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PREFACE:

At the close of the Earth Year 2366, the Federation met its most formidable foe to date -- the Borg. Starting with the disappearence of the New Providence colony on Jouret IV on Stardate 43989.1, the next few weeks would be the most harrowing in recent memory for all the inhabitants of the Alpha Quadrant. By the slightest of margins, the Borg were prevented from assimilating the very center of the Federation -- Earth. It was a time in history where much has been said and reflected upon.

Which is probably one reason why our story takes place on the other side of Federation space, about a week or so before the New Providence colony is encountered by the Borg....

Cmdr Tom Restivo

Executive Officer/Chief of Communications

USS HIGHLANDER NCC-10530

Stardate 50854.2

 


RANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
by Lt Tom Restivo
Chief of Communications
USS CHRISTA MCAULIFFE NCC-860

"Colonel Walker, ma'am," came the voice over the combadge, "short-range sensors have picked up a Federation vessel approaching. Scans confirm it to be the MCAULIFFE, and it should be within transporter range within fifteen minutes."

"Heading to the transporter now, Walker out." With that, Colonel Cheryl Walker, the Commander of the illustrious Black Sheep Squadron, slung her gunny sack, containing necessities and amenities, over her shoulder and headed toward the turbo lift. As she entered the lift, she noticed that it was already occupied by Cmdr Peggy Ingram, who offered to escort the Colonel to the Transporter Room.

"I'm surprised, Cheryl. The orders came from the Fleet Admiral... herself??" inquired the Lt Colonel hesistantly. "I'm aware of Starfleet's long-standing encouragement for full participation in the Officers Exchange Program by all ships, but not from..."

"..so high up?" replied Colonel Walker. "And with a ship on the fringes of Region 7? Highly irregular. But the MCAULIFFE has undergone a change of command recently. However, the captain has been in the Fleet for over ten years, and this is his second command, so he probably doesn't need too much guidance...."

"Again, why the assignment?"

Cheryl paused. "Officially and on the record, my status on the MCAULIFFE will be as an observer and advisor, availing myself to the new captain on the rigors of command, projecting a positive role-model for leadership as the 'Leader of the Elite Starfleet Rangers', of what Starfleet expects in its Commanders, and all that drivel. Off the record, the Exec Comm has heard a lot of scuttlebutt about the MCAULIFFE, and their reputation precedes them. Some of it is rather dubious. They have an..." Pause. "...unconventional perspective of life, and their escapades have become legendary, bordering on apocryphal..."

"Like when the Admirality Board presented Captain's Bars to the new Commanding Officer, and the officers and crew showed up in their jammies?"

"Could have been worse," commented the Colonel, smiling, "they could have shown up dressed for a Betazoid wedding."

"But, in that case, where would the Fleet Admiral have pinned the bars?" Commander Ingram winced in mock pain as the doors to the turbolift opened.

"Some of the reports I've heard have troubled more that just the bureaucratic paper-pushers upstairs. The rank-and-file from the region. I think that they think I would have a good influence on the officers and crew, and that by example, they would fall in line to the Starfleet standard."

"A leader of a group of misfits serving as an example for another group of misfits?" observed Peggy. The irony was not lost on the Mutha Sheep.

"Then again, Mad Dog said that if I encountered any trouble, then stronger means could be employed at my discretion," replied the Colonel, tapping the phaser on her belt, as the two women entered the transporter room.

"We have a visual, ma'am," replied the voice o'er the intercom, "and we are being hailed by the MCAULIFFE."

"Thank you. Pipe it down here," replied Colonel Walker, as she got her first look at the Gagarin-class Science Survey Vessel at the viewscreen near the transporter controls.

"Coo roo coo coo coo coo COO COO..." The two Rangers looked at each other with disbelief as the MCAULIFFE transmitted a series of high-pitched avian-like tones. "COOO roo-coo-coo-coo-coo-coo-cooooo! G'day, eh? And greetings from the USS CHRISTA MCAULIFFE to the USS RANGER. Beauty, eh?"

Cmdr Ingram turned to Colonel Walker and said, "Maybe you should ask the Veitch to escort you over..."

Colonel Walker ignored her and turned to the intercom. "This is Colonel Cheryl Walker of the USS RANGER. On behalf of the STARFLEET RANGERS, we welcome the presence of the USS MCAULIFFE. I'm prepared to beam over."

"Beauty, eh!" exclaimed the high-pitched voice. "Like, we'll see you over here, eh? MCAULIFFE out."

"Commander Ingram," replied the Colonel-Captain, "it's a science ship and I'm a Ranger. Look, how many missions have we've gone through, risking life and limb? Look on it as a vacation away from Mutha Sheep. We'll rendezvous back at these coordinates in three days. Just keep the ship in one piece and the crew out of mischief."

"Colonel..." Peggy had that worried tone in her voice.

"Lt Colonel, you have your orders," stated the Colonel as she stepped on the transporter pad. "See you in three days. Energize!"

The familiar surroundings of the RANGER transporter room were quickly melded into a more dank and clastrophobic setting. The form of the RANGER's First Officer was supplanted by a large and sturdy figure, whose black curls were confined under a black baseball cap with a red 'B' emblazened in the front. However, the cap could not confide the streaks of white which peppered the curls.

"Captain Cheryl Walker, Commanding Officer of the USS RANGER, requesting permission to come aboard."

The towering figure paused, and then replied, "Oh, yeah, come on down."

Cheryl hesistated, then inquired, "Excuse me, but whom do I have...?"

The figure, wearing a blue T-shirt and jeans, responded and shook hands. "Colonel Walker, I'm Captain Howard Cronson. Welcome aboard the MCAULIFFE. Just call me Ho, or Number One."

"'Ho' I can understand," replied Colonel Walker, "but isn't 'Number One' the nickname for First Officers?"

"Well, I've had it for so long," explained Ho, "that it doesn't look like this 'Number One' thing will die out very soon. Besides, it's a shame to give up a perfectly good nickname just for a mere promotion."

As they made their way down the narrow passageways, Cheryl couldn't help but notice the telltale signs of wear-and-tear to the science survey starship, completing its first five-year mission, compared to the pristine state of her own newly-commissioned Frederikstad-class vessel.

"Well, it's not pretty, but we like to call it home", acknowledged Number One. "Besides, we've undergone some serious refits in the past year. Used to be a bit bigger on the inside. Also, we've had to be refurbished for some moves from port to port in the region. Changed the entire personality of the vessel in the process." He sighed. "I kinda wished you were able to visit us a year or so ago. You might have enjoyed the Blues Mansion at...."

Howard wasn't able to complete his thoughts. Cheryl had tumbled over a grizzly-bearded crewmember slumped over near a doorway. Surprisingly, he continued to snore away, undisturbed by the stumble.

Howard turned back. "Are you OK, Captain?"

"What... huh... what is this man...?" asked Cheryl, catching her breath.

"Oh, that's Paul Cooperstein," explained Number One. "He's our senior enlisted security specialist."

"That's one of your security guards? Asleep on the job?? Aren't you suppose to put him on report?"

Howard paused. "Well, then, I'd have to wake him up. Besides, he looks so peaceful. Maybe later on. C'mon, let's get you to your room."

The Captain and the Colonel boarded a turbolift, where music was disseminating from the ceiling.

"Crew Quarters." The turbolift started to move. "Any requests?"

"Requests?"

"Yeah, for music." Ho pointed to the ceiling.

