Star Traks: The Vexed Generation was created by Anthony Butler. It's based on Alan Decker's Star Traks, which in turn is based on Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry. Paramount and Viacom, their dark masters, own everything, including my best pair of socks. Copyright 1999. All rights, such as they are, are reserved. If you're offended by mildly disturbing language, situations, and the utter disregard of some of Star Trek's greatest premises, better hit the "Back" button on your browser right now. If not, welcome aboard!

Author: Anthony Butler
Copyright: 1999

Captain’s Log,

Stardate 53995.4. We’ve returned to the Sol System for our annual 5,000 light year check-up, dilithium crystal realignment, and mission debriefing. When you’re out at the periphery of known space like we have been for two years, it really helps bring things back into focus getting back to good old Earth.

“So what’s the schedule?” Captain Baxter asked as he picked through his plate of scrambled eggs in the Captain’s Mess.

Kelly Peterman nibbled her bran muffin and studied a padd. “Arrival at McKinley station within the hour, a short ceremony in the shuttlebay this afternoon, followed by three days at Starfleet Command in debriefing. Oh, and Janice’s baby shower Thursday. I thought we’d invite her to our house for dinner and suprise her. The command crew’s already been filled in.”

Baxter grinned, wiping his mouth. “Our house. That sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it?”

“Seeing that we use it about two weeks out of the year, I guess so.” Peterman watched Saturn swing lazily by the viewport. “Anyway, I’ll be taking care of all the preparations.”

“So, other than that, we’ve pretty much got an open schedule, right?” Plans of taking a hoverskiff island-hopping in the Caribbean immediately began to filter through Baxter’s mind.

“Yes,” Peterman said, reaching across the table and grabbing Baxter’s hands. “I’ve got it all planned.”

“You do?”

“Mmm hmm. How does two weeks with my parents sound?”

Baxter dropped his fork. “Ummm…”

“Come on, Andy! It’ll be fun!”

“Kelly, I don’t know. Two weeks.”

“We spent six months with your parents, and I was able to stand it. And besides, my parents are nice. They like you.”

“My parents like you!” Baxter protested.

“Your dad, maybe. But your mom and I…I don’t know, Andy. She’s got some kind of complex. I’d swear she feels like I’ve replaced her as the mother.”

“That’s just plain sick, Kelly.”

Peterman slid her padd across to Baxter. “Anyway, here’s our itenerary. I think we’ll have a lot of fun.”

Baxter scrolled down the padd. “Mmm.”

“Think of it this way: They’re here on Earth and so are we. The least we could do is stop by. Do you want to hurt their feelings?”

“Kelly, it’s just that–just–well, your parents are a little weird.”

“They are NOT weird!” Peterman snatched back the padd. “So they have a TINY obsession with animals.”

“Tiny? Are you kidding me?”

“Enough. Stop disparaging my parents.”

“But Kelly…”

“We’re going to my parents’ place for our leave, and that’s final.”

Baxter grimaced. Better cancel the reservation on that hoverskiff.

“And twist, twist, twist!”

Dr. Janice Browning sighed as she grunted her way through “Sweating and Birthing to the Oldies.” Why did Kelly insist on Richard Simmons putting together this exercise/lamaz program for expectant mommies? What’s worse, she hated twentieth century music.

“Wait a minute Mr. Postman!” boomed over Browning’s speakers.


Mercifully, someone was at the door. Browning switched off the viewer and grabbed a towel. “Hold on just a sec.”

She activated the door control and blinked in surprise. “Christopher, what are you doing here?”

Lt. Commander Richards poked his head in. “Thought I’d come check on you.”

“Oh, Christopher…”

Richards surveyed the room. “Well, I just wanted to make sure everything was okay.”

“I really appreciate it. I was just finishing up my Babycise.”

“The Richard Simmons thing,” Richards said. “How nice of him to put that together for you.”

Browning collapsed onto the couch. “Nice indeed.”

“So. How’s the nausea?”

“Bearable. Come sit down.”

Richards sat beside Browning on the couch, careful to keep his distance. He folded his arms. Then crossed his legs. “Well. What are your plans for leave?”

Browning shifted on the couch. “Uh, well, I guess I didn’t have any plans per se. What about you?”

“A nice vacation, actually. Kris is coming to meet Larkin and I and we’re taking a tour of the Horsehead Nebula. Maybe stop at the Antares system and check out the night club scene.”

“Oh. That sounds just lovely.”

“I can’t wait. It’s been forever since I saw Kris.”

“I thought you took the Escort to go see her last month?”

“Yeah, but that was only for a few days. That’s not enough time for a real visit. Janice, you know, this may just be love.”

Browning grinned. “I’m so happy for you!” Inside, she was in knots. How could she have been so wrong? Ever since she’d eaten the changeling and become pregnant, he’d hovered around her like HE was the expectant mommy. It felt to her like he was trying to rekindle their relationship. And she felt herself slipping slowly back into it, like stepping back into a lukewarm tub after being out for a while.

Now this.

“Well, I hope you have fun.” Browning glanced at a chronometer. “Would you look at that. We’ll be docking soon. I’ve got to get ready for the ceremony.”

“Yeah, I’m sure Andy has a corny speech all ready.” Richards stood and turned for the door. “I’d better get into my dress uniform. I guess I’ll see you there.”

“Yeah. See you there.”

Richards stepped out the door. As soon as it closed, a pillow slammed into it.

“I am not a yo-yo, Christopher!” Browning cried and stomped into the bathroom.

Lt. Commander Kristen Larkin watched Lt. Hartley lower herself to the main deck of engineering. “Warp engines deactivated and locked down.”

Larkin nodded. “Excellent. Just in time for us to dock at McKinley Station.”

“Yeah,” Hartley nodded. “Just in time for the pack of morons over there to come aboard and pick them apart.”

“That seems an irrational response to our scheduled maintenance overhaul, Lieutenant.”

“I’m just very protective of these engines, Larkin. They were mine for six months, and I feel like they still are.”

“Curious, the human attachment to such things as engines and stellar vehicles.”

“What, don’t you feel like the Explorer is home too?” asked Hartley, as the two proceeded down the corridor.

“To an extent, I suppose. It is where I have been located for the majority of the last two years.”

“But home means more than that, Kristen. It’s the place you never want to leave. The place you wish you were when you’re not there.”

“I am incapable of such feelings, as you are aware. If I were possessed of such sentimentality, however, I believe I would quote a wise human who once said ‘home is wherever you happen to be.’”

Hartley ducked into the turbolift. “That doesn’t sound so wise to me. Deck Ten.”

The two sat in silence as the turbolift shot upward.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do for the next two weeks,” Hartley finally said.

“I will be spending time with Kris Larkin.”

“Aww, that’s sweet.”

“I do not believe so.”

“Is it just me, Larkin, or did you get a hell of a lot more cynical after you died?”

“To my knowledge, the neural pathways in my new brain are identical to the ones from my old brain.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

More silence. The turbolift doors slid open and the pair stepped out into the corridor.

“Where are you off to?” asked Hartley.

“To prepare for the docking ceremony, I suppose,” said Larkin. “And to get ready for my vacation. And you?”

“I guess I’ll go get cleaned up and get into my dress uniform.”

“Then I shall see you at the ceremony.” Larkin headed off down the corridor and Hartley continued in the opposite direction, right past Mirk’s cafe.

She stopped in her tracks and backpedaled. Something through the frosted door windows caught her attention.

The Constellation Cafe was closed until the Explorer resumed her mission, so the lounge was empty. But Mirk was in there, watching the pylons of McKinley station wrap around Explorer as she slid gracefully into the spider-like housing.

Hartley stepped through the doors. “Mirk?”

The Lobstraxian turned. “Oh, hi Megan. Can I get you something?”

“Nah. I was just wondering what you were doing in here.”

“Nothing, I guess. Which is about what I’ve been doing for the last three months.”

“You’re still all broken up about losing your powers, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s not exactly like I lost my favorite pair of shoes, or something. It sucks, Megan. I don’t feel like I’m me anymore.”

“Have you been talking to Counselor Peterman?”

“She’s no help. She keeps wanting me to get out more.”

Hartley grinned. “Well, now’s your chance. It’s leave time!”

“But where will I go?” asked Mirk. “This is the Alpha Quadrant. The only thing I know here is the Explorer.”

“Well, we’ll have to do something to change that. How about we go check out Earth? The last time you were there it was in an alternate universe, after all.”

“Good point.” Mirk rubbed his chin. “You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“I’ve got nothing else to do.”

“Okay. I’ll tell Amara. I bet she’ll be ecstatic.”

“Bajor!” Mirk exclaimed. “But why?”

“I’m at a point in my life where I need focus, Mirk,” Amara said, turning from her prayer mandela and facing Mirk. “I need to find myself.”

“You’re not the one without powers.”

“Oh, here we go about the powers again. Why is it always ‘my powers’ this and ‘my powers’ that, huh? I have a life too!”

“I know that, blurpkin, I really do,” Mirk said. “But I don’t understand how you’re going to spend any time there. It’ll take you so long to get to Bajor that you’ll only be able to spend like two days there before coming back.”

“That’s why I’m not coming back.”

“WHAT?” Mirk exclaimed. “How long have you been thinking about this?”

“For a while,” said Amara. “The prophets are calling to me, Mirk. I have to answer them.”

“Well, I’m not going to stop you. Go answer the prophets. See if I care.”

“Don’t feel so hurt, Mirkie,” Amara said, running a hand through Mirk’s hair. “You knew from the beginning that if I had to choose between you and the prophets that the prophets would win.”

“I still don’t think that’s fair.”

