Author's Note: The following parody was written just for fun, and was not intended to infringe on anyone's rights.

Reality Quest
Part One

by Carol Boyke


"Perhaps you should forget logic and devote yourself to motivations of passion..."

~ Spoken by the Andorian Ambassador to Commander Spock in the Star Trek original series episode, "Journey to Babel", airdate November 17, 1967.

*~*~*

It was the ultimate spit wad--a perfect pea-sized orb with just the right ratio of napkin shred to saliva. Perched atop the upturned thumb in front of the coiled index finger of its creator, it waited.

"...One of my favorite memories is that time during the second season when Kev and I were doing a rescue on a huge crane. And I mean on a real huge crane. Remember that, Kev?" The lithe middle-aged man with cropped grey-black hair paused to grin mischievously at one of the men sitting beside the podium.

"Ah, yeah, Randy," a slouching, puffy-faced gentlemen replied. His fair skin blushed pink beneath his thinning white hair. He scratched the back of his neck with one hand and clutched an empty Styrofoam coffee cup with the other.

The speaker turned his gaze back to his rapt, mostly female audience. "Heheh. Well, Kev is deathly afraid of heights, but I gotta hand it to him. He climbed up this crane and out onto its arm. We must've been, oh, a good hundred feet above the ground. But we were all trussed up with safety belts and lines--there was no way we were gonna fall. Kev did his thing, said his lines like a pro, then the director yells, 'Cut!' We're finished. I'm starting to head back down the arm and over to the ladder, but Kev won't budge. He's got a white-knuckled grip on the crane arm, and a blank look on his face."

The puffy-faced man studiously began to create a row of crescent-shaped impressions along the cup's rim with his thumbnail.

"So I said to Kevin, 'Hey, it's okay, buddy. We're safe. We couldn't fall if we tried!' And I jump off the crane to prove my point."

A gasp rose from the audience.

"That did him in. He must've thought I was roadkill, 'cause he went and fainted. Out like a light. Slumped right on the spot. And me, I'm dangling like Tarzan a couple of feet from the crane. Took me five minutes to stop laughing my guts out before I could swing over and 'rescue' him."

Laughter filled the room. Randy clutched his sides, chuckling, while Kevin slouched deeper into his folding chair, his face now crimson.

The spit wad arced gracefully through the air, splatted onto the exact center of Randy's cheek, and clung there.

He started and swiped at his face. A sodden wad clung to his palm, and a shiny patch of spittle glistened on his cheek. Randy instantly glared down at a short, stocky man with a mop of grizzled grey curls, sitting farther down the stage.

The stocky man's doe-like blue eyes radiated innocence. He laced his fingers together in his lap and smiled pleasantly.

Three other men--an aging Hispanic gentleman, a lanky man with wavy salt-and-pepper hair, and a tall husky man with straight grey-brown locks--feigned interest in their fingernails and shoes.

The audience's laughter fluttered to a gentle stop. A woman stepped up to the podium, displacing Randy, who returned to his seat. The microphone crunched loudly as the plump, dark-haired convention emcee adjusted it downward.

"Thank you, Randy, for that great story. Unfortunately, that's all the time we have for the question and answer panel. After a short lunch break--" A squeal of feedback pierced the air. The emcee cringed, tapped the mike, then continued. "Ah, after a short lunch break, our guests of honor will be signing autographs in the Stardust Room until 3 p.m. And don't forget the masquerade dinner in the Emperor Ballroom starting at six. They'll all be back--in costume--for the judging!" She smiled broadly and gestured toward the six men sitting in folding chairs on the stage. "Okay everybody, let's give it up for the wonderful cast of the one, the only, Emergency!"

Thunderous applause ensued.

The aging actors rose, smiled and waved, then ducked out the backstage curtain.

* * *

"When are you gonna grow up, Tim?" Randy griped as he entered the dressing room, scrubbing at his cheek again.

"What? You talkin' to me?" The stocky man with the grizzled hair pointed to his chest while looking about for someone else who might be named Tim.

Randy, face reddening, strode over. He stooped down eye-to-eye with his diminutive persecutor. "Yeah, Donnelly." He jabbed Tim's chest with an index finger. "I'm talkin'." Jab. "To you!" Poke. "Ya little creep."

"Who're you calling little, ya piece of--"

"Hey, now! Easy, you two!" the lanky, wavy-haired gentlemen interceded. He placed his hands on the shoulders of the squabbling men and smiled amiably. "We're one big happy crew, remember?"

"Stuff it, Mike!" Randy and Tim replied in unison, shifting their glares from each other to the interloper.

The Hispanic gentleman leaned over in his chair near a row of costume lockers and whispered to Kevin at the make-up table, "Pssst! What's with Randy? Why's he such a grouch?"

Kevin cupped a hand to his mouth and whispered back, "Charlene dumped him last night, Marco."

Marco raised his eyebrows and let out a low whistle.

"You're not our captain, Norell," Randy snapped. "You're just a two-bit, has-been actor like the rest of us. So quit pretending you run the show, okay?" He patted his shirt pockets while rapidly searching the dismal, tiny room with his gaze. "Dammit, where're my smokes?"

"Two-bit--? Has-been--! Now, just a--" Norell spluttered. "I'm a damn good writer, Randy, and you know it."

"Yeah, and Kev won a Canadian Oscar!" Tim defended. "You're the one who did General Hospital."

"And your movie got the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment," Randy countered.

"Hey, now," Marco interrupted. "Just because you're having girlfriend woes, doesn't mean you can take it out on us, Randy."

Randy shot Kevin a dirty look.

Kevin shrugged, an apologetic look on his face.

"So that's what's gotten into you." Norell nodded sagely.

Pointedly ignoring them, Randy continued to frisk his clothing. "Hah!" He scrounged a lone, slightly bent cigarette from the depths of his shirt pocket and lit it.

"You really should quit, y'know. Smoking's a nasty habit," the tall, heavy-set man with the straight, grey-brown hair cut in quietly. He leaned against the dressing room wall, leafing through an ancient copy of Cosmopolitan. Glancing up briefly, he flashed Randy a wry smile, then continued studying his magazine.

"Oh, thank you, Stoker." Randy exhaled a puff of smoke in Stoker's direction. "Or should I say, 'Mom'?" He jerked a thumb toward the wavy-haired man. "You're as bad as Norell. Wait--he can pronounce 'palpation,' so he's one up on you."

Stoker slapped his magazine shut and stalked over to Randy. "That does it. You can't treat us like crud every time your fragile ego gets a dent. Maybe if I gave you some real dents, it would knock some sense into you. I may not be great with words, but I was a real firefighter, remember? With real muscles."

"That's not a bad idea, Stoker." Norell stepped closer to Mantooth.

"Me first." Donnelly shouldered his way in front of the others. "I'll show you a MiST treatment."

"Guys, guys, guys!" the Hispanic gentleman called out, rising from his chair. "Calma abajo!"

The puffy-faced man named Kevin sat slumped-shouldered at the table. The reflections of the five other men, engrossed in their argument, wavered across the mirror before him. Sighing loudly, he picked up a comb and carefully adjusted the silvery-white hairs that covered his balding pate. "Yup. One big happy crew."

* * *

"Any fainters yet, Marco?" asked Tim as he drummed his black permanent marker on a stack of eight-by-ten glossies.

The Hispanic man leaned over his own pile of photos and glanced at the far end of the long table. He and the rest of the Emergency! cast were signing autographs amidst various booths and exhibits in a large hall. A noticeable dearth of fans confronted every actor except one.

Marco shook his head. "Nope. Not yet. But I bet that red-head about ten back is gonna do a face plant."

Tim studied the indicated woman in the endless queue of middle-aged females in front of Randy Mantooth. "Hmm. I dunno. Maybe."

Marco grinned at Tim. "Five bucks says she will."

Tim twisted his mouth thoughtfully, then grinned back. "Five bucks says she won't. Deal?" He extended his hand.

"Deal!" Marco agreed, sealing the bet with a hearty handshake.

A mature yet attractive woman with short strawberry-blonde hair approached them. She wore a tight black "I LOVE Firefighters!" T-shirt, which her still respectable figure filled out very ably, and a fading pair of blue jeans. "Mr. Lopez, Mr. Donnelly--I... You two have always been my favorites," she gushed. "Those sexy mustaches of yours! Um, even though you don't have one anymore, Mr. Donnelly. You really should grow it back, you know. Oh, dear, sorry!" She blushed bashfully at Tim. "Could I...could I please have your autographs?" She looked hopefully from one man to the other.

Marco and Tim exchanged amused glances.

"Why certainly, ma'am," Tim cracked a dimpled grin. "We'd be delighted. How would you like us to sign them?"

"Um...how about, 'To Carla, with all my love, Tim.'" She giggled. "Oh, and, 'To Carla, with all my love, Marco,' from you, Mr. Lopez."

"Comin' right up, Carla," Marco replied with a flourish of his pen. He winked at Tim.

As Tim handed his signed photo to the woman, he whispered into Marco's ear, "Eat your heart out, Randy. Bwahaha!"

* * *

The short round red-head smiled at Randy with an expression of reverence tinged with raw lust. She inhaled deeply, raising her magnificent 52 double-E's to her chin like a tsunami approaching the shore, then exhaled, averting disaster.

Randy pushed his wire-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose. Indifferent to the large cauldron of emotions bubbling before him, he pointed to the convention program clutched tightly in the woman's hand. "Want me to sign that, ma'am, or a photo?"

The woman's eyes glazed; a goofy smile froze on her lips. The process of expelling air through vocal cords and directing said air with tongue, teeth, and lips eluded her dazzled brain.

"Ma'am?" Randy repeated. He tipped his head upward and squinted at her through the bottom half of his bifocals. Noting the lack of response, he shrugged and tugged the program out of her numb fingers. "All right, the program it is." His black marker squeaked as Randy applied a barely legible scrawl of letters. A moment later, he held out the booklet. "There you go, ma'am. Have a nice day. Next, please!"

Marco elbowed Tim's ribs. "Hey, look! There she is! Get ready to pay up, buddy."

