Open Season
The world gets a little better every day, and worse in the evening.

        The Duck ship slid into orbit quietly, careful to avoid the numerous small satellites already circling the blue orb. Aboard the ship, ensign and ranking officer alike went about their duties, meticulously following every procedure – no matter how routine – by the book. There would be no screw-ups on this trip. It was the first time in months that the ship had been allowed out of Federation space, and Commodore Mallard was all too aware of the fact that the Fleet Admirals would be watching this mission carefully. A misstep now could cost him his commission. Moreover, it could cost members of his crew their commissions.

        Mallard was convinced he had a capable crew. They had a lengthy, long-standing mission success rate, marred only by their recent defeat. It almost seemed unfair to be placed under so much scrutiny for one failure – but, then again, that one failure had placed a weapon of immense possibility in the hands of their greatest enemies. The fact that another enemy had been dispatched in the process hardly seemed worthy of attention in the Admirals' eyes. Especially since they had no proof D'Gal had truly perished in the crash.

        And so here they were – a Duck Flagship, the late favorite of the Admiralty, orbiting an insignificant little pre-warp planet. Insignificant, except that the infamous Charles D'Gal had last been seen crashing onto this world, and the Admiralty wished to know whether the past months' silence was due to the fact that the Black Knight had perished in the crash, or if he was just biding his time.

        To his right, Mallard's second-in-command ordered a surface scan of the planet, specifically requesting that the computer look for two things: the beacon signal the downed captain's yacht should be emitting, and the biosignature of the Black Knight that had been aboard her when she crashed. With any luck, they'd find only the beacon, and Charles D'Gal would fade into nothing but a bad memory, bringing a rather unsavory chapter of the Invisible Ducks' history to a close.

        No such luck, Mallard winced, as the computer chirped happily, obediently displaying a bird's-eye map of the city and two small blinking circles within the grid. One was no more than a small dot, pinpointing the location of the yacht's beacon. The other, however, was much larger, spanning several city blocks in diameter. Moreover, the circles were far apart, eliminating any false hopes as to the deceased condition of one target.

        Mallard sighed, letting the news sink in and allowing his crew time to react themselves. There were several startled gasps, and incredulous and worried whispers broke out among the younger ensigns aboard. Drake actually swore, stringing together a rather creative collection of oaths.

        D'Gal was alive.


        “Ensign,” Mallard began, trying to keep a newfound exhaustion from creeping into his voice, “Can we get a more definitive location on D'Gal?”

        “Negative, sir,” the tan Duck shook her head, “The only bioscan file we have on D'Gal is severely out-of-date. The computer found a probable match somewhere in that sector, but without a better bioscan to compare it to, it can't narrow down the location radius.”

        “Not even if you re-scan that sector?” Drake queried.

        “I'm sorry, Commander, but the file's too old. It would be easier if there weren't indigenous duck species on this planet. They're similar enough to our – er, D'Gal's - species that the computer's getting a high baseline reading – and since D'Gal's file is so old, he's not matching it much more than the baseline is. Moreover, most of the targets in the area are moving, which would make an exact location difficult even if we *had* an updated file.”

        “So we'll have to search that entire area,” Drake slouched in his seat. Both SpaceFleet and the Navy had strict policies governing when it was and was not permissible for captains to leave their ships. In all other scenarios, it fell to the Second-in-Command to lead away teams. Which meant….

        “Commander,” Mallard barked, snapping Drake into the conversation he had anticipated, “Prepare an away team and beam down to the surface. Search that area and two additional blocks in every direction. I'll have another team oversee the yacht's recovery; and, though I doubt D'Gal has stayed by it, they'll search the area surrounding the crash site.”

        Drake nodded. “Aye, sir,” he sighed, rising. He had an away team to plan.

        Now, who besides himself was expendable?


        D'Gal drew his arm back, snapping it forward to pitch the Colt as far out into the Hudson as he could. It hit the frigid water with a muted sploosh, marring the greenish-black surface with ripples for the briefest of moments before the river forever swallowed it.

        A pity, really. He had liked that gun. Not as much as he liked the Eagle, but well enough. However, it was the Colt that he had grabbed when Rez's gang chased Win into his flat, and it was the Colt that he'd chosen to insure Rez and his gang would never try any stunts like that again. And then he'd wiped the gun and cartridge clean, rammed a file down the barrel to make tracing groove marks impossible, and – just to be thorough - tossed the gun into the river like so many before him had done. If the citizens of the city really wanted to know why their river had such a high lead content, they could give some thought to dredging out all the firearms.

        Although if they did that, they'd find the yacht. And while he had wanted nothing else months ago, he wasn't altogether certain he wanted the yacht surfaced now. It reminded him of things he supposed he should be doing, but wasn't. In all likelihood, the yacht couldn't be repaired by the locals; but if he really wanted to return to space, he supposed all he had to do was take a trip to the west coast and commandeer one of that gray-feathered pirate's remaining fighters.

        The bird lived in a Californian city called San Viano, and had made the mistake of wandering past a camera crew documenting some extraordinary event that was evidently unique and newsworthy enough to merit broadcasting it on the New York news. A postal worker had apparently snapped after one day too many of being chased by yapping dogs in an upper-class neighborhood, had somehow acquired a tank, and proceeded to raze said neighborhood. A few minutes of video showed a yellow kiwi sobbing in front of the twisted remains of what appeared to have been a pink limousine; the pirate had been trying to console her, saying that it was for the best and why didn't she get a car that wasn't pink? The video quickly panned away then, as another kiwi lunged at the pirate and what sounded like a vicious fight ensued. A pair of local cops finally ended the postman's little escapade with a show of firepower that had done D'Gal proud. The rocket launcher and attack helicopter had been a nice touch, he had to admit.

        The realization that the pair of cops was the same duo that had taken him down on the Duck ship didn't come until later. With it came the sneaking suspicion that he'd seen the mouse before even that. And the glyph he swore he'd seen on the mammal's forehead – was this a SpaceFleet captain, hiding out in this dusty corner of the galaxy? Arcadia. That name was familiar. But why? He'd made the mistake of mentioning that to Win – he was doing that a lot lately, he noted – but she had only laughed, saying the pair was always on TV for something or other.

