Author: Anthony Butler
The Escort exploded like fireworks in the night, sending out a shockwave of matter-antimatter that shuddered through the Explorer like a nor’easter.
Then, at almost the same instant, a shockwave originating from the Crebius cluster’s former location washed over the Malox system, bringing with it eruptions of purple-red gasses that fouled sensors, disrupted shields, played havoc with helm controls.
It was like a storm.
It was the Crebius Cluster.
And it was twice the size it once was.
At the eye of the storm, five people floated, confused.
”–to the escape pods!” Christopher Richards finished saying, but then realized he was reeling in a gaseous eternity.
“Save your breath,” J’hana said. “We’re floating in the Crebius Cluster.”
“Observant of you,” Tilleran muttered, floating upside down, trying to right herself.
“Damn!” cursed J’hana. “I was SO close to an honorable death!”
“How is that supposed to be honorable!” muttered Madera. “And why am I even here! I should never have become a major character!”
“Don’t worry, you’re not,” said Richards, and he turned to look at Hartley, who pivoted, looking for something. “Megan?”
“I can’t find Mirk,” she said, and screwed her eyes shut, shouting, “MIRK!”
<I’m here. All around you.>
“Not again,” J’hana mumbled.
<The same, but different,> said Mirk’s voice. <You all have much work to do. That is why I saved you.>
“What about you?” demanded Hartley.
<I have work to do too, but it’s far different work than yours. You will see…>
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Richards. “Mirk, you’re starting to sound like a damned Director!”
<Am I now? That IS a laugh. Get back to the Explorer; I will assist where I can. Good luck.>
“Mirk,” shrieked Hartley. “Don’t you dare send us away without so much as a freaking–”
”–explanation!” Hartley looked around the Explorer bridge, where the sane bleep of controls reminded her she was once again aboard a starship.
Baxter turned in the command chair, amazed. Hartley stood in a clustered group with Richards, Tilleran, J’hana, and Madera.
“You’re all alive,” Baxter said, eyes wide, and rushed over, with others. “I saw you blown to bits with my very eyes!” He hugged Richards, who squirmed awkwardly.
“I guess Mirk got his powers back,” Richards gasped, gently patting Baxter’s back.
“Yes, and I guess it was beyond Mirk’s powers to save the Escort,” J’hana said dully as she stepped up to the vacant tactical station. “What has been happening here?”
“Same old stuff,” Peterman said, as Tilleran took her station, and as Madera headed sullenly for the vacant helm station.
“Where’s Mirk?” asked Baxter, looking to Hartley, who walked slowly over to engineering.
“We don’t know, don’t ask,” Richards said, dragging Baxter by the arm back to the command center. “What’s our status?”
Baxter wrenched his arm free and gestured toward the viewscreen. “See for yourself. We’re all stuck in the Crebius Cluster.”
“Sensors are baffled,” Tilleran muttered.
Richards sat in his seat at Baxter’s right. “So is Ardek’s fleet stuck too?”
“Apparently,” said Baxter. “As are the umpteen other Sulani, Maloxian, Flarn, Leadership and Fun and other assorted vessels. It’s a damn parking lot out there, and the sensors aren’t worth a damn. We’ll be lucky if we can even manage not to crash into another ship.”
Richards shot a dark look at Baxter. “Well isn’t that nice. Any explanation as to why you blew us up?”
“Well, yes,” said Baxter. “We had a traitor in our midst.”
“That Maloxian,” Peterman huffed. “Supposedly one of Mirk’s old friends.”
“Some friend,” muttered Richards. “Why are his friends always stabbing us in the back?”
“People change after high school, or the Maloxian equivalent,” muttered Baxter. “Anyway, Plato’s taking him to the brig, and meanwhile a security team is looking for–”
Suddenly a comm bleep broke in. “Bridge, this is Keefler. I can’t find Ardek or those Garibid anywhere, Captain!”
“You’re in the holodeck, Adam?” Baxter said worriedly. His concerns were confirmed when he heard squealing hillbillies in the background.
“Roger that, Captain. I’m afraid we’re pinned in a log cabin of some kind with hillbillies all around us. Our position is secured for now but I don’t know for how long. How on Earth do you deactivate this program?”
“Try password ‘Boseephus,’” Baxter said. “And for God sakes, Keefler, get out of there!!”
Baxter glanced back at J’hana. “Commander, go down there and find Ardek. Use all the force you need, but put him out of commission, you got that?”
J’hana grinned. “Yes, SIR!”
“I will accompany her,” Larkin said, rising from the ops station.
“Hold on!” Richards said, picking up step beside her. “We haven’t even gotten the chance to talk!”
“Why should we? Your daughter is safe on the Aerostar-A. It matters not what happens to me.”
“Why are you so damn calm about this? You’ve been gone for five years!”
“Yes, and in that time, not much has changed. Ardek is still a threat, and I must destroy him. Take care of your current daughter. I will also advise you that there is a seventy-seven percent chance that Captain Conway will try to date Doctor Browning.”
“That already happened, Larkin,” Richards said as the android joined J’hana in the turbolift. “Unsuccessfully.”
“Indeed,” said Larkin Mark I, disappearing behind the closing turbolift doors.
Richards whirled. “Dammit!”
“Control yourself, Richards, I’m sure they’ll be fine. Take Ops.” Baxter turned back to Hartley, who stood vacantly at engineering. “Megan, I need you at tactical.”
“Hmm. What? Oh, yes, right.”
Peterman pushed Steffie over onto Baxter’s lap and trotted over to Hartley as she took tactical. “Megan…what happened. Where is Mirk?”
“I don’t know.” Hartley plunked disinterestedly at the tactical controls. “I’m reading dozens of blips out there. Hard to sort out which are friendly and which are Ardek’s ships.”
“Can you locate the Aerostar?” asked Baxter.
“I’ll try to pinpoint her transponder,” Richards said from ops.
Peterman gently touched Hartley’s shoulder. “Megan, I know your emotions are tied up in knots right now, I know how much you care about Mirk, and how worried you are right now, but you have to focus and get us out of this safely, for the sake of this whole crew…hold together for just a while longer, and I promise, after all this is through, you and I will go get ice cream!”
“Shut UP!” Hartley growled, sending Peterman backing diplomatically back to her chair.
“Got ‘er!” Richards said, bringing up a static-y image of the Aerostar-A on the viewscreen.
“Hartley, punch through a comm signal,” Baxter said.
“Captain Conway, this is Baxter. Do you read me?”
“Yes, I read you loud and clear Baxter. But we’ve got problems galore. We can’t seem to locate a perimeter inside this cloud. It’s like it’s stretching to encompass the whole sector!”
“Can we find a way back to the Alpha Quadrant in all this?” Baxter glanced back at Tilleran who swiftly shook her head.
“Nope,” echoed Conway.
“Damn it,” Baxter said. “Are we supposed to just SIT HERE!”
<Yes, you are.>
Baxter lept to his feet. “Who the hell is that?”
A cloud of purple-white swirled in front of him and a giant eyeball, which surprised no one, appeared.
<Captain, it is time for the Denouement–The Battle Royale.> The voice, though, was surprisingly familiar.
Baxter stepped tentatively toward the eyeball. “Mirk?”
<The one and only.>
Hartley rushed down from tactical. “How am I supposed to make love to a freaking eyeball, MIRK!”
<You’re really losing sight of the importance of what has happened to me. I’m a Director now!>
“HOW?” demanded Hartley and Baxter as one.
<The Directors, and the Critics, are not a species. They are thousands of species. Once a millenia, a humanoid joins each of their ranks. I guess it’s my millenia.>
Hartley pounded the soft, fleshy surface of the eyeball. “That can’t be! It just can’t be!”
<Megan, if you look deep inside yourself, you will know it to be true.>
“STOP TALKING LIKE THAT!”
<I am sorry. It’s in the manual.>
Baxter circled the hovering eyeball. “So all that we’ve been through the last eight years…it’s just been…”
<Training.> Mirk finished the sentence. <But my, have we had fun along the way.>
“Sure,” said Baxter, pointing to a quivering Hartley. Peterman had cautiously walked over to hug and comfort her. “But at what price? You’ve broken her heart, Mirk! How on Earth are an eyeball and a woman supposed to live together in holy wedded matrimony!”
<I can only say that this is what was meant to be.>
Baxter rested his hands on his hips. “And now what is this about a battle? Who’s battling? Why?”
<At the same time that your warring vessels have been kept at bay here in the cluster, we have prepared a battle which will decide whose plotline will be continued, and whose will be ended.>
“PLOTLINE?” demanded Baxter.
<It is the way of things. THEY insist.>
“Who are ‘they’?” demanded Peterman.
<The Writers, of course.>
“Of course,” mumbled Baxter.
<The Writers control us. They will take the Directors’ pitch, in which you all return safely to the Alpha Quadrant, or they will take the Critics pitch, in which you live out your lives, enslaved, here.>
“Do we get a vote?” Baxter asked.
<I am afraid not.>
“This isn’t fair!” cried Hartley, facing the eyeball, pounding mercilessly about Peterman’s shoulders to wrench free. “You can’t just leave me, Mirk! You swore you never would! You said you didn’t give a damn about the Directors!”
<I can say nothing to console you, Megan. Execpt, maybe, that I had to do this, had to ‘graduate,’ in order to save you and the others from being destroyed with the Escort. Even more importantly, Megan, know I shall never really leave your side.>
Hartley stared at the eyeball, lip trembling. “Mirk…”
<Well…gotta go. The battle’s about to begin. I hope you enjoy it. For all our sakes, I hope we all enjoy it!>
The eyeball swirled out of existence, and with it, the Explorer crew and every other living thing inside the Crebius Cluster.
THE BATTLE ROYALE
”–where the HELL are we?” Baxter had turned around to check on Peterman and Hartley at tactical and found himself suddenly staring out at a vast arena. It reminded him a little of Texas Stadium IV, which he’d visited in his childhood before the Galactic Football League was disbanded. It was huge, packed with what looked like the combined crews of the Explorer and Aerostar, and everyone from the fleets of ships which had joined the battle, which had never even had the chance to begin, in the Delta Quadrant.
Then there were more people.
Sulani, Maloxian, Garibid, Mordani, Beldanans.
All from that corner of the Delta Quadrant, all from that place the Directors and Critics seemed to hold dominion over. Why, then, Baxter wondered, had they spilled out into the Alpha Quadrant? Why had Baxter and his crew, and all those Federation crews that had stumbled into the Bermuda Expanse– why had they been pulled into this mess?
“I’m down here,” Peterman said, and Baxter looked down to find her seated in one of the curved seats that encircled the arena. Baxter found he was standing over his own seat and quickly sat down. He hated being one of those guys who stood up unnecessarily in a crowded arena.
“Have you seen the others from our ships?”
“I’ve picked them out a few rows up and a few rows back,” Peterman said. “But the usher’s being a real pain in the ass about it.”
“Figures,” muttered Baxter.
“I don’t know, it just does. Where’s Steffie?”
“Here!” Steffie cried, popping her head out from underneath Peterman’s chair.
“Well, get up on my lap,” said Baxter. “We’re in some kind of other universe, and I don’t want you to touch ANYTHING. Who knows what kind of effect this will have on the space-time continuum.”
“Mirk seemed to be telling us that the outcome of this ‘battle’ would tell whether or not we’d get back to the Alpha Quadrant,” said Peterman.
Baxter pushed his shirtsleeves up. “Well, I certainly don’t like the sound of that. Anyway, who knows if we can even trust Mirk now.”
“He may be fully omnipotent now, Andy, but he’s still basically the same person. And since when have you not trusted a Director?”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “Oh, since a few years back, about the time a certain Mirk enslaved my crew in his stupid religion..”
Peterman rubbed her chin and looked down at the pit of the arena, where a bunch of large eyeballs were gathered in the home “dugout.” “Well, you know, Andy, this would seem to validate that religion. Look at all these people around us–” Peterman pointed to four conversing Flarn, who Baxter could overhear betting on the Critics “–these people are really getting into this. They don’t seem perturbed at all that they’re here. Andy…they seem to have been wating for this moment!”
Baxter balanced Steffie on his knee. “You know, I think you’re right.”
Peterman stared out at the booming crowd. “Makes you feel kind of helpless in all of this, doesn’t it?”
“These seats taken?” Baxter looked to his left, thankfully finding Richards and Larkin, Conway, Browning and Plato, Gellar, Alexa Lanham, J’hana, Tilleran, and Ford. They all seemed to trail in from the upper decks.
Richards smiled. “You guys here for the big game too?”
“No,” Baxter muttered. “I just really love the hot dogs.”
“Hot dogs, hot dogs, get ‘em while they’re hot!” A Garibid walked up to Baxter. “How many, sir?”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m not really a hot dog guy. I was driving an air cab twenty minutes ago on Garibid Sixteen. Now I’m a hot dog guy. Here, free hot dogs, come on and eat ‘em. Hell, I don’t even know what a hot dog is.”
“I’ll have some!” Browning exclaimed.
“Figures,” muttered Conway.
“What’s that?” demanded Browning, as the Garibid man handed her several hot dogs. She kept taking them. “They’re for everyone, you know.”
“Plato,” Baxter said, as the group from the Aerostar and Explorer filed in with Baxter and Peterman. “I’m sorry about Jahn.”
Plato sat down by Baxter. “It’s okay. He tried to get away when I dragged him down to the brig and I gave him a good pummeling. I don’t feel so bad now.”
“To heck with the helm, my boy, you might just be security officer material,” said Baxter.
“He could certainly infiltrate hard-to-reach places,” J’hana said, draping an arm around Tilleran. The Betazoid promptly shoved J’hana’s arm back.
“He’ll do no such thing,” said Browning, mouth full of hot dog. “I’ve been worried sick about him throughout this ordeal. You think I want to go through that every time he goes out on a mission?”
“What ordeal?” demanded Conway. “You were bouncing around in a sea of balls with me!”
“So that’s what you call it,” Ford snickered.
Plato turned to Baxter. “I did learn something valuable about the adult world, Andy.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
Baxter cocked his head. “Indeed.” He looked to Larkin Mark II. “Commander, did you find your better half? Or in this case, your exactly equal half?”
Larkin shook her head. “I think she was mistakenly transported to the visitors’ stands. I am presently scanning that crowd. It is extensive. I have not found her yet.”
“Crowd must be full of Leadership and Fun people,” Baxter muttered.
“And some leftover Starshine Kids,” said Larkin, scanning the crowd on the far side of the stadium.
“Good for them,” muttered Baxter.
“So…we’re here to decide the fate of the galaxy?” asked Conway.
“Nothing that impressive,” said Baxter. “Just whether or not the Critics become the supreme omnipotent creatures in this corner of the galaxy.”
“Which just might result in the end of the galaxy,” said Richards.
“In any event,” said Peterman, “it should be fun.”
Tilleran was avoiding a leery gaze from J’hana. “Does anybody know what in the world the Directors and Critics will be playing?”
“I hope it’s Jhad-ball,” said one of the Mordani in the row behind the Explorer and Aerostar crews.
“What the hell is Jhad-ball?” asked Baxter. “And why don’t they just play football?”
“Because football is a wretched game,” J’hana snapped.
Baxter looked horrified. “What’s that again?”
“Someone had to come out and say it sometime,” said Tilleran.
“It’s awful,” agreed Peterman.
“I like it,” Steffie said quietly.
Baxter smiled. “That’s Daddy’s girl.” He glanced at the other crew. “And to think you all played with me. And all that time you were just…”
“Sucking up to the boss, yes sir!” said Ford.
“So what ARE they playing?” asked Peterman, craning her neck.
“And where the heck is Hartley?” pondered Baxter.
“I think I see her,” said Larkin.
Hartley sat, arms folded, as the giant eyeballs huddled in the dugout beside her. Someone had given her a black ball cap, well, eye-ball cap, with the imprint of a Director on the front, and she’d put it on backwards. And, somewhat mysteriously, she found herself chewing gum. At least she hoped it was gum. It had a bit of a…bitter, leafy…flavor to it.
Hartley spat, horrified that her spit had a brownish tint to it. It didn’t matter, though–she had actually grown to like whatever it was she was chewing.
“I shouldn’t care about this,” she muttered between spits.
<On the contrary,> said an eyeball. This one had a British accent. Definitely not Mirk. The voice was the only way she could tell which one WAS Mirk. That and Mirk seemed to have little green flecks in his retina.
“Do tell,” Hartley asked the eyeball. “Why SHOULD I care?”
<We are fighting for the freedom of your crew. Would you like to know what kind of world you’ll live in if the Critics are victorious? I assure you, dear, it wouldn’t be pretty.>
Hartley shivered. “I imagine not. You’ll just have to forgive me. I’ve lost a husband to your stupid team.”
<Your sacrifice was not in vain, darling. Mirk will be bringing this one home for us, I’m sure. And then all the damage Ardek did with that silly gas the Critics gave him will be undone, and their foothold in this quadrant will be no more.>
“Where is Mirk, anyway?”
<In briefing with the Writers, apparently. As team captain, he’s deciding how we’ll proceed.>
“Captain Mirk,” Hartley said to herself. “Has a certain…ring to it.”
<I thought so, too,> said the eye.
Baxter chomped on a hot dog, then looked over at J’hana. “Say, J’hana…”
“Did you ever find Ardek?”
“Oh, yes, Captain. That was a funny story.”
Baxter turned. “Do tell.”
“You see,” J’hana said, and started to chuckle, “heh-heh, he sort of turned into a gigantic pair of lips.”
The rest of the two crews had been exchanging stories and catching up on old times. They immediately turned to look at J’hana.
“Ardek is immortal,” Larkin said blankly.
“Yeah.” J’hana looked around. “What? What’s everyone looking at?”
“Hey, I think the Writers are about to come out,” whispered Jennifer Prescott to Chris Henricks.
“Wonder if they’ll be noses,” said Henricks.
“Do not discount foreheads,” said Jum, next to Henricks.
“That’s so stupid,” muttered Prescott. “Why would they be a forehead?”
“I kind of like hands,” said Jahn, and Prescott, Jum, and Henricks glared down the row at him.
“Will you shut up!” called Henricks.
“I’m going to be a pair of lips when I grow up too, just like my illegitimate Dad,” Jahn said, thumbing his chest.
“And we’re actually AFRAID of that evil empire?” grumbled Prescott.
“It’s the big ships that do it,” explained Jum.
Henricks rubbed his chin. “Hey. You know, if Ardek does lose this battle…he’ll become mortal again, right?”
“What makes you say that?” asked Prescott.
“What’s your point?” asked Jum.
“It’d be a good time to take him out. Without Ardek, his empire would fall apart. As much as they talk about ‘developing the leadership potential of others,’” Prescott made air quotes, “he really hasn’t developed anyone to take his place.” She thumbed at Jahn. “Certainly not him.”
“Then I guess we’re rooting for the eyes,” Henricks said densely.
“Of COURSE we’re rooting for the eyes!” snapped Jum. “That’s my boy out there! I’m damned proud of him!”
“I thought you renounced him and the Directors,” said Prescott.
Jum folded his arms. “A guy can change his mind.”
Henricks chuckled. “You’re pathetic.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” Captain Andy Baxter said, as the lights in the arena went dim, and a spot shone down on the massive arched entrance to the playing field. He saw eyeballs and lips alike lined up in equal rows on either side of the entrance. He couldn’t pick out which pair of lips was Ardek, though. They all had a distinctly smug sneer.
Baxter had a feeling this would get messy.
Then he heard a disembodied voice:
<Ladies, gentlemen, crystalline entities, and asexual creatures, we present, THE WRITERS! BOO-YAAAH!>
“What the…” said Peterman.
“I am not impressed,” muttered J’hana.
“I actually expected this,” Richards sighed.
“But it’s just a couple schmucks,” griped Conway.
“They don’t look at all like schmucks,” Baxter countered. “As a matter of fact, the one on the left is rather striking.”
“Whatever,” said Peterman.
The writers weren’t anything special. Just a couple of regular human guys with dust colored hair, in jeans and polo shirts.
They looked out at the blinking lights, flashing imagers, rows of eyes and lips and nodded with satisfaction.
<We are most pleased,> said one of the Writers, his voice booming naturally with the strength to fill the auditorium.
<We welcome you to the Umpteenth Millenial Eye-Lip stand-off!> boomed the other. <Eyes, lips, take your places. Get ready to RUMBLE!>
“Here it comes,” whispered Prescott, gripping Henricks’s hand. She felt Jum reach for her knee and she quickly batted his hand away. Jahn, obviously dazed, was staring in the wrong direction.
Larkin Mark I watched from the lip sidelines. All of the giant pairs of lips in the row sneered, teeth pointed, drooling ugly saliva. But she couldn’t pinpoint Ardek. Even if she could, what could she do? She was just a puny android, compared to an omnipotent being.
He’d finally won.
Larkin I thought about self-destructing for a few nanoseconds, then decided to stay and watch the game.
“I’m glad I’m here with you,” Conway whispered to Browning.
“Why?” asked Browning.
“Well, are fates are being decided. It’s kind of like the nine of us, or ten of us, or whatever, are united in a common destiny. I like that. Don’t you?”
“Are you going to eat your hot dog?”
“I don’t know why I bother.”
On the opposite side of Browning, Richards grabbed her hand. “Janice, I’m so glad I’m here with you.”
“It’s you, Janice. It’s always been you. Why couldn’t we see that? Why couldn’t we just open our eyes and see that what we’ve wanted all this time is right here?”
“Look…Plato, Plato, get out from under there. I don’t know if it’s a game ball or what…it looks like part of the guy behind you. Put it back! Put it back! You may only be five human years old, but darn it you are something like 18 in changeling years!”
“Alexa,” said Gellar. “I have something to tell you.”
“Yes?” Alexa said eagerly.
“It’s chinese. Chinese all the way.”
“I love you, Brian.”
Peterman, Baxter, and Steffie huddled together, as the two writers paused for what seemed like forever in preparation to announce the kick-off of the Battle Royale.
“Andy,” Peterman said, gripping Baxter close to her, Peterman in the middle. She knew she might not get another chance to tell Baxter about the miracle growing inside her. The miracle which had been growing for three months…only she didn’t quite know how to tell him. Didn’t know how he’d react. What was she thinking? How could she not know how to tell her husband news like that? Was she just worried he’d take over the new child’s life just as he’d done Steffie’s? Did Peterman’s feelings of inadequacy make her a bad parent? And DAMN it, why was she psychoanalyzing herself? She knew JACK about psychology!
“You were asking me something, Kelly?” Baxter whispered, leaning down close to Peterman’s face.
“Um…yes, Andy. You need to know this, before we find out our fates. Andy, I’m pr–”
<Let’s get it on!> cried the Writers, and the game began. <Home team,> continued one of the writers (the striking one) <you have the opening pitch!>
“Oh f*** all,” muttered Baxter. “It’s baseball.”
It wasn’t baseball.
Instants after the Writers announced the first pitch, the arena disappeared.
It was just Mirk and Ardek, in their humanoid forms, floating in the purple-white abyss, alone.
“You talked to them!” Ardek shrieked, his voice suspiciously high.
“Yeah. I’m team captain. We can talk to them beforehand and suggest the form the game should take. You did know that, didn’t you?”
“No, damn it!”
“Okay, let’s get this overwith,” one of the two Writers said, stepping in between Mirk and Ardek. “Guys, you know the story. You each have thirty seconds to explain to us exactly why your plot should continue.”
The other Writer appeared suddenly behind Ardek.
“Let’s make the setting a little more comfortable,” he said, and in an instant the group was transported to an office, cluttered with spent coffee cups and stacks of paper. Writer 1 and Writer 2 were seated on a couch, Ardek and Mirk standing before them.
“Okay, you two. Blow us away,” said Writer 1.
“Foul!” cried Ardek. “I haven’t had adequate preparation time!”
“Wah wah wah,” said Writer 2.
“I could go to the Studio!” cried Ardek.
“You’d never get past the secretary,” said Writer 1. He looked down at his watch, an Iron Man Triathlon. “Listen, Ardek, baby, you’re time is running out.”
“What? I was first? My time already started?” Ardek’s eyes looked like they were about to pop right out.
“Yeah,” said Writer 2. “You’re down to ten seconds. Hop to it!”
“Right, right,” Ardek said, kneeling, collecting himself. “Oh, great Writers. We, the Critics, ask of you the opportunity to unite the Alpha and Delta Quadrants…”
Writers 1 and 2 leaned forward. “I like it so far. Keep it coming,” said Writer 1.
“…in eternal servitude. They shall worship us like the sun. They will be our pawns, our minions, our little bitches, and we shall do to them what was done to me in that blasted Holodeck, over and over, and over, and over!” Ardek crouched in pain and rolled onto his back. “There, I’m spent!”
The Writers exchanged glances. “Um. You’ve given us some food for thought,” said Writer 2. “Mister Mirk, what have you got?”
Mirk pushed up his sleeves. “Okay, this is what I’m seeing: The Aerostar and the Explorer, after a pitched battle, get back to the Alpha Quadrant. For at least one hundred years, the quadrants shall never meet again. Give them time to bounce back–goodness knows they need it. That way we can shift our focus away from the characters in the Alpha Quadrant and get back to the species that matter. Those in the Delta.”
“I like, I like,” said Writer 1, leaning forward eagerly.
