Author: Anthony Butler
For new beginnings, which all of us could use from time to time–no matter how hard they are to come by.
OBERTH-CLASS DEEP SPACE EXPLORER
Captain’s Log, Stardate 51989.4.
We have completed our scans of sector 21994, and are currently en route to sector 21995. So far, there’s nothing unusual to report. Sector 21994 was about as action packed as the last twenty sectors. Something tells me if this crew doesn’t see some action soon, they’ll go nuts.
Captain Marion Gray grabbed a cup of coffee out of the replicator and sat down in the command chair, rubbing her eyes tiredly as she watched the stars float by on the viewscreen. Gray blew on the steaming cup before taking a sip, peering over the steam at the Ensign sitting at ops. “How was the party last night, Carla?”
Ensign Payne turned around in her chair. “Not very eventful, sir. Muldoon and Wilkins got really drunk, as usual, and Parker almost blew out deck four’s primary plasma manifold.”
“We’re really getting cabin fever, aren’t we?” Gray asked, leaning back and sipping again from the cup of coffee thoughtfully.
“Yes, sir,” Payne said, turning back to her panel. “And, frankly, the ship’s counselor is not much help.”
Gray nodded. “I’ve heard similar things from the rest of the crew. You have to remember that Starfleet believes in giving second chances.”
Payne said, “What kind of morons would hire a Vulcan ship’s counselor? And one with a severe case of manic depression at that?”
“Starfleet morons, Ensign Payne, that’s who,” Gray said sternly. “Try and remember that.”
“Yes, sir,” Payne said, deciding to let the matter rest. “Captain, we’re picking something up on the long range sensors.”
Lieutenant Uriel said from tactical. “It’s huge.”
“Is it a vessel or a natural space body?” Gray asked, leaning forward with concern.
“It’s definitlely not naturally occuring,” Uriel replied. Gray turned to face her officer. “How can you be so sure?”
“Well,” Uriel said, gulping. “It’s slowing down.”
“Red Alert,” Captain Gray said, turning back around. “Recall the remainder of the senior staff.”
Ten minutes later, the remainder of the senior staff, which was comprised of science officer Hill, Commander Fred Muldoon, the first officer, and Counselor Telvin.
Commander Muldoon took his seat and stared at the approaching blip on the viewscreen. “What is it, Captain?”
Captain Gray frowned. “I wish we knew. Payne can’t identify it as anything in the Federation database.”
“Can we tell if it’s hostile?” Muldoon asked, concerned. “Well,” Lieutenant Uriel piped up. “It’s armed to the teeth with anti-proton cannons and plasma torpedoes. And they’re all aimed at us.”
Gray raised an eyebrow. “Sounds pretty darn hostile to me. Arm our weapons, Mr. Uriel. And try to hail them.”
“Affirmative,” Uriel replied, going to work at his panel. “The vessel is moving to intercept us, Captain.”
Ensign Payne reported. “It will be within weapons range in one minute.”
“No response to our hails, Captain,” Uriel reported.
“We should get the hell out of here,” Muldoon said.
“Do you have anything to add to this?” Captain Gray asked, turning her command chair to face Conselor Telvin. Rather obese for a Vulcan, Telvin shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“I wish I knew. I’m very scared, Captain. We could all die!”
“You’re a Vulcan, for goodness sake,” Gray said incredulously. “Start acting like one. You’re supposed to be dispassionate.”
“Tell that to my hands, sir,” Telvin said, holding up his hands. “Look at them, they’re shaking.”
Gray just rolled her eyes, turning her chair to face forward. “Mr. Uriel, send to Starfleet, priority channel: Contact made with new lifeform, well armed, may be hostile. Please advise.”
“Aye, sir,” the Bajoran replied, entering the proper commands.
Ensign Payne said, panic in her eyes. “The vessel is within weapons range and closing fast.”
“Open a channel,” Gray said urgently.
“Open,” Uriel reported.
“This is Captain Marion Gray of the Federation Starship Capistrano. We are a peaceful vessel on a mission of exploration. Please stand down your weapons and identify yourself.”
Uriel looked down at his panel. “We’re getting a response, Captain. Audio only.”
“On speakers,” Gray commanded.
“Did you sssssssay Federation?” The voice asked. The raspy, almost effeminate sound of the voice made Captain Gray shiver.
“Y-yes, that’s correct,” Gray said nervously. “Why, have you heard of us?”
“You could ssssssay that,” the voice said angrily. “Sir, they’re firing!” Uriel shouted.
“Evasive maneuvers!” Gray replied, as suddenly the ship was pounded by the other vessel’s anti-proton cannons. “Shields down to forty percent,” Uriel replied, holding onto his station as the vessel shook. “Hull damage on deck fourteen.”
“Return fire, all weapons,” Gray replied, as the ship was pounded again.
“Our shields are down,” Uriel said. “Hull breaches on decks six and ten.”
“I don’t want to die!” Counselor Telvin said suddenly, jumping to his feet and running off the bridge.
“Counselor! Come back–oh, why bother,” Gray said, jumping to her feet and struggling over to the helm console. “Ensign Wilkins, can you get us out of here?”
“No sir,” Wilkins replied, holding onto his station. “We can’t go to warp and I can’t even divert enough power for impulse.”
“Damn,” Gray said, looking up at the massive, hawklike vessel as it loomed over the Capistrano. She quickly tapped her comm badge “This is the captain to all hands, abandon ship!”
The bridge crew scrambled for the turbolifts, not waiting to be told a second time and not even following proper Starfleet evacuation protocol.
Ensign Payne stepped into the turbolift, turning back momentarily to watch the huge vessel on the screen fire another anti-proton blast.
The blast tore through the Capistrano’s engineering hull immediately, sending the saucer section spiralling through space like a huge frisbee. Seconds later, another blast destroyed the saucer section.
And that quickly, the entire Starship Capistrano was destroyed by this powerful new foe.
All hands were killed.
Well, all but one.
Commander Lisa Beck tied her robe quickly around her waist as she stepped out of the turbolift and onto the ops deck.
“This better be good, Commander,” she said angrily, folding her arms and looking over Lt. Commander Walter Morales’s shoulder. “You woke me up from a wonderful dream.”
“See for yourself, Commander,” Morales said, hitting a button on his docking panel.
Beck looked up at the viewscreen, which suddenly displayed a severely damaged vessel.
“It’s Nebula-class,” Beck said thoughtfully. “We don’t have any Nebula-class vessels in the area.”
“We sure don’t,” Morales agreed.
“Which means…” Beck said tiredly.
“You won’t believe it when you see it, Commander,” Lt. Commander Morales said, hitting another button on his panel, which zoomed in on the top of the vessel’s saucer section. Beck gasped as she followed the huge, black gash that scarred the vessel’s saucer section. Whatever attacked this ship was pretty damn…
And that’s when her eyes hit upon the call letters of the ship. “NCC-83835,” Morales said, now behind Beck as she approached the viewscreen. “USS Aerostar.”
“You’re right, Commander,” Beck said incredulously. “I don’t believe it.”
“Should we contact Starfleet?” Morales asked.
Beck turned around, shrugging. “Might as well.”
FEDERATION HEADQUARTERS PARIS, FRANCE
“So, in conclusion, the Explorer project is a dream given form,” Admiral Frank McGrath said, smiling broadly as he addressed the Federation council. “And the dream is closer at hand than you might think. The ship is almost finished. All I need now is a crew.”
“Frankly, Admiral McGrath,” President Jaresh-Inyo said slowly, turning his back to the giant viewscreen at the front of the council chambers and folding his hands on top of his desk. “I fail to see the necessity for such a project. Our new ship can be put to much better uses than what you propose. We are always in need of a new warship to guard the Federation borders.”
“Perhaps,” McGrath said, approaching Inyo’s desk. “But sir, with all due respect, we have enough warships. What we need is a ship of discovery, of exploration. We need to seek out new life, new civilizations.”
At the rear of the chambers, Admiral John Phillips bent over and whispered to the woman sitting next to him. “He’s finally lost it, hasn’t he?”
“Perhaps,” Admiral Mora Neilson replied.
“The Explorer will give us the greatest weapon we could add to our arsenal, Mister President,” McGrath said, turning back to face the council. “Knowledge.”
“I thought our greatest weapon was the tri-cobalt device,” Inyo said, rubbing his chin.
“I have a question,” one of the council members said, raising his hand. “Where exactly do you plan on getting your crew? You’ll need experienced officers, won’t you?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” McGrath admitted.
“Very well, Admiral,” Inyo said, standing up and replacing McGrath at the podium as he stepped aside. “Find your crew. Meanwhile, we will put off our decision until the completion of the new starship.”
Admiral McGrath shook the President’s hand and made his way out of the council chambers, suddenly feeling very uneasy about the project he had been preparing for ever since he had heard of the construction of the new, upgraded Galaxy-class starship. The council member did have a point. What kind of crew would actually be able to survive the ravages of unfamiliar space? None he knew of.
“Damn,” Commander David Conway said, pounding the tactical railing in frustration. “You w-w-w-win again, sir.”
“Never challenge me at ‘rock, scissors, paper,’ C-c-c-c-commander. I’ll always win,” Captain Andy Baxter said, patting Conway on the back. “But it was a nice t-t-t-t-try.”
“Care to play m-m-m-me?” Lt. Tilleran asked, as she huddled underneath the science console.
“Not on your l-l-l-l-life,” Baxter stammered, as lights suddenly began to flicker on all over the bridge, casting a dim glow over the room.
“It’s about damn t-t-t-time,” Commander Conway said, watching as the bridge’s malfunctioning panels fizzled on.
The comm system buzzed to life: “Larkin to bridge. The primary power conduit was fatally damaged. I was, however, able to repair the battery backups. They should sufficiently handle our power needs for a short time.”
Baxter tapped his comm badge as he walked around to the front of the bridge, where Peterman was curled in his command chair. “That’s g-g-g-g-great news, Larkin. I can feel it getting w-w-w-w-warmer already.”
“Indeed. Larkin out.”
“When did you say the r-rescue party was coming?” Counselor Peterman asked, as Captain Baxter walked back down to the front of the bridge where she sat huddled in the command chair.
“Well,” Baxter said, sitting down next to her, “Commander Morales said that Starfleet would dispatch its nearest vessel.”
“Which means we could be waiting anywhere between an hour and a day,” Commander Richards said unhappily, cuddling up to Dr. Browning near the engineering console.
“I wish you would stop complaining, Commander,” J’hana said, shifting uncomfortably under the weight of the beam that pinned her.
“Try not to move J’hana,” Browning cautioned. “Remember, you have a fractured vertebrae and four broken ribs.”
J’hana huffed in annoyance. “Please. It is a minor injury. If Lt. Larkin had been kind enough to pull the beam off of me before gallivanting down to Engineering to restore power, I would be helping her repair the ship’s systems right now.”
“Can we just try to get along?” Captain Baxter said, pulling Peterman closer to him. “We don’t know how much longer we’ll be here, so we should start getting comfortable.”
“What about the turbolifts?” Ford asked. “They should be operable again. We could at least spread out some.”
“When Larkin took the Jeffries’ tube down to Engineering, she said that there were large pockets of radiation,” Commander Conway said. “It’s not worth risking any lives just to make sure our possessions are still intact.”
“Oh, I’d never thought of that,” Peterman said worriedly. “What about my babies? Charlie, and the others? They could be dead!”
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Baxter said reassuringly. “But just in case, I’ll have Lt. Larkin look for them.”
“Thanks,” Peterman said, leaning back against Baxter’s chest.
“Well, I don’t know about the rest of you guys,” Baxter said with a sigh, “but I could sure go for a nice stiff dr-“ Suddenly the tactical console beeped threateningly. Commander Conway stepped over J’hana’s crippled body and looked over the tactical readings. “Captain, our scanners are barely functioning, but the proximity sensors are picking up something approaching us.”
“Well, this could be good or bad,” Peterman said.
“They’re scanning us,” Conway said. “What should we do?”
“What can we do? We’re dead in space with only minimal battery power,” Baxter replied.
“We could go outside and throw rocks at them,” Lt. Tilleran suggested.
Commander Conway walked over to the supply closet and pulled out a phaser. “Well, whoever they are, I’m going to be ready to blast them to atoms if neccessary.”
Baxter held Peterman close. “Just make sure your trigger finger isn’t too damn itchy. This could be our rescue party for all we know.”
“Or they could be Yridian pirates,” J’hana suggested. “Always the optimist,” Browning sighed.
Suddenly five figures materialized at the center of the bridge.
Conway immediately aimed his phaser at the group.
“Don’t shoot!” Commander Travis Dillon cried, shielding his face with his hands. “We’re Starfleet officers! From the Secondprize!”
Another member of the away team, Lt. Patricia Hawkins, Chief of Security, had her phaser out in a flash, trained on Conway. The Secondprize’s science officer, Lieutenant Commander Jaroch, just shook his head in disgust at Dillon as Dr. Beth Aldridge and Commander Scott Baird, the Secondprize’s chief engineer, spread out to survey the damage.
“Oh, boy, it’s the cavalry!” Ensign Ford said sarcastically, picking himself up and walking over to greet the away team. “My, Lt. Hawkins, you’ve filled out nicely in the last year.”
“Can it, Ensign,” Dillon said.
“I can handle this one,” Hawkins said, turning her weapon on Ford and firing.
“A woman after my own heart,” Conway said, gently putting his phaser down. “You guys took long enough to get here. We’ve been dead in space for over an hour, you know.”
Lt. Commander Jaroch pulled out his tricorder and began scanning the bridge. “You are lucky that we arrived at all. We just happened to be on our way here to study the strange behavior of the Bermuda Expanse.”
“What kind of behavior?” Baxter asked.
“It disappeared. Approximately one hour ago,” Jaroch said.
“That’s around the time we got back here,” Baxter said, rubbing his chin.
“Yes, about that,” Dillon said, looking around. “Could you tell us exactly how you got back from the Delta Quadrant?”
“All in good time, Commander. Right now, we’ve got injured people for you to see to, and our ship is in pretty bad shape,” Baxter replied.
Dr. Aldridge looked up from Lt. J’hana as she scanned the Andorian with her medical tricorder. “This one took the worst of it with a broken back. We need to get her back to sickbay immediately.”
“Nonsense,” J’hana grunted. “It’s only a minor flesh wound.”
“The ship’s f**ked,” Commander Baird said, looking to Dillon. “It’ll have to be towed.”
“Okay,” Dillon said, glaring down at Baxter. “Let’s get you guys back to the Secondprize.”
“Did you hear the news?” Lt. Megan Hartley asked, dangling over the railing around the warp core.
Larkin looked up from the power conduit she was repairing three levels down. “What news are you referring to?”
“The Secondprize just got here. They’re evacuating everyone from the ship. I think it’s going to be towed or something.”
“Then it would seem my work here was for nothing,” Larkin said, grabbing her tools and walking over to the lift that would take her up to Engineering’s main level.
Hartley met Larkin at the main level with a look of disbelief. “Don’t you have any feelings about that? I mean, the ship is wrecked; we’re leaving it, probably for good, and we’re very likely going to be reassigned. Isn’t that sad?”
“I would not know.” The android proceeded to put her tools away.
Hartley shrugged. “I just thought that after your encounter with the Borg, and with your separation from your newly found ‘father’, you’d gain some new insight on life.”
“I have indeed gained many insights,” Larkin said as she worked. “But my experiences in the last weeks have not changed the fundamental truth of my programming. I have no feelings.”
“Maybe you could duplicate the chip that Mr. Data has,” Hartley suggested, following Larkin down the corridor leading away from Engineering.
“You do not understand, Lieutenant. I have no feelings, nor do I wish to have any feelings, or any other human traits.”
“Then what do you want?” Hartley asked. “Everyone wants something.”
Larkin stopped again. “Want? I do not know. I had not considered the possibility of us ever returning to this quadrant. I suppose a whole new variety of choices are open to me. Perhaps even my own command. Of course, as an android, I am devoid of ambition. Still, it may be interesting to consider my new options.”
“I know what I’m going to do,” Hartley said, as they entered the now functioning turbolift. “Deck Nine.”
“And what is that?” Larkin asked.
“I have a month of leave saved up. I’m going to Corsica and spending the entire time working on my tan.”
“Hmm. It sounds as if you are devoid of ambition as well.”
“Almost ready?” Baxter asked, sticking his head into Counselor Peterman’s quarters.
Peterman was slumped in her couch, clutching the huge, white teddy bear that Baxter had replicated for her for her birthday. Charlie and Fritz were snuggled next to her, asleep. “I guess,” Peterman said quietly.
Baxter carefully picked Fritz up and set him on the floor. The almost fully grown kitten immediately woke up and began to hiss and scratch at Baxter’s hand.
“Damn cat,” Baxter said, momentarily forgetting that he was glad to see Peterman’s pets had come to no harm. He composed himself and turned to Peterman. “What’s wrong, honey?”
“I don’t know,” Peterman said, sadly. “All my pets are fine; but, when I got down here, I realized how screwed up the last couple weeks have been. And then I realized how screwed up the last year has been. And then I realized that they’re probably going to scrap the Aerostar and reassign us all. And then I realized…I realized that I would probably never see you again…”
The Counselor burst out crying and buried her face in Baxter’s shoulder. “And I don’t want that to happen.”
Baxter kissed Peterman’s head and hugged her tightly. “Don’t worry…that won’t happen. I’ll make sure of that. Whichever ship they put me on next, it’s bound to need a Counselor.”
“Are you sure? They’re in less and less demand lately,” Peterman sniffled, looking up.
Baxter leaned down and kissed her. “I’m positive.”
Peterman smiled. “Good. In that case, I’ve got eight suitcases full of stuff in there for you to haul down to cargo bay five.”
Baxter glanced into Peterman’s bedroom, saw the giant suitcases, and let out a brief sigh. “That’s my Kelly.”
“Oh, hello Commander,” Lt. Larkin said, letting Lt. Commander Richards into her quarters. “I did not expect to see you here.”
“Well, Janice was helping Dr. Aldridge move some of our injured out of sickbay, and I’m already all packed up. I just thought I’d come down here and, um…”
“Is something on your mind, Commander?” Larkin asked, as she placed all of her penguin dolls carefully into a large box.
“Well, yes,” Richards replied, sitting down on Larkin’s sofa. “Isn’t it a little cold in here? I thought life support was back up…”
“This temperature reflects that of the penguin habitats of the arctic, Commander,” Larkin replied. “As do the walls and floors.”
Richards looked around, then looked down at the slippery area at the center of the room, feeling relieved that he hadn’t stepped anywhere near there. The walls and the slippery area were painted as a giant, icy mural, which, at least from an artistic standpoint, Richards had to appreciate.
“Nice mural,” Richards said.
“Thank you,” Larkin replied. “I believe the walls are an accurate representation of ice.”
Richards picked up a painting, again, of ice. “Maybe you could get a little more creative, though. I mean, all of these pieces are either of penguins, or ice, or sometimes, penguins on ice. Maybe you should expand your horizons.”
“To what end?” Larkin asked.
“I don’t know,” Richards said. “But the fun is in finding out.”
“Fun?” Larkin asked.
“Yes, the reason you create is because its fun, right?”
“I create to explore the many facets of penguinkind. I am not capable of having fun.”
“Oh,” Richards said, looking down.
“Is there something else I could help you with, Commander?” Larkin asked.
“No, I mean yes. I mean, well, I don’t know,” Richards said. “I’ve just been thinking. I mean, ever since I found out that I was your…um, mother, or whatever, I’ve had trouble figuring out how I should act around you. I mean, I did create the brain you have. That makes me an inextricable part of your life.”
“Would you like the brain back?” Larkin asked calmly.
“No, no!” Richards said. “I just…well, wanted you to know, that if you ever wanted to talk, I’m here.”
The engineer felt like that might have opened up a huge Pandora’s box, since Larkin was known as one of the most talkative crew-members aboard Aerostar.
“I will keep that in mind, Commander,” Larkin said, as she continued packing.
“Thanks, Lieutenant. And call me Chris,” Richards said, standing up to leave.
“In that case, thank you for stopping by, Chris,” Larkin said.
“Don’t mention it,” Richards replied, leaving quickly. Richards idly wondered whether all mothers felt this awkward at first.
Mirk slung his duffel bag onto the bar and walked behind it, grabbing a bottle of Tellarite scotch and pouring himself a glass full.
He sipped at it quietly, surveying the overturned tables, smashed glasses, and tipped over stools. The Starlight Lounge was as much of a disaster area of the rest of the ship. It wasn’t very comforting to the Maloxian that the only thing he had left near to him was completely wrecked. “Hello?” Lt. Hartley asked, pushing past the broken doors and peeking into the dimly lit lounge.
“We’re closed,” Mirk said solemnly, throwing some bottles into a box and sitting it on top of the bar.
Hartley walked up to the bar, picked up a stool, and sat down on it. “I’ll have a Bolian fizz.”
“I said we’re closed,” Mirk said.
Hartley looked around. “Really? I didn’t notice.”
“What’s wrong with you?” The transporter chief asked, grabbing the bottle of Aldebran whiskey from Mirk’s box and pouring some in a glass.
Mirk glared at her as she drank. “Well, I’m permanently separated from everyone I’ve ever cared about and the gods I used to worship are gone forever. Other than that, I’m just peachy.”
“Gee, far away from home. I can’t imagine what that must be like,” Hartley said sarcastically.
“Well, you’re home now, be thankful,” Mirk said, walking around the bar and seeing if he could salvage any of the decorations he had put up when he took over the bar.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mirk. But, from what I hear, the Directors wanted you to come here. They said it was part of your destiny.”
“I don’t know anything about my destiny anymore. I used to think I knew exactly what I was doing. But not anymore.”
Hartley set the bottle down and turned around to watch Mirk take down the caricatures that Richards had done of the command crew, and the pictures of different Starlight Lounge events, such as the “Drunken Limbo” contest, and the “Klingon Country Line Dancing” lessons.
“C’mon, Mirk, I’m sure we’ll be assigned to a new ship. And that new ship will probably need a bartender.”
Mirk thought about that. “Then that’s all I’ll do? Shlep drinks the rest of my life? Is that my great destiny?”
“Who knows?” Hartley asked. “But it’ll be a great way of finding out. And besides, I don’t think the crew would be the same without you.”
Mirk turned over one of the chairs and sat down. “You think I belong with these people? The Federations that I taunted and teased into following me to the Delta Quadrant less than a year ago? The Federations whose friends I let the Flarn destroy? The Federations who, months ago, my people swore to destroy? Those people?”
“As one of those people,” Hartley said, placing a hand on Mirk’s shoulder. “I’d have to say yes.”
Captain Baxter hurriedly left his readyroom, loaded down with his model of the Secondprize, as well as the several packs of cards he had replicated, his Dallas Cowboys game ball, and several padds. He was on his way up to the turbolift to meet Counselor Peterman in cargo bay five for transport to the Secondprize, when he noticed Commander Conway sitting in the command chair.
“What are you still doing here, Commander?” Baxter asked, turning around.
Conway sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old age.”
“Don’t count on it, Conway,” Baxter said. “You’re just trying to get one last chance to sit in the big chair.”
“It is comfortable, Captain,” Conway said, standing up and taking one last look at the destroyed viewscreen. “Damn right it is. Now come on, we’re going to be late,” Baxter said, reaching over to hit the turbolift’s call button. Conway made his way up to the turbolift, taking one last look at the dedication plaque, reading the line at the bottom one more time:
“We’re on a road to nowhere, come on inside. Takin’ that ride to nowhere, we’ll take that ride…”
“Who said that?” Conway asked, joining Baxter in the turbolift.
“The quote on the plaque?” Baxter asked.
“Melville, I think. Or maybe Keats.”
Captain’s Log, Stardate 51992.1. We have completed transfer of all personnel from the starship Aerostar. A tug ship from Waystation should be here within the hour to take the Aerostar to a starbase, where she will be stripped down and eventually sent off to the nearest scrapyard. Meanwhile, we’re taking the Aerostar’s crew back to Earth, where I’m sure their story will spark a rebirth of tabloid journalism.
“Have you read this?” Captain Alexander Rydell asked, looking at Captain Baxter’s report.
Commander Dillon nodded, sitting down in the chair opposite Rydell’s desk. “I certainly did. It’s pretty amazing, if you ask me.”
“All of it.”
Rydell nodded. “I especially like the part about the Federation Marine who stowed away and tried to lure the Borg back to the Delta Quadrant.”
“Personally, Captain, I like the part about the Romulan Tal Shiar agent. The fact that he could successfully infiltrate a Federation vessel for that long is astounding.”
“Not when you consider who’s in command, Commander. By the way, is that guy still in the brig?”
“T’Phil? Yes, sir. Luckily there were independent power backups in the brig that kept the security field intact. He might have escaped, otherwise.”
Rydell scrolled through the report, nodding. “I guess the crew of the Aerostar is lucky all the way around.”
Rydell put the padd down and looked up at Dillon. “Have you told Baxter the truth yet?”
“You mean about their mission? No, sir, I thought I’d let you.”
Rydell stood up. “Fine. But you’re coming with me.”
Dillon gulped. “Do I have to?”
“Yes,” Rydell said, leading Dillon out of his readyroom.
“It’s just not the same,” Captain Baxter said, staring down at his drink and looking around Seven Backward. Commander Conway downed a shot of whiskey and pounded his glass on the table. “You can say that again, sir. No atmosphere at all.”
Trinian, Seven Backward’s hostess, refilled Conway’s shot glass and smiled. “I’ll try not to take offense to that, Commander.”
Conway looked up, narrowing his eyes. “Sorry.”
Counselor Peterman nursed her pink squirrel quietly, looking up. “I think it’s very nice, Miss Trinian.”
“It’s just Trinian,” Trinian said, turning around and heading back to the bar.
“Let’s face it,” Commander Richards said, sipping at his beer. “We miss Mirk.”
“I miss his cheesecake,” Dr. Browning said woefully as she drank her hot chocolate.
“Has anyone heard anything about J’hana?” Conway asked, trying to change the subject.
“Dr. Aldridge said she’s going to be fine,” Dr. Browning said. “She’ll be up and around by the time we get back to Earth.”
“Back to Earth,” Peterman repeated. “It almost seems impossible.”
“I told you I’d do it,” Baxter said, smiling.
Commander Conway grunted. “Don’t be so humble about it, Captain.”
“Okay,” Baxter said, grinning as he finished his beer. “You guys helped a little too.”
“Do you think we should go over there?” Counselor Claire Webber asked, watching as the crew from the Aerostar talked. Lt. Commander Jaroch worked quietly on a padd as the two sat at the bar. He was obviously not paying much attention.
“Hmmm,” he said, not moving his eyes from the padd. “It wouldn’t hurt,” Trinian said.
“They’re probably feeling a little weird about being back in the Alpha Quadrant and everything.”
Webber smiled. “I bet they are. Come on, Jaroch. We should go over there.”
“Why?” Jaroch said as he worked.
“Because, they need to see a bright, happy face. They need hugs and care. They need love.”
“I do not believe I have any love to give at the moment,” Jaroch said, momentarily looking up from his padd. “Although I will keep you posted if any becomes available.”
“C’mon,” Webber said, grabbing Jaroch’s arm and pulling him out of his seat.
“No,” Jaroch said firmly, holding on to the bar.
Lieutenant Larkin looked around Seven Backward, recognizing several familiar faces from the Secondprize, including Trinian, Lt. Commander Jaroch, and Counselor Webber. As the android walked by, she nodded briefly at Jaroch and Webber, who seemed to be involved in some sort of struggle.
Larkin continued to the opposite end of Seven Backward, approaching the table where Baxter and some of the other senior officers from the Aerostar were gathered.
“I have returned from the Aerostar, Captain,” Larkin said firmly, standing behind Baxter’s seat.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Pull up a chair,” Baxter said heartily, indicating the chair opposite Commander Conway.
“Very well,” Larkin said, sitting down and folding her hands neatly on the table. “A preliminary Engineering survey indicates a system-wide failure of the power distribution net. However, Commander Baird has stabilized main power for the duration of the trip back to Waystation.”
“And after that?” Conway asked.
“I don’t know,” Baxter said. “I haven’t talked to Starfleet yet. I assume they’ll have her decommissioned and stripped down.”
“Sad end for a great ship,” Conway said, just as a waiter came up and refilled everyones drinks.
“Life goes on,” Baxter said. “Anything else, Lieutenant?”
“Waystation has dispatched a tug ship to retrieve the Aerostar. As for the the crew, I understand that Captain Rydell’s orders are to bring us all back to Earth immediately.”
“Guess I’ll have to talk to him pretty soon,” Baxter said.
“What’s going to happen to us?” Dr. Browning asked. “Are we going to be kept together or sent off on different assignments?”
“In these cases,” Larkin said, “Starfleet rarely assigns an entire crew to a new vessel.”
“Then that’s it,” Richards said. “We’re all going our separate ways.”
“I’ll try not to cry too hard,” Conway muttered.
“Well, come what may,” Baxter said, smiling and raising his glass, “I’d just like to make a toast to the finest crew Starfleet ever sent to the Delta Quadrant.”
“Here, here,” Peterman said happily, as the group clanged their glasses together.
“Excuse me,” a woman said politely, approaching the table Baxter and his officers were seated at. “My name is Claire Webber, and I’m the Secondprize’s Ship’s Counselor. I’d just like to congratulate you on your triumphant return to this quadrant. What stories you must have to tell!”
Baxter looked up at the woman, noting her tie-dyed Starfleet uniform. Obviously, she was some sort of weirdo. “Yep. That’s very thoughtful of you, Counselor.”
Counselor Peterman smiled up at Webber. “What a pleasure it is to meet you. My name is Kelly Peterman. I am–I was –the Aerostar’s Ship’s Counselor.”
“Is that so?” Webber asked. “Keeping everyone together on a voyage like yours must have been quite a chore.”
“Well…” Peterman said.
“Can I leave now?” Commander Jaroch asked from behind Webber. “No,” Webber said with teeth clenched. “You will say ‘hi’ and be nice to these people.”
“Okay, fine,” Jaroch said, stepping out from behind the Counselor. “I’m Commander Jaroch, the science officer. Hi.”
“We’ve met,” Baxter said, glaring up at Jaroch. The Yynsian wasn’t too nice a few months back when Baxter’s mind had been combined with Commander Dillon’s.
“Charmed,” Conway said blandly.
“I hear you’re the one that gave the Captain his assignment,” Dr. Browning said, trying to break the tension.
“I assure you, I merely briefed the Captain. It was Captain Rydell and Commander Dillon who actually…”
“Yeah, what was Starfleet thinking anyway?” Conway asked. “Do you know how many Federation ships alone were lost in the Bermuda Expanse before we were sent in there?”
