhile, Josiah was searching the surface, his face breaking into relief when he sighted her.

"Mary! Catch!" He tossed the life preserver at her, seeing she had Chris in her grip.

Still holding onto the Captain of the Maverick as best she could, Mary swam to it and immediately slipped the donut-shaped lifebuoy over Chris's body. She was still trying to get it securely around him when another loud bang suddenly cracked through the air like artillery fire. Except this didn't fire bullets.

This one fired a harpoon.

The harpoon sailed across the air once Ezra Standish got a clear shot of the creature. He decided to forego any effort to kill the beast since it would require more than one harpoon to do that. Instead, he aimed for something crippling, something that would cause enough pain to send it into retreat. His plan could backfire, but Ezra was a security chief long enough to know what would work.

The harpoon plunged into one of the Kraken's eyes.

The shriek that filled the air was almost deafening. Its tentacles retreated immediately as it appeared to writhe in agony. The harpoon embedded in the creature's eyeball, oozed black blood and the shriek soon became a wail of pain. They watched as it halted its advanced, the excruciating and crippling wound inflicted, making it forget all about making them its meal. Still uttering that pitiful moan, it sunk into the dark water and disappeared from sight.

Hopefully for good.

Chapter Fourteen: Sinkhole

For a few seconds, after the Kraken disappeared beneath the water, with only its oily blood leaving any trace of its previous presence, no one could move or speak.

The crew of the Jolly Roger was still coming to grips with the realisation they had survived the encounter with the behemoth, even as they saw it descending into the freshwater sea, vanishing as abruptly as it appeared. The waves, churning with turbulence only a short time ago, quickly returned to its former stillness, with water lapping against the hull in a lethargic but soothing rhythm. When the breeze rushed over them, it felt as if the wind was attempting to sweep away the chaos of the whole encounter.

Naturally, it was Nathan who snapped back to attention first. His healer's instincts became immediately mobilised when he registered the blood running down Chris Larabee's forehead. The gash, no longer held back by the pressure of the depths, was flowing freely. It ran down his forehead and pooled in the creases around his eyes, like the curtain coming down at the end of a play.

"Let me through! Let me through!" Nathan ordered, having retrieved his medical instruments from his pack the instant Josiah and Adam hoisted Chris and Mary back onto the deck of the boat. Fighting his way through the others who were hovering around the Captain in concern, especially at the sight of all that blood, Nathan heard Buck's voice, not at all hampered by the limitations of his small size, barking just as loudly.

"You heard Nathan!" Buck ordered, making everyone except Adam and Mary retreat from Chris's side. "Back off and let him work."

Mary was oblivious to the demand, mostly because her lovely features were etched in fear and it was entirely possible she couldn't see or hear anything other than Chris at this moment. The same terror that prompted her to jump overboard to rescue Chris, gripped her just as intensely now.

"Chris! Speak to me! Please, Chris, wake up!" Her previously confrontational and obnoxious tone was all but gone. Instead, her youthful voice reeked of pleading desperation. "Wake up right this minute Chris Larabee! I won't stand for you being hurt!"

Yeah, that was going to work, Nathan thought as he knelt down in front of Chris.

While Adam did not appear as nearly hysterical as Mary, the teenager's reaction to his father's condition was no less severe. The fear Nathan saw in his face, stripped the years away and at that moment, he looked no older than any one of them.

"Come on dad, give me a sign here!" Adam added his voice to Mary's, feeling cold fear running through him at the sight of that blood. Even though Chris Larabee looked like a boy of ten, Adam only saw the man who had welcomed Adam into his life as his son. The idea of losing him so soon after they found each other was more than Adam could stand and it shook him to the core of his teenage apathy.

"Come on you two," Buck reached for Mary's shoulder. "Step aside so Nathan can help them. Josiah, can you get one of the bedrolls we brought with us?"

"Right," Josiah nodded, understanding why immediately. He hurried towards the cabin where they had stored their backpacks shortly after coming on board. With no idea how long, they would be making the trek into the tunnels, it was Chris who suggested they bring the sleeping bags with them in case they had to bed down for the night. Josiah supposed Chris never imagined they would be using one as a shield against the cold after being tossed into the water and almost eaten by a Kraken.

Meanwhile, Nathan lowered himself in front of Chris who was appearing to be coming around. Of course, the physician kept to himself the thought that Mary's hollering would have woken up the dead. He supposed even if their usually poised and elegant protocol officer had devolved into a little blond brat, her feelings for the captain remained the same. For his part, Nathan was grateful he still retained his medical skills. Using his medical tricorder, he conducted a quick scan of Chris to determine the extent of the injury.

"Chris, Chris, please wake up!" She implored over the hum of Nathan's tricorder. "Nathan, is he going to be alright?"

The doctor's face furrowed in concentration as the readings appeared on the small display, immediately prompting him into formulating the appropriate course of treatment.

"I think so," Nathan answered not looking up from his tricorder. "Looks like he's got a concussion. I'm detecting a slight swelling in the brain."

"Does that mean I get smarter?" Chris mumbled groggily as his eyelids fluttered open.

"Dad!" Adam exclaimed with relief. "Thank God you're okay."

The teenager was kneeling next to Chris and didn't care who saw it when he hugged his father in gratitude. Chris winced at the contact, even though he was aware enough to be pleased by the sentiment behind it. At the sound of the slight groan, because his head was aching and he felt cold and miserable, Adam pulled back, his expression of joy withering into concern.

However, it was nothing compared to the reaction Chris got from Mary.

Before he knew it, she was pulling him to her. Chris became aware of warm lips pressing against him in a chaste but intense kiss of passion. If anything had the power to bring him out of his fugue state, it was the electricity in her lips, still there after the first time, he kissed her. Her warmth against his skin felt like he was standing next to the heat of a fire in the middle of a blizzard.

Then just as abruptly, she shoved him away. "Chris Larabee! Don't you dare scare me like that again! I don't care if you think you're the Captain of the Maverick or not! You do not get to frighten me like that! Be more careful!" She swatted him on the shoulder.

"HEY!" Nathan snapped. "Stop assaulting my patient or I'm going to have you sedated."

"Yeah what he said..." Chris grumbled but he was smiling when he looked at her. Then baser instincts returned to him. "Buck, what's our status?"

"Your status is you need to sit still while I fix you up," Nathan broke in before Chris could answer. "Just sit still and let me fix your head, such as it is."

*******

They were in trouble.

Even though they scored a victory against a Kraken, something that was going to make for an interesting log entry in Vin's opinion and everyone's attention was focussed on the captain, Vin noticed something in the last few minutes that had his undivided attention. At first, thought it was his imagination. In this topsy-turvy situation they found themselves in, anything was possible. After all, he was presently at the helm of a yacht in an underground sea, in the body of a ten-year-old, while his wife, who battled holodeck monsters with him, looked like she might jump out of her skin at any loud noise.

However, the advantages of having Vulcan ears meant better acoustics.

Something had changed and he could hear it. Listening intently, the loud hiss of rushing water was increasing on the cusp of becoming a roar. The boat was also moving again, even without the benefit of Julia working the rigging to change the positioning of the sails. With the growing strength of the currents propelling them forward, Vin glanced over his shoulder at the billowing sails and realised it wasn't just the currents but the wind that was picking up.

Averting his eyes, Vin tried to see into the darkness beyond the range of the torch he set near the wheel so they could have an idea of what was ahead of them. Despite the craftsmanship of the yacht's construction, it's design was straight out of the nineteenth century, before the advent of electric lights. The hiss continued to get louder, the muffled sounds sharpening like jagged chords and he knew soon enough, they would all be aware of it.

"Alex, can you scan what's ahead of us?" He asked his wife who was presently using her tricorder to ensure the Kraken didn't come back without warning.

Alex looked up immediately, her brown eyes widened as the sound reached her ears. She had been so focused on scanning for life forms, she hadn't noticed it before but now that Vin brought it to her attention, she tried to identify the noise in her head.

"Oh no," she met his eyes and saw that he was way ahead of her and needed the confirmation.

"Do it darlin'!" he ordered and Alex nodded, lifting the tricorder and scanning ahead, perfectly aware of what to look for.

Ezra, who was confident the situation with the captain was under control with Buck Wilmington in charge, was not about to rest on his laurels after his impressive harpooning skills. He had no doubt the Kraken's retreat was only temporary. Once it had finished licking its wounds (did Krakens even have tongues?), Ezra knew the creature would be back an understandably vexed at the grievous injury inflicted by him. The Jolly Roger needed to get moving and fast.

However, as he approached the helm and heard the alarm in the voice of Vin and Alex, he realised they might be facing yet another calamity.

"What is wrong?" Ezra demanded, realising from this vantage point, just how fast they were moving. He assumed Julia's wizardry at the sails and Vin's expertise as a helmsman were responsible for their rapid speed but judging by the worry displayed by the duo at the helm, Ezra realised they were not.

"Oh, God..." Alex gasped, looking up from the screen, her eyes meeting theirs with nothing less than full-blown panic.

"What is it?" Vin asked, stomach knotting. He guessed the what of it, but not the how bad.

Ezra wasted no time, waiting for her to respond. Ever the Security Chief, even in this pint-sized version, Ezra hurried next to Alex and stared at the readings on the tricorder, before he too went equally pale "Mr Tanner, we need to stop this craft right now."

"How bad?" Vin asked tautly.

There was no need for Ezra to answer because Vin was soon able to see for himself. Directly ahead of them was a deep chasm and they were heading straight for it. Whether or not it was an immense sinkhole or a whirlpool, it mattered little, the fall was unsurvivable. The currents were drawing them towards the drop-off and beyond it, Vin could only see darkness. No wonder they were moving so fast, Vin thought frantically as he calculated how much time they had to steer away from the edge.

Not enough, he thought grimly.

"I can't say!" Alex burst out. "All I know is the boat will break apart it if we go over!"

That was enough for Ezra. Rushing to the railing overlooking the main deck, the Security Chief yelled on top of his lungs. "EVERYBODY HOLD ON!"

"What?" Buck's voice returned first.

"There is little time to argue Commander!" Ezra barked. "JUST DO IT!"

No sooner than Ezra made the demand, Vin spun the wheel around sharply, hoping to steer the craft away from the edge they were fast approaching. The turbulence made a return to the water as the boat began to heave and shudder from the chop leading to the drop. White froth churned around them as the vessel banked hard. Alex was thrown against the wheel and almost knocked Vin away from it. Ezra had wisely grabbed on the rail to avoid being tossed over it.

However, they were still getting closer.

Even as the boat started to turn, it was being still dragged towards the edge, until the bow was almost parallel. Alex could see the water cascading off the edge, disappearing into depths so vast, her tricorder had been unable to measure it, beyond noting its existence. Everything was so black and not even the illumination of the cavern was able to penetrate the abyss. Alex wondered if the sailors of ancient times thought the edge of the world was like this.

Desperate to stop them from dying right now, Vin hollered once more. "Ezra! Get Julia to drop anchor! It might give us enough drag to turn around!"

Ezra nodded mutely and went to do that, praying Vin's gamble paid off.

Alex remained close to him even though he knew she wanted desperately to hold his hand Fortunately, enough of the scientist and second officer remained in her to know hindering Vin's movements at any point right now would be a fatal mistake. As Alex stood next to Vin, she saw his jaw taut as he struggled to keep the Jolly Roger from plunging over the edge. Suddenly, a glint of something caught her eye on the yoke of the wheel. It was a brightly polished, brass button embedded in the wood.

Alex stared at it, certain it had not been there before. Something like that would have stuck out in their minds and would have surely been investigated. Her mind screamed out its importance even though she didn't know why.

"Vin! What is that?" She shouted at him, pointing to the button.

Vin who was about to tell Alex he really didn't have time to talk, not when the yacht was veering dangerously close to the edge, the twin masts were tilted at an angle and their friends were pressed against the starboard railing, saw what she was pointing at. The brass button mounted along the yoke of the wheel gleamed with a high polish and left him stunned by its presence. With absolute certainty, Vin knew it hadn't been there before.

Just like the harpoon gun, he thought fleetingly.

Without thinking, and because at this point, there was nothing to lose since his best efforts to steer the Jolly Roger away from the chasm had failed, with the ship tilting at an almost 45-degree angle towards a chasm, Vin slapped his palm hard against the flat metal button. It depressed soundlessly but what came next was nowhere that silent. All of a sudden, the yoke seemed to jerk inwards, tearing the wheel out of his hands as it slid against the rail overlooking the bow of the ship.

"Look!" Someone shouted and it might have been Julia.

Vin and Alex turned around and saw the masts starting to change shape. The tall lengths of wood folded in half before extending outward across the ship instead over it. The sails took on a completely different configuration as new previously unseen pieces, unfurled. Like the masts, they extended across the width of the boat, spreading out like a canopy. As if that wasn't astonishing enough, the sound of hydraulic gases and creaking wood tore their attention away from the changing sails to reveal another metamorphosis unfolding where the wheel had been.

In front of Vin was an instrument panel, constructed of wood and brass, polished to a russet and bronzed shine, revealing old style gauges and switches, with a yoke that was not all appropriate for steering the craft through water, but rather for an entirely different environment. It took but a second for the pilot to realise what he was looking.

"Son of a bitch!" Vin laughed gleefully and grabbed Alex's face, pulling her forward to give her a fierce kiss even as the yacht started over the edge.

"Vin, are we about to do what I think we are?" She said smiling, her cheeks still flushed from the kiss.

"Yeah, he grinned. "We're going for a ride."

*******

Seated inside the conference room at the head of the table, JD felt this entire situation to be surreal.

He could see the Marauder Class battlecruiser through the pictures window and immediately began to run the ship's armaments and capabilities through his head. She was fitted with disruptor beam arrays, dual heavy cannons and photon torpedoes on both her fore and aft sections. Not to mention enough high yield tricobalt torpedoes to turn the surface of Hadir into radioactive mush. Since the Orion Syndicate were a law unto themselves, they would have little fear of doing just that if JD couldn't get a handle on the situation.

"How are you doing kid?" Charlotte asked JD, noting his expression sat somewhere between blank disbelief at being in this position and pure terror because of it. She had to admit he was doing alright and was convinced, he'd be able to handle himself. Even though he was obviously out of his depth, JD wasn't afraid to ask for help and that rose her opinion of him up a notch. Not that it wasn't already quite high.

"I'm fine," he said swallowing thickly, the momentary anxiety obviously naked on his face, vanishing with her question. "Well I'm not, but I'll be able to handle this."

"Okay," she smiled at him. "You'll do fine. Captain Larabee knows his stuff, he wouldn't have left you in charge if he didn't think you could manage it."

JD smiled at her gratefully, finding her far removed from the officer who had apparently humiliated Vin Tanner during the first few days of the Maverick's tour of duty. He couldn't imagine her being so cruel to Vin when she was so nice to him. He resolved to ask Charlotte about it when all this was all over.

The door of the conference chirped, prompting both JD and Charlotte to sit up straighter in their seats as they exchanged quick glances at each other. Once again, she gave him a nod of encouragement, reinforcing her confidence in his ability to handle what was coming through that door. JD gave her a returning smile of thanks before speaking.

"Come in."

