Author: Anthony Butler
SYTARNAN SYSTEM AT THE CORE OF THE DENOBOLUS BELT STARDATE 54615.5
“What’s the status on our friend?”
“Still no response, Captain.”
“How long has she been out of radio contact?”
“Four days now, Captain.”
“That’s just no good.”
“No good at all, sir.”
“We’d better go in after her, then, right?”
“I would say so, Captain.”
The Starship Banshee worked for Section 31. Section 31 was a shadow arm of Starfleet’s intelligence division that only the highest-ranked most important people, and choice others, in the Federation knew about. They possessed cloaking, phasing, fire- while-cloaked, multidimensional transport, and other nifty technology that most of the galaxy figured hadn’t been invented yet.
The Banshee was one of the most advanced ships in Section 31’s fleet, but she didn’t exactly have the most advanced crew. Quite the opposite, actually.
Captain Jad Vorezze was thinking along just those lines as he beamed down to a trade market on the surface of Sytarnan Three with his Chief of Security Lt. Commander Dan Smith and his Chief Tactical officer Lt. Commander Vincent Di Santo.
“I’m telling you, I love women,” said Vince.
“Prove it to me. Have sex with one,” replied Dan.
The pair were involved in another of the seemingly endless arguments on whether or not Vince was attracted to the same sex. Vince, as always, strenuously objected, but Dan pursued the point until the two were nearly brawling.
Section 31’s finest, Vorezze thought to himself.
“Guys, straighten up,” he said out loud. “We’re on a very important mission here.”
“What if we don’t find our missing person?” asked Dan.
“We will find her. We have to find her. Do you know what kinds of secrets she posesses? What if these whackos get a hold of the specs on the new Prometheus prototypes? Or the multispectral shields?”
“I’d quiet down if I were you,” Vince said. “We are in a public place.”
“I know that!” snapped Vorezze. “Did you think I didn’t know that?” He nodded politely at the various passersby that shopped in the marketplace they’d beamed into.
Sytarnan Three was just on the edge of the Federation border. It was hot and slimy and cramped. And it was crawling with the kind of scum that made Vorezze’s stomach turn. The kind of scum that were rapidly cropping up all over the Federation. The kind of scum who made one want to forget his Section 31 orders and just start blasting.
“Religious fanatics,” muttered Dan Smith. “And they don’t even have any nifty rituals.”
“That you know of,” Vince said. “Want to sign up and see?”
“I wouldn’t be interested even if they did have cool rituals,” said Dan. “I’m just saying if they did I could understand the attraction. As it is, it just looks like a bunch of hugging and pleasantness and crap.”
“Indeed,” said Vorezze. “Answer me this, Dan. Are we getting closer to our target?”
“She’s about twenty meters that way,” Dan said, looking at his tricorder and pointing down an alley. “In an office complex of some kind.”
“I’d hate to see what these people’s idea of an office complex would be,” Vince said.
“I’m sure it’s a frightening office complex, Vince,” Dan muttered.
“Could be,” offered Vince.
“Both of you, shush,” said Vorezze. “Dan, you take point. Vince, take the rear. We’ll walk in and ask for her. We’ll play it natural, as we discussed.”
“Maybe Vince should play a homosexual,” snickered Dan, as he led the other two down the alley.
“You little bast–” Vince said, but Vorezze covered his mouth.
“Enough! Out of both of you. This is a professional undercover operation. I expect you to both act like professionals. Now remember, my name’s Dontar, Vince is Leopold, and Dan, you’re Bubbles.”
“Why do I have to be Bubbles?”
“Because Vince was Bubbles the last time we went undercover.”
“Who thinks up these names?” asked Vince.
“Section 31, I guess,” said Vorezze. “I’m sure they have a complex logic to them that we just don’t understand.”
“Or else the name guy at Section 31 headquarters is an idiot,” Dan suggested. He stopped at the door to a building at the end of the long alley the group had been walking down.
“Here we are,” Dan said. He read the sign on the door. “‘Public Relations Office.’”
“Damn out of the way for a public relations office,” said Vorezze. “No matter. Take us in, Dan.”
“We’re not a starship, and this isn’t a nebula, Captain,” said Dan.
“And call me Dontar.”
They walked in and found their mark sitting at a desk, tapping on a terminal and chewing gum.
“Hello,” said Vorezze. “My name is Dontar Honeycut. I was wondering if you could explain a bit about what you do to me and my associates…uh, Leopold and Bubbles.”
“Sure thing,” said the woman, a buxom blonde in a too-tight turtleneck. “We’re responsible for working with the public to get the word out about our marvelous organization.”
“And that would be the Starshine cult?” Dan asked.
“No, Bubbles, it isn’t a cult,” said the woman. “It’s an organization. Cult has a bit of a pejorative ring to it, don’t it?”
“Pejorative. Right,” said Vorezze. “Listen, ma’am…I didn’t get your name.”
“Bonita Montagnieu,” the blonde said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too.”
“Care to learn more about our little organization?” Bonita asked.
“That’s quite all right,” said Vorezze. “I think we’ll just take a couple of pamphlets back to our commune and talk it over. I wouldn’t want to commit to anything rash…”
Vorezze thanked providence he was a Betazoid. He could immediately sense that Bonita Montagnieu was in fact a former Section 31 agent turned Starshine, and her brain was scrubbed so clean she had no notion of what Section 31 or even Starfleet was. And, she was presently punching a button with her foot that was to alert some foottroops that were waiting in the other room.
“I think you have a loose hair there, Bonita,” said Vince. “Let me push it aside…” He moved to grab the hair.
“No!” cried Vorezze, but it was too late. Vince pulled and the entirety of Bonita’s hair slipped off, to reveal a shiny bald head.
“Whoops!” Bonita giggled. “You’ve discovered our dirty little secret.”
“They cured baldness hundreds of years ago,” Vorezze said, leaning down and staring Bonita in the eyes. “Why do you want to bring it back?” The guards would be arriving in moments, but he had to try to reach the former operative that was buried so deep in Bonita’s mind. “Baldness was never the answer, Bonita!”
“Baldness isn’t the answer,” Bonita said softly. “Only a tool. The Starshine Kids are the answer. We are the future rulers of this galaxy. You’ll see. You all will.”
“Bonita!” Vorezze said, slapping her across the face. “Snap out of it! You’re a Section 31 agent working undercover for Starfleet. You’re not a silly cult member!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bonita said, and the door behind her slid open to reveal three bald, white-clad individuals holding disruptors.
“Scatter!” Vorezze ordered, and led Vince and Dan back out into the alley.
“We found our woman!” Dan said, struggling to run alongside Vorezze.
“And she’s not coming out of her Starshine daze anytime soon,” Vorezze said. “We need a specialist.”
“There are plenty here!” suggested Vince.
“But none that would help us,” said Vorezze. “And none in all of Section 31. But I do know where we can go for help. And according to ‘Bonita’s’ file, he should be all too willing to help.”
“Forget about Bonita for a moment!” Dan called, pushing Vorezze’s head down as disruptor blasts narrowly missed pegging him. Dan pulled out his phaser and blasted behind him in a wide arc. He might have hit one Starshiner. “Shouldn’t we get out of this fix first?”
“Oh, right,” Vorezze said sheepishly. “Vorezze to Banshee. Three to beam up. Poste haste, if you will!”
“How about a little ear-nibble? Would you like that, my sweet?”
“Not now, Andy. It’s 0400 hours. I’m pooped.”