"Your discretion," said Cheryl.

Howard nodded. "Music, early Beatles." The turbo responded with "Twist and Shout".

Cheryl kept subtle time. "Catchy." Unfortunately, they had arrived on the proper deck.

"You can crash in our room, with me and Karen and Steve. We have space here," said Howard, as they entered the compartment. Books, posters, papers, and unwashed clothing covered various sections of the room. Like the rest of the ship, the room reeked of 'communal domesticity', though a woman's touch was definitely present.

"You don't have individual quarters?" inquired Cheryl, as she found a clean corner of the room to stow her gear.

"Excuse the pun, but space is tight on board, so we have to double and triple up. Except for the Little Guy. He has his own room."

"Where?"

"In one of the Jefferies Tubes. Would you like to see the ship or get something to eat?"

"How about both?"

Again, the two captains made their way down the corridors of the ship, down the turbolift, and onto a deck much wider and cleaner than other levels. As soon as they exited the lift, a piercing cry reverberated the halls.

"NOOOOOO!! NOOOO!!! KARREENNNN!!!"

Howard turned to Cheryl. "Sounds like the Little Guy is getting his physical."

No sooner did he mention this when they were met by two figures bolting down the passageway at warp speed. The first, a diminutive fellow clutching a brown fedora with Lieutenant's (junior grade) bars, hid behind the commanding officer in sheer terror. The second, a slender figure sheathed in the blue of the medical department, grinned maliciously as her hands flexed in faux groping.

"Looks like your reflexes are in excellent order, Little Guy," she concluded with glee.

"No, no more tickle therapy!" pleaded the lieutenant.

"I don't even have to touch him. Look at this." She demonstrated by feigning a grasp to the lieutenant's midriff. He, in turn jumped three meters.

Howard, in his best nonchalant tone, said, "Uh, guys, this is Colonel Cheryl Walker from the USS RANGER. Colonel, this is Lieutenant Tom Restivo, Chief of Communications and 'Little Guy', and this is Commander Karen Duffy, our Chief Medical Officer."

"Elli YFNCMO at your service," greeted the Friendly Neighboorhood CMO.

"How do I pronounce that last name again?"

"You don't," replied the CMO. "You just read it."

"Oh, YOU'RE the Captain Colonel I talked to," replied the Little Guy. "Howzigoin, eh?"

"Cheryl and I were going to the Rec Hall to get something to eat. Would you like to join us?"

"We'd be honored," replied Karen.

"Plus it'd be a great literary device to introduce the rest of our zany crew to the reader," added the Little Guy.

"Uh?" queried Cheryl.

"Just go with it," suggested Howard, sotto voce.

As Howard, Tom, and Karen escorted Colonel Walker down the corridors to the Rec Hall, the Leader of the Black Sheep turned to the Captain. "I was wondering, Ho," asked Cheryl, "if you are now Commanding Officer, who has your old position as Exec?"

"That would be Commander Bill Duffy," replied Howard. "He was Chief of Ops..."

"And our new Ops Chief is Commander Rick Giguere, who was our old Communications Chief," added Tom, "who was replaced by me."

"Got all that?" inquired Karen.

"You people move up the ranks faster than those on a Klingon ship," remarked Cheryl.

"Um, yeah, but it's more fun this way." concurred Karen, as she made another reach for the Little Guy.

"We'll be meeting the rest of the crew in the Rec Hall, I presume?" asked the Colonel.

"Oh, we'll be meeting everyone in one form or another," assured Number One.

"Well, maybe not *everyone*," replied Karen drily.

"Howzat?" queried Captain Walker.

"Um, we're not going to go into that in this story," said Howard in a mild rebuke, "this is suppose to be humorous and not a McAuliffan soap opera."

"Uh-oh," warned Tom, "too late!"

Suddenly, they were stopped by a tall thin person wearing a Dick Tracy T-Shirt with a Mike Jittlov logo button and a Dick Tracy-yellow fedora. Howard abruptly informed the figure, "Before you ask, the answer is 'No way', not until I get..."

"Aw geez, Howard, I promise to pay you back," lamented the crewmember. "I just need ten credits to..."

"Read our lips," reiterated Karen. "EN-OH, No!"

He looked down at the Little Guy. "Say, Tom..."

"Uh-uh," responded the Communications Chief. "I'm tapped out already."

He then turned to Cheryl and said, "Oh, G'day, eh? I'm Lt Pseudonym. Howzigoing, eh?" He pointed and exclaimed, "Oh, beauty toque!"

"My what?" questioned the Colonel.

"He means your hat, your beret," explained Ho.

"Say, maybe you can help me," continued the lieutenant. "Y'see, I need some anti-matter in my shuttle to get to the next system. I was wondering if you could..."

"No, she couldn't," interrupted Karen. "Now, if you don't mind, we're on our way to the Rec Hall..."

"Oh, geez, can I come along?" he pleaded.

"No, you're only doing a cameo in this story," replied the Little Guy. "We have too many crewmembers to introduce to the Colonel." And with that, the quartet headed off, as the corridor reverberated with the wail, "Nooo.. wait.... I want to STAYYYYY..."

As the echoes subsides, silence overtook the group. Then Tom blurted out, "So, how 'bout those Knicks?"

"Nix?" asked Cheryl.

"No, you shouldn't laugh," added Karen.

Captain Walker turned to Captain Cronson. "Do you know what they are talking about?"

"Unfortunately, I do," replied the Ho. "But like I said, 'just go with it'."

As the officers turned down another passageway, they were startled by a figure dressed in full battle-dressed garb, brandishing two vintage M-16 semiautomatic rifles. Captain Walker instinctively reached for her phaser, but froze as the figure let out a battle cry and, with bravado, barrelled towards the group.

As she drew her phaser, the figure knocked it out of her hand with lightning speed and attempted to thrust one of the rifles into her, ahem, person. The Colonel dodged the charging warrior and, using the rifle as a lever, tossed the figure headlong into a wall, acquiring the rifle.

That maneuver would have knocked out most combatants -- whether or not padded. However the figure bounced back -- and off the wall. Holding the spare rifle like a Vulcan lirpa, the figure tripped the Colonel and pinned her shoulders to the ground. However, with a bit of Ranger reserve (and an old-wives' maneuver she learned on Tech-Sys), Mutha Sheep used a free leg to send massive amount of pain to the figure's groin area and threw him back off her person. The disheveled attacker, disoriented from the blow, groaned softly as he was disarmed by the Black Sheep Leader.

Howard, Karen, and Tom looked on in amazement.

"You beat up FRED!" exclaimed Howard.

"At least in this version," thought Tom.

"This means something," remarked the CMO.

"Fred?" replied Cheryl, "Fred who?"

"No, just FRED," corrected Karen, noting the capitals.

"Uuh?!" moaned FRED in confusion and disappointment. "That's not suppose to happen."

Karen gave FRED a quick look-over. "You'll live, but that's gonna leave a mark."

"Um, FRED," said Howard, "this is Captain Cheryl Walker of the USS RANGER. She's the leader of the Starfleet Rangers. They're suppose to be... like FRED."

"Pleased to meet you," acknowledged the living icon.

"Same here," responded Captain Walker, who then handed back the captured rifle. "Do you want your toy back?"

"FRED, we're going to the Rec Hall to meet everyone else. Why don't you come along?"

"Why not?" and the quartet became a quintet.

