Author: Anthony Butler
“Shields down to forty percent!” J’hana called out. “They are coming around for another pass.”
“Evasive maneuvers!” Captain Baxter cried, gripping the railing behind the command chairs as weapons fire grazed across the Explorer’s hull.
“Captain, we have to get out of here!” Conway said, looking up from his seat at Baxter.
Baxter leaned against the railing, watching the alien starship angle around on the viewscreen and fire again, rocking the deck plating below. “No. This planet is ours fair and square.”
“Evidently the Leeramar see it differently,” Peterman said fearfully from her seat.
“But we were here first!” Baxter whined.
“Get over it!” Tilleran cried out. “They outgun us three to one!”
“But we’re out here to meet new races and learn from them,” Baxter said dejectedly.
“Well, right now we’re learning how to take a beating!” Conway said angrily.
“Fine, fine, I can tell when popular opinion is against me. Mr. Ford, get us out of here, maximum warp.”
“Aye, sir,” Ford said, swinging the Explorer around and engaging the warp engines.
Baxter made his way around to the front of the bridge. “Lt. Tilleran, pull up the galactic map.”
“You really don’t need to do this, sir. The stellar cartography department keeps detailed…”
“Do it, Tilleran.”
“If you say so.” Tilleran pressed a control, which brought a grid map of the Milky Way Galaxy on the main viewscreen.
“Light pen,” Baxter said to the Yeoman standing near the viewscreen.
The Yeoman handed him a long, metallic stylus.
He leaned toward the screen and scrawled “LEERAMAR HERE: AVOID AT ALL COSTS” right next to the sections of space near the galactic rim that had similar labels indicating the Dawg and other alien species to numerous to name.
“Well,” Baxter asked, staring at the screen. “What do you guys think?”
“If you really want to know,” Conway said, staring at the image on the viewscreen with his hands on his hips. “It looks to me like we’re running out of galaxy.”
“Yeah, it seems like we’re persona non grata along half the galactic rim,” Tilleran said.
“Don’t look at me like it’s my fault,” Baxter snapped. “I can’t help it if there are a lot of difficult races out here.”
“No one’s blaming you, Andy,” Peterman said soothingly.
“In point of fact,” J’hana grumbled, “the problems with the Leeramar began because you sneezed all over their Autarch.”
“I said ‘excuse me,” Baxter said meekly.
Larkin turned in her chair to face Baxter. “Which, unfortunately, sounds quite similar to ‘exeus mii.’”
“Which just happens to translate into ‘you smell like excrement’ in Leeramar,” Conway muttered.
“How was I supposed to know that?” Baxter asked innocently.
“Well, maybe we’ll have better luck next time,” Peterman said.
“One can always hope,” Larkin said.
“Take us to Starbase Two-eighty, Mr. Ford,” Baxter said. “Maybe we can get some repairs there without pissing anyone off.”
“Frankly, Captain, I’m more than just a little pissed off,” Admiral Cynthia Gering said uneasily, folding her arms and staring across her desk at Baxter.
“May I ask why?” Baxter asked, pulling on his collar nervously.
“One of our technicians tried to get access to the tactical console, and your security officer kneed him in the crotch.”
“Ooooh,” Baxter winced. “Is he all right?”
“It’s too early to tell. Our doctor fears that he may have to have a full scrotum reconstruction.”
“I can have our doctor look into…”
”–NO! That’s…uh, quite alright, Captain. We have the matter well in hand. Besides, I have heard about your Doctor.”
“That man died of natural causes!” Baxter protested.
Gering looked at Baxter quizzically and decided to drop the subject. “Never mind about your doctor. Just keep your security officer off the station.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking, ma’am–sir–ma’am…” Baxter stammered, not sure how to address the admiral. “She was going to participate in the Starfleet Domjat tournament here.”
“Too bad. Maybe next time she’ll be less quick to knee a fellow officer in the crotch.”
“Don’t count on it, sir–ma’am–uh, Admiral.”
Admiral Gering rubbed her eyes tiredly. “Okay, fine, just get out of here.”
“Yes, mir!” Baxter said, turning on a heel and exiting the Admiral’s office.
When Baxter reached the end of the corridor where the Admiral’s office was located, he bumped into another officer that was rounding the corner.
“Hey, watch where you’re–” the officer said, stopping when he saw Baxter. “Oh no.”
“Booty!” Baxter said incredulously. “How’s it hanging?”
“Don’t call me that!” the man said angrily. “I outgrew that nickname long ago.”
“That’s a matter of opinion, Captain Ficker,” Baxter said.
Ficker’s eyes fell on Baxter’s collar. “Captain! Who in their right mind made you a Captain!”
“You mean you didn’t hear about my trip to the Delta Quadrant?”
“You went to the Delta Quadrant?”
Baxter straightened his uniform proudly. “Yep, and I lived to tell the tale.”
“What’s happened to the galaxy?” Ficker said woefully, looking up at the ceiling.
Baxter smiled. “Yeah, it’s not like the academy days anymore. I’m the butt of no one’s jokes. I’m in command of a Galaxy- class starship.”
“I don’t believe it,” Ficker said, wiping a hand over his face. “But I’ll try to get over the shock while I head over to my ship. Galaxy classes are nice if you like lumbering, oversized, clunky hunks of metal. But the coolest captains are commanding Sovereign class ships nowadays.”
“Sovereign–” Baxter said in annoyance.
“Yep, just like the new Enterprise,” Ficker said proudly, “the Trafalgar is one of the most advanced ships in the fleet.”
“Well, I don’t care what kind of ship you command. I wouldn’t trade the Explorer for anything.”
“Even if you could squeeze nine point nine eight out of those tired engines?”
“You saying I can’t?”
“I’m saying my ship is the latest design, and it could outdo your hunk of junk in any maneuver.”
Baxter was starting to get ticked. “Listen, you sniveling little bastard, I’m happy with my ship and I’m much too mature to let you get to me.”
“Is that so?”
“Well, then answer me this:” Ficker said with a grin “Have you bumped into any asteroids lately?”
“You son of a bitch!” Baxter cried, punching Ficker hard in the face, breaking his glasses, and sending him to the deck.
So much for maturity.
“Hello, Captain!” Commander Conway said cheerfully, strolling into Starbase Two-eighty’s brig. “How’s life on the inside?”
“Can it, Conway. What did the Admiral say?”
“She wants us off the starbase as soon as repairs are completed and she never wants to see us here again,” Conway said, examining the cell Baxter was in and looking around. “Where can you get a good cup of coffee around here?”
“How long until repairs are completed?” Baxter asked, ignoring Conway’s question.
“About an hour,” Conway said.
“Good. How long until they let me out of here?”
“About an hour,” Conway said, grinning.
“Just perfect,” Baxter muttered.
“Answer me this, Captain. Why did you hit him?”
“Captain Ficker?” Baxter asked. “He knew just what to say to get on my nerves.”
“And that was?”
Baxter sighed and leaned back on his cot. “I might as well tell you, I figure I have nothing better to do until I get out of here. I guess it all started at the beginning of the last week of classes before I graduated from the Academy. It was 2363, and it was spring in San Francisco…a lovely time of year. Of course, it was also the sixties, so it was a turbulent time for everyone…”
Commander Conway sat down on the chair next to Baxter’s chair and let out a long sigh as Baxter droned on. “I hate flashbacks.”
SAN FRANCISCO ELEVEN YEARS AGO
Cadet Baxter skipped along the quad at Starfleet Academy happily. “These are the days..that we’ll remember. Never before, and never again…” he sang happily, reciting the song he had to memorize for his 20th century media history class.
He was so happy, he didn’t even see Cadet Alvin Ficker coming from the opposite direction.
“Hey, watch where you’re going!” Ficker said angrily. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Hey, Booty!” Baxter said with a grin.
“Don’t call me that!” Ficker said angrily.
“Don’t call you what? Booty?”
“Yes, yes, don’t say it again!”
“Don’t say what again? Booty!”
“Arrrgh!” Ficker called out, throwing his padd in dismay. “What are you so damn happy about, anyway?”
“I just came back from my flight test. I’m a shoe-in.”
“I don’t know about that. I haven’t made my practice run yet.”
“Well, do you think you can do better than…” Baxter straightened proudly, “THIRD?”
“Yeah,” Ficker said. “How about First?”
Baxter smiled. “I’d like to see you try. You probably won’t even be able to see the targets.”
“Are you making a crack about my glasses?” Ficker asked. “So what if I wear glasses? I happen to think they make me look distinctive.”
“They make you look like a dork.”
“Well, dork or not, I’m going to beat you. Just wait and see.”
“Do your worst, Booty!”
“Don’t call me that!”
“Booty Booty Booty Booty!”
Ficker stomped his feet angrily. “Stop it, stop it!”
“Hey, look at the dorks. I think they’re fighting!” a passing cadet said, grinning to his friends. “Isn’t that cute.”
“Hey, shut up!” Baxter said.