“Come on…I can’t get to sleep. Just a little nose- nuzzling. Some smooching…I NEED IT!”
“And I need sleep!” Peterman replied. She yanked the covers up over her head and rolled over. “Some of us have work in the morning.”
“I have work, too,” Baxter said defensively, curling up against his wife.
“Then you should roll over and go to sleep.”
“But I want to snuggle.”
“Listen,” Peterman said. “I get off at 1600 hours tomorrow. You get off at 17, right? Well, how about at 1700 you meet me on holodeck two. We can activate that silly Dallas Cowboys locker room program you like so much and you can snap me with a wet towel. How’s that sound?”
“Beautiful,” Baxter cooed into Peterman’s ears. “I can’t wait.”
“Now roll over and go to sleep!”
“Right away, madam!” Baxter said, and rolled over, and came face to face with Captain Jad Vorezze of the USS Banshee.
“WHAT THE F***!”
“Sorry to startle you,” Vorezze said gently. “It’s just the way we do things in Section 31.”
Baxter hopped out of bed, which was bad, as he was clothed only in a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt that was not nearly long enough .
“Captain, please, clothe yourself,” Vorezze said. “We have urgent matters to attend to.”
“Lights!” Baxter yanked the covers off his bed and wrapped them around his waist. Peterman sat up and blinked.
“Andy, what in the–” She looked sleepily at Vorezze. “Is there a man in our room?”
“Evening, ma’am,” Vorezze said, and nodded diplomatically.
“Don’t be afraid. He’s from Section 31, dear,” Baxter said while searching for his pants.
“Well, aren’t you supposed to be out sneaking around and toppling governments?” asked Peterman, as she got up and put on her bathrobe.
“About that…” Vorezze said.
“You know,” said Baxter, “it’s damned impolite for you to just go barging onto people’s ships like this. And how much of our conversation did you hear?”
“All of it, I’m afraid. Plenty enough to know not to go near the holodecks tomorrow afternoon.” Vorezze giggled nervously.
Baxter found his pants and quickly pulled them on. He put on his Starfleet uniform vest over the Dallas t-shirt. “Listen, Vorezze, this better be good.”
Peterman sighed and rolled out of bed. “Let me go get some snacks. Would you like some fruit? Coffee, maybe?”
“A coffee would be great,” said Vorezze. “And grapefruit, if you have any.”
“We don’t have any!” Baxter snapped. He led Vorezze out into the living room. He gestured for Vorezze to sit on the couch, and he sat in the recliner opposite Vorezze. “So what brings you to my ship at 0400 in the morning?”
“Well,” Vorezze said, and crossed his legs. “It’s a delicate situation.”
Baxter took a cup of coffee from Peterman and sipped.
Peterman handed Vorezze a cup and sat down beside him on the couch. She grabbed a grapefruit from the basket beside the couch and began peeling. Baxter glared at her as she devoured messy plugs of the luscious fruit, dripping juice down her chin. “Right, then. What’s this oh-so-important matter you had to urgently barge on our ship at 0400 in the morning and bug us about?”
“The matter is one Ashley Donovan.”
Baxter dropped his coffee.
“Andy?” Peterman said.
“Ashley Donovan,” Baxter said softly. “What about her?”
“She’s a Starshine Kid. She was supposed to infiltrate them, and instead, she became one of them. Not the kind of thing we like to tell people about, to be sure.”
“You don’t tell people anything about yourselves,” said Peterman. She looked at Baxter. He looked blown away by the information Vorezze had just given him.
“You’ve got me there,” admitted Vorezze.
“Who is this woman, Andy?” asked Peterman. “Was she a friend of yours?”
“More than a friend,” Baxter said. “She was…” Baxter took a deep breath. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Kelly…” Baxter glanced at Vorezze. “I don’t guess you could leave us alone?”
Baxter sighed. “Kelly, she was my first.”
“I don’t know. What first?”
“He lost his virginity to her,” Vorezze said helpfully.
“You WHAT?” Peterman demanded.
“I’m sorry,” Baxter said. “I would have told you, but the matter was classified.”
“The fact you screwed someone was CLASSIFIED?”
Vorezze suddenly began to look very uncomfortable. “You see, Counselor, we of Section 31 must not exist in the society you and your husband live in. In every important way, we do not exist.”
“What are you trying to tell me? That this Ashley bitch didn’t take Andy’s virginity because she didn’t really exist officially?”
“I have a certificate stating as much, if you’d like to see it,” Baxter said.
“So you see,” Vorezze said, “in a manner of speaking, Andy didn’t really have sex with Ashley.”
“Oh, I did all right,” Baxter said, and immediately regretted saying that.
Peterman stared darkly at Baxter. “I don’t care if Section 31 says the sex didn’t happen. It did, and you lied to me about it. I told you about every man I slept with, even the Bolian traveling salesman.”
“I never heard about him.”
“That’s not the point. You said the first woman you had sex with was the woman on Beldana! You lied!”
“But it was classified!” Baxter said again.
“Sorry you had to find out this way, Counselor,” Vorezze mumbled apologetically.
“I bet,” Peterman muttered. She glared at Baxter. “I can’t believe you.”
“Can I use your bathroom?” Vorezze asked quickly. He had to get out of the line of fire, and quick. The Dominion was easier to deal with than this.
“It’s in the back,” Peterman grumbled, and stared at Baxter. “Next to the bedroom, where I will be sleeping tonight, and where Andy will not. Got it, buddy?”
“Enough,” Peterman said, and stood. “Follow me, Captain. You can use the bathroom then debrief Captain Baxter here. I’m going to bed.”
“I’m sorry to cause all this trouble,” Vorezze said, standing.
“Think nothing of it,” Baxter muttered.
When Vorezze returned from the bathroom, he debriefed Baxter on the particulars of Ashley Donovan’s conversion to the Starshine way of thinking. It boiled Baxter’s blood that Ashley could have been caught up in something like the Starshine cult. Still, there it was. She went there four months ago to find out how they were spreading those anomalous red gas formations, known as the Redlands, around the Federation. She was supposed to find out how they launched wide-scale conversion conventions on helpless planets and, like televangelists, got quite effectively around the Alpha Quadrant ‘spreading the word’ about the Critics.
“So now Commander Donovan is trapped on Sytarnan Three, one of the Starshine group’s largest and most well-guarded recruitment facilities. She’s doing PR work for them, for Providence sake!” Vorezze exclaimed.
Baxter dug his fingers into the arms of his recliner. He was filled with a mixture of emotions, from worry over what Ashley was undergoing with the Starshine Kids, to passion-filled flashes of that hot night they spent in the cargo hold of the Secondprize, to fear that Counselor Peterman would never love him again after this.
“You two did it in a cargo bay?” Vorezze asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Damn Betazoids,” Baxter muttered. “Okay, you’ve laid it out for me, Vorezze. What do you want me to do about it?”
“What you want to do, deep down, Captain. We want you to save Ashley Donovan.”
Vorezze shrugged. “It can be no one else. The crew of the Explorer has had more experience with the Starshine Kids than anyone else. Members of your crew, including you, have been…” Vorezze made air quotes “‘converted’ over to their way of thinking before and lived to tell about it. Your science officer and doctor have methods for treating this brainwashing technique…”
“And Starfleet intelligence has been breathing down our necks trying to find a way to use those methods wholesale on Federation worlds that have been annexed by the Starshine Kids,” said Baxter. “I know.”
