Author: Anthony Butler
THE REJECT’S TABLE
Book One of Five
“Come Back Now, Ya Hear?”
By Anthony Butler
The Reject’s Table Concept by Anthony Butler and Alan Decker
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Captain Baxter said excitedly as the Bolian waiter arrived with his second Tom Cochrane.
“What is that?” Captain Beck asked, pinching her nose as smoke poured from the beverage.
“A Tom Cochrane,” Baxter said with zeal, sipping from the tall glass. “Part grapefruit juice, part vodka. And I think part antimatter. Anyway, it’s good.”
“At least here someone is enjoying himself,” Captain Vorezze said, raising an eyebrow.
“Perhaps one of us should go ahead and recite a story, so we can all get back to our assigned operations,” said 4 of 8.
Baxter rolled the liquid around in his mouth. “I’ve been thinking about that. Being transported to this mythical-type place puts reminds me of one story in particular, but I think I need to get a lot drunker before I tell it.”
Rydell drummed his fingers on the table. “I’m still waiting for my first drink.”
Baxter downed his Tom Cochrane in one final, long gulp, and slammed the glass down on the table. “You can have some of mine.”
“You just finished it.”
Baxter beamed at the empty glass a moment. “So I did!” He slapped the table, bending over, in hysterics.
Beck folded her arms. “Well, looks like you’re drunk. So tell the damned story.”
“Oh, what’s the rush, sweetie?”
“He did not just call me ‘sweetie.’”
Vorezze smiled. “I think he just did.”
“That’s my buddy!” Baxter said, slapping Vorezze on the shoulder. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
“What’s what you’re talking about?” replied Vorezze, confused.
Baxter’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know.” He looked around. “Hey, where did that other captain go? The guy who commanded that oil rig.”
“You mean the captain of the Valdez?” asked Vorezze. “He just slipped away a few minutes ago. Said he was due in Alaska to transport some oil.”
“Oh,” said Baxter. “I guess he didn’t enjoy the company.”
“Just tell the damned story!” said Beck, who had already wheedled through her third Tequila Sunrise and was well on the way to being drunk herself.
“Okay, okay. Let’s see, where should I begin?”
“Do we have a choice?” asked 4 of 8.
“Uh-uh,” Baxter replied after much consideration. “This is actually something that happened just a couple months ago, but the story really begins eight years ago, when I was an inventory specialist aboard the USS Aquarius.”
“Inventory?” asked 4 of 8. “What is this concept.”
“You don’t want to know,” replied Rydell, Beck, and Vorezze at the same time.
“Anyway!” Baxter cut them off angrily. “I wasn’t always as you see me now. I was once a confused, green- about-the-gills ensign. Who knew then that eight years later I’d be sitting with all of you in a bar that defies space and time with a bunch of other captains?”
“Surely not me,” muttered Rydell.
“At any rate, I learned at that young age that anything can happen–”
“Like an inventory officer becoming captain?” Beck interrupted.
“Or a communications officer becoming captain,” Baxter snapped back.
“ANYWAY!” Baxter huffed. “This is how it started: I was going about my normal daily routine on the Aquarius, totally unaware that I’d face the greatest temptation of my life shortly after lunch time that day…”
I was crawling inside a Jeffries’ tube, trying to find some hard-to-get-to isolinear chips that required my immediate attention. You see, 4 of 8, it’s the job of the inventory specialist to account for all the Starfleet property on any given starship or starbase. It was a job of extreme responsibility, but one most people take for granted, like ancient postal workers, only with a higher suicide rate.
We were a small, tight-knit crew on the Aquarius, only about 100 people. Actually, the rest of them were tight- knit. I was sort of off to the side. At any rate, she was an Oberth-class multipurpose starship, reserved for small duties near to Earth’s star-system. Occasionally, we were called out a little farther to do clean-up work for some of the bigger, more impressive ships.
About being off to the side–I did have one friend. His name was Ensign Chris Richards. At the time, he was assistant to the Chief Engineer. Now he’s my Chief Engineer on the Explorer, and we’re still good friends. He was the only person on that crew that treated me with any respect, so I valued having him around, since most of the rest of the crew were, well, less than sensitive.
“Mr. Baxter!” railed Chief Engineer Faulkner over the comm system. “You’ve been clogging up that Jeffries’ tube long enough. Haven’t you found all those chips yet?”
“Just getting the last few now, Commander,” I said, tapping the registration numbers for each of the isolinear chips in the access panel into my padd and closing up.
“Good. They need you down on Verculon.”
“They need me?” I put up my eyebrows at that. “Really?”
“Yeah. Clean-up duty,” Faulkner responded.
“Oh. Well, any excuse to get off the ship.”
“Sure, I guess. And see Mr. Richards when you finally squeeze your fat butt out of that tube.”
