Star Traks: The Vexed Generation was created by Anthony Butler. It's based on Alan Decker's Star Traks, which in turn is based on Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry. Paramount and Viacom, their dark masters, own everything, and have no idea that I've used their little franchise to escape into a world as twisted and wonderful as Star Traks. Paramount and Viacom will never know how much the time I've spent writing this series has meant to me, and I just want to thank Paramount and Viacom from the bottom of my heart. You guys are the best! Give me a series, damn it! Thanks to Brad Dusen for the wonderful opening image. Thanks to Matt Richardson for the swell crew portrait. And apologies to William Shakespeare, for obvious reasons. Copyright 2000. All rights, such as they are, are reserved. If you're offended by mildly disturbing language, situations, and the utter disregard of some of Star Trek's greatest premises, better hit the "Back" button on your browser right now. If not, welcome aboard!

Author: Anthony Butler
Copyright: 2000

For my childhood nemesis, without whom I’d never have known what a Klingon was…


…And for the real crew, for giving me plenty of disturbing material…


…And, finally, for Alan, for getting a job in Inventory.


HISTORIAN’S NOTE:


The following takes place just under four years after “The Best Times We Never Had.”


PROLOGUE


The Directors were scared.

Not so much scared as concerned.

<Let us get this straight, just one more time: You want us to…what?>

<Bring them.> THEY said dully.

THEY weren’t accustomed to having their will refused.

<We’d like to remind you that everything seems to have resolved itself nicely. All the loose ends…tied up as it were?>

<Not ALL loose ends.>

<Well, we’re not perfect…>

<Bring them.>

<Yeah. We got that part. Listen, guys…not that we don’t trust your judgment…but…but this is a very delicate situation. Did you ever think maybe we should just let things resolve, you know, on their own?>

<Resolution is at hand. We must bring on the Denouement. Bring them.>

The eyeballs nodded in the maelstrom that was the domain of THEY. It wasn’t much to look at. Pale grays and faded ochre. The Directors preferred the Bermuda Expanse, or the former Crebius Cluster, immensely.

<BRING THEM!>

THEY were bound and determined.

The Directors sighed, shuffled off back to their own domain. <Okay. We’ll give it a shot. But don’t say we didn’t warn you. And…sheesh! Wait until the Critics find out.>


DELTA QUADRANT


Director of Events and Supreme Emporer Ardek knelt at the altar in his private chambers, in the capital city of his vast empire, the Leadership Spa and Funtimes Resort. Early in his reign, he’d tried to woo followers with philosophy, his own little “plomeek soup for the soul” he liked to call “The Circle of Caring.” That didn’t meet particularly rave reviews, even though the gas the Critics gave him converted followers to do his bidding anyway.

His marketing people, though, realized something else had to be done to woo potential followers. So Ardek and his staff developed “The Leadership Spa and Funtimes Resort,” where leaders could be developed and special exciting activities could be coordinated that would please a diverse range of his mindless followers.

The new strategy was an immediate success. His motivational tapes and lectures alone were enough to support the empire.

But the gas was still a great help.

“How may I serve the Critics this day?” Ardek asked, hands outreached in supplication.

In front of Ardek, on the vast marble slab, under huge cathedral ceilings, (he’d designed the place himself) a pair of lips sat, pursed angrily. He really wasn’t a big fan of these meetings. They always made him feel so damn small and insignificant.

<You will go to the Malox system,> the lips said resolutely.

“Why? Why would you send me there? All our work is done there.”

<Not by a long shot,> replied the Critic sharply.

“Can you explain it?” Ardek made a minute gesture with his thumb and forefinger. “Just a teensy bit more?”

<No.>

Ardek saw this conversation was at a dead end. “I, of course, will follow your orders without question. Just…one question…”

<GO!>

“Right, right.”

Ardek whirled and headed for the door. Then he remembered he was in his Romulan birdy jammies and he quickly rushed for his vast wardrobe closet. The Critics’ recent order baffled him, and thus he had no idea how to dress. Something dominant, intimidating.

That was always a safe way to go, when one was the leader of a major empire.

Once he was dressed in head-to-toe lime-colored suede, complete with yellow cape, Ardek headed to his private shuttle. En route, he wondered what the Critics were up to. Whatever the case, he was absolutely sure his outfit would fit the occasion.


2382 U.S.S. AEROSTAR, NCC 83835-A COMMANDED BY CAPTAIN DAVID CONWAY


Captain’s Log,

Stardate 58755.3. We’re the lucky crew that Fleet Admiral Baxter has assigned the joyous task of studying the Bermuda Expanse anomaly, which has been under much scrutiny since the Directors allowed us to travel back in time and put our universe back to normal after Irma wrecked the timeline, a measly four years ago.

At any rate, factions in Starfleet are interested in studying exactly what the Directors are–whether they’re timeless beings like the wormhole aliens in the Bajoran sector or just meddlesome superior entities like Q. But whatever our interest in the Directors, they’ve not seen fit to visit us for quite some time–not since I was first officer on the Explorer. Maybe they’ve found some other universe to wreak havoc in. One can only hope.


“More intergalactic coffee?” Captain David Conway asked, leaning over on the table and filling two cups.

“I’m full. Besides, Breen Bean makes me burp.”

“Bah!” Conway chuckled, and sat down at the breakfast table to a tall stack of waffles. “Alexa, have you seen the Federation news?”

“I think Bucky ran off with it. I wish you’d stop letting him sit on the breakfast table.”

“Hey. It’s MY breakfast table. I got it in the settlement, remember?”

“Details, details,” giggled Alexa.

Conway dug into his waffles and chewed a forkful thoughtfully. “Alexa, do you think we made the right decision?”

“Getting divorced a second time? Absolutely.”

Conway nodded. “I just kind of miss the intimacy.”

Alexa grinned. “I’m sure you do. But this is nice too. The breakfasts, long walks.”

Conway sighed. “Yeah. Friendship. Ugh.”

“You say it like you’re coughing up a hairball,” Alexa said. “There’s a lot to be said for a platonic relationship.”

“Plato was an idiot,” mumbled Conway. “The philosopher, not the kid.”

“I’m sure he’d say the same thing about you. Pass the jelly.”

“Here.” Alexa looked thoughtfully out Conway’s window at the passing stars. “Say, David…what do you think of Counselor Telvin?”

“You know what I think of him. He’s a buffoon. Luckily, he’s filling a position that’s totally irrelevant.” Conway chuckled, thinking of how angry Counselor Peterman would have been to hear him say that. He made a mental note to send her a subspace post card saying as much.

“I was chatting with him yesterday. I was thinking, he’s lost a lot of weight over the years. He’s looking well.”

“Yes, apparently Richard Simmons has been working with him.”

“And he’s a good man. Sure, he’s a bit lacking in the personality department, but apparently I find that attractive.”

Conway winced. “Hold on. Let me just pull that bat’leth out of my back.”

“Captain, just because we’re not seeing each other anymore…”

“You mean married to each other anymore…”

“Because we’re not together anymore, it doesn’t mean either of us have to be monks.”

“Well…”

“I’m going to ask him out. It’ll probably be the thrill of his life.”

“He’ll probably hyperventilate.”

“We need to move on with our lives. There’ll never be a better time, Dave.”

“I don’t believe in fraternizing among the crew,” Conway said standoffishly.

“That’s a laugh. You just haven’t found a crewmember who likes you.”

“That’s a lie!”

“I happen to have on good authority that Lieutenant Commander Simms in Biology is interested in you.”

“Mmmm…scientists.”

“Yes, I know how you love the blue collars. Why don’t you go for it? Just think, we can double date!”

Something curdled awfully in Conway’s stomach, but he kept eating anyway.


“Veltran system in five minutes.”

Commander Kristen Larkin sat erect in the command chair. “Very well, Mister Ford.” She punched a button on the arm of the command chair. “Captain Conway, please report to the bridge.” She looked to Lieutenant Commander Zachary Ford. “Commander, bring us out of warp and take us to the Bermuda Expanse. Mister Gellar, raise Waystation, please.”

At the side tactical station, Lieutenant Gellar nodded. “Waystation is standing by, Commander.”

Larkin ritualistically straightened her uniform. “On screen.”

“Waystation here,” a busy-looking Captain Lisa Beck said on the viewscreen. She brightened when she saw Larkin. “Hello, Kris. Well, you’re nothing if not punctual.”

“I am certainly not nothing,” Larkin replied. “I would be pleased to engage you in philosophical debate, Captain, at the close of our mission. At present, however, I require all of your latest scans of the Bermuda Expanse.”

“All-business as ever,” Beck said crisply, and glanced over her shoulder. “Mister Porter, send the Aerostar all of our findings.” Beck looked back at Larkin. “You’ll find we didn’t find much.”

“We will endeavor to find more,” Larkin replied. “Captain Beck, as always, it was a pleasure talking to you. Perhaps we can have lunch when the Aerostar completes her scans.”

“As long as you don’t bring that idiot captain of yours along with you,” Beck snapped, and blinked off the screen.

“She sure has softened over the years,” Lt. Commander Ford observed.

“I had not noticed any weight gain on the captain’s part, but I would have to weigh her to be cert–”

“Forget I said anything,” Ford said, and returned to the helm.

At Ford’s right, Lt. Saral looked up from her scans. “According to Waystation’s latest reports, the readings on the Bermuda Expanse have not changed since the Directors last appeared to Captain Baxter, on Stardate 54994.”

“Then why do we keep coming to scan this thing?” Ford asked, plunking at the helm controls. “It’s inert. It hasn’t done a thing for four years! It’s never coming back to life!”

“Please allow the Starfleet science division to make that determination,” Larkin said, as Conway and Lanham stepped out of the turbolift at the front of the bridge. The Captain crossed in front of the huge foreward viewscreen, while Doctor Lanham took her post at the science station opposite tactical on the left side of the bridge.

“Bermuda Expanse coming in scanner range now,” Alexa said, studying her scans. “Everything is five-by-five so far.”

Captain Conway stood in the “dugout” behind the combined conn/ops station where Ford and Saral sat. Larkin moved one seat to the right at the command center and monitored from there.

“What’s our position?” Conway asked, looking down over Ford’s shoulder.

Ford turned in his chair to face Conway, as the Bermuda Expanse loomed on the viewscreen behind him. “Right outside the periphery, Captain.”

“Move us in,” Conway replied, folding his arms.

“No need,” Alexa said. “My preliminary scans are done. Everything else is being done belowdecks in the labs.”

“I want to go in,” Conway replied. “How can we test how the phenomenon will react without going in?”

“Captain Baxter did not do so when the Explorer studied the Bermuda Expanse six months ago,” Larkin reminded Conway.

“Surprise surprise,” Conway muttered. “Well, I’m not Baxter.” He nodded in the direction of the viewscreen. “Go in.”

“I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again,” Ford said, tapping in the course. “Bad idea.” He punched the Aerostar- A’s impulse engines and the massive vessel surged into the purple roiling mass of the Bermuda Expanse.

Immediately the ship began to vibrate.

“Gravitic disturbances,” Gellar said quickly. “I’m adjusting our shield geometery to compensate.”

Conway nodded. “What are your scans showing now, Alexa?”

Alexa checked. “Same as before. You expected something else?”

Conway turned back to face Alexa, brow creased. “I expected–”

Alexa’s eyes went wide at something on the viewscreen. Before Conway could turn to see what she was looking at, the bridge lit up like fireworks.

“Report!” he snapped, as Aerostar bucked.

Gellar scrambled at his station. “EM spike on the gamma band!”

“We’re being pulled toward the center of the disturbance by some kind of self-propagating shockwave!” Alexa cried out, paging through screen after screen of scans at her station.

“Full reverse on all engines,” Larkin said, appearing as if from out of nowhere behind Conway.

“I’m getting the nagging feeling we’ve been here before!” said Ford numbly as he fought to get the Aerostar engines into reverse.

“I am not going to the Delta Quadrant today!” Captain Conway shouted. “Ford! Warp speed! Factor Four!”

“The gravitic shear will tear us apart!” countered Alexa.

“Not if we reinforce the shields,” Conway said. “Gellar, all available power to shields. Ford, engage!”

Ford scrunched his eyes shut and stabbed the “engage” command.

Aerostar shot out of the Bermuda Expanse like a bat out of hell.

Conway and everyone on the bridge cheered. The captain put his hand on Ford’s shoulder. Beside him, Saral was still trying to ascertain what, if any, damage had been done to the ship. “Good work, Commander,” Conway told Ford. “Guess we should have tried that one eight years ago, huh?”

Then something very odd happened.

On the viewscreen, the Bermuda Expanse leapt out at them, once again surrounding the Prometheus-class vessel.

Sparks shot out of the helm console, sending Ford flying to the deck.

“Someone, report!” Conway barked.

But it was too late.

The Aerostar had been swallowed in one gulp.


“Uh, Captain…we’ve got a…something…”

For once, Lt. Commander Sean Russell was at a loss for words.

Beck looked up from the padd filled with docking information she was looking at. “Can you be a little more specific?”

“How’s this?” Russell tapped a sequence into his panel and re-played the sensor footage of the Aerostar-A ripping out of the Bermuda Expanse, then the Bermuda Expanse rolling right over it like a tidal wave.

Beck’s eyes widened. “Mister Russell,” she said slowly, trying to sound calm, “is it coming after us now?”

“Nope. It’s at, uh, all-stop.”

“Well that’s a relief,” Beck muttered. “Get on the comm to Starfleet. Tell them we’ve,” Beck sighed, “lost another one.”

“Should I contact the Explorer too?” asked Russell.

“What do you think?


CHAPTER ONE


The Baxters’ Earth house was abuzz with voices. Counselor Kelly Peterman smiled vacantly as she carried the cake out to the living room, which was crammed with family, some on the Baxter side she’d never even met.

Today was a momentous day, but it could have a variety of outcomes, all depending on one person’s decision.

One tiny person.

The crowd in the living room sang:

“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday, dear Steffie, Happy Birthday to you!”

Peterman set the cake down and little ragamuffin Stephanie Irene, with her brown tassle pigtails, blew all her candles out.

Captain Andy Baxter sat beside her on the couch, clapping vigorously. “Great job, honey!”

“What do I win?” demanded Steffie.

Baxter glanced around the living room at the expectant glares of his family members. He looked at Steffie, grinning. “It doesn’t quite work like that, hon. You see…” He caught a nervous glare from Peterman, “Mommy and I have made a deal. You get to decide your last name today.”

“This should have been done long ago,” chided Lucille Baxter, looming over the coffee table where Steffie sat, cross- legged, looking eagerly at her cake. It was Falavian mint chocolate chip!

“I want to eat my cake!” protested Steffie.

“Fine, fine,” Baxter said, darting his eyes up at Peterman. “But first, just the little matter of your name. We’ve been calling you just plain Steffie Irene for three years.”

“Your father and I couldn’t decide what to use as your last name,” Peterman chimed in, kneeling beside Steffie and draping an arm around her. “So we left it up to you. We figured, you’re three now, you’ll be starting to learn algebra soon…you’re well capable of deciding on your own name.

“And, should you decide you don’t like it,” Peterman said, all smiles, “you can change your last name to Quasar when you’re 33 like Jake Baxter over there.”

“I am one with the stars. Call me the god Ra. The planets surround me,” Jake said proudly, adjusting the straps on his glittering golden overalls.

Baxter gritted his teeth and avoided the piercing stare of his cross-eyed cousin Jake. Why had Peterman invited him? Just to make Baxter’s side of the family look bad?

On the other side of the living room, the Peterman clan and about fifty assorted animals sat waiting for Steffie to make her decision.

“Ummmmm….” Steffie said, scratching her head. “I think I…I think, I think I think I think…”

“Come on!” Peterman demanded, then covered her mouth. She looked worriedly down at Steffie. “I mean, let’s make that decision so we can have some cake and have fun!”

Steffie bit her lip. “Okay. Baxter. Let’s eat cake!”

“I proudly pronounce my daughter Stephanie Irene Baxter!” Baxter said, and stood, hoisting Steffie high up above his head. “She’s a Baxter!”

Peterman dragged a hand over her face. “This can’t be happening.”

“Oh, it is,” Baxter said, sitting little Steffie on his shoulder. “Right honey?”

“Right. What about the cake? I want some before Aunt Janice comes down and eats it all like she did last year!”

