by Mylochka

(Standard Year 2246)

Return to Valjiir Stories

Return to Valjiir Continum

Go To Part Two

"You know why I left New Orleans?"

"For me?" Ensign Jeremy Paget guessed, handing his friend Noel DelMonde a spanner.

"No." N.C.'s voice echoed in the access tube where he was doing repairs. "'Cause I was tired of endin' up covered in shit from workin' on a fucked up piece o' shit in some shithole ever' day. An' now where am I? Covered in shit from workin' on a fucked up piece o' shit in some shithole..."

" outer space," Paget added optimistically.

DelMonde snorted. "An' what that get me?"

"Better view?"

"Not from here."

Kottman's Glory was the name of the asteroid the U.S.S. Hood was currently visiting. It was perhaps one of the least glorious places in the entire quadrant. The Hood had been dispatched for a routine maintenance and resupply mission to the mining colony on the asteroid. Paget had begun to have his doubts about how "routine" this routine assignment was when he and a small contingent of other security personnel had been ordered to accompany the group of engineers tackling the variety of equipment problems plaguing the miners.

N.C. emerged from the access tube looking peeved and grease-stained.

"My, my, my, Ensign DelMonde," Jer said, smiling lewdly. "What a dirty, dirty boy you are."

The engineer rolled his eyes. "Is that all you t'ink 'bout all day, Ensign Paget?"

"It's all I'm gonna think about the rest of the day now."

After a month and a half on the Hood, the two of them still got a great deal of amusement out of calling each other by what DelMonde called their new "Starfleet standard-issue first names." They had a race on to see who could change his name to "Lieutenant" first.

When N.C. had complained that not being Bridge personnel put them at something of a disadvantage in this pursuit, Paget had pointed out that Security guards, because of the inherent risks of their office, were frequently provided with opportunities to display their valor and devotion to duty. The engineer had countered that the first time the toilet off the Bridge broke down, the man who could fix it in less than an hour stood a more than fair chance of being proclaimed a hero.

DelMonde stretched out the long muscles of his back - very picturesquely, in Paget's opinion. "How many more o' these fuckers we got to go?"

The security officer closed the engineer's toolkit and handed it to him. "Six."

"Shit," N.C. pronounced unenthusiastically, looking in the direction of the next access tube.

"Coffee?" Paget suggested, pointing out a service unit nearby.

"Whiskey?" the engineer countered. "Sapphire?"

Jer gave him a sympathetic smile, but replied firmly, "Coffee it is then."

"I want mine plenty strong an' plenty black," DelMonde said, wearily taking a seat on a bench near the service unit.

Jer grinned as he punched in their orders. "Like I don't know that..."

"Sweet Mary..." The engineer rolled his eyes at this innuendo. "Somehow I doubt this what th' captain have in mind when he assign me my own personal Security detachment."

Paget had been putting a great deal of thought into just what Captain Aronson had in mind when he'd decided to have a Security guard shadow each engineer working on the colony. The miners they had encountered were a rough and sullen crew, but did not seem immediately dangerous.

The decision to pair engineer and security guard nonetheless seemed like a wise and subtle one to Paget. Since both divisions wore the same uniform color, an incurious observer might assume that they were both there for repairs. This allowed the security man a certain freedom to conduct covert observations. Jer liked having freedom to conduct covert observations very, very much.

It was also true that DelMonde was in very much need of someone who could hand him tools and listen to his constant flow of invective without becoming offended. This was not a job for the faint of heart. Although N.C. was a pure artist at maintenance and repair, he did not seem to have much enthusiasm for it.

Jer stopped and revised the thought. It wasn't that his friend disliked maintenance and repair. It was more accurate to say that Del swore so much while he was engaged in this type of work because of his utter contempt for those who had significantly less enthusiasm for maintenance and repair than he did.... And that was a pretty high bar for almost anyone to jump.

Jer thought about N.C.'s little interplanetary yacht. He had originally been very leery to request the pitiful looking, non-functional, quarter-century old vessel as part of a payment for a job he'd lined up for the engineer during their Clave days. However, those had been DelMonde's strict instructions. He'd been amazed at how his friend had managed to meticulously restore and redesign the vessel in his spare time out of spare parts over the course of a year or so.

