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

Author: Anthony Butler
Copyright: 1999

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!


“Nebulous red cloud, right ahead!”

“Turn, turn! All engines, to port!”

“She’s too big. We’re not going to clear her!”

“Get the captain!”

Commander Kelly Peterman was transfixed on the viewscreen in her quarters as information streamed in about the standoff on the planet Neptune between her husband, of all people, and Starfleet.

“The tension continues to build here on Neptune as Lucille Baxter addresses a hastily-convened press conference on the matter of the Maloxitarian situation.”

Peterman shook her head. What could have happened to put Andy and his mother so much at odds? Sure, they had their fights, but this was ridiculous.

On the screen, at the head of a group of Krinok News Network press representatives, Lucille Baxter gestured at a holographic image of the condominium complex Andy Baxter was holed up in.

“As you can see, the basement is made up of tunnels that extend south to an abandonded shuttle lift-off pad. It’s our goal to blow through one of those tunnels with a tri-cobalt warhead and enter the complex that way.”

“Commodore,” one of the press spoke up. “Are their any chances of casualties? Isn’t your son among the members of the Maloxitarians?”

Lucille rolled her eyes. “I cannot comment on that. I will say that there is a margin for error in any military attack. But will I try to kill my son? Of course not. Now, if that’s all, I have work to do.”

“Commodore, Commodore!” called the members of the press as Lucille was hurriedly escorted out of the meeting room.

Peterman twisted her lacy pink throwpillow in her lap. “I wish there was some way I could get a comm signal through.”

The image switched back to an exterior of Neptune, with the Pathfinder in orbit, became fuzzy for a few moments, then vanished altogether.

“That’s odd,” said Peterman. “Peterman to–”

But she was cut off by the Red Alert klaxons.

That’s when she got a chance to glance over her shoulder at the swirling red gas that engulfed her oblong viewports.

Peterman’s eyes widened. “My God…”

“Tunnels!” Baxter exclaimed, pacing the crowded basement. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Mirk shrugged. “You’ve got me.”

Hartley shook her head disgracefully. She’d peeled herself out of the ridiculous eyeball costume, and Baxter was good enough to give her his outer uniform jacket since all she had on underneath was a silly purple bodysuit. “This exit door was staring us right in the face. How long do you think we have before you mother blows her way into the adjoining tunnel?”

“Not long at all,” Baxter said, clad in his uniform vest, pointing at the image on the dust-covered viewscreen they’d uncovered in the bomb shelter. It showed the Pathfinder angling around to adjust its orbit for a direct assault on Neptune’s surface. “Looks like Mom’s setting up to take her shot now.”

“Then we need to get this door open,” Mirk said. “Give me a hand with this latch, Scoutmaster Buddy!”

The Starfleet Scoutmaster rushed over and gave the Maloxian a hand shoving aside the heavy latch that kept the exit door barred. “I have to say this is exciting. Just think of all the patches my troop will get when we’re through!”

“If we live,” Mirk said.

“We just need to have faith in your…Directors, right?” Scoutmaster Buddy said hopefully.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you something about them…” Mirk said in a roundabout way. He’d never told his “followers” that the Directors had been gone for a few months.

“All right, enough chatting.” Baxter motioned the Starfleet Scouts and the other few scattered members of Mirk’s new religion into the companionway. He tapped his comm badge. “Baxter to Conway.”

“Conway here.”

“Status report.”

“According to our sensors, the tunnel extends beneath the biodome’s shields for about two hundred meters.”

“All right. Beam us up as soon as we clear those shields.”

“We’ll be ready.”

Lucille Baxter paced the bridge of the Pathfinder. It was decorated much like the bridges of Intrepid-class ships. All silvers and grays. But it was quite a bit smaller than the Trafalgar’s bridge. Something gave Lucille the idea that Starfleet was beginning to skimp on things.

“When will that tri-cobalt device be ready?” she called over her shoulder to DiSalvo.

“Just a few more moments, Commodore.”

Lucille tapped her foot. “Tactical view onscreen.”

“Aye, sir.” DiSalvo put up an overhead view of Neptune with two Starfleet insignias and a scattering of small Klingon insignias circling it.

Lucille didn’t think the Klingon news reporters posed much of a problem, but she didn’t trust Conway to stay out of this, even though she could destroy his ship with a command. “Put me through to Commander Conway.”

“Aye, sir.”

Commander Conway appeared on the viewscreen, swiveling in his command chair easily. “What can I do for you, Commodore?”

“You can kindly go back to your tour route. I know this wasn’t a scheduled stop.”

“You’re kidding. You know,” Conway said, leaning forward.

“I never got the chance to congratulate you on your promotion. I know Andy must be very proud of you.”

“You’re trying to stall me,” Lucille grinned. “Well done, Commander. Be on your way or I will seize your ship. As it is, we may be able to prove you aided and abetted your good Captain Baxter.”

“Why are you doing this, Commodore? That’s your son down there,” Conway said. “Granted I’m not crazy about him, but you gave birth to him!”

“That may be, but I have my orders.”

“Oh, orders shmorders, Commodore!” Dr. Janice Browning suddenly said, side-stepping in front of Commander Conway. “How dare you even think of firing on that planet with your son down there!”

“My, Doctor, your eating has finally caught up with you,” Lucille said, shaking her head. “It was only a matter of time.”

“I’m pregnant!” Browning cried.

“Oh.” Lucille glanced back at DiSalvo. “Are we ready yet?”

“Locked and loaded, sir.”

“Fine. Fire already.” Lucille went back to her command chair. “Nice catching up with you guys.”

“That bitch!” Conway griped, stepping around Browning toward the viewscreen. “Are our people clear yet?”

Ensign Dawson looked fearfully up from the science panel. “Not yet.”

“Ready tractor beams, Ensign Dawson,” Conway said. “Lt. Ford, move us to intercept that tri-cobalt device as soon as it clears the firing chamber.”

“Excuse me?”

“What the hell are they doing?” Lucille bent over the operations panel.

Behind her, DiSalvo shrugged. “They’re using a tractor beam to redirect our warhead away from Neptune.”

“Can we get a remote link established?”


Lucille grumbled to herself as she watched the blue twinkling tri-cobalt device sail out into open space and explode with a violent shockwave that shook the Pathfinder. “I’m tired of playing games, DiSalvo. Ready a spread of quantums and fire them at the target coordinates. That should more than suffice.”

“Aye, sir.”

Conway wiped a hand across his forehead. “That was close.”

“She’s going to cream us now, you do realize,” Ford said quietly.

“What’s the worst she can really do? It’s not like she’s going to destroy us and twenty Starfleet VIP’s.”

“I’m just glad we have the VIP’s,” Browning said. “Otherwise I’m not sure she’d care.”

“Our people are clear of the biodome shields,” Dawson announced from Science.

“Beam them up already,” Conway said. He winced as he watched quantum torpedoes stream from the Pathfinder, diving toward Neptune. “Come on, come on!”

“Everyone’s aboard,” Dawson announced finally.

Conway nodded back at her. “Great.” He turned to Ford. “How fast can you get us back to Earth?”

“I’m dumping everything into the engines,” Ford replied. “At impulse, the Pathfinder isn’t too much faster than us.”

“But they are faster.”

“Yeah, but they don’t have a helmsman as creative as I am, I’ll wager.”

“Yeah, we’ll see. Lay in a course back to Earth and get us there as fast as you can.”

With a “bleep” Commodore Baxter appeared on the viewscreen. “Commander Conway! In accordance with Federation laws I order you to release those people to me!”

“No can do, Commodore. You’re welcomed to try to stop me.”

Infuriated, Lucille glanced at the officer behind her, nodded, and diappeared from the viewscreen.

“Pathfinder is targeting us,” Ensign Dawson announced quietly.

“Divert all shields to the rear sections,” Conway said. He turned in his chair just in time to see Baxter, Mirk, and Hartley empty out of the turbolift, escorted by a red-shirted Ensign Sefelt.

“Here they are, Commander,” Sefelt said. “Also, Ambassador Divelnus wants a hot towel.”

“Have the steward see to it,” Conway said.

“Commander,” Baxter said, approaching the command chair. “What’s our status?”

“Your mom’s hot on our tail,” Conway grunted. “It’ll be a couple minutes before we can get back to Earth. You got any suggestions for what we do then?”

“I sure do.” Baxter turned to Ensign Sefelt, who was just sitting down at the communications panel. “Open up a channel to Inventory Headquarters, Ensign.”

“It’s about time you checked in with me, Captain!” Eric said scoldingly. “Starfleet’s been calling about you all day. Have you seen the news?”

On Eric’s terminal screen, beside Conway, Baxter nodded gravely. “Unfortunately.”

“Starfleet has sent security officers over here to shut us down. They should be here any minute. What exactly am I supposed to tell them? The work has been piling up all day!”

“You tell them to hand over their phasers and all other relevant Starfleet materiel they may have on their persons, as indicated in Starfleet Mandate Zeta Five Nine.”

“Zeta Five Nine.” Eric looked stricken. “Captain, you’re not serious.”

“Serious as genital warts, Mister. I’m invoking…General Audit.”

“No…not the General Audit.”

“You heard me.”

“But, I’m not authorized…”

“I’m authorizing you!” Baxter snapped. “Now hurry, before Starfleet Security gets there!”

Eric brought up another screen on the terminal and began tapping in commands. “I’m on it, sir. Godspeed to you and your crew.”

“Yeah, we’ll see. Do what I told you then wait for more orders.”

“I understand. Inventory HQ out.”

“Care to fill me in?” Conway asked. “What’s this ‘General Audit’?”

Browning, Hartley, and Mirk clustered around the command chair behind Conway, obviously eager to hear the answer.

Baxter circled to the front of the bridge. “Something is wrong in Starfleet. People are making illogical decisions. Orders aren’t making sense. At least those that are coming from our Admiral friends, Reno, Oorse, and Jacobs. I checked the records earlier today. They promoted my Mom, and I’ll bet they gave her her orders. They’re the ones responsible for all of this.”

“And what does Inventory have to do with it?” asked Browning.

“They made one mistake when they put me in charge of Inventory. They thought it was a useless position. We’re just bean counters, after all, right? Functionaries? Paper-pushers, so to speak? Right?”

“I guess,” Mirk ventured.

“Wrong!” Baxter whirled. “Inventory is the only single division of Starfleet that has the power to stop the entire Federation government. By ordering a General Audit, I’ve mobilized every Inventory officer on Earth, inactive, vacationing, retired, injured, dead. This very moment Inventory personnel are storming the halls of Federation headquarters in Paris. They’re descending on Starfleet Command.”

“For what purpose?” Hartley asked, in awe.

“They won’t rest until every piece of Starfleet property on Earth is counted,” Baxter said grandly. “Buying us just enough time to get into Starfleet Command and ask our Admiral friends a few questions.”

“That’s great,” Ford said, “but what about your mother?”

“Every vessel in Starfleet has a Chief of Inventory,” Baxter explained. “I just hope he’s a good one.”

Chief of Inventory Walter Paige had been an Inventory officer for exactly four hours. So far he’d rearranged his office and alphabetized the Pathfinder property files. Then, suddenly, the directive that had been nothing more than a legend at Inventory School came through on his terminal. General Audit. He had to take command of the Pathfinder.

As the turbolift sighed to a stop, he readied his phaser. Why him?

The doors opened up and he stepped out. Right in front of him and to the right was the tactical station, where a large, bearish man worked. He glanced over his shoulder.

“What the hell do you want?”

“I’m Walter Paige. Chief of Inventory. And by Starfleet Mandate Zeta Five Nine, I hearby commandeer this vessel until she can be searched from stem to stern…t-to make sure all property is accounted for.”

Lucille whirled around from her place at the front of the bridge. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

Paige leveled his phaser at Lucille. “I am not. Please surrender this ship.”

“We don’t have time for this. DiSalvo, shoot him.”


“Well, I tried,” Paige sighed, as DiSalvo drew his phaser and blasted him.

“Nearing the Earth-Mars belt,” Ford said. “Pathfinder is gaining.”

“Guess your little inventory trick didn’t work on them,” Conway griped.

Baxter shrugged. “Guess not.”

“When will they be in weapons range?” asked Conway.

Dawson studied her scans. “In about two minutes.”

“And it’s three minutes to Earth,” Ford said. “A minute is about all the time they’ll need to blast us to pieces.”

Conway took a deep breath. “All right, Ford. Get ready for evasive.”

Baxter moved over to Browning, who’d taken a seat at the vacant engineering station. “Janice, I’m sorry I dragged you into this. I had no idea–”

“Save it, Andy. I had nothing better to do, anyway.”

“Can I get you anything?”

“Some crackers would be great.”

“No pickles? Matsoh balls?”

“Nope. Just crackers.”

“See to it, Mr. Sefelt,” Baxter glanced over his shoulder at the Ensign. He then maneuvered around to the opposite side of the bridge where Mirk and Hartley were stationed. “Guys. You’ve been awfully quiet.”

“We’re trying to figure out if Starfleet has gone totally insane,” Hartley said. “They never went after the Starshine Kids this agressively. And we’re not even a threat.”

“What do they think?” Mirk asked. “That our Starfleet Scouts will widdle someone to death?”

“I wish I could tell you,” Baxter said. “But I promise I will get your answers.”

Sefelt took the plate of crackers and a glass of milk out of the replicator slot and walked them over to Dr. Browning. “I got you some milk too, Doctor.”

“How thoughtful of you,” Browning said. “You know, Ensign, you’re remarkably calm considering that we’re all in extreme danger.”

