Author: Anthony Butler
Stardate 53552.4. We’re about a day away from Starbase 175, where my parents will be transferred to the USS Trafalgar and our Romulan captives will be offloaded. I can’t say I’ll miss them. The Romulans, I mean. Meanwhile, it’s been almost a week since Lt. Commander Larkin, um, “died” on the rogue planetoid of Crysta, then subsequently came back to life in the Escort’s computer, and our Lt. Commander Richards has been hard at work rebuilding her ever since.
“Don’t move a muscle,” Richards giggled, gently adjusting Kris Larkin’s chin with his finger and preparing the visual scanner.
Kris smiled. “I wouldn’t dream of it. Just take the scan already before I snap something in my face!”
“I have to be precise,” Richards said, looking through the scanner’s viewfinder approvingly as he passed it over Kris Larkin’s naked body. She was stretched on one of the diagnostic tables in the Explorer’s substantial micromechanics lab, where Richards had been sequestered for the past six days, working on a new android body for Explorer’s chief operations officer.
In order to obtain perfect lighting, Richards had replicated special lamps and circled them around the diagnostic table, then turned the lights in the lab down low.
Richards had almost completed his scan when the door to the lab wooshed open, light poured in, and Captain Baxter stepped through the doorway.
“Hey, buddy,” the captain said casually, “how about some lu- luuuuu–”
“Andy!” Richards exclaimed, hurriedly tossing a blanket over Kris and putting down the imager. “You ruined my visual scan!”
Baxter blinked at Kris, rubbing his temples and shaking the persistant vision from his mind. “I’m…sorry. So, how are you coming with Lt. Commander Larkin?”
Richards stalked over to the upright, oblong holding bay where the metallic framework that was the beginnings of the new Larkin rested limp. Before Baxter could get a good look, Richards activated the lift on the holding bay and the compilation of parts slid down into the holding area below. “This isn’t an assembly-line product. Building an android is a slow, deliberate, process. You can’t expect her to just come together right before your eyes.”
Baxter folded his arms and stared at the screens of blueprints and mechanical data that covered almost every surface of the lab. “Uh-huh. Well, when will she be finished?”
“That depends on how many times I have to do visual scans of Kris!” Richards said, quickly jotting some notes down on a padd as Kris slid behind a dressing screen to get her clothes.
Baxter narrowed his eyes at Richards. He was enjoying this. The captain knew that much about his friend, after the years they’d spent serving together. “Well, far be it from me to stand in the way of genius…”
“Bridge to Kris Larkin,” came the gruff voice of Lt. J’hana.
“Larkin here,” Kris replied, stepping out from behind the dressing screen.
“We have a subspace communication coming in for you from Lecatia Three.”
“That would be the starship dealer,” Kris said thoughtfully. “Better take that.” She strolled toward the exit. “I’ll leave you two alone with Maestro’s masterpiece,” she tossed over her shoulder, grinning at Richards. “See you at dinner?”
“You bet,” Richards said, smiling back. He was still smiling moments after Kris was gone.
Baxter stared at Richards, concern plain on his face. “Chris, are you sleeping with your daughter’s twin?”
“Please don’t put it that way,” Richards said, turning back to one of the computer terminals and beginning his computations on the new Larkin’s motor skills and reflexes. “And it’s none of your business.”
“If you haven’t, then you plan on it, don’t you?”
Richards didn’t look back. “You act like it’s incest!”
Baxter picked up the imager and called up Kris’ scan. “Whew, I never realized Larkin had a body like that.”
“Give me that!” Richards replied, snatching the imager. “And our Larkin didn’t have a body like that. You forget, Kris was only nineteen when she was dating my roomate. She’s…” Richards smiled fondly as he watched the image flicker on the imager screen. “…developed since then.”
“This is sick!” Baxter said, throwing up his hands. “You realize, now, that whenever you look at Lt. Commander Larkin, you’ll lust after her.”
“I will not!” Richards protested. “They are two totally different people, starting with the fact that one is human and one is an android.”
“I suppose,” Baxter replied. “But I want you to be careful. All the incest stuff aside, Kris and you lead very different lives. What happens when she goes off to the Badlands or the Zen’kethi border again?”
“That hasn’t happened yet,” Richards said. “She may even stay here.”
“That would play hell with the crew roster,” Baxter considered, rubbing his chin.
“We’re not having this conversation anymore,” Richards said firmly, returning to his work.
“Fine, don’t listen to your trusted friend and commanding officer. Follow your heart. See where it gets you.”
“I plan on doing just that, thank you very much,” Richards said, not looking up from his work.
Baxter hovered by the door, rocking on his heels.
Moments later, Richards looked up. “Something else, Captain?”
“No,” Baxter finally said. “I’m just putting off some unpleasant business.”
Richards’s hard expression softened. “Mommie’s commission came through?”
Baxter turned on a heel, headed out the door. “Shut up.”
Lucille Baxter straightened her uniform tunic and looked at herself approvingly in the mirror in her quarters. Yes, she’d still kept quite a figure after all these years. She thought the uniform wouldn’t be big enough, that Yeoman Briggs would have to let it out a bit. But it fit perfect. It felt perfect.
Harlan slapped a padd that contained the Federation News down on the coffee table and shoved to his feet. “You almost done preening yourself, Lucille?”
“I will enjoy this moment, Harlan, if it’s the last thing I do.” She set about winding her long hair up into a tight bun, shoved a couple hair pins in there, and spun around, hands on hips. “Well?”
“Congratulations, Lucille. You’ve brought back the cold, overbearing, dominatrix look.”
Lucille didn’t laugh. “Are you ready?”
“Have been for almost an hour.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” Lucille demanded.
Harlan harrumphed. “The boy.”
“I don’t know how he made captain with such poor time management skills!”
Another harrumph. “He made captain before you did.”
Lucille swung back to sock Harlan in the gut when she heard the door chime.
“Come in,” Lucille said, plastering on a smile.
Captain Baxter strode in. “All right. Let’s do this.”
“Yes, let’s,” Lucille said, glaring over her shoulder at Harlan as she took her son’s arm.
Richards hurried into Engineering, checking the master systems display as he did so, to see if there had been any new developments in Explorer’s engine status.
“Did you come up for air?” Lt. Hartley asked, emerging from the other side of the large, thrumming warp core.
“Something like that,” Richards said. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying to come up with a more effective engine configuration for the Escort. I thought the Explorer would be as good a model as any.”
Richards considered that, then ducked into his office, waving for Hartley to follow him. “How’s that project going?”
Hartley circled the master systems console and followed Richards. “Slow. We seriously strained the engines during the mission to Crysta. Not to mention the damage to the hull. She has ablative armor, but still…”
“Should I put in for a repair berth at the starbase for a full overhaul of the engines and a shoring up of the hull?” Richards asked, paging through intership messages on his terminal.
“Wouldn’t be a bad idea. We were going to upgrade the engines anyway. Why not let the starbase personnel do it?”
“Good point.” Richards was about to say something else, when Kris Larkin stepped into his office.
“Chris, you wouldn’t believe what–” She stopped when she saw Hartley. “Oh, I didn’t realize you were…with…someone.”
“It was just business,” Richards said. “That all, Lieutenant?”
Hartley looked from Richards to Kris. “Uh, yeah, I guess so.” She moved toward the door, then turned around. “How is Larkin’s new body coming along, by the way?”
“Very well,” Richards said. “She’ll be back on duty in no time.”
“Well, that’s good news. I miss having her around.”
With that Hartley backed out of the office; her eyes passed between Kris and Richards.