“Dozens,” Richards chimed in.
“So what gives?” Baxter asked. “Why did Starfleet send us on that mission?”
“Do you really wish to know?” Jaroch said, bending down and staring Baxter in the eye, an unsettling smirk spreading across his face. “They sent you to die. They were hoping you and your crew of abject failures and incompetents would be lost out there in the Bermuda Expanse…forever. And so were we.”
“Where are they?” Captain Rydell said, as he and Dillon entered Seven Backward.
“If you’re talking about the people from the Aerostar,” Trinian said tiredly, leaning against the bar, “they’re right over there.”
She pointed towards the corner of the bar where Baxter and the other senior officers sat, and where Jaroch could be plainly seen bending down and staring mockingly into Baxter’s face.
“…They were hoping you’d be lost out there in the Bermuda Expanse,” Jaroch said, smiling. “And so where we.”
“Uh oh,” Dillon said, following Rydell quickly to the other side of the bar. “Looks like Jaroch beat us to the punch.”
“Why you little…”
Baxter growled, jumping to his feet and cold-cocking Jaroch right in the jaw. The Yynsian science officer was sent reeling backwards into the table behind him.
“Oh, dear,” Dr. Browning said, peering over the table at the dazed officer.
Counselor Webber looked down fearfully at Jaroch, slowly moving backwards. “That wasn’t happy at all, Captain.”
“I would tend to agree with Counselor Webber,” Larkin said. “That was quite unwise.”
“Um…sorry, Jaroch,” Baxter said, bending over and looking down at Jaroch.
The Yynsian shook his head, grunting angrily, his eyes glazing over.
“You…should not have…done…that,” he growled.
“Uh-oh,” Baxter said, as Jaroch pulled the Captain’s legs out from under him, body slamming Baxter before he could react.
“Beware the wrath of the mighty J’ter!” he shouted, pummeling Baxter with his fists.
Richards and Conway immediately came to Baxter’s aid, trying to pull the crazed Yynsian off of him.
“Stop beating up my boyfriend!” Peterman cried, dumping the remainder of her pink squirrel into Jaroch’s face.
“What the heck is happening?” Dr. Browning asked in confusion.
“Yynsians have a peculiar connection to past lives, Doctor. Occasionally, when subjected to violent stimuli, they regress,” Larkin explained.
“Oh,” Browning said, watching as Baxter was beaten severely. “Shouldn’t you help him?”
Larkin peered down at the brawl, which had now encompassed Richards and Conway as well.
“It seems they are doing quite well without me, Doctor.”
Captain Rydell quickly slapped his comm badge. “Rydell to security. I need a team in Seven Backward on the double.”
When had things started going so wrong?
When we met up with the Aerostar, that’s when, he thought wryly.
“Break it up, break it up!” Commander Dillon shouted, trying to pull Baxter and Jaroch apart.
“I have been waiting for this for a long time, puny weakling!” Jaroch/J’ter shouted, as he pounded Baxter against the table he had been sitting at moments ago.
“Me too,” Baxter croaked. “So far it’s not exactly all I’d hoped it’d be.”
“Hey, watch it!” Commander Conway said, as Dillon tried to break up the fight. Conway gave the Secondprize’s First Officer a shove, who in turn shoved Conway back, until both of them dropped to the floor in a no-holds-barred flurry of fists.
“At ease, Commander Jaroch!” Rydell shouted, moving into the fray. “Both of you, start acting like men about this!”
“We are acting like men, you pantywaist,” Jaroch/J’ter growled as he pummeled Baxter.
“I’d just love to thank you for sending me and our crew to our deaths, Captain…” Baxter choked out. “But first I have to get this crazy bastard off me!”
Before Rydell could respond, a chair flew up into his face and knocked him backwards.
Lt. Patricia Hawkins, Chief of Security and Chief Tactical Officer for the Secondprize, gasped as she entered Seven Backward.
The entire room had descended into chaos, reminiscent of old fashioned bar room brawls of the Ancient West. “What the hell is going on?” Hawkins shouted to Trinian, as the Hostess smashed a bottle of Bolian Brandy over one of the combatants heads.
“I believe we’re having a rumble. Secondprize versus Aerostar,” Trinian said, as Hawkins pushed through the crowd.
“Break it up!” Hawkins cried, pushing towards the back of the room in a vain attempt to find the center of the brawl. Suddenly Counselor Webber sailed by her, flying face first into a giant ikoberry tort that Ensign Carpel had been enjoying a few minutes earlier.
Counselor Peterman leapt past Hawkins, grabbing the back of Webber’s uniform and pulling her back, then plunging her back into the tort. “Eat up, you tie-died freak!”
As the two Counselors proceeded to roll onto the floor in a flurry of hair pulling and biting, Hawkins continued on, to find Commander Dillon pinned to the floor in a Full Nelson, at the mercy of the Aerostar’s first officer.
“Say mercy!” Commander Conway cried, yanking back on Dillon’s arms. “Say it, dork!”
“Never!” Dillon returned. “Someone save me!”
“Get off!” Hawkins cried, kicking at Conway. But it was no use. Hawkins finally grabbed Conway by the scruff of his neck and yanked him off Dillon. “Find someone else to ruff up on, Bozo.”
“Watch out!” Dillon called out, just in time for Hawkins to see Conway come rushing back, this time wielding one of Seven Backwards’ plush, fluffy chairs.
Hawkins ducked, sending Conway flying over her and into the wall. The security officer turned to find Lt. Larkin struggling to get ahold of Commander Jaroch, who had obviously, in a fit of rage, become J’ter.
“I must have my revenge!” Jaroch/J’ter bellowed, struggling against Larkin’s steely grip.
“And I must protect my commanding officer. Might I suggest you vent your frustration in a more healthy manner, Mr. Jaroch,” Larkin replied.
Hawkins pushed past Larkin and Jaroch to find Captain Rydell and Captain Baxter locked in combat. They were circling each other like angry jungle cats, sneering and growling.
“You assaulted my science officer!” Rydell said.
“You sent us to die!” Baxter said.
“Stop it, you two. This is insane!” Hawkins shouted, as Rydell and Baxter sized each other up.
“Yet somehow strangely satisfying,” Rydell said, as Baxter lept at him. The two rolled around the floor, fists flailing.
“What should we do?” one of the other security officers asked, as Hawkins surveyed the situation.
“Set your phasers on minimum stun, broad beam,” Hawkins said, pulling out her phaser, “and light ‘em up.”
Four minutes and several phaser blasts later, just about everyone in Seven Backward was unconscious.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” a voice asked, as Captain Baxter opened his eyes, wincing at the bright light as his eyes adjusted. His head was pounding and it felt as if someone had driven a freighter right into his stomach.
Baxter looked up.
He was in the brig.
And on the other side of the security field, Captain Rydell stood, a gray bandage on his forehead, and a very angry look on his face. Baxter also noted that Rydell was holding his left arm gingerly with his right arm.
Someone must have twisted it. Who could that have been? “Well?” Rydell asked expectantly.
“What was the question?” Baxter said, straining to pull himself into a sitting position.
“I asked you what you have to say for yourself.”
“Maybe I should be asking you that,” Baxter said, looking around his cell.
“Okay, I deserved that one,” Rydell said. “I guess Jaroch told you before I got the chance.”
“What? That you guys planned on sending us out there so that we would disappear or be killed? That you wanted to get rid of us, like some sort of bad rubbish, or out of date dairy products?” Baxter asked angrily, standing up and lurching over to the perimeter of the force field. “Am I to believe that it just slipped your mind, Captain?” Baxter stared Rydell in the eyes.
“Not exactly,” Rydell said, stepping back a bit. He winced at the pain the movement caused in his arm. “Listen, we did want to get rid of you, but we never really expected that the mission would end up like it did. We just thought that you guys would hit some turbulence, get shaken up a bit, then come back.”
“You mean like all those other ships that didn’t return?” Baxter asked incredulously.
“Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that well planned out,” Rydell admitted. “The point is, we’re not your enemies. As a matter of fact, when you turned up missing, we went looking for you.”
“And?” Baxter said, sitting down and folding his arms.
“And Starfleet suspended our investigation. Not only that, but they also closed off the entire area around the Bermuda Expanse. Suddenly we realized we were caught up in something bigger than ourselves.”
“Damn right you were. And we ended up paying for it,” Baxter said angrily.
“But I have a feeling someone in Starfleet knew what was in there,” Rydell said. “Admiral Neilson was awfully quick to seal off that area and stop our investigation. And after that incident when your mind was combined with Commander Dillon’s last year, we tried to report your location to Starfleet, but Admiral Neilson put a gag on us and marked the whole thing confidential. I’m just guessing here but it seems like she’s hiding something.”
“I wonder what?” Baxter said, rubbing his chin.
“That’s for you to find out,” Rydell said. “After you’ve cooled down in here a while longer.”
Baxter suddenly heard Commander Conway grunt from the cell next door.
“What the hell happened?” Conway asked tiredly, before collapsing back to his cot and falling back unconscious.
“So I guess your officers got off scot free?” Baxter asked wearily, as he watched Conway slumber in the adjacent cell.
“On the contrary,” Rydell said, stepping aside to reveal Commander Dillon and Commander Jaroch passed out on the cots in the cells opposite Baxter and Conway’s. “We thought we’d punish the highest ranking officers as an example for the rest. I mean, we only have so much brig space.”
“Right,” Baxter said, watching Dillon snore. “What about Counselor Peterman?”
“I think she’s at pottery class with Counselor Webber. They’ve become the best of friends.”
“Well, how nice for them,” Baxter muttered. “And what about you? Shouldn’t you be stuck in here too?”
“Hey,” Rydell said, heading for the door, “it’s my ship.”
“Well, what the hell are we going to do now, Mora?” Admiral John Phillips asked, arms folded behind his back as he stared out the window at Golden Gate bridge. He idly wondered why Admiral Neilson’s office had such a great view. All he could see from his office was the matter reclamation units.
Admiral Mora Neilson sat back at her desk. “We’ve been caught with our pants down. We never really expected the Aerostar to come back. Even after Captain Baxter’s failed attempt to contact the Secondprize last year we assumed they’d be stranded there forever.”
“But they are back, and that leaves us with several issues to deal with,” Phillips said uneasily.
“Do you think our infiltrator was found?” Neilson asked, turning back to face Phillips.
“Undoubtedly,” Phillips replied. “And if I know Internal Affairs, they probably had someone working there as well.”
“For all we know, it was Captain Baxter himself,” Neilson said, plopping down into the chair opposite Phillips’s desk. “It was your dumb idea to send the son of the Vice Admiral in charge of Internal Affairs into the Delta Quadrant,”
Phillips grunted. “Damned risky if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you,” Neilson said flatly. “Anyway, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Well, Admiral Baxter is going to have a lot of questions for his son when he gets back,” Phillips said uneasily.
Neilson raised an eyebrow. “What if he doesn’t make it back?”
Ensign Ryan Stuart folded his arms and looked around engineering one last time. He still couldn’t get over the giant gash in the side of the ship, now covered by a piece of duranium. Paul Dunbar was sucked out of that gash a few days ago, and it could have easily been him instead.
Stuart tried to clear his head of such thoughts as he slapped his comm badge. “Stuart to Tangier.”
“Tangier here. What is your status, Stuart?” Captain Gibson’s deep voice responded.
“Power systems have been stabilized,” Stuart said, looking around at the flickering panels around engineering. “We can be tractored in at any time now.”
“Stand by, Mister Stuart. We’ll leave for Waystation in five minutes.”
Stuart sat down at a nearby console and propped his chin up on his hands. Why’d he get stuck babysitting the ship while it was being stripped and salvaged? Why couldn’t Richards have done it?
Because he’s the boss, that’s why, Stuart reminded himself.
Stuart’s thoughts were interrupted when he saw a blur of orange briefly fly down the corridor near engineering. What the hell was that?
The ensign shook his head in disbelief. “Computer…how many life signs on board?”
“There are four life signs on board the Aerostar,” the computer replied. Well, that would account for him, Colonel T’Phil, and the two security officers assigned to watch over him. Stuart’s brain must have been playing tricks on him.
Captain Gibson leaned forward over the helm and operations console of the freighter Tangier’s cramped bridge. “Are we ready?”
The Ensign at the helm nodded. “Yes, sir, as soon as we…”
Suddenly the Ensign seemed very alarmed. She looked down at her panel. “Captain…there’s some kind of distortion forming off our port bow!”
“On screen,” Gibson said, straightening.
On the Tangier’s tiny viewscreen, a huge Romulan Warbird suddenly appeared.
“Oh, my God…” Gibson said, when suddenly the Warbird fired a disruptor blast, which crossed space in seconds, blowing the Tangier to dust.
On board the Romulan Warbird Exalax, Commander Ardek smiled, let out a whoop of joy. “I just love blowing up Federation ships!”
“Shall we secure the Aerostar now, Commander?” Sub-Commander Gatana said, hands clasped behind her back.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Ardek said happily, bouncing up and down in his command chair. “Send in the teams!”
“You heard him,” Gatana said gruffly, inclining her head toward the chief of security. She turned to Ardek, concern plain on her face. “You realize we will not be safe here for much longer. We have destroyed a Federation vessel. They will be looking for us.”
Ardek rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry about that. As soon as we get T’Phil, we’ll make for the Neutral Zone. Now prepare to extend cloaking shields around the Aerostar.”
Gatana gritted her teeth angrily. “As I am sure you are aware, extending cloaking shields around such a large object will greatly decrease their effectiveness.”
“We won’t need them for long. The Neutral Zone is not that far,” Ardek said testily. “Now follow my orders.”
Gatana nodded reluctantly. “As you wish, Commander.”
Ensign Saral and Lt. Gellar had run out of conversation after the first hour of being stuck guarding Colonel T’Phil. All in all, it was a pretty darn boring job.
Gellar was about to suggest that he run get them something to drink when he heard the intruder alert klaxon go off.
“Intruder alert. Decks One, Nine, Twelve, and Twenty-Nine,” the computer said calmly.
Gellar withdrew his phaser and looked to Saral. “Stay with the prisoner, Ensign. I’ll go check it out.”
Saral nodded. “Very well.”
In one of the cells in the brig, T’Phil stirred. “My friends have finally arrived. I’m going home.”
Saral diverted her eyes to T’Phil for a moment. “If you are referring to the Romulans, I find that highly unlikely.”
She had barely finished making that statement, when suddenly she heard a loud disruptor blast and a cry for help from Lt. Gellar.
“Saral to Gellar. Please respond.”
There was no response.
The Vulcan slapped her comm badge. “Saral to Tangier. Security alert.”
Again, there was no response.
“You see?” T’Phil said, standing up and rubbing his hands together. “They’re coming.”
Saral was about to reply, when suddenly the door to the brig burst open, allowing several Romulans to pour in. “Do not move,” the lead Romulan said, leveling his disruptor at Saral.
“This is still highly unlikely,” Saral said, as she was clubbed over the head by the butt of the disruptor and knocked unconscious.
An hour later, Commander Lisa Beck stepped out of her office and out into Ops. “Any word from the Tangier, Commander Morales?”
Lt. Commander Morales shook his head, leaning against the docking console, a worried look on his face. “No, but they should have checked in by now.”
“Hail them,” Beck said, resting her hands on her hips and staring up at the viewscreen.
“No response,” Morales said.
Beck looked back at the science console. “Check the long range scanners, Mr. Porter. See if you can track them down out there.”
Lt. Craig Porter checked the scans, then rechecked them, shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t find them, Commander. What’s more, I can’t find the Aerostar now either.”
“They didn’t just disappear,” Beck said, walking around to the science console.
“I’m enhancing the scan resolution. Maybe I can find–” Porter said, “–wait a minute. I’m picking up debris. I’m not positive, but it looks like what’s left of the Tangier.”
“Damn,” Beck said, looking up at the viewscreen as Porter put the scans onscreen. Chunks of duranium of all different sizes floated by on the screen. “Contact Starfleet and apprise them of our current situation.”
“They’re going to start getting tired of hearing from us,” Morales said grimly from the docking console.
“I would too if I was them,” Porter added.
“Time to Earth?” Captain Rydell asked, settling down into the command chair and staring at the stars as they rushed by on the viewscreen.
“A little more than an hour,” Ensign Carr replied from ops.
Lt. Hawkins sighed loudly, drumming her fingers on the tactical console.
Rydell turned to face her. “Problem, Lieutenant?”
“I was just wondering when you planned on letting Dillon out of the brig.”
Rydell smiled. “Don’t tell me you’re already starting to miss him.”
Hawkins looked down. “It was bad enough that I had to shoot him. Then I had to throw him in the brig. That’s not going to do wonders for our relationship.”
“The only wonder in your relationship is why it’s still going on,” Lieutenant Andrea Sullivan said from the conn.
“And that’s the end of today’s episode of Love in Space,” Rydell said, derailing the conversation before Hawkins could respond to Sullivan’s jab. “You can go get him at the end of your shift.”
“Yes, sir,” Hawkins said, returning her gaze to her panel. Suddenly she looked up. “Captain…there’s a vessel entering the area.”
Rydell sat up in his chair. “What kind of vessel?”
Hawkins studied her scans. “Starfleet transport vessel. Miranda class. They’re hailing us.”
“Onscreen,” Rydell said, idly wondering what the heck a Starfleet transport would want with them.
A rather chubby, blank-looking man appeared on the viewscreen. “Hello, Captain Rydell. My name is Commander Vincent Kramer. Starfleet has ordered me to transport the Aerostar’s crew to Earth.”
At least he was the get-to-the-point type. “Might I know why?”
“Starfleet believes that the Secondprize should be kept available for more pressing duty.”
“I can’t think of anything more pressing,” Rydell replied.
“I have my orders, sir,” Kramer said dully. “Please come out of warp and drop your shields.”
“Okay,” Rydell said grudgingly. “Sullivan, take us out of warp. Hawkins, drop the shields and apprise the Aerostar crew of their change in location.”
Kramer nodded curtly to Rydell and disappeared, the view of the approaching starship replacing his image. Captain Rydell wasn’t sure what it was, but something felt wrong about this Kramer fellow.
“What do you have to say, Mister Hothead?” Counselor Peterman asked, nudging Baxter insistently as he stood, staring at his boots, in the transporter room.
“I’m…sorry I decked you, Mister Jaroch,” Baxter said weakly.
Counselor Webber smiled. “How big of you, Captain Baxter. How do you respond to that, Jaroch?”
Lt. Commander Jaroch stared blankly at Baxter, hands clasped behind his back. “I am…sorry that I tried to snap your neck. And I apologize for trying to send your crew to their doom.”
Baxter shrugged. “No harm done.”
“Now shake on it,” Peterman and Webber said in unison. Baxter and Jaroch reluctantly shook hands.
“All right, let’s get you guys over there. We’ve got places to go, people to see,” Commander Dillon said hurriedly. Baxter and Peterman quickly mounted the pad, joining Dr. Browning, Lt. Commander Richards, and Commander Conway.
“That was very big of you,” Conway whispered mockingly.
“Be quiet,” Baxter snapped, as Commander Dillon gave the command for the transporter chief to energize.
The Pakled trade vessel Pookie chugged through space at a slow clip of one-tenth impulse power. They had been hired by the Tellarites to transport a load of food supplies to one of their far-reaching colonies. It wasn’t much in the way of money, but then again, like most Pakleds, these weren’t that picky.
“We need to go faster,” Captain Chub said slowly, his unibrow creasing with worry. “We need speed.”
Engineer Burbert shook his head. “No more power. We can’t go.”
“But we have to get there fast,” Chub protested.
“Uh-uh,” Burbert said, continuing to shake his head.
“We are slow,” Chub said, finally deferring to his engineer’s intelligence.
“There’s a thing out there,” the science officer piped up, interrupting Chub’s concentration.
“A thing?” Chub asked. Now this was interesting.
“A big thing. A fast thing.”
“Big and fast?” Chub scratched his chin.
What could be big and fast? A ship!
“A ship?” Chub asked.
“Maybe,” the navigator replied.
“We should destroy it,” Burbert said.
Chub turned. “Can we?”
“We have lasers,” Burbert said.
Captain Chub clenched his chubby fist. “Then shoot our lasers at them.”
The Pookie’s lasers flared out at the approaching craft. “Well?” Chub asked impatiently.
“We did not hurt them,” the navigator said sadly. “Our lasers are not strong.”
Chub turned back to Burbert. “Is this bad?”
Burbert thought a moment. “They may have bigger lasers.”
“Oh,” Chub said. “We are not smart.”
Suddenly the oncoming craft fired a thick, blue beam at the Pookie, destroying it in one shot.
“This tiressssss me,” former Overmaster Granok of the former Flarn Empire said disappointedly. “Thesssse weaklingssss are not what we sssseek.”
Lieutenant Lord Kenjek nodded, keeping his place behind Granok. “True. But we are getting clossssser. The lasssst ship we desssstroyed was quite similar to the Aerostar.”
“The Aerossssstar,” Granok hissed, narrowing his eyes, remembering the unhappy incident nearly one year ago, when the Aerostar had shoved them through the portal in the Crebius Cluster, and doomed them to wander space, thousands of light years away from Flarn space. “They banissssshed us from our own empire. For that they will be obliterated.”
Kenjek smiled. “Do not fear, Granok. We will find them. They cannot hide for long.”
STARFLEET HEADQUARTERS OFFICE OF INTERNAL AFFAIRS
Yvonne walked into the office, smiling pleasantly as she sat several padds down on the Admiral’s desk, adjusting the curtains in the room, and whistling a happy tune as she placed some new flowers in the vase near the window.
“You should be happy, Admiral,” Yvonne said, straightening the furniture carefully. “Your son will be home soon.”
Vice Admiral Harlan Baxter turned in his chair, puffing away on a cigar. “I’m not happy at all, Yvonne. Not when I still haven’t heard from our agent.”
“Maybe she just forgot to check in,” Yvonne offered helpfully.
“I.A. operatives don’t just forget anything,” Harlan grunted. “Something smells rotten around here, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it.”
“Well, the Aerostar is back, and that’s the important thing,” Yvonne said, heading towards the door to Harlan’s office. “Should I contact your wife and tell her where the welcoming reception will be?”
“She already knows. She’s on her way,” Harlan said.
“I do love a party,” Yvonne said, smiling.
“We’ll arrive at Earth in about thirty minutes. Begin preparations for beam-down,” Commander Kramer said unenthusiastically over the comm system.
Captain Baxter tossed one of his suitcases onto the bed in the cramped quarters he had been issued aboard the Federation Transport Richard M. Nixon.
“Something is really bothering me about this whole thing,” Counselor Peterman said, ducking out of the cramped bathroom and brushing her teeth. “I mean, why move us all to another ship an hour before reaching Earth?”
“I don’t know,” Baxter said. “Maybe they just needed the Secondprize for more important duty.”
“That’s not all, though, Andy,” Peterman said. “Have you noticed how edgy the people on this ship are acting? It’s like they’re waiting for something terrible to happen.”
Baxter went over and grabbed Peterman’s hand, pulling the tooth brush out of her mouth. “Don’t be silly, Kelly. We’re home, we’re safe. Nothing bad could possibly happen here. I promise.”
Suddenly the door to Baxter’s temporary quarters chimed happily.
“Come in,” Baxter said, looking towards the doorway. Lt. Ariel Tilleran rushed into the room.
“Captain, we’re all in terrible danger here!”
Dr. Browning strolled into what was jokingly referred to as “sickbay” aboard the Nixon. It was really just an assortment of beds, medical tricorders, hypos, and closet space. Actually, there seemed to be a lot of closets. More than ususal.
“How’s my patient?” Browning asked, walking over to the bio-bed where Lt. J’hana sat on her hands, rocking back and forth impatiently.
“I am fine. I want to leave right now,” J’hana growled.
Browning grabbed a medical tricorder and looked J’hana over with it. “Well, the bone has completely healed. I think it’s safe to release you now.”
“Thank the hive mother,” J’hana grunted.
Browning crossed sickbay, looking up at the dizzying row of cabinets and long file-type drawers. “Let me just scan you with the dermal subscanner, just to make sure.”
Dr. Browning searched the cabinets, only coming up with a few padds and isolinear chips. No good. Next the doctor opened up one of the long drawers, hoping to find the tool she needed in there. Instead, she found the partially incinerated body of Captain Andrew Baxter. One intact eye stared blankly back at her.
Browning just covered her mouth, gasping in horror. “Oh, my…”
“What is it?” J’hana asked, sliding off her bio-bed and walking over.
“I don’t…” Browning said, when suddenly her comm badge beeped.
“Baxter to all senior officers. Report to my quarters immediately.”
J’hana stared impassively down at Baxter’s body, then looked up to Browning. “I suppose we should go see what he wants.”
Browning nodded, still not able to take her eyes of the burned and mutilated body.
“We found the entire command crew in there,” J’hana said grimly, leaning against Baxter’s couch. “As well as some random low-level officers.”
“How the hell did they do that?” Commander Conway asked incredulously.
“I don’t know,” Browning said, shaking her head. “We scanned them with the medical tricorder. The DNA was matched up perfectly. My only guess is that the bodies were grown organically in a lab. It’s possible, but quite difficult.”
“But, why?” Richards asked. “Why would someone want to simulate our deaths like that?”
“Because they are going to want us alive when they question us,” Tilleran said calmly, standing in the opposite corner of the room with her arms crossed. “But everyone else has to believe that we’re dead.”
“Who?” Conway asked. “Who wants us alive, or dead, or whatever?”
“It’s a general feeling I have, Commander,” Tilleran said wearily. “My abilities have been terribly stressed lately. All I know is that the people behind this are high-ranking Starfleet officals. I can’t say any more than that.”
Baxter leaned back on his couch, shaking his head. “I refuse to believe that.”
“Believe it or not, Captain, it is the truth,” J’hana said. “We have learned to trust Lt. Tilleran’s powers, have we not?”
“Yes,” Baxter said grimly. “We have.”
“So what do we do?” Peterman asked.
“Simple,” Baxter said, pulling a phaser out of his duffel. “We go to Sickbay and fry the command crew.”
Colonel T’Phil stepped onto the bridge of the Exalax, straightening the folds in his Romulan uniform. He’d become quite sick of wearing that disgustingly comfortable Starfleet uniform, and was glad to get out of it.
Commander Ardek turned in his chair to inspect the Colonel as he walked out onto the bridge.
“I see they were able to restore your ears to their proper state,” Ardek noted.
T’Phil nodded. “Thankfully. You wouldn’t believe how disturbing it was to wake up every morning to see a pair of human ears looking back at you.”
Ardek shivered slightly at the thought. “How terrible it must have been.”
“Well, it’s all over now. Now we can reap the rewards of my year in exile.”
Ardek said uncomfortably.
At the same time, T’Phil looked up at the viewscreen. The stars seemed to be moving far to slow. “Have we slowed down?” T’Phil asked with concern.
“Our engineers detected a spike in the quantum singularity core. It wasn’t dangerous to us, but it was detectable through our cloak, so we had to come out of warp,” Ardek said.
“Can’t we fix it?” T’Phil asked, annoyed.
“I am afraid not. The spike is being caused by the Aerostar’s power core, and even with all of that ship’s main systems deactivated, the singularity is still affected,” Sub-Commander Gatana said solemnly from beside Ardek.
“So what do we do?” T’Phil asked impatiently.
“We head back to Romulus at impulse speed,” Ardek said. “And hope that we’re not spotted.”
“Why would we be spotted?” T’Phil asked. He was anxious to get back to Romulus.
“Well,” Ardek replied with uncertainty. “It’s really not that big a deal…”
“What is it?” T’Phil demanded.
“We’re…uh…having trouble masking the Aerostar’s power signature.”
“Then we can be tracked…”
T’Phil said nervously. “Only if someone was capable of detecting the alien power signature the Aerostar is giving off. Luckily, we’re not in the Delta Quadrant. What are the chances of a ship looking for a–what did you call it–Sulani…power signature?” T’Phil calmed down a bit. “You are correct, Commander. Still, I will feel safer when we get back to Romulan space.”
“As will I,” Ardek said, settling into his seat.
Lieutenant J’hana poked her head around the corner, looking around quickly.
“Well?” Baxter asked from behind her.
“The coast is clear,” J’hana said, leading Baxter and Conway around the corner and down the corridor towards sickbay.
Baxter tapped his comm badge as he walked. “Team two. How’s it coming?”
“Slow,” Lt. Tilleran’s voice replied. “We’ll get back to you.”
“She’s taking too long,” Dr. Browning whispered, looking over Tilleran’s shoulder at the image on the tricorder the Betazoid held pointed at Commander Kramer’s quarters. They had managed to squeeze into a supply closet adjacent to his quarters, but found that they had very little room to move around once inside.
“Stop worrying,” Tilleran whispered back. “And get that coil spanner out of my back.”
“So, how long have you commanded this powerful vessel?” Counselor Peterman asked, draped sultrily on Commander Kramer’s couch.
Kramer smiled very slightly, pouring Peterman a drink and joining her on the couch. “Only a few weeks actually. I run errands for Admiral Neilson.”
“Admiral Neilson, huh?” Peterman asked. “As in Mora Neilson?” Peterman repeated this very loudly.
“Uh, yes,” Kramer said, draping his arm around Peterman’s shoulder. “But, enough about me. What’s your story?”
“You could say I’ve been around, Commander,” Peterman said, smiling nervously. “It’s really hot in here. In fact, I’m burning up.”
Kramer laughed. “You sure are,” he knew he was running out of time; but, hell, he was always the no nonsense type when it came to the bedroom. “Let’s have sex.”
Peterman smiled coyly. “Why Commander Kramer, I do believe you’re flirting with me.”
“Burn ‘em,” Baxter said, drawing his phaser and vaporizing his body in its coffin-like drawer.
“This is kind of spooky,” Conway said, as he blasted away at Dr. Browning.
J’hana quickly vaporized Conway’s body. “I like it.”
“Commander Kramer, there has been a phaser discharged in sickbay,” Kramer’s security officer, Lieutenant Seligman, reported.
Kramer smiled at Peterman momentarily, as she tried to pull away from his vice-like grip. The Commander quickly tapped his comm badge. “Take care of it, Seligman,” he said quickly. “Now.”
“Gee, I hope nothing’s wrong,” Peterman said, trying to pull to the opposite side of the couch.
“Everything looks fine from here,” Kramer said, climbing across the couch in an attempt to mount Peterman.
“Okay,” Tilleran said firmly, putting away her tricorder and drawing her phaser. “We have all the evidence we need. We’re going in. Stay behind me.”