“And Section 31 has been working on it too, with limited success.” Vorezze turned to look out at the stars that blazed by the Explorer’s viewport. “Captain, it comes down to this: Section 31’s knowledge of the Starshine Kids is limited to a few reconnaissance missions. And most of that knowledged is locked, possibly forever, in Commander Donovan’s mind. You and your crew know these people. You’ve actually defeated them, which no other Starfleet ship or crew has done yet. You’re the only ones who can get Ashley back for us.”
“And why exactly is she so important to you?”
“The secrets locked in her brain could topple the Federation,” Vorezze said. “And I’m not saying that for dramatic effect.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Baxter said. “Okay, then. My ship and crew are at your disposal. What do you want us to do?”
“We’re going to send three undercover operatives to the Starshine recruitment facility on Sytarnan Three,” Captain Baxter said, at the front of the conference table, around which he’d gathered his senior staff, including a disgruntled Kelly Peterman.
“And how, exactly,” Conway said, “are we going to get our people there?”
“A small, Escort-class fighter that’s waiting in our shuttlebay,” said Baxter. “Apparently, it’s equipped with a cloak and a bunch of other advanced Section 31 crap.”
“When did they manage to beam that aboard without anyone noticing?” asked Richards.
“Apparently, they did it while Captain Vorezze and I were talking.”
“Where is Captain Vorezze now?” asked Larkin.
“You’ve got me,” Baxter said. “He said he’d be in touch and beamed away.”
“So what do we do until then?” demanded Conway.
“We put our team on the, uh…” Baxter looked at a padd. “Festiva, and send them off to Sytarnan.”
“Do you have a team in mind?” asked Tilleran.
“Sort of,” Baxter said. “Vorezze suggested I send in a telepath, a security specialist,” he glanced at Tilleran and J’hana. “And…” he grinned at Conway. “Someone with a genuine zest for life.”
“Son of a bitch,” muttered Conway. “The last time I went undercover I was sexually mauled by an Andorian bitch goddess.”
“Don’t count on that happening again,” J’hana said gruffly. “Am I to take it we will be posing as prospective Starshine Kids?”
“That you are,” replied Baxter. “All that and more.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Tilleran asked.
“You’ll be posing as an…alternative lifestyle couple. Or, in this case, triple.”
“Way to go Commander Conway!” Browning giggled.
“Shut up!” Conway snapped. “What qualifies me to go on this trip, anyway? You’re the one who’s met this mysterious missing Section 31 operative.”
“The team stands as is, Conway,” Baxter said. “I expect you, Tilleran, and J’hana to meet in Sickbay for…alterations…in fifteen minutes. You’ll be briefed there by Captain Vorezze.”
“I’m looking forward to this,” Tilleran said. “I haven’t violently invaded a mind in a while.”
“Stop it,” J’hana said sultrily.
“All right,” Baxter said. “Let’s get moving. We’re going to be on Yellow Alert for the duration of this mission. We have to be ready to go in and pull our team out at a moment’s notice.”
“Or to pull the bodies out,” J’hana said.
Baxter glanced around the table. “Okay. You all have work. Let’s go.”
The staff at the table stood up and noisly dispersed. Peterman and Baxter remained seated at the table.
Browning and Richards hung by the door. “Guys, are you…” asked Browning.
“We’ll talk later,” Baxter said, and inclined his head toward the door.
“Right,” said Richards, and he gently tugged Browning out the door onto the bridge.
Peterman turned in her chair away from Baxter. “I’m still not talking to you.”
“Forget about it. I don’t know if I can ever trust you again.”
“I didn’t like lying to you. I had to!” Baxter exclaimed. He stood and crossed to the other end of the table. He sat down at the edge, turned Peterman’s chair to face him. “This wasn’t my idea.”
“It doesn’t matter. You did it anyway. You should have trusted me with your secret.”
“I realize that now, Kelly. But as our relationship got better and better, I began to fear that if I told you…I’d…well, end up sleeping on the couch.”
“That was a good bet,” Peterman said. She folded her arms. “That leaves us the matter of where we go from here.”
“You tell me,” said Baxter. “I’ll do whatever I have to do to make things up to you.”
Peterman stood up. “I’ll let you know when I figure out what that is.”
“I’d stay somewhere else tonight, if I were you, Andy. Give me some space.”
“What a weird thing to say on a starship,” Baxter said to himself, and was left alone in the conference room.
“Not so bad if I do say so myself,” Dr. Browning said, and looked approvingly at the three individuals seated on the biobed in front of her. She looked to Vorezze. “Captain?”
“It will do,” said Vorezze.
“Run this by me again,” Conway said, and twirled his moustache. The alterations Browning made were minor. Tilleran now had blonde hair and a mole above her lip, J’hana had been given a dimple in her chin, and Conway was given a handlebar moustache, in addition to having the hair on top of his head shaved off. Apparently, Section 31 found some irony in a balding man searching for solace in the Starshine Kids.
Captain Vorezze studied his padd. “Okay. You are three carnival folk from the Beta Myrimad system. Commander, your name is Clyde Crabtree. You run the phasertarget facility. Lieutenant J’hana, you are known as V’lok’or. You’re the ringmaster. Lieutenant Tilleran, your name is Laverne Depesto, and you run the fortuneteller’s tent.”
“How convenient,” Tilleran said dryly.
“Clyde Crabtree?” Conway grumbled.
“The details of your mission will be transmitted to you once you’re underway, but suffice it so say, the three of you are engaged to be married.”
“But…WHY?” Conway demanded.
“Because that’s how it’s been scripted. Section 31 has their reasons.”
“I’d like to know them,” said Conway.
“Well you won’t,” Vorezze snapped. “Now go pack. You have an hour to get ready. I expect you to be on the Festiva promptly at ten hundred hours.” With that, the captain disappeared in a swirl of blue sparkles.
“Showoff,” J’hana muttered.
“My work here is done,” Browning said, and brushed her hands together. “I’m whipping up a pizza.”
Conway, Tilleran, and J’hana sat there a few moments on the biobed.
“He’s cute,” Tilleran finally said.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” said J’hana.
“I’ll just be going…” said Conway.
“Well you did,” Tilleran said. “I can’t help it. I remember running across him at telepathy college several years ago. He was SUCH a nerd. He’s come a long way.”
“Keep this nonsense to yourself!” J’hana announced, and gripped Conway’s arm so he couldn’t slide off the biobed.
“I’m just telling it like it is, Jan.”
“Do not tell it!”
“You’re all bent out of shape, and over what?”
“Over a silly spectacled Betazoid who you are raving over like a post- larval schoolgirl!”
“Now who’s being silly?”
Conway peeled J’hana’s fingers off his arm and ran like hell for the door. He’d be having to deal with this all trip long. He considered jumping ship.
“Mirk?” Captain Baxter asked, and peeked into the Maloxitarian chapel.
Mirk poked his head up from behind the altar. “Oh, hello, Captain. What can I do for you?”
“I have some news.”
“Let me guess. Someone else wants this space so you’re kicking me out?”
“No. Don’t be silly,” Baxter said. Mirk had become quite cynical ever since Baxter (with Starfleet’s help) had reinstituted freedom of religion on the Explorer. Since then, Mirk’s following had depleted considerably. At least by half.
“So what’s this news?” Mirk said, and hopped up to sit on the altar.
“We’ve just been put on a secret mission to try and rescue someone from the Starshine Kids.”
“Someone we know?”
Baxter sighed. “Someone I know. I just wanted to let you know.”
“That’s thoughtful of you, sir. Maybe I’ll include that in my sermon. You know, a message of hope that we’re striking out against the Starshine Kids.”