“Well?” Richards asked, as Kris took a seat in front of his desk and put her feet up.
Kris blew hair out of her face angrily. “They want ninety bars of latinum for their cheapest model.”
“Ouch,” Richards said. “I don’t know where we’d get that kind of latinum. Did you offer them a trade?”
“Very funny. They’d probably object to that, considering my ship is stuck inside a planetoid…in the Delta Quadrant.”
“You’re probably right.” Richards seemed thoughtful for a moment. “I’ll talk to some contacts of mine and see what I can scrounge up.”
“You think you can find me a new ship?” Kris asked excitedly.
Richards held up his hands. “Hold on! I haven’t promised anything. I just said I’d try!”
“Okay,” Kris replied. “I can’t wait to get back out there.”
“You haven’t enjoyed your time on the Explorer?”
Kris shrugged. “It’s been great…but it’s not like having your own ship, facing the unknown by yourself all the time. And besides, I think Bort is getting restless.”
“What has he been doing this whole time?” Richards asked, though he didn’t really care.
“Lt. J’hana was nice enough to show him some battle simulations on the holodeck. From what I’ve heard, the two of them have been having a great time in there.”
“Glad to hear it.” Richards’s eyes darted around as he tried to think of something else to say. The two of them had really enjoyed each other’s company over the last week. They’d never really talked about that “thank you” kiss Kris had given him in Mirk’s a week ago. He was having a hard time reading her feelings. She was unlike anyone he’d ever met, including Kristen Larkin. She looked almost exactly like Larkin, of course…but she was wild, adventurous, bold, and had a great sense of humor. He could see himself falling in love with her. Hell, maybe he already WAS in love with her. He’d felt so muddled and directionless after Janice. And now, ever since he’d gone to Crysta to save Kris, his direction seemed perfectly logical: toward Kris.
So what if she looked just like the android Larkin? They were obviously two distinct individuals.
“Chris?” Kris asked, after moments of silence had passed.
Richards blinked. “Hmmm?”
“I asked you if you wanted to go to the holodeck after dinner.”
“Holodeck. Yeah. Sure. Fun.”
“You okay?” Kris asked, circling around Richards’s desk. She crept behind his chair and wrapped hands around his shoulders. “Your muscles are in knots! All this worrying about Kristen is driving you crazy.” Kris began to knead. “How’s that?”
“MMMMMMmmmmmmmmm…” Richards moaned, as Kris worked her knuckles in between his shoulder blades.
“Stuart to Richards,” chirped the comm system.
“Uh, right, sir. I, uh, need your permission to transfer some biomemetic gel into the Escort’s systems. Several packs were burned out during the mission to Crysta.”
“Um, I’ll take that as a yes. Thanks, Commander.”
After Kris finished the massage, she headed for the door to Richards’s office.
He opened his eyes, rubbed the back of his neck. “Kris, that was…”
“Orgasmic?” she said with an elfish smile.
“Well, I wasn’t going to say that…”
She twisted around and darted out the doors. “Hmm. Maybe you should have. See you tonight.”
Richards leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. “Oh, Kristen…I mean Kris! Kris! I meant to say Kris!”
“Where is everyone?” Lucille demanded, storming into the Explorer’s main auditorium.
“You and Dad haven’t exactly been the hit of the social circuit on this ship,” Baxter said, hopping up onto the stage and grabbing the padd he had stuck under his armpit. “You want to get this overwith, or what?”
“Your crew has no respect for their seniors, Andy,” Lucille said irately, approaching the stage in a fit of fury. “This is a high-profile event. I informed everyone on the ship-wide information net about this. They should have had the decency to at least show up.”
“No one on this ship is really all that decent, Mom,” Baxter said. “And aren’t you glad you’re leaving?”
“Yes,” Lucille returned. “So, the ceremony…”
“For Pete’s sake, mom, let me just give you the pip.”
“No, I want the ceremony.”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “Who’s here to watch?”
“It’s the principle of the thing.”
“Fine,” Baxter shrugged, hopping off the stage. He glanced at his padd. “By order of Starfleet Command, I hearby grant you the rank of Captain, with all the rights and priveleges thereto.” He looked down at his padd, then back up at Lucille. She glared at him, urging him on. He sighed. “And may God have mercy on your soul,” he said half-heartedly.
“Thank you,” Lucille said. “Now you can give me the pip.”
Baxter reached down into his pocket and fished around. “Hold on a sec. I know it’s here.”
“This is unbearable!” Lucille said, clinching her fists.
“Lucille, settle,” Harlan said, with a gutteral rattle.
Finally, Baxter withdrew his hand and held the silvery pip out, fastening it to Lucille’s collar. “And there you go. Congratulations, Captain Baxter.” He glanced upwards. “Computer, please play the appropriate theme music.”
“These are days, that you’ll remember. Never before, and never since…”
“Well, I’ll be damned, now there are two Captain Baxters,” Harlan grunted. “Let’s go get drunk.”
“It’s barely 1200 hours, Dad,” Baxter said scoldingly. “I have to be on the bridge soon, anyway.”
“When will we reach the Starbase?” Lucille asked, as the group made their way out of the auditorium.
“We’ll be there by morning,” Baxter said.
“Very good.” Lucille clasped her hands behind her back. “The sooner I can evaluate my new crew, the better.”
“It’s them God should be having mercy on,” Baxter muttered.
“What’s that?” asked Lucille.
After parting ways with his parents, Baxter made his way to the bridge. He arrived just as the runabout Rio De Janero appeared on the viewscreen, making its final approach toward Explorer’s main shuttlebay.
“Tilleran and Ford are back already?” he asked, approaching the railing that encircled the command chairs.
“Uggg…” came a groan from below. Commander Conway was sitting in the command chair, wrapped in a specially-designed double-thick uniform jacket and shivering. “It idn’t that hard to dump off unneeded garbage.”
“Good point,” Baxter said. “I was just a little worried that the Jernasi would give them some static. We did kidnap their leader.” Baxter made his way down to the command chair and Conway moved a seat to the right.
“Maybe,” Conway sniffled. “But dey sent a whole sector of their race to the ass end of the galaxy and didn’t tell us about it. They assaulted Starfleet officers…AND…”
Baxter rolled his eyes.
“…they gabe me this pneumonia.”
“I was waiting for that one,” Baxter said, settling into his command chair. He studied Conway a moment. “If you’re so sick, why are you here?”
“I’m much better now,” Conway said. “Dr. Browning has had be on some kind of regressive gene theraby and it’s working wonders.”
“Good to hear,” Baxter said, turning. “J’hana, why don’t you go down to the main shuttlebay and–”
“Dr. Browning and her magic touch,” Conway said softly.
Baxter blinked a moment, looked back at Conway. “What did you say?”
“She’s very good with medicine.”
“Yes, she is.” Baxter turned back to J’hana. “Like I was saying, find out if Tilleran and Ford had any problems and get the latest tactical report on Jernasi move–”
“Sweet Janice Browning.”
Baxter now glared at Conway. “Commander?”
J’hana approached the railing that circled the command chairs. “If I may interject, sir. I would guess that the Commander has some twisted obsession with Dr. Browning.”
Baxter arched an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
Conway folded his arms. “Not in the slightest. She’s an excellent physician.”
“Well then,” Baxter said, turning again toward J’hana. “Lieutenant, you have your ord–”
“And she’s available.”
“Get going, Lieutenant,” Baxter said, standing up and patting Conway on the back. “Commander, I’m going to my readyroom. Under no circumstances are you to follow me there. I’m no therapist. We do have an excellent counselor on deck twelve if you’re having that much trouble. But please, for goodness sake, don’t make me listen to any more of your rambling.”