“This is so cool,” Browning said, following Tilleran out of the cramped closet.
“You do it,” Baxter said, looking down at Counselor Peterman with disgust. “Please.”
“With pleasure,” Conway said, pushing Baxter aside and vaporizing the Counselor’s body.
Suddenly, the doors to sickbay parted. “What the hell do you think you are doing?” Lt. Seligman asked angrily.
“The dirty laundry,” Commander Conway said, tossing Lt. J’hana’s fragmented body at him.
The Andorian’s body hit Seligman, knocking him backwards into the other three members of his security team. “Go!” Baxter cried, setting his phaser back to stun and firing at Seligman before he could get up.
J’hana quickly tapped her comm badge. “J’hana to Henson. I want you to mobilize every officer we have and begin locking up the Nixon’s crew-members.”
“You want me to do what?” Henson asked incredulously.
“You heard me,” J’hana said, following Baxter and Conway out of Sickbay. “I’ll explain later.”
With that, Baxter, Conway, and J’hana jumped over the stunned officers and ran like hell out of sickbay, phasers at the ready.
“Get away from her!” Lt. Tilleran shouted, running into Kramer’s quarters.
Kramer put his hands up quickly, allowing Peterman to jump up from the couch and run for cover behind Tilleran. “What is this all about?”
“You can’t hide the truth from a Betazoid,” Tilleran said, approaching Kramer and sticking the phaser in his face. “I know what you’re planning on doing. And the more frightened you get, the clearer it gets to me.”
“Mind telling us?” Browning said, her arm draped comfortingly around Peterman.
“Yeah,” Peterman said. “What are you up to, besides trying to feel me up?”
Kramer frowned. “Damn. They didn’t tell me about any Betazoid.”
Tilleran glanced back at Browning and Peterman. “He’s going to blow up the ship and he and his crew are going to escape safely aboard the life-pods. Meanwhile, we’ll be transported to a holding place somewhere in San Francisco by a suppressed carrier wave transporter beam. The rescue parties will find some charred bodies at the Nixon’s crash site and they’ll assume we all died in the crash. Am I leaving anything out?”
“That about covers it,” Kramer said, nervously glancing at the chronometer on the wall.
“You look kind of anxious there, Commander,” Browning said. “Do you have somewhere you’re supposed to be right now?”
“Yeah,” Tilleran said, still aiming her phaser at Kramer. “He’s supposed to be safe in his escape pod right now.”
“Look,” Kramer said, “none of us wants to die. I’m sure we could work something out.”
“I doubt it,” Peterman replied angrily.
Kramer looked again at the chronometer. His other officers were probably scrambling for the escape pods right now, and here he was, trapped with these psycho women, about to get blown to smithereens. And simply because he couldn’t reign in his hormones. He had known that they would get him in trouble sooner or later.
“Team three. Please tell me you’re making progress,” Baxter’s voice said nervously from Richards’ comm badge.
Lt. Commander Richards edged along the Jeffries tube, slowly making his way towards the well-hidden access panel. “Almost there, Captain,” Richards grunted, pulling himself farther along the tube. “But I have no idea how long it will take to disable this system.”
“Approximately four minutes, given your engineering skill,” Lt. Larkin said, from behind Richards.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Larkin,” Richards said, pulling the panel off.
“My time estimate had nothing to do with confidence. It was a cross reference of your skills relative to the task at hand.”
“Right,” Richards said, carefully removing the casing of the mechanism. It was a fairly common Maquis device, used to override the lockouts on the magnetic constrictors. They would have an operative place it deep in the Jeffries’ tube of a Cardassian warship, and blow it up before their engineers even knew what had happened. The problem was, the device completely overrode the magnetic constrictor controls, which meant, if he removed it, they would fail immediately and the ship’s warp core would breach.
“Move it, fellas,” Commander Conway said, pushing the last remaining crewmen of the Nixon into the cargo bay and locking the door. “That does it, Captain.”
Baxter patted Commander Conway and Lt. J’hana on the shoulders and motioned for them to move on down the corridor. “Whoever planned this must not have expected us to find out about their little plan; I mean, we outnumbered this crew ten to one. Once we mobilized J’hana’s security forces, Kramer’s people didn’t stand a chance.”
“Poor tactical strategy,” J’hana commented.
“What’s next, Captain?” Conway asked as they moved down the corridor.
“We’re going to have a little talk with Commander Kramer,” Baxter said, cracking his knuckles angrily.
“What about Richards’ team?” Conway asked. “What if he can’t stop the ship from blowing up?”
“I have complete faith in my engineer,” Baxter said, quickening his pace down the corridor.
“Might I remind you that the device is set to go off in four minutes?” Larkin said, as she watched Richards work.
“I remember,” Richards replied testily. “I almost have it.”
“Perhaps I should…” Larkin said.
“Don’t worry…I can do it!” Richards said, his hands pulling at the optical cable that stood between him and the device’s power feed. “Just give me a couple more minutes…”
“I am not capable of worrying, Commander,” Larkin said. “However, it stands to reason that I would consider the death of everyone aboard this ship, including myself, to be unfortunate.”
“You don’t say,” Richards said dryly.
“As a matter of fact, I find that idea quite distasteful. But to say that I am worrying…that would not be an accurate statement.”
“Shut up!” Richards said, ripping the cable out. “I need to concentrate.”
“Of course,” Larkin replied.
Ensign Ford stroked the arms of the Nixon’s command chair lovingly. He didn’t really know when he’d get another chance to sit in a command chair, so he thought he’d get as much pleasure out of it as he possibly could.
Of course, seeing that they were all in imminent danger, pleasure was not really foremost on anyone else’s mind. That went double, Ford thought, for Ensign Puckett. The two of them had been assigned to go and secure the bridge, and during the rollicking firefight up there, she hadn’t responded very well to his flirtations. As a matter of fact, she’d threatened to shoot him with her phaser on more than one occasion. Oh well, Ford thought, glancing back at Puckett as she worked at the tactical station behind him. There’s plenty of other fish in the…
Suddenly, Ensign Ford felt the unmistakable sensation of an arm latching around his throat and threatening to choke the life out of him.
“Urk…” Ford choked out, as his unseen adversary squeezed harder.
Puckett immediately withdrew her phaser, leveling it at Ford’s assailant.
“Drop it,” a man in a Starfleet Lieutenant’s uniform said, “or the ‘Captain’ here dies.”
Puckett seemed to consider this a moment.
“Errggggg…” Ford protested angrily.
“Oh, alright,” Puckett said, dropping her phaser and stepping back.
The lieutenant threw Ford to the deck roughly, looking down at him with disdain.
“I thought we stunned all of you…” Ford said, rubbing his neck.
“You’re an ignorant fool,” the lieutenant said with disgust, looking up at Ensign Puckett. “And so are you. So is the rest of your so-called ‘heroic’ crew. But it’s no matter. You won’t live long enough to do anything else foolish.”
Suddenly the lieutenant’s arm stretched across the bridge, grabbing Puckett’s phaser and pulling it back towards him.
“You’re a Changeling!” Puckett said in astonishment.
“Oh, what gave it away?” the Changeling said, pointing one phaser at each officer. “Now both of you get in the corner.”
The Changeling walked over to the ops panel and hit a few buttons. “Admiral.”
“Yes?” A female voice crackled over the speakers.
“We have the situation under control. What should I do?”
“Continue as planned, Lieutenant.”
“But the bodies have been destroyed.”
“Just blow the ship up in space, then. The crash landing and the bodies were merely for theatrics anyway.”
“Understood,” the Lieutenant said coolly, closing the channel.
“You see, John?” Admiral Neilson said, turning in her chair. “Nothing to worry about.”
“But they managed to completely take over the Nixon,” Admiral Phillips protested. “You don’t expect them to just give up that easily.”
“I don’t expect them to give up at all. I expect them to die,” Neilson said. “We’ll get the information we need out of the senior staff, and the rest of the crew will perish in a horrible…accident.”
“And Admiral Baxter will never see his pathetic son again,” Phillips replied with a smile.
“And before you know it, Starfleet and the Federation will be ours,” Neilson grinned, watching the approaching blip on her office’s viewscreen. The Nixon was just now clearing Neptune. Soon her secret would be safe, and everything she wanted would be well within her grasp.
Admiral Harlan Baxter stalked across the courtyard at the center of Starfleet command angrily. The uncharacteristically sunny San Francisco day did little to brighten his mood. He had just received the signal that proved his greatest fears. He had intercepted a carefully coded message directed to Admiral Neilson from the Nixon. And he suddenly realized exactly what she was planning to do.
Harlan made his way to Admiral Neilson’s office, determined to settle this one himself.
“Who sent you, Kramer?” Captain Baxter asked, looming over Commander Kramer ominously as he sat on the couch. “Was it Admiral Neilson? Was it? Afraid I’d go public with her plans for the Borg? Well, I’ll tell you…”
Suddenly he found himself caught up in the familiar blue swirl of a transporter beam. Looking around, Baxter noted that Peterman, Browning, Tilleran, J’hana, and Conway were being beamed away as well. But to where?
“Get his phaser!” A voice shouted, as Baxter rematerialized.
Before he knew what was happening, a hand pushed him back into a chair and ripped the phaser out of his hand. “You were saying?” Kramer asked. Suddenly, it seemed, the tables were turned.
“Hi, Captain,” Ensign Ford said, beside him.
Baxter looked up at Kramer, then to the man behind him. Baxter didn’t recognize the other man, but he could tell by the shape of his face that he was a Changeling. “You can’t win. You guys are outnumbered.”
“You have a point there,” the man behind Kramer said. “But that fact won’t be true for long. We’re all beaming down to Earth as soon as we are in transporter range. And as for your gallant crew, they’ll all die.”
“Richards to Baxter. Larkin and I have disabled the device they were going to use to blow up the ship. What are we supposed to do next?”
Baxter looked up at his captors.
“Answer him,” the Changeling said. “Tell him everything is just fine.”
“Everything’s fine, Chris,” Baxter said calmly. “Tell everyone to stay calm down there and wait for further instructions.”
“Gotcha, Captain. Richards out.”
“I have a question,” Kramer said nervously, glancing back at the Changeling as he pointed the phaser at Baxter and his crew. “If they disabled the device that we were going to use to blow up the ship, how are we going to blow up the ship?”
“Simple,” the Changeling replied, walking over to the helm station. “I’m going to crash us into Earth’s moon.”
“Oh,” Kramer said blankly. “What about us?”
“Admiral Neilson will beam you and I, as well as Baxter and his senior staff, to safety.”
“Are you sure that’s safe?” Kramer asked. He was beginning to have his doubts. “Couldn’t we just use the self-destruct?”
The Changeling shook his head, glaring at Baxter. “No doubt Captain Baxter’s engineer locked out those subsystems before doing anything else.”
Baxter looked around at his senior officers. “Well, it was a good guess.”
“It wasn’t a guess you imbecile! Do you think I’m an idiot? Do I look like a baboon or something to you?”
“Well, judging by the last Changeling we ran into…” Baxter replied.
“Enough!” the Changeling said, turning around and programming in the ship’s crash course with the moon.
“Could we talk about this?” Kramer said, turning to face the Changeling. “I’m sure we could come up with a better…”
Baxter took that opportunity to leap out of his chair and charge at Kramer with all his might, ramming him up against the viewscreen.
The Changeling had just enough time to engage the course and tap some other buttons before Commander Conway charged into him, with J’hana right behind him.
“Let me at him!” J’hana cried.
Conway wrapped his arms around the Changeling, pushing him up against the wall. “I gotcha!”
“You have nothing!” the Changeling cried, as he suddenly melted in between Conway’s fingers and dripped to the floor, collecting at Conway’s feet and pushing him up into the air.
“Ford…” Baxter grunted, as he fought Kramer. “See if you can get us back on course.”
Ford jumped to the helm panel, looking fearfully at the controls. “They’re locked out, sir. And I can’t break the access code.”
Baxter slapped his comm badge with one hand, and Kramer with the other.
“Baxter to Richards. They managed to put the ship on a collision course and we can’t seem to stop it. Get everyone to the escape pods now!”
“But, Captain, maybe I can stop…”
Baxter grunted, as he pummeled Commander Kramer. “Just get everyone out of here.”
“But what about y-“
“We’ll be fine. Just move it!”
“And get my pets!” Peterman cried.
“And my luggage!” Conway cried.
“And my bat’leth!” J’hana cried.
“And my pornographic playdoh!” Ford cried.
“Um. I’ll see what I can do,” Richards replied, cutting the channel.
“Starship Nixon, this is McKinley Station. Your course has become erratic. Are you in need of assistance?” the viewscreen suddenly came to life.
“Yes!” Baxter cried as he strangled Commander Kramer, pushing him up against the viewscreen and strangling him, causing the face of the small Asian woman on the screen to contort as the delicate fabric of the screen was dented by Kramer’ bulky body.
“He’s trying to kill me!” Kramer choked out.
“Help is on the way, Nixon, just hold on!”
Conway, Browning, Tilleran, Peterman, Puckett, and J’hana continued to fight with the Changeling as it sloshed around the bridge, constantly taking shape just long enough to throw one of them off balance or attempt to strangle one of them.
“Just hold still long enough for me to shoot you, you bastard!” J’hana shouted, trying to take aim with her phaser. Suddenly the Nixon jerked backwards, causing everyone on the bridge to fly forward. It felt as if someone was trying to lock a tractor beam onto them.
It also felt like it wasn’t working.
Captain Robinson of the USS Goodall grimaced as he listened to the report from tactical.
“We cannot get a positive lock. We’re too near the moon’s gravity well,” Lt. Poloma reported, slamming her fist down on the tactical panel.
“Very well,” Robinson said, turning to his executive officer. “Go over and get them out of there.”
“Yes, sir,” the First Officer said, jumping out of her chair, pointing to Poloma and the ensign at ops, glancing back as the two followed her to the turbolift “Think he’ll be surprised to see me?”
Robinson allowed himself a brief giggle as his exec stepped into the turbolift. “Given the circumstances, I bet he’ll be happy to see anyone right now.”
Robinson then looked back up at the viewscreen. The Nixon was about to collide with the moon.
Lt. Commander Richards tried desperately to see through Ozzie the osprey’s flapping wings as he ran down the Nixon’s corridor toward the last escape pod. With a cat in each hand, a bird on his head, and a dog trotting along at his side, Richards looked like a deranged version of Dr. Doolittle.
“Everyone has reported to their respective escape pods, Commander,” Lt. Larkin said, coming up behind Richards, a cage full of bunnies, gerbils and hamsters in her arms.
“Great. I guess I’ll see you down on Earth.”
“I beg to differ, Commander,” Larkin said, following Richards into the cramped pod. “This is the last escape pod.”
Charlie clawed at Richards’s crotch as he tried to hold him at bay.
“Oh,” Richards replied, gulping nervously as the hatch sealed and pressurized, sealing him off from the Nixon’s corridor.
Animals squirmed around the tight compartment, including Ozzie the osprey, who continued to flap his wings in the poor engineer’s face.
“Why do I feel like I’m on Noah’s Ark?” Richards asked, as he felt the pod jerk free of its moorings and shoot out into open space.
“That is an interesting historical analogy,” Larkin said, balancing the cage of hamsters, gerbils and rabbits in her lap. “I should like to discuss it with you at length during the hours before we are rescued.”
Richards briefly wondered if it was too late to go back to the Nixon.
“Hold on!” Captain Baxter cried, as suddenly the Nixon shuddered severely and rammed into the moon, sliding across its surface at a blinding speed, spinning uncontrollably over the rocky terrain.
Baxter looked up at the viewscreen just in time to see the Nixon plow over the ancient American flag that Neil Armstrong placed on the moon back in 1969. Oh, well. It was getting pretty old anyway.
The Captain was hoping the ship would come to a merciful stop, but, evidently, the ship had other things in mind. The Nixon continued in a straight line, still following its course, which had been altered ever so slightly by the Goodall’s tractor beam. Clearing the moon’s gravity, the Nixon continued on course, right toward Earth.
“Well, everyone,” Baxter announced, as the green-blue planet grew larger and larger on the viewscreen. “Welcome back to Earth.”
Suddenly, Kramer, who Baxter had sworn was out cold, kicked Baxter right in the gut, jumping to his feet and diving on top of the Captain.
“Help!” Commander Conway cried, flailing around as the Changeling wrapped itself around him.
“Escape pods launched,” the computer reported happily.
“How comforting,” Ford said. “What about us?”
“We’re going to die!” J’hana replied with vigor as she ripped at the orange ectoplasmic goo that surrounded Commander Conway. “Finally!”
Captain Baxter suddenly found himself smashed up against the viewscreen, in another fierce struggle with the Nixon’s commander. He had almost freed himself from Kramer’ grip, when suddenly Kramer threw him against the bulkhead.
When Baxter heard the high pitched whine, he assumed it just went along with all the pretty colors the collision had caused.
That’s when Baxter saw a bright yellow flash over Kramer’s shoulder, a flash that immediately disintegrated the Changeling that grappled with Commander Conway.
Conway cringed as he looked down at his scorched uniform. “Jeeze, you almost vaporized me!”
“Sorry,” A dark haired woman with a gold-collared uniform said, holstering her phaser and helping him up. “Next time I’ll make sure I do vaporize you.”
“As you were, Lt. Poloma,” another officer said, walking over to where Baxter and Kramer fought.
Captain Baxter suddenly felt a wave of nostalgia as a hand clamped down on his ear and jerked him away from Kramer. Kramer yelped as another hand latched down on his ear. “Hey, get off!”
The first officer looked from Baxter to Kramer, shaking her head. “Starfleet officers, fighting like children. I can’t believe it. I would have thought better of both of you.”
She turned to Baxter. “Especially you.”
“Hi, mom,” Baxter said meekly.
“Pardon me?” The woman said, looking at Baxter scoldingly.
“Uh, I mean Commander Mom,” Baxter corrected.
“Better,” Commander Lucille Baxter said, looking at the two men she held in her grip. “Now can both of you settle this like good boys, or will I have to stun you both?”
Baxter blushed, looking down and mumbled, “Uh…I guess.”
“What, I didn’t hear you?”
“I said, yes, I can settle this like a good boy.”
Commander Baxter looked to Kramer. “What about you?”
“He started it,” Kramer said quietly.
“Throw him in the brig, mom. He’s a traitor,” Captain Baxter said. “He tried to kill all of us.”
“Is that so?” Commander Baxter asked, shaking Kramer by his uniform collar.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Kramer said meekly.
“Then off you go,” she handed Kramer over to Lt. Poloma. “Now I suggest we all get back to the Goodall.”
Baxter watched as Earth got bigger and bigger on the screen. They were almost within the atmosphere.
“Good idea, Mom. I mean, Commander.”
Lucille slapped her comm badge. “Baxter to Goodall. Beam everyone out of here.”
“Aw, his mommy came to save him,” Ensign Ford said sweetly, looking up at Baxter and batting his eyes. “That’s so sweet.”
“Shut up, Ensign,” Captain Baxter sneered, as the entire group beamed out.
Counselor Peterman held Captain Baxter’s hand as the senior officers were led by Commander Baxter up to the bridge of the Goodall. As far as she was concerned, she’d been on too damn many starships in the last day.
She’d definitely be glad to get back to Earth, that was for sure. She was also glad she wasn’t going to be getting back by riding the Nixon through the atmosphere and hitting the Earth at hundreds of thousands of miles an hour.
During the turbolift ride, Peterman briefly studied Commander Baxter. She didn’t seem to resemble Andy much at all. As a matter of fact, other than having the same dirty blond hair and blue eyes, they seemed almost like polar opposites.
Commander Baxter was short, slim, and compact, as opposed to Andy’s big, lumbering awkwardness, and her hair was worn in the standard “aging female Starfleet officer bun.”
Early on in her Starfleet career, Peterman had decided that she would never go to the bun…no matter how old she got. The bun was so infamous, it was generally accepted as the telltale sign that a female Starfleet officer was beginning to age.
Peterman felt a little sad that Baxter and his mom hadn’t even hugged yet, after being apart for a year. But, she reasoned that there must be a Starfleet regulation somewhere against it. And Commander Baxter didn’t strike her as someone that broke many Starfleet regulations. Another difference between her and Andy, Peterman supposed.
“…so your father told the Captain that if he didn’t want to fill out the proper paperwork, he’d have him digging out forsythias with old Boothby at the Academy,” Commander Baxter said, as the turbolift reached the bridge.
“That old man can’t still be alive,” Baxter said, chuckling as he followed his mother out of the lift.
“Not only is he alive, but I bet he could still outrun you in a sprint,” Commander Baxter said evenly. “I’d place my bets on him any day.”
“So would I,” Captain Baxter admitted.
“Finally, we’ve reached the bridge,” Conway muttered as he and Peterman followed the two Baxters out of the turbolift. “Maybe they’ll finally stop chit-chatting about family stuff.”
Peterman elbowed Conway. “Come on, Commander. That’s his mom.”
“Sorry, close brushes with death tend to affect my sensitivity.”
“What sensitivity?” Peterman asked.
Captain Robinson immediately rose to his feet, rushing to shake Captain Baxter’s hand. “Well, well, well. It’s been a long time. Last time I saw you, you were a struggling Ensign whose voice had hardly changed.”
Baxter shook the Captain’s hand. “Wasn’t that long ago sir.”
“And he’s a Captain now,” Commander Baxter said proudly.
“Well,” Baxter said, blushing again.
“Won’t be long before he’s giving his mom orders,” Captain Robinson said, patting Baxter’s shoulder and smiling.
“Sheesh,” Baxter said.
“You know, we were almost killed a few minutes ago…am I the only one here that remembers that?” Commander Conway said angrily.
“You’ve got a point, Commander,” Robinson said, turning to the tactical station. “Lt. Poloma, hail Starfleet Command and ask them how we should proceed.”
Yvonne had just finished blowing up the balloons for Captain Baxter’s welcome back party when two admirals were unceremoniously tossed into the office, knocking into the table where the “Welcome Back from the Delta Quadrant, Captain Baxter” cake had been laid out.
The secretary frowned as Admiral Baxter strolled in. “They crushed your son’s cake,” Yvonne said, looking down at the admirals and frowning.
“We can get another one,” Harlan grunted.
“You can’t do this,” Admiral Neilson protested, pulling at the restraining bolts that held her hands together.
“We outrank you,” Phillips chimed in, pulling at his own restraints.
“Not anymore you don’t. Traitors have no rank,” Harlan said, turning to Yvonne. “Get someone from Starfleet Security over here. I have two prisoners for them.”
“What’s the charge?” Yvonne asked, peering at Neilson and Phillips.
“For starters, collaborating with a Changeling to murder Starfleet officers, conspiring to take over Starfleet, withholding information from the Federation council, and sending an entire starship to the other side of the galaxy without authorization.”
“Wow, that’s a lot of charges,” Yvonne mused, heading back out into the reception area.
“You can’t prove anything,” Neilson said. “It’s your word against ours.”
“Well, I’ve got recorded evidence against you from my operative’s files, plus the testimony of the entire crew of the Aerostar that you two were up to no good.”
“You’re too late,” Admiral Neilson said, smiling. “We took care of your son and his friends.”
Harlan smiled back. “That’s what you think.”
“Admiral…” Yvonne said rushing back into the office. “We just got word that the transport carrying Captain Baxter and his crew crash-landed somewhere near Peking.”
Harlan turned around. “What?”
“You see?” Neilson said.
“And the Goodall reports that they rescued the entire crew, including the Commander that was responsible.”
“Doh!” Neilson said. She would have smacked her forehead, had she a free hand with which to smack it.
“It’s all over, Mora,” Harlan said, turning to Yvonne. “You could have told me the bit about them being saved first.”
“Wouldn’t have been as dramatic,” Yvonne explained.
“Enough with the drama, Yvonne, go call Starfleet Security,” Admiral Baxter barked, looking back to Neilson and Phillips.
“Yes, sir,” Yvonne said, hurrying out once again into the reception area outside Harlan’s office.
Admiral Baxter stared disapprovingly at Neilson and Phillips. “What has Starfleet come to?”
“I don’t know,” Neilson said, watching the chronometer on her wall. “But I may be able to tell you where Starfleet’s going.”
“What?” Harlan asked.
Suddenly Admirals Baxter, Neilson, and Phillips disappeared in a flash of purple.
“Admiral, I called Starfleet Security. They said they’d send someone right–” Yvonne looked around the empty office. “Admiral?” Yvonne looked around Admiral Baxter’s office in confusion. “Admiral?” she peered under Harlan’s huge mahogany desk. “Admiral? Where are you?”
Admiral Baxter sauntered out of the private restroom at the back of his office, adjusting his uniform pants. “Right here, Yvonne. I had to use the bathroom.”
Yvonne scratched her head. “Where are the prisoners, sir?”
“I had them beamed to a brig to save Starfleet Security the trouble of getting them,” Harlan said, placing a reassuring hand on Yvonne’s shoulder. “Now, why don’t you go get another cake for my son.”
“Yes, sir. Should I also cancel the rest of you appointments for today so that you can spend time with him?”
“That’s a good idea, Yvonne,” Harlan said, a menacing grin spreading across his face, “My son and I have a lot to discuss.”
“Well, what do you have to say about your smug Starfleet beliefs now, Admiral?” Neilson asked, looking gloatingly at Harlan as two hulking Jem’Hadar guards held him at bay.
“You two are Changelings!” Harlan said incredulously.
“I am,” Neilson said, crossing to the center of the ship’s bridge. “Admiral Phillips here is one of you, but he’s a collaborator.”
“They promised me my own ship,” Phillips said happily.
“Soon enough,” Neilson said. “Right now we have other business to attend to.”
“How could you have gotten around Earth’s defenses?” Harlan asked angrily.
Neilson gestured at their surroundings. “This is a prototype Jem’Hadar warship that’s equipped with a cloaking device. Just one of the perks of our battle with the Tal Shiar.”
“You conniving bastards,” Harlan growled.
“We’re not finished yet,” Neilson said with a smile. “Since your son was unkind enough to mess up our plans, we’ll have to change strategies.”
“We just exchanged one Changeling Admiral for another. And this one has access to your son.”
“You replaced me with a Changeling,” Harlan said grimly.
“And BINGO was his name,” Phillips said pleasantly, placing a hand on Harlan’s shoulder.
“And as for us, we have a starship to capture,” Neilson said, grinning.
“Precisely,” Neilson said. “We’re going to capture that starship and get all the information we need on the Bermuda Expanse. Then the Dominion will conquer one more quadrant!”
“I’d worry about the Alpha and Beta quadrants first, if I were you,” Harlan growled.
Neilson smiled. “I wouldn’t.”
Captain’s Log, Stardate 51993.3. We have been sent by Starfleet to investigate the destruction of the Federation freighter Tangier, as well as the mysterious disappearance of the Starship Aerostar. I don’t know why Captain Baxter gets to relax back on Earth while we sit out here and root around for his stupid ship, but, like a good Captain, I’m complying with Starfleet’s orders.
“Well?” Commander Dillon asked, leaning over Lt. Commander Jaroch’s shoulder. “What have you got?”
“An imbecile looking over my shoulder,” Jaroch said, not looking up.
“What have you got on the sensors?” Dillon demanded.
“You must try to be more precise in the future, Commander,” Jaroch said, looking up. “There is insufficient debris here to represent the mass of the Aerostar and the Tangier. Therefore, I am forced to assume that the Aerostar has been taken.”
“Waystation told us that much, Jaroch,” Rydell said from the command chair. “What I want to know is where the heck the Aerostar went.”
“Oh, Waystation already figured that out?” Jaroch asked. “Well, good for them. I am gratified to see that I am using my abilities so productively.”
“Get over it, Jaroch. We need to find the Aerostar,” Rydell said.
“Very well,” Jaroch said, looking at the long range scanners. “I am picking up a faint power signature…almost unreadable. It seems like a distorted echo of some sort.”
Dillon rubbed his hands together. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Could it be the Aerostar?”
“Quite likely,” Jaroch said, continuing to look at his scanners. “However, the sensor image is not clear enough to get a specific location.”
“Well, it’s a start,” Rydell said. “Helm, lay in a course to inter-“
“Captain…” Lt. Hawkins said from tactical. “We’re being hailed by an approaching Bolian freighter.”
“What the heck could they want?” Dillon asked, walking over to Hawkins’s station.
“They say they have someone who needs to talk to us on board. Someone who specifically requested to be taken to a Federation Starship.”
“Put them onscreen,” Rydell said, leaning forward in his command chair.
A very disheveled looking Vulcan appeared on the screen. “Uh, h-hi, I am Counselor Telvin of the late Starship Capistrano. We were on a d-deep space expedition when we were a-a-attacked. They killed e-everybody.”
“Attacked? By who…or what?” Rydell asked.
“Don’t know,” the Vulcan stammered. “Big ship. Big, scary, ship.”
“What an odd Vulcan,” Jaroch mused.
“Quiet, Jaroch,” Rydell said under his breath. “Mister Telvin, please beam aboard our ship immediately, and we’ll try to find out who destroyed your ship.”
“Okay, th-thank you. It’s been a long…c-couple of days.”
“I bet,” Rydell said. “Secondprize out.”
As soon as Telvin’s image disappeared, Rydell turned to Commander Dillon. “Mister Dillon, go down and fetch our visitor. And take Counselor Webber with you. Something tells me her services might be needed.”
Telvin took the cup of tea from Counselor Webber with shaking hands, as he tried to recount his story.
“Then our shields came down, and the hull started to breach,” Telvin said, sipping from the tea gingerly. Commander Dillon and Captain Rydell leaned forward at the other end of the conference table with interest, as Counselor Webber sat down across from Dillon on Rydell’s left side. “And then what?” Dillon asked.
“Then I left,” Telvin said plainly.
“Left? What do you mean you left?” Rydell asked.
“I ran to an escape pod and jumped ship. I’m no idiot, Captain. I’m technically a civilian. I didn’t make any oath to Starfleet. I got my PhD in psychology from Yale, where the students are not expected to get shot at.”
Rydell grimaced inwardly. He was obviously not talking to the selfless hero-type. “Then, two days later, you were rescued by the Bolians.”
“And taken here, yes, that’s correct Captain,” Telvin said, taking another sip. “By the way, this is wonderful tea.”
“Thank you,” Webber said sweetly. “So, Telvin, you seem quite rattled. If you don’t mind me asking, how is it a Vulcan could possibly have this reaction?”
“Quite simple, Counselor,” Telvin said, “I am half human. My full name is actually Telvin Abramowitz, which is my mother’s maiden name. Of course, when she married my father she changed it to, well, nothing, because Vulcans don’t have last names. Why is that?”