“I wouldn’t do that. We’ve got to keep this all very quiet. It’s a Section 31 operation.”
“Never mind. I was never here,” Baxter said, and hurried out of the chapel.
Lt. Megan Hartley emerged from the back room and looked around the chapel. “Did I just hear voices?”
“Uh…no,” said Mirk.
“Oh. Well, I finished filling all the fruitcups for tonight’s service.”
Mirk cupped his chin in his hand. “Why bother, Megan?”
“You don’t want to have fruit cups?”
“I don’t want to have this religion. What’s the point? I mean, are we really making any difference?”
“Of course we are!” Hartley said, walking over to put a hand on Mirk’s shoulder. “Just yesterday we signed on the Jitani clan of Fellegor Prime!”
“The Jitani clan is made up of four college kids! They were drunk when they signed up!”
“But the contract is still valid!” Hartley said. “So you see, things are looking up!”
“Since when did you become an optimist?” Mirk asked.
“Since I converted to Maloxitarianism,” Hartley said, and sat up on the altar beside Mirk. “Ever since I joined, I’ve felt like my life has had a purpose.”
“Eradicating the Starshine Kids?”
“Well, at least you’re getting something out of this.”
Hartley wrapped an arm around Mirk. “I sure am.”
“Okay, then. Let’s start squeezing those melons!”
Lt. Commander Richards unlocked the door to his quarters and stepped in. “Computer, beef ravioli and a glass of Tellavian tonic, please.” He tossed the padd he was carrying on his desk and unzipped his uniform tunic. He stepped over to the replicator. “Ahh, lunchtime…” He grabbed the plate of ravioli and glass of tonic and carried it over to his kitchen table, where he noticed, to his confusion, that a plate of bratwurst and saurkraut was already set out on the table, and an incense candle was burning.
Janice loved incense. And she LOVED bratwurst.
Then Richards heard a rustling in his bedroom.
He glanced at his couch to see that the couchbed was out. Janice LOVED the couchbed.
He tiptoed toward the bedroom. “I thought you’d come around, sooner or later.”
“Really?” asked Baxter, as he poked around in the linen closet. “It was news to me. Where are your clean sheets? Don’t you do laundry around here?”
Richards blinked. “You’re not Janice.”
“Not by a longshot. Do you want some bratwurst?”
“No,” said Richards, as Baxter brushed by him to the kitchen table.
“I’ll have to go down to Linens and Other Things at the mall after lunch,” Baxter said. “Maybe I’ll get some curtains too. This place is pretty drab. It could use a captain’s touch.”
Richards stood over Baxter as the captain ate. “Andy… why…”
“Oh. Why the incense? I kind of…used your bathroom. Sorry.”
“No. Why are you here?”
“Oh. I used my command access. Hope you don’t mind.”
“BUT WHY???” Richards demanded.
“Oh. Kelly’s a bit ticked at me right now. The whole ‘Ashley’ thing. Mind if I crash here while things cool down?”
“I guess not,” Richards said, and sat down opposite Baxter. “Things are really that bad?”
“Yep. You know how wild she is about trust and all.”
“Yeah, really.” Baxter munched on bratwurst and looked around. “So what’s going on around here?”
“I’m on my lunchbreak. I have to get back down to engineering in a few minutes.”
“Well, I called in sick.”
“You called in sick to the bridge?”
“Sure. Conway does it all the time. I’m the captain, I can do whatever the hell I want.”
“So WHY did you call in sick?”
“To try to find a way to make things up to Kelly.”
“I see. Do you have any ideas?”
“Not yet. I was hoping to brainstorm down here a bit. Away from distractions, you know.”
“Feel free,” Richards mumbled, and began eating his ravioli.
Baxter munched thoughtfully on a mouthful of sauerkraut and thought about the situation with Peterman. Making things up to her wouldn’t be easy. It would take ingenuity and tact. Things he lacked. He’d have to get help from someone.
Baxter’s thoughts were disturbed by the clamor of Red Alert, and a bright flash outside Richards’s windows.
He and Richards threw down their napkins and rushed to the windows, to see a partially cloaked Sovereign-class and partially cloaked Vor’cha-class starship reeling away from one another, listing and pocked with damage.
“Captain to the bridge,” came the voice of Lt. Commander Larkin. “If he is up to it.”
“She’s getting better and better at sarcasm,” Richards noted.
“You must be very proud,” muttered Baxter, and both men rushed for the door.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” demanded Captain Vorezze from the front of the conference table. “You rammed into a friendly Starfleet vessel!”
“And you,” said Captain Dwanok, whose bulk was shoved into the chair by J’hana, “violated the Treaty of Algeron. ‘No Starfleet vessels shall be equipped with cloaks.’”
“We were just testing it out,” explained Vorezze.
“And what’s with the black leather uniform?” asked Dwanok.
“That’s classified,” replied the Betazoid.
“Listen,” Baxter said, from the opposite end of the conference table. “We’re all allies here. Let’s take a long hard look at the dangers of ships running around cloaked everywhere. What are we trying to hide?”
Peterman huffed from her spot at the table.
“We were just about to decloak,” said Dwanok.
“And what are you doing here?” asked Vorezze.
“I got a communique from J’hana that she was going on a very dangerous, secret mission, and that she might not return alive. I was in the area so I thought I’d come pay her a visit before she leaves.”
“Standard procedure,” J’hana said. “I would do that for any mate of mine.”
“Indeed,” Tilleran said, from the other side of J’hana and folded her arms.
“You compromised this mission,” Vorezze said to J’hana. “What if someone picked up on that communique? What if the Starshine Kids find out we’re sending undercover people in?”
“That I did not know,” Dwanok said. “You’re going after the Starshine Kids?”
“Damn,” said Vorezze, slapping the conference table. “That’s it, I’m going to be fired.”
“Don’t be silly,” Baxter said. “Everyone at this table can keep a secret. We’ll just keep this between us. Dwanok, you were never here.”
“Of course I was. I still am.”
“I’ll take care of it, Captain,” said Baxter. “You just return to your nice, cloaked ship, and I’ll make Dwanok understand the subtlety of our mission.”
“Fine,” said Vorezze. “But if this gets out to UKN, I’ll have you all mining dilithium on Vilifon.”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” Baxter said dryly.
With a small tote bag in tow, Commander Conway stepped out of the turbolift, ready to set off on the so-called “Secret” mission. Already Captain Dwanok had found out. Who knew what other leaks there were? The whole thing stunk to Conway.
He rounded a corner and came face to face with a huge Flarn.
Benzra stood there, pincers on hips, looking annoyed. “Commander Conway, you sssssshocked the hell out of me.”
“Oh, Benzra. I thought you were…someone else.”
“Who elsssssse? You know many other Flarn here?”
“Well, no, but…”
“Ssssssave it. Have you sssssssseen Dwanok?”
“He was up in the conference room, last I heard.”
“He’s probably on his way down to see J’hana off.”
Benzra and Conway walked together toward the shuttlebay.
“So,” said Conway. “You’ve been keeping busy?”
“I’ve been sssssssserving on Dwanok’s ship. It’sssss been interesssting. I got a commendation for honor from Kahlessssssssss.”
“How about you?”
“Same old, same old. Oh, remember that Trill I was dating?”
“The one that died? And then you had her ssssslug in you?”
“Same one. Well, I’m dating the new host now.”
As if on cue, Tyra Shar approached from the opposite end of the corridor, looking steamed.
“David!” she snapped. “What’s this about a secret mission!”