I warily shimmied out of the tube. Fat jokes were one of the many injustices I had to endure back then. Back then, I was a little on the husky side–not half as chubby as my peers made me out to be. After all, I did make the Starfleet weight requirements, falling just under the limit set in Montgomery Scott’s less slim days.
Richards met me outside the tube, padd in hand. “Hey, Andy. What’s shaking in the inventory world?”
I shrugged, straightening my uniform and proceeding down the corridor. “I get to go off-ship for the first time in a month.”
“Yeah, I heard. Must be nice, after so long.”
“I guess,” I replied, half-heartedly. Truth was, I had a little thing about transporters back then. They weren’t exactly my favorite mode of transportation, but it wasn’t like I had a choice. It wasn’t like they would ready a special shuttlecraft just for me. I tried to change subjects. “Oh, I finally found isolinear number 400448!!”
Richards laughed weakly. “That’s fantastic.” He was at least good enough to feign interest. Other crewmembers weren’t quite so forgiving.
I reached the transporter room and stopped, turning toward Richards. “Oh, Mr. Faulkner said you wanted to see me about something?”
“Yeah,” Richards said. “A couple of the guys from Engineering are having dinner in the mess hall tonight after we finish the dilithium crystal alignment. Want to join us?”
“Am I welcome?”
“Sure. The people on this ship don’t hate you, Andy.”
“Then explain the time someone converted my replicator to create only burning poo!”
“That was a joke! A simple, good-natured joke.”
“Right. Well, I guess it couldn’t hurt.”
“That’s the spirit. Anyway, good luck down on Verculon.”
“I’m sure it won’t tax my strengths too much.”
“Keep up that attitude, Andy, and you’ll go far.”
I laughed as I stepped into the transporter room. “Sure I will.”
“I fail to see the point in this story,” said 4 of 8. “What is the meaning of all this pointless blather?”
Baxter stared at 4 of 8 askance as he sipped his second Tom Cochrane. “It’s setup, Mr. Borg. It’s all about creating a mood. I’m giving you vital character information that will be important later. Didn’t you take a literature course?”
“Literature is irrelevant.”
“Ha! I almost majored in English at Starfleet Academy!” Baxter said. “Literature is extremely relevant.”
Baxter looked around the table to garner support. “Tell him, guys. This is where we defend the virtues of humanity against a foe that won’t take the time to understand our culture.”
“I just want my damn drink!” demanded Rydell. Vorezze had just been brought a drink–a dark blue Andorian ale called Blasted Blue Boy.
Baxter arched an eyebrow at Rydell. “The next time that Bolian comes by, I’m going to give him a stern talking- to for you, Alex.”
“Literature has its place,” said Beck. “But I don’t see what it has to do with this silly little story.”
Baxter folded his arms. “My story is NOT SILLY! It’s a beautiful tale about the lure of paradise and the warm comfort of reality.”
Beck sipped. “Sounds silly enough to me.”
4 of 8’s eyepiece contracted in consternation. “It sounds irrelevant.”
“Well, it’s not,” Baxter replied defiantly. “Just keep listening.”
So my transporter trip wasn’t too bad. I’d mounted the pad with a bit of fear–it was only the fifth time I’d been transported since coming aboard the Aquarius a year and a half earlier. The transporter chief, though, was in no mood to hand-hold me. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that transporter chiefs are erratic, cranky people. All except the one on the Secondprize. She’s just loose.
Anyway, I arrived on the planet with all my molecules intact. I met with the away team leader, Commander Morse. He was Captain Hatton’s quiet, unassuming right-hand man. Which worked well, since he had to serve under a loud, obnoxious bitch. And every loud, obnoxious bitch needs a lapdog. Kind of like Dracula needed a Renfield, you know?
“So you weren’t thrilled with Captain Hatton,” Beck intoned. “We get it, go on.”
“Oh, she was okay, deep down,” Baxter said. “So anyway…”
Morse looked me over. “Inventory?”
A year and a half and the guy still didn’t know who the hell I was. “Yes, sir, Inventory. You have a project for me?”
Morse let out a breath. “Well, yes. You could say that. Someone dropped some stuff in one of the caves just beyond that rise over there.”
“And you need me to retrieve it.”
“It’s Starfleet property. That comes under inventory, right?”
“I suppose,” I replied. “I guess it all depends on how you read the edicts–”
“Listen, we just need someone to go down there and get the lost equipment. Here’s a list.”
Why was I suddenly getting the feeling that I was getting a really horrible assignment? I scrolled through the padd. Ten items–some planetary surveying equipment and a couple tricorders.
“Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, how was this…‘stuff,’ lost?”
“Oh,” Morse laughed nervously. “A little…ahem…cave-in.”
“Well, then, good luck, uh, Ensign…” Morse seemed to be searching for a name. “Ensign. Morse to Aquarius. Energize.”