“Why don’t you make me,” the cadet said, moving over to stare right in Baxter’s face.
“Um…hey, look…a Ferengi!”
“Where?” the Cadet said, turning.
With that, Baxter ran like hell.
ONE WEEK LATER
“Attention all cadets, the asteroid navigation portion of your final flight class exam is about to commence,” the voice of Commander Earnest, the Flight Instructor, said over the comm channel in Baxter’s small, triangular shortrange flyer.
“Bring it on!” Baxter said eagerly, maneuvering his flyer into position on the port side of the academy training vessel James M. Bennett.
Baxter stared out at the Ambassador-class vessel with longing. “Soon one of those will be mine.”
Suddenly his view was obstructed by another flyer taking position next to him.
“Hello, Baxter,” Ficker’s weasely voice said over the intercom.
“Booty,” Baxter said. “Good luck getting that much sought after fourth place.”
“Don’t count me out yet, Baxter.” Baxter could see Booty sneer at him through the small viewport.
“Hey, I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever I say bounces off me and–”
“Number Five! I thought I told you to observe radio silence!” came Earnest’s voice.
“It wasn’t just me!” Baxter protested. “It was Cadet Ficker too!”
“I don’t care who it was, I don’t want another word out of any of you. Is that clear?”
There were several mumblings of understanding across the comm channel, then silence.
Over in his flyer, Ficker thumbed his nose at Baxter.
Baxter returned the gesture then turned to his console. “I’ll show that little son of a…”
“Cadets, begin flight test in five…four…three…two…one!” Commander Earnest called out.
“Darn!” Baxter said, watching Ficker’s flyer leap forward. Baxter quickly gunned the engines and followed suit, diving into the Mars-Earth asteroid belt with zeal. “Just remember, Andy, it’s just like flying that transport through the Grand Canyon back on Earth.”
Just as Baxter said that, a huge asteroid swung into view. Baxter jerked his craft to the side, barely avoiding the huge chunk of rock.
“Watch it, Five!” Earnest called out. “That was a little too close!”
“I can handle it!” Baxter said.
“Don’t get cocky, Five!”
Ficker’s ship swooped in front of Baxter’s, pulling into a barrel roll and looping around.
“Damn showoff,” Baxter said, gunning his engines and swinging his ship upward.
“Five…Seven! No fancy stuff! Just navigate the course and come through on the other end!”
“Fine,” Baxter said, steering his ship around toward the end of the course. “He wants me to come through on the other end, I’ll come through.”
Baxter increased the little impulse engines to full speed and his craft lept toward the opposite side of the asteroid belt.
Checking his rear scanners, he noticed that Ficker was hot on his tail and gaining.
“We’ve got a First and Second Place! We still need a third!”
“That’s mine!” Baxter said eagerly, nauseatingly swinging his ship around an asteroid. “Come to Papa!”
Baxter watched the blinking marker get closer and closer. Just sixty or seventy more kilometers and he’d be there.
Suddenly all the readouts on Baxter’s panel began to go crazy. Before he could do anything, the ship jerked to the side, right toward an asteroid.
“Number Five! Pull up! You’re heading right for an asteroid!”
“Damn!” Baxter said. “What’s happening?”
Baxter pounded at the controls madly, trying to jerk his ship away from the asteroid.
Just before he reached the giant rock, control returned and he was able to lift his vessel’s nose up just enough to avoid slamming into the rock. Instead, his ship grazed the top of the asteroid and ricocheted off it, slamming into another one and tumbling haphazardly through the asteroid field. The last thing Baxter saw before losing conciousness was Ficker’s ship gliding past the blinking marker.
“So he won Third Place and I got jack squat,” Baxter said angrily. “Commander Earnest determined that I had set my navigation cosequencers wrong and that was why the ship had lost control. He was just sympathetic enough to let me pass the flight class with a ‘D’.” Baxter looked over at Conway, who had nodded off. “Commander!”
“Huh…huh…what?” Conway asked, opening his eyes.
“Were you listening?”
“Yeah, I was just resting my eyes,” Conway said, straightening.
“Anyway,” Baxter said, “when it was time to hand out starship assignments, the captain of the Yorktown picked Ficker as his helm officer. I was almost sure I’d be stuck on a freighter, when Captain Hatton of the Aquarius spotted me. She offered me a job as Inventory Officer, and I took it. The rest, as they say, is history.”
“That’s very interesting, Captain, but what does it have to do with anything?”
Baxter grimaced. “I think Ficker rigged my flyer to malfunction. I think it’s his fault I flunked the asteroid test.”
“Well, you obviously couldn’t prove it,” Conway said. “So it’s a moot point.”
“There’s nothing moot about that point, Commander. If he’s the reason the first ten years of my Starfleet carrer were spent counting desks and chairs, then I’ll have my revenge. You can count on that.”
“Well,” Conway said, looking up at the chronometer on the wall. “It looks like you still have about twenty minutes to spend plotting your revenge in here. I’m going to check out the commerce decks and see if I can find a coffee shop.”
Counselor Peterman strolled along the Starbase’s vast promenade, looking over the stores that lined either side. “Would you look at this place, Janice? All the shoe outlets a girl could ask for.”
“Mmm hmm,” Browning said, licking runny melted cheese off her chin. “And they have a great nacho place.”
“I’m going to check out this novelty shop and try to find something for Andy.”
“After spending two hours in the brig he could probably use some cheering up,” Browning said.
Peterman examined the different novelty items on the shelf curiously. “Yeah I know. How about this?” Peterman asked.
Browning looked at the tubing quizzically. “What is it?”
Peterman read the label. “Trick Jem’Hadar inhalation tubes. ‘Can be filled with your favorite soft drinks.’”
“Yes!” Browning said, grabbing the object from Peterman. “This is awesome!”
“And I found it first,” Peterman said, taking the tubes back from Browning.
“Now, now ladies. Why should such a fine pair of beauties argue?”
Peterman and Browning turned to see a Starfleet officer standing behind them.
“We weren’t arguing,” Browning said. “We were just deciding who should get this Jem’Hadar tube thingie.”
Peterman noticed that the officer’s eyes wander down the lines of her uniform. He sure wasn’t looking at her comm badge. “Yeah, I want to get it for my boyfriend.”
“Boyfriend,” the man said, leaning forward. “Well, then, maybe you’d like to abandon him in favor of the Ficker.”
“Ficker?” Peterman asked, noting the four pips on the man’s collar and backing away. “Oh, no.”
“You can have the tubes,” Browning said, grabbing Peterman by the arm and yanking her away.
“Charge it to Kelly Peterman of the Explorer!” Peterman called out to the attendent as she left the store.
“Explorer?” Ficker said to himself as Peterman and Browning hurried away. “Baxter!” Ficker picked up step next to Peterman and Browning as they made their way back to the airlock. “So, you guys are from the Explorer?”
Peterman hurried up her step. “Yup.”
“And what do you do?”
“I’m Ship’s Counselor,” Peterman said. She then pointed over to Dr. Browning. “And she’s the Chief Medical Officer.”
“Ship’s Counselor, eh?” Ficker asked. “My Ship’s Counselor is retiring in eight months. I think I could arrange to put you in that position. Then again, I believe I could arrange to put you in many different positions.”
“Thanks but no thanks,” Peterman said, grabbing Browning’s arm and hurrying to the airlock.
“So you’ll think about it?” Ficker asked.
“Trouble, sir?” Lt. Commander Eno, Ficker’s First Officer asked, walking up to Ficker with his hands clasped behind his back.
“No, no. Just a project I’m working on,” Ficker said, putting a hand on the Benzite’s shoulder. “What’s our status?”
“Engineering reports all systems ready for departure,” Eno said proudly. “We were able to shave fifteen minutes off the estimated completion time.”
“Excellent. I want us ready to leave in forty-five minutes,” Ficker said.
“Forty-five? Sir, we could leave right now.”
“I know. But I want to give the Explorer a head start. After all, it’s only fair since she’s the less superior player.”
“Yes, Eno. I’m going to settle this thing with Baxter once and for all.”
“Wasn’t it settled when he decked you?”
“He did not deck me!” Ficker said indignantly. “He surprised me, and besides, I absorbed the impact of the punch by rolling my head.”
“Of course, sir.”
“But I’m not the type that settles disputes with barbaric hand-to-hand combat. No, I’m going to show Baxter that when it comes to command expertise and intellect he’s all washed up.”
“And how will you do that?”
“By challenging him to a contest he won’t be able to refuse. Now come on, we have preparations to make.”
“But, sir, what if Captain Baxter refuses this…contest?” Eno asked, perplexed.
“Believe me, I know Captain Baxter better than he knows himself. He won’t be able to resist this offer.”
“Because he’s honorable?’
Ficker shook his head. “No, because he’s incredibly stupid.”
Stardate 52759.6. To Admiral Gering’s relief, we have left Starbase Two-eighty, on course for sector 28890, where we’re scheduled to catologue a slew of Class-M planets for colonization. Translation: Toenail-ripping boredom.
