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!
Mirk tapped his foot impatiently, looking around the vast fuzzy whiteness that surrounded him. “Hello?”
No answer. He was beginning to get ticked. “Show yourselves, you cowards! You think you can take my powers, leave, then re-appear and save me from an exploding ship and all is forgiven? Forget about it! You left us to the mercy of the Critics without a second thought! You’re omnipotent! You didn’t have to go to the Delta Quadrant! You can probably be in both places at once!”
Mirk blinked. “Directors?” They’d never spoken with a female voie before.
“No.” A long, slender shape began to emerge in front of Mirk, like someone stepping out of a vertical bath of milk. She was pale-skinned, silver-eyed, and draped in pastel robes. “My name is Leximas. I am a guide. You might even call me an…Agent.”
“What are you doing here? How did you rescue me?”
Her face a mask of serenity, Leximas allowed a small smile. “That is a long story. But suffice it to say my purpose is to help you overcome the Critics and find the Directors. Be glad I pulled you out BEFORE the explosion, not after.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Mirk looked around impatiently. “Listen, I hate to sound ingrateful, or anything, but there’s this matter of that ship I was on.”
“The Trafalgar. Yes, that ship has been destroyed.”
Mirk shuddered. “Survivors?”
Leximas gestured to her left, where an image of the debris- filled space that was once occupied by the Trafalgar appeared.
“See for yourself…”
Megan Hartley’s eyes snapped open. “Mirk!”
“He’s not here.”
Hartley grimaced. She was strapped into a lifepod, directly across from Lucille Baxter. “Where could he be, then?”
Next to Lucille, DiSalvo grimaced down at her. “Dead, probably.”
“No. He was pulled into some sort of…portal.”
An awkward silence set upon the austere white escape pod. Only the whirring and blinking of computer consoles was audible.
“Would you mind explaining how it is we’re here?” Lucille said pointedly, finally.
“Pre-programmed transporter sequence,” Hartley explained. “I am a transporter chief, after all.”
“Of course,” Lucille said. “That makes perfect sense.” She adjusted her safety straps, glanced at DiSalvo. “Commander, arrest Lt. Hartley.”
DiSalvo unhinged his straps and dropped down into the empty seat next to Hartley. “Lt. Megan Hartley, I hearby place you under arrest.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Lucille glowered. “You assaulted Starfleet officers and disobeyed my direct orders. It means Court Martial. The inevitable end of your Starfleet career.”
“I also saved your life.” Hartley glared at DiSalvo. “And this schmuck’s life too.”
“Thanks. Now arrest her.” Lucille blew strands of hazel hair out of her face.
“What’s the matter, wimp? Can’t you arrest me yourself?” Hartley asked.
Lucille grinned. “I’m so glad you said that.” She began unbuckling her safetfy straps. “Why don’t we just drop ranks for a few moments?”
Hartley couldn’t believe she was about to fight Captain Baxter’s mother. After considering it a few more seconds, she quickly realized it wasn’t so far-fetched after all.
“You’ve had this coming a long time, Mrs. Baxter,” Hartley muttered. “Ever since you started mucking about in my Engineering compartment last year.”
“And you’ve had it coming ever since you tossed me down the warp core!” Lucille slid down to the other side of the pod to face Hartley. DiSalvo climbed out of the way, to a perch back on the other side of the pod where he could watch from a safe distance.
“Ooh, so sorry, did I hurt you?” Hartley pushed up her sleeves and Lucille undid her bun, letting the hair cascade around her shoulders. The women were matched pretty evenly for size, but Hartley was younger, faster.
DiSalvo watched with interest as Lucille threw the first punch. Hartley easily caught the captain’s fist and twisted it behind her back. In a swift action she shoved Lucille into cramped pod’s bulkhead. But Lucille was ready for that. She rolled to the ground and knocked Hartley’s legs out from under her.
The air left Hartley’s lungs as she hit the floor of the pod and saw Lucille’s elbow sailing for her jugular.
Hartley rolled to the side and brought joined fists down into the small of Lucille’s back. “Ready to give up, old lady?”
Lucille turned over, staring up at Hartley, wildeyed. “Not even close.” She reached out and yanked at Hartley’s hair. Hartley slammed a fist against Lucille’s face.
Then the escape pod shuddered and thudded against some hard surface outside.
The pod hatch slid aside and Lucille and Hartley both turned toward it.
“Well well well,” Sesil said, clicking his tongue. “What do we have here? A little family squabble? How entertaining. But not very enlightened. Oh well. We’ll fix that lickity- split.”
“Oh, that smug bastard,” Mirk muttered. On a screen floating in the swirling white, Sesil escorted Hartley, DiSalvo, and Lucille out of the pod and into the recesses of his flagship. “Let’s go get them.”
“Not yet,” Leximas said simply.
“What do you mean not yet?” Mirk exclaimed. “We have to save them!”
“You have much to learn before we return you to the material world. I did not take you off the Trafalgar just to save you. There are…larger issues at stake here. Your friends are safe for the moment.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“We…are going to go into training.”
The Starshine Warships were even larger on the inside.
Hartley glared angrily at the serene bald Cardassian that escorted her, Lucille, and DiSalvo down the long corridor to the ship’s brig.
Sesil led the way, several meters ahead. He walked in slow, measured steps, smiling and greeting robed bald crewmembers that passed by.
“How did you get these ships?” Lucille blurted, breaking the silence.
Sesil didn’t look back. “Research and Development, my dear. Oh, and some piracy.”
“How many ships do you have?” asked DiSalvo.
“Four. We are in the process of building two more.” Sesil glanced back at DiSalvo. “Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but they are rather nice ships, are they not?”
“If you say so,” Hartley muttered.
“Oh, Megan,” Sesil said. He dropped back to walk next to her. “You’re worried about your friend Mirk, aren’t you?”
“What’s it to you?”
“We are partners with omnipotent beings, Megan. We know so much.” He wrapped an arm around her. “We can share that knowledge. All you have to do is open your mind to the possibilities and we’ll do the rest.”
“I think not.” Hartley gripped Sesil’s arm and shoved it back toward him.
“Your life is replete with darkness. No boyfriend. Job you hate. Romantic feelings for a Maloxian puck almost half your age.”
“He’s not half my age!” Hartley said. “We’re only ten years apart.”
“But what does age matter in affairs of the heart. You do love him so, don’t you, Megan?”
“That’s none of your damn business!”
“Lieutenant,” Lucille said forcefully from behind Hartley.
“Shhh…” Sesil put a finger to Hartley’s lips. “Your pain will be eased soon enough. Contrary to what you may believe, we’re not going to force you to join us. But we will ask you to review the package we’re offering you. You may find it fits your lifestyle perfectly.”
“What kind of package are you talking about?” asked Lucille.
Sesil stopped at a door and keyed it open. He led the group into a dim conference room with a large oval viewscreen at the front. “You’ll find, Mrs. Baxter, that we have evolved quite a bit since we last encountered your son. We’ve learned the error of our ways. Why force someone to join you, when you can just as easily convince them through powerful incentives.”
“What…kind of incentives?” asked Hartley fearfully.
Sesil walked to the front of the conference room as Hartley, Lucille, and DiSalvo were forced into chairs by Starshiner attendants.