“I don’t know,” Rydell said tiredly.
“Anyway, mom raised me on Earth, with all the normal schooling a Terran would receive, much to my father’s chagrin.”
“I’m sure,” Rydell said. “About that ship that attacked you. Can you remember what it looked like? Is there something you might be able to tell us that would help us track it down?” Telvin turned in his chair to face the conference room windows. He stared out at the slowly moving stars beyond the windows, his gaze falling on one particularly bright, twinkling star. Maybe it was Vulcan. Heck, he’d never been there–how would he know?
“It was really big,” Telvin said, glancing back at Rydell. “With a predatory, almost birdlike shape to it.”
“Romulan…Dominion?” Dillon asked, looking to Rydell.
“No,” Telvin said, shaking his head. “Bigger, bulkier. And it wasn’t green or purple…it was more like a tannish color. With some dark blue spots.
“Tan and blue,” Rydell said, rubbing his chin. Didn’t sound like any damned ship he’d heard of. But it did sound like a good color scheme.
Telvin squinted a moment at the twinkling star. Was it his poor eyesight, or was the star coming towards them?
“It sounds like the Federation has a new enemy,”
Commander Dillon said. “Whoever it is, they took out a Starfleet ship with a few shots.”
“Maybe it was Tamarian,” Webber offered. “Their ships are kind of bird shaped, but they’re more a greyish color.”
“No,” Telvin said. “Whoever attacked us spoke English through the Universal Translator. They did, however, make a kind of hissing sound.”
“Hissing?” Rydell asked.
Telvin stared harder at the star. It was definitely not a star. It was some sort of ship, and it was coming closer, with great speed.
Rydell said, after a few moments of silence. “If you can tell us anything else that would help us, we’d greatly appreciate it. As it is, we have very little to work with.”
“You know…” Telvin said, looking out the windows, as his teacup began to shake more violently. “It looked a lot like…”
“Like what?” Rydell prodded. Interrogating this fellow was like talking to a little child.
Telvin dropped his teacup and raised a pointed finger at the transparent aluminum window. “Like that!”
Rydell, Dillon, and Webber all turned to look out the window, just in time to see a ball of blue light shimmer towards them.
“Red Alert,” Lt. Commander Jaroch’s voice said calmly as the red alert klaxons began. “Captain Rydell to the bridge.”
“Evasive maneuvers, Lt. Sullivan,” Rydell ordered taking his chair from Jaroch. “Damage report.”
“Shields are down to sixty percent,” Hawkins said. “They are using some kind of focused anti-proton beam,” Lieutenant Commander Jaroch said, as he returned to the science station. “I calculate that two more blasts will disable our shields.”
“Hail them,” Rydell said. “Maybe we can reason with them.”
“There is no reasoning with them. They’re killers!” Telvin ranted.
“I’ll remember that,” Rydell said.
“They’re responding,” Lt. Hawkins said.
“On-screen,” Rydell ordered.
Suddenly, a huge, menacing, predatory looking creature appeared on the screen. It seemed to be half reptile, half insect, with a huge torso, tiny, spindly arms and legs, huge, almost lobsterlike talons, and deep set compound eyes. The creature smiled, revealing huge jaws full of sharp teeth. Rydell shivered.
“Another Federation ssssstarship, eh? Would you mind telling us where we might find the USS Aerossssstar?”
“The Aerostar?” Rydell said. “They’ve only been back in this quadrant for a day.”
“A day, you ssssay?” the creature hissed. “But they are back?”
“Yes,” Rydell said. “Now would you guys mind terribly not blowing up any more of our ships?”
“Sssssorry,” the creature said, leaning back in his chair. “We have quite a few more ships to dessssstroy before we begin stockpiling you for consumption.”
Dillon gulped. “Did he say consumption?”
“Yesssss, I did,” the creature hissed angrily. “That meanssss we are going to eat you. We’ve found humans to be quite tassssty.”
“Who are you?” Rydell asked. “Where are you from?”
“If you must know, we are the Flarn, and we come from a far away region of space, where we control a huge empire.”
“Why didn’t we think of that before?” Webber asked. “This is the species the Aerostar ran into in the Delta Quadrant!”
“Damn,” Dillon said. “Then we are in trouble.”
Rydell glared at Dillon and Webber and turned back to the viewscreen. “What do you want with the Aerostar?”
The Flarn’s smile widened. “Very sssssimply, we want revenge. Now are you done with all the quesssstions?”
“I–” Rydell said.
“Good. Have a nice day, and thank you for all your sssssplendid help.”
“But–” Rydell said.
“They’re firing again!” Hawkins said, as the deck rattled underneath Rydell’s feet. “Shields now down to twenty-three percent.”
“I’d love to be able to complete just one sentence,” Rydell muttered. “Return fire, all weapons.”
Hawkins looked up from her panel. “We weakened their shields. Negligible damage.”
“Damn it,” Rydell said. “Back us off, Sullivan.”
Suddenly, another volley came from the Flarn ship, this time causing several panels on the bridge to overload and explode.
“Shields down!” Hawkins cried. “Damage to decks eleven and twenty.”
“We’re finished,” Dillon said quietly.
Telvin cowered at Hawkins’s feet, deciding that it was the best port in a storm, since he had no idea where the escape pods were on this starship.
“We will not withstand another hit, Captain,” Jaroch said. Rydell watched the massive ship loom over him. Was this really it? After all its crew had been through, were they doomed to bite the dust out in the backwaters of space, destroyed in less than ten minutes by a ship they couldn’t even identify?
The Captain tried to ignore the sound of Commander Dillon’s nervous whimpering from beside him as he attempted to think of a way out of this mess. Maybe it really was a Kobayashi Maru. A no win situation.
Maybe it was time to simply throw in the–
“Sir!” Jaroch said from the science console. “They are coming about!”
Rydell looked up. Jaroch was right. Suddenly the ship turned on a wing and warped away.
“Talk about luck,” Ensign Carr said from ops.
“Maybe they found something that interested them more,” Jaroch suggested.
“Whew,” Commander Dillon said, wiping a hand over his forehead. “I really thought we were finished there, Captain.”
“We still may be,” Rydell said. “Helm, set a course to follow that ship. Maximum warp.”
“Are you crazy?” Sullivan asked.
“Quite possibly,” Rydell replied. “Now engage.”
“Are you ssssure it is a Ssssssulani signature?” Granok asked, watching as the Federation ship they were attacking vanished away in the distance.
“Yessss,” Astrok said from the science console. “But ssssomeone is attempting to massssk the signal. It is sssssome sort of camouflage device.”
“Can we sssssee through it?” Kenjek asked.
“Enough to get a target lock,” Astrok said, baring his teeth in a menacing smile.
Colonel T’Phil paced the bridge of the Exalax nervously, his fingers twiddling behind his back.
“How long now, pilot?” T’Phil asked, as he came to the helm station.
The pilot straightened. “Six hours, fourteen minutes, at our present sublight speed.”
“That’s not good enough,” T’Phil said, turning to Ardek, who sat in the command chair busily working on a padd. “We’re still not out of Federation territory.”
“‘The strongest of all warriors are these two–Time and Patience,’” Ardek said, looking up at T’Phil proudly.
“What?” T’Phil asked.
Ardek smiled. “It’s my thought of the day. Do you know who said that?”
“Mevak? Or was it V’karn?” T’Phil asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Tolstoi,” Ardek corrected. “A human writer.”
“Well, he writes like a Romulan,” T’Phil commented, returning his gaze to the viewscreen.
“That’s what I thought, too,” Ardek said. “Do you know what it means?”
“That I should be patient?”
“Exactly,” Ardek said. “Patience is a virtue, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I supposed the Tal Shiar have something to learn from Tolstoi. Maybe if we had thought like that, we would have never sent that fleet into the Gamma Quadrant.”
“Live and learn,” Ardek said cheerfully.
T’Phil grimaced as he remembered the dreadful day he had heard of the destruction of the Tal Shiar fleet. Since that time, he had difficulty getting used to the fact that his organization was crippled, a mere shadow of the fierce, devastating political power they once had been. That’s why he was forced to lower himself to undercover work aboard the Aerostar. In the old days, one of his minions would have taken care of that task. But now, most of those minions were dead. Slaughtered by the Jem’Hadar. Oh, well.
“These organizers really do help you keep your life in order,” Ardek said, happily tapping away at his padd. “Not only do they have a quote for each day, but they have a list of things to do as well. See, I have ‘steal Federation starship and take it back to Romulus’ right here under stardate 51992. And 51995 is my daughter’s birthday.” Ardek continued to page through his padd. “And, of course, who could forget stardate 52050, Tarshak day.”
“Commander…” the science officer said, looking up from his console. “I just detected a vessel on an intercept course with us. They are approaching at warp two, on a course of 214 mark 5.”
“On screen,” Ardek said, putting his padd down and looking up at the viewscreen.
T’Phil looked up, and gasped. “No…it’s not possible…”
The huge, predatory starship loomed closer on the screen. “The ship matches nothing in our databanks,” the science officer added.
“What is it, Colonel?” Ardek asked urgently.
“Get us out of here. As fast as we can go,” T’Phil said. “But…the Aerostar…”
“Forget the Aerostar!” T’Phil cried frantically, pushing the pilot aside and grabbing the controls.
Suddenly a blue beam lanced across space, connecting with what appeared to be empty space.
The Exalax shook, as panels on the bridge began to spark and explode.
“Direct hit on the Aerostar. The energy surge from the blast was absorbed into our cloaking shields and our tractor beam,” the science officer reported.
“Can we maintain our cloak?”
“Barely,” the science officer said. “Our electrical systems took a lot of damage.”
“I’m disengaging the tractor beam and getting us out of here,” T’Phil said, grabbing at the helm controls.
“Who are they, T’Phil?” Ardek asked, watching as the Aerostar emerged from the cloaking shields and became visible, a huge new scar apparent on its lower hull.
“They are called the Flarn, and they are likely the most fearsome species I have ever come in contact with,” T’Phil said, watching the vessel on the screen as it fired another shot at the Aerostar, cleaving a giant tear in the bottom of its saucer section.
“Overmassssster!” Astrok shouted, as Granok watched the crippled Aerostar list in space. “It issss the Aerossssstar. They sssssseem to have been refitted with Sulani enginesssss.”
“Excellent,” Granok said, looking excitedly at the image of the Aerostar on the viewscreen. “Find me Captain Baxter.”
“One problem, ssssssir…”
Astrok said. “The Aerossssssstar is dessssssserted.”
“Where issssss the crew?” Granok asked.
Astrok studied his panel. “I am detecting another power sssssignature. There issss another camouflaged vessel in the area.”
“Can we find it?” Granok asked
“Ssssscanning…I’ve got them!” Astrok reported.
“Sssssshoot them!” Granok commanded, slamming his hand down on the arm of his command throne.
“Our cloaking device is failing!” the science officer reported. “They may be able to detect us!”
Suddenly the science officer’s fears were confirmed when a huge blast rocked the Exalax.
“Drop the cloak and raise the shields,” Ardek commanded, as the ship shook. “Lock our disruptors onto them and fire!”
“There she is,” Commander Dillon said, watching the gruesome vessel come into view on the screen.
Captain Rydell peered at the viewscreen as the Secondprize grew closer to the Flarn ship. “And is that the Aerostar?”
“It seems as though they have they found it, Captain,” Jaroch reported.
“Well, where the hell was it?” Rydell asked. “You can’t just make a ship disappear.”
“Romulan Warbird decloaking ahead, Captain!” Lieutenant Hawkins reported.
“I stand corrected,” Rydell admitted.
“Oh, dear,” Telvin said, still cowering behind Hawkins.
“Lt. Hawkins. Give Starfleet a little update,” Rydell said, slapping his comm badge and watching as the Romulan Warbird began to attack the Flarn vessel. “Rydell to Baird. How are those shields coming?”
“They were pretty f**ed,” Baird cursed. “But I managed to get them back up to sixty percent. Why?”
“We’re heading in for round two,” Rydell sighed.
“We’ve lost our shields!” the science officer of the Exalax cried out. “Damage to the warp engines.”
“We’re as good as eaten, Ardek,” T’Phil said.
“What do you mean?” Ardek asked. “Eaten?”
“The Flarn find humanoids tasty,” T’Phil said.
Ardek madly stabbed at the comm button on his command chair. “Engineering. We need warp power. You have to get us out of here.”
“It is useless, Commander Ardek. The warp engines are disabled,” the engineer replied.
Another blast sent the Exalax spiraling, one wing ripped open.
Suddenly something appeared right in front of Commander Ardek in a shimmer of purple.
“Intruder alert!” the pilot cried, pulling his disruptor out and running towards the huge creature that materialized in front of Ardek.
The gigantic reptilian creature jabbed a claw into the pilot, impaling him, then tossing him across the bridge. “What did you do with the crew-memberssssss of the Aerossssstar? Where isss Baxter?” the creature hissed.
“Oh, Captain Baxter?” T’Phil asked, stepping up behind Ardek, who appeared to be paralyzed with fear. “He went back to Earth.”
“Earth?” the creature asked, obviously interested. “Ssssso he’s returning home.”
“Yes, home. I’m sure he’d be happy to see you,” T’Phil said uneasily. “Why don’t you look him up? Earth is lovely this time of year.”
The creature grabbed Ardek in one claw and T’Phil in the other. “Why don’t WE look him up?” he asked. “Assssstrok to Jendak. Transsssssport three.”
Lt. Commander Jaroch gripped the science console as the Secondprize shook. “Damage to the port stabilizer! We are clearly out-gunned here!”
“We can’t last much longer like this!” Commander Dillon said, as the Flarn ship pounded them again.
“Starfleet said they would try to send us some backup… but they don’t have much out this way. It could be a while,” Lt. Hawkins reported. “Waystation is sending two runabouts to take some pressure off us. But we can’t expect them to do much good.”
Rydell gripped the command chair, trying to maintain his balance as his ship received its beating. “I need some solutions.”
“We could lead them towards Waystation,” Jaroch suggested. “They are equipped with some more advanced weaponry to battle the Multeks.”
“I don’t want to endanger so many innocent lives,” Rydell said. “There must be another answer.”
Suddenly the Flarn ship turned again on the viewscreen and engaged into warp.
“They’re leaving,” Jaroch said incredulously. “Again, what dumb, stupid luck.”
“Luck is not chance–it’s toil–Fortune’s expensive smile is earned,” Rydell said. “That’s Emily Dickinson.”
“Where on Earth did you get that from?” Jaroch asked.
“Thought for the day,” Rydell said.
“Well, should we follow them again?” Dillon asked. “Captain…”
Hawkins said from tactical. “The Romulan Warbird is seriously damaged. I don’t think they’re going to be able to keep it together much longer.”
Rydell rubbed his chin. “How many people are over there?”
“Two hundred Romulans, two humans, and one Vulcan,” Hawkins said.
Rydell’s brow furrowed. “How the hell did they get over there?”
“Probably the crew left behind to look over the Aerostar,” Dillon suggested.
“Very well,” Rydell said. “Send an engineering crew over there to try and rescue the ship. Meanwhile, get everyone evacuated.”
“What’s the word from the Secondprize?” Commander Beck asked, the concern plain on her face.
“They’ve sustained quite a bit of damage, and they have stopped to assist the Romulan Warbird that stole the Aerostar,” Lt. Porter reported from the science console.
“What about the invading warship?” Beck asked, approaching the main viewscreen.
“Rapidly approaching our position, Commander,” Lt. Russel said from the tactical console. “It looks like they’re heading for the Terran system. And our runabouts are directly in their path.”
“Damn,” Beck said, considering the situation a moment. “Bring the runabouts back in. No way they’re going to last against a ship that overpowered a Romulan Warbird and an Excelsior-class Starship.”
“Aye, sir,” Russel said, hitting a control on his panel. “Waystation to Cumberland and Yadkin. Return at once. I repeat, return at once.”
“How close will the warship pass to us, at their present course?” Beck asked, looking back to Porter’s console.
“Four thousand kilometers,” Porter said. “Well within our weapons range.”
“Then we’re going to try to stop them,” Beck said decisively. “Go to Red Alert. Arm all weapons, and put the shields up as soon as the runabouts return,” Beck said. “And…”
“Already contacting Starfleet for the third time, sir,” Porter said, tapping away at his panel.
“…and as you can see, it’s true…” Captain Baxter said, pulling nervously at his dress uniform as he addressed the Federation council. Behind him, on a huge viewscreen, the crashed starship Nixon was still smoldering in the morning light, as the salvage team from Peking worked to clear up the wreckage. “…only Nixon can go to China.”
The audience was completely quiet, with the exception of a Tellarite who noisily cleared his throat.
Seeing that her boyfriend was struggling, Peterman cried out, “Yay, Andy!”
Conway quickly jerked her back into her seat. “This isn’t a damn football game, Peterman!”
Baxter looked around nervously. “Um…in conclusion, I can only say this: The biggest threat to Starfleet is within. Admirals Neilson and Phillips represent our weakest links, and these links have to be rooted out and eliminated, by whatever means necessary. The threat of the Dominion and the Borg almost pales in comparison.”
Baxter pulled at his collar again. “Well, it doesn’t really pale, but, maybe it just looks a little peaked. Anyway, my point is, the Aerostar’s mission was based on the fact that my crew and I would fail, and in doing so, unwittingly carry out Admiral Neilson’s plans. But as you can see, we did not fail. We did–kind of–carry out Neilson’s plans, but, hey, we did stop the Borg from ransacking the entire Delta Quadrant.”
The Captain started to break out into a nervous sweat. The council stared back at him blankly. President Inyo was asleep. And Kelly clapped every time he finished a sentence. He felt more comfortable battling the Flarn.
“I guess my point is,” Baxter said, “we survived. We beat the odds and made it back. And for that, I believe my crew should be recognized.”
At that, the group began to clap vigorously. They’d finally heard something interesting. The sound of the clapping caused President Inyo to stir. He looked up, saw everyone else clapping, and joined them, standing up to join Baxter at the podium.
“Thank you, Captain Baxter, for that amazing story. Your fantastic voyage will no doubt go down in the annals of history as one of our most…interesting. I’d also like to remind everyone that we have some punch and cookies out in the lobby. Also, the Department of Earth Agriculture is having a square dance tonight at eight o’clock in the ‘Joe Piscopo’ room of the Federation Affairs building. All are invited. Thanks for coming everyone.”
The crowd began to disperse as Baxter stepped down from the podium. Baxter’s command crew rushed to meet him. “So, how’d I do?” Baxter asked, as Peterman ran up to hug him.
“Wonderful,” Peterman said, squeezing Baxter so tight that one of his pips almost popped off.
“It was inspiring,” Conway muttered sarcastically.
“Did someone say cookies?” Dr. Browning said, dragging Richards in the direction of the refreshments.
“Great job, Andy,” Richards said as he was dragged away.
“Congratulations, son,” Admiral Baxter said, stepping up to shake Captain Baxter’s hand. “It’s good to have you back.”
Captain Baxter smiled. “Thanks, Dad. Where did mom go?”
“She had to go back to the Goodall. After dropping you guys off, they’re scheduled to go on a mapping mission in the Briad belt.”
“Oh,” Baxter said. “So, what did you think of my report?”
Harlan laughed. “It read like science fiction, son. Hard to believe that it actually happened.”
“Even harder to believe that you stuck an undercover operative on my ship and didn’t even tell me about it,” Baxter replied quietly.
Captain Baxter looked at Harlan askance a moment. It seemed like he didn’t know what the Captain was talking about. Baxter dismissed his suspicions as silly paranoia. “I just hope she’s happy with Admiral Neilson’s operative.” Baxter wondered what Commander Prescott and Private Henricks were doing at that moment. He was sure that sex had something to do with it, whatever it was. “So was it your idea to have her try and get in my pants?”
“She…um, had to get access to information from key individuals on your ship. Anyway, I knew you were a lonely boy.”
“Not anymore. I found someone. And she isn’t even on your payroll,” Baxter said, smiling over at Counselor Peterman as she talked to the Trill ambassador.
“I’m proud of you, Andy. When should Commander Baxter and I… uh, expect a little grandchild?”
Baxter considered that a moment. He could recall Counselor Peterman’s tirade on the subject, which went something like: “Something that big coming out of something this small? Are you kidding me? Do you know how much that would hurt?”
“Don’t hold your breath, Dad,” Baxter said. “We haven’t even really talked about marriage yet. So…”
Baxter tried to change the subject. “Any word on the Aerostar, yet?”
“None that I’ve heard,” Harlan said. “The Secondprize is still searching for her.”
After that Admiral Baxter smiled. “But I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you.”
Baxter’s conversation was suddenly interrupted when a shorter, white haired man rushed up to shake his hand. “Captain Baxter. What a pleasure to meet you!”
“Same here,” Baxter said, looking at the man’s pips. “Admiral…”
“Admiral Frank McGrath,” The man said excitedly. “So, I understand you had quite an adventure in the Delta Quadrant.”
“Yes, sir. I did,” Baxter replied.
“I also hear you lost your ship,” McGrath said, his voice lowering to a conspiratorial whisper.
“I imagine the Aerostar will be scrapped, sir,” Baxter agreed.
“Well, what if I told you I had a brand new ship for you. A top-of-the-line Galaxy-class, equipped with all the latest bells and whistles,” McGrath said excitedly.
Both Admiral and Captain Baxter’s eyes lit up. “You’re kidding,” Captain Baxter said.
“I’m going to call her the Explorer. And she has everything you could possibly imagine…except a crew.”
“And what would this…Explorer…do?” Harlan asked.
“Just what the name implies,” McGrath said, his eyes wide with excitement. “Explore…”
“Explore what?” Captain Baxter asked.
“The farthest reaches of space. We would send her everywhere the human eye has yet to peek…we’ll probably even send her into the Gamma Quadrant for some expeditions, if the Dominion threat ever lets up. She would be a modern day space pioneer.”
“Well,” Captain Baxter said, rocking nervously on his heels. “It sounds like you’ve definitely put a lot of thought into this.”
McGrath nodded excitedly.
This was all very sudden. “I was kind of thinking of taking some time off…maybe hang around the house a bit.”
“That’s fine,” McGrath said. “They say it’ll be a couple weeks before the final touches are done.”
“You see, Admiral McGrath, I was kind of thinking of a more mundane, quieter assignment. Maybe a little closer to home. A patrol ship, or something like that,” Baxter was beginning to stammer.
“Patrol ships don’t bring adventure. They don’t bring glory. How could you come off a grand adventure like the one you’ve just finished, and then become a glorified security guard? You can’t kill the adventurer in you, Andy!”
“Tell you what, I’ll think about it…”
Baxter said, when suddenly Counselor Peterman grabbed his arm.
“Come on, Andy! They’re getting ready to do the hokey-pokey!”
“Those crazy ambassadors,” Captain Baxter said, as Peterman dragged him away.
“Think about it awhile!” McGrath called after him. “Just think of the possibilities!”
After all the dignitaries had been hokey-pokeyed out, the Starfleet band switched to a spicy tango.
“Did I tell you today how beautiful you are?” Captain Baxter asked, as he dipped Counselor Peterman in time to the tango music, pulling her back up so they were face to face. “Not yet,” Peterman replied, sweetly, putting her face next to Baxter’s as they tangoed. “But you’ve still got time, you sly thing.”
“Are you saying I’m a better sweet talker than Commander Kramer?” Baxter asked, smiling a wry smile.
“Even in your sleep.”
“Especially in my sleep,” Baxter corrected.
Suddenly a hand came down on Baxter’s shoulder.
“May I step in?” Admiral McGrath asked, his eyes twinkling. Baxter looked down at the Admiral, considering it. “I suppose. Just don’t get too friendly.”
“I’m an honorable man, Captain, I assure you,” McGrath said, taking Counselor Peterman in his arms and twirling her across the dance floor.
“Oh, my. You’re a wonderful dancer,” Peterman said, as she was whisked away by the shorter man.
Baxter put his hands on his hips. “Now how do you like that.”
Richards and Browning tangoed by, Browning leaning her head back, her mouth filled with a rose. “Mmff. What’s he doing mff here?”
“Yeah, does he have a new assignment for us?” Richards added, bringing Browning up to face him.
“Kind of,” Baxter said, walking over to the punch bowl and getting a cup of punch.
“Well?” Browning asked, taking the rose out of her mouth and handing it to Richards. “Do we have a new ship?”
“Maybe,” Baxter said, taking a sip of punch.
Richards and Browning stopped dancing and walked over to join Baxter. “So what’s the deal?”
“It’s a deep space exploration mission. Galaxy-class vessel, all the amenities. “
“Sounds a lot better than Delta Quadrant duty,” Browning said.
“So what’s wrong?” Richards asked. “You don’t exactly seem ecstatic about this.”
“It’s just…” Baxter said. “I enjoyed the idea of staying on Earth for awhile. I’m sick of being far from home.”
Richards looked at Baxter as he gazed out into the crowd and watched Admiral McGrath dancing with Counselor Peterman. “But there’s no assurance that, if we refuse this offer, we’ll still be able to stay together,” Richards said. Browning could see where Richards was going. “So you should ask yourself what you want to be close to the most. Earth and your past…”
“Or my future,” Baxter said, his eyes still fixed on Counselor Peterman. “Good point.”
“Just something to think about,” Richards said, as he and Browning danced away.
Captain Baxter smiled as he watched Richards and Browning disappear back into the crowd, then diverted his gaze back to McGrath and Peterman. He noticed a very panicked looking ensign making his way through the crowd, holding a padd up above his head as he moved.
Baxter put down his punch and began to move towards McGrath as the ensign took him aside, showed him the padd, and whispered something quietly to him.
“What’s going on?” Peterman asked, as Baxter moved towards McGrath.
Admiral McGrath held up the padd for Baxter’s inspection. “The intruder has changed course. It’s heading towards us now.”
“Damn,” Baxter said. “How much time do we have?”
“Our scientists are calculating a matter of hours,” McGrath said.
“What intruder?” Peterman asked with concern.
“Some kind of alien warship was spotted yesterday afternoon by the Starship Capistrano,” Baxter explained.
“A few hours ago, it attacked the Secondprize while they were out looking for the Aerostar. Since then, we’ve lost contact with Waystation and the Secondprize,” McGrath added.
“Oh my goodness,” Peterman said, gasping.
“Do we have anything firm on the identity of the vessel?” Baxter asked.
McGrath nodded excitedly, handing the padd to Baxter. “Yes. A sensor image Waystation picked up on long range. They transmitted it with their last communication.”
Baxter called up the image on the padd, his eyes suddenly growing wide. “Oh my God.”
The padd started to tremble in his hand.
“Something wrong?” McGrath asked.
Peterman glanced over Baxter’s shoulder. “No…”
“We’ve seen this ship before,” Baxter said. “They come from the Delta Quadrant. They’re called the Flarn.”
“But how did they get here?” McGrath asked.
“I don’t know. My only guess is that they could have gotten through the portal,” Baxter said. “We thought they were destroyed.”
“Evidently they weren’t,” McGrath said. “We have to do something about this.”
“I want to be on whatever ship goes out there,” Baxter said. “Me and my crew are the only Starfleet officers around that have ever faced the Flarn.”
“I agree,” McGrath said. “But we don’t have any available ships nearby. And I don’t think anything we have could get here in time. The Secondprize was our last hope.”
“Wait a minute…”
Baxter said. “What about the Explorer?”
McGrath’s eyes lit up. “We could step up her completion…”
“Explorer might just be powerful enough to take out the Flarn,” Baxter said.
“But she needs a crew,” McGrath replied.
“Funny,” Baxter said. “It just so happens I know where to find one.”
Ensign Zack Ford turned over in bed, shaking his head groggily and looking up at his chronometer. 0900 hours. He should still be sleeping.
“I said wake up,” the woman next to him said. “Someone named Commander Conway has been calling you for the past ten minutes.”
“Oh…jeeze,” Ford said. “He didn’t tell you anything did he?”
The woman seemed upset. “Only that he was your commanding officer and the First Officer of the Aerostar. AND that you’d be in deep trouble if you didn’t rendez-vous at Starfleet Command with the rest of the command crew within the hour.”
“Oh,” Ford said. “I see.”
“I thought you told me you were the Aerostar’s first officer,” the woman said, pushing off the bed and heading into the next room to put her clothes on.
“Well, we kind of…had, um…two first officers,” Ford said. “Yeah, that’s it. Two first officers.”
“Likely story. Now get the hell out of here.”
She emerged from the bathroom, tossing Ford his clothes.
“I said get out of here!”
“Will I ever see you again?” Ford asked, throwing on his uniform top and attaching his comm badge.
“Not likely,” Alicia said. “So what rank are you, anyway?”
“I’m actually…uh, Lieutenant Captain,” Ford grinned. “I’m above the first officer, but below the Captain.”
“Uh-huh,” Alicia said, shoving Ford out the door. “I’m not as dumb as you look.”
“But you drove a Ford!” Ford protested.
“And I think your model needs to be recalled,” Alicia replied as she slammed the door in Ford’s face.
“Ouch,” A voice said from behind Ford. “Pretty harsh.”
Ford looked around sheepishly. “Oh, hi, Lieutenant Hartley.”
“Are you ready to go already? The group’s been waiting in the lobby for ten minutes.”
“I just hate goodbyes,” Ford said, glancing woefully back at the door to Alicia’s room.
“I’m sure. Come on, Romeo,” Hartley said, leading Ford into the elevator.
“I am unimpressed,” Lt. J’hana said, staring down into the Grand Canyon. “It is a giant hole.”
“The Yalla expanse on Betazed is much deeper,” Lt. Tilleran agreed, surveying the area.
“You guys have no appreciation for natural beauty,” Nurse Holly Carter said, watching Crewman Wilcox as he played in the dirt.
“Rocks,” Dean said happily. “Earth rocks.”
“Good job!” Carter said. “We’re on Earth!”
“We do appreciate natural beauty, Holly,” Tilleran said. “The tour guide was a natural beauty, if I ever saw one. And he was interested in me, too.”
“I can’t believe you used your powers like that,” Holly said. “Isn’t that an unfair advantage?”
“‘All is fair in love and war,’” Tilleran quoted.
“Good point,” Holly agreed.
“Do you hear something?” J’hana suddenly said.
“No,” Tilleran said. “Why?”
“Be quiet,” J’hana’s antenna began twitching. “Something’s coming.”
“I hate it when she gets like this,” Holly said, rolling her eyes.
“Quiet!” J’hana ordered. “Federation shuttlecraft, type three. It has a slight imbalance in the deuterium matrix.”
