Author: Anthony Butler
And now, the Star Traks: The Vexed Generation themesong:
EX-PLOR-ER, soon will be making another run! EX-PLOR-ER, promises something for everyone! Set a course for adventure, Your mind on a new romance. Space won’t hurt anymore It’s an open smile on a planet’s shore. Yes SPAAAACE! It’s SPAAAAACE! EX-PLOR-ER soon will be making another run! EX-PLOR-ER promises something for everyone! Set a course for adventure, Your mind on a new romance. Space won’t hurt anymore It’s an open smile on a planet’s shore. It’s SPAAAACE! It’s SPAAAACE! It’s SPAAAACE!
Stardate 54000.4. Some things in life creep up on you nice and slow, fully expected, and perfectly sensibly. On the other hand, some things hit you like a freight train and smash you (metaphorically, I mean) into a thousand little pieces. And then Starfleet comes along and tramples on those pieces. Not that I’m bitter.
Captain Andrew Baxter sighed and tossed his Emmitt Smith figurine into the rapidly filling crate on his couch. “That’s where he was. Must have fallen down from the endtable when we went through that subspace filament a few months ago.”
The crate on the couch had become the receptacle of about every tiny object in his readyroom that could even remotely be considered his, by any loose interpretation of Starfleet inventory code.
Four larger crates were already ready and waiting down in Cargo Bay Four. His quarters were cleaned out, as was the Captain’s Mess (though he was told the jukebox had to stay). He’d had yeomen remove some of his other sensitive items from lockers and closets throughout the ship. So he liked to live spread out.
Even the compartments under and beside the command chair had been shorn of Baxter’s property. He’d had to use a powerful solvent to get the bumpersticker from the Sitarius Six shuttle race off.
Now he was left with one last despicable chore as Captain of the Explorer, though that title was stripped officially the day before, when Admiral McGrath dropped by his house and announced to him and the other crew at Janice Browning’s baby shower that the Explorer project was canceled and he and the senior staff were to be transferred to other posts.
The party had become quite a drag soon thereafter. Baxter retired to his house to smash some things in his living room and Counselor Peterman made a valiant diplomatic effort to keep everyone happy, but the mood was lost. Everyone went their separate ways–many to Starfleet to inquire about what the hell was going on. But everyone came up with the same ringing answer: No one knew exactly. It seemed that Starfleet was taking an abhorrent new direction in the way they did things and it made Baxter’s stomach turn.
Sure he wasn’t the type of guy that did things by the book. Sure he caused a few mild civil wars and pushed one planet to the brink of environmental collapse, but the spirit of Starfleet was there. Now that spirit Baxter loved so much about his career had vanished with his captaincy of the Explorer.
Richards and Browning had remained at his house a while after everyone else left, but soon they took the hint that Baxter wished to be left alone. Peterman even kept her distance. She stayed downstairs talking to someone on the comm while he trudged upstairs to the bedroom and jumped under the covers.
Before he knew it, the next morning had come and Peterman was up making coffee and playing with the dogs. Starfleet was on the comm requesting he get all his personal belongings off the Explorer so she could be refitted and prepared for her new mission, whatever that was.
The ship was unusually alive with activity. It wasn’t just the senior staff that was being reassigned. Many others, it seemed, were being “weeded out.” Notable among them were the less hospitable crewmen. No doubt Hartley had been one of the first reassigned–but then Baxter had no idea where Hartley was, or Mirk for that matter, and that concerned him.
McGrath had mentioned something about the ship becoming a cruise ship, or something to that effect. Baxter dismissed that notion out of hand. Starfleet discarded the practice of keeping families on Starfleet ships when the Dominion War came about, and never bothered to adopt it again.
So why would they go right back and put unwanted guests back on starships just because the Dominion threat had passed?
It didn’t make sense. Then again, Starfleet stopped making sense the minute they took the Explorer away from Baxter. Sure, he saw how they could be ticked, but it took a lot of work to recomission a crew. You didn’t just take a ship away at the drop of a hat. Right?
Baxter dropped his framed picture of the crew, all posing in Mirk’s, down into the crate and slammed it shut. He dropped down onto the couch and sighing long and hard, staring at the crate.
A workbee sailed by his viewport and he grimaced. They were already starting to make changes to his ship. Baxter was not happy.
Probably Starfleet to remind Baxter to remove his subspace radio presets from the ship’s computer.
The door slid open to reveal Counselor Peterman. “Hi, Andy.”
“Kelly. Where have you been? Cleaning your office out?”
“Uh, no.” Peterman moved over to the couch, on the other side of the crate from Baxter. “Did you get everything?”
“Yep.” Baxter patted the crate, which sat next to him on the couch. “This is the last of it.”
“You’re taking this rather well.”
“I smashed two lamps and a coffee table then hid under my covers for twelve hours,” Baxter reminded her. “You call that well?”
Peterman’s smile wavered. “Some of your actions in the past.”
“Kelly, now is not the time…”
“I know, I know.” Peterman took a deep breath. “Andy, I need to know you’ll be okay with this. I know it’s a tough hand to be dealt. I just don’t want you coming apart on me.”
“You act like you’re leaving or something.”
Thud, went the other shoe. Baxter’s eyes went wide. “Where are they assigning you?”
Peterman patted the couch. “Right here.”
“So you know where the Explorer’s going next?”
“The Galaxy Explorer is heading out to the Rim as soon as its refit is complete,” Peterman said.
“That’s her new name. She’s a cruise ship, Andy. And you’re looking at the new Cruise Director.”
Baxter suddenly noticed the pips on Peterman’s collar. “COMMANDER? They promoted you?”
“It’s sort of like a first officer position, under the new system.”
“I’m loving the new system already.”
Peterman sighed. “A lot of changes are taking place on this ship, Andy. And in Starfleet.”
“I’m starting to see that.” Baxter pushed the crate down to the floor and scooted next to Peterman, wrapping his arm around her and pulling her close. “Well, congratulations, honey. I’m happy for you.”
Baxter gritted his teeth. “Absolutely.”
“Status on the sensor-reflective forcefield?” Captain Lucille Baxter asked, settling into the Trafalgar’s command chair and sipping from her cup of green leaf tea.
“Functioning normally still, Captain,” Lt. Commander DiSalvo announced proudly, standing at military ease behind the tactical console behind Lucille’s chair and just to her right. “Admiral Reno will be glad to know the Escort’s camoflage system can function on such a large scale.”
“The fact that Starfleet’s own sensors didn’t pick us up while we were hiding behind Earth’s moon yesterday was a good sign,” Lucille agreed.
She looked up from her tea as she heard the doors to the forward turbolift slide open.
Out walked Lt. Megan Hartley, hair pulled back into an uncreative ponytail and eyes red-rimmed.
“How’s your hangover?” Lucille asked, without much compassion.
Hartley settled into the chair beside Lucille as if sitting down caused every muscle to cramp. “Bad.”
“You’ve been asleep almost thirteen hours. I was about to have DiSalvo come get you personally.”
DiSalvo chuckled. “I would have enjoyed that.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” Hartley frowned back at DiSalvo.
“Where is Mirk, Lieutenant?” Lucille said, abruptly ending the smalltalk.
“On my way.” And the burly tac officer was in the aft turbolift, stating, “residence deck.”
Hartley glared at Lucille. “How about you tell me what the hell’s going on, now that my head’s a bit clearer.”
“First of all, your tone better change quick. This is not the Explorer. I won’t stand to be disparaged or spoken to with anything but the utmost respect at any time, do you understand me?”
The hangover had taken the fight out of Hartley. “Whatever.”
Lucille inclined her head toward the viewscreen. “We’re on our way to the Versaad system to meet up with the Lynx and the Pellagro, and about two dozen Escort-class attack ships.”
Hartley rubbed the gook in her eyes. “I’m sorry. Did you say ESCORT-class?”
“Yes. Starfleet’s taken Admiral McGrath’s design and incorporated it into a new type of attack ship. Smaller than the Defiant-class, larger than Peregrine fighters, armed to the teeth, more maneuverable than the Defiants and equipped with the same sensor-reflective technology we’re using on the Trafalgar.”
Hartley had to admit, Starfleet did nothing half-way. “I know that the Starshine Kids have a gutted Flarn warship and one extremely powerful alien vessel, but isn’t this a bit much? We’re talking about a small fleet!”