“One other thing,” said Mirk. “Megan Hartley. I want her to be with me.”
Writer 1’s watch beeped. “Ahh, I’m sorry. Time’s up.”
Ardek looked up from his place prone on the office floor. “Did we win? Huh?”
Writer 2 got up, yanked Ardek to his feet, shoved him toward the door, opened the door, then swiftly booted him out. “Don’t call us, Ardek!”
Writer 1 waved precociously. “We’ll call you!”
Writer 2 walked back to Mirk and shook his hand. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Mister Mirk. I see great things for this franchise. You and the Directors will do a stand-up job.”
Mirk smiled. “Thanks, guys. I really appreciate it.”
“The pitch idea was a good one,” said Writer 2. “I wish I’d thought of it.”
“He’s an original thinker,” said Writer 1. “He might be a Writer some day.”
“Don’t get carried away,” muttered Writer 2.
Mirk looked at the two Writers. “Anyway…I just have one question.”
“Of course,” said Writer 1.
“I don’t really understand these analogies fully, yet, but shouldn’t you all be, like, the Producers or something? They’re the ones who make the final decisions. The analogy seems to break down a bit.”
Writers 1 and 2 exchanged glances. “Lunch?” asked 2.
“Sounds good,” said 1. “Mexican?”
“I know a good nacho place.”
“Let’s go.” Writer 1 slapped Mirk on the back. “Have a good one, guy.”
“No,” said Writer 1, trotting after 2 out the door. “Have a GREAT one!”
“But in what twisted world do the WRITERS run everything?” demanded Mirk as the pair disappeared down a seemingly endless hallway.
All he heard was their laughter fading in the distance as they, too, disappeared.
And everything went dark.
Baxter fell into his command chair so hard it almost knocked the wind out of him.
The rest of the crew, too, fell into their respective seats.
Browning and Plato rolled onto the deck, seemingly from out of nowhere.
Explorer was shaking.
Red Alert klaxons blared.
“We’re back!” J’hana said, stating the obvious. “And I think we won!”
“And if we don’t get out of here,” said Richards, “we’ll be stuck here for 100 years, if I understood Dick Vitale right.”
“Dick Vitale?” asked Baxter. “I thought it was John Madden!”
“Does it MATTER?” demanded Peterman as she gripped Steffie protectively.
Baxter ignored her, looking to Browning and Plato. “Janice, find a shady spot,” Baxter said. “Plato, take the helm. We’re getting the hell out of here.” He craned around back to sciences. “Tilleran, sensors?”
“Crebius cluster is clearing up. Shrinking. Fast.”
“Plato, full impulse. Center of the Crebius Cluster. There should be a subspace conduit right at the center…” Baxter glanced back at Tilleran and she nodded confirmation. “GO!”
The Explorer charged ahead.
“Call coming in from the Aerostar,” said J’hana. “Conway wondering what our status is.”
“Tell him our status is great, and that we’re getting the hell out of here!”
After noting, with relief, that Larkin Mark I was working diligently at Ops, Richards pivoted the First officer’s chair around to see Hartley braced at Engineering, staring vacantly at the viewscreen. He made a mental note to have Peterman do a mental checkup on her. Poor thing probably wouldn’t be fit for duty for a while. Then again, who could blame her?
Browning took her place on the small shelf beside Richards’s chair. She held his hand.
“Chris, I was thinking about what you said in that other- universe arena, and…”
“This isn’t the time, Janice!” snapped Richards, and he began working on the ship’s shield configurations.
“This cloud is beating the hell out of our shields!” called J’hana.
“Countermeasures,” Baxter said. “Try different modulations.”
“Bridge, this is Keefler!” came the security officer’s voice. “As soon as that arena thing came to an end, my team was dropped back into the holodeck. The hillbillies are gone, but in their place…”
“Ardek,” said Larkin Mark I calmly as she worked the ops console. “Back in a manageable humanoid form.”
“That’s right,” replied Keefler. “How did you know?”
“Android’s intuition,” Larkin said, and Richards glared at that.
“What do you want me to do with him?” asked Keefler over the comm.
“Take him to the brig, for now,” said Baxter. “But be careful. He’s going to have a very tender backside.”
“Yes, sir. My men understand that all too well.”
Baxter shuddered. “Sorry about that, Keefler.”
Plato piped up at helm: “On approach to subspace conduit. Four minutes to event horizon!”
“Man that was a sh**ty movie,” muttered Baxter.
“What?” asked Peterman.
“Weren’t you going to tell me some big news?”
“Can’t say that I recall.”
“Ardek’s vessels are converging on us!” Gellar announced.
“Target manually, Gellar,” ordered Conway, gripping his command chair. “Quantum torpedoes. Just try to clear us our best path out of here!”
“Sensors having a hell of a time penetrating this cloud,” said Alexa Lanham, bent over the science station. “I don’t even know how Ford’s finding his way to this portal…”
“It’s all mojo, baby!” Ford cried out, and Saral reached over and slapped him.
Weapons fire crashed against the Sulani shuttle and it was all Prescott could do to hold onto the command chair.
“Christopher, we’ve got a little bit of a decision to make.”
“What’s that, babe?” Henricks said as he pounded on the weapons panels.
“Well, by all accounts Ardek’s empire’s crumbling. Maybe it’s time we moved back to the Alpha Quadrant and settled down.”
“Us, settle down?” Henricks chuckled.
An explosion racked the Sulani shuttle, sending a beam crushing down in front of Henricks’s face. “Right, I’ll get a comm out to the nearest Starfleet ship.
Prescott nodded. “I’m sure the Aerostar or the Explorer will take us in after all we’ve done for them.”
“I don’t know. We’ll make something up.”
Baxter glanced back at J’hana. “What?”
“A Marine, a Starfleet officer, and nine kids, requesting permission to board, sir!”
“Who could that be?” muttered Peterman.
“Good old Prescott,” said Baxter. “Well, we can’t very well let her down after all she’s done for us.”
“What exactly has she done for us?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure it’s something.” Baxter glanced back at J’hana. “Let down our starboard shields. Hartley, I’m going to need some quick beaming!”
Peterman glanced worriedly back at Hartley. “Andy, she’s nearly catatonic with grief!” Hartley waved unenthusiastically back at Peterman.
“Then I guess it’ll be up to me,” Baxter said, and stood. Peterman dragged him back down into his chair.
“You know nothing about transporters! We’re trying to save them, not disperse their molecules all over the place!”
“Good point. Tilleran, start beaming.”
“I really have nothing else to do at the moment,” Tilleran muttered, and went to work at her station, as the pounding increased on the Explorer’s unprotected side.
A hard blast rattled the ship, and Baxter nearly fell out of his chair.
“What was that?”
Richards checked a panel and gaped. “Captain, they just blew up our middle warp nacelle!”
“After all that work,” griped Peterman.
Baxter grimaced. “Are we okay?”
“No change in engine performance,” reported Richards. “The thing appeared to be totally unnecessary.”
“We’ll see when we go to warp,” said Baxter. “Plato, time to Delta Quadrant departure?”
“Steady as she goes, my boy!”
“Explorer’s taking a heavy pounding,” said Alexa Lanham, as Aerostar pulled into formation with the Explorer, headed for the breach in normal space, at the epicenter of the Crebius Cluster, which would take them to the Alpha Quadrant. Hopefully.
“Serves ‘em right for beaming all those kids aboard,” grumbled Conway. “Hold us steady, Mister Ford. We need to make it to that breach in normal space before this whole cloud slams shut like a clam!”
“Nice analogy,” said Alexa. “But we have a big problem!”
“What’s that exactly?”
“The aperture of the cluster is too small to admit both ships!” reported Tilleran. “According to my readings, there’s no way to get both ships through in time!”
“But I thought Mirk won that contest! That’s what the post-game commentators said!”
“There must be a wrinkle in the damn plot, sir!” cried J’hana.
“DAMN WRITERS!” screamed Baxter.
“You heard me,” Alexa groaned. “One ship goes through, another has to stay behind. One of us has to veer off!”
“Call Baxter,” Conway said hoarsely. “Tell him ‘ladies first’!”
“You are quite brave, Captain,” Larkin said. To Conway’s amazement, she said it sarcastically.
“Real cute!” cried Baxter. “J’hana, call Conway back. Tell him it takes one to know one, and he’s welcomed to go through!”
“Saral, you tell Baxter he can stick his blown-up nacelle up his frigging shuttlebay! He’s going through!”
“You tell Conway the biggest loser goes first! Guess who that is!”
Peterman covered her face.
“That son of a bitch. Tractor beams, Gellar. Push him through!”
Ford looked worriedly at his controls. “Forty seconds to event horizon!”
“Blow up his damn tractor emitter, J’hana!” Baxter cried, on his feet, yanking at his hair.
“Daddy’s scaring me,” mumbled Steffie. Peterman picked her up.
“Don’t worry. It’ll pass. Anyway, you’re really going to love Garibid food…”
”–emitter’s shot!” cried Gellar.
“That bastard, I am trying to be considerate to him!” cried Conway. “Port thrusters! Ram him through!”
“Twenty seconds!” shouted Plato.
The Explorer rumbled.
“Did they just ram us?” Browning cried, steadying herself against the tactical railing.
“That bastard, I am just trying to be a nice guy here!” cried Baxter. “All stop, Plato. Get in behind him, then shove him through with all tractors!”
“Ten seconds!” Ford called out.
“They’re pushing us straight through!” Alexa cried. “Looks like Baxter out-maneuvered you!”
“Damn it damn it damn it!” Conway cried, hopping up and down in frustration. “Gellar, try to use phasers to blow out those tractor emitters! Hell, it couldn’t get worse than this!”
“Our baby is never going to know what it’s like to live in the Alpha Quadrant.” Peterman said it so softly Baxter could barely hear it. He turned to face her.
“Kelly…what are you saying?”
“She’s f***ing pregnant!” shouted J’hana.
Baxter bristled, but leaned forward anyway to hug Peterman. “Oh, honey. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize.” He glanced down to Plato. “Mister Plato…punch us through…somehow!”
Not knowing exactly what to expect, Plato steered the Explorer right in after the Aerostar.
“We are caught in the closing aperture!” Larkin Mark I called out.
“We could certainly use a good shove about now!” Browning called out.
And they got that shove.
The swirling, tumultuous clouds on the viewscreen gave way to space beyond. Alpha Quadrant space.
“We got the push we needed!” cried Plato. “From somewhere, I can’t tell where!”
And Hartley looked up at the bridge ceiling. “Mirk…”
Aerostar, and Explorer, were swallowed in one gulp.
Captain Lucille Baxter watched, jaw set with grim determination, as the Aerostar-A and Explorer tumbled out of the Bermuda Expanse.
Her lips quivered, ready to give DiSalvo the word to fire.
Her hands shook at her sides. Harlan rested a hand on her shoulder.
“Just give me an excuse,” she said quietly to herself.
“Captain!” DiSalvo called out. “Both ships are heavily damaged! Looks like Explorer has tractors on the Aerostar…and she’s firing on the Explorer!”
“Must’ve been taken over,” growled Lucille. “She’s trying to blow up my Booty Butt! Baxter to fleet: Blow the Aerostar out of the f***ing stars!”
Conway never knew what hit him. One moment, he was crouched in the command chair, watching the fleet come to bear on the viewscreen as the Aerostar tore out of the Bermuda Expanse.
The next thing he knew, he felt a pounding of weapons fire against the hull more severe than even the Borg or Flarn had laid upon him.
People screamed all around the bridge…sparks flew, girders fell, bulkheads ripped…
“My beautiful ship…my God, my beautiful ship!” Conway screamed out, as sparks flew and explosions lit behind his eyes, and he was thrown forward by inertia into the viewscreen.
Then everything went dark.
“I think we’re safe,” Captain Beck said dryly from behind Lucille Baxter.
“Hold fire,” Lucille snapped.
The Aerostar-A spun on the viewscreen, a twisted wreck. Her saucer was marred and scratched, punched through in some places. Of her four nacelles, the upper right was blown clean off and the lower right dangled on its strut. The engine section was a charred, twisted mess.
“That’ll take some fixin’,” said Harlan Baxter.
“You beat her within an inch of her life,” Craig Porter said in awe.
“Call coming in from the Explorer,” said DiSalvo.
Lucille turned eagerly toward the viewscreen. “On screen!”
Andy Baxter appeared on the viewscreen, looking frazzled, Peterman at his side, Steffie on his hip.
Baxter grimaced. “Mom…”
“I’m so glad you’re safe from that awful Aerostar-A. Did it try to hurt you?”
“Mom, Conway was commanding that ship! He’s on our side, REMEMBER?”
“Right, well…he was firing on you!”
Baxter waffled. “Just a little, um, friendly fire.”
Lucille frowned. “Well, I feel just sick about this. Let me call Conway and apologize for that.”
“You can’t! You blew up his comm system, mother! I don’t even think they have life support on that wreck!”
“Don’t take that tone with me, young man! I’ve still got a fleet poised to knock you into next week!”
Harlan just grumbled something unintelligible.
“And here begins yet another round of the Family Feud,” said Craig Porter, and Lisa Beck grinned.
Beside her, Bradley Dillon looked unimpressed.
“Millions of credits in Federation assets destroyed, and for what?” He threw up his hands.
“Mistakes do happen, Mister President,” Lucille mumbled.
“I don’t want to hear it. You can expect to haul space refuse for the next month, Baxter!” He trotted off toward the turbolift.
“I’ll try to reason with him,” Beck said comfortingly, and turned to Porter. “Craig, go reason with him.”
“Because I can delegate. Go.”
“So,” Andy Baxter said, still on the viewscreen. “What’s been going on around here?”
Plato looked across the crackling brig forcefield at Jahn. “So. What’s up?”
“Not much,” Jahn said, staring at the floor. “You?”
“My mom’s started her restaurant back up. It’s been closed since, you know, you and your dad took over the ship.”
“He’s not my dad! Get off my case!”
Plato backed away from the field. Behind him, Keefler sat at the security desk, thumbing at his phaser.
“Sorry. Oh. By the way, thanks for blowing up the Escort. My Uncle Andy loved that ship. They’re apparently putting in a Defiant-class ship at spacedock, but that’s beside the point. He left a lot of stuff aboard!”
“‘Uncle’ Andy,” Jahn muttered. “Whatever. He’s not your real uncle.”
“You know, someone doesn’t have to be related to you to be family. It’s unfortunate Ardek’s the closest thing to family you have in this quadrant now. Of course it’s also unfortunate that you’ll probably be doing some hard time in a support group doing role plays at Tantalus.”
Jahn nudged the deck with his foot. “Whatever.”
“But when you get out…if you’re not still mixed up in the head, why don’t you look me up? I could use a friend my age who isn’t one of the nut-jobs on this ship. I know we got off to a bad start, what with you blowing up my friends and all…but my mom always taught me to forgive.”
“Real sweet,” muttered Jahn. “What a turn. Me and Mirk grew up together. He gets a wife and omnipotence, and all I get is a damn support group. Where’s the fairness in that?”
“It could be worse. You could be the guy in the brig next door.”
It was then that Plato heard shouts outside the brig.
Keefler was immediately out of his chair, phaser withdrawn. “Stay put,” he barked at Plato.
“All hands, this is J’hana,” the comm system chimed. “This is a level-one security alert. Please stay in your cabins, unless you wish to risk death in combat. Good day.”
Plato followed Keefler out into the hallway.
A string of security guards, followed by Baxter and Richards, darted down the hallway. Far ahead, the whines of a pitched phaser battle could be heard.
Plato picked up step next to Baxter. “Who are we chasing?”
“Ardek,” Baxter muttered, and tossed a wry glare at Security Officer Hinceman. “Apparently, Ardek took Henson unawares by some wild approximation of ‘Riverdance’ as he delivered dinner.”
Henson shrugged as he jogged down the corridor. “I already said I was sorry! That damned Romulan hypnotized me with his flying feet!”
“I have heard some weak excuses before, mister!” Baxter called after Henson. “But that one takes the cake!”
The group came to an abrupt stop at the large double doors to the shuttlebay.
J’hana was pounding mercilessly on the door. “Let us in, damn you!”
Baxter pushed through the pack of security officers and stepped up next to J’hana. “What in the hell did he do?”
“He must still have some security codes in the computer. He managed to lock us out. Larkin’s trying to override it from the bridge but so far, no luck.”
“Both,” J’hana said wryly.
“How could you let him get away?” demanded Richards. “How COULD he get away? He was waddling!”
“He waddled fast!” protested J’hana. “What’s with that, anyway?”
Baxter waffled. “He had an unpleasant…encounter…in the holodeck.”
“Hillbillies,” explained Plato.
“Ahhh,” said J’hana.
“J’hana, this is Tilleran,” the comm system bleeped. “Larkin can’t get the door open. Neither can Larkin. Listen, Ardek just launched the Donner. It’s a Cochrane-class so it can keep pace with any of our fleet’s ships.”
“Don’t let it out of the damn bay!” Baxter called to Tilleran.
“Easier said than done. Ardek’s cutting through the bay doors.”
“Rally the fleet!” cried Baxter.
“Your mommy’s doing just that. However, I’ve been informed that they’re still reloading from the blasting they give the Aerostar-A.”
“Man,” said Richards. “They really pounded the hell out of ‘er.”
“Indeed,” muttered Baxter. “Listen…can you at least get a tractor on the shuttle?”
“We’re…whoops, there he goes into warp.”
“Well, maybe if you hadn’t been talking my ear off! Wait. Hold on, there’s a comm coming in from Ardek. It appears to be a gloat, sir.”
“Pipe it down here,” muttered Baxter. He turned toward one of the screens inset on the corridor bulkhead.
Ardek appeared, standing, hunched, in the Donner’s cockpit. “Captain Baxter…such a shame we had to part on these terms…ouch…” He squinted in pain as he waddled over to the other side of the cockpit to adjust a control. “Shame your fleet wasn’t able to stop me. Now I’m off to Romulus with one of your precious shuttles. Sure, it’s not quite as big of a prize as the Explorer. But don’t you worry, I’ll get your ship yet, and I’ll get you for–” Ardek winced again as he tried to sit down. He hovered over the chair, realizing that it was just too painful. “Well, suffice it to say I’ll always have a tender spot for you. Ta-taaaa!”
Ardek blipped off the screen and Baxter roiled.
“Would you like some time alone?” J’hana said from behind him.
Richards but a hand on Baxter’s shoulder. “Buddy…”
“Uncle Andy?” asked Plato.
Baxter stared up at the ceiling, teeth clenched. “THAT WAS MY FAVORITE SHUTTLE!”
“Back to normal my ass,” Lisa Beck muttered, looking at the view wall in Ops, glad to be back on her station. The evacuation ships were slowly off-loading their passengers at every available docking arm. She watched on the view wall as the Explorer, with a charred Aerostar in tow, hopped into warp. The Pathfinder, meanwhile, struck off in another direction, taking President Dillon to some silly Romulan summit. Beck was glad to have some time away from Dillon.
“Captain, your visitors are here,” Morales said quietly from the docking console.
Reluctantly, Beck turned around, knowing she’d have to eventually. She didn’t like what she saw.
“Private Christopher Henricks and Lieutenant Commander Jennifer Prescott reporting for duty,” said Prescott, looking somewhat lascivious in her new Starfleet uniform, with the tunic zipped down part-way.
“How on Earth did I let Baxter talk me into this,” muttered Beck.
“This is the only posting in the quadrant where we can raise our little family in peace, without having to face silly questions like ‘why did you infiltrate the Aerostar?’” Prescott muttered.
“And ‘didn’t you try to lure Borg back toward the Delta Quadrant,’” said Henricks. “Not to mention, ‘didn’t you get assimilated once?’”
“I get it, I get it,” grumbled Beck. “I’m just trying to understand what frame of mind I was when I agreed to look after you guys.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Prescott. “We’ll take care of ourselves, I assure you.”
“Well, we’ve got you in the biggest quarters we have. If you start popping out any more children, we can’t be responsible for your discomfort. The next biggest thing we have is a cargo bay.”
“Oh, I dried up months ago. Radiation from defective phaser rifles,” Prescott said cheerily.
“So what’s your posting again, Commander?” Beck asked wearily.
“Explorer project site coordinator. This will be a friendly port of call out in the field as they add ships to the Explorer project. According to Admiral Baxter, who talked it over with President Dillon, who seemed to like the idea, we’re going to have the Explorer and Aerostar and the like passing through our gates all the time.”
“Think of it as a reunion every couple weeks,” said Henricks.
Beck covered her face. “I’m cursed. That’s got to be it. I’m cursed.”
“Cursed with good looks,” Henricks said smoothly, and Prescott hit him in the back of the head. He straightened. “So, Captain, what can you tell me about this Lazlo…my new C.O. Is he a good guy? Easy to get along with?”
Beck smiled devilishly. “Suuuure he is. You’ll love him.” Hmm. Maybe this day wasn’t so bad.
“Captain,” Morales said, taking up step beside Beck as Prescott and Henricks walked arm in arm into the turbolift at the center of ops.
“Yes, Walter,” Beck said tiredly.
“I found this in the conference room, right after our debriefing with President Dillon.”
Beck took the rubber blue shark toy from Morales and looked it over. “Hmm. I don’t know who this could belong to. Doesn’t have a name on it.”
“The name’s right there, on his belly. It says ‘Finneas.’”
“I say, Walter, I don’t see a name on it. Why don’t you just trash it.”
Morales grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”
The day was getting better and better by the second.
Captain’s Log, U.S.S. Explorer,
Stardate 58757.9. After a brief lay-over at Waystation, and after my parents, thankfully, departed on a new mission aboard the Pathfinder, we are ready to head to Earth. Our mission is…hahah…to tow the Aerostar-A to spacedock. Not that I’m gloating. Of course not. I’m a proud captain of the fleet, and I hate to see one of my sister ships get so viciously pummeled. But..oh, the look on Conway’s face as he got blasted to hell…well, it must have been priceless. Wonder if there’s any flight recorder footage? Hmm. Uh, computer, why don’t you just go ahead and disregard everything but my first sentence? Thanks.
“Kristen, I’ve got to say I’ve really enjoyed this time I’ve spent with you,” said Commander Richards, looking across the table in the Constellation Café at Larkin.
“I have as well,” replied Commander Larkin. She pivoted to her left. “And I have immensely enjoyed my time with you, Kristen.” She grinned at Larkin Mark I.
“If I had the ability to enjoy anything, I would enjoy this, but I do not so the point is moot,” replied the other android, handily provided a uniform from ship’s stores.
Richards looked with great pride at his two daughters. “It’s great to be together as a family for once, isn’t it?”
“What are your Starfleet plans, Mark I?” Larkin asked her duplicate.
“I will remain as Chief of Operations on the Explorer,” said Larkin. “One of us should keep an eye on father.”
“I agree,” said Larkin II, and she looked to Richards with a wry grin. “He can be quite a handful.”
“You know, I love this,” replied Richards. “I never thought we would be together like this.”
“You have said this already,” said Larkin II.
“I believe what my esteemed colleague is trying to say is that you are ‘ruining the moment,’” said Larkin I. “Not that I would know, of course, as I have no emotions.”
“We can fix that,” smiled Larkin II.
“I look forward to the…the…the…the…” Larkin I’s eyes rolled back into her head.
Richards lurched across the table. “Larkin…one!”
“…the sex! I look forward to the sex!” cried Larkin Mark I, leaning over the table and smooching Richards sloppily on the mouth.
“MRMRMRMMBMMRMMMMRMRPRHHH!” replied Richards.
Larkin II, with all her mighty strength, pushed android and creator apart. “This is deeply disturbing,” she said flatly.
Larkin I lay back in the chair, licking her lips. “You taste good, father!”
“OH HELL!” Richards cried.
Larkin pivoted to face Mark I. “I hesitate to even ask.” She cocked her head. “Kitty?”
Mark I nodded vigorously. “None other than! Care for a roll in the positronic hay?”
Larkin shook her head. “I most certainly do not.”
Kitty hopped up out of her chair. “Then who may I pleasure first!”
“SHUT THE HELL UP, FORD!” barked Richards, as Larkin circled over to Kitty and stabbed a finger into her armpit. Kitty fell limp, a twisted look of perverted glee on her face.
“That is a shame,” Larkin said mournfully, staring down at the limp Kitty, eyes watering with green fluid.
Richards wiped his mouth and leaned over Kitty. “What the hell happened?”
“Unstable positronic nets, no doubt.” Larkin jabbed a finger into Kitty’s ear, probing. “Accessing. Yes. Total positronic net failure. She has returned to her sexually- subservient state. Her old identity has now been completely over-written.”
Richards rubbed his chin. “No ‘undelete’?”
“Recovery Disk? Master Chip? Clean Boot off the rom chip?”
“No, no, no,” Larkin said, shaking her head and kneeling by Kitty, sobbing into her limp shoulder. “The Larkin Mark I we know and love is forever gone…turned back into an automated slut.”
Richards shook his head and turned for the door to the Café. “Some f***ing reunion.”
As Richards reached the doors to the cafe, a round man with rosey cheeks and a straw barbershop quartet hat and stripey suspenders strolled in.
“Hi, I’m Pops Funmaker!” he boomed. “GuinanCo sent me to replace your bartender, who has apparently become omnipotent! In celebration of his graduation to godhood, we’re going to offer free bloomin’ onions with every order of a splendiferous fun shake! Let’s get hap–OOOF!”