“Look, just because your gods abandoned you doesn’t mean I have to abandon mine.”

“Oh, that was a low blow.”

“Goodbye, Mirk. I’ve got a transport to catch.”

Mirk watched Amara leave. “Fine. Who needs you!”

“That bitch!” Hartley exclaimed as crewpersons milled about the Main Shuttlebay. People scurried about making preparations. Hartley didn’t see what all the fuss was about. So they’d been combing deep space for two years. What was the big deal?

“Don’t be mad at her,” Mirk replied. “I guess if the Directors called me, I’d leave for them too.”

“But you wouldn’t just drop the people you care about.”

“I guess not.” Mirk straightened his bronze dinner jacket and looked around. “So, when does Admiral McGrath get here?”

Hartley shrugged. “Any minute, supposedly.”

“Well look who it is,” Lt. Ford said, hurrying over and wrapping an arm around Hartley. “It’s the transporter goddess!”

“You’ll get that arm off me or I’ll transport you to a world of pain, Mister,” Hartley snapped.

“Right, well…” Ford looked around. “Are you guys excited about leave?”

“Ecstatic,” Mirk muttered.

“Where’s your buddy Brian?” Hartley asked.

“Working the crowd, working the crowd,” Ford grinned.

“Good for him.”

“I think he’s gotten a lot out of breaking up with you. I told him you need a different kind of man. Someone with more than just a pretty face and a high-powered hand phaser. Someone with wits, reflexes, and a solid head on his shoulders.”

Hartley yawned. “Hmmm. Someone like you, perhaps?”


“Excuse me.” Hartley disappeared into the milling crowd.

“She’s just too overcome with attraction for me,” Ford smiled. “That’s what it is.”

“I’m sure,” said Mirk idly. Moments later, Ford began to shimmer blue.

“What the–” Ford held up his hands as he started to dematerialize.

Hartley reappeared, waving and blowing kisses. “See you in two weeks, Zack!”

“Where did you transport him?” Mirk asked.

“Antarctica. I figured he might want to get a head start on his leave.”

“You’re a kind person, Megan.”

“I try to be.”

Suddenly the doors to the shuttlebay opened and Captain Baxter shuffled in, followed by the senior staff.

“Hey, everybody,” Baxter said, hurrying up onto the makeshift stage. “I’ll make this quick, because I know you all want to get going. Admiral McGrath will be here shortly to make his inspection and then we’ll all be free to go. I just want to say one thing.” Baxter pulled out a padd and mulled over it. “It’s been a great ride for two years. We’ve seen good times and bad times, been turned into a fairytale castle, fought cybernetic dogs, been shaved and infected and infested, cleansed, and mind- warped, but through it all we’ve hung together. And I’d just like to say I hope we continue to hang together for many years to come. Thank you.”

“That was incredibly short,” Conway remarked to Larkin.

“It is my understanding that Counselor Peterman had him cut out five pages of monologue,” replied Larkin.

“She may have just saved his life.”


Baxter was off near the runabout Algonquin chatting with Dean Wilcox about marital life when McGrath’s shuttle arrived.

“That’s right, Dean. That’s a great point.” Baxter laughed, patting Dean on the back, and moved to the front of the receiving line with Peterman at his side.

“What did Dean say?” Peterman asked.

Baxter shrugged. “I have no idea. Something about soup.”

Yeoman Huffmann blew on the bosun’s whistle as the shuttlecraft’s door slid open.

“Jeeze I hate my job. Just once I’d love to do something besides blow this damned whistle,” Huffmann muttered under her breath.

Admiral McGrath stepped down, followed by the ever-present Beth Monroe, now, apparently, a Lieutenant.

“Admiral,” Baxter said, extending his hand and smiling warmly.

“Yeah,” McGrath pushed past. “Let’s get this overwith.”

“He’s not his usual exuberent self,” Peterman noted.

Baxter nodded, jogging to catch up with McGrath. “You can say that again. Hey, Admiral! Where’s the ten-piece band? Jugglers?”

McGrath glanced over his shoulder at Baxter. “No pomp today, son. No pomp at all.” And he strode ahead, Monroe behind working furiously on her padd.

“What’s with him today,” Baxter whispered to Monroe.

“It’s nothing,” Monroe said, distracted. “He’s been very busy. In meetings almost constantly for the last week.”

“What about?”


“Oh.” Baxter thought a moment. “Wait. Budget? I thought the Federation didn’t have a budget.”

“It doesn’t have currency, but there is a budget. How do you think we have starships? Do you think they just appear?”

Baxter felt a little defensive at that. “Well, no. Do you think Explorer’s…budget…has been cut?”

“I hardly think so. The Explorer project is a very high priority for Starfleet.”

Baxter straightened his tunic. “Okay, then. I feel better already.”

McGrath, Monroe, Baxter, and the senior staff emptied out of the turbolift. McGrath circled the bridge then collapsed tiredly into the command chair. He stared at the viewscreen. It showed a sliver of the rotating Earth and the starlit space beyond.

“Look at those stars,” he murmurred.

Baxter joined him in the left-hand chair. “Yep, they’re certainly beautiful today.”

“They’re beautiful every day,” McGrath said, turning to Baxter. He grasped Baxter’s cheeks, scrunching his face until the captian’s lips squeezed together like a fish-mouth. “Don’t burn the day. Remember, the best is yet to come.”

“Is he okay?” Peterman asked, nudging Monroe.

Monroe shook her head. “He had a spritzer before leaving. He’s just stressed.”

The others milled about the bridge mumbling quietly to themselves. It was obvious they were in a hurry to get on with their debriefings.

After about a minute, McGrath finally released Baxter’s cheeks.

Baxter rubbed his mouth. “Admiral, if there’s anything you’d–”

“Just leave me here.”

“On the bridge?”

“Yes. I’ll find my way back to Earth.”

Baxter looked to Monroe. She just nodded. “I’ll stay with him. Can I use your readyroom? I have some paperwork to catch up on.”

“Uh…sure.” Baxter motioned the senior staff into the turbolift. “Then I’ll go ahead and dismiss the crew.”

“Just make sure they’ve made their appointments to debrief at Starfleet Command,” said Monroe, ducking into the readyroom.

“Will do.” Baxter and the others filed into the lift. “Main Shuttlebay,” said Baxter.

“What, may I ask, was all that about,” roiled Conway.

Baxter rocked on his heels. “I don’t want to know.”


Baxter spun idly in his chair at the head of the massive black laquer conference table, ringed with Admirals. “It was just a tiny civil war. We were able to stop it with just a few quantum torpedoes.”

“Reckless disregard for the Prime Directive,” a female Admiral muttered to herself.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing,” the Admiral, named Reno, said. “Let’s get to this other matter.” She examined a padd. “You used the Escort to rescue your former Chief Engineer from the Klingons on Stardate 53429. It was badly damaged. Many Federation resources were lost.”

“Ah, it was a little fuel and duranium.” Baxter straigtened out his chair. “Hold on one second–how did you know about that?”

“We know everything, Captain,” said Reno.

“Now, Captain,” said Admiral Jacobs, a salt-and-pepper- haired man in his late fifties. “Could you please explain how the Captain’s Yacht was destroyed at the beginning of this year?”

“It’s all there in my report. The Starshine Kids blew us out of the sky. Counselor Peterman and I barely survived the crash.”

“And you and the Counselor were converted over to their way of thinking?”

“By gas, yes sir.”

“And this prompted several…” the graying Admiral squinted. “Musical numbers?”

“We couldn’t help it.”

“But your ship’s science and medical personnel were able to undo the damage caused by this gas?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Please make a note to transfer all of that data to Starfleet Command’s databanks.”

Baxter leaned forward in his chair. “Can I ask why?”

“No, you may not.”

“You’re planning something, aren’t you?”

“Captain Baxter,” interjected Admiral Oorse, an orange- skinned alien with long, white hair and a fu man chu beard. “You say the so-called Directors that have protected this quadrant from outright infestation by this Starshine cult are now gone?”

“Apparently they went to the Delta Quadrant, yes.”

He squinted over his red-smoked glasses at a padd. “And Waystation’s sensors report to us that the Bermuda Expanse phenomenon has once again disappeared.”

“For the moment, yes.”

“And,” said Reno, “another phenomenon similar to the Bermuda Expanse has now appeared just on the other side of Alpha Quadrant.” She examined her padd. “You’ve named it…the Redlands?”

“Apt enough, since the thing is red.”

“From there,” said Jacobs, “the Starshine Kids may well be preparing to stage an attack.”

“Who knows?”

“The sovereignty of our borders is at stake, then, would you say?” said Oorse.

“I wouldn’t go that far. We haven’t heard a peep out of the Starshine Kids for months.”

“That may change,” said Admiral Reno. “At any rate, I think that will conclude this debriefing. If we have any other questions, where can we reach you?”

Baxter leaned back and sighed. “The land that time forgot.”


Counselor Peterman heard the thrum of a shuttlecraft engine above the normal tittering and catterwalling she was accustomed to at home. She leaned up in her chaise lounge and removed her sunglasses.

The shuttlecraft Pizarro softly touched down on the open, dry ground next to Peterman. Actually, open ground effectively surrounded Peterman for kilometers all around.

Her parents’ ranch was at the center of the Australian outback, amidst thousands of acres of open country. No building could be seen in any direction by the naked eye. It was one of the few places on Earth where no artificial light ruined the night sky.

Now, though, it was afternoon, and Peterman was trying to get in one full day of sunning before she herself would have to stand before a coucil of Admirals to be debriefed at Starfleet Command.

