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The ship, which was the main focal point of the station's crew, was now in orbit around Outpost Seven. It was a battered and scarred mess. Deep pitting all over the surfaces indicated multiple weapon hits and large pieces of the ship were missing. Most of the markings were totally illegible.
When the deep space tug Iroquois arrived, both the engineer and captain thought of laughing. However, they realized that the ship's general condition spelled certain death for its occupants. Instead of laughing, the engineer whistled low.
The request for a tow came from Outpost Seven's station chief. Originally, he was simply anxious to have the battered hulk taken away, for fear it might fall apart and cause extensive damage to the sensitive electronics that dominated the station's exterior. And normally it would have taken weeks for a tug to arrive, but the Iroquois had received a priority request from Starfleet on behalf of Outpost Seven. Somebody at Starfleet Headquarters had taken an interest in the ship.
After putting the tug into a parking orbit opposite the wreck, the ship's captain hailed the station and arranged for a visit with his old friend. Minutes later he was in the chief's office and enjoying a tall cool one.
"What's the word, 'Harp?' Who owns the ship and why is it so important? And what was it doing in Romulan space?"
The chief leaned across the synthetic wood desk and spoke in a low and authoritative voice. "My advice, Terry, is don't ask too many questions. Just deliver the ship and its contents to Starbase Forty-Nine as soon as you can. By the way, there's a piece of cargo for you, too."
The tug captain nearly choked on his drink. "What cargo? Nobody said a thing about cargo before. Starfleet's work order states only a simple pick up and delivery of a scout class vessel!" He finished the drink in one gulp and stood in protest.
"Relax, Terry, just one item, a stasis chamber, occupied."
Terry Quincannon sat back down hard, stunned. "Occupied? By whom? Not one of your people, I hope."
"No," Chief Harper replied quietly, "from that wreck out there." He nodded in the general direction of the small ship, visible through the small section of transparent aluminum.
Terry was in shock. "You mean he's still alive?"
"Just barely, so speed is vital. Besides, there's a bonus involved."
Quincannon smiled at the mention of the bonus; now calm, he reclaimed his seat.
Harper continued, "You get an extra five hundred credits if the ship and stasis chamber arrive intact; another fifteen hundred if the occupant arrives healthy enough to answer some questions. Somebody in Starfleet wants him alive, so don't spare the horses."
"What happened, Chief? How did he get so banged up?"
Harper stared hard at his old friend. "No questions, remember?"
"C'mon. It's me, Terry. I'm not going to take this wreck in tow without knowing something about it. Besides, you owe me. I'm not supposed to be making deliveries without a contract and I've gone out of my way for your bad chocolate habit on several occasions. Anybody else would be happy with the replicator variety, but you have to have the real stuff..."
Chief Harper held his hands up in mock surrender. "All right!" He became very serious and spoke at a near whisper. "All we know is the ship came from deep inside the Neutral Zone. It took nearly two whole days to get here even with our help. Once we got it close enough, we swung the mess into orbit. That was yesterday. Doc had us beam the pilot over as soon as we determined he was still alive. Just transporting him was dangerous, so Doc wound up putting him directly into stasis. He was beyond anything we could do for him. When we notified Starfleet of the situation, they got all excited for some reason."
"Wow!" Terry said simply. "You suppose--"
"I suppose you better get going before Starfleet cancels your contract and you find yourself in leg irons on some remote boulder in deep space!" Harper held up held up a data tape. "I received this just before you arrived. It says you're not to have any layovers, no delays and no more communications. This is from high up." Then he softened his tone a bit and added, "The next time you're in the area, stop by and maybe we'll be able to figure this out. For now though, both of our jobs, and butts, are on the line, okay?"
"Okay, Chief, but you still owe me!" Terry stood to leave.
Harper leaned forward on his desk. "By the way, you're supposed to report directly to the security officer when you get to the starbase. Present your vouchers to him as well." Then he smiled as his illicit chocolate runner disappeared through the door.
Terry hurried down the corridor to the transporter room where a very forlorn face waited. "What'sa matter kid, you loose your girlfriend or something?"
The young ensign shook his head and replied in a near whisper. "I'm in the doghouse. Chief Harper has me on double shifts for a month."
The tug captain was surprised by the revelation. "Are you kidding? Old 'Harp' is pretty easy going. It must have taken a lot to get him riled."
"Wanna' bet?" The young officer was occupying himself by adjusting the transporter settings while Terry stared down at him from the transporter platform.
"What did you do, kid, take his last box of chocolates or set off a stink bomb in his quarters?"
"Neither." The ensign then activated the transporter and just as it began to take effect he added, "The chief caught me drawing a pink elephant on the main viewer, during my duty shift."