Author: Anthony Butler
THE YEAR 2375
Captain Andy Baxter stood in the doorway to his Father’s office on earth.
“Crmn in,” Harlan snarled, puffing on his cigar and coming around the desk to greet Baxter. “Hrs Xrpr,” he asked, clapping Baxter stiffly on the shoulders.
“She’s good. Explorer’s good. We’re launching in about a week.”
Harlan nodded, pointing at the couch that sat along his office wall, overlooking the presidio at Starfleet Command and shuttles criss-crossing over the Golden Gate bridge. He tugged the cigar out of his mouth. “Ready for yer first mission, boy?”
Baxter sank onto the couch and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Ready as I’ll ever be.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. Conway has been on my case for weeks. He challenges every decision I make. The crew’s uncertain. They’re still a little shaken from the whole Delta Quadrant misadventure. They’re looking to me.”
“Ya defeated the Flarn. And the Borg?” Harlan chuckled. “You got this, son.”
“You really think so?”
Harlan stared at the burning embers of his cigar. “Son, you got the same twenty-six hours in a day that everyone else has. Whatcha going to do with them?”
“You make it sound easy,” Baxter laughed uneasily and shifted on the couch. “Kelly’s been great. She…she believes in me.”
Harlan nodded. “She’s a sweet gal. You like her, huh.”
“Yeah.” Baxter glanced out the window. “Yeah, I do.”
“You wanna be out among the stars, boy,” Harlan said. “I always knew it.”
“It hasn’t gone the way I expected it, Dad.”
“It never does.”
Baxter leaned forward on his elbows. “It was touch and go there for a moment, you know. I thought I was done for.”
“You’re made of stronger stuff than that, boy,” Harlan chuckled. “I was thinking, you know…Starfleet’s a dangerous line of work, and all. There are a few things I should tell you…”
“Conway to Baxter,” Baxter’s combadge chirped. “I need your signature on some requisitions. This idiot inventory clerk won’t take my signature. I guess it takes one to know one.”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “Acknowledged. I’ll be right up.” He pushed off the couch and leaned forward, as Harlan stood stiffly, Baxter gripped him in a hug. “To be continued, Dad. Just – I love you, okay?”
Harlan grunted softly. “Lrvto, brr.”
THE YEAR 2401
“Clear the way. Move!”
Baxter had to give it to the EMH. She didn’t mess around. Either of them.
He leaned against the bulkhead near Sickbay’s entrance, trying to give the two holograms a wide berth so they could work.
Near him, Sparks and Plato watched silently. J’hana had joined Larkin on the bridge, attempting to track Roddick’s whereabouts.
The EMH, for her part, was a sight to behold. A technical marvel. What had started as a glitchy system had been perfected. Gone were the wry assertions and acerbic attitude of the EMH Mark I. The smug, sneering rants of the EMH Mark II, and the wreckless libido of the EMH Mark III, were nowhere to be found. After Mark III, the worst of the lot, whose ethical subroutines were entirely compromised (and who had an odd fascination with the Alamo and spy novels), a total rehab was needed.
Mark IV was quiet and confident. Efficient and knowledgeable. And wholly without personality of any kind.
And she could replicate herself, which was cool.
So while the first two doctors worked, a third one appeared suddenly in front of Baxter, causing him to stagger back and grip the wall.
“Patient one,” the short, middle-aged female with tight blonde curls said, looking at Baxter. “Close quarters phaser strike to the chest. Aorta was completely bisected. Total aortic repair necessary. Thirty percent chance of recovery.” That was Alcott. Baxter grimaced. Didn’t sound good. “Patient two is another story.” She pointed to the bed where Ashley Donovan lay as the other Mark IV worked diligently at her side. The middle of her uniform was charred and black. “Point blank phaser strike to the lower abdomen. Massive internal hemorrhage. If I had been activated a moment later, she’d be dead already.”
“Computer, increase bedside manner by five percent,” Baxter muttered.
“Unable to comply,” the Mark IV said. “Personality algorithms cannot be modified.”
Baxter sighed. He wondered if the doctor they’d based this one on, who he’d been told had served briefly on Enterprise-D, was this dry. “Go on.”
“Patient Two is to be beamed into the surgical bay for immediate emergency surgery. Replacement organs are being replicated as quickly as possible. She has a fifteen percent chance of recovery.” With that, the third copy of the Mark IV disappeared.
“Thanks,” Baxter said, staring at the deck.
“Andy,” Sparks said, sidling up. “We need to talk.”
“Yeah.” She took his hand and tugged him off into the corner, as Plato watched the EMH Mark IV work on Alcott. “This is bad. I know. But we have bigger issues. Tilleran and Airyn. Roddick.”
“The next move is his,” Baxter said.
“Is it? Do we know what he’ll do?”
“Be omnipotent, is my guess.” Baxter rubbed a hand over his face.
“And don’t you think we should stop that?”
“Don’t think we can.”
“You really think that’s the case?”
“J’hana and Larkin are on it.”
“You’re in command of the Explorer now, Admiral.”
“Fat lot of good it did.”
“Well, you can do that,” Sparks said. “You can be defeated if you want. But if you’re going to give up, then you need to do the responsible thing and return command to Larkin. So we can go get Tilleran and Airyn and stop Roddick from destroying the Universe.”
“Oh, is that what we should do?”
Sparks pursed her lips.
“You know she’s right, sir,” Plato said softly.
Baxter stared wryly at Sparks. “Weren’t you a cadet, like yesterday?”
“Seems like,” she said with a small smile.
Baxter patted Sparks on the shoulder, and gave one last look at Donovan as she was beamed into the surgical bay. “You’re right, Commander. We have a job to do. Let’s go.”
On the bridge, the tactical console had been smashed in several places.
Larkin calmly stood by the command chair, giving orders, while keeping her arms wrapped around the thrashing J’hana.
“What happened to my panel!” Plato said as he filed in from the aft turbolift, with Baxter and Sparks trailing him.
Larkin raised an eyebrow. “J’hana has reached an…impasse…in her investigation.”
“Find my Imzadi!” J’hana said, kicking, in Larkin’s unbreakable grasp.
“She threw a knife at me,” Stef said from the helm.
“I was aiming at the viewscreen, child,” J’hana muttered.
Baxter approached Larkin and J’hana, hands on hips. “J’hana, stand down. That’s an order.”
“I’m not Starfleet anymore, Admiral!” J’hana said through clenched teeth. “You have no control over me!”
Baxter gave her a patient smile. “I never had any control over you. Less so now. But still, you have to calm down or I’ll remove you from the bridge.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Larkin is stronger than you.”