“Pops” never saw Richards’s fist coming. Just doubled over and hit the floor, dazed, feeling like a bowling ball had hit him in the gut.
“Just so you know, we’re more a hard liquor crew,” Ford said, leaning over the dazed new proprietor of the Constellation Café.
Captain Baxter carried a shiny-wrapped silver box under his arm as he walked down the corridor reading a padd aloud. “To, Captain, U.S.S. Explorer. From, Guinan, CEO, GuinanCo Funtimes Corp, Inc. Your First Officer, one Commander Christopher Richards, is no longer allowed within 10 meters of any GuinanCo Funtimes Corp, Inc. employees. Failure to comply will result in a splendiferous lawsuit and a fun-filled court martial. We’d also like to remind you that sparkling fireworks sundaes are half off all month.” Baxter thumbed at the padd. “How about that. Sounds yummy.”
He turned to face the door to Peterman’s office. He tapped the control and strode in. “Morning, Kelly! Hey, I’ve got that breast pump you want–”
He came face to face with Lt. Commander Hartley, sitting, teary-eyed, on the fainting couch.
Peterman was seated beside her, rubbing her shoulders consolingly. “Just put it on my desk and get out of here, Andy. Megan and I were just about to…” Peterman sniffled. “Go out for ice cream.”
Baxter put the package down on Peterman’s desk and looked down at Hartley. “Commander, again, I’m really sorry about how things turned out with Mirk and all…”
Hartley glared up at Baxter, eyes red and puffy. “Easy for you to say! You still have your soul mate!”
“My soul…oh, yes, right, Kelly. Yes, that is nice.”
“Andrew, you’re not helping,” muttered Peterman.
Baxter knelt by Hartley. “Megan, listen, I know nothing can ease the pain you’re suffering. Nothing I can say, not even as your captain, can make you feel better. This pain will never, ever go away. But you know what? That’s okay, because you’ll feel better before you know it. I promise.” Baxter leaned forward and hugged a struggling Hartley tightly. “You fight that sadness, got it? You give me your best smile, okay?”
Hartley’s nails dug into Baxter’s shoulders, but he hugged her all the same. “Ouch…yes, hurt me if that makes you feel better. Ouch…damn, you’re drawing blood…listen, how about we just, um…hey that was my eye!” Baxter kept hugging, even as a soft white light shone from behind him, illuminating the portrait of dogs playing poker hanging on Peterman’s wall. “Computer, lights back down to moody,” Baxter ordered, but got no response.
“MIRK!” cried Hartley.
“I know you miss him,” Baxter cooed, still hugging. “But I promise you’ll feel better.”
“MIRK!” cried Peterman.
“Not you too,” Baxter griped at Peterman.
“Captain…” said a voice from behind Baxter.
“Not now, can’t you see I’m comforting one of my…” Baxter whirled, to find Mirk, bathed in a silky white glow, wearing a gleaming white tux, smiling. “Oh.” He looked at Peterman. “We should probably go.”
Mirk reached a hand down to Hartley and lifted her to her feet. “I promised I wouldn’t leave you, Megan.”
“Lock the door on your way out,” Peterman said, as Baxter dragged her out of her office. They had to squeeze around the white glowing rip in space-time Mirk had made. Peterman hoped it wouldn’t scorch her carpet.
“I’m back, honey,” Mirk grinned down at Hartley once Baxter and Peterman were gone.
Hartley looked up at Mirk, teary-eyed. “Yeah, well, you know you can’t exactly just walk back on the ship and get your job back. You’re omnipotent. You should be off doing omnipotent things.”
Mirk nodded. “That I should. That I should. But I want to do those omnipotent things with you.”
“Did you take that up with the other Directors first?” demanded Hartley.
Mirk nodded again. “Yep. Let’s just say they owe me one for winning the war against the Critics.”
“Could you explain all that to me?”
“I’ll explain that and so many other things.” Mirk kissed her on the head. He then gestured about Peterman’s office, taking in the whole of the Explorer with his gestures. “But you’ll have to give up all this to come with me.”
Hartley bit her lip. “Well, let me think about that one.”
“Sure, take as much time as you–”
“Okeydoke. Let’s go!”
Mirk grinned. “You sure?”
Mirk lifted Hartley effortlessly into his arms and turned toward the glowing light behind him.
“Where are we going?” Hartley asked, blinking in the light.
“Where other people have never been before.”
“I’m not sure I like the phrasing.”
“You’ll have eons to work on it.”
“Now that’s a bit of overkill.”
“I love you, Megan.”
“You too, Mirk.”
And the light faded out.
Captain Conway grinned at Baxter’s sullen expression on his desktop viewer as stars streaked by the viewport behind him. Explorer was dragging Aerostar back to Earth.
“You’ve had quite a time of it, Captain,” grinned Conway.
“Don’t get me started, Conway,” muttered the captain, who shifted uneasily in his command chair. “And don’t make me remind you who’s towing who! A word from me and the ride gets a hell of a lot bumpier!”
“Okay, okay,” said Conway. “But I’ve gotta laugh. You lose a Larkin and gain an android prostitute, your first officer is banned from the crew lounge, and your chief engineer gets kidnapped by an omnipotent Mirk. You have to admit it, you never could have envisioned all that happening in one day.”
Baxter grimaced. “It all happened in a few hours. And Hartley was hardly kidnapped. I’m sure she went quite willingly.”
“Well, at least you have another freakin’ baby to look forward to. That’s good, right?”
“Right, right. And I expect you’ve made no progress with that science officer of yours?”
“No. I think she’s still trying to make up her mind between me and Gellar.” Conway flinched as he heard giggles on the bridge. Gellar was charming the pants off of Alexa Lanham with his tale of the adorable purple dinosaur that jumped out of his chest after the Kritada mission. “Yep, I’m sure she’s carefully thinking it over.”
“Oh, Brian…you crack me up! You’re the greatest!” he heard Alexa say gleefully. He grimaced. The walls were like paper. Of course, the fact that one bulkhead of his office was ripped open didn’t help matters either. Through the opening that had been ripped in his wall, he saw Alexa bent over, slapping Gellar playfully on the chest. What he wouldn’t give for a deep chasm to push them both into…
“Well, I should be going,” Baxter broke in. “Peterman and I are brainstorming baby names. And I have to find a new Chief Engineer.”
“It’s kind of beautiful, isn’t it, Captain?” Conway said.
“Mirk and Hartley. How he came back for her?”
“Sure, if you like that kind of thing.”
“Come on, admit it.”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure, there are times I wish I could become omnipotent and whisk Kelly away to some kind of happy land. But we don’t have that luxury, Conway. We’re humans. We have to muck about in the real world, court, date, hop in the sack and hope we churn out some good kids. Hold that thought.” Baxter craned his neck around. “Steffie, get away from that control! If you drop daddy’s warp core, he’ll be very upset with you!”
“And we will all die from the deceleration,” he heard J’hana chime in.
Conway grinned. “Captain, I can see you’ve got your hands full. It’s a long way back to Earth anyway. I’m going to see if I can go spawn some children of my own.”
“You do that,” Baxter muttered, and J’hana cut the channel.
Conway stood and strode out of his readyroom. “Oh, Lieutenant Puckett!”
Lt. Commander Tilleran sat on her bed, staring across the room at her bags sitting on the dresser.
“You can do this, Ariel. This ship is jam-packed with morons. Leaving will be a piece of cake.”
“Then why did you pack eight hours before even reaching your drop-off point?”
Tilleran turned to see J’hana in her bedroom doorway. “I wanted to get a jump on it.”
“Civilian clothes?” J’hana asked, plopping down beside Tilleran on the bed. “They make your hips look big.”
“Like child-bearing hips?” Tilleran asked, grinning impishly. “Good.”
“You do not want to do this,” J’hana said resolutely, staring straight ahead.
“Who are you to tell me what I want?”
“For zratnitz’ sake, you look like you’re going to a funeral. And on any place but Andor, that would be a somber occasion!”
“I’m excited to settle down with Crellus.”
J’hana gripped Tilleran’s chin in her hand and turned the Betazoid’s face toward hers, scrunching lips and cheeks in the process. “You, Ariel, are a liar.”
“Who’s the telepath again?” Tilleran asked, pushing J’hana’s hand away.
“Do not deny it. Your heart tells you to remain here.”
“Who are you to talk about heart? You’re just thinking with your egg sac.”
“And a grand, fine egg sac it is,” J’hana said, laughing heartily.
Tilleran stood. “J’hana, we have eight hours left together. Don’t make us do this angrily. Let’s have fun.”
“If fun is what you want, I suggest we go to Guinan’s Goodtimes Constellation Cabana.”
“Hell no,” replied Tilleran, and she took J’hana’s hand. “I have an even better place in mind.”
Holo Books and Beans was somewhat uncrowded, probably owing to the fact that the Explorer had recently been thrown into the Delta Quadrant, evacuated, overtaken, nearly blown up, and tossed back to the Alpha Quadrant. Tilleran and J’hana found their usual table, in the corner by the fireplace, where the scrabble board was.
A woman with gelled, close-cropped hair, in a plaid shirt and jeans, materialized next to them as they set up their game pieces.
“Hey, folks,” she said cheerily. “What can I get you fine women?”
“The usual,” J’hana and Tilleran said in unison.
“Right then,” said the waitress. “One raktageeno, one cup of the blood of a raging yak beast from Vorandas four, coming right up.”
“V’haspant was getting SO old,” muttered J’hana as she looked down at her Scrabble pieces. “I have Z’s and H’s. I can only spell Andorian words.”
“You remember the rules. We have to use Federation Standard.”
“Federation Standard is a fool’s language. It’s so clumsy. It has no…” J’hana reached out to touch Tilleran’s hand. “Passion.”
Tilleran sighed, wondering if this was such a good idea.
“Computer, cue the Emergency Holographic Band,” said J’hana, and Tilleran winced. Two women in plaid shirts and jeans appeared on the small stage at the opposite corner of the cozy coffee house, strumming guitars.
It was their group–Indigo Girls (J’hana loved the name, though she pointed out it was somewhat inaccurate). And it was their song.
Tilleran tried not to cry as the two women sang.
J’hana just tapped her feet and sang along:
”..I went to the doctor
I went to the mountain
I looked to the children
I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in a crooked line
and the less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine…”
Captain Baxter walked with Steffie, on his way to kindergarten, and she rode on his shoulders. In unison, they sang:
“This is the song that doesn’t end
It just goes on and on my friend!”
Baxter sang: “Some people started singing not knowing what it was–take it Steffie!”
“And they’ll continue singing it forever just because!” Steffie chimed in.
“This is the song that doesn’t–” They reached the door to the classroom and Steffie jerked on Baxter’s hair.
“Hold on a sec!”
Baxter winced and looked up at Steffie. “But honey, it’s the song that doesn’t end.”
“I gotta question.”
Baxter set Steffie down. “It sounds important.”
Steffie nodded, and Baxter knelt beside her. “It IS ‘portent.”
“Well, make it snappy. You’ve got a big calculus test today.”
“Yeah, I know,” Steffie said.
“Well, what’s your question?”
“When Mommy was putting me to bed last night, you know, in the Delta Quadrant, I asked her why you were gone.”
“What did she say?”
“She said you were trying to stop a bad man from destroying the ship, and taking over the galaxy, and that you’d be back soon.”
Baxter smiled. “And she was right. I’m back. Of course the bad man got away, but…well, I’m sure we’ll never see him again. Anyway…go ahead…”
“Well…whattabout next time you go away? What about next time the ‘Plorer gets taken over??”
“Silly,” Baxter said, kissing Steffie on the cheek. “There won’t be a next time. I promise.” But he couldn’t promise that. Sure, the Explorer’s mission was primarily one of discovery, but if the past couple days had taught him anything, it was that he didn’t always get the nice, safe, cushy assignments. Starfleet wasn’t exactly the safest job one could have. “Listen,” Baxter said, and took a deep breath. “I take it back. I can’t promise there won’t be a next time. As a matter of fact, around this ship, I can almost certainly promise there WILL be a next time.”
Steffie’s eyes welled with tears. “So next time you could die?”
“Now that’s just silly, Steffie. I told you long ago that Daddy could not be killed with conventional weaponry.”
Steffie folded her arms. “I don’t believe you.”
“Listen, if quitting this ship made you happy, I would do it in a heartbeat. That’s how much you mean to me.”
“Really?” asked Steffie.
Baxter nodded. “You bet.”
Steffie smiled and, to Baxter, the silence was deafening.
He hadn’t intended on Steffie taking him up on his offer.
But Steffie didn’t say anything. She didn’t say “Quit, Daddy,” she just smiled up at him. He felt a sharp pang in his gut, like an ulcer. He interpreted it as the “get off your ass and do the right thing” variety of pang.
Baxter smiled weakly back at Steffie and patted her on the head, then pushed her gently toward the door to the kindergarten classroom. “Get to class, Steffie. I’ll see you this afternoon.” He stood and watched her go, blowing her a kiss.
Then he turned on a heel and went off to quit.
Peterman walked hand in hand with Baxter down the corridor, squeezing his hand tightly. “Are you sure about this, honey?”
“I’ve never been surer of anything.”
“Are you sure that’s a word?”
“Couldn’t be surer.”
Richards joined Baxter as he and Peterman walked. The corridor leading to Turbolift One seemed to stretch on forever. “What’s this about an important meeting?” Richards asked.
“Suffice it to say, you will be needed,” Baxter said, and kept walking ahead.
“Did you see Doctor Wilcox?” Richards asked Peterman.
“Yep,” said Peterman. “It’s going to be a boy!”
“Someone to carry on the Baxter name,” Baxter grinned.
Peterman jogged up next to Baxter. “Oh, no you don’t. You’ve already got someone to carry on the Baxter name. This one’s a pure Peterman.”
“Okay, Peterman it is. Any name ideas yet? How about ‘Dick’?”
Baxter giggled. “Just messing with you, honey.”
Just then, J’hana and Tilleran veered in from a side corridor, arm in arm, chanting folk songs.
“…I was locked…into being my mother’s daughter, yeah I was eating bread and water…!”
“What the hell are they singing?” asked Richards.
Just then, Janice Browning hurried up to join them, yanking off her stained apron.
“What did I miss, what did I miss?”
“Nothing,” said Baxter. “You’ll all be filled in when we meet on the bridge.”
“What’s this big meeting about?” asked Tilleran.
“It’s secret,” whispered Peterman. “We’re getting off the ship.”
“Well it’s not a damn secret any more, is it?” Baxter muttered as the group, finally, reached the turbolift and herded in.
Richards, Tilleran, and J’hana were still asking questions as they poured out of the turbolift.
“…me be Captain? What in the hell? I’m not ready for…”
“…of course I expect to take the role of First Officer. Studies show that position carries with it the highest likelihood of honorable death…”
“…not much of a secret. I read it in your mind.”
“…a great recipe for grilled gehlat…you guys will just love it!”
Tilleran and J’hana took their respective stations and Baxter, Peterman, Browning, and Richards walked down to the command arena.
Baxter glanced at the people at the forward stations. Plato was at class, so Madera had the helm. Sefelt was at ops. Neither looked pleased.
Baxter stood between them and looked from one to the other. “Guys, you’ve been underappreciated the last couple of days.”
“Sure, you say that now that the first Larkin turned back into a raving sex maniac,” muttered Sefelt, arms folded.
“Chris and I are dating again. That’s the only reason I’m here,” muttered Madera. “But this is his LAST chance!”
Baxter clapped his hands together. “Well. I’m glad to have you two here. It’s been an honor serving with you.”
“Sure,” muttered Sefelt. “Hey…do you smell combustible gas?”
“Some combustible gas is odorless, Howie,” said Madera. “If you’re going to have an irrational fear, at least get your facts straight.”
Baxter left Madera and Sefelt and went to sit down in the command chair. He felt its curves hug his buttocks. He then stood back up, glad to see Peterman, Browning, and Richards there at his side. “Computer…sound the all-call.”
“All hands, this is your captain speaking. It has been my great pleasure, over the last eight years, to serve as your commander. The years haven’t always been kind, but they have been fun. You’ve all meant a lot to me, probably more than you’ll ever know. But I need to be with my family. I need to spend time with my daughter, and my soon-to-be son, and even my wife.
“Someone once said a captain is married to his ship. Well, in that case, I’ve been a bigamist. Or a polygamist. Or whatever you call it. Anyway, I’ve been unfaithful to our good Counselor Peterman. I’ve been sleeping around with a woman called Explorer ‘lo these many years, and it’s got to stop.
“Effective immediately, I am transferring command of the Explorer to Chris Richards. Goodbye, everyone, and God bless. Oh, and would someone clean up that mess in the deck four lavatory? It’s stinking up the whole section. That is all.”
“I’m glad Conway and Ford are not here,” said J’hana. “They would have had a field day with that silly speech.”
Peterman’s lip trembled. “I thought it was beautiful. Stupid, but beautiful.”
“Thanks, hon,” said Baxter. He turned to Richards and shook his hand. “Good luck, Captain.” He yanked a pip off his collar. “Computer, please transfer all command codes to Christopher Richards, commander, U.S.S. Explorer.”
“Command codes transferred. U.S.S. Explorer now commanded by Christopher Richards. Have a nice command!”
Baxter handed Richards his fourth pip. “There you go. Your insurance and benefit upgrades will take effect in a couple weeks. You can have my cabin as soon as I get all my things moved out.” He leaned in closer. “And make sure to report to sickbay. They’ll give you this chip that’ll make the women go mad for you! I couldn’t get a date to save my life before this thing!”
“What’s that?” asked Peterman.
Baxter glanced quickly back at her. “Oh. Nothing. Well, honey, let’s get a move on. Lots of packing to be done!”
“I’ll be damned,” said Captain Conway, sitting up in bed, reading the padd with disbelief. “He really did it. He quit the Explorer.”
“Hmmmmmm?” came a sleepy voice from under the covers.
“Never mind, Puckett. Aren’t you on duty?”
“Listen, just because we’re…you know…together, doesn’t mean you don’t have to follow my orders any more, okay?”
Lisa Beck looked up at the news on her desktop viewer and burst out into gleeful laughter.
Moments later, Commander Morales stuck his head in the door. “Captain?”
Beck wiped tears of laughter from her eyes. “Life is good, Mister Morales. Life is very good.”
“If you say so.”
“I shouldn’t care. I really shouldn’t care, but I do.”
“I’m glad to hear it…I guess.”
“Chin up, Morales. Things around here are really going to shape up. I can feel it.”
“They want our house,” Lucille Baxter grumbled, working grooves into the arms of her command chair. “They’re going to re-take that house!”
“Mrmrmrmleave ‘em alone,” muttered Harlan, chewing on his stogie.
“No…no…we’re setting course for Earth,” said Lucille. “We’ll intercept them. We’ll stop them. We’ll make them buy a condo! Better yet, we’ll make them move onto my ship, so I can ban HIM from MY bridge for a change!”
“Lucille, CAN IT!” Harlan said it quite clearly.
“Oooh! If you didn’t outrank me, and if I didn’t respect Starfleet protocol…”
“I’m goin’ to the can,” muttered Harlan, and he stood up and headed for the bridge lavatory.
Young, green-about-the gills Ensign Maisha Herzfield turned in her chair at the helm. “Captain, your husband…he’s all I thought he’d be and more. Such a confident leader. Now I see where your son got it fr–”
“Oh shut the hell up!”
“So, Captain Baxter’s no longer a captain.” Alvin Ficker rubbed his hands together eagerly. “Well, that’s a pity. We’ll have to pay him a visit. Let him know that, now that he’s not on that big, safe starship, he has no one to protect him. No one to shield him from the probing EYE OF JUSTICE!”
“Pipe down,” muttered Rebecca Singer, who sat beside him at one of the round tables in the Tantalus Five rec room. “They’re showing a medical report now.” She looked at the large viewscreen at the front of the room. “Oooh, I did that once!”
Ficker rubbed his hands togther eagerly. “A plan is forming, dear Becky. A plan to escape and get my revenge on Baxter once and for all. Are you game?”
“Nah. Been there, done that.”
“Well f*** you then.” Ficker pondered for a few moments. “What about ping pong instead?”
Ariel Tilleran watched Earth disappear into a tiny dot out the cabin window of the starship Hoboken.
Her bags were still sitting on the floor by the door. No need to unpack. She would be on Betazed in under a day.
The Hoboken’s crew mumbled a low din of thoughts in her mind. It was so sane, so orderly. She already missed the ramblings and neurotic squeaks and squabble of the hundreds of minds on the Explorer. She swore she wouldn’t, but she did.
Tilleran was about to go check out the ship’s lounge and check in with Captain Cameron, when she heard a beeping from within one of her bags.
She walked over to the duffel, pulled open the pouch, and yanked out a bleeping padd. She punched a control and J’hana’s face popped up on the screen.
“Surprised to see me?” asked J’hana’s voice.
“Not really,” Tilleran said honestly.
“You shouldn’t be. I had to say goodbye one last time. You’re a special person, Ariel. Don’t ever let Crellus convince you otherwise. Make sure to stop by from time to time. Don’t be a stranger.”
“Oh, yes, and just in case you ever forget about…us…I’ve included some flight recorder footage from that time we were in the turbolift, when I assured you the security sensors were turned off. Enjoy…!” J’hana cackled wickedly, and the image shifted to her and J’hana inside a turbolift, in a somewhat compromising position.
Tilleran just watched and laughed out loud.
The Cochrane-class shuttlecraft Donner tore toward Romulan space.
Ardek stared at the information on one of his readout screens and giggled impishly.
“Captain’s given up his ship, eh? Well, that is a pity! It’ll just make it extra hard to track him down when the time is right!”
“And when will that time be?” asked a voice in his head.
“Soon! Or maybe in 15 years, I can’t quite decide!” Ardek cherily called back out loud.
He sailed the shuttle toward Romulus, cackling wildly.
“You haven’t seen the last of me, Baxter!” cried Ardek. “I swear that to you! Hahahaha! I ga-ron-tee!!!! Hee hee— ouch, damn my ass hurts!”
Newly promoted First Officer J’hana unlocked her quarters and shuffled in drunkenly. The “Constellation Cabana” was certainly not the homey place it had been under Mirk’s rein, but the bartender did know a thing or two about mixed drinks. It was a shame she had to pummel him for all that “funnerific” and “splendiferous” talk. She hoped the Explorer had a good lawyer.
Explorer was getting her middle warp nacelle put back on, for some unknown reason. She and Richards had tried to convince Starfleet Engineering that it was unnecessary. The ship ran just fine without it. They wouldn’t listen.
J’hana tossed a padd with the crew roster onto the desk in her quarters (she’d never had to memorize all those names before–she just arrested the ones who caused trouble). She unzipped her outer tunic and tossed it on the couch, heading for the bedroom.
She was bone tired, and missed Tilleran like crazy. She really didn’t know the proper formula for making the hurt stop. She’d never liked anyone before, much less loved.
She called for the lights and was surprised to find Kristen Larkin sitting on her bed. J’hana immediately deduced it was, in fact, Kitty Larkin, due to the fact that the android was spread out seductively, wearing only a studded collar and leather bikini.
“I am here to pleasure and serve you.”
“How in Zarnx did you get in?” demanded J’hana. “My quarters have thirteen redundant security systems!”
“The protocols were simple. I created a subroutine to disable those systems.” Kitty inched toward J’hana. “I have also created subroutines with which to pleasure you immensely.”
“Why me?” demanded J’hana.
“Because I know you need it!”
J’hana nodded. “That much is true. Why aren’t you locked up?” Already, new Security Chief Unlathi was letting her down.
“I hacked out of the brig systems,” said Kitty. “They were really quite simple once I isolated the proper algorithms…but I digress. Let me help you fill that lonely void…I want to show you…my toolbox!”
“This is not a good idea,” mumbled J’hana.
“Trust me!” said Kitty, standing up on her knees on the bed. “It will go well!”
“I don’t think so.”
“I can bend duranium alloy with my bare hands. Imagine what I could do to you!”
J’hana sighed and tossed off her tunic. “Okay. Quickly, then back in the brig you go. Got it?”
“Whatever you say, Master J’hana!”
Captain’s Log, U.S.S. Explorer,
Stardate 58758.4. Did I hit the right button? Is this thing on? Hello? Oh, yes, right. There’s the red light. Thanks, Ensign. Um, anyway, hi. I’m Captain Chris Richards. This is my log. Welcome. So, what do I talk about, huh? Oh, yes. The Explorer’s at spacedock, getting a new middle nacelle. Don’t know why she needs it. Did just fine without it. Also, the Aerostar is getting a huge overhaul. I think they’re due to be here quite a bit longer.
Meanwhile, the Explorer is dangerously low on personnel. Hartley and Mirk are omnipotent, I think, Tilleran’s left, J’hana’s been missing for a day, Counselor Peterman is collecting chewtoys across the ship, Captain Baxter is unloading his antiques from planets across the cosmos, and Janice is…um, cooking something I think. Anyway, I’m bored. I can’t go to the ship’s lounge cause I’ve been banned. I’ve got Starfleet lawyers working on it but it doesn’t look good. Larkin’s in briefing with Captain Conway, yadda yadda. So what else am I supposed to say? Of course, we’re in spacedock…how can you have a mission in spacedock? I guess I just sit here. Talk to you later, computer. Thanks.
