Author: Anthony Butler
“So how does one have any fun around here?” asked the Bolian at the bar, obviously unaware that the Klingon bartender wasn’t interested in talking.
“You got your drink, baldy, what more do you want?” the Klingon, who was called “Trank” by his friends and “Trouble” by his enemies, called over his shoulder.
“Some freaking conversation!”
Trank didn’t look back at the unwieldy Bolian. He was intent on the screen above the bar. “This ain’t a place to come to talk, little boy blue. I suggest your blow your horn elsewhere.”
“You all are obviously a bunch of vid junkies. Don’t you have anything better to do than watch a screen all day?”
“We ain’t vid junkies!” retorted Trank. “This is the latest episode of the Jor’Koval show. He’s brought a Breen freighter captain on the show to express his love for a Tellarite free- trader.”
“Now I have seen everything,” the Bolian muttered. “I hardly call that entertainment.”
Trank finally turned around, heaving his bulk over the bar, so he was eye-to-eye with the customer. “It’s entertainment far as I’m concerned, punk. And if you don’t like it, you can–”
Then a howling wind crashed through the bar, upturning stools and blowing out the festive candles. One of the customers, a Yridian, lost his toupee.
“What’s the big idea?” Trank called out, as the doors to the bar slammed open with a clank, filling the dank establishment with pouring light.
The wide doorway framed a large and ominous shadow. With a measured series of thuds, the shadow clomped forward. It was a woman–a human woman, and fatter than any Trank recalled ever seeing.
She’s marvelous, he thought, as his mouth hung wide.
The woman thudded over to the bar, shoving the Bolian to the floor.
She ignored the Bolian’s cries and fixed the bartender with a bone-chilling stare. The Klingon had been through his fair share of fights, but this human woman petrified him.
“I’m looking for someone,” she said dully.
“Someone passes through here all the time,” Trank replied, trying to appear cavalier.
The woman flashed a padd. “He looks like this. Tallish. Gangly. Spots about the forehead and neck. Goes by the name of ‘Mirk.’”
Trank scratched his head, narrowing his one good eye at the picture. “Yeah, he was by here a few days ago. Came in a Federation runabout, looking for ‘specialty drinks.’ I told him the only specialty drink we had was blood wine and he left.”
The woman’s sea-blue eyes widened as if she’d been showed a huge roast beef feast. “Super. Thanks.”
She heaved her massive bulk toward the door.
“Hey, lady!” Trank called over her shoulder.
The behemoth didn’t turn. “Yes?”
“You on some kind of trek or something?”
The woman cackled, fierce and chilling through the stone cold Pfefferian night. “Yes, you could say that. And I’d love to tell you all about it. But first I have a job to finish.”
Trank shivered as the doors slammed shut, plunging the bar once again into darkness.
The Bolian pulled himself to his feet, dusting off his jacket. “What was that all about?”
“It was about the finest piece of human meat I ever seen, kid. Now get out of here, before I fill ya with disruptor holes!”
USS RIO DE JANEIRO
“Wake up!” Ford said, clomping Mirk on the back of the head.
The Maloxian’s eyes snapped open and he sat up in the pilot’s chair next to Ford’s at the front of the cockpit of the runabout Rio De Janeiro. “Are we back already?”
“No,” Ford said tiredly. “Another few hours at least. I woke you because we got an emergency communique from the Explorer. They need your recipe for chili.”
“That’s an emergency?” Mirk said in disbelief. “For Directors’ sake, can’t they just replicate it?”
“The captain said that wasn’t good enough,” Ford replied. “He was very insistent that they get that recipe.”
“Fine,” Mirk said, calling up the communications subroutine on his terminal. “Disturb my beauty rest. Just for that, I’m leaving out the cayenne pepper.”
“You’re insideous,” Ford said, folding his arms and leaning back in his chair. “How about your watch the controls for awhile. I need beauty sleep too.”
“You certainly do.” Mirk quickly tapped the recipe into the message window and sent the comm marked Priority One. Baxter would get his chili, but it wouldn’t be near spicy enough.
“What are you guys yammering about?” Amara asked from the rear of the runabout cockpit. She was sitting cross-legged, hands up, before her Bajoran prayer mandela.
“Chili,” Mirk said. “Are you still praying to that thing?”
“I have to pray to the prophets every ten hours. It’s especially important now that I’m in a relationship with someone. You wouldn’t want them to damn us for all time, would you?”
Mirk shrugged, wandering over to the aft of the cockpit to join Amara. “I suppose not. But, then again, I don’t put much faith in your wormhole aliens.”
“Whatever. The Directors are gods enough for me.”
“Directors. Hah. They’re just giant eyeballs.”
Mirk sighed. “Amara, we have this conversation way too often. The Directors are far more than giant eyeballs.”
“Fine, but you have to agree the Prophets are more than just wormhole aliens.”
“Have you ever seen a prophet?”
“I’ve seen the Directors. And they’re fantastic.”
“Ever heard of faith? If you had to see your gods to believe in them, then no one would believe in anything.” Amara turned away from her mandela, glaring at Mirk. “Except for your fantastic Directors.”
“Leave them out of this!” Mirk insisted, when suddenly a proximity detector beeped incessantly from the helm control.
“What is that?” Amara asked, following Mirk back to the front of the cockpit.
“I don’t know. Last I checked, we were in deep–” Mirk glanced at the panel. “Shit.”
“Deep space,” Mirk corrected, slapping Ford on the back of the head. “And deep shit. Wake up, pretty boy.”
“Huh?” Ford rubbed his head. “What’d you wake me up for?”
Mirk brought the Rio De Janero’s weapons and shields online and brought it about, pointing at the glimmering craft outside the front viewport. “That.”
Ford’s eyes widened. “Oh my!”
The lithe, red, angular ship descended on the Rio De Janeiro, the large weapons barrel at its bow gleaming.
“What sort of ship is that?” Amara asked quizzically.
“It’s from the Starshine Cult, sweetie,” Mirk said, gently pushing Amara down into her seat behind him. “Buckle up.”
“What are we going to do?” Ford asked.
Mirk shrugged. “You tell me. You’re the helmsman. And the ex-cult member.”
“Hey! My brain was totally unwashed!”
Then the ship fired its first volley, sending the cockpit of the Rio De Janeiro into a chaos of sparks, smoke, and alarms.
“That does it for shields. Another shot will finish us,” Ford said, frantically working at the helm.
Suddenly, the comm system chirped to life: “Greetings. This is the Cultship Starshine. Give us the Maloxian and you will be spared.”
“Sesil?” Ford asked meekly.
“Yes, child. I’m glad you remember me. Now, if you please, the Maloxian.”
“You’ll have to kill us to get him!” Amara cried.
“As you wish,” the voice said, sounding bored.
“Here comes another blast,” Mirk said, and Ford dodged it, dumping everything the Rio De Janeiro had into engines.
“I’m about done being nice. I have a demanding schedule. Please, just turn him over,” Sesil continued.
“What do you want with me?” Mirk asked, as Amara sprayed extinguisher fluid on one of the sputtering panels.
“There are questions, little guy. Now how about you come on over here and talk to us.”
