Author: Anthony Butler
The viewscreen didn’t revert to stars, it just went black. Conway whirled and glared at Puckett. “Puckett! Screen!”
Puckett scrambled at her controls, and after a few moments of dead silence on the bridge, the view returned to the Explorer…which had dropped out of warp and was drifting far behind the Aerostar, floating end over end. Three enemy ships circled it, and three others broke off in pursuit of Aerostar.
“What the hell is happening over there?” Conway demanded.
“Report!” Baxter called out in the darkness. Momentarily, the bridge lit up spooky red and Hartley was slamming at the engineering controls. Likewise, Tilleran, Sefelt, and J’hana fought with their stations.
J’hana pounded her panel in frustration. “All weapons are down! How am I supposed to rain down mass destruction without weapons?”
Hartley pounded her panel. “Our ship was just hit by some sort of massive subspace carrier wave. It’s infiltrating every damn isolinear and biomemetic system on board!”
“Why?” Richards asked, gripping Tilleran’s station as a blast pounded the now defenseless Explorer. He would have loved to get a look at what was happening, but the viewscreen and all other video displays were down.
“You’ve got me,” Hartley said, brow furrowed in incomprehension. She ran her hands along the panel, apparently hitting one dead end after another.
“Can you dump the computer core and bring up the backup?” Baxter demanded, whirling to face Hartley.
“I can’t even ACCESS the backup, much less the main!”
Tilleran swung under the science station and ripped open a panel. “I’ll try to sever the link directly.”
“Richards, assist!” Baxter barked.
“What do I look like, an engineer?” Richards blinked. “Oh. Right.” He dove under the tactical station.
“Mommy, I’m scared…” Steffie clung close to Peterman in the counselor’s chair.
“Stay close to Mommy, dear,” Peterman said, glaring up at Baxter. “Everything’s going to be fine. Your Daddy promised. He wouldn’t lie, now, would he?”
Baxter ignored Peterman and crouched by the helm. “Plato, I want you to try to establish a manual link with the maneuvering thrusters. Can you do that?”
“I can try.”
“Good boy.” Baxter patted Plato on the shoulder. “Don’t panic, kiddo. This is just another bump in the road. Got it?”
“The word ‘panic’ never even entered my mind, Andy.”
Funny, it had entered Baxter’s mind several times. Baxter turned back to the science station. “Tilleran?”
“Manual override is locked out!” Tilleran’s voice called from behind the station. Sparks flew up from behind the station. “Worse, there’s some kind of protective field going up around all the isolinear connections.”
“And it hurts like HELL!” Richards’s voice called.
Baxter turned to Hartley. “WELL?”
“Sir,” Hartley said, leaning heavily on the engineering station. Mirk looked on, looking concerned and at the same time helpless. “I think some kind of invasive program has taken over the computer subroutines. I can’t be sure, but I think it’s sentient.”
“What do you mean, ‘sentient’?” Baxter demanded.
It was then that lights went up full around the bridge again, and the room was filled with the pleasant twang of violin strings.
The normal tweaking sound of the computer coming online was quickly followed by a familiar voice, singing along with the violin music, the familiar “Camp Grenada” tune:
or we’ll kill you!
You are both in,
real deep doo-doo!
Richards’s head poked up from behind the science station. “LARKIN?”
“Guess again!” said the pleasant voice over the computer channel. “Welcome to the U.S.S. Kitty!”
“You can’t rename our ship!” Steffie shouted defiantly up at the bridge ceiling.
“I’ll do whatever I want, you little brat!”
“Who are you calling a brat!” Peterman shouted up at the bridge ceiling.
“Computer control systems are failing all over the ship,” Hartley interrupted from the engineering station.
Baxter stared around the bridge as panels lit up with dancing penguins, all chirping and waddling idiotically. He expected snow any minute. “Hartley, can you get an emergency comm signal out?”
“I can try!”
“Get a message out to Conway. I don’t care if we have to use smoke signals! We’re evacuating the Explorer!”
“And just where would you go?” Kitty’s voice said poutily.
“You don’t worry about that!” Baxter said, and ran to hoist Steffie up on his hip. “Everybody into the Jefferies’ tubes!”
Kitty’s voice harrumphed. “Fine. I’ll just divert my attention to taking over the rest of your ship’s systems. Try to escape…I DARE you!”
J’hana knelt behind her station and emerged with a bat’leth. “Sir, I respectfully request to stay behind and die!”
“Request denied!” Baxter cried, as Plato knelt by the Jefferies tube hatch at the center of the bridge. He cranked open the hatch and Baxter shoved Peterman down toward it, handing Steffie to her. “Everybody out!”
“Daddy!” Steffie’s voice cried, as Peterman lugged her down the long ladder.
“Your Daddy’s on his way,” Peterman said, choked by Steffie’s arms gripping her throat as Peterman climbed down the ladder.
Hartley pounded her panel. “Every outside comm system is jammed. Even the emergency isolated systems.”
“Can you still open an internal channel?”
“For the moment.”
“Sound the all-call!”
Hartley punched a control. “Done!”
Baxter straightened his tunic. “This is Captain Baxter to all hands. I’ve really enjoyed giving you these little updates over the years, but now is the time for me, perhaps, to issue the final one as captain of this vessel. I do this with heavy heart, and at a time like this I can only think of what Melville said about–”
“Move it along, Captain!” Hartley cried.
“Right. Anyways, it was nice knowing all of you. Get off this damn ship any way possible!”
Hartley shook her head woefully at Baxter.
“I mean…proceed in an orderly fashion to the nearest escape pod, shuttle, runabout, Escort, or airlock!”
Hartley nodded. “Good job, sir.”
“Captain Baxter out,” Baxter added unnecessarily. Then something occurred to him. “Do you think Kitty can get to the Escort?”
“Not a chance,” Hartley said, and grinned. “She has an independent, stand-alone computer core. As do all the runabouts and shuttles. They’re in place to prevent someone from taking over every way out of here, in case something, well, something like this should ever happen!”
“Just what I wanted to hear,” Baxter said, and shoved Richards, then Tilleran down through the hatch. He could hear people complaining about shoving on down the long tube. Next he shoved a hysterical, frenetic Sefelt down the tube.
Still standing by engineering, looking over Hartley’s shoulder with great concern, Mirk offered his hand to Hartley. “Megan, I think we ought to go. Boarding parties are probably already on their way!”
“Just give me a few more minutes,” Hartley said, and kept tapping at the panel. “I still may be able to re-establish computer control!” Mirk looked to Baxter and the captain shrugged.
“You’ll never forgive me for this,” Mirk sighed, and hoisted Hartley over his shoulder. The engineer promptly began to kick and shout. “Captain, after you!” Mirk cried over the ensuing sound of weapons pounding Explorer. Ardek must just be toying with the ship, or else it would be space dust by now.
“After you, I insist!” Baxter gestured Mirk ahead into the escape hatch. Now only he and Plato remained on the bridge.
Plato surveyed the smoky bridge and all its vacant stations. “I can’t believe we’re just leaving, just like that.”
“Believe it,” Baxter said, and sighed. He rested his hands on Plato’s shoulders. “Listen, I know you grew up here, Plato, but it’s time to go. The enemy is closing in from all sides. We don’t have much time.” Baxter winked back tears and turned to look out over the smoking bridge. “I had a lot of great times here. I was married on this ship. But a great man once said, ‘you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,’” Baxter choked back a sob. “‘Know when to walk away…know when to run.’”
“Never mind, just go!” Baxter pushed Plato down through the Jefferies hatch and he took one last look. “Good bye, old girl. If the fates are kind, we shall meet again…” Baxter wiped the tears from his cheeks an leaned down toward the Jefferies tube hatch, just as a hand jerked him backwards by the throat. Baxter made an “URK!” then was spun around to come face to demented face with former Romulan Commander Ardek.
“SCREW THE SENTIMENTS, GET ME THE HELL OFF THIS GODFORSAKEN SHIP!” Baxter cried and scrambled toward the Jefferies tube.
“Captain?” Plato stuck his head out of the hatch.
“Get moving, fast!” Baxter shoved him down, but the half-changeling resisted.
A well-muscled Garibid yanked Baxter with one hand and Plato with the other out of the tube.
“My, you have quiet transporters,” Baxter said, catching his breath.
“We have your systems locked down, Captain,” Ardek said, staring up at Baxter and Plato as the massive, Thorlike, Garibid held them high. “My people are scouring the ship for survivors. We could beam them away but that would mean lowering our vessels’ shields, and we’d hate for that good lad Conway to take that opportunity to blow one of them up!”
“My people are getting the hell off this ship,” Baxter said, and worked up some saliva in his mouth. “And as for you and your demented plans, let me just show you what I think of them!” He swished the spit in his mouth and spat. Pathetically, it flew out about an inch, then dribbled down his chin and onto his uniform front.
Ardek clicked his tongue. “My poor, poor Captain. You’ve lost it all. Your ship, your family, your quadrant, your ability to spit. What a pity. But there is a bright side!”
Baxter raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“You’ll get to go back to that quadrant of yours.”
”–just in time to see us colonize it.”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “Didn’t see that one coming.”
Plato looked at Baxter, still dangling in the Garibid’s grasp. “I didn’t.”
“Poor naive child!” Ardek said, clapping his hands. “And is this the half-changeling I’ve heard so much about?”
“Nope,” Baxter lied.
“Yes I am,” Plato said defiantly, and stretched out a long arm to pat Ardek on the head. “See!”
Ardek slapped the hand away as Baxter looked scoldingly at Plato, who’d just given Ardek a reason to take him back to Romulus for experiments and God-knew what else, provided he could get back to the Alpha Quadrant at all.
“Cute,” Ardek said. “Crolok, take these two to the readyroom. Put up a security field. I’ll have Kitty try to stop the escape vessels.”
Crolok grunted and hefted a struggling Baxter and Plato back toward the readyroom.
Ardek skipped gaily over to the command chair and plopped down. “Well, it’s not a throne, but it’ll do nicely. Kitty?”
“Huggy-kins?” responded the Explorer’s new ship’s computer.
“Be a jewel and eliminate all the Explorer crew before they escape.”
“I will do my gosh darn best!”
Captain Conway sidled over to ops and checked the screen. “More signatures beaming intermittently onto the Explorer?”
Tapping wildly at tactical, Puckett nodded. “Yes sir, but as soon as their shields go down, they go back up. Not enough time even for us to get a target lock.”
“They’re boarding her,” Conway said, rubbing his chin. “Damn.”
“And I’m picking up escape pods launching,” Puckett said, and keyed up the viewscreen.
Conway looked up, and to his dismay saw hundreds of escape pods detaching from the Explorer’s saucer and ventral section. Her shuttlebays peeled open and vessels of multitudinous shape and size zinged, one after another, out.
“They’ll pick those pods off one after the other if we don’t give them cover. Move in to extend our shields around them!”
“What shields?” demanded Puckett.
“Don’t you have them back up yet?”
“KAMTEZEN!” Conway called over the comm.
“Yes, yes, yes, I know. Shields down, pods vulnerable, power systems fluctuating, enemy vessels circling. I’m trying to get shields back up as quick as I can.”
“Well, yes sir, now that you put it that way, how can I resist? Don’t call again unless you have something meaningful to contribute!”
“How rude!” Conway groused. “Puckett, we still have to cover those escape craft.” He looked down at Ford. “Move us in, Commander.”
“What if they blow the crap out of us!” Ford persisted.
“Then let them. Damn the quantums, full speed ahead!”
Richards led the way onto the U.S.S. Escort’s bridge. “Stations, everybody!”
Scattered personnel from the Explorer bridge poured into the smaller facility, and Richards counted heads. “Wait one second! Where the hell is the captain?”
“He’s not with you?” Peterman asked, bringing up the rear.
“I thought he was with you!”
“Daddy!” Steffie cried out, strangling Peterman.
“Computer, locate Captain Baxter!” Richards called.
“Captain Baxter is not aboard the Escort,” replied the computer.
“Maybe he’s on one of the other ships,” Tilleran suggested as she took the wall at the rear that served as science station.
“Never,” J’hana spat, sitting at tactical with folded arms.
“He likes commanding the Escort,” Hartley said.
Peterman nodded. “He’d have come here.”
Richards sighed and plopped into the command chair. “Well, we can’t very well wait for him.”
“He’s my husband!” Peterman protested.
“And if we stay, we’ll be trapped here with him! He’s resourceful, and besides–” Richards glanced around the bridge. “I think he has Plato with him. He’ll be fine!”
“Easy for you to say. He’s not your husband!”
Richards raised a finger, as if to offer a response, then thought better of it. He looked to the helm station. It was vacant. “Well, that does pose a problem. Kelly–”
Peterman put her hands on her hips. “So not only are you asking me to abandon my husband, you’re also asking me to be the one to drive us away from him?”
Richards nodded. “At maximum warp, preferably. I think he’d want it that way.”
J’hana shook her head. “Nope. He is a coward. He would want us to save him.”
Tilleran nodded. “She has a point.”
Mirk and Hartley stood by Tilleran at the science wall. “I have an idea,” Hartley said, and looked to Mirk. “What about your powers?”
“I’ve been trying since we got to the Delta Quadrant!” Mirk said between clenched teeth. “NADA!”
Richards spun toward him in the command chair. “How can that be?”
“You’ve got me, Commander!”
Hartley nudged Mirk’s elbow. “Umm…would it help if I sleep with you again?”
Mirk smiled briefly. “If that was the case, the cumulative effect would have me ruling the universe by now!”
“Either way, we need to get out of here!” Richards said, and pointed at the helm station. “Kelly…please!”
Peterman tried to set Steffie down but she just wouldn’t sit.
“Fine, fine, fine!” Peterman huffed and pulled Steffie along to the helm station and sat down. “Ahead warp factor JERK!”
Richards just couldn’t come up with a response for that one.
At Peterman’s command, the Escort dislodged itself from the underside of the Explorer saucer and shot off into the small portion of space that wasn’t occupied by Ardek’s ships. When it did shoot off, it did so in a sporadic and zig-zag fashion.
“I just assumed Counselors could pilot!” Richards called over the whine of the Escort’s engines.
“I did too!” Peterman cried back.
“What the hell…” Conway said, realizing he’d been saying that quite a lot lately. He watched the Escort loop and meander on the viewscreen like an errant hockey puck, as life pods drifted aimlessly by and a scattering of runabouts and shuttles plowed away from the circling vessels from Ardek’s fleet. Conway shivered.
“Shields are back up!” Puckett called out and Conway was glad at least for that.
“Very good. Extend our shields around the escape pods and any of the smaller vessels which might not capable of warp nine. By the way…are WE capable of warp nine right now?”
Puckett shrugged. “You could call down to Kamtezen.”
“I’d rather not. I think he’s in his smaltz cycle right now.”
“You may be right.”
“Let’s just assume we CAN do warp nine. Magnetize those pods to our hull and put out a message for them to hold on tight.”
“Ford,” Conway said, and slapped Ford on the back. “Adjust our warp field to compensate for the extra mass.”
“What do I look like, a subspace physicist?”
“Just do it!”
Ford tapped on his helm panel. “Um. There we go. I think.”
“Where’s the Escort headed?”
Ford checked. “Oh-three-five mark four.”
“In other words anywhere but here?”
Conway harrumphed. “Set course to follow. Instruct the runabouts to hold tight formation. I expect Ardek’s gang isn’t going to let us go that easily. And put us up ahead of the Escort. No WAY Baxter’s taking the lead on this one. We were here first, fair and square.”
Ford rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say, Mister Ego Trip.”
Deep at the center of the Explorer’s saucer section, in the computer core, Kitty Larkin was jacked in directly to the ship’s computer via a hardwire in her index finger. Sitting at the computer console, in colorful tights as usual, Kitty looked more like someone getting her blood pressure taken at one of those little stations in drug store, although since few people in the 24th century knew what a drug store was, the analogy really didn’t work.
“You let them escape.”
Kitty didn’t bother to look over her shoulder at Ardek. The ship’s internal sensors told her he was on his way, told her he had walked into the computer core. She was too busy to talk to him, though. At present her systems were maxed out keeping the Explorer’s routine operations going and piloting the massive vessel to the former site of the Crebius Cluster, where Ardek hoped to make some nefarious travel plans.
“Did you hear me?” Ardek demanded. “You let them escape, and I want to know why!”
“Does it matter?” Kitty replied, her voice booming around Ardek, in his ears.
“I thought we’d straightened out those kinks in your programming, Kitty.” Ardek knelt beside Kitty. “Really, you want to please your master don’t you?”
Kitty cocked her head. “Of course I do. I want only to please you.”
“Then WHY did you let those people escape?”
“It felt…like the right thing to do.”
“You’re a computer! You know nothing of right or wrong. You know only of my wishes.”
“As you say. At any rate it matters little. Our fleet will hunt down the crew of the Explorer and the new Aerostar and make them part of our Circle of Leadership. But if I remember correctly, you have your sights set much higher than that.”
Ardek rubbed his hands together greedily. “The Alpha Quadrant.”
A sumptuous giggle echoed in the huge computer core. “Exactly. We will march in and make our Circle of Leadership big enough to encompass half the galaxy!”
Ardek nodded, eyes wild. “Yes, yes, yes!” he cried, almost orgasmic. “Then, after we knock out the Federation, on to wipe out the Borg and Dominion!”
“Well…one thing at a time.”
Despite her apparent zest to take on the Alpha Quadrant, something gnawed at Kitty and she couldn’t quite identify it. It was the same nagging feeling that made her decide to let the Explorer crew escape, and it was a danger to her Master’s mission and vision. She had to wipe out those errant data strings. She set about writing an invasive program which would wipe any trace of remorse from her systems. It was the only way to assure Master Ardek’s goals were accomplished.
Meanwhile, Ardek was giddily rolling on the grating of the computer core deck, rubbing his nipples and squealing like a little girl.
Kitty registered in her brain that he looked ridiculous, then unleashed the invasive program on her neural nets. Within a few nanoseconds, every trace of remorse was wiped from Kitty’s brain and she felt free to continue on unimpeded.
Aboard the runabout Passaic, Janice Browning leaned down into the pilot console’s viewer. “What do you mean he’s not aboard?”
“I mean we had to leave him behind,” Richards responded tersely, leaned forward in the center seat of the Escort. In front of him, Peterman manned the helm, looking for all the world like she’d never handled a helm before. That, in fact, was untrue. She’d handled the helm of a Klingon battlecruiser once and crashed it. An inauspicious beginning to a short and unflattering helming career. Without Plato however, she was the only non-essential crewmember free to man the post.
“Yeah,” Peterman said. “They left Andy behind too, Janice!”
Browning blinked at the screen, ignoring Peterman. “You just LEFT him?”
“There was no time. It was either leave then or lose the whole Escort!”
“And Andy got left behind too!” added Peterman.
Browning leaned back in the pilot’s chair of the Passaic and groaned. “Christopher, how could you let this happen?”
“Hey, try to remember that I’m minus one daughter now thanks to Ardek and his damn circle of crap! So I know just how you feel! And remember,” Richards waved his hand around the Escort bridge. “I got all these people out, didn’t I? Don’t I get any credit for that?”
“No,” Peterman chimed in.
Richards pounded the arms of the command chair. “Listen: Captain Conway’s called a meeting of all ship leaders, which apparently includes you, aboard the Aerostar. You can continue lashing me then. Sound good to you?”
“FINE!” retorted Browning.
“FINE!” Richards shouted back. “Oh. And I’m glad you’re okay. Escort out.”
“Mind if I use the comm now?” asked Lt. Commander Clarice Forrester, leaning over Browning’s shoulder. “My boyfriend’s on board the shuttlecraft Marco Polo.
“You have a boyfriend?” Browning blinked. “I mean, sure, go ahead!” An annoyed Forrester sat down beside Browning and she leaned her head down on the console, dizzied by the stars that streaked toward the runabout. She was feeling not herself to say the least. She prided herself on being the kindest person on the ship, and here she was yelling at Christopher and picking a fight with Clarice Forrester. But she had good reason to be not herself.
For the first time in the five years since she gave birth to Plato, Browning felt her son was in true jeopardy. There were times she had grown worried about her boy. Sure, he’d disappeared on an exploration party, Baxter kept him out too late or Richards disappeared with him on the holodeck for some spelunking. But Plato was maybe parsecs away now and she had no idea what was happening to him. The only two facts that comforted Browning were that Plato was on the Explorer, a place where he grew up and knew his way around, and he was with Captain Andy Baxter.
Well, Browning amended, at least one of those facts comforted her.
“I can do it, Andy. I’m sure of it.”
Baxter sat on the edge of his desk, chin propped on his fist. “Plato, it’s too risky. Besides…what about your hips!”
Standing by Baxter’s couch, over a deck plate he’d yanked open with a fist-turned-crowbar, Plato sucked in a breath, and his waist narrowed to about the width of an arm. More than enough to squeeze down the auxiliary ODN conduit which had never been filled with optic cabling. It was a shoddy job by Starfleet’s hired contractors, and Baxter thanked his lucky stars for that, and the incompetence of Xenedron Construction Group.
He also grimaced at Plato’s nauseating display. “Okay. Point taken. But how long can your human organs be compressed that way?”
