Author: Anthony Butler
Chief Engineer’s Log,
Stardate 54388.1. Not much happening. Not “not much” as in nothing bad. “Not much” as in we ain’t moving. Not a single bit. There we were, flying along, just the same as always, when the warp field suddenly collapsed and sent a cascade pulse through to the impulse engines and thrusters. Translation: dead in the water. I can come up with no explanation for this weird occurrence, and no way to get a stable field up again. Understandably, there’s a huge pressure on me now to get the ship underway again, most noticeably from Captain Baxter. So here I am, it’s past 0100 hours, and I’m staring at padds while my engineers crawl through meters and meters of conduit and warp nacelle trying to find what the hell went wrong. I only have one question: WHY ME???
Captain Andy Baxter stared at Counselor Kelly Peterman across his coffee table. He leaned forward, hands on knees, in his recliner. She was teetering on the edge of the couch, twiddling her thumbs nervously.
Behind them, on the breakfast table, an oblong device that thrummed with red and purple lights sat beeping innocently.
“Wonder how Chris’s doing?” Peterman finally asked.
“Good question,” mumbled Baxter.
More silence. Baxter stared out at the perfectly still stars. A rock, or some other piece of space debris, floated by, and Baxter envied it for going so fast.
“I feel partly responsible,” Peterman said finally.
“We should have never tried out that nuclear-powered Orion body massager,” Baxter replied. “It’s as much my fault as yours. I begged you to get it.”
“Yeah, but it was my great idea to plug it into the ship’s power systems. Quick thinking erasing it from the computer logs, by the way.”
“It’s an old inventory trick.”
“Wonder what’s on the viewscreen?” Peterman asked, after a few more moments’ silence.
“At this hour?” Baxter asked. “Huh. Probably re-runs.”
Baxter hummed an aimless tune, straightened a stack of magazines on his coffee table.
“Should we tell Chris?” Peterman asked. “It might help him fix the ship more quickly.”
“Are you kidding? We’d be the laughing stock of the entire crew.”
“You’re probably right.”
“I know I’m right. So…” Baxter looked around his quarters. “Chess?”
The numbers and images on the padd were starting to blur. Richards sighed and walked over to his replicator to call up a cup of coffee. If he had to stay up all night he’d figure out how to get the ship back running again. They were in very sparse space. The next habitable colony was four days away at high warp. They’d have to find a way to fix the ship, or be stranded. Asking for help was just not an option. After the whole hoo-ha with the Explorer becoming a cruise ship, Baxter was very touchy about their reputation and image. Nothing, not a silly engine breakdown or repeated takeovers by a warlike race from another universe, would get out to Starfleet and the people back in the Federation. The Explorer would be a proud name. Right up there with Enterprise. Or, at the very least, Secondprize.
Richards sat back down at his desk with his cup of coffee and stared at the warp field schematics. There just had to be a way to put up a stable field. Problem was, there were so many variables involved in making warp drive work, it was a miracle it was such a reliable way to travel. Richards was always careful not to mention to crewpersons who weren’t trained in warp dynamics how amazing it was that ships at warp didn’t just randomly blow up. The chances were not that unlikely. It just hadn’t really happened yet. Not that often, anyway. It took years to really figure out how warp drive worked, and even if you grew up to become a Scotty–someone who was an expert in the field, you still didn’t know it all. No human, or humanoid for that matter, was capable of really explaining how warp fields and subspace mechanics worked to any practical person, not without sounding like a total jackass.
That, Richards figured, was why he was good at engineering. He was an artist at heart. He didn’t think in terms of practicality. He thought in multiple dimensions, across varied plains of reality. That’s really what impressed his engineering teachers at Starfleet Academy. What didn’t impress them was his nonchalance about the whole thing. He was always happier sculpting, or drawing. His parents pushed him to get into Starfleet. It sure as hell hadn’t been his choice. But he fit in to the way of life and met a lot of good friends, through Starfleet. He even nearly got married.
But he tried not to think about that.
“Come,” he said tiredly. Who could that be at this hour?
Dr. Janice Browning walked in. Speak of the devil.
“I knew I’d find you down here,” she said, sitting down across from him. She was wearing a matching red-and-black Starfleet jumpsuit.
“What are you doing up?”
“Jogging,” Browning said matter-of-factly.
“Ah, that’s normal,” Richards said, and returned to his padd.
“I couldn’t sleep. I’ve had a lot on my mind. I think better when I’m in motion.”
Browning sucked on a water bottle. Healthy, Richards thought. There’s a change. Then he sniffed the air and realized it was egg nog.
Richards kept tapping on his padd, trying out different warp field configurations, and Browning finally cleared her throat.
“Am I bothering you?”
“Not at all.”
“You certainly don’t seem interested in talking.”
Richards looked up from his padd. “Sheesh. You know, Janice, we used to spend hours just holding each other, not saying anything. Can’t we still just sit in silence?”
“That was when we were together. Now we’re friends. Friends don’t just share silence. They discuss things.”
“Oh.” Richards sighed. “What do you want to discuss? Is Plato giving you some trouble?”
Browning bit her lip. “Not…um, not exactly. Plato’s fine. Tyra says he’s learning at an exponential rate. And growing, too. He already has the physical development of a four-year-old.”
“In just a few months? That’s amazing.”
“I’ll say. I keep having to replicate new clothes. Anyway, that’s not what’s bothering me.”
“Well, what is it? I’m not going to pry it out of you, Janice. You know I’ll help you with whatever your problem is, but if you want to be interrogated, see J’hana.”
Browning thoughtfully sucked on some more egg nog. “This is silly. I’m bothering you.”
“Janice, don’t be like that. Sure, I have six hundred people waiting for me to get this ship moving again, but I always have time for you.”
“That’s sweet,” Browning said, standing, “but you really should get back to work. I’ll be fine.”
Richards rubbed his eyes, stood up, and walked Browning to the door to his office. “You’re sure?”
“Positive. It was silly for me to even mention it.”
Richards had a feeling he would regret not pressuring Browning more, but he was too tired to push the issue. “Okay. Well, if you change your mind, you know how to reach me.”
Browning stuck her water bottle in its holster at her hip and nodded. “You bet. See you later.” And she jogged off down the corridor out of engineering.
Richards stood at his door for a few minutes, then shrugged and headed back into his office.
At about 0500 hours, Lt. Hartley, Lt. Kamtezen, and Ensign Stuart clamored out of the Jefferies tube across the engineering compartment from Richards’s office and bolted over. They stopped short when they saw through the observation window that Richards was dancing a little jig around and around his desk.
“EUREKA!” they heard his muffled voice cry out.
Hartley examined the burnt out piece of conduit in her hand. “You think he found out before we could tell him?”
“Maybe,” Stuart said.
“What do we do?” asked Kamtezen. “Maybe he’s having a nervous breakdown in there.”
Still standing, Richards was tapping furiously on his padd.
“Someone should go in there and see what he’s going on about. For all we know, it’s a warp core breach,” said Hartley.
“I don’t think he’d be doing a jig, if that was the case,” said Stuart.
Hartley pushed up her shirtsleeves. “Well, there’s only one way to find out.” She strode toward the observation window and knocked lightly on it. Richards turned, a wild look in his eyes. He waved enthusiastically at Hartley, who smiled weakly back. He ran over to the door and opened it.
“Lieutenant!” he said happily. “Come on in!”
“Uh…okay…” she said, stepping into Richards’s office. “I found out what was keeping us from sustaining a warp field. There was a piece of burnt out conduit in the fourth shunt of the port nacelle. Sort of like a hair clog, or maybe constip–” She stopped talking as soon as she saw the wall behind Richards’s desk. “Chris…what the hell is that?”
Richards turned to face her; his hair was wild, his eyes were beaming. “That…is…ART!”
Stardate 54401.4. Lt. Commander Richards’s…creation… has spent nearly two weeks down in the Deck 14 art gallery. It’s met with favorable ship-wide reviews, much as the return of warp power did. Apparently, he’s sent pictures of the thing off to several contests. Personally, I’m not sure if it’s art, but I damn well like it.
“Reminds me of post-nihilistic atomicism,” said Yeoman Briggs, staring at the picture with interest. “With a cubist twist.”
