Survive And Thrive

by Mylochka

(Standard Year 2248)

Return to Valjiir Stories

Return to Valjiir Continum

Return to Part One

"I hope you not hungry," DelMonde commented unexpectedly as he fired off two more bursts of his weapon.

"No, I think I’m fine right now," Paget replied as he wrestled with the controls to compensate for the impact of debris from the asteroid the engineer had just exploded. "Although I’d be happy to take a break and go find a nice restaurant if that’s what you’re suggesting."

"It jus’ that this cannon diverts all th’ power from th’ replicators." DelMonde hung onto the panel in front of him to keep from being thrown from his seat as the shuttle rocked crazily. "I put aside a li’l flask o’ bourbon fo’ myself an’ meant to ask if you wanted somet’ing, but…"

"…Things got a little busy," Paget replied over the screeching protests of the shuttle's collision warning system.

"Yeah." Hanging on to the railing for support, DelMonde ducked under the navigator's station to access the control panel that would mute the redundant alarms. "Now we have K rations, o’ course…." The shuttle rocked violently as they cleared more debris. "Assumin’ we live until supper time."

"That’s the assumption I’ve been more focused on," Paget replied tightly.

"Yeah." DelMonde returned to his seat and checked his damage control panels.

The viewscreens in front of them displayed a scene that looked like a backdrop for Dante's Inferno. An incalculable number of chunks of what used to be a planet spun in a crazed gavotte around the giant, boiling conflagration that had once been its core. Enormous dust clouds hung between the larger pieces of debris like glittering strands of torn, dirty gauze.

"Jer," DelMonde asked, the mildness of his tone a shocking contrast to the apocalyptic spacescape in front of them. "If you was t’ have a last meal -- a meal that you knowed was your last -- what would it be?"

"I don’t know," Paget answered, his eyes glued to his controls. "I don’t think I’d be thinking of food at a time like that. Incoming off the starboard bow."

"Got it." The engineer's fingers flew over his controls as he re-oriented his cannon. "What would you want fo’ desert?"

"Peach cobbler," Paget answered automatically, bracing himself for any turbulence their deflector shields couldn't compensate for.

"Wit’ ice cream?" DelMonde asked as his weapon fired a stream of green light onto the far corner an approaching asteroid.

"Of course."

"See." The Cajun grinned as the giant rock spun away harmlessly. "That the kind o’ t’ing that makes me t’ink o’ you as a Southern boy even though you say you not."

"Lived in the same house in Los Angeles from the time I was born," Paget confirmed, using the relatively clear bit of space they were in to see if he could do anything to boost their sensor range.

"An’ never set foot in any part o’ th’ South as a kid?" the engineer asked, pulling open a grate in the decking to effect swift repairs to their aft shielding.

"I didn't say that." The Security Officer reached over and reactivated the alarms DelMonde had muted. "I have a grandmother who lives in Decatur."


"Outside Atlanta," Paget confirmed. "We’d hop a shuttle there for holidays, weekends… that sort of thing."

The engineer was already up to his elbows in crackling circuits. "Yeah."

"My parents used to send me there for a week at the times when they felt I was fallin’ under bad influences."

DelMonde grinned as he soothed the protesting equipment back into some semblance of calm compliance. "Like that wild Takeda kid next door?"

"Exactly." Paget tried rerouting power from their non-functioning Comm system to the sensors. "How about you?"

"What ‘bout me?"

"What would you eat for your last meal?"

"I dunno," the Cajun replied distractedly. "Somet’ing wit’ shrimp, I guess."

"You know, pal," Paget said, doing what he could to convert the normally happy marriage between the sensor and communications systems into a master/slave relationship. "When you ask me a question like that and then it turns out that you don’t have any better answer than the one you just gave, it makes it look like you’re just tryin’ to distract me so I won’t keep askin’ you what the hell we’re in here lookin’ for."

'Yeah." The engineer had the grace to look more than a little guilty as he closed the grille. "I guess it do look that way, don’t it?"

Jeremy turned so that he could look his friend in the eye. "So when are you gonna level with me?"

The Cajun's gaze, however, was fixed on the forward viewscreen. As the collision detectors began to wail, he pointed. "Right ‘bout now."

"Oh, my God..." Paget blinked at the small cone-shaped object making its way through the debris.

"Cut power!" DelMonde ordered, flipping switches frantically. "Cut power!"

Even the shields?" the Security Officer asked as he rapidly complied. "We can't survive long out here without shields."

"Power ‘em down by ‘bout 30% an’ let's hope that be ‘nough t’ not draw its attention in this soup."