Tim snapped out of his stuporous contemplation of the goings on about him, and stared blankly at Lopez. "Huh?"

"Our bet." Marco grinned and pointed at the mass of heaving womanhood facing Mantooth.

"Oh!" Wicked glee spread over Tim's face. "Man, Marco, I think you pegged this one."

"Ah, ma'am." Randy lightly prodded the woman's mid-section with the program. "Your autograph."

The glazed eyes semi-focused on Randy's. The frozen smile melted ever so slightly, creating an even broader, grinning slash. From the neck down, however, the mighty volcano remained dormant.

Randy sighed and opened his fingers. The program thudded to the table, still unheeded.

"Ooookay, time for Plan B." He took a deep breath, then carefully removed his wire rims. After methodically folding them, he tucked the glasses into the breast pocket of his black collarless button-down shirt. One more deep breath, and he looked up into her eyes. Slowly, his full lips parted into a blazing crooked crescent. One dark brow arched upward, provocatively framing his unsheathed sable-brown eyes. "Hi," he said in a breathy tenor. His hand caressed the program, then raised it up once more. "For you, baby."

A sharp intake of breath was his only warning, then the avalanche was upon him. Layer after layer of her rushed downward onto the table, over the stack of photos, and toward his lap. "Hey!" Randy shouted. He started to scrambled out of the way when the valiant old table collapsed with a loud crack!

Tim and Marco leapt clear as their end of the table shot skyward, catapulting reams of photographs into the air. Stoker and Norell stumbled out of their seats, then covered their faces as the photos rained back down. The pyroclastic flow tried to claim Kevin, who sat next to Randy. Just in time, he rolled out of his chair and dragged himself from the danger zone.

The storm subsided. A few more photos fluttered gently to the floor of the now eerily-silent hall. Kevin, Norell, Stoker, Marco, and Tim stared wide-eyed at one another. Then, as one, they looked at Randy.

He lay trapped flat on his back. Across his body rested over 300 pounds of limp fan and the remains of the table. A heap of glossies covered the wreckage, glistening like snow on a mountain's peak. Randy peered at them with watering eyes through a gap in the snow cap, a pained expression carved on his face. In a desperate, amazingly high-pitched falsetto, he squeaked, "Help!"

Kevin started to shovel. Norell, Stoker, and a mob of anxious females assisted him.

Donnelly and Lopez, unable to get close enough to help, continued to gawk from a short distance away. The rescuers soon excavated Randy, and male onlookers cringed in sympathy as he curled into a ball and rolled onto his side.

When the unconscious admirer awoke in good spirits, and alternately proceeded to hug her autograph then Randy, shock and worry evaporated.

Tim reached for the wallet in his back jeans pocket. He extracted a crisp new five dollar bill, turned to Lopez, and solemnly pressed it into his palm. Donnelly bowed low in acquiescence, then straightened.

He and Marco stared silently at each other.

Suddenly, the two men snorted with choked laughter. Their snorts evolved into hysterical guffaws. They pounded each other's backs and roared. Stoker, Kevin, and Norell joined them, tears of mirth streaming down their faces.

* * *

"So, how are the ol' gonads doing?" asked Tim. He wrapped a cloth napkin around an ice-filled plastic sandwich bag--both generously provided by a smirking bartender--and held the bundle out to Randy. All six actors sat in their firemen costumes at the hotel bar, nursing drinks, and, in Randy's case, embarrassing injuries.

"Just pass it over," Randy grumped, his voice still cracking slightly. He snatched the napkin out of Tim's hands and, sighing with relief, settled it onto the crotch of his dark blue uniform pants. "Ahhhh."

Mike Norell glanced at his watch. "Finish 'em up, men. The masquerade starts in fifteen minutes." He buffed the shiny silver Los Angeles County Fire Department badge pinned to his light blue short-sleeved shirt, then downed the last of his Bud.

"I've changed my mind. You can do the rest of this miserable con without me," Randy announced, picking up his shot glass. "I don't know why I ever agreed to it in the first place. It's worse than a soap convention!" He gestured at Norell with his drink, "Oh, and there you go again, acting like our captain. Sheesh, Mike." Mantooth slammed the cheap whiskey down his throat in one burning gulp. He clapped the empty glass on the counter. "I'm gonna find myself some decent lookin' babes and have a little party tonight." He snapped his fingers at the bartender. "One more for the road, pal."

"You can't do that, Randy," Kevin said in a quiet, prudent tone, a glass of white zinfandel in his hands. "We've got a contract. If you don't show up, we don't get paid."

"Yeah." Stoker studied his beer as he swirled it in his glass. "Unlike you living-god types, us ordinary mortals have to earn a living." He shifted his gaze to Randy. "You break the contract, and I'll break you."

"Oh, yeah, Mike?" Randy slapped the ice pack on the counter. He hopped gingerly off his bar stool and walked mincingly over to Stoker. "You've been wanting to get a piece of me all day, haven't you?"

"Who hasn't?" Stoker griped. "You've been acting like a self-centered spoiled brat, just begging for it."

"Here we go again," Kevin muttered. He rubbed his temple with one hand and raised the wine glass to his lips with the other.

"So you got dumped," Stoker continued, more kindly. "You're over fifty, Randy. Deal with it, and grow up. 'Cause until you do, you'll never find a lady willing to put up with you."

"Are you the Men from Station 51?" a deep, sensuous female voice inquired.

All eyes turned toward the voice, but discerning the voice's owner wasn't that easy. Lined up shoulder-to-shoulder behind the actors stood six gorgeous women, each meticulously dressed in a curve-hugging nurse's uniform, unzipped just enough to give a tantalizing glimpse of creamy bosom. Starched white nurse's caps topped their shoulder-length, blonde-streaked hair. Enormous false eyelashes, sultry blue-green eyes, and pouting ruby lips dominated their identical faces.

"Yes we are, but the masquerade's in the ballroom, ladies," Marco answered sociably, the first to find his voice. He surveyed the stunning acreage before him with barely-concealed appreciation. "And it's, ah, going to be tough to pick a winner. You're all dead-ringers for Dixie," he added, referring to the head emergency room nurse from the long-defunct television show.

"Mass...car...aide?" repeated one of the Dixie clones in a stilted unfamiliar accent. The woman to the right of the speaker leaned over and whispered into her ear. The speaker's face brightened with understanding. "Ah! A par...tee." She shook her head, "No, we do not seek a par...tee. We seek." She stared intently into Marco's eyes. "The...men...of Station 51."

"Are you saying you have a gig for us?" Kevin asked, puzzled.

"Gig?" the speaker echoed, head cocked to the left.

"Yeah, a gig," Kevin explained, gesturing with his wine glass. "You know, a job."

The woman nodded energetically. "Yes! That is it! We have a...job...for the...men...of Station 51."

The guys exchanged glances.

"How much?" Stoker asked.

"Where?" Norell added.

"When?" Donnelly finished.

The speaker scratched her ear, then closed her eyes in concentration. "We pay...oh, the words...lots of...money? We will take you to the place, and we can go right now." Opening her eyes, she flashed a perfect white smile. The five other Dixies added their radiant grins.

"I'm game!" Randy tossed down his second shot, then attempted to saunter over to the women. His gait, unfortunately, rather resembled that of a geriatric cowhand. Undaunted, he maintained his macho demeanor, and slipped an arm around the waist of the nearest Dixie. "Hey, baby, what's your name, and where's your car?"

"Randy! Our contract, remember?" Kevin urged. "We can't start another gig until this one's over! Tell him again, Mike." He looked beseechingly at Stoker.

Stoker rubbed his chin. "How much money?" he asked the lead Dixie.

She raised her bountiful chest, lowered her perfect chin, and riveted him with sultry, half-lidded eyes. "Lots...and...lots."

"Well, um, Kevin." Stoker cleared his throat and ran a finger under his suddenly too-tight collar. "I do believe there's a clause in our contract that says we can bail if we're ill." He shrugged. "We can fake it."

"I'm sorta ill already," Randy supplied helpfully, shooting a quick, smirking glance at his privates.

"No shit, Sherlock," Tim muttered to Marco, who chuckled.

"What was that, Donnelly?" Randy bristled.

"Oh, ah...I was just telling Marco that sure could work." He batted his lashes and smiled innocuously.

Kevin shook his head. "I don't know, guys. We never broke a contract before, and I don't wanna start now. We can't let the nice folks running this con down! Besides, if word got out, we'd never get another job."

The lead Dixie slunk over to Kevin and studied his face. "You are called Kevin Tighe as Roy DeSoto, yes?"

"Uh, yeah, th-that's me," Kevin stammered, blushing. The woman's intoxicating scent was making his head spin.

"Kevin Tighe as Roy DeSoto, we know well of your deep concern for all of your kind. It is...ah, the words again!" She scratched her ear. "Honorable? Admirable? That you wish not to...offend." She bussed his cheek with her lips, leaving a crimson smudge.

Kevin's ears began to ring.

"But what we require of the...men...of Station 51 is more than...a job. We require..." She gently raised his hand and placed it over her heart--and entirely too near her breasts. "...a rescue."

"A rescue? Well, that settles it, then!" Randy slipped his free arm about another Dixie and snugged both women to his sides.

"Now, wait a minute there, Randy!" Mike Norell raised a cautionary hand. "As you so astutely pointed out to me today." He smiled patronizingly. "We're just a bunch of has-been actors. We can't really do rescues."

The lead Dixie released Kevin's now limp hand and stared curiously at Norell. She scratched at her ear again, then asked, "Mike Norell as Hank Stanley, what is...actors?"

Norell's eyebrows shot up. "You're pulling my leg, right?" When the leader responded with an even more puzzled expression, he jerked a thumb at her. "You guys listening to this? Man, you ladies are flakier than Mantooth." A perplexed expression creased his features. He sniffed the air, catching a whiff of the same scent that had dazzled Kevin Tighe. "Hey, I smell something funny."

All six Dixies' eyes widened; they suddenly huddled together. Norell swore he heard a growl or two mingled in with their hushed conversation, when just as suddenly, they parted.