“Stop jabbering!” a cranky voice suddenly broke in. “We’re not going to get him by being nice. Let me handle this.”
“But, large one, are you sure that’s a good idea?” asked Sesil.
“Large one?” Ford mouthed.
“I’m not arguing it with ya, Sesil. Now hold on your horses and sit back a bit while I take care of things.”
Mirk scratched his head. “What’s going on over there?”
Then the air behind Mirk prickled with energy, and he swung around just in time to see a pinkish crackle erupt behind him, and a meaty fist emerge, deadset on wrapping itself around his neck.
Ford scrambled out of his seat, fumbling for a nearby phaser.
Meanwhile, a large shape lumbered through the shimmering portal, and screams filled the Rio De Janeiro cabin–one, female, hoarse and deep, more a battle cry, and the other Ford’s, shrill and high-pitched.
“IRRRRRRRRRRRMA!” Ford cried, yanking out a phaser from under his chair and blasting away, upping the setting as he blasted.
Mirk scrambled around the woman, grabbing Amara by the arm and yanking her back into the recesses of the runabout..
Seemingly oblivious to the phaser blasts, Irma slowly lumbered toward the aft cabin of the runabout. She glanced side-long at Ford. “Surprised to see me again, gorgeous?”
“It can’t be It just can’t be!” Ford cried, continuing to blast his phaser into her.
“Oh, it certainly can be. Get your facts straight, Mr. Ford.” Irma left Ford behind in the cockpit and raced into the aft cabin. She found Mirk hiding behind the conference table. She drilled that steel gaze of hers into Mirk’s eyes. “You were warned that I was on my way. You should have used this time to prepare.”
“Prepare?” Mirk gulped, shoving Amara behind him as he slowly stepped out from behind the table.
“For the face-off!”
Mirk blinked. Now he remembered the woman. Remembered the dream that plagued him for several months at the beginning of the Explorer’s mission. It started out like any of his most pleasant dreams–on Malox, on a sunny day, with gorgeous Maloxian women fanning him and feeding him umja fruit. Then she appeared, like a dark rider riding a pale horse through a storm-lit sky, eyes searing red, bursting and cracking the round around him. In those dreams, it was always the same: the woman, Irma, handed him a card embossed with the fancy words “IRMA WILSON, MIRK’S WORST ENEMY, SINCE 1996.”
And now that dream had come true. Irma had waddled into Mirk’s life, intent on wiping him off the face of the galaxy.
Mirk pushed up the sleeves on his sportcoat and glared hard at Irma. It was time to make his stand. “Okay, you fat tub of farsha, I’m ready for you.”
“Are you now?” Irma asked with an impish grin, slamming a fist toward Mirk’s face.
The Maloxian dropped to his knees, grinding two fists into the woman’s massive stomach, twisting with all his might. Irma howled loud throughout the cramped smoky cabin. Mustering up every bit of power he had, Mirk heaved the huge human into the air and stood, slowly spinning, spinning, faster and faster.
Then he chucked her at the aft bulkhead, which she hurtled through as if it were thin air.
Mirk grabbed Amara and led her by the arm back into the Rio De Janero’s cockpit. He collapsed into the chair beside Ford. “It’ll take them a while to collect her. I suggest we make a quick retreat. Maximum warp.”
“Agreed.” Ford pulled himself into the pilot’s chair and engaged the Rio De Janero’s engines. The Starshine ship didn’t follow, since Irma was still backstroking around in deep space.
“What was that hideous monster?” Amara cried, running to Mirk’s side and laying her head down in his lap.
Mirk ran a hand through Amara’s hair, gazing off into the space outside Rio De Janero’s forward viewport. “That,” Mirk said breathlessly, “was Irma.”
Stardate 53619.7. Mirk, Amara, and Ford have returned to the Explorer, bearing fancy Gorn cheese, expensive cigars from the Tellar system, a rare type of Betazoid beer, and some very disturbing news. It appears that, after our brief jaunt back in time to stop Irma from destroying the lives of our ancestors a year and a half ago, that insane woman has somehow traveled forward four hundred years to wreak more havoc on us. And now, apparently, the sum of all her dementia is focused squarely on Mr. Mirk.
The senior staff of the Explorer collectively flinched as they watched the flight recorder data of Mirk shoving his fingers into Irma’s gut and twisting.
“Ouch. The old stomach grinder,” Lt. Commander Richards murmurred, as Baxter turned in his chair, putting his back to the conference room viewscreen.
“Computer, pause playback.” Baxter folded his hands on top of the conference table. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but the prospect of renewed activity from the Starshine cult scares the booties right off of me.”
“Booties?” Conway asked, amused.
“Twentieth century vernacular, Conway,” Baxter snapped. “I thought it appropriate, since we are dealing with a resident of that time frame.”
“Sir,” Lt. Commander Kristen Larkin piped up, “for the sake of accuracy, I might point out that, in the twentieth century vernacular, the word ‘booty’ was primarily used to signify some sort of sexual gathering. A meaningless, often sweaty and steamy interlude between to partners of differing, or sometimes the same sexual–”
“Well, that’s not really important.” Richards quickly cut Larkin off. “Let’s get right to the details, shall we?”
Baxter raised his eyebrows. “Right. Well. It looks like our fears about Irma were well founded. She does seem to have powers similar to Mirk’s.”
“But,” Mirk said from the other end of the table, “let’s remember that I did kick her ass.”
J’hana folded her arms. “That remains to be seen.”
“Oh, like you could have done better?”
“I could certainly make short work of you, little man.”
“People, people,” Conway said, pounding the table. “Now
is not the time for petty bickering. We have to be ready for that Starshine ship to show up at any minute. They evidently bounced back quite well from our bout with them last year.”
“Which brings up a good point,” Richards said. “From what Lt. Hartley tells me, that ship is capable of making mincemeat of the Explorer.”
“And she would have, if we hadn’t come up with that ingenious plan to use an antigraviton beam to counteract their weapons-reflective shielding,” said Tillearan
“Well, we have to assume they’ve made adjustments for that, if they’re making noise again,” said Baxter. “It’s been almost a year since anyone in the Federation has had contact with this ‘cult.’”
“For all we know, they could have a fleet of those ships by now,” J’hana rasped.
“I find that unlikely,” Ford said. “They have a large workforce, but they lack the ingenuity and resources to build anything theirselves. And anyone who has a lick of sense before they join the cult loses it almost immediately after joining.”
“That still leaves piracy,” Conway said, sliding a padd over to Ford. “Starfleet security has logged over thirty different raids on outlying weapons and supply posts in the last six months. Each of the reports makes no mention of a ship, only of a quick, very strange, attacking force.”
“Bald?” Baxter asked, raising an eyebrow.
Conway nodded gravely. “Balder than Captain Picard himself, sir.”
“Then that’s the lead we were looking for,” Baxter replied, gripping the oaken conference table. “Have Starfleet security let us know if they hear about anything else like that. Meanwhile, we’re going to retrace the Rio De Janero’s flight path. See if we run into that ship.”
“I’d better get us ready for an old fashioned brawl,” Richards said, rising from his chair.
