Author: Anthony Butler (Prologue by Peter Macready)
USS SECONDPRIZE FIVE YEARS AGO
Captain Alexander Rydell stared blankly at the star-filled viewscreen before him. He would swear that the image hadn’t changed for the last twenty days. He could feel his eyelids gaining weight as he struggled to stay awake. His bridge shift didn’t end for another four hours, and he was seriously starting to doubt that he’d still be conscious at the end of it.
From her position at the helm console, Ensign Kristen Larkin observed her colleagues. She did not feel the boredom that the monotony of their mission was causing in the others, but she could definitely see its effects. A small line of drool was falling from Captain Rydell’s lower lip to the floor. A sudden thud drew her attention to Ensign Andrea Sullivan. She was slumped over her console, face down, and beginning to snore softly. At the rear of the bridge, Lieutenant Commander Jaroch was continuing the riveting game of Go Fish that he’d been playing with the ship’s computer for the last week and a half. As she continued her sweep of the bridge, Larkin could see Lieutenant Lisa Beck’s prostrate body on the floor behind the command chair. She’d brought a pillow from her quarters and gone right to sleep when her shift started. By the turbolift, a small penguin was observing the scene with what looked to Larkin like a look of amusement. She ran a quick diagnostic of her systems to make sure that her optical sensors were not malfunctioning. Everything was working fine. There was a penguin on the bridge. She stared at the small bird as it waddled toward Beck. Suddenly, it turned toward Larkin who continued to stare at it. A look of disbelief spread across its face. The two gazed at each other for about two minutes. Finally, the penguin waved its flipper at her. She returned the gesture.
A bit of movement to his left dragged Captain Rydell out of oblivion long enough for him to see what was going on. His helmsman was waving to something. He looked and saw nothing. He turned back to Larkin. She was still waving at empty space. Rydell knew that he was going to regret this, but he had to ask the question anyway.
“Ensign, what are you doing?”
“I am waving to the penguin, sir,” Larkin replied matter- of-factly. Rydell wanted to question her further about this, but his brain, which was bordering on jello at that moment, decided that this would require too much effort. He knew that some defect in the android’s programming had given her a minor obsession with penguins. This probably had something to do with that. Nothing to worry about. He’d just ignore it for the moment.
After he brief conversation with her captain, Ensign Larkin turned back to the penguin. It, however, had disappeared.
“Yes, Larkin,” Rydell mumbled.
“The penguin has disappeared.”
“I’m happy for it, Larkin.” He was starting to sink lower and lower in his chair. Seconds later, the penguin reappeared on the tactical console behind his command chair, and this time, it brought four of its friends.
“The penguins have returned.”
“Oh joy, where are they now?”
“Right behind you,” Larkin replied as the penguins all started flapping their flippers at her. She waved back hesitantly. Rydell decided that he didn’t want to be a part of Larkin’s hallucinations anymore. With as close as her penguins were getting to him, they’d be dropping imaginary bird poop on him in a minute.
“Why don’t you go back to your quarters, Ensign?” Rydell suggested. “You can serve your guests sushi or ice cream or something.” Larkin suddenly realized something: Captain Rydell must not be seeing the penguins. She decided to test her hypothesis.
“Captain, do you see the penguins?” One suddenly appeared on the floor in front of Rydell’s chair and rolled by him on a tiny pair of roller skates.
“No, I don’t. Jaroch, do you see any penguins?”
“No, sir. Do you have any nines?”
“Go fish,” the computer replied.
“Do you see any penguins, Beck?” Rydell continued.
“Unnh…uuuuh…nuuu,” Beck mumbled.
“How about you, Ensign Sullivan?”
“I’ll take that as a no. Sorry, Larkin, you’re the only one seeing penguins. Now, just go back to your room and check your circuitry.”
“I’ve already run a diagnostic, and all my systems are functioning normally.”
“I don’t care. There are no penguins here, so something must be wrong with you.”
“But it was roller skating by you.”
“Go to your room, Ensign,” Rydell ordered.
“Yes, sir,” she replied as she walked slowly toward the turbolift. A penguin wearing sunglasses and clasping a cigar in its beak was waiting for her as the doors opened.
“Wanna lift?” it asked gruffly.
“I am ignoring you,” Larkin replied. “You are just a glitch in my programming.”
“Too bad,” the penguin commented as it lowered its sunglasses. “You’re pretty cute for a hunk of metal and wires.’
“I am constructed from a complex alloy of…” She stopped in mid-sentence. Her audience had disappeared. Slightly distressed, Larkin walked the rest of the way back to her quarters with her eyes closed. She knocked over two crewman and stomped on another’s foot breaking three of his toes, but she didn’t see any more penguins.
After a bit of sleep and some careful thought, Captain Rydell decided that Ensign Larkin had better have a talk with Counselor Webber. Claire didn’t usually handle machines, but Larkin swore that nothing was mechanically wrong with her. And if it was mental, Claire was the person to find it.
The next morning, Ensign Kristen Larkin was in Counselor Webber’s office discussing her visions.
“And then one was in the turbolift with me, and it talked.”
“What did it say?” Webber asked.
“It said that I was cute.”
“Ahh. Now then, Kristen, have you been feeling lonely lately?”
“I just thought that you might be creating these penguins to fulfill your needs for companionship.”
“That is definitely not the case, Counselor,” Larkin replied. Suddenly, a line of five penguins appeared and began dancing around Webber’s chair. “They are here,” Larkin announced.
“What are they doing?”
“Forming a conga line, I believe.”
Captain Rydell found Counselor Webber’s report about Larkin very disturbing. The last thing he needed to deal with was a crazy android. He really only had one option. Larkin was going to have to be shut down, and Chief Engineer Scott Baird would have to disassemble and fix her.
Larkin was more disturbed by this news than Rydell was by the news of her condition. Unfortunately, she had to follow his orders. She reported to engineering that afternoon, so Commander Baird could shut her down. Captain Rydell was waiting there with Baird.
“I’m really sorry about this, Larkin,” Rydell said consolingly. “I don’t want to do this, but I’m trying to look after your welfare. This is just like me ordering someone to report to sickbay.”
“Except for the fact that Dr. Singer doesn’t usually take her patients apart piece by piece,” Larkin replied.
“I promise to be gentle,” Baird assured her.
“Shut her down, Commander,” Rydell ordered.
“I wouldn’t do that,” a voice commanded. Rydell and Baird looked around for its origin. “Down here,” the voice said. They looked down to the floor and spotted a penguin staring up at them. It disappeared and reappeared an instant later on the work-station next to them.
“Uh… Captain,” Baird stammered. “That’s a…”
“Penguin,” Rydell finished.
“Actually, I am a Jernasi,” the bird replied. “Evidently, our race bears a resemblance to a creature from your homeworld. I extend greetings to you from our people.” Rydell quickly got over his astonishment and switched over into diplomacy mode.
“And I extend greetings to you on behalf of the United Federation of Planets.”
“Thank you, Captain Rydell. As your ensign can tell you, we have been observing you for the last day. Then, we scanned your computer records and decided that we must not be catching you at your best.”
“That’s the truth,” Rydell replied. “But why did you not want your presence known?”
“We had never encountered your kind before, and did not know how you would react to a different culture. We thought that it would be best to cloak ourselves so we could observe you before making contact. Unfortunately, we did not count on the fact that your android’s vision is far superior to your own. Much to our surprise, she was able to detect us.”
“So you had to make us think she was crazy in order to keep your presence a secret,” Baird said.
“That is correct. We are sorry that it almost caused her dismantling.” The Jernasi turned to Larkin. “We hope that you can forgive us.”
“I am not capable of anger or holding a grudge,” she replied. “Consider it forgotten.”
“Thank you. Now then, Captain, we will decloak our ship, and then we would like to discuss the possibility of joining your Federation.”
“Of course,” Rydell replied. “Just follow me up to our Observation Lounge, and we can talk.” Rydell and the Jernasi left the room discussing Jernasi cloaking technology and the benefits of consuming large amounts of raw fish.
“Well, it looks like you narrowly avoided becoming a pile of spare parts, Larkin,” Baird said as he put away his tools. “I just can’t believe that a race of intelligent penguins exists.”
“I just hope they do not have any enemies coming to look for them,” Larkin replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you really want to deal with a race of intelligent polar bears?”
“Good point,” Commander Baird replied, laughing.
USS EXPLORER THE PRESENT
Stardate 53542.9. The Explorer is en route to the Jernas system to settle a dispute between the Jernasi and the Golath, a race of highly intelligent polar bears. The Golath and the Jernasi have barely tolerated each other for the last several decades, and lately it seems that negotiations are breaking down on both sides. Since the Jernasi are members of the Federation, we’ve been asked to step in to offer diplomatic aid. I have a feeling some members of the crew will enjoy this mission more than others.
“What do you mean you don’t care?” Lt. Commander Chris Richards asked, leaning over Lt. Commander Larkin’s shoulder as her hands worked at incredible speed, diassembling a faulty warp flux capacitor.
“I have moved the penguin-related portion of my program to a nested buffer, where the files have been compressed and earmarked for deletion.”
“Deletion?” Richards said, sitting down at his desk, across from Larkin. “That sounds kind of final.”
“They are unnecessary protocols, Commander.”
“They are unnecessary protocols, Chris. My data processors function with point zero three percent more accuracy without them.”
“Well, that certainly is a marked improvement,” Richards said. He continued to watch Larkin work on the capacitor. She had completely disassembled it in less than ten seconds. The tiny piece of machinery was incredibly complex; it would have taken his engineers all day to fix the faulty component.
“Indeed, it is.” Larkin held up a small, diamond-shaped piece. “This regenerative pulse modifier is corroded.”
“I’ll have to replicate another one,” Richards mumbled.
“Unneccessary,” Larkin said, palming the modifier and squeezing, moving her fingers back and forth over it. After several seconds, the android placed the piece on Richards’s desk. “I am finished.”
“Amazing,” Richards said, examining the modifier. “What would I do without you?”
“Without me, the task would have taken seven point four hours longer.”
“Then it’s good we have your abilities, Kristen,” Richards said with a smile, putting the newly repaired piece and moving around to the front of his desk. He sat on the edge of the desk, across from Larkin, and looked down at her. “Now what on Earth possessed you to take the penguin protocols out of your programming?”
“Your aliteration impresses me, Commander.”
“Your aliteration impresses me, Chris,” Larkin corrected. “As I said before, there is no need for them.”
“But something must have inspired you to do it…”
“Indeed, Counselor Peterman suggested it, during a counseling session I had with her on Stardate 53421.6.”
“I knew she had something to do with this,” Richards scowled. “Listen, Kristen, those protocols may have taken up extra space in your memory core, but they were part of you…an essential component to your personality.”
“I do not see how.”
Richards folded his arms and looked up at the ceiling. He sighed. “Think of it this way, Kristen. Do you know how I’m always going on about art? Sketching, color, contrast, hue? That kind of thing?”
“I do. It occupies substantial time.”
“Well, it might, but would I be me without that part of my personality?”
“No, I wouldn’t. Don’t you see, when it comes to the human mind, there isn’t anything in there that isn’t important. It all makes up what we are, who we are!”
“I am not human.”
“That doesn’t matter…you have a personality, as sure as you have arms and legs. You have subroutines and algorithms that define the way you act. Heck, I should know. I wrote them!”
Larkin considered this. “True. What is your point?”
“The point is, the person you are is the sum total of what’s in that database.” Richards knocked on Larkin’s head for effect. She rolled her eyes up toward his outstretched hand and regarded it, with what seemed to be skepticism.
“I concede that point to you, Commander. I will return the aforementioned protocols to my primary database immediately.”
“Glad to hear it,” Richards said, slapping his legs and standing up. He glanced at the chronometer. “Well, it’s about time we called it a day. You can finish repairing that flux capacitor tomorrow.”
“Very well.” Larkin stood up. “Do you wish for me to watch you eat dinner now?”
“Actually…” Richards smiled. “I kind of have a date tonight.”
Larkin raised her eyebrow. “Indeed. May I ask with whom?”
“Accessing. Ensign Susan Madera. Federation Psychological Profile 0079898-B. She is afraid of Venemar spike bats and enjoys golfing. Her favorite color is rouge. Allergies include…”
Richards placed a hand over Larkin’s mouth. “That’s all right, Kristen. I want to date her, not dissect her.”
“As you wish,” Larkin conceded. “At any rate, I hope you have an enjoyable date. It is apparent that you require someone to occupy your time after the cooling of your relationship with Dr. Browning.”
“That I do, Kristen,” Richards said as he hurried out of Engineering. “That I do.”
“So after flunking art school, I applied to the academy, and can you believe it? I got accepted!” Lt. Commander Richards said, eating another spoonful of Circassian Cheesecake. “The rest, as they say, is history.”
“Hmm,” Ensign Madera said, poking at her dessert. “That’s really interesting. I applied to Starfleet so I could play harp for the admiralty and the Federation President. Then I got stuck on the Aerostar for some reason.”
“No one ever explained why?” Richards asked, arching an eyebrow.
Madera shrugged. “It could be because I got in a fight with the concert master. She said I had chubby legs.”
“Well, that’s simply not true!” Richards said, glancing under the table. “You have wonderful legs.”
“Really?” Madera grinned. “Thank you.”
“As a matter of fact…” Richards leaned forward, looked over his shoulder, then whispered. “I would love to paint you.”
“Me? Really?” Madera replied, obviously flattered.
“Sure. Beauty like yours should be captured forever.”
Madera leaned forward and kissed Richards on the cheek. “That is SO sweet, Mr. Richards.”
“You can call me Chris,” Richards said idly, glancing over Madera’s shoulder. In walked Dr. Browning and Dr. Delgano, the visiting internal specialist, still in their labcoats. Amara rushed over and escorted them to a booth. “What the hell are they doing here?”
Madera glanced over her shoulder. “Who?”
“Umm…” Richards said, pointing in a randomly chosen direction. “Uh, them.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Baxter? Captain Baxter’s parents?” Madera said, glancing at the older couple. Harlan stared at his plate, eating quietly, while Lucille talked, gesturing wildly. “Why shouldn’t they be here?”
“Umm…I don’t know. Because they’re living in sin?” Richards was sinking deeper.
“They’ve been married for like forty years!”
“Still, that’s no reason for them to flaunt their urges in public.”
“Never mind. How’s the cheesecake?”
Madera smiled, popped a cherry into her mouth. “Delicious, Christopher.”
“Chris. Not Christopher.” Richards glared at Browning and Delgano as they ordered, laughing over some amusing item on the menu.
“Why not Christopher? I think it’s a beautiful name!”
“It brings back some painful memories. Because…uh, my parents used to call me that.”
“And did they live in sin too?”
“Yes,” Richards said quickly, getting up and stretching. “Well, that certainly was delicious. We’ll have to do this again sometime.”
“Uh-huh,” Madera said, pushing out of her chair. “Care to come back to my quarters for a little nightcap?”
Richards shook his head. “No thanks. It’s getting late. I should be getting to bed.”
“It’s only 1900 hours!”
“Well,” Richards said, taking Madera’s arm. “The early bird gets the worm!”
“Right. So when do you want to paint me?”
“I’ll get back to you on that.” Richards led Madera out of the Constellation Cafe and down the corridor to the nearby turbolift, pressing the call button. When the doors opened, he gestured. “After you!”
Madera stepped in, and Richards paused at the doorway. “Hmm…look at that bulkhead. Looks like it could use some shoring up!”
“Christopher…I mean Chris! The door is closing!” Madera said, stepping forward to hold the door.
“Don’t worry!” Richards said, pushing Madera’s hand back through the door as it slid shut. “I’ll just get the next car!”
Richards turned on a heel and rushed back to the Cafe. Once he approached Browning’s booth, he slowed down and strode by. “Oh, Janice,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “Fancy seeing you here!’
“Yes, you and I at the only restaurant on the ship, and around dinner time no less, quite a coincidence,” Browning joked, looking up at Richards queerly. “Have you met Dr. Delgano?”
Richards turned to look at the other doctor. He looked to be in his late thirties and balding. He smiled at Richards, who did his best to return the favor, plastering on the fakest smile possible. “No, I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure!”
“Lt. Commander Christopher Richards, Chief Engineer of the Explorer,” Browning said, gesturing at Richards. “This is Dr. Donald Delgano. Our visiting internal specialist.”
“Call me Don,” Dr. Delgano said amiably, reaching up to shake Richards’s hand.
“Hello, Don.” Richards grabbed the doctor’s hand and gripped it as hard as he could.
“Wow, quite a handshake you have there, Mr. Richards,” Dr. Delgano said, withdrawing his hand.
“Donald and I were just going over the specs for the Sickbay renovations. We’re trying to make it a little more patient-friendly.”
“Bedside manner is so important,” Delgano agreed. “We want our patients to be comfortable.”
“Yep. Comfortable,” Richards muttered.
“Would you like to sit down?” Browning asked. “We could look over the new sensor cluster your engineers are putting in.”
“I don’t think so,” Richards said, backing away. “I was just about to go to the bar and drink heavily.”
“Um…okay,” Browning said. “I’ll call you later about that sensor array.”
“Nice meeting you!” Delgano called out.
“Uh-huh.” Richards saddled up to the bar. “A bottle of your best antimatter, Mr. Mirk!”
Mirk walked over and obediently poured Richards a shot of Bringloidi limon rum. “See how that passes through the phase converters, Mr. Richards.”
Richards tossed back the shot, pounded the bar and hacked for close to a minute. “Woo wee, that was strong. Hit me again.”
Mirk poured again. “This isn’t like you, Mr. Richards. Why don’t you tell Uncle Mirk what’s wrong?”
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong,” Richards said, holding back a shriek as he downed the next shot. He thumbed over his shoulder. “I have a feeling Browning and that other doctor are getting ready to operate…on each other.”
“Are you kidding?” Mirk asked. “That relationship is purely professional. Now you and Ensign Madera, I think, are a different story.”
“Leave her out of this,” Richards belched, dumping another shot messily into the frosted Federation shotglass. “Listen, Mirk. I can’t be friends with her. I don’t want to be friends with her. I want it to be like it was. The sweetest, gentlest romance ever to be seen in this galaxy.”
“We’re talking about you and Janice, right?”
“Yes!” Richarson barked.
“It wasn’t all that, Chris. Really. It was one pit-stop on a long and winding road. You need to move on.”
“Yes. You’d be surprised how everything else in the universe will keep moving long after you break up with your girlfriend.”
“I don’t care what you say,” Richards said, thumbing his chest. “I love her!”
“You’ll get over it,” Mirk said, taking the bottle away from Richards and sticking it back under the counter. “Now why don’t you go back to your quarters and sober up? I promise things will look better in the morning.”
“Mirk, you really know how to make a guy feel better,” Richards said, leaning over the bar and engulfing Mirk in a bear hug.
“That’s what I’m here for,” Mirk replied, struggling uncomfortably in Richards’s grip.
“You know, you should start counseling people around the ship about love,” Richards suggested.
“No way,” Mirk replied, wiping up the spot on the bar where Richards had spilled rum. “I stepped on Counselor Peterman’s toes once before and I won’t make that mistake again.”
“If you say so,” Richards said, and stumbled out of the cafe.
“Shut up!” Richards called out, tossing an empty kanar bottle at the door to his quarters.
“Christopher, it’s Susan. Can I come in?”
Richards scrubbed a hand through his close-cut mat of hair. “Hold on.”
He dragged himself into the bathroom and looked himself over in the mirror. “Dear God. I look like hell.”
“Hold on!” Richards barked, and splashed water in his face.
At least he needn’t worry about getting dressed: he’d passed out while still wearing his Starfleet uniform.
Richards dried his face off, threw the towel onto his desk, and leaned against his doorframe, keying the doors open.
When they opened, blinding light from the corridor outside flooded in, knocking Richards to the carpet.
“Christopher!” Madera said, hurrying in. “What did you do to yourself?”
Burying his face in the carpet for a moment, Richards relished the darkness. “I drank myself silly, Susan.”
“Why does anyone drink?” He rolled over on his back. “To forget.”
“Oh.” Madera surveyed Richards’s quarters. It looked as if a Tellarite sandstorm had hit. Clothes were everywhere, the bed was unmade, and the couch had split up into its component cushions. “This place really needs a woman’s touch.”
“It had one.” Richards covered his eyes with his hands. Memories flooded back to him. Evidently, after leaving Mirk’s, he’d gone back to his quarters, busted open his case of Cardassian kanar, and emptied three of the six bottles. It was a miracle he was still alive.
Madera replaced a cushion on his couch and sat down. “So…when would you like to paint me?”
Richards peered through his fingers at Madera. “Paint…you?”
“You said you’d love to paint me last night? Remember?”
“I’m having a hard time remembering my name right now, Susan,” Richards replied.
“Uh-huh.” Madera stood up, walked over. “I have a concert coming up tomorrow night. Are you going to be there?”
“Listen, Ensign,” Richards choked out, looking up at Madera from the floor. “I’ll be frank with you. I’m just getting over a two year relationship. I really just wanted to date you and have fun, but now I realize that I’m still nowhere near over Janice. So how about we break it off now and prevent either of us from being hurt in the future?”
Madera’s face darkened as she looked down at Richards. “Maybe you’ve been in a relationship so long you forgot this: Never be frank with a woman!”
She kicked Richards hard in the stomach and marched out of his quarters, leaving Richards to vomit all over his favorite rug.
“It’s a gorgeous day,” Captain Andy Baxter announced, strolling onto the bridge and looking out at the stars on the viewscreen.
“They are the same f***ing stars we always see,” J’hana remarked, leaning against her station. “Why should they look any more gorgeous today?”
“Because today is the day that I finally get rid of my parents,” Baxter declared, resting his hands on the railing that surrounded the command chairs, taking a deep breath and soaking in the view of the onrushing stars.
“You’ve said that before,” Tilleran noted, turning in her chair and plucking some controls at her station.
“But I mean it this time!” Baxter said, approaching the science console and looking from Tilleran to J’hana. “Don’t you see…it’s this diplomatic mission to Jernas. That’s the key!”
“You are coming apart, sir,” J’hana said. “Perhaps you should spend some time with your wife in counseling.”
“No, I’m not coming apart,” Baxter declared, spinning on a heel and spreading his arms out wide. “I’m coming together!”
“Captain’s lost it,” Ford announced from the helm.
“I haven’t lost it!” Baxter cried, circling around to the front of the bridge, making a fist and shaking it in Ford’s face for emphasis. “I’ve gained it!”
“Permission to shoot you, Captain,” J’hana requested grimly.
“Denied, denied, denied!” Baxter called out, whirling around to his command chair. “This is how it will happen: I will let my dad show his natural diplomatic talents down on Jernas–”
“What diplomatic talents?” interrupted J’hana.
“Nevermind that, he has them,” Baxter snapped. “Anyway, I will let him show his true diplomatic talents, and then the Federation will see what a gem they’re passing up. They’ll offer him anything he wants to join the diplomatic corps. And I’ll be rid of him and my mother forever!”
“That sounds good in theory,” Tilleran said. “We’ll see how well that works in practice.”
“It’s either that,” Baxter said, lowering himself into the command chair. “Or I kill them.”
“I am prepared to offer my services in that respect, sir,” J’hana said.
“I’ll keep that in mind, Lieutenant.” Baxter turned in his command chair as the turbolift doors at the back of the bridge wooshed open to reveal Counselor Peterman.
“Good morning, Andy,” Peterman said, strolling over to her chair and plopping down with an exausted sigh. “My, you were energetic last night.”
“Any reason I shouldn’t have been?”
“Listen, Andy, I don’t want you to get your hopes up about this plan to get rid of your parents.”
“And why shouldn’t I?”
“Because, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” Peterman said.
“Is that so? Well, I suppose you thought up that little saying all by yourself?”
“No, it’s from an ancient poem. Andy, the point is, you should allow for the chance that this plan won’t work.”
“I’ll just remember you said that, Nancy Naysayer,” Baxter taunted. “We’ll see after we get done with the Jernas mission.”
“Listen, that isn’t even what I came up here to talk to you about,” Peterman said, pushing her hair back over her shoulders in frustration.
“Well what did you come up here for, then?” Baxter asked.
“I found out something very interesting in our crew database about Lt. Commander Larkin.”
Baxter leaned forward. “I’m all ears.”
“Today is her birthday!”
Baxter blinked. “Pardon?”
“I was doing some research for an upcoming session I have with her, and I came across the date she was first activated. It was twelve years ago today!”
“I wonder why she didn’t tell us about it,” Baxter mused, rubbing his bearded chin.
“She’s very secretive about things like that. She probably doesn’t want us to make a big fuss over it.”
“So, obviously, your plan is to make a big fuss over it,” Baxter reasoned.
“Exactly,” Peterman said. “The surprise party will be at Mirk’s at nineteen hundred hours tonight. Yeoman Briggs and I are taking care of all the arrangements. Attire is dressy-casual.”
“Presents?” Baxter asked.
“Hmm. What do you get a twelve-year-old android?”
“You’ll have to figure that out for yourself, Andy,” Peterman said, rising from her chair. “Get the word out to as many people as you can. Just don’t let Larkin find out. That means you can’t use the computers.”
“Okeydoke. I’ll try to find time to get that present and hand out secret invitations while I’m trying to stop two entire worlds from going to war.”
“I know you’ll find something tasteful,” Peterman grinned, heading back into the turbolift.
“Do not be so sure,” remarked J’hana, snickering as Peterman stepped into the lift.
“Well, that’s that,” Baxter said, leaning out of his command chair. “I was going to prepare my speech to the Jernasi today, but now I’ve got to spend the whole day looking for a blasted present for Larkin.”
“Your sense of priorities is commendable, Captain.”
“Stuff it, J’hana,” Baxter muttered, stepping into the alternate turbolift that was located at the front of the bridge by the science station. “Just for that, Tilleran has the conn.”
Tilleran grinned at J’hana as she swung around her station and made her way down to the command chair. “See what you get when you’re not nice?”
“It is not worth it,” J’hana grumbled.
“Hold still, Christopher,” Dr. Browning said as she ran her hand-held mender across Richards’s stomach. “You have a couple bruised ribs.”
Richards grimaced as Browning worked on him, dangling his legs over the biobed. “It was a nasty fall.”
“It looks like you were kicked,” Browning said, looking up at Richards as she finished the job.
“Well, I wasn’t,” Richards snapped, defensive.
Browning peered into each of Richards’s eyes, while glancing down at her medical tricorder readings. “It also looks like you have a huge hangover.” She sniffed the air and grimaced. “You hit that bottle of kanar we got last year during our trip to Risa, didn’t you?”
“I hit three of them.”
“Because I felt like it,” Richards said. “Is it so wrong to get a little drunk every now and then?”
Browning shook her head. “You weren’t a little drunk. A few more ounces of that Cardassian drain-cleaner would have killed you.”
“Hmm. I’ll have to remember that for next time. I hate to leave a job unfinished,” Richards remarked.
“What’s wrong with you, Christopher?” Browning asked, closing her tricorder and setting her tools down on a nearby medtable.
Richards looked around Sickbay–it was mostly empty, save Nurse Carter, who was studying gel cultures in the biolab. “Maybe it had a little bit to do with the fact that you’re getting so cozy with Dr. Delgano.”
“Him? Chris, really, he’s ten years older than me.”
“That doesn’t mean anything and you know it. In Vulcan/Human marraiges, there is sometimes a one hundred year difference in age!”
“It’s a totally professional relationship, Christopher. Now you can take my word for it or not,” Browning said, folding her arms. “But it doesn’t take a ship’s counselor to see that you’re using Dr. Delgano as an excuse to vent your frustrations over something else.”
“Would it surprise you to know that I’m having a little trouble adjusting to single life?”
Browning scooted up on the medtable next to Richards. “Nope, actually, it wouldn’t. It’s a new experience for me too.”
“Then you think we should get back together?”
“No way. I said it’s a new experience, not a bad one. We just need time to adjust to the situation. I still love you, but we can’t be a couple anymore. I’ve moved past that.”
“You’ve moved past it,” Richards muttered. “Where does that leave me?”
Browning shrugged, scooted off the medtable. “Wherever you want to be, I guess.”
Just then, Captain Baxter stepped through the doors into Sickbay. “Hey, guys. Good, you’re both here. That saves time. It’s Larkin’s birthday, and we have until tonight to find her presents.”
“Larkin’s birthday?” Browning asked, looking to Richards.
“Wow,” Richards said, rubbing his chin. “That’s right. I didn’t even realize it.”
“What a neglectful mother,” Baxter scoffed. “I was about to head down to the replideck. You two want to go shopping with me?”
“I don’t think so. I’m supposed to be planning the Sickbay renovations today,” Browning said.
Baxter looked to Richards. “Well?”
“I have to be in Engineering,” Richards said, taking one last glance at Browning and heading out of Sickbay. “You’re on your own, Captain.”
“What’s got him?” Baxter asked, scratching his head as Richards left.
Browning sighed. “What do you think?”
“Still hung up about the breakup?” Baxter asked.
“Man, that’s tough.” Baxter waited there a moment, then turned on a heel. “Well, off to the replideck!”
Lt. Commander Larkin proceeded down the corridor toward the turbolift, noting the strange looks she was getting from all the crewmembers. They smiled, whispered, grinned, poked each other and pointed. The android construed all these strange actions as having something to do with her, and made it a point to ask the next person she saw about it.
That person ended up being Ensign Howard Sefelt.
Sefelt strolled past Larkin, trying to keep his face completely straight, sweat beading on his forehead.
“Ensign,” Larkin said, clamping a hand on his shoulder.
Sefelt whipped around. “I know nothing!”
“Why are you and my crewmates behaving in this fashion?” Larkin asked.
“Please don’t hurt me!” Sefelt cried, shrinking down to the deck and curling into a fetal ball.
“It is not my intention to hurt you. I simply wish to know why everyone is acting so strangely.”
“It’s your birthday! It’s your birthday! Happy Birthday! Now leave me alone!” Sefelt cried, bolting down the corridor.