Captain Baxter walked into Janice Browning’s restaurant, Space Tastes, and collapsed, exhausted, into a chair at his customary table.
“Janice, one Fresca, chilled!” he called into the kitchen. “Man, that was a lot of antiques to herd together. I’ll need to add a storage module to my house, I just know it.”
Baxter looked around the restaurant, just then noticing the place was empty.
“Janice?” he called, not getting up.
“I’m in the office,” she called back from somewhere beyond the kitchen doors.
“You have an office?” Baxter asked. “This I’ve got to see.” He got up and walked through the kitchen doors.
Browning had a desktop terminal mounted on one of the preparation tables, next to a flank steak.
“Hey, I can call it an office if I want,” said Browning.
“What are you doing? It sure doesn’t look like cooking.”
“I’m making some deals on the Federnet,” replied Browning.
“What kind of deals?” Baxter looked over Browning’s shoulder at the information on the desktop terminal.
“Mister Sisko is ailing terribly,” Browning said.
“Oooh. I’m sorry. Who’s Mister Sisko?”
“The proprietor of Sisko’s. The most famous real-food restaurant on Earth.”
“Of course. I knew that. Sorry to hear that.”
“It’s great, actually. Well, not great, but…well, his restaurant is for sale.”
Baxter nodded. “Okay. So…oh, wait one minute.”
Browning’s eyes lit. “I’m going to buy it! GuinanCo offered me a mint worth of latinum for this place. They’re going to turn it into a juice bar!”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “Just what this ship needed.”
“This is a great chance, Andy.”
“Not to be a stick in the mud, but Plato may not want to come along. I think he’s really enjoying his time on the Explorer.”
“We enrolled him in Starfleet Academy yesterday.”
Baxter’s eyes went wide. “Really? You’re okay with that?”
“Four years of having him on Earth with me where I can keep at least one eye on him? Darn right I’m okay with that. And I figure the training he gets will prepare him for anything he faces out in the galaxy. I mean, it seemed to work for the rest of us. Granted, I just took the overview seminar because I went through medschool, but…”
“I think it’s great,” Baxter said. “Plato will make a great helmsman, or a security officer.”
“Yes. Helmsman. Yes, that sounds good.”
“Or a security officer.”
“You’re right. He’ll be a fantastic helmsman.” Browning switched off her terminal. “Well, I just spent eighty bars of latinum. How about we grill us up a steak?”
“This is such silly tripe. This thing has gone so far downhill since I wrote the scripts.”
“Never mind.” Richards and Madera were curled on his couch, watching Days of Honor on the viewscreen in his quarters. All his possessions were lumped into crates, in preparation for moving into Baxter’s cabin.
Richards was so far unimpressed with the final episode of Days of Honor. So far Kasatria had divorced Sovok and gone off to become a lawyer. Sovok, predictably, went back into the arms of Minister Vag.
The Sahr’gon, after it finally did return to the Alpha Quadrant, was being stripped of its veteran crew and recommissioned as a cruise ship. Richards was convinced somebody had pulled that one out of the Explorer headlines. If in fact the Explorer made headlines in the Klingon Empire. At any rate, it sure as hell wasn’t a coincidence. And the bit about Doctor Kaflar going after First Officer Shaktra was just plain spooky.
So Days of Honor was wrapping up. Richards thought briefly about trying his hand at writing again. For the Federation Video Service, naturally, not for Krinokom. No, that place was bereft of talent, ever since Krinok was cut in two by a vengeful actor he’d released from contract. They kept the torso alive…but Krinok’s heart just wasn’t in his work after that.
Krinokom, under new leadership, had some shows lined up to take the place of Days of Honor, but Richards doubted they would take off. He’d read the reviews and was not impressed. One show, marketed to Federation types, called “Commander of the Cabin,” was a sitcom about a Starfleet family in which the father was the captain, but the woman wore the “pants” in the family. Another idea he’d heard was “The New Win or Else,” with celebrity host Worf, and “Kasatria,” the most humiliating of all. An office sitcom spun off from Days of Honor, following Kasatria as she tries to find love while working at a Klingon legal firm. What a bunch of crap!
“You shouldn’t leave, Kasatria,” said Sovok on the viewscreen. “Vag and I really need a maid at our new condo.”
“You are really pushing it, Sovok. I have a mind to kill you where you stand,” Kasatria said, and suddenly blades shot out of Kasatria’s eyes and landed in Sovok’s chest. They immediately disappeared–a visual, imaginative whim of the quirky Kasatria. Richards sighed.
“Kasatria, you know you won’t be happy without me.”
“I’ll move on. You’ll move on. We just weren’t meant for each other.”
“That’s true.” Sovok looked out of the viewscreen, seemingly right at Richards. “But sometimes people ARE meant for one another. If you have a loved one out there, and you haven’t told her how much she means to you, tell her now, before she gets away.”
Madera smiled, nestled back against the couch cushion. “Well, Christopher, I’m wait–” She suddenly sat up and looked around. “Christopher? CHRISTOPHER?”
He was gone.
How the hell didn’t she hear the doors open and close?
The corridors of the Explorer never seemed so lengthy. There was a reason Sovok spoke directly to him. Richards didn’t know why. But there was a reason. Maybe Mirk had something to do with it. Maybe it was just fate giving him a swift kick in the complacency. Whatever it was, he answered the call. He sped down to Deck 10, rounded the corner into the alcove, barreled through the opening frosted doors and danced down the walkway that overlooked Ship’s Shoppes. He dashed into Space Tastes.
And found stuff in crates. Crates upon crates, littering the floors and tables.
The Explorer had become a place of crates.
A gangly man with red hair and a handlebar moustache sidled out of the kitchen. “Hey, there!” he called, waving to Richards, who felt his fists clenching.
“Where’s Janice,” he said quietly, feeling the blood rush to his face.
“She’s off to Earth. Bought up Joe Sisko’s restaurant, she did! You’re the first lucky customer of GuinanCo’s Good N’Fruity Juice Bar, home of the famous Pineapple Fun Float! I’m not quite set up yet, but if you’ll wait just a–OH OUCH OH GOD NO!”
Captain’s Log, U.S.S. Explorer,
Supplemental. Four hours into command and I already have a citation on my permanent record for mauling a civilian. Starfleet declined a court martial since they find GuinanCo employees annoying too. The damn corporation is overtaking the whole quadrant. They pop up everywhere! Anyway, they had to give me some kind of slap on the wrist. So, as of today, I am Captain of the Explorer by day, GuinanCo busboy by night. Damn it.
Captain/Busboy Richards materialized on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, Earth.
Sun shone down and warmed his face. He pivoted, instantly finding his target–the neon “Sisko’s” sign. Beside it, a grey-suited technician was constructing a new sign, which right now only read “Bro–.” Richards could fill in the rest.
He set off toward the restaurant and found Browning inside, setting tables.
“Hey!” she looked up. “I was going to surprise you with a grand opening meal!”
“That was how you were going to break the news to me?” Richards gaped. “You left the ship without even saying goodbye? Just like that?”
“Well, some stuff of mine is still up there. I’m in between addresses at the moment.” Browning smiled weakly.
“I came down here to bare my heart to you.”
“Ahh.” Browning looked around the restaurant uncomfortably. “Would you like a sandwhich or something? Some soda?”
“I thought you could be mature about this.”
“Christopher, this is what I want to do.” Browning looked pleadingly at Richards. “We had plenty of good times together. You have the Explorer to look after now. We were all together a good long time. This isn’t the end–just another chapter.”
Richards folded his arms. “That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
Browning veered around the table she was setting and wrapped her arms around Richards, who, unwillingly at first, hugged back.
“Christopher, I’ll always love you.”
“Me too, Janice.”
When Browning pulled back she smiled. “You know what? I’m really hungry.”
“One last gorge?”
“I’d be honored. Think you can find a kitchen in this dump?”
When Captain Baxter opened the front door of his house, he was shocked about as much as possible at who stood there, holding a basket of fruit.
“May I come in?” asked Dave Conway.
“There isn’t a bomb in that basket, is there?” Baxter asked archly.
“How should I know. It’s a prefab thing I bought around the corner for two credits. Do you want it or not?”
Baxter gestured regally for Conway to enter. “Please, do come in.”
Conway walked in, set the box down on a table by the door. He took in the foyer and living room. A mess of boxes and blank walls.
“Kelly’s redecorating,” Baxter explained.
“Civvies, Captain?” Conway asked, glancing at Baxter’s tan pants and khaki t-shirt.
“Yeah, until I find something to do with myself. I figure I’ll be a domestic husband for a while, while Kelly gets her private practice started.”
“You’re unleashing her on the general public?” Conway asked. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”
“Who asked you?” Baxter asked with a forced giggle.
Conway put his hands on his hips. “Well, I’ll be damned. I really didn’t think you’d do it. You always seemed so… comfortable in that captain’s chair.”
“Oh, that’s not going to be a problem.” Baxter gestured for Conway to follow him through an arched doorway into the den. “Richards let me take it. See, I put it right in front of my viewset. The cup holder really comes in handy.”
Conway sighed. Baxter had the command chair in the corner of his den. He’d even apparently replicated a matching ottoman. Not a bad idea, really.
“I was going to put it in the bathroom, but Kelly wouldn’t let me.”
“Do the controls actually do anything anymore?” Conway asked cautiously.
“Yep,” said Baxter. He reached down and touched one of the armrest buttons. The den’s viewscreen popped on, set to Krinokom. “The right side operates the replicator, which has been installed directly under the chair.”
“You seem ready for some time off,” Conway mumbled.
Baxter hit a control and the viewscreen shut back off. “Yep. I figure I have a few years at least until my Dad gets sick of running the Explorer project. Then I’ll just slip my name in. I figure I’ve got plenty of time to pad my resume with half-truths and exaggerations.”
Conway smiled blandly. “I’m very happy for you. You and Kelly, and that kid…and that other kid…you’ll have a great time here, I’m sure.”
Baxter sat down in the command chair. “So what about you, Dave? What does your future look like?”
Conway patted Baxter on the shoulder, then pointed up at the ceiling. “I’m going back out there, Captain. Space is big. Still lots to explore. Of course, maybe one day I’ll settle down too.”
“With Lieutenant Puckett?”
“Lieutenant Commander, now, actually,” Conway said sheepishly. “Yeah. How’d you hear about that?”
“People talk. Especially people named Ford.”
“Yeah, Gellar’s not too happy about being demoted back to security chief from tactical, but I couldn’t stand watching him make googily eyes at Alexa on the bridge anymore.”
“So instead, Alexa’s going to have to watch YOU making googily eyes.”
“Well, I won’t be doing any of that. My contract with Puckett specifically forbids ‘googily eyes.’”
“Yep. Witnessed by Larkin, against her objections.”
“You’ve got yourself quite an operation up there, Conway,” Baxter sighed. “Try to keep away from any deep crevasses, okay?”
Conway nodded. “Will do.”
Baxter stood, and stretched. “Well, Steffie’s probably getting out of Kindergarten now. Last class on the Explorer. Kelly’s probably ready to come down too. Want to come with?”
Conway shrugged. “Sure. The Aerostar still has about another two weeks of construction time. I have plenty of time on my hands.”
Baxter suppressed a chuckle. “Sorry about that.”
“Just pray I don’t run across your mom’s ship out there. I might just confuse it for a Borg cube or something.”
“That would be a shame,” Baxter said, still suppressing that giggle. He punched a control on his ‘command chair.’ “Baxter to Explorer. Two to beam up. Energize.”
“The red collar looks good on you, J’hana,” Counselor Peterman said as she walked with J’hana down the corridor, with Steffie (fresh from Kindergarten) on her hip, tugging her hopping Golden Retriever puppy, Charlotte, by the leash.
“Thank you,” J’hana said softly.
“You’ve been awful quiet today.”
“I am, frankly, exhausted,” J’hana said.
“How come?” Steffie piped up.
J’hana smiled weakly at Steffie. “I would rather not describe it. Your species seems averse to allowing its children to hear graphic, violent sexual anecdotes.”
Peterman shuddered, yanking Charlotte onwards though the pup didn’t seem to want to go. “You’ve got a point there.”
“Suffice it to say, pod-ling, that an android’s power source is nothing short of inexhaustible. Mine, on the other hand, has severe limitations.”
“Where, um, is Kitty now anyway?” asked Peterman.
“I do not know,” J’hana honestly said. She had awoke to find her bed empty and a ‘Dear J’hana’ letter on her night stand. She conveniently left all that out of her report. She focused instead on the claim that Kitty, without Ardek at her side, was pretty much harmless.
“Hmmm. Well, I’m sure she won’t pop up again,” Peterman said, putting a reassuring hand on J’hana’s shoulder.
“And if she does, feel certain that I will find a way to distract her.”
Peterman nearly yelped when she saw Kitty coming out of the turbolift at the end of the corridor, then sighed with relief when she realized it Larkin, along with Richards.
“Captain,” Peterman said, although it sounded odd.
“Hi, Kelly,” Richards said sullenly. “Did you hear about Janice?”
“Yeah, isn’t it great?” Peterman registered the significance of things and immediately her face fell. “I mean, I’m so sorry.”
“I have been consoling Father for some time now,” said Commander Larkin. “Since the Explorer is currently without a Ship’s Counselor, I felt it only prudent.”
“Thanks,” Peterman muttered. “Don’t worry, Chris. You come to see us all on Earth anytime you want. You’re welcomed at our house any time.”
“Whatever.” Richards looked to J’hana. “Are we almost ready to get underway?”
“There’s still a few hours’ work to be done,” J’hana said. “If you like, I can threaten the work crews…”
Richards held up a hand. “Not necessary.”
Just then, Conway and Baxter stepped out of a turbolift.
“Well, the gang’s all here!” Baxter said, stepping out. “What’s left of us, anyway. Kind of nice, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, wish I had a holoimager,” muttered Conway.
“We should return to the Aerostar,” said Larkin. “There is much work to be done.”
“Nag nag nag,” griped Conway.
“We have much work to do as well,” J’hana said, looking to Richards.
Richards nodded. “Right.” He leaned forward to hug Larkin tightly. “You take care of yourself, kid, okay?”
J’hana watched hungrily. “Captain, I suggest we go to the bridge now…or at least somewhere I can get a cold shower.”
Richards cocked is eyebrow at J’hana as Conway stepped off down the corridor with Larkin, Conway griping all the way.
“I refuse to explain,” was all J’hana would say.
Richards reached out to shake Baxter’s hand. “Keep in touch, okay Andy?”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, rubbing the corner of his eye. “Yeah, listen, take good care of ‘er, okay? And by ‘er,’ I mean the ship.”
Richards nodded. “Will do.”
J’hana and Richards walked off toward the turbolift.
“You don’t think the fact that we were once in a relationship will affect our ability to work together, do you?” Richards asked as they stepped into the turbolift.
“Of course not,” J’hana said, folding her arms. “As with any captain, I will throw myself on top of you to protect you from harm. By the way, is Commander Larkin seeing anyone currently?”
Baxter watched Richards’s confused expression as the turbolift doors closed. He looked at Peterman.
Peterman nodded. “The last of our stuff is aboard the your second-favorite shuttle, the Hemingway.”
Baxter grimaced at that, still mad at Ardek. Peterman, meanwhile, jiggled Steffie. “Ready to go, honeybuns?”
Steffie nodded. “Shuttlebay Three! Shuttlebay Three! That way!” She pointed enthusiastically.
“She memorized the ship diagram,” Baxter said with pride. “Nice.”
“She pointed in the wrong direction.”
“Hey, she’s three. What do you expect?” Baxter took Peterman’s arm, and the trio set off down the corridor toward the transporter room.
“Did you get the pets beamed down to the barn okay?” asked Baxter.
“It was a mess,” said Peterman. “The transporter room still smells like doo-doo.”
“Say, did you have any trouble beaming down Charlie’s stasis tube?”
“Nope. I sure hope medical science comes up with a way to increase dogs’ life spans.”
“I’m sure if it does, you’ll be the first to know.”
Baxter and family arrived at Shuttlebay Three in short order. Baxter helped Peterman, then Steffie, into the rear hatch, then climbed in after her and sat down at the pilot’s console.
He looked out of the front window and gave ‘thumbs up’ to Ensign Aronitz at the shuttle control panel. Baxter switched on the shuttle’s thrusters and sent the arrow-shaped, Cochrane- class Hemingway sailing gracefully out of the shuttlebay.
“Explorer to Hemingway,” announced Richards’s voice over the comm system.
Baxter looked up. “Yeah, Chris?”
“Have a look at the saucer, Captain.”
Baxter craned his neck to look out the viewport. Along the top of Explorer’s still-scorched saucer, right under the name and registry, all the cabin lights were arrayed in such a way…
Peterman looked over Baxter’s shoulder, holding Steffie. She leaned down and kissed his head. “Leave it to Chris to make an artistic statement.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, smiling, and he steered the Hemingway toward Earth.
The lights on the saucer spelled out “Goodbye.”
…FIFTEEN YEARS LATER…
“And that’s how it ended,” the instructor said, and sat back on his desk. “Any questions?”
A blond smart-aleck type in the front row, a lot like Ford, the instructor pondered, raised his hand.
“Well, sir,” said Cadet Tom Casey, the smart-aleck, “I was just wondering why the history stops there. Surely the Explorer and Aerostar got into more adventures.”
“Sure they did. But the Gorn skirmishes and the Dillon impeachment took over the galactic spotlight over the next several years. The Explorer program continued on, but really shied away from the adulation it deserved.”
“Adulation?” giggled Casey. “Since when did the Explorer or any of those other ships get any adjulation?”
“They didn’t,” the instructor said through gritted teeth. “That’s why we have this class. So schmucks like yourself can learn what it’s like to struggle through the kinds of incompetent mishaps that are bound to come across every crew…and just happened to happen to the Explorer and Aerostar crews on a regular basis.
“Now,” continued the instructor, “if you’re really interested, you can take Starfleet course C-506 next semester, Unusual Command Situations Part II. That course deals more with the Aerostar-A.”
The instructor was met with utter, total, dead silence.
“Okay, well, it’s not like anyone is forcing you.” The instructor reached down onto his desk and lifted a mug to his lips, sipping, taking in the full, rich flavor of the beverage. “However, if you all do fail the final exam, I’m going to have to recommend you take it. Know what that means? Better study your butts off, you pukes. And don’t think I don’t see that rude gesture, Wentzel!”
“Sorry, Commodore Conway.”
Conway sat up off his desk, ran a hand through his bushy, salt-and-pepper beard. “Now I would LOVE to administrate this extremely difficult test.” He picked up a padd and thunked it. “Make no mistake–I would LOVE it. But I’ve got an event to attend that I don’t intend to miss, so Miss Granger from Away Team Conduct will have to administer the test. Please don’t give her any trouble.” Conway caught Casey’s grin out of the corner of his eye. “And don’t hit on her, either!” He headed for the door. “Have a good one!”
“Baxter takes the snap. Looks right. There’s the pass rush. Baxter evades the sack, leap-frogs a defender and– whoooah, look at that arm! The perfect pass to Darvix…who takes it right into the endzone. TOUCHDOWN! That Baxter is one hell of a woman!”
“GO STEFFIE!” Admiral Andy Baxter shouted, drawing groans and dirty looks from the others around him in the front row, at the fifty yard line, at the conference championship where Stephanie Baxter’s Space Cowboys just scored a touchdown, making the score 42-35, Cowboys, in the final two minutes of the game.
None of this would have been possible without Andy Baxter, Baxter pondered. After hoarding his credits and latinum on Earth for ten years, Baxter led the charge to bring football back to the galactic forefront. Of course, his marketing director had told him, he needed an edge. So he came up with a new twist on a centuries old game: Women’s football.
It just so happened that, after years of playing catch with her daddy, Stephanie Baxter developed a shotgun arm and an accurate touch, making her the prototype female quarterback. All of this, of course, was just pleasing coincidence for Admiral Baxter.
He could have sat up in the owner’s box, or paced the sideline with Holo-Tom Landry. But he didn’t like either position much. He liked being in the crowd, though they seldom liked him. They were still sore about the firing of Holo-Jimmy Johnson, and the fact that he refused to move the stadium from hackneyed and over-crowded, over-commercialized Earth to a more attractive and easy-access location like Antares Six.
But Baxter kept to his guns, maintaining that as long as he lived, his Space Cowboys would play in Texas, where they were meant to play.
“As the Andorian Dagger offense takes the field, the booth would like to remind you that we have special guests in the stand, Mister and Mrs. Louis Aikman, parents of defensive back Christy Aikman, and descendants of original Cowboy Troy Aikman.”
Baxter grinned at the pert blonde man at his left. “Thanks again for coming again, Lou. So, tell me. What was Troy like?”
“I keep trying to tell you, Admiral,” said Lou Aikman, “Troy died over three hundred years ago. We know nothing about him. Because of the Third World War, most of the records about him haven’t even survived. You probably know more about him than anyone alive.”
“A simple, ‘I don’t know,’ would have sufficed,” Baxter muttered, arms folded.
“While we’re at it,” Lou said, “why don’t you tell us a little about your wife.”
“Yeah,” said Angela Aikman, Lou’s wife. “I have all of her books, all the way back to ‘Men are from Epsilon Indii and Women are from Beta Myrimad.’”
“Good for you,” muttered Baxter. “Why don’t you both just–whoa, whoa, whoa!”
“Zhnarz pitches it to Sozzar…Sozzar to the seventy, to the sixty, to the fifty, to the forty, past the nine point line, hurdling over the bottomless pit…taken down by Darla Scott at the Space Cowboys’ thirty yard line. The Daggers call a time out with fourteen seconds left.”
“DAMN!” Baxter stood up. “Where are the linebackers? Go to a 4-3, Landry! Your defensive backs are getting MAULED!”
“What are you getting all bent out of shape about?” asked Lou Aikman. “It’s only a game, after all.”
Baxter glared down at Aikman. “Hasn’t a drop of Troy’s competitive blood trickled down to you, Mister Aikman?”
“Damn you, sir, your daughter is down there playing in the game of her life. Show some freaking spirit!”
“Zhnarz goes back to pass–intercepted in the endzone by Aikman!” the announcer called over the loudspeakers. “Christy Aikman! Good blocking! She might just run it back!”
Baxter was on his feet; he could see Stephanie running down the sideline cheering Aikman on as she juked around defenders and dove into the endzone, after a miraculous 140 yard runback.
“GO SPACE COWBOYS!” cried Baxter.
The usual song boomed in the loudspeakers as Stephanie ran out into the endzone to pick up Aikman and twirl her as the crowd cheered and the Aikmans looked on, passionless.
“Some people call me the space cowboy…some people call me the ganster of love. Some people call me Maurice…whooo whoo…”
Then Baxter gaped as he saw a Gold-clad member of the Andorian Daggers rush out into the endzone, knocking Aikman and Stephanie down with a clothesline move. Baxter slapped his combadge and called for security as the hulking Andorian woman brought a dagger up, braced right over Stephanie and ready to plunge it into her chest. The team name certainly was fitting.
“Fans will love the taste of new Classic Sluggo Cola…” droned the announcer as Baxter screamed over the din of the crowd for security, then saw a tan blur cross onto the field and slam the Andorian to the ground.
She was out cold. The tan blur righted itself, turned toward the stands to face Baxter and slapped its combadge.
“Lieutenant Plato to Admiral Baxter. I intercepted the perpetrator and neutralized her. Local authorities are moving in. They were expecting something like this. Are we about ready to go yet?”
Baxter sighed. “Yes, it is about that time, isn’t it?”
“You don’t want us to be late. No matter how much you might want to postpone it.”
“All right, all right. Scoop up my daughter and let’s get up to the ship. By the way, good work, son.”
“Just part of the job, Admiral.”
Baxter looked archly at Stephanie and Plato as they all materialized on the transporter pad. “What’s that look about?”
“What look?” Stephanie asked, still holding her helmet in the crook of her arm. She hadn’t had a chance to change out of her blue-and-white Space Cowboys uniform.
“The look you two are giving each other,” Baxter said. “It’s almost…sultry.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir,” said Plato. “Fraternizing with an Admiral’s daughter is strictly forbidden by protocol.”
Baxter nodded. “Right it is.” He looked at Stephanie. “Congratulations on winning the game, sweetheart.” He kissed her on the forehead.
“I would have kneed that Andorian right in her egg sac too,” said Stephanie. “If Horatio Hornblower here hadn’t come to my rescue.”
“Har har,” muttered Plato, swinging an arm around Stephanie. He glanced uneasily at Baxter. “This is a totally platonic gesture.”
“Uh-huh.” Baxter stepped off the transporter pad and glanced up at the transporter chief. “Where’s the captain, Crewman?”
“She is…in the shop.”
“Very good. I’ll go there now.”
“Should I announce you, sir?”
“Nonsense.” Baxter smiled. “We go way back. Come on, kids.” He glanced back at Plato and Stephanie, cocking his head. “Are you sure there isn’t something you two want to tell me?”
“Don’t be silly,” Stephanie giggled.
Baxter stepped out of the transporter pad and headed down the sleek, well-lit corridor. The ship smelled new. The panels were obsidian and shiny. The corridors were even impressive, so wide and lined with blinking bulkhead panels. Even his inspections hadn’t done the place justice–this ship was top of the line. Damn the Enterprise-G for making flagship.
