Star Traks, Waystation, and my eternal thanks belong to Alan Decker. The Explorer, her fated crew, and all the mistakes and uncomfortable situations that come about because of her are gladly owned by Anthony Butler, Copyright 1998. Paramount owns everything else, including my eternal soul. If you're offended by mildly disturbing language, situations, and the utter disregard of some of Star Trek's greatest premises, better hit the "Back" button on your browser right now. If not, welcome aboard!

Author: Anthony Butler
Copyright: 1998

“Nervous, Chris?” Captain Baxter asked, watching with amusement as Lt. Commander Richards squirmed under the tender care of Yeoman Briggs, the USS Explorer’s foremost authority on crew fashion and Starship interior design.

“Me? Ha ha. That’s a laugh,” Richards said. “Mr. Briggs, don’t you think you can loosen that up a little?”

Briggs grinned, pulling back on the pants some more. “It’s supposed to be snug, Commander. Now, suck in that gut.”

“I don’t have a gut,” Richards said flatly.

“That’s what they all say. You can’t lie to your tailor,” Briggs returned. “Now, tell me, what do you think of the cummerbund?”

“I think it looks ridiculous,” Richards said. “Does it really have to have diamond studs along the center?”

“Per Dr. Browning’s orders,” Briggs said, standing back and looking Richards over with pride. “I think everything looks marvelous. Your fiancee has a fantastic eye for design.”

“You know, I’m the artist between us,” Richards said, looking to Baxter. “I should have been put in charge of colors and designs.”

“You were,” Baxter said, shifting in his chair adjacent to the the semi-circle of mirrors where Briggs worked on Richards. “Don’t you remember? You kept putting it off and procrastinating until Janice had no choice but to charge ahead. And now Kelly’s got to wear itchy chiffon. I hope you’re happy.”

“I was not procrastinating! Ouch!” Richards looked down at Briggs, who had accidentally pricked him with the phaser- hemmer.

“Sorry, but you were squirming. You’ll have to be still if you expect me to get this hem right.”

Richards rolled his eyes. “Why don’t you just make all the alterations in the replicator?”

“Because…” Briggs said, sighing heavily, “the replicator never gets it quite right. There’s just no substitute for the human body when it comes to alterations.”

“I suppose I’ll just have to take your word for it,” Richards groaned. “How much longer do I have to be here, anyway? I’m supposed to be in a staff meeting in twenty minutes.”

“Keep your pants on,” Briggs chuckled, slapping Richards’s behind as he went into the back room.

“Hey!” Richards called out, turning to Baxter. “Captain, did you see what he just did?”

“Bear with him, Chris. You know artists. They’re eccentric.”

Richards rolled his eyes again. “I can’t wait untill you have to go through this.”

“I’m abstaining from the fitting, Captain’s prerogative,” Baxter said with a smile. “I’m going to be wearing my dress uniform.”

“Hey, just because you’re performing the ceremony doesn’t mean you get to save your dignity. If the rest of the wedding party has to wear these getups, you’re going down with them.”

“Hey, try and make me,” Baxter laughed.

“Larkin to the Captain,” the comm system suddenly chirped.

“Ah, thank goodness!” Richards said. “We’re saved.”

“Don’t get excited yet,” Baxter said. “Baxter here. What is it, Larkin?”

“Sir, we just picked up an automated distress call from a transport in the Sigma Tau system.”

“It’s always something,” Baxter said, pushing out of his chair. “No other ships in the area, Lieutenant?”

“No, sir. The Explorer is the only Starfleet vessel in this sector, or in any of the surrounding sectors for that matter.”

“All right then, put us on Yellow Alert and lay in a course to intercept the transport.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Come on, Commander,” Baxter said. “Your sentence has been postponed.”

“What about my pants?” Richards asked.

“I’d definitely suggest keeping them on.”

Baxter and Richards quickly left Yeoman Briggs’s Fashion Shoppe and Interior Design Centre, stopping at the door to grab a handful of chocolate mints.

Moments later, Briggs emerged from the back room, carrying a selection of color swatches from which Richards was supposed to select the color of his boutineer.

“Commander Richards? Captain Baxter?” Briggs threw down the swatches in consternation and looked around the empty cabin. “Oh, I just hate them sometimes. How am I supposed to come up with innovative designs when everyone refuses to work with me? Red Alert this and Red Alert that. I swear.”

“Entering Sigma Tau system now,” Lt. Ford announced from the helm, as Baxter and Richards stepped out onto the bridge. Ford looked back at Richards’s outfit and frowned. “I’m not going to have to wear that at the wedding, am I?”

“No, Ford, we have something much more appropriate for you. A big, furry gorilla suit,” Richards said, taking his station at the rear of the bridge.

“Very funny.”

Baxter loomed behind Lt. Aria Tilleran’s chair at the L-shaped science console. “What have we got?”

Tilleran brought up the longrange scan on the viewscreen. “Class B high-warp transport, sir. It’s listed as the Pavarotti.”

“Pretentious name for a high speed courier,” Baxter mused. “What’s wrong with it?”

Tilleran checked her panel. “The ship seems to be in perfect condition, with the exception of its deuterium tanks. They’re completely drained.”

“That’s odd,” Richards said. “You’d think a long-range ship would carry enough fuel as a matter of policy.”

“You’d think,” Baxter said. “Are we in hailing range yet?”

“Shortly,” J’hana said from tactical.

“Good,” Baxter said. “Meanwhile, why don’t we arrange to send some deuterium over to our friend so he can get underway again.”

“On it, sir,” Richards said, disappearing into the aft turbolift.

Baxter made his way around to the front of the bridge and sat down in his command chair. “Hey, Larkin, isn’t Conway supposed to be up here?”

“He called in sick, sir,” Larkin replied.

“Hmm,” Baxter said. “I wonder what’s wrong with him.”

Tilleran shrugged. “With the Commander, you just never know.”

“And Conway wins by a nose! This was truly the race of a lifetime!” boomed the speakers around the NASCAR track.

Commander Conway slid out of the side window of his trusty Chevy racer, just as Dr. Lana Shar ran up to congratulate him, along with enough paparazzi to choke a politician.

“Thank you, thank you,” Conway said, as someone handed him a First Place trophy. “I owe a lot of this to my pit team and to the good people at Chevrolet. Without them, I’d never have beaten out Rusty Wallace.”

Lana patted Conway on the back as he made his way across the track to meet with his adoring fans. “Good work, Commander. I have to give it to you. This…‘NASCAR racing’ is a very interesting pasttime.”

“It sure is,” Conway said, shaking hands and signing autographs. “Next time, you’re racing.”

“I don’t think so,” Lana said, as a perky seven-year-old pushed past her to get a glimpse of Conway. “It seems a bit…barbaric for me.”

“Hmmm, and I always took you for the barbaric type.”

Lana laughed. “Some of my previous hosts were what you might consider…adventurous, but this one tends to be a bit more reserved.”

“That’s a shame,” Conway said. “I’d love to see the adventurous side of you sometime.”

“I doubt you could handle it, Commander.”

“Lana, we’ve known each other for months. Call me Dave.” Conway wrapped a towel around his neck, tucked his trophy under his arm, and took one last look at the stadium and his adoring fans. “Computer, end program.”

“How about we compromise and I call you David?” Lana asked, as she and Conway exited the orange-on-black gridded holodeck.

“Good enough. Want to join me at Mirk’s for some coffee?”

“I suppose. Shouldn’t you be on duty about now, though?”

“Nah. Besides, you’ve been very busy lately and this was your first day off.” Conway smiled. “I’d rather spend my time with you.”

“Commander…David…I don’t want to send you any mixed signals. We are just friends, and there’s no changing that.”

“A guy can always hope, can’t he?”

“He can, but he shouldn’t,” Lana said. “I enjoy spending time with you, but at this point in time…”

“…you don’t want a relationship. I’ve heard that recycled bit before.”

“Then you know how to deal with it?”

“I suppose. But I won’t like it.”

“We are now in communications range,” Lt. J’hana reported, as Captain Baxter blew on his cup of orange pekoe tea and carried it gently back to his command chair.

“Good,” Baxter said, sipping at the tea and setting it down in the handy cupholder next to his chair. “Open frequencies.”


“Pavarotti, this is Captain Andy Baxter of the Federation Starship Explorer. We picked up your distress call. What’s your status?”

A familiar face appeared on the viewscreen. “Ah, Captain Baxter. Nice to see you again,” Bradley Dillon said, grinning widely. “I suspect you’re suprised to see me way out here?”

“You could say that,” Baxter mumbled. “What are you doing out here?”

Bradley laughed. “It’s a funny story, actually.”

“I’m sure,” Baxter said, running a hand over his face. “How about giving me the short version?”

“Hmmm. Well, then, I guess it all started when a deep space-faring race known as the Bast visited Waystation. They told me that they had access to a new form of circuit that would transfer energy thousands of times faster than what the Federation has. Of course, I realized that such a circuit offered unlimited opportunities for technological advancement…”

“And might help Dillon Enterprises at the same time,” Baxter interrupted.

“Well, sir, that would only be a pleasant byproduct of my arrangement with the Bast, but that thought did cross my mind. Anyway, it seemed like a perfect time to test out my new ship. Do you like it? I thought the racing stripes might be a bit much.”

“Hmm, very stylish,” Baxter mused.

“I used to sell starships for a living. I know what NOT to buy,” Bradley said. “Anyway, I successfuly negotiated a deal with the Bast that would give me exclusive rights to distribute this new circuit throughout the Federation.”

