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Two in the Bush

Posted on Sun Jul 30th, 2023 @ 9:48am by Dominic Lowell & Ensign Nayisa Wrea

Mission: Wrath of the People
Location: Cargo hold
Timeline: Just after "A Little Birdy Told Me"
5411 words - 10.8 OF Standard Post Measure

"Soooo..."

The peace and quiet had lasted all of about thirty seconds. There had been a moment where the snap of a decidedly blunt interpretation of his success thus far had provoked at least the threat of sullenness, but it was already becoming very apparent that Nic, whoever Nic was, didn't actually know what silence was.

"...what's your role in all this? Secret squirrel in charge of accosting innocent bystanders?" As much as his tone still carried an air of injured annoyance, there was buoyancy to the jest behind Nic's intent that almost paraded as an olive branch. "I mean, you're good at it, so there's a career option at the very least."

Nayisa couldn't help the hint of amusement that accompanied her eye roll, evident by the light huff of air that left her nose. "Secret squirrel, that's a new one," she admitted. Her tone was lighter, putting the scene of him literally dropping in behind her. There was no need to keep portraying that exhausting doom-and-gloom intel mindset, even though she still kept a close eye on him to try and gauge his intent. She still didn't trust him, but there was no need to be mean about it. "I'm playing more of an investigative role. My superior wants answers, and I provide them."

"Well, far be it for me to tell an experienced squirrel how to do her job, but don't you usually find better answers if you invest time in figuring out the best questions, and who to pose them to?" By now, Nic had shoved his hands into his pockets and was traveling along at a pace that intentionally matched hers. It was an assumed camaraderie though possibly hinted at his own reluctance in allowing her to fall behind too much. "Olon's not going to tell you lot anything of use," he confided easily. "I know this because he tried the door-in-the-face act with me."

A hand held up, wrenched from his pocket palm open, anticipated the next query before it could be spoken.

"Calm your conspiracy theories, ensign. I caught wind of the guy's research and decided to check it out myself. Thought it would make a good story." The flash of a grin anticipated the interpretation of that admission.

The sigh of one's patience being tested came from the intelligence officer. God, was he a journalist? She hated journalists. They were loose-lipped intelligence wannabes, seeking information in the most careless of ways but being absolutely terrible at containing it. They were Nayisa's personal nightmare. "I don't usually do investigative work," was Nayisa's half-baked excuse. She already didn't like sharing information about herself, but especially not to a journalist, so she decided to be careful with what she shared. More careful than she usually was. "I figured Olon wouldn't talk. I haven't met the guy but judging by the station's condition, he has more important things to worry about, even at the cost of his station and crew." Rounding a corner, she spotted the doors to the cargo hold at the end of the corridor. "So, why's a writer doing routine analysis on a starbase?"

A pair of pursed lips became a pantomime of thoughtfulness, far too exaggerated to be anything other than intentional. What followed was a visible reluctance to elaborate with any direct honesty. "Oh, you know, heard about this place in a bar, there was an allegation that the folks in charge were pulling some pretty intense salvage from the Obliteration Zone."

A furtive side-eye clocked the quizzical interrogation before it was even vocalised.

"Fun local term for the area of the debris field with the highest radiation levels. Apparently there's a lot of derelict, smashed up ships out there." Nic cleared his throat and moved on. "And a few of them have cargo interesting enough to risk investigation. Of course," he continued with cavalier expectation, "that stands to reason, you got a bunch of looters out there actively trying to add to the pickings."

It was unsettling that he could read her so well. Was Nayisa projecting her own thoughts in a subtle way? That was the second time he had correctly anticipated a question she was about to ask. Usually, it was the other way around, where she could pick up on tells and anticipate as well as he was. The avoidant nature of his responses was also not lost on her. It was practically an art to be able to answer a question and simultaneously redirect it.

It frustrated Nayisa.