And Morse, presumably the last member of the away team left on Verculon, fizzled away in a brilliant shimmer of blue.
Feeling more than a bit downtrodden, I negotiated the tiny hill and quickly found the cave. Thankfully, I’d requisitioned all the supplies I’d need: palm beacon, tricorder, and phaser–just in case I came up against an evil, equipment-hoarding alien.
It could happen!
Switching on my palm beacon, I ducked into the cave and began searching with my tricorder. It wasn’t long before I detected the obvious signature of several Starfleet-issue inventory tags. Problem was, my quarry, pardon the pun, was behind a wall of rocks.
After much phasering and digging, I’d blasted a narrow crevice through which I could barely shimmy. It made the Aquarius Jeffries’ tubes look absolutely roomy.
Sucking in my gut, I thrust myself the final distance and scrambled out into the clearing.
There they were, all ten items, strewn about the clearing as if dropped suddenly. Of course, I thought, the team must have fled as soon as the cave-in began.
I whistled to myself, slowly and deliberately scooping up each item and recording it in my inventory log. Whenever anything happened with an inventory piece, we had to meticulously document it.
I was busy describing a small scuff on one of the tricorders when I heard something. Well, not so much heard as sensed, like a faint ringing in my ears.
“Hello?” I asked, flashing my light around the small area. “Anyone out there?”
And then the cave rumbled around me, like a great, fat Klingon belching. I scrambled for the way out, only to fall painfully on my face as bits of rock rained down.
Then the cave lit up, fiery violet. I looked at my palm beacon. It couldn’t possibly be the source of all that light. Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed that indeed, the light was coming from a huge crack which had just formed in the cave wall.
“Wow,” I exclaimed, shielding my eyes from the light and whipping out my trusty tricorder. After the third reading, and several non-regulation slaps against a rock face, I’d concluded that the tricorder was busted. It read nothing ahead.
I figured I’d step through the crack. Why not? The opening I’d meticulously carved out was gone, thanks to that earlier rumbling. And there was light, and my Starfleet survival class (which, incidentally, I got a “C” in) taught that anywhere in a cave that there was light must naturally lead outside. So I stepped through.
Instantly, my body was filled with immense pleasure. But not the kind I got from riding a horse bareback, no, this was a whole different kind of pleasure. Ethereal, kind of. Like being in the womb, only I couldn’t remember what being in the womb was like.
“Welcome, Andy,” said a soft, beauteous female voice.
How the hell’d she know my name, I thought.
“Hi,” I said sheepishly, as, from the blinding light, the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen stepped through.
Curly blonde locks cascaded around her shoulders. Her dress was white, smooth, silky, and, as you might imagine, quite tight.
I said the first thing that came to mind. “What’s a blonde beauty like you doing in a slimy cave like this?”
The woman smiled, flashing immaculate teeth. “You’re in That Place.”
“That is what this is called.”
“No, That Place.”
“Back there?” I pointed behind me.
“No, no, no,” she said, no impatience at all in her crisp, cool voice. “Here.”
“Here in this place.”
“This is That Place.”
My head was spinning, more from confusion than pleasure now. “WHAT PLACE?”
“That Place you’ve always dreamed of, Andy.”
“I see. Well, fancy–”
But before I could say anything more, the woman engulfed me in a kiss that I could only describe as riding a horse bareback in a supernova, with angels pouring cold grapefruit juice and warm bitter rum all over me, while at the same time having an expert tongue jabbed in my mouth.
“Does this place ring a bell now?” the woman asked, pulling back, a devilish glint in her eye.
“Nope, but that was a hell of a kiss,” I muttered, wiping lipstick from my mouth. “More?”
“More, and many other delights, through here,” the woman said, taking me lightly by the arm. My feet lifted off the ground–only there was no ground.
“Wait a minute!” Beck said. “This does not sound like a real story at all. It sounds like a perverted dream.”
“Was not,” Baxter replied defiantly. “I swear on my captaincy that all this happened.”
“You’d think one would have read something like this in the Starfleet Journal of the Unexplained,” said Vorezze warily. “Or in the files of Section Thirty-one,” he added a bit more quietly.
“Indeed the Borg have not heard of it,” said 4 of 8.
“This place, well, That Place, isn’t published anywhere. But I’m getting to that. Keep your pants on.”
That Place was like Xanadu, Nirvana, Eden, and the Paramis Discovery Zone all meshed into one. The woman, whose name I discovered was “Carlotta,” introduced me to the biggest sea of plastic balls I’d ever rolled around in, and rolled with me in valleys of pure sunlight and fields of golden, pure love. In That Place, time seemed to stretch into infinity.
“Kind of like here,” muttered Beck.
“Much better than this dump,” Baxter shot back.
Anyway, I had stumbled upon paradise on Verculon Two, but as I frolicked in the dreamy giddiness of That Place, something nagged at the back of my head.