“On the contrary, it’s barely enough,” Lucille muttered. Hartley could tell she wasn’t as confident about the mission as she let on.
“What do you mean?”
“Starfleet hasn’t been entirely…honest…about the lack of activity on the part of the Starshine Kids.”
Hartley shot fully up in her chair. She was totally awake now. “What do you mean?”
Lucille inclined her head toward the viewscreen and tapped a control on her armrest. “Look at this.”
Hartley watched as the screen filled with a map of the Alpha and Beta quadrants. Suddenly, to her horror, a scatter of red blotches appeared on the outskirts of the quadrants. She was fairly certain what those red blotches were.
“Redlands…” Hartley said quietly.
“‘Redlands,’ as you dubbed them, otherwise known as a localized plasma disturbance, vaguely similar to the Badlands and Meadowlands disturbances,” said Lucille. “Five in all, that we know of, containing God knows what. All we can be sure of is that at least thirteen planets on the Federation periphery have been visited by representatives of the Starshine Kids in the last four months, all near one of these ‘Redlands.’ Four thousand beings, to our knowledge, have converted over to their cause.”
“And they appear to be working their way inward.”
“Which is why Starfleet tasked us to nip this in the bud.”
Hartley shook her head. “Wait a minute, Captain, wait one minute. Why haven’t they notified Captain Baxter? Why isn’t the Explorer in this task force? Nobody knows more about the Starshine Kids than our crew.”
“Which is precisely why you and Mr. Mirk are here.” Lucille was quiet for a few moments. “Starfleet is unhappy with Captain Baxter.” It shocked Hartley that this woman didn’t refer to her son in the familiar. “Overall, they’re unhappy with the Explorer. That’s why she’s been recommissioned.”
“Recommissioned? As what?”
“That’s classified.” Lucille grimaced. “Listen, Lieutenant, we have a task ahead. I was required to find Mr. Mirk and an Explorer crewmember with a knowledge of tactical and engineering. Thankfully, the two of you were handily in the same place. Doing what, I don’t want to know.”
“We weren’t doing anything!” Hartley said incredulously. So what if her and Mirk MIGHT have been on the brink of a kiss… or something, when Lucille’s thug DiSalvo busted in on them and beamed them up to the Trafalgar.
“Anyway, that’s none of my business.” Lucille shook her head. “Whatever the case, Starfleet is…sort of…deputizing Mr. Mirk to help us, and ordering you to do the same. You’ve both been placed under my command until this mission is completed.”
“I still can’t believe the Explorer wasn’t brought in on this.”
“Believe it. If I were you I’d forget all about the Explorer. Now I want a full report on all you know about the Starshine Kids on my desk by 1300 this afternoon.”
Hartley rose. “Fine. I’ll play ball. But let’s get this clear: Mirk is a close friend of mine, and he’s no Starfleet officer. If you bully him, captain or no, I swear–”
“Save your threats, Lieutenant. I’m trusting you to keep the Maloxian in check. You’re friends? Good. Make him understand that the safety of all of us–of the entire Federation –relies on this mission being completed successfully. I can’t think of a better incentive to, as you put it, ‘play ball.’”
<Guess what, Mirk?>
Mirk blinked in the darkness. “What?”
<We’re coming for you.>
Mirk shuddered. “Critics.”
<And he wins the prize!> Confetti poured around the Maloxian and lights rose high. He was suddenly behind some sort of podium. Next to him stood Sesil, twisted leader of the Starshine Kids, and Irma, his official bona fide nemesis, as assigned by the anti-gods, the Critics. Speaking of which, a giant pair of lips stood ready in front of a huge lighted sign of some sort with lights that twinkled around it. <Let’s go to round two!>
“I want the all-expenses paid trip to Risa,” said Sesil joyfully, cackling right in Mirk’s face.
Irma grinned over at him. “I’d settle for the bread machine. Think I can shove a small Maloxian into one of those?”
<And the first question…> stated the lips.
Mirk looked down at his podium. Was he supposed to hit a buzzer or something? That’s the way he’d seen it done on The New Win or Else on the United Kronos Network.
But there was no buzzer.
The lips gestured to a question on the blue wall of monitors opposite Mirk, Sesil, and Irma. <What interstellar government is about to be overtaken by a friendly, good-natured cult?>
Mirk looked madly around for a buzzer. “I don’t have a buzzer!”
<WRONG! Do the remaining two contestants know the answer to this one?>
“The United Federation of Planets!” Sesil called out.
<That’s right! Let’s see what you’ve won.>
Mirk turned to see Lt. Hartley, dressed in a tight red sequined dress, revolve around behind a fake wall, gesturing at a large, orange-ish globe.
<Supreme dominion over the planet Vulcan! Good for you, Sesil!>
“But don’t I get a crack at Earth?” Irma asked, pouting.
<All in good time,> grinned the lips.
“Let me out of here!” Mirk cried.
<Oh, you’ll get out of here,> the Critic said toothily. <Megan, why don’t you show Mirk what he gets for being runner-up?>
Lt. Hartley wheeled a large screen in front of Mirk and gestured at it suggestively, sliding pleasingly alongside the screen, smiling.
Mirk flinched as the screen showed him a battered bridge, the Trafalgar’s, and him, leaning over the inert form of Lt. Hartley, trying to shake her awake. Then, moments later, he watched the Trafalgar blow up in a cascade of light.
He covered his eyes. “No! Directors, help me!!!!!!”
<Your Directors are gone, Maloxian. Thanks for playing!”
And Mirk dropped through a hole in the floor and fell dizzily for miles and miles.
Mirk felt a rough hand slap his face and his eyes shot open.
“If we had a counselor, or the time, I’d suggest mental help,” Lt. Commander DiSalvo said in his gruff Brooklyn accent, looming over Mirk’s bed. “But since neither is the case, you’ll have to settle for old Sam DiSalvo. You got five minutes to get ready. Take any longer, and I’ll sling you over my shoulder and drag you up to the bridge. Got it?”
“This ship won’t last the day,” Mirk muttered, and headed into the bathroom to get out some phlegm and get a quick, hot shower. He’d need it.
Peterman accompanied Baxter down to the cargo bay. As he hefted his massive crate, shifting its weight from arm to arm as the pair walked into the bay, he became increasingly annoyed at the changes being made to his ship.
Sure, the Explorer had always been designed to impress, but it at least looked like a starship. Now Yeoman Briggs was busy running through the corridors with Starfleet technicians at his feet giving orders like “more splashes of color here,” and “cushier pillows here,” and in one case even, “a nice cascading waterfall right here, where that power conduit used to be!”
Where the power conduit used to be. Baxter noticed other technicians, engineers, walking away with a surprising amount of the Explorer’s technology. His brief glances told him she was being stripped down.
Of course, what kind of cruise ship was armed to the teeth?
But the sight of Lt. J’hana wrapped around a quantum torpedo as two technicians dragged it into the cargo bay made Baxter’s stomach twist into knots.
“You cannot take this. It is MY quantum torpedo!”
“It’s Starfleet’s torpedo, ma’am,” said one of the technicians. “We have to take it back.”
“You cannot!” J’hana cried. “You’ve already taken away my phasers and tri-cobalt devices. The quantums are all that’s left!”
“Our orders were quite clear, madam. All the quantums.”
“In mere moments, I will erupt into a tornado of kicks and pinches the likes of which neither of you have ever seen!” ranted the Andorian. “You will beg for death before I am finished!”
“We’ve heard all that before, Lieutenant.”
Baxter put his crate down and approached the group. “Come on, J’hana, let it go.”
The captain kneeled down to look J’hana in the eye. “Lieutenant, we can’t fight this right now. Just be mature about this and let the nice men have their quantum.”
“But, sir, it is mine.”
“I know that and you know that, but they don’t. Let’s not make a scene, okay?”
J’hana harrumphed and let go, slumping to the deck in a heap.
“Sir?” asked one of the technicians. They were standing there looming over her with the quantum as if ready to drop it on her.
Baxter glanced up. “Get out of here. Both of you.”
He looked down at J’hana, offered her his hand. “Come on, J’hana. Let’s go.”