"You sure talk a lot," she poked, coming to a stop in front of the cargo doors. She certainly wouldn't show her frustration, and it was easy to mask as she shifted her focus to work. It was strange to her that the doors refused to open after the proximity sensor detected their presence, and even after she pressed the controls to the side. It was the likely result of either rampant corruption left behind by the virus, or an attempt at obfuscation. The silver-haired woman pulled out her tricorder and scanned the door, sanity checking that it wasn’t rigged before they attempted to open it. She then scanned the control panel to look for any obvious signs of tampering, though it was difficult to tell with the virus breaking down any semblance of structure. "This virus is sure persistent..." she thought out loud. Glancing over at Nic, Nayisa added, "you sure this is it?"

A quizzical look managed to pass as genuinely uncertain. "Am I sure it's a cargo hold?" There was a slight hesitation before Nic turned in both directions, scanning the immediate area, and then rotated until he was gazing back down the corridor they'd come from. "I mean, I've been known to get a little creative with my nature hikes but I'm pretty sure we travelled in kind of the only reasonable direction." Now shoulder-to-shoulder in mirror formation, Nic aimed a finger-gun forward and asked, "You want me to go double check?"

The tricorder in Nayisa's hand moved ever so slightly as she fought the urge to throw it at his face. Why did she agree to go along with him? She took in a slow breath as she realized that if she were to get anything from him, she'd have to be explicit. It reminded her of one of the Academy instructors, who was an absolute tool of a person to deal with because she demanded explicit sentences. "Are you sure this is the correct cargo hold for our search?" She clarified, the faint tension in her voice emphasizing her current battle to maintain self control.

There was a ripple beneath the surface of Nic's expression, a fleeting moment of contentment beneath the guile of ignorance that gave hint of an intentional jest for the sake of reaction. It centred in his eyes and gave the impression that he wasn't, in fact, quite as stupid as he seemed. This was probably no revelation given the unlikelihood of anyone actually as stupid as he seemed making it this far in the universe unscathed.

"Oh, yeah, this is the one. The main holds are quadrant-based, I'd have tangled myself in more than hosing if I tried to head to medical from any of the other three. Though," he conceded, "it's probably not a terrible idea to check all of them. If you can figure out the lock," he added, turning back around with hands clasped behind his back in a mockery of patience.

"Of course I can figure out the lock," Nayisa replied, glad to have a clearer answer. She mentally stomped down the urge to defend her credibility when she saw the minute signs of sarcasm in his expression. For a few seconds, her brain entertained the possibility that he had rigged the cargo hold doors to not open just to show off, but as she scanned the access panel she realized that the lockout was entirely due to the virus. She began to type on the tricorder, intentionally obscuring his view of what she was doing through subtle tilting of the device in her hand and an apparent shifting of her weight from one foot to the other. Her eyes went back and forth between the panel and the tricorder, and it took about thirty seconds to convince the computer to open the doors.

Arms folded across his chest, Nic turned to lean against the bulkhead beside the doorway and made a significantly obvious show of admiring the scenery back down the hallway again.

"For a virus-ridden computer, that wasn't too painful." Closing the tricorder with a light snap, she turned to Nic and extended her hand toward the doors, as a doorman would when greeting a distinguished guest. "After you," she said with a smile. For the most part, it was genuine. Nayisa knew to be careful with this guy, but there was no need to make her time with him miserable. Perhaps she could get more out of him if she went along with his antics.

There was a hesitation, a brief moment of scrutiny where Nic's gaze made short work of trying to interpret the Intel officer's expression. Not without his own levels of mistrust, he peeled himself off the wall as a slow curl towards the open doorway that only included popping his head in to scan the area first. When nothing appeared inclined to remove it from his shoulders for him, he straightened and marched in, shoulders back.

And stopped abruptly in the centre of the vast space, hands on his hips.

"They weren't kidding when they said their unwanted visitors made a mess of everything."

The hold had a picked-over appearance, the kind of strewn, chaotic mess that suggested it had been searched within a very limited timeframe with virtually no care for the state it was left in. Crates pried open were half emptied on the ground, storage lockers forced open to spill their contents haphazardly in a pile made worse by the fact that clearly someone had been along to frantically sort through the remaining cargo. Nic's brow knitted in a deep frown, a suggestion of a less flippant reaction to the carnage, or at the very least, specific concern for whatever personal belongings he'd expected to locate.

"Looks like they made off with quite a bit too." There were gaps within what had once clearly been a very systematic stacking arrangement that suggested crates were missing.