The hatch wheezed open and Captain Baxter wearily stepped out. He squinted in the blaring sun and surveyed the rock- peppered landscape. Cloudless blue sky and tumbleweeds ruled a land of browns and ochre, a place of pure and unfettered nature.

In other words, absolute hell. Baxter kissed Peterman on the cheek and squatted beside her. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself. How was Starfleet?”

“They were pretty defensive. They blamed a lot of silly stuff on me. They’re so particular about how you deal with civil war and how many planets you mistakenly terraform.”

“Do you think you’ll be reprimanded?”

“Probably. At the very least I can picture a ‘Responsible Captain’s’ workshop before we’re allowed to leave Earth.”

“That should be nice.”

Baxter blinked at Peterman. “What do you mean? You don’t think I’m a responsible Captain?”

“I’m not even going to bring up the Yirafan incident.”

Baxter folded his arms. “Just great. You know, it’d be nice to return from a conference with a bunch of combative Admirals to a wife who at the very least doesn’t agree with them!”

“I never said I agreed with them. But you could use some…more training.”

“More training!” Baxter exclaimed. “I’ve been a captain for three years! What more training do I need?”

“For starters, you could–” Peterman was interrupted by the chirp of her communicator–an old-fashioned flip-style.

“Daddy to Kelly.”

She flipped open the top and hit a control. “Here, Daddy.”

“Honeybuns, the herd has gone off course.”

“How far off course?”

“Oh, round about forty meters.”

“That’s nothing to worry about, is it?”

“Normally, no. But they turned in your direction.”


Baxter looked up. “Do you hear thunder?”

Peterman grabbed Baxter’s arm. “We’ve got to get to the shuttlecraft!”

Before Baxter could protest, Peterman yanked his arm. His head whipped around to notice a trail of billowing dust coming toward them from over a nearby bluff. In front of the dust was a string of stomping hoofs and snorting snouts.

“Oh,” Baxter said, as Peterman ducked into the shuttlecraft. He followed after, only to trip on the non-skid surface of the entranceway and fall backward, arms spiralling. “Kelly!”

Peterman stuck her head out of the hatch. “Andy!”

Baxter wiped sand from his eyes. The ground was rumbling under him. He glanced up. “Oh, hell.”

The captain scrambled to his feet just as hordes of gazelle, deer, wildebeasts, sloths, elephants, hippos, zebras, giraffes, horses, emus, ostriches, apes, and other assorted animals stormed by. Occasionally one slammed into him, sending him spinning like a top.

“Andy!” Peterman called over the din, poking her head out of the shuttlecraft hatch. “You’ve got to mount one of them!”

“Excuse me? Mount?”

“Hop on top!”

“Oh, right.” Baxter’s hand madly shot out for a handhold. He came up with the leg of a stampeding giraffe. Arms and legs intertwined around the giraffe’s limbs, Baxter flailed, and the giraffe tumbled back on top of him. It made a horrible wail, like the sound of a baby crying and beat its hoofs against him. Baxter shimmied up the creature’s back and wrapped his arms around its long neck. Finally, the giraffe righted itself and charged off, Baxter along for the ride.

“Andy!” Peterman’s voice grew faint in the distance as the captain was carried away.

“I was wondering when you’d get here!” came a voice from behind.

Baxter glanced over his shoulder to see a man on a horse charge toward him, coming along side the stomping beast Baxter’d hitched.

“Oh, hi Ron,” Baxter said. “Nice stampede you’ve got here.”

“Just walking the animals, kiddo.”

“Well this giraffe is just great.”

Ron Peterman smiled. “Glad you approve. I think he likes you too.”

“One question, Ron. How the hell do I get off?”

“Other than jump, I haven’t a clue.”

“I see. Where does this stampede end?”

“Couple kilometers thataway.”

“I see. How’s Sheila?”

“She’s wonderful. Misses you a lot, boy. You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say she wants you for herself.”

“That’s lovely.”

“Peterman to Baxter,” twirped Baxter’s comm badge.

Thank God. Baxter wriggled to tap his comm badge. “Honey?”

“I’m in the Pizzaro. Hold on tight, baby, I’m on my way.”

“Bless you, Kelly.” That’s when the giraffe bucked and Baxter went flying.

“I reccomend the Parisian countryside,” Richards said, sipping coffee and studying the roaming groups of people that occupied the crowded dining center at Starfleet Command. That was where he and Larkin decided to wile away the hours before Kris Larkin’s freighter arrived at Earth. “It’s very romantic.”

“Why in the hell would I want romantic,” Hartley exclaimed. “I’m just trying to show Mirk around Earth. I figured since you were actually born here you might have a better clue of what to show him.”

“A favorite among humans of Mirk’s age is the area known as Mexico,” Lt. Commander Larkin said. “It is replete with drinking establishments.”

“Mirk’s not much of a drinker,” Hartley mused. “Maybe I’ll just show him the ship-building complex outside San Francisco.”

“What about the French Quarter, in Louisiana?” Richards offered. “There are supposed to be some great restaurants there. And lots of preserved Earth history too.”

“That sounds a bit more like what I’m looking for,” Hartley mused. “That’s what we’ll do.”

Just then, Mirk arrived with a tray. “Deli sandwiches for everyone. Who wants turkey? Who wants ham?”

“Mirk, we’re off the Explorer now,” said Richards. “You don’t have to be the waiter.”

Mirk shrugged. “It just feels right.”

Dr. Browning shoved another truffle in her mouth. “These appetizers are great, guys!”

“We’re glad you like them,” Admiral Reno said, folding her hands atop the conference table. “Now, the matter of the changeling inside you.”

“Which one?”

Admiral Jacobs’ eyes widened.

“Just kidding!” Browning slapped the conference table. “You’ve got to laugh, right?”

“I suppose,” said Reno. “Now, the changeling.”

“What do you want to know about him?”

“We’re concerned about the method in which you…ingested him. Is there a chance this founder has taken over your body?”

“I’ll say. He’s given me cramps like you wouldn’t–”

“That’s not exactly what we meant,” said Jacobs nervously. The other admirals grunted in assent. “We mean, do you think the changeling has control of your mind? Can it get vital Federation secrets?”

“What kind of vital Federation secrets would he get, exactly?” Browning asked. “I’m a doctor. I know advanced surgical techniques, and not all that many of those. You think the Dominion’s going to come back and perform liposuction on us?”

“That tone is not necessary, Doctor,” said Admiral Oorse. “We are simply trying to get as much information on the matter as possible.”

“Sorry. Anyway, no, I’m not aware of any mind control.”

“Good. When is the baby due?” asked Reno.

“In another two months, give or take a week.”

“Who do you intend to deliver the baby?”

“Dr. Delgano, our ear, nose, throat, and antenna guy. He’s quite good.”

“That he may be, but we’d just as soon you gave birth to your child here on Earth.”

“Why, exactly?”

“So the event can be studied by the best in Federation scientists, of course,” said Oorse.

“I guess I wouldn’t mind taking some time off and coming here for that. You’re not going to put him through any weird phaser tests are anything?”

Oorse scratched something off his padd. “Certainly not.”

“Now,” said Reno, examining another padd. “About this pizza oven. We’re told it consumes a vast portion of the ship’s power supply…”

Dinner around the Peterman table was loud as ever. The table was huge, garnished with ornate and creative dishes, all made naturally.

Animals scampered through the house, fighting over scraps and romping over furniture. The Peterman home was more a zoo than a place to live. But what would you expect from a ranch right in the middle of a wildlife reserve?

Peterman Place was the biggest wildlife refuge in the whole sector. Was it any wonder that Counselor Peterman grew up with an unhealthy attachment to anything on four legs?

“Andy had quite a ride on Boopsie today,” Ron spoke up, eagerly digging into Sheila’s famous pineapple casserole.

“Oh, Boopsie’s just the best,” said Sheila Peterman, shoving a bowl of homemade hummus in front of Baxter. “Eat the hummus, Andy. It’s fantastic.”

“That’s okay…I’m allergic to…whatever is in hummus.”

“You are not!” Peterman said. “Eat the hummus, honey.”

“But I don’t want to eat the hummus,” said Baxter under his breath.

Baxter felt the sharp and familiar scrape of Peterman’s outback hiking boot against his shin and he quickly spooned some hummus onto his plate.

“So, what kind of things will you be doing when you go back out on the Explorer?” asked Jason, Peterman’s youngest brother. He was sixteen, about the age when one would consider going into Starfleet, and he was the only Peterman child that still lived at home. He’d been asking Baxter all about his professional career all through the doctor’s visit and skin regeneration therapy that took place after his giraffe ride, right through his dose of painkillers and straight into dinner and vodka time.

“Well,” Baxter said, gingerly tasting the hummus. “I guess we’ll continue mapping Beta Quadrant. There’s still a lot of it out there.”

“No specific mission plans?” asked Ron.

“Not yet.”

“Isn’t that a bit odd?” Sheila prodded.

“Well, not odd, really,” Baxter said.

“Actually, it’s very unusual,” said Peterman, nibbling a stuffed pita-pocket. “Captains are normally given their mission orders right after debriefing, right honey?”

“Uh, not always.”

“Hmmm,” Sheila said, returning to her pita pocket. Her and Ron didn’t show nearly as much interest in Starfleet as Jason, nor did any of the rest of the Peterman family. All they knew they heard through the news net, and that they didn’t keep up with for very long. Out in the middle of nowhere as they were, the Petermans didn’t seem to care much about what went on around planet Earth, much less the rest of the galaxy.

“I’d like to go into Starfleet,” remarked Jason.

Peterman pointed her fork at Jason. “Only when you’re old enough. And then you’ll be a counselor, just like your big sis, right?”