“You are aware, sir,” J’hana said, still lying inert on the cargo deck, “that we are due at Starfleet Command tomorrow for reassignment.”
“I know. I got the same message.”
“It is not the fact that they are reassigning me that is so upsetting. It is knowing the Explorer will be defenseless. Ablative armor or not, without offensive capabilities, the Explorer could be destroyed by a Breen transport.”
“I know. We’ll find a way to get her back, weapons and all.”
Peterman cleared her throat from behind Baxter. “Andy, it’s time to beam down.”
Baxter took J’hana by the hand and helped her up. “Is your stuff already down on Earth?”
“Yes,” J’hana grunted. It was obvious she had no intention of remaining on Earth. The blue sky was disconcerting to her, she had told him once.
“Well, let’s get to the transporter room, then.”
Peterman looked around the cargo bay as crates of all sorts were moved to the transporter pad and beamed down. Lives spread to the wind. She shook that nostalgic thought off immediately as Dr. Browning’s pizza oven was maneuvered onto the pad with an antigrav and energizing began.
“More confinement beam!” one technician urged. “It’s too much mass–the machinery is too complicated!”
Baxter watched the exchange with a grin and turned for the door. “Come on, you two.”
“Extended abscence?” Dr. Janice Browning asked, watching Richards toss the remnants of his quarters into a duffle. The paintings and sculptures had already been offloaded onto Kris Larkin’s Klingon freighter.
“That’s right,” Richards said. “Larkin too. We’re going to take about a month to figure out where we want to go from here. We both got First Officer offers shortly after Starfleet put us on detached duty. Larkin even got an offer to direct the Robotics Division at the Daystrom Institute. We’ve got a lot to consider.”
“So that’s it? You’re just accepting that this crew is breaking up?”
Richards stopped packing and placed his hands on Browning’s shoulders. He had to extend his arms to their full length facing her due to the rather large lump of changling growing in her tummy. “Janice. Their minds are made up. The ride is over.”
“I just don’t get it. A year ago we both were ready to leave the Explorer forever. What’s the difference?”
“The difference is that we realized we liked it better here as soon as we left!” Browning said, exasperated, pounding his faux-leather couch. “Christopher, this is our home!”
“Home is wherever you happen to be, Janice,” Richards said. “It’s not like we won’t stay friends. I’m sure we’ll see each other all the time.”
“Christopher…don’t patronize me.”
“I’m not patronizing. I’m just telling it like it is. Are you all ready to go? We can walk to the transporter room together.” Richards slung his carryall over his shoulder.
Browning shrugged. “All my stuff was beamed down to my apartment in San Francisco.”
“You’ve got an apartment already?”
Browning nodded. “Yeah. I’m heading up Xenonutrition at Starfleet Medical.”
“Congratulations, Janice! See how great things are already happening? This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a whole new start!”
“I wish I could believe that.” And Browning waddled after Richards out of his quarters.
Commander David Conway was flipping through the Federation News padd in the now quite familiar waiting room at Starfleet Command when the regular crowd shuffled in.
First it was Tilleran and J’hana, carrying drinks from the Sandwhich Star across the promenade.
“Hello, Commander,” Tilleran said, sipping her Sluggo Cola and sitting beside Conway. “Where’s that Captain’s pip?”
Conway grimaced and kept reading the padd. “They just haven’t given it to me yet.”
“Do I detect a note of uncertainty in your voice?”
“No, you probably detect it in my mind,” Conway snapped. “And I’d appreciate it if you stopped doing that. I know I’m not your commanding officer anymore, but you can at least have the respect to leave a man’s mind alone.”
“You love it.”
“I sure as hell don’t.” Conway crossed his legs and kept reading. “So, either of you know where you’re getting transferred to?”
“No idea,” Tilleran said.
“What about you, J’hana?” he asked disinterestedly. When she didn’t answer, he glanced over to the fluffy chair where J’hana sat, sucking slowly on her V’haspant Coolatta. “J’hana?”
The Andorian stared at the painting on the opposite side of the large, open waiting area. Conway turned to see what was so interesting about it. Boats in a harbor. Something by Planxtedved, and not one of his/her better pieces.
He turned to Tilleran.
The Betazoid shrugged. “She’s…having problems adjusting to the change. She barely said a word at lunch.”
“Aww,” Conway muttered. “Get used to it, J’hana.”
Conway winced as the empty plastic coolatta cup slammed into the side of his head.
“So you have a soft spot after all,” he mumbled.
“Well, look,” a voice said. “If it isn’t Captain Conway.”
Conway looked up. “Not yet, Baxter. But it’s only a matter of time.”
“I don’t recall seeing any big starships in orbit,” Baxter mused, taking a seat opposite Conway. “But I think I saw some workbees. Maybe you’ll get one of those.”
“They’re keeping it in spacedock, Mr. Comedian.”
“Sure.” Baxter twiddled his thumbs. “J’hana, how are you holding up?”
“Don’t ask,” Tilleran whispered.
Peterman sat down on the arm of Baxter’s chair and looked around at the group. “Well, guys, soon we’ll all be going our separate ways.”
“You sound happy,” Tilleran noticed.
Conway glanced up. He narrowed his eyes. “Why…son of a…” He was instantly out of his chair, inspecting Peterman’s new pip.
“Like it?” asked Peterman impishly.
“Starfleet is going to hell,” he grumbled. “They promoted YOU.”
“You be a good sport, Commander,” Baxter chided. “Kelly deserved that promotion.”
“Like hell she did.” Conway collapsed back into the couch. “What are you now? Chief Cook and Bottlewasher?”
Conway guffawed. “Hah! A Starfleet cruise ship?”
Baxter shifted uneasily. “Yes. A Starfleet cruise ship called the Explorer.”
“Galaxy Explorer,” corrected Peterman.
Baxter rolled his eyes.
“They really did it,” Conway said in disbelief. “What a waste of a good ship.” He cracked a smile. “I’m sure you’ll have fun zipping around the cosmos telling people all about the rings of Zontar Six, and the special caves of the Morbius World, and all the neat gift shops on Coridan! Oh, it’ll be such a gas!”
Peterman glared at Conway. “I’d normally have a comeback for that, Commander, but I’m holding back.”
Conway blinked. “Why?”
Peterman folded her arms and grinned. “No reason.”
“Conway,” said an ensign with a creaking voice, looking small by the double doors that led into the briefing room.
“There we go,” Conway said, putting down his padd and staring Peterman down. “We’ll see about your holding back in a minute. Be ready to call me captain…Commander.”
“Yes sireee,” Peterman said, saluting and grinning as Conway disappeared behind the double doors.
“Okay, what ship?” Conway said, rubbing his hands together. He didn’t bother to sit down, even after the black-eyed Admiral Oorse offered him a seat.
This was the same council that debriefed the crew days earlier. Now they were reposting the crew. What were they, some sort of shadow government? What a laugh, Conway mused.
“I’ll say this for you, Commander. You don’t beat around the bush,” Admiral Reno said blankly. “At any rate, you WILL be getting a command.”
“Yes!” Conway said, clenching his fist. “What ship?”
“USS Republic,” Admiral Jacobs said, sliding a padd down the table. Conway leaned down and picked it up.
“Funny. I thought the Republic-C was destroyed in the Dominion War.”
“It was,” Admiral Oorse said, rubbing his fu man chu beard.
“Ah, then, I guess there’s a Republic-D, huh? Top of the line, brand new?”
Peterman examined her nailpolish and counted the approximate time it would take Conway to read the padd on his new assignment.
“F****************!” came the cry from within the briefing room and Conway stormed out.
Admiral Reno appeared in the doorway as he stormed away. “Report for duty at 0800 tomorrow, Commander.” She looked over to Baxter. “Captain, you’re next.”
“Commander still?” Baxter asked, shoving out of his seat.
Peterman nodded as Conway stormed toward the transporter bay. “You’re looking at the commander of the USS Republic.”
“A new one?” asked Tilleran, watching him walk by.
“Nope. The original one. Constitution-class.”
Baxter couldn’t help but bust out laughing. “Oh, that’s rich. That almost makes all of this worthwhile. What’s he going to do? Give nostalgic tours of the system?”
Peterman giggled. “As a matter of fact, yes. He’ll take interested alien groups for a quick spin around the system and show them points of interest along the route. It’ll be a gas, I’m sure.”
