Author: Anthony Butler
“One ‘Dallas Cowboys’ autographed football.”
“Starfleet uniform, neatly pressed.”
“Four grapefruits. Ripe.”
“One padd. A novel. The Adventures of Orion Slavegirl Cindy in the Shadow of the Syndicate.”
“Absolutely not.” Captain Andrew Jackson Baxter glanced at Counselor Kelly Peterman with a furrowed brow. “I don’t know who that belongs to, honest.”
“It’s okay, Andy,” Peterman said, patting Baxter on the back. “You were in here for two months, with only one conjugal visit every other week. Of course you got…lonely.”
The ensign that was checking Baxter out of New Zealand Correctional Facility held the padd by the very corner with a look of distaste. “Do you want it or not, sir?”
Baxter swiped the padd. “Fine. Jeeze, I guess I have to take it.”
He pressed his thumb on the identification padd on the ensign’s desk and tapped in a quick evaluation of the correctional facility’s facilities.
“Don’t forget this, sir,” the ensign said, bending down below the desk and coming up with a large forsythia.
“Oh, yeah, for the arboretum,” Baxter said. “Isn’t that great, Kelly? I think I really developed a green thumb while I was here.”
“Great, Andy. Just great.”
“You seem distracted.”
“Nope.” She stood there until the guy behind her and Baxter in the line cleared his throat.
“Are you guys about done?” the man muttered. “I have to get back to Deep Space Nine and kill a certain Ferengi.”
Baxter stuffed everything but the plant into a duffel and threw that over his shoulder. Peterman grabbed the plant and they both headed for the transporter room.
“You look like a person with something to say,” Baxter finally said.
“Come on, Kelly, out with it.”
“If you don’t know, then there’s nothing to talk about.”
Baxter stopped in the middle of the corridor. He looked at Peterman for a long time. “You’ve changed your hair.”
“I had Yeoman Briggs take four whole inches off!” Peterman exclaimed, flipping her hair excitedly. “And you didn’t say one thing.”
“I did too. Just now.”
“Oooh…” Peterman broiled.
“Come on, hon,” Baxter said, dipping Peterman back and enveloping her in a long, soft kiss. She wobbled there a moment, nearly dropped the plant, then finally gave in and kissed back. “Anyway, I think your hair looks lovely.”
“Yeah, sure. Uh…you can still do that thing where you throw your hair forward and toss it back, right?”
“Watch and be amazed.” Peterman set the plant down and bowed forward, then jerked her head back. Her hair flipped over her head then flew back. “Well?”
Baxter grinned, jerking Peterman toward him by the waist. “Excellent. Now what’s say we get back to the ship? I miss the old Explorer.”
“Me too,” Peterman said softly.
When Baxter and Peterman materialized in the Explorer’s transporter room, they were faced with a crowd of officers, blowing noisemakers. Confetti spilled from the ceiling in huge amounts, multicolored, filling the air.
“Welcome back,” the chorus of Conway, Larkin, J’hana, Tilleran, Hartley, Browning, Richards, and a few other gathered officers said dully.
“Aww, guys,” Baxter grinned. “You shouldn’t have.”
“We know we shouldn’t have,” Conway said gruffly, leaning against the transporter console. “Who do you think put us up to it?”
“You be quiet, mister,” Peterman insisted, drawing a finger across her throat.
“Oh, you know any time something corny like this happens, it can only be the result of one Kelly L. Peterman.”
“It’s the thought that counts, Commander,” Baxter said easily.
Just as he and Peterman neared the door to the transporter room, a large banner unfurled itself behind the transporter console, impressed with the huge words “Welcome Back, Captain Baxter!”
Baxter glanced over his shoulder. “Well, isn’t that nice.”
“Great timing, Lieutenant!” Peterman snapped.
“Sorry,” Hartley muttered. “I’m a transporter chief, not a party planner.”
The senior staff poured out of the transporter room.
“I’ve got a couple pies in the oven down at the restaurant,” Browning said. “See you guys there for dinner tonight?”
“Absolutely,” Baxter said.
“We’ll talk later, Andy,” Richards said, and headed off down the corridor with Browning.
J’hana, Tilleran, Larkin, and Conway picked up step with Peterman and Baxter.
J’hana clapped Baxter on the back so hard he nearly fell over. “Captain, a hearty welcome. This ship has hardly been the same without you.”
“No kidding,” Conway muttered, picking up step beside Baxter.
“Huh?” asked Baxter.
Tilleran grinned. “J’hana and I pitched in and got you a new command chair, since Captain Ficker apparently…stained your old one somehow.”
Baxter’s nose wrinkled. “Uhhh…thanks, guys.”
“No problem.” Tilleran looked to J’hana. “Well, Jan, we have hoverball court reservations.”
“That we do.” J’hana took Tilleran’s hand and they both headed off in the other directon. “Again, good to have you back, sir!”
“Good to be back,” Baxter said weakly, continuing on down the corridor, with Conway and Larkin at his side and Peterman following behind.
Baxter looked at Conway. “‘Jan’?”
“It’s a term of affection,” Conway said. “They’ve been acting that way since they got back to the ship.”
“Platonic?” Baxter asked, glancing back at Peterman.
She shrugged. “I don’t really know.”
“They moved into adjacent quarters when they moved back in,” Conway explained. “Apparently, Imzadi like to be within close proximity of one another.”
“That is hardly an indicator of anything, Commander,” said Larkin sternly.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “Let’s keep the speculation to a minimum. What Lieutenants J’hana and Tilleran do in their free time is none of our business.”
“Although it would make a brilliant sociological study,” said Larkin.
“Mmm…” Conway said distantly.
“Commander!” Baxter exclaimed. “Snap out of it!”
“Right, sir.” The group rounded a bend in the corridor, and five screaming kids collided with Baxter. Three were dressed as Jem’Hadar, two as Starfleet security officers.
“What the hell is this!” Baxter cried.
“Andy, watch your language!” Peterman warned.
“They’re in the kindergarten class,” Conway said dryly. He knelt down next to them. “This is Jermaine, Steffie, Brant, and V’xxnvar.”
They all waved at Baxter. Steffie pretended to shoot at him with her plastic phaser rifle.
“Adorable,” Baxter muttered. “Well…don’t you have a…kindergarten class or something to get to?”
“We’re in the afternoon class,” Jermaine said smartly.
“Two…classes…” Baxter said quietly. “Oh, gee, that’s just great.”
“What did we learn today?” Peterman asked sweetly, patting V’xxnvar on his antennaed head.
The little Andorian grinned. “Nuclear physics. Miss Shar told us about the disasters of Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island.”
“How cute,” Baxter said. He turned to Conway. “Miss Shar?”
Conway grinned. “Yes, sir. Tyra Shar and her wife moved aboard two weeks ago. Her wife opened up a book store and coffee beanery on the mall level.”
“Oh, you must love that,” Baxter said.
“No, sir. No I don’t.”
“Well, get on to…wherever you were going, kids,” Baxter said uneasily, patting little Steffie on the back.
The kids hurried away, pretending to shoot at each other and carrying on down the corridor.
“Kelly told me that families were being allowed on the Explorer, but part of me just didn’t believe it,” Baxter said. “I was hoping no families would decide to come aboard.”
“Turns out they found plenty,” Conway said. “Except for the diplomatic executive staterooms on Deck 12, we’re full up. There’s a waiting list, in fact.”
Baxter rubbed his beard. “I wonder how long Starfleet will let this go on?”
