Author: Anthony Butler
THE YEAR 2401
“Ground Control to Major Tom.”
The deck plating of the raceabout Bluestone shook imperceptibly as she lifted off.
“Ground Control to Major Tom.”
Baxter stared out the side window as the ship angled up and set off toward the horizon, and clouds quickly gave way to stars.
“Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.”
The Bluestone sailed by the massive, sprawling space dock and Starbase One, and Baxter whispered a countdown. “Ten, nine, eight, seven..”
“Ground Control to Major Tom.”
Airyn Satine watched him from the seat behind him and puzzled at it. “It this really necessary?” she asked looking from Baxter to Kurg, who just gave a “don’t ask me” shrug.
“Commencing countdown, engines on.”
Baxter glanced back at Airyn. “Three, two, one…”
“Check ignition and may God’s love be with you…”
“Liftoff…” Baxter gave a little smile and then glanced at Kurg. “Lieutenant, lay in your course and as soon as we’re clear of the sol system…engage.”
“What’s the point of this ancient space chanty?” Airyn Satine asked as Kurg dutifully plugged in the coordinates and engaged warp engines.
Baxter felt it all. The vibrations of the engines, the final touch of Earth’s gravity as the Bluestone sailed off into open space. And then the microscopic jolt as the ship sped forward into warp, surrounding stars stretching into streaks.
“Eat your heart out, Jean-luc Picard,” Baxter said, and folded his hands on top of the console, looking out the foreward viewports.
“Who?” Kurg asked.
“Study your Starfleet history, Kurg.”
“I’ll add that to my list after I’m done with the dangerous Kronos mission.”
“Good man. Time to Klingon border?”
“At Warp Thirteen, just under two hours.”
He turned back to Airyn, whose question had never been answered. “That little space chanty is an imaginative song about the human experience.”
“I thought it was about drugs,” Kurg said. “All the human songs from that time were about drugs.”
Airyn blinked. “David Boo-wie right?”
“Boh-wie.” Baxter looked over his shoulder. “You familiar with his work?’
“I think I met him at a party once. He seemed cool.”
Baxter narrowed his eyes at Airyn. “You have a peculiar sense of humor.”
“Glad you noticed.” Airyn pushed out of her chair. “So I’m going to go into the back and look over my research. Let me know if we get into any trouble at the border.”
“Oh, you’ll know it pretty soon,” Kurg assured her.
Baxter nodded, watching Airyn duck to the back of the craft. “You think…nah.”
“What?” Kurg responded, trying mightily to look over his controls.
“Nothing.” Baxter leaned against the raceabout console and looked at the readouts. It had been a long time since he’d been at he controls of a Starfleet craft - a starship, or raceabout for that matter, and it all felt familiar. And oddly comforting. The blinks and beeps, the chirps of announcement. “She seems nice, though, right?”
“Three days ago you were begging for me to get rid of her at all costs.”
“She knows things,” Baxter said, staring at the aft compartment, as if he could see through it to what Airyn was work on. “I mean she seems knowing. Learned.”
“She is too young for you,” Kurg replied.
“What?” Baxter blinked. “I wasn’t talking about that.”
“Your nostrils flared and your cheeks turned pink. Humans are fairly transparent in this regard.”
“Huh. I wonder how old she is,” he said.
“You could ask.”
“Nah, that seems…untoward.”
“I imagine we’ll have our hands full with the Klingons soon, and it won’t matter.”
Baxter leaned back. “It’s not going to be a problem. We’ll just show up, ask a few questions, and leave.”
“Given what I know of your history, I find that outcome highly unlikely.”
Baxter patted Kurg on the shoulder. “Glad we’re on the same page, Lieutenant.”
“…Bajoran extremists continue to evade border patrols along Starfleet territory near Deep Space Nine. Fermnantz McGillicutty will have a full report in the next hour.
“Meanwhile, on Earth, Federation President Sev Dradar has continued to evade questions about his involvement with a Ferengi mining consortium. Since his inauguration two years ago, Dradar has faced numerous allegations of impropriety due to his connections with Orion Syndicate interests. We’ll have Federation Legal Correspondent Hal R. Sholen on to dig deeper on the President’s complicated business interests in the next half hour.
“But first, the simple kava root. Federation citizens are eating more kava root than ever, and studies show that the simple root, found in abundance on Deneb Three, increases concentration, memory, and libido. Correspondent Sintal is here with an in-depth report. Sintal?”
Kelly Peterman shoved away from the desk and stepped down as the holocam cut to a previously recorded segment.
She found Janice Browning waiting for her backstage.
“Well?” she asked, arms folded. “Did he go?”
“You and I both have the same contacts at Starfleet Command,” Peterman muttered.
Browning stomped her foot. “He went.”
“You were the one who kept insisting he leave Earth.”
“For a VACATION!”
Peterman sighed and led Browning over to a corner. “Calm down. There’s nothing we can do about it now. He’s gone. He made up his own mind. Anyway, it’s not like we’re at war with the Klingons.”
“Right now. That little Ferengi Admiral seems to think that war is a distinct possibility, if relations don’t improve.”
“You guys have been quite chummy.”
“He’s nice. He likes my roasted tube grubs.” Browning bit her lip. “But that’s not the point!”
Peterman walked down a side corridor to her dressing room, where four parakeets, three dogs, and two cats waited patiently for her. “Can you help me feed them?”
“Don’t you have a person for that?”
“Trust my babies to some stranger? Never!”
“Glad your fame hasn’t gone to your head.”
“Oh, it has,” Peterman said, bending over to feed her two collies. “Just in other ways. I mean, I am famous, after all.”
“But you haven’t cut out the people who helped you get there.”
“And how did you help me get here?”
Browning fumbled for words. “I fed you!” She looked down. “And now I’m feeding your pets.”
Peterman and Browning continued working their way through the room, filling bowls, offering pets, and filling water dishes.
“We do have one other option, if we want to really get some answers,” Browning said, sighing and collapsing onto Peterman’s couch.
“No. We’re not calling him.”
“He’d like nothing better than to intercept and apprehend Andy.”
“And that’s what we’re aiming for?” Peterman folded her arms. “No way.”
“He’d probably take us with him so we can watch.”
“I think we should stay our course. We’ll hear from Chris eventually.” Peterman said.