“Pretty…pretty colors!” exclaimed Dean Wilcox, who stood next to him.
“That too,” Briggs said.
Counselor Peterman stood behind them, scratching her head. “I still don’t get it.”
“You have to cross your eyes,” Briggs explained. “Unfocus them.”
“I can’t do both at the same time,” Peterman complained. “Oh, this is just so irritating. Why can everyone else see it but me?”
“Because everyone else has an eye for art,” Briggs snapped.
“Oh, Paul,” Peterman said, her lower lip trembling. “How could you say that?”
“Kelly, hon, I’m sorry, but it’s true. I’ve tried to ignore it. I’ve tried to go along with your insidious little decorating tips, but it’s just too hard. You murdered the decor of that poor Deck 18 brig. The wall hangings are absolutely atrocious!”
“But I picked them out myself, out of Charles of Odicron!”
Briggs sighed and patted Peterman on the back. “There, there, honey. You’ll live. Maybe if you went and spent a couple weeks in intensive training with Martha Stewart…”
“Never mind,” Peterman sighed, turning away from Richards’s confusing picture. “Nothing’s worth this much heartache.”
“Oh, and one more thing,” Briggs called out, as Peterman headed out of the gallery. “You need a haircut. Those split ends are driving me MAD!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Peterman muttered, heading out into the corridor in search of a giant banana split and a stiff daiquiri, or glass of grain alcohol.
“Fruit of the Directors,” Mirk said, squeezing a papaya over Dr. Browning’s open mouth. A stream squirted out and landed on her tongue.
“There, now,” he said, and pulled his hand back through the small opening in the divider of his confessional booth. “Now what seems to be the problem, my child?”
“Mmm, that papaya was good, Mirk. Where did you get that?”
“Beseferous Six. Now what’s the problem?”
“I feel silly in this little closet, Mirk.”
“It’s not a closet,” Mirk said with exasperation. “It’s a confessional. Now fess up.”
“I haven’t really sinned, Mirk. I just need someone to talk to. My waitress, Imhala, is apparently channeling a Yynsian duck right now, and the bartender in the Constellation Club is a real sleazebag.”
“A duck? Really?”
“Sorry, Doctor, but this I’ve got to see.”
“Later,” Browning said.
“Right. Well, then. What about Lt. Commander Richards? Or wait, ooh, is this about him?”
“No, it’s not about him. I tried to talk to him, actually, but he seemed busy. And now with all the fuss over his picture…”
“Great image of a Ferris wheel.”
“It’s a warp field. Anyway, what I’m concerned about is…”
“A warp field? Really?”
“Sorry. You have to forgive me, Doctor,” Mirk said through the partition. “I’m kind of new at this stuff.”
“Me too,” Browning sighed, and left the confessional booth.
“Doctor? Doctor?” Mirk opened up the wall divider to find Browning gone. “Now how about that?” Mirk looked around the chapel. Empty. “Oh, well. Off to the restaurant. Wow, a duck. Imagine that.”
Lt. Commander Richards walked into his office the next morning to find Lt. J’hana sitting behind his desk.
“Can I help you, Lieutenant?” he asked, annoyed.
“Indeed you can,” J’hana said. She rose from Richards’s chair and circled his desk to face him. “I have a message for you.”
“And you had to come all the way down here to give it to me?”
“Yes,” J’hana said. She grabbed Richards’s hand, and in a flurry of motion, whipped out her curved Andorian zztal blade with the other hand and sliced it across the engineer’s palm.
Richards yelped and yanked his hand back. “J’hana! What the hell did you do that for? Are you nuts?”
“Congratulations, Commander,” J’hana said, wiping the blood from her blade and putting it back in its sheath at her thigh. “You have won the Andorian Arts Academy Grand Prize. We leave for Andor this afternoon.”
Richards blinked. “You’re kidding me.”
“No, I am not. Pack your bags, you lucky schwarnt.”
“But why the hell did you have to cut my hand? Did you think I was a changeling or something?”
“No, that is simply the way it is done at the AAA. You should be thankful you won the Grand Prize. If you had gotten Honorable Mention, I would have had to slice off your testicles.”
“Drinks on me!” Richards said, hurrying into Space Tastes. Dr. Browning was taking orders at a nearby table. She grinned.
“What’s the cause for celebration?”
Richards picked Browning up and twirled her. “I won the Andorian Arts Academy contest!”
“Yay! Put me down before I throw up!”
Richards quickly put Browning down. “So, like I said, drinks are on me.”
“Well, that’s mighty thoughtful. It is 0900 hours, though.”
“All the better. Orange juice on me.”
“Let me just call it in to today’s chef.” Browning walked back into the kitchen. Richards could have sworn he heard angry quacking from within, but he dismissed that as a silly notion.
Captain Baxter walked with Richards down the corridor toward the USS Escort airlock. “Commander, are you sure this is such a good idea? Do you really want to go to a planet where they slice off your testicles for Honorable Mention?”
“This is my calling, Andy,” Richards said. “I have to follow it.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “That’s what you said about the Klingon soap opera.”
“This is different. This…is art.”
“Anyway, I’m not leaving the ship. I’m just claiming my prize and coming back. Then it’ll be the old, boring, engineer’s life for me again.”
“Don’t get too homesick,” Baxter muttered. He turned to J’hana, who’d been walking behind them. “Lieutenant, I’m holding you personally responsible for making sure no one does anything nasty to Commander Richards while he’s on Andor. I expect you to do whatever necessary to protect him, up to and including…” Baxter sighed as J’hana’s eyes lit up, “giving up your life for his.” He’d really just put in that last bit for her sake.
Richards tapped in the entry code to the Escort airlock. “Really, Andy, I’ll be fine. I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah. That’s what you said when you went to do the Klingon–”
“I get your point!” Richards interrupted. “Jeeze! Will you ever let me live that down?”
Richards and J’hana were about to step through into the Escort corridor when Lt. Tilleran rushed up to meet them.
“J’hana!” she exclaimed. “I just heard you were leaving. What gives?”
“I did not wish to cause a scene.”
“Not cause a scene?” Tilleran said. “Oh, come on!”
“Do not get mushy on me, Betazoid. I am about to blaze a trail of honor from here to Andor.”
“You’re escorting Chris to a reception for an art contest!” Baxter said, incredulous.
“As I said,” said J’hana. She turned to Tilleran. “Be well, Imzadi. I shall be back before you know it.”
Tilleran embraced J’hana. “Make sure you come back in one piece.” And to Richards’s and Baxter’s discomfort and horror, Betazoid and Andorian joined in a sloppy liplock that lasted nearly a minute.
Richards and Baxter exchanged an uncomfortable glance, and Baxter put out his hand. “Uh…I’ll settle for a handshake, Chris.”
“Good. Handshake,” Richards said, shaking Baxter’s hand limply.
J’hana and Tilleran finally separated, and the Betazoid trotted off down the corridor. Baxter stared after her several moments, looking a bit lusty. J’hana ducked into the Escort airlock. Richards stood at the doorway, staring at her.
“Well?” J’hana asked. “Come on, human. What are you waiting for? A fwarking engraved invitation?”
Captain Baxter rode the turbolift back up to the bridge in a state of dulled shock. What in the Directors’ name was going on with his Chief Tactical Officer and Chief Science Officer? And why did it make him feel so…lusty?
Baxter tried to shake off the feeling as the doors opened up onto the bridge and he stepped out.
He found Dr. Browning waiting by his readyroom door. “Oh, there you are,” she said.
“Hey, Janice. What can I do…do for you?”
“Are you okay, Andy? You’re looking a bit red.”
“I’m…fantastic,” Baxter said slowly. He looked over at Larkin in the command chair. “Commander?”
“The Escort is away.”
“Good. Resume course to the Vendabran system. Warp eight.”
Baxter unlocked his readyroom and stepped in. “Can I get you a drink, Janice?”
“No. I’m okay.”
“Alrighty. Captain and Coke, computer.”
“Something Commander Conway told me about. I don’t know what’s in it, but DAMN it’s good!”
“And it even has the word ‘Captain’ in it,” Browning said approvingly as Baxter grabbed his drink out of the replicator.
“Yeah, Conway says that means it’s great for captains.” Baxter sipped and sat down behind his desk. “So…mmm…what’s up?”