The lead Dixie stepped forward and spoke with carefully considered words. "Mike Norell as Hank Stanley, we...understand...that you are...actors. And we need...you...just as...you are..." She paused to catch each man's gaze. "...to save us."

The men all turned to Norell, inexplicably seeking his guidance. "Well, hell." He shrugged, blushing nervously under their intense stares. "I guess it can't hurt to check this out a little more. If we're a bit late for the masquerade, we can blame it on ol' gimpy." He inclined his head at Randy.

The guys animatedly nodded their approval, and the lead Dixie sighed with relief. "Thank you, Men of Station 51! And now...it is time to begin."

She tapped her cap, the air shimmered, and the stunned bartender dropped a glass as they vanished.

* * *

The air shimmered, and they reappeared--somewhere else.

Immediately, the lead Dixie detached herself from the group and strode to a large white, basket-like chair in the center of a spacious, semi-circular room. She retrieved a metal wand from the chair's cushion and inserted it into her right ear. A light in the wand's grip flashed red for several seconds, then turned a steady green. The Dixie removed the wand and tapped the side of her head experimentally. With an approving nod, she turned to face her guests.

"I must apologize for my previous difficulties with your language," she said in a cheerful voice. "My Bio-engineered Aural Barrier Eliminating Lifeform was malfunctioning. They get rather unreliable when they are hungry, but I have remedied this condition." She flashed another blinding, impeccable smile.

Vacant, gaping stares replied.

you malfunctioning?"

"Men of Station 51, are you malfunctioning?"

Silence.

"Men of Station 51?"

More silence.

"First Officer, evaluate their conditions at once!" she directed one of the Dixies under Randy's frozen arm. "The transport should not have harmed them. Our calculations were most definite about this!"

The first officer retrieved a small silver device the size of a deck of cards from her skirt pocket and held it in front of Randy's mid-section. She then walked along the row of men, making adjustments to her device as she moved. "Their readings all register as normal, Captain," she reported. "Perhaps they are simply..." She lifted an eyebrow. "Stunned? I can attempt to revive them."

The lead Dixie nodded. "Please do. Use whichever method you deem appropriate."

The first officer tweaked Randy's backside.

"Hey!" Mantooth shouted, and jumped about a foot in the air. His shout jarred the others out of their stupors just as the first officer reached for Tim's posterior.

"Whoa, there!" Tim backed nimbly away. "Th-that's not necessary! I'm all here now." He gawked, dumbfounded at his surroundings. "Wherever 'here' is."

"Tim Donnelly as Chet Kelly, we welcome you and your associates to our ship, the SSBS Gumption," the lead Dixie greeted.

"Ship?" Marco repeated. "Please tell me you mean 'boat,' as in 'floats on water,'?" he begged, glancing nervously at the gleaming white consoles lining the walls around him. Numerous Dixies stood at the consoles, diligently monitoring assorted dials, switches, and displays.

"No, Marco Lopez as Marco Lopez, the Gumption does not float on water," the lead Dixie explained as she turned back to the central command chair. She reached down and depressed a button on the chair's apparently wicker arm. A large section of wall in front of the consoles parted, revealing a panorama of inky blackness speckled with brilliant dots of light.

"Stars," Mike Norell murmured, stepping closer to the view offered through the transparent material. He spun and faced the others. "We're in space?"

The lead Dixie nodded. "That is correct, Mike Norell as Hank Stanley. And I am the captain of this spaceship. My name is..." A look of regret flickered across her face, and she shrugged. "Alas, there is no word for my name in your language. The closest your limited tongue can come to achieving who I am is the word..." A complicated rumbling vibrated in her throat and erupted out as, "Lassie." She smiled cordially.

"And this," Lassie continued, gesturing toward the Dixie holding the silver scanning device, "is my first officer. Commander, how do you choose to have the Men of Station 51 address you in their language?"

The first officer inclined her head at the men and stated solemnly, "You may call me Spot."

For a long hushed moment, Norell glanced from Spot to Lassie then back again. His bewildered brain tried courageously to process all this absurd information. Desperately, a few gears of logic clunked into place--after a tussle with the clutch of insanity--and he turned to Donnelly. "This is a joke, right? You set this all up. Please tell me you set this all up!"

Tim raised his hands. "I had nothing to do with it!"

"Tim Donnelly as Chet Kelly did not plan this encounter," Lassie confirmed.

Norell glanced beseechingly at his coworker. "Tim...?" He stared once again at the starship captain. "Lassie...?" A whimpering moan escaped his lips.

"Mike Norell as Hank Stanley," Lassie said seriously, "this is entirely our doing, and it is most certainly not a joke. We do require your services for a rescue." She sighed with frustration. "But we wish to explain the nature of this rescue later. First, we would like to give you, our most honored guests..." She bowed low, then straightened. "...a tour of our ship." Apprehensively, she looked at Norell. "Do you and your men accept?"

The odor he'd detected in the hotel bar suddenly permeated the air. Norell crinkled his nose. A fog descended over his better judgment, and, swaying slightly, he responded with an amicable, "Sure, why not?"

* * *

Lassie and Spot guided the men, who were still a bit stunned, out of the ship's bridge and through a series of unremarkable grey corridors. Eventually, they reached a bank of what appeared to be elevators.

As they walked, Lassie pattered incessantly and excitedly about the vessel under her command. "...And so, we would first like to show you our engine room." She extended her hand toward a small silver plate set into the wall near a pair of shiny metal doors. "Our propulsion system is one of the most advanced in the galaxy. We are very proud of it." Her palm pressed against the plate. The doors whooshed apart, revealing a brightly-lit circular compartment about six feet in diameter. "It is located on a lower deck. This transport chamber will take us there." Lassie motioned graciously for them to enter. "Please, step inside."

The six men crammed into the tiny space, followed by Spot and Lassie. The doors snapped shut behind them. Spot then reached for a short transparent rod projecting downward out of the curving wall beside her and gave it a twist. They dropped like a rock. Mantooth's stomach, however, insisted on rising to the occasion.

"I think I'm gonna barf," Randy groaned. He clapped his hands over his mouth and staggered against Tim.

"Not on me you ain't!" Tim said, frantically shoving him away and into Norell.

"Hey!" Norell protested. He bulldozed Randy toward the open space that miraculously appeared on one side of the congested compartment.

An acrid belch bulged Randy's cheeks, then escaped to scent the air. "Man, I shouldn't have eaten that second bowl of peanuts at the bar." Randy's stomach was about to heartily agree him when Spot released the rod, and they bounced to a gentle stop.

Everyone held their breath and watched Randy.

When it became apparent he wouldn't explode, the first officer approached him. She studied his greenish pallor with intense fascination. "Did the transport chamber disrupt your metabolism?"

"Um, yeah." Randy belched again, albeit less ominously. "But I'm feeling better now that this contraption's stopped moving." He smiled sheepishly. When Spot continued to stare at him, he blushed, creating an even more intriguing skin tone.

"Since all is well with you, Randolph Mantooth as John Gage," Lassie said, eager to continue the tour, "let us proceed." She stepped toward the metal doors. They slid open, and the group emptied into the new hallway before them.

Not far from the elevators, they came to a large, lofty room. A series of translucent floor-to-ceiling panels separated this room from the corridor. Through the panels they could glimpse an array of computer consoles, conduits, duct work, wiring, and bulky structures of unknown purpose. As they entered, the room's dominant feature came into view: a fifteen-foot-tall metal cylinder about eight feet in diameter. Hovering near the cylinder, and studying an adjacent control panel, stood a very un-Dixie-like Dixie.

"Welcome, Captain!" she greeted Lassie. "I see ye've come to show off the ol' bairns, have ye?" The woman's B.A.B.E.L. struggled bravely to translate her words into comprehensible American English.

Stoker stared. Unlike her compatriots' perfect bleach-blonde tresses, this Dixie's hair had noticeable grey streaks and frizzy edges. She also had a dangerous twinkle in her eyes and a sly grin on her lips.

"Yes, Commander, we have. All is functioning optimally, is it not?" Lassie inquired.

"Aye, Captain. She's purrin' like a wee kitten, she is," the Dixie replied, her sly grin broadening.

Lassie turned to her visitors. "Men of Station 51, I'd like to introduce you to the Gumption's chief engineer." She turned to her officer. "Commander, could you please choose a suitable name for yourself in our guests' language?"

The chief studied the actors carefully. Her gaze lingered on Stoker's, and, with a tenor of mischief in her voice, she replied, "Ye may address me as 'Scottie,' if ye don't mind."

"Commander Scottie it is, then," Lassie confirmed. "Commander, please give the Men of Station 51 a brief description of our ship's propulsion systems."

"Aye, Captain." The Dixie inclined her head at her superior, and moved to her console. Tenderly, she ran her hands over the controls. With misting eyes, she looked up at the tall metal cylinder before her. "Gentlemen, what ye see here is the most amazing feat of physics ye will ever encounter in the entire universe: the Advanced Lightspeed Propulsion Obelisk."

Commander Scottie sniffed, blinked, then looked over to the men. "The A.L.P.O. can move the Gumption at velocities approaching ten times lightspeed, and she does it with nae but a wee bit of lovin' care. She works her magic by absorbin' energy from the matter surrounding the ship, then convertin' it to thrust, sort of like tossin' it all down a funnel and squirtin' it out the other end, ye might say." Commander Scottie paused to pat the A.L.P.O.'s outer shell. "She's a right sweet piece of engineerin', she is."

With a wistful sigh, she continued. "We're currently hovering at a set of fixed coordinates, so she's doin' nae more than keepin' ahead of gravity right now." The commander glanced sideways at Stoker. "Maybe the Captain will allow one or two of ye at the controls to see what the ol' bairns can really do."

Lassie's brows shot upward. She grabbed Scottie by the white uniform sleeve and tugged her to one side. After a brief hushed flurry of growls, Lassie released Scottie and returned to her Barbie-doll-like hostess mode. "Ha, ha. Very clever attempt at humor, Commander. Very clever. However, I am sure you all can understand how whimsical such a notion really is. Ha, ha, ahem. Spot--" Lassie addressed her first officer, who'd been standing patiently alongside Randy, timing the disappearance of the green and red shades from his skin.

