Malcolm took another look at the... thing slithering up his arm. "You said this was called what, again?"
The shop's proprietor grinned, sending a small shiver down Malcolm's spine, and when he spoke his voice was high-pitched
and grating. "A Kobari lizard, Mister... er..."
"Reed," Malcolm supplied, watching the lizard's progress around his elbow. "Is there anything else I need to know about
this one?" he then asked, waving his arm for clarification.
The proprietor shook his head. "No - it's one of our most popular sales for children's' pets. They rarely bite if provoked,
and their top speed is approximately -" At this point, Malcolm's translator began to sputter. "- nothing at all to worry about,
Malcolm considered the tiny creature again and after a couple of minutes nodded his head. "I'll take it," he told the alien
man, who promptly pulled out a box from behind the counter and put some blue and white leaves in there as well - food for
the journey, he explained with another smile, although the lizard would eat most anything of a plant nature.
Ten minutes later, Malcolm left the cool and relative darkness of the menagerie and found himself back in the marketplace,
lit brilliantly by the planet's two suns. All around him was hustle and bustle, and for a while the armoury officer simply
wandered between the outside stalls, even chancing the odd sniff at some of the ones selling food and drink, although he came
close to an elephantine sneeze at one stall advertising the "strongest hopamuris in town!!" in alien script on a placard
hung over a steaming vat.
It was while his eyes were still streaming from this... concoction... that his communicator chirped. Balancing the box
with the lizard under one arm, Malcolm pulled it out. "Reed here."
"Ah, Lieutenant," Hoshi's amiable voice replied. "Are you having fun?"
"As much as can be expected," Malcolm managed in-between covertly wiping his eyes with his sleeve (and trying not to jostle
the box too much).
"You wouldn't believe what Commander Tucker and I found earlier," Hoshi told him.
Malcolm grimaced against the bright sunlight. "If it's the weaponry exhibit on the outskirts, I've been there, done that,
but the t-shirts were too tacky to buy," he replied.
Hoshi laughed. "Nope, that wasn't it. Where are you?"
Another wipe of the eyes. "Marketplace."
Well, Malcolm wasn't really sure what to say to that. "There's more than one?" he asked somewhat plaintively.
"Of course," Hoshi admonished jokingly. "Weren't you listening to Trip in the shuttlepod?"
"Me? Listen? Trip?" Malcolm asked, realising with no small amount of delight that his eyes had finally stopped watering
and that he could see again. "Now those are three words I rarely hear in the same sentence."
Hoshi laughed again. "I'll tell him that from you," she said. "But seriously - do you want to see this or not?"
Malcolm sighed. "What is it?"
"Amazing," she replied. Then, "What does your marketplace look like?"
Malcolm considered this for a minute. "Does the phrase 'the strongest hopamuris in town!' mean anything to you?"
he asked her.
"Ooh... that stuff was good!" Hoshi exclaimed. "We'll be with you in a couple of minutes. Sato out." And before Malcolm
could ask or say anything else, the connection went dead. He scowled at the wooden benches standing a little way away from
him for a few minutes, but it didn't make him feel any better, especially when...
Malcolm scowled again and turned away from the benches. "Commander. How nice of you to join us," he said shortly, rearranging
the lizard's box under his arm again.
Trip pouted. "Aw, c'mon Loo-tenant - lighten up!" he demanded, grinning widely.
Ignoring him to the best of his ability, Malcolm instead turned to Hoshi, whose arrival had been a lot quieter. "Hello."
"Hiya," she said, smiling at him. "What have you got there?"
Holding the box up, Malcolm said, "Another animal for Phlox. The little terror's little more than a children's pet, but
we won't tell the good doctor that part - I'd hate to spoil all of his fun."
Hoshi nodded. "Yeah."
"Look," Trip interrupted, the grin gone from his face. "Are we gonna stand around for the rest of the mornin' debatin',
or are we actually goin' somewhere?"
"Have anywhere in mind?" Malcolm enquired innocently.