“Oh, please,” Sefelt scoffed. “I’ve gotten used to these simulations.”


“Yeah. We do these things all day long for the VIP’s.”

“Mr. Sefelt…this is all very real.”

“Huh?” Sefelt’s eyes rolled back into his head and he dropped like a sack of potatoes.

“What the hell?” Conway asked. “You didn’t tell him this wasn’t a simulation, did you?”

Browning mashed a handful of crackers into her mouth. “Mmpph. Sorry.” Suddenly the panel beside her bleeped. “Hey, s somebody, we’regetting a call!”

“Answer it,” Conway barked. “You knocked out our communications officer, after all.”

“Fine, fine.” Browning punched a control. “This is the Republic, how may I help you?”

Lt. J’hana appeared on the circular radar-like screen before Browning. “Ah, Doctor. How are you today?”

“A little nauseated, but none the worse for wear. Yourself?”

“Just great. Listen, is the Captain there? His assistant said he would be.”

“Yeah, he’s right behind me.”

“Super. Can you get him?”

Browning called Baxter over.

“What is it?” Baxter asked, leaning over Browning’s shoulder.

J’hana made a nervous grunt. “I have some…disturbing… news.”

“What a change,” Baxter muttered. “Go ahead.”

“The Greenspan was boarded by the Starshine Kids. Velara, Tilleran, and the rest of the crew are captured. I have recently searched the ship. No one left aboard. Total destruction of all engines and tactical systems.”

“Damn,” Baxter said, rubbing his beard.

“It gets worse, sir. I had the opportunity to…communicate… with Lt. Tilleran before she was kidnapped. She said she felt the Explorer would be the Starshine Kids’ next target.”

“You mean the Galaxy Explorer?” Browning gasped.

“Would you stop that!” J’hana bellowed. “The point is, your precious wife is in danger, Captain, as is our former ship.”

“I see,” Baxter said. “Well. Where are you?”

“I…borrowed…a shuttlecraft from the comm relay I was inventorying. I’m on my way to meet you. I should arrive in the Sol system in a matter of hours.”

“Change in plans, Lieutenant,” Baxter said. “Listen, we’re going to…mount a rescue attempt…of some sort. We’ll meet you halfway, okay?”

J’hana glanced down at a console. “In that case, I will meet you in the Rigel system. Do you think Starfleet will be willing to give you support?”

“For all intents and purposes, I am Starfleet, for now, J’hana,” Baxter said tiredly.

“Ahh,” J’hana said, nodding. “You invoked a General Audit. Good for you, sir.”

“Well, thanks. We’ll see you in the Versana system.”

“Looking forward to it.”

Browning closed the channel. “What kind of a ‘rescue attempt’ were you thinking about?”

“A very crazy one.”

Spacedock Control was about the most boring job a young ensign could be assigned to. Especially during the afternoon, when nothing much ever happened. Ensign Hayes yawned and stared out at the workbees buzzing by the few ships gathered inside Starbase One’s spacedock facility.

The only interesting thing that had happened was the news on the Krinok News Network about a group of subversive Federation citizens involved in a standoff on Neptune. Hayes had to switch the viewscreen off when his supervisor had come in to check on him. Now that he was in the clear again, he leaned forward and flicked on the viewscreen to get the latest news.

What he got was an overhead view of a Sabre-class starship chasing a tiny Constitution-class, which weaved in and out of the Earth-Mars asteroid belt, evading quantum torpedoes and phaser bursts.

“We’re now in hour two of Standoff ‘76. If you’re just joining us, the Federation subversives have escaped Neptune aboard the USS Republic,” a pleasant-sounding Klingon woman voice-overed. “KNN has positively identified the captain of the starship as Commander David Conway, Captain Baxter’s close friend and former first officer.” The image changed to a shoddy stock photo of a rather oafish-looking Starfleet officer drinking a cup of coffee and grimacing. “His role in this is not known as of now, but our viewers will be the first to know when we find out.”


Hayes quickly switched the viewscreen back off and turned in his chair. “Come in,” he said, trying not to sound nervous. His supervisor must have come back for a surprise inspection!

“What can I do for you, Command–”

But it wasn’t his supervisor at the door. A horde of mustard-collared officers swarmed in, bearing the signifying belt- buckle of the Inventory corps: a lightning bolt striking a padd.

“Stop where you are. This is an audit,” the head officer announced, leveling a phaser on Hayes.

A photon torpedo slammed into Republic’s rear end, flaring the shields.

“Shields down to twenty percent,” Ford said as he frantically steered the Republic around an asteroid and pivoted the tiny ship toward Earth.

“What I wouldn’t give for a tactical officer,” Conway griped.

Baxter braced against the bulkhead near the engineering console. “Hartley! Get over here and see what you can do to keep this flying museum together!”

“Yes, sir,” Hartley said, scrambling across the bridge to the engineering station. “Good to be doing something constructive again!”

“Wish I could help,” Mirk said.

“Well, you could have helped by not getting us into this mess,” Conway pointed out, holding fast to the command chair.

“Enough, Commander. Just get us to the Starbase in one piece,” Baxter ordered.

“Yes, SIR,” Conway muttered. “Can I give you a foot rub while I’m at it?”

“That’s quite all right, Commander.”

“So what’s in the starbase?” asked Browning. “Surely no ship that could stand up to what the Starshine Kids have.”

“On the contrary,” Baxter said. “We have exactly what the Starshine Kids have.”


“Oh. I never did tell you about that, did I?”

Browning folded her arms. “I guess not.”

“Well, anyway, suffice it to say we have one of their ships. Mirk and Hartley stole it when they escaped the Starshine Compound with my mom.”

“Good for them.”

“It’s locked up inside Spacedock. All we need to do is get there and…liberate it.”

The Republic shuddered again as a blast from the Pathfinder slammed against it.

“Shields gone,” Hartley said. “Major hull damage to the aft sections.”

Baxter looked to Conway. “Casualties?”

“Nah.” Conway shook his head. “They just took out the tennis courts.”

“That’s a relief.”

“As long as you’re not a tennis fan.”

“They’re nearing Earth,” DiSalvo announced.

Lucille folded her arms. “We haven’t been aiming for major systems. I’d hate to blow apart a piece of Federation history.” Lucille stared up at the Republic on the viewscreen. It zigged and zagged, avoiding the blasts of the Pathfinder’s phasers.

“But who knows what they’re planning,” DiSalvo said.

Lucille nodded. “If our reports are correct, all of Earth is under Inventory control at the moment. If they’re to be stopped, it’s up to us.”

She studied the charred and twisted rear section of the Republic for a moment. Right beside the point where one of her torpedoes had blasted it, there was a small rectangle with a smear of tiny words printed on it. “What is that?”

“What is what?” asked DiSalvo.

Lucille pointed at the screen. “Zoom in right there.”

“Aye, sir.”

Stuck on the rear end of the Republic, a tiny sticker read:





“Cute,” Lucille muttered.

“I wonder if they destroyed my bumper sticker,” Conway mused as the Republic weaved its way toward Starbase One.

“I’m sure you can replicate a new one,” Baxter said.

“Yeah. But that one was a gift. From Lana.”

“Oh, jeeze,” murmurred Baxter. “How much longer till we get to the starbase?”

“Coming up on it now,” Ford replied.

Another blast rocked the Republic.

“They just blew apart our port nacelle!” Hartley said. “Another shot like that and we’ll be space dust.”

“So much for my first command,” Conway muttered.

“Folsom to bridge.”

“Ach, not this guy again,” Conway sighed. “What do you want, Folsom?”

“Will you kindly stop rocking the ship so much! My waiter just dumped a bowl of hot tomato soup into my lap!”

“I’m so sorry,” Conway said, adopting a sweet sincere voice. “We’re experiencing some…technical difficulties right now.”

“This is unacceptable. I expect a full refund!”

“Oh, I assure you you’ll get what’s coming to you.” Conway grinded his teeth. “Bridge out.”

Baxter looked down at Browning. “Janice, call the Starbase.”

“All righty,” Browning said. “Now let’s see. Which button would that be?”

Baxter rolled his eyes. “Here.” He tapped a control.

“Spacedock Control. This is Lieutenant Riggins.”

“Lieutenant, this is Inventory Comptroller Andy Baxter. Are things secure?”

“Yes they are, sir. And may I say, it’s great to hear your voice. We’ve heard legends of your escapades.”

“You mean when me and my crew got the Aerostar out of the Delta Quadrant? Or saved the quadrant from the Flarn? And the Dawg? And the Leeramar?”

“No, I’m talking about your adventures on the Secondprize. You know, boldly inventorying like no other officer ever inventoried before!’

“Yes, well…”

“It’s the stuff of legend, sir. They tried to knock you out with anesthezine gas, but you just came up swinging!”

“I’m sure your…legends…are blown way out of proportion, Lieutenant.”

“And only the great Captain Baxter could invoke a General Audit. Songs will be sung about this, sir! We will all tell our grandchildren the stories!”

“Someone shut this idiot up!” Conway grumbled.

“Okay, okay,” Baxter waved his hand at the air. “Mr. Riggins, can you open up the spacedock doors?”

“Right away, sir.”

Pathfinder’s phasers pounded the Republic as she disappeared within the cavernous spacedock, atop the upside-down cone-shaped starbase.

“Damn it!” Lucille pounded the arm of her command chair. “What are they trying?”

“They’re quite smart,” said DiSalvo. “They know we won’t follow them in and risk blowing apart the inside of the spacedock.”

“The heck we won’t,” Lucille said. “Inventory no doubt controls the spacedock now, but they won’t take potshots at us.” Lucille bowed her head toward the ensign at helm. “Take us in.”

“Nearing the hangar doors,” announced the helmsman.

Lucille watched the vista of the blue-hue spacedock interior open before her as the Pathfinder swooped in. Badly damaged, the Republic drifted just inside the huge spacedock.

“I’m detecting multiple beamouts. About twenty.”

“Can you trace them?” Lucille asked, moving out of her command chair and stepping toward the viewscreen.

“They beamed to a ship in Berth Four.”

“Show me that berth.”

The screen view panned to a docking port at the far rear of the facility. Lucille sighed. “I should have known.”

Ominous red lights flickered on throughtout the arrow- shaped, bulky three-nacelled beast of a Starshine warship.

“Helm, back off, back off!” Lucille ordered, scrambling back to her command chair. With a lurch the Pathfinder backed toward the spacedock doors.

The comm system bleeped to life.

“Mom. It’s Andy.”

“Hello, son,” Lucille said, pushing loose strands of hair back out of her face. She watched the Starshine vessel swing around her own ship and dart out the Starbase doors. “I know you’re confused right now, but you know what you’re doing is silly. Stand down right now, turn yourself and those other people over, and I promise I’ll make Starfleet go easy on you.”

“No can do, Mom. The Starshine Kids are going after the Explorer. I have to do something about that.”

“Andrew, you saw what happened when we tried a direct assault on them. Three Federation starships were destroyed!”

“But this isn’t a Federation starship. We can do it. And we’re the only ones that can.”

“That may be, but I am under orders to bring Mirk and his accomplices in!”

“Will you shut up about your damned orders! They don’t make any sense!”

“ANDREW JACKSON!” Lucille barked.

“You can forget that tone of voice. That stopped working the second you shot at me.”

“Sorry about that,” Lucille said sheepishly.

“Forget about it.” And the channel closed.

The bridge of the Pathfinder was quiet for a few moments.

“Pursuit course,” Lucille finally said.

“But captain,” DiSalvo said. “That ship can–”

“Pursuit course!” Lucille fairly shouted, and the helmsman complied, swinging the Pathfinder out of the hangar doors.

“Starshine warship’s weapons are coming online,” DiSalvo said.

“All power to forward shields.” Lucille braced herself in her command chair. “Prepare for evasive.”

“Sorry, Mom,” Baxter said, once again on the comm. “How about we call this even, huh?”

And a twinkling ball of energy blasted from the rear of the Starshine warship, followed by another. The Pathfinder deftly swung away from the first energy ball, only to fly right into the second one. The ship flipped backward. Panels exploded all over the bridge and Lucille found herself bathed in darkness.

“Shields are gone. Our engines are dead,” DiSalvo announced, pounding his panel.

“Send out the damage control teams,” Lucille said quietly over the shouts of her bridge crew. “You know. Sometimes it’s really hard to be a mom.”

“Yahoooo!” cried Scoutmaster Buddy as the Starshine warship sailed out of the Terran system and zipped into warp. “I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.”

“It’s nice, if shooting at your own mother is the kind of thing that appeals to you,” Baxter said, pacing the circumference of the wide oval bridge.

Buddy immediately grew quiet.

Baxter leaned over Hartley’s shoulder as she worked at the wall of lights she’d decided was tactical. “What do you have there?”

“Maps of systems. Locations of all those red cloud phenomenons.”

“Can you find the Explorer?”

“I’m working on it. Mirk, your mom, and I learned the rudiments of flying this ship when we stole it from the Starshine Kids, but we’re not exactly pros. I sure as hell don’t know the sensor systems yet.”

“I trust you’ll improve on our way to the Rigel system.”

“Just as long as Mr. Ford keeps us flying straight.”

“This is a piece of cake,” Ford called over his shoulder. He was seated at the podium-like helm station at the front of the bridge. “I already got us into warp, didn’t I?”

Conway harrumphed behind him. “Yeah. Let’s just see if you run us into any planets.”

“Please, sir. Give me some credit.”