“I don’t really know.” Browning sighed and collapsed into one of the chairs opposite Baxter’s desk. “I guess what I’ve really been worried about, is that I think I’m feeling…”
“Red Alert,” came Lt. Commander Larkin’s voice over the comm system. “Captain Baxter to the bridge. A Gorn warship is gaining on us quickly. Their weapons are armed and they persist in threatening to destroy us.”
“Oh, shucks, and us without our Andorian,” Baxter muttered. “It’s always something Hold that thought of yours, Janice. I’ll be right back.” He got up and walked out into the scatter of conversation and bleeps of confusion on the bridge.
Browning sat alone in the readyroom, staring out the viewport at the multi-tiered green vessel bearing down on them. She reached over, grabbed Baxter’s glass, and downed it in one gulp.
The captain was right, it really was good.
Personal log, Lt. Commander Richards,
Stardate 54405.7. The trip to Andor has been a hoot so far. The command crew we drew for this assignment is absolutely wonderful. It’s me, J’hana, the sardonic Lt. Hartley, the cowardly Howard Sefelt, and Susan Madera, who still hates me for that whole thing when she thought we were dating and I kind of blew her off. But none of that matters. I’m going to Andor to win an art award!!
“So,” Lt. Commander Richards said, getting up from the command chair. “Dinner, Ensign?”
“Why?” asked Madera, turning from her seat at helm. “So you can throw my affections back in my face like you did the first time? Ha, I don’t think so.”
“So that’s a ‘no.’”
“No. It’s a yes. I’m starving. Let’s go before I change my mind.” Madera got up and followed Richards to the doorway at the rear of the cramped bridge.
“Ensign Sefelt,” Richards said, as relief personnel came in through the door. “You have the bridge.”
Sefelt cringed at ops. “If you say so, Commander. Careful when you reach into that replicator. I heard an ensign on the Sarbanes once stuck his hand in the replicator and it turned into a ham sandwich!”
“That’s impossible, Ensign,” Richards said tiredly.
“Nothing’s impossible sir. You just remember that, and you’ll be okay.”
Richards sighed and ducked out of the bridge. “Will do. Come on, Susan.”
“YAH–OUCH! HAH–OW! HI-YAH! DAMN!”
J’hana had been practicing her Andorian ji’hex’var fighting moves for over half an hour in her cramped cabin aboard the Escort, and every time she made a move, her elbow, or leg, or foot slammed into the bunk, or the wall, or the door, or the ceiling. There was just no way to move around. It was quite irritating.
“Bridge to J’hana,” came the voice of Ensign Sefelt over the comm.
“What is it, weakling?” J’hana said, mopping the bluish sweat off her face with a towel.
“I’ve, uh, got a message coming in from Andor for you.”
“Ah, a welcome from the senate, no doubt. Patch it through.”
“Sir,” J’hana corrected.
J’hana turned to the tiny viewer on the wall opposite her bunk and the current Andorian symbol, a sword with antennae, which she thought was totally ludicrous, appeared on the screen, followed by a shocking image indeed.
“Suva!” J’hana exclaimed.
“Good to see you too, J’hana,” said one of the two Andorian sisters who’d tried to take over the Andorian government two years earlier by resurrecting a bunch of ancient technologies. “I trust time has been good to you?”
“I have one many a battle, yes. Now what in the hives do you want?”
“I heard about your engineer’s success at the Arts Academy. I just wanted to wish him well.”
“Hah. What do you know about art?”
“Quite a bit. I am, after all, one of the judges.”
J’hana felt an odd rumble in her stomach she’d learned to interpret as dread. “Really. Who’d you bribe for that?”
“No one. I am on the AAA’s faculty.”
The rumbling increased in intensity.
“Furthermore, it is I who recommended the good Mr. Richards’s piece.”
“Why?” J’hana demanded.
“Because it’s good.”
“Likely story. If this is a trap, I will rip you a new faarnx!”
“Now now, J’hana. We don’t want to spoil Mr. Richards’s good time, do we?”
“His ‘good time’ as you say, is not nearly as important as his survival. He is human. He…ugh…fears death. If you try something, I am compelled to stop you.”
“The only thing I’m going to try, J’hana, is asking him for a dance and an autograph at his reception. He’s quite good.”
“If you lie…”
“Always the cynic, J’hana. You need to loosen up.”
“I will loosen up your internal organs!”
“I give up. D’aht and I will see you at the reception.”
J’hana cracked her knuckles. “Looking forward to it.”
Lt. Commander Richards stumbled out of the cabin/readyroom and onto the bridge, zipping up his uniform jacket and looking refreshed. “Ah, nothing like a good night’s sleep.”
“Cram it,” Lt. Megan Hartley said grumpily, curled up in the command chair. “We’re in orbit of Andor, cheeryface.”
“Great,” said Richards. “Guess what? I have a date with Ensign Madera after this mission.”
“Joy. Listen, do you want me to go down on the away mission with you or what?”
“Not unless you want to.”
“Good, then I’m staying up here. They’re revealing the greatest magician’s secrets on UKN tonight.”
“Wouldn’t want to miss that,” Richards muttered under his breath, and headed for his quarters to make sure his dress uniform was all packed.
Fifteen minutes later, Hartley’s mood didn’t look all that much improved as she manned the transporter controls. “Your painting’s been sent down to the Arts Academy. Everything else has been transferred to your suite at the Andorian Arms.”
“What time is the reception?” J’hana asked, stepping out of the walk-in supply closet and zipping up her survival jacket.
“Just after sunset tomorrow, whatever that means in Andor time,” Richards said. “What’s the body armor for?” He’d wondered what she’d been doing, rustling around in the supply closet.
“It’s monsoon season down there right now. Plus, it’s Andor. Trust me, you should do the same.” She pulled out her phaser and checked the settings.
“Will I need one of those, too?”
“If you think you can use one without blowing your foot off.”
“I can manage,” Richards grumbled, and headed into the supply closet to suit up.
“I hope you’re hungry. We’re going over to my family compound for dinner tonight.”
Richards gulped. J’hana’s family?
“Have fun!” Hartley said cheerily, and set the coordinates. Suddenly, she seemed a lot more chipper.
Richards and J’hana materialized in the middle of what appeared to be a hurricane. Wind and rain whipped past Richards’s face as he tried to take in the surroundings. They were in a courtyard, surrounded by what looked like large, squarish, white stone dormitories, with arching, foreboding buttresses and windows.
“Let’s get inside,” Richards shouted over the thunder.
“Hold on,” J’hana called back. Her antennae twitched and her eyes went wide. “Shelat! Get down!” She shoved Richards to the muddy ground and fell on top of him. Explosions set off around them. Were they in the middle of a minefield?
“What the hell!” Richards called out from under J’hana, choking out mud.
“It is I, J’hana!” J’hana called out over the din of explosions, ignoring Richards. “Warrior of the Ninth Hive, wielder of great weapons, wounder of many, killer of two thousand forty two souls!” She’d been keeping count? Not only did that surprise Richards, but the fact that the number was so low was a bit of a shock, too.
The explosions stopped suddenly and a large spotlight swung down on J’hana.
“State your full name for us, if you know it, v’zzzhal!”
“Oh, for the love of z’ahr,” J’hana muttered. She looked up toward the light, glancing regretfully at Richards, then back up at the light. “I am…oh, jeeze…J’hana Ratigal V’x Zzzzzzzzzzzzhahafar Delvecchio Bequixin Zzrorhrmn Dddrforn Yarniga!” Richards could see why she shortened it to just “J’hana.”
“Did I hear a human name in there somewhere?” Richards asked, scratching his head.
“There is a bit of human stock way back in our family line. I would not speak of it if I were you, if you wish to live. Now come, let us eat.”
“How’s he making out?” Captain Baxter asked, holding a sweaty glass and looking watery-eyed, and, in Lt. Hartley’s opinion, absolutely piss drunk, on the Escort’s main viewscreen.
“Heck if I know, Captain,” Hartley replied. “He and J’hana haven’t checked in yet.”
“I have a horrible feeling about this, Lieutenant. Andorians and art just do not mix.”
“You don’t have to tell me, sir. But, in all fairness, it is the fourth-ranked art academy in all the quadrant.”