“Carlotta,” I said, sitting up in the first-ever comfortable beanbag chair I’d ever known. “I’ve got to go back to the Aquarius.”
“Why?” she asked sweetly. “All that you desire is here.”
I winced. She had a point. “I know you can’t understand this, being that you’re a goddess of paradise, and all, but I’ve got a somewhat higher calling.”
“And that is?”
Striking as honorable a pose as possible on the beanbag, I said gallantly, “Inventory.”
“We have no such thing here.”
It would figure. “I know. But I have duties I have to finish. I can’t just leave the crew of the Aquarius high and dry like that. Besides, I have a friend to say goodbye to.”
“You’re troubled, Andy,” Carlotta said, brushing a hand through my hair. “This job of yours, it’s important to you.”
I sighed. “Unfortunately.”
“Go back to your ship, then,” Carlotta said with a sweet, precious smile. “That Place will always be here.”
“Sweet!” I cried jubilantly. “I promise, I’ll just be a little while.”
“I shall wait for you, my love.”
I pecked Carlotta on the cheek and turned to leave, then thought better of it and engulfed her in another one of those supernova kisses.
“Okay,” I said quickly. “Be right back.”
“Uh, incidentally–where’s the exit?”
“Right behind the dumpsters.”
I hurried up to the Aquarius with the lost equipment in tow, filled out my final few reports and packed all my possessions into a small duffel.
As I made my way down the companionway, it occurred to me that I’d miss life on the Aquarius. Not a lot of things, but some things. It wasn’t all bad. But hey, we’re talking about Paradise here, right?
The StarHustler, Aquarius’ crew lounge, was crowded. Wednesday night was foosball night, and it usually drew the vast majority of the crew. I thought about nodding in the direction of Hatton and Morse, who were carrying on a conversation at a corner table, but decided that my lengthy resignation letter would pretty much cover all I wanted to say to them.
I made my way over to Richards’s table.
“There you are,” he said. “I was wondering where you’d gotten to.”
“I was finishing up some last-minute things,” I said in a hushed voice. “Can you come down the hall with me for a minute?”
“Last-minute? What are you talking about?”
“Just come on.”
During our quick walk down the corridor to the auxiliary transporter room, I explained my experience to Chris.
“So you’re just going to leave all this behind?” he asked as he primed up the transporter. I needed his engineering clearance to get access.
“All what? This life sucks, Chris.”
“It’s bound to get better, if you give it time.”
“Well, I’m not waiting around. Not when Xanadu’s down there.”
“Never mind.” I tapped in the coordinates. “Just energize the transporter.”
Richards sighed. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Andy. What if this is some alien trick?”
“It’s not. No alien would go so far as to shove her tongue in my mouth to prove a point.”
“I guess you’re right. But why you in particular? Is this whole ‘Eden’ tailor-made for just you?”
I shrugged. “Who knows.”
“You know, you owe me one for this, Andy.”
“Sure, I’ll pay you back for it. If I ever come back to this universe.”
“You wouldn’t even come back to visit your parents?”
I gave that about two seconds’ thought. “Nah. Go ahead and energize.”
“Obviously something fouled up,” Vorezze said, sipping his blue ale. “Or else you wouldn’t be here.”
“Good point,” said Rydell. “Where’s this little paradise now? And where’s my damn drink?”
“I’m getting to all that!”
“Well, get to it quick,” Beck muttered.
“All right,” Baxter sighed. “Here comes the painful part.”
I beamed down to the cave, and immediately realized something was wrong. Where once there was that great, beautiful light, there was now complete and utter darkness. I hadn’t thought to bring a palm beacon, so I just searched the cave on touch for about an hour before giving up. That Place, and the beautiful Carlotta were gone.
“So you returned to your ship, crestfallen, and gave up your search for the perfect paradise,” Beck said dully. “The end.”
“No, not the end!” Baxter shot back. “I figured That Place must be some sort of anomaly that drifts in and out of our universe. What Carlotta really meant when she said That Place would always be ‘here,’ is that it would always be ‘there.’ Get it?”
Vorezze shook his head. “No, but don’t let that stop you.”
“At any rate, I knew that if I waited long enough, That Place would come back.”
“There’s more to this?” Beck retorted. “I don’t believe it.”
“Believe it,” Baxter replied. “After three years on the Aquarius, I transferred to the Secondprize, where I worked Inventory until I was promoted to Captain of the Aerostar. Then, to make a long story short–”
“Too late,” mumbled Vorezze.
”–the Aerostar spent a year lost in the Delta Quadrant and came home.”
“And THAT is the end of the story, right?” pleaded Beck.
Baxter laughed, a chortle that resonated throughout the Captain’s Table. “Oh, no, missy, not by a long shot…”
I hadn’t thought about what happened on Verculon until years later–save the occasional disturbing dream or passing fantasy. That’s not really relevant, though. All I’ll tell you is that the fantasies usually had to do with a shuttlecraft and a ball peen hammer. Anyway, like I said, the years passed by and I gradually forgot Carlotta and her wonderful fantasy world.
