Author: Anthony Butler
Stardate 53434.5. I can feel the holiday spirit in the air. As we patrol the galactic rim for new lifeforms and civilizations, I’m getting that warm, fuzzy feeling that Christmas is just around the corner. The holidays couldn’t have come at a better time, since two of my good friends recently came back aboard ship. Life couldn’t be better.
“Three cheers for Transporter Chief Hartley,” Lt. Megan Hartley muttered, shoving her empty glass into Mirk’s waiting hands. “Fill her up again, Mirkie.”
“Don’t you think three Vulcan Earbiters are enough, considering it isn’t even 1100 hours yet?”
Hartley grabbed Mirk’s collar and jerked him over the bar. “Listen, buddy. I’m the customer and the customer is always right. Go get me another drink!”
Mirk waffled as he tried to escape Hartley’s grip. “Listen, Megan. I can sympathize with what you’re going through. I have hit some low points in the last couple years too. New powers, my people hating me, leaving my home quadrant. You just have to keep in mind that, whatever life throws at you, you have to take it and keep on moving!”
“Aw, I love you, Mirk!” Hartley cried, jerking Mirk closer and kissing him full on the lips.
“Stand down, Lieutenant!” Commander Conway barked, pushing Hartley back into her seat. Mirk just stood there, eyes glassy.
“Uhhh…I’ll be back in a second.” Mirk hurried out into the corridor. As soon as the doors to the cafe wheezed shut, a blinding light shone through the frosted windows and deck ten rumbled almost imperceptibly.
“Commander…” Hartley grumbled, hunching over her glass. Conway swung around behind the bar and pulled out a steaming pot of fresh brewed coffee. “Here to cheer me up?”
“Not at all,” Conway muttered, filling Hartley’s glass with coffee and pouring a cup for himself. “At least you have someone to share the holidays with. Look at my life. My wife pushed me into a crevasse and the last woman that loved me died, and her symbiont is no longer speaking to me. How do you think that makes me feel?”
“Absolutely.” Conway swigged his coffee.
“But you have an important job. You’re second-in-command of a powerful Starship. I’m just a lowly transporter chief.”
“When was the last time you had sex?”
“None of your damn business!” Hartley said indignantly.
“I’ll wager it’s been longer for me than it has for you.”
“That’s a good bet.”
Conway cracked his knuckles. “Before the Aerostar mission.”
“Well, gotta go,” Hartley said hurriedly, sliding off her barstool and heading for the door.
“I was on the Darwin, on a mission to a colony in the Viga sector. It seemed like a routine mission until we ran into the colony’s mayor…a vital woman of sixty…”
Conway kept talking as Hartley rushed out the door.
“Whew,” Mirk said, wiping his forehead and stepping back behind the bar. “That was a hell of a kiss.”
“What?” Conway asked, irritated that his story had been interrupted.
“Never mind. Go on with your story. Old woman. Viga sector. Desparate for sex.”
“You’ve heard it before?”
“About a hundred times.”
“Well,” Conway said, swigging, “there are other stories where that one came from. I–ugh.”
“This coffee. It tastes like a Ferengi pissed in it.”
Mirk ducked under his bar, examined the coffee maker. “It’s not a flavor of the month. Jamaican bean, just like you like.”
Conway spit coffee back into the cup and slammed it down. “Well, you obviously used contaminated water or something. It doesn’t matter. I’m on duty in a few minutes, anyway.”
Mirk watched Conway shuffle out of the bar and leaned on his chin, watching the three or four crewpeople eat their late breakfasts and chat. “‘Tis the season to be jolly,” he sighed.
“Come,” Baxter said, looking up from his collection of Dallas Cowboys minature ornaments.
Lt. Commander Richards crossed the room, slapped a padd down on Baxter’s desk. “Here are the engine reports you wanted.”
“Thanks,” Baxter said, scrolling through the report. “And how are your engines?”
“Just fine. Right where I left them,” Richards said, slumping into the chair opposite Baxter’s desk. “Though Hartley made some interesting modifications. Increased efficiency by 3.4 percent.”
“She’s a damn good engineer.”
“And she’s really ticked at me.”
Baxter polished off Emmitt Smith’s forehead and regarded Richards. “She’s ticked off at a lot of people, Chris.”
“Maybe, but from what I’ve heard, getting that promotion made her a nice person for once.”
“It was abnormal,” Baxter muttered, shining up the gravometric stabalizers on either side of Willis Xavier’s uniform. “Her niceness scared people.”
“I just can’t help but feel like it’s my fault she’s a transporter chief again.”
“She could transfer to another ship and easily become Chief Engineer again. I’d write the reccomendation myself. She likes it here, whether she’s the Chief Engineer or Chief Cook and Bottlewasher. She just doesn’t say it.”
Baxter glared at Richards over his Tom Landry figure. “Something else is bothering you.
“I’d rather not talk about it, Andy.”
“Okay. So, what are you doing for the hol–”
“It’s Janice,” Richards said, hopping out of his chair and heading toward the viewport, staring at the stars that streaked by as the Explorer headed along the galactic rim at warp speed. “Have you heard? We’re friends now.”
Baxter arched an eyebrow. “Friends? Really?”
“Yes. It’s terrible.”
“You guys were apart for several months. I guess it’s understandable that you couldn’t just pick up where you left off.”
“Why not? I’m willing.”
“I suppose she isn’t. Besides, being ‘just’ friends with Janice isn’t the end of the world. There are plenty of other eligible females aboard the ship.”
“Has a thing for Lt. Gellar.”
“She’s too short. Bad for dancing.”
“Would read my mind…scary.”
“Cries too much.”
“Still has stuffed animals.”
“I can’t pronounce her name.”
“Works with Janice. They’d always be comparing notes.”
Baxter ran his hands through his hair. “Chris, I just named SEVEN crewmembers who I’m sure would love to date you and you shot all of them down. Have you ever considered that your standards are just a bit too high?”
“My standards aren’t too high. It’s just that none of them are Janice.”
“Oh, please!” Baxter covered his face. “Chris, you have to consider the possibility that Janice and you are no longer in a relationship together. You have to get on with your life!”
“I don’t want to. Things were perfect the way they were before.”
“Maybe. But now things are different. You have to adapt.”
“You’re taking this far too well,” Richards said, turning toward Baxter.
“What do you mean?”
“You and Kelly will have to look for someone else to double date with.”
Baxter arranged the Dallas Cowboys figures in a neat row on his desk. “Jeeze, I never thought of that.”
“Ah,” Richards said, grinning and heading out of the readyroom. “Misery loves company.”
“That’s the wrong fork, Brian,” Lt. Hartley muttered, kicking Gellar’s shin from the other side of the long dinner table in the Captain’s Mess.
“So, what’s it like being back in the transporter room, Megan?” Peterman asked amiably, chewing on a breadstick as a waiter refilled her wine glass.
Hartley twirled her fork around in her pile of manicotti. “It really sucks. If someone hadn’t come back to the ship, I’d still be Chief Engineer.” Hartley glared at Baxter, who was sitting next to her.
“Hey, you still have a good job,” Baxter said, nervously chewing on his food.
“Yes, that’s right, I do,” Hartley said, an evil smile spreading across her face as she watched Baxter eat. “I have a job where I’m responsible for the lives of all the crewmembers that use the transporters. One wrong press of a button, and Captain Baxter is Captain Pile-of-guts.”
“Urk.” Baxter choked down the last bite of manicotti nervously.
“Ha ha ha,” Peterman said weakly, trying to smile. “That’s funny, Megan.”
“I wasn’t joking.”
“Ahem,” Baxter tossed back what wine was left in his glass. “I’m glad to see you’re happy about being back at your old job. What about you, Mr. Gellar? How is ship’s security?”
“Everyone is behaving, sir. While you were gone, we had a little scuffle between two scientists in one of the astrophysics labs. Something about the difference between a worm hole and a black hole, I think.”
“Those scientists,” Baxter agreed. “Crazy bunch, huh?”
“Uh, yes sir.”
“I can hear your chewing!” Hartley seethed, kicking under the table again.
“I saw a manic depressive today,” Peterman said, trying to lighten the mood the best way she knew how. “He was really messed up.”
“Ooh, that sounds juicy. Who was it?” Baxter asked eagerly.