“Right,” Baxter said, and set Steffie down. He looked consolingly at Peterman. “Sorry about that hon. How’s this? The next kid can be a Peterman, okay?”

“You really mean it?” Peterman asked.

“Sure. Whenever that is.”

“Maybe it should be sooner than later,” suggested Peterman.

“Not so fast,” said Baxter, grinning as Steffie sliced into the cake with a protoplaser and started passing out pieces to passing family members. She’d already plastered a piece to her face, and was now generously offering the family some.

“What do you mean ‘not so fast’?” Peterman said, dropping her voice to a whisper.

“Let’s get Steffie all grown up and moved away, then we can talk about other kids.”

“Andy, that’s not how it works!” Peterman insisted. “If we’re going to have a larger family, we need to start planning it now. While we’re still young!”

“‘While’ we’re young?” asked Baxter. “I’m only 37, hon.”

“Still,” Peterman said, roundabout. “It’s something to think about.”

“Will do,” Baxter said, and turned his attention to Steffie, who was handing pieces of cake out left and right. “Honey, would you like to give people plates with those?”

“Or forks?” asked Sheila Peterman, as she fed her piece of cake to Louis the Llama.

“Louis can’t have cake, Mom!” Peterman said, as she dashed for the kitchen to grab plates. “He’s on a strict diet of green veggies!”

“And padds,” Baxter said under his breath, turning and almost yelping at the sight of his mother hovering close behind him. She came out of nowhere.

“We’re glad your daughter decided to become a Baxter,” Lucille said. “But we’re a bit worried you’re not giving her enough guidance.”

“We?” Baxter asked, and sure enough, Harlan Baxter was hovering just behind him, inches away. A classic pinser move, done with military precision. And done while eating mint chocolate chip Falavian cake.

“You know how Steffie’s been visiting with us the past couple weeks while the Explorer’s been having her refit,” said Lucille. “Well, she said a few things that concern us.”

“Like what?” asked Baxter.

Harlan harrumphed. “The word ‘veterinarian’ was mentioned.”

“I’m sure that was just a joke,” Baxter said easily.

“It was NOT a joke!” insisted Lucille. “Your wife is filling that girl’s head with pedantic veterinary ideas. If she’s going to be a Baxter, she’s going to be in Starfleet!”

Baxter shook his head. “Mom, Steffie has something called free will. She can do whatever she wants. If she wants to be a vet, that’s what she’ll be!”

“There is no room for veterinarians in Starfleet!” continued Lucille. “Not since the short-lived Lunar Horse Patrol was disbanded!”

“What a silly idea,” said Baxter.

“We get the idea you’re not taking this seriously,” said Harlan.

“I love what you’ve done to my kitchen,” Peterman said dryly, returning from the double-doors to the kitchen with plates and forks. “It’s so…plain and grey!”

“Your arts and crafts were cluttering up the place, darling!” insisted Lucille Baxter, smiling with gritted teeth.

“Grrrmm…napkin cozys,” mumbled Harlan.

“Those were a gift from Martha Stewart!” insisted Peterman.

“Now now now,” said Ron Peterman, Kelly’s dad, stepping up to put a hand on Peterman and Lucille Baxter. “What seems to be the trouble here?”

“Oh, just the little matter of Andy’s parents wrecking my house!” grunted Peterman.

Baxter looked from Peterman to Lucille helplessly. “I’m just glad they offered to stay and take care of the place, honey. Those Yridian squatters were using your pet grooming centre as a waste reclamation centre, remember?”

“But they took down the four-poster bed and replaced it with an anti-grav sleeping system!”

“That’s for my dad’s dislocated spine and you know it!”

“He faked that spinal injury!”

“Mommy? Daddy?”

Baxter and Peterman quickly looked down at Steffie, to find her naked and covered with mint chocolate chip cake.

“Does she do that EVERY time you two fight?” Lucille demanded.

“It’s not that often,” said Baxter. “But she does do it pretty much every time.”

Peterman lifted Steffie up and hugged her. “She’s just crying out for attention!”

“Of course she is, when her mommy and daddy can’t seem to stop bickering,” said Lucille.

“You started it!” Baxter said, turning on Lucille.

“Don’t take that tone with me, buddy. Refit or not, my ship still outguns yours!”

“Oh yeah?” Baxter asked, inching closer to his mother. “Want to prove it?”

“Any stardate!”

“Enough!” shouted Harlan Baxter. “Or I’m liable to strip down and cover MY body with cake!”

The room grew deathly silent.

“I wanna go home,” mumbled Steffie Baxter.

“Soon,” said Baxter. He glanced around at the gathered family members. “It was really nice having you all, but we do have to get back up to my ship, and my parents have to get back to assimilating my home.”

Lucille rolled her eyes. “Oh, so now we’re Borg.”

Baxter couldn’t think of a diplomatic response to that, but was handily saved by the bleep of his combadge.

“J’hana to Baxter. I just got an urgent communication from Waystation. The Aerostar’s gone.”

“Gone where?” demanded Baxter.

“They don’t know. But it’s a good bet where.”

Harlan and Baxter exchanged glances. “The Delta Quadrant,” they both muttered.

“You two have brilliant strategic minds. How should we proceed?”

“How soon can we get out of spacedock?” Baxter asked, nodding to Peterman who quickly began collecting Steffie’s belongings.

“In under an hour. Ten minutes, if you don’t mind me blasting my way out.”

“Thanks, but that won’t be necessary,” Baxter said. “Just get us ready to depart for the Veltran system. And have Stuart stand by to beam us up.”

“Understood. J’hana out.”

“And just where do you think you’re going?” demanded Harlan, folding his arms.

“To find the Aerostar,” Baxter said. “Someone’s got to do it, right?”

“The Pathfinder can leave now,” Lucille said, shooting Baxter a “so there” look.

“You two are awful eager to get tossed across the galaxy,” Harlan grunted. “Still, Starfleet Command is going to want to investigate–”

“The Explorer Program is yours, Dad,” Baxter said. “The Aerostar is part of that program. If you make a decision, Command will back you up!”

“Let’s go home!” Steffie called out, waving her Junior Officer toy phaser rifle (a gift from Harlan and Lucille).

“In a minute, hon,” said Peterman. “The two bulls have to sort things out.”

“Who are you calling a bull?” demanded Baxter.

“You think you can find the Aerostar and get back?” Harlan asked.

“What other crew has been in the Delta Quadrant before?” asked Baxter.

“None spring to mind,” admitted Harlan. “And you are currently the only starship with an omnipotent Maloxian bartender aboard.”

“That we know of,” chimed in Peterman. “And he prefers the term ‘megapotent.’”

“Well?” demanded Baxter impatiently.

“Fine, go!” Harlan said, waving his hand.

“At least leave little Steffie with us,” said Lucille. “If you all are lost forever, then who will carry on the Baxter name?”

Baxter took Steffie from Peterman, hoisted her over his shoulder. Peterman, meanwhile, went to say her goodbyes to her parents and collect her animals. “You and Dad’ll have to start mating again. Steffie comes with us. Right, baby?”

“Yahoooooo!” cried Steffie, and smacked Lucille in the head with her phaser rifle.

Baxter slapped his combadge quickly, avoiding the stormy look his mother was sure to be sending his way. “Baxter to Stuart,” Baxter said, “three and a herd to beam up immediately. Energize!”

Lucille rubbed the bump on her forehead as Baxter, Peterman, Steffie, and the animals all dissolved in a sparkly swirl of blue.

“What’s this about the Delta Quadrant?” asked Ron Peterman, stepping up with Sheila to speak to the Baxter parents.

“Confidential Starfleet matters,” said Lucille.

“They’re going to the Delta Quadrant,” Harlan harrumphed.

“Harlan!” Lucille shouted, rubbing her head.

“Again?” asked Sheila.

“Again!” Lucille cried.

The party pretty much went downhill from there.


CHAPTER TWO


Commander Christopher Richards and civilian Janice Browning ran out of the holodeck moments after hearing the news.

“I’m sure you’re worried, Christopher,” Browning said consolingly as the two fairly jogged down the corridor toward the turbolift. “But I just know Kristen will be okay. She can easily take care of herself.”

“I wish I could believe that,” Richards said, approaching a pair of turbolift doors and pressing the call button. The doors opened almost instantly and he stepped in, followed by Browning. “Bridge,” he ordered.

“Well,” Browning said, after some moments of silence. “That holodeck program was great. It really felt like we were at the New York stock exchange.”

“Uncanny,” Richards said tersely.

“I’m glad we could get together like this. It’s been a while.”

“Yes it has.”

Browning nodded. “You know, Christopher, a lot has happened in the past few years.”

Richards had to smile at that. “Oh, has it ever!”

“Too much to even put into words,” agreed Browning.

“Listen,” Richards said, turning to face Browning. He grabbed her by the shoulders. “I’m sorry I quit Starfleet for six weeks and went off to join the Breen circus. It was idiotic.”

“I’ll say so. But maybe it’s for the best. I met that fantastic barber…”

“Yes.” Richards rubbed his chin. “Too bad he died.”

“Seriously,” agreed Browning. “But I did try to make things work when you came back, after that awful trapeze injury.”

Richards grinned. “You nursed me back to health.”

“I put your vertebrae all back in the right place,” Browning said with an impish grin. “And my heart was in the right place all along…” She sighed. She cleared her throat. “By the way, sorry about leaving you at the altar.”

“Which time?”

“Which one do you think?”

“The time that didn’t occur in an alternate universe?”

“Bingo.”

“Man,” said Richards. “We sure know how to screw up a relationship.”

“In all sorts of different timelines,” agreed Browning.

“Maybe we can finally figure out how to make things work, without letting carnie folk, Klingon soap operas, and spatial anomalies get in the way.”

“Yeah,” Browning agreed with a smile. “Too bad you’re with J’hana now.”

“Oh,” said Richards. “About that…last night I sort of–”

And the doors opened up onto the bridge.

Richards stepped timidly off the turbolift. Baxter hadn’t arrived yet. That was for the best.

He found J’hana in the command chair. She stood, turned to face Richards as he walked reluctantly down to the front of the bridge.

“Commander, I yield command of the bridge to you,” she said, in a rich basso voice.

“Thanks,” Richards said. “Listen, about last night–”

“Think nothing of it,” said J’hana. “I see where you’re coming from.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Richards sighed with relief.

“Just one thing.”

“Uh-oh.”

J’hana whirled on a heel, and with one smooth motion withdrew a 10-inch blade from her vest pocket. She jammed it in Richards’s gut and sliced upward, then retracted it and placed it back in her vest pocket.

Richards gasped and dropped to his knees.

“We are officially broken up,” J’hana said, and went up to the tactical station.

Browning rushed down to the front of the bridge, where Richards sat gasping in a puddle of his own blood. “Browning to Sickbay! Holly, get up here!”

“I’ll be fine,” Richards choked. “Just a minor flesh wound.”

“I did him the courtesy of avoiding all his vital organs,” J’hana said noncomitally, plunking at the tactical controls.

“Someone call security on her!” demanded Browning.

“Honey, I am security,” J’hana said with a chuckle.

Browning rushed over to grab a medkit from its berth underneath the environmental/aux science console just as Baxter, Peterman, and a naked, cake-covered Steffie, marched off the foreward turbolift and onto the bridge.

“All right, chop-chop, let’s get this show on the road!” commanded Baxter, marching over to the command chair with Steffie in his arms.

Browning, meanwhile, fought frantically to run a skin-sealer over Richards’s wounds.

He grabbed her hand as she worked. “Pain-killer first, sealer second, Janice!”

“Oh, right. Right. Pain-killer.” She grabbed a hypospray. “I’ve been out of this racket for a while.”

Baxter deposited Steffie in the First Officer’s chair at his right and Peterman took her customary seat at his left. He looked down at the dockmaster’s reports on his chair-arm console. “Look at this. J’hana stepped up completion of our refit. We’ll be ready to go in ten minutes! Good work, J’hana!”

“Least I could do,” said J’hana.

Peterman glanced over at Browning and gasped. “Oh, Janice! What in the world happened to Chris?”

“J’hana broke up with him!” she said, still working to close Richards’s wounds.

The first officer finally sat up, patted the gash in his blood-soaked uniform. “There. Good as new.” Browning helped him to his feet. “You know,” he said weakly, “that really wasn’t half as bad as I thought it’d be.”

“You still need to get down to Sickbay,” Browning said. “I’ll go with you.”

Richards exchanged glances with Baxter.

“And how was your day, Captain?” he asked distantly.

“Steffie decided to be a Baxter,” Baxter offered.

“Well. Isn’t that nice,” Richards said, still sounding far-off as Browning ushered him into the aft turbolift.

“Sickbay,” she ordered, and the doors closed.

“He’s taking the break-up rather well,” Baxter said.

“Yes,” Peterman said. “Not like poor Ensign Mays last year.”

J’hana shrugged. “It was his own fault. Mays should not have struggled.”

“The good news is, he’s really getting along well with the prosthetic arm,” Peterman said brightly.

“Engage!” said Steffie excitedly, shifting in the First officer’s command chair.

“Not yet,” said Baxter, glancing up at the forward stations. “Lieutenant Sefelt, while we’re waiting to get underway, how about you go get Steffie here cleaned up?”

Sefelt turned in his seat at ops. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Captain.”

“And just why the hell not?”

“My therapist has forbid me to have any contact with your child.”

“That makes no sense! Your therapist is my wi–” Baxter glanced over at Peterman.

“I caught him training Steffie on shuttle piloting,” she said stormily.

“I thought she’d enjoy it!” Baxter protested.

“You’re shoving Starfleet down her throat!”

“Better that than veterinary medicine!”

“Let her make her own decisions!”

In the midst of Baxter and Peterman’s argument, Steffie climbed into Baxter’s lap and slammed a hand down on the controls on his right-side chair arm.

On the viewscreen, a twinkling blue quantum torpedo shot out and began a swirling dance on the viewscreen.

“Torpedo away,” announced J’hana.

“It’s homing on something!” Peterman said, grabbing Steffie in her arms.

“Not us, I hope!” Baxter said fearfully. The shield modifications hadn’t been completed yet.

“Nope,” said J’hana. “It’s just headed for an orbital habitat.”

“Phasers,” Baxter ordered. “Shoot it down!”

“If you say so,” J’hana replied. Machinegun-like phasers shot out at the torpedo as it looped on the screen it blew up harmlessly.

Baxter glared at Steffie. “Now what did I tell you about shooting off the quantums!”

“You trained her to do that, too?” Peterman said. “I don’t believe it!”

“Quit arguing,” Baxter said. “Or she’ll perform a saucer separation!”

“She KNOWS HOW?!?”

“We just had a little look around the battle bridge one day, it didn’t do any harm!”

“That torpedo could have. You know kids love to explore and get into mischief!”

“That’s what’ll make her such a good Starfleet officer!”

“At three years old!”

“I can get her cleared for bridge duty by the time she’s six!”

“Over my dead body!”

“I would be pleased to do the honors.”

“Shut up, J’hana!” said both Peterman and Baxter.

Baxter took a moment to catch his breath. “Listen, honey, I’m sorry I yelled at you. You have to understand, being in Starfleet is very important to my family. It’s just assumed that’s what Steffie will do. It was assumed for me, too.”

“And who spent ten years inventorying?” Peterman regretted saying it as soon as she said it.

Baxter smouldered. “Kelly, that was a low blow.”

“I’m sorry, Andy. I just–”

“That’s quite all right,” Baxter said, and turned to face the viewscreen, settling back into his command chair. “Why don’t you take Steffie belowdecks and get her cleaned up. You can teach her to be a Cordavian eel-tamer for all I care.”

“Daddy?” asked Steffie, wriggling in Peterman’s arms. “Are you mad at Mommy?”

“No, no, honey,” replied Baxter. “She’s just made me very angry, that’s all.”

Peterman sighed and carried Steffie over to the foreward turbolift. “Andy, I…”

“Bye-bye!” Baxter said, looking down at the dockmaster reports on his chair-arm console.

“Anth–”

Baxter covered his ears. “I can’t hear you!”

“Fine, be a child!” And Peterman took Steffie inside the turbolift.

Once they were gone, J’hana chortled. “Just say the word, sir, and I can make you a single man again, with one swipe of my blade.”

Baxter swiveled to face J’hana. “Commander…is it my imagination or have you become a good deal more violent lately?”

“It is Lieutenant Commander Tilleran, Captain. She has become increasingly distant with me lately.”