“I almost feel sorry for him,” Tilleran said with a grin.
“I don’t,” Baxter said, and headed for the briefing room.
“Wonder what the Captain will get,” J’hana said, finally speaking. “And I wonder if he will need a tactical officer.”
Peterman shook her head. “Where he’s going, I doubt it.”
“How do you know so much, Counselor?” Tilleran asked incredulously.
“I was in close contact with the Admirals in there for several hours yesterday,” Peterman said. “They wanted to fill me in on everything so I could guage the reaction of different officers, since I used to be their Counselor.”
“Did you guage this?” Tilleran asked, indicating J’hana.
“Admittedly, no,” Peterman sighed. “I hope I can help her a bit in the few days we have before shoving off.”
“I don’t know,” Tilleran said. “I’m no counselor, but it seems like they pulled out her heart when they pulled out those phaser arrays. All the fight’s just gone out of her.”
“She’ll bounce back.” Peterman sighed. “Andy, on the other hand…” She winced when she heard him inside the briefing room.
Hartley grimaced at the terminal screen in her guest cabin as she struggled to compose a report on exactly what had happened since the discovery of the Starshine Kids. She included the recruitment of Lt. Ford into the cult, the sabotage of the Explorer, the kidnapping of the recently-married Baxter and Peterman, and the whole still-mysterious incident where they SOMEHOW got into the Delta Quadrant and recruited the Flarn’s Alpha Quadrant Prisoners AND Dwanok and James Stevens. Then there was the emergence of the first Redlands and the showdown between Mirk and Irma. How Irma fit in, well, Hartley was still fuzzy on that.
The door to her quarters beeped and she absentmindedly gave her visitor the okay to enter.
Mirk stumbled in looking exausted. “Megan?”
“Oh. Mirk.” She concentrated on the screen. “How did your conversation with Mrs. Baxter go?”
Mirk collapsed heavily into the chair by Hartley’s desk. “Intense. That’s a driven woman.”
“She’s not exactly like her son.”
“She thinks she can knock out the Starshine Kids with a few starships and a handful of fighters. I tried to talk her out of it, but she just wouldn’t listen.”
“You don’t think that she’ll be able to?”
“I know she won’t.” Mirk leaned forward. “I’ve seen it.”
Hartley finally looked up from the terminal. “Wait a minute. You saw what?”
“This ship. Being blown up.” He neglected to tell Hartley he also was pretty sure he saw her die. No need to worry her yet.
“I thought you didn’t have any powers anymore.”
“This seemed like a warning from the Critics. Gloating is more like it. They know I can’t do anything without the Directors.”
“That’s really not fair. Does Mrs. Baxter realize that we’re trying to destroy gods?”
“I tried to explain that to her. She seemed to have the same fears, but underneath it I got this feeling that she felt it was her job to get rid of them, one way or the other.”
“Cleaning up after her son,” Hartley mused. “Great, so this isn’t just an interstellar war, it’s a mother/son squabble.”
“Apparently. Who knows why we have to be dragged into it.”
Hartley laughed darkly. “Because you’re the Critics favorite chewtoy. But that doesn’t explain me.”
Mirk stroked his chin. “I suppose they think you can get me to cooperate. That I’d be more apt to listen to you than to them.”
“Of course you would. I’m your friend. That’s not exactly astrophysics.”
“Right, of course,” Mirk said. “But I think they think there’s more.”
“Hah! What are they, romantic experts?”
Mirk and Hartley fidgeted for a little while in silence.
“Hey,” said Mirk. “You want to go to the crew lounge and get a drink? The bartender’s a jerk but he makes a great synthale smoothie.”
“Nah, I have this report to finish.”
“Come on, Megan,” Mirk taunted. “The ship’s going to be blown apart in a few hours and we’ll both probably die.”
Hartley thought about it. “Okay, you twisted my arm.”
After trashing his living room once again, Captain Baxter grabbed the crate from his readyroom and transported back to Starfleet Command.
Peterman had an appointment with the new captain of the Explorer so he had to move into his new office by himself. She’d be very annoyed that he trashed the living room again, since she’d spent the morning replicating new lamps and a new coffee table. Oh well.
Baxter shuffled down the corridor looking at doors, counting until he reached 1105.
He read the inscription on the door and a cold shiver went down his spine. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
Taking a deep breath, Captain Baxter stepped through.
The room was sparsely decorated and rather small. Room for a couple chairs, a desk with terminal and stacks of padds, and a replicator.
He sat his crate down on the desk and sighed. “I thought I was supposed to get a secretary.”
He then noticed a door on the opposite end of the room. It said “OFFICE.”
Hefting the crate, Baxter moved to walk through the door, but it opened before he got there and a frantic-looking man with bulging eyes and a mat of tight-knotted red hair emerged.
Baxter stumbled back. “What?”
“You scared the heck out of me. I was in there trying to get the scorchmarks out of the carpet.”
“Scorchmarks?” Baxter asked quietly.
“Yep, the last guy who had this job put a phaser on overload and stuck it down his pants.”
He rushed over to her desk, shuffling through padds. “New guy should be here any minute, as a matter of fact. What can I help you with?”
“I’m the new guy.”
He dropped the padds. “Oh my gosh.”
Baxter sighed. “Don’t try to cushion the blow. I have a good idea what I’m in for. I’ll be in my…uhhhg…office.”
“Okay.” The man rushed to Baxter’s side. “My name’s Eric and I’ll be your Administrative Assistant. Anything you want, just ask.”
“Can I get you some coffee?”
Baxter trudged into his new office. “No, but a freshly- charged phaser would be great.”
Eric rushed to the door. “Was that a joke?”
“You figure it out.”
Baxter glanced around the sparse office. He could still smell ash. On the upside, there was a great narrow window next to his desk that overlooked a shuttle landing pad.
“Well, there’s a lot of work to do,” Eric said, charging in with an armful of padds. “More than we’ve had in a long time, as a matter of fact,”
Baxter watched the padds thunk on his desk one by one. “Super.”
“Oh, and Captain Baxter?”
“I just want you to know that it’s extraordinary to be working with you. I watched the article Federation Galactic did on your ship.”
“Yes, the Explorer was some ship.”
“‘Was’? Was it destroyed?”
Baxter sighed again. “Might as well have been.” He stared down at the work on his desk. Looked like a whole lot of math. But then what was he to expect?
Eric returned to the front office and set back to work.
Moments later, without warning, Eric’s face popped up on Baxter’s desktop terminal. “Sir, there’s someone on the comm for you.”
Already. Baxter rubbed a hand over his face. “Pipe it in.” The Vulcan on the terminal was just who he expected to see. “This is the Inventory Comptroller,” Baxter said tiredly.
An unsettling smile spread across Captain Velara’s face. “Let me be the first to welcome you back into the fold, Captain.”
Commander Peterman put her hands on her hips and looked around Dave Conway’s former office. She’d used half a can of disinfectant spray but the smell was still there. An intense mixture of coffee, cheese, and sweat.
That didn’t sound right. Peterman looked over at the door. “I’ll be right–”
Too late. The doors creaked open. Blue fingers emerged and ripped them all the way open, revealing an enraged Lt. J’hana.
“I am an Inventory Control Officer!” she screamed. “And they got Tilleran, too!”
Peterman rushed to hug the Andorian. “Let it all out, J’hana. Just cry, cry, cry.”
“I do not wish to cry. I wish to snap a neck. And I don’t quite care which neck I snap.”
Peterman backed up. “Okay, work with that.”
“I want an explanation.”
“From SOMEONE!” J’hana screamed, grabbing Peterman’s framed picture of Yanni and smashing it to pieces against the bulkhead. “And I will continue to kill until I get one!”
“Just settle down, Lieutenant!” Peterman said sharply. “I understand you’re upset, but there’s no need to transfer your feelings of hostility onto me…or Yanni.”
J’hana whirled. “Why NOT?”
Peterman and J’hana turned.
J’hana was still breathing hard from her anger. She blinked and shook her head, as if to clear it. Looked back at Peterman. “Commander, that isn’t–?”
“Hello, Captain,” Peterman said, ignoring J’hana.
“Problem with the doors?” asked the captain, surveying the damage.
“No. Just redecorating. I’m getting…uh…French doors.”