Commander Spot looked up. "Yes, Captain?"

"Let us proceed with the tour. The crew's quarters and the galley will be our next stops."

"Yes, Captain." Spot gestured toward the door. "This way please, gentlemen."

As they filed out of the room, Stoker peered over his shoulder at the Chief Engineer. He saw the strange Dixie lay a finger aside her nose and wink at him. His eyes widened; his heart skipped a beat. Spot then herded him through the doorway and back to the transport chamber.

On the way, no one noticed a sly, alarmingly-familiar grin spread across Stoker's face.

* * *

"First, those names--Lassie, Spot, Scottie--then the beds. You getting any weird vibes about all this?" Donnelly whispered to the men clustered around him. The little group had just left the basket collection called the "crew's quarters" and was proceeding to their next stop. Lassie led the way. Spot, deep in conversation with Randy, brought up the rear.

"Oh, yeah. Too weird," Lopez agreed with a nod.

"Don't forget the A.L.P.O.," Stoker added, grinning.

Donnelly jabbed a finger Stoker's direction. "Yeah! See what I mean?"

"It's all probably some strange coincidence," Kevin said. "You guys have over-active imaginations."

"Oh, we do, do we?" said Norell. "So it's just my 'over-active imagination,' fueled by the slimy cheeseburger I had for lunch no doubt, that's making me hallucinate about being kidnaped by a horde of Dixie McCall clones and tossed into a spaceship for some bogus rescue mission?"

"Yep," Kevin dead-panned.

"Hmpf," Norell replied.

"Speaking of slimy, someone better warn Spot about 'randy' Randy." Stoker snuck a covert glance backward.

"I don't know, Mike." Tim winked. "Spot strikes me as the kind of clone that can take care of herself."

As if on cue, Randy let out a loud yelp. "What did ya do that for?" he griped, rubbing his recently pinched cheek.

"Fascinating. Digital compression achieves the same coloration," the first officer commented, carefully analyzing the results of her experiment.

"Like I was saying," Tim gloated.

A few errant snorts of compressed laughter later, they arrived at their destination.

"This is our galley or mess hall," Captain Lassie said, sweeping her arm through the entrance. Inside the sizable, homey room, rectangular wooden tables with matching chairs intermingled with still more large oval baskets, these lined with burgundy pillows. A few well-padded recliners also dotted the room. Beige tiling covered the floors, and a mix of wood paneling and warm imitation brick adorned the walls. Smiling animatedly, Lassie motioned for the entourage to follow her inside.

Donnelly and Lopez dropped to the rear of the group as they entered the room, leisurely studying their surroundings. Several framed pictures of alien scenes decorated the walls. Marco paused to examine them.

One depicted a large, abstract feline being vigorously chased by a pack of dog-like creatures over a lush landscape. Another showed a simplistic still life of a heap of bones. Marco did a double take. Next to the bone picture hung a painting of a what appeared to be a stylized red fire hydrant. "Weirder and weirder," he muttered, then shook his head and moved on. He ran a hand along the coarse brickwork as he walked. "Tim, this room looks familiar."

Donnelly nodded. "Sure does. Can't quite say why, though."

Simultaneously, they spied a dark-brown overstuffed Naugahyde sofa on one side of the hall. An enormous portrait in an ornate gilded frame graced the wall above it. "Henry?" they blurted, trading puzzled looks.

"I've got it! It's sorta like the common room from the show!" Marco exclaimed. "But why would they design their galley after that old set?"

"Got me hangin', pal." Tim shrugged. "Say, we better catch up with the others." He pointed toward the rest of the group, which had reached a cafeteria-style food dispensing area on the far wall opposite the doorway. "Bet a master chef like yourself would like to know what they serve for chow in this outfit." Tim grinned.

"Probably dog food, from the way things are going," Marco joked.

Tim chuckled as he and Lopez jogged over to the dispensers.

Lassie courteously waited until the two men rejoined them, then began her next speech. "Our voyage has been long, and we have had certain...unfortunate...difficulties with our meal replicators, resulting in a temporary disruption in our food supply."

With Spot now at her elbow, Lassie walked to a rack of tan trays, silver bowls, and other assorted eating implements, which was nestled alongside the row of dark brown vending machines. She selected a tray and set it on the silver counter that skirted the dispensers.

"After much research, we were most delighted to discover an amazing nourishment product almost identical to our finest cuisine! In anticipation of a possibly extended visit with the Men of Station 51, and to boost our food supplies while we repair our replicators, we have generously stocked our holds with this wondrous commodity." She depressed a red button, and a small rectangular navy blue and gold can clunked onto her tray. Reverently picking it up, she held it out proudly for all to see. "Spam!" Lassie beamed.

"Spam?" Marco repeated, appalled.

"Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam," Tim muttered, a tremendous smirk on his face. "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam...."

"I hate Spam!" Marco moaned.

Tim softly warbled on. "Spam, Spaaaam! Lovely Spam!"

"Well, maybe they have more than just Spam," Mike offered helpfully.

"Yeah," Kevin teased. "Maybe they've got Spam, egg, Spam, Spam, bacon, and Spam."

"Spam, Spaaaam! Wonderful Ooof!" Marco's well-placed elbow halted Tim's serenade.

The other men laughed.

"I do not understand. Is something wrong with this cuisine?" Lassie asked, mortified expressions on both hers and Spot's faces.

"Please don't take this wrong," Marco explained, "but to me, Spam tastes like, well, dog food."

"Marco!" Tim hissed in warning.

Lopez quelled him with a wave of a hand. He looked from Spot to Lassie. "That's what you people really are, isn't it? You're, well, dogs!"

Lassie sighed and gently returned the can of Spam to her tray. "Yes, Marco Lopez as Marco Lopez. We are, insofar as your terribly limited tongue can describe, an advanced canine-type race. Come. Sit." She gestured toward the Naugahyde sofa and its surrounding wooden chairs. "It is time to explain."

Captain Lassie settled herself regally into the exact center of the squishy sofa, which emitted a whoosh of air as she sank into it. The men each took a place in the sturdy wooden chairs around her. Randy flipped his about and straddled it backward, casually resting his forearms on the seat back. In contrast, Spot stood at rigid attention to Lassie's right, hands clasped behind her, feet shoulder-width apart, chin slightly upturned. The scraping of chair legs on tile floor eventually ended, and the men watched the captain expectantly.

Lassie inhaled deeply, then spoke in a clear, decisive alto. "We...are the Bas Seti. We are not really human in form." She looked straight at Lopez. "As you may have already surmised." The corner of her mouth curled slightly upward into a trifling half-smile.

Marco shifted self-consciously in his seat.

Her smiled broadened fractionally, then Lassie released Lopez from her gaze. "We have altered our appearance to resemble the Earth female, Julie London as Dixie McCall, so as to communicate with you without alarming you."

"So what's with that weird perfume you've been using?" Norell interrupted. "I can't speak for the others, but it sure seems to me like you ladies were using a little 'chemical insurance' on us in case we didn't buy the Dixie wrappers."

Lassie coughed delicately into her fist. "Yes, Mike Norell as Hank Stanley, we did use a--pheromone, I believe is the correct word--to insure the success of our mission. Our need was great. We could not risk failure."

"So what is this 'need'?" Kevin asked. "Why exactly did you bring us here?" He made a sweeping gesture with his arms, indicating the whole ship.

"We brought you here because we need you," Lassie explained.

"You've said that already," Marco stated impatiently. "What do you mean, you need 'us'?"

"Exactly what I said, Marco Lopez as Marco Lopez, we need you--your very essence, your..." Lassie paused. "...genetic material."

"Our what?" Randy asked, wrinkling his forehead.

"Your genetic material. Your..." Lassie scratched her ear.

"They need our..." Donnelly leaned over and whispered something to Mantooth.

Randy's jaw dropped. "You need that?"

"Yes," Lassie stated frankly.

"Why?" asked Norell, unconsciously folding his arms over his lap.

"Because the males of our species have all succumbed to a devastating, incurable plague!" she answered passionately. "Without males, the Bas Seti will soon vanish from the universe. You possess the material we need to create new males and survive! Please do not deny us our future!"

"Oh." Kevin cleared his throat. "I see."

"So, Captain Lassie," Norell asked hesitantly, "h-how did you folks decide that, ah, us 'Men of Station 51' had the, um, 'right stuff,' so to speak?" He tried futilely to cross his legs.

"The Wise One, our eldest of elders." She gestured toward the lavish portrait on the wall behind her. "The one you named 'Henry'--it was he who directed us to you."

"Henry?" Tim blurted. "You've gotta be kiddin' me. That drooly, sheddy ol' mutt? No offense!" He hastily held up his hands.

Lassie nodded, somber. "Yes, Henry. He foresaw our dire future and tried to warn us. Sadly, his warnings went unheeded. We mocked his research, arrogantly assuming there was no illness our race could not conquer." Lassie's eyes darkened with deep shame. A snuffling whimper escaped her lips. "He left us to seek a solution." She looked with awe into Tim's eyes. "And he found you."

Tim's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline.

"Bas Seti females did not possess in themselves the required elements for Henry's task," Lassie continued, "and the remaining males could not donate their material as it was permanently corrupted by the disease. Consequently, Henry was forced to leave our planet and search the universe. His goal was to locate a species whose genetic material was similar enough to the Bas Seti males' to be used to create new males. He found this species, and the perfect specimens of this species. He found the Men of Station 51."

Solemnly, she looked at each of them. "Henry studied you for several years, taking many notes and detailing the process of how to extract the qualities from you most compatible with us. His notes and instructions reached us via interstellar needle beam the very day the last of the males on our planet died." Lassie bowed her head. Her eyes, glistening now with tears, reflected an aura of wisdom bought at the cost of great sadness. "Is..." She failed to stifle a brief, mournful howl. "Is Henry gone, too?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so," Tim replied, deeply touched. "He...he died several years ago."