“Do you think there’s anything to this last word stuff? Do you think Harlan Baxter said something to Martok that will reveal the secret to a DNA genome that will unlock human omnipotence?”
“You’re the doctor. You tell me.”
“I think this one is more your department.” She looked around Peterman’s dressing room. “Well, your previous department anyway.”
Airyn Satine ducked back into the cockpit as the Bluestone came out of warp, crossing from Federation space into Klingon space.
“Now crossing the border,” Kurg said.
Baxter looked over at Airyn. “Any new revelations you want to share with us?”
“The research is exactly where and I how I left it. But no, I haven’t had any illuminating discoveries since that bit about your Father’s last words. Which is why I have been working toward this for months.”
“Must be nice to care about your work so much,” Kurg said, and glanced at Baxter.
“What?” Baxter said, pounding the console. “I saw that!”
“I was merely looking in your direction, Admiral. You shouldn’t read too much into that.”
“You don’t know me very well,” Baxter said, as a panel popped on the sensor console. “We’ve been spotted by a patrol ship. B’ranga class Bird of Wrath.
The angular, green, wing-swept ship passed suddenly over view viewport, aligning itself with their trajectory and speed. Baxter marveled at the ship. It was similar in design to old K’tinga class Bird of Prey, but it was larger. The wings were wider set and broader, and the neck of the ship was wider and more angular, ending in a bulbous forward section familiar to Klingon design.
“They’re hailing,” Kurg said.
“On holo,” Baxter said.
A small Klingon man appeared on the console to Baxter’s left. The raceabout’s holo communicator obviously was outfitted to present a smaller image. The Klingon looked kind of funny standing there on the console, almost like an action figure.
“Hey there, guy,” Baxter said.
“Federation starship, I am Captain Toroth of the Vanang. What is your business in Klingon space?”
Baxter stood and straightened his uniform. “I seek an audience with former Chancellor Martok,”
“You are fat.”
Baxter look over his shoulder at Kurg, who just shrugged. Airyn stifled a smile.
“I’m working on it. I’ve…had a desk job for a few years and…hey, that’s not what I called about! Look, Chris Richards sent us. Surely he called ahead.”
Toroth glanced to the side, conferring with an officer off-screen. “Ah, yes. The holo-writer. Days of Honor, and Days of Honor: The Next Day. Impressive.”
“I do not view holo-programs, so no. I was merely toying with you.”
“Look, Captain, I…”
“Have you had any glory in battle?” Toroth interrupted, looking bored.
Baxter thought about that. “Is it really relevant?”
“If you wish to see Chancellor Martok, you’ll need to be worthy of his presence. You must have great battles to your name. To your family name.”
“Well, have you ever heard of the Borg?”
“Of course I have.”
“We fought a Borg cube once, and well, we blew it up. Then later, we faced a Flarn ship. Actually, a few of them, over a year’s time, and then finally one that attacked Earth. Oh, we blew that up too…”
“The Starshine Cult - they were this pernicious little group of rogues who were attacking Federation citizens, and a few Klingons, mind you, and turning them into unwitting drones. So we took care of that. Fought a few godlike entities called the Critics. Blew up some Orion pirates. Faced some changelings. I killed a Gorn captain…”
“Fine, stop,” Toroth head up a hand. “You’ve made your point. I suppose you have some records that back up this claim.”
“Just go to Memory Alpha and look up the USS Explorer.”
Toroth glanced at a screen for a moment and then looked up. “Impressive. You battled a literal giant.”
“It stepped on my ship, so we had no choice but to fight back, yeah,” Baxter nodded.
“This is…quite impressive.” He looked up at Baxter. “Surprisingly. I can only imagine your exploits during the Dominion War were equally…”
“No need to get into all that,” Baxter waved a hand dismissively.
Toroth looked up. “Well, given this, we will escort you to Kronos. But you should know…” He leaned in. “No one gets in to see Martok unless they are found worthy.”
“This sounds like it’s going to be a lot of trouble,” Kurg said, looking up at Baxter.
“Shh,” Baxter said. “I am willing to prove I am worthy.”
“Will you fight?”
Baxter looked back at Airyn. “Fight?”
“Sure, you will, go ahead,” Airyn said.
“Oh, um,” he looked back. “Yes. I’ll fight for the chance to talk to Martok.”
“Excellent. I was hoping you’d say that. Follow us. Vanang out.”
“Fight?” Baxter asked, slumping back in his chair.
“Could you write me a reference before you do that?” Kurg asked. “I’m afraid I might not be able to get one later.”
“You’ll be fine,” said Airyn. “I read your history too, Admiral. You’ve tangled with quite a few Klingons in your time.”
“Yeah, but I usually had someone else do the fighting,” Baxter said. “Tell me when we get to Kronos. I’m going lay down for a minute. And do a few calisthenics…”
Baxter stepped into the aft cabin immediately felt a presence in the room with him.
He turned around. “What took you so long?”
“You’ve got to be a little impressed,” Ashley Donovan said, hopping down from the aft bunk and walking toward Baxter, resplendent in her red Starfleet uniform. “I can still get around with some ease, despite lacking the Section Thirty-one cred. It helps to know a few folks at Starfleet Security.”
“Keefler,” Baxter muttered, then shook his head. “Must be hard thriving in an organization with rules.” Baxter said looked her over. “You look the same as when I last saw you twenty years ago, you know.”
“Nice of you to say,” Donovan said, inspecting Baxter. “You…seem fine.”
“Don’t sugar-coat it. I have eaten a lot of pizza and done not much else the last few years.”
“Some toe-touches would help.”
“Or fighting a Klingon,” Baxter said, leaning against the bunk. “So I take it you came all this way to become my personal trainer?”
Donovan gave a light laugh, leaning against the opposite bulkhead. “No, silly, I came to tell you to stop doing this.”
“After all these years, you reach out. Must be important.”
“You could say that. Now stop doing this.”
“You worried I’ll uncover Maura Drake’s old research?”
Donovan shook her head. “I’m worried you’ll stir up a hornet’s nest in Section Thirty-one. There’s already chatter about you in some circles. Circles you want no part of.”
“They believe this research is still out there, too.”
“They held on to Maura Drake all this time for a reason.”
“So let them interrogate her.”
Donovan strode over to the back of the cabin and stared out the aft windows. “They did. A lot, from what I’m told.”