“Tyra,” Conway said. “How did you hear about that?”
“Janice Browning told me when she dropped Plato off. How dare you go leave me without notice!” She slapped Conway hard across the face and Benzra gutterally giggled.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Conway said droopily. “But the mission is top secret. You shouldn’t even know about it.”
“Well I do. And I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not too hot about you and those girls posing as some sort of alternative lifestyle…menage a three!”
Janice and her big mouth. “Orders are orders, Tyra,” said Conway.
“You’d just better remember it’s a mission and not an orgy. You be faithful to me. And lose the moustache!” Tyra thunked Conway on the forehead. “You hear me?”
Tyra turned on a heel to leave. “Oh, yeah. And try not to get killed.”
“Ssssssweet woman,” Benzra said, once Tyra was gone.
“You really just have to get to know her.”
“I do not believe sssssssso.”
After a few awkward moments, Tilleran and J’hana approached, flanked by Baxter and Dwanok. They all met at the door to the main shuttlebay. It opened to reveal the Festiva, large in comparison to the nearby runabout Rio de Janeiro and shuttlecraft Pizarro. Steam shunted out of its exaust and lights blinked as it underwent pre-flight checkups.
“All right, you guys,” said Baxter, “This mission is a ‘go,’ in spite of some of the problems we’ve had of late.”
“You have no idea,” muttered Conway.
“At any rate,” Baxter said, “good luck.” Baxter peeked into the shuttlebay. He’d never seen a Section 31 Escort fighter. He wanted to see how different it looked from his own Escort. Pretty much the same, with the exception of less official markings and a deeper blue-black color. And there were a few fins and phaser banks and other formations about the ship he couldn’t quite recognize.
“We shall need all the luck in the galaxy,” said J’hana. Dwanok leaned forward for a kiss goodbye and J’hana looked nervously from he to Tilleran. She leaned forward and kissed him. The kiss began slowly, then evolved to become ravenous, until J’hana’s legs wrapped around Dwanok’s waist and they twirled together like insane figureskaters.
“Pleasssssse…” muttered Benzra.
“Yeah,” said Tilleran. “Really!”
Dwanok set J’hana down, then looked sheepishly at Benzra. “Sorry, Bennie.”
J’hana’s antennae perked up. “Sorry?” asked J’hana. “What ‘sorry’?”
“Benzra and I have been seeing one another,” Dwanok said. “What of it?”
“Whoa,” said Baxter. He tried to wrap his mind around any human “getting it on” with a Flarn. Much less a Klingon!
“Think nothing of it,” said J’hana. “I too have been seeing another person.”
“Her!” And J’hana yanked Tilleran into a long, lucious liplock.
Baxter rolled his eyes. At first, the girl-on-girl kissing was neat. Even a bit erotic. But it was getting old quick.
“Well try this one on for size!” bellowed Dwanok, and he jumped into Benzra’s waiting claws. She lifted his massive bulk without a problem. Benzra’s pincerlike teeth gnashed at Dwanok’s face and multiple forked tongues slithered out to wrap around his head.
Baxter stared, mind-boggled.
Benzra set Dwanok down. “And the ssssssssex issss magnificent!”
Dwanok clapped Baxter on the back. “She has retractable legs, Captain.”
“I can see where that would come in handy,” Baxter said. “Well, I have appointments to get to.”
“With who?” asked Conway.
“Never you mind, I have them,” Baxter said. “You three have a mission. Benzra, Dwanok, let me show you to some quarters.”
J’hana stared lustily after Dwanok as he left with Baxter and Benzra. “That Klingon bastard…that…that Klingon bastard…he’s sleeping around!”
“Like you’re any better, you hot blue Andorian slut,” Tilleran whispered.
Conway sighed and ducked into the shuttlebay. A phaser to the head would be good about now.
Counselor Peterman tapped her fingers on her desk as the communication transmission on her desktop terminal patched through.
Suddenly, a grinning woman in a tye-died Starfleet uniform appeared on the screen. “Hello hello, and how may I help you today?”
“Counselor, it’s Kelly Peterman. From the Explorer?”
“Oh, yes. How are you, Counselor?”
“Feeling huggably good?”
“Uh, I guess. Just wanted to call and catch up on old times. I know we haven’t talked since we, uh, met three years ago…”
“Think nothing of it. How are things there on the Explorer?”
“Good. How about the Secondprize? You keeping Commander Dillon out of trouble?”
“Things are fine here. Commander Dillon is…well, I have concerns. Do you have a minute?” Counselor Claire Webber looked verifiably concerned, but Peterman didn’t have time to deal with her Secondprize counterpart’s problems.
“Not really. Listen, I actually just had a question for you.”
“Do you recall a member of Section 31 coming aboard the Secondprize a few years back?”
“Section what? I’ve never heard of that.”
Whoops. “Nevermind. How about the name Ashley Donovan? Does that name ring a bell?”
“Actually, yes it does. Hold on a sec.” Webber checked a panel on her desk. “Yes, Lieutenant Commander Ashley Donovan, Starfleet Safety and Standards Comission.”
There is no such comission, you twit, thought Peterman. “Interesting, go ahead,” she said.
“Commander Donovan was aboard for one week, beginning on Stardate 48402.”
“Six years ago,” Peterman said quietly to herself.
“She was mainly interested in the inventory department, oddly enough. She snooped around a lot belowdecks. Took some notes. Not very sociable.”
She was sociable all right, thought Peterman. “Anything else?” she asked.
“Just one note I left myself. That Donovan appeared to be hiding something.” Webber paused. “Can I ask why you’re asking about her?”
“No reason. Just curious. I’ll look you up in three more years. Thanks Counselor.” Peterman hurriedly closed the channel. She had a lot more research to do. She idly thought about contacting other Secondprize crew. Dillon, even. She shivered. Perhaps not.
Suddenly Peterman’s doorchime bleeped.
“Who is it?” she asked.
“Your snuggly lovebear,” came the reply.
“Commander Conway? I thought you were on a mission!”
“Hardee har har. Let me in, Kelly.”
“I thought we agreed to some cooling off time.”
“I’ve got a way to make things up to you. I should have thought about this from the beginning, actually.”
“Fine. Come on in.” Peterman sighed. What idiotic stunt did he have in mind?
Baxter stepped in and sat down opposite Peterman. “I thought what I’d do is tell you about Ashley. Explain how we got together. This one relationship is the only thing I’ve ever hidden from you. If I want to clear the air, then I should tell you all about it, right?”
Not bad. Peterman reached across her desk and grabbed Baxter’s hands. “That’s a good idea.” Then her stomach grumbled. She was about to hear a long story about Andy loving someone else. Was this such a good idea?
Baxter took Peterman’s hand and led her over to the fainting couch. “Here. Let’s talk over here. It’ll be more…intimate.”
“Okay…” Peterman said uneasily and sat down in her high- backed, soft counseling chair. Baxter sat down opposite her on the couch. She had to give it to him, at least he wasn’t pulling some weird stunt.
“And, to add a bit of atmosphere to the storytelling, I’ve asked Lt. Commander Richards and Ensign Madera to provide the musical score.” Baxter tapped his comm badge. “Come on in, guys.”
Peterman rolled her eyes. She’d spoken too soon.
Richards walked in carrying a portable xylophone. Madera wheeled in her harp.
“This is really not necessary…” Peterman said, as Richards set up his xylophone at her desk, and Madera set up beside him with her harp and stool.