“I see. We’re meeting in fifteen minutes in the readyroom?”
Peterman watched the captain continue down the corridor. She could feel J’hana looking at her. “Lieutenant, I’m going to refer you to a specialist down on Earth, okay?” She moved to the box on her desk and grabbed a tiny post-it padd, tapping in the appropriate contact information.
“Commander, that wasn’t–?”
“Yes, it was the new captain,” Peterman said, handing J’hana the padd. “Here you go. Good luck in your new job, Lieutenant.”
J’hana studied the padd and handed it back to Peterman. “Judging by who your new captain is, I’d say you’re the one that needs the luck. Thanks for cheering me up.” And J’hana disappeared into the corridor, laughing uproariously.
The conversation with Velara confirmed what Baxter had feared. His role as Inventory Comptroller was to act as…liason (he choked on that word)… between Starfleet Command and Inventory Control. Inventory Control consisted of an Inventory Specialist on each ship and a Chief Inventory Officer in every sector. Captain Velara was Inventory Commandant, his counterpart in the field. She captained the Inventory Mothership, the Greenspan-A. The Ambassador-class Greenspan, Baxter remembered unfondly, was destroyed by the Borg, only to be replaced by an inferior Constellation-class. Something Velara found particularly puzzling, since getting a new ship generally meant getting a NEW ship. Why would Starfleet dig up these sagging old vessels to replace destroyed ships rather than build new ones? More questions.
After finishing with Velara, Baxter got to his paperwork. No reason to put off the inevitable. He’d managed to work through several padds, mainly equipment transfer requests and departmental reports, when his terminal beeped again and Eric appeared again.
“Sorry to bother you, sir, but there’s someone who claims to know you that wants to see you. Says he’s Chris Richards.”
“Well. Let him in!”
“Oh, so he is a friend?”
“Yes, as if it’s any of your business. Don’t you watch UKN?”
“He wrote Days of Honor for a while.”
Eric turned to face someone off-screen. “I had no idea, Mr. Richards. I just want to say–”
“Let him in, Eric.”
“Oh. Right. Right away.”
Moments later, Chris Richards strolled into Baxter’s office. “Snazzy place. But your secretary sucks.”
“Administrative Assistant!” called Eric from the viewscreen.
“Goodbye, Eric,” Baxter muttered and flicked the screen off. He turned to Richards. “Yep, this is where it all happens. Have a seat.”
Richards sat across from Baxter and took in the ambience. “You know, if you hang a few paintings, this place could definitely be a wonderful…work area.”
“You’re not making this any better.”
“I’m sorry,” Richards said. He shifted in the chair. “Listen, I know what you’re going through.”
“Really?” Baxter leaned forward. “If I recall, you left the Explorer of your own free will. You weren’t…evicted.”
“That’s true, but I did leave. I’m still convinced there’s life after the Explorer. You just need to move on and realize that for yourself.”
“Yeah, easy for you to say. You’re not the Inventory Comptroller.”
“I’m sure you’ll do a fantastic job. It’s a field you know well, after all.”
“Are you trying to annoy me?”
Richards cleared his throat and shifted in the other direction. “No. I’m just trying to lighten the mood a bit.”
“You’re doing a miserable job of it.”
“Andy, if you hate this line of work so much, get out of it.”
“Quit Starfleet? Yeah, right.”
“Starfleet is not the be all and end all of human existence. Maybe you’ll be happier doing something else. Be a writer or something.”
“A writer, yeah. That’s a laugh.”
“Hey, I did it. How hard can it be?”
“What would I write? My memoirs?” Baxter shook his head. “‘These are the voayges of the starship Explorer…’” He chuckled. “Yeah, right.”
“I’d read them.” Richards chuckled softly, then glanced at the chronometer on the wall behind Baxter. “Well, I’d better get up to the Daisy II. We’re getting ready to head to the Antares system.”
“Fine,” Baxter muttered. “Leave me in my misery.”
“You just remember what I told you,” Richards said, standing.
Baxter watched Richards leave. “Be careful out there, buddy.”
“You too. And don’t let them put a tag on you.”
“I wasn’t joking.”
Lt. Commander Larkin strolled onto the bridge of the Daisy II and studied it with satisfaction. “It is good to be back.”
Bort grunted from the helm. “Aboard the new Daisy?”
“No, among my second family.”
“You mean me and Kris?” Bort laughed huskily.
“Correct. I find this arrangement quite satisfactory. Time away from Starfleet will allow Lt. Commander Richards and I the distance we need to decide what to do with our careers.”
Bort turned in his chair. “So it doesn’t bother you that your…er, father is…er, banging…your, uh, sister?”
Larkin sat down at the station behind the command chair, a crude analog to ops, and studied their course plan. “Human interpersonal relationships are quite complicated. When one places an android in the mix, they are known to get even more complicated.”
“Ah, so it doesn’t bother you.”
“I am an android. I am incapable of being bothered.”
“If you say so.” Bort swung back toward the viewscreen.
Richards and Kris stumbled onto the bridge moments later in each others arms and giggling. “Ready to go, Bort?” asked Kris merrily.
“I guess so,” Bort grunted.
Richards grabbed a seat next to Larkin. “All ready, Kristen?”
“As ready as I shall ever be. Have you said all of your ‘goodbyes.’”
“Mr. Bort,” Kris said, flopping into the command chair. “Prepare to–”
“Wait,” Richards said suddenly. “There’s someone I have to talk to before we leave.”
Kris nodded. “You’re welcome to use the Captain’s Killing Room.”
“Xenonutrition, this is Janice.” She looked busy on the viewscreen in the “Captain’s Killing Room.” Looked a lot like a readyroom, but with less frills and more carving tools on the wall. Browning finally looked like she recognized Richards on the viewscreen. “Oh. Christopher. What?”
“I’m leaving for Antares. Just wanted to say goodbye.”
“Oh. Okay, goodbye.”
“Did you get your pizza oven installed all right down there?”
“Yeah. They had to get a bigger power coupling, but she’s working fine now. Pumping out fresh pizza for all the patients.”
“You get patients in Xenonutrition?”
“Aliens with indigestion. It’s a side-practice.”
“Ah. Interesting. Burping Bolians and Retching Rigellians, huh?”
“Yeah, right. So, what’s with the small-talk, Christopher?”
“I just didn’t want us to leave things this way.”
Browning studied a monitor off-screen. “What way would that be?”
“You’re mad at me.”
“I’m not mad.”
“Don’t try to kid me. You’re mad I’m not broken up about leaving everyone, especially you.”
“You’re pretty good, Counselor Richards.”
“It’s a hobby.”
“You’re also full of hummus. I’m fine.”
“I’m positive I won’t spend my time here on Earth pining away for you, Christopher. Now go enjoy your vacation. I’ll be fine.”
Richards clicked off the viewer and went back to the bridge before Browning could add, “Not that you care.”
“On your way to our new ship?” Lt. Zachary Ford said eagerly, picking up step next to Commander Conway. He was bulling his way toward one of Starbase One’s many travel pods so he could get on with his new assignment.
“‘Our new ship’? Oh, they gave me YOU as a helm officer, did they?” Conway said with a wry chuckle.
“Yeah, I guess they still remember the ‘Ford Maneuver,’” Ford said proudly.
“You mean the maneuver where you hit a bunch of random controls and hoped for the best?”
“The point is, I made an impact. Won’t be long before I’m your First Officer, right?”
“Let’s not waste any time,” Conway said, stopping in the corridor. “Mr. Ford, you are hearby promoted to Executive Officer of the USS Republic.”
“Really!” Ford beamed. “You mean it?”
“Yeah. Your first duty is to steer my travel pod.”
Coming up on the first available pod, Ford and Conway entered the appropriate access code and stepped in through the airlock. Ford immediately sat behind the controls. “This will be great.”
“Sure will,” Conway grimaced, grabbing a coffee out of the pod’s tiny replicator. “Disengage us and get clearance.”
“Right,” Ford said eagerly.
Conway glared over his steaming coffee as the pod maneuvered toward a Sovereign-class starship in dock.
“That must be her, right? Right?” Ford said excitedly.
“Just a little to the right,” Conway muttered. “Down point five six.”
“But we’re almost at the back of the spacedock. What are we getting? A tiny little Defiant-class?”
