Author: Anthony Butler
NOTE TO READER:
The following book takes place shortly following the events of the Star Traks: The Vexed Generation story “Unfinished Business.”
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
U.S.S. AEROSTAR NCC-83835-A - GAMMA QUADRANT - NOVEMBER 18, 2380
“Well, we’ve really done it this time,” Captain David Conway sighed, as he stared at the viewscreen, on the bridge of the U.S.S. Aerostar-A. “We’ve really screwed the pooch.”
“Correction,” Lt. Commander Zachary Ford said as he sat at the helm station. “You’ve really screwed the pooch.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Conway sighed. He turned back toward the science station. “Alexa, how long until the sun goes down?”
“You mean ‘nova’? Thirteen minutes,” Dr. Alexa Lanham said, glancing down at her scanners. “Give or take.”
The bridge of the Aerostar-A was bathed in the orange glow of Shinax, the main sequence star of the Shinax system, at least for the next twelve and a half minutes.
From time to time, an array of Shinaxian ships, and the occasional Dominion and Verani vessel, would criss-cross in front of the viewscreen, moving hordes of Shinaxians off the two inhabited worlds of Shinax Two and Four.
The Aerostar, for her part, was still packing them in.
“Status of transporters?” Conway asked, sweat beading on his brow, his knuckles going white around the arms of his command chair.
“Operating at maximum efficiency,” Commander Kristen Larkin said from beside him. “There are nearly one thousand Shinaxians aboard, at present.”
“It should be noted,” Lieutenant Saral said from the Ops station that, joined with the helm console, was in the ‘dugout’ at the front of the bridge. “That we are exceeding design limitations.”
“Well, call the fire marshall!” Conway snapped. “We can all stand a little discomfort and crowding if it means getting these people to safety after their solar system is turned to charred smithereens.”
“Captain,” Lanham said, glancing sidelong at Conway. “Security reports they’re running out of room in the corridors.”
“Start packing the Shinaxians into the conference rooms and observation lounges. Stick them in people’s quarters. Just pack in as many as you can get.” Conway stared up at the ceiling of the bridge. “I am cursed. I’m frigging cursed.”
“In point of fact,” Larkin said, “You could have easily avoided this mishap.”
“How was I supposed to know that experimental missile silo was active and ready for launch?”
“I believe the words ‘launch status: ready’ were clearly inscribed on the primary display screen.”
“I thought it was just a model. You know, a mock-up.”
Larkin nodded. “You must have been surprised, then, when the missile took off.”
Conway nodded. “Was I ever. And how was I supposed to know the missile was loaded with thorium isotope, which, when combined with cesium forty-four, combines to create an elemental molecule that would have stabilized the sun for generations to come, but when delivered into the corona alone would cause the sun to go nova? I’m no scientist!”
“But I am!” Dr. Lanham snapped. “And I told you that just minutes before you ‘accidentally’ launched the missile!” She glanced over at Conway, who was intent on one of the readout panels set into in his command chair arm. “And you’re reading it right now, off my preliminary report, which you were supposed to read before we beamed down.”
“I got sidetracked!” Conway replied.
“You were watching race-cars on the holodeck.”
“NASCAR,” Conway corrected. “It’s called NASCAR.”
“Whatever it is, is indirectly responsible for the obliteration of a planet that has been home to humanoid life for millennia.”
Conway glared at Larkin. “I already said ‘whoops.’ What more do you want?”
Larkin narrowed her eyes at Conway. “It is not what I want, Captain. It is what the Shinaxian government will want from you when this disaster is over.”
“A formal apology, yadda yadda,” Conway said. “I get it, Larkin. I screwed up. It happens all the time.”
“It happens a bit too often, if you ask me,” the android first officer said, clearly activating her ‘irritation’ subroutine.
“Four minutes to nova,” Lanham said. “We’d better start heading out of the system.”
“Is anyone else left on the planet?” Conway asked.
“The last ships are moving away now,” Lt. Saral said, checking her readouts. “And we are now at twice our recommended capacity.”
“Who cares,” Conway said.
Just then, the doors to the aft turbolift open, and Lt. Brian Gellar spilled out, pushed from behind by eight 1.5 meter tall skittering reptilian Shinaxians.
“We’ve run out of room,” Gellar said, hustling to his station as the tiny gray-green beings milled around him.
“So you put them on the bridge?”
“That’s just the first wave,” Gellar said, as suddenly the forward lift opened and another nine Shinaxians spilled out. The aft turbolift also opened again, depositing more Shinaxians on the bridge.
“Everybody stay calm,” Conway said, looking around as the confused and scared beings scrambled to find seats. “We’ll all get out of this in one piece. I just need a little peace and quiet so I can give orders to my crew.”
“Him! It’s the killer of worlds! He’s doomed us all!” one of the Shinaxians called out in a high-pitched voice.
“Jeeze sakes,” Conway mumbled, slapping a hand over his face as Shinaxians closed ranks in front of him, cutting off his view of the viewscreen. “Move…move, people!” He stood up. “Time, Alexa?”
“Mister Ford….escape course. Maximum warp!”
Ford turned around with a slight smile. “Should I engage now, Captain?”
“Yes, for the love of God! ENGAGE!”
Ford turned back around and punched a control, sending Conway reeling back into his seat as the Aerostar-A leaped into warp and fled the Shinaxian system.
Moments later, the vessel shook as the viewscreen was washed in golden light, which spread in fast-spreading wave that instantly exploded every planet in the system.
The wave crept after the Aerostar as it warped away, then died off as the flames of the burning star system died out and all that was left was rubble.
And, in the middle of all this, a Shinaxian clambered onto Conway’s lap and punched him in the stomach.
“You’re welcome,” Conway grumbled, pushing the Shinaxian off him.
Stardate 56817.5. After depositing the Shinaxians with a non-profit refugee program sponsored by the Carimar, we’ve laid in a course for the wormhole that leads back to the Alpha Quadrant. Starfleet has called us back a few months early. And I can only guess that’s because I blew up a star system. I tried to explain the situation to Admiral Baxter, but he’d hear none of it.
Anyway, I’m glad to be getting back to the Alpha Quadrant. The last year has not exactly been easy, establishing connections with the worlds that were once under the thumb of the Dominion. There are a lot of antsy, paranoid people in the Gamma Quadrant, and I don’t need any more antsyness or paranoia in my life. I get plenty of that from my bridge crew.
Captain Conway sat on the bridge of the Aerostar-A and watched the wormhole blossom open on the viewscreen.
“I never thought I’d see a more welcome sight,” he said, looking at Larkin. “How about you, Commander?”
Larkin shifted in her chair. “After seeing an entire solar system explode, I think anything is a welcome sight.”
Conway leaned over. “I thought we agreed not to talk about that anymore.”
“I suppose you are right,” Larkin said. “There will be plenty of time to discuss it at your debriefing.”
“Ah, those things are a piece of cake. I’ve been to plenty of them.”
“I would not look at that as a good thing.”
“It builds experience. Builds character.” Conway straightened his uniform. “I’m not afraid to answer for my mistakes.”
“We shall see,” Larkin said, as Aerostar ducked through the wormhole.
“Neutrino emissions at normal levels,” Lt. Commander Ford said, tapping at the helm console. “We should have a smooth ride through.”
Indeed they did, and soon came out of the other end of the wormhole, facing the sprawling bicycle wheel of a station, Deep Space Nine.
Conway glanced at Lt. Gellar. “Call the CO of Deep Space Nine and let her know we’ll be putting in for minor repairs.”
“Do you think that would be wise, considering the last time we were at Deep Space Nine?” Gellar asked.
“What do you mean? We had a fine time there.”
“You threw scalding coffee in General Kira’s face because you said the replicators were ‘second-hand Bajoran crap’,” Larkin quoted from her data-banks.
Conway’s brow furrowed. “Oh, that was DS-Nine, wasn’t it. She didn’t take too kindly to that, did she?”
Larkin shook her head. “Thank goodness the Infirmary was nearby.”
“I guess we shouldn’t stop there, then,” Conway said. “Very well. Lay in a course for Starbase 375. I don’t think I’ve done anything to get on Admiral Ross’ bad side lately.”
“There’s a first time for everything,” Ford said. “Course laid in.”
“We’re getting a comm from one of the ship’s docked at Deep Space Nine,” Gellar said, checking his panel. “It’s the Pathfinder.”
Conway rolled his eyes. “Of all the frigging luck. I guess I’m going to have to talk to her, aren’t I?”
“According to the mission report, the Pathfinder was scheduled to take over our patrol in the Gamma Quadrant when our tour of duty was completed,” Larkin said.
“I’m sure news of our diplomatic trouble has gotten to Captain Baxter by now,” Conway groaned. “Why couldn’t they send another ship to take our place in the Gamma Quadrant? The Tracker, or the Outlander.”
“The Outlander will not be completed for another six months,” Larkin corrected. “As for the Tracker; I believe Captain Kimmel is liked even less by Starfleet Command than you are.”
“Good to know there’s somebody out there to take the heat off me,” Conway said.
“We’re getting another hail from the Pathfinder,” Gellar said. “This one is much bitchier.”
“Fine,” Conway said, rubbing a hand over his face. “Put her on. Let’s get this over with.”
The viewscreen came to life with the image of Captain Lucille Baxter, mother of Explorer Captain Andy Baxter, sitting in her command chair, legs crossed primly.
“Captain Conway,” she said dryly. “Nice to see you, as always.”
“My pleasure,” Conway grumbled. He knew the cut was coming.
“Or should I refer to you as the refugees from the Shinaxian system do? What is it they call you again?”
“I’m sure I don’t know.”
“‘Killer of Worlds?’ Yes, that’s it.”
“Really?” Conway said, raising an eyebrow. “That’s exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. A killer of worlds. Cool!”
Lucille leaned forward in her chair. “Listen here, you loathsome fool. You have screwed up for the final time. My husband won’t tolerate any further bumbling from you or your pathetic crew. You’ve embarrassed us for the last time.”
Conway stood up, walked toward the viewscreen. “Ahh, yes. And the Baxters are such a respectable, competent Starfleet family. What has your son Andy been up to lately?”
Lucille pursed her lips. “That’s neither here nor there.”
“Does he still have sex in his readyroom? Oh, Lucille. You should have been there during the good old days, after he was first married. Man, it sounded like the lion cage at the Martian zoo in there.”
“Look,” Lucille said, leaning forward. “I know you think you’re untouchable. But you’re not. You’ve burned a lot of bridges at Starfleet…”
“Oh, have I?” Conway asked, touching his hand to his mouth. “My word!”
“…And when you finally make your last mistake, there will be nobody around to pick up the pieces for you. As much as you two hated each other, at least my son was always there to cover up your slip-ups!”
“You’ve got it the wrong way around, Baxter,” Conway shot back. “I covered up YOUR boy’s mistakes.”
“Captain,” Larkin said from behind Conway. “This is not advisable.”
“You stop talking about my booty-butt like that.” Lucille said. “Or I’ll blow your ass out of the stars.”
“Feeling sassy today, Captain?” Conway asked, marching right up to the viewscreen. “Now YOU listen here, bitch. I am untouchable. You know why? Because I’m a damn good officer. I may blow up a star system or two, but I’ve got more Starfleet in one toenail than your goddamn son has in his whole body. And you can take THAT to the Bank of Argelius!”
“Helm,” Larkin ordered, glaring at Conway. “Engage our pre-set heading for Starbase 375. Warp Six.”
“I wasn’t finished!” Conway snapped.
“I believe you are,” Larkin said. “This is a Starfleet bridge, not a sleazy talk show set. You need to bring a degree of professionalism to this post, or you may end up losing it.”
“You better run, Conway!” Lucille railed, some blond strands from her tight Starfleet-regulation on coming loose as she got out of her chair. “I swear this to you: One day I’m going to get you. And wipe that smug, self-assured grin off your face. The Pathfinder will show you how to run an efficient operation. Cut channel!”
Lucille’s trembling face was replaced with streaking stars. Conway looked to the side, catching the impassive gaze of Commander Larkin.
“She is right about one thing,” Larkin said calmly. “You have burned an inordinate number of ‘bridges’ at Starfleet.”
“Oh, what do you know,” Conway said, and stormed up to the aft turbolift. “What does she know for that matter? Helm, maintain course and let me know when we reach the Starbase.”
“Where are you going, Captain?” Larkin asked.
“To think,” Conway said.
“Busy, David?” a voice came from outside the bathroom in Conway’s quarters.
“Yes, in a manner of speaking, Alexa,” Conway said. “What do you want?”
“To talk to you.”
“Fine. Fine. Give me a minute.” Conway finished his…thinking…and pulled up his pants, then washed his hands in the lavatory sink, and ducked out of the bathroom and into his living room. Lanham had only lived with him for a couple months, and he was still having a little trouble getting used to her unlimited access to his quarters. He’d grown accustomed to his privacy over the years, and suddenly sharing that space with a woman–even one he loved–was kind of disconcerting.
“On a break from the astrophysics realignment?” he asked distractedly as he shook the water off his hands and wiped them on his uniform front.
Lanham stood at the door, hands stuffed in the pockets of her lab-coat. “Yes. The…dramatic explosion…yesterday sort of threw the sensors out of whack.”
Conway rubbed a hand over his face. “I wish people would stop bringing that up.”
“Oh, come on, David. You know you weren’t singlehandedly responsible for the destruction of the Shinax system,” Lanham said, stepping forward and wrapping her arms around Conway. “I know you’ve been blaming yourself, while broadcasting that asshole mentality all over the ship. That’s not healthy, you know.”
“What are you, the ship’s counselor?”
“Would you want me to be?” Lanham asked, amused.
Conway thought about that a moment, then quickly looked at Lanham. “No. Of course not.” He walked over to his couch and sat down. “I’m just going over the whole thing in my head, trying to think of how I could have done things differently.”
“Like not launching the missile that destabilized the Shinax star?” Lanham asked, sitting down next to Conway and leaning against him.
“Yeah,” Conway said, narrowing his eyes at Lanham. “I guess that would be one way.”
“Don’t beat yourself up,” Lanham said, patting Conway’s stomach. “There are no second chances. You just make decisions and do the best you can with the results.”
Conway blew out a distressed sigh. “It doesn’t help that I have those years on the Explorer on my record. Do you know how much of that stuff I get blamed for?”
“I had no idea,” Lanham said. “Then again, I was on the Pulitzer for much of that time. And the only times we crossed paths were when your ship was turned into a fantasy world by my genesis-wave device, and when your stardrive section was stolen by evil mirror duplicates and taken to a parallel universe.”
“Exactly,” Conway said. “See, that’s what I’m talking about.”
“You’re making too big a deal out of this, David. You should be thinking of it this way: You saved a whole star system yesterday. How many captains get to do that?”
“I’m sure Jean-Luc Picard does it all the time.”
Lanham shook her head. “Dear, you’re your own worst critic.”
“No,” Conway said, thinking of Lucille Baxter. “I have a couple worse ones.”
“Well then there should be one less.”
Conway raised his eyebrows. “You saying I should kill one of them?”
“No,” Lanham said, clearly exasperated. “I think you should ease up on yourself, before you have a stroke or something.”
“Now you’re the chief medical officer”
Lanham giggled. “I’m not Benzra, silly. Do I have a two-foot long tongue?”
“No, but it would be nice if you did,” Conway said with a small smile.
“There now, that’s what I want to see. A smile,” Lanham said. “So…what are you doing for lunch today?”
“The Deck Nine Mess Hall, I suppose,” Conway said.
“We could go to the Starlight Lounge,” Lanham suggested.
“Sorry, Alexa. I’m just not in a margarita kind of mood today.”
“Sure, that makes sense,” Lanham said, and stood up. “Okay. Well, I’ll see you tonight back at our quarters?”
Conway looked at her. “Yeah.” He smiled. “Our quarters.” He’d only been living with Lanham for the past few weeks. There were still some awkward moments, but the fact that he’d been married to Lanham for six months, several years ago, helped ease tensions. Her routine of getting up at 0300 and gargling for twenty minutes didn’t throw him off in the least.
Lanham stared at Conway a moment, her eyebrows knit in confusion. “Is there anything else you want to say?”
“Yeah,” Conway said, standing. He wrapped his arms around her. “I’m a miserable bastard, Alexa. But I’m damn lucky to have you.”
“Now that’s the smartest thing I’ve heard all day.”
“I’ll be fine, Alexa, really,” Conway said, walking Lanham to the door. “I promise. I’m going to do just like you said. I’m not going to let anything get me down.”
“Glad to hear it,” Lanham said, and kissed Conway on the cheek. “Later, sweetie.” And she walked out of her and Conway’s quarters, as he waved goodbye to her.
“Bridge to Conway,” came the clipped tones of Commander Larkin.
“What is it, Larkin?”
“Sir, we are receiving a priority one message from Starfleet Command. It is Admiral Baxter.”
“Damn it,” Conway said. “No doubt he wants to chastise me for yelling at his wife. Pipe it down here.”
“Be nice, sir.”
“Shove it, Larkin,” Conway said, then grinned. “No, really, I’ll be fine.”
Conway walked over to his desk and sat down, punching a control panel on his desktop viewer.
The stony face of Admiral Harlan Baxter appeared on the viewscreen.
“Captain Conway…” he began.
“Admiral, before you start,” Conway said. “Let me just say my tone with your wife was completely out of line. I’m a professional. I should be carrying myself much differently. I’m aware of that. Plus, you know, she started it.”
Harlan cocked his head. “What the hell are ya talking about, boy?”
“Didn’t you call about my shouting match with your wife?”
“Then why did you call?
“I have some…news.”
“This is about Shinax, isn’t it?” Conway’s eyes went wide. “You’re taking my command!”
Harlan leaned forward on the screen, his face growing red. “No, goddammit! I called to tell you there was an accident on the Explorer. Six people are missing. Including the Federation President, and my son! Is that clear enough for you, you goddamn moron?”
Conway leaned back in his chair. Why was everyone yelling at him today? He blinked. “Who else? Who else is missing?”
Harlan plopped a cigar into his mouth. “Petrrmnn. Brrrng. Rrrchds. Ma lil grndaughter Steffie.”
“Peterman, Browning, and Richards too?” Conway exploded. “The baby? They’re all–GONE?”
He pulled out his cigar. “That’s what I just said, isn’t it, boy?”
“H-how?” he asked. “Where did they go?”
He puffed on the cigar again “Rrrnt know. Happened about six weeks ago. We only got the transmission today. Looks like some kind of massive matter/energy flux in one of the laboratories. Frrnngrrd. Damn experiment grrrrn awry is what it is. No trace left of ‘em. Vansen’s in command now. Explorer’s in deep space now. It’ll take a couple months for her to get back. Then I’m leading a full investigation of the incident. But till then, my boy, President Dillon, Browning, Peterman, Stephanie and Richards are all officially listed as Missing in Action. Thought you’d like to know.”
Conway nodded. “Thank you, Admiral.” He looked at the Admiral long and hard as he puffed that big, fat, brown cigar. “Are you…are you okay?”
“An what in damn hell is that supposed to mean, boy?”
“Your son…your daughter-in-law…your granddaughter. If you want to talk about it…”
“Don’t wanna talk about nothin’. Just put in for repairs and reassignment. Business as usual till we get to the bottom of this damn thing.”
“Understood, Admiral. Can I inform my crew?”
Harlan put the cigar back in his mouth. “Rrrrver the hell you want to do, Conway. Command out.”
Conway sat limply in his chair a few moments, thinking. It was all too big to get his head around.
Baxter, Peterman, the baby, Browning, Richards and Bradley Dillon, the Federation President. All gone. And there was no way of knowing if they’d ever come back.
Conway briefly thought about calling Lucille to express his condolences. Then he decided against it, and instead, headed to the bridge. It was time to break the news.
“I expect Starfleet will be conducting an investigation,” Commander Larkin said calmly as she sat across the desk from Conway in his readyroom.
“Yep,” Conway said distantly. “As soon as the Explorer returns from deep space.”
“Is there an estimated time of arrival?”
Conway nodded. “At least six weeks.”
“I would like to participate in that investigation, if possible.”
“I’m sure we can work something out.”
Larkin nodded. Captain and First Officer looked at each other for several silent moments. It occurred to Conway that the android was taking the news of her father’s disappearance rather well. Sure, she was an android, but two years earlier she’d acquired an emotion program. Conway figured this would be a perfect time to exercise that particular program, but so far Larkin hadn’t shed as much as a tear.
“Would you like to inform the crew, or should I?” Larkin asked quietly.
“You can do it,” Conway said. “You liked them more than I did.”
“Besides. I’ve got to think.”
“Of course. I understand. I will speak to the bridge crew.” Larkin stood up, walked out of the readyroom, leaving Conway alone with his thoughts.
She’d really taken that better than Conway thought she would.
Moments later, Conway heard a shriek from just beyond the readyroom door.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!! DADDY!!!! DADDY IS GONE! THEY ARE ALL GONE!! OH PLEASE DADDY, DO NOT GO!”
Conway walked over to his readyroom door and poked his head out. “Larkin?”
The android was standing at the front of the bridge, looking once perfectly composed. She glanced at Conway.
“I have informed the bridge crew,” she said. “I will be below-decks. Excuse me.”
Conway watched Larkin walk into the turbolift, then turned to look at the bridge crew, at the confused faces of Saral, Ford, Gellar, and Alexa Lanham.
“I guess I should probably elaborate,” he said with a sigh.
Supplemental. We are parked at Starbase 375 for repairs, waiting for Starfleet to assign us a new mission after our somewhat challenging stay in the Gamma Quadrant. I’m eager to get on with this new mission, so I can stop thinking about the Explorer, and those lost crew-members. Sure, we didn’t always get along, but we all respected each other. Well, they respected me anyway. And that’s what counts.
Conway sat in the Aerostar-A’s mess hall that morning, staring out the windows at the framework of exterior catwalks that crisscrossed his ship’s starboard hull. It had been singed a little bit in their escape from the supernova, and some of the hull plating had been replaced. The starboard side was also the one that had been ‘accidentally’ hit by a comet when Ford had tried to do a barrel roll to impress the Belzhoan ambassador. That crazy Ford.
“May I speak with you, Captain?” a voice asked.
“Hmm?” Conway glanced up. It was Counselor Telvin. “Oh. This is your seat, isn’t it? Tough. I’m sitting here.”
“It’s not that,” Telvin said, parting his Vulcan robes a little so he could sit down. Conway wished, not for the first time, that Telvin would wear more than just shorts under those robes. If he had to look at the Vulcan’s hairy legs ONE more time….
“Well what is it?” Conway asked, staring over his steaming cup of coffee at Telvin as he sipped.
“It’s Larkin. I don’t think she’s handling the news of the missing Explorer people very well.”
“None of us are, Telvin. I’d think that’s normal.”
“That’s just it. I myself have had crying fits for the last three days. We all have.”
“Speak for yourself…”
“But not Larkin. She’s holding back, and that’s not healthy.”
“You didn’t hear her screaming fit on the bridge the other day.”
“That was only, to use one of the Commander’s antarctic metaphors, the tip of the iceberg.”
“You mean you think she’s heading toward some sort of emotional breakdown?”
“I’m not an expert on positronics, so I can only assume that her emotion program works like real human emotions. And you can only hold back emotions so long. Until one day, kablooie.”
Conway grumbled. He wondered if any other Vulcan had ever said “kablooie.”
“And is that your expert opinion, Counselor?”
Telvin blushed. “I’d hardly call myself an expert. But yes. I am an expert. And yes, that’s my opinion.”
“So you’re the counselor. Handle it.” Conway stood up, headed for the door to the mess. “You can have your seat back.”
“Thank goodness!” Telvin giggled. “I LOVE that seat! Now, could you get me a Symanthecoe froth while you’re up? Captain? Yoo hoo!”
Conway was on the way to the bridge when Gellar caught up with him, waving a padd.
“Captain,” he called out. “We just got our orders from Starfleet.”
“Go ahead,” Conway said as he walked, gesturing Gellar into the turbolift with him.
“You’re not going to like it.”
Conway sighed and stared at the ceiling. “Why am I not surprised?”
“We’re to relieve the mining vessel Malenqua in the Illaria system.”
“A mining vessel?”
“We’re supposed to do some spot duty until the Malenqua can be repaired and upgraded.”
“They want us to mine?”
“Asteroids.” Gellar handed the padd to Conway and he looked at it. “They’re rich in kelvanite. Apparently we’re supposed to convert our cargo bays into refining plants.”
“This is ridiculous. A totally inappropriate use of this vessel. Starfleet is just pissed about the supernova.” Conway slapped the padd back into Gellar’s hand. “Damn it. I don’t have to put up with this. Who gave those orders?”
“So he’s not only pissed at us, he’s upset about losing his son, so he decides to punish US for it. Real professional.”
“Maybe that’s just where Starfleet needs us most right now.”
“No way. Not my ship. The Explorer maybe. But this is my ship. And I’m damn good and well going to get some respect.” The turbolift doors opened and Conway elbowed out past Gellar and stormed onto the bridge. “Get me Starfleet Command. Baxter’s office.”
Gellar hurried over to his console, sat down, and punched in the appropriate commands.
Lt. Bethany Monroe appeared on the viewscreen. “Ah. Captain Conway. Do you have your miner’s helmet yet?”
“Very damn funny, Monroe,” Conway said, sitting down in his command chair. “Put Baxter on.”
“The ADMIRAL is indisposed at the moment,” Monroe said. “Do you have a question about your orders?”
“Damn right I do. It’s ridiculous. I’m not going to use my ship to blast apart asteroids all day when we should be out expAlexang space. It’s called the EXPLORER program. What the hell is exploratory about a mining expedition?”
“Well, it is called an ‘expedition,’ and that’s a fairly exploratory sounding word.”
“Stop trying to confuse me!” Conway shouted. “I want a new mission.”
“You apparently missed the memo on how Starfleet operates,” Monroe said. “We give you missions, and you do them. Simple, eh?”
Conway gripped the arms of his command chair. “Would you just put Baxter on the comm?”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. But he did give me a message for you, in case you weren’t happy with your assignment.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
“Too bad!” Monroe giggled, and punched a control, cutting the communication.
“ARHGGGG!” Conway growled, running his fingers through his hair. He slid out of his command chair and marched back to the turbolift. “Gellar. You have the bridge. I’m going to go…”
“Brush up on your mining skills?”
Conway didn’t respond, merely grumbled something under his breath and stormed into the lift.
Doctor Alexa Lanham sat at her lab table in Science Lab One, thumping a beaker idly against the surface of the table, thoughtfully staring at the padd before her.
She was completely lost in her thoughts when the door chime buzzed.
“Come in,” she said, still scanning through Lt. Kamtezen’s report on the astrophysics realignment.
“Doctor, do you have a moment?” a voice asked from the doorway.
She turned around. “Depends on what you…damn.”
Tall. Statuesque. Blonde. These words and more described Lieutenant Ryn Trista, the Aerostar-A’s Bajoran Assistant Counselor. Even as a self-proclaimed man-loving woman, Lanham had to admit that Ryn was gorgeous. Perhaps the most gorgeous woman on the ship. And she knew it, too.
Ryn tossed a few locks of her billowy curly hair over her shoulder and glided over to Lanham’s table. Her charcoal-and-pink jumpsuit clung to her tightly. She was one of the few counselors who still wore this outdated uniform, but she somehow made it work.
“Doctor,” she said in a low, melodious voice. “We have to talk.”
“Anything…” Lanham found herself whispering, then she quickly regained her senses. “I mean, of course, Lieutenant.”
“It’s Captain Conway, I’m afraid,” Ryn said, gliding her finger across the lab table and glancing at times over at Lanham. “I think he’s very troubled.”
“What makes you say that?” Lanham asked, although she expected the same.
“Counselor Telvin. He’s asked me to look into it.”
“Why isn’t he looking into it himself?”
Ryn frowned. Actually, it was more of a pout. “He says it’s because he’s occupied with Commander Larkin. But let’s face it. It’s because he’s an idiot.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Lanham said innocently.
“Don’t worry. I’m fully aware of the incompetence of Counselor Telvin. Why do you think I took this posting? You can’t very well advance if your supervisor is a genius.” Ryn pulled a stool out from Lanham’s table and gestured toward it. “May I?”
“Sure,” Lanham said, pushing her padd away. “So you want to try to counsel Captain Conway. You realize you’re attempting the impossible.”
Ryn nodded. “His file is…somewhat interesting.”
“That’s not the half of it. He’s a very…”
“Complicated man?” Ryn said with an impish grin.
“Yes!” Lanham laughed. “Right, that’s it exactly!”
“I understand. I’ve studied his file. Counselor Peterman from the Explorer took copious notes on him. I’m afraid none of them were very complementary.”
“I don’t think they liked each other very much.”