Conway slunked down in his seat. “Whatever you say, Captain.”
As soon as Baxter entered his readyroom, his comm badge bleeped.
“Peterman to the Captain.”
“What is it, honey?” he asked, grabbing a glass of grapefruit juice out of the replicator and taking it over to his desk.
“I just had an unfortunate run-in with your mother.”
“Oh, jeeze,” Baxter said, covering his face. “Something to do with her promotion?”
“Uh-huh. She offered me a job as her Counselor. Said it didn’t look good for a Starfleet officer to serve under her husband.”
Baxter clenched his fists. “I knew she’d try something like that.”
“That holier than thou attitude drives me nuts, Andy. I was taught conflict resolution at the Academy, but even I can only take so much.”
“Don’t worry, honey. She’ll be gone soon.”
“Not soon enough.”
Baxter set about tidying the padds on his desk as he sipped at his grapefruit juice, savoring the coldness. “Listen, Kelly, we have other, more far-reaching problems.”
“This better not be another lovesick crewmember.”
“Boy, Kelly, you have a radar for these things.”
“We’re in space, Andy. We’re crammed into this sweaty little ship and forced to live together for long amounts of time. It’s only understandable that everyone will want to have sex with everyone else.”
“What?” Baxter asked, cocking his head. “Hon, the Explorer is designed to hold more than three times the crew we currently have, the climate control is nearly perfect, and we have shoreleave at least once a month.”
“You just can’t keep humanoid urges in check. So who’s got the love bug now?”
“You’ve really grown a little callous about this,” Baxter observed.
“That’s what happens when you deal with whiny heartsick losers all day.”
Baxter leaned forward, resting his chin in his palms and smiling. “You don’t know how good you have it.”
Peterman’s tone seemed to soften. “Au contraire. I know all too well. Now who’s the shlub?”
“Who’s the shlubbiest crewmember of them all?”
“Jeeze sakes, not Commander Conway again.”
“The one and only. Now he seems to be all twitterpated about Dr. Browning.”
“It’s not Dr. Browning he wants. He’s still pining for Dr. Shar. Well, he thinks he is, anyway. He’s really still in love with Dr. Lanham.”
“Boy, you’re good at this.”
“It’s my job. Anyway, he’s developing a real pattern for scientific types.”
“I’d better warn Tilleran.”
“Nah. She’d pick up on his basic advances from lightyears away. And Dr. Browning wouldn’t waste the time of day on him. But…”
Baxter immediately began to worry. “What are you contemplating, Kelly?”
“I’m not certain, yet. But I’ll get back to you.”
“Uh…okay,” Baxter said.
“Love you, sweetie. Peterman out.”
Baxter swung around in his chair and watched the stars jump into streaks as the Explorer engaged into warp. He smiled wryly. “Watch out, Commander. Kelly Peterman’s on the case.”
Larkin’s positronic brain lit up with activity. “Yes, Commander,” her voice boomed over the lab speakers. “The sensation is quite well-defined. You are pricking the palm of my hand with a duranium-based stylus, to elicit a nervous response.”
“Very good,” Richards said, placing the stylus into a tray. He studied the robotic hand as its fingers wiggled aimlessly. “We’re getting there, Larkin.”
“That is a relief. I realize I have no emotions, per se, but it is nonetheless very…disconcerting…not to have a body after being used to the sensation of having one for so long.”
Richards set the arm aside and wheeled back on his stool. “I can only imagine.”
“Sir, if I may say so, you seem a bit distracted.”
“What would make you say tha–”
The disembodied arm hit the deck with a thud.
More activity sparked through the brain. “That was most unpleasant! What happened?”
“I guess I wasn’t looking when I set the arm down,” Richards said sheepishly, moving over to pick up the appendage. “Sorry.”
“No apologies are necessary. You did, however, seem to prove my hypothesis.”
“That I’m distracted?” Richards laughed half-heartedly. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“Sir, may I suggest that you have immersed yourself far too deep in my…re-creation? I understand you feel it is a priority, but I do not wish for you to ‘burn yourself out,’ as it were. Perhaps if you enlisted the help of Lt. Hartley…or Lt. Tilleran?”
“No. None of them know you like I do.”
“Then you must take some time off.”
“I’ve had plenty of time off from this, Larkin.”
“Then, judging by the dilation of your eyes, the inflamation of the soft tissue under your eyelids, and the strained nature of your vocal inflections, I can only postulate that you have not been sleeping.”
“I’ve been spending some time with a friend,” Richards said thoughtfully, picking up some of his tools from the worktable and placing them back in their case, hitting a control that sent the assemblage of parts that was the beginning of Larkin’s body down into the recesses of the lab’s storage area.
“May I ask who?”
Before Richards could answer, the comm system bleeped. “Kris Larkin to Richards. Are you about ready to head over to Mirk’s?”
Richards thumped his forehead. “Uh, I’ll be right there.”
“Okay. See you soon. Kris out.”
“There is no need to answer my question now,” Larkin’s brain said. “You are spending the extra time with Kris.”
“That is fortunate. It will help you familiarize yourself with the physical attributes you wish to apply to my new body.”
As he began turning off the systems throughout the lab, Richards considered that. “I guess you’ve got a point there, Kristen.”
“In that case, have a pleasant dinner, and please tell Kris I said hello.”
“I sure will. You want me to turn you off before I go?”
Commander Conway swung his legs back and forth as Browning studied the screen on her medical tricorder.
“Well?” he finally asked, impatient.
“Hmm. The gene regression therapy is working great. You’ll be fit as a fiddle in another day or so.”
Conway smiled. “You don’t know how good id is to hear that.”
“I’m sure it is,” Browning said, heading into her office.
Conway followed her. “You know, it’s almost dinner time. I’ve got some Cordovan gumfruits that we picked up from da last starbase.”
“The last time we were at a Starbase was two months ago,” Browning said, taking a seat behind her desk and bringing up the plans for Sickbay’s upcoming renovation on her terminal. “As I recall, Cordovan gumfruits go bad after three weeks.”
“Damn,” Conway said. “I guess you know that because of all that xenonutrition trainig.”
“Well,” Conway said, sitting halfway on the edge of Browning’s desk. “We could always go to Mirk’s.”
Browning looked up from her reading. “Sorry. I’m having a working dinner with Dr. Delgano. We’re going over the Sickbay renovations. They’re starting tomorrow, you know.”
“Really? That’s right, they are. Another time, then?”
Browning bit her lip, thinking it over. “Um…probably not.”
“I see,” Conway said, backing toward the door. “It’s a professionalism thing, isn’t it? Don’t want to get involved with someone you work with?”
“No, that isn’t a problem.”
“Uh-huh. Well, that’s that, then, isn’t it?” Conway spun around and made his way toward the doorway.
After Conway was gone, Browning returned to her reading.
“Who says I have to date anyone?” she said aloud as she read, though Sickbay was empty.
Conway strode purposefully down the corridor toward Mirk’s, intent on drowning his sorrows in whiskey and coffee. So he was desparate for female companionship. So he hadn’t been with a woman, except that brief fling with a symbiont months ago, for over four years. What was the big deal?
As he rounded a corner, Conway nearly bumped into Ensign Dawson from the science department.
“Commander!” Dawson exclaimed.
“Ensign?” Conway asked dumbly.
“You’re just the person I was looking for,” Dawson said, flip- flopping a padd around from hand to hand.
“Need a thumbprint?” Conway asked, grabbing at her padd.
She pulled back on the padd, shaking her head. “No, no. Lt. Tilleran wanted me to talk to you.”