DelMonde had christened the little ship The City of New Orleans. Jer called it the S.S. Marcel after a favorite Crescent City watering hole because the cockpit looked to him like a small hotel bar with a pilot's seat stuck in the front. N.C. kept the small vessel in absolutely perfect perfect condition. When he'd taken it out of dry dock to ferry Jer to a wedding during their last year at the Academy, the little yacht ran and even smelled like a brand new space ship... Well, combination of a hotel bar and a new space ship...

"So," Paget said, sitting down on the bench next to his friend with two steaming cups. "How do the environmental stabilizers look to you?"

"Like half-corroded-out pieces o' shit that these lazy fuckers hadn't maintenanced in a year," DelMonde answered laying an evil eye on two residents who happened to by passing by.

Paget waited for them to get out of earshot before asking, "You picking up anything from the miners?"

"They spend too much o' their spare time lookin' at porn," N.C. concluded, taking a long sip of his coffee. "An' they got a lot o' spare time."

"Well, that's not our problem, is it?" The bench and the service unit were located at the point where three corridors met. An excellent vantage point. Paget considered breaking the server so they'd have an excuse to stay there longer.

"Only to th' extent that it make 'em dissatisfied wit' both the quantity an' quality o' whore available locally."

Paget raised an eyebrow. "They've got a whorehouse here?"

"Well, they have to, non?" DelMonde replied giving a slight nod towards a particularly unattractive local heading their way on a small supply sledge.

"In an alarming number of cases, monetary inducement would be a must," Paget agreed. "But still, not our problem."

"Only to the extent that it make some of 'em have vivid fantasies 'bout the possibility o' pressin' visitin' Starfleet personnel into service in that area," the engineer informed him scowling at another group of innocent-looking - though beauty-challenged - passersby. "Present company not excluded."

"Well, why wouldn't they?" Paget grinned. "Look at us. Who could resist?"

"They better or I gonna start knockin' some ugly heads together," N.C. growled with just enough force to hurry the locals on their way.

Jer's communicator bleeped. "Paget here."

"Kane," the speaker identified herself. "You two finished the I-9 transverse?"

"No, Lieutenant. We've just completed repairs to I-9J3 and are taking a coffee break."

"Leave it for now. Tell DelMonde I want him."

N.C. smiled and shook his head. "It what all th' women say..."

"At first," Kane added acidly.

Paget silent mouthed a "brrr!"

"DelMonde, you've realigned a 48 weight transduction compressor before, right?" the lieutenant asked while the engineer mouthed "Shut up" back at his cabinmate.

"Yes, ma'am, I have," he replied very properly.

"Then put down that coffee cup and hustle it up to the J-12."

N.C. gave a long-suffering sigh. "Yes, Lieutenant."

"On the double, cutie," Kane added with a tone that sounded incongruously malicious.

DelMonde made a face and avoided his cabinmate's eyes. "Acknowledged, Lieutenant."

"What was that all about?" Paget asked when he'd closed his communicator.

The engineer sighed deeply again. "Which part?"

"Start at the top," Jer requested as the engineer rose and punched in another order to the service unit.

"You remember when we went to that party in th' Science Lab an' I got drunk an' screwed that nurse?"

"Oh, yes." Paget winced. "As I recall, that didn't go too well."

The young lady in question, they later found out, had been considered the Hood's reigning drama queen. When she turned some minor pique into a display of her patented morning-after histrionics, the newest member of the Hood's engineering team had given her an education on what a real temper tantrum looked like.

The fracas ended up in the First Officer's office with both the engineer and the nurse half-clad and screaming to see each other's head on a pike. Commander Brandt was not amused but had finally decided the incident was best forgotten by all. Of course, before being able to act as peacemaker in this way, he did have to threaten to throw both combatants in the brig... for a week... with each other.

"Not particularly well, no," DelMonde answered in purposeful understatement. "That were Kane's friend."

"Oh, I see." Paget nodded sagely. "And the 'cutie' part?"

"The lieutenant not feel that a mere ensign should call a superior officer 'sweetheart,' 'darlin',' or 'girl,'" the engineer reported as the service unit produced two more cups in a neat carrier. "She tryin' to make what they call 'a point.'"