When Ford saw the Republic waiting serenely behind the Sovereign-class starship, he was so shocked he barely avoided crashing into it.
“Th-that’s a Constitution-class!” Ford stammered.
“Home sweet home, Mr. First Officer,” Conway mumbled.
“These people are trashing my area!” Professor Tav cried. “It’s intolerable!”
Baxter narrowed his eyes at the chubby Tellarite Science Professor on his terminal, focussing the balance of his anger and bitterness at him. So this is how bureaucrats were made. “Rules are rules, Professor Tav. We have to search the lab for items that aren’t listed on your inventory log.”
“But, Captain, surely Inventory Control does not have the authoritative power to so callously destroy another Federation citizen’s property.”
“Check the Faculty Handbook, Professor,” Baxter said blandly. “You’ll see that we do. Good day.” And he turned off the screen. “Some people.” He looked down at the scatter of padds on his desk and tried to decide which one he’d tackle next.
“Sir?” Eric popped up on his screen.
“Your wife is on the comm.”
“Oh. Put her through.”
“Andy!” Peterman said cheerily. “How are things going at Inventory Control?”
“Swimmingly,” Baxter muttered. He narrowed his eyes at her image on the screen. “Kelly…”
“It’s the hat, isn’t it?” Peterman was wearing what looked to Baxter like an ancient captain’s hat. White, black-brimmed, with an anchor inscripted on the front. “It’s part of the new uniform.”
“Oh, it is, is it?” Baxter asked. “Well, it’s darned cute.”
“You’re being sarcastic.”
“Andy, I called you because we have a lot to discuss. We’re leaving in a couple hours to take the Galaxy Explorer out on a shakedown cruise.”
“How quaint. Did you meet your new captain?”
“Uh, yes,” Peterman said in a small voice.
“So who is the shmuck?”
“Can you just come up here? We’ll talk about it in person.”
“Fine, I’ll be there in a bit.” Baxter turned off the monitor and headed out into the front room to tell Eric he’d be back in a while, and to please work on getting the smell of burnt Inventory Comptroller out of the carpet.
They were polishing the mirrors surrounding the transporter pad when Baxter materialized.
“Ensign Yang, good to see they kept you around,” Baxter said, nodding at the asian transporter officer.
“And you have a super day, Captain,” Yang said, saluting. Baxter got a better look at the uniform on Yang and once again felt his stomach curdle. It had a nostalgic feel. The black was there, as were the gray shoulders, but the new uniform sported a fancy gold-buckled belt and buttoned only halfway. Underneath was a tunic similar to the one Baxter wore, but the turtleneck flaps were turned down and Yang wore…shudder…a bow tie. The look was completed by the hideous hat he’d seen on Kelly earlier.
“Looking sharp, Ensign,” Baxter managed to croak before stepping out into the corridor. Kelly was there, in the same idiotic uniform, hair pulled back into a permed french braid, he guessed, for the occasion.
“You like it?” Peterman patted the clump of hair.
“I…just…love it,” Baxter said. His world was coming apart around him. Streamers littered the corridor, he saw as Peterman led him to her new office. The functional muted railings were replaced with latinum-plated gold. And a waterfall waited ominously at the end of the corridor.
“One on every deck,” Peterman said. “The sound of water makes people feel more at ease.”
“Great,” Baxter grumbled. “Ah, just great.” They came to Peterman’s door. Well, the open area where her door used to be. “What, you took Conway’s office?”
“It has a better view,” Peterman explained. “At the front of the ship instead of on the side, right by the bussard ramscoop, like my old office.”
“Super.” Baxter studied the lack of doors. “Where are the–”
“Oh, I’m getting French doors.”
“Yeah, classy. Look, Kelly, I’ve got to say, this is all–”
“Andy, before you say anything, I want you to know that whatever happens on this ship from now on I still love you with all my heart. Okay?”
Baxter felt his heart murmur at that. Why was Kelly talking like their marraige was in jeapardy?
“Now I want you to sit down.” Peterman led him over to her sprawling L-shaped French Provencial couch. “I’ll get you some orange pekoe and we can talk about this. Trust me, it isn’t half as bad as you think it is.”
Baxter watched Peterman work at the replicator and come back with two steaming cups. “You’re sure?”
“Very much so. The universe isn’t crumbling down around you.”
Baxter sipped. “What makes you think I thought that?”
“You have that look.”
The cup wavered in Baxter’s hand. “Don’t be silly.”
“You know, Andy, sometimes we’re pushed to the edge in life. The trick is to bounce back. Not go all the way over.”
“Why are you talking like this? Like I’m one of your patients?”
“I’m just worried.”
Suddenly a voice chimed in behind Baxter. “Kelly, how about dinner tonight? To celebrate the new…” A pause. “Ah, Baxter!”
Baxter turned at the sound of the voice. His teacup clattered to the deck. Tea seeped into the carpet.
Peterman scooched over to be next to him on the couch. “Now, Andy …settle down…”
Baxter felt the bones in his jaw rattle. He clenched his teeth to avoid screaming. “Fi…Fi…Fi…”
“Say it,” the captain grinned, looming over Baxter.
Lt. Tilleran stopped in mid-sentence. She and J’hana had decided to do a slow orbit of the San Francisco bar scene during their final night before officially beginning duty as Inventory Officers.
J’hana leaned forward on her barstool as Tilleran clutched her temples. “What?”
“The Captain…” Tilleran said slowly. “The…Captain!”
“The Captain what?”
Tilleran shook her head. “Anguish…so much anguish. And a word. A name!”
J’hana nodded. “Ficker.”
“He’s miles above the earth but I can feel it as if he were right beside me. I can hear him snapping, J’hana.”
“Ficker,” J’hana repeated.
“He’s going to need help.”
J’hana nodded. “Certainly. After we get judiciously shlarrged. Now, what were we talking about?”
Peterman trailed behind Baxter as he stormed back toward the transporter room, ripping tinsel from the ceiling as he did so.
“Forget about it, Kelly.”
“You don’t understand…this is my career we’re talking about!”
“That’s a lunatic back there, Kelly,” Baxter said, not turning back to look at her. “He tried to kill us all.”
Peterman grabbed Baxter’s arm in a vain attempt to slow him down. He turned back to face her. “He got help, Andy.”
“So he did,” Baxter said. “So he did.” He laughed. “He got help.”
“That’s right. Modern therapy works wonders. The doctors at Tantalus have explained it all to me. He’s one hundred percent better. He regrets sabotaging our escape from that null space last year. He wants to talk to you–to apologize.”
“He can choke on his apology.” Baxter charged into the transporter room. “Back to Inventory Control, Ms. Yang.”
“Andy!” Peterman demanded as Baxter mounted the transporter pad. “You’re not being reasonable!”
“Starfleet took away my ship and gave it to that madman. That bastard that has hounded me since he sabotaged me at Starfleet Academy and gloated all the way. And you’re more than happy to go along for the ride.”
“Andy, we need to talk this over like sane individuals!”
“That would be fine, if I were sane,” Baxter said, smiling finally. “But I’m not. That said, maybe they’ll give me a new ship, since fools are in high demand nowadays. Energize, Ensign.”
“ANDREW!” Peterman cried fruitlessly as Baxter began to dematerialize. “YOU ARE BEING A BABY!”
She looked back at Ensign Yang, whirls of hair drifting down into her eyes. So much for the braid. “What are you looking at!”
Stardate 54004.8. We’ve rendez-voused with the other members of our task force and are underway. Our course is for the first Redlands–the one that appeared in front of the Explorer in the Aegis system several months ago. We’re scheduled to arrive within the hour, and I can’t say I’m not excited to go against this grinning Vulcan Sesil. He may have faced a Captain Baxter before, but not this one. It’s time for Mom to kick some ass. Computer, delete that last comment.
Lucille was so busy slamming her fists into the punching bag she barely heard DiSalvo walk in.
“Captain,” he finally said.
“What?” Lucille stopped punching and whirled.
“Just wanted to remind you we have a subspace conference call between all the members of the task force in twenty minutes.”
“I’ll be ready,” Lucille said.
“Sir, permission to speak freely.”
“Why are you doing your PT less than an hour before going into battle?”
