The Magnificent Q
by Scribe

Main Characters: Seven, OFCs, Billy Travis, Mary Travis, Q (Star Trek)

WARNING: Contains sexual situations.

Summary:

All is not fun when the crew of the Maverick believe themselves trapped in the holodeck reality of the Old West town of Four Corners, hunted by the likes of Top Hat Bob, Mr Wickes and Silas Poplar when the safety protocols are off and dying is a reality. Is it a holodeck simulation or is Q up to his old tricks again?

Fifth story in the Star Trek: Maverick series Follows Weaker.


Prologue:
Boredom

Billy Travis hated being a child.

It was bad enough he was a Vulcan child because every time he had fun, other Vulcan children would look at him as if he were some kind of misanthrope cast into their midst by the quirk of fate that was co-existence. His mother had once been a proper Vulcan wife with all the restraint and aloofness endemic to the breed. All that changed when his father died. Billy was aware of his memories of Syan of Vulcan were becoming vague. He remembered specific things like stories at bedtime, of struggling to always maintain a stiff upper lip no matter what the situation, only to realize his father truly cared and was able to show it despite the constraints of the non-emotive lifestyle required of all Vulcans.

Chris Larabee's entry into his life and more specifically, into his mother's, meant suddenly being Vulcan was not an absolute for him and Billy liked being able to express his feelings. He even liked being called Billy instead of William; a practice initiated by the Captain and now so ingrained with everyone even his mother called him that. While his mother was not entirely certain she should abandon Billy's upbringing as a Vulcan, she was a little more vocal about allowing him to find his own way. She wanted the path of his life to be one of his own choosing and not confined to the expectations of class and creed. No doubt, his paternal grandparents may have reason to object.

In being given this freedom, Billy chose to have fun like other children his age and soon found being Vulcan was something of a stumbling block. He was already half-Vulcan and that made him something of a curiosity among the other Vulcan children, who claimed he could never truly be Vulcan. Unfortunately, displaying human tendencies seemed to cement this fact and Billy soon became excluded from things, though never outright. However, he could see the disapproval in their eyes as he approached them and Billy recognized the same look in adult Vulcans whenever Vin Tanner happened to be in the vicinity.

Deciding if he could not join the Vulcan children, he would try to mingle with the human variety. After all, if he was more like them, should he not find companionship with them? Unfortunately other than Lilith King, the human children did not appear to be any more accepting of him than the Vulcans before them. While the Vulcan children branded him an outcast because he could not behave Vulcan, the human variety based their disassociation on the fact that he looked Vulcan. Billy did not tell his mother about the situation, perfectly aware it would sadden her to learn her son was being treated in such a manner. As it was, she was happy for the first time since his father passed away and Billy suspected much of this had to do with the Captain. He did not want her to become sad again because of him and thus remained silent, suffering his plight alone.

Lilith on her part tried to be there for him all the time. Lilith, who was something of an outcast herself because she was terribly serious for one as young as she, did not think him either Vulcan or human. She treated him like Billy, a fact he was eternally grateful for. She was his best friend in the world, no the universe.

Unfortunately, today the young lady in question was at home in bed with Rigellian smallpox, a malady requiring quarantine and other than a quick visit to wish her well during her convalescence, he could not see her until she was completely recovered. Billy had not realized what a big part of his life she had become until this enforced absence. Suddenly, his day had become longer and lonelier and though he tried hard not to miss her, he found he could not. Worse yet, he found himself wishing he were not the blending of two worlds, wanting to be one or the other because it was too hard being neither.

To occupy himself, he decided to spend some time with the senior staff who were always happy to see him and did not have any difficulty seeing him as either Vulcan or human. To them, he was simply Billy Travis, the young son of their protocol officer and not subject to the scrutiny he was plagued with by his peers. Unfortunately, he was soon to learn adults tended to be just as restrictive with their time as children and almost everyone was either too busy or had little patience to deal with a young boy for very long.

With the Maverick on its way to the Antaria System where the indigenous race awaited the Captain and his protocol officer to mediate a dispute that had lasted twenty-two years, his mother was busily readying herself for the task ahead. Billy often found her in front of a mountain of data pads during the last week, endeavoring to study every treatise and text in regards to the long-running war. The Antarians who had been embroiled in their civil war for over two decades were poised on the verge of deploying doomsday weapons that would make life extinct, whatever its political affiliations. They had wisely pulled back from this suicide course and agreed to mediation by a third party before it was too late.

The stakes were of course high. The Antarians had made the necessary first step by agreeing to abide by whatever decision was afforded by the mediators. However, the mediators on their part had to forge a treaty capable of satisfying both warring sides or else, they would be the only ones who would remember the Antarians when the final solution was implemented and the race, as a species would no longer exist. His mother who would aid the Captain preventing this outcome had been totally engrossed in her preparations so he did even not bother to ask if she would spend some time with him.

He decided to try Vin because next to his mother and Lilith, Vin was the only other person who understood what it was he went through on a daily basis. However, the Officer of the Con was still on the bridge and would not be liberated from duty for some hours yet so Billy took to following the first officer Buck Wilmington for the rest of the morning. Buck did not seem to mind his company except Billy soon got bored of stopping and talking to every woman who happened along. Alexandra Styles was a little easier to approach and for a good hour or so, she showed him what she was doing in stellar cartography when they played the game of �classify that planet.'

JD Dunne took away another hour of his day when the two sat down to play computer games in JD's quarters before the young ensign had to go back to his lengthy duty on the bridge. Julia Pemberton allowed him to remain in the Engineering long enough to show Billy what a routine maintenance sweep of the warp core entailed before she was required to repair and EPS relay in one of the conduits running along the hull of the ship. Unfortunately, it was a task she deemed inappropriate for him to accompany her and he was soon ushered out again with nowhere to go. Ezra Standish was not exactly rude but Billy noticed that he was surlier than usual and though Ezra was normally happy to spend some time with him, it did not appear to be the case today. Thus he found himself making a brief visit with Josiah who had ten minutes between patients and Nathan who allowed him to hang around Sick Bay until he had to rush off to deliver a baby.

Chris was on the bridge so Billy did not even try. Besides, Billy thought with a smile, the Captain has to be on the bridge. He has the most important job of all.

He had been wandering down the halls of the Maverick looking bored indeed and rather disconsolate even though it had not occurred to him he appeared a picture of melancholy when a friendly hand rested on his shoulder.

"Hello, Billy."

Billy looked up and saw the lovely features of Transporter Chief Rain staring down at him with a smile on her lips. Billy liked Rain for she knew things most of the others did not and there was something about her that looked a lot older than she really was. He knew she was Trill and Trills lived a very long time and made the people who carried them, know just as much as well.

"Hi, Lieutenant Rain." He answered, responding to her smile a little but not much.

It did not take a genius to know the boy was missing his best friend and with Mary involved in their preparations to mediate for the Antarians, Rain guessed the child was feeling a little lonely as if the sad expression on his face was not a telling enough. In the lifetime of a symbiote, she had been a mother twice and a father three times and it gave her something of an insight about children, even ones as dispassionate as Billy Travis.

"Just call me Rain, sweetie." She said warmly. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing." He remarked quietly, not meeting her gaze.

"Nothing huh?" Rain remarked, hiding her skepticism. "Well, I suppose we all have one of those days when nothing is the matter but we still look like hell anyway." She joked and noted that engendered a response since he looked up at her curiously.

"I'm just bored." He confessed after they had walked a little more. Billy always liked speaking to her because she did not talk down to him like he was a child. In fact, sometimes, she sounded as if she understood him as well.

Rain was not surprised. The boy was half Vulcan and half human and if there was one thing children from either race had in common, was the fact they could both be equally cruel as each other. There were some problems she could not fix but there were others within her reach,  and while the question of acceptance among his peers fell beyond her capabilities, occupying his time certainly did not. "I tell you what," she looked at him. "I've got some things to do but how about you come find me in an hour or so in Holodeck 2 and I'll teach you how to surf."

"Surf?" He asked, brightening up immediately. He had no idea what she was talking about but her willingness to spend the day with him to show him how to do it was enough for his spirits to lift.

"Yeah," she grinned, pleased to see the suggestion had struck a chord. "It's this quaint Earther sport I discovered a few weeks ago. You ride a board on a wave. It's lots of fun. You want me to show you?"

Billy nodded happily, staring at the bronzed skinned beauty with a hint of adoration. He liked how she looked when she smiled at him and decided he would like her to do it again more often.

"Alright then," Rain ruffled his hair, pleased she was able to bring a smile to his cherubic face which had no business looking as sad as it had when she first came across him. "I'll see you in an hour at Holodeck 2."

"Okay Rain." Billy replied as the turbo lift doors where they had paused, slid open and Rain stepped inside. She gave him a little wink before stepping inside the capsule that would take her to another part of the ship. As the doors slid close, sealing her inside to begin her journey, Billy guessed he could understand why Nathan liked her so much.

She was fun.

******

One hour never seemed so long and finally, Billy decided to do one of his favorite things since coming on board the Maverick to live. He went to the quiet space of the Observation Deck and climbed onto the ledge running along the plexiglass. The space was wide enough to fit him easily and Billy leaned against the glass and watched the stars whizz past as the ship traveled at high warp. Even though he was little more than six years old, he enjoyed living in space. It was so much more fun than living on Jupiter Station, where the view outside the window was nothing more than powerful swirls of gas, propelled by winds that swept across the unseen landscape at 250 miles an hour. On Jupiter, it was not possible to see anything through those incredible winds and clouds of gas. No horizon in the distance and certainly no sky up above. While he did not know what claustrophobia was, Billy certainly felt it.

In space, it was different.

When he looked out into the stars traveling past the ship at incredible speeds thanks to the warp field surrounding it, Billy did not feel like a hybrid Vulcan or his life was not as perfect as he wanted to be. All that seemed insignificant when one looked outside the ship. It was impossible not to feel tiny, to feel one's problems equally minuscule when faced with the majesty of the cosmos. Some people believed everyone was apart of the universe, of existence actually. When Billy stared into the wide expanse of the galaxy like this, he could well believe it too.

"Hello."

The voice came out of nowhere so abruptly, the young boy almost jumped out of his skin. Turning around, he looked at the intruder into his thoughts and found himself staring at a young boy his age, with dark hair and inquiring hazel colored eyes. He was dressed plainly in a jumpsuit worn by most of the children on board although Billy confessed he did not recognize him.

"Hello." Billy answered uncertain, wondering why a human boy would seek him out. They usually did not like to mix with him because, in their games, he was smarter, faster and stronger than any of them. That had been reason enough to make him feel like a freak but the fact he was Vulcan too, gave them all the justification to make him an outcast as well.

"You're a Vulcan." The boy stated.

Billy nodded. "I haven't seen you before, are you new to the ship?" The Vulcan asked in turn, deciding with each passing second he had never seen this boy before. The boy was his age and even if they did not socialize, he would have nonetheless been aware of him from school at the very least.

"Yes," the new arrival answered. "I just arrived."

"From where?" Billy inquired.

"Far away." Was all he was prepared to say.

The boy studied Billy. For a moment, Billy felt what Chris Larabee usually called gut instinct, surfacing inside him. Unfortunately, it appeared in such a vague form Billy did not know how to define it and so he let it pass, feeling the uneasiness dissolve inside his mind after a second of rumination on the matter. Besides, this boy was talking to him and Billy was somewhat curious to know what he wanted. Billy also wondered when he could have come on board since it had been three weeks since the Maverick was at any place passengers could be picked up and this boy would have missed a lot of school if he had been on board since then.

"What's your name?" Billy asked this time around, hoping to be met with a little more than monosyllabic responses at every question.

For a moment, he did not answer and appeared as if he were deliberating whether or not he should impart that information to his new acquaintance. However, noting his pause was giving rise to further suspicion from the Vulcan child before him, he decided he better speak.

"Quinn." He answered after a moment with a smile of satisfaction on his face that Billy could not fathom but felt it impolite to inquire after.

"I'm Billy." The young Vulcan introduced himself accordingly since he had made the first overtures of inquiry.

"I know." Quinn replied. He seemed to be watching Billy as if waiting to take his cue to speak or respond from the Vulcan and Billy wondered if there was not perhaps something wrong with Quinn that made him a little slow.

"How do you know?" Billy asked once more, wishing his new friend would be a little forthcoming and not require information to be pried from his lips with a multitude of questions.

"I know things." Quinn responded and then looked outside the plexiglass window. Starlight filled his hazel eyes as he stared into the expanse of space moving past the ship.

He was a little strange, Billy thought silently

"I'm not strange."

Billy's eyes widened in realization that the boy was telepathic. "Are you Betazoid?" Billy inquired. He knew there were a few Betazoids on board the Maverick.

The boy looked at him with a hint of confusion before uttering, "Betazoid, inhabitants of the planet Betazed, sometimes called Haven, located in Quadrant 23 of Gamma Ceti 5. They are telepathic."

"Yes," Billy found this entire situation becoming stranger by the minute. He nodded dumbfounded as he heard Quinn recite a wealth of information about Betazed, which he did not even know. The boy looked human and while Betazoids could be mistaken for such as well, Billy did not believe Quinn was from either species but he was terribly smart.

"I am not Betazoid. I am Quinn." He reaffirmed after his recital.

"What do you want?" Billy finally asked, starting to feel a little anxious because something about Quinn was making him nervous and once again that sensation Chris Larabee coined so accurately, surfaced inside his stomach.

"You don't have to be afraid of me." Quinn stated with just a little bit of hurt in his voice. It was the first hint of feeling Billy had seen in his eyes other than curiosity. "I won't hurt you. I'm just bored."

Now that was something Billy could understand very well and the young Vulcan smiled at Quinn, a gesture that did much to alleviate the apprehension they both felt. Billy began to empathize at how it must be for Quinn to feel boredom and not have anyone to share that with. It was obvious Quinn was also very different from other children his age and Billy could identify with his need to belong.

"I am sorry," Billy apologized. "Other children do not like me much either, except Lilith but she is sick today and that is why I am alone."

"Lilith?" Once again that curiosity emerged.

"Yes," Billy nodded. "She's my best friend."

"Am I your friend?" Quinn followed the question with another.

This time, Billy had to think about his answer. In truth, he had not known Quinn enough to say they were friends but he could sympathize with Quinn's need to have one. After all, the insecurities Quinn felt were not new to him and Billy realized he was in a position to treat Quinn with a lot more sympathy than was shown to him since his arrival on board the Maverick. He had always told himself he would not be malicious and cruel like those other children and now was the opportunity to prove he was true to his word. Hadn't Chris always said that when a man had nothing left, didn't he still have his word?

"Yes," Billy offered Quinn a smile. "You're my friend too."

This seemed most agreeable to Quinn and once again he lapsed into silence as he waited for Billy to say something further. Billy, in turn, realized he would get nowhere with Quinn unless he took the initiative. Besides, Quinn said he was bored and there was still a good hour to kill before he had to meet Rain to learn how to surf. Perhaps the transporter chief would be nice enough to teach them both.

"Want to play?" Billy suggested.

"Okay." Quinn nodded. "Where?"

Billy thought quickly and was suddenly struck with inspiration. He climbed off the ledge he had been sitting on and landed on the space next to Quinn. "Come on." He urged eagerly and both boys were soon hurrying down the corridor towards the turbo lift.

Their travels when it came to a close, brought them to Holodeck 2 where Billy was to meet Rain in an hour. Fortune was with them for the room was unoccupied and thus they were able to spend the next half hour running through a series of programs stored inside the vast memory banks of the ship's computer. They began with fun locales such as Buck Wilmington's Jamaica program where there was nothing but stretches of ocean and to Billy's puzzlement, a bevy of scantily clad females walking across the white sands with not a male in sight. The young Vulcan could not imagine how Buck could find the program fun but nonetheless enjoyed the beach.

Using one of Nathan's programs, they went to New Orleans in the middle of Mardi Gras where the entire city was a whirlpool of bright colors and sequined costumes. They followed the procession of light and dancers, reveling in the gaiety that took the breath away if one was well and truly in the mood for such exhilaration. Quinn seemed to enjoy himself and Billy had to admit despite the quirks of his companion's personality, he was too. After New Orleans, they went to Corvix, to the sacred Klingon city where Alexandra Styles perfected her hand to hand combat techniques. However, another aspect of the holy city was its famous temple where clerics performed exhibitions regarding the historical battles of Klingon culture that was also interesting to watch.

There was not enough time for Billy to show all his favorite programs but he could not resist presenting Quinn with the one ranked as his most favorite in the selection. As the alien world of Corvix dissolved around them, the dry, dusty surrounds of town from the Old West replaced the Klingon city. Billy had been here on numerous occasions with his mother and Chris Larabee and he always enjoyed the thrill of watching his Captain and his personal hero, taking on the persona of the hardened gunslinger whenever he stepped into this place.

"What is this?" Quinn asked with fascination as he studied the buildings made of wood and mortar, their shutters and doors clattering with every gust of hot wind. There seemed to be dust on everything and it existed like a sedentary layer to the entire place, including the people in the rugged terrain. Overhead, he could feel the hot sun and see the inhabitants in their impractical clothes, impractical because of the weather, moving up and down the boardwalk going about their business.

"It is called Four Corners in the Old West," Billy remarked as he motioned Quinn to follow him as they hurried down the dirt street towards the building with the sign that read �jail house'. "This is the Captain's favorite program," Billy answered as they hurried along. "When he comes here, all the senior staff does too."

"The Old West," Quinn mused for a moment and then replied. "Earth, the continental United States during the mid 1800's?"

Billy supposed that was a good an answer as any. "Yes," he nodded. "They're all cowboys but don't let Chris hear you say that because he doesn't like being called a cowboy." Billy informed dutifully before continuing with his explanation. "Sometimes Alex, my mother and Julia, they join too and they let me play."

"There's nothing happening." Quinn pointed out as he surveyed the place, unable to deny he was being caught up with Billy's enthusiasm and wanted to see the full applications of the program but not in this limited fashion.

"There will not be," Billy explained, "at least not until Chris and the others get here."

"But I want to see them now." Quinn insisted.

"You cannot," Billy answered, wondering if Quinn knew anything about life on a starship at all. "They're all on duty."

Quinn frowned and cast his eyes across the expanse of the town, wanting to see the place livelier because it had well and truly sparked his interest. He had never come across anything like this in his short life and wanted to share the moment with his newfound friend.

"That doesn't matter. I'll make them come and then we can play." He said with a smile and snapped his fingers.

******

At that instant, Alexandra Styles who was in the process of classifying a gaseous nebula containing thousands of stars, suddenly disappeared from the floor of stellar cartography. The officers around her merely gaped in astonishment as she vanished in a flash of light, leaving behind only the data pad she had been holding in her hand before it was free falling in the air. The device landed on the floor with a loud clatter and immediately sparked the excited conversation of those left behind as they tried to discern what happened to the science officer.

Ezra Standish was standing over the replicator in his office, deciding red roses were going to be the first step in repairing his fractured relationship with Julia Pemberton following the invasion of the ship by the aliens of Accra. He had just finished punching in the code for a dozen long stemmed roses, hoping they would in some way help his case with the love of his life when he too disappeared from the room. His absence witnessed only by the roses that materialized at the same time he was swept away.

Buck Wilmington was going over his reports, wondering how being the first officer could be so thrilling and so mind numbingly dull at the same time. He hated writing crew evaluation reports and wished something would come and take him away from all this.

He got his wish.

Josiah Sanchez was in the middle of listening to Lt. Anderson's issues with insecurity, particularly her concerns about not being able to draw the attention of those who mattered to her work when he dissolved before her like smoke, making the Lieutenant wonder if causing a warp core breach might be simpler than therapy.

JD Dunne who had just ended an exhausting shift because he had been reconfiguring the communications array of the Maverick had only two things in mind when he stumbled into his quarters for the day. One was to shower and clean the day's dirt off his skin. The other was to spend a few blissful hours asleep in his bed. Well, one out of two was not bad.

Julia Pemberton was presently at EPS relay 32 on Deck 34, attempting to replace a burnt out coil. After much wrestling with a hydro-spanner to fit the fixings that needed to be loosened, she managed to pry the damaged coil out of its place. That success was short lived for she vanished soon after dropping the spanner and allowing fluid to pump forth from the loosened relay and bleed onto the deck, creating a neon colored pool in her wake

Nathan Jackson who was poised to sever the umbilical cord on a newborn infant dropped the surgical instrument he had in his hand for the task and disappeared in front of the startled new mother and the equally astonished nursing staff attending him during the birth. Fortunately, one of his junior physicians was able to step in to finish off the delivery by performing the final step of the birthing process and welcoming the child, one James Nathaniel Watson, the newest (and youngest) member of the crew to the Maverick.

Mary Travis had made an interesting discovery in one of Antaria's older texts that could offer an arguing point for the case of compromise between the two warring factions. She immediately jotted down the quote into her voluminous data pad and hoped this was the key she needed to hammer out some kind of peace accord when she was carried away in a flash of light like so many others across the ship at this moment.

Vin Tanner was at helm control ruminating silently about Billy Travis and trying to think up some activity they could do together to take the boy's mind off his troubles. Vin who knew intimately what it meant to be an outcast among one's own people, felt Billy's plight most empathetically and was pleased for once, his experiences could benefit someone else. He had no time to ponder this further because he soon disappeared off the bridge.

Chris Larabee saw the flash of light in front of him as his helm officer disappeared. The captain stood up instantly from his command chair, in readiness to respond to whatever force had taken his best friend, when suddenly he too vanished, not even hearing it when the intruder alert began screaming all across his ship.

Chapter One:
Welcome to Four Corners

All it had taken was a blink of an eye and Chris Larabee was no longer on his bridge.

Though his eyes recognized his surroundings, his brain had trouble registering it for an instant. The setting was familiar of course, even if how he suddenly arrived here eluded him when a moment ago, he was on his bridge. Letting his gaze sweep across the room, Chris was more than acquainted with his new environment. He visited this place on numerous occasions as Chris Larabee, gunslinger, as opposed to Captain Larabee. Clad entirely in black, from the sepulcher colored hat on his brow, to the jet duster covered in just a hint of dust and the pearl-handled guns that hung from the gunbelt around his hips, he looked every bit the part of the Man in Black.

At present, he was in the saloon of the fictional town of Four Corners, existing only in the tales written about the Magnificent Seven and the holodeck setting of his favorite recreational program. The saloon was as authentic as programming could make it with a sultry bartender behind the bar who was serving drinks in small shot glasses and patrons gathered around circular tables playing cards or being entertained by gaudily painted saloon girls. In the background, someone was playing the harpsichord, sending clunky music through the air. The atmosphere was lethargic which was not unusual because it was the afternoon and the sun radiating outside relentlessly had driven away the compulsion to get any work done or the need to leave the cool shade of the building.

Fortunately, he was not alone in his confusion.

Standing next to him at the bar, appearing just as bewildered by their change in circumstance was Vin Tanner. The helmsman was also wearing the clothes he normally did when engaging in this program. Vin's costume was most prolifically a coat made of hide. According to the times, Chris had deduced long ago it was meant to be buffalo. In this universe, Vin was not his officer of the con but rather his trusted second and a formidable tracker. Vin was wearing a slouch hat, the kind meant to be popular with army scouts back in the days when combating Indians was a national pursuit. Vin always seemed to be wearing a different shirt and a multitude of colorful scarves against his hide pants.

"Chris." Vin found his voice to speak. "What the hell just happened?"

"I don't know," Chris answered automatically, his eyes fixed on the people in the saloon, wondering if they were what they seemed, holodeck recreations or the ones responsible for bringing them here. "We were on the bridge."

Suddenly footsteps were heard walking rapidly towards the batwing doors that served as the entrance to this place. The footsteps were short and not very loud but there was no doubt the person approaching was making great haste to reach the doors. A few eyes shifted towards the doorway in anticipation of the new arrival and instinctively, Chris dropped his hand to the pearl-handled weapon at his hip. In this environment, it was a natural instinct and his mind though slow at first to accept where he was soon adapted his psyche to survive in this new environment.

The instinct was mirrored in Vin Tanner as well, for the helmsman made similar motions towards the sawn-off rifle he had sitting in the makeshift holster fashioned to hold the weapon, slung around his lean hips. Both men were reluctant to shoot, especially when this could all turn out to be some elaborate joke by one of their comrades. However, were it not, they wished to be ready for any unexpected danger. Although holodeck safety protocols would ensure they would not be harmed, the mystery about this situation warranted the precaution.

The shadow of the new arrival proceeded the actual entry itself and when the figure did move into their line of sight, Chris found himself growing more and more convinced this had to be someone's idea of a joke. Someone, he thought silently, who was going to be spending the next month, cleaning EPS conduits with a toothbrush. If he were a betting man, Chris would have placed all his money on the odds of that someone being Buck Wilmington.

Mary Travis stepped into the saloon and immediately found him with her gaze. Her blond hair was forced into a tight bun at the back of her head and she was dressed for the period in a floral dress that covered her modesty appropriate for the era. She walked toward him, oblivious to the disapproving stares being sent in her direction by the patrons who felt it improper for a good Christian woman, such as herself since they saw her as the character she played, to be in a saloon. Whenever Mary accompanied Chris to the program, she normally played the part of the feisty newspaper reporter.

"What the hell is going on?" She demanded upon reaching them, her cheeks flushed as she unashamedly revealed her displeasure. "Is this one of you guys idea of a joke? I just got through sorting out more religious dogma then I care to wade through in my entire life and found the perfect point that will sort this Antarian situation out and I get beamed out of my quarters into my newspaper office!"

"Hold on Mary," Chris said quickly, trying to calm her down. She was rarely moved to this level of irritation but when she was, even the Captain of the Maverick was smart enough to take cover. "I didn't do this. In fact, me and Vin are just as pissed off since we were on duty on the bridge, when we were brought here."

"So you didn't deactivate the archway?" She looked at him, puzzlement and worry starting to seep into her skin and she suddenly felt very uneasy.

"Deactivate the arch?" Chris's eyes widened ever so slightly but in truth, he was just as shocked as she was. "Vin."

The helmsman nodded and looked around, not wishing to be seen but decided what did it matter since they were being viewed by a bunch of images produced by light and magnetic containment. Besides, the minute they stepped out of here, everything in this world would cease to exist anyway.

"Computer, arch." He called out, waiting for the doors to slide open so that they could step out of this holodeck fantasy. However, seconds tumbled past with no evidence of an arch or anything remotely resembling a door appeared before them while eyes continued to stare at them in curiosity.

Vin glanced at Chris and then tried again. "Computer, exit."

Once more, the same inactivity followed and this time, Chris decided to take a turn. "Computer, command override, authorization, Captain Larabee."

"I think you had enough," the bartender behind the counter remarked as she walked past the three of them. Buck had programmed the simulation so she would look like Inez Recillos, much to the woman's chagrin. Despite Inez's insistence, Buck could not bring himself to change the lovely countenance as he put it, of the bartender. "Your drinks are getting to your head." She gave them a look of disapproval that did not look unlike the original.

Chris frowned and looked at the two officers with him. "Let's take this outside."

Without looking behind him to see if they were following, Chris strode out of the saloon. Eyes followed him as he moved across the floor and he wondered how much of this had to do with their peculiar behavior or the imposing persona he was meant to have in this holodeck town. He supposed it was probably the latter since the reaction he garnered every time he made eye contact with someone other than Mary and Vin was met with a quick about-face. Chris put these concerns aside for the moment, more interested in learning for certain if the exit protocols for the holodeck was as disabled as they appeared. While this had all the trappings of one of Buck's pranks, even the first officer knew better than to lock out the Captain's access without a monumental death wish.

They stepped outside into the open air and immediately blinked as the noonday sun shone brightly in their eyes after the dim lighting inside the saloon. No one was watching them as they emerged even though everyone noticed their arrival. Chris Larabee was not someone whose gaze you held unless you had good reason for it. He could see that look in their faces as they turned away and went about their business.

"Chris!" Buck Wilmington called out as he hurried down the steps from one of the rickety structures that passed for buildings in this place. From the window, a brunette with wild tousled hair and not much on, waved after him.

"Come back, Buck!" She wailed. "You don't have to be in such a hurry now."

Chris, Mary and Vin could only watch as Buck Wilmington descended down the steps, one hand pulling up his britches, the other keeping a firm hold on the rest of his clothing. The expression on his face was not one of mischief as he was normally prone to displaying on occasions like this for the man had no concept of shame or embarrassment, but rather concern as marked by the frown he was wearing. Some of the townsfolk had started to laugh in amusement, with women bowing their heads and tittering to themselves while the men did not bother with such subtlety and openly guffawed. They were shaking their heads and laughing, telling themselves this was just another Buck Wilmington moment.

"Chris," Buck fairly growled when he reached them. "I know you got a strange sense of humor but you mind warning me the next time you decide to pull one of your tricks?"

Chris, Vin, and Mary exchanged glances before looking at Buck.

"You didn't do this?" Chris asked, certain that this was Buck's ruse.

"No I didn't do this!" Buck retorted sharply, looking somewhat hurt they would even consider he would do something so stupid. "I was working on reports and the next thing I knew, I was lying in bed next to that." He shifted his gaze at the window the brunette had retreated into after she had made her impassioned plea for his return.

"And this is bad how?" Mary replied with a completely straight face. "I was under the impression finding yourself in the bed of a strange woman is not exactly a unique experience."

Despite the growing seriousness of the situation, Vin could not help but remark. "She got you there Buck."

"How would you like to be monitoring gaseous anomalies for the next month, lieutenant." Buck returned irately.

Vin shrugged off the threat, knowing that it was just Buck's way of venting but having done so, he started to feel a little anxious realizing the list of perpetrators who could carry out this ruse were starting to become uncomfortably short. JD simply did not have the nerve to transport them all here and program the computer to disregard Chris's authority. Aside from the fact Chris would most likely resume the practice of keelhauling, JD had too much adoration for his Captain to pull a prank like this.

Ezra on the other hand did have the expertise, not only in bypassing command recognition but also in transporting them here through the Maverick's formidable internal alarms preventing an enemy ship from simply beaming crew away. However, Ezra had neither the disposition nor the emotional frame of mind for such mischief these days. The security chief was still nursing a broken heart following his splintered relationship with Julia Pemberton.

It could be transporter chief Rain, who Vin was getting along with famously because she had his own absurd sense of humor but once again, it came down to the obstacle of removing Chris's authorization. Only a command level officer could get away with it and although Alex was quite capable, she did not have the patience for tricks and would have selected another simulation because she did not like this one and tolerated it only for his sake. Josiah and Nathan were too sensible for such nonsense and Julia Pemberton fell under the same category as Ezra, too wounded to be in the mood for jokes.

"Okay," Mary spoke up. "This is starting to get creepy. Buck, we can't get out."

Buck stared at Chris. "What do you mean we can't get out?"

"Like she says," Chris's scowl became deeper as his eyes moved across the town, wondering who among the townsfolk was responsible for the situation he and his crew found themselves. "The arch doesn't respond to voice commands."

"Even your override?" Buck's eyes widened the more he was told.

"Even mine." Chris nodded unhappily.

"Are we the only ones here?" Buck asked once more.

"It's a safe bet we aren't." Vin replied before Chris could. "Chris and I got taken at the same time and I'm pretty sure the same goes for Mary too. I think we all got swept out of where we were at the same time."

"Okay," Chris started to think about this a little more deeply. "Mary, where did you appear?" He turned to the blond and noted secretly to himself, he was issuing a standard order when they got out of here she was never to wear her hair up whilst on his bridge.

"In my newspaper office." Mary remarked. "Remember, I play the intrepid news editor who tries to set the town on the path to law and order."

"That's right." Vin nodded. "Buck, was with a lady which is usually in character since he's the scoundrel remember?"

"And since we're always in the saloon together," Chris added in full agreement with Vin's hypothesizing. "That's where we appeared."

"So Josiah who is something of a preacher, will be in his church?" Mary ventured a guess.

"I think so." Chris nodded, becoming more and more confident all his comrades were here, particularly those who indulged in the Magnificent Seven holodeck program. "Nathan ought to be at his infirmary, JD at his jailhouse since he's the greenhorn sheriff and Ezra should be at one of the hotels, trying to con the locals out of their money."

"What about Alex and Julia?" Mary asked. "They're not the seven but they are apart of the literature."