        Hm. Win. Now, there was an unexpected development. It was also unnecessary, and it could very easily become a liability. Oh, he could take care of himself just fine, and Win was, slowly but surely, mastering a variety of techniques and attacks that would insure that she would be able to fend off anyone that came after her. Still, the situation itself defied all logic that he could think of. Not that he was about to object – in a sense, it reminded him of simpler times. Winni was a distraction – a welcome one, granted, but only a distraction, nothing more. And as long as the Ducks thought he was dead, he could afford a distraction.

        Speaking of which, he needed to stop staring out at the river and get somewhere warm. Not Win's place – not tonight. She'd caught some annoying ailment called the Flu, and didn't want him to catch it as well. Very thoughtful of her, but as his flat was still cordoned off by the police, it left him without a place to stay. And he didn't see how spending all this time in the cold was going to help remedy that. He turned to leave.

        And caught sight, out of the corner of his eye, of a familiar pattern of light.

        He spun, darting back to the edge of the building to get a better look at the water's edge, and swore at what he saw.

        A dozen Ducks, milling around the shoreline not twenty feet from where he was.

        Oh. Sh*t.


        Drake wandered down the crowded, dingy streets, leading the away team to an open area quiet enough to make his voice audible enough for them to hear their orders. The locals all turned to stare after them, gawking and snickering at the gaggle of sci-fi fanatics wandering about downtown Manhattan. Probably got lost on their way from the hotel to the Con, wisecracks joked. Many others snickered, razzing the Ducks and jostling them just to get them worried. But most simply avoided the group.

        Drake ignored most of the odd looks from locals, but several members of the away team began wondering whether they would be better off changing out of their distinctive uniforms and into local garb.


        “Listen up,” Drake started, pointing to a map of the city, “This area here,” he circled his finger around a region, “is where our scanners put D'Gal. They can't narrow it down more than that, though, so our job is to ferret him out. I'd recommend you stay in groups of three or more, and if you do find D'Gal, don't try to fight him – contact the rest of us immediately.” You might not get a chance to otherwise, he added silently.

        He broke the team into smaller groups, trying to keep the younger ensigns with their more experienced counterparts - to keep them alive longer. It seemed cruel to task a bunch of ensigns with finding and flushing out D'Gal – if he found them, they'd be dead before they even realized they were in danger. And even if they spotted D'Gal first, odds were that they wouldn't last much longer than it took to scream for help. Drake purposely tried to send these lambs to areas he felt certain D'Gal would not be in.

        He left those areas he suspected D'Gal would take refuge in to himself.


        D'Gal watched as the Ducks split off in separate directions. Last night's group had been comprised of mostly engineers and scientists – none of which were heavily armed. What was left of that group was still by the river today, sailing about in a rented trawler. Looking for the yacht, obviously. And keeping an eye out for rabid locals with firearms and anti-alien complexes. None of the survivors had seen him, attributing the night's attack to the spooked hobos that had, truth be told, fired first. *This* team, however, was different. They carried phasers, a heavy contingent of them were security officers and generic, expendable ensigns. *This* team was looking for him.

        He'd known they were coming as soon as he saw the first group. He'd cut his rounds short, catching enough sleep so he was alert now, at midday. He'd also warned Winni.

        He wasn't really sure how effective that move had been. She hadn't really been all that lucid, and he hadn't really been all that specific. But he was fairly certain she knew that, if a white-feathered duck came around looking for him, that duck was trouble. And Win could handle trouble.

        He debated what to do. Well, get rid of the away team, obviously. But, what group to target first? Going after Drake was tempting, but too risky in daylight. The same went for the groups of security officers. True, the groups were comprised of only a few Ducks apiece - but, again, without the cover of darkness, he ran the risk of being spotted – either by the group, or by a witness that would then also need to be neutralized. Indeed, the chances of him getting a good chance to kill any of the Ducks were slim while the sun was up. They simply attracted too much attention in those uniforms. Still, he couldn't risk sleeping until dusk – if they had any intelligence at all, they'd figure out he wasn't moving and pinpoint his location while he napped away his freedom.

        So. That left only one option, really.

        Toy with the ensigns.


        There were about a dozen of them, each with only one phaser apiece, wandering along the sidewalk like so many lost tourists, gawking up at the buildings and skittering nervously away from each and every bird, rodent, and stray animal that crossed their path. And attracting the attention and animosity of every last citizen as a result.

        Oh, this was going to be fun.

        He left the shadowed alleyway, taking a moment to look across the street at the spot where the team had stopped to discuss their options. Smirking, he set off after the ensigns.


        Ensign Muiretta didn't like this city. It was crowded, and noisy, and dirty, and polluted, and in the twenty minutes since they'd arrived, several hundred - if not thousand - people had given them weird, disgusted, or superior looks. And even more had actually turned and laughed.

        No, Muiretta decided, she didn't like this city. And, just to give her another reason to hate it, one of the ensigns to her left let out a shout.

        “There he is!”

        Muiretta followed their gaze – and saw that, sure enough, there D'Gal was, two hundred paces ahead. Leaning against a streetlamp.

        And looking right at them.

        The group jerked to a complete halt, eyes going wide with shock. Behind them, natives cried indignantly, growling unpleasant things under their breaths are they maneuvered around the dumbstruck group of 'tourons.'

        Smirking, D'Gal shifted his weight off the streetlamp and turned to go.

        And Muiretta could've sworn he winked at them before disappearing into the crowd.


        “Did you see that?!?” an ensign cried.

        “He thinks we're not good enough to catch him!” another glowered. “Well, if that isn't a challenge, I don't know what is! Charge!”

        The group surged forward, charging towards where they had seen their foe last. This elicited quite a few indignant cries from the rest of the pedestrians, who couldn't understand why anyone would possibly want to run down a crowded street.