Perversely the demonic little device seemed to focus on them more instead of less as the shuttlecraft's engines moaned down to silence. The stubby little beast turned so that only its fiery maw was visible in the viewscreen.

"Ease them deflectors down another third," DelMonde advised.

The craft rocked from the impact of half a dozen minor boulders as if to remind them of why decreasing their shields was a bad idea.

The baby planet-killer floated inexorable closer.

Paget held his breath as if that could make the ship less of a target.

When a spinning chunk of molten lava flew by. The little monster wavered in its path towards them.

"Go on, li’l fella," DelMonde encouraged it. "You know you hungry. Grab you a big old mouth full o’ lava cobbler."

The planet-killer hesitated.

"What's it waiting on?" Paget asked, keeping a worried eye on the proximity readings of several large asteroids headed in their direction. "Plasma ice cream?"

The machine pivoted slowly in the direction of the fireball.

"There ya go," the Cajun crooned to it. "Eat up, son. Don't worry none about li’l ol’ us."

When it reached the proper angle of orientation, the short, chubby planet-killer emitted a beam of green light that neatly bisected the fireball.

"Damn,” Paget breathed as one half of the lavaball drew towards the demonic device as if pulled by a tractor beam.

"Couldn't wait t’ get t’ th’ creamy, chewy center, could you, ya greedy li’l bastard?" the Cajun asked, reaching past Paget to sneak the shuttlecraft's shields back up towards full power.

"Power up to full and reverse course?" the Security Officer suggested.

DelMonde shook his head. "I can't tell you ‘xactly what Junior's range is, but I t’ink we need t’ let him drift further away than this."

The chunk of lavaball flared desperately as it was pulled into the little planet-killer's maw.

"Can you get me more magnification on that t’ing?" the engineer asked, training all the ship's long-range data recording devices on the feasting monster.

"If I have to," Paget replied, freeing enough of the shuttle's enslaved communications system to prepare a subspace packet to collect all the information on the baby demon they were documenting. Without being told, the Security Officer could tell that DelMonde's plan was that they survive at least long enough to shoot a warning in the direction of the Hood.

Although it shared the same bugle-shaped body, the little planet-killer was a good deal rounder, shorter and fatter than its sire. Plump ridges ringed its three meter long frame. Its skin was brighter and more translucent. At this level of magnification, it almost looked as though there were chains of something moving just below the glowing surface of its ridged hide.

"And this is what you expected we were gonna find?" Paget asked as DelMonde cautiously edged the shields up another notch.

The engineer nodded. "One o’ th’ big t’ings that make a Von Neumann Device a real Von Neumann Device is it has th’ ability t’ self-replicate."

Paget frowned. "So, if the scientists on the planet-killer knew...?"

DelMonde shook his head. "I not t’ink they jump t’ th’ same conclusion as me."

"Why not?"

"’Cause I a genius," the Cajun posited easily. "An’ ‘cause I have th’ benefit of their conclusions t’ work wit’. That t’ing they were on is dead. If they discover somet’ing ‘bout th’ structure that give them a clue as t’ how it reproduce, an’ it made ‘em confident ‘nough t’ classify it as a Von Neuman Device, then that'd be ‘nough t’ convince ‘em t’ high-tail it out o’ there an’ burn that monster to a cinder jus’ in case there is some part o’ th’ reproductive system or sorta self-repairin’ aspect o’ th’ t’ing that ain't ‘xactly quite as dead as it look."

Despite their increasing shield coverage, another wave of planetary rubble rocked the shuttle.

Paget watched the chubby little planet-killer suck up the other half of the lavaball. "And you thought that thing would be here because...?"

"Planet-killers eat planets. It had already blown this one up an’ moved on ‘fore th’ Constellation attacked it. So unless it jus’ likes to blow a bunch o’ food ‘fore it starts t’ eat....'

"…There was the possibility that it created a nutrient rich environment just for the purpose of spawning," Paget finished for him.

The engineer nodded. "Now I can't tell you why th’ two missin’ ships didn't set anybody else to t’inkin’ the same t’ing..."

The Security Man frowned. "Maybe they have more reason to be convinced that there actually are Klingons in the area who could have destroyed those vessels."

"Oh, Sweet Mary," DelMonde groaned. "Don't borrow more trouble for us, Jer."

Paget turned and gave his friend a reproving glance. "And why didn't you feel like you could tell me any of this?"

"It were jus’ a theory." The engineer shrugged a half-apology. "I not know not’ing fo’ sure. An’ it jus’ sounded flat stupid t’ say that a very dead monster was a mama an’ had had a ba..."


The Cajun blinked. "Did you jus’ say...?"

Paget pointed at the viewscreen. "Babies."