Lassie nodded and brushed at the mascara-blackened moisture on her cheeks. "We still had hope, you see, that The Wise One would be spared."

An awkward silence ensued.

Randy rubbed the side of his nose. "Captain Lassie, could I ask a question?"

"Yes you may," Lassie permitted, wiping the last of the stains from her face. "What is it that you desire to know?"

"Well, ah." He kneaded the back of his neck. "What exactly do you folks look like? I mean, if you aren't permanently..." He gestured toward her crisp nurse's uniform. "...Dixies."

The captain smoothed her dress over her nylon-clad thighs, then leaned over to glimpse the sturdy white work shoes on her feet. "No, this alteration is not permanent, Randolph Mantooth as John Gage." She straightened and looked into his eyes. "It is generated by a device imbedded in our caps. We--" Abruptly, she paused; uncertainty clouded her face. Lassie's lips formed a firm line as she studied his intent, curious expression. Ultimately, she nodded, indecision conquered, and replied: "We...can resume our true physical state quite easily." A graceful hand lightly touched her starched white headpiece. "By removing them. First Officer."

"Yes, Captain?" Spot turned her head toward her captain, but otherwise retained a pose of attention.

"Please demonstrate for the Men of Station 51 how the Shape-Altering Device functions."

Spot arched an eyebrow in surprise, but smoothly obeyed the order. "Yes, Captain." She removed her cap. An iridescent glow briefly encircled her body, then she transformed.

The first officer's genuine appearance resembled that of an athletic, shapely Earth female's. But instead of bare skin, luxurious black and white spotted fur covered her from head to foot. The fur atop her head grew longer than the fur on her body, creating a soft, flowing striped mane. Highlighting her face, a black button of a nose sparkled with a hint of healthy moisture, as did her deep brown eyes. Clothing, apparently, was not needed on the Bas Seti's home planet. Spot appeared completely at ease, dressed only in her magnificent coat.

Randy's jaw went slack, and he pushed himself upright from the lazy droop he'd been maintaining over the chair's back. "Whoa," he said softly. The other men joined him in amazed appreciation of their hostess.

"We do not all possess Commander Spot's particular colorations, but this is our typical form," Lassie elaborated. "Henry, however, used an earlier, more primitive version of our Shape-Altering Device, or 'S.A.D.' as we refer to it." She motioned toward the portrait once more. "His could not so completely alter his appearance. Thus, he settled for the guise of a pet-like creature, the Basset Hound with which you are familiar. His true state is remarkably similar."

The men's eyes turned to the soulful visage above Lassie, studying it with new insight.

"Henry's B.A.B.E.L.," Lassie said, patting her ear, "was also a less advanced model, allowing only comprehension of a foreign tongue. Regrettably, he could not speak your language. By the time we started our journey to your planet, both technologies had been considerably refined."

Lassie allowed her guests a moment to absorb this information. "Now that you understand who we are and what we seek..." She glanced nervously at the men, her hands a tight knot on her lap. "...will you help us?"

"I, ah, w-well," Kevin stammered, "could we have some time to think about it?"

Norell, Stoker, Marco, and Donnelly all chorused in.

"Yeah, a little time..."

"Gotta think..."

"Not sure..."

"Need time..."

Randy stared mutely at Spot.

"As you wish," Lassie promptly granted. "Such a weighty issue merits consideration. Please, take a few of your standard Earth days to make your decision, but be aware--more than a few days would be ill-advised as our predicament is, alas, pressing."

Gratitude washed visibly over the men's faces.

Randy's alone, acquired an air of uncertainty.

"J-just, ah...," he stuttered, extending his index finger. "Just one more question." He motioned helplessly with his right hand. "How do you, um, well." He sighed loudly. "How do you 'retrieve' our..." Randy blushed.

Amusement gleamed in Lassie's eyes. "The genetic material may be donated in one of three ways," she answered sweetly, then counted them out on her well-manicured fingers. "One, it can be surgically extracted by means of a simple procedure."

Cringes greeted that disclosure.

"Two, you may retrieve the material for us, using whatever technique works best for you."

Blushes replaced the pained-looks.

"And three." She looked straight at Randy and smiled. "You may contribute the material through participation in a mutual act with a member of this crew."

Dead silence.

"Ooookay," Randy responded a ponderous minute later, the deep crimson on his face attracting Spot's attention anew. "Guess that about answers that." He clapped his hands together. "So. What's next?"

Captain Lassie flashed a full bemused grin. "As the Gumption's time measuring system approximates yours, it is now dinner. So next, we shall eat. And then we shall show you to your quarters. Recreational facilities and the observation deck will be at your disposal, if such pass-times should be of aid in your contemplations before you retire for your rest shift. Commander Spot will see to it that you have directions and passes to these areas of the ship."

Brandishing a hand toward the tall brown food dispensers lining the back wall, Captain Lassie donned her tour-guide persona. "Shall we?"

And Marco did his best not to look ill.

* * *

The nose protruded first. Easing into the open space beyond the edge that was the bend in the seamless grey corridor, it twitched.

Scant seconds later came the eyes. Intense, searching, their blue irises and wide black pupils reflected a glint of light from the illumination panel overhead.

Next, the head owning this particular set of nose and eyes craned out into the hallway, revealing a crown of kinky grey hair. The head nodded; its mouth curved into a satisfied smile.

Assured, the stocky body beneath the head eased into the open space, and the body's legs tip-toed rapidly to the metal door just around from the bend. The left hand rapped a pre-planned tattoo against the door's flat grey metal: three short, three long, three short.

The door whooshed open.

"Find anything?" Marco asked eagerly, grabbing Tim's shirt sleeve and hauling him into the tiny supply pantry nestled behind the main galley. The door whipped shut behind Donnelly.

"Y'know, we really don't have to go sneaking around like this," Tim said, smoothing down his rumpled shirt. "I'm sure if you just asked--"

"Asked? Are you crazy? Did you see the looks on their faces when I told them how much I hated Spam?" Marco shook his head firmly. "It's better this way." Lopez snapped his fingers at the packet clutched in Tim's right hand. "C'mon. Let's see it."

Tim held up the vacuum-sealed plastic bag. "Found it in the crew's quarters. Not sure what it is, but at least it's green."

Marco snatched at the package and forced open the seal. Reaching inside, he selected a strand from the fronds within, removed it, and rolled it between his fingers. A sharp-sweet oniony odor filled the air. Lopez grinned. "Chives!" Victoriously, he held the crushed specimen under Tim's nose. "Madre de Dios, it's chives! Now we're getting somewhere! Do you think you could find me some cilantro?"

Tim rolled his eyes.

* * *

Kevin slouched. A habit formed long ago--an unconscious gesture of humbleness, shyness--bent his six-foot-two frame into an unimposing curve. Sure, he could stand fully upright. A well-trained, award-winning actor, Kevin Tighe indeed had the skill to assume any meaning-laden pose. When he wasn't acting, though...

Kevin hunched now over the computer terminal before him, thoughtful. Captain Lassie had given him permission to study the ship's libraries, and Commander Spot dutifully had given him directions, a pass card allowing access to this records room, and clearance to the appropriate files. Spot had also explained that this particular terminal served as a training console, offering the Bas Seti a place to practice reading and writing the humans' language.

With light from the monitor shining on his balding head and puffy cheeks, Kevin quietly tapped out a search query on the keyboard...and smiled.

* * *

Mike Stoker wandered aimlessly, fists shoved deep into the pockets of his navy cotton/polyester pants. Curled within the fingers of his right hand was a card granting him admittance to workout rooms, the library, the galley, and others places. In his left hand, he clutched an electronic map that guided him to these mundane locals. Stoker sighed. None were where he wanted to go. So, he wandered.

He was about to retrieve the map and choose a destination anyway, if for no better reason than to escape the unrelenting grey of the Gumption's maze-like corridors, when--

"Psssst!"

Stoker whirled about. Nothing. Grey walls.

"Pssssst! Laddie! Over here!"

There--he saw her, peering out from behind the cover of a bend in the hallway. "Commander Scottie?" Stoker asked to be sure.

Scottie nodded and waved him over.

"Got somethin' to show ye, laddie," she whispered as Stoker reached her side. "Here." She pointed to a simple grey door set into the dead-end of their passage.

Stoker squinted. The door looked no different than any of the other uninspired portals he'd seen sprinkled about the hallways. With its flat grey paint, it bore even less beauty than the plain silver entrances to the transport chambers. Wait, to the right of the door, markings--no, words--but in a language he couldn't read. Stoker looked at the chief engineer, questioning with his expression.

Scottie winked and walked through the door.

Stoker followed.

White. White consoles with white seats; a central white basket-chair. Arcing across a modest sweep of bulkhead, a white panel, poised to reveal the great expanse of space at the mere touch of a finger. The bridge? Stoker wondered. No. Too small, but still... "Where?" he asked the commander, hands raised.

Scottie tapped the side of her nose. "Auxiliary bridge."

The two similar and alarmingly devilish smiles reappeared.

* * *

"Randolph Mantooth as John Gage," Commander Spot inquired as she quietly entered the room, "would you like to explore the ship's services as your companions are doing? If you wish, I could be your guide."

"What?" Randy looked up from his cross-legged perch in the center of his bunk bed. Their assigned quarters turned out to be a replica of the dorm from the old show: pairs of beds separated by low brick walls, plus an enclosure for the captain's bed and a radio base station. Randy had found the bunk that would logically have been his and flopped onto it--an hour ago.

"Oh, ah, no. But thanks," he added as an afterthought, then launched into a contemplation of his shaking, nicotine-stained fingers. Man, he could use a smoke right now, but he'd left his cigarettes back at the con--on Earth. Oh well, he brooded ironically, been meaning to cut back. Carpe diem, eh?

Commander Spot stepped closer. She assumed an "at ease" position beside Randy and studied his fingers, too.

Randy tried to ignore her. Fingers, however, held negligible interest compared to a Bas Seti, who, lacking even a modicum of modesty, hovered inches from him in all her natural glory.