“There’s nothing wrong with old FU, miss, and don’t forget it.”
“Just between you and I, sir, Federation University is for the wayward souls and Starfleet Academy rejects who don’t have the physical stamina to mine dilithium.”
“I spent six months at FU before I went to Starfleet Academy,” Baxter belched. “Best six months of my life. I was even in the freakin’ yoga club.”
“Captain, are you on duty?”
“Damn right I am…buahhh!”
“Just checking. Listen, sir, I really have to go. I have…stuff to align.”
Baxter shot out of his command chair, then fell dizzily back into it. “Fire quantums, Lt. Gellar! Blow her to bits.”
Hartley shook her head and punched a control, closing the channel. Between being down on Andor with J’hana and her family and being on the Explorer with an apparently-off-the-wagon Captain Baxter, she felt being aboard the Escort was probably the sweetest deal available.
The dining room in the main building of J’hana’s family compound, aptly called “The Ninth Hive,” was more a mess hall, or cafeteria, than anything else. One big long table stretched from one end of the room to another. He counted about sixty people altogether, ranging from J’hana’s parents, to her sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and relatives that no doubt didn’t exactly translate into human familial terms. And this was just the nuclear family. The Ninth Hive was related to other hives across the planet, J’hana had told Richards. Hives like 9a, 9b, 9c, etc.
J’hana sat next to Richards, quietly picking at the pile of guts on her plate. Richards made a mental note to introduce her to haggis when they got back to the Explorer.
“Not hungry, J’hana?” Richards asked, amid the buzz of everyone talking at once. He had no idea what they were all chattering about. But whatever they said, his universal translator wasn’t picking it up. Some of them could be talking to him, for all he knew.
“Not exactly,” J’hana said.
“But it’s fresh gabavga. Hot and frothy just like you like it! You talk about this stuff endlessly.”
“Yes, I know. I am simply not hungry. Perhaps my appetite has been destroyed by Starfleet’s pathetic replicator food.”
“Okay, if you don’t want to talk, no biggie,” Richards said, returning to his own meal. He wasn’t eating much either. There were purple and orange lumps swimming around in an ectoplasmic white goo that he just didn’t trust to be non-toxic, in spite of the family chef’s assurances. They weren’t really swimming, actually, they were sort of moving around in circles. They looked almost like chicken nuggets, but they were…spiny.
“So, how are you in battle, human?” the Andorian beside him, a young man of about 20 earth years, asked.
“Don’t ask him that, Feldspar,” said a voice from the head of the table. It was J’harn, J’hana’s decaying Main Father. “He’s from the Federation. He knows nothing of battle.”
J’harn was the oldest Andorian Richards had ever seen. He was fat, wrinkled, and hairless. And his antennae were tiny, droopy, and withered. Not that Richards noticed that much. J’harn, and J’hana’s Main Mother, A’arvid, were visiting on holiday from their retirement colony on Gringis Five, where they’d whiled away the last two years since J’hana’s late brother Lular had put them there.
“Why, uh, why do you want to know about my fighting skills, Feldspar?” asked Richards.
“Because you will need them to keep your precious art trophy, Richards,” Feldspar hissed through clenched teeth.
“He will need all his battle skills just to get the fwarking trophy,” said D’vxxn, one of J’hana’s sixteen sisters.
“Is that so?” Richards asked. “I was told I’d just go to the reception, have some snacks and drinks, and walk up onto the stage to get my trophy.”
At that, the whole table roared with laughter, in unison, with the exception of J’hana, and, of course, Richards.
“That’s not the schedule?” Richards turned a glare on J’hana, who was inspecting her plate very carefully.
“Not exactly,” J’hana said quietly.
“‘Not exactly,’” rattled J’harn. “‘Hana, my dear, you’ve led your Starfleet friend here into a giant rat’s nest. I’m proud of you.”
Richards’s stomach was feeling very rumbly, and he wasn’t even sure if it was from the ‘fzzzrt on a shingle’ or not.
“To be truly accepted in the Andorian art world,” J’harn said, smiling archly at Richards, “you must withstand feats of strength.”
“‘Feats of strength,’?” Richards gulped.
“It is a small matter,” J’hana mumbled. “With me at your side, you will prevail. Smile and agree with my father, but whatever you do, do not make him angry.”
“Right,” Richards said. “Feats of strength, yes Mr. J’harn. I’ll remember that. I work out one or two times a week. Nothing big. Free weights, mostly. Dumb bells and such.”
“What nonsense is this human speaking of?” bellowed J’harn. “Someone, tell me, is he worthy of the feats of strength, or will he crumble like a frosted fzhrar tart?”
“Fzhrar tart!” the horde at the table bellowed together.
“Now, wait a minute,” Richards protested. J’hana gripped his knee with a fist of iron.
“Do not continue this,” she warned. “My family is particularly…saucy tonight. They will kill you if you are insolent.”
“Insolent? I was just asking–”
“Do not anger them!” J’hana hissed between clenched teeth, and busied herself eating. Now, all of a sudden, she was hungry.
“You are weak,” Feldspar sneered from beside Richards, pointing his clawlike fork at the engineer. “You will not make it off this planet.”
Richards looked at J’hana. “Did I mention to you that I was having a great time?”
“Just eat,” J’hana grumbled. “Eat and everything will be fine.”
“You will die,” said D’vxxn. “But, before you do, I would like to enjoy that wiry human frame of yours. One night, you and me. If you think you can stomach it.”
“That’s–that’s mighty thoughtful of you, D’vxxn. But I’ve kind of got a date, after all this…”
“With J’hana?” J’hana’s main mother, A’arvid, asked.
“He hasn’t the strength to take on J’hana,” Feldspar said.
“I’m not hooking up with J’hana! As a matter of fact, I think her and Lieutenant Till–” And J’hana’s fork stabbed his thigh.
Richards bit his tongue and tried not to scream. “You could have tapped my elbow, J’hana!”
“I wished to communicate my intentions quickly and effectively.”
“The elbow tap will do, next time,” Richards sighed, and tried not to cry from the pain as J’hana yanked her fork out of his thigh. “As I said, J’hana and I are not an item. I’m actually going on a date with Ensign–”
“You won’t survive to make your date,” bellowed J’harn. “Even J’hana cannot save you.”
“I happen to have spent some time on Kronos, Mr. J’harn. I can take care of my–”
“We spit on the Klingons!” railed J’harn. “They are nothing but talk and flaky operas. Fwark to them!”
“FWARK TO THEM!” cried the family assembled at the table.
“You’ve really got them going now,” muttered J’hana.
Time to change the subject, thought Richards. This is where the diplomacy extension courses came in handy.
“So,” he said to J’harn. “I hear there’s some human blood in your ancestry…”
The whole dining hall grew deathly quiet. J’hana let out a low gurgle. An Andorian sigh?
Richards tugged at his collar. “Was it something I said?”
J’hana and Richards stopped running when they reached a dense outcropping of woods. The rain had nearly wound down to a small torrent. Richards collapsed to the ground and leaned up against a tree. Naturally, it was spiked. At that point, Richards didn’t really care.
“Are you all right?” J’hana looked down at Richards. She was breathing heavily. Her eyes were beaming. “Did any of them injure you?”
Richards rubbed his shoulder. “One of them winged me with a zztal blade, but I think I’ll live.” He yanked a small hypospray out of its holster inside his survival jacket and plunged it into his arm. “But I’m sure glad you talked me into taking the jacket.”
“And the phaser, I’ll wager,” J’hana said ruefully, sticking another power pack into her phaser and discarding the spent one. “That was a great dinner.”
“Miss Manners would not have approved,” Richards said while desperately trying to catch his breath.
J’hana ignored him. “It has been quite a while since I had a fight like that.”
“What fight? It was a massacre! We were lucky to get out of there alive!”
“That is the way of things with Andorian families. Is it not the same with Terran families?”
“Generally, Terran families don’t hit each other with chairs and swords.”
“Then how do you bond with one another? How do you get out aggression?”
Richards closed his eyes as rain pelted him. “By, uh, talking?”
“Useless rambling gets you nowhere.” J’hana cradled her phaser lovingly. “Weaponry is all a family understands.”