“Maybe she never held the missing piece to begin with. She needed Anna Kimmel to become omnipotent last time. Maybe my Dad held some final piece of the puzzle. Some piece of the puzzle that makes it all fit together.”
“So what if he did? You think he’d tell you about it?” Donovan asked, turning.
Baxter pursed his lips. “That wasn’t nice.”
“I’m not sure if you remember, but nice was never my specialty. The last time we dealt with this project, it was your father’s idea, and he dragged us into a major engagement…untold damages, the universe was almost wiped out, and I had to spend a year on an gross planet in the Sentosian system mining algae.”
“Thanks again for that, by the way.”
“Have you ever been knee-deep in algae? It’s disgusting.” Donovan put her hands on her hips. “Andy, please, don’t do this. Let your father rest peacefully. He deserves that much.”
Baxter folded his arms. “Look, you knew my Dad pretty well. Something tells me he shared stuff with you while you were working together that he didn’t even tell me or Mom.”
Donovan pursed her lips. “That’s a fair assumption.”
“But you’re not family. You’ve no idea what I’m thinking or what I’m going through.”
“I can imagine,” she replied, and stepped closer to Baxter. “Really, I can.”
He looked up. “Maybe you can. But if that’s true, then you know I can’t stop until I find out what he said, and if it means anything.”
“And then what if it does mean something? You go looking for it, in a raceabout, without even a starship to protect you? Andy, it’s not like the old days. You don’t have the Explorer anymore.”
That last bit made Baxter grit his teeth. He turned on Donovan and fixed a glare on her. “You don’t have to remind me.”
Donovan didn’t back away. “Maybe not, but I do have to remind you when you’re in over your head.” She stepped closer and put her hands on Baxter’s shoulders. “Your heart’s in the right place, Andy. You miss your Dad. And this a way to keep a little spark of him alive. But if you think it’ll provide you some sort of closure…” she breathed in deep. “You’re just wrong.”
“One way to find out,” Baxter whispered.
“I’m not Thirty-One anymore. I’m not sure I can save you if you get into a bind.”
“I didn’t ask you to, Ashley,” Baxter said. “Just let me do this. And do me a favor, don’t tell Anna.”
“What, you think we get coffee together and laugh about old times?”
“You spent a year together, I’m sure you got close.”
“I haven’t spoken to Anna in…” She sighed. “Days.”
“You two got close.”
“If you’re asking if I care what happens to Anna, then the answer is yes, I do.” Donovan said. “I care about what happens to you, too.”
“Thanks.” Baxter waited a long beat, staring at Donovan. “So, isn’t it about time you did that disappearing thing you’re so good at?”
“Yeah,” Donovan said. “Look, Andy, just be careful out here, okay?”
“Yeah.” Baxter turned, then glanced back at Donovan. “You know, I half expected you’d be at the service. Starfleet gave him a hero’s honors. The brass and some of his old crewmates from the Southwind and the Mercury gave some incredible tributes. Old stories and recollections. It was…well, guess you had to be there.” Baxter turned and headed back to the cockpit.
“What makes you think I wasn’t there?” Donovan whispered.
Baxter turned, opening his mouth to respond, but of course, Donovan was gone.
Baxter strode into the cockpit, glancing back one more time at the aft cabin. “Report.”
“Entering Kronos orbit,” Kurg said, looking up from his panel. “You okay, sir?”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, dropping into the chair next to Kurg.
Airyn looked up from her iPadd. “Were you talking to someone back there? We thought we heard voices.”
“No,” Baxter said, and looked up. “Any other response to our arrival?”
“There is another ship. A small transport ship. It’s…” He checked the registry. “It’s registered to Krinokom’s Entertainment Division?”
“I’ll be damned.”
Kurg looked across his console. “We’re being hailed.”
“On screen,” Baxter said, still reeling a bit from his conversation with Donovan. Chris Richards appeared there, flanked by Klingons in professional attire. Their suits were still metal, but a bit more formal and less ornamental than Klingon battle uniforms. “Chris, you came!”
“I couldn’t let you do this alone, Andy,” Richards said. “And after closing a deal to start construction on Rura Partay, the Krinokom Entertainment Division was able to loan me a ship.” He looked to the woman at his right. “This charming woman is Zelgar.”
“Zelgar, huh?” Baxter smiled.
“Yeah,” Richards said, and straightened. “Now then, should we beam down to see Martok?”
“I don’t even know where I’m going,” Baxter stammered.
Richards and Zelgar exchanged glances. “Former Chancellor Martok is at the Imperial Retreat at Margon Ridge. We’ll send you coordinates.”
“Chris. Thank you,” Baxter said, leaning on the panel. “And…Zelgar, also.”
“Qu’plah!” Chris said, and disappeared from the screen.
“Qu’plah ideed,” Kurg said, and turned around.
Baxter clapped his hands together. “Shall we?”
Airyn had reached into her pack and grabbed a small iPadd mini. “I’ll be taking notes.”
“I had a feeling you would,” Baxter said, and headed to the transporter bay.
The trio materialized on a cliff face. To Baxter’s right was the Klingon Imperial Retreat at Margon Ridge. An impressive property, with sprawling spires that reached up into the dark red sky, seeming to pierce the gathering grey clouds.
To Baxter’s left was as about a 500-meter drop. He shifted his foot and nearly fell off the cliff, but Airyn grabbed his hand and dragged him farther up onto solid ground.
“Nice piece of transporter work,” he gasped, nodding at Airyn once he’d gotten his footing.
“I can’t begin to explain how unfit I am for space duty,” Kurg said, following Baxter up to the gates of the retreat, where Richards was standing with Zelgar.
“You’re doing fine, kid.”
“You almost fell off the cliff there, buddy,” Richards said, reaching out to shake Baxter’s hand.
Baxter dragged Richards into a hug. “Shut up and hug me, you fool,” he whispered.
“Andy, uh,” Richards laughed. “Not in front of the Klingons.”
Baxter pulled back and straightened. “It’s good to see you Chris.”
“It’s…honorable to see you too.”
Zelgar rolled her eyes. “If you are all finished, we should proceed.”
Baxter nodded. “Lead the way.’
Zelgar went up to the gate and pressed a control. It sounded a large, bassoon-like call that rattled through the grounds of the sprawling estate.