“Speaking of brawl, sir,” Mirk spoke up, moving over to Baxter’s end of the table as the staff cleared out of the conference room. “What about Irma? It seems like she’s the real power behind this cult. She talked to the cult leader like he was nobody. Isn’t she the one we should really be worried about?”
Baxter waited for everyone else to clear out of the room before he hopped up onto the table and turned to face Mirk. “I take it you haven’t had much experience with this woman, have you, Mirk?”
“Just the butt-kicking I gave her earlier today.”
“Well.” Baxter clapped either side of the table. “This woman was not a warrior back on twentieth century Earth. She was a societal reject, with severe psychotic delusions. She obsessed over a television program called Star Trek–a program that bears a striking resemblance to life today. She ate things called ‘cheeze-its’ and ‘malomars’ on a regular basis. We’re not talking about a criminal mastermind here.”
Mirk turned toward one of the oblong, floor-to-ceiling viewports that lined the front of the conference room, watching the stars that streaked toward him. “She’s changed, Captain. The Irma you ran into when the Aerostar was slingshotted back in time came under the influence of the Critics. They empowered her, like the Directors empowered me. There must be a reason for that.”
Baxter rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Sheesh. I heard about something like this happening on Deep Space Nine. Pagh wraiths and wormhole aliens taking over bodies and battling it out. Please tell me that’s not what we’re talking about here.”
“No, the Directors haven’t taken over my body,” Mirk said. “That’s ridiculous. But I do think they’ve chosen me to prove their superiority over the Critics. Likewise, the Critics chose Irma.”
Baxter slid off the table and ordered up a glass of grapefruit juice from the replicator. “Any idea why?”
Mirk shrugged. “You’ve got me. Any idea why your ‘God’ had Judas die for your sins?”
“Never mind. So you think you’re the messiah now?”
Baxter tossed back the glass of juice and sat it back inside the replicator. “It would take too long to explain. But I don’t think you should plan on making any big sacrifices already. Not until we have a keener grasp of what the hell’s going on.”
“I don’t intend to sacrifice anything. I’m going to beat Irma.” Mirk’s eyes glistened with wanting. “I’m going to beat that fat bitch silly.”
Baxter looked at Mirk askance as he marched out of the observation lounge.
“Directors help us all,” he sighed.
“Whap! Whap! Zing! Flug!”
With a flurry of renewed determination, Mirk slung drinks from one side of the bar to another, tapping rapidly at the replicator controls with one hand and shlepping glasses with another.
“Mirk,” Lt. Hartley said, saddling up to the bar. “I’ll have a–”
A glass of Crescan Ale slid into place in front of Hartley.
“I was going to say a Bolian Eye-gouger, but I guess this’ll do. What’s with the sound effects?”
“Fwoom!” Mirk tossed a Vulcan Ear-grinder at Lieutenant Unlathi, who greedily grabbed it with their tentacles. “Something I learned from Dr. Browning. A technique used by some holographic chef she studied with.”
Hartley sipped her ale, watching with amusement as Mirk passed glasses out to the customers. “You know, you may want to give people time to finish their drinks before serving them other ones.”
Mirk paused a moment, scanning the bar from left to right. His various customers now each had two or three drinks in front of them. Ensign Sefelt smiled at him weakly, drinking down his Trelane Tonic rapidly so he could start on the next.
“Why didn’t they say anything?” Mirk asked, glaring at Sefelt until he grabbed all four of his drinks and ushered them over to a table in the far corner of the bar.
Hartley leaned in and whispered, “I think they’re a little afraid of you right now.”
Mirk grinned. “They should be. I’m working on my ‘bad-ass’ attitude.”
“That’s a laugh,” Hartley chuckled. “You couldn’t hurt a vole.”
“So you say,” Mirk said, heaving in a breath to make his chest big. “But it just so happens I am one lean, mean, Maloxian fighting machine.”
“Listen, Megan, I’ve been charged by my gods to battle Irma, and I’m going to do it, and I’m going to beat her, whether you support me or not.”
Hartley put her hands up. “Whoa-ho, when did we become so defensive?”
“When we became the only thing stopping the Critics from taking control of our galaxy.”
“I think you may be overstating that juuuust a bit.”
Mirk slung a towel over his shoulder, tossing two more drinks down the bar to waiting customers. “We’ll see, won’t we?”
Hartley smiled as she finished her drink. “Listen, Mirk, I have very good cause to root for you. If Irma wins, who’s going to make Crescan Ale just the way I like it?”
“So you think he has delusions of grandeur, then,” Counselor Peterman’s voice echoed through the expansive arboretum, over Baxter’s communicator, as he dragged her slew of pets on their late-night bathroom expedition.
“I sure do,” Baxter replied, grasping at the wad of leashes and chains, reigning in the pomeranians, rabitts, monkeys, chinchillas, aardvarks, possums, ducks, cats, and of course, Charlie. The other pets would have to wait for Peterman to go off-duty. Baxter wasn’t getting anwhere near the lion. Not since he put a slash in his best dress uniform, anyway. “So,” Baxter said, after a long silence at the other end of the comm line. “What should I do?”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “About Mirk?”
“Oh. I’m not sure. My whole plan was just to get him to come to terms with his powers, accept them as a given, and try not to live his life by them. Now this whole ‘battle to save the universe’ thing comes into play. Do I tell him to ignore those feelings? We have to think about the universe here, Andy. What if he’s right? What if the Critics take over and make us all like Sesil and his friends?”
“The rest of the universe can go to–” Baxter said, when a chime from the computer interrupted him.
“Sanitation Alert. Animal defecation detected in the arboretum, section thirty-three. Please remove all feces and dispose of per Starfleet regulations.”
Baxter sighed. “Override sanitation alert, authorization Baxter Gamma Four Four Two.”
“Acknowledged,” the computer replied.
“Andy…” Peterman scolded. “Pick up that poop. The arboretum is for everyone to enjoy, not just Charlie and Sylvester and Ralph and Mimi and-“
“I get the picture!” Baxter cried, pulling the grey container out of his pocket, retrieving the special scoop, and shoving the pile in. He stared down at the warm lumps in the container angrily. “Listen, like I was saying, the rest of the universe is not important right now. The sanity of one of our crew is at stake right now. The larger issues can wait.”
“Sir?” Lt. Gellar, arm in arm with Ensign Dawson, stood several feet away. The pair observed Baxter with badly hidden amusement.
Baxter looked up from the dung, narrowed his eyes. “This area is off limits right now, people. Go make out somewhere else.”
“Yes, sir,” Gellar said, moving off to the rainforest section. “You just go back to the discussion you were having with the dog poop.”
“Thank you. Now how are you going to help Mr. Mirk, Kelly?”
“I don’t know how I can help him, Andy,” replied Peterman’s voice. “This is a very personal struggle for him. All I can hope to do is offer support.”
“And how do you plan on doing that?” Baxter said, grunting and rising to his feet, pushing the fighting pomeranians apart.
A long pause. “Hmm. I’ll have to get back to you on that one, Andy. Peterman out.”
“…and in this corner, weighing in at two hundred seventy pounds…it’s the Macho Man himself, Randy Savage!” boomed the announcer over the mike.