“In return for what?”

“In return for a percentage of the profits and a substantial discount at all Dillon’s Pioneer Depot outlets across the quadrant.”

“Cut to the chase, Mr. Dillon.”

“Well, after finishing business with the Bast, I headed back for Waystation. When I crossed into this sector, I was attacked by some kind of space pirates. They took the circuits and all my fuel, leaving me stranded. I survived on backup power for several days, but soon that gave out and I had to start breaking into the rations, which I’ve had to get by on for the last three days.”

“Poor guy.”

“Luckily, I am in the pioneering business, which means that I am prepared for contingincies like this one.”

“In other words, you activated the distress call and hid in your bunk.”

“How did you know?”

“Lucky guess,” Baxter muttered. “Listen, do you have sensor images of the group that attacked you?”

“Yes, sir. Shall I upload them to your computer?”

“Please. Meanwhile, why don’t you beam over and grab something to eat while our engineering people refuel your ship. I’m sure three days of eating rations has been quite an ordeal.”

“It certainly has. Thank you, Captain.”

“Don’t mention it. Explorer out.”

“Well, what’s your diagnosis, doc?” Bradley asked, leaning forward on the biobed as Dr. Browning examined him with her medical tricorder.

“You’re fit as a fiddle, Mr. Dillon,” Browning said, closing the tricorder. “Did you have some reason to believe otherwise?”

“Not really. I mean, the people that broke into my ship didn’t rough me up or anything. Actually, they were all pretty nice, for pirates.”

Browning put away the tricorder and looked at Bradley quizzically. “Then why did you come here?”

Bradley rocked back and forth on the biobed nervously. “Just a precaution. You know how tricky space pirates can be. They could have poisoned the atmosphere on my ship or bathed it in radiation. You can never be too careful these days.”

“I suppose,” Browning replied.

“And, it was also a good excuse to drop in and say hi,” Bradley said, sliding off the biobed and following Browning into her office. “I mean, we did suffer through a pretty crazy ordeal a few months ago.”

“Oh, you mean that bit with the alternate universe with all the happy people?” Browning asked, picking a padd up off her desk and scrolling through it. “Mmm hmm. That was pretty crazy.”

“There were a few times back then when I thought we were going to die,” Bradley said, inching closer to Browning as she read over her padd.

“Yep, it certainly was touch and go for a while there.” Browning moved out of the office, prompting Bradley to scuttle after her.

“So, what are you up to?”

Browning removed her lab coat and headed out of Sickbay. “I’m getting ready for my wedding.”

Bradley’s expression darkened as he shuffled after her into the corridor. “You’re getting married?”

“Uh…yeah. My fiancee was one of the people trapped with us on the alternate Enterprise-D. Don’t you remember?”

“Nope. I guess I was busy trying to swindle that stupid Engineering Chief out of his credits.”

“Ha ha. I’m marrying that stupid Engineering Chief.”

“Oh.” Bradley fumbled with the sleeves on his suitcoat as he walked. “Really?”

Browning nodded. “Uh-huh. In two little days, I’ll be Mrs. Dr. Janice Marie Browning Richards.”

“Wow. That’s pretty long.”

“That’s the shortened version. For the long version, I add Lieutenant Commander.”

“I see. So…where are you going now?”

“To check on the buffet selections for the wedding. Mirk’s helping me put together some of my own recipes. They’ll be made of all natural food…nothing replicated.”

“Wow. I’d really like to see that,” Bradley mused.

Browning indicated the wooden double doors in front of her. Above them, a huge banner reading “Mirk’s Constellation Cafe” hung from the ceiling. “Then come on in. You’ve got a few minutes before your ship is ready to leave, don’t you?”

“I suppose I do,” Bradley said, following Browning into the lounge, rubbing his hands together excitedly. Free food and female companionship…what could be better?

So what if she was engaged? That was only a tiny complication.

Commander Conway walked out onto the bridge later that afternoon, feeling on top of the universe after lunch with Lana and a shower…that of course was without Lana but still very nice. “Afternoon, Captain. What’s the good word today?”

Baxter grimaced as Conway sat down next to him. “The good word is ‘late,’ Mr. Conway. You were supposed to be on duty at 0800 hours this morning. Did that slip your mind?”

“I was sick, Captain.”

“You seem to have made a full recovery,” Baxter said, looking Conway over with skepticism.

“Yes, sir, it’s a miracle.”

“I’m sure. Well, in your absence, we’ve rescued a transport carrying one of Waystation’s crew, and found out some very interesting stuff.”

“Such as?” Conway asked with interest.

“Come with me,” Baxter said, rising and heading for his readyroom. “Lieutenant J’hana…you too. Larkin, you have the bridge.”

“What’s this all about?” Conway asked, following Baxter into his readyroom.

Baxter took a seat at his desk, motioning for Conway to sit down across from him. “It’s about our bald friend out there.”

“You mean Lt. Ford?” Conway asked. “What about him?”

“J’hana…” Baxter said, hitting a control on his desk which caused the lights to dim.

J’hana activated a control next to the viewscreen adjacent to Baxter’s desk. “This image was taken from the runabout Raritan’s onboard computer.”

Conway watched with growing curiousity as a lean, birdlike red starship glided into view on the screen and launched a blue beam, which immediately pulverized the Klingon Bird of Prey on the opposite side of the screen.

“Impressive,” Conway said. “What is it?”

“That vessel saved me, Counselor Peterman, Lt. Commander Richards, Dr. Browning, and Mr. Ford from a Klingon comedian several months ago by hitting it with just one shot from–well, whatever that weapon was. It was manned by the very group that recruited Mr. Ford the day before.”

“Yeah, the Starshine Kids. Ford told me about them. What does that have to do with the transport we rescued?”

J’hana hit another control. “This sensor image was recorded by that transport.”

An identical bird-like red ship appeared on the screen, growing closer and emitting a different looking beam.

“We think that was some kind of tractor beam, but Richards is still analyzing the sensor data,” Baxter explained.

“Evidently this group very politely stole the Pavarotti’s cargo and all its dilithium, quite congenially leaving Mr. Dillon stranded,” J’hana explained.

“That’s not very nice,” Conway said.

“No kidding,” Baxter replied.

“The question is, what do we do about it?” J’hana said gruffly, deactivating the viewer and leaning against Baxter’s desk.

“What does Ford have to say about it?” Conway asked.

Baxter looked to J’hana, then they both looked at Conway. “We haven’t talked to him yet.”

“Don’t you think you should?”

J’hana shook her head. “Frankly, we don’t know if we can trust him anymore. This could be a case of brainwashing. It is possible that this cult is trying to slowly subvert Federation interests. That would explain them targetting a Starfleet officer for recruitment.”

“Or they could just be kleptomaniacal Jehovah’s witnesses,” Conway offered.

“With a starship that’s powerful enough to destroy a Klingon Bird of Prey in one shot?” Baxter asked. “Any fringe group with that kind of weaponry scares me.”

“Well,” Conway said, rising. “I’m going to talk this over with Ford man to man. I’m sure he can shed some light on this.”

Commander Conway jogged to catch up with Lt. Ford as he headed for the turbolift at the rear of the bridge. “Hold the lift for me, Mr. Ford.”

“Aye, sir,” Ford said, sticking his foot in front of the doorway until Conway was inside. “Going off-duty so soon?”

“Not exactly.” After the lift began its decent, Conway looked over at Ford. “So, Mr. Ford, how have you been the last several months?”

Ford shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Why do you ask?”

“Well, as your commanding officer, I want you to know that I care.”

“Ha ha. That’s funny, Commander. Is it April Fools day again already?”

“No, no,” Conway said. “That’s only in April.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Listen, Ford, all joking aside, I really…well, want to know… um…”

“Sir, with all due respect, spit it out!”

Conway sighed. “Computer, all stop.” When the lift came to a stop Conway leaned back against the railing that circled the small turbolift. “Mr. Ford, are you aware that your friends the Starshine Kids were responsible for hijacking that transport out there?”

“Really?” Ford said, raising his eyebrows. “That’s odd.”

“It certainly is. Do you know why they’d do something like that?”

“Can’t say that I do. Then again, I haven’t talked to them in months. I left the Kids about two months ago.”

“You did?” Conway asked.

“Yep. They were starting to freak me out. All their talk about seceding from the Federation and bringing down the government was bothering me, so I told them to cash me out.”

Conway seemed visibly relieved. “That’s good to hear, Lieutenant. Computer, resume.”

“You didn’t think I had something to do with that, did you, sir?”

“No, of course not. Well, the Captain did have doubts, I have to admit.”

“I’d never do anything to harm this ship, sir,” Ford said earnestly. “And I’ll do all I can to help the Captain track down those cult members.”

“Good,” Conway replied, as he followed Ford out of the turbolift. “Then I want you to turn all of your informational materials on the Starshine Kids over to Lt. J’hana immediately.”

“Consider it done, sir,” Ford said, ducking into his quarters.

Conway let out a sigh of relief as the doors to Ford’s quarters slid shut. That was one less thing to worry about.

Lt. Ford removed the outer jacket of his uniform and shrugged on a white robe, kneeling before his closet and sliding it open. “Good afternoon, Mr. Orb.”

A soft red glow fell upon Ford’s face as the orb emerged from underneath Ford’s deflated “wet bannana” slide.

