* * *
3 weeks after leaving port,
Approaching Main transporter complex, Deck 7,
"I don't understand why you are so nervous Cutler. It's a simple drop and survey mission. Albeit in a crooked back alley pirate town on the frontier of the Federation, but a simple matter all the same. Boys oh boy you're so lucky."
Less than earnest he replied, "Tell me about it."
"Come on Noah. Here, tighten your jacket, Gardner tells me Aubrelis tends to get quite chilly."
Noah batted her hands away. "Leave it alone Jex! Thanks. It isn't that. I am nervous but excited but nervous too. If you understand?"
"Boys do I. Come on we best not get you to the transport room late."
Cutler gulped. "Oh no, we're not late are we? The Captain will take lashings out of me if I am."
"No, you're not. Besides, the Captain doesn't go on away missions. Remember regulations ..."
They both looked at each other knowingly. McGregor was unorthodox at best and going on away missions was the least of regulations for any Captain never mind one such as him. Jex soothingly added, "Not to worry, Stanley will be going too and he's really nice. But perhaps we had better run just in case."
A minute later, they ran into the transport room, where they found the Captain, flanked by Cartwright, Tac, Templar and Stanley. The Captain looked over to Cutler. "Nice of you to show up Cutler."
"Um ... um ... sorry Captain McGregor. I thought I was on time."
"You are, I was merely stating how nice it is - was - of you to show up. Gees Cutler you've got to learn to accept a compliment."
"Come on then. We can't hang about."
Cutler turned and received a goodbye from Jex and returned a nervous wan smile to her. "You set Cutler?"
"Yes Mr. Gardner, I have my kit, my phaser, my communicator and my warm clothing uniform." He patted each item as he listed it.
"Credits? Thought not. You've got to learn we are on the frontier and money talks here. Therefore, you'll be needing these. Mind you, you owe me - you can put up my chips for this Friday's poker game." Startled by the invite Cutler smiled bemused and then felt sick in his stomach.
Tac rolled his eyes. "Great."
"Now , now, Tac be nice to Mr. Cutler. We want to get on nice and cosy with one another don't we." As he said this last, the Captain tucked in a scarf he was wearing. He snatched up a navy umbrella propped against the wall and strapped it to his back.
The archaic instrument bemused both Cutler and Jex but in retrospect, Jex thought no other invention had replaced the umbrella as a means of stopping the rain. Well apart from planetary weather control systems!
"Captain I really do think it is time we were going. I cannot be late for my contact."
"Ok Stanley. We're going if Cutler is at all ready."
"Don't apologise to me - it's Stanley who is peeved with you."
Gardner stepped in behind the controls of the transporter once more. "Ok hold on to your seats."
"Really Gardner, do you have to say that every time you transport us down?" Molly said derisively.
Stanley blinked slowly as he studied Gardner. "Please may we go now?"
"Yipes Cutler, you have put Stanley in a bad mood. He won't be knitting you a scarf anytime soon. Ok Eddie, get the show on the road."
Molly Cartwright added for the benefit of the record, "You have command Mr. Gardner."
In a quick flourish of button pushing, the team dissolved in a mist of blue. Eddie dusted his hands and turned to Jex. "Ensign shouldn't we be reporting for our shift in Engineering. Don't be jealous of Cutler. He'll have a lot of fun below on Aubrelis but when we reach Quibilris 9 it'll be our turn to pick up supplies and run errands."
More quietly, Gardner added, "We just need to make it through The Wash first."
* * *
If the Academy had prepared Ensign Noah Cutler for anything about the visiting of strange new worlds, it was to have a clear mindset to expect anything. Knowing that he should be ready for anything and actually being ready were two entirely different things. What really threw him when he re-materialised on the planet below was of course the alien nature of the scene and at the same time the mundane everydayness of it all.
Before him, a bustling street scene with an array of creatures, wares and foods for sale in open front shops and market stalls but all of it shrouded in a dank dark muted light. Noah could only ever imagine the scene to have this muted perpetual dimness - no bright sunny days in this corner of the world. The smell too was unbearable and made him want to gag. The buildings crowded in close to each other, with narrow streets and even narrower darker alleys. Water, he hoped, spilled from the overhanging buildings.
"Watch your step through here kid." Tac whispered his warning in his ear. Noah wondered whether he meant the muddy streets and suspicious substances lying in piles or pools throughout the street, or whether he meant the suspicious persons who populated the street. Suspicious and dangerous looking too thought Noah. He turned to ask Tac but the head of security was moving off with Sebastian Templar.
"Come on Cutler, we're headed in this direction."
"Where are ..."
"Come on I'll tell you when we get a drink and a booth."
As they started to trudge off in a different direction to everyone else, Noah looked about him nervously. Did Commander Cartwright realise they were leaving everyone else? "What about the others?"
"Not to worry Cutler. Duck your head through here and cover your mouth and nose down this street."
In pausing to ask ‘why', Cutler managed to intake a brief noxious indication of just why. He stepped back grabbed some ‘fresher' air then charged on holding his breath for what appeared to be a long alleyway. "So where did everybody else go? I thought standard procedure required an away team to stay together."
"Not necessarily. Certainly not where the Captain is concerned, you may have noticed the captain is not one for protocol. Besides, we have a variety of purposes for visiting this delightful place and it works best to divide into teams." She said no more whilst they traversed the different turns of the next winding alley. It grew darker with each twist until the tacky neon light of a bar ahead was all they had to steer them by. Cartwright made directly towards its entrance.
She gave the bouncer a significant look and thumbing towards Cutler she offered, "He's with me." The bouncer flashed a fang filled lecherous smile at Cutler as he tripped up the steps.