Baxter sighed. “J’hana, I’m upset too. I know you’re worried about Tilleran. And you’re showing it by, well, smashing things. But that won’t get us anywhere. You want bloody vengeance?’
J’hana’s antennae flexed eagerly. “Oh, so much I can taste it.”
“Then stop fighting us and start helping us.”
J’hana panted, staring from Larkin to Baxter. “Fine!”
Larkin gently set J’hana down.
“I want my knives back.”
“You’ll get them soon enough,” Baxter said, straightening his uniform as he moved to the command chair. “Now, J’hana, I don’t mean to pry, but you and Tilleran still have that Imzadi bond-thingy right?”
“The Imzadi bond lasts a lifetime, yes,” J’hana said, pacing beside Baxter as Larkin kept a watchful eye on her.
“Can you…feel Tilleran?”
Larkin draped her arms behind her back and walked up beside Baxter. “Roddick no doubt has activated a telepathic suppression device around Doctor Tilleran.”
“So we have to hope Tilleran finds a way to disable it.”
“Provided she hasn’t been…” Larkin considered her words a few nanoseconds. “Incapacitated.”
Plato worked over what was left of his console. “I can’t get any kind of fix on how Roddick beamed off or where he beamed to.”
“It would have to be a ship,” Sparks said, leaning over Ensign Baxter’s console. “External sensors show nothing though.”
“Ostensibly, he’d be heading for a Section Thirty-One base,” Larkin said.
“Yeah,” Baxter rubbed his chin. “And who would know where I could find one of those?”
The surgical bay buzzed with activity as EMH Mark IV worked and medical assistants swarmed about, taking readings, administering medications, monitoring scans.
Baxter leaned on the biobed, careful to stay out of Mark IV’s way as she bent over the surgical array that enclosed Donovan’s midsection. “Can you wake her?”
“Ill advised,” Mark IV responded.
“As it is, this patient is unlikely to survive.”
“I’ve seen her beat the odds before.”
“If you order me to wake her, I will, but you won’t like the outcome.”
Baxter reached out and squeezed Donovan’s hand. “If only I’d been more careful, Ashley. If I’d listened to you…” He turned to the EMH, biting his lip. “Wake her.”
In a few seconds, Donovan’s eyes fluttered open. She turned to look at Baxter. “Andy…”
“Shhh,” Baxter said. “You’re in good hands, Ashley. The EMH is working on you. It’s…looking good.”
“Liar,” Ashley said, narrowing her eyes at Baxter.
“She is correct. The prognosis is poor,” one of the Mark IV’s said, hovering behind Baxter. “It’s ill advised to…”
Baxter waved the EMH away. “I only need a minute.”
Donovan blinked. “Roddick.”
Baxter nodded, leaned in. “We have to find him.”
Donovan swallowed. “Surprised me. Didn’t see…”
Baxter gently squeezed her hand. “Ashley, it’s okay. Just…tell me where he may have gone.”
Donovan’s eyes fluttered. Her head rolled back. “Could be anywhere…”
Baxter leaned in. “Ashley…”
“Science station, maybe. Bermuda expanse. Where…this all started…”
Baxter slapped his combadge. “Bridge. Lay in a course for the Bermuda Expanse. Maximum warp.”
“Acknowledged. On our way,” Larkin responded.
“Don’t…you can’t stop Roddick…” Donovan lifted a hand and pressed it to Baxter’s chest. “He’s dangerous, Andy. You need…backup…”
“Yeah, my best backup is on the sidelines right now.” He said, and stood back. “Doctor, put her back under.”
“Wait,” Donovan said, lifting a hand. “Careful…” she sighed. “Asshole.”
Her eyes fluttered and closed.
The EMH continued her work. “If you want your friend to have any chance to live at all, you must leave.”
Baxter retreated and stood by the door of the surgical bay for a moment, looking at Donovan. “Keep me posted, Doc,” he whispered, and left.
“YAGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Duvet pulled his command chair out of its moorings and hurled it at he viewscreen.
“You about done?” Major Renta asked, leaning against a bulkhead, her arms folded. “Or want to destroy more of your ship?”
“We’ve lost everything!” Duvet railed, as his senior staff retreated to the back of the bridge. “We don’t have Baxter. We don’t have the Explorer. And, according to the comm traffic you just intercepted, even THEY don’t have the DNA we need.”
“Yeah, you have to give it to that Roddick.” Renta raised an eyebrow. “He played us the whole time.”
“You think this is funny?” Duvet turned on Renta. “All we went through to get this technology, this secret to omnipotence, just wasted!”
“It’s not a waste just yet,” Renta said. “There’s Maura Drake.”
“Roddick didn’t even know where she was.” Duvet’s shoulders sunk.
“There are others,” Renta said. “If you’d calm down…”
Duvet advanced toward Renta. “You know where we can find the location of Maura Drake.”
“I know a guy who might know where to find her, yes.”
“And where, pray tell, is he?”
Renta smiled. “Hiding in plain sight.”
“…but that’s what they want you to think! There’s no proof that President Dradar has ever even heard of the Ferengi Mining Consortium.”
Seated at a broad marble desk, the commentator turned to camera two, stroking his graying beard. “Let’s get serious for a minute here. In twenty-three sixty-four, Starfleet was nearly taken over by a race of small crawling centipedal organisms that attached themselves to the humanoid brain stem. Don’t believe me? Look it up. Totally happened. Now, quote-unquote journalists like Kelly Peterman are suddenly talking crazy, spreading lies about President Dradar. Coincidence? We’ll be back with an in-depth report, and holos of the time I confronted Peterman in a coffee shop and she kneed me in the groin and her friend threw bagels at me. Worthy Takes will be back after this…”
On a nearby monitor, the holo feed of Roland Worthy shifted to a shot of an aging Ferengi looking over a pristine mountainside. “Do you like mountains? No, me either. That’s why we’re using cutting edge technology to obliterate the cascading buttes of Veridian Three. Because, really, who needs ‘em? Here at Quark’s Miles of Mining, we carefully sift and purify all the dolcemite ore you’ll ever–”
Worthy glanced at the monitor and smirked, turning toward his producer. “Tucker, can you call up the holo of my combative interview with Councilor Paris? I want to watch how I rip him to shreds aga–” Worthy saw two figures standing behind Tucker.
One of them, a Cardassian, grabbed Tucker by the shoulders and shoved him face-first into the floor. “Mister Worthy!” he said with a grin.
“Security!” Worthy cried out, his voice going up several octaves.
The other intruder, a Bajoran, strode forward and gripped Worthy by the throat. “Security’s going to be back…after these messages.”
Worthy looked over at the control room next to his set.
Major Renta pushed Worthy to his knees. Duvet knelt to face him, propping his elbow on his knee. “Roland. May I call you Roland?”