“There’s just no way of knowing,” Conway mumbled.
Peterman picked up step next to Baxter, took his arm. “But it’s a wonderful thing. Children give us perspective. They make us remember what we’re doing all this for. And they make us think about our choices before we make them, because we know if we fail we’ll not only be affecting the lives of Starfleet officers, but also hundreds of–”
“Can it,” Conway muttered.
“You watch it, Commander,” Baxter snapped. “But he does have a point, Kelly. That Starfleet family speech is a bunch of hogwash and you know it.”
“I think it’s nice. Trust me, Andy. You’ll grow to love these kids. And, as a matter of fact, it might make just make you think of having kids of your own…”
Baxter shuddered. “No kidding.” The group stepped into a turbolift.
“Let me guess where you want to go first,” Conway mumbled.
“Bridge,” Baxter said, and smiled as he said it. The turbolift began its journey upward. “I’ve been waiting for two months to say that word.”
“Indeed,” said Larkin.
“Well, I hope we’re not going to find a children’s pottery class in the conference room,” Baxter giggled.
“No, sir,” Conway said. “They only meet Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“You’re not joking, are you, Conway?”
“I wish to God I was, sir.”
The turbolift came to a stop and the doors opened. Baxter stepped out onto the bridge and sucked in the recycled air. “Ah, it’s good to be back!”
Lt. Ford was standing at the center of the bridge. He glanced back. “Welcome back, Captain.” All of the non-essential backup officers on the bridge stood and clapped.
“This looks so rehearsed,” Conway whispered to Peterman, who just smacked him on the back of the head.
“Good to see you all, too,” Baxter said, looking about the bridge with satisfaction.
Larkin relieved the officer at ops and Peterman and Conway walked with Baxter to the command center.
“You know, all in all, the bridge looks about the same,” Baxter said. “I’m glad they were able to get all those silly luau decorations out of here.”
“Yes, everything’s just like you remember it,” Conway said. He craned his neck to glare at Peterman across from Baxter. “Right?”
“Yep, just like you remember things,” Peterman said.
“Well, I think I’ll just sit here and command for a while,” Baxter said. “Make sure I remember how to do it, after all that rooting and planting and pruning I did down on Earth.”
“At least you got a good tan,” Peterman offered.
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“Course, sir?” Ford asked, taking his seat from the relief officer at helm.
“Well.” Baxter turned to Conway. “What’s our next mission?”
Conway handed Baxter a padd. “Commodore Velara has us doing a stellar phenomenon survey of sector 47205.”
“That’s about a week away,” Baxter said, studying the padd.
“Well into deep space,” Conway said with a grin. “Far away from Starfleet Command.”
“I think we all could stand to get away,” Peterman agreed. “In addition to the week we all spent on different missions, the Explorer’s been on routine courier and freight run duties ever since she got out of spacedock six weeks ago.”
“Sounds dull,” Baxter agreed. “Well, then. Sector 47205 it is. Mr. Ford, lay in a course. Warp Six.”
“Course laid in. Warp Six, Aye.”
Baxter looked from Peterman to Conway, who both returned his gaze with weak grins. “Okay, then. Punch it.”
And the Explorer leapt off into the unknown.
That evening, back in his old quarters, Baxter poked his head into the bathroom. “Hey, Kelly. Ready to go? We have reservations for 1900 hours.”
“Hold on a sec,” Peterman said, staring at herself in the mirror as she ran the long, circular beam of the phase-curler over her head. Instantly the hair curled and shined with a new gleam. “There. Ready.”
Baxter grinned. “You look fantastic.”
“Thank you.” Peterman turned and wrapped her arms around Baxter’s neck. “You don’t look too shabby yourself.”
“How have you kept yourself busy lo these many weeks?” Baxter asked. “With just you and your gaggle of pets to keep you company?”
Peterman grinned. “A girl has her ways.”
“I don’t want to know.”
“Come on, they can’t be worse than Cindy the Orion Slavegirl.”
“Hey, that novel had a great plot.”
Peterman giggled. “Yeah, right.” She walked out of the bathroom, grabbed a treat out of the bowl on the kitchen table and tossed it to Charlie, who was curled snugly on the couch. “Here, boy. Have a good evening.”
Baxter took Peterman’s arm. “Shall we dine?”
Baxter lead the way out of the cabin and as soon as they stepped into the corridor, they ran across Mr. Mirk. He wore what had become his customary reverend’s outfit: a knee-length navy jacket, red vest, and a glittering gold pendant shaped like a fruit basket.
“Hey, Mirk,” Baxter grinned. “Keeping busy?”
“Very, sir,” Mirk nodded.
“Great. How’s that religion coming?”
“It couldn’t be better. So…when should I expect you in for your annointing?”
Baxter blinked. “My what?”
Mirk looked at Peterman. “You did tell him, didn’t you?”
Peterman bit her lip. “Not yet.”
“Tell me what?” Baxter turned toward Peterman. “What?”
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell him.”
Peterman grinned weakly. “We’re converting to Maloxitarian, Andy. It’s for the good of the quadrant.”
Mirk nodded excitedly. “The crew’s really taking to it sir. They’re finding my sermons most informative.”
“Oh…” Baxter said. “Grand.”
“You can’t expect Mirk’s religion to take off if his own crewmates don’t join up,” Peterman explained. “We all have to do our part.”
“Hm.” Baxter rubbed his chin. “I thought I was doing my part just by being captain.”
“Very funny, wiseguy,” Peterman said, patting Baxter on the back. “He’ll be by your chapel first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Very good,” Mirk bowed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go banish some evil spirits from Lt. Unlathi’s children.”
“More power to you!” Peterman said, and waved as Mirk walked off.
“The crew agreed to this?” Baxter said, once Mirk was out of earshot.
“This is important to him, Andy,” Peterman said. “And like I said, it’s for the good of the quadrant. Or at least that’s what he says.”
“We’re putting our faith in the hands of a nineteen year old evangelist,” Baxter muttered. “Great. Is there anything about Maloxitarianism you should tell me before I join up?”
“Let’s just enjoy our evening,” Peterman said quickly, and led Baxter down the corridor.
When Baxter stepped through the large, frosted glass doors that led into Ship’s Shoppes, he had to recoil a little bit. This was the only part of his ship that didn’t seem to change much since the Explorer had been a cruise ship two months earlier. It wasn’t that large. Not more than three cargo bays in length, but still…it was a MALL on his ship.
Ship’s Shoppes was made up of two levels: The lower level consisted of the fountain and park bench area at the center, Dillon’s Pioneer Depot, a Tellarite Jewler, Mirk’s chapel, Shar’s Books and Beans, and Everything’s A Credit. Up on the second floor was Dr. Browning’s restaurant, Space Tastes, and Yeoman Briggs’s Hair Salon, Fashion Mecca, and Interior Design Palace. Above was a huge long row of viewports that stretched the length of the mall, complete with stars zipping by.
Baxter stared up at the viewports and cringed. “Kelly…I don’t know if I can get used to this.”
“At least we’re not calling it the ‘Aloha Deck’ anymore.”
Baxter sighed. “I guess you’re right. So how do we get up to Janice’s? Glass elevator?”
“Nah. We can take the spiral staircase that leads up through Dillon’s Depot.”
“Wonderful,” Baxter muttered. He and Peterman passed by the foggy windows of Shar’s Books and Beans and he peered in, more out of curiousity than anything else. There was an acoustic guitarist playing and a fire burning in a fireplace in the very rear. The whole place had the look of a comfortable, old-style Earth living room.