“Well, maybe now that you’ve, er, broken up with Chris, you can set things straight with her.”

“That is my hope as well.”

“Or you could just stab her.”

“Now you are just being silly.”


“May I ask how you got this wound?” Dr. Holly Wilcox asked, tossing Richards a new uniform tunic, since the other one had been slashed and blood-soaked.

“It was a hoverball accident,” Richards said nervously.

“So you’re just going to cover for her?” Browning asked, leaning against Richards’s biobed at the center of Sickbay.

“Could you live with yourself if J’hana was ejected from Starfleet? It’s all she’s ever known. She’d be devastated.”

“She could have killed you!”

“She said herself she avoided all my major organs!” Richards said, sliding on the new tunic.

“Still…!” Browning leaned up at looked at Richards, blinking.

“What?”

“I just realized…I’d forgotten how adorable your bird- like chest is.”

“Should I leave you two alone?” asked Holly, approaching with a loaded hypo.

“Um,” said Richards.

“Baxter to Richards. I need you on the bridge ASAP. We’re about ready to leave.”

“I guess not,” Browning said, as Richards pulled on his outer uniform jacket and dashed for the door.

“Dinner later?” Richards asked, jogging backwards toward the Sickbay door.

“Sure,” Browning grinned.

Richards left Browning and Holly in the empty Sickbay. Well, empty save for Ensign Matheson, who was comatose on one of the biobeds, but she really didn’t count.

Browning sighed and rolled over on the biobed where Richards had been lying.

“Janice,” Holly said, and sat the hypo she’d prepared for Richards on the biobed. “You have to stop torturing yourself over him. You two are never going to line up.”

“What do you mean ‘line up’?”

Holly shrugged. “You’ll never want the same things at the same times.”

“What makes you say that?” Browning asked numbly.

“The proof is in the pudding, Janice.”

“Mmm…pudding.”

“Stay focused here…I’m talking about you and Chris. The two of you have tried it how many times?”

“I couldn’t count them all–”

“My point exactly.”

“You make good points, Holly,” Browning said. “Unfortunately, I’m not ready to hear them right now.” She grabbed the hypo and jabbed it against Holly’s arm until the cartridge was empty.

Holly’s eyes went wide. “Why the hell did you do that?”

“No more hippocratic oath, remember? What was that anyway?”

Holly’s eyes went all bouncy. “Morphine,” she oozed, and rolled off the biobed and onto the deck.

“Whoops,” Browning said, and walked out of Sickbay, whistling innocently.


“Docking control to Explorer: All of our refit teams have returned to the starbase. Are you reporting all systems ready?” asked the female voice over the bridge comm system.

Baxter shifted uneasily in his command chair as Richards stepped out of the aft turbolift and took his seat at Baxter’s right.

“Well, control,” Baxter said. “Our systems are all showing green, but I don’t feel ready.”

“Come again, Explorer?”

“I’m fighting with my wife,” Baxter sighed. “She’s upset because I want our daughter to join Starfleet; I guess she feels I’m just pushing her too hard.”

“I’m not sure I…”

“She’s acting like I don’t care about my own daughter. Of course I do! I want her to get the finest education out there, and frankly, that’s Starfleet Command. My wife got her masters in counseling from Federation University, but to me FU is just a bunch of fluff–you know what I’m talking about?”

“Captain, I–”

Richards put a hand on Baxter’s shoulder. “Andy…maybe…”

“Aren’t I making any sense here?” Baxter demanded.

“Um, no sir.”

J’hana looked at her sensor board. “Captain, apparently McKinley station has already detached the docking arms.”

“You’re working in control, McKinley station!” Baxter pleaded, leaning forward in his command chair. “And what I’m trying to do is get a little ‘control,’ over my daughter’s life…you get it?”

“They are now pushing us away with tractor beams,” reported J’hana.

“I love her–why can’t my wife see that? I only want what’s best!”

J’hana’s face lit up. “They have locked phasers on us!”

Richards looked back at J’hana. “Docking stations have phasers?”

“I am not talking to you.”

“You’re the one that stabbed ME!”

“A minor detail.”

Baxter sighed as J’hana and Richards argued. “Lieutenant Madera, make course for the Veltran system. Ahead warp nine.”

Madera tapped in the course. “Course laid in. We should reach Waystation within four days.”

“Four DAYS?” asked Baxter, leaning forward in his chair. “You’re kidding. We used to get from Earth to Waystation in like a couple hours.”

“Well, that was with Lieutenant Commander Ford. I have no idea how he did that.”

“It can’t be that hard,” Richards said. “You just lay in a course…”

“A lot more goes into it than that,” said Madera. “Just trust me on this one.”

“Four DAYS?” Baxter demanded. “You can do better than that!”

“Do YOU want to do this?” Madera asked, pointing at the helm console.

“Um…” Baxter looked awkwardly around the bridge, at J’hana and Richards.

“I’ve been your helmsperson for four years,” Madera pouted. “And you don’t even appreciate the things I do. I navigated us through that Gargantuan Ionian Pleasure Magnet without getting one scratch on the ship!”

“Yeah, but we didn’t get any of the pleasure out of it either,” muttered Baxter.

“That’s it, I’m gone!” Madera muttered and stood up.

“Susan, don’t be like that,” Richards pleaded.

“Too late. I’m fed up with you two. Neither of you know what you want. One of you is trying to run your daughter’s life–”

“Wait just one–!”

“The other one broke up with me and is still whining about a certain ex-doctor and current restaurant owner!”

“I wonder who that could be,” murmured Baxter, as Madera stormed into the foreward turbolift and it closed.

“You could have been more diplomatic with her,” Richards said, glaring at Baxter.

“ME? What about you? She’d never be so embittered if you hadn’t broken her heart.” Baxter shook his head. “What is it with the women on this ship today? Arguing, quitting…”

“Stabbing,” offered Richards. He jolted as a blade cleanly sailed over his head, just barely slicing through a lock of his hair. He twisted around to face J’hana. “Hey, watch it!”

“Mr. Sefelt?” Baxter asked the operations chief.

Sefelt shook his head. “I’m forbidden from touching a helm, ever since I crashed the ship into that moon last month.”

“How could I have forgotten that.” Baxter scratched his head and glanced at the vacant helm console. “Well, one of us has to pilot.”

“Yes,” agreed Richards. “One of us does.”

“Glad you volunteered.”

“Why me?”

“Well, I’m the captain. I can’t do it. I’ve got to command.”

“What about J’hana?” asked Richards, and another blade sailed by. This one ever so slightly grazed his right ear. He twisted around again. “Just how many of those damned things do you have back there?”

“Enough to keep myself occupied indefinitely,” was J’hana’s cryptic reply.

“I wonder where Lieutenant Commander Tilleran is,” mused Baxter. “She’d offer to do it.” Baxter glared at J’hana. “SHE’S nice!”

ZING! A blade shaved one of Baxter’s pips clean off.

“Watch it…Commander!” J’hana shouted.

“Someone needs to cool off!” Baxter cried, not bothering to glance back at J’hana. He sat back in his chair, fuming. “Richards….helm!”

“Fine,” barked Richards, and he stormed over to the helm console and started stabbing at buttons.

The Explorer slammed into warp, smashing Baxter back against his chair and sending J’hana and the ensign monitoring the engineering display to the deck.

“Where’d you learn to fly?” demanded Baxter, gripping his chair-arms.

“I DIDN’T!”

“But you ran an engine room for four years!”

“That means nothing!”


CHAPTER THREE


“So…” David Conway said, pacing the conference room aboard the Aerostar-A, with his senior staff gathered around him. “Let me get this straight. The Bermuda Expanse just waltzed up and swallowed us…”

“Like Jonah’s whale,” Dr. Lanham said.

“And there’s no apparent way back…”

“Indeed,” said Larkin. “We cannot locate the Crebius Cluster, or any similar anomaly, in this sector. The Cluster should be point five parsecs from here, in the Malox system, but it is simply gone.”

Conway stopped pacing, put his hands on his hips. “Well, I just can’t believe it. I mean, I knew it was in the act of disappearing when we took the Aerostar back to the Alpha Quadrant seven years ago, but still…””

“I’d be happy to replay the sensor log for you, David,” replied Alexa.

“I’d prefer it if you explain how the HELL a temporal anomaly can just come along and…” Conway made a scooping motion with his hand, “…gobble us up!”

“It cannot,” was Commander Larkin’s verve-filled reply. She sat at the head of the other end of the table and watched Conway pace. Conway had only recently grown used to colorings of emotion in the android’s voice. She had, after all, been equipped with emotions for four years now. But despite her resolute tone of voice, the plain fact of the matter was that they WERE in the Delta Quadrant, and the Bermuda Expanse had “gobbled” them up.

“Someone better start explaining something fast,” Conway muttered.

“In point of fact, we cannot scientifically explain the behavior of the Bermuda Expanse,” said Larkin.

“But we have theories,” Alexa said.

“We do?” Larkin asked, turning toward the scientist.

“We just got here,” Alexa said. “I’ve hardly had time to discuss them with you, Commander!”

“Well, we’d better stop focusing on how it happened and start focusing on how to get the hell out of here,” said Gellar, “or we’re all goners. You recall the time we last visited the Delta Quadrant.”

“Yes, yes,” Conway said. “We learned Ardek was supposedly in control of the place, or at least a big chunk of it.”

“With some sort of odd quasi-Starshine Kids-type force at his beck and call,” Ford added.

“None of which makes me too keen on sticking around,” Conway said.

“Remember, though,” said Alexa, “that we haven’t heard a peep from the Delta Quadrant in more than four years. For all we know, Ardek’s little empire was overthrown long ago.”

“Alexa,” Conway sighed. “All this time, and you still don’t get it.”

“Don’t get what?”

“To put it succinctly,” Larkin said solemnly, “we are simply not that lucky.”


And, in point of fact, they weren’t that lucky.

Aboard the Leadership Spa and Funtimes Resort Flagship Motivation, High Emporer Ardek twirled his Baton of Office, watching the sensor info stream in on the massive starship’s viewscreen.

The Baton of Office was a useful little gizmo, something he’d cooked up to make himself identifiable in any crowd of loving “Program Assistants,” as his followers were called. It also had the virtue of delivering a sizable electric shock into the body of anyone he tapped with it. Just a precaution, in case any of those crowds became rambunctious. Not that that had much chance of happening, what with the nifty gas.

The Critics entrusted Ardek with that gas and plenty of other tools with which to take over the Delta Quadrant, and Ardek had gladly used them for just that. The Critics were imminently happy with his progress, and told him on many an occasion (they had bi-weekly staff meetings) that he out- performed Sesil in every discernable way, except, possibly, when it came to decorator sense. Really, though, that was forgivable. And Ardek liked the colors yellow and lime just fine. Sesil had been far too obsessed with red, judging by the photo albums Ardek had been shown.

“High Emporer, what do we do?” asked his helmsman, a bony Maloxian by the name of Jahn.

“What do you mean what do we do?” Ardek asked, prancing back to his command throne (boy those Flarn new how to build a comfy chair!). Since the throne had been built for a Flarn body, Ardek was almost engulfed in the thing, but he liked it that way. Lots of room to curl up.

“That’s an Alpha Quadrant starship. By the same name as the one that came here eight years ago…” Jahn brought up the blurry sensor image. Sure enough, emblazoned on the starship’s unmistakably and irritatingly Federation hull, was the Federation Standard printing:


U.S.S. AEROSTAR

NCC 83835-A


“I think it’s absolutely precious,” Ardek said. “They made another one, and another one got lost here. Well.” He shifted in his chair, swinging his legs over the high armrest. He looked like a puppet. “I was there for the last Aerostar’s homecoming. She didn’t make it back in one piece, and neither will this one.”

“Aye, High Emporer.”

“I wasn’t finished taunting!” snapped Ardek. “The difference here, Jahn, will be that this one’s crew won’t make it back either.”

“They won’t?”

“Oh no,” Ardek said, and laughed richly. “I don’t know who’s on that ship, but it’s bound to be some Explorer personnel. Maybe even Larkin! Wouldn’t that be a hoot!”

“Uh…yes?” asked Jahn meekly.

“It sure would be. I want to know who’s on that ship. Send the nearest vessel to intercept them and capture the crew. If Larkin is there, I want her. And as for the others…” Ardek smiled cattily. “I can always use a few more mindless slaves.”

“Yes indeedy,” said Jahn, and he began making the necessary arrangements.


Conway and Larkin walked together down the long corridor to Engineering in abject silence.

“I did not wish to voice this issue in front of the others,” Larkin said, breaking the silence. “But I have given it many nanoseconds of thought between here and the bridge, and feel I must speak now.”

The captain sighed inwardly. “Larkin, it’s been five minutes since we left the bridge. That’s like…five million nanoseconds.”

Larkin didn’t feel like correcting Conway. “I was busy trying to analyze the sensor data from our trip to the Delta Quadrant and compare it to that of the original trip eight years ago. All the data is being fed directly from the computer to my positronic brain.”

“Fascinating,” Conway said blankly. “So what’s on your mind, or your positronic brain, or whatever?”

“I strongly suggested we not enter the Bermuda Expanse, and your science officer seconded the recommendation. You chose to ignore our opinions.”

“I’m the captain. That’s my prerogative. You know that.”

Larkin nodded as the pair rounded a corner. “All too well; however, I find your blatant disregard for the opinions of your senior staff damaging to crew morale. And this is not an isolated incident. There are 230 others. Shall I list them now, in date order?”

Conway stopped in mid-stride. Larkin’s reflexes were perfect; she stopped right alongside him. “Listen, Commander. For all we know, we’re in hostile space right now. The last thing I need to worry about is crew morale. I have to worry about getting this ship back to the Alpha Quadrant in one piece.”

“If your crew doesn’t respect you, and if you don’t pay more close attention to the suggestions of others, we very well may not make it back in one piece.”

Conway huffed, perplexed. “Larkin, is there any way to shut off that emotion program?”

“You have asked before, and again I must respond ‘whenever I feel like it.’”

“Damn.”

“This is not an emotional issue. It is an issue of command style.”

“Just say it. Baxter would have done things differently!” Conway whirled and kept on to engineering. Larkin followed after, easily closing the distance between her and the captain. “I was not going to say that. Captain Baxter had a…distinct…command style. And, as I recall, he stymied you on many occasions when you attempted to give him advice.”

“Well, I wouldn’t call it advice. Prodding, maybe.”

“And did he respond to it well?”

“He usually ignored me. Put his fingers in his ears and hummed a tune or some such nonsense.”

“Then you know how I feel.” Larkin walked ahead of Conway, an exact duplication of what he’d done to her earlier.

Damn the engineering corridor was long.

Conway, breathless, jogged up to catch up to Larkin in engineering, where Lt. Commander Kamtezen was briefing her on the ship’s status.

“…systems are basically operating normally, but our sensor, navigational, and warp field systems all need to be realigned if we expect them to work properly. Such a huge and fast change in location can’t help but cause those sorts of problems.”

“We encountered similar problems on the first Aerostar’s trip to the Delta Quadrant,” Larkin said, once again all- business, acting as if the conversation she’d had with Conway had never happened.

Conway stepped between Kamtezen and Larkin, looking over the schematics of the Aerostar’s systems on the Master Display. He trusted the orange-scaled Bewhal engineer, but wished Starfleet knew more about that xenophobic race. It seemed every once in a while, something truly bizarre about Kamtezen’s culture or biology came up, and Conway had to hear about it. Luckily, the ship’s Chief Medical Officer was a Flarn, and in Dr. Benzra’s long career (70 years at Conway’s last reckoning) she’d dealt with a little of just about everything. Of course, before her emergency field commission as a Starfleet doctor several years back, Benzra had mostly dealt with interspecies issues such as “which species is tastiest?” and “which will go best with blue kel-ale?” or “which will give me indigestion?” Conway made a mental note to drop by Sickbay and make sure Benzra knew they were in the Delta Quadrant. He probably should have invited her to the staff meeting. Or Kamtezen for that matter. His command strategy wasn’t what one would call “inclusive.” The upside was, both Kamtezen and Benzra seemed to like to keep to their respective stomping grounds. And Counselor Telvin had an aversion to even stepping on the bridge (after one too many battle situations on his previous assignments), which suited Conway just fine.

“So,” Conway said, looking from Kamtezen to Larkin. “How long until all the kinks are worked out?”