“Ha. Andy told me only women were counselors.”

CRACK! went the boot against Baxter’s shin.

“I did NOT say that,” Baxter rasped, leaning toward Jason. “So much for your ride on the Pizzaro, kiddo.”

“Damn,” Jason muttered as he shoved his fork around in his pineapple casserole.

“There are male counselors, Jason. But not just anyone can be a counselor. It’s a very demanding job. I’m one of only a handful of Lieutenant Commanders aboard the Explorer.”

“Mmffmfmfmfff honorary rank glpppmff,” Baxter mumurred through his hummus.

“What was that?”

“I SAID,” Baxter said, turning to Peterman. “Counselors advance to ranks as high as commander only because captains reward them for long service. It’s not like you’re leading away teams, sweetie.”

Peterman folded her arms. “I could if I wanted to.”


“HAH?!?” Peterman turned toward Baxter, shaking her fork. Hummus hit Baxter in the face. “What do you mean by ‘hah,’ Mister?”

“I mean, the last time you went anywhere with an away team, you nearly shot someone, and don’t call me ‘mister!’”

“So that’s why you’ve been keeping me cooped up in that office all the time!”

“You’re cooped up in that office because that’s your job. If you don’t like it, request a transfer. Maybe the captain will approve you being put off his ship!”

“Why don’t I become a captain! I hear the job doesn’t require much work, and it certainly doesn’t require much of a brain!”

“Oh, that’s it!” Baxter said, and scooted out of his chair, turning on a heel and stomping toward the door, nearly stepping on an alligator and a sleeping llama.

“Wait, don’t go!” cried Sheila. “I’ve got crisp rice treats in the fridge!”

“Let him go, mom,” Peterman mumbled. “We do this all the time. It’s healthy.”

“Healthy?” asked Ron. “You two are arguing like a couple of rutting elks!”

Peterman rolled her eyes as she heard the thrum of the Pizzaro’s engines warming up and the ZIP! of its thrusters sending it blasting off through the night. “How mature, Andy.”

“Maybe the fresh air will do him some good,” Sheila said, then turned to her youngest. “Jason, stop playing with your hummus!”

Dr. Browning swirled her spoon around in her deep chocolate sundae and contemplated the stars outside the quiet, vacant Constellation Cafe.

She’d come up here after hours of debriefing with Starfleet. She’d answered quite a few questions. Some about her time on Waystation, but mostly she was being probed about her impending child. There were medical examinations, studies. Academy grad students doing research. It was a bit embarassing, and she was glad it was over.

Now she sat, alone, in the Constellation Cafe with the lights dim. This room usually bustled, but now it was quieter than a church. Not that Browning minded. She liked being alone.

Sure, Chris was off with Larkin and Kris, enjoying Earth before heading to the Antares system. Hartley and Mirk were hanging out somewhere in the bayou, no doubt eating crawdads and dirty rice and slinging beads all over the place. Baxter and Peterman were spending “quality time” down on Peterman’s family ranch in the outback. She had no idea where J’hana and Tilleran were.

And then there she was, Janice Browning, CMO of the Explorer, former restauranteur, soon to be mommy. Eating a chocolate sundae on a starship whose current complement was about twenty gangly technicians.

It didn’t get better than that.


Browning jumped in her seat, nearly dropped her spoon. She glanced over her shoulder. “Andy. What are you doing here? And what’s with the head bandage?”

“Giraffe accident,” Baxter said by way of explanation, heading behind the bar. “I had to get away from Kelly and I thought I’d drop by and see the ship. Then I figured I’d stop in here and get a lattee. Preferably with brandy.”

“Wait, back up. Get away from Kelly?”

Baxter shrugged guiltily, as he pulled his lattee out from the replicator beneath Mirk’s bar. He walked over to Browning’s table and sat his drink down. Then he collapsed into the seat across from Browning and put his feet up on another chair. “We had a little…skirmish…down at the ranch.”

“Oh, Andy. You two are so silly sometimes.”

“Because we argue?” Baxter blew on his coffee.

“Because you argue about silly things.”

“Silly? We were arguing about our jobs. She keeps complaining that she doesn’t get enough responsiblity. That I’m keeping her down somehow because I’m trying to, in my own stupid way, protect her.”


“Well, she’s right, and that’s what’s so damn annoying about it.”

“Sheesh, Andy.”

“I just need some time to cool off.”

“And you came here?”

“Where else would I go?”

“Uh, I don’t know. Your home on Earth?”

“Nah. Frankly, I feel more at home here. Speaking of which, why aren’t you down there partying with the rest of the crew?”

“The hustle and bustle’s not for me. Especially when I’m…you know…” Browning rubbed her tummy. “With changeling.”

“Yeah, cramps?”

“Yep. So…how was your debriefing?”

“About as I expected. Lots of talk about all the stuff I screwed up. Suspiciously little about what I did right. You?”

“Lots about the changeling. I guess they’re all curious, since it’s the first human/changeling birth ever.”

“The first? Really?”

“Is that sarcasm?”

Baxter turned to look out the viewport. “I don’t know.”

“Goodness, Andy, you do get weird when you’re fighting with Kelly, don’t you.”

“Well, I love her. I hate it when this happens.”

“When what happens, exactly?”

Baxter carried his latte over to the viewport and stared out. Between the rafters of McKinley station, Australia was just now spinning by. “When I realize I love her so much every little thing she does makes me want to strangle her.”

“Aww, that’s sweet.”

Baxter glanced back. “Is that sarcasm?”

“You bet.”

Mirk and Hartley staggered into the dim hotel suite that overlooked Canal Street, singing “The Battle of New Orleans” loud and off-key.

“I didn’t realize it was Tuesday,” Mirk said drunkenly, collapsing onto the bed, weighed down by a ton of beads.

“It’s not. It’s Saturday.” Hartley stared at all her fingers to make sure they were still there. One. Two. Three. Seven. Yep, all there.

“So why is it Mardi Gras?” Mirk rolled over onto his back. “Doesn’t ‘Mardi’ mean Tuesday?”

Hartley looked out the slatted window at the commotion outside. “I thought so. Maybe not. Maybe they do this all the time.”

“Impossible. Another night of this would kill me.”

Hartley giggled. “Are you sure?”

“Well, there’s no real evidence to back that up.”

“We can always try it out. What else is there to do?”

“Okay, but can I sleep for fourteen hours first?”

“Certainly.” Hartley flopped onto the bed. “Uh-oh. One bed, Mirk. You get the floor.”

“Haha.” Mirk rolled back onto his stomach and buried his head in his pillow.

Hartley shoved. “Mirk, come on now. I’m not sleeping in the same bed with you. Especially while drunk.”

Mirk jerked his head around. “And why not?”

“It’s just not the way humans…or any other civilized species, do things. Besides, it’s the gentlemanly thing to let the woman have the bed.”

“Right. Gentlemanly.” Mirk turned over again and stared up at the ceiling. “Hmm. Good point. You know what?”

Hartley slumped back onto the bed. “What?”

“I think I’ll just sleep in the bathtub.”


And with a rumble Mirk was off to the bathroom.



“Isn’t that the sound a puking human makes?”

Hartley grabbed a trash can. “Nope. More like this…”


“You know, I’ve got golf in an hour,” Richards said boredly, staring at the wall chronometer.

“Be patient with us, Mr. Richards. We’re just trying to be thorough.”

“We’ve been at this for two hours. What else is there for me to report?”

Admiral Reno studied one of her padds. “You’ve given us the raw data on the Explorer’s engineering performance, and on your participation in various away teams and missions. But what we don’t have is some of the more personal information.”

“Personal? What do you mean?”

“What is the nature of your relationship with Dr. Janice Browning?”

“And how is this your business?”

“Dr. Browning is harboring the fetus of one of Earth’s most hated enemies,” roared Jacobs. “That makes it our business.”

“Hey, buddy. Give that fetus half a chance, okay?”

Reno put a hand on Jacobs arm. “Not now, Freddie.”


“Mr. Richards,” Reno said. “We’re trying to use the utmost sensitivity in this matter. However, we still must know what your current relationship with Dr. Browning is. How often do you talk? How much do you see her?”

“We’re good friends. I see her every day. I talk to her all the time. What else is there?”

“Let’s shift gears for the moment,” said Reno, grabbing another padd. “Yet another misappropriation of the USS Escort. You went to rescue Kris Larkin, the very freighter captain you’re here visiting with now, am I correct?”

“Yeah, I guess. She was in trouble. We had a duty to save her.”

“Yet that was not part of the Explorer’s current mission with the Jernasi.”

“Not directly, but our re-discovery of the planet Crysta led to the Federation’s decision to drop Jernas. Isn’t that in the report?”

“That it is. What we’re curious about,” said Jacobs, “is the reckless misuse of Starfleet property.”

“Misuse? That’s a bit strong, isn’t it?”

“Mr. Richards, the Explorer was entered, without Starfleet’s permission, into the ‘hot starship’ contest of 2375!”

“She would have one, too, if it weren’t for that Yridian frigate!”

“Commander, that is not the point!” Jacobs shot out of his chair. “Your captain has participated in one blatant misuse of Starfleet resources after the other! The very fact that you would defend him only leads me to believe that you are somehow sharing in the wealth!”

“Wealth? What wealth?”

“Freddie!” said Reno sharply. She turned to Richards. “There will be no further questions.”

Richards backed out of his chair uneasily. “Thanks. I guess.”

“Lt. Commander Larkin, please report to Briefing Room Five,” said the nasal voice of the computer, droning through the lobby at Federation Headquarters. Larkin straightened the folds in her plaid green-on-yellow golf slacks and stood. “Thank you for that entertaining conversation, Admiral Sulu. I will never look at transwarp dynamics the same again.”