Baxter spottted Lt. Tilleran inside, nodding her head along to the music. Right beside her was Lt. J’hana.
“Look!” Baxter exclaimed.
“Andy!” Peterman scolded. “What did you say earlier about leaving their private life alone!”
Baxter frowned. “I guess you’re right.”
Peterman stole one more glance in the windows before they headed off to Dillon’s Pioneer Supply Depot.
The door jingled as they stepped through.
“Welcome to Dillon’s,” Bradley Dillon grinned, standing behind the counter. “How can I help you?”
“We’re heading upstairs to eat, Bradley, thanks.”
“Shouldn’t you be out running your vast financial empire, Mr. Dillon?” Baxter asked wryly.
“We don’t have that in stock, but I can certainly try to special order it, sir,” Bradley said blankly.
“That’s HoloBradley,” Peterman explained. “Apparently there’s one in every Dillon’s across the quadrant. That way each customer gets served by the CEO himself.”
“Ingenious,” Baxter muttered, and followed Peterman to the spiral staircase at the back.
Just as they began mounting the stairs, Baxter saw Commander Travis Dillon step out of the store room, carrying a huge cargo crate.
“Where do you want this, Exalted One?”
“Over there,” HoloBradley pointed.
“What the hell is that?” Baxter asked.
“HoloTravis, apparently,” Peterman said, shrugging. “Come on. This place gives me the creeps.”
“You’re not the only one.”
They reached the top of the stairs to find Dr. Browning standing behind a podium. “Hi, guys. Suck-salt or non suck- salt?”
“Non, please,” said Peterman.
Browning led Baxter and Peterman over to a table for two, right by the large bay window at the front of the restaurant.
“Oh, look,” Baxter said. “What a great view of the mall.”
“Yeah, watching other people shop makes people more hungry,” Browning explained. “Or at least it makes me hungry. What can I get you guys?”
“Mmm,” Baxter said. “You got those fresh grapefruit I brought aboard?”
“Uh…yeah…” Browning said slowly.
“Remember the Doc’s Cardiac arrest?” Baxter asked, a nostalgic gleam in his eye.
“How could I forget,” Browning said sadly. “Two fresh grapefruits, grilled to perfection, stuffed with chicken, bacon, and mozzarrella. Served with honey mustard or mango chutney…” Browning sniffled, then began sobbing. “Excuse me…” She ran back to the kitchen.
“Mmm, I can’t wait,” Baxter said, licking his lips. “See that, Kelly. She’s so excited to make my special dinner she ran off crying.”
“Andy…” Peterman said, reaching across the table and grabbing Baxter’s hands. “I have something to tell you.”
Baxter picked up on the look. “Wh-what?”
“You know how Maloxitarianism is sort of centered around fruit…”
“Well, apparently…it’s an obscure rule. It’s something Mirk didn’t even know before he began his studies.”
“Spit it out!” Baxter said, folding his arms.
“Grapefruits are sacred. Forbidden, uh, fruit. Because of their high acidity or something.”
“This is unbelievable.”
“She can make it with papaya. Or oranges. Or even better…tangerines! Any of those are fine.”
“Then why aren’t THEY sacred?”
Peterman shrugged. “I don’t know. We have to make sacrifices for our faiths.”
“What faiths? I haven’t even been ‘annointed’ yet,” Baxter said, making air quotes.
“Well, you might as well make a clean break, honey.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake. Well, before I get annointed I’m having a talk with Mirk about this grapefruit thing. No way I’m abstaining from grapefruits on my own ship.”
“I’d better go talk to Janice,” Peterman said, pushing a basket across the table. “Here, have a breadstick.”
“Fine,” Baxter muttered, taking a breadstick and munching angrily.
Peterman returned a few minutes later. “Poor Janice. She really liked making that for you.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said ruefully. “Well, I really liked eating it.”
“Well, she’s making something almost as good. Bajoran sand peas au gratin.”
“Mmmm,” Baxter said disinterestedly.
“With a side of pineapple,” Peterman added.
“Oh, joy.” Baxter stared out the window. “I guess I’m learning the hard way that you can’t go back again.”
“Nothing stays the same. At least we’re all together again. Isn’t that what’s most important?”
“I guess so. There aren’t any other weird Maloxian practices I should know about, are there?”
“Let’s just enjoy our meal, okay?”
Baxter and Peterman talked to Dr. Browning as they ate, and stayed until past closing time. It was 2200 hours when they finally left Ship’s Shoppes.
“Well,” Baxter said, stepping into a turbolift with Peterman. “How about we top off the night with a drink at the Constellation Cafe?”
“I really don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m kind of…tired.”
“Come on!” Baxter said. “I want to see what it’s like without Mirk at the helm. No doubt it’s not as good, but I’ll bet we can still get a good synthale there.”
“No buts. Computer, Deck 10, forward section.”
Peterman rolled her eyes. “Oh, boy.”
The turbolift stopped on Deck 10 and Baxter and Peterman stepped out. Baxter stopped so suddenly Peterman nearly bumped into him.
“You hear that?” Baxter asked, cocking his head.
“Hear…what?” Peterman replied nervously.
“That!” Baxter replied. “Bowm bowm! Choogah choogah!”
“I..uh, I don’t hear a thing.”
Baxter hurried his pace down the corridor. “Come on, I want to see what all the commotion is about.”
About ten meters before they reached the doors of the Constellation Cafe, Baxter and Peterman came across a line that seemed to stretch the full ten meters.
“What the hell?” asked Baxter, scratching his head.
“You wanted to see it so bad,” Peterman said, taking Baxter’s hand. “Let’s go. We can cut to the front of the line. Captain’s prerogative.”
“Right,” Baxter said. “Captain’s prerogative.”
He saw Lieutenants Zack Ford and Brian Gellar toward the front of the line, dressed in tacky silky shirts and white pants.
“What’s happening, Cap?” Ford asked. “Didn’t expect you here!”
“Captain can get down with the best of them!” Gellar replied. “Right, Spanky?”
“Get…down?” asked Baxter.
Peterman dragged Baxter toward the door. “Hurry. So we can get this overwith.”
Ensign Saral was at the door, letting people in one at a time. “Good evening, Captain. Welcome to the Constellation Club.”
“Constellation CLUB?” Baxter asked.
“Come on,” Peterman pushed.
The doors slid open and a layer of smoke wafted out. Baxter saw what looked like lazer lights firing througout the darkened room. Then a strobe light began to illuminate it spasmodically.
He gasped. “My…God…”
“It’s a night club, Andy!” Peterman shouted above the deafening music. “A damn night club!”
“I see it, I just don’t believe it!” Baxter shouted back.
Suddenly a scantily clad Orion woman appeared in front of Baxter as if from out of nowhere. “Would either of you like a jello shooter?”
“A WHAT?” Baxter asked over the music.
“Sure, I’ll take three,” Peterman said, yanking what looked like three test tubes out of the rack the woman carried. She downed them all at once. Then she put the tubes back in the rack. “Cindy, I presume?”
The Orion shook her head. “WHAT?”
“BOWM BOWM! CHOOGAH CHOOGAHHHH!”
Baxter stepped, as if in a trance, out on the dance floor. It was made of slick tile, placed out in the center of the lounge, well in front of the bar. Mulicolored spotlights glanced about Baxter’s face and the floor itself lit up in red, blue, and green. Then, suddenly, he came face to face with Chris Richards, who wore a shirt zipped down midway to expose his chest hair.