“Eat up, girl.” Captain Baxter patted Pandora on the head as he poured food into her gigantic dish. The little Jack Russel Terrier yipped happily and began eating. “I can’t believe he propositioned you,” Baxter said incredulously, standing up. “I have a good mind to knock the crap out of him.”
“You already did,” Peterman said with a smile. “And look where it got you.”
“Point taken,” Baxter said, picking up the bag of dog food and walking into the bathroom. He suddenly whirled around, causing kibbles and bits to fly everywhere. “But just who the hell does he think he is, talking about the Explorer like she was a garbage scow and making me feel like a moron?”
“You know better than that,” Peterman said, grabbing the dog food from Baxter and putting her arms around him. “You have the command you want. You have the crew you want. And…you have me.”
“Yeah, well, I guess you have a point.”
Baxter grabbed the dog food back and wrapped it up, shoving it into a cabinet. “I can’t stand the idea of that smug little bastard flying around out there in his starship like he’s so special, thumbing his nose at me.”
“You know, I never would have thought you were so competitive when I first met you,” Peterman said.
“Well, I usually am willing to let people walk all over me. But you have to draw the line somewhere. Ficker may have been the whole reason I was an inventory officer for ten years. I feel like I have to show him who’s the better man.”
“I know you’re the better man, and you know you’re the better man,” Peterman said wrapping her arms around Baxter, “isn’t that enough?”
Baxter thought about that a moment. “Nope.”
“We have entered Sector 28890, Commander,” Lt. Commander Larkin reported from ops.
“Alert the Captain, Larkin. Tilleran, commence scanning and put the first system on screen.” Conway said, standing up and walking toward the center of the bridge.
“Aye, sir,” Tilleran replied.
Baxter stepped out of his readyroom moments later, tucking the padd he was reading under his arm. “What have we got?”
Conway looked over to Tilleran. “Well?”
Tilleran studied her panel for a moment then looked up at the graphic on the viewscreen. “Six planets. Three Class-M. Single G-type star. It’s a regular cookie-cutter star system.”
“In other words, send in the colonists?” Baxter asked, leaning over Tilleran’s panel.
“I don’t see why not.”
“You mean there aren’t even any scary aliens to stop us from colonizing here?” Conway asked incredulously. “I don’t believe it.”
“According to these scans,” Tilleran said, “it would appear that the system has had no warp or impulse traffic to speak of and has never hosted a sentient race.”
“Sounds great,” Baxter said. “Set a course for the first Class-M planet, Mr. Ford. Commander Conway, get an away team together.”
“Yes, sir,” Conway said, turning on a heel. “Tilleran…Larkin, you’re with–”
“Captain!” Lt. J’hana called out. “There is a vessel entering the system.” Conway, Tilleran, and Larkin stopped dead.
Baxter moved quickly to his command chair. “Can you identify the vessel?”
J’hana studied her panel. “It will be in scanning range in another ten seconds.”
“Looks like we got our hopes up too soon,” Conway said wryly.
“Wait a minute,” J’hana said. “Sir, it’s a Federation Starship.”
“Let’s see her,” Baxter said.
A vessel flashed on the viewscreen.
“Sovereign class,” Conway said.
“Affirmative,” Larkin reported. “ID tag reads as the–”
“Trafalgar,” Baxter said grimly.
“Correct, sir, how did you know?”
“Because I know a bad breeze when I feel it,” Baxter said.
“Think he wants to even the score for that sucker punch you gave him?” Conway asked.
“Of course not,” Baxter replied. “He’s a Starfleet officer. That’s a Federation ship. He wouldn’t fire on us.”
“You think not, huh?” J’hana asked.
“Are you suggesting otherwise?” Larkin asked.
“I am merely saying…” J’hana looked down at her panel. “Hold on. We are being hailed.”
Baxter sighed. “All right, on screen.”
Captain Ficker blinked onto the screen, his back to Baxter. As if he had just realized that he was talking to Baxter, he turned slowly. “Captain Baxter, greetings.”
“Ficker,” Baxter said dully. “What do you want?”
“My, my, we do sound confrontational. Remember, we’re all part of one big happy family.”
“Don’t remind me. Now what do you want?”
“Well, I was just passing through…and I saw you hanging around here doing your boring colony research, and I thought to myself, ‘how sad, here we are going on a fantastic adventure while my good friend Captain Baxter is forced to poke around some deserted planet.’ So I thought I’d stop by and say ‘hi,’ and express how truly sorry I am that you’re stuck with such a boring mission.”
“How thoughtful,” Baxter muttered.
“He’s baiting us,” Tilleran whispered.
“I know that!” Baxter snapped, turning. “So what do you want from us, Ficker?”
“Can’t it be anything as simple as wanting to offer you my good will?”
“Very well, Captain, you figured me out. I have a…challenge …in mind for you.”
“What kind of challenge?” Baxter asked skeptically.
“Two weeks ago the Vulcan science vessel Strella was hijacked somewhere in the Dtapi system. We suspect it was Orion pirates, but we’re not sure. At any rate, we never found the science vessel or its cargo.”
“Cut to the chase.”
“The ship was carrying a coded data chip from a culture that we believe existed on Dtapi Four about ten thousand years ago. The chip could hold unheard of knowledge and power…in the wrong hands–”
“In the wrong hands it could be used to destroy the Federation, yada yada yada,” Baxter mumbled, falling into his chair. “Sounds like a nice mission.”
“It could be a very profitable mission, depending on who finds that chip. As it stands, the Trafalgar has been ordered by Starfleet to find the Strella and retrieve the chip at any cost. If you like, I might be interested in letting you in on the deal. Give you a chance to even the odds after what happened in the Earth-Mars belt eleven years ago?”
“I already evened the odds,” Baxter replied. “On Starbase Two-eighty.”
“That? Ha ha. That’s just a primitive indication of how bad you want to beat me. Come on, Captain. You know you want to show me what that hulking mass of duranium can do.”
“J’hana…mute,” Baxter said, turning away from the screen. Behind Baxter, Ficker yammered on noiselessly. “Well, what do you guys say? Up for a little ass-kicking?”
“Always,” J’hana grunted, folding her arms.
“I think it’s a trick,” Tilleran said. “He seems too confident.”
“Can you tell for sure?” Baxter asked.
“No. Not at this range.”
“Sir, may I remind you that we have our own orders from Starfleet,” Larkin said, turning towards Baxter. “Ignoring them would constitute a violation of…”
“I know all about Starfleet regulations,” Baxter said, standing up and moving over to the science station. “Lt. Tilleran…how long would it take us to accomplish our current mission if we…cut some corners?”
“Well…we could cut down the length of the away missions, fudge a little on the colony reports…send runabouts out to the other three systems on our roster…”
“Theoretically, I suppose we could reduce the time to three or four hours, if we did an incredibly sloppy job.”
“Sounds good to me,” Baxter said. “Any objections?”
“Dr. Shar won’t be pleased,” Conway muttered.
“Well, I think this competition will boost morale and improve crew performance. We’re going to do it. I’m going to leave it up to you to make Dr. Shar understand.”
“Over a candlelit dinner and a recording of late twentieth century power ballads?” Conway asked eagerly.
Baxter shivered. “That’s at your discretion, Commander. J’hana, take it off mute.”
“…prove once and for all that I’m better than you,” Ficker concluded.
“Are you finished?” Baxter asked, moving to the front of the bridge.
“Not by a long shot,” Ficker said. “So, do you have the cahones to face me?”
“I have more cahones in my little finger than you have on that whole ship, Booty, and I’m going to show you by whupping you from one side of this quadrant to another.”
“So you’re accepting the terms of our wager?”
“Damn right I am,” Baxter said. “I’ll even give you a head start. It’ll take three hours for us to finish our colony duty.”
“The more things change the more they stay the same, Captain. After all this time I see you’re still as cocky as ever. And it will be your downfall once again.”
“We’re going to see who’s downfall will be who’s,” Baxter said sternly. “Now get off my viewscreen, Ficker.” Baxter gestured to J’hana, and Ficker was off the screen before he could say another word.
Captain Baxter and Lt. Tilleran shimmered into existence on the surface of the third Class-M planet of the system. Tilleran quickly withdrew her tricorder and began scanning.
“Class-M. Oxy-nitro atmosphere. Fit for colonization,” Tilleran said quickly.
“Check it off,” Baxter ordered, tapping his comm badge. “Baxter to Explorer, beam us directly to the next planet.”
“This certainly is invigorating,” Dr. Lana Shar said, scrambling over the rockface and eying her tricorder at the same time.
“Wait up!” Conway huffed.
“You’re the one that said we had to move quickly!” Lana called back. “Now move!”
“I hate my job,” Conway muttered, grunting as he pulled himself over a huge boulder and made his way to the top of the mountain.
“Look at this view, Commander,” Lana said, taking a deep breath. “It’s beautfiul.”