On her way to the briefing room, Larkin came across Lt. Commander Richards. “Hello, father. How was your debriefing?”

“Confusing.” Richards scratched his head. “Be careful in there, Kristen.”

“The attitude of these admirals is combative, then?”

“Not exactly. They just seemed like they were looking for something in particular.”

“I will endeavor to find out what,” Larkin said, and continued down the corridor.

“I never had a doubt, Kristen!” Richards called after her.

After getting a can of Sluggo Cola from the dispenser in the lobby, Richards headed to the sitting area to wait for Larkin. He hoped they wouldn’t keep her long. Kris had reserved the greens in Compton Hills, CA for approximately 10 o’clock exactly and he knew she hated to be kept waiting.

Richards was surprised to see Larkin approach him moments later, just in time to cut off some old Admiral who’d begun spouting off some technobabble about transwarp dynamics.

“Larkin?” asked Richards. “Done already?”

“Affirmative,” Larkin said, continuing to the exit. “We may now proceed to the golf course.”

Richards hurried after. “May I ask what you discussed with them in there?”

“I discussed nothing. They performed a core memory dump from my primary memory cell.”

“They copied your memories?”

“Yes. For detailed study, apparently.”

“Just like that.”

“As I said.”

Richards and Larkin strolled along the sunny walk across Starfleet Headquarters’ beautifully landscaped grounds, on their way to the transporter center. “So you have no idea if they were targetting specific information?”

“That is correct.”

“Is there any way to tell if they were looking for something specific?”

“Affirmative. We would need to dissect my primary data nodule and search the buffer for a trace of errant protocols left over from their standalone system. It would be a quite complicated process.”

Richards snapped his fingers. “Of course!” He grabbed Larkin’s arm and charged ahead.

“May I ask why we’re doing this?”

“Because something smells rotten.”

Larkin sniffed the air. “I do not detect–”

“Don’t worry about it. Just come on!”


“Wheeeeeee!” Lt. Ariel Tilleran exclaimed, swinging her head back as her catamaran thundered across the ocean. “Faster, Holly, faster!”

Holly Wilcox adjusted the billowing sail. “I think that’s as fast as she’ll go, Lieutenant.”

“Darn.” Tilleran craned her neck toward the front of the boat. “Having fun, Dean?”

“Fwwmp…” Dean said, swallowing water. He was perched on the bow of the left hull of the twin-hulled boat, tied down tightly by Holly. “Yup…fllllp! Dean….shhhlllp…loves!”

“That a boy, Dean!” Holly said excitedly.


“I thought I turned that thing off,” Tilleran muttered, sliding under the yardarm and reaching for her pouch. “Darn thing.” She yanked out her communicator. “Tilleran here.”

“Tilleran. Get up to the Explorer, quick. I need some help with Larkin’s brain.” It was Richards.

“Chris, I’m in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”

“Tilleran, I think Starfleet is up to no good. Remember when they sent us to the Delta Quadrant just to get rid of the Borg and tried to kill us by replacing our bodies with cloned doubles, and then tried to crash us into the moon?”


“Well now they’re trying something else, I know it.”

Tilleran sighed. “Fine, fine. I’m coming already.”

Larkin was up on a biobed in Sickbay, her midsection compartment wide open, her innards spread all about her.

“You are aware we’re on vacation right now, aren’t you, Commander?” Tilleran asked as she stepped through the opening Sickbay doors.

“Imminently,” Richards mumbled. “Take a look at this.”

Tilleran examined the main Sickbay screen. “Hmm. Looks like an errant strand of bioneural data.”

“From the gelpack they plugged into Kristen.”

“And you let them do that willingly?” Tilleran said, looking to Larkin.

Larkin glanced down at her innards then back at Tilleran. “Affirmative. It did not seem like I had a choice.”

“Anyway,” Richards said. “Just look at these readings. The search string priority for their data dump of Larkin’s core included words like ‘misappropriate’ and ‘steal’ and ‘embezzle.’ And ‘pizza,’ for some odd reason.”

Tilleran squinted at the patch of data characters on the screen. “There’s another bit of data in here.”

“You can read bioneural code?”

“Call it a hobby.”

Richards huffed impatiently. “Well?”

“‘Baxter,’” Tilleran said, and gasped. “Oh, no.”

“They’re trying to incriminate Andy in something!” Richards pounded the biobed, causing Larkin’s parts to jiggle precariously. “Damn it. We’ve got to find him!”

Just then, the doors to Sickbay opened and Dr. Browning waddled in, weighed down by a high mound of pasta doused in orange sauce. “Hello? Who’s in here?”

“Janice!” exclaimed Richards. “What are you doing here?”

“Eating. You?”

“Dissecting Larkin.”


Tilleran crinkled her nose as Browning placed her plate on a counter. “What are you eating?”



Richards, Larkin, and Tilleran stared at Browning.

“With Thousand Island dressing, okay!”

“It begins,” said Tilleran solemnly.

“Look,” said Browning. “It’s just a little snack. Nothing that strange.”

“I’d love a taste,” said Richards. “But right now, we’ve got to contact the captain.”

“He’s aboard,” said Browning.

“What do you mean? Why isn’t he down in Australia with Kelly?”

“They had a bit of a falling out,” Browning explained. She gestured to Larkin’s innards. “Now explain all this to me.”

Richards started to speak.

Browning held up a hand. “After I eat, dummy!”

“Richards to Baxter.”

Baxter rolled off his couch and slammed into the floor. “Yes, thank you. Please come again.” His blue-and-white Federation comforter flopped down on top of him.


Baxter emerged from the folds of the comforter and peered at the air suspiciously. “This isn’t the giraffe is it?”

“It’s Chris.”



Baxter sighed. “What.”

“I think Starfleet’s conspiring to do something incredibly nasty to us.”


“Just get to Sickbay and I’ll explain everything.”

Baxter grunted, planting his hands on the couch and yanking himself to his feet. “I’ll be right there.” That would be as good a time as any to go get therapy on his back. That Tellarite suede was great to sit on, hell to sleep on. Sure, he could have slept in his bed–it was empty, after all–but without Kelly it just didn’t feel right. Anyway, something deep in his genetic code told him the couch was where he belonged. He shrugged on most of his uniform and charged out the door.

Baxter folded his arms and leaned tiredly against the shiny Sickbay bulkhead. “Hold on a second. They think *I* embezzled from Starfleet?”

“Or at least something like that,” said Richards, pointing to the scrap of data on the screen. “They’re just searching for something to pin you on.”

“Pin on him, you mean,” interjected Tilleran.

“That’s not the point!”

Browning yawned. “I think you two are being paranoid.”

“Does anyone care what I think?” asked Larkin innocently.

“Sure we care,” Richards said. “You have an intricate brain with more computing power than most starships. What’s your analysis?”

“The bits of errant programming in my buffer are hardly solid evidence. The words may well have scrambled themselves into anagrams, or we may have taken them out of context. I suggest we wait until our pre-launch meeting to see what Starfleet has planned for us, and deal with the matter then.”

“You’re kidding,” Richards said, mouth agape. “You just want to get to our golfing appointment!”

“We are, in fact, fifteen minutes late. And my vital parts are splayed all over this biobed.”

“Larkin’s right,” Baxter said. “Let’s just let Starfleet come to us. I didn’t do anything wrong, we all know that.”

Tilleran cleared her throat. “Does the Kilnar Two explosion ring a bell?”

“That wasn’t my fault!” barked Baxter. “Let’s go back to our golf matches or whatever and enjoy the rest of our vacation. We’ll deal with Starfleet after shoreleave. That’s an order.”

“Well said, Captain,” said Dr. Browning, as Sickbay suddenly went dark.

“Wha?” Baxter called into the dark.

“Someone’s got their hand in my linguini!” Browning cried.

“Someone has spilled linguini on my nanocordical subprocessor!”

“Get that spoon out of my stomach!” cried Tilleran.

“Watch the tricorder!”

“Whoops. I just dumped a sample case over.”

“Is that squirming I hear?”

“We’d better get out of here.”

The group mumbled together as they organized their departure from Sickbay, as the pleasant tone of the computer voice came over the speakers:

“Attention. Main power has been deactivated. Life support will terminate in fifteen minutes. Please evacuate the ship.”

“What is this about?” Baxter asked.

“Beats me,” said Richards. “There were no power tests scheduled for today.”

Baxter slapped his comm badge as he and the others marched down the dark corridor. “Baxter to Starbase operations.”

“Operations. Dixon here. How may I help you?”

“Uh, Mr. Dixon, I’m the Captain of the Explorer, and I am aboard with some of my staff. Will you explain to me why all the power suddenly went out?”

“Sure. Starfleet’s ordered the Explorer’s power systems shut down.”

“Any idea why?”

“It says ‘conservation purposes’ on the work order.”

“I’ve never heard of anything so silly. Since when did we care about conserving power?”

“I don’t know. I just do my job, sir.”

“Okay, fine then, Mr. Dixon, would you please kindly transport me and my crew down to Starfleet Command?”

“Sure thing.”

Baxter emerged from the briefing room looking a tad ruffled. “They weren’t exactly forthcoming with answers. They said exactly what Dixon said. ‘Conservation purposes.’”

“That sounds fishy to me,” Richards said. “There’s no dilithium shortage, as far as I know.”

“Then why would they do a thing like that?” asked Browning.

“If I may draw your attention to the chronometer,” said Larkin, “you will notice that we are now a full hour late for our golfing appointment.”