Nayisa watched him enter, looking for any signs of traps before cautiously entering afrer him, coming to a stop to his left. A surprised whistle conveyed her impression of the chaos, and as her eyes skimmed the mess she wondered how long it would take to search through all of this. It would be faster if at least some of the organizational structure had been preserved, but she had time as long as Zora was questioning their saboteur.

Glancing briefly to Nic, Nayisa pondered his frown for a moment. There was something, perhaps a hint of concern over seeing the state of the cargo, but it wasn't quite due to the actual mess they walked into. He wanted to find something, but what? "We certainly have our work cut out," she said, looking for a decent place to start. Opening the tricorder again, she began taking scans of the room to see if anything in particular stood out, banking on the hope that the search would be easy and she'd know it when the tricorder found it. "Was there anything in particular from Olon's research I should scan for that will help narrow the search?"

Far less cautious, Nic was already bent over one crate to sift through the detritus surrounding another by the time the question was posed. "Something about some salvage from a month or so back." There was virtually no effort to disguise his distraction, nor the current pressure on his diaphragm. "He ranted full-blast at some poor sanitation junior because his precious 'artifact' wasn't where it was supposed to be, as if any of this looks like business-as-usual."

With a groan, he pushed himself up off his ribcage and turned a distracted circle, furrowed brow peering elsewhere around the wreckage for a place to rummage.

"Couldn't tell you what it is, though," he anticipated another question without even seeming to pay the conversation much direct attention. "Either it's something powerful enough that we shouldn't be excited to know that the people shooting at us have it, or he's just really pissed that his shipment of nipple tassels vanished into thin air."

Squinting, he picked his way over towards the far corner.

"He seems like the type to marry a warp nacelle, actually, maybe they made off with some space rock he had his eye on."

A light snort came from Nayisa at his less serious speculations of the mysterious artifact while she scanned the room. The intelligence tricorder, while useful for searches like this, wasn't as effective when the object of interest was unknown. Closing the tricorder and pocketing it, the silver-haired woman searched for Nic in the mess, partly to keep an eye on him and partly to see what exactly he was digging his nose into. "From what I've heard about him, I'm not that surprised," she replied, deciding to follow him, climbing around crates and knocked over items to try and catch up to him. A space rock or something that looked highly valued was a start, but it was also a massive cargo hold. As she made her way into the piles of stuff, she looked around, hoping to find some clues. "And what about what you're looking for? Any identifiers I can keep an eye out for?"

Having climbed up on a stack of precariously balanced crates for a better vantage, Nic paused with hands on his hips, every bit the mountaineer in need of a breather. "They really did not give two shits about how they left this place," came the candid observation amidst the heavy rise and fall of his diaphragm, which was still suffering somewhat from being squashed not long ago. "Though the biggest mystery is probably that the left in the first place. It felt pretty systematic if I'm honest, they knew what they were after."

His descent was barely graceful, jumping just a little too far to maintain balance entirely. The box that halted his stumble still managed to skid a metre or so before it slammed into a locker, and though it clearly jarred his wrist, Nic maintained his air of distraction even as several shakes of protest sought to minimise the discomfort. If he'd heard her query, he was ignoring it.

A frown made its way back into Nayisa's expression as she watched Nic disappear behind some crates instead of answering her question. As she started to climb over the same crates he disappeared behind, one of the footholds, something resembling decoration for a communal space, broke loose. Nayisa scrambled to catch herself before she fell too far, her palm pressing rather uncomfortably into the corner of a crate. Pausing for a second to get her bearings, she looked up to see that Nic hadn't heard the noise she made, and therefore, wasn't there to offer help. "No, I'm fine, I swear," she mumbled sarcastically, pulling herself up.

"Ah-a!"

The eureka moment might have been more flamboyantly triumphant had it not involved trying to drag a loaded crate away from a locker with its door hanging from a single hinge. An attempt to stick his back to it, literally, saw Nic's feet scrabble against the floor with the kind of hopeful futility that all lower lifeforms exhibited when they arrived at the conclusion that stubborn refusal to change tactic was bound to be successful eventually.