The new monster was significantly larger than the first. Stretching nearly forty feet, it was a little thinner than its chubby baby brother, but not a jot less gruesome in appearance.

"It looks like it's heading straight for the other one," Paget reported, as the bigger planet-killer shot a bolt of pure blue energy into the tail of the first one. The little one fishtailed wildly and tried to rocket away.

"Look like big brother gonna steal Baby Ugly's lunch," Del decided, reaching across his partner's board to sneak the shuttle's power up while the monsters squabbled.

The bigger planet killer hit the smaller one with another lightening bolt.

"Big brother plays pretty rough," Paget observed, laying in a reverse course. The healthy glow of little planet-killer flared then dimmed. Looking dead or stunned, it floated at an odd angle until the larger one caught it in a tractor beam.

"A snake's favorite meal always another snake," DelMonde commented as the larger planet-killer sucked the smaller one into its jaw tail-first. "Jus’ th’ right shape t’ fit down its gullet."

It was hard to look away from the receding image of the one planet-killer digesting the other. Flumes of sickly purple and green energy belched from the unresisting baby planet-killer's gaping maw as it disappeared down the larger one's throat.

"Sibling rivalry's a real bitch in that family," Paget decided, suppressing a shudder and forcing himself to focus instead on dodging asteroids as they backed rapidly away.

"I t’ink we may be witnessin’ an application o’ th’ philosophy o’ Mechanical Darwinism at work here," DelMonde replied, his finger impatiently drumming against the controls for his gun as he watched the instrument panel in front of him to count up what he judged to a safe distance away from the planet-killers.

"The planet-killer... parent..." Paget was loathe to insult all mothers by bestowing that title on the monster. "...spawns a nest of... offspring... into the debris field of a planet that it has destroyed. The young feed off the exposed and easily accessible radioactive material from the planet's core. As they grow bigger, the larger, stronger ones eat the smaller, weaker ones..."

"...’Til you wind up wit’ th’ biggest, baddest mother of ‘em all ready to move on an’ start chewin’ up the scenery on the next planet it come to." DelMonde nodded. "That my theory."

"Not a very efficient way to create a Doomsday Machine," Paget observed, whisking the shuttle between two slow moving asteroids.

"Maybe efficiency not important," the engineer replied as the two huge rocks careened into each other with a grinding crash just off their starboard bow. "A planet-killer is a brute force weapon -- nearly invulnerable. All you gotta do is seed it in an asteroid field near th’ planet you want killed, wait a few years, an’ -- zam-whoosh-pow! -- that's your enemy's ass... along wit’ his whole planet."

"Maybe it didn't start out as a weapon at all," the Security Officer theorized as his partner trained his homemade phaser cannon on a lavaball spinning in their direction. "It could have started out as an automated mining ship."

"Maybe." DelMonde split the lavaball as the baby planet-killer had, perhaps thinking to create a distractingly tasty treat for any of its bloodthirsty relatives in the vicinity. "A Von Neumann device by definition is a machine that adapt’ an’ evolve’. An automated minin’ device meant t’ harvest ore from asteroids could have jus’ gotten bigger an’ bigger an’ become better an’ better at self-defense..."

"...Until it became a killer," Paget finished grimly.

"Yeah." The engineer swiveled his weapon around to burn a path through a dense cloud of dust. "In some ways that make a lot more sense than tryin’ t’ imagine a group o’ people stupid enough t’ build an invulnerable planet-killer from scratch... forgettin’ completely that they themselves had th’ habit of livin’ on a planet it could turn ‘round an’ kill..."

"I'm picking up more energy bursts ahead," Paget reported as he changed course as much as he could while still avoiding a dense cluster of lavaballs off their port-side. "And something metallic..."

Pieces of what looked like machinery began to float past the viewscreen. Despite Paget's best efforts, the eddies of the debris field swirled them within visual range of another longer and more bloated baby planet-killer eating the charred, glowing remains of something that had been marked with the distinctive three-cornered star of the Klingon Empire.

"Oh, Sweet Mary," Del breathed. "Here we go again."

"I think the debris field is going to push us pretty close to that thing," Paget warned as steered the craft along the edge of a wave of debris.

DelMonde turned to him, his black eyes as eager as any little boy's. "Mind if I try t’ kill it?"

"Be my guest," the Security Man invited as a huge asteroid swept by near enough to rumble their small craft.

"Pass close to th’ mouth so I can get a good shot at th’ gut," the engineer requested. His phaser cannon hummed eagerly as it powered up.

It would have been harder to try not to comply. "From what I've read, phasers aren't going to do much against that thing," Paget warned as they rode ahead of tide of debris towards the feasting monster.

