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!
“And out the port-side viewport, you’ll notice the planet Saturn,” Commander Conway said in a dull voice over the USS Republic’s comm system. “Famous for its rings. Note the dusty particles as we drift by the moon Titan. Saturn is known especially for its racy dance clubs and exotic restaurants. Please make a point to drop by the Ring of Fire Club after your tour for a free Grenthalman Ale, courtesy of the kind people at Starfleet Command.” He stabbed the button on his command chair. “Ford, remind me why I’m doing this.”
“Because Starfleet didn’t give you much other choice, and you’re not talented enough at anything else to find a job elsewhere,” Ford noted from his place at the squarish helm console at the front of the Constitution-class, coffin-like bridge.
“Right. I knew there was a reason.” He punched the ship- wide comm channel back on. “We’re now leaving Saturn orbit for Jupiter. Estimated time of arrival is fifteen minutes. I’ve just illuminated the ‘no gravity strap’ sign, so you are free to roam about the–”
ERRRR! ERRRR! ERRRR! ERRRR!
“What the hell was that?” Conway demanded.
“Automatic red alert, old style,” Ford said, checking the huge yellow radar screen next to his station. “Looks like an unidentified ship coming in on a vector close to us.”
“Evasive!” Conway called out. “Ensign Dawson, identify!”
“Hard to tell, sir,” Dawson said. “I’m picking up traces of technology similar to what the Starshine Kids used in their attack ship.”
“F***,” Conway said softly.
Dawson’s eyes widened. “And traces of Flarn technology!”
“Double f***!” Ford exclaimed.
“Shields up,” Conway said quickly. “All hands, this is–”
But it was too late. Conway watched the huge ship blast past them on the viewscreen, rocking the tiny USS Republic like she was a dinghy being run over by an aircraft carrier.
Conway struggled to stay in his chair, finally sliding to the deck with a painful thud as alarms of chaos blared around him.
He glanced up to the viewscreen. The ship headed straight for Earth. “Guess they didn’t find us much of a threat, huh?”
“What do we do?” Ford asked quietly from helm.
Conway gulped as he watched the ship sail toward Earth, as if on a direct collision course. “Find another means of employment, I suppose.”
“Pacing will do you no good, Captain,” Captain Velara observed from her place on the soft couch in the waiting area outside the conference room of Admirals Reno, Jacobs, and Oorse.
Captain Baxter had nearly worn a groove in the carpet in front of the couch since they’d come to Starfleet Command demanding answers about the supposed attack on the Starshine Kids hours earlier.
“Well it makes me feel better. We’ve been waiting to talk to the Admirals in charge of our section for what seems like forever. Admiral McGrath would never have kept us waiting so long.”
“It would seem Admiral McGrath’s ways of thinking have been dismissed across the board,” Velara said, raising an eyebrow.
Baxter resumed pacing. “Good point.” At the sound of a transporter hum, Baxter’s eyebrows shot up. He glanced in the direction of the hum.
When the figures materialized, his face fell. “Oh, it’s just you guys.”
J’hana and Tilleran seemed a bit put off. “Sorry to disappoint you, sir,” J’hana said gruffly.
“He’s upset about his mom,” Tilleran said. “Which is understandable, given the circumstances.”
“Indeed, the Starshine Kids are not gentle when they hold someone captive,” observed J’hana.
“Thanks for brightening my day, guys,” Baxter murmurred.
“We try to help,” Tilleran replied.
“Lieutenants,” Velara said, rising. “How does inventory training find you?”
“It finds me extremely frustrated and combative, Captain,” J’hana boomed. “I do not like it!”
“Good, J’hana,” said Velara. “Take those feelings and use them.”
J’hana cocked her head. “Use them…how?”
“Use them to build up a core of bitterness inside you. That is the only weapon you have against those whom you must inventory.”
Baxter looked back at J’hana. “It’s true. Belive me, you’ll be much more fearsome as an inventory officer. Ship’s security is child’s play in comparison.”
“Still, it would help if I had the discretion to kill them.”
“In time,” Velara said quietly.
Then, finally, the doors to the conference room creaked open. Admirals Oorse, Jacobs, and Reno shuffled out.
“Captain Baxter,” Reno said, taking the lead. “Your report about the activities of Ms. Wilson has been noted.”
“What about my mother? And Lt. Hartley? And Mr. Mirk?” Baxter demanded. “What about them? And what about the Starshine Kids?”
Jacobs held up a hand. “Enough, Captain. We believe we can answer all of your questions.”
Oorse bowed his white-haired head. “Follow us, if you please.”
“Come on,” Baxter said to J’hana and Tilleran.
“No,” Reno said sharply. “They are not cleared to come with us. They will return to their posts.”
Baxter gritted his teeth. Velara placed a steadying hand on his shoulder. “Do not let your emotions control you, Captain.”
“Right.” He glanced back at his former officers. “Back to the Greenspan, you two. I’ll fill you in later.”
“No, you won’t,” said Jacobs.
“Whatever. Let’s just get this overwith.”
“Do you wish me to stay behind as well?” asked Velara.
The admirals exchanged glances. “That won’t be necessary,” Oorse said. “You may come with us.”
The group moved quickly down the corridor, leaving Tilleran and J’hana alone in the waiting area.
“Well,” Tilleran said. “We’re still on break from the Greenspan until twenty-one hundred. What do you say we get a late dinner?”
“Agreeable,” J’hana said. “You choose the place.”
“Sisko’s?” Tilleran offered.
“Excellent choice.” J’hana turned to go, grasping Tilleran’s hand and interlacing her fingers with the Betazoid’s.
They walked like that a few meters, then stopped in their tracks.
“How did that happen?” asked J’hana, looking down at their joined hands.
“It was instinct,” Tilleran said. “It just felt right for you.”
“I think not,” Tilleran said, as the two continued on to the transporter bay. “It’s how you’re feeling deep inside, admit it.”
“It’s not unheard of to have a female friend. And to be affectionate with her,” Tilleran said.
“It is unheard of, at least on my planet.”
“Well we’re not on your planet.”
“Good point. Then we will continue to hold hands.”
“Let’s not get hasty. I’m starting to feel a bit uncomfortable myself.”
“I cannot seem to stop,” said J’hana. “Your hands are quite soft.”
Baxter and Velara walked quietly behind the admirals through the corridors of Starbase One. Baxter guessed from where they beamed in that they were heading for the docking bay. Had they recovered parts of his mother’s ship, perhaps?
He decided not to make any guesses until he saw for himself.
The admirals led Baxter and Velara down a side-corridor to an observation lounge.
It was dark and quiet inside. An attendant was busy scrubbing a table, but other than that, the place was empty. The morning rush had not arrived yet.
“We thought this would be a good vantage point from which to see this,” Oorse explained, leading the pair to the windows.
Baxter glanced out. An Excelsior-class ship was being repaired. An Akira-class vessel was on its way out the spacedock doors. And on the far end of the bay…
“Holy f***,” Baxter muttered.
“May I ask what that is?” Velara asked.
“I think the captain knows,” Reno said, and the admirals turned their eyes on Baxter.
“If I had to guess,” Baxter said slowly, “I would say it’s a cross between the Starshine Kids warship we’ve faced before and a Flarn battlecruiser.”
“You would be exactly right,” said Reno. “Aparently the Starshine Kids are now in possession of Flarn technology.”
“And,” said Oorse, “there are apparently more ships.”
“And you’ve captured one,” Velara said in near awe.
“Correct,” said Oorse.
“Actually, we didn’t capture it,” Jacobs said. Then, as if on cue, the door to the lounge opened and Lucille Baxter, Lt. Hartley, and Mr. Mirk walked in.
Baxter turned toward the door and beamed. “Mom!”
“Andrew, don’t start with me. It’s been a long couple of days.”
“You have a lot of explaining to do,” Baxter said. He looked to Hartley and Mirk. “And how did you two get caught up in this?”
“Your mother kidnapped us,” Hartley muttered.
“Your mother is resourceful,” noted Velara.
“And how have you been?” Lucille asked Baxter by way of smalltalk.
“Just snazzy,” Baxter said. “Let’s see,” he ticked off recent events on each finger, “my command has been taken away from me and turned into a cruise ship, my crew has been reassigned, and my mother nearly got herself killed attacking the Starshine Kids. I guess that pretty much sums it up.”
“Well, we’re here,” Lucille said. “You can…thank…your Lieutenant Hartley.”
“You mean you’re not Court Martialling me?” Hartley asked.
“Not yet,” Lucille said primly.
“You’re not Court Martialling any of my officers,” Baxter snapped.
“Former officers,” interjected Reno.
“You stay out of this!” Baxter barked, turning back to Lucille. “Now how did you all escape?”
“Mirk stole us one of those warships,” Hartley said, “to make a long story short.”
“And how did you go about that?” Baxter asked, amazed.
Mirk shrugged. “It’s a long story.”
“Indeed,” remarked Velara.
“Incidentally,” Baxter said, “Irma is out to get you, Mirk.”
“Don’t I know it,” Mirk said woefully.
“We will get you into a protection program,” said Oorse.
“Thanks for the offer, but I doubt that will help,” said Mirk.
“So…” Baxter turned back to the admirals. “What do you plan on doing with that monstrous ship?”
“That’s classified,” said Reno. “In your current position, you need not concern yourself with those matters.”
“Don’t you even care that me and my crew know more about the Starshine Kids than anyone else?”
“We are in possesion of all the facts,” said Oorse.
“Sure you are,” Baxter muttered.
“Regardless,” Reno said forcefully. “You have an assignment, and we expect you to carry it out. Your mother is finished debriefing, so we will allow you to return to Earth with her for some…quality time. Tomorrow, however, we expect you back at work. Is that understood?”
Baxter gritted his teeth. “Yes…sir.”
“Meanwhile,” Reno said, turning to Hartley and Lucille. “You two will be reassigned. Report to us tomorrow at Starfleet Command at 0800.”
“I do so hope we’re posted together,” Hartley said, gesturing for Mirk to follow her out of the observation lounge.
“And what would you have of me?” Velara asked.
“Return to your ship and begin your Inventory mission to the Argolis cluster,” said Reno.
“For now,” said Oorse.
“For now?” Velara asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Until you receive further orders,” Oorse explained conversationally.
“I see,” Velara said. She nodded at Baxter and turned to leave, hands clasped behind her back.
“Okay, mom,” Baxter said. “Let’s go. We have a lot to talk about.”
Lucille grimaced. “I’ve been dreading this.”
“How was your debriefing?” Mirk asked, as Lt. Hartley shuffled out of the conference room at Starfleet command.
Hartley collapsed on the leathery couch beside Mirk. “Draining. I feel like I was in there for hours.”
“Oh,” Hartley said distantly. “Yeah.”
“Well?” Mirk asked. “Where are you off to now?”
“Hah. They want me to work inventory.”
Mirk nodded. “That sounds nice. It’s got to beat being kidnapped by cultists and having to escape their compound.”
“I’m not going to do it,” Hartley said quickly.
Hartley looked at Mirk, now a bit more resolved. “I said I’m not going to do it. I’m quitting.”
Mirk cocked his head. “Starfleet?”
“Yep. So what are your plans?”
“You know, have some lunch, get a haircut…start a religion.”
Hartley smiled. “Need some help?”