When Nayisa finally made it over the crates, she was out of breath from the climb and took a moment to catch her breath. It was then that the outburst caught her attention, and she looked to see the rather pitiful sight of him trying desperately to move a crate that simply did not want to move. She watched him struggle, becoming increasingly more amused by his efforts. "You know those are the ones that require an anti-grav sled to haul, right?" she called down, unable to keep the amused little smirk off her face.

"Pretty. Sure."

There was a pause for several huffs of breath.

"I. Just. Felt it move."

It hadn't budged.

Forced by sheer expenditure of energy to abandon his efforts, Nic stood for a moment to glare down at the crate and instead clambered on top of it to try his luck squeezing himself into the gap created by the dislodged door. One attempt saw him manage just an arm. A twist to face the other way brought with it greater insistence, which came very close to jamming his entire shoulder in without much recourse for getting it out. He sat back and frowned before leaning forward to press his face into the space.

"What are you doing in here anyway?"

He appeared to be speaking to something inside the locker.

"This is not where I put you. They better not have banged you up too much."

Nayisa's amusement changed when she saw him talking into the locker, and her first consideration was that someone could be stuck in there. Did he sneak a stowaway onto the station? In any case, whoever or whatever was in the locker was trapped by the crate, and she wasn't one to just leave an innocent like that. Glancing down, she plotted her path down the crates before attempting it, her efforts more careful and less noisy than Nic's attempt. She took a moment to inspect the locker, walking around the crate to get to the other side. "I can probably cut a hole in the adjacent locker to get to this one," she offered.

Without backing out, Nic shook his head and lamented to the unidentified trapped entity currently absorbing most of his attention. "Took her a literal lifetime to cut me out of the ceiling and here you've been around for five seconds and she's rearranging the structural integrity of entire cargo bays for you." He pulled back then and angled a pointed figure towards the gap. "You need to teach me how you do that."

A roll of Nayisa's eyes was her response as she pulled out her phaser. Nic's earlier situation, while uncomfortable at best, wasn't nearly as dire as being trapped in a locker. At least the haphazard door provided air into the cramped space. She looked again at both adjacent lockers, moving some stuff with her foot to get the door open enough to reach the wall of the locker trapped by the crate. Adjusting the settings on the phaser, Nayisa made sure she had good footing before aiming at the metal wall and firing. Her aim was steady, the red beam eroding a pinpoint into the metal before beginning the slow process of making a square. "Just stay where you are," Nayisa said to Nic, seeing him shift out of the corner of his eye. It was her turn to anticipate his questions. "This is delicate work, and you'll just be in the way."

After making initial overtures towards helping, Nic eventually settled into the role of nervous father, chewing at his thumbnail with an expression of anxious anticipation. "Just don't cut a hole in her," he pleaded, "she's old enough to be your grandma."

Nayisa was more convinced now that the unidentified thing stuck in the locker was a person, but why was he transporting an old woman? "I won't, chill," she replied, keeping her focus on the square she was drawing into the locker's wall. About a minute later, the square was complete, and Nayisa ceased the phaser fire. The outline of the square glowed red, and the shape itself was big enough for a person to crawl through. "We need to let it cool before attempting to remove it, unless you want second-degree burns on your hands," she mentioned to Nic, seeing his anxious fidgeting.

With an exaggerated putter of his lips and a narrow-eyed scrutiny that seemed to size her up as being worthy of the trust, Nic pushed away from where he had slowly drifted into a lean, propped against the lockers behind to peer over Nayisa's shoulder, and scuffed his way through the scattered junk littering the immediate vicinity. "So how did you draw the short-straw anyway?"

As a change in topic, it seemed both bizarre and, given current expectations, somewhat irresponsible.

"Just a handful of you got left behind here, right?," Nic went on to elaborate, testing one of the other lockers to see if it was unlocked. It was not. "Everyone else took off after the pirates? Which is honestly a bonkers idea if you ask me, you don't end up with an Obliteration Zone because your area of space is full of happy fun-time." He tried another locker with similar results. "Still, it's more exciting than rummaging around in a trash pile. You annoy a superior officer or something?"