“I wonder where there’s something resembling a readyroom on this blasted ship. Somewhere where I can get some privacy.”

“There’s a bathroom right off that corridor,” Mirk said helpfully, pointing over Baxter’s shoulder. “I found that out shortly after we left the Aegis system.”

“Great. I’m going to call Chris,” Baxter said, turning on a heel and heading down the corridor.

“He seems cheery,” Conway grumbled, sinking into the command chair that sat alone on a raised dais at the center of the bridge.

Browning stepped up beside him. “Would you be if your mother recently tried to kill you, and your wife, who thinks you’re cheating on her, is in danger of being blown up along with your former ship by a vicious cult?”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

“Of course,” Richards said, leaning forward in his seat at the communications console of the Daisy II. “Of course we’re going to help you. We’re setting course for the Rigel system now.” He glanced at Kris Larkin, who was sitting on the edge of her command chair. She nodded and barked the helm order to Bort.

“Chris, I just thought you should know. Just because me and the others are risking our tails doesn’t mean–” Baxter said on the tiny viewscreen.

“Andy, I was the Explorer’s Chief Engineer. I care about her as much as anyone.”

Baxter sat on the viewscreen smouldering for a few moments.

“Oh, and of course, I care about Kelly a lot too! That just goes without saying!”

“Sure it does. We’ll see you in the Rigel system in one hour.”

Richards nodded. “We’ll be there, sir.” He cocked his head. “Oh, and by the way, are you in a bathroom?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” And the viewscreen shut off.

Kris whirled toward Richards. “So what are you going to do? Go with them on this suicide mission?”

“It’s not necessarily a suicide mission, Kris. I’ve seen the specs on that Starshine warship. It has quite a bit of firepower.”

“But doesn’t that…cult…have three or four of them?”

Richards nodded. “Yeah, I guess they do.”

Kris folded her arms. “So in the final analysis, you’re still risking your life.”

“Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Are you taking Kristen with you? I’m sure she’ll want to go.”

“No. No, she has to stay here.”

“Since her life is so much more precious than yours?”

“Because she’s my daughter. And I care about her. And I care about you. Should I trust Bort to take care of you while I’m gone?”

Bort grumbled angrily at the helm station but didn’t turn around.

“I can take care of myself, Chris,” Kris replied.

“That may be, but if we all do get killed on this ‘hopeless’ mission, then someone must carry on my line, right? Kristen seems like the only candidate.”

“I guess,” Kris said reluctantly.

“And it goes without saying who I want to carry on the parenting role.”

“That…Browning…person?” Kris ventured.

“Guess again.”

Kris’s eyes went wide. “Chris, after everything that’s gone on, you’d want me to raise Kristen?”

“No one knows her better.” Richards moved over to the command chair and squeezed Kris’s shoulder. “I know we haven’t gotten along well lately. Maybe it was a mistake for us to pursue a relationship, since we’re both so close to Kristen and have such hugely different ideas of what’s best for her. And what’s best for us, too, I guess. But when it comes down to it I know you’re a good person, and would make a good, uh, mother for Kristen.”

“Call me crazy,” Kris blinked, “but did you just dump me?”

Richards smiled. “As gently as I could. I love you Kris, but in the end we’re just too different. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go explain all this to my daughter.”

Kris turned back toward the viewscreen in her command chair and shook her head. “Good luck.”

“Come in,” Baxter said, studying the starmaps Hartley had forwarded to the viewscreen beside the toilet. He had to give it to the Starshine Kids. They built a very practical bathroom.

The doors swished open and Commander Conway cleared his throat. “Sir?”


“Ford and Hartley inventoried the weapons. We have enough to blast up a ton of Starshine ships. Of course each one they have has an equal stockpile, but hey, who’s counting?”

“Uh-huh.” Baxter kept squinting at the starcharts. The Explorer was out there somewhere. He’d tried to triangulate her whereabouts from the travel plan Kelly had given him. So far, no good. He finally switched the screen off and turned toward Conway. “Commander, when we rendez-vous with the Daisy II, I want you to beam over with everyone but Mirk and Hartley and get them back to Federation space.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. No reason you guys should risk life and limb.”

“But I disagree,” Conway replied. “We all care about her. Sure, there have been problems in the past, but if you ask anyone out there what they really feel, I assure you it’d be pure love.”

Baxter arched an eyebrow. “You’re talking about the Explorer, right?”

“Hell yeah. Peterman we could do without.” Conway grinned, thinking he’d made a darn good joke.

Baxter grumbled to himself. “Fine. Go along with us. At least get the civilians off-loaded. Okay?”

“Whatever you say, Captain.” Conway headed for the door, then turned back toward Baxter. “And sir?”


“It’s…” Conway grimaced, as if choking on something bitter. “…good working with you again.”

“Stop trying to cheer me up. You’re miserable at it.”

“Sorry. Jeeze.” And he stomped off back to the bridge.

Fifteen minutes later, the bridge crew heard a massive flush and Baxter hurried out of the Captain’s Bathroom. “Eureka!”

“Have a good dump?” Ford asked, turning in the helm seat.

“Yes, but that’s not the point. I found the Explorer. Or at least her transponder signal. Masked inside one of those damned Redlands phenomena just outside the Coreolis system.

“Prepare to set off on that course as soon as we get J’hana and Richards, Mr. Ford,” Conway ordered. When Baxter approached he looked up at him skeptically. “Did you wash your hands, sir?”

“Yes,” Baxter said defensively. “Now get out of my chair.”

“Sure, your majesty,” Conway mocked, sliding out of the chair.

“Lt. Hartley,” Baxter asked. “Do you think you have a handle on the tactical and engineering systems?”

“As good as it’s going to get. We really won’t know until we get into a firefight.”

“How comforting.” Baxter turned to Mirk. “Mr. Mirk, are your followers ready to take a short vacation aboard the lovely starship Daisy II?”

Mirk shrugged, leaning against a seemingly useless panel of blinking lights. “They won’t like it. Some of them are being diverted from vacations as it is.”

“Well, explain it to them, Reverend. It’s only a matter of time before the admirals get free of my Inventory people and start causing trouble again. But we should be neck deep in other trouble by that time.”

“How comforting,” Conway mimicked.

“This is intolerable!” shouted Admiral Jacobs as Inventory personnel combed his office with tricorders.

One inventory officer knelt by Jacobs’ couch and yanked something out from under it. “Did you know about this isolinear chip?”

“Let me see that.” Jacobs snatched the chip and examined it. “This contains pictures of me and my family during our vacation on Federation day!”

“It’s a Federation chip. Shouldn’t be used for personal purposes.”

“Listen to me you little jerk, I am an Admiral. I’ll do whatever I damn well please!”

“Oorse to Jacobs.”

Jacobs shook his head at the Inventory officer and headed over to his desk, stabbing the terminal control. “What is it, Oorse?”

“I’ve been perusing Federation statutes. There is a way to defeat a General Audit.”

“I’m listening…”

Lt. Commander Larkin caught up to Richards in one of the Daisy II’s cramped corridors. “Commander, is it true that you are going aboard a highjacked Starshine warship in order to save the Explorer?”

“Galaxy Explorer, Kristen, and yes, I am,” Richards said, shifting the weight of his duffel bag on his shoulder.

“And I am correct in assuming that you wish me to stay behind.”

“That’s right.”

“That is not logical. My special abilities might be needed.”

Richards and Larkin stepped into the lift to the bridge. “The last time you and I took off on an adventure together, you gave up your life. Remember?”

“All too well, sir.”

“Well, I don’t want a repeat of that.” Richards put both his hands on Larkin’s shoulders. “You are as close as I have to a daughter. It’s important to me that you live. Anyway, someone has to look out for Kris.”

“I see. Am I also correct in assuming that you and Kris are no longer…together?”

“That’s right. How do you feel about that?”

“As you are aware, I have no feelings on that matter whatsoever.”

Richards nodded. “I figured as much.”

They sat in silence as the lift doors opened up onto the corridor leading to the bridge.

“But I do find that satisfactory,” Larkin finally said. “You two were completely wrong together. If you live through this endeavor, I will go into the details thoroughly.”

“That’s reason enough to try to survive,” Richards said with a grin.

Baxter walked with Browning toward the Starshine Kids’ equivalent of a transporter room. For some unfathomable reason, Hartley had told Baxter earlier, the room came with a bidet. That was just one more reason Baxter had to hate this cult.

“Bridge to Baxter,” came Conway’s voice over Baxter’s combadge.


“We’ve just beamed the last of Mirk’s followers to Kris Larkin’s ship. And Scoutmaster Buddy reports that he loved the water fountain in the transporter room, whatever that means.”

Baxter grimaced. “Great. Have we heard from J’hana yet?”

“Yes, sir. Her shuttlecraft just entered the system.”

“Good enough.” Baxter sighed as he came to the door to the transporter room. He turned to look at Dr. Browning, who’d been fairly quiet on the walk down to the room. “How are you feeling, Janice?”

“Fine, aside from a bit of nausea. Why do you ask?”

Baxter rolled his eyes. “Oh, no reason. Listen, Janice. I want you to know, whatever happens in the…future…I consider you one of my best friends, and the best Chief Doctor I’ve ever had.”

“Well, gee,” Browning blushed. “What brings this on?”

Baxter shrugged. “Oh, nothing. Let’s get into the transporter room.”

When they walked into the spacious, red-walled transporter room, Hartley was idly tapping on the controls. “You know, guys, it feels really good to be back behind a transporter console again…oddly enough.”

“Glad you’re having a good time. Are you locked on to Lieutenant Commander Richards?”

“Yep.” Hartley plucked a control. “All ready.” She winked at Baxter.

“Great. Energize.”

Browning turned toward the transporter pad at the front of the room to watch Richards materialize. Sure enough, the transporter pad lit up and he began to take form. And Browning felt an odd tingle. She looked at her hand. She was being transported!

“Andy, what the heck!” Browning cried, as she disappeared in a flurry of rouge.

At the same time, Richards finished materializing on the Flarn-made transporter pad. “Andy!” He looked around. “Janice…is she–?”

Baxter nodded. “All taken care of.” He shook Richards’s hand as he dismounted the padd. “Tell me, do you think she’ll understand?”

Richards shook his head. “Probably. But she’s going to be ticked.”

“Well, she’ll get over it.”

“What the heck!” Browning exclaimed as she finished materializing on the Daisy II’s transporter pad.

Larkin stood at the controls. “Welcome to the Daisy II, Doctor.” She stepped around the terminal to help Browning down from the pad. “I take it you did not expect to be transported.”

“Not in the least,” admitted Browning. “What, did Andy and Chris decide I was too delicate to fight the Starshine Kids?”

“That is my assumption. Do you not agree?”

Browning shrugged. “I…I guess. It just would have been nice to have some sort of notice.”

“You may be right,” Larkin said. “Shall we go up to the bridge, now? No doubt you are anxious to see Kris Larkin again.”

“Ecstatic,” Browning muttered.

Richards, Hartley, and Baxter arrived on the bridge of the Starshine warship at the same time as J’hana.

“All right,” Baxter said, scanning the faces of the people on his bridge. “Let’s get this show on the road. Mr. Ford, best speed to intercept the Explorer.”

“Galaxy Explorer, you mean?”

“Don’t make me hit you.”

Ford swung around in his chair and tapped in the coordinates. “Right, sir. We’re on our way.”

And the Starshine vessel zapped into warp.

Baxter settled into the command chair, watching his crew go about their various tasks at the stations around the bridge. He desparately hoped to get to the Explorer in time to save her, and Kelly. Who knew what those bastards under Sesil’s command were capable of?

“Everyone dig in! There’s plenty good food for everyone!” Sesil cooed as he surveyed the ten meter long table in his grand dining room, deep within the Shiney Estates complex. He turned to the person seated at his left. “Oh, don’t you love the holidays, Velara?”

Captain Velara’s fork shook imperceptibly as she held it over her modest plate of turkey carvings. “Thanksgiving is not for a few months, brother.”

“You’re thinking of those petty human holidays. For Starshine Kids, this is a time of great thanks, thanks to the Critics for giving us such a prosperous empire…I mean condo complex.”

“Yes, it’s impressive,” Velara muttered. “But you’re forcing people to conform to your will. Is that not inherently wrong?”

“Oh, it all depends on how you look at it,” Sesil said, throwing his hands into the air. “Kill a few people, brainwash them, topple the Federation. Who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong?”

“Certainly not you,” Velara said.

“Can I just kill her now?” Irma wondered from her seat a little ways down the table.

“No, no, no!” Sesil snapped. “Velara is my sister. I already gave you Telvin for a plaything. Now be silent and eat your cranberry relish!”

Telvin grinned from his place next to Irma. “He sure told you.”

“You shut up!” Irma cried, cramming Telvin’s face down into his plate of mashed potatoes. “You’ll only speak when I tell you to.”

“I want to go home,” Telvin mumbled, voice muffled by the potatoes.

“May I ask a question?” Lt. Tilleran asked. She was seated across from Irma and Telvin.

“Surely,” Sesil said, propping his chin on his clasped hands. “What’s on your mind? Hahah, or more to the point, what’s on my mind?”

“I don’t know,” Tilleran sulked. “I can’t know, ever since you put this damned telepathic control collar on me I can’t figure anything out. What are you going to do with the Explorer?”

“The Galaxy Explorer is being taken care of presently. Best not to think about it. Cheer up and drink your egg nog.”

Tilleran frowned. “But it’s so awfully thick.”

