Space Gremlins

"A whip and a bang and a scallywag swain and it all falls into place, clang clang!"

Spark alternately hummed and sang the old working song, singing when he knew the words, humming when he didn't, and threaded his arm past two electrical conduits to reach the fuse he'd just known was faulty. It wasn't anything immediately pressing and probably would have lasted several more weeks before failing completely, but he hadn't been able to help himself. It was just what he did.

It had been almost a year since he'd signed on with the merchant ship the Nebula as engineer, grease monkey, and all around fix-it guy. The ship hadn't been any better or worse than the thousands of others that had passed through his home port, but it had been the only one willing to take on a teenager with few questions asked.

On either side. These days Spark was regretting his hasty signing of the contract before really getting a good feel for what he was getting himself into, but even on the worst days he didn't regret the decision to leave home. Being the fourth of six children could be a headache under the best circumstances; being the restless problem child of Piston's brood made things a hundred times worse.

So he'd asked every ship that came into port if they needed a mechanic and left on the first one to say yes. The Nebula.

"Ow." Spark withdrew his hand and stuck his finger in his mouth, sucking on the wounded digit. He really needed to learn not to think while working, or at least not to think about him.

Captain Dahgen was the bane of Spark's existence. Tall, strong, commanding, everything a captain should be from the dust-free perfection of his white uniform down to the meticulously polished shine of his custom-issue black boots. Handsome enough to turn heads every time they docked with his jet black hair, darkly tanned skin, and piercing blue eyes that never missed a thing. Unfortunately, Dahgen was also every kind of asshole that Spark had a name for and then some.

He glared balefully at the tangle of machinery before him and whacked the nearest non-essential panel with a wrench. The bastard was the coldest, cruelest, most insufferably arrogant man whose path Spark had ever had the misfortune of crossing. Nothing Spark ever did was good enough for Captain Dahgen, and his failings were usually expounded upon, in humiliating detail, where the rest of the crew was certain to hear. Spark hated feeling like a failure, but around Dahgen he seldom felt like anything else.

With a long-suffering sigh Spark pushed away the dark thoughts and finished replacing the fuse. He was just replacing the casing and tightening the screws when his hearing picked up the firm pace of heavy, booted footsteps as someone strode confidently through the engine room, stopping not far from where Spark's feet were sticking out of the hatch.

Taking a deep breath and trying not to wince, Spark slowly slid back out of the hatch and dropped to the deck. There was only one person on board who walked like that. Captain Dahgen. Exactly who he would least like to see.

Spark looked up at the imposing figure in his crisp white and blue uniform, inwardly cursing the man for his height, and his own race for lack thereof. Yet another way for the accursed man to intimidate him.

"We'll be docking in an hour at Thymesca," Captain Dahgen announced calmly, those blue eyes as cold as ever. "I want you to overhaul the cooling systems while we're in port."

Spark stiffened. "But, I just fixed them last month..."

Dahgen's eyes narrowed. "I don't care," he said flatly. "I want the entire system overhauled, clean and ready to go in exactly twenty-four hours. No questions."

It wasn't fair. Spark had never set food on Thymesca before, though the rest of the crew talked about it with familiarity. He'd been looking forward to exploring a bit, seeing the sights, the people, getting off this damned ship. It just figured that Captain Dahgen would come up with some stupid excuse to deny him that freedom and make him work double-time to accomplish some task that didn't need doing. After all, Dahgen did it regularly.

"Well?" Dahgen asked, a hint of impatience seeping into his cool voice as Spark only stared at him in furious shock.

Biting down on what he'd like to say, Spark ground out, "Yes, sir." Captain Dahgen nodded once and turned crisply on his heel to stride away again, black boots rapping out their hated pattern upon the deckplates.

When the door slid shut, blocking Dahgen from view, Spark hurled his wrench across the room with a snarl. Damn the man! Practically every time they set down planetside or docked at a station of any size Captain Dahgen would come up with some sort of make-work to keep Spark on the ship. It wasn't fair. He wanted to see the world, not waste his life away fixing systems that didn't need fixing!

Only two more months, he reminded himself. Two months, and then his contract was up for renegotiation. No way was he staying on the Nebula after that. He might still be a teenager, but now he had experience on-board a real ship. Someone would take him on, someone without a twisted, sadistic captain.

Spark glared at the nearest of the engine modules, sorely tempted to break it just to set them behind schedule, but reluctantly let go of the idea after a moment's vindictive daydreaming. If he broke it, Dahgen would just make him fix it, and yell at him in the process. Stupid Dahgen.

Gathering up his tools, Spark sighed and looked at the engine room, feeling the hum of the machinery all around him. He dusted his hands off on his faded coverall and pushed up his sleeves, setting off for the nearest coolant hub. Might as well get a head start, since Captain Jackass would never settle for anything but perfection, even if the task was completely pointless.