For a brief moment, when Nic was close enough as he passed by, Nayisa picked up a whiff of the subtle but pleasant cologne he was wearing, but it was too fleeting for her to confidently identify it. Whatever it was, it helped her be ill-equipped to counter the next questions thrown at her. "Like you mentioned earlier, Starfleet is here to help. We can't help if we don't know the situation," she answered vaguely. She didn't know if he knew how many people were on the station, but she wasn't about to give it away.

Her nose scrunched slightly at the mention of annoying a superior officer, her mind recalling her recent endeavor with Zade. She doubted that her friend would have put her on this team as some form of punishment for her actions. Deciding that she had sufficiently answered his questions, Nayisa approached the locker and hovered her hand over the now-grey square, even lightly but quickly touching it a couple of times to make sure it had cooled down enough. "Still warm, but should be good now."

It was a feature of Dominic Lowell's personal, and professional for that matter, life that he had absolutely no idea that his best efforts to disarm and beguile had been thwarted in an instant by the aftershave, more an after-thought, he'd taken to wearing as part of a morning ritual that even he couldn't adequately explain. If you built a life flying by the seat of your pants, certain routines were sacrosanct if only because they grounded you to something resembling a purpose. There was no doubt that, had he realised the positive effect such a simple thing had provoked, there would have been a great deal more swagger to his crouched return, leaning in to peer once again over her shoulder.

"So what, do I just kick it in?"

Nayisa opened her mouth to respond, but fumbled over her words when the subtle cologne hit her senses again. It was somewhat homely, with a hint of pine, reminding her of the cabin she visited in the summers as a kid. What the hell was wrong with her? Was there something in his cologne? Briefly shaking her head to bring her focus back, she sidestepped, using his offer to kick in the square to disguise the fact that she wanted space from the strangely familiar scent. "Yeah, unless your legs are as weak as your arms," she joked.

"Absolutely not."

The first kick barely budged the freshly-cut panel.

Turning his attention away from smirking at her to focus on the task at hand, Nic frowned at his lack of progress and planted both boots in place for a second attempt. This proved a little too vigorous, and there was a clatter as the piece of metal shot through to the other side and wedged itself partially up against the already-blocked door. It was a squeeze but he turn himself around, crouched and shuffling so that at least the top half of him could plunge into the liberated space to grasp hold of his stricken plunder.

"There you are, darlin'," he crooned, backing out with his arms full of something decidedly shapely, if a little lacking in the anticipated amount of limbs. At a poor angle, with less than adequate lighting, it resembled the intimate embrace of one's arms around another's waist, voluptuously proportioned. It was an illusion promptly shattered by the extraction process, which featured a clumsy moment where the rescued 'damsel' was forced to tolerate her head being smashed against the back wall. Eventually, having twisted enough in the tight space to land on his backside with his back against the adjacent locker, Nic sat triumphantly with his bounty draped across his lap.

A tender hand brushed dust and debris from the banged-up guitar case.

"We really need to get you something a little more portable for these trips."

Nayisa stifled a laugh when his first attempt, which was clearly meant to try and impress her, was about as successful as his attempt to wrestle the crate out of the way. She watched him half disappear into the small space to remove the occupant of the locker, then her amusement shifted into surprise when she saw the shape of the object. Her eyes then went to Nic, who seemed to be very affectionate toward the thing and completely unphased by the rest of the world around him. "It was a guitar?!?!"

"This not just a guitar." The admonishment, whilst slightly over-stated for affect, was nevertheless delivered with a sincere amount of indignation. A hand rested atop the case seemed to attempt to placate, an apology for the insult of his current company. "Layla here is a vintage Martin. Replica," he added almost as a mumble, as if that part of the explanation was typically shunted to barely-important status. "She's beautiful."

With a flurry of activity that was mostly a wasted expenditure of energy, Nic floundered in his attempts to regain his footing and ended up half-knee crawling towards a crate before using it to help him upright. Once standing, he laid the guitar atop the box and gently clicked open the fastenings. The guitar, drawn out reverently, was well-maintained but clearly old, a little rough around the edges but made from quality material that tended to wear the years well. He checked it over, brushing several specks of dust from the bridge, and then held it upright and slightly extended for presentation purposes.