<Greetings, Mr. Ford.> The orb replied. <This is not a scheduled session. What is on your mind?>

“I was questioned by Commander Conway in regards to the Kids.”

<And what did you tell him?>

“I did just like you told me to do. I told him I was finished with them.”

<Very good, Zachary. Now, this is what we want you to do…>

“Hurry up, Kelly, or I’m going to start it without you!” Baxter said eagerly, calling into the bathroom as he, Browning, and Richards prepared to settle down for an exciting viewing of the latest video chip of the popular Klingon soap opera “Days of Honor.”

“I’m coming.” Peterman emerged from the bathroom looking wet and exausted. “I was giving Charlie and Pandora their baths.”

Suddenly the massive golden retriever and the not-so-massive Jack Russel terrier loped out of the bathroom, dripping wet, finding their target on Baxter’s couch.

“No!” Baxter cried, shoving the dogs off with Richards’s and Browning’s help. “Kelly, I just got this couch last week. Do you know how hard it is to get water stains out of Tellarite suede? Almost impossible.”

“I’m sorry,” Peterman said. “But I have to bathe them sometime.”

Richards held the struggling Pandora away from his face. “Did you ever hear of sonic showers?”

“Charlie hates the sonic shower,” Peterman said, leading Pandora and Charlie to sit down on the plastic pad near Baxter’s desk where their food dishes were kept. “Come on, babies, over here…come on, come on!”

“I’m going to give them a sedative in a minute!” Browning said impatiently.

Peterman patted Charlie lovingly as he nibbled at his dinner and settled peacefully onto the plastic pad. “There, boy, that’s it.”

Pandora attempted to get to her dish, but Charlie growled in her face, causing her to run, yipping, for the bedroom.

“Bully!” Baxter said angrily at Charlie as he ate. “Look at him, acting like he’s the king of the roost.”

Peterman grinned as she walked over to the couch. “Do you feel like your place is threatened?”

“Not at all,” Baxter said, pulling Peterman onto the couch with him. “Listen, can we just watch the chip or what?”

“I’m ready,” Peterman said. “I’ve looked forward to this all day.”

Baxter leaned over and stabbed the control on his endtable. “I can’t wait to see what happened to Bulok.”

“I think Krig killed him,” Browning said.

“We’ll see,” Richards said, folding his arms.

The scene opened on the cramped bridge of a Klingon Bird of Prey. The hefty Captain Krig sat in the center seat, watching the viewscreen angrily. “Where is that patak Bulok, damn him? I’ll get that money he owes me if it’s the last thing I do.”

“What if you don’t find him, Captain Krig?” the navigator asked sheepishly.

“Then I will kill each and every one of you for failing me.”

“I suppose that is fair.”

Suddenly the scene changed to the interior of an office. “Today the role of Minister Vag will be played by Rorbak,” a soothing voiceover said.

Minister Vag looked up from his desk angrily. “I know it’s been difficult to serve under me ever since you killed your wife and married me, Sovok, but you have done well.”

Sovok grinned. “Thank you, Minister. I’d like to think that I have impressed you both in the bedroom and outisde as well.”

“Indeed, your manliness overwhelms me sometimes.”

“I can’t believe it,” Richards said, covering his face. “Who writes this stuff? Klingons don’t talk like that!”

“Hey, it takes all kinds,” Baxter said, gesturing at the exchange on the screen. “The episode of ‘Days of Honor’ where Sovok proclaimed his sexuality was the highest rated of the year.”

“I’m not talking about that,” Richards said. “I’m talking about the dialogue. It’s stilted. And the plots are so…contrived.”

“Since when have you cared about plots and dialogue?” Browning asked, raising an eyebrow.

“For a while now,” Richards said. “It’s just something that interests me. Ever since I started watching this show, I’ve seen its potiential. It has some excellent actors, but the writing stinks.”

“So you think you could do better?” Baxter asked with a laugh.

“Actually, yes I could.”

Before Baxter could offer a retort, Browning’s comm badge bleeped. “Bradley Dillon to Dr. Browning. Do you have a minute?”

“I’m in the middle of something right now, actually,” Browning said.

“Well, I’ve got a really great idea to share with you. I think you should come down to Holodeck Four immediately. I promise it won’t take long.”

Browning looked around at Peterman, Baxter, and Richards. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt. I’ll be right there.”

“Honey?” Richards asked, as Browning pushed off of the couch.

“I’ll only be gone a few minutes,” Browning said, kissing Richards on the forehead. “Besides, why would I want to watch this if the writing stinks?”

“I happen to like the writing,” Peterman said defensively as Browning left his cabin.

Richards watched Browning as leave in disbelief. “I wonder what that was all about.”

Baxter shrugged. “Don’t look at me.”

Dr. Browning stepped through the holodeck doors and into an ornate hotel lobby.

“Doctor!” Bradley called out, in front of a large pair of double doors. “Over here!”

Browning walked over. “Impressive, Mr. Dillon. But why are you showing me this?”

“You haven’t seen what I really wanted to show you yet,” Bradley said, swinging the doors open.

Browning watched curiously as lights flickered on throughout the darkened room beyond the doors. She saw several booths and tables, all beautifully decorated and intimately lit. “A restaurant?”

“Just wait…” Bradley said, handing Browning a menu.

Browning looked at the menu and raised an eyebrow. “Browning’s on the Rim?”

Bradley laughed. “Yep. It’s all for you!”

“I don’t understand.”

“I own a Hotel on Waystation called Starfleet Suites, and I’ve been trying to stir up a restaurant business for that clientele and other visitors to Waystation. My preivous chef…had to leave, to make a long story short, and I think you’d be perfect for the job.”

“Why me?” Browning asked incredulously, inspecting the flower arrangements and silverware on the white-clothed tables.

“Because I know a winner when I see one,” Bradley said. “That real food you made this afternoon was delicious. I’m giving you the opportunity you always wished for…”

“Spending days on end surrounded by food?”

“Whatever you want,” Bradley said. “The point is, there are no really nice restaurants on Waystation except for the Andorian one. They could always use a little competition. I tried with the last chef but…well, he felt compelled to leave.”

“And what do you get out of this?” Browning asked, peering over the counter.

“A fantastic chef and the knowledge that I have brought a bit of class to my corner of the galaxy. So, do we have a deal?”

Browning was so caught up in the idea she had completely forgot about all the wedding plans. “No…no, we don’t have a deal. We can’t have a deal. I’m getting married in two days. I’m staying on the Explorer with Christopher.”

“So you don’t want to run a restaurant, then?” Bradley asked.

“Well…if the circumstances were different I’d love to. But it’s just not going to happen. Christopher and I are happy here on the Explorer. We have no complaints.”

“You may not have any complaints, Doctor, but are you truly happy?”

“Sure. I’m in a position of reponsibility. I help people. I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do.”

“I can make it worth your while, you know.” Bradley pulled two bars of gold pressed latinum out of his pocket and waved them in front of Browning. “This is just your signing bonus, Doctor.”

For a moment, her eyes went wide, then she quickly covered her reaction. “Starfleet officers have no use for money, Mr. Dillon. We strive to better ourselves, that is our reward.”

“So you really think you’re bettering yourself here?”

Browning was quiet a moment, then said, “Sure.”

“Well, then, I won’t push the issue,” Bradley said, sighing. “I suppose I’ll have to find someone else to run my restaurant now. Computer, end program.”

Browning watched woefully as the restaurant disappeared around her. Running a restaurant had always been her secret dream, and it was staring her right in the face. But she had responsibilities…she had Christopher. And that was more important.

Wasn’t it?

The next morning, Dr. Browning awoke to the sound of a thunderous Klingon belly-laugh coming from the other room.

Noting that Richards wasn’t with her in bed, Browning slid out from under the covers and padded into the other room to investigate.

“I must say, your script looks interesting, and your proposal interests me, Mr. Richards.” The voice seemed to be coming from Richards’s communication terminal, but Browning couldn’t see who was on the screen, since Richards was blocking her view. “We will be in touch.”

“Thanks a lot,” Richards said, switching off the viewer.

“Christopher…what are you doing out here?” Browning asked, once she was directly behind the Chief Engineer.

Richards jumped, almost knocking over his cup of raktajeeno. “Good Lord, honey, don’t sneak up on me like that!”

“Sorry,” Browning said. “Who were you talking to just now?”

“It was nobody. Just someone that’s looking at a script of mine,” Richards explained.


“Yeah. For an episode of Days of Honor. I got an idea for an episode last night and I had to get it down before I forgot it. By the time I was finished I had a whole script, so I submitted it to the Days of Honor people.”

Browning looked around the room. Padds were spread everywhere, and a half-empty pot of raktageeno cooled next to the terminal on Richards’s desk. “Were you up all night, Christopher?”

“Kind of.”

Collapsing on their couch, Browning started rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. She’d tossed and turned all the previous night considering Bradley’s proposal, and she hadn’t even noticed that Richards had never come to bed.

“What’s wrong?” Richards asked, getting up from his desk and stretching, wincing as several cracks rippled through his back.

“Oh, nothing,” Browning distantly.

“What did Bradley have to show you last night?”

“It wasn’t anything important.” Browning returned to the bedroom to get ready for her shift in Sickbay. She decided to keep Bradley’s offer to herself. No reason to force Christopher to choose between marrying her and letting her go off to run some restaurant on Waystation. It was a silly idea, anyway.

Wasn’t it?