“Yeah, yeah, check it off,” Conway said. “We have two more planets in this system to check before we can return to the Explorer.”
“I should be incredibly mad at Captain Baxter for treating this mission so frivorlessly, but I’m kind of excited. We’re proving just how far we can go when we push ourselves to the limit. Isn’t it great?”
“Yeah, it’s a regular laugh riot,” Conway muttered. “Conway to Algonquin, transport us to the next planet.”
“Yahooooooo!” Lt. Ford cried out, as he brought the runabout Susquehanna in low over the terrain of the fourth planet in the system he’d been assigned. “This rocks!”
“Slow down!” Ensign Dawson called out frantically. “You’re going by too fast for me to make my scans!”
“Party pooper,” Ford said, banking the runabout so it curved down into a sloping valley.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Dawson said, gripping her panel fearfully as the runabout dove.
“We should always evaluate planets this way!” Ford cried excitedly.
“I think I’d have to go into a new line of work,” Dawson said woefully, watching as Ford brought the runabout up and climbed towards the sky again, pulling it into a barrel roll.
“Come on, Vicki! Where’s your sense of adventure!”
Dawson pointed down towards the valley. “I think it’s down there where I left my stomach.”
“Well, this planet checks out,” Lt. Commander Richards said, standing up and wiping dirt off his pants. “But I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live here.”
Larkin didn’t look up from her tricorder as she replied. “May I ask why? The atmosphere is more than suitable for humans and all the planetary resources are quite plentiful.”
“It has no…character,” Richards said. “No zest. It’s just a muddy rock.”
Larkin moved across the moist ground and pushed a grouping of vines aside. A vast expanse of mud stretched out in front of her for kilometers. “That is a lot of mud.”
Richards glanced over her shoulder. “Yes, it certainly is. Though it doesn’t make me want to live here any more.”
Larkin closed her tricorder and turned away from the large expanse of mud. “At any rate, it shall make erecting building foundations very difficult. We shall have to add that to our–” Larkin suddenly realized that the top of Richards’s head was now even with her chin. “Commander, are you shrinking?”
“I don’t think so,” Richards said, looking down. “What the hell?” His feet were being slowly sucked into the muddy surface of the planet.
“Intriguing,” Larkin said, examining her tricorder. “It appears you are being sucked beneath the surface by a surrounding pressure differential.”
“Spare the technobabble and get me out of here!” Richards ordered, looking down fearfully as the speed of his descent increased.
“Aye, sir,” Larkin said, grabbing Richards’s arm and pulling. “Fascinating. The pull of the pressure differential is substantial. No matter, my strength is quite enough too–”
“Larkin! You’re pulling my arm out of the socket!” Richards called out.
“Pardon me, Commander. I simply–”
Suddenly Richards was sucked completely under, and Larkin after him.
Ten minutes later, a huge geyser of mud erupted from the center of the mud lake Larkin had discovered.
At the top of the geyser, Larkin and Richards helplessly flailed about.
“Larkin to Roanoake…emergency transport!” Larkin called out.
“This planet has definite colony possibilities,” Richards said sarcastically as he and Larkin dematerialized.
Captain Baxter hovered expectantly over Richards as he worked. “Nice trip?”
“No,” Richards muttered, jamming the air nozzle higher into the recesses of Larkin’s back, causing bits of mud to spray up into his and Baxter’s faces.
“Well,” Baxter said, “at least we got the colony research overwith, right?”
“I suppose,” Richards said. “But I don’t think I’ll ever get all the mud out of Larkin’s servos. Not to mention my own.”
“So you were sucked through a lake of mud, huh?” Baxter asked with interest. “Must have been fun.”
“Ever seen spaghetti being made?” Richards asked, running the sonic cleanser over Larkin’s internal processing units.
“That’s what it was like. I felt like a damn noodle being sucked through a strainer.”
“Lovely. Well, off to the bridge.”
“Captain, do you really think we can beat Captain Ficker?”
“I know we can, Commander. You know what the Explorer can do.”
“Uh-huh,” Richards said, closing Larkin’s back compartment up. “And I suppose you’ll want me to go get cleaned up so I can come back here and keep the ship from flying apart in the next few hours?”
“How clairvoyant of you,” Baxter said, patting Richards on the back.
“What about Larkin?” Richards asked.
Baxter stabbed a finger under the android’s armpit, causing her to hum to life. “Status, Larkin?”
Larkin cocked her head. “Running internal diagnostic. All systems functioining normally…there is some water damage to my internal mat–achh…hukkkkkkk….haccccch….ACCCHCHCHC- HHCHCHHH!”
“Everybody find cover!” Richards shouted, grabbing Baxter and shoving him down behind the master systems display. “She’s going to spew!”
Suddenly a high-pressure torrent of mud shot out of Larkin’s mouth, gushing all over the Engineering compartment.
Once the spew had turned to a mere drip, Baxter stood up. “It appears you didn’t get all the mud out, Commander.”
“You okay, Larkin?” Richards asked, as Larkin wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
“Affirmative. My gas recycling protocol must have malfunctioned and pressurized the mud that was remaining in my systems.”
“Aww,” Richards said, suddenly smiling. “Your first little vomit.”
“I think I’m going to vomit,” Baxter said, turning on a heel and heading out of Engineering. “Hurry up and get cleaned up, guys. We’ve lost three hours as it is.”
“And what’s your problem?” Counselor Peterman said with a grin as Commander Conway limped onto the bridge.
“I stubbed my toe,” Conway said. “Dr. Shar and I were investigating some elevated radiation readings from a mountain on one of the planets we were evaluating, and I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Poor baby,” Peterman said, pouting. “Couldn’t Dr. Browning fix you up?”
“It’s not that serious,” Conway said. “Anyway, I don’t need to listen to that quack laugh at me.”
“I’m honored that I have the chance to laugh at you instead,” Peterman said.
Captain Baxter stepped out of the turbolift and quickly made his way to the command chair. “Are all the runabouts accounted for, Lt. J’hana?”
“Yes, sir. And suprisingly enough, none of them were damaged.”
“That is a surprise. What’s the status on our mission, Tilleran?”
“All the planets have been evaluated, and we have a grand total of seven to reccomend for colonization,” Tilleran said proudly from her station. “Shall I send the results to Starfleet?”
“Heck, no,” Baxter said. “They’d only give us another mission. We’ll wait until we’re done mopping the floor with Ficker, then we’ll send in our results.”
“I never thought I’d say this, Captain, but you’re a crafty little devil,” Tilleran said.
“I have my moments,” Baxter said. “Mr. Ford, lay in a course for the Dtapi system, maximum warp.”
“Layed in, sir,” Ford announced from his station.
“Aye, sir,” Ford said, tapping a button that sent the Explorer shooting into warp speed.
Less than an hour later, the Explorer glided into the Dtapi system.
“Take us out of warp, Lieutenant,” Baxter said, resting his hands on the back of Ford’s chair. “Full scan, Tilleran.”
“Scanning. No sign of the Trafalgar, or any other vessel.”
“Huh,” Baxter said, returning to his chair. “That’s funny.”
“Maybe they already found what they were looking for,” Conway suggested.
“Maybe…” Baxter said. “Or maybe Tilleran is right. Maybe this is some kind of trap.”
“What are you saying?” Peterman asked.
“I don’t know,” Baxter said. “But I’m going to get to the bottom of this. Lt. Tilleran…where was the Dtapi data chip found?”
Tilleran pressed a few buttons on her panel, bringing the image of a planet up on the viewscreen. “Right here, sir, Dtapi Four.”
“Then take us to Dtapi Four, Mr. Ford,” Baxter ordered.
“What are you going to do, Captain?” Conway asked.
“I happen to know that some of the greatest Captains in Starfleet have practiced archaeology,” Baxter said proudly, “and I’d like to try my hand at it myself.”
“You’re not serious,” J’hana muttered.
“The hell I’m not,” Baxter replied. “How hard can it be?”
Captain Baxter, Lt. Tilleran, Lt. J’hana, and Counselor Peterman materialized at the center of a huge labryinth of decaying metallic ruins on Dtapi Four.
“All right,” Baxter said, hands on hips. “Let’s get started. We’re burning daylight.”
“This is really exciting,” Peterman said, as Tilleran and J’hana spread out through the ruins.
“I still feel like an idiot in this hat,” Baxter said, pushing the brim of his large, round safari hat out of his face.
“It makes you look like a real explorer,” Peterman said. “It’s just like the one Jane Goodall wore when she communed with the gorillas.”
“That doesn’t make me any more fond of it, Kelly,” Baxter sighed.
“Captain, we found something!” Tilleran called out.
Baxter held his hat on tightly as he and Peterman worked their way through the precarious metallic structure. “What is it?”
Tilleran was studying a large, shiny, cone-shaped object with her tricorder. “I think that this was some kind of data- reading device,” Tilleran explained.
“How can you tell?” Peterman asked.