"She's been everywhere with me, seen more of the universe than most people probably."

Surprised eyes watched him take out the guitar, Nayisa's mind still trying to process that this object was what Nic had been so desperate to find. "You even gave it a name..." she muttered, pinching the bridge of her nose in an attempt to collect her thoughts. "You made it sound like a humanoid or something was trapped in the locker!" The urgency of that implication was what drove her to help him in the first place.

Nayisa's communicator chirped, effectively cutting off whatever Nic was going to say in response, and she gave him a 'do not move from this spot' glare. She created some space between them to answer the call, opting to go behind the large, unmoving crate he attempted to move so she'd have privacy.

Several sharp intakes of breath had been the start of an attempt to explain himself but, if anything, Nic was happy to embrace the interruption as an excuse to abandon the effort. He wasn't sure, after all, exactly what he was apologising for. Had he claimed it was a person trapped in there? No. Had she asked. Also no. It was gradually dawning on him that she'd only consented to help because she believed someone's life was in jeopardy, which was a little sobering but also, in its own way, promising. If a person's first instinct was to cut someone an escape route...

...they could probably be forgiven for leaving a man dangling.

About a minute later, the silver-haired woman came back into view. "Well, it's time for me to head out. Glad one of us got what we came for." Nayisa made no effort to hide the sarcasm in her tone. She didn't like coming back with no new information, so she really hoped that Zia or Zora got the information they needed. With the atmosphere of 'you are now on your own' emanating from her, Nayisa started climbing her way to the nearest exit.

"Whoa, wait a minute!"

The rush to place his guitar back in its case and close the clasp before swinging the whole thing by its strap to rest across his back meant the door had nearly closed behind the departing Intel officer before Nic had a chance to catch up. Attempting to keep pace was a little awkward, but not nearly as much as being forced to talk to the back of her head. "We didn't really find what you were hoping for, right?" It was rapidly occurring to Nic that his own preoccupation had cost him a valuable opportunity to cement his worth. "I can find out for you. Figure out what this artifact was, dig around a bit more. Send you anything I find." He mimicked the tapping of a keyboard to emphasise the offer. "I mean, these idiots have it now, might be handy to know what it is they're capable of doing before you try dealing with them."

In his fervour, he didn't see the bulkhead until his shoulder smashed into it. Rolling with it, he trotted to catch up.

"The least I can do." Having finally made it far enough ahead to see her face, Nic flashed what he clearly believed to be a winning grin. "Unless you want to take me a long as a meat shield."

"I appreciate the offer, but I don't hand out my communications frequency," was the now-curt response. Nayisa knew he was right, it would be safer to know what the artifact did before trying to get it back. "Also, the computer is infected with a virus, so even if you found something, it might not be reliable due to the corrupted state of the computer." Seeing Nic in front of her made Nayisa slow down slightly, only enough to make sure she didn't run into him. Following his grin, she made a show of looking him over, as if gauging if he was actually fit to be a meat shield. Despite her best efforts to hide it, she did find it amusing enough that he offered to protect one of very few individuals on the station who didn't need it. Enough so that a very faint smirk tugged at the corner of her lip. "Convince me that you're useful, and I'll see what I can do to at least help you off this station."

Mouth hung open, it took Nic a moment to respond. There was a falter, the visible posturing of shoulder rolls as he shook off the implication that he couldn't be trusted with what was essentially her contact frequency. Where have I heard that before? The offer had been sincere, a way to curb his own curiosity and complete his self-appointed task whilst also assisting Starfleet, which given the region of space they were in, seemed like a sensible precaution. If she wasn't going to take him up on it then, his options were starting to turn scarce.

A glint in his eyes became the impetus for a decision made, not so much in haste but as the last option in the scraped barrel, the morsel he had tucked away for last on the off-chance he wouldn't have to use it.

"Well, for starters, I'm willing to bet I'm the only one here who's actually been on board that pirate ship."

He watched the clarity dawn on her features, enjoyed his moment with a hint of knowing that peeked out from behind his less-coordinated veneer, and then cleared his throat as he realised her momentary surprise had become an arched eyebrow.

"Long story."

 

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