"True," Buck remarked and then pointed out. "But remember, they were add in characters who came in later. They were not apart of the original literature created with the seven."

"Does it matter?" Vin looked at the first officer. "Besides, I've only got Alex to come to this program one time."

"Hell nobody forgot that." Buck rolled his eyes in sarcasm, remembering how much fun that had been. The science officer made it clear the only reason she was participating was that she had allowed herself to be talked into it by Vin and spent most of the time, complaining about the clothes and the backseat women were forced to take during this time.

"It wasn't that bad." Vin retorted but could not deny even he had difficulty tolerating Alex's annoyance and learnt his lesson well and truly by then. She simply did not have the patience to be treated an anything less than an equal and thus whenever she joined him in this program, it was normally just the two of them and they spent it riding. In the end, Vin had to admit he liked it better that way.

"Yes, it was." Both Mary and Chris said in unison. Vin gave them a look only to be met with a triumphant smirk on Buck's face.

"Alright," Chris spoke up a moment later, reminding everyone that jokes aside, they were still in a very strange and tense situation. "Assuming Alex and Julia are here, where would they be?".

"Julia is the emporium owner," Mary answered automatically.

"And Alex was supposed to be the new doctor." Vin offered.

"Alright then," Chris nodded, having something of a plan of action for the short term. At the moment, he was more concerned with making sure all their number was complete before they attempted to figure out how they had come to be here and for that matter, how they were going to extricate themselves from their present situation. "Mary, you and Buck go find Alex and Julia. Vin and I will find Josiah, Nathan and JD. It shouldn't be that hard since this isn't a bustling metropolis and chances are, they will be just as determined to find us as we are."

"Good idea," Buck replied, pleased they had some kind of plan in motion since his confusion over their entire situation was mounting. "If we get Julia here, she should be able to find out how we can access the holodeck controls and get the exit back up."

"That's true," Mary said glancing at Chris before remembering something else. "Chris, we have to get out of here. We're expected by the Antarians in a day. If we do not get there in time, we could be the reason for the genocide of their species."

Chris had not forgotten that at all. In fact, it was one of the primary reasons why he was so intent on getting them out of here. The Antarian crisis was sitting at a razor's edge at the moment, with either side poised to take decisive action if mediation did not provide results. As it was, factions on either side, were itching for any reason to justify abandoning the peace process and the absence of the mediating team required to bring about that peace would serve their purpose well enough.

"I'm well aware of that Mary," Chris said with just a hint of tension in his voice for her to realize that despite their surroundings, he was still Captain and their relationship had boundaries she could never cross for it to work.

"I'm sorry Chris," she responded, feeling a little-ashamed thinking he might forget about the Antarians when they were relying on both of them to prevent planetary mass destruction.

"It's alright," he answered, hand on her cheek as a gesture of forgiveness. "I'm worried about what's going to happen to them too."

Buck and Vin pulled back a moment, allowing the couple a quiet instant alone. Like most of the ship, Vin and Buck heartily approved of the relationship between Chris and Mary even if it was for differing reasons. For Buck, he was happy to see Chris was starting to let go of Sarah and Adam. It had taken him a long time to put the past behind him and start living his life without them. Mary with her own losses in her life seemed perfect because Chris in his own way, could help her deal with her grief as Buck had once helped Chris with his.

Vin had more simplistic reasons being that he liked seeing the two people who meant so much to him, salve the wounds within each other. Chris Larabee was his best friend and he could read the Captain's moods better than anyone, even Buck Wilmington, and could see the sadness that pervaded his eyes at times. Vin had more idea of how much weight Chris carried on his shoulders as Captain and was happy Mary could make that burden somewhat easier to bear.

When the tender interlude had passed, Chris turned back to the others in his party with the expression on his face that said clearly he was ready to get back to working on their situation.

"Alright, people, let's move like we got a purpose."

*****

Transporter Chief Rain was unimpressed she was forced to be late for her appointment with Billy Travis at Holodeck 2. Although she had been running errands for the last hour, she was confident she would be able to keep her promise to Billy about teaching him how to surf. Unfortunately, at the eleventh hour, for these things only seemed to make their appearance then, she was called down to Transporter 3 which had been experiencing some strange power fluctuations. Since the nature of transporter travel was disassembling human atoms and reassembling them again, safety was of the utmost importance and a power fluctuation, though minor in its appearance, was not acceptable in any shape or form.

Thus she had spent the last half an hour beneath the transporter console, checking every wire, relay and diode required to find the problem, which in the end turned out to be a damaged coil that took no more than a second to repair. Rain barely enough time to replace the damaged section with a new part, before dashing back to her quarters in order to change before hurrying out again in order to reach Holo-deck 2. By the time she arrived at the place, she was out of breath and panting. On top of all the other problems Billy must be experiencing being a Vulcan Human hybrid that made him the object of derision by other children his age, she did not mean to add her inability to keep a promise as another.

Rain cared genuinely and deeply for Billy Travis because he seemed so fragile, like something that ought to be put on a shelf and kept away from the ills of the world. She supposed she always had a soft spot for things left abandoned and although Billy had people in his life and a mother who adored him, Rain could see his loneliness. She knew this gesture of holodeck time together was a stopgap measure but she could think of no other that would suffice for the moment.

She was about to reach for the panel activating the holodeck doors when suddenly; she heard red alert signals erupting all throughout the ship. Her heart leaped into her throat for a moment but the sudden burst of noise startled her into jumping a little.

"All hands," the computerized voice echoed through the ship as Rain collected herself. "We have unauthorized transport. Repeat, we have unauthorized transport."

Rain's mind struggled to cope with the enormity of the statement. Someone had evidently bypassed all their security measures in place to keep just such a happenstance from occurring, to spirit members of their crew away. She wondered who had been taken and found herself selfishly hoping it was not Nathan, even though she admonished herself for such thinking a split second later. Unfortunately, the emergence of this crisis meant she was going to have to break her promise to Billy after all, although he had lived on the Maverick long enough to know red alert was nothing to be taken lightly. Pushing the button on the access panel, the doors to the holodeck slid open and she stepped inside the room, expecting to find Billy.

She did not find Billy or anyone else because Holodeck 2 was empty.

Chapter Two:
Top Hat Bob

Despite the fact he was convinced everything in front of him was an illusion, Ezra Standish could not help but feel the reality of it even more potently than usual.

He had been in holodeck programs before and knew their ability to seem real was unquestionable but even he could not distinguish this place as being something conjured up by the make-believe abilities of the ship's computer. As a security officer, he knew the extent of holographic programming. He could have focused on that field of expertise as a career choice in Starfleet if he didn't feel more comfortable specializing in security. Thus, it was not with the eye of a casual observer he marveled at the superior programming that fashioned this world around him. Whoever had been responsible for his presence here was no novice but rather someone with an inordinate amount of skill.

The last thing he remembered was preparing to replicate a dozen roses to present them to Julia Pemberton whom he had intended seeing immediately after their manufacture. For the past few weeks since the Accran invasion of the Maverick, his relationship with the Chief Engineer had almost ground to a complete halt. At first, he endured it, out of guilt and understanding what had transpired between them needed time to heal. However, the more time passed, the more evident it became nothing was being resolved. If anything their problem had placed such a sizeable gap between them that if he did not do something soon, he would lose her forever.

Ezra was too much in love with the titian hair beauty to let it happen. He knew from the minute he laid eyes on her, Julia was the one for him. Such clarity regarding matters of the heart was rare for him so he recognized the significance when visited by the epiphany that was seeing her the first time. The Accrans, who were disembodied alien entities, had inhabited the bodies of the female members of the Maverick's crew when the receptacle of their consciousness had been brought on board the ship. In order to return to their homeworld, they were forced to take the ship and the creature inhabiting Julia's body was chosen to deal with the security officer. She seduced him into believing he was making love to the woman who meant everything to him when in truth, she was an alien entity assigned to keep him busy while the others of her kind invaded his ship.

After she was freed of her captivity, Julia saw what he did as an act of betrayal even though she did not come out and say it. Although she assured him she did not blame him for he could not have possibly known, Ezra was certain she did blame him. After weeks of hoping the time apart would mend the broken bridges between them, Ezra decided enough was enough. He refused to let their relationship end this way and had come to the conclusion decisive action was required. Ezra had planned to confront her because he could not stand being away from Julia anymore. The void she left in his existence was more than he could stand and Ezra was determined to make her understand he had not betrayed her. However, as luck would have it, the moment he summed up courage enough to act on that decision, he was spirited away from his quarters to find himself in this place.

Ezra knew where he was of course.

He visited the fictional town of Four Corners enough times to recognize its surroundings almost immediately. He materialized in the middle of a card game, in period costume and facing a group of holodeck opponents who looked at him with impatience as they waited for him to deal the cards in his hands. For a few seconds, the security officer simply sat before the group, trying to come to grips with what had just happened and accustom himself to his present circumstances. A sigh of relief finally escaped his companions at the table when he forced his fingers to work and began handing out the cards.

As a security officer trained in covert operations and tactical response, Ezra's lapse was brief and his ability to settle into character was equally swift. Even though he was taken by surprise, the nature of his work and his role on the Maverick made him recover faster than most. As he dealt the cards wearing an expression on his face that appeared to be of perfect calm, no one would have guessed the flurry of thoughts moving through his head as he tried to understand how this had come to pass.

Ezra looked around the room, letting his eyes sweep across the hotel saloon where his character, the gambler who made up one of the Magnificent Seven was presently fleecing tourists to the town with games of chance. Although Ezra enjoyed the simulation as did the Captain and all the other members of the senior staff who joined him in these escapes from reality, he was not happy at being placed here with no idea how it had happened. He continued the charade as he continued playing the game of poker with his opponents, all the while noticing everything. Those at the felt-covered table took no offense at this since, in his fancy clothes of the fine tailored burgundy coat and crisp white shirt, there was no doubt he was a professional gambler and noticing everything was a tool of the trade.

It did not take long for Ezra to realize this program was not the program he and the senior staff enjoyed themselves in on so many occasions. It was a copy but there were textures and details in this version that claimed it to be the far superior of the two. From the old men across the street, taking shade underneath the awning of Gloria Potter's store to the dog following a group of children down the street, the attention to the tiniest aspect of this town had not been ignored. He could see red ribbons in the braided hair of one of the young girls in the party. Even the scents were as realistic as the images before him. The smell of tobacco and whiskey, the dry heat against his cheek and even the way the wind blew outside, all looked so real.

"Computer," Ezra spoke out. "Halt program."

Nothing happened except the fact his companions were staring at him as if he had said something in Swahili.

"What are you talking about Standish?" A particularly grizzled prospector type demanded in question.

Ezra ignored him and tried again, refusing to give up without another try. "Computer, arch."

"What's a computer?" Another opponent inquired, looking at his companions in bewilderment before facing Ezra again.

Once again, Ezra's expression revealed he felt nothing odd about his statement even though inwardly, the security officer's worst fears were confirmed. He was trapped in this simulation and could not escape. "I am merely thinking out loud," he responded clearing his throat. He knew that as an excuse, it was rather weak but had no time or explanation for something more elaborate or plausible. "I apologize for the distraction."

"Well," the prospector rumbled, stroking his graying beard as he answered. "You gotta try better than that to distract us into losing."

"I assure you," Ezra offered him a little smile. "Should I resort to those kinds of tactics in order to secure my victory, you would not be able to resist."

A small ripple of laughter swept through the table and Ezra maintained the persona required for the program even though silently, he was thinking fast and hard about the rising urgency of this situation. If the exit protocols were down, did that also mean the safety protocols were disabled? As entertaining as the Magnificent Seven program was, it was also extremely dangerous and not something that ought to be visited without safety protocols in place. Ezra knew the story of the seven men who defended a small town in the West during the 1800's as well as the rest of his comrades who indulged in this program. The seven faced dangerous enemies and if the safety protocols were disengaged then Ezra would be facing those villains on equal footing. Simulation or not, they could die in here.

That was not a prospect he was looking forward to.

Fortunately, he did not have to face that uncomfortable possibility alone for no sooner than the realization crossed his mind, he saw the Captain and Vin Tanner making their appearance in the establishment. At least, he hoped it was them. In this make-believe world, it was not beyond the realm of possibility they could be holographic projections like everyone else in this place. Upon seeing Chris and Vin appear, Ezra found the perfect excuse to deal himself out of the game. Making polite apologies that were met with indifference because his opponents could not care less what he did, as long as it had nothing to do with their money, Ezra left the table to join the Captain and Vin who had taken up position next to the bar.

"What is going on?" Ezra asked gingerly as he took his place at their side. He was still uncertain whom he was dealing with an allowed Chris to speak first about their situation.

"I don't know," Chris shook his head and answered. "But it's not just you. Mary's here and so is Buck. Vin and I were on the bridge when we got taken."

"I see." Ezra let out a sigh of relief, not simply because he was not alone in his captivity, but because Chris's mention of the bridge indicated he was talking to the Captain of the Maverick and not the gunslinger native to this program. "Do we have any idea how?"

"If it's a transporter beam, it's the fastest one I've ever seen," Vin remarked. "There was nothing to let us know it was coming, not even a hum or any shimmer. We blinked and we were here."

"That's extremely disconcerting," Ezra remarked. "I had hoped it was one of our crewmen with a strange sense of humor and a monumental desire to spend some time in the brig."

"No, it wasn't Buck." Chris deadpanned. "We're operating under the assumption the primary cast of characters has been brought to the holodeck to take part in the program."

"That means, the entire cast of the seven." Ezra nodded in understanding. "I believe the newspaper editor was also a part of the original literature, which may explain why Lieutenant Travis is here as well."

"We're not sure whether  Julia and Alex are here," Vin volunteered. "Buck and Mary have gone to look for them."

At the mention of Julia's name, Ezra stiffened a little even though his professionalism forced him to maintain his neutral expression. Ezra and Julia had not been in the same room for longer than a few minutes since things had gone wrong between them. Ezra found himself praying she was not here as well because this was not the setting he wanted to make things right between them. If Chris and Vin noticed Ezra's discomfort, neither said anything about it, perfectly aware of the situation between the security chief and the chief engineer as well.

"We should get to the rest of our number and assume whatever brought us here chooses not to make its move until then."

"Whatever brought us here?" Chris raised a brow at that idea. He assumed it was someone who had transported them to the holodeck, not a something, and yet he had come across species with extraordinary powers of teleportation before to know Ezra's suggestion was not implausible. In fact, the truth was, Ezra was quite astute in assuming this entire situation could have been precipitated by something entirely unknown.

"I have bad feeling gentlemen," Ezra swept his gaze across the room and before turning back to the Captain. "I do not believe this is our program."

"If not ours, whose?" Vin inquired quizzically, feeling a knot in his stomach when he thought they might be in deep trouble rather than simply being trapped in a holodeck program with no visible means of escape.

"I do not know," Ezra shook his head. "However, since the exit commands do not work, I fear the same may apply for the safety protocols as well."

"Aw hell�." Chris started to groan. He forgot all about that.

With the possibility of what that might entail quickly sank in, a new voice suddenly entered the mix of his thoughts and was immediately identified as someone he did not know.

"It's been a long time Larabee." The man's voice was a growl and Chris turned around to find himself facing a rather rotund behemoth with an eye patch wearing a beaten and worn top hat, like the kind favored with formal fashions of four hundred years ago. He approached with a cadre of similarly disgruntled companions who took flanking position next to him as they filed into the room. As they did, the patrons of the saloon chose to do the exact opposite and following the stampede, the Maverick officers found themselves facing the new arrivals in what was almost classic standoff pose.

"Who is this guy?" Vin whispered in Chris's ear as the three stared at the group. There was no doubt in this mind the situation was about to go from worrying to downright ugly in a matter of seconds.

"Beats me," Chris responded with a slight shrug.

"Well he certainly remembers you," Ezra declared, wishing he had a phaser but had to be content with the weapon of his choice for his character, the six-shooter resting comfortably in its holster and the small derringer beneath his sleeve.

"Can I do something for you?" Chris asked coolly, even though the man's glare left no mistaking what he wanted.

"You can die Larabee." The man answered, almost spitting out the words when they left his lips. "I've waited for this day for a long time and now I aim to have my revenge."

"Mister, I don't even have a clue who you are." Chris returned, not really in the mood for this. He was more interested in getting his people out of this holodeck simulation, not become actively involved in its programming.

"You say you don't even remember Top Hat, Bob?" He hissed, almost outraged by the notion that the object of his hatred and vengeance did not even have the courtesy to remember who he was or how he had been wronged.

"Top Hat," Ezra nodded in understanding. "I see that is why you wear that..." He gestured to the man's hat. "Very clever."

His sarcasm was obvious.

"Top Hat, is it?" Chris looked at the man with clear disinterest. "I don't know who you are and if I did anything to you, I'm sorry but I don't want to fight you."

"That ain't what I heard," Top Hat seemed to smile, his lips pulled back to show rotten teeth beneath his mustache. "I heard you're a killer and after all these years, I ain't about to fade away now that I got you in my sights. So whether you remember me or not is really your problem cause I'm aiming to get my pound of flesh one way or another."

"I am quite amazed," Ezra spoke up and everyone turned to him for a moment. The tension, following those sharp and intense words, dwindled somewhat as Top Hat regarded the southerner in his fancy clothes. "That you would even be able to quote Shylock."

Vin rolled his eyes and gave Ezra a look, which was about the only thing he could do because no more than a second later, Top Hat Bob went for his gun. All three men dove for cover behind the bar as a hail of bullets exploded from the discharge of several weapons at once. The projectiles lodged themselves into the wood of the counter and shattered the glasses stack neatly on the shelves behind it. Bottles shattered under the onslaught, sending glass shards in all directions and rained liquor around their ears.

"Smooth Ezra!" Vin shouted as he reached for his Winchester to fire back. The helm officer rolled onto his knees and poked his head over the edge of the counter to see Top Hat Bob and his men spreading out to varying points in the room. He used the edge to brace the rifle and pulled the trigger. An audible click followed but nothing else.

"What the hell!" He swore.

"You have to prime that thing first!" The security chief shouted with exasperation. "It's a lever action Winchester rifle!"

"But it always worked before!" Vin returned just as vehemently and had to drop back under the cover of the bar when another bullet whizzed past his ear at such close proximity, he was certain he felt its heat singe his hair.

"Just get down!" Chris barked and unsheathed his own weapon, glad he was not using anything as complicated as a rifle and prepared to return fire. The peacemaker felt good in his hand and fitted easily into his palm as if he had used it all his life. Bullets were exploding in all directions, the lamps overhead had been obliterated by stray fire and Chris wondered momentarily which idiot was trying to shoot them by aiming at the ceiling. The floor was covered with fragments of glass, some having been shot at while others broke when Top Hat Bob's gang had upended tables in order to use them for cover.

He pulled the trigger of his gun, spinning the chamber around in order to achieve some sort of rapid firing action when suddenly, instead of discharging, the entire mechanism dropped onto the bar counter and rolled across its length before falling down on the floor and disappearing amongst the debris. From behind the bar where Ezra was presently showing Vin how to prime his weapon, Chris heard a litany of words from the chief of security that was enough to make him blush.

He did not think Ezra knew how to swear like that.

"Get your rear end back down here, Sir," Ezra grumbled and yanked Chris back to safety behind their hiding place.

"What just happened?" Chris said mystified, staring at the gun in a mixture of embarrassment and disbelief.

"Give me that!" Ezra snatched the gun away from his captain and pushed his own weapon into the man's hand. "You do not spin the chamber of these weapons like a spinning wheel Captain, they had a tendency to fall out!"

"It always worked in the program!" Chris returned, feeling even more foolish because he felt like a grandstanding teenager. This was the kind of thing JD was caught doing, not him!

"This isn't the program!" Ezra returned. "This is real..."

Even as he said those words, the anger in his voice disconnected and it drifted into revelation. Inadvertently in his anger, the security chief stumbled upon the unbelievable truth. For a moment, all three men stared at each other because they knew he was right. They knew the reason they were unable to call up the exit in order to escape the program, or why the computer did not respond to anything, not even an authorization code from the commander of the ship, the one person whose voice it could deny nothing. It explained quite clearly why their weapons were behaving as they were and why the safety protocols had been disengaged.

Knowing what they faced made things simpler to deal with as far as Chris was concerned. They had to get out of here and regroup. Somehow, they needed to understand how this could have happened. Chris stopped thinking of this situation as annoying because it was not that at all, any one of them could die in this place if he did not start remembering he was a starship captain. Chris looked around and decided he was not going to waste their time shooting this out with Top Hat Bob, not at least until he understood why they had been brought here.

"Vin get me that bottle!" He ordered the helmsman.

The bottle in question was one of the few that had not been damaged during the shooting. The Vulcan scrambled across the floor, trying to avoid cutting his hands to ribbons over the spray of glass from the resulting damage to the shelves and the liquor bottles housed on them. Vin grabbed the bottle, removing his hand just as a bullet slammed into the place where his arm would have been. Wishing he could go over there and tear Top Hat Bob a new one, Vin reminded himself he was given an order by the Captain.

Handing the bottle to Chris, the Captain reached into his pocket and found a handkerchief, wondering momentarily what a gunslinger was doing with a piece of linen but shook the thought out of his head because he was grateful for its presence. Stuffing the length of material through the mouth of the long-necked bottle, Chris then retrieved the matches he knew was inside his coat because in his holodeck guise he always carried a cheroot with him.

"Captain," Ezra said with a smile. "I had no idea that you were so well versed with ancient weaponry, with the exception of six-shooters."

If looks could kill, the glare Chris gave the security officer would have turned the man to dust.

Once the Molotov Cocktail Chris concocted was well and truly on its way to becoming their only means of escaping this place without killing anyone, Chris flung it over the counter and heard it crash with a piercing explosion of sound.

"Now!" Chris ordered as they emerged from their hiding place and saw the cocktail had done its work, spreading fire across the floor, finding fuel in the debris and giving Top Hat and his cohorts something else to occupy their time as the three men made for the display window. They did not stop for one moment, barely ahead of the bullets Top Hat and his comrades managed to send at them despite the fire keeping them from doing more. Ezra allowed the derringer escape from his sleeve and using it as if he had been born to it, fired one bullet into the center of the glass pane. It shattered spectacularly and immediately came down with a deafening roar as Chris, Vin and Ezra smashed through whatever minor fragments still remained after the small bullet from the derringer was done with it.

Their sudden appearance caused a cry of surprise and shock from those outside and deciding he was in no mood for facing Top Hat Bob again, at least for the moment, Chris decided it was probably best if they made themselves scarce for the moment. The villain was probably right behind them and that did not leave much time for decision making.

"Get to the jailhouse!"

No one argued and immediately made strides towards the center of the local constabulary for the town of Four Corners.

Ezra glanced back long enough to see what effect their gunfight with Top Hat Bob and his gang had upon the saloon. The place was ablaze and almost every piece of furniture was destroyed. Everything glass was broken and what liquor bottles remained intact would not do so when the fire reached them. Ezra let out a sigh as they made their way to the jailhouse, praying they could escape this place.

Or else they were never letting him back in there again.

Chapter Three:
Mr Wickes

It did not take Mary or Buck very long to find Alexandra Styles.

The simulation provided Alex's character with a clinic on the far side of town on the rare instances she chose to take part in the program. Alex had made it abundantly clear on numerous occasions she was an unwilling participant and mostly found herself here because Vin Tanner was the one person she did not have the ability to say no to. Mary smiled inwardly as she thought about the abrasive science officer attempting to blend in with this environment. Even though Alex was more than capable of surviving in the rough and tumble existence of the Old West, she was incapable of doing so while constrained in the protocols of behavior expected of women during the period.

Corsets and women with Klingon upbringings did not mix well, Mary thought with another little smile.

They continued across town, marveling at the amount of detail in the program, so absent from the one they visited in the holodeck during their recreation hours. At first, they had assumed they were in the same program Chris loved so much but as they moved through the town, it became increasingly clear this was not the same. There was the definition in what they were seeing was far superior to anything capable of being produced in their holodeck and yet it was impossible it could not be anything but a product of a simulation. Mary found her senses being bombarded with smells and textures, of dry wind against her skin and the unmistakable feel of hot air that came with summer heat.

As she and Buck walked down the boardwalk, it felt odd to have so many different characters waving and saying hello to them as if they were truly apart of the town. Although Mary had seen some of the faces before, there was more to it now. Holodeck simulations were enhanced to such a point that its characters were amazingly real but Mary was getting a sense of them that was absent before and though she knew it was impossible, it was disconcerting. The possibility she could be wrong lingered in her mind because her psychic ability was weak at best. While she had impressions, there was nothing decisive she could place her finger on to allege that there was some mischief at a foot, other than the obvious of course. Mary resolved herself to ask Vin if he could confirm what she suspected when they met at the rendezvous point. As a full Vulcan, Vin's telepathic abilities would be able to detect abnormalities if he were to attempt a meld with any one of the characters in the simulation.

"Is it me or is this program a lot bigger than we remember?" Buck asked as they neared the outskirts of town. The collection of dusty buildings had thinned out the further they went and in the near horizon, they could see the onset of the dry New Mexican terrain of which Four Corners was a part.

"It's a lot bigger," Mary confirmed. "I don't remember seeing a blacksmith or a schoolhouse and the Emporium looks way bigger than what was in our program."

"Yeah," Buck nodded in agreement as he looked at the building in question. Their Emporium was no larger than Gloria Potter's store, but the structure that was erected in its place was two to three stories high with bright red awnings and looked like something one would find in the big city, not in a small town. " I noticed." He frowned deeply because Buck was getting one of those feelings that made him suspect they had grossly underestimated the urgency of their situation.

"Maybe we can figure this out when we put all our heads together," Mary remarked. After all, did not the old adage say there was strength in numbers? Mary could not remember for certain but she hated the fact they were at the mercy of this program with no discernible way to escape it. What was happening to the world outside while they were languishing here?

"Maybe," Buck sighed as the clinic came into sight. He was not so certain their combined efforts would yield an answer to the situation they now found themselves embroiled. Like the one in the original Magnificent Seven program, Alexandra Style's clinic was a dual storied building with the practice of the new doctor located on the lower floor and her residence above.

They were about to approach the clinic when suddenly; the front door swung open and Alex strode through the passage before stopping short at the sight of them. Mary and Buck had to pause and look too because Alex did not at all appear like her medical counterpart in this program was meant to. Unlike Mary who was dressed in more clothes than she could tolerate in this hot, stifling environment, Alex was clad in a blouse that could have been of the period and a pair of figure-hugging dark pants. Judging by the cut of them, it appeared to be a garment made for a man but it fitted Alex anyway and the boots she wore were the kind of work worn by farmers, male and female alike.

"Just couldn't stand looking so pretty huh?" Buck said with a smirk as she reached them.

"Very funny," she retorted. "What the hell is going on here? Is this some kind of a joke! I'm in the middle of cataloging a month's work in stellar cartography and the next thing I know, I'm beamed into this holodeck and trapped in this program of all things, unable to get out!"

Mary and Buck exchanged a look before Mary remarked. "Didn't we do this already?" She asked with a little smile.

Buck grinned and turned back to Alex, "Alex, we're stuck too and we don't know what's going on any more than you do. The Captain is here and so is Vin. We're operating under the assumption every one of the senior bridge staff is in the holodeck at the moment. The computer won't even acknowledge the Captain's authorization code."

"That's impossible," Alex said calming down immediately once she realized this was not just someone's twisted idea of a joke but a rather serious problem. "Do you know the kind of programming expertise required to lock out the Captain's codes?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded. "We're talking about a Class 1- Advance here."

"You have a Class 1 don't you?" Mary said staring at Alex.

"Ezra and I are the only ones on board who do." The science officer nodded. "However, to reprogram the computer to let us out of here, we'd have to reach it and we can't while the program is still running."

"Alright," Buck spoke up deciding nothing could be done for the moment and the most prudent course of action was to find the others and meet at the rendezvous point. Whoever brought them here must have a reason and Buck would prefer to have everyone in their line of sight when their abductors chose to escalate the parameters of their captivity. "Let's go find the others and get back to the Captain. I don't like the idea of us being separated like this."

"I don't blame you," Alex agreed as they started moving towards the Emporium which would be their next port of call. Undoubtedly, they were placed in the natural settings of the characters they were playing and thus they would find Julia Pemberton, the owner of the only Emporium in Four Corners at her premises. "It the exits are disabled, it might mean the same for the safety protocols."

Mary looked at the duo sharply. "You mean we could die in here?"

"Yes," Buck said grimly. "If the safety protocols have been disabled and there is no reason to assume that they haven't been if we get hurt, we're going to feel it."

"Oh wonderful," the protocol officer grumbled, becoming less impressed by this whole situation by the minute. "In that case when we get to the Emporium, I'm getting out of these stupid clothes. This dress is too restricting. If trouble comes I'm going to have to move quickly without being hindered by what I'm wearing. Honestly, I have no idea how women in this time survive under all these layers, in this heat."

"Tell me about it," Alex agreed, glancing instinctively at the pants she was wearing. "I can't even imagine how they moved."

"Oh come now," Buck found himself unable to keep from teasing just a little. "I think you ladies look mighty lovely in dresses." He gave Mary a long, appreciating look before turning to Alex and offering the same innuendo filled gesture.

"Spoken like a man," Mary rolled her eyes while Alex smirked in his direction.

"Spoken like a chauvinist pig, more like it."

Buck started to chuckle, enjoying their annoyance and feeling a little bit of the devil surfacing inside him. Slipping his arms around both their waists and pulling them close for a moment, he gave them both a satisfied smile and remarked, "you girls know you're just loving this!"

"Oh give me a break!"

"Drop dead!"

Came two simultaneous replies as they broke free and swatted him across the head and jabbed him in the ribs in the same spirit of mischief he was having at their expense. Buck could not help himself and started to guffaw as they shook their heads, descending into the same mire of laughter after a few seconds because sometimes the only way to look at a bad situation was with a good dose of humor. The momentary bout of playfulness passed with the trio feeling a little more at ease with things as they stood.

However, it was not a moment to last.

The man was big and he was rotund but the cruelty in his eyes and the leer he gave Alex and Mary when he and his cronies appeared out of nowhere (literally) in front of them and blocking their path forward was unmistakable. He had a beard and mustache and had a stink about him that could have been whiskey and tobacco. There were rings on his fingers, the kind that left marks against the skin when employed in the action of battery and as he and his men stood before them, Buck knew instinctively that they were in trouble.

"Hello, Wilmington." He announced himself as his men spread out around the three Starfleet officers.

"Do I know you?" Buck asked, even though he was certain that this creature before him believed so because of his programming.

"You trying to be funny boy?" The man took a step forward in his long tuxedo coat, dust covering the dark fabric, even the tails that hung behind him. His eyes widened and he stared at Buck with something that could only be described as half-crazed mania.

"Listen pard..." Buck felt himself starting to lose patience with all this posturing. They had more important things to do than to attempt to play along with the fantasies of this world and in particular this odious man he was quickly losing patience with.

"That's Mister Wickes to you!" He roared and lashed out, his hand flying towards Buck who stopped it easily by catching the approaching fist in his own and halting its progress any further, not even allowing to connect with skin.

"I don't have time for this," Buck warned in a low voice. "Go away."

Wickes started to laugh and pull back his fist. "I didn't think you had that much balls Wilmington." He retreated a step back and cast his gaze at Alex and Mary consecutively. "Maybe you better start considering you ain't the one who's liable to know what it is to make an enemy of me as much as these whores you have here." Wickes turned his gaze at Mary. "What do you think darling?" He asked derisively. "Think you might like to work off Wilmington's debt to me?'

"What debt?" Alex found her impatience escalating as much as Buck's, despite the man standing behind her with a gun.

"He took some whores from me, made �em think they were real women who had a right to go where they pleased. Don't worry," he looked at Buck once again. "I found where you sent them and had my men take care of it. Don't look like anyone will be getting two bits worth from them again."

Buck's jaw clenched, reminding himself this was a holodeck program. No matter how repulsive this creature might be, none of the words he spoke had any true weight because the characters of the Magnificent Seven program were fictional. Even if it were not, the events he was describing were four hundred years in the past and beyond Buck's ability to change no matter how loathsome Mr. Wickes might be and how provocative his words were to the first officer of the Maverick.