"I tried to tell you this not ‘xactly a phaser cannon," the engineer replied, channeling all the power they could spare towards his weapon.

The planet-killer obligingly looked up from its meal, swinging its flaming mouth in their direction. "It sure fires phasers like a phaser cannon," the Security Man retorted just to keep his mind of the horror of staring down the throat of burning death.

"Mais, it not jus’ a phaser cannon," the Cajun responded, aiming his creation's sights on the monster. "I got a second setting rigged t’ deliver an itty, bitty, li’l ol' graviton bomb."

"Oh, good." Paget could see the bluish-green of an energy bolt start to boil inside the planet-killer's throat. "One question, though."


"You asked if I minded if you tried to kill this thing -- Why would I mind?"

DelMonde fired off a sparkling burst that did indeed look very, very tiny. The planet-killer countered by breathing a hot bolt of energy.

"’Cause I might miss," the engineer said bitterly as the monster's bolt swallowed his bomb.

The resulting explosion tossed the shuttle wildly. Paget gripped the console, but was thrown from his seat as DelMonde crashed into him.

"...An’ it might try t’ kill us," the Cajun finished apologetically. "Jus’ like that."

"It was gonna try to kill us anyway," the Security Man assured him as they scrambled back to the controls.

"Sure packs a punch for a li’l fella," the engineer observed ruefully as he assessed the damage.

"If at first you don't succeed..." Paget began, quickly regaining control of the craft and swinging it around. "Try aiming for the tail this time."

"Yeah." The Cajun nodded eagerly as he reset his controls. "That how Big Brother got Baby Ugly, non?"

"It seems to grow from the tail forward," the Security Man reasoned. "Maybe the shielding is thinner there. Or maybe that's where some vital controls are."

"Yeah." The engineer nodded as he fired off another burst. "I known plenty o’ folks who kept their brain up their ass."

The sparkling bomb curved towards the planet-killer as it tried to swing away. A half-second before impact though, a lavaball wandered between the weapon and its target.

"Shit!" the Cajun swore as the planet-killer bounced off an asteroid, the glow of its skin undimmed. "That damned t’ing jus’ too lucky an’ they jus’ too much debris. I not sure I gonna get a clear shot."

"Try the phasers again," Paget advised, circling the craft back around for another pass. "You won't have to worry as much about aim and interference... though I don't know how much they can do against neutronium."

"I not t’ink that hull is neutronium," DelMonde answered as he reset his weapon. "Jus’ sorta reads that way. From up this close on a young fella like this one, I t’ink it more likely it has a superconductin’ shell that fools our sensors...."

The engineer broke off his elucidation as they got close enough to do a strafing run down the side of the monster.

Sparks blazed up from the skin as the planet-killer fishtailed in a wild attempt to turn and fire.

"That's stinging it!" Paget exclaimed triumphantly.

"Take that, ya dunce-cap-shaped, brother-eatin’ bastard," the Cajun crowed. "The skin on the juvenile jus’ not as thick as th’ adult the Constellation went up against. Not had as much time to build up..."

"And definitely more vulnerable the closer you get to tail," Paget reported checking the sensor readout of damage to their enemy.

"Then let's smack that ugly ass again," DelMonde said, diverting more power to his phaser cannon as they swung around for another pass.

Despite having to duck a wayward asteroid, their second run down the monster's side was effective as the first had been. The planet killer glowed bright orange with mechanical agony. Purple flame shot from its throat.

"That's got the..." DelMonde choked off his cry of victory mid-shout. "Hard to port! Hard to port!"

Whether by design or by pure chance, the energy blast from the monster had nicked the corner of a huge lavaball in such a way that it altered the projectile's course so that it was now headed straight for the shuttle.

Although they were able to avoid a head-on crash, the shuttlecraft was sent spinning by the impact. This time it was Paget who ended up on top of DelMonde.

“I t’ink you gainin’ weight, Jer,” the engineer complained.

“Muscle is heavy," the Security officer replied, giving his friend a hand up.

“This no time t’ be braggin’ ‘bout the size o’ your muscle,” DelMonde replied dryly as they scrambled back to their posts. "How bad are we hit?"

"Bad enough."

The engineer grimaced at the damage control readouts. "Forward shields took th’ brunt of it, but we got damage to the port nacelle. That gonna hurt our maneuverability. Worst of all, it broke my gun off at th’ neck."

"Uh-oh…" Paget’s stomach tightened as he thought of how essential the improvised weapon had been not only to defense but to basic navigation through this devil’s soup.

"I t’nk I might can fix it." The Cajun broke out his toolkit and store of purloined spare parts. "But it gonna take time."

"Time we do not have in abundance," Paget warned, checking the readings on their wounded foe.