"Geez," remarked the Little Guy, "picking up people in every scene, it's just like 'The Wizard of Oz'. I wonder if we should be breaking out in song..."

Before Tom could continue, Karen took the fedora off his head and whacked it on same. "Boot to the Head!" she decreed.

"OW!" he replied. "I hate when that happens!"

Howard commented to Cheryl, "Feel free to use your beret. Hat-bashing is an effective form of discipline we use on board to keep the crew in line, especially the Little Guy."

Cheryl turned to FRED and said, "Y'know, FRED, I was really impressed with your tactical hand-to-hand moves and holds. You remind me a lot of the Veitch, only much much younger."

"The veech?"

"No, the Veitch," corrected the Colonel. "He's our, ah, version of you. You might not know this, but the RANGERS are STARFLEET-wide. We could use a person like you in our ranks..."

"But why?" queried FRED.

"Because we're always looking for a few good people."

"But I'm FRED," he insisted, "what else would I need?"

"I don't give up this easily," replied Cheryl. "Let's talk later, in private, one-to-one..."

"Oh-HOOO!" The Little Guy let out a wolf-whistle and a few grunts that Cheryl remembered hearing from some Ferengi in a seedy bar on Tantalus Five. She removed her beret and whacked Tom on the side of his head.

"Hey," replied Karen, "you're learning fast. Beauty!"

"Here's the Rec Hall," Captain Cronson announced, and the group made its way into the room.

As they entered the crowded and bustling Rec Hall, the first thought that ran through Captain Cheryl Walker's mind was the relative roominess of the hall despite the diminutive outward appearence of the ship's size. The walls were decorated with posters advertising pre-holographic movie pictures which involved such diverse methods as live action film, computer animation, stop-action pixellation, and marionation. At the front of the hall, gold tassles adorned a framed picture of Academy-aged students hoisting alcoholic beverages in jubilation and indicating their group's top social and academic ranking with a hand gesture (or so she was told). Some other pictures featured two dark-suitted young men wearing sunglasses (one of which reminded Cheryl of FRED) who seemed to enjoy lively music with African-American origins. Over the center of the hall hung an inflated sperm whale, with a model of the science survey ship and other ship classes hanging in close proximity. A mixed aroma of over-cooked pizza and under-fermented beer enveloped the room. A stereo sound system, blaring out Billy Joel, competed with a video display broadcasting a Red Sox/Yankees ballgame. Not only was there tables and chairs in the hall, but a couple of couches and pillows, inhabited and occupied by a few unconscious souls, were located in a spare corner in the back.

Howard tried to draw the attention of those in attendance to their guest, but the din was too overwhelming to be heard. Finally, he went over to a lieutenant, large in size and omnivorous in appetite, and whispered something in his ear. The titanic officer emitted a ear-splitting "HEY!" that would have shattered pure neutronium.

As the room subsided to a murmur, Captain Cronson announced, "Uh, people, this is Captain Cheryl Walker from the USS RANGER. She's going to be staying on board for a few days." Pause. "Cheryl, this is everyone."

The crew responded in unison: "Hi, Cheryl!"

Captain Walker cleared her voice and said, "On behalf of the STARFLEET RANGERS, I am honored to be stationed on temporary duty aboard your fine ship. My talents and skills are at your disposal. I hope that I may be able to serve with distinction and...."

As she was talking, a scruffied-bearded, bespectacled figure, attired in a black-and-white Starfleet Uniform and wearing a malformed yellow-white chapeau, interrupted the Mutha Sheep. "Howard, do you know what the hell she's talking about? I dunno..."

Howard leaned over to the Colonel. "If you haven't noticed, we're very informal around here. Don't take it too personal."

Cheryl decided to adapt her style with this advice and asked, "OK, Howard, who the hell is this?"

The two-toned commander stood up half-way and announced, "I'm Commander Bill Duffy, I'm the First Officer, and damn glad to meet you."

An equally hirsute and informally dressed officer replied, "He's Commander Bill Duffy. He's damn glad to meet you."

"Actually," replied Bill, "This is Mojo Lebowitz, or 'Adam' to his friends. He's our Vice Chief of Communications."

"Oh," responded Cheryl, "that's your assistant,... Little Guy?"

"No," explained Tom, "he's the Chief of Vice in Communications."

"And I have to warn you, Adam," said Ho. "Cheryl's married and has a daughter."

"Plus, she beat up FRED," added Elli, "so you better watch yourself."

"It was a lucky shot, pure and simple," insisted FRED.

"And that's Commander Rick Giguere," continued Number One. "He's the Chief of Operations, as you know."

At the sound of his name, a slightly balding, mustached fellow lifted his head from a technical manual and drawled in a sing-song fashion, "Hey, Cheryl. Howzit hangin'?"

"And that was the 'HEY' who got everyone to shut up," informed the Ho. "He's Lieutenant Dave Adams, but we won't bother him now. He's busy."

"And over there is Chris DeIulio, our Chief Science Officer," he continued, pointing to an inanimate object. "Hey, Chris, say hi to Cheryl here!"

"Uhh?" responded the curly-headed object.

"Don't worry about him," replied a short, perky blue-eyed blond next to Chris, "he just pulled an all-nighter." She turned to Chris. "It's nothing. Go back to sleep." Chris took the advice to heart.

"Oh, that's See-Pee-Oh Sue Herzberg, our astrophysicist and Chris'.... friend," explained Little Guy.

Cheryl noticed some commotion and giggling going on in the back of the hall. "Is everyone okay back there?" she asked.

Howard turned a slight shade of red. "Eh, that's um..."

Two figures emerged from the dark corner, male and female. They were both wearing STARFLEET-issued jackets and caps. Cheryl had never seen any couple holding on to one another since, well, her first few months with her consort on Tech-Sys.

"That's the Admiral and his Missus," informed Karen.

The male held out his hand. "Admiral Dave Ryan, former CO of the MCAULIFFE and Commanding Officer of the shuttle HOOD, at your service. Are we having fun yet?"

"Hi, I'm Lieutenant Commander Leslie Ryan," replied the female. "I'm the Admiral's Woman and his Exec on the HOOD. Welcome aboard, Cheryl."

"They're newlyweds," interjected the Little Guy.

Cheryl smiled and whispered to Howard her analogous thoughts between the Ryans and the Walkers. Howard shut his eyes tight and unsuccessfully stifled a giggle or two.

The Little Guy interrupted the Ho in mid-snicker. "When do we eat?"

"Um, yeah, Howard, why don't we all sit down and get something to eat before the HEY takes it all?" suggested Karen. "Cheryl, there's pizza over there, and we have soda and beer in the cooler..."

And as the rest of the group helped themselves, Colonel Walker returned to the table with two slices of pepperoni pizza and a can of Dr Pepper and engaged in conversation with the top-ranking officers.

"I recruited Howard for STARFLEET about ten years ago," explained Dave. "And when the MCAULIFFE was commissioned, Howard came along as my Exec. Bill and Karen rejoined the FLEET a few months later, and then Chris came along. Among us five, there's about, oh, thirty, thirty-five years of STARFLEET experience, in one form or another. We all go way back, in one form or another."

Mutha Sheep nodded in admiration. "So I understand. But I must say, Admi- um, Dave, your reputation does precedes you. That *is* one of the reasons of my TDY."

"Oh, we've earned our reputation, no question," smiled Howard, then added soberly, "though we're aware that some of it is currently getting out of hand."