The door slid open and standing next to Drew Katovit was Navea. The Assistant Security Chief was attempting to remain indifferent but his refusal to glance sideways only seemed to confirm the fact the Orion next to him was affecting. JD had to admit, he couldn't blame Drew's discomfort. He didn't even want to think what Buck would be like if he were here instead. Certainly, the image on the view screen had not done Navea justice.

In person, she was even more alluring if such a thing was possible.

While the view screen had shown her dress to be quite revealing, it was nothing in comparison to the whole outfit which bordered on scandalous. JD would have thought being in command of a Marauder battleship would remove the need for her to dress so seductively, but apparently, he was wrong. Wearing little more than a metal bikini that revealed her ample breasts and a skirt that was little more than two lengths of sheer fabric held up by an embroidered girdle, she was utterly captivating. JD tried to ignore the spectacularly long and shapely legs, to say nothing of her exposed midriff in full view of them all.

"Commander Navea," JD greeted her politely. "Welcome aboard the Maverick."

"Well I must say," she offered him a dazzling smile, "I was rather disappointed when you said your Captain Larabee was indisposed but now that I see you in person, I think I might have been wrong." She fluttered her eyelashes at JD and curled her lips into a little pout.

Oh please, Charlotte who was standing next to JD, fought the urge to roll her eyes.

JD's Adam's apple bobbed nervously as he tried not to be affected by this woman or her pheromones. Clearing his throat, he glanced at Charlotte before facing Navea again to make introductions. "This is my Acting Science Officer, Lt. Charlotte Richmond and you've met Assistant Chief of Security Drew Katovit."

"Oh yes," Navea turned slyly to Drew and flashed him a coquettish smile that made the until now, cool security officer appear a little flustered. "We have become quite well acquainted." She said brushing his hand slightly.

JD noticed she barely gave Charlotte a second glance and supposed the Orion was indifferent to the acting science officer because she could not affect the same sex with her formidable allure and pheromones. "Why don't we sit down," he said gesturing to the conference table.

Leaving Drew, Navea turned back to JD and flashed that enchanting smile at him again. "I'll be delighted too, Captain." She said silkily, sashaying past him with an exaggerated show of grace, her hips swaying seductively as she approached the table, trying to mesmerise both JD and Drew. Even when she lowered herself into one of the seats, she did so bending enough so both young men caught an eyeful of breast.

Meanwhile, Charlotte wondered if it would be bad manners if she turned a hose on the woman.

Chapter Fifteen: Entity

"This isn't possible!"

Those were the only words Chief Engineer Julia Pemberton seemed capable of saying as she and the rest of the crew, save Vin and Alex who were at the helm, leaned over the side of the Jolly Roger, staring into the space around them. Below the hull, there was only the darkness of the abyss they were crossing and overhead, the fungus covering the roof created a canvas of glitter that looked like the night sky. It was bizarre and beautiful at the same time.

Ezra could not blame Julia for her incredulity. He, himself was having difficulty with what he was seeing and it was a sentiment shared by the rest of the Maverick's crew. The Jolly Roger, now miraculously transformed into an airship, was flying across the chasm beyond the edge of the underground sea. Behind them, they could see the cascade disappearing into the darkness below, a curtain of white froth fading into oblivion.

The sails that were previously flapping in the wind were now pulled tight over their heads, shaped into wings spanning the width of the craft. Yet, despite this modification, there was nothing else that explained how it could stay airborne, something which flew in the face of everything Julia knew as an engineer. If he was truly the age of the body he was occupying, Ezra might be inclined to think this was magic.

"How are we flying?" Adam asked, aiming his torch along the hull and seeing nothing that would explain how this craft was managing to soar when by every science they knew, they should be plunging through the black to their deaths. The torch's range did nothing to illuminate what was beneath them and if it wasn't for the fact he knew they were on a planet, Adam would have thought they were free-floating in space.

"I have no idea," Ezra remarked, scanning the wings and seeing nothing about them that could warrant their ability to keep them aloft.

"It's impossible!" Julia declared insistently, her lips turning into a pout whenever she was confronted with something that flew in direct conflict about what she knew about her craft. "This should not fly. We went through this ship. There wasn't even an engine!"

"Under normal circumstances, I would agree with you," Ezra said trying to see what was beyond the hull. The pergium in the roof of the cavern made the tricorder unreliable and it unsettled him being unable to see where the cavern ended or even what lay ahead. "However, it appears the impossible has been hurdled numerous times since our arrival at Hadir."

"It's magic!" Josiah exclaimed boisterously, once again drawing a groan from Ezra and Julia in unison. Adam was merely amused, wondering if the Josiah he knew in the alternate dimension had been like this as a child. The teenager could not imagine the grizzled one-eyed warrior starting out life as a hyperactive boy with an equally rampant imagination.

"Maybe it is," Adam offered.

"You cannot be serious," Ezra looked at him.

"There's no such thing!" Julia snorted and then sounded very much like the ten-year-old she appeared to be. "It isn't empirically possible. Magic isn't real! It's science we just haven't figured out."

"Well can you explain any of this?" Josiah challenged.

They couldn't of course, not when the Jolly Roger was floating through the air, with no visible means of propulsion, yet the sails moved like flaps, shifting course and riding the wind as Vin stood at the helm, using the new instruments to navigate the ship. The wind was rushing through their air and across their faces and despite the impossibility of everything they were witnessing, there was also a sense of wonder and excitement at the fantastic, swimming against the currents of their jaded sensibilities.

As the ship sailed through the darkness, taking them closer to the Cavern of Azcax, with the glitter from the cavern above them simulating starlight, it did feel magical.

For Chris Larabee, it was all becoming so clear. The thought that had been struggling to form when he first saw the Jolly Roger, had finally surfaced in its entirety.

"We can't explain this because this is unexplainable," Chris said, standing up from the deck where he had been seated since Nathan began treating him after his ordeal overboard. While he felt a little better, his stomach was still a little queasy from his head injury. "What's doing this isn't science, at least any science we know. The question is, who does?"

"You think the Hadir might know what's really going on?" Buck asked, seeing the logic in Chris's deductions.

"I think they might have a better idea of it than what they're telling us," Chris replied, thinking on the behaviour of the Hadir since the Maverick's arrival. He thought of Corban Setlan, who behaved like a crazy old man, who ought to be dithering around in a library, surrounded by books and artefacts, arguing with students about their thesis...

"Son of a bitch," Chris exclaimed, the light of understanding descending upon him.

"What is it, Chris?" Mary asked, seeing the expression on his face.

"I didn't see it before," Chris was almost staggered by the realisation and cursed himself for not seeing what was so plain in front of him. "Setlan. He's been playing me."

"How?" Buck asked, unable to imagine Setlan being capable of deception. The man was clearly a buffoon. Although now that he considered it, perhaps he was playing a part to distract them from his true intentions. After all, the leader's behaviour had bordered on the farcical since their arrival on the planet.

"I didn't see it because I'd forgotten," Chris raised his eyes to Josiah. "He's been playing a part, just for me. So, I'd trust and like him."

"Your father," Josiah nodded, revealing why he was, aside from being the most hyper imaginative child this side of the quadrant, one of the best psychiatrists, if not the best, in Starfleet. "He's been acting like your father, to get you to lower your defences."

"Your father was like Corban Setlan?" Julia exclaimed, unable to imagine such an eccentric character could have produced a paragon of responsibility like Chris Larabee.

"Yeah," Chris nodded, thinking about his father for a moment, the absent-minded professor who would never remember where he kept anything but never forgot a birthday and always made sure his career was never more important than his son. It was part of the reason why Chris had wanted Josiah on board the Maverick, the Counsellor with his boundless wisdom and kindness was like getting his father back again.

"But why though?" Nathan asked. "What possible reason could they have for doing this?"

Alex who had left Vin's side to join the discussion, realising her input as Science Officer might be needed, spoke up in her still uncertain voice. "It could be Q." She suggested.

Everyone froze.

"What's a Q?" Adam asked, seeing the faces around him tense with worry. The look on Ezra's face was near unreadable.

"An alien entity with near godlike powers," Josiah explained. "If anyone could do all this, it would be him."

The personality of the rambunctious child of a few moments ago had vanished and he was all seriousness now, staring at both Chris and Ezra through the lens of the ship's counsellor, recalling the profound effect the presence of Q had on the two. Almost on reflex, Ezra reached for Julia's hand and held it, as if the mere suggestion of the entity made him feel the need to be alert when it came to her safety.

"No, no," Chris shook his head, dismissing the idea of it being Q. "Q was a lot of things, but I get the sense after we ran into him, he wasn't going to play games with us, not with the way his son and Billy are friends."

"I've got to agree," Mary added. "Quinn and Billy have been in regular contact."

Mary remembered the occasion she returned to her quarters and found the duo having a glorious time with a room full of puppies or the bowl the size of a bathtub filled with chocolate ice cream in her living room. "They're enjoying each other's company too much, I don't think Q would want to jeopardise that."

"I think Alex is on the right track though," Buck gave her a smile, "I think this is some kind of entity. Not necessarily Q, but definitely something similar."

"Well if it is such a creature," Ezra added, "then calling itself the Spellcaster would be quite fitting."

"So, what's our move then?" Nathan asked. "Last time we went through this, we had to ride out the scenario. Do we got to do it here?"

"We must do," Buck threw in. "Whatever this Spellcaster is, it's been throwing these challenges at us but also giving us the way out."

"Like the harpoon gun," Ezra remarked. "We are agreed it was not visible when we first came on board, am I right?"

"Absolutely," Adam replied. "Something like that sticks out."

"Hey!" Vin Tanner's voice suddenly cut through their discussion. "Something's up ahead!"

*******

The 'something' were clouds.

At least that's what it looked like from the distance. Joining Vin at the helm, they looked past the bow of the Jolly Roger and saw tufts of white in the distance. Illuminated by the gleam of the luminescent fungus, they seemed to spread out across the roof of the cavern as far as the eye could see. If the Jolly Roger was going to forge ahead, there was no way to avoid the 'clouds' that crisscrossed their path.

"They can't be clouds," Chris commented, taking a deep breath of the air, noticeably cooler now they were airborne. "Mist perhaps?"

Alex, standing next to him, studied her tricorder, her brow furrowed in concentration as she tried to scan the formations they were fast approaching. "I can't uhm...confirm that," she said apologetically. "It's too close to the pergium to give me any accurate readings. I keep getting interference."

"Well we're going to have to go through it," Vin stated, surveying the space ahead and seeing no gap in which he could slip the ship through.

"So far, nothing we've been through has been random," Buck replied, not liking that canopy of white they were fast approaching. There was something familiar about it he couldn't place.

"Adam, I trust you still have the phaser," Ezra spoke out, not about to assume anything was safe. After being confronted by a fifty-foot Kraken, he was done guessing what form danger would come, only being prepared when it did.

"Right here," Adam remarked, clutching the weapon in his hands.

Chris was thinking fast. So far, every time they encountered a new situation, they seemed to be given the tools to navigate it. When they reached the shore, there had been a boat to carry them from it. When they encountered Josiah's Leviathan, the harpoon gun had mysteriously appeared and finally when they reached the , the Jolly Roger had amazingly turned into an airship. Staring at the rapidly approaching formation of flimsy, cloud-like material, Chris wondered if something else would appear.

"Everyone, search the ship."

"Search the ship?" Buck stared at him. "What are you thinking Chris?"

"I'm thinking this Spellcaster wants us to come to him but we got to earn our way there. He's making us jump through hoops to get to him but he's also given us tools to survive them if we're smart enough to figure it out. I don't know what we're heading into but if we can find what he's left us, we might get some idea of what it might be."

"It's a plan," Buck agreed and turned to the others, glad they were acting instead of reacting, with Chris thinking a bit straighter. He supposed it helped Mary was a bit less volatile. It appeared almost losing Chris to the Kraken had made her a little less obnoxious. "Okay everyone, you heard the Captain."

"Adam, stay with Vin," Chris instructed. "I don't know what we're heading into, but I'm certain we'd stand a better chance of surviving it if Vin stays on course through it."

"Right dad." Adam nodded in understanding.

*******

If there had ever been a crew intended for the Jolly Roger, they would have taken their meals in the main cabin of the craft. Bolted to the polished wooden floor, was a long wooden table with equally long benches flanking each side. The corner of the room was occupied with a cast iron stove with a flue that ran through the roof, for cooking and heating during cold weather.

Leading the charge, Ezra entered the cabin and found nothing out of place. Their backpacks and equipment were stacked neatly against the wall where they had left it shortly after boarding and as the Maverick's Security Chief scanned the room, with its smell of wood oil, he was convinced nothing had changed. However, with this latest development in their circumstances, Ezra was convinced the captain's assertion about there being something to find was correct.

"Did you find anything?" Nathan asked, having followed Ezra into the cabin to conduct the search.

"Nothing yet," Ezra declared, "but considering how eventful this journey has been thus far, I am anticipating we will not have long to wait before we find something."

"You think Chris is right, this could all be some alien entity messing with us?" Nathan asked as he followed Ezra to the door leading to the ship's cargo hold.

"I would not be surprised," Ezra remarked, not about to discount anything. "It would not be the first time."

At the thought, he realised he hadn't seen where Julia had gone and cursed himself for letting her out of his sight. He had seen her go with Josiah and thought nothing of it but with Nathan's reminder of an alien entity being the possible cause of their situation, Ezra was suddenly struck with the memory of what it had been like to be caught in such a situation.

In the world Billy Travis's companion Quinn had created, a villain from the Magnificent Seven holodeck program had murdered Julia. While Quinn's father Q had been able to set things right again, for a few hours Ezra had been forced to live with the horror of her death.

"You okay?" Nathan asked Ezra, perfectly aware what was running through the security chief's mind. He had been standing right there with Nathan when they found Julia's body, remembering how badly the villain Silas Poplar had treated her. The son of a bitch had broken every bone in her face because Julia had put up a fight and Nathan never forgot the anguish on Ezra's face when the man had found her.

"I am fine," Ezra replied, shaking off the sensation. "I do confess to having nightmares about that whole business every so often."

"I don't blame you," Nathan patted him on the shoulder. "If I found Rain like that..." he trailed off.

"This is an entirely different situation of course," Ezra said quickly, not about to entertain the possibility of something similar happening to Julia again. He didn't care if he was trapped in this body if this Spellcaster harmed Julia in any way, Ezra was going to be just as merciful as he had been to Silas Poplar.

Stepping through the doorway, Ezra aimed his torch into the darkness to illuminate the hold which at last viewing was little more than an empty floor flanked by the frame that shaped the hull of the ship. However, even as the light bounced off the wooden walls, Ezra caught sight of irregular shapes, unmoving against the walls and across the floor but certainly not what had been there the last time he looked.

"Doctor, hold your ground, I believe we might have found what we are looking for."

"What?" Nathan immediately flashed his torch in the same direction as Ezra.

Once the light flooded the space, both their eyes widened and Nathan uttered what Ezra thought to be the understatement of the year.

"Oh, this can't be good."

*******

Even as they approached the snow-white formations, Chris couldn't figure out what it was. It hung across the roof of the cavern like cobwebs, thick and ropey, trying to resemble cumulus clouds and it almost entirely barred their path ahead. There was no way around it unless they were prepared to skirt along its edge for however wide this cavern ran and hoped there was a gap they could use. Considering what Chris suspected about their situation, that this Spellcaster might be a Q level entity, Chris had no desire to escalate its actions if they didn't play his game.