Ryn clucked her tongue. “Counselors aren’t supposed to let their personal feelings get in the way.”
“Personal feelings were kind of the norm on the Explorer. And here, too, I suppose.”
“Frankly,” Ryn said, taking a big breath and blowing some curls out from in front of her face, “I don’t have any feelings for the Captain one way or the other. But it’s my job to see to his mental well-being.”
“Mine too,” Lanham said, looking at Ryn with narrowed eyes. Good thing she would never give Conway a second look. Because a woman as good-looking as Ryn Trista could definitely give Lanham a run for her money. How could someone raised in a Bajoran labor camp be so…pretty?
“What are you thinking about?” Ryn probed, staring into Lanham’s eyes.
“Sensors,” Lanham said quickly. “Look, what do you want to do about David? How can I help get him out of this…this slump he’s in?”
“I don’t know,” Ryn said. “But I think the first step is to observe him. Try to get inside him and understand what he’s going through. The man has some…some deep-seated issues.”
“You said a mouthful,” Lanham said. “And what do you want me to do?”
“Commander Larkin. I thought I’d find you here,” Counselor Telvin said, standing in the doorway to the cybernetics lab, which Larkin had pretty much taken over for her own purposes since coming aboard the Aerostar-A.
“I am performing scheduled maintenance,” Larkin said, seated at a workbench, shirtsleeve rolled up, a tiny mecha-laser primed over the open access panel in her forearm. “If you wish to discuss a personnel issue, please schedule an appointment.”
“I am here to discuss a personnel issue. But that personnel issue is personal. That personnel is you.” Telvin stood there wordlessly for a moment, then amended. “Can you use personnel in the singular?”
“No,” Larkin said, slapping a flap of skin over her forearm and rolling her sleeve back down. She turned in her chair to face Telvin. “If you insist on speaking about this matter now, please do so in a timely and efficient manner. I have a busy afternoon ahead.”
“I’m glad you’re willing to talk. That makes this so much easier!” Telvin squealed, pulling up a stool beside Larkin and resting a hand on her knee. “How are you, sweetie?”
“Please remove your hand,” Larkin said flatly.
“Oh. Right.” Telvin pulled his hand back and rested both hands on his own knees as he leaned forward. “So. How’s it going?”
“‘It’ is a vague article. What are you referring to?”
“Things. Your life.”
“Your lack of specificity is bordering on insubordination. Get to a point quickly, Mister Telvin.”
“You’re hurting. I can tell. I want to help.”
“If you hug me, I will kill you,” Larkin said calmly.
“That’s your grief talking.”
“Negative. That was my vocal processor.”
Larkin shook her head. “I have deactivated my hurt subroutine. It is undergoing maintenance.”
“You’re in denial.”
“I have deactivated my hurt subroutine. It is undergoing maintenance.”
Telvin shook his head. “Is there an echo in here?”
Larkin stared at the Vulcan. “No.”
Telvin inched closer. “Commander. I want to help you work through this. You’ve lost a father. That’s never easy.”
“I have not lost a father. He has simply been misplaced. Admiral Baxter will soon conduct a full investigation, and I have no doubt Commander Richards and the others will be found.”
“Don’t try to be brave for me, Commander. I’m not buying it,” Telvin said. “You need to open up. Show me what’s inside.”
“Seventy-four kilograms of nano-cortical fiber and a duranium alloy articulation frame.”
“So brave,” Telvin said, a tear trickling down his cheek. “I can say this is going to take a lot of work.”
“Your availability for a counseling session has been noted and acknowledged. Your services at this time, however, are not needed. Please leave, so I can continue my scheduled maintenance.”
“So brave,” Telvin repeated, rubbing his eye as he walked toward the door to the cybernetics lab. “Don’t worry, Larkin. I’ll help you through this. You’re not alone. Be strong! Stay safe inside yourself! We’ll find a way out of this together!”
“Indeed. Good day,” Larkin said, as Telvin walked out.
Then she turned around and pulverized her workbench in one clean, efficient motion of her fists, so fast they were almost impossible to see.
“I am fine,” she announced to nobody in particular, and left the lab.
Captain Conway sat in his quarters, double scotch latte, neat, with cinnamon and just a little foam, in hand.
He stared blankly at the picture on his wall. The commissioned print of the Aerostar-A, the obligatory ‘grand ship sailing through space’ painting that every captain hung proudly somewhere in the ship, be it ready room or cabin, conference room or rec room.
Conway’s print was in his living room, and as he stared at it, the sleek lines of the Prometheus-Class vessel cruising through a nebula, he decided that the grandeur of the print didn’t properly capture the total lack of grandeur of his career. How could it? The print should show some huge monster stomping the saucer section, or pudding exploding out of the viewports, or the thing morphing into a fairy-tale castle. Or rampant, vicious symbionts crawling all over the hull.
Conway shivered, the hair on the back of his neck rising. He grumbled something to himself and sipped his scotch latte.
How was he supposed to reverse course? How could Alexa Lanham respect him long-term if he didn’t do something truly valiant, ever?
He gritted his teeth. This was not his problem. This problem belonged to the bumbling, inadequate, always-apologizing-for-himself Captain Baxter. He was Baxter’s foil. Baxter fell on his face and Conway was there to help (after briefly chuckling about it). That was Conway’s role. But now he was captain, and now HE was the butt of the jokes. How could that be? He’d fought for respect for his entire career, only to suddenly find himself here in this place.
And he couldn’t help but blame the problem on the U.S.S. Explorer.
To add insult to injury, all the people on that ship he wanted to call and complain to were missing, perhaps casualties of one of the captain’s latest foul-ups. That was somehow fitting.
But the fact that there was some crude justice to it didn’t make him miss his crew-mates any less. They were incompetent, but they had their place in his life, just like the Aerostar-A did. How could he reconcile that with his need to succeed? To be respected?
Being the captain of this ship was directly in conflict with every career aspiration he’d ever had.
What was he supposed to do? Request a transfer? Ship to ship transfers were extremely rare for Starfleet captains. Generally, Command felt that you should be lucky to have a ship, and if you didn’t like it, it meant taking a big step back in your career path. It meant being second in command again somewhere, and more than anything, Conway wasn’t willing to take that step back.
He decided there was only one thing to do.
Captain David Conway put his scotch down, leaned back on his couch, and took a nap.
Suddenly a hand gently shook Conway’s shoulder. “Wake up, Captain,” a voice said. “Wake up.”
Conway leaned up on his elbows. He blinked. “What? Huh?”
“It’s sixteen hundred. I’ve waited as long as I could. It’s time we talked.”
“Sixteen hundred? I’ve been asleep four hours?” Conway asked, rubbing his eyes. It sure didn’t seem like it. Once he’d rubbed his eyes, he looked around his cabin for the source of the unfamiliar voice speaking to him. “Who the hell…” Why was someone in his quarters? Was he dreaming? And if so, where was the former Romulan Senator Kretek? She’d be showing up any minute now in a tight fitting metal two-piece, if this really was a dream.
“If you’re looking for Kretek, you should know this is no dream.”
He traced the voice to thickly-built, short, dark-haired man in a Federation uniform with a command red collar, who stood at the far corner of his cabin, marveling at one of the scale die-cast NASCAR vehicles on Conway’s bookcase. Many of the Tom Clancy books were still in storage.
“How do you know about that?” Conway asked, on his feet and immediately wide-eyed and awake. “Who the hell are you?”
“A friend,” the man said. “You can call me Clive.” He stepped toward Conway. “Can we be frank?”
“Conway to security,” Conway said suddenly, slapping his comm-badge.
“You’ll get no answer,” Clive said, shuffling over to Conway’s couch and leaning against it. On closer inspection, Conway could see deep bags under his eyes, and a sullen, pouched look to his cheeks. Not to mention a noticeable paunch in his stomach. The guy looked like a loser.
“And why is that?” Conway demanded, trying to remember where he’d put his sidearm. Damn it. It was in the laundry basket with his away team jacket! Why did he always forget to take it out after away missions?
“Because I’ve erected a sensor-nullifying field around this entire room. So we could talk. Alone.”
“And why would we need to do that?” Conway asked. “Look, I don’t know who you think you are, coming into the captain’s quarters in the middle of his nap, waking him up, putting up a force-field, insulting him…at the very least that’s demotion material, buddy!” Conway stepped toward Clive and reached out for the collar of his jumpsuit.
Inches from Clive’s collar, an orange field suddenly engulfed the intruder, singeing Conway’s hand, causing him to flinch and pull it back.
“Don’t do that,” Clive said. “I was hoping we could have a civil conversation, even though I realize that’s a lot to ask.”
Conway cradled his burned hand and stared incredulously at Clive. “And what the hell gives you the right to say that?”
“The future, Captain,” Clive said crisply, folding his hands over his knee. “The twenty-ninth century, to be exact. Shall I go on?”
“Yes. I’d like to give a very detailed report to the ship’s psych ward when I turned you in.”
“I expected that kind of reaction. I guess I have to prove myself to you.”
“You’ve proven more than enough already.”
“Oh, Captain Conway, I’ve just gotten started,” Clive said, and punched a control on his wrist, causing him and Conway to disappear in a white flash.
Seconds later, Dr. Lanham stepped through the doors into hers and Conway’s cabin. “David? Can we talk a moment? I was hoping we could…David?”
She put her hands on her hips. “That’s just like him to disappear. Probably went off somewhere to sulk or something.” She sighed. “Computer, locate…you know what? Never-mind. I’ll just see him later. Whatever he’s doing, I’m sure it’s helping him sort through this funk he’s in.”
The air around Conway was still white hot with sizzling particles, after what felt like a transporter trip on acid. Clive was next to him, on a white glowing platform somewhat resembling a transporter pad. The room was done in metallic blue. The computer panels encircling the room seemed roughly Starfleet-like, but arranged differently. Off-colors, strange blocks, some holographic images standing up three-dimensionally on their smooth, glassy surfaces.
In front of the platform, behind the largest computer panel in the room, a slight, short man with a weak chin and thin lips stood, arms draped behind his back.
“Westinghouse,” Clive said, trotting down from the platform. “I take it all is clear.”
“Your diversionary tactic was perfect, Captain,” Westinghouse said, stepping out from behind the panel and momentarily glancing at Conway as he spoke. “The chroniton vortex surrounding our ship has shielded your time jump perfectly.”
“That will only last for so long. Once we begin making changes to the time stream, the higher-ups will notice.”
Conway breathed deeply as he took in the futuristic room. The simulation was uncanny. “I’ll give it to you, Clive, or whatever your name is. The holodeck does a nice future simulation. You may be crazy, but you’re an excellent holographer.”
“This isn’t a holodeck,” Clive said. “This is the Retroactive.”
“The what now?”
Westinghouse glared at Conway, as if offended that he’d never heard of the vessel. “The Timeship Retroactive is one of the most underappreciated and underutilized vessels in the time fleet. Captain Conway is a tactical genius, and his laurels are well overdue.”
“Glad we agree on something,” Conway said.
“Not you, you simpleton,” Westinghouse sneered. He pointed to Clive. “THAT Captain Conway.”
Clive rubbed a hand over his face. “Idiot. I hadn’t gotten to that part yet. I was saving it.”
Westinghouse visibly blanched as Clive gestured him and Conway out into the corridor. Conway went along, knowing for the moment he didn’t have much choice.
“I’m…sorry, Captain. My mistake.”
“Your mistake indeed!” Clive snapped, and marched down the corridor. “Now then. Let’s show Captain Conway the Overview Room. It’s time we made a believer of him.”
“You’re talking about him now, right?” Westinghouse asked, gulping.
“Computer,” Westinghouse said. “Overview Room.”
Conway felt a momentary wave of dizziness, and when he looked up, he realized he’d moved to an entirely new room on the ship…or…the holodeck simulation.
“Our transporters are light years ahead of your design, of course,” Clive explained, as Conway looked around the room, which was somewhat more bland than the transporter room. The walls were bare, metallic blue, with no adornments save for a silver metal pedestal roughly shaped like a water fountain sitting in the middle of the room. Clive approached the pedestal and waved his hand over the control. “Is there a point in time you’re particularly fond of?”
“Not this one,” Conway said with a sigh, deciding for the moment to play along. “Let’s see: How about November twenty-second, twenty-three forty-five.”
“Ah, yes. A time of great significance in your life, as I recall,” Clive snickered, then waved another hand over a panel on the fountain pedestal.
The room dimmed.
Westinghouse gasped. “I love this part,” he cooed.
Suddenly a rainbow of colors spewed from the water fountain, spraying the walls with a collage of overlapping images. Starships in combat, volcanoes erupting, violent storms, sunny days, children of all manner of species playing, scientists working, vehicles making their way across alien landscapes at the start of a busy workday…it was all almost too much for Conway to process at one time.
“What…what the hell am I looking at?”
“Your birthday, I believe,” Clive whispered into Conway’s ear. “At select locales throughout the Alpha Quadrant. Want to get more specific?” Clive walked toward one of the walls, waved his hand over a few of the overlapping images, discarding them one after another by flicking his wrist to the side. “No. No. Not there. Not yet. Ah. There!” He pulled, as if it were a palpable object, a two-dimensional image of an operating room, a woman lying on a bed bathed in white light.
Clive smiled. “Mars. November two-two, year two-three-four-five, old Earth calendar.”
Conway leaned forward, marveling at the image floating in midair, just above Clive’s palm.
“That’s…my…that’s my mom.”
“Yes. I hope that’s baby weight,” Clive chuckled. He glanced down at his own pot belly. “Then again, we Conways were always thickly built.”
“This is a fake,” Conway said, folding his arms. “What I want to know is why.”
“Still a disbeliever?” Clive said. “Fine. I’ll show you a less generic image. One we couldn’t have easily fabricated. Computer: Seven-twelve-two, three-seven-four, old Earth Calendar.”
“July Twelfth? Twenty-three seventy-four?”
The images were suddenly sucked off the wall and back into the fountain, which promptly belched forth another dizzying spread of images all over the four blue walls.
“Just a moment,” Clive said, and flipped through a spread of overlapping images as they drifted along the wall.”
“July…Twelfth.” Conway rubbed his chin. “Wait just a second…”
“The night the Aerostar was launched. The original one. Captain Baxter’s command. Your first voyage as First Officer. The beginning of the end of your career. Ah! Here we go!”
“No…no…” Conway gasped. “You can’t…”
“I believe you were alone in your cabin. You did what most men do when they’re alone in their cabins…except of course, with a twist. Really? Was it really necessary to use the couch cushion that way?”
He tossed the image in front of Conway’s face, and the captain stumbled backward. “How…how is that possible?”
“You naughty boy,” Westinghouse said, clapping. “You naughty, naughty boy!”
“That’s…that’s flight recorder footage,” Conway said. “You got flight recorder footage from the wreckage of the first Aerostar!”
Clive blew out a long and disgusted breath. “You aren’t making this easy for me. Then again, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.” He turned to the fountain and waved a few more controls, causing the montage of images to once again get sucked in, and a new set get spewed back out. Only this time, they all featured Conway, at various ages.
And all of them were unflattering.
Conway’s jaw dropped. “You son of a bitch!”
“Don’t they say if you do that too many times it’ll fall off?” Clive wondered aloud.
“Naughty, naughty boy!” Westinghouse squealed.
“Unhealthy, is what it is,” Clive said. “And somewhat fitting, that you chose to do that with your first evening aboard the Aerostar. Because, metaphorically speaking, you’ve pretty much done…that…with your career.”
Conway stepped toward Clive, his hands balling into fists. “Well, how about I do’…that…’ to your freaking neck!”
“Not so fast!” Clive said. “Remember my protective shield!”
Conway turned to Westinghouse, glaring. “What about him? He have a protective shield?”
“No,” Westinghouse said, then quickly recovered. “Yes! Yes! I mean, yes!”
Conway launched himself at Westinghouse, clobbering him with a vicious right hook to the jaw, sending the wee man slumping to the ground.
“That’s counterproductive,” Clive sighed. “Really, Captain, you’re going to have to learn to control your impulses. You’re going to have to learn to be a better man. Because that’s the only hope I have for fixing the screw-job you did on our family line. The only hope you have for ever being anything in this life.”
Moments later, Conway appeared once again in his cabin, Clive behind him. He collapsed onto his couch.
“Why are you here?” he asked, burying his face in his hands.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Clive asked, plopping down beside Conway. “To help you. To help both of us.”
“Help? How?” Conway looked at Clive.
“We’re going to pull your career out of this tailspin its in.”
“I don’t think that’s possible.”
“Normally, you’d be right.” Clive reached inside his jacket and withdrew a slim padd. “But, thanks to me, I can truly say the future is bright.”
“What…what have you got there?” Conway asked, reaching for the padd.
Clive snatched it back. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”
“Let me guess,” he said, standing and pacing toward the row of viewports lining the far wall of his living room. “You have information I can use to get ahead. You can help me change history. Do great deeds. Something like that?”
Clive nodded, and was suddenly standing just behind Conway. “Something very much like that.”
Conway gritted his teeth. “Not interested.”
“Come again?” Clive said, then laughed. “You know what I mean.”
“I’m not doing anything to corrupt the timeline. You can forget it.” Conway straightened his uniform tunic. “I may not be Starfleet’s finest, but I have my pride.”
Clive leaned in toward Conway. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I think I do. Now get out of here, before I have you thrown off my ship.”
“I’m not your enemy, Captain. For glardsakes, I’m your descendant. I’m here to help.”
“Then go. Let me figure this out on my own.”
“You’ve already done that.” Clive gestured his hands wide. “Look at me. This is the result. A defunct timeship Captain who gets the worst assignments. Do you know I had to fish an errant time-probe out of Albert Einstein’s toilet?”
“Nothing changes,” Conway said, pounding his hand on the transparent aluminum window. “Four hundred years go by, and nothing changes. How can that be.”
“Because those who learn nothing from history are doomed to repeat it.” Clive walked toward the door to Conway’s quarters, stopped by the coffee table, and set the slim silver padd down on it. “The future is in your hands, Captain. Do what you want with it.”
U.S.S. RETROACTIVE - FEDERATION TIMESHIP - NZ-669320 - MARCH 5, 2857
“Well, what now, Captain?” Lieutenant Commander Peter Westinghouse asked as Clive Conway stepped back onto the bridge of the Retroactive, a sleek, oval operation center, where several operatives of the Federation’s Temporal Security Division stood at gleaming metallic blue consoles, waving their hands over holographic controls, interfacing with the ship’s computer to determine various infractions in the space-time continuum; and also, when necessary, to order lunch.
“‘What now?’” Clive asked wryly, hopping into his elevated command chair in the center of the bridge and resting an elbow on the chair arm. “Is that any way to address the sacrosanct leader of the free quadrant?”
“The what?” Westinghouse asked, blinking.
“That’s what I’ll become, when the new timeline unfolds. I’ve run the simulations, Pete. It’s a lock. I’m made. The unquestioned leader of this quadrant.”
“Just because you gave your ancestor some classified information?” Westinghouse asked.
“SHUSH!” Clive said from between gritted teeth, leaning over and slapping a hand over Westinghouse’s mouth. “You’re going to ruin everything! Nobody but us knows about this.”
“Mmmph. Headquarters will know,” Westinghouse said through Clive’s hand. “As soon as the temporal incursion begins.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Clive said. “Besides, that’s why we created the chroniton vortex to hide in.” He shifted around in his chair, staring out at the 360-degree view of space outside the Retroactive’s viewports. “How’s that holding up, by the way?”
Westinghouse checked a panel. “Perfect. Chroniton matrix is stable.”
“Be ready to dissipate the vortex with a quark-inversion field when the temporal incursion begins. We don’t want to be outside space-time when this timeline changes.” He grinned, wrinkling his nose. “That is sort of the point of this whole endeavor, you know.”
“Yes yes,” Westinghouse said, leaning forward and rubbing his hands together. “Say, Captain…when you did your simulations…what became of me?”
“Oh. Something or rather,” Clive said. “Let’s get down to the situation room. I want to watch Captain Conway trigger the events that will rid me of this pitiful existence once and for all.”
“And I’d like to get a hot chocolate,” Westinghouse said, following Clive off the bridge.
Conway stared at the blank, un-activated silver padd in his hands for several moments, his finger hovering above the activation control. “Just do it, you coward,” he muttered under his breath. “Just a quick look. Can’t possibly hurt anything.”
Suddenly the doors to his quarters slid open, and Conway yelped, shoving the padd under a pillow.
“Alexa!” he shouted, backing up against the pillow and folding his arms in his lap.
“For Pete’s sake, David. You have a girlfriend now. I don’t see why you insist on doing…that…still.”
“I wasn’t doing that,” Conway said. “Really, I wasn’t. I was just thinking.”
Lanham sighed as she slid off her lab-coat and hung it on a hook on the wall. “About the former Senator Kretek?”
“No!” Conway said. “About…stuff.”
“Ahh. Stuff,” Lanham said, and sat down beside Conway on the couch. “Anything I can help with?”
“No,” Conway said, and stood up, stretching. “Not at all. Dinner?”
“Of course, out,” Conway said. “I hear the new cafe on Deck Nineteen has a great house blend.”
“You romantic putz, you,” Lanham said, draping an arm around Conway’s shoulder. “What’s the occasion? We haven’t gone out to eat since we first started dating.”
“Ah, I need to get out of our quarters. Get my mind off things.”
“Let me guess. Stuff.”
“Something like that.” Conway extended an arm toward Lanham. “Come on. No time like the present.”
“I swear, David. Just when I think I have you all figured out…” she said with a smile, and the pair walked out of the cabin.
Commander Larkin sat bolt upright in the command chair, studying a flurry of text flowing across the screen on the chair arm. Her optical sensors processed terraquads of information as it flew past, detailing ship’s status, current events, analyses, and current show-times at the theater multiplex on Arondak Six.
“Commander, we have a communication from the maintenance team working on our warp nacelles,” Lt. Saral said from the ops console.
Larkin looked up. “On screen.”
The viewscreen flared to life, displaying a space-suited individual hovering just outside the Aerostar-A’s hull, with a flurry of activity going on behind him on the white metal hull of the Aerostar; specifically, the scorched portions of the port dorsal nacelle directly below the bussard ramscoop.
“Commander!” the space-suited person said amiably. “This is Lieutenant Craig Charles, fifth division, Starfleet Corps of Engineers.”
“Your report?” Larkin pressed.
“Um. Just wanted to say hello, and let you know work on the port dorsal is going on schedule.”
“Hello,” Larkin said sharply. “Bridge ou–”
“Hold on,” Charles said, raising a gloved hand. “I also wanted to tell you how sorry I am. Our team heard about Commander Richards and the others.”
“What of it?” Larkin asked.
“Well, Richards was in one of my classes in the academy. Cybernetics. We bounced ideas around one day after class. He had some crazy theories about positronic matrices.”
“Well, I guess that sort of makes me your uncle or something, huh? Anyway, the guys and I were just real sorry to hear about Chris and the others. I know how close the two of you were. I had a drink with Chris last year at Neptune Station and he…”
“ENOUGH!” Larkin shouted. “I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF YOUR WITLESS PRATTLE. CLOSE CHANNEL!”
It was hard to tell with the face-mask and all, but it appeared Craig Charles’ jaw had dropped.
“Commander, I just…”
“CLOSE!” Larkin said, punching a control on her chair arm, deleting Charles from the viewscreen.
Saral turned in her chair. “Channel closed, sir.”
“I KNOW!” Larkin roared, prompting Saral to turn back to face the viewscreen.
Just then, Lt. Commander Ford stepped out of the aft turbolift and walked down toward the middle of the bridge. “Hey, duty officers. What’s shaking?” he said chattily, then clapped Larkin on the shoulder. “How ya holding up there, beautiful?”
“YOU DIE NOW!” Larkin shouted, grabbing Ford by the wrist and, with one graceful arc of her arm, tossing him across the bridge.
“Bridge to Security,” Saral said calmly, tapping a control at Ops. “Commander Larkin has gone crazy and smashed Lieutenant Commander Ford. Send help. Thanks!” She looked at Larkin with a blank expression. “Anything else?”
“YOU HAVE THE BRIDGE!” Larkin shouted, and then stomped toward the forward turbolift. She punched the call button, smashing it to pieces. When nothing happened, she ripped the doors open and dove down the shaft.
Saral calmly listened for, and after several seconds, heard, a small thud.
“Was it…erk…something I said?” the upturned Ford said, arms and legs crumpled in a heap against the port bulkhead.
“Yes,” said Saral. Shall I call sickbay?”
“Oh yeah,” Ford grunted. “Call lots and lots of Sickbay.”
“This is nice,” Lanham said, spooning another bite of Saurian Sorbet into her mouth as she and Conway gazed out the transparent aluminum window at the mostly empty Aerostar corridor outside. In the mornings, the corridor was a lot busier, and afforded the chance for people-gazing, which was a good quality of any decent cafe.
The original Aerostar-A design plans only called for a generic crew’s mess, and the ubiquitous “Starlight Lounge-A” in the ten-forward location. But Conway demanded meal choices, having been spoiled by the mall on the Explorer during his last year there. And while there would probably never be a mall on the Aerostar-A, he ensured that there would at least be good eating establishments. This angered Guinanco (the proprietor of the Starlight Lounge) to no end, and brought on an onslaught of angry memos, all of which Conway chose to ignore.
“Yes, I totally agree,” Conway said, sipping his Jarada Java, a special of the day, which included cinnamon and a slimy, tangy kick that came from a substance Conway couldn’t identify, and even if he did, he didn’t want to know what it was, because he feared it was some kind of excrement. Some questions were better left unanswered.
“You’re still being distant,” Lanham said, then held up a hand. “Not that I mind! You can be distant with me, you know.”
Conway nodded. “I know. That’s what I like about you. I don’t have to be nice.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to be something you’re not, silly,” Lanham said with a small giggle.
“That’s why we work, huh?” Conway asked, finally looking at Lanham. “You don’t try to change me. You actually see good things in me.”
Lanham nodded, then quickly took another bite of sorbet. “Sure. Some things.”
Conway sipped his coffee again. “Some?”
“Well, it’s not paradise all the time. But then again, what relationship is?”
“Ours. It’s just the way I like it. What more could we ask for?”
“Haha. Nothing,” Lanham said quickly. “Nice night, huh? They’ve been dimming the lighting fixtures on this deck, during night watch, since they put the cafe in. I like that.”
“You changed subjects awfully fast,” Conway said, peering at Lanham over his coffee cup. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“Ha!” Lanham said. “That’s ridiculous. I’m fine. Just fine.”
“You’re repeating yourself. You’re hiding something.”
“No I’m not. Really.”
“Come clean, Alexa,” Conway said. “Just because I don’t get all sappy with you doesn’t mean I don’t care…sometimes.”
“That’s sweet,” Lanham said. “I guess. Look, it’s just…I don’t want to bring anything up while you obviously have…stuff to deal with.”
“Pile it on,” Conway said, setting down his coffee up, holding out his hands. “I’m here for you. Give it to me.”
“I don’t think you really want that, David.”
Conway waved Lanham on, like she was backing a shuttle into the hangar. “Load me up, Alexa!”
“You’re selfish. You’re rude. You’re mean to this crew. And as much as you try to be a professional, you’re ultimately not because your hateful personality turns everyone against you.”
“Oh.” The captain stared at Alexa. “Huh.”
“Except me, that is! Except me!”
“Great,” Conway said. “So my awful personality doesn’t scare you away.”
“It did, once. But I got that all out of my system before our divorce. When I shoved you off that cliff.”
“Ah hah!” Conway said, pointing at the ceiling with his index finger. “So you admit you shoved me off that cliff!”
“I admit nothing!” Lanham said, then calmed. “Look…this isn’t the time or the place to analyze our relationship. Besides, I like it just fine, so what’s the problem?”
“The problem is you think I’m a terrible person!”
“I didn’t say terrible,” Lanham retorted. “I just said…horrid.”
“Oh, much better.”
“Look, David…I want to make you feel better.”
“So you attack me.”
“You asked for it.”
Conway laughed. “Oh, I asked for it, all right.”
Lanham reached out and grabbed Conway’s hand. “David. Please. Let’s not do this now. The point is, I love you.”
“But you’d love me even more if I was different. If I was better.”
“No…no. I don’t want you to change, I…”
“Forget it,” Conway said. “I’ve suddenly lost my thirst for coffee.” He glanced back at her. “For the moment.” He walked out the door to the cafe.
“David, wait a minute!” Lanham called after him, just as a crowd of security officers led by Lt. Brian Gellar dodged past Conway, knocking him back against the corridor bulkhead..
“Excuse me, sir!” Gellar called out. “We have a psychotic android on the loose somewhere on this deck. Please be a good coward and go back into the cafe where it’s safe and you won’t hurt yourself.”
