Lieutenant Elise Macahan squinted through the microscope at the last set of biosamples. The readings blurred and shifted, forcing her to stop and rub her gritty eyes. With a frustrated sigh she pushed a lock of straight chestnut hair from her eyes, then peered through the lenses again as if willing the results to change.
*I can't believe they're all ruined!*
Until tonight the analysis had gone well. She had checked the experiments two days before, but this evening she found every sample unusable. Something or someone had contaminated each one with culture control organisms. The *E. Coli* planting-pattern consistency pointed to tampering, but she had no proof to back it up. Someone, perhaps the same someone, had erased the microbiology computer access logs for the last forty-eight hours.
Elise shuddered. She had to notify Dr. Mosier immediately. She sighed, massaging first her throbbing temples, then the knotted muscles of her neck and shoulders. This development would put them behind at least a week. Her jaw clenched in anticipation of Mosier's reaction. Well, she wouldn't give him any more fuel for his dislike. No one else would get their grubby paws on the next batch, even if she had to sleep with them.
"Why couldn't I have gotten the Enterprise instead?" she muttered.
"Please restate your request," the computer responded.
"Disregard." She looked around gratefully at the empty lab. Mosier would relieve her of duty if he caught her talking to thin air.
She would have given almost anything to work with Dr. Crusher on Starfleet's flagship. Instead, Dr. Mosier managed to get his way in requesting another junior medical officer for the Farnaz. Hah! What a joke! She might as well be a lab assistant. A not-too-bright one at that, for all the martinet would let her do.
After she rubbed her burning eyes, she got up from the spoiled samples, logged the findings and destroyed the plates. Reluctantly, she contacted her superior, dreading
his reaction to her news at this late hour.
"Sir, this is Lt. Macahan." She put every ounce of confidence she wished she possessed into her voice.
"What is it?" His disembodied voice sounded breathless and irritated.
"I have some bad news, sir"
"What else is different?" He made a disgusted sound. A muffled feminine giggle escaped in the background.
"The biosamples from Timor have somehow been contaminated with culture control organisms. The amount of overgrowth made the readings useless. I'll have to go back down to gather more." She held her breath, ready for an angry explosion. Instead, his patronizing tone grated on her already raw nerves.
"Make sure this time you take proper precautions. A medical officer should know how to gather samples without fouling them. You do know how to obtain cultures, don't you?" Condescension oozed over the speaker.
Elise's hazel eyes narrowed, her hands clenching. She longed for his neck between them. Thank heavens she worked alone on this. Carefully, she kept her voice emotionless.
"Yes, sir. They were fine until today. I checked them forty-eight hours ago and there was no sign of contamination."
"Are you saying someone deliberately sabotaged the specimens?" Annoyance tinged his voice.
"I have no proof of that, sir. The logs for micro access during that time have been erased. I'll make sure no one else gets to the next batch." She could almost hear him thinking how the lost records must be her doing to cover up. Still, he hadn't behaved as violently as she feared. Wait. That definitely sounded like a woman's voice.
"Very well. I'll let the Captain know in the morning. Mosier out."
Elise smiled like the Cheshire cat. As a certain young lady in a strange place said, things had gotten "curiouser and curiouser." She recognized Hillary's all too familiar silly laugh. She must have been keeping him amused. Elise wasn't about to protest if he stayed so mellow. This ace-in-the-hole she intended to keep for future emergencies.
She yawned, then glanced at the chronometer glaring ten after midnight. Since five that morning, she had finished several reports and performed all her assigned routine tasks in addition to this project. She stretched her arms over her head, rose and logged out. Her back creaked, contorted by long hours bent over desk and lab table.
In her quarters, she shed her uniform and took a sonic shower. Then she allowed herself an indulgence, hot chocolate with cinnamon...Mexican chocolate. Six months ago she'd programmed the replicator, but she saved the brew for bad days. Like today and some in the past. Tonight medical school seemed many millions of years ago.
Ramon had gotten her hooked on it back then. He'd worked very hard to become her enamorado, but couldn't understand why she objected to his other "girlfriends." She refused to allow anyone to enchant her like that again. With a final swallow she drained her cup, then placed it back in the replicator for recycling and went to bed.
The bridge woke Captain Richard Madison just as he fell asleep.
"Sorry to disturb you, sir. An unidentified ship is approaching from the direction of the Neutral Zone."
"I'll be there momentarily. Have Commander Kelly meet me on the bridge. Meanwhile, see if you can get any further information from the sensors. Madison out."
He rose with a groan and dressed, wincing at the gritty feel to his eyes and horrid taste in his mouth. Hadn't he just gone to bed? The crew had held a surprise birthday party where he'd drunk more real alcohol than he cared to remember. Synthahol just didn't pack the punch the real McCoy did, so he kept a reserve for special occasions.
His first officer met him in the turbolift. The man's normally ruddy complexion appeared as green as his captain felt.
"Well, Andy, I hope you feel better than you look." At Kelly's grimace, he couldn't help a wry smile. "Any ideas who might be coming to visit?"
"None, sir. I just hope we aren't attracting any attention from the Romulans."
"We're far enough away from the Neutral Zone they don't have any jurisdiction." Madison shrugged, flinching at the gesture. "Of course, that doesn't always stop them."
The lift doors opened and both moved to their stations. The captain looked over to the young man at the helm.
"Any word, Ensign, on the ship's origin?"
"No, sir. Starfleet has no record of its design. They are within visual range now."
"On screen." Replacing the view of Timor was a small, unmarked pyramid-shaped ship.
"Life-form readings, Lt. T'sal?" Madison glanced over at the Vulcan then returned his gaze to the view screen.
"A single life form noted aboard, sir. Unable to determine species."
"Standard phasers. Inactive at present."
"Open hailing frequencies."
"No response, sir. The drive signature appears consistent with no known technology." Lt. T'sal frowned over the readings. "However, sensors indicate a malfunction in the ship's drive with . . .failure in the containment suggesting danger of an explosion within ten point three-two minutes."
"Try hailing them again." He sat staring at the strange spaceship, debating on whether he should call a red alert.
"They are responding, sir."
Amid smoke and flames, a Romulan officer's bruised and lacerated face peered back at them. Madison stood in his surprise.
"This is Captain Richard Madison of the United Federation Starship Farnaz. Do you and your crew require assistance?" The need appeared obvious, but he wasn't about to take any chances with a Romulan.
"I am Wing Commander Nekal, late of the Romulan Empire. I am alone and seeking asylum. My ship is badly damaged as you can see--" Without warning, a blast behind him threw him out of view, the transmission fading into static.
"Captain, the containment has ruptured. There is less than sixty seconds before the ship detonates."
"Transporter room. Can you lock onto that ship?"
"Transport one to sick bay. Now." Madison touched his comlink again.
"Sick bay. Prepare to accept a trauma patient. Possible plasma radiation poisoning."
Time seemed to stand still while they watched the alien vessel drift, then disappear in a puff of swiftly extinguished flame and smoke.
"Did we get him?"
"Aye, sir. Dr. Mosier just arrived at sick bay."
"Security, send a team down there, just in case it's a trick." He rose, heading for the turbolift and bed. "Number One, put us on Yellow Alert with full shields and long-range sensors directed at the Neutral Zone. We don't want anyone sneaking up on us."
"Aye, sir." Kelly exchanged a weighted look with his commanding officer. Both had suffered losses at Romulan hands. Neither trusted them.
"Call me if our status changes." He nodded to his second-in-command and best friend, leaving the bridge with an uneasy mind at the Romulan's sudden appearance.