"Oh." The Security guard raised an eyebrow at the cups. "And you feel so bad about it, you're going to take her coffee?"

"No." DelMonde answered sourly, then held up the carrier to illustrate. "But if I take the bitch some coffee..." He then held up his own cup. "I get to finish mine. Comprendez?"

"Imminently logical," Paget agreed, rising. Since the engineer was forced to play delivery boy, he picked up the toolkits. "So Kane's got it in for you?" he asked as they headed towards the nearest lift.

N.C. shrugged. "Some other department throw a party next week, Miss Nursie flop her head into some other poor bastard's lap, and' then Kane gonna have some other fool to be mad at on that sad slut's behalf."

"You probably have a point." As unappealing as they may be, Paget was actually glad for this mission and the brouhaha over Miss Nursie. Anything to take N.C.'s mind off...

"You know," the engineer broke in. "It don't take my mind off t'ings when you keep t'inkin' 'bout it."

"Sorry." There had been little hints in the messages coming from the Enterprise for weeks, but Daffy's pair of rather blunt subspace messages that had arrived three days ago removed all doubt that...

"You know the primary t'ing to keep in mind when re-alignin' any transduction mechanism o' this size?" N.C. broke in pointedly.

"No," Jeremy replied, chastened. "What would that be?"

"First up, never go by th' factory specs," the engineer lectured. "As soon as th' unit been in service more than thirty-six hours, all that out th' window. You gotta balance th' unit based on th' amount o' dicarbonite the tanks'll hold..."

And so they continued until they reached the J-12 corridor where the other pair from the Hood were working. Kane was bent over an access hatch. From several feet away, it looked like Ensign Carlos Mangini wasn't doing anything but staring intently at her ass.

When they got much closer... it still looked like Mangini was staring at Kane's ass. One couldn't entirely blame him. It was a nice ass. However, Jer wasn't impressed by this deployment of professional surveillance skills.

"Hi, Carlos," he called, to save his fellow Security officer the embarrassment of having them inadvertently sneak up on them.

Mangini had the grace to blush as he nodded to them. "Paget. Del."

"Where ya'll at?" DelMonde handed him the cups of coffee.

"Uh..." The Security man began before remembering that this question was just a greeting. "Thanks."

Kane extracted herself from the access hatch. "What took you so long?"

"We took the scenic route," Paget answered, daring her to pull him into her little junior high game.

Mangini stepped between the two of them in the sort of not-at-all-casual casual style Security personnel adopted. "Coffee, Lieutenant?"

"Thanks." Kane was momentarily mollified by this offering.

"This the unit givin' you problems?" Del asked, peering into the hatch.

"It's one of the things giving me problems," she replied peevishly.

DelMonde straightened. "Uh, Lieutenant..." the Cajun gestured at her nose as if to alert her that there was something on it.

There wasn't, but there was a good amount of grease on her hands, which she unthinkingly smeared onto her face as she tried to wipe off the imaginary stain.

"Let me, Lieutenant." Mangini came to the aid of his partner with a cloth from her toolkit.

"All right." Kane took in from him irritably as she turned back to DelMonde and jerked her head towards the access hatch. "Let's see what you can make of this....honey."

DelMonde didn't look very pleased at this non-regulation form of address as he lowered himself backwards into the hatch. Mangini, however, Jer noted, looked like the term of endearment had wilted a little piece of his soul.

Paget frowned and reviewed the fact that N.C. had given the coffee to Mangini instead of waiting to give it to Kane. The grease-face prank had looked like petty revenge, but it too had given the security guard another chance to come to the rescue of his princess. Could DelMonde be fanning flames between these two to take attention away from him?

The sharp kick in the cranium Jer got only served to confirm his suspicions.

"So what do you think, Ensign?" Kane asked.

"Well, Lieutenant," N.C. began, his voice echoing inside the hatch. "I t'ink this t'ing be broke."

The Lieutenant rolled her eyes. "Care to be more specific?"

"Yeah," the engineer replied without leaving the hatch. "This here a textbook case o' bein' a fucked-up, broke-ass piece o' shit."

Kane was not amused.

As Mangini gave Paget a reproachful glance for smiling, Jer decided N.C. needed to be careful exactly how much he was stoking the flames of the security guard's passion.