Mirk’s face lit with joy. “I thought you’d never ask. All I have to do is get a few things and we’ll be set. How are you at breaking into starbases?”
Hartley grinned. “Let’s find out.”
Captains Andy and Lucille Baxter stared at each other across the breakfast table at Baxter’s house for many awkward minutes. Lucille shifted uncomfortably, playing with a toothpick holder and staring from time to time out the large picture window that overlooked the back yard.
“I think the grass needs a trim,” Lucille said finally.
Baxter leaned back and folded his arms. “It’s pitch black out there, mom.”
“I’m just guessing.”
A few more minutes of silence.
“What do you want me to say, Andy?”
Baxter leaned forward. “I want you to explain how you could take on a suicide mission to obliterate the Starshine Kids without even telling me.”
“Because I was ordered to. We went through this already.”
“But that’s not good enough! Family should come before duty!”
“Hahaha,” Lucille chuckled. “And you think that’s supposed to be enough for me to betray Starfleet?”
“It should be.” Baxter stood up and paced the kitchen. “Look, Mom: I have been through a lot of crap in the past few days. Starfleet is not the employer I once thought it was. They seem hell-bent on screwing me over at every turn.”
“Oh, Andy, does it always have to be about you?”
“What if you hadn’t made it, Mom?” Baxter asked. “What then?”
“You and your father would have recieved word that I’d been lost on a secret mission. The details would probably be declassified in a few years.”
Lucille shifted in her chair uncomfortably. “I don’t see what your problem is, Andy. I’m here now.”
“I just don’t believe you’d be part of this.”
“Part of what?”
“Part of Starfleet going totally nuts. No, it’s not just Starfleet. It’s the whole Federation!”
“Andrew,” Lucille said, reaching forward and grabbing Baxter’s hands. “I think you’re coming apart. You need to get some rest. And you need some counseling.”
“My wife’s taken care of that,” Baxter muttered.
“Oh, really. What do you mean?”
“She’s got an anal-retentive neurotic Vulcan visiting me every day to ask about my problems. It’s not so helpful.”
“How is Kelly, anyway?” Lucille asked dully.
“She’s the Cruise Director of the Explorer, now the Galaxy-Explorer. Something like a second-in-command.”
“I see.” Lucille nodded. “Well, good for her. As for you, I think you’ll make it through this.”
“Can I have a hug?”
Lucille sighed and circled the table to take Baxter in her arms. “There you go, Andrew. Just let it all out. Mommy’s here now.”
“Oh, Mom, this Inventory job really sucks,” Baxter moaned.
Just then the viewer in Baxter’s kitchen snapped on. It was Peterman.
“Andy, I…what the hell?”
Baxter looked over Lucille’s shoulder at the screen, quickly rubbing the tears off his face with his sleeve. “Kelly?”
“We need to talk, Andy,” she said, glaring right at Lucille. “Alone?”
“Of course,” Lucille said. “I’ll just go back to my apartment until I report for reassignment.”
“No you won’t,” Baxter said. “Take the guestroom.”
“Fine, if you insist,” Lucille sighed. “I might as well go up there and call Harlan. I should let him know what’s been going on.”
“That would be a great idea.” Baxter turned to Peterman as Lucille slipped out of the flapping kitchen doors. “Well?”
“Don’t ‘well’ me! I’m calling to make up.”
“You’re saying we’re fighting?”
“Haven’t we been?”
“Kelly, I don’t know. I’m just really confused right now.” Baxter leaned his head back to stare at the ceiling and he rubbed his eyes. “I’m beginning to think I should just quit Starfleet and join the Breen Alliance.”
“Don’t be silly, Andy. The Breen would chew you up and spit you out. You’re just going through a life change. You’ll adjust in time. Have you been talking to Counselor Telvin?”
“I sure have,” Baxter admitted. “He hasn’t been a fantastic help. He talks about his problems more than mine.”
“Give it time.”
“So…how’s life on the…Galaxy Explorer?”
“Not exactly what I expected it to be.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t really want to go into details. It’s just not the same ship it used to be. So many of the familiar faces are gone.”
“Oh, yes. That’s because Starfleet forced us to leave, right?”
“Andy,” Peterman sighed. “Please don’t make this any more difficult than it already is.”
“So what do you want me to do?” Baxter asked, when behind Peterman on the viewscreen, the door to her quarters slid open. In walked Alvin Ficker, carrying a large bottle of what looked like champagne.
“Make up to me, Kelly…” he cooed. “Then make sweet love to me…” He glanced at the viewscreen. “Ah, Captain Baxter! Enjoying inventory?”
“FICKER!” Baxter screamed at the top of his lungs.
Peterman glared over her shoulder at Ficker. “Captain, you get out of my quarters right now!” Her head whipped back to face Baxter. “Andy, this is not what it looks–”
Baxter pushed out of his chair and ran up to the screen mounted next to his replicator. “You son of a bitch, you stay away from my wife!”
“I’ve tried, Captain,” Ficker said with a grin, popping the cork. “But SHE just can’t stay away from ME!”
Peterman pushed Ficker out of sight of the viewer. “Andy, calm down…this is not–”
“No no no no no no no noooooooooooooooo!” Baxter cried, and slammed his fist repeatedly into the screen until the plastic cracked. He slammed a button on the side console that shut the screen off.
“Son, be quiet down there. I’m trying to talk to your father over a bad subspace connection!” Lucille cried from above.
“What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” Peterman asked, turning on Ficker, eyes afire.
“Just trying to make up for that little mess down at the aerobics class. I came on a little too strong,” Ficker said with an easy grin. “Champagne?”
Peterman shoved Ficker toward the door. “Get…out.”
“Surely you jest…”
“I…do…NOT…jest!” Peterman cried, shoving again. Ficker stumbled back toward the door. “You…get…OUT!” The doors parted and allowed Peterman to push Ficker out of her quarters so hard he stumbled to the deck. “And don’t come back!”
Ficker sat there on the deck staring at the door to Peterman’s quarters. “That’s one tough nut to crack.”
“I’m going to kill them,” Baxter grumbled.
He’d headed over to Dr. Browning’s private lab at Starfleet Medical’s Xenonutrition Complex on the way to work that morning, hoping she’d be able to heal his fist from where he smashed it into the viewscreen, and possibly give him some advice.
“Don’t you think that’s a bit rash?” Dr. Browning asked neutrally, waving the wand of the tissue regenerator over Baxter’s damaged hand. He’d really smashed that viewscreen up good.
“She’s cheating on me, Janice!”
“You don’t know that for a fact.” Browning placed the regenerator back into its case and placed the case in a drawer. She then waddled over to the replicator. “Large chocolate sundae, please.”
“It’s oh-nine hundred,” Baxter said in amazement, watching Browning waddle across her lab back to his biobed.
“So?” Browning asked, dishing a spoonful of the fudge- covered ice cream into her mouth.
Baxter shook his head. “Listen, he was in her quarters. I know what I saw.”
“You saw him trying to make advances on Kelly,” Browning said. “Which he also did when he ran into her for the first time on that starbase more than a year ago.”
“I guess that’s true. But he looked very comfortable there. Like that’s where he belonged.”
“You’d be comfortable too, if you were courting a woman whose husband was lightyears away,” Browning observed, and scooted up on the biobed next to Baxter with a grunt. Her rear end slipped on the edge of the bed several times as she tried to right herself. Finally, Baxter pulled back on her arm, straining under the weight.
“Thanks,” she said sheepishly.
“You know, you’ve really ballooned over the last couple days,” Baxter observed.
“The pregnancy is advancing,” Browning said. “Our estimates of when the little tyke will be born are all going out the window. And my ankles have doubled in size.”
“Changeling versus human chemistry, I guess?” Baxter asked.
“Something like that. So, we were talking about you…” Browning finally said. “You and Kelly love each other more than anyone I’ve ever seen. This is just a…rough patch.”
“Like between you and Chris…”
“NOT like between Chris and me,” Browning said sharply. “We’re just good friends now.”
“Andy, I’m trying to help you here.”
“I know, Janice, I know. It’s just driving me crazy having her on the Explorer so far away with that bastard. I have no idea what they could be doing!”
“You have to trust her, Andy. Did that ever occur to you?” Browning said it gently, not accusingly.
“I guess not,” Baxter admitted.
“I think you should go call her and explain that you aren’t going to leave her. She’s probably scared out of her mind right now.”
“Okay, I will.” Baxter slid off the biobed. “Thanks, Janice.”
“And Andy?” Browning asked as Baxter walked toward the exit of her lab.
“Yes?” he turned.
“Could you help me down from here?”
Commander Peterman paced her office back and forth, Charlie following obediently at her side.
“Charlie, go sit down,” she ordered, not looking down at him. She wrung her hands. “Charlie, I mean it. Sit down. You’re not in danger of losing a husband.”
“Arf!” Charlie replied.
“Yes, I know you love him too. But it’s different for me. You just wouldn’t understand.”
“Exactly my point.”
“Varner to Peterman,” came a voice over the comm system.
“What is it, Lieutenant?” she asked distractedly.
“We have a subspace communication coming in from the Starship Greenspan.”
“I wonder what they want.” Peterman swung around behind her desk and activated the terminal. The symbol for Starfleet Inventory, a clenched fist holding a standard-issue padd full of lightening bolts, blinked up on the screen. “Oh. J’hana and Tilleran transferred there. One of them probably just wants to chat about the new assignment.”
To her suprise, Captain Velara appeared on the screen.
“Commander. Do you have a moment?”
“I suppose,” Peterman said. The Vulcan’s appearance on her screen caught her totally off-guard. “What can I help you with?”
“I have just left Earth. Your husband seemed to be in a state of total confusion about recent events.”
“What events are you talking about?”
“I thought for sure he would have told you.”
“Told me what?”
“The Captain and I were involved in something on Earth that you should be apprised of. He must be afraid to tell you because it might worry you needlessly.”
Peterman folded her arms. “Is that so?”
“Yes, but I feel a certain caution is justified, in case such a circumstance should befall you as well.”
“Well, as it happens, I’ve been worried about the same thing.”
“As well you should. My purpose is just to keep you apprised of current events, Commander.”
The pit of Peterman’s stomach burned like hot warp plasma. “Well, thank you very much for being honest. I hope you and the captain enjoyed your little…incident.”
“Indeed we did not. He had his head shoved in a toilet and I bruised an elbow.”
Boy, Vulcan mating rituals sure were weird. That made things even worse. Peterman seethed. “That’s enough, Captain! You’ve done more than enough, thanks!”
“I am glad to be of help. Stay cautious, Commander.”
“Oh, I will.” Peterman punched the button on her terminal and angrily blew hair out of her face. She stared at the blank terminal for a good few minutes.
“Varner to Peterman.”
There was a long pause. “Uhh…you’re getting another communique. This one from Earth.”
“Oh. Good. Andy. Put it through…” Peterman said through gritted teeth.
The Inventory insignia appeared once again and was replaced with an image of Captain Baxter sitting at his desk.
“Hey, Kelly. Listen, I think we need to talk.”
Peterman bit her lip. “No kidding.”
“I’ve been on-edge lately because of something that happened here yesterday.”
“In your office!” Peterman growled.
“No, no. In a bathroom on Coney Island.”
“Coney…Island…” Peterman’s eyes watered. “Our place.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. Listen, I don’t want to get into details right now, especially since this channel isn’t secured. But I want you to stay sharp there. Be ready for anyone to try anything.”