Suddenly a shuttlecraft soared into view, softly landing in a nearby clearing. The hatch opened, and Lieutenant Larkin ducked out. “Ah, Lieutenant J’hana. Lieutenant Tilleran. We have been looking for you all morning. You did not bring your communicators with you.”
“We’ve been sight seeing,” J’hana grunted. “What concern is it of yours?”
“A Flarn warship is headed for Earth. That is my concern,” Larkin replied. “Captain Baxter is reassembling our crew in order to stop them.”
“I suppose we are going to fly around in his mommie’s ship?” J’hana asked, chuckling.
“Not exactly,” Larkin said. “Now…we must leave immediately.”
Tilleran sighed. “Okay, but Mister Mirk will be disappointed.”
“Mister Mirk is here as well?” Larkin asked.
“Right here,” Mirk said, floating peacefully in mid air, a few meters away from the canyon’s rocky ledge. “I saw the shuttle coming while I was checking out the canyon. Nice planet by the way. What’s up?”
“I will explain on the way,” Larkin said, leading everyone into the shuttlecraft.
Captain Baxter entered the conference room at Starfleet Headquarters, causing the ten voices of his crew-members to immediately die down.
“Well?” Commander Conway asked. “What’s the word, Captain?”
Baxter stood at the head of the table, looking around at each member of his command crew.
“The word is go, Conway. Starfleet wants us to intercept the Flarn warship and either disable or destroy it. Anything it takes to stop it from reaching Earth.”
“I knew it,” Conway said. “They’ve gone mad. Don’t they realize that we’ll be blown to bits?”
“We’re Earth’s last hope, Commander,” Baxter said.
“Bye-bye, Earth,” Ensign Ford said quietly.
“It certainly is cold in here,” Commander Ardek observed, looking around at the interior walls of the Flarn freezer. “Wouldn’t you say, T’Phil?”
“Shut up,” T’Phil said. “We wouldn’t be in this mess if you had listened to me.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know they would kidnap us and put us in a freezer?” Ardek said indignantly. “I mean, you’re the one that knows the Flarn so well.”
“I guess it is a moot point now,” T’Phil replied. “We need to find a way out of here.”
“Preferably before the chef gets back,” Ardek muttered.
Captain Baxter rested his hands on the back of Ensign Ford’s chair as he piloted the shuttlecraft De Gama out of Starbase Zero Zero One’s shuttlebay. “Steady as she goes, Mr. Ford.”
“Aye, sir,” Ford said, steering the shuttlecraft gently towards McKinley station, where the Explorer was currently docked.
The massive vessel quickly came into view as the De Gama glided towards it.
“There she is,” Baxter said in awe.
Counselor Peterman squeezed Baxter’s hand. “I like it, Andy. It looks much more graceful than the Aerostar.”
“It should,” Conway huffed. “It’s a Galaxy class. That’s the same class as the old Enterprise-D. The former flagship of the fleet.”
“Humpff. Graceful,” J’hana said. “Graceful has nothing to do with it. It is a powerful killing machine.”
“A powerful exploration tool, J’hana,” Baxter corrected. “According to Admiral McGrath.”
“Call it what you will,” J’hana said. “We shall see once we get it into battle.”
“Leave it to J’hana,” Dr. Browning said. “She looks forward to fighting like most people look forward to sex.”
“But, Doctor, are they not truely one and the same?”
Commander Conway laughed. “I never thought I’d hear you get philosophical, Lieutenant.”
“Andorians are some of the galaxy’s greatest philosophers, Commander.”
“Yeah, didn’t they come up with passive resistance?” Richards joked.
“Very funny. Only a human would come up with such a flawed concept,” J’hana grunted.
Ensign Ford slowed the De Gama down slightly as it approached closer to the Explorer, gliding in between the vessel’s port side and the framework of the McKinley station facility.
Baxter watched as workers in space suits finished some last minute welding on the Explorer’s hull, as the shuttle turned, approaching the main shuttlebay at the rear of the saucer section.
“You’re sure Admiral McGrath said this thing was almost finished?” Richards asked, as they approached the opening shuttlebay doors.
“He has complete confidence in this vessel,” Baxter said.
“Well, he’s not going to be the one out there fighting the Flarn, is he?” Conway asked.
“This is true.”
“Shuttlebay control to De Gama. You are cleared for final approach.”
Ford pressed a button on his panel. “Roger, shuttlebay control. Prepare to lock on tractor beam.”
Suddenly a blue beam lanced out from the shuttlebay as the De Gama approached. Ford leaned back and let the beam drag the shuttle inside the bay.
Ensign Ford hit the door control just as the De Gama landed softly on the shuttlebay’s deck. “Last stop, Fresno, Redondo, Beta Quadrant and all points south.”
“All right,” Baxter said, leading the way out of the shuttle. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Admiral McGrath stepped up to greet Baxter and his officers as they exited the shuttle. “Glad to see you all made it here safely. Isn’t she a beautiful ship?”
“Lovely,” Conway said, looking around the shuttlebay. “Where’s the bathroom?”
“There’s a bathroom on the bridge,” McGrath said, gesturing for the door of the shuttlebay. “If you will all follow me, I’ll take you there.”
It was a fairly quiet turbolift ride up to the bridge, allowing Captain Baxter to take note of the subtle nuances that go along with each different starship. The first thing he noted were what appeared to be real oak railings along all the corridors, and the latinum fixtures inside the turbolifts. He had to at least give McGrath credit for his attention to detail. As McGrath led Baxter and his officers out onto the bridge, Baxter took note of its size and splendor. Like most Galaxy- class bridges, it was obviously intended not only as a command center, but as a place to show off to visiting dignitaries. Captain Baxter walked down to his chair at the center of the command area, flanked by Peterman and Conway.
“Nice,” Baxter said, taking his chair. He could feel his butt sinking into the soft slate blue cushion. Very comfortable. “The seats are ergonomically designed for maximum comfort,” McGrath said, “they can inflate for lumbar back support, and they can even…”
“Yay!” Counselor Peterman said, as her seat at Baxter’s left jiggled.
“…vibrate,” McGrath finished.
Ensign Ford slid into the plush swivel-armchair, running his hands along the expanded, u-shaped conn panel. “Now this is classy!”
“This is not acceptable,” J’hana grunted from tactical.
Captain Baxter turned around to face his tactical officer, putting on the best pouty face he could. “What’s wrong, Lieutenant? You don’t like your new station?”
J’hana grimaced. “Tactical belongs directly behind the command center, not off to the side. I should be near the Captain so we can communicate efficiently and so I may throw myself in front of him should an intruder beam onto the bridge. This is a flawed design, and it should be corrected immediately.”
“The design has a purpose, Lieutenant,” McGrath said, walking back to stand between the tactical console and the engineering console that sat directly across from it. “We put tactical and engineering together at the rear of the bridge, so that they could coordinate damage control during battle situations.”
“I suppose I can see where that would be useful,” J’hana grunted. “Still…”
“She’s just upset because she’s not at the center of attention any more,” Ensign Ford grinned.
Ford managed to duck just in time to avoid being hit by the padd that J’hana hurled at him.
“Just kidding,” Ford squeaked, turning back around in his chair.
“I’m just glad I have a chair of my own now,” Lt.
Tilleran said, taking a seat behind the large, L-shaped Science console that was situated next to Commander Conway’s chair. Another console, equipped to handle environmental controls and mission ops, waited on the opposite side of the bridge near Peterman’s chair.
“Captain,” Lt. Commander Richards said, after checking out the engineering systems from his own panel. “I’d like to go down and get a first-hand look at the engines if I could. See what I’ve got to work with.”
“By all means,” Baxter said. “Take Dr. Browning with you so she can take a look at the new Sickbay.”
“Good idea,” Browning said, taking Richard’s hand and following him to the turbolift. “I have to make measurements for my new pizza oven.”
“Lieutenant Hartley to the bridge. We’ve got everybody, Captain.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Baxter said, looking over to the ops station. “How many personnel aboard, Lieutenant Larkin?”
Larkin examined her panel. “There are one hundred sixty-five people on board at present. That also accounts for the Starfleet engineering team.”
“Shouldn’t we have more?” Conway asked.
“After injuries and deaths, I am afraid not,” Larkin said. “Several of our crew-members are still convalescing down on Earth. There is also a small detachment aboard the Aerostar, assuming the Flarn have not destroyed it.”
“Very well,” Baxter said, pressing a button on the arm of his command chair. “All hands, this is the Captain. I know it’s going to take some time getting used to the new ship, but save the housewarming parties for later. I want us ready to leave within the hour. All department heads be ready to submit a status report to Commander Conway by 1100 hours.”
“And don’t hesitate to try out the Olympic-sized swimming pool when you’re done,” Admiral McGrath added. “It has a holographic generator that allows you to swim with holographic creatures, from Terran dolphins to Andorian eels.”
Baxter bristled inwardly at McGrath’s interruption. “Good luck to each of you. Baxter out.”
“Care to see the conference room?” McGrath asked. “It’s really quite…”
“If you don’t mind, Admiral,” Baxter said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
“Say no more!” McGrath said, raising his hands and making his way to the turbolift. “I don’t wish to get in the way. I’ll be in my quarters if you need me.”
Baxter blinked. “Your quarters?”
“Yes, Captain. You didn’t expect me to sleep on the battle bridge, did you?”
“Well, our mission is very dangerous, Admiral. I kind of expected that you would return to Earth.”
“I’ll do nothing of the sort,” McGrath said. “I intend to accompany the Explorer on her maiden voyage, Flarn or no.”
Baxter sighed. “Wonderful.”
“I’ll see you in forty-five minutes for your pre-launch staff meeting.”
“What pre-launch staff meeting?” Conway asked, as McGrath disappeared into the turbolift.
“I don’t know,” Baxter said. “I hadn’t scheduled one.”
“Is he going to accompany us on every mission?” J’hana asked. “That is unacceptable.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Baxter said. “I’m sure the man can be reasoned with.”
“If not, I will have to kill him.”
“Not if I get to him first,” Conway muttered.
“Yes, Ensign Monroe, I scanned the entire complex. Your Elmo doll is just plain gone,” Lt. Hartley sighed, as she idly ran another diagnostic on the transporter console. “But you don’t understand…”
Ensign Beth Monroe said over the comm link. “I’ve had that doll since elementary school. It’s been with me through thick and thin. I can’t just leave it on Earth!”
“I’ve got one piece of advice for you, Ensign,” Hartley said in annoyance. “Get a freaking life. Hartley out.”
After Lt. Hartley finished the diagnostic, she decided to take a look around her transporter room. She had to give it to Starfleet, they definitely had class.
Hartley reasoned that Starfleet intended to have dignitaries from all sorts of foreign worlds visit the Explorer, and as such, the transporter room was equipped with such amenities as fresh, warm hand towels hanging next to the transporter pad and a large monitor behind the transporter console that provided guests with a narrated visual montage of the Explorer, Starfleet, and the Federation.
She had to admit to herself, however, that all of it seemed to be overdone. Really, mirrors around the transporter pads? Latinum fixtures and cheesy elevator music in the bathrooms? Vibrating mattresses in all the cabins?
Hartley felt as if she was staying in the nicer wing of the Federation Plaza, only this Plaza came equipped with quantum torpedoes.
“Richards to Hartley. Are you busy?”
“That depends, Commander,” Hartley said. “Do you need me to help you with something?”
“Then yes,” Hartley said flatly. “I’m extremely busy.”
“Quit clowning around. I have less then an hour to get this ship ready for departure and my staff isn’t very cooperative.”
“What’s the matter, are they off-key?” Hartley asked playfully.
“Please come down here and help me. Or I’ll have you beaming Doctor McCoy’s tapioca pudding supply from the Starfleet food depot,” Richards seethed. Hartley could almost imagine the veins bulging out on his forehead.
“Okay, okay. I’ll be right there,” Hartley said, grabbing a mint candy out of the handy dispenser and heading out of the transporter room.
Hartley wasn’t halfway down the corridor before she heard someone call her name out.
“Hey, Megan!” Mirk picked up step next to Hartley as she walked.
“Oh, hi Mirk,” Hartley said. “How’s the new bar coming?”
“Slow,” Mirk admitted. “I’m having trouble coming up with a name. For some reason, ‘The Starlight Lounge, Part Two’ just doesn’t have the right ring to it.”
“I’ll agree with you there,” Hartley said, stepping into the turbolift. “Deck thirty-six.”
“Oh…Deck twenty-two,” Mirk said, remembering he had to tell the turbolift where he wanted it to go.
“We’re on our way, set a course for galactic adventure today!” the turbolift computer said, as it started up with a hum.
“Does it say that every time?” Mirk asked.
Hartley shook her head. “It has forty different sayings, each annoying in its own little way.”
For the next several seconds, the interior of the turbolift was quiet, except for the steady thrum as the decks passed by. “How about ‘The Beer Nebula’?” Hartley asked.
Mirk shook his head. “I looked that one up. Already taken by the bartender on the Venture.”
“Oh. Why don’t you do a theme?”
“Theme?” Mirk asked. “What do you mean?”
“You know, everything in the restaurant relates to a certain theme…the ancient west, space, the circus. It could be anything.”
“A theme!” Mirk said exuberantly, his eyes lighting up as the turbolift stopped on deck twenty-two. “That’s a wonderful idea, Megan. Thank you.”
“Now all you have to do is think up the theme,” Hartley said, as Mirk stepped out of the lift.
Mirk’s face darkened. “Oh, yeah.”
“Good luck!” Hartley laughed, as the doors closed and the turbolift resumed its descent.
“Well, that does it, sir. I’m putting in for a transfer,” Commander Conway said, stepping out of the conference room and crossing the bridge to sit down in his chair next to Baxter.
“What’s the problem, Commander?” Baxter asked, looking up from a padd.
“No cappucino machine in the conference lounge.”
Baxter stuck out his lower lip in an exaggerated pout. “Oh, the horror.”
“There’s nothing like steamy, frothy milk, Captain,” Conway said. “And it’s amazing that with all the other fancy gadgets on this ship, they don’t have a cappuccino machine.”
“Maybe they have one in the rec room,” Baxter suggested.
“Or the casino,” Tilleran offered, glancing up from her station.
“Or the stadium,” Ensign Ford said.
“I don’t care,” Conway said with a frown. “We won’t be having our meetings in any of those places.”
“Computer, make Commander Conway a cappuccino–” Baxter glared at Conway, “–and make the milk extra frothy.”
Commander Conway sighed as he walked to the replicator to get his cup of coffee. He took a sip. “Not the same, Captain.”
“Aw, too bad,” Baxter said, just as his communicator beeped.
“Richards to Baxter. Everything checks out down here. They haven’t installed all of the gel-packs yet, so we won’t have some science labs, or power to some of the crew quarters…”
“But engines, weapons, shields, and life support work,” Baxter said, getting to the point quickly.
“Exactly. The only other problem I can see so far is that the ball return in the bowling alley keeps getting stuck.”
“That I can live with. Finish up down there and get up here for our pre-launch meeting. I want to get it over with as soon as possible.”
“Understood. Richards out.”
Fifteen minutes later, Commander Conway still found himself missing the cappuccino machine. However, after hearing Admiral McGrath go on about the luxuries of the Explorer, all he really wanted was a muzzle.
“And as you may have noticed,” McGrath said, “the conference room is located at the very front of the bridge, so that its windows face the direction in which the ship is traveling, giving the occupants of the conference room a much better view. No use in looking back, eh?”
“I’m thrilled,” Ensign Ford said sarcastically. “I just want to know when we can use the extra large hot tubs!”
“Later,” Baxter grumbled. “Anything else about this ship we might need to know, Admiral?”
“Did I mention the rotating dance floor in the disco arena?”
“Yes,” Baxter sighed.
“The three acre rain forest in the arboretum?”
“Many times,” Peterman said.
“Then I guess that’s all,” Baxter said. “If anyone has any concerns about their stations, better voice them now. Things are bound to get pretty sticky in the next several hours.”
The conference lounge was quiet for several moments. “I noticed that the tactical station does not have a vibrating chair,” J’hana said glumly. “As a matter of fact, it doesn’t have a chair at all.”
“Fine then. Everyone’s dismissed.”
“They’re preparing to leave, Admiral,” Yvonne said pleasantly, refilling Admiral Baxter’s ‘Work Sucks’ coffee mug.
“I know,” Harlan grunted, turning to watch the Explorer power up on the viewscreen in his office.
“Something wrong?” Yvonne asked. Harlan looked more gloomy than usual.
“No. I have much work to do, Yvonne. I want you to set up a conference with all the department heads in the Internal Affairs division.”
“Of course, Admiral. Planning some big changes?”
“You could say that,” Harlan grunted, ushering Yvonne out of the office. “Now go. We don’t have much time.”
Once Yvonne was gone, the Admiral lit up a cigar and chuckled. Changes. She didn’t know the half of it.
“Lt. J’hana: contact McKinley Station and advise them that we’re ready for launch,” Baxter said from the command chair, as everyone worked busily at their stations, preparing the Explorer for departure.
“McKinley station reports we are clear to leave, Captain,” J’hana replied, tacking away at her panel.
“Very well, Mr. Ford…clear all moorings.”
Ford hit the appropriate buttons on his panel. “Moorings cleared.”
“Take us out, one quarter impulse, then full impulse once we’ve cleared the station,” Baxter added.
“Let the dramatic voyage begin!” Admiral McGrath cheered from his position behind Baxter, leaning forward on the railing that surrounded the command area.
“Lay in a course to intercept the Flarn warship at maximum warp,” Baxter said, ignoring McGrath’s comment.
“Course laid in,” Ford replied.
Baxter turned to Admiral McGrath. “Admiral, would you do the honors?”
“Of course, Captain,” McGrath said with a smile, pointing at the expanse of space that rushed by on the viewscreen as the Explorer glided out of the Terran system. “Engage.”
And with that, the Explorer lept into warp, disappearing into the blanket of stars with a flash.
“We managed to get everyone off the Exalax,” Commander Dillon said, leaning forward tiredly on the conference room table. “Including the officers from the Aerostar.”
Captain Rydell rubbed his eyes. It had been a long day for everyone. “Could they shed any light on what’s happened?”
“Nothing more than what was in Captain Baxter’s report,” Dillon said.
“What about the Aerostar’s disappearance?” Rydell asked.
“Evidently the Romulans came to rescue the prisoner…T’Phil.”
“We should have expected that,” Rydell said, turning to his Chief Engineer. “What about repairs?”
Commander Baird shook his head. “We had the sh*t pounded out of us twice in one day…but somehow I managed to get the shields and engines back online. Just try not to get us in any more firefights.”
“No promises,” Rydell muttered. “I’m not finished with these ‘Flarn.’ I don’t like bullies.”
“And it would appear,” Jaroch said pointedly, “that bullies do not like you.”
Rydell ignored Jaroch’s comment. “What about Waystation?”
“The Flarn pounded the sh*t out of them too,” Baird said. “We’re working on getting them back up and running right now.”
“Commander Beck reports that casualties were low, but they’ve lost all main power,” Dillon added. “They’re defenseless.”
“So what do we do now?” Counselor Webber asked.
“We’re going to remain here to protect Waystation while it undergoes repairs. Meanwhile, Mister Dillon, I want you to take the runabout Hudson and retrieve some equipment from the Warbird.”
“To what end, Captain?” Dillon asked.
“I want us to have a little surprise waiting for the Flarn, should they come back,” Rydell said with a smile.
“We have reached the Aerostar, praised one,” First Boppity’Boo announced, as the Jem’Hadar vessel came out of warp and the Nebula-class starship appeared on the monitor.
“Very well,” Admiral Neilson said from the center of the bridge. “Maintain our cloak and prepare to transport the engineering team over.”
“Yes, praised one.”
Admiral Baxter glanced at the two burly Jem’Hadar guards that surrounded him then regarded the ship on the viewscreen. Its hull was pock-marked in several places from weapons damage–and some of the scars looked very recent. “What are you going to do with the Aerostar?”
“We’re going to drain every bit of data from her computers and then take her back to the Dominion,” Neilson said. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“What if I did?”
“Then we’d do it anyway.”
“Well, I have a problem with it.”
“Aw, too bad,” Neilson said with an evil smile.
“You’re going to be okay,” Doctor Aldridge said, leaning over the injured Romulan that lay on the bio-bed. “You just took some minor scrapes and bruises.”
“Very well,” Sub-Commander Gatana grunted. “Please leave me now.”
“You’re welcome,” Aldridge said brusquely, moving to her next patient.
Gatana grimaced at the bright cheerfulness of the doctors and nurses in the Federation starship’s sickbay. She was still upset that she had not been able to save her Ardek from being kidnapped. Thankfully, like a good Sub-Commander, Gatana had a plan to rescue her commander. All she had to do was get past the weak Starfleet personnel. Not a problem.
Gatana leaned over and gave a hand signal to the Romulan guard that lay next to her.
On cue, the Romulan began to scream and shout, rolling around on the bio-bed in what seemed like agony.
“Hold him down while I get a hypospray!” Doctor Aldridge shouted, as nurses, medical staff, even the security officers that were assigned to guard the Romulans in sickbay, ran to the Romulan guard’s aid.
Gatana had to thank the Starfleet officers for their compassion as she slipped unseen out of sickbay. After all, without that weakness, she would never have been able to escape.
Commander Dillon tapped his foot nervously as Lt. Hawkins went over the preflight check on the runabout Hudson. “Are you almost done, Patricia?” Dillon asked nervously. “Keep your pants on,” Hawkins replied. “We’ll be underway in just a minute. You don’t want the inertial dampeners to fail while we’re out there, do you?”
“I guess not,” Dillon said, looking idly out the porthole next to his chair, watching as the shuttlebay workers readied the Hudson for launch.
Outside, as the shuttlebay crew worked, Sub-Commander Gatana peered around the cargo container she was hiding behind. She had found out from one of the Secondprize’s helpful comm panels that the Starfleet crew was sending a runabout out to the Exalax. Seeing that as a way out, she had quickly made for the vessel’s shuttlebay.
It was a miracle that she was actually able to get down to the shuttlebay without being spotted. Most likely, though, it was a tribute to her excellent training in covert ops. Gatana watched as a crewman loaded the rear cargo hold of the Hudson with some sort of diagnostic equipment. That would be her way in.
As soon as the crewman moved away, Gatana broke for the cargo hold and jumped in, concealing herself behind a spare photon torpedo. It was a tight fit, but Romulans had no need for comfort. Although, as the cargo hold’s door was sealed shut, Gatana perceived a slight itch behind her left ear that she wanted desperately to scratch. Unfortunately, Gatana realized that it would take some maneuvering to free one of her arms.
Gatana tried to ignore that itch as she felt the Hudson lift off and leave the shuttlebay. If she was to successfully rescue her commanding officer, she would have to endure the itch long enough for the Hudson to reach the Exalax.
“Kelly, honey,” Captain Baxter said, calling into the bathroom of his new quarters as he searched through his duffel bag. “Have you seen my lucky horseshoes?”
Peterman emerged, with her uniform halfway pulled on. “No. Why? Can’t you find them?”
“No. They’re just not here,” Baxter said, rubbing his chin. “I thought I told you to pack them.”
“Nope,” Peterman said, returning into the bathroom. Baxter began to panic. He’d brought those horseshoes with him to the Aerostar a year ago, and as far as he was concerned, they were responsible for getting him back to the Alpha Quadrant in one piece. He couldn’t go on commanding the Explorer without them.
“Maybe you left them on the Aerostar,” Peterman suggested.
The Captain thought hard. “Damn. We really have to find the Aerostar now.”
“Just so you can get those silly things back?”
“Yes. Honey, you know how superstitious I am.”
“That’s just plain silly.”
“I don’t care if it’s silly or not,” Baxter said, throwing his duffel onto his bed in annoyance. “I’m finding those damn horseshoes.”
Mirk looked up from the crates of liquor he was unpacking to see who was knocking at the door to his bar.
Lt. Hartley peered through the Federation logo-frosted windows. “Hey, Mirk. Are you open yet?”
“Is the door opened?” Mirk asked.
“No, it’s locked!” Hartley said.
“Then I’m still closed.”
“Well, open up!”
Mirk sighed, walking over to the door and pressing a button. “What do you want?”
“A Bolian Fizz. With extra bubbles.”
“I told you I’m not open yet,” Mirk said, walking back to the bar. “You’ll just have to wait. Or better yet, go to a freaking replicator and get the drink yourself.”
“But it’s not the same,” Hartley said. “The whole reason to come to a bar is socialization. Seeing other people, chatting, finding out gossip.”
“If you’ll notice,” Mirk said, gesturing around the dimly lit bar. “There isn’t anyone else here.”
“Yet,” Hartley said. “Just wait. When are you opening up, anyway?”
“Haven’t decided. I still haven’t come up with a theme.”
Hartley looked around the bar. Obviously, the engineers hadn’t finished building it yet. Only some of the chairs, tables, and booths had been erected. And the walls sill needed a coat of paint.
“Well,” Hartley said, examining one of Mirk’s bottles. “You’ve still got time. In the meantime, however, you could at least get the replicators up and running.”
“From what I understand, we may not even be staying on this ship,” Mirk said. “The scuttlebutt is that Baxter hasn’t decided to take the command yet.”
“He will,” Hartley said firmly. “Think about it, Mirk. If we don’t stay on the Explorer, we’ll be separated. And while he may not have any problems with being taken away from Conway or J’hana, Captain Baxter would never be able to leave Counselor Peterman. Trust me. We’re staying right here.”
Mirk shrugged, pouring something from one of his bottles into two glasses he had just unpacked. “In that case, Megan, why don’t we toast the grand opening of Mirk’s…um…Place.”
“‘Mirk’s…um…Place’ it is!” Hartley said with a smile, raising her glass.
“Your move,” Baxter said, handing the padd back to Counselor Peterman. The Counselor and he had returned to the bridge to await the inevitable meeting with the Flarn. Baxter was still worried about finding his horseshoes, but he realized that there was nothing he could do about it until they found the Aerostar.
Peterman eyed the padd carefully, finally using a stylus to draw a line across the grid on the padd’s screen. “Three x’s in a row. I win, Andy.”
“Damn,” Baxter said. “I can never beat you at Tic-Tac-Toe.”
“I hate to interrupt your game, Captain, but I have a small question,” Commander Conway asked from beside Baxter’s command chair.
“Shoot,” Baxter said, putting the padd down.
“Have you given any consideration to how we’re going to defeat these Flarn? I mean…every time we’ve battled them we’ve come within an inch of our lives.”
“You forget, Commander,” Baxter said boldly. “Starfleet uses the metric system, and in this case, we’re dealing with meters.”
“What?” Conway asked. “What the hell are you saying?”
“I’m saying we have a much more powerful ship. I’m confident the Explorer can knock the Flarn into next week.”
“And if we can’t?”
Baxter shrugged. “Then I’d go ahead and sell my real estate on Earth now, because it’s bound to drop dramatically once the Flarn take it over.”
Suddenly Lt. J’hana’s panel beeped pleasantly. “Captain…” J’hana said, looking up. “We’re nearing the Flarn Warship. Sensors confirm it’s the same ship we faced a year ago in the Crebius cluster.”
“Then it is the Jendak,” Conway said. “How the hell did they get here?”
“I don’t know, but we’re about to find out. Go to Red Alert,” Baxter said, straightening. “Raise the shields and arm all weapons.”
“Done, sir,” J’hana said. “Shall I alert Admiral McGrath?”
Baxter looked to Peterman, then to Conway. “I’m sure this isn’t something that would interest him.”
“Flarn vessel closing sir,” J’hana said. “What do you want me to do?”
“Be ready to singe their eyebrows, Lieutenant,” Baxter said.
“Sir,” Larkin said. “The Flarn do not have eyebrows.”
“Oh,” Baxter said. “Then just make sure you singe something.”
“Understood,” J’hana said, smiling and bending over the tactical console.
Lt. Commander Richards rushed out onto the bridge and took his place behind the engineering station. “Everything’s online, sir, but this is our shakedown cruise. There may be some glitches.”
Conway turned and glared at Richards. “What do you mean, ‘glitches’?”
“Oh,” Richards said. “Maybe a jamming in the torpedo bay… maybe a warp core spike here and there. Nothing major.”
“You don’t know how relieved I am to hear that,” Baxter muttered. “Hail the Flarn once we get in range.”
J’hana said. “They are hailing us.”
“Is that so? Then, by all means, put ‘em on screen.”
Overmaster Granok appeared on the viewscreen, baring his vicious row of teeth.
“Federation Sssssstarship, you are in our way. Clear a path or we will desssstroy you.”
Conway leaned over to Baxter and whispered, “They don’t know who we are yet, Captain.”
Baxter smiled. “They will shortly, Commander. J’hana, open a channel.”
Baxter stood, straightening his uniform. “Flarn vessel: This is Captain Andy Baxter of the Starship Explorer. You’re damn right we’re in your way. And we’re about to get even more in your way. You want to tangle with me, you bug-eyed bastard, you’ve got me. But there’s no way you’re getting near my home town.”
“That sounded cheesier than month old milk,” Conway muttered.
“Shut up,” Baxter said quietly. “Now stand down, or I’ll be forced to blow you halfway back to the Delta Quadrant.”
The Flarn reappered on the viewscreen. “Why, Captain Baxter. I’ve been looking all over for you,” he said sweetly. “I really did misssssss you. And I hate misssssing mealsssss.”
“This is one juicy rump roast you won’t be chowing down on, Mister,” Baxter said sternly. “Mind telling me how the hell you got here?”
“I could assssssk you the same quessssstion,” Granok replied. “But it is no matter. We were slingshotted through the Clussssster’sss portal when it exploded, and sssssssent to a far reach of sssssspace near the edge of this galaxy. I realized the only way to get back to the Delta Quadrant wassssss through the other end of the portal, so I sssssspent the last year trying to find it. But now I’ve found YOU, which is much more rewarding. Now I can finally get the revenge that I am owed.”
“Oh, I owe you something all right, Mister,” Baxter said angrily. “I owe you the ass kicking you never got last year.”
“We shall ssssseee!” Granok hissed, closing the channel.
“They’re firing!” Tilleran shouted from the science station.
Admiral McGrath had been underwater when the Red Alert sirens had gone off, so he didn’t know anything was wrong until the Olympic-sized swimming pool he was swimming in began to shake.
McGrath pulled himself up to the edge of the pool, coughing up water, as the contents of the pool, holographic dolphins and all, sloshed around the room.
A wave crashed over McGrath’s head as an Ensign ran to his aid.
“Are you okay, Admiral?” Ensign Welch from Stellar Cartography asked with concern. He had been assigned to watch the pools until Starfleet could provide them with a real life guard.