“Drink it!” Somewhere beyond the dining room, a tiny Welsh corgi yipped. “And someone get that dog a treat before I have it cut up and served for dessert!”

“Oh, right away, your nuttiness,” Irma groused, sliding out of her chair and wiping her mouth. “Come on, Telvin. You can ride on my back.”

“Oh, no,” Telvin sighed, and jumped up on top of Irma. She effortlessly carried him out of the dining room.

“He’s so playful,” Sesil giggled, and dug into his oyster stuffing.

“Sesil,” Velara said quietly, “You need to stop this. We can get out of here. Don’t you see, the Critics have made a jumble of your mind?”

“They did no such thing!” Sesil snapped. “My mind is fit as a fiddle. I’ve had more control over my life than ever before since the Critics came to my rescue. If I’d gone on to become an orthopedist like Mother suggested, I’d never have gotten my own cult, or my own warships, or my own condominium complex!” Sesil waved his hand around. “They made all this possible!”

“You are growing less sane by the moment.”

“Yes, and I’m loving every minute of it!”

The Aloha Deck roared with the confused mumblings of scared Federation dignitaries and celebrities. Red emergency lighting bathed the two-level complex, giving it a spooky, ethereal look.

Commander Peterman winced as the Galaxy Explorer rocked again. The ship had been tossing and turning for long on two hours, and the whole lower saucer section seemed to be cut off from the rest of the ship. Communications were out, as was main power, as was the fountain in front of the Dillon Supply Depot SuperStore.

Most of the special guests aboard Galaxy Explorer had been in the mall at the time, so they were required to huddle together fearfully in the main expanse of the mall along the rows of storefronts that had been quickly assembled by Starfleet’s corps of engineers during the Explorer’s hurried refit at Starbase One. The area now containing duty-free shopping opportunities and a first-rate Bolian pretzel stand used to be two cargo bays.

“Commander, I don’t mean to sound defeatest,” said Dr. Julian Bashir, huddled on the bench next to Peterman, nibbling on a pretzel, “but I think our odds of surviving whatever’s out there are decreasing by the minute.”

“You’re not going to quote some sort of silly math theorem now, are you, Julian?” Peterman mumbled.

“No, not at all. I have no proof we won’t survive this. Just a feeling.”

“Well keep that feeling to yourself. There are a lot of scared people in here.”

“Julian? Oh, Julian?”

“Oh no.” Bashir huddled against Peterman’s shoulder. “Protect me, Commander. Please!”

“What are you talking about?” Peterman blinked, then looked up. Lwaxana Troi was picking her way through the crowd of scared dignitaries, waving her hand.

“Oh, Julian! Please, come here. You know I can feel your fear. There’s no reason to be afraid!”

“I am NOT afraid!” Bashir said, straightening on the bench. “I’m just…well, I’m already with a Trill.”

“Well too bad. I’m getting older by the second and the Ambassador of Gilvos Three just turned down my proposal. You’re my last shot, Doctor.”

“Find somebody else!”

Lwaxana squeezed on the bench on the other side of Bashir. “Doctor, you realize we may never get off this ship. Don’t you want to huddle together in the mattress section of the Dillon Depot while we still have time? While the ship crumbles apart around us?”

Another rumble, and one of the superfluous buttresses mounted on the ceiling came crashing down, sending people nearby scattering.

“Not really,” Bashir said quickly.

Lt. Commander Richards slid out from under the huge throbbing white-light core that ran the length of the Starshine warship’s engine room. It was nearly blinding to look at, and thrummed with energy that rattled his eardrums.

Hartley folded her arms. “Well?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

“So we agree this is our first look at a Flarn power core?”

“Or at least a rip-off of one,” Richards agreed. “Though one wonders where the hell the Starshine Cult got the resources to build one of these.”

“They’re in league with omnipotent creatures, Chris. They just conjured them up, I imagine.”

“Jeeze,” Richards muttered. “And what have the Directors done for US lately?”

“I’ve asked myself the same question.” The voice came from behind Hartley and Richards.

“Mirk,” Richards said. “Here to shed some light on this?”

“I know a little about Flarn engineeering. I can tell you this core is running smoothly, and that the replicator on deck six makes an excellent barbecued ankle.”

“Cute,” muttered Hartley.

“Well,” said Richards. “I don’t imagine Starfleet has had that much time in the last five days to really examine this thing. It’s a shame it’ll get blown up before they get a chance to put that technology to use.”

“A shame indeed,” said Mirk. He sat down on the stool beside the core and propped his chin on his hand.

“What’s the matter, Mirk?” asked Hartley. “You miss your followers already?”

“I don’t know what it is. I never had disciples.”

“I must have missed something,” Richards said. “Since when did you become an holevangelist?”

“I am NOT a holevangelist. I am a…minister,” Mirk corrected.

“Same difference.”

“No they’re not! I don’t want latinum. I just want people to join my cause.”

“And why, exactly?”

“We’re heading toward the answer to your question at warp nine,” Mirk said. “Somebody has to stand against them.”

“And it won’t be the Federation?” Richards asked with interest.

“We can’t trust the Federation,” said Hartley.

“Ahh,” Richards said. “So there are a bunch of ‘conspiracies’ going on then?” He made air quotes when he said “conspiracies.”

Hartley huffed. “You could say that.”

“What’s the matter, Commander? Are you not a true believer?” Mirk leaned forward with interest.

“Let’s just say I have my doubts.”

“About what, in particular?”

“About it all. I just want to save the Explorer and her crew and get the hell out of there. I’ll leave the faith issues to you.” Richards turned for the exit door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…Oh,” and he patted Mirk on the back. “I like the white suit, by the way.”

“What’s his problem?” whispered Mirk.

Hartley tapped a coil spanner against her palm. “Break-up.”

“Ah. I can see how that would be troubling, at a time like this.”

“So who has room for pumpkin pie?” Sesil asked, steepling his fingers and glancing around at the group gathered around his table.

Irma belched with satisfaction. “I’ll take one.”

“I knew you would!” Sesil said, crinkling his nose with joy. “What about the rest of you?”

“I would like to get out of my seat,” Tilleran said. “I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Promise you won’t try to escape like that nasty Mr. Mirk and the others did?”

“Telepath’s honor,” Tilleran said.

“Fine.” Sesil pressed a control on the table and the forcefield around Tilleran’s chair fizzled away. “Off you go.”

Just before Tilleran got to the large, oaken double doors of the dining room, the screen behind Sesil chirped. A bald Tellarite appeared there.

“Your Shineyness. We’ve detected a vessel coming toward Redlands 12.”

Sesil whirled in his chair. “Where the Explorer is!”

“Yes, sir. And it appears to be one of ours.”

“I told you that stolen ship would come to haunt us,” Irma grunted, wiping her mouth with a rag. “I’ll go take a warship out to meet them.” She began to rise.

“Tut tut!” Sesil whirled back toward the table and jammed his finger on a control. A field fizzled around her and held her in her chair. “No one leaves till we’ve had dessert! You hear me!”

“You’re trying me, Mr. Vulcan!” Irma growled. “I warn you, you are playing with fire!”

“Then burn, baby burn!” Sesil squealed. “Fear not, Irma. I’m well aware of our rogue ship. It’s under the control of Captain Andy Baxter. We’ve been monitoring its communications since it was stolen from the starbase that orbits Earth. It won’t be a threat to our plans.”

“We’ll see…buahh…won’t we!” Irma belched. “We’d never have had to worry if you had gone to recover that damn ship!”

Sesil’s eyebrows bunched up. “It was on my ‘to do’ list. But I felt it more important to gather up my brother and sister to celebrate the High Holy days of the Starshine Kids with me. This is an important time.” He whirled back toward the screen, watching the warping warship heading toward one of his Redlands. “And I will not let that little Maloxian and his Starfleet buddies disrupt it! Do you understand!”

“Yeah, I guess. Where’s the damned pie?”

Captain Alvin Ficker stared at the Galaxy Explorer’s crackling viewscreen. “I’ve had just about enough of this.”

Lt. Varner at tactical looked down at Ficker in the command chair. What was he supposed to say? “Well, sir…I…”

Another shudder hit the Explorer and nearly knocked Ficker out of the chair.

“Will somebody stop that!” Ficker said, adjusting his glasses on his face and turning his chair toward the science station. “Has sciences figured anything out yet?”

Lt. Elton shrugged. “We know next to nothing about the cloud. Of course, it would help if we had a science team. The science division was turned into a Karaoke bar, remember?”

“Damn!” Ficker pounded the arm of the command chair. “Well, we can’t just sit here forever!”

“We certainly can’t,” Varner agreed. “According to our sensors, if these subspace eddies keep crashing against our hull, we only have about an hour left before we lose structural integrity altogether.”

Ficker took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “This is what makes being a captain so hard.”

“Yes, sir. What do we do?”

“Still no contact below deck eight?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, then. We’re going to have to break free of this cloud somehow. If we launch shuttles and escape pods, do you think they might be able to break free?”

“Nope. Not if the subspace eddies have the same effects on their engines as they did on ours. They’d be dead in space the second they left the shuttlebay.”

“What if we increased power to the transporters? Could we beam the crew to a planet in this system?”

“Already thought about that, sir,” said Varner. “We can’t punch a transporter beam through.”

Ficker began biting his fingernails. “You know, when they let me out of the…rehabilitation center…I was afraid of this. I was afraid I’d never really get back into the rhythm of being captain.”

“Don’t blame yourself, sir.”

“It’s all my fault,” Ficker moaned. “I’m cursed. That’s what it is. That’s what it has to be.”

“Uh, well…” Varner stammered.

“You know,” Ficker interrupted, standing just as another eddy rocked the Galaxy Explorer, nearly knocking him off his feet.

“Structural integrity down to eighteen percent,” Elton called out.

“You know,” Ficker repeated. “I’d spend days at the center just drawing on a padd. Drawing on a padd. Know what I drew?”


“I drew starships.” Ficker paced up to the quarterdeck, leaned over Varner’s panel. “I drew starships. Knowing one day I’d have one to call my own again. Then I get one. I get this one. I get the Galaxy Explorer. Become the toast of the fleet once more. Then I get creamed by some ominous red cloud.”

“It’s a tough lot, sir,” Varner admitted.

“Well it’s not going to happen!” Ficker cried, yanking at his hair. “We’re getting out of this alive!”

“I’d sure like to know how.”

“You tell me!” Ficker screamed. At that point, Varner was pretty convinced no one would make it out alive. The Galaxy Explorer needed a miracle. And one of those seemed highly unlikely.

“There she is!” Hartley said, stabbing a finger at the sector map that was spread on the screen at the rear of the bridge.

“On the front screen,” Baxter commanded, stepping toward the front of the oval command center.

Ford tapped a control, and the Coreolis system popped up on the viewscreen, complete with a sprawling bloodred cloud.

“Magnify,” said Conway, folding his arms, just behind Baxter.

The image zoomed until the red cloud filled the whole viewer. An oblong silhouette appeared at the center, like the pit of a cherry.

“The Explorer,” Baxter said.

“Gal–” But Ford stopped when Baxter glared down at him.

“Scan them, J’hana,” Baxter said, glancing back at the podium-like tactical post.

J’hana tapped at the controls. Hartley and Mirk had given her a quick crash-course and she’d adaptad quite nicely, as far as she was concerned. “The cloud is impenetrable, sir.” J’hana sneered. “At least to our sensors.”

“Then we go in,” Baxter said, looking around at the others on the bridge. “Agreed?”

“Not much else to do,” Conway said. “Mr. Ford, full impulse.”

“Aye, sir. Full impulse into the deadly red cloud, aye.”

Baxter was about to say something to Ford when an alarm wailed at J’hana’s podium.

“Two warships just like ours approaching!” J’hana called out.

Richards grunted. “Welcoming committee. I’d better get down to the engine room.”

“Try to keep us together at least long enough to get the Explorer, please,” Baxter said. “J’hana, take a defensive posture. Arm all weapons and raise the shields. And put this bucket on whatever kind of alert is handy.”

“Aye, sir.” J’hana glanced at her panel. “Hold on. We have a hail coming in.”

“From the warships?” Conway asked, looking back at her.

“No, sir,” J’hana said. Her antennae twitched–nerves? “From a Federation starship. One of many, heading this way on an intercept course at warp nine.”

“F***,” Baxter muttered.

“Looks like our little takeover is at an end,” Mirk said uncomfortably.

“Looks like,” Baxter agreed.

Hartley grimaced. “Gee, and I wonder which ship is in the lead?”

Baxter didn’t respond. “Answer the hail, J’hana. On screen.”

On the viewscreen, Lucille Baxter appeared, flanked by Admirals Reno, Jacobs, and Oorse.

“Mom! Great to see you!” Baxter deadpanned. “And you brought friends. How nice.”

“Stand down, son!” Lucille said. “You don’t know what you’re doing!”

“And you’re just a puppet, Commodore!” Baxter returned.

“Oooh,” Ford snickered. “Good one, Captain.”

“Andrew Baxter! I’m only telling you this one time!”

Reno stepped in front of Lucille, looking at Baxter sternly. “Captain, Inventory Control is no more. We’ve obliterated your entire department. You’ve dug yourself quite a hole. Now turn over that ship before things get worse.”

“Sorry Admiral,” Baxter said, folding his arms. “But I think things are going to get a hell of a lot worse. There are two Starshine Warships heading toward us. They’ll reach us before you do. So, to make a long story short, we’re going to be in the middle of a battle by the time you guys reach this system. You can either help us, or help the Starshine Kids blow us out of the stars. Your choice.”