        This burst of speed proved unnecessary, however, as D'Gal moved at a rather leisurely pace through the crowd, skillfully avoiding bumping into citizens and thus making much better progress through sea of pedestrians than his pursuers. He kept about half a city block between himself and the ensigns, stopping at a highly-visible perch every now and then as the group lost sight of him. Whenever he did this, he let them get about two hundred feet from him before setting off again.

        Not a few times, D'Gal ducked out of sight, only to reappear a few paces away from the group, darting into the streets as the ensigns broke into a run. The black-feathered villain wove, ducked, and dodged his way through the traffic, sliding across hoods and leaving quite a few fender-benders in his wake. The ensigns did not fare as well, freezing like startled deer as taxis bore down on them, horns blaring. After a few near-misses, a handful of bumper run-ins, and one broken ankle, the group switched to not crossing the streets unless flocks of natives joined them in doing so.

        This game of tag lasted for quite a while. D'Gal wasn't really leading them anywhere specific, but he was drawing them far from their original route. When he was satisfied that they were completely lost, and starting to hang back, he switched tactics, coming to a halt in from of one of the many entrances to the city's own special labyrinth.

        The remaining ensigns – the one that had broken his ankle had fallen behind blocks ago – took a moment to look around as D'Gal dropped out of sight again. A scan of the area revealed him to be leaning against one of the hand railings installed on a set of concrete steps leading underground. This time, once he had ensured the ensigns spotted him, D'Gal disappeared down the steps, into the subway.

        And while the rational parts of the ensigns screamed 'set-up', the parts caught up in the chase ignored the warnings and charged after him.


        D'Gal liked the subway. Subterranean, ill-lit, crowded, and – in some places – quite dangerous. And yet, despite the complicated network of tunnels and tracks and winding stations, immensely practical and logical. You could get practically *anywhere* in this city through the subway.

        Including places D'Gal was pretty certain Drake did not want these ensigns wandering around in.

        He hopped the turnstiles at the station's entrance, darting down a corridor toward the tracks. Casting a glance behind him, he caught sight of the ensigns scrambling down the steps, attempting to hurdle the booths as he had done - but running into a great deal more trouble doing so.

        Station security, while willing to overlook the occasional free-rider, wasn't about to let a group of sci-fi-obsessed young people cheat the city out of fees, and was running to intercept the away team. The group scattered, breaking this way and that and staying as far away from the converging force of security personnel as possible. Some didn't run fast enough and found themselves caught; one young ensign, seeing her colleagues tackled or shoved into walls, retreated back up the stairs. The three more determined ensigns broke free and dodged the uniformed police that charged them, jumping the booths and darting down the tunnel they'd seen D'Gal enter.

        They reached the platform just as the current train announced its intent to depart, the garbled message echoing off the vaulted ceiling. The lights lining the platform began blinking rapidly in warning, and late-running commuters scrambled to reach a car before the doors closed as flocks of disgorged passengers shoved their way to this or that corridor, headed to their next destination.

        The whole scene was rather disorienting, and the three baffled ensigns frantically searched their surroundings for their quarry. To further complicate things, the security officers they had managed to evade back at the entrance had followed them into the terminal, and shouted angrily as the chase resumed. The trio ran, without really knowing where they were running other than the fact that it was away from the increasing amounts of angry uniformed natives. This task became more difficult as the train began pulling away from the rapidly-emptying station.


        D'Gal watched the bewildered away team dart this way and that, scrambling for safety as security slowly converged on them like a pack of wolves. He had expected more of them to make it past the entryway guards, as the guards were rather ineffective against most of the area's teenagers. But it was becoming clear that the ensigns were not going to evade security on their own, and, as the train began to move, he decided to clue the trio in on their next move.

        After all, if they were caught now, he'd have no one left to play with until he tracked down another clueless group. And he wasn't finished playing with this lot yet. He made his way to the back of the car he was in and opened the rear door, stepping out into the space between train cars. Leaning over the safety railing, he brought two fingers to his beak and whistled.


        Ensign Muiretta swung her head around as the piercing whistle sounded, jaw dropping as she located its source. D'Gal was on the departing train, leaning out three cars from the end and – amazingly enough – motioning them toward it.

        If the group hadn't been so disoriented and reeling from the loss of most of its members, the three ensigns might have realized that the officers pursuing them were only local law-enforcement and not really a life-threatening danger. Certainly, they should have realized that the lesser of the two evils in the situation was not the one waving from the train. However, the three were disoriented and near-panic, and the moving train presented them with the only remaining escape route from security. They broke into a run, rushing to catch the departing train.


        D'Gal laughed as the ensigns ran to the train. So predictable! Throw them into a situation they haven't trained for, and they'll take any route you point them to! He ducked back into the car, making his way to the front of the train as the three dove for the trailing car's railing.


        The ensigns stumbled through the car, bumbling into people and seats as every twist of the track flung the inexperienced ducks this way and that. They were slowly making their way to the front of the train, since D'Gal had been up three cars and they had yet to see him. They were crossing into the fourth-last car when the train screeched to a halt, throwing them forward.

        Picking themselves off the floor of the car, they noted a great deal of traffic flow within the car, then realized its cause – the train had stopped at a station. A rap sounded from the nearest window just as the “Doors Closing” announcement burbled through the car's speakers, and the trio began fighting their way to the doors, determined to make it out before the doors slid shut.


        D'Gal leaned against the car's window, watching as the three ensigns attempted to out-shove veteran New York City subway patrons. It was like watching guppies trying to swim up Niagara Falls, or something equally impossible. The natives refused to move once pushed, forming up ranks like legionnaires and tripping the newcomers. Some even went as far as to spitefully push the Ducks further back into the car.

        Needless to say, the three away-team members wound up pretty much where they had started, sprawled on the floor near the back of the car and glowering up at D'Gal, who was still leaning on the car's window, smirking at them.

        As the train started to pull out of the station, he shifted his weight back onto his own feet, taking a step back and mockingly saluting the three ensigns before darting out of sight. This, of course, only served to make them angrier, and they made their way to the car's rear door, taking the rather foolhardy risk of jumping from the moving car to the terminal platform.

        For their efforts, they were rewarded with the sight of D'Gal leaning nonchalantly against the rear car's back door, mock-saluting them again as the train pulled out of the terminal and into the darkened tunnel.