“My birthday,” Larkin repeated to herself. She reasoned that someone on the crew had deduced that today was the twelth anniversary of her activation, and had thus planned to surprise her, in an all-too-predictable humanoid maneuver.
Very well, Larkin said to herself, switching to Internal Monologue mode as she stepped into the turbolift. I will abide by human custom and act surprised when the allotted time comes. I have no need for presents or special attention, but I will act as if I enjoy it regardless.
“Bridge,” she said out loud.
Commander Conway looked up from the padd he was sharing with Lieutenant J’hana. “Now, let me see if I have this right. You and Tilleran will stand here. The Captain and I will be here. Mirk, Peterman, and Browning will hide behind the bar, and the rest of the group will be positioned behind tables here and here.”
“It is a sound battle strategy,” J’hana said. “Which I have found works well for ground assaults and surprise parties alike.”
“Ingenious,” Conway remarked. Suddenly, the turbolift doors swept open and emitted Lt. Commander Larkin. Conway flung the padd behind his back and whirled around. “Morning, Commander!”
“Commander,” Larkin nodded, and headed over to her station to begin her shift.
“She doesn’t suspect a thing,” Conway whispered, shoving the padd into J’hana’s hands. “This is approved, J’hana. Get the word out.”
“Aye, sir,” J’hana said, returning to her station.
Conway stepped down to the forward stations, leaning against the ops console as Larkin began her work. “How are you today, Commander?”
“I am functioning within normal parameters, sir,” Larkin replied. “And you?”
“Couldn’t be better.” Conway eyed Larkin carefully. “So, what are you, a size nine?”
“On the contrary, I am a size six.” Larkin cocked her head, processing the information. “Why do you ask?”
Conway smiled, heading back to the command chair. “Oh, no reason.”
Perfectly handled, Conway thought to himself.
He thinks I am fat, Larkin noted.
“I’ll never make it, Christopher,” Kris Larkin said over the crackling comm channel. “I’m four days’ travel away at warp four, which is all the Daisy can do.”
Richards swung back and forth in his chair at his desk and regarded the human woman that inspired Lt. Commander Larkin’s creation on his desktop terminal. “But Kris, it would mean so much to her if you came!”
“There’s no way.” Kris smiled. “Unless you diverted the Explorer to come get me.”
“No can do. We’re on diplomatic duty.” Richards thought a moment. “We could send the Escort.”
“That’s a nice thought, Christopher, but I doubt your captain would go for it.”
“You’re probably right,” Richards sighed. “Well, we’re due to head back out toward your neck of the woods next month. Maybe you can visit then.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Kris replied. “And you know what…” she looked down at the glowing terminal beside her. “We’re near a polar-type planet. Maybe I could beam up a block of ice and carve her an ice sculpture.”
“I think she’s trying to get out of her penguin phase,” Richards said. “Besides, I’m the artist, remember?”
“Sorry to step on your toes. I’ll get up with you and Larkin in a week or two and we can plan my visit, okay?”
“Sounds good,” Richards said, and leaned forward to switch off the viewer.
Centurion Krellin stiffened, warily regarding the commander of the Horshak as he gave his report. “We just intercepted a transmission between the Daisy and a Federation starship, Commander.”
“Explorer?” Commander Ardek steepled his fingers, staring at the tiny freighter Daisy as it chugged slowly through space on the viewscreen at the front of the bridge.
“That’s correct,” Krellin said, his face registering shock. “How did you know?”
“Because I can smell a bad wind coming, Centurion. Did the message say anything about Explorer coming here?”
Krellin shook his head. “Negative. Just some nonsense about a birthday.”
Ardek arched an eyebrow. “The android?”
The Romulan commander rubbed his hands together, sliding out of his command chair and pacing the bridge. “Well, then, Lieutenant Commander Kristen Larkin of the Explorer will be getting a pleasant birthday present indeed. A very pleasant one!”
“She will, sir?”
“No, you idiot! I was being sarcastic!”
Captain Baxter precariously balanced the huge grey case he’d brought up from the replideck on his shoulder with one hand, tugging Pandora along behind him on her leash. It had taken him most of the morning to find the proper gift. But once he’d come across the Bolian bookcase, he knew he’d hit the jackpot.
“Stupid replicators,” he mumbled. “Why couldn’t they have just replicated me a completely assembled bookcase?”
Baxter reached forward with his toe and keyed open the door to his quarters, barely squeezing through the door with the huge case. He slammed it down on the floor with a thud and collapsed onto his couch.
“There you are,” Lucille Baxter said, poking her head out of Baxter’s bedroom.
“Mom?” Baxter asked, hopping off his couch. “What the hell are you doing in there?”
“Looking for you,” she said, marching purposefully out of the bedroom. If Baxter didn’t know better, it would seem as if Lucille lived in the cabin instead of him. “I thought you’d be here writing your speech.”
Pandora jumped up on the couch and looked from Baxter to Lucille with intense interest. “Remind me to restrict your access codes,” Baxter muttered, rubbing a hand over his face.
“What’s that?” Lucille asked, nodding toward the grey case.
“It’s a birthday present for Lt. Commander Larkin,” Baxter said. “I got her a very nice Vladasic Era pre-fab imitation oronium Bolian bookcase. It rotates and everything.”
Lucille snapped the padd off the top of the case and paged through it. “You’ll never get this assembled. Why not have someone from Engineering do it?”
Baxter snatched the padd. “Because I can do it myself, Mom. Now why did you barge into my quarters this time?”
“I think that would be obvious, considering that you’re out buying presents for your crew instead of concentrating on your speech to the Jernasi.”
“What are you talking about?” Baxter played dumb.
Lucille folded her arms. “Andy, I think you should let your father handle these negotiations. They’re very important to the Federation.”
Baxter tried to hide his smile. “Are you saying I can’t handle them?”
“Truthfully?” Lucille asked. “No. You may have faced races in conflict, but what’s going on between the Jernasi and the Golath is like nothing you’ve dealt with before. Let the real diplomats deal with this.”
“Mom, I’m insulted,” Baxter said, holding back a chuckle.
“Don’t take it personally. It’s for the good of the Federation,” Lucille said, putting a hand on Baxter’s shoulder.
“I guess you’re right. In that case, Dad can take the lead on the negotations.” She’s falling right into my trap, thought Baxter triumphantly.
“I knew you’d see it my way,” Lucille said, looking around Baxter’s quarters. “You know, it smells like a zoo in here. Can’t you increase power to the ventilation systems or something?”
Baxter shrugged. “It’s a constant problem, what with Kelly’s pets and everything.”
“Well, I’ll talk to someone in Operations. I’m sure something can be done about it.”
Baxter grinned. “You do that mom.”
“We’ll see you at Larkin’s party tonight, then?”
“You knew about it?” Baxter asked, shocked.
“Commander Conway told us.”
“Conway!” Baxter clenched his fist. Damn him. “Right. See you there.”
Lucille pecked Baxter on the cheek and sidled out of his quarters. Once she was gone, Baxter picked Pandora up, kissed her right on the face, spun her around, and lept in the air.
“Everything’s going according to plan, Pandy! We’re almost rid of them!”
“Yip!” Pandora said agreeably.
A padd clacked down noisily in front of Richards as he worked at the master systems table.
“Helm report,” a grating voice said.
“Susan,” Richards said, looking up. “How are you?”
“Alignment is off again. There’s a point four centimeter drift on the helm controls.”
“I’ll get Stuart on it,” Richards said amiably. “Things going well with you?”
“I’m still not talking to you,” Madera said, turning on a heel and walking off toward the turbolift.
“Susan, please, don’t be like that!” Richards called after her. “I really want us to still be friends!”
“Problems, Romeo?” Ensign Stuart said, hovering behind Richards and watching Madera leave.
“Yeah, Cassanova,” Richards muttered, shoving the padd with Madera’s report into Stuart’s hands. “I’ve got problems with the helm control alignment. It’s off point four centimeters. Fix it.”
“Sir, have you thought about going to counseling?” Stuart asked, backing toward the Jeffries tube.
“Yes. Now get busy,” Richards snapped, stomping off toward his office. Once inside, he told the computer to lock the door and turned toward the meter-tall object that loomed on his desk, covered in cloth. It was his first work in the medium of biomemetic protoplasm. Actually, thought Richards, it was probably the only work in the medium of biomemetic protoplasm. He’d collected quite a bit of it after the refit of Explorer’s gel packs, and since he hated the idea of all that bluish gel going to waste, had collected it in a drum for future use.
Since finding out about Larkin’s birthday, he’d finally come upon a use for it. By placing electrodes strategically throughout the block of gel, he could design a computer algorithm that would mold the gel into any shape he wished.
“Computer, begin program Richards Gel-Alpha and dim the lights to one quarter normal.”
“Acknowledged. Begining electromagnetic induction sequence,” the computer announced.
A blue glow began to emanate from under the cloth as Richards ripped it away, reveling in the fizzling and popping sound that the burbling and boiling plasma produced.
“Come to life, my gel-based friend…come to life!” Richards called out.
“Time to Jernas system?” Baxter asked, crossing from the turbolift to the forward bridge stations and surveying the stars that flashed by on the viewscreen.
“At our present speed of Warp Five, we should arrive at the Jernas system in just under an hour,” said Larkin from the operations console.
“Excellent,” Baxter said, plopping down into the command chair. He looked over at Commander Conway. “Commander.”
“Captain,” Conway nodded.
Baxter glanced at Larkin. Good, she was intent on her panel.
He grabbed a padd from the storage case behind his chair and began tapping on it, then passed it to Conway.
HOW ARE THE PREPARATIONS COMING?
Conway erased Baxter’s words and tapped in some more.
WE’RE ALL SET. EXCEPT THE LEFTOVER LOBSTER
PATE FROM YOUR WEDDING IS RANCID.
Baxter looked at the printing, shrugged, and tapped some more.
REALLY? I THOUGHT SEAFOOD NEVER SPOILED!
Conway grabbed the padd, shook his head in disbelief, and tapped:
WELL IT DOES, IDIOT.
Baxter grimaced as he read this, and stabbed the buttons on the padd.
WATCH YOUR TONE, COMMANDER!
Conway changed tacks:
WHAT DID YOU GET HER?
Baxter saw this and grinned.
BOOKCASE. A NICE ONE, TOO.
Back to Conway, who shook his head again.
STUPID! SHE MEMORIZES EVERYTHING. WHY
WOULD SHE NEED BOOKS?
Another disgruntled glare from Baxter and furious plunking of buttons.
SAYS YOU. WE’LL SEE AT HER PARTY.
“Ahem.” J’hana cleared her throat. “If you are done passing notes, Captain, you have a visitor.”
Harlan Baxter glared at the viewscreen, arms folded, waiting just behind J’hana.
“How long as he been here?” Baxter whispered, pulling J’hana closer.
“Five minutes. But I instructed him not to disturb you. I know how you and the Commander value your privacy,” the Andorian snickered.
“Shut up and get back to your station,” Baxter said, pushing out of his chair. “We can meet in my ready room,” Baxter said, gesturing for Harlan to follow him. “Commander Conway, the bridge is yours.”
“Notes,” Conway muttered, glaring dangerously at J’hana as he slided over to the command chair.
“Do you want something to drink?” Baxter asked, circling around behind his desk and taking a seat.
Harlan Baxter was staring at the crew portrait that Richards had painted, which hung above Baxter’s couch, next to his autographed image of someone named Troy Aikman handing an oblong leather object off to someone else named Emmitt Smith.
Baxter waited a few moments. “Dad?”
“Hmm?” Harlan replied, turning his head.
“Something to drink?”
“Nope,” Harlan said firmly, heading over to the viewport behind Baxter’s desk and staring out at the stars. “Lucille says you want me to handle most of these negotiations?”
Manipulative woman, Baxter cursed to himself. “Yep. It was all my idea. You are the diplomat, after all.”
“Been quite a while since I worked in that capacity, though.”
Baxter stood, placed a hand on Harlan’s shoulder. “You’ll be fine, Dad. I’m sure it’s just like piloting a shuttle. You never forget how.”
“You sure you don’t mind me stepping in? I’d think you’d be a little put off…”
“Nah, don’t be silly,” Baxter grinned. “I’m more than happy to let the renowned Harlan Baxter handle these negotiations. I’m content to sit in the background.”
“Well, if you say so,” Harlan said. “I can look back over my journals. I was at the reception when Jernas was accepted into the Federation.”
“You were,” Baxter said, leading Harlan back across his readyroom toward the door. “That’s fascinating, Dad. I’d love to hear about it, but I imagine you have a lot of work to do before we meet the Jernasi delegation tomorrow morning.”
“You’re right,” Harlan said. “I have to get a speech prepared. Think up a strategy, study the background of the Golath…”
“Sounds like you have a busy day ahead…” Baxter ushered Harlan out of the readyroom and across the bridge to the aft turbolift. “Don’t let me stop you!”
“Thanks, son, I…” Harlan said, as the turbolift doors whooshed closed.
Baxter wiped his hands together. “Well, that takes care of that. If I’m not needed here, I think I’ll head down to the holodeck.”
Larkin turned in her chair. “Are you not preparing to work with the Jernasi, sir?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” Baxter asked. “My dad’s handling that. Not only will that give me the next week or so off, but it’ll also tempt the Federation into snatching him and my mother right off this ship.”
“Curious,” Larkin said, cocking her head and accessing her database.
“Was he not involved in the Derregan Two incident?”
“Derregan Two?” Baxter shook his head. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”
Larkin continued to access her records. “Stardate 42090. A corps of Federation officials was sent to Derregan Two to mediate a civil war. Ambassador Sarek was able to schedule a meeting between the two warring factions and…”
As Larkin reported what she knew about the Derregan Two incident, Baxter’s smile vanished.
“What do I see for you, Mrs. Baxter?” Yeoman Briggs asked, rubbing his fingers slowly through Lucille Baxter’s lathered hair. “I see a totally new look. Maybe some short bangs…” Briggs pulled at the back of Lucille’s hair. “Then we trim this to about yay long. Keep it all even, layer it though the back. Oh, we’ll have you looking so good!”
“Do what you think needs to be done, James,” Lucille said, closing her eyes as Briggs worked. “I have total faith in you.”
Lucille was so relaxed by Briggs’s head massaging she barely heard the doors to Briggs’s boutique slide open.
“You’re relieved, Yeoman,” she heard a voice say.
“I’m in the middle of a style and cut, Captain,” Briggs said testily.
“That may be, but I need to talk to her.”
“At least let me rinse it. If I leave the shampoo in, it’ll permanently damage her hair. Do you want that on your conscience?”
“I’ll risk it. Now get out. That’s an order.”
“Fine, be that way,” Briggs huffed, and headed out of the door. “Bitch!”
Lucille opened her eyes, rubbing at the stinging shampoo that dripped down her forehead. “What’s so important you had to interrupt my styling, Andrew?”
Baxter swung the chair opposite Lucille’s toward her and sat down. “We have to talk, Mom.”
“What about?” Lucille asked, wrapping a towel around her head.
“Does Derregan Two ring a bell?”
Lucille faltered. “Uh, should it?”
“Cut the crap, Mom.”
“Andrew Jackson Baxter!”
Baxter flicked on a razor and hovered over Lucille. “Talk to me about Derregan Two or I’ll shave you silly.”
Baxter held the razor closer. “Try me.”
“Okay, okay…” Lucille relented, holding up her hands in submission. “It was two years after you’d left for Starfleet Academy. Your father was diplomatic attache to the Vulcan consulate.” She took a deep breath. “When Sarek was sent to deal with the Derregan civil war, he took your father with him.”
“And what did Dad do?” Baxter asked, putting the phaser away and leaning back in the barber’s chair.
“It was two nights into the negotiations. Sarek was sponsoring a dinner for both factions of Derregans. One of the members of the Alpha factions sat next to your dad. And spilled some champagne on him.”
Lucille’s eyes welled with tears. “And your father took a candelabra and bashed the man’s head in. He didn’t die exactly, but it gave him quite a…well, speech impediment. A fight broke out in the room and, as a result of that fight, all of Derregan Two went to war. Your dad was flushed out of the Diplomatic corps and went back to working for Starfleet. The only thing that kept him out of prison was the exemplary record he had before then. They reinstated his old rank of Captain, and then he made Vice Admiral faster than anyone else in Starfleet. He took over Internal Affairs and the rest you know.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me all this before?” Baxter asked, scratching his head.
Lucille shrugged. “You never asked.”
Baxter paced the salon. “Well, I can’t very well let Dad take over negotiations now. I have to stop him.”
Lucille gripped Baxter’s hand forcefully. “No, you won’t, Andrew. This means a lot to him.”
“What if he loses his temper again on Jernas and spreads penguin guts all over the place? What then? It’ll be on MY record!”
“He’ll do fine. He just needs to get his confidence back. This is the perfect opportunity.”
Baxter rubbed his chin. “We’re staking a lot on this opportunity.”
“But if it works out you may get rid of us for good.” Lucille grinned.
“Mom, what are you talking about?” Baxter asked, feigning shock.
“You’re not the only one who’s not happy with this arrangement,” Lucille muttered. “Think I like having that mannish Andorian boss me around? Think I like planting flowers all day and acting out boring holonovels? This whole retirement thing was your father’s idea. I want to get back out there, Andrew. And if some Jernasi blood has to be shed to get that accomplished, well, that’s how it will be, hear me?”
Baxter took his mother’s arm and walked with her out of the Salon. “Mom, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as close to getting rid of you as I do now.”
“And I you, son.”
Baxter strolled out onto the bridge feeling much more confident about the Jernasi negotiations. So his father had a bit of a temper–was that such a big deal? As long as Baxter kept an eye on him and nobody spilled anything, the mission should go exactly as planned.
“Entering Jernas system,” Larkin announced from ops.
“Come out of warp and take us into orbit around Jernasi Prime, Mr. Ford,” Baxter said, taking a position between the conn and ops stations.
Commander Conway stepped up behind him. “Did you settle things with your mommy?”
“You let me worry about that,” Baxter snapped, turning his attention to the viewscreen.
The Explorer gracefully swung into orbit around the huge blue orb of Jernasi Prime. It was a very deep, almost cerulean blue. To Baxter, it looked extremely cold. He glanced back at the science station. “What’s the weather like down there, Lieutenant?”
“Well, let’s see,” Tilleran said, calling up her sensor scans. “In the capital city the ambient temperature is negative three degrees Celsius.
“Brrr,” Baxter said, looking to Conway and smiling. Conway sneered back.
“Then you still have to factor in the wind chill…that’s about twenty degrees below zero,” continued Tilleran.
Baxter smiled. “How nice for the Commander, since we all know how much he loves the cold.”
“Har-har.” Conway made his way up to the tactical station. “What’s the tactical report on this system?”
J’hana looked at her console. “Nine Jernasi battleships are standing guard around the three inhabited planets.”
“What about the Golath?” Baxter asked.
“I’m reading a fleet of seven Golath destroyers holding position just outside the system.”
“Waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Conway surmised.
“Apparently,” Baxter replied. “Well, I guess we might as well ring the doorbell. Hail the Jernasi capital, J’hana.”
“They are returning the hail, sir,” J’hana replied.
Baxter tugged down on the front of his uniform and readied his best diplomatic smile. “On screen.”
As expected, a being exactly resembling a penguin appeared on the viewscreen, looking perfectly serene at his large, glossy, wooden desk. “Ah, you must be Captain Baxter.”
“That’s correct,” Baxter replied. “Of the Federation Starship Explorer. We’re here to offer diplomatic aid.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain,” the penguin said, folding his flippers one on top of the other. “I am Quaylig, Prime Minister of Jernas. I must say, you aren’t a moment too soon. The Golath have gotten more and more aggressive with each passing day. Just yesterday, they stopped a Jernasi ship and attempted to search it for contraband. That was the third time in as many weeks.”
“Do they have any reason to suspect contraband, Mr. Prime Minister?” Baxter asked.
“We’re not a violent people, Captain. I don’t know why the Golath are intent on violating our space.”
“Well, don’t worry. Starfleet’s here now. You can rest easy. I’m sure we’ll come up with a solution to this…”
“You are Larkin!” Quaylig said suddenly, pointing a flipper in Larkin’s direction.
Larkin looked to Baxter, who shrugged. “That is correct,” she finally replied.
“You are quite respected among my people, since you had the ability to see through our cloaking device. Perhaps we could discuss that during this visit?”
“That would be acceptable,” Larkin said, glancing up at Baxter. “However, I think we should get through the negotiations first.”
“Of course. You all are welcomed on Jernas. Feel free to send as many away teams as you wish to visit our world.”
Baxter didn’t have the heart to tell Quaylig that no human would be go somewhere that cold on purpose. “We’ll keep that in mind. For now, I’d like to send down a preliminary survey team to meet with you and discuss the situation.”
“We are sending the coordinates for our Governmental Hall now, Captain.”
Baxter looked back to J’hana, who acknowledged that she’d recieved the coordinates. “Very good. I’m sure we’ll be in contact again.” Baxter turned to J’hana and drew a finger across his throat. “Cut channel, J’hana.”
Conway sighed as he rose from his chair. “I suppose you want me to go down there.”
“Damn right. I hate the cold.” Baxter collapsed into his seat. “And take my Dad with you. He’ll want to meet with the Jernasi diplomatic team as soon as possible.”
“This is just getting sweeter by the minute,” Conway muttered, heading toward the turbolift. “J’hana, Larkin. You two are with me.”
Commander Conway ran into Harlan Baxter as he was moving down the corridor toward the transporter room, fighting to get his hefty aluminum-covered survival jacket on. “Mr. Baxter,” Conway said curtly, fumbling angrily with the zipper.
“Let’s get on with it,” Harlan said cheerily, clapping Conway on the back and leading him into the transporter room.
J’hana and Larkin were already waiting within, configuring their phasers and tricorders.
Ensign Yang appeared from the back room with a spare survival jacket in hand. “Here you go, sir,” she said, handing the jacket to Harlan. “This should fit.”
Conway glared at Yang as she took her position behind the transporter console. “Where the hell is Hartley?”
“Mr. Richards assigned her part-time to the Escort’s engineering room,” Yang explained.
“Huh,” Conway said, taking his place on the transporter pad.
J’hana mounted the pad beside him. “What’s the matter, Commander? You miss Lieutenant Hartley’s gentle touch?”
“Not hardly,” Conway scoffed, as Harlan zipped up his jacket and stepped up to the pad, followed by Larkin. “Energize, Ensign.”
The surface of Jernasi Prime was about like Conway imagined it would be: Frigid, desolate, white. Cold. All the makings of the perfect vacation getaway. And far too reminiscent of the time he spent on a planet in the Delta Quadrant two and a half years ago–a planet that was also occupied by a penguinoid lifeform.
Wind whipped through Larkin’s hair as she took tricorder readings. “According to my scans, we are in the middle of a blizzard.”
“No kidding,” Conway muttered, plodding forward. “Mind telling me which way the central government building is?”
“Right ahead, this way,” Larkin said, pointing.
“How do you like the weather so far?” J’hana asked heartily, nudging Harlan.
“Invigorating,” Harlan grunted, striding forward against the wind.
“My ass,” Conway mumbled.
“What’s that?” asked Harlan.
Once the group reached the large double doors to the government building, Larkin conducted more scans. She examined the panel next to the doors. “It would appear that this is the doorbell.”
“Well, then. Ring it already,” Conway grumbled.
Larkin thumbed a control on the keypad and, moments later, the doors swung open to reveal a shiny black penguin about a meter tall, wearing a glittery blue vest.
“Hello,” the Jernasi said brightly. “We’ve been expecting you.”
Conway bent down so he could address the penguin. “Are you the one we talked to earlier?”
“Me,” the penguin chuckled. “Ha ha. That’s a laugh. I am merely the doorman. This way.”
“He is obviously not the penguin we talked to earlier,” Larkin remarked quietly to Conway. “They look nothing alike.”
“What do you mean? They look exactly alike. They’re penguins.”
“That is a very close-minded view, Commander.”
“Whatever.” Conway followed the Jernasi all the way up a winding staircase, down to the end of a long, beautifully wallpapered corridor.
“People from the Explorer to see you,” the doorman said, punching a button.
“Great. Send them in.”
Conway led the way into the suite that obviously belonged to Jernas’ leader.
At the rear of the suite, the penguin that Conway assumed was Quaylig slid out of his chair and waddled around his huge desk, extending a flipper.
Conway shook the flipper and pasted on a smile. “Hello…uh, Quaylig?”
“That’s right,” chirped the Jernasi Prime Minister. Before Conway could say anything else, he moved right on to Larkin. “Ah, Lt. Commander Larkin, nice to finally meet you. I’ve heard so much about you.”
Larkin engaged small-talk mode. “I hope you heard only good things.”
“Of course!” Quaylig smiled. “Sit down, please.”
The group lowered themselves into chairs in front of Quaylig’s desk. Conway found it incredibly hard to squeeze into the chairs; after all, they were fitted for meter-tall tiny penguins.
“Well then.” Conway took a deep breath. “Let’s get down to business… first…”
“Let’s fire up a cigar,” Harlan interrupted, leaning forward and sliding a stogie across Quaylig’s desk. “An old negotiating tradition.”
Quaylig studied the oblong object. “Cig…ar?”
“Yes. A human delicacy.” Harlan produced a lighter from within his jacket. “Just put it in your mou–I mean put it in your beak.”
“Well, this is a bit out of the ordinary, but whatever pleases you pleases us.” Quaylig placed the cigar in his beak and Harlan leaned forward, sparking it up. He then lit his own and he and Quaylig puffed for several moments.
“Well?” Harlan finally asked.
“Ahem…ach…uh, exquisite!” Quaylig said. “Very enjoyable.”
“Commanders, Lieutenant?” Harlan asked, waving his cigar pouch in front of Conway, Larkin, and J’hana.
“Please,” J’hana said, snatching a cigar.
Conway stared at the pack, looked at Quaylig, Harlan, and J’hana as they puffed, and shrugged. “Okay. Sure.”
“I think not,” Larkin said, when the pack was offered to her.
Conway elbowed Larkin as he sparked up, chewing the cigar as he talked. “Come on, Larkin. Be one of the guys.”
“Yes,” J’hana said, blowing rings of smoke. “One of the guys.”
“I insist,” Quaylig said.
“Very well.” Larkin took Harlan’s lighter and lit the cigar. After a few puffs, she nodded. “Not a complex chemical makeup. Extended use will degrade humanoid lung tissue. And it is…”
While Larkin talked, a tiny black, smoking hole began to form in her neck. The hole soon opened wider, glowing orange and emitting a little waft of smoke.
“Oh goodness,” Quaylig said with alarm, as Conway leaned over and slapped at Larkin’s neck until the small fire was out.
“There is no need for concern,” Larkin said, pinching the end of her cigar until it was extinguished and tossing it into a wastebasket. “The damage was minimal.”
“Then let’s get right down to business,” Harlan said. “We should begin by arranging a meeting between your diplomats and the Golath as soon as possible.”
“Agreed,” Quaylig said. “But forgive me…who are you?”
“Harlan Baxter. Special Diplomatic Attache.”
“Ah,” Quaylig said. “Very good. I suggest we have our first official meeting tomorrow. In the meantime, I invite you to dinner in our grand ballroom tonight at nineteen hundred hours.”
Conway’s eyes had become red and watery. He leaned over and choked a few moments, finally regaining his composure and looking up at Quaylig. “That, uh…won’t due. We have an important staff meeting at that time.”
“We do?” asked J’hana.
“We do,” Conway grumbled, glaring at J’hana.
“Oh, that’s right.”
Larkin looked from J’hana and Conway. Obviously their behavior was directly related to her birthday celebration. Protocol dictated that she “play dumb.”
“I believe you both are in error. There are no scheduled staff meetings tonight.”
“It’s a surprise staff meeting,” J’hana snapped.
Conway glared again, then quickly turned his attention to Quaylig. “How about a breakfast?”
Quaylig bowed. “As you wish.”
“That was close,” J’hana whispered, as Quaylig ushered the away team out of the office for a tour of the city.
“Surprise staff meeting,” Conway harrumphed. “Real good, J’hana.”
Richards poked an electrode into the mass of biomemetic goo, so startled by the sudden ringing of his door chime that he accidentally shoved the electrode in too far and caused the wobbling mass to split open, oozing goo all over his desk.
“Come,” he snapped, scooping goo back into the gelatinous cube.
Lt. Hartley strolled into Richards’s office, stopping short as she stared at the gargantuan blue cube he was working on. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s Larkin’s birthday present,” Richards explained, patting the last bit of goo into place. “Electro-responsive biomemetic gel. Its semi-solid properties will no doubt be fascinating from a scientific viewpoint.” Richards adopted Larkin’s tone as he explained.
“Aww,” Hartley cooed sarcastically. “You really know how your daughter thinks.”
“I should,” Richards shrugged, collapsing into the seat opposite his desk. “I designed her brain.”
“This is true,” Hartley said, tapping her padd thoughtfully.
“Did you want something?” Richards asked.
“Oh, yes.” Hartley dropped the padd into Richards’s lap. “This is a request for all the supplies I’ll be needing to upgrade the Escort’s engines and weapon capabilities.”
“I didn’t realize there were so many problems,” Richards said, scrolling through the padd.
“What do you expect?” Hartley asked, leaning against the arm of the small couch at the rear of Richards’s office. “It’s a 40-year-old ship with brand new engines and weaponry. There are all kinds of glitches in the way the systems interact. The ship was never designed to do warp nine point nine–or fire quantum torpedoes for that matter.”
“Why didn’t you take care of this when you were Chief Engineer?”
Hartley shrugged. “I had more important things to take care of. Like, I don’t know, the Explorer for instance.”
“Point taken,” Richards said, tossing the padd onto his desk. “I’ll look into it.”
“Fair enough.” Hartley sidled over to Richards. “Now, any chance you can give me some pointers on what the hell you get an android for her birthday?”
“You’re on your own there,” Richards said. “She’s programmed to be polite, so it’s not like she’ll reject anything you get her. Just shoot for practical.”
“Practical. Like a great big bubbling blue cube?”
Richards narrowed his eyes at Hartley. “Dismissed, Lieutenant!”