Nine hours later, covered in grease and foam and several things he couldn't quite name, his stomach reminded him that he hadn't eaten since breakfast. The day before. So he made his way up to the galley, deserted at that time of night, and dropped into a chair with a muted 'whuf' sound.

A moment later a shiny bald head peered over the low bar that divided the kitchens from the dining tables and Cook's pleasant voice called out, "Good evening to you, little gerbil."

Spark rolled his eyes and shook his head, messy strands of white-blond hair falling into his eyes as it came loose from his ponytail. It was always coming loose, no matter what he did to tie it back. Stupid hair.

"Gremlin, Cook, Gremlin. Gerbils are rodents."

The man considered, scratching at his head, then beamed. "Right, gerbil."

Spark sighed tolerantly, though he was smiling. It was almost impossible to be mad at Cook - his name was actually Purdlo, though only Captain Dahgen ever called him that - as the man was the most good-natured being Spark had ever met. Not to mention he could make any dish in the galaxy, and probably better than whoever created it.

"So, my little gerbil, what is troubling you?" Cook padded out of the kitchen on his four fuzzy, bright-red legs and plopped down next to Spark's chair, depositing a steaming plate of something Spark didn't recognize on the table. It smelled good, whatever it was.

"What else?" Spark asked rhetorically, poking at a purplish object half hidden beneath a fat orange thing that he thought might have been a carrot. "Captain Dahgen. He's got me doing a complete overhaul of the coolant systems in a twenty-four hour time period, so of course I'm not going to have time to go down to the station like everybody else." He stabbed viciously at the purple thing with a fork.

A slight frown creased Cook's brow as he considered Spark's words. "Maybe it's for the better," he said slowly. "Thymesca isn't a real friendly place. Heard some not so good things about it. Mebbie Cap'n's doing you a favor, little gerbil."

Spark scowled. "Some favor. Ha. He hates me, Cook, he really does. I can't wait until my contract is up."

Cook's large brown eyes blinked at him. "Where would you go?" he asked curiously.

"Somewhere. Anywhere." Spark scowled and stabbed at his plate again. "I figure any ship has to be better than here, as long as that bastard's captain."

Massive red shoulders rolled as Cook shrugged, all four arms spreading wide. "Eh, Cap'n's not so bad," he returned. "He's an ass, but at least he's equally an ass to everybody. Quip figured once that it's cause of his Fleet background, that he can't unbend and be civil like everybody else."

"That's no excuse," Spark muttered, taking a bite of his meal for the first time. As expected, coming from Cook, it was good. "We used to have plenty of Fleet come through back home, and they were never anywhere near as mean as Dahgen. Stuffy, uptight, yeah, but not assholes."

Cook chuckled faintly. "Maybe that's why he's ex-Fleet. Too much even for them." He patted Spark's head reassuringly as the gremlin ate. "He really isn't so bad, though, for a transport captain. I've known more than a few in my time that abused their crew, or worse. That's a contract you really don't want to be under."

Spark jerked his head up, red-violet eyes wide as he stared at the man. "You're kidding," he said in disbelief.

Cook shook his head sadly. "S'all true. And one reason I stay on board the Nebula. Captain Dahgen might yell at his crew all day long, but he'd never lay a finger on any one of 'em. He's a good man, really. Just a little... cold."

"Cold?" Spark echoed bitterly. "Space asteroids are cold. Captain Dahgen goes way beyond that. He's not cold, he's freezing."

Cook chuckled. "All I'm saying, little gerbil, is that perhaps things aren't as bad as you think they are. Certainly, they could be a lot worse."

Spark mumbled non-committally, choosing to enjoy his supper rather than argue with his favorite person on board the Nebula. Despite Cook's words, he still felt that there were far better places he could be than stuck in the ship's engine room cleaning conduits on the whim of an arrogant dictator.

Stupid Nav system. He swore every system on this stupid ship hated his guts. Had to, or they wouldn't break down nearly so often. In his less antagonistic moments, Spark had to concede that it was probably just the age and cheapness of the systems, but it was hard to get mad at a computer for just being old.

He thought he'd found the problem four times now, only to turn out to be mistaken. Geivan had been spinning around absently in his chair for quite a while, bored out of his mind while Spark dismantled his systems one at a time to check for the error. The navigator poked his head down beneath the console from time to time to make a query, much to Spark's annoyance. He was working, damnit. They needed to just leave him alone or else...

Electricity crackled and hissed and Spark jerked back as a thick bundle of wiring chose that moment to burst into flames. He muttered and put out the fire with a damper, then sighed as he surveyed the damage. He really needed to learn to control his temper when working. Usually he could manage to keep his gremlin magic in check, but unfortunately it was less easy to do when he was annoyed.