That is, until about a week after I’d taken our new ship, the Explorer, out on her first mission, just before Commander Conway was briefly given command and I was stripped of my rank, but that’s another story altogether.
We were running some supplies out to one of the most farthest-flung Federation colonies–Delta Iotia Three. It was a little side-mission we’d taken on until our real exploration projects began. And it was quite a source of boredom.
“Good morning, honey,” I said, kissing Kelly Peterman, my Ship’s Counselor and girlfriend, on the cheek as she emerged from our bedroom in her fluffy pink robe.
After grabbing a cup of Betazoid leaf tea from the replicator, she came over to our small breakfast table to join me. We were still getting used to the amenities on the Explorer. She was made to be graceful and roomy, whereas the Aerostar was generally more of a workhorse. As such, the captain’s staterooms on the Explorer were quite a bit bigger, and offered a bigger view of the space vista outside.
And as such, they let us really get the feel of how utterly boring the space outside really was.
Kelly stared across the breakfast table at the viewport as she buttered her bagel. “Same damn nebula this morning, huh?”
“Same one,” I nodded, flipping through the Federation News.
She chewed her bagel thoughtfully. “The whole ‘exploration’ thing is a lot less exciting than the publicity makes it out to be, isn’t it?”
“Pretty much.” I picked up one of the padds by my cereal bowl and handed it to her. “Here’s the front page. Some interesting stuff about the Cardassians on page two.”
Kelly scrolled through the padd. “Hmm. I’m more interested in this coverage of the Bering tragedy.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Bering tragedy? I must have missed that one.”
She handed the padd over to me. “See for yourself. The USS Bering, a Miranda-class science vessel, was lost in the Verculon system while studying a strange stellar signature that popped up earlier this month. It’s a really gripping human interest story.” She sipped her tea.
I dropped the padd and rushed over to my desk, calling up Verculon Two and using my Starfleet access codes to get all of the information that was available on the Bering’s disappearance. These were the same signatures the Aquarius was studying eight years ago!
“See,” Kelly said, munching on her bagel. “It’s absolutely gripping.”
“We’re changing our schedule around a bit, Lt. Larkin,” I said, casually leaning over the ops console and making my best attempt not to look excited. “I need you to clear our schedule for at least the next week. Contact Delta Iotia and tell them we’ll be late.”
“Might I ask why, sir?” Larkin inquired.
“Nope. This is a strictly confidential project.”
I turned to Ensign Ford, my helmsman. “Ford, lay in a new course for the Verculon system, and increase speed to warp eight.”
“What’re you so excited about?” Ford prompted, tapping in the new course.
“It’s a secret.” I grinned and dashed into the ready room to pore over the Verculon data.
My crew isn’t stupid. They’re a little incompetent, but not stupid. It wasn’t long before people began to question my motives. The Bering disappearance was all over the press, but Starfleet had officially declared the Verculon system off-limits. The official rumor circulating on the Explorer was that we were assigned to recover them, for top secret reasons. All sorts of interesting explanations for the disappearance were bandied about, from Romulan involvement to the mettling of Q. Little did they know that the real reason the Bering disappeared was probably much more fantastic. Only one person really had the vaguest idea what my motivations were.
“You’re going to try to find That Place again?” Richards demanded, staring across my ready room desk at me.
“What place?” I asked innocently.
“You know very well what I mean.” Richards stabbed a finger down on my desk. “Didn’t you learn something eight years ago?”
“I learned that your lucky if a chance like this comes along once. But here it is again.”
“Chance for what? Happiness?” Richards railed. “You’ve got that now.”
I turned in my swivel-chair to stare at the stars as they streaked by the viewport. “I’m content. Not like I was in That Place. Not like with Carlotta.”
“You’d leave Kelly for this? For this silly fantasy?”
“It’s not silly. It’s a real place, Chris. It’s a place where I’d be loved and cared for for the rest of my days. If you had the same chance, wouldn’t you take it?”
“Not if I already had people who loved me here.”
“People don’t love me here. Sure, I’m their captain, so they respect me. But they don’t love me.”
“Well, love may be a strong word…”
“Conway to Baxter,” chirped the comm system. “What is this about us changing course? You didn’t even consult with me about this. Why are we going to Verculon f***ing Two? Isn’t it off-limits?”
“That’s classified,” I said coolly, and severed the channel. “See, Chris? Case in point.”
“Okay, so not everyone on this ship is crazy about you. But you have friends. Me…Janice. AND Kelly. Andy, she loves you.”
I turned back to Richards. “And I love her–but it wouldn’t be fair to her if I turned my back on this. I have to at least explore the possibilities.”