“How long until we’re 100 percent?” Kamtezen asked. “Hard to say. Minimum estimate, another two hours.”

“That may not be good enough,” Larkin told Conway. “Tactical sensors aren’t at maximum range, but there is a high probability that some residents of this quadrant will have noticed our arrival and will shortly arrive on our doorstep.”

“Let’s hope they’re the friendly ones,” Kamtezen said.

Conway nodded. “Not likely. Anything else?”

“Well, I found out this morning that my son has reverged!”

Conway shifted from foot to foot and stared at his shoes. “Re…verged?”

“Bewhal are known to fluidly shift from gender to gender. It’s a wonderful experience and quite thrilling. And I’m not there to see it!”

Conway looked numbly at Kamtezen. “I’m…so…sorry, Commander. I’m sure we’ll get back soon and you can have a great time with…” He pursed his lips as he struggled to find words.

Kamtezen signed. “With them. Just say them.”

“Of course.” Conway pivoted and walked off. “Larkin…with me.”

With an “Aye, Captain” on Larkin’s part, the two headed back to the dreaded corridor. Conway wished there were more turbolifts near engineering. Explorer had them. Aerostar, on the other hand, was built with the intention that its inhabitants loved to walk. Little did they know who’d end up captaining her.


When Conway and Larkin emerged on the bridge, after a surprisingly quiet walk and turbolift ride, Conway was taken aback to see a Flarn warship staring back at him from the viewscreen. He hopped backwards slightly, grabbing the door of the turbolift. “Red Alert!” he called out, not realizing the bridge was already bathed in red light. It was then that he also noticed the blaring klaxon. Why wasn’t that piped into the turbolift?

“And why didn’t anyone call me about this?” Conway demanded, hurrying down with Larkin into the command pit.

Ford vacated the command chair and took helm. “Didn’t see a reason for it,” he said easily. “You were already almost here.”

“Not to worry, though,” Gellar said from his seat at tactical. “They just entered sensor range. It’ll be an hour before they’re actually close enough to hit us.”

Alexa looked impatient at sciences. “Well? What do we do, David? Do we run or try to talk to them?”

“And what’s the deal with painting their ships yellow and lime? I almost prefer the red ones,” said Ford.

“All good questions,” Conway said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. He glanced at Larkin, who’d taken a position right next to him in the dugout between conn and ops. “Well, Commander? Opinions?”

The android’s eyes diverted momentarily. In that time, Conway surmised she’d done about a trillion calculations and projections based on the current situation. And she probably took a microsecond to feel glib about the fact that he actually asked for her opinion. Finally, she spoke: “I recommend we remain at Red Alert and await the vessel’s arrival. By that time, we should be at full capacity, and able to defend ourselves against an attack, and run if necessary.”

“If we run now, we would have a significant head start,” Saral piped up from ops.

“Thanks to Mister Ford’s navigational legerdemain, I do not doubt that we would outrun them even if they enter weapons range,” Larkin said to Ford.

“Can’t argue there,” Ford smiled.

Larkin turned to Conway. “My recommendation is still that we wait and talk to them. I have a…feeling…we may be able to reason with them. And, if nothing else, we may learn what type of situation the Bermuda Expanse has thrown us into.”

“Okay then,” Conway said, and walked back to his command chair. “We wait. Science, continue to study the longrange scans of the area. Coordinate with astrometrics. Tactical,” he looked to Gellar. “Be ready to blow up as much Delta Quadrant as is necessary.”

“Done and done,” Gellar said eagerly.

Conway sighed, tried not to feel queasy, or meet eyes with Alexa, who he knew was undoubtedly looking at him with a grim expression. She wasn’t Starfleet. She’d only served on a science vessel before Aerostar-A. Each time, and it wasn’t often, that the Aerostar got into a firefight, Conway knew Alexa got edgy. But she wanted the posting, and he respected that, and in spite of the danger, he felt better with her close by. Marraige or no, he cared about her.

And, if Alexa ever felt really edgy, Conway reminded himself that the Aerostar-A came equipped with a great ship’s counselor in Telvin. Well, a licensed ship’s counselor, at any rate.


CHAPTER FOUR


Dr. Browning sidled out of the kitchen, covered in glop. “It’s a mess in there. I don’t know who’s flying, but they’re not doing a very good job!”

“Does that mean me and my special little girl won’t get any dinner?” Counselor Peterman asked with a pout, patting Steffie’s hand as she sat on her adjacent stool.

“Sure, I can whip you up something,” Browning said, walking over to Peterman and Steffie’s corner table and sitting down. “As long as you don’t mind Kelvarkian tuna casserole mixed with Bolian clam chowder.”

“You’d think these alien cultures would have more exotic names for their dishes,” Peterman said pensively.

“I’m sure they do,” Browning said, chewing on a broken breadstick. She righted the container at the middle of the table and began re-arranging the sticks. “We just can’t pronounce the names.”

“I want to go to the bridge,” Steffie said, tugging on Peterman’s shirt-sleeve.

“You can’t right now,” Peterman said. “Your daddy’s being a control freak.”

“He’s not controlling,” Steffie snapped back.

Browning and Peterman exchanged half a giggle and quickly regained their composure. “Well,” Browning said. “I think it’s nice that you’re spending some quality time with your mommy.”

“I want to drive the ship!” announced Steffie, pounding the table.

“Not right now,” Browning said. “Apparently another pre- schooler is driving.”

Steffie jutted out her lower lip and folded her arms. “I wanna go to Starfleet Academy!”

Peterman’s eyes widened. “I don’t believe it! My husband has totally brainwashed her!”

“It’s not as bad as all that,” Browning said. “Starfleet life has a lot to offer. Look where it got us?”

Peterman glared at Browning. “Hah! You’re not even IN Starfleet anymore!”

“Well, that’s beside the point. I think Starfleet is a fine way for a child to blossom into an adult.”

Peterman snickered. “I hear Plato’s thinking about applying next year.”

“Absolutely not! No way my son’s going to get shot at by an enraged Orion!”

Peterman nodded. “Now you see where I’m coming from.”

“I guess,” Browning said, after some thought. “But you can think of it this way, if it’ll help: You always have a chance with your next child!”

Peterman froze. “That chance may come sooner than you think.”

Browning blinked. “Um. What?”

“Steffie,” Peterman said, patting Steffie on the shoulder. “Why don’t you run into Aunt Janice’s kitchen and play with her pots and pans.”

“Okeydoke. Then can we go to the bridge?” Steffie asked, eyes pleading.

“We’ll see,” Peterman cooed, and ushered Steffie toward the kitchen. Once Steffie had trotted off behind the kitchen doors, Peterman returned to her seat and turned a wary look on Browning. She glanced over one shoulder, then the other. Thankfully, the restaurant was vacant. Dinner wasn’t for another twenty minutes.

“So what’s going on here, Kelly?” Browning asked.

Peterman stared at the ceiling, as if to gain strength from it. “I’m pregnant…again.”

Browning processed this information, then cocked her head quizzically. “No!”

“Yes!”

Quite irritatingly, Browning chuckled at this. First it was just a bit of a dry chortle, then it burst into all out guffaws.

Peterman grit her teeth. “And what’s so damn funny about that?”

Once Browning had composed herself, she said, “You and Andy tried for months to have the first baby…I mean you REALLY tried!”

“Your point?”

“Then this one somehow got around all the hypos, the…”

“I stopped taking my hypo,” Peterman said quickly.

“For goodness sakes, why?”

“Because I started to get a rash!”

“You should have told Holly. She could have…”

“I don’t trust Holly with…those things.”

“I would have helped!”

“Well, the point is moot. I stopped taking my hypo and now I’m three months pregnant!”

“THREE MONTHS!”

Peterman leaned across the table in an instant and slammed her hand over Browning’s mouth. “SHUSH!”

“FREE MUMF!” Browning said, amazed, through Peterman’s hand.

Peterman took her hand away. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell Andy.”

“You’ve been trying for quite a while. How long have you known?”

“A little more than two months. I missed my…plasma discharge, so I decided to take one of those home tests you sell down in the Dillon Supply Depot.”

“How did you buy that without me knowing?”

“I bribed the Bradley Dillon hologram,” Peterman said, and sounded quite proud about it.

Browning clenched her fist. “That little son of a–!”

“Well, the point is, I can’t wait until I have the baby to tell Andy.”

“Of course you can’t. Tell him now!”

“In the middle of an important mission, where the whole crew of the Aerostar is depending on US to save them? AND in the middle of an argument?”

“You’re more worried about the argument than the mission, aren’t you?” Browning asked skeptically.

“Of course I am!”

“Kelly, you have to tell him. Goodness sakes, you’re already showing a bit.”

“I am NOT!”

“No wonder you switched to the standard-issue tool jacket. I thought that was odd, since you don’t use any tools!”

Peterman fumbled with the folds of her jacket. “I should never have told you.”

“No, no. I’m glad you can confide in me. But this has to end. Andy has to know he’s going to be a father…again.”

“Maybe you could tell him! He likes you!”

“Don’t be absurd. You two are husband and wife! You’re adults. You’re almost 40 years old! Stop acting like children!”

“I am NOT almost 40 years old! I am 36!”


“You’re telling me no one is driving!” Lt. Commander Megan Hartley said in abject disbelief as she checked the new engines from the bridge engineering station.

Captain Baxter leaned over the console, watching as she worked. “Pretty much. She’s on autopilot now. Richards’s belowdecks trying to convince Susan to come back.”

“What about the Beta, Delta, and Gamma shift helms…people?” asked Hartley as she clacked away at the engineering station.

“You would be speaking of Carstairs, Luzella, and V’denebrax,” said Baxter.

“Whatever.”

“They all…had an accident.”

Hartley looked at Baxter in total incomprehension. “‘Accident’? ALL of them?”

“Chris took them down on the Denerius Two mission, you know, as a treat for working double shifts while Susan was at harp camp, and they got hit with a wave of ionized plasma energy that rendered their senses of direction totally defunct.”

“I’ve heard of that,” Hartley mumbled.

“Poor bastards. Just keep bumping into walls. And forget about them ever steering a ship again. They’d slam us into a moon or something.”

“Like Lieutenant Sefelt did last month?”

“Well, we all make mistakes.” Baxter sighed. “So anyway, I had to convert them all to inventory officers and now I’m busy trying to find a fill-in helmsman.”

“You were reading the Federation news when I got here a few minutes ago.”

Baxter sighed. “I’m working it all out up here.” He thunked his head. “Trust me.”

“Sure,” Hartley said. “So who’s watching out to make sure we don’t…you know, hit a moon or something?”

“J’hana’s monitoring the sensors,” Baxter said, glancing over in the Andorian’s direction. “And doing a damn spiffy job of it too.”

Hartley surveyed the bridge. It felt oddly vacant. It was, except for she and Baxter, J’hana, and Sefelt at Ops. Her gaze finally fell on the science station. “Where’s Tilleran?”

Baxter shrugged, leaning his elbows on the engineering console. “Beats me. Chris handles the schedules.”

“She has not reported for duty since we began the refit,” J’hana said quickly. “Including her week-long vacation on Betazed.”

“Someone’s keeping tabs on someone,” Baxter giggled under his breath.

“Don’t make me toss another blade at you.”

“If anyone would know what’s up with Tilleran, it would be J’hana,” Hartley said. “Or me.”

“Well?” Baxter glanced between the two. “Somebody better cough up some gossip.”

J’hana and Hartley exchanged a shrug.

“She has not spoken to me for quite a while.” J’hana’s eyes narrowed. “Since the dark times began.”

“Dark…” Hartley asked.

“Her relationship with Chris.” Baxter shook his head. “She’s taken to calling those four months the ‘dark times.’ I hear you two had a lot of fun.”

“His body can’t take much punishment.”

“Which is really the gauge of any good relationship,” Hartley said to Baxter by way of explanation. She slid out from behind the L-shaped engineer’s console and crossed the bridge to study another panel of readouts. “Well, captain, the engines are working perfectly. Intermix is stable, injectors functioning fine. Have you seen the new warp core? It’s a beaut!”

“No,” Baxter said, and leaned back against the engineer’s console. “I’ve been too busy fighting with my wife.”

“Hmm. I was more interested in your helmsman problem. How’s that coming again?”

“Not very well.” Baxter’s expression lit up. “Say, Commander…”

“Forget about it!” snapped Hartley. “I have new warp engines to coddle. You can find another idiot to sit behind the wheel.” She marched off toward the bridge exit. Then she whirled back toward Baxter. “Hey, I have an idea. How about Plato? He’s been mucking about in the engine room for months. Hasn’t he graduated to the bridge yet?”

Baxter shot up straight and snapped his fingers. “That’s it, Hartley! I’ll get Plato to do it. Just hope his mom won’t mind. Ah, well. What are godfather privileges if you can’t put them to good use?”

Hartley nodded as she slid through the opening turbolift doors. “I’m sure going behind his mother’s back to assign him to a potentially dangerous bridge position as we head into a dangerous mission across the galaxy where who-knows-what is happening…” Hartley paused to breathe, “won’t cause the LEAST bit of a problem!” And she disappeared behind the turbolift doors.

“Glad everybody’s in agreement!” said Baxter, and he dashed for the foreward turbolift. As he stepped in and was closed off from the bridge, he heard the unmistakable sound of a blade clattering against the doors.


Baxter met Plato as he was emerging from the doors to the Deck Nine classroom, a satchel of padds in hand. He always stayed late after class, something Baxter figured he got from the Founder side of the family.

“Learn anything new today, Plato?” Baxter asked, and picked up step next to the young changeling.

“Nope,” Plato said. “Maybe if my brain hadn’t aged so quickly over the last four years I’d be able to learn along with the other fourth-graders.”

The Explorer kids had all been around kindergarten-aged at the time of Starfleet’s somewhat questionable decision to place families back aboard the ship, and as such, the lesson plan and teaching staff had evolved to grow with them. In the first year of the school program, for instance, Tyra Shar, the kindergarten teacher, was murdered during a field trip by Commander Conway. After summer break, the children returned to class to find a brand spanking new first grade teacher. In successive years, the teachers simply transferred to and from other ships instead of dying or trying to kill everyone. The Federation school board was eminently happy with this, as was the inaugural class.

Other, older kids did have occasion to come aboard the Explorer, but they were usually home-schooled, or learned trades from many of the different military and private-sector crewpersons of the ship. Yeoman Briggs, for instance, gave a great seminar on macrame. The hologram of Federation President Bradley Dillon, which ran the supply depot below Janice Browning’s Space Tastes restaurant, taught “Managerial Skills for the 25th Century.”

Plato, for some reason, felt more comfortable learning from the Starfleet staff, and wore the grey “Starfleet brat” jumpsuit to prove it.

“I still like going to class, just to be with my friends,” Plato went on to tell Baxter as they walked down the corridor. “But I’ve grown more and more apart from them with each passing year. Today I wanted to discuss Surak’s philosophies with Katie Unlathi, but she just stole my lunch then secreted something on it.”

“Want me to have her killed?” Baxter asked with a giggle.

“You think J’hana would do it?”

“I was just joking.” Baxter shivered. J’hana, especially in her current state of mind, would probably be more than happy to knock off the Velvattian child, for sport if nothing else.

Baxter glanced at Plato, then stopped in his tracks. Plato stopped and turned to regard the captain quizzically.

“Something wrong, Uncle Andy?” Plato still called him “Uncle,” from time to time.

Baxter blinked at Plato. “Have you grown since I saw you last?”

Plato nodded. “I’m trying a new height. Two meters. How do you like it?”

Baxter shrugged, looking upward to catch the half- changeling’s eye. “I think it fits you well.”

“Wish my uniform did.”

“Yes, well, you can see Yeoman Briggs about that.” Baxter patted Plato on the back and ushered him on down the corridor. “But enough small-talk. I came down to pick you up from class because I have a job offer for you.”

“I’m not animal-sitting again. That darned lemur nearly ripped my eyes out. And those are actually one of the few things I can’t regenerate!”

“Not what I was thinking,” said Baxter. “How does ‘relief helmsman’ sound to you?”

Plato rubbed his chin. “A lot better than ‘animal- sitter.’ Are you sure my mom won’t mind?”