“You’re right,” Richards said. “This can wait till after shore leave.”

“I’d like to get back to sailing, myself,” said Tilleran, shoving off the lobby’s plush couch. “Dean and Holly are probably halfway to Madagascar by now.”

Baxter collapsed next to Browning on the couch and watched Richards, Larkin, and Tilleran depart for the transporter room. “Well, I guess I’d better go make up to Kelly.”

“That would be a good idea,” Browning said.

“What about you? Where are you off to now that the Explorer’s off-limits?”

Browning shrugged. “I think I’ll do some baby shopping. Are we still having dinner Thursday?”

Ha. She doesn’t suspect a thing, thought Baxter. “We sure are. Make sure to bring a full stomach.”

“I’ll bring two.”

“Good enough.” Baxter headed wearily off to the transporter room. “Wish me luck.”

“Luck!” Browning’s face fell as Baxter disappeared. Baby shopping. Alone. Joy. Maybe she’d see what Commander Conway was up to.


The monk strode solemnly ahead of Browning, after blessing her and the bulge in her belly. She marveled at the bare ochreness of the walls and the vista of mountains that rolled by outside the hollow, glassless windows. The air was thin up here in the mountain retreat, the men ornamented with long beards, and the goats more than a little rude.

Browning and the monk came to the end of the corridor and a simple wooden door. The monk’s mouth opened for the first time since Browning had arrived. “He is within. Please, we beg you, do not anger him.” And, with that, he noiselessly disappeared.

With a noisy creak the door swung open and Browning peered in. “Commander Conway?”

His back was to her. He was seated on a pile of pillows, facing a large, oval window, at least two meters in diameter. He was dressed in simple tan robes. To his left sat a simple brass chalace of steaming coffee. Morning sun streamed in. Browning crept around to face Conway and knelt beside him. “Commander?” Then she noticed the object in his lap. “What are you reading?”

Conway didn’t look up from his book. He simply held up a hand. “Silence.”

Browning sat there for several moments enjoying the sunny mountain view outside. Finally, Conway placed a leather strap inside the book and closed it.

“Sorry. I was finishing a chapter. What can I do for you?” he said placidly.

“What are you reading?” Browning reached for the book.

Conway immediately pushed it away. “I am finally finishing Russia Still Bothers Me.”

“The Tom Clancy book?”


“I thought you finished that.”

“I thought I did too. But then I found the 10,000 page expanded edition.”

“I see.”

“It has taken much time to complete this book. But here, at this retreat, I can concentrate on such things without any distractions. I’ve finally achieved clarity.”

“The place certainly looks to be doing wonders for you.”

“That it is, my dear.” Conway reached for his chalace and sipped. “The monks have been quite good to me here. They find my quest…intruiging. Coffee?”

“No thanks.”

Conway smiled as he sipped gingerly at the coffee. “This is made with fresh beans, Janice.” Conway stared at the chalace meaningfully. “Fresh beans.”

“It smells great.”

“Each morning, the monks pick the beans and pour them into a large vat. Then they get in and grind them with their bare feet.”


Conway sat the chalace down. “Nothing quite matches the taste of a monk’s hard work and sweaty feet. Now, what can I do for you?”

“I just wanted to see what you were up to. If you’re not to busy, you’re welcomed to come baby shopping with me.”

Conway thought a moment. “Sure. Tsitsi, get my pants!” The book would still be there when he got back.

Baxter found Peterman in the barn. In a rather clipped way, Ron had indicated to him that she’d gone to milk some of the cattle and other milkbearing lifeforms in the ranch’s massive barn complex. No question whose side Daddy took, for certain.

Dressed in shorts and an apron, Peterman was hunched on a stool working the milk out of a particularly fiesty cow.

“Kelly,” Baxter said quietly.

“What.” Splish-splosh, splish-splosh, went the milk into the bucket.

“I’m back.”

“Oh.” Splish-splosh, splish-splosh.

“Are you still mad?”

“What do you think?” Splish-splosh, splish-splosh.

“You’re still mad.”

Peterman whirled on her stool, pointing a teet accusingly at Baxter. SPIRRT! Milk sprayed his face. “Don’t I have a right to be!”

Baxter wiped the milk off his face with his sleeve and kneeled beside Peterman. “Kelly–I only said what I said because I worry about you. I feel the need to protect you.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “I’m your husband.”

“Rrrrrarnnh,” mumbled the cow.

“No one asked you!” Baxter shouted back, and returned his focus to Peterman. “Kelly, I know you want more responsibility. But you have to realize I’m not eager to send you down into situations that might endager you. Conway, J’hana, Larkin. Sure. Madera, Sefelt, Montgomery, Bellows, Saral, Higgins, Sillllth, Degara, Gellar, Fharquar, De Boers, Logan, Lixifwarn- Smith, absolutely. But not you!” He traced his hand down her shoulder and clasped the hand that held the teet. He squeezed, ever so gently. “Not you, Kelly. I care too much.”

“MMMMMMMMuuuuuhnnnnnnn…” moaned the cow.

Baxter grinned. “See, Betsie here agrees with me.”

Peterman pouted. “That’s Cynthia.”

“Whatever.” Baxter worked the teet free of his and Peterman’s hands and turned her to face him, clasping her fingers. “I always thought Counselors were happy hanging around their offices. That’s why I felt comfortable dating one. That way I’d never have to make the kinds of decisions that might endager someone I love.”

Petersren rolled her eyes. “Well, I guess that’s understandable. But that doesn’t mean I don’t deserve a little more responsibility. At the very least, bridge command every now and then. AND away teams!”

“What about the ensign you shot.”

“That was purely accidential.”

Baxter sighed. “Okay, Kelly, anything. Just say you’re not mad at me anymore.”

“Finish up with that teet and we’ll see.”

Baxter could swear Cynthia was grinning suggestively at him. He went ahead and squeezed.

“Hole in one,” Kris Larkin said, adding Kristen Larkin’s score on the padd. “Not bad at all. You’ve gone two under par on just about every hole.”

“I have a very precise methodology,” Larkin explained, placing her club back into its bag.

“I noticed.”

Richards sighed from the pilot’s chair of their convertible hover cart. “Come on. Let’s get to the next hole already.”

“What? Jealous because you went ten over par?”

“Not jealous,” Richards mumbled as Kris took a seat beside him. Larkin slung her bag into the cart and hopped in back. Richards hit the thrusters and thrummed off to the next hole. “Just preoccupied.”

“About what?” asked Kris. “That silly Starfleet conspiracy thing?”

“Well, yeah.”

“I’m beginning to think Kristen was right. Chris, you are paranoid.”

“I am not paranoid. And Kristen never said that.”

“In fact, I said–” said Larkin.

“Look,” Richards said, glancing to Kris as the green scenery sped by. “The point is, I’m just a bit worried about my friend and my ship, okay? All I’m asking for is a little understanding.”

“Okay, okay,” Kris said, holding up her hands. “Forget I brought it up.”

Richards eased on the thrusters and brought the cart to a stop near the next hole. “Thank you, I will. Now let’s let Kristen go first this time, since she’s so freaking great.”

Larkin slid out of the cart and grabbed her bag. “I will take that as a compliment.”

“She’s actually starting to get used to us,” Kris whispered as Larkin placed her ball on the tee.

“If you mean getting used to the fact that you are both involved in an intimate relationship,” said Larkin as she teed up “I have indeed adjusted my protocols accordingly. The situation is, in so many words, not a problem for me.”

“Glad to hear it,” Kris said, and pulled Richards down into the floor of the hovercart.

“Woah!” Richards gasped.

Larkin glanced back at the sound and at the same time clobbered the ball, such that it rocketed off toward the clouds and disappeared in the light of the sun.

Kris leaned up. “Problems?”

“Affirmative. I cannot locate my ball on any sensory band.”

“You really nailed it, Kristen,” Richards commented, trying to straighten his clothing and climb up into the seat on the hovercart.

Kris pointed back and forth from her to Richards. “This…didn’t bother you, did it?”

“Certainly not.” Larkin grabbed another ball and placed it on the tee. “I am perzzzzzztfectly fine.”

“What’s that?” asked Richards.

Larkin cocked her head and emitted a soft buzz. “Zzzzzzz. I am fine.”

“You sure?” asked Kris.

“Pzzzzzitive,” said Larkin, as she clobbered the next ball.

“Hey, check this out!” Browning exclaimed, passing to the next aisle in the RepliCenter. Conway shuffled after her, sipping some coffee from the RepliCenter’s cappucino stand. “It’s the exact style of hoverstroller I was looking for. Replicator option 004098!”

Conway regarded the sharp, sleek blue flat-bottomed hoverstroller. “You don’t want that,” he said blandly.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t want it.”

“No, I do! I think it’s perfect. Where’s the nearest terminal?”

Conway scrubbed a hand over his face. “Janice, don’t get it.”

“Why not?”

“BECAUSE…” Conway sighed. “For all you know, someone may have already gotten you one.”

“You did!” Browning said, grinning widely.

“I didn’t say that. I just think you’d better wait a couple weeks before you get too much stuff.”

“Why? Is someone throwing me a shower?”


“Someone’s throwing me a shower!” Browning clapped her hands. “Yippee!”

“No one’s throwing anything!” Conway snapped. “Just get that thought out of your mind right now. Stop thinking that!”

“Oh, that’s so sweet. Who’s planning it? Kelly, I bet.”

“No no no!” Conway threw his coffee-less hand up in the air. “Stop guessing, stop trying to figure it out. That’s why they call it a SUPRISE!”

Browning nodded. “So when is it?”