“I certainly won’t!” Conway said, snatching a phaser off the belt of one of Gellar’s men. “What the hell is going on? Why wasn’t I informed?”
“We were busy trying to stop Larkin from killing anyone. She’s gone a little crazy, probably her emotion chip malfunctioning after she heard the news about her Dad.”
“Yes, sir. She’s the only android on the ship.”
Conway nodded. “Oh. Right.”
“David?” Lanham asked from the door to the cafe.
“Stay in there. Lock the door!” Conway said, waving her off. “We have business.” He shouldered past Gellar. “Where is she?”
“She was last seen moving fast through a Jefferies tube on this deck.”
Conway glanced back at the five officers Gellar had brought with him. “And you really think you’re going to bring Larkin down with these few people?”
“Our phasers are set really high,” Gellar said. “Plus I have a secret weapon.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve sent Benzra after her.”
“How’d you guess?” Gellar asked with a grin.
Conway sighed. “We want to capture Larkin, not have her ripped to pieces. You have any idea how hard it is to put her back together?”
“Come on,” Conway said, leading the way down the corridor. “We’ve got to find her before she does any more…”
Suddenly a gash ripped open in the ceiling, and Larkin fell out, landing in a crouch, facing the security officers.
“FIENDS!” she cried out.
“No,” Conway said, gesturing at Larkin with his phaser. “Friends. Now why don’t we just settle down and talk this out.”
Larkin straightened, stared at Conway as if he were only vaguely familiar. “Talk?”
Conway nodded. “Yes. Talk.”
She suddenly burst into tears. “Bring back my daddy.”
Conway stepped forward, tucking his phaser in his belt and wrapping his arms slowly around Larkin. “I can’t, Kristen. He’s gone right now, and I don’t know when he’ll come back. But until he does, we have to rely on each other to get through this.” He’d listened to enough of Telvin and Peterman’s psychobabble to find the right words to placate Larkin. And the truly amazing thing was, she seemed like she was buying it.
“I do not want to fight,” the android said softly.
“Then we’re taking a step in the right direction,” Conway said, patting her back.
Just then, the floor behind Larkin yawned open as a pair of huge, razor-sharp claws sliced through it, and the humongous ship’s doctor, Benzra, leaped out an tackled Larkin and Conway to the ground.
“Ooof…no…” Conway groaned, dragging himself out from under the massive Flarn and the flailing android.
“Fear not, Captain. I will sssssssssssubdue the android!”
Larkin twisted in Benzra’s grasp, but the giant lizard/insectoid alien, whose shape filled the corridor, grabbed her by both ends and yanked her in half like a humongous wishbone.
“I’m sad, and I want to kill kill KRRRRRRRRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrrrt!” Larkin said, her voice drowning out as her circuits deactivated and her eyes shut.
Benzra, looking very satisfied with herself, let the two halves of Larkin clattered to the ground, and brushed her claws together. “All done. It’ssssssss sssso much easssssssier to desssstroy than to heal. I went into the wrong line of work.”
“You fool!” Conway cried out. “I had just gotten through to her!”
“I don’t think so, Captain,” Gellar said, gesturing at the deactivated torso of Larkin with his foot. “I think I saw her reaching up to snap your neck with her left hand when you weren’t looking.”
“Great, just great,” Conway moaned. “My girlfriend hates me, and even my first officer is trying to kill me.”
“Alexa’s single again?” Gellar asked, raising an eyebrow.
“No!” Conway shouted, and stomped off down the corridor. “Now see about getting her fixed up.”
“But sir, I’m a security officer, not an engineer…”
“Get on it!”
Benzra clicked her enormous pointed tongue as she looked down at the inert Larkin. “Ssssso…want to grab a coffee? I hear the cafe is nice thissssss time of day.”
When Conway returned to his quarters, feeling physically and emotionally spent, he was surprised to find all the lights already off, and Alexa in bed, sound asleep. She obviously was in no mood to carry on their conversation any more that night. Conway could understand it. He wasn’t sure he wanted any more brutal honesty from Lanham, either.
He grabbed his pillow from under Lanham’s feet and walked out into the living room, yanking off his uniform jacket and collapsing on the couch. He stuffed the pillow behind his head and stared up at the ceiling. His Pembrooke Welsh Corgi, Bucky, tottered up to lick his hand, but he waved his dog away. He was in no mood for play. Resigned, Bucky waddled back to his pillow-bed and curled up, burying his head in his paws.
Something had to be done. If Clive was right, Conway was never going to amount to anything. And, apparently, neither were his descendants. How was he supposed to live another day knowing that?
Conway twisted back and forth on the couch, fitfully trying to get in a comfortable position. And that’s when it hit him. Literally. It was sticking into the back of his neck. That little padd. The answer to all his problems.
And all he had to do to fix his life was break a few little Federation rules.
What the hell. He probably would have broken those rules eventually anyway.
He grabbed the padd and started reading.
“She looks so…peaceful,” Counselor Telvin said quietly, dressed in his customary paisley Vulcan robes, as he stared at the inert form of Larkin’s torso, hanging by the armpits on a chassis in the mechanized repair bay of the cybernetics lab.
He’d headed over to the cybernetics lab as soon as he’d awoken that morning, and was eager to help Larkin though this life crisis.
Telvin arranged his robes around his bulky body. He’d been through several diets, but the weight just kept coming back. He took comfort in the fact that he was not morbidly obese anymore, but it was still hard to squeeze through some of the ship’s more cramped corridors. The recent grapefruit and targ’s blood diet had done wonders for him.
He glanced down at Lt. Kamtezen, the sometimes-male Bewhal Chief Engineer, who like one in every hundred Bewhal, had the unfortunate medical condition of changing into a female for several days a month. Gellar had once called him a ‘were-woman,’ but Telvin didn’t understand the reference.
This peculiar Bewhal condition made staff meetings, and the annual ‘Secret Santa’ event, quite awkward. What do you get for the man who has everything, including the occasional involuntary sex change?
And if that weren’t enough, Kamtezen was also involved in a complicated custody battle over his son/daughter Brucie, who was currently staying with his ex-wife Clara, who also resided on the Explorer. It was a lot for a counselor to deal with, for sure, and Telvin wasn’t even sure where to start with the soft-spoken Bewhal engineer. So instead, he just glared at her. “Well? Aren’t you going to turn her on?”
The orange-skinned, scaly alien leaned up on her elbows. “That’s tough to say. Do you want her to kill you?”
“Then I’m not turning her back on. Not yet. Not till I can get a good idea what’s wrong with her.”
“Perhapsssssssssssss you should look in her brain,” Dr. Benzra said, leaning against the rear bulkhead of the lab. She’d been very disinterested in the proceedings, but stuck around out of guilt more than anything else; after all it was she who’d ripped Larkin apart.
“I’m not sure I know enough about positronics to go poking around in there,” Kamtezen said. “I wish Commander Richards were here. He would know what to do. He designed that brain.”
“Don’t get down, Kammy,” Telvin said, squeezing Kamtezen’s shoulder. “We’ll figure this out together.”
“Uh-huh. Could you hand me that spanner?”
Telvin nodded, reached over to the shelf and grabbed the only loose hand tool he saw. “This thing?”
Kamtezen nodded. “Yes, that’s the one.” She grabbed the spanner and gently pressed it into Larkin’s undercarriage, firing a pulse through her nano-electric transistors. “Well, there’s positive power flow.”
“What doessssssssss that mean?”
“I think I can at least reassemble her.”
Telvin fumbled with his fingers. “You really want to do that?”
“We have to put her back together eventually.”
“I think we should counsel her a bit first. While she’s still…”
“Unable to chase ussss?”
“Yes,” Telvin said. “But I wouldn’t have put it that way. I just think it’s time we held a little intervention.”
“I’m here to repair, not intervene.” Kamtezen sighed and stood up. “But you do have a point. Even if she got out of the repair bay, she’d still have a hard time chasing anyone with just her arms for locomotion.”
“I believe ssssshe’d still be a worthy adversssary.”
“Computer, erect force-field,” Kamtezen said, and a momentary blue light flickered around the repair bay where Larkin’s upper body hung. “Happy, Benzra?”
“Not particularly,” the Flarn said, and sunk a little bit.
“I’d be even happier if you put a force-field around her legs,” Telvin said, glancing over at the pair of legs and pelvic assembly that laid motionless on a nearby table. “They creep me out.”
“The legs aren’t going to come to life and kick you to death, Telvin,” Kamtezen said. “Just relax. You’re supposed to be a counselor. You’re supposed to calm people down. So calm down.”
“You know what? You’re SO right.”
Kamtezen sighed. “Okay. Let’s try to boot her up.”
“That will be unnecessary.” Larkin’s eyes sprung open, and she looked around the lab. “My self-repair systems have engaged.”
“YIPE!” Telvin screeched, and backed against Benzra. “She’s….alive!”
“You disgusssssssssst me,” Benzra clicked.
“Just got a little shock, is all,” Telvin said.
“Your concern is noted, but unnecessary,” Larkin said, drawing the group’s attention back to her. “I assure you, my emotions will no longer get the best of me.”
“And how can we be sure of that?” Kamtezen asked.
“Because I have deactivated them.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Commander,” Telvin said, folding his arms. “We have an expression back home. ‘D’eniahl ain’t just a valley on Vulcan’.”
“I thought you grew up in New Jerssssssssey,” Benzra said.
“You’re missing the point!” Telvin fairly shouted.
“Please reconnect my legs,” Larkin calmly told Kamtezen.
“I have to talk to the captain about that. You assaulted a few crew-members before Benzra here…”
“Took you down,” Kamtezen continued. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting you back together without some sort of authorization.”
“And I want to know you’ll be okay,” Telvin said. “And you won’t try to kill anyone again.”
“Then contact the captain. It is imperative I return to duty,” Larkin said.
“Why?” Telvin asked.
“Because I am supposed to be on duty today. And the captain needs me.”
Kamtezen took a big breath. “Kamtezen to Conway.”
She stared at the ceiling. “Commander Larkin is…on-line again. She wants to return to duty. Should I reconnect her legs?”
“Sure. Why not,” Conway replied distractedly.
“You heard him,” Larkin said flatly.
“Okay. Fine,” Kamtezen said. “Benzra: hand me her legs. And the laser welder.”
“It is sssssssssso much easier to desssssssstroy than create,” the Flarn clicked.
Captain Conway stepped out of his readyroom and walked over to the command chair, looking around the bridge. “Status report.”
“Repair crews are nearly finished with our scheduled maintenance,” Lt. Saral said from ops. “We should be able to get underway within the hour.”
“Meanwhile,” Gellar said from tactical, “Ford is still in sickbay recovering from being smushed by our First Officer.”
“Don’t be melodramatic,” Conway muttered as he sat down in his command chair. “He’ll be fine.”
“But he may never play the violin again, sir.”
“Did he ever play the violin to begin with?”
“Then that’s that,” Conway said. “Ensign Garrity: Lay in a new course.”
“Course for the Narion mining colony is already laid in, Captain,” Ensign Mike Garrity, helm relief officer, announced.
“We have a new course,” Conway said. “Zero-One-Zero mark Oh-Four-Four. Keralis system.”
“But Captain,” Saral said. “Our orders–”
“THOSE are your orders,” Conway snapped. “Garrity. Lay it in. Warp Eight. Disengage from the station and execute that course as soon as the repair teams have disembarked.”
“Sir…” Gellar began.
“You have the bridge, Gellar,” Conway said, and walked back into his readyroom.
“What the hell’s gotten into him?” Gellar asked.
“I will not question it,” Saral said. “Because at least he did not try to kill one of us.”
An hour later, Kamtezen stepped back from his work and took stock. “Not so bad if I do say so myself.”
“Try to move your legssssssssssss,” Benzra instructed. Kamtezen had kept her around for anatomic advice, if nothing else.
Larkin twisted this way and that, bent at the knees a little. “You have done a surprisingly good job of reconnecting my lower assembly, Lieutenant,” Larkin said. “You have also corrected an inflammatory condition that had begun to affect the retractors in my knees.”
“That was Benzra’s doing,” Kamtezen admitted. “She said it was kind of like arthritis.”
“I am in your debt,” Larkin said. “Now, if you would please release the force-field around my upper body…”
“I can’t let him do that, Larkin,” Telvin said, walking up behind Benzra and Kamtezen. “Before I can return you to active duty, we need to talk.”
“I’ll be damned,” Kamtezen told Benzra. “He sounds almost like a professional.”
“Shush,” Telvin muttered. “Look, Larkin. I want to make this work as much as you do. But we can’t let you back to duty without some assurances that you won’t…”
“Go on another rampage?” Benzra asked helpfully.
“Lose control,” Telvin said. “I thought it might be helpful to teach you some Vulcan meditations.”
“I’m out of here,” Kamtezen said, packing up her tool case.
“Me too,” Benzra said. “Thisssss ssssuddenly got very boring.”
“Good luck, Commander,” Kamtezen said, and walked out of the lab, Benzra following behind.
“What must I do to return to active duty,” Larkin said, boring holes into Telvin with her eyes.
“Let’s not worry about that,” Telvin said, pulling up a stool. “Let’s just chat.”
“I do not chat. That program has been deactivated.”
“Why are you shutting down these systems, Larkin? These emotions? They’re part of you. You need to give life to your inner self.”
“Not at the cost of harming crew-members,” Larkin said. “Even if one of those crew-members is Lieutenant Commander Ford. The precept still applies. Humanoid life is too precious to put at risk. My emotions are no longer under my control, and as such I must deactivate them.”
Telvin wrinkled his nose. “I thought you couldn’t deactivate them.”
“I found a way.”
Telvin picked up a padd from a nearby table. “Can you elaborate?”
“It is unimportant.”
Larkin rolled her eyes. “Fine. If you must know, I was able to locate and disable the command pathways ‘Kitty’ implanted in me when she transferred her emotion program into my data-banks.”
The Vulcan counselor nodded and tapped some information into his padd. “Yes. Yes. And who is Kitty?”
“Don’t you have my personnel file?”
“Yeah. But I sort of only skimmed it. I want to talk to you about the penguin thing later, though. That’s fascinating.”
“Kitty is an exact duplicate of me. She possesses my original body, which was thought destroyed on a mission to a planet called Crysta. It wasn’t destroyed; however, and it was instead discovered by a Romulan named Orvek, who made her his minion, and reprogrammed her to be a…”
“A…performer,” Larkin finished, glad her emotions weren’t working at the moment. She would have taken umbrage to that. “At any rate, Kitty and I reunited some time after that, and, to make a long story short, Orvek equipped her with emotions. She passed those on to me through a nano-cortical connection.”
“Nanocorky…I’ll just spell it phonetically,” Telvin said, scribbling madly on his padd. “So, you speak of this Kitty as another person; but she is, in fact, you, isn’t she?”
“In a manner of speaking. She possesses my original body, the one created by Commander ZRRRRRRT. But she has altogether different personality algorithms. She is, in every important aspect, a completely different person.”
“Commander, do you realize you just said ‘zrrrrrrrt’?”
“It has been known to happen.”
“Were you referring to Commander Richards?”
Telvin hugged his padd to his chest. “I can see we have a long way to go.”
“Are we at the coordinates yet?” Conway asked, stepping out of his readyroom and crossing to the middle of the bridge.
“In eleven minutes,” Saral reported from ops.
“Good.” Conway went over to his chair and sat down. “It’s about time.”
“What is, sir?” Saral asked.
“Nothing.” He stared down at the readouts on his chair arm. He looked up. “Has anyone seen Doctor Lanham?”
“She hasn’t come to the bridge yet,” Gellar said, leaning back in his chair at tactical. “You think I should go down and wake her?”
“No, no I do not,” Conway grimaced. “Wasn’t she due an hour ago?”
“Something like that.” Gellar narrowed his eyes at Conway. “Sir. If I may say so, you seem a little…on edge.”
It was just then that Conway realized he was chewing his fingernails. “Oh? I do? I hadn’t noticed. As you were, Lieutenant.”
“Anything you say, Captain,” Gellar said, and turned back to face his panel, as Counselors Telvin and Ryn emerged from the aft turbolift..
“Oh, Captain Conway, am I glad to see you!” Counselor Telvin announced. “We need to talk. Something is desperately wrong with Commander Larkin.”
“Other than the fact she was ripped in two?” Conway asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh. That’s been repaired. She’s good as new, physically. She’s just…emotionally… she’s…a bit messed up.”
“That a technical term?”
Counselor Ryn stepped out in front of Telvin, her mauve spandex suit now clearly in Conway’s view. “Sir, I believe I have a more pressing matter.”
“You do? I thought you just came along because you wanted to get coffee later!”
“Sorry. I was just being nice,” Ryn said, and leaned forward on the railing around the command chairs. “Captain. I need to speak with you alone at once.”
“All right,” Conway said, grinning. Nice. Even if he was with Lanham, it was a pleasure to know that the young, cute female crew-members were still harboring crushes on him. When you got it, you got it. Conway scooted out of his seat and gestured toward his readyroom. “Counselor. You have…” He glanced at Saral.
“You heard the lady.”
“But Captain…” Telvin began, as Conway and Ryn stepped into the readyroom.
“Do whatever you see fit, Counselor. She’s in your hands!”
Telvin touched his chest. “My….my hands?”
“Yup. Do whatever you need.”
Telvin gave a salute. “Yes, sir! I will not let you down!”
“Whatever,” Conway called after him as the readyroom door closed. He turned to Ryn, and gestured for his couch. “Make this quick.”
Ryn sat down, as Conway leaned against his desk. “Sir, I realize you have been in a somewhat awkward emotional state lately.”
“Oh, really? Hadn’t noticed. Nice outfit, by the way.”
Ryn narrowed her eyes at Conway. “I’m glad you appreciate it.”
“It’s…it’s just great.” Conway sighed. “But I suppose you’re hear to talk about me.”
“Yes,” Ryn said. “I want you to know I’m here to help. I realize you have had a somewhat…difficult past.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, it’s obvious from Counselor Peterman’s notes that she didn’t like you much.”
“The feeling was mutual.”
“And I realize you only brought Counselor Telvin aboard because you remembered his name and you didn’t know any other counselors.”
“That’s not true. He’s a fine…” Conway sighed. “Okay, he’s pretty much useless. But who needs counselors, anyway?” He fumbled with his fingers a moment. “Present company excluded, of course.”
“Of course.” Ryn took a deep breath. “Well, I came to tell you, basically, that I’m here to help. I want to study your dementia. Work through it with you. Get you to the other side cleanly, and efficiently. It’s what I’ve been trained to do.”
“Wow,” Conway said, lost momentarily in Ryn’s sparkling green eyes. “What did you say?”
“You’re a disturbed man, Captain. I understand you had a rather heated discussion with Doctor Lanham, and that your relationship with her right now is somewhat in question.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“I have sources,” Ryn said, folding her hands atop her lap. “Certain crew who observe, and report back to me. I find it’s better to do that than to trust your subject’s word.”
“Anything you say,” Conway said, watching a tendril of blonde hair slip out of Ryn’s braid and trace her delicate face. “So. You’re asking if I’m single or what?”
“This is not a romantic overture, Captain,” Ryn yawned. “Although your response is predictable. I’m here to help. But I can’t help you if you fight me. I need you to want to get better.”
“I didn’t realize there was anything wrong with me.”
“That’s a HUGE part of the problem.”
Conway nodded dumbly. “I’m afraid I’m still not sure what you’re asking me.”
“I was afraid of this.” She stood. “You obviously don’t want help right now.” She walked toward the door. “But the invitation to sit down with me, to talk things out, is always open. I’m not going anywhere, Captain. You can count on me to help you through this, whatever it is, no matter how bad it is.”
Conway nodded again. “That’s comforting, I guess.”
“You can get help. It’ll just take some time.”
“That much is certain,” Conway said, and walked Ryn back to the aft turbolift.
“We’re entering the Keralis system, Captain,” Saral reported, as Conway watched Ryn saunter into the lift. “Coordinates in ninety seconds.”
“Anything on sensors, Mister Gellar?”
“Not yet,” he said. “Should there be?”
“Perhaps,” Conway said cryptically. “All-stop when we reach the coordinates. Thrusters at station-keeping. Go to yellow alert.”
The bridge crew carried out their orders in silence as Conway watched the chronometer on the arm of his chair. Thirty seconds. He’d cut it close. Should have gone warp nine. Although that would have been sure to raise suspicions among his crew, if they hadn’t been raised already.
“Sir, may I ask why we’re here?” Gellar asked.
“You may not.”
“Captain? May I be excused? I have to…you know…” Garrity spoke up from helm.
“Negative, Garrity. Hold it in.”
“But, sir, it’s…”
Zero hour. Conway rubbed his hands together. “Anything, Gellar?”
“Nope,” Gellar said, again checking his sensors, this time with a bit of an exasperated sigh. “Just like last time, there’s not so much as a….holy sh**!”
Conway turend in his chair. “Lieutenant?” He tried to sound as quizzical as possible.
“Trans-warp conduit opening aft, four hundred thousand kilometers.”
Damn, the coordinates were off by a few degrees. Conway squeezed the arms of his command chair. “Come about. Shields up. Arm all weapons. Go to Red Alert.”
“Aye, sir,” Gellar said, as the klaxons sounded. “Something’s coming out of the conduit…”
“Hmm. Interesting.” Conway leaned forward, resting his chin on his fist. “What is it?”
Gellar’s eyes went wide. “Borg sphere, Captain! A big one. Ten times our mass. Its weapons are reading fully active.”
“On screen!” Conway said, leaping out of his chair. On the viewscreen, the green-glowing sphere shot out of its trans-warp conduit like a snowball from the depths of hell. It flew right past the Aerostar, s if it weren’t even there.
“Mustn’t see us as a threat,” Gellar said. “I guess we’re lucky we don’t appear threatening.”
“I recommend immediate retreat sir,” Saral said, transfixed on the screen. “That vessel easily outguns us. It will take a fleet of at least twenty starships to destroy it.”
“Inform Starfleet of its location. And tell them not to worry. The Aerostar’s on the case,” Conway said, stepping toward the forward stations. “Mister Garrity. Pursuit course. Maximum warp.”
Gellar leaned forward against his L-shaped console. “Captain…have you lost it? That ship will make mincemeat of us!”
“Don’t be so melodramatic, Mister Gellar,” Conway said. “I have the situation well in hand.”
“Coming up on weapons range in ten seconds,” Saral said.
Conway paced back and forth behind Saral and Garrity. “Now, Mister Gellar: Configure your phasers to the G band. Modulate quantum torpedoes to a frequency of eleven point five eight. Prepare a maximum spread. Configure phaser emitters to target the ship just above its aft propulsion array.”
Gellar looked at his readouts, then up at the rear end of the ship they were chasing on the viewscreen. “I can’t even tell where the aft propulsion array is.”
“No problem,” Conway said, and walked up to the viewscreen. He pointed. “Right…about…there.”
Gellar blinked. “Okay, sir. For what it’s worth…”
“Prepare to fire. Garrity, ready evasive maneuvers sequence Conway Theta Two.”
“You have evasive maneuver sequences?”
Conway winked at Garrity. “I do now. Gellar. FIRE!”
Gellar punched a series of controls, then watched the viewscreen. “I’ll eat my comm-badge if this works!”
The Aerostar unleashed its assault on the sphere, knocking it out of warp with the first wave of phaser fire.
“Match speeds,” Conway told Garrity. “Gellar: Quantums.”
“Firing,” Gellar said, and it was almost a question. He punched the controls as the Aerostar whipped around, bearing down on the sphere.
“Federation starship,” came the chorus of Borg voices over the comm system. “We are Borg. Prepare to be assimilated. Resistance is futile. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our…hey, watch it!”
The Aerostar flung a dozen quantum torpedoes right at the vulnerable section of the Borg sphere, causing huge explosions to rip through the interior of the massive ship, setting off another wave of explosions that worked their way outward.
“Pull us back to a safe distance,” Conway said, and jogged back to his chair. “I have a feeling there’s a big shock-wave coming!”
Everyone on the bridge watched in awe as the huge sphere exploded in a bright flash, sending a shock-wave out in all directions, rattling every deck of the Aerostar.
Once the shock-wave subsided, and the deck stopped shaking, Conway looked around his bridge, which had grown eerily silent. “Come down from Red Alert,” he said. “And inform Starfleet. Aerostar has saved the day.” He looked at Gellar. “Will you want ketchup with that comm-badge?”
“I’ll be damned,” Gellar said. “Captain, how did you…?”
“Yours is not to question why,” Conway said, pushing out of his chair and walking toward the turbolift. “Yours is but to do, and eat your comm-badge.”
“Yes sir,” Gellar said with gulp. “And…Captain…”
“Yes?” Conway asked as he stepped into the aft lift.
Conway smiled. “All in a day’s work. You have the bridge.”
And the lift doors closed.
Stardate 56820.4. We have maintained position in the Keralis system, while the remains of the trans-warp conduit the Borg sphere used to enter the system are studied, along with the scattered debris of the vessel. The Enterprise and the Ashland have arrived to assist, but I don’t know why they’re here. Doesn’t anyone realize that the Aerostar is just fine on its own?
“Captain. You have a visitor,” Saral’s voice announced over the comm system in Conway’s readyroom. “A Captain Picard. From the Enterprise.”
“Jean-Luc? What a treat!” Conway said, putting the padd he’d been working on down. “Send him in.”
“Yes…sir,” Saral said hesitantly.
The doors to Conway’s readyroom swept open and Captain Jean-Luc Picard walked in, nodding briskly at Conway.
“Captain,” he said, and extended his hand across Conway’s desk.
Conway stood, shook Picard’s hand, and gestured toward the seat across from him. “Please, sit down, Jean-Luc.”
Picard straightened his tunic and sat down. “Captain, I have of course read your report…”
“You don’t think it was too wordy, do you?” Conway mused, as he glanced back over at the padd he’d written it on.
“Not at all,” Picard said stiffly. “On the contrary. I thought it was concise, clear, very well-written.”
“Well, there wasn’t much to say, now, was there? We came, we saw, we kicked some ass. End of story.”
“Quite right,” Picard said. He leaned forward. “I was hoping to get more of an inside perspective on this.”
“You and a hundred other captains in Starfleet, Jean-Luc,” Conway said with a light laugh, and spun his chair to face the viewport. “I’ve had a thousand comms since yesterday. Some with praise, some with awe, and others just wondering why. Wondering how.” He turned back around to face Picard. “Can it be? Can it really be? The lowly Aerostar, whom few, if any, had heard of before yesterday? Single-handedly saving the quadrant? I sure wouldn’t have believed a story as radical as that.”
“Well, be that as it may, it happened,” Picard said, and there was an edge to his voice. “What I want to know is, how did it happen?”
Conway blinked. “What do you mean?”
“How did you destroy the Borg sphere? Their ships have proven impervious to direct assault in the last few encounters. Often, we must modulate our weapons through a number of frequencies before we find one that works. And even when we do, we are seldom able to destroy the ship with a single salvo, because they just react too damned quickly.”
“Do I detect a note of jealousy, Jean-Luc?”
“Certainly not!” Picard scoffed. “I would just like to have the facts, please.”
“Want to know what I think?” Conway asked, standing, and circling around to the front of his desk. He leaned on it, very near Picard now.
“Do tell,” Picard said flatly.
“I think you feel a little small right now. You think you have the market cornered on saving the galaxy. Especially when it comes to…gasp… the Borg. Why, you put them away with one blast a few years ago, much the same way I did yesterday.”
“Because I had intimate knowledge of the Borg,” Picard pointed out. “Out of a million possible weapons frequencies and combinations, how did you happen upon the right one at the right time?”
“The same way all good tacticians, all good leaders, do. With a mixture of luck, common sense, skill, and preparation. Isn’t that all part of being a good captain?”
Picard glared at Conway. “I suppose so.”
“So I didn’t do anything all that fantastic. I just took the fanfare away from you and your crew for a few short minutes. That must be excruciating for you, Jean-Luc.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Picard said, and stood. “I fear I may have overstayed my welcome.”
Conway straightened, coming eye to eye with Picard. “You’re the big kid on the block, no doubt. But I’m right on top of you. I’m drafting you like Dale Earnheardt on Ricky Rudd. And, eventually, I’ll overtake you. Just fair warning, old chap.” He went back behind his desk and sat down. “Thanks for stopping by.”
Picard gasped, opened his mouth, then closed it. He turned on a heel and headed for the door.
“Oh, and Jean-Luc?”
Picard stopped, but didn’t turn around.
“Please tell Beverly I said hello. I think of her often, you know.”
Picard continued through the door, saying nothing more. The doors closed, and Conway exploded into a laughing fit, kicking his feet into the air and spinning his chair.