McGrath pulled himself out of the pool, knocking water out of his ears. “I think so. What’s happening?”
“I think we’re under attack,” Welch said, as the Red Alert klaxon blared.
“Well, I–” McGrath said, when suddenly the ship shook again, causing another wave to crash over him and Welch, sending a holographic dolphin right into their laps. The dolphin squeaked happily, looking up at McGrath with love in his eyes.
“I think he likes you Admiral,” Welch said.
McGrath grunted, pushing at the dolphin. “Yes, so it seems. Now get him off me!”
“Shields holding,” J’hana said, holding onto her station as the Flarn pummeled the Explorer.
Baxter returned to his seat. “Charge main phasers.”
“Ready,” J’hana grunted.
“Do you realize that the Defiant’s weapons systems have never been field tested on a ship this size?” Conway asked nervously from beside Baxter.
“First time for everything,” Baxter said easily. “Fire, J’hana!”
Like an old style machine gun, phasers blasts chugged out of the dual launchers on the bottom of the saucer section. In addition, conventional phasers flared from the rings on the top and bottom of the saucer.
Baxter watched eagerly as explosions ripped through the Jendak.
“The Jendak has taken major damage,” J’hana said. “They are still, however, more than a match for us.”
Suddenly the Explorer rocked again.
“Shields down to fifty-three percent,” J’hana called out.
Baxter braced himself behind Larkin’s chair. “Mr. Ford, bring us about to course two nine one mark oh four seven.”
Ford turned to Baxter, holding fast to his station as the Explorer shook again. “Back towards where the Bermuda Expanse used to be?”
“I knew they made you a helm officer for some reason.”
“You’re luring them away from Earth, aren’t you?” Conway asked.
“Exactly. I’m going to finish this where it started.”
Peterman shook her head in annoyance. “He’s got other reasons, Commander.”
“Like what?” Conway asked.
Baxter glared at Peterman. “Nothing you have to concern yourself with, Commander. I just have something I…need to get.”
Baxter turned to Ford. “Make your speed Warp Nine and engage.”
“He’s nuts,” Counselor Peterman said quietly.
The Explorer lept back into warp, and the injured Flarn vessel turned to follow.
“They have done major damage!” Kenjek shouted, as repair crews extinguished the fires that had caught around the bridge of the Jendak. “We are about to be defeated again!”
“We’re not finished with them,” Granok ordered. “I’m not going to let Baxter ussssse all that corny dialogue and get away with it.”
“Are you sure we can defeat him?” Kenjek asked.
“Unmisssstakably,” Granok said reassuringly. “Jussssst watch.”
“Third Farfig’Nugen reporting in. We have established a data feed,” came the voice of the Jem’Hadar engineer.
“Here,” Neilson said, placing a pair of goggles into Admiral Baxter’s hand. “Take a look at what we’re reaping from your son’s pathetic vessel.”
Admiral Baxter slid the goggles on, and was immediately greeted with the image of a darkened crew lounge, in what looked like the ten-forward section of the Aerostar. Captain Baxter wandered in front of the camera. “Kelly, I really don’t see the point in coming here. All I want is a nice, quiet dinner in my quarters. No big–”
“SURPRISE!” chanted a group of crew-members, emerging from the darkness. Loud music piped up and the lights came full on, as bursts of confetti shot into the air from all sides.
“What the?” Admiral Phillips said, looking into his own goggles.
Neilson grabbed Phillips’s goggles and peered into them. “What is this?”
“Looks like a surprise party,” Admiral Baxter said with a laugh.
“Guys, you didn’t have to do this,” Captain Baxter said. “We most certainly did,” the Andorian tactical officer replied. “Counselor Peterman threatened to have all of us demoted otherwise.”
“Aww, then you all really do love me,” Baxter said, a tear streaming down his cheek.
“No,” the churlish first officer said. “We just like our jobs. Now can we pass out the requisite gifts and get this over with?”
“Not yet,” the Counselor said. “Everyone start singing. Now!”
What followed was an unenthusiastic rendition of “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.”
“Enough!” Neilson shouted. “Farfig’Nugen! Scan another data area. You’ve obviously uploaded their personal database.”
“Working,” Farfig’Nugen replied curtly.
Neilson watched angrily as the image in her goggles rattled nauseatingly. The shaky image seemed to depict a rocky, other-worldy terrain.
“Hold the imager still, J’hana!” the First Officer’s voice whispered harshly.
“Trying to, sir. It’s hard to walk around and film at the same time.”
“Perfect,” Neilson said. “This must be information on a Delta Quadrant planet.”
“Shh,” Conway whispered. “They’ll hear you.”
“I am being as quiet as I can, sir,” J’hana replied gruffly. The image shakily continued across a craggy mountain ridge. “I must say, sir, I do appreciate this human concept of ‘April Fools,’ though I believe the effect would be much more satisfying if we were to cause some real sort of physical harm.”
Neilson raised an eyebrow. “April…?”
“Shut up and hand me a water balloon,” the image said.
The camera swung around to reveal two figures standing at the foot of the ridge. One appeared to be Baxter, the other a female officer in a gold-collared uniform.
“That’s the android,” Neilson said eagerly. “But what is this talk of…water balloons?”
“You’ll see,” Admiral Baxter said with a chortle.
Suddenly several multicolored blobs flew by on the screen, pegging the two figures at the base of the cliff right in the back of their heads.
“April fools!” Conway’s voice called out triumphantly. Captain Baxter turned around, soaking wet and seething with anger.
“Damn it, Farfig’Nugen! Can’t you find us anything remotely pertinent?” Neilson asked frantically.
“I have to hand it to you, ma’am, so far your plan is an unprecedented success,” Admiral Baxter said with a satisfied grunt.
“Shut up!” Neilson barked.
Admiral McGrath rushed out onto the bridge, still soaking wet, dressed in an old style one-piece tank top bathing suit complete with goggles and skull cap. “What’s happening?”
“We’re under attack,” Baxter said, watching the stars as they rushed by on the viewscreen. “Would you mind drying off? You’re getting the carpet wet, and I’m not sure if it’s stain-protected or not.”
“It is,” McGrath said, grabbing the towel that a nearby Yeoman offered him and walking around to the front of the bridge. “The Flarn, I presume?”
“Yes sir,” Baxter said. “We’re luring them away from Earth.”
“I see,” McGrath said. “How is the ship holding up?”
“Wonderfully under the circumstances. And the new phaser arrays worked too.”
“Great. What’s the next step?”
“We’re heading to the Bermuda Expanse so I can settle things with Mr. Granok one on one. Mano y Flarn,” Baxter said firmly.
“Oh,” McGrath said. “Is that wise?”
“Not exactly,” Baxter said. “But if I don’t come back, Commander Conway here will get a nice promotion.”
“There’s a bright side to everything,” Conway said, smiling.
“Hey!” Peterman said. “You’re just using this as an excuse to get back to the Aerostar, aren’t you?”
“I’m a sentimental sucker, darling.”
“You’re a sentimental fool,” Peterman said, folding her arms and pouting.
“Well, I’m off to the showers,” McGrath said, heading back to the turbolift. “Good luck, Captain.”
“My boyfriend is going to risk his life and all you can say is ‘I’m off to the showers’?” Peterman asked incredulously.
“I also said ‘Good luck’,” McGrath corrected, as he stepped into the lift.
“Andy, you can’t do this!” Peterman pleaded. “You could be eaten!”
“Control yourself, Counselor,” Baxter said, then his voice softened. “Or I’ll have to remove you from the bridge.”
“Don’t worry, Counselor,” J’hana said. “The Captain is too fatty for Flarn taste.”
“I’ll try not to take that the wrong way.”
Peterman just pouted. “I think all the fat’s in your head.”
“Don’t worry, Counselor,” Ford said from the helm. “If Baxter dies, I’ll take care of you.”
Ford ducked as both Baxter and Peterman hurled a padd at him.
“Transport complete,” Lt. Hawkins said, as the equipment that Rydell had requested materialized in the Hudson’s small transporter chamber.
“Good. Take us back to the Secondprize,” Dillon said. Meanwhile, in the cargo hold, Gatana struggled with the space suit she had managed to free from its storage locker. She fought the helmet on as the Hudson lurched ahead. The Romulan officer realized they must have already got what they had come for and were on their way. That meant she had less time than she first thought.
After making sure the space suit was working, Gatana opened up the cargo hatch.
Back up in the cockpit, Lt. Hawkins looked at the blinking light on her panel. “That’s strange.”
“What is it?” Dillon asked, glancing over her shoulder. “The cargo hatch just opened,” Hawkins said.
“Is there anyone back there?” Dillon asked.
Hawkins looked at her panel quizzically. “I’m not sure. One of our spare torpedoes was leaking radiation, so I can’t get a clear reading back there. Wait a moment…the torpedo’s gone now.”
Dillon smiled. “Good. That solved that problem.”
“But the cargo hatch isn’t supposed to just open like that. And torpedoes don’t usually just jump out.”
“You worry to much,” Dillon said, placing a hand on Hawkins’s shoulder.
Several minutes later, Sub-Commander Gatana reached inside the access panel on the torpedo that she rode, hitting a control that halted its tiny thrusters, causing it to drift right by the powerless Exalax.
Gatana jumped off the torpedo and grabbed onto the hull of the Exalax, using her priority access code to open the nearby engineering access hatch.
Once inside, Gatana closed the hatch, re-pressurized the small chamber, and opened the door that led onto one of the Exalax’s many corridors. Now all she had to do was get to one of the shuttlebays.
Lieutenant Gellar tapped the tactical console on the bridge of the Secondprize nervously. In the last day, he had been kidnapped by Romulans, attacked by Flarn, then transported aboard the Secondprize. Now all he wanted to do was sleep. But he couldn’t sleep. Because the rest of his crew-mates were out there somewhere, and he knew from his past experience with the Flarn that they wouldn’t stop until Baxter and his crew were dead.
Now he was filling in for the Secondprize’s chief of security as a way to keep his mind off all that. So far, he was having limited success.
“So, Lieutenant,” Rydell asked from the command chair. “We can’t find the Commander of the Exalax or that T’Phil fellow. You think the Flarn have them?”
“I don’t know where else they’d be,” Gellar admitted. “They probably took T’Phil because he was part of the Aerostar’s crew. I suppose they’ll grill him for information and then eat him.”
“I wouldn’t wish that on any man,” Rydell said.
“You didn’t know T’Phil,” Gellar replied. “He was a real jerk.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Rydell said, slapping his comm badge. “Rydell to Dillon. How are you guys coming with the… equipment?”
“It’s almost installed, sir,” Dillon said. “Hawkins and Baird have been working on adapting our systems. I’d say about fifteen minutes.”
“Good. Keep me posted. Rydell out.”
Lt. Gellar went back to his nervous tapping, when suddenly something on his panel caught his eye. “Captain Rydell…a ship just left the Exalax’s shuttlebay.”
“What kind of ship?” Rydell asked.
“Romulan scout-ship, D type.”
“I thought we got everyone off that ship,” Rydell said, rubbing his chin.
“Aldridge to Rydell. We can’t seem to locate one of our patients. I think she was the Exalax’s first officer.”
“I believe we just found her, Doctor,” Rydell said, looking back to Gellar. “What could she be up to?”
“I don’t know. We easily outgun that scout-ship. I doubt she’s trying to rescue her comrades.”
“Whatever the case, Lieutenant,” Jaroch said, “the scout-ship is on a heading out of this system.”
Gellar checked his panel. “You’re right. She’s going in the same direction that the Flarn ship went.”
“Of course I’m right,” Jaroch said smugly.
“You’ve got to admire her loyalty,” Rydell said. “I doubt any of you would do the same for me.”
“Well, Captain,” Jaroch said, “if you recall, I got you a nice tie for your last birthday.”
“I almost forgot,” Rydell said. “Please forgive me.”
Gellar said. “The scout-ship is turning around. It’s coming back this way.”
“Why?” Rydell asked, leaning forward in his chair.
Jaroch looked at his panel. “Presumably, she was scared off by the other two vessels heading this way.”
“Well,” Rydell said. “Commander Dillon. What’s your status?”
“We’re almost ready sir,” Dillon replied.
“Have Commander Baird activate the device as soon as it’s ready,” Rydell said. “Then come up here with Lieutenant Hawkins.”
“What’s the hurry, sir?” Dillon asked.
“Just get up here. Rydell out,” Rydell said. “Have you figured out what those two vessels are, Mister Jaroch?”
“One of them is our Flarn friend. The other is a Federation starship. Galaxy-class.”
Rydell smiled. “The cavalry.”
“Some cavalry,” Jaroch said. “They’re leading the Flarn back here.”
“What ship is it?” Rydell said angrily, realizing the gravity of Jaroch’s deduction.
“USS Explorer,” Jaroch said.
“I thought she wasn’t due to be launched for another couple weeks,” Rydell said.
“Evidently they launched early,” Jaroch murmured. “I wonder who the hell they put in command.”
“For all our sakes, let’s hope it’s someone with a lick of sense,” said Lieutenant Sullivan.
“Damn it,” Baxter said, pounding on the door panel that led to his private washroom. “Computer, open this door.”
“The mechanism is jammed. Please contact maintenance.”
“Computer, I have to pee.”
“Then you will have to hold it in,” the computer replied testily.
Sighing, Baxter headed out of his readyroom, stepping out the door in between tactical and engineering. “Lt. J’hana, has Conway come out of the conference lounge bathroom yet?”
“No,” J’hana said. “And he’s been in there for ten minutes.”
“Hmm. You wouldn’t happen to have a paper cup handy, would you?”
“No,” J’hana said. “I do not. What are you suggesting?”
“Never mind,” Baxter said, returning to his seat.
“We are nearing Waystation,” Larkin reported from her station.
“Take us out of warp,” Baxter ordered. “Full scan.”
“Waystation is heavily damaged, Captain,” Tilleran reported. “They are functioning on backup power only.”
“And the Aerostar?”
“I’m detecting the Aerostar and a Romulan Warbird nearby.” Tilleran said. “Both are also heavily damaged.”
“What about the Secondprize?”
“One moment…” Tilleran said. “I can’t find it anywhere.”
“Where could they have gone?” Baxter said. “We picked them up in this system just a few minutes ago.”
“Uncertain,” Tilleran replied.
“Okay, then. Open a channel.”
Rydell looked around his now dimly lit bridge. “I can’t believe it actually worked.”
Commander Dillon sat down next to Rydell as Hawkins relieved Lt. Gellar from tactical. “It feels kinda weird, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does,” Rydell said. “I never thought I’d see the day we’d put a cloaking device on the Secondprize.”
“It’s like having a new toy to play with,” Dillon said happily.
“Now, all we have to do is see if it works,” Jaroch said. “The three ships are approaching our position.”
On the viewscreen, Rydell watched as first the Romulan scout-ship, then the Explorer, then the Flarn ship, flew by, evidently oblivious to the Secondprize’s presence. “The Explorer is broadcasting some sort of message, Captain,” Hawkins reported.
“Onscreen,” Rydell said. “Let’s see what bozo we’re dealing with here.”
Everyone on the bridge of the Secondprize sunk low in their seats as Captain Andy Baxter appeared on the viewscreen.
“To everyone in this system, this is Captain Andy Baxter of the starship Aero–I mean Explorer. We’re just in the neighborhood to destroy a nasty, deadly, evil alien warship that has invaded our space. I advise all ships to leave the system immediately. There’s nothing more to see here. Just go about your daily business as if the entire quadrant wasn’t under the threat of imminent death.”
Captain Rydell shook his head. “Of all the freaking people to come to our rescue.”
“You must admit, sir,” Dillon said, “It has a certain symmetry to it.”
“It’s not symmetrical at all!” Rydell said. “It’s the most insanely wrong thing in the galaxy! We’re relying on that crew to save our asses! The same crew that we thought was the most completely incompetent bunch of jerk-offs in the entire universe, the same crew that we sent to the Delta Quadrant just so we wouldn’t have to deal with them!”
“Symmetrical, no. Ironic, yes,” Jaroch said calmly from the science station.
Lieutenant Gellar joined Saral and Stuart in Seven Backward, as they watched the Explorer sail by the windows. “Our crew is on board that ship,” Gellar said, taking a seat. “It’s Captain Baxter’s new command.”
“God help us all,” Stuart said quietly.
“It was a pleasure working with you all,” Saral said, standing. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I shall go now and meditate on our imminent demise.”
“Another round of drinks, and keep them coming!” Stuart said to a passing waiter as Saral left the lounge.
“I do not believe it,” Neilson said, tossing her view- goggles to the deck angrily. “Your damned son is here.”
“What was that about a nasty alien warship?” Admiral Phillips asked uneasily.
“Oh, quit your whining, John,” Neilson muttered. “Our vessel is more than a match for them.”
“Are you sure?” Harlan asked.
“Positive,” Neilson said, folding her arms. “Though it’s not as if we have to worry about being discovered. Our cloak is holding quite well. We’ll simply have a front row seat in order to watch the junior Baxter perish horribly in what is no doubt going to be a fantastic display of carnage.”
“Hey, I wouldn’t count my son out that soon,” said Harlan.
“And just why not?” Neilson asked.
“Because he has a secret weapon that has helped the Baxter line survive centuries of war and death. With it, he’ll never fail.”
“What exactly is this secret weapon?”
“I’m certainly not going to tell you.”
Commander Conway adjusted his uniform as he strutted out of the conference room, tucking his copy of “Federation Coffee Beans Monthly” under his arm.
“Someone light a match!” Ford cried, holding his nose.
“All better, Commander?” Baxter asked angrily as Conway sat down.
“Much,” Conway said. “But I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.”
“Damn,” Baxter said. “I guess the computer was right. I’ll just have to hold it.”
“The Flarn vessel is closing, Captain,” J’hana reported. “If you mean to implement this plan of yours, you should do it now.”
Baxter stood. “You’re right. Helm, bring us within transporter range of the Aerostar.”
“Please be careful, Andy,” Peterman said, grabbing Baxter’s hand and squeezing it.
“Don’t worry, baby,” Baxter said. “I’ve been in tougher jams before.”
“Like what?” J’hana asked. “This is pretty damn tough.”
“Okay, I’ve been in jams almost as tough as this before,” Baxter said. “You guys just do your best to disable that warship.”
Baxter turned to Conway. “But if it looks like this ship might be destroyed, get out of here. Evacuate Waystation and head back to Earth. By then maybe we’ll have a fleet ready.”
Conway assumed the command chair as Baxter stood up. “Just remember, if you die, I get your job.”
“That alone should be enough incentive for me to come back alive,” Baxter said. “J’hana, open a channel to the Flarn. Tell them that I’m going over to the Aerostar to settle this once and for all. Just me and Granok.”
“What if they decide to simply blow the Aerostar to bits instead?” J’hana asked.
“Then this will be the shortest mission of my life,” Baxter said simply, stepping into the turbolift.
“Thisssss mussssst be a trick…”
Kenjek said. “You cannot go over there.”
Granok picked Kenjek up by the throat and growled angrily. “Are you ssssssaying that I sssssshould be afraid of a ssssstinking human?”
“N-n-no,” Kenjek squeaked. “Not at all.”
“Good. Then I’m going over there. If they try anything funny, dessssstroy the Aerostar and the Explorer.”
“Yes, sir,” Kenjek said, as Granok stormed off the bridge.
T’Phil awoke with a start as the freezer he and Ardek were stored in creaked open. Before the Romulan knew what had happened, a huge talon reached in and pulled him out. “What’s the meaning of this?” T’Phil asked, as he dangled from the Flarn’s claw.
“The Overmassster requires your assssssssistance,” the Flarn said, throwing T’Phil into a large sack and cinching it closed.
“Issssss the prisssssoner ready?” a voice, presumably Granok’s, asked.
“Yesssss,” the other Flarn replied.
“Are you sssssure it is the one that wassssss on the Aerosssstar?”
“Good,” Granok said, grabbing the sack and jarring T’Phil. “Then We sssssshall use this pathetic, pointy eared human as leverage againsssst Baxter.”
T’Phil poked his head out of the tiny whole in the sack as Granok lugged him towards the Jendak’s transporter room. “If I may say two things, sir: One, I am a Romulan, not a pointy eared human. Two, I am not a friend of Baxter’s-as a matter of fact, we’re mortal enemies. Hence, I would make a terrible hostage.”
Granok considered this. “No liessssssss!” he finally said, smashing the sack up against a bulkhead, knocking T’Phil unconcious.
“I’ll give it to you, Captain. You have real balls,” Lt. Hartley said, as Baxter strapped on the new, patented ‘Starfleet Survival Jacket.’ An upgraded version of the ones they had on the Aerostar, this one was supposed to be impervious to low-level phaser and disruptor blasts, as well as knives and other blades–or in this case, Flarn talons.
“I’m not really that brave,” Baxter said, grabbing a compression phaser rifle and climbing the transporter pad. What Hartley didn’t realize as she activated the transporter was that Baxter had no choice but return to the Aerostar. Without those lucky horseshoes, his whole family was doomed, and he wasn’t about to let that happen. The fact that he was also going over there to try to defeat Granok was just an unpleasant byproduct of an already messy situation.
Thankfully, Harlan must have been so happy to see him when he returned that he must have forgotten to even ask about the horseshoes, which was fine as far as Captain Baxter was concerned. He would be able to get the horseshoes back from the Aerostar, defeat the Flarn, return home, and no one would ever be the wiser. Baxter crept through the Aerostar’s dimly lit corridors, noting that emergency battery power was probably about to fail. Glancing at his tricorder, he realized that he was right. He had about a half hour of battery power, then an hour or two of air at most.
Scanning the area carefully with his tricorder, Baxter made his way into his quarters, noting that the cabin was completely trashed. No doubt by the Romulans.
If they took his horseshoes…
Baxter’s concerns were alleviated, however, when he busted open his porcelain casting of Troy Aikman’s head and found his horseshoes safe inside.
Baxter stuffed the horseshoes into the pocket of his survival jacket and strutted happily over to the bathroom to take a victory whiz. He definitely needed one.
Baxter sighed with enjoyment as the pressure on his bladder was relieved.
“Conway to Baxter,” Baxter’s comm badge beeped.
Baxter freed up one hand in order to tap his comm badge. “Go ahead.”
“You may be interested to know that two Flarn and one Romulan just beamed aboard the Aerostar.”
“Wonderful,” Baxter said. “What about the Flarn ship?”
“We’ve got all our weapons pointed at them, and they’ve got all their weapons pointed at us, but nobody’s batting an eye, sir. By the way, what’s that sound I hear in the background?”
“Oh, nothing,” Baxter said. “Just stand by in case the Flarn try anything funny.”
“Understood, Conway out.”
Baxter finished his business, jiggled Mr. Petey, then placed him back in the protective custody of his boxer shorts. The Captain thanked his lucky stars that the toilet actually worked. After the thrashing the Aerostar took from the Borg, it was a wonder anything worked around there anymore. Baxter looked up at his reflection in the bathroom mirror as he washed his hands.
“You handsome devil,” he said confidently. “Flarn-shmarn. You’ve got it covered. You’re one lean, mean, Starfleet machine.”
Baxter pointed at his reflection. “Who’s the man? Who’s the man? You? You the man!”
“You’re about to be a dead man,” a voice growled from behind him. Baxter looked closer at the reflection in the mirror. A few meters behind him, in his darkened quarters, a pair of beady, deep-set eyes shined in the darkness, glaring at him.
Suddenly the eyes rushed forward, revealing that they were attached to an eight foot tall Flarn body.
“Die!” Granok growled, ramming his claw into Baxter’s back and slamming him up against the mirror, causing it to shatter into a million tiny pieces.
“Seven years bad luck for you, bub,” Baxter said uneasily, sliding down the wall into the sink.
Then Baxter realized something. He wasn’t dead.
Granok’s claw should have gone right through him, but it didn’t.
Meanwhile Granok cried out in pain, lifting up his broken claw and staring at it in horror.
“Look what you did!” he hissed, slashing at Baxter with his other claw.
“Man, the jacket worked!” Baxter cried in triumph, ducking between Granok’s spindly legs and darting out of the bathroom.
“Come back here!” Granok shouted, turning around and rushing towards Baxter.
“Go to Hell!” Baxter cried, throwing dish after dish from his set of Phaltzgraff Federation China at Granok. Granok clawed after Baxter, smashing the plates, cups, mugs, even the gravy boat.
“I’ve got one of your friendssssssss hosssstage, Captain. If you don’t sssssurender, I will kill him!”
Must be the Romulan Conway had referred to, Baxter thought. “You mean, T’Phil?”
“Yesssss, that’sssss hisss name,” Granok hissed. “Your pal T’Phil.”
“Oh, no!” Baxter cried in sarcastic terror. “You’re going to kill my worst enemy!”
Granok slashed at Baxter again, this time tearing a gash in his mighty jacket.
“Okay, second worst,” Baxter yelped, jumping back and lifting up his couch as a barricade.
“You lie!” Granok cried, ramming his massive body into the couch and shoving it and Baxter up against the back wall of Baxter’s quarters.
“I’d kill him myself if I could…”
Baxter choked out as he tried to squirm out from under the couch. Granok ripped the couch apart and grabbed Baxter up with his one good talon. “I have you now, Federation sssssissssy,” Granok growled angrily.
Commander Conway’s voice said excitedly from Baxter’s comm badge.
Baxter tapped his comm badge as he struggled against Granok’s steely grip. “I’m kind of busy right now, Conway.”
“Trust me, Captain, you’ll want to know this. I found out something pretty neat about the survival jacket you’re wearing.”
“What, pray tell, is that?” Baxter said in annoyance.
“Just press the button on the inside of your left cuff-link. Trust me!”
Baxter shrugged, pressing the button on his left cuff-link. Suddenly electricity surged through the jacket, making Baxter look like some sort of insane angel, bathed in a bright, effervescent light.
The electricity surged right through Granok, knocking him across the room.
Baxter sniffed at the smell of burnt Flarn in the air and dusted off the jacket, which was a mistake, because its outer surface was burning hot.
Tapping his comm badge, Baxter smiled triumphantly and said, “Good work, Conway. Thank the folks at Starfleet R and D for me.”
“One problem, Captain,” Conway’s voice replied. “Tilleran tells me that the effect will only briefly stun a Flarn, and the jacket only has the power for one burst.”
“Uh-oh,” Baxter said, watching as Granok stirred.
Baxter hurdled over Granok’s semiconscious form and plowed through the door to his quarters, rushing out into the corridor beyond.
“Ssssssstop, human!” Astrok cried, putting down the sack that contained T’Phil. Astrok quickly pulled out his disruptor and took aim, blasting away at Baxter as he ran.
It was then that Baxter realized that he had a phaser rifle slung over his back. Why hadn’t he used that instead of ruining all that precious china? He quickly unslung the rifle and fired back at Astrok, ducking the blasts from the Flarn’s weapon. One of Baxter’s shots pegged Astrok in the shoulder and sent him reeling to the deck.
Granok emerged from Baxter’s quarters, still dazed, and looked down at Astrok. “Don’t just sssssit there, you imbecile, help me get that human!”
“But, my Lord, the human blew my shoulder apart,” Astrok complained, nursing his wound.
Granok examined the charred mess that once was Astrok’s shoulder. “You are weak. Now come on.”
“What about the Romulan?” Astrok asked, as the Flarn broke into a run.
“Apparently, he is not a valued member of Baxter’sssss crew.”
“Then why have him aboard?” Astrok asked.
“Beatssssss me. Now run fassssster!” Granok ordered.
Instinctively, Captain Baxter ran into the turbolift, which normally would have taken him to safety on another deck. However, since battery power was terribly low, all the lift did was sit there.
“Come on, Computer…divert any power you can to the turbolift I’m in,” Baxter said quickly, watching as the Flarn that were chasing him grew closer.
“Unable to comply. Power relays in that area have been compromised.”
“Damn,” Baxter said, ripping a panel off and using the manual lever to close the turbolift door. His last view of the Flarn placed them only a few meters away.
Given the urgency of the situation, and the lack of other options, Baxter quickly pulled himself up to the top of the turbolift and kicked at the hatch, knocking it open. Swearing to go on a diet if he survived this, Baxter sucked his gut in as best he could, pulling himself through the narrow hatch just as the two Flarn burst in through the turbolift doors.
Granok swiped at Baxter’s feet as he pulled them through. “Come back here, coward!”
Baxter ignored the Flarn and grabbed the ladder that extended through the length of the turbolift, hanging on for dear life.
Granok made a vain attempt to squeeze through the hatch, but, much like Winnie the Pooh in the honey tree, he was just too large.
“Hand me your blasssster, Assstrok!” Granok hissed, eying Baxter as he clung helplessly to the ladder, fumbling for his phaser rifle.
Since he had to use both hands to hold onto the ladder, Baxter couldn’t get ahold of his phaser rifle as it hung from his shoulder.
Just as Granok managed to squeeze Astrok’s blaster through the hatch he was stuck in, a wonderful idea entered Baxter’s mind.
“Computer!” Baxter shouted. “Release moorings on turbolift five, authorization Baxter Alpha Zero One Eight.”
Granok’s eyes went wide as the turbolift wrenched free of its holding clamps and plunged down through the shaft. “Damn you, Baxter!” Granok cried, firing the blaster in a mad attempt to hit Baxter.
Baxter held fast to the ladder as the suction pulled him down, and as blasts from Granok’s weapon threatened to singe his eyebrows off.
Realizing that the impact at the bottom of the shaft wasn’t near enough to kill one Flarn, much less two, Baxter slung one of his arms around a rung on the ladder and grabbed his phaser rifle, setting it on overload and dropping it down the turbolift shaft.
“Bombs away!” Baxter cried, using his free hand to salute Granok as the phaser rifle fell. “See you in the funny papers, Granok!”
Moments later, an explosion ripped through the turbolift shaft, blasting hot air past Baxter’s face, threatening to shake him free of the ladder.
Finally, after the shock-wave of the blast had passed, Baxter made his way down the ladder, swinging through the doorway that led back out to the corridor.
Baxter fell to the deck, exhausted. He felt soreness in places he didn’t know he had, but he had defeated those damned Flarn.
Now he could finally rest.
“Remember me?” a voice asked, as Baxter felt a sharp kick to his stomach.
Baxter looked up to see a now fully Romulan Colonel T’Phil, who stared madly back at him. “I never finished my business with you, Captain.”
The Captain rolled to the side, deftly avoiding another swift kick. “Come on, T’Phil,” he choked out, still feeling the dull pain in his gut where T’Phil had kicked him. “I saved you from the Flarn. They would have killed you too, you know.”