“I’ll have to remember that the next time I have a visit from my jerky Uncle Fred.”
J’hana leaned against the tree and caught her breath. She glanced at Richards. “They liked you, you know.”
“WHAT?” Richards looked up at J’hana with incredulity. “They tried to kill me! Feldspar stepped on my face!”
“Signs of affection,” J’hana said. “I am surprised they didn’t ask you to undergo the mating rites with me.”
“You’ll understand if I would have declined.”
“You would not have had a choice.” J’hana extended a hand and dragged Richards to his feet. “Oh, well, we’d better get walking. It is a couple kilometers to the Andorian Arms.”
“Why don’t we just have the Escort do a site-to-site?”
“Because we are on Andor. We do not take shortcuts. Do you want one of our media agencies to detect that you used the transporter to avoid a two kilometer walk? You would be the laughing stock of the art world!”
“I could live with that if it meant a warm bed and a hot drink right about now.”
“You make me sick,” J’hana said, and plodded onward toward town.
“You have no respect for your accomplishment. You have no respect for the people bestowing this award on you. It was a mistake for me to bring you here.”
“J’hana,” Richards said, struggling to keep up. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t respect the award, and its presenters. It’s a four day trip each way, not to mention the…colorful…nature of the natives.”
“More jabbering, more insults. Careful what you say, Commander Richards. Unlike my family, I will not hold back when I hit you.”
“They held back?” Richards said in a small voice. He shuddered to think of what that family was like when they fought with full force. When J’hana did not respond, Richards kept on. “J’hana, something’s eating at you. You’ve had a larger chip than usual on your shoulder since we began this trip, and I want to know why.”
J’hana whirled, causing Richards to nearly slam into her. “You want to know what’s ‘eating’ at me, Commander?”
“I, uh, I guess…”
“You make me want to vomit, then shove that vomit down your throat.”
“Gee, I’m sorry you feel that way…”
“Arrggh!” J’hana growled up at the blue-red sky, and trudged onward.
“J’hana,” Richards said, jogging to follow. “What is it?”
“You’re wasting a gift I would have given anything to have, you silly, awkward, weak-willed human zvarkhnnnixzznrvfvbghr SLUGWORM!”
That’s a new one, Richards said, trying to figure out what J’hana’s new expletive could mean, when compared to the three or four Andorian words he already knew. “What are you trying to tell me?” he finally asked.
J’hana whirled again.
“Stop doing that!” Richards cried, sliding backward in the plasmic Andorian mud. He reached out to grab a tree to stop from falling.
“Years ago, when I was not long out of my nymph stage, I entered the Andorian Arts Academy contest. And you know what? I won second place.”
“Wow. What do they do when they announce that?”
“They stab you in the stomach, but that’s not important. What is important is that I was going to become a star of Andor’s pop culture scene. But guess what happened? GUESS WHAT THE FWARK HAPPENED, YOU HUMAN FOOL!”
“I-I-I don’t know,” Richards stammered.
“I was beaten!” J’hana cried, ripping a branch off a nearby tree and tossing it effortlessly over Richards’s head. He glanced back to see it sail several meters before smashing against another tree. “Beaten to a bluish pulp by the roving art gangs, before I could accept my statue and cheese kit. I never had a chance!” J’hana banged her head against a tree. “I never had a fwarking chance!”
Richards tentatively put a hand on J’hana’s shoulder. “Now I understand, I think. You brought me here so you could attack the art gangs and get revenge, didn’t you?”
“I trained for years after that, Commander. Years. I studied under the most fearsome martial artists on Andor. Z’chau, Yunnnz, F’aht. You name him, I learned to kill from him.”
“So then what happened?”
“I submitted a new piece, but it was too late,” the Andorian moaned. “Too damned late. You see, in the time I’d spent in training, the art scene had moved from post-intestinal to neo- dread. I was behind. A relic of times gone by. So I was forced to put my hard-earned training to good use and join the refuge of the damned.”
“Starfleet,” Richards sighed.
J’hana nodded, wiping mucky rain off her face. “You can see why I’m bitter.”
“I suppose. But I’d have appreciated it if you’d taken this sentimental journey without endangering my life.”
J’hana turned and put a firm hand on Richards’s shoulder. “Do not worry about that, Commander. I assure you, you are quite safe with me. But leave my sight, even for an instant, and you will die.”
“Great,” Richards said, glancing nervously over his shoulder. “Let’s get to the hotel, then.”
Dr. Browning knocked on the frosted glass window outside Lt. Tilleran’s office. “Ariel? You busy?”
“Uh-oh,” Tilleran chuckled. “Don’t tell me. My tests came back positive.”
“No, no, this is actually a social call.”
“Well,” Tilleran smiled. “This is a surprise. Come on in.” She gestured for Browning to sit down on the small loveseat across from her desk. “Can I get you anything?”
“No thanks. I’m not hungry.”
“You’re kidding.” Tilleran swiveled in her chair. “Boy, there must really be something wrong.”
Browning nodded. “Sort of.”
“Well, I’m pleased you came to me. Some Betazoids are counselors, you know.”
“I’m aware. Actually, I was hoping–” Browning glanced at Tilleran’s desk. There was an elegant duridium picture frame on the desk, facing away from Browning. “Is this a picture of someone in your family? Or a boyfriend, possibly?” Browning giggled and grabbed the frame. “Let’s see.”
“Uh, Doctor, I wouldn’t…”
“Oh. Uh, wow.” Browning turned the picture from side to side, on several different angles. It was an image of Tilleran and J’hana, draped on a heart-shaped bed, taken from what seemed to be an impossible (and somewhat nauseating) angle. “This is, um, this is really interesting.”
Tilleran snatched the frame. “It’s not what you think. Now, on to your problem?”
“Yes,” Browning said, straightening. “I’ve talked to a couple people, but I can’t seem to put my problem into words.”
“Aha,” Tilleran said. “And you were hoping I could ‘scan’ you and immediately ascertain your problem?”
“Yeah,” Browning said sheepishly. “I hope you’re not offended.”
“Of course not.” Tilleran got up and moved around her desk. She sat on the edge, close to Browning. The doctor squirmed a bit. “I get that all the time, as you might imagine.”
Browning chuckled nervously. “Yes, I thought you might. So, will you…?”
“Sure,” Tilleran said. “Open your mind to me, Janice, and let me see what I can–oh. Oh my. Oh MY!”
“Don’t overreact, please,” Browning begged. “I want this to be handled with all due…discretion.”
“Right, of course,” Tilleran said, leaning forward onto Browning’s chest and laughing out loud. She laughed so hard and so long she ended up crying, sniffling snot all over Browning’s uniform. Browning reluctantly patted the hysterical Betazoid on the back.
“Sorry, Doctor, I’m not being very sensitive about this, am I?” Tilleran asked, finally, mercifully pulling back.
“It’s okay, Ariel. I understand how you might react this way.” Browning stood. “I’ll go out on a limb and say you don’t have any advice for me?”
“Pack your bags and get out of here, as fast as you can,” Tilleran said, returning to her chair.
“Thanks a lot,” Browning sighed, and stepped out of Tilleran’s office, out of the lab complex, and back out into the corridor. “You were a real help.”
This visit was a remarkable lesson in Andorian culture for Chris Richards. For instance, he had no idea that Andorian beds were essentially coffins with comfier pillows. J’hana sealed him in with the assurance that she’d keep constant vigil for any homicidal art critics. Richards felt a pang of fear when he heard the Andorian’s ferocious, animal-like snores from outside the “coffin.” The only way he knew they were snores at all, and not an attacking beast of some kind, was because he’d slept in the same room as J’hana during a trip to a frozen world inhabited by pseudo-hominid penguins while in the Delta Quadrant. It was an experience he’d hoped never to repeat.
Well, thought Richards, maybe the snoring will scare off any potential attackers.
Once the Andorian sun came in through the tiny slats in Richards’s tomblike bed, the engineer figured he’d gotten the sum total of about fifteen minutes of sleep.
His figurings were quickly cut short when J’hana lifted the lid and peered in at him with an arched eyebrow.
“Commander. I trust you slept well?”
“Like the dead,” Richards sighed, and climbed out of his bed tomb. “How about some breakfast?”