"What was that?" Geivan asked, peering at him again. Spark firmly resisted the impulse to punch the lizard.

"Something else I'm going to have to replace," he snapped, the tufted end of his long tail twitching in annoyance. "Don't touch anything." He scooted out from beneath the console and got up, pacing over to where he'd left his supplies and rooting out the things he'd need.

"You seriously need to learn to chill," Geivan told him as he scooted back under the console again. Spark kicked him, smirking at the startled exclamation of pain from the lizard. Maybe that would keep him out of Spark's way while he finished fixing both the mess his magic had created and the original problem that had caused him to be summoned to the bridge in the first place.

"You were so asking for that," the pilot, Quip's voice observed with a chuckle.

"Are all gremlins as violent as he is?" Geivan whined, a flicker of movement in Spark's peripheral vision alerting him that the lizard was rubbing the wounded leg.

"I dunno about violent," Quip returned calmly, "But I have heard they're all kinda touchy. One reason why a lot of ships prefer to do with human engineers, even though gremlins are more skilled."

Spark grimaced and contemplated scooting out again to throw something at Quip, then First Mate Norris's voice boomed out. "Y'all quit yammering, buncha space guppies. Captain wants to deal with a spacin' gremlin, that's that. Let the rat finish 'is job so he can get the hell off my bridge."

Tensing, Spark gripped his wire-splicer a little too tightly and bit back a curse as the sharp edge sliced a shallow gash in his hand. He stuck the injury in his mouth to keep from snapping an angry retort, then went completely still as a familiar and hated voice rang out unexpectedly across the bridge.

"It isn't your bridge, Norris," Captain Dahgen stated calmly, familiar pattern of footsteps echoing as he walked from the doorway to his chair. There was a slight shuffling, probably Norris relinquishing his seat to Dahgen, then the captain's voice came again. "And engineer Spark is a gremlin, not a rat. If you need assistance in differentiating the two, I suggest you make use of the library files."

"Yes, Captain," Norris returned crisply.

Spark was immensely glad for the concealing cover of the console he was working beneath, because he could feel his mouth hanging open. He'd been certain Dahgen would take the opportunity to berate him further, and instead he'd almost defended Spark. That couldn't be right. He had to have heard wrong.

He jumped at a sudden sound close by, smacking his head on a panel and dropping his tools as he clasped his hands over the injury. Dimly he heard Geivan moving around, doing something on the top side of the communications console, then the navigator's voice called out, "Priority message coming in, Captain. Encoding I don't recognize."

Captain Dahgen's voice was crisp, efficient. "Route it to my personal headset."

"Yessir," Geivan acknowledged, then there were more faint sounds from the computer as the navigator complied. Spark finished patching the wires he'd accidentally shorted and scooted out, lifting his head a bit to take in the scene.

Dahgen was in his chair, a translucent blue visor across his eyes. As Spark watched, the captain input several commands from his console and straightened, lips pursing into a very faint frown. Spark wondered what kind of encoding was being used that even Geivan didn't know it, and where it had originated. But most importantly, he wondered if he could crack it.

Probably. There wasn't a piece of machinery ever invented that a gremlin couldn't master given enough time, and Spark knew he was good. Making Dahgen's electronics misbehave was fun, but cracking his personal encryptions would be even better.

Quite suddenly Dahgen stood, startling everyone on the bridge. "Quip," he ordered sharply, "Lay in a course for Venthaar. Geivan, is that computer of yours operational yet?"

Geivan shifted and glanced down at Spark, who shrugged. "Er, sort of, Captain," the lizard-man replied.

"Sort of?"

"Erm." Geivan rapidly punched in commands, breathing out a sigh of relief when nothing exploded and the program came up without crashing. "Course computed and all obstacles accounted for, Captain."

Dahgen eyed him coolly. "You're certain."

Geivan shot another desperate look at Spark, who sighed and kicked the Navigation console. "Eh, it'll work for a couple hours, at least." He shrugged, dropping back down to tinker a little more. Maybe by the time the thing shorted out again, he'd have figured out what the problem was. Stupid old faulty equipment.

Across the bridge a tense silence fell as everyone tried very hard not to wonder what had prompted the sudden course change. Venthaar was a small colony of little importance that was less than a single generation old. There was nothing of any interest to the Nebula... was there?

Of them all, only Spark sat easy. It didn't matter what was or wasn't on Venthaar, Captain Asshole wasn't likely to let him leave the ship regardless. Therefore, he had no interest outside of fixing the Nav computer. Which was beeping at him, again.

Spark sighed and kicked it. Stupid piece of scrap metal.