“And then what? What if you get in there and realize you hate it. Will you just come back? Take back Kelly and the Explorer and your old life as if nothing happened?”
I smiled easily, not quite feeling the inner confidence I was trying to show Richards. “I don’t plan on coming back.”
“There are a lot of ways I could go about stopping you, Andy,” Richards said. “None of them pleasant.”
“Oh, what could you do?”
“Sabotage the warp engines, for one. Stop us until this little ‘universe’ of yours disappears again.”
“Or I could get more extreme. I could tell Kelly.”
I rose from my chair. “Chris, I have to know what life I could have had eight years ago.”
“Even if it means fragging your life now?”
There was no easy answer for that question.
“This is getting way too sentimental,” Beck yawned. “Can we skip forward a bit?”
“That would be a good idea,” said 4 of 8. “I have much work to do back on the cube.”
“What work?” Baxter demanded. “We’re in a place where time has no meaning.”
“Time having no meaning is irrelevant. I must get back to my cube.”
“I’m getting toward the end. But it’s important I paint the picture of how much I agonized over deciding to go to this planet.”
“I’m agonizing over something,” Rydell said drearily.
“Do tell,” said Beck.
“My freaking drink!”
So, anyway, to make a long story short, yada yada yada, we arrived at Verculon Two.
I stepped out of my ready room and circled around to the front of the bridge. “Put Verculon Two on screen, J’hana,” I ordered, standing between conn and ops and staring at the viewscreen.
We were there. That much was sure as the blue-white planet appeared on the screen. Richards had agreed to indulge me in this, on the condition that I investigate this planet the regulation Starfleet way, and not just go jaunting off into paradise. I’d take an away team down and investigate. If everything panned out, and if I was still convinced that That Place was right for me, I could go, but not until the whole thing was checked out, and I had thought the matter through carefully.
Heh. I’d been thinking the whole thing through for years.
“Sir,” Larkin piped up. “I am reading a large amount of wreckage on the surface. It is the Bering.”
I folded my arms. “That was a short search. J’hana, prepare to–”
But my Andorian security chief interrupted me. “Sir, we’re getting a priority subspace communiqué from Admiral McGrath.”
“Why am I not surprised.” I assumed my command chair. “Put him on screen, J’hana.”
McGrath looked glowered down at me. “Captain Baxter, where have you been? The Delta Iotians called Starfleet about your postponement.”
“Something more pressing has come up,” I improvised.
“Don’t play dumb with us, Captain. One of our observation posts detected the Explorer warping into the Verculon system. I want to know how much you know.”
“I know there is a place on Verculon Two that makes Eden look like a rat-infested bar.”
McGrath sighed. “That Place.”
“Right,” I replied. “You know about it?”
“We’ve…heard things. You were there?”
“When I worked on the Aquarius. I accidentally came across it.”
“So did the crew of the Bering, and they’ve totally disappeared now.”
“Starfleet was tying to find That Place, weren’t they? Then it hit me. “That’s how the Bering was lost, wasn’t it?”
“I can’t confirm or deny that.”
“Well, confirm or deny, whatever. The Bering crashed on the surface of Verculon Two.”
McGrath took a moment to absorb that. “What could have possessed them to crash their ship there? Or what caused them to crash?”
“I’ll find that out when I go down there, Admiral.”
“Precisely what I had in mind. Explorer’s the closest vessel anyway. But make no mistake about this, Captain. Your top priority is to find the Bering crew and return them to us. Don’t get caught up in that–That Place.”
“I can’t make any promises, Admiral. Explorer out.”
“Now you just wait one–” and McGrath was cut off.
“We’ll never hear the end of this,” J’hana muttered, leaning against her panel.
The doors to the bridge suddenly swung open, and Commander Conway plodded out. “Will someone explain to me what’s going on here?”
J’hana huffed. “We are looking for paradise.”
Conway frowned at the viewscreen. I could tell he was straining to figure out a way to turn this against me. “Why?”
I pushed out of my command chair and headed for the turbolift. “I’m not going to dignify that with an answer, Conway. J’hana, Larkin, you’re with me. Commander, you have the bridge.”
Conway stood staring dumbly at the viewscreen as we headed into the turbolift.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he muttered.
Predictably, Richards was waiting for me in the transporter room. And Kelly stood there beside him, arms folded.
“So, this Carlotta bitch. She’s worth leaving me for?” she demanded as Larkin distributed phasers and tricorders.
“It’s not like that, Kelly. I’m not going to leave you for Carlotta.”
“Well, it certainly looks like that.”
I holstered my phaser and tricorder and took Kelly in my arms. “I have to know what I would have missed eight years ago. I have to know whether or not it would have been worth it. I promise you I won’t do anything with Carlotta. I just want to know what my life there would have been like.”
Kelly sniffed. “So you’re not going to stay there forever.”