“I’m really not supposed to say.”
“Go on, tell us,” Baxter urged. Anything to easee the tension.
“Ensign Pressbury from Astrophysics. Misses his dog so much it’s nearly giving him a nervous breakdown.”
“Did you let him play with Charlie for awhile? That would cure him of it!” Baxter chuckled.
“Shut up!” Peterman cried, slinging a piece of manicotti over the table at Baxter.
“Dessert, anyone?” Baxter asked weakly.
“Evening, Commander,” Lt. Commander Richards said dully, stepping out onto the bridge. “I need permission to shut down the phasers so I can run a diagnostic on the relays.”
“Granted,” Conway replied, sliding out of his chair and following Richards over to the Engineering console opposite tactical. Richards scooted up onto the stool and began plunking controls.
Conway leaned over the console. “So when are you going to tell me, Richards?”
“Tell you what?”
“How you got back here? I looked it up in the logs. Captain Baxter said he just went to Kronos and picked you up.”
Richards didn’t look up from his readings. “Then I guess that’s what happened.”
“It doesn’t make sense. Why would you just up and quit? Something had to happen.”
“Me and the Klingons didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, sir.”
“But it still doesn’t wash. How exactly did Baxter get you back?”
“None of your damn business.”
“You forget, Richards. I’m in charge of personnel. I can make it my business if I feel it may interfere with your performance.”
Richards glared up at Conway and narrowed his eyes. “Trust me, Commander, my time on Kronos will have no effect on my perfomance, except to keep me from ever setting foot on that planet again.”
“Something stinks around here, and I’m going to find it,” Conway said.
“Not if the Captain orders the records sealed, which he did,” Richards countered.
Conway leaned in closer, whispering, “I contacted Klingon High Command. They’re not telling me anything either. You’re departure from Kronos and Baxter and Peterman’s ‘vacation’ are all classified information. It’s a coverup.”
“I’d stop poking your nose where it doesn’t belong if I were you, Commander.”
“Is that a threat?”
Richards stepped around the console and headed toward the science station. “Nope, it’s a warning.”
Just then the tactical console bleeped.
“Ship approaching, sir,” J’hana said, tapping her panel. “Klingon battlecruiser. Vor’cha class.”
“What are they doing this far out?” Conway asked, circling around to the front of the bridge.
“Now you’ve done it,” Richards sighed.
“Done what?” Conway asked, looking back at Richards.
“They are matching velocity with us,” J’hana observed. “Initiating transporter sequence.”
“Block it!” Conway ordered.
A red beam shimmered in front of Conway, revealing an eight- foot Klingon.
“Can I do something for you?” Conway asked in annoyance.
The Klingon gripped Conway by his shoulders and lifted him off the ground. “I am Gral. Secret Enforcer for the Klingon High Council. I have been sent here with a message for you, Commander Conway. Cease your investigation now. Klingon and Federation security depends on it.”
“I don’t have to do anything you say,” Conway said defiantly.
The Klingon wrapped one massive hand around Conway’s head and began to twist. “And I don’t have to listen to any more of your arrogant prattling. Now, do you swear, on your honor, you’ll say no more about this!”
“Unkay, Unkay, jnnnst let gnnnh!” Conway said as his face was squeezed by the Klingon’s meaty hand.
The Klingon let him drop and was immediately beamed away.
“They are heading back toward Klingon space,” J’hana said, adding, “serves you right, Commander.”
Conway struggled to his feet, straightened his uniform and plodded over to the replicator. “Stupid Klingons. I don’t care what you got into, Richards. Just don’t get on my bad side. Or you’ll find yourself cleaning out the Bussard collectors.”
“I’m quaking in my boots, sir,” Richards said, heading for the turbolift.
Conway ordered a cup of coffee. “Be sure that you do.” He took a sip. “Buahhhhhh! This stuff tastes horrible! Ensign Sefelt! Go down to the replicator control room and fix the replicators. Something’s horribly wrong with this coffee.”
“Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day,” Baxter chanted, grabbing his socks and trousers, slinging them over his shoulder and strolling into the bathroom.
“Please be quiet!” Peterman muttered, pulling the covers up over her head. “I’m trying to sleep!”
“I can’t help it, Kelly!” Baxter said. “I’m in a great mood!”
“Well get out of it before I have to kill you!”
Baxter danced his way into the bathroom. “I’ve got a wonderful feeeeeeeliiiinnnnng, everything’s goooooing my waaaaay!”
He looked at himself in the mirror. “You handsome devil, how are ya?”
Suddenly his expression changed. He studied himself. “Hmm. That’s new.”
Around his mouth, flecks of hair formed what looked like the beginning of a goatee.
“I shouldn’t have that. I just shaved a couple days ago.”
Baxter studied himself a few more moments. The little goatee looked good. Distinguished. He felt like a sea captain of old. Hardened, experienced. A man of the world, refined, but also a man of leisure and taste.
“Nah,” Baxter finally decided, grabbing his rhaser and flicking it on. “It would probably itch way too much.”
Dr. Benzra zipped up her carryon and slung it over her massive shoulder. “Benzra to bridge. I am ready to leave.”
“Acknowledged,” replied Lt. Commander Kristen Larkin. “We will rendez-vous with the Starship Kevorkian in eight point six minutes.”
“I am on my way to the transssssssssporter room now.”
“Very well. It has been a pleasure serving with you.”
“You asssss well.”
As Benzra lumbered down the corridor toward the turbolift, Dr. Janice Browning caught up with her, a double-decker sandwhich cradled in her hands.
“Benzra!” Browning cried out. “Wait up. Can I walk with you to the transporter rooom?”
“If you wisssssh.” Benzra continued to walk.
“Well,” Browning said, chomping happily and picking up step next to Benzra. “Have you had a good time aboard the Explorer?”
“This issss an…interesssssssting crew. However, it is quite different from sssssserving on a Flarn sssssship.”
“Hmm, I’d imagine so. But you got along okay with everyone, right?”
“Incorrect. Many of the Explorer’s crew rejected me because of my Flarn heritage.”
“That’s too bad. I had a problem fitting in with some Andorians that worked on the station where I had my restaurant. They were so competitive. They took all the fun out of being a restaraunteur.”
“Pity. It ssssssoundssss as though you had an enjoyable experience on Wayssssssstation.”
“It was okay, but in the end, I realized that this is where I belong.”
Benzra squeezed herself into the turbolift. Browning crammed herself into what little space was left. “How did you come to that conclusssssion?”
“I guess it was seeing the Captain and Counselor Peterman again. I didn’t realize how close we’d come over the past couple years until I was away from them.” Browning sighed. “And then there’s Chris.”
Benzra’s tiny antennae bristled. “The Engineer?”
“Yup. I don’t have the feelings I used to have for him, but I care about him a lot. I’m really worried he won’t be able to adjust to us just being friends.”
“Flarn need not worry about sssssssuch things. We are matched with matesssss once we emerge from our birth ssssssssacks. There is no ssssssecond guesssssssing. And once the eggsssssss hatch, the Flarn female often eats her mate. That doessss away with the debate over being ‘jussssst friendsssss.’”
“Hmmm,” Browning stared at the turbolift ceiling thoughtfully. “Eat your mate. That’s…well…” She shook her head. “Nah.”
“To quote a human expressssssssion, Doctor, do not knock it until you try it,” Benzra said, as she turned down the corridor toward the transporter room. “You are a doctor. Sssssurely you realize the nutritional–” Benzra said, when suddenly her compound eyes glimmered. She saw an orangish blur pass through the intersection at the end of the corridor, like an afterimage on a video screen. “What the–?”
“What is it?” Browning asked curiously, wiping mustard from her mouth.
The Flarn shook her head. The image was gone. “I musssssst be getting sssssssenile.”
“How old are you, anyway?”
“I will be ninety-three next week,” Benzra said. “Almost middle-aged. How ssssssad. And what have I done with my life?”
“You’ve crossed a whole galaxy for Pete’s sake,” Browning said, following Benzra into the transporter room. “Besides, you’re about to embark on a whole new journey. The road ahead is clear, Dr. Benzra. All you have to do is choose which path to take.”
“A lessssssss than creative platitude,” Benzra said, mounting the transporter pad. “As it is, my path is already chosssssen.”