“Tilleran?” Conway scratched her head. “Why?”
“She said I should do a case study on your type of pneumonia. Something about the fact that it was brought on by a genetic irregularity in your DNA, mixed with atmospheric factors in the Jernasi and Crystan atmospheres.”
“Fascinating,” Conway said. “Can you do it while I eat?”
“Can you eat and talk at the same time?” Dawson asked, rocking on her heels.
Peterman peered like a prowling jungle cat between the large, bell-shaped leaves of a Bajoran plant arrangement, watching Conway and Dawson walk into the Constellation Cafe. “It’s working!”
“That was damned good chili.” Baxter eased back in his chair, wiping his mouth whith a napkin. “Wait a minute. What’s working?”
“Dawson and Conway!” Peterman whispered, pointing.
Baxter followed Peterman’s finger over to the corner of the cafe. Sure enough, Conway slumped into a seat and Dawson sat down opposite him. “Well what do you know, Commander Conway with a girl. How did you do it?”
“Trade secret,” Peterman grinned.
Just then, Lt. Tilleran approached the table, bending down to speak to Peterman conspiratorially. “I assigned Dawson to talk to Conway like you told me. But if he makes her even more of a nutcase, I’m holding you responsible.”
“Hey, you have my word that nothing will go wrong,” Peterman said. “They’re both in need of a solid, steady relationship. This is bound to work.”
Baxter looked at Tilleran askance. “Well, Counselor, I’m starting to get a pretty good idea of what your trade secret is. Don’t tell me you’re mixed up in this, Tilleran?”
“I’ve got a couple reasons for getting them together,” Tilleran said to Baxter. “I know what it’s like to have loved and lost, and I feel a bit safer if Commander Conway is dating someone. That’ll assure that he won’t come after me.”
“You’re insideous,” Baxter muttered. “How was Jernas?”
Tilleran shrugged. “Cold.”
“Did you do like I told you?”
“Yep. I confiscated their pfaltzgrapf china set and Federation flags, and personally took the Federation ballcap away from their ambassador.”
“Excellent,” Baxter said, smiling. “We wouldn’t want just anyone to have the official Federation ballcap.”
“Yeah, right,” Tilleran said. “Look, can I go eat now?”
“Two?” Mirk asked, trotting up to Richards and Kris as they walked into the cafe.
“That’s right,” Richards replied. “The usual table.”
“Right this way,” Mirk gestured. He looked over his shoulder at Richards and Kris as he led them to their table. “And how are you two doing tonight?”
“Fine,” Richards said, sliding into the booth.
“How’s your ‘construction project’ coming?”
Richards helped Kris into her side of the booth and slid in opposite her. “We’re right on schedule.” That was his cookie- cutter response for each of the three-hundred times he’d been asked that.
“Great,” Mirk said. “The special tonight is the Chili Supernova, which is excellent. Should I give you a minute to decide?”
Kris and Richards looked at each other. “Nope,” Richards finally said. “That’ll be fine.”
“And to drink?”
“Ginger Ale,” Kris said.
“And a Gornshlager for me,” Richards said, as Mirk took the menus.
“Excellent. I’ll be right back with your drinks,” Mirk said, and scuttled off.
Richards leaned forward against the table and studied Kris’ eyes. Why had he not noticed such beautiful eyes in Larkin? Whatever was different between the two certainly sparkled there. There was a difference. Richards held on to that. If he was to start a relationship with Kris, he’d sure as hell have to find some differences. It wouldn’t do well to date an exact replica of his daughter.
“And what are you looking at, blue-eyes?” Kris asked, grinning.
“Uh–” Richards said, stirred from his daze. “Just thinking about the engine refit on the Escort. They’re having trouble with the deuterium flow regulators.”
“I’m sure it will all work out for the best,” Kris said mockingly. “I didn’t realize you had such a love for things mechanical–” Immeidately she seemed to regret saying that. “Well, I mean…”
Richards gulped. How disconcerting. “Hey, we both love Larkin. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that.”
“There’s a lot there to love,” Kris said. “Sometimes I wish I could be more like her.”
Richards reached forward and grabbed Kris’ hands. “Don’t say that. You have plenty to be proud of.”
“You’re a true explorer! Bold, adventurous, corageous!” He almost said beautiful.
“You make me sound like a Federation Marine.”
“You could kick a Federation Marine’s butt,” Richards said with a giggle.
“Gee, thanks. I guess…”
“Drinks!” Mirk said, picking the glasses off his tray and setting them down before Richards and Kris.
Richards grabbed his Gornshlager and hurriedly gulped several times from the large mug. The steamy, potent brew that was carefully aged, boiled, and refined on the Gorn homeworld would certainly calm his nerves. Something had to; he was about to wet his pants he was so nervous. His relationships never worked this way. They were never so…complicated. He and Janice just fell together–no questions ever needed to be asked. But with Kris, he wasn’t sure what lurked behind those sparkling eyes. Could he trust himself to fall in love with her? Could he trust her to fall in return? “Thirsty?” Kris asked, as he took another drink from her glass. “Very,” he said, slamming the frosty mug down.
Amara sat a very large bowl of chili down in front of Conway. “There you go, Commander. That should open up those mucous membranes.”
“Uh-huh,” Conway said, digging into the chili and shoveling it into his mouth. “You have some crackers to crumble in this?”
“I’ll go check,” Amara said, heading back toward the bar. She paused, looked back at Ensign Dawson as she tapped on her padd. “Sure you don’t want anything, Ensign?”
“Just the soda’s fine,” Dawson said, concentrating on her work. “So, Commander,” she said, looking up at Conway as he ate, “what was your first indication that you were ill, back when you visited Crysta two years ago?”
Conway stopped shoveling momentarily and took a long swig of icewater. “Let’s see, that would probably be the point when I realized I was buried in four meters of ice. That wasn’t particularly comfortable.”
“I see,” Dawson said, tapping at her padd. Conway went back to eating. “What about the second time. On Jernas?”
“I didn’t have a real problem until I actually got back to the ship and started warming up again. As you may realize, it was freezing on Jernas.” Conway chewed as he thought. “Actually, I think that I’m extra susceptible to the cold ever since I first got pneumonia on Crysta.”
“Fascinating,” Dawson said, working on her padd.
“Well, look who’s here!” Counselor Peterman said, approaching Conway and Dawson’s table. “Commander Conway… and Ensign Dawson!”
“What do you want?” Conway said blandly, digging through his chili bowl.
“As Ship’s Counselor, I’m interested in how my crewmates get along. And it looks like you two are getting along well.”
“She’s just asking me about my pneumonia,” Conway muttered.
“I’m doing a report for Lt. Tilleran,” Dawson explained.
“Oh, really? How interesting!” Peterman said. “Is that part of your normal duties?”
Dawson smiled. “Actually, it’s an extra assignment.”
“Look at that, Commander. She’s taking on extra assignments,” Peterman smiled, patting Dawson on the back. “Before you know it, she’ll be a full lieutenant!”
“Don’t hold your breath on that,” Conway said, digging around in his bowl. “Promotions don’t come along every day.”
Peterman grimaced. This was going nowhere.
“Where are those God damned crackers!” Conway called, craning his neck in search of Amara.
Mirk stared back from the bar. “Amara went to the storeroom to get them, Commander. Hold your ponies!”
Conway sighed. He looked up at Peterman. “Why are you still here?”
“I’m not anymore,” Peterman said, whirling on a heel and heading for the storeroom, an idea taking root in her head as she moved.
