Author: Anthony Butler
“Love is bigger than us all. The end is not the end at all.”
“You are in big trouble, young lady,” Kelly Peterman said, leaning against the conference table, with Browning flanking her.
Stef Baxter looked around. Behind Kelly and Janice, Conway and Larkin stood, looking like disapproving parents. Off by the door, Plato had his arms folded, glaring at her.
“Tell us where you THINK he may have gone,” Conway said.
“I really don’t know,” Stef said, looking out at the stars outside, still points of light, as Explorer had come out of warp. The Aerostar-A hung just a few thousand klicks in the distance. “I mean, he just asked for the raceabout.”
“And you gave it to him,” Larkin said.
Stef shrugged. “Well, yeah.”
Conway turned around, scrubbing a hand over his face. “The kava fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“You can see why we’re so upset, right?” Peterman asked. “You could have helped him. We could have helped him.”
“He didn’t want anyone else getting hurt,” Stef said.
“It’s not his choice,” Conway said. “And it’s not yours.” He pursed his lips. “There’s a chain of command on a starship for a reason.”
Larkin leveled her gaze on Stef. “Ensign Baxter is still learning that. Obviously.”
“I’m sorry,” Stef said. “He’s my father! And he’s an Admiral. He gave me an order. What would you expect me to do?”
“Tell one of us,” Peterman said. “So we could have talked him out of it!”
“Jeeze, it’s like you people don’t know my Dad at all,” Stef snapped, looking around the table at the assembled group. “He hates to be reasoned with.”
Browning gave a small smile. “She’s right about that.”
“I’m finished with this,” Conway said. “Ensign, you’re confined to quarters for the rest of this mission pending a formal review by internal affairs.” He glanced at Larkin. “You and Plato are with me. We’re going to find Baxter before he does something even more stupid than he’s already done.” He glanced at Peterman and Browning. “You two, go belowdecks and try to stay out of my way.”
The sun was setting, sending an eerie light into Baxter’s timeshare home. He looked around at the seashell curtains, wood paneling.
The runabout Wallenpaupak rested on the beach. The place was quiet, with the Dorfmans all packed and gone. The island was calm. It was off-season on Portico, lending an almost ghost town feel to the place.
Baxter walked toward the couch, sat down, and studied the few framed pictures on the end table. He pushed aside a picture of the Dorfmans all dressed like Klingons at some kind of theme park, and pulled out another picture. It was him and his Dad at the foot of his boat, the Southwind, holding aloft their catch of the day, a three-foot Crelfish.
Baxter studied the picture thoughtfully and looked around. “I’m here, Dad. So now what?”
Suddenly a transporter signature resolved next to Baxter, revealing Roddick, armed with a phaser, which was pointed directly at Baxter’s temple.
“Oh, good. You’re here!” he announced.
Baxter turned. “Roddick. Wait, is this supposed to be your month?”
Roddick looked at Baxter quizzically. “Your friend Airyn knows more than she let on.”
“Where is she?”
“On my ship. Safe for now, along with Tilleran,” Roddick said. “I’m not interested in hurting anyone, Baxter.”
“Then why are you here?”
“To unlock the secret of human potential,” Roddick said. “Want to help?”
“Hell, no.” Baxter stood up. “You really think you’re going to find the secret to omnipotence in my Dad’s timeshare beach house?”
“I’m certain of it,” Roddick said, and held up a penlike device, a micro tricorder. “This has the necessary DNA strands encoded on it. All I need is a proper lab to activate them.”
“Yeah, did you check in the bathroom,” Baxter said. “Or maybe up your butt?”
“I wish I had the time to continue with this pleasant discourse,” Roddick said. “But I have important work to do.” He slapped his combadge. “Computer, initiate verteron particle field. Attenuate according to this code.” He punched a control on the tricorder, which hummed lightly as it transmitted the code.
Baxter stared at Roddick blankly, looking around as a low pulsing sound gently shook the cabin.
“You were wondering how the secret to omnipotence could be in a place like this?” Roddick asked. “It was genius. Your father, and his Section Thirty-one compatriots, wanted to hide this power in an unlikely place. Where no one would think to look for it. Once I knew the location, all I had to do is use the Steadfast’s scanners to look for any anomalous readings. It was so faint, so hard to detect, but it was there.”
Suddenly the room flashed blue and black.
“A pocket in space,” Roddick said, as the hum grew. “Activated by a simple verteron inversion field.”
“Sure, well, of course. Verterons,” Baxter shrugged. “What do you think is going to happen here, Roddick? You think my retired father built an underground lair under his beach house?”
“Not underground,” Roddick gestured widely. “Right here.”
Baxter looked around as the house shimmered and waved blue and green, energy crackling around him. The air popped with an odd ozone scent. Waves of energy crashed over him and Roddick.
Then everything changed.
“And I think I’ve…yep…” Tilleran reached inside the companel and twisted, and with a little computerized pop, the conference room door slid open. With that, her and Airyn stormed out onto the bridge.
“All right, Roddick, the jig is…” Airyn announced. Her shoulders fell as she realized the bridge was empty. “Well of course. He’s beamed down already.”
Tilleran stared at the viewscreen. Portico spun below. “You really think he’s accessing a secret lab down there?”
Airyn nodded and sat down at one of the bridge consoles. “I know he is.”
“And we can’t do anything to stop him.”
“Well, maybe not anything.” Airyn looked over the controls. “We’re locked out of most of the main systems.”
“That’s to be expected,” Tilleran said. “It’s Section Thirty-One. They probably don’t want just anyone playing around with their equipment.”
“No way we’re getting access to their subspace array, then.” Airyn stared at the console screens thoughtfully. Then she looked at Tilleran. “But we might be able to use…your…subspace array.”
“You think my telepathy reaches across sectors?”
“No,” Tilleran said. “Probably not. But it’s a moot point, the telepathic suppressor…”
“Is powered by the ship’s systems.”
Tilleran sighed. “I don’t like where you’re going with this.”
“We power down the ship, we power down the suppressor.”
“And everything else, too. Including life support.”
“Do you have any other bright ideas?”
“Not at the moment.”
Duvet peered across the kitchen table at the woman in the green, flowered dress. He lifted the Kovarian tea to his lips and blew at the steam, then gave it a good, long sip.
“How’s the tea?” the woman opposite him asked.
“Splendid,” Duvet said, and narrowed his eyes. “Lovely place you have here.”
“It’s an asteroid,” Renta Fays said, standing behind Duvet, her arms crossed and her patience almost at an end.
“But it’s our asteroid,” Roland Worthy said, pulling up a chair next to Maura Drake and putting a hand on hers. “Isn’t that right, honey?”
“It wasn’t being used anymore. So why not?”
“It’s nice,” Duvet said. “Was this always a domicile?”
“No comment,” Drake said, and gave a furtive little laugh as she sipped her tea and leaned her head on Worthy’s shoulder.
The kitchen was surprisingly well appointed. Flowers everywhere. New, gleaming cabinets. A little sign hanging over the window that read “Love Happens Here.”
Duvet looked over his shoulder. Another sign read “As Long As We’ve Got Each Other.”
“We call it home,” Worthy said.
“I’ll be waiting on the ship,” Renta muttered and turned on a heel.
Duvet stuck up a hand. “Wait.” He looked at Drake, pursing his lips. “We have good reason to be here.”
“Roland told me,” Drake said. She hummed. “To think. Harlan Baxter wants to meet up with me!”
“Yes. He’s dying to see you,” Renta said flatly.
Worthy blanched. “Yes. Rumors of his demise were…exaggerated,” he said, fumbling with his fingers. He looked up nervously at Duvet. He knew Renta had a phaser up her sleeve, and would vaporize him if he didn’t go along with this stunt. His shoulders sunk. “I know how you feel about him, darling. And I know you two have unfinished business.”
“Yes, business,” Drake said, and put her hands on Worthy’s shoulders. “It’s only business with Harlan and me now. You’re my lover. My big brawny lump of man.”
Duvet’s stomach turned. He sipped his tea. “So will you help us reunite you and the good Admiral Baxter?”
“Oh yes,” Drake said. “I knew he was still passionate about this work. I knew he’d come back to me sometime. To finish it!” She clapped her hands. “Imagine it. The immense power!”
Duvet steepled his fingers. “Oh. I’ve done nothing but imagine it.”
Renta frowned. “And you know where this immense power is?”
Maura Drake nodded and punched herself several times in the side of her head. “Right in here. Right where we always planned. A little vacation spot. A little fishing, a little flirting…”
Renta turned to Duvet. “This is unbearable.”
Gul Duvet stood up, leaned toward Drake. “You will take us there. You will help us get in and access this immense power.”
“Yes. Then I will have Harlan Baxter!” Drake clapped.
“Um, yeah, sure,” Duvet said, and turned.
“So come on…your Admiral awaits…” Renta said. “Let’s get out of here before I throw up or something.”
“Indeed.” Duvet glanced over his shoulder. “Oh. I saw what looked like a holodeck on the way to this room. Is it operational?”
“Very much so,” Drake said. She giggled and looked at Roland. “We use it…recreationally.”
Renta leaned over Duvet’s shoulder. “When we’re done with this mission can I please come back here and vaporize this place?” she hissed under her breath.
“If I don’t get to it first,” Duvet said, and clapped his hands. “Now then, let’s get cooking!”
Worthy gave Renta a questioning glance.
“He means, let’s get out of here,” she sighed.
Airyn helped Tilleran climb down out of the Jefferies tube. The Steadfast’s engineering room looked like most Starfleet engine rooms. Panels, circuitry, and of course, a warp core, thrumming at the end of the chamber.
Tilleran stared at the warp core. “I haven’t studied my engineering specs in a while. Much less those of Section Thirty-One ships.”
“Yeah but it’s just an engine, like any other. Thing’s gotta have an alternator, right?”
“Yeah,” Tilleran said, and wandered back to the anteroom looking over the warp core chamber. She opened a cabinet, revealing a row of wires and nanolinear crisps. “I’m gonna regret this, aren’t I?”
“That’s the spirit,” Airyn said, and started yanking crisps out of their slots. Within moment, the lights around the room flickered and the warp core thrummed to a stop.
Plunged into darkness, Tilleran looked around. “That worked.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “I think the suppressor is offline. I can feel some beings down on the planet.”
“Reach farther,” Airyn said, reaching out and gripping Tilleran’s hands.
“Why are you doing that?”
“I figured it would make your telepathy stronger.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Tilleran sighed. “Okay here goes nothing.” She squeezed her eyes shut, reaching out through the ether, focusing all her powers.
“Oh I just had a bad thought.”
Tilleran blinked. “What? You know, this does take a bit of concentration.”
“Well, isn’t it possible what we just did will cause a warp core breach?”
“Probably not. Anyway, shut up so I can do this.”
“Well?” Peterman leaned on the desk in the readyroom. “Are you just going to sit there and do nothing?”
“We’re doing…things.” Conway eased forward and stood up, eye to eye with Peterman. “We’re scanning the adjacent sectors. We’re compiling information.”
“Well, while we’re compiling, Andy’s out there, and in trouble, and needs us!”
“It wasn’t my idea for him to go off half-cocked. You can thank your daughter for that.”
Browning leaned against the back wall of the readyroom, looking pensive. “Do you think this omnipotence thing is real?”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Conway shrugged.
“Let’s get out of here,” Peterman said, gently snagging Browning’s arm. “Find someone who can actually help.”
Conway watched them go, just as Larkin and Sparks slipped past them into the readyroom.
“He’s all yours,” Peterman snapped at Larkin.
“This is my readyroom, in point of fact,” Larkin said, to no one in particular.
Sparks tossed an iPadd in front of Conway. “We took this unexpected downtime to finalize repairs. Both Explorer and Aerostar are back up and running.”
“Surprisingly efficient,” Conway said, reviewing the contents of the padd.
“J’hana and I have been working on a way to trace the Steadfast,” Sparks continued.