“Starfleet’s been wondering what’s inside our Redlands, haven’t they, Mrs. Baxter?” Sesil whispered conspiratorially, leaning in close to Lucille.
“That’s none of your concern.”
“Ah, don’t play coy with me. Mulat, play the presentation.”
The Cardassian punched a wall control, and the screen lit up, showing one of those large red clouds floating in space. The imager zoomed in. Red streaks zoomed past on the screen until a shadow loomed into view. Huge and ominous.
“Oh, my God,” Lucille said, covering her face.
“Welcome,” said a voice, as the structure became visible, “to Shiney Estates, the most exclusive condominium complex in the Galaxy.”
“We’ve crossed into the most wicked of businesses,” Sesil said with impish glee.
Hartley slammed her head on the table. “Real Estate.”
Baxter’s eyes worked slowly open. To his chagrin, sun streamed into the bay windows in his living room. He put his hand up to block the light.
“And Tilleran. Up we go, sir.”
Baxter took the Betazoid’s hand and stumbled to his feet. “What are you two doing here?”
“We found out about Captain Ficker taking over the Explorer,” Tilleran said. “We thought maybe you’d be having problems dealing with that, so we came to help.”
“Ahh.” Baxter scrubbed a hand over his face and looked around the living room. His two wing-back chairs were overturned, a coffee table was crushed, and all the trinkets lining the foyer banister were smashed on the ground.
“I like what you have done with the place, sir,” remarked J’hana.
“Ha ha,” Baxter muttered. “Hey. Aren’t you two working for me now?”
“Yes. We’re due aboard the Inventory Mothership Greenspan in three hours,” said Tilleran.
Baxter chuckled. “I guess misery loves company.”
“Indeed,” J’hana nodded, looking to Tilleran. “So. What is the status of your relationship with Counselor–I am sorry, Commander Peterman?”
“Rather intrusive, aren’t we, J’hana?”
“Simply feigning concern for the wellbeing of my commanding officer.”
“I’m touched.” Baxter sighed. “Well, Kelly and I parted on pretty bad terms. I still cannot fathom how she’d go to work for that son of a bitch Ficker.”
“She has her career to consider, Captain,” Tilleran pointed out. “She wants to advance just as much as you do.”
“I was happy the way things were.”
“Well, things change. Get used to it,” J’hana said bluntly. “I believe I saw a Waffle place not far from here. Lt. Tilleran and I have not yet had breakfast.”
Baxter looked around. “I guess I can clean up later.”
“Excellent,” J’hana said. “We have a shuttle waiting outside.”
“So,” Baxter said, stripping off his uniform top and grabbing a jacket. Then at least part of his clothing would be refreshed. “What have you guys been up to?”
Tilleran and J’hana exchanged nervous glances. “Not…much,” said Tilleran finally.
Cruise Director’s Log,
Stardate 54002.4. After a successful shakedown cruise, the Galaxy Explorer is being rushed into service. Our course will take us across the Alpha Quadrant, with stops at Maxia Zeta, Corsica, and Bolarus. We’re eager to take on our first official passengers. Things couldn’t be better.
“Paprika for your melon?” asked the enthusiastic Yynsian waitress as Peterman bent over a pad in the Calypso Cafe.
“No,” Peterman said. “Refill on the tea.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the Yynsian brightly.
She heard the doors to the Cafe whisk open and knew who was approaching by the pungent odor of cologne.
“Good morning, Captain,” she said without looking up.
Captain Alvin Ficker slid into the booth across from her. “Good…morning. How are we today?”
The waitress rushed over, filling Peterman’s tea to the brim. “Captain, can I get you anything?”
“Yes, you can. Western Omellete and dry toast, thank you.”
“Right away, sir.”
“So…” Ficker leaned his neck back and forth, savoring the cracks. “Sleep well?”
“Listen, about last night…”
“Let’s not talk about it, okay?”
“I really didn’t do anything.”
“You pretended to drop your fork and then stuck your head between my legs. I hardly call that nothing.”
“I really did drop my fork. And when I got under the table, I sort of…fell forward.”
“I don’t know…” Peterman narrowed her eyes at Ficker. “Your head stayed there for a while.”
“It just felt like a long time. I promise I’ll never do anything like that again.”
“I’m a reformed man. That was simply a…tragic accident.”
“Hmm. I suppose no harm was done. Oh, if Andy knew he’d be so mad. He already is mad. He thinks I chose you over him.”
“I’m totally devoted to him.”
“Of course you are.”
“But this is really a strain on our marraige.”
“I sympathize completely.” Ficker grinned as the Yynsian set the steaming plate of eggs in front of him. “Ah, wonderful, Imhala. Just wonderful.”
“Why can’t he just understand how hard I worked to get this promotion? Why do things constantly have to revolve around him?”
Ficker smacked his lips as he ate. “Beats me.”
“Ooh, sometimes he makes me so mad.”
“Let it all out, Kelly. I’m here for you.”
“I just wish I could find some way to explain things to him. To make him see. But he’s so immature sometimes. He just refuses to listen.”
“He’ll come around.”
“I guess so.” Peterman slid her padd over to Ficker. “Oh, and here’s the guest list.”
Ficker nodded at the list. “Pretty impressive.”
“It’s our inaugural launch, after all,” said Peterman. “We’ll be at Earth within the hour. Then we’ll start taking on passengers promptly at ten hundred hours.”
“Perfect. Have you instructed the crew on cruise etiquette?”
Peterman nodded. “I met with the department heads at oh- eight hundred this morning and explained the new philosophy. It didn’t exactly meet with thunderous applause.”
“They’ll learn. We’ll have this place running like a well- oiled machine soon enough.”
“I hope so.”
“And if we don’t, we’ll just have to start ejecting people into space!”
“Haha. That’s funny.”
“Yes, it is.”
Baxter led J’hana and Tilleran back to his office. “Thanks, guys. That was a great breakfast. Just what I needed.”
“You’re thinking more clearly already,” Tilleran said.
“Yes, I am.”
“I didn’t ask. I know it for a fact.”
“How nice for you,” Baxter deadpanned as he stepped through into the office suite. Eric was waiting at his desk, face stiff with anger.
“Where were you?” he asked.
Baxter gulped. “At breakfast. Why?”
“It’s nine thirty. You are supposed to arrive promptly at oh-eight hundred.”
“I had breakfast, for Pete’s sake. Am I insane or aren’t I the boss here, anyway?”
“You are. But I have gone through great pains to assure your schedule is well laid out. I didn’t do all that work just to have it all sabotaged.”
“This is one hell of a secretary you’ve got here, Captain,” J’hana said with a chortle.
“I am not a secretary!” Eric cried. “I am an Administrative Assistant!”
“Loosen up, Eric,” Baxter muttered. “Any messages?”
“No, but you have two visitors waiting in your office.”
“Ah, wonderful.” Baxter walked up to his office door and keyed it open.
“Finally,” Velara said, sitting uncomfortably in the chair opposite Baxter’s desk. “Where have you been?”
Baxter winced. “At breakfast!”
“I see.” Velara looked over her shoulder uncomfortably. “I was supposed to meet you half an hour ago. But luckily, I had someone to talk to.”
“Oh, no,” Baxter grumbled under his breath. Who should be there with Velara but Counselor Telvin. “My wife sent you, didn’t she?”