DelMonde frowned as controls retracted what was left of his cannon and resealed the access port. "That lucky bastard still kickin’?"

"It’s not doing backflips," the Security Officer reported, "but it’s still moving. How fast can you get your cannon back in order?"

"How long I got?" the engineer asked, unbolting the weapon case.

"Oh, thirty or forty seconds…" Paget watched as the planet-killer performed an ungainly roll to try to get oriented in the right direction to blast them. "...Give or take thirty or forty seconds…"

"Oh, hell…" the Cajun swore as he surveyed the ruins of his creation.

"It’s hurt bad, though." The Security Officer said, chewing his lip in frustration as he checked the power readings that their sensors were reporting. "If we could just throw rocks at it, I think we could kill it."

DelMonde froze and blinked.

"Mais, when you put it that way…" he began, closing his toolbox and returning back to his seat. "I t’ink we might be up to throwin’ rocks…"

"You have a plan?" Paget asked hopefully, not daring to take his eyes off the planet-killer and the ever-moving tide of debris sweeping around them, although there was too little he could do to avoid either at the moment.

"Oh, I always got the plan." The engineer was turning dials and flipping switches like a madman. "You ever heard of a rail gun, Jer?"

"I thought that had something to do with propulsion," Paget replied distractedly. A small hail of rocks hit the wounded planet-killer, knocking it to one side and giving them a few more seconds for the Cajun to implement whatever strategy he was cooking up.

“It do. It do." The engineer ducked down beneath his console to open up an access panel. "We still got th’ ability to throw a tractor beam on somet’ing, non?"

"We do," the Security Officer confirmed.

"Good." There was a crackle of electrical protest as DelMonde made some sort of radical adjustment to the panel. "Then as soon as I can reroute some power from th’ impulse engines, we gonna do us some fancy propulsin’."

"A rail gun accelerates a conductive projectile along a pair of metal rails, " Paget remembered from a physics text he’d read in school. A glimmer of understanding began to dawn in his brain. "Rails -- like, say the two booster pods that run along the bottom of a typical Starfleet shuttlecraft just like this one…."

DelMonde grinned as he reversed a handful of connectors. "Exactly."

"...And using electric current and strong magnetic force generated by the rails..." the Security Officer recalled, selecting a few appropriately sized and shaped chunks of debris within range of their tractor beam.

“...Which I gonna juice up wit’ a li’l bleed from th’ impulse engines…" The Cajun returned to his seat and began flipping switches again.

"...We accelerate objects – say like the rocks all around us -- and propel them forward as projectiles," Paget outlined as he lined the nose of the shuttle up with the still sluggish planet-killer and pulled a stream of rock towards the underside of the vessel.

“If you ready, Mr. Paget?” the engineer asked as he punched in a final set of commands.

The ship began to hum like something out of a mad scientist’s laboratory.

“I am, Mr. DelMonde,” Paget confirmed, narrowing his tractor beam so the cluster of debris would form a stream.

Velocitas Eradico!” the engineer gestured him on, quoting the motto the first team to come up with a practical application of this theory of propulsion had coined for their project.

The debris rumbled under the charged belly of the shuttlecraft like thunder.

“I am speed,” Paget translated with satisfaction as the rocks hurtled in a burning stream towards the wounded planet-killer. “And I destroy.”

Showers of sparks fell from the mechanical monster as the super-charged debris hit it like bullets from a giant machine-gun. It was already starting to glow weirdly when the impact from the barrage slammed it into a giant oncoming fireball.

“Noel Christopher DelMonde,” the Security Man congratulated his partner as their foe tumbled tail over maw spewing gushes of blue-green as it smashed and crashed out of view, “I’m beginning to think you are a genius.”

The Cajun rolled his expressive eyes. “I keep tryin’ to tell you, Jer…”


The shuttlecraft used by Starfleet were first and foremost light transport vehicles designed to carry a limited number of passengers comfortably over relatively short distances. Flying one through a debris field was, therefore, much like riding a bull through a steeplechase course. Piloting their damaged craft upped the difficulty level to trying to make a cow with a sprained ankle leap over gates while the spectators threw rotten fruit.

"Any luck with your phaser cannon?" Paget asked hopefully when he heard DelMonde finally re-bolting the casing under the access hatch.

"It’ll shoot," the engineer promised over the noise of his equipment. "But th’ aim not gonna be fo’ shit no more."

Paget winced as another cluster of debris rocked the shuttle. "Anything will help. Say, you wouldn't happen to have any brilliant trick up your sleeve that can instantly rocket us out of this mess, would you?"