Captain’s Log,

Stardate 52994.5. Although Engineering has finished refueling Mr. Dillon’s ship, he insists on having us escort him back to Federation space, should any “space pirates” attempt to rob him again. After much posturing and regulation-citing on the part of Mr. Dillon, I agreed to his demands. I think I’m starting to dislike him even more than I do his brother.

“So, from what I hear, we’re going to begin a patrol of the Galactic edge as soon as we drop off Bradley Dillon’s ship,” Dr. Browning said, as she devoured her lunch–a peculiar-looking caserole which Mirk had cooked up that combined Breen meat and Romulan cheese. “Starfleet’s afraid that this cult thing might be catching on.”

Richards poked at his own casserole, nodding. “Mmm hmm.”

“But I think they’re blowing the whole thing out of proportion. I mean, Mr. Ford joined the cult and I hear he’s not in it anymore. You know how it is. Just a passing trend.”

“Mmm hmm.”

Browning glared at Richards. She was slowly becoming aware that he wasn’t listening. “So I’m going to paint myself blue and live in a colony of gigantic ants on Sigor Seven, if that’s all right with you.”

“That’s great, hon.”

“Christopher, is something bothering you?” Browning asked.

Richards looked up. “Nah. It’s nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

“Well, I heard back from my contact on the Days of Honor staff today.”

Browning had a feeling she knew where this was going. “And what did he say?”

“He said he submitted my script to the producers.”


“And they really liked it. They even offered me a position on the writing staff.”

“I see,” Browning said. “And what did you tell them?”

Richards laughed nervously. “Ha ha. What do you think I told them?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I asked.”

“Oh. Well, I haven’t really told them anything yet. But I’m going to tell them no. I mean, we’d never be happy leaving the Explorer. And what would you do on Kronos while I worked on the show? Klingons don’t have a use for doctors. It’s a stupid idea.”

“Yeah. Ha ha. Us leaving the Explorer. That is a laugh.” Suddenly Browning was acutely aware of why Richards had lost his appetite.

“Status, Larkin,” Baxter said, stepping out onto the bridge.

“We are still on course for Federation space at a speed of Warp Eight, in close formation with Mr. Dillon’s vessel,” Larkin reported, yielding the command chair to Baxter.

“Any sign of those ‘space pirates?’” Baxter asked, with a hint of amusement on his face.

“If you are referring to the red ship that attacked Mr. Dillon, then no, there have been no further reports of contact with them.”

“Good. Maybe it was all just a false alarm.”

“A distinct possibility, sir. On the other hand, they could be massing fleets of those red ships for an invasion of our space.”

Baxter shook his head. “I seriously doubt it. Where on Earth would they get enough people for that kind of assault?”

“They are a cult, sir. Their purpose is to recruit.”

“They’d have to recruit a lot of people to pose a threat to the Federation, Lieutenant.”

Larkin turned in her chair. “Stranger things have happened, Captain.”

“Turn back around and man your post, Lieutenant. You’re starting to scare me.”

“Check it out, Andy!” Peterman suddenly said, twirling out of the turbolift, decked out in a beautiful, flowing, blue and white chiffon dress.

“Outstanding!” Baxter said, clapping his hands as Peterman circled the bridge. Baxter stood up, clearing his throat. “Miss Peterman is a twenty-seven year old, originally from Redondo Beach, California. She enjoys counseling, horseback riding, pets, and driving her boyfriend crazy with desire. Her pet peeves are people who don’t like pets and angry Klingons. She’s wearing an original Briggs in blue and white chiffon, complete with spaghetti straps across the back, ruffles at the bottom, and a full complement of quantum torpedoes. Everyone give her a big hand.”

“What is this mockery of Starfleet protocol?” J’hana asked angrily as Peterman pranced in front of her.

“Oh lighten up, J’hana,” Baxter said, turning to Peterman. “Give Yeoman Briggs my thumbs up and have him replicate one for Tilleran, J’hana, and Larkin.”

“Aye, sir,” Peterman said, saluting and returning into the turbolift. “I just love weddings, don’t you?”

“Yep,” Baxter said, returning to his command chair.

“Makes you think about us, doesn’t it?” Peterman added as the doors to the lift slid shut.

“What’s that?” Baxter twisted around in his chair, but it was too late; Peterman was already gone.

“Don’t you love how she just slips it in there when you least expect it?” Tilleran asked with a grin.

“Well, it’s certainly pretty, Mr. Briggs,” Dr. Browning said, turning around as she examined herself in the mirror. “I don’t know about all this lace though. It keeps flying up in my face.”

“Don’t worry about it, Janice,” Briggs said, placing a comforting hand on Browning’s shoulder. “I’ll adjust it so it stays out of your face. We don’t want anything messing up that perfect moment as you stroll down the aisle!”

“Yes, well. That will be nice. Can I take this off now?”

Briggs crossed his arms, looking up and down at the dress with approval. “I suppose so. I have a few more alterations to make on it anyway. Remember, we’re supposed to meet Mr. Richards in the wedding chapel in fifteen minutes!”

Browning scuttled into the changing room. “I know, I know. Just give me a second.”

Counselor Peterman strolled into the Fashion Shoppe, looking extremely pensive. “Hello, Jeffery.”

“Back from the bridge, Kelly?”

“Yes, yes, yes. Everyone loved the dress. Except Lt. J’hana, of course.”

Briggs shook his head. “Oh, she’s such a tight-ass sometimes. What did the Captain think?”

Peterman slumped into a chair, sighing heavily. “He liked it. But I saw the look on his face when I brought up the subject of us getting married. It was one of pure terror.”

“Give Uncle Jeffery a hug now. That’s it,” Briggs said, sitting down on the arm of Peterman’s chair and wrapping an arm around her. “It takes a long time to train them, dear.”

“I wish I could believe you, I really do,” Peterman said. “But what if he never wants to get married. What then?”

“Then you hike up your dress, catch that bouquet, and find someone else!”

“Someone else? I couldn’t imagine being with anyone else.”

At that moment, Dr. Browning walked out of the dressing room, gently handing the wedding dress to Yeoman Briggs. She sighed. “All right, let’s check out that chapel.”

Peterman blinked as Browning crossed the room. “Well, you certainly seem excited about the whole thing, Janice.”

“Yeah, yeah. Come on, Yeoman Briggs.”

Briggs hung up the wedding dress and grabbed his book of color swatches and a padd as he followed Browning out the door. “Kelly, take off that dress before it gets wrinkled!”

“Yes, sir,” Peterman said, jumping to her feet and heading for the dressing room.

Lt. Commander Richards looked up from his tricorder. “This support beam will have to be replaced. It’s weakened in several places.”

Yeoman Briggs shook his head. “Oh, it’s probably from one of the umpteen firefights you all get into. Really, it’s difficult to hem a dress when the ship is rocking like an Ensign’s bed on Saturday night.”

“Let’s spare the similies and get on with this,” Browning said. “I want the bouquets here and here, on either side of the altar. And I want candles lining each row of pews. Can we do that?”

“My, you’re snippy all of a sudden,” Yeoman Briggs said. “I think we can do that. Let me check the replicator files and see if I can find something appropriate to our color scheme.”

As Yeoman Briggs headed for the back of the chapel, Browning collapsed on the front pew.

Richards sat down next to her, leaning back and taking in the view of the huge marble altar before them. “We’ll be up there tomorrow afternoon taking our vows, you know.”

“Sure will.”

“Marraige. Wow. It’s hard to believe we’re doing this.”

“Sure is.”

“Both of us. Together. Forever. Wow.”

Several long moments of silence followed, as Browning and Richards sat there staring at the altar.

Finally, they turned to each other.



They both took in a deep breath, and at the same time, blurted out:

“I don’t want to get married!”

At that moment, Yeoman Briggs stepped out of the back room. “Good news! I found just the right candles to put up next to the pews!”

Browning and Richards got to their feet, hugged, and skipped like children down the aisle towards the back of the chapel, waving their hands in the air, chanting, “We’re not getting married! We’re not getting married! We’re not getting married!”

Briggs turned around and stared at the couple in disbelief as they skipped right out into the corridor outside. “Well, how do you like that. And what am I supposed to do with fourteen pounds of lobster pate, huh?”

“I don’t get it,” Commander Conway said, stepping out of the holodeck. “You were almost at the finish line.”

Lana followed, pulling off her helmet and letting her hair fall around her shoulders. “Well, Dick Trickle’s car flipped over. I had to pull over and help him.”

“But you were about to win!”

“He could have been hurt!”

“It was a freaking holodeck simulation.”

“Still…I don’t see how they could just all drive by without stopping to help him.”

“Because they have medics for stuff like that. The race must go on!”

“And it did. And someone else won, so what’s the point?” Lana said defiantly.

“I’ll never understand you, Lana.”

“Maybe that’s why you like spending time with me so much.”

Before Conway could reply, Lt. Commander Richards and Dr. Browning danced by, laughing like children. “We’re not getting married, we’re not getting married, we’re not getting married!”

Conway and Lana turned to watch Browning and Richards swing around the corner, bumping into a pair of surprised ensigns along the way.

“What the hell was that all about?” Conway asked.

“Apparently they aren’t getting married,” replied Lana.

Captain Baxter leaned forward, staring at Bradley Dillon as he smiled on the terminal screen that was on his desk. “Listen, Mr. Dillon, I don’t know where you got your information, but I think you’re mistaken.”

“She’s coming with me, Captain Baxter. You can ask her yourself,” Bradley smiled on the terminal.