Hartley grinned as she slid out of Richards’s office. “I’ll be on the replideck if you need me!”
Kris Larkin mounted the ladder that led up to the cramped bridge of the freighter Daisy.
“It’s about time those mealy-mouthed little worms showed up,” she said off-handedly, leaning against her command chair as Bort, her Bolian navigator/weapons officer/helmsman/engineer, manned the forward station.
“Try not to call them that when you’re negotiating our price,” Bort grunted, bringing up the approaching Ferengi Marauder on the forward viewscreen.
“Hail them already,” Kris said, ignoring Bort’s comment and facing the main screen.
“They’re returning,” Bort chimed, after a few moments delay.
A toothy-grinned Ferengi appeared on the screen, glancing over his shoulder at Kris. “Ah, there you are, Daisy. I trust you have our shipment of Verillium spidersilk ready?”
“I pulled it out of the spider’s ass myself, Mr. Benkow,” Kris fake-smiled. “Now let’s get on with our swap so I can get back to my normal route.”
“You’re very to-the-point for a hu-mon,” Benkow said appraisingly. “And you have nice, slender fingers. Perfect for oo-mox.”
Kris shuddered. “I’m flattered. Listen up: I’ve got fourteen ninety-kilo cargo containers of spidersilk. I can give you the whole consigment for say…50 bars?”
“Robbery! You may be pretty, but not pretty enough to sucker me into a deal like that.”
Kris laughed. “Fine. Mr. Bort, close channel.”
“Wait–” Benkow said, as Bort reached for the control. “Aren’t you even going to negotiate?”
“I stuck my hand into a Verillium spider’s ass for that silk, Benkow,” Kris muttered. “The particular spider I was milking was about twice my size. After going through that, I’m damned well not going to barter.”
“How about 45 bars?” Benkow asked abruptly.
Kris rolled the figure around in her mind a moment. “Okay. You have a deal. But remember the deal I gave you the next time you’re looking for a freighter pilot to pick up a consignment.”
“I’d never forget a face as pretty as yours, Kris,” Benkow grinned.
“Shut him up while I go activate the cargo transporter,” Kris said to Bort as she crossed over to the cargo control station.
“With pleasure,” Bort muttered, shutting off the viewscreen with the flick of the button.
Kris initialized the transporter and watched as the cargo bay sensors registered her latinum being beamed in. “Wonderful. Looks like they didn’t short-change us for once.”
“I’m sure they found some way to cheat us,” Bort said. “They always do.”
“Chin up, Bort,” Kris said. “We’re going to Corsica on this latinum.”
“Why, Miss Larkin, I do believe you’re flirting with me,” Bort chuckled.
Kris returned to her command chair and brought up an image of the Ferengi Marauder on the viewscreen as it entered warp. Evidently Benkow was not interested in chatting now that he had his cargo. “Well,” Kris said, “I guess we’d better get underway too. Lay in a course for…”
“Neutrino surge off the port bow!” Bort suddenly interrupted as an Alert buzzer sounded throughout the bridge.
Kris was out of her command chair and manning tactical in an instant. “Move us away from it…full impulse. Find out what it is and get it onscreen!”
Raising shields and arming the Daisy’s modest weapons, Kris turned to look at the viewscreen, staring in horror as a Romulan Warbird loomed over them.
“It’s the Horshak,” Bort called out.
“Ardek,” Kris muttered, turning her attention to the weapons. “Find us some shelter and quick, while I try to raise that pointy- eared son of a bitch.”
“There’s not much out here,” Bort muttered. “I’ll have to get creative.”
“Anything will do in a pinch,” Kris said, noting that Ardek was returning her hail. She switched him onto the small screen above the tactical station. “Ardek. If you’re looking for the android, you won’t find her here.”
“I’m not looking for the android,” Ardek tittered. “I know exactly where she is. On Explorer. But that will change as soon as she finds out that you’re being held hostage…heheh…by me!”
“I’ll blow up this ship before I let you use me as bait, you demonic mother f***er,” Kris snapped.
“You’ll what?” Bort called over his shoulder.
“Shut up.” Kris turned back to Ardek. “I thought the Romulans weren’t supposed to be our enemies anymore. What’s the deal, Ardek?”
“This has nothing to do with agression. It’s pure science. The Federation won’t give us the technology behind its android officers, so we have to take it. It’s that simple.”
“Remember that rogue ice planetoid we passed earlier today?” Bort asked.
Kris put Ardek on mute. “What about it?”
“According to my scans, it has some subterranean tunnels that might hide the Daisy.”
“Deep inside the planetoid, but none on the surface. I’ve found a tunnel that should be large enough for us to navigate in.”
“And what’s to stop the Romulans from coming in to get us?”
“Nothing. But they’ll have to scramble a shuttle to follow us.”
Kris bit her lip. “Or start blowing up the planetoid.”
“You’re no good to them dead, remember?” Bort asked.
“Well, since we seem to be running out of alternatives, we’ll have to go with that. Get us there as fast as you can, Bort.”
“Engaging engines, warp two,” Bort said. “It’s only two systems over. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Kris looked back to the comm screen, where Ardek’s muted mouth was running faster than her warp drive. She flicked off the mute button.
“…an affront to the Romulan people. I insist that you allow me to taunt you immediately.”
“Taunt all you want,” Kris said. “But you’re not taking me hostage.”
“We’ll see about that,” Ardek said. “We’re faster and more powerful than you.”
“But not smaller,” Kris said under her breath. “Time, Bort?”
“Two minutes to planet surface.”
Ardek looked over his shoulder and barked at someone off screen. “What are they doing? Yes, I want you to follow them, idiot!”
“Getting worried, Ardek?”
“Romulans don’t worry. We conquer,” Ardek shot back.
“Weapons officer: Prepare to knock out their engines and lock on a tractor.”
“What do you mean they’re getting too close to that planet’s gravitational pull? Follow them! Lock on the tractor before they get too deep–” cried Ardek angrily.
A blast from the Romulan disruptors rocked Daisy, sending it careening toward the ice planet.
“Get us under control, Bort!” Kris cried, grabbing a support strut for as the sound of hull-ripping echoed throughout her tiny ship.
“They knocked out our shields and blew out thrusters two and three, along with our port impulse engine.”
“Redistribute engine power to compensate,” Kris said, steadying herself as the immense ice cavern came into view on the main screen. Bort had managed to steady the Daisy, but now he had to struggle with the controls just to keep it level–to say nothing for navigating the twists and turns of the underground cavern they were diving into.
“Come back here, Larkin!” Ardek called from the comm screen. “The more you resist, the more painful I’ll make it for you! You don’t want me to get not nice, do you?”
“I’ll take my chances,” Kris said, switching off the comm channel and focusing on the forward screen. “Do you know what you’re doing, Bort?”
“I have no clue.” Bort grappled with the Daisy’s helm as the small freighter crushed against icy stalagtites and stalagmites, bucking through the narrow cavern.
“I’ll see if I can get the aft photon launcher working,” Kris said, tapping way at the tactical panel. “Maybe we can collapse the cavern so they can’t follow us.”
“Then how are we going to get out?” Bort asked wryly.
Kris shrugged. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” After rerouting power from virtually every other part of the ship to the photon launchers, Kris punched the “fire” control and watched the glimmering red ball slam against the cavern ceiling, collapsing the tunnel behind them.
“I’m getting a reading of atmosphere down here…and some other interference. Like some kind of subneutrino particles…” Bort said. “Whatever it is, it’ll make it virtually impossible for the Romulans to transport through. They’ll have to take a ship in after us.”
“Too bad you didn’t become a scientist instead of a freighter navigator,” Kris said, swinging down to the forward station, standing behind Bort as sensor scans of the tunnel ahead came up on the main screen.
“We’re running out of tunnel. We’ll reach an open area in twenty seconds,” Bort called out.
“Well–” Before Kris could complete her thought, the Daisy’s nose bucked up on a mound of ice and crashed into the ceiling, sending a crushing avalanche of ice down.
Daisy’s hull screamed as tons of ice slammed down on it from above. Bort cursed as he fought with the already badly damaged engines.
Then suddenluy, with a dying whimper, Daisy’s engines overloaded and shut down.
“Failsafes kicked in,” Bort surmised. “Or else we blew up and this is hell.”
Kris fingered a control on Bort’s station and looked up at the main screen. The sensors were still working…barely. Ahead of them, through about ninety meters of ice, was a vast open cavern filled with algae, lichen, and moss. “It’s too cold to be hell.” Kris said matter-of-factly.
“Maybe in human legend, but Bolian hell is freezing cold,” Bort countered.
“Wait a minute…” Kris brought the auxilliary scanners online and tried to boost their gain. “I’m picking up lifeforms.”
“Humanoid?” Bort asked, glancing up at the complex DNA readings that flashed on the viewscreen. Kris switched to a cloudy, static-filled view of a few of the life-forms milling about in the cavern.
As she enhanced the image, her face wrinkled with confusion. The oblong black shapes waddled about, beaks flapping away. “No…penguinoid.”
Bort shook his head, grunted. “I should have guessed.”
Commander Conway stomped into the Constellation Cafe, ripping open his thick survival jacket, shaking off the snow, and barking a drink order to Mirk. “Coffee. Scalding. With brandy.”
“Nice trip?” Captain Baxter asked from a nearby table, feet propped up, setting aside the padd he’d been reading.
Conway took his drink and fell into a chair opposite Baxter. “Not hardly. It’s freezing down there.” He rubbed his hands together and sipped eagerly at his coffee. “And Quaylig just wouldn’t stop talking.”
“You certainly were gone long enough. Larkin’s party is in an hour.”
As if in response to Baxter’s remark, Yeoman Briggs rushed by the table, barking orders at Amara. “That’s not where the banner goes. Raise it, you fool, raise it!”
“Watch how you talk to her,” Mirk said angrily from behind the bar. “That’s my girlfriend.”
Briggs turned on a heel. “Well, she doesn’t know a thing about hanging banners.”
Mirk glared at Briggs. “Amara. Drop the banner.”
“What?” Amara asked, teetering atop the ladder she’d erected in the middle of the cafe.
Amara shrugged, let the banner go.
Mirk glanced over at the banner, and immediately it was airborn, glowing bright green.
“All right,” Mirk said, matter-of-factly. “Where do you want it?”
“I can’t work like this!” Briggs huffed, and marched out of the cafe.
Baxter shook his head. “I sure hope we can stay on schedule.”
“Just give me enough time to change and get Larkin’s present,” Conway said, sighing and rising to his feet, finishing off the coffee.
“You still haven’t gotten that?”
“It’s very hard to buy for an android!” Conway exclaimed. “What do you get for someone who has no emotions?”
Baxter giggled. “The most thoughtless, simple gift possible, I suppose.”
“Of course!” Conway snapped his fingers and dashed out of the cafe.
Baxter idly wondered what Conway was up to as he returned to his padd–the Federation News. As he read, he overheard Amara talking to Mirk.
“That was very nice of you, protecting me like that,” Amara said. That was followed by a long series of smooching sounds. Then, before Baxter knew what was happening, the huge banner fluttered to the deck, completely draping over him.
“Mr. Mirk!” Baxter bellowed from underneath the banner. “Keep your mind on your work!”
Lt. Commander Larkin walked into Engineering, surprised to see it completely empty. It was ten minutes before 0700 hours–no where near the night shift. So where was everyone?
“Computer…please locate Lt. Commander Richards,” Larkin said, exploring the area behind the warp core and leaning against the railing, looking the huge core up and down.
“Lt. Commander Richards is in his office.”
“Thank you,” Larkin said curtly, heading over to Richards’s office door and hitting the chime.
“Give me a second,” came the quick reply.
Moments later, the doors slid open. Over Richards’s shoulder, Larkin could see the flicker of a transporter beam.
“Ready for dinner?” Richards asked, taking Larkin’s arm.
Larkin glanced back at Richards’s office as he escorted her out of Engineering. “What were you transporting?”
“Just now. Something was transported out of your office.”
“Oh, that…” Richards thought a moment. “It was just…dust. I hate it when dust builds up.”
“But the Explorer’s atmosphere is recycled on a semi-hourly basis. It is therefore totally dust-free.”
“So, how was your day?”
Larkin cocked her head. The abrupt change of subject had caused a momentary (meaning nanoseconds) hang in her processing time. “Adequate. Quaylig seems a quite competent leader. And Mr. Baxter is very capable. I am confident the diplomatic crisis between the Jernasi and the Golath will be resolved to the satisfaction of all involved.”
Richards nodded as Larkin spoke, motioning for her to step first into the turbolift. “Good for them! What are you in the mood for tonight? Fish?”
“I do not eat.”
“Well, why not? It couldn’t hurt. Deck Ten.”
As the turbolift thrummed upward, Larkin considered this. “I do not enjoy the intake of food, as it has does not measurably benefit my systems and clogs my lower dorsal processing unit.”
“Hmm. I’ll have to check that out. You’ve tried the new solvent, haven’t you?”
“Indeed,” Larkin said, nodding. “But it corrodes the inner lining of my thoracic cavity.”
Richards shook his head. “Listen, can we talk about this after dinner? Long after?”
“As you wish.” Larkin and Richards stepped out of the turbolift.
As the pair approached the Constellation Cafe, Larkin observed through the frosted oval windows that it was completely dark.
“It would appear that the Constellation Cafe is closed, Commander.”
“You think so?” Richards asked. “Well, we’ll just check it out to make sure.”
One of Larkin’s detection algorithms flared up: This must be the surprise party. All of the factors so far led to that conclusion.
As Richards led Larkin through the double doors and she stepped into the Cafe, Larkin prepared to engage “surprised” mode.
Richards scanned the dark room. “Hmmm. Wonder where everyone is?”
Larkin studied the visual data brought in by her optic units. “There are forty-five people in this room, judging by their thermal signatures.”
“You don’t say,” Richards muttered.
Suddenly the lights came on bright, and all forty-five people screamed at the top of their lungs:
Surprise mode engaged.
“Oh, my goodness,” Larkin said solemnly. “This is amazing. You have indeed taken me by surprise.”
Confetti cannons shot off wads of confetti into the air as the resurrected Glee Club started into “For She’s a Jolly Good Android.”
Captain Baxter stepped forward, placing a party hat on Larkin’s head and pulling the string down under her chin. “Happy Birthday, Commander.”
“Thank you very much, sir,” Larkin said. “I do not know what to say.”
“You can say thank you,” J’hana said, blowing a noisemaker half-heartedly.
Richards came up from behind Larkin and hugged her tightly. “Happy Twelfth, Kristen.”
“Was this your doing, sir?” Larkin asked.
“Nope,” Richards said. “Honestly I forgot the date your were activated entirely. You’ll have to thank Counselor Peterman.”
Peterman rushed forward to embrace Larkin, decked out in a sparkling floor-length dress, hair curled and poofed beyond recognition. “Oh, Kristen, I’m so happy for you! You’ve grown so much over the years!”
“I am the exact same size I was when I was first activated, Counselor, but thank you for the sentiment.”
“Let’s open the gifts, already,” Commander Conway said, sucking down coffee and gesturing toward the gift table.
“Very well.” Larkin sat down at the table and scanned the huge pile of presents. “Forty-five gifts, all ranging in size and weight. Which is appropriate to start with?”
“Go ahead and open mine,” Conway said, reaching for the top of the pile and grabbing a brick of gold pressed latinum. He dropped it in front of Larkin with a clunk. “Can you guess what it is?”
“It is a brick of gold-pressed latinum.” Larkin picked it up. “Approximately one kilogram.”
“Commander, how insensitive,” Peterman said. “You could have at least wrapped it.”
“Or gotten a card,” Tilleran added.
“Hey, that gift is from the heart,” Conway said. “I won that thing on Garbax Nine in a Grenthleman watter-hopper race.”
“I will cherish it,” Larkin said, setting the brick aside and picking up the next gift. “I see this is from Lt. Tilleran.”
“I hope you like it,” Tilleran said, glancing at Conway. “I put a lot of thought into it.”
“Please,” Conway huffed.
Larkin carefully removed the wrapping around the box and lifted it open. Within, an ornate, spiky glowing orange crystal awaited Larkin’s inspection.
“A geode. Apparently from Betazed. Approximately four kilograms.”
“It reflects your feelings,” Tilleran said, pointing at the large rock Larkin cradled in her hands.
“What feelings?” asked Ford.
“Lt. Ford is correct,” Larkin said. “I have no feelings to reflect.”
“Then why is it saying you’re happy?” Tilleran asked with a grin.
“Because it is malfunctioning. Thank you.” Larkin set the rock aside and continued opening presents.
HALF AN HOUR LATER
“A lace nighty from Nendegar’s Secret. Less than four grams. Inadequate for sleeping in, even if I did sleep, which I do not, Mr. Ford.” Larkin held the nighty up for the group’s inspection.
Everyone glared at Ford.
“What?” Ford asked incredulously. “That was supposed to be for my girlfriend. But then I never got one, so…”
“Charming,” Peterman muttered. “Open mine now!”
“Yeah, before it suffocates,” Baxter grumbled, glancing at Peterman.
“Shut up!” Peterman said, punching Baxter in the shoulder.
Larkin obediently pulled the wrapping from Peterman’s gift, exposing a wire cage with a small green bird inside.
“A parakeet,” Larkin stated. “Genus indeterminite. Breeding unremarkable. One of the more intelligent Earth birds, as I recall.”
“It talks,” Peterman said knowingly. “Go ahead, talk to it.”
“I will not,” Larkin said, setting the cage aside. “Thank you.”
“Ark!” said the parakeet. “I will not! Thank you!”
“How cute!” Peterman said. “Now she has a little companion to share her off-hours with.”
“Indeed,” Larkin replied, moving on to the next gift. “I see this is from Mr. and Mrs. Baxter,” the android said, reading the label.
“We know you’ll love it,” Lucille said energetically, sipping from her vodka and orange juice.
“Harrumph,” Harlan Baxter harrumphed.
Delicately, Larkin removed the wrapping around the box and opened it. She reached inside and withdrew a finely bound book.
“It’s a collection of ancient earth stories,” Lucille explained, as Larkin flipped through the tome. I bookmarked the one I thought you’d enjoy most.”
“‘I , Robot,’” Larkin interrupted, closing the book. “I am familiar with it. A quaint, somewhat twisted story by a misguided human. Thank you. I will enjoy it.” She moved to place the book on the bookcase Baxter had gotten for her, waiting until an appropriate shelf rotated by. Once she dropped the book onto the shelf, the entire structure collasped to the deck noisily.
“Oops.” Baxter shrugged. “Sorry.” Lucille shot Baxter an “I told you so” glare.
“It is not a problem,” Larkin replied. “I did not have any books to put there anyway.”
This brought on a series of guffaws from Conway.
“It’s a hell of a lot better than a latinum brick, Mister!” Baxter barked, folding his arms.
“It is the thought that counts,” Larkin concluded, proceeding to the next gift.
ANOTHER HALF AN HOUR LATER
“A gallon jug of barbecue sauce,” Larkin surmised. “Thank you Doctor Browning. I will endeavor to find a use for this, since I do not eat.”
“I can think of a use for it…” Browning said, licking her lips.
Larkin proceeded to the next gift, a tiny box with Lt. J’hana’s name inscribed on it. She cracked open the box to reveal an isolinear chip. “Curious. May I ask what this is, Lieutenant?”
J’hana sipped her Klingon war nog and gave a hearty bellow. “An Andorian song I created for you. Please play it in private.”
“I for one would like to hear it now,” Richards said, glancing at J’hana with amusement.
“Irrelevant,” J’hana said firmly. “Play it later.”
Conway quickly grabbed the chip from Larkin and tossed it to Richards, who tossed it over his shoulder to Mirk, just as J’hana tackled him.
Mirk ran over to the bar and shoved it into the isolinear player, filling the Cafe with screeching guitar riffs and a pounding drum beat.
“ZzattttttnnaaaaaaaaaazzrrrrarrrrrrzzzzzzzKORSHSSSSSSS VAAAZZ ZZZnnndgggggggdddedddddddddddddddddddddddd…” J’hana’s voice boomed over the recording. Much of the same followed, until Mirk hurriedly yanked the chip out.
Baxter rubbed his ears, wincing, trying to get that sound out of his mind. “J’hana, what the hell was that?”
“The translation is…murky, sir,” J’hana said, glaring at Richards and Conway.
“Give me the gist,” Baxter insisted.
J’hana rolled her eyes. “Very well. Roughly, it translates into ‘Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, may you die sloppy and honorable, Happy Birthday to you.’”
“Thank you very much,” Larkin said, as Mirk handed her the chip. “I will treasure it.”
“Okay, Larkin,” Richards said, sitting down opposite the android. “You’ve opened all the other gifts. Now for the piece de resistance.”
“Am I to take it that you are referring to your gift?” Larkin asked, indicating the large, tarp-covered structure at the center of the gift table.
Richards nodded. “Go ahead. Open it.”
Larkin removed the tarp to reveal the wobbly gelatinous blue cube underneath.
“It is…” Larkin said, cocking her head and examining the cube.
“It’s a piece de crap,” Conway commented.
“It’s a work of art,” Richards said defensively. He picked up the padd next to the blue cube and pressed a few buttons. “It is the first official work of biomemetic gel art. It can take several different forms.”
Richards hit a control, causing the blob to wobble even more, forming into a shiny blue statue of Larkin. He hit another control and it transformed into a gracefully-rendered bubbly blue Explorer.
“An ingenious design, Mother,” Larkin said as Richards handed her the padd. “I will enjoy it.”
“Okay, that does it for the presents,” Baxter said. “Mirk, haul out the birthday cake!”
Mirk wheeled a huge two meter tall cake out of the back room, huffing with the effort. “Boy this thing is heavy.”
Lt. Hartley clapped a hand on Larkin’s back. “You’re going to love this cake, Larkin.”
“Lt. Hartley,” Larkin said. “I do not recall getting a gift from you.”
Mirk rolled the cake in front of Larkin and handed her a knife. “You’d better do the cutting. I don’t want to get too close.”
“Very well,” Larkin said, eying Mirk strangely and approaching the cake. Before she could put the knife into it, it exploded open to reveal not one, not two, but three muscular Klingons, bellowing Larkin’s name out in Klingonese.
“We’ve come to bring you honor!” one Klingon shouted, holding a bat’leth high above his head and screaming a battle cry.
“And bring in the funk!” another Klingon shouted, as the Constellatioin Cafe roared with peppry polyphonic dance music.
The lead Klingon tossed his betleth to Larkin as all three of them began to strip their armor off, thrusting their pelvises as they did so.
“Hold me back…” J’hana growled softly to Conway.
“What the hell is this?” Baxter asked, scratching his head.
“It’s extremely arousing,” Peterman sighed as one of the Klingons slid up against her.
“Hey, watch where you point that thing!” Baxter barked, pushing the Klingon away.
“Happy Birthday, Kristen,” Hartley said, staring at the Klingons with satisfaction. One of them danced over and began rubbing himself against Larkin agressively.
“This is fascinating,” Larkin commented.
Moments later, drunk on war nog, J’hana was dancing on the top of the gift table with one of the Klingons, endangering Richards’s precious project.
Meanwhile, the other two Klingons were working their way through the crowd, stripping armor and wagging their butts suggestively in the female crewmembers’ faces.
“I said practical!” Richards shouted over the music as Hartley tossed her uniform tunic around one of the Klingons and he lifted her in the air, spinning her rapidly.
“Sorry, Commander. I don’t do practical!” Hartley said dizzily as she spun.
“You knew about this?” Baxter asked, working his way over to Mirk.
“Lt. Hartley can be very persuasive, sir,” Mirk said innocently. “Besides, she’s the one that actually installed the holographic projectors in here. I just rolled out the cake.”
“At least they’re only holograms,” Conway said reasonably as Tilleran flew by him, being slam-danced about by one of the Klingons.
“Wheeeee!” she cried.
“Well that hologram has my wife pressed up against the viewport!” Baxter exclaimed, pointing.
“Any Klingon women in there?” Ford asked, poking his head down into the cake.
Beeeee–beep! sounded the comm, prompting Larkin’s eyes to snap open.
“Bridge to Larkin,” came Lt. Gellar’s voice.
Larkin sat up in her bed immediately, rolling one of the three snoring Klingons off of her. She’d programmed herself for a regenerative cycle after the energy-depleting six hour Klingon triathalon that she’d participated in after her birthday party. She wondered how Lt. Hartley had managed to sneak into her quarters and install the holographic projectors. At any rate, the night with the Klingons was quite an impressive sociological study. She had already begun planning an extensive thesis for Federation University on Klingon mating rituals.
“Larkin here,” Larkin finally said, after shoving one of the Klingons off her endtable and punching the comm button.
“We have an encoded subspace transmission for your eyes only coming from the Magila system.”
“Magila system,” Larkin pondered. “That is where my human counterpart is carrying out a trade expedition. I assume she is sending me a birthday greeting.”
“Strange coding for a birthday greeting if you ask me,” Gellar commented. “Should I pipe it down to your quarters?”
“Please,” Larkin said, throwing on the nightie Ford had gotten her and lowering herself into the chair behind her desk.
Larkin switched her terminal on and tapped in her personal access code.
Much to the android’s surprise, a familiar Romulan popped up on the screen, flashing a toothy grin.
“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday dear Larkin, we’ve kidnapped your friend so you’d better come quick!”
“Ardek,” Larkin said. “Quite disagreeable.”
The scene on the viewscreen panned out to reveal Ardek standing in front of the massive viewscreen on his ship. “I apologize for the lack of rhyme, but I’m not an expert on Federation Standard.” Ardek gestured toward the viewscreen. “This is a rogue planet in the Magila system. Your human counterpart, Kristen Larkin, is trapped inside. Come here alone or we’ll blow up the planet with her inside it. Hope you’ve enjoyed your special day! Horshak out.”
“Hmmmmph,” Captain Baxter said, flopping over in bed and throwing an arm around Counselor Peterman.
“Captain,” Larkin said again.
“Hrrrk…Nuq’neh. HuqvaH kos. D’sengh,” Peterman muttered, nuzzling against Baxter’s chest.
Larkin gently nudged Baxter’s shoulder. “Captain,” she said, a bit louder.
“Nnnnnnnk..” Baxter said, rolling in the opposite direction.
“Very well,” Larkin said. “Please forgive me in advance for this, Captain. Computer, on my mark please turn the lights on full and play the 1812 Overature at maximum tolerable volume.”
The lights suddenly flared to life as canons and music boomed in Baxter and Peterman’s ears. Charlie whined and covered his head with his paws.
Baxter snapped up in bed. “Red Alert!”
“You are in your quarters, Captain. I have come to you in need of assistance.”
“You what?” Baxter cried over the music, as Peterman sat up beside him, rubbing her eyes.
“I said I have come to you in need of assistance.”
“Computer, cut music and bring the lights down to one half!” Baxter barked. “Now…what are you doing here at…” Baxter glanced at his chronometer. “Oh-two hundred?”
“Kris Larkin, my human counterpart, is being held hostage by Commander Ardek of the Romulan Warbird Horshak. As we have little time, I saw fit to break into your quarters to ask for assistance.” Larkin quickly explained the particulars of Kris’ kidnapping.
“Damn,” Baxter said groggily, rubbing his beard. “Well, we can’t very well leave this assignment. We’ll have Starfleet send a…”
“Negative. It is I who must go alone so that Ardek may take me in Kris’s place. Ardek will kill her otherwise.”
“That bastard!” Peterman said, turning to Baxter. “What’s she talking about?”
“Go back to sleep, honey,” Baxter said, looking back to Larkin. “So, you’re just going to take a runabout and give yourself up?”
“That is correct. I have spent the past four point five minutes exploring every other viable alternative. Giving myself up to Ardek is the only strategy with less than a five percent chance of error.”
“What if you took the Escort? You could slip past Ardek with the sensor-reflective shielding and rescue Kris.”
“I considered that strategem. The margin of error is fifteen percent, judging by the success of the SR shielding in the past.”
“Well, you can’t just give yourself up, Commander,” Baxter said resolutely. “I won’t let you.”
“It is my life to give, sir.”
“Larkin…” Baxter sighed. He rubbed his eyes again, staring through his fingers at the android. She was wearing her uniform trousers, with Ford’s frilly nightie and her Starfleet vest on top. He shook his head and tried to gather his thoughts. “Baxter to Richards.”
“Richards here,” came the groggy voice after a few moments’ pause.
“Can we configure the Escort to tunnel inside an ice planetoid without being noticed by Romulan sensors?”
“Uh, I guess. But may I ask why you’d need to do that?”
Baxter repeated what Larkin had told him.
“Holy crap,” Richards said, stunned. “I’m getting dressed now. Have Larkin meet me on the Escort in ten minutes.”
“She’s on her way,” Baxter said, looking up to Larkin. “Baxter out.”
“Larkin, you are part of a crew. We stick together when one of our own gets into trouble. Do you recall when Peterman, Browning, J’hana and I risked our necks going into Klingon territory to save Chris?”
“Vividly, sir. However, this is an entirely different scenario. I did not ask for help.”
“Richards didn’t either, but we went to save him anyway. Now get down to the Escort deck and bring a security team with you. Every minute you sit here is a minute wasted. Kris needs our help, and by the Great Bird, we’re going to help her. Got that?”
“Yes, sir,” Larkin said. “I appreciate your help.”
“Think nothing of it.” Baxter ordered the lights cut off and fell back onto the bed, curling against Peterman as Larkin hurried out of his quarters.
“Hrrrmmmmm…” Peterman sighed. “Was someone just in here?”
“Was who just where?” Baxter asked sleepily.
“You were talking to someone. About sticking together…ice planets… great birds?”
“Doesn’t sound familiar, honey,” Baxter murmured, snuggling against Peterman. “Just go back to sleep.”
“Andrews…McCarthy…Puckett…O’Donnell.” Lt. Gellar called off the roster of his security team as they briskly filed by him, each picking up a phaser rifle from the table at the center of Escort’s cramped engine room.