“You snapped her out of her angry funk?”
“I…appealed to her sense of revenge,” Sparks said. “The sooner we find Roddick, the sooner she can eviscerate him.”
Conway snatched the iPadd and reviewed it. “Well then, time to see if we can find a needled in a haystack.” He pushed past Sparks and Larkin and headed out to the bridge, where Peterman and Browning hovered over tactical with Plato.
J’hana paced the quarterdeck beside tactical. After Plato had finished repairing the console, he’d informed J’hana she was no longer allowed near it. After casting a few threats and Andorian curses, she’d taken up her position on the aft deck, watching and waiting.
“Anything?” Conway asked, looking to Plato.
“No Steadfast. And no Wallenpaupak. My guess is Baxter covered his trail.”
“Stef probably had to help him,” Peterman muttered. “He could never remember the difference between ‘source’ and ‘input.’”
“Of course,” Conway said. “So there’s no way to rescue him.”
“He was trying to make sure we didn’t get hurt,” Peterman said.
“Dumb.” Conway sighed, looking around. “Well, can someone get me a coffee while we wait?”
“Wait,” J’hana said, and stepped forward.
“I don’t want to wait. Clearly you forgot about my relationship with coffee.”
“No,” J’hana said. Her antennae twitched, ever so slightly. “I mean. Wait. Everyone be quiet!”
Peterman turned to J’hana, walking up and putting a hand on her shoulder. “J’hana, I know you’re going through a hard time, but remember how we talked about you yelling on the bridge…”
“I feel her.” J’hana’s antennae continued to twitch.
“She’s got that look again,” Browning said, looking at Peterman. “Remember when they would play footsy under the conference room table?”
J’hana breathed, her voice lowering. “Imzadi…”
“Can we ask her to do this in private?” Sparks whispered to Larkin, who simply shook her head.
Conway fixed his gaze on J’hana. “Coordinates?”
“She’s back on Portico,” J’hana said distantly, antennae twitching. “The Steadfast is there. Roddick. Baxter.” J’hana looked at the conn officer. “Change course. Now!”
Conway nodded at Ensign Tom Hatch at the helm. “You heard her. Maximum warp. Go.”
J’hana cracked her knuckles, her antennae wavering. “We’re coming, Imzadi.”
THE YEAR 2382
Harlan Baxter eased back and took a puff of his cigar as he looked out over the placid waters of the planet Portico.
“Anythin’ bitin’?” he asked, angling over to his companion.
Ashley Donovan huffed, pulling her hair back into a messy ponytail as she wrestled with her rod. “No. It’s been three hours. You asked me the same thing two hours ago and I still said no.”
“Giv’t time,” Harlan chuckled and puffed on his cigar.
“Admiral, can I ask you a question?”
“You realize I was in the Sentosian system for a year, protecting Anna Kimmel from Section Thirty-One.”
“Thanks fer that,” Harlan said, and huffed as he tugged another fish into the boat – a two-foot Portican panfish, genetically engineered for smoky flavor. He tossed it into the live well behind Ashley.
“You do that like it’s nothing.”
“The cigar attracts ‘em.”
“Anyway, I was saying…I’ve just now gotten back to my old life. I’m trying to figure out how to fit into Starfleet Intelligence. Going legit, as it were, and…”
“Yer welcome,” Harlan huffed and tugged on his line a bit.
“But I’d just like to know…why would you bring me out to this backwater planet to spend all day in a boat. I mean, haven’t I suffered enough?”
“Fishin’s important,” Harlan said, and gestured out over the placid sea. “Everything you need is right here.”
“I’m Starfleet Intelligence,” Donovan responded. “I need information. I need to know…”
Harlan took the cigar out of his mouth. “You’ll know it all, when you need to.”
“We’ve never talked about it.”
Harlan looked out over the ebbing water that lapped against their 26-foot cruiser. “Never needed to.”
“Maura Drake’s research.”
“Thirty-one has Drake.”
“So it’s over. There’s no…loose threads…”
Harlan stared over his sunglasses at Donovan, putting his rod down. “Do I look like a man who leaves loose threads?”
“No, I just–”
“It’s all right here, Commander,” Harlan said, and grabbed his rod and reel, drawing it up and casting it back out into the liquid abyss. “Now relax and focus on yer casting and line depth. Yer doing it all wrong.”
“You wouldn’t have brought me out here just to go fishing.” Donovan waved a finger at him. “You’re trying to tell me something.”
“Sometimes a fish is just a fish,” Harlan said, and popped his cigar back into his mouth. “Now g’fishin!”
THE YEAR 2401
Ashley Donovan’s eyes shot wide open. “Holy shit!”
She made a move to get up, but found her body wouldn’t cooperate. She lurched forward and rolled off the biobed, slamming to the ground on hands and knees. The EMH Mark V materialized beside her. “What is the nature of the…” she looked down and grimaced. “Oh, you again.”
Donovan grunted in pain and leapt to her feet. “Bridge.” She looked around. “I need to get to the bridge. Baxter…” She raced for the door and then collapsed against the wall. “Oh god. Internal organs. Shifting.”
“You’re healing,” the EMH said, and put a hand on her shoulder. “You are in no condition to…”
“Deactivate EMH!” Donovan snapped, and ducked out of Sickbay, limping to the turbolift.
“Mister Plato, contact Starfleet for further advice on what to–” Conway was cut off as the aft turbolift whisked open.
“Where’s Baxter?” Ashley Donovan demanded as she stalked onto the bridge.
The EMH appeared in front of her. “You need to get back to bed.”
“Computer, deactivate EMH and permanently disable access to her program,” Donovan said.
“Now wait one…” the EMH said, and disappeared.
Browning glanced at Plato. “Should she be able to do that?”
“Nope,” said Plato.
“Go fish meant more than just cards!” Donovan said, stepping down to the front of the bridge. “Everything we’ve been looking for was under our noses the whole time. Well…maybe a little farther under than that.”
“Portico,” Conway said. “Yeah. We already know. You’re like two hours behind us.”
Donovan looked around. “Where’s Andy? Where’s Roddick?”
Conway sighed and folded his arms. “Guess where we’re going?”
Larkin stepped next to Donovan. “Perhaps you should sit down.”
Donovan worked her way around to the science console. “I…I was in this kind of haze…”
“They call it a ‘coma,’” Browning said helpfully.
“Andy needs our help.” Donovan sat down at the science console and started tapping.
“You should be recovering,” Larkin said.
“I’m fine,” Donovan said. “But none of us will be fine if we let Roddick get what he wants. He tried to kill me for it. He’ll kill Andy for it. And anyone else who gets in his way.”
J’hana growled at the viewscreen, her antennae curling vengefully. “Then. Let’s. Get. In. His. Way.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Donovan said. “I’m gong collapse now if that’s okay with everyone,” she said, and dropped to the deck.
After a disorienting phase shift, the Baxter family beach home sparkle-faded into a gleaming silver-and-white laboratory, complete with pretty blinking consoles, advanced sensory devices, and screens showing undecipherable research data. Tilleran or Sparks would have a field day with this, Baxter thought wryly.
“Nice place you have here, Baxter,” Roddick said with a low whistle as he looked around. “A gift from Section Thirty-One, you think?”
“Dad wasn’t with Section Thirty-One.”
“He worked with us,” Roddick said, advancing through the lab, checking consoles, opening storage cabinets. “Don’t be naive.”
“A temporary deal,” Baxter said. “To save the universe.”
“And look what his efforts yielded,” Roddick said, and alighted upon a control panel. “Ah!” he punched a series of controls and the panel came alive. As did the hundreds of other panels throughout the room, glowing with pervasive, blue, holographic light.
“Pretty,” Baxter said.
“Oh, this is just the warm-up act,” Roddick said, and thumbed another control. The blank, white wall in front of them suddenly split open, retracting to reveal a glass room that was filled with cycling, pulsating light. He withdrew his microcorder and inserted it into a slot beside the main control console. It beeped excitedly as the DNA data downloaded. “The main event is yet to come.” He advanced on the room and put his hands on the glass. “This is where it all happens, Baxter.”
“Why would you do this,” Baxter said softly, to himself. He blinked away his thoughts and set his eyes on Roddick. “Having trouble finding a door, Roddick?”
Roddick momentarily grunted as he pushed against the transparent aluminum wall. “A short interlude during which you can contemplate WHY you insist on refusing the gift of limitless power.”
“Because it’s insane,” Baxter said. “That’s not a good enough reason?”
“Computer!” Roddick called out. “Open laboratory bay.”
“Access key required,” the computer responded.
Roddick smiled. “Is it now?”
Baxter grinned. “Oh well,” he huffed, and reached down to his pantleg to fumble for the nanolinear chip. His eyes widened as he realized it wasn’t where he’d left it.
Roddick held up in his hand. The tiny chip glinted in the harsh light of the lab. “You looking for this?”
Baxter’s mouth opened. “Nice trick. Can you make a quarter appear from behind my ear, too?”
Roddick moved over to the console. “Your father was an old fashioned man. A physical key. How quaint.” He searched the console for a slot. “Oh…there you are. Just a…”
And Baxter crossed the room in moments, throwing himself at Roddick and shoving an elbow against his neck, pinning him to the wall. The crisp clattered to the floor with a tiny pop.
“No. Fucking. Way,” Baxter grunted, forcing his elbow against Roddick’s throat with all his might.
Roddick ducked, slipping out from under Baxter and then cracked back with his foot, kicking Baxter in the gut.
Roddick leapt to the floor. Baxter leapt on him. The Admiral was no match for his opponent in terms of fighting skills, but he was twice his weight.
Roddick collapsed with an “Oof!” pushing back against Baxter. “You’re…not…going…to make…this easy…are you?”
“I’m not,” Baxter grunted, slinging an arm around Roddick’s neck, holding on, trying to choke him out. Then the last thing Baxter saw was Roddick’s elbow coming back under his chin, and then a fist to the side of his head. And darkness.
“Come,” Stef Baxter said, staring at the ceiling in her cabin, arms folded behind her head.
Lt. Eric Kurg strode in. “Am I bothering you?”
“Oh, hey, Eric,” Stef said, pulling a pillow close to her and hugging it. “No, I don’t think it’s possible for me to be more bothered.” Kurg had been a fixture the last few years, hovering around every time she visited her Father, accompanying him to her academy events. She appreciated the way Kurg looked after Baxter, even when at times he wasn’t necessarily much fun to be around.
“Thought you’d want to know, we’ve changed course.” Kurg pulled up a chair next to Stef. “Your Father’s on Portico.”
Stef leaned up. “Really?”
“Roddick is there, too.”
“Shit. I’ve got to get to the bridge.”
Kurg held up a hand. “You think that’s wise? I think they’re still pretty ticked at you.”
“Eric, I’ve got to. It’s my Dad.”
Kurg nodded. “I know. But clearly you’ve noticed, over time, your Dad has this way…of surviving. Even when he does some really…”
“I wouldn’t have said that.”
“You were thinking it,” Stef smiled. “And you’re right. But I can’t just sit in here and wait.”
Suddenly the door chimed again. “Yeah?” Stef called.
The doors swung open. Commander Sparks strode through. “You have a moment, Ensign?”
Stef stood up. “Yeah, of course, Commander.”
Sparks looked at Kurg.
Kurg got the message. “I’ll be, uh, up on the bridge. Seeing if I can lend a hand…”
As Kurg left, Sparks turned to Stef. “You’ve heard we’re going to go try and rescue your Dad.”
“Yeah,” Stef nodded.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t want to be on the sidelines for this,” Sparks said.
Sparks looked at Stef thoughtfully. “I understand why you did what you did. If Admiral Baxter had come to me, I’d have probably done the same thing.” She smirked. “But having the extra pips helps. You’re an ensign, Baxter. You’ve got to learn how to follow the chain of command. No matter how annoying it is.”
“Is that how you were trained?”