“You’re not making this easy, Baxter!” Jacobs called out. “We’re not your enemies. There’s no reason to throw your career away!”

“Look in that cloud,” Baxter grumbled. “You’ll find your reason there. Cut channel, J’hana.”

J’hana laughed heartily. “Good job, sir. You certainly told them.”

“Be quiet and prepare an attack run on those ships,” Baxter snapped. “Time to intercept?”

“Let us see…twenty seconds.”

“It’ll be at least a minute before we get to the cloud!” Conway said. “We’ll have to fight our way through two ships equal to us to get in there. And then we’ll either have to fight Starfleet or the Starshine Kids or both to get out!”

Baxter laughed. “Still glad you came along?”

“Don’t make me answer that.”

“Here they come!” Hartley called out.

When the first blast hit, Baxter reached forward to grab the helm station. “Mr. Ford, evade them as best you can. Just get us into that cloud!”

“Gotcha. Just the normal rabbit-out-of-the-ass stuff, right?”

“Something like that.” Baxter looked back at J’hana. “Throw everything at them.”

“Everything but the bidet, yes, sir.”

“Their combined firepower is well into the terawatt range,” remarked DiSalvo at tactical. “They are inflicting considerable damage on Captain Baxter’s ship.”

“We have twelve ships,” Lucille reasoned. “That will be enough to get us in and out if we don’t linger too long.”

“Your son made a good point,” Oorse said. “If we hold off the other warships attacking his ship, that will give him enough time to get into the red cloud. After that, he may be out of our reach. And Mirk with him.”

“Well, that may be,” said Lucille. “But what’s the harm if him and his crew does save the Explorer? We can work with them. We can hold off the Starshine ships long enough for them to get their ship out and worry about their criminal proceedings later!”

“They are criminals and they must dealt with,” Oorse said sternly, twisting one of his long beard tips. “At any cost. We must not let them enter the Redlands.” He looked back at DiSalvo at tactical. “Have our fleet destroy Baxter’s ship as soon as we’re in range. It is the only way.”

Lucille’s eyes widened. “You belay that order, Mr. DiSalvo!”

DiSalvo wavered for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, SIR.”

“You dare belay ME?” Oorse asked. “Commodore, I ask you to think about your actions.”

“I agree with her,” Reno said. “Mirk must not be killed.”

“Oh, so that’s how it is?” Oorse asked. “Overruled by one of my own? Well, I won’t have that. I’m the senior officer here. What I say goes. DiSalvo, obliterate that warship as soon as we’re in range!”


“Do I get a say in this?” asked Admiral Jacobs.

“No!” barked Lucille, Reno, and Oorse.

“We’ll be in the system in another two minutes,” said DiSalvo. “You all better make up your minds.”

“I’m not killing my son,” Lucille said, folding her arms. “Maybe he’s right. Maybe you guys aren’t acting rationally.”

“That’s not for you to decide!” barked Oorse. “That ship will be destroyed!”

“Over my dead body!” Reno said, turning on Oorse and poking a finger in his face. “You’re waaay out of line, Mister!”

“You, sir, are out of line, lady!” Oorse called back.

“Oy,” Lucille muttered, covering her face. “Mr. DiSalvo. Have your officers escort all of these admirals to the brig. They’re not behaving at all reasonably.”

“What did I do?” Jacobs demanded.

DiSalvo pointed to a pair of security guards who were stationed at the rear of the bridge. They dutifully walked down to the front of the bridge where Lucille and the three admirals were standing.

“Don’t lay a hand on me!” Oorse cried, batting away the two officers like they were rag dolls. “That’s enough of this silly business. No more mister nice guy!”

Then Oorse smiled. Lucille stared at him in awe and he kept smiling. His lips widened, thickened, grew until they took up his whole face, until they became his head, until his body withered and disappeared below them, until that huge, person-sized, bloodred pair of lips stared at her with a vile grin.

<Ah, much better! Now, if you’ll excuse me!> And the lips diappeared in a red swirl.

Lucille blinked. “What the…”

“Well, it was only a matter of time,” said Reno. “Excuse me.”

And Lucille watched on as Reno’s left eye bulged out, until her left eye became her whole head and her bulbous body vanished.

The eyeball throbbed with veins, the retina contracted and expanded. <Dreadfully sorry about all this. It’s just a bit of a…difference of opinion. Don’t mind us.>

And the eyeball vanished.

Lucille stared at Jacobs. “Well?”

Jacobs fumbled uncomforably with his fingers. “Well what?”

“Well, what are you going to turn into? A nose?”

“Nope,” Jacobs shrugged. “I had no idea they were…that. I’ll be darned.”

“So what do we do now?” Lucille asked, staring at the screen. The warp streaks shrank to dots as planets and the huge Redlands appeared. And right in front of the cloud, two huge, red, three- nacelled warships chased a third into that sapphire abyss.

“We’ll be in firing range in two minutes,” DiSalvo said. “Orders?”

Lucille collapsed into the command chair. “Have the fleet prepare to open fire on those two warships. Explain to them in no uncertain terms that even though it’s twelve to two, it’s still going to be a real barnburner!”

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go find an escape pod,” Jacobs said, bolting toward the aft turbolift. “It was nice knowing you all!”

Explosions rocked against Baxter’s warship, smashing panels and sending sparks shooting out all over the bridge.

“Shields collapsing,” J’hana announced. “We’re nearly out of plasma torpedoes. Fourth and fifth antiproton cannons are out.”

Baxter steadied himself against a support beam. “Great. Time to the cloud?”

“Just another few seconds,” Ford said, tapping madly at the helm controls. “Assuming our impulse engines hold out!”

“Hold on!” J’hana said, looking up from her panel. “The fleet just came screaming into the system! They’re engaging the other two warships!”

“And not us?” Conway asked. “Hah. What a surprise!”

“Way to go mom,” Baxter grinned. “Take us in, Ford.”

“Aye, sir!”

Just then, Mirk’s eyes widened in shock. Hartley glanced over at him.

“Mirk, you okay?”

Mirk nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. I’m great.”

Irma looked up, pie dribbling down her face. “Oh. My.”

“What?” Sesil asked, pounding the dinner table. “WHAT? No secrets between sailors, Irma!”

Irma stabbed her fork into what was left of her pie. “They’re back.”

“Who? Who’s back? Who’s back?”

Once Sesil had found out who was back, and that that “who” was in Redlands 12, where the Explorer was, he scrambled the dinner party into the Starshine. The Starshine was the original, lithe and attractive, angular red vessel of the Starshine Kids. They had one last warship, but it had been badly damaged when Mirk and his friends left several days earlier.

“What is this about, Sesil?” Velara demanded from behind Sesil’s thronelike command chair as he stared at the viewscreen, at the stars rushing toward them.

“It’s about exclusivity rights, dear sister. Something I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about, but now, something that is a terrible problem. We have to get to Redlands twelve. Helm, open up a subspace fissure and take us there immediately!”

“What do you plan to do?” asked Tilleran, who stood by Velara.

“You’ll see soon enough. But suffice it to say, we’ll take care of Captain Baxter, Mr. Mirk, the Explorer, and those damned eyeballs once and for all!!!!!”

Telvin cleared his throat next to Velara. “What do you say we have Thanksgiving at your house next year, sis?”

“Do not talk to me.”

Sergey and Helena Rozhenko were curled in their bed together, shivering with the thoughts of what was happening to the Galaxy Explorer. They had agreed to pass off their last moments of life lying in that bed, together, just like on all those hot, sweaty nights in the Ukraine.

“Sergey,” said Helena quietly as another shudder shook the ship.

“Yes, Helena.”

“Your elbow’s right in my back, dear.”

“Oh, sorry.”

Their pleasant dialogue was interrupted when the whine of a transporter filled the room and seven figures appeared, looking around with much disorientation.

“Where are we?” Baxter asked, unslinging his phaser rifle.

“In a bedroom with old people!” Lt. Ford shouted, pointing. “Gross!”

“Act your age, you silly human!” J’hana barked.

Baxter turned toward Helena and Sergey’s bed and grinned uneasily. “Hello. My name’s Captain Andy Baxter. I’m here to save this ship. Wonder if you could tell me where Commander Peterman is?”

“Did you say Baxter?” asked Helena.

“Yes, Worf has told us about you,” Sergey said gruffly, sitting up in bed.

“You’re Ambassador Worf’s parents?” Baxter asked, scratching his head.

“I can see the resemblance,” Conway chuckled.

“Adopted parents!” Helena said. “Yes, and you must be the one Worf almost killed when you spilled prune juice on him at the Altair conference.”

“I can’t believe he still tells that story,” Baxter said with a wistful grin. “Well, anyway, good to meet you folks.”

“Commander Peterman was heading to the mall, last we heard,” said Helena. “That’s where most of the passengers have gathered.”

“Mall?” Richards asked, scratching his head. “I don’t remember this ship having a mall.”

“It can only get worse from here,” Hartley muttered.

“Well,” Baxter said, turning his attention to the elderly Russians. “Don’t worry, we’ll be out of this in a bit. Just sit tight and…have sex or something.”

“Understood. Anything to help Starfleet!” Sergey said.

Baxter shivered and waved his group out of the room. “Come on, everyone. Out of here, now!”

Once they were out in the corridor, Baxter instructed Hartley, Ford, and Richards to try to get to the engine room. Everyone else was to get to the mall to find Peterman and the other passengers and try to figure out a way to evacuate them.

“Where do you think they’d put a mall in a Federation starship anyway?” asked Conway as the group marched down the corridor.

J’hana stared at her tricorder. “Deck 20. Does that answer your question?”

“Yep.” Baxter checked the settings on his rifle and charged forward. “Let’s find a Jefferies tube. I doubt the turbolifts are worth much right now.”

“Did I have a chance to thank you for the weaponry, yet, J’hana?” Conway asked, unslinging his own phaser rifle.

“Indeed you did not.”

“Well, thanks. Where’d you get all these rifles again?”

“From my private stock aboard the Greenspan.”

“Well they sure did come in handy.”

“Yes. I only hope I come up with a use for my batleth.” J’hana patted the large, curved blade sheathed behind her back.

“I can think of a couple.”

“And now we take you live to the standoff in the Coreolis system, where Federation starships are valiantly fighting off a pair of mighty Starshine Cult warships. Mevak the Proud, our Cult and Rebellion consultant, is on the scene. Mevak?” Dr. Browning, Lt. Commander Larkin, and Kris Larkin watched the Starfleet vessels criscross on the screen in the Daisy II’s mess hall. They fired again and again at the Starshine vessels, but didn’t appear to be doing much damage. The Starfleet ships, on the other hand, were taking a real wholloping.

“More gagh, Doctor?” Kris said dryly.

“Please,” Browning said, reaching for the plate.

Larkin cocked her head with interest as she watched from beside Browning. “Doctor, it amazes me that you are capable of enjoying Klingon food. Most humans cannot even eat it without becoming ill.”

“Well, the replicators can’t make blentzes worth a darn. In fact, Klingon food seems to be the only thing they are good at making.”

“Imagine that,” muttered Kris.

“Boy,” said Browning, munching. “I sure hope Andy and the others are okay.”

“Yes,” Larkin agreed. “I find it difficult to wait here while our crewmates endanger their lives. I do not know what helplessness feels like, but I am certain that, if I had emotions, helplessness and frustration would be chief among them right now.”

“Well said, Kristen,” Kris said.

“…a stray quantum torpedo,” said the announcer on the viewscreen, giggling a bit to herself. “We’ll keep you updated on all the events concerning Standoff ‘77…number two…all day long. Now for sports, with Mitch Furlong. Mitch? How are those Pike City Pioneers doing?”

Kris stood up and clicked off the viewscreen. “Well. What now?”

“Well,” Browning said. “There’s always a rousing game of Carascat. Or…” She felt her stomach. She frowned. “Or I could just go into labor.”

“S***,” said Lt. Commander Larkin. “As it were.”

Bashir was curled up on the bench in Lwaxana’s lap.

“We’re all going to die here. Sure, I’ve been in jams before. But there was hope. We weren’t just sitting in a dark mall aboard a starship being bombarded by…God knows what… just waiting, waiting to…die!”

Lwaxana sighed and slapped Bashir’s head. “Will you shut up!”

“I’m just scared, Lwaxana,” Bashir muttered, digging his head down into her lap. “So scared.”

“Yeah, well…”

Commander Peterman crossed over to the abandoned FroYo’s stand, the exclusive Federation-ran Frozen Yogurt dispensery. There, Guinan was holding onto the counter, trying to weather the periodic rattles.

“Guinan, can I help you somehow?” Peterman offered.

“No, no, I’m fine,” Guinan said. “Thanks anyway, but I’ve been through this plenty of times.”

“Oh,” Peterman said. “Well, in that case, can you get behind the counter and serve up some FroYo? I think it might lift the crew’s spirits.”

“You can put your FroYo right up your–”

Suddenly the wall at the back of the Frozen Yogurt stand glowed molten red and a hole began to melt through.

Commander Conway stuck his head through the hole. “Anybody home?”

“Commander!” exclaimed Peterman. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“It’s a rescue, you idiot,” he mumbled.

Baxter stuck his head in beside Conway’s. “Kelly, honey, thank God you’re okay!”

“I’m still not talking to you,” Peterman huffed.

“For the love of–” Conway muttered. “Can we just leave her?”