“And that is?” Browning asked, peering around the transporter room. No one was at the station. Peculiar.
“After a ssssssshort debriefing with Ssssssstarfleet Command, I believe I will tour thisssssss quadrant. It was the object of greed on the part of my people, and I think it would be interessssting to take in the points of interessssssst.”
“In that case, make sure you see the Eiffel Tower,” Browning said. “It’s fabulous this time of year.”
“I will add that to my itenerary,” Benzra said firmly. “Ssssssay, Doctor Browning. Do you know where the transsssssssporter operator is?”
“Right here,” Lt. Hartley bellowed, swaggering out of the transporter maintenance room, her uniform jacket unzipped and a frothy bottle of Breen Ice Lager in her hand. “You going somewhere?”
“I am to be transsssssported aboard the Ssssstarship Kevorkian.”
Hartley hopped onto the stool behind the transporter console and cracked her knuckles. “Good for you. I bet your ecstatic.”
“On the contrary, I will misssss this crew to ssssssome extent. In particular, I found you a worthy colleague.”
Hartley shrugged. “I guess.”
“Are you all right, Lieutenant?”
“You sssssssssseem a bit dissssgruntled.”
“That’s the real Lt. Hartley, Benzra,” Browning whispered, grinning politely at Hartley.
Hartley nodded. “Yep. I’m supposed to be disgruntled. The Hartley you knew was a fake.”
“I sssssssee. At any rate, I am ssssorry you losssst your job. I realize you enjoyed–”
“Energizing…” Hartley said, running the slidebars up the transporter control panel.
“Bye, Benzra!” Browning said, waving a sandwich as Benzra disappeared.
“What are you so f***ing happy about?” Hartley asked, sliding off the stool and walking over to the replicator. “Triscuits. Extra crunchy.”
“It’s just good to be back,” Browning said, backing toward the door to the transporter room.
“Well, don’t come ‘back’ here unless you want to be transported into oblivion,” Hartley muttered, crunching triscuits and heading back to the maintenance room.
“Thanks, Mirk,” Lt. Commander Richards said, eagerly digging into the plate of polish sausage and saurkraut that Mirk placed in front of him.
Lt. Commander Kristen Larkin sat across the table from Richards, cocking her head quizzically and nibbling on a breadstick as the engineer ate. “I take it you are enjoying your lunch?”
“You bet, Kristen,” Richards said in between chomps. “The food on Kronos was horrible. You have no idea how disgusting Klingon blood pie is.”
“On the contrary, I can recite its molecular structure to you.”
“I’m sure you can. But let’s not, okay?” Richards asked. He reached a hand across the table and placed it on top of Larkin’s. “Instead, how about you tell me how you’ve been. We haven’t had much time to talk in the last couple days, what with Engineering being so hectic and all.”
“You are attempting an act of physical affection appropriate to your parental role,” Larkin observed, staring down at Richards’s hand.
“Yeah, I suppose I am.”
“I, then, should reciprocate, should I not?”
“I guess, if you want to.”
Larkin reached across the table and clamped Richards in between her two strong-as-duranium arms. “This is a method that was taught to me by Counselor Webber when I was aboard the Secondprize.”
“Urk!” Richards grunted. His eyes darted across the Constellation Cafe as he tried to squirm out from Larkin’s grip.
Dr. Browning strolled into the bar. “A plate of Tarkalian Razorribs and make it snappy, Mirk!”
“Whatever you say, Doc,” Mirk said, hunching under the bar and activating the replicator.
“Janice, over here!” Richards gasped, struggling toward Dr. Browning. Larkin’s grip was unbreakable.
“Have I satisfied the physical requirement here, sir?” Larkin asked innocently.
“Yes, yes!” Richards gasped, wriggling free as Dr. Browning approached, grinning at the display. “Janice, hey, what’s going on!”
“Not much,” Browning said. “Just saw the Flarn doctor off. She seemed really nice.”
“She was extremely competent,” Larkin agreed, hovering expectantly behind Richards. “What shall I do next, Mr. Richards?”
“Go back to our table,” Richards whispered, gesturing for Dr. Browning to follow him and the android. “Come sit down with Kristen and me. Tell us how things are in Sickbay!”
“I’m really kind of busy…um, eating, Christopher,” Browning said, as Richards ushered her into a seat at his table.
“Not so busy you can’t share some time with two good…uh, friends, right?”
“Hmm, I guess not. Bring the food over here, Mirk! And get me a side of waffle fries with extra ketchup. And don’t be stingy with them!”
“Coming right up!”
“It’s nice to be on the receiving end of the restaurant business,” Browning observed. She looked across the table at Richards. “So…”
“Small-talk mode initiated,” Larkin said, cocking her head. “Mr. Richards, Dr. Browning, I understand you have ceased your romantic relationship in favor of a platonic one. Please elaborate on this.”
“You know,” Browning said, “I really have to get back to Sickbay. They’re re-installing my pizza oven today. There wasn’t room for it before, what with Benzra’s…um, hugeness.”
“Janice…” Richards said, as Browning rose to leave.
“Not now, Christopher. Let’s wait until we’re a little more settled in.”
“How long will that be?” Richards called after Browning.
“I’ll let you know!”
“How about that,” Richards muttered. “I guess I really am single again.”
“That was made clear to you on Stardate 53431, was it not?”
“I guess it just took a little while to really sink in,” Richards muttered. “It’s been awhile since I’ve been alone.”
“You are not alone, sir,” Larkin said, squeezing Richards’s shoulder so hard he could hear cracking.
Richards winced, pulling away. “Thanks…ugh…Larkin…I may have to see Janice again today after all.”
Captain Baxter whistled a happy tune as he stepped out of the turbolift and strolled out onto the bridge. “Report, Lt. J’hana.”
“An enforcer from the Klingon High Council beamed aboard a nd threatened Commander Conway’s physical safety,” J’hana said. “Other than that, yesterday was rather quiet.”
“I see,” Baxter said, collapsing into the command chair. “Still on course to the Beta Myrimad system?”
“At Warp Five, yes, sir,” J’hana said.
“May I say, sir, I do like your goatee. It makes you look like less of a wuss, if that is indeed possible, which I doubt.”
Baxter turned around. “What did you say, Lieutenant?”
“I believe I paid you a compliment, sir. It has been known to happen, though rarely.”
“No…you said I had a goatee. That’s impossible.” Baxter stared at his reflection in his armrest panel quizzically. “I’ll be damned.” A bushy goatee had grown on his face. But he’d just shaven it!
“Is there a problem, sir?”
“I’ll be in Sickbay,” Baxter said, jogging into the turbolift. “Something is terribly wrong with my facial hair.”
“Since when has the Captain been concerned about his appearance?” Lt. Ford asked, turning around in his chair at the helm.
“I do not know,” J’hana replied. “Whatever the case, it seems an awful lot of fuss over facial hair.”
“Hmmm, so it was the Chileans all along!” Commander Conway said, as he flipped to page 1709 of Tom Clancy’s “Russia Still Bothers Me.” He’d been reading this book off an on since Stardate 48908 and he was just getting to an essential plot point. Up until now, it was mostly exposition.
Conway read on about the Chilean conspiracy against Jack Ryan’s rest home when he reached for his steaming cup of coffee.
For the last couple days, the stuff had tasted horrible, but Conway had grown to live with it. Maybe something was wrong with his taste buds. Whenever he got the time, he’d probably have to go to Dr. Browning and have them examined.
As Conway sipped, he read aloud.
“And the leader of the Chilean conspiracy is…is…is… BUAAAAA- AAAAAAAHHHHHHH…”
And he vomited explosively all over his Tom Clancy book, pitching out of his chair and scrambling across the floor, slipping in that evening’s dinner.
“Huahhhh, urrrrrhhhh,” Conway groaned, straining toward the bathroom. “Conway to Sickbay. Conway to Sickbay. Come in. I need medical….HHUUUUA- ARRRRRSHHHH…assistance in my….GRRRRRRRUUUUHHHG…quarters!”
“Dr. Browning?” Baxter asked, peering around Sickbay. “Janice?”
“Coming through!” Browning cried, wheeling Conway by Baxter on an antigrav stretcher.