        Muiretta screamed in frustration, tearing out a few fistfuls of down feathers in a mini-tantrum before taking off after the train. There were maintenance catwalks running parallel to the tracks, after all.


        D'Gal continued this new game of 'tag' with the ensigns for the next few hours, switching trains, car-hopping, crossing tracks in front of incoming trains – even abandoning trains mid-ride and cat-and-mousing through the tunnels on foot. There were not a few instances where this particular tactic nearly got them all run down by fast-running express trains, however, and D'Gal quickly switched to short foot chases that ended when he latched onto some regular-route train or another.

        The ensigns were tiring, and one of them sported a limp and a few singed feathers from a close encounter with the electrified rail. A quick glance at a station clock put the time at five o'clock. Rush hour. And, moreover, given that it was still winter, about the time the sun started going down. Dusk meant the Duck's security contingent – and, more importantly, Drake – were fair game. Playtime was over.

        The ensigns were hopelessly lost at this point, so there was really no chance of them reporting where he was headed. Therefore, they could go on living. For the moment, anyway. Besides, the subways at rush-hour were much too crowded to open fire on someone – tunnels were a high ricochet risk, and terminals were so packed that some ignorant peon was likely to walk right into the bullet. And that would be a horrible waste of ammunition.

        D'Gal let the ensigns follow him onto a train, steadily switching cars to keep some distance between them. Then, as the train went around a bend, he ducked out one of the car doors, leaping over onto the express train streaking by in the opposite direction.

        He nearly didn't make it. The express was going faster than the regular train, and he missed the railing he was aiming for, slamming into the one on the car immediately behind it instead. He scrambled for a hold – and a place to put his feet where the car's wheels wouldn't catch them. It was easier said than done, but he managed to scramble to relative safety.

        Clinging to the express train's railing, he risked a look over his shoulder. The ensigns were clustered at the rear of the original train, angrily yelling after him. They still had time to try leaping onto the express train – but they wouldn't. They'd seen his jump, and they knew better than to try their luck as he had.

        So they could only watch as the express took him farther away from them. He swung himself over the railing and onto the car's platform, debating his next move. And taking a moment to silently remind himself never to try that move again if he could help it.


        Drake wandered down the decrepit street, careful to avoid the people clustered along doorways or rummaging in alleys. He was in a rather run-down and unkempt neighborhood, littered with shabby tenants, broken glass, and rotting, boarded-up buildings. The whole block reeked of garbage and decay and the smoke of about a half-dozen illegal compounds, and the 'residents' either babbled incoherently or sniffed loudly and looked at him with wild eyes.

        Alarmed, Drake's common sense allied itself with his sense of self-preservation, and the two did everything in their power to rattle his instincts into relaying the message that this was not a nice place to be at night. Eventually, even his training grudgingly admitted that this was probably a tactically-unsound venture. However, the combined efforts of the Duck's senses, instincts, and training could not sway the impenetrable brick wall that acted as Drake's intellect, and so he continued following a route further into the neighborhood.

        Drake had to admit, the area was making him feel a tad uneasy. The primitives in this area were rather savage-looking, and most of them looked as if they were debating whether or not he carried enough money to be worthy of slaughter. If it weren't for the fact that he had years of training under his belt, he might even have felt threatened. As it was, he would just as well have preferred not to be there. However, this cesspool of criminality was just the sort of place he imagined D'Gal would frequent.

        There was a shuffling sound behind him, crinkling and clanking as some primitive or another shifted their position as they rummaged through the alley's trash. Nothing to worry about whatsoever.

        The first indication Drake had that someone rather hostile was behind him didn't come until the first few blows connected with his kidneys.


        The security officer jerked, mouth opening in a scream that was never heard as the Duck disintegrated.

        D'Gal gave the alleyway a quick visual sweep, scanning the area for away team members or local witnesses. He was rather disappointed to find neither. The alleyway was evidently home to no one – or no one that was presently there – and apparently the team of four had been all there was to that particular security detachment.

        Pity. He'd hardly had the chance to get warmed up with those four – although that was to be expected. He'd already killed off most of the other security teams, after all, and in doing so had acquired their phasers. And, while he had been rather surprised to find the sleek, efficient weapons set to 'vaporize', he hadn't bothered to change the settings before engaging this last group. After all, if that was the way the Ducks wanted to play the game, he could certainly abide by those rules.

        He'd encountered the first security team purely by chance. They were searching the alleys not far from his Subway exit, and, in their typical fashion, didn't even realize he was there until it was too late. It gave him the opportunity to learn what equipment and settings the teams were operating with, get an idea of what he was up against – and get hold of said equipment for his own use. He had the element of surprise with that group, of course, and as he had no moral objections to shooting an enemy in the back, the first two officers never knew what hit them. The third had enough time to whirl in the direction of the silenced gunshots, but was nonetheless dead before she'd had the chance to locate their source. Relieving them of their phasers – he was rather disappointed that they carried only phasers, having held out hope for an ion cannon or similar heavy fire – he took the time to dispose of the bodies (courtesy of his newly-acquired phasers) before moving on.

        The second team lasted a bit longer than the first. They'd had the presence of mind to change into local attire, and for some reason only half of them were armed. D'Gal hadn't noticed them until they were almost on top of him – which was about the time they'd recognized him, as well. Those that reached for their phasers fell first, as their unarmed comrades bolted away, fumbling in their pockets for their communicators only to have them shot out of their hands as soon as they were drawn. It wasn't until after the last of the team had fallen, as D'Gal removed phasers and communicators, that he realized that the unarmed Ducks had been the ensigns that hadn't made it into the Subway.

        This last team had been wandering about Central Park when he'd found them, and had actually managed to sight him before he'd opened fire. They'd also had the presence of mind to turn tail and flee instead of standing their ground – but, alas, that was where their training and discipline stopped. Oh, their flight had been well-thought out – at first, before they scattered every which way – but no one had thought to contact their ship. They'd simply run, providing him with a set of moving targets that were easily enough dispatched.