“I will get it. You stay here,” J’hana said, and slid out through the apartment door into the dank brown Andorian morning.
Richards looked around the austere room for wont of something to do. There didn’t seem to be a video screen of any sort, and the audio machine appeared to only play Andorian music, which, to Richards, was the equivalent of having a warp core breach occur inside one’s middle ear.
That in mind, Richards decided to sit down in the awkward butterfly-style chair facing the hotel room’s window and stare at the action out in the parking lot of the Andorian Arms. Supposedly, this place was one of Andor’s finest hotels. But Richards was used to this. Andorians, like Klingons, didn’t believe in frills. He’d brought along a little padd to keep himself busy. He reached down beside the chair and into his carry-on bag, picked out the padd. He connected with the Escort’s computer and picked up the Federation News.
Richards’s reading was interrupted when a small, spherical object smashed through his window, trailing smoke. It landed squarely inside his “bed,” and set about beeping annoyingly.
Without hesitation, Richards lept out of the butterfly chair, through the gape in the window, and ducked and rolled onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel room.
The wall of the hotel room blew outward with such a quake that Richards thought the ground under him would open up and swallow him up. Instead, chunks of the heavy stone wall came raining down on him, pinning him helpless to the sidewalk.
He lay there several minutes, squinting at the haze and globulus clouds in the sky. Finally, J’hana approached carrying a greasy sack.
“I have some zharvats and jelly for you, Comm–” A pause.
“Down here, J’hana,” Richards said weakly.
The Andorian knelt beside him. “You didn’t activate the massager, did you?”
“No, no, this was someone else’s doing, I think.”
“Your detective skills are well-honed, Commander. This, then, would be a warning.”
J’hana nodded grimly. “You are a marked man.” She effortlessly shoved a few of the larger chunks of wall off Richards and helped him to his feet. “I should not have left you. Imagine the fiasco if I had to report back to the Explorer with your dead body in tow.”
“Yeah, imagine,” Richards muttered. “You know what, J’hana? The Andorian Arts Academy can just forget about their stinking award. It’s just not worth–”
And immediately J’hana’s hand slammed over Richards’s mouth. She jerked him close to her and narrowed her eyes. She meant business. “We have passed the point of no return, Commander! We will see this through, or die trying. Is that understood? You are no longer my superior officer. You are a human who is marked for death. A stranger on a strange world. Your very existence depends on me. You will do exactly as I say or you will die. Is that understood?”
Richards nodded briskly.
“This is not a game. It is a matter of honor. I intend to see it through. Are you with me?”
Another nod, this one a bit hesitant.
J’hana smiled toothily. It scared Richards more than anything else that had happened on Andor so far. “Good. This will be an exciting challenge. You had better get a shower. It promises to be a busy day.”
“Yeah,” Richards gulped. “No kidding.”
The day actually passed without much incident. The most exciting thing that happened after the explosion was a heated argument between J’hana and one of the hotel maids on how Richards’s sheets were tucked.
Of course, J’hana had them moved to a new room. This one, she said, came with the famed “Deluxe Security Package,” which included forcefield, heat- and motion-sensitive flooring, laser-guided sensor systems, and a patented self destruct system that allowed you to blow yourself to smithereens before your opponent got the chance. Only to be used in extreme circumstances, J’hana emphasized.
Given all of the security improvements in their new room, Richards expected the shower to be really fantastic. However, he soon found that the Andorian idea of a shower was far different than his own. Their “showers” actually sprayed little gritty bits of rock, sand, and material Richards couldn’t identify all over one’s body, literally scraping off dirt with a notoriously pumice- like quality. The shower left Richards feeling as if he’d just slid face-first down a mountain, but he dared not complain.
“How was the shower?” J’hana asked, looking up from her modest meal of zhelat ribs and v’haspant.
“Great,” Richards said, touching a towel to the gash in his cheek. “Just let me get my dress uniform on and we’ll be underway.”
“Do not take long. We should be at the reception within the hour. Traffic promises to be heavy.”
“Oh, I never even asked. How do Andorians get around on their homeworld?”
Another chilling smile. “You shall see.”
Richards held onto the railing in front of him for dear life as wind and (more) rain slammed into his face. J’hana cackled wildly beside him, relishing the trip.
“Is this not the best, Commander?” J’hana asked, as the pilot of their commercial sky-sled flew them on a bee-line for the Andorian Arts Academy Main Campus. Sky sleds were more or less shuttlecrafts without roofs that darted like insects at unimaginably dangerous speeds around the larger Andorian cities.
“It would be better if this thing had a roof!” Richards called out, clutching his watertight poncho close around his body.
“Bah! Be glad you have that poncho, weakling!”
“How much longer…” Richards asked, patting his pilot on the back.
The Andorian at the controls of the sky sled turned around, with a demonic look on his face. “Not long!” he cried, and withdrew a dagger from his chest pocket.
“J’hana!” Richards cried, and scrambled backward, over his own seat and into the row behind him.
The Andorian driver lept after him, and J’hana simply stuck out her arm, stopping him cold. She grabbed his head before he could retaliate, and, with a twist, she snapped his neck and tossed him overboard.
“They really will have to try harder than that,” J’hana sighed.
“Do you know how to fly one of these things?” Richards asked fearfully.
“No,” J’hana replied. “But I do know how to crash one. Hold on.”
Minutes later, Richards crawled out of the smouldering wreckage of the sky sled, shortly followed by J’hana.
“My dress uniform is ruined,” he moaned.
“Be glad you survived.” J’hana glanced back at the smoking ruins of the flyer, which she’d landed nose-first in a grove of trees just outside of the Arts Academy’s main campus. “I only have a Class III flyer license.”
“I’d never have guessed.”
“Let us proceed,” J’hana said, yanking her bat’leth out from its sheath behind her back and plugging onward, taking point.
“You really think that thing’s necessary?” Richards asked, tugging his tattered poncho tighter.
“We shall see,” said J’hana mysteriously.
Richards and J’hana emerged from the grove of trees into a large clearing, bordered on all sides by tall buildings.
“This is the ‘quad,’” J’hana said. “The buildings all around us are classroom and lecture halls, as well as student dormitories and an amphitheater.”
“Thanks for the penny tour,” Richards said. “Where exactly is the art gallery?”
“Half a kilometer ahead. Do you think you will make it, or shall I carry you?”
“I think I’ve been through enough without having to endure your cutting wit, J’hana.”
“You’re alive. Be glad of that,” J’hana said, and plugged onward.
Richards walked along behind J’hana, alone with his thoughts, for several minutes. Then he saw the buttresses and glimmering lights of the art gallery ahead, like a savior. Sky sleds and transports were parking and, after dropping off their passengers, taking back off into the dark brown sky. People milled about at the entrance. Press from the Federation News Service and the Krinok News Network all gathered around, snapping images, getting interviews. They were almost there.
“Hey, you’re Chris Richards!” said a voice from behind the engineer.
He turned to see a gorgeous, long-legged blonde woman in a form-fitting black catsuit approaching.
“Uh, yeah,” he said, turning on his “charm smile.” “How can I help you?”
“I’m Gloria Maitland.” She held up a padd. “Galactic Subspace Radio.”
J’hana gave Maitland a cursory glance. “I enjoy GSR. The book reviews are informative.”
“Thanks,” Maitland dripped. She turned to Richards. “How about an interview?”
“Sure, I don’t see the harm. If you do join me later for a little drink?”
“Ensign Madera will not approve,” J’hana said huskily, folding her arms. “And neither do I. We have a schedule to adhere to.”
“Kindly keep out of my business,” Richards snapped. He turned back to Gloria Maitland. “Now, Ms. Maitland, where were we?”
“We were about to get an interview, and then a little drink!” Maitland smiled sultrily. She touched Richards’s arm coyly. “Oh, what a bicep!”
“I try to stay in shape.”
“No doubt.” Maitland held up a padd. “Now, just a few words for our friends in the Federation.”
“What do you want to know?” Richards asked. “Where I get my inspiration? How I came up with such an innovative design? Who my true… muse is?”
“Actually,” said Maitland, reading her padd, “what I really want to know is, how do you wish to die?”
“Out of the way!”
Richards heard J’hana’s scream. He never saw her coming, though. She was on top of Gloria Maitland before Richards even comprehended what was happening.