“Ah, she’ll understand,” Baxter said, sounding more confident than he felt. “Why don’t you come on up to the bridge with me and we’ll get you familiarized with the controls? Now’s as good a time as any. I’m sure our current helmsman can…um, find other things to do.” Baxter didn’t feel it necessary to fill Plato in on the true nature of his helm problem.

“Wow. A part-time helm position would really enhance my application to Starfleet Academy!”

“Just remember, Plato, in Starfleet’s eyes you’re just six years old. You may have to be at least twelve before they let you in.”

“But Tilleran analyzed me last month and figured I had the brain capacity of an eighteen-year-old.”

“Well, that may be, but I’m not so sure how much we can rely on Lieutenant Commander Tilleran at the present.”

Plato nodded. “Well, she did also say I had a ‘taut, young body.’”

Something was definitely troubling Lt. Commander Tilleran. He resolved himself to see his chief science officer and straighten things out. Right after he straightened out his helm situation, his daughter’s career, and a continuing argument with his wife.

It was bound to be a long day.

And the Explorer hadn’t even reached the Delta Quadrant yet.


CHAPTER FIVE


“Now remember,” Browning said, sucking on a toothpick as she and Peterman rose in a turbolift up through the bowels of the Explorer. “You’re going to go into the conference room, a neutral territory, and talk rationally with Andy.”

Peterman nodded. “Neutral territory. Right. Good idea.”

“See, all we needed was a good meal, and we figured a way to make things all okay again.”

“I hope Steffie will be okay,” Peterman said, fumbling with her fingers. She’d left Steffie down in the playzone with a few of the other children, playing Vorta Supervisor. She’d also left Steffie with a padd on simple mammal biology…just for fun, of course!

“Steffie’s been into battle with us plenty of times before,” Browning said. “As has Plato. They’ve learned to adapt to it. We can’t expect to drop them off at a Starbase every time things get a little wacko.”

“We’d be doing that an awful lot,” Peterman admitted. “But I’m starting to get worried that she’s seeing all of the glamor of Starfleet life and none of the drawbacks. If my husband has any say, she’s going to walk into a Starfleet career expecting nothing but bliss and quantum torpedoes, when in reality…”

“In reality, you can be assigned to inventory for the first ten years and then end up on a starship of rejects?” Browning offered helpfully.

“Exactly,” Peterman said. “Andy never talks about those things.”

“Of course not. We always remember the past better than it is.”

“But he’s painting an inaccurate picture of Starfleet…”

“Like I’m sure you’re painting an inaccurate picture of veterinary medicine.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Didn’t you tell me one time you always wished you’d been a vet?”

“I meant war veteran,” Peterman said defensively.

“Yeah, sure you did.”

“Look, who’s the counselor here?”

Browning shrugged. “Just trying to offer you some friendly advice. Along those lines, might I also suggest, while you’re meeting with Andy, you fill him in about…little Baxter?”

“Little PETERMAN!”

“Let’s just call it ‘question mark’ for now, how’s about that?” Browning offered.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Peterman mused.

“Telling Andy?”

“The question mark thing.”

“Oh.” And the turbolift sighed to a stop.

Peterman glared at Browning as the doors opened. “And what are you doing here anyway? You don’t hang around the bridge much now that you’re a civilian.”

“I’m here for moral support,” Browning said, following Peterman out onto the bridge. “And besides, I happen to think that a little bridge time is good for everyone now and again. We have to be reminded how this big, beautiful ship is being run, ri–”

And Browning’s eyes fell upon Plato, who looked innocently back at her from his seat at helm. He faced her, stars streaking on the viewscreen behind him.

Baxter turned in his command chair. “Honeybear, Janice! Great to see you two. I found us a fill-in helmsman!”

“Do you want him first or shall I?” Peterman asked Browning impishly.

“Me first!” Browning said, and stalked down to the command center. She pointed at the pair of doors. “Conference room, Captain!”

“But, Janice…I thought you’d be…”

Browning screwed her eyes shut. “Conference room!”

Baxter got up to follow Browning into the room just as the foreward turbolift doors opened to admit Lt. Commander Tilleran.

She looked around at everyone on the bridge, including J’hana who sat moping at the tactical console.

“Everybody, I have some news,” Tilleran said finally. “I think it would be appropriate if we had a little staff meeting to discuss it.”

“The room is occupied!” Browning snapped.

“This’ll only take a minute.” And Tilleran lead the way into the conference room.

Baxter sighed. Saved by the Betazoid. He regally gestured for Browning to enter the conference facility, and Peterman after her. “Well, let’s see what she has to tell us. I don’t know about you, but I’m sure interested.”

“This isn’t over,” Browning muttered.

“Plato…you have the conn!” Baxter said, all smiles, trying mightily to avoid Browning’s glare at that statement.


Baxter had never seen Janice Browning even remotely mad at him. Heck, he’d never really seen her that mad, all except for the time she was possessed by the alien consciousness. He pointed out that much.

“Why do you keep having to bring that up?” demanded Browning as she paced the conference room.

“We were talking about me,” Lt. Commander Tilleran reminded everyone, sitting at the center of the conference table. “I assure you, this won’t take long.”

Browning folded her arms. “Go ahead.”

Tilleran looked around at the concerned glances afforded her by Baxter, Peterman, Sefelt, and J’hana. Well, Sefelt was just looking inwardly self-conscious and worried, as usual.

Browning just looked ticked; Richards and Madera were no doubt still going over Madera’s apparent resignation from the senior staff.

So Tilleran drew in a deep breath and said: “I’m leaving the Explorer.”

J’hana nodded understandingly, but everyone could hear her teeth grinding.

“Can you tell us why?” Baxter asked. He wanted to talk about this revelation as long as it took to make Browning forget why she was mad. Baxter imagined it would take three or four minutes.

“I’ve decided to marry Crellus.”

Peterman blinked. “Who?”

“You know, the Century 25 property specialist on Betazed who I was promised to at the age of three?” asked Tilleran. “Don’t you remember hearing about that?”

“It’s a big crew,” Peterman waffled.

“Yeah, that guy,” said Baxter. “Creelus.”

“Crellus.”

“Whatever.” Baxter moved over to sit on the conference table, facing Tilleran. “So, tell us about this Crell-guy. What made you suddenly decide to marry him?”

“It’s not a sudden decision. He’s been trying these past four years to win me over. You’d think he’d have given up by now.”

“Yes. You. Would. Think.” J’hana ground out the words with her teeth. She was digging trenches in the conference table laquer with her fingernails.

“Well I for one am thrilled,” Peterman said, and J’hana rose from her chair, no doubt on a collision course straight for the counselor. Baxter shoved her back into her seat. He was probably the only person on the ship who could have done that, since J’hana had sworn a blood oath to keep her captain safe from harm. She would kill to do so, and killing herself to save the Captain from herself, while it sounded fine in principle, was a logic problem the Andorian wasn’t prepared to deal with.

“Thank you, Counselor,” Tilleran said. She glanced around at the crewpersons in the conference room. “You all have meant a lot to me over the last eight years. But I believe it’s time for me to move on. They’ve even given me a spot on the faculty at the telepathy institute. I’m pretty high on the Betazoid ESP scale, so I’d be automatically tenured.”

“If I may ask,” Baxter said, wanting to keep the conversation rolling, “what prompted your decision?”

“I figured if he wanted me so badly he’d try for four years, he must mean business. I’m not getting any younger, either. And Crellus is quite well-off. It’s a smart decision.”

J’hana let out a low growl and cracked her knuckles. Baxter suspected she was crushing some bone too.

“If I may be so bold,” Peterman put out, looking nervously at J’hana, “isn’t it more important to follow your heart?”

“My heart says its time to settle down,” Tilleran said. “You should understand. You’ve become a veritable breeding animal–”

Peterman squeezed her eyes shut and thought with all her might: “HE DOESN’T KNOW ABOUT THAT YET! GET OUT OF MY MIND! AND IF I DIDN’T LOVE ANIMALS SO MUCH, I WOULD TAKE GREAT OFFENSE TO THAT!”

Tilleran blinked at that. “Sorry, Counselor.”

Baxter looked from Tilleran to Peterman blankly. “Huh?”

“I do not support this decision,” J’hana put in.

“I knew you wouldn’t take this well,” Tilleran said gently, putting a hand on J’hana’s.

“I have not begun to not take this well,” growled J’hana.

“I promise to keep in touch,” Tilleran said. “And, of course, my resignation won’t take effect until after this mission.”

“What a comfort,” muttered J’hana.

“Actually, that is quite a relief,” chuckled Baxter, trying to lighten the mood. “We’d hate to have to divert course to Betazed and drop you off, what with the whole crew of the Aerostar-A waiting on us to save them.”

Not so much as a giggle.

“Andy? Can we talk now?” asked Browning. “In your office?”

Damn. “Sure, Janice,” Baxter mumbled, and made his way reluctantly across the conference room to the door.

Peterman picked up step behind him. He didn’t see this, he just sort of felt her behind him. Browning gestured him out onto the bridge and he cringed. Browning and Peterman working in concert. The outcome of this could not, would not, be good.

Sefelt filed out after them in a somewhat obligatory fashion, leaving Tilleran and J’hana alone, staring at each other across the conference room table.

Silence.

Finally, J’hana said: “So, Ari, how long?”

“How long what?” Tilleran asked, but she knew now that J’hana new.

“How long have you been going through the phase?”

Tilleran made a vain attempt to shrug the accusation off. “I’m not going through the ‘phase.’ That’s preposterous. I’m not even forty.”

“And yet you are going through it, are you not?” J’hana’s glassy gray eyes bored into Tilleran’s.

Tilleran didn’t say anything.

“Are you not?” J’hana said again.

“It’s not something we like to talk about. Especially with non-Betazoids.”

“I did my homework when we started…um, dating,” J’hana said. “I don’t pretend to know all about what you’re going through. I just know you want to get laid, and fast.”

“It’s not about getting ‘laid,’ as you put it,” Tilleran said with a gasp of exasperation. “My body is just telling me I need to get my life in gear.”

“It’s telling you twenty years early, according to Betazoid medecine.”

“I saw some doctors on Betazed about that. They can’t explain it. My body is just ready for me to get married.”

J’hana nodded. “Interesting hypothesis. But are you ready?”

“Does it matter?”

J’hana made a low grunt in the back of her throat. “I would think so.”

Tilleran stood up. “Listen, J’hana, this is what I’m going to do. I didn’t ask for your support or your understanding. Just support me in this, and please, try to understand.”

“I make no promises.”


The instant Baxter walked out onto the bridge, he knew something was wrong.

He knew something was wrong because the Bermuda Expanse was on the viewscreen. And more importantly, the command chair was vacant.

Baxter’s eyes shifted instantly to helm. There was Plato. “Mister, I told you you had the conn. Why are you at helm?”

“I thought this WAS called ‘conn,’” Plato said innocently, tapping at the panel.

“He’s got you there,” Peterman said, hands-on-hips.

“Well,” Baxter said. “It’s all about the phrasing. When I say ‘you have conn,’ that means you have the helm. When I say, ‘you have THE conn,’ that means you have command of the bridge.”

Plato nodded. “I’ll remember for next time.”

“There won’t be a next time!” insisted Browning.

“Aw, Mom!”

“This isn’t up for discussion!” Browning said. “Engineering, the labs, Sickbay, that’s one thing. Those are relatively safe places. If you have bridge duty, there’s know telling what could happen to you. You’re wearing a gray uniform now, but there’s no telling when you, when you…” Browning’s eyes filled with tears, “will get a RED UNIFORM!”

Peterman rushed to wrap her arms around Browning. “There, there, Janice. Plato’s going to be just fine. Not all red- shirts die young. Look at Ford!”

Browning sobbed harder right into Peterman’s ample hair. The Counselor began to realize why she’d started wearing it short a few years ago, and cursed herself for letting it grow out into a poofy Deanna Troi mess of curls. People always seemed to cry into the curls.

Baxter looked at Browning and Peterman for a moment, then turned to Plato. “I have a small question. Can you please explain to me how in the hell we got to the Bermuda Expanse already?”

“It’s just a matter of plotting the Z axis right. The X and Y axis pretty much plot themselves,” Plato said, turning in his chair. “A little calculus, three non-real algorithms, some Zeframatic formulas, and you’re there!”

It was at that moment that Richards and Madera stepped out of the aft turbolift. Richards looked imminently pleased.

“Good news, Captain! Susan has agreed to come back to the helm!”

“We don’t need her,” Baxter said, wide-eyed. “Mister Plato, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful Starfleet career. You have all of Ford’s navigational smarts and none of the attitude!”

“Gee, thanks Andy.”

“What!” Richards exploded, pointed at Madera. “I made out with her for nothing!?!”

Madera slapped Richarson hard across the face and turned toward the turbolift. She stepped in, and ordered it to the crew decks. She folded her arms. “See you on Beta Shift, Captain?”

Baxter nodded. “Sure thing.” And the doors closed.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Browning demanded, stepping up in front of Baxter. “He is just a kid!”

“He’s six years old chronologically, but he’s got the mind of an eighteen-year-old,” Baxter said, heading back to his command chair. Evasive maneuvers. “Janice, it’s time you stopped holding him back. Plato is wonderfully talented. Let him put those talents to good use!”

“He could get killed!” Browning said, and followed Baxter back to his command chair. At the same time, Peterman swooped in, dove in front of Browning to offer hugs and support.

Baxter placed his hands on Browning’s shoulders, gently shoved Peterman out of the way. “Janice, I promise you he won’t be harmed as long as I command this ship,” he said earnestly. “He’s my godson, and I want him to succeed. This is what he enjoys doing.”

Browning bit her lip. “I don’t know. I just…” She turned to face Richards. “You made out with Madera to get her to come back to the helm!”

Baxter said a silent “thank-you” to whichever deity was available and sat down in his command chair. “You guys can use my ready-room if you’d like to talk.”

“No need.” And Browning stormed into the turbolift.

“I’d better…” Peterman said, then glanced back at the door to the conference room. “Well, Tilleran…but Janice…Steffie’s…Bermuda Expanse… Mirk!”

Baxter watched Peterman try to decide who needed her help most desperately and was grateful to see that she decided to simply walk over and plop down beside him. Nothing like a life-and-death struggle in the Delta Quadrant to straighten out the kinks in a marriage.

Richards sat down on Baxter’s right. “This has been such a wasted day.”

“I can only imagine,” Baxter sighed, and Tilleran and J’hana walked out of the conference room, poker-faced. “Well, glad you all are back,” Baxter said. “It’s time we contact Waystation and find out just what the hell happened to the Aerostar.”

Peterman, on the other hand, was thinking about her counseling strategies. She had a lot to handle. Tilleran leaving, the repercussions for J’hana, Browning and Plato and this helm stuff, Richards’s newfound desire to prostitute himself…and then there was Steffie. Could Peterman let Baxter do to Steffie what his own parents had done to him? And what he was doing even now to Plato?

And then there was Mirk. Where the hell was Mirk, anyway?


“Enjoying the view?”

Hartley was looking over Mirk’s shoulder in their quarters. Mirk, for his part, was looking out the window.

When Hartley had been promoted, and she and Mirk had moved in together, which pretty much happened at the same time, Hartley had requested her new, bigger cabin to be right at the rear of the lower saucer, center seat, so she could have a bird’s eye view of those beautiful nacelles.

Those beautiful nacelles. Left, Right…Middle.

“I like the new nacelle,” Mirk said, glancing back at Hartley. “Looks very graceful sort of sprouting out of the back like that.”

“I thought so too,” Hartley said. She’d personally overseen the installation of the new nacelle during the recent refit. It meant that she and Mirk wouldn’t get their vacation on the plateaus of Appalacia (damn World War III!), but Hartley built up a lot of comp-time for the trip they’d been planning to the amusement planet of Fungalia.

“So, does it increase speed, or efficiency?” Mirk asked.

Hartley stepped closer to Mirk, rubbed his shoulders. “I have no idea. We’re only just now testing it. Who knows?”

Mirk gave a small smile. “You’re so thorough about your job.”

“So you’ve heard we’re going to try to go to the Delta Quadrant,” Hartley said, after some quality time spent watching the middle nacelle thrum.

“Yep. I figured Captain Baxter would’ve wanted to talk to me about it, but he hasn’t called yet.”

Hartley rolled her eyes. “He’s been, uh, occupied.”

“With what?”

“I don’t have enough absurdity tolerance to go into it,” Hartley sighed. “So. Are you happy about this?”