"What do you want me to do pard?" Vin asked. "I can try and go around it if you want."

"What do you think?" Chris glanced at Buck.

"Hell Chris," Buck shrugged. "We may have to go through it anyway if we don't find a way around it. We might as well do it now and get it over and done with."

Chris tended to agree with his First Officer, "yeah I think so too. Alright Vin, take us through." Without skipping a beat, he looked at Adam. "Hang on to that phaser."

"You got it," Adam nodded.

"Okay," Vin replied, "hang onto your britches, we're going through."

"You spend way too much time in the holodeck," Buck grumbled and caught Vin tossing him a smirk that showed unabashedly his lack of repentance on this subject.

The Jolly Roger sailed forward, closing the distance between itself and the edge of the cloud. As they neared it, the saw the formation fluttering in the breeze and it started to look less and less gaseous and more fibrous and solid. Once again, Chris kept thinking of cobwebs and that thought took root in his mind and remained frozen in it like amber as the first of the stuff brushed across the forward deck of the Jolly Roger. It swept across the wooden floor like a soft breath, a delicate curtain of white that was almost beautiful like gossamer.

Gossamer.

"Oh hell," Chris swallowed thickly as the first of it reached the four of them.

"What?" Buck shot Chris a look, seeing the sudden flash in Chris's eyes, the one that usually meant he knew something they didn't.

"Oh, the girls are not going to like this," he said as the curtain descended over them and Chris felt the sticky strand against his skin, creating goose bumps across his flesh when he understood at last what they were about to encounter.

Buck caught a handful of it as Vin tilted his head this way and that, trying not to let the stuff obscure his vision while he was at the helm. The first officer felt it in his fingertips and stared at Chris in confusion.

"It's silk...."

"Silk?" Vin shot them a look over his shoulder. "What kind of silk?"

Chris said grimly. "Spider."

Chapter Sixteen: Arachnophobia

Throughout this entire affair, Julia Pemberton had maintained her sunny disposition even though she was surrounded by friends who were tying themselves into knots because of their current physical state. While Julia was no happier to be in her ten-year-old body again than any of her friends, she wasn't going to groan about it ad nauseum. The situation was what it was and they just had to deal with it. Besides, being a kid could be fun if one gave it half the chance and it was in Julia's DNA to always see the positive side of things.

She knew they sometimes worried about her outlook on life, possibly even considering her view on things to be somewhat naive. Julia never let it bother her and mostly found their concern sweet. It was just not in her nature to linger on the dark side of a situation when it was so much better to revel in the bright.

It wasn't to say she hadn't been shocked to the core or terrified out of her mind in the past. After the whole business with the Many, she had been quite the emotional wreck and being trapped on the Sulaco with a xenomorph had done nothing to improve her disposition either, but once she'd worked through those traumas, she opted to move on and think on it no more.

It was the stark contrasts in their personalities which was why most people found her relationship with Ezra Standish, one of the strangest on the Maverick. In every way that mattered, they were like night and day. Julia had been told her bright and cheery personality was so infectious, she could light up a room just by walking into it. On the other hand, Ezra was as dry and cynical as one could be. Nevertheless, the minute Julia and Ezra had laid eyes on each other, they saw no one else.

While the other relationships on the Maverick had its difficulties, Ezra and Julia seemed to avoid these pitfalls and one suspected, it wouldn't be long before they were making formal announcements regarding their relationship.

If Julia could just pin Ezra long enough to have that conversation.

As Julia moved along the rail of their craft, trying to determine how the ship was moving through the air in flight, she knew the imminent arrival of her parents on Deep Space Five had brought the issue to a head. While she had no doubt Ezra loved her, she suspected his previous experiences had made him a little wary of commitment and though she didn't wish to press the issue with him, her patience was starting to wear thin. Hell, the man had run off to another dimension the last time she brought up the subject, according to Cosmo, her relationship bible, they ought to be at least living together by now.

Such thoughts were banished from her mind when the Jolly Roger reached the odd cloud-like formations drooping from the ceiling of the cavern. It fluttered in the wind like thin lace and from a distance, appeared even beautiful. However, when the first of the translucent material touched her skin, she felt the stickiness of it revolting.

"Ugh," Julia grumbled as she waved away the gossamer veil and felt it clinging to her cheek. Heading back to the others, she tried to brush the thick stuff out of her path as she moved along the rail. "What is this stuff?"

Ahead of her, she saw someone's dark silhouette come into view, through the translucent sheath. It had to be Josiah or Adam, she decided since whoever was standing on the other side appeared to be quite tall. When she parted the curtain of silk, what she saw resembled neither of them.

What stood less than five feet away from her, covered in bristles of black, grey and brown towered over her petite frame and filled her with almost primeval terror. It scrutinized her hungrily with four sets of eyes, each one red and gleaming like clots of blood. Upon recognising her as something tasty it could eat, the creature's mandibles spread apart, dripping with clear noisome fluids that made Julia recall the xenomorph she had been forced to combat on the Sulaco. Except now, she wasn't an adult armed with a pulse rifle, she was a ten-year-old armed with too many freckles and deadly red curls.

Whilst these furious thoughts were running through her mind, she saw the twitch of its spindly legs and knew instantly, it was preparing to launch itself at her. Deciding not to stand on ceremony, Julia did the only thing she could.

She screamed and didn't give a damn who heard her.

*******

Well, that didn't take long.

The instant Chris heard Julia's shriek from across the Jolly Roger, he knew his worst suspicions were confirmed. In fact, Julia's scream seemed to be the trigger to prompt the creatures he knew were hiding in the silk to appear. From where he stood on the bridge with Buck and Vin, Chris could see the dark shapes descending from the heights of the cavern, where they no doubt watched their prey with eagerness to enter their trap. Suspended on thin strands of silk, the arachnid invaders came down upon them like nightmarish rain.

"Adam! We've got incoming!" Chris ran to the railing and shouted at the only person on board who had a phaser. Cursing himself for erring on the side of caution by not arming themselves with phasers, Chris realised the lack of the weapons had placed them in an extremely vulnerable position. No sooner than the thought had crossed his mind, he felt something moving behind him.

"Chris!" Buck's voice barked in his ear.

Chris turned around to see a spider and that's really what it was, in the space between himself, Buck and Vin. The thing was easily man-sized, with snapping mandibles and spindly legs that made him remember his encounter with a xenomorph on Fiorina 361. Its numerous sets of eyes surveyed the prey in front of them, trying to decide which of them was most vulnerable. Vin was looking over his shoulder, his hands still on the wheel, eyes widening in horror. Buck was flattered against the rail and looked pale which prompted the creature into lunging. Without any doubt in his mind, Chris knew it was going to go for his oldest friend because right now, Buck appeared to be the weakest.

"BUCK MOVE!" Chris shouted just as the spider jumped. It leapt into the air like it was on springs and Buck had just enough time to dive to the floor, scrambling on his hands and knees as the creature landed in the space he had been occupying.

"Somebody take the controls!" Vin shouted and reached for the knife in its leather scabbard on his belt. Darting away from the controls of the Jolly Roger, just as the spider spun around quickly, disappointed the meal he intended to feast upon was no longer there, searched for another to take its place.

"Vin! Stand down!" Chris hollered, perfectly aware of what Vin was about to do and used language that would certainly gotten his mouth washed out with soap if he was ten years old and in the presence of his father. Across the ship, he could hear more shrieking and this belonged to Mary. Looking over his shoulder frantically, he glimpsed her at Adam's side and sighed in relief when he saw the teenager keeping her safe.

The Jolly Roger banked hard then, sending both Chris and Buck hard against the railing of the craft. Buck's small frame had him almost toppling over the side and Chris grabbed a handful of shirt to keep him on the deck. Buck's face switched from fear to exasperation at his present situation but there was little time to address it. Vin had abandoned the controls to go deal with the spider and left the helm unattended. The ship was listing badly at an angle.

"Vin!" Chris barked. "Get back to the helm!"

Vin wasn't listening because he was already slashing at the creature whose attention was now focussed on the young officer of the Con, recognising him for the threat he was. The spider stabbed a spindly leg at him, the bristles on its powerful legs were almost like cartilage and it scraped along Vin's arm when Vin jumped out of the way. His skin burned with pain but he was still capable of fighting. If anything, the pain unleashed a volcanic eruption of Vulcan fury.

"Buck get to the helm!" Chris ordered once he saw the veil of darkness descend over his best friend's eyes. Having been witness to the full vent of it once before, Chris wondered if the creature had any idea of what was coming at it like a pint-sized locomotive.

Vin rushed at it, slashing at the creature savagely until the sharp blade clipped it on the mandible, hard enough for a piece of it to be severed. The tip of the appendage flew across the floor and the creature recoiled and uttered a loud, shrill shriek of pain. It retreated a few steps and Chris saw its black blood splattering across the deck in slick, dark pools of sludge. A sickly, rancid stench filled the air that made his stomach lurch.

Meanwhile, Buck had taken to the helm to set the Jolly Roger back on course through the clouds or rather webs, while across the ship, the sounds of screams and excited voices told him they were still in a fight for their lives. Chris looked around for something to use as a weapon so he could help Vin fight the creature when it emitted another shriek, of similar intensity as the one uttered before.

The Captain of the Maverick straightened up at the realisation that the shriek was repeated in almost the same pitch and length. Furthermore, there was more purpose to it than just pain and indignation at its injured state. With a sinking feeling, Chris raised his eyes to the ceiling and saw it had manifested in the appearance of more dark bodies, appearing through the silken clouds above.

It was calling for help and the Jolly Roger was about to get overrun.

*******

Adam and Mary had been in the process of searching the Jolly Roger when Julia's scream tore through the air like an emergency klaxon, catching everyone's attention with one high-pitched cry of terror. As protective as he was of his father in Chris Larabee's current condition, he was doubly so when it came to the safety of Mary Travis. True, during this affair she had brought new heights to the word brat but no matter what, she was still this dimension's version of the woman who raised him and when she was herself, Mary had opened her heart to him. While she may not be his Mary Travis, to Adam, this Mary still made him feel like he had a bit of his mother left in the world.

When he heard Julia's scream, Adam's first reaction had been to order Mary to remain close to him. He had no idea what was going on but the instant that strange, translucent silk covered the ship, he expected the worst. While it was nowhere as terrible as a fifty-foot Kraken, the probabilities were high something nasty was about to be visited upon them. Julia's scream more or less confirmed that suspicion.

"Stay with me," Adam ordered and the protocol officer nodded anxiously, looking very much like the ten-year-old girl she had been forced into becoming.

It came at them from out of nowhere. After springing, it landed on the top of the main wing and shimmied down the length of it. There was a blur of movement and Adam saw a spread of eight legs about to land directly on top of Mary who looked up in time to see what was coming at her, before uttering a scream. Adam leapt into action, jumping at her and bundling her up in his arms as they both rolled out of the creature's path. It landed on the deck where Mary would have been standing.

Mary saw the creature turn its blood red eyes in their direction and uttered a cry of pure terror. The thing snapped its mandibles at them and swung around, moving so fast, the hard chitin of its legs tapping against the wood like it was stomping its feet in annoyance at their attempt to escape. Once again, its bloated body contracted as if it was preparing to lunge once more. Mary's reason snapped, never liking bugs and certainly not in this size. She struggled to break free of Adam, to run as far away as she could but he maintained his grip, not about to let her go wandering now he knew what was running loose across the ship.

Adam wasted no time, pulling the trigger on the phaser and letting the amber beam of energy streak across the deck to strike the oversized arachnid in what passed for its head. The phaser flung it backwards, its numerous legs akimbo as it exploded in mid-air, splattering the deck and the surrounding area with gore and black blood. A good lot of it splashed on to Adam and Mary, much to the disgust of the latter.

"Ewww....this is gross!!!"

However, before Adam had a chance to comment, or for that matter wipe the disgusting chunks off himself, thick strands of gossamer wrapped themselves around him like coils, pinning his arms to his sides and keeping him from moving. Mary looked up and saw a spider clinging to one of the sails, the silk wrapped around Adam, originating from the spinnerets along its swollen, brown body. The sight of it almost made Mary gag but when it hoisted Adam off the floor towards it, she knew she had to act.

"Hang on Adam!" She shouted as the phaser dropped out of his hand and clattered at her feet. Mary bent over and picked it up, taking aim at the beast who was drawing Adam to it like it was reeling in a particularly big fish it had snagged on its hook. Without thinking twice, Mary fired at the creature as Adam was lifted several feet above her. She could see him struggling to break free but Mary remembered enough of her biology lessons at Starfleet Academy to know the tensile strength of spider's silk was almost as strong as steel. He wasn't going to escape before he reached those fangs ready to liquify him.

She pulled the trigger without a second thought and heard the creature shriek in pain, its eight legs spasming in agony before it's dark body exploded, sending a piece of meat and dark blood everywhere. Once again, Mary was bathed in the stuff and uttered a squeal of revulsion as Adam hit the deck, landing on his side with a hard whack. She was certain she heard the pop of something that could have been his shoulder.

"Adam are you okay?" She ran to him, taking care not to slip on the icky stuff all over the floor. Her hair was plastered to her face and she was trying very hard not to get completely sick but she was sure he was hurt.

"I'm okay," Adam groaned, rolling onto his back even as he felt his shoulder burn in pain and knew he dislocated his shoulder. There was no time to linger, however, not when he could see more and more of the arachnids landing on the Jolly Roger. Getting to his feet, he used his good arm to tear of the silk, more than grateful when Mary helped him to free his injured one. He had to get her down below where it was safe.

He just hoped the other children were faring better than he was.

*******

"Get behind me!" Josiah ordered Alex as he jabbed at the spider in front of them with the same boat hook he used earlier to rescue the captain from the

Alex did not argue with the Counsellor, feeling some measure of comfort at taking refuge behind his larger frame. In truth, she wanted to run and hide, or better yet, find out if Vin was okay. Like the rest of the passengers on the Jolly Roger, she had been sent stumbling when the airship careened dangerously a short time ago. Yet Alex's fears were not for something being wrong with the ship but rather for the helmsman who should have kept it from happening. Was Vin okay? She tried to see over her shoulder at the helm when Josiah's back bumped into her and she remembered he was presently fighting off a giant spider.

The instant she'd seen the silk, the science officer she knew what was coming but was too paralysed with horror to do anything about it. The fear and uncertainty that was so much a part of her as a child, mostly because she was used to being in the shadows unnoticed while her dad played diplomat, was doing her no good here. She was stronger than this. She had been stronger than this. As she saw the spider jabbing its thick, bristly leg at Josiah, trying to avoid the sharp spike of the boat hook at the same time, she knew this creature was the worst thing she had ever faced.

Josiah seemed to be holding his own, his exuberance for adventure including a devil may care attitude towards danger. The Counsellor used the boat hook like a spear and was driving back the spider determined to have them for its meal. Each time the sharp hook contacted its bristly body, the creature shrieked in pain. Suddenly, without warning it launched itself into the air, preparing to land on the Counsellor when without thinking, Alex shoved Josiah out of the way.