“There’s a slot right here,” Tilleran said, pointing. “It fits the dimensions of the chip we’re looking for perfectly. Besides that, there is a residue of highly conductive metal left inside the slot. I’d bet anything that the chip was found inside this device.”
“We could always ask the Vulcan archaeologists,” J’hana suggested. “If we knew where they were.”
“Well, we don’t,” Baxter said. “Do you think you can get this device working again, Tilleran?”
“I don’t know,” Tilleran said. “If I get it into my lab, I may be able to reconstruct some of the data transfer pathways.”
“It’s a moot point if we don’t find that chip, sir,” J’hana said.
“Agreed,” Baxter replied. “Why don’t we…”
“Andy!” Peterman called out. “Take a look at this!”
Baxter walked over to the wall that Peterman was examining. It was covered with crude drawings. “Looks like doodles to me.”
“Perhaps,” J’hana said, moving to join Baxter and Peterman. “Or perhaps they are hieroglyphs of some sort.”
“Take an image of it with your tricorder,” Baxter ordered. “Maybe the ship’s computer can make some sense out of it.”
“Should we take this back to the ship?” Tilleran asked, lifting the conical artifact with a grunt.
“I suppose,” Baxter said, leaning up against the building’s deteriorated wall and folding his arms with satisfaction. “Not too bad for my first archaeology mission, huh?”
That said, the decaying wall crumbled under Baxter’s weight, causing the Captain to fall backwards and land painfully on his backside.
“Are you okay?” Peterman asked, helping Baxter up.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “Boy, they just don’t make ten thousand year old buildings like they used to.”
“Captain!” Tilleran said, looking up from her tricorder. “You fractured a major structural support! This whole building’s going to collapse!”
Baxter looked around as the building rumbled around him and his team. “Whoops.”
J’hana quickly slapped her comm badge. “J’hana to Explorer! Get us out of here!”
The team dematerialized just as the ceiling began to collapse.
Baxter tossed his safari hat to an ensign as he made his way down to the front of the bridge. “Status?”
“Still no sign of Captain Ficker or anyone else for that matter,” Conway said, looking up at Baxter. “Any luck down on the surface?”
“We found some things.”
“‘We’ also destroyed a major arhchaeological site,” J’hana grunted, taking her place at tactical.
“The site is still there,” Baxter said defensively. “I just kind of…broke…the building.”
“You broke a building?” Conway asked with amusement.
“Let’s stay on task here,” Baxter said. “Did we run those tricorder images through the computer?”
“It’s processing now, Captain,” J’hana said. “The computer should be finished with the images in one hour.”
“Great. Let’s break for dinner,” Baxter said, returning to the turbolift.
“I think you’ll be very pleased with tonight’s special,” Mr. Mirk said, setting two plates down in front of Counselor Peterman and Captain Baxter.
“Uh-huh,” Baxter said, looking down at his plate. “What is it?”
“Don’t you recognize it? It’s meatloaf.”
“Meatloaf?” Baxter asked, poking his fork into the viscous substance. “Mirk, I know for a fact that this is NOT meat loaf.”
“It has meat in it, and it’s shaped like a loaf,” Mirk said defensively. “What more do you want?”
“I want to know what kind of meat is in it!”
“Well…” Mirk said, rubbing his chin. “That I don’t know. It was in a silver canister, I think. In the back of the storeroom.”
“It’s green!” Peterman said with disgust.
“Of course it is. I suppose you expected it to be brown? Oh, you humans and your brown meat. Always brown. Why not add some color to your plates once in a while?”
“I’d rather have a drab plate as long as I know what kind of meat I’m eating.”
“Picky, picky,” Mirk said, moving off to serve another customer.
Peterman pushed her plate away and grabbed a breadstick from the nearby holder. “I wasn’t really that hungry anyway.”
Baxter looked down at his plate. “You don’t think I’m stupid for going through with this, do you?”
“You mean eating Mirk’s meatloaf? Nah, I know you’re hungry.”
Baxter shook his head. “That’s not what I meant. I meant this whole Ficker thing.”
“Let me put it this way, Andy,” Peterman said. “I think you’re acting like a perfectly normal…guy.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean…well, you’re being competetive, which is a very masculine trait. And that’s good, because Lord knows you could stand to be a lot more masculine.”
“Well, now the gloves are off,” Baxter said, pushing his plate away and folding his arms. “Fire away, Counselor. How can I improve my manhood?”
“Andy, don’t be that way. I’m just saying…”
“That’s I act like a woman? Oh, that’s just wonderful. That’s just great. My own girlfriend thinks I act like a woman.”
“This is exactly what I mean! Guys aren’t supposed to get offended this easily.”
“Is that so?” Baxter huffed. “Well, pardon me if I can’t always be strong like you. Far be it from me to attempt to have the strength of a twenty-nine year old woman who locked herself in her cabin for three days when her gerbil died!”
“Baggins wasn’t just a gerbil!” Peterman said, throwing her napkin down. “I loved him!”
“You shouldn’t love any animal that eats its young!”
“I would have loved your mom a lot more if she’d eaten her young!” Peterman cried, leaping out of her seat and heading for the door.
“Problem with the meatloaf?” Mirk asked, as Baxter got up to leave.
“It was just f***ing great,” Baxter mumbled as he stormed out of the lounge.
“It is a starmap,” J’hana said, watching as the three- dimensional image turned on the viewscreen.
Baxter leaned heavily against the railing that surrounded the command chairs. “A starmap of what?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” J’hana asked. “It is a map of this system.”
“Of course it is,” Baxter said. “So what?”
“So this,” J’hana said, pressing a few buttons.
The diagram zoomed in on an area that was highlighted in red.
Alien characters blinked incessantly around the area, seemingly indicating that it had some kind of significance.
“What am I looking at?” Baxter asked in annoyance.
“An area of space approximately four hundred thousand kilometers from the edge of this solar system. According to our scans, there isn’t anything special about it. We will have to wait for Lt. Tilleran to give us a more detailed analysis.”
“Where is she, anyway?” Conway asked.
“I assume she is still examining the artifact we brought back from Dtapi Four.”
“Well, have Mr. Ford take us to the area indicated on the starmap so we can get a closer look. Maybe there’s a key there to where the Trafalgar and the Strella went.”
“Sir, what if they went to this area of space and found something that caused them to disappear?”
“What’s your point?” Baxter asked angrily.
J’hana sunk a little behind her station. “It was just an observation.”
“Well, keep your goddamn observations to yourself from now on.”
“Sir, if I may say so, your agressive attitude is highly…erotic to me.”
Baxter shivered for the second time that day. “Keep that to yourself too, Lieutenant.”
Conway watched Baxter as he moved down to the command area. “Problem, Captain?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Do you think I’m manly?”
“Counselor Peterman thinks I don’t have enough masculine qualities. Is that how the crew sees me?”
Lt. Ford busted out laughing.
“Well,” Baxter said, pushing out of his chair. “No more Mr. Girl Guy! From now on, I’m swimming in testosterone, and I’m willing to fight anyone who says any different!”
“Frankly, Captain, I am getting hot,” J’hana commented, tugging at her uniform collar.
“At ease!” Baxter cried, heading into the turbolift.
“So that’s all it takes to get you revved up, J’hana?” Conway asked, as Baxter left. “A little manly posturing? A little testosterone?”
“Yes, sir. And as you might imagine, keeping my passions at bay around this crew has been a pretty easy task.”
Counselor Peterman paced around in front of Captain Baxter’s quarters, trying to phrase her apology. She realized that she had been pretty insensitive to Baxter, remembering that he tended to be a pretty easily hurt guy. It was one of the reasons she loved him, but it was also one of the things that irritated her sometimes. Women weren’t prone to falling for wishy-washy guys. But she was determined to tell him that she loved him whether he was wishy-washy or not.
“Computer…how much longer?” Peterman asked, wringing her hands.
“Captain Baxter will reach your position in less than thirty seconds.”
“Okay, Kelly, here goes. Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t hurt him again.”
She heard the swish of the turbolift doors opening and steeled herself.
Baxter rounded the corner and stopped short as soon as he saw Peterman. “Kelly.”
Baxter grabbed Peterman roughly by the shoulders and kissed her, long and hard.
When he was finished, Peterman staggered back. “Andy, what–?”
“Be quiet,” Baxter said. “You want me to act like a man, I’m acting like a man. And as a man, I claim you.”
“Oooh,” Peterman said sultrily, backing up into Baxter’s quarters and pulling him with her. “You’ve never been rough with me.”
“There’s a first time for everything,” Baxter said, pulling Peterman in the opposite direction.
“Wait…we’re not going in the bedroom?”
“The floor? Oh, Andy, you are full of surprises today.”
“Not the floor either,” Baxter said, pulling Peterman out of his quarters and out into the corridor. He dragged Peterman to a door that read: DECK NINE - JANITOR’S CLOSET.
“Goodness, I don’t know. Can we fit in there?”
“Only one way to find out,” Baxter said, pressing a button and sliding the door open, pushing Peterman inside.