Hartley watched Gellar drilling his officers as she slid down the ladder from the upper warp core to the main level. “Could you quiet down, Brian? I only got an hour of sleep.”
“Serves you right,” Gellar said, examining his padd, not bothering to look at Hartley.
“What,” Hartley said, wrapping her arms around Gellar’s waist. “Jealous of Brak and Dunk?”
“If lots of muscles and hair is what you like, I guess they’re fine. Whatever. I don’t care.”
“My poor little Brian is hurt, isn’t he?” Hartley said with a laugh. “That’s so cute.”
“Lieutenant!” Richards barked, hurrying into the engine room and zipping up his uniform vest.
Hartley flipped around, snapped to attention. “Commander…”
“Status on the engines?”
“Warming up,” Hartley said. “Give them four more minutes.”
Richards looked over the warp core, then turned back to Hartley. “What about the SR shields?”
“I redirected power from some nonvital systems. Doubled their effectiveness. No way the Romulans will see us.”
“Good. Then prepare for departure.”
“You’re awfully clipped this morning, Commander,” Hartley said. “Wake up on the wrong side of the bed?”
“Gee, Lieutenant, I don’t know why I’m crabby,” Richards snapped. “Maybe it’s because someone’s LIFE is at stake?”
“That doesn’t give you the right to be snappish at me, Commander!” Hartley fired back.
“Uh…” Gellar said reluctantly. “Security team’s ready, sirs.”
“Shut up!” Hartley and Richards both shouted, prompting Gellar to quickly lead his team out of the compartment.
Richards glared one more time at Hartley and turned on a heel. “I’ll be on the bridge. I want to be ready to leave by the time I get up there.”
“We’ll see,” Hartley huffed, sitting down behind the systems display and folding her arms.
Lt. Commander Larkin sat erect in Escort’s command chair, staring at the stars on the viewscreen. “Prepare to release docking clamps.”
Ensign Sefelt fumbled with the operations console. “Affirmative, Lieutenant. We have clearance from the bridge.”
“Engine warm-up sequence begun,” Madera ticked off from the helm.
Gellar rushed out of the bridge access hatch and took up a seat opposite Sefelt at the tactical/comm console. “Weapons and communications on-line.”
“Proceed with debarkation,” Larkin ordered promptly.
“Releasing docking clamps,” Sefelt announced, as the Escort dropped away from Explorer.
Richards gripped the door frame as he stumbled onto the bridge. “Larkin…did you launch us?”
“I felt it appropriate to begin as soon as possible,” Larkin stated. “Ensign Madera, lay in a course for the Magila system. Full impulse, then Warp Nine once we clear the Jernas system.”
“Let’s get this straight from the get-go, Kristen,” Richards said, approaching the command chair. “I’m in command of the mission.”
“There is no need to take this mission personally, Commander,” Larkin said. “We are both concerned with Kris’ safety. It so happens that I am next in the rotation to command the Escort. It is simply logical that…”
“Get out of the chair, Kristen.”
Larkin looked at Richards a moment, cocked her head. Very well.”
The android vacated the command chair and appraoched Sefelt’s station.
Sefelt looked up at the android fearfully. “You want me to leave…”
“Affirmative. You may man the aft science panel.”
Sefelt hurried out of his chair and scuttled over to the wall of blinking lights at the rear of the bridge, staring at Larkin incredulously. He could have sworn she was angry.
Just as Richards fell into the command chair, the Escort jumped into warp and the stars in the screen streaked toward him.
“We’re underway,” Madera said, glaring back at Richards. “Jerk.”
Richards winced. “As you were.” As if he didn’t have enough problems, Ensign Madera had been up for helm duty on the Escort. So not only did he have to keep Larkin from sacrificing herself, rescue Kris from a rogue ice planetoid, and fight an assanine Romulan commander, he’d also have to deal with a helms- man whose feelings he’d hurt.
Wrapped in a thick survival jacket she’d picked up at a “must-go” sale on Caldera Prime, Kris Larkin braced either side of the bridge-level escape hatch and yanked herself up and out, stumbling into a bank of snow.
Bort extended a hand to her, lifting Kris to her feet. “That first step is a doozy, Kris.”
“I noticed,” Kris replied. “Let’s get moving before that son of a bitch gets to us.”
Bort adjusted the loaded-down backpack on his shoulders. “You sure we’ve got everything?”
“More or less,” Kris replied, yanking her own duffel out of the escape hatch.
“Feels like more, if you ask me,” Bort chuckled softly.
Kris pushed ahead of Bort and climbed her way through the narrow crevice of ice that led out toward the open cavern she’d detected on Daisy’s sensors.
Yanking a refurbished tricorder form a Federaton R&D auction she’d attended out of her pouch, Kris examined the wall of ice before her. “We can squirm through about twenty more meters. Then there’s still eighty meters we’ll have to cut through to get to the other side.”
Bort yanked out his Cardassian phaser rifle and patted it lovingly. “That’s why I brought ol’ Nekto here.”
“Glad to hear it,” Kris said. “Now let’s get going before that elfin bastard catches up to us.”
“What’s taking so long?” Ardek asked, tapping his feet impatiently as Centurion Krellin worked the Romulan scout ship’s controls.
“We have to reconfigure our disruptors to tunnel through the ice, Commander,” Krellin said as he worked.
“I do not like this,” Sub-Commander Gatana said warily, hovering behind Ardek.
“Oh, what now?” Ardek muttered, staring up at Gatana.
“Sir, if I may speak freely…”
Ardek folded his arms. “I suppose.”
“The Romulan government is growing tiresome of these hairbrained schemes of yours. Other Romulan commanders are out threatening people, controlling our colonies, discovering new forms of weaponry. And you’re busy trying to dig a freighter captain out of the ice so you can trade her for the android she is modeled after.”
“If you have a point, I’d love to hear it,” Ardek said testily.
“Your actions are irrational, sir. May I suggest…”
“I have a suggestion,” Ardek snapped. “You get up to the bridge and keep a lookout for the android. I want to know the second she gets here.”
“What if Explorer comes?” Gatana asked.
“Then we’ll kill the human Larkin and be done with it.”
“Shall I then scuttle the planet with you and her inside it?”
“You very well shall not!” Ardek barked. “Warn us to get out and THEN scuttle it.”
“I’ll try to remember that, sir,” said Gatana, ducking out of the scout craft’s hatch.
“Impudent bitch,” Ardek muttered. “Come on, Krellin! I don’t have all day, here.”
“We’re ready, sir,” Krellin finally said, emerging from underneath the hatch beneath the helm console. “Tunneling disruptors are online.”
“Good,” Ardek said, rubbing his hands together. “Let’s go ice fishing, then, shall we?”
“I thought we were going to capture the human, sir.”
“Just launch the damn ship, Krellin!”
About an hour after they’d abandoned the Daisy, Kris and Bort managed to blast their way out of the ice and into the large open cavern at the core of the Magila ice planetoid.
Bort leaned his elbows up against a large ice formation and put a pair of binoculars up to his eyes.
“What do you see?” Kris asked impatiently from behind him.
“Five of them. No weapons to speak of. Not much clothing, either.”
“Do they look hostile?”
“I’ve never seen a hostile penguin, so I really wouldn’t know.”
“Then we’re going to go try to make contact,” Kris said resolutely.
“I don’t know,” Bort said, putting the binoculars down. “They look pretty big. I’m not sure if I can take them all out should they get pissy with us.”
“Just get my back. I’ll talk to them. I’m sure they’ll be reasonable.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Kristen has always spoken fondly of penguins. They’re really a docile breed of bird. Harmless, actually.”
“May I remind you that just because those things look like penguins doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll act like penguins.”
“Noted,” Kris said. “Let’s go, then.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“Not especially,” Bort admitted, following Kris across the vast ice plain.
Bort and Kris made their way toward the cluster of penguinoids quickly and cautiously, hands at sides so that they didn’t give off any hostile signals.
As they approached, the penguinoids stopped squawking among themselves and turned their bulbous little heads.
Kris approached the group, pasting on the widest grin possible and extending her hand. “Pleasure to meet you. Kris Larkin. How do you do?”
“Waaawwwk! Larrin!” one of the penguins cried, and before Bort could raise his weapon, he knocked the Bolian off his feet with one flipper and hurled Kris over his shoulder.
“Larrin?” Kris asked dumbly as she was dragged away. “Who the hell is Larrin?”
“So you can see, Captain, why our situation might be construed as a bit tenuous.”
Baxter leaned forward on his elbows, staring across the conference room at the towering polar bear that read from his prepared notes, peering over a pair of dignified-looking spectacles. It was all he could do just to keep his eyes open.
On his left, Peterman nudged him in the gut, stirring him awake.
“Of course,” Baxter said, sitting back in his chair. “You feel like there are irreconcilable differences between you and the Jernasi. You’re polar bears, they’re penguins. It’s natural to feel a kind of deep-seated animosity toward them.”
“It’s a shame,” Harlan Baxter interjected from Baxter’s right side, “that you and the Jernasi can’t settle those differences.”
Ngaa folded his paws primly in front of him on the conference table. “It is all about armaments, Mr. Baxter. The Jernasi are preparing for war. Is it not sensible that we do the same?”
Baxter motioned to J’hana, who was standing beside him, flanked by two of her top security guards, Saral and Henson.
J’hana stepped forward and handed him a padd, then resumed her surveillance of the room.
Reading from the padd, Baxter wearily said, “Judging by our scans, it looks like the Jernasi have just as many ships as you.”
“But you forget about their cloaking devices, Captain!” Ngaa exlaimed. “They have many other ships hidden throughout this system.”
“Can you substantiate that claim, sir?” Harlan asked.
“Not exactly,” Ngaa admitted. “But we have strong suspicions.”
“Strong suspicions are not much to base a war on,” Harlan said. “Are your people truly ready for a prolonged conflict?”
“Admittedly, no, but neither are we prepared to be conquered!”
“The Jernasi won’t be doing any conquering,” Baxter piped up. “You can be assured of that, Mr. Ngaa.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t completely trust you, Captain.”
“And what would prevent you from trusting the Federation’s word?” Harlan asked.
“The Jernasi are your protectorate. You’ll make sure they come to no harm. If they drag us into war, you’ll have to support them.”
Baxter began to nod off again.
“Andy,” Peterman whispered. She turned her attention to Ngaa. “Mr. Ngaa, what I think the Captain is trying to say is that the Federation has no intentions of helping the Jernasi go to war with you.”
“Is that so?” Ngaa asked, twitching his furry white nose. “Then why did they send a warship here to aid the Jernasi?”
“The Explorer is not a warship,” Baxter said, eyes fluttering. “J’hana: Get me some coffee. A Conway blend, preferably.”
J’hana stepped forward, arms clasped behind her back. “Sir, that is not altogether wise. Might I reccomend something in Orange Pekoe?”
“A Conway blend!” Baxter said, teeth clenched, then looked back at Ngaa. “The Explorer is heavily armed, but those armaments are only for defense.”
“We shall see when the time comes.”
“What time is that?” Harlan asked.
“The time for war,” Ngaa said plainly.
Baxter took the steaming cup J’hana offered him and sipped from it. “That is exactly why we’re here, sir. To prevent a war.”
“Then force the Jernasi to disarm.”
“We can’t really…” Baxter faltered as electric caffeine surged through his system. He could feel his eyes bulging. “Do…that…”
“Then there will be war.” Ngaa stood up, glancing at the two Golath that flanked him. “I can see that your people cannot be reasoned with. Let whatever deaths result from this be on your head.”
“Whooo!” Baxter exclaimed, jumping out of his chair. “Uh, wait a minute, Ngaa! I’m sure we can come to some sort of compromise!”
“That is doubtful.” Ngaa stormed out of the conference room, his ceremonial red and blue cape fluttering behind. The two polar bears that had accompanied him filed out behind him.
“Well, that was an unprecedented success,” Harlan muttered.
“My toes are curling,” Baxter said, looking down at his feet.
“I warned you,” J’hana growled. “Now you won’t be able to sleep for days.”
“Don’t either of you think it’s strange that the Golath ordered this informal meeting hours before we’re scheduled to have breakfast with the Jernasi?” Peterman asked, swiveling in her chair.
“It’s a common diplomatic tactic,” Harlan said. “They wanted time to size us up without the Jernasi here.”
“I never thought a fluffy polar bear could be so damn crafty,” Baxter said.
“Well, what do we do now?” Peterman asked.
“We go back to Jernas and eat breakfast,” Baxter said, jumping out of his chair. “And hope we can avert a war.”
Lt. Commander Richards leaned up against the railing that overlooked the second level of the Escort’s two-story warp core, watching the swirling matter and anti-matter as it flared together.
“Commander, I expected you to be regenerating,” Lt. Commander Larkin said, crawling out of the Jeffries’ tube access nearby.
Larkin joined Richards at the railing. “Could not regenerate? I find that hard to believe. Your normal sleep cycle dictates you be sleeping right now.”
“Things are different. Humans can’t sleep when they’re worried about someone, Kristen.”
“That makes little sense. You need all of your faculties about you when we come up against Ardek. Lack of sleep will only hinder you.”
“Maybe so. Tell my psyche that.”
“I do not see how I would accomplish that.”
“Nevermind.” Richards turned around and leaned back against the railing. “We’ll be at the Magila system soon. It’s pointless to go to sleep now.”
“I had not realized that my human counterpart had that much emotional significance to you,” Larkin said, following Richards down to the bottom level.
“We were friends a long time ago. Me, her, and Chris.”
“You are referring to my father.”
“Yes, Henricks.” Richards thought a moment. “And I guess it was nice seeing her again, after so much time had gone by. It reminded me of the past.”
“A common enough occurrence.”
“Friends are hard to come by in this life, Larkin. You have to treasure them.”
“If Kris Larkin ceased to function, it would certainly affect my systems negatively.”
Richards chuckled. “You mean you would miss her, Larkin.”
“Not in so many words. But yes.”
“You old softie.”
“I am only twelve, sir.”
“I think you all have made a grave mistake,” Kris Larkin said, as she was hauled into the massive ice-carved building at the center of the cavern. She assumed it was some sort of government building or something. She found the penguins use of buttresses and mosques quite interesting; however, penguinoid architecture was not foremost on her mind at the moment.
“Really,” Kris said. “I’m not ‘Larrin.’ I don’t even know what a Larrin is.”
“SQUUAAAAWK,” replied the penguin that was toting her. “Waawwwk waaak waaak.”
“That’s nice,” Kris replied. “But what about putting me down? Can you do that for me? Please?”
Kris sighed. Negotiation was getting her nowhere. She glanced over the penguin’s shoulder. Bort’s unconcious body was being hauled behind her by another penguin.
If only she had a universal translator, she might have some hope of getting through to these beings. But, as it was, all she could do was hope that ‘Larrin’ was a respected figure in the culture of these penguinoids and not a foul demon.
As Kris debated that question, her captor lugged her up a grand staircase, down an icy hallway, and into what looked like some type of temple. She was hauled to an altar at the front of the temple and tied down at the wrists and ankles.
“So I take it I’m a vengeful god, huh?” Kris asked plainly.
“Hey,” Kris said, spitting hair out of her face. “Watch your tone, big guy!”
The penguinoid spat in her face and marched out defiantly, followed by his fellow penguins.
“Great, just great,” Kris said, trying to wipe her face off on the ice slab she was tied to. She glanced to her right to see that Bort had been slumped into a nearby pew. “Hey, Bort! Bort! Wake up!” she said in a hushed voice.
Bort leaned up, groggy. “What hit me?”
“A giant flipper,” Kris said with a half-smile.
“I take it they didn’t like your negotiating style?” Bort asked, rubbing his head.
“You could say that. Now come here and untie me!”
Bort slogged over to the altar and began yanking at the straps.
“Hurry. I have no idea when they’re coming back.”
“It would be a hell of a lot easier if they hadn’t taken my phaser rifle,” Bort muttered.
“Shut up and hurry. I hear something coming. It sounds like…webbed feet!”
“You’re not making this any easier,” Bort grunted.
“F***,” Kris said. “Just go, Bort. Try to find help.”
“I said GO!” Kris cried, kicking her one free leg at Bort. She could hear the webbed feet marching fast down the aisle.
“Okay, okay,” Bort said, glancing over his shoulder at the approaching penguinoids, then hurrying behind the altar, ducking down a corridor.
“SQAWK, WAWWK WAWWK!” one of the penguins commanded, gesturing for a group to follow Bort. That penguin, meanwhile, stayed behind to reaffix Kris’ straps. It looked at Kris with what she assumed was a very disapproving glare. Kris learned very quickly that one’s emotions couldn’t be judged very well when one had a beak.
“So…” Kris said nervously, wincing as her bonds were pulled tighter. “Is the weather around here always this cold?”
“WARK!” squawked the penguinoid, who turned on a webbed foot and marched out of the temple.
Lt. Hartley was curled in the Escort’s command chair, one leg pulled up to her chest, engrossed in the latest Vulcan romance novel, when Ensign Madera spoke up.
“What do you know about Commander Richards, Lieutenant?”
Hartley glanced up from her padd. “What?”
Madera returned to the helm controls. “Never mind. I didn’t say anything.”
“No, I distinctly remember hearing something.”
“Lt. Commander Richards. What do you know about him?”
“I’ve served under him for almost three years,” Hartley said, stretching out and laying the padd on the console next to the command chair. “I guess I know him pretty well.”
“I couldn’t speak on that,” Hartley admitted. “But he’s a nice enough guy. He’s being an ass right now because he’s worried about his friend–and probably because he’s uptight about the situation between him and Dr. Browning. Why?”
Madera turned around in her chair. “We went on a date. I thought it went fine, then the next day he tells me he’s not ready for a relationship. Spouts some crap about not wanting to ruin our friendship.”
“Exactly. What do you make of it?”
“He’s an artist, Susan. He’s not supposed to make sense.”
“Wait just a minute. I’m a musician…what’s that supposed to mean?”
Hartley blinked. “Uh…totally different things. Musicians are practical. They have scales and…bars…and uh, rhythms– structure. Artists have a blank piece of paper and a lot of colors. You can’t expect him to be predictable.”
“So I’m too predictable to him?”
“Oh, jeeze,” Hartley said. “Listen, Susan, Chris’s got a lot to sort through right now, what with Janice, Kristen, Kris, and the whole Klingon TV thing. I suggest you find someone a little bit more stable.”
Not my boyfriend, Miss Tramp, Hartley thought to herself, recalling the problems Madera had caused between she and Gellar the previous year. “Someone in the science division, maybe.” Yes, that would be safe.
“Maybe you’re right,” Madera replied, glancing over at ops. “Or maybe someone in operations.”
“Huh?” Ensign Sefelt said, looking up from his panel.
Madera grinned and turned around. “Never mind.” When she turned around, she saw something truly disturbing pop up on her sensors. “Oh my gosh–Lieutenant!”
Hartley shot forward in her chair. “What is it?”
Madera punched a control, bringing the sensor image up on her screen: It was a Romulan Warbird. Weapons hot. Angling right toward them.
“That would be the Horshak,” Madera said fearfully.
“Holy s***,” Hartley said, punching a button on the command chair. “Red Alert. Lt. Commander Richards to the bridge!”
“Maybe they just picked up our engine emissions,” Sefelt offered shakily from ops.
“Good thinking,” Hartley said. “Susan, all stop.”
“Answering all stop,” Madera said, punching at her panel.
Hartley hopped out of the command chair and began tapping in calculations at the vacant tactical console. “Our emissions are being totally masked. They shouldn’t be able to spot us.”
Gellar rushed out onto the bridge and pushed past Hartley into the tactical chair. “What’s going on?”
Hartley looked down at Gellar with skepticism. “Romulans. But I feel much better now that you’re here to save the day, hon.”
“Very funny. Did you call Commander Richards?”
“Just now. But until he gets here, I’m in command.”
Gellar bristled. “I’ll bet you just love that.”
“Shut up and prepare to arm weapons. If they so much as twitch we need to come out firing.”
“A hell of a lot of good that’ll do us,” Gellar snapped back. “The Explorer is barely a match for that thing.”
“That’s why I’m glad they don’t have a Lt. Gellar at tactical,” Hartley grinned. Then, quickly, her smile disappeared. “Now tell me what they’re doing over there, Brian.”
Gellar checked his panel. “They’re initiating intense localized scanning bursts.”
“Then it’s something we can outrun,” Hartley said, crossing to the front of the bridge and putting her hands on Madera’s chair. “Pick up on those scans and swerve around them, Susan. All we have to use against them is our size and maneuverability.”
“That’ll take a bit of doing,” Madera said, pulling the Escort ahead and banking it hard to port. “Especially when you want us to keep a low engine profile.”
“What’s going on?” Richards said, as he and Larkin filed onto the bridge.
“Them,” Hartley said, thumbing back at the viewscreen.
Larkin relieved Sefelt at ops and examined the scans. “It appears they are using intense scanning bursts to locate us.”
“What could have gotten their attention?” Richards asked, falling into the command chair.
“Anything from our engine emissions to the replicator on Deck Two,” Hartley said, rapidly tapping at the Engineering controls at the rear of the bridge. “I’m trying to intensify the sensor-jamming effects of our shields.”
“They’re going to spot us,” said Madera. “We have to get out of here.”
“No,” Richards said. “Just the opposite. We have to get so close to them that they can’t find us. If we get right under their noses, they won’t be able to scan for us.”
Madera turned in her chair. “Pardon?”
Richards jumped up and leaned over Madera’s shoulder, tapping at the helm console. “See this empty space between her forward and aft hull? I want you to get us inside it.”
“You have to be joking.”
“It’s that or we get blown to bits,” Richards said reasonably, returning to the command chair.
“That it is,” Madera said, engaging Escort’s engines.
Sub-Commander Gatana paced the bridge of the Horshak, squinting at the mass of stars on the viewscreen. “There is something out there, D’mona.”
“Perhaps something appeared for an instant, Sub-Commander,” D’mona said, looking up from the science panel. “But it is gone now.”
Gatana lowered herself into the command chair. “Unacceptable. Continue scanning. We must find whatever it was that triggered our sensors.”
“With all respect, Sub-Commander, shouldn’t we return to Magila? Commander Ardek’s orders were explicit that we stand guard there.”
“Excuse me,” Gatana hissed. “But who’s the Sub-Commander here?”
“Keep your apologies,” snapped Gatana, “and keep scanning.”
Richards drummed his fingers on the arms of the command chair as he watched the green deck plating of the Warbird Horshak on the forward viewscreen. Madera had been successful in maneuvering the Escort in between her forward and aft hull, and now all they could do was wait there.
He could hear Hartley’s foot tapping behind him. “I sure wish they’d either give up the search or start shooting. This waiting is driving me nuts.”
“Don’t worry,” Richards muttered. “If they start shooting, they’ll be blasting holes in their own hull too, won’t they?”
“I’m sorry if I can’t take any satisfaction in that fact, considering we won’t be alive to laugh about it!” Hartley grumbled.
“Something’s happening,” Gellar piped up. “Their engines are heating up.”
“They’re turning back,” Madera said with relief.
Before anyone could celebrate, the Horshak’s huge warp pylon swung into view on the screen.
“Match their turn, Madera,” Richards ordered. “They’ll damn well notice us if we smash into their warp pylon!”
“Right, right,” Madera said, bringing the Escort about.
“Uh, sir–” Sefelt said from the science panel at the back of the bridge.
“What, Sefelt?” Richards asked irritably.
“There’s something you ought to see.”
“By all means,” Richards said, gesturing toward the viewscreen.
Sefelt brought up an image of a nearby section of the Warbird’s hull. A strip of windows, most dark. But one of the lit windows had a Romulan inside. And it looked like he was doing…jumping jacks?
“He is turning toward the window,” Larkin observed.
“Nose us down, Madera,” Richards ordered quickly.
The Escort dove just as the Romulan turned to face his window, barely missing detection.
“That was too close,” Hartley said. “Any minute one of them could look out one of those windows and see us. Then it’s bye-bye Escort.”
“Duly noted,” Richards said. “How long until we reach the planetoid?”
“Just a couple more minutes,” Madera said.
“Begin easing us out of here. Nothing fancy,” Richards ordered. “Larkin, start a passive scanning sequence of the planetoid. See if you can find the Daisy.”
“Aye, sir.” Larkin checked the scans. “Searching…”
Richards cracked his knuckles. It was nerve-wracking being so close to that giant Romulan ship. One green fireball from that thing and the Escort would be toast.
“We’re clear of the Warbird,” Madera said, bringing up a departure view on the screen.
“Any more scans?”
“Nope,” Gellar said. “They must have given up.”
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Hartley said. “We still have to tunnel into that planetoid without being noticed.”
“I have found the Daisy,” Larkin finally announced, as if she was commenting on the weather.
“Great. How deep into the planet?”
“Approximately four kilometers; however, their apparent entrance route has been destroyed.”
“Kris blew up the tunnel so Ardek couldn’t follow,” Richards reasoned.
“Apparently,” Larkin said. “I have computed a route that should take us to within one kilometer of the Daisy.” Larkin tapped a few controls on her panel and the route appeared on the viewscreen. “It will require a minimal amount of drilling.”
“Make it so, Ensign,” Richards said to Madera, standing up and stretching his legs as Madera nosed the Escort down toward the ice planetoid.
“There is something else,” Larkin stated calmly.
“What?” Richards asked.
“A Romulan scout ship is also penetrating the planet, bearing on the position of the Daisy.”
“Then I guess it’s a race to see who gets there first,” Richards said.
“They have a significant head start,” Larkin said.
“We’ll just have to double-time it, then,” Richards said, watching the ice-tunnel grow closer on the viewscreen as Escort dove down.
“What is it?” Counselor Peterman asked, poking at the slimy grey mess that was slopped onto her plate.
“Fish,” said Quaylig tersely.
“And damned good fish it is, too,” Baxter said, spooning some of the grey glop into his mouth and chewing regretfully. He tried to keep a smile on his face, but eventually gave that up and went for his glass, dumping its contents into his mouth. He wasn’t sure what he was drinking, but it tasted a hell of a lot better than the fish.
“Yes, I agree,” Harlan said nervously. “Good fish.”
“We caught it ourselves in Lake Jahai this morning,” Quaylig said, sipping from the steaming cup that sat at his side. He watched Baxter and his senior staff eat for a few moments.
“Delicious,” J’hana said through a mouthful of the glop. “Simply delicious.”
“Glad you like it, Lieutenant,” Quaylig said, still scanning the faces of the Explorer crewmembers. They were all gathered
at the opposite side of the table from his cabinet. A member of his staff leaned over and whispered something to him. “Yes. I’ll get to it in a moment.”
Tilleran sunk a bit in her chair. “Captain…I’m not liking this.”
Baxter glared across the table at her. “Just eat the fish and pretend to like it, Lieutenant. For diplomacy’s sake.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Tilleran said through clenched teeth, inclining her head in Quaylig’s direction.
“Captain,” Quaylig said firmly, causing Baxter to rattle his silverware.
“Yes, Mr. Prime Minister?” Baxter gulped.
“Perhaps you would like to tell me what you were doing before you came to breakfast this morning?”
“What do you mean what was I doing?”
“Who were you with?”
“Isn’t that a bit personal?”
Qualyig pounded a flipper on the table. “Captain! I know very well who you were with. You were with Ambassador Ngaa from the Golath. You had him right aboard your vessel, well knowing that was a breach of diplomatic protocol!”
Harlan Baxter cleared his throat. “Mr. Prime Minister, please, understand that we meant no disrespect–”
“I don’t care what you meant,” Quaylig said angrily. “You met privately with the Golath without consulting us, and we don’t consider that polite.”
“We were going to tell you,” Baxter said, endeavoring to rescue the situation. “Honestly…”
Quaylig folded his flippers. “I don’t believe you.”
“Explorer to Captain Baxter,” came the voice of Lt. Ford.
“What is it, Ford?” Baxter asked, smiling weakly at Quaylig.
“We just detected a buidup of Jernasi forces on the Golath border. They seem to be enforcing a dispute between Jernasi authorities and a Golath freighter.”
“What is this all about?” Harlan asked Quaylig.
“If we cannot depend on Starfleet for support,” Quaylig said defiantly, “then we’ll have to take care of matters ourselves.”
Baxter slammed his fork down. “I don’t believe this.”
“You be quiet and finish your breakfast, Captain,” Quaylig snarled.
“They sure are changing their tune,” Peterman whispered.
Baxter shoved his chair back, squirmed out of it, and stormed over to Quaylig, picking him up by his tiny lapels. “Listen here, you little black and white punk! We’re here to bring peace to this planet, and if I have to annhilate every one of you weasels to do so, I bloody well will!”
“Andy–” Harlan urged, putting a hand on Baxter’s arm. A swarm of security guards were waddling to their leader’s aid.
Baxter ignored his father. “Baxter to Explorer. Beam us up.”
“I thought I was supposed to be the one watching my temper,” Harlan remarked quietly as the turbolift thrummed upward to the bridge.
“Shut up, Dad,” Baxter sighed.
“You should listen to him,” Quaylig said. “That little outburst of yours is going into my report, as is this kidnapping.”
“You can shove that report up your little penguin ass,” Baxter growled.
“Ooh, did you hear that?” Quaylig asked Harlan. “Someone give me a padd so I can write that down!”
“You’ll be quiet if you know what’s good for you, little guy,” J’hana said, ever-so-slightly brushing a hand against her phaser.
When the turbolift finally opened out onto the bridge, Baxter was more than glad for the escape. He made his way to the front of the bridge, barking an order to Lt. Ford. “Helm, break orbit and take us to the site of the border dispute. Best speed.”
“Aye, sir,” Ford said, turning toward the front of the bridge and laying in the coordinates. He glanced over his shoulder at the small penguin that Peterman was lifting into her customary chair. “Uh…penguin on the bridge sir.”
“Just keep your eyes on the screen, Mister,” Baxter snapped, folding his arms and staring at the viewscreen. “And tell me, for the love of Pete, where the hell Commander Conway is.”
“The commander is…uh, sick, sir,” Ford said uneasily.
“That bastard,” Baxter said ruefully. “Faking illness to get out of diplomatic duty.”