"Well in that case," Buck said preparing to walk past. "I guess we're even."

"You cost me four whores," Wickes returned sharply, taking another step towards Mary. The protocol officer held her ground not prepared to be frightened by this repulsive specimen and prayed he was merely a caricature of villains in the Old West. She hated to think this animal actually had human shape in the past.

"I'm taking this one here," he gave Mary a menacing smile. "And your nigger." He said glancing at Alex. "With both of them on their backs, I might get my money back."

"Go to hell." Mary hissed in response before Buck could.

Wickes reacted swiftly with more speed than either Mary or Buck gave him credit and his ring-laden fist connected with her cheek with hard impact. Mary tumbled to the dirt, feeling her face flare in pain as she tasted blood in her mouth where she had involuntarily bitten the inside of her cheek. The side of her face stung and she was half-aware of Buck moving forward before someone jammed a gun in his back and kept him from moving any further.

"You bastard!" Buck swore angrily, finding nothing that affronted him more than seeing a woman hit.

"Buck!" Mary managed to say before he did something they would all regret. "I'm okay!" She said quickly, aware he would act and in doing so would get himself killed. Wickes was waiting for an excuse to kill him but at this moment, seemed content with posturing and toying with his victims first. She had seen men who craved power with such bloodthirsty delight during her years as a protocol officer in the diplomatic corps to know that Wickes was a sadistic brute. He wanted to torture Buck, not just physically but emotionally and hurting her and Alex was the way to do it.

"Listen to the gal," Wickes chuckled, exultant in his power at the subjugation of the enemy. "You're a smart one ain't ya honey?" He took another step towards Mary, who pulled back this time. "I'm looking forward to getting to know you a whole lot better." The glint in his eyes left no mistaking what were his intentions towards Mary if he was allowed to work his twisted will upon her.

Alex who had been quietly watching everything transpiring in the last few minutes was revisited with images from her own past that were simply too close to home. Like Buck, Alex kept telling herself this was simply an illusion of light and magnetic containment, that as repulsive as Mr. Wickes might appear, he was not real. He was a figment of their imaginations given life by the holodeck and thus hating him would be an expenditure of emotion pointless for he was not alive to appreciate it.

However, as she stood there watching Mary's face cut and bleeding from where he had struck her, watched his eyes take on that sinister expression Alex recognized all too well, she knew none of what was logical mattered at the moment. The blood Mary had on her face was real. The memory of what this animal intended to do to her would be real and the agony she would endure for the rest of her life despite the fact Mr. Wickes was a hologram would also be real. She knew personally what it was like to go through that kind of hell and now the effects upon her psyche were starting to dissipate, she would spare herself reliving the nightmare by seeing Mary endure it.

"Okay," Alex let out a deep sigh. "I've just about had as much of this shit as I'm going to take."

Wickes started to turn towards her when Alex spun around so quickly the cohort holding a gun to her did not pull the trigger, stunned that a woman could move that fast. He raised his hand to fire and when he did, Alex caught his arm and aimed it in the direction of the man closest to them. Without missing a beat, she forced him to pull the trigger and a single bullet escaped the barrel to slam hard into his companion's sternum. The man let out a short scream as he went down but Alex was far from done. Without pausing to catch a breath, she repeated the maneuver twice in a flurry of movement no one had expected.

Realizing his comrades were in danger, the man holding the gun on Buck became momentarily distracted, giving Buck the opening he needed. The first officer turned around and threw his fist into the man's face, while his other hand snatched the gun away. His would be killer staggered to the ground and Buck dropped onto his knee to shove the weapon into the man's throat as he struggled to shake off the disorientation of Buck's punch. The feel of cold metal against his skin did that more effectively than any disjointed effort on his part.

Meanwhile, Alex had downed two of Wickes's men and was contending with the one she had been using as a shield and her shooter. He was struggling to break out of her grip when she slammed an elbow into the crook of his arm. A loud sickening crack ripped through the air as the sound of breaking bone sent shudders through those who heard it. The gun in his hand fell to the ground and the breakage was followed by a high piercing scream, cut short when Alex sent her palm into his throat and brought him down like a sack of potatoes.

Realizing he would soon be in a position of weakness, Wickes immediately went for Mary but while he had caught the protocol officer unawares earlier, this time he had no such advantage. Although Mary was not a combat specialist like Alex, Vulcan tenets required all members of their race even by marriage, to learn how to protect themselves. Her husband, a former starship captain, absolutely insisted on it. She had more than enough skill to stop his advance.

Kicking out her leg, she connected first with his knee and took pleasure in the howl of pain he emitted when he was brought down. Mary got to her feet quickly enough and threw a high kick that connected with his chin and sent him sprawling. She could see a trail of blood in mid-air as he fell backward and was certain some teeth were loosened. Mary did not intend to let him recover and let him remain in the dirt long enough for her to press the heel of her boot in the hard rise of his Adam's apple. Wickes started to choke as Mary glared down at him and the man's eyes widened as he stared back at the protocol officer, trying to swallow when he realized he had seen killers with kinder eyes.

"Nothing to say, Mr. Wickes?" Mary wiped the blood from her lips and her cheek, pushing her heel down harder against the man's throat and elicited a raspy cough when she asked her question. "I guess it's not so easy when we can fight back is it?"

"Fuck you!" He gasped hoarsely. "I'll...kill...you!"

Mary pushed down her heel even further until his ability to speak dwindled to more bouts of gasping and choking.

"Mary...." Buck wondered whether she would kill him. It was not after all inconceivable, because Wickes was not really alive to begin with, but her committing the act was another thing entirely.

"For the duration of our stay in this place," Mary ignored the first officer and let the pressure of her heel so Mr. Wickes would be in the mind to pay attention to her words. "Stay away from us Mr. Wickes. Do not assume we are as helpless as we look because I assure you we are not. Come after us again and you'll wish you had died at birth." She punctuated the seriousness of that threat by pushing down sharply, making him scream before pulling her foot away as he was reduced to a violent fit of coughing. He was too engaged in trying to regain his breath he did not notice Buck motioning to the two women under his command it was time they vacated the area.

Behind them, two of Wickes' men lay dead in the dirt. Their blood oozing into the streets, creating saturated puddles in the ground as they lay there motionlessly. The fourth was clutching his injured arm and scrambling towards his employers, having no wish to face the three on his own and unprepared to leave his master who was in a state himself. Wickes was trying to sit up, his round face was red from the lack of air, with tears rolling down his cheeks as he gasped loudly. For the moment at least, he was neither in the position or the health to be of any inconvenience to them.

"That looks bad." Buck winced at Mary's bruised face. Chris was going to have a fit when he saw this, the first officer thought to himself.

"Its okay," she grumbled, flinching a little when she attempted to examine the injury herself. The side of her face where she had been hit was still tender and instinctively, she looked over her shoulder and saw Wickes was still where he was and felt a certain amount of satisfaction knowing she was responsible for his present state. "I'll live."

"I guess that answers our question about the holodeck's safety protocols," Buck said unhappily, knowing Wickes would be back. The hatred Buck saw in his eyes, even though programmed by a computer, was real and no less dangerous. Buck had no doubt Wickes would have killed them all if Alex had not acted when she had. He supposed he was not surprised she would, considering her past dealt with men like Wickes and his treatment of Mary would have undoubtedly opened up a number of old wounds.

"Yes," Alex replied. "Mary, take this." She handed the protocol officer one of the guns she retrieved from Wickes' men in the aftermath of their confrontation.

Mary took the weapon without question as Alex tucked hers into her pants since she did not possess a holster as Buck did. "Thanks." She studied the weapon closely. "I have a feeling that son of a bitch isn't done with us yet." She replied as they neared the steps of the Emporium.

She had seen enough men like Wickes in her time to know that he would not let the matter rest and injury to his pride was a crime he would not forgive unless those responsible were dead. "He'll be back, one way or another."

Unfortunately, neither Alex nor Buck could disagree with her on this point.

Chapter Four:
Poplar

Josiah Sanchez was very confused.

The last thing he remembered was trying to deal with Lieutenant Anderson's issues with insecurity and grimaced at how her therapist disappearing before her eyes while unburdening herself to him was going to play with her treatment. When he appeared within the walls of the church that was the natural environment of the preacher he played in the Magnificent Seven program, Josiah thought this was someone's idea of a joke. Although he loved spontaneity like the next man, the Counselor did not appreciate it when he was in session with a patient.

He materialized before the pulpit and stood there for a few moments, trying to come to grips with the change in his situation, not at all happy by the fact he was removed from his patient and placed in this holodeck simulation without consent. At first, Josiah attributed this bout of mischief-making to the first officer, since practical jokes seemed to be his habit. However, Josiah knew despite the considered opinions of most, Buck did have limits and spiriting someone away without their consent fell under that category. Josiah elected to postpone the debate at who was responsible for his presence here for the moment since he was eager to get back to Lieutenant Anderson who was probably deciding never to trust a Counselor again.

Unfortunately, when he asked the computer to produce the doorway allowing him the escape from this world of shadow and light, nothing had happened. Outside he could still hear the sound of hoofs against gravel surfaces, people talking and going about their business and all the sounds and smells that came with existence in a town of the Old West. Josiah tried several times to coax the uncooperative computer into letting him out of here before he realized he was going nowhere. For a few minutes, he sat down on one of the pews inside the holy sanctuary to consider his thoughts.

There was no way he was getting out of here on his own. He was a Counselor and the science behind holographic projections was so beyond him Josiah could not even put it into words. Yet, he was painfully aware if he did not understand it, he would be going nowhere. He also considered whether he was alone here because if he was sent to the place occupied by the character he played in the simulation, it would be logical to assume the others would have been subject to the same displacement. If that were the case, then Julia Pemberton would also be here because she was also played one of the characters in the Magnificent Seven myth. If anyone could get themselves out from this fantasy world, it was the Chief Engineer of the Maverick, thus Josiah decided he ought to go find her,

The Emporium her character owned was not far from his church and Josiah knew Julia was probably as disorientated as he was. If she was looking to find her way out of this simulated world, he had better find her quickly. He did not want her to leave without him. Josiah stood up to depart when suddenly he saw a man standing at the main doors of the church. His sudden appearance made Josiah jump a little and the Counselor wondered how long he had been standing there.

"May I help you?" Josiah asked, wishing the computer recognized his commands so he could make the character disappear without his requiring to interact with it.

"Mr. Sanchez." The man said slowly. He was a young man, not much older than Vin, Josiah estimated. He was handsome but there was something in his face inherently unappealing to look at for any length of time. His eyes, which were the most telling thing about him, were uncertain, yet calculating. Josiah knew he was only a holographic recreation but whoever designed the character was a genius because Josiah could see a dozen neuroses simmering under those watery colored eyes.

"Yes." Josiah nodded, studying him closely now, tendrils of caution sneaking up his spine.

His visitor was dressed in a suit of tweed and cut in the style of the day. He appeared neatly dressed despite the dust that coated everything in this place with a perennial layer of dust. He watched Josiah closely; placing him under almost as deep scrutiny as Josiah was observing him. For a moment, they appeared like two lions circling each other, waiting for the optimum moment to attack.

"My name is Silas Poplar. I am a Pinkerton detective."

Josiah thought quickly, trying to remember what that name was supposed to mean. "What can I do for a Pinkerton detective?" Josiah answered evasively, hiding the fact he had no idea what Poplar meant by the introduction.

"You travel to Vesta City two days ago," Poplar responded smoothly, his voice was syrupy but seemed to drag across the ground like glass when he spoke.

Josiah supposed Poplar must have been referring to the exploits of his character. "I did."

"May I inquire what you were doing there?" Poplar asked once again and suddenly a flash of insight told Josiah he was being interrogated. He had the tone Ezra Standish used when the personality of the happy go lucky gambler was wiped away for the needlepoint acuity of the security chief.

"Nothing that is any of your concern unless you wish to tell me what this is all about." Josiah countered, suddenly realizing he ought to be careful with what he said around this man. Until he could escape the program, Josiah was at the mercy of the scenario and the characters within it.

Poplar smiled but it was devoid of humor or pleasure. Instead, it looked rather like the expression of an animal bearing its teeth before it lunged in for the kill.

"Of course," Poplar replied politely. "There were two murders in Vesta City at the time of your stay, I believe you were involved."

Josiah showed no reaction. "Really?"

"You seemed unsurprised by the accusation," Poplar declared, his eyes narrowing in calculation. "How is that Mr. Sanchez? Most men would react on some level."

"Are you a student of psychoanalytic behavior?" Josiah looked at him with equal intensity.

"I cannot say that I am." The man gave him a look that showed his surprise at Josiah even knowing that field of study to be able to ask him the question.

"Than you are in no position to interpret human response are you?" The counselor returned. "I am, fortunately, an interested observer of human responses and my reaction is usually indicative of someone who has not committed the crime or have on any level one attached to him. That would explain my detachment would it not?"

"It could mean you are a good actor." Poplar returned, unprepared to be outdone by this preacher in this forgotten town, collecting dust with each breath of wind that happened by.

"And the same could be said of you," Josiah answered, in perfect control of the game they were playing and it was a game they were currently engaged in, there was no doubt in his mind. Poplar was a man who got by on intimidation and Josiah had been in the business of psychoanalysis far too long to not recognize the classic pattern of behavior the man was displaying.

"You've played a lot of games in your life have you, not Mr. Poplar?" The counselor asked softly, using the voice that lulled many patients into complacency. He began to circle Poplar as the man held still, somewhat trapped by the consistency of his words like all those who were supremely arrogant and felt some insular need to hear themselves spoken about as an object under glass. "I wager you are very good at games involving power and subjugation. You enjoy using your authority as a way to keep those you wish to dominate pinned down and unable to fight, perhaps fulfilling some inner need to be strong when you were once not so and were the one trapped in amber, unable to move or scream."

Poplar's eyes flew open and he glared at Josiah with nothing less than hatred as the words bounced off his skin like rain. His breathing had become shallow and when he finally spoke, it was soft and uncertain, not at all like the strong, clear voice that had accused Josiah of murder a few minutes ago. "You're very good at fabrication Mr. Sanchez," Poplar replied. "Perhaps that is how you lured your victims to you."

"Do you have any proof I killed those women?" Josiah stared at him pointedly.

Poplar's bobbing Adam's apple answered for him before the words escaped his lips. "I will find some."

"Then until you do," the counselor started walking towards the door, "I'll be on my way."

He left Poplar in his church without waiting for a response. The man said nothing as Josiah made his departure. The Counselor was certain as long as he remained in this simulation in its present scenario, with no means to alter its programming, his troubles with Mr. Poplar were just beginning.

*****

Josiah did not get very far towards the Emporium when he found himself pausing to join a crowd of people gathered in a side alley, rumbling with discontent as they stared at something he could not see. Although he knew he had no time for such lingering, Josiah could not keep himself from investigating. Whatever was happening, this fantasy world seemed to be the epicenter of it and he ought to be aware of everything if he was to navigate it safely. His approach immediately caused a swell of relief from the townsfolk who saw him not as the counselor he was but rather as one of the seven peacekeepers charged to protect their community.

He was met part way by Mr. Wallis, owner of the hardware store and one of Four Corner's town leaders. The man's expression was grim and appeared as if his last meal had left a bad taste in his mouth. As Josiah and Wallis approached the thick of the crowd, they stepped away for him. Josiah knew immediately whatever they saw had left its mark upon them and braced himself for the worst. Unfortunately, as they parted away and revealed what it was they were gawking at so intensely, Josiah realized he was wise to take such precautions.

Nathan Jackson was leaning over her and when Nathan looked over his shoulder at his fellow crew mate, Josiah knew immediately it did not matter whether or not the creature before him was a hologram or flesh and blood, the doctor felt the death just as deeply. The woman over whom Nathan was kneeling was young and pretty, with light strands of blond hair splayed gently around her head as if the killer who placed her in this resting place, did not wish her to appear disheveled.

She was no more than thirty, Josiah estimated, wearing a red dress with dainty white flowers printed against its crimson backdrop. There were ribbons in her hair and Josiah ached wondering if they were holding those lovely locks in place for expediency or because she wanted to look becoming for someone. However, his observation of her appearance was soon forgotten when he saw how she had been placed in the middle of the street. Laid to rest by someone, who seemed almost reverent in his actions, she looked like she was sleeping rather than dead. Where her eyes should have been staring lifelessly back at him, were two silver dollars, gleaming under the sun. Josiah swallowed thickly and searched for the cause of death.

It was soon made obvious by the ligature marks he spied around her throat.

"How long Nathan?" Josiah asked maintaining the charade before the onlookers, to whom she was someone they knew, someone they saw everyday. Holograms or not, their grief deserved to be respected.

"I can't say," Nathan shook his head. "A few hours."

The doctor made a few more quick examinations of the young woman before pushing himself to his feet. His postures was hunched and disturbed. It was the same manner he displayed when he had to inform someone a loved one was dead. The undertaker and his assistant soon arrived on the scene to take the body away for preparation and eventually burial.

"You've got to catch this man." Wallis turned to Josiah. "You've got to catch him! Our women won't feel safe until you do!"

Josiah cast a gaze at the ladies in the crowd who saw the body, who knew the girl by the sorrow and fear in their eyes. Yes, they would indeed feel that way and rightly so. Everything Josiah could see about this crime indicated this was not the action of someone who had just learnt to murder but rather someone who had honed his craft, probably through a process of trial and error and would hunt his fellow man like a hunter on safari. This would happen again and again until the perpetrator was stopped. For it was an obsession that could end no other way.

"We'll do what we can." Josiah assured him and then cast his gaze to the people around them. "Come on now, you've all seen enough. Let these good men here do what's proper for her." He gestured towards the undertakers who were trying to make their way through the bystanders to take the young woman away.

The crowd withdrew further as the undertakers prepared to remove the body. Some stayed a little longer, wishing to see the entire drama of the body being placed on the stretcher and being removed while others started to go shortly after Josiah finished his speech, realizing he was right. The sideshow was over. Josiah and Nathan looked at each other and waited until Wallis and everyone else had gone from the street before they would discuss the other matter at hand. Wallis returned to his hardware store while the undertakers, solemn in their duty and practiced after so many years of doing the same task over and over again, ferried the young woman away from the street where she was left so heedlessly after her premature death.

Nathan's expression was particularly grey and Josiah wondered what reason was there for such hollowness in the man's eyes. As much as he hated seeing that girl dead, the truth of the matter was simply she was not alive to begin with. She was a creation of the holodeck and if she died here, there would be no soul lost, just the termination of one character from the program.

"What the hell is going on here?" Nathan asked venomously once they were completely alone and could not be heard. "Who thinks its funny to drag me out of a delivery to be placed here, looking over that poor child."

"I don't know," Josiah retorted. "I had the same problem. One minute I was talking to Lieutenant Anderson, the next minute I'm here and the holodeck controls aren't working. I was on my way to find Julia when I saw you."

"Yeah," Nathan nodded having the same idea himself although he had not managed to act on his desire since he materialized in front of a dead body. "Josiah," Nathan paused a moment trying to speak of something bothering him ever since he examined the dead girl. "Do you remember much about the Magnificent Seven legend?"

"No," Josiah shook his head and answered. "Not really. I knew they were seven gunfighters protecting a small frontier town and that there were varying characters, you know obligatory love interests of the day, that sort of thing but none of the specifics."

"Oh." Nathan frowned as they resumed walking towards the Emporium since there was nothing to be done now the young lady was removed. "It's just that I do know something of the legend and I don't remember this story being apart of it."

"What about a Pinkerton detective named Poplar?" Josiah inquired, remembering his encounter with the odious man a short time ago who gave him some form of warning about these murders. Josiah supposed the discovery of a body in Four Corners would give fuel to the fire of Poplar's belief he was somehow responsible for the deaths. The counselor sighed, realizing he would soon get another visit from Poplar, making more wild accusations.

Nathan thought for a moment, seeking for the name in his memory and shook his head when he could not. "I've never heard of him, why?"

"Well," Josiah frowned as he let his gaze sweep across the town. He noticed the summer's day had disappeared behind thick grey clouds and in the distance, the wind was being stirred into frenz, as a dust storm appeared on the horizon preparing to put Four Corners in its path. "I had a visit from him when I showed up here and let me tell you, he thinks I did these murders."

"What?" Nathan looked at him with astonishment, unable to even imagine such a thing. Josiah was one of the kindest men he knew, not only in deeds but also in nature. Even though Josiah appeared burly and rather formidable if taken at face value, the truth was, the counselor was a gentle giant who only engendered trust and respect from every person he ever met. "That's crazy!" Nathan exclaimed in nothing less than outrage and disgust.

"I know that but I also think he is something to be worried about." Josiah commented recalling quite clearly what he had seen in Poplar's eyes. Josiah had been a counselor for a long time and he had seen enough patients in his career to recognize the seeds or aberrant behavior. Poplar had all the symptoms of such a dangerous condition.  "He thinks he's on a crusade and such men have to be watched carefully. No doubt Torquemada probably thought he was really acting on God's word when he tortured all those people, interpreting the voices in his head which were probably his neuroses as the Almighty speaking to him.

"You think he'll come after you even if he can't prove it?" Nathan looked at Josiah with growing concern.

"He looks the kind that's about to slip over the edge. I believe he has sociopathic tendencies and if we are trapped in this simulation with no way out, then we have to deal with him in this environment."

"God." The doctor groaned, realizing at this point how people of his racial distinction were regarded in this day and age. The idea of a doctor being black was almost unheard of and there were people and factions who were prepared to kill to make that a reality. "We better find Julia, quickly."

No sooner than Nathan had made that statement; Julia Pemberton appeared out of the front door of the Pemberton Emporium. The lady was dressed in lavender and looked every much the beauty she was meant to be. Wearing the most expensive clothes in the fashion of the day, Julia breezed down the door and widened her emerald colored eyes with relief when she saw the two men before her. Raising her skirts in order to descend the steps, Julia took dainty steps down the painted wooden steps before stepping onto the street with them. She was clearly glad to see them by the smile on her face.

"Thank God, you guys are here!" Julia gushed. "I thought I was going crazy!"

"You got taken from where you were too?" Josiah asked, his theory that all the members of the bridge crew undergoing this same experience confirmed even more assuredly by the presence of Julia.

"Yes," she nodded. "I was in a maintenance shaft fixing a relay when I came here!"

"Have you also noticed we can't access the holodeck controls?" Nathan remarked, praying the reason for her concern and relief at seeing them was not because she could find no way to escape their prison.

"Yes," Julia nodded with a frown. "I can't get anything to work. The computer won't accept any kind of voice command at all."

"So how do we get out?" Josiah asked gingerly, suddenly having this very bad feeling the reason for Julia's anxiety was because she had not found the solution to their predicament and was just as hopelessly caught in this simulation as they were.

"If I can't access the computer to give me manual control, we'll have to rely on the outside getting us out." Julia gave them both an apologetic expression, wishing she could offer them better news.

"You mean we're stuck here until someone from the outside discovers we're in here!" Nathan cried out with annoyance. "I can't be trapped in here indefinitely! I've got people to tend to! An entire ship who needs my help!"

"Hey," Julia snapped just as sharply, reminding him she was just as helpless as he in this situation. Understanding the technology of this place was something she was a master at and yet she could do nothing to aid their situation. "I am not thrilled about this either. The Maverick is as much your ship as it is mine and while you safeguard the crew, I do the same for the ship and I'm telling you we can't leave. The holodeck is a matter of perception and at the moment for me to find the manual control panel is impossible if the computer is compensating for my visual perception of the simulation. We could be standing right next to the thing but the computer will never let us near it because as far as its concerned, it has to maintain the illusion of Four Corners for us!"

"You know," Nathan threw his hand up in exasperation. "You hear about this stupid holodeck accidents and you think it's an exaggeration but its not! This is dangerous! Do we even know if the safety protocols are on?"

Julia shrugged her shoulders in an answer and shook her head.

"Oh great!" The healer swore. "We could die in here!"

"Alright," Josiah spoke up before tempers became any more frayed. "Let's just calm down. Nathan, Julia," he gave them both the 'Josiah Sanchez special' coined by Chris Larabee to be the expression of disapproval that made even the Captain embarrassed when he was being a pain in the ass, to those around him. "You're friends. We need to work together to get out of here and we are not going to do this by climbing up the walls, am I right?"

"Yes, Josiah." They both said in unison.

"Alright," Josiah sighed, using the same voice he used to use on his children when they were misbehaving. "Now, let's think about how we're going to get out of here."

*****

From a distance, Silas Poplar watched.

He did not know the content of Josiah's conversation with the tall, black man and in truth, he really did not care however; he did pay attention when she arrived. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen but then all the women he ever graced with his touch were spectacular in their own way. Poplar watched the lovely woman with the fiery colored hair and the glittering emerald eyes with growing certainty he simply had to have her. And it made it all the more convenient Josiah knew her too for when the deed was done, Poplar would be able to make use of the relationship to his own ends.

He turned away, not wishing to be seen by them and slipped his hand into his pocket, where he felt the comforting cool sensation against his fingertips of a shiny, silver dollar.

Chapter Five:
Alive

JD Dunne still had difficulty believing this was anything more than someone's idea of a practical joke. When he materialized here from inside the confines of his room, he was certain this was probably something cooked up by the first officer since only Buck would have the audacity and to a certain degree, the know how to perpetrate such an act of kidnapping. Not that JD minded of course. In truth, JD enjoyed the Magnificent Seven program. As a form of recreation, he could think of nothing more exciting than playing one of the seven gunfighters who protected the town of Four Corners.

Besides, the added bonus of the story meant he got to be sheriff.

Still, despite his lack of concern at being brought here so abruptly, he wished Buck could have at least asked him or given him some warning before transporting him out of his quarters. Although JD did not mind being here, he did not intend to stay for more than an hour because he was tired and wanted his sleep. However, he was somewhat confused he had been materialized in the jailhouse which seemed to be devoid of the others. For a few minutes, he waited, assuming the silence was due to the scenario Buck was playing out. However, when almost twenty minutes ticked by with nothing happening inside or out, JD decided perhaps it was time to investigate.

The office in which he was presently occupied was atypical of the jailhouses scattered throughout the west in this period of Earth history. There was the standard collection of jail cells, which at this time were vacant; each furnished with a bunk and little else. The sheriff did not fare much either, his bastion being merely his chair and his desk upon which were the obligatory wanted posters that needed hanging up on every surface permitting it. JD pushed himself from behind the desk where he had materialized and headed towards the door, hoping to locate Buck in order to see what the first officer had planned.

He pulled open the door to the premises and found Vin Tanner about to knock. Behind him were Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish, keeping a cautious eye on their surroundings. Their demeanor immediately put the young man on guard, even though he did not know why at the time. Still, if there was some kind of peril at a foot, he could not deny he was grateful to be in their company before it found him first. For their part, the three senior officers seemed just as relieved to see the young man was safe and sound before any of the insanity that found them in the saloon earlier, did the same to him.

"Captain," JD said with a nervous smile, hoping he was wrong about the danger and they were simply caught up in the drama of the simulation. "Buck brought you here too?"

"Buck didn't bring us here JD," Vin grumbled as Chris shut the door behind him and Ezra immediately took point at the window so he could have a clear and unobstructed view of the street.

"He didn't?" JD swallowed anxiously. Until now, it never occurred to him their being here could be anything more than Buck Wilmington's attempts to amuse himself at their expense. The first officer did have a very peculiar sense of humor but now JD considered things more deeply, he supposed even Buck had his limits, especially if it meant involving the Captain. While Chris was very accommodating as far as commanding officers went, JD did not think even his good-natured manner would tolerate being spirited off his bridge without permission, even if it were his oldest friend committing the act.

"I'm guessing you haven't tried getting out." Vin looked at JD in question as Chris sat down in the chair he previously occupied behind the sheriff's desk, examining the weapon Ezra had given him in the saloon. The Captain was trying to figure out exactly how the thing worked, having no wish to enter another round with Top Hat Bob so disadvantaged.

"No." JD shook his head. "I just figured Buck brought me here and everything going on was part of the simulation. I only started to think maybe I ought to find him when it was quiet for so long and nobody was turning up. But then I opened the door and there you were."

"For once, Mr. Wilmington is not responsible for this little jaunt into wonderland." Ezra drawled from where he was.

"No kidding," Vin remarked, recalling how annoyed Buck had been when they had last seen the man. " He was just as pissed off as we were at being taken off the bridge and sent here."

"I'm sorry Captain," JD started to apologize, feeling immensely foolish at not having realized the situation was this serious. "I should have realized that something was wrong."

"It's alright JD," Chris answered and gave him a little smile to think nothing of it. "None of us were any surer of things ourselves, even with the benefit of experience." Chris was not at all annoyed JD had not suspected there was more to this than simply Buck's idea of a joke. Had not Chris thought the same thing when he first materialized here? JD was younger and still too unfamiliar with Buck's antics for them to expect him to entirely sure Buck would not behave like a juvenile.

Hell, half the time even Chris wasn't sure.

Vin and Ezra exchanged a brief glimpse and a smile as they saw JD immediately swelling with pleasure at the Captain's kind words. Both men did not say what they were thinking, even though their eye contact spoke volumes at the admiration felt for the Captain. Part of the reason Chris engendered the loyalty he did from his crew, not simply from the senior staff, was his ability to make every single member of the Maverick feel like they mattered. No matter how small their contribution to the ship, no matter how seemingly insignificant it might seem to them, it was not to the captain. He treated every member of his crew, from the first officer to the stewards in the lower decks, like they were a vital component in the machinery of the Maverick.

"So we're trapped in here?" JD asked, unable to hide his apprehension at the notion they could not escape from this simulated reality. Coming here for recreational purposes was one thing but to be trapped in here indefinitely was not a prospect he was particularly looking forward to. He was not afraid to admit he was a product of his time and did not crave for the nostalgic days of old.

"More or less," Ezra Standish responded, peeking out the window, ensuring they did not have a repeat of the incident with the individual called Top Hat Bob. At this time, Bob did not appear to be anywhere in the immediate vicinity of the jailhouse and the security chief decided it was more or less safe for them to attempt their rendezvous with the others. "Unfortunately, it also appears the safety protocols have been disabled."

"Disabled?" JD exclaimed. "Oh, this just gets better!" The young man retorted, forgetting he was an ensign surrounded by three command officers. However, it was very hard to remember that when they were in this place where the scenario had them playing equals.

"Not to mention," Vin added. "We're seeing some pretty interesting villains."

"How?" JD asked quizzically.

When he had first been invited to join this program, he studied everything available on the mythology of the Magnificent Seven. JD had been honored at being invited to join the Captain's private recreational world and had not wanted to make a fool of himself by appearing unprepared. Even though they treated him with respect and friendship, JD could not help feeling a little insecure at being an ensign surrounded by veteran officers who were all exceptional in one way or another. He could not deny he felt a little ordinary in their company and often tried twice as hard in order to be just as good. He took the Magnificent Seven program just as seriously, ensuring he was completely prepared to face anything the simulation had to throw at him, memorizing every legend and every villain the lawmen had faced during their amazing tenure in the town of Four Corners.

"We were accosted by a particularly odious specimen called Top Hat Bob," Ezra answered before Vin could. "The man seemed to be under the impression the Captain had wronged him in some way."

"Top Hat Bob," JD mused, aware the name sounded familiar and thought about it for a moment before he looked up again. "Does he have an eye patch?"

All three men raised their eyes to the youth but it was Chris who answered. "He has an eye patch."

"Well, that's Top Hat Bob!" JD exclaimed, pleased because he knew whom their adversary had been with that one bit of revelation.

"I thought we covered that already," Vin said impatiently.

"Sorry," JD gave the tracker an embarrassed smile and then continued. "Top Hat Bob is a Magnificent Seven villain but not a very big important one. He's mostly a hired gun but he does have a personal grudge against the gunfighter."

"Because?" Chris asked. While he enjoyed the program ever since Buck presented it to him as a birthday present shortly after coming on board the Maverick, Chris had to confess not knowing every aspect of the lore regarding the seven legendary gunmen.

"Something about a wood splitting contest or something," JD answered with a little bit of a frown because the facts were rather vague on the exact details of the character's vendetta. "I do know it was a contest he lost and apparently got into a brawl with the gunfighter, where he lost his eye."