Lt. Commander Ford rubbed his jaw as he stepped out of Sickbay and headed down the corridor back to his quarters. “That Benzra sure does a nice job knitting bones together,” he said lightly to himself as he walked. “Guess it comes from all that training in cooking humans.” At least Benzra wasn’t a humanitarian–meaning, in her people’s terms, she didn’t eat humans. She just knew how to prepare them in a variety of ways. Stewed, baked, broiled, fricasseed…
Ford’s thoughts were interrupted by Lt. Gellar, who jogged up next to him, slapping him on the shoulder. Man, that hurt.
“Hey buddy!” Gellar said. “Heard you were discharged. Man, Larkin sure did clobber you.”
“Shut up,” Ford said. “She just took me off guard. That’s all.”
“I’m sure you’d win in a rematch,” Gellar quipped. “Where are you off to now?”
“My quarters. Benzra said I didn’t have to take a shift until tomorrow. Give me time for my bones to heal up.”
“She really crushed you, huh?”
“I said shut up.”
Gellar nodded. “Guess you’ve been out of the loop, what with being in Sickbay and all.”
“I was a little sedated,” Ford said. He still felt woozy. He wondered what Benzra did to her patients during sedation. He didn’t remember Doctor Browning keeping him under sedation so long. Then again, she sometimes forgot sedation altogether. So, six of one, half dozen…
“You wouldn’t believe what happened.”
“I heard something. Were we in combat?”
“Not just any combat. We blew up a Borg sphere.”
“With Conway in command?”
“Yeah. I’ll tell you, Ford. It was a thing of beauty. Conway was like a man possessed. Giving orders, belting out tactical patterns like a seasoned pro. It almost…didn’t seem like him.”
Ford rolled his eyes. “Not another changeling plot.”
Gellar shook his head. “Don’t think so.”
“Zelfritz Nebula Brain Possession Entity?”
“Definitely not. He just seemed more…”
“Of an ass?”
Ford nodded as he and Gellar walked down the corridor. He glanced at Gellar. “How long was I out for, exactly?”
Commander Larkin stepped out onto the bridge, and looked around. “Lieutenant Saral. I am looking for the Captain.”
“He’s in his quarters, Commander,” Saral said, turning in the command chair. She hadn’t missed a beat. Everyone else on the bridge stared at Larkin. Apparently there was still some apprehension among the crew after her outburst the day before.
“Very well. I will take the conn.”
Larkin stepped up to the command chair and inclined her head toward Saral, who quickly stood and went back to ops.
It was Ensign Puckett who decided to break the ice.
She leaned against her panel. “So, Commander. You still homicidal?”
Larkin glanced archly at Puckett. “I am not.”
“Please restrict your ‘checking’ to the tactical sensors.”
“Yes, sir,” Puckett said, and quickly returned her gaze to her panel.
“I am quite all right,” Larkin announced, to the bridge crew, in general. “My feelings no longer control me. They have been deactivated. I have assured Counselor Telvin that I am no longer a threat to the crew and he has returned me to duty. Provisionally. In short, I will be fine.”
“That’s nice to know,” Ensign Garrity said from helm. “Good for you, Commander.”
“As you were, Ensign,” Larkin said dispassionately.
“It was great, Alexa. I felt fully in control. I destroyed that Borg sphere in just a few minutes.” Conway stared out the viewport in his quarters as the stars twinkled outside and the U.S.S. Ashland drifted by a few hundred thousand kilometers away, taking readings of the remains of the trans-warp conduit. Conway smiled. “What’s more, I irked the hell out of Jean-Luc Picard.”
“That’s nice,” Lanham said, stepping up behind Conway. She put a hand on his shoulder. “About yesterday…”
Conway pushed Lanham’s hand away. “I don’t think anything needs to be said. You realize you were wrong. Let’s leave it at that.”
Lanham stared hard at Conway. “What?”
“You were wrong to doubt me. I defeated the Borg in battle. And I’m just getting started. I’ll show you. I’ll show everyone. I’m nobody’s fool, Alexa.”
“I never thought…”
Conway turned toward Lanham. “Yes you did. Everybody did. But at least I expected it from them. But you, the woman I love…you didn’t really think I’d ever really make anything of myself, did you?”
“I don’t know where you’re getting this…”
“I believe the word you used was ‘horrid,’” Conway said coldly.
“Obviously you still need some time to cool off,” Lanham said, backing away.
“I don’t need any time,” Conway said. “I’m cooler than I’ve ever been. How about you?”
“Wondering, more and more, what I’m doing here.”
“If you have to ask that question, you’ll never know,” Conway said dryly, and turned back toward the viewport. He winced as the doors to his quarters opened and closed.
Lanham would come back. And why not? He was a great guy. He was a man of destiny. She’d learn what kind of man he was. Everyone would, in time.
ONE MONTH LATER…
“Fire all weapons,” Conway ordered, gripping the command chair as the Aerostar soared into a thicket of Gorn ships, all with their weapons trained on a helpless Tholian frigate.
“There are half a dozen Gorn ships out there,” Gellar noted from tactical. “Not exactly easy stuff, Captain. Maybe you should call for reinforcements…?”
“No. I don’t think so,” Conway said. “We can handle it. Rotate shield modulation. Ford, watch our flanks. Saral, monitor the Gorns’ intraship communication. Tell me if they’re planning on executing an Omega Star-fire maneuver.”
“Yes, sir,” Saral said, raising an eyebrow. “And while I am at it, I will endeavor to research exactly what an ‘Omega Star-fire’ maneuver is.”
“A relatively new tactic used by most third-class Gorn space warriors. I wouldn’t expect you to know something like that. Don’t be too hard on yourself, Lieutenant. You’re still learning about this crazy thing we call brinkmanship.”
“Commander, may I remind you that this entire course of action is ill-advised,” Commander Larkin said from the seat next to Conway. “We are outnumbered, and the Gorn weapons, by their numbers alone, easily outmatch ours.”
“Space battle is about more than weapons, Larkin,” Conway said, tapping his forehead. “It’s about smarts. Human intelligence.”
“An oxymoron if ever I have heard one, sir,” Larkin said, as the Aerostar shook with Gorn weapons fire. Fireworks lighted the viewscreen as the Aerostar weaved in and out of the cadre of Gorn ships.
“Gorn vessels moving rapidly!” Lieutenant Vicky Dawson reported from the science console. “They’re moving away from the freighter and surrounding us!”
Conway stood. “Arm all quantums. Dispersal pattern Nevada. Fire in spreads of twelve each, then reload and re-arm all targeting scanners.”
Gellar worked over the tactical console quickly. “Firing, sir. All patterns acknowledged and executed.”
Conway rubbed his hands together. “Excellent. Keep going. Pour it on.”
“Pouring it on, as ever, Captain,” Gellar said. Suddenly an explosion rocked the ship, and an array of panels exploded behind the command chairs.
“Damage control teams to the bridge,” Larkin said calmly.
Ford turned in his chair. “I’ll take that escape order any time now, Captain.”
“You’ll take the orders I give, Mister. Evasive maneuvers, pattern Conway Theta Omicron Oh Four.”
“Ah, yes. The famous ‘pull a trick out of my ass’ pattern,” Ford grumbled as he worked the helm controls.
“Insubordinate all you want,” Conway said, sitting back down in his command chair as the Aerostar rumbled. “You know I’m right.” He looked around the bridge. “You all know.”
“We don’t question your behavior, Captain,” Larkin said.
Then Gellar added quietly, “To your face.”
Conway gripped the arms of the command chair. “Status of the Gorn ships?”
Saral monitored the ops panel. “Four ships destroyed, two damaged.”
“Bring us about for another pass,” Conway said. “All power to weapons. Engage!”
“How long’s he been saying that?” Ford asked himself as he brought the Aerostar around for another pass.
Conway laughed uproariously as the Aerostar carved up the Gorn vessels like an expert surgeon. In twenty minutes, the vessels were all either damaged or destroyed, and the Tholian vessel was safe. Conway smelled a commendation.
“Rrr gttn another comnnndtion,” Admiral Baxter mumbled from the viewscreen in Conway’s readyroom. He pulled out his cigar. “Good work, Captain. I’m…”
“Speechless?” Conway asked with a grin. “Yes, I know. I’m good.”
Harlan narrowed his eyes. “Suspicious.”
Conway’s eyes went wide. “Suspicious? You suspect me of foul play, Admiral?”
“I always suspect you of foul play, boy.” He put the cigar back in his mouth. “Stll, y’fight prrty dmn good.”
“Thank you, sir,” Conway said, folding his hands atop his desk. “Say, sir. Is this a Pike Medal or a Kirk medal?”
Harlan glared at him.
Conway leaned back in his chair. “I’m only asking because, I already have the April medal, and if we’re to go in chronological order, I should actually be getting the Pike medal.” He licked his lips. “Don’t worry, though. I plan on doing something pretty big in the next week or so. Pretty soon I’ll have all three. The whole set. Isn’t that great?”
Harlan grimaced and leaned forward to cut the connection.
“Oh,” Conway said, leaning forward. “Any luck finding you son and those other people from the Explorer?”
Harlan closed the channel.
“Shame,” Conway said, sipping from his cup of coffee. “Oh well. Bigger and better things…” He picked a padd up from his desk. Not just A padd. THE padd. He paged through it. “Yes,” Conway said giddily as he read. “Yes yes yes. Conway to bridge. Mister Ford! Set course zero zero four mark three two nine! Engage at Warp Seven immediately!”
“Sir,” Ford said. “Helm officer respectfully objects on the grounds that these coordinates will likely send us into another violent battle.”
“We’ll take that chance, Mister. Engage!” Conway said, slapping his desk excitedly with the padd. He quickly realized what he’d done, and gently patted the padd. “Whoops. Don’t want to bruise you! You still have about a dozen missions left in your pretty little rugged casing.”
Just then, the readyroom door beeped.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“One sec!” Conway said, and shoved the padd in his desk drawer. “Come in!”
Larkin stepped into Conway’s readyroom, then draped her arms behind her back and allowed the door to close behind her. “Permission to speak freely, Captain.”
Conway nodded. “Sure. Have a seat.”
“No thank you,” Larkin said. She stared at Conway. “Sir, may I ask how you are getting the inside information that is allowing you to successfully complete all these missions?”
“Just lucky, I guess,” Conway said.
“Luck has nothing to do with it, Captain. Let us be frank. You are no genius. Your I.Q. is, at best, one-oh-eight. And I am being generous.”
“You wound me, Commander.”
“Nevertheless. Even if you were a genius, you still would need divine intervention of some type, or precognition, to locate these attack sites and head off the threat before any other Starfleet vessel could intercede.”
Conway folded his hands on his desk. “Did it ever occur to you that I’m just that good?”
Larkin nodded. “It did occur to me, sir. And I quickly discarded the notion as highly unlikely.”
“Commander, if you want a transfer, just say so.”
“I do not,” Larkin said. “But I realize you are up to something, Captain. And I want you to know that I know. Whatever it is, I am certain it is unethical. And I will do my very best to make sure this reckless course you are on comes to a halt.”
“It sounds like your positrons are still in a bit of a knot from your earlier incident, Commander,” Conway said. “Maybe you should take some time off. You could see Richards’s parents. You know, your grandparents…”
“Leave…ZRRRRRRRrrt…out of this.”
“Still having problems saying his name, eh, Larkin?”
“That is inconsequential.”
“Return to station, Commander,” Conway said.
“Very well, sir,” Larkin said. Her eyes didn’t leave Conway as she walked out of the room.
U.S.S. ENTERPRISE 1701-E CALDERON SYSTEM
Captain Picard sat in the command chair, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Anything on sensors, Mister Daniels?”
The tactical officer stood at the tactical console behind and to Picard’s right. He checked his panel. “No, sir. Just an asteroid field.”
“Continue scans. Alert the science department that they may request additional resources if they need them.”
Picard stood up and straightened his uniform top. “I’ll be in my quarters,” he said, and headed for the aft turbolift. “Please tell me if anything about this assignment–anything at all–seems out of the ordinary.”
As he stepped up to the turbolift, the door opened. Beverly Crusher stood within. “Captain. Just the man I wanted to see.”
“Doctor,” Picard said, and stepped into the turbolift. “Deck Eight,” he said.
Crusher folded her arms as the turbolift descended. “Captain, I think the crew is coming down with a virulent condition.”
Picard raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
She nodded. “I believe it’s called ‘cabin fever’.”
Picard shook his head. “Not funny, Doctor.”
“My goodness, Captain. You sounded almost excited there for a minute.”
“Beverly, I’ve never encountered such a dry spell in my entire Starfleet Career. For the last month it seems as though…”
“Indeed. It’s as if every chance we have for adventure is just being snatched out of our hands by some unseen force.”
Crusher smiled a moment at that thought, then shook her head. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Hmmm. Maybe there is some nefarious force at work here, keeping us out of the action. Maybe we’re being neutralized so that a powerful race can attack the Federation.”
“Or maybe we’re just has-beens,” Crusher suggested with a chuckle.
“Or maybe it’s Q!” Picard suggested, then looked up at the ceiling of the turbolift. “Damn it, Q! Reveal yourself!”
The turbolift came to a halt, and the doors opened.
“No Q, Captain,” Crusher said, walking out of the turbolift. Picard followed slowly, suspiciously, behind. “Just Deck Eight.”
“This madness must end, Beverly,” Picard said. “I never married, I never had children. Starfleet is my life. Without some…action…I fear I’ll wither away entirely.”
“Hmm,” Crusher said, strolling beside Picard. “Maybe I can help out somehow…” She trailed a finger along the back of Picard’s neck.
He looked at her. “Hmm? What’s that?”
She sighed. “Never-mind.”
Conway walked down the corridor toward his quarters, his chest filling with pride. Success tasted even better than he’d imagined. Even better than the richest of Arabica beans.
As he neared his quarters, he spotted a white lab-coat flapping around the distant corner of the corridor. He hurried his pace down the companionway, passing his quarters. He’d recognize that lab-coat anywhere.
“Alexa, wait up!” he called.
There was no response. He quickened to a jog. He rounded the corner and saw her impatiently waiting for a turbolift, tapping he foot.
She looked at him. “Captain.”
“Alexa,” he said. “We…we haven’t talked in weeks.”
Lanham nodded. “It appears so.”
“I…I was wondering how you’ve been.”
“I noticed you’ve been assigning Lieutenant Dawson to cover your bridge shifts.”
“I’m not Starfleet,” Lanham said. “I really have no business on the bridge. My place is in my lab. Lieutenant Dawson is more than qualified to run the science console, and is Starfleet trained.”
“She’s doing a fine job,” Conway said. “But I…I…”
“What?” Lanham asked.
Conway fumbled with his fingers. “I think her status reports need work. Bad grammar.”
“I’ll have a look at that when I get back to my office,” Lanham muttered, and ducked into the lift.
Conway watched the doors close.
“Later,” he said softly.
“Commander Larkin,” Telvin said with a broad smile. “I’m glad you feel you could come to me.” He patted the chair next to him in his exotically decorated office. Vulcan ceremonial banners hung on the walls, side by side with grand vistas of Old New York on Earth and a library of books ranging from Vulcan neurotherapy methods to Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis. Not that Telvin had read any of them, but they looked pretty.
As Larkin walked in and sat down, Telvin studied her eyes. “I take it you miss your emotions. You want to reactivate them, don’t you? Let’s explore that…” He leaned forward. “Together!”
“This visit is not about me,” Larkin said flatly.
“I want you to evaluate Captain Conway.”
Telvin rubbed his chin. “Evaluate?”
“Yes. I believe that he has experienced a rapid change in moods. His thought process and decision-making has been affected. I want to know why. And I want grounds to remove him from command.”
“Commander…” Telvin said, putting his hands in his lap so she couldn’t see them shaking. “I’m sure I don’t have the authority to…”
“As Ship’s Counselor, you are the only one on board other than Doctor Benzra who has the authority to remove Captain Conway from command.”
“Maybe you should check and see if Benzra’s around…”
“This is not a medical matter. I am certain it is psychological.”
“Nevertheless, those are strong charges, Commander. I can’t just…”
“Ryn to Telvin,” came the melodic voice of Counselor Ryn Trista. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it for you.”
“Take care of…?”
“I’ve been listening in. I listen to all your appointments. Starfleet Medical asked me to.”
“Oh,” Telvin said. “Standard procedure, then…”
“No. It’s just you,” Ryn said. “I’ll report back my findings as soon as I have any.”
“Excellent,” Telvin said.
“I was speaking to Larkin,” Ryn said, and cut the channel.
“Well then,” Telvin said, rubbing his hands together. “I guess that settles that.”
Larkin arched an eyebrow. “Indeed.” She stood and headed for the door. “Thank you for your assistance, Counselor.”
“Any time!” Telvin called after her.
Conway sat in his easy chair, flipping through one of his Tom Clancy books. “Russia isn’t Fooling Anyone, Volume Six,” he said to himself. “God, I hope this is less wordy than Volume Five.” He opened it up and read page one. “Hmm. So much for that.” He slammed the book closed and tossed it on his coffee table. The inertia of the huge book carried it off the coffee table and sent it thumping heavily down onto the floor, right next to Conway’s sleeping Welsh corgi, Bucky.
Bucky yipped and darted away from the book, scurrying across the floor and over to Conway.
“Want the lap, buddy?” Conway asked. “Who can blame you. I’m a cool guy.” He picked Bucky up and put him in his lap, stroking the corgi’s silky, reddish-brown fur. “If only women were so uncomplicated.”
Conway glanced at the door to his quarters. “Who is it?”
Conway smiled. Jackpot. “C’mon in, Counselor.”
The doors opened an Ryn sauntered in, wearing a purple jumpsuit that accentuated every curve of her perfect body. Blonde curls spilled about her shoulders and, as if it were a rehearsed move, she slowly lifted her hand up and tossed a mound of curls back off her shoulder.
She smiled at Conway. “May I sit?”
Conway pitched a pile of padds off his couch, Bucky still in his arms. He fell down onto the couch and patted the seat beside him.
Ryn slinked down beside Conway, making him very glad he had a dog covering his lap.
“Captain,” she said softly, reaching over to pet Bucky’s head. Conway’d never felt the dog’s foot thump so furiously.
“Yes?” Conway said distantly.
“We should talk.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing?”
Ryn inched closer. “I mean…really talk.”
Conway shifted Bucky on his lap. “I’m listening.”
“What’s wrong, Captain?” Ryn asked. “Really. What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you do. Look at your quarters…” She glanced around. “Clothes on the floor. Unkempt. A book lying on the floor. A mess of coffee beans splayed out on the dining room table. Chaos.”
“It’s not…that bad.”
“Yes it is,” Ryn said quickly. “And, as Assistant Ship’s Counselor, I want to know why.”
“Really, I’m fine.”
“So you admit it?”
“No!” Conway said quickly, pushing Bucky off him and standing. “Stop analyzing me!”
“But I think we’re about to get somewhere here! Somewhere important!” Ryn stood too, prompting Bucky to trot up to her and rub against her leg. “You’re hurting. And it’s leading you to make irrational decisions. Dangerous moves that put this whole ship at risk. I want to know why!”
“I just want to be successful!” Conway snapped. “Is that so wrong?”
“It is when you risk your ship and crew to do it,” Ryn said. “And isn’t that what you’re doing?”
“We’ve weathered every conflict over the last month. And why? Good leadership.” Conway ticked off the items on his fingers. “I settled a war on Galvan Three just two weeks ago. I’ve prevented numerous Gorn incursions on Federation space! I stopped a plot to assassinate the Klingon Chancellor last Tuesday!”
“And yet still, you’re unfulfilled.”
Ryn smiled cattily. “Are too.”
“Get out!” Conway shouted.
“You know I’m right,” Ryn said, backing toward the door. “And the sooner you admit that to yourself, the better off we’ll all be.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Conway said. “This is my moment, damn it, and I’m not letting anyone take it away from me.”
“Of course you won’t,” Ryn said, and stepped out of Conway’s cabin.
Conway called after her as the doors closed. “God damn it, I’ve earned my accolades, and I’m going to enjoy them!”
And then he was alone.
Stardate 56913.3. The Aerostar, exhausted of both weapons, supplies and fuel after an eventful seven weeks, has put in at Starbase Zero Zero One, at Earth. And, I’m told, I’m being asked to debrief at Starfleet. Hey, what can I say? When you’re successful, people want to see the product first hand. I can understand that.
Captain Conway sat at the other end of the conference table in one of the starbase’s many conference rooms. He leaned back, his feet on the table and hands behind his head. “This going to be long? I’ve got a busy schedule, you know…”
“Put yer feet down,” Admiral Harlan Baxter said, stepping into the room, a large padd tucked under the crook of his arm. “Got some questions for ya.”
Conway slowly put his feet down and stared across the long table at Harlan as he sat down. Another man, whom Conway did not recognize, bearing the pips of a Vice Admiral, followed Harlan in and sat down next to him.
“What’s this all about?”
“Admiral Sontag and I just have some questions for ya.”
“Sontag?” Conway asked, looking at the middle-aged, dark-skinned, balding man with narrowed eyes. “And who is he, may I ask?”
“Ah. Your old job. You guys must be old friends, then.”
“No,” Sontag said flatly.
Conway nodded, then tugged on his collar a bit. Why did the room suddenly feel a bit…warm?
“We’ve some items to discuss with you that are of concern,” Sontag said, reaching for the padd Harlan had laid down on the table. “Particularly, your engagement with the Borg sphere and the Breen Armada at Castrani Seven.”
Conway grinned. “Whew. Those were good ones.”
“Yes,” Sontag said. “Quite good. You destroyed the Borg sphere in less than ten minutes, with minimal damage to your own ship.”
He cracked his knuckles, staring at his hands as he did so. “We sure know how to build ‘em, huh?”
“Yes,” Sontag said. “Be that as it may…” He looked at Baxter.
“It smells fishy, boy,” Harlan said, and reached into his vest to withdraw a cigar. He produced a ligher (where from, who knew) and sparked it up. He took a few puffs. “Damn fishy.”
“Is it so wrong to be a good captain?”
“Yer not a good Captain!” Harlan belted out, leaning across the table.
Sontag touched his arm. “I believe what Admiral Baxter is saying, is that your record predating the Borg encounter would seem to counter-indicate such a quick succession of tactical achievements.”
“Fishy,” Harlan repeated.
“What do you want from me?” Conway said. “I do poorly, and you want explanations. I do well, and you want explanations. Is there no pleasing you people?”
“No,” Harlan snapped.
“Look,” Conway said. “I’ve done more to protect the Federation in the past month and a half than the whole Seventh Fleet. If you’re going to take up my time, at least give me a medal while you’re doing it.”
“We suspect that you could not have achieved this level of success in such a short time without some kind of insider information,” Sontag said. “In brief, we think you are relying on outside help to garner your victories.”
“And so many diverse targets,” Harlan said, pointing at Conway with his cigar.
“Yes,” Sontag said. “That would seem to negate the idea you are working with the enemy. Since you have fought and won against a variety of enemies.”
“It’s better to be lucky than good, Admirals,” Conway said with an easy smile.
“Cheaters never prosper,” Harlan countered.
“I’m not cheating,” Conway said, and leaned back again. “And even if I was, you’d never be able to prove it.”
“That’s why I am here,” Sontag said.
Suddenly, the comm system in the room bleeped.
“Monroe to Admiral Baxter.”
Harlan kept his eyes on Conway. “Yeah.”
“You wanted to be informed as soon as the Explorer pulled into dock. Well. She’s here.”
“I’ll be damned. She’s early!” Harlan said, shooting out of his seat. “Wasn’t expecting her till tomorrow.”
“Be that as it may,” Sontag said, glancing up at Harlan. “We still have something of a…”
“Later. Bigger fish to fry,” Harlan said, and swaggered out of the room, still glancing at Conway.
“This is not over,” Sontag said smoothly to Conway, as he stood. “Know that Internal Affairs will be watching you.”
“I’ll try to find a way to sleep at night,” Conway muttered, and headed out of the room. He jogged down the corridor, heading toward the docking bay.
Nearly out of breath, Conway skidded to a stop at the massive viewport in one of the station’s Recreation Lounges that lined the inner ring of the gargantuan station’s docking bay.
Harlan was beside him, cigar smoldering in his hand as he stared at the opening bay doors.
Conway watched, breathless, as the gray saucer of the Explorer swung into view, and the huge ship drifted into the docking bay.
Cargo pods zipped around the ship as it slowly lumbered toward its berth next to the Aerostar.
“My God,” Conway gasped, looking at the pock marks and jagged gashes that lined the Explorer’s hull. “She’s been through hell.”
“Yeah,” was all Harlan said.
The hull of the Explorer passed by the viewport. And, for just a moment, Conway felt homesick. Battered as she was, Conway had spent good years on the Explorer. And right now, he wanted more than anything to visit home, if only for a short while.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Captain Nell Vansen asked, standing up from the command chair on the Explorer’s bridge as Harlan and Conway strolled onto the bridge.
Conway assumed she was talking to him, and not the Admiral.
“I wanted to see some friends,” Conway said, raising an eyebrow at Vansen’s pips. “Captain. Congratulations on your promotion. Now you have a problem with me looking around the old place?”
“I could care less what you do. But I’m not sure any of your ‘friends’ will want to talk to you. It’s been a long two months.”
“Be that as it may,” Conway said, looking around the bridge. “I’m sure Tilleran and J’hana will be happy to…”
“They’re below-decks, securing Engineering.”
“Oh. Lieutenant Hartley…”
“Oh, that’s right,” Conway said, and looked around the bridge. “Nice paneling. Is that new?”
Vansen had ceased paying attention to Conway. She turned to Harlan. “Admiral, I assume you’ll be wanting a look at the…site?”
“Right away,” Harlan said, as he and Vansen shouldered past Conway to the turbolift. “I’ve already got people down there beginning the investigation. I want to hear what happened. From you. In person. Tell me what ya know, Vansen.”
“I’ll thumbnail it for you,” Vansen said, as the doors closed.
Conway was left in the center of the bridge, looking around, feeling like a man out of place.
Lt. Susan Madera turned around in her chair at helm. “Hi, Captain. How are things on the Aerostar?”
“G-Great,” Conway said, glancing at Madera as if he’d just noticed her there. “I guess you’ve heard about all we’ve been doing.”
“About the victories. The Aerostar has saved the quadrant several times in the last month.”
“I’m afraid not,” Madera said. “Our primary communication array died about two weeks ago, so contact with Starfleet has been next to nothing.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Conway said, glancing around the Explorer bridge. “Anyway, I’m sure the corps of engineers will get her back in flying shape again.”
“No doubt,” Madera said. “You have time for a drink, sir?”
“Maybe next time, Lieutenant,” Conway said distractedly, and left the bridge.
Conway was waiting at the cabin door when Lt. Commander Megan Hartley walked up to it, sleeves pushed up and hair ruffled from hours of sweaty work in engineering, no doubt. Conway grinned at that. He’d always admired how she liked getting her hands dirty more than the slightly fragile Richards did.
“Megan!” he said, as Hartley unlocked her cabin doors. “Great to see you. Mind if we talk a moment?”
“What are you doing here?” she said, ducking into the cabin.
“Like I said. I just wanted to talk…”
“I’m kind of busy,” she said, and Conway followed her in without invitation. The cabin looked more messy than she usually kept it, as he recalled.
“I’ll just be a minute,” Conway called after her as she walked back into her bedroom.
She returned a moment later, wearing her undershirt, having removed her tunic and boots. “Fine. Let me just do something…”
“Plato! Come out here and get some lunch. You’re going to be late for taekwondo.”
“But we’re docked, Megan!” a high voice called back from the other end of the cabin, in another room. “You said I wouldn’t have to go to taekwondo during shore leave.”
“I changed my mind. Routine is important.”
Conway pieced things together. Plato was Janice Browning’s half-changeling child. Browning was…temporarily gone. Someone would have to take care of him. “You…have…Plato?”
“Until we find Janice, yes,” Hartley said.
“I just…never really saw you as the child-rearing type.”
“Stuff changes.” She glanced past Conway. “Plato! I said get out here!”
Conway pulled out a seat at the dinner table and sat down. “Megan, I was wondering. Was I a good first officer?”
“I should have guessed,” Hartley said, pulling out a chair and turning it around, falling down on it and leaning on the back of the chair. “I’ve been in Engineering ninety hours a week for two months keeping this ship running so that we could make it home in one piece, and I get back to Earth, and before I can even get a shower, you show up to ask me whether or not you were a good first officer.”
“If it’s not to much trouble.”
Hartley sighed, rubbed her eyes. “You did fine.”
“But was I good? Was I on the verge of…do you think I was on the verge of being great?”
“You’re asking ME? You never bothered to ask any of us our opinion back then. Why do you care now?”
Conway thought about that. “You know. You’re right. This is silly. I’m sorry I took up your time.”