“There they are!” Amara said, pulling a package of Federation’s Best crackers out of the cargo container in Mirk’s storeroom. She turned around to head back out into the Cafe, and came face to face with Counselor Peterman.
“Oh!” Amara said, then let out a breath of relief. “You scared me, Counselor.”
“Sorry,” Peterman said, placing a hand on Amara’s shoulder. “Listen, I need you to do me a favor. It’s a matter of a crewmember’s sanity.”
“Whatever you need, Counselor,” Amara said earnestly. “I’ll do anything I can to prevent a crewmember from suffering.”
“On the contrary, I need you to cause some suffering.”
“About damned time,” Conway said, snatching the pack of crackers from Amara and ripping them open. “I’m almost halfway through my bowl, now!”
“Would you like me to refill it?” Amara asked pleasantly.
“Sure,” Conway said. “I guess I’ll just eat crackers until you get back!”
“Why don’t you eat me,” Amara muttered under her breath, taking Conway’s bowl back to the bar.
“Are you sure about this, pixiedust?” Mirk asked as Amara reached into his spicerack and pulled out a bottle of chili peppers.
“It’s in the interest of love,” Amara said sweetly, crunching the dried peppers into Conway’s chili bowl, then covering them with more chili.
Mirk smiled. “In that case, why don’t you put this in too?” He produced a small, green, feathery leaf.
“It’s called a shhlak. It’s Andorian.”
“Toss it in!”
Conway munched angrily on his crackers. Bits dropped down all over the front of his uniform as he talked. “The worst part is the way your nasal passages completely close…except to let snot drip through. The dripping. That’s probably the worst part. Or the fatigue. It’s all miserable. And let’s not even discuss the stomach problems–”
Just then, Amara scurried up, placing the bowl in front of Conway reverently. “Here you go, Commander. Enjoy!”
“Well now, that’s more like it,” Conway said, crumbling crackers into the bowl and digging in. “Anyway, where was I?”
Dawson crinkled her nose. “Stomach problems?”
“More flan?” Baxter asked, nudging the plate toward Peterman.
Peterman blocked the plate with her hand. “Absolutely not. It’s full of fat.”
“Aw, come on, a little fat won’t hurt you.”
“I said no!”
“Fine,” Baxter said, unzipping his uniform jacket and letting his gut hang out. “Damn, that was good.” He finished off his cup of orange pekoe and sat the cup down. “Ready to go, Kelly?”
Peterman watched Amara hurry away from Conway’s table and gave her a quick thumbs up. “Yep, I think it’s about time we got out of here.”
They were almost to the exit when Kris Larkin called out to them, from her table with Chris Richards.
“Hey, Captain! Counselor!”
Baxter surged forward, but Peterman yanked him back to Kris’ table. “Kris…and Chris, how are you two doing?”
“Fine,” Richards said, putting down his chili spoon. “You guys off to the holodeck?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Baxter said.
“Nope, we’re off to the weight room to work off that fattening chili,” Peterman said, nudging Baxter’s gut.
“Isn’t there some rule about swimming after eating?” Baxter asked innocently.
“Old wive’s tale,” Peterman said, winking at Kris. “So,” she asked, shifting gears. “Are you planning on staying here for long, Kris?”
Kris shrugged. “Depends on when I can get a new ship.” She looked up at Baxter. “And how long my welcome holds out…”
Baxter was staring down at the carpet, noting, for the first time, that it had a sort of hexagonal pattern. He didn’t like looking at Kris directly now, since he’d seen her naked.
“Andy–” Peterman nudged Baxter’s gut a little sharper this time.
“What, huh? Oh, you’re welcome to stay as long as you want. We’ve got plenty of room.”
“That’s right,” Richards said, taking a cue from Baxter. “Think of the Explorer as home.”
Peterman glanced from Kris to Richards. There was something here. Something worth delving into. “You may even want to put roots down here. Starships have a surprising way of bringing people together.” Peterman wrapped an arm tightly around Baxter’s waist, and the captain promptly belched.
“Uahh…” Baxter said, rubbing his stomach. “Excuse me. That was one hell of a bowl of chili.”
“Well,” Peterman said, grimacing. “We’ll let you guys get back to your dinner.”
“Thanks,” Richards said, turning back to Kris.
“Oh,” Peterman asked, as Baxter pulled her away. “How’s Lt. Larkin’s new body coming?”
“Right on schedule,” Richards called after her.
Baxter and Peterman reached the door at the same time that Harlan and Lucille Baxter stepped through.
“Crap,” Peterman muttered under her breath.
“Mom, Dad,” Baxter said. “Here for dinner?”
“We’re not here to get our hair done,” Harlan mumbled. “How is the chili, boy?”
“Did you consider my offer?” Lucille asked pointedly, blocking Peterman from escaping through the exit doors.
“I sure did, and I’ll tell you exactly what you can do with your offer…”
Baxter wrapped a hand quickly around Peterman’s mouth, wincing as she bit down on his middle finger. “She…wants you to know how flattered she is that you want her to serve under you, but respectfully declines.”
“Fine,” replied Lucille. “But don’t expect to mix well with the other captains’ wives. I’ll guarantee you none of them work under their husbands.”
“Well, maybe if you did a little more work under your husband, you’d be less of a bit–”
“Less of a bit wonderful!” Baxter said, covering Peterman’s mouth again. This time, he was pretty sure she broke skin when she bit.
“What the hell does that mean?” asked Lucille.
Before Baxter could reply, Conway steamrolled past him, with Dawson on his heels. “Gang way! Hot mouth coming through!”
“What happened, Commander?” Dawson asked, squeezing between the two couples.
“You know very well, what happened! Ford put you up to this, didn’t he!” Conway called angrily.
Peterman folded her arms. “Damn it. She used too much.”
“I’d ask what the hell you did, if I had the slightest interest,” Baxter muttered.
“Conway to Sickbay! Spice emergency!”
“Let’s eat,” Harlan said, ambling on into the Cafe.
“Matter-antimatter mix is stable.”
“Releasing the lower module!”
“Prepare for warp core initiation!”
Kris and Richards grinned at each other as they worked the controls in the two chairs behind Zeframe Cochrane, aboard the first warp-capable ship, the Phoenix, as it soared toward the stars beyond Earth.
“Come with me, little girl, on a magic carpet ride,” thrummed the music over the cockpit speakers.
“This is a great program, Chris,” Kris said, marveling at the stars as they swung into view in the Phoenix’s front windshield.
“I knew you’d like it. It’s based on the experiences of two Starfleet officers that actually went back in time and did this.”
“God damn, I’m getting sick,” Zefram Cochrane said woozily, staring at the stars. “Is it being in space, or the bourbon I drank before we launched.”
Richards shrugged. “Maybe a little of both, sir?”
“Cochrane was not a drunk!” Kris whispered.
“According to the crew of the Enterprise he was.”
“Really,” Kris said, staring at the stars. “Well, drunk or not, I could never get sick of looking at the stars. Then again, I guess I wouldn’t be in the business of riding a cobbled-together freighter around the ass-end of space if I did get sick of seeing them.”
“True enough,” Richards said quietly, then called out, “Warp core sequencers initiated. Thirty seconds until we can go into warp.”
“I’d drop the warp core if I thought it’d stop my flipping head from spinning,” Cochrane muttered dizzily.
“The realism is frightening,” Kris said, smiling at Richards. “Thanks for bringing me here, Chris.”
“I thought you’d enjoy it,” Richards replied. “We both appreciate the art of good engine work. And no ship needs that like this one.”
Kris thunked one of her readout panels and it blinked off. “That’s for sure.”