"Terrific," Chris grumbled. "I wonder how many others are going to come out of the woodwork." The Captain let out a sigh before pushing himself to his feet once again.

"Others?" Vin looked at him.

"There is no reason to assume that there will not be," Ezra responded, in complete agreement with the Captain's foresight in this matter. "Someone is playing games with us and if you're a pawn in someone else's amusement, there is no doubt they will want to make the games as entertaining as possible."

Chris stared at Ezra for a moment, feeling something spark in his memory at the security chief's words. For a moment, he searched his mind for why he was overcome with such a feeling of familiarity but it was gone before he could grasp it wholly.

"Chris?" Vin who knew his expressions with almost intimate knowledge saw the uncertainty in his eyes even for the briefest of seconds. "What is it?"

Chris did not answer for a second as he tried to understand why Ezra's words struck him so. However, after seconds of rumination, it was obvious no such answer was forthcoming. "Nothing," Chris shook his head. "Come on," he raised his gaze to those with him. "Let's get to the rendezvous point."

However, the uneasiness still would not go away.

*****

Less than ten minutes after they collected JD at the jailhouse, Chris and the entire senior staff of the Maverick found themselves gathered around what was normally their table at the tavern owned by the gambler/con man who Ezra took such delight in playing. Although it was not at all the practice of the day they ought to be joined by the ladies of their group in such an establishment and appeared to arouse more than a few strange looks and disapproving glances, Chris decided decorum be damned. They had larger concerns on their hands at the moment. Judging by the experiences related by the rest of the Maverick's senior staff, it appeared the mysterious culprit who had placed them in this recreation of their holodeck fantasy was taking pleasure in pitting them against a full array of Magnificent Seven villains.

"It's like a Batman movie." Mary declared.

Chris stared at her. "A what?"

"Nevermind," Mary shrugged in response, not about to reveal her predilection for 20th-century comic books. "What are we going to do? The Antarians are less than a day away, we have to get out of here."

"One disaster at a time," Buck retorted, certain Chris was just as tired as he was about being reminded about this deadline. "At the moment, we need to figure out how we are going to get out of here."

"Alright, let's examine our situation," Chris said firmly, speaking with just enough authority to remind those present they were not in a holodeck fantasy despite their present situation. They were Starfleet officers in an alien and hostile environment and it was time they started behaving like it. "We were brought here to what I am fairly certain is not our holodeck program by persons unknown, who seem to have programmed every conceivable villain to throw at us for whatever reason."

"Chris," Mary spoke up. "I'm not so sure this is a holographic illusion."

"What else could it be?" Josiah inquired. "This can't exist anywhere in reality."

"Why do you think that Lieutenant?" Ezra asked, keeping his gaze fixed at one point and fighting the urge to let his eyes wander. Although he was mindful of their situation, he could not help being faced with his personal problems, especially when Julia was right across the table from him. She too,avoided meeting his eyes and Ezra wondered if she was just as uncomfortable about things between them as he was. Once again, Ezra cursed the circumstances that brought them to this and wished he apologized to her as he intended before this.

Mary glanced at Chris, always feeling uncomfortable when discussing this particular subject, rare as it was. She was human and thus her psi ability was weak at best and what she felt to be extrasensory powers did not manifest themselves as any more than a strong intuition most of the time.

"I get a sense of these people," she looked around the room at the barmaid who looked like Inez, the patrons at the tables, downing drinks and carousing with saloon girls before facing her friends again. "My mind tells me they're not real, that they're projections of light and magnetic containment but they feel real to me."

"I know what you mean," Nathan frowned, remembering the young woman he had stood over a short time ago. She with the ribbons in her hair, staring at him with silver coins in her eyes. She did not seem like a fake but rather flesh and blood. "They feel like real people."

"Look," Julia spoke up. "That's programming." The engineer in her refused to believe in something as intangible as a feeling. She dealt in numbers and facts she could see, in laws of physics and proven science. "They are supposed to look and feel real."

"But you don't know that it is." Vin countered. "We're all energy is some way, who knows what makes one thing alive and another an object. We live in a universe with android officers and holographic programs with recognised sentience. We don't know how to classify life, not really."

"Spoken like a true Starfleet officer." Buck grinned; remembering a dozen Starfleet lecturers making the same points at the Academy.

"Thanks." Vin returned after Buck's comment.

What Mary had said seemed to make a certain amount of sense. Chris knew her latent telepathic abilities were nothing to ignore or underestimate. On the C'Kaia ship, she used those powers to save both their lives and he was not about to disregard it because there was no irrefutable proof to back up her insights. "Mary, when you say you get some sense of them, what do you mean?"

"I don't know," she exclaimed with a hint of exasperation in her voice. "I feel them but not quite. Normally when I'm in the holodeck, the people we see don't register at all. They're not alive and it's like seeing a chair or any inanimate object. It doesn't register to me. But this is different," her expression melted into full-blown concern and Chris knew instantly she was more passionate about her belief than her declaration before them. "They're like shadows. Alive but not alive, I can't explain it."

"Maybe Mr.Tanner...." Ezra suddenly suggested.

"Me?" Vin stared back at the Security Chief perplexed.

Alex understood immediately. "Vin, you need to do a meld."

"A meld?" He almost shouted before a stern look from his Captain reminded him to lower his voice. As it was they were bringing enough attention to themselves by having the girls in here without causing any further undue fanfare. "Why?"

"You're Vulcan." Alex gave Ezra a brief glance that told him to let her handle this.

"Tell me something I don't know," he bit back impatiently. "I wasn't sure with the ears."

Alex bristled and was about to respond when Chris decided to intervene before they both said something they would regret later. If there was one thing that could make Vin lose his temper, even with Alex, it was bringing up the Vulcan part of himself he felt uncomfortable discussing with anyone, especially Alex in light of his feelings for her.

"Vin," Chris responded, placing a gentle hand on Alex's arm.

The science officer took the hint and immediately withdrew in favor of the captain. In truth, Alex hated discussing this subject with Vin as much as he hated talking about it in her presence. Mostly because he was so sensitive about his Vulcan background and usually reacted heatedly. Inspiring Vin's temper would also inspire hers and since she could not have her way with him, it was a passion she rather not ignite.

Completely unaware of what was running through her mind, though he would have been most grateful had he known, Chris continued where she had left off. "You're telepathic and far more capable of telling us if these people in here are more than what they seem. Now we need to know for sure these people are what they appear to be, holograms that is, before we can figure out what to do next."

"Its insane." Julia interjected. "It's a program, I'm telling you!"

"We cannot make that determination simply because appears to look like a hologram." Ezra retorted.

"Something appearing to be something else did not seem to bother you before." She returned caustically.

"What is that supposed to mean?" He met her gaze sharply.

"I think you know," she declared.

"I think I don't give a goddamn hell what either of you know!" Chris hissed with la ow snarl and immediately silenced both of them. Julia's cheek flushed red and Ezra did not have to brave a glance in Chris's direction, to feel the Larabee glare burning into him from where he was seated. The others found it the perfect time to clear their throats, avert their gaze or generally do anything that kept them from making eye contact with each other.

Chris stared at both of them and said firmly. "Now you listen to me Commander Standish and Lieutenant Pemberton," his temper though vast was not infinite and the bickering and snide remarks traded between these two since the incident with the Accrans was just plain pissing him off. He waited for the duo to settle this like adults but if they were not going to do that, it was their business. However, the minute it started to interfere with their duty as officers, it became his. "We are in a life and death situation here and I don't care if you are having relationship troubles and can barely stomach the sight of each other but while you are under my command, you will behave accordingly."

"I apologize Sir," the security chief said properly mortified by his lack of professionalism.

"Likewise Captain." Julia answered a second later, just as equally embarrassed.

"Don't apologize," Chris said abruptly. "Just get over it. For our sake and your own."

A silence fell over the room for a few seconds as everyone tried to regain their train of thought immediately preceding Ezra and Julia's spat. Vin considered what the others said about his meld abilities and decided the Captain was right. They did need to know the truth and as he let his gaze sweep across the room to the people that frequented the tavern, he had to admit he wanted to know as well. Besides, this was something no one else could do.

Taking a deep breath, Vin rose to his feet.

"Vin?" Alex asked.

"Its okay," he met Chris' eyes and the Captain immediately understood. Chris nodded slightly in his direction and Vin knew that was enough. Chris had given his permission in that one look. "It's time to bite the bullet."

"I wish you would use another vernacular." Ezra frowned. "In this place..."

"Shut up Ezra," Alex groaned and turned to Vin with a smile of encouragement. "You can do it."

Vin returned her smile with one of his own, hoping it allowed her to appreciate he had not meant to snap at her. The helmsman went to the bar, where the barmaid was pouring drinks for more waiting customers. Buck had programmed her to look like Inez and Vin had to confess the likeness was amazing. He was rather surprised Inez had not been offended at her image being used but then these days, Inez did not waste her time on such thoughts when she still had to contend with her grief at losing her fianc�.

"How about drink darling?" Vin asked silkily.

"Of course Senor." She smiled radiantly and suddenly Vin had an idea what Buck found so alluring. She really was pretty and the real Inez was even lovelier.

She poured him whiskey, straight up in a little shot glass and slid the receptacle towards him when Vin caught her hand in his and lingered just enough to run his fingers over the smooth skin. The woman became somewhat offended when he did not let go and his expression became odd, almost as if he was deriving some kind of strange pleasure from the contact. Barmaid or not, such behavior was not to be tolerated and she pulled her hand away, almost knocking over the shot glass in her grip.

"I think that is enough Senor." She retorted, more than a little ire in her voice as she glared at him angrily.

"I'm sorry ma'am," Vin quickly apologized but those who knew him could see that he was unsettled. He barely noticed her gaze burning into his back as he turned away and returned to the table where the rest of the senior staff was waiting for him.

"Jesus Vin," Buck declared immediately, seeing the expression on his face that soon struck alarm into all of theirs. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

"Not a ghost," Vin shook his head, glancing over his shoulder at the barmaid once more. "Ghosts are dead." He stated when he turned his attention to his comrades once again. "That woman was alive."

Chapter Six:
Q

Even after the fact, it sounded impossible.

Vin Tanner's declaration hung heavily in the air, soaking up the atmosphere surrounding the Starfleet officers seated around the table like a stink that would not fade away despite the seconds ticking slowly by. They stared at the Vulcan who made the discovery, disbelieving at first mostly because denial was the safest solution. To accept what Vin had just said was to accept where they were presently situated was no dream, no illusion of light and magnetic containment but as etched in the fabric of reality as their own presence in the cosmos. For the few seconds following Vin's meld with the bartender, it was the safest concept any of them could accept.

Unfortunately, it could not last. 

As much as Chris wanted to wrap himself with the belief this was still a program they were still on the Maverick, the overwhelming evidence to the contrary did not give him that luxury. He was the Captain and what those under his command chose to accept with difficulty; he had to process with far speedier efficiency. All their lives depended on it. For the moment, however, he did away with the notion of how this could have happened and focused on the more immediate problem at hand, being why they were here. It seemed an odd place for an attack on his senior staff. Of all places, why would the enemy choose this place?

Chris did not know but knew to get out of here, they would have to find out why. Unfortunately, at present, it appeared the rest of his staff were still grappling with the realization their surroundings was no fantasy world created by the holodeck but somewhere real with all the trappings that came with its existence in reality. He looked up at them from his ruminations and heard them all grumbling amongst themselves, debating the results of Vin's meld with the bartender behind the bar.

"It's impossible," Julia stated predictably. "This is a holodeck fantasy!"

"I'm telling you," Vin turned to her sharply. "It's no fantasy."

He was feeling a little incensed about being questioned, especially because he hated melding with anyone, to begin with, but had understood it was a necessary sacrifice if they were to get to the bottom of things. It had been uncomfortable enough to drop the shields he had been carefully erecting around his telepathic abilities, to prevent himself from picking up the stray thoughts of others, without having to lower those same shields again. The effort was hard enough without its results being doubted.

"I could feel that she was alive. I could hear what was running through her head. Normally, I don't sense anything of the kind from holograms. This only happens with sentient beings. I mean I could tell she was tired from working all day, that she thinks Buck is kind of cute..."

"Really?" Buck asked, animated by the thought as he glanced over his shoulder and looked at the woman in question.

"That seems to settle it then," Ezra remarked. "The lady is alive but has no taste."

"If that's not being alive, I don't know what is." Josiah shrugged as he suppressed a little smile at seeing the dark look Buck flashed at Ezra for that jibe at his expense.

"Okay," Alex shook her head of the banter and asked out loud. "If this is real, why are we here?"

"That's a very good question," Chris answered. "Ideas anyone?"

"I think it all connects to the how we are here," JD spoke up, thinking carefully about his answer before responding as always. "This is not real. It can't be."

"He's right," Buck lent his support to JD's statement. "The Magnificent Seven is fictional, a collection of stories. Some say it has its origins from a Japanese folk tale about seven samurais without a shogun who protects a village from bandits. The Americans simply adopted it and fashioned their version into the program we now know."

"So this could not be a case of time travel," Nathan suggested.

"No," Alex replied. "We don't look like these characters and yet everybody here knows us, as who we are meant to be in the Magnificent Seven folklore. If these people existed in that time, they would be here. We would not need to be taking their places."

"But if that's true, then this gets more impossible by the minute." Mary declared, wondering if this was any more puzzling to the others than it was to her. "Okay, if we're not in a simulation and we are in reality, where is this in reality? Nothing about this makes any sense except these people and this town was created for us but with far more complexity than any holodeck program."

"I'm telling you, Mary," Vin repeated. "It's not a sophisticated holodeck program, these people are real. I heard her thoughts."

"With all due respect Vin," Julia pointed out. "We have no way to confirm that."

"What?" Alex bristled, not liking the fact Julia was doubting Vin to such a degree. "If Vin says that's what he felt, then that's what he felt. What exactly are you alluding to Lieutenant?"

"That he's been misled." Julia declared, just determined enough to show she was not about to back down. 

"I was not misled." Vin jumped in. "I know what I felt."

"Julia...." Ezra started to speak up, aware sometimes her mind geared for the most logical solutions at hand could be somewhat intractable. It was difficult for her to accept what was not a proven scientific theory. Julia's world was one of facts and materials she could see with her eyes and feel with her hands, to suppose something as outlandish as a fantasy world being given life in this was disconcerting for her.

"I'm not saying you were misled, perhaps someone wished to make you believe all these people are alive."

Vin was starting to get really offended because Julia simply did not understand how personal melding was to a Vulcan. Chris could see the helmsman about to retaliate sharply when suddenly Buck cut in before he could.

"Alright," Buck Wilmington spoke up with a loud voice, flexing his first officers' muscles quite effectively to regain some order at the table. "We're not going to start questioning each other people, none of us." He let his gaze sweep across the face of those who had been engaged in such activity and saw the shimmer of embarrassment surfacing in their expression when he made his statement. "Whoever put us here in this lousy position probably wants to see us tearing each other apart like a bunch of dogs and turning on ourselves. So we are not going to give them the satisfaction of playing their game or being puppets in this little extravaganza they have us performing in."

Once again Chris was struck by the content of Buck's vehement words to the senior officers, as he had been when Ezra had said something similar earlier. Performance. Games. Players. Puppets. Chris did not say anything. The drone of voices around the table grew distant as he tried to figure out when it was he encountered all those words together and knew somewhere he had encountered them in their entirety.  The connection stuck in his thoughts, grasping for the final piece to reach revelation. He closed his eyes and focused, centering on the moment he heard those words spoken in the context inspiring his thoughts so much and suddenly it came to him. The word escaped him like a captured breath but when it finally did, Chris felt as if a weight had been lifted from him because the truth he had just stumbled upon could be the only explanation of where they were now.

"Q."

Buck immediately fell silent. 

The others saw the sudden change of expression on the First Officer's face and turned to the Captain.

He turned sharply to Chris. "I hope you're just talking about the alphabet." Buck's voice was a whisper.

"What are you talking about?" Alex turned to Buck and then Chris. "What's a Q?"

It was not surprising Alex and the rest of the command staff knew nothing about the omnipotent entity known as Q. The information was deemed as highly classified and released to command level personnel with the rank of commander or higher. Starfleet did not wish it generally known there were a race of beings with the power of gods, roaming around the galaxy capable of turning, time, space and dimensional realities on its ear at a moments' notice. The directive from Starfleet was to keep the information on the Q Continuum as they called themselves, on a strictly need to know basis. Only a handful of people outside Starfleet in the Federation Council knew of its existence.

However, Chris could find no other explanation for what was happening here. In truth, it made perfect sense and having read the data logs written by Jean Luc Picard and Benjamin Sisko who had the most recent encounters with the entity, this was more or less a textbook version of Q using them as instruments of his amusement. It was well within Q's abilities to take them off the Maverick and insert them into this world of make-believe and with all the villains that were being thrown at them left, right and center since their arrival, it was also consistent with the entity's idea of deadly play. 

"Surely you jest." Ezra exclaimed, just as aware as the Captain and the first officer what the word 'Q' had meant, other than its alphabetical reference. 

"How do you know about it?" Buck looked at him suspiciously, since such information was restricted to command officers of his rank and Chris's only. However, no sooner than he asked the question, Buck knew Ezra was no ordinary officer. The man was the effective security chief he was because he knew when to keep his ear to the ground and listen for information that was usually a mystery to most. If anyone could find out about Q, it was Ezra Standish.

"One hears outlandish stories all the time." Ezra shrugged, not wishing to divulge to closely his source of information. "Suffice to say, I know who Q is."

"Well, I don't know who Q is," Alex declared annoyed. "Care to fill the rest of us in?"

"I know about him too," Nathan confessed. "When I started the research in the Borg assimilation process, they let me see all the records regarding this Q and his presence on the Enterprise during the first encounter with the Collective."

That would make sense, Chris thought to himself. As one of the foremost researchers in the Federation regarding the Borg, Nathan would have had access to all the data regarding the Collective, including the details of the Enterprise's first encounter with the species. Seeing the expectation in the eyes of the others awaiting their Captain to explain to them who and what this Q was, Chris decided there was no reason to keep the truth from them. The information about Q was meant to be released on a need to know basis and at this moment, they all needed to know. 

"Q is an alien entity unlike anything we have ever seen," Chris explained. "As far as scientists have been able to determine, he is some form of life form composed of pure energy, capable of manipulating all forms of it even to the temporal level. It is at this time, the most advanced life form we have ever encountered. Q comes from a race of such beings calling themselves the Q Continuum. However, because they have what can justifiably be called omnipotent qualities, their evolution has risen beyond the need for the structure of what we call civilization. They travel throughout the cosmos and they amuse themselves any way they can. I suppose when you have the power to do anything and everything plus the added benefit of being immortal, there comes a time when you realize there is nothing left to do."

"Are you saying this thing has us?" Josiah exclaimed, horrified to think of so much power being in the hands of one being. The idea of being invincible, coupled with immortality could create megalomania on a scale that would allow the being in question to do anything without conscience or regret. Josiah shuddered thinking he might be in the grasp of such a creature.

"How come we've never heard of this Q?" Julia demanded, unable to imagine such a life form existing. It was wrong for any one species to have that much power. It did not seem in keeping with the balance of nature.

"Starfleet agreed it was probably wise for the general public to not know there was an entity like this drifting about the place," Chris answered. "The Q have a tendency for play and using other life forms for amusement but they do no murder or cause permanent harm to any of their pawns. The Enterprise had several encounters with a Q who seemed fascinated with humans in particular. Picard believes perhaps in an earlier stage of their evolution, the Q may have been like us, which might explain why they keep appearing before humans."

"So we're basically at the mercy of this thing." Vin retorted, thinking of nothing worse than playing puppet to some omnipotent being's fantasy.

"More or less, assuming that I'm right." Chris nodded in answer.

"Is there any way we can confirm it?" Alex asked. "I mean with all due respect Captain, I'm not doubting your word but if you said  this Q's interest has mainly been with the Enterprise, what is it about us that suddenly captured their attention and of all the programs, why this one?"

"Good question," Buck remarked. "I'd like to know that myself."

"Well, it's one which we all have a part in." JD ventured a guess. "I thought if you want the entire command staff out of the way, this is it."

"That's a point," Buck flashed JD a smile, one that usually meant that he was proud of the young man's acumen. 

"Possibly," Chris sighed. "However, until we know more. We are all staying together. We are dealing with an extremely powerful entity that could erase us from existence with a thought."

"Wonderful." Ezra sighed. "Now we know who has placed us here, are we simply to perform for our supper?" He looked in Chris's direction. The others followed his gaze, thinking the same thing themselves. 

Chris's jaw tensed and he looked at them with ice in his eyes. "Absolutely not. We will do nothing to give Q any more fun than he's already had at our expense. Come on, we're getting out of here. We need to talk freely and we can't do it in this place."

"What about the Clarion News office?" Mary suggested. "It's closest."

Chris nodded in agreement with that idea. "Fine, let's get going."

With that, he rose to his feet and gestured the others to follow. With just as much speed, the senior staff vacated the tavern, following the Captain out of the establishment into the street. Unfortunately, their numbers made it impossible to look inconspicuous; not to mention the fact they were the central characters in this little drama. They were a curious bunch of seven men and three women and as they moved through Four Corners, could feel themselves a tornado moving through the fictional town, sweeping all events that took place in its confines towards themselves. 

It was not a comforting feeling.

Although he explained much about the Q and the entity's habits, Vin could tell Chris was holding something back. The helmsman seemed to have some strange power allowing him to tell exactly what was on the Captain's mind. It was this connection that made them the friends they were and scared him to death because what he saw in Chris's eyes despite the Captain's anger at their situation, was a tiny hint of fear. Chris Larabee was not a man afraid of anything but if this Q was merely playing them for amusement, with the intention of releasing them when this was all over, why was Chris so worried?

"Chris," he caught up to the Captain as the man led his crew towards the offices of the Clarion News to gain some privacy while they decided upon some course of action. "What is it?"

Chris grimaced, hating it sometimes Vin could tell what was going on behind his eyes. The helmsman seemed more in tuned with him than Mary sometimes but supposed that is why they were such good friends because they did not need to tell each other what was going inside their minds, they simply knew.

"Q's at the bottom of this all right, but something is wrong."

"How so?" Vin asked, too unfamiliar with the subject to say anything else.

"From all of Picard's log reports," Chris explained quietly as he and Vin kept ahead of the others. "Q is in the habit of showing himself. Part of his fun is taking part in the action, to goad and taunt his victims with his superiority."

"I guess we're lucky we've been spared that," Vin remarked, not seeing why Chris was so fearful.

"Lucky?" Chris met his gaze. "Why? Why are we so lucky? What's different about us that makes him change his pattern all of a sudden?"

Vin could not answer and merely shook his head in response.

"I'm worried Vin," Chris swallowed thickly. "If he's suddenly changed his pattern in this aspect of his behavior, what else is there? The man can destroy us all with a thought. What if decides its okay to kill us? We won't be able to do a damn thing about it."

That thought was disconcerting and Vin felt his insides knot up in helplessness. "Damn."

Suddenly, Vin Tanner found himself wishing for Q to make an appearance.

However, when they turned the corner towards the street taking them to the offices of the Clarion News, what they found was not an omnipotent being but rather a dozen men, armed and waiting. Top Hat Bob, who stood at the head of the deadly party, with his eye patch and his dusty top hat, glared at the Captain through his good eye with a triumphant leer. 

"Larabee," he called out. "Get ready to die."

He finished his declaration with a gun aim squarely at Chris.

Chris found himself staring at the barrel of the weapon and wondered a split second before it fired, whether or not it was too late to change his holodeck preferences to Buck's orgy in Risa.

Chapter Seven:
Hand to Hand

"Chris!"

Chris heard his name shouted past Vin Tanner's lips a split second before the officer of the con shoved him forcefully behind some crates at the edge of the street. Being Vulcan, Vin's strength was almost quadrupled that of a human and Chris could do little to keep himself from being flung to the ground. The sequence of events moved past him so rapidly, for a minute Chris had no idea what was going on until he saw the bullet that would have torn a hole through his chest slam into the wooden beam of a nearby hitching post. The disorientation resulting from his hard impact on the ground lasted only a split second before his mind switched into a defensive posture. He shouted as loud as he could to those under his command who had been behind him when the attack suddenly reared its ugly head.

"Everyone take cover!" Chris's voice rose over the sound of exploding gunfire.

The gesture seemed somewhat redundant since everyone was more or less in the process of accomplishing that very thing the instant Top Hat Bob appeared out of nowhere and began firing. Buck, who was nearest to Mary and Nathan, took hold of the protocol officer's arm and led her towards the water trough near the hitching post. The trio barely managed to reach it, being closely pursued by gunfire and had to skid across the hard ground in order to get there ahead of the deadly projectiles. The water trough was being riddled with so many bullets, the liquid seeping through the holes created an expanding puddle of water around it. The three Starfleet officers scrambled behind the wooden receptacle, aware its hollow innards would not offer them protection for long. The barrage was making short work of the trough. Buck knew they could not remain hidden behind it for more than a few seconds or else those bullets would find their mark in human flesh.

"We have to move!" Buck shouted over the deafening roar of gunfire, to Mary and Nathan who were crouched low. The doctor was reaching for his gun and checking the weapon with a hint of apprehension at actually using it on someone real, not a holodeck simulation. However, Buck was certain Nathan knew the stakes as well as he did and this crisis of conscience would be temporary. Mary, on the other hand, was having entirely different but no less hindering difficulties of her own. The protocol officer was, finding it exceedingly cumbersome to move in her restrictive clothes. The corset wrapped around her waist made it hard for her to remain prone and he could see her straining against the pressure of the garment against her spine. 

"No kidding!" Nathan exclaimed an instant before his eyes widened when a projectile ripped an exit point through the space before him, spraying splinters making him recoil.

Buck immediately rolled onto his knees in order to get a better view of where they were and more specifically where they could run to from this point without being cut to ribbons. He could see the Captain taking refuge behind some crates and the space seemed large enough to offer them the same shelter, if only they could make it there.

"Chris!" Buck called out.

The Captain looked over his shoulder immediately, hearing his voice through the roar of gunfire. Vin, who had overcome his lack of experience with a real Winchester after their earlier confrontation with Bob and his men, was making up for lost time. The helmsman was aiming the sawn-off rifle at the thickest part of the enemy contingent and firing with surprising accuracy. A number of Bob's men were taking cover and for good reason as the projectiles being sent in their direction was impacting a little too close for comfort to their person. 

Chris glanced in Buck's direction and immediately saw the first officer's predicament. Not just his, but also that of Mary and Nathan's. He winced slightly as he saw her groveling in the dirt, trying to avoid the hail of bullets that would eventually penetrate the water trough to reach one of them. Chris recounted again what Ezra told him about using the weapon of choice for an Old West gunslinger and cocked the gun accordingly in readiness to fire. His eyes met Buck's and then Chris responded with a small nod. 

That was more than enough for the First Officer to know precisely what to do. This subtle form of communication was normally used between them when they were on the bridge, preparing to go into battle or some other situation that required discretion. Fortunately, at this time, it was just as appropriate for use in their current circumstances.

Buck turned back to Mary and Nathan and saw the instance between close shaves were becoming too narrow for his liking. If they did not move soon, one of them was going to get shot. The exit wounds on the wooden surface behind which they were used as a refuge from the gunfire was becoming more and more pitted. The odds were good eventually one of the bullets would pass through the water trough and find its target after all.

"When I give the word," Buck said as loud as he could without giving away their intentions to the enemy. This was hardly an easy feat when the air was charged with exploding gunfire. "Run to the Captain!"

Mary nodded wildly, feeling some measure of relief in being given that as an option. Almost as if he were aware of what was on her mind, Chris looked in her direction and met her gaze. Their eyes locked on each other and he offered her a silent reassurance everything would be all right once she came to him. Strangely enough, Mary seemed to believe it too. However, the moment could not last as Chris needed to pave the way for them to make their advance towards him and Vin who were safely hidden behind the crates. The barrier was formidable enough that Top Hat Bob and his companions could not breach it and once Buck, Mary and Nathan were behind its confines, Chris and Vin could remain there indefinitely to continue the fight.

Chris turned his attention back to Bob who was just as entrenched in his hiding place as Chris and Vin were in theirs. The Captain could see the calculation in the villain's one good eye apparently noticing the exchange between Mary and him a second ago. Chris cursed under his breath, realizing Bob was now not simply attempting to keep Chris's companions, being Buck, Mary, and Nathan from being of assistance to him but was now concentrating on shooting down the beautiful woman who obviously held his heart. Bob pulled back his teeth in what was a sinister smile and fired. The bullet slammed into the space parallel to where Mary was taking refuge and passed a hair's breadth away from her face. The protocol officer reacted by dropping down further to avoid it, while Buck's grip around her arm tightened.

"Son of a bitch," Chris growled angrily. "He's trying to shoot Mary."

Vin glanced at Chris long enough to see the captain suddenly standing up and exposing himself beyond the safety of the crates that had protected them so far.

"Captain!" Vin barked. "Chris! What the hell are you doing!"

Chris did not know for certain and he wondered whether or not he was allowing his rage to get the better of him, but he did not care. Perhaps it was the place he was in that made him wish to settle this entire situation in the most primeval and fundamental way it could be resolved. The way it was done in the times before even the Old West became the legend it was. Sometimes, the only way to end a fight was to do it the old-fashioned way, with bare knuckles until the enemy no longer stood up.

"BOB!" Chris shouted. 

"Hold your fire!" Top Hat Bob ordered his men abruptly. 

"Chris!" He heard Mary shouting behind him. "What are you doing?"

Chris ignored her. He ignored Buck's demand for him to get back to safety and Vin's warning that he was going to get himself killed. This had to stop before they were forced to engage Bob in his gang in what could only be a bloody shootout that could get a good number of his crew killed, including Mary. If it was Q's intention to have them perform like puppets then Chris was going to rob him of every ounce of pleasure the entity strived to take from this play they were forced to involuntarily participate.

*****

The shooting slowed and then stopped altogether. No one spoke as the air went deadly silent.

"What in the hell is he doing?" Ezra Standish demanded almost prepared to go out there and find out. When the firing had started, Ezra had gotten Josiah and Julia to safety, finding a narrow passageway between the buildings that could be called an alley way of some kind. The gambler managed to keep Bob's cohorts from reaching them but the security chief had been desperate to reach the Captain but somewhat torn because he did not wish to leave Julia and Josiah, unprotected. The Counselor was capable of defending himself but most of the time did not have the stomach for it.

"I don't know," Josiah shook his head dumbfounded as he saw the Captain make his way out in the open, challenging Bob to approach. The man with the appellation of Top Hat Bob seemed reluctant at first, staring suspiciously at Chris and the rest of them to ascertain whether or not this was a trick. "However, I assume Chris knows what he is doing."

"Never assume a Captain knows what they are doing." Ezra retorted abruptly, staring anxiously after Chris. The security chief was desperately fighting the urge to rush out to the fray and protect his commanding officer. The sworn duty of every security chief was to ensure the safety of his Captain and yet Ezra was forced to remain here, mired in amber as he waited to see what it was exactly the man had in mind. It was a most unpleasant position to be in and his temper was less than amicable. "The position comes with an assumption of godhood that leads them to play the most foolish games with their lives."

"The Captain would not place his life in danger unless he knew he could get out of it," Julia said coming to Chris's defense. Julia had tremendous faith in Chris's ability to extract himself and his ship from danger as he had done so on numerous occasions before this. The Captain seldom did very little without first having considered what the consequences of his actions were, not only to himself but to his crewmen. Everything Julia Pemberton knew about Chris Larabee told her his sudden desire to face Top Hat Bob in the open had the basis of a plan destined to extract them from their present situation.

"Spoken like an engineer," Ezra responded not kindly.

It was bait Julia immediately detected and responded to in kind. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Ezra did not turn around but answered with just as curtly. I do not need to explain it to you. Suffice to say, your experience in engineering. Mine is security and at the moment we need security, not amateurs with wishful thinking."

"Wishful thinking?" She declared, her cheeks flushing red with anger.

Josiah who had been until now silent could see the unresolved tension building the minute they had come into close proximity to each other. Their affection was clear and thus their passion when incited, equally fiery. He knew a confrontation was coming and the part of him that was a Counselor welcomed it, however, this was not the time for such displays. Not when they were presently embroiled in a life or death situation and required each member of the senior staff to be thinking clearly.