“Oh, I am.”
“What’s wrong, Kelly?” Baxter asked, narrowing his eyes.
“I know all about what happened in that bathroom, Andy. Velara was nice enough to fill me in.”
“Oh. I wish she hadn’t gone behind my back like that.”
“I for one am glad she did. Though I wish you’d had the guts to tell me yourself. Listen, I know you’re mad at me, but that’s no excuse to–”
“I didn’t expect it, Kelly! She jumped me!”
“Sure she did. Like you had nothing to do with it.”
“I sure wasn’t looking for that to happen.”
“I bet not.”
“Anyway, it’s all sorted out now. I briefed Starfleet, and thought I should tell you too.”
“YOU BRIEFED STARFLEET!” Peterman’s fingers dug into the surface of her desk. “WHAT ON EARTH DID YOU BRIEF STARFLEET ABOUT?”
“I thought they had a need to know. They’ve been monitoring this situation for months, apparently. They even sent my mom and Lt. Hartley in to try to break things up.”
Now that Peterman would have enjoyed seeing, at least a little bit, but she was too angry to use her imagination. “Stop right there, Andy. I don’t want to hear any more!”
“Kelly, I’m just telling you this so the same thing won’t happen to you.”
“Don’t be so sure it won’t, buddy.” And Peterman switched off the viewer, leaving a confused-looking Baxter on the other end of the comm line wondering just what the hell she was talking about.
“…mistook a pregangleonic nerve for a post-gangleonic fiber!” Julian Bashir said, slapping his knee with delight.
“Interesting,” Guinan said, staring out the viewport of the Calypso Cafe. She loved to listen, but this guy was boring the decorative hat right off her head.
“It’s quite funny, really.”
“I’m sure it is. Now, if you don’t mind–” Guinan froze, her hand trembling on her glass of El Aurian sparkling water.
“Guinan? Are you all right?”
“I feel something very…harsh…coming this way.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Not without another trip through the all-you-can-eat brunch buffet.”
“Okay. Wait right here.” Bashir stood and headed over to the buffet, just as he saw Commander Peterman barrel through the doors to the Cafe, on an apparent course right for him.
“Commander, is there something I can–MMMPPFF!” And she kissed him, long, hard, and ravenously.
At the bar, Garak observed the scene with disgust. “Oh, please!”
Idly wondering what Kelly was so irked about, Captain Baxter grabbed his uniform jacket and headed out of his office. In a few minutes he was supposed to meet Dr. Browning for lunch. As he approached the doors, they opened to admit his assistant, Eric. “Oh, Eric. There you are. Guess you were on break when I got here.”
“You!” Eric cried, shoving Baxter up against the back wall of the office. He was surprisingly strong. “Where were you!”
“What do you mean? I went to see my doctor because I had a bit of an…accident last night. So I took the morning off. I did that on the Explorer all the time. What’s the big deal?”
“This is NOT the Explorer, sir!” Eric seethed. “Here we run things professionally. I’m not accustomed to such gross negligence to one’s duty!”
“Eric, you really need to calm down,” Baxter suggested.
“You don’t understand. I’ve been fielding calls all morning. Starfleet wants to know where you are. Someone named Irma keeps calling and you have stacks and stacks of work waiting! How do you expect me to keep this office running smoothly when you’re always gallivanting around the planet!”
“I…I…don’t know,” Baxter admitted. So, Irma was still after him!
“Did you ever stop to think about my feelings? Did you realize that I was left on a Gorn outpost by my parents when I was three? I was raised by Gorn! And not nice Gorn, either! I have serious abandonment issues. I worked through them with a counselor, but I still have a way of freaking out when my supervisors desert me!”
“I’m…sorry, Eric,” Baxter said weakly. “I’ll try to do better.”
Eric let him drop to the floor. “I won’t hold my breath.”
Baxter stood and brushed himself off. “You know, I’m meeting with Counselor Telvin this afternoon. Maybe you’d like to reserve an hour or so with him? I’ll wager those abandonment issues aren’t totally worked out.”
“You’d be right about that,” Eric said. He sat down behind his desk and began tapping officiously at a padd as Baxter left the suite.
“I feel just terrible about this, Julian,” Commander Peterman said, zipping up her outer uniform jacket and collapsing in her couch opposite Bashir, who sat very uncomfortably in Baxter’s thick leather Lay-Z-Being recliner.
“No problem. It’s understandable.”
“Yes. As well he should.” Bashir’s eyes darted over to the doorway that led to the bedroom. Even now, Charlie jumped up against the forcefield that kept him from leaping into the living room and attacking Bashir again.
“How are your burns?” Bashir asked, by way of making conversation. “I could get you a topical cream of some sort…”
“No, no, I’m fine.”
“I’m really sorry about that.”
“You couldn’t help it. Charlie hit your arm just as you were getting the hot raktajeeno out of the replicator. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Dr. Bashir, I’m very sorry I involved you in my personal problems. It was wrong of me to make out with you in the middle of the Calypso Cafe.”
“Actually, I rather enjoyed it.”
Peterman frowned. “I know. But I’m a married woman. I shouldn’t have.”
“Problems with Captain…” Bashir searched his memory banks. “Baxter?”
“Yes, actually. But I’d rather not go into it.”
“You know, Commander, you might find me a very good listener if you gave me the chance.”
“You may be right. Unfortunately, I’m not going to give you the chance.”
Peterman stood. “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer it if you left now.”
“Left? But we’re just now getting to know each other.”
“I was an idiot, Doctor. Just forget the last hour never happened.”
“Kelly,” Bashir said, touching Peterman’s shoulders in a way that made her feel very uncomfortable. “I couldn’t.”
Peterman shoved Bashir toward the door, and when it opened, she shoved him out. “Try.”
The door closed and Peterman slapped her hands together. A job well done. Now all she had to do was decide how to deal with the matter of Andy cheating on her. He seemed so cavalier about it over the comm. Like he was more concerned that she would go out and do the same, rather than be worried about the effect his actions would have on their relationship. What did he take her for? An intergalactic floozy? With the exception of her little interlude with Bashir, she’d been totally faithful, with every intention of staying that way forever. But Baxter…
She preferred not to think about it. But she had to. She couldn’t stay married to someone she couldn’t trust. But the alternative…
She preferred not to think about it.
“Ficker to Peterman.”
Peterman cringed. Not now. “Peterman here.”
“We’re having a reception tonight in the arboretum. I’d like you to go with me.”
“Captain, that’s not…”
“It says right in the Galaxy Explorer handbook that the Cruise Director shall accompany the Captain to all ceremonial events.”
“How could Starfleet write a handbook on this? We’ve been in operation for less than a week!”
“Don’t ask me. I’ll pick you up at your quarters in two hours. Be wearing something revealing. Ficker out.”
“Oooooh!” Peterman screamed and beat the couch cushions furiously.
“I’m really worried about Kelly.” Baxter swiveled back and forth in his desk chair. “I mean, what if Irma attacks her too? The woman’s omnipotent. It’s not like there’s an easy way for me to protect her. I’d feel so much better if I was on the ship with her. But as it is I’m here on Earth, light years away and impotent as a Binar.”
“That is a problem,” Captain Ramses of the Victory said quietly, staring down at his padd, sitting uneasily in the chair opposite Baxter’s desk. He was an older man with thin gray hair and a pushbroom moustache. “But what exactly does it have to do with the delay my vessel is experiencing due to your annual inventory audit?”
Baxter had been staring out at the shuttles taking off and landing outside his office window. He turned back to look at Ramses, his expression hardening. “It has to do with my delicate emotional state, Captain. And if I don’t talk out these feelings, my emotional state might spill over in my work. And that might cause more delays!”
“Damn. Where’s my counselor?”
“I don’t really know.”
“Eric!” Baxter stabbed a button on his desk. Eric popped up on the terminal screen.
“Where’s Counselor Telvin?”
“I don’t know. He’s five minutes late for his appointment. Should I contact his office?”
“Please.” Baxter stared at Ramses. “And tell the inventory crew on the Victory to be extra thorough, please.”
Ramses shivered, struggling to hold tears back. “Please, Captain, no more…”
“You’ll be free to go once my counselor gets here, buddy. Until then, there’s the matter of me losing my ship. Let me tell you a bit about the Explorer. She was a fine ship. We got her just as the Federation faced an errant Flarn ship poised to destroy Earth…”
God Almighty, thought Ramses. This is what hell must be like!
Counselor Telvin looked nervously at the chronometer on his office wall. He was running late for his daily appointment with Captain Baxter. Unfortunately, some strange large woman had come into his office as he was preparing to leave, begging to be seen.
He graciously agreed, more out of a feeling that he didn’t have any choice than anything else.
Telvin really was thankful to Commander Peterman for pulling some strings to get him a cushy practice in San Francisco. The only string attached was that he had to see her husband on a regular basis to help him deal with the loss of the Explorer. A fair enough price, Telvin considered. But he was in dire jeopardy of breaking the agreement, what with this woman prattling on about feeling displaced from time, caught up in the flurry of events beyond her control, with powers she didn’t understand.
Telvin’s hand jiggled the cup of Betazoid leaf tea as he listened. The woman, who’d identified herself simply as Irma, was spread out on the fainting couch next to his chair. She spilled over a bit, but Telvin didn’t hold that against her. He actually found large women somewhat attractive.
“I’m not a fanatic, Counselor,” Irma said, turning on her side and propping her head on her hand so she could face Telvin. “I’m just your average American gal from Hampton Roads, Virginia. I like Science Fiction and talk shows. I had an adorable little dog named Tribble, who we had to leave behind on Twentieth century Earth. I loved that dog like no one else.” Irma’s eyes teared up, her face red. “You ever loved an animal, Counselor Telvin?”
“Like an animal, maybe,” Telvin considered. He reached over to his desk and grabbed a kleenex. “Here, ma’am, blow your nose.”
“Thank you.” Irma blew, a messy, honking, splattering affair. She placed the tissue on the desk and leaned up, then forward, to stare at Telvin. “Mr. Telvin, may I ask, what’s your story?”
“Ah, you don’t want to here me kvetch all day.”
“No, I insist.”
“I’m just your average half-Vulcan psychotherapist with a firm grounding in the Judaic faith. What more is there to tell?”
Irma considered that. “You could start by telling me all you know about the USS Explorer.”
“The Explorer?” Telvin shrugged. “I’ve been aboard her before. Nice ship. Her former captain is a bit loony, though. Please don’t tell anyone I said that.”
“Scout’s honor,” Irma grinned, crossing three fingers against her chest. “This captain you speak of…his name is…Baxter?”
“Well,” Irma grinned. “And he’s the FORMER captain, you say? How’d that happen?”
“I don’t know all about the specifics. I just know Starfleet turned the Explorer into a cruise ship.”
“A CRUISE ship! How charming. I’d like to visit that ship.”
“I’m sure you could get a ticket…” Telvin said, a bit uneasily. When did the session turn into an interrogation–with him as subject? He reached deep into his counseling training for a proper response. “Now, Irma, we’re here to talk about you, not me.”
“True, true. Should we take this somewhere else, then?”
“Somewhere…else?” Telvin shook his head. “Sorry, I can’t. Actually, I’ve got an appointment to see Captain Baxter right now.”