"Not if you gonna be picky ‘bout rocketin’ flat into a couple thousand tons o’ molten rock," the Cajun replied.

"I am a little unreasonable about that sort of thing," Paget admitted. "Guess we’re going to have stick with what we’re doing."

"An’ what are we doin’?" the engineer asked, sliding into the navigator's seat again.

"The level of subspace interference inside this debris field is incredible," the Security officer explained as DelMonde readied his hastily repaired weapon for firing. "Radiation level spikes are off the charts. It's impossible to get a coherent message out using conventional bandwidths."

"It was like that even ‘fore we went in."

Paget nodded. "And it's even worse here. But for a while now, I've been intermittently getting a reading -- not a message of any sort, just a signal -- on a low frequency band from what seems to be a relatively fixed position that I think is just outside the debris field."

"It have be outside th’ debris field to be able to maintain anyt’ing like a fixed position."

"That's what I was thinking. I was assuming it was some kind of natural radio source, but after seeing the Klingon vessel..."

"...The chewed up, spit out bits o’ what might have been somet’ing belongin’ to th’ Klingons," DelMonde corrected over the noise of his phaser cannon unfolding itself above them.

"...I remembered that the Klingons sometimes deploy navigational beacons that transmit on that frequency.

"So they dropped them a breadcrumb ‘fore they headed out into the forest?"


"Not a bad idea." DelMonde took a test shot at an oncoming asteroid. As predicted, the aim was wide, but the second burst was close enough to shatter the rock. "If we follow it out though, won't we...?"

"Run into more Klingons?" Paget finished. "Maybe... but I don't think so. For one thing, yes -- the amount of subspace interference around this debris field could make it possible for a small ship to slip by the surveillance system the research base inside that planet-killer was equipped with. However, it would be hard for a Klingon vessel of any size to get in without alerting the Hood or any of the flotilla of tugs and smaller ships we have with us right now."

"But what if they all happen to be lookin’ the other way?" the Cajun asked, firing another burst at a nearby lavaball.

"That brings us to my point Number Two." Paget change course to avoid the asteroid his partner accidentally hit. "Since we spotted the baby planet-killers, I've been transmitting a stripped-down distress call -- just a plain, three character, repeated S.O.S code -- continually using the same sort of low band frequency.

DelMonde snorted. "An’ if Greg Halloran's obsessive-compulsive ass is at the Comm station..."

"...Which I'm betting he is." The Security officer nodded. "And if they're looking for us...

"...Which they should be by now since we at least three hours off schedule."

"...Then eventually Greg's going to differentiate the signal from the background radiation..."

The Cajun grinned as he managed to disintegrate another big asteroid. "An’ so you t’ink th' Hood might be waitin’ out there wit’ Halloran ready to bitch ‘bout you usin’ a non-standard communication protocol?"

"And with Captain Aronson waiting to kick our asses for going into this soup without orders," Paget reminded his partner.

"We saw what looked like phaser fire..." the Cajun replied, adamantly rehearsing the excuse Paget had known he'd planned on using.

"Yeah," the Security officer pointed out, "but we also asked to be on this mission out of the blue then headed straight here...

The Cajun shrugged diffidently. "Could jus’ be unlucky."

"...And you smuggled out enough parts to make a phaser cannon."

"It not exactly a phaser cannon," the engineer objected stubbornly.

"No," Paget agreed. "It's something you designed specifically to go up against baby planet-killers when you went through with your plan to take a shuttlecraft through the debris field to investigate without reporting any of your suspicions to a senior officer."

"They not have believed me." The Cajun scowled then shook his head. "Oh, don't worry ‘bout it, Jer. Aronson may let Brandt chews us out, but if I promise not t’ write a poem ‘bout it, he prob’ly pin a medal on us in th’ end."

Paget had to smile at the memory of the chaos that resulted when DelMonde won a poetry prize. It was an honor that might have passed with little enough fanfare had Starfleet's public relations director Commodore Dave Calvin and his team not decided to descended on the Hood to milk all the possible positive publicity for the Federation that could be squeezed out of the event. "There's that."

"Have you ever considered they might jus’ be glad t’ see us?" DelMonde fired a broad swatch into the path of another cluster of fireballs. "An’ might be appreciative o’ very brave an’ brilliant discovery o’ this threat to all life in th’ entire flamin’ Federation?"

"There's that," the Security officer conceded parsimoniously.

"An’ our extremely damned heroic empirical verification o’ the fact that th’ juvenile planet-killers are more vulnerable to attack than the adults?"


"An’ that if we can call in a couple more starships they can clean out this rattlesnake's nest ‘fore th’ next big one crawls out to eat ever’body an’ his cousin?"