“I got a lot of my training from your father, so…no,” Sparks smiled. “And it doesn’t help that you have inherited your Dad’s knack for not knowing how far in over your head you are at any given moment. It served him well over the years. It can serve you well, too, with some time.”
Stef chewed her lip thoughtfully. “So I’m not fired?”
Sparks chuckled. “No, ensign, you’re not fired. But I need you to give me your word. You promise me you’ll fly straight, and I’ll make sure you get back on the bridge.”
Stef blinked. “Anything. Yes. I promise!”
“It’ll piss Admiral Conway off, which alone is worth the effort.” She gave a wry smile. “C’mon, Ensign.”
“You did mean ‘fly straight’ just for this mission, right?”
Sparks smiled and shook her head. “Yeah, just for this mission.”
With that the pair took off toward the bridge.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Conway said, as Sparks and Stef Baxter stood in front of him on the bridge.
“She knows what she did was wrong,” Peterman said, as Conway silenced her with a glare. Browning touched Peterman’s arm, giving her a little head shake.
“She’s a Starfleet officer and she wants to be at her station,” Sparks said. “And, Admiral. It’s her father down there.”
Conway glowered at her. “All the more reason she should be belowdecks.”
Sparks quirked a grin. “She also happens to be the best pilot we have.”
“Forget about it,” Conway snapped, waving them both away.
“Take your station, ensign,” Larkin said smoothly, stepping next to Conway.
“Did you forget where you fall in the pecking order?” Conway snapped, turning to Larkin.
“It’s still my ship, Admiral. Unless you wish to relieve me of duty?”
Conway looked from Larkin to Sparks, and then leveled a gaze at Stef. “You so much as twitch and I’ll put you in the brig, Ensign.”
Stef gave a grin. “So that’s a yes?”
Conway huffed. Sparks nodded at her.
“You are growing soft in your old age, sir,” Larkin nodded, sitting beside Conway as Stef relieved Ensign Hatch at helm.
“You know what’s annoying?” Conway asked. “We’ve all gotten older, but you look exactly the frigging same.”
Larkin raised an eyebrow. “Oh? I had not noticed.”
“Two minutes to Portico,” Stef said, looking up from the helm console. “Captain, we’re really pushing the hell out of the engines.”
“It’ll be fine, Ensign,” Sparks said, crossing the bridge. “Steady as she goes.”
In the corner of the bridge, Eric Kurg stood, like a soldier with no post.
Peterman drifted over to him. “You’ve been pretty quiet.”
“I’ve got nothing to do,” Kurg said. “There are probably tons of messages piling up for Admiral Baxter. I should…”
“You’re worried about him.”
“I…I’d have to get another job. Get used to a whole other Admiral,” Kurg said. “That would be…a pain.”
Peterman patted him on the back, smiling warmly. “Your secret’s safe with me, Lieutenant.”
“I’m sure you’re worried about him, too,” Kurg said tightly.
“Nah,” Peterman said, smiling tightly. “It’ll all be fine.”
Browning stepped out of the aft conference room doors. “I sent a coded message to Kimmel. She’s…she said she’ll never forgive us if we don’t send her brother back in one piece.”
“Working on it,” Conway muttered.
“I’ve got to talk to Raymond,” Peterman muttered.
Stef looked back at her. “Can’t we just tell him when this is all over?”
“Would you want me to do that to you?” Peterman smirked.
“Good point,” Stef said, and stared ahead at the screen.
Sparks walked over to the command area and sat down. “Any word on Starfleet reinforcements?”
“They don’t have anyone else in this sector,” Conway said. “Anyway we don’t know what we’re dealing with yet. One ship…”
“A Section Thirty-one ship.” Donovan slumped in a chair at sciences, staring at readouts. Browning had, over her own objections, given her a mild stimulant to keep her conscious for the proceedings, but was since then keeping a close eye on her from the aft deck. “Admiral, we’re clearly outmatched.”
J’hana cracked her knuckles, glowering at tactical. “I’ve never been outmatched.”
“Arriving at Portico,” Stef announced. “Coming out of warp.”
“Securing all stations,” Mathers said, tapping at his panel. “Sensors on maximum.”
“Standard orbit Ensign,” Larkin said, looking down at Stef as she guided the Explorer into orbit.
“Got something,” Donovan snapped, looking at the viewscreen. “Sensor contact bearing zero three one mark one one three. She’s got sensor-reflective armor but she’s right there in orbit. Hanging over Baxter’s island house.”
“Well now.” Conway put hands on his hips. “Can we beam over?”
Plato looked over his console. “Easily. The ship is totally powered down. Engines, shields, weapons…even life support…all down.”
“Life signs?” J’hana snapped.
“Two, but faint,” Plato said.
J’hana froze Conway with a look. Fury rose in her eyes.
“Let’s go,” Conway said, clapping his hands together. He stood and strode toward the turbolift.
Donovan winced as she eased out of her seat. “On…my…way…”
Browning broke in. “Nobody asked me, but can I say that, medically, that would be a bad idea.” She turned to Conway. “Half of her insides are still not where they’re supposed to be.” She averted her eyes as Donovan glared at her. “Just saying.”
“You’ll stay on the bridge,” Conway said. “Along with our civilian bystanders,” he said, aiming a glare at Browning and Peterman.
“Now just you wait one…” Peterman raised a finger.
Conway turned on her. “You want us to save your husband or not?”
“You’re not capable of that,” Peterman said flatly. Conway opened his mouth to object, but Peterman pressed on. “I’m his wife. Was his wife. And his therapist. David, I know him better than anyone. While you’re all trying to save the galaxy, someone needs to be there to save Andy. That’s gonna be me.” She looked on expectantly, biting her lip as the bridge suddenly drifted into silence, except for the agitated beeping of consoles.
Conway pressed his lips together, his brows knit in the only response he was comfortable with. “Fine,” he said, and pointed around the bridge. “Larkin. J’hana. You’re with us. Let’s get over there and see what’s what…”
“Déjà vu,” Browning said softly, looking on as Peterman picked up step next to Conway, Larkin and J’hana.
“Hell of an away team,” said Sparks, folding her arms as the group filed into the lift
“Sparks, you have the bridge,” Conway said. “Try not to screw up.”
Stef turned in her chair to face the turbolift. “Mom,” she said. “Be careful over there.”
Peterman smiled at her and nodded as the lift doors closed.
THE YEAR 2380
David Conway had just taken the biggest leap of his life. Literally.
The fall down the hill had twisted his knee and scraped his shoulder. But more than that, he emerged at the bottom of the hill as a married man.
It had been Alexa Lanham’s idea. Begin their life together as Conway had ended his last relationship. Just a roll down the old hill.
With Alexa’s help, Conway climbed back up to join his wedding guests. He held Alexa a long time. Kissed her.
Then he ventured over to the bar for a drink. There at the bar, Admiral Harlan Baxter, extended a frothy mug to Conway. “Coffee stout,” the Admiral said.
“Thanks, I guess?” Conway asked, and took the glass, and sipped. He turned and looked at the guess milling about. Most of them Alexa’s friends. He had few friends, and some of those were currently lost back in time.
“Just take care of ‘er.”
“The Aerostar, or Alexa?”
Harlan grinned and puffed his cigar.
Conway leaned his elbows against the bar. “Sir, you mind if I ask – but do you think they’ll find Baxter, Peterman, Browning, Richards, President Dillon…Steffie…you think they’ll find any of them again?”
“Man’s gotta have hope,” Harlan said.
Conway stared into his drink. “Why?”
“Because the universe is vast. Big. Full of possibility, son.”
“Thanks for being here…for the ceremony.”
“I’s here anyway,” Harlan said, clapping Conway on his bum shoulder. With a guffaw, he strode off into the sunlit evening.
And Conway took a long drag on his drink and wondered if he’d ever see his friends again.
Friends. Huh. Who’d have thought?
Conway shook the cobwebs from his brain as he rematerialized aboard the Steadfast. Funny how one’s mind would drift sometimes, during transport. He steeled himself, raising his phaser. “Larkin: Scans.”
Captain Larkin swung her wrist beacon around the dimly lit vessel. “Main power totally offline, as are the backups.” She reached into her side pack and pulled out a small, flat rectangle. She reached one of the bridge power junctions and slapped the device against it. It hummed to life. “This generator will provide emergency power to key systems for a short time.”
“I don’t like it,” J’hana said, propping her foot up on a console and raising her phaser rifle. “There is no one here for me to shoot.”
Peterman gently patted her on the back. “Don’t worry, J’hana. I’m sure you’ll get to beat someone up by the time this is all over.”
“I don’t ask for much. Rescue my Imzadi. Rain blows upon the wicked. These are simple demands.”
Peterman sighed. “So what else do we do on these away teams? Honestly, I forget.”
Larkin crossed behind Conway, ignoring Peterman’s question. “Life signs in the engine room, ten decks down.”
Conway grimaced. “Larkin, access the Jefferies’ hatch. I’m assuming lifts are down, too.”
“Correct. We do not have enough emergency power to operate the lifts,” Larkin said, and moved over to the aft of the control center, prying open a hatch.
“We descend,” J’hana announced, bringing up the rear.
Conway grunted as he leaned down and climbed into the hatch after Larkin and J’hana.
Peterman brought up the rear. “Yeah, seems like.”
Natheena Sparks stood in the ready room, staring out the oblong window that looked out on the turning orb of Portico. There was a time her hair was long enough that she could pull it over her face, hiding behind curtains of it. She would do that during desperate times, when the world was too much, and her anxiety ruled her. It gave her a sense of peace and serenity when her world was chaotic and unpredictable. On the original Explorer, Cadet Sparks hid behind that swath of hair on more than one occasion.
Now, her shoulder-length cut with a sweep of bangs made that impossible. Sparks thought about that as she stared out the window. She placed a hand on the window and watched it tremble. “Stop it, Nat,” she urged herself. “You’ve got this.”
She was never meant to be a command officer. She was happy with a science posting on the USS Stockholm. She’d plotted a course to research work, outer sector exploration. Xenobiology.
Then Andy Baxter called her. Asked her to serve on the new Explorer. He promised her adventure. The unpredictable. All the things that scared young Natheena Sparks. And still, for some reason, she’d said yes.
And now here she was, maybe at the end of the galaxy, in command.
The knot in her stomach told her she couldn’t do this. The trembling in her hands wouldn’t stop, so she’d had to ball her fists.
The door chime rang.
Lt. Plato appeared, framed in the doorway. “Commander?”
Sparks looked over her shoulder. “What is it, Plato?’
He watched her for a beat. “Everything all right?”
“Yep,” she said crisply, and turned. As they looked at each other, words passed between them silently. Words that didn’t need to be said.
Plato straightened. “Well. We finished scans of the planet. Some interesting readings I think you should see.”
Sparks nodded and crossed the room, putting a hand on Plato’s shoulder. “I’m ready, Lieutenant. Lead the way.”
The Explorer bridge was eerily silent as Sparks and Plato stepped out of the readyroom and crossed up to the aft stations to look over planetary scans.
Lt. Mathers leaned over toward the helm console. “You okay, Stef?”
“What?” Stef Baxter was nervously tapping her panel and only then looked down to see she’d almost accidentally ejected the warp core. “What? Oh, yeah. I’m fine.”
“Cool, cool. Um. Can you keep an eye on my station? I have to go to the bathroom.”
Stef sighed. Mathers was a nice guy but his mind would tend to wander now and again. She pointed to the ensign standing easy at the back of the bridge, gazing around.
“See, Ensign Talmadge over there? He’ll take over for you. That’s why those people stand around, for times like this.”
“Yeah, right, what was I thinking,” Mathers said, and eased away from his panel.
As soon as Talmadge saw Mathers leave, he jogged down and took a seat at Ops.
“Nicely done,” Stef said with a nod, as Browning made her way over to her.
“You doing okay?” she asked, a hand on Stef’s shoulder.