“Who sent you?” J’hana demanded, shoving her bat’leth up against Maitland’s neck, straddling her in a way that intrigued Richards. He walked over to join J’hana and tried to keep focused.
“I can’t tell,” said Gloria Maitland. “But suffice it so say, I’ve been sent by some of the best art minds in the galaxy.” She craned her neck over to Richards. “Give up now, if you know what’s good for you. You’re small fharbatz, compared to some of these other players. Go back to your starship and…engineer something!” she sneered.
“Your pronunciation is good,” J’hana said. “A little too good. You’re Andorian.”
“And my antennae are killing me!” screamed Maitland. “All scrunched down under this fake beehive hairdo! I despise it!”
“And I despise artists that have no sense of class when it comes to surprise attacks! Your attack was sloppy, disgraceful! Who taught you? Faaxxn?”
“Say, you look familiar,” said Maitland. “I’ve been doing some research for my master’s art thesis. Did you submit something, say about ten years ago?”
“Pfah!” J’hana growled. “She is a fwarking graduate student!” J’hana slugged the faux human woman unconscious with the dull end of her bat’leth and stood up. “They aren’t even sending real warriors,” she muttered. “What has this business come to?”
“J’hana, I think it’s best if we just go get my award and get the hell out of here.”
“For once, I am in agreement. This business has grown too shallow since I left it. It is all about the killing now.”
“What a shame,” muttered Richards, and J’hana led him on to the art building.
Richards straightened out the scorched and scuffed parts of his white and grey dress uniform as best he could as Dr. Z’ddix, chair of the 3-D design department of the Arts Academy, gave the introductory speech to the crowd crammed into the gallery in front of Richards’s painting.
“And how ingenious to paint a three-dimensional image of a warp field. One can actually see it move, given the proper eye- crossings. One might actually literally be blinded by the beauty of this piece, if one is not careful,” chuckled Z’ddix. Richards cringed. His jokes were horrible. “At any rate,” he went on, “let us congratulate the human Richards on his tremendous job…‘Warp Field in Flux.’”
The crowd clapped unenthusiastically. They were obviously, even after all these years, predisposed against humans.
Richards stepped up to join Z’ddix and bowed nervously, searching out J’hana in the crowd. She nodded knowingly. She was really enjoying this, thought Richards.
“Well,” he said. “I really don’t know what to say. I never imagined my piece would get this much attention. It came together so quickly, so easily. I’d never have guessed that it would become such a hit, especially here on Andor, where humans are regarded with such…” he searched for a diplomatic word, “skepticism.”
“Ahem. Perhaps you should wrap things up,” whispered Dr. Z’ddix from beside him. “Before the crowd gets restless.”
“Good idea,” replied Richards. “Anyway, my thanks to all of you for your attention. I’m glad to be able to add a little bit to each of your lives. Oh,” he said, almost as an afterthought. “And special thanks to Lieutenant J’hana, for her steadfast help getting me here through some… troublesome circumstances. I couldn’t have done it without you, J’hana.”
She actually looked sheepish as the group clapped for her.
“Enough!” said a voice from the back of the gallery. “This has gone on just long enough!”
J’hana turned in an instant, drew her bat’leth in one swift movement. “Suva!” she shouted.
There, at the back of the gallery, standing on a balcony that overlooked the cavernous gallery, stood one of the Andorian sisters already infamous with Richards and other Explorer crewmembers for her involvement in the incident in which the Andorian government was overthrown a couple years back.
“None other than, my dear J’hana,” said Suva. “I was just waiting for the speeches to be over before I made my appearance.”
“Dr. Suva, this is highly irregular,” rattled old Z’ddix.
“You be quiet, nearly-dead one,” Suva shot back. “I have business here. Important business.”
J’hana shoved aside one Andorian art groupie after another in her struggle to get to the back of the gallery. She raced up the flight of stairs leading up to the balcony.
“You can’t stop me!” she heard Suva cry. “You might as well give up now!”
She emerged on the balcony in time to see Suva withdraw a weapon from inside her cloak. She aimed it right at Richards, who cringed behind Z’ddix.
“Noooooooooooo!” cried J’hana, flying through the air, swathing her bat’leth in front of her like a wheat shredder.
The two Andorians collided, flipped over the railing. J’hana gripped the railing and Suva gripped J’hana’s leg, slamming against the wall just below the lip of the balcony. With her free hand, Suva punched a control on the device, and J’hana waited for the inevitable. Some explosion, phaser beam, or toxic gas. Something to kill Richards, and maybe everyone else in the room.
Instead, a huge tarp that covered the far left wall was suddenly sent fluttering to the ground. Behind it was something that caused J’hana to shriek.
“My purple pony!” the Andorian cried, and let go of the railing.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” J’hana asked Suva sheepishly. “You did land right on your head.”
Suva clutched a cold pack to her head. “I am fine. Really.”
Richards was still in awe. The beast on the painting before him was like no pony he’d ever seen. Two-headed, muscular, and judging by the tiny Andorian painted in at its feet, huge beyond belief.
“This is really good, J’hana,” Richards said. “I never knew you had this kind of talent.”
“It is nothing,” said J’hana. “It is the sketching of an immature nymph.”
“It’s retro. Colorful. Alive with a rich vocabulary of tones and forms,” said Dr. Z’ddix, staring at the painting in awe.
“I found it in the basement,” explained Suva. “And when I saw your Mr. Richards’s piece in an art journal, I had to recommend it–”
“Because you knew J’hana would come with me,” Richards said, finishing Suva’s thought. “Of course.”
“I know we have our differences,” Suva said. “I tried to kill you, you tried to kill me, et cetera. But this is art. Art, J’hana. It defies social boundaries. This needed to see the light of day again, so it could be enjoyed by a new generation of Andorian artists. What was out of vogue then might just be the new style now.”
“You make good points,” J’hana said. “And, if the legal authorities released you, you must have learned that that taking part in the destabilization of our government is wrong. And, you like my purple pony. You cannot be so bad.”
“Yes, yes, I am reformed,” Suva said quickly. “At any rate, you may now claim your rightful reward, and your cheese kit.” She turned to Richards. “You too, Commander. You are both worthy additions to the Andorian art scene.”
“Well, all’s well that ends well, huh, J’hana?” asked Richards with a grin.
“Something still bothers me,” J’hana said, rubbing her chin. “If it was not Suva trying to kill us, who was it?”
At that moment, a uniformed attendant approached carrying two large baskets of various clear-wrapped cheeses.
“Your cheese kits, sir and madam,” said the waiter in a gritty voice.
J’hana reached out to take the basket, and the waiter immediately clubbed her in the head with it. She, in turn, grabbed the waiter’s arm and twisted it behind his back. She shoved him to the ground and stuck a knee in his back. “All right, fwarn-sharsher! Who sent you! Tell me now, or I shall bite off your antennae!”
“For the hive’s sake, his name is J’harn, okay! Just let me go. Please, please don’t hurt my antennae! I put these up for collateral on my student loan application!”
J’hana released the frightened Andorian and stood, chuckling mildly to herself. “J’harn, huh.”
“Your own father?” Richards asked, scratching his head. “Your father tried to kill me! You’ll forgive me if I don’t see the humor in that.”
“And you humans say I don’t have a sense of humor. Don’t you see? They weren’t trying to kill you, they were trying to kill me. They figured I was going to get back into painting if I hung around here too long. Father wanted me to remember the taste of blood. I will have to send him some sort of greeting card before we leave. Or perhaps I will send a hired attacker of my own.”
“J’hana,” Richards muttered, “I never will understand your people.”
J’hana shrugged. “It is your loss. Now, let us celebrate. I feel like getting drunk tonight.”
Lt. Commander Larkin and Lt. Tilleran were waiting at the airlock doors when Richards and J’hana left the Escort.
“Father I trust your trip went well?” Larkin asked, taking up step with Richards as he headed down the corridor toward the turbolift that would eventually, mercifully, take him to his quarters.
“I feel like I’ve been through hell,” Richards said. Even after four days, he still hadn’t quite shaken off the huge Andorian hangover he had, not to mention the bumps and bruises from explosions, attacks, etc. And then there was the slam dancing.