Mirk steeled himself for the battle at hand as the neon- clad, hairy, ape-like twentieth century human lept into the ring, throwing off his shiny sunglasses and shouting what Mirk assumed was a common Earth battlecry that sang over the rumbling noise of the colliseum.
He rushed Mirk, wrapping an arm around the Maloxian’s narrow neck and slamming him to the mat.
Mirk picked himself up, danced backwards, dashed to the side as Macho Man lept toward him. Mirk spun on a heel and slammed Savage’s head into the ring post, just like he’d seen Hulk Hogan do to someone called ‘Undertaker’ a little earlier.
Savage flipped around, rushed Mirk, clotheslined him, and again the Maloxian was on the mat.
“That’s it,” Mirk sighed, closing his eyes and focusing on the flash of neon pink. Savage was airborn, getting ready to bodyslam him.
Inches before reaching Mirk, the Macho Man stopped in midair. Eyes wide, he floundered. “This wasn’t in the script!”
“OHHHH NOOOOO,” Mirk cried, nodding his head. That gesture sent Savage flying out of the ring, collapsing into a throng of fans in the audience.
“And this match is over, fans,” said the announcer.
Mirk pulled himself to his feet, wiped his brow, and looked around. “Any other takers?”
And then a voice sounded behind him. “Me.”
Mirk turned. “J’hana?”
“Nice tights, little guy.” J’hana glanced around at the raging crowd. “Computer, pause program.”
“What do you want? Isn’t it Starfleet policy to at least let someone know when you’re busting in on their holodeck program?”
“Not when you’re Chief of Security.” J’hana slid out of her seat and strolled toward the ring. She then planted her hands on the edge of the mat and sprung up, proppelling herself over the ropes and landing gracefully in front of Mirk.
“I had no idea you were such a gymnast,” Mirk deadpanned. “Now what do you want?”
J’hana stiffened. “I have been instructed to train you in the ways of honorable combat.”
Mirk put up an eyebrow. “By who?”
“Is that important?”
“Yeah, it is.”
J’hana sighed. “If you must know, it was Counselor Peterman.”
Mirk clenched a fist. “I KNEW it. Why won’t she just stay out of my business?”
“You yourself said this battle encompasses the whole of the universe. Is it not then everyone’s business?”
“Not when I’m the one responsible for saving everybody.”
J’hana glanced over Mirk’s shoulder at the inert form of Randy Savage. The crowd had shoved him out into the aisle moments before she’d paused the program. “You will save nothing if you practice against dishonorable shulms like him. You are fighting someone who is empowered with the same unique abilities as you. Practicing against mere humans doesn’t cover it.”
“So I should program the computer with an opponent that has my powers?”
J’hana stripped off her uniform jacket, then tossed off the vest, then unzipped the turtleneck, until all that was left was the tank-top. “Not exactly. She tossed the pile of clothing aside. “I want you to fight me, without once using your powers. If you can defeat an Andorian warrior of the Ninth Hive, one trained in the Seven Artful Killing Styles, no less, then you can defeat anyone, with or without powers.”
“But I will have powers. And so will Irma.”
“Possibly.” J’hana walked over to one corner of ring and grabbed some tape, wrapping it around her hands. “But the first lesson of honorable combat is that you should never rely on an advantage, because you can lose it quickly.”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“Nevertheless, you will fight me. If I allow you to leave this ring without proving yourself, I will be forced to spend a week pet-sitting.” J’hana glowered at Mirk. “And I will not allow that to happen.” She stepped back into one corner of the ring, and pointed for Mirk to take the other. “Now. Fight me.”
Mirk stared at J’hana. “You can’t be serious.”
“Are you frightened, little one? Should I contact your mommy?”
“That’s it.” Mirk took his place in the opposite corner. “Nobody talks like that to me.”
“Better. That is the attitude I require from you. Computer, reset this program with me as Mr. Mirk’s opponent and begin.”
Mirk gulped as the bell sounded the first round.
Dr. Browning fiddled with the tiny plastic players inside Captain Baxter’s model of Texas Stadium. “Gellar and Dawson, huh? Who would have known?”
Baxter nodded as he sped through his pile of padds, thumbing signatures where needed and breezing through the tumult of requisitions and reports. “Yep. I saw them while I was…taking a stroll in the arboretum last night. They looked very happy together.”
“What about Lt. Hartley?”
Baxter shrugged. “Out of the picture?”
“Impossible. Gellar really likes her. I bet they’re at the ‘seeing other people’ stage.” Browning smiled fondly. “I remember when me and Chris were at that point.”
Baxter looked up from his padds. “Are you at that point now?”
Browning picked up the tiny Troy Aikman and examined it. “Nope. We’re at the ‘not seeing each other at all’ stage. And I expect that’s the last stage.”
“Ah. So then you have no problem with Richards and Kris?”
“The human Larkin?” Browning laughed. “Hah. That was a one-time fling.”
Baxter examined one of his array of padds. “If that’s so, then why is Chris requesting leave next month to visit Kris on her Klingon freighter?”
Browning crossed the readyroom. “Let me see that.”
Baxter held the padd back. “Give back my Troy Aikman first.”
“Here.” Browning grudgingly dropped the figure on Baxter’s desk and rifled through the pad. “I’ll be darned.”
“She’s in the Falius sector. He’ll have to take a runabout. Spend half his leave in transit, I imagine. Sounds like quite a…commitment to me.”
“Well.” Browning put the padd down. “Good for him.”
Baxter glanced up at Browning. “Indeed.”
Then Browning’s comm badge chirped. “J’hana to Dr. Browning.”
The doctor stared up at the ceiling. “Browning here.”
“We have a slight…medical…situation down here in Holodeck Three. We require your assistance.”
“We who?” Baxter demanded.
“It is Mr. Mirk, sir. Doctor, you might want to hurry.”
Baxter grimaced, pushing up from his desk and following Browning out of the readyroom. “This just screams ‘Peterman.’”
“Give me one more shot. I can take her. I know I can take her,” Mirk muttered, as Nurse Holly Carter dragged him out of the holodeck on a hoverbed. The crowd rang in Baxter’s ears as he surveyed the bloodied wrestling mat.
“Computer, pause the audience,” he said testily. He turned his gaze on J’hana. “What the hell happened here?”
“Mirk and I entered into a combat situation. He proved… unfit, sir.”
“I’ll say he was unfit,” Browning muttered, showing Baxter her medical tricorder.
Baxter stared at the readings, shrugged. “Sorry. I flunked exobiology.”
Browning glared at J’hana. “The Lieutenant here fractured forty of Mirk’s bones. Collapsed two of his lungs, played havoc with his limbic system somehow, and also managed to give him a pretty severe concussion.”
J’hana shrugged. “I was testing his endurance. We went through several rounds, and at each time I asked if he wished to continue. I will hand it to him–he is a persistent little shelat.”
“He almost became a dead little shelat,” Baxter railed. “Whatever a shelat is. J’hana, you nearly killed him.”
“Oh, sir, if I had wished to kill him, he would be dead now, I assure you.”