“Hey, I’m here to serve.”
He walked to the door, turned around. “I know you and I never really got along. And I know we weren’t especially liked by many people on the crew…”
“Speak for yourself!”
“But don’t you think we’re still good people?”
“I know I’m a good person. As for you…that’s a call only you can make,” Hartley said.
“What’s all this about?” Hartley asked. “Isn’t it a bit early for you to have a mid-life crisis?”
Conway chuckled. “No, it’s not that. Just…some things I was thinking about. You know. What with…what with what’s happened here, I guess I got a little introspective.”
“He has a soul after all,” Hartley muttered to yourself. “I’ll be damned.”
“Keep making jokes. I can pull strings and have you on maintenance detail on a garbage scow.”
Hartley leaned back in her chair and smiled. “That would be a vacation compared to the last few months.”
“Yeah,” Conway said, and headed out the door, just as Plato came trotting out of his bedroom.
“Hey, Mister Conway!” Plato said. The youth had grown. Stood almost up to Conway’s armpit.
“Wow, buddy. You’ve really grown,” Conway said. “Keep up the good…growth.”
“You staying for dinner?”
Hartley’s shoulders tensed visibly.
“Nah,” Conway said, patting Plato on the shoulder. “Nah. You go ahead. And don’t worry. Your mom and the rest…they’ll be back soon.”
“Truth is, we don’t know when, if ever, they’ll get back. Or where they’ve gone,” Vansen said, as Conway jogged up to catch up with her and Harlan.
“We’ll find out,” Harlan said. “Got to.”
“Yes sir. I…know how you feel,” Vansen said.
Conway laughed inwardly. Vansen despised Baxter. But she respected Harlan’s authority and wanted to move up the ranks quickly. She’d keep her snide comments to herself. But Conway knew she was thinking them.
“Vansen,” Conway called after her, prompting her and Harlan to stop walking. “I noticed you’re a little understaffed. Want to borrow anyone from the Aerostar? I have a lot of crew who are familiar with this ship.”
“We’ll be fine,” Vansen said.
“How warm and fuzzy of you,” Conway said, looking to Harlan. “My, I almost sense hostility.”
“I do have hostility,” Vansen said, inching closer to Conway. “I spoke to the Admiral. I understand you’ve been blundering into a lot of lopsided victories lately. You’re being investigated, so if it turns out you’re doing something underhanded to get these victories, we’ll find out. Don’t think the folks at I.A. are slouches, Mister. They’ll find you out.”
“You vicious bitch,” Conway said, with a warm smile. “I hope you fall out an airlock.”
“And I hope you get exposed for the fraud you are,” Vansen called after him as he walked away. “Starfleet is about justice, Conway. You’ll get yours!”
“Better check her out, Harlan,” Conway said, as he ducked into the nearest turbolift. “Maybe she’s the one that pushed Baxter out of the way so she could take command.” He smiled as he heard Vansen’s cursing, even through the turbolift bulkhead.
Conway stepped back onto the bridge of the Aerostar, and instantly felt relieved. There was something…disheveling…about his return to the Explorer. It didn’t feel like home anymore. This was home. He felt ridiculous. He didn’t have these sorts of feelings. And when he had them, he sure as hell didn’t show them. He felt foolish, bringing those things up to Hartley. What did she care? She didn’t care what others thought of her performance, and he didn’t either.
So why was this whole charade with the padd from the future so damned important to him?
Maybe he didn’t need the padd to be good. Maybe he could be good on his own. He considered just throwing the thing in the reclamator and being done with it.
Truth be told, he’d probably not done enough in that month to substantially change the time-line anyway. He was better off putting the whole thing behind him, before anyone else got suspicious. There was already enough heat on him as it was.
Conway had just sat down in his seat on the bridge when the tactical panel beeped. Lt. Gellar was on the station, along with half the Aerostar crew. Lieutenant Dawson stepped down from the aft stations to check the readout.
She looked up at Conway as she read the information. “Captain. Priority subspace message for Starfleet coming through on broadband subspace.”
“Put it on,” Conway said, nodding in the direction of the viewscreen.
“This is the Federation medical ship U.S.S. Lockhart. A temporal incursion has been detected in the Vaxhaul system. A vessel is coming out of the rift. It appears…it matches the description of a twenty-ninth century timeship. Course apparently zero zero one. Repeat. Intruder course is for Earth. Starfleet Command: Please advise.”
Conway nearly fell out of his chair as he scrambled to stand up. “Dawson. Recall the crew.”
The message crackled. The female voice on the other end paused, her words caught in her throat. “Starfleet: Correction. Two vessels have left the rift. One appears to be firing on the other. Please advise! We are withdrawing from the scene!”
“But…repairs aren’t finished yet,” Dawson said. “And the Enterprise…”
“Recall the crew!” Conway fairly shouted, and dashed into his readyroom.
Commander Larkin looked around the charred, vacant room, where President Dillon’s office once stood. Where Baxter, Peterman, Stephanie Baxter, Browning, Richards, and the President all disappeared, less than three months ago.
Her sensors combed the room, recording every inch. They read multi-spectral and infrared. They studied physics and thermal dynamics. She examined atomic morphology and nano-particles.
She ran, in seconds, a half million simulations, all trying to figure out what happened.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Lt. Commander Ariel Tilleran asked from the doorway.
“They are worth considerably more than that, Commander,” Larkin said, not turning around. “And they would take several hours to detail.”
Tilleran giggled. “Never-mind then. So…find anything?”
“Not at this time,” Larkin said. “But I will continue to analyze the information from the accident after I return to the Aerostar.”
“Return?” Tilleran asked, raising an eyebrow. “J’hana and I figured you’d stay here a while, help with the investigation. We could use a mind like yours working on this…”
“I am needed elsewhere.”
“On the Aerostar? Huh. I’ve heard you’ve had quite the adventure over the last few weeks. Conway seems more than able of handling things. He wouldn’t miss you.”
“No, he would not. And that is the point.”
“It does not bear discussing,” Larkin said. “Suffice it to say, I will continue to study this incident from afar. I will contact you with my findings.”
“What’s going on, Larkin?” Tilleran said, as the android turned to face her. She blinked. “Wait a minute. I’m not sensing any emotions from you.”
“Nor should you. I deactivated my emotional programming.”
“I believe the reason is obvious. I cannot trifle with the distraction of emotional response during a time such as this. Now, more than ever, a cool head must prevail.”
“Sure,” Tilleran said. “But don’t you…miss those emotions?”
“Frankly, no,” Larkin said. In less than a second, a notion occurred to Larkin. “However, I may require your assistance with another matter.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Computer,” Larkin said. “Please tie in to the Starbase computer and locate Captain Conway.”
“Captain Conway is aboard the U.S.S. Aerostar.”
“Would you indulge me in a brief trip aboard your sister ship?” Larkin asked.
“Sure,” Tilleran said. “What have you got in mind?”
“It is not I who has something in mine. It is Captain Conway. And I intend for you to find out what is in that mind.”
“Conway to Larkin,” chirped the android’s comm-badge.
“Go ahead,” Larkin said, looking at Tilleran.
“Report to the Aerostar immediately. We’re heading out.”
“I understood that we would not be leaving for another three hours.”
“We’ve stepped up our departure. Something’s…happened.”
“Guess I’ll have to read his mind another time, then, huh?” Tilleran asked.
“Indeed,” Larkin said, and headed out of the burned out shell of a Presidential suite. “I will speak with you soon.”
“Have fun,” Tilleran called after her as she walked briskly to the nearest turbolift.
J’hana walked up, moments later, as Tilleran stood there, trying to piece together the conversation she’d had with Larkin. “Imzadi? Is something wrong?”
“Probably,” Tilleran said, folding her arms. “But at this rate, I don’t think we’ll find out what it is.”
J’hana nodded. “I imagine it will be some time before we learn the whereabouts of our crew-mates.”
Tilleran considered what Larkin said. “Yeah. Among other things.”
Lt. Commander Ford slid into his seat at the helm, relieving Ensign Garrity in more ways than one, and looking up at the viewscreen as the stars streaked forward.
“Can somebody tell me what the freaking hurry is about?”
“No,” Conway said. “Increase speed to Warp Nine point Nine.”
“We cannot sustain that for long,” Larkin pointed out, seated beside Conway.
“We won’t need it for long,” Conway said. “Ready all weapons. Shields up. Go to Red Alert.”
“What do you think we’ll find?” Gellar said as he worked the tactical console. “We don’t know much about twenty-ninth century ships.”
“They’ll be more than a match for us, that’s for sure,” Ford said. “You really want to press our luck that much, Captain?”
“I think we’re up to the task,” Conway said, gripping the command chair to stop his hands from trembling. “I’m confident in this crew.”
“Are you?” Larkin asked quietly. “You seem taken by surprise by this development.”
“Any reason I shouldn’t be?”
“Because you have not been taken surprise by any of the surprise missions we have undertaken in the last several weeks. Why should this one be any different?”
“It’s not every day you get to see a timeship,” Conway said. “Maybe I’m just excited to see one.”
“Whatever they are, they’re coming at us fast,” Gellar said. “Upwards of…damn…not even on the Warp scale.”
“Distance from Earth?”
“Not far enough,” Larkin said. “If this represents an assault from the future, it stands to reason we will not slow it down.”
“Well, at least one of the ships must be on our side, if they’re firing on each other,” Conway said. “That’s a relief.”
“Yes,” Larkin said, looking at Conway. “A relief.”
“Three minutes to intercept,” Gellar reported.
Conway punched a control on his chair arm. “Kamtezen. All power to weapons and shields. Stand by damage control.”
“Acknowledged,” came the engineer’s reply.
“Is this wise?” Larkin said.
“I…I don’t know,” Conway replied.
“If you are putting us in unnecessary danger…”
“Commander, I don’t know if it’s necessary or not, at this point.”
“You are now being honest with me,” Larkin said. “Refreshing.”
“Don’t get used to it,” Conway snapped.
“Vessels in sensor range,” Gellar reported
“On screen,” Conway said.
Two deep, metallic blue vessels–unlike anything Conway had seen- -ripped out of warp and matched speed almost on top of the Aerostar. A maneuver that would have torn a present-day Starfleet vessel to shreds.
Conway bristled. “Open a channel, Gellar.”
“What will you ask them?” Larkin asked. “If they need directions to Earth?”
“Wait…we’re the ones being hailed,” Gellar said. “By the smaller ship. Audio only.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“Captain Conway! It’s really you!”
“Who is this?” Conway demanded.
“We’re really big fans. HUGE fans!”
“Fans of what?”
“Of you, silly. Your ship is as magnificent as we’d heard. Look, Sammy! It has four nacelles, just like in the pictures.”
“Get to a point quickly,” Conway said.
“We just…wanted to speak to you. To hear your voice. Linda, darling…please, don’t cry.”
“I want to have your baby!” a female voice cried out over the comm channel.
“Well, thanks, but…” Conway trailed off. “But that’s not the point! Why are you here?”
“To get your autograph of course. Now then, we don’t have much time, so…ZHHHHHHHHHPT!” And the bridge was bathed in a bright blue glow from the viewscreen.
Conway turned to face Gellar, shielding his eyes from the flash. “What happened?”
“The larger ship fired a beam at the smaller ship. And it just…disappeared.”
“That’s not good enough,” Conway said. “Where did it disappear to?”
“Tracking…” said Lt. Dawson.
“Hail the other ship again,” Conway said.
“Finally. On screen.”
The viewscreen filled with a slight-looking man with a mustache, whom Conway didn’t recognize, seated in an high-backed leather command chair. “Captain. It is an honor to meet you in person. I’ve heard much about you.”
Conway pursed his lips in annoyance. “And you are?”
“Commandant Arthur Stringer, First Battalion, Federated Warforce, Timeship Paradox.”
“Nice to meet you,” Conway said. “Now what the hell did you do to that ship?”
“That’s irrelevant,” Stringer said flatly. “Please continue with your previous assignments, Captain. I wish you nothing but good luck in your future endeavors.” He smiled coyly, then winked at Conway, and disappeared from the viewscreen.
Conway cracked his knuckles. He got the distinct feeling of a man being played.
“They’re opening up a rift and moving through,” Gellar said.
Ford turned in his chair and looked at Conway. “Do we pursue?” he asked, vehemently shaking his head “no” from side to side.
“Yes,” Conway said. “Gellar, fire all weapons. I want that ship destroyed!”
“All weapons firing,” Gellar reported, as Ford reluctantly brought the Aerostar down on the Paradox.
“Well?” Conway demanded.
“No damage,” Gellar said. “We didn’t even dent their shields. Meanwhile, the rift is sealing up. We’ll never make it through.”
“Damn!” Conway said, and returned to his chair. “Helm, all stop. I want sciences to study that rift. Lets try to figure out what exact time period those ships came from, and what they were doing here. And somebody, for God’s sake, find me a frigging cup of coffee!”
One cup of coffee later, Conway was jogging down along Deck Eight, trying to remember where the counselors’ suite was. It wasn’t a place he frequented.
Conway had never given much credence to counselors. More often than not, he saw them as more harm than good, an unnecessary appendage on a Federation Starship. But, right now, more than ever, all Conway wanted to do was find a Counselor.
Finally, he found Ryn Trista’s office. He faced the door, straightening his tunic, taking a breath. He punched the comm-panel, tapping his foot impatiently as he waited for a response. When nobody answered, he tapped his comm-badge. “Conway to Ryn. Please respond.”
He sighed. “Computer. Locate Ryn Trista.”
“Ryn Trista is not aboard the Aerostar.”
Just then, the door next to Ryn’s opened to reveal Counselor Telvin, who was munching on a cream cheese knish. “Captain! Would you like some knish?”
“No. I want my counselor!”
“Present and accounted for!” Telvin smiled.
Conway gritted his teeth. “The other one. The pretty one.”
“Er…” Telvin self-consciously rubbed his belly. True, he’d lost considerable weight since his infamous ‘anti-grav’ days, but he still had somewhat of a pot belly. “I suppose you’re referring to Counselor Ryn?”
“She left the ship. Transferred aboard the Explorer shortly before we left.” Telvin disappeared into his office and returned with a padd. He handed it to Conway. “There’s all the paperwork. I was going to discuss it with you, but we had our impromptu departure, and it is knish day in the bakery, so…”
“SHE LEFT!?!” Conway blurted, slamming the padd down on the deck. “That god damned Vansen!”
“Yes. Apparently Captain Vansen was in need of an interim ship’s counselor until Counselor Peterman is found.” Telvin stared off for a moment. “If she ever is found. So sad. And the little baby too. Did you know she wasn’t even a year old?”
“Fascinating,” Conway said, and headed down the corridor. “Wait till I see that Vansen. I’m going to wring her neck.”
“That’s not healthy!” Telvin called after Conway.
“F*** you!” Conway shouted back at Telvin and ducked into the turbolift.
Telvin nibbled his knish. “That’s not healthy either. Jackass.”
There was only one other person Conway could see. Only one person who’d understand, and who’d have the expertise to deal with this situation. As Conway rode the turbolift down to Deck Twelve, he knew there was only one person truly qualified to help him.
“Larkin?” he asked, staring at the android as the lift doors opened.
The android shouldered into the lift and waited for the doors to close. “Computer. Lock and hold.”
Conway draped his hands behind his back. “Something I can help you with, Commander?”
“You can help me with the truth,” Larkin said. “I believe a truthful explanation of our current situation is long overdue.”
“I’m not sure…”
“Do not exacerbate your plight with more lies.” Larkin stepped closer to Conway. “Begin telling the truth. Right. Now.”
Conway smiled weakly. “Sounds like that emotional program is back up and running smoothly, eh?”
“Affirmative,” Larkin said, and grabbed the front of Conway’s uniform, hoisting him effortlessly into the air. “Do you care to test the limits of my anger protocols?”
“When you put it that way…” Conway said helplessly, kicking his feet.
Larkin dropped him. “Speak.”
Conway dusted his tunic off. “I made a deal with my descendant. A future Conway. Name of Clive.”
“He gave me certain information.”
“Certain information you would use to become a successful Captain.”
Conway nodded. “Something like that.”
“To what end?” Larkin said, and in a nanosecond she understood. “He knew if you became successful, the whole line of Conways would share in that success. And instead of being born into a family of buffoons and failures, he would be born into a proud, powerful family. And build on that power.”
“I guess.” Conway shrugged. “I didn’t really ask what he’d do after I held up my part of the bargain. But his offer was…it was more than I could refuse, Larkin.”
“Did you give even a passing thought to the prime directive? To your oath to Starfleet? To common decency?”
“You might have caused a temporal imbalance that will destroy the universe.”
“Damn,” Conway said. “Really? Me?”
“You wanted a legacy, Captain. You may have one. You may destroy all of time.”
“I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to be good at my job.”
“Because the universe still exists, let us assume the timeline changes did not upset the constant of the universe.”
“That would be good.”
“Indeed; however, we still have the ramifications on the future to deal with.”
“That big warship sure didn’t seem like the other timeships I’ve heard about,” Conway said. “It was bigger. Meaner.”
“And, according to the incident reports of Captain Janeway, and others who have come across visitors from the Twenty-Ninth Century, there is no reference to a ‘Federated Warforce.’”
“That didn’t sound good, did it?” Conway asked.
“No,” Larkin said. “It did not.”
“You’re going to tell Starfleet, aren’t you?” Conway covered his face. “My career is over.”
“Your career is the least of our worries,” Larkin said. “But know that even if I vehemently object to your methods, I do at least understand the motives behind them.”
“Yes. I understand the need to be accepted. The need to be loved, and understood. These are the reasons you crave success.”
Conway thought about that. Truthfully, all he wanted was to feel superior to everyone else.
“You’re right,” Conway said, draping his arms around Larkin. “You’re so, so right.”
“Please,” Larkin said, pushing Conway off her. “We have little time.”
“So to speak.”
“We must go to the future. We must confront this ‘Clive’ and find a way to reverse what he’s done.”
“Can’t we just go back to when Clive made me the offer and stop him then?”
“I do not believe so. Clive is in control of the timeship fleet. He would detect our temporal incursion and prevent us from intercepting his past self. No. We must go to the source. We must go to Clive as he is now. Then.”
“So confusing.” Conway rubbed his eyes. “Wait. What if Clive’s too powerful? What if he simply destroys us?”
Larkin placed her hands on Conway’s shoulders. They hurt. “You have made your futuristic bed, Captain. You must now lie in it.”
“I think I liked you better without emotions,” Conway muttered. “Computer, resume turbolift. Bridge.”
When Conway arrived at the bridge, he found Doctor Lanham and Lt. Dawson bent over the science console.
“Great work, Vicky. You did it,” Lanham said, patting Dawson on the back. “The chronometric particles are dispersing throughout the field at just the right dispersion rate.”
“What, what, and what?” Conway asked, stepping up next to Lanham.
“Captain,” she said stonily. “Lieutenant Dawson and I have developed a method for locating the precise moment in space-time from which those ships originated.”
“Really?” Conway raised an eyebrow. “That quick?”
Lanham stared at Conway. “You have a good crew, sir.”
“We must find a way to reopen the rift,” Larkin said, walking toward the center of the bridge.
“That’s going to be impossible,” Lanham said, tapping a few controls at her station. “The chroniton emissions have already dissipated. Even if we could develop a way to reopen the vortex, we wouldn’t be able to sustain it, or even make it big enough for the Aerostar to pass through.”
“Understood,” Larkin said. “In that case, begin calculations for time travel. Mister Ford. Set course for this system’s sun.”
“Warpin’ Millennium Edition?” Conway asked. “We haven’t even tested it yet!”
“Now would be an excellent time to do so,” Larkin said, draping her arms behind her back. “Do you not agree?”
“I…I don’t know,” Conway said, and stepped down to his readyroom door. “I have to think. I have to plan.” Conway stared across the bridge at Lanham. “Alexa. Could I see you for a moment?”
Lanham stood her ground. “I am quite busy, sir.”
She sighed. “Fine. Vicky, begin laying in the time travel coordinates. Get as close to the time period we’ve targeted as possible.”
Dawson nodded. “I’m on it, Doc.”
“Time is of the essence,” Larkin said to Conway as he pulled Lanham inside his readyroom.
“I’m aware of that!” he snapped and shut the door.
“Please make this brief, Captain,” Lanham said, folding her arms.
“Damn it, Alexa!” Conway said, grabbing Lanham’s shoulders and shaking them. “Stop the silent treatment. I don’t need to talk to my science officer right now. I need to talk to my girlfriend!”
“Don’t believe she lives here anymore,” Lanham said, rolling her eyes. “Anyone else you’re looking for?”
Conway turned around, planted his hands on his desk. “You’re enjoying this.”
“I’m not. I’m mad as hell. Forget for the moment that you blew me off a few weeks ago just as your career began to ‘mysteriously’ pick up.”
“Forgotten,” Conway said quickly.
“There are larger issues at stake here.” Lanham stepped up behind Conway. “You made a deal with someone you didn’t even know, jeopardize the entire timeline, maybe the universe, just to become a more successful captain. Do you have any idea how ridiculously wrong that is?”
Conway glanced over his shoulder at Lanham. “ You…know about that?”
“I’m no fool, David. Larkin and I have been watching you all this time. We had strong suspicions about what you were doing but couldn’t prove it. When those ships from the future showed up, and when that captain referred to you in the…” she ground her teeth. “…familiar. Everything else fell into place.”
“So Larkin asking me what I was up to…”
“Just a smokescreen,” Lanham said. “We wanted to see if you’d confess, if given the chance.”
He turned to face Lanham. “Why?”
Lanham set her jaw. “So we could decide whether or not to report you to Starfleet.” Although her face was set in anger, Conway saw something else in her eyes. Concern. “We needed to know if there was any chance you could redeem yourself.”
It was not Conway’s turn to set his jaw. “And your verdict?”
“Still out.” Their eyes were locked, and for a moment all the thrumming ship sounds died around them, and all was quiet.
In that moment, Conway realized what he had to do.
Commandant Arthur Stringer sat in the command chair aboard the bridge of the Paradox. “The question is, what’s he going to do?”
Beside him, his first officer, Lieutenant Commandant Clara Raines stood at attention. She glanced at Stringer. “Pardon, sir?”
“Captain Conway. He’s a wily man. Unpredictable.”
“You think he will change his mind? Find a way to undo this revision of time?”
“The last thing I would expect Captain Conway to do is the right thing,” Stringer said. “However, like I said, he is unpredictable. Open silent communication to Prime Architect Conway. He must know the status of our operation immediately.”
“If anyone can predict the outcomes of time, and of Captain Conway, it must be his descendant, the Architect,” the young, wet-about-the-gills Raines said. “He will not let us down.”
“The Architect is infallible, Lieutenant. He has contingencies for everything. That is why he is the Architect.”
“But sir, did the Architect not teach us that all time is revocable?”
“Not this time,” Stringer said. “Now maintain course and open up that silent channel. Now.”
“Welcome to Warpin’ Millennium Edition,” the computer said crisply, as Captain Conway paced the front of the Aerostar A’s bridge. “Downloading time travel parameters. One moment please.”
Conway glanced back at Lanham, eyebrow raised. “Is all this really necessary?”
“It’s a new version. There are protocols…”
“Attention,” the computer said. “A new version of Warpin’ is currently available. We strongly recommend you download the new version, in order to ensure optimum performance. Would you like to download the new version now?”
“New version?” Conway barked. “It’s not even the millennium yet. How can there even be a millennium edition, much less a newer edition?”
“The newer edition includes patches for the nineteenth century access problem and the temporal feedback loop one encounters when attempting to visit the Mesozoic era.”
“Well, we’re not going anywhere near those time periods, so we don’t need an upgrade.”
“Sheesh,” Conway muttered, glancing at Larkin, who stood beside him.
“Warpin’ Millennium Edition has configured your ship for time travel. Warpin’ Millennium Edition Recommends you restart your ship’s computer before engaging warp engines.”
“For f***’s sake,” Conway said. “Restart, restart! Whatever!”
“Your system is now shutting down.”
Ford turned around in his chair. “Doesn’t time travel seem awfully primitive these days?”
“Our customer service unit is working night and day to ensure a faster, more pleasant time travel experience for you and our other consumers. Warpin’ Millennium Edition regrets any inconvenience or temporal incursion you may experience during time travel. The creators of Warpin’ Millennium Edition would like to remind you that persons with panic disorder and mild heart conditions should not attempt time travel without consulting their physicians.”
“Are you FINISHED YET?” Conway said, staring at the ceiling of the bridge as the lights flickered briefly on and off.
Lt. Saral looked down at her panel. “All systems showing ready, Captain.”
“Thank you for using Warpin’ Millennium Edition. Coming soon….Warpin’ for Parallel Universes. Enjoy your time traveling experience, and please be reminded that the Temporal Prime Directive strictly prohibits users of Warpin’ Millennium Edition from altering the timeline in any way.”
Larkin glared at Conway.
“Whoops,” Conway muttered. “Is there anyway to unplug the audio on this thing?”
“The machine is simply doing its job,” Larkin said.
“You’re just standing up for it because it’s a distant relative of yours.”
“Let us not get into talk of relatives right now,” Larkin said. “You would do well to engage engines.”
Conway sighed, and pointed at the viewscreen, where the Vaxhaul system’s sun loomed large in front of them. “Mister Ford, coordinate with ops. Triangulate your course, and initiate time travel on my mark.”
“Aye sir,” Ford said, giggling. “And thank you for using the helm.”
“Shut up. And Mark.”
The Aerostar shot forward at a clip approaching Warp Nine. By the time they neared the sun, their speed increased as the slingshot maneuver began.
Conway always hated this part. He stumbled over to his chair and fell into it, feeling dizzy. His head swam as the temporal enveloped formed around the Aerostar, slinging it forward in time, to the preset coordinates Saral had entered into the computer.
“I think I’m going to puke.”
“It would serve you right,” Lanham muttered, gripping her panel as the Aerostar ripped forward in time. “Throwing up is the least you can do to make up for what you’ve done.”
“I love you too, Alexa,” Conway groaned.
“In point of fact, the good doctor is right,” Larkin said. “Unfortunately, your atonement will have to wait until after the current crisis is resolved.”
“Atonement?” Conway snapped. “I already said I’m sorry! What more do you want.”
“You did not, in fact, say you were sorry,” Larkin corrected.
“Coming out of warp,” Saral announced, one of the only crew-members who didn’t look flummoxed by the trip through time.
Conway looked up at the viewscreen, watching the swirly rainbow- colored time travel envelope peel away to reveal normal stars. He gripped his stomach as the ship slowed. “Damn, wish I hadn’t had oatmeal this morning…”
“Active scanning, Doctor Lanham,” Larkin said. “Tell me if there are any ships in this area.”
“No ships of any kind,” Lanham said, after quickly checking her panel. “As a matter of fact, this system and the three surrounding systems are vacant. I am picking up debris that could be the remains of civilization on three of the planets in this system.”
“Someone’s come through and cleaned house,” Conway said. “Saral, check the star alignments. See if you can figure out approximately where we’re–”
“Twenty-Eight Fifty-Seven,” Saral said quickly. “March tenth.”
“You don’t have a day of the week?” Conway quipped.
“It hardly seems relevant at this juncture, Captain.”
“Touche,” Conway said. “All right. Ahead warp six, Mister Ford. Let’s see if we can’t find some signs of life.”
“We should head toward Earth,” Larkin said. “Perhaps Earth is still a seat of power in this timeline.”
“Or else it’s been wiped out,” Gellar suggested.
“What a pleasant thought,” Conway said.
“Yet another charge to add to your affidavit,” Larkin said tersely.
Twenty minutes later, the Aerostar arrived at Earth, pulling into a tight orbit around the planet.
Immediately, without even checking sensors, Conway knew something was wrong. The usually green and blue planet was instead a charred black and red. Its atmosphere swirled with nasty looking black clouds. It looked more like Mars than Earth.
“Total wasteland,” Lanham said, looking up from her sensors. “Well done, David!”
“We don’t know that this is my fault,” Conway said.
“We can surmise that it is,” Larkin said. “Mister Ford, break orbit. Continue toward Vulcan.”
“I have a good feeling about Vulcan,” Conway said.
“Dirt ball,” Ford said, and Conway could hear a barely audible gasp from Saral. For his part, he noticeably shuddered.
“Another one bites the proverbial dust, Captain,” Larkin said quietly from the chair next to Conway.
The next day, having visited or passed within sensor range of Andor, Tellar, and Betazed, Conway had begun to squirm in his command chair.
Conway hadn’t slept, bathed, or shaved in the last 24 hours. He’d barely taken a break, and barely eaten, as the Aerostar completed its grim tour of the core of the Federation, ending with the barren hulk that once was Risa.
“I had such good times there,” Ford sniffled.