The spider landed on top of her.

Alex uttered a terrified shriek and curled up into a ball, desperately trying to avoid any of those thick appendages touching her skin. She looked up to see its fangs bearing down on her and felt her mind turn to ice with cold fear. Its legs surrounded her like a cage and she stared through the bars to see where Vin was. She wondered if he could feel her fear. If they were older and normal, he undoubtedly would.

Unfortunately, their present situation had severed their mating bond and he could no more sense her fear as he could see the trouble she was in from where he was at the the helm. Using the only thing she had at hand, Alex used her tricorder to swat away the fangs lowering upon her, trying not to become completely unhinged by the grotesque face looming over her.

"ALEX!" She heard Josiah call out in alarm, seconds before he slammed into the creature's side with his shoulder as if he was playing offence in a, particularly brutal football game. Whatever the position, it was enough to shove the creature off her, allowing Alex to scramble away to safety.

Crawling across on her hands and knees, Alex looked over her shoulder to see Josiah running forward, the boating hook brandished like a javelin. A terrified scream of pain screeched through her ears when she saw him bury the thing into the spider's body in mid-thorax. It spasmed in agony, its legs jerking about violently in its death throes. Looking up she saw more of the things descending from aloft and quickly ran to Josiah, just as the Counsellor was extracting the boat hook from the spider he had just impaled.

"Josiah! There are more of them!" She informed him urgently.

"Don't worry," he flashed her a smile. "I'll protect you! Come on! We have spiders to fight!"

With that, he ran into the fray, leaving Alex staring after him thinking, that's one hell of a Counsellor.

*******

Ezra and Nathan had emerged from the hold of the ship when Julia's scream reached Ezra like a siren song calling out to sailors on the high seas. The instant they had seen what was waiting for them in the hold of the ship, both the security chief and the doctor knew what they were going to find on the deck would not at all be pleasant.

Gathering as many of the weapons as they could carry, they had left the hold and raced to the main deck of the ship, aware that anything requiring this arsenal to stop was going to be deadly. As it was, both had been struck with shock when they first saw the cargo awaiting them in the hold. The assortment of weapons could have come from any medieval armoury. They included everything from long swords to short daggers, as well as maces and axes. One thing was certain, however, their purpose was hewing and hacking.

Emerging into the open air once more, both gaped at the man-sized spiders presently over running the Jolly Roger. Using the gossamer veils to come on board, they were moving across the sails of the airship, scurrying alongside the wings, over the rails and across the deck. He saw Buck at the helm trying to keep the airship from crashing into a wall, while Vin was attempting to fight a spider with nothing more than a knife and Chris was trying to keep him from getting killed.

Elsewhere Josiah was launching himself at the spiders like he was Don Quixote while Alex lingered behind him like Sancho Panza, hoping these windmills didn't choose to turn them into lunch. The bulk of the spiders seemed concentrated around Adam and Mary, largely because Adam was armed with a phaser and was cutting down the invading arachnids as quickly as possible.

"What's wrong with his arm?" Nathan demanded, noting how Adam was clutching his right shoulder.

"You can ask him yourself later, for now, get to Josiah," Ezra declared, "the way the Counsellor is attacking these foul creatures, he may believe he is able to attack them with a single bound."

"Oh, Good Lord!" The doctor groaned when he saw Josiah leaping onto a crate, dragging Alex with him, while waving his boat hook about like it was a sword and he was the swashbuckling hero of some old pirate adventure. "I swear I'm never going to see him for counselling again."

Ezra was about to agree when he heard Julia squealing, she was trying to hide behind one of the mounted compartments against the deck while the arachnid she had so far managed to elude, closed in for the kill. His heart stopped in terror at the possibility of losing her and this time, there would be no Q to snap his fingers and make things better again. Thinking quickly, Ezra dropped the weapons he was carrying, save a short sword, onto the deck. He needed to get to her fast and saw only one way to do it.

Slashing at one of the ropes attached to the wings of the airship, formerly the mast and sail, Ezra took a running leap off the deck and jumped into the air. The rope swung him across the length of the Jolly Roger and sent him crashing into the offending arachnid. He struck the creature with such force, the spider flew over the rail, its legs stumbling about clumsily before it fell into the darkness below, screeching in outrage as it disappeared.

Ezra let go of the rope and landed on his feet, his free hand still clutching his sword as he landed.

"Julia!" Ezra called out.

Julia emerged from behind the compartment, staring at him in a mixture of relief and surprise. "Ezra!"

They came together in a warm embrace and Ezra clung to her tightly, never more grateful than he was at this moment for her life. The idea of losing her again...he couldn't even imagine it. Nevertheless, Ezra being Ezra was not about to show he was anything but supremely confident to deliver her from danger.

"Well my dear, you did always want me to sweep you off your feet." He gave her a wink.

Julia could not deny this and gave Ezra a kiss on the cheek, full of gratitude. "No kidding," she smiled radiantly. "But don't think this gets you out of meeting my mother and father."

Chapter Seventeen: Vortex

"Josiah, get down from there!"

Chris Larabee shouted in exasperation at his counsellor, who at this moment was standing on the wing of the Jolly Roger, waving the cutlass he was given by Ezra Standish, from the cache of weapons found in the cargo hold, like some half-pint Errol Flynn. Josiah was battling a mottled grey and brown spider, slashing the air in front of it with an expression Chris could almost describe as glee. How in God's name the man or rather kid in this instance, had gotten up there in the first place was beyond Chris's ability to process but apparently, Josiah was under the impression he was Captain Jack Sparrow.

Without any sign of fear, Chris could only watch in awe and horror as Josiah slashed away the snapping mandible of the spider occupying the span of the wing with him. For its part, the beast was being driven backwards, despite its efforts to defend itself against the small human. Josiah's embrace of their ridiculous circumstances made Chris feel a little envious, wishing he could enjoy this wild ride like the counsellor. After all, wasn't this what he wanted as a kid? To go off on crazy adventures, fighting monsters and rescuing damsels in distress?

"CHRIS!" Chris heard Buck shouting behind him.

Casting a glance over his shoulder, the romance of the situation was utterly lost on his First Officer and oldest friend. Having taken up the helm abandoned by Vin, who at this moment, was wrestling with a spider on the deck below them, Buck's voice was filled with panic and when Chris followed his gaze, understood why. Creeping over the edge of the rail, directly in front of the wheel, was the bristled covered leg of a spider, preparing to haul itself over the edge to attack.

"A little help here!" Buck repeated his anxious demand, refusing to leave the wheel because someone needed to fly this impossible ship and he'd been a helm officer long enough to sense a change in the wind currents. Around him, the curtains of gossamer were starting to sway even more, as if the wind had picked up. Through the chaos of frightened voices, shrill spider screams and clanging weapons, Buck could hear the whistle of a breeze evolving into the banshee wail of a gale force wind.

"Hold on!" Chris shouted in response, feeling a chill run down his spine as he saw a second appendage join the first across the railing, in readiness to reveal its owner when it pulled itself over. Chris decided he was not going to give it a chance and ran forward, ignoring the fact he was a ten-year-old boy or just one of those appendages looked twice as long as his leg. Driving the point of his cutlass into the dark, hairy exoskeleton, the reaction was immediate. An indignant shriek of pain was followed by the leg retreating back the way it came.

Unfortunately, the victory was brief because, with far more speed imaginable for a creature that size, the spider swung its body around while still clinging to the rail, bearing its abdomen as if it were a weapon of attack. Something white and foamy flew in their direction from its exposed glands and Chris had just enough time to jump backwards and grab Buck with him, before the sticky substance found its target. The wheel at the helm was quickly encased in a spider web, a fate that would have been fatal if it had enveloped either of them.

"Is that webbing?" Buck demanded as he saw the stuff coating the wooden wheel so completely it stopped moving. The ship was now locked on course and with no way to know what lay ahead, it was a perilous state to be travelling. Yet Buck was unable to make a move towards it because the spider responsible for the gossamer casing had faced its large, bloated body towards them, its fangs bared as it prepared to pounce.

"Look out!" Chris shoved Buck behind him when it launched itself through the air at them. Buck fell down heavily on his rear as Chris reacted instinctively, having just enough time to raise the weapon in front of him as the spider's shadow loomed over both of them. Its legs were splayed wide, ready to enclose them both in its grotesque grip upon landing.

Buck uttered a fearful curse, using words that should not be uttered by anyone, let alone a ten-year-old boy. Fighting his own fear, Chris did not waver as he held the blade in front of him like a spear as the arachnid's dark body narrowed the gap between. The instant the blade penetrated its body, Chris felt it. A sickening sound like a ripcord being pulled tore through the air, followed by an agonized screech of pain that pierced their eardrums all the way to the brain, making both boys flinch.

With the blade splitting the creature's belly open, both boys were bathed in black blood as the spider collapsed on top of them, its legs twitching grotesquely as they flanked the duo on either side. Fetid, rancid stink filled their nostrils and Chris's stomach heaved in revulsion, as its bristle-covered body pressed down on them. Its fangs, now impotent, dribbled with ooze and next to him, Chris heard Buck gagging.

"I think I'm gonna be sick," Buck warned.

"Well be sick somewhere else, spider blood AND puke, isn't going to make my day," Chris growled, trying to push the thing off them. "Help me."

There was no need because the deck beneath them lifted suddenly into an angle, causing the carcass above them to tumble away. Propelled by the abruptness of the sudden shift, the black body rolled clumsily across the deck, before falling over the railing into the darkness. Buck and Chris were in danger of doing the same before Chris grabbed the yoke of the wheel with one hand, while the other latched into Buck's shirt, keeping him from taking the same route as the dead arachnid.

"I gotta get up!" Buck shouted, realising what was happening and tried to get to his feet, using Chris's grip on him to regain his own footing and managed to reach the yoke as well. Once he had a grip of the wooden mount, he pulled himself upright.

Having spent enough time at the helm during his career, Buck knew enough about piloting to recognise the danger they were in. The increasingly strong breeze he'd noticed earlier had turned into a full-blown gale and without anyone at helm compensating for the change, the craft had begun to list dangerously. Worse yet, the Jolly Roger wasn't flying in the open air, it was travelling through a cavern with walls where their sky could run out very quickly.

"Chris! Get up here!" Buck barked as Chris struggled to join him. The polished wood of the helm was hidden beneath the hardening strands of spider silk, making it near impossible for Buck to tear it off with his fingers. "We gotta cut through."

Not about to argue, when he could see the listing effects on the Jolly Roger, Chris retrieved the blade that became dislodged from the spider's body before the creature had fallen overboard, lying against the foot of rail.

"We got to free this wheel!" Buck declared, continuing to tug at the silk. The wind was blowing so hard now, the shrouds of spider silk dangling from the cavern were swaying like flags in a storm. The incessant whistling of strong wind was rising in tempo, becoming a low roar like an angry god prodded unhappily awake. Buck couldn't even begin to guess how any of this was possible, how a cavern deep beneath the surface of Hadir was capable of whipping up a hurricane.

"Stand aside," Chris ordered and Buck obeyed immediately, seeing his captain raising the cutlass to hack away at the silk.

Buck stepped back, scanning the length and breadth of the Jolly Roger to see how their comrades were doing and felt his stomach clench in fear. Josiah was no longer fighting a spider. Where the creature had gone was anyone's guess but the counsellor was hanging onto the wing for dear life. Ezra was struggling to get Mary and Julia below deck while Adam, with one hand wrapped around a mast, fired his phaser at the remaining spiders. Thanks to biology, the creatures had no trouble holding position even if the floor was sloped beneath them It was anyone's guess where Nathan, Vin and Alex were.

It didn't matter, something else was about to happen and Buck's gut told him it could possibly even be worse than what they were facing right now.

"Chris," Buck said quietly. "Hurry."

*******

Taken by surprise, the arachnid Vin Tanner had been fighting, lost its grip on the deck and slid across the floor just long enough for the Vulcan to strike a killing blow. Jabbing the cutlass Ezra had thrown him earlier, through its mouth, his quadrupled strength propelled the blade through what passed for its head and out the exoskeleton of its back. The spider could do nothing but spasm obscenely as it died, its blood spilling across the deck in a tide of black.

However, Vin paid little attention to this because the adrenaline fuelled rage that ignited his Vulcan blood like raw plasma had cooled the instant Vin felt the deck beneath him give way. As the Jolly Roger became bombarded by high-velocity winds, with characteristics too similar to a tornado for his liking, the craft's listing grew more pronounced and the creature he just killed slid across the floor before ending up overboard.

At first, his eyes shot to the helm, furious at himself for forgetting his responsibilities as the officer of the con, even if the Jolly Roger wasn't the Maverick and he was in this condition. Fortunately, it appeared Buck and Chris were up there and as soon as the thought entered his head, Vin was faced with an even more disturbing situation. A scream pierced his ears and Vin knew immediately who it belonged to. It was Alex.

Even though he was ten years old and their marital bond had been severed by their current situation, Vin's reaction to his mate uttering that terrified cry was extreme. Ignoring the danger to himself, Vin scanned the deck, searching for where she might be. What he saw was both Nathan and Alex, clinging to the side of the hull, remaining only by their tenuous hold on the railing. Closing in on them, promised by two easy kills, was a spider.

"ADAM! EZRA!" Vin shouted at the two friends in his line of sight. Adam had just obliterated another spider with his phaser, reminding Vin of their harrowing encounter with the aliens of Fury 361.

Adam turned to him immediately and followed the direction of his gaze as Vin ran towards Alex and Nathan, who were still managing to maintain their hold on the rail despite the turbulence suffered by the ship. The spider poised over Alex and Nathan was closing in on the healer, its fangs bared so wide, a clear trickle of fluid had pooled on his fingers, the slick viscosity of it weakening his grip. Alex uttered another terrified scream.

"Vin, Ezra, get Alex and Nathan, I'll deal with this!" Adam ordered, approaching the beast from its flank so any shot he made with the phaser would not endanger the two children holding on for their lives.

Firing once, the amber bolt of energy struck the spider on the flank, causing it to reel sideways, its legs a tangle of confusion as it reacted to the pain. Adam didn't waste any time and fired a second bolt, wanting to drive it away from the area so Vin and Ezra had a clear path to Nathan and Alex. The arachnid shrieked in that spine-chilling cry before its body exploded, splattering dark blood across the deck and the hull of the Jolly Roger.

As soon as it was clear, Vin hurried forward, reaching to the wooden railing to see both Nathan and Alex, wearing similar expressions of fear on their faces as the wind attempted to tear them off the side of the hull.

"VIN!" Alex cried out, relief flooding her face at the sight of him.

"I got you both!" Vin declared, leaning over the side and grabbing both Alex and Nathan's wrists with his two hands until Ezra could reach him to help. While he had more than enough strength to support both their weight, he dared not risk letting either of them go while the wind was threatening to pull them off the hull. "Ezra! I need both my hands to pull one of them up!"

"I understand the strategy," Ezra remarked in typical calm, even though it felt as if they were in the middle of a tornado. "How are we doing Dr Jackson?"

"How do you think I'm doing!" Nathan bit back as Ezra grabbed hold of his arms, allowing Vin to release his grip to help Alex. "I'm plastered to this thing like a bug on plexiglass! Get me up!"