"But Brandt's still going to yell at you," Paget predicted confidently.

"He always got to be yellin’ at me over somet’ing," the Cajun complained. "That why I gonna transfer out..." The shuttle abruptly lurched to one side as a chunk of rock he'd missed made contact. "... That is, if I be livin’ that long."

Paget grinned. "I'll miss you" The ship rocked wildly again. "... if I live that long."

"You probably live longer if I go," the engineer predicted.

Jer shrugged. "It won't be as much fun, though."

"Yep," the Cajun acknowledged wryly as the little vessel bounced through more turbulence. "Wit’ me, it good times like this all th’ damn time."

Paget steered them into a clearer stretch of space. "Not to cast doubt on your genius..."

"You always gotta say that ‘fore you cast doubt on my genius..." DelMonde grumbled.

"But they had to know," the Security Officer asserted grimly. "Those researchers who decided that planet-killer was a Von Neuman device -- They had to at least suspect that there were baby planet-killers nearby... particularly after two ships vanished."

"It do seem like that," the engineer conceded. "But why they not say not’ing? One o’ those t’ings could wipe out a whole solar system fo’ lunch."

Jer shrugged unwilling to voice his darkest suspicions.

"Oh, c'mon," the Cajun urged, taking another sweeping shot at a lavaball that was rolling towards them like a small runaway sun. "You got an idea. I can hear that cop-brain o’ yours click-click-clickin’ away."

"The Klingon ship we saw..." Paget lifted the nose of the shuttlecraft to take them out of the path of the resulting fragments. "There wasn't enough left of it to identify as a specific type of vessel."

"You still runnin’ it through the computer, though," the engineer concluded.

"Of course." Paget put them back on course towards what he sincerely hoped was the edge of the debris field. "It's come up with 23 strong possibilities based on a few of the recognizable intact components we've passed."

The Cajun snorted dubiously. "We passed intact components?"

"Nothing big enough for you or I to see."

"But the computer can pick up a hex nut an’ start spittin’ out conclusions, non?"

"Exactly." Paget freed one hand long enough to call up the computer's list of matches for his friend to see. "One of the stronger possibilities is a small fighter-class vessel. Relatively limited range."

DelMonde spare a quick glance at the screen. "So there have to be a base nearby?'

“If you can call something that can be reached within two weeks at an average speed of warp four to six 'near'."

"It qualify as closer than I'd like." The engineer treated a group of approaching rocks to a salvo from his cannon. "I thought this was Federation Territory."

"On the map, yes," the security officer confirmed. "But there's no colonies out here, no inhabited planets. Since the planet-killer ate its way through this sector, we're not developing in this direction."

"But the Klingons are?" DelMonde hit another big rock dead center.

"Maybe." Paget changed course a little too late to avoid a spray of debris. "Three years ago, when the Constellation and the Enterprise fought that thing, the records say it tried to head for the Rigel colonies because that would have been the closest populated solar system."

"But if there a Klingon base close ‘nough t’ send out a fighter t’ spy on a Federation research project..."

Paget nodded. "Then any planet-killer that survived this nesting ground would head for the Klingons instead of towards the Federation."

"An’ follow th’ breadcrumb trail back to the heart o’ the Empire..."

A silence fell as they flew through a clear patch and took a moment to consider the implications of their suppositions.

"These things can be destroyed," Paget reminded his friend. "The Enterprise was able to defeat an adult and we finished off a juvenile with a high-tech slingshot."

"Yeah." DelMonde frowned let his hands rest on the controls for a moment. "It not like I gonna shed tears for Klingon combatants... But if jus’ one o’ these t’ings cuts loose into their territory..." The engineer paused and shook his head. "The number o’ civilians who would die... Not jus’ Klingons, but all sorts o’ people on conquered worlds wit’ no choice ‘bout the form o’ government they serve under than a ant have over th’ color o’ the picnic cloth it walkin’ over... It'd be destruction on the planetary scale... Fo’ the Federation to stand back an’ let that happen -- even to our worst enemy...." The Cajun turned to his friend. "We supposed to be the good guys, non?"

“We're just speculating,” Paget reminded his partner. “We don't have all the facts.”

DelMonde snorted. "We jus’ been close enough t’ almost end up as lunch fo’ some o’ them facts."

"Since the Klingons are a factor in this situation, that could mean that Starfleet isn't free to act independently,” the Security officer pointed out. “The decision has to grind through Intelligence and Federation diplomatic channels…"

"Diplomatic? Are you sayin’...?"

"Yes.” Paget nodded as he looped the shuttle around an oncoming cloud of debris. “If we're really, really, really going to be the good guys about this, then we need to share information with the Klingons. All four of the systems we know were destroyed by the planet-killer potentially have nests like this one. They not only need to be cleaned out, they need to be monitored. It would be safest if that were done from both sides of the Federation/Klingon border.”