"Well, if you take a good look," noted Bill, "it's a pretty large and diverse ship. Once you get to know us, it's gets hard to pigeon-hole us in any category. Except we like to have a good time and party."

"That's true," concurred Cheryl. Say, how many crew members *do* you have aboard, Howard?"

"Let me check." Number One announced, "MCAULIFFE, count off!"

Again the hall responded in unison: "ONE!!"

Howard deadpanned, "We have one crewmember."

"What, eh -- oh, 'just go with it'," said Cheryl.

"Well, this ship and the people aboard have gone through some rough times, especially in the last year or so," observed Dave, "but regardless of what the future brings, it's always been my greatest desire that we all remain friends."

"Hear hear!" toasted Cheryl in agreement. "Comradeship and collegiality are vital in any environment, especially for such social creatures as us humans. Those attributes are necessary for RANGERS, I mean, we *have* to get along in order to function as a cohesive unit, but it's a good blueprint for life in general."

"Well, if you don't have friendship," added Dave, "then you just have back-biters and nit-pickers who make things miserable, and life is too short for that sh*t. Howard and I have had our share of ass..."

"...personalities." interjected Howard. "Cheryl, your group is relatively new. If you people come across any bureaucratic bozos,..."

Suddenly, a black-sheathed person came to the table and declared, grinning, "Say, you're a mighty handsome Starfleet Captain, Cheryl Walker."

Bill responded in mock surprise, "Why, that's right! And say, see how he quickly he incorporated your name into the conversation! Just by reading your nametag. That's a mighty handsome fellow, there."

Howard interjected. "Oh, Cheryl, this is Kevin Maguire, our... our..." Ho hesistated, then turned around. "Say, Kev, what do you do aboard?"

"Ohhh-- I usually cause trouble and rant and rave," explained Kevin, sitting down. "Like now f'r instance. Y'know, this going to each individual member of the crew and introducing them one by one with vignettes... and then droning on and on about friendship and camaraderie might be great for a Michener novel, but here, it's starting to be a real hebatude. By the time we see some real action in this story, Wesley Crusher will be an Admiral..."

"That's true," concurred Cheryl as she finished her crust. "We should move on to the rest of the ship."

With that, Howard and the rest of the entourage escorted Captain Walker up to the bridge.

"BUM... BUM... BUM...," intoned Bill in Jerry Goldsmith-esque tones, "BUM BUM BUM BUM!"

"I appreciate your offer for... assistance, gentlemen," Cheryl told Howard and Dave in a hesistant tone, "but we Black Sheep have a long tradition of telling the brass where to go and how to get there. At times, it makes me think that we've worked out a frequent flyer program with Ol' Scratch himself. So you shouldn't worry; we can get in and out of trouble faster than a Terran hummingbird."

"What a boring cliche," sighed Tom.

"I've had my share of clashes with STARFLEET," she continued, "so I don't need anyone's shoulder to cry on." She smiled in FRED's direction. "As you noticed, I can handle myself pretty well. Rather, it is I who should avail myself and my Sheep to you if you find yourself in trouble...."

"Pay no attention to them, Cheryl," confided Leslie, as she gave a playful jab to her husband's tummy. "Besides, they sometimes consider it a moral imperative to stir up trouble all by themselves."

"ME?" The Admiral replied, bewildered, before surrendering to his new bride's wiles.

The group of a dozen or so entered the turbolift to the bridge, when the Little Guy wondered, "How can we all fit in here, if this is suppose to be a small ship?"

"Little Guy," sighed the Admiral impatiently. "This is SF. Don't you know that the only limit is your imagination??"

The lift shuddered with a whimper as the HEY placed his mighty frame onto the car.

"Though this is somewhat stretching it," replied Leslie.

"Bridge," Bill informed the lift, as it groaned upwards (relatively).

"Uh, oh," Karen replied innocuously, as she stooped down. "I dropped my pin. Don't anyone move."

"OK, people," announced Ho. "What do we want to listen to?" After hearing suggestions for Huey Lewis, Travelling Wilburys, Billy Joel, Moody Blues, Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper, Rolling Stones, and Mantovani (huh?), Number One turned to Colonel Walker and asked, "You have a preference?"

"Let's see," she mused, "How about some Kansas? Or Eagles, Classic? Or... ah! I know!" She cleared her throat and instructed, "ZZ Top, 'Legs', extended version."

After a few milliseconds for the ship's computer to search the library's banks for the selection, the vicious bass and drums of Messers. Hill, Gibbons, and Beard filled the confines of the cramped turbo, with the McAuliffans singing along with remarkable resonance.

"Oh jeez," complimented Mojo. "this song rules, Captain."

"I thought you people from Tech-Sys only liked songs about cryin' in your beer and your hound dog dyin'..." remarked Tom.

"Yeah, definitely don't like crying in your beer," added Bill. "It dilutes the alcoholic content."

"And I was led to believe that people from Starbase: Boston always 'pahked their cah in Hahvahd Yahd' and talked funny..." countered Colonel Walker with a smile.

"Well, I'm not originally from the Starbase..." said Adam.

"Well, yeah," interrupted Tom. "You talk normal! Just like the Colonel-Captain!"

"If you mean that I don't have a traditional Tech-Sys accent," replied Cheryl, "just wait until I'm tired or drunk...," then with a glare from her green-gold eyes, "...or very, very ANGRY, Mister. At that point, it wouldn't matter if you understood or not."

"Bridge level," announced the Admiral. "Helm, Navigation, and Ladies' Lingerie. Everybody out."

As the doors opened to the bridge, the group emptied out quickly. Cheryl tried to move with the flow, but found herself stumbling and falling. As she rolled over, she discovered that the shoelaces from her boots had been untied and reknotted together so tightly that Gordius himself would have been envious.

"Oops," remarked Bill, "Hi, Mom!"

"I hate when that happens," remarked Rick.

A figure wearing a Hawaiian T-shirt over a Fred Flintstone pull-over rose from the Command Chair and looked at the scene. "Hell-o, are you OK?"

"Y'know, Cheryl," Howard said, as he helped the struggling Captain to a posterior position, "if you gonna keep falling down on us like this, we're gonna have cut down your intake."

"KA-REN!" Bill intoned to the CMO. "Did you tie Colonel Walker's shoelaces together?"

"I couldn't have," Elli replied with a not-so-innocent smile. "I may be cute but I'm not efficient. At least not that much." With that, Bill took off his hat, and soundly thrashed the Little Guy on the head.

"Why did you do that?" asked Cheryl, as she worked on untying the knots. "I don't understand."

"Well, it's more fun that way," said Rick, "I mean, you wouldn't expect us to hit someone on the Command Staff, would you?"

"Besides, he's such a little guy," added Bill.

Captain Walker looked up and saw a red-tipped cane leaning against the helm control. The crewmember operating the console, who was Hispanic in appearance, seemed somewhat confused with all the commotion. "Wh-what's going on, Jack?"

Slowly, Cheryl came to the realization: "You... you can't see, can you?"

The mustached man in the multi-colored shirt replied, "Yeah, a blind person at the helm of a starship. Novel concept, eh?"

The helmswoman relaxed and trilled, "Oh, I see. You're the one from the RANGER. I'm Petty Officer Marta Rodriguez. I'm the designated driver for the MCAULIFFE. How am I doing, Jack?"