“I think you’l love this,” Madera said. “Christopher and I composed the score last night during…well, never mind. Suffice it to say, it’s full of love, so here goes!”
Madera strummed away, and Richards tapped happily on the xylophone.
Baxter grinned. “Women come, and women go, but where they take you, how they leave you, one may never know…”
“This isn’t all going to be in rhyme, is it?” Peterman asked.
“Only some of it,” Baxter said. “Now, no more interruptions. As I was saying, where they take you, how they leave you, one may never know. So that’s how I met this Ashley with the beautiful eyes, while aboard the Secondprize. I’d just been promoted, Chief of Inventory, and here begins our love story…”
Peterman leaned back as the soothing music played on. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad…then again, perhaps it would.
SIX YEARS AGO USS SECONDPRIZE
There I was, at the middle of the bridge, and the man in charge was handing me a pip. I was promoted from Ensign to Lieutenant, just like that, in only seven years.
“Congratulations, Inventory Chief Baxter,” said nightwatch commander Lt. Simon Riggins. “I hope you enjoy your new posting.”
“Just think,” I said, grabbing the pip and affixing it to my collar. “A whole staff at my command. I am getting a staff, aren’t I?”
“We’ll see,” said Riggins, and he returned to the command chair. “Everyone clap for Lieutenant Baxter. He’s now the Chief of Inventory.”
The three ensigns on the bridge clapped twice unenthusiastically and returned to their stations.
“Well, I’d love to stay and party the night away, but my first day as Chief of Inventory awaits me and I can’t oversleep!” I said, and headed for the turbolift.
The next morning, I was up bright and early to begin my new duties as Chief of Inventory. I suspected that my responsibilities would be far advanced from those of a typical Inventory Officer. I was sure I’d have to attend high-level staff meetings and command parties; my signature would be needed for requisitions. Important things like that.
“Get out of my f***ing Jeffries’ tube you fat f***!” cried Chief Engineer Scott Baird. He loomed over me as I checked inside the tube for inventory tags. “What in hell are you doing under there?”
“Inventory,” I said. “It’s very important I get the tag number off our duonetic coupler.”
“What the f*** is inventory? I’ve never heard of it,” replied Baird as he shoved me out of the engineering compartment.
“Just allow me to–”
“Forget about it! Get out of my f***ing department!”
“I’ll just get the proper paperwork and come back later,” I said as Baird shoved me in a turbolift and ordered the doors closed.
I told the turbolift to take me down to my office, on the lowermost deck of the Secondprize. It was conveniently placed just down the hall from my quarters.
As I walked down the corridor toward my office, I thought about what Baird had said: “What the f*** is inventory?”
Was it possible people on the Secondprize didn’t know about my important work? Was it possible I wasn’t thought of as a valued member of their crew?
Nah, I thought, as I wrenched open the Jeffries tube access hatch and climbed in. I realized my function as Chief of Inventory was quite important. Sometimes I was just too self- conscious. Paranoid was another good word for it. I thought about talking to Counselor Webber, but realized my spine hadn’t totally recovered from the hug she’d given me the last time I visited her.
I shimmied down the several meters of Jeffries tube that led to my office and climbed out.
My office wasn’t exactly an enclosed area. I’d been told by the engineer who set me up in that office a few years back that it was actually just a junction between several Jeffries tubes. There was just enough room for a desk and chair, and a little potted plant I’d brought from home. It was quite a step up from the closet-like space I’d had on the USS Aquarius, to be sure.
I bragged home to my parents about the luxurious accomodations, and they were speechless, understandably. Sure, now I’m captain of a starship and I have a nice readyroom and roomy quarters, but back then, I was happy with what I had. I didn’t even mind when engineers would climb through my office to get to other sections of the ship. They had their jobs to do, I had mine.
Sipping coffee from my thermos (my office didn’t have a replicator), I called up the day’s schedule. Arboretum, shuttlebay, cargo bay three. A packed day. Also, a couple new shuttles were coming in and the captain wanted them certified “ready for duty.” Of course, that meant I had to add them to the ship’s permanent inventory. Not a problem.
My studies were interrupted as the Jeffries tube access above me opened.
“Junction thirty-two is that way,” I said, by way of routine.
Then, suddenly, the cutest, blondest, most well-shaped head dangled in front of me.
“Who the hell are you?” the head, which appeared to be attached to a buxom woman, asked.
“Inventory Chief Andrew J. Baxter,” I said proudly. “And who, might I ask, are you?”
The woman flipped downward graceful as a gymnast. She stood opposite my desk, arms folded. “Lieutenant Commander Ashley Donovan. Starfleet Safety and Standards Comission.”
“I’ve never heard of that.”
“So what do you do?”
I launched into the typical sales pitch. “Inventory officers are responsible for cataloging new equipment and maintaining adequate property control over all Starfleet materiel.” I made sure to pronounce it “materi-elle.” Women love that.
“I’ve never heard of that department,” Ashley said. “I’d better notify my supervisors.”
“What’s the rush?” I asked, and thrust my thermos at her. “Have some coffee. Sit, stay a while.” It wasn’t often I had visitors in my office. Especially attractive, female ones.
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt,” Ashley said. She looked around. “Nice office, by the way.”
“Thanks.” I cupped my chin in my hands and stared at her longingly. “Nice body.”
“Did I just say that out loud? I’m sorry. What must you think of me?”
“You were about to pour me some coffee…”
“Oh, yes, right.”
I quickly dumped some coffee into a spare cup. Plastic. The cool metal cups were reserved for officers who didn’t work in the bottom of the ship. Not that I minded.
“Here you go,” I said, and handed the cup to Ashley. She sipped.
“So you pretty much climb around every nook and cranny of the ship, then?”
“Sure,” I said cavalierly. “Why do you ask?”
She produced a padd from seemingly out of nowhere and handed it to me. “Ever seen one of those?”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s a type three random pulse multi- option all-purpose data transmitter. Romulan design, adapted for Federation use. Serial number…uh, 054717122.”
“Right. So have you ever seen one around here?”
“Actually, yes I have, now that you mention it. It’s down Jeffries tube 6J, about fourteen meters. I always thought it odd. I made a note of it in my inventory logs.”
“Well, we at the, uh, Safety and Standards Commission, never heard about that. Of course, we never heard about inventory.”
“Well now you know.”
“Indeed.” Ashley quickly finished her coffee and stood. “I have to be running along. Thanks a lot for the coffee…and the information.”
“Think nothing of it,” I said woozily.
She thumbed over her shoulder. “And where’d you say tube 6J was? Right back that way?”
“Right down that tube,” I said.
Ashley climbed into the tube and stared back at me as she shimmied in. “Oh. One more thing. Did you see any members of the crew ever climb in and make adjustments to that device? On a fairly regular basis?”
“Now that you mention it, I did see Ensign Duvall duck down there quite a few times. Is that a problem?”
“No, not really. That device just poses a…um, safety risk.”
“Well, then. I’m glad you’re taking care of it.”
“I’ll be taking care of it all right. Thanks again.”
And she was gone, just like that.
“Pardon me for asking,” Peterman piped up. “But where did the sex come in?”
“I’m getting to that,” Baxter said. “Now be patient and don’t interrupt again. I’m losing my rhythm.”
“You never had any,” Peterman muttered under her breath.
“So there she was, she came like an angel, and shimmied away, at a ninety degree angle…”
Peterman covered her face. This was ridiculous.
I left my office for Seven Backward around lunchtime. I spotted a bit of a ruckus as I climbed out of the Jeffries tube. Security Chief Hawkins and three other security guards were ushering Ensign Harvey Duvall down the corridor at phaserpoint.