"Didn't think he was your type. Might be my type though." Cutler nervously edged past the bouncer not sure which he should be more afraid of - the fangs or the pointed looks the bouncer gave him.
Inside was gloomier still and the dank, bad smell of the alley outside was replaced with a different dank smell. Cartwright looked around. Her strong profile silhouetted against the spill of orange light from behind the bar. She nodded towards a table in a dim recessed corner. "There's a table over there." As they passed different customers, some avoiding looking at Cartwright, others glaring defiantly at Cutler and one all too interestedly eyed up Cutler, his eyes on stalks bobbing excitedly as its hands rubbed its crotch area too keenly.
"What do you make of it so far Cutler?" She slid into the pew against the wall so allowing her to face the crowd. Cutler thought it better not to see what his ‘fan' was doing and sat in rusty chair facing the commander.
"It's ... it's ... all so ..." he grasped for words to describe it.
"It's all so alien? Welcome to Starfleet kid." She lifted her head to beckon a waitress. "I'll have a tankard of Gyru. Get the lad some Rigellean Ale." As the waitress moved off without a word or noise of assent Cartwright explained the mysterious drink, "It has similar tastes to Romulan ale but not as potent in lesser quantities. The Rigellan ale is the best option for a newbie like you though."
In a moment, their drinks arrived and Cartwright handed over some credits quickly. Cutler took a polite sip as Cartwright brought her own tankard up to drink. She cleansed away the taste in the back of her throat the only reason why she tended to order this drink as it coated her throat so for the duration of her stays. A tankard of Gyru was always her first stop when she visited this vile place.
"So Commander, why did we break away from the others?"
"Caleb and his new gun are off to survey the town. Dexter needs to show Templar the many hide-holes, dens, trouble spots, dead ends, escape routes, and all that. Necessary orientation for their line of work. Templar will find himself running through these streets more often than not in the line of duty."
"I take it Stanley went to meet his contact. But what about the Captain? And why do we have to gather information anyway?"
Molly Cartwright shook her head. The Academy still churned them out so naive that it-defied belief. Despite the ‘Border Dogs' being a branch of the Federation it was looked upon as the poor cousin of Starfleet. People only signed up to the Dogs to advance their career route, put some combat experience on their jacket for they were many albeit small scale altercations in their line of work, or they had no other place to go. Molly knew this best of all. She herself had tried the career advancement route and it had worked; but then dogged by controversy she had no recourse but to return to the border cutters and have her former captain take her in.
With her hands, she beckoned him to lower his voice. "The Captain has to meet with the ‘heads' of this mud rock and discuss any issues they have. Supplies, law enforcement issues and basically making his world a heck of a lot more annoying. The only problem with what they tell him is that they only tell him what suits them. No different from any other world governments in the universe I know, but since this government is less government than most, you take their word even less for granted.
"Therefore, Dexter and Stanley scout out other sources of information. Thereby giving us a fuller more rounded picture, which normally is still murky and unclear but at least not biased towards one set of crooks. Plus with the information we do glean we might have something to act on in the interests of the Federation and what passes for law and order in these parts."
She took a deep sip of her drink. Her eyes followed a shadowy figure sloping through the bar at the other end.
"That's where Stanley's unique skills come in. People trust him invariably. There is something innocent in those eyes that make people reveal what they feel later they ought not to have. Over the years he has cracked some tough nuts and yet he can respect their spheres of influence, he doesn't allow them to compromise themselves thereby keeping his contacts sweet. As you can imagine ensign, they are not the type you would like to piss off. Thus, Stanley has contacts that are more dubious but they are also the more informative. And the information they have is pertaining to this area of space and a little afar that are in our sphere of influence."
Cutter nodded he understood but this really was not like standard away missions. Of all the officers onboard Molly Cartwright seemed the one who stood for protocol the most. How she coped with the barrage of rule bending the Captain took, Cutler did not quite understand.
"So, um, what is our purpose here Commander?"
"Number one, to familiarise you, with this planet. Any one of us could be caught down here looking for a creep, information, or heck even spare parts. So, you have a tour to look forward to. I'll point out some of the trouble spots, hiding places, bars, whore houses, administrative buildings, repair shops, merchants you can trust to trade with and those to trade with for information."
"Ok. Can I ask why we are getting a drink?"
Molly grinned to herself. "Gees kid you really are fresh out of the Academy. Can you really be as fresh as you look? Well I'm thirsty for a start. But it is all part of our mission number two. This is one place to go to get information. Information to track down some one we want badly."
"How do we do that?"
"This place is like a rock. And under a rock, you are as like to find a snake. We use that snake to get us our information. And I Mr. Cutler have found our snake."
He took to turn around to see whom she was talking about but she grasped his hand painfully causing him to wince and look in shock at his commanding officer.
"Don't look Cutler. Snakes do not like to be cornered and gawping at him like a two year old will not calm his nerves any. We play it cool. If he has information, he knows he is of use to us. Since this information is of import to us but will not put him in any danger or bad books he'll come to us looking to sell the information."
"Yes. We then open up the bargaining process."
"How do we buy the information?"
She looked at Cutler blankly. "You have the credits Gardner gave you?"
"Then we can put down a down payment." She flashed a cheery smile. Cutler was thinking he was going to find himself fleeced before he got off this planet one way or another. "Not to worry ensign. There are many ways in which to bargain. They don't all need credits." Cutler appeared relieved at this possibility. Molly took another careful sip to hide her grin.
She just thought to herself, ‘The kid might prefer to lose his credits. And I really am beginning to hang around the Captain too much! Next I'll be selling the boy to a slaver.'
* * *