        By his count, the Ducks he'd just finished off were the last of Drake's security team. Barring the remaining ensigns - who he had rather effectively scattered throughout the city that afternoon, and who had doubtlessly either returned to ship or were so lost that he stood little chance of locating them anyway – that placed the only remaining member of the away team as none other than Drake.

        He grinned darkly. This was when the fun started…


        In theory, finding one single person – by chance – in a city of millions is nearly impossible. Especially if you don't have a clue as to where they might be. And if they're moving about during the search, the probability of finding them shrinks even more.

        However, the security teams had all been dispatched in an area within a six-block radius of where he had first spotted the entire away team, so D'Gal figured the team was combing said radius – probably based on his location when the ship's computer had scanned the surface. Not exactly the best of strategies – what good would such a search do if he had merely been passing through the area? Surely they had anticipated that? - however, if that was how Drake wished to go about doing things, he certainly wasn't going to object. It made the patrols easy to locate and easier to predict, and gave him a relatively good idea of how to stay out of harm's way.

        It also gave him a good idea of where he would find Drake.

        If the Duck had truly ordered the teams to search areas within six-blocks of the group's point-of-origin, then Drake himself would also be searching somewhere in this radius. And, knowing Drake, D'Gal was willing to bet two things: first, that he was alone. And second, that he was in the absolutely worst part of town within that six-block radius.

        Arguably, that was anywhere along a two-to-three block stretch some blocks from where he was now, but it was still a much smaller search area than it might have been. And he still had a few hours until dawn; plenty of time to search the area. He set off for the neighborhood in question.

        Half a block into it, D'Gal heard reports of a rather ugly fight off in an ill-lit street corner. Rather than joining the crowd forming around the fight, he ignored it entirely. Such things were so very commonplace in this area that it hardly merited his interest. That is, it didn't, right up to the point where he passed close enough to the street corner to make out voices. The shouted insults being tossed about at one contender – the one that was losing, apparently – struck a familiar chord, and he climbed atop a battered dumpster to get a better view of the scuffle.

        Once he realized one of the fighters was Drake, D'Gal began making his way through the crowd. They were a very thickly-packed and determined group, however, and he made very little headway until he pulled out one of his automatics and fired it. Into the air, of course – street people such as these wouldn't report that, but they might rush off to find a cop if a comrade was killed. The gunshot had its desired effect – those at the edge of the mob turned to assess the new arrival, quickly sizing him up - his stance, his weapon, and the blood-thirsty glint in his eye. Based on this and street rumors of just exactly why familiar alley veterans were dropping out of sight, the crowd wisely made the decision to disperse.

        The winner of the fight - a beefy, grizzled old hawk toting a bent lead pipe - sauntered away as D'Gal approached what had been the center of the fighting ring. Granted, the hawk attempted to locate and lift his vanquished opponent's wallet first – and settled on the duck's polished metal combadge when he failed to find any obvious valuables – but he still left without argument. Drake, on the other hand, was an unconscious heap on the ground that resembled nothing so much as one big, uniformed bruise. He was also bleeding rather heavily.

        D'Gal swore. Drake wasn't allowed to die until he killed him. It was just bad manners. Moreover, it was no fun to kill an unconscious man, or even beat him up a bit. Besides, a comatose heap arguably felt no pain, and D'Gal wanted the duck to suffer before he died. To suffer and beg and plead and know the feeling of helpless futility of a fight lost before it was ever begun.

        "Dammit, Drake, you're supposed to wait for me before getting beaten to a pulp," he grumbled to the still form, kicking the Duck in frustration, "No fair starting early."

        The tactically sound thing to do here, he told himself, was kill his incapacitated enemy. Remove him from existence and chalk up one more white mark on his list of vengeance kills. Certainly, if the duck had been an important, influential, or capable leader – or fighter – he probably would have. Such individuals unfailingly either foiled his plans or dogged him relentlessly. Drake, on the other hand, was a barely-passable officer with no real influence or skill outside of starfighting. Indeed, minus a ship and a set of orders to follow, the duck was more of an arrogant, annoying nuisance than anything else. But he was an arrogant, annoying nuisance D'Gal wanted to suffer.

        And if the bitter wind and lead-grey clouds overhead were any indication, it was about to begin snowing quite heavily. A blustery, blizzard-y snow of the sort that made one wonder if thunderstorms ever made winter calls. It was, in short, the type of storm no warm-blooded creature wanted to be out in – D'Gal least of all. He supposed that was a good enough place to start with his foe's suffering. Therefore, after relieving the duck of his phaser and spare communicator, D'Gal simply turned and walked out of the alley, leaving his bleeding foe behind.

        There were, after all, other things that needed tending to first.


        “What exactly is that thing?” Winni queried, pushing herself into a sitting position to get a better look at the gadget Charles was carefully picking apart. Her vision blurred as she sat up, however, and she immediately leaned back again, propping herself in a slightly-elevated position with pillows instead. Charles simply glanced up at her for a moment before returning to whatever it was he was doing.

        She'd stopped protesting about him visiting her a half an hour ago. If he was that determined to ignore her warnings, then she could care less if he caught her flu. It'd give her someone to share her misery with, at any rate. Her head hurt, her throat ached, her body felt like it had been thoroughly beaten and then set on fire, and despite the fact that she'd spent the past few days doing little more than resting in bed, she felt as if she hadn't slept for over a week. Just your typical winter flu. Why he seemed so unconcerned about catching it was beyond her. Ah well. As long as he didn't think she'd take care of him if he got sick. He might have the money and intimidation factor necessary to convince Marcello that she could call out sick and would still have her job when she recovered, but *she* sure didn't.

        But as long as he was here, he was a welcome distraction. She'd seen far too much daytime television these past few days for her taste - she half-expected her long-lost twin stepsister to drop by, just to lament over how her ex-boyfriend had not actually died in a car crash years ago but was actually a Soviet spy trying to steal the alien embryo government scientists had implanted in her left earlobe. Soaps, she muttered, shaking her head. They were a bad influence on the sick. And while her fever was down enough that she could almost see straight right now, it was nice to know Charles was there in case that guy he'd warned her about came by.