There was utter silence across the bridge as everyone present stared at the viewing window in shock and horror. Whatever they'd been expecting when they'd suddenly detoured to the colony planet, it couldn't have been this. Not this efficient, all-encompassing destruction. Not a single building left standing, gaping holes still giving off smoke. Whatever had caused the devastation, it couldn't have had time to get far.

"Life signs?" Dahgen's voice rang out, and if Spark didn't know better he'd say the captain was being more terse than usual. That, of course, was impossible. Captain Prick wasn't the type to care about the fates of a few hundred colonists.

"N-nothing within range..." Geivan replied unsteadily. "There's... it's all just..." He paused, fingers flying, frowning at the console beneath them. "Wait..."

In one swift motion Dahgen rose from his seat, four long steps crossing the distance between himself and Dahgen to stare down over the navigator's shoulder at the console readout. His eyes narrowed as they scanned it, then the straightened and whirled sharply on his heel. There was a very audible click as he slid his laser from its holster and switched it on.

"No one is to leave the ship," he announced crisply, re-holstering the weapon and automatically straightening his uniform. "Geivan, if I do not return in two hours, find file ZXCT-179-D in my personal files and transmit it on the frequency specified in the header."

"Captain?" Norris questioned, frowning.

"That includes you, Norris," Dahgen answered the unspoken question, turning those piercing blue eyes on the hulking form of his first mate. "Obviously, you're in command. If you feel you need to take off to keep the ship and its crew safe, then do it. I can take care of myself."

No one argued further. The last statement, at least, everyone knew to be true. Despite Norris having at least fifty kilos on the captain, all of it in rippling muscle, the first mate wouldn't dare directly engage Dahgen. When Spark had first come on board he'd caught the whispered rumor, quickly hushed up, that the reason Dahgen was no longer Fleet was that he'd killed someone in cold blood with his bare hands.

Whether or not it was true was irrelevant. All that mattered was that the man could do it, and make it look easy. He was like a giant wild cat, perfectly graceful, perfectly deadly. Spark shivered.

With one last chilling glance around the bridge, Dahgen turned and walked off. A few minutes later all the security systems came up as the captain activated them from outside. Another minute more and someone, Quip, finally spoke up.

"Does he, like, seriously creep out anybody else?" the pilot asked.

"Just a tad," Geivan responded dryly, bringing up an external view on the main screen so they could watch the figure of the man as he made his way cautiously into the ruins of the colony.

"Do you think Fleet made him that creepy, or y'think he was like that before they got to him?" Quip asked idly.

"Oh, definitely before," Geivan replied. "The Captain's creepy even for Fleet. Too creepy, really. Maybe that's why they kicked him out."

"Both of you, shut up," Norris snapped, settling uncomfortably in the command chair. His knuckles were white where he was gripping the side-rests and Spark had a moment's brief thought that Norris was honestly terrified of their terse captain.

"Aw, I know you've wondered about it too," Quip persisted, spinning around in his chair to stare at Norris. "What do you think he's doing out there, big guy?"

Geivan grinned. "Maybe he's really a pirate and he's meeting up with some of his pirate buddies. No offense, Norris," he added impishly.

Norris scowled. "That was a long time ago, and Captain Dahgen isn't the pirate type."

"Hey, it'd explain how he got himself booted from Fleet," Quip inserted with a nervous chuckled.

"Without being quite as morbid as the more popular rumor," Geivan added.

"Enough!" Norris bellowed, half rising from his chair. "Quip, Geivan, shut up." His eyes scanned the room, focusing on Spark who still hadn't gotten the Nav system entirely smoothed out. He was beginning to suspect his own presence was hampering his repair efforts. "You, gremlin, get the hell off the bridge. We don't need you up here now."

Rolling his eyes, Spark gathered up his tools and left as requested. He didn't feel like pushing Norris as he would normally be inclined to do. The odd situation earlier where Captain Dahgen had... said what he'd said... still pressed upon his mind. He'd been certain the captain hated him, but if so, why had the man all but defended him against Norris?

Spark kicked a wall in frustration, then glared as it beeped at him. Stupid ship. Stupid captain. What was the man doing out there anyway? And that transmission earlier, right before Captain Dahgen had ordered the course change. It was like he'd known what was going to happen to Venthaar. But how was that possible?

The gremlin glared balefully at the hallway, calling himself all kinds of fools beneath his breath as he made his way swiftly to the airlock. This was madness, surely, but all of a sudden he really wanted to know what the hell was wrong with their unpredictable Captain Demented. Orders be damned, he was going out.

With the ship in security lockdown the doors didn't want to open up. Spark solved that problem with a little judicious use of gremlin magic and the formerly stubborn machine hissed open obediently. He smirked as he dropped to the ground. Making things misbehave was a lot more fun that making them obey. It was a pity there wasn't a job description out there for someone to make things go wrong. That would be loads of fun.