“We have been expecting you. You may proceed,” a voice piped up from out of nowhere, ostensibly routed through some kind of communication system.;
The great metal gates yawned open and Baxter and his group meandered through.
“This must be your new attache,” Richards said, looking at Kurg. “Chris Richards.”
“Yeah, the last few, uh, quit,” Baxter said.
“Kurg,” the half-Klingon lieutenant said. “I am not qualified for this.”
“You’ll do fine, then,” Richards said, and picked up step next to Baxter. “I’m not just here for my own entertainment,” he said, hushed. “I, uh, I’m supposed to give you a message from Kelly and Janice.”
“That you’re all worried about me.”
“Well, that’s part of it, yeah,” he said. “But the other half is…since you are doing it, they wanted to say…good luck.”
Baxter grinned and looked at Chris. “That means a lot.”
“Janice also said she hopes you don’t die.”
“That’s nice,” Baxter said. “And a distinct possibility, given Klingon customs. Supposedly I am going to fight someone.”
Zelgar and Richards looked at each other.
“That should be entertaining,” Zelgar said.
Kindar, Martok’s senior adjutant, met Baxter and his group in the grand receiving hall, which was itself a spectacle of hunting trophies, preserved beasts, blood wine kegs, chalices, and an awe-inpsiring display of show-quality weaponry - swords, knives, daggers, and other instruments of death.
“So, you decided to make this unwise pilgrimage after all,” Kindar said, looking around at the group. “Martok will be impressed.”
“Glad you approve,” Baxter said. “So can we see him?”
“Martok?” Kindar steepled his fingers. “Oh, no, I assure you he’s quite unavailable.”
“What?” Richards asked. “We called ahead and said we were coming. You said you would arrange an audience.”
“Arranging an audience and having an audience are two different things, I’m afraid.”
Richards stepped in front of Baxter. “Listen here, Kindar…this is Andy Baxter. The son of the hero of pak’tak hill.”
“Pak’taR hill,” Baxter corrected.
“Pak’taR, what he said!” Richards said. “Now let us in to see Martok.”
“You are crossing a line, human,” Zelgar said, leaning in to whisper at Richards.
“You are all crossing lines,” Kindar said. “But it does show a certain…refreshing commitment to cause, for humans.”
“Look, I didn’t want to pull this,” Airyn said, stepping forward. “But if I have to, I will. I have a letter from Commandant Worf.”
“You have not spoken to Worf,” Kindar said, folding his arms. “Commandant Worf is on secret training exercises…”
“In the Yelgras system,” Airyn said, handing her iPadd to Kindar. “I believe you’ll find his recommendation in order.”
Baxter leaned toward Airyn. “You’re friends with Worf?”
“Yes. I interviewed him two years ago for a study on Klingon mating rituals.”
“Kurg, remind me to download…”
“Already doing it,” Kurg said, pulling out an iPadd and taking note.
“He’s a neat guy once you get over his lack of a sense of humor.” She shrugged. “Guinan introduced us.”
“Now you’re just name-dropping.”
Airyn smiled. “Guinan, Guinan, Guinan.”
Kindar stared at the group. “Well, this does change things. Martok has a special place in his heart for Worf. The two did great deeds together. Fought many battles.”
“So,” Chris said. “Let us in.”
“I will speak with Martok. Meanwhile, we do have one small detail to attend to.”
“What small…” Baxter had almost forgotten.
“You will have to fight Drang.” Kindar turned on a heel and disappeared down a side corridor.
“Drang,” Baxter said. “What the hell is that?”
“Who,” Richards corrected. “I believe we’ll get to meet him soon.”
“But what about Worf?” He looked at Airyn. “Surely that should help us get in the door!”
“Worf’s recommendation helped,” Airyn said. “But I think you still have to fight someone.”
“Klingons. Always fighting someone or something,” Baxter said, pushing his sleeves up. “Well, I wanna hear my Dad’s last words, so I guess I have to fight someone,” he said, and turned to look at Chris. “How do I look? Fearsome?”
“In a word, no.”
Suddenly the floor made a cranking sound as the Klingon emblem, emblazoned on the floor, split apart and opened. Within, there seemed to be a dark pit.
“Someone here wishes to fight Drang!” a voice bellowed from within the pit.
“No,” Baxter said, leaning over the edge of the newly-appeared pit. “I’m good, actually.”
“If you wish to meet Martok, you’ll come down here and fight Drang!” the voice screamed.
“Just do it,” Airyn said, pushing Baxter toward the pit.
“You fight him!”
“It’s got to be you,” Airyn said and gave him another shove, till his toes were at the edge of the pit.
“Now wait one…!” Baxter raised his finger.
“There’s got to be some other way,” Richards said, looking to his Klingon colleagues.
“Afraid not,” said Zelgar. “And Drang sounds…” she sighed. “Big.”
Kurg swallowed, and looked to Baxter. “Do you see why I didn’t want to come here?”
“I’m beginning to,” Baxter admitted.
“If Baxter wants to see Martok, have him fight me!” Drang bellowed from the bottom of the pit. Baxter didn’t want to know how deep down he was, but he was deep enough down that he couldn’t see him.
Baxter looked down. “Can I have a minute to think about this?”
“No. Fight me!”
“You heard him,” Airyn said.
“If the human is too cowardly to jump, then one of you must push him. Who will do this?” Drang called out.
“I’ve got it!” Airyn said, and gave Baxter a hard shove. “Sorry about this,” she said, as she pushed. “But it’s the only way!”
“You, wait, I…” Baxter stammered, and fell backward, arms pinwheeling.
Richards stepped forward to grab him, but Zelgar dragged him backward.
“You have a lot to learn about Klingons,” Zelgar said. “This explains why so much of the Days of Honor series was trite and insincere.”
“Insult to injury,” Richards muttered as he heard Baxter thump, finally, at the bottom of the pit. “Um, good luck, Andy!” Richards called out hopefully.
“It’s up to him now,” Airyn said, glancing down into the dark pit.
“So it would seem,” Kurg said. “Anyone else wanna go back to the raceabout?”
Even in his prime, Andy Baxter wasn’t much of a fighter. He’d been in a few skirmishes over the years, but his plan was usually to let J’hana get out in front of him and absorb the worst of the blows - something she was really good at. When he did have to get hand-to-hand, he was only ever able to win out of some kind of geeked up rage and adrenaline that could fuel him for short instances. But he was always sore afterwards.