"If it can't be fixed," the lieutenant said. "We'll have to close down this entire arm of the plant."

"Oh, I can fix it." N.C. assured her, still inside the bowels of the machine. "But th' main assembly gonna have to be broken down an' re-worked."

Kane sighed heavily. "That what I was afraid of. Okay, Mangini and I will finish the I-9s. Drain the tanks and strip this unit down to the core components. We'll try a rebuild tomorrow."

"Yes, Lieutenant," Mangini and DelMonde chorused in what obviously seemed to Kane to be a very satisfactory manner.

Paget shook his head as the security guard took off down the corridor after his lady, following three steps behind like a respectful Vulcan wife. Jer doubted, however, that a Vulcan matron fell back a few feet to have a better view of their husband's cute fannies, though... Then again, maybe they did. Vulcans were pretty practical people...

DelMonde pulled himself out of the hatch, picked up his coffee, and smiled in satisfaction at the departing couple. "Not'ing like watchin' a man who love his work, non?" he asked, patting his cabinmate on the back.

"You'd better watch yourself," Paget advised, opening up their toolkits. "Love is pretty hot stuff and those who play with fire can get burned."

Looking up, he realized that this aphorism once again brought to mind unwelcome thoughts of The-Thing-They-Were-Not-Talking-About.

"Jeremy Maurice," N.C. began resolutely, narrowing his eyes unappreciatively at his friend as he picked up a laser wrench and headed back for the hatch. "The central t'ing you need t' remember 'bout efficiently breakin' down a transduction unit is this - never trust your gauges..."


When Paget got out of the shower in their quarters that night, N.C. was standing in front of the mirror with his shirt off running what looked like a cell regenerator over his cheek.

"Get something on your face?" he asked, wrapping the towel he dried off on around his waist.

"No." DelMonde leaned in over the sink. "Jus' makin' sure I got all that shit off."

"Yeah." Paget came to stand beside his friend and examined the left side of his head critically. "Could cause a rash or something."

"Or somet'ing," the engineer agreed absently.

Jer hid his smile as he reached around N.C. to get his toothbrush. "Be terrible if you had to go to sickbay."

"I can imagine where that might work out bad, yeah," the engineer agreed dryly.

"Here." Putting his toothbrush down, Paget stepped behind his friend and held his hand out for the cell regenerator. "Let me get your neck."

DelMonde leaned against the cabinet and inclined his head to one side as the security guard ran the small whirring instrument over his skin.

Jer tenderly lifted the thick, damp curls from his friend's neck. He couldn't resist putting a soft kiss on that vulnerable flesh. "This will blow over," he whispered reassuringly.

N.C. looked up at Paget's reflection in the mirror, the expression in his black eyes warning him that although he was referring to the situation with Kane, this wasn't going to be allowed to segue into The-Thing-They-Weren't-Talking-About. "I know."

Jer smiled disobediently. "I know you know," he pointed out, wrapping his arms around the engineer's warm, bare chest.

"An' I know you know I know," DelMonde replied unbendingly.

"We are quite a knowledgeable pair." Jer let his chin rest on N.C.'s shoulder and spent a moment quietly enjoying the view. "You are so beautiful."

"I know that too," the engineer answered with his usual genial arrogance.

"And I know you know." Paget teasingly bit his friend's earlobe. "Somehow it's part of your charm."

"Lissen, man." DelMonde took his cell regenerator back. "I'm beat an' I gotta be up an' at it firs' t'ing in the mornin'..."

Paget let his hands drop to his friend's hips, but didn't let go. "It's all right to hurt," he said softly, addressing The-Thing-They-Weren't-Talking-About.

N.C. sighed deeply, then put the regenerator back to his cheek, resolutely ignoring Paget's hands at his waist and this gentle invitation to talk about The-Thing-They-Weren't-Talking-About. "You know I was excited 'bout bein' your roommate 'til I found out you turned into a skull-fucker."

Jer chuckled. "I've always been a skull-fucker. I just got a degree... which," he cautioned, "you've got to remember, is our secret."

DelMonde shrugged. "If a person too stupid t' figure it out on they own, I ain't gonna tell 'em."

"You think it shows?"