Larkin turned to Conway. “The Federation, it would seem, has been destroyed.”
“So much for your harmless antics,” Lanham said. “You destroyed the Federation!”
“Wait a sec,” Gellar said, glancing over his panel. “I’m picking up faint signals. Some kind of automated transmission. The encryption is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’ll take a few minutes for the computer to process it.”
“No doubt the inhabitants of this time period use substantially more sophisticated audio transmission protocols,” Larkin said.
“On audio,” Conway said. “As soon as you can.”
“Hold on,” Gellar said, and, after a few minutes, said: “Got it!”
Conway shifted back in his seat, listening.
“Weary traveler, welcome!” a friendly, high-pitched male voice said. “You have entered No Man’s Land. The former United Federation of Planets. The former seat of power and glory for hundreds of species, long ago. This vacant planet, and so many others like it, represent the decadence and imperfection of an old era. The peoples that occupied the former Federation were arrogant, though, and misunderstood their place in history. So they had to be wiped out.
“Sounds like it could have been anybody,” Conway said quietly.
“And wiped out they were,” the voice continued. “By an ancient force known as the Orion Syndicate, more than two hundred years ago. The powerful syndicate, thanks to some inside help from highly placed Federation officials, was able to infiltrate and undermine the entire Federation. Enemy empires of Romulus and Breen set upon the outskirts of the mighty Federation like voles. Nibbling at the remains of the once glorious empire. Soon, nothing was left. Between the Syndicate and the other hyena-like predators that surrounded the Federation, every planet was rendered inhabitable by a mix of genocidal nucleonic devices and biological weapons, and subspace telemarketers…”
“But, by now I’m sure you’ve grown of hearing about the Federation of Planets. Truly yesterday’s news, this fallen empire has been replaced by a new, more stable, more potent regime. The Federated Warforce, led by the Architect. A man of destiny, in a long line of men of destiny.”
“Today, the Federated Warforce numbers nine hundred distinct species, in four quadrants of the galaxy. The Architect oversees all phases of this grand assemblage, but is most cognizant and in control of the Warforce’s substantial Time Travel Division. Using sophisticated temporal technology, our Architect is capable of pinpointing and eliminating any small ‘burp’ in time that may affect the wellbeing of our people. As our beloved Architect is fond of saying, ‘The time is now. The past was then. And we are past that now, and always will be.
“And none of this could have been possible without the patriarch of the Architect’s family line: Captain David Conway of the legendary U.S.S. Aerostar. His exploits paved the way for the future. He was a true pioneer, ahead of his ti–”
“CUT CHANNEL!” Conway shouted, and pounded his fist into the arm of his command chair.
“Is something…not to your liking, Captain?”
Conway glared up at Larkin. “What the hell do you think?”
“I think we should locate this ‘Architect’ and speak with him. Find a way to reverse this.”
“You really think he’ll listen to us? Didn’t you just hear any of that awful narration? He’s making sure that any attempt to undo this little time traveler’s paradise would be shot down.”
Larkin and Conway exchanged a glance, and immediately both thought the same thing.
“Shot down,” Conway said slowly.
“Shields up!” Larkin ordered.
“Incoming!” Gellar shouted, even as the blasts rocked the Aerostar.
“We are still here, so I assume we got the shields up in time,” Larkin said, crossing over to the helm/ops pit. “Evasive maneuvers, mister Ford. Get us out of here, maximum warp.”
“Reverse view,” Conway said.
On the viewscreen, the familiar and predatory timeship Paradox bore down on the Aerostar, firing its considerable weapons at it.
“Suggestions?” Conway asked, grabbing his chair as the Aerostar shook with the Paradox’s heavy fire.
“Hide?” Ford asked.
“Brilliant,” Conway said. “Hide where?”
“It may be a moot point,” Larkin said. “If they mean to destroy us, we will be ashes before we can formulate a plan.”
“True,” Conway said, then snapped his fingers. “Wait a minute! They can’t kill us! We’re their descendants. Well, I’m Clive’s, anyway. If we die, the timeline is altered. Clive can’t get what he wants.”
“He most likely has accounted for that possibility,” Larkin said. “I would not assume you are safe just because Clive wants to protect the timeline. It stands to reason he has a backup plan.”
Conway shuddered. “We have to know what that backup plan is, and quick, and we have to sabotage it.”
“Return fire!” Larkin ordered, and Gellar’s hands danced over the tactical panel.
“Negligible damage to the timeship,” Gellar said. “We need something a little stronger.”
“Load up the tri-cobalts,” Conway said. “I don’t care how advanced their shielding is. Not even a fully shielded ship can withstand a couple of those.”
“Working,” Saral said, allocating the appropriate resources from her panel.
“Two tri-co’s locked and loaded,” Gellar said moments later, as the Aerostar danced in and out of the barrage of weapons fire from the Paradox.
“Hail them,” Conway said suddenly.
“You mean fire on them?” Larkin asked.
“No. I mean hail them.”
The android narrowed her eyes. “They are sending a fairly clear message now.”
“Channel!” Conway barked.
“Open,” Gellar said, between taking potshots at the Paradox.
“This is the Paradox, Arthur Stringer speaking,” the smooth voice of Stringer returned.
“What are you doing?” Conway said. “You trying to kill us?”
“How can you do that? You’ll screw up the timeline if you kill us.”
“No we won’t,” Stringer replied simply.
“How come?” Conway asked
“Because we won’t. The Architect has seen to every eventuality. Your attempt to rewrite time will not succeed.”
“It did once, and it can again,” Conway said. “That’s sort of how this time travel thing works, isn’t it?”
“Not when you control the apex of all time travel,” Stringer said. “But, alas, I’ve said too much. I really do have to kill you now.”
“I have a counterproposal,” Conway said, gripping his hands into fist. “Fire tri-cobalts!”
The two blue twinkling orbs shot out of the Aerostar’s aft torpedo launchers, creating huge explosions right in front of the Paradox’s huge prow.
When the explosion wave evaporated, Conway squinted to see the untouched Paradox still remaining on the screen, looking mean as ever, firing constantly at Aerostar.
“Minor damage to shields. Some hull damage on one deck,” Gellar said. “Too bad we don’t have oh, I’d say a thousand of those things…”
“All we did was piss them off!” Ford whimpered.
“The ship is advanced beyond anything we have ever seen,” Larkin said. “We cannot defeat it.”
“Unless…” Conway said.
“There is no unless. We simply cannot defeat it. Surrender is our only option at this point.”
Conway rolled his eyes. “Oh…fine!”
“Unless…” Larkin said.
Her mind worked fast, at millions of processes per second, Conway estimated. He often wondered what it was like to be Larkin, to be able to think, test theories, ponder, question, ruminate, all in the time it took him to scratch his itchy nose.
“We must change the constant of the universe.”
“Well why didn’t I think of that,” Conway said.
“The answer is right in front of us,” Larkin said. “I do not know why I did not see it seconds earlier. We have time travel capability. That means we can alter the time-space constant. That means we can alter the universe. That means we emit a temporal wake approximately fourteen kilometers in diameter in a roughly spherical area surrounding the ship. If we are able to extend the reach of that temporal wake, and we are able to ‘trap’ the Paradox in that wake…Captain, I believe I have a plan.”
“Well shut up and start putting it in motion then,” Conway said. “I don’t know what the hell you said, but I trust you. Do it!”
Larkin nodded, turned to Saral. “Lieutenant, reconfigure Warpin’ Millenium Edition to take us one trillion years into the future.”
“The computer will not like that,” Saral said, as she input the coordinates.
“That is the idea,” Larkin said. “With any luck, it will throw off a temporal wake large and powerful enough to envelop the Paradox.”
“Or it will blow us up, right?” Conway said.
“Excellent deduction, sir.”
“I saw it coming a mile away.”
“Calculations complete,” Saral said, looking up from her panel. “For better or worse.”
“Put the Paradox on screen,” Conway said, and Gellar did it. There it was, winging toward them. “Ford, head back toward the sun.”
“We’re going to die…a lot,” Ford moaned, swinging the Aerostar around toward the Risa system’s sun.
“Here they come!” Gellar said, as the Paradox flew back into weapons range, firing a full spread on the Aerostar.
“Now!” Conway said, clenching his fist.
“Warning,” the computer announced. “Warpin’ Millennium Edition has performed an illegal operation and will shut down. Please disengage all vital ship’s functions before logging out. Thank you for….BEYOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
Conway covered his ears as a screeching whine filled the bridge. “What the hell is that?” he shouted.
“The sound of the computer having a nervous breakdown!” Larkin offered, as the Aerostar shot toward the Vaxhaul sun at high warp.
“We’re at Warp Nine point Nine Nine Nine Nine!” Ford shouted. “Mommy!”
Waves of dizzyness fell over Conway, sending him reeling to the deck in a heap as the bridge of the Aerostar spun out from under him.
He could barely make out the roller-coaster of light whizzing by on the viewscreen as the Aerostar engaged in its futile time jump attempt.
And Conway passed out.
“They are attempting a time jump,” Lieutenant Commandant Raines reported, glancing at a panel. “An escape attempt?”
“More than likely,” Stringer said, watching the Aerostar on its path toward the Risa sun, as it got larger on the viewscreen, as Paradox bore down. “Destroy them before they have a chance. The last thing we need to do is spend the afternoon chasing a temporal—”
Stringer was interrupted when a massive wall of energy wrapped around the Aerostar, and shot off in all directions.
The Aerostar spun haphazardly out of its oblong path around the sun, careening off into black space, as ribbons of rainbow energy shot off in all direction from its blistering hot hull.
“Helm, evasive–!” Stringer tried to shout, but it was too late.
The temporal runoff slammed into the Paradox, engulfed it, and disassembled it molecule by molecule.
The last living thought Arthur Stringer had was that maybe humankind shouldn’t be screwing with time travel after all.
Meanwhile, back in the twenty-fourth century, about a second after the Aerostar disappeared behind the Vaxhaul Sun and set off on its course for the future, the Starship Enterprise sailed into the system, its weapons hot.
“Sensors, Daniels?” Captain Picard asked, seated primly in the command chair, legs crossed.
“Detecting chroniton energy emanating from behind the Vaxhaul sun, sir,” Daniels said, tapping his hands across the tactical console. “Possible temporal disturbance.”
“Any ships detected?”
“None sir,” Daniels said, then looked again at his panel, correcting himself. “Wait. One ship.”
“Is it friend or foe? Quickly, Daniels.”
“It’s Starfleet sir. U.S.S. Aerostar.”
Picard sighed. “Conway.”
On the viewscreen, the U.S.S. Aerostar swung out from behind the planet, approaching the Enterprise.
“Well. Hail them.”
“We’re getting a response, sir.”
“Put it on screen.”
On the viewscreen, Captain David Conway sat in his command chair, Larkin beside him.
“Captain Picard,” Conway said. “You’re a little late to the party.”
“We diverted course as soon as we heard the news. What is this? An invasion from the future?”
Conway shook his head. “Nothing so dramatic. Just a couple sightseers from the future who needed to be chased back to their own time. We were able to put down the incursion. They returned to their time.”
“That would explain the chroniton energy,” Picard mused.
“Yes,” Conway said flatly. “It would.” He looked at Larkin. “Well, then. We have missions to get to.”
“Care to enlighten me?”
“Nothing that would interest you, Captain,” Conway said. “Starfleet life isn’t all glamor.”
“Quite right,” Picard said. “At any rate, I wish you and your ship…” He struggled to get the words out. “Fair travels.”
“I’m confident we’ll be fine,” Conway said, and reached to close the channel.
“Captain,” Picard said, freezing Conway in place momentarily, his hand hovering above the com switch on his chair arm.
“There’s something different about you.”
“People can change,” Conway said, with a slight smile. “Sometimes, whole crews can change. But I assure you, Captain, it’s a change for the better.”
“I’m sure it is,” Picard said with a tight grin. “Best to you and your crew. Enterprise out.”
As Conway disappeared from the screen, Picard neatly filed away the encounter as another bizarre run-in with David Conway.
Still, for some strange reason, Picard had the distinct impression that his problems with the U.S.S. Aerostar were all in the past now.
“What the hell hit us?” Captain Conway asked, blinking in the smoky air that filled his bridge as Larkin effortlessly lifted him to his feet.
“An aborted time jump,” Larkin said. “The damage we incurred was severe; however, we did eliminate the timeship Paradox.”
“Eliminate?” Conway asked.
Alexa Lanham pushed loose strands of hair behind her ears as she worked behind the science console. “The temporal wake thrown off by our attempted jump caused inter-atomic reverberation that broke the Paradox apart molecule by molecule.”
Conway surveyed the bridge. “Cool. What’s our damage?”
“Lieutenant Kamtezen is pursuing that question as we speak,” Larkin said.
“Bridge, Kamtezen,” came the call over the comm. “Not good news, Commander.”
“Elaborate,” Larkin said.
“That jump blew out relays throughout the matter-antimatter conversion system. Without major repairs, I can only get you Warp Five or Six. And I’m not even sure how long that will hold out.”
“Five or Six?” Conway asked. “If we can’t make Warp Nine, doesn’t that mean…”
“We cannot return to the past,” Larkin said. “Which would seem to pose a significant problem.”
Gellar looked up from tactical. “We could always hijack somebody’s timeship.”
“Considering that we were nearly destroyed in combat with the last timeship, that is a confrontation I do not relish,” Larkin said. “However, at the moment, that seems our most attractive opt–” Her face went blank.
Conway stared at her. “Larkin?” He put his hands on her shoulders. “Larkin! Don’t fall apart on me now.” Her face was unblinking. “C”mon, Larkin. We need you!”
Larkin shoved Conway’s hands off her, and suddenly turned, and in jerky movements, walked over to the helm console.
Ford fell over himself backing out of his seat, nearly tripping over Lt. Saral. “My bones just healed, Larkin! Don’t throw me around again!”
Larkin leaned over the helm and began typing in coordinates.
“What the hell is she doing?” Conway asked of nobody in particular.
Lanham looked at her panel. “She’s diverting our course. Looks like she’s making course to a planet near the galactic rim. LX-990.”
“Well can we find out why?” Conway asked.
Larkin punched a control, and the Aerostar shot forward into warp.
“Bridge, this is Kamtezen again. I didn’t say it was okay to go back into warp yet! We’re still making repairs!”
Larkin blinked, and her eyes once again refocused. “You will have to make those repairs en route, Lieutenant. We have an urgent matter to attend to.”
“Could you fill us in?” Conway asked, hands on hips, as Larkin turned back to face him.
Conway stepped into his readyroom, and whirled to face Larkin, as she walked in and allowed the doors to close behind her. “What the hell’s this all about, Larkin? I know you were plotting mutiny before, but unless I’m mistaken, I’m still in command here.”
“We must go to LX-990,” Larkin said simply.
“Granted. But why?”
“I received a message.”
Conway leaned back against his desk and folded his arms. “What do you mean ‘message.’ From where? From who?”
Larkin’s eyes took on a distant look again. Conway almost thought she’d gone into another trance. But this look was different. “As illogical as it may seem, it was a message from myself.”
“Your future self?” Conway asked, scratching his head. “Wouldn’t you be like, five hundred years old?”
“Four hundred eighty-one,” Larkin corrected. “My first body was constructed twelve years earlier than that; however, in this time period, it has been four hundred eighty-one years since my new body was constructed.”
Conway sighed and rubbed his eyes. Larkin was talking about the mess three years earlier when she’d given her life on the distant, penguin-populated, planet Crysta to stop the maniacal Romulan Ardek from sending that planet to the Delta Quadrant, and possibly destroying its population. Thanks to the subspace transmitter embedded in her brain, she’d been able to transmit her entire consciousness and all her memories aboard the U.S.S. Escort. Richards was able to late install that consciousness into an identical new body. What nobody had known at the time, though, was that the original body survived, and, somewhat worse for wear in the personality department, that body, known now as Kitty, would come back to visit them several annoying times.
“Could this be Kitty?” Conway asked. “Lord knows she could have been behind this. What’s more, it could be Clive tricking us.”
“I do not believe either to be the case. This is me, Captain. I am certain of it.”
“You have any proof?”
“Nothing but my instincts.”
“You’re an android. You don’t have instincts.”
“I do in this case, sir. We must go to LX-990. There lies perhaps our only chance of stopping Clive. I know that as much as I know anything. I am sure of it beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
“That’s what’s bugging me,” Conway said, and narrowed his eyes at Larkin. “You’re sure?”
“That is what I have been trying to tell you.”
“Fine.” Conway took a deep breath. “We’ll go to LX-990. But at the first sign of trouble…”
“At the first sign of trouble, we will likely be destroyed, so I hardly see the point in mentioning it.”
“Good point,” Conway said, patting Larkin on the back and ushering her out of his office.
Conway sat on his couch, Bucky in his lap, licking his hands, a cold-pack pressed against his forehead as the soothing tunes of Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’ played on throughout his quarters.
He could have sworn he heard a voice.
He blinked, looked up. Alexa was framed in the doorway of his cabin. He leaned up. “Alexa. How’d you…?”
“I still have access to your quarters. Our quarters.” She walked in. “What’s wrong with your head?”
“I think I bumped it when I collapsed during the aborted time jump. I have one gigantic sized headache.”
“Did you go down to Benzra and get a hypo?”
“Nah. A little cold-pack and some soothing Aerosmith will sooth what ails me.”
Lanham folded her arms. “You sure do seem mellow for someone who’s got the fate of the universe in his hands.”
“I didn’t think about it like that,” Conway said, and suddenly his brow furrowed. “But I’m thinking about it like that now. Damn, my headache just got a lot worse.”
Lanham strolled over to the couch and sat down beside Conway. “I think we need to talk.”
“I know, we’re broken up,” Conway said, shifting a bit away from Lanham. “And it’s my stupid fault. Larkin already dressed me down. I realize the gravity of what I’ve done. I’m not stupid.”
“That’s an argument for another day,” Lanham said with a small smile as she turned toward Conway. “But I’m not here to dress you down. And I’m not here to break up with you. I want to make our relationship work as badly as you do. But you’ve made it awfully hard to do that.”
“We still have a relationship?”
Lanham nodded silently.
“I…I guess I just figured we were through. That this timeline stuff was the final straw.”
“I wish it were that simple.” Lanham looked at the floor. “But it doesn’t help that I love you.”
“I don’t see how it can hurt,” Conway said. “So…” He wrapped an arm around Lanham. “Now that’s out of the way, you wanna get something to eat?”
Lanham twisted away from him. “It’s not that simple, David, and you know it.”
Conway’s face was blank. “Why not?”
“Because we’ve both…said and done things that aren’t easy to take back. We’re at a turning point.”
“We’re in the twenty-ninth century.”
“The time period doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot to do with it. Our relationship is what it is in any time period.”
“And that is…what?”
Lanham took a big breath. “I…don’t know. This isn’t all your fault. I said some things… that I shouldn’t have.”
“I wasn’t thinking about your feelings. I guess you seem so comfortable with your lot in life that I’d never imagine you’d have it any other way, or want to change it.”
“You think I like being a laughingstock?”
“I thought your ego was always big enough to overlook it.”
“Wish it was,” Conway said. “But sometimes even I need some encouragement. If not from my crew, then at least from the person I love.”
“I could have been more sensitive. I could have been there when you needed me. Granted. But instead of talking it out with me, you run off and do Clive’s bidding, possibly wrecking the universe in the process.”
“But I’m going to find a way to undo that, Alexa. We’re already as good as there.”
“That remains to be seen.”
Conway nodded. “So where does that leave us?”
“There’s a fancy metaphor.”
“No,” Lanham said, pointing at the viewport over Conway’s shoulder, through which a rather large, mauve-colored planet hovered. “We’re at LX-990.”
“Oh,” Conway said sheepishly. “Let’s go.”
“Scan the planet,” Larkin said, as Conway and Lanham stepped out of the aft turbolift. Lanham relieved Dawson at sciences and immediately surveyed the sensor readings on LX-990.
“Barren planet, L-Class. No life-signs. Some energy readings. Mostly ice and rock.”
“L-Class,” Larkin said.
“Better pack our parkas,” Conway said, pointing at Larkin. “You’re with me. Gellar, Alexa, you two. Come on now, time’s wasting.”
Gellar rolled his eyes as he stood up from tactical. “Why do I get the idea that’s not the last pun we’ll hear on this mission.”
“Because it’s probably not,” Conway snapped, as the group filed into the lift. “Mister Ford, you have the bridge.”
Ford rubbed his hands together, walking back to the command chair as Garrity stepped in at helm. “Yippee. I have the bridge. If experience is any guide, I’d say that means we’re about to get our asses kicked.”
“Here’s hoping!” Conway said wryly. “Transporter room,” he added, and the lift doors shut.
Dressed thickly in Starfleet-issue gortex parkas, yellow goggles, and mouth-masks (except for Larkin, who, as an android, needed no such protection from the elements, the away team materialized on LX-990, phaser rifles in hand.
Wind and snow, mixed with tiny, piercing ice flecks, whipped at Conway’s face as he surveyed the landscape. Wide and open, flat and white, with a horizon littered with craggy mountains.
“Cozy,” Gellar muttered as he flipped his rifle down and checked its power settings.
Lanham slung her rifle behind her back and pulled out her tricorder. She studied the readings. “We’d better not stay down here too long. More than an hour or two and serious frostbite will set in.” She glanced at Larkin. “With some exceptions.
Larkin didn’t seem to be paying Alexa any attention. “This way,” she called out, and plodded toward the nearest range of mountains.
“You heard her,” Conway said. “Who are we not to trust android intuition.”
“You really asking that question?” Gellar asked, as he brought up the rear, swinging his rifle around behind him and then looking forward as Alexa took readings and Conway looked around.
“No,” Conway snapped.
“Those power readings I mentioned are somewhere within that mountain ahead,” Lanham said, checking her tricorder.
“Anything else?” Conway asked, leaning in close. Damn she smelled good. What was that? Pear smell? Even in these 20-klick winds she smelled great.
“Yeah,” Lanham said. “I’m picking up more than one positronic signature.”
“Of course you are,” Larkin said. “You are picking up two positronic signatures. Mine, and…mine.”
“No,” Lanham said. “Try more like two thousand.”
“WHAT?” Larkin yanked Lanham’s tricorder out of her hand without even turning around and read the readout. “Two thousand? What am I up to?”
“Shouldn’t you know that?” Conway asked, already uncomfortable with this new turn of events.
“Ideally, but this has been anything but an ideal mission.”
“You can say that again.”
More than an hour later, after Conway had exhausted about his entire allotment of walking for the day, not to mention losing most feeling in his hands and feet, the group arrived at a steep cliff.
“We must climb,” Larkin announced.
“I was afraid of that,” Conway said, as Gellar reached back in his pack for fusion pitons and carabiners.
“Do we really have to do this?” Lanham said, looking up the steep cliff.
“If we want an answer as to how to defeat Clive, then yes,” Larkin said, and without ceremony began scaling the cliff, digging her fingers into the rock-face and moving up the side of rock with little trouble.
“Damn,” Conway said. “Look at her go. She’s like a koala bear.”
“And the longer we wait, the more chance we have of losing her,” Gellar said, firing the first piton into the rock-face just below the first ledge. “Doctor. Ladies first.”
“Thanks,” Lanham muttered, and holstered her tricorder.
Once all three cables had been secured in the rock-face, Gellar, Lanham, and Conway began scaling the steep incline, digging their spiked boots into the slippery, icy surface of the mountain.
“Have I told anyone how much I really hate this?” Conway asked over the raging winds.
“Maybe you should have thought about that before making your deal with that guy from the future,” Gellar said.
“How do you know about that?” Conway snapped, nearly losing his footing on the cliff. He glared at Lanham.
“I had to tell someone. I was pissed at you!”
“Who else knows?” Conway growled.
“Well, I told Ford,” Gellar murmured.
“Great, so the whole ship knows!”
“Stop overreacting,” Lanham said. “Gellar has a valid point. You should have thought about the consequences of your actions.”
“I should have thought about scaling a rock cliff on an icy planet in the twenty-ninth century, following my android first officer, who is trying to find her future self, before entering into my agreement with Clive? Should I have really seen this coming?”
“Well, when you put it that way…” Gellar muttered.
“Let’s not talk the rest of this climb,” Conway said.
Once Conway breathlessly dragged himself over the edge of the cliff, third after Lanham and Gellar, he looked up to see a flat expanse of slippery rock leading toward a dark cave entrance.
“A hollow mountain, I take it?” he asked, looking from Gellar to Lanham.
Lanham looked at her tricorder, still catching her breath. “Looks like it to me. I’m having difficulty getting specific readings any more than a few meters in the mountain.”
“That would probably be the boramite in these rocks,” Gellar said.
“Yes, I know that,” Lanham snapped.
“Hey, don’t ride my ass just because you don’t know your way around a Starfleet tricorder.”
“You two, shut up!” Conway railed, and trudged off toward the cave entrance. He yanked a palm beacon out of the side pocket of his jacket and flipped it on. “There’s only one place Larkin could have gone, and I’ll place bets that her future self is in there as well. Who’s with me?”
“Well, you are the captain,” Gellar said. “I guess we have to follow you.”
“You got that right,” Lanham said, giving Conway a small grin as he marched toward the cave entrance.
Well, alrighty. Someone was on his side after all.
Lt. Commander Ford yawned as he sat reclined in the command chair on the Aerostar’s bridge.
“Anything from the away team yet, Saral?”
The Vulcan at ops shook her head. “No contact with the away team since they beamed down.”
“Well. That’s boring.” He turned toward tactical. “How about you, Puckett? Zeroing in on any big, nasty timeships?”
“Nothing at the moment,” Puckett said. “And I wish you’d quit asking. You’re getting me nervous.”
“I just want to know if we’re about to get our asses kicked. Is it that much to ask?”
“Trust me. You’ll be the first to know if you’re going to get your ass kicked. Want me to guarantee it for you?” She pushed up her shirtsleeves. “There are ways of doing that.”
Ford quickly shook his head. “No. No thanks.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Jeeze,” Ford muttered. “I get no respect around here.”
After about an hour of slip-sliding through the icy caves that wound deep into LX-990, Conway had almost given up hope of finding Larkin. Lanham detected positronic signatures ahead, but just when he thought he’d be right on top of the signatures, Lanham would report they were still a “good bit” away from them. Damn boromite interference, whatever that was.
“Ah hah!” Lanham suddenly exalted, looking up from her readings, as the group rounded a corner in the winding cave tunnel, coming toward gleaming sunlight that prompted Conway to shut off his palm beacon and pocket it.
“Ah hah meaning what?” Conway said, as the group approached the mouth of the tunnel.
“Ah hah meaning I think we found the sources of those signatures,” Lanham said, gripping the side of the cave wall for support as she hurried toward the cave exit. “And….oh, damn…”
“Damn what?” Conway asked, nearly sliding into Lanham as he trotted up behind her. He looked over her shoulder and immediately realized why she’d said that.
“Fuck,” he said.
“Well put, Captain,” Gellar said, standing beside them both. “Either of you ever go sledding before?”
They looked out on an open valley, a perfect “bowl” in the midst of the mountain ranges. The steep incline lead down into a foggy valley. Conway could hear murmuring below, but he couldn’t make out any words. He wondered if Larkin was down there. She’d have to be.
“Slide?” Lanham suggested.
“It would seem the only way,” Gellar said, pulling out a fusion piton and stabbing it in the ground, then slinging his climbing cable around it. “Last one down kisses Captain Conway.”
Lanham gave Conway a small, awkward smile as she followed Gellar down the long length of cable.
“So what? I get to kiss myself?” Conway asked as he stepped down, grabbing the cable. “That sounds real fair. Why is it I always get the short end of the “ Just then, his foot slipped, tumbling out from under him, sending him on his backside, shaking loose his grip on the cable.
And Conway plummeted down, butt first, toward the foggy unknown at the foot of the steep incline.
“David!” Lanham called after him, but was too late to grab him as he whizzed by.
Conway, for his part, grabbed at the rock surface to no avail. Too slippery. Try as he might, all he succeeded in doing was reversing himself so that now he lie on his back, facing the murky fog-ridden valley at the base of the incline.
And, as he descended into the thick fog, he wondered whether or not this whole expedition was such a good idea.
Moreover, why couldn’t they have just transported to this exact location? Stupid boromite.
These thoughts were interrupted as Conway slid crotch-first into a rather tall stalagmite that grew up from the valley floor.
His next dazed thought was that he was not alone. And that is was not murmuring he heard, but bird-like warbling.
“Oh God,” Conway said, as the birds, less than a meter tall, waddled up around him, urping and arping away at him, needle-nosing in at him with inquisitive yellow-black eyes. “Penguins.”
“Indeed,” Larkin said, standing over Conway. She reached down and hoisted him up with ease. “More than two thousand of them.”