"Yep." Trip nodded. "You'll love it."
"And if I wasn't worried before, then I definitely am now," Malcolm muttered so quietly that only a very skilled linguist
could make out the words (who, incidentally, quirked her lips in response to the statement).
Trip tugged downwards at the ends of his (lime green) civilian shirt, straightening the edges out. "Comin'?" he asked,
pointedly staring at Malcolm.
"Why not?" Why not indeed.
Half an hour or so later proved why not. Half an hour or so later took Enterprise's chief engineer, armoury officer and
communications officer to what appeared to be a ramshackle house a little way outside the small town, at the edge of a large
and very bleak moor.
Malcolm said nothing as the three of them trudged closer, deciding that whatever mad idea these two had cooked up would
come to light sooner or later. It didn't, and before long Hoshi was knocking on the wooden door.
A second later, without warning, it creaked open to reveal a dark corridor ahead of them. Poking Malcolm in the back to
get him moving, Trip led the way, Hoshi bringing up the rear. The walls either side of them were a musty kind of black, and
after a few seconds, the three officers emerged into what looked very much (and rather suspiciously) like a human kitchen,
with a table in the centre. Seated at the table was a wizened old woman with the same neck and facial colourings and ridges
as the majority of the people back in the marketplace.
She looked up, and took in the sight with an appraising smile. "Commander, Ensign," she rasped, "how nice to see you again.
And your little friend is...?"
Malcolm scowled at the reference, but before he could actually say anything, Hoshi had given him a sharp-yet-oh-so-discreet
jab in his back, and Trip had introduced him as Lieutenant Malcolm Reed.
He instead settled for nodding curtly at the woman, while yet again shifting the box containing the lizard.
"My name is Israyma," the woman told Malcolm with a toothless grin. "Please, sit down."
It was then that Malcolm noticed for the first time that there was a second chair at the table; he sat down a little warily,
setting the box down on the top, just off to his right.
Israyma eyed him for a few seconds, but did nothing else, and a little uncertain under the scrutiny, Malcolm began to fidget,
looking around him to see what else was in the "kitchen" - not very much at all, and even less that he could recognise.
Eventually, however, Israyma spoke. "He's a brave one," she said to Trip and Hoshi, who were still standing behind Malcolm's
chair. "I can see it in his eyes. Yet... he is still looking for something. Something he may never find."
So she was some kind of a fortune-teller. Fair enough. He could go along with this.
"The pain in his heart is matched only by the determination in his soul." That simple pronouncement caught Malcolm's attention
and pummelled it with a sledgehammer as he looked at her.
"How can you..." he began, then trailed off.
He was given another toothless grin. "I offer questions, not answers," the woman said cryptically. "And if you wish, I
can offer you another question, which you must answer for yourself."
"Say yes," Hoshi whispered, and looking behind him, Malcolm saw Trip nod fervently.
"Hang on a second," he said to Israyma, and pulled his two friends into a corner. "What on earth is this?" he demanded.
To her credit, Hoshi only looked a little intimidated. "It's kind of heard to explain," she told him.
"Think of it as hands-on fortune tellin'," Trip added.
Malcolm looked at both of them sceptically. "You don't mean to tell me that you honestly believe in this sort of stuff,
"After what happened earlier, I'm willin' to believe a little more in it," Trip said.
"What did happen earlier?" Malcolm asked him. "And straight answers, please."
Trip smiled a little wistfully. "It's sorta like an induced hallucination," he replied. "'Cept it's different for every
person and it's not gonna be what you expect."
"It is dangerous at all?" Malcolm asked immediately.
"No," Hoshi said, shaking her head. "Just... different."
"Fine then," Malcolm decided. "But on your heads be it." He sat back down at the table.
Israyma watched him with obvious interest. "Is that a 'yes', Lieutenant?" she asked him.
"I suppose so," Malcolm answered, nodding.
She nodded as well. "May I see what's in the box?" she asked, indicating it with a hand.