Now, he was not quite in his prime.
He wasn’t sure how far he’d fallen, but it was far enough to seriously jam his tailbone when he hit, and bent his knee awkwardly.
He arched up, looking up to the roof of the pit, where Richards, Kurg, and Airyn looked down with concern. Zelgar seemed indifferent, but that wasn’t surprising. Baxter dusted off his pants.
“Now look, Mister Drang, I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with you…”
A meaty hand lashed out of the darkness and grabbed Baxter up.
“Urk!” Baxter choked out, his feet dangling.
Drang came forward, revealing himself to be a good three meters tall and packed with muscle. His metal outfit revealed enough of his chest and abs to confirm Baxter’s suspicions that he was the kind of guy who worked out regularly.
Those thoughts passed quickly, however, as Drang shoved him up against the wall of the pit.
“Who wishes to see the great Martok?’
“That’s…me…” Baxter coughed, his feet dangling, gripping at Drang’s massive hand.
“Not until you’ve fought Drang,” Drang said, and dropped Baxter to the floor.
“Urk,” Baxter said, getting on hands and knees and coughing. “Do you think we could do chess or Trivia or something? I haven’t been to the gym in a few years or a decade or so,” Baxter grunted, and lifted himself up.
Drang walked over to the side of the pit and lit a torch, that showed about what Baxter expected: he was standing in a pit. Dirt floor and marbled walls. No way to climb out. There was a cage door of some kind behind Drang, through which, Baxter guessed, was a passageway that would lead him to Martok.
“No games, just fight,” Drang said, and drove an elbow into Baxter’s gut, knocking him back. “Fight me!”
Baxter looked up.
“Don’t just sit there, Baxter, fight him!” Airyn waved. “It’s your only shot!”
“Kurg, take a note,” Baxter coughed, wiping blood from the edge of his mouth and standing. “No more trips to Kronos, no matter how much I beg.”
“Already wrote that down a few hours ago, sir.”
“Great.” Baxter strode forward, straightening his tunic, and took a fighting stance, pushing his arms forward as he faced Drang. “Okay, tough guy, we’ll do it your way.”
Drang reached out, lifted Baxter, and threw him down like a rag doll, flattening him onto the ground.
A flood of color shot through Baxter’s eye sockets.
“Now wait…” Baxter coughed, trying to get up.
Drang didn’t give his opponent a chance, pile-driving down into him, pinning him to the ground.
“Gak!” Baxter struggled, waving his arms and legs.
“Fight, Andy!” Chris Richards called out.
Baxter wrenched his hand free and pointed his fingers, driving them into Drang’s eyes as hard as he could.
“Aurhg!” the giant bellowed, rolling off Baxter long enough that he could roll over and knee him in the stomach.
“You want to fight?” Baxter kicked him in the belly again, then drove an elbow down into his throat. “Let’s fight!”
Drang recovered quickly, draping Baxter over his back and spinning him around.
“No, not this,” Baxter moaned. “Dizzy…”
Drang spun him a few more times and then launched him into the wall.
Baxter fell against the wall and dropped to the ground, dazed. “Leave Earth, they said,” he muttered. “See the galaxy, they said. It’ll be fun.”
Drang advanced toward him, drawing his hand back, it would seem, to deliver the kill shot. Was this what it was like for his father at the end? Cornered, hopeless?
Then, Drang shot his arm forward, toward Baxter, and extended a hand to lift him up.
Baxter blinked, as Drang pulled him to his feet. “Please don’t throw me anymore.”
“It is done,” Drang said. “You fought well.”
Baxter bent over, coughed, choked, then heaved, vomiting on the floor.
“You did great!” Airyn called out.
Baxter looked up, wryly. “Easy for you to say.”
Drang slid his arm around Baxter and led him to the gate. “You will see Martok now.”
“But I didn’t beat you.”
“Not all contests are about winning, Admiral,” Drang said, reaching into a pouch on his hip and pulling out a pair of glasses, which he inexplicably put on. He slipped an iPadd out of the pouch and read from it, carefully. “’Some of the battles we face are those inside us. Those that drive us farther and farther from ourselves. And what we find, is, we were fighting for something greater than we’d imagined all along. We were fighting for our self-worth.’”
“Let me guess…Kahless or someone like that,” Baxter rasped, still catching his breath.
“No, your own great leader, Jean-Luc Picard.”
“Of course,” Baxter muttered, rolling his eyes. “Jean-Luc.”
“You fought, and that was all that was necessary. You overcame great fear when you stepped into the pit.”
“I was pushed in.”
“Nevertheless,” Drang said, and removed his glasses, patting Baxter on the back. “I will bring you to Martok.”
“And what do you do around here, when you’re not…beating people up?” Baxter asked, as Drang opened the gate and they limped through into a tunnel.
“Public relations,” Drang said, patting Baxter on the back. “It is time now.”
He and Baxter walked for a time, in silence, as Baxter took in the fire-lit tunnel that must have run through the depths of stone and rock below the Imperial Retreat. Within the tunnel, statues of slain warriors and Klingon mummification glyphs and other relics abounded, as if this were a storage room for one who hoarded dead warriors.
Baxter was led from there up a spiraling stone staircase and into something of a throne room, adorned with animal skins, horns, and hunting trophies.
“My therapist would love this place,” Baxter told Drang.
“You’re working on self care,” Drang said. “That is most excellent.”
“You are a complex man, Drang. Nobody can put you in a box.”
“If they tried, I would murder them,” Drang said, as he turned toward the center of the throne room.
Kindar led Richards and his Klingon companions, along with Airyn, out of the shadows. They apparently took a somewhat easier route. “You have fought well,” Kindar said.
“I feel fantastic, too,” Baxter said, rubbing his arm. “Thanks for all the hospitality, really. Now, I’m done being beaten up, so if you could just…”
Two bear-strong hands grabbed Baxter by the shoulders, shook him wildly, and spun him about. He swallowed another rising gorge of vomit and gaped. “Who the fuck?”
“My boy, you have traveled far, and you will have the answers you seek!” Martok bellowed, and slapped him hard on the back, pulling him into a hug that nearly cracked his ribs. Pulling him in close, Martok whispered, blood wine on his breath, “Your father fought well. He died with honor. Once he was gone, I held his eyes open and howled at the heavens to announce his arrival at Sto’vo’kor.”