“What’s up, Andy?” Richards asked, bumping and grinding up against Ensign Dawson from sciences.
“That’s what I want to know!”
“THAT’S WHAT I WANT TO KNOW!”
“Nevermind.” And Baxter plowed through the throng of dancers and found Peterman clinging to the bar rail like it was a life preserver. “I’m almost wishing this was a cruise ship again!”
“Sssssshut your mouth,” Peterman slurred, shoving a finger against Baxter’s lips. Four empty glasses sat before her.
“Oh, for Pete’s…” Baxter said, shaking his head. “Come on, Kelly, let’s get the hell out of here.”
“I’ll get the next one to go, bartender,” Peterman belched, then dropped to her knees and rolled onto the deck.
“BOWM BOWM! CHOOGAH CHOOGAHHHH!”
Baxter was awaken from his first peaceful sleep in two months by the trilling of the comm system.
“Huh? Stay out of here, Curtis!” Baxter cried. Then he realized he was back on his ship, not at New Zealand Penal Colony.
His bedroom lit up as Lt. Commander Larkin’s face popped up on the screen opposite his bed.
“Captain. My apologies for waking you.”
Baxter rubbed his eyes. “Forget about it. What is it?”
“We recieved a Priority One communication from Commodore Velara.”
“Put it through, then.”
The new director of the Explorer program replaced Larkin on the viewscreen. “Ah, Captain. I am sorry to wake you, but I believe you may find this information worth waking up for.”
Baxter sat up in bed. Peterman curled up next to him and pulled the covers up over her head. “Go ahead.”
“We have located the Escort.”
“Finally,” Baxter sighed. “I thought we’d never get that ship back.”
Velara didn’t acknowledge Baxter’s interruption. “A Federation freighter picked up its transponder code in the Quabor system, on the second planet, three light years from your position.”
“Any sign of Ficker?”
“None that they could detect; however, there was evidence of a civilization on Quabor Two’s largest continent. The freighter couldn’t scan any of the cities, due to some sort of high-powered shield grid that was in place over the entire continent. Since this is a far-flung world, the Federation has had no contact with this race as of yet. So, to put it succinctly, your mission is to recover the Escort and Captain Ficker, and make contact with this new race. Is that understood?”
“Perfectly,” Baxter said. “We’ll get underway ASAP.”
“Very good. Please keep me posted.”
“Will do.” And Velara blinked off the screen.
“What was that, Andy?” Peterman asked, her voice muffled under the covers.
“An opportunity for revenge, my dear,” Baxter said, gritting his teeth. “Sweet revenge.”
Stardate 54075.4. We’re headed at high warp for the Quabor system, in which we hope to find the starship Escort, stolen from us by Captain Alvin Ficker in his mad dash from the about-to- blow-up Explorer a couple months ago. It amazes me that Starfleet’s taken this long finding the thing, but I’m just thankful they’ve sent me to get it back. I’ve got a score to settle with that no-good son of a bitch Ficker. Uh, computer… hell, you know the drill.
Captain Baxter emerged from the readyroom, blowing steam from a cup of steaming orange pekoe tea. He stopped between tactical and engineering, right behind the railing that encircled the raised command chairs. Stars were shooting toward him on the viewscreen.
“Status, Commander Conway?”
Seated in his chair to the right of the new command chair, Conway looked up from a padd he was reading. “We’ll be at Quabor Two in just a few minutes, Captain.”
“Great.” He made his way around the left side of the bridge, stepped down from the quarterdeck to the front of the bridge, and hung a left toward his chair. He sat down purposefully, then sat his cup to his left in the cupholder. He wiggled around for a moment. “This thing is really comfortable.”
Conway was immersed in the padd. “I’m happy for you, sir.”
“No, really, Commander. You should try it.”
“I did.” He didn’t look up from the padd. “For two months. Remember?”
“Oh, yeah. What did Ficker get on this thing, anyway?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Right, right.” Baxter paused for a few moments. “Commander, is there a problem?”
“Problem? With me? Hah!” Conway kept reading.
“It’s Shar, isn’t it? You can’t stand her being on the ship with that new wife, am I right?”
“You’re so far off,” Conway grumbled. “I’m just having trouble house-training Bucky.”
“Why don’t I believe you,” Baxter muttered. “Well, you know the door to my readyroom is always open…metaphorically, anyway.”
“I’ll have to remember that,” mumbled Conway.
“Approaching the Quabor system,” Larkin announced from ops. Baxter was glad for the interruption.
“Mr. Ford, take us to Quabor Two at full impulse. Larkin, scan for the Escort.” He punched a button on the console beside his chair. “Baxter to all senior staff: report to the bridge.”
The bridge was silent for a few moments.
“Positive contact, sir,” Larkin announced finally. “USS Escort. NX-85392.”
Baxter got up and headed over to ops, rested his hands on the back of Larkin’s chair. “What’s her position?”
Larkin brought the image of the beige and green surface of Quabor Two up on the screen, as J’hana, Tilleran, and Peterman stepped out of the aft turbolift and took their respective places. A crosshairs appeared at the center of the screen and the image suddenly zoomed down toward a craggy, snow-topped mountain range.
“She appears to have made a crash-landing.”
Baxter studied the image. It appeared that the Escort had slammed into a mountainside. It clung, on an incline, about twenty meters down the side of a snowcovered mountain.
“Any idea of the cause?” asked Peterman, taking up a position beside Baxter at the front of the bridge.
“No weapons damage on the hull,” J’hana said, studying her scans. “Some hull stress that doesn’t seem to be resultant of the crash.”
“From a tractor beam, maybe?” asked Conway.
“That would be my guess.”
“Someone locked a tractor onto her and slung her down into that planet,” Baxter said, rubbing his beard. “What a weird thing to do. Any evidence of looting?”
“None at all,” said Larkin.
“Well, we have to go down there and investigate,” Baxter said, after a long silence. “Any natives nearby?”
“The planet’s populace is centered on a large continent approximately sixty kilometers west of the island on which the Escort crashed,” Larkin reported. “That entire continent is encased in a forcefield that our sensors can’t penetrate.”
“Well, then,” Baxter said. “We’ll just go down and have a look at the Escort. Take things one step at a time.”
“Right, sir,” Conway said. “J’hana, Larkin, you two are with–”
Baxter held up his hand. “Not so fast. I’m going to handle this one.”
“Why, so you can find Ficker and get back at him for that mean knee to the crotch?” asked Conway.
“Isn’t that enough of a reason?” Baxter said. “J’hana, Larkin. Come on.” J’hana and Larkin left their stations to follow Baxter to the turbolift.
He stopped before he reached the turbolift. “On second thought, Larkin, you stay here. Counselor…”
Peterman looked up. “What?”
“Come with me. Your psychiatric services may be needed.”
“Me?” Peterman said in shock. “You actually want ME on an away team?”
Baxter smiled. “Now come on. Daylight’s burning.”
Conway harrumphed as J’hana, Baxter, and Peterman stepped into the turbolift. “How do you like that?”
“Indeed, the captain’s choice seems odd. He must surely know that I am also well-versed in the psychological disciplines.”
“Honestly, I don’t think he cares, Larkin.”
When Baxter, Peterman, and J’hana materialized on the bridge of the starship Escort, the first thing they noticed was that it was pitch dark.