“Lieutenant Hawkins,” I said. “What’s the problem with Duvall?”
She paused and eyed me suspiciously. “Who the hell are you?”
“Chief of Inventory Andy Baxter.”
Hawkins narrowed her eyes at me. “Never heard of you. If you really want to know, Duvall here’s been ordered to appear at Starbase 110 for questioning on charges of treason. We didn’t get any more of an explanation than that, and that we’re supposed to stuff him into a brig before we get there.”
“Starfleet pigs,” spat Duvall.
“Man, Starfleet really is anal about safety,” I said, and headed toward the turbolift.
Hawkins gave me a confused look, then shoved a very angry Duvall away in the other direction.
When I reached Seven Backward, I found Ashley Donovan at the bar nursing a drink.
“Hello there,” I said, and sat beside her. “Is this seat taken?”
“It is now,” she grinned.
My heart fluttered. I’d never had a positive response to that question. My brain didn’t know where to go next.
“Your hair smells great,” I said. “Want another…what is that? A white Klingon?”
“Please,” she said, and stared at me dreamily. “You’ve got nice eyes.”
“You do too. They’re like an ocean.”
“YOU SAID THE SAME THING TO ME THREE YEARS AGO!” Peterman exclaimed and threw her pillow at Baxter.
“Did I?” Baxter asked, scratching his head. “News to me. Anyway, she was drinking at the bar, and I was beside her, not very far…”
“Break it down!” Richards chanted, and pounded on the xylophone.
“I bet you say that to all the girls,” Ashley said tickled my chin. That sent waves of excitement coursing through my body.
“Nuts?” I asked, and shoved a bowl toward her.
“Pardon? Oh, sure.”
I grinned as Ashley munched on the nuts. “So, your mission is accomplished, eh?”
“Yep. I’m due to shove off tomorrow when we get to the Starbase.”
“It’s a shame your mission is over so soon.”
“You think?” Ashley asked.
“Yeah. I wish I’d had a chance to get to know you better.”
“That’s the problem,” Ashley sighed. “I go from ship to ship on missions for the…uh, Safety and Standards comission, and I never get to know anyone. I feel so closed off.”
I grinned and leaned forward. “You can open up to me. Another drink?”
Ashley grinned. “Only if you have one.”
“I’ll make it two.”
“For each of us?”
“Six drinks!” I called to Trinian, and she hurried over moments later with six white Talosians.
“Pardon me for asking,” Trinian said, studying my face. “But who the hell are you?”
“Chief of Inventory Andy…urp!…Baxter,” I said placidly.
“Chief of what?”
Trinian chuckled. “I’m supposed to be all-knowing and that one’s news even to me.”
“Your loss!” I called after her and turned my attention back to Ashley.
“Larkin to Baxter.”
“What,” Baxter said, annoyed. He glared at Richards and Madera and they immediately stopped playing.
“The USS Pathfinder has arrived, sir. Captain Baxter and Commodore Velara wish to speak with you immediately.”
“Coincidential,” Baxter said worriedly, and rushed to Peterman’s desk. He turned the desktop viewer to face him.
“Pipe them in down here, Larkin.”
Velara and Lucile Baxter appeared suddenly on the desktop viewer, the latter looking miffed.
“Son,” said Lucile. “What’s this we hear about a secret mission to invade the Starshine Kids?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Baxter said flatly. Who could have told?
“Captain,” Velara said. “As your superior officer, I order you to explain this mission into Starshine territory.”
“What do you mean?”
“We have no time for games, Captain,” said Velara. “Your wife requested my brother’s counseling services. She explained the entire thing to him. Telvin, in turn, explained it to me. Why have you done this?”
“Because Section 31 told me to,” Baxter said, and glared at Peterman, who just shrugged.
“Hasn’t he ever heard of client confidentiality!” Peterman called over Baxter’s shoulder.
“Apparently not,” said Velara. “Captain Baxter, over the past several months that I have served as head of the Explorer Project, I have put up with a certain amount of…misadventure… on the part of you and your crew. I will not, however, tolerate you conspring with a shadow agency.”
“I wouldn’t really call it conspiring, Commodore,” Baxter said. “Anyway, I have a personal, vested interest in this. And you can’t just put a stop to it. It’s already underway.”
“We don’t want to put a stop to it,” said Lucile. “We want to help. We have a vested interest in this too. Those Starshine jerks destroyed my old ship. And they shaved my only son!”
“They destroyed my former vessel as well,” said Velara. “And I share a certain responsibility for their existence, as they are led by my other brother, Sesil.” As if she needed to specify who.
“So let me get this straight,” Baxter said. “You just want a piece of the Starshine Kids?”
“Indeed,” said Velara.
“Fair enough. Stay in formation there and we’ll give you news as soon as we get it.”
“Why does your wife need counseling, anyway?” asked Lucille. “Did she finally come unhinged?”
“I’ll unhinge you…” Peterman seethed, rising from her seat.
“We’ll talk later,” Baxter said, and switched off the viewer. He whirled toward Peterman. “And what’s the deal calling in that tubby Vulcan schmuck, anyway?”
“Telvin is a licensed couples therapist now, Andy. He could be good for us.”
“I remember when you had him chat with us the last time
we had a falling out. He suggested we beat each other with foam bats!”
“It helped me out,” Peterman replied, falling back into her chair.
“He’s a silly pop psychologist, and he’s more messed up than anyone he’s ever counseled. You and I can sort this problem out ourselves.” Baxter glanced back at Madera and Richards. “With the help of our backup band.”
Peterman folded her arms. “If you say so.”
So Ashley and I locked glances. I was a virgin then and not one to take chances. I shoved my mouth toward hers and shoved in my tongue.
Things were going great till Mr. Jaroch came along.
“I do not know who you are,” the Yynsian said, hovering over me and Ashley. “But you are making me lose my appetite. Please leave these premises if you wish to engage in foreplay.”
“Okay, okay,” I said, and took Ashley by the hand. “Come on, sweet thing!”
“Uh…okay,” Ashley said, and nodded politely at Jaroch. “Commander.”
As we left, I heard Jaroch say to Trinian, “who on Yyns was that?”
“I have no idea,” was Trinian’s reply.
Halfway to my quarters, I realized three horrible things at nearly the same time: (1), my bunkbed was nowhere near the size required for sex; (2), my roomate would probably frown upon it. He was off-duty about that time; (3), I still hadn’t inventoried cargo bay three.
Then it all came together. My three problems factored out into one hot, sexy solution.
“Detour!” I said, and dragged Ashley into a turbolift.
She folded a wisp of hair behind her ear. “Where are we going?”
“I’ve got to inventory cargo bay three. Care to see me in action?”
“Sure. I’ve been wondering exactly what a Chief of Inventory does.”
“You’ll soon find out,” I said, and grinned. “And I might just add a few more duties to my repetoir.”
Half an hour later, I was navigating cargo bay three’s upper tiers of shelves, a good ten meters above the floor.
“Careful up there!” Ashley called out, swigging from a bottle of wine we’d found in a container marked “R. Singer.”
“I’m almost done. Here, tap this number into my padd…” I read off the numbers on a crate of flavian chocolates marked “Beck.”
“…4472,” Ashley said. “Got it. Ready to come down now?”
“Just one more thing…” I searched among the crates and finally found what I was looking for. “Here, catch!” I tossed down the small box and climbed down the ladder.