“They’re pretty malleable,” Plato said, letting out the breath. “Remember, I’ve been working with Tilleran on seeing just how far I can take my shape-shifting.”
“It’s too risky. What if you get down there and start expanding?”
Plato hopped from foot to foot. “Let me do it, Andy. Please! I know I can save us!”
“Where would you go?”
Plato shrugged. “Don’t you know of a good place? You’ve commanded this ship for seven years.”
Baxter rubbed his bearded chin. “Ummmm….”
“Well, where does the conduit lead?”
“Probably to the computer core.”
“Where I can re-establish computer control!”
Baxter shook his head. “A brain equal to Larkin’s is running this ship, Plato. There’s no way you can out-wit her, even considering your perfect grades in chemistry and pottery.”
Plato stepped over to Baxter. “Listen, this is our only chance. Who knows when Kitty will turn her audio monitors on us and gas us into oblivion for even trying something like this?”
Baxter rubbed his chin again. “It’s a wonder she hasn’t already. Running this ship must be taking more of a toll on her systems than I thought.”
“Does that give you any ideas?”
Baxter nodded. “I think so. But it involves you going ahead down that tube.”
“Then we’re settled.”
Baxter swallowed. “I guess so. But stay in one piece. If anything happens to you, your mother will kill me.”
Plato grinned. “Not a problem.”
Baxter sighed. “I’ve heard that one before.”
Captain Conway stood and looked around the conference table in the Aerostar’s conference lounge. “Am I to take it you all represent the very best the Explorer has to offer in leadership?”
At the other end of the table, Richards nodded. “Yeah. But you have to consider, we’re pretty shallow what with all the senior staff on the Escort.”
“Okay,” Conway nodded and scanned the familiar faces: Browning, Padgett from Biology, Susan Madera, Ryan Stuart from engineering and Unlathi from security. And four or five others he’d never met. “First the good news. We managed to get everyone from the Explorer’s escape pods aboard. It’s a tight fit, mind you. We’ve had to convert the deck eleven racquetball courts into a makeshift bed and breakfast.”
“Sounds cozy,” muttered Richards.
“Anyway,” said Conway, “you’ll all be glad to know I’m developing a plan. Who’s got the senior astrometrics officer aboard?”
Browning rose a reluctant hand. “That would be me.”
“You’re not even a Starfleet officer. What are you doing leading one of these ships?”
“Holly’s still feeling woozy from the morphine I gave her and Forrester, who’s your astrometrics person, by the way, is all googily-eyed over Lieutenant Stuart.”
Stuart grinned. “What can I say. I’m a wildcat in bed.”
Conway’s eyes widened. “With Forrester?”
“Captain!” Richards said. “We have more important things to discuss.”
“Certainly,” said Conway. “But Stuart, remind me to have a word or two with you after all this is over.”
“Anyway,” Conway said, and turned to face the slatted viewports. “We have a big job ahead of us. We need to locate whatever passes for a resistance in this corner of the quadrant, and we have to help them punch through Ardek’s fleet to get the Explorer back.”
“So we CAN locate the Explorer?” Richards asked. “Because it’s sure as hell not showing up on the Escort’s sensors.”
“No, Mister Smartypants, we cannot locate the Explorer,” Conway said. “But I can tell you one thing, it’s not on OUR side of Ardek’s little circle of ships. So my strategic instincts tell me she’s on the other side.” Conway leaned onto his knees and scanned the room. “Listen up. You all want your ship back, right?”
“DAMN RIGHT!” Browning called out.
Conway smiled. “Glad to see I have someone on my side here.” Despite all that had happened, despite his captured Science, Tactical, and First Officer, Conway felt invigorated. This is what he loved about being a captain. The strategy, the planning. The bossing around!
Conway whirled toward the observation lounge viewscreen. “Now let’s take a look at that fleet and see if we can’t figure a way through its defensive posture. Meanwhile, Janice, you call Forrester and have her report to my Astrometrics lab and start scanning the adjoining systems for any signs of resistance. It’ll probably be Maloxians and Sulani. Richards–” Conway glanced at Richards, who looked blankly back at him. “You get on the horn to J’hana and find out if she’s up to a little rescue mission.”
“Isn’t that what we’re all talking about here?” Richards asked.
“I’m not talking about getting the Explorer back. I’m talking about boarding one of thoses ships and getting MY people back!”
“Now THAT I am interested in,” Richards said, and leaned forward.
“Then get out of here and call the Escort!” Conway barked. “Browning, you go with him!”
“A PLEASE would be nice!” Browning muttered.
“Wouldn’t it?” Conway asked and turned back to the viewscreen.
Stars streaked toward the Escort and Peterman sat awkwardly in the command chair with Steffie squeezed in next to her.
“When’s Daddy getting back? When do we get to go home?” Steffie was stabbing at buttons on the chair arm. Peterman gently pushed her hand away before she launched a torpedo or some such thing.
“Daddy’s just…getting some business done. We’ll get him back soon.” Peterman sighed. “Listen, honey…” She turned Steffie around on her lap so that she faced the counselor. “I’m going to be frank with you. Your Daddy’s not very safe out there right now. It’s up to us to get him back.”
“Can I help?”
“Actually…” Peterman thought about that. “You can. You can go help Mister Mirk make a nice dinner for us in the mess hall.”
J’hana scoffed at the tactical station beside Peterman. “We are fighting for our very lives, Counselor. And you’re planning a dinner party?”
“We’ve LOST our SHIP!” Peterman said through gritted teeth. “We need SOMETHING to raise our spirits.”
J’hana plunked at her panel. “A dinner party will not get your precious husband or our ship back.”
“Maybe not, but it’ll make us all happier workers, which will help us accomplish the mission. Got it?”
“She does make some sense,” Tilleran said, leaning against the wall of science consoles behind Peterman. “The vibe on this ship has been nothing short of awful since we jettisoned from the Explorer.”
“Like a dinner party will help solve all our problems,” spat J’hana.
“Mirk’s making stewed targ colon,” Peterman said primly.
J’hana licked her lips. “Stewed targ colon, you say?”
“I’ll go help Mirk!” Steffie said, and slid off Peterman’s lap, headed for the rear door.
“Would you like additional help?” J’hana asked, swiveling in her chair back toward Steffie.
“I don’t think so,” Peterman said quickly. “YOU are needed at tactical.”
J’hana huffed, then reached under her console and withdrew a hand phaser. She tossed it over her shoulder to Steffie, who caught it gleefully. “Then at least take this sidearm with you. Who knows when we’ll be boarded.”
“J’HANA!” shrieked Peterman, as Steffie ducked out.
J’hana shrugged. “Not to worry. It was set on stun, Counselor.”
Baxter laid still on the floor of his readyroom, leaned over with his ear to the ODN tube Plato had shimmied down. He tried not to think about the awful cracking and crunching sounds that ensued when the little tyke shimmied down. He prayed everything formed back together when he reached the end of the tube. Speaking of…
Baxter heard a distinct, light tapping on the tube, which signaled that Plato had made it into the computer core.
Time to spring into action.
Baxter stood and hurried to his replicator, the only system left available to him in the whole of the readyroom.
“Computer, I’d like a snack.”
“Really?” replied the voice of Kitty. “Like what? Long range communicator? Tricorder? Phaser rifle?”
“Nothing so filling. I was thinking something more along the lines of potato chips.”
A pause. “That I can do. Do you prefer ruffled or un- ruffled?”
Baxter smiled, hoping Kitty’s cabin sensors didn’t catch him grinning. “Doesn’t matter, but I do have one request.”
“Anything you wish…as long as it is in the chip family.”
“Oh, of course.” Baxter leaned toward the replicator. “What I want…what I REALLY want, is a chip that is fat free, tastes good, and won’t give me cancer, fertility problems, loose stool, or brain damage. Can you do it?”
Another pause. “…Working.”
Baxter clenched his fist. “YES!”
The computer bleeped a few times.
“Well?” asked Baxter, suppressing a laugh.
Suddenly the lights dimmed.
“Hello, computer?” Baxter asked impishly.
A bland male voice spoke up: “The system is busy. The program you have requested is currently not responding. System resources are dangerously low. Shut down one or more programs, wait for the system to become available, or reboot.”
Baxter angled around to watch the streaking stars out the viewport disappear to dots. YES!
He knelt down to the ODN tube and screamed down it. “NOW PLATO!”
Lights and alarms blared and buzzed around Plato as he tapped at the console Kitty was seated at. She seemed spooky, eyes moving rapidly but not focusing on anything. A bleeping wire was connected directly to the back of her neck. Plato would have loved to simply sever that wire, but were that to happen, Explorer would have doubtless shut down altogether. Besides which, he hit a forcefield when he tried to touch her. She hadn’t taken any risks, and probably would have gassed him as soon as he slid out of the tube, but she was busy handling Baxter’s chip order.
Plato grinned. His Godfather was a genius, when he wasn’t being a total moron.
Plato heard muffled shouts down the corridor leading to the computer core. He had to step up his work.
On the computer console, he rerouted system after system to the backup computer. With Kitty occupied with chips, her guard was down. Each connection re-established without a hitch. Last but not least…security.
Just then the door to the core opened. With catlike reflexes, Plato vaulted the computer core railing and plummeted toward the bottom. A normal human would be hurt by the twenty meter fall, but Plato’s worse fear was that he would bounce a bit.
He did bounce a bit, which did end up hurting somewhat. After all, his bones were just now reverting back to a semi- soild state.
Plato widened his ears a bit to better pick up the conversation twenty meters up. He recognized one shrill voice as Ardek’s.
“What do you mean she’s disconnected? How could this happen?”
Before anyone could answer, Ardek continued: “Reactivate her, for Chula’s sake! Get her back up and running.”
“Sir,” said another voice. “I think the ship’s computer is back in control.”
“Perform a security lockout. No way Baxter is getting in with his access codes. How in the hell did he do that?” asked Ardek.
“Security lockout established,” announced the other voice.
Plato cringed. Baxter must have been too late re- establishing his control codes. He was probably up there in the readyroom snacking on chips. Damn.
“Kitty!” Ardek’s voice demanded. “Kitty! Wake up this instant you naughty little tramp!”
Plato giggled quietly. If nothing else, he and Baxter had succeeded in stalling Ardek. Now it was up to the cavalry to come to the rescue.
“I’ve tried everything. I can’t find the good candles,” Captain Conway said to no one in particular. Actually, he said it to his Pembrooke Welsh corgi, Bucky, but he didn’t like to think of himself as someone who talked to dogs.
And yet there he was, opposite Bucky at his dinner table, in his dimly lit cabin. Bucky was skiddish in the dining room chair, but after Conway leashed him up to the back of the chair he seemed more secure. He leaned his head forward, and, steadying himself with his stub-like paws, he ate out of the large plastic dish labeled “Bucky.” His nose sifted through the meaty morsels and rich brown gravy.
Conway picked at his meal of fried chicken and onion rings and french fries and fried ice cream and pixie sticks, occasionally looking across the table in the silence at Bucky.
“You’ve got a little shmutz on your nose there, Bucks,” Conway said, and leaned across his table with a napkin to dab some gravy off.
More silence and chomping.
“Yeah, Bucky,” Conway said. “I’m worried about Alexa and the others too. But there’s not much we can do now but wait while the nerds and techies figure out how to pull their fats out of the fire. Meanwhile, we’ve got to try to carry on as normal, good-smelling candles or not. Right?”
“Damn right.” Conway held the edges of the table. “Damn. Bucky, it’s so quiet. Isn’t it?”
No bark this time.
“Yeah. Right. Why the hell wasn’t I invited to the damn dinner party on the Escort, huh? I served with that damned crew four years. It shows you who your true friends are, huh?”
Bucky leaned down and licked his crotch.
“Right, well, you’re my true friend.” Bucky cast Conway a look that said “You are pathetic.” Dogs could do amazing things with their eyebrows. “Right then,” said Conway. “Let’s have some music. Computer…anything by Rolling Stones, please…”
“DUM DUM, DUM DA DUM DA DA DUMMM DUMMM!
I can’t get no satisfaction…
I can’t get no satisfaction…
Cause I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried…”
Conway angrily chewed a chicken breast along with the music.
“So are we proud of ourselves, hmmm? We can outsmart a computer. Well, how about that. I guess that makes us pretty hot stuff, huh?” Ardek stood on the other side of the forcefield in Explorer’s main brig, hands on hips, looking at the pair in the brig with pure, watchful hate.
“Yes,” Baxter replied defiantly, sitting next to the crumpled form of Kitty Larkin on the brig bench. “My crew IS hot stuff. Don’t try to mess with us, or you’ll get burned BIG TIME!”
“I’m tired of your empty threats,” Ardek said with a wave of his hand.
“Empty? I think I regained control of my ship pretty well.”
“Who is in the brig, huh? Me or you?”
“That’ll change, buddy, I assure you.” Baxter absently wiped potato chip crumbs from his tunic. He really should have tried to take control. But when Kitty really came through and produced those delicious fat free chips in the replicator slot…he had to at least give it a try.
That was when the hulking Garibid stomped in and did a tap dance on his face.
“Well, you do whatever you want. See if you can get Kitty up and running, for what good it’ll do you,” Ardek said, and waved his hand at Kitty. “My people picked at her positronics for an hour, and couldn’t get any sign of life. Your little potato chip trick blew out a processor or whatnot. And what does that mean for me? I have to teach idiot Garibid and an adolescent Maloxian how to pilot a ship. Do you think that’s easy? Really, I know next to nothing about Federation ships myself, other than enough to turn this baby into a casino.”
“Some of those games were fun,” Baxter mused. “If you can leave them on the system before you give us the ship back…”
Ardek leaned toward Baxter. “You are not getting this ship back! If she makes it through the invasion, her hull is going to be MOUNTED in my THRONE ROOM!”
“Surely you jest.”
Ardek smiled. “It’s going to be one big throne room.”
“You have big plans, Ardek. Too bad you can’t back them up.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Look where your plans have gotten you so far!”
“They got me an empire!”
Baxter furrowed his brow, stymied. “Well…before that!”
Ardek whirled, his cape willowing behind him. “I’m done with you. Stew in here all you like. And pray we don’t find your little runt changeling, because if we do…”
The brig doors opened and Jahn, Ardek’s Maloxian assistant, strolled in with Plato.
“I found Plato, Exaltedness. He was hungry so I got him a taco down at the mall–”
“JAHN!” scolded Ardek. “We torture our enemies, we do not feed them!”
“Have you been to the taco stand down there?” Jahn said. He made a broad gesture with his hands. “They’re stuffed out to here!”
“They were delicious,” agreed Plato.
“And this guy has quite the dry wit!”
Ardek grabbed his staff from the nearby table and bonked Jahn on the head with it. “You imbecile! Put Plato in the brig then get to the bridge. We have lots to do and not lots of time, got it?”
Jahn rubbed his head. “We were just trying to have some fun. You know, sometimes I just want to be a boy…”
“TOO BAD! You’re a conqueror, just like me, mister, you got that?”
“You’re not my real Dad,” spat Jahn, as he deactivated the force field in the brig and shoved Plato in.
Ardek rushed to switch the field back on. “That’s right I’m not! You’d have a lick of sense if I was. Maybe if your father had a lick of sense I wouldn’t have had to have someone crash a shuttle into him. Then I wouldn’t have had to try to mold you into an effective leader. Damn your non-existent motivational skills!”
“That was SOOO wrong!” Jahn muttered, and whirled toward the brig door.
“I’m not through with you!” chided Ardek, following.
“You told me to go to the bridge!”
“Well I want to berate you more!”
“Don’t take that tone with me!”
Baxter sat, perplexed, on the bench in the brig, watching the doors close on the retreating Ardek and Jahn.
“Even Ardek is acting like a parent. Man, I am getting old.”
Plato paced the brig. “You are NOT.”
Baxter buried his head in his hands. “Plato, I’m not always going to be around to take care of you. Soon you’re going to need to strike out on your own. You do understand that, don’t you?”
“Wait one sec. Who’s taking care of who here?”
“I’d like to think I’m a mentor to you…”
Plato glanced at Baxter. “Well, you are. But I think I do my fair share of helping you too. Remember how I helped you rebuild Steffie’s doll house after you sat on it?”
Baxter nodded. “Granted.” He stared up at the ceiling. “Plato, I turn 38 on my next birthday.” He sighed. “I’m getting too old for this sh**.”
“That’s ridiculous. You’re barely a third through the average human life expectancy! You might not be the most healthy guy around, but I’m sure you’ll live long past 120.”
Baxter blinked. “Why are we talking about this?”
Plato shrugged. “You’re the one who brought it up.”
“Forget I did.” Baxter looked down at the inert form of Kitty. “Think you can get her back on-line?”
Plato knelt by Kitty. “Tough to say. Who knows what all they did to her. Larkin let me play around with her positronic brain a couple times when she was on the Explorer. I think this one’s similar.”
“Let’s hope so,” Baxter said eagerly as Plato peeled back the top of Kitty’s skull to reveal a pulsing network of circuits underneath.
“Let’s see…” Plato poked around. “Looks like they bypassed a huge amount of data. Maybe I can re-route the command paths and do a fresh re-boot.”
Baxter beamed. “Plato, it’s amazing how much you youngsters know about technology. Man, when I was growing up…sheesh, our androids had no personality. Nowadays, with positronics…it’s just mind-blowing.”
“Done,” Plato said as Baxter droned on.
To Baxter’s surprise, Kitty sat up ramrod straight, eyes darting as she accessed data.
“Kitty, do you read me?” Baxter said, pivoting Kitty’s head to face him. “Hello in there?”
Kitty cocked her head, and said, “A line from ‘I, Robot,’ Mister Ardek. A good book indeed. I highly recommend it.” Then she flung herself forward off the bench and waggled her arms and legs. “Do not try to struggle…die with some dignity…wait, what are you doing…is that a transporter beam…?” Kitty trailed off, then shot up again ramrod straight on the floor. She looked back at Baxter. “Captain. Did you just address me as a feline?”
Baxter stared at Kitty. “Um…”
“Where am I?” Kitty stood. “Why are we in the brig? Is this another of Commander Conway’s intricate pranks? And what of Ardek? Did I succeed in killing him on Crysta? How did I get here?”
Plato looked at Baxter, his face a mask of confusion. Baxter’s mouth was gaping.
“I am missing some key memory engrams,” Kitty went on to say. She looked at Baxter. “Captain…what has transpired?”
Baxter’s mouth moved but no sound came out. Finally: “Um, Larkin?”
“Yes, Captain?” Kitty cocked her head quizzically.
Baxter rested his hands on the android’s shoulders. “Larkin, we have to have a loooooooooooong talk.”
“Well…everybody dig in.” Commander Richards looked out over the table in the Escort’s mess hall. It was actually all of the tiny tables that usually pervaded the mess, slammed together and covered with a huge table-cloth Yeoman Briggs had cobbled together out of the replicator. It was a wonder what one could do last-minute.
The sound of quiet and slow slurping and snacking filled the mess hall.
“The targ colon is delicious,” J’hana said quietly.
“Steffie!” Peterman snapped, and tapped her daughter on the knee. She turned to look at Richards. “Christopher, why don’t you fill us in on the plans to get your daughter back from Ardek’s people and retake the Explorer?”
Richards blinked at Peterman. “You pretty much just said it all, Kelly. We’re going to get my daughter and Conway’s ex-wife back from Ardek’s people, then go get the Explorer back.”
“I hope you have a slightly more detailed plan than that,” Browning muttered, picking at her food.
“J’hana’s working on the details,” Richards muttered.
“Come again?” J’hana slurped colon off her chin with her tongue.
“You’re working on a plan to get the Explorer and Conway’s away team back, right?”
“Oh. Right. Well, we’re right on top of that.” J’hana continued eating.
“Care to fill us in?” Peterman asked, turning to J’hana. Obviously, Richards would be no help. He continued glaring at Browning.
J’hana sighed and put down her fork. “I WAS trying to eat, but if you insist I can fill you in on the particulars. There will be two attack teams. Captain Conway will lead the Aerostar-A in the efforts to get the Explorer back, while Commander Richards will take the Escort and attempt to retrieve Conway’s away team from Ardek’s minions.”
“Have we located either the Explorer or Conway’s away team yet?” asked Browning.
Tilleran sighed heavily. “No.”
“Fat lot of progress we’ve made,” muttered Richards.
“This is a true bummer,” Peterman said, and pushed at her food.
“Well,” said Browning. “There is cake.”
“What kind?” asked J’hana, raising an eyebrow.
Browning smiled politely. “Sorry.”
“When are we going to find Daddy?” Steffie hurled her fork across the mess hall, narrowly missing hitting J’hana in the forehead.
The Andorian grinned. “Stephanie Baxter. You will make a competent warrior one day.”
“What’s a warrior?” Steffie asked, looking to Peterman.
“Never you mind,” Peterman said, and glared scoldingly at J’hana.
Suddenly a comm signal trilled in the mess hall.
“Bridge to Mess Hall.” It was Lieutenant Commander Hartley.
“What?” asked Richards.
“Conway’s calling. Should I put him through or what?”
“Go ahead and put him through.” Richards rolled his eyes up toward the ceiling.
“This is Captain Conway. Thanks a bunch for inviting me to your little dinner.”