        She batted his arm, drawing his attention to her again. “I said, 'What is that thing?',” she repeated.

        He shrugged, giving her the look that she now recognized as his I'll-talk-if-I-must-but-I'm-not-going-to-tell-you-everything look. “It's a PDA of sorts,” he shook his head, as if the matter were nothing of concern, “I'm just making a few…adjustments to it.”

        “Why?” she fixed him with her own I'm-not-going-to-let-up-until-I-know gaze.

        He sighed. “So it can't be traced.”


        “So carrying it doesn't become a liability.”


        “So I can use it.”

        “To do what?”

        He glanced up at her, an indication that his patience for this game was wearing thin. She blinked innocently at him. She knew he knew she was only curious, and not about to hold anything against him. So he was a mercenary - so what? So he killed people for a living - so what? She liked him. He was a decent sort of guy, if he wasn't trying to kill you. He didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't do drugs or gamble or do a hundred other things she could think of, and he'd always been protective with her. Impatient, annoyed, distrustful, and standoffish, granted - but also protective. He looked out for her and her interests, and did what he could to improve the surrounding area. He gave her power and freedom and opportunities she wouldn't have had otherwise. She understood now why so many Mafioso had wives or girlfriends. There was something to be said about his type.

        Not the least of which seemed to be, they didn't like talking about work. Still, she was wearing him down.

        “Fine,” he sighed, “It's to send my enemy's ship something that'll keep it occupied and out of my way.”

        “A virus, you mean?”


        “Ah,” she nodded, “So they'll be too busy to reinforce the guys they've already sent over, right? No cover fire or satellite feed? And no way of sending for backup?”

        He glanced up again, giving her a searching look. “You approve?”

        She shrugged. “I don't see why not. You are both acting in a military capacity, right? Enemy nations?” He tipped his head in a nod. “Then, yeah, it's fine by me. By all means, beat the crap out of them.”

        He flashed her a predatory grin. “If you insist.”


        Gods, he hurt.

        His head hurt, his back hurt, his side hurt - heck, even his feathers hurt. He doubted he'd ever been in even half as much pain as he was in now. Well, perhaps he had. There was that rather nasty incident during training, and the resulting shuttle crash. And the last few times he'd fought D'Gal. Heck, every time he'd fought D'Gal. But at least in those situations, help had always come to pull him out and patch him up. This time was different. And not just because the pain was not the direct result of catastrophic engine failure or the interstellar menace that was D'Gal. No, it was different because, when he woke up hours after initially regaining consciousness, he was still lying in the tiny, dark corner of a rank, disgusting alley, in a congealed pool of his own blood. Moreover, all around him he could hear the sounds of people going about their business, poking about in the refuse or simply shuffling along on their way to wherever.

        That was what really hurt. He could be dying here, and no one seemed to care. Or even notice. And they didn't all simply step around him - oh no, some of them actually kicked him out of their way, or stepped on him spitefully. And as if to add insult to injury, it had started to snow – big, icy globs already mixing with black salt.

        He hated this city.


        “Sir!” the communications officer called, “We're receiving a communications request from the Commander!”

        “Calling in a preliminary report, most likely,” Mallard ventured. The team he had sent to recover the yacht had reported in earlier that evening. They had located the downed yacht and were in the process of raising it, under cover of darkness so as to avoid drawing the attention of the locals. He doubted Drake had had similar luck, but his second in command was too well-trained and by-the-book not to check in daily. “Put him onscreen,” he instructed.

        The image that greeted them, however, was mostly white static, and barely distinguishable. As Communications rushed to stabilize the image, the Duck began to speak, in a voice distorted by static and background noise. Both the blurred image and garbled voice, however, were noticeably not those of his second in command. Mallard leaned forward, squinting up at the image in an attempt to place its owner. Who had accompanied Drake to the surface again?...

        “Terribly sorry for the shoddy connection,” their caller began, “I'm afraid I can't really say if it's mostly from the storm, or if this thing took a bit more of a beating that I'd thought.”

        Mallard peered closer at the image, curling a finger under his chin. There was something familiar about the duck onscreen. If he could just place it…

        “Anyways,” the figure continued, “The Commander is…shall we say…indisposed…at the moment, and I figured you'd be expecting a progress report about now. And I do aim to please.”

        “Go on,” Mallard encouraged, thinking hard. There was something in the individual's mannerisms that twinged a memory chord ever so slightly. The general disregard for formalities and protocol….an accent he couldn't quite place….if only the transmission wasn't so garbled…


        A light on the Communications officer's console flashed briefly. The young woman scrambling to stabilize and clean up the transmission just caught sight of it out of the corner of her eye. The light had been in the general area of the console concerning file transfers, but she hadn't caught its exact location. It had flashed only briefly – perhaps she had nudged that region by accident? Or perhaps the ship had been trying to pinpoint the transmission's origination more accurately, to better clean up the signal? No matter. She went back to work filtering out the static.

        Unnoticed, the ship's newest occupant - a tiny text file - de-encrypted itself and began slowly entwining itself around the ship's BIOS, slipping into system files and overwriting bits of operating code. The system's guard dogs were tossed a tasty but harmless miscreant, and set about hunting down the rapidly-multiplying rogue before it ate up so much memory that the ensigns playing holographic paint-ball on Deck 57 started experiencing time lags. Self-declared processes then decided now was an excellent time to catch up on a bit of research, and began running information searches. Innocuous bits began usurping control from the sitting operating system, innocently switching the output destinations of several console lights.

        The file transfer lights, for example, were directed to flicker in the galley, on the consoles that had previously been displaying which ovens were currently preheated and which were currently in cleaning mode.

        So small you might miss them if you weren't tracking the individual ones and zeroes themselves, command processes slowly formed on the ship's CPU, asking for read/write privileges. Access was granted - though if you later questioned it, the CPU would insist the correct authorization codes had been given….it simply had no recollection of what they were. Deep inside the ship's data storage registries, data was slowly read and overwritten. Things like decades-old bioscans, and dusty old communications drivers and input/output controllers. Who needed those, after all?