"All th' time," his friend replied emphatically.

Paget let his hands idly caress the engineer's muscular abdomen as DelMonde pushed his hair back from his forehead and ran the regenerator over a spot near his left temple. He caught the slight tremble of the engineer's lips that let him know that his friend was thinking of the thing they were not talking about. Paget kissed N.C.'s shoulder blades comfortingly. "I'm here for you."


"Hey." Paget hugged the engineer and smiled at his unsmiling reflection in the mirror. "I know that you know that I know, remember?"

Sulu was sleeping with Ruth. That was the thing they weren't talking about -- but couldn't quit thinking about. It was that simple and that complicated.

DelMonde frowned forbiddingly. "I not wanna talk 'bout it."

"It hurts," Paget said from hard experience. "Whether you talk about it or not, it hurts."

N.C. sighed defeatedly. "So?"

"So, let me help." He caressed his friend's strong arms. "Let me be here for you. Know that I know and that I know you know I know that you know. Let me be good to you."

DelMonde's black eyes met his in the mirror. Paget could see his own history reflected there - that impossible desire to hold onto a thing too fierce and untamed to be caged; the pain of two wild hearts always instinctively striving towards freedom and yet forever hopelessly entangled.

The engineer released a long breath. "I jus' tired," he said, returning the regenerator back to a drawer to the right of the sink.

"You gonna to be able to sleep?" Paget asked, smoothing the knotted muscles of his friend's shoulders.

"Like th' dead," N.C. replied, retrieving a bottle of blue pills.

The security officer put a firm hand over the engineer's. "And without the sapphire?"

"Who die an' make you a pharmacist?" DelMonde growled menacingly.

"All part of standard skull-fucker training." Paget didn't release his grip. "As you said, you have to get up early in the a.m."

"I can work grounded."

"You can, but you may not," Jer enunciated, firming up his grip on the bottle.

The Cajun turned so that they were facing. "Says who?"

Paget didn't flinch. "Says me."

"I thought you was wantin' t' be nice to me."

The Security officer let his eyes travel down the engineer's naked torso lewdly. "You're too tired for me to be as good to you as I want to be."

"If you not let go o' this bottle," N.C. warned, "I might start t' feel a second wind comin' on here."

Keeping his eyes locked onto the Cajun's and a smile on his face, Paget pressed a pressure point in the engineer's wrist that loosened his grip. "Then I guess I better be ready to rock you to sleep," he said, returning the pills to the drawer and locking it.

DelMonde drew in a deep angry breath. "You t'ink you up fo' that?"

Jer grinned. It always came down to fuck or fight with the two of them. He didn't mind when they opted for both. Being with N.C. was like making love to lightning. Jer savored the flash and was always eager to reply with some shock of his own.

"All part of the training," he assured his friend, hooking his thumbs in the engineer's waistband and sinking to his knees. "Get ready, baby, you're in the hands of a medical man now."


"I not know why someone wanna steal a piece o' shit like that," Del said, then in recognition of the presence of the Hood's Chief Engineer, added a very belated, "ma'am."

"They wouldn't," Lieutenant Kane snapped. "Did you look in the intake port?"

"Why I wanna look fo' a carb valve in th' intake port?"

"You should check to see if it rolled there when you dropped it."

"Mais, maybe we should check up your ass, t' see if somebody stuck it..."

"Ensign," Lieutenant Commander Morton Jacobs broke in unsmilingly. The Chief Engineer had taken a break from the important work he was doing on the Hood's warp engines this morning to check on the teams he'd sent to cure Kottman's Glory of its various ills. If he'd found DelMonde and Kane working together with the kind of coordination their overlapping fields of specialties promised, this could have been a good thing. Since he'd found them squabbling like six-year-olds over a missing part, it didn't look like anyone would be getting a gold star for their efforts. "Check the intake ports."

"Sir, I swear to God I not drop..." Del began heatedly.

"You didn't secure the hatch either," Kane accused.

"Oh, yes, I most certainly did, missy," the Cajun snapped back. "Fo' all the good it damn did. Half the jokers in this colony have those access codes. Whoever stole th' carb valve left th' hatch open."