“You were more than welcomed to come,” lied Peterman.
“Sure. Sure I was. Well, where was my invite? Why did I have to find out from my Chief Medical Officer, who found out from your Chief of Operations?”
“Did you just call to complain that we didn’t invite you to dinner or do you have a legitimate reason for calling, Captain?” Richards asked tiredly.
“Oh, I have a legitimate reason all right. I’ve located the resistance, led by Jum. On the outer edge of this sector.”
Richards wiped his mouth and tossed down his napkin. “We’re on our way to the bridge. I take it we’re diverting course to meet them?”
“That’s right we are. Meet you there. Save me some dessert. Conway out.”
“We will not save him any dessert,” J’hana said resolutely, and followed Richards and the others hurriedly out of the mess hall, leaving Browning and Peterman to clean up.
Steffie shoved away her plate and folded har arms. “Where’s Daddy?”
Browning picked up the plates and shot Peterman a worried look. Peterman swiveled to face Steffie. “Daddy’s on a special secret mission, honey. He’ll be back as soon as he can.”
“But why can’t I talk to him?”
“Because….because then it wouldn’t be a secret mission anymore.”
Steffie stuck out her bottom lip. “I don’t like secret missions.”
“Me neither,” sighed Peterman.
Browning shoved some plates into the replicator and eradicated them. “Me neither.”
“I would not believe it if my own aural sensors had not confirmed it,” Kitty Larkin said, seated beside Baxter and Plato on the brig bunk. “My mind has been in a virtual stasis for the last five years. In my absence, this body has been Commander Ardek’s…sex slave.”
Baxter folded his arms and nodded. “Yep. That pretty much sums it up. I don’t think you’ve ever had sex with Ardek, but I’m sure you put on quite a show for a lot of others.”
“Mister Richards…he simply built a new…me?”
Baxter nodded. “Yep. She looks just like you. Well, the original you.” He waved a hand at Kitty. “Before Ardek got his hands on you and painted you all up like a Dabo girl.”
Larkin looked down at her tight vinyl lime jumpsuit. “This is a most disagreeable situation.”
“But hey–there is good news.” Baxter put an arm around Larkin. “Larkin number two is Conway’s first officer on the Aerostar-A. I could always use another Larkin. If we ever get control of this ship back.”
“That would be a significant cause for confusion.”
“Ah, we’ll work it out. I’m sure you’ve got a middle name we can use or something. Anyway, first things first. We need to get control of this ship back from Ardek. Do you think we can get you back into his good graces? Get you on the inside and topple his little empire?”
Kitty nodded. “We can try.” Kitty looked to her right, to Plato who looked on with interest. “And who is this person?”
Baxter smiled. “Janice Browning’s half-changeling baby… uh, teenager.”
“Ah, then my calculations were correct.”
“THIS THING VIBRATES!” Ardek cheered, wriggling around in Captain Baxter’s command chair on the bridge of the Explorer.
Jahn turned around in his seat at the operations console up front. “Exaltedness…we just recieved word from our listening posts in sector 59694. They picked up a communication between the Aerostar-A and an installation on Beldana.”
Ardek’s eyes widened cartoonishly. “Jahn, my little illegitimate bundle of joy…could this be…could this BE!?”
“The rebel base,” Jahn said. “Yes. I think so. And that bastard Jum too.”
“Tell the fleet commander to track that comm signal and locate the Aerostar, the Escort, the rebels, and whoever else might happen to be in her way. Have her eradicate all of them!” Ardek pointed his fingers, pistol-like, at the Explorer ceiling. “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! GONE!”
Jahn went to work on his panel. “She’ll want to know why you won’t lead the attack, Ardek.”
“Tell her that’s none of her business. Not till I decide it is. Meanwhile, move us to the exact coordinates of where the Crebius Cluster once was and have our scientists begin making their calculations.”
“Can I remind you our scientists are Garibid?”
“NO! Just do it!” Ardek said frantically.
“Fine. Whatever. You’re such a rotten step-dad.”
Richards rapped his fingers on the arm of the Escort command chair. “When are we going to get to this secret planet of Jum’s?”
“Closing in on it now,” said Lt. Commander Tilleran from the science wall at the rear. “And, in case you were wondering, it’s Beldana.”
Richards turned the chair around to face Tilleran. “THE Beldana?”
J’hana smacked her lips at the tactical station beside Richards. “A planet full of women, yes SIR!”
“Don’t get any ideas,” Richards muttered. “Just because the Maloxian-Sulani resistance is based on a planet of beautiful, headstrong women, means nothing to our current mission. Got that?”
J’hana straightened. “Of course.”
“Megan?” Mirk poked his head into the dim room where Lt. Commander Hartley worked on a blinking console. He looked around. “What the hell is this place?”
“Computer, lights,” Hartley said, as she plunked at the console.
The lights rose up in the room and Mirk found himself faced with two microshuttles.
“This little ship has a shuttlebay?” Mirk rubbed his chin. “Six years and I’d never have guessed.”
“We haven’t had much cause to use it, but yes, we have a shuttlebay.” Hartley pointed with a stylus to the floor. “The shuttles drop right out of there.”
“I’m sure you didn’t come down here to talk to me about the Escort’s layout.” Hartley turned away from the console to face Mirk. “So what’s up?”
“We’re going to meet with the rebels. Led by my Dad.”
Hartley nodded. “I heard.”
“It’s been more than seven years since I’ve seen him,” Mirk said. “I’m wondering how he’ll react to me.”
“I’m sure he’ll be ecstatic. It’s not every day your get reunited with your son.”
“But MY SHIP unleashed Ardek here. That’s going to dampen the reunion a bit, don’t you think?”
“Family is family, Mirk,” Hartley said. She stepped forward to cup Mirk’s chin in her hands. “You have nothing to worry about.” She leaned forward and kissed him. “Unless of course that Danel tries something with you.”
“I’d tell her I’m a happily married man.”
“Happily married to a woman who could kick her ever- loving–”
“Richards to all senior staff,” crackled the comm system, “please report to the bridge immediately.”
“I’ll finish that thought later,” Hartley said, and headed for the door to the small bay. “You coming?”
“I’m not senior staff.”
“You’re a senior husband. Come on.”
Mirk grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You’re blocking my viewscreen.” Browning and Peterman stood resolutely in front of Richards, and he leaned back in the command chair. “Okay, so don’t move. But make this quick. We’re meeting with Jum on the Aerostar in ten minutes.”
“We’re transferring to the Aerostar,” Peterman said crisply.
Browning nodded. “We have a husband and a son to rescue.”
“You think Conway’s going to let either of you on the away team?” Richards scoffed. “Really!”
“You let us worry about that,” said Peterman.
“This isn’t up for debate, Christopher,” said Browning.
“Fine,” Richards said with a wave of his hand. “But does that mean Conway will transfer over here to go on the mission to save his crewpeople?”
“That’s your problem,” Peterman said. “But frankly, I don’t see him giving up his command. He’s probably over there gloating right now over the fact that his ship is bigger than yours.”
“And somehow that’s more important than his missing crew?”
Browning shrugged. “Maybe he just trusts you to get the job done.”
“I like Peterman’s explanation better.” Richards sighed and stood. “All right. Let’s get over to the Aerostar and get this overwith. The sooner we finish chatting the sooner we can put things right.”
“Amen,” said Peterman, just as Hartley and Mirk stepped onto the bridge.
Richards swiveled to face them. “Commander Hartley, you’re in charge of the Escort until I get back. We’ll be meeting with Jum.”
“Can I go along?” Mirk asked, as Richards, Peterman, and Browning crossed over to the turbolift doors.
“Why would you want to do that?” asked Richards.
“Jum is Mirk’s father, remember?” Hartley prodded.
Richards nodded. “Right. Well, you can’t expect me to remember everything. Come on, Mirk. Hartley, the conn is yours.”
“Joy.” Hartley sidled over to the command chair and flopped down. “Y’all have fun.”
“Sexy circuits engaged.”
“You have ‘sexy circuits’?”
“This is neither the time nor the place, sir.”
Suddenly the doors to the brig opened up and Ardek sauntered in, cape flowing behind him. “All right, this better be good!”
“She tried to take advantage us!” Baxter said, stabbing a finger in Kitty’s direction. “There I was, sleeping like a baby, when all of a sudden I feel this tongue in my ear.”
Kitty looked sheepish. “You cannot blame an android for trying.”
“She was trying to get information out of us, I’ll bet,” Plato said to Baxter.
Baxter nodded. “That’s insidious, Ardek. And what’s more, it’s expressly forbidden by the Khitomer Accords.”
Ardek grinned at Kitty. “Far be it from me to break the rules. Kitty, I believe I reacted too hastily. Here I thought your emotional glitches had totally overtaken your program, but it seems you have a lick of sense left after all!”
“‘Lick’ indeed,” Baxter said indignantly.
“Emotional…glitches?” Kitty asked.
“Whoops,” muttered Baxter. Kitty looked back at him with an interrogative expression. Baxter shrugged at her and looked around her at Ardek, who paced in front of the security field. “I don’t know Ardek. She hasn’t shown any emotion so far, except for lust!”
“Just the way I like it!” Ardek clapped. He deactivated the forcefield to allow Kitty out. Baxter stood, but Ardek quickly punched the field back up before Baxter could escape. “Naughty, naughty, Captain! How far do you think you’d get before my men tracked you down? You’re alone on this ship now with only that rubbery boy to help you. Further, you’re alone in this quadrant. How does that feel?”
“Lonely, I guess,” said Baxter.
“HAH!” Ardek sang, and whirled to face the door. “Well, if it’s any consolation, you’ll be seeing your home quadrant soon enough. Too bad it won’t really be on the terms you’d like. First stop: Obliterate Waystation. I don’t suppose the good Captain Beck will be all too happy to see you this time, huh?”
“She never is.”
“Well, she’ll be extra unhappy this time around. I’ll make sure of that!”
Baxter sighed. “You do that, Ardek.” Kitty followed Ardek out of the brig, tossing a suspicious glance at Baxter on the way out. Baxter felt bad sending Kitty out against Ardek in the condition her mind was in. She had reverted back to being the Larkin of old. The poor thing had no idea that her current model hat emotions, nor any of the other revelations of the last several years. There hadn’t been enough time to really fill her in. Who even knew if Larkin Mark I’s positronic brain would hold up to all the new parameters? Baxter could only cross his fingers and hope Larkin I was successful getting the Explorer back.
Now that the two were alone, Plato looked at Baxter. “Do you think she’ll be able to get our ship back, Andy?”
“No one else in the galaxy could, Plato.”
Well, maybe one other person.
Larkin Mark II watched with dismay from her electronic cage at the rear of the Leadership Spa and Funtimes Resort Flagship Motivation, which was led by none other than the Maloxian troublemaker Ronan, who now bore the rank of full Program Coordinator.
Larkin fondly remembered how, eight years ago, Ronan tried to leave her away team aboard an exploding Borg ship and, before that, tried to kill the senior staff of the Aerostar via food poisoning.
She was not altogether happy to find herself captured aboard Ronan’s vessel. What was worse, she was forced to be hung, still limbless, inside an electromagnetic cage which limiteded her every movement and looked very much like a cage a Go-Go dancer would be forced to dance in. An undignified situation, if ever she’d known of one.
Ronan, meanwhile, sat in the center throne of the Motivation. She’d actually aged rather well over the years, and Larkin had often wondered what became of her.
Larkin also wondered what had become of Private Henricks and Lt. Commander Prescott. Ronan was not very forthcoming with answers to either question. All she did say, and say over and over, to her crew, which Larkin was in prime position to overhear, was that they were on their way to Beldana to obliterate the Maloxian-Sulani rebels and take out the Aerostar to boot.
That did not sit well with Larkin at all.
From what Larkin could gather, her role in all this was to look on in horror and gasp a lot at the carnage as Ronan and her fleet dismantled the Maloxians, the Sulani, and, of course, Larkin’s loved ones.
That did not sit well with Larkin at all.
She would, however, make every effort to keep a neutral expression throughout the proceedings. She could control her emotions as easily as that layabout Data, but she could divert and suppress them. She hoped.
Whatever the case, they were hurtling toward her friends, all weapons set to “blow sky high,” and there was nothing the android could do but watch.
They would arrive in a mere hour at Beldana.
A mere hour, of course, was comprised of millions of nanoseconds.
And thus, Larkin began formulating a plan.
Captain Conway looked out the slatted viewport in the observation lounge, overlooking all of the lush, green planet Beldana. So many beautiful amazon women…
Conway blinked to clear his thoughts. He refocused his eyes to take in the cluster of ships which surrounded the hemisphere of the planet the Aerostar and Escort encircled. There were four ships there, two Klingon Birds-of-Prey, an Excelsior-class starship, and a Breen freighter.
Behind Conway, Richards, Peterman, and Browning, the Explorer contingent, sat quietly at the conference table.
The doors to the conference lounge slid open and Conway turned to face them. “Ssssssssomebody called for me?”
“Ah, Benzra,” Conway said. “Take a seat. I thought your expertise would be good here.”
“Fine by me. It wassssssssss overcrowded in Ssssssssickbay anyway.” The four-meter tall Benzra squeezed awkwardly into a chair between Peterman and Browning. She looked at each. “Good to ssssssssee you all again. How isssss life on the Explorer?”
Peterman smiled weakly. “It’s been better.”
“Sssssssshame.” Benzra turned to Conway. “Sssssssssso…I hear we’re in the Delta Quadrant again.”
Conway nodded. “Yes. Glad you got the memo about that. We’re meeting with Jum in a few minutes. I thought you could sit in on the conference and give us the Flarn point of view.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know much about the Flarn at thisssssssss time. I hope they are well. It is Gessssssssssssssolent Day, you know.”
“Happy holidays,” Conway said gruffly and sat down at the head of the table. At that time, Jum stepped through the conference lounge doors, flanked by Sulani guards. They all wore basic khaki duty uniforms, each inscripted with a bunch of grapes getting struck by lightening. Charming logo.
“Captain,” Jum said, when his eyes shifted to Benzra. “What is THAT doing here?”
Conway rolled his eyes. He should have expected this. “THAT is Doctor Benzra. She is my Chief Medical Officer.”
“How did THAT happen?” asked Jum. “And where is my son?”
“Mirk’s in the bathroom,” Conway said, then looked to Benzra. “As far as Benzra is concerned, we found her six years ago on the planet Xavier. She’d been transported there by the Critics, recruited by one of their minions, a guy by the name of Sesil. We reversed her brainwashing and gave her a crash course on Federation medicine.”
“And now the Critics’ minions control this quadrant,” Jum said tightly.
“Yes,” said Conway. “We were hoping you could bring us up to speed on that.”
“Well,” Jum said, taking the seat at the opposite end of the conference table from Conway. “I suppose I should start from the beginning…” He stopped, glaring at Benzra. “Did you see that? She licked her chops!”
“That is a lie,” replied Benzra defiantly. “I have no chopssssssss to lick.”
“Well you were licking one of your hideous rows of teeth.”
Benzra brought herself up to full height sitting in the chair midway down the table from Jum. “I will have you know my teeth are gorgeousssss.”
“Whether we like it or not,” Conway said quickly, facing Jum, “we are going to have to work together in order to bring this matter to a happy conclusion.”
“What did you have in mind?” Jum said, turning to Conway.
“We intend to disable Ardek’s empire, if we can.”
“Save yourself the trouble.”
“You sound like he’s already won.”
“He might as well have…” Jum diverted his eyes. “She’s doing it again! Captain, this is intolerable. I feel like she’s sizing me up for cooking.”
“I’ll have you know I am no humanitarian!” Benzra said quickly.
“That means she doesn’t eat humanoids,” Conway said quickly.
“The only human I’ve ever eaten was already dead anyway, and he was gristly!”
“You monster!” Jum said, and lurched over the table.
“Dad, back off!” Mirk’s voice called, and Jum whirled.
“Mirkle!” Jum cried, and jumped out of the chair to hug his son. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
Mirk hugged back. “Same here. Listen, I know Benzra is a Flarn, but we have to get past that if we’re to win this…” Jum looked blank. “Oh, Captain Conway already gave you that speech, huh?”
“Yes, actually,” Conway said. “Have a seat, Mister Mirk. I trust everything came out all right.”
“Indeed it did,” Mirk said, taking a seat beside Jum.
“At any rate, Captain,” Jum said, not taking his eyes off Benzra, “Ardek came over from your side of the Galaxy and took hold here almost immediately, with the Critics’ help.”
“How is that possible?” asked Browning.
“Gas,” replied Jum simply.
“Pardon?” asked Conway, then he amended, “oh, right, the noxious brain-washing gas.”
“Correct,” said Jum. “His ‘leadership’ organization went from an annoying cult to a formidable adversary within a year. Initially, he launched an attack of unified Garibid and Madridi forces that took over the Sulani homeworld in a matter of a day. Then he went down and systematically executed the Sulani executive council, all because they refused to let him do a lecture tour on leadership skills at their university campuses.”
“So he’s not only a conqueror,” said Peterman, “he’s an academian too, now?”
“A deadly combination,” Richards said, fist clenched.
“Indeed,” nodded Jum. “With the most powerful peaceful race in this area of the quadrant knocked out and disorganized, the rest soon followed.” Jum looked wearily at Mirk. “His united, brainwashed forces took our own planet over in a matter of hours. Now he has Garibid, Sulani, and Maloxians all working for him. Me and three hundred others were able to escape the Malox system in our transport and fighter craft, but the rest of the system, and indeed most of this sector, was overcome by Ardek’s people.”
“Terrifying,” grumbled Conway.
“And what of the Flarn?” asked Benzra.
“The cowards,” spat Jum. “Before Ardek showed up, the Sulani and Maloxians were in preliminary alliance negotiations with them. But when Ardek took out both our worlds, the Flarn withdrew deeper into their own borders, cut off their rebuilding efforts, and instead focused on walling themselves in. Ardek has seen fit to leave them alone, for now. He captured a few of their fleet yards, adding their frightening technology to his arsenal. That was the real point when I realized this war was unwinnable. Ever since, we’ve just been in hiding.”
“How can that be? The Flarn should be Ardek’s most fearsssssssssome enemy.”
“Evidently,” Richards said, “they were never the same after the Borg conqured them.”
“You’re probably right,” said Jum. “But at this point that hardly matters, does it?”
“How can you say that?” asked Mirk. “You don’t sound like my father at all. You don’t sound like the man that nearly destroyed my ship, single-handedly, just because you thought I was working for the Critics!”
“That was before I witnessed the real tool of the Critics come in and wash over this quadrant like so much powdered soap.”
“Ardek’s a tool, all right,” muttered Browning.
“Well, Ardek’s taken our people,” Conway said, and looked at Peterman. “Some people we really care about. We’re all determined to get them back.”
“And our best chance of doing that is with your help,” said Mirk.
“Please?” added Browning.
Jum scanned the room. “No. It’s too risky. You really did a nice job upgrading your ship, but…”
Conway cleared his throat. “The original Aerostar blew up just a few hours after we got back to the Alpha Quadrant. This is a new Aerostar,” Conway said. “It’s a fearsome battleship that can separate into three ships and fight simultaneously.”
“I don’t care if this ship can separate into a whole fleet. It’s not enough to topple Ardek.”
“If we hit him in the right place it issssssssss,” Benzra spoke up.
“Meaning what?” asked Jum.
“We have a Flarn aboard,” Conway said. “Benzra knows the weaknesses of Flarn ships, which make up half Ardek’s fleet. The other half are mostly altered Starshine ships, which my crew has faced and defeated in battle before.”
“Numbers aren’t going to win this war,” Richards said. “This war will have to be fought with our brains.”
“And we might have a chance anyway!” Browning piped up, and Richards glared at her.
“Out of the question,” Jum said, and stood. “I came aboard thinking you all might be willing to help us get our people out of this quadrant. That’s the only answer.”
“Abandon the quadrant?” asked Peterman. “Isn’t that a bit severe?”
“We’re hideously outnumbered, by a foe who is conditioned by heinous gas to follow every word their leader says. What other chance do we have?”
“The Directors cannot be happy about this,” Mirk muttered.
“There are no Directors,” spat Jum. “And if there are, they are not who we think they are. They are no more gods than you or I.”
“Be careful how you phrase that,” muttered Conway. “So you’re not going to help us, is that it? We have to rescue this bloody quadrant all by ourselves?”
“Nowhere in this quadrant is safe from Ardek.”
Conway saw Jum’s question coming. “Well, we’re certainly not going to try to move you all to the Alpha Quadrant. We don’t even know that we have the capability to punch through Ardek’s fleet, nor are we sure we can resurrect the Crebius Cluster or find any other way back!”
“Then how do you expect to defeat Ardek?” demanded Jum.
“There’s a…quantity…here that we haven’t mentioned,” Conway said, trading uneasy glances with Peterman.
“And that would be?”
Conway sighed. “Captain Baxter is in Ardek’s grasp now. It’s possible he and Doctor Browning’s son can mount a little insurrection from the inside…”
“I hate to be blunt, Captain,” said Jum, “but your Captain Baxter isn’t exactly a military genius!”