“You do, huh?” Irma grinned. “I do too. But we’ll save that for later. Now I’m more interested in you.”
“You…” Telvin gulped. “Are?”
Suddenly, for some reason, Telvin began to feel very uncomfortable.
“Come in,” Admiral Oorse said serenely, turning in his chair to face the large doors to the conference room.
Lucille Baxter stood in the doorway. “You asked to see me?”
“Yes, Commodore. Have you had ample time to get used to your new ship?”
“The crew of the Trafalgar is getting used to things quite well. They’ve had great training.”
“Indeed.” Oorse raised an eyebrow. “Now. Why I’ve called you here. We have your new assignment.”
Lucille felt a wave of relief. She’d been pacing the deck of the Pathfinder, her new ship, all afternoon awaiting reassignment. Not to mention trying to find a tactful way to tell her son that she not only outranked him now, but also got a spanking new ship, whereas his former ship was off exploring “love” or some other pedantic notion.
Oorse handed Lucille a padd. “Here is a detailed explanation. No doubt you were wondering where Lt. Hartley was this morning?”
“I figured she overslept.” Being part of Baxter’s crew, Lucille thought to herself, it made perfect sense.
“Indeed she did not. Instead she resigned from Starfleet. We suspect she has gone off with that Mirk fellow to start a new religion.”
“Good for them.”
“We want them brought in.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Oorse folded his hands in his lap. “Commodore, the Federation is at a crucial stage in its development right now. There will never be a better time for opportunists and traitors to seek to destabilize it. People like Mr. Mirk and your Lt. Hartley friend.”
“She’s not my friend.”
“Whatever the case, we want them both brought in.”
“But do you have any proof?”
“That’s none of your concern. Please be on your way.” Oorse turned around in his chair. The conversation was apparently over.
Lucille turned on a heel for the door, stopping when she reached the threshold. “One thing, Admiral.”
“You’re pushing my patience, Commodore.”
“What if they don’t come willingly?” Obviously, they wouldn’t.
“Haha. In that case, Commodore Baxter, you may indeed use force.”
Lucille cracked her knuckles. This would be fun.
“Are you sure we’re not going to get caught?” Mirk asked fearfully as he trailed Hartley through the massive cargo facility on Starbase One. Stacks of cargo containers filled the stadium- sized room, with barely enough room for a person to squeeze in between.
Hartley shook her head. “I’m probably still in the Starfleet computers. My access code was still good. What’s to worry about?”
“I don’t know. I just have a bad feeling.”
“If you still had your powers, I’d be worried.”
“You know, that hurt.”
“There it is!” Hartley stopped so suddenly Mirk slammed into her back.
He rubbed his nose. “That hurt, too.” He looked up at the cargo container Hartley was pointing at. “Wow. I can’t believe we actually found it, what with all these other containers.” The bold words “USS EXPLORER - NCC 87968 - PERSONAL EFFECTS - NFN MIRK” were scrawled on the front of the yellow, octagonal container.
“Maybe it was your Director-given instinct,” Hartley giggled.
“Hey, if you’re going to help me start this religion, you’d better start taking it seriously,” Mirk warned.
“Whoa, sorry. All hail the Directors.”
“Now help me get this thing open.” Hartley cracked the container open and shined her palm beacon inside. “Jackpot.”
The container was filled with brown sacks, which Mirk informed Hartley contained all the candles, incense, fruit, and other props needed to practice your own mini-Maloxian faith. The rest of the container was filled with books. Volumes 1-8 of the Maloxian Religious Doctrines, and a huge yellow book labeled “Maloxitarianism for Dummies.”
In the very back of the container, Hartley saw a silver- metallic suitcase that was roughly half her size. It was labeled “uniform.”
“What’s in there?” she asked.
“That’s your uniform.”
“Someone has to be the mascot of the New Maloxitarian Orthodoxy.”
Hartley gulped. “Mascot?”
“There goes the last passenger of the day,” Lt. Ford said with relief, watching the transporter indicator on his panel light up.
Commander Conway stood up and stretched. “And how many trips around the solar system has that been today?”
“Too many,” sighed Ford. “And if one more snotty kid calls me ‘Captain Pike,’ I’m going to kill him.”
“You and me both,” Conway grumbled. He, Dawson, and Ford headed for the turbolift. Conway stepped to the back of the lift and twisted the handle. “Residence deck.”
The turbolift thrummed for several quiet moments.
“I need a hot bath and a cup of coffee,” Conway muttered as the turbolift thudded to a halt.
“I’d settle for just the bath.” Ford winked at Dawson as the lift settled to a stop at the residence deck.
“Oh, please.” Dawson hurried out of the lift and Ford followed after.
“Just a quick bath! You can do all the scrubbing!”
Conway stepped out after them, thankful he was heading in the opposite direction.
He walked up to the doors to his quarters and keyed them open, stepping in and unzipping his uniform top.
“Bucky, I’m home!” Oddly, he thanked Peterman (though not to her face, naturally) for making him take Bucky, her Welsh corgi, with him to the Republic. She called it an ‘extended loan.’ He’d formed an odd bond with the dog. The strange andimal understood him. He was quiet when Conway wanted to read, or watch a NASCAR clip. He required very little maintenance. He had stubby little legs, the head of a German Shepard, and incredibly alert ears. And he was a warm body to wake up to, which Conway sorely needed.
“Bucky?” Conway looked under the couch and endtable in the main portion of his cabin. No corgi. “Bucky!”
This wasn’t like Bucky at all. The other thing Conway appreciated was that he always greeted the commander promptly.
“Huh.” Conway sat down on his couch and sighed. The dog just couldn’t have disappeared. Could a higher power be toying with him? It would explain why so much in his life had gone wrong.
And aboard the Starshine, the angular, red ship that had threatened the Explorer on various occasions, the original Starshine Kids flagship, Irma Wilson cackled like a banshee.
She held Bucky the Welsh corgie up in the air, spinning in her command chair, staring in the frantically barking puppy’s fearful eyes.
“Yes, yes, this is only fair! Commander Conway tried to take Tribble away from me, and now his mutt is mine!”
“We’re still inside the subspace fissure. No Starfleet sensors have detected us,” noted the bald Nausicaan at helm. “Course, Irma?”
“Back to the Redlands,” Irma said dismissively. She shoved out of her chair and handed the Welsh corgi to her helmsman. “And get him washed. He smells like coffee.”
“What about our ship? Shouldn’t we try to get it back?”
“Let Sesil worry about that,” Irma scoffed.
“As you wish.” The Nausicaan carefully took the wriggling Bucky from Irma and disappeared into the side turbolift.
That done, Irma turned to the hyperventilating Vulcan at the rear of the bridge. “Now, as for you. We need to resume our talk.”
“I-I-I have to go,” Telvin stammered.
“Dear,” Irma said soothingly. “You’re not going anywhere, except back to Shiney Estates with me, you fat little bundle of joy!”
Telvin gulped. He was really late for his appointment with Captain Baxter now.
Cruise Director’s Log,
Stardate 54003.6. I’m accompanying the captain to a gala reception in the arboretum for all our honored guests. The toast of the Federation will be on hand to celebrate the Galaxy Explorer’s first cruise, and Yeoman Briggs made me the most stunning taupe sequined dress I’ve ever seen. The spaghetti straps alone are a work of art. And yet I feel uneasy. Somehow nothing on this ship seems the same as it was since the command crew left and it was converted into a cruise ship. But don’t get me wrong, I just love the idea.
Commander Peterman stepped through the arboretum doors and down a long receiving line framed by droopy willow trees and lit by effervescent rainbow lighting. Festive tropical music and bongos thrummed in the background. People snapped imager pictures of her as she proceeded toward the end of the line.
Captain Ficker stood there, arm outstretched for her, like a groom. Peterman grimaced inwardly, but kept a wide smile pasted on the whole time.
“Guinan, good to see you again! Lovely hat! Dr. Bashir, that’s a great tux! Mr. Garak, charmed as always! Ah, the Ro…chink…oes…” Peterman managed to stammer out.
“You look stunning, Kelly,” Ficker said, staring in awe at Peterman’s floor-length golden sequined dress. He took Peterman’s arm and lead her to the head table, set at the rear of the massive arboretum, facing scores of coconut-and-fruit laden tables. As Ficker helped her into her seat, Peterman looked up at the breathtaking view out the huge overhead windows. Stars blazed by–Galaxy Explorer was heading for the Betazed system at high warp.
“Welcome, welcome, everyone!” Ficker said, taking the podium at the center of the head table as everyone made their way to their seats.
Peterman noticed Yeoman Briggs flitting from table to table, fussing with decorations and frantically adjusting his oversized fedora hat.
The music died down until it barely thrummed in the background. “We’re here to celebrate our embarkation on a new adventure,” Ficker said, reading from a padd on the podium. “An adventure to discover new worlds and new species, to seek out new lives, and life forms, to go boldly with prominent Federation citzens, where no prominent Federation citizen has gone…boldly… before.”
Peterman covered her face. She wished she could have helped him write that speech. Damn split infinitive. Were the people in the crowd really buying all that…crap?
Judging by the booming applause that bounced off the walls of the arboretum, they certainly were.
“Now, enjoy your meal of breaded razorbeast cutlets and pickled asparagus over saffron rice. Ensign Madera, our ship’s harpist, will be taking requests throughout the evening.”
Ficker took his seat beside Peterman, all grins. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Look at all of them milling about, having the time of their lives.”
The roaring of the crowd was beginning to drive Peterman nuts.
“It’s great.” Peterman looked around for one of the servers. “I’d really love an iced tea.”
“All that and more, Kelly,” Ficker smiled, “all that and more.”
At that point, Peterman finally realized she wanted off the Galaxy Explorer more than anything.
The Inventory Mothership Greenspan swept into the Lasaria system, beaming their Advance Inspection teams to the three inhabited planets. Each team was made up of two Chief Inventory Inspectors. Each Chief Inventory Inspector carried the requisite padd, tricorder, and phaser. Their purpose was to surprise and intimidate. They beamed into assembly halls, offices, and corridors, in strategic formations, at pre-planned moments that assured that they would not be expected.
Captain Velara stood before the viewscreen, watching multiple images come through the Inventory teams’ tricorders. Officers beamed in at the various colony administration offices throughout the system, at the outpost facilities, ship maintenance yards, in the bathrooms and bedrooms and back yards and observation posts.
A smile tugged at Velara’s lips but she kept it down. “Rifkin. Are there any sensor irregularities in this system?” She looked back at her rookie tactical officer.
“No, sir,” said the roundish, bearded human man. “Do you expect something out of the ordinary during this mission?”
Velara raised an eyebrow and stared back at the images on the screen. One image shifted to the outside view: space streaming by the Constellation-class Greenspan as it threaded through the Lasaria system. After a long pause, she responded. “Absolutely.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I have a…feeling.”
“Pardon me for asking, sir, but are you saying you have instincts?”
“Might I remind you that I am half human, Ensign.”
“Of course.” Rifkin went back to his panel, scared he had touched a nerve, alienated his new captain somehow.
Velara frowned at the screen. She could feel Sesil out there somewhere in the Alpha Quadrant and it ate at her. Why must she carry the burden of this dysfunctional family? She’d done her duty more than adequately, and again and again it seemed as though it was not good enough. And Sesil was out there to undermine everything she worked for.