That evening, Baxter emerged from the kitchen, hands engulfed in potholders, steaming plate before him. “Okay, everyone. Get ready for the best Kelvarkian chicken pot pie you’ve ever had!”

“What’s Kelvark like?” inquired Jason as he waited eagerly for his helping.

Baxter shrugged. “I have no idea. They’re on the other side of Alpha Quadrant, I think. Or maybe it’s Beta. Anyway, I got this out of a book.”

Sheila Peterman grabbed a heaping spoonful. “Well it smells great.”

“Yes it does,” said Peterman. Baxter plopped down next to her. “So do you,” she whispered.

Baxter giggled. “Thanks. It’s ‘Command’ by Snarvin.”

“Rarrr,” Peterman purred.

“Well, Andy,” Ron said, studying his meal before digging in. “I’m glad you and my girl worked things out. And you all must have gotten quite a bit of work done in the barn, too, what with you two emerging so hot and sweaty a couple hours ago, and all that squawking and roaring.”

“It was excruciating work,” said Baxter.

“Ahem.” Peterman’s boot traced Baxter’s shin.

“Excruciating but extremely enjoyable. I love a good…barn…”

“What did you do in there, anyway?” asked Sheila.

“Just a little organizing,” Peterman said. “Moving some equipment around. There’s still plenty to do tomorrow, though.”

“Yep,” Baxter said. “It’s in the middle-stage right now. The average passerby might think we just trashed the place. But we know where everything is.”

“Just make sure you put it all back together before you go back to that starship of yours,” said Ron.

“Sure will,” Baxter said. “First thing tomorrow morning.”

“So what are the plans for the rest of your leave?” asked Sheila.

Baxter looked at Peterman and grinned. “I think we’ll see what each day brings. Bigger and better things, I’m sure.”

Peterman giggled. “Whatever the case, it’ll be certain to involve more work in the barn.”

“Oh, definitely.”

Hartley and Mirk stumbled into the hotel room three days later with more beads and drunker than each previous night. New Orleans was full of dark streets to explore, each with more beads and more liqour than the next. Hartley had scrambled memories of a few establishments in which she and Mirk had spent some time listening to loud Andorian syntho-jazz and drinking something called ‘blazz,’ which still had Hartley’s mouth tasting like turpentine. And why did they call it ‘blazz’ anyway?

“Lookie!” Hartley cried, plopping down onto the bed. She gazed on the terminal by the bed. “I’ve got a message.”

Mirk hit the floor with a thud. “Okay. I’ll just stay here.”

Hartley tapped a control on her monitor. An image of Brian Gellar popped up on the screen. Behind him, in a lush, jungle setting, he could make out security officers Saral and Puckett, stripped to their t-shirts and slacks, circling each other like battling mugatu and wielding bat’leths.

“Hey Megan. Training camp is going great. Just wanted to drop you a line to let you know how I’m doing,” said Gellar.

“Whoopdidoo!” Hartley muttered. “Get on with it, Brian.”

“It’s only been a couple days, but I already miss talking to you.”


“Me and Rachel talk about you all the time.”

Hartley flopped right-side up on the bed. “Rachel? Puckett!”

“She’s great, Megan. And a great little fighter, too.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Give her hell, Rache!”

“Where is this leading?” Hartley muttered, scratching her head.

“Anyway, just calling to let you know how great things are here. And I hope they’re as good for you.”

Hartley heard the indicative “FOOOOSH!” of Mirk puking and rolled her eyes. “It’s always a party for me, Brian.”

“Gellar. You are up,” J’hana’s voice boomed in the background. “Your opponent is Lt. Unlathi. You will fight them with honor.”

“Oh, s***,” Gellar muttered. “Megan, she’s got me fighting the Velvattian. Hope I live to see you at Dr. Browning’s baby shower tomorrow. Gellar out!”

Mirk stumbled back into the dim room, swishing water around in his mouth. “Who was that?”

Hartley shut off the viewer. “Nobody.”

“Sounded like Gellar.”


Mirk plopped on the bed. “You can fool other people, Megan. Not your–BLAAAZZZZZ!–” he belched, “bartender.”

Hartley placed a hand on Mirk’s shoulder. “Thanks, Mirk. It was Brian, but I don’t want to talk about him right now. I appreciate it, though.”

“What are friends for?”

Hartley thought about it. She really didn’t know. She didn’t feel like she had any friends. Except Mirk. She never even really felt like she trusted Brian. But Mirk, on the other hand, she did trust. She couldn’t explain why.



“You gazed off into the distance there for a minute.”

“So I did.”

It was then that Hartley realized that her face was approximately six inches from Mirk’s.



“What are you doing?”

“Uh…” Hartley concentrated hard. She wasn’t sure. Then she licked her lips and leaned forward, then–

Four beams of light coalesced around the bed. The beams formed Starfleet officers. They wore mustard turtlenecks.

“Stop what you’re doing!” said the lead officer, a square- jawed Lieutenant Commander, about middle-aged.

“We weren’t doing anything!” protested Hartley.

“Quiet,” snapped square-jaw. “I’m not interested in your sick alien intercourse. I’m just under orders to bring you back to the captain.”

“What captain?” asked Hartley. “Baxter?”

“Ha,” chortled square-jaw. “Come on now.”

“Alien intercourse?” Mirk asked. “What’s so sick about that? I bet I have bigger gonads than you!”

“Don’t force me to prove you wrong here and now, pipsqueak,” barked square-jaw as he tapped his comm badge. “DiSalvo to transporter room. We have the packages. Energize.”

It didn’t take Hartley long to figure out that she was aboard a starship and not on some Earth installation. She was also sure it wasn’t the Explorer. Or any other ship she’d been on. The corridors had the rose-tone and spiffy new look of a newer ship. Probably Sovereign- or Steamrunner-class. Maybe Akira. These thoughts and questions about the reason she’d been dragged away from her vacation fumbled through Hartley’s mind as she and Mirk were marched into a turbolift. Better that than trying to evaluate just what the hell was about to happen with Mirk. Regardless, she still felt dizzy from the blazz.

“Bridge,” said DiSalvo. “And make it snappy.”

“Could you please tell us why we’re here?” asked Mirk. “We at least deserve that.”

“You’ll only learn what you need to know. This is a top- secret mission. Need-to-know basis.”

Hartley had all sorts of threats lined up for Mr. Square-jaw, but she was too drunk to sputter them out. But Mirk was there to pick up the slack.

“Well, I think we need to know, buddy!” he said, pushing up his shirtsleeves.

“You do, huh?” DiSalvo straightened his uniform. “Care to get the information out of me by force?”

“Gladly.” Mirk’s fist lunged into DiSalvo’s gut. The security officer didn’t even blink. It was like hitting stone. “Feel better?”

“Mirk!” Hartley said between clenched teeth. “You don’t

have powers anymore! Remember?”

“Oh, yeah,” Mirk said, glancing up worriedly at DiSalvo.

The security officer just chuckled. “Settle, boy. You’ll see the captain soon.”

The last seconds of the turbolift ride were spent in relative quiet. Hartley attempted to keep herself upright and Mirk nursed his knuckles.

Then the turbolift doors swooshed open to reveal a bustling bridge, complemented by the normal forward conn/ops array, and circle of tactical, engineering, and science consoles splayed about, most occupied by technicians.

But Mirk and Hartley’s attention was drawn to the center seat.

The captain stood and strolled over. “Good to see you two again. Guess you want to know why we dragged you up here?”

Mirk and Hartley nodded.

Lucille Baxter smiled. “Because we’re going to knock out those Starshine Kids once and for all. And you two are going to help us. How does that strike you?”

Mirk responded by puking all over the floor and Lucille’s shoes. Hartley followed shortly after.

“Andy?” Browning called, tapping the house intercom at Baxter’s doorstep. “Kelly? Are you guys in there?”

“Sure are…hehehh….SHHHH!” It was Peterman. Browning heard mumblings in the background. “Uh, hold on a sec and I’ll get the door.”


Baxter’s front door swung open seemingly automatically and Browning stepped through. “Hello? Kelly? Andy?”

She craned her neck. Nobody there. Then she saw something on the floor. A piece of cake. And it was yellow!

Browning grabbed the slice of cake off its plate and devoured it. Beneath the slice were the words “this way,” and an arrow that pointed toward the kitchen.

“Funny,” Browning said, stepping over the plate and crossing through the double doors into the kitchen. “Okay, guys. Where are you?”

On the kitchen table, Browning found a bowl of pudding, which she quickly dumped in her mouth. She was hungrier than she realized, but then again she did skip her post-lunch snack.

At the bottom of the pudding bowl, Browning found another message. “No changeling this time,” Browning repeated to herself. “Go through the glass door to the patio.” She shrugged. “Cute.”

She swung the glass door open and strolled out toward the patio. Still, no one. She walked further out to the deck that overlooked the still, serene Leonard’s Lake and the orange setting sun. Then Browning heard rustling behind her, and quick steps on brick. She whirled.

“SURPRISE!” shouted the command staff of the USS Explorer, among others.

They were all there: Baxter, Peterman, Conway, J’hana and Gellar, Tilleran, Richards, Larkin–and Kris. Holly and Dean Wilcox. And Ford, too, bundled in a parka.

“Guys,” Browning said, tears welling up in her eyes. She rushed forward to embrace Peterman.

“There go the hormones,” Tilleran said with a grin.

“Good. Begin the music,” barked J’hana. “We must resume training soon.”

Browning didn’t recognize the music. Something from Conway’s 24th century collection. “I’ve got a babe,” or something to that effect.

“Okay, you’re hurting me,” Peterman gasped, and Browning let go.