“Primary power has failed,” J’hana announced, switching on her palm beacon. “And there is an extreme chill in here.”
“Did you need a tricorder to figure that out?” Baxter asked wryly, drawing his blue-gray survival jacket closer around him.
“No, I didn’t, Mr. Smartypants.”
Baxter and Peterman switched on their own palm beacons, swathing the bridge with beams of light.
“Over here,” Peterman said, gesturing over to the command chair.
Baxter and J’hana joined her, looked down at the chair with interest. “A food tray?” asked Baxter.
J’hana knelt, stuck a finger in the glop on the tray. “Chicken pot pie, to be exact. It is quite cold.”
“I know the feeling,” Peterman said. She was enveloped in the huge and puffy survival jacket, but her teeth still chattered.
“Main power’s probably been down since the crash,” Baxter said. “Which could have been any time in the last two months.”
“Judging by the rate of decay in this chicken pot pie,” J’hana said, waving her tricorder over the meal tray, “I would say the crash occured sometime between two and four weeks ago.”
“And no sign of Ficker?” Baxter asked.
J’hana studied her tricorder. “If he was aboard this ship, I would have detected him by now.”
“So the people on that continent came and rescued him. We should try to make contact,” Baxter said.
“Conway to Baxter,” Baxter’s combadge chirped suddenly.
Baxter tapped. “Go ahead.”
“We detected a momentary fluctuation in the shields around that continent. Some sort of shuttle emerged and is making its way rapidly to your position.”
“The welcoming committee, no doubt,” Baxter said.
“Or the ‘Beat Some Ass’ committee,” Conway interjected.
“Always the pessimist,” Peterman sighed.
“I speak from experience, Counselor.”
“Listen, Conway,” Baxter sighed. “Just have Richards and an engineering team beam down here to secure the Escort for towing. We’ll deal with our friends the Quabors.”
“Aye, sir. Your funeral.”
“Thank you,” Baxter said, and tapped the channel closed. “All right, you two, let’s make for the escape hatch.”
Baxter pried the hatch open with a grunt and hopped out onto the Escort’s port-side wing. “It’s a beautiful day. Could be warmer, but beautiful nevertheless.”
“This planet is a frozen wasteland,” J’hana said, trudging ahead through the snow, along the narrow mountain ridge.
“After being incarcerated for such a long time, you get to appreciate being outdoors, whatever the weather may be,” said Baxter.
“Please,” J’hana moaned. “You spent your days picking daisies.”
“Yeah, but when I wasn’t picking daisies, I was confined to my quarters.”
“Must have been terrible, with only a viewscreen and the full arts and literature database of the Federation at your disposal,” muttered J’hana.
“What’s nibbling at your antenna, J’hana?” Baxter asked. “Having a fight with your girlfriend?”
J’hana stopped in the snow, whirled. “What’s that?”
Peterman picked up step along the ridge and dashed in front of Baxter. “He didn’t say anything. Just keep walking, J’hana.”
“That is what I thought.”
“You’re playing with fire, Andy,” Peterman whispered, pulling Baxter back.
“Just a little friendly ribbing,” Baxter said. “Nothing wrong with that.”
“Don’t be so sure. She’s very…odd when it comes to her relationship with Lt. Tilleran.”
“No kidding. Well, I have no time to coddle her,” Baxter said. “I have problems of my own.”
Baxter glared at Peterman. “Glad I have your support.”
J’hana stopped suddenly ahead of them. Her antennae twitched. “I am picking up vibrations in the air. A vehicle is approaching.” She whipped out her tricorder. “One point two kilometers and closing fast.”
“All right,” Baxter said. “Keep your weapon holstered. We don’t want to give these guys the wrong idea. We just want to let them know the Federation is in the neighborhood and get Ficker back, then get the hell out of here, understood?”
“Perfectly,” Peterman said.
“Right then.” Baxter took a breath. “Happy faces, everybody.”
Moments later a dot appeared in the distance, drawing closer to take the shape of a narrow-bodied blue vehicle with forward- swept wings. It hung in front of them like a hummingbird, its engines humming. At the front of the ship was a cockpit. Within, he saw two Quaboran pilots. They were huge, easily twice the size of a human being, making them only slightly taller than an average Flarn, and they were covered in brown fur. They had tiny, oblong heads and huge, rapidly blinking yellow eyes.
“Hello in there!” Baxter said, waving diplomatically. He pointed at himself, Peterman and J’hana, then pointed at the ship. He held up his left hand and opened and closed it quickly in the universal gesture for “talk.”
“They are staring at us very oddly,” J’hana observed. “Like we were some sort of a science experiment.”
The beings inside the craft cocked their heads, then pressed several buttons. “How do you know that’s not how they show respect?” Peterman asked.
“I’d take it as a sign of respect if they beamed us out of the freezing cold,” Baxter muttered. Then, as if to grant his wish, transporter beams locked on to him, Peterman, and J’hana.
“Thanks a bunch for bringing us in out of the cold,” Baxter said immediately after he materialized in the ship’s cargo hold. He was face to face with one of the big furry creatures. “I’ll just–”
But before he could say anything else, the creature tossed what looked like a black, corded noose around his neck and tugged.
Baxter stumbled forward. “Now you look here!”
The being slapped similar nooses around Peterman and J’hana.
J’hana, for her part, bit and growled and struggled as the alien dragged all three of them down from the transporter pad.
The Universal Translator didn’t make much out of that, Baxter noted.
He tapped his communicator. “Baxter to Explorer.”
Nothing. He looked to J’hana, who did the same. Again, nothing.
“They must be suppressing our combadges somehow,” Peterman deduced.
Suddenly Baxter felt something noose-like wrap around his neck, and he was dragged forward.
“Listen, I don’t know how you guys do things in your neck of the galaxy, but where I come from it’s not nice to put a leash on someone without their permission,” Baxter said sternly.
“Yes, well, that may be, but me and my people do have rights as Federation citizens.”
“You tell them, Andy,” Peterman said, gripping at the cord as it dug into her neck. “Loosen this thing up, Mister!”
“You will be masticated by me and my entire family at our holiday meal for this!” J’hana cried.
The Quaboran didn’t seem to be paying attention to anyone. He simply opened three cages that lined one side of the cargo hold and shoved Baxter, Peterman, and J’hana each in their own cell. He reached in through an opening in the cell door and pulled the leashes off each person, one by one.
“Hey, I have a water dish!” Peterman exclaimed.
“Me too,” Baxter noticed. The Quaboran slapped the small openings in the doors of each cage closed and left.
“Early hypothesis,” J’hana grumbled. “These people think we are pets.” The Andorian glared at Peterman. “Do you not think that is…cute, Counselor?”
“The Quabor shuttle is returning to the shielded continent, with our people aboard,” Larkin noted, as Conway took a few steps closer to the viewscreen.
“Can we tell what’s going on on that ship?”
Conway tapped his combadge. “Conway to Baxter.”
“Conway to Baxter,” he repeated, looking to Larkin, as if for answers.
Larkin studied her panel. “They have returned inside the forcefield. That may be blocking our comm signal.”
“Okay,” Conway said, returning to the command chair. “We’ll give them half an hour to get settled. If we don’t hear anything after that, we’re going down there.”
Several minutes after Baxter and the others had been unceremoniously tossed into their cages, they were beamed out.