"Commander Spot, may I ask you something?" he inquired without looking up. Five well-examined digits nervously reached upward and scratched his head through his cropped salt-and-pepper hair. Five others extended for inspection.

"Yes," Spot allowed, a slight tilt to her head, a minor arch in a brow.

"Um, why..." He braved a sideways glance. The sight of her gleaming coat rippling over her toned muscles made his voice squeak a bit. "Why haven't you changed back into a Dixie?"

"I am obeying my captain's order, Randolph Mantooth as John Gage," Spot explained patiently. "She did not tell me to reactivate the Shape-Altering Device."

"Ah." He nodded, mouth compressed. Lint on his uniform pants now became a topic worthy of intense scrutiny.

"Is my appearance disturbing you?"

"Yes--no! Um, maybe." His cheeks reddened.

"Captain Lassie was worried that our true forms would be repugnant to you," Spot disclosed gently. "If you are uncomfortable, I have only to ask my captain's permission to reactivate the device."

"Oh, nonono! You've got it all wrong!" Randy said swiftly, shaking both his hands and his head. "You're not 'repugnant,' you're, you're..." Back to the lint, his voice a shy whisper. "...beautiful."

Spot's large brown eyes widened; she pressed a palm to her cheek.

Randy dared another peek her direction. With all that fur on her face, it was hard to tell, but it sure seemed like she was experiencing a blush, and from her eyes, her first one ever.

Hand still covering her cheek, she stammered out an astonished, "T-thank you."

Randy's brow rose. He couldn't be imagining this. His effect on her appeared as unexpected and alarming as her effect on him.

Making a decision, he raised his gaze to fully meet hers. Slowly, his decades-famous crooked grin blazed across his face, and--a rarity--it matched the feeling behind it. "Commander, I've changed my mind. I'd like you to give me that guided tour after all. We could chat it up while we walk. Whadda ya say?"

Spot hastily lowered her hand, composure returning in a snap. As if nothing untoward had happened, she responded with a pleasant, dutiful, "As you wish."

Cool, he thought, still grinning.

* * *

Mike Norell eyed Captain Lassie through the steam rising from his brown mug. He sipped. Not real coffee, but not bad, he considered. Lopez's pained face appeared in his mind's eye, and he smiled. At least it didn't taste like Spam.

He sipped again, determined to load his system with caffeine. No way would this Lassie woman pull another perfume blitz on him! From the austere expression on her face, however, more tricks seemed unlikely.

Norell lowered his mug and glanced around for the umpteenth time. He sat alone with Lassie at a tiny table in a cozy lounge near the crew's quarters. Several of these small tables, and their matching, well-cushioned chairs, spotted the twenty-by-twenty foot space. Imbedded in them all, Lassie had explained, were various games.

Bumps and buttons to activate the amusements protruded from their table. Absently, he passed a hand over them, uninterested in playing. He raised his mug for another gulp, grimaced, then contemplated the refreshment bar tucked neatly into one corner of the room. The compact, well-equipped bar had provided the dark bitter beverage. Immediately following the tour of their quarters, he'd asked the captain if she could direct him to a quiet place where he could find a coffee-like drink. He'd also asked if she could spare a minute to talk.

A small viewport drew Norell's gaze. Centered in the wall behind Lassie's back, the port framed a stationary scene of brilliant light specks in an ebony backdrop. Earth's solar system, he assumed. For all he knew, though, they could be halfway across the galaxy right now. Guess he should ask, he mused. He'd gotten his coffee, but not his conversation. Unable to bring up the matter he truly wished to discuss, he'd resorted to social pleasantries. This had worked for a while. Now, they sat in awkward silence.

"So, ah, Captain--"

"Mike Norell as Hank Stanley, why did you ask me here?" Lassie interrupted, knuckles whitening as she tensely gripped her own mug.

Lassie's bluntness pushed him back in his chair, brows raised. "Well, uh..."

"Truth, please," she insisted, mouth grim. "Do you wish to tell me you will not participate because of the pheromone?"

"Uh, actually..."

"It was wrong to manipulate you with the chemical, I now understand, and I do not blame you if fail to trust or aid us because of this."

Norell paused, studying the dark lines on her face. Desperation lurked in every crease. "Look," he said with a resigned sigh, "I'll admit I'm not very pleased that you messed with our minds, but I can grant you had good reason."

The whiteness of her knuckles eased; the lines on her face softened. "Thank you," she replied in quiet gratitude.

"But." He leaned forward.

Tension slammed back down. "Yes?"

"The pheromone's still bugging me," Norell admitted.

Puzzlement wrinkled her face now. "Strange. It should not be affecting you this long. Maybe--"

"No, no, it's not that! It's, well, I was wondering..."

"Yes?"

He breathed deeply. Spit it out, boy. If you're crazy, she'll let you know. "Okay. Why did that stuff make the guys act like I was a real captain? I swore if I said 'jump' they'd ask 'how high?'!" Norell punctuated his next words with his index finger. "If you honestly understand what 'actor' means, then you'd know I've got no rank over them. I'm just pretending--just playing a role."

"The men treated you as their leader because you really are," Lassie answered matter-of-factly. "The pheromone works by amplifying feelings and inclinations that already exist. If you were not truly a leader to them--their 'captain'--they would not have looked to you for guidance."

That got his attention. "But--"

"No, Mike Norell as Hank Stanley, there is no 'but.'" She smiled slightly. "You are a captain. Of a sort, at least."

He slumped back in his seat, arms folded over his lanky torso. "Not the sort I wanna be," he mumbled--but not quite faint enough for Lassie's sharp ears to miss.

"Ah." She nodded, eyes narrowed, a shrewd twist to her mouth. "I begin to understand. You crave the challenge of a real captain's job. Seeing your companions openly seek your leadership without being told to by a script reminded you of your dream."

Damn. She'd figured it out. Sharp woman. "Ridiculous, ain't it?" He chuckled. "'Specially at my age."

"No, it is only natural. The ability is within you, so it yearns to come out. Believe me." She surprised him with a grin. "I know." With both hands, she raised her mug and peered thoughtfully at him over its rim. She took a sip, swallowed. "Perhaps we could--"

The floor heaved.

Lassie's mug crashed against a wall, released in her haste to seize the edges of their table. Hot liquid and razor-edged shards flew everywhere.

Norell tried to copy Lassie's actions. Another surge tossed him and his chair to the floor, however, before he could reach forward and grasp the bolted-down table. His mug followed him, splashing its contents onto his pants. "Arrrgh!" He tried to swipe away the steaming mess, but a yawing movement sent him skidding on his back along the slick floor and into the wall that had claimed Lassie's drink. Mug fragments sliced into his bare arms.

Lassie, meanwhile, let out a stream of growling invectives and launched herself toward another table, then another.

Easily translating the growls without the aide of a B.A.B.E.L., Norell lay glued to the base of the wall by centrifugal force. Debris and upended chairs thudded to a stop around him. From this position he could just glimpse the viewport, which now showed a spinning whorl of light. Apparently, someone or something had caused the ship to rotate like a top. Tightly gripping his bleeding forearms, he could do no more than watch the port and Lassie's progress.

Another leap, and she reached the table nearest the door. Muscles straining, she pulled herself into the doorway and clung there. To the right of the door hung a four-inch square, one-inch high silver box. Adrenaline boosting her strength, Lassie pounded a fist on a green button set into it. "Bridge, this is the Captain. Report!"

"Captain," a distressed voice replied, "we have lost control of the helm. It appears to have been diverted to the auxiliary bridge on Level 13."

"Diverted?" Lassie responded, teeth bared. "Override!"

"Captain, we are trying," came the terrified response, "but the usual methods are not working."

"Then try the unusual methods, but get back control!" Lassie barked. Her fist slammed onto a red button before the bridge crew could acknowledge her order. "Commander Spot, report!"

There was a lengthy pause, then, "Spot here," came breathlessly over the speaker.

"Commander, what is your current location?" Lassie asked tersely.

"I am in the aft observation deck on Level 13," came the now composed reply.

"Good! Proceed to the auxiliary bridge on that level at once. I am sending a security team to meet you. Your instructions are to get that door open, apprehend whoever is inside, and assist in returning helm control. I am on my way to the main bridge to see what may be done from there. Continue to report. Understood?"

"Yes, Captain," Spot acknowledged crisply.

Norell heard Lassie finish instructing security when suddenly he sagged off the wall, released. A glance out the viewport revealed a presently unidirectional blur. The spin had stopped, but the ship still moved at a great rate of speed.

Lassie ran to his side. "Are you hurt?" she asked, anxiously scanning him for injury.

"I'm okay. I think," he replied, shakily sitting. As far as he could tell, total damage consisted of a few bruises, minor cuts on his arms, and a mess of coffee and blood on his clothing.

"I concur," Lassie said, completing her own exam with a relieved sigh. "Here." She offered her hand and guided him to his unsteady feet. "Sit a moment." Quickly righting a chair, she eased him onto it, then hurried to the refreshment bar for some towels and water.

She returned, then cleansed and coarsely bound his wounds. That task complete, she offered her hand once more.

He rose, his legs stable beneath him this time.

Lassie nodded, satisfied as to his health. Her gaze locked onto his. Norell shuddered involuntarily at their fiery intensity. "So," she said, an edge of honed steel infusing her voice, "you desire to know what it is like to be a real captain. Come, quickly now, and you will see."

They ran for the bridge.

* * *

The floor heaved.

"My meatballs!" Marco wailed as his culinary masterpieces bounced off the tray clutched protectively in his hands.

"Spam balls," Tim corrected mischievously.

Donnelly lounged at a large wooden table near the Naugahyde sofa, a group of five smiling Dixies chuckling courteously at his joke. The odd movement of the ship appeared a relatively normal occurrence for them.

Tim had convinced Marco to let a few Bas Seti try out the newly-concocted meatballs with the hope that, if they liked them, something palatable would bolster the meager menu. Donnelly had rounded up the brave volunteers and escorted them to the galley. Lopez, meanwhile, had prepared and arranged his precious samples. As he carried them from the tiny supply pantry into the main galley, disaster struck.