“What if the janitor comes?” Peterman asked, as Baxter squeezed inside and slid the door shut.
Baxter pulled a canister of liquid detergent off the shelf and poured it all over Peterman. “We’ll tell him to find another closet.”
Lt. Tilleran rushed out onto the bridge. “Captain…I just–” She stopped short when she realized Baxter wasn’t on the bridge. “Where’s the Captain?”
“I don’t know,” Conway said from the command chair. “He was evidently having some problem with Counselor Peterman, and he left. I guess he’s with her.”
“Well, I just finished studying the artifact from Dtapi Four.”
“And I found a few bits of residual data locked in the device’s RAM buffer. It seems the chip was some sort of navigational guide.”
“What kind of navigational guide?”
“Apparently it was used by ancient Dtapi ships to navigate rough areas of the system.”
“What kind of…rough…areas?” Conway asked uneasily.
“I’m not sure,” Tilleran said, “but I’ll tell you this much, it’s highly probable that the Vulcans were able to find out the same thing that we did, and when they went to investigate, they may have been lost in the very anomaly that the ancient Dtapi warned against,” Tilleran said.
“We’ve arrived at the coordinates from the starmap,” Ford reported from the helm.
“Coordinates?” Tilleran looked at her scans.
“Uh…yeah,” Conway said. “The images we got from Dtapi Four indicated a position in space and Captain Baxter ordered us to check it out.”
“Commander…we have to get out of here,” Tilleran said, as the deckplating beneath them began to rumble. “We’re right in front of a pocket of subspace instability.
“Mr. Ford, back us off, nice and easy,” Conway ordered, bracing himself against the science console.
“Aye, sir,” Ford said, reversing the Explorer’s engines.
The ship lurched forward suddenly, as the groaning of the hull grew worse.
“We’re caught up in the subspace undercurrent,” Tilleran reported, looking up from her readouts. “We have to get free before we’re sucked into the subspace instability!”
“Full reverse, Ford!” Conway said, as the Explorer rattled.
“Engines aren’t responding!” Ford cried out.
“I hope Baxter’s glad we went to get a closer look!” Conway said angrily. “How do we get free of this thing?”
“How should I know!” Tilleran said frantically.
Suddenly the Explorer bucked underneath them and hurtled forward, plunging right through the subspace fabric and disappearing.
Alert klaxons roared through Deck Nine, as damage control teams moved quickly down the smoke-filled corridor, patching damaged conduits and helping injured crewmembers.
As the teams flushed by the janitor’s closet, Captain Baxter stumbled out, rubbing a bump on his head.
“You were unbelievable, Andy,” Peterman said, zipping up her uniform jacket and stumbling out after Baxter. “It felt like the ship was shaking apart beneath us.”
“I don’t think that was all me,” Baxter stammered. “Baxter to bridge, status report!”
“Conway here, Captain. Tilleran reports that we were overtaken by a massive suction of pure quantum energy that plunged us through an electrostatic subspace field and embedded us in a large pocket of null space.”
“Damn, I wish that would happen more often,” Peterman said sultrily.
Baxter tried to shake the dizziness from his head that the collision with the mop and bucket had caused as he pieced the recent events together.
“Are you coming up here, Captain,” Conway asked in annoyance, “or are you taking a sick day?”
“I’m on my way,” Baxter said, turning on a heel.
“Andy,” Peterman said, grabbing Baxter’s hand. “How are you going to follow that one up?”
“Well, we could always do it during a warp core breach,” Baxter said with a grin.
“It’s a date.”
“Tell me we have thrusters, Ford!” Conway shouted, as Baxter emerged on the dimmed bridge.
“Problems?” Baxter asked, strolling over to the helm station.
Conway glared over at Baxter. “You could say that. We’re reading two other vessels in the null space with us, and one of them is drifting right towards us.”
“What’s worse,” Tilleran said, “we can’t seem to get a specific position or dimensions on the vessel. Sensors are almost useless in here.”
“All we have is the proximity sensors,” Conway explained.
“Lovely,” Baxter replied.
“Speaking of the proximity sensors,” Tilleran said, just as a blaring siren went off throughout the bridge.
“Don’t tell me,” Baxter said, as suddenly the whole ship pitched to the side, throwing Baxter and Conway off their feet.
Baxter looked up, dazed. “I’m guessing that was the proximity alarm.”
“Bingo,” Tilleran replied. “The good news is the ship got close enough to us to be identified as the Trafalgar.”
“And the bad news?” Conway asked, pulling himself up off the carpet.
“The bad news is she she compromized four decks and took out the third computer core subprocessor in the collision.”
“Well, I guess things can’t get much worse,” Baxter sighed.
“Hold on!” Tilleran cried, as the ship shuddered again. Panels popped and exploded. Sparks flew and the bridge lighting dropped another notch.
Baxter grabbed onto the science station and pulled himself up. “Trafalgar, I presume?”
“Nope. That time it was the Strella.”
“It’s like we’re plaing frigging bumper cars in here!” Conway grumbled.
“Well then, someone’s got to shut down this ride,” Baxter said. “Can we get an open channel to either ship?”
“Negative,” J’hana replied from tactical. “Too much electrostatic interference. Besides that, the last collision knocked out half the power relays from here to Engineering.”
“So much for your friendly little wager,” Conway muttered.
“We aren’t ready to cash in our chips yet,” Baxter said. “Tilleran, can you come up with a way to get us out of here?”
“It’s not going to be easy. The null space is slowly comprimising all our power systems. The Vulcan ship is probably almost powerless, and our ship and the Trafalgar won’t be much better off soon. And without reliable sensors or some kind of trail to follow out of here, I don’t see how we can escape.”
“What about the Dtapi data chip?” J’hana asked. “If the Dtapi knew about this pocket of null space, would it not stand to reason that they knew how to get out of it?”
“You’d think,” Baxter said. “Anyway, it’s worth a shot. Do you think you can get the reader operational, Tilleran?”
“I suppose,” Tilleran said. “But the tough part is getting the chip from the Vulcans without the transporters.”
Lt. Commander Larkin turned around in her chair. “I have been considering that problem. I believe I have an answer.”
VULCAN SCIENCE VESSEL STRELLA
“I will see your two chips, and raise you two,” Captain P’lora said somberly, placing four chips at the center of the table.
Science officer T’drel placed four blocks on the table. “Four syllabic nuclei to your three, Captain. I believe that constitues victory.”
“Correct, T’drel,” P’lora replied, bowing her head. “I concede victory. Well played.”
Suddenly there was a loud beeping from the console at the rear of the room.
“Sistrel, please investigate,” P’lora ordered calmly.
Sistrel looked down at the panel. “There is a non- biological lifeform outside our airlock, Captain.”
“How odd,” P’lora said. “Perhaps this is an attempt by one of the Federation starships to rescue us.”
“That would be fortuitous,” T’drel said.
“Indeed. Please open the airlock.”
T’drel and Sistrel quietly followed Captain P’lora to the airlock. Once there, Sistrel pressed a button, causing the door to swing open.
“Greetings,” the lifeform said. “I am Lt. Commander Larkin of the Federation Starship Explorer. I am here to recover the data chip.”
“I would be glad to give it to you, Lieutenant,” P’lora said, “if it were here.”
“May I ask where it is?” Larkin asked.
“An officer from the other Federation starship came aboard in a space suit approximately two standard hours ago and retrieved the data chip. I believe he was a Benzite.”
“I see,” Larkin said.
“You are hoping that perhaps the chip will hold the secret of escaping this place?”
“Affirmative,” Larkin replied. “We have acquired a data reader from the planet’s surface that may be able to decode the chip.”
“Is that what that was?” T’drel asked. “We thought it was some sort of beverage machine.”
Larkin cocked her head quizzically. “An odd assumption.”
P’lora stared disapprovingly at T’drel. “Occasionally, we Vulcans are prone to error.”
“I had not considered that,” Larkin said. “At any rate, I must now go to the Trafalgar and retrieve the data chip. Thank you for your help.”
“May I ask how you got here?” Sistrel asked with interest.
“I walked,” Larkin said.
P’lora raised an eyebrow. “Indeed.”
“Confirmed, sir,” Lt. Commander Eno said, leaning over and handing a padd to Captain Ficker. “We hit the Explorer, and it would appear we did some major damage in the process.”
“Good,” Ficker said. “That’s just the silver lining I was looking for. Any idea on how to get us out of here yet?”
Eno puffed at the misty gas that flowed from his breather and considered the matter. “Negative, Captain. We cannot seem to get a fix on the location of the disturbance’s opening, and the chip is no help.”
“So we’re stuck here, bouncing around in this damned null pocket and losing power all the while.”
“Yes, sir,” Eno replied. “But if it makes you feel any better, the Explorer is in a similar predicament.”
“I would feel better if you could decode that chip and get us out of here,” Ficker griped.
“Captain,” the tactical officer said, looking up from her panel. “There is someone outside the Deck Two airlock.”