“Have I got a ‘Worthy Take’ for you, Roland.” Duvet leaned in closer. “You’ve made quite a name for yourself after the business with the Explorer.”
“I’ve been out of the rehab colony for years. I’m legit now!”’
Duvet glanced around. “The Syndicated Orion Network. Yes, totally legitimate.”
Renta twisted Worthy’s arm behind his back. “You made Kira Nerys look like an idiot.”
Worthy winced and opened and closed his mouth several times. “I’m…sorry?”
“No, I liked that,” Renta said. She leaned in close. “I’m just a sociopath. I want to hurt you.”
“Wh-what do you want?” Worthy asked, looking from Duvet to Renta.
“We’re just looking for answers,” Duvet said. “Answers to one of the greatest mysteries in the universe. A final recipe for all time…”
Renta rolled her eyes at that. “And we think you might have the key.”
“Really? I mean, you mean I’m relevant?”
“No, oh hell no,” Duvet said, waving a hand. He thumped a thumb on Worthy’s forehead. “But you may have some information in your brain that is.” He looked up at Renta and nodded.
Renta dragged Worthy backward, his legs flailing, and hurled him onto his desk, then pressed her elbow down into his throat, nearly cutting off his oxygen. “How’s this for news?” she asked. “Start talking.”
Duvet approached the desk, leaning over Worthy. “Tell us where Maura Drake is. Tell us now.”
“I don’t know!”
“Is that so?” Renta asked. “Then why did the Orion Free Trader I bribed tell me you two have been living together since 2396.”
“Leave her alone!” Worthy moaned. “You just don’t understand her. She’s a keen mind! She got hold of a communication terminal while she was imprisoned by Section Thirty-One. She reached out to me. We-we corresponded. She got me like no one else ever has. It was…oh it was magical!”
“This is gross.” He put his hands on his hips. “Nobody wants to hear this inane babbling about idiots and their relationships. Cardassians would never stand for such things.”
Renta shook Worthy’s shoulders. “Ignore him. Focus on me. So…she eventually escaped?”
“They let her go. Section Thirty-One felt like they weren’t going to ever get the answers they wanted. They believed holding on to Drake was worthless.” Worthy swallowed. “Well, all but one of ‘em believed that…”
Duvet looked at Renta. “All but one?”
Commander Sparks eased forward, resting her elbows on the conference table, as she looked around the room at the Explorer’s senior staff. “Section Thirty-One has a science department?”
“According to Ashley,” Baxter said, and pointed at the viewscreen, which revealed a schematic of the Bermuda Expanse, and the sprawling Waystation Two which sat nearby. “I went back through the Explorer records at the time. I spoke to Craig Porter, who is really ticked at us by the way, that we kidnaped his wife and then let her get…re-kidnaped, again, by someone worse.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, from what we can tell, Thirty-One might have established a scientific presence there way back when Donovan and my Father first reopened the investigation into Maura Drake. The Idlewild was likely sent in there to build the station to identify and test Drake’s research. We know they interrogated Mirk and Lieutenant Hartley when they visited the expanse to try to reactivate Mirk’s powers.”
“So is there a station in there or not?” Mathers asked.
“Uncertain,” Baxter said. “If Airyn were here, she’d no doubt remind us that the Idlewild was later taken over by Alvin Ficker. Then Maura Drake and Anna Kimmel wound up on the Explorer.” He sighed. “The other Explorer. Which ended up in a pitched battle with the Orions, who wanted the omnipotence formula for themselves.”
“And instead, no one got it,” Larkin said, seated at the other end of the conference table. “And Drake was taken to a psychiatric facility, and later abducted by Section Thirty-One.”
“So we’re heading back there,” Baxter said. “To the Bermuda Expanse.”
“To find out if Roddick is there?” Sparks asked.
“Isn’t it more likely that they don’t have a base there, and so we won’t find anything,” Plato said. “Or they do have a base there, and it’s impossible for us to find, and so again we won’t find anything?”
“Or we do find something,” J’hana said, her fingers clawing into the table. “And it blows us to pieces.”
“All those things are possible.” Baxter looked down at the table. “Ashley did tell me one more thing. She said…we’d need backup.”
“She is a fool to underestimate us,” J’hana said quickly.
“She’s many things, but she’s no fool,” Baxter said. “I just sent a coded subspace message to Admiral Conway. I told him where we’re going and what we’re going to do. I told him we needed help. I left it in his hands.”
“You sure that was a good idea?” Sparks asked. “Conway kind of hates you.”
Larkin looked up. “How did Admiral Conway respond?”
“I never got a response,” Baxter said. He clasped his hands together. “So I guess we are heading into an unwinnable fight, and all our hopes rest on a critically injured operative, my dead Dad, and an admiral who hates me.”
J’hana growled. “Just like old times.”
Baxter cleared his throat, and glanced at the streaking stars outside the conference room. He looked around at the crew assembled - Plato, Sparks, Larkin, Mathers, and J’hana. “Any questions?”
“Do we have time to stop off at Waystation for a Spaceburger?” Mathers asked.
“Good, then, no questions,” Baxter said.
Larkin gestured for the crew to file out and stayed behind.
“Sir,” she said. “It may be that you are faced with the choice of permitting Roddick access to total human omnipotence, or the destruction of this ship.”
“I’m vaguely aware,” Baxter said. “You have any thoughts on the matter?”
“I believe we’re agreed, sir, that if Roddick does control the secret to human omnipotence, it would be cataclysmic.”
“If it comes to it, Larkin, then yes…we’ll sacrifice the Explorer.” He looked her in the eye with a wry smile. “Again.”
Larkin gave a quick nod. “There is a certain symmetry to it. I’ll be on the bridge.”
As she strode out, Lieutenant Kurg stood in the doorway to the conference room. “Admiral, secure line has been established.”
“Good,” Baxter said. “Send Stef in, please.”
Kurg nodded. “Anything else?”
“Nope. Just strap in.”
“There are straps?”
“It’s an expression,” Baxter said. Kurg just gave him a blank look as he stepped out and Ensign Baxter filed into the conference room.
“So how long till I get invited to these meetings?” she asked, pushing up her uniform sleeves and flopping into the chair next to Baxter.
“A while,” Baxter said.
“You wanted to see me?”
He grinned. “I always want to see you. We have a call to make.” He tapped a control on the conference room table. The conference room’s holographic system fired up, and a hologram of Kelly Peterman appeared at the front of the room.
“Andy!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been looking all over for you!”
“Found me,” Baxter said. “I brought a friend.” He nodded over at Stef, who waved.
“Hi, Mom,” Stef said, giving Baxter a glare. “What are you doing?”