“Keep your instinct armed, Ensign Rifkin,” Velara said simply, and turned on a heel for her readyroom.
“Mirk, I feel like an idiot.” Megan Hartley stood at the main entrance to the Titan’s Gate spaceport on Mars, a popular jumping-off place for interstellar travelers that didn’t want to bother with the chintz and spectacle of Earth.
“The uniform looks great on you,” Mirk said as he handed out clumps of grapes to passing travelers. Attached to the clumps were little notes that said “Try Maloxitarianism,” and “The Maloxitarian Orthodoxy is Your Way to Salvation,” and other colorful potables. In the Delta Quadrant, his people gave out little mitzhkas, tiny, round, blue fruits that generated an electric shock in your mouth when you ate them. Here in the Alpha Quadrant, Mirk had to settle for grapes. “Besides, new ideas always seem a bit odd at first. It’ll just take some getting used to. But remember, a journey begins with one step. One of your Earth philosophers said that. Confucious. He’s much like Vink, one of our most celebrated religious figures.”
“You’ve been studying,” Hartley noted.
“Yep,” Mirk replied proudly. “What do you think I was doing during the shuttle ride over here? I don’t want to make any of the mistakes of my forbearers.”
“Hey, good lookin’!” whistled a young guy about Mirk’s age, walking with a group of school kids into the spaceport. Probably skipping their astrodynamics classes.
“Bite me!” Hartley cried, thrusting a foot in front of the boy. He tripped in front of her, face smashing into the ground.
“Megan!” Mirk scolded. He bent down next to the boy. “Hello, weary traveler. Allow me to introduce myself.”
“I think my nose is broke,” the kid replied, leaning up. Indeed, blood was spurting out of his nose.
“Get a tissue,” Mirk said to Hartley. “I bet a lot is broke in your life, Mr…”
“Johnson. Mike Johnson.”
“Mr. Johnson. Have you ever thought about how to fix it?”
“What I really want now is a doctor.”
Hartley handed him a tissue. “Here you go, prick.”
“Well how about if I told you I had a doctor for your soul.”
“Just come with me and I’ll explain.”
“But I have to catch a transport–” Mike stammered.
“There’ll be others,” Mirk said soothingly, and helped Mike to his feet. “Just give me ten minutes of your time. You’ll find it’s well worth it.”
“Okay, I will. If you tell me why your grumpy friend is dressed up like a giant eyeball.”
“It’s all a part of the Maloxitarian Orthodoxy,” Mirk said.
“Is that some sort of religion? I sure haven’t heard of it.”
“No reason you should have. But trust me, it’s very popular in other… parts of the galaxy.” Mirk looked up at Hartley, who just sighed and stared up at the red sky. “And I have a feeling it’ll catch on here too.”
Lt. Commander Richards frowned on the terminal screen atop Baxter’s coffee table. “So you haven’t heard from her since she cut you off this afternoon?”
Baxter nodded. “And Counselor Telvin has gone missing, too. He never showed up for his appointment with me today.”
“Do you think the Starshine Kids are involved?”
“I wouldn’t put it past them. But going after Kelly isn’t going to get them anywhere.”
“It’ll get them somewhere if they want to get to you.”
“That’s true enough. But why would they do a thing like that? They’re after Mirk, last I heard. Or at least Irma is.”
“Don’t ask me. At least Starfleet says the Galaxy Explorer is still reporting in regularly right?”
“Yeah,” Baxter admitted. “I just can’t think straight without knowing for sure she’s okay.”
“Then call her, for Pete’s sake!”
“I don’t want to seem overprotective.”
“Give me a break,” Richards muttered. “She knows you’re that already.”
“Okay. I’ll call Kelly. Now, answer me this: How are things going with Kris?”
Richards rubbed the bridge of his nose tiredly. “I don’t know where to start.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re sort…of…arguing right now.”
“You’re kidding!” Baxter said in fake surprise. He recalled the time months ago when he’d tried to explain to Richards that a relationship with a human woman that looked exactly like his android daughter simply wouldn’t work. “So what’s the problem?”
“She thinks she knows what’s best for Larkin. She’s corrupting her. Filling her with all these swashbuckling freighter captain ideas.”
“For shame,” Baxter said dully.
“And what’s worse, I think Larkin’s buying it.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know what I can do. It seems whatever I do, I’ll seem to be the bad guy in Larkin’s eyes.”
“We are still talking about an emotionless android, right?”
“It’s hard to explain, Andy. Kristen has a will of her own. Who am I to stop her if she decides to go on freightering with Kris?”
“I’d say you have to let Larkin make that decision on her own. Support her. Just don’t let her do anything stupid.”
“Captain, that’s actually a great piece of advice,” Richards said, face blank with astonishment.
“What can I say, I’m trying to get you off the comm so I can call Kelly. It’s forcing me to be creative.”
“Well it worked. I’ll keep you posted.”
“I’ll do the same.” Baxter stabbed a control on his terminal and reactivated it, tapping up the access codes to reach Commander Peterman.
The Federation logo twisted on the viewscreen as the connection established. Finally, Peterman appeared on the viewscreen, dressed in a housecoat, hair piled on top of her head and wrapped in a towel.
“Andy. What do you want?”
Baxter’s face lit up at seeing Peterman safe. “Just to see you, honey. Just to know you’re okay.”
“Hah. Funny you’re so worried about that now.”
“Why?” Baxter sat erect on his couch. “What’s happened?”
“Nothing. I just attended a gala reception in the arboretum. With Captain Ficker.”
Baxter winced. “Oh. Great.” Telvin had told him the previous day that he absolutely had to come to terms with Peterman serving as Ficker’s “Number One.”
Peterman looked impatient. “So why was it so important that you ‘see me.’”
“Because Telvin is missing, Kelly. And I’m afraid you’ll be next.”
Peterman dropped into her couch, pulling the towel off her head. “What do you mean Telvin’s missing?”
“He never showed up for his appointment today. And the people at his office haven’t a clue as to where he is.”
“Did you call the authorities?”
Baxter nodded. “Yeah, Starfleet Security’s looking into it. Listen, honey, I’ve got a feeling none of us are safe right now. I need you to be on your guard there. Who knows what kind of security the…Galaxy Explorer has now.”
“Our security is fine. Something tells me you’re just using this as an excuse to get out of your present predicament. Well, buddy, it won’t work.”
“What predicament?” stammered Baxter. “You mean being stuck on Earth?”
“Hah!” Peterman chortled. “You know very well what predicament. You even admitted to it when we talked today. Without one bit of remorse, I might ask.”
“What, the thing with Velara?”
“Yeah, you and Velara. A nice couple. Very freaking nice for you.”
“A…COUPLE!” Baxter pulled at his hair. “Kelly what the hell are you talking about? We were attacked by Irma!”
“Oh, so it was a threesome?”
“In a sense…I mean absolutely not! We were attacked. There was no sex! Where did you get the idea there was sex?”
“Velara told me.” Peterman folded her arms. “I can’t believe this, Andy. Of all the men I’ve ever been with, you were the last one I’d expected to do this.”
“I didn’t do anything!” Baxter cried. “You have to believe me! What in the hell could Velara have told you?”
“It’s too late to beg, Andy. I need time to cool down so I don’t make any rash decisions. I’ll let you know when I figure out what I should do.”
“Kelly!” Baxter shouted, shaking the terminal vigorously. Her image wobbled on the screen.
“Save it, Andy.” And she cut the connection. And Baxter tossed the terminal through the bay window.
Thank goodness the Federation didn’t use currency. Baxter’s home repair bill would be huge by now.
Dr. Janice Browning flailed madly in orange goo. She struggled for the surface of the huge ocean of plasma, but the higher she swam, the deeper it seemed she was.
“You are a solid,” a voice boomed in her head. “You cannot hope to understand us. What makes you think you can raise one of us. You know nothing of the Great Link.”
Browning tried to respond, but when she opened her mouth a rush of orange fluid burbled into her mouth.
Browning’s eyes snapped open. She was wrapped in sheets in her bedroom in her apartment in San Francisco. Her room was dark except for the blue glow of the United Federation of Planets symbol blinking on the viewscreen opposite her bed.
Thank goodness it was just a dream. Lately she had that dream every night she ate cheese popcorn before going to bed.
She rubbed her eyes. “Computer…what is it?”
“A subspace communique from the USS Galaxy Explorer, Commander Kelly Peterman.”
What on Earth, thought Dr. Browning. “Put her through, then.”
Commander Peterman popped on the screen, wrapped in a Starfleet-emblem red and black blanket. “Janice! Can we talk?”
Browning rolled over to look at her chronometer. “Kelly, it’s oh-four hundred!”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
Sighing, Dr. Browning leaned up in bed, shoved a pillow behind her back. “What’s the problem?”
“I want you to tell me honestly. Is Andy cheating on me?”
Browning laughed. “Oh, that’s rich!”
“This is not a joke!” Peterman said angrily. “I’m serious.”
“This is ridiculous. Just yesterday I was trying to convince Andy that YOU weren’t cheating on HIM.”
“What? Do you mean when he caught me with Captain Ficker?”
“Yes.” Browning folded her arms. “Explain that.”
“That…was a misunderstanding. I didn’t do anything with Captain Ficker.”
“Really? Well, Andy gave you the benefit of the doubt on that count, didn’t he?”
“Then shouldn’t you do the same for him.”
“Janice, you don’t understand. Captain Velara told me herself that she was involved with Andy.”
Browning sighed. “Captain Velara and Andy went to Coney Island so Andy could get away from the Inventory office. In point of fact, not only did they not do anything romantic, they were actually ATTACKED by Irma Wilson.”
“Big fat insane twentieth century Irma Wilson?” Peterman blinked.
“One and the same.”
Peterman cocked her head. “Janice. You’re covering for him!”
“Why is everyone being so paranoid lately!” Browning cried. “Am I the only one that’s maintained the least bit of sanity?” Suddenly her stomach rumbled. “Could you hold that thought? I just got a huge craving for bacon and chocolate.”
Peterman just made an angry huffing sound and closed the channel.
“Crud,” Browning muttered. Deciding to make the best out of a bad situation, Browning slid off her bed and waddled out of her room to go fry up some bacon.
“Pretty much as we found the place when we arrived,” said Starfleet Security Section Chief Ed Howard. “Nothing out of place. A cup of Vulcan tea over on the desk. It was still warm.”
Captain Baxter kneeled behind Telvin’s desk and studied the teacup. He was never a very good investigator. But Inventory did have its forensic aspects. “That’s it? Did the secretary have any clues for you?”
“Negative,” Howard replied crisply, studying a padd and handing it over to Baxter. The captain stepped out from behind Telvin’s desk and studied the report. “As you can see, it’s all pretty standard. She didn’t hear a thing. Starfleet sensors did pick up an EM spike at the time at which we suspect Mr. Telvin was kidnapped.”
“Right, right. EM spike. A cloaked transporter, perhaps?”
“Some sort of subversive transporter technique, yes, that’s our best guess.”
“Uh-huh.” Baxter squatted by the paisley fainting couch adjacent to Telvin’s desk. “Any suspects?”
“Actually,” Howard said over Baxter’s shoulder. “That’s what we were going to ask you.”
“Ah hah!” Baxter called out, whirling around toward Howard with something pinched between his thumb and forefinger.