It should have been the Aurora-Class Explorer-A all the way.
As Baxter approached the lab, the twin doors slid open soundlessly and Captain Kristen Larkin stepped out.
“Admiral,” she said, bowing. “I was just finishing some last-minute adjustments to my program.” She smiled. “To commemorate today’s event.”
“Very nice,” said Baxter. “What kind of adjustments?”
“It’s a very subtle change. Let’s see if you notice it.”
“Can’t say that I do.” Baxter glanced down the corridor. “The bridge is this way, right?”
Larkin shook her head. “Negative. It’s that way. If you follow me, I’ll show you the way.”
“Sounds good,” Baxter said, and took up step with Larkin down the corridor.
Plato picked up step on the other side of Larkin.
“Tactical report, Lieutenant,” Larkin said, not quite asking.
“Systems are at top capacity,” replied Plato. “Had a little trouble with the Andorians down on the planet, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle.”
“And handle it he did,” Stephanie smiled.
Baxter blinked, then looked to Larkin. “How goes the shakedown, Captain?”
“We’re nearly ready to begin active service,” replied Larkin. “I’m looking forward to pursuing real missions again. These test flights have left me…antsy.”
“Not like the engineers haven’t tried to weed out that emotion,” Plato said. “Over the years, it seems almost as if those emotions of yours have tied themselves in big positronic knots or something,” he said, adding, “respectfully, Captain.”
Larkin nodded. “Indeed.”
“Kind of like senility,” Baxter said, smiling. “Happens to the best of us, Captain.”
“Indeed,” Larkin repeated. Time to strike back. “And you, sir. How does the aging process go for you?”
Baxter looked straight ahead, toward the turbolift. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Your hair is looking lovely.”
“Yes. Yes it is.”
“The last time I saw you you were nearly bald. And quite gray.”
“Is that right? Well, that must have been nine months ago.”
“Correct, sir. What is your secret?”
“Well, Starfleet Medical is making advances in curing baldness every day. And, well…dyes…”
“You have not answered my question.”
Baxter coughed. “Holoemitter.” He walked briskly into the turbolift and Larkin, Plato, and Stephanie followed.
“He has holographic hair?” Plato whispered to Stephanie.
“Don’t ask,” Stephanie giggled.
Baxter beamed at Stephanie. “Did you just make goo-goo eyes at him?”
“Dad, you’re being silly.”
“I know goo-goo eyes, missy, and those eyes were definitely goo-goo!”
Larkin smiled. “This’ll be a fun trip.”
By the time the turbolift arrived on the bridge, Larkin’s auditory sensors had already detected Commodore Conway complaining about the coffee in the replicators exactly ten seconds prior. She had a grin and a pre-programmed wry remark ready for him.
“Still lovin’ that coffee, Commodore,” Larkin said, strolling down to the front of the massive bridge–more like a control center, where Conway stood by the replicator berating an ensign. His beard was flecked with foam.
“You call this coffee?” he demanded, shaking his mug at Larkin. “Damn foamy crap. What, has this ship already been assimilated by DillonBucks too?”
“Some weeks ago, I’m afraid,” said Larkin. “Last I heard, GuinanCo was under heavy financial assault by Dillon Enterprises.” She shook her head woefully. “It doesn’t look good.”
“Damn,” said Conway. “This is worse than the Gorn raid on Deep Space Nine. Damn damn damn. Where am I supposed to get coffee with a sprig of cinnamon in it, then?”
“Try the mocha,” Baxter said, stepping down onto the foredeck and putting out his hand. “Nice to see you again, Commodore.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Conway ignored Baxter’s offered hand and stuck his mug back in the replicator. “Computer, try mocha, and don’t dare give me another annoying happy jingle or I swear I’ll rip your nano-chips right out.”
“Whatever his majesty says,” the computer sarcastically replied.
“The personality subroutines seem to have fit in nicely,” Baxter said dryly. “Just what we need, a ship’s computer that talks back to you.”
“Personally, I’ve had many fruitful discussions with the computer,” said Larkin. “Isn’t that right, circuit-kins?”
“Indeed, my positronic pal,” replied the female voice, which Baxter still thought sounded suspiciously like Lwaxana Troi.
“I’m going belowdecks to shower and change, if that’s okay with the rest of you,” said Stephanie, heading for the turbolift. “It’s really nice to see you again, Captain Larkin.” She looked to Conway and paused. “There you are, Commodore Conway.”
Plato watched Stephanie head back to the rear turbolift. “I’ll just go belowdecks and check on the quantum torpedoes. Make sure they…don’t go off or anything like that.”
Baxter grabbed the back of Plato’s uniform so hard the half-changeling almost fell backwards. “Hold on there, sport!”
Plato turned nervously to look at Baxter, woefully glancing to see a worried-looking Stephanie disappear behind the turbolift doors.
“Y-yes, Uncle Andy?” Plato asked, smiling innocently.
“Not even a hug for your Godfather?” Baxter asked, and Plato smiled, relieved.
“Sure.” He hugged Baxter quickly and bolted for the other turbolift at the front of the bridge.
“They make a cute couple,” Larkin said, and headed over to the command chair, which was on a raised dais at the center of the bridge.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Baxter asked, walking over to join her. The dais overlooked the bridge, which was essentially a circular array of control panels, some of which were activated by a simple wave of the operator’s hand.
“It means Plato’s ‘linking’ with your daughter,” Conway said, joining Baxter by the dais.
“That’s preposterous,” Baxter said, then glanced back at the aft turbolift. “You really think so?”
“Who wouldn’t want to?” asked Conway. “Your daughter’s grown into one fine–” He shook his head to clear his thoughts. “So, Captain, how have you been the last few years?”
Baxter narrowed his eyes at Conway. “Has it really been that long?”
“You mean to say we’ve been living on the same planet…the same continent…and we haven’t managed to send even a comm in the last three years?”
Baxter nodded. “Things are about the same. With you?”
Larkin smiled, pivoting in her command chair. “Glad we’ve completed the pleasantries. It’s time to pick up our other guests.” She pivoted face-front. “Helm, lay in a course for the Tan’ora system, Warp 12.”
Young Ensign Doria Gale waved her hands over the helm controls, at the curved station at the front of the bridge. “Course laid in. “
Larkin pointed dramatically. “Engage.”
The Explorer-A swung around the Earth’s moon, its silvery oblong hull and six multi-tiered nacelles glinting in the rays of Sol. Her warp engines lit with a sudden burst of energy and she took off into the blanket of stars.
“Reverse angle,” Larkin said, watching as Earth disappeared into the distance on the viewscreen. She pivoted back toward Conway and Baxter. “Now then, shall we both get a drink? I suppose we all could use one before the…festivities. All of us, I should say, except for me, who doesn’t benefit from the deleterious effects of alcohol.”
“Sounds great,” Conway and Baxter said in unison.
“…I’m glad you liked it! Thanks! Well, it was nothing…” oozed Kelly Peterman as she signed across padd after padd, her loyal son Raymond at her side.
“…Well, yes, I did put a lot of thought into my findings. Why?…”
“…You know, that’s funny. My daughter told me that once. Over subspace….”
“…Andorians are easier to counsel than you might think…”
It was exhausting. The ampitheatre on Tan’ora prime was packed. Why on Earth would Peterman’s agent set her up with something like this?
Had “Married to the Fleet: Ten Years Serving Under and Around a Starfleet Captain” really struck that much of a chord with people throughout the Federation? Sure, she had reached some success with such books as “Warpin’ the Fat Away,” with Richard Simmons, and “I Just Got Assimilated, Now What?”, not to mention the Pentium-award winning “So Your Pet’s In Stasis, Now What?” and “More Pets In Stasis, What Do I Do Now?”
She’d racked up quite a library of best-sellers. But “Married to the Fleet” had gotten the most response by far. She was thinking, even, of using the proceeds to purchase the Vulcan Selayans, a rival Women’s football team, just to foster a little competition with Andy…but then she remembered she despised football.
Luckily, so did Raymond Peterman, her darling, twinkle- eyed son. To Andy’s chagrin, 15-year-old Raymond turned down his offer to become equipment manager and assistant recievers coach for the Space Cowboys, and instead opted to accompany Peterman on her book-signing tour. So far, the two were having a grand old time.
At the million and fifth (seemingly) autograph, Peterman put down her stylus and cracked her knuckles. “Okay, session over.” The line of fans booed. “I’m sorry, people, but I have an engagement. Raymond, lead the way out.” Peterman blew kisses at the crowd. “I’m sorry. I love each and every one of you. I’ve got a new book coming out next spring…‘So You’ve got a Jock Daughter, Now What?’ at Dillon’s Book Depots galaxy- wide! Check it out!”
Gangly Raymond nudged past security guards and other scaly, spindly Tan’oran officials, all the way back to Peterman’s dressing room.
“Touring is exhausting, isn’t it?” Raymond groaned, as the doors to the dressing room slid shut, closing Raymond and Peterman off from the raging crowds.
Peterman checked her holo-reflection at her make-up table and nodded, poofing her hair, which, sadly, was showing some streaks of gray nowadays. “Yes, it takes a lot out of a girl.” She paused. “And her son!”
“Yeah,” said Raymond. He walked over to Peterman. “Anyways, I’m glad I did this. You were right. This is much more fun than playing with my friends or going to school.”
“I knew you would love it,” Peterman grinned. “Now do mommy a favor and get her a triple-malt before your Father gets here.”
“Whatever you say, Mom. Are you sure you didn’t finish off the stash last night?”
“There should be one left in the case.”
When Peterman stumbled off the transporter pad, Baxter nearly had to catch her. He wrapped his arms around her. “Honey, have you been hitting the triple-malt Tavarian gut- wrench juice again?”
“Nah, you’re kidding.” Peterman sniffed the air. “You, on the other hand, just had a Bolian Blitz.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Baxter belched. “You’re looking…tired.”
“It’s been a long tour.”
“Let’s not do this again,” Baxter said, pulling Raymond to his side and walking out of the transporter room between his son and wife. “These book tours are too long. When was the last time I saw you? Three months ago?”
“URP! Too long,” muttered Peterman.
“How about them Space Cowboys,” Raymond asked mildly.
“Nice try, Ray,” said Baxter. “You almost sounded interested.”
“They just won the conference championship. Now they just have to go to battle with the Gorn Cold-Bloods. The hard part about that is that the Metrons want to referee.” Baxter rolled his eyes. “So of course we said we’d consider it. Damn Metrons.”
“How are you doing, Andy…about all this?” Peterman asked, glancing at Baxter as they walked down the corridor.
“About all what?” Baxter asked.
“You know what I’m talking about. It’s got to be tearing you up inside.”
Baxter winced. “No, no, of course not. I could care less. She…it’s…just a bunch of duranium and circuits and bulkheads. Just an inanimate object. This is all just a bunch of show for nothing.”
“Andy…don’t try to evade me.”
“And don’t try to be a counselor again, not after all these years.”
“I’m not speaking as a counselor, I’m speaking as your wife. I know this is killing you.”
“Don’t be silly.” Baxter trudged ahead. “We’re off to blow up the Explorer. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
Raymond made as if to follow but Peterman held him back. “That’ll do no good, honey. Your dad just needs to pout a while. No one he can talk to will make him feel any better.”
“I had to talk to somebody,” Baxter said, pacing his executive cabin, avoiding the quizzical look of the hologram that stood before him.
“Well I’m glad you picked me. Couldn’t be more glad.”
“How’s life been treating you, Chris?” Baxter asked, stopping in his tracks.
“Same as always,” said Chris Richards. “I’m dealing with the Spring line-up. Good news, though. The Federation Opticasting Organization won the rights to all of next season’s women’s football games.”
“That’s great for FOO,” Baxter said. “You’re still head of programming?”
“And research. Did you know that, back centuries ago, they had something called ‘sweeps week’?”
“What was that?”
“Our people are still trying to figure it out, but we think it has something to do with sex and violence.”
“Doesn’t it all,” Baxter muttered. “Anyway, I’m glad you got the football contract. We’ll actually be sort of working together again.”
“For the first time in years.”
“I like that idea.” Baxter grinned.
“What was the problem again?” Richards asked.
“Nothing. Nevermind. We’ll see you at the rendez-vous?”
“My raceabout’s about to leave.”
“See you soon.” Baxter punched a control on his desk and Richards’s hologram vanished. He collapsed into his deskchair and looked out at the streaking stars. The truth was, he was desparately uneasy about sending the Explorer off to her grave. According to Starfleet, over all his protests, the original Explorer was due to be scuttled. Finally, at least outwardly, he accepted that now. But he’d never had to do this. The original Aerostar died young, and honorably. Explorer would be dying old, and in her sleep. And Baxter didn’t like that. He wanted to send her off with a little more gusto than that.
Someone else out there did, too.
Captain’s Log, U.S.S. Explorer,
Stardate 73909.4. We’ve completed all the necessary dignitary pickups. The others will be meeting us at the event. I shy away from describing the event, since precisely thirty-two negative emotional programs have launched today, all because I’ve been thinking about the destruction of the original Explorer. I would say that I go to do this with a heavy heart, if I didn’t believe that metaphors were silly, and if I actually had a heart.
The comm bleep sent Plato’s head darting out from under the covers. “Um…MOM?”
“Yes! Didn’t you know the Explorer swung by Deep Space Nine to pick me up?” Janice Browning’s voice cooed over the comm system.
“Minding your duties like a good Security Chief, then?”
Plato smiled down at Stephanie, who was lingering under the covers and wriggling her finger come-hither at him. “I’m keeping…people…safe, Mom.”
“Well, meet me in the lounge, Plato! We need to catch up!”
Plato sighed. “Okay, Mom. I’ll be right there.”
“I’m going to be there with Admiral Baxter. See if you can round up Stephanie too. We can all get together!”
“I’ll see if I can find her,” Plato said, placing a hand over Stephanie’s mouth so Browning wouldn’t hear the giggles. “See you in a few!”
Stephanie sat up in bed, quickly yanking on a t-shirt. “We really need to tell them at some point.”
“But things are going so well,” Plato sighed.
“What’s the worst thing they could do?” Stephanie asked. “Make us not date? I mean come on–we’re both adults!”
“Sort of. But you know our parents still see us as kids.”
“Well,” Stephanie said impishly. “If they knew what we just did, that may just change the way they think.”
Plato nodded. “Indeed. How ‘bout dinner?”
Captain Larkin gestured about the lounge. “Welcome to the last bastion of free enterprise left in the Galaxy.” She sat at a large round table, with Baxter, Peterman, Raymond, Conway, Browning, and the newly-arrived Richards all gathered around her.
“It’s quite nice,” Peterman said, taking in the antiseptic lounge-ish atmosphere.
“It should be,” Baxter said. “We had to pay GuinanCo and Dillon Enterprises handsomely to keep their mitts off this place. The problem is, we couldn’t name it because they’ve bought the naming rights to just about every catchy lounge name you can think of.”
“Hence,” Larkin said sullenly, “the ‘Lounge Lounge.’”
“That is somewhat flat,” admitted Peterman.
“But at least we have a good bartender,” said Larkin. “The place wouldn’t seem the same without a Maloxian running things.”
“How is Jahn coming along?” Peterman said. “Any relapses of…I don’t know, blowing up ships and friends of ours?”
“That’s far behind him,” Larkin replied. “That all happened long ago.”
“Are you using contractions, Larkin?” Richards suddenly asked. “Or am I just having really bad warp lag from my trip?”
“I’m pleased that someone noticed,” Larkin said, glaring at Baxter.
“So…” Baxter said uneasily. “How about them Space Cowboys?”
Just then, as if on cue, Stephanie and Plato walked in.
“I found Stephanie!” Plato said, jaunting back to the rear table and pulling out an empty chair for Stephanie to sit in.
“Yep,” Stephanie said, sitting. “I just bumped into him out in the corridor.”
Browning got up and ran over to Plato, gave him a tight hug. “Hey you old softy, how are you? What’s been happening in your life?”
Plato diverted his eyes away from Stephanie. “A little of this, a little of that. Same old, you know.”
Browning held him tight. “Not getting into too much danger as security chief, are you?”
“We’ve been in Spacedock,” muttered Larkin.
“Sure, sure,” Browning said, still hugging Plato.
“How’s dad?” Plato asked, gently wrenching Browning free.
“Oh, Pogo’s still Pogo. He’s still bitter. DS-Nine’s C.O. didn’t give him the constable job.”
“It’s not like other changelings haven’t succeeded in his place,” Plato muttered.
“Well, we’re still not sure where we stand with the Dominion, even after all this time, so they said they’d start him out as Liaison Officer and see how he fared,” Browning said. “That was three years ago, and all he’s been doing is selling tickets to Dillon StarCruises and GuinanCo Fun-raisers.”
“‘Fun-raisers,” said Baxter. “That would be the events where they convince you it’s fun to donate all your latinum to them?”
“That’s the one,” replied Browning. “Anyway, he’s content, I guess.”
“So,” Richards piped up, “Plan on moving on anytime soon and dating someone else?”
Browning glared at him. “Christopher…I have been with Pogo for six years, ever since he came to me with the proposal that he spend time with Plato as, sort of, his natural father.”
“Any lump of goo from that lake would have been construed as Plato’s natural father,” Conway grumbled, then looked to Plato. “No offense.”
Plato bristled. “None taken.”
Richards and Conway exchanged glances. They were both still looking for an opportunity, bless them. Baxter shook his head. Richards had only dated, and Conway, to Baxter’s knowledge, had married six different women, all violent and all brief encounters.
“We get along well,” Browning said. “He seems to know me better than any solid man ever has. Something about Changelings…the way they just… get inside your mind and KNOW you.”
Stephanie slid down in her chair sultrily. “Yeah, you’ve got THAT right…Mmmmmmmmmmmm…”
Baxter and Browning both turned a glare on Stephanie.
“WHAT?” demanded Browning.
“COOL!” piped up Raymond.
“Figures,” muttered Conway.
“As I predicted,” said Larkin.
“WHAT?” demanded Baxter.
Plato cleared his throat. “Jahn? A round of drinks, please? PLEASE?”
Baxter and Peterman stumbled together back to their Executive Cabin. “You had to expect that,” said Peterman.
“I didn’t have to expect it at all,” said Baxter. “I’m completely blown away by it.”
“They actually make a cute couple,” said Peterman as Baxter unlocked the door to the cabin.
“Well, it’s cause Steffie’s cute,” muttered Baxter, stepping into the cabin.
“She’s not cute. She’s a full-grown woman, and leave it to her father to be the only one left who still calls her ‘Steffie.’”
“She’s always going to be my little girl, and I don’t care if–” Baxter looked around the darkened cabin. The only light provided was from the viewscreen. “I don’t remember leaving the viewscreen on. And what the hell is this?”
Peterman rolled her eyes. “Oh, it’s Jean-luc Picard’s stupid Antiques Spaceshow. Looks like a re-run.”
On the viewscreen, Picard was leaning over a table with an Andorian woman, examining a dagger blade.
“Ma’m,” he said. “This piece is an ancient dagger
from Andor, dating back to the pre-assasin era. Note the
encrusted jeweles and poisoned tip. Have you estimated
“Not really. It’s just a family heirloom,” said the woman,
who Baxter couldn’t see quite clearly.
“Well, this is a fantastic piece. I think you can get 400 bars
of latinum for it.”
“WHAT? YOU SCOURGE! YOU DARE ACCUSE
ME OF WANTING TO SELL A VALUABLE FAMILY
HEIRLOOM? I HATE MY FAMILY, BUT STILL! I
SHALL KILL YOU WHERE YOU STAND!”
Peterman and Baxter shared a knowing glance. “J’hana!?!”
“Here,” came a dismal voice from the general direction of the couch.
“Lights!” Baxter called.
Clad in ragged leather-and-spike armor, J’hana stood. Her long, braided hair was streaked in places with green. “Admiral.”
Baxter blinked, dazed. “J’hana…what the hell are you doing here?”
“And what were you doing on that infernal show?” asked Peterman.
“Both good questions. I should start by saying that I am not allowed within 100 meters of the good Picard ever again. Stupid twit. I maintain that he wrongly appraised the value of that dagger, anyway.” She glared at the screen, where she had Picard in a stranglehold and authorities from the antiques show were trying to pull her away. “Screen off.” She looked to Baxter. “By the way, sir, congratulations on the promotion.”
“That was years ago,” Baxter said, stepping forward to shake J’hana’s hand. “But thanks for keeping up.”
“It’s been a long time,” Peterman said, looking over Baxter’s shoulder with skepticism at the Andorian. “Where have you been keeping yourself?”
“On Andor, mostly,” J’hana said. “Serving on the police force, managing my fwarking cursed family.” She turned toward the viewport to watch the stars streaking by. “I have had cause to travel on occasion, however.”
“Well that’s nice,” replied Peterman.
“I heard about the Explorer. I thought I would come and see its destruction.”
“You could have called someone,” Baxter said. “There was no reason to sneak aboard.”
“How the heck did you do that, anyway?” replied Peterman.
J’hana turned an icy stare on Peterman. “Some things are best left unknown.”
Before anyone could speak on that, J’hana continued.
“You’re probably wondering why I left Starfleet twelve years ago.”
“The thought had crossed my mind,” Baxter said.
“Suffice it to say, my heart was broken in several places, and slightly charred in others. The Explorer was just a reminder of my heartbreaks.”
“Plural?” asked Peterman. “As in more than one?”
“Tilleran, you know about,” J’hana said, turning back to look at the stars. “But…there is another.”
“KITTY?” demanded Richards, aghast, slamming back onto his couch.
“That’s what J’hana said,” Baxter said, bracing himself against Richards’s desk, Peterman beside him.
“She wouldn’t say much more. Only that she spent two years tracking her,” added Peterman.
“I thought Kitty disappeared from the ship shortly after Ardek escaped,” Richards said. “Without a trace.”
“She made contact with J’hana, apparently, about two years later.”
“During the Gorn skirmishes,” Richards said, rubbing his chin. “The Explorer was on patrol in the Kiaga sector most of that time. That was just before J’hana left unexpectedly. And now it turns out she left to track my other daughter?”
“And felt no need to tell you about it,” Peterman said. “Which makes me question if we can trust anything she has to say to us.”
“What reason would she have to lie?” asked Baxter.
“I want to know what Kitty said or did when she contacted J’hana that made her leave the ship.”
“I can guess a few of the things she did,” Peterman said, wrinkling her nose. “Andorian mating is so…freaky.”
“That android was violated by James Kirk,” Richards said. “Kitty is no stranger to bizarre sex. I’m more concerned about where Kitty is now.”
“So’s J’hana,” Baxter said. “She seems to think Kitty’s going to do something to prevent us from scuttling the original Explorer.”
“But…why?” asked Richards.
“Anything from a loyalty to the ship she served on for three years, to loyalty to Ardek.”
“Who is probably mixed up in this too,” said Baxter. “It may not have been a good idea to plan on having the event in the Veltran system, so close to the Bermuda Expanse. Who knows what that Romulan bastard has planned.”
“After all this time?” asked Richards. “He’s probably in a mental institution by now.”
“That hardly means he’s not a threat,” muttered Baxter.
“We should cancel the decommissioning,” said Peterman.
“NO!” snapped Baxter, whirling to face Peterman. “I’m not postponing this. The band-aid has to be ripped off quickly, or not at all. The event proceeds. However…” He slapped his combadge. “Baxter to bridge.”
“Captain, there are some…things you should be made aware of.”
“So you’re in love.” Browning sat opposite Plato in the tiny, enclosed travelcar which bumped quickly along the massive GuinanCo FunMall, overlooking six levels of shopping paradise, where the Explorer-A’s 1900 officers and crew could shop with unbridled abandon.
Plato stared out the window, looking down at the Shoe Hut. Looked like they were having a sidewalk sale. He thought about diverting some security there. “Yeah, I’m in love.”
Browning took that in, seemed to accept it. “Well, have you told her?”
“Not in so many words.”
“Plato, how long has this been going on?”
“About two years. Since I went to the Starfleet Academy/Britain Girl’s School scrimmage and saw her there.”
“Well, she’s flexible. You’re VERY flexible. I guess I can see the attraction.” Browning grinned. “Your father apparently has a thing for human women too.”
“She’s wonderful, Mom. But what must Uncle Andy think of me?”
“He’s probably just confused. He thinks of you as a son. And now his son is boinking his daughter.”
“Thanks for putting it so gently, mom.”
“Don’t mention it. Anyway, Andy’ll come around. He always has managed to adjust to absurdity. That’s why he’s so good at his job.”
“This’s unacc’ptable. Is’t?” Larkin said, pounding the conference room table. Her fist went right through. Conway slid backward in his chair, away from the debris.
“Your contraction program is malfunctioning,” Richards said, stepping closer to her. “Let me have a look.”
“Th’ts NOT necess’ary,” replied Larkin. She cocked her head. “There. That is much better. Why would J’hana not have told us about this until now?”
No one seemed to have an answer.
“Shame,” replied Peterman finally, leaning over the conference table.
“Shame about what?” asked Baxter.
“No, she’s ashamed,” Peterman said. “J’hana objectified Kitty in every way a woman can objectify another woman. Used her as the sextoy she was meant, by Henricks, to be. Don’t you see?”