“He isn’t faking, Andy,” Peterman said. “Remember his bout with pneumonia on that ice planet with the protohominid penguins on it two years ago?”
“You mean in the Delta Quadrant?” Baxter asked. “How could I forget?”
“Hrrmmmm…” Quaylig sighed, sinking down in Peterman’s chair.
“Well, Dr. Browning said that once you get pneumonia, you’re always susceptible. He shouldn’t have been in that blizzard on Jernas yesterday.”
“Poor thing,” Baxter muttered. “Remind me to send him a ‘Get Well’ card.”
“We’re nearing the site of the border dispute,” Lt. Ford said, interrupting Peterman and Baxter’s arguement.
“Looks like Golath ships are en route to respond,” J’hana observed.
“On screen,” Baxter said gruffly.
On the viewscreen, five silver-black, hawk-like Jernasi ships surrounded the gleaming white, boxy Golath freighter.
“Hail the lead Jernasi ship,” Baxter ordered.
“I don’t know what you hope to accomplish,” Quaylig said, folding his flippers.
A ticked-off looking Jernasi appeared on the viewscreen, waving his flippers at Baxter. “This is Captain Redule of the Shumper. What do you want?”
“I want you to back off, right now!” Baxter said. “Before you start a war.”
“Says me.” Baxter turned back toward Quaylig and pointed at him. “And the Jernasi Prime Minister.”
Quaylig looked up at Baxter ruefully. “Hold your place, Redule. Don’t let these Starfleeters intimidate you.”
“Wait,” Harlan Baxter said, turning to Quaylig. “Mr. Prime Minister. Surely there’s some way to stop this agression before it gets any farther.”
“I doubt that,” Quaylig said firmly.
“Four minutes until the Golath ships arrive,” J’hana ticked off from tactical.
Harlan looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully, then looked back down at Quaylig. “If you go to war with the Golath, you may lose your Federation membership.”
“A pity,” said Quaylig dryly.
“Do you really want to lose all the commerce and opportunities that Federation membership affords you?” Harlan asked, kneeling beside Quaylig.
“Well…” Quaylig said, still uncertain.
“What if the Golath applied for membership?” Harlan suggested. “If they’re accepted into the Federation, we’d be here on their behalf instead of yours. They’d have the upper hand…”
“I wouldn’t like that,” Quaylig said thoughtfully.
“Then tell your men to stand down,” Harlan said. “If not for us, then for the future of Jernas.”
Quaylig looked quickly to the viewscreen. “Do as they say, Redule! Order your ships back to their positions and stay there until further notice.”
“The Jernasi are retreating,” J’hana said, looking up from her scans.
Baxter was staring at his father in awe.
“Your command, sir?” J’hana asked, regarding Baxter strangely.
“Andy…” Peterman said softly.
“Oh.” Baxter shook his head, turning his attention back to the viewscreen. “Alert the freighter that it’s free to pass back into Golath space. Inform them that the Golath and the Jernasi are going into negotiations as we speak–”
“We are?” asked Quaylig vacantly.
“You are,” Baxter said firmly. “And tell them to let their fleet know that the Jernasi are not planning any acts of agression against them, and that they’d be wise to keep on their side of the fence for now.”
“We make a pretty good team,” Harlan said quietly, as a security guard escorted Quaylig to the turbolift.
“We do, don’t we?” Baxter said, smiling at his dad.
“I’ll take care of Quaylig. He’ll be eating out of our hands by the time we get back to Jernas.”
“I can believe that,” Baxter said, as Harlan jogged up to follow Quaylig into the turbolift.
Peterman noticed the strange look on Baxter’s face as he collapsed into the command chair.
She sat down in her own chair and leaned over. “Didn’t know your father had it in him, did you, Andy?”
“Uh-uh,” Baxter admitted. “Can you believe it took me until I was thirty-two to respect my parents? Well, one of them, anyway.”
“Penetration?” Lt. Commander Richards asked, bending over Madera’s shoulder.
The helmsman grinned. “Not tonight, Mister.”
“Into the planet, Ensign,” Richards said, grimacing.
“Oh.” Madera checked her panel. “One point four kilometers.”
“This is taking too long,” Richards said, looking up to observe the forward viewer. Large ridges of blue-white ice flew by as the Escort bobbed and weaved through the ice tunnel.
“I’m going far faster than Starfleet regulations call for,” Madera said coldly. “If you’d like to steer this thing yourself, you’re more than welcome.”
“That’s okay,” Richards said, returning to the command chair. “I’m just in a hurry to get to Kris before Ardek does.”
“You really care about her, don’t you?”
Richards folded his hands in front of him and leaned forward, watching the ice streak by on the screen. “Number one, it’s none of your business. And number two, did it ever occur to you that there are many kinds of love in this galaxy? Including sexual and non?”
“It occurred to me,” Madera replied. “But it also occurs to me that men are only capable of the sexual variety.”
“That’s a narrow view, Ensign.”
“I call ‘em like I see ‘em.”
“Well, why don’t you just keep your mind on navigating this tunnel, and leave the rest to me.”
“If you say so.”
Just then, Lt. Commander Larkin stepped onto the bridge, handing a padd to Richards as she sat down at her station.
“What’s this?” Richards asked, paging through the information.
“This planetoid has an abnormally high amount of neutrino particles,” Larkin said. “Additionally, there are trace elements in its gravitic field emissions that suggest it has undergone a tremendous time-space displacement in the last three months. The displacement field would have to have a massive power source, which I have yet to locate.”
“What are you suggesting?” Richards asked, setting the padd aside. “That this is a mobile planet?”
“Planetoid, sir. And yes.”
“So are you suggesting that the planet could ‘move’ again?”
Richards leaned back in the command chair and scrubbed a hand down his face. “That wouldn’t be good.”
“That,” Larkin said in a measured voice, “is an understatement.”
“WAKAWAKWAKWAK,” chanted the penguinoids, encircling Kris Larkin as if she were some sort of monument.
A monument to evil, Kris guessed. A monument destined to be destroyed. Lucky her.
“SQUAWAWAAAAAK!” the one that Kris guessed was the leader said. “WUUUUUAAAAK!”
“Listen, if you’re going to kill me, at least get it overwith,” Kris said angrily.
The circle of penguins parted. As they did so, they began to squawk in a low, redundant tone that scared Kris immeasurably.
She turned her head and immediately wished she hadn’t. Stomping toward her with a weight that shook the ice was a creature so large, white, fluffy, and ominous, that it looked to Kris as if it couldn’t possibly be up to any good.
“Ruuuuuurrrrrrg,” said the beast, placing a hot, meaty hand over Kris’ face and bellowing loudly into the chill air.
When the huge monster removed his hand, he was holding a giant axe over his head. Kris was begining to regret that bit about getting it overwith. It appeared she was about to get that wish.
Then came the explosions.
The white monster and the penguinoids turned their heads in search of the source of that sound, only to see chunks of the ice building’s ice roof come tumbling down.
Soon after, Kris saw, more penguins came rushing into the room, squawking in horror as fiery hot beams lanced into them.
“WAAAAAAWK!” the head penguin said, pointing. Kris tried to see what he was pointing at around the other penguinoids rushing about. Was it possible that someone had come to rescue her? Maybe Explorer had gotten wind of her predicament and sent–
Then she saw him. “Ardek!” Kris cried out in anger. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Flanked by his guards, Ardek observed the penguinoids with detached amusement.
As soon as Kris mentioned his name, all the penguinoids in the room laid down at Ardek’s feet, bowing as if he was some type of god.
“Oh, hell,” Kris muttered.
“Steady as she goes, Ensign,” Richards said, hands resting on Madera’s shoulders as the Escort continued to wind its way into the ice planetoid. “We’re almost there.”
Lt. Commander Larkin looked up from her panel. “I have thoroughly researched this planet’s makeup, down to the atomic level. I see no natural explanation for the time-space displacement.”
“Then what on Earth could cause something like that?”
“An artificially created wormhole,” Larkin answered easily.
“Oh, just an artificially-created wormhole,” Hartley said, leaning back against the science console. “Not a problem.”
“You did not let me finish,” Larkin said. “This is an artificially created wormhole that imploded on itself, then reformed, then imploded again.”
“Which means…” Richards said impatiently.
“If the wormhole reforms again, we will only have ten minutes’ notice before the planet begins to change location.”
Richards rubbed his eyes. “Which barely gives us time to get out of here. I’d hate to have come all this way just to end up back in the Delta Quadrant.”
“The displacement wave could take us anywhere in the known universe, judging from the neutrino density,” Larkin said. “Possibly even to unknown universes.”
“Well,” Richards said, folding his arms. “I suppose we’ll have to get Kris and get out before that happens.”
“Indeed. At any rate, I will rig a warning system in the Escort computer that will alert us as soon as a displacement wave begins forming.”
“Good idea,” Richards said. “Meanwhile, why don’t we get ready to–”
With a shudder, a torrent of huge shuttlecraft-sized ice bolders cascaded down in front of the Escort. Madera threw Escort into reverse, narrowly avoiding the avalanche.
Richards grabbed the helm console, pulling himself to his feet. “What in the hell was that?”
“Cobalt-thorium charges,” Gellar said. “Coming from outside the planet.”
“We’ve been found!” Hartley exclaimed.
“Possibly,” Larkin said, hands dancing over her panel. “However, it is more than likely they suspect we are here and are simply trying to flush us out.”
“They’re doing a terrific job of it!” Hartley muttered.
The tunnel’s roof collapsed behind Escort, causing Madera to shift direction again.
“I’m running out of places to go!” she cried.
“We have only one option,” Richards said. “Shut off all power and play dead.”
The rest of the tunnel caved in, slamming the Escort to a standstill as ice crushed in on all sides, jarring every crewmember within.
“Emergency lights,” Richards coughed out, crawling to his feet once more. Lights came up a deep red all around the bridge. Richards could hear the hull of the Escort splintering under the pressure. A support beam collapsed above him, swinging down toward he and Madera.
Larkin climbed over her panel, instantly throwing herself in front of the girder, pushing with her substantial strength until it embedded itself in the deck.
“Nice going, Larkin,” Richards said, helping Madera out of her seat. “Let’s see about salvaging this thing.”
Gellar squirmed out from beneath his panel, hurrying over to the aft stations, where Hartley and Sefelt were still on their backs.
“Need a hand?” he asked diplomatically.
“I sure do–thanks so much!” Sefelt said, taking Gellar’s hand and wrapping his arms tight around the security officer. “I was so scared, Mr. Gellar! I thought I was going to die!”
Gellar grinned patronizingly at Sefelt and turned his attention to Hartley. “Megan?”
“Not on your life.” Hartley grunted as she scrambled to her feet, tapping away at the engineering panel in a vain attempt to bring it to life. “Oh, this is all kinds of bad!”
Richards surveyed the bridge as Larkin tore open one of the ODN junction boxes.
“What was that about playing dead, Commander?” Hartley asked wryly, crossing the bridge to help Larkin.
“Forget about playing dead,” Richards muttered. “We are dead.”
“Not necessarily,” Larkin said. “We merely have three compromised power conduits and a ruptured valve in the deuterium reactant chamber.”
“Oh, that’s all?” Madera asked sarcastically.
“It can be fixed,” Hartley said. “I’m more worried about the pressure that’s being put on the hull by all this ice. We need to restore power and get the SIF back up and running before we’re crushed like a tin can.”
“You, Sefelt, and Madera will see to that,” Richards said, heading toward the door at the back of the bridge. “The rest of us will go find Kris.”
“Joy,” Gellar said unenthusiastically.
“It’s not a volunteer mission,” Richards said tersely. “Break out the phaser rifles and survival gear. I imagine it’s going to start getting awfully cold awfully quick.”
Commander Conway shuddered as he was wracked with another fit of sneezes. “God dab nebonia!” he cursed, curling his thermal blanket tighter around him and bringing a trembling cup of mocha java up to his mouth.
“Whad?” he said in annoyance, glancing back at the door to his quarters.
“House call,” Dr. Browning said, strolling in and unslinging her medical kit. “How are you feeling?”
Conway stared at Browning as she squatted next to his couch and began scanning with her medical tricorder. “Whaddayou thing?”
“I take it that means you’re not feeling any better,” Browning said cheerfully, pulling out a padd and making some notations. She put the padd away and pulled a hypospray out of her medical case. “This should reduce all the mucous and swelling in your nasal cavity.”
Conway sighed as Browning pressed the hypospray into his neck. That fizz sound was music to his ears. “You know just how to treat a mand, Dulie,” Conway said, holding a handkerchief up to his nose and blowing with all his heart.
Browning smiled, patting Conway on the shoulder. “Don’t mention it. If the symptoms get any worse, call me.”
“Dulie…” Conway sniffed, as Browning made her way to the door.
“Yes?” she asked, turning.
“Now thad you and Richards are finished, I wad wondering…”
Browning rolled her eyes. “Don’t wonder, Commander. Just try to get better.”
And she was gone.
“Well, I guess I still hab my health.”
Lt. Commander Richards grunted as he slid through a narrow passage in the icy depths of the planetoid. They were at least lucky enough to be stranded in a section of the planetoid that had some atmosphere, so they didn’t have to wear space suits, but the air was very thin, and it was causing Richards, Gellar, and the four security officers a measure of difficulty. Of course, one member of the team was having no difficulty.
“Commander, I stress that you must hurry if our objective is to reach the Daisy before Ardek does,” Larkin said, some meters ahead of the rest of the group.
Richards clutched a groove in the icy wall, sighing inwardly as he pulled himself along. They were hitting an incline, as if things weren’t bad enough. “Larkin,” he said, breathing heavy. “You’ll just have to slow down. We’re human, remember? We can’t keep up with you.”
“Perhaps I should continue ahead unencumbered.”
“Sorry to be encumbering you!” Lt. Gellar choked out from behind Richards.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” replied Richards. “We have to stick together. Besides, I don’t want you doing something…”
“Stupid?” Gellar offered.
“I wasn’t going to say that.”
“I have been called many things, Commander,” Larkin said, not slowing down. “However, I have never been called stupid.”
“Stupid is not the word for it. I just…know how you think.”
Larkin turned her head, though she was still moving. “And how do I think, Commander?”
“You’re selfless, for Pete’s sake. Totally,” Richards heaved out, searching the slick ice for handholds. “You’ll give yourself over to Ardek for Kris’ sake.”
“And what is wrong with that?”
“There’s just a better way.”
“There may be better outcomes, but surrendering to Ardek has the highest probability of success.”
“Unless Ardek kills Kris once he has you.”
“I have made allowances for that.”
“I’m sure you have,” Richards said. “Listen, this is an order. Do NOT sacrifice yourself for Kris. We’re going to get through this together. Do you understand?”
“Of course,” Larkin said, hurrying her pace.
“And slow down, please!”
And then Larkin stopped. She stopped so fast Richards smacked into her back.
“I said slow down, not stop,” Richards said, resting his hands on his knees and catching his breath.
“I stopped because we have found our objective.”
Richards wiped a gloved hand over his forehead and looked up. “The Daisy!”
The cavern ahead was lit by the Daisy’s barely flickering running lights. Small by comparison to the Explorer–and just a little bigger than Escort, the Daisy sagged in its icy berth, looking like a dark chocolate chip ensconced in the rice krispie treat of the ice planetoid.
Richards withdrew his palm beacon and panned the Daisy’s hull with it, hurrying out of the narrow tunnel and rushing past Larkin. “We’ve got to see if she’s in there.”
“Hold your horses, Commander!” Gellar called, nearly out of breath. “For all we know that thing is full of Romulans.”
“Right,” Richards said, unslinging his phaser rifle and checking the settings. “You take point.”
“Gracious of you,” Gellar said, motioning for Puckett and Andrews to back him up.
Larkin examined her tricorder. “I am only reading one lifeform within the Daisy. Bolian.”
“Isn’t that her copilot?” Richards asked, following Gellar and two of the security officers as they made their way up the ladder to Daisy’s entrance/egress hatch. McCarthy and O’Donnell brought up the rear.
“Affirmative,” Larkin said, following Richards up the ladder with ease.
“Back off, Rommies!” came an angry shout from within the Daisy’s entrance/egress hatch, as a meaty blue fist emerged, belting Lt. Gellar in the face before he could raise his weapon. Arms pinwheeling, the security officer stumbled back, tumbling toward the ice below.
With a smack, Gellar hit the ice, face-up, staring at the cavern’s ceiling, dazed.
“Don’t move, little boy blue,” Ensign Puckett said, slinging an arm around the ladder and pointing her phaser rifle at the Bolian with the other.
“Starfleet?” Bort asked, sticking his head out of the hatch. “Thank the powers!”
“Where is Kris?” Lt. Commander Larkin called up to Bort.
Bort looked down at Larkin. “Lt. Commander Larkin, how nice to see you again.” He looked around Larkin to see Gellar laying helpless on the ground below. O’Donnell and McCarthy were already scrambling down to help him. “Sorry about your friend there.”
“Time is of the essence, Mr. Bort,” Larkin said, then repeated, “Where is Kris?”
“The penguinoids have her,” Bort said matter-of-factly. “You guys look exhausted. I have some Gorn Ade up here if yer interested.”
Richards followed Puckett and Andrews up the ladder and climbed into the hatch to face Bort. “We’d love some.”
“Penguinoids?” Larkin said, joining Richards.
“Large, human-shaped penguins, Larkin,” Bort said. “About 7 foot tall.”
“They weren’t wearing loincloths, were they?” Richards joked, taking a jug of Gorn Ade from Bort and chugging it gratefully.
“No. Kind of silvery-metallic robes.”
“Then they’re probably not the penguo-hominids we ran into in the Delta Quadrant,” Richards said, passing the jug to Puckett.
“How can you be sure?” Larkin asked. “This planetoid has been subjected to a massive space-time displacement. Surely–”
“That’s just it, Larkin,” Richards said. “It’s a planetoid. Unless the trip through space and time ripped this planet’s atmosphere off, stripped it of two-third’s of its mass, and riddled it with tunnels–” he looked at Larkin for confirmation that this was obviously impossible.
“All of that is quite plausible, considering the gravitational stresses within a constrained space-time filament.”
“I am NOT going back to the Delta Quadrant!” Ensign Puckett said angrily.
“We aren’t going back to the Delta Quadrant,” Richards said. “We’re getting Kris and getting out of here before this planet has a chance to change position again.”
“Then I’d suggest we get moving,” Bort said. “When I left Kris, it looked like the penguinoids were about to do something awful to her.”
“Then why did you leave?” Richards snapped.
“She told me to! She sent me back here to get help. Little did she know I’d find you guys…”
“Take us to her, now,” Larkin said, heading to the ladder and sliding quickly down.
“She’s a pistol, that one,” Bort said, shrugging on his survival jacket. “Speaking of which, can one of you security guys loan me a phaser? Mine kind of got…taken.”
Puckett looked to Richards, who nodded. She reached into one of the pouches of her survival jacket and tossed Bort a phaser.
Richards ducked out of the hatch and slid down to the cavern floor, where he took stock of Gellar’s condition. “Still with us, Brian?”
Slumped up against the cave wall, rubbing the back of his head, Gellar nodded. “Sure could use some ice for this bruise on my head, though.”
“Very funny,” Richards said. “Let’s go. Mr. Bort, I believe you know the way?”
“They’re leaving the Daisy, Commander,” Krellin’s voice crackled over Ardek’s communicator. “What should I do?”
Ardek yawned and examined his fingernails as he shifted in his huge, ice-carved throne. “Is the android with them?”
“Then let them come. But follow them. Make sure they don’t try anything tricky.”
“Understood, Commander. Krellin out.”
“Well,” Ardek said primly, folding his hands in his lap. “Your friend Larkin certainly responded quickly to my little call.”
Kris sneered up at Ardek, glancing at the two hulking penguins that stood at either side of her. “I’m going to enjoy watching her rip you to pieces.”
“You must be thinking of someone else,” Ardek said. “Lieutenant Commander Kristen Larkin is committed to preserving life at all costs. She’ll see the arrangement I wish to make with her as…” he rolled his eyes impishly, “…the most logical.”
“F*** off, Ardek.”
“Oh, I would, but it seems my penguin friends here want me to stay so badly.” Ardek looked at the penguins that flanked Kris Larkin. “Isn’t that right, guys?”
“WAAANNNK,” they said in unison. “Ardik!”
The penguinoids had spent the afternoon re-carving the icy chapel into Ardek’s private throne-room.
“Yes, that’s right, I’m Ardik!” Ardek said, clapping his hands. “Worship me as much as you please!” He sighed and looked to Kris. “You know, I’d give real money to know what those damn fools are saying. I guess I’ll just have to settle for the fact that they think I’m the greatest thing since fish fillets.”
“I really wish you’d shut up,” Kris muttered.
“Aww, now really, Kris, I don’t know what your problem is,” Ardek said, obviously hurt. “I’m being as hospitable as I can. You’ll be free to go once the android turns herself over to me. I really don’t think you’re giving me a fair chance.”
“You’re a despicable s***-eating bastard who has officially bitten off more than he can chew,” Kris spat back. “I think that sizes you up just about right.”
“All the rest may be true, but I certainly have NOT bitten off more than I can chew,” Ardek said sternly. “I have these pengin fellows here doing my bidding, my guards have surrounded this building, and the scout ship is not far away, just in case heavier firepower is needed. Trust me, I have accounted for every eventuality.”
Kris allowed a grin. “Sure you have.”
Captain Baxter wrapped a towel around his neck and tucked his tennis racquet under his arm as he exited the turbolift. “What news, J’hana?”
“The Golath contingent has arrived, sir,” J’hana said.
Peterman hurried out of the turbolift behind Baxter and smacked him on the rear end with her racquet. “Beat you again, slowpoke!”
“You distracted me with that short little tennis skirt, hon,” Baxter grinned, wrapping an arm around Peterman and walking with her over to the tactical console. “Put the Golath ships on screen.”
Two hulking white Golath ships appeared on the viewscreen, angling into an orbit of the blue orb of Jernas. Two of the hawklike Jernasi vessels swooped in on either side; they’d escorted the Golath ships from the border of Jernasi space.
“Well, glad to see Dad convinced the Golath to play nice,” Baxter said.
“Any further orders?” J’hana asked.
Baxter seemed thoughtful a moment. “I don’t think so. Dad’s handling all the arrangements. Just stay here and make sure no one starts shooting at anyone else.”
“Very well, sir.”
Baxter led Peterman back to the turbolift, then stopped and turned back toward J’hana. “Any word from the Escort?”
“Negative,” J’hana replied.
“Shouldn’t they have reported in by now?” Peterman asked worriedly.
Baxter shrugged. “Considering they’re operating right under the nose of a Romulan Warbird, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t report in. Too risky.”
“We should have gone with them,” J’hana remarked, brooding heavily at her station.
“The Explorer is vital to this diplomatic duty,” Baxter said. “Besides, the Escort is less conspicuous. Some of our best officers are on the case, J’hana. I trust them.”
“Perhaps you do, but I do not.”
“It’ll be okay, J’hana,” Peterman said consolingly. “Larkin, Richards, and the others will be fine. You don’t have to worry about a thing.”
“I did not say I was worried,” J’hana replied, offended. “I am merely…concerned.”
“Whatever,” Baxter replied. “Another match, hon?”
“Sure,” Peterman said, heading into the turbolift with Baxter. “I wouldn’t mind beating your sorry ass again.”
“We’ll see who distracts who,” Baxter grinned, his hand traveling down to the edge of Peterman’s tennis skirt as the turbolift doors closed. “You have the conn, J’hana.”
“I suspect they will misuse that turbolift again,” J’hana mumbled, slamming a fist on her console. “And the cleaning crews are growing tiresome!”
Lt. Ford turned around at his post at helm and grinned. “You’d think Peterman would grow tiresome herself.”
“Yes, well, there is no accounting for taste on either account,” J’hana remarked, moving back around to the command chair as Saral took her place at tactical. “That is why they are a perfect match.”
Less than an hour later, Peterman and Baxter had returned to their quarters. Peterman had indeed beaten Baxter in two more matches of tennis; however, Baxter did not feel at all bad about the affair. Their turbolift adventure and a subsequent adventure on the holodeck tennis court in front of Marina Navratalova, Monica Seles, the referee, and the some two thousand people in attendance at Wimbledon had more than satisfied him. He was content to go on losing at tennis if the sport brought out that kind of emotion in Peterman.
After his shower, Baxter considered his tennis swing in the steamy bathroom mirror. “You know, I think we’re running out of sports that I’m bad at, Kelly.”
“Nonsense. There are sports from planets across the quadrant that you haven’t realized you stink at yet!” Peterman said, pulling at one particularly tough mat in her hair with her hair brush. “Wait until we get to the Risan Pleasure Gambit.”
“Now that sounds fun,” Baxter said, setting his raquet aside and sliding into his off-duty slacks and Dallas Cowboys pullover.
Just then, the door to his quarters bleeped pleasantly.
“Who is it?” Baxter called.
“Oh. That’s right,” Peterman said. “We’re having lunch with her. Can you get the door? I still need to get dressed.”
“Sure,” Baxter said, strolling over to the door to his quarters and pressing a button.
The doors opened to reveal Dr. Browning, who stepped past Baxter and sagged onto the couch. “It finally happened.”
Baxter turned around, calling up a glass of grapefruit juice at the replicator and settling down opposite Browning in his recliner. “What finally happened?”
“Commander Conway hit on me.”
“Oh my GOD!” Peterman called out from the bathroom.
“Tell me about it,” Browning said, running her fingers through her long hair and pulling it back into a ponytail. “While he’s sick with pneumonia of all times.”
“Well, you are on the market now, you know,” Baxter offered cheerfully.
“I’m not meat! Or Real Estate!” Browning replied defensively. “When Chris and I broke up, there wasn’t some board that lit up in some stock exchange somewhere saying ‘Janice’s free, all bidders welcome!’”
“There wasn’t?” Baxter asked sarcastically, and was immediately pegged in the face with a pillow.
“Get serious for a minute, Andy,” Browning said. “Who’s next, Ford?”
“I seriously hope not,” Baxter said, stroking his chin. “You should just try to think of it as flattery.”
“I guess so,” Browning said, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees.
“So what about Dr. Delgano?” Counselor Peterman asked, stepping into the bathroom doorway and fastening the buttons on the back of her mid-length tan dress. “Any possibilities there?”
“Not at all,” Browning said dismissively. “Who says I’m interested in starting another relationship, anyway?”
Peterman sat down on the arm of Baxter’s recliner and slung an arm around him. “Nobody.”
“Nobody at all,” Baxter said, grinning childishly.
“You two are getting tired of playing by yourselves, huh?” Browning asked, fake-pouting. “How sad!”
“Well, I wouldn’t say we’re totally opposed to having time alone,” Peterman said. “But it sure was nice having you and Chris to hang out with.”
“You can still hang around with both of us,” Browning said. “It’s not like one of us is de–” Browning caught herself. “Well, you know what I mean. Speaking of which, have you heard from him yet?”
“Not a peep,” Baxter admitted. “But I wouldn’t worry. He’s got Larkin with him, for Pete’s sake. What could go wrong?”
“Any number of things,” Browning said. “But you’re right. There’s no reason to sit here worrying about them.”
Peterman folded her arms. “But here we are, worrying anyway.”
Baxter sighed and pushed out of the recliner. “Enough of this. Let’s eat.”
Gellar peered over the large ice rock, taking stock of the Romulan troops standing guard outside the large multi-spired ice fortress as Larkin and Richards examined their tricorder readings. Bort and the other security guards were crouched nearby, weapons at the ready.
“Simply wonderful,” Richards muttered. “Twelve Romulans in the structure ahead, and two guarding the scoutship.”
“Outnumbered two to one,” Gellar noted.
Bort grunted. “I’ll take those odds.”
“This is amazing, sir,” Larkin said, looking up from her tricorder. “I detect a large concentration of ice-structures like this one to the east. I postulate it is some sort of village. Population approximately fifty thousand.”
“What’s so amazing about that?” Richards asked.
“That is ten times the amount of penguinoids that inhabited the planet we visited in the Delta Quadrant.”
“I’m sure this is just a different planet.”
“Trust me, Mr. Richards. I have a detailed record of the geological and chemical profile of Crysta. Although this planet has gone through a massive time-space displacement, as well as extreme tectonic upheaval, I am certain to within a one percent margin for error that this is indeed Crysta.”
“Fascinating,” Richards said. “I’ll listen to all the theories you want to postulate once we rescue Kris. Let’s get our priorities in order.”
“Very well, sir. But I do believe that this information is useful.”
“The penguinoids thought I was a god, sir. Perhaps they still do. Could we not use that to our advantage?”
Richards stroked his chin. “I suppose so.”
“If we proceed to the village, I may be able to rally the support of the penguinoids. Then we would have a far better chance of breaching that structure.”
“What if they think you’re a demon or something now?” Richards asked. “Captain Baxter did kill their leader, if I’m not mistaken.”
“That is a possibility,” Larkin said. “However…” the android cocked her head.
“What is it?” Gellar asked, antsy.
Richards rolled his eyes. “I hate it when she does this.”
Suddenly Larkin’s phaser rifle was in her hand, and her arm swung back as she fired two quick, precise bursts.
Richards followed the beam with his eyes; it led up to a narrow ledge about twenty meters away and two stories above. He saw the beam strike someone in the chest; that person promptly pitched off the ledge and onto the ground below.
“Company,” Larkin said simply, turning and treading across the hollow cavern to the spot where the “company” had fallen.
Gellar was right behind Larkin, with Richards and the others close behind.
“Romulan,” Gellar said. “Who knows how long he’s been trailing us?”
Upon reaching the spot where the Romulan had hit the ice, Larkin bent down and grabbed the front of his uniform, hoisting him in the air above her head.
“Centurion,” she said, noting his rank emblem. “You will cooperate with us.”
The Centurion blinked dumbly, looking down at Larkin and the other officers. “I’d rather die.”
Gellar held up his phaser rifle. “Suits me.”
Richards put a hand on the nose of Gellar’s rifle. “Hold on. We can use him to get to Kris.”