“Oh, I didn’t thank you?” T’Phil said pleasantly, hurling a punch at Baxter as he staggered to his feet. “Allow me to do that right now!”
Baxter ducked, causing T’Phil to ram his fist painfully through the computer panel that was behind him.
Baxter then grabbed T’Phil by the back of his neck and rammed him into the sparking computer panel. “You want me to take you to funky-town? So be it!” Baxter kneed T’Phil in the gut as the Tal Shiar agent leaned forward, then the Captain rammed him up against the wall.
“You will not win!” T’Phil cried, a stream of green blood dripping from his mouth.
T’Phil was able to free up one knee to kick Baxter in the crotch, using the time that gained him to run like hell. “Oh, boy. Oh, boy,” Baxter said, staggering back and gripping at his fractured gems. “That hurt.”
“As soon as I find a weapon, I’ll kill you!” T’Phil screamed.
“What’s happening over there?” Counselor Peterman asked fearfully, watching the Aerostar list on the viewscreen. Conway looked back at J’hana. “Well?”
“I picked up some weapons fire and a large explosion,” J’hana said. “But the Captain’s comm signal is still present. And I’m still picking up human and Romulan life signs.”
“What about the Flarn?” Conway asked.
“That I don’t know,” J’hana admitted.
“What’ssssss happening over there…”
Kenjek asked, leaning forward in the command chair.
“I don’t know,” Drako, the science officer said. “I read a huge explosion, and then the sensorssssss went funny.”
“Funny?” Kenjek growled, turning around. “What do you mean ‘funny’?”
“I mean I can’t tell if anyone’ssssss alive over there or not.”
“Are you telling me the human sssssscum may have killed Granok?” Kenjek asked angrily.
“Maybe,” Drako admitted.
“Dessssstroy the Explorer!” Kenjek cried. “Then destroy the sssssspace ssssstation. We’ll bring the entire Federation to their kneesssssss!”
That sounded nice, but Drako doubted whether it was practical. Then again, the Flarn seldom dealt in practicality.
If there was one thing Admiral McGrath really enjoyed, it was a nice, long, steamy shower. It gave him time to sort out his thoughts, relax, and contemplate the truths of life. It also opened up his pores, which was definitely a bonus.
Presently, the one truth that McGrath was contemplating was an especially melodious ballad from the old Earth musical ‘South Pacific’.
“I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair, I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair!” McGrath sang, oblivious to the fact that outside the steamy confines of his bathroom, a massive warship was getting ready to pound the Explorer to pieces.
“And what ain’t we got,” McGrath sang, “We ain’t got…”
Suddenly the Explorer shuddered, sending Admiral McGrath flying forward, right into the shower head. The Admiral then reeled back, losing his footing and cursing the builders for not putting non-slip pads in the floors of the showers. They weren’t really that expensive, and they were known to prevent one third of all domestic accidents.
“Shields are down to thirty percent!” J’hana called out over the din of red alert sirens and shouting crew-members.
“Load the quantums and return fire!” Commander Conway shouted, as the deck rattled beneath his feet. “Attack pattern Conway zero zero three!”
The stars twisted on the viewscreen as Ensign Ford brought the Explorer around, moving temporarily out of the Flarn ship’s line of fire.
Explosions rocked both ships as they danced through space in an ugly tango of death.
“Well, I guess it’s now or never,” Rydell sighed. “Arm all weapons, drop the cloak, and raise the shields, Lieutenant Hawkins.”
Hawkins hesitated a moment. “Are you sure, sir?”
“They’re idiots, that’s a given,” Rydell said. “But I’m not about to sit back and watch them all die.”
“Why not?” Jaroch asked plainly.
Rydell really couldn’t think of a good answer. “Just arm the damn weapons!”
“Vessel de-cloaking astern!” Lt. Tilleran reported. “It’s the Secondprize!”
“How’d they get a cloaking device?” Conway mused.
“I assume they procured it from the damaged Warbird, Commander,” Larkin stated. “At any rate, we could use the help.”
“Indeed,” Conway said, mimicking one of Larkin’s commonly used words.
The Explorer rocked again, as the Secondprize soared into view on the viewscreen, coming in between the Explorer and the Jendak, its weapons blazing.
“Our shields are almost gone!” J’hana shouted.
“Keep firing. Target their primary weapons,” Conway said, holding on to the command chair with all his might.
“Sir, we’re running way too much power through the weapons systems. Even a Galaxy-class vessel was never designed to channel this much power,” Lt. Commander Richards said, leaning over the engineering console. “We’re in danger of overloading the primary power conduit.”
“Noted, Commander,” Conway said. “Lt. Larkin…see if you can find a way to penetrate those Flarn shields without blowing our power conduit to pieces!”
“Aye, sir,” Larkin said, going to work on her panel.
“Status of the Flarn?” Conway asked, looking over at Tilleran.
“Damage to the Flarn vessel is severe…”
Lt. Tilleran reported. “We’ve managed to breach their hull in several places.”
“Good,” Conway said. “Let’s breach it some more!”
Sub-commander Gatana carefully piloted the scout-ship in between blazing photon torpedoes and phaser beams, targeting one of the breaches on the Jendak’s hull and aligning her ship so that it lay against the open section, in effect sealing the breach and giving her an entry point into the ship. Luckily, the Flarn were so busy battling the Federation ships, they could do little to stop her. Her earlier plan of simply escaping to get reinforcements now turned into something much more beneficial: she would rescue her commanding officer and reap untold gratitude from him–maybe even a promotion. Gatana quickly removed her space suit, grabbed a disruptor, and yanked open the docking hatch at her feet, sliding through the hatch and out into one of the Flarn vessel’s corridors.
With her weapon set to maximum, Gatana quickly took out the three Flarn that happened to be coming down the corridors, then followed the path her sensing device told her would lead towards the only Romulan life sign on the ship.
Lights went out throughout the Aerostar as Captain Baxter grabbed through darkness at T’Phil’s feet, pulling them out from under him and dragging him to the ground.
T’Phil rolled to the side, bringing an elbow smashing down into Baxter’s face.
Baxter could feel blood rushing out of his nose, but ignored the tremendous pain he felt as it swelled from the impact.
“Ib goink to gill you, Duh-rue…”
Baxter stammered, clasping his hands together and ramming them into the base of T’Phil’s back.
The two combatants rolled down the corridor, tearing and punching wildly at each other.
They kept rolling until they hit something solid.
Baxter looked up through the dim light of the independently powered glow-strips along the corridor to see what they had hit, expecting to see a wall.
Instead, he saw a very badly injured, very angry Flarn. “You can’t keep a good Flarn down, Captain!” Granok hissed, picking Baxter up and throwing him over his shoulder.
“You show him who’s boss, Granok,” T’Phil said, when suddenly Granok tossed him over his other shoulder. “It’ssssss a two for one special today, my pointy eared friend.”
Gatana ripped open the huge freezer door and yanked Ardek’s limp body out. “I have come to rescue you, my Commander!”
“Huh?” Ardek said. He was evidently suffering from mild hypothermia.
“I said I have come to res–”
Suddenly a giant butcher knife sailed through the air, becoming stuck in the freezer door.
“Ssssssssstop!” an angry Flarn in an apron that read ‘Kissssss the Chef’ said. “I will not allow a good meal to run away.”
Gatana fired her disruptor at the chef and missed, dragging Ardek out of the kitchen and into the massive dining room.
The chef followed, cursing something unintelligible in Flarn. “The other chef may have allowed thisssssss!” he cried. “But that was Colok. I am Dran. And if Dran can cook, ssssso can you!”
Gatana barely avoided another butcher’s knife as she ducked out of the dining room and made her way back to the scout-ship, Commander Ardek in tow.
“Sssssssssstop them!” Dran cried. “They must be bassssssted and broiled at three hundred degreesssssss!”
Baxter awoke to the sound of two knives scraping together, no doubt being sharpened for maximum carving power. The Captain tried to cry out, but he the apple shoved in his mouth prevented that. He tried to move, but realized that he was tied down. He looked over, noticing that T’Phil was next to him, similarly bound and gagged.
Granok hovered happily over Baxter and T’Phil, sharpening two large carving kives. “I must thank whoever used to have these quartersssssss. I would never have guessssssed that a human would have a dining table thisssss huge! And there’ssss enough fixin’sssss here to feed an army of Flarn!” It only took a little looking around for Baxter to confirm his suspicions. Damn you, Doctor Browning, he thought. Baxter had to admit, though, that the candles Granok had lit around the quarters did add a nice touch.
“Ssssso we’ll have a little picnic aboard the Aerosssssstar,” Granok said happily, looking around the corridors and sighing. “Hmmm. Ssssssseems an appropriate place for the two of you to meet your end.”
Granok continued to sharpen his knives. “I must say, your second attempt on my life was as inventive as the one you made lasssst year. And jusssssst asssss effective, I’m afraid. Asssss you can ssssee, I’m ssssstill alive and well. And you, well, you my dear Captain, are right back where you sssssssssstarted from. On my dinner table. This time, however, I intend to eat you. And believe me, all the waiting and all the pain will ssssssssimply add to the joy of gnawing into your arm assss you scream your ugly little human head off.”
Baxter had to at least thank Granok for leaving his clothes on. It was downright embarrassing last time, sitting there in his underwear. This time he not only had his uniform, but his ja–
“Use the jacket…”
Conway’s voice echoed in his head. Baxter wriggled his arm inside his right sleeve. It made sense that if there was a button in one sleeve, there would be a button in the opposite sleeve, and that would no doubt do something useful.
“The jacket is the key…”
Finding the button with his fingers, Baxter squeezed it with all his might.
Just as Granok was about to begin carving, Baxter’s jacket suddenly began to inflate. It got so big Baxter’s head could barely be seen.
Granok plunged his kife into Baxter’s jacket, which may have been a mistake, since the air release caused the Captain to shoot right off the dinner table and careen through the open door and into the corridor beyond.
Baxter rubbed his aching head and picked himself up, yanking the apple out of his mouth. He was wearing one hell of a jacket.
“No matter,” he heard Granok saying from inside Browning’s quarters. “I ssssshall eat you firssssst, T’Phil, and have the Captain for dessert. Ssssso tell me, Colonel, are you finger licking good?”
Baxter activated the wrist beacon built into his sleeve and slapped his comm badge, running as far and fast as he could. “Baxter to Explorer. I need some help over here.”
“So do we. We’re getting mauled by the Flarn. You’re on your own, buddy. Conway out.”
Great, Baxter thought. He would have to escape on his own, which probably meant finding his way to the shuttlebay and blowing his way out with a shuttlecraft.
Baxter’s mind briefly wandered to T’Phil. What would happen to him? He would no doubt be painfully consumed by Granok. And as much as Baxter hated T’Phil, he couldn’t bare the thought of Granok having a satisfying meal.
Baxter quickly changed directions and made his way towards the first place he could think of to find weapons.
“Our shields are gone!” J’hana cried, as sparks showered out from a station near her panel.
“I guess now’s a good a time as ever to test out that ablative armor,” Lt. Commander Richards said uneasily.
“And if it doesn’t work?” Conway asked fearfully.
Suddenly the Explorer shook with another blast.
“Ablative armor holding!” J’hana said, gasping with relief. “But it won’t hold out long.”
“Throw the tri-cobalts at them, J’hana,” Conway said. “See if that changes their attitude any.”
“Aye, sir,” J’hana said, trying to hide the fact that she was a bit uneasy about fighting in a ship without shields.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Captain Baxter said, shining his wrist beacon on the sign on the door, making sure he was at the right place.
(09|0800) LT. J’HANA CHIEF SECURITY/TACTICAL OFFICER
Yep, he was at the right place all right.
Baxter used the crowbar included in his jacket to pry open the doors to J’hana’s quarters, shining the light around and taking stock of what he had to work with.
Baxter knew J’hana had her bat’leth with her, so that automatically eliminated that possibility. Still, Baxter noticed that there were several other implements of death and destruction left to choose from. The Captain hurriedly grabbed a klingon dk’tang knife, turning to go and show Granok what’s what.
Then he realized that probably wasn’t near big enough, so he dropped it and went back to the wall of weapons. Ah, ha! A Ligonian mace, tipped with enough poison to render any foe instantly dead. A perfect weapon.
Baxter stopped short just before reaching the door to J’hana’s quarters. Gee, poison tipped. He could accidentally hurt himself with that one. He put the mace back and went back to the wall.
Ah, the infamous mek’leth, the hot weapon of choice among Klingon warriors. Smaller than a bat’leth, but much more maneuverable.
It didn’t feel quite right either though.
Baxter picked the mek’leth down and surveyed the remaining weapons.
Finally, Baxter selected a lirpa, the ancient Vulcan weapon with a razor sharp curved blade at one end and a heavy bludgeon on the other. Legend had it that a similar weapon was used in the famous confrontation between Kirk and Spock back on Vulcan, when Spock was having some kind of problem with his mating drive.
Having never been terribly lucky at love, (until recently) Baxter could sympathize with Spock.
Baxter grabbed the lirpa and bolted back to Dr. Browning’s quarters.
“Hold on, Commander,” Gatana said, firing her disruptor at some approaching Flarn and shoving Ardek up through the docking hatch.
Gatana quickly climbed in after Ardek, closing the hatch and starting up the scout-ship’s engines.
“Where?” Ardek said, opening his eyes and looking around.
“I will explain later,” Gatana said, releasing the docking clamps and steering the scout-ship away from the Flarn ship.
“I said I will explain later,” Gatana said curtly. “Needless to say, I have saved your life.”
“That’s nice,” Ardek said, losing consciousness again. Gatana heaved the scout-ship to port, just barely evading the quantum torpedo that whizzed by, destined to smack into the Flarn warship. “This will be quite difficult.”
The massive Galaxy-class starship swooped past the tiny scout-ship as it grappled with the Flarn warship, giving Gatana the perfect avenue for escape. Her only obstacle now was the derelict Aerostar, which hovered innocently ahead of her, the only still object for some distance.
Ardek’s eyes fluttered open. “Ga-Gatana? What’s–” Suddenly alarms twinkled all over Gatana’s panel, and a large, blurry image coalesced on her sensor screen. “That’s certainly odd. I’m picking up a major energy-mass irregularity near the Aerostar. I hope it’s nothing harmful.”
Phaser beams seared past the scout-ship’s windshield, forcing Gatana to bank the scout-ship steeply to port, right towards the energy-mass irregularity. To her, it seemed the obvious choice when forced to choose between that and a bona fide phaser beam.
Evidently, it wasn’t much of a better choice.
Suddenly, Gatana was jerked out of her seat as the tiny scout-ship slammed into a hard duranium-like surface with a metallic clang. Through the smoke that wafted from exploding panels, Gatana watched the very solid empty space in front of her shimmer with sparkling electricity.
Ardek struggled beside her on the deck to see what was happening. “Oooh, that’s really pretty, isn’t it?” he said. Gatana didn’t know how to reply.
“We have been hit!” First Boppity’Boo cried out, as Admirals Neilson and Phillips tried to steady themselves against him, each grabbing an arm.
“By what?” Phillips cried.
“By another ship!” Boppity’Boo said, examining one of the sensor panels. “Praised, the cloaking device is out!”
Neilson stumbled over to another panel. “Well, fix it!”
“Impossible. All power connections are destroyed.”
“Do we have weapons?” Neilson asked.
“No, my Lord, that junction was severed as well.”
“Then what have we?” Neilson asked.
“A giant problem,” Harlan said jubilantly.
Dran ran out onto the bridge, breathless, heaving his butcher knife along with him. “Lieutenant Lord…where issss the Lord Granok?”
“Over there,” Kenjek said, nodding towards the Aerostar as it drifted by in the middle of the melee on the viewscreen. “Why?”
“The rest of hissss meal got away!”
Kenjek turned. “Are you sssssssaying it sssssimply walked away?”
“No. One of itssssss friendsssss came looking for it!”
“We mussssst retrieve it!”
Drako almost mentioned the fact that preserving the warship was more important at that point, but he kept his mouth shut.
“Drako!” Kenjek cried out. “Locate that mealsssssss’ lifesign!”
Drako gulped. If he didn’t find that Romulan, he’d be blamed for the loss of the meal, instead of the cook. So went politics on a Flarn vessel.
“We have a larger problem than you might think,”
Boppity’Boo said, examining his panel. “The experimental cloaking device has caused a cascade failure in our power core. The entire ship will be destroyed in five minutes.”
“Then do something!” Phillips cried.
“John, be quiet!” Neilson said. “Let me think!”
“I’d suggest we evacuate,” Harlan said.
“I didn’t ask you for suggestions,” Neilson barked.
“Do you have a better one?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Neilson finally said. “Boppity’Boo, evacuate the ship.”
“Yes, Praised One.”
“Innovative thinking, Neilson,” Harlan mumbled.
“Those ‘Flarn’ are attempting to lock on a transporter beam!” Gatana said.
“Move us out of range?” Ardek suggested, rubbing his head.
“Not enough time,” Gatana quickly surmised.
Suddenly a humongous green starship shimmered into existence between the scout-ship and the Flarn vessel that bore down on it.
“That’s a Warbird, right?” Ardek asked.
“Presumably,” Gatana said, as the pull of a transporter beam came over her. Which transporter was another matter altogether.
“What the hell is happening out there?” Conway asked, shaking his head in disbelief, as the Jem’Hadar warship listed away from the Aerostar and exploded in a flash of pyrotechnics.
“A Jem’Hadar warship appeared near the Aerostar, followed by a Romulan Warbird. The Jem’Hadar ship blew up and the Romulan Warbird is now battling with the Flarn,” Larkin summed up. “Does that explain the situation clearly enough, Commander?”
Conway fought the temptation to slap Larkin upside the head and returned his attention to the confusion on the screen. “What happened to the personnel on the Dominion ship?”
“Evidently they transported over to the Aerostar,” said Tilleran. “Damn. Conway to Baxter. You’re about to have company.”
“Oh. Okayyyy. In the form of…”
“Dominion? Since when did they get here?”
“About five minutes before the second Romulan Warbird.”
“It would take too long to explain. Listen, Captain, if I were you I’d busy myself looking out for the Jem’Hadar over there.”
“I have bigger problems than that, Conway.”
“I have to save T’Phil from the Flarn Warlord.”
Conway blinked. “Pardon?”
“Eh?” Kenjek said, regarding the ship on the viewscreen. “All thesssse shipssss appearing and dissssssappearing. How isssss one suppossssed to keep track of them all?” One of the pointy-eared humans appeared on the viewscreen.
“To everyone in this sector. This is Major Vohn of the Tal Shiar. We are here to recover the cloaking devices stolen by the Dominion AND the Federation. The inventory numbers are 44401 and 44455, respectively. Please transfer said equipment to our cargo bay or you will fired upon.”
“What’ssss he talking about?” Drako asked.
“I don’t know,” Kenjek said. “Ssssstop assssssking quesssstionssss and ssssstart shooting!”
“How the heck did they know about our cloaking device?” Dillon asked, looking to Rydell.
Rydell rubbed his chin. “I don’t know. You have to give it to them, for an organization that was supposedly destroyed by the Dominion, these guys are awful sharp.”
“So do we give them the cloak?” Dillon asked.
Rydell nodded. “Have Baird jettison it out an airlock. We don’t need it anymore.”
“What about the Flarn?”
Rydell looked up at the viewscreen. The Flarn and Romulan vessel were now locked in combat. “Back us off. Let the Romulans play with them for awhile.”
Slowly returning to consciousness, Admiral McGrath pulled himself to his feet, in a vain attempt to escape from the watery grave that his shower had suddenly become.
“Did they stop shooting at us?” McGrath asked groggily, to no one in particular, letting his head collapse to the tiled floor as he lost consciousness again.
“They stopped shooting at us,” J’hana surmised, looking up at the Romulan and Flarn ships on the viewscreen. “They are now focusing the whole of their efforts on the Romulans.”
“Good,” Conway said. “That gives us enough of a break to try to rescue the Captain and the others.”
“One problem, sir,” Richards said. “The transporters were fragged by one of the last few anti-proton blasts.”
“How long will it take you to fix them?”
Richards examined the readouts on his console. “I have a team on it now. Give me twenty minutes.”
“You’ve got ten,” Conway barked. “Ford, take us closer to the Aerostar.”
“Sir,” J’hana said. “You realize that if we go too near the Aerostar, we are bound to get caught in the crossfire between the Flarn and the Romulans.”
“Do you have a problem with that, Lieutenant?” Conway asked pointedly.
“No, not really. I thought you would, though.”
“Well, I have nothing better to do. Intercept Aerostar, Mr. Ford, and STEP on it!”
Gatana followed Ardek onto the bridge of the Romulan Warbird. He had regained his composure after the rattling affair aboard the Flarn warship.
“Report,” he ordered.
“I am not answerable to you, military man,” the man in the center seat said. “My name is Major Vohn. I answer only to the Tal Shiar.”
“Well, Major Vohn, you do realize that you have an agent out there held captive by those…things,” Ardek said.
“We are aware of Colonel T’Phil,” Vohn said. “He is not a priority. Obtaining the lost cloaks and apprehending a live Founder are of chief importance.”
“What about them!” Ardek said frantically, pointing at the Flarn warship that bore down on the viewscreen. “We are attempting to subdue them,” Vohn said.
“I hate to eat raw food, you know,” Granok said, as he prepared to carve up Colonel T’Phil. “I mean, I read the medical reportsssss jusssst like everyone else. I know the risk of bacteria and infectionssssss. None too appetizing, mind you.”
“Too bad we don’t have any power,” T’Phil stammered. “You can’t cook me without power.”
“I’ll rissssssk eating you raw,” Granok hissed, bringing his knife into the air to carve into T’Phil.
Suddenly T’Phil perceived what sounded like a deranged battle cry, and the next thing he knew, Granok fell forward on top of him, bruising several of his ribs.
Captain Baxter tried desperately to pull the lirpa out of Granok’s back, but it was pretty darn well stuck.
Granok said, reaching back and swatting at Baxter.
Granok turned, causing Baxter to swing around, hanging on to the lirpa for dear life.
In the confusion, the Flarn dropped his knife, which T’Phil was able to snag with a free finger. Within moments, the talented Tal Shiar operative was free of his bonds, and ready to pay Granok and Baxter back for their trouble.
“Stab him! Stab him!” Baxter cried.
Obediently, T’Phil rammed the knife into Granok’s neck. Granok, in turn, slapped T’Phil away with his damaged claw and slammed Baxter into the table.
T’Phil quickly searched the kitchen for some kind of weapon, finally grabbing a battery-powered mixer. It wasn’t exactly the ideal weapon, but it would have to do. T’Phil ran over and plunged the mixer into Granok’s back, the metal blade sparking against the Flarn’s hard, shiny exoskeleton.
That diversion gave Baxter just enough time to roll off the table and run over to Browning’s desk. She had to have a sidearm in there somewhere.
Baxter rifled through Browning’s desk drawers, madly looking for her standard issue phaser. The Captain pushed aside Brownies, Twinkies, muffins, tarts, candy bars, apples, bananas, a canned ham…
“There it is!” Baxter shouted, pulling out the phaser and setting it on “Well Done.”
Granok lept at Baxter, snarling ravenously, just as the phaser ripped through his chest and knocked him backwards, the smell of sizzling Flarn once again filling the air. Baxter studied the phaser. Granok should have been vaporized.
Damn it. He had it set on sixteen, not seventeen.
Suddenly Granok’s claw came up between Baxter’s legs, sending the Captain hurtling out of Browning’s quarters. Baxter scrambled to his feet, ignoring his screaming boys, who had now been roughed up twice in one day.
“Come on! We must run!” T’Phil cried, running out of Browning’s quarters, Granok in hot pursuit. Really hot pursuit, since his chest was still smoking.
Baxter led the way; although he more waddled than ran, what with the recent beatings his crotch had taken.
“Any ideas?” T’Phil asked.
“One very stupid one,” Baxter said, heading towards the end of the corridor.
Fifty meters away, just around the corner from Baxter and T’Phil, Admiral Neilson led the way down the corridor, flanked by two Jem’Hadar guards. The other ten brought up the rear, keeping an eye on both Admiral Baxter and Admiral Phillips. “They are nearing our position, Praised one,” Boppity’Boo said, eyeing his scanning device.
“Prepare to see your son splattered all over the bulkhead, Admiral Baxter.”
As the group quietly approached the intersection of corridors, Admiral Baxter silently hoped that his son was carrying those lucky horseshoes.
“Well, are you going to tell me the idea?” T’Phil asked, annoyed.
Baxter shrugged. “It’s still in the early stages of development. Basically, I think we should–”
“Surprise!” Admiral Neilson called out, rounding the corner.
“Admiral Neilson!” Baxter cried, then looked behind her. “Dad? What the hell are you doing here?”
“Son!” Admiral Baxter called, just before being pulled back around the corner. “It’s a trap!”
“No kidding,” Baxter said, as the Jem’Hadar guards leveled their weapons on Baxter.
“We’re borrowing your ship, Captain,” Neilson said.
“You can have it. It’s busted,” Baxter said.
“That may be, but our engineers will make short work of this primitive technology. But before we get it ready to take back to the Dominion, we must first rid it of some unneeded garbage.”
“Let me guess. That would be me,” Baxter said weakly.
“You’re catching on,” Neilson smiled. “Boppity’Boo, take out the trash.”
Suddenly, and with a gut-wrenching screech, Granok ripped through the ceiling and crashed down onto Boppity’Boo and his compatriot, smashing them both with a sickening crunch of bones. “You can’t esssssscape that easssssily!”
“Oh, my,” Admiral Phillips said quietly.
“Who are you?” Granok asked, pausing and regarding the new arrivals.
“Pardon me, we’re in the middle of something here,” Neilson said angrily.
“Die!” Granok hissed, taking two more Jem’Hadar and smashing them together, letting them drop to the ground in a messy heap.
“That’s just about enough of that!” Neilson called out, morphing into a gooey blob and stretching forward into Granok’s face.
“What’sssssss thisssss?” Granok said in confusion, pulling at the mass of Admiral Neilson as it enveloped him.
“Protect the Founder!” one of the Jem’Hadar said, ramming headlong into Granok’s knee.
“Well, we’d love to stay and chat, but we’ve uh…got a thing,” Captain Baxter said, backing away. “Come on, Dad!”
Admiral Baxter pushed past Granok and Neilson, jumping out of the way of one attacking Jem’Hadar, just as another bore down on him.
“Dad!” Baxter cried, reaching into his jacket and withdrawing the gleaming metal horseshoes. “Hold on!” Baxter closed his eyes and hurled the horseshoes through the air. The lucky shoes spun through the air, clanging against the Jem’Hadar’s skull. The warrior was at first unfazed, pulling at one of the two connected horseshoes, realizing that one of them was caught on something–his precious tube of white!
“This is quite difficult,” the Jem’Hadar said as he attempted frantically to separate the two horseshoes. Admiral Baxter used the Jem’Hadar’s moment of surprise to jab the other end of the horseshoes into the warrior’s eyes. “Arrgh!” the Jem’Hadar cried, reeling back.
Admiral Baxter tossed the horseshoes back to Baxter. “I knew those things would be lucky.”
Then Baxter’s comm badge crackled to life. “Conway to Baxter. Our transporters are operational and we’re ready to pull you guys out of there.”
“Energize, Commander!” Baxter cried.
Suddenly, Admiral Baxter, the Jem’Hadar guards, and the mass of goo surrounding Granok disappeared in a flash of green.
“What do you mean someone else transported them?” Conway asked, staring angrily at the viewscreen.
“I mean, the Romulans locked on to everyone but Granok, T’Phil, and the Captain, and beamed them over to their ship,” Tilleran explained quickly.
“They just engaged their cloaking device!” J’hana called out.
“Damn,” Conway grumbled, pounding the command chair. “Well, you’d better get the Captain before the Flarn turn their sights back on–”
A powerful anti-proton blast suddenly slammed into the Explorer, causing sparks to shower from panels all over the bridge.
Richards sighed, working madly at his panel. “There go all our repairs.”
“Where’d they go?” Baxter asked.
“That was a Romulan transporter beam,” T’Phil said, dumbfounded. “Why did they not transport me?”
Baxter ignored T’Phil and slapped his comm badge. “Baxter to Explorer. Where’d everyone go?” All the Captain got in return was static. Baxter shrugged. “The Flarn must have damaged their comm–”
“Remember me?” Granok cried, slamming into Baxter and T’Phil.
Both men scrambled out from under Granok as fast as they could, making for the nearest Jeffries tube.
“They’re coming after us again,” Lt. Hawkins called out, surveying the tactical situation. “And the Romulans just took off with our cloaking device.”
“We can live with that,” Rydell said. “Just find a way to take out that Flarn warship.”
“That might be easier said than done,” Lt. Commander Jaroch said. “Even with the combined firepower of the Explorer and the Secondprize, the Flarn vessel can still overpower us.”
“Maybe the crew of the Explorer will come up with something,” Dillon suggested.
Jaroch grunted. “That is a laugh.”
“Keep on them, J’hana!” Conway cried, as the Explorer and the Secondprize weaved around the Flarn warship, attempting to finally overpower its defenses.
The Explorer rattled with another blast from the Flarn, and J’hana quickly returned fire with everything the Explorer had.
“The Flarn shields are gone,” J’hana said victoriously. Smoke settled over the bridge as Lt. Commander Richards surveyed the damage. “Yeah, but so are all our weapons. We just lost phasers, quantums, the whole shebang.”
J’hana clenched her fist. “We have them right where we want them!”
“And they have us right where they want us,” Conway said, glaring at Richards. “Except they have weapons!”
“I’m working, I’m working,” Richards said, tapping away at his panel. “Give me a minute.”
Conway watched the Flarn vessel swing towards them on the viewscreen, its weapons array bristling. “We don’t have a minute! That Flarn ship is about to blow us to smithereens.”
“Ablative armor,” Larkin suddenly said to herself.
“What?” Conway asked, turning to face the android.
“We have ablative armor.”
Larkin ran some tests on her panel then turned in her chair to face Conway. “I advise we ram the Flarn ship at a speed of warp two.”
Conway shook his head in disbelief. “Are you crazy, woman?”
“No, she’s not, Commander,” Lt. Tilleran said. “I think our armor can handle it, judging by the amount of structural damage the Flarn have already taken, and by the materials they use to construct their warships.”
“So we’d survive the collision?” Conway asked, rubbing his chin.
“In theory,” Larkin said.
“In theory????” Conway asked. “This better be a lot better than just a theory!”