Conway rubbed his eyes. “No.”
“J’hana found her true love on that ship,” Peterman said. “On the FIRST Explorer. It was Tilleran. Tilleran left. Along comes Kitty. Blammo.”
“By ‘Blammo,’ I guess you mean sex?” Baxter asked.
“Or something to that effect,” replied Peterman. “Whatever the case, J’hana’s obviously quite obsessed with finding Kitty and…”
“And either disassembling her or seducing her,” Larkin said quite suddenly.
“Either way, it might be for the best,” said Baxter. “If indeed Kitty plans to sabotage the scuttling.”
“How can you sabotage an event that is geared toward destroying a starship?” questioned Richards.
Everyone pondered that. Finally, Baxter snapped his fingers.
“You make sure the starship DOESN’T get destroyed.”
“Then our task is simple,” Captain Larkin said. “We ensure that the Explorer gets blown to bits, and make sure J’hana gets the counseling she requires.” Larkin looked to Peterman. “Our counseling staff are at your disposal, Kelly. Fill them in with what you know about J’hana. Her treatment is at your discretion.”
“Thanks, I think,” said Peterman.
“I’ll help,” Richards said quickly.
“Of course, Father,” said Larkin.
“Hmm,” pondered Peterman. “It’s been a while since I practiced.”
“I’m sure you couldn’t be any worse than you were,” muttered Conway.
“All right, all right, let’s try to be civil,” Baxter said, then thought better of it. “Actually, it’s kind of nice to know that the more things change…”
“We get it,” Larkin snapped. “At any rate, should we locate Kitty…I will take responsibility for…disarming her. Literally, if necessary.”
“And if we should run across Ardek,” Baxter said, cracking his knuckles. “I’ll take care of him.”
“How?” Peterman asked, casting Baxter a dangerous look.
Baxter shrugged meekly. “By reporting him to the appropriate authorities, naturally.”
The Explorer-A swung on a wing into the Veltran system, alighting near the swarm of vessels and interconnecting docking arms, extending from multiple joined saucers that was, in all its complexity, Waystation.
Four saucers longways, three stretching out horizontally, and ships parked all about. Waystation’s crew once thought the place was gridlocked, and no matter how many times it was renovated, space travelers filled in to take up the new-found space.
Baxter wondered what the attraction was, briefly, as he stood on the bridge beside Larkin’s command chair, watching the massive station loom into view on the main screen.
“Mister Plato, contact Waystation and advise them of our arrival,” Larkin said, pivoting to her right to face Plato at the large, curved tactical console that took up the whole right-side bridge wall.
Plato waved his hand over a control. “Captain Morales welcomes us to Waystation. We’ve been assigned to Port 32.”
“Ensign Gale, take us there, one quarter impulse,” Larkin ordered.
“This is where it all started,” Baxter said softly, as the Explorer-A weaved around smaller ships and made its way to the appropriate docking port.
“Your sense of melodrama never fails,” Conway griped from beside Baxter. “You could have held this gig at Earth and saved us all a trip all the way out here.”
As the Multeks opened their borders and that area of space became more secure and better-explored, Waystation became less of a frontier outpost and more of a boomtown. But it was still off the beaten path, especially to Conway, who tended to be Earth-bound.
Clusters of small Federation transports and freighters gave way on the viewscreen to a trio of Romulan Warbirds, pointed and green, feathers inscribed on their arched, looping wings.
“I don’t want to hear any complaints,” Baxter muttered, folding his arms. “The Federation is trying to woo the Romulans into a full-blown alliance, and this is yet another opportunity for us to cozy up with them. Sure, it was a Romulan who threatened us with takeover, gambling, kidnaping, mass destruction and other assorted unpleasantness, but that fact can’t stand in the way of progress, RIGHT?”
“I’d almost think you don’t trust the Romulans,” Conway muttered.
“Your keen sense of observation hasn’t dulled over the years, Commodore,” Baxter muttered as the Explorer plugged on past the warbirds, toward one of Waystation’s portside docking arms. Ensign Gale pulled the Explorer-A swiftly up against the proper port, right alongside…
And Conway, Baxter, and Larkin gasped.
On the viewscreen, gleaming and graceful as ever, was U.S.S. Explorer. The first one. Docked, with maintenance drones orbiting it, doing last minute checks on the explosives imbedded in her hull.
Her windows, engines, and deflector were dark. Still, Baxter, Larkin, and Conway gasped.
“She’s as beautiful as the day she was launched,” Baxter said, his eyes watering.
Larkin’s eyes too were filling with green fluid. “It will be a shame to obliterate her.”
“You guys are getting way too sentimental in your old age,” muttered Conway. “It’s just a ship. She’s past her prime. It’s time to sink ‘er.”
Baxter glared at Conway. “Sure you don’t want to have a good cry before we do this, Commodore?”
“Cry? That’s a laugh.”
“It will make you feel better,” said Larkin. “Believe me.”
“You all are full of crap,” Conway said, and turned on a heel, leaving the bridge.
“He’s going off to cry,” Baxter told Larkin.
“Undoubtedly,” Larkin nodded.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
In her khaki civilian garb, Ariel Tilleran crossed in front of the viewscreen on the bridge of the U.S.S. Aerostar-A as it glided into the Veltran system, coming out of warp just in front of Waystation.
Captain Zachary Ford sat in the command chair, tapping the chair-arms lightly. “This isn’t one of those telepathy things, is it?”
Tilleran whirled. “Yes, it’s one of those ‘telepathy things.’”
Ford chuckled. “You know, Ariel, you never change.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ford cleared his throat. “I really don’t know. Look, don’t you want to go freshen up or something before the big show?”
“We’ve got four hours.”
“Four hours,” said Ford. “Just enough time for you to test-drive a classic model ‘Z’ Ford–”
Tilleran was instantly on top of Ford, smothering his mouth with her hand. “You shut up, you insufferable little prick! I didn’t like listening to your crap 20 years ago, and I don’t like it now, got it?”
Ford nodded at Tilleran. “G-glad to see that motherhood has softened you somewhat.”
“Every day’s a gift,” Tilleran said lightly, then turned back to the viewscreen. Aerostar was weaving its way back to one of the auxiliary docking ports.
“Ensign Darn, give us a spot right next to the Explorer. Both of them,” Ford told his helmsman, a helmeted, armored Breen, who acknowledged with a nodd and a “GRARTZ” sound.
“So what were you saying about a ‘bad feeling’?” Ford asked, looking up at Tilleran with narrowed eyes.
Tilleran shook her head. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
Captain Baxter stepped out of the turbolift tube and immediately was taken back by the vastness of ops.
In the old days, Waystation’s operation center was crewed by three to five officers at best. Now that this end of the galaxy was more heavily trafficked, and Waystation had become much more of a hub of activity, its operations center was now expanded to two levels, and was far larger. The antiquated former spinning restaurant that once served as Ops was now in a museum on Ceti Alpha Five.
“Welcome aboard, Captain,” said Captain Walter Morales, stepping down the stairway leading from his office and walking up to shake Baxter’s hand. He almost recoiled. He was still used to the bitter, sardonic treatment he received from…
“Beck,” Baxter said, glancing over Morales’s shoulder, ignoring the captain’s offer of a handshake.
Lisa Beck stood behind Morales, eyebrow cocked sarcastically. “Admiral.”
“Admiral,” Baxter replied, sidestepping Morales. “I trust you were able to handle the labor dispute in the Triad Sector.”
“Yep. How about that recent Dawg incursion?”
Baxter smiled. “The Pathfinder took care of that. It was nothing to bark home about.”
“Indeed,” Beck said dryly. She turned to Morales, who looked a bit off-put. “Me and Captain Morales here were just going over old times.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, nodding and grinning. “Those great old times. Uh, which old times exactly?”
“Nothing that would interest you, I’m sure,” Beck said, exchanging a knowing glance with Morales. She looked back at Baxter. “Sorry to hear about the Explorer’s decommissioning. I know you fought it tooth and nail.”
“You bet I fought it. Why is it Command had to wait 15 years to tell me that the Explorer was actually a refit of a 10- year old Galaxy-class ship? Command has an annoying way of sitting on important information for long periods of time. One of these days it’s going to cause the end of the universe, I just know it.”
Beck and Morales once again traded glances. Morales stared at his shoes. Beck rubbed her eyes. “You never know, Admiral. You just never know.”
Baxter grunted. “Hmph. And 34 still isn’t that old for a starship, relatively. But apparently Explorer was put through one too many battles, and apparently Ford drove her too hard, and–”
”–and you crashed it into a planet,” Beck interrupted.
“For the umpteenth time, that planet formed around us!” Baxter snapped. “Anyways, that ship’s in as good a shape as the day she first left port. But no, the way has to be cleared for the Explorer-A! La dee DA!”
Beck stared numbly at Baxter. “As I recall, it was you who proposed that Starfleet comission an Explorer-A.”
Baxter slammed his fist into his palm. “Yes, but no one told me about that stupid ‘two ships of the same name can’t serve in the fleet at the same time’ rule. Who the hell came up with that! Huh?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Beck muttered. She turned toward the turbolift and punched the call button. “However, we have Romulan guests waiting below decks and the Bolian pate is getting cold. Shall we?” She gestured regally for Baxter to follow her into the opening turbolift doors.
“Sure,” Baxter said mildly. He was not at all interested in meeting the Romulan contingent. He wanted this whole ordeal overwith as soon as possible, and he certainly didn’t want the Romulans peeking in on it. Not that he had anything against the Romulans, per se, or Starfleet’s overtures to strengthen the current alliance. There was talk of them even becoming Federation members. Not in 100 years, Baxter thought.
He didn’t trust the Romulans. Call it immature, but Baxter had a bad taste for Romulans ever since Ardek. Kind of the way Alvin Ficker led him to distrust anyone wearing glasses. That’s probably why he never did care for that Betazoid, Jad Vorezze. Baxter idly wondered what ever became of old Jad.
Baxter had plenty of time to think on the turbolift ride to deck 90, section 33, arm 5. Beck wasn’t exactly a fountain of conversation. Baxter took a measure of satisfaction from knowing she was no more happy to be around him than he was with her. There was a comfort to that kind of relationship.
They reached the door to the reception room, and Commander Tina Jones was waiting there, hand resting on her sidearm.
“Admirals,” she said, bowing slightly. “Good to see you both.”
“Status?” Baxter asked crisply.
“The room is secure. No weapons on the Romulans. Food Service is ready to begin serving appetizers.”
“Great,” said Beck. “Let’s go meet the guests.”
“Try to be nice,” Baxter mumbled.
“I’m ALWAYS nice,” grumbled Beck, and Jones stepped aside to allow them through. “By the way, Tina, how are you taking to security?”
“I see to the needs of the people coming and going, make sure everyone is satisfied and well-behaved. It’s a lot like the liaison business, only I get a phaser.”
“Sounds like you’re very fulfilled.”
“Yep,” Tina grinned.
Baxter led the way into the room, and at the center, a cadre of Romulans were looking about with great interest at their surroundings. One, in particular, in civilian dress, was studying the buffet table, his back to Baxter.
Immediately, a tall, lean Romulan woman was upon him, wearing a dignitary’s sash. The face was vaguely familiar.
“Admiral Baxter. It has been a while.”
“Do I know you?” asked Baxter.
“Yes, in fact. I am Proconsul Gatana.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“How about Commander Gatana?”
Baxter snapped his fingers. “Yes! You were Ardek’s right-hand woman!”
Gatana fumbled with her fingers. “Well, yes.”
“Isn’t that a hoot.” Baxter rested his hands on his hips. “Did you hear that, Lisa?” he asked Beck. “Good old Gatana.”
“Yes, isn’t that something,” muttered Beck.
“Well.” Baxter stood there awkwardly. “Well, it’s wonderful to see you.”
“Likewise,” Gatana said dryly. After a moment, she said, “Why don’t I introduce you to our newly-appointed Ambassador to the Federation?”
“Yes, grand,” Baxter muttered as Gatana tapped the Romulan with his back turned.
“Ambassador?” she asked.
And he turned. And Baxter shrieked.
“Way to play it cool,” whispered Beck, and extended her hand. Thank goodness Baird wasn’t there. He’d been wanting to ring Ardek’s neck ever since the Romulan kidnapped him and put him on a reality vid series 20 years ago. Baird still brought it up to that day. “Ambassador Ardek,” said Beck, “I’m charmed.” She could barely hold back the giggles.
“Suffice it to say, my meal was RUINED!” Baxter grumbled, sitting on the couch in his admiralty quarters on Explorer-A.
“I can imagine,” said Peterman, running a hand over his bald head (he’d deactivated the holoemitter, as one might slip off his shoes after a hard day). “What did you do about him?”
“I did nothing. I shook the pointy-eared bastard’s hand and sat down and ate grilled gehlat with him.”
“Well, was the gehlat good, at least?”
“It was magnificent, but that’s not the point.” Baxter squirmed against Peterman’s shoulder. “I stared over my fork at that son of a bitch for an hour and a half. We never traded a single word. He just grinned at me, evilly. Knowingly.”
Peterman nodded. “He’s got something planned. We’ve got to tell Larkin.”
“I’ve already told her. She spent an hour ranting in her readyroom.”
“I bet.” Peterman blinked. “Wait. You went to Larkin before coming to me about it? Boy, you’re right, we have been losing touch lately.”
“I never said that.”
“Oh. I must have just been thinking it.”
“Wait one damn minute…”
“So, you talked to Larkin.”
“It was a command thing.” Baxter shook his head. “There’s nothing we can do. Gatana is Proconsul, and Ardek’s an Ambassador. We have to play along. Starfleet is extremely invested in getting the Romulans into the fold. We’re still rebuilding from the Gorn and Yridian disasters. The last thing we need is trouble on the Romulan front. We need all the friends we can get.”
“Friends like Ardek?”
“Strange bedfellows…” Baxter muttered, and looked down at the floor. “But I don’t like it. Not one bit.”
“Did you get some idea as to how he made it from whacko to dignitary?”
Baxter shrugged. “Apparently the Romulans are really big on their rehab programs. They put Ardek into rigorous counseling fifteen years ago. Since then, he’s been working on self esteem and social skills. Supposedly they even managed to rid him of the silly urge to conquer the universe and entertain people. But I hear his singing voice isn’t what it used to be.”
“That’s a shame.” Peterman thought a moment. “Have you tried filing a protest?”
Baxter turned to Peterman and gripped her hands. “Honey, I’ve never told you this. But I’ve discovered something since I joined the admiralty. No one reads the protests. They’re just for show.”
“So, there’s nothing you can do but kiss up to Ardek and show him a good time.”
“No, kiss up I won’t do. I put Ford in charge of him.”
“Oh, Ford’ll love that.”
Baxter nodded. “Indeed. That way, with him shacked up on the Aerostar-A, we don’t have to worry about him trying to nab Larkin or get some kind of twisted revenge on me. And Tilleran’s there to keep an eye, or a mind, rather, on him.”
“Good thinking. Make him someone else’s problem.”
Baxter folded his arms. “Precisely. This ceremony will go off without a hitch. Ardek doesn’t have a shot at ruining this thing. By the way…any progress counseling J’hana?”
“I can’t even get her to come out of her quarters.”
Meanwhile, over on the Aerostar, Ariel Tilleran lay comatose in a maintenance closet, victim of very, very, very bad Romulan salmon loaf.
“All Hands: This is Captain Ford. I’m pleased to announce that the original Explorer will be detonated in thirty minutes. Find a good seat next to a viewport. I hear they’re using tri-cobalt. The explosion’s going to be a doozy!”
Oh, and by the way…Ambassador Ardek, please report to the bridge. I’ve called your quarters three times, and there was no response. We can’t even detect your life signs, which is starting to make me very suspicious. Oh well. Captain Ford out.”
J’hana stumbled down the corridor through the Aerostar. The cry in her mind woke her from her nap. A shriek that shook her right to the core of her brain, then abruptly ended. It was her Imzadi. After 20 years, their bond was as strong as ever.
J’hana had beamed over immediately, concentrated on the faint pulse in her mind that sent her down a corridor on deck 10.
She stopped at a Janitorial closet.
“This makes no sense,” she muttered, hitching up her Stov’xxx the Slayer jammie pants. She punched a control on the janitorial door and Tilleran slumped out into her arms, out like a light.
“MEDIC!” J’hana cried. “Where is a sickbay on this cursed ship!”
Admiral Baxter and Captain Larkin leaned over the railing that used to surround Explorer’s warp core, which now was just a vacant space.
“Looks kind of empty without the warp core, doesn’t it, sir?” asked Larkin.
Baxter nodded. “This whole place looks empty.” He turned to look out over the cavernous engine room, stripped of many of its panels and controls, dim but for the light from emergency light strips along the floor-level. “It’s just so…empty.” He turned back to face the empty space where the warp core once was. “I can’t believe I could just reach out and touch… nothing.” He reached his hand out, and with a CLANG it painfully slammed into something very very hard. Thin air.
“WHAT THE HELL?” demanded Baxter.
Larkin narrowed her eyes. “I am performing a multispectral scan now.”
Larkin thunked noisily at the empty space. “Sir…there is a warp core here. Of Romulan design. Cloaked, I would guess.”
Baxter slapped his combadge. “Baxter to Explorer!”
Larkin looked to Baxter, traded an uneasy glance with him. “Larkin to Explorer. Larkin to Aerostar.”
Baxter raised an eyebrow. “Baxter to Waystation?”
“Are you thinking what I am, sir?” Larkin asked.
“Unless you’re thinking ‘Ardek,’ no,” said Baxter, and the two raced to the exit of engineering, and Baxter slammed right into Chris Richards coming around the bend.
“Guys?” Richards asked.
“Chris,” said Baxter. “What are you doing here?”
“Same as you two,” Richards said, rubbing his head. “I was her captain once, too.”
“Have you seen anything out of the ordinary in your walk through the corridors, Father?” asked Larkin.
“Nope. Should I have?”
“YES! YESSS YESSS YESSSSSSSSSSS!” cried a voice orgasmically, booming all around the group, over the comm, deafeningly.
“That wasn’t the computer,” Richards muttered.
“ARDEK!” Baxter cried out. “DAMN YOU, SHOW YOURSELF!”
“Wouldn’t you love that. Wouldn’t you just love to sick your all-powerful android on me! Hah! I know her strengths. I am not stupid. But I had never planned on having you all aboard. That’s an unexpected bonus! How sweet! You’ll all be coming with me!”
“Why go through all the trouble of taking the Explorer?” Baxter asked. “You easily could have hijacked any of those Romulan ships you brought with you!”
“Well, they’re nice, but they don’t understand me. Just some rebels that weren’t happy with the idea of the Romulan/Federation alliance. They aren’t at all interested in where I want to go, and besides, it only fits that the Explorer be my way back, back to where I can really make a DIFFERENCE!”
“Where?” demanded Larkin angrily.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Ardek shot back.
Baxter shrugged. “Should it be?”
Commodore Conway paced the bridge of the Explorer-A. “It’s almost time,” he muttered. “Where are our guests of honor?”
“Lwaxana Troi, Worf, and Q are all enjoying appetizers down in the lounge,” Plato said from tactical.
“You know that’s not who I was talking about,” said Conway. “Where are Richards, Larkin…Baxter?”
Just then, Stephanie Baxter skipped out of the aft turbolift. “Hey, guys, have you seen my Dad?”
Plato grinned. “We were about to ask you, beautiful.” Steffie stepped up to the tactical array to wrap her arms around Plato.
“Haven’t seen him,” Stephanie said. “But I know my cabin’s free at the moment.”
“We’re about to destroy the ship you grew up on,” Conway muttered. “The least you could do is sit around and watch for a few minutes before you gallivant off to play with your flexible friend.”
“Who’s got an attitude problem today?” asked Stephanie.
“I have a class to get back to,” Conway muttered, and collapsed into the raised command chair. “I just want to get this overwith.”
“As do we all,” Kelly Peterman said, as she and Browning stepped out of the foreward turbolift. Raymond Peterman followed behind.
“Where’s Andy?” asked Browning.
“No one seems to know,” Conway said, folding his arms. He swiveled the command chair around to the expansive science array. “Lieutenant Tezmat, why don’t you shed some light on this?”
The female Bewhal science officer, who’d been male a couple weeks ago, checked her scans.
“No sign of them on this ship,” she replied quickly. “Let me try the Aerostar. Nope. No good.”
Peterman crossed the oval bridge to peer over Tezmat’s console. “Try the original Explorer. Andy and the others probably got nostalgic.”
“Nothing,” replied Tezmat. “I can’t locate a thing over there. Wait…wait, I just got a power spike.”
“A power spike?” Conway shoved off the command chair and walked over. “That’s impossible. The thing has been stripped of every gelpack and power cell. Let me see those read– what the hell?”
“What the hell indeed, Commodore,” Plato said, looking over his scans as Stephanie Baxter looked on with concern. “Explorer just powered up her engines. She’s getting underway!”
“What?” demanded Conway. He crossed to the other side of the bridge. “Let me see that. And why is this bridge so damn big? It takes forever to get from one station to the next!!”
Peterman followed Conway. “Commodore, as the ranking officer aboard, wouldn’t it be prudent if you ordered a pursuit course to follow the other Explorer?”
“Not an altogether idiotic idea,” replied Conway, looking over Plato’s scans. “Looks like they’re heading for…f***…the Bermuda Expanse.” He glanced at the viewscreen as the old Galaxy-class ship darted toward the Bermuda Expanse. “Ensign Gale,” he commanded. “Pursuit course, maximum impulse!”
“Explorer…” came Admiral Beck’s annoyed voice over the comm. “What the hell is going on over there? Where’s that ship off to? And how the hell is it even MOVING?”
“I’ll get back to you,” muttered Conway. “Plato, tractor beam.”
“Commodore Conway!” Ford broke in on the viewscreen. “We have a situation here. Someone poisoned the hell out of Tilleran. Ardek’s nowhere to be found, J’hana’s ragefully trashing Sickbay, and the Explorer just took off for the Bermuda Expanse. WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?”
“Ford,” Conway snapped. “Your line here is ‘we stand ready to assist you.’”
Ford straightened on the viewscreen, as crewmen scrambled around the Aerostar-A’s bridge. “Commodore, we stand ready to assist you.”
“Good. Then assist! Lock tractors on the Explorer–” Conway turned to Plato.
“Perhaps the Romulans can shed some light on this,” suggested Peterman.
”–and get me the Romulans on the f***ing viewscreen!”
Plato’s eyes went wide. “Sir, we’re getting a response from the Romulans all right…”
The Explorer-A rattled as a blast from somewhere slammed into it.
“Reactive shields are up, down to 140 percent!” Plato called out.
“Any questions as to whose side the Romulans are on?” Conway demanded, glaring at Peterman and marching back to the command chair. “Good. Send to Ford: Run interference with the Romulans. We’re going after the Explorer. Tell Admiral Beck to extend Waystation’s shields to protect the civilian ships. Damn it feels good to command again!”
Explorer-A sailed after Explorer-Nothing as Romulan fire seared the starscape beside them, Aerostar-A swinging in behind them, running interference. The Aerostar broke into its three component ships and rained fire down on the Romulan ships. Ford liked the multi-vector assault mode a hell of a lot more than Conway ever did.
“Sir, message coming through from Romulus,” said Plato as stray weapons fire from the Romulans slammed into the Explorer- A. “They regret that their diplomatic vessels have suffered massive singularity breaches and cannot make it to the ceremony.”
“I thought something smelled fishy!” Browning said, bracing against a railing.
“So who the hell is firing on us?” demanded Conway. “And why the hell aren’t our tractors stopping Explorer?”
“I can’t explain how…” Plato said helplessly. “She’s put up rotating polymorphic shields. There’s nothing for me to grab on to.”
“Tezmat,” Conway called out. “Tell me the Bermuda Expanse is definitely inert.”
“It has been for 15 years,” Tezmat said. “Of course, since the Aerostar plunged through under your command, no one’s bothered to dive in. All our information is based on scans and probes and–”
“So you’re not sure if that thing still leads to the Delta Quadrant?” Conway bellowed.
“Nothing is certain, sir, I–”
“Nearing Bermuda Expanse perimeter,” Ensign Gale said, turning in her chair to face Conway. “Do we stop?”
She was at least a little more polite about it than Ford ever was.
Conway watched the original Explorer dive into the Bermuda Expanse.
“Conway!” shrieked Peterman. “That’s my husband in there!”
Steffie grabbed Plato’s arm. “Do something, Commodore!”
“Sir?” asked Gale.
“Yes, damn it. Take us in!”
Ford held fast to the command chair as Aerostar bucked and tumbled around the three dancing Romulan ships on the viewscreen. Through it all, he saw both Explorers dive into the Bermuda Expanse.
“Is Conway crazy?” Ford demanded as explosions sounded all around.
“Shields down to 79 percent!” Lt. Commander Unlathi growled as they pawed at the tactical controls with its tentacles.
“Are WE crazy?” Ford demanded. “Send the other two component ships around behind. Divert all power to forward shields.”
Ford stepped up to the helm control. “Ensign Darn. Step aside.”
“BARARZTZ-ZARZ-BARG-ZARZT?” clanged the Breen.
“That’s right, Ensign. It’s time for the Ford Maneuver.”