Baxter gently pulled himself out of the embrace. “That was nice of you. Look, I just want to know…”
“Blood wine!” Martok clapped his hands and Drang arrived with a fresh barrel, cracking it open and dishing out several mugs full of the frothy beverage.
“I’m driving,” Kurg said, holding up his hands and backing off.
“It gives me a headache,” Richards said. “So, Chancellor…”
“I am not a Chancellor anymore,” Martok said, grabbing a metal cup and taking a large gulp of wine. “And honorary titles bore me.” He glowered. “This retreat is…far too ornate for a common man such as myself. But alas, the people demand it.” His shoulders fell as he drank more blood wine. “The people demand much.”
Baxter took a cup of wine from Drang and sipped it gingerly. It made his toes vibrate briefly, but shortly after that he began to lose all feeling in his extremities, and given the damage Drang had done to those extremities, he was thankful for that. “So is it true you heard my father’s last words?”
Martok turned away for a moment, drinking solemnly. “It is so.”
“Fantastic,” Baxter said. “So…”
Martok looked up and pointed with his mug at the targ skin that hung on the wall, big melon head still attached. “That’s the beast that took down your father, by the way. An impressive specimen. Large, threatening, and vicious. It was an honor to slay it.”
Baxter looked up at the targ that killed Harlan Baxter and opened his mouth to say something, but words didn’t come.
Airyn stepped up next to him, filling in the silence. “We need to know what Admiral Baxter said to you.” She glanced back at Baxter, and to clarify, added, “I mean the dead one. It could be important.”
Martok turned, his one good eye trained on Baxter. “Your father, like many powerful men, held some dark secrets, didn’t he?”
Baxter was still gaping, and looked at Martok, confused. He was not ready for this conversation, and the words spoken around him seemed to dull, and fade in and out. “Huh? I guess…” Baxter finally said.
“Those of us who have tasted from the cup of victory carry much with us,” Martok said, striding away from Baxter, head low. “From this world, into the next. Heavy is the burden that rests on those who once knew glory.”
“This would be a great story for a new series,” Zelgar whispered to Richards.
“Not now!” Richards snapped, and stood up next to Baxter, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Andy, you don’t have to do this…”
“This is why I came all this way,” Baxter said, stepping forward, facing Martok. “Sir, we need to know what Harlan Baxter’s last words were.”
Martok faced Baxter, squinting at him, his jaw set, determined. “I don’t know about you, but I found most of what the man said unintelligible.”
Baxter swallowed. “It was the cigars. Some people had a tough time understanding him when he was smoking one.”
“Some?” Richards whispered.
Martok nodded. “I tried one. It was…pungent. The taste was abysmal. I retched. The foul thing almost brought me to my knees. It was spectacular.”
“I’ll get you a box,” Baxter said. “Now…please, Chancellor…”
Martok stepped just past Baxter, leaning next to him. He breathed softly, putting a hand on Baxter’s shoulder. “His words were often garbled, but the last of his words were clear. I can hear them as clearly now as I did then. He said, ’tell my boy to go fishin.’” And with that, Martok turned, and marched out of the room. In the adjacent room, one could hear the smashing of furniture.
“This incident affected the former Chancellor greatly,” Kindar said. “He thought highly of Admiral Baxter.” Next door, Martok growled and smashed what sounded like an entire China set. “You should go.”
“’Go fishin’?” Baxter said to himself, looking around at the Klingons and others in the room. “Fishin’?”
“What does that mean?” Airyn asked, snatching up her iPadd and tapping away at it.
“It means we should be heading back to Earth,” Kurg said. “I can go ahead and warm up the raceabout.”
Richards gave Baxter’s shoulder a squeeze. “I’m sorry, Andy. I know it’s not what you wanted to hear.”
“Go fishin’,” Baxter said.
Kindar nodded at Drang, who led the way toward the tunnel out of the throne room. “Thank you for visiting Kronos, offworlders. And may your quest yield the results you’re looking for.”
“Go fishin’,” Baxter said, as Kurg led the way back to the Raceabout.
The ride back to Earth was uneventful. Airyn had locked herself in the aft cabin/conference room, poring over her research, trying to make sense of Harlan Baxter’s final statement.
Kurg kept his own counsel at the helm of the Bluestone, busying himself at the controls even though there wasn’t much to do but monitor their course.
Baxter, for his part, laid in one of the bunks, curtain drawn, and stared at the ceiling.
After some quick goodbyes, Richards had returned to his ship, which provided escort out of Klingon space.
Did Harlan want his son to spend more time outdoors? Did he want him to appreciate recreation? Learn to appreciate life on the open water?
It didn’t really matter. Whatever he said, there was nothing mysterious about it and certainly nothing that led the way to unlocking Maura Drake’s research.
The last words were both meaningless and comforting. They reminded Baxter of his youth, fishing with his father at their modest cabin on Portico, a quiet vacation world at the edge of Federation space. They were good memories, though Baxter had never quite known what to do with the hook, the rod, or the fish, for that matter.
It was just an excuse to spend time with his Father. And as his father was a rising captain, and soon admiral, that time was few and far between.
At the time of his untimely demise, Harlan knew Baxter had grown apart from Kelly. Stef had taken up a deep space assignment on a familiar vessel. Raymond was pursuing advanced coursework at the Vulcan Science Academy, and Kelly was putting the daily news into an entertaining context for billions of Federation citizens. And Baxter, for his part, had his office, his assignments, and his ever-shrinking portfolio of responsibility.
He was being put out to an early pasture, and even if he did retire, who would he spend his time with now?
Baxter resolved that Harlan was trying to tell him to enjoy his time on Earth, and appreciate family, so he resolved to do just that as soon as he landed back on Earth.
It all became quite clear to Baxter. He had set off to go on this grand adventure, to enlist his friends to help him get involved in a mystery that was less about saving the universe and more about saving himself. The answers were in front of him the whole time.
Baxter was about to get up and ask Kurg how much longer it was to Earth, when the Bluestone shook heavily, nearly rolling him out of his bunk.
Baxter opened the curtain and leaped out, holding himself steady as the Bluestone shook.
“What the hell is happening?” Airyn asked him, bringing up step behind him.