“OUTSIDE?” Ficker asked. “How is that possible?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“Well, I guess we’d better check it out then, shouldn’t we?” Ficker asked angrily.
“Damn right,” Ficker said, pointing at his tactical officer and Lt. Commander Eno. “Let’s go see who’s at the door.”
Ficker led the way into the turbolift and down the long corridor to the Deck Two airlock. Once there, Eno and the tactical officer both raised their sidearms as Ficker depressurised the airlock and slid the door open.
“Greetings,” a woman in a Starfleet uniform said from within the airlock. “I am Lt. Commander Larkin from the Federation Starship Explorer.”
“Put the phasers down,” Ficker said, sighing. “May I ask how the hell you got here?”
“Obviously. But how did you survive?”
“I am an android. I am not affected by the harsh rigors of space.”
Ficker smacked his head. “Baxter has an android working for him. Damn, I knew he was playing with a loaded deck.”
“Pardon?” Larkin asked politely.
“Never mind. Why are you here?”
“The Captain has requested that I retrive the Dtapi data chip for him. Our science officer has repaired a data reader from the Dtapi Four archaeological site and believes she can use it to extricate us from this phenomenon.”
“How nice for you,” Ficker said. “So you think I’m just going to hand over the chip and let Baxter take the credit for saving us? I don’t think so.”
“Sir, I do not think that it is a matter of who recieves credit. If you have noticed, this phenomenon is draining power on all three of the vessels within it. If we do not leave soon, we might all die. Well, I would probably survive.”
“Tell it to someone who cares, android,” Ficker said. “If your Captain is so keen on escaping, have him send that data reader over, so we can use it to get out of here. It was our mission first, anyway.”
“Well, I suppose…” Larkin said.
“Good day,” Ficker said, pushing Larkin back into the airlock and sliding the door shut. That done, Ficker typed a sequence in the keypad next to the door, which caused the external door to slide open, blasting the android out into the white vacuum beyond.
“Well, where’s the chip?” Baxter asked, as Larkin stepped out of the airlock.
“Captain Ficker would not give it to me.”
“What?” Baxter asked. “That little jerk.”
“As a matter of fact, he blew me out of the airlock without so much as a how do you do.”
“How rude,” Baxter mused.
“I would have said as much had I not been trapped in an airless vacuum.”
“Well,” Baxter said, putting his hands on his hips. “I can play dirty too. Has Mr. Richards finished those modifications to you yet?”
“If you mean the engineering pack, yes, sir, he has, but it has not been tested.”
“Now’s as good a time as any,” Baxter said. “I want you to break into that ship and get that damn chip no matter what, understand?”
“Affirmative, sir, but I should remind you that the null space is having damaging effects on my power systems. Too much exposure to it will render me totally–”
“Good enough. Go get ‘em, Larkin!” Baxter called out, shoving Larkin back into the airlock, sliding the door shut, and blowing her out into space.
Larkin considered how unappreciated she was as she flipped open her right middle finger and extended the computer interface nodule from within. Larkin quickly dismissed those thoughts as frivorless as she jammed the nodule into the receptacle that was adjacent to the Trafalgar’s port side maintenance hatch, scanning through the computer core’s memory as it passed through her data buffers. In nanoseconds, the android had deactivated the maintenance hatch security sensors and all the correlating security systems that led down the Jefferies tube and into adjacent corridors and connecting crawlspaces. That done, Larkin initiated one last command that sprung open the maintenance hatch and crawled inside the ship.
The android quickly crawled out of the tiny airlock and into the Jefferies tube, making her way out into the corridor beyond. Before reaching the corridor, she held up her arm and flipped open the small viewscreen stored within. According to her sensors, the chip was located in a relatively unsecure lab on Deck Ten.
In minutes, Larkin had climbed up the two decks to Deck Ten, sliding out into the corridor and stealthily inching towards the laboratory.
Suddenly her proximity sensor went off, indicating an approaching lifeform. Larkin quickly closed up her arm and engaged her “humanoid attributes” program.
“Hello,” a man with Lieutenant Commander’s pips and a blue collar said, rounding the corner in front of Larkin.
“Greetings. How is it hanging?”
“Pardon?” the man asked, turning.
“Just shooting the s***, sir,” Larkin said, winking and elbowing the man. “If you know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I don’t, Lieutenant. If you’ll, uh, excuse me.”
“Damn right,” Larkin said, resuming her path to the science lab.
“I hope you have good news,” Baxter said, ushering Larkin out of the airlock.
“Please do not blow me out of the airlock again, Captain,” Larkin said, placing the chip into Baxter’s hand. “I believe you damaged one of my internal relay matrices last time.”
“Don’t worry, Larkin,” Baxter said, putting his arm around Larkin and leading her down the corridor. “If this works, we’ll be out of this null space for good.”
“If not, sir?”
“Then you’ll have to get out and push.”
“I have good news and bad news,” Tilleran said, as she and Larkin emerged from the turbolift on the bridge.
“Let’s hear it,” Baxter said impatiently. “This null space is wearing down our systems one by one. We just lost the milk steamer on the cappucino machine.”
“And the ice crusher is on it’s last legs,” Conway said tearfully.
“Well,” Tilleran said, taking a deep breath. “The good news is the chip does indeed contain instructions on how to get out of the null space.”
“Thank the Hive Mother,” J’hana sighed.
“The bad news is that the route through the interference that’s indicated by the data on the chip is extremely narrow,” Larkin said.
“Barely wide enough to get one of our smaller shuttlecraft through,” Tilleran added.
“Just great,” Baxter said. “Have we done calculations on how to squeeze two hundred and fifty people into sixteen shuttlecraft?”
“Not necessary, although it may be an interesting exercise,” Larkin said. “Lieutenant Tilleran believes it may be possible to send a shuttlecraft through the null space on the trajectory indicated and lead the Explorer and the other vessels out by way of a highly focused tachyon particle beam.”
“But the shuttle will have to keep on a very specific trajectory in order to find the correct path through the interference,” Tilleran said. “The pilot will have to be quite adept.”
“Volunteers?” Baxter asked half-heartedly.
“It sounds like a good opportunity for you to prove your piloting skills, Captain,” Conway said pleasantly.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Baxter said, rubbing his chin. “And you’re all too eager to let me go, aren’t you?”
“I can feel that Captain’s chair hugging my buttocks as we speak, sir,” grinned Conway.
“Fine, fine, I’ll go,” Baxter griped. “But someone has to tell the other two ships our plan so they can lock onto our tachyon beams.”
Larkin turned on a heel and headed for the turbolift. “Already on my way to the airlock, Captain.”
After explaining the situation to the cordial, however inept, folks aboard the Strella, Lt. Commander Larkin made her way back to the Trafalgar, prepared for a less than warm reception.
“You again?” the Benzite asked, looking Larkin up and down. “What now?”
“We have initiated a plan for escape. A shuttlecraft will use a focused tachyon beam to lead all the ships through the null space toward the exit. I have come to instruct you to lock on to the Explorer’s tachyon beam so that you may follow them. You must then initiate a tachyon beam of your own for the Strella to follow.”
“The Captain will not be happy about this.”
“His mood is irrelevant. This is the plan for escape,” Larkin said. She felt that this all-too-smug Benzite was well deserving of “Curt-mode.”
“Fine, fine,” Eno said. “Go back to your ship. I will let the Captain know of your plan.”
“You do that,” Larkin said, disengaging Curt-mode and returning into the airlock. Evidently Curt-mode was not well recieved, because the next thing Larkin felt was the rush of air as she was once again blown out of the Trafalgar’s airlock.
Captain Baxter gently tapped the maneuvering thrusters on the shuttlecraft Pizarro as he made his way through the null space. “Computer, lock on to the Explorer and engage tachyon beam.”
“Confirmed. Tachyon beam engaged,” replied the computer.
“Piece of cake,” Baxter said smugly, programming the Pizarro’s flight computer with the exact coordinates specified by the data chip. It was all smooth sailing from here.
“Tachyon beam intercepted by Explorer,” the computer reported. “Four and a half minutes to periphery of null space.”
Baxter leaned back and watched the white nothingness fly past him. He didn’t know much about null space, but it sure seemed like a dull place to hang out.
“Warning, tachyon beam has been compromised,” the computer suddenly droned.
Baxter snapped forward. “Can you find a cause, Computer?”
“Affirmative. The tachyon beam was interrupted by contact with another vessel, bearing 040 mark 211.”
“Federation shuttlecraft, Class Three.”
“Damn,” Baxter said. “Who could that be?” He really wished he could find a way to punch through the interference and communicate with that shuttlecraft. They were bound to mess up this whole operation. “Computer,” Baxter said. “Can you get a close visual on the shuttlecraft?”
“The visibility level of the image will be less than seventy-five percent.”
“That’s fine, Computer, put it on the screen.”
An image of a small shuttlecraft appeared on the screen on the shuttle’s dash. Baxter had to lean in close and squint, but he could just barely make out the pilot of that shuttle. “Ficker! He’s going to try and stop me from leading the other ships out of here. What a doorknob.”