“I intend to. Why don’t you wait one…”

Suddenly Baxter’s door swished open and Dr. Browning poked her head in. “Busy, Captain?”

“Actually, I was about to call you,” Baxter said. “Come in here for a minute.”

Browning stepped in, holding something behind her back. “I have to to tell you something, sir, and I don’t know how you’ll react.”

“Well, first tell Mr. Dillon here that you are not quitting Starfleet and going to Waystation with him to run his restaurant.”

Browning smiled, delicately placing the padd she had behind her back on Baxter’s desk. “Sir, I’m quitting Starfleet and going to Waystation to run Mr. Dillon’s restaurant.”

“Exactly,” Baxter said, folding his arms and turning to Bradley’s image. “See, Mr. Dillon. She’s…” he turned to Browning, his eyes going wide. “WHAT?”

Browning pointed at the padd that was on Baxter’s desk. “That’s my resignation, sir.”

Bradley smiled broadly. “You see, Captain? I told you s–”

Baxter slammed his hand down on the terminal’s control panel, causing Bradley’s image to disappear. He looked up at Browning. “This is a joke, right?”

“Nope,” Browning said, shaking her head. “I’m outta here, Andy.”

“But, the wedding…”

“Is off.”

“But, Chris…”

“Has some news for you, too.”

Richards poked his head into the readyroom. “Are you almost done, Janice?”

“Almost,” Browning called back. “Give us another minute.”

“Okay,” Richards said, disappearing behind the door again.

“I…I don’t know what to say,” Baxter said, scratching his head and pushing off his chair. He maneuvered around his desk to stare down at his model of the Secondprize. “Weren’t you guys happy here?”

“We were content, Andy. But we weren’t happy. Let’s face it–I may be an okay doctor, and Christopher might be an okay engineer, but neither of us ever planned on doing this the rest of our lives.”

“You didn’t?”

“Uh-uh,” Browning said. “And now we have opportunities to do something dramatically different with our lives. It’s just too great a chance to ignore. And you know what they say, opportunity only knocks once.”

“Well,” Baxter said, moving to hug Browning and taking a deep breath. “Far be it from me to keep you guys from your destinies. I wish you both the best of luck.”

“Thanks, Andy,” Browning said, heading for the door to the readyroom. “Now I think Chris has a few things to tell you.”

“Boy, when it rains it pours,” Baxter said, collapsing onto his couch as Richards strolled into his office and slapped a padd of his own into Baxter’s hands.

“Hey, buddy,” Richards said. “I came in here to tell you to take this job and shut it.”

“I think that’s ‘shove it,’” Baxter said, scrolling through the padd.

“So what do you think?”

Baxter couldn’t believe his eyes as he read. “You’re leaving to become part of the writing staff for the Klingon soap opera?” He leaned back against the couch and rubbed his face.

“Hey, their writing stinks. Someone should do something about it.”

Baxter glanced up at Richards. “But…why you?”

“With all due respect, sir, aligning the warp core isn’t exactly the best outlet for my creative juices. I need something more…adventurous.”

“And you and Janice are okay with all of this?” Baxter said, tossing Richards’s padd up onto his desk with Browning’s.

“We’re happier than ever,” Richards said. “It turns out we’ve both been having our doubts for a while now. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”

Baxter shook his head. “No, not really.”

“Well, nothing stays the same Andy. It’s time that Janice and I moved on.”

“You know, I kind of thought you two and me and Kelly would be together forever.”

“Don’t get sappy on me, Andy. This is all for the best.”

Baxter frowned as he stared at the padds. “I guess.”

Richards pulled Baxter up to shake hands with him, then, finally, hug. “Janice and I leave in two days. In the meantime, we’ll make sure our departments are in order.”

“Fine, fine,” Baxter said, stepping back behind his desk. “I guess there’s no stopping you guys.”

“Oh, and there’s one more thing.” The engineer reached into his uniform and pulled out a pair of gold-latinum rings and dropped them on Baxter’s desk. “You can have these. I sure as heck won’t be needing them anymore.”

“What am I supposed to do with them?” Baxter asked, examining one of the rings with an arched eyebrow.

Richards smiled as he left the readyroom. “Think about it, Andy.”

“Kasatria?” Sovok asked, looking at his mate as he stepped out of the shower. “I thought I killed you.”

“You did not. That was all just a dream, Sovok. Come and have some breakfast and you can tell me all about it.”

Counselor Peterman pulled the blue and white Federation- emblem afghan around her toes and sniffed quietly as she watched the action on the viewscreen. “That’s absolutely wonderful. No more mean old Minister Vag.” The people at Days of Honor were already using Richards’s ideas, and she had to hand it to him–he seemed to be a much better writer than engineer.

“It’s actually very funny, Kasatria. I dreamt that I married Minister Vag and proclaimed my same-sex desires to the world.”

“That is funny. Almost funny enough for me to gut you with your cereal spoon, fool! Now eat your breakfast! We’ll see about Minister Vag this afternoon. But for now, eat!”

Peterman sniffed quietly as she watched Sovok and Kasatria quarrel. They were such a cute couple. In their own Klingon way, they reminded her of she and Baxter. But of course, they were married. And Klingon.

Kasatria shoved Sovok’s cereal bowl aside and leaned forward. “Now, listen. We’ve been plotting against that old patak Vag for months. This is what we’re going to do to him…”

Peterman leaned forward eagerly to hear what Kasatria was planning, just as Captain Baxter stepped into the room and switched the viewer off.

“Hey,” Peterman said. “What did you do that for?”

“I have something to tell you. Well, actually, I guess it’s something to ask you.”

“What is it?”

Baxter pushed his coffee table aside and knealt down in front of Peterman. “Kelly, I’ve given this a lot of thought, and–”

Suddenly Charlie ran into the room and knocked Baxter over, licking his face.

“Aww,” Peterman said. “Charwie’s happy to see Daddie!”

“Yes, well,” Baxter said, pushing Charlie off. “Anyway, I wanted to ask you…”

“Bridge to Baxter,” chimed Conway’s voice over the intercom. “A temporal anomaly just appeared right in our path. What should we do?”

Outside Peterman’s windows, the usually dark space lit up bright purple.

“Deal with it, Conway,” Baxter said, turning back to Peterman. “Listen, Kelly…”

Peterman looked out the viewport in awe. “That’s really gorgeous.”

“Richards to Baxter,” Richards called over the comm. “That anomaly is draining our shields. We have to find a way out of it.”

“Talk to Commander Conway, Chris. I’m busy right now. Kelly, what I really wanted to–”

“Conway to Baxter. Sir, I really think you should come see this. I think we’re entering a rift in the space-time continuum!”

“That’s all well and good, but I’m trying to have a conversation with my girlfriend here!” Baxter barked. “Take care of it!”

“Aye, sir,” Conway said dejectedly. In the background, Baxter could hear J’hana and Tilleran shouting out information about the new anomaly. It was always something around the Explorer.

Baxter tried to compose himself. “Okay, Kelly, here goes…”

“Andy, just spit it out,” Peterman said urgently.

“Conway to all hands…we’re experiencing some kind of time rippling effect.”

“Sheesh,” Baxter said, “can’t a guy–”

Suddenly Baxter found himself surrounded by transparent images that seemed to be future Captain Baxters from age thirty- five all the way up to one hundred and twenty, shouting into his ear. “TELL HER ALREADY!”

Baxter looked over his shoulder, eying the other hims suspiciously. “Okay, I get the idea!”

The Explorer’s hull rattled around Baxter as it navigated through the anomaly.

“Everyone hold on to your butts!” Conway cried out over the comm.

“KATHEY!” Baxter shouted over the noise of the Explorer’s creaking hull and the Alert klaxons. “WILL YOU MARRY ME?”

“What?” Peterman asked. “I can’t hear you!”


“Carry you? Andy, I hardly think–”


“Do what?”

“MARRY–” Suddenly the shaking stopped, the aged Baxters dissappeared, and the space outside the Explorer returned to normal. “–MEEEE!”

“Oh, marry you,” Peterman said. “Well, of course I’ll marry you. I thought you’d never ask.”

“Conway to all hands. You’ll be glad to know that we have safely navigated the temporal anomaly. We are sorry for any inconvenience it may have caused. Conway out.”

Baxter pulled Peterman off the couch and into his arms, hugging her as tight as he could. “I love you, Kelly.”

“Oh, Andy, I love you too.” Peterman pulled back to kiss Baxter for several moments, until Charlie broke in.

“Boy,” Baxter said, as Charlie came up to bat Peterman away and bathe his face in slobber. “At least now we’ll have a good reason to serve all that lobster pate.”

“You’re such a romantic, Andy.”

Lt. Hartley quickly ushered Lt. Gellar into the dimly-lit, conversation-filled chapel, as crowds of crewmembers began to find their seats.

“C’mon, Brian,” she said, dragging him by the arm. “Let’s get in here before I change my mind.”

“Try not to sound so excited to be with me,” Gellar deadpanned.

Hartley stopped in the middle of the aisle. “Listen, I said I’d be your date to the wedding, didn’t I? Well, we’re here. Now get over yourself and help me find a seat.”

“Fine…Miss Full Lieutenant.”

“You’re not still upset about my promotion, are you?”

“Me? No. I’m perfectly fine with having a girlfriend that outranks me, really.”

“I am NOT your girlfriend.”

“Then what the heck are you?” Gellar asked, as Hartley dragged him into a nearby pew.