Baxter folded his arms. “I don’t doubt that. At any rate, it’s no way to get Mirk ready to battle Irma.”
J’hana’s antennae twitched. “Counselor Peterman felt it would boost his confidence level.”
“I knew she was mixed up in this.” Baxter ground his teeth.
“Sir,” J’hana said, as Browning turned to head back to Sickbay. “This still leaves the painfully obvious: Mirk is not ready to battle Irma.”
“Well he certainly can’t battle her with forty broken bones!”
“I doubt he is fit to battle her at all sir, as I first feared. I believe we should ask for a forfeit.”
Baxter indicated J’hana’s helmet of white, fine hair. “I don’t imagine you’d look very attractive bald. No, definitely not. And since things have cooled with Dwanok…”
“Kindly stay out of my personal affairs, Captain, or I’ll kill you.”
“The fact of the matter is, we need Mirk to defeat the Critics. End of story.”
“Then we’ll all be bald, sir.”
“We’ll see about that. Now, get back to your station, and hope that I don’t put you in the ring with Commander Conway for this.”
“I would relish that chance, sir.”
Lt. Hartley rushed into Sickbay, to find Browning and Peterman circled around the center biobed.
“Release some of the pressure on the bone restrictor fields, Dr. Delgano,” Browning said, as she swung the diagnostic array into place over Mirk’s twitching body.
“What the hell happened to him?” Hartley asked.
“J’hana,” Browning muttered, glaring at Peterman briefly as she and Dr. Delgano went to work on the Maloxian.
“Is he concious?”
Browning nodded. “For the next few moments. But I have to put him under to begin repairing his lungs.”
Hartley looked down into Mirk’s wobbling eyes. “Mirk…can you hear me?”
Mirk gazed up into the bright track lighting surrounding the medtable. “Megan?”
“Yep. I came as soon as I heard. Amara will be here soon. She’s trying to get through the lunch rush.”
“You can tell her I’ll be fine. The Directors are watching over me.”
“Right now Dr. Browning’s watching over you,” Browning said, yanking a long string of licorice out of her labcoat and chewing on it. “Now lie still while I set your clavicle.”
“You want me to beat J’hana up for you?” Hartley asked, amused.
“I wouldn’t advise it,” Mirk said weakly as Browning set his bones with one sickening snap after another. “That woman’s one big blue muscle.”
“Okay,” Browning said, pressing a hypospray up against Mirk’s neck. “I’m putting him under.” She glanced up at Hartley as Dr. Delgano set about repairing the Maloxian’s lungs. “So what’s this I hear about Lt. Gellar seeing other people?”
“We’re both seeing other people,” Hartley said defensively. “If it’s any business of yours.”
“Relax. I was just curious.”
“I thought you and Gellar were getting along better,” Peterman said.
Hartley shrugged. “We’re taking a break from each other. I see no reason to be tied down.”
Browning nodded agreement, pressing a dermal regenerator into Mirk’s bruised shoulder. “I completely agree with you there, Megan.”
“Of course, I still date him from time to time. It would be pretty pathetic if I broke it off altogether. Then I’d miss all the…hmm…fun.”
“All right,” Browning grunted, stabbing Mirk with another hypospray. “We’re getting ready to operate. You guys should probably go.”
“Okay,” Peterman said. “Keep us posted.” The Counselor ushered Hartley out of Sickbay. “I have a whole new plan to help Mirk, Lieutenant, and I think you’ll fit into it nicely.”
“It better not involve more injuries!” Browning called as Peterman and Hartley left Sickbay.
Commander Conway grimaced as the information rushed by on the command chair’s arm display. “Captain to the bridge.”
Baxter rushed out of his readyroom, tossing a hot, wet towel to a passing Ensign. “You interrupted my hot towel time, Conway. This better be damn good.”
“How’s this for good,” Conway muttered, moving aside as Baxter strode toward the front of the bridge. “Larkin, put our new friend on the viewscreen.”
A roiling red cloud filled the screen, billowing and surging with electricity like a nasty storm on Earth’s horizon. But red.
Baxter glanced down at Larkin. “Is that thing as big as it looks?”
“The disturbance is several hundred thousand kilometers wide,” Lt. Commander Larkin replied from ops.
“It gets worse,” Conway muttered.
“Can you elaborate on that?” Baxter asked, turning back toward Conway.
Tilleran spoke up from her station. “Do the words ‘localized subspace plasma disturbance’ ring any bells?”
Conway was in no mood to be round-about. “It’s another Bermuda Expanse, sir, but red.”
Baxter looked back at the roiling entity. “ANOTHER one?”
“Or something distinctly similar,” Tilleran said. “It’s filled with plasma phenomena similar to both the Bermuda Expanse and the Badlands.”
“But it’s red,” Conway added.
Before Baxter could ask the question he knew was on everyone’s minds, Tilleran answered it for him.
“We have no way of knowing if it has the same ability that the Bermuda Expanse has.”
“It may lead to other quadrants, or other universes, or nowhere,” Conway said, elaborating on Tilleran’s statement.
Baxter backed into the command chair. “Well, I’m in no mood to find out. When did that thing form?”
“Just a few minutes ago, right in front of us,” Conway replied. “Ford here had to swerve around it at maximum warp just to avoid plowing through it.”
“It can’t be a simple coincidence,” Baxter muttered. “I’ll bet all my latinum that this has something to do with the Critics, the Starshine Kids, and Irma.”
“Especially since red is their signature color,” said Ford.
“Good point.” Baxter tapped a button on the arm of the command chair. “Bridge to Sickbay. Dr. Browning, what’s Mirk’s status?”
“He’s patched up, for the most part. But he still needs a couple of days of recovery time.”
“Drats,” Baxter muttered. “So much for him shedding some light on this.”
“Sir,” J’hana called out from tactical. “A ship is emerging from the….”
“Redlands?” Conway offered.
“Good enough,” Baxter said, drawing a deep breath.
The oblong red ship, pointed and vicious-looking, like a Klingon d’ktang knife, emerged from the cloud as if it were only moments before simply part of the billowing mess.
Ford shrank behind the helm. “Here comes trouble.”
“Hail them,” Baxter ordered.
“We are getting a response.”
And Baxter was faced with a sight that disturbed him as much as when he’d seen it the first time. A grinning Vulcan.
“So glad you remember me, Captain. I see your stay with us was a memorable one,” Sesil replied from the viewscreen.
“Memorable? You shaved me bald you Vulcan bastard!”
“Now now, let’s not get personal here. We each know what’s at stake.” The bulbous woman that had plagued Baxter’s nightmares ever since both of his encounters with her on twentieth century Earth stepped into view.
“Hello…Irma,” Baxter snapped.
“Give me Mirk,” she said simply.
“You can’t have him.”
Irma looked to Sesil, nodded.
“I wished we could have seen eye-to-eye, Captain,” Sesil said, feigning sadness.
“Was that a joke about the Directors?” Conway prodded quietly from beside Baxter.
“Beats me.” Baxter looked to the viewscreen. “Listen, Sesil, this appears to be a problem between the Directors and the Critics. How about we let them sort it out?”
“Incoming!” shouted J’hana.