"Just fine," replied Jack. "Oh, Captain Walker, how do you do? I'm Commander Jack Eaton, but you can call me 'Towaway'. Everyone else does. But don't ask, it's a long story. Just trust me."

"So you're the one they call the Mother Sheep," droned a gold-shirted figure from the Communications Station. The dark-skinned officer strolled up to the Colonel and rested his arm on the back of the Command Chair. "Well, baa baa, Black Sheep, have you any wool? And if so, is it vir-"

"Um, Cheryl," said Cap'n Ho quickly, "this is Ensign Kevin Clanton. He's our Senior Communications Officer." He turned to Kevin, "Kev, I wouldn't fool around with Captain Walker..."

"Yeah, yeah, I heard," replied Kevin, "she beat up FRED and she gave the Little Guy a Boot to the Head..."

"But how did you know all that if you've been up here all this time?" asked the Colonel.

"There are three ways to pass the word around on this ship," answered Rick, "telegraph, telephone, and tell-a-McAuliffan."

Howard continued with more introductions. "At the Science Station, we have Mark Schrault..."

The bushy-headed, crimson-mustachioed waved and replied, "Hey, dude, howzi-going?"

"And next to him is Regina Forbes.."

The astrophysicist with the long blond tresses looked up from her datapadd and said, "Hi, Cheryl, welcome!"

"Over at the Engineering Station, is our Chief Engineer and me 'n' Karen's roommate, Steve Gehm..."

The Ho-sized ensign stood up and shook hands. "Pleasure t' meet you," he mumbled.

"Over at Navigation is Dan Devitt, our Junior Engineering Officer..."

The young officer looked behind to the conn and uttered, "'Lo," then went back to his controls.

"And near the door is our Chief of Security, John Gisetto."

The security chief acknowledged the captain, saying, "For my security section, it's an honor and pleasure to have you aboard, ma'am."

"Is that everyone, Howard?"

Pause. "That's all that we can fit in this story at the moment..." replied Number One.

"Unless I get some grant money from the NEA," added the Little Guy.

"Hey," came a voice from the rear, "don't I get a part in all this? After all, I'm the liasion officer for the shuttle MACDONALD..."

"This is Francis Boyd," said Towaway, "he works with me on our shuttle, the GEORGE." Towaway walked over to Francis and said, "Sorry, but in this case, you're off on a mission with Nicole and the rest of the MACDONALD..."

Francis headed into the turbolift and responded, "Wait until *I* get a chance to write..." Then the bridge was hit with a deadening lull.

"When do we eat?" interjected Steve.

"We did that already," informed Howard.

"How about those Knicks?" asked Mark.

"We did that one, too," replied Karen.

"Sensors picking up an unidentified vessel closing rapidly," announced Dan.

"I don't remember that one in the glossary," responded Tom.

"Uh...no! I don't think that's what he meant," replied Towaway, as he pointed the ever-growing image of the alien starship on the viewscreen.

"Bogus, dudes!" exclaimed Mark, "I'm confirming the vessel as a Ferengi Marauder."

"If anyone is interested," added Ensign Kevin, "we're also being hailed by the ship."

"Put it on audio, Kev," ordered the Ho, and with his best posturing stance, replied, "This is Captain Howard R. Cronson of the USS CHRISTA MCAULIFFE, representing the United Federation of Planets..."

"Federation vessel, you will surrender control to us immediately," came the reply. "Your ship is now property of the Ferengi."

Startled, Howard turned to Dave in confusion. "Don't look at me," the Admiral replied, "this never happened when I was in command."

"We have duly purchased your vessel from one of your Federation representatives," continued the voice, "and we are now prepared to board her..."

"...but I'm not," interrupted Howard, and signaled to Kevin to cut the transmission. "Steve, put the ship on Yellow Alert. Dan, shields up. Little Guy, take over Communications and get Alex or Jeanette or somebody to see what the hell this is all about. I'm not doing anything they say until I get a straight story."

"Oh, sure," complained Ensign Kev, as he surrendered his post, "as soon as things start to come alive, the Little Guy gets to do all the fun stuff."

"I can't get through subspace," replied Tom in a frustrated tone, "the Ferengi have it jammed."

"Too many buttons to push, lieutenant?" the ensign slyly suggested.

"Then let's see what our buck-toothed entrepreneurs are babbling about. Audio on." Howard sighed. He raised his head and said, "Ferengi vessel, we are unaware of any so-called agreement between representatives of our two respective governments. Please repeat and be more specific."

"Federation vessel," repeated the alien craft, "we reiterate that you are now the property of the Ferengi. It is unnecessary for us to prove our case, since you are now our property. Your compliance in this case had been assured by your envoy. However, your actions to prevent boarding are in violation of our agreement between our two governments. We must warn you: if you do not accede to our right of acquisition, we will be forced to use stronger methods."

"Yeah," mocked Mojo, shaking his fist near his groin area, "I've got your stronger methods right here."

"The Ferengi are powering up their forward weapons systems," replied Regina.

"OK, I'm not happy about this, people," announced the McAuliffan Captain, "but these twerps seem to want to mix it up... Steve, Red Alert. Dan, standby on weapons, and all that. Little Guy, send this message: Attention Ferengi Vessel, 'GET A LIFE!' End message." But before the communique could be delivered, the MCAULIFFE shook violently and suddenly.

"Uh-Oh, Howard," observed Steve, "they've got a tractor beam locked on us."

"Marta, break us out into Warp..."

"Can't do, Howard," responded Marta, "the warp engines are being disabled by the beam!"

"Switch to impulse..."

"Impulse engines are engaged, but they're too weak to overcome the tractor beam," replied Marta.

"Dan, lock phasers onto the tractor beam and fire, point blank..."

"The beam's locked into our weapons subsystems," Dan answered. "Any shot into their beam might boomerang right back at us and shatter the ship... and us, too!"

"Sort of like the old Warner Brothers cartoons where the rabbit plugs up the hunter's gun," analogized Jack, "and the hunter pulls the trigger..."

"Da-ave," squealed Leslie, "do something!"

Admiral Ryan looked at the viewscreen in abject horror at the situation. "JACK! THEY'RE TOWING THE SHIP AWAY!"

"And you were all wondering how we were going to work that term into this," thought Tom.

The bridge crew watched the image of the Ferengi Marauder, hauling the Federation Science Survey Starship as a garbage scow tugs its load, in startled silence.

Then, Bill speculated to himself, "What would FRED do?"

Almost on cue, the ardent arete appeared on the bridge, dressed in contemporary Federation-issue battletech gear, and roared, "KILL!!!"

"Sorry," Security Chief Gisetto responded by rote, "but Starfleet policy restricts the use of deadly force to solve situational conflicts, even faced with imminent danger, except as a last resort."

"Damn genre limitations!" exploded FRED, slamming his disrupter on a console. The weapon discharged accidently, just missing the ship's cryptologist.

"HEY! Sselkcid!" yelled the HEY, "Watch where you're aiming that thing!"

Through all this, Colonel Walker had remained conspicuously quiet. She leaned back in the Command Chair, curled her lips like Carroll's Cheshire Cat, and whispered, "The poor bastards. They've got us outnumbered, outpositioned, outgunned..."

Howard turned his head to Cheryl. "Did you say something, Captain?"

"..and they don't have a chance," she replied, with a look of a person who had received a private revelation from the Creator.

"Uh-oh," said Karen, "I don't like that look in her eyes. At least I wouldn't like it, if I was a Ferengi."