“Will they ever learn?” Admiral Beck asked sardonically, watching the mayhem on the viewscreen as the Aerostar-A bungled with the Romulan vessels and as the Explorers disappeared within the Bermuda Expanse.
“Twenty years,” Captain Morales said, stepping up beside Beck. “Twenty years and it’s all exactly the same.”
“Why does this feel like a repeating bad dream?”
“It’s not a dream, sir, it’s real. I assure you.”
“Then why do I feel so disoriented?”
Morales put a hand on Beck’s shoulder. “I suppose dating is still out of the question?”
With immense android strength, Larkin pried open the Jeffries tube access hatch. “This will get us through to the crawlways leading up through the ship,” she said. “All we’ve got to do is–”
Her arm knocked up against a blistering green forcefied.
“Ardek’s locked off the rest of the ship,” Richards mumbled.
“There must be a way around that,” said Baxter, looking to Larkin.
“There is, but it would mean one of us walking along the outside of the hull.”
Richards and Baxter exchanged glances.
“And which of us is most suited for that?” Baxter asked, though it was a totally rhetorical question.
Mounted on top of the comatose Betazoid, J’hana pounded fiercely on Tilleran’s chest. “Damn you, Ariel! You will live! You hear me? You will live!”
“Ma’am,” said the nurse, hiding behind a biobed. “Ma’am! There’s nothing wrong with her chest!”
J’hana turned on the smallish nurse. “Damn you to zhiiizrot then, why will you not help her?”
“You’ve been trashing this place since you dragged her in! You knocked Doctor Tull out cold!”
“He was being insolent!” screamed J’hana. “And you…what was your name again?”
“Darlene, that’s a beautiful name you have there.” J’hana outstretched a hand behind hte biobed. “What’s say we help Tilleran together?”
“Are you flirting with me?”
“DAMN YOU, NO! HELP THE BETAZOID OR DIE!”
Nurse Potemkin nodded fearfully. “Right. Let me just grab a hypospray…”
“Can someone fill me in?” Captain Craig Porter, head of Starfleet Science’s Temporal Physics Division, asked, stepping out onto Ops. “My transport arrived ten minutes ago, the shields went up, people started panicking and running about like targs with their heads cut off…what in the world is going on?”
Morales shook his head. “Admiral Beck and I are still just friends.”
“I mean what’s happening, you know, out there in space,” Porter asked.
Commander Sean Russell sighed and leaned against the docking console. “To put it briefly, the Aerostar-A is tangling with a cadre of rebellious Romulans, and both Explorers just took a dive into the Bermuda Expanse, minutes before the elder Explorer was scheduled to be scuttled.”
“Remind me to arrive at these events a little earlier,” Porter said, stepping up to the science console. “Are we even sure what the status of the Bermuda Expanse is?”
“Stable, as far as any of our scans have reported over the last ten years,” Captain Morales said.
“Well, one good thing,” Lt. Commander Tina Jones said, leaning on tactical. “The Romulans haven’t come at US yet.”
“Maybe they’ll conveniently leave us out of the mayhem this time,” Beck said with a satisfied grin. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Is it just me, or do you guys feel left out?” asked Russell.
“And does anyone know if Ariel Tilleran is attending?” Porter asked hopefully.
“My God man, must you always be thinking about dating?” demanded Morales.
“Well, it had to happen eventually. We’ve all gone senile,” sighed Admiral Beck.
“Polyphasic and reactive shields are useless,” Plato reported as the Explorer-A sailed through the Bermuda Expanse. “Targeting scanners are off-line. I can barely maintain a visual.”
“Helm is shaky,” chimed in Gale.
Browning and Peterman flanked Conway, who looked like “The Thinker” in the command chair. “Well,” said Conway. “What’s next?”
“We remain stuck in here until we can find a way to retake the Explorer,” said Plato.
“And who exactly is in charge of that?” Conway asked, glaring at Plato.
“Right.” Plato tapped a few controls. “A raceabout’s warming up in the main shuttlebay.” He tapped his combadge. “Security team to main shuttlebay. Prepare for extraction and removal.”
Conway settled back into the command chair. “That’s better.”
Browning ran to touch Plato’s arm affectionately as he set off for the turbolift. “Be CAREFUL, Plato!”
“Aw, Mom. I’ll be fine.”
Steffie raced after Plato into the turbolift, before Peterman could say a word to stop her.
Peterman and Browning exchanged glances.
“Kids,” they both said.
Larkin grappled along the Explorer’s neck, clinging despite the licks of gravitic waves and ionized plasma that slammed into her. She clung, crawling up toward a maintenance hatch, which she knew would get her into a tube that would lead to Ardek’s certain base of operations–the bridge.
Hair on end, in the cold of space, Larkin clambered up to the hatch and swung it open, swinging herself in.
She slammed the hatch closed and crawled along the Jefferies’ tube.
“Okay, Ardek, you piece of sh**. You’re mine!” she hissed.
Tilleran’s eyes fluttered open. “What the–” She smiled. “J’hana. Did we have a date tonight? In the Constellation Café? Isn’t Mirk making some of that special pasta?”
J’hana rubbed a hand along Tilleran’s forehead. “No, no, Ariel. No more Constellation Café. No more Mirk. It’s twenty years after that. Remember?”
“Vaguely,” Tilleran muttered, pushing up on her elbows. “The last thing I remember is sharing some salmon loaf with a couple Romulan dignitaries.”
“It was Ardek. He poisoned you. Nurse Potemkin over there had to replace some organs.”
Potemkin waved from a safe distance and Tilleran nodded. “Thanks.” She looked to J’hana. “So what’s happening now?”
“Ardek, and possibly Kitty, are trying to take over the Explorer, the original one, and take her back to the Delta Quadrant.”
“We can’t let that happen,” Tilleran said, and swung her legs around.
J’hana braced a hand on the Betazoid’s shoulder. “You are still weak.”
“Not too weak to help. Come on. You can carry me if necessary.”
“I certainly can.” J’hana hefted Tilleran in her arms. “To the bridge, then!”
“I was just speaking hypothetically!” protested Tilleran as J’hana hefted her, kicking, out of Sickbay.
“Another satisfied patient,” muttered Nurse Potemkin, as more blasts pounded the Aerostar-A.
Baxter and Richards paced the original Explorer’s engine compartment.
“I blame myself,” Baxter said, after minutes of silence.
“For what?” asked Richards.
“All of this.”
Richards stopped pacing. “And how’s that?”
“I had an opportunity to put an end to this. I could have programmed those Rednecks to kill Ardek.”
“True. But that wouldn’t be very Starfleet.”
“It’s not very Starfleet to have a Romulan diplomat hijack your old ship and send it careening toward the Delta Quadrant, you know!”
“You always did take everything so personally,” Richards said. “This has nothing to do with you, Andy. It’s just one mad Romulan’s quest for power. You don’t think I’ve felt powerless against Ardek? When he killed Larkin? When he had her programmed as a dancer on that gambling planet?”
Baxter cracked his knuckles. “So which of us gets to take him out?”
Richards cracked his knuckles too, but made a pained expression while doing it. “Ugh…um, whoever gets to him first.”
Baxter shook Richards’s freshly-cracked hand, and he looked even more pained. “Agreed.”
“Take me with you,” Steffie said, jogging after Plato as he headed down the corridor toward the main shuttlebay.
“Negative,” Plato said. “You stay here. You’re a civilian. Don’t get mixed up in this.”
“That’s my FATHER over there!”
“I’ll bring him back, Stef. You have my word.”
“That’s not good enough, Plato! I need to be there!”
Plato stopped, grabbed Steffie by the shoulders. “Stef, this isn’t your fight.”
“Damn right it is. Didn’t you hear me? That’s my DAD!”
“You’re not going to give in here, are you?”
“It’s against every regulation in the book…”
“Okay. Come on.”
Larkin kicked open the Jefferies’ tube door and rolled out into the captain’s ready room, ready for anything.
Kitty Larkin hovered over her, looking smug, dressed, unsurprisingly, in little tights. “Kristen. You should not have come.”
“Where’s Ardek?” Larkin demanded, rising to her feet.
“Nice contraction work,” Kitty said approvingly. “Master Ardek is out on the bridge. Speaking to the Critics about something or rather.”
“The Critics? You can’t be serious!”
“Of course I am serious, sister. Why would I not be?”
“You’ve got a capacity for good, Kitty. I’ve seen it. Don’t let Ardek manipulate you like this!”
“I am what I am, and that is all what I am. A famous Earth poet said that.” Kitty grabbed Larkin’s arm roughly. “Let us retire to the bridge. I think you will find that life in the Delta Quadrant will not be all that bad.”
“Over my reprogrammed CPU!”
“That, dear Larkin, is the idea!” Kitty shoved Larkin out on to the bridge, keeping careful grip on the android’s shoulders. The androids were of exact equal strength, so Larkin could not break free. She saw Ardek turn in the command chair, putting his back to a pair of smugly smiling lips.
“Ahhhh!” Ardek exclaimed. “Look at what the ‘cat’ dragged in!”
“Didn’t see that one coming,” muttered Larkin.
“Thanks for joining us,” said Ardek. “We’re now truly reunited. Just in time to be brought back into the Critics’ fold!”
<Reunited, cause it feels so good,> sang the pair of lips.
Larkin grimaced at the pair of lips. “And what, exactly, did you do to distract the Directors? Why aren’t they stopping you?”
<We found a way to get their attention,> the Critic chanted. <A way that is certain to keep their attention!>
The eyeball sat opposite Megan Hartley, squinting at her in the vacillating mood lighting.
<Megan, is that your final answer?>
“Yes, the Explorer was launched in 2374, I’m sure of it.”
<You’re sure you don’t want to phone a friend?>
“I’m sure,” Megan said, and looked to Mirk, who at present was in his normal Maloxian form, sitting in an audience of Delta Quadrant aliens. He grinned and gave her “thumbs up.”
<Good work! That’s good for 10,000 shalnox!> the eyeball said. <Which, incidentally, is the currency of choice in the Darvnal system, somewhere in the Delta Quadrant.>
“Been there, done that,” sighed Megan. “You know, it was nice of the Critics to suggest this game. It’s a nice way to spend eternity.”
<Next question,> said the eyeball, all business. <For 20,000 shalnox. Former Explorer Captain Andy Baxter’s favorite fruit is…
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” shrilled Hartley. “This is too easy!”
“It’s happening,” Browning said worriedly, overlooking the science console. “Space is warping around the Explorer!”
“The other one or this one?” demanded Conway.
“The other one!” cried Browning.
Conway slammed a button on the command chair. “Conway to raceabout Champlain! Get them out of there!”
“We’re boarding now, Commodore!” called out Stephanie Baxter.
Peterman blinked. “STEPHANIE IRENE BAXTER!”
“Sorry, Mom! We’ll be back soon.”
Raymond Baxter sighed and sat down in a chair beside the command chair. “My sister gets to do all the cool stuff. All I do is go to book signings.”
“Get her back!” Peterman demanded.
“We’re doing everything we can, Peterman, so muzzle it,” muttered Conway, and Peterman jerked him out of the command chair and slammed him into the deck.
“This isn’t getting your husband or your daughter back, you fool!” Conway cried as Peterman jumped on top of him and slammed his head into the deck.
“Do you know how long I’ve wanted to do this, Conway?” demanded Peterman.
“It’s happening!” shrieked Ardek and he stepped forward on the bridge as the Explorer shook and rattled. The old viewscreen crackled as light ane energy played across it. “Hope I still have friends in high places over there in the Delta Quadrant!”
“You cannot do this!” cried Captain Larkin. “You will never succeed. The Directors won’t let you. The WRITERS won’t let you!”
“The ‘Writers’ will never know what hit them. They’ll be so entertained by this they’ll be powerless to stop us!”
The pair of lips nodded excitedly. <This is OUR time to shine, baby!>
“And what exactly do you plan on doing once you get back to the Delta Quadrant?” asked Larkin, struggling in Kitty’s grasp.
“The Critics are still powerful. I can worm my way back into a position of power. It may take a long time, but believe me, it will happen. It may start with a small base of followers, but I assure you, it will go well!”
“You must not be allowed to succeed,” Larkin seethed.
“At this point, you don’t have much choice in the matter,” muttered Ardek. “However, I am glad to have you along. It’ll make the trip much more entertaining. After I program all that righteousness out of you.”
“Okay, best two out of three. If I win, I get to take out Ardek. One two three…” Baxter held out a pointed hand, the phaser. “Phaser obliterates rock!” he cried. “Yay me!”
“Damn it!” cursed Richards. “The rock is useless!”
“You finally realized,” giggled Baxter, just as, with a blast, the bulkhead beside them caved in and Plato charged out, Steffie and ten security officers at his side, phaser rifles at the ready.
Plato held out a spare rifle. “Andy, you ready to go find Ardek and get the hell out of here?”
Baxter grabbed the rifle and inclined his head toward the turbolift doors. “You could have used the turbolift, Plato.”
“We have no time to argue over my methods. I knocked out the shield generators in this area. Come on!”
Plato motioned Baxter and Richards down the hallway, and the group, en mass, headed after them.
Conway climbed out from under Peterman and struggled back into the command chair. “Kelly, you’re not going to like this, but I’ve got no choice but to detonate the Explorer.”
Peterman stood, hair a mess. “What the hell do you mean?”
“If we can’t keep them from going to the Delta Quadrant, we’ll have to blow the ship apart. We can’t risk being responsible for the quadrant getting overtaken by Ardek again.”
“Who even says that’s going to happen?”
“Who knows,” Conway said. “We can’t take that risk.”
“Ooh…” seethed Peterman. “You’re eating this up, aren’t you, you little toad!”
“Don’t be silly!”
“You’ve always wanted to blow up the captain!”
“That’s not true!”
“Just so you could weasel your way into my pants!”
Browning gasped. “Kelly, what in the hell has gotten into you?”
“Isn’t it obvious, Janice?” Peterman asked. “Conway has hated Andy since I can remember. And hated me to, or so he would have us believe.”
Conway grimaced. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Every marriage of his has failed, and you know why?” asked Peterman, circling Conway. “Because it hasn’t been with the one woman you truly love.” She folded her arms. “Me.”
Conway dropped to his knees. “She’s right, damn her, she’s right! All this time it’s always been Kelly. So sweet, so pure…so good with pets!”
Browning covered her face. “I don’t believe this.”
“It makes total sense,” Peterman said. “Sorry, Commodore, but I got a man.”
“Oh it’s so unfair!” Conway said, pounding the deck in agony.
“What about the whole thing with me?” asked Browning.
“Oh, I just wanted to make Kelly jealous, damn it!” moaned Conway. “It’s so terribly unfair!”
“Snap out of it!” Peterman said, dragging Conway to his feet. “You listen to me, you little worm, you will do what you can to save Andy and the others, or I swear I’ll kick you from here to Alpha Centauri!”
Conway saluted. “Right away! Ensign Messier,” he glanced at the replacement tactical officer. “Target quantum torpedoes on the Explorer. If we can’t blow her totally apart, we can blow her somewhat apart! That’ll stop her!”
Peterman sighed. “Lord, what have I done?”
Ardek stumbled as torpedoes pounded Explorer.
Kitty glanced at the tactical console, keeping one hand firmly gripped on Larkin’s arm. “Master Ardek, the newer Explorer is shooting us! We still are not through yet…they could knock us right out of our transwarp bubble!”
“Do they want to harm their precious fellow officers?” demanded Ardek. “Don’t they know that’s ludicrous!”
“Ardek, you must stand down,” demanded Larkin. “This ship is loaded down with tri-cobalt compound. If one of those torpedoes hits the wrong compartment, we’ll all get blown to smithereens!”
“Then what does the fool commander of that starship think he’s doing?”
“I wish I knew,” muttered Larkin. “One thing is for certain, if Conway feels he has no choice, he’ll detonate this ship with us aboard!”
“Bastard!” shrieked Ardek, just as the aft turbolift door blew open and Plato, Baxter, Richards, and Stephanie, flanked by guards, rushed out.
“This is it, Ardek!” Baxter cried, brandishing a phaser rifle. “No more chances!”
Kitty shoved Larkin to the floor and bulled her way into the group, slamming into security guards left and right, tossing them into bulkheads with apparent ease.
“Kitty, down! Bad Kitty!” cried Richards, swatting at her with his phaser rifle.
“Shoot her!” cried Baxter. “SHOOT HER!” That’s when Ardek rammed a fist into the base of Baxter’s skull and he lost consciousness.
“She’s halfway into the next quadrant,” Conway muttered, watching the Explorer list on the viewscreen, caught up in the Bermuda Expanse’ energies.
“What’s taking it so long?” asked Browning.
“The Critics must be shoving her through,” explained Conway. “Without the Directors’ assistance, it must be next to impossible.”
“But not impossible,” said Peterman.
“No, not impossible.” Conway punched a control on his armrest. A light reading “Detonate” lit. “I’m prepared to scuttle the Explorer. Now, before it’s too late.”
“Give them two more minutes to get off there,” said Peterman.
“We’ve lost contact with the away team,” Conway said, turning to Peterman in the command chair. “For all we know, they’re stranded there, and there’s just nothing we can do.”
“Who taught you to give up so quickly? Who taught you how to be such a mealy-mouthed worm?”
“Damn you, Conway!”
“I’ll blow him up right now if you don’t start showing me a little more respect!”
“Why are you such a bastard!”
“Cause I never get what I want!”
“Grow up, both of you!” cried Browning above the din of the pair’s shouting.
Baxter blinked and stumbled to his feet, the bridge floor pitching out from under him. He was still on the old Explorer. Richards, Plato, and Steffie surrounded him. Every other security guard had been mauled by Kitty.
“They were damn good supernumeraries,” muttered Plato, looking over the carnage. He turned to Baxter, holstering his phaser. “Are you okay, Andy? Can you travel?”
“Ardek…Kitty?” Baxter demanded, rubbing his eyes.
“They beamed away,” Richards said. “Took Larkin, too. Went to some other part of the ship. There’s no way to track them. The Critic disappeared with them.”
“We have to get out of here,” said Plato, and he looked over the tactical console, which had Romulan panels laid over it. “It appears Ardek somehow snuck engineers on this ship to install shield and engine and rudimentary control systems. Who the hell do they have working security at Waystation, anyway?”
Baxter cleared his throat. “A…uhm…veteran officer.”
“They installed powerful Romulan systems in here,” muttered Richards, “but they never bothered to UN-install the tri-cobalt explosives?”
Baxter shrugged. “Apparently.”
“Anyway,” said Plato. “Two possibilities lie in store for this ship–the Delta Quadrant, or oblivion. I’m not interested in either.”
“I want a shot at Ardek,” muttered Baxter. “He’s escaped one too many times. He’ll have a way off this ship, even if it doesn’t get to the Delta Quadrant.”
“We don’t have time to worry about that,” Plato said. “We have to LEAVE!”
“No.” Baxter said. “I have business to finish. There’s no way I’m going to let Ardek take Larkin, much less to the Delta Quadrant. The rest of you get back to the raceabout. Get the hell out of here.”
“This is as much my fight as yours, Andy,” Richards replied. “The fact that I lost the choose means nothing! That’s my DAUGHTER out there!”
“No more discussion.” Baxter looked about. “Baxter to Champlain. Three to beam out.”
“Three?” asked Plato. “Wait one–”
Baxter tapped a control on his combadge, deactivating its beam-out beacon. “Ta-ta! Oh, and Steffie, tell your mom I love her! And you too! Oh, yes, and Raymond too!”
An angry-looking trio of Richards, Plato, and Stephanie dematerialized in a cascade of sparkles.
“Now, to find Larkin,” Baxter said, turning to glance around the bridge, trying to fathom where a spare tricorder might be kept. The bridge felt so empty, so dark. He couldn’t believe 15 years had passed since he’d been on this bridge, in command. He headed over to the rear closet and pried the doors open.
Pinata, coffee mug set, an old sandwich, a set of spiked shoulder pads. No tricorder, just a catalog of his crew’s unique quirks.
It was then that he heard Larkin’s voice in his head.
“Larkin?” he cocked his head, looked around the bridge again.
“Help me, Admiral!”
“How are you inside my head?”
“I’m not. I’m talking over your combadge.”
“Right. Whoops. What’s your status?”
“They’ve shoved me in a closet. In the main shuttlebay. They want to get off the ship, but there aren’t any shuttles…Ardek’s furious.”
“I’ll be right down.”
“Hurry, Admiral. I think they plan on…rewriting my mind.”
“I won’t have that. Not on my watch! Hold on, Larkin! I’m coming!”
Tilleran and J’hana stumbled out onto the Aerostar’s bridge, which was in burning chaos.
“Big help you two were,” muttered Ford, leaning back in the command chair. “We destroyed one Warbird, crippled another, and watched helplessly while another warped away.” Ford smiled. “We wouldn’t have done that well, either, had it not been for the Ford Maneuver.”
“The Explorer?” asked J’hana.
“Be more specific,” muttered Ford.
“Both,” snapped Tilleran, studying the science panel scans.
“Caught in the Bermuda Expanse,” said Ford. “We’ve recomposited ourselves into one ship. I can go in after them.”
“Do it then, zarknartz!” demanded J’hana.
“Sure. I was just about to. Ensign Darn,” Ford said, and pointed toward the Bermuda Expanse. “Go!”
“Get back here, Plato! There’s no time for Baxter or Larkin!” Conway growled at the viewscreen.
“Easy for you to say!” Richards said from behind Plato in the Champlain’s cockpit. “That’s my best friend and daughter over there!”
“That’s my dad over there!” Stephanie added.
“Don’t worry, Stephanie, I won’t let Conway kill your Daddy,” Peterman said, glaring at Conway. “You guys get back here. Andy and Larkin will be fine. I’m…sure of it…”
Browning walked over and squeezed Peterman’s hand. “Kelly…”
Peterman wrapped her arms around Browning and cried into her shoulder. “I haven’t seen him in months. Our jobs keep us apart for such lengths of time, Janice! I haven’t told him how much I love him in ages!”
Browning glared over Peterman’s shoulder at Conway. “You could be getting in on this hugging too if you hadn’t been acting like such a creep all this time!”
Conway wasn’t listening, he was just watching the Explorer drift on the viewscreen. His hand hovered above the “detonate” switch.
Baxter blasted open the door to the main shuttlebay with his phaser rifle, just to find Ardek, Kitty, Larkin, and a pair of lips standing, waiting. An isolinear cable joined Kitty and Larkin at the base of their necks.
“Well well,” Ardek said primly. “I guess you knew there wouldn’t be shuttles here.” He glanced at the lips. “As you should have known, too! What good is being omnipotent if you can’t even figure out if there’s a shuttle aboard a ship or not?!”
<Don’t take that tone with us!> the lips cried.
“It’s over, Ardek,” Baxter said, holding the phaser rifle steady on Ardek. “No extradition, no mental institution. I’m going to blow your ass to kingdom come and no court in the Federation will have a problem with it!”
“Your android might have something to say about that,” Ardek said, and looked to Larkin. “Isn’t that right, Kittles?”
“Yes,” said Larkin dully. “I want to make love to you, Admiral.”
“NO!” screamed Baxter.
Larkin yanked the isolinear cord out of her neck, and Kitty did the same.
“I rewrote her, Admiral,” Kitty said, sultrily walking over to Baxter. “And now I’m going to rewrite you. With my body. You will die in the most sexual way possible.”
“Hmm. I mean NOOOOOOO!” cried Baxter as Kitty advanced. She leaned in close to him, brushed her lips against his cheeks, yanked away his phaser rifle, spun on a heel, and blasted Ardek in the shoulder.
Ardek whirled from the blast, slamming to the deck, shrieking like a little girl.
Larkin turned and loomed over him. “It is I who re-wrote Kitty, Ardek.”
“H-how?” Ardek asked, cradling his shoulder.
“Because it was I who had the stronger mind. Your poor understanding of positronics was your undoing, Ardek!”
“You will not live to gloat!” Ardek seethed, limping backward toward the shuttlebay control panel.
Larkin closed on him. “This fight is over, Ardek. SURRENDER!”
“NEVER!” cried Ardek. He looked to where the lips had been. “Oh, Critics. Help me, Critics! Destroy this puny mortal, and his android whores!”
No lips. No response.
Ardek’s eyes went wide. “CRITICS!”
Baxter and Kitty joined Larkin, overlooking Ardek. “Looks like your gods have abandoned you, Ardek,” said Baxter.
Kitty reached a hand down to Ardek. “Let us help you, Master.”
Baxter turned to Kitty. “Help? I thought we were going to kill him.”
“No, we must not. He must simply be…rehabilitated, as I was.”
“I wish it were that simple,” said Larkin.
“Seriously, let’s kill him,” Baxter said. “Get it overwith.” He grabbed the phaser rifle from Kitty. “Here, I’ll do it.”
“You’d kill a man?” Ardek asked with a shrill voice. “I don’t believe you!”
“Believe this!” Baxter cried and fired. Ardek ducked behind the control console.
“Nice try, Admiral,” Ardek hissed. “But I’ve got one more trick up my sleeve!”
Ardek slumped over the control panel, gripped it with all his might, and yanked hard on an emergency lever. The Explorer’s main shuttlebay door heaved upward.
There was no forcefield.