Hartley smiled, cackling wildly. “The new Chief Engineer of the Explorer!”

“Nervous, Andy?” Lt. Commander Richards asked, leaning back in his chair as Baxter adjusted his dress uniform.

“Nope. Not at all. Couldn’t be more calm,” Baxter said, tugging at his sleeves. “Mr. Briggs! These sleeves are TOO SHORT!”

Briggs worked frantically with the phaser hemmer, jerking on Baxter’s arm. “Hold still, Mr. Fantsypants, I’m working as fast as I can.”

“It’s not fast enough, Yeoman!”

Commander Conway stuck his head into the dressing room. “The crowd is looking awfully restless, Captain. What should I tell them?”

“You do your job, Mister!” Baxter barked. “Ush them like you’ve never ushed before!”

“Aye, Captain,” Conway said dejectedly, disappearing back behind the door to the dressing room.

Richards laughed at Baxter as Briggs fretted over him. “You don’t know how insane you look, Andy. Seeing this is worth all the latinum in the quadrant.”

“Laugh it up while you can, buddy,” Baxter griped. “You’ll be right out there with me.”

“Just make sure you remember your lines.”

“Short and sweet, just like all the weddings in my family,” Baxter said. “I’m going to get in there, get hitched, and get the hell out.”

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Lieutenant Commander Larkin?” Counselor Peterman asked nervously as Larkin disappeared underneath the billowing folds of her wedding dress.

“I assure you, Counselor, I am quite well-versed in the art of tailoring. It is quite similar to engineering and operations in many ways,” Lt. Commander Larkin said from within the dress.

Peterman twitched as she heard the umistakable hiss of a phaser welder. “What the heck are you doing down there? I thought you just had to fix my slip!”

“Other repairs are required. Please be still, Counselor. I have no wish to make you an amputee on your wedding day.”

“I should hope not,” Peterman said, rolling her eyes.

Dr. Browning strolled into the dressing room, a large slice of wedding cake in her hand. “Are we almost ready to get the ball rolling, here?”

“Janice, what the hell are you doing?” Peterman cried.

“What do you mean?” Browning asked innocently.

“That’s from the wedding cake!”

Browning looked down at the slice in her hand. “Oh, this? Hmm. I’ll be darned. Sorry about that!”

“Put it back!” Peterman said. “If you have to nibble from something, start eating that lobster pate. Mirk ordered an unbelievable amount.”

“Now there’s an idea,” Browning said, heading out of the dressing room.

“Well?” Peterman asked, looking down at the sillouette that struggled underneath her dress.

“Repairs are almost completed, Counselor,” Larkin said. “I have reinforced the wires holding up the outer layers of the dress and restitched the lining. There is now a seventy percent less chance that the dress will come apart during the processional.”

“Great work, Commander. You might put Yeoman Briggs out of a job.”

“That would be inadvisable,” Larkin said, emerging from underneath Peterman’s dress. “The Yeoman can be quite catty.”

“No kidding,” Peterman said, looking at her reflection in the mirror.

J’hana suddenly entered, looking extremely uncomfortable in her bridesmaid dress. “Counselor, I wish to issue a complaint regarding the ring bearer.”

Peterman turned to J’hana. “What’s he doing now?”

“He has relieved himself on the pillow and attempted to eat the ring twice.”

“Well, replace the pillow, walk him, and then tie the ring onto the pillow.”

“Counselor, I wish to know why you have picked me to see after your… pets in this matter.”

“Because they love you sooo much!” Peterman grinned.

“J’hana!” Lt. Tilleran called out from the outer corridor. “Pandora’s eating the wedding bouquet!”

“I wish I had my phaser right now,” J’hana grumbled, hitching up her shoulder strap and marching determinedly out of the room.

Yeoman Briggs navigated around J’hana and scurried into the room. “Five minutes to showtime, honey! Can you feel the excitement?”

Peterman grasped both of Briggs’s hands and shook them vigorously. “Yes, Jeffery, yes! What about the Captain?”

“I finally got his dress uniform straightened out. Oh, Kelly, you should see him. He’s sweating buckets!”

“And this time it’s not from the strain of getting out of his command chair and walking over to the turbolift,” Peterman giggled.

“Oh, you’re so bad!” Briggs laughed. “Now come on! Let’s get you and the girls ready for the procession!”

“Are you SURE you’re licensed to do this, Mr. Dillon?” Baxter asked, looking over his shoulder anxiously at Bradley Dillon as he, Bradley, and Richards stood at the front of the chapel, awaiting the procession.

“Yes, among other things,” Bradley said proudly. “Are you interested in a Cardassian vole-hunting permit?”

“No thanks.”

“How about a strip of land in the Arcanis sector? Great plots for newlyweds at rock-bottom prices!”

Baxter cringed. “Mr. Dillon, the Arcanis sector is restricted by Starfleet!”

“Oh, did I say Arcanis? I meant to say Archanon. Now there’s a beautiful system. Especially in spring!”

“Be quiet!” Richards said. “The man is about to be married.”

“Which means he should be thinking more and more about the important issue of health insurance. Perhaps, after the wedding, you can look over–”

“Shut up, Mr. Dillon, or I’ll have you removed from the altar!” Baxter barked.

“Fine, fine,” Bradley said, as the bridesmaids and groomsmen began to take their places.

Mr. Mirk gracefully escorted Tilleran down the aisle, followed by Ford and a reluctant J’hana, and Conway and Larkin.

Once everyone was in place, Tilleran glared over at Ford. “No, Lieutenant, these bridesmaids dresses are not difficult to unzip at all!”

Ford blushed. “Thanks.”

Next, Pandora and Charlie scuttled down the aisle, the former carrying a boquet of flowers in her mouth and the latter carrying a fresh pillow and wedding ring strapped to his back.

“That’s right, boy, come on,” Baxter whispered. “Please don’t attack anyone on my wedding day.”

“That took a surprising amount training,” J’hana whispered to Tilleran as Pandora took her place beside the bridesmaids and Charlie sat respectfully beside Lt. Commander Richards.

“Good job, Lt. J’hana,” Tilleran whispered back.

J’hana folded her arms. “In fact, I consider it a feat of animalistic legerdemain.”

“Don’t get carried away.”

Then, at Yeoman Briggs’s cue, Ensign Madera started in on her harp, and Ensign Ryan Stuart on his electronic keyboard. With a festive bossa nova beat, the wedding march began.

Captain Baxter swallowed hard as Dr. Browning led the way, with Yeoman Briggs escorting Peterman down the aisle a few steps behind.

“Step, pause, step, pause, step, pause, step pause…that’s it Kelly, you’ve got it!” Briggs whispered excitedly as Peterman strolled down the aisle.

“You go girl!” Lt. Hartley whispered as Peterman passed by. “Go show ‘em how it’s done!”

Peterman gripped her boquet tightly and looked up at Captain Baxter. This was it. The last two years–filled with confusion, danger, destruction, and all sorts of wierdness–had come to a head. She was about to be married.

Bradley Dillon held up a padd as Browning and Peterman took their respective places and as Yeoman Briggs took his seat.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness the joining of Andrew Jackson Baxter and Kelly Lynne Peterman in holy matrimony. Since the days of ‘Mom and Pop’ General Stores, it has been the honor and privelege of small-business proprietors to unite couples in marriage, as well as to hand out hunting permits and insurance claims, sometimes slashing their retail prices to new, exciting lows–”

“Get on with it!” Baxter snapped.

“Anyway,” Bradley said, taking in a deep breath, “the bride and groom have taken it upon themselves to write their own vows, and as silly as they may seem–”

Baxter glared hard at Bradley.

”–they are romantic nonetheless, and I will honor their request by helping the happy couple recite them now. Andrew, do you take Kelly Lynne as your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, through Borg invasion and Dominion conspiracies, in Sickbay and on the bridge, whether she may be assimilated, kidnapped, altered by a genetic retrovirus, or otherwise mutilated?”

Baxter grinned widely. “I certainly do.”

Yeoman Briggs grabbed a handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and wiped his eyes, turning to Ensign Saral and sobbing, “I love weddings, but I swear I fall apart each time.”

Saral straightened. “Vulcans find the emotional weight that humans attach to the act of marraige unusual. It is actually a very practical arrangement.”

Briggs blew hard on his handkerchief. “I’m so happy for them!”

Bradley turned to Peterman, trying to recite the lines with a straight face. “And Kelly, do you take Andrew Jackson, through obsessions and compulsions, in giant space amoebas and quantum singularities, whether he may be taken over by a malignant subspace entity or caught in and endlessly repeating temporal loop, in alternate realities and timelines, in the past and the future, as long as you both shall live?”

Peterman winked at Baxter and turned to Bradley with a determined look on her face. “Damned right I do.”

“Dr. Browning, the ring if you will?” Bradley asked, turning to the Maid of Honor.

Browning dug deep into the folds of her dress. “I know it’s in here somewhere. Oh, wait a minute. Here you go…” she placed the ring in Peterman’s hand.

“You know the drill,” Bradley said to Peterman, tapping the padd and checking his chronometer.

With much effort, Peterman pushed the ring over the knuckle on Baxter’s chubby ringfinger. The Captain suppressed a pained yelp as the ring began pinching off his circulation.

“Mr. Richards,” Bradley said, indicating the ring on Charlie’s back.

Richards took in a deep breath. He had been dreading this moment. “Good boy. Don’t snap. Unkie Chris here. I’m your friend, remember?”