"Since you asked so nicely!" Ezra grinned and started pulling Nathan over the railing to safety. Glancing over his shoulder to ensure Adam wasn't being overwhelmed with spiders now that he was engaged in the fight alone, Ezra noticed the spiders were starting to leave the Jolly Roger of their own volition. The hellish creatures were launching themselves off the vessel back to the webs dangling around them, scurrying into the darkness from whence they had come.

Vin did not notice this, only focussed on retrieving Alex. Once he was able to release his hold on Nathan, Vin used his strength to pull Alex to safety in one swift movement. No sooner than he had set her down on the deck, he lent Ezra his assistance and performed the same task for Nathan. Only after Vin was certain of Nathan's safety did he turn back to Alex, who appeared a little shaken but none worse for wear.

"Are you okay?" He asked gently, trying to brush the hair out of her face, even though it was lashing her cheeks with dark unruly strands.

"Yeah but I dropped the tricorder though." She said unhappily, her eyes scanning the cavern, trying to understand how the storm around them was being generated. "I can't tell what's happening."

Chris and Buck must have gotten control of the Jolly Roger for the ship was no longer listing dangerously as it had been a short time ago. However, their turbulent ride was by no means over since the ship was now flying through a tornado, even though by every science they knew, its existence in this confined location made it an impossibility.

"I don't think any of this is supposed to make sense," Nathan declared, patting Vin on the shoulder in gratitude as he had done to Ezra a moment earlier. "Spontaneous childhood regression, flying ships, giant monsters and now a storm coming out of nowhere."

"I fear we are dealing with more than just a storm," Ezra announced as his sea-green eyes were fixed on the rapid departure of the creatures overhead. The spiders were quickly disappearing into the shrouds of silk, using them to scale the heights to take refuge in their secret places in the roof of the cavern.

"What do they know that we don't?" Nathan asked.

"I don't know and I don't care," Adam who had gone to help Josiah down from the wing of the craft, declared firmly. "Everybody, get below deck until we can figure it out. Ezra, make sure everyone gets down there." Adam spoke, forgetting entirely he wasn't talking to a child but the Maverick's chief of security.

Despite this fact, Ezra did not complain, recognising sound advice when he heard it. "I believe that is a prudent course. Come along," he gestured at the others to follow him.

"I'm going to the helm," Vin said, noting the look of worry on Alex's face at that declaration. "I gotta," he said to her in a gentler voice. "I shouldn't have run off like I did. If this ship is going through a storm, then I gotta keep us in one piece by flying through it."

Adam didn't much like the idea but then again, from all accounts, Vin was the best pilot on the Maverick and had proven it throughout this crazy situation. Realising he had no real authority to object, Adam let out a sigh. "Be careful."

Vin nodded at his friends and hurried across the deck as the winds sweeping across the Jolly Roger grew more violent. He did not look over his shoulder at Alex because if he did, he'd be distracted by her welfare and he felt bad enough for abandoning Chris and Buck earlier as it was.

"Everyone!" Vin heard Ezra shouting over the sound of the roaring wind. "Inside now!"

Confident Ezra would see the other's safe, Vin headed towards the helm, wondering what else Hadir had in store for them now.

*******

At least the spiders were gone, Chris thought as he saw the arachnid swarm scaling the lengths of gossamer toward the darkness of the cavern above. They managed to hack away the stuff covering the wheel, freeing it so Buck could regain control of the craft and steer it right once again. While they were no longer listing, Buck was fighting to maintain control because the powerful winds assaulting the ship was slowly developing the intensity of a Category 5 tornado.

Chris was holding onto the inside rail of the deck, trying to keep himself from being blown overboard while Buck was hanging on to the wheel not simply to steer but to keep himself anchored to the deck. Once again, Chris was revisited with the idea that all this was part of a play, and they were the unwilling participants. While he was convinced this wasn't being carried out by Q, the only entity he believed capable of accomplishing such a thing, he was certain they were at the mercy of some higher being who was amusing themselves greatly at the expense of the Maverick crew.

"CHRIS!" He heard Buck's voice over the roar of the wind.

Buck looked over his shoulder at Chris and that one second of contact told the Captain things were about to get worse. The look of panic on the man's face was enough for Chris to push away from his refuge and cross the deck. He was halfway there when he slipped on the wood floor, slicked by spider blood and landed on his side. Pain rushed up his side filling Chris with rage, not because he was hurt but because they were someone's pawns and having passed the last hurdle, were now being forced to endure a fresh peril.

He started to slide across the floor when Chris felt a strong grip on his arm, dragging him to his feet. Looking up, he saw it belonged to Vin, who maintained a firm hold of him as they made their way to Buck's side to see what had struck such fear into the First Officer's expression.

"Where the hell have you been?" Chris shouted on top of his lungs.

"Alex and Nathan went over the side!" Vin explained himself. "Had to help them."

Chris's expression darkened with worry but Vin's words reassured him that he had lost no crew. If anything had happened to Alex, Vin would be nowhere this calm. As it was, the kid's unflappable expression in the face of this chaos was somewhat annoying and Chris had to wonder if it was his Vulcan stoicism or just plain Vin being Vin, that allowed him to maintain his calm.

"I'm guessing the shit is about to hit the fan if the spiders have cleared out!" Chris declared as both boys made their way to the wheel, which Buck was wrestling with.

"Wouldn't surprise me none!" Vin returned. "Seems this whole thing has been to see how fast we can run on the hamster wheel."

"No shit!" Chris shouted back as they reached Buck and promptly grabbed onto the wheel for support. "What's going on Buck?"

"Other than all this?" Buck shot Chris a look of sarcasm, indicating the swaying silk and the wings of the craft that were shaking so badly, they appeared as if they might be torn off at a moment's notice. The Jolly Roger was shuddering violently, no longer assaulted than more than just the wind. Lighting had started appearing in flashes, through the silk clouds, charging the air with electricity.

"Yeah, that!"

Chris and Vin stared ahead and saw what had terrified Buck so much. In front of them was what looked to be the mouth of a giant vortex. If they were in space, Chris would have thought it was a black hole but in here, he had no idea what to call it. All he could see was the maw of the phenomena drawing them to it, ready to swallow the ship and everyone on it. Even if Vin was at the helm, Chris doubted he would be able to steer them away from what was coming at them. Whether or not any of them liked it, let alone felt any confidence at surviving the journey through it, Chris had come to a decision.

He was done playing this game.

"Buck," Chris took a deep breath. "Take your hands off the wheel."

Buck shot him a look. "What?"

"You heard me," Chris said calmly, his voice was cool and deliberate. If Buck didn't know better, he would even say calculated.

"Pard, what you got in mind?" Vin had to ask, sharing Buck's confusion.

Chris didn't answer them but spoke instead to someone who wasn't even present, in a loud, commanding voice, full of Captain's authority, despite coming from the body of a ten-year-old.

"WE'RE DONE! You hear me? No more! We've jumped through your hoops, fought your monsters. If you expect us to fight to keep from being torn apart when you send us through that thing, you're going to be disappointed. We're not playing this game and unless you're prepared to kill us all, you'll stop this now. YOU HEAR ME? IT'S OVER!"

Buck and Vin exchanged glances, hoping whomever Chris was talking to would answer because if he was wrong, they were all going to pay the price.

Chapter Eighteen: The Gun

Can we extend our shields?" JD Dunne asked as the Maverick shuddered around them as the phaser blast impacted against the hull.

Their shields protected the galaxy class starship from the pummelling it was receiving by the Orion Marauder but JD had no intention of allowing the Maverick to suffer a sustained barrage of phaser fire. As it was, the Maverick had yet to fire because it was far more important to the ensign that the pergium refinery on Hadir's moon, the Orion's real target, be protected.

Charlotte Richmond looked up at the temporary captain from the station normally occupied by Alexandra Styles. "Yes, yes, I can," she answered firmly but quickly added caveats to her statement. "It won't be for long though, not the way they're firing."

JD nodded in understanding, aware that with each fresh volley being absorbed by the Maverick, their shield strength was draining. "Drew, ready photon torpedoes."

"Aye Ensign," Drew replied promptly, grateful the gloves were finally taken off. He respected JD's decision to hold back, however, understanding before they started shooting, they needed to ensure the safety of the refinery. If the phaser barrage ignited the pergium in the refinery, the resulting explosion would rain down enough debris on Hadir Prime would devastate the planet's environment and cause a planetary disaster.

"Maybe you should have just let her seduce you," Jewel remarked with a little smile as JD faced front again, watching the Marauder on the view screen continue to fire at them. Each impact shook them violently but so far, the Maverick was holding up. While klaxons continued to scream red alert throughout the numerous decks of the ship with the crew getting to battle stations while the civilians on board returned to their quarters, JD wondered how in the hell he had gotten here.

"Well they don't say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned for nothing," JD sighed and wished more than anything Chris Larabee was here. Then again, if the Captain was occupying this seat, this situation would have been resolved before they found themselves engaging an Orion marauder in combat over the skies of Hadir.

*******

In retrospect, this battle was always going to be inevitable.

Navea had come on board expecting to charm JD and the Maverick into letting down his guard and getting what she wanted from him, which was access to the pergium being refined on Hala, Hadir's only moon. The ore refining facility constructed on the surface of Hala, whose environment was very similar to Hadir's lusher climates, was the ultimate destination of all pergium mined on the planet. Since the fall of Romulus, the pergium stockpiles had continued to grow in its storage facilities, making it an inviting target to any raider with dreams of a fortune beyond measure.

With the Orion Marauder battleship staring at them through the plexiglass window of the conference room, Navea kept her gaze focussed on JD the instant they sat down. She made no attempt to hide her interest in him, attempting to entice him with long searching looks, slight pouts to her lips and seductive ploys so obvious, Charlotte almost snorted in disgust if it would not have harmed the diplomatic solution JD was trying to apply to this situation.

JD tried not to be affected by her, even with the precautions he'd taken to ensure the pheromones she exuded did not affect him. Perfectly aware of why she demanded the face to face meeting, JD had first gone to Doctor Zheng Li Pong and asked her to inoculate him against its effects. Still, Navea was an exceedingly beautiful woman and JD was only human.

"We've been in contact with the Hadir government," JD stated. "We've been authorised to act on their behalf regarding the pergium."

"Oh, come now," Navea leaned forward, giving JD an ample view of her full breasts. "This business of bartering is much too mundane for Starfleet to waste their time with. Let us make our own arrangements with the Hadir. There's no need for you to involve yourself in their affairs."

"We are presently establishing diplomatic relations with Hadir," Charlotte chimed in helpfully, giving the woman a barely concealed look of dislike. "They have applied for Federation membership which places us at their disposal during their negotiations."

"And that is why your captain is absent?" Navea stared at JD, barely acknowledging Charlotte's presence beyond the tiresome business of the information she imparted. "He is bringing yet another world into the Federation net?" Her contempt was obvious.

"That's correct," JD replied. "With the Romulan Empire not what it used to be, Hadir has been attacked by pirates stealing their pergium. They want Starfleet's protection."

"Do they need your protection?" Navea asked, the tension in her voice growing because it was becoming clear to her, he was unaffected by her natural seductive abilities. Even the woman in the room, whose head should be pounding with near-crippling headaches, was unaffected. "Hadir has managed to stave off the Romulans since the Empire began its conquest centuries ago."

"We were led to believe Hadir gave Romulus exclusive rights to their pergium," Charlotte replied, having read Mary Travis's report the instant she was told she was taking Alex Styles's place as acting Science Officer. "There was no need for the Romulans to annex Hadir."

"Come now,' Navea showed her disbelief on this point. "The Empire has always taken what it wanted. If the Romulans wanted the pergium, nothing would have stopped them."

Charlotte and JD exchanged a look, developing enough rapport to convey silently that Navea was correct on this point. What they knew about Hadir was scant. True, the world was technologically sophisticated, not to mention rich, thanks to the pergium but native Hadir spent very little time abroad. Access to the world had been limited because of the Romulan presence. What they did know about the planet had come from the fragments of Romulan records available and what limited contact the Federation had made with the planet since its discovery.

It was a look Navea caught and it gave her an opening to keep chipping at their doubts. She leaned even closer to JD, beckoning him with her eyes to do the same as if she were about to impart some great secret he was previously unaware. "Perhaps you do not know that much about Hadir."

"And you do?" JD asked sceptically, unable to imagine the Orion Syndicate had information that Starfleet did not.

"Of course," Navea smiled sweetly, reaching across the table now to touch JD's hand.

The contact against his skin felt like electricity and JD tried to imagine what her effect on him would have been without the inoculation. For an instant, he fantasised what it would be like to touch her skin, to feel those lips and be lost in those eyes. His curiosity lasted for about a second before he remembered Casey.

He thought about the girl who cared enough to spend the whole night with him, watching old movies, eating the pecan pie she learned to program the replicator just for him because she knew that's what his mother use to make for him during their movie night. Casey, who could make his heart skip a beat with just her smile. Thinking about her made JD realise nothing this Orion could do, would ever make him betray Casey.

JD pulled retracted his hand and spoke in a firmer voice. "And what do you know about them we don't?" He laced his question with challenge, daring her to answer.

Irked at his withdrawal, Navea sat up straight and her seductive mask showed clear annoyance. "We have had contacts with the Romulan government for years. They have given us quite a bit of information about them. For instance, the Hadir are an extremely ancient culture. They have a recorded history almost six hundred thousand years old."

Charlotte tried to hide her surprise and once again looked at JD, trying to warn him against reacting to that news. While the ensign caught her look, and did not speak out of turn, there was just enough pause in his manner to imply his surprise.

"You did not know," Navea almost crowed, feeling some measure of satisfaction at regaining some control over this meeting which she had assumed would work in her favour. So far, the reaction of this young ensign was infuriating and the absence of the captain or any of the senior staff told Navea, something was wrong. She did not for a second believe any captain would remain off his bridge in the face of an enemy's arrival, certainly not Captain Chris Larabee whose reputation as a formidable commander was growing strength ever since he reputedly fought off a small Dominion fleet less than a year ago.

"The Hadir only began producing pergium when the Romulans went to space. Even then, their technology was extremely advanced, enough to repel any Romulan attack. There is a rumour of an attempted Romulan annexation but the data is so classified not even our contacts have access to it. We only know that ever Praetor since that original attempt has deemed Hadir off limits. If I were you, I would recommend the Federation reconsider their membership?"

"But that would leave them defenceless," JD declared, not about to take Navea's report about the Hadir as truth. He knew the only reason the Syndicate wanted Starfleet away from Hadir was so they could plunder its pergium stockpile without interference.

"The Federation charter would not allow us to disqualify them on that basis and our talks with them are in the preliminary stages," Charlotte added. "I am certain our diplomatic team on the surface will gain the information we require in due course."

Navea glared at Charlotte and felt somewhat slighted by the clear accusation JD aimed in her direction, however, she was not about to give up just yet. "But you are one ship. While your galaxy class starships are most impressive, you cannot hope to maintain a vigil on this one, distant world and still maintain your vigil on the Borg."

"We won't be one ship," JD replied, remembering the discussion between the senior staff prior to their arrival on Hadir and, the Captain's report from Starfleet Command regarding the potential benefits of Hadir membership. "We are in preliminary discussions with Hadir to establish a starbase in this region. With the amount of pergium Hadir can produce, we believe the possibility of opening up the region commercially and strategically is enormous."