After briefly scrambling the ship's sensors so nobody would see him until the program cycled, he set out through the ruined colony in the direction he'd seen Dahgen going. He had no idea how to track and he somehow doubted that Dahgen would be leaving a trail anyway, but he figured as long as he kept moving in vaguely the proper direction he was bound to come across something. Preferably the captain.

What he wasn't expecting was the other ship. It had set down on the other side of the colony and was partially camouflaged with a slightly-malfunctioning camouflage screen. The non-working areas had been compensated with using natural materials, badly. Spark wanted to snort. How hard was it to fix one stupid camouflage screen? If you could afford one in the first place, you ought to be able to afford to fix it.

So occupied in the ship was he that for a long moment Spark didn't notice the figure creeping slowly but surely toward it. When he did, he blinked. That was Dahgen, for sure, and his laser was held firmly in one hand. Was he expecting trouble of some sort?

Frowning, Spark started picking his way across the rubble toward the white-clad figure. The destruction was worse here and the footing uneven, enough that he slipped and fell with a startled yelp. He landed painfully on the ground, a peculiar buzzing sound growing around him that he recognized after a moment as stunners powering up.

Spark tensed and scrambled to his feet. The moment he was vertical a firefight broke out, lasers streaking the air with colored energy. One of them he easily picked out as Dahgen's custom model, though there seemed to be an awful lot of the others and only one of Dahgen...

He yelped again as one of the lasers only barely missed him. A moment later he got a face full of stark white fabric as Dahgen shoved him roughly down, appearing out of seemingly nowhere, his body between Spark and the ship's defenses. Spark cried out as he hit his head on a bit of rubble on the way down, then everything went black.

When Spark awoke, the first thing he was aware of was that his entire body felt like it had been trampled on by a dancing Mervinghan. The second was that the belt containing his tools was missing. Third was that he was sprawled rather embarrassingly across someone's lap. Dahgen's lap.

With a humiliated squeak Spark scrambled up and away, glaring daggers at the infuriating man. A moment later the expression slipped as he took in his captain's state - filthy, clothes torn, cuts and bruises everywhere, a trail of dried blood trickling from the corner of his mouth, arms chained to the wall above his head with state of the art restraints. Spark stared. He hadn't thought it was possible for the infernal Dahgen to look anything less than pristine.

"You look like shit."

The comment slipped out before he could manage to censor his mouth and Spark winced. So much for polite diplomacy. At least with his hands restrained Dahgen couldn't retaliate. Physically.

"I am aware of that," Dahgen's cool voice answered, seemingly unfazed by his current situation. "I wasn't expecting to have to keep a certain disobedient gremlin from getting incinerated." His icy blue eyes narrowed. "You were told to stay on the ship."

"I'm always told to stay on the ship," Spark muttered. "I was bound to say 'screw you' eventually."

Dahgen snorted and shifted, the faintest shadow of a wince clouding his face as he did though it was gone before Spark could confirm what he'd seen. "You picked the worst possible time to decide to defy me," he observed.

Spark glared. "Well if you weren't always such a prick, maybe I'd be more inclined to behave like a good little gremlin!" He sat down heavily on the cool metal floor, crossing his arms and sulking. "Stupid overbearing..." He paused, frowning, and looked around at the small, featureless room they were in. "Where are we, anyway?"

"A detention cell on the slaver ship," Dahgen answered calmly. "More than that I haven't determined."

"Slaver ship?" Spark exclaimed, head snapping back to stare at Dahgen. "What the hell are we doing... what were you doing going after a slaver ship with one laser?!"

One elegant dark brow arched. "I was carrying more than the one laser until they disarmed me."

Spark glared. "That still doesn't excuse the suicidal tendencies."

Dahgen rolled his eyes. "I had intended on disabling the ship until backup arrived. You managed to rather neatly botch my plans, however."

"Backup?" Spark's frown deepened. "You told us all to stay on the ship, and none of those monkeys would even think about disobeying. Where were you expecting backup from, the far reaches of spa..." He trailed off, eyes widening. "Wait a minute... the coded transmissions... the emergency message you told Geivan about... the sudden course change... You're not ex-Fleet, you are Fleet!"

Up went the eyebrow again, Dahgen's cold blue eyes watching him dispassionately. "An impressive display of deductive reasoning," he commented.

Spark crossed his arms again, tufted tail flicking back and forth as he tried very hard not to sulk. "What's a Fleet officer doing running around the galaxy pretending to be a merchant?" he asked petulantly. "And how come your crew doesn't know?"

Dahgen shrugged as well as he was able with his arms bound as they were. "Need to know basis, and you didn't need to know."