“Absolutely not,” Baxter said, squeezing through the hole in the wall, careful to avoid the dripping deuterium. “It would have been nice if all the entrances weren’t blocked with debris. And why the hell did you put a mall on my ship?”

“It’s not your ship anymore, buster,” Peterman said, folding her arms.

“Enough already,” J’hana said. “We must get out of this infernal cloud.”

“Great idea,” said Baxter. “Any ideas how?”

“Well,” Mirk said. “Our ship was bashed apart just getting in here. Her engines are totally destroyed.”

“Not to worry.” Baxter tapped his comm badge. “Richards. What’s your progress?”

“Not good,” Richards replied. “Hartley and I have done everything we can to shore up the structural integrity, but as it stands, we’ll be space dust in less than half an hour.”

“Is there any indication that we can get out of here if we get to a shuttlebay?”

“No, sir. This cloud is like a roach trap. You check in…”

“Yeah, but you don’t check out. I see. Keep trying to get us out.”

“Will do,” Richardson said and closed the channel.

“All right, Kelly,” Baxter said, turning to Peterman. “You have to come with us. We’ll sort out our marital problems later.”

“And I’m just supposed to forget you slept with a Vulcan Inventory officer in a bathroom on Coney Island?”

“Marvelous, Captain, just marvelous,” J’hana grinned.

“For the last time, I didn’t do that!” Baxter muttered.

Just then the group heard shouts outside the yogurt stand.

Everyone turned to face the main promenade of the Aloha Deck.

“Ah, what a touching reunion.”

“Sesil,” Baxter grumbled.

“Indeed,” Sesil said, clasping his fingers together. “And look at all of you, together again at last. How absolutely perfect. What a way to celebrate the High Holy Days of the Critics!”

Sesil was joined around the inactive water fountain by several Starshine Kids, as well as Tilleran, Telvin, Velara, and Irma, who was holding Conway’s Welsh corgi, Bucky.

“Bucky!” Conway cried. “I knew it!”

“Velara!” said Baxter.

“Telvin!” exlaimed Peterman.

“Irma,” Mirk muttered.

“Imzadi!” J’hana cried out.

Conway turned toward J’hana. “Pardon me?”

“I will explain later.”

“Everything will be explained to everyone later, my friends,” Sesil said. “For now, all will be evacuated to the Starshine. We will go back to Shiney Estates and enjoy the High Holidays together. Sound good?”

“No. Sound very bad!” Baxter said, aiming his phaser rifle at Sesil. “You’re the one that got us into this mess.”

“And how fitting I get you out, right?”

“Enough chatter!” Irma said, dropping Bucky to the floor and rushing Mirk. “It’s time for a rematch, shorty!”

“Gladly,” Mirk said, pushing up the shirtsleeves of his dapper white evangelist suit.

“Bucky!” Conway cried, running to grab his Welsh corgie.

“Mirk, she’s got powers!” Peterman warned.

“I don’t care!” replied Mirk. “I’m not afraid!”

Irma grabbed him by the throat and lifted him in the air, shaking him viciously.

“Stop it!” Baxter commanded, turning his phaser rifle on Irma. Before he could fire, she and Mirk disappeared in a swirl of purple.

“Where’d they go?” asked Conway, patting his dog lovingly.

“That is immaterial,” Sesil muttered. “Kids, take these unenlightened fools into custody. We will return to the Starshine shortly.”

“No you don’t!” said Tilleran, pushing one of the Starshine Kids backward into the large water fountain behind him.

“You little…” mumbled Sesil, slapping Tilleran across the face. “Kids, kill this one, please. She’s not being thankful enough!”

“Zfraarzhahaharvar!” J’hana cried, rushing the cluster of Starshine Kids. She pulled her batleth out in one swift movement, lept in the air, and began swiping.

Blood splattered everywhere.

“You heard her,” Baxter said, jumping into the cluster of Starshine Kids, swinging his phaser rifle like a bat.

Sesil climbed out of the fray, on hands and knees. Before him stood an older woman, Betazoid by the look of her eyes. “Hello there. Would you mind helping me up?”

“Sure. What’s your name?” Lwaxana Troi asked.

“Sesil.” He turned back to see Commander Conway swinging one of his precious children around like a rag doll with one arm, holding his Welsh corgi in the other. “Look at that. That’s not at all how I imagined things would turn out.”

“No, I guess it wasn’t. Poor guy.”

“Lwaxana,” said Bashir, from behind Lwaxana. “That man is a sadistic cult leader. Don’t you watch the news?”

Lwaxana huffed. “Sure, I know. But he’s so cute. It’s hard to find a good man these days.”

“Oh, for the love of God,” Bashir mumbled, and cold-cocked Sesil with a vicious right, sending him plunging to the floor.

“Lips, don’t fail me now…” Sesil muttered, leaning up and rubbing his jaw.

“I didn’t know you could fight,” Lwaxana said, grinning. “A healer and a fighter. A man of many talents.”

“Yes, well,” Bashir grinned.

“You all can die here, for all I care!” Sesil cried, clutching his jaw and standing up. “I just hoped I could come back here and retrieve you, so I could brainwash you and give you luxurious space condos. Was that so much to ask?”

“Yes!” J’hana said, emerging from a cluster of injured Starshine Kids, covered in blood. “Yes, it was!”

“Well, forgive me for trying. Come on, kids. Back to the ship. Let these silly fools die!”

“No you don’t!” Baxter lept out at Sesil, just as he pressed his cufflink, a cute yellow twinkling sun, and disappeared in a red shimmer.

Baxter slammed painfully into the tile floor. “Damn.”

“Captain,” Tilleran said, kneeling beside Baxter. “They have a ship that’s capable of maneuvering in here. If we lock a tractor beam onto it…”

Baxter sat up, rubbing his sore face. “We could hitch a ride out of this mess. Yes, that’s brilliant, Imzadi!”

“Watch it.”

“Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.”

“Get the medkit, Larkin!” Kris called out, rushing to Browning’s side. “And go ask if any of the Starfleet Scouts belowdecks have a maternity patch!” She turned to Dr. Browning. “Janice, relax, calm down. Breathe easy. Just hold on. Just grit your teeth and do anything but push! Tell me, does it feel like the baby’s dropped yet? How far apart are your contractions?”

Browning thought those questions over, looking bloated and uncomfortable. “I…uh, that is I….BUAAAAAAAH!”

Kris blinked, waving her hand in front of her face to get rid of the gagh smell. “Kristen,” she called. “Come on back. It was just gas.”

“What a close call,” said Browning. “Boy. That would have been inconvenient, giving birth right here with…you.”

“You know,” Kris said. “I’ve felt like I should hate you ever since I met you. Knowing how I felt about Chris, how you two used to be engaged. How he talked about you, even after the two of you broke things off. It seemed natural that we should be enemies. But you know, something tells me if I got to know you, we’d be good friends. And, after all, Chris and I are history now.”

“I’m willing to try if you are. BUAAAH! Do you have any antacid?”

“Let me check.”

Mirk found himself tumbling weightlessly through the redness of the Redlands. Next to him, Irma was likewise fumbling around.

Just below them, a couple kilometers down, the USS Galaxy Explorer locked a tractor beam on the angular Starshine and was gently yanked toward the cloud’s edge.

<Why bring THEM here? This is between you and me!> came a shout from behind Mirk. He turned. It was the lips!

<Because,> said another voice. <They have been our faithful servants for quite a while. They should know why we left.>

Mirk turned in the direction of that other voice and his eyes widened. “Directors!”

<Yes,> said the eyeball. <Sorry we haven’t talked lately, Mirk. We have been busy. But not in the Delta Quadrant. We have been in Starfleet Command, posing as an Admiral.> The eyeball glanced in the direction of the lips. <So have our friends the Critics, here.>

“You two are the reason the Explorer was turned into a cruise ship. You made the crew separate. You sent us on a mission to obliterate the Redlands!”

<That was the Critics’ idea. Once they got the Explorer crew separated, they took that opportunity to send you on that mission to the Redlands, hoping Sesil would capture you and turn you over to his side. They failed.>

“And thanks to some help from Leximas, I went on to begin my religion.”

<Not a very original idea!> cried the lips. <Can’t you people think of anything original?>

<You be quiet!> snapped the eyeball. <Anyway, we have been silently manipulating the Critics and Starfleet for several months. Now it’s time to end this charade. You know your mission. Go on and do your thing.>

“What about the Explorer?” asked Mirk. “You got them into this mess. Can’t you get them out?”

<They will have to fend for themselves. You, on the other hand, will have help.>

“But what exactly do you want me to do?” Mirk asked. “Why did you need to go play all these elaborate tricks? What do I do once my new religion is formed?”

<Oh, so many questions. Don’t worry about it. Everything will turn out in the end. We promise.>

“Why don’t I believe you.”

<Have some faith, Mirk. Your religious icons are back. Be glad of it. Now excuse us while we go back and form the Bermuda Expanse again. And don’t let the lips give you too much trouble, okay?>

<Us?> asked the lips. <Please!>

Irma watched the whole exchange with growing anger. “What’s the deal here? Why are you not killing Mirk? Or better yet, letting me kill Mirk? Where’s my explanation?”

<You don’t get one, you flabby little Terran,> said the lips. <Just go… do what you do.>

And Mirk and Irma disappeared again, both more than a little confused.

Commodore Lucille Baxter sat down in her command chair aboard the USS Pathfinder and punched a button on her chair-arm console. “Baxter to Escape Pod Four. Admiral Jacobs, you can come out now. We chased off the warships.”

“Really? Well, great. I’ll be right up.”

Lucille stared at the viewscreen. “DiSalvo. Status on the Explorer?”

“She’s coming out of the cloud. Locked onto another Starshine vessel with a tractor beam.”

“What are they up to over there?” Lucille pondered. “Move what’s left of our fleet in to intercept the Starshine vessel.”

“Sir,” said DiSalvo. “The Explorer is releasing her tractor beam. The Starshine vessel is powering up some sort of aft weaponry cannon. Looks like an antiproton beam.”

“Oh, no…” Lucille said. “Close in our ranks. Stop them!”

She watched the Starhine vessel fire a beam at the Explorer, blowing through the top of the ship’s saucer section and coming out the bottom.

“All wings, fire!” Lucille commanded, pounding the arm of her command chair.

Phasers and quantum torpedoes ripped out at the Starshine vessel, but it fired another two beams at the Explorer, blowing a hole in the engineering section and one in the section that joined the saucer and stardrive. Debris spewed out of the holes in the Explorer’s hull.

“All ships, fire at will!” Lucille ordered. Now, on the screen, she watched three swift, maneuverable Akira-class starships and two Steamrunners close in on the Starshine vessel, pounding it with their weapons.

The Starshine ship became pocked with battle damage, but just as the Pathfinder itself swarmed in to strike the killing blow, the vessel tore through a rift in space.

“Damn!” said Lucille. “Scan the Explorer. What is their condition?”

“Pretty banged up,” said DiSalvo. “Their warp core looks like it was damaged, too. Spewing radiation, which means we can’t transport.”

“What can we do? Wait and watch as my son and all his friends are all blown to bits?”

“If you really want to, I guess.”

“…minutes from a breach. There’s nothing I can do, Andy! And what’s worse, we can’t separate the saucer because the magnetic interlocks are damaged from one of those blasts,” Richards said woefully over the comm channel.

“Just get out of there, Chris!” Baxter ordered. “Find an escape pod. We’ll get all the VIP’s off!”

“Are you sure, Captain?”

“We didn’t come all this way just to get blown sky high. Get out of here.”

Baxter looked around at the passengers surrounding him. “Listen up. I want you all to follow us toward the escape pods. Walk in a narrow, single file line, and don’t shove. We’ll all get out of here alive, I promise!”

“Hello my darling, hello my baby, hello my ragtime gal,” came a chorus of voices from the stage beside the fountain, at the center of the Aloha Deck.

“What the hell is that?” asked Conway.

“The barbershop quartet,” Peterman said. “They’re determined to stay on and sing till the very end.”

“How touching.” Baxter fired his phaser above the quartet’s heads. “Come on, you guys. Get down from there before I have to shoot the whole lot of you.”

As the quartet reluctantly stepped down, Conway and J’hana waved the VIP’s through the hole in the FroYo stand one by one, out into the corridor beyond.

Peterman, Lwaxana Troi, Bashir, and Garak brought up the rear, along with Velara, Telvin, and Tilleran.

“Well, Andy, I appreciate you saving me. But we still have a LOT to talk about,” Peterman said thoughtfully.

“No, you do not,” Velara said. “I assure you, Commander, I did not have sex with your husband.”

“You never called her and explained?” Baxter asked angrily.

“I didn’t have time. I was kidnapped by my brother, as you may recall.”

“Can we hurry this up, please?” Conway insisted.

“Oh very well,” Velara muttered. “Let us be done with this.” She grabbed Peterman’s head in her hands. “My thoughts to your thoughts. Our minds are one…”

“Hey, watch it!” Peterman said, then her eyes went blank. “Coney Island…” Velara’s mouth moved at the same time. “Irma…toilet…ewwww…”

Finally, Velara took her hands off Peterman’s head. “Satisfied, Commander?”

Peterman rubbed her temples. “Andy, I should have trusted you. I feel terrible. Being out here in command of this glorified cruise ship must have gotten the better of me.”

“Forget about it,” Baxter said. “Come on, everyone. Let’s just go.”

“Oh, I just hate the holidays,” muttered Telvin.

“I think I can stop it,” said Hartley, tapping madly at the master systems display in front of the warp core, which crackled with angry energy.