The possibility of a starbase in the area ended any remaining effort by Navea at diplomacy. "You have no right to do that." She stood up abruptly.

"If the Hadir invited us in, we got every right to," JD watched her carefully and tapped his combadge once. He didn't need to speak because Drew Katovit who was still on the bridge, was waiting for a signal. JD just delivered it. "Now, I thought we were going to talk about you buying some pergium from the Hadir. That is still on the table."

"We will discuss this with Hadir ourselves!" She snapped. "We do not deal with middlemen!"

"Unfortunately," JD stated standing up himself. "You have no choice. You deal with us, or we'll ask you to leave Hadir space."

"How dare you!" She opened her mouth to curse when JD cut her off.

"Drew, send her back to her ship and go to battle stations!"

Before Navea had a chance to protest, the hum of the transporter came to life and she was enveloped in a shroud of gold as the beam glittered around her. Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth to reply indignantly but her voice was lost in the hum of the transported and she vanished a second later, with her words disappearing with her.

"Well that went about as well as I figured it would," JD sighed and got to his feet, heading towards the door.

"But it worked." Charlotte followed, smiling proudly at JD. She felt obligated to do so considering Buck Wilmington's absence. When JD had outlined his intentions when they went to Sick Bay to be inoculated, Charlotte had been sceptical but the tactic worked. "It gave the Hadir enough time to evacuate the facility before the shooting starts."

And almost on cue, Drew's voice interrupted their conversation through their combadges. "The Marauder is powering weapons!"

"We're on our way!" JD replied and glanced at Charlotte. "Here we go."

*******

Chris Larabee had made his career on playing hunches and never blinking when staring down the barrel of a gun.

On the bridge of the Rutherford, he gambled on Jean-Luc Picard being able to deliver them from the Borg when he stood with the captain of the Enterprise and subsequently won his captaincy. When he was abducted by the C'Kaia, he threatened the creators of the Borg with genocide to save his ship. During the battle with the Dominion fleet, he'd bluffed a Romulan warbird into dropping shields and more recently on Fury 361, he'd stood toe to toe with a queen xenomorph just before torpedoing the entire site. It had been the only way to be sure.

Chris knew of no other way to be when faced with any danger to his crew. The men and women of the Maverick, the senior staff, were not only his comrades but were also his friends. He'd die for them just as surely as he knew they would die for him. They'd proven it to each other on numerous occasions before this particular day and Chris had no doubt, they would do it again once they returned to the Maverick.

If they survived the next hour, that is.

As he faced the swirling vortex, drawing the Jolly Roger towards its fiery eye, Chris was determined not to blink, aware the only way to save his crew was to ride into the maelstrom because he was allowing this situation to go no further. Around him the wings of the craft shook so violently, he expected them to be ripped off the deck like a child tearing off the wings of a fly. The wind lashed all three of them still on the deck and Chris tried not to think of Adam and Mary who were below deck, having no idea of the challenge he had issued to their unknown puppeteer.

"Chris are you sure about this?" Buck shouted over the sound of the gale. Clinging to the wheel with Chris between himself and Vin, the First Officer of the Maverick tried not to feel fear as the Jolly Roger continued to rock more violently. Beneath his feet, he could feel the wooden boards of the decks being shaken like the pounding of piano keys.

"Yeah!" Chris shouted back, squinting as the winds lashing his face made his eyes water. "Someone's behind this Buck! Someone has been behind this from the beginning! We're not performing for our supper anymore. It's going to end now!"

"It's gonna end alright," Vin remarked, keeping a firm grip on Chris while he hung to the wheel as well. "I just hope it don't end with us being smashed into a million pieces!"

"Thanks for the vote of confidence pard!" Chris snapped as they watched the eye of the fiery storm approach.

Around them, the winds continued to intensify. The struts holding up the wings began to rip off, one by one. The white canvas, which had first served as sails and then as part of the wing were similarly blown off, one by one. They drifted into the darkness, disappearing into the black as more and more pieces of the Jolly Roger began to break off, the closer they approach the aperture in the middle of the vortex.

It glared at them, like the flaming eye of an angry god, furious at their defiance. All three boys were clinging to the wheel for support but making no move to steer, allowing the Jolly Roger to be swept forward by the currents of the storm. Turbulence shook and shuddered the ship and Chris could only imagine what must be in the minds of Adam and the others trapped beneath the hold. If his gamble failed, he wouldn't just be sacrificing his crew but also his son.

The thought of bringing harm to Adam almost choked him with fear, even more than what was happening around them. He had just found Adam, dare he lose him? If any of the Maverick's crew were hurt or killed, as much as it would hurt Chris, they all knew the risks when they joined Starfleet. As Captain, he would never risk their lives unnecessarily but death was sometimes unavoidable and a reality they faced every day.

Adam had not made that oath.

Yet even as he thought it, Chris closed his eyes and forgot the body he was in, the body he had been forced into by this unknown entity. He was Captain Chris Larabee and if he allowed his fears for Adam to guide his actions, then he would cease to be that and would never be able to decide effectively again. No, he thought as he stared into the maw of red, widening its jaws to swallow them whole as the ship, whatever happened would happen and he would just live with the consequences that came.

"Oh shit!" Buck cursed as the Jolly Roger tumbled into the fiery opening, the darkness disappearing into bright, amber clouds around them.

Yet even as they descended into the eye of the storm, which resembled fire, they felt no heat, just the discomfort of lashing winds. Around them, the Jolly Roger began to break up and very soon the only thing left on the top deck of the ship was the wheel they were clinging to for dear life. The wings were gone as were most of the mounted compartments, only jagged pieces of wood left behind where they once stood.

"Well however this turns out," Vin shouted at Chris. "It was one hell of an adventure!"

"You and Josiah deserve each other!" Buck growled but then added. "But what he said!"

Chris offered both a little smile, grateful they were friends even now and wondered what growing up with those two would have been like if life had been a little different.

"We've got to ride this out! Trust me! I promise we'll get out of this!"

"We know!" Buck shouted back. "Captain!"

Chris gave his oldest friend a brief glance of thanks, trying to convey what that trust meant, how grateful he was Buck always had his back, even when he was being a complete asshole. The brief look was all that was needed before Chris faced front and watched the Jolly Roger plunge into the volcano like mouth of the vortex...

*******

There was confusion as the whole world seemed to become noise and colour, where he heard things cracking apart like an egg. Chris was vaguely aware of hearing wood rip and the deck giving away under his feet. Next to him Buck and Vin were shouting and Mary's terrified scream pierced through his consciousness but he was falling and there was no way to help her. For a few seconds, everything was a whirling dervish of sights and sounds and his disorientated state allowed him to make no purchase of any of it.

Clarity came with the icy cold sensation of water. He saw it coming seconds before being enveloped by it. Plunging into the depths, the cold snaked up his back and Chris's immediate reaction once the shock to his senses made him fully alert, was to kick out. He did so with ease, able to push himself to the surface in a matter of seconds. Only after breaking the surface, did he realise he was not alone.

"Buck?" Chris stared at Buck who had also emerged, the water reaching his shoulders, no longer wearing the face of a child. Around them, the others were also starting to emerge from the water, surfacing in much the same way he and Buck had done, their faces mirroring his own shock and realisation.

Buck's eyes widened as the sight of Chris, showing the same shock and immediately looked at his hands. "Jesus Christ! It worked. We're back to normal!"

"Of course, you are!" Corbin Setlan called out from the shore not far away from where they were treading water. The Tribune of Hadir was standing on the beach they had found the Jolly Roger, smiling at them.

"You didn't think we were going to let you stay like that did you?"

Chapter Nineteen: Transcendent

"You did this to us?" Chris Larabee demanded as his forty-year-old self glared at Corbin Setlan while still half submerged in the pristine waters framing the beach the Tribune was standing on.

"Now Chris, watch your temper," Buck warned, perfectly aware of just how volatile his old friend, not to mention his Captain could get when his dander was well and truly up, as it was right now. Besides, he was back to his proper age and Buck didn't want Chris to do anything that might cause Setlan to turn them back into children again.

Like Athena springing into being full grown, the crew of the Maverick studied themselves and each other to ensure they were once again adults. That each and every one of them was naked, had yet to impact on everyone Buck noticed. Fortunately, they had emerged in water deep enough to ensure everyone's modesty was properly protected and Adam was shielded from further trauma.

"Watch my temper!" Chris growled and started towards the shore. "Do you have any idea what we've been through? Giant sea monsters, swarms of spiders and then...then...that goddamn vortex! Not to mention, you turned us into kids!"

Setlan was smiling, showing no sign of repentance or guilt for that matter at what he had done. If anything, he looked at Chris with the patience of a father, waiting for his wayward offspring to overcome his temper tantrum before any discussion could continue.

"Can you think of a better way for us to learn about you?" Setlan challenged.

"You could have just asked!" Chris snapped, not about to let go of his anger even though he supposed as a way to discover the true nature of a species, it was rather an ingenious method, if somewhat inconvenient. "Some of us have children!"

The Captain continued to storm out of the water, still too furious by what happened and how they'd all been deceived by Setlan who looked them in the face and lied, claiming he knew nothing of their situation when he was its chief architect it now seemed.

"Uh Chris,"" Mary spoke up suddenly. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw her standing up to her shoulders in water, her blond hair slicked over her head and she was once again the ethereal, poised beauty he loved beyond measure. Her expression was one of concern and Chris wondered what the reason for it was.

"What is it?"

"Pard," Vin who was glad to be full sized again, spoke up with some embarrassment while keeping his gaze averted from Chris. He and Chris were close, but not that close. The helmsman's long hair was an unruly mess around his face, while the tips of his Vulcan ears peeked through the wet strands. "Look down."

Chris stared at Vin in bewilderment for a second before he glanced down and realised he was completely naked and about to expose himself to God and everyone else. Without uttering another word, Chris retreated into the water, smouldering when he saw Ezra's smirk while Buck covered his mouth with his hand, trying to suppress his snigger. Josiah was wearing a faint smile of amusement and a grin split Nathan's face. Adam was actually laughing, having no fear of being brigged by his father.

And the women...nope, he just didn't want to go there.

Instead, Chris turned to Setlan again, his face a decidedly deeper shade of red as he cleared his throat and tried to project a facade of composure after the very sobering reminder of his situation.

"Tribune Setlan," Chris spoke in a measured tone. "Please explain this."

"But of course," Setlan smiled, pleased Chris was now reasonable enough to listen to his explanation about why this had been done to the crew of the Maverick. Although the state of undress they were presently in, save the teenager among them, would not do.

"However, first things first."

Chris was about to ask him what that meant when suddenly, the world dematerialised around them. In the blink of an eye, they were no longer standing shoulder deep in the water of an unknown sea, surrounded by darkness or facing a beach deep beneath the earth of Hadir. Instead, Chris realised as he flinched beneath the bright light glaring at him from all around, they were now someplace else entirely. It took him but a second to realise they were back in the Tribune Hall, the venue for the celebration the crew had attended before this nightmare began.

Fortunately, he was no longer wet or naked. Thank God.

Chris felt the reassuring sensation of fabric against his skin and looked down to see he was back in his Captain's uniform. In fact, they all were. From Buck who was now the tallest among them again, to Mary in her figure-hugging dress, her wild blond hair twisted into an elegant coif. Adam was the only one who remained unchanged, gawking at them with surprise before that emotion gave way to relief.

"Oh, Thank Christ, that's over!" Adam exclaimed.

"Hey, we weren't that bad!" Nathan retaliated, feeling someone offended the kid thought they were that much trouble. Noticing the tricorder on his belt, the doctor quickly ran the device over himself to ensure everything was in place before repeating the action on Josiah who was standing next to him.

"Are you kidding me?" Adam stared at the healer in sarcasm. "Between you and Ezra fighting, Mary whining about everything and Josiah," he looked at the Counsellor who immediately winced recalling his conduct, "don't get me started, I never want children!"

"I protest," Ezra countered. "We never rose to fisticuffs and even if we did, it would not be much of a fight." The Chief of Security smirked smugly in the direction of the doctor.

"What the hell does that mean?" Nathan dropped the tricorder and stared back at Ezra. "I can so whip your ass if I have to..."

"Oh my God, you men!" Alex who was standing next to Vin, snapped at them in disbelief. "Will you two cut it out already!"

"Well at least, you're back to normal." Julia smiled at her, glad to see Alex form a sentence without stuttering or cowering in fear of retaliation.

"You mean ornery and cussing?" Vin remarked throwing his wife a wink of affection and was promptly elbowed in the ribs for his trouble.

"ALRIGHT," Buck barked, commanding them as First Officer of the Maverick, settling them all down before Chris intervened. "We're back to normal," he said sweeping his gaze over his comrades. "Such as it is but we've still got a situation on our hands."

"Exactly," Chris nodded at Buck in approval as once again, their ability to anticipate each other as Captain and First Officer fell into place. While he was pleased they were back to normal, he still wanted an explanation for what they had been through these past two days. Gratitude did not change the fact Setlan had turned them into children and sent on a dangerous trial in the bowels of Hadir. "Tribune Setlan, please explain what this was all about."

Setlan nodded and let out a heavy sigh. "You have to understand Chris, this action on you and your crew was not taken lightly. We had to be sure who you were, beneath the polish of Starfleet or the high-minded ideals in your Federation Charter. Words and technology do not reveal the true essence of a people. We needed to understand who you were."

"So, you are some form of higher life form?" Alex inquired because she could not imagine they could be anything else for Setlan to do what he had just done in the last ten minutes.

"Yes," Setlan nodded. "We have evolved beyond the need for a corporeal existence but we rather like being flesh and blood. However, interacting with other species after we revealed our true nature has been problematic."

"How so?" Chris asked although he could guess.

If the Hadir had near Q like powers as it was becoming painfully obvious they might, they would be the subject of fear, hostility and isolation. If other races didn't try to conquer them, they would stay away and with the reception the crew of the Maverick received from Setlan and his people, it was clear the Hadir enjoyed their interaction with other races and longed for a sense of community.

"As soon as they discovered what we were capable of, they wanted us to use our abilities for all kinds of things. They knew we could heal their sick, were capable of giving them access to incredible technologies and solving a host of problems they as a species, should be trying to accomplish themselves."

"But you have contemporaries," Ezra pointed out. "If you have evolved beyond us, why not seek out races who have achieve similar levels of development? The Organians, the Metrons and even the Q Continuum would surely be better for you to establish relations with."

"Personally Ezra," Setlan harrumphed with impatience at the mention of those names. "The Organians and Metrons are too dull and rigid for our liking and the Q? Honestly, they need to be placed in a pocket universe for a well-deserved time out. All that knowledge and yet they have the attention span of infants."

Mary giggled despite herself, her hand covering her mouth as she laughed at the description of the Q, especially when it was so accurate.

"We prefer the unpredictability of corporeal beings. You aren't jaded by the universe and are still capable of feeling wonder. The more evolved one becomes, the less they are capable of being surprised. You understand that don't you, Ezra?"