When I reached the bottom of the shelves, Ashley was eying the box suspiciously. “What in the world is this?”
“Inflatable mattress,” I said. “As Chief of Inventory, it’s my duty to inspect it and make sure it’s in perfect working order.”
“I see…” Ashley said, and grinned. “Just do me a favor. While we’re inspecting it…and I know this will sound like a silly request…”
“No, go on…”
“Will you recite the Starfleet Inventory Control charter? That is, if you know it by heart?”
“Are you kidding?” As Ashley talked, I managed to get the mattress out and inflated. I hopped on and ripped off my uniform tunic. “Computer, lock doors. Okay, Ashley, here goes: Mandate One, Inventory Control shall oversee all Federation property, as pertains to Federation Corrolary Number…”
“Andy,” said Peterman. “Didn’t that sound like a very odd request to you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Baxter replied. “Anyway, suffice it to say, I recited the full Inventory charter. It was magnificent.”
“I bet it was,” muttered Peterman.
So we folded up the mattress, got dressed, and headed out into the hallway, feeling our best…
Until we ran into Commander Dillon.
“What are you doing down in the cargo section at this hour?” the Secondprize’s first officer demanded.
“Studies,” Ashley said quickly. We were caught red-handed.
“On cargo,” I finished.
Dillon nodded. “Good work. Above and beyond the call of duty. Grand.”
“What are you doing down here, sir, if I may ask?” I asked.
“Never you mind,” Dillon said, then added. “Oh, and congratulations on the promotion, Lieutenant Baxter.”
“You know my name?” I asked.
“I have the whole crew roster memorized,” said Dillon. “Among other things. Now, off with both of you before I report you for…something.”
“Come on,” Ashley said, and dragged me away.
It was only once we got to my cramped little cabin, and after my roomate Ensign Marsh left for his duty on the bridge, that I found out what Ashley Donovan was all about:
“I work for a special section of Starfleet called…uh, Agency Five. I was sent to recover the Romulan spy equipment from this ship and nab the Federation traitor.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s amazing. Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because I felt more than just your pelvis in there in the cargo bay,” she said. “I felt…something.”
I nudged closer to her on the bunk. “What…what did you feel?”
“I dunno. I just know I can’t lie to you. I can’t lie to someone I have feelings for.”
“I know just what you mean,” I said. “Neither could I.”
“Anyway, I never had that problem until now.”
“So, what does this mean for us?”
“Mean? It means nothing. I have to go on another mission. I can’t very well just give up my career and stay on this ship with you, can I?”
“No, I guess not,” I muttered.
“And we cuddled in my cabin all night, until Ashley had to leave for Starbase 110. That’s the last I saw of her,” Baxter said. “And that’s that.”
“How’d you figure out she was with Section 31?” asked Richards. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I put two and two together,” Baxter said. “When we became aware of Section 31, I realized that must have been the real agency she worked for.”
“So she made you certify that you and her never had sex,” Peterman said, trying to absorb the balance of Baxter’s story.
“That’s right. She also made me certify that we’d never met. And that I’d never tell anyone about Agency Five.” Baxter glared at Richards and Madera, inclined his head toward the door.
“Oh, right,” Richards said, and he and Madera noisily evacuated their instruments from the room.
Peterman moved over to sit on the couch by Baxter. “You realize the risk you ran by telling me all this. You could have made me even more jealous.”
“I know,” Baxter said sheepishly.
“In fact, you did,” Peterman admitted. “But something about this just doesn’t make sense. If you care so much about this Ashley, then why didn’t you go on the mission? You easily could have gone in Conway’s place.”
Baxter wrapped his arm around Peterman. “Because, Kelly, I realized how much I’d hurt you. I couldn’t go off to rescue Ashley knowing you were back here suffering. I had one night of hot sex with Ashley. I’ve had nearly four years of hot sex…and togetherness…with you. You are my wife. The choice was obvious.”
“You are a slick one, Andy.”
Baxter grinned. “That’s why they call me the Teflon Captain.”
“Larkin to Baxter.”
Baxter tapped his comm badge. “What now? Is my Aunt Patsy and her three-legged dog here?”
“Negative. I felt it prudent to alert you that we have not yet heard from the Festiva.”
“When were they supposed to check in?” asked Baxter.
“One hour ago.”
“Alert Captain Vorezze. If you can get ahold of him. We’ll wait another few hours, then if we still haven’t heard anything, we’ll go in. Understood?”
Baxter turned to face Peterman. “The road ahead is going to be a bumpy one. I have to know you’re okay with this. You know there’s a woman out there I once made love to, but it’s you I’m in love with. It’s you I’ll always be in love with.”
Peterman leaned forward and kissed Baxter, long and hard. She pulled away gently, and cupped his face in her hands. “Then that’s all I need to know.”
“Great,” Baxter said, and stood up. “I’d better get to the bridge.”
“Okay,” Peterman said distantly, and smiled as Baxter left.
She sat there in silence for a few moments, twiddling her fingers.
“No. That’s not all I need to know,” she said finally. There was another side to this story. One she desparately needed to hear. Peterman rushed for her door.
Captain Baxter proceeded down the corridor toward his quarters with a small plastic box in tow. Larkin walked alongside him, carrying a huge cargo container.
“May I ask exactly how long you expected to be away from your quarters, sir?”
“I had no idea, Larkin,” said Baxter. “It pays to be prepared.”
Baxter stepped up to his door. “Do you have a free hand, Commander? Can you get the door?”
“Certainly.” Larkin balanced the enormous cargo crate in one hand and keyed open Baxter’s door.
He stepped in. “Kelly should be off by now. Honey?”
Larkin walked in, set down the crate, and looked around. “She does not appear to be present.”
Baxter checked the bathroom, then joined Larkin back in the living room. “I wonder where she is.” He tapped his comm badge. “Baxter to Peterman.”
Nothing. Baxter scratched his head.
“Computer,” said Larkin. “Locate Counselor Peterman.”
“Counselor Peterman is not aboard the Explorer,” said the computer.
Baxter tapped his badge again. “Baxter to bridge.”
“Bridge. Ford here.”
“Mr. Ford, contact the Pathfinder, the Devagh, and the Banshee. See if any of them have seen Counselor Peterman. And check the shuttlebays.”
“Missing a wife, sir?”
“You could say that. Hop to it, Ford.”
“Right on, sir.”
Baxter and Larkin waited in several moments of awkward silence.
“Sir,” Ford finally piped up over the comm. “Pathfinder reports no sign of Counselor Peterman. We reached Captain Vorezze and he said she wasn’t on the Banshee either.”
“What about Dwanok’s ship?” Baxter said, looking helplessly around his cabin.
“That’s just it, sir. We can’t find the Devagh. She’s not responding to hails. No signs of her emissions in this sector. She’s just plain gone, Captain.”
“It would seem Counselor Peterman and Captain Dwanok went off in search of Commander Donovan and the Festiva,” Larkin said.
“Thanks for clarifying,” Baxter muttered.
TO BE CONTINUED…
The Starshine Kids and Explorer crew clash in what might be the battle to save the whole Federation from bald, Star- shiney bliss. Can Captain Baxter come to terms with his past and save Ashley, and the Federation? Can Peterman learn to forgive, and save her own butt from Starshine assimilation? Can Conway and his team make it off the Starshine recruitment planet alive? And will the Explorer be able to stop a final Starshine assault? And what about Mirk and Hartley? What the heck is up with him? Find out answers to all these questions and more in Part Two of “Shine on You Crazy Cult”!