“You’re insane,” Ford said. “This baby’s going to blow, and soon!”

Richards nodded agreement. “The magnetic constrictors are shot, the antimatter forcefields are near collapse. There’s nothing we can do!”

“All we have to do is stabilze that forcefield. If only–”

“Forget about it!” Richards grabbed Hartley’s arm and pulled her toward the corridor outside Engineering. “Come on!”

“No, Chris! I can do it! I know I–”

Suddenly a wave of energy crackled through Engineering and Mirk and Irma appeared, rolling across the floor, tugging at each other’s hair.

“You get off!” Irma cried. “I’ll kill you!”

“Not if I kill you first!”

“Mirk?” asked Hartley. “What are you doing here?”

“Getting my ass kicked!” exclaimed Mirk.

Baxter held Peterman close to him as he pushed toward the front of the herd of passengers rushing down the corridor. A small child hit the ground in front of him, so he grabbed her and lifted her up onto his hip.

“The first string of escape pods is right this way!” he said, jogging down the corridor.

Conway and J’hana waved people into escape pods, Baxter shoved the child into one of them and waved the rest down toward the next row of doors, which one by one dropped in front of them as the computer carried out the escape sequence.

One by one the VIP’s, including a relucant Velara and a quite eager Telvin, ducked into the escape pods, until only Garak, Bashir, Lwaxana Troi, and Guinan remained.

“I really have to stop traveling on starships,” Guinan muttered.

“Commander Peterman, I just want to tell you I had a lovely time,” Lwaxana said. “We must do this again sometime.”

“You’re being sarcastic, right?” Peterman asked.

“Well, come now, Lwaxana,” Bashir said. “We’ve got that date on Deep Space Nine to look forward to. We’d never have met otherwise.”

“I suppose,” Lwaxana said boredly.

“Oh, I can tell this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship,” Garak deadpanned.

“Enough out of all of you,” Conway said. “Get in the damn pod.”

They all ducked in and Conway sealed up the door.

“Don’t you just love that feeling that all the problems they had when they came aboard are solved?” Peterman said, wiping a tear away from her eye. “Lwaxana was lonely. Bashir was lonely. Garak wanted some adventure. Guinan wanted to…I don’t know, hang around.” Peterman sighed. “The Rozhenko’s wanted to spice up their marraige. Hmm, I wonder where they are, anyway…”

“You know,” J’hana interrupted. “I think that was the last escape pod.”

“Oh, lovely,” muttered Conway.

“Three minutes to warp core breach,” said the computer.

“We’re never going to make it,” Telvin sighed.

“What did Starfleet do, Kelly?” asked Baxter. “Replace the other escape pods with tanning booths?”

“Private massage rooms, actually,” Peterman said sheepishly.

“Well isn’t that just dandy,” J’hana said. She wrapped an arm around Tilleran. “Well, Imzadi, at least we’ll die here together.”

“We need to talk sometime,” Peterman muttered, looking at J’hana and Tilleran askance.

“This is purely platonic!” Tilleran insisted.

“Wait, I think I have a solution,” Baxter said.

“What, you think Tilleran and J’hana really do have the hots for one another?” Conway asked, rubbing his chin. “Weird. Kinky. I like it.”

“No, no, no!” Baxter said. “I mean how to get out of here. The Escort! It’s only two decks up from here.” He turned to Peterman. “That hasn’t been turned into a sushi place, has it?”

“Not yet, anyway,” Peterman said.

“Mirk!” Hartley said, running over to pull Mirk and Irma apart. “Come on, we have to leave. You can fight that fat bitch later!”

Irma rose up from the deck, glowering down at the shorter Hartley. “WHO are you calling a fat bitch!”

“You, bitch!” Hartley cried.

“Oh, Jeeze,” Ford muttered. “Here we go.”

With a blink Irma sent Hartley and Mirk flying into the wall meters away on the opposite end of Engineering.

Richards and Ford rushed over to them. “Are you guys okay?” asked Richards.

Hartley and Mirk lay there in a heap. Mirk shook his head. “No. No. Definitely not okay.”

Richards looked up woefully. Irma was walking toward them.

“Time’s up. I’m afraid you lose this round of final Jeopardy. Thanks a lot for playing. See you real soon!” Energy crackled at Irma’s fingertips.

“One minute to warp core breach…”

Baxter helped Peterman and Tilleran up out of the Jefferies tube and Conway and J’hana scrambled up behind them.

The airlock to the Escort lay about ten meters away, at the very middle of the corridor.

“Hurry, hurry,” Baxter said, holding Peterman by the hand and dragging her. “Come on!”

“Captain, these suitcases are heavy!” he heard a voice cry out.

“I don’t care. They have important things in them.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t want to go into it.”

Then the source of the voices rounded the corner. Baxter grimaced. It was Ficker, Elton, and Varner, followed by Ensign Madera, lugging a huge harp.

“Well well well,” Ficker said, when he caught sight of Baxter. “The prodigal captain returns.”

“Well well well,” said Baxter. “On your way back to the looney bin?”

“Tantalus Five was not a loony bin!” said Ficker. “It was a retreat!”

“Sure, and I’m a Borg,” Baxter muttered. “Look, I’d love to argue with you, but I’ve got to run. Would you like to come with?”

“Listen, mister,” Ficker said. “This is my ship! I say who comes with. And I say you don’t come with!” He looked to Peterman. “You, on the other hand, are more than welcomed to ride with me. If you become my willing loveslave until the end of time.”

“Forget it!” Peterman cried. “Not if you were the last humanoid alive.”

“This is stupid,” Conway muttered. “Shoot him, Captain.”

Baxter raised his phaser rifle. “If you insist.”

“Three minutes to warp core breach…”

“Screw this!” Ficker said, and ripped his suitcase out of Varner’s hand, throwing it at Baxter and the others.

Baxter, Conway, and J’hana went down like bowling pins when the suitcase hit, smashing open to reveal a huge deflated plastic Gorn and fourteen bottles of spiced strawberry jelly.

“Oh, by the fourteen hives!” J’hana exclaimed, trying to climb out from under the huge, flattened Gorn.

Tilleran rushed to the Andorian’s side. “J’hana!”

Baxter scrambled to his feet and ran toward the airlock, plowing into Ficker like a linebacker before he could duck in. “No you don’t!”

“Don’t just sit there, kill him!” Ficker cried to his officers as Baxter rolled on top of him.

Madera, Varner, and Elton stared at each other for a moment. “Well…” Madera said uneasily, shouldering her harp.

“Belay that!” Baxter shoved his fist into Ficker’s face. “Kill HIM!”

“Uh…” Elton scratched his head. “Guys?”

“I’ll kill him!” Conway muttered, trying to climb to his feet. He slipped in jelly and fell back on his rear end. Tilleran moved to help him, then she slipped too.

Peterman stared at Ficker and Baxter. “Stop this insanity right now! We can all get out of here!” She ran over and jerked both men up by the backs of their uniforms. “You should both be ashamed of yourselves.”

Ficker and Baxter looked at each other sheepishly.

“Two minutes to warp core breach,” said the computer.

“She’s right, you know,” Baxter grinned, putting out his hand for Ficker. “Shake?”

“Sure.” Ficker put his hand out, then quickly jabbed his knee up into Baxter’s crotch. Baxter tried to scream but nothing came out, he just dropped to his knees.

“Sucker!” Ficker cackled and slid into the Escort’s still- open airlock. The doors swished shut behind him.

Madera sat her harp down and stared angrily. “How do you like that! He left us!”

“FICKER!” Baxter cried, crawling over to the airlock and slamming his fists against it. “You let us in there now!”

Peterman put her hands on her hips. “I sure hope he gets nauseous in that rotating airlock.”

They heard the sound of magnetic locks releasing, and the thrum of the Escort’s impulse engines starting, even before it had fully dislodged.

“Oh, now we’re really f***ed!” Conway cried, covered in strawberry jelly from the broken bottles.

“Funny enough,” Peterman said, looking to Tilleran, who simply stared at Conway and J’hana, “I sort of figured it would end like this.”

Baxter rolled over on the deck, gasping in pain, curled in a fetal position. “I sure as hell didn’t!”

“A modified Peregrine-class starship just left the Explorer. One lifeform aboard,” said DiSalvo. “It’s Captain Ficker. He just went into warp.”

“Are the escape pods all accounted for?” Lucille asked quietly.

“Yes, sir. And it appears that the warp core will blow in twenty seconds.”

“Pull the fleet back,” she ordered.

Aerodynamic Steamrunner- and Akira-class starships sailed out of the way of the Explorer, and the Pathfinder, along with the handful of Galaxy-class vessels of the fleet, slowly reversed.

Lucille stood up, stepped toward the screen. “I’m so sorry, Andrew.”

An explosion ripped along the Explorer’s engineering hull, sending fragments of metal spreading out into space. A huge blast blew the saucer section free. It flew like a frisbee away from the explosion’s epicenter, breaking apart in the process, then finally blowing up itself as an explosive chain reaction spread through it.

Everyone on the bridge of the Pathfinder stood up as the shockwave rumbled past.

“Life signs?” asked Lucille.

“None,” said DiSalvo.

Lucille collapsed back into her command chair. “Open a subspace channel to Breen. Ambassador Baxter’s office.”

Sesil watched the Starshine’s viewscreen with a grin that spread from ear to ear. “They’re gone! All of them! Baxter, Mirk, Hartley. All of them, gone!”

“Yes, but Irma’s gone as well,” the Starshine Kid at the helm said.

“Well, you can’t make an omellete…” Sesil mused. “This is a particularly good holiday, isn’t it? Dock us at the condo so we can tell everyone else. We have lots to be thankful for!”



Where the Explorer had been moments ago, where now only a cloud of space debris and gases remained, Leximas appeared.

She looked around quizzically.

“Hello?” she asked, but her voice made no noise in the empty space. “Mirk? Captain Baxter?” She gasped. “Oh, my.” She was too late. She’d calculated just a tad off. Probably only by a couple minutes.

“Well,” she said to herself. “Back to the drawing board.”


“Mirk!” Hartley said, running over to pull Mirk and Irma apart. “Come on, we have to leave. You can fight that fat bitch later!”

Irma rose up from the deck, glowering down at the shorter Hartley. “WHO are you calling a fat bitch!”

“You, bitch!” Hartley cried.

“Oh, Jeeze,” Ford muttered. “Here we go.”

With a blink Irma sent Hartley and Mirk flying into the wall meters away on the opposite end of Engineering.

Richards and Ford rushed over to them. “Are you guys okay?” asked Richards.

Hartley and Mirk lay there in a heap. Mirk shook his head. “No. No. Definitely not okay.”

Richards looked up woefully. Irma was walking toward them.

“Oh, s***,” Ford muttered.

“Time’s up. I’m afraid you lose this round of final Jeopardy. Thanks a lot for playing. See you real soon!” Energy crackled at Irma’s fingertips.

“No. I will see YOU real soon!”

Irma turned around. She faced a woman with silver eyes, in flowing golden robes. “Who are you?” Irma demanded. “Why are you here?”

“Because…all things must have a balance to them, Irma Wilson. Now it is time to face the consequences.” Leximas drew back and socked Irma hard across the jaw.

Irma ripped the Orioles cap off Leximas’ head and ripped at her hair. “You skinny bitch! You’ll rue the day you screwed with Irma Wilson!’

“Perhaps,” Leximas said. “But you will not win this battle, I assure you.”

“One way to find out!” Irma glowed with energy and hit Leximas with a bolt that sent her flying toward the warp core.

“Twenty seconds to warp core breach…”

“Leximas!” called out Mirk. “You have to stop that breach!”

“One thing at a time, Mirk!” cried Leximas. She concentrated all her power on Irma and with a thought sent her reeling back into the bulkhead.

“That’s the woman that helped us break out of Shiney Estates!” Hartley said with wonder. “I’d wondered where she’d gotten off to.”

“Well, her timing is impeccable,” said Richards.

“Yeah, and she’s hot too,” Ford grinned.

“Ten seconds to warp core breach…”

Irma rose to her feet and hurled herself at Leximas, who sidestepped and let the huge woman topple over the warp core railing. Irma fell like a rock, right to the bottom of the core.

“Five seconds to warp core breach…”

“All right, already,” Leximas sighed. She suddenly became transparent as a ghost and floated right into the warp core.

Richards, Mirk, Ford, and Hartley stepped forward. They could see her grey, misty shape float up through the clear shaft of the core, up toward the antimatter.

“Is that it?” asked Hartley. “Did she stop the breach?”

“I guess so,” said Richards. “We’re still alive. And more than five seconds has passed.”

A meaty hand gripped the edge of the deck that circled the warp core. Irma pulled herself up, through the railing. “You won’t STAY alive, guys and gals.” She jerked Mirk toward her. “You’ve been a lot of trouble, little guy.”

“You haven’t exactly been a walk in the arboretum yourself, Irma!”

“Well that’s all over now, ain’t it?” Irma asked.

“For now!” Leximas cried out, sailing out of the warp core shaft, right where the dilithium tray was. She wrapped her legs around Irma’s neck, scissor-like, and squeezed.

“Uggghh…get off me!” Irma choked, tossing Leximas off her.

Leximas looked up at the huge, ogerous woman, and concentrated. Pure antimatter shot out of her fingertips and into Irma, who shuddered, stumbled backward, and disappeared in a wisp of red.

Leximas sighed and collapsed to the deck. “Wow. That takes a lot out of a person.”

“Is she dead?” Ford asked reluctantly.