"I do," Ezra nodded, thinking how dull life would be without the mystery of infinite probability. Every time he indulged in a game of chance, whether it was poker, craps or any other form of gambling, Ezra relished the unpredictability of it all, where a simple turn of the cards or roll of dice, was a promise of the unexpected.

"Of course, you do," Setlan smiled and turned back to Chris and Buck. "When we started, we were from what you call the T'kon Empire."

"The T'Kon?" Mary's eyes widened. Her time in the diplomatic core made her familiar with that name. The T'Kon were a vast empire that became extinct more than 600 thousand years ago. "Chris, the T'Kon was the race Enterprise D encountered in the Delphi Ardu system almost a decade ago. It was during our first official contact with the Ferengi."

"I remember," Chris nodded. Jean-Luc Picard was Chris's personal hero. He'd studied all the mission logs for the Enterprise D and was aware of the encounter at the last T'Kon outpost that gave them their first look at the Ferengi. Until then, Starfleet's information on the race had been based on rumour and third-hand reports. "Your sun went nova."

"That is correct," Veer nodded sadly. "We were already on the cusp of entering the next stage of our evolution, some of us, sadly not enough, managed to escape the destruction through one of our transport portals. We arrived in this world and made it our new home. It was here we full transcended."

"But the truth is Christopher," Setlan took up the narration. "We still enjoy having flesh and blood and while the Organians, Metrons and the Q find corporeal existence mundane, we embrace it. We wish to be a part of the greater universe but it must happen on our terms. For your sake as well as ours."

"We understand," Chris nodded. "Our Prime Directive exists in the same way. We'd love to help lesser cultures but sometimes the best of intentions can go terribly wrong. When we've tried, it's gone disastrously."

Chris thought of the journey to the alternate reality where Adam originated. All it had taken was James T Kirk's presence to change the shape of the Terran Empire and the systems around it for the next 80 years. Kirk's intent had been good but the millions who died in the wars following his interference, to say nothing of those who were born into slavery, might think otherwise.

"We are aware of your Prime Directive and that is why we reached out to you, to begin with. We had hoped the Romulans would be open to our true nature but they were most intractable in their ways."

"They're Romulans," Buck shrugged. "You were always going to be fighting an uphill battle."

"So, if you knew all about us, why turn us into kids?" Vin asked. "Why send us on this wild goose chase? I mean the Cavern of Azcax and all that stuff. You just made that up right?"

"Because you were the most promising contact we'd encountered in almost two hundred years, we wanted to be sure about you. I do admit turning you into your younger selves was quite amusing, especially you Counsellor Sanchez."

Josiah tried not to groan. "I'd forgotten what an active imagination I had as a kid."

"No kidding," Nathan exclaimed, still trying to get the sight of Josiah on the wing of the Jolly Roger, swashbuckling with the best of them.

"But it was wonderful!" Setlan almost clapped his hands in delight. "Almost all the scenarios we produced for you and comrades came from your imagination."

Ezra immediately turned to Josiah and gave him a look of accusation. "You are to blame for our trials Counsellor?"

"I read a lot of Jules Verne, HP Lovecraft and Tolkien when I was a kid," Josiah shrugged. "Sue me."

"Ezra," Chris silenced the man with a look. "And turning us into children gave you your proof?"

"Yes, it told us all we needed to know about you," Setlan smiled. "No matter how dangerous the situation, you stood together, fought for each other, were willing to die for one another. Such qualities are to be admired and cherished. We believe you have the intelligence and the discipline to accept what we are. "

"I think we would benefit from your knowledge," Chris found his anger dissipating. "We're still young and the bar we set for our high-minded ideals is sometimes tested. Having the insight of a race who has been around a lot longer than us will be beneficial."

"Absolutely," Mary agreed smiling, a far cry from the petulant child of a short time ago. "We were eager to have you join us before we learned the truth about you and that has not changed."

"Yeah," Buck added. "It's nice to meet folk who just want to get along and meet others."

"I have no doubt of that," Setlan nodded. "At this moment, your Ensign has no idea we are more than capable of defending ourselves and yet he is willing to fight tooth and nail to protect us. Why even now he is risking your crew and your ship to ensure we are not harmed."

"WHAT?" Chris demanded exchanging a quick glance with Buck at that revelation. "What do you mean?

"Oh dear," Setlan winced. "Did I forget to mention the Orion warship in orbit?"

*******

"JD, our shield strength is draining fast," Charlotte Richmond warned from tactical while standing beside Drew Katovit who was presently manning the Maverick's weapons station. "Chanu has diverted all the power he can give us, but we can't protect the installation and the ship indefinitely."

JD sat in the command chair wishing more than anything the Captain was here instead of him.

He wasn't ready for this and yet Chris Larabee had left the ship in his charge, albeit temporarily. He saw Jewel sitting at his regular place at comms and wished he was there instead, before rebuking himself savagely. Cut it out. You don't got time for this second-guessing. Not when there were klaxons screaming red alert in his ear and the ship was shuddering from the phaser blasts penetrating the increasingly weakening shields.

"Fire photon torpedoes, full spread, I want them driven back as far away from Hala as possible. We can't let any of their shots hit the refinery."

"Understood!" Drew nodded and let his fingers fly over the console in front of him, hoping he could work the controls with the same nuance as the Chief.

On the viewscreen, they watched the amber volley of torpedoes flying through the narrow gap of space between the hull of the Maverick and the Marauder. It struck the enemy ship across the bow. As the dark, indigo canvas was briefly illuminated by the light of the detonating artillery, they saw the shudder in its shields, attempting to absorb the tremendous energy. For a brief second, there was a fluctuation before the shield reinforced itself once more.

"Charlotte! Did you see that?" JD asked, turning around in his chair to meet her eyes.

"They're firing again!" Drew declared.

"Helm! Evasive pattern delta!" JD shouted at Wo Chin as he turned back to the viewer to see the barrage of phaser fire crossing the distance between the two ships. This time, the impact shook JD in his chair and he knew with their depleted shields, the Maverick's ability to avoid damage was dwindling fast.

"JD we can't take another hit like that," Charlotte warned. "Not if we want to keep protecting the refinery."

"We won't," JD said thinking fast, remembering what he saw when the torpedo spread had struck the Marauder. "Drew, I want another spread of torpedoes, the same configuration as before. Charlotte, you saw that fluctuation in the shields after it struck, didn't you?"

"Yes," she nodded. "It was a 0.03 second flux."

"Is that long enough for our phasers to get through?" He asked.

Both faces of the senior officers lit up but it was Charlotte who answered smiling at him. "More than enough, JD."

"We can program the phaser array to discharge the second I fire the torpedoes," Drew added. Like Charlotte, he was just as impressed by their young acting captain as she was.

"Do it." JD ordered.

On the viewer, JD watched Wo Chin skilfully maneuver the Maverick above the space of Hadir's moon, managing to avoid, , the disruptor attempting to punch through their shields. He saw Jewel at comms, her small, delicate hands clutching the sides of her station (or rather his station), trying to keep from being thrown off her chair from the sharp veers and turns the ship was making under their helmsman's control.

"Torpedoes away!"

Once again, the familiar triad of amber lights appeared across the view screen, hurtling towards the hull of the Marauder. Navea's ship attempted to bank but the spread impacted against its starboard hull. Brilliant light filled the screen as the shields shuddered. However, this time, the flux was cut short by a burst of phaser fire that cut through the shields and immediately ignited the hull beneath it.

Explosions rippled across the flank of the Orion battleship, with debris spreading out into space as the phasers did its worst. The shields collapsed entirely, leaving the enemy ship wide open for the kill. As JD saw lights dim across a section of the ship, its emerald hull turning black from the blast, he knew Charlotte's aim had crippled the Marauder.

"Her shields are down," Charlotte announced.

"One hit with a torpedo and we'll obliterate them," Drew added.

"No," JD shook his head. "Not unless we have to. Jewel, hail them."

"Aye Sir," Jewel said glancing over her shoulder and giving him a smile.

Less than a minute later, Navea's face appeared on the screen. Behind her, her bridge appeared to have suffered considerable damage, with smoke filling the air, consoles shattered and exposed wires dangling from torn conduits.

"If you think we will surrender...."

"I don't want your surrender," JD said firmly. "I just want you to leave Hadir space, right now."

"And if we don't?" She glared at him with a mask of dark hatred.

"We'll blow your ship out of the sky. We rather not do that but we're not letting you cause any more trouble in this system." JD said coolly, hoping that when it was all said and done, the Captain would approve of his decision.

Navea's lips thinned as if she was repressing a sharp refusal. However, another small explosion behind her, made Navea jump as white smoke rolled outwards from another ruptured system. It made her think better of it. Raising her chin in an expression of defiance, JD thought for a second, she was going to keep fighting, and the idea dismayed him. He wasn't ready to give the order to destroy a ship with a complement of almost 700 people.

"We will accept your terms," Navea hissed. "But mark my words Ensign, the next time we meet, we will not be so accommodating."

She terminated the line before he had a chance to respond.

"Sore loser," Charlotte muttered to herself.

As the image of the Marauder's bridge vanished from the view screen and the ship appeared in front of them again, JD leaned back into the Captain's chair, never thinking any seat could feel so big. For once, he could appreciate how difficult it had to be for Chris Larabee to occupy that space, with the safety of a thousand people, constantly weighing on his mind.

It was just too much, JD thought and then imagined he heard Buck Wilmington in his head, saying the words only Buck could say when JD doubted himself.

It may be big now but someday, it was gonna fit him just fine.

Epilogue: Celebration

"Captain's Log, Stardate 2388.86:

It has been three days since the senior staff and I have returned from Hadir after our 'mission'. Except for a small handful of crew, the rest of the Maverick had no idea about our circumstances and I for one am content to leave it as such. The whole situation was bizarre enough as it was and I wonder if Captain Picard had similar difficulties filling out his log entry when a similar situation embroiled him and members of his crew during a transporter malfunction.

Following a short respite after our return to the ship, Lt. Travis and I returned to Azalea, where we negotiated the terms of Hadir's entry into the Federation. Under advisement from our Protocol Officer, it was decided that we keep the true transcendent nature of the Hadir a secret from the rest of the member worlds. Only the Federation Security Council should be aware of their true abilities. As it stands, Hadir's rich pergium deposits make it an attractive candidate for membership and I believe that is all the merit that should be applied. Tribune Setlan is happy to agree.

In the meantime, I am inordinately proud by the performance of the temporary bridge crew who defended the Maverick against a ship of the Orion Syndicate during our absence. Except for minor damage to the outer hull, the Maverick came through the encounter relatively unscathed, the same which cannot be said of the Marauder who limped out of Hadir space, leaving a trail of plasma exhaust behind them.

I would be remiss if I did not make an entry in the logs about the conduct of Ensign JD Dunne during this entire situation. He has not only performed exceptionally well in the absence of the senior staff but during the confrontation with the Orion Syndicate displayed integrity and courage, in the face of what had to be an overwhelming situation for any young ensign, a year out of the Academy. I have no doubt in the future, Ensign Dunne is going to be one of Starfleet's finest... "

The sudden chirp at his door, made Chris pause his log entry and he tapped the screen to file away the draft with a soft beep.

"Come in," he called out.

The door slid open and stepping into his Ready Room was Adam. Chris raised a brow in surprise because Adam seldom came to visit him on the bridge, during what they both deemed as 'office hours'. Surprisingly enough, it was Adam who made the rule, having always kept out of his mother's way when she oversaw the ship on which he served, in that alternate universe he had come from.

While they had seen each other over the last few days, there hadn't been really time to talk because Chris and Mary were engaged in the negotiations with the Hadir since their return to normal and had spent most of their time on the surface. Still, Chris had to admit that their relationship felt a little more at ease following their 'adventure' chasing after the non-existent Cavern of Azcax.

"Hey Adam," Chris leaned back into his chair and flashed his son a welcoming smile.

He still felt a ripple of pleasure seeing the boy, even months after the fact. Every time he looked at the teenager, Chris felt as if the universe had seen fit to give him back a piece of his family, taken away from him so cruelly. It was a miracle he was grateful for every day and after what Adam had done to keep him safe during the last week, his love for the boy had grown even more if such a thing was possible.

"Hey dad," Adam took a seat in front of the desk. "Sorry to bother you while you were at work but I got a date with Cindy tonight so I wanted to see you in case I missed you later."

"Cindy?" Chris stared at him. "I thought you were dating Irene." He tried to place the girl and realised he meant Cindy Strickland, the daughter of Lt. Michelle Strickland, the ship's botanist.

"Dad," Adam gave him a look as if he were dealing with a naive kid. "We're not exclusive."

Yep , Chris thought silently. I'm raising Buck.

"So, what's up?" Chris asked, deciding he didn't want to know and suspected he would only end up giving Ezra the order to issue a shipboard alert that his teenage son was to be considered a weapon of mass seduction.

"I've been thinking about things," Adam said seriously. "Since I'm going to stay in this universe, I need to start figuring out what I want to do with my life."

Chris straightened up, realising this discussion was about to get rather serious and he was uncertain whether he wanted things to change when he was just getting used to having Adam in his life.

"Okay, and what have you decided?"

"Well," Adam met his gaze. "I think I would like to join Starfleet."

Chris's eyes widened. "Really?"

Of course, he had hoped for such a thing. No father in the service didn't dream at one point or another of having a child follow in their footsteps and Chris being a captain, had harboured such dreams when Adam was born to him and Sarah. However, this Adam had come from a world where he fought every day of his life and Chris had wanted him to enjoy his freedom for a little bit before pressuring him about what came next.

"Yeah," Adam nodded with a little smile. "I talked to Josiah about it and he got me all the information I needed to study for the entrance exams to Starfleet Academy. I'm not going to make the testing this year, but he thinks if I work at it, I'll be able to sit for it next year."

Thank you, Josiah, Chris thought to himself and made a mental note to drop in on the Counsellor to say it personally. "Are you sure it's what you want to do Adam?" Chris had to ask. "I mean I don't want you to feel like you have to because..."

"Dad," Adam stopped him, "I'm not doing it for you but I am doing it because of you. The time I've spent on this ship so far, exploring the galaxy instead of fighting everyone in it, that's what I want to be a part of. I'm always going to be a soldier but this way, I get to be more as well."

Chris reached across the desk and squeezed his hand. "Adam, you can be anything you want. If that means joining Starfleet, you have my support and once the senior staff gets a wind of it, they'll probably want to help."

"Thanks dad," Adam squeezed his hand back and for a few seconds, neither spoke but relished the warmth of their growing relationship. When the moment was broken, it was Adam who did so and his lips curled into a little smirk. "So, think I could get private lessons from Commander Styles?"

Chris's temple started to throb.

*******

Buck Wilmington stepped into the walls of Four Corners a day later, a little earlier than expected for his attendance at the Captain's table for the senior staff's weekly dinners with the master of the vessel. Since the Maverick's refit, there hadn't been an opportunity for the senior staff to break bread together and Chris was eager to see the continuation of the tradition he established during his first week on board the ship.

Buck rather enjoyed the dinners since it allowed the senior staff to talk about matters beyond the ship and their duties. If anything, the practice was part of the reason for the closeness shared by the group since it lowered the walls between them, despite their differing ranks and allowed them to relate to each other as people, not just officers. It also permitted them to celebrate their more personal triumphs in a casual and friendly atmosphere. Like tonight.