Baxter reached out and touched Stef’s arm and then looked at Peterman. “Kelly, this is a secure channel. If you turn around and show this on the Federation News, I’m gonna be really ticked off.”
“You know me better than that,” Kelly said. She shook her head. “Anyway, I’m not at work. I’m…out.” She glanced offscreen a moment, then back at Baxter. “What’s going on, Andy? I heard you were…”
“We don’t have much time, Kelly. I’m…I’m fine, we’re fine. It’s just…we’re going into… it’s another one of those times.”
Peterman looked down. “You don’t say?” She looked back up at him. “Well. I trust you’ll be careful.”
“You know I won’t.”
“I’m here to watch his back, Mom,” Stef said, and looked at Baxter. “You don’t have to worry.”
“I’m twice as worried, with you there,” Peterman said. “But your father knows that.”
“Call Raymond, Kelly, tell him we said hi. Send him…just tell him we’ll have to get together soon.”
“Tell him yourself.”
“Only time to send one of these,” Baxter said, and leaned forward. “Kelly…”
“I get it,” Peterman said, and huffed. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Baxter smiled. “Well, when you put it that way.”
“Will you two cut it out,” Stef said, and punched the channel closed. She turned on Baxter. “Stop acting like we’re going to get our asses blown sky high. You’re scaring Mom. And she’s nervous enough about us still being in Starfleet as it is.”
Baxter blinked, staring at the empty space where the Peterman hologram had been. “Stef, I don’t think you get how serious this is.”
“I do get it,” Stef said, and rose. “I’ve gotten it for a long time – longer than you’d think. Which is why I joined Starfleet. Because if you could face the danger, I knew I could do it, too.” She leaned in and kissed Baxter on the forehead, and turned on a heel, and left.
Baxter sat there for a beat and watched the stars. “Into the breach,” he said, to no one.
He then stood up and marched out to the bridge.
Peterman smirked as Stef suddenly closed the channel.
“Well, that was rude,” Browning said, stepping up behind Peterman.
“She’s just like her father,” Peterman said, and shrugged. “At least she has my hair.”
“I’m glad you guys had a chance to talk,” Browning said, putting a hand on Peterman’s shoulder. “But didn’t you want to tell him?”
“So he could just worry more?” Peterman said, turning and walking through a nearby pair of doors and out onto the bridge of the Aerostar-A.
Officers crossed to and fro as Conway sat glowering in the command chair, arms folded.
“You sure I can’t get you a more comfortable seat?” Captain Zachary Ford asked, easing back and forth on his feet next to Conway.
“Nope, I like this one,” Conway said, and sipped thoughtfully on his coffee.
“Thanks for bringing me into this, guys,” Ford said. “Means a lot. And to think all we had going on was a nice boring charting mission in Alpha Centauri.”
Conway ignored Ford and glanced at Peterman. “How was your chat with hubby?” he quipped as Peterman approached him.
“I didn’t let him know where I was, or where we’re going, like you asked,” Peterman said, and glared at Browning. “And because there’s no use in him worrying about us.”
“Good.” He pivoted in the chair toward Peterman. “Just to be clear, I’m not helping him. I’m going to apprehend him.”
“Right after we rescue him,” Browning added.
Conway turned to the viewscreen. “Yeah, we’re all likely as not to get ourselves blown up in doing so,” Conway said. “Go figure. At least we’ve had a long run, right?”
“You think we can take on Section Thirty One?” Peterman asked.
“This isn’t Section Thirty One,” Conway said. “Roddick is going out on his own.”
“And how the hell do you know that?” Peterman asked.
THE YEAR 2376
The shuttle ride was rather quiet, and even, some might say, awkward.
Baxter and Peterman were returning from the planet Vasacan, bringing Harlan and Lucille Baxter back to the Explorer after their brief sojourn planetside. Vasacan was unique in that its green tobacco produced a smoke that was intensely deadly to a very specific genotype. Captain Baxter’s genotype, it had turned out.
“Yer fine,” Harlan mumbled, sitting on the bench as Baxter lay spread out on the insta-gurney, with Peterman hunched over him. “Baxters are made of stern stuff, boy.”
Lucille was at the helm of the shuttle, piloting it toward the Explorer.
“We’re almost home, pooter!” Lucille called out. “That Flarn doctor will get you all sorted out!”
Lieutenant Tilleran and Doctor Benzra were conferring at the rear of the shuttle, determining treatment plans and discussing surgical options.
Baxter reached up and took Harlan’s hand. “Dad, you know, I’m sorry I made you feel like you weren’t welcome on the Explorer. I drove you away…”
“Stop talkin’ about feelings,” Harlan muttered, pulling his hand away. He put a cigar in his mouth and sparked it up.
Benzra reached a claw over and snatched the cigar out of Harlan’s mouth, extinguishing it on the bulkhead. “You fool! That’ssssssssss poisonousssssssss to the Captain!”
“Oh,” Harlan shrugged. “Forgot.”
“I love you, Dad,” Baxter said, his eyes lolling back. “Do you love me?”
Outside the shuttle’s foreward viewport, the Explorer shuttlebay swung into view to welcome them.
“Son,” Harlan said, and glanced up at the viewport as Lucille guided the shuttle in. “Shush, we’re almost home.”
THE YEAR 2401
“Waystation, this is Commodore Mor–ohhh no.” Commodore Walter Morales blanched on the screen as he saw Baxter at the center of Explorer’s bridge. “No no no.”
“Yes yes yes,” Baxter said, striding forward. “Commodore Morales, it’s been too long.”
“It hasn’t been long enough!” Morales said. Behind him, officers busily moved about Waystation’s operations center. The station was massive now: over a dozen interconnected saucers that put Baxter in mind of one of those hamster villages, with the interconnecting tubes. His mind really was wandering today.
“Oh, don’t be that way,” Baxter said with a wave of his hand.
Morales stepped toward the screen. “Admiral Baxter. Your first trip to Waystation, you lost your ship in the Delta Quadrant for a year. Then you came back to Waystation and brought a bloodthirsty Flarn warship with you.”
Baxter raised a finger. “Yeah but that wasn’t really my fa–”
“Stop! THEN, nearly twenty years later, you come back, and bring an enraged Romulan with you who blew up your ship and, if I remember correctly, killed you.”
Baxter fumbled with his fingers. “Yeah, your memory’s pretty good.”
Morales gripped his console and leaned forward. “So before you tell me what wild, fantastical adventure has you arriving at our doorstep, I implore you to consider this: How many of these hair-raising experiences would we have had if you had just woken up that morning and decided to roll over and go back to sleep?”
Larkin stepped forward next to Baxter. “My data on this is incomplete; however, I’d estimate about seventy-six percent of our adventures were avoidable, if you simply had chosen not to participate.”