The fat Vulcan was squeezed into a chair next to Velara, fumbling uncomfortably with his fingers, wearing a festive tropical shirt and bermuda shorts. “She did. She said you needed help. A sensitive ear.”
Why would Peterman sic Telvin on him? Didn’t she say herself that Telvin didn’t even belong in the counseling field? He was beginning to feel like he didn’t know his wife at all.
“Telvin, as we know, is most definitely sensitive,” Velara said, contempt clear in her voice. “I am…disturbed…to hear that you have encountered him before.”
“On a couple occasions,” Baxter admitted. “How do you know him?”
“He is my brother.”
Baxter shook his head. “What?” Were all the Vulcans he knew related? Did they all come from some sadistic human- corrupted genetic line?
“It’s true,” Telvin said dully. “Velara here is the most accomplished Abramowitz.”
“I am NOT an Abramowitz,” Velara snapped. “Never call me that!”
“Not hard to believe,” said Baxter. “Considering you’re one brother, and the other is a sadistic cult leader.”
“Captain, please,” Velara whispered. “Do not bring up Sesil.”
“Oh, big brother Sesil,” Telvin blubbered, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Where did he go wrong?”
“Telvin. Stop this immediately. You are half-Vulcan. Act like it.”
“I’m sorry, Velara, I’m so ashamed.”
“I know. And that sickens me. And please…you are using too many contractions!”
“There you go again!”
J’hana and Tilleran entered the office. They’d been outside chatting with Eric. When they saw Velara and Telvin, they looked to Baxter.
“We’re obviously interrupting something,” Tilleran said. “We’ll leave.”
“Yes. Leave,” J’hana agreed.
“Please don’t go,” Baxter whimpered, as Telvin fell forward onto the floor in a heap of blubbering, broken Vulcan.
Commander Peterman hugged her large padd to her chest as she watched the airlock doors wheeze open.
“Here they come.”
“One question,” Lt. Gellar said quietly from beside her. He led a line of crewmen in the new Starfleet uniforms who were waiting to receive the first visitors.
“What’s a purser?”
“That’s like the tenth time you’ve asked me that, Brian.”
“And you still haven’t given me a straight answer. I’m beginning to think you don’t even know.”
“You see to the personal needs of our guests. Isn’t that enough?” Peterman snapped.
“Are you okay, Couns–”
Peterman glared at him.
“I mean Commander?”
Peterman ignored Gellar; instead, she grinned and shook the hand of the first person through the door. “Greetings, and welcome to the Galaxy Explorer.”
The gaudily-dressed woman stared at Peterman in half- disbelief. “How in the rings did I get talked into coming here?”
“Because you owe some people at Starfleet Command a favor, Mrs. Troi.”
Lwaxana Troi harrumphed. “This better be good. That…Lieutenant Tilleran isn’t here, is she?”
“No, ma’am,” Peterman said brightly.
“Oh. She frightens me. Such an odd little thing.”
“She was acting strange because you were casting off some sort of heavy Betazoid vibe, if I remember correctly,” Peterman said with a grin.
“What? How dare–”
“Lieutenant,” Peterman said to Gellar, “show our guest of honor the way to her quarters.”
“Okay,” Gellar said, taking Lwaxana’s arm. “This way, Mrs. Troi.”
Peterman watched the next two people emerge from the airlock.
“I don’t get it, Doctor,” said one of the men, a Cardassian.
“The first time in years that we get to spend some time together, and you sign us up for a silly cruise!”
“Garak, I promise you, you’ll love it.”
“Problems?” Peterman asked, then her nose wrinkled. “Oh. You.”
Dr. Julian Bashir grinned. “Kelly Peterman. Fancy meeting you here!”
“What a coincidence,” Peterman said dumbly. “Who’s your friend?”
“Elam Garak,” Bashir said.
“I can introduce myself, Doctor.”
“Certainly.” Bashir turned his attention back to Peterman. “And how are you, Counselor?”
“I’m busy. Ensign Puckett will show you two to your quarters. Ta-ta now.”
Ensign Pucket gripped Bashir’s arm firmly and yanked. “This way, sir.”
“Oh, she seems nice,” Garak said dryly, following Bashir and Puckett down the gaudy corridor.
Peterman grimaced inwardly. Please, Rachel, don’t accidentally take them to the brig. What was Starfleet thinking using Security officers as service personnel? All they knew was knocking people around.
Peterman started. She’d been daydreaming. “Yes, ma’am, welcome to the Galaxy Explorer.” She checked her padd. “Ms…Guinan.”
“Just Guinan, dear, just Guinan.” The dreadlocked woman scanned the corridor. “Which way to the lounge?”
“Take a right at the end of the corridor, then take a turbolift to deck ten. Here, Ensign Unlathi will show you.”
Guinan grimaced at the seven foot, tentacled purple beast. “Uh…thank you.”
Peterman grimaced. She was only on special guest four and already she felt exausted.
“…mom was finally fed up with all of Dad’s lectures about logic, so she took her accordian collection and got on the next transport off Earth. Soon after, Dad left for Vulcan and I went into Counseling School.”
Baxter glanced up at the chronometer on his desk. Almost lunchtime. “That’s…fascinating, Mr. Telvin.”
He looked over at Velara. She was staring out the window, watching yet another shuttle take off. He hated being right next to the shuttlepad. His office always smelled like ionized plasma.
“So,” Baxter said, once he had room to get in a word, “am I mistaken, or weren’t you sent here to counsel me?” He didn’t exactly relish that idea, but at least that might shut the Vulcan up.
“Yes, yes I was,” Telvin admitted. “But I got off on another one of my tangents.” Telvin curled up his fists and pounded his head. “I’m so stupid!”
“Stop that!” Velara whirled.
“Oh, now I’ve done it,” Telvin whimpered.
“Both of you stop. I have work to do. This is all so stupid.” Baxter shook his head. “What was Kelly thinking? Did she think you’d actually help me come to terms with losing my ship?”
“She’s worried about you, Captain. That’s a good woman you’ve got there,” said Telvin earnestly.
“Yeah.” Baxter frowned at his blank terminal screen. “Yeah, I know.”
“Well,” Telvin slapped his legs. “I’d better go.”
“That’s it?” Baxter said, amazed.
“These things take time. I’ll be back this time tomorrow.”
“I’ll be waiting with bated breath,” Baxter muttered.
Telvin eased his bulk out of the chair. “Let me ask you a very important question before I leave, Captain.”
Telvin turned left and right in front of Baxter. “Does it look like I’ve lost any weight?”
Baxter covered his face. “Well,” he said from behind his hands, “you don’t need a hoverpad to move around, so I’d say yes.”
“Thanks, Captain,” Telvin beamed. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Once Telvin was gone, Velara sat serenely in the chair opposite Baxter’s desk.
“Velara…why is he….”
“Don’t.” The Vulcan cut him off.
“Good afternoon, good afternoon,” Captain Ficker said grandly, moving among the crowd gathered and talking in the Calypso Cafe. “Good to see you all here. Please, have some more jerk chicken. Need a refill on that guava juice?” He grinned and shook hands with the many Federation dignitaries that filled the cafe. Starfleet had done a good job getting people to sign on for the Galaxy Explorer’s maiden voyage. They must have been planning this for quite a while.
“Dr. Kernell, good to see you again. How’s that ankle?”