“Yes,” she snapped. “Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
“I don’t know. It just…” Browning shrugged. “I don’t know, honestly. Kind of dumb, huh?”
“Hey, Aunt Janice?”
Browning turned around. “Yeah?”
“Is this what you guys were doing all those times Mom and Dad would disappear from our quarters for hours at a time?”
Browning grinned as she remembered. “Something like this, yes.”
“It’s actually kinda boring. The waiting.”
“You learn to cherish the boring parts,” Browning said, and turned back toward the command area.
At the same time, Donovan was pointing at the readings on the large master console at the back of the bridge. Plato and Sparks looked it over. “We finally isolated the strange readings from Baxter’s house.”
Sparks narrowed her eyes at the information that scrolled across the holographic display. “Veteron particles.”
“Something hidden on the planet,” Plato said. “A space pocket.”
Sparks nodded and looked at Donovan. “Can we break in?’
Donovan turned and swung behind the science station. She moved her hand across the holographic controls. “Trying. This one is new to me.”
“Great.” Sparks turned toward the viewscreen. “So I guess we just have to wai–.”
Suddenly a great crash shook the Explorer.
“Contact bearing oh two four mark one, decloaking astern!” Plato shouted out, retaking his console as blasts rocked against Explorer.
Sparks steadied herself as the Explorer pitched, falling against the command chair. “Shields up, return fire!”
“Sheaths compromised on six decks,” Plato called out. “She just appeared and hit us with everything!”
“Aerostar is moving in between her and us,” Stef called out. “Evasive?”
“As evasive as you can, and someone get us a look. On screen!” Sparks said, staggering toward the front of the bridge.
On the screen, a Dominion battlecruiser revealed itself, darting around the Aerostar-A and circling toward the Steadfast.
“Company,” Stef said with a quiet breath.
“We’ve got to contact the Steadfast, warn them…” Browning said, leaning on the tactical console.
“What do you think I’ve been trying to do?” Donovan shot back. “The battlecruiser is jamming comms.”
“Coming around for another pass,” Mathers said, looking up.
“They’re scanning the surface,” Donovan announced.
“Maybe they’ll have more luck than we did,” Sparks said.
Browning let out a low breath. “Hope not.”
“The battle is joined!” Duvet howled, gripping his command chair. “Turn up the heat and broil them!”
Renta Fays stood next to him, her arms crossed, visibly blanching. “I hope you know what you’re doing. I still think this is a waste of time.”
“Look,” he turned. “I didn’t spend the last week in mental asylums and network newsrooms just to be stopped now. I will have the secret ingredients to unlimited power!” he pounded the arm of his chair.
Roland Worthy piped up from an aft station. “We actually feature more opinion content than network news. I can see why you’re confused though as we do use a news style banner for our primetime broadcast…”
“SHUT UP!” Renta snapped at him.
Next to Worthy, Maura Drake threw her arms around her beloved. “My dear Harlan is so close! I can feel his glorious presence! Him and me and my fabulous research, together again!” she twirled in her flowery dress and collapsed against Worthy’s chest.
“Clam down sweetie,” Worthy said softly, stroking Drake’s hair. “We’re almost there.”
“Scans showing nothing,” Sohat said. The Cardassian grimaced as Renta looked over her shoulder.
“See. Nothing!” Renta snapped.
“To your pathetic, normal eyes, it’s nothing,” Drake said, and scurried over to an auxiliary panel. She tapped away at controls. “Harlan and I always said we’d build this laboratory together. And when we did, it would be hidden…in plain sight!”
Renta cast a look at Worthy. “Look, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you could do better, man.”
“She is…inventive…” Worthy said, and trailed off, seemingly alone with his thoughts.
Sohat looked up from her terminal. “Doctor Drake has reconfigured our sensors. We’re getting new readings. There is a structure on the planet outside phased space.”
Duvet beamed. “I knew it. Maura, can you get us in there?”
“Oh, I can get us all the way in,” Drake cooed, and smiled back at Worthy, who just swallowed hard.
“Time for the main course,” Duvet said, rubbing his hands together.
THE YEAR 2375
“You got a minute for me?” Harlan Baxter stood in the door to the shuttlebay as Counselor Kelly Peterman stood on the deck, looking out at the expanse of McKinley station that spread just outside the Explorer’s bay doors as she put in for repairs. She’d come down to the shuttlebay to stretch her legs and catch the view of Earth from this vantage point, which Lt. Hartley had recommended.
“For you, Admiral, absolutely,” Peterman said, turning on a heel to face the elder Baxter. The Explorer had just returned from a firefight with a Flarn vessel that had attacked the Alpha Quadrant, one last loose end from their adventure in the Delta Quadrant. Now they were about to refit the newly built USS Explorer and set out on a whole new adventure. Peterman took a deep breath. “I’m getting ready to beam down with Andy. He’s going to show me around his house and his home town.”
“About the house,” Harlan said, and put a cigar in his mouth, chewing it thoughtfully. “Rsts rn me some stuf there.”
“And how about you? Replaced by a changeling, defeating a galactic conspiracy, and reuniting with your son…you must be overwhelmed.”
“W’joy, Crnsr, w’joy,” Harlan said, patting Peterman on the shoulder. He took his cigar out and pointed it at her. “You know, you make him happy.”
“Andy? Oh, I don’t know. It’s still very new. And you know, when two people are stuck in a stressful situation for a year, I’m sure it draws them together. I’m – I guess I am just glad I found him. Looking forward to what the future holds.”
“It’s a Starfleet family. Lucille and I made it work somehow.”
“Oh, I can’t wait to get to know her better too,” Peterman said.
“Take your time,” Harlan said. “My dear, we have all the time in the world. Get to know Andy. Figure out how things work here in the Alpha Quadrant. Explore your life together.” He waved around the newly minted ship, which had already taken its share of hits. “You’ve got the perfect place to do it.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said, looking around. She looked out of the corner of her eye at Harlan. What was he trying to tell her?
Harlan winked at her. “How about we find our way to that transporter room?”
“Sounds like a fine idea, sir.” Peterman extended her arm and Harlan took it and the two stepped out of the shuttlebay.
Peterman stirred from her thoughts as she heard an animal growl from J’hana, stalking in front of her as the group advanced down the dim corridor.
“I am invigorated!” she announced.
Larkin had her tricorder out, scanning. “The last four years have been…uneventful, I assume?”
“I am profoundly bored,” J’hana said. “I want to kill things.”
Conway stared at the dim corridor ahead. “Am I the only one who’s liked the fact that we haven’t been fighting for our lives on a weekly basis?”
“A certain predictability can be appreciated from time to time,” Larkin observed. She looked at her scanner. “Contact coming from outside the ship…” she steeled herself. “Hold on!”
A blast rocked the steadfast and Conway tripped forward.
J’hana gripped his arm to stop his fall and faced him. “This ship has ablative armor. Even at emergency power it will withstand an attack. For a few moments.”
“We’ve got to get off the ship,” Peterman noted.
“Not before we find my Imzadi,” J’hana said, and forged ahead.
“Larkin to Explorer,” Larkin called out. She shook her head. “It appears our communications are being jammed.”
“Can you clear it?’ Conway asked.
“Unlikely,” Larkin said, checking her tricorder, as they approached a door. Larkin reached out to access the conduit inside and unlock the door, but J’hana was already on it, growling and forcing her fingers between the doors, shoving them apart.
“Let her break a few things,” Peterman said. “It’s good for her.”
Conway rolled her eyes. “Just don’t break anything we need, okay?”
They strode into the engine compartment, scanning carefully.
There, seated against the master systems display, were Tilleran and Airyn. They slumped forward, breathless.
“It’s about time,” Tilleran mumbled, as J’hana crossed the room and pulled her into hug. “You got my long distance call…”
“I will always answer your call,” J’hana huffed, hugging back stiffly.
Larkin waved a tricorder over Tilleran and Airyn. “They are suffering the effects of oxygen depletion. You all will begin to as well, if we don’t restore power or get off this ship.”
“More importantly, who’s shooting at us?” Airyn asked.
“Not sure,” Conway said. “But I’m for abandoning ship.”
“The emergency transporter bay is nearby,” Larkin said. “I believe I can interface with the ship’s computer.”
“A Section Thirty-one computer?” Peterman asked.
“All computers are about the same,” Larkin said.
The ship rocked again.
“Not to be hasty,” Tilleran said. “But I think we should get the hell out of here.”
“Get us something on sensors,” Sparks said, crossing the bridge as the Elegiar raged at them, exchanging fire with the Explorer and Aerostar at once, driving a wedge between them and the Steadfast.
The bridge rocked. Donovan gripped her panel. “Nothing doing. And we’ve barely been able to penetrate their shields.”
“Then it’s up to the away team,” Sparks said, looking at the screen. “We just have to hold together a while longer…”
“And what are the chances of that?” Stef asked.
“Your Mom and Dad are down there, Stef,” Browning said, clutching the tactical console and sharing a look with Plato. “Believe in them.”
Baxter’s eyes fluttered open. He looked up to see Roddick fussing over one of the many smooth, flat computer consoles encircling the chamber.
One moment, Baxter and Roddick were wrestling each other for the nano crisp. The key to the chamber, in which, Baxter guessed, Roddick would seek and find his ultimate goal: Total omnipotence.
Then the crisp had clattered and skittered along the floor. The two men grunted and reached for it, falling over each other.
And then blackness. Roddick had knocked him unconscious.
Baxter climbed to his feet, unsteady and woozy. “Roddick…stop. You can’t do this.”
Roddick looked up. He was a blur as Baxter’s vision sorted itself out. He was leaning over the master console, inserting the chip. “Oh, I can and I will. I’ll get back everything I lost.”
“What did you lose?”
“I…” Roddick faltered as alert klaxons rang throughout the lab. “Proximity sensors. Damn it. We’ve got company.”
“Four for dinenr,” Gul Duvet announced, striding up to the pair. Behind him, Renta Fays leveled a phaser at him and Roddick, as Roland Worthy cowered behind them and Maura Drake set about the room, looking over the systems consoles.
“Oh fuck, not you again,” Baxter grunted at Duvet, then looked at Drake and Worthy. “And you. And you.”
“No more cooking,” Roddick said distantly, blinking at Duvet, momentarily frozen.
Baxter stood and straightened his tunic. His eyes caught Worthy and Drake. “What are you two doing here other than ruining an already bad day?”
“Baxter,” Worthy said, standing behind Duvet. “We meet again. Finally, the two tables have turned against each other!”
“For pete’s sake,” Baxter said. “Only you would pick the dumbest, most ridiculous person to team up with, and show up at the worst damned possible time!”
“Admiral,” Duvet said gently, stepping toward Baxter. “I’m gratified to see you again. I’m glad you can be part of this momentous day.”
“I am so, so tired of this,” Baxter grunted, putting his hands down on his knees.
“We can gut this room and sell this stuff for a load of latinum,” Renta said, looking around.
“Sell it? Why would we do that when we can use it!” Drake said. She looked at Duvet. “Me, you, and Harlan!”
Baxter looked up. “What the hell is she going on about?”
“Nevermind,” Duvet said quickly. He waved Baxter and Roddick into a corner pointing his phaser at them. “You both should just stand back. Let this moment simmer.”
“No,” Roddick said, his eyes darting around the room.
“Yes,” Duvet said, as Drake moved over to the master systems console, hands dancing across the interactive panels. “Yes. Yes. Yes. It’s all coming. DINNER IS READY!”
“Sorry to be a bug,” Worthy said, stepping up behind Duvet. “But could I get an exclusive after this? You would really give my show the ratings spike it needs!”
“Shut up,” Duvet said, and turned to Drake. “Well?”
“The system is working. It’s all here, just as I’d hoped. Just as we’d planned!” As she worked, she glanced over at Duvet. “Could you go find Harlan? I’d love to catch up with him and see how he’s been doing!”