Suddenly the Explorer rocked as Sesil and Irma disappeared, grinning like cheshire cats, and the swerving Starshine vessel blasted them.
“Charge the rapid-fire phaser banks and return fire,” Conway barked, grasping the seat of his chair in order to stay steady.
Explorer opened fire from both barrels on the underside of her saucer, blasting against the Starshine vessel’s shields.
“Mr. Ford, evasive maneuvers,” Baxter called. “As evasive as you can manage, preferably.”
Baxter struggled over to the science console as the Explorer was pounded. “Well, Tilleran?”
Tilleran tapped frantically at her console. “Good news and bad news, sir.”
“The good news is, they aren’t using weapon-deflective shielding anymore. The bad news is, our weapons aren’t making a dent regardless.”
“So the graviton beam is out.”
“Any OTHER ideas?” Baxter looked from Tilleran to J’hana.
“Quantum torpedoes would seem to be in order,” J’hana said.
“By all means,” Baxter said, gripping Tilleran’s station. “Lock and load, J’hana!”
J’hana grimaced at her readouts. “They suffered minor damage. Meanwhile, we have nearly lost shields altogether, and taken hull damage on several quarters.”
“Super.” Baxter struggled over to Operations. “Commander Larkin. Brighten my day.”
Larkin struggled with her panel. “I do not see how, sir. We are facing a ship with superior weaponry, maneuverability, and shields. In this case, surrender or retreat would normally be in order.”
“And the Starshine vessel is most certainly capable of outrunning us,” J’hana added.
“Thanks for that little contribution, J’hana,” Baxter muttered. “Well, we’re certainly not surrendering Mr. Mirk.”
Suddenly the aft turbolift door wooshed open to admit Mirk. He strolled purposefully toward the command center. “I’m going over there, Captain.”
“Mirk,” Baxter said, blinking. “You seem to have made a miraculous recovery.”
“Thank the Directors, Captain. If you recall, Irma can withstand repeated phaser fire. You wouldn’t expect any less toughness from me, would you?”
“So the Directors healed you?” Commander Conway asked, as the Explorer rocked again.
“In their own way,” Mirk said. “The important thing is, I’m all better, and I have to meet Irma’s challenge. Before they blow this ship to bits.”
“I don’t seem to have much of a choice, now do I?” Baxter asked, steadying himself against Mission Ops/Environment, just as panels exploded all over that station.
“Engineering to the Bridge,” Richards suddenly called over the comm system. “They’re ripping through our ablative armor like it’s swiss cheese. We’ll lose hull integrity in a matter of minutes!”
“Weren’t you supposed to be figuring out a way to counteract the Starshine cult’s weapons, Richards?” Baxter asked wryly.
“I was just getting to it, sir.”
“I’m sure. Bridge out.” Baxter turned to J’hana. “Contact Sesil. Tell him the fight is on, on our ship and our terms.”
“We’re not exactly in a position to negotiate, sir.”
“Just do it for Pete’s sake!”
J’hana’s hands raced over her panel. “They’ve acknowledged.” The Andorian’s brow creased. “And asked if they should bring refreshments?”
Baxter shrugged. “Why not? Tell them to bring something along the lines of beer and nachos. We’ll be ready in one hour.”
Baxter clapped Mirk on the shoulders. “Well, Mr. Mirk. It’s time to see if all your training paid off.”
Mirk glared over at J’hana. “Most of my training was just learning how to take a beating.”
“I’m sure you’ll put that to good use,” Conway muttered sarcastically.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing having this on the Explorer?” Peterman asked, dragging Charlie behind Baxter, as a throng of Explorer crew and bald cult-members alike lined up outside Holodeck Three.
“At least we have some control over the environment,” Baxter called over his shoulder. He then faced forward, shouldering through the crowd. “Excuse me, Captain coming through. Make a hole!”
J’hana was waiting by the holodeck door with a padd. “The Holodeck is rapidy filling up, sir. Soon we will be beyond design limitations.”
“Then have the fight simulcast on Holodeck Two,” Baxter said.
“Where are we actually holding this little competition?” Peterman asked with interest.
“Madison Square Garden,” was J’hana’s curt reply. “By the way, I assume I have incurred a week’s dogsitting detail?”
“Darn right you did,” Peterman said. “And I should also have you suspended for almost killing Mirk.”
Baxter took Peterman’s arm and led her into the holodeck. “Come on, Kelly. Be a sport. She did it with the best of intentions.”
“That is correct,” J’hana said. “Enjoy the show.”
Baxter made his way down the aisle toward the reserve spaces surrounding the wrestling ring. He’d almost gotten to his seat when a hand tapped his shoulder.
“T-shirt, Captain?” Lt. Ford asked, shoving a cheap white cotton-flexion mix shirt, bearing the inscription “I SAW MIRK AND IRMA FACE OFF AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY SHIRT.”
“Mr. Ford, this is absoutely unacceptable,” Baxter said firmly. “How much?”
“Two strips of latinum.”
“Like I said, absolutely unacceptable.” Baxter grabbed the shirt. “But I’m taking it anyway. Captain’s prerogative.”
“Counselor?” Ford asked, raising an eyebrow. “I’m sure I can find an extra tight one for you.”
Baxter wrapped an arm around Peterman and led her to the front of the ring. “Come on, Kelly.” In the midst of the second aisle, he saw Elli, Mirk’s Bolian assistant bartender, passing out drinks and snacks. “How about getting us something to drink. I’m going to see if I can give Mirk some last-minute coaching.”
“Diet?” Peterman asked playfully.
“You must be kidding.” Baxter made his way over to Mirk’s corner and hopped up on the ring. Dr. Browning was there, rubbing his shoulders and shaking him. For his part, Mirk looked extremely troubled.
“Come on, boy. Give me a mean look. Show me you’ve got the eye of the tiger!” Browning exclaimed.
“Any luck getting Mirk up to par, Doctor?” Baxter asked, leaning over the rope that surrounded the ring.
“His injuries healed up incredibly fast,” Browning replied, shoving a hypospray into Mirk’s arm. “I’m just giving him a painkiller to help with the beating he’ll be taking soon. And some extra endorphins and a dash of adrenalin for good measure.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Mirk muttered.
“Looks to me like he’s just got a bit of the old ‘pre-fight- for-the-universe jitters,” Baxter said easily, patting Mirk on the back. “Don’t worry, little buddy. You just go out there and do your best. No one will think less of you when–I mean if you fail.”
Mirk rolled his eyes.
Just then, Lt. Commander Larkin hopped effortlessly over the ropes and joined Mirk and Browning in the ring. “I have downloaded the data you required, Mr. Mirk.”
“What data is that?” Baxter asked.
Larkin cocked her head. “I have assimilated all possible knowledge on fighting methods, and the strange powers of Mirk and Irma in particular. In addition to that, I have detailed records from my last encounter with Irma.”
“If I remember right, she busted you up pretty badly down on that twentieth century Earth battleship,” Baxter said. “It took almost an entire phaser power cell to take her down.”
“As I said, I have detailed records of the encounter. I do believe they will be of good use. I also dowloaded Rocky I through VII and many data recordings of something called ‘Wrestlemania.’”