“You’ll do no such thing!” the Centurion replied harshly.
Then Larkin’s free hand swung upward into the Romulan’s crotch, squeezing in the exact manner necessary to disrupt the proper function of Romulan genetalia. “We most certainly shall do that thing, Centurion.”
“I assume we are in agreement?”
“Urk!” said the Romulan, nodding vigorously.
“Good,” Larkin said. “I am glad we have an understanding.”
Richards nodded approval, then tapped his comm badge. “Richards to Escort.”
“Escort. Hartley here.”
“What’s the status on your repairs?”
“Ooh, we have a ways to go, why?”
“We’ve found the structure where Kris is located. We’re going to go on ahead and get her. You may not hear from us again for a while.”
“And we found Kris’ navigator, Mr. Bort. He’s returning to the Escort to assist you guys.”
“I am?” Bort asked quizzically.
“You’re a civilian,” Richards explained. “I’m responsible for the Starfleet officers. I don’t want to have to watch you, too.”
“Hey,” Bort said, thumping his chest. “I can take care of myself.”
“This isn’t up for debate,” Richards said sternly, shoving a tricorder into Bort’s hand. “This is locked into the Escort’s signal transponder. Go back there and wait for us. Lt. Hartley, if there is even the slightest sign that this planet is going to make a space-time displacement, I want you to take the Escort and get to safety. Understood?”
“Yeah, I got it. That’s assuming the Escort’s working by then. What makes you think this planet will undergo a space-time thing anyway?”
“Call it an informed hunch.” Richards patted Bort on the back. “Mr. Bort is on his way.”
“We’ll be waiting.”
“And how is everything?” Mirk asked, approaching Browning, Baxter, and Peterman’s table.
“Yummy,” Browning said, digging deeper into her salad bowl. “And what is this meat you put in the Salad Special today?”
“Cardassian vole,” Mirk said proudly.
Baxter made a distinct retching sound, forcing down the last mouthful of salad and pushing his bowl away. “Thought it was a little too stringy to be chicken.”
“You don’t like it?”
Peterman covered her bowl with a napkin as if she was covering a corpse with a blanket. “Mirk, you’ll find humans don’t usually eat…rodentia.”
“Really? Then why do I find constant references to rodents in your cultural database?”
“What do you mean?” Baxter asked, grimacing–Browning was still shoveling salad in.
“There was a reference to a ‘Micky Mouse,’ some kind of rabbitt named ‘Bugs,’ a novel about mice and men–”
“That doesn’t mean we like to eat mice!” Peterman protested.
“Well, you eat ham, and I watched a very pleasant cartoon about a pig named ‘Porky.’” Mirk folded his arms. “So where do you draw the line, huh?”
“The human appetite is a complex thing, Mirk,” Baxter sighed.
“Obviously,” Mirk said. “So can I get you guys any desert?”
“How about some cheesecake and coffee to get this…gamey taste out of our mouths?” Peterman asked.
“Without vole chunks!” Baxter insisted.
“Fine, if that’s the way you want it,” Mirk shrugged, taking Baxter and Peterman’s bowls.
“This is great,” Browning said, still chomping on her vole salad.
“You definitely give credit to the field of xenonutrition, Janice,” Baxter said, incredulous, as Browning ate.
Suddenly, Baxter’s communicator chirped. “Harlan Baxter to Andy Baxter.”
Baxter exchanged a quizzical glance with Peterman as he tapped his comm badge. “Go ahead.”
“Good news, son! We have a treaty!”
“Really?” Baxter asked, perplexed. “Already?”
“It was just a matter of getting them together in one room.”
“Obviously,” Baxter said. “Well, Dad, that’s just great. Who knows–this may be the start of a whole new life for you.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. At any rate, the Jernasi have invited your senior staff to come down here for a celebration this evening. Fifteen hundred hours.”
“Aw, jeeze, wouldn’t you know tonight is the night I clip my toenails!” Baxter said. “Sorry, Dad. I guess I’ll just have to miss out on the fun.”
“This is no time for jokes, boy. Being Captain isn’t all fun and games. It means showing the flag and being personable. Now you’ll be down here at 1500 or I’ll come up there and get you myself. Understood?”
Browning stopped chewing. “Now you be respectful to your daddy, Andy!”
“Stay out of this and go back to your salad!” Baxter ordered.
Peterman covered up her spreading smile by pretending to wipe her mouth with a napkin.
“Well? What do you say, boy? Should I start unlooping my belt now?”
“No, don’t do that!” Baxter said hurriedly. “I’ll be down there. Fifteen hundred hours. No problem!”
“That’s better. Baxter out.”
As soon as the channel closed, Peterman and Browning exploded into laughter, the latter spreading bits of salad across the table.
“It’s obvious who’s in command here,” Peterman laughed.
“Laugh all you want,” Baxter muttered, as Mirk set down the coffee and cheesecake. “You’re coming too.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world…” Peterman was building toward another fit of laughter. “…‘boy!’” And Browning and Peterman continued laughing.
“Check please,” Baxter grumbled.
Kris Larkin tugged at the electronic restraining bolts that pinned her to the ice-carved altar at the wrists and ankles. “I’ll give you this, Ardek. This is much more secure than ropes.”
Ardek grinned. “We Romulans pride ourselves in our…implements of bondage. Perhaps after all this is over, you’ll return to Romulus with me and explore…some of our other implements.”
“Perhaps not,” Kris shot back. “You’re not getting me or the android, so you can just forget about whatever sick threesome you’re planning.”
“For a stupid human you certainly do understand the way I think,” Ardek grinned, tracing a finger down Kris’ cheek. “But really, darling, who will stop me?”
Kris narrowed her eyes at Ardek. This was when the cavalry was supposed to burst into the room shouting “We will!”
But that didn’t happen. Instead, one of Ardek’s officers poked his head out from a corridor that lead to the cathedral’s rear entrance.
Ardek turned. “Krellin? What are you doing back here? I thought you were keeping an eye out on the Starfleet people?”
Krellin jerked his head back toward the corridor. “That’s what I’m here to tell you about.” He winked at Ardek, jerking his head again. “I have something to tell you. Back there.”
“Fine,” Ardek huffed. He grinned down at Kris. “I’ll just be a moment, beautiful!”
“Don’t come back!” Kris spat.
“What is it, imbecile?” Ardek asked, following Krellin into the corridor. “Quickly now, I’m just beginning to break through the human’s outer shell.”
“Like hell he is,” Kris muttered to herself, straining to hear what was happening in the corridor.
She heard a fearful squeak, a few grunts, and hurried shuffling. Kris’s eyes went wide as she saw Richards and Larkin dragging Ardek and Krellin out of the corridor, followed by five Starfleet security guards.
“Guards!” Ardek cried, kicking and squirming in a futile attempt to get free of Larkin’s steel grip.
“Shut up!” Gellar said, hitting Ardek upside the head with his phaser rifle.
Richards ran over to the altar. “Kris! Are you okay?”
“Other than the fact that I’ve been tied up and forced to listen to this jerk for hours,” Kris said, nudging her head in Ardek’s direction.
“Glad to see you came, Larkin,” Ardek said, grinning back at Larkin. “You’ll make a fine treasure.”
“I reccomend silence,” Larkin said tersely.
Suddenly, several Romulans and penguinoids hurried into the cathedral. The Romulans leveled their weapons at the Starfleet group.
“Put ‘em down,” Gellar ordered, shoving his phaser rifle against Ardek’s temple. “Or your commander gets his green brains spread all over the place!”
The Romulans looked at each other quizzically.
“SHOOT THEM!” Ardek shouted.
The penguinoids continued to advance on the altar, looking from Kris to Larkin and squawking among themselves, appearing quite agitated and confused.
“It is I, Larrin!” Larkin said. “Here to protect you. Please help us stop these horrible offenders!”
“Wawwwwkk,” the penguinoids said in unison. “Larrin?”
Richards looked around the room nervously. “Is it working?” he called back between clenched teeth.
And then, in a rush of flapping flippers and angry squawks, the penguinoids rushed the altar. Kris heard shouts, squawks, and the whine of phasers and disruptors. Then a large flipper slammed down into her face and the world went black.
The world slowly came back into focus for Kris Larkin.
“Ah, you are finally awake.”
Kris turned her head, following the sound of Larkin’s voice. The android was slumped next to Kris at the back of the cathedral, like a marionnette with its strings cut. “Are you functioning within normal parameters?” Larkin asked nonchalantly.
“I guess,” Kris sighed. She pulled at her wrists and ankles, quickly realizing she was once again tied down. Actually, this time she was tied back. Strapped by powerful restraining bolts to the back wall of the icy cathedral. “I take it your plan failed?” she said weakly.
“That is correct,” Larkin replied. “Apparently, my status as a godlike entity on this planet is not what it used to be.”
“I could have told you that.”
“It is unfortunate that you did not.”
“How on Earth did they manage to incapacitate you? I thought you were…like, unstoppable.”
“Indeed I am not. Apparently, the Romulans were able to find my motor coordination unit and disable it.”
“Uh-huh. Did you guys ever come across Bort?”
“Indeed. When we found the Daisy.”
“Well, that’s a relief. Where is he?”
“He should be safe aboard our ship by now.”
“I’m glad. I’d hate to think he would come to harm because of me.” Kris looked over her left shoulder. Strapped in next to her were Chris Richards and three security officers, all unconscious. “You sure did bring the cavalry.”
“I would have come alone; however, Mr. Richards felt the need to come along. I, like you, did not wish to endanger others.”
“After all these years, he still cares about me,” Kris said, incredulous. “I didn’t realize he had it in him.”
“Whatever Mr. Richards ‘has in him’ did not help us rescue you. Instead, we have only succeeded in dooming everyone here.”
“Didn’t you say you have a ship in orbit?” Kris asked. “Maybe they can help us.”
“We do have a ship here,” Larkin said. “Only not in orbit.”
“We brought the Escort.”
“For Pete’s sake, is that all I’m good for?”
“We felt that discretion was essential.”
Kris rolled her eyes. “So where is the Escort?”
“To my knowledge, it is still embedded in one of this planet’s collapsed caverns.”
“I see. How many officers aboard?”
“Do you think any of them have the ability to get us out of here?”
“So we’re all going to die?”
“Negative. You will all die. I, apparently, will become a plaything of Ardek’s.”
“You may have to get in line.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Looks like old Ardek has a thing for me, too.”
Larkin took all this in. “I see. Then we shall both be playthings of Ardek’s. It is fortunate at least that the sacrifice of me and my fellows will spare your life.”
“For what it’s worth, thank you, Kristen.”
“Do not mention it.”
Lt. Hartley crawled out of the Jeffries’ tube and wiped her hands on a rag. “Try it now, Susan.”
“Okay…” Ensign Madera said warily. “Powering up SIF generators.”
Hartley looked around the cramped engine room as power thrummed through the auxilliary impulse generators. She could hear a soft creaking in the hull, signalling that at least some of the weight of the ice that crunched down on them was being lifted. The lights flickered.
“Is it working?” Tarfiff asked.
Hartley rushed over to a panel. “I think. Let me check something.” She brought up readings of the Escort’s hull integrity. “Whew,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “I think we may just live after all.”
Madera shivered, folding her arms inside her survival jacket to conserve some warmth. “If we manage to get the life support system up to full power so we don’t freeze together.”
“One thing at a time, Ensign,” Hartley said, shoving an isometric stabilizer into her toolbelt and climbing the ladder to the upper level of the engine room, toward the deuterium containment tank. “I’ll fix the matter regulator. You try to get the external sensors up and running.”
“What am I looking for?” Madera asked, swinging into a chair behind the auxilliary sensor panel.
“Chris and the others. I’m starting to get worried about them. They haven’t reported in since Bort came aboard.”
“I wonder how he and Sefelt are getting along?” Madera mused, as Hartley crawled underneath the dry deuterium control pump, working it free of its housing and yanking it out of the matter reaction assembly. It would have to be replaced, but without replicator power, they’d have to jury-rig it until they got back to the Explorer. “Last I heard, Bort was teaching Sefelt how to drink.”
“Mr. Sefelt needs a bit of a manly influence in his life.”
“That he does,” Hartley said, then stuck her head out from under the control pump. “Could you try to raise the away team now?”
Madera sighed and crossed over to the auxilliary communication console and touched a control, activating the shore-to-shore tranceiver array. “I’ll try using the Escort’s communication system to raise them.”
“Good luck,” Hartley muttered, working a multiphasic socket wrench into the pump’s crushed circulation control module.
“Escort to away team. Come in, someone,” Madera said urgently. “Come on.”
Madera almost gave up, when she heard a crackle of static over the engine room speakers, and a sound that made her shiver.
“Lieutenant!” Madera said worriedly.
Hartley’s head dangled down from atop the warp core assembly. “What the hell was that?”
“Some kind of…bird?”
“That’s not just any kind of bird,” Hartley said, sliding down the ladder. “That’s a penguin!”
“Escort,” a slithering voice said. “This is Commander Ardek of the Romulan Warbird Horshak. Consider yourself a prisoner of Romulus.”
“We’re not prisoners of jack s***, Ardek,” Hartley said, crossing the engine room to the sensor panel and attempting to trace the signal. “Where are our people?”
“Safe with me, for now. But they won’t be for long.”
“F***er,” Hartley muttered. “What do you want from us?”
“Nothing. At least, not any longer. I have what I want.”
“Larkin,” Hartley said softly.
“You’re perceptive for a human. I’ll tell you what. If you can get that ship of yours operational and escape this planetoid without being wiped out by the Warbird in orbit, I won’t stand in your way. I already have enough prisoners.”
“F***er!” Hartley repeated, slamming her fist into the sensor panel.
“Good day,” Ardek said sweetly.
“What do we do?” Madera asked, as Hartley tapped away at the sensor panel furiously.
“We find him. We get our people back. And we kill him.”
“Tall order, seeing as we can’t even get life support online.”
“Have no fear, Ensign,” Hartley said, climbing back up to the top of the warp core. “I’ve got everything under control.”
“Could have fooled me.”
Madera ducked as a gyronic driver coil sailed toward her. Hartley apparently wasn’t in a joking mood.
“Why don’t I feel good about this?” Captain Baxter asked, strolling into the grand dining room in Jernasi Prime’s royal palace, feeling itchy in his dress uniform.
“Because you don’t want to do it,” Peterman whispered, nudging him in the gut. “Make nice with the Jernasi or your father will beat you. And,” she added, lowering her whisper, “I will too.”
“Talk about a double-edged sword,” Baxter swooned, as two tuxedoed penguins escorted him and Peterman to their place at the table. Something about penguins wearing tuxedos made Baxter want to laugh, but he decided that would be inappropriate.
Quaylig sat at the front of the table, his beak upturned in a pointy grin. Harlan sat at his left, and Lucille at his right.
“You’re a little late, aren’t you?” Lucille remarked cattily as Baxter scooched Peterman into a seat next to Harlan.
“Our transporter beams hit some traffic,” Baxter joked, rounding the table to sit next to his mother and ordering a grapefruit juice cocktail from the dapper penguin waiter.
“Ha ha ha,” Harlan chortled dryly, then added, “quiet, boy.”
Baxter slunked a little lower in his seat.
“This is a beautiful dining room,” Peterman said, after silence had descended on that end of the table.
“Paid for by the Jernasi war effort,” Quaylig said with a chuckle, clinking his champagne glass with Harlan’s.
Harlan grunted a laugh that almost sounded like he was coughing. “War effort, yes. Har har.”
Quaylig turned his attention to Baxter. “Captain, where is your first officer?”
“Uh…sick,” Baxter said, folding his hands on top of the table. “A bit of pneumonia or something.”
“I do hope he didn’t catch that down here,” Quaylig said, without much emotion.
“He probably did, actually,” Browning called from several chairs down the table.
“Janice…” Baxter said warningly.
“Well, he did. Something in this atmosphere reactivated some dormant cells in his mucous membranes. Whatever it is, it’s much like a planet we visited in the Delta Quadrant.”
“Hrrmmmm…” Quaylig squirmed, then called down to the other end of the table. “Lt. J’hana…I hope you like raw fish!”
“If it’s as good as the fish we had this morning, I shall quite enjoy it, Mr. Prime Minister!” J’hana called back.
“It’s even better,” Quaylig assured her.
“Is fish all you ever eat here?” Browning asked uncomfortably. “No chicken, no steak?”
“Chicken!” Quaylig exclaimed. “Is that not some type of bird?”
“It’s a bird,” Baxter said, “that doesn’t resemble penguins at all whatsoever.”
“Still…your people do not eat other humanoids, do they?”
“Not as a rule,” Browning admitted.
“Mr. Prime Minister,” a prim-looking Jernasi said, leaning toward Quaylig and whispering something.
“Very good, then,” Quaylig said, clapping his hands together. “The Golath contingent is here.”
Harlan, Lucille, and all the Jernasi that were seated stood up, clapping their hands as the Golath were ushered into the grand dining room.
“Son…” Harlan grunted.
“Oh, right,” Baxter said, as he and his staff slowly stood up to acknowledge the Golath’s arrival. “Thanks for coming!”
Ngaa stood at the front of the Golath group, looming over the Starfleet officers and Jernasi. “My thanks for the invitation, Mr. Quaylig.”
“No thanks necessary,” Quaylig said, waving a flipper dismissively. “Please sit down.”
Ngaa thundered over to a seat next to J’hana and hunched down, having an even harder time squeezing into a Jernasi seat than the Starfleet officers.
J’hana grinned as she sized up Ngaa. “You are substantial, aren’t you, sir?”
“Yes,” Ngaa replied. “And you are the color of deep cerulean ice.”
“Ah, dinner is served!” Quaylig suddenly said, watching a line of Jernasi waiters wobble in hurriedly, balancing trays above their heads. “Eat up, my friends, eat up!”
Baxter grimaced at the greenish-white mass that flopped down onto his plate. “Mmm…nothing like raw cold fish on a cold winter’s day.”
“It is summer, thank you!” Quaylig replied. “And unseasonably warm!”
“Mr. Quaylig, please do not get so offended,” Tilleran said diplomatically from her place between J’hana and Peterman. “We’re not your enemies…”
“So you say!” Quaylig squealed.
“Mr. Prime Minister,” Harlan said soothingly.
“I think we’d better just eat,” Quaylig said firmly, dropping fish chunks into his beak.
The dinner only lasted about half an hour, full of the furious beak-gnashing of the Jernasi hosts, the slobbering and grunting of the Golath, and the uncomfortable plate-picking of the Starfleet officers.
Once the meal was through, the group retired to a cavernous library down the hall from the dining room, where small glasses of some kind of thick, cold, fruity drink were passed out to everyone.
Baxter sipped tentatively at his drink. It was tart, cold, and hard to swallow. Just the thing he needed after picking at cold, limp fish.
The captain had a hard time figuring out what possible reason the Federation had for admitting the Jernasi in the first place. It certainly wasn’t for their cuisine.
“What do we do now?” Browning asked, drifting over to the tiny chair Baxter had crunched into.
“Beats me,” Baxter said moodily. “Just smile and play nice with them. My mom and dad are charming enough for the rest of us.”
“They sure were cut out for diplomatic duty,” Peterman offered, slouched on the arm of Baxter’s chair.
“Someone on our ship might as well be,” Baxter muttered.
“Hey, I’d like to think I’m darned diplomatic,” Peterman said defensively.
Baxter rolled his eyes. “You are, you are, honey.”
“Captain,” Lt. Tilleran said, approaching Baxter.
Baxter looked away from Peterman’s annoyed glare and looked up at the Betazoid. “What is it, Lieutenant?”
“I’m not feeling so well. Permission to return to the ship?”
“Think it was the Jernasi food?” Browning asked.
“Probably,” Tilleran said. “I think it might cause a diplomatic incident if I puked here.”
Baxter rubbed his chin. “You’re probably right. Permission granted.”
“Thanks, sir,” Tilleran said, and hurried out of the library.
“Hey,” Browning said, craning her neck so she could see across the room. “I think Mr. Ngaa is about to sing.”
The polar bear-looking creature had settled behind an oval, multi-tiered contraption that bore a passing resemblance to a piano.
“Gather around,” Ngaa bellowed. “I shall sing you a song about my people.”
“This I have to hear,” Browning said, and grabbed Peterman’s hand. “Come on, Kelly.”
“Andy?” Peterman asked, as Baxter headed for the door.
“You enjoy Ngaa’s song. I have to take a leak.”
Jernasi urinals were uncomfortably low. Baxter had to squat to get his business done. Just as he zipped up his trousers, Harlan Baxter sauntered in.
“Dad,” Baxter said half-heartedly.
“That Ngaa has an incredible voice, son,” Harlan said, and ducked into a stall.
Baxter nodded, looking himself over in the mirror and washing his hands. “Uh-huh. I’ll see you outside, Dad.”
“Son…you think you could grab me a book from that library?”
Baxter grimaced. “You don’t want me to cause an interstellar incident, do you?”
“Son, I need reading material!” came Harlan’s muffled voice from within the stall.
“Sheesh,” Baxter said, as he ducked out of the swinging bathroom door–
–and was shoved back inside by a hulking pair of very angry looking Jernasi. They looked nothing like Jernasi though. They were huge, powerful. They looked more like the proto- hominid penguins the Aerostar had come across in the Delta Quadrant.
At the sound of the commotion, Harlan stumbled out of the stall, trousers around his ankles. “Andy?”
“Help, Dad!” Baxter said, beating both fists onto the bulky shoulders of one of his assailants.
Harlan waddled over and lept onto one of the penguinoids, who dragged his head forward into the bathroom wall.
“Damn it, what the hell do you think you’re doing!” Baxter cried as the penguins shoved his head against the hard against the hard, cold porcelain of the urinal.
“You don’t screw with P.M. Quaylig, Starfleet scum. We’re here to teach you a lesson.”
“We’re diplomats, you little bastards!” Harlan grunted, tripping over the penguins in an attempt to get to the bathroom door.
Baxter scrambled to touch his communicator, when suddenly a muscled flipper yanked it off.
J’hana whistled merrily, heading toward the ladies’ room. Ngaa had definitely been making goo-goo eyes at her. But what was her status with Dwanok? Would having an affair with the polar bear ambassador have repurcussions down the road with her and her Klingon behemoth? They had a pretty open relationship. J’hana reasoned Dwanok wouldn’t care.
As she approached the ladies’ room door, J’hana heard a furious rumbling coming from the adjacent mens’ room.
Then she heard screaming.
The Andorian cocked her head. “Captain?”
The bathroom door swung open, and Harlan shoved his head out, breathless. “J’hana! Help! We’re getting the s*** knocked out of us!” Just as suddenly, Harlan was dragged back inside.
J’hana shook her head with amusement as she turned for the ladies’ room. Men and their love affair with the toilet. She’d never understand it.
The scenery in Captain Baxter’s readyroom sped by dizzily as Lt. Ford spun in Baxter’s office chair.
Command was such a piece of cake.
“Ensign Saral to Lt. Ford,” came the bleep over the comm system.
Ford gripped Baxter’s desk to stop the spinning. It took a while for his eyes to adjust to his current lack of spinning. “What is it, Saral?”
“The Jernasi ships have begun to move.”
“Into a defensive pattern around the planet.”
“I wonder why?” Ford said, tapping the laquered desk idly.
“I do not know. But I can not seem to raise anyone on Jernas.”
“Well, that’s no good.”
“Sir, I have tried to be delicate about the matter. You are needed urgently out here, as the officer in command.” There was definitely a tinge of resentment in Saral’s voice at that last statement.
“Okay, okay,” Ford said, swinging around Baxter’s desk. “I’m coming.” Ford strolled out onto the bridge, leaning against the railing that surrounded the command chairs. “Put the Jernasi ships on screen.”
The arched black ships appeared on screen, surrounding the area of Jernasi Prime that faced Explorer.
“The Golath battalion is responding by taking a similar defensive position behind us.”
“We’re caught in the middle?” Ford asked weakly.
“So it would seem.”
“Hmmm.” Ford stroked his chin. “What should we do?”
“My initial reccomendation would be to radio the Jernasi ships. However, they have not responded to any of my hails.”
“Well,” Ford said, brushing his hands together. “Obviously, you have this situation well in hand. I’ll just be back in my ready–”
“Mr. Ford!” Saral said, gesturing toward the viewscreen.
Several black, hawklike Jernasi ships shimmered visible, surrounding the Jernasi ships that were already protecting the planet.
“More Jernasi ships?”
“Aye, sir,” Saral replied. “And more keep decloaking. They have broken the Treaty of Algeron!”
“They’re not allowed to have cloaking devices. Especially without letting us know about them.”
“Uh-huh.” Ford made his way down to the front of the bridge. “How many of them are out there?”
“Fifteen…no, twenty…” Saral said, continuing to study her scans. “Sir, the number continues to grow.”
“F***,” Ford said, and collapsed into the command chair.
“Message coming in from Jernasi Prime.”
Ford shrugged. “Put it on screen, I guess.”
The view of Jernasi Prime gave way to a view of the interior of an office. Quaylig folded his flippers primly on top of his desk.
“Explorer, this is Quaylig, Prime Minister of Jernas. Your away team is now in our custody. Pledge the unwavering support of the Federation fleet in our battle with the Golath, or you and your friends will all die.”
“I doubt the Federation would let me make a pledge like that,” Ford said. “We can’t just help you obliterate another race.”
“Then I hope you enjoy oblivion.”
“What the heck is that supposed to mean?” Ford asked, stroking his chin.
“The Jernasi ships are firing!” Saral announced.
“Shields!” Ford shouted.
Ford gripped the command chair as enemy fire rumbled against the Explorer’s hull. “Then go to Red Alert.”
“Arm all weapons and return fire!”
Ford glanced back at Saral wryly. “Glad to see you’re on top of things, Ensign.”
Ford rushed over to the helm console. “Ensign Hildebrand, break orbit and try to avoid the crossfire. Let the Golath fight them.”
“Aye, sir,” Hildebrand replied, hands dancing on the helm console.
Explorer broke away from Jernasi Prime, weaving around the interchanging weapons fire that flew between the bulky white Golath battlecrusiers and the spindly Jernasi ships.
“What in the hell happened down there,” Ford asked, bracing himself between the helm and ops stations.
“This is going in my report!” Captain Baxter cried, as he was dragged up a mess of closely-cropped stairs. He heard Harlan Baxter grunting angrily behind him.
“Shut up!” a penguinoid muttered, and a flipper slammed into his head.
Suddenly Baxter was shoved inside a door and slammed down onto the shaggy green carpet.
The stumpy Prime Minister waddled out from behind his desk and took stock of Harlan and the Captain. “Hope you all weren’t treated too roughly!”
“What’s this about, Quaylig?” Harlan snapped.
“It’s about the unconditional support of the Federation in our war effort, Mr. Baxter,” Quaylig said, hopping onto his desk as Harlan and the Captain were dragged into chairs.
“Bardo, why don’t you activate the orbital sensors?” Quaylig said, chucking a flipper in the direction of the screen across from his desk.
An image suddenly flickered to life on the monitor. It was the Explorer, deftly avoiding the crossfire of the battling Jernasi and Golath ships. Explosions from ships on both sides erupted all over the viewscreen.
“How long do you think your ship will last out there?” Quaylig asked. “Not long, I would think. The Golath aren’t Federation, so they won’t avoid hitting your precious ship. And one of my squadrons has been instructed specifically to target Explorer.”
“Don’t be ignorant, Captain,” Quaylig said. “Sign an accord granting the Federation’s total support in our war effort and I’ll order that squadron to protect Explorer. If not, your crew dies and so do you.”
“I don’t like either of those options,” Baxter mused.
“What have you done with the rest of the away team?” Harlan asked, ignoring Baxter.
“They’re still our guests here in the palace,” Quaylig explained. “Though we have raised a transporter scrambler and forcefield so that your ship can’t beam any of you out.”
“Thoughtful of you,” Baxter grumbled.
“Why do you want the Golath to be destroyed so badly?” Harlan asked.
Quaylig slid off his desk, waddled over to Harlan. “Look at me,” he said coldy. “Like most of my people, we are unbearably short next to other humanoids. Which makes us weak in their eyes. Vulnerable.”
“The Federation never saw you that way,” Harlan urged.
“I don’t believe you.” Quaylig folded his flippers. “We’ve always been suspicious of those stronger than us. That’s why we sought out the Federation and joined them. That’s also why we’ve secretly built up such a fleet. We’re not going to be conquered.”
“No one wants to conquer you, you stupid little git!” Baxter cried.
“You shut up!” Quaylig cried, voice wavering with anger. He turned back to Harlan. He thumbed a flipper in the direction of the hulking penguinoid guards. “These are two of only a handful of their kind left here on Jernas. Thousands of them thrived on this planet once. But we sent them away!”
“Away–to where?” Harlan asked blankly.
Quaylig narrowed his eyes and pointed at Baxter. “To the Delta Quadrant.”
Baxter’s eyes grew wide. “The planet of proto-hominid penguins. They’re from here!”
“Yes,” Quaylig said. “We built a massive subspace generator on one of our moons. Our people had space-warping technology long ago. And they used it to make sure those proto-penguins never had a chance to conquer us.”
Baxter blinked. “I don’t believe it. You’ve had the technology to travel to other quadrants all this time?”
“Not anymore. That technology was obliterated in a war decades ago.”
“So…that planet…where we sent our crewmembers…” Harlan said.
“If it’s come back to this quadrant, then there must have been some kind of malfunction,” Quaylig explained. “But the moon is probably horribly unstable. If the planetoid even holds together, it won’t be staying in the Alpha Quadrant long.”
“Put us through to the Explorer!” Baxter ordered, leaping across to the desk and grabbing Quaylig’s neck.
“Only if you promise the Federation’s support!”
“I promise to beat your ass!” Baxter cried, as he was yanked away from Quaylig by the Jernasi guards.
“Let’s let them stew in their own juices for a while,” Quaylig said, hopping off his desk and wobbling out of the room. “They can think about what’s happening to their friends on our moon. Maybe that will make them a little more amenable to our needs.”