Richards was still looking at Kris when the warp core came online: her hair was knotted back into a ponytail as she hunched at her controls, intent on the readouts. A little oil from a loose conduit sputtered onto her cheek. He reached over to wipe it off.
“Where are my engines?” Cochrane called drunkenly over his shoulder.
Kris smiled at Richards as he stroked the oil off her face. “Well, don’t just sit there, flyboy. Do something.”
“Engage those damn engines, already! I’m not getting any drunker!”
Richards was still staring at Kris when he flipped the switch. His eyes were locked with hers while the Phoenix engaged into warp and lept toward the edge of the Terran system.
“Woooohooooo!” Cochrane cried out. “This is wild!” He throttled back after a few more moments and spun the Phoenix around so that it was facing Earth. “Boy, it sure does look a lot smaller.” He looked over his shoulder. “Huh, guys. Guys?”
Kris and Richards’s lips were clamped together; they strained aganist their shoulder straps as the Phoenix’s engines idled around them.
“How about that,” Cochrane said, facing his instrument panel and adjusting the engine factors for the warp jump back to Earth. “We’ve made history and all they want to do is make out.”
“Those Vulcans were a bunch of snobs,” Kris said, as he and Richards swaggered down the corridor, arm in arm.
“Give them credit,” Richards said, swigging from a champagne bottle. “They’ve loosened up quite a bit in the last couple centuries.”
“If you say so. I just hope Cochrane finds something else to loosen those guys up, since we stole the champagne.”
“He’ll probably give them some kind of gut-rotting homeade liquor,” Richards muttered, passing the bottle to Kris. “At any rate, I’m sure the Vulcans’ metabolism can take it.”
“Hey,” Kris said, sucking down champagne. “Isn’t this holographic booze? Shouldn’t it have disappeared after we left the holodeck?”
“I made sure the booze was real,” Richards muttered. “You feel drunk, don’t you?”
Kris stopped, thought a moment, then swaggered after Richards. “As a matter of fact, yes. But that could all be holographic.”
Richards keyed open the door to his quarters. “Trust me, it’s not. Make yourself at home.”
Kris stumbled into the cabin and fell over the couch, lost in a pile of dirty clothes. “Hey, when was the last time you cleaned this place?”
“Since I got back from the Klingon homeworld,” Richards said. “A couple months in a Klingon holding cell gave me the need to live…spread out…for awhile.”
“That’s one word for it,” Kris said, examining a dirty sock. “This place needs a woman’s touch.”
“That’s what I hear,” Richards said, leaping over the couch and wrapping his arms around Kris’ waist. “Care to…touch it?”
“A woman other than me. I like to live ‘spread out,’ too,” Kris grinned, turning around in Richards’s arms and ripping his uniform jacket open. “But if you like, I could touch you…”
“I would like…”
Dr. Browning nodded a greeting at a passing Ensign as she jogged down Deck Nine, rounding a bend into Section Theta. The morning jog had been her routine ever since her mild brush with obesity two years ago aboard the Aerostar. Her knack for eating all she wanted and never gaining weight had stuck with her through her thirtieth birthday, but if that knack should ever fail, she would be ready.
She jogged past Richards’s quarters, suddenly remembering that she wanted to ask him about the Sickbay renovations that would be occuring later in the morning. She jogged backwards until she reached his door and snapped her water flask off her belt and chugged, replacing the cap and wiping her brow with her wrist.
“Computer,” she said, catching her breath. “Time?”
“It is 0700 hours and 57 minutes.”
Richards went on duty at 0800, so he was probably getting ready for work by now. He wouldn’t mind her dropping by.
She plucked the doorchime, standing back and resting hands on hips as she continued to catch her breath.
No answer. She plucked again.
Maybe he was in the shower. She tapped in the entry code. She would just poke her head in the bathroom. She knew him long enough. Nothing new to see there.
She stepped through the doors, into Richards’s quarters, just as he stepped out of the steamy bathroom, wrapping himself in a towel.
“Hi, Christopher. I just wanted to talk to you about Sickbay…”
“Chris,” came a voice from the bedroom at the other end of his quarters. “What’s this Klingon pleasure thingie do?”
Browning’s brow furrowed. “Kristen?” She looked to Richards. Did he have her put together already?
Richards took a deep breath. “Not…exactly.”
Kris Larkin stepped out of the bedroom, looking very small in Richards’s mustard tunic. “Chris, where’s your clothes reclamator?” She stopped in her tracks when she saw Browning. “Uh, Dr. Browning …hi!”
Browning looked from Kris to Richards, wrinkled her nose. “Christopher, this…this is, well…I don’t…” she backed toward the door.
Richards advanced. “Janice, it’s not what it looks like.”
“I think it is,” Kris said simply, ducking back into the bedroom to find some pants.
Browning backed into the corridor, pointing to her left. “I’ve…gotta… run. Literally.”
“Wait, Janice, let me explain,” Richards called after her, stepping into the corridor, dripping a wet trail across the carpet.
“We’ll talk later,” Browning called over her shoulder, breaking into a jog…faster than normal.
Lt. Ford passed by, stopping dead when he saw Richards. “Ewww, what a bird chest! How can I have an appetite for breakfast after seeing that!”
Richards almost chased after Ford, then realized he was half naked and thought better of it.
When he returned to his quarters, Kris was waiting for him, leaning against his couch.
Richards shrugged, taking her into his arms. “I think this crew will have a hard time with us being…together. What with you looking exactly like Lt. Commander Larkin.”
“Well, the crew isn’t the one having sex with me. You are. What does their opinion matter?”
“Good point,” Richards said, picking Kris up in his arms and swinging her back into the bedroom. “How about I call Ryan and tell him I’ll be running late this morning.”
“Capital idea, sir!”
Captain Baxter stumbled wearily onto the bridge. “What’s our ETA at Starbase 175?”
J’hana straightened at her panel. “Just a few minutes, sir.” She looked at Baxter quizzically as he ordered coffee from the replicator and stumbled over to his command chair. “Rough night, sir?”
Baxter shook his head, sipping coffee. “Rough morning. I was awaken at 0400 by the Judge Advocate General’s office on Starbase 175. Apparently, Commander Conway is charging Ensign Dawson with assaulting a Starfleet officer. He wants a Court Martial.”
“That would seem to be his right.”
Baxter sighed. “You don’t understand the particulars of the case, J’hana. Dawson didn’t poison Conway. Amara did.”
“Then she should be the one brought up on charges.”
“But Kelly told Amara to do it.”
J’hana chuckled–a dry, rasping, sound. “Should I go belowdecks and throw electroshackles on your wife now, sir?”
“Most definitely not, Lieutenant,” Baxter said dryly. “As a matter of fact, this whole conversation never happened. Are we clear on that?”
“Absolutely.” J’hana grinned toothily as she went back to work at her station.
Baxter rubbed a hand over his face wearily, then turned to the readout on his right chair arm, looking at the nightwatch’s status report as he sipped his coffee.
“Lucille Baxter to the Captain,” chirped his comm badge.
“I see we’ve almost arrived at the Starbase. I want you to arrange a special ceremony for when I transport to my new command. I’d like to wring a few ounces of respect out of this crew before I leave.”
Baxter sighed, standing up and walking around to the tactical station. “Mute.” He leaned against the station. “Lieutenant, I want you to arrange a communications problem that will prevent anyone from reaching me for at least the next hour.”
“Gladly, sir. I enjoy watching you wallow in slothfulness and dishonor.”
“Then prepare to be stupefied,” Baxter said, ducking into his readyroom.
Richards flipped the switch. “Larkin…”
Lights fluttered throughout the positronic brain as it hung limply attached to dozens of cables that stretched down like tentacles from the ceiling of the micromechanics lab.