"I have a plan, people," announced Cheryl, "that might just get us out of our predicament." She motioned to the crewmembers to gather closer for a conference, adding "But I'll need the support of everyone to pull it off." Quietly and methodically, she outlined a course of action that elicited reaction ranging from unbridled enthusiasm to apathetic skepticism.

Shortly thereafter, a skeleton staff remained on deck, the rest departing in silence to their respective assignments. Then, Captain Cronson sucked in a deep breath and signaled to Lieutenant Restivo, "Okay, Little Guy, hail the Ferengi vessel. And if the ship's name is 'Tiki', don't tell me, or I may relieve myself on the spot."

When contact was establshed, Number One said, "This is Captain Howard Cronson of the Starship MCAULIFFE. My apologies to our, um, Ferengi Masters. The orders specifying the transfer of control to you were, um, not properly brought to my attention. We apologize for any inconvenience and are ready to comply."

The Ferengi responded, "We are pleased that you have changed your insolent manner, at least for your sake. It would have been most unprofitable to obtain a Federation vessel and then be forced to destroy it due to... bureaucratic misunderstandings. Very well. If you are ready to receive boarding parties..."

"Um, Sir," interrupted Howard, "I am most grieved over the error of my crew. As subjects now under the Ferengi,.. we observe your Code of Honor and take this opportunity to offer the lives of our second officers as proof of our remorse."

Pause two three four. "We are impressed at your rapid assilmilation into our culture, Hu-man."

"We will beam them aboard your vessel near your penitentiary unit. If I may request, I suggest that they be subjected to the DeiOkGud."

The absence of visual contact could not conceal the surprise and respect by the Ferengi Officer to the McAuliffan's request. "Excellent, Hu-man. We will supply you with the necessary coordinates. If you would like, you may be allow to see the executions personally."

Howard waited a beat. "They represent shame to me and to my ship. They are dead to me already."

"Very well, we are ready to receive the prisoners," replied the Ferengi.

Steadily, Howard glanced at Dan. With a nod back to Number One, Howard whispered to himself, "So are we," and called down to the Transporter Room. "Steve, are we set?"

"All set, Howard!" came the reply.

"ENERGIZE!"

**************************************************************************************

The Ferengi Engine Room, already abuzz in anticipation to physically viewing Federation technology upclose, whispered to one another on the prospect of a DeiOkGud -- the ritualistic flaying, layer by layer, of a live prisoner. Usually, this method of execution is reserved for only the most traitorous of the Ferengi, but those present in the Engine Room wondered how a mere human would stand up against the torture.

Suddenly, the room lit up with a sustained brilliance from above the rafters. The crewmembers froze at the unknown presence. In the place of the subsiding light stood a slender human female, shamefully clothed from head to foot in jet black leather and brandishing a phaser rifle and hand phaser.

The female took full advantage of her unanticipated appearence and fired down on the various control panels in the room, methodically disrupting operational, navagational, and weapons systems, while stunning on-rushing Ferengi who were foolish enough to think that they could overpower her.

From the Bridge, repeated inquiries to the Engineering Section to report in were met with the sound of phaser fire. Despite orders from the DaiMon, security units were unable to investigate as whole decks were sealed up, trapping the teams. The officers at the con and ops posts found the ship unresponsive to the controls. Frantic attempts in bypassing to secondary systems went for naught. The DaiMon, in disgust at the sudden dilapidated state of his ship and the ineptness of his crew, pounded on the turbolift door.

Suddenly, the door opened. The DaiMon found himself looking at the business end of a hand phaser, with a heavily-armed male human holding the weapon deftly. "DAY-O!" he responded, and, with his free hand, swung a deft hook into the DaiMon's face. "Phpttt!" spat the McAuliffan warrior to the unconscious Ferengi, "Thank you for playing! That should give you enough incentive to brush after every meal." As FRED flexed the pieces of broken tooth from between his fingers, he waved his phaser slowly at the other bridge crewmembers, who seems complacent enough not to act.

He tapped on his combadge. "FRED to MCAULIFFE."

"MCAULIFFE. Cronson here," droned the Captain. "FRED, we're getting an indication that the tractor beam has been disenaged. Sensors also report extensive system failures aboard the Ferengi ship." Pause. "Did you do all that, FRED?"

FRED took a quick glance at the inactive control panels on the bridge. "I think Colonel Walker achieved her objective, Number One. Recommend that second wave commence. Once John's team arrives, I'll head down to back her up."

"Recommendation accepted. John's section should be beaming over momentarily. Cronson out."

Back in the Engine Room, Cheryl rounded up the rest of the personnel into a secluded section, motioning them to lay face down (or close to it) with hands on back of their heads. Suddenly, she heard an explosion from the doorway. Through the smoke and residue, a pair of Ferengi Security sharpshooters broke through the barricade, their snake-like stun-straps whirling.

"Federation invader," hissed one, "you and your companions -- drop your weapons!"

"I have no companions," replied Colonel Walker, clutching her phaser tighter, "I am alone."

"You... a female!" sneered the other. "You could not have done this amount of destruction on your own!"

"I am Colonel Cheryl Walker of the Elite Starfleet Rangers, serving a Federation Starship," she reminded the two Ferengi. "We Rangers protect and defend Starfleet personnel and property from unfriendly forces, or haven't you read any of our brochures lately?" The first Ferengi lashed out at the snide remark with his whip, but the Colonel did a tuck and roll behind a bulkhead.

"Your so-called property is ours now," proclaimed the second. "Hu-man female! You should not be bold with us!"

"So-called 'Colonel of the Starfleet Rangers?' Hah!" taunted the first. "How brazen you must be to make up your own rank and privelege! Females do not even deserve the honor of clothing."

"And Ferengi do not deserve the honor of reproductive organs," retorted Captain Walker, noticing dual beams of phaser fire whiz by her head. She stuck her phaser out and fired blindly in the Ferengi's direction. The phaser disappeared in a flash, causing plasma burns. Instinctively, she yelped like a Tech-Sys wolfhound who got his tail too close to the campfire. The Ferengi, confident that their prey had been subdued, modified their rhetoric.

"Perhaps we will not kill her...yet," the second said to the first in their native language.

"It would be an interesting experience to see how a human female..." Cheryl's spotty knowledge of Ferengi became evident as she lost track of the conversation. But, as they say, one could fill in the blanks.

Suddenly, she heard a chilling, guttural voice ordering, "FREEZE! DROP IT!", followed by multiple sounds of phaser fire and ending with a pair of distinct thuds to the floor. Cheryl took a peak behind her barricade to see Security forces from the MCAULIFFE, led by FRED.

"Jelly donuts comin'!" he called out. "Colonel Walker, are you all right?"

"Present and accounted for," she responded, coming from behind the support. "Looks like the cavalry arrived in the nick of time." She took a deep breath and then said softly, "Thank you, FRED. You saved my life. Maybe even more."

"You saved our ship," he replied. "and my friends, Cheryl. Thank YOU!" And with that, they shook hands in comradeship for a job well done.

"AH-HEE-HA!!" Intense pain shot up from her fingertips to her shoulder blades like undiluted liquid heat. As the flow of epinephrine subsided from her adrenal glands, she was starting to take considerable notice of her injury, sustained in the phaser fire.