Baxter gritted his teeth. “Larkin, you’re not helping.”
“Numbers don’t lie, sir.”
“Commodore Morales,” Baxter implored. “I’ve been captured, tortured, and cooked for today. My friends have been kidnaped, including Doctor Tilleran, who, if you’ll recall, is married to Craig Porter.”
“Yes. Craig called ahead. I just…was hoping this was all a nightmare.”
“We’re very real, Mister Morales,” Sparks sighed, standing up next to Baxter. “And we need your help.”
“What do you want from me?”
Baxter smiled thinly. “Well, that’s the good news. Not very much. We just need to get into the Bermuda Expanse for a bit and look around.”
“A Section Thirty-One base.”
“There’s no Section Thirty-One base in there.”
Baxter looked at Larkin and Sparks and then back at the screen. “Well, see, we’re not so sure about that. Section Thirty-One could have cloaked their base. They were operating near here twenty years ago.”
“So by your estimation, they must still be here…”
Baxter pursed his lips. “Commodore…a person I…trust…believes there may be a Section Thirty-One presence in the Bermuda Expanse.”
Morales tapped his foot for a beat as he stared at Baxter. “You know it’s just me here, from the old days, right? Everyone else has moved on…”
“Hey!” an officer behind Morales piped up.
“Sorry, Lieutenant Jeeto. I was talking about the original crew who was here with me.”
“I’m a person, too,” Jeeto, a Bolian, said.
Morales turned around briefly. “Can we not do this right now, Lieutenant? I appreciate you, okay.”
“Thanks, man, that’s all I needed.”
Morales sighed and turned back to Baxter. “I’m a simple guy, Admiral. I have two kids. I have my command. And I’m keeping the seat warm until the next generation comes in here to lead this place.”
“That’s nice,” Sparks said.
Baxter glared at Sparks. “Yes, well, yes, the next generation, that’s great. But can we go into the expanse, or what?”
Morales folded his arms. “If I were to say no, you’d go in anyway, right?”
Baxter exchanged glances around the Explorer bridge. “Well, yeah.”
Morales shook his head. “Admiral, I have it on good authority that there is absolutely no Section Thirty-One presence…”
“Commodore!” Jeeto piped up. “Explosive decompression alert in Saucer Seven!”
Morales spun back around and leaned over Jeeto’s panel. “What are you talking about?”
Baxter spun back toward Plato. “Plato. Split screen. Put Waystation on viewer. Full scan.” He turned to Morales. “Commodore, we’re here to assist if you need…”
“Hold on, Explorer,” Morales snapped. “Jeeto, have them evacuate the saucer and…”
“Saucer evacuation underway!”
Officers hurriedly went about their tasks in the Waystations operations center.
“Anyone else feel bad about this?” Baxter asked. “I mean, I do…”
“Sir, power readings on Waystation’s Saucer Seven are off the chars.” Plato looked up from his panel.
Baxter whirled toward the screen. “Magnify!”
Morales, for his part, looked up from his readouts. “We’ve evacuated the saucer but…now we can’t get any readings on it at all.”
“Explosions in connecting tube seven!” Jeeto called out.
“Lieutenant Plato,” Larkin said calmly, draping her arms behind her back. “Magnify and enhance.”
Baxter stepped forward, putting his hand on the back of Stef’s chair. The image of Waystation’s vast array of connecting saucers zoomed in to the upper-right saucer, and its connecting tube, which exploded with a burst of light. The saucer then detached, spinning off.
“Stef, intercept that saucer and lock on a tractor beam!” Baxter ordered.
“On it,” Stef said, and looked up at the screen as Explorer swung toward Waystation. “Dad, I mean Admiral…the tractor beam can’t lock on. The saucer just put up shields!”
Morales looked confused. “Admiral, that thing is operating under its own power. Our saucers can’t do that…” he looked up. “Oh…oh no…”
Baxter looked at the saucer on the screen, which suddenly stopped spinning. It fixed itself in place. Its hull plating started to fall away like dead scales, revealing a gleaming silver spheroid beneath.
Four nacelles folded out from the spheroid shape, lights flickering on all around the ship, and a pair of dangerous looking photon launchers rose from the top of the saucer. Which turned on the Explorer and advanced toward it.
“Evasive!” Baxter shouted, and hunched forward as the saucer opened fire, lashing into the Explorer with its photons.
“Shields up, arm all weapons,” Larkin crossed the bridge and pointed toward Plato. “Prepare neutron torpedoes, full spread.”
Stef’s hands ran over her panel. “Hold on!” she called out at the Explorer veered and the saucer blew right past it.
“Explorer,” a voice rang out over the bridge suddenly. “This is the Section Thirty-One cruiser Steadfast.”
“There is no cruiser by that name registered,” Larkin said.
“Roddick.” Baxter clenched his fists. “You’re after this thing, but you don’t know what it is. You don’t know what it can do.”
“Oh, I know exactly what it can do. And I have all the pieces I need.”
“Pursuit course, closing speed.” Baxter squeezed Stef’s shoulder. “Plato: open fire. All weapons.”
Sparks turned and leaned over Mather’s console. “Get Morales off the screen. He can’t help us now.”
“Wait, what?” Morales exclaimed, and disappeared for the screen.
The viewscreen was now filled with the Section Thirty-One cruiser, angling away.
“She’s faster than us,” Stef said.
“Warp speed,” Baxter said, pointing to Stef’s panel. “Jump in front of her and turn around. Plato, as soon as we do, fire all weapons!”
“Admiral, the design specs…” Sparks began. “Nevermind. What was I thinking?”
“Go,” Baxter said, patting Stef’s chair.
Explorer leapt in front of the Steadfast and spun around, guns blazing.
“Sorry about your friend,” Roddick’s voice echoed through the bridge.
“Save it,” Baxter said. “Stand down or we’ll blow you out of the fucking stars.”
“I’ve got what I need now. I’ll give your people back once they finish their work. The El Aurian is entertaining. What a talker. And the Betazoid…well, she’s feisty…”
At this point, J’hana had been at the back of the bridge, shaking with impotent rage. She took that moment, however, to leap on the tactical console, shoving Plato away. She looked up, unleashing a hellish barrage on the Steadfast.
Stef followed suit, swinging back around for another pass as Steadfast fired back.
“I will eviscerate you, human!” J’hana roared.
“Minor damage to the Steadfast,” Plato said, squeezing in next to J’hana but giving her a wide enough berth to work. “She’s powering up her warp engines.”
“Paint her with polaron beams,” Larkin said. She turned to Baxter. “We’ll be able to trace…”
“Belay that,” Baxter said, and turned to Mathers. “Colby, when she goes to cloak, which she will, align our phase with theirs. Jump into phased space with them before they go to warp.”