“About going back to the Delta Quadrant?” asked Mirk. “Absolutely!”

“You may even get to see your Father again.”

“I’d love that.” Mirk turned to face Hartley. “You’re worried, aren’t you?”

Hartley nodded. “You may even get to see Danel again.”

“Megan…I didn’t agree to become Mister Mirk Hartley for nothing.”

“Thanks for that, by the way,” Hartley said, smiling half- heartedly.

“You know how long it’s been since I’ve even thought about Danel?”

“Since you got word that we were going to the Delta Quadrant earlier today?”

“Actually, yes, about then.”

Hartley turned to sit down on their tan fuzzy couch. “That’s not what worries me, hon. There’s plenty more that does.”

Mirk whirled to face Hartley, knelt and took her hands. “Megan… nothing in the Delta Quadrant is going to take me from you, do you hear that?”

Hartley and Mirk’s fingers interlaced. Hartley’s lower lip trembled. To that day, Mirk was the only being in the universe she’d ever shown a glimpse of her true self.

Mirk opened his mouth to say something else, when the comm bleeped.

“Commander Hartley, Mister Hartley, we’re at the Bermuda Expanse,” Baxter’s voice boomed.

“Already!” Hartley exclaimed. That was the problem with having your quarters at the BACK of the ship. She just then noticed that the Explorer had indeed come out of warp.

“Apparently,” replied Baxter. “Anyhoo, I’d like you two to come up here just in case the ship starts to explode, or we get tossed into an alternate universe or anything.”

“It’s nice to feel needed,” Hartley said, and Mirk pulled her to her feet, and the two marched out of the cabin arm-in- arm.


MEANWHILE, 70-SOME THOUSAND LIGHT YEARS AWAY…


“Federation Starship, this is Program Assistant Gronnik, representing the Leadership Spa and Funtimes Resort. My vessel is called the Creativity. Drop shields and prepare to be boarded, or we will lead you right into oblivion with our creative management style!”

“Shields failing; I think they mean business!” Lt. Gellar called out from tactical as the Aerostar was pummeled again. So much for Larkin’s suggestion that they could talk sense to the commander of the Flarn-style ship that was currently pummeling them. All that “Program Assistant” Gronnik had talked so far was nonsense.

Conway rocked in the command chair. “Ford, show them our tail. All power to engines and aft shields. Gun it!”

“I only have impulse at the moment,” Ford said, frantically working on the helm controls. “Kamtezen reports he can give us warp in ten minutes.”

“In ten minutes that Flarn ship will blow us out of space!” Alexa asserted from the science console.

“You want to go down and help him?” asked Ford.

“I suggest we all start getting along better quickly,” Commander Larkin suggested, gripping her chair beside Conway. “Conflict will not offer us a way out of this situation!”

“Obviously not much has changed since we came over here for that little preview four years ago,” Conway griped.

“You’d think after all this time we’d know more about how to counteract Flarn weaponry,” Alexa said, madly searching for a way to bust through the Flarn ship’s defenses.

“Yes, you would, wouldn’t you,” Conway said dryly. “Of course, no one thought we’d ever have to FIGHT a Flarn ship again!”

“Indeed, it would even be sensible to assume that our Flarn chief surgeon could be of some help,” added Larkin.

“I doubt she’s up on all of the latest technologies,” pointed out Brian Gellar.

“She’s been a doctor for six years, and on top of that she’s been away from this side of the galaxy for six years, so leave her alone,” Conway said. “Besides,” and he nodded at the lime-and-yellow turkey buzzard-shaped vessel on the viewscreen. “We have more pressing matters to deal with!”

BLAAAAAAM!

Sparks suddenly erupted from tactical and Gellar was thrown backwards.

Larkin raced to the board and took stock. “He will live,” she said decidedly, and turned to tactical. “Our third EPS relay, however, was not so lucky.”

“Make a long story short, Larkin!” Conway commanded, holding fast to the ops station, where Saral was busy re- routing power from useless parts of the ship like the classrooms and lavatories.

“Engineering will have the matter taken care of momentarily.”

“Until then, though, we’re weaponless.”

“Essentially.”

“Meaning?”

“Totally.”

Conway nodded. “Thought so. Ford, more out of the engines, if you please!”

“We’re already at maximum impulse,” Ford said. “And they’re right on our backsides!”

“Right then!” Conway said. “Well, veer hard right and go to all-stop. This thing can turn on a strip of latinum, right?”

“Oh yeah,” Ford said proudly, and he brought the ship around so hard nearly everyone hit the deck, but luckily the bridge of the Aerostar-A’s bridge was adorned with handholds remarkably similar to towel racks.

Alexa gripped sciences. “Inertial dampers are maxed out!”

Gellar climbed back into his seat at tactical, rubbing a bruise on his head. “But you got the required effect. They overshot us by five million klicks!”

Conway straightened his tunic. “Super. Ford–”

“Already headed in the opposite direction.”

“When all else fails, I’m glad I have your cowardly instincts to fall back on.”

“Damn right you do!”

“They have adjusted course,” Saral noticed from ops. “And are again on a direct intercept path.”

“Weapons range?”

“In one minute,” Alexa said. “Their acceleration curve isn’t anywhere near ours.”

“Then we have to keep exploiting that,” Conway said. “Ford, keep the maneuvers tight.”

“Tighter than Lieutenant Saral’s left buttock, aye sir!” Ford said, and Saral did nothing. He stared at her a moment, mouth agape. “Well?”

“An emotional response would be uncharacteristic of my heritage, and would be wholly wasted on you,” Saral said primly and continued tapping at her ops controls.

Ford glanced back at Conway. “How am I supposed to get a rise out of anyone without J’hana around? It’s been four years and I haven’t even been slapped upside the head once!”

“You are ‘getting a rise’ out of me right now,” Larkin said, stepping over from the command arena. “Because you are not focused on your station. Would you like me to relieve you of duty?”

“A good old fashioned beating would suffice!” Ford replied, returning to his piloting.

“That would be counterproductive.”

Conway chuckled dryly at the exchange. “Glad to see the two of you can joke at a time like this.” On the viewscreen, the Flarn ship bobbed and weaved, right on their tail, sending lashings of energy after them.

“I need something to pass the time between getting shot at and…” Ford said, and beamed when an indicator lit on his panel. “Going to warp!” He slammed the button and the Aerostar shot forward, breaking into warp space, factor nine point nine and rising. Apparently Kamtezen down in Engineering had sorted everything out.

Conway wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “Another minute and we’d have been space debris!”

“As it is we’re barely capable of sustaining warp,” Alexa reported. “We’re going to need to find a safe port of call– and soon.”

“I suspect I have just the port of call in mind,” Conway said, and exchanged a knowing glance with Ford. “You know what I mean?”

Ford nodded, grinning, then immediately his face went blank. “Nope. Can’t say that I do.”


Ardek stood up on his huge throne as the viewscreen image showed plasma torpedoes flying harmlessly through the vacant area of space Aerostar had occupied microseconds earlier.

“They seem to have gone into warp,” Program Assistant Gronnik said, staring out of a square inset in the viewscreen. Impassive and surly, fat and gray, utterly charisma-less but dedicated like hell to the Leadership and Fun cause, Gronnik had remained Ardek’s closest lieutenant. He was, in fact, the first convert. As such, the process hadn’t gone quite exactly right. The man should have been utterly devoid of original thought, loyal to serving Ardek. Instead, the gas went one step better and made him utterly devoid of personality.

“Well, Gronnik, Critic’s sakes, go after them!”

“Getting underway now,” Gronnik said, and disappeared from the viewscreen.

Ardek sat back down, cross-legged,in his throne. “Jahn, I want you to find out where Aerostar is headed, then take us there. Have a squadron of Leader-ships meet us there. You understand?”

“But, Exaltedness, you said Program Assistant Gronnik–”

“Is no smarter than his big fat rump, you puny Maloxian nit! Do as I say!” A vein protruded on Ardek’s forehead, but no one on the bridge mentioned it. Ardek was highstrung, bi-polar. Given to fits of pure ecstasy, followed swiftly with fits of utter and pure rage. Those things tended to happen when one sucked up a can of the Critics’ gas on a regular basis. One’s mind could only become so malleable.

But, all things considered, Ardek seemed to be taking it well.

Jahn busied himself with extrapolating the Aerostar course. When he finally figured out where she was headed, it made total sense to Jahn. He never met any of the Aerostar or Explorer crew, never knew anything of their adventures, only that Ardek didn’t care much for them. Still, to Jahn, the destination of Aerostar was painfully obvious.

He told Ardek, who instantly went from being on the verge of strangling the tactician’s neck to screaming out in orgasmic joy and hopping up and down on his throne seat.

Soon, Ardek said, the Aerostar crew would be all his. Jahn gave him the benefit of the doubt.


CHAPTER SIX


When Hartley and Mirk stepped out onto the bridge, they came face to face with the enormous head of Captain Lisa Beck.

On the viewscreen, Beck looked more than a little perturbed.

“I’m not one to panic over nothing, Captain,” Beck said, narrowing her eyes at Baxter. “But you didn’t see that anomaly waltz up and engulf the Aerostar. Anomalies just do NOT do that!”

“You have footage?” Baxter asked, shifting his weight from buttock to buttock. Beck made him nervous. A roving, ship-hungry Bermuda Expanse, on the other hand, seemed just dandy.

“Mister Porter…” Beck said, glancing over her shoulder.

“Route the clip to my science station,” Baxter said, and glanced at Tilleran. “Commander, I want you to study that footage eight ways from Stardate one.”

“On it,” Tilleran said.

Lt. Commander Craig Porter peered over Beck’s shoulder on the screen, working at his station. “Hi, Ariel.”

“Craig,” Tilleran said, and tapped at her panel. Baxter rolled his eyes.

Porter grinned. “Maybe, after all this craziness is sorted out, we could have dinner?”

“Um…” Tilleran said, then quickly went back to her work.

J’hana coughed.

Baxter stared at the ceiling.

Peterman stared at her knees.

“WELL?” Beck finally said.

Tilleran looked up from her station. “Maybe another time.”

Beck gritted her teeth. “I. Was. Talking. About. The. Scans.”

“Oh. The energy readings went off the scale for point- zero-five seconds. Other than that I can’t tell you anything, other than the Bermuda Expanse could do it again at any time.”

Mirk stepped forward. He and Hartley had been hanging back, observing.

“Captain,” Mirk said. “We need to go into the Bermuda Expanse.”

“That would not be smart,” Beck said, then muttered under her breath, “what am I saying. Look who I’m dealing with.”

“What?” asked Baxter.

“I said ‘good luck!’” Beck said, and scrubbed a hand down her face. “Listen, Captain: I’ve got nine hundred frightened Federation citizens on this station. They’ve been dealing over the last few hours with the fact that a ship was devoured by that anomaly, which is in spitting distance of our station. If you’re going to investigate, investigate, but don’t waste my time waffling around about it!”

“As always, it’s been a pleasure talking to you,” Baxter said blankly, and switched the viewer off. Beck’s face was replaced with a view of the Bermuda Expanse, roiling and purply- green.

Hartley walked over to Tilleran’s station and leaned over her panel. “Let me have a look at that.” Tilleran replayed the image of the Aerostar-A warping away from the Bermuda Expanse, then the Bermuda Expanse subsequently leaping onto the Prometheus- class vessel like a rabid Targ. Mirk looked on from behind Hartley, then glanced to the captain.

Baxter looked at Mirk hopefully. “Got some Maloxian lore to cover this eventuality, Mirk?”

“Not a scrap,” Mirk admitted. “Nothing in the scriptures indicates either side of the gateway should act like that. The Directors must be desperate.”

“If they wanted a date, they should have just told us so,” Hartley deadpanned.

Peterman’s head poked up. “Maybe they’re just lonely.”

“They sure have a funny way of showing it,” Baxter said. “But the longer we chat about it, the longer the Aerostar spends getting pummeled by God-knows-what over there.”

“I agree,” Richards said, shifting in his chair to face Baxter. “I’d better go belowdecks to get us ready for a quantum displacement.”

“You just want to make up to Janice.”

Richards smiled wanly. “Can I?”

Baxter waved a dismissive hand. “Fine. Desert me in my time of need. See if I care!”

“Thanks!” And Richards was gone in a proverbial flash.

“I’m going to go check on Steffie,” Peterman said, jogging to join Richards.

“Alone in the command arena,” Hartley sighed theatrically. “What oh what will he do?”

“Can it,” Baxter muttered, and looked to the viewscreen. “It would be terrific if my remaining staff could focus on figuring out that roiling mass on the screen.”

Hartley slid behind the science console with Tilleran and started tapping at controls. “Maybe I can boost the power to our multispectral scanners. The new ones from the refit top anything Waystation has.”

“Good idea,” Tilleran said. “I wonder why I didn’t think of that.”

“Because you were not around during the refit,” huffed J’hana.

“Here we go again,” sighed Baxter.

“I don’t have time to argue with you right now, J’hana,” Tilleran said. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and reconfigure the optronic imaging array?”

J’hana stared vacantly at Tilleran a moment, then disappeared behind her station. “Fine!”

Baxter heard several loud thumps and a shrill electronic whinny, and grimaced. What the hell was she doing back there?

Whatever it was, it worked.

Tilleran looked over her scans. “Multispectral imaging on-line. I’m getting a faint polyphasic residue in subspace from when the Bermuda Expanse leapt out at the Aerostar.”

Baxter nodded. He had no idea what the hell Tilleran had said, but he had the proper response ready: “On screen.”

He turned toward the viewscreen. Sure enough, a faint whisp of purple shrouded out over a large area in front of the Bermuda Expanse. Right where the Aerostar was pounced on, no doubt.

“Pardon my ignorance,” Mirk said, stepping up toward the railing that surrounded the command chairs. He glanced down at Baxter. “But how does this help us?”

“It tells us that…” Baxter’s mouth opened and closed a few times. “Maybe you can explain it best, Tilleran.”

“It doesn’t tell us anything,” Tilleran replied. “Only where the Aerostar was when she was pounced on, which, when you think about it, isn’t all that important.”

“I wish I could get the last five minutes back,” muttered Hartley.

Baxter scratched his head. “I know what you mean. Screw it. Plato, ahead into the Bermuda Expanse, one-quarter impulse.”

Lt. Sefelt cowered at ops. Though he projected the image that his promotion to ops chief helped him get over his anxiety and stress disorders, the actual threat of being sent flailing into the Delta Quadrant (which he’d never personally experienced, only heard about from the crew of the original Aerostar), made him want to soil his uniform and cry to his mommy. Instead of doing that though, he quite valiantly shrieked.

The bridge crew showed no sign that they noticed the shriek.

“Bermuda Expanse perimeter in one minute, forty-nine seconds,” said Plato.

“All hands, yellow alert,” Baxter said, and gripped the arms of his command chair. He counted down mentally, moving his mouth as he did so and staring at his fingers, as he was never so good with numbers.

Before he hit “nine,” the Bermuda Expanse suddenly grew on the viewscreen until the phenomenon filled the whole screen. Someone, probably Sefelt, shrieked like a sabrecat, and sparks exploded out of the panel beside Baxter. Something fell down and smashed him in the head. Everything went fuzzy, and screams and shouts became drowned-out elevator music, Bobby Darrin’s “Beyond the Sea”…


Beck watched the Explorer get gobbled up, and had to admit to herself that this eventuality was not at all surprising.

It was, however, disturbing.

She turned back immediately to look at Commander Walter Morales, her first officer. “That’s it. Commander, evacuate the station. Seize every ship you can get your hands on. Cram them in.”

Morales raced to the docking console and began sending out the message. “All hands and all surrounding ships, this is Commander Walter Morales with a Priority One message. All hands, evacuate Waystation. I repeat, evacuate Waystation. Proceed to the nearest airlock and follow the posted evac guidelines. This is not a drill. No pushing, no shoving, please. And while you’re rushing to get to safety, consider ordering up a tasty bottle of Sluggo Cola. Cool, refreshing, slimy. It’s Sluggo Cola.”

Beck glared at Morales as he closed the channel. “What the hell was that?”

“Sluggo Cola bought the rights to all our mass evacuations last month. Didn’t you see that in the Newsletter?”

Beck shrugged. “Must’ve missed it.”


Forty-seven minutes later (beating their drill time by three minutes) the full complement of Waystation had disembarked, squeezing on every available freighter and transport, every starship and science vessel, every courier and shuttle, every runabout and travel pod.