“Fine, now,” the scientist said obliquely.
“That’s great. Any new inventions?”
“Some. But none I can describe in public.”
“You’ll have to tell me about them later.”
Ficker moved to other tables, slowly working his way over to a corner where Commander Peterman was talking to Imhala.
“We’re going to need more margarita mix. And try to find the blood wine. Those Klingons look like they want to get seriously drunk,” Peterman said, checking the cargo lists on her clipboard-sized padd.
“Ladies,” Ficker grinned.
Peterman smiled weakly. “Hello, Captain.”
“We’re about ready to get underway. Just thought I’d tell you.”
“Shall I make the shipwide announcement?” asked Peterman.
“That would be a great idea, darling. I mean Commander.”
When Peterman arrived on the bridge, she nearly called for security alert. She momentarily forgot that the bridge was now open to the public.
“This viewscreen is huge,” Dr. Bashir mentioned, moving over to join Peterman at tactical, as Ensign Saral drifted by to serve him a Tellarite guava nectar. “Gives you a great view of the stars.”
“That it does.” Peterman pretended to be engrossed in the sensor sweeps of the area.
“You know, the fault, dear Kelly, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
“That it is. Excuse me.”
“Dinner later?” Bashir flashed her a winning smile. “I bet we’d have lots to talk about.”
“No thank you!” Peterman said, and disappeared into the readyroom.
“She’s breaking, Garak,” Bashir said with a grin, leaning on the tactical console. “Just give it time.”
“You, as always, are quite the charmer, Doctor,” Garak grinned. “Oh, look, the environmental controls!”
“Wow,” Hartley said, as she was led into her condo suite by a robed Starshine Kid. “Nice place.” The main room of the suite had a huge couch, full bar, shining red-laquered furniture, immaculate whitewashed walls, full viewscreen service–the works.
“That it is. And there is a fully-equipped tennis court.”
“You don’t say.” Hartley hopped on the couch and tested it out. “Wow. Nice and soft.”
The Starshine Kid, a Benzite, hovered over her expectantly.
He held out his hand. “Ahem.”
“I’ve just come from a blown up starship,” Hartley muttered. “I don’t have any latinum on me right now.”
The Benzite sighed and left, slamming the door.
“Pretty rude for someone at total peace,” Hartley said. She moved over to the vast, circular window that dominated the suite. Clouds of red swirled outside, surrounding the modules of suites similar to hers that spread throughout the complex. Docked at an array of pylons on the far end of the station were four mildly damaged warships that Hartley reasoned would soon be used to force the entire Federation to move into Starshine condos. These people were diabolical. But darn, didn’t they have great taste in furniture.
“Megan…” a voice called in her mind
The red gas shimmered in front of her window. It momentarily took the form of Mirk, dyed red but definitely Mirk.
And the image shimmered away as quick as it had appeared.
Mirk whirled around to face Leximas. “I just wanted to tell her I was okay!”
“Not yet,” Leximas said serenely. “You must still be trained further.”
“But I don’t understand. Why here?”
Leximas turned her face toward the breeze, savored the chill night air. Savored the feeling of wood planks beneath her feet. “Because it is a place I enjoy coming to.”
Mirk took in the scene. The deckchairs, railings, dark ocean churning many meters below. “I don’t see how that helps us defeat the Starshine Kids.”
“It does not,” Leximas admitted. “It should be a place of your choosing, I suppose.”
“Then let’s get out of here. This place gives me the creeps.”
“And justly so.” Leximas waved her hand and she and Mirk disappeared.
Above the deck, a man cried out: “Iceberg, right ahead!”
Leximas sighed as she navigated Mirk through the spirit plain to a new reality. She was growing tiresome of living out the Titanic scenario anyway. It took the ship too long to sink and the ending was predictable. But something just kept her coming back time and again.
“J’hana and Tilleran just beamed aboard the Greenspan. Something tells me Inventory is not going to agree with them,” Baxter said over the USS Republic’s bridge viewscreen.
Conway harrumphed from his gray, squarish, outdated command chair. His baby ca-ca yellow period uniform itched, and the gel in his hair made him feel like an imbecile. “I can’t say I feel sorry for them. At least they have a real job.”
“I’d hardly call inventory a real job.”
“But at least they’re not actors! You realize I have to say ‘Time Warp Factor’ whenever I order a new course? That sounds so dorky. And the ship’s computer sounds ridiculous! And the coffee comes in styrofoam cups!”
“Enough, Commander!” Baxter barked. “None of us like this situation. Do you think I’m down here celebrating the fact that I’m chained to this desk, and that my secretary is constantly monitoring my subspace calls?”
“Administrative Assistant!” Eric broke in, appearing in a box on the lower, right-hand corner of Conway’s viewscreen.
“Would you stop that!”
“This line is for business calls only, sir.”
“I’m about to give you business, buddy!”
Conway shook his head. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know!”
“If you’re both finished, I have work to do,” Conway muttered. He punched one of the colored buttons on the arm of his command chair and Baxter and Eric disappeared. Actually, they faded out, and the starfield faded in. Not the nice crisp cut from one view to another that he was used to. “Mr. Ford,” he said to Lt. Ford, who was up front at Helm/Navigation. “Put us on.”
“I hate this, Commander.”
“You’re not the only one,” Conway muttered. “Just do it.”
A large red light blinked at the center of Ford’s console, signaling that the imager was recording and transmitting down to the rec deck, several decks below, where all the tourists were located.
“All…hands…” Conway said, suddenly speaking in telegraph speech. He felt like a moron. “We’re…about to…pass through…the Earth-Mars… asteroid belt. Prepare for a…bumpy ride.” He gestured melodramatically with his hands. Stupid Jim Kirk acting class.
Ford sighed and steered the Republic into the astaroid field.
“This is so hard,” Ford said, dripping sarcasm.
“Okay, shake them up,” Conway muttered.
Ford swung the helm back and forth, and the Republic shuddered.
“All hands…brace…for…impact…” Conway said dully. “Full reverse,” he whispered. “Lower inertial dampers on the rec deck.”
He imagined the people lurching left and right in their chairs down below, and took some measure of satisfaction from the fact that they were probably feeling pretty nauseous about now.
“Sensor information coming in,” Ensign Dawson suddenly said from up on the quarterdeck at science. She was peering into the little science viewfinder. What a silly contraption.
Conway swiveled in his chair. “What is it?”
“Ship approaching. Looks like Galaxy-class.”
Dawson shook her head. “Galaxy Explorer.”
“Yeah, yeah. How close are they?”
Dawson stared into the small viewfinder. “I’m checking that now.” She hit a large control on her panel and something whirred. “It’s printing out.”
Conway slapped his forehead as a piece of paper slowly whizzed out of a slot in Dawson’s panel.
“Um, forty thousand meters.”
“S***,” Conway muttered. “Well within their warp wake. They’re getting ready to go into warp, aren’t they?”
Dawson read as more information printed out. “Uh, looks like it.”
“All power to shields and inertial dampers. Communications–” Conway turned to Ensign Sefelt. “Warn them off. Tell them we can’t withstand their warp wake!”
“Too late–” Ford said, and looked up at the viewscreen to see Galaxy Explorer zip into subspace.
The Republic spasmed under the brunt of subspace warp eddies–something that would be unnoticable on a modern ship. Conway’s styrofoam coffee cup wobbled and hit the deck.