“Their warp wake could tear us to shreds, Admiral,” Mathers said.
“Do it.” Baxter looked at the screen.
“This has been fun,” Roddick’s voice boomed throughout the bridge. “But we have work to do. Don’t follow us. People could get hurt…thanks for playing, though…bye now…”
“Mathers, now!” Baxter called out, and turned to Stef. “Stef, follow them in.”
“Dad, are you sure?”
“Stef…” Baxter looked up at the screen as the Steadfast came about and began to shimmer out of phase.
“We’re locked on to their coordinates and phase variance,” Mathers reported.
“Admiral!” Sparks shouted, reaching out and grabbing Baxter’s arm. “You are clearly not up to speed on close board maneuvers when phase-cloaked!”
“I’ve read things!” Baxter pulled away. “Stef, engage!”
The Explorer pitched about and shot forward, diving into phased space after the Steadfast as she jumped to warp, pulling Explorer with her like an anchor.
The deck reeled out from under Baxter’s feet and he fell forward, slamming into the ops console.
Larkin reached out and pulled him to his feet as the deck shook.
“Structural integrity failing!” Plato called out, turning to the engineering console and calling out. “Fissures forming on six decks.”
“Stay with them!” Baxter ordered.
“Sir, if we continue on this course, our hull will breach, and the Explorer will be destroyed,” Larkin said firmly.
Baxter looked up at the aft engines of the Steadfast on the screen. So close.
“Hull breach on deck twenty-six!” Plato called out.
“Route power to structural integrity field,” Sparks said. “Admiral Baxter…”
Baxter leaned forward, bracing on Mathers’ console. He looked at Stef. “Bring us back into phase and all stop.”
Sparks rolled her eyes. “Thank the Great Bird.”
“This is getting redundant, but, hold on!” Stef said, and steered the Explorer out of phased space.
The Explorer sagged to a stop. Broken consoles fizzled. Lights flickered around the bridge.
Larkin stood next to Baxter. “Damage report,” she said, looking at Baxter.
“We’ll need to reinforce the hull in about twenty places,” Sparks said, stepping up next to Larkin. “I’ll send out engineering teams. It’s gonna be at least eight hours till we get back up to full op.”
Baxter looked back at Larkin. “Stop giving me that look.”
Larkin opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Plato piped up. “Admiral, new contact coming in bearing zero-one-five mark one-two-one.”
“On screen,” Baxter and Larkin said at the same time.
The four-nacelled ship swung into view on the screen, its triangular hull pointed at the Explorer.
“Wow,” Mathers said. “That’s…the Aerostar.”
“Aerostar-A,” Sparks said. “But yeah.”
“Zhart,” J’hana growled.
“My sentiments exactly,” Baxter said.
“Admiral Conway is hailing us,” Plato said.
Baxter bit his lip. “I bet he is.”
Conway stood in the Explorer’s conference lounge, hands behind his back, staring out the window. At the other end of the room, Baxter stood, resting his hands on the back of one of the conference chairs.
“I should throw you in the brig,” Conway muttered.
“My ship,” Baxter said. “My brig. You first.”
“The Explorer is under my jurisdiction.”
Baxter smiled darkly at Conway. “But under my command.”
Conway pursed his lips. “For now.”
“We’re both the same rank, Dave, but I have seniority,” Baxter said.
Conway turned to face Baxter. “I’m under direct orders from Fleet Admiral Noth to bring you in for questioning.”
Baxter blinked. “Noth? Why is she involved in this?”
“Have you ever thought you don’t know everything?” Conway snapped.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
Conway shrugged. “I just have my orders.”
Baxter swallowed. “Dave, Roddick is out there. He has the ingredients for a genetic formula that could change the balance of power in the galaxy forever. And chances are he’s not going to use it for humanitarian purposes.”
“That’s why I’m going to stop him,” Conway said, folding his arms. “Starfleet sent an adult to take care of things for you, since you’ve made such a mess here.”
Baxter gritted his teeth, punching the conference table. “You’ve no idea what or who you’re dealing with. They have Tilleran, not to mention, a civilian…”
“Yeah, your ‘friend’ Airyn,” Conway said. “I’ve heard all about it. You about finished?”
“Work with me,” Baxter said, moving around the conference table to stand next to Conway. “Help me find and capture Roddick before he can hurt anyone else. Let’s team up – like the old days.”
Conway looked Baxter up and down thoughtfully, drawing a deep, cleansing breath. “Admiral Andy Baxter, I hearby strip you of command of the USS Explorer, effective immediately.”
Baxter’s eyes went wide. “Now wait one…”
“One more word and I confine you to quarters,” Conway said.
The conference room door wooshed open and Larkin and Sparks stepped through.
“Escort Admiral Baxter to his cabin, please,” Conway told them.
Baxter turned on a heel and walked toward the door.
“Admiral, what do we do?” Sparks asked Baxter.
Baxter glared at Conway for a beat, weighing his options. Finally, he turned toward the door and marched out of the room. “Whatever Conway tells you to,” he called over his shoulder.
Larkin walked up next to Conway. “Admiral.”
“And you,” Conway said. “I’m not even near finished with you.”
Larkin draped her hands behind her back. “Imagine my surprise.”
Baxter sat in the Constellation Club-A, staring out the windows as the stars streaked toward the Explorer-A. She was warping toward Earth, flying in formation with the Aerostar-A. Conway had tasked Larkin and Sparks, along with the Aerostar-A science officer, to work together on a way to track Roddick’s ship, but Baxter wasn’t optimistic.
Baxter sipped his rum and grapefruit and stared at the stars.
“Mind if I join you?”
Baxter looked over his shoulder and saw Kelly Peterman and Janice Browning standing there. Kelly had her trademark pink squirrel, and Janice was carrying a large pizza.
“It’s for the table,” Browning said, before Baxter could make a comment, and plopped down beside him.
“We had a good time out here didn’t we?” Baxter asked, looking at the stars, as if to himself.
Browning exchanged a glance with Peterman.
Peterman pursed her lips. “Well, some of it was good.”
Baxter looked over his shoulder at Browning. “We had some good times, right?”
“The best,” Browning said helpfully.
“It’s all over,” Baxter said, and drained his glass, setting it back on the table and returning his gaze to the stars. “It was great once, but it’s over now.”
“I think you should see that nice therapist when you get back to Earth, hon,” Peterman said, inching forward at the table.
“She was not nice,” Baxter said distantly.
“Look, things change, people change,” Peterman said. “But the best is not behind us.” She pointed out the windows. “It’s out there, up ahead.” She looked at Browning. “For all of us.”