Baxter slumped into his chair as Quaylig and the guards left. “I should have seen this coming, Dad.”
Harlan put a comforting hand on Baxter’s shoulder. “You had no way of knowing, son. This is all my fault. I was too busy trying to cater to the Jernasi, trying to make sure I wouldn’t cause any trouble between them and the Golath. I never thought to suspect them of planning something this insideous.”
“Well,” Baxter sighed. “What do we do now?”
Harlan harrumphed. “We find a way out of here.”
Baxter glanced over his shoulder. The guards stared in at them through the glass doors to Quaylig’s office. “How do you hope to do that with our two plucky friends hanging around outside?”
“I have it covered, son,” Harlan said, slyly placing a hand inside his jacket pocket.
When Harlan retrieved the object from his pocket, Baxter stared at him quizzically. “You’re lighting a cigar?”
“Might as well have a last smoke before they do us in, right, boy?” Harlan asked merrily, sparking the cigar up with his old-fashioned Zippo lighter.
With a grin that smacked of days gone by, Harlan flicked his cigar into Quaylig’s wastebasket, which immediately began to smoke.
“Good thing they still use paper,” Baxter remarked. He was finally catching on.
The doors to Quaylig’s office burst open, and the two penguinoid guards rushed in. One hurriedly tossed the wastebasket out the window, before the fire could spread. The other turned on Baxter and his father.
“What did you two do?” the penguin that Quaylig had called Bardo squawked angrily.
“Now, boy!” Harlan cried, and shouldered into the penguin that was facing him and Baxter. The captain dutifully rammed his own shoulder into the penguinoid.
Bardo stumbled back, arms wheeling, toward the window, slamming into the other penguinoid and smashing right through. Both plummeted two stories to the ground below.
“See you next fall!” Baxter grinned, glancing down at the two unmoving lumps in the courtyard outside the palace.
“I’m sure that didn’t attract attention,” Harlan grumbled, grabbing Baxter’s arm. “Let’s go, boy.”
“Ugg…” Lt. Commander Richards moaned, as his eyes fluttered open.
“Welcome back,” Kris Larkin said. “Good of you to join us again.”
Richards shook his head to clear the fog that had encroached on his brain. Then he yanked at the bolts that held him at the wrists and ankles. “What happened?”
“The penguinoids were successful in disabling us all,” Larkin replied evenly.
“They disabled your motor co-processing unit,” Richards said angrily. “Just great.”
“I have repeatedly tried to use my self-repair algorithms to re-initialize the processor, but it would appear that they physically removed it.”
“Bastards,” Richards muttered, then looked to his left. Gellar, Puckett, and O’Donnell were strapped in much like him. “What happened to Andrews and McCarthy?”
“Dead,” Larkin said simply.
“How are we going to get out of this?” Kris asked.
“We need to contact the Escort,” Richards said. “They’re our only hope.”
“I have been working out a plan,” Larkin said. “It requires that we enlist the help of the penguinoids.”
“And how do you plan on doing that?” Richards asked.
“By accessing a universal translator matrix and altering it so that we can speak to the penguinoids.”
“And where are you going to get one of those?”
“From a tricorder.”
Richards glanced around him. “Good luck finding one of those. Ardek’s probably hidden them, along with our weapons.”
Larkin’s eyes darted around. “I have already found one.”
“Where?” Richards asked dumbly.
“She’s used her remote tranciever to access her tricorder’s database,” Kris said simply. “Don’t you know how that works?” Larkin had obviously wiled away the hours explaining this procedure to Kris.
“Sure I do,” Richards said. “But I didn’t realize your tranciever was up and running.”
“I have utilized the spare time I now have to complete the modifications.”
Richards grinned. “How efficient of you.”
Larkin cocked her head. “The translation matrix is almost complete.”
“Good morning, gentle people,” Ardek suddenly said, drifing into the cathedral, flanked by Romulan guards and penguinoid followers. “I hope you slept well.”
“F*** off,” Richards muttered.
“Oh, don’t be like that!” Ardek said cattily. “If someone had my life in his hands, I’d certainly be nicer.”
“You don’t intimidate us,” Kris said. “And don’t think you’ve won yet.”
Ardek trailed a finger up Kris’ chin. “But my dear, I have won. We’re getting ready to leave now. I never dreamt my plan would work this well. Not only do I have Larkin, but I have you and a handful of Federation prisoners for the Tal Shiar to interrogate. And I have a Federation ship for us to dismantle.”
“You’re going to try to take the Escort?” Richards asked.
“I have a team en route to capture her as we speak,” Ardek said simply. “Why, do you have a problem with that?”
Richards chuckled. “No, Ardek. I think your officers will be the ones with problems.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
Richards chuckled again. “You’ll find out.”
The Romulans moved silently across the ice. Krellin, at point, made quiet gestures to the three men that were with them to follow him to the Escort’s forward access hatch. Another group of four was circling around back to the microshuttle launch bay. According to the Romulans’ sensor readings, Escort only had three occupants. All human. Two female.
This would be a simple victory, Krellin thought, as one of his men worked the entrance hatch soundlessly open.
Krellin slipped through, activating his search beacon. The Romulan next to him, Rural, eyed his tricorder. “We are directly below the forward quantum torpedo launcher. Ahead are the weapons and engine rooms, and the vessel’s two cargo bays.”
“Life signs?” Krellin asked, gripping his phaser rifle and looking around suspiciously.
“One directly ahead, in the engine room. One on Deck Two in a stateroom. And the third up on the bridge.”
“This is too easy,” Krellin said, pressing on toward the engine room.
“Suspicions, sir?” asked Rural.
“Nah.” Krellin pried the doors to the engine room open and stepped through, gesturing for the officers behind him to flush in and take positions throughout the room.
Quickly, Krellin scanned the engine room. “Come out, Starfleet. This ship has been captured by Romulus.”
“Huahhh!” one of the Romulan guards suddenly cried, flying up toward the top of the engine room. He dangled helplessly from a thick variaxial cable cord. Some type of primitive snare.
“Clever trap, human,” Krellin said aloud. “Injure another of my officers, and I promise you a painful death.”
Rural glanced over the warp core railing. “The life sign is directly below, Centurion. Four meters, three meters, two meters, One me–”
And two hands grabbed Rural’s ankles from the lower warp core level, dragging him to the deck with a painful thud.
Krellin turned quickly toward the sound of Rural’s gasp, just in time to see a Starfleet female bash him in the head with the butt of her phaser rifle.
“Lt. Megan Hartley, Starfleet, at your service,” Hartley said with an impish grin, and rushed Krellin before he could lift his own weapon.
The engine room echoed with the screams of the damned.
The leader of the second team, Verak, poked his head into the cabin where the second Starfleet lifesign was located. “Make this easy on yourself, female. Come out of there!”
“I don’t want to,” came a wavering voice from within the top bunk. “I’m scared!”
Verak’s face split into an evil sneer as he stepped into the cabin. He couldn’t see the occupant of the bunk because she’d drawn the curtains, but she sounded beautiful. “You have nothing to fear from me, human. I will take care of you.”
“Promise?” came the weak voice.
“Cool.” The curtains flung open and two legs suddenly surrounded Verak’s neck. He stumbled back, Ensign Susan Madera trailing along with him, squeezing with all her might.
“Verak?” another Centurion asked, peering into the cabin.
Madera and Verak plunged toward the door, the latter scrambling blindly in a vain attempt to escape.
“You can have him. I’m finished with ‘im,” Madera said, grabbing the power conduit above her head and swinging off Verak’s shoulders, swinging her feet into his back with all her might, slamming him into the other Centurion.
Madera hopped down, withdrew her phaser, and held it on them both. Once she was sure they were both unconcious, she lugged them, one by one, into the crew quarters and sealed the door, brushing her hands together with satisfaction. “Enjoy your stay on the Escort, guys.”
The remaining two Romulans moved silently down the corridor toward what their tricorders told them was the bridge.
“I’m getting worried D’barge,” Centurion Neval said warily. “Krellin and Verak haven’t reported in yet.”
D’barge chuckled. “You think two teams of Romulans were taken out by a mere pair of human females?”
Neval shrugged. “I suppose you are right.” The pair came to a stop at the bridge. “After you, D’barge.”
“Please, Neval, you do the honors.”
“You are the superior officer.”
“And as such, I order you to go in there.”
Neval grimaced. “Fine.” He worked the bridge doors open and stepped through.
Lights blinked and flickered red and yellow on the dim bridge. At the center, a lone, shadowy occupant sat in the command chair.
“Stay where you are,” D’barge said warningly from behind Neval.
The chair turned slowly around, and Ensign Howard Sefelt grinned.
“Boys. Welcome to the bridge.”
“And what are you so nanchalant about?” Neval asked pointedly, as D’barge checked out the aft station.
Sefelt smiled wide. “Oh, nothing.”
“Neval. Over here,” D’barge barked.
Neval whirled around, examined the panel. “It’s a countdown.”
“Well, stop it!” D’barge exclaimed.
“I do not know how!” Neval said, frantically scrambling his hands over the panel.
“Human,” D’barge said, angling his head back toward the command chair. “Help us.”
Sefelt grinned, shook his head. “Nope nope nope.”
D’barge raised his phaser, turning it sideways, “execution- style.” “Help us or die!”
“And what makes you so brave, little man?” D’barge spat, stepping forward.
“The fact that I’m here,” bellowed a fattish Bolian emerging from behind hte helm/navigation console, wielding two hand phasers.
Before Neval or D’barge could react, he thumbed the control on both phasers, blasting both Romulans unconcious.
Bort flipped the phasers around in his hands and holstered them, nudging both unconcious Romulans with his foot. “You thought maybe he’d put the ship on self destruct?” Bort walked over and clapped a hand on Sefelt’s shoulder, chortling merrily.
“Yeah, right. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!” Sefelt echoed.
Laughing insanely, Sefelt collapsed to the floor next to the Romulans, drunker than a Klingon lounge singer.
Ensign Madera and Lt. Hartley stepped onto the bridge a few moments later and looked down at the tangle of bodies on the deck.
“Getting him drunk seemed to do the trick,” Bort said helpfully, as Hartley swung down to the ops/engineering console.
Madera took helm. “We should make a reccomendation to Counselor Peterman when we get back.”
“If we get back,” Hartley said. “That all depends on if we can carve our way out of this frozen tomb.”
“No time like the present,” Bort said, settling behind the tactical/communications console.
Hartley nodded. “I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Bort. Heat up the warp engines and get the tunneling phasers online.”
“We have to contact the Explorer,” Captain Baxter said, as he and his father made their way through the complicated corridors of Quaylig’s palace.
“Agreed,” Harlan said. “Any idea how?”
“There has to be a communication terminal around here somewhere,” Baxter said. “We just have to find it.”
They crossed an interlocking corridor, almost bumping into one of the Jernasi servants.
“Shouldn’t you be locked up?” the servant huffed in a British-sounding accent, apparently very annoyed.
“Yes,” Baxter said agreeably, grabbing the tiny penguin and slamming him repeatedly against the wall until he was unconcious.
“And you said you were no good at diplomacy,” Harlan said with a smile.
“I’ve wanted to do that almost since this mission began,” Baxter said, looking down the corridor. “It looks like there’s some electronic equipment that way. Let’s go.”
Harlan jogged down the corridor alongside Baxter. “You know, Andy, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more proud to be your father.”
“No, I mean it. You don’t do things like I do…maybe you made decisions I wouldn’t have. But you’re a damn good captain.”
“You really think so?”
Harlan nodded. “I’m sorry I’ve been so hard on you, boy.”
“Dad…” Baxter said, and the nose of a rifle was jabbed into his back.
“Keep your eye on them, Flarvus. They’re devious,” Quaylig said, keeping his distance behind a wall of Jernasi guards. “Nice escape attempt, by the way.”
“I really hate Jernasi,” Baxter muttered.
“So sorry,” Quaylig said. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t lose any sleep over that. Now how about we all go back to my office and call Starfleet to reccomend that they send ships here to help us immediately.”
“I don’t think so,” Baxter said resolutely.
“You’re hardly in the position to be flip,” Quaylig snapped. “We’re doing this with your cooperation or without it. Got it?”
“Do not patronize me!” Quaylig screamed. Then he realized that Harlan and the Captain were both laughing. “And what the hell are you laughing at?” He turned his head–actually, he had to angle his entire body, since penguins have no necks–to see a huge flowery vase smash down onto his head.
Before the Jernasi guards could move, J’hana’s phaser bathed over them, set for the widest possible dispersal.
The Andorian holstered her phaser. “I really hate Jernasi.”
“My sentiments exactly,” Baxter said, wrapping an arm around J’hana and ushering her back to Quaylig’s office, while Harlan collected the Jernasi weapons and jogged to catch up with them. “Glad to see you, Lieutenant.”
“I saw those bulky penguins drag you away as I emerged from the bathroom. I decided to ‘lie low’ and attempt to ascertain what they were doing.”
“Any word on the rest of the away team?” Baxter asked as they hurried down the corridor.
“They are sequestered in the library. It is sealed and heavily guarded.”
“It won’t be for long,” Baxter said, rushing into Quaylig’s office.
“Keep us moving, Hildebrand!” Ford ordered, trying to maintain his balance as the Explorer danced in between Golath and Jernasi ships. “Saral, concentrate fire on the three Jernasi ships that are tailing us.”
Suddenly the turbolift doors at the back of the bridge swept open. Commander Conway, clothed in flannel pajamas plastered with the phrase “Coffee Cups Through the Ages” and a multitudinous array of coffee cups from the human cappucino mug to the Gorn death-bringer, marched onto the bridge, his housecoat fluttering around him like a cape, and his bear-claw slippers making a soft stamping sound on the bridge carpet.
“Commander!” Ford said, shocked. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
“Whad da hell id habbening?” Conway demanded, shoving an inhaler in his nostril and snarking loudly on it.
“We’re under attack,” Ford said simply.
“By who?” Conway asked, turning toward the viewscreen and pocketing the inhaler.
“Everybody, it would seem.”
“I’b way to sig for dis shid,” Conway sighed. “Where id da Cabdain?”
“Down on the planet, with just about everyone else.”
“Fug,” Conway grunted, stuffing his hands in his housecoat pockets.
“I’m okay, Holly, really,” Lt. Tilleran said, as Nurse Holly Carter helped her out onto the bridge.
“Tillerad?” Conway asked. “I thoud you were down on the planid.”
Tilleran limped over to her station. “They poisoned me, Commander. They wanted me out of the way so they could trap our crew down there. I should have figured it out, but their emotions were so strong I couldn’t pick up specific readings.”
“Don’d blamb yourself, Lieutenad,” Conway snuffed, hobbling over to the command chair. “Ford, taig da helb ad see if you can get us away from da fightig.”
“Yes, sir,” Ford said, relieving Hildebrand at helm.
“Tillerad,” Conway said, turning the command chair toward the science station. “Fide our peeble down there.”
“Yes, sir,” Tilleran said, tacking at her science console.
“Remember, Lieutenant, take it easy,” Holly Carter said, heading back into the turbolift. “The poison isn’t altogether out of your system yet.”
“I’m fine,” Tilleran insisted, pulling up scans of the palace on her terminal.
Conway examined the fighting on the viewscreen. “God dab Jerdasi.”
“Commander, we’re getting a message from the palace,” Saral said suddenly from tactical.
“Pud id on screed,” Conway said uneasily, withdrawing a handkerchief from his housecoat and blowing his nose loudly.
Captain Baxter appeared on the viewscreen, flanked by Harlan and Lt. J’hana.
“Capdain!” Conway exclaimed.
“You’re looking well, Commander,” Baxter said dryly. “Listen: We don’t have much time. You have to go to the Magila system immediately. That planet Richards and Larkin went to is Crysta, the planet we visited when we were in the Delta Quadrant. With the proto-hominid penguins.”
“The reason you’re having a pneumonia relapse is because Crysta once orbitted Jernas. To make a long story short–”
“Too lade,” Conway mumbled.
”–the Jernasi sent those proto-hominid penguins away from their planet hundreds of years ago because they were afraid they would one day take over. They used some kind of inverted transwarp bubble to do it.”
“Exactly. But the field generator must have somehow reactivated and sent the planet back to the Alpha Quadrant, only a few light years away from Jernas. The planet is bound to go back into space-time flux soon, and when it does, it will return to the Delta Quadrant and/or break apart with our people on it!”
“You need to go there now and get them! And send a message to Richards instructing him to get off that planet immediately.”
Conway shook his head, trying to clear the dizzyness. “Whad about you and de oders, Capdain? I won’t jus leab you down dere!”
“We can take care of ourselves. J’hana’s working now to disable the field around the palace. But don’t worry about that. You have to rescue Chris and the others before they’re transported to the Delta Quadrant.”
“Tillerad,” Conway said, spinning away from the viewscreen. “Tell me dere’s a way to beam dem outta dere.”
“I’m working on it, Commander. It’s next to impossible with all these ships firing at us!”
“I bet Lt. Hartley would be able to find a way to do it,” Ford said wistfully.
“Well she’s not here,” Tilleran snapped. “I’m working as fast as I can.”
Conway rolled his eyes.
Baxter made an impatient huffing sound on the viewscreen. “Go now, Conway!’
“Wait a damb minude!” Conway said. “I’b sure we’ll–”
“I have a way to rescue our people, sir,” Saral suddenly piped up from tactical.
“Good to see sobone’s doig dere job around here,” Conway said scoldingly.
“I’m sick, you know!” Tilleran said defensively.
“I ab too, bud you don’t see me whinig aboud id. Whatta you got, Saral?”
“A quantum torpedo, sir, aimed at the basement directly below the Jernasi palace.”
“For Christ’s sake, we want to rescue theb, nod blow dem to hell!”
“I have adjusted the yield on the torpedo to simply wipe out the field generation system, sir. It will not kill our people. However, many Jernasi will no doubt die.”
“Fine. Fire,” Conway barked.
“Wait just a damn minute!” Baxter cried from the viewscreen. He was beginning to feel like he was being ignored by everyone on the Explorer bridge. Next to him, J’hana just chuckled.
At Saral’s command, a twinkling blue quantum torpedo emerged from its launcher between the warp pylons at the rear of Explorer, descending toward Jernas.
“Habby trails,” Conway muttered.
Baxter, Harlan, and J’hana looked around for a moment. Then the screen flickered and flared multicolored as the explosion wracked the Jernasi palace. Then the angle of the picture on the viewscreen shifted dramatically, most likely, Conway reasoned, due to the fact that the palace had just collapsed into its foundation.
“Pull dem outta dere,” Conway ordered.
“Damn you, Conway,” Baxter said, scrambling for balance as the floor in Quaylig’s office gave way under him. He grabbed Harlan’s arm to steady him as he, Harlan, and J’hana, plunged down into the lobby below, splintering wood raining down on them.
Baxter picked himself up off the ground and helped his father up, observing the chaos that had descended on the palace with amusement. Jernasi screamed, quacked, warbled, and waddled to and fro, attempting to figure out what the hell was happening as the palace crashed in on itself.
Then the door to the nearby library burst outward, as Ngaa crashed out, chirping penguins gripping his fur, hanging on with their beaks clenched in defiance.
Peterman, and Browning followed him out, penguins likewise clinging to them.
“Kelly!” Baxter said, rushing over and batting the Jernasi away. “Are you guys okay?”
“Yes,” Browning said, “thanks to Mr. Ngaa here. Once the building began to collapse, he took the opportunity to break us out.”
“Think nothing of it,” Ngaa said, tossing Jernasi off and bowing regally.
“You Federation beasts!” Quaylig cried, tumbling down the grand staircase as the walls thundered down around him. “You destroyed my palace!”
“Forgive me if I don’t lose any sleep over it,” Baxter said with a grin. He heard a rising whine around him and several annoyed squeaks as the Explorer’s transporters took hold of him. Unfortunately, before he’d totally dissolved, Quaylig managed to grab hold of his crotch with his beak and bite down hard.
Ardek paced the cavernous cathedral, hands clasped behind his back, twitching ever-so-slightly.
“Nervous, Ardek?” taunted Kris.
Ardek glared. “Certainly not. I expect my men are merely having difficulty getting Escort out of its icy berth.”
“Or maybe they’re all dead,” Richards postulated. “Ever think about that?”
“Shut up,” Ardek said. He finally stopped pacing. “Ardek to Krellin.”
“Krellin, this is Commander Ardek. Come in, please.”
“Face it, Ardek, it’s over,” Kris said. “You might as well give up now. You’ve lost.”
Ardek crossed the space between he and Kris instantly, staring her directly in the eyes. “I’ve lost nothing, bitch!”
“Do not touch her, or I promise you will regret it,” Larkin said evenly.
“Such emotion for an emotionless creature,” Ardek said, staring down at the heap that was Larkin, sprawled next to Kris. He fingered the oblong, gleaming metal motor co-processor he’d removed from Larkin. “Without this, you can’t move. What will you do, use your android brain against me?”
“That is correct.”
“I invite you to try,” Ardek said, grinning like a cheshire cat.
Larkin cocked her head, and a tiny, barely audible click sounded within her. “Modifications complete.”
“What?” Ardek asked, momentarily off-balance.
“Attention, my people,” Larkin announced, ignoring Ardek.
“You can forget about getting through to them,” Ardek said snidely. “They can’t understand you.”
“I am utilizing a universal translation matrix.”
“They can understand every word I say.”
The penguinoids shouldered past the Romulan guards and advanced on the altar.
“What do you want, demon?” asked one of the penguinoids. His words, translated through Larkin’s audio emitters, echoed in the cavern, overlaid against the warbles of his actual speech.
“I am no demon,” Larkin said, and her own warbles echoed back. “Ardik and I are both powerful gods. We rule the two worlds of your people’s afterlife equally.”
The penguinoids took all this in. Ardek looked on with detached amusement, but a hint of panic was evident in the way he impatiently tapped his boot.
“Who is superior?” echoed that strange voice over the penguinoid leader’s warbles.
“Allow my disciple,” Larkin indicated Richards with a movement of her chin, “to attend to me and I will show you who is superior,”
“Now wait just a minute…” Ardek thumbed his chest. “I am the superior god.”
“They cannot understand you, Ardek,” Larkin said.
The penguinoids bowed, and went about undoing the bolts on Richards’s wrists and ankles.
“Stop them!” Ardek commanded to his men. Before the Romulan guards could move, penguinoid altar boys held them at bay with their strong flippers.
Ardek’s eyes darted to and fro in panic as Richards pushed past him, grabbing the motor co-processor out of his hand. “I’ll take that.”
He kneeled next to Larkin, whispering, “Don’t kill him,” as he reached behind her and flipped open her dorsal access hatch.
“Understood,” Larkin said, cocking her head as Richards snapped her motor co-processor back into place.
Richards stood aside as Larkin rose to her feet. “Let the battle for heaven begin!” she announced.
“I’d rather not…” Ardek said weakly, backing away.
“She certainly is theatrical,” Kris said, as Richards moved to undo her restraining bolts.
“She reads a lot,” explained Richards.
“Do you wish to accept defeat now or must I hurt you?” Larkin asked, advancing on Ardek.
“You won’t hurt me,” Ardek said unsteadily. “I read up on you, remember? You’re programmed with the First Law of Robotics. You can’t hurt others.”
“That applies to humans,” Larkin said. “And I am allowed some…leeway in that regard. If I feel my comrades are in jeopardy, I can inflict harm. And, trust me, I will inflict it quite efficiently on you.”
“But I’m defenseless, I’m weak!” Ardek said, crunching into a corner of the cathedral. “Certainly you won’t hurt someone who can’t protect himself!”
“I will consider it,” Larkin said evenly. “Commander Ardek: You are under arrest. Will you come quietly?”
“Delar to Ardek,” Ardek’s communicator said with a bleep.
“Can this wait, Delar?” Ardek asked, staring up fearfully at Larkin.
“We have access to the generator.”
Ardek’s eyes brightened. “Good. Activate it. I’ll be there soon.”
“Activate what?” Larkin asked, when suddenly the cathedral began to rumble.
“I am so sorry that we didn’t get to know each other a little better,” Ardek said, scrambling under Larkin’s legs and rushing toward the back of the cathedral, gesturing for his officers to follow. “But I’ll have to settle for knowing that no one else will have access to your power. No one in the Alpha Quadrant, at least!”
“He found a way to displace this planetoid,” Larkin quickly surmised. “The seismic disturbance will tear it apart. If we survive, we will be stranded in the Delta Quadrant!”
“Then we have to stop him!” Richards said, shaking Gellar awake. Kris went to work on Puckett and O’Donnell. “Come on, Brian!”
“Wha?” Gellar asked, his eyes fluttering open.
“I’ll explain on the way,” Richards cried, grabbing Gellar’s arm and dragging him to his feet.
“Ardik is a god of destruction!” Larkin called to the other penguinoids. “He wants to destroy this planet. You must help me stop him!”
“Yes, Larrin!” the penguinoids chanted, swarming out of the cathedral on Larkin’s heels. Richards and the others followed.
When they reached the door, a huge, winged shadow descended over them.
“The Escort!” Richards cried.
“Where are you guys off to in such a hurry?” Hartley said over the loudspeakers. “Something very weird is going on with this planet, Mr. Richards. It doesn’t have to do with the time- space displacement you were talking about, does it?”
“As a matter of fact, it does,” Richards muttered, shaking his fist up at the Escort. “And as I recall, I told you to get out of here at the first sign of trouble!”
“Well screw me for coming to save your ass. Now what do you want me to do?”
Richards decided not to argue the point. “Keep the Escort idling here. Be ready to tunnel us out in a hurry.”
“Fair enough. You’d better hurry.”
“You can count on that,” Richards said, leading Kris, Gellar, and the two security guards into the large tunnel.
The penguinoids squawked loud throughout the cavern, calling their fellows to their aid. Soon, Larkin had a whole army of penguinoids following her into the tunnel.
“Wait for us!” Richards called, scrambling after Larkin with Kris, Gellar, O’Donnell and Puckett on his heels.
“What is happening down there?” Sub-Commander Gatana demanded, watching the planetoid’s energy readings soar off the scale.
D’mona analyzed the scans. “Huge generators are powering up deep inside the planet. Activating some type of rotating transwarp bubble.
“Can we get a comm signal through it?” Gatana asked casually.
“Well then,” Gatana said, settling into the command chair. “I guess Ardek is on his own. A pity.”
Richards and the others cut through the bustling crowd of penguinoids, trying to get to Larkin at the front.
“Larkin!” Richards called out. “What do you think Ardek is doing?”
“This planet is obviously the victim of a malfunctioning omnidirectional transverse subwarp displacement device. An ancient one, if the geographic data is any indication.”
“Obviously,” Richards echoed.
“Ardek must be attempting to use it to destroy this planet and strand us here.”
“Judging by the width of this tunnel, it is a good possibility that he has a scout ship down here, and will use it to escape once he has set the generators to overload.”
“Then we have to stop him.”
“I will stop him.”
Richards did not like the way Larkin said that.
After an exausting jog down the tunnel, attempting to keep up with Larkin’s steady clip, Richards and the others came upon another large cavern. Within, a mammoth, pulsing cylinder throbbed ominiously, at the center of what appeared to be a rather deep hole. It put Richards in mind of a warp core.
Larkin was right. A scout ship was parked nearby, its engines warming up.
“Glad you could make it!” Ardek said brightly, spreading his arms wide as he stood in front of the power core. “Do you like my new toy?”
“Step away from the generator, Ardek!” Larkin ordered.
“I will do so,” Larkin said, marching purposefully toward Ardek.
Two Romulans ran to restrain Larkin. She flicked them away effortlessly, not slowing down. Penguinoids squawked and warbled, forming a crowded circle around the generator. Obviously, they decided this was the “battle of the gods” they’d been told about.
“I’m going to go see if I can deactivate that cylinder,” Richards said, glancing to Kris and the others. “You guys stay here and make sure the Romulans don’t get away.”
Richards approached the trembling generator, in awe of the amount of power it would take just to keep it from overheating. No wonder the thing nearly busted the planet apart every time it was activated. He searched the clearing surrounding the cylinder for some sort of control panel.
He found a Romulan tricorder attached to an access panel dug into the ice nearby. It looked as though the Romulans had managed to power up the generator, and that its other functions were pretty much automatic. Its power levels rose as the field of space-warping energy crackled around the planetoid. Once the field reached an optimum level, the planet would be slingshotted back across the galaxy.
It must take a hell of a lot to keep this thing cooled, Richards thought again. Immediately Richards knew what he had to do.
Being stuck in an ice planet tended to help cool the massive generator, but wasn’t enough by far. If the coolant supply was cut off, the generator would overheat and probably blow up. Destroying the source of coolant was the only way Richards could think of to save the planet, since there was no apparent way to deactivate the generator. He rushed over to one of the fallen Romulan guards and grabbed his disruptor, setting it on its highest setting.
Gellar rushed over to join Richards. “Ideas?”
“One. Grab that other guard’s disruptor and set it to full.” Richards pointed to the large, glimmering green bulb at the top of the cylinder. By any engineering standard, that had to be the coolant chamber. “See that thing? We need to blast it to pieces.”
“Finally, something I’m well trained to do,” Gellar said, stooping down and grabbing the other guard’s disruptor.
He set it to full and aimed at the bulb, signaling to Richards that he was ready with a nod.
Richards and Gellar fired at the coolant tank simultaneously, holding their beams steady on it for several seconds.
Then, with a chorus of raining green fluid, the tank exploded, sending shards of glass down over the icy cavern.
Ardek looked up at the core as the coolant tank exploded, grimacing. “Damn. Why did your mommy have to do that? Now I’m going to have to bump up my departure time. If you’ll excuse me–”
Larkin lunged at Ardek, as he backed toward the ledge that led kilometers into the planetoid’s core, down the length of the immense power cylinder. “You will not escape.”
“Oh, I will. Why don’t you do me a favor and look up that daddy of yours when you get to the Delta Quadrant. Henricks, isn’t it? I’m sure you, him, and that engineer can have a very pleasant family reunion.”
“Do not patronize me. I can crush every bone in your body.”