Again, Malcolm nodded, and carefully, she reached inside and pulled out the Kobari lizard and slowly placed him
in the centre of the table. "Has he got a name?"
"I - no," Malcolm answered, feeling a little more foolish by the minute.
"Be careful when you decide on one," Israyma told him. "Names stay with you for a lifetime."
"...Right," Malcolm replied, watching as the little lizard scampered around in circles on the tabletop before it stopped
and toddled slowly over to where Malcolm's right arm brushed the edge of the wooden surface. When it was about three inches
away it paused and craned its neck to look up at Malcolm with what could almost have been a quizzical expression on his face.
Then it jumped.
"Ah!" Malcolm exclaimed, rubbing his arm. "The little bugger bit me!"
To his surprise, the old woman was grinning her toothless grin again. "So it begins," she said softly.
Malcolm closed his eyes briefly as he rubbed the sore patch on his arm. When he opened them again, he was no longer sitting
at the table.
He was back onboard the Enterprise.
Frowning a little, Malcolm looked around him. He was standing in the centre of the armoury, everything in its place and
as it should be. In fact, it wasn't until he started moving that he noticed that anything at all was different.
When he took a step, something clinked close by to him. He moved again. More clinking.
Looking down at himself, Malcolm noticed for the first time that he was no longer wearing the shirt and trousers he had
worn down to the planet; instead, impossible as it seemed, a sheath of chain mail covered his shoulders and carried on down
to a spot just past his knees, like a tunic. Underneath that, he could see glimpses of white material flashing through the
chinks in his 'armour'. And talk about dramatic irony, he thought to himself, eyeing the mail with suspicion. Who
the hell's directing this?
What the... what kind of a hallucination was this supposed to be exactly? The old woman's words came back to him... something
about offering him a question that he had to answer. Well, the only question that came to mind straight away was how long
until ickle Malcolm ends up on psychiatric leave? The scenario in which he had found himself was completely and utterly bloody
He wasn't going to get any answers standing by himself in the armoury, that was for sure. Trying his best to ignore the
noises made by the chain mail, Malcolm left the room with the intention of returning to his quarters, but instead found himself
waylaid before he had even reached the nearest turbolift.
"Hey, Malcolm!" It was Trip.
Malcolm turned around to face him. "Trip," he said. "What on earth is going on? About two minutes you, Hoshi and I were
down in that house and -"
"Mal," Trip interrupted, "what the hell are ya talkin' about?"
A different Trip? It was certainly possible. "I - never mind," Malcolm told him. "Do you have any idea what's going on
here?" he asked, indicating his... attire.
Trip shot him a strange look. "S'time fer ya ta prove yourself," he said, as if speaking to someone who wasn't very bright.
What's that supposed to mean?
"Are you comin' or not?" Trip asked him, still with that strange look on his face. "They're all waitin' for ya."
"Oh." Well, what was he supposed to say? I'll be there ready in five minutes with tea and biscuits?
Trip had clearly taken that as an affirmative answer, because he grabbed hold of Malcolm by the wrist and started pulling
him down a different corridor altogether... one that wasn't exactly familiar... one that - hang on... were those stone
Bright sunshine blinded Malcolm for a second, and by the time his eyes had readjusted to the difference in light pitch,
he had already begun to take stock of his surroundings.
He was standing in front of a cave.
And Enterprise wasn't anywhere in sight.
"It's all down ta you!" Trip called from behind him. Turning around, Malcolm saw the man safely ensconced at the top of
a ridge about thirty feet or so above ground level. "Jus' do like ya normally do, 'kay?"
"Do what like I normally do?" Malcolm asked him, cupping his hands so as to be heard better.
Trip grinned from his vantage point and said something unintelligible, and then pointed at a spot behind Malcolm's head.
Turning back around, Malcolm realised what it was... whatever it was was about thirty feet tall on its rear legs, maybe
a third as wide, and dragging an equally long tail behind it.
Oh, and it was breathing smoke from its crater-sized scaly nostrils.