Marco gave Tim a dirty look. "Just shut up and help me pick them--whoooaa!" A surge sent Lopez to his backside, squashing a few of his creations beneath him. The wooden chairs bucked Tim and the Dixies onto the floor as well. The surprise on the Bas Seti's faces revealed this kind of movement as most un-Gumption-like behavior.

Then the spin started.

As the galley was closer to the ship's center of inertia than the crew's lounge, which hugged a forward bulkhead, the spin in the mess hall had a different flavor. Instead of slamming anything not bolted down into one wall, it slammed anything not bolted down into every wall. Thus, Marco's poor meatballs raced away from him like sunbeams flying from their source. Someone had also decided that mess hall furniture didn't need anchoring, so it, too, soared in all directions.

"There's one!" Marco yelled as he slid on his butt toward a rack of serving trays. He pointed to a small grey-brown orb rocketing under a chair.

"You know, Marco," Tim replied through a strained grimace, "I think...the damn Spam balls...can fend for themselves right now."

Donnelly had scrambled to his feet and tried to run to the relative safety of the old sofa. He didn't quite make it, however, and found himself pinned to the wall, gut-level, by the large table. Hands braced on the table's edge, he endeavored to keep it from pounding him into a well-tenderized filet. Adding to his worries, chairs and baskets crashed tide-like all around. "Uh-oh," Tim whispered, eyes wide with dread. A ponderous over-stuffed recliner screeched jerkily along the tile floor, target zero: his table.

Bump. Scraaaaaape. It crunched over puny bits of flotsam.

"Noooooo!" Donnelly yelled. Free of obstacles, the lounger sailed directly at him.

Tim wriggled with all his strength. Biceps and neck veins bulged with effort, but he remained trapped. Even if he did free himself, he doubted he could fend the table off long enough to jump clear. Resigned, he squeezed his eyes shut and turned his face to one side, waiting for the dreadful impact.

It never came.

The odd dish finished its wobbling fall, then...

Silence.

He popped an eye open, surveyed the room, blinked. The rampaging Barco-lounger had stopped inches from the log jam in front of him. His other eye opened, and his massive sigh of relief broke the stillness. With a grunt, Tim shoved the table off his stomach and slumped to his knees.

"You okay, pal?" Marco said. Pushing the table and tangled chairs farther aside, he cleared a path to his friend.

"I'm fine," Tim panted, "just winded." Marco turned his back to him momentarily, pitching one final chair out of the way. The scenery this maneuver presented robbed Donnelly of his recovering respiration. An explosive snort burst from his mouth.

"What?" Marco looked about. "What's so funny?"

"Your pants." Tim giggled.

Not seeing anything on the front of his trousers, Marco craned his head to see the back. A large gooey brownish-grey stain came into view. "Oh, man!" he lamented, coloring vividly.

"Look." Marco twisted around to face Tim again. "As entertaining as my pants are right now, we have to check on the ladies."

Tim sobered in an instant and reached for Marco's hand. "Yeah, you're right. Help me up."

Lopez hoisted Tim to his feet, then together they clambered over the debris.

Thankfully, they found the Dixies basically unharmed. The Bas Seti had escaped from their particular wreckage piles suffering only bruises and ruffled hair-dos. Soon everyone gathered in a loose circle in the approximate center of the aptly-termed mess hall. There remained only one set of victims to rescue: Marco's Spam balls.

"C'mon, Marco. Be realistic. They're probably all smushed," Tim said with an heroically straight face.

Marco favored him with a withering glare. "We have to try. Let's all fan out from here and look. If you ladies are willing that is," he deferred politely to his dinner guests.

"We would be delighted to aid in your search," a Dixie replied chivalrously. Her compatriots smiled their agreement.

"Great!" Marco beamed. "Let's get moving."

They'd taken no more than four or five steps when a lone, misshapen meatball limped out from under a Spam dispenser and rolled drunkenly across a small bare patch of tile. The Dixies froze, muscles tensed like spring-steel, noses quivering spastically. But, they didn't pounce. It looked to Tim as if they awaited a trigger to unleash their restrained energy. So, ever helpful, he provided it. "Fetch!"

"Oh, that was bad," Marco scolded, hands on hips, face stern.

"Hey, it worked!" Tim defended with angelic purity.

In fact, it did. Only too well.

A scramble ensued. The Dixies dove for the pathetic little ball, struggling ferociously to be the one to retrieve it for their hosts. A tangle of arms and legs, they banged against the vending machine. With its base unstable--damaged by the spin--the large heavy unit started to wobble.

Tim paled. "Oh, shit!" He dashed to the toppling brown behemoth, rammed his shoulder beneath it--too late to stop its descent. The tremendous weight strove to crush him to the floor, but he wouldn't let it. "Run!" he puffed, body shaking, sweat pouring.

Wide-eyed with surprise, the Dixies quickly clawed their way to safety. As the last sturdy white work shoe pulled clear, Tim wrenched himself free and let the machine drop. It struck the floor with a resounding CLANG! "Holy shit, that was too close," Tim rasped. Face drenched, heart and lungs working furiously, he sagged against a nearby wall.

A semi-circle of silent, stunned Dixies formed about him, staring, boring into him with their eyes.

"Yeah, yeah, you're welcome," he huffed, flopping a limp hand their direction.

Wordlessly, the Dixies approached, and approached.

Tim started to squirm. He pressed closer to the wall. "Ah, ladies, glad you're all right. No biggie here. Ahem."

The central Dixie hovered uncomfortably near his nose now. Slowly, she raised an arm, index finger extended.

"Um, 'scuse me, what are you doing?" Donnelly said, really starting to freak. He didn't think ritual nose-picking was their custom, but who the heck knew?

The rigid finger came closer, closer, until the Dixie pressed it across his upper lip under his nose. A loud gasp came from her associates.

"It is true!"

"He is The One!"

"Ooooooooooo!"

They fell to their knees, heads bowed.

The Dixie quickly withdrew her finger and genuflected so low her cap touched her shins. "You have saved our lives, Protector. We are eternally grateful."

"Protector? What the...?" Tim sputtered. "Look, I don't--"

"You are The Protector, The Wise One's trusted Earth companion!" the central Dixie insisted, motioning toward Henry's august countenance above the sofa. "Forgive us," she continued, eyes dark with guilt. "We did not recognize you without your lip fur."

Tim's jaw dropped. He wanted to explode into a maniacal chortle. The Gumption and its white-skirted denizens already strained his good sense to the breaking point. Now this--Protector? Well, why not? he reasoned to himself. If I'm gonna fall off the turnip truck, might as well do it with style. "Honest mistake," he replied with a wink. "Don't worry about it."

Relieved, the Dixie swooped to her shins again. "You are too kind, O Protector."

The cluster of Dixies proceeded to bow wave-like before him, and Tim soaked it up with almost deranged glee. One Dixie, though, broke away from the group of fawning worshipers and walked over to Marco, who stood gaping nearby. Tim watched as, prim white hat askew, hair mussed, she held out a somewhat disc-shaped Spam ball for Lopez's inspection. "Here is your food product," she reported proudly through red-smeared lips.

Gingerly, Marco grasped the offered meat disc with thumb and index finger. Nose wrinkled, he held it up to his eyes. Blonde hair, dirt specs--and Tim swore drool--clung to its facade, which slowly elongated.

Half of the dying Spam ball plopped to the floor as Marco looked at the victorious huntress. "Um, thanks." He glanced mournfully downward. "I think."

Finally popping his cork, Donnelly blasted a gut-wrenching laugh.

* * *

The floored heaved. The room surged, twisted. Kevin, eyes riveted to the computer monitor, simply clutched the sides of his desk.

* * *

"Easy, laddie. Get the feel of the beast," Commander Scottie instructed.

Stoker nodded. What little could be seen of his face radiated ecstacy. His equally-jubilant body sat in a white high-backed basket chair whose cushions molded themselves perfectly to his tall, hefty frame. To his right, the much smaller Scottie occupied a similar form-fitting seat. Opaque silver visors wrapped across their eyes; the visor's temples disappeared into their ears. Curving around to their mouths, tiny boom mikes provided audio communication, as the ear-pieces rendered them otherwise deaf. Between them, a gleaming, five-inch long bone-shaped rod floated on a magnetic repulser beam above a complex control panel. Stoker couldn't actually see this rod. In addition to making him deaf, the visor made him blind to the real world. Within the virtual world of the visor, however, he could see and hear just fine. Forearms resting on the control panel, he poised a hand lightly over the bone.

"Okay, laddie, remember, no more sharp jerky movements," Scottie cautioned. "Now go ahead and increase the speed a wee bit."

Gradually, attentively, Stoker pushed the bone up the panel. The visor rewarded him, further blurring the light streams in front of his eyes. Unlike the fighter jet maneuvers he toyed with a short while ago, forward acceleration did not create stomach-lurching bliss. Still, to be almost piloting a spaceship! He prodded the bone a little more, the grin on his face increasing.

"Notice how even though ye've got her halfway to light speed, ye dinnae feel the acceleration?" Scottie pointed out.

"Yeah. Why is that?"

"The Gumption's inertia dampeners throw a gravity-like attraction field in front of the ship. What this does is constantly pull the crew forward as the Gumption moves forward, making it feel like ye be standin' still. Without the dampeners, by the by, the tremendous speeds would make everyone so much mush on the aft bulkheads." Scottie whirled a finger above the bone-throttle. "Those fancy spins ye tried earlier, the dampeners cannae compensate for the turning forces. It's nae what they're designed to do. The fields they toss only work on linear movements."

"So, what exactly would the spins do?" Stoker asked, nudging the bone forward again. Yeeeeee-hah! ran through his thoughts.

"Well, laddie, they would nae turn the crew to mush, but they'd give 'em a right proper shakin'." Scottie winked. "Good thing ye just be muckin' with a simulator."