“Sounds like you’re practicing to be a coach,” Browning said with a grin.
“Indeed.” Larkin ripped her uniform jacket open, and, sure enough, she wore a shirt embossed with the huge word “COACH.” She bent down and picked up a whistle and a white ballcap. She slung the whistle around her neck and placed the ballcap on backwards. “Although I am Chief of Operations, my current position is as Mirk’s ‘coach.’”
“You couldn’t ask for a better helper,” Baxter said, gesturing to Browning. “We’d better get to our seats. The fun’s about to start.” Baxter reached out to shake Mirk’s hand. “Good luck, Mr. Mirk.”
Mirk shook Baxter’s hand limply. “Right, Captain.”
When Baxter and Browning reached the front row, they found Peterman and Charlie, each settled in their seats. Commander Conway was right beside Charlie.
“Can you please have her move this freaking mutt?” Conway asked angrily, thumbing at Charlie. “His tail is in my way.”
“You can always move,” Baxter said.
“There are no more seats!”
Baxter shrugged. “Oh well.”
“You could always trade seats with me.”
Baxter arched an eyebrow at Conway. “Sit next to the dog and let you sit beside my wife? Yeah, right.”
“I’ll do your Starfleet reports for a month.”
Baxter shifted uncomfortably. “Well, that is quite a deal. Okay.”
Peterman glared at Baxter as he switched seats with Conway. Apparently she didn’t think it was such a great deal.
Just as Baxter got comfortable in his seat, someone passed by him, and hot coffee dripped on his head.
“Watch it!” he exclaimed.
“Sorry, sir,” Ford said meekly, handing an odd hat-shaped object to Conway, who eagerly placed the device on his head, inserting the dangling straw into his mouth and sucking. Coffee drained down from two side-mounted cups.
“Commander?” Baxter asked quizzically.
“It’s a hat designed to hold your drink for you,” Conway explained. “Isn’t it great?”
“I suppose.” Baxter glanced over to see who was sitting to his right. Maybe he’d have someone decent to talk to on that side, since Charlie was no conversationalist.
“Greetings, Captain,” Sesil said jovially. “Have a jelly bean.”
Baxter stared down at the small container and held up a hand in refusal. No wonder Conway begged to have his seat changed. Between a hyperactive Golden Retriever and a laughing Vulcan. It was enough to drive a guy insane.
“So…who are you betting on?” Sesil asked gently.
The captain grimaced. “My money’s on the Maloxian. Who else would I be betting on?”
“Well, the Commander over there is betting on our Irma.”
Baxter leaned forward and glanced at Conway, outraged. “Commander!”
Conway shrugged. “Hey, if the Federation ends up being taken over by a cult because of this, I at least want some latinum out of it.”
Baxter just shook his head and watched as Irma mounted the ring and took her place. She looked even bigger than he remembered. Of course. She’d probably been bulking up.
“Poor Mirk,” he heard Browning mumble.
A balding, grey-haired man took the center of the ring. “Welcome to Madison Square Garden. Tonight we have a fight that I’m told will reveal the fate of the universe. In this corner,” the referee gestured at Mirk, “weighing a little under one hundred eighty pounds, Mirk the Mauler!”
“Oh, brother.” Baxter covered his face.
“And, in this corner, weighing in at nearly three hundred pounds, Irma the Eradicator!”
“Yay!” Sesil clapped gaily, hooting and whistling.
“Please,” Baxter muttered.
“All right, you two,” the referee said, drawing Mirk and Irma toward the front of the ring, “I want a good, clean fight. You all know the rules. No funny business.”
Irma tossed her robe aside to reveal a green polyester pantsuit with flare pants and wide lapels. Odd choice for battle regalia, but then again, Irma was an odd woman.
“Let’s get busy,” Irma snorted, squatting before Mirk in readiness.
“All right!” the referree shouted, clanging a bell. “Fight!”
Irma charged Mirk, who nimbly sidestepped, using Irma’s own momentum to slam her into one of the ring’s posts.
“Crafty,” Irma said, turning around and rubbing the blood from her nose. “But that won’t win this match.”
Irma concentrated on Mirk, bore steel eyes deep into his soul, then knocked him across the ring with a dismissive gesture.
Mirk picked himself up, shook his head. Her powers were certainly on par with his.
He lept in the air, glowing, on a trajectory headed right for the ceiling.
“Come on down, you little bastard!” Irma bellowed.
“Like David and Goliath,” Browning murmurred.
“Who?” Peterman asked.
And Mirk dove toward Irma, driving a fist right into her massive somach. She dropped to her knees, reaching meaty arms up to latch on to him, slamming him to the mat and rolling over on top of him.
“Get out from under there!” Baxter called, spitting hot nacho cheese as he talked. “Flip her, Mirk!”
With great strain, Mirk managed to use his powers to levitate Irma off him; but the normally crisp, light ringing sound of his powers was replaced by a pained chugging. This was taking all his power, apparently.
“Go…to…hell,” he shouted, kicking both feet into the air and kicking Irma in circles as if he were a seal with a massive ball.
Irma finally steadied herself and grabbed Mirk’s ankles, lifting him off the mat so both were floating in midair. The behomoth woman then glowed red with energy and surged forward, ramming Mirk into the nearest bank of seats, sending audience members fleeing.
Mirk crawled underneath a few rows of seats.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Irma cried out, when suddenly Mirk emerged from behind a row of seats and took flight again, spiraling through the air, right into Irma’s stomach.
With an “oof!” Irma fell back, and Mirk drove an elbow into her chin, breaking her jaw with a disgusting crack.
“That huht,” Irma muttered, hurling Mirk over her shoulder and back into the ring. She climbed after him, wriggling between the ropes. She was almost through when Mirk grabbed her mat of frizzled hair and yanked, pulling her the rest of the way through.
“A ‘bodyslam’ is in order now, Mr. Mirk!” Lt. Commander Larkin called out.
Mirk obediantly rose in the air, then came down with all the strength he had, eyes screwed shut.
But he only slammed painfully on the mat.
“Huh?” Mirk opened his eyes. No Irma. Then the mat dissolved underneath him and he fell through.
<Sorry if the place is a mess. We just moved in.> The flaming red lips pursed in annoyance at Mirk and Irma as they floated there in the red flowing abyss of the Redlands.
“Well excuse the hell out of me,” Irma barked, “But I was just about to finish this scrawny excuse for an oppoent off!”
<You are loud.>
Another pair of lips appeared opposite Irma.
Another pair of lips.
<The Maloxian nearly defeated you.>
“Just give me a chance!” Irma cried, swimming toward Mirk. “I’ll finish him off! I promise!”
<Your promise isn’t a guarantee, Irma. You need to be…refitted.>
<A long tongue snaked out from between one pair of lips, slithered around Irma’s massive waist, and reeled her in.>
“What? No! Nooooooooo!”
The mouth swallowed Irma whole, then belched with satisfaction.
Mirk scratched his head. “What in the hell?”
<This match is forfeit! Be GONE!> the mouth shouted, its breath reeking with the stench of Irma.