"Who would steal a damned carb valve?" Kane retorted sharply, her freckles standing out lividly against her pale skin. "And so help me, DelMonde, if you address me in an insubordinate manner one more time..."

"Kane," Jacobs cut her off firmly in his basso voice. "That's enough. Beam back up to the Hood and get Rodriguez onto manufacturing a replacement."

The redhead stood there with her hands on her hips for a moment, looking like she'd much rather stay and fight.

"Now, Serena," the Chief Engineer ordered.

"Yes, sir," the lieutenant acknowledged, reluctantly taking out her communicator. "Kane to Hood. Two to beam up."

Jer supposed that N.C. could take comfort in the fact that his matchmaking was working out to the point that Kane took Mangini in tow for no particular reason.

"Sir," Paget offered as Mangini and Kane's forms sparkled out. "I'll coordinate an investigation with..."

"No, Ensign, we're not going to initiate an investigation over the disappearance of a carb valve," Jacobs countermanded firmly.

"But, sir, the captain's orders were to be alert to any..."

"I will inform the captain, Paget." The Chief Engineer stepped past him. "DelMonde."

"Yes, sir," the Cajun replied uneagerly.

"You are getting quite a reputation for your temper, Ensign," Jacobs said, crossing his arms.

"Yes, sir," N.C. had to agree. "I s'pose I am."

"From here on out, I want to see you getting a reputation for the excellence of your work - and nothing else," the Chief Engineer said pointedly. "Do you read me, DelMonde?"

"Yes, sir." N.C. blew out a long breath. "Loud an'clear, sir."

"Good." Jacobs gave the Cajun a fond pat on the shoulder. "Now clean out those intake ports."

"But, sir..."

"If the valve isn't in there," the Chief Engineer said, walking away, "worse case - you will have clean ports to work with."

"Yes, sir." The Cajun sighed and shook his head at his superior officer's retreating form, before turning back to Paget and his toolkit. "If we still at th' Clave, you know we could be drunk, grounded, gettin' laid, an' gettin' paid all at th' same time right now."

"Yeah," Jer nodded, helping his lay out the necessary tools for this job. "But where would the fun in that be?"

"He gonna fuss at her, too," N.C. assured his friend, pointing upwards to indicate Kane in the Hood. "Pro'bly worse."

"No doubt," Paget agreed loyally.

"I jus' wish Mangini would go ahead an' fuck her into a better mood." DelMonde leaned into the access hatch and opened a few manually operated covers with more force than was strictly necessary.

"Well, sex doesn't heal all ills," the Security officer reminded his cabinmate as he snapped together the extension the engineer would need to reach the bottom of the port in question. "Otherwise, you'd've woken up the happiest man in the quadrant this morning."

"There that," N.C. agreed, refusing to be cheered up at all.

"I'm still worried that this thing with Mangini and Kane could go south on you," Paget said, carefully saturating the end of the tool with cleaning fluid.

"Somet'ing I plan blow up in my face?" DelMonde snorted sardonically as he removed the seals on the top of the port. "How we survive th' shock o' that?"

"I don't know if it's necessary," the Security officer said, spraying the tip of the device with an extra coating of fluid. "She just thinks that you're some hot-shot, wet-behind-the-ears know-it-all who can't be bothered to listen to anyone - and who's gunning for her position. All you need to do is to convince her that you..."

When DelMonde turned and held out his hand for the extension, Paget stopped. "Wait, you actually are a hotshot, wet-behind-the-ears know-it-all who can't be bothered to listen to anyone and who's gunning for her position..."

"Not jus' her position," N.C. corrected, taking the tool. "I rather have Jacob's."

"And, in the first few weeks of your acquaintance with the lieutenant, you got into a brawl with Miss Kane's dear friend..." Paget recalled.

"An' busted up that slut's quarters pretty good," the engineer confessed unrepentantly.

"And unfavorably compared that young lady's sexual charm, sophistication, and proficiency to that of a dead Tellurite..."

"I was speakin' metaphorically," the Cajun assured him, snapping the extension into his laser wrench.

"One would hope," Paget replied, preparing a second cleaning rod. "That proclamation took place in front of Miss Kane, I believe."

"In front o' Miss Kane, God, an' ever'body," N.C. confirmed, donning a pair of protective goggles.