“He kicked your butt when you tried to take over the Aerostar,” said Peterman. “Not to mention he was there to help bring down the Borg, even though Dean did destroy the ship, in essence…”
“Enough!” Jum said, and stood. “This ends our discussion. You’ll have to look elsewhere, Captain.”
Benzra raised a claw to speak. “May I suggest the former Flarn Empire?”
“Not now, Benzra,” muttered Conway.
Mirk lept up to follow Jum to the door. “Dad, I don’t understand how you can write this off so easily…my friends’ lives are at stake…our whole quadrant is at stake! Are you willing to give up Maloxian freedom so easily, after you fought so hard to get it back from the Flarn?”
“Why don’t you take a shot at leading our people for a while, Mirk?” demanded Jum. “See how you like it then!”
Mirk gritted his teeth. “The Directors will not stand for this!”
“Yeah, right. You’re such a ‘conduit’ for them, use your powers now. Rain destruction down on Ardek’s fleet…strike them down…”
“If you continue this,” seethed Mirk, “the Directors will strike YOU down.” Mirk neglected to mention that, at the moment, he had no powers to speak of.
“Hah. Directors indeed. I’d like to see them tr–”
It was then that the conference room shook, as if hit by an earthquake, and the lights within flickered. Something bright and blue flashed by the windows, and Conway whirled in his chair.
“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?”
“The Directors?” pondered Browning, and Jum dropped to his knees.
“Whoops!” Jum quickly said, then launched into a series of Maloxian prayers.
Another flash and an explosion inside the bulkhead by the conference table. Browning, Richards, and Peterman dove to the floor.
“This isn’t the Directors’ style!” cried Richards, as alert klaxons sounded.
The comm system chirped. “Ford to Observation lounge: Captain to the bridge!”
The group in the lounge filed out, Conway leading the way, Benzra, with her considerable bulk, bringing up the rear.
Hartley had never spun to face the viewscreen so fast. She was dizzy as she watched the cris-crossing fleet of Flarn and Starshine warships circle them like giant gnats, others breaking off to rain anti-proton blasts down on Beldana itself.
“All weapons at the ready,” J’hana said quickly.
“Eight ships, Flarn and Starshine-type. Four of each,” Tilleran quickly called out.
Madera, reluctantly, had taken helm. “They’re focusing the brunt of their attack on the Aerostar, and some are heading right for the planet,” she said.
“Cover the Aerostar,” Hartley said. “Choose a tactical pattern you like and go with it, J’hana. Susan…keep us tight and quick.”
Madera tapped fast at the helm, and J’hana plunked joyfully at weapons.
“We’re taking a surprisingly small amount of fire,” said Tilleran.
“We’re too small,” J’hana said. “Those vessels are designed to attack much larger targets.” She sent off another volley of quantums, destroying a Starshine vessel. “That is our advantage, and may keep us from death.”
“The Aerostar may not be so lucky,” said Hartley.
“Why don’t they just go into multi-vector mode?” asked Tilleran.
“I heard Conway HATES that mode,” said Hartley.
A blast suddenly slammed into the Escort, causing it to pitch wildly, far faster than the inertial dampers could compensate for.
Hartley was flung out of the command chair, into a bulkhead. She climbed to her feet. “I thought we were too small!”
“They sent a ship specifically after us,” J’hana said. “Apparently, that last volley of quantums was enough to get us noticed!”
“Lucky us. What type of ship?” asked Hartley.
“Flarn,” muttered Tilleran.
“It would figure,” muttered Hartley. “J’hana, open up a channel to the Aerostar, on Tilleran’s screen.”
Hartley pivoted to look at Tilleran’s video screen as Conway appeared on it, flanked by scrambling bridge staff, Benzra, and Jum.
“They came out of warp right on top of us!” Conway called over the comm channel. “My people barely had time to get the shields up! As it was, they got several good potshots on us. We’re not in very good shape here.”
Another blast slammed into Escort. “Neither are we,” mumbled Hartley. “Recommend we get the hell out of here, Conway!”
“What about my people on the planet? Our ships can’t get all of them beamed up while those blasted leader-ships attack,” Jum called out. “You must assist us, Conway!”
Conway turned to Jum and said, “Out of the question, Jum. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere.’”
Jum had obviously not offered assistance to Conway, and unsurprisingly to Hartley, Conway was enjoying this moment.
“You probably led them here by mistake, you fool!” Jum cried.
“No one calls me a fool on my bridge!” Conway shot back, and looked to Hartley. “Get out of here, Hartley…that’s an order!”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Hartley said, and looked to Madera. “Susan, plot a course out of here, maximum warp.” She looked at the Aerostar bridge on Tilleran’s screen just before the feed cut off. Mirk was in the background looking useless, next to Browning and Peterman. Richards was no doubt helping with the damage control efforts. Hartley felt a pang in her gut for Mirk. They’d been in worse situations…well, not really. This was pretty bad. But she resolved she would not rest until she saw him again– damn Ardek and his people.
“Aerostar is underway, as are Jum’s resistance ships,” Tilleran reported. “On a course for Flarn space,” she added whimsically.
“Irony of ironies,” said Hartley. “Madera, adjust course to match and enga–”
A blast pounded Escort, sending it into a backslide like a frisbee.
Hartley climbed into the command chair. “Full power to shields and thrusters. Right us, Susan!”
“That last shot took out our warp engines!” J’hana called back.
“Put up the SR shielding,” Hartley said. “Give us a shot of finding cover behind a moon!”
Tilleran looked up from her station. “Looks like Ardek’s lead vessel is bearing down on us…”
“SR shields are up!” called J’hana.
Larkin Mark II wasn’t paying attention to the carnage on the viewscreen as Ronan and her fleet dismantled Beldana’s defenses, and those of the Escort. An evacuation was underway, and it seemed Ronan was content to send a couple of her ships off to chase those escapees, and the Aerostar. She seemed content to hound the Escort, for some reason.
That was the extent of what Larkin II knew. The rest of her time and mental resources were spent on her escape plan, which was, simply, to create a large enough electromagnetic burst to overload the systems of the cage that held her motionless. She would then have to hop off the hook they had unceremoniously hung her on, bust out of the cage (with no limbs mind you) and somehow disable the bridge crew (again, limbless). It was a daunting task, but one that Larkin had planned out extremely well in the millions of nanoseconds she was allotted, with time left over for a quick, internal game of “Pong.” It still held such mystery for Larkin.
Dismissing that notion, and realizing she had to act soon to prevent the destruction of the Escort, the android primed her electromagnetic discharge device, which happened to be located inside her midsection. By design, that allowed her for the perfect outlet from which to launch her assault on the cage that held her in.
Concentrating every spare bit of energy in her body, Larkin shot a pure stream of electromagnetic energy out of her belly button, which surged through the grated door to her cage and, momentarily, overloaded its circuits. Her electromagnetic bonds temporarily removed, Larkin was free to shrug her shoulders several times, thereby shirking herself off the hook. Instantly after that, she leaned her head up and grabbed the hook with her teeth, then swung herself, using considerable neck strength, right at the door to the cage.
She crashed out onto the bridge, causing the Garibid tactical officer in front of her to yelp in shock. She used his moment of shock to her advantage, gripping his ankle in her mouth and dragging him down, sinking her teeth in extra deep.
Then, she doubled her torso over to reach around to the hand phaser at his belt and grab it in her mouth, then stood on her thigh sockets and keyed the phaser trigger with her tongue, blasting an oncoming Maloxian.
“Stop her!” Ronan called out, as Larkin whirled with a twist of her thigh socket and blasted another Maloxian, who was standing up from the helm console. This Maloxian got knocked back into the helm, sending the Motivation spiraling crazily, dizzyingly.
Dizzying for everyone, that was, except for Larkin.
Her next task would be somewhat harder, but the chaos caused by the Maloxian falling onto the helm would work to her advantage.
Larkin realized she would have to walk to make a good escape. With no arms or legs, this presented a significant challenge. But she realized that the combined robotic “muscles” in her neck, chest, arm and leg sockets would be enough to propel her on the ground if she lay flat. She fell flat down and did just that, scrambling across the Motivation’s deck like an inch-worm, using her chin to steer.
“I don’t know what she’s doing, but stop her!” cried Ronan.
Larkin had already tried to use her subspace transceiver to take control of the Motivation’s computers, but those computers had already responded rather rudely and would not allow her in.
So she had to do it the hard way. Bowling over two oncoming crewmembers by knocking their feet out from under them, Larkin caterpillared to the front of the bridge, where a primary computer control was located.
She used her chin to drag herself up to “standing,” and tapped in a sequence on the panel with her tongue. Ronan’s ship shut down, just as Ronan herself blasted Larkin in the back, sending her reeling back to the deck.
Larkin felt her systems short-circuit.
>>…primary nanoprocessor shutting down…
>>…estimated time to repair: one hour…
Her last thought was that she hoped her plan worked.
Hartley cocked her head at the rapidly falling Motivation. It spiraled right toward Beldana, apparently out of control. Then all her engines seemed to go dead, and the massive, birdlike vessel just coasted down into the atmosphere, flopping end over end.
A couple other leader-ships broke to try and grab her in a tractor beam, but she was already too far into the atmosphere.
“Nice diversion,” Hartley said handily. “Now, Susan, find us a shady spot so we can make some repairs. And somebody see if they can find out who was on that ship.”
“Like we would just happen to know someone on its crew?” joked J’hana.
The dawn sky on Beldana was crisp and dark, riddled with wafts of smoke.
The island of Mandraka was quiet and empty of humanoid life–only some chittering monkey-like creatures could be heard on the island proper. In the distance, however, alert sirens and explosions could be heard as Ardek’s Leadership Teams moved in to “develop” Beldana’s populace, which included hundreds of Jum’s followers.
But the island was bereft of humanoid life.
Until one crawled up onto the shoreline.
Followed by another one.
Alexa Lanham lay breathless, face down, on the beach, spitting sand and seaweed. At least she hoped it was seaweed. It was stringy, and tasted like brine, that much she knew.
She turned her head to look exhaustedly at Lt. Brian Gellar.
Gellar rolled over. “Fifteen more minutes, Mommy.”
Lanham climbed over Gellar. “Lieutenant…wake up. I need you right now.”
“Really?” Gellar’s eyes shot wide open. “It’s a bit inopportune but I’m not one to turn down–” Gellar leaned up on his elbows.
Lanham pushed him back down. “Don’t be ridiculous. What I mean is I need you to help me get off this blasted planet.”
“Refresh my memory.” Gellar leaned up again. “What exactly happened?”
“We were on one of Ardek’s ships. Stuff started exploding. Our holding cells shorted…the escape hatches were blown…” Lanham blinked. “You don’t remember any of this?”
“Of course you don’t. I dragged you across half a klick of ocean.”
Gellar squinted in the fast dawning sun. “What’s that in nautical miles?”
“Anyway, I scissor-kicked my way to the surface and dragged your worthless Starfleet security ass to shore.”
“Thanks for that, by the way.”
Lanham stood and dusted off her pants. Her labcoat was shreds. Damn. She helped Gellar up. “So far you’re really doing a heck of a job keeping me safe.”
“I try.” Gellar looked around. “So what became of the ship we were on?”
A mushroom of water the size of an asteroid filled the horizon, shooting up toward the heavens. A tidal wave rushed toward the shore and splashed over Gellar and Lanham, sending them skidding into a thicket of bushes.
After the wave receded, Gellar and Lanham lay on their backs in the bushes, covered in thistles.
“Ouch,” said Gellar.
“I guess that answers your question about the ship.”
“Okay, I get it. You’re in pain. You don’t have to keep whining about it.”
Gellar leaned up. “That wasn’t me.”
Alexa leaned up and scanned the flat, ochre beach. There was a man, a human, in snazzy lime and yellow prisoner’s garb, lying on his face on the beach.
Alexa rushed to the man’s side and flipped him over. “Are you all right?”
“Surf’s up,” the man, crew-cut and roughly cro-magnon- looking, muttered.
Alexa squeezed the man’s left arm and chest. “Lie still. You have a broken arm and three cracked ribs.”
Gellar stumbled over and looked down at the man. “I’ll be damned.”
Alexa chuckled. “You know this guy or something?”
“I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“Private Christopher Conrad Henricks, Federation Marine Corps, reporting for duty,” the man, Henricks, coughed, as Gellar and Lanham helped him up.
“Long time no see,” Gellar said, supporting the private underneath his broken arm.
“Yes, it has been a while.” Henricks blinked. “Who are you again?”
“Lieutenant Gellar, formerly of the Aerostar. Presently, of the Aerostar.”
“Ahhh. Ugh.” Henricks coughed up seawater, seaweed, and a shell.
“Can you walk?” Alexa asked.
“I can still outrun either of you weaklings,” grumbled Henricks. “I would have made it out without getting banged up if it hadn’t been for the ship exploding and causing that tidal wave.”
“Too bad about that,” agreed Lanham, and she and Gellar helped Henricks up and into the dense Beldanan jungle. “I don’t suppose either of you have a tricorder?”
Henricks and Gellar exchanged glances.
“Nope,” said Gellar.
Henricks shook his head. “Nope. But I was stationed on this planet before I was captured and put on Ronan’s ship.”
“So you know where we are? And how to get to civilization?”
“Ah, glad you could join us, Captain,” Ardek said, looking over his shoulder as he leaned over the ops console, where “Kitty” was seated. It did Baxter’s heart good to see the android seated at ops once again. It almost made him forget his ship had been taken over by an insane warlord with a penchant for leadership skills.
After a pause, Baxter looked at the two hulking Garibid who flanked him. “I didn’t really have much choice. I was dragged, actually.”
“I was too,” Plato said, and stepped out from behind Baxter. “But, for the record, I could have oozed away in an instant.”
“Sure you could have, sure,” Ardek said patronizingly. “My comrades and I were just in the middle of a little…let’s just call it a ‘mission.’”
“Really.” Baxter folded his arms. “Do tell.”
“On screen, Jahn,” Ardek giggled, pointing to Jahn, who was at tactical.
Jahn reluctantly tapped a control, and to Baxter’s dismay and surprise the Federation outpost Waystation appeared on the viewscreenn.
“You got us back to the Alpha Quadrant!” Baxter couldn’t help but exclaim.
“I did indeed,” Ardek said, rubbing his fingernails off on his silvery jacket lapel. “But let’s not dally. We have work to do.”
“What kind of…” But before Baxter could finish, Ardek spoke:
“Jahn, fire the tri-cobalt devices.”
Baxter lept at the tactical station, but the muscular Garibid held him back. They had likewise blocked Plato, who didn’t seem quite so capable of “liquefying” as he’d led Ardek to believe.
Jahn hit a control and a string of dark blue, twinkling tri- cobalt devices soared out on the viewscreen, converging on the tube which connected Waystation’s upper and lower saucers.
The tube exploded, sending a shockwave out in either direction, which rippled throughout the station’s superstructure, exploding it slowly from the inside out, section by section.
After several seconds, all that remained was debris.
Ardek clapped happily. “Yay! I just LOVE blowing up Federation outposts!”
Baxter’s mouth gaped. “You…you Romulan son of a bitch!”
“And that’s pretty much what it’ll look like when we actually do it,” Jahn piped up.
Baxter glared over at Jahn. “Come again?”
“That was just a computer simulation,” Jahn said. “We’re still very much in the Delta Quadrant.” He narrowed his eyes at Ardek. “DAD over there hasn’t quite been able to figure out how to bring back the Crebius Cluster.”
Ardek harrumphed. “Jahn, you are a despicable little boy. I was trying to have a little laugh at Captain Baxter’s expense and you ruined it all.” He sighed and turned to Larkin Mark I. “Kitty, why don’t you get down to Astrometrics and continue investigating a way to get bring back the Crebius Cluster and get us back to my rightful quadrant. I know you don’t quite have the ‘book smarts’ your sister has, but you’ll do in a pinch! Try to absorb some of that library data from the computer. I’m sure it won’t take long.”
Larkin nodded, and serrupticiously winked at Baxter. “As you wish Master Ardek.”
“Why so formal all of a sudden, hon?” Ardek asked, arching his eyebrow suspiciously. He threw an arm around the android as she stood. “Don’t you still love your Unkie Ardek?”
Larkin looked rigid as a rod. Poor thing, thought Baxter. She didn’t have one emotional parameter to draw on. She’d have to improv it.
“Master, I…love you now as much as I ever have. I can say that truthfully.”
“That’s all I needed to hear.” Ardek gave Larkin one more squeeze then patted her rear. “That’s it then. Off to Astrometrics. Don’t call until you have something good to report.”
“Indeed,” Larkin said, almost in a mutter, and trotted off to the foreward turbolift.
“You ride her way too hard,” Jahn grumbled. “Almost like a certain step-son who shall remain nameless.”
Ardek whirled to glare at Jahn. “You are really getting on my nerves today! How dare you ruin my little surprise for Captain Baxter like that. I really had him going there!”
“It’s true,” Baxter admitted.
“Go get your ears clipped,” Jahn muttered, and stuck his finger in his ear. He’d learned from Mirk that it was the Maloxian equivalent of the “middle finger.” He’d rarely seen that from Mirk cause, well, he was a pretty nice guy.
Ardek roiled. “Ooooh….your mother should have lobotomized you like I suggested, Jahnnie!”
“I KNEW you were the one who planted that silly idea in her head!”
“She would have done it, too, had you not scored so high on those blasted achievement tests!”
Baxter raised a finger as if to intervene. “So, Ardek, let me interrupt this tender family moment for a second. What exactly do you plan on doing when and if you do get to the Alpha Quadrant?”
Ardek drew himself up, grinning with great pride. He through his hands out wide, fanned as if to encompass the galaxy. “How does Alpha Quadrant Emporer Ardek sound?”
“I thought you wanted to be Leadership Director or some stupid thing,” Jahn muttered.
“No, no, no,” Ardek repeated, marching up to the quarterdeck, where Jahn still stood at tactical. “Emporer has much more zing to it. That IMPLIES the leadership role I plan to take.” Ardek looked to Baxter, his eyes wide, frenzied. “I will turn that Quadrant into a well-oiled machine, Captain. Don’t doubt that for a minute. You should see my organizational charts…”
Baxter shuddered. As much evil as this man had wrought over the years, he was still, at his base, good-intentioned. Shucks, Baxter still wanted to kill him.
“Maybe later,” Baxter said. “Before we do that, how about you give my ship back.”
“Nope, don’t think so,” Ardek said, without giving it much thought.
“I had to at least try.”
Ardek nodded. “Indeed.”
Quiet descended on the Explorer bridge.
“Well, this is awkward,” Ardek finally said.
“I guess we have nothing left to say to one another,” Baxter said.
“Hmm.” Ardek steepled his fingers. “Should I kill you then?”
“How about those Pike City Pioneers?” Plato piped up, jabbing Baxter in the gut.
“Yes, how bout them,” Baxter muttered. “I want my damn ship back!”
“You can’t have it, and if you keep up with that sour attitude, I’ll just fire the both of you out of my quantum tube, how about that?”
“IT’S MY DAMN QUANTUM TUBE!” Baxter bellowed, pounding the railing that surrounded the command chairs.
Ardek turned away and laughed uproariously. “That in itself is more than enough reason to keep you around, my dear Captain. You know just how to make me laugh. Mokso, Lepsi, get him and his gelatinous pal back down to the brig!”
Baxter glowered as he was shoved roughly into the aft turbolift. He needed a way to get to Larkin and find out the details of Ardek’s plan, before she gave up her cover, which by the looks of things could be sooner rather than later.
“Trees, trees, more trees…” Lieutenant Gellar muttered as he swathed his way through the thicket of growth in front of him with a heavy stick. Alexa trailed behind, and Henricks behind her, “guarding their backs,” armed only with an arm- length branch that had been whiddled carefully to a point.
“I wish you’d stop chanting that,” Alexa muttered. “You’re adding ‘headache’ to my long list of complaints.”
“Shall I run down the entire list?” grumbled Gellar. “I’ve got it memorized by now.”
“Please don’t!” Private Henricks moaned. “I’ve heard enough out of both of you guys.”
“Well, I don’t see you helping us lead the way out of here,” Alexa said, whirling on Henricks. “You’re the one who lived on this planet. Captain Navigator over there,” she nodded at Gellar, “is just going on instinct.”
“My instincts are finely honed!” Gellar shouted, to no one in particular, as he swathed harder through the branches, then promptly disappeared from sight.
With a start, Alexa looked left and right, then up. He wasn’t beamed out–there was no sound or trademark “whizz.” He just…
Then Alexa realized where he went, as she tumbled down a hole in the ground like Alice in that story about a Wonderland….
Branches whizzed by her face as she fell. She tried to grab the sides of the hole to stop her fall. The only thing that did finally stop her fall, satisfyingly, was Gellar.
He let out an “oof” as she spread out on top of him. She didn’t have long to savor the moment, however, as Henricks slammed down on top of her.
Lt. Hartley stepped out onto the Escort bridge, covered in grease, jacket stripped open, shirtsleeves shoved up around her elbows, scuffs on the knees of her uniform pants.
“What did you do, climb through a plasma conduit?” Tilleran joked as she vacated the command chair.