Charlie stared at Richards as he carefully untied the ring and removed it from the pillow, waiting until it passed by his mouth to chomp down on it and pull with all his might.

“Get off!” Richards shouted, slapping Charlie on the nose with his one free hand. “That’s not a toy! Give it back!”

“Charlie!” Peterman said, exasperated.

Mirk sighed. “I’ll take care of it.” The Maloxian stared at Charlie, and suddenly the Golden Retriever flew up into the air, twisted around, and shook vigorously, until he finally let go of the ring and gently drifted to the ground.

“Thanks Mirk,” Richards said, handing the ring to Baxter. “Go for it, Andy.”

Baxter looked up at Peterman longingly, sliding the slightly scratched ring onto her finger.

Bradley looked from Baxter to Peterman. “Well…if no one else objects, I now pronounce you man and wife. Captain, you may kiss the bride.”

Baxter flipped Peterman’s veil up and leaned forward, enveloping her in a long, sloppy kiss.

“Okay, Tiger, save some of it for the honeymoon,” Richards cautioned, pulling Baxter back down the aisle.

Madera and Stuart started in again as Baxter, Peterman and the rest of the wedding party took off down the aisle.

Yeoman Briggs wiped his eyes one more time and called up to Ensign Stuart in the balcony. “Ensign, hit it!”

Stuart leaned over his keyboard and stamped his hand down on a control, causing the confetti cannons that were mounted on each side of the chapel to blast off in a cloud of fluttering paper.

The wedding party rushed through the confetti and out of the chapel.

Mr. Mirk brought up the rear, stopping at the door to shout, “Everyone meet at the Constellation Cafe for the reception! Drinks are half off, as is the Lobster pate!”

The sounds of the “Chicken Dance” echoed through the Constellation Cafe, as the gathered crowd vigorously waved their arms like farm fowl.

“I find this invigorating, if not totally honorable!” J’hana cried as she waved her arms madly, her hands becoming wildly pecking chicken beaks.

“There seems to be a correlation between the foolishness of an act and the amount of fun had at a celebration, Lieutenant,” Larkin said as she vivaciously chicken-danced.

“I’m not so sure of that,” Baxter said. “I’ve done some pretty damn foolish things before and not had a bit of fun doing it!”

“There are exceptions to every rule, Captain.”

Commander Conway sipped at his drink as he watched the crewmembers shake it on the ersatz dance floor that Mirk had set up at the center of the Constellation Cafe.

“Well, they certainly look like they’re having a good time,” Lana remarked, sitting down beside him.

“Yes, they do.”

“Why don’t you join them?”

Conway shrugged as he took another sip of his drink. “Ah, my heart just wouldn’t be in it.”

“Still upset about the conversation we had the other day?”

“That’s part of it. I’m just beginning to realize that I’m not getting younger, and if I don’t settle down soon I may never get married again.”

“Don’t be so sure about that, Commander,” Lana said, grabbing Conway’s hand. “You know what they say. There are always possibilities…”

With that, Lana dragged Conway out on the dance floor just as something called the “Macarena” began.

Bradley Dillon looked up from the DJ stand, pressing a button to end the “Electric Slide” music. “Okay, everyone, it’s time for the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The boquet toss! Counselor Peterman, if you please!”

Peterman sauntered out into the middle of the dance floor. “Gather around, girls. This one’s going to be a doozy!”

The usually abstinent Counselor had thus far enjoyed thirteen syntheholic Pink Squirrels, and was showing it.

Browning, Tilleran, J’hana, Larkin, Hartley, Saral, Madera and others quickly gathered around Peterman as she hauled back and launched the boquet in the air.

As if it was some sort of warrior’s challenge, J’hana slammed Larkin to the floor, catching Tilleran with an uppercut to the jaw and leaping a meter into the air for the coveted bouquet, but it was an expert side tackle from Lt. Hartley that won the day.

The new Engineering Chief hit the ground with a large, crumpled bouquet safely in hand. “Eat boquet, J’hana!” she said merrily.

Moments later, Bradley cued up a slinky, jazzy, sexy beat that denoted the removal of the garter.

Captain Baxter excitedly placed his hand inside Peterman’s dress, pulling gently until the garter was wrenched free, thrusting it into the air. “Come and get it, fellas!”

“Come on up, bachelors,” Bradley said over the loudspeaker. “And get the chance to go where no man has gone before with Lieutenant Hartley.”

“Watch it, bub!” Hartley cried, waving her bouquet menacingly.

Conway, Ford, Richards, Gellar, Mirk, and a handful of other men stepped up, trying to decide if capturing the garter was a good thing. One wrong move with the sardonic Lt. Hartley would cause the lucky bachelor unending physical pain.

“All right, here goes!” Baxter shouted, turning around and flipping the garter behind him.

The tiny, lacy garment sailed through the air, past scrambling bachelors and right onto the head of an unsuspecing Mr. Mirk.

“Hey, cool!” Mirk said, pulling the garter off his head. “What do I do with it now?”

“As legend states,” Bradley said eagerly over the loudspeakers, “you have to slide that garter as high up the good Lieutenant’s leg as you can. The higher it goes, the more luck the newlyweds will receive.”

“Oh,” Mirk said. “Jeeze, what a weird custom. Okay, if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get.”

Bradley put on even sultrier music as Mirk kneeled before Lt. Hartley and began to slide the garter.

“Watch it, Mirk,” Hartley cautioned, “or all the special powers in the galaxy won’t save you.”

Mirk gulped, deciding that once the garter had gone over Hartley’s knee other methods were in order. He stared down at Hartley’s lap and concentrated hard.

“What the–” Hartley said, as the garter magically traveled higher and higher.

“Here’s luck for you!” Mirk said excitedly, moving the garter higher and higher with his mind.

Suddenly Hartley’s hand clamped down on his shoulder with unbecoming strength. “That is ENOUGH LUCK, buster!”

“Oh. Okay,” Mirk said sheepishly, turning and bowing to the audience. “Whoever gets that thing out will get a round of free drinks.”

Lt. Gellar rubbed his hands together eagerly. “Start pouring, Mirk!”

Hartley shook her head, flinging the now unhinged garter into Gellar’s face. “Forget about it, spanky!”

Gellar turned to Bradley. “What does it mean when you get a garter thrown in your face?”

Bradley shrugged. “Don’t look at me.”

After a seemingly neverending conga line and a drunken, disorganized, sloppy karaoke rendition of Van Morrison’s “Brown- eyed Girl,” Captain Baxter, Counselor Peterman, and the rest of the wedding party made their way to the Captain’s yacht for the newlyweds’ royal sendoff.

“Status of the yacht, Mr. Richards?” Baxter asked, approaching the airlock doors.

“Ship shape and bristol fashion, sir,” Richards said, saluting. “She’s all yours.”

“Thanks, Chris,” Baxter said, shaking Richards’s hand warmly and pulling him forward into a hug. “I’m going to miss you.”

“No you won’t. Every time you plug in the latest ‘Days of Honor’ chip you’ll remember me. I’ll be permeating every minute of that show.”

“I look forward to seeing it,” Baxter said, turning to Browning. “And Kelly and I look forward to stopping by Waystation when we get a chance and checking out the new restaurant, Janice.”

Browning smiled. “I’ll have a special booth saved for you guys.”

Peterman sniffled. “I can’t believe you guys are actually not going to be here when we get back. I don’t know who me and Andy will double date with without the two of you.”

“You’ll find someone else with a convoluted relationship to counsel,” Browning said, wrapping her arms around Peterman and hugging her tightly.

“If there’s one thing this ship has no shortage of, it’s convoluted relationships,” Baxter added, as he and Richards joined in on the hug.

“Bridge to Captain Baxter. The Li’l Explorer is ready for launch.”

Baxter looked up wistfully. “Well then, I guess it’s time to go.”

“Take care of yourselves,” Peterman said, as Baxter hit the control for the airlock door–

–and was immediately hit by a wall of whipped cream.

Baxter wiped the cream from his face and looked back at Richards and Browning. “Guys, you shouldn’t have.”

“Make good use of it, Andy,” Richards grinned.

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll think of something. Commander Conway, keep things together here for me until I get back,” Baxter said, picking Peterman up into his arms and carrying her over the threshold, past the airlock and into the command center of the Li’l Explorer.

“Computer, close airlock and begin yacht detachment procedures,” Conway commanded, folding his arms and watching the airlock swing shut.

“There goes one happy couple,” Browning said.

“Let us hope they survive the trip to the Xavier system without being attacked and killed,” J’hana added.

“Always the optimist, J’hana,” Richards muttered, turning on a heel. “Come on, Janice. Let’s turn in. We’re leaving pretty early tomorrow.”

“I suppose so,” Browning said, taking Richards’s arm.

“Having second thoughts, Janice?” Richards asked, as he led her back to their quarters.

“No, no. I still think we’re doing the right thing.” She looked around. “It’s just, after tonight, I realized I’m really going to really miss this place.”

“Believe me, the feeling will soon pass,” Richards said with a laugh as he and Browning strolled down the corridor.

The next day, Lt. Ford woke up on the small, circular card table at the center of his quarters, wrapped in a shower curtain. He wondered what could have stirred him from his syntheholic stupor, blinking several times and looking around the room, trying to ignore the feeling of dizzyness that came over him.

The glowing red orb bumped into him again. <Come on, Mr. Ford, get up.>

“Oh, it’s you,” Ford moaned. “What do you want, anyway? I did everything you told me to. Now leave me alone.”