Vessels of sundry shape and size floated away from Waystation, and Beck and her three senior-most officers left last, not forgetting to shut off all power to the vacant station.

Beck stood at the center of the U.S.S. Wayward’s tiny bridge/cockpit, watching through the foreward windshield as the bullet-shaped scout ship backed away from Waystation. One by one, every cabin light and docking light winked out across the two massive saucers, and along the length of the connecting tube. One hundred decks, in all, all gone dark.

Even the station-keeping thrusters were deactivated, causing the station to pitch ever-so-slightly, like the Leaning Tower of Piza.

“I knew this moment would come eventually,” Beck sighed as Morales deftly swung Wayward about and sent it to the head of the pack of…well, wayward…vessels that fled Waystation like a bad plague. “And,” she added, “I just knew Baxter and his bunch would somehow be involved.”

“Are you sure we did the right thing?” Russell asked, manning tactical to Beck’s right.

“Would you like to be napping in your quarters and suddenly get transported lock, stock, and cargo unit to the Delta Quadrant?”

“Well, no.”

“Then I think I did the right thing.” Beck watched the stars through the windshield stretch out from pinpricks to streaks as Wayward engaged into warp, the other ships no doubt close behind. “Better tell Starfleet what we did. See if they want to send another ship of fools to their fate in that big purple mass of bad luck.”

“Wonder if the Secondprize is available,” mused Russell.

“Shut up.”


CHAPTER SEVEN


…it’s far beyond a star,

it’s near, beyond the moon

I know, beyond a doubt

my heart will lead me there soon!


We’ll meet, beyond the shore

We’ll kiss, just as before

Happy we’ll be, beyond the sea

And never again, I’ll go sailing…


Andy Baxter’s eyes fluttered open and he shot up, aware suddenly that he was sitting on a rather uncomfortable plastic chair, in an antiseptic-smelling white room, with Bobby Darrin in muzak mode trilling over shot speakers from somewhere overhead. The whole scene had a washed-out look to it, and Baxter wasn’t sure if it was just blurred vision from the beam smashing into his head or if it was an effect of being dead, perhaps.

It most certainly made sense to Baxter that he was dead. After all, he knew beyond a doubt that he wasn’t in any room on the Explorer, and the Bermuda Expanse didn’t have a waiting room to his knowledge. So, in his mind, this must be what awaited him at the gates of (what he hoped was) heaven.

St. Peter, then, was probably at the desk. He rose up to check and see who was sitting behind the frosted glass window several yards opposite his chair, when suddenly a comforting voice sounded behind him.

“Captain!”

Baxter turned. “Mirk!”

Mirk was seated in a nearby chair, in his glittery bartender jacket, elbows propped on knees, fingers steepled in contemplation.

“Mirk,” Baxter said, and rushed to sit beside the Maloxian. “Where the hell are we?”

Mirk shrugged. “A waiting room.”

“I’m so glad you’re here to explain that to me.”

Suddenly with a loud and overbearing ZOSH!, the frosted glass window slid open and a stooped, overweight, gray-hair- bunned woman in a white pressed hat and blouse leaned out.

“Mistah Baxtah, Mistah Hartlah, tha’ll see ya now.”

“They who?” Baxter demanded.

“The Directahs,” the woman explained in a basso Boston accent.

“Of course!” Mirk snapped his fingers. “We’re in the Directors’ waiting room!”

“Again,” Baxter muttered, “you’re just a fountain of new information.”

“I’m glad to be of help,” Mirk said, as Baxter led the way down a long white-washed corridor. A painting or two would have really dressed up the place. Since this was undoubtedly a Director-induced hallucination, however, Baxter could only blame his own lack of imagination–and Mirk’s.

The hallway eventually gave way to purple clouds, and Baxter felt the floor drop out from under him, and he was floating. He turned around to look down the hallway, but it was gone. When he turned back around to face forward, he found himself face-to-eye with a Director. Its iris nictated open and shut for a few moments.

<Sorry about that,> said the eye. <We had…another client.>

Beside Baxter, Mirk dropped to a knee. “Exalted Director, your will be done!”

<Well now, enough of that, then. Off your knees, hop to it!>

Baxter glared ironically at the eyeball. “Not that it’s not wonderful to see you again after all this time, but why did you gobble up my ship? We were headed through the Bermuda Expanse anyway.”

<We wanted to speed things along; anyway, you spent way too much time analyzing your silly readings. Is it a lost art in your time to simply follow your heart?>

“My heart usually just leads me to sex,” Baxter admitted, “but that’s not the point. We’re here to go off and rescue the Aerostar-A from whatever miserable fate you consigned them to by gobbling them up just like you did us a few minutes ago!”

Mirk stared at Baxter, mouth agape. “Captain, you’re speaking to gods!”

“Gods that have seriously f***ed up my day!” Baxter snapped back at Mirk then turned to face the eye. “Listen, I have as much respect for you as the next guy. Hell, I even worshipped you for a couple months. But enough’s enough. Tell us why you took the Aerostar, and tell us how we can get her back!”

<Simple. She’s waiting for you in the Delta Quadrant. Not far from your old stomping grounds.>

Baxter sighed. “There’s got to be more to it than that.”

“Don’t question the Director!” snapped Mirk, rising from his knees.

“You be quiet, Mister!” Baxter shot back. “We may be in an infinite cloudy limbo, but I am still your captain!”

“I’m not Starfleet!”

“You’re part of my crew!”

“I quit!”

“You can’t quit!”

<People, people,> the eyeball said. <Do I have to strip down and sing and dance like a certain toddler just to be heard?>

“Of course not, Dilating One!” Mirk said, dropping back to his knees. “Instruct and we shall follow!”

<Oh, I’m not here to instruct. All of you are made or broken by your own choices. We simply…fill you in on the options, try to create a good product for you. In the end though, they’re your lives.

“If you choose to go through and save the Aerostar from Ardek and the Critics, you may very well survive the trip.>

Mirk got off his knees once more and moved to stand in front of the Director. “Holiest of eyeballs, please, tell us how to proceed.”

<I’ve told you all I can. Be on your way. I have a lot of appointments today.>

Baxter worked his jaw angrily, mulling over what he’d heard. He tried very carefully to compose what he would say next. Finally, it came to him: “HOW CAN YOU HAVE DAMN APPOINTMENTS WHEN YOU EXIST OUTSIDE OF THE DAMN TIME STREAM!”

<We just do. Have a nice day.>


Commander Larkin heard coughing as soon as she materialized in the central promenade of Space Station Dilus.

It was a pretty sensible place to layover and get repairs, she thought, as she looked to see who was coughing.

“Blah. Dusty,” said Lt. Gellar, clearing his throat and withdrawing his palm beacon.

“And dark,” said Alexa Lanham, pulling her own beacon and switching it on. She held a tricorder in the other hand.

Larkin’s own visual sensors were unaffected by the darkness, and the dust posed little problem to her joints. She did register the lack of light on the promenade, but her systems simply told her it was “not a problem.”

“Tricorder report,” Larkin said tonelessly.

Alexa squinted through the thick dust at the readings on her tricorder. “Just as the Aerostar’s sensors predicted. Minimum backup battery potential. Just enough to keep the lights up.”

“Generators?” asked Gellar.

“On the lower decks. Maybe enough to keep one of the repair bays running.”

“That may be useful, should our own repair facilities not be sufficient,” said Larkin, and she headed off along the promenade. The storefronts were all closed up with thick duranium shields. A splash of color caught her visual sensor. It was a written phrase: “The Leadership Spa and Funtimes Resort Must be Destroyed!”

“How odd,” Larkin said aloud, activating her “wondering out-loud” program.

“Is that Ardek’s version of the Starshine Kids?” Gellar asked, stepping up behind Wizmann.

“Apparently.”

“Not much of a ring to it.”

“Do you think this place is safe?” asked Alexa.

“Sure, why not?” Gellar asked. “Our sensors didn’t detect Flarn starship signals anywhere nearby. If anything, I’d think Maloxian space would be the breeding ground of a resistance.”

“Then you’d think this station would be the perfect place from which to mount that resistance,” added Alexa.

“Perhaps they did mount a resistance here,” Larkin said. “And it failed.”

“Not a particularly attractive idea,” Alexa said.

“Especially if we stand any chance of defeating this cult,” said Gellar.

“Defeat?” asked Alexa. “You must be kidding. We’re repairing the Aerostar and finding the fastest way out of here!”

“I would remind you that you hold no Starfleet commission, Doctor,” Larkin said, the “stern abrasion” emotion sending alert signals in her positronic brain. “The entire reason Ardek is here is because we could not defeat him. It is our direct responsibility to repair whatever damage he has done.”

Alexa blinked at Larkin. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Commander, but I think you’re putting your need for vengeance above the crew’s safety!”

Larkin cocked her head. “Offense mode activating.”

Alexa threw up her hands. “I hate it when she does this.”

“My need for ‘revenge,’ as you put it, is of no consequence. Ardek has enslaved a horde of mindless followers from this quadrant. We must free those he has enslaved and return this quadrant to working order!”

“Forgetting the Prime Directive for a moment, since it seems like YOU have, let me just ask you this: How do you propose to do all that with just one ship?”

“We will find a way. We always have in the past.”

“You think this is simply another surmountable obstacle, then?”

“Every obstacle is surmountable,” Larkin said.

“Where did that come from?” demanded Alexa. “Your ‘inspirational quote’ database?”

“Indeed it did not,” Larkin lied, and plodded along the promenade. Her emotions were unpredictable, and it was never certain when one would pop up. At that moment, for instance, she was sure she hated Alexa Lanham.


On the viewscreen, space station Dilus floated about 100,000 klicks in front of the Aerostar-A. They would not dock there until Larkin could confirm the station was secure. Conway recalled the original Aerostar’s visit to Dilus eight years ago, and the phrase “fool me once…” occurred to him.

“I wish I knew how they were doing,” Captain Conway said, leaning over the tactical console as the relief officer, Ensign Puckett, monitored the area for Ardek’s annoyingly colorful and violent ships.

“Why don’t you call and check up on them,” said Lt. Commander Ford.

“No. Alexa’s a big girl. So is Larkin. They’ll be fine.”

“I’m sure Gellar’s a big girl too,” snickered Ford.

“That’s really enlightened of you, Mister Ford,” mumbled Conway, and he walked over to sit at his command chair.

That’s when an alarm whooped at the tactical console.

Puckett’s eyes widened as the sensor information poured in. “Captain, subspace fissures opening fore and aft, and port, and starboard!”

Ford stared, aghast, as yellow- and lime-colored vessels, angular and dart shaped, poured out of the fissures, launching beams at the Aerostar. “The Starshine Kids must’ve had a ‘going out of business sale’!” he said, looking worriedly back at Conway.

Conway scrambled out of his command chair, to his feet, as blasts shook the Aerostar. “Return fire! And tell me what the hell they’re firing at us!”

“Antiproton blasts, sir,” said Puckett, working her hands over the weapons console. “I put the shields up as soon as they arrived. They’re holding, but taking a beating.”

“Return fire, all quantum launchers.”

“All quantums ready to fire on your mark.”

“Mark!”

Blue-white quantum torpedoes struck out at the half-dozen Leader-ships, which circled Aerostar-A like a biker gang looking for hoochie.

“Multiple impacts, moderate damage to their shields,” said Puckett.

“We’re outnumbered,” Ford said quickly after that.

“How long did it take you to do the math on THAT!” Conway fairly shouted.

“Just thought you’d like to know! Just trying to be helpful!”

“How about you be helpful by steering us out of the middle of this rat’s nest! Saral, you get on the comm to the away team and have them find a shady spot. This…may take us a while.”

“‘This’ may blow us to bits, sir!” Ford spoke up.

“Shut up and drive, mister!”


“…under heavy attack…ZZZT…may not be able to pick you up for a while…” Saral’s voice crackled over the combadge of each away team member. Gellar, Alexa, and Larkin stood in a circle, in a large, damp room they realized was some sort of fruit storage facility. Gellar and Alexa’s palm beacons played around the room like lighthouse beams.

The channel abruptly clicked off.

“Options, Mister Gellar,” Larkin said gravely.

“This room is somewhat secure,” Gellar said. He looked down at his tricorder. “The walls are made of nutridium, which will prevent beaming and sensor scans. The Maloxians sure were serious about their fruit.”

“As their religious texts indicate,” Larkin said. “Very well, then. We will wait here until the Aerostar returns for us.”

“IF she returns,” Alexa said glumly.

“That attitude is counterproductive,” Larkin said sharply to Alexa, who was kneeling by a crate, rooting through it for some acceptable food.

“The Aerostar is out there right getting whacked by a swarm of cult ships, so I could give a sh** what you think is unacceptable right now! Oooh, look, papaya!”

“That is not papaya,” Larkin said sharply, as Alexa held the green, spotty fruit up to her palm beacon. “It is extremely poisonous, as is your current demeanor. It borders on insubordination, and I will be sure to include it on my report to–”

Alexa shot to her feet. “Do you think anyone cares about your report? We’re in the freaking Delta Quadrant!”

“Doctor, Commander,” Gellar said, and each woman’s eyes turned angrily toward him. Alexa was breathing heavily. Larkin’s cold brown eyes bore into his forehead. “How about we forget about our petty differences and try to find a way to survive through this? Sound good to any of you? Good! Glad we’re agreed!”

“Mister Gellar!” Larkin said, pointing at Gellar.

“I’m just speaking my mind!”

She had actually been pointing BEHIND Gellar. “No, I mean-“ Larkin said, and a beam blasted her in the head, overloading her positronic net and crashing one crucial thought process after another.

The last thing she saw as her systems shut down were Alexa and Gellar getting shot with blasts of white energy and slumping to the deck. Her systems were so befuddled by her rampaging emotions that she had hesitated crucial nanoseconds when her sensors detected six hooded, yellow-clad figures sliding into the room through an adjacent air duct.

In her last nanomoments of consciousness, Larkin scolded herself for slipping in her old age, and wished she could deactivate her emotions, considering she was really, really scared about what might happen next.


CHAPTER EIGHT


“Andy’s dead.”

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh DEAR GOD

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

“Oh. Wait. I read the sensor wrong. He’s fine.”

“WHAT?”

“Give me a break, Kelly! It’s been four years since I’ve read a bioscan!”

“You wouldn’t have to if you hadn’t turned Holly into a morphine-freak!”

“She’ll be out of detox in a couple hours!”

“That’s not the point. You don’t just go pressing hypos into people!”

“Who’s the Doctor here?”

“NEITHER OF US!”

Slowly, head pounding, Baxter leaned up on his elbows. “Excuse me…”

Peterman and Browning, on his left and right side, respectively, turned to him and shouted “SHUT UP!”

Baxter lay back down and screwed his eyes shut.

“Now look what you did. You put him back into a coma.”

“I thought you said he was dead.”

“I thought he was!”

Baxter leaned back up and opened his eyes. “Nope. Guess I wasn’t dreaming.”

“Damn right you weren’t!” Peterman cried, leaning her head forward onto Baxter’s shoulder. “You got hit in the head with a support strut and got knocked cold! Janice thought you were dead!”

Browning shrugged. “Simple mistake.” She walked over to a series of shelves, looking for some items. “I need a brain tissue scanner. Where would Holly keep one of those things…”

Then, appearing as if from out of nowhere, Crewman Dean Wilcox appeared at Browning’s side. “Humma keep the scan things here!” he giggled, pointing at the bottom shelf.

Browning patted Dean’s head. “Thanks, there, guy. I’ll take it from here.”

Dean scurried over to Baxter with a fresh pillow. “Here go, Cappy! Pillow soft!”

Baxter took the pillow gratefully. “Thanks, Dean. Well, Holly sure has put you to work lately. Too bad she’s out cold from a large MORPHINE injection!” Baxter glared at Browning, who shrugged sheepishly.

Just then, the doors to sickbay whizzed open and Commander Richards walked in, Steffie Baxter clinging to his hip. “Look who I found hiding in a Jeffries’ tube!”

Peterman ran to grab Steffie from Richards and squeezed her so hard her eyeballs nearly bugged out. Damn her for attending Claire Webber’s sensitivity training on Earth. Damn Starfleet for requiring it of counselors with a success rate below 50 percent.

“Our ship went boombaddaboom!” Steffie called out.