“For all of us, on different paths. This…” he pointed to him, Browning, and Peterman. “Our time together. Damn, I wished I’d appreciated it more.”
“You can spend time with us whenever you want,” Browning said.
“I want things back the way they were.” Baxter leaned forward steepling his fingers and staring out the windows. “You guys. My ship. The old one. Not this…” he looked around. “Replacement model.” He sighed. “I guess I was so nervous about going back to space because I didn’t want to face the fact…” he looked out the windows. “The fact that it would be so different.”
“You can’t just go back in time,” Peterman said.
“Well, you shouldn’t,” Browning interrupted. She pulled her chair up closer to Baxter’s and leaned in. “You’ve got to look at the bright side of things, Andy.”
“There’s a madman out there trying to destroy the universe. He nearly killed my friend. And he may destroy us all by the end of this mess. And Dave Conway just relieved me of duty, and I’m totally powerless to do anything about it.”
“Well, that does about sum it up,” Peterman said.
“It’s nice of you guys to try and cheer me up, but that’s not what I need right now. I’m getting another drink. If you all want to wallow with me, please feel free.” Baxter turned to wave down the bartender, a sallow-faced Lurian, and motioned for another drink. He turned to face Browning and Peterman. “Mak. That guy hasn’t shut up all night.” He sighed. “What the hell are you two doing out here anyway?”
“We were worried about you,” Peterman said.
“Plus Conway dragged us out here because he wanted us where he could keep an eye on us,” Browning said.
“If that isn’t proof you still have people who care about you…” Peterman leaned forward and took Baxter’s hand.
“And we helped Commodore Kimmel alert the Explorer to your whereabouts so that they could rescue you,” Browning said, and looked at Peterman. “Just saying.”
“Larkin never mentioned that,” Baxter said, as Mak brought him another rum and grapefruit. “Though it has been a little busy.” Mak opened his mouth to say something and Baxter waved him off. “Not now, Mak. I’m not in the mood for another Bajoran farmer joke.”
The group sat in silence for a few moments as Baxter stared into his drink.
“I’m sorry about Tilleran,” Peterman said.
“And what’s-her-name,” Browning said, diverting her eyes to Peterman.
“Airyn. Airyn Essa,” Baxter said, and sipped his drink. “The El Aurian Historian.”
“Hey, lookie, it’s an Explorer reunion,” Stephanie Baxter said, plopping down at the table with Plato at her side, a Ressican ale in her hand.
“Who said you could drink?” Baxter glared at her.
“I’m an adult!” Stefanie pouted and dragged up a chair as Plato did the same.
“I feel old,” Browning said, looking around the table. Her eyes met with Plato’s. “I remember when you two were just kids. And now you’re…uhm, what are you now?”
Stef shifted a bit. “We, uh, dated for a bit, but then we decided maybe serving together as a couple would be messy?” she looked to Plato, but shrunk back a bit as she could feel Peterman staring at her questioningly.
Browning grinned at Plato. “Why hello, you.”
Plato inched in and wrapped Browning in a hug. “Mom.”
“Well,” Baxter said. “If we’re all going to die, at least we’ll die together.”
“So, you gonna see that therapist again or what?” Peterman asked.
“You’re in counseling?” asked Stef.
Baxter took another sip. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Peterman smirked. “You’ve GOT to talk about it.”
“That’s what the counselor is for,” Baxter said, and drained his glass. He stood up. “This was nice. We should do this more often, if we survive this catastrophe.”
“I’ve been asked to warn you to stay away from the bridge,” Plato said. Stef glared at him. “I’m not gonna, but I’ve been asked to…”
“I’m not going to do anything,” Baxter sighed. “Nothing I can do.” He got up and headed toward the door. “See you guys in the morning. Maybe I’ll figure out some other way to screw up the universe.”
Peterman glanced at the others at the table and then rose from her seat, following Baxter to the door. Stef went with her, and the pair followed him out into the corridor.
Peterman put a hand on Baxter’s shoulder. “Andy, wait.”
Baxter turned. “What?”
“A few weeks ago, you couldn’t leave the planet. You were paralyzed by fear, self-doubt, and anxiety.” She took in a deep breath. “But now look at you. You’ve crossed the stars again, been in firefights, raced against time to try and save the universe. Whatever you were going through, you put it aside, so you could be here…so you could help.”
“Not to mention, this Explorer crew,” Stef added, looking up at Baxter. “Dad, none of them would be here without you. Larkin, Sparks, Colby, Plato, me…we’re all here because at one time or another you believed in us.”
Baxter looked at Peterman and then to Stef, biting his lip thoughtfully. “That’s all great. But what good did it do?”
The Steadfast sailed through cloaked space, forging into the dark.
Airyn Essa and Ariel Tilleran sat at either end of the large black lacquer conference table in the lounge just off the bridge. The room was dim and red alert lighting bathed them, off and on, maddeningly.
“This is nicer than my last cell,” Airyn said, breaking what seemed to Tilleran like hours of silence.
Tilleran raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been imprisoned recently?”
“Twice in one day,” Tilleran said, and shifted forward in her chair. “Things like this are why I left Starfleet.”
“Yes, I know. I read your biography.”
“My mother wrote that,” Tilleran muttered. “It was unauthorized.” Her look softened. “But thanks. I’m flattered.”
“At least we’re not like chained up or anything. Andy was hung upside down last time.”
Tilleran allowed a giggle. “The Admiral must not have liked that. He always hated being imprisoned by villains.” Tilleran eased forward. “So, Ms. Airyn, you know why we’re here?”
Airyn leaned forward. “Why not just explore my mind and find out what I know?”
“You read my biography.” Tilleran steepled her fingers and leaned forward, resting her chin on them. “You know why I’m not going to look into your mind.”
“Still not comfortable with it, huh?”
“It’s…just better if I don’t.” She eased back. “Don’t get me wrong. I pick up on things. Some things just fly into my mind, unbidden. It’s like that for a telepath. But as far as purposeful probing. No, I try to steer clear of that.”
Airyn gave a low hum. “Yes, I can see why.” She inched forward. “What about Roddick? Have you read him?”
Tilleran shook her head. “I can’t read him. He’s suppressing me somehow.” She pursed her lips. “I can’t reach outside this ship either. He must have some sophisticated tech with him.”
“He IS Section Thirty-One.”
“Not anymore,” Roddick said, from the doorway, illuminated in shadow. He stepped forward and strode to the middle of the room, standing between Tilleran and Airyn. “How are you enjoying the voyage so far?”
“I’d like to see a drink menu,” Airyn said.
“We don’t have time for that.” Roddick walked over toward Tilleran and squatted down to face her. “You know what I want, right?”
“I don’t need telepathy to know what you want. And you don’t need telepathy to know there’s no way I’m going to help you.”