It also looked remarkably like the lizard that Malcolm had purchased for Phlox... the one that had bitten him in Israyma's
kitchen... only about a hundred times bigger. Bloody hell.
Was he supposed to actually fight this thing? And with what? Pebbles? A slingshot... no, too clichéd, surely. What
he wouldn't give for his cannons right about now.
Malcolm simply stood there on the grassy ground and stared up at the beast as it approached him, rearing up on its hind
legs and baring dirty great big fangs at him in what could almost be described as a smile... almost.
The dragon paused as it got closer to the now rather scared armoury officer, and ducked its head closer in to him.
This is just a hallucination... this is just a hallucination... it is not real...
Oh good Lord, that breath stank to high heaven.
Memo to self: kill Trip and Hoshi for suggesting I do this. And hide the bodies somewhere they can't be found.
Seemingly satisfied with its inspection of the puny little thing in front of it, the dragon reared back up to its full
height and started advancing on it again.
Stumbling backwards, Malcolm thought back to what Trip had said to him... do like he normally did.
What the hell was that supposed to mean? Phase cannons came immediately to mind, as did just about every other fire or
sidearm Malcolm had ever used, possessed or even looked longingly at from the other side of the rope in museums. But imagining
them didn't magically conjure them into his hands, pitifully enough.
But what did he actually do? Malcolm considered this one very carefully, certain there was an answer somewhere.
He didn't manually operate the cannons, did he? No... he pushed buttons and watched the after-effects from a safe distance.
Hand to hand combat? When was the last bloody time I did that properly?
"Some tactical officer you are," he told himself bitterly, trying to look both behind him and at the dragon at the same
time. "Can't even outthink the opposition..."
Still the dragon came closer and closer to him, and a flash of something suddenly popped into Malcolm's head, and he couldn't
help but let it run. "My kingdom," he told the dragon mirthlessly, his tone rising sharply and breathlessly with each word
as he continued going backwards. "My kingdom, my armoury and my cannons for a sodding sword!"
The dragon stopped then - it just stopped moving, standing in the middle of the rocky basin, and Malcolm, too stunned to
react, kept going on backwards until he tripped on something and fell down onto his back, staring up at the beast from the
Bending down, the dragon peered intently at Malcolm with first one eye, and then the other before opening its mouth, and...
speaking. "Lieutenant," it said, sounding remarkably like Israyma, "have you found your answer yet?"
"What?" Malcolm asked.
The dragon sighed. "I told you that I could only offer you questions, questions that you would have to find the answers
to. I ask you again, have you found your answer yet?"
Well, this was certainly a little surreal, wasn't it. "I... I don't even know what the question was," Malcolm managed,
trying to sound as officious as he could. "Can't... can't do anything without that."
Again, the dragon/Israyma sighed, and when it spoke again, it sounded somewhat exasperated. "I had no such problems with
the commander or ensign," it told the armoury officer.
"Well, good for them," Malcolm retorted acerbically.
"Let me finish!" it bellowed back, revealing rows and rows of pointed yellowy fangs. "This may only be a vision, but for
you this is real enough. Follow?"
Mutely, Malcolm nodded.
"Thank you," the dragon said, "and, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, Commander Tucker and Ensign Sato
were able to see inside themselves and see their own faults with minimal help from myself, and they were able to adjust and
act accordingly. You have just received the same amount of help to see inside yourself, and if you are anything like your
peers, then you will now be able to find your answer."
"My kingdom for a horse... my cannons for a sword," Malcolm repeated, mostly to himself. He then looked back up at the
dragon. "Is that it?"
"Is what it?"
"This..." Malcolm mused. "Nothing happened until I asked - until I asked... out loud... for help."
The dragon nodded, but said nothing.
"Hang on," Malcolm said, "what about Trip's advice? He said to do like I normally do. But I don't like to ask for help...
"Yes..." the dragon encouraged.
Malcolm shot it a fish-eyed look. "I don't ask for help," he declared defiantly, almost stubbornly, "because past experience
has taught me that I won't get it."