Baxter looked down at Conway, grimaced. The Commander was retching and hacking, wracked with convulsions. “What on Earth happened to him?”
“His body’s having a massive allergic reaction to something…but I can’t figure out what,” Browning said, running a tricorder over Commander Conway as Nurse Carter heaved him onto a biobed.
“Jeeze,” Baxter mused. “My problem hardly seems important by comparison.”
“When did you start growing a goatee?” Browning suddenly asked, looking up from Conway’s readings on the biobed.
“That’s my problem. It just popped up.”
“It looks good. Adds something to your face,” Browning said as she pumped a hypospray into Conway’s arm.
“I know it adds something to my face,” Baxter said, irritated, stepping aside as Nurse Carter and Dr. Browning worked, trying his best to keep out of the way. “But what I want to know is how it could possibly pop up so quick. I just shaved this morning!”
“Well, it is odd,” Browning admitted. “There. The Commander’s stabilized. Let me take a look at you.”
Browning grabbed her medical tricorder and ran it over Baxter’s face. “Something has stimulated the follicles. I’m not sure how, though. Has your diet changed at all?”
“Kelly’s still trying to get me to watch what I eat. I’ve been sneaking cheese sandwiches at night and eating them in bed…but I’m sure that doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
“Uhhhhhh…” Conway moaned as his eyes fluttered open. “What happened?”
Browning whirled. “You underwent an extreme allergic reaction to something…I think it was in your coffee.”
“The stuff just hasn’t been tasting right lately,” Conway said.
“You think there’s a connection between Conway’s…” Baxter shuddered “…digestive problems and my facial hair?”
Browning clapped her tricorder shut and rapped it thoughtfully. “Possibly. I’ll know more after I study the data. Meanwhile, I don’t see why you guys can’t go back to duty. But Commander, I’d stay away from coffee for awhile.”
“Doctor, really…no need to get rash,” Conway said. “I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for all this.”
Browning sighed. “Commander Conway, I had to use 25ccs of Dexahedrin just to bring your body out of allergic shock. Five ccs more would have killed you.”
“Dexahedrin, hun?” Conway said thoughtfully, then looked up at the chronometer. “Whoops, look at that. I have an appointment in ten minutes. See you all later.”
“Conway off coffee,” Baxter said, stroking his goatee. “That’s not a thought I relish. You’d better find out how this is happening and put a stop to it quick, Doctor. Before we have to have Mr. Conway committed to an asylum.”
Browning smiled. “You’re not giving me much of an incentive.”
Counselor Peterman reviewed the latest Federation News issue as she strolled toward her office, giggling at the “Spaced Out” comic strip. “To think,” Peterman chuckled to herself, “a fat man stuck inside an airlock. And he can’t get out! That’s hilarious!”
Peterman looked up from her padd as she approached the door to her office and came eye-to-eye with Ensign Howard Sefelt.
“Aaah!” Peterman shrieked, dropping the padd. “How many times have I told you not to pop up like that, Howard? You scared the crap out of me!”
“You have to help me, Counselor. Someone is breaking into my quarters and standing there while I sleep,” Sefelt said urgently, following Peterman into her quarters. “I know because I can hear him breathing.”
“I’m sure you’re just imagining things,” Peterman said, sliding behind her desk. “Why don’t we just talk about this at our next appointment?”
“Because that might be too late!” Sefelt cried, leaning over Peterman’s desk. “You have to help me!”
“What do you want me to do? Have your quarters transferred?”
Sefelt smiled. “Pleeeeease?”
“Fine,” Peterman said, clicking on her terminal. “I’ll put the request through to Captain Baxter and see if the moving crew can do it this afternoon. I’d hate for the boogie-man to get you tonight.”
“Never mind. It’d just make you more scared.”
“That isn’t possible, Counselor.”
“Mmm hmm,” Peterman said idly as she tapped the information into her terminal. “There. That should do it, Howard. The moving crew will be at your quarters later this afternoon.”
“You’re great,” Sefelt said as Peterman escorted him to the door.
“Don’t mention it,” Peterman said. Suddenly she felt something brush up against her right buttock. She hopped up, letting out a shrill squeak and spinning on a heel. “Howard, did you just try to grab my…butt?”
“No, Counselor, I’d never do anything like that. I have a problem with physical intimacy, remember?”
“Right,” Peterman said, showing Sefelt out. “Must’ve been the…wind.”
“All right, J’hana, tell me what you know,” Captain Baxter said, hunching over the tactical console.
“What could you possibly be referring to?” J’hana asked, not looking up from her scans.
“You know damned well. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. You recently performed a security sweep of Deck Nine. Kelly’s office is on Deck Nine.”
“Must we do this every year, sir?” J’hana asked, exasperated.
“I need to know, J’hana. She expects me to be telepathic.”
“Well, I cannot help you. I found no hints in my investigations. Although it does appear that Counselor Peterman has several illegal substances in her storage compartment.”
“That Melkotian pleasure powder we got for Charlie’s fleas,” Baxter said, snapping his fingers. “That dealer looked pretty sleazy, come to think of it.”
“The penalty for possession of pleasure powder on Melkot is death, sir,” J’hana noted.
“I trust you’ll keep that under your hat, then?”
“I have no hat to keep it under, but I will not tell anyone.”
“That’s my girl,” Baxter said. “Now how do I find out what Kelly wants for Christmas?”
“Well,” J’hana mused. “You said she expects you to be telepathic, correct?”
“Right. What about it?”
“Well…” J’hana inclined her head toward the science station.
Lt. Tilleran looked up from her panel. “What? What are you two looking at?”
“Lieutenant,” Baxter said, grinning, “I have a proposition for you.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to just ASK her what she wants for Christmas?” Tilleran asked, as she accompanied Baxter down the corridor toward Peterman’s office.
“Normally. But Kelly is…quirky about such things. She doesn’t like to be surprised. She likes to get exactly what she wants…but she refuses to tell me. So I have to go through this whole troublesome maneuver every Christmas and every Birthday and every Gonarr Day. It’s just not fair.”
“Perhaps she enjoys the work you put into finding out what she wants more than the actual gift,” Tilleran suggested.
“That’s twisted,” Baxter said, shaking his head.
“Sir?” Tilleran asked, as she and Baxter approached the door to Peterman’s office.
“How long have you had that goatee?”
“Since 0900 hours.” Baxter plunked the door chime.
Peterman answered the door. “Andy, Lt. Tilleran! What brings you guys down here?”
“I was telling Lt. Tilleran here about your recipe for Gorn pot roast and she insisted I come down here with her and get the recipe immediately.”
“Aren’t you both on duty?” Peterman asked, allowing Tilleran and Baxter into her office.
“Well, yeah,” Baxter said. “But not much is going on. We thought it’d be fun to come down here and chew the fat a minute with you.”
Peterman called up the recipe on a padd and handed it to Tilleran. “There you go.”
Tilleran’s eyes locked with Peterman and she staggered back, holding onto the door frame for support.
“Nice try, Andy,” Peterman said, heading back to her desk. “But I’m prepared for Betazoids. It’s not going to be that easy this year.”
“Damn,” Baxter said. “Come on, Tilleran.”
Tilleran rubbed her head. “You’ll have to tell me where you learned that some time, Counselor.”
“Any time!” Peterman said, waving goodbye to Baxter and Tilleran.
“Wow,” Tilleran said, paging through the padd. “This looks like a great recipe.”
“I’m glad this outing wasn’t a total loss, then,” Baxter sighed.
“That’s great, Ensign Stuart,” Dr. Browning said, switching her pizza oven on and watching with glee as the thermal cells heated up, filling her office with a warm glow. “It’s just like old times.”
“That it is, Doctor,” Stuart said, closing his tool kit and standing up, brushing himself off. “I kind of missed trying to reroute three diffrent power conduits to get enough power to start this baby up.”
If that was a barb, Browning missed it. “Well, thanks for staying late, Ryan. I’ll be extra competent next time you come in for a check-up.”
“Glad to hear it,” Stuart said, heading for the door. Just before he reached the door, it swung open, allowing Lt. Hartley to storm through, decked out in Starfleet-issue sweatpants and a “Transporter Chiefs do it with Heisenberg Compensators” t-shirt.
“I need help, Doctor,” Hartley said, hopping up onto a biobed and folding her arms.