Conway gripped the command chair. The Republic began to sound like an old-fashioned airplane in a nose-dive. Even the sounds it made were ancient. “Hard about!”
“HULL…INTEGRITY…DROPPING…” said the computer in a stilted voice.
And then the wake passed
“That was fun,” Conway muttered, picking up his upturned cup. “That jerk Ficker probably did that on purpose.”
“There’s no probably about it,” Ford frowned, looking at his controls. “We’ll have to stop for a couple hours to shore up the hull and realign all the instruments.”
“Fun,” Conway muttered. “Maybe we should check the oil in the warp engines while we’re at it.”
“Nevermind. Just pipe in an inflight movie on the rec deck to keep people quiet. Something horrible.”
“How about ‘Good Burger’?”
Conway laughed maniacally and headed to the bridge turbolift. “Excellent.”
“All hands, this is your Cruise Director, Kelly Peterman. We’ve just entered warp, on a course for Maxia Zeta. Our speed will be a comfortable warp five. A few program notes for this evening. Ensign Madera will be performing her harp-based interpretation of the Dominion War in the Charo Room. And in the Calypso Cafe, we’re opening our All You Can Eat Seafood Buffet. Make sure to check that out, but no doggy bags, please. Also, the Federation Players will be performing ‘Bring in the Noise, Bring in the Funk’ in the Mainstage Auditorium. Sivas Baltar of the Denerius system called it “adequate and amusing.” Also, the pool, saunas, workout room, and arboretum are all open for your enjoyment today and for the rest of the trip. Enjoy your cruise aboard the Galaxy Explorer, the galaxy’s finest explorer.”
Peterman grimaced and closed the channel on the readyroom’s desktop terminal.
She heard a soft clapping from the readyroom doorway. She looked up.
“Very good,” Ficker said, and stepped inside, allowing the doors to close. He sat down opposite her.
“I suppose. I couldn’t help but feel a bit fake.”
“You’ll get used to that.”
“Well…” Peterman said, glancing at the chronometer on the desk. “I’m teaching an aerobics class at thirteen hundred. I’d better get ready.”
“I’ll have to look in on that.”
“Super,” Peterman said, and headed for the door to the readyroom. Ficker and Bashir, both smug and handsome–both annoying. And Andy on Earth, getting farther away by the millisecond. Not exactly the perfect arrangement.
She stepped out onto the bridge. It seemed so foreign now. With all the new fixtures and shag carpeting. And the trilling Muzak. It felt more like a waiting room. And she couldn’t get used to the unfamiliar faces at all the stations. No J’hana making crude comments. No Tilleran prying into her innermost thoughts. No naive observations from Larkin. No sexist jokes from Ford. No hyperactive coffee-induced complaints from Conway. And no Andy.
In short, Peterman thought as she stepped into the turbolift, all the things that made the ship such a great place to work.
“This is more like it,” Mirk said, as he and Leximas appeared on the sandy beaches of Oka, his home island on Malox. The red-orange suns beat down on them, green water rushed in and out along the shoreline. Musical chirps issued from the forest beyond the beach.
“It is…acceptable,” Leximas finally said.
“So,” said Mirk. “Where are my people?”
“Not here. This is merely a representation of your home. I have not brought you back to the Delta Quadrant.”
“Darn. I was kind of hoping–”
“Hoping you could meet with your father, and the girl Danel. Yes, I am aware of them.”
“You seem to be aware of an awful lot.”
“I am a transcendent being. And your agent.”
“Yes, you’ve mentioned that.” Mirk put his hands on his hips and searched the beach. “So, nobody’s here?”
“Then why are we here?”
Leximas surveyed the surroundings. “Because this is where you belong.” She paused. “Eventually. At any rate, we have much to talk about. Gather some wood and return here.”
“So I can learn some special skill?”
“Indeed. I will teach you how to build a fire. It is extremely chilly out here.”
“You’re hilarious.” Mirk headed off into the woods.
Peterman yawned as an elderly couple from Russia, the Rozhenk-something-or-rathers, explained their marital problems. Apparently they had different views on how adopted Klingon son’s career.. “Thees eeesn’t about Worf,” said the Klingon’s adopted father. “Eeet’s the fact that I’m not performing in bed like I used to. The new testicles are not vorking up to specs.”
“Don’t bring that up in front of the nice lady, Sergey. She doesn’t want to hear about our love life.” Helena watched Peterman thoughtfully. “Do you?”
Peterman blinked. “Huh? What?”
“Have you been paying attention?” asked Sergey.
“Yes. Of course. Worf. Performing. Testicles,” Peterman said distractedly.
Sergey shook his head. “Enough of this, boopkus. Let us go to the zero-g sauna and sweat out our problems like a good husband and wife.”
“Okay, Sergey, you have yourself a deal.”
And the two moved off fast for such an old couple. Peterman stared down at her cup of tea. She and Andy should be sweating out their problems. Would their marraige last as long as Sergey and Helena’s? What hope did they have of talking out their problems when they were off now on different assignments? Maybe time apart was a good thing, though. Maybe the next time the Galaxy Explorer returned to Earth, Andy’d be waiting at the airlock with flowers and a grin, all ready to reconcile things. Or, he’d still be mad at her.
What was she thinking? She and Andy were exceedingly happy together. They were just in a…rough spot.
“Is this seat taken?” a voice asked.
Eeeny, meeny, miney…Peterman thought to herself and looked up. “Bashir.”
He loomed over her, flashing that dashing grin and looking pompous. “I have a bottle of kanar chilling back in my quarters.”
“Then go drink it. And thanks for flying with the Federation’s premier cruiseline.” And Peterman stood up and wandered out of the Calypso Cafe.
“Are you paying attention?”
Baxter glanced up from the padd on his desk. “Sure. The captain of the Sutherland doesn’t want her Andorian cutlery collection tagged.”
“Indeed,” said Velara, pacing Baxter’s office. “But they are indeed Starfleet property. Captain Shelby found many of those pieces while on assignment in the Andor system. Using Starfleet resources.”
“I’m not disagreeing,” Baxter said. “Take the Greenspan and intercept Sutherland. Explain to them that those items need to be tagged or you’ll do a full audit of their ship. Keep them grounded for weeks.”
A hint of a smile tugged on Velara’s lips. “You are quite cagey, Captain. Your capacity for spite intruiges me.”
“What can I say? The only faintly positive thing about this job is the ability to make everyone else’s lives as miserable as yours, if only for a short while.”
“Have you considered writing a treatise on inventory philosophy?”
Baxter blinked. “I wasn’t aware there was such a thing.”
At this, Velara actually did smile. “Oh, there certainly is.”
“What do you know.” Baxter looked back down at his padd. He’d brought up a picture of him and Kelly playing with Charlie in the arboretum. It was a cute picture, though Charlie was humping Baxter’s head, and that blurred the picture slightly, it was still cute.
“May I ask what you are looking at?” Velara leaned over the desk.
Baxter yanked the padd to his chest. “No. This is private.”
“Might I hazard that you are not altogether comitted to our meeting?”
“That’s an understatement.” Baxter rubbes his eyes.
“Perhaps you need a…diversion.”
“What would you suggest?”
“I do not know. This is your planet, after all.”