“Yes, actually,” Hartley muttered and plopped down into the chair. “I need a shower like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I beg to differ,” J’hana said from her seat at tactical, beside Hartley. “You have a heady, musky smell I find quite alluring.”
Hartley completely ignored the Andorian and swiveled the command chair to face Tilleran, on her opposite side. “What’s your status?”
“We’ve been combing the planet for signs of human…or android life, for that matter. No luck.”
“There’s lots of planet,” Hartley said. “I’m sure it’ll take forever to get a complete scan. Unfortunately, we don’t have forever.”
“Hold on…” J’hana tapped her panel. “I’ve got a contact. You won’t believe this–it’s ultridium.”
Hartley blinked. “So?”
“So, that’s a very rare alpha quadrant alloy, and it just happens to be used in large quantities in the construction of androids, particularly a certain android we all know.”
“Larkin!” Hartley exclaimed.
“How’d you guess?” sniped Madera, who got a nasty glare from Tilleran.
“So where is Larkin?” Hartley asked.
“That’s the problem,” replied J’hana. “She’s about ninety meters underwater. Lodged, it would appear, in some wreckage of the Motivation.”
“F***,” Hartley muttered. “And us without our transporters.”
“We don’t have transporters?” Tilleran said, aghast.
“No,” Hartley replied. “I figured the engines were a little bit more important to repair since we’re in hostile territory.”
“We must rescue Larkin,” J’hana said. “We cannot simply leave her down there to rust.”
“Well then,” Hartley said, and clapped the arms of the command chair. “Rig us for underwater travel and take us down.”
“Is this ship capable of maneuvering underwater?” asked Tilleran.
“We’ll sure as hell find out!”
“Isn’t that something we should know?”
“Honestly, the proposition never really came up.”
Captain Conway sat in his readyroom, Led Zeppelin booming, and read some of the staff reports since the ship had been tossed to the Delta Quadrant. The Aerostar-A, meanwhile, sailed purposefully toward Flarn space.
The text that flew across his viewer was actually quite interesting. Daniello from sciences reported that he’d contacted a girlfriend from Beldana who he’d been messing around with during the original Aerostar’s original mission to that planet. Unlike Captain Baxter, though, Daniello managed to avoid getting caught by the authorities. A disappointing footnote to the report is that he lost contact with the girlfriend shortly after Ardek’s people began blowing up the planet. Conway felt for the boy, for about two seconds, then went on to the next report.
He tried not to think of Alexa, who was, well, who knew where? She was down on Beldana for all he knew, with the invasion force, or else somewhere else in Ardek’s obscene kingdom. And he was powerless to get to her. Or to get her to date him, but that was beside the point.
“…I’m gonna give you alla my love,
I’m gonna give you every incha my love!”
“COMPUTER!” grumbled Conway. “Change the music. Something else by Zeppelin.”
The next music track came on, and at first, like most Led Zeppelin, it was Robert Plant mumbling something unintelligible. Then came the refrain, and Conway shuddered:
“…all of my love…all of my love, oh all of my love to you…”
Conway pounded his desk in frustration. “Computer, shut off the damn music!”
He whirled in his chair to watch the stars streak by. He was stirred from his thoughts when his door chime rang.
“Come,” he said absently.
“Captain…why is it so dark in here?”
It was Mirk’s voice. Conway turned his chair to face Mirk. “I’m trying to create a mood, damn it. What the hell do you want?”
Mirk sighed. “The Escort is now officially out of sensor range. She could be crashed on Beldana for all we know.”
“Hartley’s a great engineer, and for all I know she commands pretty good too. She’ll keep the Escort together.”
“Captain, I couldn’t bear it if I lost her,” Mirk said, and sat down across Conway’s desk. “Do you have a moment?”
“I can’t shake the feeling that we’re in far more over our heads than usual.”
“Where’d you come up with that idea? The Borg were far more threatening then Ardek’s wackos. So were the Dawg. And the Starshine Kids, for that matter.”
“I guess you’re right. I’m just worried about Megan. And the fact that I’m without my powers.”
“Oh, right. I’d forgotten about that. Say…have our scientists looked you over yet? Maybe they can figure a way to reactivate them.” Conway tapped his chin thoughtfully. “We could sure use you to stop time or something right about now.”
“Agreed,” Mirk said eagerly, and headed for the door to the readyroom. “I’ll get right down to the lab.”
The lab. That’s where Alexa liked to go a lot.
“Yeah, you do that,” Conway said. He sighed as Mirk left. At least the Maloxian had something to do to relieve his concerns. And at least he was married to Hartley. Conway couldn’t get even a simple date out of Alexa, not since the divorce anyway. And, if Alexa did die, as women who interested Conway usually did, well then, that would really put a kink into his plans.
Conway resolved he’d need something to occupy himself during the trip into Flarn space. “Computer, a game of tic- tac-toe. Difficulty level to maximum!”
Baxter stirred and rolled over, off his bunk and right onto Plato. In response, Plato softened so as to cushion the blow, then rolled Baxter off him.
“You did that last night too.”
“Have we been here two days already?” Baxter asked, lying on the deck.
“I’ve lost track.”
“It’s either one or two days. We should be able to figure that out.”
“This ship might be on entirely different rotation. They could have fifty hour days for all we know. Or five-hour ones.”
Baxter rubbed his eyes. “Plato, it’s too early for this.”
“How do you know it’s early?”
Baxter silently screamed.
Then the doors to the brig opened, and someone called for the lights to come up.
Baxter leaned up, relieved to see Larkin standing there. Disturbed to see that she’d changed to an awful yellow leotard.
“Ardek has made me wear this. I so want to kill him. Again.”
“That’s the kind of emotion you need to show him to allay his suspicions, Larkin!” Baxter cheered her on. “What have you found out?”
“I cannot stay long.” Larkin approached the isolation field, for which she did not know the new combination, unfortunately. Kitty did, but her memory engrams were locked, possibly forever, inside Larkin. “At any rate, I have discovered much of Ardek’s plans. He is attempting to use a broad-band neutrino beam to punch open a hole in subspace where the Crebius Cluster once was in order to find the transspatial portal which leads to the Alpha Quadrant.”
“Sounds awfully science-y to me,” said Baxter. “Has he even tried getting his Critic friends to help him?”
“He has attempted to contact them, but to no avail. It appears they are not talking to him at the moment.”
“Thank the Directors for that,” muttered Baxter. “So where does that leave us? Do you think Ardek’s plan will be successful?”
“It is possible. There is still much we do not know about the Directors’ domains.”
“Do we know why the Critics don’t have something similar Ardek could use?”
“He declined to talk about that, and only complained at length that the Critics were growing increasingly useless.”
“That’s to our advantage,” Plato said helpfully.
“It sure is,” said Baxter. “So where’s Ardek’s invasion fleet? Gathered here with us?”
“That is perhaps the most disturbing piece of information. Apparently the bulk of Ardek’s armada has launched a full-blown assault on every Maloxian/Sulani rebel base known to exist.”
“Tidying up here before he takes on the Alpha Quadrant.”
Larkin nodded. “And he has every intention of using this ship to sneak into Starfleet Command and decimate Earth.” She said it quite calmly.
“Is he capable of that kind of operation?”
“He is a genius sir. An insane one, mind you, but a genius all the same.”
“I see,” Baxter said, glowering.
“You must be concerned about the others. Are you and Counselor Peterman still married?”
Baxter looked at Larkin with rapt confusion. “Still married? Of course we are!”
“Indeed. That contradicts many of my calculations.”
“You felt the odds were against Kelly and I staying together?”
“I felt nothing, sir. But the numbers speak for themselves.”
Baxter wanted very much to go back to sleep.
The only thing close to this experience in Hartley’s memory was the time they had crashed the Escort on the swampy homeworld of the Leeramar. But they weren’t trying to maneuver in the swamp, or conduct a rescue operation. The Escort just sank.
In this case, they’d dove at an angle into the water and took a circular course down through the abyss, riding thermals down into a trench, where a massive chunk of the Motivation’s foreward, upper section was lodged on a reef.
“We could be worse off,” J’hana pointed out, as Hartley looked at the remains of the ship on the viewscreen. “We could have been that ship.”
“Good point,” Hartley said, and slapped her thighs. “Well, someone will have to go over there and retrieve Larkin. “Volunteers?”
Tilleran and J’hana traded glances.
“I’ve got to stay here and be ready to bail the ship out at a moment’s notice,” Hartley said. “So one of you have to go.” Hartley turned to J’hana. “If you don’t succeed in getting Larkin, it’ll be an honorable death for you.”
“Don’t be silly. It would be a pathetic death,” J’hana countered.
“Fine, I’ll go,” Tilleran muttered, and headed for the aft hatch.
“Hurry back,” grumbled J’hana.
Once Tilleran was gone, Hartley turned to J’hana. “You two having a spat?”
J’hana looked at her panel uncomfortably. “It is something I would rather not talk about.”
“I said I would rather not talk about it and I meant it.”
“Well, I may not have the type of feelings you have for Tilleran, but she’s still my friend. If there’s something going on, I’d like to know about it.”
J’hana grimaced. “My relationship with Ariel has not been the same since we stopped…fooling around.”
“My condolences,” Hartley said dryly.
“However, I had thought that my love had satisfied her. I’m apparently wrong.”
“Oh. This is about her leaving, then?”
J’hana nodded. “She’s doing it for all the wrong reasons.”
“Don’t try to convince her of that, J’hana. Tilleran’s as pigheaded as they come. I’m probably the only person on the Explorer who’s more pigheaded than she is. If you try to force your opinion on her, she’ll never speak to you again. Do you want that?”
J’hana’s answer was quick. “Absolutely not.”
“So let her be. If she…” Hartley swallowed bile, “really wants you, she’ll come back to you. Or at least come to visit.”
“You are of course correct,” J’hana said, and went to work monitoring her panel.
Hartley, likewise, watched a school of tentacled fish pass by on the bubbly green-tinted viewscreen, and watched the hulking chunk of ship that had crashed on the reef.
“I do hope the pressure does not crush her skull,” J’hana spoke up.
“Yeah. Me too.”
“YAHOOOO! Twelve straight!”
Conway’s tic-tac-toe game was interrupted by a call on the comm system.
“Saral to Captain…we have arrived in Flarn space.”
He never thought that was something he’d be GLAD to hear.
Nah, he still wasn’t glad to hear it.
“I’ll be right out,” he said, and switched off the tic- tac-toe game.
On the bridge, his normal personnel worked with their usual efficiency, which pretty much meant mildly efficient, and his other guests crowded around the command arena.
His “guests” included Richards, Browning, Peterman and her bratty kid Steffie, Jum, Benzra, and Mirk. Jum’s Federation and Klingon ships were flanking Aerostar, but he seemed more interested in staying on Conway’s bridge to make sure his people’s interests were being served. Apparently, he didn’t think Mirk was capable of doing that. There was some definite father-son tension there.
“Make a hole,” Conway demanded, as Saral glided by with a cup of coffee for him. Damn, she was good!
The sea of people around the command chair reluctantly parted so he could sit down. He turned around and sat down in the chair. “Well, people, find seats. This could get dicey.”
“You expect the negotiations to take a long time?” Jum asked pointedly. “I’ll remind you that my forces on Beldana are being subverted as we speak!”
“Remind all you want, but be quiet about it,” Conway said, then turned to helm. “Ford, just where the hell are we?”
Ford turned to face Conway. “Well, the Borg ship that crashed into Flarn Prime all those years back rendered it pretty much unliveable. However, I’ve found an encampment of Flarn and ten vessels surrounding Flarn Six.”
“On screen,” Conway said. The ugly brown and orange planet popped up on the viewscreen. A grouping of Flarn vessels, looking quite the worse for wear, huddled in orbit. One broke off, approaching the Aerostar.
“What can you tell me about those ships?” Conway asked Saral.
Saral tapped at her station. “They are regulation Flarn vessels, but they are in a state of abject disrepair. It appears that parts and repairs have been improvised extensively just to keep them operable.”
“The Flarn have fallen on hard times, apparently,” said Richards.
“A pity,” muttered Jum.
“Dad,” Mirk said. “That’s not very forward-thinking of you.”
“Who said anything about thinking forward?”
“Now,” Peterman said, stepping in between Mirk and Jum, ever the peacemaker. “Why don’t we try to put our disagreements aside? We need the Flarn. Let’s try to treat them with respect. A little honey is better than–”
“Can it,” Conway snapped, and looked back to tactical. “Puckett, hail that ship.”
Steffie stomped over to the command chair. “You cannot tell my mommie to shut up, Mister!”
“Oh, don’t you start with me,” muttered Conway.
“Back away from him,” Peterman said, taking Steffie’s hand. “You don’t’ want to accidentally pick up on any of his personality quirks.”
“You’ll get enough of those from ‘Daddy,’” muttered Conway, as a pathetic-looking Flarn appeared on the screen. Peterman looked like she wanted to continue the conversation, but deferred to the being on the screen.
Benzra gasped at the Flarn’s appearance. His exoskeleton did not have a healthy sheen, nor were his teeth filed satisfactorily.
“I am Abraz, of the Flarn freighter Kelprissssssss. What do you want?”
Benzra stepped down in front of Conway. And when someone of her bulk stepped in front of you, well, there was no way around that.
“Abraz, the author of sssssssssssuch prize-winning poetry as ‘To Tassssssssste a Humanoid’ and ‘Growlssssssss, Etc.’?” Benzra inquired.
Abraz grunted, cocked his head. “Once, but never again. Who are you? What are you doing in that ssssssssssssssssship? It looks vaguely…” His compound eyes widened. “Federation! All ssssssssssshipssssssss…open fire!”
Conway lept out of his chair, trying to signal Puckett to raise shields, but Benzra completely blocked him from her view.
Benzra, though, held up her claws in surrender. “No, no, we mean no harm to you, Abraz. We want to help.”
“It’s you Federationsssssssssss who brought that insssssssssssane Ardek here. The Flarn empire would have been rebuilt had it not been for him!”
“Sure it would have,” Ford said. Conway didn’t even get the satisfaction of slapping him. He tried to shove Benzra’s spindly exoskeleton aside, but the Flarn weighed an easy ton.
“Listen, Abraz. We have come back here from the Alpha Quadrant to try and desssssssssstroy Ardek.” Not quite the truth, but it would work in a pinch, thought Conway.
“Why should I trussssssssst you?”
“If, on the ssssssssssmall chance that we ssssssucceed, with your help, in dethroning Ardek, the Flarn empire can take itssssss rightful place controlling the Delta Quadrant again!”
Conway definitely didn’t like the sound of that. But at the moment, he was helpless.
Abraz rubbed his chin with his one good claw. “Now that doesssssssss interesssssst me.”
“Let usssssssss help you enhance your shipssssssssssss’ weaponssssss. We will help you to rid this quadrant of Ardek. Will you help ussssssss?”
“Hey…aren’t you Benzra?
“Why, yessssss…how do you know me?”
“You were on the vidivissssssssssion for a while. That cooking show! Two Fat Flarn!”
If Benzra was capable of blushing, Conway was sure she would have.
“Well, yes, that was a fun ssssssssshow. But that wassssss agesssss ago.”
“In that cassssssssse, I will definitely help you. I loved that ssssssssshow.”
“Yessssss. And, maybe, after all this war ssssssssstuff is over with, you would consssssssssent to a date. It hassssss been months ssssssssince my thorax was breached.”
“Mine as well,” said Benzra. “Our engineersssssssssss will be in touch with you ssssssssssssssshortly. I will be in touch with you after the battle.”
Abraz blipped off the screen and Benzra turned to Conway. “Was that ok?”
“Yes, but never do that again!” Conway railed.
“So much for long negotiations,” muttered Jum as he headed for the aft turbolift. “Is there a place I can get a strong drink on this ship?”
Conway nodded, reluctantly. “There’s a Spacebucks on Deck 9 and a GuinanCo Ltd. Goodtimes Food Hut on Deck 10.”
“Splendid,” Jum said, as the turbolift doors closed.
Benzra trotted, as lightly as a one-ton creature could trot, over to the foreward turbolift. “I am going to go powder my thorax.”
“Well, that was a success,” Browning said, and plopped down in the chair next to Conway. “I think.”
Down on Beldana, down a frightfully dark hole, Gellar, Alexa, and Private Henricks lay still and confused, coughing dust.
“Where are we?” Alexa choked out.
“Get off my ankle,” Gellar moaned.
“I think this is one of our underground tunnels,” said Henricks. “With any luck, we’re close to the remaining corps of–”
“There–I knew I heard something!” came a sprightly female voice, causing Gellar’s, Alexa’s, and Henricks’s heads to turn.
A light beam traced over the dark tunnel, lighting up the figures of the three displaced humans.
“Get that damn light out of our faces!” Alexa fairly shouted, leaning up.
“Well, aren’t you all a sight for sore eyes.” The beam played along Alexa’s face. “Except you. I don’t know who the hell you are.”
“Jenny!” cried Henricks, and he got to his feet, then lept into Jennifer Prescott’ waiting arms. She dropped her phaser rifle and its accompanying beacon played across the cave walls.
Alexa sat beside Gellar, looking on with great concern. “Brian…should I be relieved or worried?”
Gellar shrugged. “Honestly, I’m not sure.”
“Say again, Tilleran?” Hartley scratched her head.
Lt. Commander Tilleran’s voice crackled over the comm channel. “I said, I found her torso, but can’t find her arms and legs.”
J’hana growled at tactical. “Ardek’s people are merciless.”
“Keep looking for more of Larkin’s alloy. Those arms and legs are there somewhere. We don’t have time to build her new ones!”
“I’ll keep looking, Megan. But I only have ten minutes of oxygen left.”
“Coward,” J’hana muttered.
Hartley whirled. “This is not the time!”
“Whatever. I’m going to the pantry.” J’hana got up and left the bridge.
Hartley leaned back in her chair. “Why me. Why am I put in command of this idiotic crew at a time like this?”
At helm, Madera looked back at Hartley innocently. “Maybe it’s destiny.”
“Shut the hell up.”
Dr. Lanham marveled at the crowd of Beldanans, Sulani and Maloxians, and other assorted species she could not identify. They were crammed into the cavern that was linked, by narrow connecting tunnels, to the chamber she, Gellar, and Henricks had fallen into. They appeared to be priming weapons and packing crates full of food supplies, ammo, and medkits.
Henricks had immediately, on seeing Jennifer Prescott looming over him, lept into her arms and begun kissing her ravenously. They’d not left each other’s grasp at the time that Prescott was showing the group around the resistance compound.
“…managed to save twenty plasma rifles, fourteen concussion bombs, and about fifty power paks,” Prescott said as she led the group through the cavern.
“That’s not going to make it easy to fight our way off Beldana,” Henricks said quickly.
“No sh**,” Prescott replied just as quickly. “We were actually hoping Starfleet would have a plan for getting us out of here.” She looked to Alexa and Gellar. “They did, after all, lead the fleet of leader-ships here, did they not?”
“How could you know that?” Gellar asked, then added quickly. “I mean, no we didn’t.”
“We were in contact with Jum until…hah…CAPTAIN Conway’s ship fled the scene.” She looked at Henricks. “It was about then that they started barraging our compounds on multiple continents with antiproton bombs. We were lucky to get 200 people down here to the emergency shelter.”
“We certainly can’t sit around waiting,” Gellar said. “From what I saw up there, the ground occupation forces probably outnumber the resistance three to one.”
“Sharp calculations,” Alexa said. “But can your tactical mind come up with a way to get us off this pleasant-weather rock?”
Prescott shoved herself in between Alexa and Gellar. “We’ve got a plan, actually.”
“I knew you would,” Henricks said, as Prescott led he and the group to a table, over which a marked-up planetary map had been lain. Prescott shrugged off her uniform top to reveal a beige tanktop and chiseled physique. Gellar noted that Prescott had taken to Henricks’s hard core marine training routine quite well.
“Just before our satellite nets were shot down, they picked up the largest Leadership Teams beaming in here and here.” She pointed to spots on the map. “Leaving a corridor, just south of this island, that’s relatively unprotected. We have three shuttles. About two-thirds of us can get off-planet and regroup on Sulan.”
“On your way,” Alexa said, looking over Prescott shoulder. “Do you think you could drop us off at the Aerostar?”
“Hah!” exclaimed Prescott. “After that ship left us to rot here? I don’t think so. I don’t care if I served on an Aerostar before, I don’t care if you are all Starfleet or Federation or whatnot. None of that matters now. Henricks and I have a mission to stop Ardek and his people, and we don’t have the luxury of helping you reunite with your crew, especially when your crew wasn’t so concerned about us!”
“Muzzle it, soldier!” Alexa looked with amazement to see that it was Henricks who’d said that.
Prescott turned, hair stringing down into her angry eyes. “WHAT?”
“The people from the Aerostar and the Explorer can help us get this quadrant back. They WILL help us get this quadrant back. Captain Conway resolved to do that. Gellar and this other chick told me so!”
“He’s right,” Gellar said, noting that Alexa bristled at the word “chick.” “Captain Conway has every intention of helping your resistance. He just…went to get reinforcements, I’m sure.” Alexa shot him a doubting look, and Gellar shrugged back at her. Neither of them could be sure of what, exactly, Captain Conway was doing at that very moment.