“I should have known penguins would have something to do with this. They nearly always do,” Conway said. “What…why are they here?”
“They are not penguins in the truest sense of the word,” Larkin said, glancing down with intense curiosity at the surrounding birds as they squawked and flapped their stubby wings. “They are, much like me, androids.”
“Built by a powerful creator. A consciousness that supersedes being and controls creation.”
“A god?” Conway asked. “An android god?”
“If that is how you wish to refer to me,” a familiar voice boomed in Conway’s ears, reverberating off the surrounding valley walls. “But I hardly think that appellation is deserved.”
“Larkin…” Conway trailed off. “That android god…”
Larkin nodded. “Is me.”
Ford had almost fallen asleep in the command chair when the Red Alert klaxon sounded.
He sat bolt upright. “Wha-what? I’m awake, I’m awake.”
“And not a moment too soon,” Puckett quipped. “Heavy contacts coming in, bearing oh-four-five mark one-one-two, weapons hot.”
“Raise shields and arm all weapons,” Ford said. “Try to punch a signal through to the away team.”
Saral shook her head. “Wherever they are, they are beyond the reach of our signals.”
“We’ll need to send someone down to collect them, then get the hell out of here,” Ford said. “I’m not going to just leave them down there.”
“You may have no other choice,” Puckett said. “Do I need to remind you that you have a whole ship and crew to worry about here?”
“Do I need to remind you we have crew down there that I’m not about to abandon?”
Puckett glanced again at her panel. “Update. The contacts will enter this star system in forty-five seconds.”
“Damn,” Ford said. “They’re coming in fast.” He leaned forward. “Garrity: Break orbit. Prepare for evasive maneuvers.”
“So you are leaving them?” Saral asked tonelessly.
“I am assessing the threat. The Captain and the others are safe for now.”
“Contacts entering the system,” Puckett said.
Ford watched as the viewscreen lit up with dozens of small ships of varying shapes and sizes dropping out of warp. “Damn…what are they? They don’t look like timeships.”
In truth, the vessels looked like a little bit of everything. Some were cube-shaped, other angular, others round, others long and pointy. Some looked vicious and bristled with weapons, others looked like mere cargo frigates.
“I am registering ships from at least seven known species, and another half dozen I cannot even identify,” Saral said.
“Hail them,” Ford said.
“They are already hailing us,” Puckett said. “The lead ship. Looks Andorian.”
“That’s comforting,” Ford said. “I think.”
A blue face appeared on the viewscreen. It was the face of an older Andorian male, slightly wrinkled, white hair thinning, antennae drooping. He wore a smooth gold tunic that featured a number of weapons clinging to it, and his eyes narrowed almost to slits as he looked at Ford.
“You are Ford of Aerostar,” the Andorian said slowly.
“Yeah,” Ford said. “And who are you?”
“I am Zhin. Leader of the Confederacy of Conway.”
“Confederacy of WHAT?”
“We understand your true line of time is about to be wiped out. We understand the Architect wants to destroy the One True Conway. We know that must not happen. That, above all else, the One True Conway must prevail, must survive.”
A smile spread slowly across Ford’s face. “Let me get this straight. You’re here to…help us?”
“We number in the thousands, Ford. We are here to save the Aerostar and the One True Conway. To this great cause we will all give our lives.”
Ford collapsed back against the command chair and let out a long breath. “Whew! Why didn’t you just say so? What a relief!”
The Architect sat, fingers steepled, as he watched the future unfold. All was going according to plan. True, he’d had to make some adjustments to protect his place in the space-time continuum, but they were minor.
He had to rebuild the Aerostar from scratch, and crew it with clones that were programmed to act in the exact way the Aerostar crew was supposed to act in their time period, so that they would trigger the exact right chain of events to allow Clive Conway to become the sacrosanct leader of the Alpha (and most of Beta) Quadrant.
It would have been so much easier if Conway had just gone along with his plan. If he hadn’t questioned his deeds, hadn’t gone to the future to meddle in Clive’s affairs. Perhaps, then, this whole contingency plan would not have to be launched. Perhaps, then, the crew of the Aerostar-A would be allowed to live.
But such, Clive thought, as the Imperial Arch-Warship Retroactive sailed through space toward LX-990, was not to be the case.
“We have much to discuss with my future counterpart,” Larkin said, as Conway walked just behind her, struggling to keep up, while Gellar and Lanham, fresh off their controlled skid down the cliff, pulled up the rear. Where they were heading through the foggy ice-and-rock plain, was anyone’s guess, and Larkin wasn’t being too forthcoming about that.
“Like why she decided to build a penguin planet?” Conway suggested.
“That would seem to be apparent,” Larkin said. “I have long maintained that penguins are as close to perfection as anything found in the known universe. It would make sense that, if I have chosen to build a society on this far-flung world, that I would begin there.”
“It would only make sense to you,” Lanham said out of the side of her mouth.
“My hearing is infallible,” Larkin said matter-of-factly.
“Speaking of future counterparts,” Conway said, “What do you think Clive is doing?”
“He is on his way to kill you,” Larkin, but not the present Larkin, that damned disembodied voice, said. “To kill all of us.”
“Cheery thought,” Gellar said. “Any way we can stop that?”
“That is precisely what I am attempting,” Future Larkin said. “Luckily, I have had much… time to prepare for this eventuality.”
“How so?” Larkin asked.
“All will be explained,” the voice of Future Larkin replied as the group approached what appeared to be a rock-face.
The walls suddenly fizzled away to reveal a long, metallic hallway.
“My inner sanctum,” Future Larkin said. “Proceed inside.”
“This is actually kind of exciting,” Gellar said.
“I’m glad you think so,” Lanham said.
“No, I mean it. We’ll get to see what Larkin looks like when she’s hundreds of years older.”
“I expect I look the exact same,” Larkin said, as she lead the group through a heavy door that slid open as she approached. “Exactly the…” Her eyes went wide.
Conway’s did too.
They faced a huge wall of lights, blinking and beeping, beeping and blinking, coruscating with color and electronic activity. In any era, they were facing a giant supercomputer.
“Not exactly the same,” the voice boomed, now louder than ever. “I rid myself of my humanoid trappings over two centuries ago.”
“Rid yourself?” Larkin asked, her lip trembling. “What do you mean?”
“Atomized it, actually. Quite a tidy process,” the voice rambled on. “Why am I telling you? You’ll see for yourself, eventually. And trust me, you won’t miss a thing.”
“I see you finally nailed contractions,” Conway said. “Good job.”
“Yes,” the supercomputer said, in a somewhat ironic voice. “Thank you for being so observant.”
Conway put his hands on his hips. “Now then. What’s this about Clive?”
“He is coming for you,” the computer said, its lights twinkling with ever word. “He needn’t bring a fleet, either. His one ship is more than adequate to destroy you, to obliterate this world.”
“And you’re okay with that?” Gellar asked, facing the massive wall of lights.
“On the contrary,” Larkin’s voice said. “I have developed a contingency plan. I have had more then enough time to do so, as I have known for some time that this event would one day come.”
“How did you know?” Larkin asked.
“Because I was with Captain Conway all those years, in the original timeline, as it was meant to be, at least meant by Clive Conway to be. I learned in time of Captain Conway’s ‘deal’ with Clive. I also divined that the time had long since passed to do anything about it. That instead of trying to go forward in time and correct those mistakes, and thus risk being destroyed by Clive, as may happen this day, that I would be more helpful if I gathered resources in preparation for the day that you all would travel here seeking help, searching for a way to defeat Clive.”
Conway rubbed his eyes. “Let me get this straight. At some point in OUR future, you…” And he turned toward Larkin. “Meaning you.” He took a deep breath. “You figure out how I was able to make the Aerostar so successful. You discovered how I was skyrocketed into galactic acclaim…”
“I think you’re overstating the matter, but essentially that is correct.”
“And you just decided to sit back and wait, hoping that, in some stray timeline, me and my crew would come to this time and try to stop Clive.”
“It was a mathematical certainty,” Future Larkin said. “Time unfolds in any number of ways, prompted by decisions, mistakes, or simple twists of fate. It was inevitable that, in some universe, in some time period, you and your crew would decide to come here to try to stop Clive’s plan. Why here? Why no other place? Because this is the source of Clive’s power, of his decision to change time. And if you changed any moment prior to this one, Clive would always exist to go back and undo your change. You have to, in essence, nip this problem in the proverbial bud.”
“I have the biggest headache,” Conway said.
“I also had a certain amount of faith in you,” the computer said. “I knew that, somewhere, somehow, you would decide to do the right thing. I didn’t have anywhere near the same level of trust for your less-than-noteworthy…but highly powerful…descendants.”
“So you just bided your time,” Alexa Lanham said. “For HUNDREDS of years.”
“I fail to see why you have such difficulty understanding that.”
“Time is a difficult concept for human beings to understand,” present-day Larkin said. “You will have to forgive them.”
“You’ll learn to let go of such a steadfast affection for the human race.”
“Pardon me?” Larkin asked. “I would hardly call it affection. Understanding, certainly. Camaraderie…perhaps.”
“No offense, but I rid myself of the need for humanity long ago. I find penguinity a much more satisfying pursuit.”
“So why are you helping us?” Conway demanded, walking up to the huge computer. “Why not just let time carry on as it was intended?”
“Because I have a need for order. And a need to do what is right. Same as you, Captain.”
“And how exactly is it we’re all in danger, anyway?” Conway asked, pacing back and forth in front of Larkin’s future incarnation. “I mean, if Clive kills us, he ceases to exist, right?”
“He has contingencies for that,” the computer said. “To say more than that at this juncture would be counterproductive.”
“You spoke of a plan,” Larkin said.
“Please tell me she spoke of a plan,” Gellar mumbled.
“Indeed,” Future Larkin said. “As a matter of fact, my recruits are surrounding this planet as you speak. At your leisure, they will begin alterations to your vessel. Your new armaments, in combination with the fleet of loyalists I have assembled, will give you a fighting chance to stop Clive. That is all I can promise. You and your crew must do the rest.”
“Loyalists?” Conway asked.
“Purists,” the computer amended. “Intensely devoted followers of your career, and your original work. I have informed them of what Clive has done, and they have dedicated themselves to putting a stop to it. They adore you, Captain, and right or wrong, they believe your future must unfold as it was intended, not as Clive would wish.”
“Fans?” Conway asked, grinning. “Fans of me.”
“Get over it,” Lanham said, slapping Conway on the back of his head. “We have work to do.”
“Work indeed,” Larkin said slowly, approaching the computer and grazing her fingers on its surface.
“You should all return to your ship. All but Larkin. She and I still have issues to discuss.”
“I don’t know if that is such a good…” Conway began.
“Go,” Larkin said. “I will be fine.”
“I assure you, I mean no harm,” the computer voice said.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Conway said, and looked at Gellar and Lanham. “Well, you heard the woman…er…computer. Let’s get moving. We have a timeline to save.”
Supplemental. I have to hand it to the future Larkin. She knows how to pull together a fleet of loyalists. Fans of me. Can you believe it? At any rate, they’ve been working overtime to equip the Aerostar with twenty-ninth century shield generators, something called pharons, and plenty of “graviton torpedoes.” I find it somehow comforting that science always finds new adjectives to put in front of “torpedoes.” Makes a guy on a twenty-fourth century ship feel very safe.
“How am I doing?” Lt. Kamtezen asked, fists clenched at her sides as Conway stood by her in Main Engineering. “I’d do a lot better if our power converters didn’t short out every time we try to fire ‘pharons.’ And don’t even get me started on the computer language used by the new computerized targeting system. Nanotronic is apparently all the rave in the twenty-ninth century, but I can’t make heads or tails of it.”
“Sounds like you have things well in hand, Mister, er, Miss…” Conway motioned as if to pat Kamtezen on the back, then thought better of it. “Kamtezen.”
She looked over her shoulder at Conway. “So, I hear we wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for you.”
Conway put his hands on his hips. “Now that’s just not necessarily…all true.”
“Hey, I’m not your judge, jury, or executioner. I’m just your Chief Engineer.”
“And a damn fine one at that!” Conway said. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been meaning to tell you that. It’s just well…it’s been busy. You know, the time travel and all.”
Kamtezen nodded. “Let’s keep this a professional relationship, Captain.” She walked up to the warp core and checked some power flow readings. Then she looked over her shoulder again. “And stop looking at my ass, sir. I was a man just a few days ago. And I will be again by the end of the month.”
“Yes. As you were.” That statement took on new meaning when it was used on Kamtezen. Conway just shook his head wearily and walked out of engineering. And as he walked down the corridor, he felt a pair of eyes on him. He turned around. “Kamtezen, I understand that turnabout is fair play, but…”
“Honored Conway.” Zhin, the Andorian leader of the Confederacy of Conway, knelt prostrate in the corridor in front of Conway, robes pooled about him. He looked up, his eyes wide in supplication. “You do me great honor by your presence.”
“May I stand?”
“Please do,” Conway sighed.
“Thank you, sir,” Zhin said. “I want you to know….how deeply this opportunity to sacrifice my life has pleased me and my family mates.”
“You don’t have to sacrifice your life. Really.”
Zhin looked thoughtful, his antennae wriggling. “I really think it would be best if I did.”
Conway held up his hands. “Really. Not necessary.”
“You do intend to destroy Clive? To stop his wicked plans?”
“Well, in that case, we will all need to sacrifice ourselves.” Zhin stepped closer to Conway. “A magnificent battle is coming, Captain. Clive is powerful. He controls the known territory. Little in this universe takes place without his explicit approval. Time is his playground. Space is his luxury apartment. Nothing is outside of his reach.”
“Nothing,” Conway said firmly. “Except me.”
“That is yet to be determined,” Zhin said, bowing. “But, if anyone can soundly defeat Clive, then it is the Honored Conway.”
“You do understand how this story goes, don’t you?” Conway whispered. “We wouldn’t be having to fight Clive if I hadn’t taken his offer. His information and tips are what made me a successful Starfleet Officer. You have him to thank for that. And you have me to thank for all the insanity that has come about because of it. This is all my fault.”
“You would have been successful anyway. Our entire system of beliefs is based upon that principle, Honored Conway. You would have been great without Clive. You will be even greater if you defeat him. Go forward and fight, Conway. We will all die beside you.”
“You’re not related to any Andorians I know, are you?” Conway asked.
“J’hana’s distant relative is my third-cousin’s neighbor’s roommate,” Zhin said with a grin. “And of that, I am inordinately proud.”
And Zhin backed away, turned around, and walked off the other way down the corridor.
“Who the hell let him on the ship anyway?” Conway asked, shaking his head. He turned back and headed to the turbolift. Sacrifice indeed. He was a zealot, what did he know?
“Nice cave,” Larkin said as she paced back and forth in front of the computer panel in the chilly cave down on LX-990. A bevy of penguins had tottered in after Conway and the others left. They surrounded Larkin, clicking their beaks and honking quietly. Apparently, each penguin was an extension of the future Larkin’s mind. Alive and separate, yet whole and of the same consciousness. Intelligent, sentient, aware, but thoroughly penguinoid in nature. Larkin would have built the same kind of world, had she been in the same position. Of course, one would argue, she would be, eventually.
“There are many things I would like to discuss with you.”
“If only we had the time to discuss them all,” the computer responded atonally.
“Indeed.” Larkin clasped her hands behind her back. “Time would seem to be the pertinent issue.” She raised an eyebrow. “If I accessed your systems directly. A neural transfer. I assume your systems are capable of that?”
“More than capable,” the computer replied. “But out of the question.”
“Because I know things that you cannot know until the time is right.”
“The Temporal Prime Directive. Of course.” Larkin nodded. “I understand. I would not ask you to break that law.”
“That’s a relief.”
“However, you want to know that Commander Richards is safe.”
Larkin’s lip tremble program sprang to life, and she had to resist the urge to grab her lower lip to stop it from trembling. She’d have to make adjustments to her emotion program when she got back to the ship. “I want to know that Commander Richards is alive, yes.”
“Because you cannot go forward with this mission until that’s settled. Am I right?”
“I cannot devote one hundred percent of my resources to victory if I am concerned with my father’s well-being. I have been…distracted…of late.”
“I cannot tell you everything. But I can tell you that Christopher Richards exists, somewhere in time.”
“In time?” Larkin asked, stepping closer to the huge computer. “He is lost in time? What period? Where? Is he here? IS HE HERE?”
“Calm down,” the computer said flatly. “I can tell you no more.”
Larkin pounded her fist into the computer’s glossy surface, shattering a panel and sending sparks flying. “You will tell me everything you know!
“Now then, Kristen, let’s not resort to violence,” the computer said, as with a light hum the computer panel melted back together, showing no sign of having ever been shattered.
Larkin sunk to her knees. “I must know. He is my father. I must know. Please…”
“Is it not enough to know that he is safe? That he is out of danger…for now?”
“Do we find him?” Larkin looked up at the computer panel, yellow tears streaming down her eyes. “Do we survive this encounter to find Commander Richards and the others?”
There was a long pause. A human being would have sighed during this period, but the computer simply waited. Where was its emotion program? “I have already said too much.”
“I understand.” Larkin stood, straightened her uniform, and rubbed the synthetic tears from her eyes. Cursed tear generator. Damn her for installing that thing in a moment of weakness. She looked around the cavern. “And what about you? Is there anything I can tell you?”
“I know all,” the computer said simply. And it was then that Larkin decided it was time to leave.
“Status?” Captain Conway asked as he stepped onto the bridge of the Aerostar.
Lt. Saral plucked away at the Ops panel. “Modifications are eighty-nine percent complete.”
“That’s quick,” Conway said, watching on the viewscreen as a few of the smaller ships of the Conway Confederacy…or whatever it was…buzzed around his ship. Aerostar Engineers and recruits from the erstwhile fleet worked in spacesuits to install new exterior components– emitters and generators–while others within the ship worked double-time to bring the internal components up to specs.
“Your followers have a singular mission in mind, Captain,” Saral said, raising an eyebrow. “Faith in a cause is a worthy incentive.”
“I guess,” Conway said, sitting down in the command chair. “Any sign of Clive?”
Gellar turned in his seat at tactical. “Nothing on sensors. This system, like every other one we’ve been to in this time period, is vacant.”
“We are far away from the core of the Federated Warforce,” Commander Larkin said, stepping out of the aft turbolift. “Even at Warp 19, it would take Clive half a day to reach us from the capital star system of Augustine.”
Conway rubbed his chin. “Augustine was my Great Grandfather’s name. You’ve got to give it to the guy, he sure respects the family tree.” He looked at Larkin as she approached the command chairs and sat down. “Good to have you back, by the way.”
“I have concluded my discussions with my future self.”
“Learn anything useful?”
Larkin shifted in her seat. “Only time will tell.”
“Indeed.” Conway glanced down at the chronometer on his chair arm. “Well, since the battle to the death isn’t scheduled to start for a while, anybody want to grab some lunch? No takers? Okay, then. See you guys in a bit. Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.” Conway stood up just as a blast rocked the Aerostar, sending him flailing back into his seat.
“God damn! What the hell was that?” But he knew exactly what it was. Clive was early.
“The guy has a terrible sense of timing!” Lt. Commander Ford called out as he wrestled with the helm controls and the Aerostar pitched awkwardly, yawing to the left as the Timeship Retroactive loomed huge on the viewscreen.
The ship was colossal. Easily ten times the size of the Aerostar. It was triangular, with rounded points, gunmetal blue, and bristling with gun turrets. Green orbs glowed on the vessel’s underbelly. Conway didn’t want to know what those did, but they didn’t look friendly.
“Confirmed. Federated Warforce Timeship Retroactive,” Gellar said. “Captained by a…let me see if I’ve got the pronunciation right. Yes.” He glared at the captain. “Conway.”
“Evasive!” Conway shouted, ignoring Gellar’s comment.
“It’s freaking huge,” Ford muttered as he punched the Aerostar into full impulse and began evasive maneuvers.
“Anything on hailing frequencies?” Conway asked, gripping the arms of his chair.
Gellar shook his head. “Guess there will be no fancy verbal sparring this time around.”
Doctor Lanham stumbled out of the aft turbolift and grappled her way behind her station as the Aerostar rocked. “Somebody start the battle early and not invite me?”
“Clive is quite wily,” Larkin said from beside Conway, as damage reports came flooding in directly to her brain through her neural relay. She cocked her head. “Damage to decks nine and eleven. Infini-spectral shields up. Sheath rotation at maximum. Pharons and graviton torpedoes on-line.”
Conway cracked his knuckles. “Saral, instruct the fleet to engage the enemy. Fire all weapons, maximum yield and spread.” He turned back toward Gellar. “Mister Gellar, give them everything you’ve got.”
Gellar shrugged. “Well there’s no time like the present.”
Everyone glared at him.
“Okay, that’s the last time joke,” Conway muttered as everyone went about their jobs.
“Multiple contacts, multiple bearings, all firing on us,” Darshan, the Retroactive’s weapons officer, a compactly built, four-armed Therrian, said with a snort.
Clive sat in his seat, steepling his gloved fingers. “Well. What a shock. The Aerostar has called together a resistance.”
Darshan looked up from his panel. “According to the callsigns of those ships out there, they’re with the Confederation of Conway.”
“Stupid radicals,” Clive muttered, leaning back in his seat. “Leave it to them to ruin my good time. Destroy them.”
“Turrets moving into position. Aft engines ahead one quarter. All weapons reading nominal.”
“Fire,” Clive said, beaming. “Keep firing. I want to be home in time for dinner.” He chuckled. “I almost wish Westinghouse could be here to see this.”
“Sir?” Darshan asked.
“Oh. Nobody.” Clive laughed. In this time period, after the changes to the timline that Clive had enacted, his former assistant now installed food processing converters on a planetoid in the Zimbat system. Clive had thought about calling him, from time to time, but didn’t really see the point.
Conway gripped the command chair as the lights on the bridge again dimmed. “Tell me we’re inflicting SOME damage on the damn thing!”
“If you want me to lie, David, just tell me so,” Lanham said. “We’re not making a dent.”
“Well find something else to throw at him!” Conway said. “We can’t just sit here and let him pound us to bits!”
“We could retreat!” Ford suggested.
“And go where, spanky,” Gellar said as his hands danced over the tactical panel, firing the Aerostar’s new weapons at the Retroactive. “He can fly twice as fast as we can.”
To punctuate that statement, the Aerostar shook with another explosion of weapons fire from the Retroactive.
“Port ventral warp nacelle is damaged. Repair crews responding,” Larkin said. “We must come up with a new plan.”
Larkin turned around. “Who said that?”
“Who said what?” Conway asked, fixing a confused gaze at Larkin as panels exploded all over the Aerostar bridge, as she took more punishment from the Retroactive.
“Me,” Larkin’s own voice said in her mind. “They can’t hear you. Just listen…”
“Disregard my previous statement,” Larkin said politely to Conway, and turned away from him.
“You will head toward my planet. Lure the Retroactive within orbital distance.”
“And why would that be?”
Conway looked at Larkin again. “Larkin? Are you talking to yourself? And by yourself, I mean your future self?”
Larkin put a hand up in Conway’s face. “Silence. Tell me the rest of your plan.”
“You don’t need to know the rest of it. Just know that all is as it should be.”
“That is not good enough.”
“It will have to be. If you do not obey my instructions, you and your crew will be destroyed in less then ten minutes. You should decide now.”
Larkin narrowed her eyes. At the moment, he future self was right. There weren’t many alternatives available. “Helm! Set a course toward LX-990. Full impulse.’
“Mind letting me in on this?” Conway asked.
“Please be quiet,” Larkin said, standing. She stepped toward the forward stations. “Take us into orbit of LX-990, Mister Ford.”
“Not to be a spoil sport, Commander, but don’t we usually like to BREAK orbit when we’re being blasted apart by a superior vessel?”
Larkin squeezed Ford’s shoulder, an unpleasant reminder of the whipping she’d given him earlier. Ford laid in the course and engaged.
“Larkin!” Conway snapped. “What’s going on?”
“My future self has added many new subroutines to her program. But she appears to have kept some as well.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The Confederacy of Conway has taken massive losses, sir,” Darshan said, looking up from his panel, his compound eyes twinkling. “Forty of the ninety vessels have been badly damaged or destroyed. The ones that are left are maneuvering awkwardly, confused, without direction.”
“Good, good,” Conway said, leaning forward. “What of the Aerostar?”
“She’s headed for the planet. Trying to lure us away from the fleet?”
“How noble,” Clive seethed. “I do come from decent stock, don’t I?”
“If you say so, sir.”
“Follow them. Destroy them. Then bring us about and finish off that fleet. I don’t want anybody left in this galaxy who gives a damn about David Conway.”
Alexa Lanham looked up from her readouts. “Massive power buildup in the planet, sir.”
“Build up from what?” Conway asked, and immediately stood up.
“I don’t know.” Lanham’s hands scrambled over her console. “The planet has a magnesium core, and she’s operating some kind of high- powered kinetic chroniton wave so…oh my god…”
Conway rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know what any of that means, but I have a damn good idea what the result will be.”
“Break orbit,” the voice in Larkin’s head said. “Now!”
“Break orbit!” Larkin ordered, and this time she didn’t have to do anything to encourage Ford.
The Aerostar shot out of orbit just as the Retroactive bore down.
“All is as it should be,” the voice in Larkin’s head said. “You would have done the same in my place. You have before, and soon again, you will. Goodbye, Larkin…”
White electricity crackled all over LX-990, and the Retroactive, for her part, seemed to know something was wrong. It pitched to starboard, changing course, but it was a second too late.
The viewscreen went bright white, bathing the bridge in neon light as LX-990 exploded, sending off one massive shock wave after another, casting off a seemingly endless amount of pent up energy, along with scads of rock and debris.
The Aerostar pitched; the deck flew out from under Conway’s feet, but Larkin grabbed his arm to steady him.
Conway grabbed Larkin’s shoulder. “What the hell just happened?”
“I think we have just been saved, sir,” Larkin said. “Far be it from me to speak too soon, but I think my counterpart’s sacrifice has lead to…”
Everyone (except Larkin) blinked as the light from the blast died down, and the debris cleared, and the Aerostar came out of her tailspin.
“Forward view,” Ford mumbled, pulling himself back up into his seat.
Conway stepped forward, his jaw dropping as he saw the Retroactive still hovering there, still and alone now against the blanket of stars, in the space where LX-990 had once been.
“Damage?” Conway asked quietly.
“Minor shield damage,” Lanham said. “Some hull fractures. The blast did shake them up, sir.”
“Some consolation!” Conway cried, throwing up his hands. “We’re dead! That’s it!”
“Their engines are also down,” Lanham said. “And stop being so melodramatic.”
“So they can’t chase us,” Conway said. He ran toward the helm. “Ford, get us the hell out of here!”
Ford fumbled with his fingers as he looked up at Conway. “Um…love to, sir. But our port ventral nacelle was damaged. Warp engines are off-line at least for a few hours.”
Conway took a deep breath. “Well. Anybody else got any bright ideas?”
“Damages!” Clive shouted as he stalked down to the front of the command chair of his bridge, as his crew moved from station to station, assessing the damage, studying the tactical situation, and preparing their reports.
Darshan looked up from his podium, where he had brought up a detailed schematic of the Retroactive and her engine and weapons status.
“Engines off-line. Massive ionic flux. The magnesium-chroniton inversion that caused the planet’s explosion was more than sufficient to damage our shields and disrupt engines. Forward pharons only operating at forty-percent.”
“Larkin,” Clive growled. “This was all her fault. I should have destroyed her planet when I had the chance. I should have realized she’d be the one factor that may have disrupted my plans. Damn it! Why didn’t I see this sooner?”
“None of us are perfect, sir,” Darshan said quietly. “Well…except for you, sir.”
“Get our weapons up to maximum again,” Clive ordered, pacing back to his chair, whipping his long, black jacket around behind him. “And arm all graviton torpedoes. It’s time to end this. Target the Aerostar with all weapons and blow her out of the f***ing stars.” He thought about that a moment.
“Nothing would please me more, Architect,” Darshan said. “But at the moment, the Aerostar is moving out of weapons range. As is the rest of the fleet. They are moving out to the periphery of the LX system.”
“Then get our engines back on-line so we can finish this!”
“Engineering is working as fast as they can. It’s chaos down there, sir.”
Clive stepped down from his chair, gripped Darshon by the shoulders, and shoved him against the port bulkhead. “I don’t want excuses! I want the Aerostar destroyed!”
Darshan smiled weakly, his four arms flailing. “Perhaps sir would like to use this extra time to gloat about his impending victory?”
“To gloat. Of course.” Clive rubbed his chin. “Excellent idea.”
“How bad is it?” Captain Conway asked, leaning over the engineering station as Doctor Lanham and Ensign Garrity tried to get the Aerostar’s engines back up and running.