“Just a minute. I was just making dinner.” Hartley saw Brown through the glass window in her office tossing dough up into the air. “Mmm….it’s been awhile!”
Hartley narrowed her eyes at Stuart as she waited for Browning. “Ryan.”
“Hi, Lt. Hartley. How’s the transporter room.”
“It sucks!” she cried, prompting Stuart to scurry hurriedly out of Sickbay.
“There,” Browning said, clapping the powdery dough remnants off her hands. “Now, what seems to be the problem?”
“I woke up fifteen minutes ago and felt a horrible burning sensation on my right arm,” Hartley explained, seething with anger.
“Rash?” Browning asked curiously.
Hartley shook her head, rolling up her shirt-sleeve. “Nope. Tattoo.”
“Wow!” Browning beamed. “I’ve heard about those, but never seen one.”
Hartley’s particular tattoo was a Starfleet insignia with the words “Starfleet Officers Suck the Big One” scrawled over it in barely-legible red.
“Well, that’s not very nice.”
“We have a prankster aboard, Dr. Browning,” Hartley grumbled. “I want you to remove this so I can commence to tracking down the bastard that had the nerve to break into my quarters and do this to me!”
“Hmmm,” Browning said, studying the tattoo with her medical tricorder.
“It’s just that it seems like your tattoo wasn’t caused by a traditional pigmentation device. It looks like it was created from the inside-out. By altering DNA.”
“So the person that did this to me is a high-tech jerk. He or she is still a jerk!”
“The DNA modifications are very precise. Almost like what was done to Captain Baxter and Commander Conway.”
“An epidemic!” Hartley seethed. “That ticks me off even more. Even though I’m all too glad to have something bad happen to Commander Conway.”
Browning ran a dermal regenerator over Hartley’s arm, causing the tattoo to disappear. “There you go. I’ll keep studying the evidence. Maybe I can track down who’s doing this.”
“You do that. I’m going on the offensive.”
“And how do you plan on doing that?” Browning asked skeptically.
Hartley slid off the biobed. “Don’t worry. I’ll come up with something.”
Stardate 53436.3. Sometimes a Starship Captain must compromise his conscience and values for the sake of the mission. The mission, in this case, is to find the perfect Christmas gift for Kelly. It’s Christmas Eve and I still haven’t found a clue as to my wife’s Christmas desires. We can travel across oceans of space and even time, but somehow the art of getting the right gift still evades us. It’s getting close to the point where I’m ready to seek out the lowest common denominator to accomplish my goal.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” Lt. Ford asked, stepping through the doors to Captain Baxter’s readyroom.
“Yes, Mr. Ford, sit down,” Baxter said, grabbing glass of thick yellow liquid from the replicator. “Egg nog?”
“No, sir. I’m on duty,” Ford said innocently.
“Yeah, right, so am I,” Baxter chuckled, tapping a control on the replicator and calling up another glass of egg nog. “Drink up, Mr. Ford. That’s an order.”
Ford took the glass and sipped. “Mmm. Very good, sir.”
“Thought you’d like it. It’s a Baxter family secret,” Baxter said, sitting on the edge of his desk, facing Ford. He sipped from his egg nog and swallowed, staring Ford in the eye quietly. “Taking a moment” was a popular exercise in personal communication. It gave the speaker a sense of power over the listener.
After he judged that enough time had elapsed, Baxter spoke. “Lt. Ford, I need a favor.”
“Yes. I’ve been pretty good to you, haven’t I? You got that promotion you wanted. Adequate vacation time. I don’t enter it into the ship’s log when you arrive to your shift late…which you do a lot, by the way. You’d have to say you have it pretty good here, wouldn’t you?”
Ford shifted in his seat uncomfortably, sipped more egg nog. “Well, yeah, I guess I do. Where are you going with this?”
“I want you to spy on my wife,” Baxter said quickly.
Ford drank more egg nog. “Come again?”
“I want you to stick to Counselor Peterman like nil bugs on an Andorian antelope. Shadow her from now until tonight’s Christmas Eve party.”
“But why, sir?”
Baxter leaned forward. “I need to figure out what to get her. I’m terrible at gift-giving, Lieutenant. But I think I have the perfect gift for you. If you help me, I’ll arrange an all- expenses paid trip for you and whichever female crewmember will consent to go with you to Risa next month. How does that sound?”
“It sounds great!” Ford exclaimed. “And all for something I’d do anyway!”
“Never mind,” Ford said, hurrying toward the door. “I’d better get spying.”
“Go get ‘em, Mr. Ford,” Baxter said happily.
Back in uniform, Lt. Hartley marched purposefully into Engineering, right past Ryan Stuart.
“Lt. Hartley?” Stuart asked, as Hartley opened the Jeffries tube access door and stepped through. “Where are you going?”
“Hunting,” Hartley said, keying open the door in the deck that led down to the crawlspaces under Engineering. She withdrew her phaser from its holster and checked the setting. Kill.
“What are you hunting?” Stuart asked, poking his head down into the hatch as Hartley holstered her phaser made her way down the ladder.
“Don’t you worry about that,” Hartley said. She hopped off the ladder and proceeded through one of the Jeffries tubes, crawling a mazelike stretch of tunnel that led all the way to a junction somewhere near the forward deflector.
She yanked out her tricorder and began scanning as she slid out of the tube. “Just what I thought. Heightened levels of power conversion, an over-abundance of ionizing radiation. And for no reason. This is only a backup junction. There shouldn’t be anything going on down here unless we’re in battle or seriously damaged.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
Lt. Hartley whirled, drawing her phaser in an instant and leveling it in the direction of the voice. “Richards!”
“That’s Lt. Commander Richards, Lieutenant,” Richards said with a grin. “What are you doing here?”
Hartley grimaced. “I have reason to believe that we have an intruder on board. I’m trying to track him down.”
“Isn’t that more security’s department?”
“Normally. But I have a personal stake in this now.”
“That ‘intruder’ gave me a tattoo,” Hartley grumbled. “And why are you here?”
“I was tracking down the same power usage reading that you were.”
“Hmm,” Hartley said dismissively. “Well, I’m on the case now. You can get back up to Engineering.”
“Excuse me?” Richards asked. “I’m the Chief Engineer. Power consumption routines are my responsibility.”
Hartley huffed. “Well, I was Chief Engineer for three months. I know a thing or two about the power systems.”
“That may be, but you’re Transporter Chief again. You’re place is in the transporter room.”
“I say my place is right here, right now!” Hartley said, staring up at Richards defiantly.
“Do you want me to put you on report, Lieutenant?”
“You wouldn’t!” Hartley seethed.
“You bet I would,” Richards said. “As a matter of fact, as soon as I’m done here I’m going to do just that.”
“You are done here!” Hartley said. “Go back up to your nice cushy office while the real engineer does the work!”
“Real engineer, huh?” Richards asked. “That’s it, I’m going up there right now. If J’hana has to drag you out of here herself–” Richards grabbed at the latch that led back to the Jeffries’ tubes. It didn’t budge. “That’s odd.”
Hartley folded her arms. “What?”
“The latch isn’t opening.”
“Weakling,” Hartley muttered. “Let me try it.” Hartley yanked on the latch with all her might, finally conceeding that it wouldn’t budge.
“Computer, overide the locking mechanism on this latch, Authorization Richards Gamma Psi 007.”
Hartley tapped her foot impatiently.
“Computer?” Richards asked nervously. “Computer?”
“Hartley to Engineering. Ryan, can you hear me?”
“Richards to anyone on this ship…”
Hartley and Richards looked around the cramped junction…about the size of a shuttle cockpit.
“I guess we’re stuck down here,” Richards said amiably.
“This junction isn’t big enough for both of us,” Hartley grunted.
Richards gulped. He could feel the walls closing in already.
Ford glanced one more time at his padd and jumped behind the immense rhododendron that dominated the rear corner of Baxter and Peterman’s cabin. On Wednesdays, Peterman always came home for lunch. She should be walking through the doors any moment.
A bleep. Someone was unlocking the doors to the cabin. Ford checked his tricorder to make sure it was on audio record mode.
“This should be fun,” he whispered to himself, peering over one of the rhododenron bulbs as Peterman stepped into the cabin. Charlie bounded after her, hopping onto the couch.