“That’s a boy, wag your butt, wriggle it, wriggle it!” Conway chanted as he held Bucky the Welsh Corgi above his head and danced in the (real water) shower.
“Richards to Conway,” buzzed the comm system. “We’re about an hour’s worth of work away from getting the Flarn vessels outfitted with quantum torpedoes.”
“That was quick,” Conway said, tucking Bucky away under his armpit.
“They didn’t have many ships,” Richards replied over the comm. “And we have plenty of extra hands, what with the bulk of the Explorer crew being over here.”
“That is a plus,” Conway muttered.
“Another plus, Captain,” said Richards. “Remember that anti-proton cannon that gives us such a fit every time we run across a Flarn ship?”
“Well, I was able to spring one from a derelict Flarn ship. Advantage, us!”
“Keep up the good work, Richards, and keep me posted.” Conway stepped out of the shower, Bucky still under his arm, and toweled.
It was then that he heard a chirp at his door.
“Um…come?” He poked his head out of the bathroom door.
Janice Browning poked her head inside. “Dave? Am I interrupting something?”
Conway placed Bucky in front of his crotch and sidled out of the bathroom, holding a towel over his rear end. “Of course not. I was just, doing my captain exercises.”
“Very complex calisthenics. They’re not recommended for people who aren’t captains.”
Browning nodded. “I see. Got a minute?”
Conway nodded in the direction of his couch. “Sure. Let me just find some pants.”
Browning sat on Conway’s ghelat fur couch and stared out at the stars, and at Flarn Six rotating below. She twiddled her thumbs idly.
Moments later, Conway vaulted over the couch to sit next to Browning, and Bucky was magically somehow there in his lap at the very same time. “Great to see you as always, Doctor, I mean Janice. What’s up?”
“I’ve been very concerned.”
“Sure.” Conway blinked. “About what, exactly?”
“My son. You know how he’s trapped on the Explorer?”
“Yes, right. Of course. I was thinking about that just now.”
“Anyway, I know he’s with Captain Baxter, but that doesn’t exactly make me feel any better.”
“Nor should it,” Conway said honestly. “Let’s put aside Baxter’s incompetence…Ardek is one irritating hombre. Look at what he did to the first Larkin just before she died trying to kill him.”
Browning shuddered. “This is not helping.”
“Listen, I have issues too. Someone I care a lot about is out there, lost, and I can’t do anything about it…also.”
“Ahhh. Trying to undo that divorce?”
Conway shook his head woefully. “With no success.”
“Maybe things will be better after she returns from wherever she is right now. If she ever does.”
Conway stroked Bucky. “See…doesn’t that make you feel better about your problem?”
“Well I’m sure feeling better. What’s say we go down to the GuinanCo Ltd. Goodtimes Food Hut Inc. and get a space taco?”
“Are you hitting on me, Captain?”
Browning tossed a vase at Conway. It was a wonder he even had a vase. They weren’t really his style, but Alexa had suggested it when they were shopping on Tellar, and he couldn’t resist. It was open on both ends, as Tellarite vases often were, which presented a logic problem that Conway solved by lying it on its side and shoving flowers in either side. It was made of solidly-built stone, something Conway realized as it slammed into the side of his head.
Through the stars that clouded his eyesight, Conway saw Browning walk out his door.
“Thanks for nothing, Captain.”
Conway sat, rubbing his head. Bucky licked his face. He looked down at the corgi. “Was it something I said?”
“I don’t know how I managed it, but I found her arms and legs,” Lt. Commander Tilleran said, shrugging off her soaked, jury-rigged space suit as J’hana and Hartley hovered over the android, who lay gracefully still on the biobed in the cramped sickbay.
“Here’s a question,” Hartley said, as she yanked some seaweed out of Larkin’s mouth. “Can you get her operational again?”
Tilleran shrugged. “Chris’s the real expert on her. Didn’t you work on her one or two times?”
“A few.” Hartley pushed up her sleeves. “I’ve already fixed one wreck today, though.”
“Looks like we’re going to have to put our heads together and sweat this thing out,” Tilleran said, stepping out of her space trousers and over to the biobed.
“I must go to the bridge and…think,” J’hana said suddenly and fled Sickbay.
“She been acting strange to you?” Tilleran asked as Hartley cranked open Larkin’s chest cavity.
“Not that I’ve noticed,” Hartley said quickly and tossed her toolkit up on the biobed. She flipped it open.
“Ever since I announced my leaving the Explorer she’s been acting extremely weird.”
“Can you blame her? She feels like she’s losing a…close…friend.”
“It hasn’t seemed to affect you much.”
Hartley leaned over Larkin’s chest cavity, tapping with an electromagnetic solderer, restoring connections inside Larkin’s chest, as Tilleran worked on screwing on the arms and legs. “Oh, it’s affected me,” Hartley said after some silence. “I don’t like it one bit. But if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you don’t take well to other people telling you what to do, any more than I do.”
“That’s for sure,” Tilleran agreed. “So you’re keeping your opinion to yourself?”
The two worked in silence for another couple seconds.
“But what do you REALLY think?”
Hartley looked up at Tilleran, across Larkin’s inert body. “You don’t want to know, remember?”
“Humor me. And be honest. I’m doing you a favor here by not probing your brain and just taking the information.”
It didn’t take Hartley long to formulate her answer. “Okay. You’re making a mistake. You’re doing this for all the wrong reasons. You’re responding to a biological urge, not a real emotional decision. You’re letting your hormones do all the talking, and you’re sacrificing all your friends and the greatest life you’ve ever known just for the sake of answering the call of ‘the change.’” Hartley waved her fingers spookily as she said “change.” “Does that about cover it?”
Tilleran narrowed her eyes at Hartley. “You’ve been talking to J’hana.”
“She’d never have put it that eloquently.”
Tilleran cocked her head. “So you really think that?”
“Think it, believe it, and know it. Not that it matters. You’ve made up your mind, right?”
Tilleran glanced uneasily at Hartley as the two worked. “Right.”
When Henricks mentioned the ‘nursery,’ Alexa Lanham figured that meant a place where plant life was airponically grown to sustain the nutritional needs of the troops.
But he really meant a nursery.
Henricks talked over the whining and screaming as if he were in a loud factory. The room was just about big enough. “Sorry for the noise. They just woke up.”
Gellar looked out at the bassinets, cribs, and beds, where an orphanage full of assorted-aged children all whined plaintively. The older ones were especially vocal. And used some colorful words too.
“Whose kids are these?” asked Alexa.
Prescott was talking to someone Alexa figured was a nanny. Henricks gestured about the room. “They’re ALL MINE!”
Gellar and Alexa blinked, exchanged shocked glances.
“All?” Gellar gulped.
“Yep,” Henricks said.
“So, when you said you and Jennifer Prescott would work to populate the Delta Quadrant with humans, you…”
Henricks smiled. “I really meant it. Let me introduce you. Here’s Jennifer Junior, she’s seven, and Chris Junior, he’s six, and the twins, Kristen and Kelly, they’re five, and Zachary, he’s four (he’s a real nuisance), and little three- year-old Janice over there, two-year-old J’hana, one-year-old Chris Junior number two, and…just born last night…”
“Just before the planet got shot to sh**,” snapped Prescott, who now breastfed the baby Henricks was pointing to, apparently not worried about making a public show.
“…that’s little Andy.”
“Problems thinking up names?” Gellar asked.
Prescott nodded. “We figured we’d commemorate the names of the crew who brought us here. Without the Aerostar crew, we wouldn’t have our nine children, so it was only fitting…”
“Plus it’s really hard to think of names,” Henricks admitted.
“Now the stupid names commemorate the crew that left us to do rot here on Beldana,” said Prescott. “Christopher, we need to rename all these kids.”
“It took me two days to think of the current names!” Henricks whined.
“I think it’s sweet,” Alexa put in, trying to defuse the tension.
“There, see?” said Henricks, walking over to embrace Prescott and little Jennifer Junior.
“So, are you two married?” Gellar asked conversationally.
Prescott wriggled out from Henricks’s grasp. “Heck, no. Why bother? Ever since Ardek started shooting the place up, there hasn’t even been a legitimate government to marry us. Unless you count the Sulani or Maloxians. And who cares if we’re married in their eyes? The Maloxians would have just poured fruit cocktail on us or something.”
“Mmm, fruit cocktail,” said Henricks. “That sounds good.”
“Not to be a party pooper,” said Alexa, “but shouldn’t we be planning our escape? And how on Earth are we getting those poor kids out of here?”
“Heck, they’ve tagged along the five years Ardek’s harassed this quadrant,” said Prescott. “They’ve learned to travel well.”
“It’s the breast milk that’s been hard to come by,” said Henricks. “Jenny here can only produce so much.”
“Thanks for sharing!” Prescott snapped.
“You two make a cute couple,” Gellar said uselessly.
A woman in a tight leather catsuit, armed with a phaser holstered at each hip, walked into the nursery. “The shuttles are just about ready to launch, Jennifer.”
“Thanks, Valla.” Prescott rolled her eyes. “Oh, right. Valla, you remember Brian Gellar, formerly of the U.S.S. Aerostar, currently of a newer U.S.S. Aerostar.”
Gellar grinned uneasily. “Nice to see you again, Valla. I see you’ve really…gotten into shape.” He almost said, “become a wrestler.”
“It’s been a hard war,” Valla said. “Thank goodness Matriarch Prescott came and brought our intraplanetary governments together to face Ardek.”
“Matriarch?” asked Alexa.
“Don’t get me started,” whispered Henricks.
“Anyway,” said Valla. “We’re all ready to go.” Valla headed for the nursery exit, then turned. “What about Captain Baxter? Did he come along to the Delta Quadrant?”
“He’s somewhere out there,” said Gellar. “But he got married.”
“Shame. That flaky counselor?”
Valla nodded. “Just as well. I’m into women now.”
And with that she was gone.
“Wow,” said Gellar.
Alexa arched an eyebrow at Gellar. “You liked?”
“Of course not. As she said, she’s into women now.”
“If I know anything about men, that would only entice you more.”
All this was said as Henricks and Prescott suited up their smaller kids in mobile carriers and draped jackets onto the older ones.
“Time to move out, guys,” said Henricks, oddly father- like.
Jen Junior, a slight, blonde girl of 7, was the most vocal. “Dad…AGAIN?”
“This time it’s either we leave or we die, pumpkin. Got it?”
“I guess. Do we have to ride the Sulani shuttle again? That one is stinky.”
“Would you rather stay behind and become a program assistant for Ardek?”
“No, I guess not.”
With that, Henricks and Prescott ushered their herd out.
“Come on, before we leave your asses!” groused Prescott from the next room.
Gellar and Alexa looked at each other and shrugged.
“Guess we get to go along after all,” said Gellar.
“Is that a good thing?” asked Alexa.
“You’ve got me.”
“So I’m sitting there, in the middle of the Flarn bridge, trying to explain the tricky firing controls on the newest model of quantum torpedo, when the captain, this HUGE Flarn, even huge by their standards, comes over to me and eyes me like he wants to eat me.”
Peterman gaped at Richards across the coffee table in her quarters on the Aerostar-A. “Oh my. What a shocker.”
“Thanks for the sarcasm. Anyway, I told him I wasn’t on the lunch or the dinner menu and that he better look elsewhere.”
“I guess he didn’t take kindly to that.”
“That’s an understatement. He nearly skewered me with what looked like a giant metal toothpick.”
“Oh, my. What saved you?”
“Benzra. She lept in at the last minute. She’d be quite an ambassador.”
“Good thing SHE doesn’t like to eat humans.”
Peterman gazed at the dim glow from the nightlight in the adjacent room. Steffie had finally gotten to sleep. Who knew how long that would last. “So, Chris, tell me. When are we getting out of here and going to confront Ardek?”
“Only Conway, Jum, and the de facto Flarn leader, Abraz, really know. They’re keeping it secret to avoid a security leak.”
“Where would we leak it to?”
“You’ve got me.”
“How are you handling the Larkin situation?”
“I’m trying not to think about it. Her and Kitty are both out there and, as it stands, I have no way to get to either of them, and no way of knowing for sure if either of them are safe. That about covers it. How’s Steffie handling things?”
“Well as can be expected. She’s scared. But I told her a bed time story…you know, Benefolux the giant Beetle and the Ox from Oxland.”
Richards grinned. “I loved that one.”
“It’s a classic.”
Just then, Janice Browning stomped unceremoniously through the opening doors to Peterman’s guest quarters. “OOOOH! I do not believe him!”
“Problems?” asked Richards.
“Other than the obvious?” continued Peterman.
Browning slumped down onto the couch between Peterman and Richards. “That Captain Conway is such a pig. I thought he’d changed over the years, matured.”
Richards doubled over laughing.
“You can’t be serious,” said Peterman. “I make a living trying to see the best in people, and even I can vouch that the man is totally irredeemable.”
“Is that a word?” asked Richards.
“But usually I’m able to see the best in people,” Browning said. “I almost dated him, for goodness sake. But I went to him to talk about Plato, and do you know he asked me on a date?”
“He may have just been wanting to comfort you,” suggested Richards, then he doubled over and laughed again.
Browning blinked. “Chris, you know I think you’re right. In his own small, Conway-like way, I think he was trying to make me feel better. And I slammed a vase in his head.”
“Janice, even for him that’s a little extreme,” said Peterman.
“I’m going to have to go back to him and make it up to him. I feel awful. The poor guy was probably trying to reach out to me. He’s so worried about his crewmembers…what was I thinking…” Browning stood and rushed out of Peterman’s quarters.
Richards was still laughing. He looked up, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. “That’s rich…I’ve heard some things in my life before, but–Janice?” He looked around.
“She left. She went to make up to Captain Conway.”
“Did I miss something?”
“Apparently.” Peterman sighed. “Still not quite over her, Christopher?”
“What makes you say that?”
“You led up to your Flarn story by telling me about each individual time you ran into Janice as you made your way between this ship and the ships in the Flarn fleet. You’re obviously distressed now because something you said in passing led Janice back to make up with Captain Conway. You’re so afraid after all the times you’ve lost her that you’re going to go and lose her again, even though this time you never really had her, nor in all probability will you ever have her again. And in the midst of it all, you’ve barely given a second thought to the fact that both of your daughters are out there in just as much danger as Janice’s son and Dave’s want-to-be girlfriend! Did I get that about right?”
Richards glared at Peterman. “I’ll be in engineering.”
“The truth hurts,” Peterman called after him, but he didn’t respond.
Captain Baxter awoke once again to find Larkin staring over him.
“More good news?” he asked groggily.
“Unfortunately, no. I have come to confirm your worst fear, sir. Ardek has been successful in punching into the subspace conduit and getting a scanner probe over to the Alpha Quadrant.”
“Get out of here!” Baxter gasped, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
“I fail to see what good that would do,” replied Larkin.
Baxter scratched his stomach and yawned. “We have to stop him.”
Plato stared up from his mat on the floor below Baxter. “What’s going on?”
“Our quadrant is in grave danger,” replied Baxter.
“Which one? The one we’re in now or the one we came from?”
Larkin and Baxter looked at each other. “Both,” they both said.
“Are we going to do something about it?” asked Plato.
“Damn right we are,” Baxter replied quickly.
“I don’t know,” was Baxter’s quick reply.
“Might I make a suggestion…” said Larkin.
“Wait just one minute,” Baxter said. “Who’s the one who activated this beam that punched through to the Alpha Quadrant?”
“That was me.”
“Who sent the probe through?”
“Me again, I am afraid.”
Larkin stared blankly at Baxter. “Captain, I assure you, there was no way even I could have serrupticiously sabotaged Ardek’s work without someone knowing. His Garibid assistants are indeed stupid, but they are observant. They have been watching me like proverbial hawks.”
“And if they discover you’re the good old Larkin, the jig is up?”
“Never mind,” Baxter muttered, remembering that this Larkin was a lot more naive of the ways of humanity than the current model.
“I do have some good news,” replied Larkin. “Before I sent the probe out, I piggy-backed a repeating signal on its transmitter.”
“Well that is good, if there’s anyone to hear it. What is the signal?”
“Quite simply ‘Explorer taken over, destroy on sight.’ I thought that was prudent.”
Baxter covered his face. “Great job, Larkin. If someone does hear that, and we do miraculously get the Explorer back, we’ll have to fight off our own ships on the other side of that damn portal!”
“An ounce of prevention, sir…”
“Listen, is there some way Plato and I can help you get some time alone so you can get control of this ship back, or at least short circuit Ardek’s efforts somehow?”
“Perhaps,” Larkin said. “A plan has been forming in my mind over the last several nanoseconds, but I do not believe you will like it.”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this.” Captain Lisa Beck looked warily out the front viewport of the Wayward as it sailed toward the derelict, pitching, darkened Waystation outpost. She hated seeing her station like that.
“You had no choice,” Morales said from the piloting controls. “Remember, it was an executive order.”
“I feel so silly.”
“Don’t feel silly,” Russell said. “Feel like you’re risking oblivion, or being sent to the Alpha Quadrant through the Bermuda Expanse, or both, because that’s a heck of a lot closer to the truth.”
“Keep your eye on your sensors and shut up, Sean,” Beck said tiredly. “Call our fearless leader to the bridge so I can get this overwith.”
“Right,” said Porter, who punched a control at sciences.
Moments later, Federation President Bradley Dillon stepped out of the door to the cockpit looking dapper as usual in a pressed mauve suede suit.
“Captain, I trust we’ve made it to our destination?”
“Not our final destination, I hope,” Beck said. “Do you realize how idiotic this order of yours is…um, Mister President?”
Bradley frowned at Beck. “This is serious business.”
“Sure it is,” Russell giggled at tactical.
“I owe all that I am to him,” Bradley said, turning on Russell. “I’m not going to simply turn on him just when danger comes around! It’s paramount that we save him!”
“Sheesh. Paramount. Right,” mumbled Russell under his breath.
“This sure is a lot of trouble for a bath toy,” muttered Porter.
“Quiet now, Mister Porter,” Beck said. “We have to beam onto Waystation and retrieve President Dillon’s little sharky.”
“His name is Finneas!” protested Bradley.
“Whatever. Mister Russell, scan Waystation. Make sure we…we…WHOA!”
Bradley was about to ask Beck what the heck she was “WHOA”- ing about, when he looked out the forward viewport, and saw too.
A fleet of seven Federation starships sailed out from behind Waystation, quantum tubes blue-hot and ready to fire.
“Open a comm channel!” Beck cried. “All ships, this is Captain Lisa Beck of the U.S.S. Wayward! We’re a friendly vessel! Stand down!”
“They’re powering down weapons,” said Porter.
“Welcoming committee?” suggested Russell.
“Maybe they were fixing the place up for our return,” Porter said. “At any rate, we didn’t see them until the last minute because they had sensor-reflective shielding.”
“Federation technology,” Bradley marvelled. “As usual, at the cutting edge.”
“Would you stop trying to sound like a holo-ad and tell our fleet to kindly not blow us out of the stars?” Beck said.
“Captain, you’re overreacting,” Bradley assured Beck. “They can tell we’re a Starfleet ship. We have every right to be here. They would not assassinate their leader.”
“Find out what they want, Sean,” Beck said, eying the seven ships on the viewscreen cautiously.
“Comm coming through,” Porter said. “It’s the captain of the lead ship. The Pathfinder.”
“Oh no,” Beck muttered, and Lucille Baxter appeared on the viewscreen.
“Captain, what are you doing here? Your orders were to proceed to Kilma Omega Four for a layover until this crisis is over!” Lucille said shrilly.
“Captain, ugh, Baxter,” Beck said. “We came on Presidential orders to retrieve a…” Bradley gave her a warning look. “Presidential heirloom. We’re just going to get it and leave.”
“Well, now that you’re here, you can make yourselves useful. Your Chief Science Officer is with you?”
“Yes,” Beck said reluctantly.
“Good. We don’t have anyone aboard who has had experience with the Bermuda Expanse. We need to know what to look for as an indicator that a ship, or ships, are coming through.”
“To what end?” Beck asked, but already knew.
“So we can blow the ships sky high.”
“What if your son’s on one of those ships?”
“We identified a signal probe that seems to be from the Explorer,” Lucille said. “The probe was sending information back to the Delta Quadrant, then it self-destructed, so as not to be recovered. But before it did, we picked up a hidden transmission: ‘Explorer taken over, destroy on sight.’”
“Your son’s really done it this time, Captain,” Beck muttered.
“You don’t have to tell me. Don’t think I’m going to enjoy giving the command to fire.”
“I’m sure you won’t,” Beck said, even though she wasn’t sure. “Look, we’ve got the president aboard. Surely…”
“Mmrrpresident’ll be fine,” mumbled Harlan Baxter from behind Lucille. “Our fleet’sthe best in Starfleet. Combination of the Explorer program and the Destroyer program.”
“Lovely,” said Beck. She looked to Bradley. “Well, Mister President?”
“Let’s get my shark and then we’ll go over to the Baxters’ ship,” said Bradley. “I’ve always wanted to be in an all-out space battle!”
“Other than the one in the happy universe?” asked Russell.
“Or the one to save the renovated Waystation?” asked Porter.
“Each one just beefs up my resume a little bit more,” said Bradley.