"Officers, " Josiah spoke up before this could be allowed to turn from a brush fire to a raging inferno. "This is not the time." He said sternly, hoping it was enough to snap them out of glare they were holding between each other.

Julia broke her gaze first and turned away but Ezra stared just a little longer and the hurt in his eyes was clear even for someone who was accustomed to never letting anyone in on his private emotions. Secretly, Josiah hoped their differences could be resolved soon for it was obvious they cared deeply for one another even though their behavior might say otherwise. After an instant, Ezra broke away and returned his attention to what the Captain was doing, glad that Josiah was present to remind him of his duty and feeling somewhat admonished at having to be reminded at all.

Julia decided that the best course of action was to stay as far away from Ezra as possible for the duration of this mission. Inwardly, she felt grieved their relationship had deteriorated to such a point they could not even remain civil to one another during a mission. It was unprofessional and embarrassing, especially when the entire senior staff could see what was going on, and the Captain needed to give them a severe verbal reminder of what should be occupying their minds at this time. Despite all that, Julia herself could not deny she was unhappy at how far things had slumped since this entire affair with the Accrans. 

Instead of remaining where she was, Julia advanced further up the alley way, realizing perhaps the narrow passageway may offer them a way out of their fight with Top Hat Bob and his men without the Captain being forced to face the villain on his own. In truth, Julia knew she was looking for something to occupy her mind because it was becoming increasingly difficult to not dwell on her crumbling love affair with Ezra Standish. She knew she loved him and he loved her, why was it so difficult for her to accept his apology and move on? Inwardly, Julia wanted things the way they were before her body was overtaken by an alien entity and used to confuse Ezra.

The passageway was so narrow there was barely space enough for one person to walk in single file so she was fairly unconcerned when she continued through the gap between the two buildings. The street on the other side of the buildings beckoned her through the crack of light beaming into her eyes. She was almost halfway when she realized there was a doorway along the path. She edged a little closer to it in order to see where it led, assuming it was a backdoor entrance common to houses in this day and age.

She paused when she was but a few feet from it, turning around to see what Josiah and Ezra were doing. It occurred to her she was breaking Captain's orders by going off on her own when Chris made it clear he wanted everyone together. Realizing the prudence of his words, she turned around and prepared to retreat back the way she came when suddenly there was movement in the long shadows, hiding in the poor illumination of the doorway.

The palm that covered her mouth and yanked her back into the shadows moved with such speed, Julia barely had time to process the attack until she was dragged into the darkness. She heard breathing in her ear, a heavy labored pant that immediately reached into her primitive fears and struck cold terror into her heart. She tried to scream but the sound never came, muffled in the birthing by the hand that killed it in her mouth. She was not helpless, however. She slammed an elbow backward, feeling the muscle that could have been a stomach being struck. There was a soft groan and a quick rise of sound that resembled outrage. Julia felt fingers digging into her hair and then the wall rushed up at her with blinding speed.

The impact of her skull against it brought cool darkness and she knew no more.

*****

Chris Larabee found himself standing before Top Hat Bob and wondered what in the hell he was thinking. 

When he saw Mary being specifically targeted by Bob, he didn't care whether or not this was some illusion created by Q, Top Hat Bob had crossed the line. The man tried to kill the woman he loved and under no circumstances, was Chris Larabee or the Captain of the Maverick, going to take that lying down. If Bob wanted him so badly then perhaps it was time to give the man the showdown he wanted but under Chris's terms. Men like Bob were easy to manipulate once Chris stopped thinking like a man trapped in a fantasy world and started remembering he was a starship captain and a pretty mean son of a bitch when he felt like being one.

When he had stepped out into the open, Chris knew he captured Bob's attention for the firing stopped immediately as the villain tried to ascertain what it was he was attempting to do. When it was quiet and Chris was certain he could be heard he called out, in answer to the anticipation felt not only by the enemy but the members of his crew who were praying he did not get himself killed by this plan of his. 

"Bob!" Chris called out to the man. "You want a piece of me?"

"You got it coming!" Bob declared after a moment, stepping out from the protection of his men so he could face Chris on his own. 

"I surely do." Chris nodded in agreement; not about to deny any of the sins Bob claimed he committed. For the man to play his game, Chris had to confess his guilt. "The question is, are you man enough to come get you some?"

Bob's eyes flared in outrage at the suggestion. "I'm more man than you'll ever be!"

"Alright then," Chris unbuckled his gun belt slowly and paused before he reached the final notch that would send the weapons to the ground. "What say we prove it?"

"You must think I'm a fool." Bob retorted, less certain than he had been a moment ago. However, he found himself suddenly in an intractable situation. If he were to deny Chris's challenge then he would look like a coward to the men who rode with him and it was pack rules in the West, if he could not assert his dominance over them, then he would be removed by someone who could. In any case, refusal would be perceived as weakness and that was something Top Hat Bob could not afford to show.

"If you don't drop your guns and fight me fair and square, I'll know you're a coward," Chris warned.

Bob's eyes narrowed and surveyed the faces of his men. They were staring at him, wondering what he was going to do. He could see the word slowly emerging in their eyes with each second he delayed in disarming himself and realized after a split second he did not have a choice. He either fought Larabee or lost their respect, and losing their respect was as good as being dead when one considered the company he kept. 

"I'll show you who's a coward when you're begging me to save your yellow-bellied skin," Bob growled and unhooked his gun belt. 

Chris looked over his shoulder and saw the terrified expression on Mary's face, her silent plea for him not to do this. Chris offered her a little smile, assuring her he would be all right. Buck and Ezra's features wore the same worried look and disapproval at the situation their Captain had willingly placed himself. Josiah's look was one of concern but he and Vin shared one thing in common, they both knew he would not have entered this trial of combat unless he knew he could win. Alex had made her way next to Mary and was too busy trying to calm the protocol officer to show her fears for her Captain's life. Nathan's disapproval of any kind of combat was evident by the distaste in his eyes and JD seemed caught between concern and fascination. 

Chris wondered where Julia was.

"Well, are we gonna do this or are you just talk Larabee?" Top Hat Bob sneered and dragged Chris's attention back to him.

Chris gazed at the man long and hard, pushing the images of his crew and Mary to the background as he prepared to fight. He remained where he was, making no initial move towards Bob. The wait made his opponent nervous because Bob could not ascertain whether or not Chris was holding position because he was afraid or merely cautious. In either case, Chris allowed no emotion to show that could be of any help to Bob as the villain studied him. His previous experiences in hand to hand combat had taught Chris one thing; always let the enemy strike first.

It was a concept Bob obviously had no knowledge of because just as the thought crossed Chris's mind, the large man rushed at him. Fear at the lack of concern in Chris's face prompted Bob into attacking first and Chris kept his eyes fixed on the enemy as the man began to circle him, like a wolf preparing the death lunge upon a helpless prey. While Bob's combat technique was fraught with posturing and primitive displays of aggression, Chris was content to simply watch him move, concentrating on his muscle and body language, while at the same time readying his own offensive into place for when the fight really began.

The man threw a plump fist in Chris's direction, which he dodged easily. He was careful to keep a narrow gap of space between them to ensure that Bob would always have to lunge in order to reach him. The blow whooshed past Chris and when the man was caught in the vulnerable margin of time after a punch was thrown and before another could be delivered, Chris slammed a focused strike into the tender part of Bob's side. The punch had its greatest effect above the man's kidneys as Chris intended, forcing an involuntary cry of pain from Bob's lips. The villain howled, enraged the first punch was not his and further infuriated because he had cried out and revealed Chris had hurt him. It was no surprise to Chris when Bob suddenly swung wide in anger, leaving his defenses exposed.

Chris did not let the opportunity go to waste. He dropped to one knee and struck Bob square in the stomach before the man had time to brace himself against the blow. He felt his palm sink into the fat belly and forced the wind from his opponent's lungs as Bob reeled backward. Not wasting any time, Chris was standing upright again and this time, he took the offensive as Bob attempted to recover. Despite the fact the enemy was bigger and possibly stronger, Bob was not a skilled fighter and was probably more accustomed to using a gun to kill his victims rather than his fists. The equalizing effect of the weapon made the men who relied too much upon it forget there were other skills of survival and defense. That advantage was all someone like Chris who had the skill but not the brute strength, to win. Lashing out in a succession of swift blows, his first punch struck the man's ribs cracking it under his fist, the second higher into his throat and the final was a road house swing across the man's jaw.

Bob staggered back again, coughing loudly as his windpipe sustained a disabling injury and tried desperately to recoup. To that end, he managed adequately but knew he had to get his hands on Chris if he was to have any chance of winning. Anger and hatred sent him running forward once again, intending to tackle Chris in a body slam. Chris held his ground, watching him cross the short space between them and braced himself for impact. 

"Chris!" Mary cried out but Chris was not listening. If he remembered she was there, Bob would kill him.

Ignoring Mary's voice, Chris leaped out of the way just as Bob was about to make contact. The would-be avenger ran straight into the wall. The loud crack as his skull met stone would have knocked a normal man unconscious. Unfortunately, Bob was running high on adrenaline and anger and though he was disorientated, he was far from done. However, Chris did not have the patience for a prolonged battle and decided it was time to finish this once and for all. Taking advantage of Bob's brief stupor, Chris came up from behind him and slammed his foot into the bend of the man's knee, dropping him immediately. As Bob struggled to turn around, he was met with another balled fist and then two palms that slammed into the side of his head. Another palm strike connected with the underside of his jaw, snapping his head back savagely and in the daze of these deadly strikes, started to falter.

Chris stepped back seeing no reason to continue. Bob was down and they all knew it. Not just the crew of the Maverick or the men who rode with him and now viewed their leader with less reverence than they had earlier, but Bob as well. The man was struggling to get to his feet and the crimson stains on the ground indicated he was hurt badly. 

"I think we're done." Chris stood back and looked towards Bob's men. When he turned around and started towards the rest of his shipmates, Chris did not expect anyone to stop him. He was right.

This was as far as Top Hat Bob's revenge was going. It was over.

Chapter Eight:

Death

The only description Billy Travis was capable of making about the place he was presently occupying with his newfound friend Quinn, was by the euphemistic term employed by scientists who made use of the technology. Anthropologists called the device a duck blind. Billy had been on expeditions with his mother where the device was used and at this moment, the description of his situation could be best explained by that reference. Anthropologist, in order to study primitive cultures without interfering with the course of the society's development, used duck blinds. Utilizing light refraction technologies, the scientists could make their studies in a self-contained environment, completely invisible to the outside world.

At the moment, the bubble he occupied inside Quinn's holodeck was not too different from that.

He could see everything taking place and the bubble moved when they wished it too, so he could observe several different people all at once. He had seen the Captain; Vin and Security Chief Standish battling it out with the villain Top Hat Bob and recoiled slightly when Nathan Jackson found that dead woman on the street. He confessed he did not like Mr. Poplar much and was glad Josiah made him small when they encountered each other. He felt a little apprehension when he saw Mr. Wickes trying to hurt his ma but Quinn assured him there was nothing to worry about. After all, wasn't she always getting into trouble in the real Magnificent Seven program? Billy knew it was only an excuse for Chris to save her all the time.

In fact, it seemed to be the only reason to have women in the program at all, Billy thought to himself, now he considered it more deeply. Whenever his mother or Chief Engineer Pemberton was in the simulation, they were always being kidnapped, held hostage or in danger in some way that mobilized the seven into acting. He supposed that's why Science Officer Styles did not participate because he could imagine no situation where she would need rescuing.

"The Captain is very resourceful," Quinn remarked as they watched the group, following the end of Chris's fistfight with Top Hat Bob.

"He's the best Captain in Starfleet," Billy said as they both sat on the floor of their bubble, cross-legged and munching on treats as if they were watching a holovid or something. "Next to my father that is," Billy added after a moment, feeling a wave of sadness when he recalled the father who died not too long ago. He liked Chris very much but sometimes it was not quite the same as the stoic Vulcan who was always the paragon of what it was to be Vulcan and yet could still put him to sleep with a lullaby. Billy missed him very much.

Quinn looked at Billy. "You are sad."

Billy nodded slightly, trying to hide it but it simply overcame him too quickly.

"I do not understand this idea of death," Quinn commented. "How can one not exist anymore? I have always been."

"No you haven't," Billy shook his head. "You were born like I was born. Everybody gets born."

"But I do not die," Quinn stated.

"You have to die. Every living thing dies." The young Vulcan pointed out.

"I do not die." His new friend repeated himself. "I do not get sick, I do not get injured and I do not die. My father tells me I will live until the universe stops and beyond it if I wish it. I could go to the past and live as many times as I like because I won't die."

Billy did not think that sounded very good. He was only a child but he did know he would not like to live so long that everyone else around him would die first. It had been hard enough losing his father. He would not like to have that experience repeated over and over again. "That sounds awful."

"My father says that I should be grateful that I can do anything," Quinn answered.

"Grown-ups always say that," Billy remarked.

"Except that, I can." Quinn met his gaze and Billy sensed there was great confusion going on behind the boy's eyes. "I made all this happen."

"This is a holodeck program." The Vulcan pointed out.

"Yes," Quinn nodded with an unfathomable expression quite beyond Billy's experience to truly understand. "Just a program."

*****

You know something?" Buck Wilmington said to Chris after they put Top Hat Bob some distance behind them.

"What?" Chris dusted himself off after his altercation and victory over Bob.

"If you were not my Captain, I would knock you on your ass!" Buck looked at Chris with a decidedly stormy expression on his face. The first officer was unimpressed by the Captain's confrontation with Bob, especially in this pseudo-reality where there were no safety protocols to protect them from death, and the characters of the holodeck had somehow gained flesh and blood status.

"For once I'm in complete agreement with Buck," Alex spoke up. "Captain, that was extremely foolish and dangerous. If Bob had played it smart, he could have just decided to shoot you when you disarmed yourself to fight him."

"Jesus," Chris grumbled, "you two are like a bunch of old women."

"Hey!" Mary declared. "Chris, they're worried about you like I'm worried about you. We're in enough of a mess without you getting yourself killed. The Captain is the most important person on the ship. Protocols are in place to safeguard you, not simply because you are the Captain but because you are responsible for your crew and your ship."

"Alright already," Chris growled, starting to feel a little outnumbered. "I get the point but might I remind you a starship is not a democracy?" He gave them a hard stare and then noticed that Ezra, the one he expected to be most vocal about this subject was strangely silent. Normally, the Security Chief would be the first to be admonishing him for risking himself as he had with Bob but instead, there was an expression of disquiet on the commander's face as his eyes studied the surrounding area.

"Ezra, what is it?" Josiah, who noticed it too, asked before Chris could.

"Where is Julia?"

"Well, she was right behind us when Chris was fighting it out with Bob," Josiah answered automatically and then realized he had not seen the Chief Engineer after that memory.

"She'd know better than to just wander off." Vin pointed out. "Especially now we know that this Q is involved."

"He might have taken her," Nathan suggested, aware Q was more than capable of spiriting the people he toyed with away at a moment's notice. He had done the same thing to the Enterprise, transported an entire starship in the blink of an eye to distant space where the Federation was forced to engage the Borg for the very first time. If Q had not set those events into motion, the Federation might have been spared the Borg onslaught for years to come. However, that premature meeting had also made the Borg aware of the Federation, the Klingon Empire and the even the Romulan Star Empire. It changed the course of Alpha Quadrant politics when the powers that be, realized there were things in space far more terrifying than their petty rivalries with each other.

Chris considered the possibility for the moment and then decided it was unlikely. Since they were brought here, one thing was evident. While Q was content to throw the entire pantheon of Magnificent Seven foes in their direction, he had not engaged them directly. It was the entity's pleasure to watch his players dance to the tune he set for them, not take part in it himself. If Julia was gone, it was more likely to do with the villains plaguing them since the onset of this crazy abduction, than Q taking an active interest in things.

"I don't think so," Chris shook his head in response. "It isn't his style."

"God," Mary suddenly gasped. "It could be that disgusting Wickes character." She looked at Alex and Buck simultaneously. "The man's a monster, Chris! If he has Julia..."

"It will not get that far," Ezra retorted sharply. "Captain, permission to find Mr. Wickes."

"Wait, there's something else." Nathan hated to consider this as a possibility but he had to. Now they knew they were no longer dealing with holograms but real human beings, he had no choice but to consider it. That girl he found in the street, however, she had come to being, was alive when her life had been stolen from her so cruelly. Nathan was certain to her killer, the possibility Julia may be something else entirely, would not matter to him. He would take her life as ruthlessly as he had done to the poor child with the coins in her eyes. "Before we met up with you. We found a body in the street."

"A body?" Chris did not at all like the sound of this.

"A girl," Josiah continued. "Young, pretty, she was strangled to death. The killer placed coins in her eyes."

"That's bizarre," JD exclaimed. "Why?" A cold shudder ran through his spine just picturing the image of a corpse, with coins in the eyes.

"Well if it's a classical reference," Alex replied. "It could mean the killer wanted to ensure she had money to pay the Ferryman to get to the other side."

"Excuse me?" Vin looked at her strangely.

"In Greek and Roman literature, when you die you have to cross the River Styx to reach the Underworld and the Ferryman, Charon will take you there only if you pay him. That's why when they buried their dead, they put coins in the eyes so that they could pay him."

"That is an act of compassion." Josiah pointed out.

"From a man who strangles them beforehand," Ezra said skeptically, guessing already what Josiah was trying not to come out and say. "Are you telling me a creature like this has taken Julia?"

"More than likely cause this doesn't sound like something Wickes would do," Buck spoke up; hating to admit Nathan could be right but the truth was Wickes had not seen Julia with him, just Mary and Alex. It made far more sense if the man were going to attack this way, he would have taken one of them. However, Wickes was the kind that seldom went anywhere without his men. If he had taken Julia, they would have seen him. Unfortunately, the silent abduction that saw Julia stolen out of their midst, seemed more consistent with the behavior of Nathan's murderer.

"We are wasting time." Ezra interrupted, desperate to find Julia the more and more he heard about this Mr. Wickes and this unseen killer stalking women about town and murdering them. "We need to start looking for her now."

"Lieutenant Commander," Chris said sharply and reminded Ezra he was security chief and nothing would be served if they all descended into blind panic. "We will find her but I need your head screwed on right at this moment."

Ezra dropped his gaze to the ground for a moment, slightly embarrassed by his lack of professionalism. Julia was the one person in the universe capable of surfacing the real Ezra Standish, not the cold, hard cynic they had come to know. When he finally met the Captain's eyes, Ezra noted the sympathy being exhibited by his friends for his pain and felt strangely comforted by it.

"I apologize." He said evenly.

"Its okay," Chris responded automatically. "Now we can't assume she is with one person or the other. Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of taking a guess. If she's with this nut, then we have very little time so we're going to have to split up. This town isn't that big, we can search it."

"That's right," Nathan added, wishing to give Ezra hope because he knew how deeply the security chief felt for the woman and if it were Rain in the same unfortunate circumstances, he would be just as unhinged. "What he does with them needs him placed close to town so even though time is against us, he won't be far away. If he has her, he'll be wanting to do it someplace quiet where he can enjoy himself but at the same time not be remote enough to have trouble disposing of the body."

"Doctor Jackson," Ezra cleared his throat, wincing each time the doctor used the word �body.' "Do you think you could manage to sound a little less clinical? I do not see Julia as a body yet."

"Yes," Josiah frowned, giving the doctor a dark look indicating his bedside manner could use a little work.

"Sorry," Nathan apologized, feeling a mortified by his insensitivity. "However, we also need to keep in mind if he is responsible for Julia's disappearance, he may have bitten off more than he can chew."

"I don't follow," JD responded.

"I think I do," Vin caught on immediately. "This guy is used to dealing with women from this time, who wouldn't know how to put up a fight if he came at them. Julia is not from the 19th century, she's from the 24th and she's an Academy trained Starfleet officer who knows how to get out of trouble if she has to. If this guy has her, Julia may know how to take care of herself or at the very least, stall him long enough for us to get to him."

"Right," Chris gave Vin a smile of gratitude at making that statement because Ezra needed to hear some positives regarding Julia's situation, not merely meaningless platitudes of well-intentioned friends. "At the moment, I'm assuming nothing so we're splitting up to find her. "Ezra, you, Josiah, Alex, and Nathan see what you can do about finding this killer. I figure the four of you would have a better chance of tracking him than the rest of us."

"What are you going to do?" Alex asked.

"We're going after Mister Wickes," Chris answered. "Chances are if you don't find her, we will."

Ezra hoped it was as simple as that. In truth, he would rather Julia be in the hands of a whoremaster, even if the entire notion was odious because the man would not be inclined to kill her.

Her chances of survival were considerably better than if she were the unwilling captive of a serial killer.

*****

Julia's head hurt.

She woke up to a sharp scent in her lungs.

The acrid metallic stench assaulted her senses with the efficiency of smelling salts and forced her from the dark place she had been slumbering. Sensation bled into her at a crawl but when it did return, she almost wished it had not. The dull throbbing that was distant and tolerable soon felt as if a thunderstorm was rumbling inside her mind. She did not know she groaned when she first felt it, but there was a sound so she supposed she must have made it.

Her throat felt parched and when she lifted her head, fresh pain assailed her once more and forced to lie down again. She was on the wooden floor of a place she had yet to identify because her vision was still blurred. Her eyesight was slower to return than her olfactory senses, which were bombarding her with a host of scents. She tried to identify the acrid smell that roused her from her sleep and could not quite place it at first. Then Julia felt something warm and slick running through her scalp,  stymied by hair. When she felt it on her brow, she knew exactly what it was.

Blood.

When she attempted to reach for her forehead to investigate, Julia discovered that her arms were bound behind her back. The tension of rope around her wrists brought clarity to her mind like nothing else was capable. Her eyes flew open and she immediately started to struggle, life surging into lethargic limbs, left too long in their uncomfortable position. The ropes bit into her skin, chafing her flesh as she tried to loosen them enough to free herself. After a few seconds, Julia discovered to her rising panic, the ropes were tied with exceptional skill, ensuring the captive, being her, would not be able to accomplish what she was attempting to do now.

"You can't escape." A male voice said softly.

Julia froze. She had been so focused on freeing herself, it never occurred to her, she was being watched. She looked up slowly and also realized she was in a church. Specifically Josiah's church. During her visits to the program, she had an opportunity to be in this place once or twice before and recognized it immediately.

"Who are you?" She asked hoarsely as she turned her head towards him and saw the man sitting on the nearby pew, watching her closely with dead eyes. The lack of anything in them sent a chill through Julia's spine.

"Nobody." He answered, observing her like she was the most fascinating thing he had ever seen.

"You must be somebody," Julia tried again. "I have to be able to call you something."

He met her gaze and suddenly, she saw something sparkle in his eyes. "You can call me Death."

Chapter Nine:
Fantasy

When one came down to it, there was no trick to beginning an investigation, no special 'knack' allowing one investigator to succeed where another failed. The misconception popularized by authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie would have the everyday man believing one needed to have Holmes's dispassionate demeanour or Poirot's incredible arrogance to see clues where none existed. It was pure deductive reasoning one needed to see through the benign veneer of a crime scene, to visualize the violence that may or may not have been committed there.

Even though it was dangerous to do so, Ezra knew there was one place he could launch his search for Julia Pemberton and that was where she was last seen. Although he was mindful Top Hat Bob and his men might still be in the area, the security chief of the USS Maverick had little choice in the matter. Fortunately, by the time the quartet of Starfleet officers returned to the narrow alleyway where Julia disappeared, there was no sign of the villains. Ezra had to assume Bob was probably somewhere licking his wounds.

"She was standing right here," Josiah told Alex and Nathan once they returned to the small alley where Josiah, Ezra, and Julia had taken refuge when the shooting between Bob's men and the seven broke out. "Then you two got into that argument and she wandered off."

"It was not an argument," Ezra growled as he proceeded down the narrow passageway. "It was a difference of opinion."

"Whatever," Alex remarked, moving to a change of subject. Ezra was one of her closest friends on the Maverick. She liked his wry sense of humor, very much like her own and they both shared a cynical view on things even though she suspected like herself, it was not as jaded as both of them might like everyone else to believe. "I wish Vin had come with us. He's pretty good at spotting tracks in the ground. Something about growing up in the wilderness I suppose."

"We do not require Mr. Tanner's expertise this time around," Ezra said tautly as he saw the marks in the dirt and had a very good idea Julia had indeed gone this way. "She went down this path. I can see the indentation of her heel in the dirt."

"Really?" Nathan exclaimed with some hint of admiration, seeing nothing in the dirt except some unevenness that was deeper in some places than others. "How can you tell?"

"The women of this time wore shoes with different types of heels from that worn by men. Male footwear came with broader heels, where else ladies footwear seem to taper in that area." Ezra gestured to the tracks they had all paused to examine after he had made his statement. "You can see how it digs into the earth first, pushing dirt around it before being flattened out by the rest of the shoe."

"I'll be damned," Josiah remarked impressed. "I see what you mean."

"She did come this way then," Alex said unhappily, feeling very anxious about Julia's situation for some reason. She almost wished Mr. Wickes had the chief engineer in his hands. At least, they could be assured Julia might survive the next few hours alive since Wickes wanted her to replace one of the working girls he had supposedly lost because of Buck Wilmington. Anything had to be better than being in the hands of a serial killer.

Although advancements in criminology had more or less eliminated the genetic predisposition in humans that turned an intelligent man into a cold-blooded monster, such specimen sometimes managed to slip through the cracks of 24th-century vigilance. In the 20th century, they had been a plague almost as virulent as the diseases of the time and no less easy to cure.

The serial killer was a random animal, following a pattern usually unique only to him. Profiles tended to be generic and usually when the subject was discovered, often ended up being classified as something completely new. Catching one usually required determining the pattern and it was almost unheard of to catch one within 24 hours of the first crime. In this instance, the killer had been killing for quite some time. Even though Alex did not want to say it, mostly because she knew it must be weighing heavily on Ezra's mind, the chances of catching this creature in time to save Julia was slim at best.

They continued up the passageway until they came to the doorway Julia discovered earlier. Ezra froze, his eyes seeing details in everything that made his heart pound louder in his chest, even though he was trying his level best not to let it get to him. Razor sharp intellect scoured the grimy brick walls, examining the faded paint on the wooden doorway. He noted the greasy hand stands on the doorknob and knew even if he could lift prints off the handle; it would be of little good to them. Fingerprint evidence was only useful if the murderer had a prior record and in this day and age, where fingerprinting was akin to suggesting a man could reach the moon, it was more or less a redundant exercise.

"The tracks stop," Alex replied, knowing enough about what to look for to realize that Julia's footprints had disappeared. However, she disappeared from this place and was taken elsewhere, she had not done so on foot.

"Yes, they have." He nodded slowly.

Josiah noticed the expression on the security officer's face. It was almost ashen. The man was staring at the opposite wall.  When Josiah followed his gaze and saw what captured his attention, he could understand why Ezra was so horrified. Josiah swallowed and found his voice after a few seconds.

"Is that what I think it is?

Alex who recovered far more quickly was barking at Nathan to come forward. "Doctor!"

Nathan immediately stepped forward and took a look. He gave Ezra a sympathetic glance before he stepped up to the wall and ran his finger against the brick. What came off it was quickly examined when it clung to his fingertip and Nathan knew immediately, the substance could be nothing else.

"I'm sorry Ezra," he found himself saying. "Its blood."

"Ezra," Alex said quickly. "This proves nothing. She might have fought him and one of them could be hurt."

"Yes," Ezra nodded slowly. "There is always that possibility." However, his voice did not sound as if he entirely believed it.

"It may be that he knocked her out," Nathan retorted. "There's not a lot of blood so this could be a minor wound."

"It must be," Ezra said firmly and looked down the doorway and further up the passageway, further along from the doorway. "I do not see further evidence of bleeding. Of course, if we had our tricorders, this might be so much simpler."

"Alright," Alex tried to take the initiative, aware of the emotional turmoil Ezra was enduring at this moment. "He knocked her out here and must have carried her wherever he was going. Now he can't have gone very far without attracting attention. This is not the kind of place where someone with Julia's standing in the community could be slung over someone's shoulder without being seen. He must have entered the hotel through this door. I can't see him trying for the street."

"I can," Ezra stated. Her theory sparked his mind into working again. "Do not forget at the time of her abduction, we were engaged in a rather nasty firefight with Mr. Top Hat Bob and his cohorts. No one would have cared about seeing a man carrying a woman away, not when they were all hiding within their enclaves for fear of being caught in random fire."

"Damn," Josiah swore.

"So they could be anywhere." Nathan groaned, with more than a trace of defeat in his voice.

"More or less." Alex nodded grimly.

Ezra did not speak as he followed the footprints leading out of the doorway. Even though there was no blood down the path the killer must have taken Julia, there were still tracks. Julia's wound was only superficial, if not the bleeding would be worse. The deeper indentations of his sole in the ground indicated to Ezra the man was carrying her. She was likely rendered unconscious in this tiny little annex, evidenced by blood on the wall. A cold sliver of ice burrowed into his heart and no matter what he told himself, Ezra knew it would not go away until Julia was found.

"We will begin searching," Ezra replied, snapping out of his dark thoughts regarding his lover's fate. He had hoped she was alive or else he would be no good to her. "We can safely ignore the saloons or the hotel."

"Yes," Josiah nodded. "He'll need privacy to do what he has to. I'd say the livery stable or a cellar somewhere."

"He couldn't just break into someone's house." Nathan pointed out. "That would draw attention."

"That's right," the Counselor agreed, well aware of some of the universal characteristics of the psychosis he was dealing with. "This is a man who feels inferior before others. He conjures up fantasies involving himself and the women who are his victims. In his world, they are playing a part and it is a private world where only the two of them exist. To invite others, would be to destroy the fantasy and he can't have that. It would take the satisfaction out of the killing."

"God, that's sick," Alex whispered under her breath.

"As he is," Josiah stated. "Ezra," the Counselor turned to the security chief. "Would it help if we went and found Mr. Poplar?"

"The Pinkerton detective?" Alex remembered the name when Josiah was relating the events of what happened when he first emerged into Q's playground.

"Yes," Josiah nodded. "Perhaps, he may have some idea about tracking this man to could help us with Julia. I don't like him much and he's a cretin, to say the least but I get the impression he's been on the killer's trail for some time and may give us a little help."

Ezra considered the notion. "I am open to any assistance we might obtain. Go find him. Alex and I will continue our search. We'll meet back in this location in twenty minutes."

"So soon?" Nathan looked at him. Although Four Corners was not a large town by any means, it was not a small one either and searching for Poplar may take longer than that time.

"Yes," Ezra nodded, broking no argument on this point. He was unhappy by their lack of progress and knew Julia could not afford to wait until they eventually found her. Time was running out, he could feel the urgency of its diminishing quantity pressing up against his spine. Even though there was no outward sign of it to his friends, the fear he felt was so palpable it might reach up and choke him. "A great deal can take place in 20 minutes, Doctor Jackson. A great deal."

******

Death."

The word hung from his lips and for a moment, she wondered if he was just sadistic or insane. It did not take her very long to discover he was both. He sat at the pew watching her, allowing moments to pass without speaking, knowing the silence would heighten her terror almost as much as the length of chord he held in his hands. His fingers were gently caressing the rough Hessian fibers like something to be savored.

"What do you want?" She asked, unable to bear it. He was staring at her like a statue, watching her. His eyes were almost black and as he continued to look at her with that detached expression, Julia had the insight he was building up to something as if she were caught with him in the eye of the storm.

Once again he did not answer but continued to stare.

Julia decided she was not going to wait for him and shouted. "Somebody help me!"

Her scream was short because he was out of the pew immediately, making long strides towards her. Julia braced herself and watched him come closer. She was only going to have one chance at this but she was willing to try it because the look in his eyes told her she had no other choice. He was watching her, allowing his fantasy to gain momentum, building it into a swell of rage that would manifest into a storm of repressed desire. Julia was smart enough to know she would not survive the outpouring of dark and twisted emotion.

The distance between them disappeared and before she knew it, his shadow fell over her form almost as if the Reaper had suddenly moved into her presence. Julia's heart was racing inside her breast as she watched the insistent caress of the rope in his hands become more and more urgent. The need was upon him and she could see the beast inside him awaken. Once roused, it would not be restraint until it fed.