When their patterns resolved, they found themselves in a pen of some sort, fenced in by sizzling electrified silver bars. They were standing in hay, it seemed, and surrounded by about twenty milling, squeaking, squealing …humanoids. They were nearly naked, only covered in rudimentary loincloths.
Some were striped, some colored green, or red, or orange, but there was no doubt about it. They looked just like humans.
“Where the hell are we?” Peterman asked fearfully.
“In your worst nightmare?” J’hana offered.
“Very funny.” Baxter pushed up his shirtsleeves. “Warden!” he called out. “Someone! Someone get us out of here!”
“They can’t understand us,” Peterman said, dropping down into the hay in one corner of the pen. “We’ve figured out that much.”
“Then what should we do?” Baxter asked. “Just sit here until one of these…humans…tries to mate with us?”
Peterman folded her arms. “No way.”
“They took our phasers, but we still have tricorders,” J’hana said. “We might try using them to augment the Universeal Translator.”
“Get to it,” Baxter said. “Meanwhile, I’m going to look around the pen a bit. See if Ficker is in here.”
After about a half an hour, Baxter had searched every corner of the pen, with no sign of Ficker. It was about the size of his quarters, so it wasn’t that it took a long time to search, but the other…pets…were rowdy and not in any way helpful in his search. When he returned to the corner where he’d left J’hana and Peterman, his wife was politely shoving one human off her hip.
“Bad boy! Bad!”
“These things are mighty horny,” J’hana observed.
“That’s great, J’hana,” Baxter muttered. “But what about the Universal Translator?”
“I have developed a subroutine that will analyze and dissect the Quaboran vocal patterns. We shall know if it works if a Quaboran ever comes in here again.”
“I can’t wait,” Peterman mumbled.
“Here’s your problem,” Lt. Hartley said, dragging herself out of the pit that circled the warp core at the center of the Escort’s engine room. “Busted power conduit.”
“That’s what I thought,” Richards said. “Stuart,” he called over his shoulder. “Break out the spare and work with Hartley to install it. We may be able to spare ourselves the trouble of tractoring the Escort out of here if we can just get her out on her own power.”
“You seem a bit antsy,” Hartley observed. “You think this race is trouble?”
“We haven’t heard from the captain yet, and it’s been over half an hour. Isn’t that reason enough to worry?”
“I suppose it pays to be ready for anything.” Hartley watched as Stuart heaved a new section of power conduit out from the supply room just off the engine compartment.
“Here we go,” Stuart said. “Spanking new.”
“Let’s get her in,” Hartley said.
Richards tapped his foot as he watched Hartley and Stuart work. He really was antsy. What if Baxter and Peterman were in trouble? What kind of diabolical things could the Quabors be doing to them?
“That tickles!” Baxter cried, as waves of sound brushed over the pen, individually cleansing all its occupants.
“This field is quite efficient,” J’hana said, wriggling her hips. “I can feel the dirt working free of every crevice.”
“I’m happy for you,” Peterman muttered. “The Leeramar could learn a thing or two from these people.”
Then, as suddenly as they began, the sound waves died down.
“Well,” Baxter said. “Now what?”
As if to answer his question, the doors to the long hallway in front of the pen slid open, and two Quabors slugged in.
They seemed to be quite involved in some sort of debate.
“Anything, J’hana?” Baxter asked.
J’hana stared at her tricorder. “Still working.”
The Quabors, meanwhile, deactivated the electrified fence and swung open a door at the center. Humans scrambled toward the opening, but the lead Quaboran kept them back with what appeared to be an electroprod of some kind. The one with the prod stepped inside, waving the prod around at the advancing humans. He reached Baxter, Peterman, and J’hana and immediately slung leashes around their necks. He grabbed all three leash-ends and tugged back toward the gate.
“Guess we’re going for walkies,” Peterman surmised.
Richards looked around the bridge of the Escort with satisfaction as power thrummed around him and all the stations powered up.
“Hartley to bridge. Let there be light, sir.”
Richards tapped the comm button on the ops console beside him. “Great work, Lt. Hartley. Now start initializing the structural integrity field and thrusters.”
“Already on it. We should be able to get out of here in about twenty minutes.”
“Fantastic.” Richards walked over to the command chair and sat down, resting his elbows on his knees. He tapped his combadge. “Richards to Conway.”
“Have we heard from the captain yet?”
“That’s a negative. How long until you can get the Escort out of there?”
“Another twenty minutes.”
“As soon as you do, I want you to do a fly-over of that continent. Try to get some idea of what we’re up against. But do not engage them, you hear me?”
“Perfectly, sir. You want to come down and supervise things?”
“I have total faith in you, Commander.”
“How nice for you.”
Baxter, Peterman, and J’hana were led down a long corridor, into a massive, jewel-encrusted room with sparkling lights and gold fixtures.
At the head of the room was a large throne, on which an unbelievably huge Quaboran sat. He was the only Quaboran Baxter had seen so far that wore any clothes besides rudimentary belts. This one wore a long, fluttering silver cape.
“Trrttleelel!” he commanded, and Baxter, Peterman, and J’hana were thrust toward him.
“You know, there are rules against this kind of thing!” Baxter cried, glaring back at the Quaboran that had him by a leash.
That Quaboran released the leashes on Baxter, Peterman, and J’hana and the leader got up, heaving his bulk in a circle around them, grunting and observing.
“Tetrrrtltletl,” he said finally, then called over his shoulder “Trrt! Trrt!”
“Yeah, what do you want now?” Captain Alvin Ficker climbed out of a small flap-door beside the throne. He wore an orange and green court-jester outfit, complete with bells on the hat. His eyes widened when he saw Baxter and the others. “Oh, for the love of–”
“TRRT!” commanded the huge Quaboran.
“Yeah, right, sorry,” Ficker said, and kneeled before him, nuzzling his chin into the fur of the massive being’s leg. As he did so, he glanced over at Baxter. “They send you of all people! I don’t believe it!”
“Believe it, buddy,” Baxter said. “Me and you have a score to settle!”
“That’s all well and good,” Ficker said, still nuzzling. “But if you haven’t noticed, we’re sort of trapped here.”
“My security chief is working on a way out as we speak.”
“How great for you,” Ficker said, rolling his eyes. “I’ll do whatever you want if you just get me the hell out of here. I feel ridiculous.”
“Rightly so,” Peterman giggled.
“Teertttlelt!” the huge Quaboran said, silencing all of them. He looked to the Quaboran with the leashes and nodded. “Tettttlrrtl.”
The leash man bowed and turned, plodded out of the throne room.
“Trtltletlr,” said the one Baxter guessed was the Quaboran leader. “Trtletltret.”
“J’hana?” Baxter asked.
“Hold on a sec,” J’hana said. “I think I’ve got something.”
“Hurry, before they decide to have us spade.”
“Neutered,” Peterman corrected.
“Terrettltert,” said the leader. “Tretrrrtteletlrrete. Tredtrlrfect for our hunting expedition. Trrt will be the lead tret. Won’t he? Won’t he?” The leader rubbed Ficker’s chin, and Ficker obligingly stomped his foot.
“This is so humiliating,” Peterman mumbled.
“All right,” Baxter said, looking to J’hana. “Good job, Lieutenant.” He turned to the leader. “Mister…Quaboran. We would like to discuss some of the finer points of diplomacy with you.”
“Yes, you’re a cutie too,” said the Quaboran leader, patting Baxter on the head. “And so vocal.”
“Apparently we can understand them, but the tricorder is still unable to transmit our speech into their language,” J’hana said.