Baxter watched the scene unfold and rubbed his aching joints. He had been beaten up a lot over the last few days. But that was the least of his problems.
As Drake worked at the science console, and the lab chamber started to hum with blue light, she turned and gave Baxter a wink. “Hey, guy. How’s your dad?” As she spoke, the transparent doors to the chamber whisked open with a puff of stale air.
“Doctor Drake,” Baxter said, lowering his voice, looking at the chamber. “You’ve got to listen to reason. This man will destroy the universe,” he said, pointing at Duvet. He looked at Roddick, whose face was creased with panic and worry. “Also probably that guy. You’ve got to stand down. Give me the nanolinear crisp.”
Drake shook her head and plunked at the controls. “And why on Earth would I do that?”
Baxter folded his arms. “So Harlan Baxter can rest in peace knowing this place isn’t a threat anymore.”
Drake’s eye twitched. She looked at Baxter. “What are you talking about? Harlan’s alive.” She looked around her. “Right?”
“Oh no,” Duvet said, sliding between Baxter and Drake. “Doctor, don’t listen to him. He’s trying to confuse you.”
“You don’t know,” Baxter said, as Renta Fays grabbed his arms and pulled them behind him, dragging him back to the corner of the room, with Roddick. “Oh, Doctor, you don’t know…Harlan…is gone.” He pursed his lips making a quick calculation. “His last wishes were to destroy this research.”
Drake stopped, her hands hovering over the controls. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Baxter squirmed out of Renta’s grasp and turned to face her. He glared at Duvet. “You haven’t told her. Maura, Harlan Baxter is…” he worked his jaw a bit. “Dead.”
She narrowed her eyes at Duvet. “Is this true?””
Gul Duvet gritted his teeth. “Don’t listen to him! It’s all just lies. Federation lies!”
“If he’s not dead, then where is he?” Baxter asked, pressing on. “Doctor Drake, think about it. You’re insane but you’re not stupid.”
“You sure about that?” Renta asked.
“But we were meant to be together,” Drake said thoughtfully, looking down. “An omnipotent king and queen.”
“Sucks not to get what you want,” Baxter snapped, and pushed toward Drake. “Harlan Baxter is gone. And I’m here to destroy the last of this research – the research you two built together – to save mankind. Isn’t that what he would have wanted?”
“No!” Drake turned. “He’d want us to be together and happy!”
“He’d have to be here to want that,” Baxter said. “I’m sorry to be the one to break the news to you. Believe me. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it.”
Fire ignited in Drake’s eyes as she spun on Duvet. “LIAR!” she leapt on him, kneeing him in the stomach.
“Urk! Help me!” Duvet growled, holding Drake’s arms and trying to wrestle her off.
Renta Fays stepped in, and Roland Worthy, too. It wasn’t clear who was attacking whom, or who was doing the shoving, but no one looked happy.
Roddick leaned over to Baxter, watching the exchange. “You want to get out of here?” he whispered.
“More than ever,” Baxter said.
“We may disagree over what to do with this research, but one thing is certain, Duvet shouldn’t have it,” Roddick said.
“Yeah, I’m with you on that much.”
“GO!” Roddick cried out, pushing Baxter toward Duvet and the others.
Baxter charged in, and instinctively went for Roland Worthy. He landed an elbow in Worthy’s back, swept his leg out from under him, and drove him into the floor.
“My Ro-Ro!” Drake cried out and twisted toward Baxter, clawing for his face.
Baxter winced and gripped for Drake’s wrists, as Renta hauled Duvet out of the fray, backing him against a wall.
She fired her phaser into the air, as sparks showered the room.
“Everyone cool it,” she snapped.
“And who are you to go around giving orders!” Drake snapped, up on her knees, a wild look on her face.
Renta fired a phaser blast at Drake, sending her flopping to the floor.
Worthy smiled weakly next to Drake. “You proved your point. I’m not going to give you any troub–”
“Shut up,” Renta said, and blasted him square in the chest. He fell over on top of Drake.
“You can’t get good help these days,” Duvet said, rubbing his hands together and turning toward the master console. He looked into the chamber which hummed with a pleasing blue light. “Now, who knows how to use this thing?”
Roddick was already there, tapping at the controls. Baxter sighed, crouched next to the insensate Worthy and Drake. Of course, like a good Section 31 officer, he used Baxter as a diversion so he could get control of the situation. Just one more in a lifetime of miscalculations. Baxter settled on the decision that everything that had happened at this point was his fault. A nice, comforting thought, just in time for the end of days.
A smile spread across Roddick’s face as the chamber hummed with more and more power. The deck plating trembled.
Renta aimed her phaser at Roddick. “Step away from that thing. Whatever it is.”
Roddick looked at Renta. Then at the chamber. He sprung over the control console and stuck the landing, dashing into the chamber. Renta fired, but her blast sailed past Roddick. She shot again, hitting him in the arm, causing him to twist around…right into the chamber.
Roddick smiled broadly as he slammed his hand down on the console inside the chamber, and the doors wooshed closed.
Sparks balled her fists, steeling herself against the knot of dread in her gut as the Dominion cruiser veered on the screen, angling toward them.
“She’s figured out the Steadfast is abandoned,” Donovan said. “She’s going to focus everything on us and the Aerostar-A.”
“Any way we can get a message to the ‘A,” Sparks asked, glancing over her shoulder at Plato.
“Negative.” Plato looked up. “Still jammed. No comms with the surface or with the Aerostar.”
“They’re taking a pounding,” Donovan said, wheeling around at her console. “The Prometheus class was a beauty in her day, but she can’t match up against today’s weapons. Her shields and substructure are weaker than ours. She won’t last…” She looked. “More than a few minutes at this rate?”
“Put us between the ‘A and the Dominion ship,” Sparks said, moving toward the helm. She rested her hand on Stef’s chair. “Port shields are stronger. Show ‘em our port side.”
A neutron torpedo slammed into the Explorer as she dove in front of the Aerostar. A console exploded, sending a shower of sparks across the bridge.
“Shields buckled on six decks. Hull rupture on deck nine!” Mathers reported. “I’m good, though. I’m doing fine.”
Sparks gripped the helm chair. “Hold course, Stef. Plato: Return fire!”
On the screen, the Explorer lashed out, twin torpedo banks firing.
Still the battlecruiser came.
Stef looked over her shoulder. “The cloak.”
“We’re not going to run and hide,” Sparks said with a chiding glare.
“No,” Stef said. “Not what I was talking about. But I do have an idea…”
On the bridge of the Eligiar, Sohat clapped his hands together eagerly. This was his chance to prove himself. With Duvet and Renta on the surface and only marginal chances of success, he could show that he could do just as good a job leading the Eligiar. By the end of the day, the New Order could be his to lead, with all the perks that came with it. Like larger quarters!
He winced as the deck shook, Explorer returning fire.
“We cannot take both ships,” Yovern, said from tactical. “If we can get past the Explorer, we can destroy the Aerostar and even the odds.”
“She’s not going to make that easy,” Sohat surmised.
Yovern blinked as he looked over his console. “Glin, the Explorer!”
Sohat looked up as the Explorer rippled and disappeared. “She’s cloaking. Cowards!” He clenched his fist. “Helm, press forward. Attack the Aerostar-A with everything we’ve got!”
The Elegiar bounded toward the Aerostaras it turned toward them on the screen.
“Closing on the Aerostar,” Yovern called out. “She’s coming about, torpedoes armed! At this distance… “
“Fools! They’re no match for us. Match speed and close the distance! All weapons!”
Elegiar and Aerostar roared toward each other, seemingly set on mutual destruction.
And then, in a second, Explorer-A shimmered back into view, driving up through the narrow space between the two ships, its phase cloak rippling as it cut a perpendicular path between the two vessels. And then with another cascade of cloaking energy, both ships disappeared.
“Sensors, find them!”
“Explorer has us in a tractor beam!” Lt. Commander Creed called out from tactical.
Captain Ford steeled himself as the Aerostar-A bridge shook hard. The bridge crew scurried about, patching a blown console and sealing a torn bulkhead. Smoke rose from the sparking panels at his left and right..
“Nice of her,” Ford ducked down and hung on to the helm officer’s chair. “Ensign Steele, keep us in tight should Explorer’s tractor give out.” He grimaced. “I sure hope they’ve got an experienced pilot over there…”
“Find me those ships!” Sohat growled, clinging to the command chair as the Elegiar pitched around. “Scan subspace layers and try to lock on to their neutrino signature!”
“Nothing on scanners, but sir, the Steadfast!”
Sohat looked up and watched as the Steadfast suddenly vanished from view, with that telltale cloaking ripple.
“Did she just cloak two other ships?” Sohat gasped. “No matter. She can’t tractor them both.”
“Actually,” Yovern raised a finger. “The Aurora-class starship is known to have two tractor beams.”
“That’s information that would have been useful FIVE MINUTES AGO!” Sohat snapped, and then looked at the screen, and the blank field of stars on it.
“Maybe they’re retreating,” Yovern offered.
“Maybe,” Sohat said, standing up and stepping toward the viewscreen.
Suddenly the Explorer emerged from its phase cloak, screaming right toward them, Aerostar-A and Steadfast in tow just below her.
Sohat gripped his chair. “By Garak’s blade! Reverse course! Maximum speed!”
Explorer flew toward them, and at the last moment, she pulled up, along with the Aerostar-A.
But not the Steadfast.
The Steadfast flew right at them.
“Oh no,” Sohat said in a small voice, just before his bridge erupted into fireworks and the deck flew out from under him.
Stef Baxter gripped the holographic controls, pitching the Explorer downward as Steadfast crashed into the Elegiar, sending both ships pitching apart.
“Major collision! Battlecruiser damaged on twenty decks,” Plato called out with a whoop. “Shields compromised in ten sectors.
Mathers studied his controls. “It also looks like everyone on the bridge is going to be nauseated and headachy for at least a few days.”
Browning crossed toward the front of the bridge. “Holy cow, Stef! What possessed you to do that?”
“It pains me to admit it, but I’m impressed,” Donovan said wryly, staring at the viewscreen.
Sparks grinned despite herself as she leaned forward in the command chair, propping her elbows on her knees. “Nicely done, Ensign Baxter.”
“Just trusted my instincts,” Stef said, looking back at her and sharing a smile with Browning.
“Your parents would be proud, Stef,” Browning said, grabbing for a bulkhead and looking back at Plato with a grin.
Sparks allowed a small smile at Browning and then turned to the viewscreen. “Eyes front, people. We’re not done. Plato – give them everything we’ve got. Let’s make sure that history never forgets the name…Explorer.”
“Aye,” Mathers said.
“Yes,” Sparks said, earning a confused glance from Mathers. “Explorer-A.”
Baxter ran at the chamber, pounding his fists on it. “Damn it!”
It was too late. Roddick was already inside, and the chamber was locked.
Renta fired several blasts at the chamber, but to no effect.
Baxter turned on her. “Things in here don’t react too well to phasers, Renta.”
Duvet stalked toward the chamber. “Get him out of there. That power is mine!”
“You silly, small, weak, fool,” Roddick said evenly, stepping toward the transparent wall, face to face with Duvet and Baxter. “You think this is about power. To control people. To dominate galaxies.” His body was encircled in swirling blue light.
“Well, now this is bad,” Baxter said, looking from Duvet to Roddick.
“Well, what else could this thing be for besides galactic domination?” Duvet asked, annoyed.
Roddick spread his arms wide. “It could be for love.”
Duvet rose an eyebrow, confused. Before he could ask any more questions, the drone of transporter beams filled the room.
Renta Fays turned, bringing her phaser to bear on the new arrivals. She didn’t even have time to make a sound as J’hana launched into her, crushing her to the ground, dropping an elbow on her windpipe.
“I will have bloody satisfaction you gorgeous Bajoran vharxa!” J’hana growled, wrapping her hands around Renta’s neck and wrestling her into a headlock.
“Carry on,” Conway said, stepping past J’hana.