When he was close enough, she kicked out her foot suddenly. The heel connected the curved bone of his ankle and she heard him yell in pain. Instinctively, he raised his injured ankle and when he did so, Julia kicked out again, this time ensuring her foot landed just above his knee. Her kick was strong and desperate, with more than enough force behind it to sweep his feet from under him. Julia did not wait to see him fall. She rolled onto her knees and pushed herself up as best she could. However, her progress was slow and even though she heard him fall to the floor, scuffling sounds told her he was recovering quickly and would be after her in seconds.

"Help me!" Julia screamed again, hoping someone, anyone would hear her.

"Shut up!" She heard him shout behind her and knew from the sound of his voice he was not far away.

She scrambled to her feet, preparing to run but her clothes and bound hands hampered her movements and stole critical seconds she could not afford to waste. She had taken no more than two or three steps when she felt his hand fist around her ankle and yank back sharply. Julia was unable to prevent herself from stumbling and without her hands to break her fall, slammed chin first into the floorboards. The impact almost knocked her out and as the pain emanated from her jaw and shuddered throughout her body, she felt blood filling into her mouth.

"Bitch!" She heard him scream through the haze of disorientation but was not in the position to do much else.

Julia did not see his fists starting to fly as he straddled her. The room was still spinning when his knuckle met her jaw. She was aware of crying out as the blows dislodged teeth and felt flesh swelling in her bruised face as he continued to pummel her, unaware of what he was doing. Her audacity to fight back inspired a mountain of rage inside him. She had dared to destroy the fantasy he prepared for them both and for that she would pay dearly. Her cries soon disintegrated into whimpers of agony. She did not know how much damage he caused, only aware somewhere during the beating, she could no longer see and the smell of blood was filling her lungs with such entirety, she was nauseated to the point of being violently ill.

Where was Ezra? Julia wondered anguished as she felt another bone shatter and were certain it was her cheekbone finally giving in. Why wasn't he here? She wailed inside her mind, inside her pain for him to come and save her from this nightmare and knew there was no reason for him to come, even if he knew about her plight. After all, she had not exactly treated him fairly. How could he be blamed for anything when what he had done was because he loved her? He had not seen past her eyes and looked into the person she was because his desire was so filled with want of her. How could he have been expected to know? If she were in the same position, could she have made that distinction herself?

Strange how at the moment when she was poised between life and death, certain things became clear. Julia thought about her ship and her friends. She thought about Ezra because she was too weak and in too much pain to do much else. It was becoming hard to breathe and she wondered dazed, if that tightening around her throat had something to do with it, or was her lungs finally filling up with blood.

There was no way for Julia to tell what was happening even though she could hear his movements, slow and deliberating sounds echoing sinister intent with every ounce of pain she suffered. Both her eyes were swollen shut from abuse and the only thing she could feel was fresh, warm blood gurgling from her mouth and down the corner of her lips. She was no longer able to scream but she could make words, even if no one could hear them.

"Ezra."

The constriction around her throat paused for a moment.

"Ezra," she tried again, wishing to hear his name in her ears as if hearing it could give her strength to last a little longer. Or at the very least to say what she had to before it was too late before she never had the chance to.  Of course, it would mean little to anyone but her since Ezra was not here to hear it.

"I'm sorry." She whispered and felt the warmth running out of her eyes and knew this time it was not blood but tears.

It was becoming harder and harder to breathe and the pressure around her throat was so strong she could not inhale to take air into her lungs. Her mind started to fog over as the lack of oxygen began her descent into the grey numbness of brain asphyxia. She began to choke and as her heaving grew more frantic and desperate, it appeared the tightening became more insistent until finally, she could take nothing at all. Her breaths became ragged gasps filling her world. For a time, she could not focus on Ezra in her head as she battled for the last minutes of light left in her but when she finally succumbed, when her body and spirit were willing to accept the dark rushing at her, she thought of Ezra again.

And then there was nothing.

******

The minute he saw the crowd gathered in the middle of the street, Ezra Standish knew.

He was a man who relied almost entirely on the sixth sense that made him the security chief he was and an unbeatable card sharp at the poker table.   When he felt that hollow feeling of dread rising up inside him, Ezra knew he was not wrong. Beside him, Alex broke into a run as she hurried forward to see what it was drawing the attention of the townsfolk. Ezra could not bring his legs to move any faster because he was fairly certain of what was waiting for him. While those around him saw the gambler of the Magnificent Seven striding forward confidently to the scene of the commotion, inside he was quivering with fear.

He knew what he was going to find even before he reached the crowd and knowing it would kill him inside. Ezra saw Alex breaking through the crowd and pausing as she caught sight at what she saw there. For a moment, she remained frozen and then her shoulders sagged as she disappeared from view for a few seconds as she became lost in the small gathering. Ezra continued to walk, compelled to move even though he had no wish to. Then he saw Alex reappear. She pushed her way past the town's people. Her brown eyes were filled with tears and she was biting her lip, trying to stop the quivering that would induce her to cry.

"Ezra," she said softly. "Stay where you are." She instructed, trying to keep the authority in her voice but failing. "You don't want to see this."

Ezra did not answer and brushed past her. He felt her hand grab his hand and halted him from taking another step.

"Please," she implored, warm tears running down her cheeks as she beseeched him not to take another step. "You don't want to see this."

"I have to," he answered, his voice barely a whisper.

"No," she tried to stop him. "You don't."

Ezra ignored her and forced his way through. The townspeople who were programmed to know the relationship between them stepped aside immediately. Only Josiah and Nathan remained. The duo was searching for Poplar and their lack of success brought them into the streets where they noticed the crowd forming and realized they were too late. Nathan was leaning over the body and Josiah looked up to see Ezra breaking the circle of spectators.

"Ezra," Josiah said softly. "I am so sorry."

Ezra blinked as he looked down and saw Nathan removing his hand from her neck where he had been attempting to locate a pulse. Judging by the somber expression on his face, Ezra guessed there was none to find. His breath caught in his throat as he saw those lovely features battered so badly, it was almost impossible to imagine she had been the beautiful woman he remembered and loved, who stared at him with those incredible emerald colored eyes. He could not see her eyes because they were swollen shut and had been concealed by the two silver dollars, placed there by her killer.

"Why did he do this?" Nathan muttered. "Why did he hurt her so badly?"

"Because," Ezra managed to say, his voice shaking as he forced the words out. "She fought him. She would not have allowed him to kill her without a fight and because she fought him, he had to subdue her. He had to break every bone in her face."

"Ezra..." Josiah started to say but the security chief was not listening. He dropped to his knees gently next to her and ran his fingers over the soft strands of titian hair he had loved to feel against his skin when she kissed him. He ran his hand against her cheeks and did not care it was stained with drying blood. Now that she was gone, Ezra doubted he would care about anything again. He lowered his lips to her ear and knew despite her inability to hear him, he had to say goodbye or he would not have the courage to hunt down the bastard who did this to her.

With glistening eyes and fighting the tears that wanted to come, Ezra whispered softly in Julia's unhearing ear. "I love you, Julia, I always will." He bit down the urge to weep once more. "I promise you, I'll find him and I'll kill him.�

Chapter Ten:
Investigations

"Where is he?" Chris Larabee asked of Josiah Sanchez.  He emerged from the tavern after Alex had gone to find the Captain and informed him of what had happened to Julia Pemberton.

At the time, the Captain and the officers with him were attempting to discern the exact whereabouts of Mr Wickes. They discovered after his confrontation with Buck and Mary, Wickes had chosen to retreat to the little shanty town some distance away from Four Corners where he ran the women under his stable with an iron hand, while at the same time offering their delectable attractions to paying customers. Chris was in the process of preparing horses to ride out there in the hopes of seeing if Q was in the vicinity. Picard's report indicated Q often liked to take the part of a bystander who could witness the play he set into motion without actually taking centre stage. Since he had not shown himself during Chris's confrontation with Bob and Chris doubted he could play much of a bystander with a serial killer, only Wickes was left.

Mary had described the man as odious, to say the least, and he wanted to leave her behind but somehow, instinct told him since it was necessary to split the group up, it was probably bested they remain in large groups at least. When Alex came to find him, he suspected the worse just by the expression on her face. Few things affected Alex. She had the ability to shrug things off with more detachment than anyone on board, except for a full-blooded Vulcan with all the discipline that entailed. When he saw the shaken expression on her face, Chris knew instinctively what happened. It took a lot to shake her and only the worst possible occurrence could have warranted the hollowness in her eyes when she approached.

"Inside," Josiah motioned towards the batwing doors of the saloon.

Chris nodded slowly and then asked again. "How is he?" He asked gingerly even though he knew it was somewhat of a foolish question. He knew precisely what it was like to lose the woman one loved and Chris's own reaction had been extreme, he did not expect Ezra's to be any different.

"Bearing up." The Counselor replied. "He's in there questioning the locals who found the body."

It did not surprise Chris Ezra would hold together. He would do so because he was not someone who showed his grief to those around him. Ever since Chris had known Ezra, the Captain learned enough about the man to know his security chief was fiercely private, even more so than himself. Although Ezra's mother was a successful resort owner who now resided permanently on Risa, his youth was anything but easy. His official record read more like sordid fiction than an account of someone's life.

Ezra had grown up on the pleasure cruise circuit. His mother, a fortune hunter of some sort, travelled across the galaxy, dragging her son to every place capable of producing get rich quick schemes. There were several husbands after the Starfleet officer who had been her first and Ezra's father. They remained briefly when it became obvious only one man had Maude Standish's heart. Her son.

Mother and son moved through this precarious state of existence, sometimes rich, sometimes not but always on the move. The advantage of this uneasy life was the fact that while he was travelling from one place to another, Ezra became an impeccable judge of character. He could see something shady a mile away. His instincts were razor sharp and his ability to see through the masks that often confused so many humans, because of the number of alien faces that made up the galaxy these days, were unparalleled.

Chris had often wondered what the scene must have been like when Ezra announced to his mother he was entering Starfleet Academy. It must have been one hell of a surprise. Until that point, Ezra was either assisting his mother's schemes or playing the tables himself and as a card player; he had no peer anywhere. As someone said, Ezra made the Ferengi cry. Nevertheless, Ezra made it to the Academy on scholarship alone and accepting his lecturer's recommendations his talents lay in security, Ezra never looked back.

Chris met him when he was a lieutenant. Even then, his canny sense stood out among the security officers stationed on the Yorktown. At the time, Chris was a new first officer, just about to make rendezvous with the Rutherford. Ezra had impressed him so much during his time on the Yorktown, not only in his handling of different races but his ability to see through a lie. By the time Chris boarded the Rutherford, he was impressed enough to know when his first command came through, he would want Ezra on his command staff.

"Where's Nathan?" Alex asked, peering through the doors and seeing only Ezra inside.

"He's gone off with the..." Josiah paused as he forced himself to say it. "He's gone with Julia."

For a moment none of them could speak and the silence that fell over them was brief but lasting. Chris lost crewmen before. It was the part of the job no Captain liked but had to endure. However, it seemed worse because it was Julia and because it was caused by something as foolish as Q's games.

"Was she like the others?" He asked again after the moment passed.

Josiah exchanged a glance with Alex before the Counselor shook his head slowly. "She was strangled and she did have the trademark coins in her eyes but if it wasn't for her clothes and her hair, we wouldn't have recognized her."

"What?" Chris exhaled a strangled gasp.

"He broke just about every bone in her face Captain," Alex said softly. "Ezra figures she tried to fight him off and that only made him angry. He probably did it to subdue her."

Chris would imagine he would have to since Julia would not sit still and allow such a fate to befall her. Still hearing that made Chris determined to get the rest of his people out of here. Without saying another word, Chris stepped unto the floor of the saloon and immediately captured Ezra's attention. The security chief whispered something to the old man across the table from him, excusing himself as he came to meet the Captain. As he approached, Chris noticed the sadness in his eyes but nothing else to indicate he had just lost the love of his life.

"Ezra," Chris said gently. "How are you doing?"

Ezra's voice was low and grieving but he did not give Chris the impression of someone who could not do his job. Chris would not take that away from him anyway, because when he was certain it was the only thing holding Ezra together.

"I am fine Captain." He answered softly.

"I don't know what to say..."

"Chris," Ezra stopped him before he went any further. "I appreciate the sentiment but right now I do not wish to think about what has happened beyond catching the culprit responsible. I failed her once, I will not do so again by allowing her killer to go free."

"I understand." Chris nodded; once again feeling his faith in Ezra reaffirmed even though he would have understood completely if Ezra had succumbed to his grief. "What have you found out?"

"It happened very quickly. It is likely it was done by the time we noticed she was missing. He took advantage of our confrontation with Mr Top Hat Bob and the time taken for everyone to emerge after it was all said and done. By the time people had begun to pay attention, the body was already there."

Ezra tried to remind himself 'the body' he was speaking about was not Julia. Julia was dead. That lifeless figure he saw earlier was not his Julia and if he kept thinking of it as her, he would not be able to function. He knew he was poised at the edge of a precipice that would allow the pain to swallow him whole, should he choose to fall over it. Thus he remained where he was trapped between sorrow and rage and the balance was precarious enough as it was.

"So what's next?" Chris asked.

"I am not certain," Ezra remarked. "This town is not that large so I will find him. According to Josiah, he was visited by a Pinkerton detective who seemed to allude he might know more about this killer than I do. I am endeavouring to locate him."

"I would have thought he would be on the scene after you found her."

"So did I," Ezra said thoughtfully, his thoughts churning inside his head. After an instant, he looked up at the Captain once again, the temporary fog having dissipated from his mind. "Suffice to say, I shall be meeting the gentlemen soon enough."

"Alright," Chris nodded agreeing Ezra ought to concentrate on finding Julia's killer. "We'll carry on as planned. We'll be going to find this Wickes and hopefully Q."

"Take care Chris," Ezra warned. "I am not entirely sure how you are going to deal with this Q when you encounter him, but it is safe to assume the game he is playing is rather deadly."

"I hear you," Chris replied. "You take it easy."

The Captain tipped his hat slightly in his direction and was on his way again, disappearing past the batwing doors.

Ezra walked out the door, where he could hear Josiah and Alex speaking. He assumed they were most likely receiving some parting instructions from the Captain regarding his state of mind. Ezra could hardly blame Chris for doing so if such were the case. The Captain could not allow friendship to dictate his actions. As security chief, Ezra understood the folly of this better than anyone else. However, when he stepped through the doors onto the wooden walkway running past the saloon, Ezra realized Josiah and Alex were not talking to Chris about any orders regarding himself, but to a stranger.

Alex turned to him as he approached. "This is Silas Poplar."

"The Pinkerton detective," Ezra stated firmly.

Poplar stared at him. He was young, aged somewhere in his early thirties. His eyes studied Ezra closely as he approached and the security chief felt something stirring that immediately pushed Julia's death aside, and brought all those hunter's instincts inside him to bear. Whether or not Poplar realized what it was he inspired Ezra could not say for certain, but there was a moment between men where battle lines are drawn, even if they are not spoken.

"You are one of the men charged to guard this town from mishap I assume?" Poplar replied, sounding not at all impressed by the title.

"Yes, I am, although it appears I was too late to prevent the latest infraction," Ezra remarked, showing no signs of Julia's death on his face. Instead, Alex and Josiah saw the cool detachment of someone whose mind was working fast and furious.

The Science Officer considered Ezra one of her closest friends. His ability to go for the jugular was something she admired and respected. They often found themselves on the same side of any argument when it came to the security of the Maverick. A strange solidarity when their individual roles on the ship were so different.

"I am aware of that but unfortunately, our opportunity to catch this man has slipped through our fingers," Poplar remarked. "He will not kill again for some time and usually in another town." However, as he said this, he was eyeing Josiah most closely. Ezra did not miss the innuendo or the direction of his gaze.

"Is there something about M. Sanchez that inspires your interest?" Ezra asked, wanting to see his reaction, or for that matter, any reaction.

"I have it on good authority that Mr Sanchez was in Vesta City two nights ago. He has still not produced a suitable alibi as to where he was at the time of those murders." Poplar replied, all but forgetting Josiah and Alex as his eyes remained fixed on Ezra's.

"Do you have any reason to believe he is responsible beyond that one scant fact?" Ezra asked automatically.

"Not until the bodies began appearing here." Poplar pointed out.

"That hardly means anything, Mr Poplar," Ezra countered. "You were also in Vesta City and now you are in Four Corners. Am I to assume you might have committed these crimes simply because you happened to be in the same place at the same time?"

Poplar was outraged by the suggestion and his face turned red from indignation. "I have been tracking this killer for some time now. You would suspect me?"

"No," Ezra shook his head slowly, monitoring his response most coolly. "However, Mr Sanchez was with me and Miss Styles here, at the time of the second killing. There is no way he could have committed the crime. Since you brought up the point, I would like to know where you were at the time of the murders."

"I was investigating," Poplar responded smoothly but Ezra was able to look straight past his eyes to know with absolute certainty he was shaken.

"I see." Ezra nodded and then asked once more. "You say he has killed twice and moved on. How much time do we have before the next set of killings?"

"Not long," Poplar answered quietly. The arrogance in his voice was not as prevalent before. "The urge takes him soon enough. It's like a physical need, he can't quench, a desire that must happen."

"Ezra," Alex spoke up. "We have to find this guy before he leaves town. Once he's gone, he'll just do this somewhere else."

"Ezra?" Poplar shifted his gaze back to Ezra in something that was almost surprising. When he realized the gambler was staring at him hard, Poplar recovered quickly and produced another quick answer. "You must be the famous gambler Ezra I've been hearing about."

"Yes," Ezra nodded, that same mask on his face. "Ezra Stanford."

"So you are he." The Pinkerton man grinned, pleased he managed to escape unscathed from this particular minefield.

Alex's eyes widened and she was prepared to correct Ezra when the security chief silenced her with a look and faced Poplar once more. "If I could impose on you to stay for a day, I would like to confer with you some more. The killer will not attempt to leave town because it would be rather noticeable for him to flee so soon after the murders. This is a small community," Ezra continued. "Everyone is aware of everyone and any hasty departures may cause undue incrimination."

Poplar's smile faded from view. "I am at your disposal of course.  Would you mind if I examined the body?"

Ezra did not like the idea of this man being anywhere near Julia's form alive or dead but he could not afford to let the man's suspicions were raised. If Poplar left town, they would never catch him and with their needing to be in Four Corners to uncover what plan Q had in store for them, Ezra would not be able to go after him. Fantasy world or not, that was no idle promise he made to Julia.

"Of course," Ezra complied politely. "You know the way to the undertakers?"

"I was there when the first victim in this town was found," Poplar answered and started to draw away.

"I shall see you about, Mr Poplar," Ezra said coolly as Poplar retreated.

They did not speak until he was well away from them and out of earshot. When he was gone, Alex let out a held breath.

"He knew your name!" She gushed. "He knew it even before he heard me say it."

"That's why I had to confirm it was not Ezra Standish he knew but simply Ezra." The security officer answered still staring after Poplar, even though the man was no longer in view. "Well, Josiah, what do you think?"

"I think we have a definite possibility." Josiah nodded, aware of what Ezra suspected. While Ezra was conducting his interrogation, Josiah was studying Poplar's behaviour and everything he saw confirmed the worst.

"I think you are right. When we confronted him about being the killer, he was more than a little defensive, not with the outrage of innocence but of being exposed. If this were at all reality, I would be at this moment trying to learn if he was in all those different places before the murders occurred or after. I would bet a fortune to say it was before although the truth will never really be known."

"I think he wants to be caught," Josiah stated.

"I beg your pardon?" Alex looked at him astonished. "He was trying to pin it on you. That doesn't sound like a man who wants to turn himself in."

"I know," Josiah agreed with her statement there. "However, this kind of psychosis is very difficult to simply label. In one instance, he's not a sociopath. The urge as he calls it was a very personal description and if he truly did not want to be caught, he would have left the minute the deaths occurred, not pretending to be the lone crusader for justice. He is seeking justice but he is trying to get others to see he might be the one to focus their attention. Of course, the part of him that kills also tries to protect himself. His mind is always in conflict."

"You mean it's a mess."

"Mess or not," Ezra said icily. "If he killed Julia. I will kill him."

Chapter Eleven:
Evidence

He knew with every fibre of his being it was Poplar who was responsible for the killing but the Security Chief inside Ezra Standish refused to let him abandon the laws of due process. He had no proof other than a suspicion and as much anger and horror he felt inwardly at the loss of Julia Pemberton, Ezra knew he had to be absolutely certain before he confronted the man. Part of him wondered why he was taking such precaution when everything in this place was nothing but a fake, a reproduction created by an entity to amuse itself. Why should he care about being so exact when everything here was an illusion? Because Julia's death was no illusion and if he murdered Poplar in cold blood, that would be no illusion either.

Once the man disappeared from their midst, Ezra regarded his companions. For the moment, Nathan was conducting his examinations on Julia's body and Ezra would prefer to leave him to his work until he was ready to submit his findings. As emotionally restrained as Ezra was, even he could not promise he would not crumble if he was forced to look at her lifeless form again. As it is, he was numb inside. The pain had turned the rest of him into stone and would remain so until he was allowed to mourn her.

"Commander," Ezra said to Alex. "I think it would be best if you spoke to people around town about Mr Poplar's whereabouts this morning. I will wager a year's pay he did not see or talk to anyone."

"Alright," Alex nodded, understanding his need for confirmation even though she too craved vengeance for Julia's death. The Chief Engineer was a friend and Alex was highly protective of the few she had. Seeing Julia's death mask had been all to stark a reminder of some of the injuries she suffered when she was a captive of the Cardassians. "Shall I be discreet?"

"No," Ezra said coolly.

"No?" Josiah looked at the Security Chief. "Isn't it smart not to overplay our hand?"

Ezra who knew better than anyone how a play was to be made, shook his head slightly. "I do not wish Commander Styles to be discreet. If he is innocent then he should have no reason to fear her interrogation of the good citizens of this community. If he has reason to fear then provocation is what we need to see if we are right."

"It may also engender a violent response." Josiah pointed out. "You should not underestimate just how desperate the half of him that kills wishes to continue, even if he wants to be caught."

"I underestimate nothing," Ezra said softly, images of Julia's bruised face flashing in his mind as he spoke.

Josiah saw his expression and deciphered immediately what it was Ezra was thinking of and felt mortified by his insensitivity. "Ezra, I'm sorry..." he started to say but the security chief merely shrugged off the apology as he did everything since Julia's death.

"It is quite alright, Counselor," Ezra replied and returned his gaze to Alex once more. "Commander, if you would so please?"

Alex nodded and came forward enough to give Ezra a little squeeze on his shoulder. "We'll catch him, Ezra. He'll pay for what he did."

Ezra responded to her efforts with a slight nod before pulling away. Alex took this as a sign to proceed and left them, striding towards the direction of the saloon where her own investigations into Poplar's whereabouts would begin. It seemed the logical choice because the saloons in a small town like this were the hub of information. There was not much going on in Four Corners that escaped the eyes of its patrons and if Poplar was genuine in his inquiries, then they would soon know it.

Ezra watched her go, commending her secretly on her choice. If he had been in charge of the task she was given, Ezra would have started there himself.

"What are we going to do?" Josiah asked.

"You, my friend are going back to your church. I am uncertain of whether or not Poplar suspects we believe him to be the killer, chances are good he does. If that is the case, then the only way he can be certain of leaving Four Corners is to ensure someone else is implicated for the crime. Since he has already made it clear, you are the prime suspect, I see no reason why he would change that tactic. He needs someone to hang if he is to leave town and I am certain he intends that someone be yourself."

Josiah shuddered inwardly while at the same time thinking what a fine Counselor Ezra would have made, had he chosen to go into the practice. The security chief's insight into the minds of those around him would have made him quite an exceptional one.

"If you think it is best I stay put, I'll do that." Josiah complied. "What are you going to do?"

"I will be following Mr Poplar around ensuring he does not attempt to abscond."

Josiah nodded although he almost wished Poplar would leave Four Corners because the attempt would prove most decisively he was the murderer they sought.

******

From inside their hiding place, Billy Travis started to develop the strange idea, perhaps this was not a game. He watched with increasing horror the trials his friends were being subjected to and with the death of Julia Pemberton, was splashed with the cold water of realisation. Watching someone he cared for, whom he remembered for her kindness when she allowed him to roam about her Engineering Deck, being battered to death was not something he wanted to relive anytime soon. In fact, he would be carrying that memory around with him for a very long time indeed. 

When this began, it seemed like so much fun and it was. He found a new friend who seemed just as neglected and forgotten as he was. Quinn listened to his stories about Chris and the others avidly and when the boy brought forward this holodeck reality for them to watch closely the activities of the Captain and the others, it had been fun because Billy believed none of it was real. Yet Julia's death was very real and the grief being felt by Ezra Standish and the rest of the Senior Staff was equally real.

It had been fun watching Chris fight Top Hat Bob and rather surprising to see how his mother handled the nasty Mr Wickes. He had no idea his mother could be so resourceful. He only thought Commander Styles could fight like that and wondered briefly, what else his mother could do he knew nothing about. However, when Poplar turned up on the scene, it was very evident the man was not fun. In fact what he was, was terrifying. Even though Billy looked young by the standards of human children, he was still Vulcan and far more developed. Billy could not understand why Quinn elected to add Poplar to the stable of Magnificent Seven villains but it was clear the man was far more dangerous than any gun-totting criminal, so far dispatched. 

"Quinn." Billy turned to the young boy who was watching Ezra's surveillance of Mr Poplar avidly. "Why did you kill Julia?"

"I wanted to know what it was to die., Quinn answered innocently, unable to comprehend what was upsetting his new friend. "You spoke about how every creature in the universe lives or dies and I wanted to know why."

"You don't learn by making someone die!" Billy cried exasperated unable to believe Quinn could not understand this and felt some measure of guilt because he was the one who had explained it to the boy. "She's not really dead is she?" He asked after a moment, praying perhaps this was a part of the simulation and Julia was not really gone.

"Of course she is," Quinn retorted. "I can't learn anything unless its real."

"You got to make this stop!" Billy cried out, realizing now not only Julia could die, everyone including his mother, could fall prey to the same fate as the Chief Engineer. The idea his mother could disappear from his life as surely as his father had was too much for Billy. When his father died, Billy wanted to die too. He was unable to imagine anything worse than going through life without the strong male influence who had always managed to make him feel safe. Until Chris Larabee entered his life, Billy had not realized how much of a void Syan's death left in him. However, nothing would replace the vortex of despair if anything happened to his mother.

His mother made everything bearable. She dried his tears and told him it was no great sin to be different. No matter how lonely he was, or how isolated he felt from the other children, he could always rely on her to hold him in her warm arms and make all the fear and pain disappear to a distant place he could tolerate. If she were gone, Billy knew that he could not go on without her. He refused to and if Quinn did not understand what death was because he never experienced it, he could unwittingly take Billy's mother without even realizing what kind of torment he would be inflicting.

"Why?" Quinn looked at him strangely, unable to understand why Billy was upset. "I thought we were having fun."

"We're not having fun when people die, Quinn!" Billy snapped. "That's not fun at all. I want this to stop before anyone else gets hurt."

"I want to play still," Quinn said defiantly, his lips curling up into a little bit of a pout. "I want to see them fight some more."

"I told you to make it stop!" Billy declared, unaware of what he was dealing with and thus having no fear of it, tried a more direct way of getting through the boy. Grabbing Quinn by the collar, Billy started shaking Quinn hard. His new found friend had no idea how to deal with physical confrontation and did not fight, not until Billy's small fist met his jaw. Reflexively, Quinn reacted and a flash of light followed sending Billy into the air before he landed hard on the ground.

"You struck me." Quinn looked at him confused. "Why?" He touched his cheek as if studying all aspects of being hit.

"Because you're hurting people!"

"No, I'm not," Quinn shook his head with a little smile. "I'm just playing."

Not caring he could be hurt almost as bad as those he was trying to save, Billy got up and lunged at Quinn again.

******

Josiah Sanchez entered his church and stopped short.

There was little else he could do when he saw the sight awaiting him once he stepped into its hallowed walls again. The signs of violence left behind in the wake of Julia's death was an affront to what the place was meant to symbolize.  Josiah felt his outrage flare even more than it already had with that realisation. He proceeded down the walkway between the pews, studying everything closely. No doubt, Ezra would look at this and ascertain in an instant how events had played out with the clues left behind.

It was obvious by the evidence before him, what took place here was unexpected. No doubt, the site was chosen to implicate him and since he knew he was suspect to no one but Silas Poplar, Ezra finally had the proof he wanted. Still, Josiah did not know whether or not it was wise bringing the security chief to see this especially since his hold on his restraint was tenuous enough as it is. Unfortunately, Josiah could see no way around it and Ezra would resent it if he thought they were trying to spare his feelings.

Josiah stepped into the centre of the crime scene, letting his eyes take in the sight of the blood on the floor, its crimson viscosity seeping slowly into the wood, leaving a stain no amount of scrubbing could ever erase. Josiah saw the shredded remains of rope, covered in blood where it had no doubt rubbed skin raw as its wearer tried desperately to escape. The evidence of the blood sparked something else in Josiah's thoughts and suddenly, the Counselor found himself retreating from what he found. He hurried towards the door and went to find Alex.

It did not take him long to find the Science Officer who was at present at the bar of the Standish Tavern, the establishment owned by the gambler who rode with the Magnificent Seven, the character played by Ezra with such perfection. Although he knew he should have brought his thought to Ezra first, Josiah felt Alex was capable of keeping a cooler head, unless of course, it involved a Cardassian Gul who was once in charge of a rape camp.

Alex was standing at the counter, talking to the pretty young barmaid who ran the Tavern. She was in the midst of some rather important discussion Josiah noticed when suddenly a large burly man approaching the two women. Judging by the stagger in the man's walk, Josiah guessed he was suitably drunk and the leer on his face as he eyed Alex told the Counselor what was on his mind.

"Ladies ain't allowed in the saloon." The man broke into the conversation between Alex and the barmaid with a slur.

Alex offered the man a sidelong glance before returning to her discussion regarding Poplar's whereabouts, choosing to ignore him rather than be baited. Apparently, Poplar had taken a room in one of the lodging houses in town and the barmaid was knowledgeable enough to know which one it was. She had no difficulty furnishing its location when Alex explained why it was needed. Buck had programmed the character to exhibit all the traits that made Inez Recillos such a respected member of the Maverick even though she was not Starfleet.

"I said," the man repeated himself, his drawl and slur becoming more exaggerated when he realized he was being disregarded as little more than a nuisance. "Ladies ain't allowed in here."

Alex took a deep breath and met his gaze. "Look, I don't want any trouble. I'm here for some information. Now, why don't you go sleep it off?" She said politely. The barmaid was similarly poised to react, her features becoming hard as her hands disappeared behind the counter. 

"Ladies ain't allowed," he said with a sneer, "unless they're whores."

"I see." Alex nodded and started to turn away when suddenly, she swung around and threw a road house punch square into the man's nose. The squelch of snapping bone followed a cry of pain as she grabbed his disorientated head and slammed it hard onto the counter top, knocking out whatever resistance was left inside him at remaining conscious. He slumped to the floor wordlessly and Alex looked over her shoulder at the other men in the room, who were staring at her with wide-eyed astonishment.

"Anybody else got a problem with me being in here?"

Silence followed.

"I didn't think so," she replied and faced front again.

Josiah could not suppress the smile that stole across his face when he reached the two women and gave Alex a look which bordered on disapproval and amusement.

"What?" Alex shrugged innocently. 

"Nevermind," Josiah shook his head and remembered he was here on serious business, even if Alex's behavior did allow him to forget that momentarily. "I just came from my church. It looks like Julia was killed there."

"What?" Alex exclaimed softly, feeling her insides knot. "How do you know?"

"I found blood and rope." He answered. "I think she was killed there to implicate me."

Of course, Alex thought. It made perfect sense Julia would be killed in Josiah's church if Poplar was trying to frame him for the murders. If not for the fact she and Ezra could vouch for the Counselor's whereabouts, those who sat in judgment would have every reason to believe it was true. Unfortunately, Poplar had not counted on Josiah having an alibi and thus in turn left the stain of guilt firmly on himself. Only someone who was as verbal as Poplar had been about Josiah being responsible, could have planted the evidence.