"Hmmm..." Jer re-evaluated the amount of effort it was going to take to win Kane over. "Do you know what Serena's favorite flower is?"

"Lillophillium," his friend responded, inserting the cleaning rod into the port.

"Maybe you should have Carlos give her some those," Paget suggested over the whirr of the activated laser wrench. "Whatever candy she likes too."

"I already workin' on it," his cabinmate confirmed.


"What's the importance of a carb valve?"

DelMonde took a part from the tray Paget was holding out for him. "Don't tell me you on that again."

The security officer was laying on top of a photo-plasmic trification unit holding the casing of the component N.C. was working on in place with one hand while he held the tray of parts in the other. "How vital is it?"

"If you not drop that damned valve, I gonna take that pipe coupler to your head," his roommate threatened, welding the new part into the component. "How that fo' vital?"

They'd finally finished with the rebuild of the transducer and had moved on to a series of what seemed to be more minor repairs on a long line of machines that N.C. called "tri-splits." The work was quicker, but more numbingly repetitious. "So you don't think it was stolen?"

The engineer shrugged. "There no reason nobody would steal somet'ing like that."

Jer amended his thought. DelMonde was fairly engrossed in his work. The engineer seemed to be in a race with himself to see how quickly he could diagnosis the problem with each unit and effect repairs. The job for the chief tool-holder, however, was getting deadly dull. And since Paget couldn't think about The-Thing-They-Had-Mentioned-But-Still-Not-Talked-About...

"So then you admit you lost it?" he pressed.

DelMonde looked up at him and sighed. "If I say yes, will it shut you up?"


"Then hell no, I not lose that motherfuckin' part," the engineer replied, indignantly tossing a broken transtator into the box they were using for disposal. "You saw me lay it out."

"Did I?" Jer knew it was dangerous to play Devil's Advocate in this way, but the desire to maintain rigorous investigative standards overrode that concern.

"It was the second C," the engineer replied, referring to the obscene mnemonic he'd created to show Jer how to remember the assembly order of the disassembled parts.

"Then I do remember." Paget nodded. "Why would someone want to take it?"

The engineer shrugged again as he checked his work with a meter. "Make a good paperweight."

"Would that unit have run without it?"

"Sure." Satisfied with his readings, DelMonde welded the replacement part in place. "It pro'bly break again in a day or two, but it'd run. That carb valve was one o' six valves in this unit that compensate fo' over-rotation an' spill-back - which is a big problem in units that see this much use. The third-rate wrench-monkeys stationed here do stop-gap repairs where they bypass backups an' failsafes like this all th' time."

"And that's bad?" Paget asked just to be annoying.

"That shit," the engineer pronounced.

"But, overall, the mining and processing installations of this colony still function at an acceptable level?"

"Yeah, but you end up wit' a shitty bunch o' half-broke equipment waitin' fo' the right disaster to strike." N.C. scowled as if he could hear the word 'disaster' ringing warning bells all over his friend's brain. "Sweet Mary, you sure bored, non? Quit hopin' for somet'ing to go wrong so you can go off investigatin'. You stuck wit' me, son."

Paget put the tray of tools down and held the faceplate over the opening for this maintenance access way while N.C. resealed it. "Kane said if you couldn't repair that transduction unit, you'd have to shut down this wing of the processing plant. Was it really that vital?"

"Yes an' no." The engineer ran a neat bead of sealant around the edges of the faceplate. "When you out in space like this in an environment that not independently support life or be moved to a repair facility, you go fo' redundancy out th' ass. Every backup system has two or three backup systems of its own. No one piece o' machinery the sole support of anyt'ing. That would be askin' for..."

"Disaster," Paget supplied.

"The problem here is not the severity o' the malfunctions but the sheer number o' malfunctions." DelMonde carefully ran a tiny fusion ray over the bead of sealant. "When we do repairs, we take units offline an' reduce that redundancy margin to th' bare minimum, makin' the optimal function of th' primary units more critical."

"And since the primary units are..."

"Old, fucked-up, rusted-out pieces o' shit maintained by mechanics wit' they thumbs up they asses..." N.C. provided with some feeling.

"That could very easily result in..."

The engineer smiled a little as he ran his little finger over the top of the plate to check the seal. "Your new favorite word..."