I shrugged. “Well, not forever. Maybe a few weeks. Or a month.”
“Oh, you bastard!” Peterman cried, and turned away from me.
“Kelly!” I said, but she stalked out of the transporter room before I could say anything else.
I leaned against the transporter console. “She just doesn’t understand.”
“I understand,” Lt. Hartley, the transporter operator, snapped. “You’re a pig!” This was what I meant when I said that all transporter chiefs are cranky.
“As you were, Lieutenant,” I said, and mounted the transporter pad.
“You’re sure this is the right thing to do?” Richards asked, taking his place by Hartley.
“Haven’t we been through this before?” I said.
“Eight years ago. And you’re just as crazy for doing this now as you were then.”
I grinned. “J’hana and Larkin will keep me in line. Right, ladies?”
J’hana patted her phaser. “If you attempt any impropriety, I shall kill you.”
“See?” I grinned. “All right, Ms. Hartley, energize.”
We found the Bering. Impacted on the surface, its forward saucer crunched in like a tin can, its nacelles broken off and lying meters from the crash site.
Larkin consulted her tricorder. “No life signs aboard the Bering, Captain. However, the crash site seems to coincide exactly with the point at which you claim to have found ‘That Place.’”
I raised an eyebrow. “‘Claim to have found’?”
“Such utter perfection is a scientific impossibility. Whatever you experienced eight years ago, it is almost certainly a misapprehension of the correct facts.”
“Fine,” I huffed. “You’re here to get the facts straight.”
“And that I will, sir.”
J’hana approached from the Bering wreckage. “Confirmed, sir. The Bering has crashed to intersect with the cave site of ‘That Place.’”
I studied J’hana’s tricorder screen. “So we have to go in that ship to get there.”
I gestured to J’hana. “Well, then. Lead the way, Lieutenant.”
It took fifteen minutes of navigating, and utilizing Larkin’s immense android strength to clear a few corridors, but we found the searing light of That Place right at the center of the room designated as the Bering’s crew lounge.
I found it odd that there were no bodies to be found aboard the Bering. Surely they didn’t all crowd into That Place. It was only for me, right?
“Here we go,” I said, staring into the searing light that emerged from the crushed-in forward viewport. “You guys ready to follow me?”
“Fascinating,” Larkin said, looking up from her readings. “This place seems to be a conjunction of rapidly accelerating quarks and neutrino particles.”
“Oh, don’t start contaminating this with technobabble,” I snapped. “Let’s just enjoy this.”
“Enjoyment is a relative term,” Larkin replied, as I led the way in.
That pleasure coursed through me once again, not at all diluted by the passage of time. J’hana and Larkin were gone the instant I entered the fissure, but that fact didn’t seem very important at the moment for some reason.
“You’re back,” Carlotta said, breathing in my ear.
I turned, quickly. “Carlotta! You’ve hardly changed.”
“Life goes on eternal here in That Place,” Carlotta said sweetly.
“Hmmm…” I said, as Carlotta wrapped her arms around him. “Where are the others, by the way? The Bering crewmembers. My away team.”
“Oh, don’t worry about them. It’s just us now.”
“Ha. But where are they, really?”
“Oh, you don’t really want to know that badly, do you?”
“I’m just a little curious.”
“They’re being taken care of.”
I grinned. My memories of the Explorer slowly began to drift away as she stroked her fingers through my hair. “How so, exactly?”
“Hmm…do you really care?”
I thought hard. “Well, they aren’t being hurt, are they?”
“Okay. But listen, I’m kind of seeing someone. So our relationship has to be platonic.”
“Sure. No problem.”
I gazed into Carlotta’s deep, blue, passionate eyes. Then diverted my eyes downward. “Well, platonic with some mild friendly petting.”
“Fine by me!”
“You are a pig,” Captain Beck said, slamming her glass down.
“I haven’t finished the story yet,” I said defiantly.
“I don’t see any redemption value in this story,” said 4 of 8.
Baxter downed his fourth drink excitedly. “Hah! Just wait!!”
I was well into the fourth quarter. It was a sunny day at Texas Stadium. A throng of Super Bowl fans filled the massive arena. For those of you that know about football, it was fourth down and seven yards. If I didn’t score points for the Cowboys on that play, we’d lose the Super Bowl and the San Francisco 49ers would go home with the trophy.
“Thirty-two…forty-one…twenty-seven…HIKE!” I cried, reaching between my center’s legs and grasping the football. I gave her rear end a little nudge.
“Heave it, big boy!” Carlotta squealed. “Remember that X-Y post I showed you!”
Obediently, I scurried back as Carlotta effortlessly protected me from the San Francisco defense. She was amazing.
Just as I hurled the ball, an explosion rocked Texas Stadium. Brick chunks rained on the ground as glowing rays of light seared all around me and Carlotta.