"We better find Ezra, where is he?"

"He's tailing Poplar, making sure the man don't run out of town." Josiah replied. "I actually came to find you because I've got an idea."

"What sort of idea?"

"We know Poplar committed the crime but we couldn't prove it until now." The Counselor began. "What I saw in my church gave me an idea. Now there was blood, lots of it."

"Obviously," the science officer nodded. "She was beaten up badly. If we didn't know her previously, none of us would have recognized her as Julia."

"I know," Josiah nodded grimly. "But I was also thinking, for that kind of damage and for so much blood to spilled, Poplar must have been pretty soiled in it himself."

Alex began to catch on to what Josiah was alluding to. "You mean he must have changed his clothes at some point today so no one would suspect him. During the fighting with Bob, he would have just enough time to leave the body in the street and get back to his hotel to change. With everyone keeping their heads down to avoid being shot, he could have gotten off the street before anyone noticed."

"That's right," Josiah answered. "Which means he would not have much time before we saw him to wash those clothes or dispose of it. He can't launder it without raising suspicion and I think he's too smart to risk being seen throwing them away. I think he was arrogant enough to believe no one would suspect him so he would wait until it was safe to take care of the problem."

Alex's eyes flared in understanding and she immediately pushed her self of the stool she had been seated on. She noticed the man whom she attacked earlier on was still on the floor and gathered he would be there for some time, judging by the blood pooling down his face and the slight bubbles of spittle he produced as he continued to doze in his unconscious state.

"We need to find Ezra," Alex stated.

"Let Ezra do what he's doing," Josiah instructed. "We don't want Poplar getting out of town, not when we finally have the evidence to prove he's the murderer."

"I hear you.  He's got a room in the lodging house across the street." Alex glanced past the patrons of the saloon to the dusty street outside. "If you're right, we'll find his soiled clothes there and then we'll have him."

"That would make me feel better," Josiah confessed. "Ezra's riding the edge of control as it is. I can see how badly he wants revenge and there will come a time when he won't be able to stop himself."

"I don't see that we should stop him Josiah," Alex replied as they both started out of the establishment. "Poplar's a monster. He's killed women long before we got here and if we don't do anything to stop him, he'll be doing it long after he leaves. Due process may take a battering but at least it's better than having a bunch of innocent women die if he were to go free."

Josiah guessed she might be right and more than anyone, she knew what it was to have great injustice inflicted upon her as Ezra had been in losing Julia. However, it was not Poplar that held his worry the most.

It was Ezra.

Chapter Twelve:

Confession

After Josiah's discovery in his church and ensuring Poplar was still busy at the mortuary where Nathan was conducting his autopsy, Alex and the Counselor headed to the Pinkerton detective's lodgings to conduct their search. At the moment, they had no idea where Ezra was but assumed wherever Poplar was to be found; Ezra could not be far behind. Alex knew when the security chief wished to disappear into the background, there was no one who could find him if he did not wish it.

The lodgings where Poplar was currently residing lay on the other side of town under the ownership of a woman who called herself Lady Angel. Lady Angel was not eager to allow them entry into Poplar's room, particularly when he paid in advance and what she called a border 'who didn't give her any trouble'. At least, until Alex appealed to her sense of community by explaining to her what it was they suspected him of doing. While she did not seem completely swayed by Alex's accusation, she could not refuse them when the possibility existed.

When Alex pushed open the door, the first thing she heard was the buzzing of flies. This was not an unusual occurrence since Poplar had left his window wide open allowing the annoying insects entry into the room. However, for a town like Four Corners where dust, stables and outhouses were certainly more inviting to the average housefly than a lodging room, it did raise Alex's suspicion somewhat. Josiah followed her behind closely as they moved deeper into the room. The bed was still unmade and Poplar's entire array of luggage was composed of one carpetbag, which was secreted beneath it.

As Alex knelt down to pick it up, Josiah examined the rest of the room and saw other than the unmade bed, there were no signs of habitation. Even the wash basin was empty and everything was neatly placed, except for the basket in the corner which seemed to be the centre of convergence for all the flies they heard buzzing about the room. He approached the basket cautiously and noted the insects disbanding to fly to the ceiling in annoyance at his sudden appearance. Josiah looked down into the basket and saw a tumble of clothes at the bottom of the hamper.

Taking a deep breath, he reached into the bottom of the basket. His fingertips immediately made contact with the wet fabric. He recoiled a little from the slick feel of it but forced himself to clamp his fist around the material and retrieved it from its hiding place. "I found something." He declared with an expression of distaste as he glanced in Alex's direction.

"Me too," Alex announced proudly, dropping the carpetbag onto the mattress. "You first." She motioned to the clothing he had in his hand.

Josiah was more than happy to relinquish his find on the mattress and immediately wiped his hand on his clothes when he released it. The offending garments were a shirt and jacket, all heavily smeared with blood. If there were any lingering doubts as to Poplar's guilt, it was more or less vanquished when they sighted those crimson stained clothes. With a hollow sensation in his stomach, Josiah looked at the damning evidence before him and knew the blood attracting the flies was that of Julia Pemberton's. He supposed it was just as well Ezra was not here.

"I guess that pretty much confirms it then." She said softly.

Josiah could only nod. "I guess it does."

"He killed her," Alex swallowed, trying to calm her own anger over what she was seeing before her and tried to imagine how helpless Julia must have felt when she was bound and brutalised. "When everyone was inside because of our fight with Top Hat Bob, he moved the body out in the street and then came back here to get cleaned up."

"He was still pretty confident about pinning it on me back then so he would not have worried about hiding this." Josiah regarded the discriminating evidence left behind.

"Well not that we need it," Alex said after a moment, looking away from the blood-soaked material. "We should see if there's anything else in here." She turned to the carpetbag and proceeded to open it, feeling as if it was a foregone conclusion there was nothing left to find, that could be more incriminating than those soiled clothes. Until she saw the glint of something shiny at the bottom of the bag.

Josiah caught her expression immediately. "What is it?"

"Look." Alex gestured to the bag and Josiah leaned forward to see what it was that left her so speechless.

Taped up neatly in brown paper with only the top face of the first coin showing, was the gleam of a silver dollar, polished with care. The same silver dollars found covering each of the victim's eyes.

Alex said nothing as she reached in and pocketed the find, having no intention of allowing this evidence to suddenly disappear by leaving it alone for any reason. Once she ensured it was safely in her possession, Alex slammed the bag shut, hearing the metallic latch click into place before she raised her eyes to meet Josiah's.

"Alright," she said coolly. "Let's hang this son of a bitch."

******

If there was one thing Ezra knew about people, it was when they were running scared.

Even though Poplar did not notice Ezra following him and keeping him under close surveillance, the man was nonetheless nervous. Alex was correct in her assertion if Ezra did not wish to be noticed, no one would be capable of doing so.  Thus Poplar went about his business with no knowledge Ezra was watching. The more Ezra studied the man, the more certain he became this was the creature who killed his beloved Julia. Only training and a strict reverence for due process kept Ezra from doing what was necessary, even in this facsimile world created by the Q entity, whom omnipotent or not, would be made accountable when Ezra finally met him.

From the table of the saloon where he was seated with a bunch of opponents who wanted to see if the card player Ezra Standish was all he was reputed to be, Ezra watched the door of the undertaker's office where Poplar entered a short time ago. The Pinkerton detective claimed he wanted to question Nathan himself regarding the findings of the autopsy done on Julia Pemberton. While Ezra spared himself the anguish of seeing the woman he loved cut open, he did not intend to let Poplar escape and found this unobtrusive corner where he could continue to observe.

Poplar emerged from the office with Nathan who did not seem at all impressed with any of the man's questions, just as Ezra laid a straight on the table before his fellow gamblers. Poplar's unheard words to Nathan were spoken with the background of a low rumble of discontent at the winning hand Ezra produced. Although he was aware of everything happening around the table, he was concentrating on what was taking place outside the undertaker's front door. Poplar made some concluding remarks before he turned away from Nathan and started walking in the opposite direction.

"Gentlemen," Ezra hardly batted an eye as he glanced at the other cards presented and saw the victory was still his. "It's been a pleasure, but I must take my leave." He said politely before scooping up his winnings.

There was a frown from everyone at the table at watching their money disappear into his pockets but Ezra hardly cared and knew these were not the kind of men who would be too sore at their defeat. He saw Nathan crossing the street and immediately left the establishment, leaving enough of a tab with the bartender to ensure his return would be met with gratitude the next time he chose to frequent the place. Having concluded his business in the saloon, Ezra made a hasty departure from the establishment and joined Nathan on the street.

"Ezra," Nathan saw the security chief approaching. The doctor was somewhat concerned about the Southerner ever since they discovered Julia's body and knew this length of time could not possibly enough to assuage the man's grief. "How are you doing?"

Ezra did not waste time with idle conversation, his eyes were already searching the street for Poplar. "Where did he go?"

"Where did who go?" Nathan asked blankly.

"Poplar?" Ezra retorted. "Where did he go?"

The urgency in Ezra's voice immediately produced an answer from Nathan. "That way." He glanced at the direction of the lodging house. "Why?"

"It's highly likely he might have killed Julia." The security chief answered without skipping a beat and did not pause when he reached the doctor, instead altered his course so Nathan would follow him.

Strangely enough, the revelation did not surprise Nathan very much. The man had given Nathan what could only be called 'the creeps' and Ezra's statement only seemed to strengthen it. "What makes you think that?" Nathan asked as he fell into stride with Ezra who was hell-bent on putting Poplar in his sights once again.

"Just the way he was certain Josiah was the one who committed the crime and he seemed to be somewhat vague regarding his whereabouts during the time Julia was killed.  I have questioned enough perpetrators in my lifetime and to a quote a colloquialism, I have to say 'that man is dirty', I can smell it."

Nathan could sense something in Ezra's voice that immediately gave rise to his concern. Considering what Ezra was feeling with Julia's death, there was no way in the world Nathan could believe he was anything but justified in his feelings but the security chief was always in control. A man so in command of his emotions at all times had a tendency to erupt spectacularly when the opportunity came for those emotions to spill forth. Grief and rage were carrying Ezra away on a tide of destruction, not even his adept emotional control could restrain.

Nathan feared he might cross the line if he believed Poplar was Julia's murderer.

They were not far from the lodging house's main entrance when they heard its door swing open. Almost reflexively, Ezra pulled Nathan and himself behind the safety of the building they were walking past so their presence would not be revealed. As they both hid behind the corner of the hardware store where they had taken refuge, Ezra observed Poplar emerging from the front of the lodging house. This time, there was no cool, deliberate expression on the man's face, hiding the evidence of his guilt. His expression was nakedly panicked and as he stepped out into the light, began scanning the street for evidence of pursuit.

"Something has happened." Ezra guessed as he saw the fear etched in Poplar's face.

"What?" Nathan whispered as he observed over Ezra's shoulder. Poplar had seen neither of them but then the man was in such a state of heightened fear, Nathan doubted he was paying all that much attention anyway.

"I do not know," Ezra shook his head unable to fathom what could have happened to shake Poplar's demeanour so irrevocably. Whatever it was, Ezra did not have time to debate the situation when he realised Poplar's next destination. The man was almost running towards it and it took a split second to register in Ezra's mind what Poplar was attempting to do.

"He is running!" Ezra exclaimed and moved out of his hiding place, determined not to let the man get away.

Whether or not Poplar noticed them behind him, the Pinkerton detective did show any evidence of it. He ran through the streets almost blindly, with only one thought in his mind, to reach the livery where his horse was stabled so he could escape Four Corners with his life. When he entered his room and saw that his belongings had been searched and the proprietress of the establishment revealing she had allowed Josiah Sanchez and the town doctor entry, he knew the worst had happened.

For so long it weighed upon his mind, the heinous acts he carried out. Their faces plagued him during so many nights filled with terrible dreams of strangled cries and terrified eyes dimming as the life oozed from their bodies. So many he could not stand to look, whose eyes he had to cover with the silver dollars they used to pay someone else he had loved who betrayed him.  Even though they were dead, they followed him like the Furies followed Orestes. He knew deep down inside what he did was wrong and when the sober light of day allowed him to view his victims, he almost felt grief for what he had done but not enough to stop. The urge that came when the sun went down and the familiar tug came pulling at him was too strong to ignore, and he would become the very worst of predators.

The one who killed for no reason.

Ezra lost sight of Poplar when they rounded the corner but there was no doubt in his mind where the man was headed. Starfleet health protocols ensured its officers could run five miles without faltering and the distance to the livery was negligible at best. Nathan kept up with him stride for stride and when they heard the slamming of the wooden doors leading to the stables where Poplar's horse was no doubt kept, they knew the quarry was inside attempting to make his escape.

"Nathan," Ezra glanced at the doctor as they neared the door. "Be careful, he is a cornered animal at the moment. He will shoot."

Nathan nodded in understanding, aware this was no holodeck and any injuries incurred would not be simulated but real. They could die in this place as Julia had proven so prolifically.

"In that case," Nathan cracked a smile, hiding his fear in a joke. "You go first."

Ezra gave him a look before the security chief advanced cautiously towards the main stable doors. His gun was drawn and he was more than prepared to fire when suddenly, the doors flew open. Ezra and Nathan both dropped to the ground as the horse rushed past them with Poplar forcing it forward by digging his heels into the animal's flank. The abrupt kick in its sides made it neigh in protest at the rough handling but Poplar did not seem to care, concerned only with making his escape from town.

"POPLAR!"

Ezra's cry forced Poplar to look over his shoulder.

The distraction was all the time Ezra needed to take aim and fire.

The explosion of sound followed the gunshot but instead of seeing Poplar tumbled to the ground from his saddle, the animal he was riding reared up on its hind legs at the sting of lead that nicked its rump. The abrupt action from the mare dislodged Poplar from the saddle and the Pinkerton detective landed hard on the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust upon impact. Ezra was already closing in on him, having seen the gun around Poplar's hip and refusing to give the man any leave to use it on himself or on Nathan. There had been enough death today.

"I would not advise it," Ezra said coldly as he saw Poplar recovering from his fall enough to reach for the smooth wooden handle of the weapon nestled in the holster around his hip. His fingers barely touched the butt of the gun when Ezra made his warning.

Poplar swallowed, feeling his heart pounding in his chest and yet trying to make some kind of recovery in the wake of his rather incriminating actions. He no longer reached for his gun, choosing instead to dust the dirt from his person. An ugly scrape formed on his cheek from the fall and an uneven veil of blood was running down the skin.

"What is the meaning of this?" He hissed as he raised his eyes to meet Ezra's.

"I was about to inquire the same," Ezra remarked calmly. "Where do you think you were going?"

"I am not under suspicion." Poplar retorted but his voice was shaking. "I do not have to account my whereabouts to you or anybody."

"Considering what we discussed earlier, I thought we reached an understanding, a professional rapport even," Ezra answered smoothly. "You should have told me you were leaving. Actions such as these make me wonder what it is that could make you so hasty to leave?"

"We have nothing!" Poplar barked.

"I'm afraid that's not entirely true." Alexandra Styles announced herself with that statement. "Josiah and I have something that might refute that."

All eyes turned to Alex and Josiah who heard the commotion and come to investigate, sensing Ezra and Poplar would be at the centre of it.

Alex went to Ezra's side as Josiah and Nathan, both armed, drew their weapons and was keeping the barrels of both guns aimed firmly in Poplar's direction. "We found this in his room at the lodging house." Alex handed the roll of coins to Ezra.

Ezra said nothing and stared at the gleaming roll of silver dollars in his hands. Here it was, the hard evidence he needed. He understood now why Poplar decided to run. No doubt after returning to his room and learning someone else had been there and found the evidence needed to convict him of murdering Julia and so many others, Poplar had panicked and decided to escape while he could. If Ezra had not been following him, he very well might have succeeded.

"We also found clothes in his room soiled with blood," Alex added. "The means of finding out is impossible in this day and age but I think we know its Julia's."

"This is a frame!" Poplar swore. "You're trying to incriminate me! It will never stand up in a court of law!"

"Come on Silas," Josiah started to speak in those soft soothing tones with the ability to convince Moriarty to turn over a new leaf. "You want to stop. I can see the pain in your eyes, the need for repentance. You didn't want to hurt those girls. The way you took care of them after you killed them, makes that plain enough to see."

Poplar's eyes shifted to Josiah, almost compelled by the Counselor's words to listen. "I didn't do it."

"Yes you did," Josiah continued, "you know you did and you're sorry. You're making them pay for something someone else did Silas, something they have no way of changing for you but you didn't have a choice did you? When you see them, you see her and you can't fight it. You've been a slave to it all your life and you want to stop as much as we want you too. I understand."

Poplar blinked and a tear rolled down his cheek as he listened to Josiah, the man he wanted to blame for his sins, who seemed to have an open conduit into his soul to understand the pain he had been suffering, to appreciate what he had endured. It felt good to know he was no longer trapped in his shadowy world alone, that somewhere, someone finally knew what it was to be him.

"I never wanted to hurt them." He whispered as he stared at Josiah's eyes. "I didn't want them to die but I couldn't help it. I just wanted them to know how much I hurt, I just wanted them to listen, like she wouldn't listen."

Ezra was listening. He was listening closely to the confession that made the truth incontrovertible. This man was admitting he had killed all those poor women in so many cities across this manufactured land. It did not matter if Q created this world. This world existed nonetheless and those women had died just as surely as Julia.

He thought about Julia and his last words to her had not been ones anyone should take away with them when they left this life and felt a thousand knives tearing into the flesh of his heart. He could not breathe, could not think of anything else but the fire of those emerald eyes that now existed only in his memories because she was dead.  No longer beautiful, no longer warm with love and spirited with fire. She was just dead. A slab of meat growing colder in the undertaker's office, fit only to be ejected into space like flotsam or buried like ancient treasure.

Dead meat.

The derringer slid neatly out of its hiding place from under his sleeve and into his palm with one slick movement. With the same lightning reflexes he used to handle a phaser, Ezra pulled the trigger. He did not know there were tears in his eyes when the gun fired. Did not feel the moisture against his skin when the small bullet slammed into the centre of Poplar's forehead, spurting blood and bone as it tore the back of his skull apart. He might have been conscious of Alex's shocked cry or Josiah and Nathan's horrified gasps. He was certain bystanders watching the proceedings might have screamed but Ezra was so far from hearing he could not be sure.

All that he was certain of was Julia was still dead and killing Poplar had satisfied his revenge,  but did nothing to heal his wounded heart. He watched dispassionately as the man collapsed onto the floor, saturating the ground with blood while his companions looked on with astonishment. Ezra did not know how long the play had gone on before he was able to meet their eyes.

"Ezra..." Alex stuttered, not knowing what to say. "Jesus."

"He wanted someone to listen," Ezra said returning the derringer back into place beneath his sleeve. "I did."

Chapter Thirteen:
Wickestown

Completely oblivious to what was presently transpiring in town with the rest of his officers, in particular, his security chief. Chris Larabee led the rest of the Maverick's senior staff into the collection of tents and shanties making up infamous locale known as Wickestown. Prior to their arrival here, the chatter of the locals gave the Captain some idea of what to expect but to see the place for himself was nothing like their description. Many unsavoury images were conjured up in his head when one spoke about bordellos and cat houses, but Mr Wickes had created a new distinction of sleaze in the establishment he ran in the middle of nowhere, miles from Four Corners.

To make matters worse, Chris was not entirely certain confronting Mr Wickes and his cohorts were exactly the best way to proceed but if Picard's reports regarding Q were to be taken as gospel, the entity often liked being involved in the mischief it created. Chris was certain Q wanted a ringside seat to watch them dancing to his tune. Since he did not appear to be around when Chris confronted Top Hat Bob and Poplar did not seem to have an accomplice, Chris could only deduce Q was watching from Wickes's side. Chris disliked the idea of having to deal with Mr Wickes, who from Buck and Mary's account, sounded like a true piece of vermin, but with Julia dead, it was obvious they could not remain here when any of them might befall the same fate.

It was easy enough to sneak into Wickestown. There was such a large clientele it was a simple matter for five people to go unnoticed. The atmosphere was lively even in broad daylight with half-clad women visible at almost every tent they came across. Mary stayed close to Chris, finding the whole concept rather odious even though such places still existed in the age they lived in. The ladies, for the most part, seemed neither unhappy or sad, their eyes wore the look of resignation that this was their life and they had accepted it. The lack of spirit in their eyes was more offensive to Mary than the men with leering expressions, were commandeering their attention as if they were objects to be purchased.

The unfortunate reality of their profession made it true.

"This is disgusting." Mary hissed under her breath when she saw a young girl no more than sixteen, standing at the open flap of the tent, cheeks reddened with too much rouge and her lips painted crimson, making her look older than she really was. The girl had smiled at JD, who swallowed visibly when she pulled down the sleeve of her dress and revealed an alabaster shoulder marred with a bruise.

"I don't know," Buck remarked with a hint of mischief. "I mean they are providing a service."

"Attaboy Buck, show her your sensitive side." The helmsman was more comfortable with the mare's leg, now he was using it properly, with his hand poised to reach for it at a moment's notice.

"This was the way things were back then," Buck said unrepentantly. "There were like twenty men to one woman. A man had to get some relief."

Chris slapped his hand over his face wondering if it was possible to get away with shooting one's first officer in the mouth.

"Oh really?" Mary turned to Buck, her feminist outrage well and truly inspired as she stared at him, with her fists clenched on her hips, a stance Chris knew well enough to be the universal position taken up by females about to go ballistic.

"I'm sure he didn't mean it that way..." Chris started to say, giving Buck a murderous glare.

"Well, perhaps they should have used the tried and true method." The protocol officer snapped, her blue-grey eyes smouldering. "Using Mrs Palmer and her five daughters!"

All four men looked at her in shock at using that rather old but very descriptive method of dispelling relief, as Buck put it.

"Lieutenant Travis," Buck exclaimed with astonished amusement. "That's extremely sexist."

"Buck shut up." Vin snapped.

"Yes Buck," Chris said rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Please, shut up."

"I don't get it." JD looked at them all confused. "Mrs Palmer?"

"Let me explain.." Buck started to say.

"Later." Chris met the first officer's gaze and growled.

"Yes, Sir." Buck swallowed, seeing the Captain's patience finally reached its limits.

"Hey," Vin spoke suddenly, his voice urgent. "Is that Wickes?"

Vin's statement immediately forced them to raise their eyes at the sight of Mr Wickes emerging from one of the tent flaps, with a rather battered young woman in his grip. Her physical state indicated abuse and Mary's stomach hollowed at the sight of the desolate expression on her face. Wickes for his part did not seem at all worried about her condition, shoving her in the direction of the ladies in his stable. They immediately surrounded their wounded comrade and spirited her away to another tent, most likely to deal with her injuries. The animosity they felt towards Mr Wickes was obvious, even if they were powerless to do anything about it.

"That's him," Buck spoke through gritted teeth. "That's the son of a bitch." The first officer started towards Mr Wickes but Chris grabbed his arm and kept him from going any further.

"Stand down Buck," Chris ordered.

"Yeah," Vin added his agreement. The helmsman's eyes were already scouring the immediate area and he could see the men located in various points, acting as bodyguards, by the gunbelts worn around their hips. "He's got people around him. You take a wrong step towards him and they'll cut you down before you even get there."

"We have to reach him," Chris replied as he signalled them into what appeared to be an empty tent. Judging by the rumpled sheets and the trunk in the corner, laden with feminine clothing. No doubt, its owner would soon be returning so he outlined his plan quickly since they did not have a great deal of time. "If we can get him alone, maybe we can use him to draw Q out."

"Or at the very least, keep his men from blowing our heads off," Vin added.

"Sounds like a plan," Buck conceded the plan was sound even if their method of executing it at this time appeared somewhat vague.

"So how do we do that?" JD inquired, assuming the trio had some sort of idea how they were going to accomplish that.

Chris did not answer for he had not thought that far ahead. However, he noticed Mary had drifted away from the group and was presently examining the contents of the worn trunk on the floor. She lifted from the collection of slips and corsets, what was definitely a scandalous cut dress in red.

"I have an idea." She suggested winking at Chris while holding the gown over herself.

Chris's eyes widened.

"Absolutely not." He responded without hesitation once it dawned upon him what she was alluding to.

"Chris," Mary said impatiently. "Somehow I do not see anyone else in our party fitting into this dress and quite frankly, you don't have much of a choice."

"Oh, I don't know," Buck glanced at Vin with a devious smile. "Vin, with your hair..."

"I'll shoot you Wilmington," Vin warned, "Commanding officer or not."

"Hey!" Chris snapped. "Will you two cut it out? Mary, no." He stated once again, facing the protocol officer. "It's too dangerous. You saw what he did to that girl out there."

"I did," Mary nodded, not about to forget it for one minute. "But I don't intend to be alone with him long enough for that to happen and I am going in armed. Once I get him alone and under a gun, you three can come in and take it from there. It won't arouse any suspicion from his men."

"That's true." JD agreed with Mary's assessment even though he did not like to think of her in that position any more than Chris did. Mary always seemed so dignified and she was what JD coined a lady and was too elegant for the plan she just conceived.

"Don't encourage her." Chris barked and JD immediately fell silent.

"Chris," Mary looked at him. "You don't have a choice. We need to get out of here. We have obligations back on the Maverick, not to mention the fact I really do not wish to die in this place, the way Julia did."

Chris swore under his breath, not at all happy about Mary being the bait to lure Wickes into solitude but as Captain, he had to forget that she was more than just his protocol officer. He had to forget he loved her and treat Mary like any other officer and resource under his command. It was more than just her life he had to consider, but all the other members of the senior staff because she was right, he was not allowing anyone else to die like Julia.

"Alright," he conceded at last, reluctant to do so but unable to deny they did indeed need to return to the Maverick before anyone else was killed. "We'll go with your plan."

"Mary, he saw you." Buck pointed out. "You can't convince him to do anything if he recognises you."

"That's true," Mary agreed but she already considered this, picking up a black wig that was visible through the heap of clothing. Slipping it over her blond locks, she looked at Chris and replied. "I think it becomes me, don't you?"

******

Wickes thought he knew every woman who worked for him. He made it a matter of principle to 'assess' their qualifications for deserving employment with him personally. Most of them did not mind the task and it was those Wickes hired, for the simple reason of money. While others, the ones who had come off the farm, with no family and no other choice but to resort to whoring for money, those were the treats. He liked their delusions of doing the work just long enough to earn money to take them to a new life, unaware they were indenturing themselves to him until it was too late. Those who ran, often paid the price, for Wickes knew there were plenty more where they came from.

Mary saw Wickes as she walked up the path between the tents. He was at one of the tables outside a tent saloon, with a girl on his lap, talking to one of the men who had sampled his wares. She prayed inwardly Chris and the others were watching her closely because she felt a tingle of revulsion at the sight of the man she had to pretend to seduce. He was a fat, bloated specimen with a goatee and a dusty old suit intended to make him look respectable but succeeded in making him look more like the slime he was.

She was noticed the minute she appeared out in the open with her heavily made-up face, her wig and the dress pulled so tightly across the bosom and the waist, it left nothing to the imagination. She noted with some amusement, the expression of desire on Chris's face when he surveyed her form even though he tried very much to hide it. Mary wondered if all men harboured secret fantasies about seeing the women they loved in such apparel. Men started hooting and whistling at her as she continued walking, hoping she looked nothing like the woman Wickes tried to accost earlier that day.

She gave alluring smiles to those who propositioned her, keeping her eyes fixed on Wickes who by now had glanced her way. Mary could tell by the expression in his eyes, desire and lust were quickly filtering into them and like the other men about the place, he was just as taken by her disguise. Mary ignored the crude offers and kept her gaze fixed upon Wickes, so he would know he was all that she was interested in. This was no different from any negotiation she was forced to mediate in her career as a Starfleet diplomat. It was all in the eye contact and first impressions.

"Mr Wickes," Mary planted herself in the chair across Wickes table when she finally reached the man.

"Sally honey," Wickes stared at the young woman on his lap and gestured at her to leave. It was not a request. For her part, the young woman lifted herself off Wickes and Mary had the distinct impression she was happy to go. When they were finally alone and the offers from the other men were withdrawn in light of the whore master's interest, Wickes regarded Mary once again.

"Now what can I do for you, little lady?"

"It's not what you can do for me Mr Wickes," Mary said breathlessly. "Its what I can do for you."

"Really?" One eyebrow arched even though they were both aware of what she was referring to. "And what would that be?"

"All the pleasure you or your clientele may desire. I do everything and anything."

"Now that is mighty interesting." Wickes leaned forward, enjoying the view he got when he peered down her dress. "Tell me a little about yourself, Miss..?"

"Delilah," Mary answered. "That's all the name I need. I was travelling in these parts with a gent but he looks to have left me in something of a bind. I need money and I heard you could help a girl with my talents."

"I may," Wickes's grin seemed broader and once again, Mary felt that flush of disgust wash through her. "It depends on how good you are."

"Well," Mary braced herself and reached for his hand. She lifted one digit to her lips and proceeded to suck the finger with slow, languid flicks of her tongue. He tasted of ash and booze and Mary surprised herself by not gagging there and then. She saw Wickes respond to her ministrations and knew he was taken in by her act or at least putting up an extremely good show if he was not. Unfortunately, there would be no way to know for certain until they were alone in his tent. "Maybe we can go somewhere and talk about this some more?"

"I think that can be arranged." Wickes smiled and immediately pushed himself off the stool he had been seated on. "Come with me darling and we can talk about your 'qualifications'."

Mary followed Wickes back to his tent, which was located further along from where she caught his eye. As she moved through the meandering path through the ragtag collections of tents, she tried to spy if Chris and the others were about. However, there were so many people around it was almost impossible to distinguish their faces through the crowd. Mary hoped earnestly they were indeed there because she had no intention of getting any more personal with Wickes than she had already. As it was, it would take a week to wash the taste of him from her lips.

Wickes himself gave no indication the ruse she perpetrated upon him was a failure and Mary hoped she was able to maintain the charade for just a little longer until the time was ripe to spring their trap. Despite the reassuring knowledge Chris and the others were keeping a close eye on her as she followed Wickes back to his tent, she could not help feeling a little apprehensive about being alone with this man. She saw the girl who emerged earlier with those terrible injuries to her face and knew her wounds ran deeper than the ones seen on her skin. Her stomach hollowed in disgust at the assault the girl must have suffered at this man's hands and was glad for the weapon strapped to the inside of her thigh.

The inside of Wickes private tent did not look very different from the one she had been in when she liberated her present costume but it did have a proper bed unlike the fold up cots she spied in the others. She supposed being the master of this place allowed him such luxuries. She noted a few pieces of furniture but nothing to show he had any real attachment to the place. Mary hid her anxiousness as she saw Wickes go to one of the tables next to the bed, and pour them both glasses of whiskey from the bottle he had laid there.

"Here we are, Miss Delilah." He turned around and handed her a glass.

Mary was just about to reach for it when suddenly; he splashed the drink into her face before she knew what was happening. The liquid stung her eyes and made her recoil, robbing her of her vision long enough for him to throw a balled fist into her face. Mary felt knuckles against her cheek and tumbled back into the bed, uttering a small cry of pain as her body sunk into the mattress. Through the stupor of pain, she heard Wickes hissing.

"You stupid bitch!" He snarled. "You take me for a fool? I know you're Larabee's whore!"

Mary was not listening, her hands were fumbling beneath her dress, trying desperately to reach the gun strapped to her thigh when she felt Wickes body climbing on top of her, pinning her under his weight. His hand slipped between the folds of her dress, trying to reach the gun first. Mary struggled hard to keep that end from taking place but was not capable of getting to it before he did. However, during their struggles, she did manage to score something of a victory, when she knocked the weapon out of his hand. It tumbled to the ground, out of reach of both of them.

"Whore!" He screamed enraged and hit her again, this time connecting with her jawline.

Mary felt a surge of rage overtaking her and she snapped her head back and glared at him. Staring him full in the face, she calmed herself and spoke with a low voice. "I have had just enough of you."