"Hmm... A long-term cooperative venture wit’ th’ damn Klingons...” The engineer frowned dubiously as he burned a clear path through the rubble. “I not know if I can see us bein’ quite that good."

“Maybe that's why they haven’t done anything yet. That kind of project would take a long time to set up.”

The Cajun snorted. “If th’ bureaucrats take all th’ time they want t’ jaw it over, they might be makin’ a decision jus’ in time fo’ one o’ them planet-eaters to be takin’ its retirement on Pluto.”

“Nope.” Paget persuaded the ungainly shuttle to roll into the lane cleared for it. “You and I have forced the question.”

“We have?”

“I've been sending out subspace packets with all the information we've collected every quarter hour while I thought we might not make it back out. The Hood and any other Federation ship in broadcast range will have gotten at least two or three of them by now.”

“While you t’ought we might not..?” the Cajun repeated, then raised a hopeful eyebrow. “So you t’inkin’ we gonna make it now?”

“Oh, yeah. We're pulling back into open space in....”

The long dormant Comm system whistled and crackled back into life.

" read?” Greg Halloran’s voice demanded over the static. “U.S.S. Hood to Shuttlecraft Ptolemy. Hood to Ptolemy. Do you read, Ptolemy?"

DelMonde grinned. "Right on cue."

"Hood, this is the Ptolemy.” Paget replied. “There’s still heavy subspace interference, but we’re reading you loud and clear."

"Paget?” The second voice was that of their captain, Jack Aronson. “Thank God! Are either one of injured?"

"No, sir,” the Security officer reported happily. “We're a little bruised, but we're fine."

"Good, because I want to able to kill you myself,” the captain replied. “Baby-planet killers? Klingons? We’ve got two starships en route and I’ve got Admirals breathing down my neck from all directions. You've got no idea the shitstorm the two of you stirred up."

Despite his words, Aronson sounded more excited than angry.

"Sir, I think we do," Paget replied, exchanging rueful glances with his friend.

"On second thought, I think you might, Paget,” the captain acknowledged with gruff humor. “DelMonde?"

"Yes, sir?"

"If you write so much as one line of one poem about this, I'm personally going to break your neck."

"Yes, sir,” the Cajun replied obediently while he rolled his eyes at Paget. “Understood, sir."

"As soon as you're onboard, head immediately to the briefing room. We've got to start developing a strategy to kill as many of those monsters as we can as quickly as we can."

"Yes, sir," Paget and DelMonde chorused.

"Oh, and just in case I forget to say it again -- Good work, gentlemen. You've done a great service to the entire Federation today."

“Yes, sir,” Paget replied with a smile. “Thank you, sir.”

“So much as one rhyming word, DelMonde...” Aronson warned.

“Yes, sir,” the Cajun acknowledged. “Understood, sir.”

“Best possible speed, gentlemen,” the Captain ordered. “We’ve got a lot of work cut out for us. Hood out.”

“It sounds like we might not get yelled at after all,” Paget concluded, shutting off the link.

“Yep.” DelMonde nodded as he blasted a lavaball out of their path. “Gentleman an’ scholar, though he may be, Jack Aronson do love a good opportunity t’ blow shit up.”

“Two starships on their way…” Paget flipped through his mental maps of patrol areas. “Probably the Yorktown and the Lexington. Looks like Starfleet has decided we’ll get rid of these things first and talk to Klingons later.”

“If ever,” DelMonde speculated with a snort. The next burst from his cannon cleared their view enough that the outline of the Hood was visible in the far distance. “Now, that a pretty sight, non?”

Paget smiled as he steered their small craft towards the starship sparkling in the murk. “I thought you hated the Hood.”

“Not th’ ship,” the Cajun corrected warding off an encroaching asteroid with a pair of blasts. “Jus’ some o’ the people in it.”

“A joint mission with two other starships would be a great time to transfer out,” the Security officer suggested, “I’m sure one of those ships would be open to a personnel swap -- if you’re that anxious to leave.”

DelMonde shrugged diffidently. “Oh, I might stay on fo’ a li’l while. It be rude t’ leave ‘fore I got my medal for bein’ so brilliant while you an’ me was riskin’ our asses out here.”

“Very rude,” Paget agreed.

“’Sides,” the Cajun said, giving his friend a crooked half-grin. “I startin’ to get all teary-eyed t’inking ‘bout how bored you gonna be wit’out me.”

“Me too, pal.” Paget smiled as they broke through into open space. “Me too.”

The End

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