Howard squinted. “What is that?”
“Piece of thread.” He called over to one of Howard’s ensigns. “Tricorder.”
An ensign handed Baxter a tricorder and he scanned the tiny thread carefully, checking and rechecking the results on the screen.
“Well?” Howard asked with interest.
Baxter frowned. “Just as I feared. Polyester.”
“A rare form of chemically-created fabric used predominantly in the late twentieth century. You can’t find it anywhere nowadays, except at the dingier Yridian fleamarkets.”
“Do you have someone in mind who wears polyester?”
“Damn right I do.”
“Are you telling me there’s not a decent replimat anywhere around here?” Dr. Browning asked, waddling into Telvin’s office.
“Sorry we had to shut down the replicators here, ma’am,” Howard said sheepishly. “It’s protocol.”
“Tell that to my tummy!” Browning said. “I’ve got an urge
for hash browns and braunshweiger and it must be satisfied.”
“And satisfied it will be,” Baxter said, tossing Howard the tricorder and pocketing the piece of polyester. “We can leave now.”
“Come again? You solved the case already?”
“I’m halfway there,” Baxter said. “I know who did it.”
“Care to let me in on it?” Howard asked as Baxter shuffled Browning out of the office.
“That’s classified,” Baxter tossed over his shoulder. “Thanks for your help.”
Howard felt very useless. “No problem.”
Baxter stared at the multicolored thread as Dr. Browning messily devoured a plate of hashbrowns smothered in nacho cheese, with a side of steaming braunshweiger. They’d walked to a replimat a few blocks away from Telvin’s office.
“Mmmph…” Browning mumbled through the mouthfuls. “Remind me why I tagged along?”
“Because the transporter in your building has a smoother ride than mine,” Baxter said distantly. “And I wanted you there to do an autopsy, just in case Commander Howard found a corpse.”
“I’m touched,” Browning said, staring at her plate contemplatively. “I’m also nauseous.”
“Maybe it was all that sausage and cheese,” Baxter offered.
“No, that’s not it. I think the transporter’s making me sick lately.”
“Hmmm. Weird.” Baxter put down the thread. “Any idea yet when you’re going to pop that sucker out?”
“I don’t know when I’m going to ‘pop this sucker out,’ as you so delicately put it,” Browning muttered. “But I can tell you one thing. It better be soon. I’ve gained twenty pounds in the last two days.”
“You look–” Baxter was about to say “You look it,” but caught himself. “You look…marvelous.”
Browning smiled. “Thank you, Andy. Say, are you going to eat that bear claw?”
“Nope.” Baxter slid his plate across to Browning. “Chin up, Doctor. That changeling can’t stay in you forever.”
“Theoretically…” Browning said, devouring Baxter’s pastery in two bites. “Well, you never know.”
“Prepartum jitters?” asked Baxter.
“Just a weird feeling. I’m having some very bizarre dreams.”
Baxter pocketed leaned forward. “What kind of dreams?”
“Weird ones. The Founders telling me I’m not fit to raise a changeling.”
“Oh, that’s just so much garbage. The Founders are a long way away. You don’t have to worry about them. You ate that changeling all by yourself. That baby is yours.”
“Thanks for your support.”
Baxter stared out the diner window. A shuttle was just landing at the nearby stop. “Well, want to take a shuttle?”
“Yeah, I’m stuffed.”
“Okay, let’s move.” Baxter slid out of the booth.
Browning wriggled around between the bench seat and table. “Can you help me out of here?”
“Finding your way around okay, madam?” Lt. Brian Gellar asked, leaning casually against the railing that overlooked the “Aloha Deck”– a lengthy mall-like section of Deck 20 that was made out of several side-by-side cargo bays. The designers intended it to be a place where Galaxy Explorer passengers could hang out and pass the time while the ship thundered through space.
“I suppose.” Lwaxana Troi stared down at the crowd milling about on the promenade below, watching holographic medieval battle simulations, trying on clothes at Briggs’ Fashion Boutique, picking up supplies at the local branch of Dillon’s Pioneer Supply Depot. There was one on Deck 30 that was open 24 hours, but the one on the Aloha Deck had a Sandwhich Star stand inside, so Lwaxana had heard, and that made it more popular.
“Well, just say the word and I’ll help you in whatever way I can. That’s what a purser’s for.” Gellar grinned.
“You have no idea what a ‘purser’ is, do you, child?”
Gellar’s grin disappeared. “Not the faintest, ma’am.”
“If I find out what one is, I’ll tell you, okay?”
“Please do. Anything I can help you with in the meantime?”
“Yes, actually. I’m looking for Commander Peterman.”
Gellar scanned the arched expanse of flags, banners, and pastel columns that was the Aloha Deck. “Ah, there she is.” He pointed. “Way down at the end. Past the perfumist and the coffee beanery.”
“That little figure on the bench?”
Lwaxana put a hand to her mouth. “She looks so far away.”
“The Aloha Deck runs nearly half the length of the saucer section, ma’am.”
“An awful lot of space for some shops and lounges, don’t you think?”
“I’m a purser, ma’am,” Gellar said valiantly. “Mine is not to question such things.”
“That’s an awfully long walk.”
Gellar gestured to the doors behind Lwaxana. “You can take the transparent turbolift.”
“Great idea,” Lwaxana said, and stepped through the doors.
The transparent turbolift whisked her the length of the Aloha Deck in seconds, spilling her out just meters from Peterman. She crept over to the circular bench. “You called for me, Commander?”
Peterman looked up. “Oh. Yes, Mrs. Troi. Thanks for coming. Please, sit down.”
“What can I help you with, my dear?”
“Well,” Peterman said uncomfortably. “I really appreciate you coming. I know I decked your daughter and all…”
Lwaxana waved her hand dismissively. “Ah, water under the bridge, little one. What seems to be the problem?”
“I suspect my husband of sleeping with another woman. I want to trust him, but it’s been so hard being separated from him like this. I feel like we don’t know each other anymore. This new mission is tearing our marraige apart.”
Lwaxana shrugged. “Men will be men, you know.”
“Dear, if I divorced every man that cheated on me, I’d have been married fifty times instead of fourteen.” Lwaxana wrapped an arm around Peterman and hugged her. “You have to accept that men are swine, dear. You can’t change that. Your Captain Banner has a lot of good qualities, too.”
“Baxter,” Peterman corrected.
“I have to admit, Mrs. Troi, this isn’t quite the advice I expected to get,” Peterman said, leaning up off Lwaxana’s shoulder. “You’re so… independent.”
“I just know my way around, dear. You will too, with time. Of course, by then,” Lwaxana frowned. “You’ll be too old to enjoy it.”
“Jeeze, I never thought about it like that.”
Lwaxana’s frown deepened. She stared down at her shoes. “Me neither.”
“Well,” Peterman clapped her legs. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. I guess all that’s left now is for me to take some time to decide what’s best for me. Whatever the case, I have plenty of great young years ahead of me, right?”
“I guess,” Lwaxana muttered.
“Thanks for the help.”
“Yeah. Don’t mention it.”
Lwaxana continued to stare down at her brown suede Breen pumps when she heard a voice above her.
“Lwaxana Troi. I didn’t realize you were aboard. What’s troubling you?”
It was that adorable Dr. Bashir. Lwaxana’s smile brightened. “Nothing, anymore. Care for a stroll, Doctor?”
“Why, I’d be delighted.”
“These replicator files suck,” Dr. Browning noted, scanning the tiny screen above the replicator in Baxter’s office.
Baxter sat down behind his desk and tapped on the terminal. “Sorry. I half expect you to carry around an isolinear chip for just such an occasion.”
“Don’t be silly,” Browning said, as she deftly and quietly shoved the chip she’d had hidden in her labcoat/mumuu pocket into the receptacle above the replicator. “Wait, here’s something!” she said, feigning surprise. She tapped a few buttons and out popped a piping hot twelve-inch gorgonzola and anchovy pizza.
“Smells great,” Baxter said, pinching his nose shut as his comm request went through the subspace traffic. The Federation symbol finally blinked away to reveal Captain Velara, sitting rigidly in her command chair.
“Captain. Do you have an urgent inventory report?”
Baxter fumbled with his fingers under his desk. “It’s a report of a bit more…personal nature.”
“Your brother Telvin’s been kidnapped, Velara. And I think Irma Wilson did it.”
Velara’s face remained impassive. “You are referring to the unkempt portly woman who battled us in the Coney Island bathroom?”
“That could be anyone,” Browning giggled, cheese dripping down her mouth as she sat opposite Baxter and devoured her pizza.
Baxter glared at her and returned his attention to Velara. “One and the same, Captain.”
“Do you have any idea where Irma would take him?”
“Back to the Starshine Kids’ realm, I would think.”
“Telvin is a fool. He will not stand up to whatever Sesil puts him through. Sesil has bullied him since we were children. This is most objectionable.”
“Well,” Baxter said, shifting uneasily in his chair. “Just thought I’d let you know.” Browning shot him an “Ask her!” look. “Oh, and one other thing.”
“Did you tell Commander Peterman that you and I had an affair in that Coney Island bathroom?”
Velara’s eyes widened. “Captain, that is preposterous. I merely told her about our being involved in Irma’s attack in the Coney Island bathroom.”
“You said ‘involved’?” Browning nearly choked on her pizza.
“Who is that?” Velara asked, looking to the side as if to see Browning behind Baxter’s terminal.
“My chief medical officer. Listen, Velara, you have to understand something about humans. They use the word ‘involved’ in a very strict sense. It usually has to do something with sexual relationships.”
“That is highly illogical, considering that the word has many other connotations.”
“That may be,” Baxter said. “Just tell me one thing. Did you specifically mention Irma attacking us? Or did you just say ‘we were involved in something in the Coney Island bathroom?”
“More the latter than the former, though those were not my exact words,” Velara admitted. “I did not want to give anything away over subspace.”
Baxter pounded his desk. “Just great! You didn’t give anything away, Velara, you just destroyed my marraige!”
“My apologies. Now…about my brother…”
Baxter leaned back in his chair. “Yeah?”
“Do you have a way we might find him?”
“Well…” Baxter rolled his eyes. “I guess we can track down Hartley and Mirk. And my mom. They’d know where the Starshine Kids are keeping themselves lately. And maybe they’d know what Sesil’s plans for Telvin are.”
“In that case, please do so.”
“Sure. But I want you to do something for me too.”
“Contact Kelly and tell her we didn’t have sex in that bathroom.”
“Captain, I am an Inventory Commandant, not a Marraige Counselor.”
She sank measurably in her command chair. “Very well. We will exchange status reports in approximately two hours.”
“You have yourself a deal.” Baxter shut off the terminal.
“Great,” Browning said, polishing off the last of the pizza and tossing the plate on Baxter’s desk. “Now all we have to do is track down Mirk, Hartley, or your mom.”
“My mom’s on secret assignment,” Baxter said thoughtfully. “But I know exactly where Mirk and Hartley are. They’re on one of Jupiter’s moons. Io, I think.”
“And how are we getting out there, may I ask? If I’m not mistaken, the Inventory flagship is out in deep space.”
“Yeah, and the runabouts and Defiant-class Inventory ships are all on missions.” Baxter rubbed his beard. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have access to a ship. I think I can pull in a favor.”