"You're an asshole, you know that?" Spark snapped.

"I've been called worse."

"Can't imagine why..." Spark muttered beneath his breath, glaring balefully at his captain... or whatever Dahgen was. He sulked for a few minutes more, feeling tense and irritable and more than a little bit hurt at the deception, then looked up, frowning. "So how are you going to get out of here?" he asked.

The muscles of Dahgen's arms flexed, testing his bonds. Spark realized rather suddenly that with his uniform shredded or missing completely in places, an awful lot of skin was visible. He flushed and looked away even as his mind made a note that maybe there was a good reason that Norris refused to fight him. He'd never seen a body quite so perfectly toned in all his life.

"Unless you happen to be good at picking locks," Dahgen said calmly, "I'm probably going to have to remove my boots and see about shorting out the manacles with my feet."

Spark blinked and stared at him, then at his black boots - no longer anywhere near pristine and shiny - and back up to Dahgen's face. "You're kidding."

Dahgen arched a brow. "Not really. I've done it before."

"Um." Spark got up and reached out, touching two fingers to the elaborate machinery holding Dahgen's arms above his head. There was a soft click, then the whole assembly swung open.

Dahgen lowered his arms and rubbed as his wrists, blinking up slowly at where Spark was standing over him. "That is a rather useful trick," he commented, getting slowly to his feet and not quite hiding another wince.

Spark frowned. "Are you okay?"

He got another of those insufferable looks. "Four broken ribs, two more fractured, strained deltoid, torn ligament... nothing major."

Spark caught himself staring and scowled. "Four broken ribs? You call that nothing major? Are you insane?"

"Wouldn't be the first time I've been described thus," Dahgen replied, starting to shrug before thinking better of it. "Will your little trick work on the cell door?"

Snorting at how stupid the question was, Spark strode the few steps across the room and touched the door, which obligingly sparked and slid open. He turned back to smirk at Dahgen and almost yelped to find himself far too close to the man's powerfully muscled chest. "Dahg-" A strong hand clasped over his mouth.

"If you would like to see about disabling the ship," Dahgen said quietly, "I am going to go deal with our captors." He smirked infuriatingly. "That is, if such a task is not too difficult for you."

Spark shoved away the hand over his mouth and glared. "Watch me," he hissed, then turned and stalked off down the corridor, trailing one hand along the wall as he did so. Beneath it he could feel the machinery sputtering as his magic went to work, stopping and turning around to smirk- only to find that Dahgen was not where he'd left him.

Frowning a bit, Spark went back to his task, following the energy conduits to get to the engine room where he could really do some damage. He was rather enjoying the chance to deliberately break things, for a change, and was most determinedly not worrying about Dahgen's chances against a ship full of slavers when he was so obviously wounded and in pain.

He wasn't.

This was not helping. Spark set aside the spare fuel cell he'd been tinkering with and sighed, glancing for the hundredth time at the chrono on the wall. It hadn't changed since the last time he'd looked at it, and he was starting to wonder if he'd accidentally short-circuited the thing. It would be entirely in keeping with his dour mood.

They'd been docked at Fleet HeadQuarters for most of the day. After the slavers had been rendered harmless and the Fleet ship had arrived to take over (a more beautiful piece of equipment Spark had never seen) Dahgen had ordered them to make a direct jump to Fleet HQ. The moment they'd docked he'd gone off to be debriefed or report or whatever. Spark hadn't really paid much attention once the crew had started bitching about the fact that Dahgen had been Fleet the entire time and never told them.

He'd retreated to his engine room to tinker, though his heart hadn't really been in it. Instead, he'd been going over his ten months on the Nebula in his mind, bringing up all the times Dahgen had made his life miserable, then cross-checking the locations in the computers. After a while he'd reluctantly come to concede that Cook had been right after all. Every single time he'd been confined to the ship they'd been at a station known for illicit dealings, or a planet suspected to house slavers, or had just happened to land right in the middle of a system-wide guerrilla revolution.

Not that knowing all that really made him feel much better. Dangerous or no, he hated the idea that Dahgen had been protecting him like a helpless child. He wasn't a child! He was eighteen! Almost nineteen! He didn't need to be protected like some silly scruff that didn't know his head from his tail. Stupid insufferable arrogant overbearing...

The soft tread of footsteps interfered with his angry ranting and Spark peered over the bulk of a generator to spy the pale, slender figure of Hran'li, the Nebula's Medic. Like the captain, Hran'li tended to dress all in white, though he probably shouldn't. His hair and skin were both extremely pale shades of blue and the white just made him look like a ghost.

"Spark?" Hran'li called out hesitantly.

"What do you want?" Spark muttered, sinking back down behind the generator and hearing the muffled sounds of the Medic's light slippers as he made his way around the machinery to crouch down next to the irate gremlin.