Damn. Charlie was a factor he didn’t take into consideration.
As if on cue, the golden retriever sniffed at the air. He had the scent.
“No boy…” Ford whispered, as Peterman undid her ponytail and walked into the bathroom, humming a tune to herself and brushing her hair.
Charlie lept toward the rhododendron and poked his nose through, extending his long tongue through and lapping Ford’s face.
“No, Charlie…bad Charlie. I swear if you go away I’ll replicate a steak for you. Just go away! Shoo!”
“Charlie, what are you doing?” Peterman asked, wrapping her hair back into a ponytail and crossing the cabin–toward the rhododendron.
Suddenly, Ford realized what Charlie was so interested in. A small, beat-up tennis ball rested right next to Ford’s foot. Slowly, carefully, Ford rolled the ball across the carpet.
Charlie bounded after the ball, picking it up and carrying it to Peterman as she browsed the replicator menu.
“I think I’ll have a chicken salad sandwhich today. Does that sound good Char-char? Yes it does, it sure does,” Peterman said, grabbing the ball and hurling it over toward the rhododendron.
“No, damn it!” Ford cursed between clenched teeth, as the ball hit his head and bounced back into the air. Charlie lept, catching the ball in his teeth.
He brought the ball over to Peterman as she carried her sandwich to the dinner table.
“All right, boy, take the ball somewhere else. Mommy has to browse the Fredrick’s of Betazed catalogue.”
“That’s it!” Ford said, snapping his fingers. He tapped “Fredrick’s of Betazed” into his padd. He was almost there.
Peterman nibbled her sandwhich, paging through a padd full of scant and colorful lingerie.
Ford grabbed his imager and set it to magnify mode. “Mmmm…” he said quietly. “I like that one, Counselor. Excellent choice. So soft. Go with that. Oh, but the satin is so much more gentle on the skin. Get that one. Oh, would you look at that. They can do amazing things with elastic these days.”
Charlie nudged his ball around the cabin, content to keep himself busy while Ford spied and Peterman browsed the catalogue. Charlie was happy nudging the ball until it suddenly disappeared in a little sparkle of light. Charlie approached the place where the ball disappeared and tentatively poked at it with his paw. It looked like the spot in front of Baxter’s recliner, but when Charlie extended his paw, the front of his paw disappeared, and he jumped back, yelping nervously.
“What is it, boy?” Peterman asked, turning.
Charlie yelped and inclined his head toward the strange wall of non-reality in front of Baxter’s barkalounger.
“You put the ball under the recliner again, didn’t you?” Peterman shook her head. “Well, you’ll have to wait until after work today for me to get it. I have an appointment in fifteen minutes and I have to go back to the office and prepare.”
Peterman whisked her half-eaten sandwhich into the replicator and leashed Charlie up, leading him quickly out of the cabin.
Ford hopped out from behind the plant and ran over to the dinner table, grabbing Peterman’s catalogue padd. She’d highlighted selection 22B…the Denebian lace nighty with matching stockings.
“Oh, Counselor, you have exquisite tastes!” Ford exclaimed, entering the newfound information in his padd and heading for the door. Before he reached the door, he heard a rustling from behind. He spun around, only to see a ripple in space directly in front of Baxter’s recliner.
“How about that,” Ford said to himself, approaching the recliner. “I didn’t know Captain Baxter had a portable subspace ripple generator.” Ford stuck out a hand, which immediately disappeared into the invisible wall.
“Wow!” Ford exclaimed. “That’s amaz–”
And something jerked Ford all the way into the invisible wall so quickly his padd clattered to the deck.
“Latinum brick, phaser, isolinear chip!” Richards exclaimed, sticking his hand out flat to represent an isolinear chip.
Hartley, for her part, pointed her fingers like a gun. “Phaser blasts isolinear chip! I win again!”
“Damn. I used to be great at ‘Latinum Brick, Phaser, Isolinear Chip.’”
“You’re slacking in your old age,” Hartley said wryly. “It’s one more thing I do better than you.”
“Why do you hate me, Megan?”
“Because you’re so bad at these types of games.”
“Really. You’ve treated me like crap since I returned from the Klingon homeworld.”
“I don’t hate you. But can you blame me for being pissed at having to take a back seat to you as soon as you decide to come back here?”
“Exactly. Things are fine for you now. They’re back to normal, which in your case is good. But I LIKED being Chief Engineer. I felt like I was doing an important job, like I was needed, like I was respected. For the first time, I wasn’t just a service person.”
“You’re not just a service person. You are responsible for everyone that beams on and off this ship! That’s a very important job!”
“It’s equivalent to being a shuttle cab driver. But I don’t even get a tip.”
“So that’s why you’re being so mean to me? Because I took your job away?”
“It’s reason enough, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not,” Richards replied angrily. “Everything didn’t return to normal for me, Megan. When me and Janice came back she decided we should just be friends.”
Hartley’s expression changed a moment. “And you had something else in mind?”
“I guess I thought we could pick up where we left off.”
“You thought wrong,” Hartley said thoughtfully.
“So see, Megan, things aren’t that great for me either. I may have my old job, but things are not the same. You don’t see me whining and acting all bitchy over it, though.”
Hartley folded her arms. “I do not act bitchy.”
“Have you polled the crew on that one?”
“Oh, that is low, Richards.”
“Listen,” Richards said, taking in a deep breath. “We have to work together. I don’t want to be your enemy. How about we call a cease fire and go back to trying to do our jobs the best we can.”
Richards stuck out his hand and Hartley stared at it, pondering her next move.
Suddenly, the latch on the hatch that led back to the Jeffries’ tube clacked open.
“There we go,” Richards said, turning. “Finally, Stuart must’ve worked out the glitch.”
“Good old Ryan,” Hartley said, as Richards worked the hatch open.
“Yeah,” Richards said, gesturing for Hartley to duck out of the hatch first. “Remind me to buy him a drink when we get out of here.”
“Yep, he certainly deserves…WOAH!” Hartley cried, as suddenly she seemed to fall right through the duranium floor of the Jeffries’ tube and disappear from sight. Richards grabbed her hand just before it disappeared and dragged her back up.
“Thank goodness you’re light,” he mumbled, as she swung a leg over the hatch.
“Yeah, really. I wonder what that is? Some kind of subspace instability?”
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, we’d better call someone to look into–”
Hartley’s eyes went wide. “Something’s got my ankle!”
And Hartley sunk back down, yanking Richards right along with her.
Baxter stepped out of his readyroom, leaning against the railing that surrounded the command area. “They said what, J’hana?”
“I do not wish to repeat it,” J’hana said solemnly. “I will replay the message.”
On the main viewscreen, Baxter watched as what looked like a drunken Leseppian captain and his bridge crew broke into a chorus of guffaws.
“USS Explorer, I must say, I admire your paint job. So…creative! I didn’t realize Starfleet had a sense of humor!”
“That was sent to us by a passing freighter ten minutes ago,” J’hana said.
“How strange.” Baxter rubbed his beard. “Any idea what it’s referring to?”
“A vague idea,” J’hana muttered angrily, tapping at her panel.
The view on the main screen shifted to that of the top of Explorer’s saucer section.
In bright red, spread across the length of the saucer, were the words:
“What in the hell is the meaning of that!” Baxter said, infuriated.
“Apparently, the meaning is, that Starfleet ‘sucks,’” Larkin offered helpfully from the ops console.
“Get a team out there to get that stuff off,” Baxter grunted. “How on Earth did someone do that without us knowing?”
“I don’t know, but I’m…zztt…cute and cuddly,” J’hana said firmly.
Baxter glared back at J’hana. “Come again?”
J’hana’s voice fluctuated and crackled, as if it were coming through a comm channel. It was high-pitched, whiny.
“I’m a fluffy bunny rabbit!” J’hana twittered. Then, in her normal voice, said, “WHAT IN THE NINE F***ING HIVES?”
“Something is accessing J’hana’s neural speech center,” Tilleran said, running her hands over the science console. “This is amazing, Captain. Someone, or something, is using a high-level EM band waveguide to manipulate J’hana’s brain.”
Baxter stormed over to the tactical station and grabbed J’hana by the shoulders. “J’hana, get ahold of yourself!”