Baxter skidded along the deck, dropping his rifle, grappling for purchase, but there was nothing to grab. Larkin dove after him and snagged his ankle, and Kitty grabbed her ankle, hooking her own foot on a ladder.
Still holding on to the console, Ardek rose up and unhooked Kitty’s foot, waving goodbye to her as she, Larkin, and Baxter tumbled out toward the hangar door.
As she and the others flew out into space, Larkin cringed at Ardek’s evil, smug expression as he slammed back down on the lever and the shuttlebay door started to close once more. He’d make it to the Delta Quadrant, after all.
Not if Larkin had anything to do with it.
As she was sucked out, Larkin executed a subspace command. She couldn’t control the Explorer’s computers, no, they were long since removed. The Romulan systems were locked out. But the only system she really needed to control was still online and in range of her subspace transceiver.
With a thought, she activated the tri-cobalt explosives.
The Explorer exploded.
Wincing, recoiling, holding on to the seats on the Champlain for dear life, tapping at controls, Richards, Plato, and Stephanie watched the blossoming whorls of smoke and flame on the viewscreen, spreading across the pristine silver hull.
The Explorer exploded.
Conway, Browning, and Peterman watched on the viewscreen as a bright light seared the Explorer-A’s bridge. Explosions ripped open the Galaxy-class Explorer’s stardrive hull, sending her saucer shooting off like a frisbee, exploding all the way. Before the shock- wave hit, Peterman shot Conway a pained glare, but he shrugged. He hadn’t hit the detonation sequence. Must’ve been done from over there.
At any rate, the Explorer exploded.
Ford, J’hana, and Tilleran watched as the Aerostar-A dove into the Bermuda Expanse, as a massive shockwave knocked the Prometheus-class Aerostar backwards like a swatting hand and sent everyone to the deck.
The Explorer exploded.
Beck, Morales, Porter, Jones, and Russell watched, not quite sure what to say as they saw it on the massive view wall in ops: a ripple of explosions within the Bermuda Expanse, and then, with a flourish, the entirety of the purple, gaseous Expanse went out like an extinguished flame.
All that remained was the listing Aerostar-A and Explorer-A, and some scattered silvery debris.
Apparently, the Explorer exploded.
On some-odd deck of Waystation, Colonel Christopher Henricks and Commander Jennifer Prescott sat on a couch watching the viewscreen, kicking themselves, mentally, for not getting more involved in the proceedings, especially after they took such a dismal turn. The sky was filled with fire and light.
The Explorer exploded.
In a retirement colony on Benzar, Harlan and Lucille Baxter, eating tapioca in the activity room, watched the viewscreen, perplexed, as emergency ships swarmed out from Waystation to assist the crippled Aerostar and Explorer-A.
The Baxters knew it was only a matter of time until their son did something REALLY stupid.
The Explorer exploded.
And in those instances, tumbling backward in the dissipating Bermuda Expanse, plasma licking around him, as Kitty and Larkin tumbled by, the life of Andy Baxter passed before the Admiral’s eyes:
Watching Dad beam off to Starfleet Command…
Internship on his Mom’s ship, the Legerdemain, nearly crashing into the Starbase observation lounge…
The Academy asteroid flight, where Alvin Ficker cheated and won…
Assignment to Inventory, U.S.S. Aquarius…
Assignment to Inventory, U.S.S. Secondprize…
Locked in the Secondprize conference room, gassed unconscious…
Command of the U.S.S. Aerostar…
Tossed into the Bermuda Expanse…
The Nexus Ribbon, Flarn, Maloxians, Borg…
The first time he made love to Kelly…
Back to the Alpha Quadrant…Ardek…
First time he laid eyes on the Explorer…
Crashing into a planet…
Dawg, Leeramar, Starshine Kids…Ardek…
Explorer explodes on the way out of the Happy Universe, put back together by Directors…
A world of birds…Ardek…
The Explorer project gets closed…
First big fight with Kelly…
Explorer explodes in the Redlands, Leximas puts things right…
Getting the Explorer back, finally…
The gambling planet…Ardek…
Maloxitarianism…what a stupid idea…
The universe gets wiped out, replaced with a new one,
Aerostar explodes, Secondprize Explodes, Explorer explodes,
universe gets put back right…
It’s a girl!…
Four great years…
Kelly’s pregnant again…
Delta Quadrant…Ardek, Ardek, Ardek…
It’s a boy…
Steffie’s Galactic All-Pro…
Baxter opened his eyes. All was white.
He turned around, half expecting to see Q. Starfleet Training kicking in. But it wasn’t Q.
“Mirk…Hartley…” Baxter spoke.
“And Megan Hartley,” Megan Hartley replid. “Good to see you again, Captain.”
Baxter leaned down, bracing himself on his knees. “Whew! You don’t know how glad I am to see you guys! This must mean I’m not dead, huh? Whew. WHAT A RELIEF!”
Hartley and Mirk exchanged uneasy glances.
“Um,” Hartley said.
“Not exactly,” Mirk said, completing the thought.
Baxter gulped. “Oh boy.”
When Ardek opened his eyes, all was red.
“Is this the afterlife?” he asked meekly.
A pair of lips materialized in front of him. <Sort of,> they replied.
“So I’m dead, huh?”
<More than a doornail, yes.>
“So, you’re going to send me back to the world of the living?”
<No. We have other things planned for you.>
“I’m not going to like this, am I?”
In a swift motion, the lips swallowed Ardek up and he felt himself traveling down an esophagus, into a stomach full of acid. Somehow, he knew, this was how he’d spend eternity.
The lips just belched and went about their business.
Richards, a battered Larkin, and Plato, hugging Steffie, rushed out of the smouldering Champlain’s side hatch.
Medics huddled around the rear hatch, then scuttled by in a hurry, and everyone jogged after them, including Richards, Larkin, Plato, and Steffie. A hysterical Peterman could be heard in the mix.
And in the crowd, calling orders, asking for medical stats, was Janice Browning.
“I want two cc’s of benzadrine STAT! Prep a table. Get the O.R. ready! Call ahead to Sickbay and make sure everyone’s ready!”
“Ma’am,” a voice broke in. “Pardon me for saying, but aren’t you a civilian?”
“Who the hell are you?” she asked amidst the melee.
“Doctor Michael Morse, Chief Medical Officer.”
“Well I’m Janice Browning. I was his Doctor sixteen years ago.”
“But when did you last practice?”
“Sixteen years ago!”
“Then I think you should let me help this man!”
“I AM HIS FRIEND! I’M GOING TO SAVE HIM, GOT IT?” Browning shoved the doctor aside and peered down into the eyes of her patient as the group shoved the hovercart down the corridor towards Sickbay.
“I think the Hippocratic Oath will back her up here!” Peterman sobbed.
“Actually, it expressly forbids doctors from administering to their friends.”
“Back off, Doctor,” Peterman heard Larkin call from the back of the group. “Doctor Browning, do you feel confident you can save the Admiral?”
“I once lanced this man’s boils. I can save him! Now someone tell me what we use to cut into a man nowadays!?!”
“You heard her,” said Larkin. “Morse, assist wherever needed, but this is Doctor Browning’s show.”
“This is highly irregular,” mumbled Morse.
“This is a highly irregular crew,” Peterman said in between sobs.
Beck glanced over her shoulder. “GONE?”
Lieutenant Mason nodded. “The Bermuda Expanse. Gone. This time, I’m pretty confident it’s for good.”
Porter looked over Mason’s shoulder. “Yeah, I think it’s a done deal, Admiral.”
Beck glanced at the viewscreen. “What’s the situation on the Explorer-A?”
Russell checked information coming through at the communications station. “They withstood the explosion…but there are some casualties.”
Beck arched an eyebrow. “Anyone we know?”
Baxter watched, detached, still standing in white nothingness, looking down through an opening in the nothingness that seemed to overlook the Explorer-A Operating Room as Browning worked on him, scrambling over medtechs, knocking into carts, shoving hyposprays into him, clasping her hands and beating his chest, shouting “CLEAR!”
Browning was waving people back, working for space. Baxter prayed she didn’t bury a sandwich in him, like she’d done to that other poor soul so many years ago.
“It’s hopeless,” Mirk told him, and wiped a hand over the circular whole in the nothingness, and the image of the O.R. disappeared. “The Champlain was able to pull you in before the explosion, but too late…your vital systems had already started shutting down…the Bermuda Expanse, without the Directors, aren’t any place for a human to float around…”
“Anyways, Eternity ain’t bad,” Hartley said. “Mirk pulled some strings. You can stay with us.”
“Why couldn’t you stop this?” Baxter asked, turning angrily on Mirk.
“We were, um, distracted,” Mirk said sheepishly.
“…by a great game show,” Hartley finished. “You’ll enjoy it.”
“Eternity has made the two of you so…boring,” Baxter muttered.
“You will be happy to know that, once we discovered what was going on, we stopped the Critics,” said Mirk. “Now there’s no Bermuda Expanse. Period.”
Baxter nodded. “Interesting. I want to go back.” No beating around the bush.
Mirk shook his head. “You can’t go back, sir.”
Baxter grabbed Mirk by the shoulders and shook him. “I have to go back! You understand me? I have to go back!”
“It’s impossible!” Mirk replied, and pushed Baxter’s hands away. “I’m sorry! I can’t do everything. You’re DEAD, Andy! You’re just going to have to get used to it here!”
“We COULD send you to the human afterlife,” Hartley said. “But trust me, we have a lot more fun here.”
“It’s all so…big and empty,” Baxter muttered.
“There’s much more to see,” Hartley said. “Just give it a shot.”
“Yeah,” Mirk said. “We’ve begun to collect errant thoughts from philosophers on a number of different Delta Quadrant worlds. Want to hear them?”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooo!” cried Baxter, covering his ears with his hands.
“Well, we can’t very well have this,” said Mirk.
Hartley shook her head as Baxter chanted “I’m not listening” to himself. “We should have known he’d react this way. He’s always been such a child.”
Mirk sighed. “I’m going to have to go talk to the people next door.”
“You mean the Writers?”
“I sure as hell don’t mean the Ropers,” Mirk muttered. “Keep your eyes on the Admiral here. I’m going to go see some gods about a corpse.”
TWO HOURS LATER
“Man,” Baxter said, staring around the nothingness with Hartley at his side. “You mean time just passes at regular speed around here?”
Hartley nodded. “That’s about right.”
“There’s not even anywhere to sit! Don’t your legs get tired?”
“We’re omnipotent. Our legs are ‘legs’ as you see them. They don’t get tired.” Hartley looked around absently. “Okay, I’m lying. My calves are killing me!”
“That’s better.” Baxter folded his arms. “So you just stand here.”
Hartley shrugged. “There are other places to go. We’re just waiting here while Mirk sorts some things out with the Writers. This is kind of a holding tank. We can’t release you out into the infinite playground of the Directors until we’re sure of what’s what. Final paperwork and all.”
“Riiiiight,” Baxter said and looked around some more. “So you’re happy?”
“Tremendously. Mirk and I have really enjoyed being able to spend forever together.”
“And you, apparently, haven’t aged a day,” Baxter said with a small grin.
“Yeah,” Hartley smiled. “Neither, um, do you.”
“Thanks for trying.”
“Baldness isn’t all bad.”
“If I am going to be omnipotent, the first thing I want to do is get some hair.”
“Well now,” Hartley held up her hands, “I never said we were TOTALLY omnipotent.”
Just then, Mirk appeared in a whirl of smoke, coughing and waving at the smoke. “Whew. Sorry. We were meeting in a really nasty bar. Something about the Writers expanding their horizons.”
“WELL?” Baxter asked impatiently.
“Well,” Mirk sighed. “They’re worried about how it would look if they let you live.”
“What do you mean ‘how it would look’?” demanded Baxter.
“I mean, it’d be kind of, well, in their words, ‘cheesy.’”
“How so?” Baxter griped.
“You know, the miraculous last-minute recovery on the operating table. It’s so…done to death, pardon the expression. Again, their words.”
“So that’s it, I’m dead forever, huh?” Baxter asked.
“Well…” Mirk looked around uncomfortably. “They will let you come back. But it would have to be in a slightly more…interesting way.”
“I don’t like the sound of this,” muttered Baxter.
“You can always stay here,” Hartley said. “We’ve got another trivia game in a couple years. We can pass the time until then catching up on old times.”
“Um,” Baxter said. “Let’s just get me back to the land of the living any old way that we can, shall we?”
“Alrighty then,” Mirk said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
TWO DAYS LATER
“He looks so peaceful, so happy,” Peterman gushed, leaning on Browning’s shoulder as the pair walked by the open torpedo tube one last time.
“Yeoman Briggs did a really good job on his makeup. Poor guy…still a Yeoman,” Browning sniffled, and she sat down in the front row, in the massive main torpedo room. Along with her were Conway, Richards, Larkin, Tilleran, J’hana, Ford, and assorted Secondprize and Waystation officers, as well as some leftover old fanatics from the days of Inventory. There too were the aged Harlan and Lucille Baxter, with attendants hovering about administering tapioca and such.
Kelly Peterman took the podium.
“Good Evening,” she began with a heavy sigh. She stared down at a padd, her notes. “We’re here aboard the Explorer-A today to send my husband, Andrew Jackson Baxter, off into space, where he spent most of his life working and playing.
“Andy was a kind man, good to pets, good to his family, a tremendous lover to his wife.” Baxter had made her promise to say that, should she outlive him. “And, most of all,” said Peterman, “Andy was a good Captain. He probably couldn’t have thought of a more honorable way to give his life then defending the old Explorer which he loved so dearly.” She glared at Larkin. “And I’m sure Captain Larkin did what she thought was right, activating that detonation device. Anyway, she probably couldn’t have saved him anyway. He had already gotten sucked out into space, murdered by Ardek.
“We do have some consolation in the fact that Ardek is dead, and in Critics’ hell, if there’s any justice. Meanwhile, Larkin has taken Kitty under her wing. Poor thing is still traumatized from the loss of Ardek and that mind re-write, and has spent the last couple nights dancing alone and rhythmically in the Lounge Lounge. I’m told Larkin will see to it that she’ll get the proper counseling so that she can assimilate back into society, and I’m glad for that.
Peterman took a deep breath. “But what about Kelly Peterman, you might ask. I’ll be fine. I know Janice did her best to save my husband, Lord knows she did. And I know it’s no comfort to her that Stephanie and Raymond no longer have a Daddy to play with them…”
Browning burst into tears, leaning her head on Richards’s shoulder.
“…But I digress.” Peterman looked down at her padd “It’s time now to bury Admiral Baxter among the stars, and put to bed this chapter in our lives, once and for all.”
With a dour expression, Commodore Conway dragged his feet over to the line of 21 security officers, led by Plato, all holding phasers.
“Remember to ensure that the power level is at minimum,” he grumbled under his breath, then said aloud: “Men…to attention! Present arms! Fire!”
Plato and the others fired their phasers up at the ceiling for 21 sustained seconds, then holstered their weapons.
“Stand easy,” Conway said, then looked to Peterman. “Kelly…”
She walked down to the torpedo tube, leaned down and kissed Baxter on the cheek, then silently slid the casing hatch closed. She turned back to Larkin, who sat, weeping, in the front row. “Now, Captain.”
Larkin stood and slapped her combadge. “Larkin to bridge… lock and load.”
Lt. Commander Madera strummed “Amazing Grace” on her harp.
The torpedo traveled on its little tracks toward the locking chamber…
“Fire,” Larkin murmurred.
And the hatch was suddenly flung open, and Admiral Andy Baxter stood up, looking dazed.
“Hey there every…whoa this thing’s about to launch!” He hopped off the tracks as the tube plunged into the chamber and a huge discharge blast echoed throughout the torpedo room.
J’hana stood in the midst of the audience. “It’s a demon! Kill it! Kill it!”
The 21 security guards all upped the settings on their phasers and turned on Baxter.
“No, no, I’m not a demon, let me explain, it all will make perfect sense!” Baxter promised, waving off the security guards.
Peterman rushed over and embraced Baxter, crying into his shoulder, squeezing him for all she was worth. Steffie and Raymond ran over too, as did a herd of the funeral-goers.
Among the cheers and grumbles and confused mumblings of the crowd, Admiral Lisa Beck sat still in her seat, next to Captain Craig Porter.
“This is the single weirdest funeral I’ve ever been to,” she muttered.
“Can’t say it’s surprising, though, can you?” asked Porter.
“Not in the least. I’ve got to get back to work.” She looked over her shoulder at Baxter as she stood. “What a colossal waste of time.”
“I’m going to go catch up with Tilleran,” Porter said. “Talk to you later, Admiral.”
Captain’s Log, U.S.S. Explorer,
Supplemental. Along with a recently-revived Admiral Baxter, we’re en route to Earth for repairs and the standard debriefing.
Starfleet informs me that the Romulan ships attending our ceremony were actually rebel ships under Gatana, who was not, in fact, a proconsul. She is instead a prisoner in our brig, and the Romulans are desperate to extradite her and make an example of her and try to right things. Turns out Gatana didn’t even know what Ardek was up to. He assured her the mission was a simple “destroy and confuse” operation. At any rate, the Romulans seem genuinely interested in a true alliance. Further, their initial reviews of our scans of the late starship Explorer seem to indicate the fusion of Romulan and Starfleet technology Ardek used to hijack the relic was nothing short of genius, and bore out several interesting and useful conclusions. Could this mean an eventual hybrid ship, made up of a combination of Romulan and Federation technology? Well, stranger things…
At any rate, what is important is that Admiral Baxter has returned to the living, and has promised to explain his ordeal, in its entirety, to us.
Baxter did indeed explain it all, over a round of stiff drinks in the Lounge Lounge on the Explorer-A.
“The Writers sure do have a skewed sense of humor,” muttered Conway, swirling his drink about.
“You can’t blame them for being a tad bored with things,” said Richards. “They’re just fans of good entertainment.”
“Making us suffer for two days is entertainment?” demanded Peterman, blowing her nose, sucking back on a Pink Squirrel. Her mascara was still running a bit.
“The Directors were once bored with the way of things too,” Baxter said. “Gods get bored easily. Mirk and Megan sure seemed disinterested the short time I was with them.”
“Eternity must be a bitch,” Conway agreed.
“What I saw of it, it sure was,” said Baxter. “You should have heard them describe this stupid game show…”
“I have a question about your ordeal,” J’hana said, leaning on the large, long table.
“Shoot,” Baxter said, finishing off his shot and calling to Jahn for another. The poor guy had been apologizing up and down for Ardek, assuring everyone that he really wasn’t all that bad, once you got to know him. And poor Kitty, she was still dancing in the back of the Lounge. Baxter found it kind of disturbing.
“Where the hell is Tilleran?” J’hana asked abruptly.
“I don’t see how that has anything to do with anything,” Baxter muttered.
Peterman touched his arm. “I don’t think it does. But, getting back on subject…where the hell are Plato and Steffie?”
It was night watch. A lone officer plunked at controls back at sciences.
Plato sat in the command chair, watching the viewscreen, Steffie Baxter curled in beside him.
“You know what the future holds, Stef?” asked Plato, kissing Steffie on the cheek.
“I have no idea.”
“Me neither. But I bet I have some basic guidelines.”
“Our parents making our lives miserable.”
“What gives you that idea?”
“Your Dad has just had a near-death, well, a death experience. You think that’s going to make him any less neurotic, especially about his daughter dating, especially about his daughter dating his godson?”
“There’s always a chance,” Stephanie said, half- optimistically.
“It’s going to be a rocky road ahead, Stef. Be ready for it.”
“As long as I’m with you, I could care less.”
“Move in with me.”
“Thought you’d put up more of a fight than that.”
“I will, once we get to decorating.”
“Good. At least I know where I stand.”
“Don’t count on it.”
Ariel Tilleran was walking the corridors of the Explorer-A aimlessly. She was supposed to catch a transport on the way to Earth that would take her back to Betazed. Back to that empty house…
She could spend some time with J’hana, but…no, no. Too much time had passed.
It was then that Craig Porter jogged up next to her.
“Ariel…you sure are a hard one to find,” said Porter.
“I’ve just been thinking.”
“About what? Husband and kids?” Porter cursed himself inwardly. What happened to that quick wit of his? Why did it totally fail him around Tilleran?
“Husband, mostly. My kids are fine, but they’re away at telepathy school.”
“What’s up with the main man, then?” asked Porter, and he kicked himself. “Main man”? What was it this woman was doing to him? And was it imagined, or was she using that telepathic brain to mess up his mojo?
“The ‘main man,’ as you put it, has been long gone. He moved in with a young telepathy student four years ago, citing a midlife crisis or something. If that wasn’t bad enough, it was a MALE telepathy student.”
“Ouch,” said Porter.
“Yeah. I wasn’t prepared for that kind of thing to happen.”
“No, I’d think not.” Porter stopped her in mid stride, turned her gently to face him. “Want to hear something funny?”
Tilleran folded her arms. “You can give it a try, but I can’t promise to laugh.”
“Okay, then. Well. About twelve years ago, I had to try to save the Universe.”
“Sounds interesting so far. Go on.”
Porter couldn’t stop now, even though he was breaking untold Starfleet codes of ethics, and of temporal security, by telling Tilleran these things. “So, as I was talking to this omnipotent time-controlling entity, let’s just call him, uh, Eterna…” He couldn’t very well identify it as “Forever”– “who’s pretty much the gatekeeper of time itself, he started prying into my personal life.”
“Seriously. Anyway, he asked questions. You know, had I found someone to love, that sort of thing…”
“And?” Tilleran asked.
“Well, I had to tell him the truth. I hadn’t found anyone.”
“But he showed me what I could have had. Or, rather, WHO I could have had.”
Tilleran nodded. “Right. And who is that?”
Porter smiled. “You. He showed me you.”
“Oh dear. I hope I was at least wearing something nice.”
“You looked stunning. But you were with your husband, and your two…”
“Three.” Tilleran smiled.
“Three kids.” Porter shrugged. “So I realized I’d missed my chance.”
“So ‘Eterna’ told you I was your perfect mate, but you’d missed your chance. And now, now that you’ve found that I’m divorced, you figure it’s time to swing in and live happily ever after, is that it? Prove old Eterna wrong, eh?”
Porter nodded. “Yeah, that’s about the size of it.”
“Well,” Tilleran thought. “I’d hate to prevent you from giving that smug omnipotent time-controlling entity a dose of what’s what.”
“So…you’ll give it a whirl?”
“I’ll do more than that. I’ll give YOU a whirl.” Tilleran pulled Porter into her arms and they kissed.
F*** you, Forever, Porter thought to himself.
Tilleran picked up on that errant thought as they kissed and was puzzled. Wow. Porter was much more ambitious than she gave him credit for.
This should be interesting.
“It was a nice funeral,” J’hana said in the silence as she as the reunited officers of the Aerostar and Explorer sat gathered around the table in the Lounge Lounge.
“Were you referring to the fact that Andy came back to life,” asked Browning, “or to the fantastic buffet?”
J’hana chugged back on her Zargatzz cider. “A little of both.”
“I’ve got to get back to work soon,” Richards said. “I have a new Spring lineup to plan.”
“Try to keep ‘Zondark in the Middle,’” Baxter said. “That show is a riot.”
“Please,” muttered Peterman.
“Baxter’s only been alive a few hours and already they’re going at it again,” Conway said. “That marriage was never meant to last.” He quickly turned to Browning. “So. How are things with you and Pogo?”
“You know,” Baxter said, looking around. “I don’t think I ever got a chance to tell each one of you how important you are to me.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Ford.
“No, no, I mean it,” Baxter said. “Even you, Conway.”
“Haha. You old softie,” Conway said meekly, then turned back to Browning. “I mean it. Things okay with him? Need someone to talk to?”
Browning rolled her eyes. “Commodore, you need help.”
Baxter looked around at the people around the table, among the buzz of bar conversation and klinking drinks. “You know, you all mean more to me than anything else in the world. More, even, than the Explorer did. Now that I’m not dead anymore, I think it’s important that you all know that.”
Peterman’s grinned. “Andy, I think we all feel the same way.”
“Agreed,” Larkin said.
Richards and Ford exchanged uneasy glances. “Um…sure, whatever.”
“I have a problem confusing love and lust, so I am not the person to ask,” muttered J’hana, as she tossed back more of her drink.
“I sure do love all you guys,” Browning grinned. She glared at Conway. “And I love Pogo, too.”
“Pardon me while I go puke,” Conway said, sliding back in his seat.
“Wait a sec, Commodore…” Baxter looked around at Peterman, Conway, Richards, Larkin, J’hana, Ford, Browning… and who knew where Tilleran was. “Before you all start breaking up and going your separate ways again, I want to propose a toast. To us. To staying together.”
“I’m getting a ‘Grease’ flashback,” muttered Conway. “When do I sing ‘shamma-lamma-ding-dong?’”
“Never,” J’hana snapped.
“I’m serious,” Baxter said. “Who knows when we’ll cross each other’s paths again?”
“You make it sound like something’s ending,” Richards said.
Peterman nudged Baxter. “Hell, you somehow defeated death. I think that’s a pretty good sign that nothing ever ends.”
Baxter smiled, kissed Peterman on the cheek and held her hand. “You’re right, Kelly. That’s what we’re really toasting, guys. Raise your drinks. This isn’t the end. It’ll never be the end.”
They all raised their glasses, chanting “Here, here…”