“That it did,” Richards chuckled, and jogged to stand next to Browning. He put an arm around her. “Kind of makes you wish WE were parents, huh?”

Browning smiled thinly. “We are.”

“Oh. Right. Well, I meant of the same kid.”

“There’s an idea,” Baxter said, sliding off the biobed. “How about you guys finish discussing that after we get out of the freaking Delta Quadrant.”

“Snippy, snippy,” Browning said. “Want a hypospray? That might calm you down a bit.”

“No thanks!” Baxter replied, and stormed toward the door, unlatching Steffie from Peterman’s hip and hauling her into his arms. “Steffie and I have a ship to find. To astrometrics, Crewman Baxter!”

“Yayyyyyyy!” cried Steffie.

“Wait one second!” cried Peterman. “Now that I know you’re not dead, I’m angry with you again!”

“Crazy kids,” Browning giggled, then turned to see that Lt. Commander Hartley was leaning over the biobed where Mirk was stretched out, still apparently coming to terms with his most recent meeting with the Directors. Dean was hovering there, patiently but weirdly holding Mirk’s hand.

“Talk to me, Mirk,” Hartley said softly, brushing hair out of Mirk’s eyes.

The Maloxian’s eyes opened, and he sat up. “I’m back!”

“Backity back back!” Dean cried, and skipped off into an adjoining room, probably to check on Holly.

“Yes,” said Hartley. “Unlike the captain, though, you had no reason to collapse. You just…blacked out.”

Mirk nodded. “We both visited the Directors.”

“He didn’t say anything about that,” Richards said, stepping up to Mirk’s biobed with Browning.

“He was in an awful hurry to try and find the Aerostar, though,” Browning noted.

“We’re both in the Delta Quadrant now, am I right?” Mirk asked, looking from Hartley, to Richards, and finally to Browning. Blank stares met his gaze.

“Um…” said Hartley.

Richards slapped his combadge. “Richards to bridge.”

“Tilleran here.”

“Are we in the Delta Quadrant or what?”

“We’d better be, or the cartography department really screwed up.”

“Hmmm,” said Richards.

“How’s Plato?” asked Browning.

“He had to grow a third hand to work the guidance thrusters a few minutes ago,” Tilleran replied, “but other than that he seems to be handling things great.”

“I have to get to the bridge,” Mirk said, and leapfrogged the biobed, dashing for the door.

Richards stood there for a moment, staring vacantly at Browning and Hartley.

“Guess I’d better go too.”

“I’ll be in Engineering,” said Hartley, and she followed Richards out.

“I’ll be at lunch,” said Browning, and she hurried out of Sickbay with the others. Nurse Davis and the EMH could handle Sickbay for a while until Holly sobered up from her morphine overdose.


Steffie clinging to his neck, Baxter stared at the half- globe of stars, two decks tall, which stared back at him in the dimmed Stellar Cartography room.

“It’s a big quadrant,” Steffie observed.

“Very good,” Baxter replied. “Maybe we’ll put you in cartography. How would you like that?”

“I prefer away teams,” Steffie said smartly.

“I figured you would.”

Beside Baxter and Steffie, Peterman folded her arms. “Away teams are dangerous, honey.”

“You’re a stick-in-the mud,” replied Steffie.

“Who taught you to say that?” Peterman demanded.

Baxter shrugged. Steffie pointed at Baxter. Baxter looked very interested in the stellar maps.

“Hey, Commander Forrester,” Baxter piped up. “Magnify grid 7-A.”

“Anything for you, sweet chunks,” Forrester grinned.

Baxter grimaced. This was why he didn’t go to Stellar Cartography more often.

Forrester magnified the grid and Baxter examined it.

“Increase sensor scans of local emissions. Overlay multispectral image-map.”

“Done and done,” Forrester said cheerily.

“Too bad the original Aerostar never had a Stellar Cartography,” Peterman said dryly. “We may have gotten around a lot easier.”

At Forrester’s command, an overlay of multi-colored blotches appeared on the viewscreen. Local fuel emissions and by-products. Most were foreign in design, but one…one…

“Deuterium!” Baxter called out. “Delta Quadrant vessels don’t use it!”

Peterman rolled her eyes. “But the Maloxians probably still have a large fleet of Alpha Quadrant ships.”

“But the fuel is different. They had to adapt another kind of energy source to those Alpha Quadrant engines because deuterium simply doesn’t exist here. And I’m sure they exhausted whatever they salvaged from the Alpha Quadrant ships long ago.”

“Follow that trail!” Steffie ordered Forrester, who smiled politely back.

“She looks so much like her daddy. Damn beautiful blue eyes.”

Baxter ignored Forrester. “I see Steffie’s taking a shine to command.” He twisted Steffie around to face him. “But we’re in cartography now, sweetie. Miss Forrester can’t operate the helm. You have to give a call to the bridge.”

“Can I do it?” Steffie said, then clasped her tiny hands. “PUHLLLLLLLEEAAAZE!”

Baxter shrugged. “Sure.”

Again, Peterman rolled her eyes.

Steffie reached out a hand and slapped Baxter’s combadge. “Come in, bridge!”

“Um, bridge here,” said Richards’s cautious voice.

“Stellar cartography found a deutanium trail! Follow it!”

There was a long pause over the channel. “Um…who is this?”

“Forrester, send the data up to Uncle Chrissy!” Steffie said joyfully. “Chrissy, engage!”

“Well, okay, if you say so…”

“It’s Steffie, Chris,” Baxter broke in. “It’s okay. Go ahead and follow the trail.”

“Oh. Steffie. Right. That makes sense.”

Peterman rubbed a hand down her face. “You weren’t just going to follow the orders of some strange child on an open audio channel, were you?”

“Of course not,” Richards said, then quickly added, “Bridge out.”

“I like to command,” Steffie said, clapping her hands vigorously.

“We’ll talk more about this later,” Peterman told her, then looked at Baxter. “Right now, I think we’d better get up to the bridge, before some other toddler orders Chris to open fire on a peaceful planet.”

“For once, I’m in total agreement,” Baxter said, and followed Peterman, with Steffie in tow, out of Stellar Cartography.


Larkin’s systems re-booted and she immediately realized she had a serious problem.

She was a limbless torso.

This recognition came as soon as she tried to move her right arm, and got no response. She confirmed her suspicions with a glance around, and, sure enough, she was lying on a table in a rather blank room with no arms or legs. And no one else around, for that matter.

Well, at least they left her Starfleet tunic on.

In the ensuing seconds, Larkin had already put together an intricate escape plan, which involved her crawling around whatever ship she’d been beamed to using her chin. Before she could put this plan into effect, the doors to the room opened and a wild-eyed Ardek sauntered in, swinging an ornate gold, gem-studded command staff.

“Lookee what we’ve got here!” he shrieked. “Oh, it’s Kitty’s twin sis. So good to see you again. Still singing off-key?”

“Negative,” Larkin replied. “Where is the Aerostar?”

“Being chased around this system by my ship and others, being beaten to a metallic pulp, so to speak. Why, will you miss her?”

“Of course not. I have no emotions.” Larkin’s lower lip quivered. She hoped she could pull off the “poker face.”

“Hah!” Ardek said, and doubled over laughing. He glanced back at the two stumpy Garibid who’d followed him in, and they exchanged confused glances, then quickly began chuckling too. “Hah, Larkin, you really crack me up.”

“That was not my intention,” Larkin said, careful to keep her tone neutral.

“My dear, I know all about what’s happened to you. It was happening to Kitty when I got rid of her. It was why I got rid of her, back when I was zipping around the Alpha quadrant with her in that cozy little Romulan scoutship. I felt an android fully capable of twisting my head off was no good if she went into a berserker rage. So I jettisoned her.”

“How thoughtful of you,” Larkin said, gritting her metallic teeth.

Ardek pranced over to the table and leaned over Larkin. “Imagine my surprise when I found Kitty back in this quadrant. Poor thing tried to save some rebels from my prison moon. Didn’t get very far, I’m afraid.”

Larkin wanted to bite Ardek’s nose off. If only he leaned just a bit closer…

“Where is Kitty?” Larkin demanded.

“That’s a girl! Vent those emotions!” Ardek said gleefully, and clapped. The Garibid soon followed suit. “Kitty is fine. Don’t worry about her. It’s your friends on the Aerostar I would worry about.”

“I am not worried. The Aerostar has considerable weaponry. Weaponry which was developed some time after you left the Alpha Quadrant, I might add.”

“Is that so.” Ardek cocked an eyebrow at Larkin. “Bridge. Pipe in frequency five-seven-nine.”

“Aye, your most oh-gracious all-powerfulness-ness.”

“Get your head out of my ass and pipe in the frequency!” squealed Ardek, squeezing his fists furiously.

“Right, right.”

Something crackled, and Larkin heard familiar voices:

“…evasive pattern Gamma. Modulate shields!”

“…banks are depleted. Switching to auxiliaries!”

“…can someone else take the helm? My butt’s getting numb!”

The bridge crew of the Aerostar!

“Release them!” Larkin commanded, and Ardek bent down to smile in her face.

“Ask me pretty please, Larkin!”

“PRETTY PLEASE!” Larkin cried, her positronic brain bursting with anger and fear.

“Nah, don’t think so!” Ardek cackled, and Larkin bent her neck up, gnashing with her teeth. She aimed for Ardek’s nose, but he moved his head in the last instant and all she got was a mouthful of cheek.

Ardek shrieked like a woman and reeled back, green blood spurting. Larkin spit out a chunk of cheek and grinned. For some reason she felt an overwhelming sense of…elation.

Ardek clutched his face. “You are a demonic bitch from hell!” he cried. “I LOVE IT! More more MORE!” Ardek backed toward the door, gripping his cheek. “Kitty fought like this at first too. You’ll break. Of that I’m certain!”

He slid out of the door to the room, followed quickly by the two Garibid, and Larkin could hear him scream “DAMN THAT HURT!” through the bulkhead.

“GET BACK HERE!” Larkin cried, and no one answered back. If she’d had fists, she would have pounded someone or something with them.


Captain Baxter sat Steffie on his lap in the command chair as the Explorer rocketed along Aerostar’s trail at maximum warp.

“Scanners to full reach, Tilleran,” Baxter ordered.

“Anything good so far?” Richards glanced back at Tilleran from his seat in the command arena.

“Signs of recent activity in several systems. No ships, though. And no people I can detect. It’s anyone’s guess as to where they went to. It’s as if this whole corner of the quadrant was mass-evacuated.”

“MY corner of the quadrant,” Mirk said softly from the rear of the bridge.

“Mirk, I’d start warming up my powers if I were you,” Baxter said, rapping his fingers on the arms of his command chair.

“You know I’ll do whatever I can,” Mirk said, stepping toward the railing that surrounded the command chairs. “But I’ll remind you that those powers aren’t always predictable.”

“Anything in pinch!” J’hana called from tactical.

“Agreed,” Baxter said, and shuffled Steffie over to Peterman’s lap. “Kelly, why don’t you hold her for a bit.” He leaned over the arm of the chair, closer to Peterman. “And, at the first sign of trouble, you get her belowdecks, okay?”

“Are you admitting Starfleet life is no life for your child?”

“Not for a three-year-old, Kelly!” Baxter snapped back.

“What are y’all talking bout?” inquired Steffie.

“Candycanes and marshmellers,” Baxter said to Steffie, then pushed her head forward and leaned closer to Peterman. “Promise me you’ll get her belowdecks.”

“Of course I will,” Peterman said. “But you promise me that you’ll stop ramming Starfleet down Steffie’s throat!”

“Can we please continue this later!” Richards said, leaning over Baxter to address he and Peterman.

“Right,” Baxter said, and turned to face the viewscreen.

“I like to be on the bridge,” Steffie said.

“That’ll change, the second we get into combat,” Peterman muttered.

“Which may be sooner than later!” Tilleran said from sciences. “I have a read on the Aerostar, and she’s under attack from six vessels similar to the streamlined ships the Starshine Kids used!”

“So they can navigate through sub-space fissures?” asked Richards. “Just great!”

Baxter rubbed his beard. “Ardek’s been quite resourceful with his little cult.”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘little,’” said Mirk, looking over Tilleran’s shoulder. “He emptied out the Malox system, and apparently everything around it!”

“Whatever the case,” Tilleran said, “at present speed we’ll reach them in thirty seconds.”

“Plato, take us out of warp. Bring us in on the side of that system opposite its sun, so we’ll take them somewhat by surprise,” Baxter ordered.

Plato nodded. “Gotcha.”

“And Plato,” said Richards. “Make sure not to plot your course THROUGH the sun.”

Plato made an adjustment. “Right!”

Baxter sighed. “J’hana, go to Red Alert. Raise shields; arm phasers and quantum torpedoes. Get ready to lock as many targets as you can. And, for the love of Pete, loosen your fingers up!”

“I thought you would never ask.” At tactical, J’hana cracked her knuckles with such an alarming pop it echoed throughout the bridge.

Baxter grinned. “NOW we’re ready!”


A duranium beam slammed down in front of Conway and he hopped back from it. Sparks rained down throughout his bridge. An unconscious supernumerary character was slumped over the science station. Puckett’s hands flew over tactical. Ford’s hands danced on the helm. At ops, Saral called out the various unpleasant things that were happening to the Aerostar-A.

And, on the viewscreen directly ahead of Conway, six vessels circled like sharks, blasting with anti-matter weapons.

“Shields are gone,” Puckett called out. “Ablative armor won’t hold out for long.”

“Saral,” Conway said. “Keep trying to find out which ship our team was beamed onto. We can’t leave until we get them back.”

“We may not have that option!” Ford called, ducking the Aerostar out of the way of a passing plasma torpedo.

“I’m not leaving my ex-wife,” Conway growled at Ford, bracing himself on the helm chair. “I mean the away team!”

“Suuuuure!” Ford snickered.

Conway was about to belt Ford across the back of the head when an alert sounded at Puckett’s station and she gave a whoop. He angled around to face her. “WHAT?”

“Sir, bearing 051 mark 001! It’s…” She hit a panel and pointed for Conway to look at the viewscreen.

Streaming blue quantum torpedoes suddenly smashed into three of the more distant Starshine-like vessels and, from behind the sun, big as life, U.S.S. Explorer glided onto the scene, third nacelle and all.

Ford shot out of his chair. “Hot DAMN!”

Phasers lashed out from all over the ship, blasting with machine-gun like rapidity at all of Ardek’s vessels, which scattered like rats under a flashlight.

Explorer pivoted gracefully and chased two of the vessels, pounding with quantum torpedoes. Two other ships bore down from behind, but Explorer fought back with rear torpedoes.

Conway grimaced. “Damn showoffs.”

“You could show SOME gratitude, Captain,” Puckett said.

“Screw that,” Conway muttered. “Pull us up alongside Explorer. Preferably along the side that’s not getting shot at.”

“Cowering with great dignity, yes sir!” Ford said, and sat back down, sending the Aerostar plunging alongside Explorer.

With a hailing whistle, Captain Andy Baxter suddenly appeared on one of the side station viewscreens. He stood at the center of the bridge, flanked by the seated Richards and Peterman–and, it appeared, his and Peterman’s little brat. Didn’t that damn ship have Daycare?

“Captain…great to see you again!” Baxter said cheerfully, then chuckled. “Fancy running into you here!”

“Spare the chit-chat, Baxter!” Conway spat out. “We need to make a strategic retreat, and fast!”

“Just what I was thinking.”

Conway held fast to a support railing as the Aerostar was pounded. “Just one problem!”

Baxter jolted on the viewscreen as Explorer was pounded. “What?”

“Larkin, Gellar, and Doctor Lanham are all hostages aboard one of those vessels, and we can’t figure out which!”

Baxter rubbed his chin. He looked back to the command area. Richards had already vacated his seat and run up to the quarterdeck.

“I’m checking for her positronic signal now!” Richards said, hopping behind the science station, shoving aside an indignant Tilleran.

“Their ships are too well-shielded, Richards!” Conway called out. “You’ll never find–”

“Found it!” Richards cried out.

Conway slammed his fist into the quarterdeck railing. “Aren’t you special? Can you get a transporter lock, and find Alexa, I mean the away team?”

“Sure,” Baxter said, and smiled broadly. “We’re the crew of the Explorer, remember? We can do anyth–”

And the signal cut off.


Continued in next section…


Tags: vexed