“And what the hell makes you think I owe YOU a favor?” Commander Conway groused, straightening his itchy mustard tunic and shifting in the boxy command chair of the USS Republic.
Baxter shifted uncomfortably on the viewscreen. “I WAS your captain for three years, Commander. That has to be good for something.”
“I’ll buy you a cup of coffee sometime,” Conway said, folding his arms.
“Not good enough.” Baxter rubbed his eyes. “Commander…it’s important that I reach Mirk and Hartley. And I know for a fact that there’s no communication equipment where they are.”
“What’s so important?”
Baxter glanced to the side. “I’d rather not talk about it over subspace.”
“Then no deal.”
“Commander!” Baxter gritted his teeth. Then he seemed to soften. “Dave, listen…you’ve been giving tours of the quadrant for four days now. It has to be getting to you.”
“Yeah, it is. What of it?”
“Well, wouldn’t any diversion be a good diversion?”
“And it isn’t like you’re risking a great job by…diverting…to pick us up, right?”
“You’re making some good points.”
“And I happen to have some aged coffee beans from Sinfana Prime I’ve been saving for a special occasion.”
Conway blinked. “We can be there in five minutes. Be ready. Helm, plot a course. And let the VIP’s know the tour has changed…a bit.”
“Mirk?” Lt. Hartley asked, poking her head into Mirk’s meditation chamber.
“Yes?” Mirk replied serenely. He sat cross-legged, draped in silky blue robes. He was staring serenely at a lump of purplish fruit in the dish at the center of his coffee table. He’d removed everything else from the spare room …for medidative purposes, apparently.
“They’re ready for you to give your talk. I put them up in the condo’s fourth floor conference room, just like you asked. But the condo people didn’t have any decorative plants–” She stared around at the walls. “Did you paint?”
“Yes. The room has to be blue. It’s a meditative color.”
“Jeeze, Mirk! You know my parents would kill me if they knew I was redecorating their vacation place. They’re supposed to retire here someday!”
“There are many places in which one can retire,” Mirk replied, rising to stand and stepping over the coffee table. “I am ready for them now. How many are there?”
“Including some wandering travelers from the spaceport, the troop of Starfleet Scouts on their field trip, and the information desk lady from the lobby, we’ve got twelve people.”
“It’s a beginning,” Mirk said simply. “Did you light the candles?”
“Yeah. They smell like year-old gagh.”
“As it should be. Now, please, get into costume.”
“Mirk!” Hartley protested. “It’s hot inside that eyeball!”
“As in the depths of Formigal, the place where dead Maloxian souls go to be recycled into shrubbery.”
Hartley placed her hand on Mirk’s forehead. “Are you all right, Mirk?”
“No you’re not. You’ve been getting wierder and wierder ever since you started reading those Maloxian texts. Are you trying to become some sort of religious nut?”
“Unless you missed the point of this whole thing, it was to become a religous nut, to counteract the religous nuts that are trying to destroy us.”
“Oh. Yeah. Well, at any rate, it’s freaking me out.”
“Do you think I like it? Do you know what happens to religous nuts? Remember, I’ve been studying these things.”
“They usually get blown up. Or blow theirselves up.”
“Yeah. That doesn’t exactly bode well for me.” Mirk frowned, looked down at his robes. “I hope I can pull this off, Megan.”
Hartley sighed. “I’m sorry I rained on your little religious parade, Mirk. I’m trying to do this, I really am.”
“Yeah. Thanks, by the way.”
“Don’t mention it.” Hartley patted Mirk’s face. “Now go get ‘em, champ.”
“Right. Yes, I’ll warm up the crowd with some morality fables, and you get into the eyeball costume and get ready to shake your rump for them. Sound good?”
“Just super,” Hartley deadpanned, and shoved Mirk out of the room.
“THIS PAPERWORK IS OUT OF ORDER!” J’hana screamed the Inventory battlecry with a fierceness that sent the Ensign in command of Communications Relay 527 cringing toward his closetlike office.
She marched after him, menacingly waving a padd. “You must do it over again, you hideous fwarz-sharsher, or I will write you up for breach of Inventory protocol. They will assign another property administrator to your post and you will be stripped of inventory control responsibility. DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR!”
“I’m sorry,” Ensign Davies whimpered. “I’ll do whatever I have to do to make it up to you!”
“You will do that and more, zhackmakakt!” J’hana sneered. She shoved the padd in the ensign’s face and then said softly, “Now you must initial there. And there. And right under the total.”
“Now,” Lt. Tilleran said, hugging her padd to her chest. “I need to ask one more question and I’ll be on may way.” The colony staff at the Omecra Two colony sat serenely before her around the conference table, looking for all the world like they were the model of inventory preparedness. “It’s a pretty easy one.”
“Fire away,” said the colony leader, a portly, officious man whom Tilleran had grown to resent during her visit to Omecra Two.
“All right.” Tilleran glanced at her padd then looked back at the colony leader. “Mr. Jameson, have you obtained any Starfleet property since our last audit that you have not added to this list?”
“Of course not,” said Jameson easily.
Tilleran smiled. “You’re lying.”
“I thought you said you could fool her!” the prim, hair- bunned woman beside Jameson said through clinched teeth.
“Be quiet!” he said, glaring at Tilleran. “The Betazoid can prove nothing!”
“Oh really?” Tilleran asked. She concentrated on Jameson’s eyes. Bored deep into his brain. Grabbed a fistful of psyche and twisted.
Jameson burst into tears. “For the love of God! It was a self-contained holodeck facility! They sent it here by mistake instead of to the starbase on Ashalon Nine. I admit it! We’re not animals, Lieutenant! We have needs and feelings just like anyone else.”
“Save that for someone who cares, Mr. Jameson. I’m just here to find out the truth. We’ll be needing that holodeck unit.”
“Why…why…” cried Jameson, slamming his head on the conference table.
Tilleran grinned. She was actually beginning to like this job.
“Velara to Tilleran,” chirped the Betazoid’s comm badge.
What now? “Tilleran here.”
“Have you found a stopping point in your mission?”
“You could say that.”
“We have detected some odd gravimetric readings in this system. Our science officer is having a hard time interpreting them. I would like you to study them and give me your opinion.”
Scientific work! Finally! Tilleran nodded. “I’d be glad to, Captain.” She glared at Jameson. “I’m all through here anyway. Beam me up.”
Tilleran stared at the readings, checked, then rechecked them a few more times. “It’s definitely not a cloaked ship.”
“That is a relief,” said Velara, hovering over her shoulder.
“It is a ship, though.”
“Buried just under the subspace layer. Inside a spatial rift of some kind.”
“I assume you have had experience with this cloaking technology?”
Tilleran nodded gravely. “It’s the Starshine Kids, Captain. I’m almost sure of it.”
Velara stepped down from the quarterdeck. “Send to Starfleet Command. Priority One. We are about to come under attack by the Starshine Kids. Send immediate help. Once that is finished, call back all the away teams.” She turned to Tilleran. “You have engaged these ships before?”
“One of them,” Tilleran said. “If it’s the same one we faced twice before on the Explorer. Originally, a graviton pulse was able to knock out their shields. But they managed to subvert that one.”
“Other suggestions?” Velara asked, not looking the least bit tense.
“I’ll think about it.”
Then the Red Alert klaxon blared, and bright red lightning lit up the viewscreen. The long, bird-like vessel Starshine plunged out of the spatial tear.
“Think quickly, Lieutenant,” Velara said quietly.
J’hana was busy writing up Ensign Davies when she heard a crackle over her comm badge:
“All…zrrt…teams…ffffft…under attack…tsst…Starshine… dssf… escape if you can…”
The Andorians antennae perked up for the first time since she’d last been in battle. “Ensign! What kind of armaments does this communications relay have?”
“Minor phasers…” Davies cried. “What’s going on?”
J’hana shoved a padd in Davies hand. “Finish filling out this paperwork. I will go to see for myself.”
Once she reached the top of the ladder to the operations module, J’hana quickly activated the comm relay’s main viewscreen. Just in time to see the blinding flashes of a firefight. And at the same time something hideous rippled through J’hana’s mind.
<J’hana!> Tilleran’s voice cried out in her mind. <You have to get out of here! They’re boarding the Greenspan. We won’t stand a chance!>
<What was this? How are you inside my brain, Betazoid!>
<We’re bonded J’hana. We’re Imzadi.>
<BAH!> J’hana scoffed.
<How else do you explain it?> asked Tilleran.
J’hana grunted mentally. <I don’t know. But I do not even like talking about this.>
<I can’t explain it,> replied Tilleran, <but something happened on that drunken night we shared in San Francisco. Something that made us one for all time. This is almost unheard of on Betazed, but here we are, nonetheless. Now there isn’t much time. Get away from here. Find the captain. Tell him the Starshine Kids have gone on the offensive. I’m…getting the feeling they’re going after the Explorer next.>
<Galaxy Explorer,> J’hana corrected.
<By the damned rings, J’hana, that’s not important right–>
And then the voice in J’hana’s head cut off. She checked the sensors. The Greenspan was dead in space. No one aboard. And there was no Starshine vessel in sight. Her Imzadi was gone.
“How many of you are lonely?”
The twelve people in the conference room, including the Starfleet Scoutmaster, raised their hands.
“All right,” Mirk said, rubbing his hands together. “Who wants to find happiness here? Huh?”
Again, twelve raised hands.
“Well then, what if I told you there was a way to find happiness. And find that loved one, through the Maloxian faith. Would you want to join up?”
Nods all around the table.
“Okay, then. Let’s get to it.” He turned around and tapped the console beside the viewscreen at the head of the room. “Megan, dim the lights.”
In her eyeball costume, Hartley reached a gloved finger over to the switch by the door and the lights dimmed. She grimaced. Her purple tights were riding up something terrible.
Mirk brought up his first graphic, example number one. “Okay,” he began. “First you take a fully ripened Circassian guava. If you have a Terran one, that will probably work just as well. Now you’re going to need a mellon-baller…”
Hartley’s mind drifted off, much as it had when her parents had taken her to mass when she was a kid. Maloxitaranism was just like any other deity-centered religion. Only it was annoyingly obsessed with fruit. She shrugged. At least Mirk was the high priest of this particular religion. And it was cute how he tried so hard to explain things, to look knowledgable.
A hand grabbed Hartley’s arm and she nearly shrieked. She bobbed around in the awkward round eyeball costume. “Captain!”
Baxter smiled, gesturing for Hartley to follow him out into the corridor so as not to disturb Mirk’s presentation. “My, Megan, you’re looking well.”
“You’re not my captain anymore, sir. I’m not even in Starfleet. I’m free to deck you if you start putting down my costume.”
“I wouldn’t want to test that threat, even if I did have the time,” Baxter said. “How’s the new religion coming?”
“Slow. We’ve got twelve members so far.”
“Hey, it’s a start. Listen, I need some information from you guys.”
“What kind of information?”
“Nothing big. The location of the new Starshine headquarters. A way to beat them. An explanation for what they’d do with a Vulcan counselor that’s related to their leader.”
“Let’s see,” Hartley said thoughtfully. “They’re still in the Aegis system, they can’t be beaten by any technology we have, and I have no freaking idea why they’d want Counselor Telvin. That about sum it up?”
“You’ve been most helpful,” Baxter muttered.
“Care to sit in on Mirk’s information session?”