Baxter handed her a glass of punch. “Transport over okay?”

“Sure did.” Browning looked around. “I can’t believe you guys did this for me. Well, I had an inkling, after talking with Commander Conway.”

“Shh!” Conway muttered. “Ix-nay!”

“Commander!” Peterman grumbled. “We’ll talk about this later.”

“I miss the monks already,” Conway mumbled.

“Okay, let’s get some imager shots!” Tilleran said excitedly. The command staff grouped around Browning. She felt a hand on her butt. Probably Ford. Tilleran snapped several shots, then traded off with J’hana so she could be in a few.

After imaging, the group dispersed to talk about the first few days of their break.

“Where’s Hartley?” Richards asked, studying the crowd.

“I don’t know.” Peterman shrugged. “I invited her.”

“And Mirk’s gone too,” mused Baxter, interrupting a discussion about marmalade he was having with Browning. “He was supposed to bring vermillion sherry.”

“Maybe they got tied up,” offered Browning.

Ford grinned. “Maybe they hooked up!”

Gellar glared at Ford. “Why are you wearing that parka?”

“I’ve spent the last six days in Antarctica, courtesy of Lt. Hartley.”

“You could have always transported back,” Gellar mumbled.

“That’s the funny thing,” Ford said. “It took me hours to get to an icestation. And when I got there, I met the nicest girl.”

“Oh, no.”

“Her name’s Zelda. She monitors the Federation science station at Antarctica all by herself, so she’s not too big on social graces. But she’s big in every other way. Two hundred kilos of pure love.”


“Yeah, buddy.”

Immediately Baxter and the others moved on to talk to other showergoers.

Peterman felt a steely hand latch on to her wrist and she immediately knew it was J’hana. “When is the dispersal of the presents,” said the Andorian. “Gellar and I must get back to my tranining camp.”

“In just a minute, J’hana. Don’t you know how to relax?”

“Phah. Relaxation is overrated. Let us disperse the presents.”

“Okay, okay already!”

“It’s a beautiful stroller, Commander,” Browning said. She was stationed behind a table on Baxter’s back lawn, with the group gathered around and watching as she cracked open one present after another and piled them up. “We have very similar tastes.”

Commander Conway grinned. “Yep. It was hard to convince you not to buy it without letting on about the shower.”

“But you did let on about the shower,” Peterman muttered.

“Details, details!”

“Anyway, I love it,” said Browning.

Conway grinned wider. Browning had no idea that he’d gone back to the RepliCenter to get the stroller shortly after transporting with Browning back to the monestary. Browning went off to Nantucket to see some friends and he went to get the perfect gift. And she’d never be the wiser.

“I thought you got her salad tongs,” said J’hana from behind Conway.

“Shut up!” Conway grumbled.

“As you wish.” J’hana tossed a box wrapped in plain white paper onto the table in front of Browning. “Here, Doctor.”

Browning began unwrapping. “Can’t wait to see what this is, J’hana!”

“You know, on Andor, a child with only one parent is burned in a flaming cauldron of hot oil, and the parent is castrated with a huge spoon.” Everyone near J’hana immediately stopped talking. “At any rate,” she said, not missing a beat, “I got the child a teddy bear. I hope he enjoys it.”

With that, J’hana moved off to find Gellar. “Come on, Lieutenant. We have ‘partied’ for far too long. Back to Peru.”

Browning watched J’hana and Gellar dematerialize, then looked down into the open box. “Wow. It sure is a great teddy bear.”

“Last one,” Richards said, grinning. “This one is from Larkin and me.”

“And me!” interjected Kris.

“Lovely,” said Browning, glancing at Kris. She worked open the wrapping. “Oh! Look at that. You knitted us a quilt!”

“Actually, I designed it,” Richards said. “And Kristen knitted it.”

“I knitted it in eight point six minutes,” said Larkin. It wasn’t pride, exactly. Just fact.

“And what did you do?” Browning asked Kris, looking over the blanket.

Kris shrugged. “Uh, not really anything, I guess.”

A latch-on gifter. Figured.

Browning marveled at the multicolored images all around the blanket. “Chris, this is gorgeous.”

Richards pointed at the various scenes he’d created. “They’re for the baby to look back on–all the different adventures you’ve had on the Explorer and the Aerostar. He’ll see how great his mom was in her prime.”

“Aw…you got the time the shapeshifter duplicated my body and fought me,” Browning said, tears welling in her eyes.

“Yeah, I wasn’t sure about that one. But then I decided it would be good for him to know your past experience with other…shapeshifters.”

“Perhaps we should start saying ‘changeling,’” Larkin suggested. “That is the politically correct term, after all.”

“Shapeshifter is fine,” Browning said, still marveling at the blanket. “Oh, and there’s the time the Emergency Medical Hologram tried to take my job. And when I saved my ancestor’s baby when we went back to twentieth century Earth. And look, you even got the time I went nuts and took over the Escort!”

“Brings back memories, huh?” Richards said with a grin.

“Yep,” Browning said, and folded the quilt. She grabbed a napkin and wiped her eyes. “Very thoughtful.”

“All right, everyone,” Baxter said, tapping his glass with a spoon. He’d mounted the deck to get the best possible visibility. “I’d like to say something.”

“Something like, ‘aren’t baby showers only for women,’?” asked Tilleran.

“No, something like shut your freaking trap and let me talk,” Baxter corrected, and turned back to the crowd. “Here we are, gathered together here at my home to celebrate the impending birth of Janice Browning’s little…glob of…joy. Let’s take a moment to thank the powers that be for bringing us together so that we might enjoy each other’s company once again and help Janice get ready for her special time.”

Peterman rolled her eyes. “Here we go.”

“Starship captains are often given the happy task of not only commanding their crews, but acting as mentor, advisor, and now…” he grinned at Browning. “Godfather.”

Peterman’s eyes widened. “What?”

Baxter pointed his glass in Browning’s direction. “I promise I won’t steer you wrong, Janice.”

Peterman grabbed Browning’s arm. “You gave in?”

“He kept begging,” Browning said. “Anyway, he’s a good friend. He’ll be a good Godfather.”

“And I suppose I’ll be Godmother,” Peterman said, pushing her hair back over her shoulders and smiling wide. “I think that’s just–”

“Actually, I promised Holly she could be Godmother.”

“You what?”

“Sorry! She asked first.”

“Oh, well…”

“You can still babysit all the time, I promise.” Browning grimaced inwardly. There would be big consequences down the road. Peterman took things like this very seriously.

“Whatever you want, Janice. You know I’m not obsessed with minor things like this. I’m here for you, that’s what matters.”

Likely story.

“Check it out!” Baxter exclaimed, flipping on a white baseball cap. Browning examined the lettering. “World’s Best Godfather! Oh, yeah!”

“Oooh…” Peterman grumbled.

“Hey, Kelly,” Janice said, brightening. “I know what you can do. Let’s organize my gifts and see what all I have!”

“Okay,” Peterman said. “I guess.”

Meanwhile, Baxter was just stepping down from the deck to ask Richards about his leave activities, when the buzz of a transporter beam filled the air behind him.

“Forget your phaser, J’hana?” Baxter asked, turning. But it wasn’t J’hana. “Ah,” Baxter said. “Admiral McGrath! Glad you could join us!”

“Son, sit down,” Admiral McGrath said, stepping down from the deck. “I’ve got some news for you.”

“Bad news?”

McGrath shrugged. “You could call it that.”

Baxter leaned back against his brick grill. “What could be so bad, Admiral?”

“I’m afraid they took the Explorer away from you, Andy,” McGrath said, and looked around. Everyone got stone cold quiet. “You having a party?”

“Baby shower,” Peterman replied softly.

“Got anything to drink?”

“Took…” Baxter said slowly. “Away?”

“Wine, mostly,” said Peterman. “And non-alcoholic beverages.”

McGrath stepped over to the refreshment table and grabbed a bottled wine cooler. “Mmmmm. Raspberry. Anyway, yeah, they canceled the whole Explorer project. Making the thing a god damned cruise ship or some such nonsense. Anyway, just thought I’d let you all know.”

“Thanks…” said Baxter slowly. He stumbled back against the grill and began to slide downward. Peterman ran up and grabbed his arm.

“Andy…take this one step at a time. Don’t go nuts on me!”

“The whole command crew’s being reassigned,” McGrath said, then took a pause to drain the long-neck bottle and toss it on the grass behind him. “The rest will probably stay on though, in one capacity or another.” He glanced at Baxter. “You’re getting a promotion.” He turned to Conway. “You too.” He looked around at all the gathered staff. “Ah, they’ll probably promote the whole damn lot of you. Anyway, drink up. They want your stuff out by Monday.”

Conway slammed his coffee down. “Yes! Finally, the captaincy I deserve! What kind of ship do you think I’ll get? Battleship? Frigate?”

“Don’t get your hopes up.” McGrath strolled off toward Baxter’s dock. “Oh, and don’t try contacting me later. I put in for early retirement today.”

“Where are you going?” asked Browning.

“To walk the Earth,” McGrath said simply, stripping off his tunic and vest. He tossed them aside. Underneath, he wore a white t-shirt that read “Carpe Diem.” “Anyway, I think I’ll start by swimming this river. Maybe until it lets out into the ocean.”

“It’s a lake!” Richards called out as McGrath strolled down to the dock.

“Whatever.” And McGrath dove in.

“Well…ain’t this just grand!” Baxter grumbled, and stormed off into his house, slamming the screen door behind him.

Peterman looked around at the crew. They stood there, drinks in hands, looking dazed. Finally, she took a breath and spoke. “Pie, anyone?”


Tags: vexed