“No kidding,” Baxter muttered. “Then that gets us nowhere.”
“Well,” said the leader, “the sun will be in its waning shortly. We should leave immediately. Tet! Get the costumes and prepare our new trets for an outing. They have a long hunt ahead of them.”
“A hunt,” J’hana said, baring her teeth in a smile. “At last, something to look forward to on this doomed away mission.”
“I’m glad somebody’s enjoying themselves,” said Peterman, as she, J’hana, and Baxter were led by another Quaboran into an anteroom where they were stripped and dressed as Ficker was.
“Well,” Baxter said to Peterman, frowning up at the dangling bells that hung down into his face. “You’re the one that wanted to get more involved in ship’s business.”
“What made you think that?”
“Remember that big fight we had back just before the Explorer was recomissioned? About how you wanted more responsibility?”
“Andy, I got enough of that when I was made Cruise Director. I hated it. I really thought you just wanted me along on this away mission because you liked having me around.”
“Of course I like having you around. But I want you to feel like you’re a valued member of the crew, too.”
“Silly, I already know that.”
“Come now, trets. Let’s get out to the woods!” announced the Quaboran leader, poking his head into the anteroom. “There’s a long day of hunting ahead!”
Suddenly another, much smaller, Quaboran rushed up and whispered something to the leader.
“What?” he said in disbelief. “More trets? A ship twenty times the size of the first one? Full of them? How can this be? What grace providence has placed upon us! Bring them in immediately!”
“He’s talking about the Explorer!” Baxter exclaimed.
“No kidding,” J’hana said wearily.
“We have to do something,” said Peterman.
“Like what?” asked Baxter. “Our communicators are useless. We don’t have phasers. What exactly do you suggest?”
“We have to find the shield generator and disable it,” J’hana said. “This tricorder has a bead on the source as it is. We just need to buy time to get to it.”
Baxter thought fast. “You can distract the leader out on the hunt. Kelly and I will go for the generator.”
“How do you plan on doing that?” J’hana asked.
“We’ll find a way to get separated,” Baxter said, and winked at Peterman.
Lt. Hartley and Ensign Stuart stepped out onto the bridge of the Escort. “All ready,” Hartley said.
“Okay,” Richards said, turning in the command chair toward the viewscreen. “Let’s get this show on the road. Stuart, take helm. Hartley, on tactical.”
Stuart and Hartley took their places.
Richards gripped the arms of the command chair. “Heat up the engines.”
“Heated,” said Hartley.
“Richards to Conway.”
“We’re ready to go. We’ll let you know as soon as we locate Captain Baxter and the others.”
“Right. Good luck, Escort. Try not to wreck that thing for the second time, Richards.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Richards muttered, tapping the channel closed. “Stuart, ahead all thrusters, wing configuration down for atmospheric maneuvering.”
And the Escort dislodged itself from the mountainside and thrummed toward the Quaboran main continent.
Peterman and Baxter were shoved into a private cage.
“Have fun, little trets,” snickered one of the two Quabors that had escorted them there. Baxter had configured his tricorder to translate Quaboran speech as J’hana’s did.
One Quaboran stared at the other. “What are you doing?”
“I’m staying to watch. I get off on this sort of thing.”
“You’re sick.” And the other Quaboran walked away.
Baxter grinned. “Cool idea, huh? Make them think we’re rutting so we can get put off by ourselves.”
“THINK we’re rutting?” Peterman blinked. “You realize we haven’t made love in over a month!”
Baxter wrapped his arms around Peterman and began kissing her ravenously. “Well, no time like the present.”
She glanced over Baxter’s shoulder. “Andy, that Quaboran is still watching us.”
“Jeeze sakes.” Baxter turned back to look at the Quaboran. “A little privacy, please?”
He just stood there, arms folded, laughing. “Go to town, little trets!”
“Tracking the Escort’s telemetry,” said Lt. Commander Larkin, staring up at the blinking blip on the viewscreen. “They have almost reached the shield perimeter.”
“How much longer?” asked Conway, leaning forward in the command chair.
Larkin tapped a few controls. “In two minutes.”
Suddenly an alarm wailed on Lt. Gellar’s tactical console. “Sir! Someone just locked a tractor beam on us!”
Conway glanced over his shoulder, just as the Explorer jerked forward, nearly knocking him out of his chair. “Oh, f***! All engines, full reverse!”
“No effect,” Ford called out from the helm.
“They’re reeling us in now!” Tilleran said, rapidly tapping her panel in an effort to find a way out of the beam.
“Ideas, people!” Conway called out, wrapping his arms around his chair like it was a life preserver. Meanwhile, the surface of Quabor Two grew larger on the viewscreen.
“I hope the captain and his wife are having fun,” Ficker sneered as he and J’hana led the Quaboran leader down a long, curved, woodsy path, tugging against their leashes. J’hana took note that Quaboran brush and shrubbery was quite colorful. Lots of purples and yellows.
“I am certain that they are. They arguably got the more interesting part of the mission.”
“It’s been so long since I’ve…been with a woman,” Ficker said woefully.
“Well, don’t think you’re going to break that losing streak today, Captain,” said J’hana. “Remember, our job is to keep the Quaboran leader out of the Captain Baxter’s hair long enough for he and Peterman to get to the shield generator.”
“It might be harder than you think. Do you know what we’re supposed to be hunting?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
Suddenly there was a rustling in the bushes. The leader jerked back on the leashes. “To the right, Trrt and Teet! Off that way! Release, release!” And he pulled off the nooses.
“Freedom!” J’hana bellowed.
“For what good it does us,” Ficker said, gulping. He pointed at the thick brush. “Look!”
A huge shadow rose behind the thicket of trees.
J’hana sighed. “Oh, flarg.”
“Contact,” Hartley said, looking up from the tactical panel to Richards’s right. “I’m getting a huge signal heading toward us. It’s the Explorer!”
Hartley put the image up on the viewscreen and Richards gasped. “They’re being pulled right into the atmosphere by tractor beam. Can we disrupt it?”
Hartley’s hands raced across the panel. “I’m going to try. Mr. Stuart, take us toward the source of the tractor beam.”
“Woah, nellie!” Conway cried out as the Explorer sailed through Quabor Two’s atmosphere. “Someone slow us down!”
“I’ve gone through every maneuver in the book, Commander,” said Ford. “That thing packs a whollop!”
“We’ve shot ion blasts at the thing, blown a cloud from the bussard scoops at it, reversed the polarity on the deflector dish,” Tilleran said. “Nothing’s worked.”
“Time to impact?” Conway asked fearfully.
“Two point one minutes, at our present rate of descent,” Larkin said calmly.
Conway punched a button on the arm rest. “All hands, this is Commander Conway. Prepare for impact!”
“Like that’ll do them any good now,” Tilleran muttered.
“Patience, everyone!” Dr. Browning called above the melee in her restaurant. “Everything will be fine soon! If it’ll make you guys feel better, dessert will be on the house as soon as this calamity is over! And I can take care of any injuries you may have sustained!”
Cheers echoed throughout Space Tastes.
After Peterman and Baxter finished, the Quabor, now satisfied, walked away.
Baxter zipped up his uniform front and helped Peterman to her feet. “I feel so cheap all of a sudden.”
“You’ll get over it,” mumbled Peterman.