“Where is Captain Baxter?” asked J’hana, taking Tilleran’s hand.
“Yeah,” said Richards. “I thought for sure he’d be here to welcome us back.”
Tilleran and Larkin exchanged glances. Larkin nodded at Tilleran.
“The captain is in detox,” explained Tilleran.
“Detox?” asked Richards. “You mean he’s in the drunk tank?”
“Affirmative,” replied Larkin. “Apparently, Commander Conway convinced him to drink a certain beverage in place of his customary grapefruit juice. Captain Baxter was unaware that the beverage contained a large amount of alcohol.”
“First Lieutenant Elton’s LDS in his GreatFruit, and now this,” Richards muttered. “This grapefruit embargo is going to kill Captain Baxter.”
“If certain crewmembers do not kill him first,” Tilleran said. “He was sent to the drunk tank when he ran into the Constellation Club, naked, mind you, shouting ‘Warp nine, Scotty!’”
“Poor bastard,” Richards said, rubbing his chin. “I’ll have to go pay him a visit.”
“Indeed,” said Larkin.
“Here you go, Captain,” said Dr. Browning, switching off the forcefield and stepping into the detoxification tank with a tray laden with goodies. “I’ve got sandwiches, nacho chips, some salsa, fried yamok liver. Lots of good stuff to get your strength back up.”
Baxter sat up on his cot and took the tray eagerly. “I feel like I was hit in the face by an Oberth-class starship, Janice.”
“That would have been Bolian Ambassador Juresh’s fist,” said Browning. “You busted in on the Constellation Club in the middle of his swing dance routine.”
“I guess I’d better file an apology,” Baxter said thoughtfully, munching on half a sandwich. “When can I get out of here?”
“When all that ‘Captain’ is flushed out of your system,” said Browning. “About four hours.”
“Kelly will be thrilled.”
“I’m sure.” Browning looked over at the chronometer on the far side of the room. “Oh, would you look at that. I have to get going.”
“Where are you going?” asked Baxter.
“An..appointment,” Browning said mysteriously, and left.
“Come,” said Counselor Peterman, looking up from her padd. This month’s Pet Care Monthly featured a special on interspecies breeding. The Golden Targ Retriever was absolutely adorable.
Dr. Browning poked her head in. “Kelly?”
“Ah, Janice. I’ve been waiting for you. Come, have a seat on the couch. Make yourself comfortable.”
“It’s been a while,” Browning said, crossing over to Peterman’s fainting couch and sitting down, then pivoting around and lying back. “Since Chris and I were together.”
“Don’t forget the time when you had that alien consciousness in your mind.”
“Oh, yeah, I guess that was the last time.”
“So, what’s on your mind?” asked Peterman, pulling out a note padd and making some notes.
“I have a minor problem,” Browning began.
“Hence being here. Go ahead.”
“Well, it’s something I’ve been having a hard time saying.”
“That’s often the case when your conscious mind is having a hard time coming terms with something your subconscious has already dealt with. Give it a try.”
“Well, I’ve tried to articulate this to a few people, without much success.”
“Wait. You didn’t come to me first?”
Uh oh. Browning looked at Peterman woefully. “I wasn’t sure how you’d take the news.”
“Janice,” Peterman said, leaning forward and taking Browning’s hand. “I’m your counselor. I’m supposed to be here whenever you have any type of problem. To think, that I’d be your third or fourth choice–”
“Sixth,” Browning mumbled.
“You’re supposed to be helping me.”
“I should have been helping you from the start. What, you don’t think I can handle your problem? Maybe you haven’t checked all the other possible avenues yet. Maybe you can talk to Ensign Rayne down in astrophysics. Or… ugh…Lt. Ford.”
“You’re getting off-topic, Kelly,” Browning said. “I’m here now, and I want help.”
“Well,” muttered Peterman, “I’ll do my best.”
Browning gritted her teeth. “Kelly, I…I think I’ve got feelings for Commander Conway.”
Peterman blinked. She was quiet for several moments, biting her lip and staring at her padd.
“Well?” asked Browning. “What do I do?”
Peterman shook her head. “You’re right, Janice. You do have a problem. Just when did you discover you had these…” She felt nauseous. “Ugh… feelings?”
“It happened slowly. Remember last year, when he tried to date me?”
“All too well.”
“Well, I started to find those advances…cute.”
“And then there was his addiction to ‘white.’ You know I love helping people.”
“He’d certainly keep you busy there.”
“But it piqued a few weeks ago when he saved the ship… again.”
“He had a temper tantrum based on his pinched penis, Janice! He went nuts, for want of a better term, and massacred the Myzinthi invaders. Twice!”
“He’s so brave,” Browning said.
“I don’t believe this.” Peterman pulled up her calendar on her padd and began tapping. “We’re going to have to set up repeated appointments. Full psychological work-up.”
“Is that really necessary? I thought you were going to just tell me to try dating him and see what happens.”
“No, no no no!” Peterman said, leaning forward. “Absolutely not. He is a slug, Janice. A walking, talking slug. You stay away from him!”
“Glad you’re not being biased here, Kelly.”
“I’m not talking as your counselor now. I’m talking as your friend. His personality is just above that of a Horta, and besides that, he’s involved in this sick little hidden relationship with Tyra Sh…s***.”
“Whoops.” Conway had sworn Peterman to secrecy about the Tyra thing, on pain of pet deportation, and she’d just opened up her big mouth. “Uh, nothing,” Peterman said, standing. “How about I set up a schedule with you and we’ll get to work as soon as that’s arranged. Maybe we can have lunch later today, too. But I have a lot of work to do right now. You’d better get going…”
“Commander Conway is seeing Tyra Shar? Behind Jenna’s back?”
“No. NO! You never heard that!” Peterman said, and ushered Browning out of her office. “Now go, and pretend you never heard me say anything about that, you hear????”
Browning scuttled out of Peterman’s office. “Okay, okay. Thanks a lot for the talk. It was quite therapeutic.”
Once she was out in the corridor, Browning came upon Commander Conway coming around the bend.
“Oh, Doctor,” Conway said. “Good to see you. Listen, I’m sorry about what I did to Captain Baxter. It was just supposed to be a joke. I figured he’d figure it out after a few days. Little did I know he’s a giant idiot…”
Browning faltered. “That’s, uh, okay…uh, Commander. Listen, I have to get to my restaurant. Get ready for the lunch rush.” Sheesh, thought Browning. What an idiot I was. Commander Conway. Yeah, right. Look what he did to Captain Baxter. He’s a total schmuck.
“Well, then. I guess I’ll talk to you later.” Conway reached in his pocket and pulled out an isolinear chip. “I’m on my way down to Sickbay to see the captain. I have an isolinear chip of Superbowl Forty-five for him. You know, Cowboys versus the Alburquerque Red Demons.”
Browning grinned. He was a schmuck. But a loveable one. Tyra Shar was…an obstacle. But one she’d just have to overcome, one way or another. “That’s very thoughtful, Commander. I’ll tell you what, after you drop that off, why don’t you come down to the restaurant and I’ll make you a special lunch. How does the thirty-piece fried chicken dinner sound?”
Conway licked his lips. “Fantastic. I’ll be right down!” And he skipped off down the corridor.
Browning headed in the opposite direction, and bumped into Lt. Commander Richards.
Richards stared over Browning’s shoulder at Conway. “What is he so freaking happy about?”
“Nothing,” Browning said. “How was Andor?”
“Oh. It was…a ton of fun.” Richards fumbled awkwardly with his fingers. “Did you ever get that problem of yours sorted out?”
“Yes,” Browning said, and glanced over her shoulder. What was she getting herself into? She looked back at Richards and smiled wanly. “As a matter of fact, I did.”
Has Dr. Browning gone insane? Commander Conway? What in the heck is she thinking? Counselor Peterman is charged to find out exactly that when the brewing Browning/Conway romance threatens to destroy the entire ship. Well, maybe not the ship, but it sure will bother some people. And what if Jenna Fran finds out Tyra’s been cheating on her? Will Conway deport Peterman’s pets? And will Peterman get Browning to come to her senses before Browning discovers…the Conway Frontier? Only time will tell…one week to be exact! “Love Hurts,” Next, on Star Traks: The Vexed Generation!