“Working off a little steam, Commander. This Sesil guy burns me.”
“May I ask why? You seem to be taking this very personally.”
Because he hurt my little Bilbo, Lucille thought. “Because he’s threatening the Federation’s sovereignity, DiSalvo. Isn’t that enough?”
“Yes, sir, I guess so.”
“Is that all?”
DiSalvo shifted from foot to foot. “Sir…”
“Spit it out.”
“I wish my mom was more like you.”
“Dismissed, DiSalvo.” Lucille went back to the punching bag.
Dr. Browning carried a large dish of lasagna out into the family room of her spacious San Francisco apartment and sat it down on the coffee table.
“Yes, this is the life,” Browning said aloud. She’d had a productive day at work. Helped a Gorn immunize himself against Earth alcohol varieties, wrote a substantial report on Flarn reactions to different Alpha Quadrant species, and had her office painted blue.
She’d heard little from the Explorer crew. Peterman and the “Galaxy” Explorer were getting ready to set off into space for a shakedown cruise to test the new customer service options that had been installed during her daylong refit, Richards and Larkin were off to Antares, Holly was starting medical school, Commander Conway was getting settled in aboard the Republic, and Baxter wasn’t answering his comm.
So she’d decided to spend a quiet evening at home with her large lasagna dish and viewscreen.
“Computer,” Browning said eagerly, spooning lasagna into her mouth. “Open subspace channel to Krinokom subspace frequency and access entertainment transmission, on this viewscreen.”
The screen flared to life. It was a Days of Honor rerun.
“Kasatria, this loneliness is killing me…” said Minister Vag on the screen. Browning had seen this one a million times.
“Viewscreen off,” Browning said flatly. Maybe she’d just read a book instead.
“Last call,” Clyde the bartender said brusquely, whisking away Mirk and Hartley’s half-filled glasses of chocolate milk. Both had their fill of drinking down on Earth in Louisiana.
“See what I mean about him being a jerk?” Mirk asked, putting his feet up on the table and staring between them at the stars streaking by the viewport at the forefront of the Sattelite of Suds, the Trafalgar’s Crew Lounge.
“Yeah,” Hartley agreed. “No charm at all. Not at all like a certain Maloxian I know.”
“Who could you possibly be talking about?” Mirk asked with a grin.
They sat a while in silence.
“Sure I’ll try dating,” Mirk was ready to say.
“Do you really think we won’t make it?”
“Huh. You think we should try to escape?” It would be a simple matter. Hartley knew Starfleet technology like nobody’s business.
“I think we should…”
<Escape. Escape while you still can.>
The voice rang in Mirk’s airs. Soft, but somehow strangely familiar.
“Who is this?”
“Who is who?” Hartley asked, confused.
<Get out of there.>
<No. Not the Critics.>
It was the Directors! They were back. And telling Mirk to leave.
“Megan…” Mirk grabbed Hartley’s hand and led her out of the lounge. “We have to go!”
“Just because that jerk said it was closing time?”
“No, because we’ll die if we stay here.”
“You already said that.”
“But the Directors just confirmed it. We need to leave.”
“Directors? Wait a minute? Do you mean you have your powers back?”
Mirk squeezed his eyes shut and thought…about Megan. Nothing.
“Nope. Just trust me. We have to escape. Can you do it?”
“I suppose.” Hartley jogged ahead of Mirk, leading the way. “We need to get to an escape pod. A shuttlecraft would be too obvious.”
“But where will we go from there?”
“Any place is better than this flying deathtrap right now, right?”
Mirk shrugged. “Good point.”
Commander Conway stared across his cramped quarters at the duffle on his bed. He sat in his chair, sipping coffee, staring at the duffle. He’d been in his quarters for three hours and hadn’t begun to unpack, though he wasn’t sure why.
The Republic was a tour ship. And it wasn’t even an interstellar one. He was relegated to taking interested alien VIP’s around the Sol System, chatting about the points of interest.
She had no weapons, save low-powered phasers for clearing debris from her flight path, she could only go warp two, and the replicators weren’t programmed to make lattes.
All that boiled down to some simple truths: He’d never battle, never explore, never investigate, and never REALLY command again.
Beginning at 0800 tomorrow, Conley would take those VIP’s on hour-long tours of the system all day and for the rest of his miserable career.
Conway glanced at the wall chronometer. 2200 hours. Still plenty of time. He reached into his duffle, pulled out the sizable Russia Still Bothers Me (expanded edition) and began reading. He could swear Tom Clancy was laughing from the grave as he turned page 1102.
It didn’t take long to find an out-of-the-way escape pod. It did take sufficiently longer for Hartley to break into the Trafalgar computer and sabotage the ship’s sensor array. It would take DiSalvo a while to right things, and by that time they’d be drifting far behind the ship, providing they weren’t incinirated in Trafalgar’s warp bubble.
“What are you doing again?” Mirk asked, antsy. He was sitting in one of the two upright seats inside the life pod, right next to Hartley, who was hunched over a computer console.
“I’m creating a hole in the warp bubble for us to escape through,” Hartley said, tapping into the warp field control subroutines. “You don’t want us vaporized, do you?”
“No, I guess not.”
After a few more minutes, Hartley finished her work on the warp field. “There. Just enough to squeeze through without knocking them out of warp.”
“Okay then,” said Mirk. “Let’s go.”
“Right.” Hartley began the ejection sequence.
And the escape pod airlock slid open before them. And there stood Sam DiSalvo with a pair of security officers flanking him. He latched onto both of them and dragged them out, oblivious of their flailing about.
“Put us down!” shouted Hartley.
“What was the big idea trying to escape?” demanded DiSalvo as he shoved them into a turbolift. “And do who knows what else in there?” he added.
“Can you blame us for not wanting to be blown up?” asked Hartley.
“We weren’t doing anything!” Mirk protested.
“You two make me sick.”
“I swear, we were only trying to escape. There was nothing sexual about it!” Hartley said indignantly.
“Mr. DiSalvo,” Mirk said, “I have it on good authority that we won’t survive this. If you care about Captain Baxter or this ship at all you’ll make sure we turn around and head the other way. Fast.”
“Nothing doing,” DiSalvo said, after a small pause. “Maybe if you two were helping us instead of trying to escape, our survival chances would be a little better.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” admitted Hartley.
“Well how selfish,” DiSalvo muttered.
The doors opened onto the bridge and DiSalvo pushed Mirk and Hartley out. “Found them. They were trying to escape. And do other things.”
“Why am I not surprised,” Lucille said dryly. “Have your officers keep an eye on them.”
An eye, Mirk thought. Cute.
“You know, Lt. Hartley,” said Lucille, “This is going to have a direct effect on your Starfleet career. We’re not in the business of promoting cowards.”
“You’re breaking my heart,” Hartley grumbled, staring up at the security guard that was watching her–a younger guy, blonde. Looked a lot like Gellar. That really burned her.
Lucille strode over to the quarterdeck to address Hartley. “I read your report. Besides a propensity for musical numbers, the Starshine Kids seem to have no weakness.”
“That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you,” Mirk said. “You’ve got to turn back, before it’s too late.”
“And then what?” asked Lucille. “Who cleans up the mess then?”
“There are other ways,” Mirk said. “We can’t hope to defeat them by force!”
“If you can come up with another way in the next–” Lucille looked at DiSalvo.
”–twenty minutes, you are welcomed to give it a shot.”
Richards wrapped an arm around Kris and hugged her close on the couch facing the rear viewport. He watched the stars streak away from the Daisy II. “This will be great, Kris. Just you, me, Larkin…”
“And Bort. Exploring the cosmos. No annoying duties or stares from other crewmembers to worry about. Just us.”
“I’ve been waiting a long time to get you off that ship, Chris,” Kris said, leaning her head on Richards’s shoulder.
“Yeah. I knew I could never really have you while you served with Janice.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because there would always be that feeling of competition. Now you’ll only see her at holidays or reunions or whatever. We can start building on our relationship.”
“You really felt threatened by Janice?”
“Not threatened, per se. But I know she doesn’t like me.”
“That’s preposterous,” Richards lied. “Janice likes you fine.”
“Don’t be so transparent, Chris,” Kris said, giggling. “I don’t mind that she doesn’t like me. You’re all that matters.”