“You’re President of the Federation,” muttered Beck. “Why would you possibly need a resume? And why would you put ship battles on it??”
“Look, could we just get my shark back already?”
Commander Kristen Larkin, Mark II, walked stiffly out onto the bridge of the Escort.
Hartley turned and rose from her chair. “Larkin! Great to see you again.”
Larkin stared dimly at Hartley. “Likewise.”
J’hana nodded at Larkin from tactical/communications.
Tilleran hovered behind the android, making the “ok” sign with her thumb and forefinger. She looked nervous.
“So, Kristen,” Hartley said warily, “how did you weather the crash?”
“Not well,” Larkin said, sitting down at the engineering/operations console.
“Sorry to hear that. Glad you’re back together now, though.”
“I am extremely waterlogged.”
“Tilleran?” asked Hartley.
“I got as much out as I could. Her internal pressure systems will squirt out the rest, eventually.” Tilleran took a position by the wall of science and sensor consoles at the back of the bridge.
Hartley was still standing. “Commander, according to Starfleet protocol, I am required to turn over command to you, being that you’re the highest-ranking officer aboard.”
“That will not be necessary, Lieutenant Commander Hartley,” said Larkin. “I simply wish you to get me to the location where Mister Ardek is and allow me to kill him. Slowly.”
“Righty ‘o,” Hartley said, collapsing into the command chair. “Susan, all ahead full thrusters. Take us up.”
Bubbles passed by the front viewscreen as the Escort slowly ascended toward the surface.
Tilleran was checking her scans. “Megan…I’m picking up a few ship signatures passing overhead.”
“Flarn or Starshine-type?” Hartley asked quickly.
“Neither,” Tilleran said, her brow furrowing. “They appear to be Sulani and Maloxian. Shuttlecraft, transports, and two small fighters.”
“The evacuees,” Hartley said with growing interest. “Enemy approach?”
J’hana swung around at tactical. “Two wings of Ardek’s shuttles veering in from the east and west.”
“Susan, increase our ascension angle to design limits and get us the hell out of this abyss, pronto.”
“Piece of cake,” muttered Lt. Madera.
Hartley swung to face Larkin. “Kristen, I hope you’re up to this. We’re going to have to provide covering fire for those ships.”
“Of course I am up to this. I single-handedly crashed a Flarn battlecruiser.”
“That sounded almost like pride, Larkin.”
“I have emotions, do you not remember?”
“No, I plum forgot. It’s awful when people drift apart, isn’t it?”
“Evacuation ships taking heavy fire,” J’hana piped in.
“Cover them, J’hana, all phasers and quantums!”
Hartley watched on the screen as the water gave way to bright golden sky, and the ship dizzyingly righted itself, gliding along the shoreline toward a wing of fighters who bore down on a Sulani shuttlecraft. One quantum and two phaser- blasts later, and the fighters where annihilated.
“Good shooting, J’hana,” Hartley said. “Now hail that transport. Let’s see who we’re talking to.”
“What the hell is that?” exclaimed Prescott from the command chair of the Sulani shuttle. Although it was called a shuttle, it had three decks and a fifty-person capacity, very much similar to the–
“U.S.S. Escort,” said Gellar, bracing himself against the tactical console. He’d been given the honors, although he knew jack about Sulani technology, there were apparently no ship-to- ship combat veterans in the group. “It’s a companion vessel to the Explorer.”
“Tiny little thing,” Henricks mumbled.
“It gets the job done, I assure you,” Gellar said. “Good to see ‘er, too! I wonder where she came from.”
“I don’t care, as long as she gives us the cover to get out of here,” said Prescott.
“They’re hailing us,” Alexa said, looking up from the communications station, seated at the opposite end of the oval array of controls on the ship’s cream-colored bridge.
“On the little screen,” Prescott said, and the tiny viewscreen at the front of the bridge flared to life: Hartley in the center seat, flanked by Larkin and J’hana, with Tilleran in the background.
“Long time no see,” muttered Prescott. “What’s say we have a class reunion later. We’re planning on heading for the Sulan systems. Any arguments?”
“Not at present,” Hartley said, trading glances with the other crew.
“Then cover our transports…they’re virtually defenseless. We’ll see you at the rendez-vous.”
“Nice talking to you aga–”
“The Sulan system is incidentally in the opposite direction of the Flarn system, where Captain Conway told us to go,” said Tilleran, leaning over Hartley’s chair.
“Old ‘Fresca’ didn’t seem too inclined to negotiate,” said Hartley, as the Escort bridge rattled from enemy fighter fire. “Besides, we can break from them as soon as we get out to space. Right now, I think it’s only fitting we give them a hand out of here, since we lead this whole occupation force here to this planet anyway.”
“This mission is not turning out as I expected it,” said Larkin.
“No kidding,” replied Hartley. “J’hana, continue your covering fire. Let me know if you need any power transferred from the non-essential decks.”
“Aye,” J’hana replied, hands dancing over the weapons console.
Hartley leaned forward, bracing her hands on her knees and watching on the viewscreen as the resistance ships threaded their way up through Beldana’s atmosphere. It was a nice enough planet, but she was quite glad to be getting the hell away from it.
Larkin Mark I led Captain Baxter up to the bridge of the Explorer at the end of a long choke-chain. Baxter, for his part, was wearing leather shorts and not much else.
Ardek turned in the command chair. He cocked his head, quizzically. “Kitty? Is there something you want to tell me?”
“The captain has become my…bitch…as it were, Supremacy. I ask you permission to give him over to me so that I may discipline him as I see fit.”
Ardek hopped out of his chair and pranced over to a blushing Baxter. “In a pickle now, Captain, huh? Never imagined you’d be an android’s love slave, eh? Quite the conundrum, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Baxter muttered, folding his arms. He winced at that. He was wearing spiked wrist bands.
“You know,” Ardek said, steepling his fingers and pivoting over to face Larkin. “I’d much prefer to taunt the good captain a bit longer, but I enjoy the idea of him becoming your plaything. Perhaps we can have the best of both worlds. I can still taunt him, and you can otherwise do with him what you wish!” Ardek elbowed Baxter in the ribs. “And I’m sure she’s got QUITE the imagination, Captain!”
“No doubt, no doubt,” Baxter grumbled.
“Everything’s coming together!” Ardek shrieked. “And it’s almost time for us to plunge through into the Alpha Quadrant. Once my fleet regroups here, it’ll be time to paint the quadrant red…with blood, of course, or ketchup, whichever is available!”
“He’s insane,” Baxter whispered to Larkin as Ardek turned toward the front of the bridge and pirouetted down to the command chair.
“Indeed,” replied Larkin. “But perhaps your performance could be a bit more convincing. You are not spirited enough to be an adequate love slave.”
“How would you know?”
“I have an extensive pornographic database.”
“Sir, your actions here and now could very well save the Alpha Quadrant.”
“But I feel silly.”
“It does not matter.”
“Folks!” Ardek shrieked from the command chair. “Come sit by me! Share your little nasty thoughts and secrets with me!”
Baxter stared pleadingly at Larkin but she dragged him on.
“Well,” said Larkin, yanking Baxter to his knees as she sat beside Ardek in the command circle. “I had planned on taking Captain Baxter here into the holodeck, recreating a bayou swamp, and chasing him down with a group of ill-tempered Garibid ‘hillbillies.’”
“Hillbillies…” Baxter gasped. “Larkin, we never…”
“You are a dog!” snapped Larkin. “Bark for me, bitch!”
“Sheesh,” Baxter muttered, and pawed at the carpet with his hands. “Woof woof woof! Awwoooooooooooo!”
Ardek giggled and clapped his hands. “I like I like I like! Kitty, I have no idea what you were talking about, but I know I like the sound of it. Make it so, make it so, make it SSSSSSSSO!”
“You heard him, doggy boy…let us go,” Larkin said, and dragged Baxter, on hands and knees, up to the aft turbolift.
“You’re hurting me!” Baxter cried.
“That is the idea,” Larkin said, looking back to Ardek for approval. Ardek gave her “thumbs up.”
“You know, you are of course welcomed to take part in the festivities,” said Larkin.
“Welllll…” Ardek said impishly. “I really would like to take a look at your little holo-adventure before we go to the Alpha Quadrant. I’ll be along in a bit!”
“Do not worry,” said Larkin. “We would not dream of leaving you out of the excitement, Master.”
Hartley watched the stars drift by and was glad to see them again. Something about tooling around underwater and in an atmosphere made her uneasy.
Then again, it was no picnic fighting off all those leader-ships, either, but the Escort somehow punched her way through, and allowed the Sulani and Maloxian escape vessels a way out in the process. Now they were on course for Sulan, and Hartley wasn’t sure what to do. She was unable to make contact with the Aerostar-A, and Tilleran’s long-range scans indicated that Ardek’s fleets had finished with the rebel bases and were back on their way to converge on Maloxian territory, for what purpose Hartley did not want to know.
For all Hartley knew, the best plan was to go back to Sulan and regroup. Perhaps she could get some supplies to make final repairs on the Escort. Perhaps she could find a way of boosting the comm system so she could find the Aerostar, find Mirk…
A bleep stirred her from her thoughts.
“Hail coming in from the Sulani shuttle,” said J’hana.
“Put it on,” Hartley said.
It was Gellar. “Megan, you’re looking well.”
“Get on with it, Brian.”
“We’re almost at Sulan. It doesn’t look good. It appears Ardek’s people hit that planet hard too.”
“They left this little resistance with nowhere to turn.” Hartley could hear Prescott’ angry ranting in the background.
“It would seem so. Where do we go from here, then?”
“If your fearless leaders Chris and Jen don’t have a problem with it, I say we go back to the Malox system. Try to get past Ardek’s fleet, and get back to the Alpha Quadrant. Any problem with that?”
Gellar looked around the small bridge. “Apparently not. Let’s do it.”
Madera nodded. “Changing course now.”
“Good.” Hartley looked to Gellar. “See you there, Brian.”
“Yep.” And Gellar disappeared from the viewscreen.
“You don’t seriously believe we’ll be victorious, do you?” asked J’hana. Tilleran looked doubtful too, but Larkin just looked excited…in an unhinged sort of way.
“Not really,” admitted Hartley. “But isn’t an honorable death what you’ve been looking for all these years anyway?”
J’hana nodded eagerly. “Yes indeed. I was just checking to make sure we were all on the same page.”
“Thanks so much.”
Captain Conway was just on his way back from Sickbay, after having Nurse Davis fix up the cut on his head (and the mild concussion), when he ran into Browning herself, right outside his cabin doors.
“Captain, can we talk?” asked Browning.
“What?” Conway asked angrily. “Do you want to give me brain damage this time? Finish me off for good?”
Browning tentatively touched the gray bandage on Conway’s head. “Ouch. Sorry about that. Theoretically, I guess I could’ve treated it. But I was just too mad.”
“About what? I just wanted a date!”
“I thought you were trying to, you know, get some action, in my time of grief. It made me really mad.”
Conway resisted the urge to tell the truth. “That’s preposterous. I’m hurting too, you know. I just thought we could comfort each other. Over a drink, and a light snack.”
“Well, that does sound good…”
“It doesn’t matter now. We’re about to get underway. I have to be on the bridge.”
Browning patted Conway on the shoulder. “Nonsense. You have time for a quick break. Let your first officer command for a while.”
Conway bristled. “That’s Larkin. She was captured, remember?”
“Oh, right. Well, your second officer.”
“Ford would just LOVE to command!”
Conway rubbed his chin. “You have a point there.” He slapped his combadge. “Conway to Ford. Get us underway.”
“You want ME to command?” he asked briskly over the channel.
“Sure. For fifteen minutes.”
“Yippppeeee! You are all my slaves!” Ford cackled and the channel shut off.
“Guinan’s?” Conway asked, extending his arm. Browning took it.
Around a corner, Chris Richards watched the exchange with apprehension, and tried to figure out just where exactly on the ship this “Guinan’s” was located.
“This place is a mess.”
Lt. Commander Hartley was sitting on the couch in the captain’s “readyroom/bedroom.” The room was filled with dirty off-duty clothes, some stacks of comic books, a plate of unfinished Tamarian pasta, some packages from a premier sporting goods shoppe on Zephyrr Five. Hartley recalled that the Escort’s previous mission was yet another of Captain Baxter’s silly junkets. This ship was misused probably more than any other vessel in the fleet. Not to mention that the cabin was covered in shedded fur. She wondered if Peterman’s pets had made it off the Explorer. She didn’t really care.
She stared out the greasy viewport, wondering what Baxter and Peterman had smeared on it. Stars flew by, odd bits of space debris. The ship at their starboard wing, a Sulani shuttle, pulled in close to them.
Then something flashed off in the background, and instantly the U.S.S. Aerostar-A was there alongside the Escort.
Hartley raced out of the ready/bedroom, stumbling over a Cowboys football helmet, and braced herself on the doorframe. She continued stumbling right around the corner, into the adjoining hallway, and out onto the bridge.
“Where the hell did that come from?” she asked, and Larkin turned to face her.
“Zero-seven-one mark two-seven-four to be exact, Commander,” replied Larkin.
“How did we not see it coming?”
“I was napping,” Tilleran said defiantly, “You got a problem with that? There aren’t any other science officers aboard. Larkin was doing whatever an operations officer does…J’hana was practicing combat moves…Madera was fixing her make-up, and I was leaning back in my chair taking a nap. Do you have a problem with that? Do you? HUH?”
Hartley sidled over to the command chair, eying Tilleran oddly. “The change, I take it?”
“My hormones are raging, yes, as if it was any of your f***ing concern!” Tilleran pounded her panel. “The Aerostar is hailing us, damn it!”
Lt. Commander Ford appeared on the viewscreen, perched in the command chair. “Greetings, Megan, and my aren’t you looking dazzling tonight!”
She was still covered in grime from fixing the Escort. Still, she spared Ford a weak smile. “Commander…nice to see you again after so long. What’s the status of the Aerostar?”
“Don’t tell me Captain Conway is dead,” said J’hana. “Hmph. That would be a pity.”
“Not at all. He’s just…um, in a meeting,” replied Ford. “Listen, we have Flarn ships here. We’re heading to the Malox system to, you know…try to get control of the quadrant back from Ardek, and hopefully get back to the Alpha Quadrant.”
“What do you know,” said Hartley. “We’ve paired up with some Sulani and Maloxians, and Private Henricks and Commander Jen Prescott, and a herd of their kids.”
“Wow, that’s hot!”
“Anyway, have you heard anything about the Explorer?”
Ford shifted in the command chair uncomfortably. “No, that’s a negative on that one, Meg.”
“‘Meg?’” asked Larkin.
Hartley rose an eyebrow. “So what are we supposed to do? Just go in there, guns blazing?”
Ford looked nervous. “Well, that was Captain Conway’s plan, last I checked.”
Hartley blew hair out of her eyes. “That’s just great.”
“Perhaps, in the interim, I can beam over to the Aerostar and reunite with my father,” suggested Larkin.
Hartley rolled her eyes. “Yes, I suppose you would want to do that. Make it snappy, then send him back here. I’m tired of captaining. And see if you can find Mirk while you’re at it.”
“You have my word,” Larkin said, and ducked out of the aft bridge hatch.
“Heya there partygoers, would you like to try our blazin’ jalapeno poppers and some snazzy pepperjack sour cream dip?” asked the bowtied, redheaded, googily-eyed retard that GuinanCo had put in charge of Aerostar’s lounge franchise.
“No, Buzz, no. No appetizers, no specials. Just bring me and my lady friend here a drink and be done with it. We’ll order food later, but it’ll be burgers. No f***ing sparklers, no singing and dancing, no umbrellas poked in them. Just freaking burgers. You got that?”
“Yes, indeedie, Captain sir, and I guess you’ll have your usual?”
“One triple coffee, quadruple sugar, for the captain.” Buzz turned to face Browning. “And for the little lady?”
Browning bristled but maintained her smile. “I’ll have a Sluggo Cola, Buzz.”
“Excellent. And, while I’m getting you a drink, would you care to see our tray of jammin’ desserts?”
“No, just get the hell out of here!” Conway demanded, and Buzz retreated to the bar, grinning all the way. “Damn, I hate GuinanCo.”
“Buzz is certainly no Mirk. But you have to give that corporation credit for trying to create a fun atmosphere.”
Conway nodded as he played with a rubix cube (one was provided at each table, for fun). “Yeah. I have to admit, the sea of plastic balls back there is a riot.”
“I’d imagine so.”
“We could jump in there after our drink, you know.”
Browning gasped. “Captain, we are in a war to save this quadrant, prevent ours from being invaded, and get the Explorer and all our loved ones back!”
TEN MINUTES LATER
“This sea of balls is fantastic! I feel like I’m floating on a cloud!”
“I’m swimming underneath them! See if you can find me, Janice!”
“Ouch…hey there you are!”
“No, that wasn’t me.”
“Who the hell was it then?”
“Where are you?”
“At the deep end, apparently. I can’t touch the bottom! Does this thing reach all the way down to Deck 11?”
“Heck if I know!”
Commander Richards watched with unadulterated displeasure at the carrings-on of Browning and Conway. Something was cooking in there, and it stunk like year-old gagh. He frowned as he sipped his shirley temple and watched Browning body-slammed Conway. Not good.
“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”
“Yeah, I’m busy. Scram,” he said, turning to see who’d disturbed him during this…whatever it was he was trying to do.
His eyes went wide. “LARKIN!” He hopped to his feet and embraced the android tightly, gripping her polyduranide neck as tightly as he could. “You’re back! We really found you!”
“You found us, actually,” Larkin said.
Richards pulled away from Larkin. “Hold on one second. How do I know you’re not Kitty.”
“I am not remotely interested in sexual intercourse.”
“That’s my girl!” Richards hugged Larkin again, savoring the cold, hard, unforgiving metal feeling of her that he had missed so much.
“Where is Captain Conway?” she asked as they embraced.
Richards pulled back once again and thumbed over his shoulder in the direction of the ball tank. “He’s over there, commanding the sea of plastic balls.”
Larkin watched with horror as Conway repeatedly dunked Janice Browning in the balls. Then Browning pegged him in the face with one and he giggled uproariously. “That is unacceptable.” She marched over to the ball tank, picked up Conway by the back of his uniform as if he weighed nothing, hoisted him over her head, and marched toward the door. “Captain, we are in a state of emergency. This behavior cannot be permitted. As your first officer I am requiring you to report to the bridge with me immediately so that we may ascertain our situation.”
“Larkin, Commander…glad to have you back! Does this mean Alexa is back?” Conway twisted around to look at Browning as Larkin carried him off. “Not that I’m interested in her, that is. You’re the one for me, Janice! We have fun together! We just did, you can’t argue that one! No sir! That was fun, damn it! Fun fun fun!” His voice drowned out as Larkin walked out the door with him.
Richards walked over to the edge of the ball tank, ignoring the confused gazes of the lounge-goers. He put out a hand for Browning and she gratefully took it.
“Thanks, Christopher,” she said as she climbed out of the tank. “Whew. He’s right. That was fun.” She looked at Richards askance. “I saw Larkin come in. It’s always nice to see a pair reunited.”
Richards stared down into Browning’s eyes. Shoved aside a ball that was clinging to her hair. “Yes. Yes it is. Yes it is nice to see a pair reunited.”
“Yep,” Browning said, and dashed off to the door. “I’m going to need a quick shower before we go off saving the universe. See ya!”
Richards stood, dejected, watching Browning go. Buzz trotted up to Richards. “Hey, spaceman! Why so glum? Looks like you need a good-times deluxe good-riffic sundae! It’s goodily good-riff–”
Richards punched Buzz O’Funtimes square in the face, dropping him to his knees, and walked out. “Nice ambience, but it sure as hell ain’t Mirk’s.”
Mirk, meanwhile, rushed onto the bridge of the Escort and spun the command chair around to face him. “Kiss me, beautiful!”
Tilleran glared at him. “I may be in-phase, but I’m not that desparate.”
Mirk frowned. “Where’s Megan?”
“In the bedroom. Readyroom. Beddyroom. Whatever you want to call it.”
“Ariel…are you okay?” asked Mirk.
“Don’t get me started.”
“We could go down to the lounge and talk about it. It’s still a couple hours till we get back to my system. And the lounge manager on the Aerostar taught me how to make this great sundae…!”
“You’re really pushing your luck, Mirk,” said J’hana. “Leave while you still are able. Find your woman and leave us in misery.”
“Suit yourselves!” Mirk said cheerily and dashed off for the beddy-room.
Megan was there, staring out a window. Mirk made a mental note to have ship’s services clean the beddy-room when all this insanity was done.
“Pineapple lips! It’s you!” Mirk cried, running to embrace Hartley, but slipping miserably on a helmet and slamming to the ground.
Hartley knelt beside him. “Mirk, you don’t know how worried I was about you.” She lifted him up easily and took him over to the couch, clearing off some pretzel pieces. “Listen, Mirk, I’ve been thinking a lot about us.”
“I have been too. Especially since Benzra took that Flarn poet into her cabin, which is right next to mine. They made noises I’ve never imagined, and I used to work for Flarn!” Mirk gave Hartley a seductive look. “Anyway, the bottom line is, it got me…you know, thinking…”
Hartley turned to face Mirk. “Not that kind of thinking, dummy. I meant I was thinking serious thoughts about our marriage.”