"Disaster?" Paget shook his head as he restocked the tray with a new assortment of parts. "That's not my favorite word. I'd rank it well below words like 'cockles,'" He let his lips and tongue caresses the syllables. "... or 'felicitate.'"

DelMonde rolled his eyes unappreciatively. "I tryin' t' work here."

"How disaster-y a disaster are we talkin'?" Jer asked as the engineer applied solvent to the seal on the next panel. "I mean if that transducer unit was just a backup..."

"It part o' the artificial gravity system." N.C. tested several spots inside the panel with his meter. "We too thin on backups there an' th' primary in too bad a shape."

Paget took the component DelMonde pulled out in one hand and held out the tray with the other. "Well, losing gravity would be inconvenient, but..."

"If the AG goes, ever'body got to swim like hell towards they gravity boots, yeah." The engineer took a tool the size of a toothpick and began to make fine adjustments. "But gravity not jus' fo' people. Free fall is hell on this type o' machinery at this state o' wear. An' given th' age of they environmental control system, losin' gravity is a sure recipe for - drumroll please..."

"Disaster," Paget concluded grimly.

"Wit' th' big D, yeah."

Before the security guard heard footsteps, DelMonde sat back on his heels and looked down the corridor to where Ensign Mangini was headed in their direction.

"Carlos, my man! How's it hangin', buddy?"

"Paget." Mangini's greeting was stiff, formal, and stinking of second hand disapproval. "DelMonde. Lieutenant Kane wants an estimate on how long you're going to be here."

"Oh, forty-five minutes to an hour or so," the engineer replied, ignoring the cold shoulder cheerfully. "That gonna inconvenience the li'l lady?"

Mangini frowned. "Listen, DelMonde, you need to shape up..."

Under different circumstances, an assertion like that would have been taken as an open invitation for N.C. to feed Mangini a knuckle sandwich. This time, however all it merited was a rueful, "I know, I know. She jus' get to me somehow... you know, when she gets all mad an' throws that head back an' her eyes get all..."

"She ranks you, mister," Mangini interrupted sternly, although his cheeks had gone a little pink. "You need to give her the respect she's due."

"I know," DelMonde replied in a surprisingly credible imitation of humility. "I jus' get carried away sometimes. An' she's as cute as a pup, non?"

Mangini's mouth twitched, but he didn't stop frowning. "I'm serious, man. Shape up."

"You right, you right." The engineer gave him a supportive pat on the shoulder. "You know her best."

The security guard looked as if he was getting very frustrated that DelMonde was giving him nothing to push against. "Forty-five to finish all this?" he asked, finally.

"An hour tops," the engineer assured him.

Mangini looked as disappointed as if he'd prepped for a boxing match and was welcomed to a tea party instead. "I'm serious, DelMonde," he warned. "About what I said about Kane."

"I know you are." N.C. nodded. "An' I respect that."

Obviously completely off the script he'd prepared with nothing left to say, Mangini grunted. "Okay." He nodded a stiff farewell to his fellow Security officer. " Jer."

"Carlos." Paget watched him disappear around a corner in the corridor. "Now that was swift."

"You not impressed?" DelMonde asked, kneeling next to the tri-splitter again.

"You compared the woman he loves to a dog."

"What they teach you in shrink school anyway?" the engineer asked, picking up his meter. "It not th' image, it the subconscious link it create."

"To dogs?" Paget asked, although thinking about it, Kane with her red hair, golden brown eyes, and wide mouth did look a little like a cocker spaniel he'd once known.

"His family always have dogs when he growed up. He loves 'em, can't keep his hands off 'em."

"Ah." Paget nodded. "And the clouds begin to part..."

DelMonde snorted superiorly. "I thought that be standard skull-fucker trainin'."

"They do cover the broad strokes of the general principle," Paget said, holding out the tray again. "But the doggie/sex twist is definitely going into my field notes... Have you considered, Ensign DelMonde, that the extent to which you are actively fucking with your fellow officers' skulls right now technically makes you into a skull-fucker?"

"That, Ensign Paget," this roommate replied, "is exactly what an ace skull-fucker would say."

Jer grinned. "You bet your sweet ass, babe."

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