“Aww.” Richards closed his eyes and nuzzled Kris closer against his chest.
“You and the fifty kilotons of Yridian weaponry in my cargo hold.”
Lucille Baxter paced the bridge of the Trafalgar like a caged animal while Mirk and Hartley whiled the time away playing Tic-Tac- Toe on a padd. “Time?”
“Ten minutes,” DiSalvo announced from tactical.
Lucille nodded. “Status on weapons?”
“Locked and loaded.”
“Sensor-reflective and fully charged.”
Lucille nodded. Paced some more. “DiSalvo?”
“That mom comment you made earlier. Did you mean it, or are you just gunning for that open First Officer position?”
DiSalvo pulled at his collar. “A little of both, sir.”
“Good. Just what I wanted to hear.”
Mirk looked across the padd at Hartley after placing the third “X” in a diagonal row. They were sitting on the bench just to the side of the command chairs. “You ready?” he whispered.
She glanced over at DiSalvo’s panel. “Yep.”
Andy Baxter stared around his wrecked living room and tried not to think about his wrecked kitchen, den, and bathroom as Pandora licked his fingers beside him on the couch.
“I’ll never see her again, Pandy. I just know it.”
“Yes, I know I’m insane for talking to a dog.”
“Yes, you’re right. I should have never taken the Inventory job. I should have quit Starfleet.”
“Yes, of course, Kelly doesn’t love me anymore.”
“Wrong for trashing the house? Now that’s just plain silly.” Baxter sighed, clapped his legs, and stood up. “Come on, Pandy. Time for poo-poo pee-pee.”
“All stop.” Lucille Baxter stared at the roiling redness on the viewscreen and looked back at Mirk and Hartley. “Look familiar?”
Mirk gulped, setting down the Tic-Tac-Toe padd. That was three straight games he’d won. “Unfortunately.”
“Full scan,” Lucille ordered. “I trust you repaired whatever mischief Lt. Hartley did to our systems?”
“Certainly,” DiSalvo said. He looked down at his sensors. “Nothing we can detect inside the mass. Our sensors can’t penetrate it.”
“It’s not too late to turn back,” Mirk said quietly.
“Quiet!” Lucille ordered. “Signal the Lynx and Pellagro to spread out in a delta formation. Have the fighters prepare for strafing runs.”
“So we just sit and wait?” Hartley demanded.
“Not long,” Mirk said quietly. He saw the shadows getting sharper within the red cloud.
“I feel so bad,” Commander Peterman said, picking through her jambalaya as rhythmic drum music played in the new “Calypso Cafe.” Mirk’s old fashioned wooden bar had been replaced by a wicker-ish jamaican stand from which one could order jerk chicken or a strong blender drink. As Peterman understood it, demographic data showed that tropical themes were popular among prominent Federation citizens. “He’s never been so mad at me.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Kelly,” Captain Alvin Ficker said, reaching across the table to grasp her hands. “He’ll grow to get used to this arrangement in time.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
Ficker shrugged. “Then he never really loved you, right?”
“That’s very insightful, but I know Andy loves me.”
“Kelly, I’m just trying to play devil’s advocate here,” Ficker replied playfully.
“You know, Alvin, I’d never have guessed that therapy would have been this good for you. There’s no trace of the small, petty, immature person who nearly got us blown up last year.”
“I’ve made great progress,” Ficker said with a smile. “More daquiri?”
“I get the feeling that this is the beginning of something grand,” Ficker said, refilling Peterman’s glass.
“I hope you’re right.”
“Trust me on this one.”
The blasts came fast and furious as soon as the ships ripped out of the Redlands. Apparently the task force’s sensor-reflective shields were not a problem for them.
Escape pods shot out of the Exelsior-class Lynx just as she exploded on the viewscreen, lighting up the darkened, smoky bridge of the Trafalgar.
“Your bun’s undone,” Lt. Hartley said wryly, clinging to the tactical panel as the Sovereign-class vessel was battered.
Lucille pushed hair out of her face and gripped the command chair. “Don’t you think I know that?” She turned her attention to DiSalvo. “Commander, do you have any idea what those ships are?”
“A combination of the technology used by the Starshine vessel the Explorer faced previously and some unknown technology,” DiSalvo said crisply, as he worked, cool and collected, at his panel.
“Let me have a look,” Hartley said, glancing at the scans. “Oh, f***.”
Mirk was behind her in an instant. “Flarn.”
Lucille wrung her hands. “F***.”
Tilleran’s eyes snapped open. “Oh my gosh.”
“What?” hissed Barto, the muscular Gorn who was curled in bed next to her in her Federation Plaza suite. She’d met him that night at a grungy alien dive in downtown San Francisco.
“I just had the strangest sensation.”
“What? Feelings of forboding? Death? The sense that your friends and your entire way of life are about to be systematically destroyed?”
“No. I just realized I left my favorite hair scrunchie on the Explorer, and they left an hour ago.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Would you both shut up!” J’hana snapped. “I am trying to sleep.”
Tilleran peered over Barto’s immense form to see J’hana beside him. “Sorry, Lieutenant.”
“Call me J’hana. And for the love of the Great Hive, let me sleep.”
“You should be plenty exausted,” Barto chortled.
“Not in the least,” the Andorian replied defiantly and turned over, covering her head with her pillow.
“And so should you,” he said, turning to Tilleran. But she was already blissfully asleep, and J’hana was snoring loudly. Staring up at the hotel’s mirrored ceiling, Barto decided he had it pretty good.
“They’re tearing through our hull like it’s not there! No shields, no ablative armor. No nothing!” DiSalvo called out.
“So much for your new technology,” Hartley muttered to Lucille as she braced herself against the aft bulkhead, looking at the damage reports over DiSalvo’s shoulder.
Escort-class fighters swarmed like flies on the viewscreen, blasted one by one by the attack cluster of four Starshine warships.
The Trafalgar convulsed around them. Another blast from a Starshine ship blew right through the saucer section and tore out the other end.
“We have to evacuate!” Mirk said, rushing down to the command chair, where Lucille kept her posture ramrod straight, directing her people like Patten. “We’re all going to die if we don’t get out of here now!”
“You are not in command here,” Lucille said sharply. “No one’s evacuating. We’ll see this thing through!”
“This wasn’t supposed to be a suicide mission!” Hartley exclaimed.
“Says who?” asked DiSalvo.
Hartley grimaced. These people were crazy.
Another blast blew Trafalgar’s port-side nacelle apart.
The comm buzzed to life. “Engineering to bridge. We just ejected the warp core!”
Lucille glanced over her shoulder. “Weapons status?”
“Little to none,” DiSalvo said dully.
Lucille pulled the wisps of hair behind her head and clipped them back. “Prepare collision course.”
“What?” Hartley demanded, circling around to the front of the bridge to face Lucille. “Are you insane?”
“DiSalvo, have your officer stun her,” Lucille muttered. “And initiate collision course with the nearest Starshine ship on my mark.”
The guy who looked like Gellar advanced on Hartley but she was ready. She rammed a fist into his gut and followed up by a knee to the crotch. His phaser clattered to the floor. She knelt, retrieved it, and whirled in time to blast DiSalvo. He had a suprised look as he collapsed to the deck like a sack of potatoes.
Hartley wasted no time. “Hartley to all hands! Evacuate! Man the escape pods! Get the hell out of here while you still can! Oh, and in case you were wondering, this isn’t a f***ing drill!”
Lucille shook her head. “My son had a ship of fools.” She looked to the helm. “Ensign Grayville, mark!”
“No you don’t!” Hartley shouted, blasting an advancing security officer, then blasting Grayville at helm.
“Do your thing, Megan!” Mirk called out.
She ran back to tactical and began punching buttons.
Lucille, meanwhile, jumped at the helm to carry out the collision course.
Then a circle of blue light appeared in front of Mirk and slowly advanced toward him.
Mirk backed up. “What the–”
“Mirk!” cried Hartley.
A hand reached out, delicately frail, and jerked Mirk into the blue circle. And the blue circle vanished.
Before she even had time to wonder where Mirk had gone, Hartley watched the four Starshine Warships approach on the crackling viewscreen, launching twinkling blasts of red right at her.
And the last thing she saw was the bridge exploding around her as the Trafalgar blew apart.
TO BE CONTINUED…