“True. But how do we get out of here without Eric noticing?”
“Leave that to Vulcan ingenuity.”
Leximas stared at Mirk across the crackling fire, as she had been doing for the last couple hours.
“Well?” Mirk demanded, finally breaking the silence. He was sure she was sleeping with her eyes open.
“Is this it? We just sit and watch the fire? Isn’t there more to this?”
“I,” Leximas said, almost testily, “am meditating. I assumed you were doing the same.”
“You assumed wrong. I’m bored out of my mind.”
“Very well.” Leximas moved over to the piece of driftwood Mirk was sitting on. “We have much to discuss.”
Leximas took a deep breath. “The fate of the entire Alpha Quadrant, if not the whole galaxy, rests on your shoulders, Mirk.”
“No pressure, though, right?”
Leximas ignored him. “You must counteract the dangerous spread of the Starshine philosophy.”
“And how do you suggest I do that?”
“You must come up with your own.”
“My own philosophy?”
“Your own religion.”
“Of course,” Mirk said, bursting into laughter. “My own religion! Sure, that’s what I have to do! Why didn’t I think of that? Hahahhah! That’s rich, Leximas.”
“I was not kidding.”
“No.” Mirk’s face straightened. “I guess you weren’t.”
“Would you like more toilet paper, little one?” the contented Ferengi woman said as she scrubbed out the sink in Lt. Hartley’s bathroom.
Immersed in bubbles and savoring the warm blast of jet- powered water within her whirlpool, Lt. Hartley shook her head. “No thanks, ma’am. I’ve got plenty. You could change out the potporurri, though.”
Hartley closed her eyes and let the soothing warmth of the water relax her. She detected a presence directly above her and opened her eyes. The Ferengi woman’s hand hovered right over her tub, outstretched.
“I still don’t have any money,” Hartley said. “Sorry.”
“Darkness inhabits your soul,” snapped the Ferengi woman as she plodded out of the bathroom.
Hartley shrugged and sunk under her bubbles once again. She hated to admit it, but the Starshine Kids really knew how to live. This was better than the Federation Plaza.
As she soaked under the mound of foam, she considered she had plenty of stressful things to work through, thus the bath was of utmost necessity. She deserved it. She had to figure out what had happened to Mirk. He was trapped out there in the Redlands somewhere, kidnapped moments before the Trafalgar exploded. Then there was the matter of the Explorer. She’d taken Lucille’s news that the command crew was disbanded pretty hard. What would she do, once, if ever, she escaped from the condo? Then again, if all the facilities were as nice as her private whirlpool, why would she want to leave?
Then a hand gripped her by the hair and yanked her up out of the bubbles.
She stared grimly at Lt. Commander DiSalvo, hair a dripping mess. “You are in a world of trouble, buddy boy.”
“Here she is!” DiSalvo exclaimed, and Lucille poked her head into the bathroom.
“Busy planning our escape, Lieutenant?” Lucille asked with a disapproving frown, standing by the doorway, still in her Starfleet uniform. DiSalvo was still in his, too.
“No, I thought I’d leave that up to the two of you.” Hartley wrenched DiSalvo’s hand free. “Now if you two wouldn’t mind…”
“We’re planning a way to get out of here,” said DiSalvo.
“Good for you. Now leave.” Hartley settled back into the tub.
“You’re going to help us,” said Lucille, squatting next to the whirlpool. “This isn’t a request. It’s an order.”
“Whoops. Wouldn’t you know, I’ve been court martialled. I’m not a member of Starfleet anymore. I can’t help you. Sorry.” Hartley sunk back under the bubbles.
Lucille jerked her back up. “You’re in Starfleet as long as I say you are, Lieutenant! And you will help us plan a way out of here. Do you understand?”
“Excuse me!” Hartley cried, pushing Lucille backwards. The Starfleet captain slammed butt-first onto the bathroom tile, staring at Hartley ruefully. Hartley pulled a towel off the rack next to the tub. “But has it occured to either of you that I’m naked?”
“It isn’t anything I haven’t seen before,” DiSalvo muttered.
“Me neither,” Lucille said pointedly as he helped her up. “But we’ll give you two minutes to get dressed. We will be waiting outside.”
“You’re too kind,” Hartley muttered, and began draining the whirlpool. So much for her nice, relaxing soak.
Commander Peterman tapped her foot on the soft, dewy grass in the arboretum as Charlie relieved himself.
“Nice afternoon,” a familiar voice said behind her.
She glanced over her shoulder. “Fancy seeing you here, Captain.”
“That’s a cute dog,” Ficker said, walking over to Charlie and squatting. “Hey boy.” He rubbed Charlie’s ears. “You a good dog? Yes, I bet you are?”
Charlie lunged forward, knocking Ficker to the ground. He batted the captain relentlessly with his paws, smacking the glasses right off his face.
“Charlie!” Peterman cried. “Bad boy!” She jerked the golden retriever off Ficker and sheepishly helped him up. “Sorry about that, Captain!”
“No harm done,” Ficker said, picking up his glasses and dusting off the front of his uniform. “I…love…animals.”
“Well,” Peterman said, pulling Charlie toward the exit. “I have to get ready for that aerobics class now.”
“I’ll be there with bells on, Commander.”
“Can’t wait,” Peterman said noncomittally and pulled Charlie out into the corridor.
Captain Velara and Captain Baxter materialized in the middle of music and laughter.
Velara raised an eyebrow. “Coney Island.”
“Yep, land of hot dogs and thrill rides. Who could have come up with a better combination?”
“Indeed, I doubt anyone could.”
“Your transporter chief did a good job of pulling us out of there without tipping Eric off,” Baxter mentioned, as he and Velara headed for the ferris wheel. There wasn’t much of a line since it was a weekday afternoon.
“It was a simple matter. He merely tricked Eric’s sensors into initiating a repeating feedback loop, which–”
“Andy. Call me Andy.”
“Very well. Andy.”
“Velara, we’re here to have fun. Let’s agree not to talk about inventory or Starfleet for a while, okay?”
“Agreed,” Velara said, as she and Baxter sat down in the tiny, swinging ferris wheel car. The attendant snapped a bar in place over their laps and activated the wheel, sending them wheeling toward the sky.
“This is great!” Baxter said, as the wind sifted through his hair.
“Indeed,” Velara choked out next to him.
“Velara, are you turning a shade of…green?” Baxter asked with a grin.
Velara responded by quite noisily vomiting all over him.
Lt. Hartley emerged from the bathroom a little over two minutes after Lucille and DiSalvo barged in on her, hair wrapped in a towel. She wore her uniform t-shirt and pants, but didn’t bother with the turtleneck and tunic.
“Okay,” Hartley said, plopping down on her bed. “What’s the plan?”
DiSalvo and Lucille were sitting at the adjacent living area, thumbing through a pair of magazines.
“This is propaganda,” Lucille muttered, tossing the magazine down on a coffee table. “All about how great the ‘all-powerful lips’ are.”
DiSalvo nodded. “I just read a fashion review on robes and baldness.”
“Let me guess,” Hartley said. “They’re in this season?”
DiSalvo nodded gravely. “And for the forseeable future, according to this magazine.”
“Let’s get back on task, here,” Lucille said, standing up and pacing over to the vast viewport that overlooked the Redlands and docking facility where the Starshine warships were stored. “There has to be some way off this station.”