Stoker chuckled. "I'll be sure to remember that. So, what does--hey!" Unseen hands tore the visor from his head, painfully dislodging the earpieces. A white/black streak swiped his forearms off the console. Furry digits stabbed frantically at the revealed switches. Then, eyes still dazzled by the sudden transition, Stoker felt rather than saw more movement at his side as the attacker de-visored his mentor.

"Grrrrrrrrraarr! Watch what ye be doin'! 'Tis fragile equipment!" Scottie snapped, scrubbing sourly at her ears. "An' I am nae talkin' 'bout the headset!"

"Commander Scottie!" First Officer Spot roared, hands on hips, feet shoulder-width apart.

The first officer's ominous expression made Stoker's heart skip a beat. Behind her, a line of--armed!--Dixie's stood tautly alert with powerful-looking weapons at standby. Off to one side, looking decidedly rattled and battered, stood Randy Mantooth.

Stoker watched as color vanished from Scottie's face; she gulped loudly.

"Uh, sorry, Commander Spot. I dinnae know it 'twas ye standin' there," Scotty said. "Is, ah, anything wrong?" she added in cheery inquiry.

"Is anything wrong?" Spot bellowed. "Commander, were you aware that while you were playing your little games with our guest--" She gestured brusquely at Stoker. "--the main bridge helm control override had been activated?"

Amazingly, Scottie paled further. "Uh, nae, Commander. I dinnae know that had occurred. Um." She hesitated, bracing for the reply to her next question. "Did ye by any chance experience a, ah, wee bit of a spin?"

Spot's eyes glinted dangerously. "Why, yes we did," she answered with icy facetiousness. "Just a 'wee bit,' as you say."

"Oh." Scottie scrunched low into her seat. "'Twas an honest accident, ye understand."

"Save your explanations for the Captain, Commander," Spot replied, unmoved. One last shriveling look, then Spot strode over to the intercom imbedded in the piloting console. She punched a green button. "Captain, Spot here. Helm control should be returned to the main bridge now. Please confirm."

"Confirmed, Commander Spot," came Lassie's brisk response. "Have you ascertained the cause of the override?"

"Yes, Captain." Spot looked directly at Scottie. "The Chief Engineer was entertaining a guest."

Pause.

"I see. Commander, please escort Chief Engineer Scottie to the debriefing room on Level 10. I will meet with her shortly."

"Yes, Captain," Spot acknowledged, already turning to her task.

"Oh, and Commander--"

She spun back to the com unit. "Yes, Captain?"

"Please escort her 'guest' there, too."

Utter dread knotted Stoker's stomach as he felt the heat of Spot's redirected gaze.

"Yes, Captain. As you wish."

* * *

"Let me see if I have all the facts." Lassie paced, hands clenching and unclenching at her sides, in front of a rigidly attentive Scottie and a terrified Stoker. Behind the pair stood Spot in her customary pose; and behind Spot, Randy, Norell, Tim, Marco, and even a roused Kevin, formed a loose line. The captain had requested and required the attendance of all her guests.

Lassie commenced her summation. "You desired to entertain Mike Stoker as Mike Stoker by letting him use the piloting simulator on the auxiliary bridge. You entered your security clearances to access the program and began the simulation. Somehow, helm override was activated, and what was a harmless simulation became the real thing." She stopped in front of Scottie. "How did this happen, Commander?"

Speechless, Scottie shrugged.

"If I may, Captain?" Spot said.

"Go ahead," Lassie allowed, gaze still drilling Scottie.

"When I entered the auxiliary bridge with the security team, I immediately noted that Mike Stoker as Mike Stoker had his forearms lying over the helm console." Spot lifted a brow. "He may have unwittingly initiated the override sequence with his arms."

"And," Captain Lassie continued the hypothesis, "because Commander Scottie's high security clearances were already in the system, the computer accepted the override command."

Spot inclined her head. "That would appear to be the logical explanation, Captain."

Lassie leaned closer to Scottie. "I believe we will have to reduce your clearances, Commander."

"Yes, Captain," Scottie replied, grimly stoic.

Gaze lingering on her chief engineer, Lassie resumed pacing. "I do not think I need to tell you all how dangerous Commander Scottie's actions were." Lassie gestured toward Norell. "We were fortunate that Mike Norell as Hank Stanley's minor injuries were the worst inflicted." Sternly, she swept the men's faces with her gaze. "Even though you Men of Station 51 are our revered guests, for your own safety, and for the safety of the crew and this ship, we cannot allow you free rein and access to everything!" She halted in front of Stoker. "If you desire any more simulated piloting experiences, you may use the amusements in the crew's lounge. They are not able to override any ship's functions, and are quite enjoyable."

"Um, yes, ma'am," Stoker mumbled.

Lassie bobbed her head once. "Good. Commander Spot can direct you to the lounge if you need assistance." She stepped away from Stoker. "That is all. You are dismissed."

Men and Bas Seti filed gratefully out of the room with Scottie in the rear. When Commander Scottie reached the doorway, Captain Lassie surreptitiously tugged her sleeve.

"Scottie, one moment, please." She motioned with her head for the chief engineer to come closer.

Scottie turned and took a step. "Captain?"

After making sure the others had left, Lassie whispered, "What was the real reason you took him to the auxiliary bridge? You know about the flight simulators in the lounge. They would have been more than adequate for entertainment purposes." She got nose-to-nose with the commander. "Were you trying to solicit a donation from Mike Stoker as Mike Stoker in an exotic locale?"

Scottie blushed. "Captain! 'Twas nae my intent! See, 'tis more a matter of honor," she explained. "He's an engineer! A skilled pilot of the powerful Earth fire engines! I'd, ah...I'd hoped to teach him how to actually pilot the Gumption." She cringed as her captain raised both brows. "I could nae let such talent go languishing, now could I?" she added meekly.

"Ah hah. I see. Well, I am afraid his...talent...will have to languish. And Scottie, you are confined to quarters until further notice."

"Aye, Captain," she acknowledged mournfully. Slowly, though, her face brightened, and she added delightedly, "And thank ye! That'll give me a chance to study my technical journals!"

"Just make sure those 'journals' pertain to our mission, Commander Scottie," Lassie ordered with a wink.

A wry smile curled Scottie's lips. "Ach, ye be a hard bitch, Captain."

* * *

"Poor Scottie," Stoker bemoaned as he sat at dejectedly on the edge of his bunk. Shoes off, socks in hand, he slowly prepared for sleep. After his and Scottie's reprimand, the intensity of the day's events sank in, and he decided to get some rest. The other men, sharing his exhaustion, also retreated to the dorm. They hovered near their bunks in various stages of night-time rituals.

"Poor Scottie?" Norell griped while cautiously unbuttoning his stained shirt. He held up a scarred limb. "What about poor me? Sheesh, Stoker, if I'd known what a hot-shot driver you were, I'd never have let you ferry me around!"

"Yeah," Tim agreed, rubbing his bruised paunch through his white V-neck undershirt. "Bet you dreamed of doing 360s with the engine in the parking lot on your days off."

"As a matter of fact...." Stoker grinned.

"Bad, bad, Mikie," Tim taunted. "Bad, wicked, evil, naughty--yuck!"

Stoker nailed Donnelly with a pair of wadded black socks. "Seriously, guys," he said, truly contrite. "Sorry 'bout shaking you up like that."

"That's okay, Mike," Kevin reassured. "No real harm done."

"Yeah, I guess not," Stoker replied, not sounding convinced. "You sure looked a mess in the auxiliary bridge, Randy. You okay now?"

"Huh?" Already ensconced in his bunk, Randy peered out from under the arm draped across eyes. "Oh, I'm okay."

Stoker shook his head, "Man, I can't figure you out. Thought you'd grab this golden opportunity give me a piece of your famous mind."

"Lay off, Stoker," Mantooth snapped. The arm over his face started to tremble.

Stoker chuckled. "That's more like it." His eyes suddenly narrowed. "Saaay, what exactly were you doing with Commander Spot, anyway?"

Donnelly perked his ears. "Oh, you sly dog. Were you 'donating genetic material' already?"

With a loud sigh, Randy propped himself up on both elbows. "No, I wasn't 'donating' anything, Tim. She was just showing me around, okay? And as I already told Stoker, lay off!"

"Easy, big fellah. Message received," Tim replied with a snappy salute, then his gaze went to Randy's restless arms. "You left your cigarettes at the con, didn't you?"

"Yeah," Mantooth grumped. He flopped onto his side, snugging sheet and blanket up to his neck.

"Oh, that's rough," Marco sympathized from his bunk opposite Mantooth's. "I watched my uncle quit cold turkey. He practically went insane! Oops, sorry," he added when Randy gave him an evil glare.

"Talk to Commander Spot tomorrow, Randy," Kevin suggested. "Maybe their medical personnel can give you something that would help."

Randy shoved his hands into his armpits, trying to stop his shakes. "Thanks, Kev. I think I'll do that."

"Well, Randy, I wish you luck, but, gentlemen, I'm beat. Literally. Gotta get some sleep," Norell said as he eased his battered body under his covers. "Night. Or, whatever time it is."

"Night, Mike," the men replied.

"I'm hitting it, too," Marco said through a yawn.

One by one the others added their goodnights and composed themselves for rest. Soon, a harmonious chorus of snores filled the air. Randy, however, did not add his rasping tenor wheeze to the ensemble. Clutching his shivering body, he stared at the brick wall in front of his face, and pined for a Marlboro Light.

* * *

The air in corridor 1128, Level 9--just aft of the galley--shimmered. A willowy black shape wavered within the glimmering air, then solidified. Eyes--vivid green with black vertical slits for pupils--searched warily right, left, front, back. Velvet black ears cocked this way and that. White whiskers quivered.

A glint of sharpened incisor appeared as a malevolent smile curved thin black lips, then a furry black hand, claws retracted, reached into a waist pouch. The hand retrieved a starched white nurse's cap. With a triumphant purr, the hand settled the cap atop the being's head. The humanoid's body glowed brightly, then transformed into Dixie McCall.

With confident, swaggering elegance, the Gumption's newest Dixie clone set off for the service pantry.

* * *

End of Part One

Part Two