“Now all we have to do is figure a way out of this electrified gate,” Baxter mused.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Peterman said, reaching back behind her head. She yanked out a hairpin. “There we go. That should do it.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Baxter said, grabbing the hairpin. “I just jam it in the circuitry?”
“You have a better idea, Andy?”
“Not really,” Baxter shrugged. He walked over to the crackling electric gate. Right beside it was a control box that moderated the power that went through the fence. Baxter couldn’t fit his fingers in to rip the panel open, but there was a slit just wide enough for the hairpin to fit in. Here goes nothing,” he said woefully, and jammed the pin in the slot.
“All right,” said Lt. Hartley. “I’ve modulated the shields so they can channel the power of the tractor beam back down through the gravitic converters.”
“Perfect,” Richards said, watching the glowing golden tractor beam ahead of them on the viewscreen. Right above them, the Explorer plunged down toward the planet’s surface. “Mr. Stuart, take us in.”
The Escort hurtled through the tractor beam. Just before she reached it, though, the beam disappeared.
“What happened?” asked Richards, leaning over Hartley’s panel.
“I don’t know. There was a massive power surge throughout the primary city on the continent below us. It knocked out the tractor beam and the shields.”
“Try to locate our people, quick!” Richards said. “And get me a report on the Explorer’s condition!”
Stuart looked down at his panel. “Uh…hurtling toward us, at the moment!”
Richards gritted his teeth. “S***. Get us out of here!”
The compound where Peterman and Baxter had been kept had become a scene of chaos. They filtered through the rooms and corridors, ducking confused Quaborans left and right.
“That’s some hairpin,” Baxter said.
Peterman shrugged. “Either that, or it was just really poor wiring on the part of the Quabors.”
“We’ve got to try to get to J’hana and Ficker,” said Baxter. He and Peterman rushed out into the corridor where the pen of human-like “trets” waited for their respective owners.
“What about these guys?” asked Peterman.
“Prime Directive applies, I guess,” said Baxter. Suddenly his tricorder beeped. He whipped it out and tapped a couple buttons. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Hold that thought.” Baxter tapped a few more controls, and the grunting, mewing, mooing trets suddenly started to speak English.
“Get us out of here!”
“Let us out, please!”
“We have families and jobs to get to, for goodness sake!”
“Well, well,” Peterman said. “It looks like trets are people too.”
“We sure can’t just leave them here,” Baxter said. “But I hate to bend the Prime Directive.”
“Yeah right,” Peterman giggled. “You’re joking, aren’t you?”
“Sort of.” Baxter walked over to the gate and swung it open. “I just hope they don’t put me back in jail for this.”
“Pull up, pull up!” Conway commanded, gripping the back of Ford’s chair.
“What the heck do you think I’m trying to do?” Ford asked, jerking back on the manual control joystick as the Explorer zipped through Quabor Two’s atmosphere haphazardly. She had been flipped end over end and sent spiraling when the tractor released, since all her engines were in reverse.
“Escort to Explorer,” came Richards’s voice. “Do you need assistance?”
“Yeah!” Conway cried out. “But it’s not like you can do anything about it!”
“Jeeze, just trying to be helpful.”
“Well forget about it!”
The view on the screen spun nauseatingly around as the Explorer skipped through the air like a stone on a lake.
Finally Ford pulled the ship rightside up and gunned the thrusters to send it flying back out toward space.
Conway watched the atmosphere peel away to reveal space and sighed with relief. “Well, that’s that. We’re putting landing gear on this thing.”
Baxter and Peterman, amid the melee of rushing Quaborans, led the whole group of “trets” out of the complex, and out into the woods. Apparently, there were several holding pens throughout the complex, holding a total number upward of two hundred humanoids for use as domesticated pets.
As Baxter and Peterman reached the woods, they saw Ficker running toward them at full speed.
“Get out of my way!” screamed Ficker, chugging right past Baxter.
Then thuds rippled through the ground and Baxter looked up to see what, for all intents and purposes, was just a big, hairy, naked fat man. But he was two stories tall. And J’hana was hanging from the back of his head, holding a lengthy bundle of hair, kicking and screaming.
“Well don’t just stand there! Help me bring this sharvlak down!”
Supplemental. We have left the Quabor system, salvaged the Escort, and established diplomatic ties with a race known as the Relasi, who apparently occupy underground cities on the fourth planet of the Quabor system. They have impulse-level spacefaring capability, but wouldn’t you know, every time they sent an expedition to Quabor Two, it mysteriously disappeared? A whole fleet of diplomats and linguists are on their way to this system as I speak to try and moderate some sort of truce between the Relasi and the Quaborans, and hopefully one day bring them into the Federation. Judging by my brief experience on Quabor Two, however, I’m not going to hold my breath.
Captain Baxter held his breath as squinted his eyes closed as his head was plunged into the viscous substance inside the giant hollowed-out gord.
“Directors, by the power vested in this gord, please hold and keep Captain Andrew Baxter within the grasp of your keen powers, and protect him for all his days,” Mirk said, holding his head down. He looked out among the command staff and other crewmembers gathered in his chapel and they all nodded assent.
“Directors be with him!” they cried out.
Mirk jerked Baxter’s head back up and offered him a towel. “There you go, Captain.” He patted Baxter on the back. “Nice gording. Oh, and don’t let me forget to give you that coupon for one free pedicure at Briggs’s.”
“You bet,” Baxter muttered, rubbing the yellowish-green gord gunk off his face.
Peterman and Richards rushed up to congratulate him. Browning waddled up behind.
“Congratulations, Andy,” Peterman said, wrapping her arms around Baxter and hugging him tight. “You’re now part of the vast fruit tree of our existance!”
“I’m honored,” Baxter said dully, shrugging off his baptismal gown to reveal the uniform underneath. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some business to attend to.”
“He’s going to go beat up Ficker,” Richards said. “Aren’t you, Andy?”
“Don’t be silly,” Baxter said, clapping Richards on the back. “I’m way beyond that. Two months in prison, a demeaning stint as a planet-leader’s pet, and my…er…‘annointing’ just a few seconds ago all taught me a valuable lesson.”
“Which is?” Browning asked.
“Life goes on,” Baxter said. “And it doesn’t wait for petty grudges.”
“Hear hear,” Mirk said, raising a chalace of sacred guava juice. “Let’s all pass the guava cup around to celebrate the captain’s revelation!”
“Besides,” Baxter said with a wry grin, as Maloxitarians
milled about the chapel, passing the cup of guava juice. “I’m a Starfleet captain. And Starfleet captains don’t carry out petty revenge schemes. They have other people for that.”
“Just a sec…” Captain Ficker said, wrapping up his robe and rubbing a towel through his hair. He stepped up to the door. Probably Counselor Peterman coming to catch up on old times. He knew deep down she wanted him. He’d just have to wait out her silly marraige to Captain Baxter.
He ran a his fingers through his hair, put on a dashing smile, and keyed the door open. “Yes?”
The door slid open to reveal Lt. J’hana.
“Uh…yes?” Ficker said uneasily.
“I have a message for you from the captain.”
“Oh, this must be good.”
“Indeed.” J’hana rammed her knee up into Ficker’s crotch. He dropped to the floor with a squeak of pain. “Have a nice day, sir.”
When Baxter and company have to return to Earth to re-take their Time Travel license tests, all seems normal, until the residents of New York City start acting a tad strange…stranger than usual. Will they figure out what’s up in time, or will they encounter some very serious…LICENSING DIFFICULTIES? Find out, in the newest story from Daniel McNickle!