<Don’t take that tone with me, Mister. You’ve still got a lot of work to do.>

Ford sat up and rubbed his eyes, pulling the shower curtain up around him. “Listen, Orb, I’m getting tired of doing this. I want out.”

<There is no ‘out’ Mr. Ford. You’ll do what we say, and you’ll like every minute of it.>

“But you’re making me betray my friends,” Ford whined, feeling halfway between drunk and hung-over.

<These insignificants are not your friends, Mr. Ford. We are. We love you, we’ve given you a sense of importance. Do you deny that?>

“Well, no, I guess not.”

<Then you will continue to help us.>

“Yeah, I suppose.”

<Good. You were beginning to scare us for a moment. Now, here is how we want you to proceed…>

Ford scratched his head as the orb instructed him. He had a grim feeling that the hangover was just about to begin.

“And keep your eye on the magnetic constrictors!” Richards cautioned, looking up at Lt. Hartley as she rode the lift down the warp core to the main level of Engineering. “They have a way of sticking at speeds above Warp Eight.”

Hartley stepped off the lift and walked over to meet the former Engineer. “Really, Chris, I have everything under control.”

“I have complete faith in you, Lieutenant. It’s just that engineers have a peculiar bond with the engines they work on. Sometimes we love them, sometimes we hate them, but we always respect them. And we always miss them when they’re gone.”

Hartley disappeared into Richards’s former office and returned with a large box. “You forgot to take your Leggos when you packed up the office, sir.”

“Don’t call me ‘sir’ anymore,” Richards said. “I’m a civilian now.”

“Okay then, take your Leggos, jerkboy.”

“Much better.” Richards took the box from Lt. Hartley and looked around the Engineering compartment. Crewmen scuttled around, preparing the ship for its morning diagnostic. They seemed particularly edgy now that they were under the leadership of Lt. Hartley, no doubt aware of her penchant for violence.

Richards noticed how strange it felt wearing civilian clothes, watching people work on HIS engines, and not having a thing to do with it anymore. He sighed. He must be getting sentimental in his old age.

“Lt. Hartley, I stand relieved. Good luck with your assignment.”

“Ah, it’s a peace of cake,” Hartley said, leaning against a panel, which began beeping loudly.

“Warp core ejection sequence initiated. Warp core ejection in thirty seconds…twenty-five seconds…twenty seconds,” the computer droned.

“Damn!” Hartley said, madly stabbing at the panel.

“Have fun!” Richards said, walking out of the Engineering department for the last time, leaving the shouting crewmen and alarm klaxons behind.

“Okay, Holly, you’re in charge until they find a replacement Doctor,” Browning said, grabbing a large crate of stale foodstuffs from underneath her desk and whisking it out of her office. “If there are any major medical problems before then, just consult the Emergency Medical Hologram.”

Holly nodded. “Are you sure that Mr. Richards worked all the bugs out of his program?”

“I think so. At any rate, I guess you’ll find out!” Browning said, smiling. “If he gives you any problems, just call Lt. Hartley.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

Browning strode into the main area of Sickbay and looked around. “Well, everyone, this is the end. I enjoyed my run here as Chief Medical Officer, and I’ll miss you all.”

The assorted medical staff and few patients (from the previous night’s intense and dangerous “Twist” competetion) made very little stir, obviously not completely bereft at Browning’s departure.

“Well then, I guess there’s only one thing left to do,” Browning said resolutely. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time now.”

Holly covered her face as Browning mounted the biobed at the center of Sickbay. She had been expecting this.

Browning looked out over the group assembled in Sickbay and took in a deep breath, shouting at the top of her lungs, “FREE UNNECESSARY ENEMAS FOR EVERYBODY!”

“Are you finished, Doctor?” Holly asked.

Browning dismounted, wiping off her civilian clothes and taking one last look around. “Yep, I think that about does it.”

Bradley Dillon shifted in his command chair on the cramped bridge of the high warp transport Pavarotti. “Acknowledged, Explorer, we’re ready to depart.”

On the small viewscreen, Commander Conway grimaced at Bradley. “Watch your back out there, Dillon. Just because you’re in Federation space now doesn’t mean you’re safe.”

“I understand, Commander. I’ll be careful.”

“Captain Baxter was adamant that Mr. Richards and Dr. Browning not come to any harm on their trip to Waystation, and he instructed me to tell you that if anything did happen to them, he’d come after you personally.”

“How heartwarming,” Bradley said wryly. “But several Dillon Enterprises escort ships are en route to follow me back to Waystation. I’ll be fine.”

“If you had escort ships, then why the hell did you need us?”

“I don’t have to pay you guys by the hour.”

Conway muttered something under his breath and closed the channel.

Bradley engaged the small transport into warp as Conway disappeared from the viewscreen. Although he hadn’t planned on bringing Richards along with him, Browning had agreed to his proposal and would make a fine addition to his staff. In the future, she might even become more. Everything was slowly falling into place.

Bradley rubbed his hands together eagerly and set a course for Waystation.

Captain’s Personal Log,

Stardate 52999.8. Counselor Peterman and I have been traveling through deep space for four days now, and are happy to report that we have encountered no space pirates, Starshine Kids, or other malicious entities on our trip to the Xavier system, a previously unexplored sector of space near the Galactic Rim that our Stellar Cartography department promises will provide a very interesting vacation.

“Another grape, Counselor?” Baxter asked, dangling the cluster of grapes tauntingly over his new wife.

“Please, Captain,” Peterman said, as Baxter lowered the cluster of grapes into her mouth.

“Tell me something,” Baxter said, leaning back on the couch in his quarters aboard the Li’l Explorer. “Why did you decide not to take my name?”

“Hmmm, professional reasons I guess. Plus, it would be confusing, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. I mean, you’d be Counselor Baxter, and I’d be Captain Baxter. Nothing hard about that.”

“Well, then, how about we change your name to Captain Peterman?”

Baxter scoffed. “And why would we do a stupid thing like that?”

“It’s no different than changing my name to Baxter!”

“It’s tradition!”

“A very old, outdated tradition. I don’t have to lose my identity to spend the rest of my life with you.”

“Well, I suppose I can deal with that,” Baxter grinned, stuffing another grape into Peterman’s mouth.

“Now entering Xavier system. Coming out of warp per orders,” the computer announced.

Baxter rose from the couch. “Boy, that sure was fast. If this thing didn’t have warp capability it would have taken months to get this far.”

Peterman followed Baxter out of their cabin and out onto the yacht’s small control center. “Good thinking on the part of the engineers who built both the big Explorer and the li’l one.”

Baxter grinned and pulled Peterman close to him as he studied the computer’s scans of the system. “Then again, if I’m with you, I see no reason to rush anything.”

“You’re such a smooth talker,” Peterman said, pulling Baxter into a voracious kiss.

Baxter glanced down at the sensor panel as he kissed Peterman, and his eyes suddenly went wide. “What the hell?”

Peterman turned, looking down to see what had caught Baxter’s attention. “What is it?”

Baxter increased the gain on the sensors and brought the scans up on the main viewscreen. “I just detected a Starfleet ID signal on the fourth planet in this system.”

“I thought no one from Starfleet was in this system,” Peterman said, looking over Baxter’s shoulder with interest.

“There isn’t supposed to be,” Baxter said, tapping more quickly on the sensor panel. “The signal is coming from a Danube-classs runabout. Looks like it crash-landed. Wait a minute. There’s something else on that planet, but it’s being masked by a high-energy dispersion field of some sort.”

“I don’t like the sounds of this, Andy,” Peterman said worriedly, squeezing Baxter’s arm.

“It may just be an exploratory post that we weren’t informed about. I’m sure the runabout just…” Baxter stopped.

Peterman leaned in closer. “What?”

“That’s impossible,” Baxter said. He checked the scans a second time.

Peterman looked at the information and gasped. “Andy…how…?”

Blinking incessantly on the readout screen, the complete ID tag of the runabout sent a shiver down the spines of Baxter and Peterman.





“I may be wrong, but didn’t we leave that runabout back in the Delta Quadrant?” Peterman asked, confused.

“Last I heard,” Baxter said, turning to the helm panel. “I’m taking us in for a closer look. Send a message out to Commander Conway on a secure subspace channel. There’s something freaky going on here.”

Counselor Peterman looked up from the communications board uneasily. “Andy…all of our signals are being jammed!”

“Source?” Baxter asked, looking up at the viewscreen as the Li’l Explorer tracked toward Xavier Four.

“I can’t tell,” Peterman said. “What the heck is going on here, Andy?”

“I don’t know,” Baxter said. “But I’m damn sure going to get to the bottom of it. Rigging for orbit.”

“Andy!” Peterman called out, pointing at the viewscreen. “Look!”

A massive, winged red starship glided toward them like a wraith, seemingly from out of nowhere.

“Where the hell did that come from?” Baxter asked, frantically stabbing at the helm controls. He recognized the ship as the same type that attacked Bradley Dillon’s transport and saved him, Peterman, Browning, Richards, and Ford from the Klingons months ago. With that in mind, Baxter tried madly to get out of orbit and engage the tiny ship into warp.

But before the Li’l Explorer could escape Xavier Four’s gravity well, the red starship pounded it with its weapons. Energy blasted against the tiny ship’s hull, blowing the engines apart instantly and sending it plunging down towards the planet’s surface like a falling meteor, with the sign that read “Just Married” flopping around incessantly behind it.


Tags: vexed