“Start trying to access your database,” he said, hitting several controls on the panel beside him.
There was a very brief pause.
Richards looked at the brain with satisfaction, hands on hips. “Well?”
“Chris, it is all here. My activation date, the moment I kicked Cadet Henricks in the crotch, my posting on the Secondprize. The Aerostar, the Flarn, the Explorer , Captain Baxter’s wedding. Thank you, Commander. I certainly feel more…whole…now.”
“No thanks are necessary,” Richards said. “All I did was download the information from your spare brain. Man, it’s a good thing you had that.”
“Every computer system should have a backup.”
“That they should.”
Larkin’s eye laser fluttered around a bit. “I see the progress on my body is coming along as planned?”
“See for yourself,” Richards said, palming a small, white orb he had taken from the worktable. He snapped it into place on top of the blinking brain.
Immediately the eye began spinning around, looking about quizzically. “Excellent.” The eye fell upon the mechanical skeleton that hung limp beside Larkin’s brain. “I see you still have not finished modeling my new body.”
Richards fumbled with his hands. “That’s, um, sort of why I activated you.”
“Well, I’ve been working with Kris, you know, modeling the new face, skin, and limbs. And, we’ve kind of, well, grown close.”
“Emotionally or physically?”
“A little of both. Well, a lot of both, actually. We had sex last night, Larkin.”
Suddenly, sparks sputtered out of the brain, lights flickered around the lab, and all the equipment around Richards buzzed to a halt.
Richards blinked in the darkness. “I realize it may take you a while to adjust to the idea.”
“And where’s my ceremony?” Lucille demanded, dressed smartly in her dress uniform, marching down the corridor toward the transporter room.
“Must have been a mixup with the time,” Baxter said, shrugging. “I told everyone 1100. I thought that’s when we were going to see you off.”
“I told you it was ten-hundred,” Lucille said scoldingly. “How could you have forgotten?”
Harlan Baxter sucked on a cigar and surveyed the corridor as the group veered into Transporter Room One. “In a small way, I think I’ll miss this place.”
“I won’t. I’ll be glad to get to a ship with a crew that’s half competent,” Lucille muttered, climbing the transporter pad.
“We’ll miss you too,” Hartley said wryly from the transporter console.
Baxter shook his father’s hand warmly. “Good luck on Breen, Dad. Whip them into shape.”
“Oh, they’ll fall in line, son. Once we sit down and have a smoke, and I talk it over with them, they’ll see that the Federation way is the right way.”
“If they can understand you,” Baxter said with a grin.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Not so much as a ‘good luck’ or a goodbye kiss for your mother?” Lucille asked, hands on hips, as Harlan wearily climbed the pad next to her.
Baxter sighed and wrapped an arm around Lucille, kissing her on the cheek. “Good luck, Mom. And don’t get into any trouble. I’d hate to have to bail you out.”
“Me get into trouble?” Lucille said, aggravated. “What makes you think that I–”
“Energize, Lieutenant,” Baxter said. He allowed a small smile and turned on a heel toward the door.
Hartley gleefully ran her fingers up the slidebars, waving goodbye as the elder Baxters dematerialized.
“You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” Hartley called after Baxter as he stepped out.
Baxter turned. “I sure did. Didn’t you?”
“Immensely,” Hartley said, as the doors closed.
Baxter took in a deep breath. The recycled air already smelled sweeter.
The captain was jerked out of his reverie before he could even reach the turbolift to the bridge. Commander Conway was waiting by the lift, tapping his foot impatiently.
“Capthain,” he muttered.
“Commander,” Baxter said, suppressing a chuckle. “How’s the tongue?”
“And whaths wuhs, the JAG thays I don’t have a leg to thtand on. No one can prove Enthign Dawson put that thtuff in my chili, and Mirk’th cafe ithn’t liable becauthe he put a warning lable on every bowl.”
“A warning that you shouldn’t eat something you already know is going to be hot?”
Conway nodded. “Thtupid, ithn’t it? Anyway, it’th evidently a very old prethedent.”
As soon as the turbolift doors opened, Baxter followed Conway in.
“Bridge,” he said, twiddling his thumbs behind his back. “So what are you going to do?”
“Boycott Mirk’th plaith.”
Baxter couldn’t help but giggle a little. “I’m sure that’ll crush him, Commander.”
“I hope tho.”
“I suppose she could have taken it better,” Richards said as he walked with Kris along a corridor on Deck Ten.
“Her positronic net overloaded!” Kris exclaimed. “I don’t know much about android brains, but that can’t be good.”
“It was just a fluke. Larkin doesn’t just overload when she can’t handle a situation. She’s programmed to handle every situation.”
Kris folded her arms. “Well, it doesn’t appear that she’s handling this situation very well.”
“Like I said, it was just a fluke!”
Kris grinned. “If you say so. I just worry about her.”
“She’ll be fine. If Kristen is anything, it’s durable. She came back from the dead, for goodness sake.”
“This is true,” Kris agreed.
The couple came to a stop at a the doors to Holodeck Three. “Okay, here’s where I have to put the blindfold on you.”
“Is that really necessary?”
“Uh-huh. I want you to be surprised,” Richards said, placing the dark black cloth around Kris’ head so that it covered her eyes. “There.” He tapped in a sequence on the holodeck control panel and ushered Kris through. “Let’s go.”
Kris stepped blindly through the holodeck doors. “Okay, Chris, I’ll bite. What do you have in here? The Apollo Thirteen?”
“Something a little newer,” Richards grinned. “See what you think of this–” he tugged the blindfold off.
And Kris found herself face to face with a long and bulky, ominous-looking, rust-colored starship.
“Presenting…” Richards said grandly, leading Kris toward its airlock. “The heavy freighter Daisy II.”
Kris wrapped her arms around Richards and kissed him ravenously. “Oh, Chris…I don’t believe it.”
“It’s for real. Well, not this one. This is a hologram. But we’ll be rendez-vousing with the real thing in a few days, courtesy of Captain Dwanok.”
“Chris,” Kris said, stepping through the airlock and looking around. “I can’t accept this. You can’t just give me a ship.”
“I can and I will. You’ll have to do some consignment for Dwanok. Maybe a mission or two if he needs it. But after a couple years of that, she’ll be yours outright.”
“Chris, that’s great, I–” Kris stopped walking and sniffed the air. “What’s that smell?”
Richards smiled weakly. “It’s a Klingon ship. We can work on the smell later. Shouldn’t be a problem. A few nice plants here and there should do the trick.”
“You really are amazing,” Kris said, kissing Richards again on the cheek.
“It’s nothing. Captain Dwanok likes me, I think. Something about the way I stood up to the Klingons. So, you want to take her for a test-flight?”
“Lead the way,” Kris grinned, taking Richards’s hand.
ONE WEEK LATER
Commander Conway stepped out onto the bridge, nodding a “good morning” to Lt. J’hana at tactical. He walked over to the replicator and ordered coffee.
“Sleep well last night?” J’hana asked, by way of smalltalk.
Conway shrugged. “Well as can be expected.”
The doors to the Captain’s readyroom suddenly parted, and Baxter ducked out. “Oh, there you are, Commander.”
“Captain,” Conway muttered, grabbing the week’s mission report from a passing ensign and looking it over. He carried the padd and his coffee mug over to his chair and sat down.
Baxter rounded the command area and sat down beside Conway. He leaned over conspiratorially. “You missed a hell of a bash at Mirk’s last night, Commander.”