"The Captain wished me to look you over and see that you hadn't taken any serious damage on the slaver ship," Hran'li explained, drawing a small reader out of his pocket and running it slowly down Spark's body.

Spark looked away, glaring at the wall. "I'm fine. Just a few bruises," he mumbled.

Hran'li smiled. "Of course," he nodded, "But I am not about to face the esteemed Captain without medical proof in hand."

With a slow blink, Spark looked back at the slender Medic. "You're not pissed off at him."

Hran'li's thin brows lifted in surprise. "Captain Dahgen? No. It is not usually beneficial to one's health to be at odds with a Fleet officer, that one more than most."

Spark frowned, then his eyes widened and he glared accusingly. "You knew!"

"Yes," Hran'li confirmed, smiling faintly. "A standard Medic would not know how to treat a Gen-En. I am permanently assigned to Captain Dahgen."


Hran'li chuckled quietly. "Genetically-Enhanced. A very special sort of soldier, altered for enhanced speed, stamina, intelligence, pain resilience..."

Spark frowned again. "That's how he could take on a ship full of slavers with four broken ribs."

"Five." Hran'li sighed. "Though the fifth one might have gotten damaged in that final fight. Probably did, come to think of it. The other four had already begun to knit."

Spark blinked. "Fast healing being another quirk of whatever he is?" he asked, sighing when Hran'li nodded. "Pain resistance or no, I bet it still hurt a whole lot..."

"Undoubtedly," Hran'li agreed. "Gen-En bio stats can only take a man so far. After that it is all willpower and determination. The Captain is remarkable even amongst his peers."

Shrinking down on himself, Spark kicked dejectedly at the floor. "It's my fault he got hurt at all," he mumbled. "If I'd just stayed put..."

"It is rather amusing that after so many months of doing nothing but railing against his edicts you would chose this time to actually disobey," Hran'li observed in amusement, holding up his hands wardingly when Spark shot him a nasty glare. "Just a thought. I think I shall leave you alone now and go put in my report so that the Captain does not get upset with me for not checking up on you. My thanks for your time, Spark."

The pale Medic rose and departed. Spark listened to his footsteps as they retreated, waiting for the swish of the doors opening and closing before he allowed himself to un-tense. Stupid Hran'li. Why'd he have to come now and make Spark feel even more guilty about his own stupidity? He'd been just fine wallowing in misery all on his own.

Scowling, Spark stood suddenly. Fine then. He'd created the mess, so the least he could do was apologize. Even if Dahgen was still a bastard.

He let himself off the ship, amused to see that someone had placed a security lock on both the inner and outer docking portals. Apparently Fleet liked their privacy. Well that was too bad, because Spark wasn't in the mood to let some silly little piece of electronics stop him, state of the art it might be.

Fleet HeadQuarters itself very nearly made him drool. This was more than just state of the art, this was prototype models. The regular market wouldn't see anything remotely like this stuff for years, and his fingers itched to play. With considerable determination he forced himself to behave- within reason. He still got to tamper with a few things as he made his way into the complex so that no one would know he was there until he wanted them to.

Crawling into an access hatch, Spark pulled out his personal datapad and linked it up with the Fleet system. A few minutes of hacking later he had the information he needed and was thoroughly disgusted with Fleet's encryption protocols. A baby could have hacked into those. He made a mental note to harass Dahgen about it later.

Three tunnels, two corridors, and a hundred or so meters of ventilation ducts later, Spark dropped down into a deserted hallway and regarded a plain security-locked hatch. According to the computer, this was the only debriefing room in current use, and had been since shortly after the Nebula had docked that morning. Therefore, it was a very good bet that he'd just found Dahgen.

Running his fingers along the security pad, Spark smiled tightly to feel the prickle of electricity as he shorted out the mechanism. The doors slid open with a swish and he calmly let himself in, cheering up considerably at spotting a familiar dark head - dressed all in black, strangely enough, sitting at a long conference table with two others who were dressed similarly.

Alerted by the sound of the supposedly locked doors sliding open, all three rose from their places, weapons being drawn before they'd completely risen. Dahgen's eyes widened slightly at the sight of him, then he reached out and placed his hands on his two companion's arms before they could fire.

"Spark," Dahgen acknowledged, lips pursed in a tight line. "How the hell did you get in here?"

"Your security's lousy," Spark retorted, expression shifting into the familiar glare he nearly always wore when dealing with the vexing man.

"That will have to be dealt with," Dahgen murmured, then looked at the two men he'd been speaking with. "This meeting is adjourned. The briefing will be finished at a later time."