        It wasn't until the newcomer had completely expunged all but one still-in-use I/O driver that the virus experienced a sudden mood swing. In nanoseconds, its true nature was revealed. It no longer bothered seeking permission to read or write to this or that file, and in fact began ripping out big chunks of data and flinging them about the computer's drives like bits of electronic confetti. It fragmented, splitting off into separate variants like children of chaos. One variant set about merrily pasting smilie face clip art overtop every chunk of data it could get its bits on; another merrily proclaimed that Decks 5 – 17 were on fire, and instructed the environmental controls to respond by pelting the area with freezing rain. Another variant decided to see what life would be like as a magnet, and cut an electronic maelstrom of terror ahead of it.

        In short, after the virus did what it was designed to do, it decoded one last objective: wreak havoc.

        And so it did.


        The static-obscured figure onscreen grinned darkly. This seemed an odd thing for one of his officers to do, Mallard thought, but attributed it to an artifact of the poor transmission quality. Or…could they possibly have located their target? He encouraged the duck to continue with his report. Had they found D'Gal?

        “Oh, yes,” the figure nodded, a hit of wicked amusement creeping over the audio, “Several times, actually.”

        “And?” Mallard prompted, as a new wave of static and white snow assailed the speakers and screen. “What happened? Are you all right?”

        “Of course, captain,” the caller responded, grin deepening and his voice taking on a dangerous tone, “*I'm* just fine.” It paused ever so slightly as another wave of static washed over the screen. “The away team, on the other hand, has suffered some rather heavy casualties.”

        Mallard was fairly certain he hadn't heard that last part right. Despite the communications officer's attempts, the transmission was steadily worsening, and that last bit had been terribly garbled. But it had left him with an ominous feeling of foreboding.

        “What did you say your name was, again?” he queried.

        “I didn't,” the figure responded, amused. They didn't elaborate on the point.

        The ship shuddered slightly. Odd. “Is there anyone else there I might speak with?” Mallard tried.

        “Afraid not.” The ship shuddered again, more violently this time, and several consoles erupted in flurries of warning blinkers. The lights flickered, and for an instant – just a fraction of a second – the screen's image cleared.

         Mallard blanched.

        “Problems, Commodore?” the duck onscreen mocked, “Or just finally figuring things out?”


        More mocking laughter, followed by some rather insulting applause. “Bravo, bravo.”

        “Where's my away team?!” Mallard demanded angrily.

        The increasingly-snowed-out image of D'Gal shrugged nonchalantly. “Heaven. Hell. Some third-party afterlife resort. How should I know?”

        “So help me-”

        “I'd rather not.”

        “-if I have to send every last soul aboard ship down there to do it, I will have you taken alive! And I'll see you live to answer for your crimes!”

        “What crimes? This is war, and we are soldiers.”

        “The war ended years ago, and you know it!”

        “Did it, now? I don't remember surrendering. And I'm certain I'd remember you lot surrendering. Heck, we'd still be dancing in the streets if that'd happened.”

        “I meant-”

        “I don't care what you meant,” the Black Knight snapped. But whatever it was he said next, they never heard it. With yet another of the ship's violent shudders, the screen went blank, and the speakers abruptly cut off.

        Mallard suddenly found himself in the midst of a sea of chaotic noise, flashing lights, wildly varying gravity, panicking crew members, and a computer that told him - when it bothered acknowledging his attempts at restoring order at all - to sod off, punctuating this sentiment with a clip art smilie. A virus, he realized. D'Gal had somehow managed to send them a virus that was now merrily eating its way through the ship's systems. That was probably the entire purpose of contacting us, he realized. To send the file and keep us too busy to notice it until it was too late.

        It certainly looked too late now. Nothing was working as it should. Automatic doors snapped open and shut as they willed, communications with anyone out of earshot was impossible, and no system seemed to be working as it should. As the bridge lights gave out, he stumbled to the back of the room. Their only chance lay in the manual overrides.

        And if any of the away teams were still alive, they were on their own.


        The snow was coming down in a steady stream of thick clumps now, piling into growing mounds on every last unprotected surface. It wasn't that light, fluffy stuff either – it was heavy, half-melted and yet half-frozen, interspersed with bits of solid ice and freezing rain. The plows had already been around once, salting the road, and a fair amount of the streets' sooty grey sludge was slowly migrating onto the sidewalks. Pedestrians trudged homeward, bundled against the cold and making no small effort to avoid stepping on ice or in hidden slush puddles. Taxies and the occasional private car threw salt and slush from their tires as they passed by, spilling accumulated snow from their roofs as they whipped around corners.

        Far be it for them to trouble themselves with matters of ice or fishtailing or low visibility, grumbled an aging marten, dodging out of a passing taxi's slush spray as quickly as he could and making a few choice remarks about damned inconsiderate cabbies and snow and life in general. Taking a moment to brush the grimy flecks of slush off his beefy arms, he adjusted the sacks he carried and continued heading for the alley in front of him.

        Strictly speaking, Marcello hated snow. Snow was cold and wet and seemed to delight in forming patches of ice, which he then had to worry about people slipping on and trying to sue him over. Snow also meant it was freezing cold and icky outside, a thing that tended to mean people stayed indoors instead of going out for a bite to eat at your friendly neighborhood diner. The streets and sidewalks boasted a far sparser population of foot-traffic than would normally grace it at this time of day. And to top it off, Winnifred was out sick with the flu. She was one of his best waitresses, seeing as how she was always around and worked as late as he told her to without overtime pay and didn't give any backtalk about how deliberately presenting yourself in a manner than made men want to spend money on drinks was technically improper ethics. She also took out the garbage at the end of the day.

        Marcello did not like the fact that she was not present. He was a firm believer in people not actually being permitted to have things like sick leave. Really, now, you would be just as miserable at home as at work, so why not earn him some money while you were at it? No, if you didn't come in to work, you had better be dead. Or at least willing to give up a paycheck and quite possibly a job. That was his policy. Always had been. Always would be. And he hated making exceptions. No sir, if it weren't for that damned freeloadin' thug of a boyfriend o' hers, Winni would be at the diner, working tables, cleaning up, and taking out the trash, Flu or no Flu.