Before that however, Buck had a stop to make.

His eyes scanned the bar and saw Alex in conversation with Charlotte Richmond at the far end. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that conversation, Buck thought with a smile. Starships thrived on gossip and it was no secret Alex and Charlotte had been crossing swords over Vin since they'd come on board. Fortunately, it appeared they were both having a rather amicable discussion, without the need for bikinis and mud. Pity.

Shifting his gaze from the two science officers, he sighted Casey and JD at a private booth. The girl looked over her bout of illness and appeared extremely animated to be out of her room after her confinement. No doubt, she was wanting to hear every detail of JD's time in command. The thought of the young man's performance made Buck smile, because he was pleased as all hell by how well the kid had done. He always knew JD had it in him to do great things but facing off an Orion Syndicate battleship was no small thing. He was damn proud of JD right now and wasn't afraid to show it.

For now, however, he saw the face behind the bar he had been searching for and headed towards the sultry Latin beauty who ruled supreme over Four Corners. Inez had just served Ensign T'Lar a drink when she made eye contact and flashed him a smile of greeting. Buck swore his heart skipped a beat and wondered how in the hell after all the women he'd been with, and there had been quite a few, a smile from her could make him feel like a teenager again.

She moved along the bar to an unoccupied corner and leaned over, waiting for him to join her.

"Hello Buck," she said raking her eyes over him. "You're back to normal again."

"Damn straight darlin'," he grinned looking down just to reassure himself. "Being ten years old was definitely cramping my style. "

"Of course," Inez rolled her eyes, perfectly accustomed to his posturing. "How are you anyway?"

"I'm good," he smiled at her, discarding the persona of the infamous Lothario. "I tell you, I didn't mind being ten years old but I sure as hell didn't want to do it twice."

"I can understand that," she nodded. "If you're happy with your life, there is no need to go back and do it again, especially if it was hard."

"It was harder on my mama than it was on me," Buck replied and knew that was a lie. It had been hard on both of them. His mother had the difficulty of raising a child alone and he had the stigma of being raised by an undesirable in the eyes of some people. "But I want to thank you for being there for me during this whole mess. You took care of things while I was, you know."

"I know," she smiled at him warmly, thinking of that sad little boy with the intense blue eyes and still seeing him here, even when he was wearing the face of a full-grown adult. "I was happy to help."

For a few seconds, neither of them said anything, content to soak in the unspoken feelings between them until finally Buck broke the silence. "Inez, would you like to grab some dinner sometime? Maybe when we get to Deep Space 5?"

"I'd like that Buck," Inez nodded and then added with a wink. "But don't try to put any of your cheap moves on me after dinner. I've been bartendering on this ship for a year, I know all of them now."

Elated that he had not been turned down after so many previous invitations, Buck grinned. "Not a chance darlin', I'll have new and exclusive cheap moves ready for you by the time we go out."

"Wow," Inez sighed. "I feel special already."

*******

The conversation that Buck Wilmington had wished would take place inside a ring of mud and involved both women wearing string bikinis was as he observed, quite amicable. Alexandra Styles had asked Charlotte Richmond to meet her at Four Corners, a short time before her attendance was required at the Captain's table. After reading JD's report about Charlotte's performance on the bridge, to say nothing about the vendetta the Science team believed she had against the woman, Alex felt it was time to clear the air.

"First of all, I want to commend you on the excellent job you did in my place, during our situation on Hadir." Alex complimented.

Charlotte was tense, expecting the amicable tone projected by the second officer of the Maverick and the Science Officer, to turn ugly at any moment. While she knew she had behaved badly to earn the woman's dislike, Charlotte also knew she had tried her best to be better since that day and wondered if Commander Styles would ever let her forget it. Listening to the woman's compliment right now, made Charlotte think that perhaps Alex was ready to do that.

"Thank you, Sir," she said gingerly. "It was JD really."

"Oh, JD did really well," Alex agreed with her. "But as any commander will tell you, they never do it alone, it's the people with them that matters just as much. Your support was what he needed."

"I was glad to do it," she answered.

"Charlotte," Alex let out a sigh. "You and I are never going to be friends but I respect you as an officer. You've done excellent work this last year, proven yourself time and time again to be a valuable member of the Science Department. I know you want a transfer and if that's what you wish I'll make the recommendation to the Captain, but I'm asking you to stay."

Charlotte stared at her in shock. "Really?"

"Yes," Alex nodded. "You're a good officer and though it's not an official designation in any capacity, I want you to remain as my Assistant Science Officer."

"I don't know what to say," Charlotte declared, honestly flummoxed. She had expected a detente, not a promotion of sorts, especially from Commander Alex Styles.

"Say yes," Alex replied with a smile, feeling good about the step she had taken. It felt like the last of the baggage she'd held onto during her tumultuous year on the Maverick was finally discarded.

"Before I say yes," Charlotte held back, feeling the need to get something off her chest. "Regarding Lt. Tanner, I never intended to come between you two when we..."

"Charlotte," Alex stopped her right there, needing no explanation on this subject. "I don't blame you for what happened between you and Vin during the Pon Farr. In the state he was in, he was lucky he didn't run into Lieutenant Aeolo or I'd be having this conversation with her."

Lieutenant Aeolo was their Horta geologist.

Charlotte tried to stifle a laugh and didn't quite manage it. She was even more surprised when Alex joined her.

"Honestly Charlotte," Alex said dispelling the last of her hostility towards the woman, "I was more worried he might have hurt you. In the state he was in, it could have gone very badly for you and I never want any woman to go through that."

Charlotte's expression sobered and nodded in understanding. While the full details of what happened to Alexandra Styles during her captivity in the war was unknown, every woman who was present in Four Corners the day Gul Lemar arrived on the Maverick, had an idea of what she'd endured as a prisoner of the Cardassians.

"Thank you, Commander," Charlotte said gratefully.

The Science Officer smiled. "Call me Alex."

*******

"What do you think they're talking about?" Vin asked Chris as he waited for Alex to join him at the Captain's table, trying not to think the worst while she and Charlotte Richmond continued their rather serious conversation at the bar. Considering the history that existed between all three of them, Vin was starting to feel rather justified in being nervous about what they could be discussing so intently.

"Whether or not they should arm wrestle for you," Chris smirked, unable to resist teasing Vin in this matter. Charlotte was the closest thing Vin might have to an ex-girlfriend, and as a former husband, Chris knew no man alive wanted his wife and his ex-girlfriend in the same room. Ever.

"Chris!" Mary who was seated next to him at the head of the Captain's table swatted him gently on the arm as Chris raised his glass to take a sip of his synthehol based whisky. "Don't be mean."

"Don't be mean?" Chris almost choked in mid swallow following that statement from her. Exchanging a look of amusement with the helmsman, Chris stared back at Mary incredulously. "Woman, you're lucky you're still my girlfriend after how mean you were to me when we were down on Hadir. I had no idea you were such a brat Lieutenant." He feigned mock hurt.

"Brat?" Mary's cheeks turned crimson despite her indignation because she had been quite a handful down there and never recalled being so difficult as a child. The next time she spoke to her mother, Mary might just have to ask Adelaide how much of a pain she had been. Then again, on second thought, Mary wasn't certain she wanted to know either.

"And I had no idea you had plans of being a starship captain whilst still in the birth canal," Mary returned smugly, tit for tat. "You weren't exactly the most tolerable child either. Did you put in your application to the Academy when you graduated kindergarten?"

Vin snorted and silenced any encroaching guffaw with a deep gulp of his beer. Perfectly aware of the tactic, Chris gave him a look telling Vin he was fooling no one with that. "As a matter of fact, it was elementary school."

That did it for Vin and the Vulcan burst out laughing with Mary wearing a smug look of satisfaction at being able to get her own back. Anything Chris was about to say in response was lost in the chatter of Julia and Ezra approaching the table.

As it had been during the last two days, the subject of conversation was the laundry list of dos and don'ts that had to be observed by Ezra when he finally met Julia's parents. In truth, they mostly heard Julia, while Ezra followed two paces behind, like a man being led to the gallows.

"Remember, no talk of poker, games or gambling of any kind when you meet my father."

"No gambling? Why?" Ezra exclaimed in horror. "What possible prejudice would Mr Pemberton have against games of chance?"

"Well daddy's very straight-laced, he's not at all a free spirit like I am," Julia explained, aware that she was being a little silly but she did so want Ezra to make a good impression. Of course, she was also painfully aware this might send him over the edge and he may choose to flee to the Delta Quadrant if she kept it up. "Believe it or not, I'm the wild one in my family."

Somehow, everyone at the table managed to keep a straight face.

"Yes," Ezra said giving them a look beyond Julia's notice. "I have often wondered how on Earth I could have made an attachment with such a Bohemian."

Julia recognised the sarcasm in his tone and turned around to glare at him. "Are you implying Ezra, I'm uptight, wholesome and perky?"

"I would never imagine wholesome and perky could come from the same woman who sings 'These are my Favourite Things' when cleaning the warp core." Ezra deadpanned, maintaining his poker face as he pulled out a chair for her.

"Or the Sound of Music," Alex added, joining them at the table before she lowered herself in the empty seat next to Vin.

"Everything go okay with Charlotte?" Vin asked, opting to change the subject to save Ezra from further discussion about his inevitable meeting with his potential in-laws, although the mention of in-laws or marriage for that matter was enough to make the normally controlled gambler twitch like a frog on a frying pan. At best, it was a temporary stay of execution.

"Great actually," Alex replied, pleased by the understanding she'd reached with her junior officer. "Captain, with your permission, I'd like to appoint Lt. Richmond, Assistant Science Officer."

"That's a great idea!" JD declared, upon leaving the private booth he had been sharing with Casey to join them at the table. After all the help Charlotte had been to him during their engagement with the Orion Syndicate, he was pleased Alex was recognising her value.

It was a good idea; Chris thought and he was also glad Alex had made such professional choice after her rocky start with the woman. "I'll support that."

"Thank you, Sir," she smiled.

For his own sake, Vin decided he would rather leave the subject of Charlotte Richmond behind for now. He was still sensitive to how badly he'd behaved during the Pon Farr and knew one of these days, he was going to have to sum up the courage to talk to the woman about it, or at the very least, apologise.

"You know Alex," Julia couldn't help tease. "Since you like those bodice rippers, maybe you and Vin should run a scenario in the Magnificent Seven holo-program, you know where the tracker saves the doctor from some crazy suitor...?"

Vin, Chris, Ezra and JD burst out laughing, unable to hold it in, picturing Alex in such circumstances. Mary covered her hand with her face, trying not to giggle while Casey was nowhere that restrained. If not for her colouring, Chris was certain Alex's face would have been bright red. However, embarrassment was not an emotion Alex tolerated for long.

"Okay that's it Pemberton," She picked up her dinner fork. "I'm willing to go to prison for murder."

"Jesus, Chris," Buck exclaimed as he reached the table with the rest of the attendees for dinner in time to hear Alex's threat to Julia. With him was Nathan, Rain and Josiah. "I thought we were running late to this thing but here I find you're about to let these two fight it out with dinnerware?"

"Well I've been accused of always being 'on' lately," he tossed Mary an accusatory look. "So, I figured I'd take the night off and let them duke it out, battle royale."

"Nice," Buck shook his head. "Okay, we're all here. Shall we get this party started Captain?" His blue eyes twinkled with mischief as he met Chris's gaze.

"Go ahead Commander," the Captain gestured for him to begin.

"What's going on?" Nathan inquired, having thought they had just come for dinner but it looked like there was more going on than initially thought.

"I have an idea," Josiah started to say, noting the way Chris and Buck were trying to avoid looking at JD when Rain shushed him silent.

"You'll ruin the surprise." She said good-naturedly, hating to have such things spoiled by impatience. After three hundred years of her Trill existence, Rain liked all the surprises she could get.

"Officers," Buck stared at his comrades at the table, his tone implying quiet. "On your feet please."

Without argument, everyone stood up immediately, recognising Buck was making the request not as their friend, but as the First Officer of the Maverick. With the promptness that came with years of Starfleet discipline, everyone was soon upright, their puzzlement giving way to the demands of duty. Even Casey got to her feet, not wishing to be left out. The action immediately captured the attention of everyone else in Four Corners. Even Inez and the servers behind the bar had stopped what they were doing, their eyes now fixed on the Captain's table.

"Captain," Buck said, hiding a little smile. "They're all yours."

"Thank you, Commander," Chris said graciously and then addressed not just his senior staff but everyone who was now paying attention to the proceedings. His focus however, remained fixed on the friends and the table and the reason for this small ceremony today.

"I wanted all of us here this evening, to commemorate a very special occasion.," Chris explained before turning his eye to JD who suddenly realised, he had the Captain's undivided attention and very soon, everyone else in the place as well.

"Ensign JD Dunne, since coming on board, you've proven yourself time and time again to be an outstanding officer with sharp instincts and great courage. I can't imagine any young officer in your position who could have risen to the occasion like you did to fight off an Orion battleship and save the people of Hadir."

"Here, here," Ezra clapped, prompting a rumble of agreement to ripple through Four Corners, along with a small round of applause at the captain's statement.

Chris waited until the clapping died down before he resumed speaking but he could see JD was still very struck by the accolade and decided to move things along to put the kid out of his misery. "Not only did you protect the people of Hadir, but you also provided leadership during a combat situation with a formidable enemy and ensured the safety of the senior staff under very difficult circumstances, in the finest Starfleet tradition."

More applause broke out and was quickly silenced. Casey who was standing next to JD, linked her fingers through his, squeezing it tight to offer him support. He tried not to smile but the emotion on his face at the commendation and the regard of those around him made it difficult to suppress.

"Therefore," Chris continued. "As master of this vessel and your Captain, I promote you, John Daniel Dunne to the rank of lieutenant, junior grade."

"Alright JD!" Someone cheered and Chris thought it might have been Adam. He shifted his gaze at the crowd long enough to see his son at one of the booths with a girl. Jesus Christ, it was neither Cindy Strickland or Irene Lee. It was Laura Staupe, the daughter of the ship's entomologist. Fortunately, before he could ruminate on this any further, more applause broke out, banishing the idea he was raising Buck Wilmington from his mind again.

"Commander," Chris nodded at Buck to proceed with the next part of the ceremony.

Nodding sedately, the First Officer of the Maverick promptly removed one of the pips pinned to the red band of his turtleneck and proceeded towards the newly promoted ensign. As he reached JD, his officious mask gave way to a broad grin, bursting with pride.

Since coming on board the Maverick, JD had been Buck's special project and the relationship between them was now closer than mentor and pupil, deeper than friendship. He knew he took up the space in the boy's heart that should have been occupied by a father and JD seeing him in that light, always made Buck feel honoured.

"You did good kid," Buck ruffled JD's hair before he pressed the pip onto JD's collar.

"I couldn't have done it without you Buck," JD said quietly, overwhelmed by everything that was happening but was trying hard not to show it.

"Yeah you could," Buck replied. "I always knew it."

"Maybe," JD said as he swept his gaze across the room and saw his friends and comrades applauding, his girl beaming at him with delight and his Captain staring at him with warm affection, he knew Buck was right. He could have done it himself. Eventually.

It just wouldn't have mattered as much.

THE END

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