“Forceful ejection,” Hartley offered. She grinned. “But we already did that once, when we left your exploding ship.”
“Don’t remind me,” Lucille snapped.
“Listen,” Hartley said. “We’re due at dinner in a couple hours. I suggest we just find a couple guards with guns, overpower them, and take Sesil hostage. We can shoot our way to the docking port and steal a ship. Plain and simple.”
“I like it,” said DiSalvo.
“We run the risk, you realize, of being blown to bits by them,” Lucille said.
“Hey, I’d probably get tired of the whirlpool after a while anyway,” Hartley replied.
“Come on!” Peterman urged. “Lift your legs higher!”
Garak heaved breaths as “Duke of Earl” played over the Daystrom Surround speakers in the workout room. “Doctor…I…don’t know…how you…talked me…into this!”
“Simple!” Bashir said, not showing any signs of wearing out. “I needed an excuse to see Commander Peterman!”
“My dear Doctor…what about Ezri Dax?”
“We’re…seeing other people right now,” Bashir said, and grinned. “Besides…it’s not a longterm relationship I’m looking for with the good Commander.” “I figured as much.” Garak grimmaced as he did knee-bends. “You humans are nothing if not predictable.”
The song gradually came to an end and Peterman signaled for the aerobics class to stop. “Okay, everyone. That’s a ten minute break.” She grabbed a towel and slung it over her shoulder, walking over to the table where the audio access panel and her water bottle where. “Let’s see,” she tapped on the panel. “What to play next. ‘Rockin’ Robin?’ Or ‘Up on the Roof?’ No, I know. ‘Mama Said.’”
“How about, ‘My Girl?’”
Peterman sucked from her water bottle and turned around. “I don’t think we have that one on file.”
Captain Ficker leaned over her and tapped up a sequence on the panel. “Look, here it is.”
“Oh. So it is. Well, I don’t really…”
“What makes you say, what can make me feel that way?” Ficker asked with a grin, taking Peterman’s hand and twirling her like an expert ballroom dancer.
“Captain, I hardly think–” The members of her class that hadn’t stepped out were beginning to stare.
“My girl! My girl! My girl!”
“Captain!” Peterman exclaimed as Ficker dipped her.
“Talkin’ ‘bout my girrrrrrl! My girl!”
“Now wait just a moment,” Dr. Bashir said, approaching Ficker and Peterman. “The lady obviously wishes to be left alone.”
“Did I ask you?” Ficker asked.
“Both of you, leave me alone,” Peterman finally said, exasperated. “I’m a married woman!”
“Oh, that’s right,” Bashir said reflectively. “Well, nothing’s ever set in stone, right?”
“Yes!” Peterman cried. “Some things are!” She grabbed her water bottle and marched out of the classroom. “How about you two teach the rest of the class? I’m calling my f***ing husband!”
Ficker and Bashir looked at each other blankly.
“I’m game if you are,” Bashir grinned.
Ficker harrumphed and marched out of the classroom.
Captain Baxter hummed a vague tune as he relieved himself in the Coney Island Mens’ Room. Velara was next door in the Ladies’ Room completing the process the ferris wheel set in motion, that is, the total disgorgement of all her stomach contents. So much for the famed Vulcan metabolism.
The door to the Mens’ Room creaked open and Baxter heard plodding steps behind him. Someone was walking into the stall beside him. Great. He hated going with other people around.
After a few false starts and stutters, he finally finished urinating, jiggled, and walked over to the sink to wash up.
After scrubbing his hands, he stuck them in the warmer, which instantly evaporated all the residual water.
Then he turned on a heel and headed to the door. He passed the occupied stall beside him and heard an echoing, inhuman moan within.
He stopped at the door to the stall. “Sir? Are you okay?”
“Do you need me to get some medical attention for you, sir?”
“What can I do for you?”
And the door swung open. A meaty hand gripped him by the front of his uniform and jerked him in, slamming the door behind him.
Before he could see who did that, the hand shoved his head down into the toilet bowl.
Water burbled around Baxter’s head, then he felt the suction of a flush. The hand jerked his head back up, twisted it around to face his assailant.
Decked in tight polyester plaid, Irma Wilson grimaced. “Where’s Mirk, Captain Baxter?”
“Mu-Mirk?” Baxter stammered. “I, uh, I don’t know.”
“Not good enough!” Irma grabbed the struggling captain and shoved his head down into the toilet again.
Baxter was really starting to get ticked. He choked up water as she pulled him back out.
“Care to try that one again?”
“I swear, Irma, I don’t know where he is. He and Lieutenant Hartley haven’t reported in for more than a week.”
“Lieutenant Hartley is in our care,” Irma said. “But Mirk escaped the explosion and we can’t find him.”
“Explosion?” Baxter asked. “What explosion?”
“Oh, the Trafalgar. Did you not know about the attack on our beloved Redlands?”
“Yes, her too.”
Baxter pushed to standing, shoving Irma up against the wall of the stall. “Where’s my mom? Where’s Lieutenant Hartley?”
“They’re in our care. Safe for now…” Irma said. “Now… Mirk!”
“I don’t know where the hell he is!” Baxter cried. “I didn’t even know him and the others went on this…mission… whatever it was.”
Irma shoved him back against the opposite wall, lifting him up off his feet with amazing strength. “You think I believe that? You’re the one that has had the most contact with us. And you’re saying they didn’t even consult with you on the attack?”
“N-no, actually,” Baxter said. That made him even madder. How dare they attack the Starshine Kids without even talking to him. His own MOTHER didn’t even tell him. Damn it.
“Oh, don’t I miss the days when I could just peruse the flea markets and collect Star Trek memorabilia,” Irma said wistfully. “Remember those days, Andy?”
“You’re thinking about my ancestor, Irma. The 20-year old guy back in 1996.”
“Same difference,” Irma muttered. “Things are so complex now. No time to just sit back and enjoy life.”
“Sorry,” Baxter said half-heartedly.
“Oh well. I’m here already. I might as well kill you.”
Baxter winced in preparation for the clobbering he knew he was about to get. He’d probably have been overpowered by Irma even before she was endowed with special powers from the Critics.
Irma was about to smash Baxter’s head into the porcelain of the toilet bowl when the door to the stall blasted open and someone shouldered into Irma, smashing her against the toilet. Baxter squirmed out from under her, noticing a fire-red glow burning in Irma’s eyes.
“You…” Irma said. “I’ve been warned about you!”
“You give my brother a message, you bloated bitch!” Velara said. “You tell him to leave the Federation alone, or so help me I’ll track him down and give him the beating our parents never did!”
“I’d love to teach you a thing or two about the Starshine philosophy,” Irma said sweetly. “You certainly have a lot to learn. But there just isn’t time. I have to find Mirk.”
She smiled at Baxter. “Good to see you again, Andy. Live long and prosper. Ha ha. Hahahah. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!”
And she disappeared in a shimmer of red.
Baxter glanced up at Velara, rubbing his head. “You have a remarkable knack for covering up your human side. I’d never have known.”
“Thank you.” She helped Baxter to his feet.
“Mind telling me how you knew she was beating the crap out of me?”
Velara pointed at her left ear. “You do not think these things are merely for ornamentation, do you?”
“Are we finished with our…excursion?”