Larkin, Tilleran, Peterman, and Airyn followed him.
Duvet turned and advanced toward them. “Federation imbeciles! You are ruining literally EVERYTHING!”
Captain Larkin calmly advanced on Duvet, grabbed him by the throat, and lifted him off his feet.
“You have been exceedingly annoying,” she said, and flung him into the wall. He dropped, out cold.
“Admiral,” Larkin said, nodding at Baxter.
“Andy,” Peterman said, stepping toward Baxter, reaching out to touch his arm.
“So, what’s going on here?” Conway asked, looking around.
Baxter sighed, backing up a few steps. He looked at Roddick, who was standing in the chamber, encased in glowing blue light. “Total disaster, but what else is new?”
Airyn studied the chamber, taking it all in. “Then it does exist.”
Baxter looked at Airyn, his eyes light years away. “Hey. You knew about this?”
Roddick grinned at Baxter. “Admiral, you misunderstand me. I’ve given myself this beautiful gift for a very noble reason.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, pushing forward as Conway and Peterman flanked him. Tilleran and Larkin dashed over to the systems console. “And what’s that?”
Roddick stepped toward the transparent partition. Nose to nose with Baxter. “Recall our conversation, of some years ago. I told you that I understood you better than you think. Because I have a sister, too.”
“Wow, how can you do that? Like remember conversations from so many years ago.” Baxter rubbed his chin. “I can’t remember what I had for lunch last week.”
“Ham sandwich,” Peterman said as if by instinct. “Herman’s Cafe in Alameda.”
Roddick continued. “My sister’s name is Hannah. She…was two years younger than me. We grew up on a violent planet. Left home at a young age. We were inseparable.”
“Oh, here we go,” Peterman sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose.
Conway stepped back as he watched the exchange. Behind him, J’hana slung the limp form of Renta Fays over a console and walked over to join them. “Conway to Explorer,” he said. Nothing but static. He waved to Larkin. “Kristen – access the lab computer. Get into this system and stop…whatever is happening.”
Larkin nodded and moved over to the master console, nudging past Tilleran, who looked on, her jaw working nervously. Larkin pressed her palm down on the console interface. “This system is not unlike that of the Steadfast. Accessing. There is a sophisticated firewall in place.”
“You can get past it,” Airyn whispered, stepping up behind her. “You’ve got to.”
“Get away from there,” Roddick said, his eyes darting over to Larkin.
“I’ll bite, Roddick,” Baxter said, trying to get Roddick’s attention. “What happened with Hannah?”
“The android doesn’t know how this system works,” Roddick pleaded. “She could destroy this whole lab. And everything I’ve worked for.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Conway said, cracking his knuckles.
“What happened with Hannah,” Peterman pressed, looking to Baxter.
Roddick turned. “She…she didn’t know about my work. She wouldn’t have understood. She was a peacemaker. A terraformer. She…shaped worlds. She didn’t understand that people like me were necessary to keep balance in the Federation. To keep the peace.”
Larkin blinked and stared ahead as she accessed the computer console. “Roddick’s body is in the grasp of a genetic actuation field. His genetic structure is being rewritten on the microcellular level.”
“That’s bad,” Airyn said helpfully.
Tilleran stepped up behind Larkin. “This is a much more sophisticated version of the approach Doctor Drake was using back on the Explorer, twenty years ago. Section Thirty-one must’ve perfected it.”
“You don’t say,” Conway muttered.
Larkin looked up. “I cannot shut down the system at this point. I am uncertain as to what will happen to Mister Roddick once the process completes. But we should know in…” she cocked her head. “Approximately four minutes.”
“We’ve got to start looking for a way to shut it down,” Airyn said, locking eyes with Tilleran.
“Smash everything?” J’hana offered.
“Not now, Imzadi,” Tilleran snapped.
Conway looked over his shoulder at Larkin and the others, then back at Roddick.
“So you told her?” Baxter pressed on. His eyes were glued to Roddick. Like they were only the two people in the room. Peterman stood behind him and squeezed his shoulder.
“After my conversation with you, in fact,” Roddick nodded. “I went to Balthazar Two, where Hannah lived. I confessed it all. Every dark deed. Every lie. I told her about everyone who was hurt because of me, and my role in Thirty-One. I knew, if she loved me, she’d understand.”
Peterman stepped closer. “Let me guess. She didn’t.”
Roddick laughed; a high, nervous laugh. “Quite right. She was furious. She…she wouldn’t listen. She disowned me. Changed her name. Left the quadrant. That…that was the last time I spoke to her. Almost nineteen years ago.”
Baxter blinked, resting his hand on the bulkhead. “So you did all this just to reunite with your sister?”
“A private security agency would have been much easier,” J’hana offered.
Airyn moved to join Baxter. “We have to turn this thing off, Admiral. It has to be stopped.”
“Impossible,” Roddick droned, his hand against the wall. “I can feel it starting. The power. Immeasurable. Reaching out across space. Across time. Bending it to my will.” He looked at Baxter. “What would you do, Admiral? With unlimited power?”
“Every time humanity has been given power, we’ve done some truly terrible things with it,” Baxter said, placing his hand against the wall separating him from Roddick. “What makes you think this time it will be different?”
“Because this time,” Roddick said, locking eyes with Baxter. “It’s me.”
“Well,” Conway said, hands on hips. “We’re fucked.”
“Hold on,” Larkin said, holding up her free hand. The other was still pressed against the console, as she accessed gigaquads of data. “I’ve found a program deep in the lab’s subsystems. It is some sort of interactive control.”
“Let’s hope you found an off switch,” Tilleran said, looking over Larkin’s shoulder.
“Not as such,” Larkin said. “It’s a holo program.”
Baxter looked at her. He knew exactly what that program was. He pursed his lips. “Activate it.”
Conway looked over at Larkin and gave a small nod. “You heard him. Do it.”
“Andy,” Peterman said softly as the hologram whirled into existence in front of them.
He stood right in front of Baxter. Kind eyes. Knit brow. That easy smile as he withdrew the cigar from his mouth. A puff of smoke swirled around him.
“Son,” Harlan Baxter said. He didn’t look angry. He didn’t look worried. He just looked levelly at Andy Baxter and said, “What do you wanna do?”
Baxter’s mouth opened and closed.
“Shut it down!” Airyn called, pushing past Tilleran. J’hana grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back.
“Sudden movements are a bad idea right now,” J’hana snapped, pushing Airyn back.
The Harlan hologram did not acknowledge Airyn’s presence.
“Yeah, what she said,” Conway said, stalking toward the Harlan hologram and glancing worriedly at Roddick. “Stop this thing!”
Larkin’s eyes were distant as she continued to access the lab computer. “The program seems to be keyed to respond only to Admiral Baxter’s commands. Roddick’s transformation will be complete in…two minutes, fifteen seconds.”
Harlan simply pivoted toward Baxter. “Son?”
“You want me to do it, don’t you,” Baxter said. “All this…it was for me.”
“I left this behind for you to clean up because I believed you were the only one who could.” Harlan stepped toward Baxter. “It was my greatest mistake. Trusting Drake. Trusting Thirty-one. And I knew it had to be destroyed.”
“Then why not simply destroy it yourself?” Conway asked, shouldering up next to Baxter.
“Answer him,” Baxter demanded.
“I wasn’t strong enough,” Harlan said. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because I thought of all the good it could do, in the right hands. That’s what makes it so dangerous.”
“Ninety seconds,” Larkin said evenly.
“You’ve got to do it, Andy.” Peterman reached out and squeezed his hand. Baxter pulled his hand away. “Shut down the program!”
“Well if you’re not strong enough, what hope do I have?” Baxter begged, stepping closer to the Harlan hologram, pushing past Conway and Peterman.
Harlan pursed his lips. “All a parent wants is to see their kid do better.”
Baxter grit his teeth.
“You heard him,” Airyn said.
Conway’s eyes pivoted to Baxter. “Andy….”
Baxter looked past Harlan and at Roddick, who simply watched this exchange with mute amusement. “You have anything to add to this?”
“I think you know what to do,” Roddick said. “Just think…you could come in here, too…”
“Andy Baxter’s not going to be broken that easily,” Peterman said firmly. “You can’t tempt him with…”
“I’ve been watching you your entire career,” Roddick said, nose pressed to the transparent wall. “You could have the Explorer back. Your Explorer. With your crew.” He looked around. “Not this version.” He gestured at the group in the lab. “Older, detached, and spread among the stars. Imagine if your ship sailed again. Your crew. In your prime. Forever. You’d even have all your hair back.”
Baxter’s fists balled. “Tempting,” he said.
Conway whirled on him. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! We’re not endangering the galaxy for a baldness cure!”
“And that’s not all,” Roddick roared, his voice now filling the room as power continued to thrum through his body. “You can have him back. Not a hologram. Not a facsimile. You could bring Harlan Baxter back.”
Baxter’s eyes filled.
“Thirty seconds,” Larkin said.
“Andy, please, listen to me!” Peterman tugged at Baxter’s arm. “Tell him to turn it off!”
Harlan looked at Baxter, puffing away at his cigar. “Rrtgggnd, bry?”
“Open the door,” Baxter whispered.
Harlan nodded, and stepped aside. The door to the chamber whisked open.
“Yes,” Roddick said. “Join me. You’ll see I won’t mind sharing the power. Or the credit!”
Conway reached for Baxter, but Baxter shoved him aside, stepping in. Peterman moved toward him.
“J’hana, a hand please,” Conway said, stepping toward the chamber.
J’hana, Peterman, and Conway moved toward the entrance in unison.
“Close door,” Baxter said simply as the blue light encircled him too. The door closed quickly, separating him from the others.
Conway pounded on the door. “What are you doing!”
Peterman looked on and bit her lip. “Andy!”
The Harlan hologram blinked off and then reappeared inside the chamber, regarding the situation with detached curiosity. “Just wait,” he said, and chomped down on his cigar.
“Thirty seconds,” Larkin said.
Peterman pressed her face against the transparent wall, pounding on it. “Andy, please, listen to me! If you’ve never listened to me before, do it now! I know things haven’t been perfect between us, but you know I love you and know you better than anyone in the galaxy. Unlimited power is too high a price to have your old life back. It’s too high a price to have your dad back. It’s too…”
Roddick turned to her and flicked his finger. Peterman went flying, arms pinwheeling, and slammed into a wall. Tilleran raced to her side as she slumped, dizzily.
“Kelly…” Baxter said softly, as blue energies swirled around him.
Conway looked over at Peterman, as Tilleran ran a tricorder over her, then snapped back to Roddick and Baxter. “Is this what you wanted, Baxter!” he snapped.
“Kelly,” Baxter said again, the name sounding distant. Like that name, that person, was from a different life. He slowly turned on Roddick. “Thanks, Roddick,” he said. “For pointing me in the right direction.”
“Are you crazy!” Conway shouted, pounding on the transparent wall. “Baxter!”
Roddick gave a slow, subtle laugh, as he took all this in. “I thought you’d come around to my way of thinking, Andy. You know, from here, the sky’s the lim –”
Roddick was cut off as Baxter grabbed him by his neck and shoved him against the wall, pinning him, eyes burning through him.
“DAD, SHUT IT DOWN!” Baxter growled, and slammed Roddick back against the wall.
“NO!” Roddick snapped, twisting in Baxter’s grasp.
Harlan gave a gentle nod, and the surge of blue light and crescendo of limitless power just simply stopped.
Roddick sagged out of Baxter’s grasp, drifting to the floor, tears streaming down his face. He looked at his hands. “NO! What did you do!? I was almost there. I could feel it.”
“You’ll feel it, all right,” Baxter said, and turned around. “Door,” he said softly. And he walked through. He chucked a thumb over his shoulder. “J’hana?”
J’hana gave a curt nod. “With pleasure.”
And with that she stepped past Baxter into the chamber, slinging Roddick into her arms and carrying him out into the lab.