Baxter sighed. “Might as well.”
“Folsom to bridge.”
“I told you to only use this channel for an emergency, Mr. Folsom,” Conway sighed. “What seems to be the problem?” Livingston Folsom was one of the Federation’s up-and-coming authors, and he was an absolute prick. He’d been complaining about the accomodations, about the sights on the trip, and the general state of the Federation ever since he came aboard earlier that day.
“I want to know why we have veered off from our planned route and stopped above Neptune. We’re just sitting here!”
“I told you, Mr. Folsom, I’m giving the tourgroup an opportunity to look down on the beauty of Neptune and observe it. It’s really a beautiful view from our orbit.”
“That planet’s a frozen rock of a place. The only nice places to visit are within the biosphere, and you refuse to let us off this forsaken ship!”
“You’re welcome to complain to my supervisors at Starfleet Command, sir,” Conway muttered. “Otherwise, shut the hell up.”
“I plan to!”
“You plan to shut up?”
“Stop twisting my words, you ignorant fool!”
Conway snapped the channel closed. “It’s not worth this aggravation,” he muttered.
“You handled yourself very well,” Dr. Browning said, leaning against the railing that surrounded the upper bridge stations. “This assigment has done wonders for your PR skills.”
“Thanks,” Conway muttered.
“It was nice of you to take us out here,” Browning said. “I know you don’t like people to know it, but you are a good person deep down, aren’t you?”
“I’m cuddly as a targ,” Conway grumbled. “Anyway, what do I care if I lose this job or not? My life can’t get any worse. This ship is a piece of crap.”
Ford nodded. “And the showers don’t have non-skid pads.”
“The horror,” Conway muttered. “At any rate, we’d better call Baxter and tell him he needs to come aboard so we can get on with the tour before my group revolts.”
“Aye, sir,” Ensign Dawson said, plucking at the communications panel. She bobbed her head in surprise then looked back at Conway. “Sir, there’s another vessel approaching from port. It’s the USS Pathfinder.”
Dawson nodded. “Apparently.”
“Put her on screen.” Conway stood. Browning waddled around to join him at the center of the bridge.
“Sabre-class,” Ford said. “She’s a beaut.” The Pathfinder was a graceful oval saucer section, complemented by two prong-like warp engines that hung down and jutted behind her. Large enough to be a threat, small enough to be maneuverable, and armed to the teeth.
“Yes,” Conway snapped. “And wouldn’t it be grand if we had one of those. Hail them.”
Conway’s eyes widened when Lucille Baxter appeared on the viewscreen.
“Commander. How is the touring program proceeding?” Lucille asked primly.
“Horribly. Nice ship, by the way. What are you doing here?”
“That’s classified. Why are you here?”
“Just giving our VIP’s the five-credit tour,” Conway grinned fakely.
“Neptune isn’t a usual stop for you, is it?”
Conway shrugged. “I like to vary things a bit.”
“I see. Well, carry on.”
“Oh,” Conway added. “Your son’s down there. Meeting with Mirk and Lt. Hartley.”
“Ah hah. Well then, I’ll just be going.”
“Righty-o,” Conway said with a grin. It vanished as soon as Lucille faded from the screen. “Damn.”
“What?” Browning asked.
“She’s here for Mirk and Hartley.”
“What gives you that idea?”
“I just have a feeling. Get the captain on the screen.”
“Son, I don’t have time to argue this with you. Get off that planet.”
“What do you mean ‘get off this planet’?” Baxter asked. He’d ducked out of Mirk’s session when his mom paged him. “Where are you? I haven’t heard from you since you got that promotion. Did you get a new ship? What are you doing now? Why haven’t you called!”
“I can’t go into it. I’ll just say that my current mission puts you in danger. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t want you harmed in any of this.”
“Any of what?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Then I won’t leave.”
“Fine. Be that way. But I did give you a chance.”
Baxter returned to the conference room feeling very uneasy. What was his mom talking about? What could be going on on Neptune that was so controversial that she couldn’t tell him about it? What was such a threat to the Federation that she’d have to risk hurting him?
“As you can see by this graph,” Mirk pointed out, “Maloxitarianism is forty percent more certain to make your life better than Roman Catholocism or Tellarite Reconstructionism. Not to mention those silly Starshine Kids. What a hoax!”
“Excuse me,” the lady from the lobby desk said. “Where did you get these figures?”
“That’s not important,” Mirk said, quickly tapping up a new graphic. “If you’ll take a look at these pie charts I’ve prepared…”
“Republic to Baxter,” chirped Baxter’s comm badge. It was Conway.
“What?” Baxter said, annoyed, ducking out of the meeting once more. The Starfleet Scouts were giving him nasty looks.
“Your mommy’s here, Captain.”
“Has she mentioned anything about her mission?”
“I have the strangest feeling she’s going after Mirk. I know it doesn’t make sense, but what else is down there that she could be looking for? It just doesn’t add up.”
Baxter rubbed his chin. “You’re right. It doesn’t.”
“Damn. Sir, we’re detecting beamdowns in your area. Four signals, heading your way.”
“Looks like you were right, Conway. Can you beam us up?”
“No. The biosphere’s shields just went up.”
“Damn.” Baxter’s mom anticipated their trying to escape. Baxter rushed back into the conference room. “Mirk, stop the presentation!”
“Why? I was just about to teach them the eleven joyous songs!”
“Save it. My mom’s here, and to make a long story short, she’s after you and Hartley, for some reason.”
“That bitch!” exclaimed Hartley. “Sorry, sir.”
“In this case, I’m in total agreement with you. We need to get somewhere secure.”
Hartley thought a moment. “There’s a bomb shelter from the Dominion war down in the basement.”
“That’ll do. Take us there.” Baxter took the lead, and Mirk and Hartley followed. Not knowing what else to do, Mirk’s group of “disciples” followed him.
“Where are they going?” Baxter asked, glancing over his shoulder as the group double-timed it down the corridor.
“They’re coming with us,” Mirk said simply.
“Sorry. Federation refugees only,” Baxter muttered. “Where’s a stairwell? We can’t trust the turbolifts.”
“This way,” Hartley pointed, hurrying ahead of Baxter despite the weight of her eyeball costume.
“These people are my followers,” Mirk said sternly. “They’ve got to come with us.”
“I don’t have time to argue with you, Mr. Mirk.” He stopped when the group reached the door to the stairwell. “You know, Mirk, this ‘new religion’ of yours is beginning to look remarkably like a cult.”
“Perish the thought,” Mirk smiled.
Baxter sighed. “We’ll talk later. Right now–”
“Stop!” Lucille Baxter cried. She was marching down the opposite side of the corridor, with Lt. Commander Disalvo and two other security officers at her side.
Baxter held the door to the stairwell open and waved Mirk’s new followers through. “Stuff it, Mom! You’re not taking Mirk or his cult!”
“I have orders, Andrew! Don’t interfere with them!” Lucille drew her phaser.
“What are you going to do, Mom?” Baxter asked. “Shoot me?”
Mirk shoved Hartley through the door. She had a bit of difficulty, what with the width of her costume.
“If I have to,” Lucille said easily. “Give us Mirk and Hartley. They’ll be fairly tried in a Federation court.”
“For what?” Mirk asked.
“Usurping of Federation philosophy.”
“Sounds a bit fascist, don’t you think?” Baxter asked.
“I just do what I’m told,” Lucille responded.
“Maybe that’s the problem, Commodore Bitch!”
“ANDREW JACKSON BAXTER!” Lucille seethed.
“Captain,” Mirk whispered. “You’re not involved in this. Surrender to your mom now. No need for you to ruin your career or your relationship with ‘mommy’ for us.”
Baxter glared at Mirk. “This is a family argument. Get below…now!”
The glare convinced Mirk leave. “Directors be with you, Captain.”
“Thanks.” Baxter returned his glare to Lucille. She was advancing, slowly. DiSalvo had his phaser out too.
“You’re in big trouble, Andrew!” Lucille said angrily.
“Woe is me,” Baxter muttered. “Listen, Mom, I need your help here. Someone is trying to destroy the Federation from the inside. People are making decisions that don’t make sense. Surely you can see that!”
“Captain Baxter! I am your superior officer and I am your mother. You WILL obey me!”
“Sorry. I can’t, Mom.” Baxter turned for the door and Lucille fired. The shot blew a hole in the door as he disappeared down the stairs.
“Damn,” Lucille muttered. “Missed.”
“Commodore, I admire you more and more all the time,” DiSalvo smiled.
“Stop sucking up,” Lucille commanded, leading DiSalvo and the others through the door and down the stairs.
“They’re just ahead,” DiSalvo said, looking at his tricorder.
The away team reached a door marked “BOMB SHELTER: NO JEM’HADAR ALLOWED” at the base of the stairs.
“Blast it open,” Lucille commanded.
DiSalvo shook his head. “Thing’s made of multi-layered neutronium. And on top of that, there’s some sort of forcefield in place. Starfleet had this thing fortified for Dominion attack, Commodore.”
“Just perfect,” Lucille muttered. “And they have weapons in there?”
“This is going to look very bad.”
“Simkins to Baxter,” chirped Lucille’s combadge.
“Four ships have arrived in orbit with us. No armaments. Heavy-duty sensory equipment. They claim to be from the Krinok News Corporation.”
Lucille cringed. “Paparazzi.”
Ambassador Harlan Baxter hocked a loogie into his washbasin, vaporized it, and returned to the kitchen of his posh ambassadorial suite to finish his breakfast and watch the morning news.
He switched on the video screen and sipped from his mug of raktajeeno. The image on the screen was from Neptune–a planet in the Sol System.
Trouble back home?
“…the cult, lead by an alien from the Delta Quadrant known only as ‘Mirk,’ is described by Commodore Lucille Baxter, the Starfleet officer in command on the scene, as ‘combative, obsessive, and dangerous.’”
“Way to make the news, Lu,” Harlan muttered.
“Commodore Baxter told KNN reporters that two Starfleet officers are present among the cult members involved in the standoff.”
“I’ll be damned.” Harlan dug into his grapefruit and watched with growing interest.
“Commodore Baxter would not disclose their identities, but KNN news has learned from an undisclosed source that they are, in fact, former officers of the USS Galaxy Explorer. Here, for the first time, are the Starfleet officers that have turned their back on the Federation…one Lt. Hartley, former Transporter Chief of the Explorer…” Two stock photographs flashed on the screen. “Oh, no…”
“And Commodore Baxter’s own son, Captain Andrew Baxter.”
Harlan jabbed his spoon so hard into his grapefruit that juice splashed him in the face. “I’ll be damned!”
Commander Peterman drew up her knees on the suede couch and pulled her golden retriever, Charlie, closer, watching footage of Starfleet security officers pouring into the Neptune’s Treasure condominium complex, armed with phaser rifles. “Andy, what the hell have you gotten yourself into?” she said softly.
“Commodore Baxter declined to report on her exact plan to get the cult members out of their stronghold. She would only say that she plans to use quote ‘whatever force is necessary’ unquote.”
Peterman shook her head. “What next, Charlie? What the hell next?”
Behind Peterman, just outside the viewport, a vicious, nebulous red cloud began to take shape.
“…stay tuned to this subspace channel for more on ‘Standoff ‘77’ as this story develops. Now, here’s the weather in your part of the quadrant…”
TO BE CONTINUED…