“I’m sure,” Conway said as he read. “I’m boycotting Mirk’s, remember? I don’t care what went on there, frankly. Until I get a formal apology for what he did to my mouth, I’m not setting foot in there.”
“Right,” Baxter said, turning to the readouts on his chair arm. He stopped reading and turned to Conway again. “It really was a great party, Commander.”
“You want to hear about it?”
“Not particularly.” Sip.
“It was really really great, though.”
Conway stopped reading, and looked at Baxter, exasperated. “And what was so special about that party, Captain?
Baxter smiled. “Maybe you should ask our operations officer.”
Sighing, Conway pushed out of his chair and walked over to the ops console. It was obvious he wouldn’t get any work done until he played out Baxter’s little scenario.
He rested a hand on the chair. “Well?”
The chair turned around, and Lt. Commander Kristen Larkin, version 2.0, returned Conway’s stare. “We welcomed a crewmember back to duty last night, sir.”
“I think Chris installed some kind of sense of humor this time around,” Baxter said gleefully from behind Conway.
“I think not,” returned Larkin.
Conway glared back at Baxter, palefaced. “She’s back…”
J’hana let out a hearty bellow. “You look as if you’d seen a ghost, Commander.”
“Very funny,” Conway muttered, returning to his seat. “Sorry I missed out on your ‘party,’ Larkin. I’ll drop a gift by your quarters.”
“More latinum, I hope?”
Conway beamed. “Was that sarcasm?”
Baxter shrugged. “I have no idea. Just smile politely.”
Lt. Commander Richards walked with Kris Larkin into the transporter room. “Thanks for staying until the party, Kris,” Richards said. “It meant a lot to Kristen.”
“In her own unemotional way, I bet it did,” Kris said with a smile.
“You two aren’t going to make out, are you?” Hartley asked from behind her console.
“You’re dismissed, Lieutenant,” Richards ordered, not taking his eyes away from Kris.
“Suits me,” he heard Hartley say. And then he heard the doors to the transporter room open and close.
He kissed Kris long and hard, treasuring the way she felt in his arms.
“You’ll have to let go sometime, Chris,” Kris said softly.
“I know. Just a couple more seconds…”
The doors opened and closed again.
“Hartley, I thought I told you–” Richards said, irritated. He turned around, and his eyes suddenly softened. “Larkin…I thought you were on duty.”
Lt. Commander Larkin bent her shoulders into a shrug. It seemed somewhat forced. “I am ‘playing hooky.’ Proceed with your foreplay.”
“This isn’t foreplay,” Kris said, laughing. “Chris is just seeing me off.”
“As am I,” Larkin said, approaching Kris. “I believe a hug is appropriate?”
“After all we’ve been through together, I’d say it’s more than appropriate,” Kris said, wincing as Larkin wrapped her arms around Kris and squeezed. The freighter pilot thought her eyes were going to pop out.
“Bort to Kris. Let’s go already. We have a shipment to deliver and time is wasting,” came the gutteral voice of Kris’s Bolian navigator over the comm system.
Larkin released Kris from the painful hug. “We should not delay any longer.” The android stepped behind the transporter console. “Commander, Kris, you may now say your goodbyes.”
Richards stroked a finger through Kris’ hair and kissed her on the forehead. “When will I see you again?”
Kris grinned, biting her lip and looking up into Richards’s eyes. “If you need me, I’ll call you.”
He held her hand as she stepped up to the transporter pad, then backed away. “Watch out for Romulans, Kris.”
Richards released her hand and smiled fondly. “You can energize, Kristen.”
“Keep an eye on her,” Kris mouthed quietly as she disappeared.
Larkin accompanied Richards out of the transporter room after the transport was complete. “Father, what does that mean, ‘keep an eye on her’?”
Richards stared at Larkin in disbelief. “Did you just call me ‘father’?”
“Would you prefer ‘Dad’?”
“No, no…I’m just used to being called ‘Mom,’ I guess.”
Larkin nodded. “Understandable; however, you did create this body. It would seem that you now must assume both roles. If you are up to it.”
Richards chuckled. “Do you even have to ask?”
“Larkin, I wouldn’t have expected any other response from you,” Richards said, patting Larkin on the back. “You’d better get back up to the bridge.”
“And where will you go?”
“I have some…unfinished business.”
“I see,” Larkin said, stepping into the turbolift and calling for the bridge as Richards brok off down the corridor. He never did answer her question. Either of them.
Richards stepped into Sickbay. “Janice?”
Browning stuck her head out of the door to one of the adjacent labs. “Oh, hi, Christopher.”
“Are you busy?” he asked, preparing to head back out into the corridor.
Browning stepped out. “No, I was just finishing my pre-lunch snack.”
“Something with mustard?” Richards asked, as Browning approached. “How did you know?”
Richards pointed. “Stain on your labcoat.”
Browning looked down, then let out a strained giggle. “What do you know.”
“Well, Ryan and his crew certainly did a good job,” Richards said, looking around the newly renovated Sickbay. The walls were all a pleasing azure. Clearer, more colorful readout panels surrounded the place. Comprehensive diagnostic beds with the nifty sliding bioscan apparatus attached were neatly arranged along all four walls. And, dominating the room, at center, was a larger, more heavily augmented biobed. On the ceiling, all manner of scientific sensors prickled, ready to scan and detect whatever ailed an Explorer patient.
Browning nodded agreement. “You should see the waiting room. It’s like the lobby of the Federation Palace Hotel.”
“Good for the patients,” Richards said, nodding satisfaction.
“So, did Kris leave?” Browning asked, scooting up onto the new center biobed.
“Just now, actually,” Richards said.
“I’m sorry. I know you two got very…close.”
“We definitely did. I’m going to miss her, Janice.”
“Too bad she couldn’t have stayed longer.”
“Well, you know what they say. Space waits for no one.”
Browning raised an eyebrow. “They say that?”
“I guess. I don’t know.”
“Christopher, I’m happy you found someone. I know some of the others turned up their nose at the idea, but I think it’s kind of sweet.”
“Sure. It makes perfect sense to me.”
Richards’s brow furrowed. “It does?”
“You love them both, just in different ways. Nothing hard to understand about that.”
“I guess not.” Richards leaned over and hugged Browning. “I’ve been a bit weird lately, Janice.”
“Lately nothing,” Browning said with a giggle. “I’m used to it by now. On this ship, you have to be.”
“You certainly said a mouthful there.”
“Speaking of which, I have a sandwich waiting in the lab…”
“Mr. Ford,” Baxter said, as Lt. Commander Larkin took her place again at ops. “Lay in a course for the Pi Omega system. Warp Seven.”
“Laid in,” Ford said.
Baxter leaned back in his chair. “Hit it.”
As the stars shot foreward on the viewscreen, Conway leaned over and whispered to Baxter: “Sir, did you notice that Larkin looks almost exactly like she did before she, uh, died?”
Baxter nodded. “What about it?”
“Well, I thought Richards was modeling her after Kris. And Kris looks different now. I mean, she’s ten years older!”
“Chris decided to go with Larkin’s original look.”
“If you have to ask, Commander, you’ll never know,” Baxter said mysteriously, and headed for his readyroom.
“And what the hell does that mean?” Conway asked, scratching his head.
“Put simply,” Larkin said, turning in her seat, “my father does not wish to have sex with someone that looks just like me.”
“Right…” Conway smiled nervously. “Say no more.”
They say happiness is a rogue starship out besmirching your good name, while your crewmates are tortured by insane alternate universe freaks. Okay, so maybe they don’t. But someone does. And that someone wrote “Many Happy Returns,” the story of many …happy…returns. Coming soon to a web browser near you!