“Is there a sound proof room somewhere nearby?” J’hana asked.
Larkin nodded. “Down the hall. To the left.”
“Be right back,” J’hana said, and swiftly carried Roddick out of the room.
Baxter raced over to Peterman’s side and knelt beside her. “Honey, you okay?”
“She’s got a mild concussion, but she’ll be okay,” Tilleran said, next to him.
Peterman’s eyes fluttered. “That’s my guy,” she whispered.
“I was just doing it for love,” Roddick sighed, in broken resignation.
“Yeah, tell that to the magistrate,” J’hana growled.
“I’ll make sure she doesn’t violate the Seldonis convention,” Tilleran said, and followed J’hana briskly out of the room.
Airyn walked over to Baxter, putting her hand on his shoulder. “Andy, I mean, Admiral, are you all right?”
Baxter’s gaze was firmly on Peterman. He didn’t answer.
Baxter turned and looked at Harlan.
“Sparks to away team,” a voice broke in over comms. “We’ve disabled Duvet’s ship and have been able to break through their jamming. Everyone okay down there?”
“Stand by, Explorer,” Conway said. He tapped Airyn on the shoulder and pointed to the door. Larkin observed this, cocking her head curiously. “C’mon,” Conway said, putting a hand on Larkin’s shoulder, gently ushering her and Airyn to the door. He stopped at the door for a moment. “I never doubted you for a minute, Andy,” he said. “Sparks, beam us back to the ship.” He looked at Baxter again. “All but Baxter.”
“Just do it,” Conway said, kneeling beside Peterman and gently lifting her up.
“Thanks,” Baxter said, reaching out to touch Peterman’s hand as she and the others were beamed away.
That left Baxter in an empty room, staring at a holographic Harlan Baxter, whose face betrayed no emotion whatsoever.
The two stood there in silence, alone, and Baxter wasn’t sure what to say. He had so much he wanted to say. “Dad, I…”
Harlan looked around. “Seems like ya made the right choice.”
“There was a choice?” Baxter asked, with a weak smile.
“There always is.”
Baxter nodded. “You really knew I would do the right thing?”
“I trust you more than you know, boy,” Harlan said, and put a hand on Baxter’s shoulder.
“I never got to say goodbye,” Baxter said.
“And you never will,” Harlan said. “That’s life its own self. It ain’t easy, and it ain’t right.” He waved his cigar around, taking in the lab, and its surroundings. “And no scientific parlor trick is gonna make it right.” He patted Baxter on the chest. “You just got to do your best. Press on. Be better than me. And your kids, maybe they’ll surprise you, like you did me.”
“Dad, I love you…”
“You keep going, son,” Harlan said. “Life ain’t over for you. ‘This ain’t something you get over. It’s just something you get through.’”
Baxter’s mouth moved. He tried to speak, but couldn’t form the words.
“And this hologram ain’t me. Just a computer projection. In a lab that should never again see the light of day.”
“You got five minutes, son.”
Baxter’s mouth opened and closed. “Five minutes…?”
“Self-destruct enabled,” the computer’s voice suddenly intoned. “T-minus five minutes.”
“No…” Baxter glanced up. “Baxter to Explorer. Isolate the hologram in front of me and transfer it to the ship’s computer!”
“It don’t work like that, son,” Harlan said. “Everything has to end sometime.”
“Admiral, this is Sparks. We can’t seem to isolate the program. But our sensors are showing that whole lab is about to blow sky high. Recommending immediate evac.”
“Stand by Explorer!” Baxter shouted, staring at Harlan. “Dad, why?”
The Harlan hologram just stood there, as Baxter hugged him, his shoulders shaking. “Explorer…stand by,” he pleaded. “Just…stand by.”
Four minutes and twenty-three seconds later, the lab, and everything in it, exploded in a violent white flash, reduced to cinders.
The door chime rang three times before Baxter heard it.
“Come in,” he said, staring out the windows at the stars streaking by.
Peterman stood in the doorway. “Got a minute?”
“If you ask me if I’m okay, I swear I’ll jump out the nearest airlock,” Baxter muttered, sipping his whiskey grapefruit.
“You know me better than that,” Peterman said, and stepped in, plopping down into the chair across from Baxter’s couch. “We left Portico.” She glanced up at the streaking stars. “But I guess you figured out that much.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “You okay?”
Peterman nodded. “Yeah. They got the EMH back online and she fixed me up. Alcott’s still recovering. The EMH…has some anger issues.”
“Guess Conway will have a hell of a report to write to Starfleet,” Baxter said, and gave a low chuckle. “Better him than me.”
Peterman nodded. “The good news is that, since the lab wasn’t in phase with normal space, the explosion didn’t destroy any valuable beachfront property. Your timeshare is safe.”
“I’m relieved beyond measure.” Baxter leaned back on the couch and stared up at the ceiling.
“We can talk as much or as little as you want about what happened down there.”
“What’s left to talk about?” Baxter asked.
“Andy, you had an impossible choice.”
“It shouldn’t have been so impossible. It should have been easier.” He leveled a gaze at Peterman. “I could have destroyed the galaxy. And that’s surprising. Because I kind of like it.”
Peterman smiled. “It doesn’t matter that you struggled with it. Anyone would struggle with limitless power. But you made the right call in the end.”
“You know, when I walked into that chamber…” Baxter began, looking at Peterman as if she’d just shown up, from out of nowhere. “I…”
Peterman eased in, eyes connecting with Baxter’s. “You did the right thing.”
“Maybe, but only because you were there,” Baxter said, and leaned forward, staring down between his knees.
After a beat, Baxter looked up at Peterman. “He’s gone,” he said softly.
“Yeah, he is,” Peterman said, and got up from her chair and sat down next to Baxter on the couch.
“Guess I didn’t really face that until now. I’ve been…hiding.”
Peterman nodded. “That’s okay. Sometimes you have to do that.” She sighed. “Sometimes you have to come to things in your own time.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said.
She took a deep breath. “I visited Roddick this morning. I’m actually relieved I’m not a counselor anymore. I think I’d be out of my depth with him.”
“We should try to find Hannah,” Baxter said. “Family is important at times like this.”
“Doesn’t sound like they’re family anymore, from what I heard,” Peterman said.
Baxter reached out and squeezed Peterman’s hand. “Family is forever, Kelly.”
Peterman smiled, and tugged Baxter against her chest, holding him. “You’re damned right it is.”
Commander Sparks nodded at passing crewmembers as she made her way along Deck Nine toward the foreward lift. She passed by Admiral Baxter’s executive cabin and saw Commander Donovan standing there, staring at the door.
“You need something, Commander?” Sparks asked helpfully, looking over her shoulder.
“Me?” Donovan asked. “Nope. I’m good.”
“I’m heading up to a staff meeting. Got a lot to sort out from all this.” Sparks gave a nod toward the lift. “You want to join us?”
“Nope,” Donovan said. She gave Sparks a small smile. “Meetings aren’t really my thing. Neither are goodbyes, really.”
Sparks nodded. “Let me guess. I’m going to walk down that corridor, and when I turn around, you’ll be gone, right?”
Donovan nodded. “Tough habit to break.”
Sparks took a beat. “Well, thank you Commander Donovan. It’s been a pleasure working with you.”
Donovan gave a curt nod as Sparks turned and walked off.
Sparks laughed to herself as she stepped onto the lift and turned around to face the corridor. Sure enough, Donovan was gone.
“…we’ll put in for Earth. Both ships will need to make repairs before returning to service,” Conway sighed and tossed an iPadd onto the conference table. “We’ll transfer Mister Roddick to the USS Potemkin, where he’ll be taken to Tantalus for a nice, long rest.”
“Let me guess,” Sparks said. “All the rest of it is gonna be nice and classified.”
“Deeply classified,” Conway said. “Yes.” He looked around the conference table at Larkin, Sparks, Mathers, Plato, Tilleran, and J’hana. “And that goes for all of you.” He looked over at Tilleran and J’hana. “Even those of you not in Starfleet anymore.”
“I will want to forget about this as soon as possible, so that’s fine,” Tilleran said.
“Indeed,” J’hana said. “And before I forget,” she slid an iPadd across the table at Conway. “That’s a bill from The Rugged Corpse, for my services.”
Conway huffed. “I’ll make sure and get this to accounts receivable right away.”
“Is there anything further, Admiral?” Larkin asked, leaning forward.
“Nope,” Conway said, shifting away from the table. “I think that about does it.”
“Good,” she said, and looked around. “You’re all dismissed.”
The group got up and filed for the door.
As Conway turned to leave, Larkin hung by him, taking his arm. “Admiral, I thought you’d like to know…”
After a pause, Conway blinked, looking at Larkin. “What?”
She cocked her head. “Nothing. It is nothing. Please disregard this conversation.”
Conway pursed his lips. “Hmph. Already done.”
TWO WEEKS LATER
The blue-black sky was lit with natural shocks of winter lightening, joined by the occasional bursting fireworks as partygoers sang and danced through the evening.
“More blood wine?” Chris Richards asked, sidling up to Janice Browning as she looked up at the mingling lights in the winter sky.
“No, no, I’ve got an early transport in the morning,” Browning said, putting up a hand. “Two bottles is my limit.” She looked around, kicking the heating unit by her feet. “Leave it to the Klingons to plan an outdoor event on a planet where the temperature is never over freezing.” She chuckled. “Though the blood wine does help.”
Richards looked around at the milling guests. Klingons, Starfleet, and other assorted Federation representatives. He shrugged. “Funny thing, huh? A couple months ago it seemed like maybe the Federation and Klingons would be at each other’s throats again. I mean, trust me, living where I do, I can tell you, the Klingons were on a war footing.”
“Yeah,” Browning said. “Then Martok reopened their borders, and everything seemed to change.”
“And suddenly my new Klingon resort became the host site for a historic treaty signing.”
“Yeah,” Browning said. “I think it’s ‘an historic.’”
“Wonder what changed Martok’s mind,” Richards asked, swigging from his silver chalice of blood wine.
“I think I have some idea,” Browning said with a wry smile. Her eyes glistened for a moment. “People are capable of amazing things.”
“What people?” Richards asked blankly.
“Absent friends,” Browning whispered, and sipped her drink. “They can surprise you.”
“We need more gagh!” Drang said, lumbering past Richards. “Half of it slithered away into the air filtration system!”
“Damn,” Richards said. He grinned at Browning. “If you’ll, uh, excuse me?”
“We’ve got all the time in the world,” Browning said, and leaned over, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
At that time, Peterman sidled up. “What was all that about?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Browning said, and sighed. “How you doing?”
“Nauseated,” Peterman said, clutching her stomach. “I forgot what blood wine does to my stomach.”
“I’ve got a hypo for that,” Browning said. “It’s in my bag, under the brownies, next to the Stromboli.”
Peterman grinned. “Perfect.” She looked around. “Have you seen…?”
“Nope,” Browning said. She shrugged. “It’s kind of soon, you know?”
“Yeah,” Peterman said. “I was hoping.”
“Hello party people!” Stef Baxter said, swinging a Klingon sash around as she danced by. “The Klingon ambassador is a hell of a dancer!”
“He’s also more than twice your age!”
Stef laughed and dangled her blood wine chalice at Peterman. “You just hate when I have fun.”
“You are not allowed to date the Klingon ambassador, honey,” Peterman sighed.
“He asked me about you. When I said you used to be a Starfleet counselor he got a weird look on his face.”
“I think his son is in the diplomatic corps,” Browning said helpfully. “Maybe try dating him.”
“Nah,” Stef tugged at her long, brown hair as she mulled her options. “Maybe the Ferengi Admiral?”
“No admirals!” Peterman snapped, louder than she meant to.
“Speaking of the diplomatic corps,” Browning said, gesturing behind Peterman.
Raymond Baxter walked up, with a wave of jet black hair, a pressed Bringloidi suit, and Peterman’s curious, inquisitive eyes. “Folks, could you keep it down? You’re embarrassing me.”