Mustering every ounce of strength she could, Mary twisted her body hard. She could not throw Wickes off but her momentum and his weight allowed her to dislodge him and he fell next to her on the mattress. Mary did not waste any time and flipped onto her feet from the bed. Wiping the blood running down her lip, Mary threw one controlled punch at Wickes as he started to sit up. The blow caught him in the jaw and his face reddened in fury at her audacity to strike him. Mary did not care; she threw a series of blows to his face and some to his thick gut, which had little or no muscle control. His arms were flailing as he tried to fight back in his sitting position. Her attack kept him from standing up or rushing at her with brute force.

She paused long enough to give him the chance when she decided to go for the gun when it appeared in her line of sight. Taking no chances, Mary dove for the weapon, just as Wickes stood up from his bed and charged her.

"I'll kill you!" He roared. His eyes wide and frenzied.

She dropped to her knees, allowing his forward momentum to topple him over her body. She heard his outraged howl just as he crumpled in a messy heap but ignored it as she wrapped her hand around her gun and took aim. Wickes growled loudly, snarling like an animal about to tear its prey to pieces. Although Mary had the gun, she was plenty scared and reacted without thinking.

The first bullet exploded out of the barrel and struck him in the knee. Correcting her aim in time to pull the trigger again, she fired. This time the bullet lodged higher, in his stomach. Wickes was starting to scream as his knee shattered and he was driven to his feet, blood gushing from dual wounds. Mary did not stop firing. She pulled the trigger, again and again, watching him dance in pain as the bullets tore through his body. She did not pause until she heard the loud click of an empty chamber and the frantic sounds of approaching voices.

Wickes did not utter any more sounds after the third bullet. By the time he finally stopped moving and she had emptied the entire contents of the gun into his body, he was almost bathed in blood. It was flowing freely, oozing through his clothes and saturating the dirt.

For a few seconds, Mary did not know what to do. Her hands were shaking and she felt her stomach heaving in such protest, she thought she might wretch. She had never killed another creature in her life and this first experience was not one she wished to repeat any time soon. Even though Wickes was a truly disgusting specimen, given life where he should have remained an aspect of fiction, Mary regretted being forced to kill him. When she recovered, she stood up shakily and made her way to the tent flap, emerging just long enough into the sunlight to feel a hand clenching around her arm and dragging her out the rest of the way.

"What have you done!" The man who was obviously Wickes's bodyguard demanded.

"Let me go!" Mary protested weakly and saw a crowd had appeared before, demanding retribution for what she had done.

"She killed Wickes!" Someone shouted.

"You bitch!" Her captor swore and rose his gun to fire.

A single gunshot erupted to stop him, while at the same time silencing the rumblings around the place. Mary looked up and saw Chris not far from her, aiming his peacemaker at the direction of the man who intended her harm. As she scoured the rest of the compound before her, she saw Vin, Buck and JD taking up similar positions. From where they were, anyone who attempted to shoot her or fire at them would have reason to regret it.

"Let her go." Chris Larabee's icy voice demanded as he glared at the man holding her.

"She killed our boss!" The man responded in turn. "She's gotta pay!"

"Judging by the bruises on the lady's face," Buck added. "It looks like self-defence to me."

"She had a gun!" He insisted, not about to release Mary just yet.

Chris could see he would take just a little more convincing. This was fine by him because Chris could be very persuasive when he chose to be. "I have a gun and I'll shoot you just as dead as your boss if you don't take your hands off her now."

Just for effect, Chris cocked his gun and narrowed his gaze as he sharpened his aim on the target.

Mary saw her captor swallowing hard. There were beads of sweat on his forehead as he tried to gauge whether or not Chris would actually fire. It did not take long before the infamous Larabee glare won out and he released her reluctantly. She let out a sigh of relief and immediately pulled away from the men, walking slowly towards Chris.

"Q!" Chris shouted. "We're done playing your game!"

"What are you talking about?" Wickes's bodyguard asked with genuine puzzlement.

Chris ignored him, certain the omnipotent entity was hiding in the crowd somewhere. Seeing the blood on Mary's face made him smoulder with increased anger, already running hot torrents through him because of Julia Pemberton. "Do you hear me you son of a bitch!" Chris shouted on top of his voice and further sent Wickes' men and the present population of this facsimile world into deeper confusion. "We're through playing your puppets! We're not going to play your game any more! It's over!"

Suddenly, the face of Wickes's bodyguard altered from what it was and the man who stared back at Chris, looked nothing like him.

Q stared at Chris with a decidedly amused expression on his face and remarked rather innocently. "Well to tell you the truth Captain Larabee, it hasn't been my game you've been playing."

Chapter Fourteen:

Playmates

"You're Q?" Mary stopped walking and swung around to face the being who had only seconds ago, had been the bodyguard of the repulsive Mr Wickes.

"My reputation proceeds me." Q smiled as she approached him. "Has Jean-Luc regaled with stories of my exploits? Do tell, please. I'm dying to know if I make good theatre."

"Good theatre!" Mary exclaimed in outrage. "After what you put us through?"

"Mary," Chris broke through the crowd who seemed to have forgotten all about the murder of Mr Wickes and appeared to be content with simply observing the bizarre goings-on taking place before them. While he shared her consternation at the entity who had finally deigned to show itself, he was under no illusions as to just how dangerous Q could be. This was a being who could turn them all into amoebas should he so decide. "Let me do the talking."

"Yes," Q agreed with gusto. "Let the Captain do the talking. After all, you're merely the token love interest. Did you not know that Blondie?" He grinned at her with a truly triumphant smirk that almost made Mary forget herself because she really wanted to wipe that shit-eating grin off his face.

"Still," Q continued, enjoying the discomfort and confusion of those around him immensely. "We do need to talk so let us dispense with the audience."

Snapping his fingers, the crowd disappeared around them, leaving Wickestown suddenly deserted with the senior staff of the Maverick, the only inhabitants of the infamous bordello town.

"Wow." JD could not help but exclaim as he saw everyone disappearing with a flash of light. This was the most amazing thing he had ever seen since coming on board the Maverick and despite the seriousness of the situation, could not hide his awe.

"Now, there's a lad who enjoys good theatre." Q appeared at his side in a blink of an eye. "I had no idea they recruited so young out of the Academy. Why compared to me, you're not even primordial ooze."

"Omnipotent and charming," Buck found himself coming to JD's rescue when he saw his young charge frown with annoyance at having his age pointed out so blatantly.

Q turned his attention to the first officer and vanished with just as much speed, appearing next to Buck, not as himself but in the form of a rather curvaceous blond siren, her ample curves filling in a scanty dress as she puckered her red lips at him with suggestion. "Is this better, Buck?"

"Don't flatter yourself," Buck said with a scowl which only drew laughter from Q who reverted back to his original form.

"But we're not all here are we?" Q said returning his attention to the Captain once more.

"You saw to that," Chris responded, feeling his anger bubble to the surface thinking of how they discovered Julia and the anguish in Ezra's eyes, the security chief tried so hard to hide. "You brought us here. You want to tell us why?"

"Once again, I am blamed for everything." Q sighed. "I am not responsible for this you know."

"Oh really?" Mary glared at him, arms folded in disbelief. "You know of someone else who could transplant us into this 'place'?"

"This place seemed to suit you when it was all fun and games when the odds were stacked in your favour. Come on Chris," Q looked at the Captain with challenge. "That's not what you're about. I was always impressed because unlike stodgy old Jean-Luc and I do not exaggerate when I say that, you were fun! You knew how to let your hair down, something else Jean Luc is truly incapable of doing."

Chris rolled his eyes, not liking his assessment of Jean-Luc Picard who was something of a hero to Chris. "The fun in this whole affair bled away the minute we found that one of us was dead."

"Oh that," Q mused as if he had completely forgotten Julia was murdered. His obliviousness to it all infuriated Chris to no end. "That was unfortunate but your species dies all the time. One more in the here and now doesn't really matter all that much does it?"

"It matters to us." Vin declared. "You had no right to place her in that situation. No one deserved to die that way."

Q regarded the Vulcan for the first time. "Why you're rather hot-blooded for a Vulcan aren't you?" He gave Vin a quick look before returning to Chris with a nasty smile. "Watch out when that  Pon Farr hits, he's going to be a real charmer with the ladies."

"Knock it off!" Chris snapped, his patience finally reaching its limits. "You brought us here and you made us dance to your tune, what the hell do you really want?"

"Little Ol' me?" Q stared at him, holding his breast as if wounded by the accusation. "I see delightful banter is not your forte' Captain so I will get to the point."

"Please do," Chris sighed.

"I am not responsible for your little trip."

"You said that already," Buck retorted. "You'll forgive us if we don't trip over ourselves believing you."

"Go on," Chris said abruptly, signalling Buck to be silent because he had a feeling Q might be telling the truth. All the reports he read on the entity told Chris one thing clearly enough, as annoying and dangerous as Q might be, while he sometimes did not tell the whole truth, he was not completely prone to lying either.

"You like me." Q suddenly realised and beamed brightly. "You do!"

Chris did not know why or how, but he did. If it were not for his dead chief engineer, the entire situation might have been somewhat amusing and Q, though annoying and irritating, was one of those personalities one could not help liking, even if he was to be taken in small doses. "I'm as shocked as you, so get on with it."

"We're going to be lifelong pals," Q appeared at his side and threw an arm over his shoulder.

"Oh, God." Mary groaned. "Please just get to the point!"

"Don't worry," Q grinned at her, "you'll still get to bring us pork rinds and beer during Monday night football."

"Monday night what?" JD asked.

"Alright!" Chris barked. "Everybody shut up!" Without giving anyone a chance to say anything else, Chris yanked Q's arm and demanded. "What the hell is going on?"

"Oh all right," Q sighed, exaggerating his distress at being called out. "Since you feel the need to be so antagonistic, I will put you out of your misery, but only because we're friends."

"Thank you," Chris answered sarcastically.

"But first we all need to be here." Q declared and snapped his fingers again. Out of thin air, Ezra, Josiah, Nathan and Alex appeared on the scene. All four were understandably confused when they saw the Captain and their fellow officers around them.

"What the hell..." Alex managed once she realised where they were in comparison to where they had been.

"For those tuning in," Buck said helpfully to the new arrivals. "That's Q."

"That's Q?" Nathan looked at the man taking centre stage and enjoying it. He certainly did not look like an alien entity capable of causing so much mischief.

Josiah, on the other hand, was more concerned with how Ezra was going to take this news. After what the Counselor saw the security chief do to Sila Poplar, it was a valid concern. Ezra for his part turned sharply in the direction of Q as soon as Buck made the introduction.

Ezra's eyes widened. "Q? You're Q?"

"I must be the subject of conversation everywhere," Q gushed, "Jean-Luc is truly wasted as a starship captain, I should employ him as my press agent."

Without saying another word, Ezra launched himself at Q and would have reached the entity if Vin had not stepped in and bodily restrained him. Josiah had made the move but fortunately, Vin was closer and more equal to the task of ensuring Ezra did not get any further than he had already.

"Ezra! Get a hold of yourself!"  With his Vulcan strength, he was more than capable of preventing Ezra from doing anything that would get himself killed, which was more or less what would happen if he attempted to attack such a powerful creature like Q.

"Get a hold of yourself?" Ezra shouted staring at Vin incredulity. He stopped fighting to get through the Vulcan because Vin was more than capable of keeping him pinned if he got it into his mind to do so. However, it did not lessen the rage Ezra felt towards the creature who brought them to this place and put Julia in the hands of Silas Poplar. "That son of a bitch killed Julia!"

"Sticks and stones," Q shrugged as if Ezra's words were nothing before turning to Chris. "I see I am to get nowhere with you people until I sort this little matter out." Without pausing to elaborate, Q snapped his fingers once more.

And Julia was standing before them.

There was no evidence of the beating that took her life. She was clad not in the period costume of the day but rather in her chief engineer's uniform and she was most definitely alive. She stared at all of them, appearing as if she had awakened from a really bad dream.

"Julia!" Mary gasped.

"What happened?" She asked when she blinked. "I remember Poplar hitting me." She started to speak, feeling as if her throat were terribly dry and was in severe need of a drink. "And everything went black."

"Julia." Ezra broke free from Vin's distracted hold and took a step towards her, his heart flooding with such a profound sense of joy and relief he was not quite able to manage any more than that. He had not realised how much he loved her until she was lost and never felt so grateful for anything than to see her before him.

"Ezra," Julia broke into a smile, remembering how frightened she had been when Poplar was doing his worst. In that final moment when she thought she was going to die, she understood the enmity between them was foolishness. Nothing ought to matter if she truly loved him. And she did. She crossed the space between them before she was even aware of her legs were moving. Julia felt lighter than air when she felt Ezra's arms around her body, pulling her close.

"I love you." He whispered as he held her in his embrace, almost terrified to let her go because the memory of that broken body in the street was still fresh in his mind. "Whatever has between us, I am sorry. I should have known and I swear I will never hurt you again."

"No," she shook her head as she looked into his face and saw tears of happiness running down his cheeks, not entirely understanding them but certain of the fact he loved her. "It wasn't your fault, you couldn't have known it was not me. I shouldn't have behaved the way I did."

"Neither should I," Ezra replied, prepared to admit to anything because he was just so happy she was back with him. "I am sorry for what I did."

"No, I am..." Julia responded.

Neither cared at all they had an audience until Q began making retching noises. "Oh, you humans and your cheap sentimentality." He shook his head in disgust.

"Considering it was you who caused this sentimental reunion," Ezra pulled away from Julia long enough to reply. "I think you can endure it for a moment."

"I?" Q returned automatically. "Had nothing to do with this."

"So you said," Chris answered, returning to the matter at hand. However, he had to admit, he was not as angry as he had been after seeing Julia brought back to them. Witnessing the warm reunion between her and Ezra softened his disposition towards Q somewhat. Besides, he was starting to believe Q really was telling the truth about not having anything to do with their being here, which only begged the question, who did? "Mind telling us who it is responsible for this if it wasn't you?"

"Since you asked so nicely," Q answered and glanced at Mary. "I do believe you know him, Blondie."

"Call me that one more time..." Mary started to warn when suddenly another flash materialized Billy in front of her.

"Billy!"

Billy immediately turned to his mother and started towards her, bounding across the distance, more than happy to let her hug him when they finally reached each other.

"What is he doing here?" Chris demanded, starting to get angry again. What game did Q think he was playing by accusing Billy of this entire situation?

"Now, now Christopher," Q replied, completely aware of the rising anger inside the human before him. "Before you go getting upset again, I must confess young Master Billy was not exactly alone in his responsibility for bringing you all here. He had help."

Two more figures appeared amongst them and Chris was fast reaching the point where only a good stiff drink was going to kill a headache forming inside his head. The new arrivals this time were a woman and another child. Both were clad in Starfleet uniforms, even the child whose clothes seemed to be tailored to suit. The woman was tall, with a mane of fiery red hair and had the look of one of those old Celtic maidens from the Scottish Highlands, while the boy was tow-headed with inquisitive coloured eyes and a rather sombre expression.

"Q," the woman said folding her arms impatiently. "Will you please get on with this. Quinn has spent altogether too much time in the company of these humans, its time for him to get to bed. As it is, he is learning too many bad habits from that child." She looked at Billy with clear disapproval, an action which offended Mary to no end.

"My son has no bad habits." Mary returned defensively.

"Well, Quinn certainly did not conjure up this entire fiasco on his own." Miss Q returned sharply.

"Wait a minute," Buck cut in. "Are you saying that kid is responsible for all this?"

"Partially responsible," Miss Q pointed out. "Your protocol officer's son filled his head with silly notions about cowboys and the rest, as they say, is history."

"But you said I could find someone to play with," Quinn whined.

"Well, you were certainly not playing when I found you," the boy's mother interrupted. "They were fighting."

"It was his fault!" Both boys pointed at each other in unison.

"Explain Billy." Mary made her son look at her.

Billy swallowed and looked at his audience nervously before regarding the bruises on his mother, deciding he was just happy she was not dead or injured any worse than she already was.

"We were playing. He asked me what I liked to do and I told him about Buck's program. He said it was like a holodeck, that no one could get hurt really but when something bad happened to Julia, I tried to make him stop but he wouldn't."

"So that gave you leave to hit my son?" Miss Q asked sharply.

"Considering what he was doing," Mary came quickly to her son's defence. "Its something you ought to be doing to give him some discipline."

"My son is a member of the Q continuum. He is a special child!" Miss Q challenged with as much ferocity.

"I'm the only child!" Quinn shouted. "It's lonely!"

Everyone fell silent and looked at him as he went to Billy. "I thought you were my friend. I thought we were having a good time."

"We were having a good time," Billy replied, appreciating how Quinn felt all too well. "But I don't want to see anyone getting hurt. You killed Julia!"

"What?" Julia exclaimed.

"We'll explain later," Ezra said quietly and allowed the conversation between the two boys to continue.

"She would have been better," Quinn answered. "I would have made her better."

"I didn't know that!" Billy declared. "It's not the same for us. When we die, we don't come back."

Q approached his son and lifted the boy into his arms.  "Quinn," the entity's voice became devoid of the sarcastic tone usual to his speech. "Humans are very different from what we are. The little Vulcan is correct when their life ceases, it simply does. It is not to be toyed with, by us most of all, but ought to be extinguished in its own time, as its destiny dictates. We are forever, that's what being omnipotent and immortal is all about. That's why we have to be very careful when dealing with humans."

"I didn't understand," Quinn said softly. "I only wanted a friend to play with."

"We can play," Billy quickly spoke up, finally realizing why Quinn had been so obtuse about what he had been trying to tell him. How does one explain death to a being who never has to fear it? He was a child himself and he had trouble understanding it let alone trying to impress it upon someone else. "We just gotta be a little more careful."

"I don't know Billy." Mary was dubious about this entire friendship. After all the damage caused already, she did not know whether it was wise to let it continue.

"I agree." Miss Q responded, feeling Mary's doubt herself. "This human child is rather fragile and who knows what other bad habits Quinn may pick up."

"Hey, my child isn't the one who can turn the universe upside down with a snap of his fingers," Mary said hotly.

"Which simply proves his inferiority." Miss Q answered back in turn.

"Ladies!" Chris barked, silencing them both. "Let's get a grip here. Personally, I can't tell either of you what to do but Mary, we can't always pick our kids' friends for them and Billy's smart enough to know what's right and wrong, don't you?" The Captain glanced at the young boy with a little smile. At both young boys actually. As much of a mess as this whole situation had turned out to be, Chris could not deny he could understand loneliness and sometimes the best friendships came from the ones borne out of adversity.

Mary let out a sigh and looked at her son. "Is that what you want Billy?"

"Yes, mother." He nodded, giving Chris and Quinn a smile as he did so. For his part, Quinn stared at his own mother with a pleasured grin which disarmed the Q female considerably.

"I am assuming of course," Chris looked at Q. "That your son will be schooled in basic safety when dealing with mortals?"

"My son is omnipotent," Miss Q said proudly. "I am certain he will have no trouble keeping his playmate safe."

"Hell, this has been one seriously weird day," Buck exclaimed.

"No kidding." Vin agreed and several others who felt the same way joined in his response.

Chris took a step towards Quinn, feeling himself unable to be angry at the child who reminded him so much of another, it almost hurt. Dropping to his knees so that he could look Quinn in the eye, Chris took a deep breath and responded. "Next time you want to play cowboys? Ask first."

"Really?" Quinn's pleasure was obvious.

"Really." Chris nodded and then looked at Vin and the others. "I think we can accommodate the young man can't we?"

Ezra did not answer at first but upon examining his feelings, found he could not hold a grudge when Julia was returned to him and things between them were right again. "I suppose so but with a little schooling in basic safety." The security chief gave the boy a hard stare.

"Well, it was sort of fun, when people weren't dying." JD agreed.

"Speak for yourself." Alex shook her head, deciding she would never like this program.

"Alex it will grow on you." Vin tried to convince her otherwise and garnered a dark glare for his efforts.

"You hope." Nathan chuckled dubiously.

Chris noted Q was staring at him. "You surprise me, Captain."

Unlike before, there was no trace of the impish smirk or mischief-making persona but rather a more serious and thoughtful expression. Q appeared as if he were staring at Chris in a new light.

Chris's brow shot up. "How so?"

"You're surprisingly tolerant," Q remarked, impressed by the kindness shown by this human to his son. Jean-Luc was normally so adversarial and poor Kathy trapped in the Delta Quadrant was always cautious but he could tell Chris was not so close-minded.

"I had a son once," Chris revealed. "I wouldn't like him to be lonely any more than you like your own son being isolated."

"Your son," Q nodded. "I remember. The one who was murdered along with your wife."

Chris's eyes widened as he stared at Q. "What?" His voice was almost a strangled whisper. "What did you say?"

"Consider this revelation my gift of thanks," Q replied as he prepared to send all these humans back to their ship, now matters were righted as much as they could be. "Your wife and son were murdered. The shuttle accident was no accident, it was premeditated."

"By whom?" Chris forced himself to ask.

Unfortunately, Q was not about to answer and his only response to Chris's request was another snap of his fingers.

Chris blinked as the bright light dissipated out of his eyes and he found himself on the bridge of the Maverick. He was in his command chair, wearing his own uniform, with no trace of the black garments he wore in the Magnificent Seven simulation that Quinn created. At the helm control, Vin was seated at his station, staring at him with just as much bewilderment as Buck who was placed next to him and Mary who was also out of her red dress was displaying. JD too looked similarly confused at his station and Chris did not have to turn around to see Julia, Ezra and Alex at their usual positions on the bridge. Only Billy, Josiah and Nathan were standing up, having no specific place on the bridge since most of their duties were carried out in their respective offices.

"Vin," Chris found voice enough to speak once the shock of returning to his bridge had faded from his mind. "What's our heading?"

Vin blinked, shaking his own disorientation away as his eyes dropped to the console screen before him. His brows furrowed at the readings and when he looked at Chris, his confusion showed. "We're still on course for Antaria, at the exact position we were when we disappeared off the bridge."

"Captain!" Alex spoke up. "I've just checked in with a subspace beacon. We're at the same point in time as when we left. According to the ship's chronometers and computer bio readings, we were never off the ship."

"How is that possible?" Mary exclaimed shocked. There were no traces of the bruises on her skin inflicted upon her by Mr Wickes prior to her killing him. That at least gave Chris some comfort. Nothing else did.

"Easy enough when we're dealing with an omnipotence who can bring the dead back from life and create an entire world from fiction." Josiah pointed out.

"Yeah," Chris nodded as Q's last words returned to haunt him. "Easy enough."

Epilogue:

Spike

Captain's Logs Stardate 16.25.02

It has been a day since our return from that strange place fashioned by Quinn to mirror the world of the Magnificent Seven. As far as the ship was concerned, none of the crewmembers involved in the incident was registered as having left at all. In the meantime, we have arrived on Antaria as scheduled, where Lieutenant Travis is taking care of the preliminary requirements to begin the treaty negotiations between the two opposing factions. I will be expected to join her on the surface when the preparations are completed and the real work of diplomacy begins. The Maverick is now in a holding position above the Antarian homeworld and I have left Commander Wilmington in temporary command of the bridge.

For those of us who remember, the past day has left profound effects on all of us even if no one remembers we were ever gone. No doubt many will be mystified by the sudden reconciliation by Commander Standish and Lieutenant Pemberton who have requested some personal time and since there is no immediate urgency requiring them at their posts, I have granted it. Besides, after what both of them had been through, they deserve the time alone. Presently, it is estimated they have been locked in Commander Standish's quarters for the last 16 hours. I am assuming that they will come up for air sometime.

For myself, the implications of what went on are deep, in particular, the words left to me from Q. Was he toying with me, or did he really believe the truth he supposedly revealed was a kindness? I do not know for certain. What I do know is a seed has been planted in my head and where it will lead me I do not know but I have to follow it.

I have to know if Q was lying or was Sarah and Adam really murdered.

******

Chris did not know how long he was staring into space when he heard the door of his ready room chime. However, the sound took a few seconds to penetrate his consciousness before he finally recovered enough to utter a weak welcome to whoever was waiting for entry. The door opened and Buck Wilmington walked into the room, pausing a foot away from this desk and observing him closely. Chris noted the expression on his face and immediately felt guilty even though he was not certain why he should be.

Perhaps it was the collection of datapads on his desk, the uneaten lunch Casey brought him some hours ago, or just the darkness in his eyes ever since they had returned from the facsimile world Quinn created for them. Buck could not say exactly but he knew something was terribly wrong for it reminded him too much of the look in Chris's eyes when Sarah and Adam's death was fresh in his mind. The memory gave Buck good cause for worry because he saw how hell-bent Chris had been on self-destruction and their friendship had not survived it. They were friends still but not the way they were long ago. What Chris shared with Vin Tanner was closer to what he and Buck once had than the pale remnants existing between them now. Buck accepted the loss, knowing to save Chris from himself, there had to be sacrifices.

"What is it?" Chris asked shortly, his tone clearly indicating he did not like the intrusion.

"I just got a call from the surface," Buck said trying not to stare at the data pads or let his curiosity about them show.

Chris was seated in his chair, staring into the stars outside his window when he replied. "So?"

Buck shrugged uncomfortably, aware now something was terribly wrong but uncertain how to approach Chris about it. In the past it was a simple enough matter to do so when they were friends but now, with Chris as his Captain, the nature of their relationship changed quite a bit. While there was some informality in their manner towards each other, Buck was painfully aware of the line he could not cross. Buck cleared his throat and measured how he should respond in light of Chris's obviously bad mood and decided the mission was too important for him to mince words.

"You were expected on the planet an hour ago." Buck reminded.

Chris blinked and swivelled around in his chair. "Damn." He swore under his breath as he noted the time on the chronometer at the corner of his desk and realised Buck was right. Chris sat up immediately. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I was under the impression I did not have to tell you. Under usual circumstances, you're quite reliable."

"I am still reliable," Chris growled and started gathering the data pads into some sort of discernible order.

"Chris," Buck took a deep breath and plunged into a world of trouble but knew not what else to do. Something was clearly bothering Chris and had been doing so ever since they returned to the bridge. "What's going on? I have never known you to be late for anything. You're more aware than I am about how important these meetings on Antaria are. Mary's furious you're not there already. We've known each other too long to play games, so tell me. What is it?"

Chris let out a deep breath, feeling the need to confide in someone and surely Buck of all people would understand what he was going through after all Buck was there at the time and he may know something Chris had missed. "Before we were sent back, Q told me he was giving me a little gift for being so tolerant to his son."

Buck had missed hearing the content of the conversation between the two although he knew words were exchanged prior to their return to the Maverick. "What was the gift?" Buck was almost afraid to ask.

Chris swallowed the lump in his throat. "He said that it was not an accident. That Adam and Sarah were murdered."

The light of understanding flooded Buck's eyes and he whispered softly. "Jesus. Chris, you can't possibly believe he's telling the truth."

"He said it was a gift!" Chris barked. "Why would he lie about something like that?"

"Why not?" Buck returned just as sharply. "Look at you! You've had this idea in your head for less than a day and look at how it's affecting you already! He's playing with you, Chris!"

"I don't think he is!" Chris protested. "What if its true Buck? What if the shuttle accident wasn't an accident?"

"Who would want to kill Sarah and Adam, Chris?" Buck retaliated, seeing how much the idea had taken root in his Captain's head by just the very suggestion of it and frankly it terrified Buck.

"I don't know," Chris said defensively. "But I've been going over the reports." He gestured to the data pads before him. "I found something."

"What?" Buck asked, not really believing it, more inclined to think this was just an extension of a sick game Q was playing with Chris's mind.

"After they died," Chris swallowed hard, needing desperately to convince someone so he would not feel like he was going insane. "I didn't look at these reports. I didn't see any point in it. You remember what I was like back then."

Buck did remember and it was his memory of those events that made him so concerned for Chris now. "I remember."

"Well according to this," he handed Buck the data pad, which the first officer took reluctantly. "There was some unexplained energy spike before the crash. They don't know what caused it and did not pay much attention to it because it was not the primary cause of the explosion. As we know the plasma seals breached and the containment shield around the anti-matter dropped prematurely."

Buck studied the report and although some mention was made about the spike, the engineer who did the investigation chose not to pursue it because the cause of the accident was clearly determined. However, Buck also could see there was just enough ambiguity in the existence of this mysterious spike to give fuel to Chris's suspicion the accident might have been the result of foul play. "It says here it might have just been a defective power chip. It's not uncommon and relatively harmless, certainly not enough to cause an anti-matter breach."

"But what if it did?" Chris demanded. "What if someone did cause the spike and it somehow caused the breach?"

"Chris!" Buck declared. "Let it go."

Chris stared at Buck as if he was insane. "How can you ask me to do that?"

"Because I'm your friend. They're dead Chris. Nothing can bring them back. Q may have been able to snap his fingers to bring Julia back but that is not going to happen with Sarah and Adam. They're gone. I miss them too and more than anything I wish they were here for you but this is going to hurt you more than you know." Buck was almost pleading but as he saw the revulsion in Chris's eyes at the thought of giving up, he knew he failed.

Chris stared at him with an expression of ice and whispered. "If they were murdered, if they were taken from me, I will tear this universe apart trying to find who did it and there is no way I will stop until I find the truth."

With that, Buck knew there was nothing more to say.

Despite the fact that Lilith King was still sick in bed and his mother was no longer on board the Maverick; Billy Travis did not feel neglected or alone. He thought the senior staff would be mad at him because of what he and Quinn put them through but they had been surprisingly understanding even though the Captain seemed a little preoccupied. Billy spent some time with Vin and Alex today horseback riding, which was infinitely more pleasing to the science officer's disposition than the Magnificent Seven simulations, whether or not produced by the holodeck or Quinn. Still, Billy could not help deny missing the company of the new friend he made, despite all the trouble that came from their association.

Besides, Quinn had really neat parents.

As Billy now understood it, Quinn was the first child born to the Q Continuum. Before Quinn, the Q simply were but with his birth, other members of the Continuum learnt they were just as much a part of the cycle of creation and death as the rest of the creatures in the universe. Of course, with the Q, death was purely a matter of personal choice. Billy could not imagine a time when he would ever wish to die but apparently, some members of the Q desired it after they experienced everything there was to experience. Even an evolved Vulcan mind like Billy's could not truly comprehend what the Q considered to be everything but he assumed it was a lot. Quinn himself had been named after Quinn, the first member of the Continuum who chose to voluntarily die. He was something of a radical and a hero to the Q that plagued the Enterprise and Captain Jean-Luc Picard respectively.

Billy made his way to Holodeck 2 where he would be having his next lesson on surfing, courtesy of Lieutenant Rain who was so much fun to be around, it was hard to believe she was an adult sometimes. However, Lilith had a term that best described the transporter chief although Billy still felt a little odd using it. Lilith called Rain, 'really cool.' As for surfing, Billy could not discern what possible use the activity could be but he liked the water, unaware most Vulcans did not like engaging in pastimes in the ocean since native Vulcan had very little surface moisture. He supposed it was another failing his paternal grandparents would point out when they saw him again but brushed aside the concern for now since they were not here.

"Hello." Billy heard a voice beside him as he was walking down the corridor towards Holodeck 2.

"Quinn!" Billy exclaimed with genuine pleasure seeing his newest friend, in very much the same appearance and clothing as they had met initially.

"I thought you might want to play," Quinn asked with a hint of hope in his voice as he made the inquiry.

"Sure," Billy grinned, "your mom won't mind?"

"No," Quinn shook his head. "My dad said he'd take care of it. What about yours? Is she still mad?"

"No," the Vulcan shook his head in answer. "She's down on the planet talking to the Antarians."

"Do you want to go visit her?" Quinn asked. "I've never been to Antaria."

"You can do that?" Billy gasped, still coming to grips with just how powerful his friend was.

"Yeah," Quinn nodded. "I can. Do you want to go?"

"Better not," Billy said quickly before Quinn sent them both to Antaria where he was certain his mother would not be impressed at his sudden appearance at her conference meeting with the delegates. "She's working and if we show up, she'll be upset."

"Oh," Quinn said crestfallen, still coming to grips with this whole notion of rules of conduct when it came to interacting with humans. However, he liked Billy so he was going to try, having remembered what his father had said about dealing with the species.

"Hey," Billy came up with an idea and looked at Quinn with a smile on his face. "Ever been surfing?"

THE END

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