"Well then," the dragon said, sounding oddly relieved but not too surprised with the revelation. "What do you plan to do
"I..." For once, Malcolm was lost for words. "I don't know," he finally admitted. He blinked to get dust out of his eyes,
and then started.
Without any warning of any kind, let alone any sensation of movement (again), he was back in the kitchen, still seated
on the same rickety old chair that he had been in before... the hallucination... the vision... whatever on earth it was.
He jerked his head around quickly, taking in his surroundings. Trip and Hoshi were still standing behind him, the walls
still looked as though they were held together by bits of straw and string, and the lizard was still giving him a dirty look
from the tabletop.
There was the sound of a voice behind him, and he realised Hoshi was speaking. "You don't know what?" she asked in concern,
looking at him.
"I..." Again, Malcolm couldn't think of anything to say. "Never mind," he said eventually, then turning back to the table.
"What was that?"
To his surprise, the old woman merely grinned, revealing oddly pointy, yellowed teeth. "I can only offer you the question,
Lieutenant," she said, almost mirroring the dragon's words. "It is your path that will lead you to the answer that you're
looking for, nothing else."
Malcolm nodded slowly, simply trying to digest all that had happened to him in the space of what could easily have ranged
from a few seconds to something nearing hours. "I'll, er, take that on board," he said a little uncertainly.
Nodding, Israyma gently scooped up the tiny lizard and replaced him in the box before handing it back to the armoury officer,
who took it somewhat bemusedly; a couple of minutes later the three Starfleet officers were back outside the house (where,
thankfully, Malcolm could see the town in the near distance).
"You - the two of you did that earlier?" Malcolm asked eventually, suddenly unable to stand the silence for much longer.
On his left, Hoshi nodded. "Something out of this world," she said softly, looking down at the dirt track ahead of her.
"If you don't mind my asking," Malcolm said, carefully overstepping what looked suspiciously like dung, "what happened
to you - you know, in your -"
She smiled and turned to face him. "Not at all," she replied. "I found myself back at home. On Earth. The weirdest thing
was that I could see a three-year-old version of myself running around in my parents' bedroom while my father sat and watched
"What happened?" Malcolm asked, hoping he wasn't prying.
"The other me fell over," Hoshi admitted. "I think she tripped on a box or something, I can't remember. Anyway, it was
while Dad was comforting her that my mother turned up and started talking to me." She cocked her head a little. "Sounded exactly
like Israyma, actually. Very strange."
Malcolm considered this. "What did she say?"
"Something about looking inside myself," Hoshi said vaguely, and beside her Malcolm got the hint, falling silent again.
"Home's better than where I ended up," Trip said unexpectedly from Hoshi's other side. "I was standin' at the edge o' some
kinda cliff. The crumblin' kind," he added. "Nearly fell."
"Did you?" Hoshi asked.
"Nope. So," he continued, swiftly changing tack. "C'mon, Loo-tenant. What happened to ya?"
Malcolm raised an eyebrow and shot the engineer a look. "Some home truths were delivered to me in a fairly unforgettable
way," he allowed.
"Nothin' you wanna share with the group, then?"
"No," Malcolm replied. "Not really. I suppose I'm more interested in how she did it."
Hoshi sent him a sidelong glance as they finally entered the town proper. "Wouldn't that be a little defeatist?"
"I hardly see how."
"Okay then," she replied, unperturbed. "Clearly, you saw something that's given you something to think about. Right?"
"So," she continued, "if she is for real, then perhaps you should give that point - whatever it was - some very serious
Malcolm said nothing, but instead led his friends to the benches near where he'd got the lizard from. Sitting down, he
took a deep breath and faced the other two squarely. "I know I'm not perfect," he began, trying to find the words for what
he wanted to say, "and I certainly know that I'm by no means infallible. I guess... maybe what I saw today has some merit
to it in terms of me and how I am, but at the same time..." He floundered briefly before taking another long, deep breath.