I covered my eyes. A soft, somewhat familiar, hum buzzed around my ears, forming Kelly, Lt. Commander Richards, and a pair of security guards.
Carlotta stood in front of me, seeming almost broad- shouldered in her jersey and padding. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“Get away from him!” shouted Kelly, storming over.
“Over my dead body.”
Kelly pushed up her shirtsleeves. “Gladly.”
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“This place isn’t what it seems!” said Richards. “You’re trapped here.”
“That’s what you think,” I replied.
“Listen,” Kelly said urgently. “We left you and Larkin and J’hana in here for four hours.”
“We came to see what the hell happened,” Richards said. “Little did we know we’d have to blow the whole cave apart to get through with transporters.”
“Think about it, Andy!” Kelly said. “This…goddess, or whatever, lured the Aquarius here with anomalous readings. She forced the Bering to crash here. She’s not nice!”
“Why would you do that?” I asked, turning on Carlotta.
“You’ve got me all wrong!” Carlotta said. “I didn’t do any of that.”
“Where’s the Bering crew?” Richards demanded.
“They’re mine!” Carlotta snapped. “So’s Andy. And so are all of you!”
“We’ll see about that.” Kelly stepped forward to tackle Carlotta.
“Honey, she’s omnipotent!” I warned, but as Kelly threw the first punch, I felt a distinct rumbling.
“CARLOTTA!” a stern parental voice said.
“Stay out of my room!” Carlotta whined as she wrestled across the turf with Kelly.
“You know better than to play with those little things,” the voice said authoritatively. “Put them back from where you got them.”
“But I found them fair and square!”
I looked around for a source to the voice, but saw none. I did notice that the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys were watching the battle between Carlotta and Kelly intently.
“Hit the lockers!” I ordered angrily, and turned my gaze skyward. “Is this Carlotta’s parent or legal guardian?”
“Yes,” said the disembodied voice. “Sorry for this inconvenience.”
“Not a problem,” I replied. “You have a lovely… omnipotent being.”
“Parenting is not easy, but we try to do the best we can.”
“This isn’t fair!” Carlotta cried, as Kelly dragged her to her feet by her hair. “I should get to play with whatever toys I want to.”
“But, honey, we got you those nice Pakleds just last Christmas.”
“But they’re fat and stupid.”
“Honeeeeey….” the parents said warningly, and Carlotta and all of Texas Stadium dissolved away, to be replaced by the spare cave where I first discovered her.
“What do you think about coming back now, huh?” Peterman asked, wrapping her arms around my waist.
“Probably not a bad idea,” I said. “Listen, hon, I never did anything with Carlotta this time around. Honestly.”
“I believe you,” Kelly replied. “But leave me for an omnipotent slut again, and I’ll do this!”
She kneed me in the crotch with such fury I could taste my testicles.
“Errrrk! Baxter to Explorer. Beam us out of here!”
“Whatever energies Carlotta used to hold me, my officers, and the Bering crew hostage were released with that sickening blow to my crotch, so we were able to beam everyone to the Explorer. I never actually talked to the people from the Bering, but Larkin swears that the whole time she was just in a cave. Go figure. At any rate, I reconciled with Kelly (though my genitals paid a hell of a price), and I learned that That Place wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.” Baxter sat back in his chair and crossed his legs, pausing for dramatic effect. “Well?”
Beck rose an eyebrow. “Loved the ending.”
“But what is the point?” asked 4 of 8.
“The point, my cybernetic friend, is that real life was better than any fantasy life I could have dreamed up.” Baxter grinned easily.
“Not necessarily,” Captain Vorezze piped up. “What if ‘That Place’ was really all it was cracked up to be? Would you have stayed?”
Baxter’s smile wavered, his teeth clenched. “No. Of course not. What a silly question.”
Suddenly a waiter arrived with what appeared to be a cherry icee heavily doused with rum.
“Your drink,” said the Bolian crisply.
Captain Rydell grinned. “Well, thank the–”
Then two paws planted themselves on the table. Fritz dragged himself up, staggered across the table, and grabbed the drink between his paws, downing it in several gulps.
Rydell slammed his head down on the table. “Now THAT is a problem.”
The Bolian laughed wickedly and walked away, leaving the group at the table to watch in stunned silence.
“So I gotta tell a story,” the cat purred, curling himself at the center of the table. “Okay, well—BRAAAP!– ‘scuse me…”
Baxter scratched his head. “I didn’t know he could do that.”
“You see,” Fritz belched, rubbing a paw over his snout. “I’m not supposed to talk about this, but it being special circumstances and all, I guess I’ll go ahead and explain. I am a member of a felinoid race that has been studying you primitive humans for quite some–BRAAAAAP!– time…”
How did Captain Rydell save Lt. Hawkins’ life? And will he ever get his drink order? Find out in the next installment of THE REJECT’S TABLE!!