“Probably a gravitational anomaly or something,” Baxter said, ducking into the cockpit. “Kurg, report?”
Kurg stood facing him, flanked on either side by black-clad officers, phaser rifles held to his head.
“We’ve got company?” Kurg asked, shrugging, looking at the officers to his left and right.
“Admiral,” a voice asked from behind Baxter, and he turned to find Roddick waiting behind him. The Section Thirty-one operative looked a little older, but still had the same steel-eyed glare. The same calculation in his eyes. “I thought we had something of a mutual agreement about Doctor Drake’s research.’
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Baxter said.
“Section Thirty-One,” Airyn said. “Cool!” And then one of the officers pointed his phaser at her. “I was hoping we’d run into you guys.”
“Airyn, remind me to talk to you about your hobbies,” Baxter said through gritted teeth. “Roddick, what do you want?”
“The same thing I’ve wanted since day one,” Roddick said. “But I was content to let it rest. It was, after all, an impossible pursuit.”
“Still is,” Baxter said.
Roddick paced closer to Baxter. “Not from what I’ve heard.” He looked over at Airyn. “I’ve enjoyed following your research, El Aurian. Though I disagree with your premise. That Maura Drake hid some ‘missing link’ in her genetic research all those years ago, just waiting for some industrious madman to find it.’”
“Scientists are completists,” Airyn said defiantly. “People tend to be rather maniacal about their research, especially when they’ve discovered something so controversial and misunderstood.”
“Or insane,” Baxter said. “Let’s go with insane.”
“Maura Drake is quite insane,” Roddick said, continuing to pace the cabin. “Trust me. I spent years trying to get what I needed out of her. And she never gave me anything useful.”
Baxter pursed his lips. “Where is she now?”
“Not important,” Roddick shook his head. “She is a dead end.”
“So’s my father,” Baxter said. “He didn’t say anything at the end that would be useful to you.”
Roddick nodded. “That remains to be seen.” He turned away. “But either way, you’d be wise to drop this, as Ashley Donovan has already instructed you.”
“Ashley who?” Airyn asked. Kurg looked up also.
“I…had a conversation with a trusted friend,” Baxter said, turning to Roddick. “You know about Ashley. You haven’t…”
“Oh, we’ll talk eventually. But I’m not a bad man, Captain. You have always misunderstood me.”
Baxter folded his arms. “I’m fast growing tiresome of this, Roddick. Are you going to get to a point anytime soon?”
Roddick faced Baxter squarely. “I believe I’ve been quite clear. Stay out of our affairs.”
“You mean Maura Drake’s and my father’s affairs, don’t you?”
“Your father wanted to protect this research. Wanted to hide it. Well, there’s no better way to hide it than to leave well enough alone.” He stepped closer. “Section Thirty-one has labored for centuries to protect humanity from itself. To stop us from overstepping. From our reach exceeding our grasp. The work of Maura Drake and others threatens to destroy everything we’ve worked for. So you can imagine that someone digging around in this work, trying to dredge it back up, would make me quite nervous.”
“I’m no threat to you, Roddick,” Baxter said.
“We’ll see,” Roddick said, and nodded at his men. Him and the others disappeared in a wink of phased light.
Kurg looked up at Baxter. “What was that all about?”
“The Admiral is hiding some things from us,” Airyn said. “That’s what it means.”
Baxter moved back up to the navigation station and tapped in a course. “We’re going back to Earth.”
“Care to elaborate?” Airyn asked, leaning over his shoulder.
“We’re going home,” Baxter said. “Whatever his motivations, Roddick was right. If Maura Drake’s research was ever unearthed, it could destroy this quadrant. Maybe more.”
Airyn shook Baxter’s chair. “Which is why we need to find it. Isolate it!”
“Or run away from it,” Kurg suggested.
“I’m going to make a full report to Starfleet intelligence,” Baxter said, plunking at controls and leaning back in his seat. “That’s what I should have done to start with.”
Airyn blew her hair out of her face and flopped into the seat behind Baxter. “Starfleet Intelligence couldn’t find their heads if they were attached to their shoulders.”
“Um, they are,” Kurg said. He turned to Baxter. “If I may, Admiral, what are you going to do after you’ve made your report?”
Baxter looked down at his panel and sighed. “I’m going to do exactly what my Dad told me to do.”
“Fish?” Airyn asked, crinkling her nose.
“Yes. Because life is precious, and we shouldn’t worry about things that’ll never happen.”
Airyn turned to stare out the window. “Yeah, because that’s always worked out great.”
“Do you think you got through to him?”
“It is hard to tell. He has a thick head.”
“I always thought it was more of a big head, but I guess thick works too. The question is, are we able to put this ugliness to bed, once and for all?”
“Harlan Baxter’s last words were irrelevant. His son has gone back to Earth, and seems resigned that the words meant nothing.”
“But you don’t think they meant nothing?”
“That’s a larger question, best left to the professionals, Commander Donovan.”
“Well, I’m out at this point. I just wanted to make sure nothing bad happened to Andy. Don’t think this means we’re gonna work together again like nothing ever happened.”
“After all these years, Ashley, you still have a soft spot for him, don’t you?”
“Roddick, guys like you are just one of many reasons I left Thirty-One. You never gave a damn about personal attachments.”
“So you say,” Roddick said. “Well, suffice to say, Agent Donovan, you are missed.”
“Yeah. Have a good one.”
Gul Liam Duvet of the Cardassian New Order sat back in his tall, leather-backed command chair and steepled his fingers, staring at the still holos of Roddick and Ashley Donovan, frozen in contempt for one another. “Now, we’re cooking.”
“You talking to me?” asked the slim Bajoran woman next to him on the bridge of the converted old Dominion warship, which Duvet had dubbed the Eligiar.
He swiveled ever so slightly. “Of course I’m talking to you. We have a monosyllabic Nausicaan at helm and a Yridian with a terrible skin in the engine room. And our Orion weapons officer hasn’t said a word since we left space dock.”
Major Renta Fays looked around. “It is a motley crew you’ve assembled, Duvet.”
“It’s a crew that understands the Cardassian thirst for conquest.” Duvet squeezed his hand into a fist. “Quenching that thirst is what matters most.”
“It’s not because the Cardassian New Order can’t find enough willing Cardassians to staff their fleet?”