        Marcello was so busy creating new combinations of colorful metaphors about the brute that he failed to pay adequate attention to where he was going. Or at least where his feet were going. In fact, no sooner had he turned into the alley than he tripped over something in the snow. Like any good New Yorker who has tripped over something they did not notice, he immediately recovered his balance and gave the snow-covered blob a few solid kicks before continuing on to the dumpster. These kicks produced an odd result – the blob groaned. Trash and discarded bits and pieces of meals do not normally groan, even in New York. Heaving the bags into the overflowing dumpster, Marcello wiped his hands off on his grimy apron and stalked over for a closer look at the bundle.

        It appeared to be a rather badly-beaten duck. He didn't stink, and his clothes were no where near as ratty and faded and, well, layered as a bum's, so Marcello figured him as a mugging victim. Normally, Marcello would simply have left with a huff, muttering about what was the world coming to and why didn't people pay proper attention to their surroundings; however, this alley was where he dumped the diner's garbage, and he didn't want people thinking this was a dangerous place to visit. It could hurt business if word got out that someone had been bludgeoned right next to the diner and no one had noticed. It could hurt even more if the duck currently drawing himself into a sitting position complained to police about the lack of streetlights and security around Marcello's bar. The marten certainly didn't like the thought of having to pay fines, or even just having to explain why he didn't call the incident in, so he figured he'd help the duck in question. Might be good for business.


        Drake awoke to someone kicking his kidneys. It didn't exactly hurt, so much as it raised the general amount of pain he was currently in. He sat up, brushing off the pile of snow that had covered him while he lay unconscious, and wondering if that would have been the least painful way to go – the pain would at least stop.

        Vaguely, he was aware of someone beside him asking if he needed assistance. Drake assured them he would be fine, pointed out that he was a highly skilled professional, and asked the native before him if he had seen a black duck any time lately.

        The marten pondered this for a second, scratching a flabby, stubbled chin in what Drake assumed was thought. “He do this to yer?” the man finally asked.

        Drake shook his head, explaining that the sad truth of the matter was a band of hooligans had attacked him with big metal pipes. Thinking it might net him a bit of sympathy, he mentioned that he had already woken up several times and called for help, to no avail. This didn't produce the reaction he'd sought – the man looked at him as if he was crazy for ever expecting someone to help him.

        “So what'cher want the other guy fer?” the grimy marten asked, folding beefy arms over an apron-covered, protruding gut. “What'd he do?”

        “Just curious, y'know,” he added, looking bored. “Oh, and I can call yer an am'blance, if yer wants it. Just ter make sherr yer okay, y'know.”

        Drake waved away the offer. “Really, I'll be okay now. I seem to have stopped bleeding, and lying on cold concrete in the snow for so long did a fair job of bringing down the swelling…” At this, the marten shrugged, uninterested. Drake didn't take hints often, but he could tell the man before him could really care less about his troubles. “But D'Gal is a wanted man. I need to find him and bring him in.”

        “Yer a policeman er something?”

        “Second in command aboard an intergalactic flagship.”

        The native pondered this for a moment. “So…yer like an MP, er somethin'?”

        “You could say that.”

        “What's he wanted fer?” the marten queried, watching the duck strain to his feet.

        “More things than I could mention,” Drake grunted, fighting a wave of vertigo. “Have you seen him?”

        “'s he look like?”


        Marcello listened as the duck described a tall, black-feathered ruffian that tended to kill things just for the heck of it. The name was mildly familiar, but it was the description that clinched it. He mulled over things for a few moments, trying to determine how likely it was that this would come back to haunt him. He was fairly certain he hadn't given the duck his name, but if he was looking for who Marcello thought he was looking for, anonymity might not be enough. Then again, it might mean the return of a certain waitress he could mention…

        “He tend ter wear black, scowl, an' go 'round at night?” he queried. The duck nodded. “'ave an aversion ter the cold an' ter honest work?” Another nod.

        “Well, then,” Marcello smiled, grinning evilly, “I jest might know 'im, after all. 'e's a freeloader, 'e is. An' a bully. An' a menace if ever I s-”

        “Where can I find him?” the duck interrupted, excited.

        “Well, at the diner, mostly, but…” Marcello's face fell. Winni's thug never showed up at the diner if Win wasn't there – well, except to 'negotiate' a term of sick leave or a pay raise or whatnot, but those visits were thankfully few and far-between. He suddenly saw the flaw in his great plan. “Actually, ah…y'see…hmm, I dun' 'xactly know where 'e lives.” The duck's hopeful gaze broke. Marcello scrambled for some helpful bit of info on the guy; he soon gave up. All he really knew about the brute was that he looked after Winni….Wait. *That* was useful. Marcello grinned, reaching into his pockets for a notepad. “Jes' remembered - 'e's close ter one o' my waitresses. She might know where ter find 'im. Lemme git yer th' address…”


        Drake wandered down the snow-covered streets, shivering with cold and aching from his injuries. The snow was coming down heavier now, and the wind had picked up, driving it against his side and attempting to push him into the snow banks at each corner. He'd already slipped on a few patches of ice, taking several bad falls. Following that, he'd tried the streets – at least they'd been salted – only to get clipped by an orange vehicle, splashed with curbside slush, and fall victim to several rather nasty and deep ice-water puddles.

        All things being equal, he's much rather be back aboard his ship right now. Things there were much more predictable, and sane, and logical, and above all safe


        “Computer?” Mallard began.

        “Whadda ya want, ye ponce?”

        “Open an emergency hailing frequency, requesting assistance from anyone in range.”

        “Sod off, pansy boy,” the computer chirped merrily, clearing the viewscreen of accumulated junk to display a big yellow smilie.

        “Send out a beacon, then!”

        “Don' wanna,” a smilie informed him, sticking out its tongue and thumbing its nose at the duck glaring at the viewscreen. Several rows of animated smilies flashed onscreen, dancing to a loop of music that sounded as if hamster was manning the vocals.

        “At least close the airlocks!” Mallard pleaded.

        “But I like the breeze!” the computer whined.


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