“It is the best I can offer at this juncture, Commander,” Larkin said. “To use an aphorism, ‘take it or leave it’.” Conway collapsed into the command chair, sighing. “I was really starting to like this ship too. Initiate your plan, Lieutenant.”
“I hope this thing has air bags,” Ensign Ford said fearfully.
“Say again?” Rydell said, watching the Explorer turn on the viewscreen.
“I said,” Jaroch said tiredly. It had been a long day, “they are preparing to ram the Flarn vessel.”
“They must be crazy,” Dillon said.
“Remember who we’re dealing with,” Rydell snapped back.
“The Explorer is reported to have ablative armor,” Jaroch said. “Perhaps that will protect them.”
“I don’t think the Great Bird himself can protect them this time,” Rydell said quietly, as he watched the Explorer gather speed.
“All hands, brace for impact!” Commander Conway cried out as everyone held fast to their stations. “Mister Ford…ENGAGE!” Ensign Ford crossed the fingers of his left hand and stabbed the engage button with his right hand.
And everyone on the bridge of the Explorer held on for dear life.
Admiral McGrath dried himself off, humming to himself as he mosied over to the sink. Thankfully, the Explorer had stopped shaking long enough for him to get in a good shave. The tune his father used to sing to him still rang in his ears…
“Shaving cream, always stay clean, shave every day and you’ll see what I mean!”
So McGrath shaved every day with a real razor and real shaving cream. Call it a strange ritual, but it was something he did ever since he was old enough to shave.
The Admiral quickly lathered up and prepared to shave. Thank goodness for peace and quiet.
“Lieutenant Lord Kenjek!” Drako cried out. “The Explorer is coming towards usssss!”
“Do they mean to ram usssss?” Kenjek asked. “Are they insssssane?”
“Apparently ssssso. Even if we had minimum shields, they would not withstand such an impact,” Drako said confidently. “What about no shields and a badly fractured hull?” Kenjek asked, fear filling his angry red eyes.
Drako said, looking up at the viewscreen.
“Sssssssssson of a….”
Kenjek cursed, watching as the Explorer’s engines glowed bright blue.
The crew of the Secondprize watched with baited breath as the Explorer shot into warp, colliding with the Jendak. Suddenly there was a huge, bright explosion that caused the entire Secondprize to shudder.
Rydell covered his eyes as the bridge was washed with light. “Jaroch! Give me a report! What’s the status of the Explorer?”
“I do not know!” Jaroch shouted. “The sensors are as blinded as we are!”
Rydell watched the viewscreen, and as his eyes adjusted, he could make out a faint black shape.
Rydell’s eyes adjusted a little more. A little more. A little more.
And he didn’t like what he saw.
Rydell lept towards the helm console, while Lt. Sullivan watched in horror as the Explorer spun towards them on the viewscreen.
Rydell slammed his hand on the ‘DOWN’ button, sending the Secondprize diving out of the way as the Explorer hurtled past them.
Commander Conway struggled to his feet, gripping the arm of the command chair as he was overcome by a wave of nausea and vertigo.
“We are out of control!” Larkin shouted.
“Tell me something I don’t know!”
“Inertial dampeners failing!” Richards cried. “Hull damage on six decks!”
“Put on the brakes, Mister Ford!” Conway cried.
“I can’t, Commander! Helm control is offline!” Ford replied.
“Well,” Conway said, grabbing on to Larkin’s chair, “any more bright ideas?”
“Possibly,” Larkin said, running her hands along her panel. “We must anchor the ship.”
“She’s finally lost it,” Commander Conway said, as he was tossed backwards.
“I don’t believe it!” Commander Baird cried from the engineering station, as the Secondprize lurched out from under his feet. “They’re locking a f**king tractor onto us!”
“You are correct, Mister Baird,” Jaroch said. “But to what end?”
“They’re using us as an anchor!” Dillon said.
“Oh, hell,” Rydell said, as the tractor beam became taut, pulling the Secondprize along for the ride. “All engines, FULL REVERSE!”
“Woah, boy!” Lt. Sullivan said from the helm, as the Secondprize jerked back on the larger Explorer. “Come on, boy!”
Baxter and T’Phil made their way quickly down the ladder towards engineering, deck by deck, almost oblivious of the trembling around them as the shock wave from the Jendak’s explosion passed.
“Think that was the Jendak?” T’Phil asked.
“Maybe,” Baxter said. “Or it could have been the Explorer.”
“Pity,” T’Phil said with a sneer. “You do have a way of losing ships, Baxter.”
“I’m more worried about my dad. What are your people going to do with him?”
“I don’t know…interrogate, torture, kill?” T’Phil smiled.
“God I hate you,” Baxter muttered, quickening his climb. “Now I see why the Tal Shiar wouldn’t take you back.”
“Oh, that was a low blow, Captain,” T’Phil said. “Not that I don’t enjoy this pleasant little chat, but how much farther do we have to go before we can initiate your grand little plan?”
Baxter watched as the giant number twenty flew by them. “Nine decks.”
“Oh,” T’Phil said. “That’s good.”
Suddenly a black, shiny blur plunged past Baxter and T’Phil. The blur latched a claw on to both of them, ripping them free of the ladder.
“I have you now!” Granok cried. “And I’m willing to place betssssss on who will survive the impact at the bottom!” Baxter grabbed madly at the rungs of the ladder as they flew by him, but he was falling too fast to get a hold of any of them, and Granok’s grip was unbreakable.
Conway’s voice entered Baxter’s head again. “The jacket…use the jacket!”
Baxter quickly fumbled at the pockets and the lining of the jacket, madly searching for a button, or a string, or something he could pull, or push, or twist.
Suddenly, miraculously, the back of Baxter’s jacket exploded open, and a huge white parachute, complete with fancy Starfleet emblem, opened up inside the cramped turbolift shaft.
“What?” Granok said, as their descent began to slow. Just as suddenly, the group hit the bottom of the shaft, the parachute floating down to join them several seconds later. Baxter thanked Granok for breaking his fall and quickly pulled another cord that released the parachute, and made his way back up the ladder, T’Phil fast on his heels.
“That’s some jacket,” T’Phil admitted.
“RRRRGGGGGHHHH!” Granok growled, ripping at the parachute that surrounded him. “I haven’t finisssssshed with you, Baxter!”
The Captain frantically pumped at the manual door lever, sliding open the hatch that led out into main engineering. Both he and T’Phil climbed out into engineering, stopping a moment to catch their breath.
“Why are we here?” asked T’Phil.
Baxter pointed at the strange green prism-shaped object that glowed at the center of the room, the only illumination left now that backup power was gone. “Because of that…” he huffed, still short of breath.
“Your warp engine?”
“A Sulani warp engine. The only one of its kind in this quadrant,” Baxter said, limping over to examine the engine as it sat there, glowing serenely. “Much like a Romulan engine it has an independent power source, so that if main power fails, its primary systems still function.”
“Of course, but what good will that do us?” T’Phil asked.
“For one, it stopped us from being blown to bits by a containment failure when we lost power,” Baxter said, grabbing a phaser out of a nearby locker.
Suddenly a claw smashed through the glass floor that surrounded the Sulani warp core. Evidently, Granok found another way out of the turbolift shaft, no doubt by clawing through sheets of duranium.
Baxter had to give it to the Flarn. They were tenacious bastards.
“And for another…it makes one hell of an explosion,” Baxter continued.
Granok pulled himself up, reaching for Baxter and T’Phil. Baxter tumbled backwards, shot at Granok with his phaser, and missed.
But, in ducking the blast, Granok slipped–and in a frantic attempt to regain his footing, he dug his claw into the closest available surface.
The warp core.
Green material immediately began shooting out of the place where Granok’s claw was still stuck, burning away at his exoskeleton.
“Sulani antimatter,” Baxter explained, leading T’Phil away from the warp core as Granok screamed out in frustration. Almost immediately, Red Alert klaxons went off, a byproduct of the only system left functioning aboard the Aerostar.
The warp core.
“The warp core has been fatally damaged,” a pleasant, male Sulani voice said. “Prepare for warp core ejection.”
Granok struggled to get away from the warp core, but it was no use. His claw was stuck in the housing and he was wedged in between the warp core and the railing that surrounded it. Captain Baxter ran to a rack of isolinear chips and started yanking chips out madly, one after the other. “What are you doing?” T’Phil asked frantically.
“Disabling the ejection mechanism,” Baxter explained.
“Oh,” T’Phil said. He thought a moment. “Why would you want to do a stupid thing like that?”
“To make sure Granok dies here and now,” Baxter said, pulling out the last chip.
“Warp core ejection nonfunctional. Three minutes to warp core breach.”
“I’ll have to admit, you’re pretty damn gutsy for a human,” T’Phil said. “Now how do we get out of here?”
Baxter tapped his comm badge, staring from Granok’s struggling form to T’Phil. “Baxter to Conway. What’s your status?”
“The Flarn ship has been destroyed, but we fragged our engines in the process. What about you?”
“We’re about two minutes from a breach,” Baxter said. “Think you might be able to kindly transport us the hell out of here?”
“Working on it.”
“Looks like you’re going back the brig, T’Phil,” Baxter said amiably, trying to make small talk as he waited for Conway to come through with the transport.
T’Phil grimaced. Back to the brig. While Baxter rested on his laurels. He wouldn’t let that happen.
The Romulan Colonel laughed pleasantly. “Well, if I’m going to prison, I might as well let it be for a good reason.”
“Mmm hmmm,” Baxter said, watching Granok struggle with the warp core, hoping the Flarn wouldn’t be able to work his way free before the transport. He wasn’t really even listening to T’Phil.
That’s why he was so surprised when T’Phil lunged across the room at Baxter, gripping him in an unbreakable stranglehold. “I…thought…we…agreed…to put aside our…differences!” Baxter shouted, as the two rolled on the floor.
“I lied!” T’Phil shouted, knocking Baxter’s phaser out of his hand. “I’m going to see you dead yet, Captain. I may have to work at a Federation Penal colony for the rest of my life, but I’ll be alive, Captain! I’ll be alive!”
T’Phil threw Baxter up against the back wall of engineering, jumping through the air and grabbing for Baxter’s throat. “Not if I can help it!” Baxter shouted, kicking T’Phil back. Baxter continued to kick T’Phil away, gradually loosening the Romulan’s grip on his leg. “I have had just about enough of you, T’Phil!” Baxter said finally, giving the Romulan one last, good kick.
The Romulan reeled back, his arms spiraling through the air.
Baxter regained his footing quick enough to grab the Romulan by the front of his collar and hurl him with all his might.
Right towards Granok.
“Merry Christmas, you son of a bitch!” Baxter shouted, as Granok latched his free claw onto T’Phil.
“No, Baxter, no…you can’t!” T’Phil cried, as Granok stared down at him hungrily. “Don’t leave me here!”
“Thank you, Captain,” Granok said sweetly. “Thank you for a divine lasssssst meal.”
“Ready for transport, Captain,” Conway’s voice reported. “However, we lost T’Phil’s signal in the radiation from the damaged warp core.”
“That’s a shame,” Baxter said. “I guess we’ll have to leave him here.”
“Understood, Captain,” Conway said. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Ten seconds to warp core breach,” the computer reported.
“Now’s really good for me, Commander!” Baxter replied. The last thing Baxter saw before he was transported was the look of horror on T’Phil’s face as Granok sank his teeth into his chest, and the look of satisfaction on Granok’s face. At least he wouldn’t die hungry.
“Secondprize’s tractor beam is holding,” Ensign Ford reported, as Baxter materialized on the bridge.
“Tell them to get us out of here,” Conway ordered.
“The Aerostar’s core is breaching,” Lt. Larkin reported calmly.
Captain Baxter staggered back to his command chair. “Everyone hold on!” J’hana shouted, holding onto her panel for support.
Baxter covered his eyes as the Aerostar exploded in a nova of light, its saucer spiraling through space and busting into tiny, smaller pieces, finally incinerating.
A hot white shock-wave surged through space, causing the Explorer to shudder as the Secondprize towed it away. Everyone on the bridge stood up as they watched the burning wreckage of the Aerostar twist and smolder on the viewscreen, streaking away from the epicenter of the blast.
“She went before her time,” Conway sighed.
“Everyone remember this day,” Baxter said grandly, looking around the bridge. “And make sure that history never forgets the name… Aerostar.”
Ensign Ford looked back. “I sure won’t forget this day. It was the first time I got laid in more than a year.”
Baxter shot an angry glare at Ensign Ford as Counselor Peterman wrapped her arms around him. “I thought you were going to die, Andy!”
“I almost did,” Baxter gasped, wincing at the pain Peterman’s hug was causing his injured bones and internal organs.
“You look like hell, Captain,” Commander Conway said, looking over at Baxter.
“I feel like it to,” Baxter admitted. “Good work, Commander. Destroying a Flarn warship is no small feat.”
“Wait until you see how much damage I did to our own ship in the process, Captain,” Conway replied.
“I’m looking forward to your report,” Baxter said, wincing again at the pain in his ribs.
“Captain,” J’hana said from tactical. “Romulan Warbird de-cloaking astern.”
“Not them again,” Conway said, smacking his forehead.
Baxter collapsed back into his command chair. “Open a channel.”
A serene-looking Romulan man appeared on the screen. “Greetings. I am Major Vohn of the Tal Shiar. Congratulations on destroying that alien menace, Captain.”
“Congratulate yourself, Vohn. Where’s my dad?” Baxter said angrily.
“I am not sure I know what you’re talking about.”
Baxter narrowed his eyes at the Romulan on the viewscreen. “I’m talking about one of the two Starfleet officers you have aboard your vessel.”
“Oh…you mean the dignitaries that we took aboard as honored guests? We simply transported them aboard in order to protect them from the dangerous battle that you and your crew were involved in.”
“How kind. We want them both back,” Baxter said. “In addition to the Changeling I happen to know you have in custody.”
“We will happily return your wayward officers to you. The Changeling, however, cannot be returned.”
“And why the heck not?”
Vohn looked a bit ashamed. “It attacked my transporter officer and disappeared into a maintenance shaft. We have not seen it since.”
“But it is somewhere aboard your ship, right?”
Baxter sighed. “At this point I don’t even care if you’re telling the truth or not. I just want my dad and that other guy back pronto.”
“And pronto you shall have them,” the Romulan grinned. “And perhaps this act of kindness will facilitate good feelings among our peoples.”
Captain Rydell’s head suddenly emerged in the upper corner of the viewscreen. “Hey, what about the freighter you destroyed?”
“Who said he could initiate a conference call?” Baxter said, looking to Larkin.
The Android simply shrugged.
“I destroyed the freighter,” a shorter Romulan said. “Commander Ardek at your service.”
The two Romulans whispered for a moment, then Vohn thumped Ardek in the forehead. Ardek disappeared from view and Vohn once again turned to Baxter, smiling. “Gentlemen, my compatriot was obviously mistaken. He was thinking of…another ship. He did not destroy that freighter.”
“Oh, yeah?” Rydell asked. “Then who did?”
“That is not our concern. Now…if you’ll excuse us, we must be returning to Romulan space.”
“What were you and this Ardek fellow doing in Federation space in the first place?” Baxter asked angrily.
“Um…we were off course. Bye.”
Vohn disappeared, leaving Captain Baxter to scratch his head, attempting to discern whether he should be mad at the Romulans or just glad the conversation was over.
Rydell’s image took over the entire screen. He seemed as confused as Baxter.
“We’ll have a hell of a time filling out our reports tonight, won’t we, Captain?” Baxter asked amiably.
“That we will, Captain Baxter,” Rydell said. “By the way…your crew did okay out here today. Maybe they won’t cause the destruction of the universe after all.”
“Hey,” Conway said, irritably, “give us some time. We just got back here a few days ago.”
“Duly noted,” Rydell replied. “Now let’s get you guys to Waystation before somebody starts hugging somebody.”
“Do not hold your breath,” J’hana muttered as Rydell disappeared from the screen.
Suddenly, the turbolift doors parted and Admiral Baxter rushed out onto the bridge, followed by Admiral Phillips and two security officers. “Son, you have to send a message to Starfleet. Neilson replaced me with a Changeling!”
Baxter rubbed his chin. “I was wondering how you got out here so quick. Do it, J’hana.”
The Admiral Baxter Changeling looked out over the expansive conference table where his top staff was gathered. “And another thing, I want all our operatives working near Dominion-controlled space to begin sending reports on their positions directly to me. And I want locations and specs on all the major Starfleet defensive installations in the quadrant from Tactical Operations. Is that understood?”
One of Harlan’s assistants raised his hand. “Sir, might I ask why you need all this information?”
“Yours is not to ask why, but to do and die!” Harlan quoted. “That is my damn thought for the day, Commander. Now get it done!”
The Commander shrank back in his chair. “Yessir.”
Yvonne came in and poured coffee into Harlan’s cup. “There you go, Admiral. Cuban blend, just like you like it.”
“Whatever,” Harlan replied. “How about some danish?”
“Danish…but sir, you don’t–”
“No buts–I want danish now. Do it!” Harlan barked, causing Yvonne to stumble backward.
“Y-yes, sir,” Yvonne said, scuttling out of the room. The secretary walked up to the replicator and ordered up the Admiral’s danish nervously. He never ate danish. Ever. He had been acting strange all day, and it was really starting to bother her. She considered requesting a transfer when the monitor on her desk bleeped.
“Incoming message from Starfleet Headquarters,” the computer’s female voice said sweetly.
“Wonder what they want,” Yvonne said, putting down the tray of danish and pressing a button on her viewer. “Good afternoon, Internal Affairs. This is Yvonne, how my I help you?”
A female Admiral appeared on the viewscreen looking extremely agitated. “Yvonne. This is Fleet Admiral Alynna Nechayev from Starfleet Headquarters. Is this line secure?”
“Always,” Yvonne said. Wow. Admiral Nechayev herself. Yvonne reasoned this was pretty important.
“Even from Admiral Baxter?”
“Well…yes. But he’s in a meeting right now. Should I get him–”
Necheyev lept forward, trying to physically stop Yvonne with her hands. “No…no, don’t get him. I want you to listen very carefully.”
“So that is how we’re going to proceed,” Admiral Baxter said, pushing back in his chair. “Any questions?”
Commander Williams raised her hand. “Sir, I have a small question.”
“What is it, Williams?” Harlan grunted, lighting up a cigar and puffing away on it.
“Are you okay? You’ve been acting really strange.”
“I am FINE!” Harlan barked. “Any more questions?”
Everyone just shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, rocking back and forth, murmuring, and clearing their throats. That’s when Yvonne scurried in, weighed down with a tray of danish. “Here’s the dessert you asked for,” Yvonne said, placing the tray down on the table, her hands shaking. Harlan latched a hand onto Yvonne’s arm. “Yvonne.”
“Wh-what?” Yvonne asked nervously.
“These are cinnamon.” Harlan smiled. “I wanted prune.”
“R-right,” Yvonne said, scuttling out of the room quickly.
“What was she thinking,” Harlan said to himself, shaking his head.
Yvonne hurried in moments later with a new tray. “Here you go.”
She placed the tray in front of Harlan. “How’s that?” Harlan grabbed a danish and chomped down. “Deeeeelicious.”
Satisfied that Harlan was enjoying his danish, Yvonne grabbed the coffee pot from the center of the table and prepared to turn around.
“Sir, you can’t just expect us to do all these crazy things without questioning you,” another officer said. “After all, with the Changeling threat around…”
“You think I’m a Changeling?” Harlan asked, eyes glowing with rage. “I’ll show you a freaking Changeling!”
“Uh-oh,” Yvonne said, gripping the coffee pot tighter.
Harlan’s hand morphed into a rubbery tentacle, which wrapped itself around the nearest staff member’s head and slammed it repeatedly into the glass table. “How’s that?”
“Stop that!” Yvonne cried, slamming the coffee pot into Harlan’s head. The metal pot sank into Harlan’s forehead, and was forcefully propelled out, knocking the secretary to the floor.
“I’m getting comp time for this,” Yvonne muttered, reaching down into her boot and pulling out a phaser, upping its power setting to maximum. “Take this job and shove it, Admiral!”
Harlan lept from his seat, extending his tentacle towards Yvonne, but before he could act, her phaser ripped into him, causing him to stagger into his chair and slide backwards, as the beam caused his flesh to boil, bubble, and finally explode in an orange shower that covered half the conference room.
The doors to the conference room burst open and two Starfleet Security officers charged in. “No need to worry, we’re here!”
Yvonne tucked her phaser back into her boot. “You’re too late. I took care of it.”
She turned to the staff, who were staring at the scene in front of them, speechless. “Meeting’s adjourned.”
Necheyev smiled on the viewscreen. “And then she took him out with a pocket phaser. Had she not been a civilian, I would have promoted her for it. Brave girl.”
“I trust my Changeling counterpart didn’t do too much damage,” Harlan said with concern from the seat beside Captain Baxter.
“Thankfully, he was eliminated before he could enact any of his plans. The really odd part is that, according to your staff, the Changeling seemed to be a bit…unbalanced.”
“A dud, perhaps?” Captain Baxter suggested as Dr. Browning worked on his injuries.
“Maybe,” Necheyev said. “At any rate, he’s been taken care of.” Necheyev looked at Captain Buter. “Which is more than I can say for you, Captain. The rest can wait until you write your report. For now, get medical help.”
Baxter shifted uncomfortably in his command chair as Dr. Browning mended one of his broken bones. “That’s probably not a bad idea.”
“And Admiral,” Harlan said.
“Give Yvonne the day off.”
“Already did. Good luck to all of you in getting back safely. Starfleet out.”
Necheyev was suddenly replaced by a view of the slowly rotating Waystation.
With Harlan’s help, Dr. Browning heaved Baxter to his feet. “Come on, Andy. Let’s get you down to sickbay,” Browning said. “You’ve had enough fun for one day.”
“Just in case you wanted to know,” J’hana said, as Baxter hobbled into the lift, followed by Browning, Peterman, and Harlan. “Lt. Commander Richards signals that our engines are in good enough shape to make the trip back to Earth now.”
Commander Conway assumed the command chair. “What course do you want me to set, Captain?”
Baxter leaned against the wall of the turbolift heavily, a dreamy, drugged look clouding his eyes. “Home.”
“Yes, sir,” Conway said, turning back toward the main screen. He suddenly looked back over his shoulder at Baxter. “Oh, sir, I never did ask how that survival jacket worked out.”
“It was wonderful, Commander,” Baxter said as the lift doors closed. He patted the horseshoes that rested in the jacket’s side pocket. “Absolutely wonderful.”
Captain’s Log, Stardate 51993.9. We’re on our way back to Earth, where the Explorer will undergo some major repairs as well as a few finishing touches. It’s kind of amusing that the ship has barely been broken in and already it’s had the crap pounded of it.
Speaking of crap pounding, I’m recovering nicely, thanks to the ministrations of the ever-competent Doctor Browning. I had quite an interesting night in sickbay. Who should I meet in there but Admiral McGrath. Evidently, he suffered a nasty accident in the bathroom, the details of which I promised I would leave out of my log.
Now that the Flarn have been defeated, T’Phil has been eliminated, the Changelings have been kicked out of Starfleet, and the quadrant has been saved, I’m left with only one task. I have to come to a decision that will affect the lives of me and my crew for some years to come. And I really don’t know what to do about it.
Captain Baxter looked at the expectant faces of Commander Conway, Lt. Larkin, Lt. J’hana, Dr. Browning, Lt. Commander Richards, Counselor Peterman, Lt. Tilleran, Lt. Hartley, Ensign Ford, and Admiral Baxter–as well as several other crew-members who were gathered before him.
The Captain clasped his hands behind his still aching back, trying to stand as straight as possible.
“Ahem. Well, I know you all have been waiting for this decision, and I feel I owe it to you, and believe me, I’ve given it a lot thought.”
Baxter paused briefly for effect.
“After much consideration, I have decided…”
Everyone leaned forward with anticipation of what Baxter would say.
“…to christen this lounge…”
Baxter looked around at the faces of his senior officers, “…Explorations.”
“Gee, Captain. It just doesn’t have the same ring as ‘The Starlight Lounge,” Conway said, as the doors opened and the crew poured into the lounge, plowing right past poor Mirk as he opened the doors.
“We’re opened for business…” he croaked, pulling himself to his feet.
“I like the name, Captain,” Counselor Peterman said, as she walked along with Baxter, Richards, and Browning, into the new lounge.
“Eventually it will be decorated,” Mirk explained, as everyone took in the rather drab decor. He didn’t have much to work with in the time he had. “With, well, you know, with, um, a space theme.”
“Styrofoam planets and cardboard astronaut cutouts?” Conway asked jokingly.
“How’d you know?” Mirk asked. “Did Lieutenant Hartley tell you?”
“Classy, Mirk, classy,” Lt. Gellar said, as he and Ensign Ford laid claim to a booth, which just happened to be adjacent to the one where Tilleran and Hartley were seated.
“Actually,” Mirk explained, “Captain Baxter selected the theme.”
“You set me up to take the fall, didn’t you Mirk?” Baxter said with amusement as he took his seat in a booth with Richards, Browning, and Peterman.
“Not at all,” Mirk said, wiping off the table. “I just thought it’d be nice for the Captain to select the theme.”
“It’s…very…um, creative,” Dr. Browning said, busting out into a laugh.
“Four stars!” Richards said, joining Browning in her guffaws.
“Just great, I’m the laughing stock of the entire ship,” Baxter said, staring down at the Whiskey Buzz that Mirk had put in front of him.
“The more things change…”
Mirk said, moving off to serve the next table.
“At least you have a ship to be the laughing stock of,” Dr. Browning said, looking over the menu. “I’ll have the Veal Armstrong, Mirk.”
“Yeah,” Richards said. “Things could be a lot worse.”
Peterman leaned over and squeezed the Captain, who still seemed a little disappointed that his first attempt at restaurateuring was meeting with limited success. “At least we’re together, hon.”
Baxter smiled and downed his shot of whiskey. “You’re right, Kelly. Anyway, I’m sure people will love this place once we get it decorated.”
After giving the lounge a thorough examination, Harlan sauntered over to Captain Baxter’s booth. “A great little place, boy. And not a bad ship either.”
“Yes, sir,” Baxter said, smiling. “It’s not much right now, but with a little paint…”
Peterman smiled, nuzzling closer to Baxter. “It’ll be a home.”
Conway walked up behind Harlan, grunting. “A cold, hard million-ton hunk of flying technology? Not much of a home if you ask me.”
“We didn’t,” Browning said with a grin.
Harlan patted Conway on the back. “Boy, home is wherever you happen to be. Try to remember that.”
“What’s that?” Conway asked, arching his eyebrow. “A thought for the day?”
“No, son, I just made it up,” Admiral Baxter laughed. “Now where can I get a good cigar?”
Mirk appeared behind Harlan almost instantly-almost magically. “Cigars, you say? Why, Admiral, I have a replicator file for Maloxian tobacco that’ll knock your feet off!”
“That’s socks, Mirk,” Captain Baxter corrected.
“Whatever,” Mirk said, leading Harlan over to the bar. “You’ll love the cigar I’m going to make you.”
Conway shook his head as he watched Mirk eagerly punch up the ‘Maloxian’ cigar. He turned to Baxter. “I’d be worried if I was you.”
Baxter laughed. “I am.”
There was a long silence as Harlan puffed the cigar, and Commander Conway rocked uncomfortably on his heels. “Are you just going to stand there, Commander?” Richards asked.
“You could pull up a chair,” Browning suggested.
“Actually, that sounds like a good idea,” Conway said, grabbing a chair and sitting down in front of the booth. Baxter shot Richards, Browning, and Peterman a bewildered look–Conway despised Baxter, and didn’t much care for the rest of them. Why would he want to sit there with them?
Behind Conway, just out of the visual range of anyone at Baxter’s booth, Harlan keeled over next to Mirk’s bar. The nervous Maloxian dragged the Admiral behind the bar and began trying to resuscitate him.
“Great, first week back from the Delta Quadrant and your bartender kills your dad. This will really look bad on my resume.”
“So what can I do you for, Commander?” Baxter finally asked.
“Well, Captain, I swore to myself several months ago that if we ever got back here in one piece, I’d hand you my resignation.”
The first officer reached behind his back and pulled out a padd. “And I never break my word.”
“Oh,” Baxter said, taking the padd and looking at it. “If that’s what you really…”
Conway smiled. “But I never said anything about taking it back…”
The first officer reached out and grabbed the padd, pulling it away from Baxter.
The Captain held his grip firm. “You sure you don’t want to quit?”
“No, of course I don’t want to quit, Captain. That was just, kind of a…a joke,” Conway said, his face becoming serious as he pulled back on the padd. “Now give me back my resignation.”
Baxter pulled back harder. “A resignation is a resignation, Commander.”
Conway yanked back even harder, gritting his teeth. “But I like being part…of…this…crew!”
The padd flew up in the air and Baxter and Conway dove for it, finally hitting the deck and brawling hysterically over the elusive padd.
Harlan jumped to his feet, to Mirk’s relief. “Boy, that was a hell of a cigar.”
“Thank you, um, sir. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Harlan straightened his uniform and nodded, slapping Mirk hard on the back. “Damn straight. Have some of that sent to my quarters, boy.”
Harlan took another toke from the large stogie. “Hot damn, that’s good!”
On his way out of the lounge, the Admiral spotted Conway and Baxter brawling on the floor. “Get ‘im, boy!”
Peterman watched Baxter and Conway with amusement. “You’d think they’d have outgrown this kind of thing years ago.”
Browning shook her head. “They never outgrow this kind of thing, Kelly. It’s called ‘being a man’.”
“Hey!” Richards said indignantly.
Browning put a hand over Richards’. “Don’t worry, honey. We weren’t talking about you. We were talking about men.”
“Thanks. Hey…wait a–”
“I love you too,” Browning leaning her head on Richards’ shoulder.
“Give it!” Baxter shouted.
“No!” Conway shouted back. “I like the Explorer!”
“Well a deal’s a deal! Resign, damn it!”
“No, I won’t resign!”
Baxter slapped Conway repeatedly with his own resignation, slamming the padd into his first officer’s forehead. “This’ll teach you to get a man’s hopes up!” And the two continued to fight.
Space, the flighty frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Explorer. Her crew’s new mission: To explore brave new frontiers of boredom and incompetence, to seek out new neuroses and new cheap parodies, insanely going where no spin-off has gone before.
STAR TRAKS: THE VEXED GENERATION CONTINUES WITH YEAR TWO!
BE HERE IN A FEW WEEKS FOR THE LAUNCHING OF THE ALL-NEW STAR TRAKS: TVG WEBSITE AND THE PREMIERE OF YEAR TWO:
“HONEY, I’M HOME!”