“We can debate Cardassian politics at another time,” Duvet snapped. “Everything Cardassia has lost, we will regain.”
Renta folded her arms. “Don’t you guys say that every few years?”
“And we always regain it.”
“And then you lose it again.”
Duvet growled and slammed his fist down on the arm of his command chair. “Great sizzling taspars, why did I recruit you to my battle fleet?”
Renta circled behind Duvet’s chair, draping her hands behind her back. “I was in the right place at the right time.” She smiled. “And you needed someone with my killer instinct.”
Duvet bared his uneven teeth. “And I still do. Now…” he turned to the holo screen at the front of the bridge, which displayed holograms of Roddick and Ashley Donovan, frozen in conversation. “Now what of this intercept?”
“A quest for omnipotence?” Renta lauged. “Yes, sounds perfect for a disillusioned Cardassian.”
Duvet’s eyes widened. “I am disillusioned!”
“Have you read the reports from twenty years ago? It didn’t work. It backfired on Maura Drake, to the tune of her imprisonment in a medical facility, and later abduction by Section Thirty-One.”
“Section Thirty-One,” Duvet said, and stood, circling the two holographic figures on his bridge. “Now there is an elite, secret organization.”
“Cardassia had one of those way back, didn’t they?”
“And they will have it again!”
“Yes, yes,” Renta said. “So you really want to go after this prize?”
“By all means, yes,” Duvet said. “This technology…imagine it…omnipotent Cardassians as far as the eye can see…”
“My forebearers would be especially proud,” Renta muttered. “That said, if we share the technology, we could finally free the Bajorans of the imbecilic adulation they have for the Prophets.”
“See, there’s something in it for everyone,” Duvet said, clapping an enthusiastic hand on Renta’s shoulder. “Shall we?”
Renta nodded. “It won’t be easy. The Section Thirty-One vessel was phase-cloaked, just like us, when they approached the Raceabout.”
“Everyone has phase cloaks now,” Duvet muttered. “It’s not even special anymore.”
Renta turned to a console. “Fortunately for you, I developed some sophisticated tracking technology when I was with my extremist cell.”
“Yes, yes, I’m quite acquainted with your checkered past. Back to the matter at hand…”
Renta brought up a set of coordinates on the viewscreen. “They returned to phased space two minutes ago, here, in sector twenty-one twelve, three sectors away.” As she worked at her panel the screen showed the moving target as the Section 31 ship navigated phased space.
“Pursuit course, Mister Grox,” Duvet said, stepping forward as he approached the viewscreen. “Warp twelve.” He moved behind Renta as she worked at her panel.
“You’re sure you can disable them?”
“That’s what we’ve been preparing for,” snapped Renta. “You didn’t blow our windfall on this refurbished Dominion warship just to keep it in the hangar.”
“No, I didn’t,” Duvet said, and grew pensive. “This vessel will be the first of many that will return Cardassia to its glory.”
“Yeah, yeah, you keep saying,” Renta said. “Could you give me a second?”
Duvet nodded and strolled down to the conn. “Time to intercept?”
“Weapons range in six minutes,” said Grox.
Duvet brought his gloved hands together. “Excellent. Major Renta…”
Renta looked up from her console and nodded. “Weapons, prepare to punch through the shields with an anti-proton beam; get a transporter lock on mister Roddick and prepare to beam him aboard,” Renta said, moving from console to console making preparations.
“You’re worth the years I’ve spent trying to settle your spicy temper, Major,” Duvet said, striding forward on the bridge. “Now, we leap out, and claim our prize. Grox, match course and speed with them and position us right over their nacelles.”
“Must you be so dramatic?” Renta asked, stepping back up behind Duvet.
“The Federation,” Duvet said, putting his hands on his hips, as the Eligiar swooped over the sleek, battleship grey Starfleet vessel. “Who are they kidding?”
“With everything? Smug, self-serving…”
“Anti-proton beam is ready,” Yovern said from his aft station
“Alas,” Duvet clapped his hands together. “It’s time the Cardassians jumped from the frying pan and into the fire! By all means, begin!”
“We’re going to have to figure out a way to calm you down,” Renta said, and looked up on the screen as an anti-proton blast leapt out at the Starfleet ship, blowing it out of phased space, and in the process, blowing off one of its warp nacelles and sending it skidding out of warp.
“Take us out of warp, and follow them,” Duvet ordered.
“We are being hailed,” Glin Sohat said from the communications station.
“Oh, I bet we are,” Duvet said, and snapped a finger. “Let’s see them.”
A holographic version of Roddick appeared in front of Duvet, smoke swirling around him. “Cardassian vessel: you have taken hostile action inside Federation space. Stand down immediately and prepare to be boarded.”
Duvet stepped toward the hologram, stopping just short of Roddick, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “Let’s see. Ah, no, I don’t think so.”
Roddick narrowed his eyes. “Where did you get a Dominion warship?”
“They were on sale after the war with the Federation. You’d be surprised how many were left behind in our space.”
Roddick pursed his lips. “Well, you don’t know who you are dealing with, mister…”
“Duvet. Gul Duvet. Former Chief of Rebok Nor and the Griller of Gavardia.”
Renta shot him a look but he ignored it.
“Mister Duvet - we are a powerful adversary.” Roddick narrowed his eyes at the Cardassian. “And let me be frank for a moment. We are not Starfleet.”
“Oh, I know.”
“So you know we do not adhere to Starfleet norms and Federation values.”
Duvet yawned. “So?”
“So tread carefully, or you might find yourself…”
Duvet pointed back at Yovern. “Beam Mister Roddick aboard and then destroy that ship.”
Roddick opened his mouth to say something else, and then gaped as he suddenly stared to vanish in a swirl of golden sparkles.
His hologram then disappeared, and on the viewscreen, another antiproton blast seared out at the Thirty-One vessel, striking it amidships and blowing it up in a spectacular orb of bright light.
“Hm,” Renta said, as she watched the explosion, which didn’t even cause a tremor on the Eligiar, as it was still phase cloaked. “Satisfying.”
“You’ll find I’ve barely begun to satisfy my appetite,” Duvet said. “Get to work on Mister Roddick. Find out all that he knows.”
“And then?” Renta asked, heading for the aft exit.
Duvet smiled. “Then we become gods.”
TO BE CONTINUED…