And Mirk was back on the holodeck, amidst pandemonium.
“This is not fair!” Sesil said, shaking his betting stub at the referree. “We came to see an entire fight!”
“It’s a forfeit,” the old man shrugged. “I suggest you go home before I call security.”
“Security!” Sesil seethed. “I rule a massive cult that could easily obliterate this ship! And you think YOU can kick me out?”
“No, but I can.” A blue hand latched onto Sesil’s wrist; J’hana slung him over her shoulder.
“What should I do with him, sir?” J’hana asked, turning to Baxter, with the screaming Vulcan pounding on her back.
“We’d better return him to his ship, along with the rest of these whackos,” Baxter said, scraping nacho bits out of his beard and wiping his fingers on a napkin. That cheese was messy.
“You are going to feel my wrath!” Sesil cried, as J’hana carted him off. Security officers were already rounding up the cult members.
“I’m sure,” Baxter said. “Give my regards to the lips.”
“I would have preferred a ‘flying sledgehammer,’” J’hana muttered as she dragged Sesil away.
Mirk climbed out of the ring and made his way over to Baxter. “Captain, over here.”
“Mirk,” Baxter said, turning. “What happened?”
“The lips called a forfeit.”
“Any idea why?”
Mirk shrugged. “They didn’t like the looks of the offense, I guess.”
Amara appeared out of the crowd and wrapped her arms around the Maloxian. “Well, I for one am glad she’s gone.”
“Oh, I have a feeling she’ll be back,” Mirk said. “In fact, I bet she’ll be madder than before. It was a mission before. Next time I think it may just be personal.”
“I think you’re up to it, Mirk,” Baxter said. “You really held your own out there. Good job.”
Mirk nodded, as he, Baxter, and the rest of the senior staff made their way out of the rapidly emptying auditorium. “It felt good. Humans really did this back in the twentieth century?”
Baxter nodded. “All the time.”
“I can see the attraction.”
Stardate 53620.8. I’ve reported to Starfleet what little I had to tell about the Starshine Cult’s encore appearance, and this new “Redlands” as Conway dubbed it. They seemed intrigued by the idea that Irma could return to cause such a ruckus, and passed the news on to the Temporal Commission. I have a feeling I’m going to get an “I told you so” from them.
“Well, what did they say?” Peterman asked, as Baxter collapsed next to her in his customary booth in the Constellation Café.
Baxter sighed. “‘I told you so.’”
At the other side of the booth, Conway chuckled. “Figures.”
“They also revoked our time travel license again. This time we have to go back to Starfleet Command to take a test before we can get it back.”
“I’m sure that won’t be hard,” Browning muttered. “We’ve done it enough.”
“Three times is not that much,” Baxter countered. “Ever heard of a guy named James Kirk?”
“Anyway, who cares. We never use that license anyway.”
“It’s not our fault Irma came back,” Peterman said consolingly. “Who was to know that the Critics would pick her to fight for supremacy against Mirk?”
“It sure shocked me.” Mirk stepped up to the booth, refilling Conway’s coffee and Peterman’s pink squirrel. Baxter ordered a grapefruit juice.
“Do you have any idea why either of you were picked?” Peterman asked. “It seems pretty random, to me.”
“That’s not altogether true,” Baxter said. “Their names kind of sound the same.”
“There’s a reason the Directors do everything, Counselor,” Mirk said. “We’re probably just not bright enough to figure it out.”
“Speak for yourself,” Conway muttered.
“Mirkie, honey,” Amara said, stepping up behind Mirk. “Can you go back to the stockroom and get me some more salt? Lt. Unlathi used up three shakers on their pita sandwhich.”
“Sure,” Mirk said, giving Amara a quick peck on the cheek. “Just get the captain his grapefruit juice.”
Baxter grinned weakly. “No salt, please.”
“‘Wasted away again in Unlathiville, trying to find my lost shaker of salt,’” Mirk sang to himself as he rooted through the boxes in the stockroom, remembering the catchy ballad from a singer Conway had turned him on to. Buffy, or something.
<The salt’s over there,> a voice said helpfully from behind him.
Mirk turned to his left, and, sure enough, below a case of yammuck sauce lie a canister of the retchid white Earth substance that everyone on Explorer, especially Unlathi, was so crazy about.
Grabbing the salt shaker, Mirk turned to go, looking over his shoulder at the large eyeball that sat serenely amidst the kegs of Trill Slug Beer and cartons of tulaberries.
“Thanks a lot, eternal one.”
Mirk moved toward the door, then spun around. “Director!”
<What’s better tasting? Pickled pigs feet or Targ paws?> The two jars of yellow liquid and white, soft flesh floated serenely in front of the eye, as if they were being balanced.
“Uh, Targ paws are tangier,” Mirk admitted. “Um, what brings you here.”
<Oh, I just thought I’d stop by, see how you were doing. Heard you ran into Irma.>
<How’d that go? Did you two fight it out?> The eyeball contracted quizzically.
“Sort of. It ended up being a stalemate, though.”
<I see. Well, no hurry. We live forever, you know.>
“Can I do something for you, Director?” Mirk asked warily.
<No, not at all.> The eyeball shook resolutely. <Well, a tiny thing.>
The eyeball slowly shrunk backward, as space ripped open with a bright yawn behind it. <Be ready for her next time.>
“Okay. Can I ask you something?”
The eyeball stopped drifting back. <Sure.>
“Why me and Irma? What makes us so special that we were given the power to decide the fate of the universe?”
<Who said anything about the fate of the universe?>
“I just figured…”
The eyeball rocked with guffaws. <Fate of the universe! That’s rich, Mirk. Really rich.>
Mirk suddenly felt as if he’d been jerked around. “Then why were we given powers, and why are we fighting?”
<It’s nothing you need to worry about right now. You’ve got quite a bit of time to prepare for her. And we really stress that you prepare. She’s a nasty one. Hard to believe the Critics found her on Earth. In the twentieth century no less.>
“But why us!” Mirk demanded. This doubletalk was really starting to get to him.
<Your names are similar. Isn’t that good enough?>
Mirk’s shoulders fell. “No. I guess I was looking for a little…deeper meaning.”
<Tsk tsk. What are we to do with you, Mirk?>
“I don’t know. Explain it all?” Mirk asked wryly.
<Not yet. Hold tight, little guy.>
Then the eyeball disappeared.
“But when will you explain what this is all about?” Mirk cried.
<Just wait,> the voice echoed through the shelves. And Mirk found himself alone with the salt and targ paws.
“Where’s that salt?” Amara asked, poking her head through the door to the storeroom. “Lt. Unlathi is getting cranky, and the last thing we want on our hands is a cranky, three-meter, tentacled, hermaphroditic creature!”
Mirk studied the supplies on the shelves. “The term is ‘being,’” Mirk corrected. “Amara, do you think it’s too late for me to convert over to Bajoran orthodox?”
Amara’s eyes widened. “Pardon?”
“Never mind. It was just a thought.”
Just when things were going absolutely swimmingly, the Explorer gets slingshotted about a month off-course, and they run into a few people of a whole…other generation. Be ready for the clash of the generations, vexed time..I mean next time!