“Starfleet is for jerks!” she cried. “No, no it is not! I do not mean that! Yes I do! I’m a fluffy bunny!”
“Who are you?” Baxter cried. “What are you doing to my crew?”
“We’re having fun!” J’hana cried, pirouetting around the bridge. “We’re having such fun!”
“She sounds like a teenager, Captain,” Tilleran offered.
“Are you saying that kids are behind this?” Baxter asked, watching J’hana wiggle her butt in Larkin’s face.
“Please kill me!” J’hana cried, Texas two-stepping over to the phaser rack. “By the Hive Mother, have mercy!’
“If they are kids, they are extremely intelligent ones,” Larkin surmised, as J’hana snapped a phaser off the rack and pointed it at her head.
“Must die! Mares eat oats and goats eat oats and little lambs eat ivy! A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?”
Baxter ran over and grabbed the phaser out of J’hana’s hand before she could fire it. He smacked the Andorian across the face. “J’hana! Pull yourself together, damn it!”
Then, just as suddenly as she had changed, J’hana dropped to the floor like a rag doll.
Baxter knelt by J’hana and slapped his comm badge. “Baxter to Sickbay. We have a…something here.”
“What a day,” Baxter moaned, collapsing into his recliner. “J’hana loony, Richards, Hartley, and Ford missing. Conway with digestive problems. And the Christmas Eve party is right around the corner. Computer. I need a beer. Any type. Extra frothy.”
Baxter walked over to the replicator and got his beer. A vintage Vulcan blend, guaranteed to stir the fires of pon farr within anyone who drank it. Yeah, right.
Baxter sipped the beer and walked back to the recliner. In doing so, he spotted a small padd sitting on the floor. “Hello. What’s this?”
He paged through the padd. There were pictures. “Fredrick’s of Betazed. Selection 22B? Nightie? By the Great Bird, this is Ford’s padd! This is what Kelly wants for Christmas! Yes, yes, damn it, yes!” Baxter stood up and cheered, waving the padd in the air. “I’ve got it now, by God, I’ve got it now!”
Then Baxter tipped forward and fell through pseudo-space into another realm altogether, holding onto his beer and that padd for dear life.
Lt. Ford paced the cramped, green-metal holding cell, while Richards and Hartley continued their rousing game of ‘Latinum Brick, Phaser, Isolinear Chip.’
“I can’t believe we’re being held captive by a bunch of snot-nosed, bratty teenagers,” Ford muttered, pounding his fist into the palm of his other hand. “And on Christmas Eve, of all times.”
“Believe it, Mr. Ford,” Richards muttered, as Hartley beat him once more by deprogramming his phaser with her isolinear chip. “These snot-nosed teenagers are in command of an advanced piece of alien technology.”
“I could still kick their asses,” Ford said angrily.
“Sure you could,” Hartley said. “By the look on your face, that fat one kneaded you like dough.”
“He wasn’t so scary.”
“Get off! Get off!” squeaked a whiny voice that was familiar to all that were gathered in the cell.
Hartley and Richards stood up, looking on in wonder as Baxter poked a strange, bananna-shaped weapon into a scrawny, pimply teenager’s back. It was the one known as Stew, the only one of the three teenagers aboard the stolen alien ship that had the know-how to operate it.
“Evening fellas!” Baxter said proudly, prodding Stew to unlock the cell. “Look who I ran into!”
“Fell on is more like it,” Stew whined.
Baxter grinned as Hartley, Richards, and Ford stepped out of the cell. “There I was, standing in front of my recliner, when suddenly I reeled forward and BAM!–fell right on top of spanky here.”
“Wait until Meaty gets out of the bathroom. He’ll whip your Starfleet ass!” shrilled Stew.
“You’ll shut up if you know what’s good for you. I don’t know what kind of effect this bannana-looking thing has, but I’ll wager it ain’t good.”
“Creep!” Hartley cried, slapping Stew across the face and grabbing her phaser off a nearby desk.
“Come on,” Baxter said, dragging Stew behind him. “We’re rounding up your friends and getting back to my ship for the annual Christmas party. I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing you’ll all be getting coal this year.”
The Grand Ballroom on Deck Eleven was abuzz with voices. They weren’t all happy voices, Mirk thought, as he polished the bar and offered Ensign Madera a mug of egg nog. Many of the crew were worried about the missing crewmembers. It wasn’t at all normal on a Federation Starship for crew just to suddenly go missing. And now Richards, Hartley, Ford, AND Captain Baxter were gone.
“More whiskey, Mirk,” Conway belched, leaning against the bar.
“I think you’ve had enough Christmas cheer, don’t you, Commander?” Mirk asked.
“What do you suggest?” Conway grunted. “Coffee?”
“No, I guess that’s out,” Mirk admitted. “Here, have some synthehol-free nog.”
Conway grabbed Mirk by his red and green glittering dinner jacket and jerked him forward. “That…sounds…good…”
Mirk pulled away and straightened his lapels. “Coming right up.”
“Commander,” said Harlan Baxter, followed closely by Lucille Baxter. They were both dressed in matching reindeer sweaters and both carried cups of the syntheholic variety of nog. “Have you heard anything about our boy?”
“Go away,” Conway muttered, waving at the Baxters.
Harlan grunted. “He couldn’t have just disappeared, Commander.”
“He did disappear, okay, so go and shove the top of that Christmas tree right up your…”
“Commander,” Lt. Tilleran said, approaching Conway with Larkin at her side. “We searched the entire ship. There’s no sign of any sort of displacement wave or anything. It’s as if they just disappeared. Poof!”
“We knew that much!” Conway barked. “Now how about all of you go enjoy the festivities and leave me the f*** alone!”
“Perhaps that would be best,” Larkin said. “I believe they are about to sing Christmas carols.”
“Whoopdeedoo.” Conway twirled his finger.
“Here, J’hana,” Dr. Browning said, leading the Andorian over to the bar. “Have nice cup of egg nog.” Browning held up the cup. “Look…cup.”
J’hana stared at the object blankly. “…cup.”
“There you go. Drink up!”
“Doctor,” Mirk said worriedly. “Have you made any progress with J’hana?”
“Not yet. Someone overloaded the entire portion of her brain associated with speech.”
“Why would someone do such a thing?” Mirk asked in disbelief.
“Beats me,” Browning said, shrugging.
“Hello everyone, and Happy Holidays,” Counselor Peterman said, mounting the podium at the front of the ballroom. “It’s great to see you all here to celebrate what has become a very special holiday on the Explorer. At the same time, we should take a moment to remember those who can’t be here becaue their partiuclar religion or planetary governance structure forbids it. Let’s give them all a round of applause.” Peterman waited for the applause to die down. “I realize you’re all used to hearing the captain give this speech, but as most of you know, Captain Baxter has disappeared, along with Mr. Richards, Lt. Hartley, and Lt. Ford, into some other part of space. Our staff is working diligently to return them, but until they do, I invite you all to enjoy the buffet and soak up these beautiful decorations that Yeoman Briggs provided. Oh, and while you’re mingling around, make sure to swing by the Christmas village I built…it’s right over there next to the bar. I worked for several weeks setting up each of those miniature plaster houses so that you could all enjoy them. Merry Christmas everyone! Yeoman Briggs, back to the music!”
Conway grunted with displeasure as Peterman stepped down from the podium. “Her and her f***ing houses!”
“Look at the detail, Harlan,” Lucille said, holding up one of Peterman’s little holiday houses.
Counselor Peterman had painstakingly set up an entire mini- village in one corner of the ballroom. It had shops, homes, churches, schools…even a waterfall. As soon as she’d seen those little plaster houses in the replicator files she knew they’d be perfect for the Explorer’s Christmas party.
Peterman grabbed a glass of apple cider and joined Harlan and Lucille. “That one is a sand-hut from Beta Sephalon Three. Isn’t it cute?”
“Adorable,” Lucille agreed.
“You all should go straight to hell,” Conway belched, almost falling off his stool.
“Well at least someone is trying to salvage this holiday, Commander,” Lucille taunted. “They’re not wallowing in pity like you. You could learn something from Counselor Peterman.”
Peterman grinned at that. “Hear that, Commander?”
“Loud and clear,” Conway muttered, lumbering over to Peterman’s display and grabbing the largest piece, a replica of the Klingon Great Hall. “How about I stop wallowing and slam this into your head instead?”