“Ah, so you can. But wouldn’t you rather be the toast of Romulus?”
Ardek faltered. “Well, there you have it, then. So where do we go from here?”
“You will go to prison. For life,” Larkin said simply.
“I think not,” Ardek said, and quickly grabbed Larkin’s arms, crouching into a ball and rolling her over him and over the ledge that surrounded the powerful cylinder. “I don’t cotton well to prison, Miss Larkin.” He lay flat on his stomach, holding her above the seemingly bottomless pit below.
The penguinoids warbled in awe. Kris saw the exchange and pushed by Puckett, and O’Donnell, who both gave chase. She shoved past the larger penguinoids encircling the power core to get to Larkin. Richards saw too, and he and Gellar ran toward the site of the scuffle, pushing aside cheering penguinoids.
Ardek gripped Larkin’s wrists as she dangled over the crackling abyss. Bursts of electricity cracked up from the center of the planetoid’s power core.
“We could have been so good together, Larkin. Why did you have to go and screw it all up?” Ardek smiled wildy, reveling in the fact that he had this powerful android at his mercy.
“It is not altogether ‘screwed up,’ Ardek. You do have me,” Larkin said calmly. “Just not in the way you wanted me.”
Ardek’s smile faded. “What does that mean?”
“Larkin!” Richards and Kris called, as explosions rumbled from below. The core was exploding.
“Mr. Richards…Kris, get back!” Gellar cried, gesturing to Puckett and O’Donnell for help. The three security officers dragged Richards and Kris back with all their might as heat blasted up from the infinite chasm, knocking everyone off their feet.
“Larkin…what are you doing…let me pull you up!” Ardek gasped, his eyes burning as hot explosions ripped upward through the ice cavern, filling the place with thick steam. “You’re just an android. Why are you so damned stubborn!”
Heat blasted Larkin, tearing through her uniform and melting the syntheskin on her back. “‘Ironic, is it not, that I have the feelings you are so sure that I lack?’” she said, as if chatting with Ardek over coffee.
“What gibberish is that?” Ardek called over the din of the power core’s death throes.
“A line from ‘I, Robot,’ Mr. Ardek. A good book indeed. I highly reccomend it.” And Larkin planted her feet on the rock wall of the hole she was in and jerked back with all her might.
Ardek tumbled over her shoulder and the two plummeted, together, down.
Kris and Richards fought off Gellar and his officers and raced to the edge of the chasm.
Richards bent over, hands on knees, straining to see through the steam. “Larkin!” Richards called, praying for the impossible.
Kris buried her face in Richards’s shoulder. “Chris…she’s …gone.”
“We have to get out of here!” Gellar shouted, grabbing Richards’s arm. “This whole place is coming apart!”
Gellar was right; plates throughout the planetoid crunched together. Ice melted. Stalagmites plunged out of the cave floor. And the core gave off one last, deafening blast of heat and fire as it died.
The penguinoids squawked in terror, fleeing the cavern en masse. Gellar and his officers dragged Richards and Kris out as the very ground beneath them began to split apart.
The squawks and screams turned into muffled, far away sounds for Richards as he looked over his shoulder, trying to keep up with the speed at which Gellar was dragging him, unable to look away from the gargantuan core as it sunk down into the chasm.
He could only imagine what the penguinoids were going on about. Probably something about the gods being dead.
“I don’t like these readings,” Hartley muttered. “I just picked up massive explosions within the tunnel. Whatever was powering that displacement wave is gone…but the wave is already self-sustaining!”
“You mean the planet is going to go to the Delta Quadrant anyway?” Madera called over her shoulder from the helm.
“You can count on it,” Hartley said, checking the readings a second time.
“Then we have to go,” Madera said urgently. “Before we’re all trapped in the Delta Quadrant again.”
Hartley glared at Madera. “We’re not leaving them, Susan. And that’s final.”
“You’re the boss,” Madera sighed.
Madera glanced over her shoulder again. “F***ing what?”
“Never mind. It was before your time.” Hartley glanced back down at her readings. “Wait a minute! I’m reading a massive group coming out of the tunnel. About a hundred penguinoids. And five non-penguinoids.”
“Only five?” Bort asked uneasily from tactical/communications.
Hartley punched some controls, quickly activating the transporter. “Maybe one of them is lagging behind. Go ahead and beam the five up.”
Moments later, five embattled souls stumbled onto the bridge.
“Chris,” Hartley said, quickly taking stock of the away team’s appearance. She counted heads. “Where’s Larkin?”
Richards shook his head, shouldering by Hartley to get to the command chair. In a hoarse voice, he called to Madera: “Get us the hell out of here.”
Madera looked at Richards woefully. He looked twenty years older. And a woman who could easily be Larkin’s twin collapsed to her knees by the command chair and leaned her head on Richards’s shoulder.
“Now!” Richards barked, prompting Madera to swing around and enter the coordinates, sending the Escort plunging toward the nearest tunnel in the ice.
“I’m fine, by the way, and thanks for asking,” Gellar muttered, relieving Bort at tactical.
“Brian…” Hartley whispered. “What happened?”
“Larkin didn’t make it,” Gellar said simply, readying the tunneling phasers. “And we won’t either if we don’t move now.”
Hartley slumped behind the engine console, struck momentarily by a wave of disbelief. Larkin gone. If she had to bet on anyone surviving this trip, it would have been her. But Brian had a point. There would be time to mourn later. At the moment, the question of whether any of them would make it was still up for debate. Hartley hurriedly diverted all the power the tiny Escort had to structural integrity and tunneling phasers.
Captain Baxter paced the deck of Explorer’s bridge impatiently, arms folded, staring at the floor. “Can’t we go any faster?”
“Not if you want to make it to Magila in one piece,” Ford offered.
“Would you stop moving?” Dr. Browning asked, as she ran the tissue regenerator over the general area of Baxter’s crotch in a wide arc, careful not to get too close. “This is an unpleasant enough chore as it is.”
“Be quiet and pump me with more painkiller,” Baxter muttered.
“She’s ride. Stob pacig, Cabdain,” Conway snuffed from his chair. “Yer maging me dizzy.”
“Andy, I think I speak for everyone when I say you’re making us all nervous!” Peterman said. “Sit down, for goodness sake.”
Baxter glanced back at Peterman, sighed. “Fine.”
Her task finished, Browning placed the tissue regenerator back in her medical kit and slung it over her shoulder, moving up to the quarterdeck behind the command chairs, resting both hands on the railing around the command chairs to stop them from shaking.
“We’ll make it in time,” Peterman said, putting a reassuring hand on Baxter’s as he collapsed into his chair.
“Uh-huh.” Baxter tapped a button on his chair arm. “Baxter to Brig Three. Status?”
“I’m about ready to take my belt to Mr.Quaylig,”replied Harlan over the comm system. “And then Mr. Ngaa and I are off to the Constellation Cafe for drink.”
“Sounds great,” grumbled Baxter. “I’ll keep you posted on all the life-and-death stuff up here.”
“Good enough,” Harlan said, and closed the channel.
“Something’s coming in on longrange, sir,” J’hana piped up from tactical. “I’m picking up an imminent displacement wave building around the planetoid.”
“You’re not helping,” Peterman called over her shoulder.
“You want me to lie?”
“I want you to try to be a little more sensitive when you say things like that!”
“Well, forget about it.”
“I want a way to punch through the surface of that planetoid,” Baxter said, ignoring Peterman. “We need to get to the Escort if it’s trapped in there.”
“Phasers won’t do it quick enough,” Tilleran said, quickly doing the calculations. “And torpedoes would cause a cave-in.”
“Well, isn’t that just great,” Baxter said. “Someone please come up with something useful.”
“What?” Baxter said, turning to face Conway.
“I still don’t follow.”
“Wait a minute,” Tilleran said, punching new calculations on her panel. “The Commander is on to something. If we make several precision strikes on the planet’s surface with quantum torpedoes, then capture the debris with a wide-dispersal tractor, it would clear a path.”
“Like coring an apple,” Peterman said.
“Good thinking, Conway,” Baxter said, patting Conway on the shoulder. The Commander subsequently coughed a lungful of phlegm into his lap.
“I helped,” Tilleran said quietly from her station.
“There is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ Lieutenant,” Peterman scolded.
“Well, is there an ‘O’ in ‘go to hell,’ Counselor?” Tilleran shot back.
“Entering Magila system and coming out of warp,” Ford reported from the helm.
Baxter leaned forward. “Take us to the planetoid, full impulse.”
“Romulan Warbird in orbit,” J’hana announced. “Our weapons are at the ready.”
“As soon as we’re in range, I want you to blow them out of the stars,” Baxter ordered.
Suddenly, J’hana’s panel bleeped. She checked it. “Sir, the Romulans sent us a message. Text only.”
Baxter glared back at J’hana. “Well?”
“The message is ‘You are welcomed to it.’”
“The Romulans don’t seem like the giving-up type,” said Peterman.
“They are if they have nothing to gain from winning,” J’hana said. “They are moving away from the planetoid and going into warp.”
Baxter watched the Romulan Warbird disappear. “Fine. Find the Escort.”
“Searching. Lt. Tilleran, please assist with the sensors.”
“Jeeze, you mean I can be of help?”
“Do not be difficult,” J’hana grunted.
Madera’s fingers trembled against the directional controls as she steered the Escort left, then right, around looming stalagtites and stalagmites in the ice tunnel.
“Displacement wave continuing to build,” Hartley said. “I think we have about two minutes.”
“Pour on the speed, Madera,” Richards said remotely.
“We can’t go any faster,” Madera said, staring back down at her sensors. “Mr. Gellar…we’re coming up on a wall of ice. Fire the tunneling phasers on my mark.”
Wide beams lanced out on the forward screen, instantly searing through the ice, carving a ready-made tunnel for Escort to plow through.
“Problem,” Gellar suddenly said, as the Escort continued to bob and weave. When Richards didn’t react to that, he added: “Wall of rock approaching. About twenty seconds away at this speed.”
“Quantum torpedoes,” Richards said calmly. “Don’t slow down, Madera.”
“Not even a little?” Madera glanced over her shoulder.
“It’s oblivion or the Delta Quadrant.”
“Do we get a minute to think about that?”
“No. Fire quantums, Brian.”
Gellar fired. White orbs blasted the wall in front of them to bits and the Escort rambled through.
“The shields just took a beating going through all that rock,” Hartley said, gripping her console as the Escort was jostled around, bobbing in nauseating directions.
“Poor shields,” Richards muttered. “Time to displacement?”
“About forty-five seconds, give or take,” Hartley said.
“Time to outer planetary crust?”
“Forty-two seconds,” Madera said, her voice raising a notch when the realization set in. They were going to be cutting this more than close.
“There she is!” J’hana called out. “Bearing one-four-zero mark three. And making for the planetoid’s surface like a hell- raptor!”
“Indercebt course,” Conway ordered woozily.
“Indercebt, aye,” Ford said mockingly.
“How much time do we have?” Baxter called over his shoulder.
“Not a lot,” Tilleran said helpfully.
“J’hana,” Baxter said, and gestured toward the viewscreen.
The Escort wobbled as it plunged through tumbling chunks of ice and rock.
“Explosions ahead, sir!” Hartley called. “Quantum torpedoes.”
Hartley shook her head. “Nope.”
“We have a contact!” Gellar shouted. “It’s the Explorer!”
“Thank God,” Madera said, letting out a breath for what seemed like the first time since this mission began.
“How far to the crust now?”
“Just about a hundred meters,” Madera said, then did a double take. “Mostly rock!”
“Looks like we picked an excellent place to punch through!” Hartley said sarcastically.
“All stop,” Richards ordered. “Gellar. Fire everything.”
Gellar obeyed the command, sending every quantum the Escort had at the wall.
J’hana’s hands flew over the tactical panel, at once maneuvering the tractor beam and firing quantum torpedoes, using the Explorer’s substantial resources to blast through Crysta’s surface.
“The displacement wave is at its peak!” Tilleran called out.
“Is the Escort out yet?” Baxter asked.
“We have a little more rock to cut through,” J’hana said.
“There isn’t enough time,” Baxter said. In seconds, he seemed to make a decision. “We’re going through with them.”
“WHAD?” Conway asked.
“You don’t expect me to leave them stranded in the Delta Quadrant with just the Escort, do you? They’d be helpless!”
“Yer maging decisiuns for ober four hundred peeble!” Conway protested.
“Shut up!” Baxter barked.
“Andy, maybe you should think about this…” Peterman offered.
“We’re out of quantums,” Gellar said, staring at the cloud of rubble on the viewscreen.
“We’re out of time, too,” Hartley quickly said.
“Then we punch through, one way or another,” Richards said. “All power to forward shields. All engines, ahead full impulse!”
Madera hesitated, then punched the controls. What the hell.
And the Escort slammed through the remaining layers of rock and soared away from Crysta’s surface, just as the displacement wave began to suck Crysta away.
“There goes Crysta,” Tilleran observed from the science station, as the planet seemed to invert, to wobble oddly, and then drift back through a ripple in space.
“Follow it through,” Baxter ordered.
“Sir, are you nuts?” Ford asked. “We can’t just–”
“Look!” Tilleran shouted, pointing at the viewscreen.
The Escort burst through Crysta’s outer layer, sailing toward the Explorer. Then, as if caught in a massive suction, it tumbled backward.
“They are caught in the gravitic disturbance,” J’hana observed. “They will be dragged through the wormhole with Crysta.”
“Get them in a tractor beam!” commanded Baxter.
J’hana activated the beam and latched onto Escort.
Crysta was now more than half-way through the hole in space. “The subspace suction is getting stronger!” Tilleran said. “We’re struggling just to hold our place.”
“Then get ready to switch over to aft tractor beams, turn us around, then jump into warp,” Baxter ordered, gripping the command chair.
“Ready,” J’hana said.
Baxter pounded the arm of his chair. “Do it!”
Explorer swung on its x-axis, then, like a ballroom dancer twirling her partner and switching arms, she switched to aft tractor beams and lept into warp, dragging the Escort behind.
Tilleran informed everyone that the Escort had made it out of the space-rift in one piece and the rift had closed.
“If were finidged ere, I’b goig bag to sleeb,” muttered Conway, who quickly lost conciousness.
Stardate 53546.3. We’re en route to a Starbase to drop off Quaylig and the Romulans Richards’s team captured so that they can be tried and hopefully rot in a penal colony for a long time. Crysta is gone, to where is anyone’s guess. My science officer tells me that, thanks to the destruction of the power core within the planetoid, it will most likely never come back. It also ensures that the mysterious proto-hominid penguins that live there will be able to live in peace, without having their planet ripped apart every time that blasted power core belches.
Richards’s team succeeded in bringing Kris Larkin and her Bolian navigator back alive from Crysta, but they returned one officer short. Lt. Commander Kristen Larkin gave her life to save her human counterpart. And anyone who says she didn’t have a life to give can sit and spin. She most certainly did. She was the most selfless android I’ve ever known. She was the only android I’ve ever known, actually. And I am proud to have called her ‘friend.’ Services are slated for today. Her commendation for valor has been entered in the ship’s log; but, somehow, I doubt that’s much of a comfort to those whose lives she touched. God, that sounded poignant, didn’t it?
Computer, how about we strike that last line?
Lt. Commander Richards dug through the shattered remains of Larkin’s bookcase. It had Captain Baxter’s usual creative touch. He smiled at the notion of Larkin keeping it, judging its structural problems and making an attempt to rebuild it, so she could show it off to the captain whenever he visited her quarters.
“Latinum slip for your thoughts, Christopher,” Kris Larkin said, leaning her head on Larkin’s desk, staring at the crew portrait that was propped there in awe.
“She was a computer, Kris. Built by humans. Made of plastic, deuridium, and circuitry.”
“That she was.”
“Then why did I love her. And why do I miss her? I could build another body and another brain and essentially have the same Larkin all over again.”
Richards dug the science fiction collection Harlan and Lucille got for Larkin out of the bookcase remains and tossed it on the desk. “But I won’t. Wouldn’t be the same.”
Kris grabbed Richards’s hand. “I wish I could wrap my mind around why she did that. Why she gave her life to kill Ardek.”
“I knew what she was thinking the whole time.” Richards collapsed in a chair opposite Kris. “That’s why I went with her. I thought I could stop her.”
“You can’t stop someone when they’re determined to do something.”
Suddenly the doors to Larkin’s quarters swooshed open and Captain Baxter stuck his head in. “Services are at 1100, Chris. On the holodeck.”
“Alaska?” Richards asked, flipping the science fiction tome open.
“Yep,” Baxter said. “Seems fitting, doesn’t it?”
“Hey,” Baxter said, as his eyes fell on the heap behind Larkin’s desk. “I figured she would have tossed that bookcase into the reclamator.”
“Nah,” Richards said. “She kept it for sentimental value, I guess.”
Baxter grinned. “How about that.” He seemed entranced for a moment, then the spell broke. “Uh…I have to get up to the bridge. The Federation Council is on subspace about the Jernasi.”
“They’re getting expelled, I take it?” Kris asked.
“Uh, yeah. They broke pretty much all of the Federation’s rules,” Baxter said. “But, the good news is the Golath are willing to join. Everything balances itself in the end, I guess.”
“Not always,” Kris muttered, as Baxter ducked out of Larkin’s cabin.
Richards opened up the book to the place where Lucille had marked the story “I, Robot.” He began reading.
Lt. Hartley sat cross-legged in front of the burnt, twisted mass that was the Escort’s matter/antimatter flow regulation junction. All the jostling, power transferring, and assorted stress it had undergone in the last couple days had totally burnt it out. It would have to be replaced, but first Hartley had to carve it out to make room for the new unit.
She should probably be showering and changing. The service was only in a half an hour. But somehow Hartley felt better working. She wasn’t Larkin’s closest friend, but the two of them understood each other. And that was something Hartley couldn’t say about many people on the Explorer.
She’d miss that ragtag android who really didn’t like humanity and had a strange affinity for penguins. Who could blame her, anyway? She was built, after all, by a human who simply wanted to have constant, unceasing intercourse with her. She owed humanity nothing, certainly. So why did she, in the final analysis, give her life for it?
As Hartley hauled the defective machinery out of its housing, she resolved that she’d probably never know.
Hartley stared at the busted mechanism in front of her. In its machinelike way, it somehow reminded her of the android.
“…Larkin…” Hartley said softly.
She kneeled there, leaned her head onto the bulkhead, and felt the tears trickle down her face, when she suddenly heard–
Hartley’s head snapped up. “Larkin?”
“I have never seen you cry, Lieutenant. I did not realize I was that important to you.”
Hartley rubbed her eyes, wiping her hands on the front of her uniform. “I wasn’t crying. I don’t cry. Wait a minute. Wait a damn minute. What are you, a ghost?”
“That is laughable.”
“This is a trick.” Hartley jumped to her feet, balling her fists. “Come out here and take your beating like a man, Ford!”
“This is no trick, I assure you.”
Hartley steadied herself on the railing that surrounded the warp core. She was alone in the engine room. Obivously, she was hallucinating. “Larkin?”
“We have already been through this. You said my name, and I said ‘yes.’ What more do you want?”
“A f***ing explanation!”
Hartley could have sworn she heard a sigh. “Very well. I suppose I owe you that much. I take it you are aware of the tranciever inside my brain that Mr. Richards was developing?”
“If you recall, it was developed so I could transmit data to the Explorer in the event of an emergency. An analogue to the ‘Emergency Dump’ function on most tricorders. At any rate, I was able to utilize that tranciever to link with the Escort’s computers and download the bulk of my personality.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. But, we were a good two hundred meters away…your signal strength couldn’t have been much.”
“Indeed, it was not. I succeeded, however. It has taken substantial time to segregate my neural pathways from the Escort’s computer subroutines. I am only now regaining sentience. The Escort computer is a somewhat… unsettling place to say the least.”
It was all Hartley could do just to remain standing. “Larkin, do you realize what this means? You’re alive!” Hartley grinned. “You’re ALIVE.”
“The thought had crossed my mind,” the voice replied dryly.
Lt. Commander Richards regarded himself in the full-length mirror in his quarters, adjusting his dress uniform and attempting to suck in his gut. He really had no gut, but somehow he always felt he had one anyway.
Richards sighed, rubbed his eyes. “Come in.”
Dr. Browning strolled in, dressed in a black, floor-length dress. She hung by the door, looking at Richards as he studied his reflection. “Ready?”
“I guess,” Richards said, and picked up the padd from his desk as he headed for the door. “I put together a little eulogy.”
He handed Browning the padd and she scanned it as they walked down the corridor toward the holodeck.
“Christopher, this is beautiful,” Browning said, a tear trickling down her cheek as she read. “Larkin would certainly approve.”
“Ah, she probably wouldn’t care. She wasn’t exactly the sentimental type.”
“Deep down I think she was,” Browning said. “Or else how do you explain her sacrifice?”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain that.”
Just as Browning and Richards approached the holodeck doors, Lt. Hartley ran up, breathless.
“What, Megan?” Richards asked, noting Hartley’s messy uniform and gunk-stained face. “Aren’t you coming to the service?”
“That’s what I came to tell you about–” Hartley choked out. “It’s Larkin.”
“What’s Larkin?” Richards asked, suddenly impatient. “What about her?”
“I am alive. In a manner of speaking,” came the voice, over Explorer’s intercom.
The voice rang in Richards’s ears, yet he couldn’t understand how.
Larkin’s voice quickly told Richards what she’d told Hartley. He and Browning listened in stunned silence.
“Larkin, I’d hug you if you had a body!” Richards exclaimed.
Suddenly, the holodeck doors parted, and Captain Baxter stepped out, brushing snow off his dress uniform.
“What’s all the rukus out here? This is supposed to be a somber-type deal.”
“I am alive, Captain,” said the voice.
Ford, J’hana, Tilleran, Peterman, Gellar, and Kris Larkin clustered near the holodeck doors, drawn to the commotion.
Commander Conway, wrapped in an environmentally-regulated isolation suit wobbled out after them, fogging up his facemask with excitement and snot.
Larkin explained the situation again, feeling somewhat relieved that she wasn’t able to get tired of repeating herself.
Supplemental. Okay. The funeral’s off. Larkin still gets the commendation. And she’s alive. That is, her mind’s alive, inside the Escort. It needs to be downloaded into a positronic brain, though, which will eventually be placed in a new body, I’m told. So I guess, technically…ah, hell. This is going to be a bitch to explain. Computer, let’s start over…
All eyes were on Richards as he strolled into the Constellation Cafe. All the assembled crew stood and cheered. Amara hit a control on the wall and confetti descended.
Mirk jogged up, patting Richards on the back and glancing at the object he cradled in the crook of his arm. “Welcome, welcome! Find a table, Commander. I’ll be over to get your drink order in a second. Looking good, Larkin!”
Richards nodded greetings and expressed his appreciation to all the crewmembers that stopped and congratulated him as he made his way toward the back of the cafe. He came to a stop at Captain Baxter’s table.
Baxter stood, shook his hand warmly. “Chris, I see the operation was a success!”
“Yep,” Richards said proudly. “It’s a girl.”
Peterman patted the oblong, blinking grey lump in Richards’s arms. “Happy Birthday, little Larkin!”
“I am not a child, Counselor. I possess the personality of an adult, as before, so I would appreciate it if you did not act as if I was a child,” said an electronic voice within the football- shaped positronic brain.
“Right,” Peterman replied. “Well, at any rate, I’m glad to see you back up and around.”
“As am I,” Larkin said. “The Escort computer core was not a… comforting place. I will be even happier when I get a new body.”
“One step at a time,” Richards said, patting the positronic bundle.
“Please be careful, Commander. You just disassociated three positronic pathways,” warned Larkin’s brain.
“Well,” Baxter said, sitting back down and taking a long swig of his vodka and grapefruit juice. “You take it easy, Larkin. You can take as much time as you need to recover from your…well, death.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
Richards saw Kris Larkin waving from a table in the corner of the cafe. “I’d better get going.”
“All right. Let me know if you need anything,” Baxter said, and returned to his conversation with Peterman.
Richards strolled over to Kris’s table and sat Larkin’s new brain down in the center of the table, pushing the candle aside.
“Here she is.”
Kris grinned. “Good to see you, Larkin.”
The red beam that served as Larkin’s eye lanced across Kris’s face. “It is agreeable to see you as well, Kris.”
“What’ll it be?” Mirk asked, approaching the table. “Whatever it is, it’s on the house!”
“It’s always on the house,” Richards chuckled. “You don’t charge, remember?”
“Hey, I’m just trying to be quaint.”
“Harvey Wallbanger,” Richards said, after some thought.
“Don’t know him. Is he an old Earth bartender?”
“It’s a drink–” Richards shook his head. “Just get me a raktageeno.”
“And for the lovely lady?”
Kris considered. “Ginger Ale. And a twist of lime.”
Richards eyed her suspicously as Mirk scurried back toward the bar. “What, no Romulan Ale?”
“I don’t want to have anything to do with the Romulans after the week I’ve had,” Kris said. “Besides, I figure it’s about time I cleaned up my act a little.”
“Well said,” Larkin’s brain remarked.
“Speaking of Romulans,” Richards said, leaning toward Larkin’s brain. “Do you remember exactly what happened at the end? When you and Ardek plunged down to the bottom of that chasm?”
“Not exactly, sir. I only recall him trying to twist my head off as we fell. Then I felt a huge explosion, a rattle, and then the upload was aborted before I could finish transferring my files to the Escort.”
“Why did you ask her that?” Kris asked.
“I don’t know,” Richards said. “Grim curiosity, I guess. And maybe part of me is afraid Ardek didn’t die.”
“I assure you, he is dead,” Larkin’s voice said firmly. “I killed him myself.”
Richards smiled. “That may be. But didn’t you die too?”
“Larkin’s first birthday,” Peterman said whimsically, stirring her pink squirrel with her finger. “To think that a few days ago she was celebrating her twelfth.”
“You’re already thinking of the psychological implications, aren’t you?” Baxter asked, amused.
“That’s my job,” Peterman said defensively. “Anyway, from a purely philosophical perspective, it’s fascinating. Larkin’s truely come full circle. From life, to death, to life again. It’s an almost religious experience.”
“Whoooooo, spooky!” Baxter said, waggling his fingers. “How about the psychological implications of this–” Baxter grabbed both of Peterman’s hands and squeezed them. “My parents are leaving in one week!”
Peterman choked on the cherry she was swirling around in her mouth. She pushed back a bit from the table as she coughed, trying to regain her composure. “Come again?”
“The Federation Council is so happy with the way my dad handled the incident with the Jernasi, they want him to be the new ambassador to Breen!”
“That’s fantastic!” Peterman said. “And your mom is definitely going with him?”
Peterman’s face fell.
“The search committee picked her to captain the Trafalgar!” Baxter exclaimed. “We’ll rendez-vous with them at the Starbase, where Mom will relieve the acting captain and take Dad the rest of the way to Breen!”
“Gee, I wonder who could have submitted her name to the search committee,” Peterman said thoughtfully.
“Ahem,” Harlan said, hovering behind Peterman.
“Dad?” Baxter questioned.
“I did.” Harlan sat down by Peterman and she immediately enveloped him in a hug.
“You’re a beautiful man, Mr. Baxter!”
Harlan shifted uncomfortably as Peterman hugged him. “Hrmm. Call me Dad.”
Peterman fell back into her chair, beaming. “I don’t know what to say.”
Harlan reached over and slapped Baxter so hard he almost fell out of his chair. “Couldn’t impose on the boy forever, could we?”
“How’s Mom taking it?” Baxter asked warily.
Harlan chuckled. “She’s got a crew of five hundred to boss around now. How do you think she’s taking it?”
“I guess she’s taking it pretty well, then.” Baxter waved Amara over, grinning. “Let me buy you a drink.”
“Scotch. Rocks,” Harlan barked at Amara, who whirled around and headed for the bar to fill the order.
“I couldn’t be happier for you, Dad,” Baxter said. “I hope you enjoy Breen.”
“Good fishing weather,” Harlan said simply, taking his scotch from Amara and downing it. He stood up. “I think I’ll go pay my respects to that android brain, now that I have a drink in me.” He walked off, lighting a cigar and shoving it between his teeth.
“You do that,” Baxter said, still grinning.
He stopped grinning once his father was gone.
Peterman looked at Baxter strangely. “What’s wrong? Didn’t you get everything you wanted?”
Baxter shrugged. “I guess. I just…well, I think Dad and I had a real breakthrough down on Jernas. Now that he’s leaving…I think I’m going to…miss him.”
Peterman finished her Pink Squirrel and let her head down on the table. “Andy, I don’t think five years of counseling school was enough to prepare me for dealing with you.”
Baxter grinned weakly. “Thanks, I guess.”
“Much appreciated, Mr. Baxter,” Richards said, as Harlan puffed merrily on a cigar and slapped him on the back.
“Gggmggp take care of that brain now,” Harlan mumbled.
“Did you understand anything he said?” Kris asked, once Harlan had ambled off.
“He confounded even my translation protocols,” Larkin’s brain said.
“I think it’s the cigar,” Kris said.
“Yeah. Not only does it stink up the place,” Richards said, waving smoke away from his nose, “but it slurs every single word he says.”
“Indeed it does,” Kris agreed.
The three, Richards, Kris, and the brain, sat there for several moments in awkward silence.
“Christopher…” Kris finally said, her eyes lighting up.
“I never thanked you.”
“For saving me.”
Something buzzed inside Larkin’s brain. “I did have a part in it, if you recall.”
“Yeah, I know,” Kris said, staring into Richards’s eyes. She put a thumb over Larkin’s glowing red eye-sensor.
“Kris, I cannot see. Please remove your finger.”
A smack of lips. Four lips, Larkin counted. “Mmmmph…thank you, Christopher.”
Panic shot through Larkin’s brain. What was happening out there?
“Christopher? Kris? What is going on?”
“Say goodnight, Larkin,” Richards mumbled, and hit a switch on the underside of the brain.
“But I do not require slee–ZZZT.”
And Larkin’s brain shut down, which, she considered in her last nanoseconds of conciousness, was probably for the best.