“Adjutant to the chief of interplanetary affairs,” Peterman beamed. “I’m so proud of my boy!”
Raymond narrowed his eyes. “Yeah, and I got there in spite of your expose on the Dradar administration.”
“The truth hurts,” Peterman said, patting Raymond on the cheek.
“Kurg!” Stef exclaimed, turning as a pair of transporter beams whirled a few meters off.
Peterman’s eyebrows shot up. “Kurg?”
“Andy!” Browning exclaimed, as Baxter walked up, a bottle of blood wine in hand, and surveyed the scene.
“Two to beam down,” Baxter said, and pulled Browning into a hug.
“We thought you weren’t coming,” Peterman said, looking at Baxter askance.
“You never RSVPed,” Raymond pointed out.
Baxter looked at Kurg. “Didn’t I?”
Kurg frowned. “I provided daily reminders.”
“Oh, that’s right, you did,” Baxter nodded.
“You’ve missed a lot,” Browning said. “Tilleran came because she has friends in the Klingon science ministry, but she didn’t know J’hana’s firm was providing security. But she came by herself. No Craig Porter!”
“Spicy,” Baxter said.
“That could mean anything,” Peterman said.
“Dance with me, Kurgy!” Stef grinned, tugging Kurg out onto the dance floor.
Kurg looked to Baxter. “I..have duties.”
“Go,” Baxter said. “Be young. Have fun.”
“Thanks, Admiral!” Kurg called out as Stef dragged him into the night.
“Did someone ask for an Admiral?” a thickly built man with a dusky grey beard asked, nudging in between Peterman and Baxter.
“No?” Baxter said.
The man grinned, looking from Baxter to Peterman. “Riker.”
Peterman looked at Baxter. “I’m…sorry…”
Behind him, a woman stood, a dark look on her face. “Forget about it, Will.”
The man turned from Baxter to Peterman. “USS Enterprise. Titan. The Romulan Accords? The Venus Compact!”
Baxter rubbed his chin. “Oh, you worked with Picard, maybe?”
“We know you,” Riker explained, looking at the two of them. “You two had dinner with us on the Titan. Remember?”
“I’m sorry, man, it’s a big galaxy,” Baxter said, and patted Riker on the shoulder.
“C’mon,” the woman behind Riker said, as he shuffled off, looking defeated. “You’ll always be number one to me.”
“Who was that guy?” Baxter asked.
Peterman shrugged and looked down at the bottle Baxter cradled. “A bottle of blood wine? Did you really think we needed one more of those at this event?”
“Kurg suggested I bring it,” Baxter said, shrugging and putting the bottle on the table. Peterman and Brown both gave him a look. “Okay. Kurg suggested I bring anything but blood wine. I’m…not good at these things.”
“We’re just glad you’re here,” Browning said.
“You still in counseling?” Peterman asked, and Browning elbowed her in the ribcage. “I mean you doing ok?”
Baxter sighed and looked around. “Yes, I’m still in counseling. And no, I’m not really okay.” He gave himself a wry smile. “But I’m good with that.”
Captain Madera and Captain Ford shared a corner of the outdoor venue, sipping bloodwine and looking on.
“How’s the Aerostar holding up?” Madera asked as she watched Commander Brian Gellar breakdance on the dance floor, even though the Klingon opera really did nothing to match his rhythm.
“Fine,” Ford said, sipping from his cup. “Repairs complete, and all systems go. How about the Maverick?”
“Oh, still in spacedock. She took a vicious pounding.”
“And yet we’re still kicking,” Ford said, and clinked his glass against Madera’s.
“Hell yeah,” Madera said. “Who knew we would both become captains someday?”
“Yeah, straight from the helm to the conn!” Ford said.
“I thought the helm was the conn,” Madera said thoughtfully.
“Yeah, that always confused me too,” Ford nodded.
The two sat in silence and sipped their drinks.
“So…” Ford said. “Have you…”
“No,” Madera said, pressing a finger to Ford’s lips. “Just no.”
Richards came over to join Tilleran and J’hana as the Andorian shoved a fistful of gagh into her mouth. “You two having fun?”
“I forgot how much J’hana likes Klingon food,” Tilleran said, her eyes darting over to J’hana.
“Free food was part of the deal,” J’hana said. Richards had contracted with the Rugged Corpse for security services for this event, which she was all too happy to provide.
“How are you going to chase down an attacker if you’re full of gagh?” Richards asked, eyes wrinkled with amusement.
J’hana looked up at him blankly. “Try me.”
Richards tapped idly on the table. “Right. Well…”
Just then he saw Conway and Larkin walk by, looking stiff and out of place.
“Enjoying yourselves?” he asked, picking up step next to him.
“It will be a brief stay,” Larkin said. “The Explorer is needed in the Ariadne Sector. Strange energy readings, it seems.”
“Always a new adventure,” Richards said.
Conway looked around. “A lot of familiar faces around here. Thanks for the invite, by the way,” he said, and looked away, as if preoccupied with something in the starlit sky.
Browning came up from behind and threw her arm around Richards’, giving him a streak. “Hey, Chris, let’s dance!”
Richards sighed. “Well, if we must…”
Conway chuckled at that. “Well, would you look at that,” he asked, surveying the crowd.
“At what?” Larkin asked blankly.
“Nothing,” Conway said, and patted Larkin on the shoulder. He smiled as he watched the old crewmembers casting about. “Nothing. Just look.”
“She’s tough, and holds up well in a firefight,” Sparks said, standing next to Peterman as she kept her eyes glued to Stef and Kurg on the dance floor.
“Yeah, maybe,” Peterman said. “But she still doesn’t feel like the old Explorer, does she?”
“I was talking about Stephanie,” Sparks laughed. “You’ve got a lot to be proud of.”
“Starfleet was never my idea for her. She’s made her own way.”
“And that’s what you should be proud of,” Sparks said. “We seldom end up where we think we will. But when we do, we need…” she sipped her drink thoughtfully. “We need all those things we were taught along the way.”
Peterman chewed her lip. “Thanks, Commander.”
Sparks grinned. “Don’t mention it.”
Plato sidled up to Sparks. “Commander,” he said. “Explorer will be ready to depart in an hour.”
“Oh, I think we can push that off a few hours. The crew deserves a little shoreleave,” Sparks said. “I’ll talk to Larkin.”
Plato shifted from foot to foot. “Well, in that case, you want to dance?”
“Young man, I am your commanding officer,” Sparks said, fanning herself in mock offense.
“Oh really? I forgot,” Plato chuckled.
Sparks looked at Peterman, as if for permission.
Peterman laughed. “You two have fun. I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
And as she watched Plato gallantly bow at Sparks and then twirl her off into the night, she bit her lip thoughtfully, then set off to find Baxter.
One dance wouldn’t hurt.
The music roared on late into the night. J’hana fought Drang on the dance floor. Tilleran and Plato waxed on about Changeling metaphysics. Browning ate her Stromboli. Baxter spun Peterman one too many times, causing her to thow up on the Vulcan attache. The Klingon ambassador and that bearded guy got into an argument about a prior romantic entanglement. The Ferengi Admiral hollered as he beat his friend from the Federation News Service at dom-jat.
Baxter soaked it all in. He could’ve been better. But that was life its own self.
As the night music thrummed on, and lights filled the sky, he snuck off and made his way to an overlook–a promontory point that overlooked the vast white of Rura Penthe, and the dance of natural light across the heavens.
“G’night, Dad, wherever you are,” he said, and gave a little toast with his chalice, as he leaned against the rock.
“You know, he would never shut up about you,” a voice said from beside Baxter.
He turned, eyebrow arched. “Airyn?”
“Want something from the bar?” Airyn asked, leaning her arms against the ridge of rock and looking out over the smooth ice below.
“No, I’m good,” Baxter said. “I’m…I’m fine.” He glanced at her. “And you?”
“Been busy. Writing a hell of a book. Gonna be a thousand pages when I’m done.” She looked out at the night sky. “I’m going to tell this story.”
“You mean…” Baxter said, quickly putting together what Airyn meant. “Isn’t all that, um, classified?” Baxter asked.
“Nobody told me. Or my publisher. So…” Airyn smiled.
Baxter mulled that as he sipped his wine, deciding to leave it alone. “I can’t imagine writing that much. I’d have to be in love with the topic.”
“Someone has to know what this was all for,” Airyn said, looking out over the promontory point, into the Klingon wasteland. “What was at stake. Why it matters. I want to tell the whole universe.”
Baxter nodded. “You sure you’re from a race of listeners?”
She grinned. “How do you think I know all the things I know?”
Baxter sighed and sipped from his drink. “I guess that’s what makes you a great historian.”
“I haven’t always been a historian,” Airyn said, and finished her drink. She looked at Baxter, gave his arm a squeeze.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. He blinked, looking up from his drink. He looked out at the vast wasteland, his wheels turning. “Wait. What do you mean my father wouldn’t shut up about me? How do you…” He turned to speak to Airyn, but just as quickly as she’d appeared, she was gone.
“Well,” Baxter said, and finished his drink. “Maybe some things are better left to the imagination.”
Baxter headed back toward the party.
He wanted to spend a little more time with his friends.
FIFTY-SIX YEARS AGO
The Southern Reach was quiet, as most ship’s lounges where during moments of tension.
And this was definitely that. The Jarada were on the warpath and it seemed like no one was safe.
They’d just come down off Red Alert. Survived a hell of a firefight, from what some of the crew were saying.
The El Aurian polished the bar, keeping it gleaming bright and ready for the next officer to come up and speak about their fortunes.
The doors opened, and Captain Harlan Baxter strode in. “Airyn!” he boomed.
Airyn gave him a grin. “Captain! A whiskey?” she asked, and was shocked to see him smiling broadly, almost in spite of himself.
“A double,” he said, and sat, nervously tapping his hands on the bar.
“Sounds like you’ve got something to celebrate.” Airyn reached under the bar and punched a few controls. Seconds later, she produced a whiskey, neat, just like the captain liked. She slid it in front of him.
“Strange. We just narrowly escaped a Jarada strike force and I can’t stop smiling.”
Airyn leaned forward on her elbows. “Do tell.”
“Remember Lucille and I had that shoreleave a few weeks back? On Portico?”
“Nice planet,” Airyn said.
“It’s beautiful. We…uh, well, I just got a comm from Lucille and she’s…we’re gonna have a kid.” Harlan smiled to himself. “A boy.”
Airyn gave Harlan a bright smile, reaching forward and patting him on the arm. “Well done, sir.”
Harlan sipped his drink. “I’ve been walking around this ship with the best feeling.” His smile faded for a few moments as he studied the surface of the bar. “Feeling like maybe this galaxy’s worth saving for the next generation.”
“You ever had a doubt?” Airyn asked.
Harlan nodded. “Sometimes. I’ve seen a lot.”
“Cheers to that,” Airyn said. “Hey…” she reached under the bar and called something up on the replicator. “One of the engineers was in here the other day. He told me about an Earth custom I’d never heard of.”
Harlan raised an eyebrow as Airyn withdrew the item from the replicator slot. “Is that…a cigar?”
“It ain’t a photon torpedo,” Airyn said, handing him the cigar. She rifled under the bar for a moment. “Wait, I think I have a…I do!” she produced a small lighter and slid it across the bar to Harlan.
Harlan smiled and sparked the cigar up, taking a couple of puffs. “Well, now, that’s…something.” He coughed slightly and looked up at Airyn as he puffed away. “Y’think we could talk about sump’n?”
“Sure,” Airyn said, and moved around the bar to sit down next to Harlan. “I’ve got plenty of time.”
Harlan looked up at her. “I’ve done something, in my previous posting. I’m not proud of it. And…it could cause problems, sometime down the road.” He took a deep breath. “You don’t want to hear all this. And I could get court martialed for even telling you.”
“I’m listening,” Airyn said warmly, and leaned in.