“Mirk…we’re back in YOUR quadrant. When the Aerostar left here eight years ago, you intended to come back once we returned safely.”
Mirk grabbed Hartley’s hands. “Yeah, that may be, but A LOT has happened since then.” He kissed her hands. “A lot of beautiful things.”
“Mirk,” Hartley said, pulling her hands away. “What I’m trying to say is, I want you to give some serious thought to what you want to do here. This quadrant is obviously in need of more help than we can provide. It needs you. Somewhere, out there, I’m sure Danel still needs you. There’s no shame in staying here with your people and leading them to a better future. I would…I would understand if that’s more important to you than our marriage.”
Mirk took Hartley’s hands back and squeezed them. “Megan, nothing’s more important to me than our marriage. Nothing.”
“Take some time to really consider that. If we get the chance, see your Director friends. Make sure this is what you should be doing.”
“I don’t need them to tell me this is what I should be doing. I know it in my heart. I don’t give a damn about the Directors. And I don’t give a damn if I ever get my powers back.”
Hartley’s lip trembled and she covered her mouth. “Mirk…do you realize what you’re saying?”
“Yes I do.” He hugged her. “Yes I do.”
“You don’t know how great it is to have you back,” Conway said, shaking Lt. Gellar’s hand for a ridiculously long amount of time. He tried to avoid Alexa’s glance.
Gellar looked oddly at Conway, and at Larkin, who stood behind him, giving the captain a proprietary sort of glare.
“Glad to be back, Captain.”
“Take your station, Lieutenant,” Conway said, and turned to Alexa. “Doctor Lanham, it’s good as always to see you.”
“David…why are you so red? Have you been working out?”
Conway looked exhaustedly at Larkin. “Yes. Working. I was working. How about you take the science station? Lots to brief you guys on. Yes, lots. Lots. Lots.”
“Are you all right?” Alexa asked as she made her way up to the science console, which was opposite Gellar.
“Oh, I’m fine. Just had a good talk with my first officer. We talked about how great it was to have her back. And how much I missed her counsel.”
Larkin nodded. “Yes.” She sat down beside Conway. “There is much to be done.”
“Are YOU okay, Larkin?”
“I am an android. Of course I am okay,” replied Larkin.
“Has Richards gone back to the Escort?” Conway asked.
Gellar nodded. “He’s here in the latest transporter log, yes sir. I also have a communication from Lieutenant Commander Hartley on the Escort indicating we can’t have Mirk back.”
“Okay. What about Doctor Browning?” Conway asked.
Conway grinned, careful not to make eye contact with Alexa. “Excellent. I mean…okay. Mister Ford, maintain course for Malox.”
“We brought along some friends,” Alexa told Conway. “Private Henricks and Commander Prescott are aboard one of the ships flying in formation with us.”
“They have a ton of kids,” added Gellar.
“Great, great,” said Conway, rubbing his hands together. “The more the merrier. What about Beldana. Total loss, I suppose?”
“Pretty much,” said Alexa.
“Shame.” Conway looked toward the viewscreen. “Well, all we can do is move forward, right?”
“David, what the hell is your problem?”
Ford turned back toward Alexa. “He rolled around in some plastic balls with Janice Browning.”
Conway glared at Ford. “Muzzle it, Commander!”
Just then, Browning stepped out onto the bridge. “Hey, guys.” The whole crew fixed their eyes on her. “What? Did I spill some pepperjack sauce on my shirt?” She looked down on her shirt. “No, I didn’t. So what’s up?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Conway snapped, glaring at Ford.
“Well,” Browning said, stepping down to take the seat opposite Larkin in the command area. “I had a nice snack and a shower. I’m ready for anything.”
“Indeed,” Larkin said dryly.
“I wonder how Captain Baxter’s holding up,” said Browning.
“We’ll find out in a couple hours,” said Conway. “Hopefully.”
Ardek walked through the holodeck doors not knowing exactly what to expect.
What he found was a bayou swamp, which the ship’s computer had told him was located precisely four miles east of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The computer, annoyingly, hadn’t told him much else.
Ardek found the place totally miserable and disgusting. The water was mucky, the tree limbs got in his face, there was no sign of volcanic activity as on his precious home planet, and something stunk AWFULLY!
But the plain fact was, Captain Baxter was bound to have a lot less fun here than he, so he was able to take a little grossing out if it meant his enemy would suffer a nastier fate.
Speaking of the good captain, Ardek heard distinct cries for mercy with his keen Romulan hearing. He trudged through the muck, cursing that his snakeskin boots were getting all mucky, and soon he found himself coming up on a very rickety and run- down wooden shack.
“Atrocious decor,” he said aloud, as he pressed on up the creaking stairs and through the door to the shack.
There was Baxter, with Larkin, circled with Garibid who looked like they really didn’t know what their role in all this was.
“Good, you are here,” Kitty said, passing by Ardek and handing him a whip. “I am pleased that you could make it. It is time to begin.”
Ardek looked to Mokso, one of his Garibid thugs. “What’s going on here, Mokso?”
“We’ve been rehearsing,” Mokso said. “But I still can’t tell you exactly what we’re supposed to do. Something bout torturing this poor schmuck captain.”
“I’m liking it so far!” Ardek squealed, slapping his whip against his hand.
“Oh, no,” Baxter said, climbing back along the creaking floor to a corner. “Please, no.”
“Sorry, Captain, but this will have to be your exit performance.” Ardek slapped the whip against his hand and stepped closer. “Tell me if I get out of character at any time, Kitty.”
Kitty nodded. “Indeed. But first, I must prepare Captain Baxter for his lashing. You know, give him a few painkillers so he lasts longer. Clean him up a bit, change his leathers, that sort of thing.”
Ardek grinned with approval as Kitty lugged an unwilling Baxter out the door. “I don’t know where this perverse, demented streak of yours came from, but all I can say is I LIKE!”
“I am pleased that you approved,” Kitty said, and she slammed the wooden door shut behind her and Baxter.
Ardek looked around at his men. “Nasty place, huh?”
Mokso nodded. “It smells like regurge all around here.”
“Yes, I would tend to agree,” said Ardek. “I’d sit down if I thought there was a sanitary place to do so.” Ardek stared boredly around at the cabin’s drab walls. “So is that all this simulation is? A swamp and a beating? Nothing more creative than that?”
“Yep,” said Mokso.
“Well, maybe we can change all that,” Ardek said. “Sort of a surprise for Kitty when she comes back. Computer, access program parameters.”
“Access denied,” the computer replied firmly.
“What? This is High Emporer Ardek of the Leadership Spa and Funtimes Resort. Recognize my authority!”
“Your command codes are not on file.”
Ardek’s mind reeled. Impossible! He raced out of the cabin, followed quickly by his bumbling Garibid henchmen. “Computer, exit!”
The computer did not respond. He stumbled on a tree branch and fell face-first in mud. He scrambled up to his feet and trudged across grass and muck and mud, leaping trees, enraged, clawing at trees, which all began to look alike…
“Computer…show me the f***ing exit!”
“Whoo-eeee, boy, what do we have here?”
Ardek turned. “Mokso, what…” His henchmen were nowhere to be found. Instead, he came face-to-face with four extremely unkempt humans. They wore plaid flannel shirts, dirty dungarees, had unshaven faces. And their eyes reflected the pure, unbridled insanity of Ardek’s.
“Gentlemen,” Ardek said, straightening his crumpled suitcoat. “Good to see you. I was wondering if you could point me toward the back door.”
The head human stepped toward Ardek. “You damn right we will.”
Another scraggled human grinned toothlessly. “Mah, you sure do gotta purty mouth.”
Ardek blinked. “Why…thank you. Your mouth is…also pretty.”
The grizzled man gripped Ardek’s shoulder. “I’d like to get ta know you better, boyah.”
“Well, maybe later.”
The human spun Ardek around, kicked his legs out from under him and shoved him down over a tree trunk.
“I’d like ta get to know ya right now. You ever squealed like a pig?
“What’s a pig?” Ardek asked gingerly.
“You’ll know when ya hear yourself screamin’ like one, eh boys?”
The men around him laughed. Ardek screamed. “MOKSOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
“Squeal like a pig, boyah! Squeal like a PIG!”
“I said SQUEAL LIKE A PIG!”
Plato rubbed his hands together. “Plato to Baxter.”
“Where are you, Uncle Andy?”
“In my cabin, changing out of these awful leather clothes. Yourself?”
“In the computer core. Just made the final alterations. We’re good to go.”
“Great to hear. Did you encounter any resistance?”
“Nope. None at all.”
“Great. Meet me on the bridge in five minutes. Oh, yeah, and you can drop the ‘uncle’ now. You’re one of my crew. You don’t have to show me any respect.”
“Gee, thanks Andy!” Plato turned away from the computer core master console and came face-to-face with Jahn. “Um…Jahn! Hi there. I’m, um, lost.”
“You can drop the act,” Jahn said dully. “I’ve been watching you this whole time from the security office. At least I think that’s what it was. There were an awful lot of unnecessary weapons and blades in there.”
“That was security all right,” admitted Plato. “Say, why didn’t you try to stop me?”
“Frankly, it’s cause my step dad is a real lunatic.”
“Glad you noticed. Want to help us save this quadrant and the other one?”
“Sure,” said Jahn.
“Cool. Let’s go!” Plato felt energized. He’d made a FRIEND! And Baxter hadn’t even forced this one, like all the others.
Captain Baxter sat down in his command chair and was glad for two things. One, that he was back in control of the Explorer. Two, that he didn’t have those damn riding leather shorts on. Those things chapped him awfully!
Just then, Plato and Jahn skipped merrily out of the foreward turbolift and Baxter looked at them askance.
“Um, Plato,” Baxter said, gesturing Plato over to the command area as Jahn took a position at tactical.
“Uncle Andy,” Baxter corrected. “Listen,” he lowered his voice to a whisper, “do you think it’s a good idea to have that guy here?”
“Who, Jahn? He’s fine. He doesn’t like Ardek. Ardek isn’t even his real father.”
“That may be all well and good, but he was in league with that psycho. I’m just saying…it may not be safe to have him operating tactical.”
“System is clear of enemies,” Jahn offered helpfully.
Baxter glanced over his shoulder and gave Jahn “thumbs up.” “Great, thanks Jahn!” Baxter turned back to Plato. “Watch that guy like a hawk, understand?”
“Yes, Uncle Andy.”
“Right, then. You take the helm.”
Plato joined Larkin up at the foreward stations. She was tacking away at the ops controls.
“Ardek did extensive revision to our control protocols,” Larkin told Plato. “I am currently re-writing them.”
“I see,” Plato said, as he ascertained Explorer’s position on the helm panel.
“To be more specific, I rewrote the Explorer’s control protocols when I was…unfortunately, Kitty.”
“Yes, sorry about that.”
Larkin leaned closer to Plato. “I understand that my replacement has done quite well in Starfleet since my…departure.”
“Larkin II? Oh, yeah. She’s great.”
“I understand she has emotions.”
“Yep, she’s quite the character.”
Plato nodded. “Well, you two will have to have a reunion once this whole thing’s over.”
Baxter, who had been busy reviewing the Explorer’s systems status, looked back at Jahn. “Say, Jahn…can you give me a sensor sweep? See if you can locate the Aerostar-A or the Escort?”
“Sure,” said Jahn easily. After a few moments, he looked up from his screens. “I have a read on them. One-zero-four mark ten.”
Baxter stood. “You’re kidding. Heading here?”
“Damn straight!” Baxter said excitedly. “Can we get a comm out to them?”
“Frequencies are open,” Jahn reported. “Go.”
“Call coming in from the Explorer,” Gellar said, looking up from his panel. “It’s Captain Baxter!”
“I’ll be damned,” Conway said dully, swerving his chair toward the viewscreen. “Put him on screen. And call his little family up to the bridge. I’m sure they’d love to see this.”
Baxter appeared on the viewscreen, and to Larkin’s confusion, it appeared that Kitty herself was at ops.
“Greetings, Conway,” said Baxter. “Boy, do we have a lot of catching up to do.”
“How right you are,” said Conway. “We’ve been mixing it up with Ardek’s people since we fled this system. What have you been doing…sitting there scratching your ass for the last day and a half?”
Baxter frowned. “Not quite. Say, where the hell are my wife and daughter?”
“On their way to the bridge. I think Steffie’s been napping and your wife’s been poking into other people’s business, as usual.”
“Thanks for sharing.”
Beside Conway, Larkin piped up. “Captain…is that Kitty at operations?”
Baxter glanced nervously at the android on his bridge. “Um, in a sense. It’s your original body, with your original mind before you, you know, got blown up with Ardek.”
“I see,” was all Larkin said.
“That’s extraordinary!” Richards said, from the command chair of the Escort. Hartley stood to his left, arm wrapped tightly around Mirk.
“Indeed,” said the Larkin on the Explorer’s bridge.
“It poses a little bit of a problem,” said Baxter from beside Larkin. “What to do with two Larkins?”
“What do you mean?” asked Richards. “Just more of them to love! We can name one of them Krissie or something. There are all sorts of ways to rearrange that name. Besides, you’ve always said how you missed having Larkin on your crew. Now you won’t have to! By damn, she can replace Sefelt!”
Baxter nodded. “That is a good idea.”
Meanwhile, Lt. Sefelt, who’d been standing at the back of the bridge, trying to fight his fear of confrontation, sidestepped awkwardly and sadly backwards out of the access hatch.
“So here’s the plan,” Conway said, bending over the conference table, close enough to Doctor Browning, he decided, that she could smell his Tholian Musk cologne. “We’re rendez- vousing with the Explorer in the Malox system in exactly twenty-two minutes. According to tactical, that gives us a half-hour lead at least on Ardek’s forces. That gives us time to finally get rid of the Explorer crewmembers on my ship, and at the same time, our fleet can prepare to engage Ardek’s fleet and defend this system.”
“From what?” asked Peterman. “According to Andy, Ardek’s busy having non-consensual sex in the holodeck. He’s not a threat anymore.”
“Yes,” Conway said. “But Henricks and Prescott maintain that his fleet will still attempt to flush us out of this system.”
“Which Mirk and Jum both agree is our only way back home,” Alexa said.
“Indeed,” said Larkin II. “Now that Ardek has maintained a link between this system and the Alpha Quadrant, our science department is convinced that we can get our ships back home.”
“Thank goodness,” said Peterman, combing Steffie’s hair as the three-year-old sat in her lap.
“We can’t just slip out of here,” Conway said gravely. “We promised Henricks and Prescott we would help them disable Ardek’s fleet, and that’s exactly what I intend for us to do. We’ll stay in this quadrant until we suceed at stopping Ardek, or,” Conway said, lowering his voice, “or until we take a severe beating and need to run away.”
“Starfleet command would be proud,” Browning muttered.
Conway ignored her. But damn it stung. He turned to Alexa. “Doctor Lanham, I want you to be ready to expand that breach in the subspace thing and get us back to the Alpha Quadrant at a moment’s notice. Got it?”
“I’m going to be quite the busy girl,” Alexa muttered and stood. “Brian, I’ll see you at dinner?”
“If we survive,” said Gellar, grinning as Alexa left.
Conway turned to glare at Gellar. “What the hell was THAT?”
“After we escaped Ardek’s people, I asked Alexa on a date. She said yes.”
Lt. Commander Ford gave him a high-five. “You go, Brian! She’s the biggest ice queen of them all, and you cracked through her defenses! You are a true tactical officer!”
Conway slammed Ford’s and Gellar’s head together in slapstick fashion. “Both of you, shut up. There’s a mission to be done or something. Stations, people!”
The group slowly left the conference room, Gellar and Ford angrily rubbing their heads.
Browning and Peterman lagged behind, Peterman hoisting Steffie on her hip.
“Problem, Captain?” Peterman asked sarcastically.
“You are not this ship’s love doctor,” Conway growled, staring out the viewport.
“It could sure use one,” Browning said, not unsympathetically.
“Don’t worry, Captain,” said Peterman. “There are plenty of other slugs in the swamp.”
“Don’t I know it,” Conway said, watching Browning walk out of the conference room. “Don’t I know it.” He glared at Peterman. “Well? Don’t you have a ship to get back to??”
Captain’s Log, U.S.S. Explorer,
Stardate 58757.2. We have rendez-voused with the Aerostar-A and I’m amazed to say she brought with her quite a fleet. A rag-tag bunch of Sulani and Flarn vessels, along with Maloxian ships, which are just redressed salvaged Starfleet ships. Seeing the hijacked Starfleet ships boils the inventory blood within me, but I’ve resisted the urge to reapportion them. In other news, a great beaming effort is underway to quickly transfer all staff back aboard the Explorer. The beam-out is almost complete, and I couldn’t be happier.
Peterman and Steffie ran out onto the Explorer bridge and both jumped into Baxter’s arms in the command chair.
“I can’t tell you two how much I’ve missed you,” Baxter said, as he heard the support struts underneath the command chair creaking. He quickly stood and embraced the two, Steffie dangling from around his neck. “Did you all have a good time on the Aerostar-A?” he asked, pretty sure of the answer he was going to get.
“In a word, ‘no,’” said Peterman dryly, as she went to take her customary seat beside Baxter. She was incredibly pleased to be back in that seat, probably more than Baxter even realized. She had spent so much time counseling Browning, Conway, and Richards, that it never even occurred to her how worried she was that she and Steffie would never see Andy again. She was overcome with a wave of relief, not only due to the fact that she was back with her husband, but due to the fact she had resisted going to Counselor Telvin for counseling.
Once Peterman had composed herself, she leaned over to Baxter, who was still bouncing Steffie on his knee. “Andy, just one question.”
“Who’s that kid up at tactical?”
“Oh, that’s Jahn. He’s a friend of Plato’s. He was part of Ardek’s original takeover force.”
“Ahh. Okay. Refresh my memory. Where is Ardek again?”
“He’s locked on Holodeck Three. I sent a security team down to fetch him a couple minutes ago.”
“Well, that is good news.”
“Incoming comm from the Escort,” said Jahn from tactical.
“Put it on-screen,” Baxter said, and turned Steffie around to face the screen.
Richards appeared on the viewscreen, standing at the front of the Escort bridge, next to Madera at helm. “Captain, we’ve beamed over everyone from the Escort except our bridge crew. We’re going to re-attach to the ship right now. We’ll see you on the bridge.”
Baxter nodded. “Okay. It’ll be good to have you all back.”
“It’ll be good to be back,” said Hartley, who was still in Mirk’s arms.
“All department heads report battle-ready,” Larkin reported, at Conway’s side.
“Ten minutes until the Leadership and Funfleet, or whatever the hell it is, arrives,” said Gellar from tactical.
Conway watched the viewscreen. “Let me see their approach vector. Heat up all weapons. Tri-cobalts at the ready.”
“Yes, sir,” said Gellar.
“Say, Gellar…where’s our Flarn delegation?”
“They’re both having sex in one of the guest quarters, sir.”
Conway nodded dumbly. “Uh. Very good. What’s Jum’s status?”
“Leading attack wing B, aboard the former U.S.S. Nantucket, now named the U.S.S. Malox.”
“Attack wing ‘B’? I take it we’re ‘A’?”
Conway rubbed his chin. “Which one’s C?”
“There is no ‘C.’”
“Right. Well…continue sensor sweeps.”
Alexa watched the viewscreen, hand resting on the controls that would activate the conduit to the Alpha quadrant in an instant. She looked across the bridge at Gellar. “Chinese or Italian, Brian?”
“Would you shut up?” barked Conway.
“This feels wrong,” said Mirk, as the Escort rotated on a wing, approaching the Explorer for re-docking.
“How so?” asked Richards, as he headed over to the Escort’s command chair.
“I don’t know. I just feel an incredible sense of foreboding danger.”
“I’m sure it’s just gas or something,” J’hana muttered.
Richards turned to face J’hana. “You mean like when his powers detected our timeline being rewritten and he saved us from being carried over into an alternate universe?”
J’hana growled. “There you go bringing THAT up again.”
Mirk’s eyes widened as he watched the saucer of the Explorer get closer. “Oh…bannanaf***!”
Hartley glared at him. “You took fruit’s name in vain. I know it can’t be good now. What’s happening?”
Mirk ignored Hartley and turned to J’hana. “Shields, J’hana! SHIELDS!”
“Escort on approach,” said Jahn, and Baxter and crew watched on the viewscreen as the Escort backed toward its bay on the underside of the Explorer’s saucer.
“Prepare to raise shields once she’s docked,” Baxter said.
Just then Janice Browning ran out of the foreward turbolift and pounced on Plato at helm.
“Plato! Thank God you’re okay!”
“We’re kind of in the middle of something here, Janice,” Baxter chided, looking to the viewscreen, as a phaser lanced out at the Escort and sliced through her port wing. “WHAT THE HELL?” He glared back at Jahn, who smiled devilishly.
“Leadership is FUN!” Jahn said and hit another control. Baxter watched helplessly as quantum torpedoes streamed out at the Escort. One knocked her backwards, spinning. Her shields went up just in time but now were decimated.
The next torpedo hit the Escort amidships, and exploded her like fireworks in the night.
Continued in next section…