"At the same time... I don't really know what I've got to do if I'm going to change." There. He'd said it.
But to his surprise, both of his friends' expressions showed levels of understanding rather than anything else that Malcolm
had been expecting.
"Yeah," Trip said slowly, breaking the silence, "I think someone once said that the hardest person ya can criticise is
yourself." He shrugged. "You'll figure it out eventually," he added brightly, grinning.
Malcolm looked at him. "And what if I can't?"
The engineer considered this for a moment. "Ask someone ta help ya," he suggested. "Two heads are better than one, right?"
Oh, if only you knew, a little voice in Malcolm's head ventured.
"I mean," Trip continued. "We're gonna be here for ya - me and Hoshi, right?"
She nodded her agreement fervently. "That's what friends are for," she said honestly, looking Malcolm straight in the eyes.
He nodded. "I... thank you."
Trip grinned lop-sidedly at him. "All ya gotta do is ask," he stated. "Can't see myself turnin' y'away or anythin' like
The three officers then fell into a companionable silence, only interrupted or broken when one of the nearby stallholders
approached their bench. Looking up, Malcolm mentally registered her as being one of the native population of the planet.
"Can I get you three anything?" she asked them, her voice reminding Malcolm of the man who'd sold him the lizard, as well
as something... maybe someone else, although he couldn't quite decide what.
"No," Hoshi replied, shaking her head, "no, we're fine, thank you."
The woman smiled and made as if to turn around and walk away when she brushed against Malcolm's side, and the armoury officer
could have sworn he heard her whisper something to him as she walked away. "I ask you again, Lieutenant, have you found your
Watching her return to her stall (with another vat steaming dubiously alongside it), Malcolm could only shake his head.
No. It couldn't be... could it?
Getting up, he quickly crossed the small walkway inbetween the benches and the stall. Choosing to ignore the sign (advertising
yet more hopamuris), he slipped to one end of the counter and beckoned the woman over.
"Have you changed your mind?" she asked him with a friendly smile.
Malcolm searched her face for any kind of familiarity... and then noticed that her teeth were a little yellow, and that
the front ones were a little pointier than the others.
He glanced back at the bench briefly before turning back to her with a half-smile of his own. "Yes I have," he told her.
"I've got it now... thank you."
She smiled again, and peered into his face with some kind of bemusement. "The answers are always waiting to be found,"
she told him somewhat cryptically. "You simply have to be willing to make the effort, Lieutenant."
"So you are her," Malcolm challenged, although he wasn't really too annoyed with the whole thing.
"What defines a person?" she asked him. "Their appearance? Their personality and characteristics? Nothing is set in stone,
Malcolm. You of all people should recognise that by now."
"I... I suppose I thought I did," he replied, "but like you just said, things can and do change. And you know something?"
he added, a not of quiet defiance in his voice.
She shook her head, silently inviting an answer.
"Whatever happens," Malcolm asserted, "I'm going to get through it. With a little help from my friends. Because I know
that they'll always try to help me, no matter what. All I have to do..."
"All I have to do is ask them," Malcolm stated. "It's as simple as that."
She smiled again. "Well done, Malcolm," she told him, again using his first name rather than his rank. "And..." she trailed
She eyed him from the other side of the steaming vat. "Have you chosen a name for that little pet of yours?"
Malcolm considered this for a few seconds before replying with a smile of his own. "George. I'm going to call him George.
Someone who fought a few dragons of his own... and won."
The woman nodded in what apparently seemed like approval. "It certainly seems fitting," she told him. "Now Lieutenant,
I think you should get back to Commander Tucker and Ensign Sato. They're waiting for you."
Malcolm nodded. "I know. And," he added, "again, thank you." He left the stall and walked back through the surging crowds
to where his friends sat underneath the two alien suns, enjoying the view.
When he turned around, the stall was unoccupied and the woman nowhere in sight, although there was still steam overflowing
from its rim. Malcolm shot the stall one last look before pushing it out of his mind altogether.
Maybe there is something to this fortune-telling lark after all...