SCPO Paul Cooperstein, whom she had met earlier while he was surveying the Land of Nod, walked over and examined Mutha Sheep's hoof, er, hand. "Aw, that's definitely going to leave a mark" he surmised about the discolored appendage. "You might want Commander Karen to take a look-see." Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, "Gee, lady, y'know, you ought to be more alert when you go on these assault manuevers. There's no telling what you'll trip over."

After the Marauder was secured by Chief Gisetto's team, the DaiMon was escorted over to the MCAULIFFE. Even as he was beaming over, he fumed with indignity. Shouts involving the words, 'dishonorable', 'agreement', 'cheated', 'traitor', 'DeiOkGud', and a few choice but unrepeatable expletives trailed the DaiMon as he was brought into the Conference Room, where a contingent of McAuliffans were gathered.

"How... how dare you claim to honor our Ferengi Code," he sputtered to Howard, "only to use deceit and treachery yourselves and launch a surprise attack to capture my ship..."

Adam crouched to the DaiMon's eye level and, grinning with a vengence replied, "FOOLED YOU!"

"Oh, I can't believe you fell for that, mon!" sang Bill.

"They say that evil will always triumph over good," said Rick, "because good is DUMB..."

"..but they never came across the Ferengi!" added Ensign Clanton.

"But, besides, the Federation Code forbids the use of excessive force in dealing with a crisis," insisted the DaiMon. "We are suppose to capture you, and you surrender. Case closed."

"Oh, you must have intercepted a directive that was released two years old," replied Ho. "That's been superseded. We still can't kill, but we are permitted to kick ass on occasion..."

"...and do this to Ferengi," said Karen, taking the Ferengi and punching him in the nose.

"Wait a minute," asked Bill, "wasn't THAT an unnecessary, wanton act of violence?"

"Uh... no..." Karen denied, "that was just a demonstration. THIS is an unnecessary, wanton act of violence." She then hit Tom over the head with her hat.

"Well, there goes your shot for getting a lasting assignment on the ENTERPRISE," sighed the Little Guy. "CMOs with machisma don't stick around long."

"Hey, wasn't I suppose to do that?" frowned Ho. "After all, I'm the Captain around here. You CMOs just get to phaser old Admirals possessed by bug-like creatures."

"But you still have all your hair," Rick responded, "and, besides, anyone who still roots for a baseball team that hasn't won a Series in 459 years has gotta be a masochist."

"You can do it the next time we meet the Ferengi," comforted Leslie, "or the Sox win the Series."

"We had a deal," insisted the DaiMon. "I made an agreement with the Federation representatives for this ship..."

Howard was getting annoyed. "Okay, enough already. All along, you've been saying that representatives from the Federation sold you our ship. One question: WHO??"

"THEM!" the DaiMon pointed to two human males in the doorway, dressed in business suits, made of silk and synthetic lizard skin imported from the Orion Colonies, who were being 'persuaded' to the Conference Room by Colonel Walker.

"Found these two in Guest's Quarters a few decks up," said Cheryl, "they were in the process of packing."

"Who's the Captain, here?" questioned one, "I must protest to this treatment. We can come and go as we please. After all we're free Federation citizens..."

"Watch the phaser, lady," another warned warily, "you might set it off."

The McAuliffans uttered in unison, "Malen and Virmin?!?"

The DaiMon's ears perked up. "See, hu-mans. You lie! You *do* know them!"

"We know them," Howard acknowledged, "but if they're representatives from the Federation, I'm Captain Crunch." Quickly to the DaiMon, he stipulated, "And no -- that's NOT my name!!"

"These are the space merchants who run the Cremation Convention for 'Star Willies' fans around the Federation, that old Sci-Fi 3-D TV show," Mojo clarified. "I once spent 30 Altarian dollars to get inside, and it was all overpriced merchandise and uninspiring retrospectives."

"We use the genre that is Star Willies to perpetuate the ideals of the Federation," explained Malen, "and to foster the Vulcan philosophy of infinite diversity in infinite combination."

"Plus, we *are* free traders, sanctioned by the Federation," reminded Virmin, "to deal with any and all of the space-active star systems in this sector. And that includes our stellar brothers, the Ferengi."

"You tell them," stated the DaiMon, "that we had a deal. You would sell our people a starship that was nearby and all aboard. We gave you gold and trading rights. Is this not the ship?"

Malen looked pale. "Why, yes, um, no... I mean, yes, we did have an agreement for a ship..."

Howard and Bill each took a trader and shouted, "YOU SOLD OUR SHIP TO THE FERENGI!?!"

"Um, um, of course we didn't, Captain Cronson," replied Virmin, polishing the bars on Ho's hat. "We all know that would be a breach in Starfleet intelligence to give classified information to an ene-- I mean, we don't have the ability..."

"What my partner means is that we were talking about a starship from 'Star Willies', not a *real* starship," said Malen nervously, "That's it. I mean,... I thought that we made it clear, DaiMon, that we are primarily showmen. That we deal with make-believe, not reality. Where would we get access to such sensitive material?"

"Um, DaiMon," said Karen softly, "I'm a CMO, not a merchant, but it would be my opinion that you've been hosed."

The DaiMon refocused his anger from the McAuliffans to the traders. "What are you telling me? That you have deceived me? You sold me a fantasy ship? What kind of fool do you take of me, hu-mans?? You shall pay for your treachery..."

"You mean, the DeiOkGud?" asked Howard.

"Oh, no," said the DaiMon slowly, "that would let them off too easily. Look into the viewscreen. Because of your deceit, my ship is in ruin. It is YOU who shall pay for all necessary repairs to bring it back to operational status before we return back to base."

"But, DaiMon," pleaded Malen, "that would take all of our profits for the next two months..."

"Thousands of credits," whimpered Virmin, "down the tubes..."

"Or I could be *more* lenient and take the Captain's suggestion..."

"Oh, no no no no!" Quickly Malen and Virmin threw their arms around the DaiMon. "What about a novel concept?" spoke Malen, "I can see it now: Guided Tours of an actual Ferengi Marauder! We could sell tickets for 5, 6 credits an entity..."

"You could sell some of your..." offered Virmin, "... I mean our merchandise at the no-minimum auction..."

As they escorted him out the door, the DaiMon was heard to say, "I've never admitted it, but I've always wanted to meet Jamie Doohum..."

Bill turned to Howard, "So, how does it end?"

"Keep reading," Howard replied.

************************************************************************************** *

Later that evening, the mood on the MCAULIFFE was, in a word, festive. The Rec Hall was transformed into a banquet room (or the McAuliffan equivalent), complete with Tiki torches in the corner, Tiki pictures on the walls, and Tiki icons on each table.

"If anyone but a Ranger came up with a plan like that," admired Howard, with his officers at the head table, "I'd say they'd be crazy and foolish."

"Anyone but a Ranger or FRED..." clarified Bill.

"Actually," replied Cheryl, as she tried to eat a slice of pizza with one hand, "the only one I would have recommended for THAT part of the operation would have been me.. not even the Veitch."

"Ah, so it's 'don't try this at home, kiddies'?" surmised Rick.

"Well, I knew that if we could lull the Ferengi into complacency," explained Cheryl, "and... y'know, that we not only were no threat and appealed to a particularly strong ritual, like the DeiOkGud, that would be to our advantage. Plus, we received a briefing from my husband Dave on Ferengi technology a month or so ago. He's our Chief Engineer on the RANGER, y'know. Anyways, I knew I had zero time to knock out the tractor beam and the disrupters at the source itself in the Engine Room. Beyond that, and it was your security forces..."