“Please restate the request.”
“Nevermind, Computer. Can you tell me what that shuttle’s trajectory is?”
“The shuttle is traveling at the speed and course necessary to intercept and overtake this vessel.”
“That rat bastard. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. If he’s not careful, he may destroy all three ships. Well, he won’t get away with it. Computer, can we get a phaser lock through all this interference?”
“Negative. Phasers will function on manual targetting only.”
“Bummer,” Baxter muttered. “Can we get a transporter lock on the occupant of that shuttle?”
“Only if the shields on both craft are lowered.”
“Can you locate any areas of instability in the shields that we might be able to exploit?”
“Affirmative. There is a weakness of eighteen–”
“I don’t need particulars, Computer, just highlight it on my targetting screen. Then charge the phaser banks and get ready to lower shields and lock on transporters as soon as those shields fall.” Baxter was ready to put an end to this silly competition once and for all.
“Transporter lock enabled, phasers charged.”
Baxter ran his hands over the panel, aiming for the weakness in Ficker’s shields and firing the phasers.
“Shuttle’s shields are compromised. Lowering shields and establishing transporter lock.”
“Energize, Computer!” Baxter ordered.
Suddenly a very bewildered-looking Captain Ficker appeared in the rear of Baxter’s shuttlecraft. As soon as he realized he wasn’t seated in his chair anymore, he collapsed painfully to the deck.
“Welcome aboard, Captain,” Baxter grinned. “Computer, raise our shields and reinitialize the tachyon beam.”
“Confirmed. Tachyon beam reinitialized.”
“Has the Explorer intercepted the beam?”
Baxter turned in his chair. “Well, Captain Ficker, you almost cost us a whole–”
Without warning Baxter was suddenly yanked out of his chair and pulled to the deck.
“Damn it, Baxter, you screwed up my chance at victory!” Ficker cried, ramming Baxter in the face with his elbow and moving into the pilot’s chair.
“Hey, we’re all friends here,” Baxter croaked, climbing to his feet. “Remember the big Starfleet family!”
“This family is splitting up,” Ficker growled, pulling the shuttlecraft into a tight roll.
“Warning, subspace instability is compromising hull integrity.”
Baxter held onto the bulkhead as the shuttle spun dizzily. “You’re taking this all way too seriously, Booty.”
“Am I?” Ficker asked madly. “I think not. The fact that you still call me by that damned name proves it! I can’t stand having you laugh at me one minute more!”
Baxter slowly moved towards the pilot’s chair. “No one is laughing at you. Everyone is…uh, laughing with you.”
“It’s not true. We were both dorks, and everyone at the Academy knew it. But I rose above it. I made something of myself. I proved I was better than everyone there.”
“You cheated!” Baxter cried, leaping on top of Ficker. “Admit it, you son of a bitch!”
“I did not!”
Commander Conway watched the blurry grey object on the viewscreen pitch and turn as Lt. Ford madly tried to follow after it. “What the hell is going on over there? First we lose the tachyon beam and some other shuttlecraft flies into view, and then we get it back, and now it looks like he’s at a damn spaceflight maneuvers expo.”
“I don’t know what’s going on over there,” Tilleran said, holding onto her station as the Explorer shuddered its way through the null space, “but whatever it is, it’s seriously screwing up our way out of here.”
“Is there any way to adapt the Dtapi coordinates so that we can lead ourselves out of here?”
“If there was, do you think we’d be going through all this trouble with the shuttlecraft?” Tilleran asked, irritated. “Our only hope is over there.”
“I feel reassured already,” Conway muttered.
“You know what your problem is, Ficker,” Baxter said as he slammed Ficker’s face into the shuttle bulkhead. “You never grew up. You never learned how to take defeat, or how to be humiliated.”
“I take it that’s a skill you’ve learned well?” Ficker asked.
“And proud of it. I’m damn lucky to have what I have on the Explorer, and I wouldn’t have the job if I hadn’t sucked so badly at everything else up to that point. Don’t you see, you have to buy a little success with a lot of failure!”
“How corny, Captain,” Ficker said, pushing Baxter away and grabbing the controls again.
Captain Baxter slipped his hand underneath the dash as Ficker madly piloted the shuttlecraft. “It may be corny, but it’s true.” Baxter quickly flipped the glove compartment open and yanked a phaser out, ready to take out Ficker with a quick–
An elbow suddenly jabbed into Baxter’s gut, sending the phaser clattering to the deck and doubling the Captain over.
“This one’s mine. Game, set, and match,” Ficker said, grabbing the phaser and holding it on Baxter, reaching behind to adjust the shuttle’s course.
Baxter watched, wide-eyed, as the shuttle bounced through the null space. “You have no idea what you’re doing, Ficker.”
“Maybe not,” Ficker said. “But I’ve got the phaser.”
“You need help,” Baxter said. “How about we put the phaser down and let Uncle Andy have control of the shuttle. Wouldn’t that be great?”
“Afraid not,” Ficker said. “Whether we live or die, I’m going to be at the helm.”
“Fine, let us die,” Baxter said, “but tell me one thing. Did you cheat on that shuttle maneuvers test ten years ago?”
Ficker laughed. “Of course I did. I reprogrammed your navigational computer one day when you weren’t looking. I sabotaged the entire test.”
“So your whole career is based on a lie,” Baxter said angrily.
“Yep. And I, for one, have no problem with that.”
“Well, I do!” Baxter said, leaping onto Ficker and smashing his head up against the front viewport.
As Baxter smashed Ficker’s head into the control panel, he saw the white of the null space give way to the starry black of normal space. “I’ll be damned. You got us out of here.”
“I did?” Ficker said happily. “You mean I really succeeded?”
“Without cheating. Now don’t you feel better?”
“Yeah! I really beat you this time!” Ficker said proudly.
“You sure did.”
“Explorer to Pizarro, come in,” Conway’s voice crackled over the comm. “Are you guys okay over there?”
“That’s debatable,” Baxter grimaced, staring at Ficker as he hopped around the cabin with glee.
Supplemental. With us on the way to another mission, the Vulcans on the way to the Daystrom Institute with the chip AND the data reader, and the Trafalgar on its way to the Federation Funny Farm on Tantalus Five to deliver Captain Ficker, I can sleep easy knowing all is right with the universe. Things could not have turned out better. Captain Ficker was brought to justice, all three ships were saved, and we have learned some precious tidbits of information about another mysterious ancient culture. Yay.
Captain Baxter smiled as he hung the Third Place Flight Medallion on the wall above his desk next to his Starfleet Academy diploma and the glamour portrait of he and Counselor Peterman. “Perfect.”
“There,” Peterman said. “It’s in its rightful place. Are you happy?”
“Good,” Peterman said. “Now how about another trip to the janitor’s closet?”
Baxter grinned. “Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of the cargo bay.”
“Won’t there be people there?”
“Sure. But they won’t see us inside the container.”
“Oooh,” Peterman said, “sounds like–”
“Bridge to Captain Baxter. We are recieving a message from the Trafalgar on subspace,” came Lt. J’hana’s voice over the comm.
“Put it through to my quarters,” Baxter said, moving to his desk. “Wonder what this could be?”
Captain Ficker flicked onto the screen, smiling broadly. Baxter could see the stark walls of the brig in the background.
“Hello, Captain. I just called to wish you a pleasant journey. You know, space can be a very scary place.”
“Sure can,” Baxter agreed.
“But I’m confident you can take care of yourself. And me, well, I’m on to greater things. I’ve been promoted to Admiral, you know.”
“Is that so?”
“Yep. I’m going to be put in charge of a Starbase. I may even be given my own planet to govern.”
“That’s fantastic, Alvin.”
“You didn’t call me Booty!”
“No, I figured that name has been about worn out.”
“Good. I can see I’m finally going to get the respect I deserve.”
“You betcha,” Baxter said. “Now you take it easy, Admiral.”
“I sure will! And I’ll say hello to Captain Kirk and Ambassador Spock for you. You know they’re my close friends. Why, just yesterday I–”
Baxter cut off the channel. “Captain Ficker is going to get a nice, long rest.”
“Aren’t you glad that we have a society where the whackos are carefully weeded out and put in a place where they can’t harm theirselves or anyone else?” Peterman said, moving to Baxter’s desk and putting her arms around him.
“I don’t know,” Baxter said. “We’re all whacko in one way or another. Who’s to say what’s sane and what’s not? Maybe you and I should be in a mental institution.”
“That very well could be,” Peterman smiled. “But until they find us, I think you and I should be in a cargo container.”
“I can’t argue with you when you talk sense, baby,” Baxter said, picking Peterman up and carrying her out of his quarters.
Just when you thought it was safe to explore space… The Dawg return to overtake the Explorer and ruin everybody’s day. Will Captain Baxter and the others find a way to defeat them? Find out in “IT’S A DAWG’S LIFE”!