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Roddick said. “What I want is so simple. I want to help humanity.”
“Making people omnipotent will not help humanity,” Airyn said. “It will tear our civilization apart. Humanity isn’t ready for that kind of power.” She glanced at Tilleran. “No offense.”
Tilleran cocked an eyebrow. “None taken. Not human.”
“You have the genetic codes you need,” Airyn said. “So what’s stopping you from getting on with this and becoming omnipotent?”
“No need to rush it,” Tilleran whispered.
“I’ve put the code into our lab computer. Wouldn’t you know, I can’t get a genetic reaction using our equipment.”
“Damn, you don’t say,” Tilleran said.
“You knew that already.”
“I was about to tell the Admiral, before you so rudely interrupted. Our equipment isn’t sophisticated enough.”
“Neither is Section Thirty-One’s, which leads me to believe that they’ve got a lab somewhere just for this purpose.”
“And you don’t know about it?” Airyn asked. “Huh.”
Roddick glared at Airyn. “Clearly there are things Thirty-One has hidden from even me. But something tells me Harlan Baxter knew where to find it.”
“Big leap in logic there,” Airyn snapped.
Roddick leaned against the table, gripping its edges. “Then we will just have to look closer.”
“Why is this so important to you?” Airyn asked. “You don’t seem like the type to want to rule the galaxy.”
Roddick glanced over his shoulder at Airyn. “I could care less about all of that.”
“Yes,” Tilleran said. “This is personal to you.”
Roddick advanced toward her. “You’re right. So. Personal.” He leaned in close. “Which is why I need your help finding this lab.”
“Even if we knew where it was, we sure as hells wouldn’t tell you,” Tilleran said.
“Well, you have one hour to change your mind,” Roddick said. “Or else I’ll have to start using some of this Section Thirty-one tech to pry into your minds.” And with that Roddick turned and bolted out of the room.
“That was uncomfortable,” Airyn muttered. “We can’t let him hurt you - you don’t know anything.”
“Yeah,” Tilleran said. “And neither do you.”
Airyn pursed her lips.
“You don’t know anything either, right?” Tilleran pursed her lips. “Right?”
Airyn covered her mouth.
Tilleran’s eyes widened. “Airyn, what do you know?”
Airyn backed away. “Nothing! Don’t read my mind! Don’t…don’t read my mind!”
Tilleran covered her ears. “Don’t tell me that. You know how hard it is not to read someone’s mind when they tell you not to? It’s like telling a regular person not to think something. It’s like…the thoughts are there, and I just…” Tilleran cocked her head. “Oh. Oh no. Oh, you’re kidding me…” She backed up and against the bulkhead. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”
“It should be obvious. Nobody should have this power, Ariel,” Airyn said. “Not Roddick, not us.”
“But you’ve spent years trying to…”
“Long story,” Airyn sighed.
The doors to the conference room wooshed back open and Roddick filled them, his eyes wide, and knowing. “Telepathic monitors are a funny thing. So sensitive.” He pressed his hand to Tilleran’s forehead. She winced. “I knew if I just gave you some time, you’d do my work for me.” His eyes turned to Airyn. “You knew a lot more than you were letting on, El Aurian.”
Airyn swallowed hard. “I’m…a good listener.”
Roddick turned back for the bridge. “Well, I suspect we should change course. Eh?”
The sun shone on the horizon as dawn broke. Water lapped around the small craft. Cigar smoke wafted from the man at the front of the craft, eased in a swivel chair, casting at the lapping green of the Gulf of Mexico.
“Nttn’ bitin,” he said over his shoulder, as Andy Baxter plopped down next to him, sitting on the bulkhead. He handed his father a cold beer.
“It’s nice just sitting out here,” Baxter said. “Calm.”
“Yep,” Harlan said, and casted his line out again. He set his cigar on the tacklebox next to him and glanced over, sun reflected in his silver shades. “You fishin’?”
“I’m taking a break.”
“Gotta take a break sometimes,” Harlan said.
“You can talk about it, Dad, it’s okay,” Baxter said, and sipped his own beer. “I haven’t been off Earth in three years.” He looked out at the water and the rising sun.
Harlan just nodded his head and cast out again.
“Starfleet’s noticed. They’ve been reassigning missions to other programs in the fleet. There was a new ship, the Highlander. They assigned her to Conway instead of me.”
“Hnnh,” Harlan grunted and pulled on his cigar. “Frgn Crnwy.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “I’m just nervous about going back out there, Dad.” He looked up at the sky. “I’m not sure I can.”
“Y’can,” Harlan said, and puffed his cigar.
“You’re probably disappointed, huh, what with…all I been going through? Maybe I need you…” he sighed. “Maybe I need you to talk some sense into me, Dad.”
Harlan wheeled around and patted Baxter on the knee. He snatched out his cigar. “And let me say this clearly. Y’got plenty sense, boy. You’ll go back out when yer ready.”
“How do you know I’ll be ready.”
Harlan looked around at the peaceful green water lapping the boat. Seagulls circled overhead, softly bleating at each other and diving down to nip at baitfish. “Because you gotta be. One day I’ll need you to succeed where I didn’t.”
“You succeeded at basically everything you’ve ever done,” Baxter said, sinking his elbows onto his knees.
“Son, remind me to take you back to our place on Portico one day, when you’re ready to go back out there,” he breathed deep and puffed on his cigar. “Somethin’ I need t’show ya. Srmth imprt.”
Harlan chortled and bit on his cigar as he yanked back on his caster. “Fish on!”
Andy Baxter shot up, sweat beading on his face. “D-dad!”
He looked around his quiet cabin. Stars streaked by as Explorer warped back to Earth.
Baxter rolled out of bed and staggered toward the windows, putting his hand on the glass. The answers were out there all this time, among the stars.
Baxter tugged his uniform tunic back on and darted out of the cabin.
“Report!” Conway barked, stalking out of the aft turbolift and tying off the belt on his red Starfleet robe.
“We briefly came out of warp,” Larkin said, leaning over the ops console. “One unauthorized launch. A raceabout.”
Conway narrowed his eyes at the viewscreen. “Who.”
Behind him, Nat Sparks fidgeted, shifting from foot to foot. “Give you a guess?”
Conway turned toward Stef Baxter, who sat at conn, sinking a little lower in her chair. “Who?”
“Why are you looking at me?”
“He scrambled our sensors so I can’t extrapolate his course,” Plato said, tapping at the tactical console.
“So Baxter is just gone, and there’s no way to know where he went?” Conway snapped, looking around at the bridge crew.
Everyone looked at Stef.
She shrugged, smiling weakly. “Well, yeah, I guess so, huh?”
TO BE CONTINUED…