"A-HEM!" came a deep voice from the end of the table. Colonel Walker acknowledged her counterpart in the two-toned uniform and shades. "And FRED, yes. I hope you will be able to visit us on the RANGER. I would like to have you meet our Veitch."

"Do I hear a sequel?" inquired Towaway.

"Well, it would have to originate from the RANGER crew," answered Little Guy, "but I'm sure we could supply enough information to make things... interesting."

Bill and Mojo whispered to each other, nodded in agreement, and asked Dave Adams to get the attention of those in the hall. True to stereotype, he let out a "HEY" that could have been heard across six regions without the assistance of subspace.

"We are here tonight," said Bill, as he rose to his feet, "to honor Colonel Cheryl Walker of the USS RANGER. Without her and her plan, we'd all be Ferengi meat by now and the ship would have been part of a Cremation Huckster's Gallery."

"And we all know how painful that can be," commented Karen.

"And so, we bestow a dual honor on you. Howard?" The Exec motioned to the CO.

Captain Howard reached under the table and picked up a black and plaid toque. Secured in the front of the toque was a pin with the ship's insignia. With the toque, he walked over to Captain Cheryl. "Captain Walker, for bravery and gallantry in the face of enemy fire, and by the power..."

"You have power, Howard?" wondered Bill.

"Uh, yeah. Anyways, as the Captain of the USS CHRISTA MCAULIFFE, I hereby declare you an honorary McAuliffan, with all the rights, duties, and privileges..." Solemnly, he replaced her Ranger beret with the toque. With that, the hall broke out in "Coo-roo-coo-coo-coo..." calls and "Roo! Roo! Roo!" chants.

"But wait!" interrupted Adam, as he left his seat. "There's more!" He beckoned the Colonel to the front of the table and asked her to kneel to the ground. Holding a small black book, he hushed those gathered to silence and reverently began:

"In the Beginning was the Tiki. And the Tiki ruled. (Hail the Tiki!) And the Tiki created all that is good and wonderful in the universe, such as Disney World, Bob & Doug, Fosters Lager, Baseball, the Beatles, Florida, and Suzie Plakson.

"But the universe was not perfect. Entropy and evil set in. Slowly, the decay of mundania crept into the galaxy, creating the horrors of tax season, unemployment, New Kids on the Block, Mookie Wilson, and the most feared of all -- the network programming executive who hated SF and loved 'Roseanne'.

"To maintain the balance between fandom and mundania, the Tiki (Hail the Tiki!) created the Travelling Beerbellies. The Beerbellies were instructed to find snow routes wherever they go and to rule, as the Tiki (Hail the Tiki!) would want them to.

"Generation after generation of Beerbellies have sworn to keep this tradition alive, so that, even in the face of Armagedden and pro-run conventions, a remnant shall remain to remember the true intent of fandom: GET A LIFE!"

"And so," concluded Adam, "this tradition is passed down upon to you, Cheryl Walker." He rested his hand upon her head and proclaimed, "Your Beerbelly name is now... Bumpkin Beerbelly!" With this baptism, the hall exploded into shouts of "Hail the Tiki!" and an a cappella rendition of "End of the Line".

During the shouting and the singing, Karen brought a large aluminum can with an 'F' emblazoned on the side and handing it to the newest Beerbelly.

"What's this?" asked Bumpkin.

"Well, it ain't Dr Pepper," observed Ensign Kevin.

"C'mon," coaxed Mojo, "you know you want it!"

"Consider it medicinal," advised Karen, pop-opening the top. After a pause, Bumpkin began to consume the contents.

************************************************************************************** *

"ADMIRALS ON THE BRIDGE!" resounded the call on the Bridge of the RANGER, as Admirals Maddox and Hampton exited the turbolift. Cmdr Ingram, Commanding Officer Pro Temp, greeted the high-ranking officers and invited to wait for the arrival of the MCAULIFFE.

"Did you have time to read the log reports about the MCAULIFFE's encounter with the Ferengi, ma'am?" inquired Peggy.

"Yes, the Executive Committee was very impressed with the Colonel's unique resolution to the situation," replied Admiral Hampton.

"Though I admit I found the resolution... somewhat farfetched," admitted Admiral Maddox.

"That Colonel Walker was able to sneak into the control room and disable the ship by herself?"

"No," responded the Fleet Admiral, "that the Security on the MCAULIFFE was able to provide adequate backup in the operation. I can't see an outfit on a loose-cannon ship like the MCAULIFFE being able to execute such critical manuevers to near-perfection. I mean, one minute, they practically hand the ship to the Ferengi..."

"Jeannette," Admiral Hampton pointed out, "remember that it was your suggestion that Captain Walker serve as a positive role model aboard the MCAULIFFE. Who knows? Maybe they learned fast."

"After only half a day?" Admiral Maddox pondered the implications. "Well, Sue, the Rangers have always had their own methods in exercising authority and discipline. Maybe she *can* work wonders. Heck, with the MCAULIFFE, it would be a bona-fide miracle!"

"Sensors are picking up the MCAULIFFE," reported the ops station.

"Open hailing frequencies to the MCAULIFFE," ordered Admiral Maddox.

"We're receiving from the MCAULIFFE already," replied the comm station.

"On visual," anticipated Cmdr Ingram.

"This is Captain Howard Cronson of the USS CHRISTA MCAULIFFE," came the reply.

"We have Admiral Maddox and Admiral Hampton on board awaiting the arrival of Colonel Walker."

Howard smiled. "Oh. Hi, Jeannette. Hi, Sue."

"Congratulations on a job well done with the Ferengi," responded Sue. "Good going."

Admiral Maddox acknowledged neither the informality nor the commendation. "Captain Cronson, is Colonel Walker there?"

Howard looked behind. "Well, she's here..."

"Good. I'd like to talk with Colonel Walker as soon as possible," declared Admiral Maddox, "to find out from her what *really* happened with the Ferengi. I would like her to come over Now, if you please."

"Now?"

Jeannette pointed in front of her. "On the Bridge. Myself and Admiral Hampton wished to be debriefed about the Colonel's mission in person."

Jeannette could see from the viewscreen that Howard was hesitating and hedging for some reason. She sighed to herself over the unilateral delay.

"Captain, is this not the designated rendezvous time?" asked Admiral Maddox.

The admirals saw Howard trying to shush up crewmembers out of camera range. "Um, well, she's not quite ready..."

"Why? Is she naked?"

"Um, no...." Howard's face was turning colors (or was it subspace interference).

"Then we cannot wait any longer. Have her beam over here now. That is a direct order."

Howard sighed. "Oh, OK.... MCAULIFFE out."

Thirty seconds later, the bright cylindrical shape that is a transporter beam twinkled in front of the Admirals and the Commander. As the shape took form, Peggy realized that Cheryl was not wearing her usual Ranger uniform. When the beaming finished, Colonel Cheryl Walker was back on her bridge -- wearing a black Canadian hunting hat on her head, curlers in her hair, sunglasses over her eyes, a multi-colored Hawaiian robe over a turquoise jogging suit over a Simpsons T-shirt on her torso, and pink mukluks on her feet.

"Heah-yah, Jan-nette!" beamed the rosy-cheeked Mutha Sheep, "Hah-ow-zit hang-ing, eh?" She looked at the half-eaten donut in her hand and said, "Have uh jel-lee, eh?"

Sickbay reported it was several minutes before Admiral Maddox regained consciousness.

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