Both men nodded, making an odd gesture that Spark supposed meant something to Fleet personnel, then left the room. He heard the doors slide shut again and had to give the system credit for rebooting so swiftly... though he hadn't zapped it particularly hard. Dahgen regarded him silently, then sighed and leaned back against the long table.

"So, is there a reason you came all this way, or did you just want to see if you could sneak past Fleet security?" he asked dryly. "You realize no one has ever done that before?"

Spark snorted. "It really wasn't hard. Your encryption algorithms suck and your redundant backup systems can all be shorted way too easy if you know what you're doing."

"The system was designed with gremlins in mind," Dahgen observed wryly, arms crossing over his chest. It was strange to see him in black rather than white, though it certainly didn't look bad. Striking, almost intimidating, but not bad.

"I guess I'm just special." Spark wondered why he was being so snarky, reluctantly concluding that he was trying to put off what he'd come here to do. "That is, I mean..." He sighed in frustration. "I wanted to apologize."

Dahgen's dark brows shot up. "Apologize?"

"For getting you hurt," Spark clarified, feeling his face heat. "If I hadn't been such a stubborn brat..."

Dahgen chuckled and shrugged, undoing the top three fastenings of his uniform and tugging it down so that Spark could see the smooth skin beneath. "No real harm done. It's almost healed."

Spark struggled not to stare. It was one thing to be told that Dahgen healed quickly, but it was quite another to see the proof of it with his own eyes. He had a difficult time tearing his gaze away from that dark sliver of exposed skin, cursing fluently beneath his breath, knowing full well that his cheeks had to be scarlet.

"Um, right," he mumbled, fidgeting. "So, um, you're not wearing white anymore... does that mean you're going back to being Fleet full time?"

There was an odd silence; Spark looked up as Dahgen straightened, a peculiar expression on his face. It wasn't one Spark had ever seen before, but then Dahgen generally only had two expressions: Aloof and Annoyed. He cleared his throat and started to respond, but at that moment the doors slid open again, admitting a man in a dark grey uniform. The man made the same gesture the two before him had, straightening at Dahgen's nod.

"Sir, the Chamberlain has arrived to speak with you. He is waiting in conference room two."

Dahgen nodded and dismissed him, standing up straight and redoing the fastenings on his uniform. Spark eyed him oddly for several moments, earning himself a quirked brow from the dark man. "What?"

"Everybody's awfully polite to you..." Spark said slowly.

Dahgen shrugged. "So?"

"So who are you really?" Spark asked. "You're not just any old Fleet officer..."

Dahgen's lips quirked slightly, then he immediately fell back into his customary smirk. "At Fleet, I am Lieutenant-Commander Drachen Panthera," he replied.

Spark's mouth fell open. "The Black Panther?" he sputtered. "You're not just Fleet, you're one of the Elite! The Black Panther's like the elite of the Elite!"

Again, Dahgen shrugged. "It's just a title."

Spark was silent a long moment, then he frowned. "So I guess that means you're not returning to the Nebula," he concluded reluctantly.

"My cover is blown now," Dahgen replied, shoulders rippling in another calm shrug. "No point."

Spark winced. "Sorry..." he muttered. "That's my fault too..."

"Hmm," Dahgen murmured, eyeing him consideringly. After a moment's hesitation, unusual, for the confident Fleet officer slash ship Captain, he offered, "Fleet could probably use a gremlin as strong as you are, you realize."

What? Spark blinked at him, red-violet eyes wide. "Wait a minute, you want me to stay after I blew your cover and got you captured and almost killed? Why?"

The tall Elite hesitated again, blue eyes for once unguarded and showing a myriad of conflicting emotions. After a moment he seemed to come to a decision and strode swiftly across the smooth tile floor to yank Spark close, head bending down, lips crashing over the startled gremlin's as Dahgen kissed him hard, commanding, possessive. It was like nothing Spark had ever experienced before, hot and demanding and consuming in a way that left him completely overwhelmed.

When Dahgen finally released him they were both more than a little breathless. Spark struggled for breath as his heart seemed to pound in his ears and he silently blessed the makers of coveralls because anything tighter would have been more than a little uncomfortable after that. Dahgen's uniform, for instance.

Cheeks heating again Spark started to look down to see if that black fabric was as uncomfortably tight on Dahgen as he suspected it was, only to have to turn in surprise as the tall Elite sidestepped him and strode purposefully toward the door.

"Think about it," Dahgen said without turning around, the doors sliding open and closed as he exited.

Spark stared at the closed portal for a long moment, fingers drifting up slowly to brush across his kiss-swollen lips, then down to press against his chest where it felt as though his racing heart would beat right through his ribcage. His jaw set determinedly, then he bolted out the door after the infuriating bastard.

Dahgen was not getting away from him that easily. Not after that performance.

Even if he was a completely insufferable ass.