“Really, Commander,” Peterman said. “Grow up a little.”
“It’s the lack of caffeine talking,” Browning said, joining Peterman and the Baxters. “He really can’t help it.”
“Yeah…” Conway said, collapsing to the floor and curling into a ball, hugging the Great Hall close. “I can’t help it.” Tears welled in his eyes.
“This is so pathetic,” Peterman said quietly, patting Conway on the back. “It’s okay, Commander.”
“Hey everyone, over here!” a voice called out.
Peterman whirled around, to see the space around the Christmas tree ripple. And out stepped Captain Baxter, dragging an extremely fat teenager, holding a bannana-shaped object up to his head.
Behind him, Richards and Ford were both wrestling decidedly slimmer youngsters out of the warp in space. Hartley was following behind, kicking one of them with a look of pure joy on her face
“Andy!” Lucille said, rushing away from the mini-village. “What happened to you?”
“Meeerrrrry Christmas, everybody,” Baxter said merrily. “We just got us some teenaged pranksters.”
“I’ll f***ing kill you!” J’hana screamed, running at the fattest of the teenagers and wrapping her hands around his throat.
“Looks like J’hana got her voice back,” Browning grinned.
Conway looked at the trio of teenagers with disgust. “How on Earth did they sabotage the ship and fool around with our DNA?”
Baxter holstered the bannana and whipped out an oval-shaped shiny green padd. “With advanced alien technology.”
“How else,” Harlan muttered.
“It appears these guys were on their way to reform school in a rented runabout when they came upon a derelict,” Richards said angrily. “They beamed aboard, and Stew here learned the technology. He’s quite a little academian, isn’t he?”
“And he had a grudge against Starfleet,” Hartley said, still kicking. “Because they wouldn’t let him in…because he was too gangly. Isn’t that right, Stewie-boy?”
“They found out how to cloak their ship in an inter- dimensional pocket and then they set a course for the nearest Starfleet ship,” Baxter said.
Peterman shook her head. “Which just happened to be us.”
“Then they used the same inter-dimensional pockets to sneak around the ship. And they used the aliens’ medical technology to mess with our genes.”
“Problem was, all this took power, and their ship was running out,” Hartley said. “So they bled some off our secondary power conduit. That’s how Chris and I discovered them.”
“Why would such bright kids do something like that?” Peterman asked, shaking her head.
“We wanted to make a name for ourselves,” Meaty said, struggling against Baxter’s grip.
“That you did,” Conway grumbled.
The other kid, a pimply faced girl with pigtails, scrunched up her nose. “And we would have succeeded had it not been for you grownups.”
“My heart is breaking,” Hartley growled.
“So can you use that padd to make Conway able to drink coffee again?” Browning asked.
Baxter thumbed a control on the padd. “Let’s find out.”
The padd bleeped, and the Explorer shook almost imperceptibly.
“Bridge to the Ballroom,” came Ensign Sefelt’s worried voice. “An odd ship just appeared nearby from out of nowhere and exploded. Should that have happened?”
Baxter ran a hand over his face. “Just ignore that, Mr. Sefelt.”
“Maybe I should have a look at that,” Tilleran said, grabbing the padd out of Baxter’s hands.
“You just destroyed a priceless artifact that could have enriched the minds of the whole Federation!” Stew cried angrily.
Conway walked over to Stew and jabbed a finger into his chest. “And you and your friends aren’t going to say a word about it. Unless you want us to arrange to have you all conveniently… disappear.”
“They wouldn’t kill us…they’re Starfleet officers!” pigtail-girl spoke up.
“Wanna make a bet, sister!” Hartley growled.
“I think these guys are on the level, Patty,” Meaty croaked. “I just want my mommy.”
“And you’ll get your mommy,” Baxter said. “But for now, you won’t be home for Christmas. You’ll be spending it in the brig.”
“I’ll replicate some lumps of coal,” Browning said brightly.
“I liked the idea of killing them better,” J’hana said.
Stardate 53437.4. Christmas morning. With Patty, Meaty, and Stew tucked snugly into the brig, with visions of mining camp dancing in their heads, we are heading back to their parents’ colony on Ferignus Alpha Three, where I’m sure they’ll be grounded at minimum. Meanwhile, the senior staff has gathered in the Grand Ballroom under the big tree to open their presents, and they all appear to be having a great time, in their pajamas and all. And if anything good came out of the last couple days, it was the fact that I actually found out exactly what Kelly wanted.
“I love it, Andy,” Peterman said, kissing Bulter on the cheek as she fingered the delicate fabric of her brand new Denebian laced nightie. “How did you know?”
“That’s a secret,” Baxter grinned and tossed another Yule log onto the giant fire by the tree in the grand ballroom and looking over to Commander Conway. “Well, Commander…how do you like your coffee grinder?”
Conway busily poured beans into the grinder and flipped it on. “I love it, Captain. It’s not as bulky as the one in my quarters. I can take it on away missions and everything!”
“I don’t know about that…”
“Earmuffs!” J’hana growled. “I specifically listed slippers on my Christmas Inventory. Why on Earth would you get someone EARMUFFS!”
Richards shrugged. “I saw them at a shop on Kronos and I thought of you. Be thankful you got anything. Andorians don’t even celebrate Christmas.”
“They do when everyone else does, and when they do, they expect to get what they asked for!” J’hana muttered angrily.
Conway sucked back on his mug of coffee and laughed excitedly as the beans grinded. “Go beans, go!”
“Look at that,” Baxter said weakly, staring at the present from his parents he’d just unwrapped. “A brick of gold-pressed latinum. Again.”
“That’s an investment, boy,” Harlan said. “You’ve been keeping those stashed away, haven’t you?”
“Heh heh, yeah…uh…sure,” Baxter replied.
“I keep telling you Harlan, those latinum bricks are stupid! What does Andy need with money?” Lucille demanded.
“If the Federation financial system breaks down, he’ll be glad to have it.”
“Not this speech again,” Lucille muttered, covering her ears.
“Counselor,” Lt. Commander Larkin said, studying the stuffed penguin doll Peterman had gotten her. “My thanks for the penguin doll. How did you know I liked penguins?”
“I’ve been in your quarters,” Peterman said with a grin. “It was fairly obvious.”
“I see. It would seem then that you would know I already have this particular penguin.”
Dr. Browning ripped open the wrapping on her last present, Richard Simmons’ first book of low-fat recipes in three centuries. “Gee, thanks, Mirk. I guess. Are you suggesting something?”
“No, of course not,” Mirk said innocently, sitting cross-legged beside Browning in his shimmery red housecoat. “I just know you like Richard Simmons.”
“A golf club!” Hartley exclaimed, waving the club angrily at Lt. Gellar. “A single GOLF CLUB!”
“I thought you could build a collection,” Gellar said, as Hartley got up and chased him across the ballroom, swinging the club menacingly.
“Well?” Ford asked, leaning over Lt. Tilleran’s shoulder. “How do you like your sweater?”
“It’s fine,” Tilleran said. “Except for the fact that it’s two sizes too small and I knew you got this for me long ago. You should be more guarded with your thoughts, Lieutenant.”
“If that’s the only thought you detected, I got off lucky.”
“Well,” Baxter said, sipping at his mug of egg nog and looking around at his crewmembers, as his parents argued, as Lt. Hartley bashed her golf club into Lt. Gellar, and as J’hana angrily shifted her earmuffs on her head. “All things considered, I think this was a great Christmas.”
“Yes, Andy, I think you’re right,” Peterman said. “But I think we should remember that Christmas is a time when we should all put aside our personal differences and show each other just how much we care.”
“As long as we show we care through the exchange of material gifts,” Conway said, still watching his beans grind.
“I have to admit,” Baxter said, rubbing one of his eyes, “this is all making me feel a little sentimental. What about a group hug?”
“Someone’s been playing with YOUR DNA,” Conway grunted.
J’hana glared at Baxter. “Try it and die.”
Baxter sipped his egg nog and put his arm around Peterman. “Just a suggestion.”
When Lt. Ford creates a maneuver that amazingly saves the Explorer, he is thrust out into the Federation pop culture spotlight. Can he handle fame? And more importantly, does he deserve it?