“Not likely,” replied Leximas. “I must leave now, to find her. To stop her, since Mirk does not yet have the power to do it himself.”

“Sorry,” Mirk muttered.

“It is not your fault. The Directors have mysterious ways. At any rate, you know what you must do.”

“The religion thing?”

“Yes, the ‘religion thing,’” Leximas said tiredly. She stood. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have very fat prey to track down.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to rest?” asked Hartley.

“I can never rest. Not until Irma is vanquished. Thanks anyway, though.” And she disappeared in a flicker of gray.

Hartley collapsed onto the master systems display. “Whew! I don’t know about the rest of you, but I sure feel like I cheated death.”

“I think we did,” Mirk mused, sitting beside Hartley. “I think we did.”

“This is stupid,” Conway muttered. “Shoot him, Captain.”

Baxter raised his phaser rifle. “Well…”

“One minute to warp core breach…”

“Screw this!” Ficker said, and ripped his suitcase out of Varner’s hand, throwing it into Baxter’s face and ducking into the Escort airlock.

Baxter, Conway, and J’hana went down like bowling pins when the suitcase hit, smashing open to reveal a huge deflated plastic Gorn and fourteen bottles of spiced strawberry jelly.

“Oh, by the fourteen hives!” J’hana exclaimed, trying to climb out from under the huge, flattened Gorn.

Baxter ran toward the airlock as Ficker slipped in, leaving his bridge crew behind. The door swung shut just before he got there.

Madera sat her harp down and stared angrily. “How do you like that!”

“Ficker, God damn it!” Baxter cried, slamming his fists against the airlock. “You let us in there now!”

Then he heard the sound of magnetic locks releasing, and the thrum of the Escort’s impulse engines starting, even before it had fully dislodged.

“Oh, now we’re f***ed!” Conway cried, covered in strawberry jelly from the broken bottles.

“Funny enough,” Peterman said, looking to Tilleran, who simply stared at Conway and J’hana, “I sort of figured it would end like this.”

“Thirty seconds to warp core breach.”

Baxter ran to Peterman, pulled her into a hug and buried his head in her hair. “Kelly, I’m so sorry. I tried to save you. I really did.”

“It’s okay, Andy. Win some, lose some.”

“That’s easy for you to say!” Conway mumbled. “You’re not dying while being covered in jelly!”

“Shut up,” J’hana said. “Where I come from, there aren’t many better ways to go.”

Tilleran knelt beside J’hana. “There was so much we had left to do, J’hana. So much left to discuss.”

“Five seconds to warp core breach.”

“Yes, well, then. Maybe this was for the better.”

Conway wiped jelly out of his eyes and sat up. He counted quietly to himself and then looked around. “Hey, guys?”

Baxter looked up from Peterman’s hair. “What?”

“Do you notice something strange?”

“No,” said J’hana.

“We’re still here!”

Baxter looked around. “Hey, yeah we are. Fancy that.”

“A modified Peregrine-class starship just left the Explorer. One lifeform aboard,” said DiSalvo. “It’s Captain Ficker.”

“Are the escape pods all accounted for?” Lucille asked quietly.

“Yes, sir. And it appears that the warp core will blow in twenty seconds.”

“Pull the fleet back,” she ordered.

Aerodynamic Steamrunner- and Akira-class starships sailed out of the way of the Explorer, and the Pathfinder, along with the handful of Galaxy-class vessels of the fleet, slowly reversed.

Lucille stood up, stepped toward the screen. “I’m so sorry, Andrew.”

Then…then nothing happened.

Lucille scratched her head. “DiSalvo?”

Her tactical officer shook his head. “Nothing, sir. Their warp core has been emptied of antimatter, apparently. No more danger of breach.”

“How about that.”

Just then, Jacobs burst out onto the bridge. “Well?”

“The Starshine Kids have been driven away, and the Explorer’s been saved,” Lucille said. “What next?”

Jacobs looked at Lucille. “What do you think?”

Lucille sighed. “I’ve been dreading this. But considering the events of today, I suppose it’s the best case scenario.”

“Indeed. Form your away team, Commodore.”

“Yes, sir,” Lucille said, pointing to DiSalvo and a pair of security officers. “I guess I should be happy. At least *I* don’t have to explain to my superiors how a couple of omnipotent beings and I nearly wrecked Starfleet and all its highest principles.”

“Don’t remind me.”

Baxter, Peterman, Conway, J’hana, and Tilleran rode the turbolift together in silence. Hartley and Richards had gotten that and the comm system working again. Madera, Elton, and Varner went down to help them make some small repairs that would be necessary for the Explorer to be towed back to Earth. Baxter just wanted to get back to the bridge. No doubt this would be HIS ship again.

“This week has F***ING SUCKED!” Conway suddenly shouted.

“Certainly has,” Baxter muttered, nodding his head.

“Think they’ll give us this ship back?” Tilleran asked.

“Sure,” Baxter said. “We risked enough to save it. That’s the least they can do.”

“So you don’t think they’ll hold a grudge about all that stealing and violence?” asked Conway.

“That little…insurrection we pulled off?” J’hana grinned.

“Surely not,” said Baxter. “I’ll bet you all a bar of latinum they’ll be pleased as punch.”

Just then, the bridge doors slid open to reveal Baxter’s mother.

“Mom,” Baxter said. He stepped forward out of the turbolift and hugged her. “Mom, I’m sorry for all this craziness.”

“Me too,” Lucille said serenely, hugging him tight. “I love you very much, son.”

“And I love you, Mom.”

Lucille smiled weakly. “You’re under arrest.” Baxter’s eyes went wide as he heard the whine of fourteen phasers powering up around him. Baxter looked up to find those fourteen phasers trained on him. A swarm of security guards waited on the bridge in front of the turbolift, in ambush formation.

“I’m sure they’re just following regulations,” Conway chuckled, patting Baxter on the back as DiSalvo put restraints on him. “You can have that latinum transferred into my Starfleet account, sir.”

“What about Conway? J’hana?” Baxter asked. “Accomplices?”

Lucille shrugged. “They’ll be tried and will probably get demerits or something. But you were the ringleader. Starfleet realizes you were manipulated by the Directors and the Critics–”

“We were?” Baxter asked. “News to me.”

”–so they’re going to be lenient. But you used your authority to effectively shut down Starfleet. You stole Starfleet property. You attacked a Federation starship. You’ve got to do time.”

“Oh, Andy,” Peterman said, her eyes watering.

“Oh, no…” said Baxter softly.

“That’s right, son. I hope you’ve still got your old pruning shears.”

Baxter quaked with fear. “Not…New Zealand!”


First Officer’s Log,

Stardate 54014.6. I’m proud to announce that the Explorer Program has been reinstated. They let Captain Baxter out of lockup for the ceremony and everything. The Explorer herself is in the middle of extensive refitting after her bout as a cruise ship and her near-destruction. I’m told we’ll return to duty with the original command crew in another week or so, although it will be some time before Captain Baxter himself will return. What a shame.

Commander Conway nodded at the technicians and crewmembers that weaved through the corridor as he made his way to the turbolift. The ship was especially crowded what with the refitting, and he didn’t like it one bit. Sure, they had the ship back, but it would be nice to actually get out of spacedock and go back to exploring. He hated waiting around.

“Bridge,” Conway said, stepping into the turbolift. He looked down. “You okay, Bucky?” The dog had become rather restless since his kidnapping. He could only guess what horrible things the Starshine people had done to him.

Bucky yipped nervously.

“What could those bastards have done to you, buddy,” Conway mumbled. The turbolift sighed to a stop and the doors spread open.

He stepped out to the same sight he’d encountered every day since the Explorer put into dock: Technicians replacing panels, redoing the color scheme, removing the tropical wallpaper and plants. This would be a professional ship again. With the exception of its crew, of course.

Conway pulled Bucky by the leash into the conference room, giving the ensign in the command chair a perfunctory “hello.”

He sat down at the head of the table. “Well?”

The command crew, save Baxter and Peterman, and Larkin, who was still gallivanting around with her human counterpart, were all gathered around the table, eager to give their reports.

“The ship is steadily being de-cruise-ified,” Richards said. “Things are moving along well.”

“Yeah,” Hartley said. “But it won’t exactly be the same.”

“What do you mean?”

Tilleran straightened in her seat beside Conway. “Haven’t you heard? They’re leaving the mall here.”

“That is odd,” Conway said.

“Even worse,” said Browning, who had arrived just the day before on a transport from the Daisy II. Apparently she’d had enough of sightseeing with Kris and Larkin. Conway wasn’t surprised. “Bradley Dillon called me yesterday. Apparently I owe him some work hours. He’s putting me in charge of his branch of the Dillon Supply Depot that’s stationed here.”

“Oh, that’s just fantastic,” muttered Conway.

“The good news,” said Browning, folding her hands over her bulging stomach, “is that I also get the adjacent restaurant space.”

“Really?” asked Richards, who sat beside her. “When will you have time to be a doctor?”

“I’ll have to scale down my hours a bit, but that’s okay. Holly’s going to finish her M.D. by correspondence. We’ll have plenty of support then.”

“Super,” Conway said.

“I have a question,” said Ford. “If there are going to be stores aboard the ship, who exactly is going to shop here?”

“Well,” said Conway. “Now’s as good a time as any to make the announcement. They’re putting families back aboard Federation ships. Starting with the Explorer. At a price, of course.”

“Shrazzz,” cursed J’hana. Next to her, Lt. Tilleran shuddered.

“My sentiments exactly,” Conway said. “Now, we all have work to do. Let’s get to it.”

“Hello?” Lt. Hartley asked, peeking into the hollowed out space beside the FroYo stand. “Anyone here?”

Mr. Mirk steopped out of the door at the back of the empty room. “Oh, hi, Megan. Just checking out the new space.”

“What new space?”

“Starfleet’s going to let me open up a Maloxian chapel here. All I have to do is figure out how to get the fruit trees in.”

“I see,” Hartley said. “Odd, isn’t it? After they tried to wipe you out?”

“We can all forgive,” Mirk said. “Anyway, that was the Critics’ doing.”

“Well, conratulations, Reverend Mirk,” Hartley grinned. “Allow me to be your first convert.”

“Welcome to the fold,” Mirk said, pulling Hartley into a hug. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

“You just let me know if you need anything,” said Hartley. They were still hugging. “Well…” Hartley pulled back. “I need to get to the transporter room. Long day of moving technicians around the ship and all that.”

“Certainly,” Mirk said. “See you around.”

“Yeah, see you around.”

And Mirk watched her go.


“Captain, you have a visitor.”

Baxter looked up from his weeding to see Peterman looming over him. He squinted in the sunlight. “Thanks, Max. Can you send some more tulip bulbs this way?”


Peterman stood there, back in her regular Starfleet uniform, fumbling with her fingers. “Hello, Andy.”

“Here for a conjugal visit?” Baxter said with a grin.

“Something like that.”

Baxter got up to walk with her toward the main compound. “I’m really glad to see you. What have you been up to?”

“Debriefing at Starfleet command. Visiting my parents. Fixing up our house. You know, you really let that place go.”

“Yeah. I’m not much for neatness.”

“They haven’t found Admiral McGrath yet,” Peterman said.

“Man. Wonder where he got off to?”

“Walking the Earth, I guess,” Peterman said softly. “So anyway, they’ve appointed another Director.”

“Not Admiral Jacobs,” Baxter said, as he led Peterman into squarish, gray main building. They walked along the corridor toward a string of dorm rooms.

“No.” Peterman cleared her throat. “Uhm…Commodore Velara.”

“Really?” Baxter asked. “Well, good for her.”

“Yes. We had a chance to talk. She’s a little upset, or at least as upset as a Vulcan can be, about Inventory being eradicated.”

“No hope of it being restored?” asked Baxter.

“No,” Peterman said. “The Federation council wasn’t thrilled that there was a department capable of effecting a complete takeover. They had no idea Inventory even existed. Plus they pointed out that it had no real function. And they were apparently dumping a lot of resources into it, without even realizing.”

“Poor Velara,” Baxter said.

“More interesting news,” Peterman said. “Your mom was demoted back to captain, since she was actually promoted by an omnipotent being.”

“What a shame.”

“And the Pathfinder has been added to the Explorer program.” Peterman grinned. “We’re branching out, eh?”

“Does she need a first officer?” asked Baxter. They reached the door to his room and stopped outside.

“Yes,” Peterman said. “But I’m not taking the job. First of all, I can’t work for your mom. For another thing, I couldn’t leave you. And…in the final analysis, I don’t think I’m cut out for command.”


“Yeah. I’m going back to counseling. Less stress. And I feel more like I’m actually helping people.”

“I’m sure Ensign Sefelt will be grateful.”

“Yes, our crew in general is more screwed up than ever after recent events. They need someone they trust.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it,” Baxter said. “And just think, in a couple of months I’ll be back aboard, and we can pick up where we left off.”

“About that,” Peterman said, as Baxter keyed open the door to his quarters.

Telvin was waiting within, nursing a cup of hot Yynsian tea. “Good afternoon, Captain!” he said cheerfully.

“I thought we could use a little marraige counseling. We have some trust issues that need to be worked out.”

Baxter slapped a hand over his face. “Oy, vay.”


What the heck were Richards and Larkin up to during the Explorer’s time as a cruise ship? And what led up to their eventual break-up? Surely, some sparks are, or were, in store for our presumably happy couple. Find out as Richards remembers the break-up fondly, in a special story written by Alan Decker: “Just a Larkin.”

Tags: vexed