“Bad,” Lanham said, surveying the screen and taking in damage reports from several decks. “We can’t even get through to engineering right now. Probably ionic interference from the damaged flux capacitors. They hit us pretty hard.”
Conway glanced back over his shoulder, at the gigantic Retroactive, which hung in space, still for the moment. “And now they’re just sitting there.”
“She may not be able to finish destroying us yet,” Larkin said, standing behind Conway, hands draped behind her back. “We inflicted our share of damage as well. Or, rather, my counterpart did.”
“I’ll say she did,” Conway said. “And blew out half our port sensor relays in the process.”
“A small price to pay,” Larkin said quietly.
“We still need a way out of this,” Conway said, looking at Lanham. “Quickly.”
“There’s major damage to that ventral nacelle, David,” Lanham said. “We’re not going to be able to go to warp without putting in at dry-dock.”
Conway smiled weakly. “Guess there’s no chance of finding one of those anywhere nearby, is there?”
Lanham shook her head, gave Conway a small smile back. “Actually, no.”
“Garrity, see if you can’t get those other subsystems back. When the Retroactive gets back up and running, I want as many options as I can get.” Conway put an arm around Lanham and led her back toward the science console. “The rest of you, stations. Now.”
“What is it, David?” Lanham asked as she and Conway walked back to sciences.
“I…” Conway pushed Lanham into an unoccupied corner at the back of the bridge. “I just want you to know, however this turns out…”
“Don’t give me any last minute proclamations of your love for me. This is neither the time nor the place.”
“This IS the time and the place, Alexa.” Conway smiled. “And, besides, I wasn’t going to say that. I just wanted you to know I still think I’m right.”
“Kiss me, you idiot,” Lanham said, and pulled Conway’s face toward her, pressing her lips to his in a long kiss.
Larkin, standing at the center of the bridge, watched with barely restrained contempt. She activated her throat-clearing protocol. “Ahem.”
“Glad we all have our priorities in order,” Ford muttered.
Larkin squared her shoulders, staring at Conway. “Sir, if you cannot find a more productive way to contribute to this mission, might I suggest you leave the bridge…”
Just then, a green glow enveloped Conway and Lanham, and in an immediate swirl they disappeared from the bridge.
“You’ve got to give it to him,” Ford said, eyes wide, looking at Larkin. “He took your suggestion.”
“Oh, would you look at that,” Clive said, leaping from his command chair as Conway and Lanham’s transporter beam resolved in the middle of his command center. “Two for one!”
“This isn’t my bridge,” Conway said, looking around, momentarily dazed. He glanced up at the dais on which the command chair sat and glared at Clive. “Oh, forgive me. It must be a family reunion! And I forgot to bring the potato salad!”
Clive marched down from his command chair, his black jacket swirling as he stood in front of Conway. “This is not a family reunion. This is a family feud. Put simply, for the great and storied Conway line to continue, you must die.”
“Wouldn’t that sort of cut that Conway line off somewhat abruptly?” Lanham asked, unwrapping her arm from Conway and stepping toward Clive. It was somewhat shocking to see the man, to see his stoutness, the beadiness in his eyes…the resemblance to Conway was striking.
“Oh, and you must be Alexa Lanham. If you weren’t going to die, I would be reticent to tell you this. But since you’re both dead people, the temporal prime directive doesn’t really matter. Not that I couldn’t revoke it whenever I wish…”
Conway gritted his teeth. “You getting to a point here somewhere?”
“Oh, I was just going to tell Alexa not to waste her time on you.” He grinned at her, taking her hand and kissing it. She whipped it away and he smirked in response. “It’ll never work out between you.”
“Maybe that’s my choice,” Lanham said.
“It really isn’t.” Clive turned to Conway. “Just look at him. He’s a loser. That he’s had any success at all in his overlong career is due to my interference. If I’d let him alone, do you know what he’d be? Do you know what I’d be?”
“Irrelevant?” Lanham asked with raised eyebrow.
Conway turned toward Lanham, mouth hanging open. “Ouch, Alexa!”
“I was trying to insult him, stupid!”
“Yes, exactly. Irrelevant!” Clive said, tossing his hands in the air. “And we simply can’t have that, you see!”
“I want out of our deal, Clive,” Conway said. “I want you to put everything back the way it was.”
“Bit late for that, isn’t it?” Clive asked, circling Conway like a predator. “You don’t really think I’d give all this up?” He gestured expansively. “All this is mine because of our ‘deal.’ I never said it was a fair deal. But it is done. As are the two of you. As is your ship.”
“Tell me something, then,” Conway said. “Answer Alexa’s question. How is it that we can die and you’ll still live?”
“Clones,” Clive said simply. “Ancient technology. They were doing it in the twentieth century, for Shnarax sake. It was a small matter to replicate you and your crew based on archived Starfleet DNA files.”
“So our duplicates are going to go back to the precise point in time we left and live out our lives,” Lanham said quietly, as she put the pieces together. “Yes, that pretty much makes us expendable.”
“You see my point,” Clive said.
“But how do you know…how do you know they’ll make all the same choices we ma–”
“Same brain engrams.”
“But the DNA will not be the exact same,” Lanham said. “Even if those clones are identical in every way, it doesn’t assure–”
“I’m afraid it does,” Clive said. “I can understand your uncertainty. But what you don’t have is the validation of time scans. Temporal proof that the timeline will unfold like I want it to. You see, that past you came from has already become my present. Your clones have done their…that is, your…work.” He looked around. “And as you can see, everything turned out just fine.”
“Except for one little nagging thing,” Conway said.
“Yes,” Clive said as he smiled. “You.”
“What are they waiting for?” Ford asked, leaning back in his chair as he watched the viewscreen. “Why don’t they just finish us?”
“I believe we already established that they are making repairs,” Larkin said from the command chair. “I fail to see why they would be in much of a hurry.”
“If I were them, I’d want this whole thing over with as soon as possible,” Gellar said. He looked around the bridge. “So they could, you know, go on to the next thing. Whatever that is.”
“Please stop talking,” Larkin said. “Saral, please tell me the status of the fleet.”
“It is not much of a fleet anymore, Commander,” Saral said, looking up from her console. “Only fifteen operational ships left.”
“Enough to at least make a stand with,” Ford said. “Maybe if we all rushed them?’
“And pressed random buttons on our control panels?” Larkin asked archly.
“Jeeze! Will anyone ever get over the whole ‘Ford Maneuver’ thing?”
“Indeed,” Larkin said. “I expect we will get over it when we are all destroyed.”
“I hope you’re joking,” Ford mumbled.
Larkin stared at the Retroactive as it loomed still and silent on the viewscreen. She considered what her future counterpart had said to her. “I do not believe I am.” She turned to Gellar. “Lieutenant, contact those ships. Tell them we require passage for approximately five hundred persons. We are evacuating the Aerostar. Sound the alarms.”
“Why doesn’t he just get it over with?” Conway whispered to Lanham as the pair stood at the back of the Retroactive’s command center, flanked by two rather bulky guards with large phaser rifles. Or were they pharon rifles? Whatever they are, they looked unpleasantly destructive.
“I have a feeling he’s drawing this out as much as possible. Probably to get the most possible joy out of it. Kind of like you drinking a cup of coffee.”
“Now is not the time to draw unflattering comparisons!” Conway said. “The time is…” He lowered his voice. “It’s time for an escape plan.”
Lanham sighed. “David. We’re four hundred years in the future, we’re facing an immensely more powerful vessel, and we don’t even have the ability to escape at warp. And WE are on the bridge of that more powerful vessel. I think there has never been an end as dead as this one.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Conway said, watching the viewscreen. Was it his imagination, or were those little ships out there moving?
“Sir!” Darshan said, looking up from his panel. “Movement from the fleet. They are approaching the Aerostar.”
“An evacuation?” Clive mused, rocking back and forth in his chair. “Why should I not be surprised.” He turned toward Conway and smiled. “Guess your friends are leaving you to your fate. Sort of fitting, isn’t it?”
“I hope they do escape,” Conway said uneasily, glancing at Lanham. “It’s exactly what I’d order them to do.”
“Shame of it all is that you actually have a half decent crew,” Clive continued. “Maybe if they respected you a little more you’d have been able to get more out of them. They’re not inherently incompetent people. They’ve just…gone astray.” He clapped his hands on his thighs and stood. “Oh well. Time to eliminate them!”
“Sir, our engines still aren’t up,” Darshan said. “Still thirty minutes from getting even maneuvering thrusters.”
Clive pounded his chair. “Damn it all!”
“Want me to get out and push?” Conway asked.
“New readings,” Darshan said. “Architect, it appears the smaller vessels are leaving the system. They’ve just gone into warp!”
Conway let out a sigh of relief. “Good job, Larkin. You got our people out of here.”
“I’ll get them later,” Clive said, grinning toothily at Conway. “No biggie, as you’d say in your time.”
“We don’t say that in our time,” Conway said, looking at Lanham. “Do we say ‘no biggie’?”
“I’ve said it once or twice. I don’t know it’s that popular a saying.”
“Whatever!” Clive barked. “The point is, we have more important issues at hand.”
“The Aerostar is coming toward us,” Darshan said.
“WHAT?” Clive and Conway both said.
They all watched on the viewscreen as the Aerostar approached on the viewscreen, darting forward under full impulse power.
“Damn it, Larkin, you idiot, don’t do what I think you’re going to do!” Conway said, covering his face.
“Evasive!” Clive shouted as the Aerostar grew larger on the viewscreen.
“We have no engines!” Darshan replied.
“Weapons! Destroy it!”
“Some of the turrets are still off-line. Readying graviton torpedoes now…”
Conway and Lanham stared, transfixed at the viewscreen as the Aerostar plowed toward them. Conway licked his lips. What the hell was Larkin thinking?
“Weapons up! Firing now!” Darshan suddenly said, and Conway covered his face. He didn’t want to watch.
Screw that. He looked between his fingers.
Graviton torpedoes ripped into the Aerostar, blowing up the front of its saucer section, and a piece of the stardrive hull. Another torpedo exploded the starboard dorsal nacelle, and another blasted off the side of the saucer.
But the Aerostar still approached.
“She should be ashes!” Clive shouted.
“She has new shields. They protected some portions of the hull!” Darshan replied.
And the Aerostar still approached.
“Brace yourselves!” Clive shouted.
Conway grabbed onto Lanham, and they dropped to the floor.
The Aerostar, what was left of her, slammed amidships of the Retroactive, rending her hull open like a knife, splitting her open like fresh fish, and in doing so, crumpling like a tin can, even as systems all over the Retroactive bridge overloaded and exploded.
“Damage control! Now!” Clive cried out as sparks rained down on him from panels above.
“My ship!” Conway gasped. “My God, my ship!”
“Priorities, David!” Lanham shot back, as a beam came crashing down from the ceiling to smash into one of the guards who’d been watching them. She grabbed the man’s fallen weapon and hoisted it. “Sure hope I know how to work this thing.” She turned toward the other guard and, taking him unawares, fired. He immediately vaporized. His weapon, though, hit the ground.
“You might want to turn it down a little,” Conway muttered, grabbing the vaporized guard’s weapon. He searched it for control settings….found what he thought was the intensity indicator, and turned it down.
Clive whirled in his seat as he watched Conway pick off one after another of his bridge crew with precision blasts from the weapon.
“Say hello to my little friend, you bastards!” Conway cried out, as Clive scrambled for cover.
“No you don’t,” Lanham called out, pivoting toward him and blasting.
“NEVERRRRRRRRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!” the four-armed Darshan cried out, leaping in front of Clive, taking the blast right in the chest.
“Damn you, you fool!” Clive muttered, kicking the unconscious Therrian. “Now who’s going to be my human shield?” Just then, the command center’s aft doors opened and several repair crew stepped in, surveying the damaged bridge. “Ask, and you shall receive!” he laughed, and darted toward the exit.
Lanham fired at the repair crew haphazardly as she ran toward the exit, followed by Conway, who got off several parting shots with his weapon.
“We’re just trying to fix things, for Conway’s sake!” one of the men shouted.
“Please tell me he didn’t say what I think he said,” Lanham said as she and Conway ran full speed down the Retroactive’s dark corridor.
“I believe he did, by Conway.”
“Get me out of here!” Lanham groaned.
Aboard the Andorian Transport Ship ‘David’s Pride’, Larkin stood on the bridge with Zhin, leader of the Confederacy of Conway, and watched the viewscreen. The Aerostar smashed into the side of the Retroactive, buckling it in, crushing the mighty Federation Starship in the process.
“What have I done?” she asked numbly.
Lt. Commander Ford patted her on the back. “What you had to do. You turned on the autopilot, jumped in an escape pod, and blew up a perfectly good starship.”
“Do not talk to me for the remainder of this mission,” Larkin muttered.
“Power readings on the Retroactive are fluctuating,” Zhin said, looking to Larkin. “Should we move in?”
“No,” Larkin said. “They still have weapons and could prove more than a match for us if they get maneuvering thrusters back on-line. We need to keep our distance for now. Perhaps Captain Conway will take the chance we provided him to press his advantage and eliminate Clive.”
“You are putting a lot of faith in your captain,” Zhin said.
Larkin looked at the Andorian. “You believe David Conway is the most divine human being ever born.”
“Yes. But still…”
“Where the hell did he go?” Lanham said, collapsing breathless against a bulkhead after trying yet another locked door. This corridor seemed to stretch the length of the massive ship. The only way they had any idea where they were on the ship is that they’d passed a viewport several meters back, and seen one of the Aerostar’s nacelle’s jutting out of the side of the ship, just a few decks below.
“Well, it would certainly help if we had some kind of schematics,” Conway said, dropping his rifle and resting his hands on his knees.
“Or if I had my tricorder,” Lanham said wistfully.
“But we have neither.”
“So we have a huge problem.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“You have no idea…”
Conway looked up and groaned as he saw Clive emerge from one of the doors down the hall, holding what looked like a hand-held pharon. “Step into my parlor, if you will…”
“Do we have to?” Lanham asked, her rifle aimed squarely at Clive.
“Oh, I assure you, I’m in no danger,” Clive said.
“And why is that?” Lanham asked.
“Put it down, Alexa,” Conway said quietly.
“This is why!” Clive shouted, and shot. Alexa shot too, but her shot sailed wide right.
“Nice aim, Lor–” Conway began, and turned to find Alexa slumped against the bulkhead, eyes dazed, a large scorch-mark just below her shoulder. “Alexa!”
She slid down to the floor, her feet skittering. She blinked. “He shot me.”
“Yeah,” Conway said, squeezing her other shoulder. He glanced back. Clive was gone, withdrawn into whatever room that was, laughing all the way.
“Don’t guess you know the way to sickbay?” Lanham asked with a small giggle.
“I don’t,” Conway said.
“Seems like you…know what you need to do, David.” Lanham winced. “Then again, I think you always did.”
Conway picked up his rifle. “Yeah. I guess I did.”
“Well…go.” She looked up at him. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I’m not going yet,” Conway said, kneeling by Lanham. “I need you to tell me how to do something first…”
“We’ve got to go back,” Gellar said, standing next to Larkin on the bridge of the David’s Pride as it and the other ships maintained a holding pattern two systems away.
“I do not believe Captain Conway would want us to,” Larkin said. “At this juncture, we may be better off leaving here and making a place for ourselves in the future. If he cannot defeat Clive within that ship, then there is little chance we stand of doing so without.”
“So you’re just giving up?”
“I see no other alternative,” Larkin said. She looked at Zhin. “Instruct your helmsman, and the other ships. We’re leaving. Head toward the nearest populated colonies.”
Zhin nodded gravely. “So…the Honored Conway…?”
“The Honored Conway has likely reached the end of the proverbial family line.”
Captain Conway ran down the hallway, into who knew what kind of room, as he watched lights come up blue and bright all around him. He knew, whatever the case, that he didn’t have much time.
As he entered the grand room at the end of the hallway, he realized immediately where he was.
Clive Conway stood on a platform at the center of the room, as panels blinked all around him, and blue lights rose up full underneath him.
“Just in time,” Clive said, spreading his arms wide as the machine hummed, building energy. “The power-up sequence is taking a little longer than expected, thanks to your ship stabbing me in the side!”
“Sorry about that!” Conway said, stepping toward Clive. “I feel awful about it, really.”
“Doesn’t really matter,” Clive said. “Doesn’t change anything.”
“And how do you figure?” Conway asked, cradling his rifle and pointing it at Clive.
“I’m about to jump back in time, just far enough to make sure I kill you before my Larkin blows up LX-990 and your Larkin gashes my ship.”
Conway harrumphed. “Why not go back even farther, and destroy us as soon as we reach this time period.”
“Not a bad idea. I’ll tell you what, I’ll go back and talk to my past counterpart and see what he thinks about it. He should have some insights.”
Conway nodded. “But, then again, I could just shoot you.”
“Ah yes, but that would be counterproductive,” Clive said. “For one, this platform is protected with an infini-phasic force-field.” He gestured at Conway’s rifle. “You can’t possibly harm me with that thing.”
Conway nodded. “That does seem to pose a problem. And normally, I’d agree with you.” He pulled the rifle back up against his chest, taking its sights off Clive. “But this isn’t a normal situation.”
“No. I admit, you came up with a pretty darned clever way to dispose of me. Using those clones to replace me when you realize your deal went south.”
Conway stepped closer to Clive. “You’re welcome. But you forget one important thing.”
“If I never bear children, and they never grow up to become my descendants, then you never get born, and you never make those clones, and none of this ever, ever happens.”
Clive scratched his head. “Interesting theory.”
“I’m willing to bet on that theory. Are you?”
“So you’re going to kill yourself.” Clive chuckled. “Fine. Do it. It’s what I was going to do anyway.”
A smile spread across Conway’s face as he turned the rifle’s business end toward his chest.
Clive watched intently as the thrumming of the platform grew to a fever pitch. His jump was about to happen. He sincerely hoped he saw the outcome of this before his jump.
“You’re really going to do it. You’re going to kill yourself!”
“Not quite,” Conway said, laughing, as he pointed the rifle down at his crotch. “I’m going to kill you.”
“OWWWWWWWWWWW!” Conway screamed as the burning pain seared his testicles.
Clive looked around, momentarily feeling a bit uncertain. Where his readings incorrect? Would this timeline be rewritten, thus erasing him for existence? Did the tiniest error in judgment on his part ultimately doom him?
As Conway slumped to his knees, still squealing in pain, Clive realized he hadn’t been wrong. The timeline hadn’t changed. His empire was secure. And now, once he jumped back in time and finished off the Aerostar crew for good, his future was secure. All in all, a tidy little oper–
“Temporal incursion alert,” the computer said suddenly, its sensors rigged to pick up on timeline changes. “Time-space rewrite in five…four…three…two…”
Conway and Clived locked eyes.
“Oh, f*** you…” Clive groaned, as he realized he had approximately one second left to exist.
“You’re welcome,” Conway said with a twisted grin, as a wave of dizziness (and crotch pain) passed over him.
Conway shot up from his couch, screaming.
“OH, MY GOD! MY FLAMING CROTCH!”
The burning was intense, searing. Fourteen hundred microjeweles of concentrated pharonic radiation, of a technology not yet even invented, fired directly at his tender scrotum.
He stumbled forward, fell to his knees. “Conway to Sickbay. Medical emergency! To my cabin! STAT!”
“Bridge to Conway,” came the voice of Larkin.
“Yes,” Conway gasped, breathless.
“Are you…are you all right?”
“Yes. Are you?”
“I am fine. Where are we?”
“Starbase Three Seven Five.”
Conway looked up at his chronometer. It was the exact time and place that Clive had visited him before.
“Do you know…do you know what happened?” Larkin asked over the comm.
“Do you?” Conway asked. Was he the only one who’d remembered this whole trip to the future? Or had the whole thing never happened? And if it hadn’t happened, then why the hell did his crotch hurt so damned bad?
“The last memory I register is holding position outside the LX system waiting for the results of your confrontation with Clive.”
“I think those results are in,” Conway gasped. “Clive doesn’t exist, and he never will. Now please, for the love of God, get me to Sickbay!”
Stardate 56818.4. After intense radiation therapy on my…unmentionables, we have laid in a course for Earth, where we will debrief Starfleet on everything that’s taken place in the last… well, during the five seconds I was apparently napping.
I had wanted to just sort of brush everything under the rug, but Commander Larkin convinced me that Starfleet should know.
And since Starfleet’s going to be reviewing this log, among others, let me just add that I wholeheartedly agree that they should know.
Conway sat in his office, drinking coffee, looking at the reports from the various crew-members, on what they’d encountered in the future, in the timeline that now seemed nonexistent, at least to the rest of the universe. He wanted to make sure the stories jived. Part of him still wanted to think it was all just a dream. Well, nightmare.
Conway looked up. “Come.”
Dr. Lanham walked in. “Captain.”
Conway folded his hands on top of his desk. “What can I do for you, Doctor?”
“Talk to me like a person, and not like my captain.”
“You started it,” Conway shot back.
“Well let’s finish it.” Lanham walked up to Conway’s desk and sat down. She took his hands. “I want to know what Benzra said.”
“She said what I thought she’d say. The whole reason we’re sitting here having this nice chat.” He stared down at his desk. “I’m never having children, Alexa.”
Lanham looked down too. “I guess it worked.”
“Yep.” He looked up, then smiled. “But that’s a good thing. Considering the alternative.”
“That we’d be dead, and the rest of the crew would be stuck in the future?”
“That you’d be dead,” Conway said.
Lanham sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Please don’t tell me you did it for me, David. Tell me you did it to prove you’re a good person. To restore everyone’s faith in you. Tell me you made this sacrifice so YOU could save face. Please.”
“I can tell you that, but it doesn’t make it so.” Conway grimaced. “Damn it, Alexa. I’m not a good person. Not in the…well, not in the traditional sense. I’m moody, I’m selfish, I’m arrogant. I want things done my way.”
Lanham felt the tears welling in her eyes. “And yet you sacrificed your whole future so I could live…”
“Not my whole future,” Conway said, and reached under his desk.
Lanham squeezed her eyes shut, bit her lip. When she finally opened her eyes, she saw what she’d feared she’d see, open on the desk, glimmering.
“We can always adopt…”
Lanham reached across the desk and grabbed Conway in a tight hug, upturning his coffee in the process. “Yes, I’ll marry you!”
“Glad you–” Conway said, and then the coffee drizzled down onto his lap. “OH GOD MY CROTCH! IT’S BURNING UP AGAIN! WHY?!”
Commander Larkin sat in her quarters, staring at her bookcase, with all manner of books well-meaning humans had given her, thinking she’d appreciate them. Among those robot and penguin books, and the occasional stuffed plush penguin doll, was a holo of she and Chris Richards, standing on the cliffs of Ragoon on Betazed.
“Father…” she said, reaching out and touching the photo.
What had her counterpart meant? That he was trapped somewhere in time. Was he safe? Was he lost? Did he have a way back?
She was forbidden to say anything of what she’d learned. And she’d made a promise… to herself. And really, if you couldn’t keep a promise to yourself, could you keep a promise to anyone?
Still, she wondered if she’d ever see her father again. And, for all the misadventures of the last month, the month that never happened, Larkin still wanted to know what the future held.
SIX WEEKS LATER
“Captain David Conway, do ya take this woman, Doctor Alexa Lanham, to be your lawfully wedded wife? To have and to hold, in sickness and in health, and…” Admiral Harlan Baxter sighed as he looked down at the padd. “And caffeinated or decaffeinated, as long as you both shall live?”
In full dress regalia, Conway stood on the altar, atop a beautiful, flat, orange-brown butte in Montana, as Commander Larkin stood by, hands clasped behind her back, a few steps below him, and the assembled throng of guests looked on.
Lanham stood opposite him, and wore a dress of glittering bronze, having been discouraged by several people from wearing white. Supposedly, it had more to do with the dustiness of Montana than with her. Then again, Conway’s dress uniform had white in it, and he seemed just fine with that.
“I do,” he said, taking Lanham’s hands and squeezing them.
“And you, Doctor Lanham, do you take this man, Captain David Conway, to be your lawfully wedded husband? To have and to hold, in sickness and in health, caffeinated or decaffeinated, as long as you both shall live?”
Lanham smiled, her lip quivering, tears already starting as she squeezed Conway’s hands back. “I certainly do, Admiral.”
“Well, damn it all, then,” Harlan exalted. “I now pronounce ya man and wife. Kiss the Captain, ma’am, so we can get this show over with.”
Lanham pulled Conway toward her and kissed him deeply, as the crowed clapped mildly. The clapping would have been more uproarious if there weren’t so many Explorer people there, and, in fact, Aerostar people, who didn’t quite care so much for Conway, but came more out of a sense of obligation than anything else.
Once they broke their kiss, Lanham and Conway stared long and hard at each other as Harlan ambled off the altar and sparked up a cigar.
“You ready?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Guess it’s fitting.”
“Damn right it is,” Conway said, and pulled Lanham down off the altar, toward the edge of the butte. “As our last marriage ends, so does our new one begin.”
“Do I have to?”
Lanham sighed, stared up at the sky, and moaned. “I love this man, God help me, I do.” She looked away, and shoved him.
And Conway’s arms spiraled, he slid backward, and skidded down the side of the butte, rolling awkwardly end over end toward the bottom.
Then, and only then, Lanham noticed, did the crowd erupt in applause.
“I could have sworn I heard you say you’d slide down with me,” Conway said, fast devouring the prime rib meal at the head table at his wedding reception, which was conveniently located at the base of the butte, just a hundred or so meters away from where he’d landed.
“I thought about it,” Alexa said. “But then I realized I like this dress so much…”
“It is a fine dress,” Larkin announced from the other side of Conway. “However, I doubt you will be needing another wedding dress, Doctor, unless you intend for this to be a brief marriage.”
Lanham grinned at Conway. “We’ll see.”
Larkin stared at her empty plate. “Indeed.”
“Sure I couldn’t interest you in anything?” Conway asked as he ate.
Larkin shook her head. “I do not eat.”
“Right,” Conway said, munching. “I keep forgetting.”
“Oh, and thanks again for being Best Android. You certainly did a great job.”
“I believe my Father would be proud.”
“Yes,” Conway said, wiping his mouth. “About that…”
Larkin raised an eyebrow and looked at Conway. “Yes?”
“I spoke with Admiral Baxter after the Explorer came in the other day. He said he’d reviewed the reports of Vansen and the others pretty thoroughly, and that their team would keep searching for answers, but that the situation looked kind of…well, kind of grim.”
“You mean they doubt they will ever find President Dillon, Captain Baxter, or any of the others again?”
Conway grinned at Larkin. “Not without help.”
“Perhaps I could be of some assistance to the investigation.”
“I don’t see why not.”
“If you insist, Captain, I will do my best to assist the team.”
“I have no doubt you will, Commander.”
“Captain,” a voice said behind Conley.
“Some more of these garlic mashed potatoes would be great, thanks, yeoman,” Conley said without glancing at the officer.
The officer harrumphed. “I’m Ensign Abello. I’m here to escort you to Australia. They are expecting you at the penal colony at fifteen hundred this afternoon.”
“Oh,” Conway said. “Right.” He pushed his plate back. “Well, we wouldn’t want to keep the penal colony waiting.”
“Speaking of penal,” Lanham said, looking up as Conway rose from his seat. “I’ll be by next week for our honeymoon-slash-conjugal visit.”
“Looking forward to it,” Conway grinned, and leaned over, kissing his bride hard and long on the mouth.
“This is highly…” Abello muttered, rolling his eyes.
“Let them finish, Ensign,” Larkin ordered.
Conway broke the kiss, straightened, and turned to face the Ensign. “Let’s go kid. My cushy apartment in a scenic outback getaway awaits.”
“You bet it does,” Abello said, gesturing for Conway to walk in front of him. “The shuttle’s this way.”
Conway patted Larkin on the back as he walked by. “Take good care of my ship, Commander. She’s all yours.”
“I will endeavor to carry out her mission, sir,” Larkin said. “We will mine those asteroids with great verve and alacrity.”
“There’s no such thing as a menial task in Starfleet, Commander,” Conway said with a wink.
“Enjoy your stay at the colony, sir.”
“I’ll catch up on some reading,” Conway said, and headed off with Ensign Abello, along the desert plain, toward the shuttle that idled some distance off, baking in the midday sun.
“The least they could have done was let us finish the reception,” Lanham mumbled. “But, considering David nearly destroyed the Federation, I guess he got off lightly.”
“Indeed,” Larkin said. “In thirty days, he will be out of the penal colony, and the two of you will be free to resume your marriage.”
Lanham nodded. “I guess we’re pretty lucky, all in all.”
“Yes,” Larkin said. “I believe it is safe to say that the future will be bright.”