“I’d say so. I’ve certainly had enough for one day.”
“Then I would say a trip to Starfleet Command is in order.”
Baxter nodded. “Most definitely.”
Hartley poked at her ceasar salad half-heartedly as Sesil spoke at the front of the small banquet room.
“As you can see,” he said, pointing to the large viewer that dominated the room, “each condo complex comes complete with swimming pool, tennis courts, fitness center, and of course, a chapel in which to pray thanks to the Critics for putting you in such an affordable living space.”
Hartley looked around at the other people in the banquet room. She counted eight or nine different species. The forty or so people gathered all looked faintly confused. They must have been abducted as she, Lucille, and DiSalvo had been. She even recognized some survivors from the Trafalgar and the other ships sent to attack the Starshine Kids.
But she also noticed a sense of futility among the group. She sensed they would be content to just waste away in these prisons. They were quite comfy and well-decorated, but they were still prisons.
“As you can see, the lease is for a four-month period, with an option to renew. It’s an affordable twenty strips of latinum per month.”
Hartley munched her salad angrily. Beside her, Lucille cleared her throat. “Pair of guards coming, two-o’clock.”
“Got them in my peripheral,” DiSalvo whispered conversationally on the other side of Hartley.
“Ready one, two, three…”
“And let’s not forget the beautiful subspace vidvision package…” Sesil droned on. “Including the 24-hour Praising the Critics Channel.”
“GO!” Lucille cried.
Hartley shoved out of her chair, jabbing her salad fork in the eye of the guard that passed her table. He dropped his phaser rifle and Hartley grabbed it before it could hit the ground.
She quickly twisted it to wide beam and stunned an approaching cluster of guards.
“All hands, Taupe Alert!” Sesil called out, waving his hands in distress and ducking under the podium at the front of the room.
DiSalvo leapt onto the table and ran forward, dodging phaser blasts from approaching groups of guards, smashing the fine china and bowls of chunky chicken casserole, salad, and rice pilaf without remorse.
Sesil’s head poked up from behind the podium. He saw the huge man coming toward him. “Guards!” he cried.
But it was too late. DiSalvo was on him, smothering him.
Hartley grabbed a phaser rifle from one of the guards she shot and tossed it to Lucille. “Just remember not to turn that on me, Captain!”
“Wouldn’t dream of it!”
DiSalvo stood up, gripping Sesil by the ear.
“Ow! Ow! Ow!” Sesil cried. “Critics, help me!”
No one replied.
“March, nancy-boy,” DiSalvo grunted, shoving Sesil in front of him and grabbing a phaser rifle from another fallen guard.
“Well?” Hartley asked, bringing up the rear and staring back at the other captives. “Don’t just sit there! This is an escape!”
One by one the prisoners rose and ran to follow Hartley and the others.
It was a firefight all the way to the docking ring. For people who recently discovered peace, these people could fight, and were well-armed too.
Stupid fundamentalists, Hartley thought as she and the rest of the group blasted their way down the docking arm. It was a long corridor with an airlock at the end that led hopefully to one of the starshine vessels. The path was clear and the guard reinforcements hadn’t reached their position yet.
“It’s time to go, Sesil,” Lucille said, as she tapped open the airlock.
With a sigh, the airlock wheezed open and Hartley gasped.
Dizzying red vastness swirled outside. There was no ship docked here.
Hartley reached out and tentatively touched the open space in the doorway. A red forcefield flared to life.
“Whew,” said Hartley. That would explain why they weren’t sucked out of the corridor.
“I could have sworn there was a ship here,” Sesil said, scratching his bald head. “Sorry, gang.”
Lucille turned Sesil around and shoved him forward, to the other end of the throng of angry potential condo-dwellers. “Enough talk. Take us to the next airlock.”
When they emerged from the crowd they foudn Irma and a battalion of white-robed guards rushing up behind her.
“Not so fast!” she said. “You all will be staying for dinner, right?”
Sesil grinned. “Irma. About time!”
“I leave you alone for a few hours and you lose all our customers,” Irma snapped. “What kind of fruity nutcase are you, anyway?”
“The kind that’s your boss!” Sesil cried. “Now obliterate these people already!”
“My pleasure.” Irma glanced over her shoulder. “Guards…”
And the guards fired.
And the group found themselves aboard an unfamiliar and empty bridge. The consoles were similar to the designs on the Starshine station, so Hartley reasoned they were aboard one of the Starshine warships.
“Who did that?” Lucille asked, scratching her head.
The command chair whirled toward her and the others. “Me.”
“Mirk!” Hartley rushed forward and hugged the Maloxian with all her might. “Where the hell were you?”
“Learning about stuff,” Mirk said, turning the command chair back toward the front of the screen. “I had the help of a…kindred spirit.”
“You can explain it later. Can you pilot this thing?” Lucille asked.
“Not really,” Mirk admitted. “My…friend…brought you guys here. I just appeared a few minutes ago myself.”
“Fine,” Lucille said. “DiSalvo. You have five seconds to figure out the weapons on this thing. Hartley, you’re helm.”
“Where’s the helm?” Hartley asked.
“Or the weapons?” DiSalvo scratched his head.
A wraithlike thin figure materialized at the center of the bridge. She pointed to her left. “Weapons here,” to right, “helm there,” and directly behind the group. “Emergency exits to the fore and aft, decks four and five. Thank you for flying with the Starshine Kids. And good luck, Mirk,” she winked, and whisped out of existence.
“To you too, Lexi,” Mirk grinned. “Okay, you guys. Let’s get the shlemak out of here!”
Hartley fell into the seat behind helm, quickly deciphering the controls. They were pretty much like a Federation ship. She brought up the foreward view on the main screen at the front of the bridge and sent the warship surging forward.
“Weapons,” Lucille asked, pacing at the front of the bridge.
“Antiproton beams and some sort of focused plasma charges,” DiSalvo said, checking the panel that was spread out in front of him.
“Can you work them?”
“Good.” She watched the spiralling arms of the docking facility spread before her. The two damaged ships and two that were still being constructed waited patiently. Meanwhile, the two intact ships were rapidly approaching their position. “Target the docking facility and open fire.”
At DiSalvo’s command, weapons fire ripped out of the warship and blasted the facility, breaking off docking arms and sending the docked ships spiralling. Like it was target practice, DiSalvo blasted each of the tumbling ships repeatedly until they exploded.
“Hartley, put the station between us and the approaching vessels,” Lucille commanded. “And Mr. DiSalvo–do enough damage to make sure they don’t follow us.”
“Aye, sir.” Twinkling yellow beams lashed out at the sprawling station, blowing up whole condo sections, sending priceless red-lacquer furniture spinning out into cold space.
“Good enough,” Lucille said. “Lieutenant Hartley, get us out of here. Maximum warp.”
“Not even a please?” Hartley asked, blinking her eyes coyly.
“Do it, Hartley!”
“Right away, ma’am!” Hartley sent the warship hurtling out of the Redlands, then punched the warp engines up to nine point nine.
The stars streaked on the viewscreen.
“Course?” Hartley asked, once DiSalvo had made sure no one was following.
“Back to Earth,” Lucille said, collapsing into a nearby seat. “We have a lot of explaining to do.”
“And I have to save the galaxy,” Mirk announced from the command chair.
TO BE CONTINUED…