Author: Anthony Butler
You reached for the secret too soon,
you cried for the moon
Shine on you crazy diamond
Threatened by the shadows at night, and exposed in the light
Shine on you crazy diamond…
…Come on you raver, you seer of visions, come on you
painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond”
“And what is this, this ‘Pink Floyd,’” asked Sesil Abramowitz, cult leader, maniac, fascist, and all around nice guy.
“Well,” said Clyde Crabtree, otherwise known as Commander David Conway, “it was a very popular band in the latter part of the twentieth century. Right up there with Led Zeppelin.”
“I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.” Conway surveyed his surroundings. He was with Sesil in his opulent teak-paneled office on the uppermost floor of the forty-story “Shinola Building,” where the Starshine Kids were headquartered.
Sesil told Conway they’d relocated after nearly being blown away by a Federation fleet six months ago. Conway, or rather, Clyde Crabtree, was aghast. Why would the Federation do such a thing, he asked.
“Because they’re little jerks!” Sesil had replied. “Here I am trying to offer the best in theological services and condominiums, and how do they repay me? They chase me back into the Redlands. Well, I couldn’t stand for that for long, so I had my people build recruitment facilities like these.”
Conway had spent the better part of two days trying to get on Sesil’s good side. He’d learned information about the Sytarnan Three facility and two others like it. Just recently, he’d turned Sesil on to classic rock. It wasn’t exactly the most advanced undercover operation ever, but Tilleran and J’hana were doing the really complex work. All he had to do was distract Sesil, which was easy, since the giddy Vulcan was quite easily amused.
“You’re quite the music afficianado, Clyde,” Sesil said, twirling in his deskchair and eying Conway. “And you look so familiar. Are you sure we haven’t met?”
“Quite positive,” Conway said, and coughed nervously. “Mmmm…it’s almost lunchtime. How about we go and grab a bowl of strawberries and cream oatmeal?”
“My favorite!” Sesil said, clapping his hands merrily.
Conway rolled his eyes. This was the most bizarre mission he’d ever been on.
“I wish to learn how to write press releases,” V’lok’or, also known as Lt. J’hana of the Ninth Hive, said, and looked uncomfortable sitting opposite Bonita Montagnieu, also known as Commander Ashley Donovan, at the head desk in the Starshine PR office, just a few blocks away from the Shinola Building.
“That’s just great,” Bonita said and smacked her gum. “We need more good press people here at Starshine HQ. How are your communications skills?”
“Adequate.” J’hana stared at Bonita, who stared back for a few moments.
“All right, then. Let’s get you set up at a desk,” Bonita said, and led J’hana into a back room. “So, V’lok…can I call you V’lok?”
“So, V’lok, when is your initiation ceremony?”
J’hana grimaced inwardly. “Ten o’clock tomorrow morning.” That was the deadline. If they didn’t get off-planet before then, they’d end up balder than a Bolian and brainwashed to boot.
“I bet you’re excited,” Bonita said, and sat J’hana down in front of a terminal.
“Thrilled,” said J’hana. “Now how do I log in?”
“We’ll just set up an account name and password for you,” Bonita said, leaning over J’hana’s shoulder and tapping on the terminal.
J’hana sniffed. “Your perfume is exquisite, Bonita.”
“Why, thank you.”
Stay on the mission, damn it, J’hana thought to herself. Bonita gave her an account name, “BlueGirl,” and a password, “jellybean.” J’hana comitted these to memory and set to work. “What are my orders?” she asked.
“Well, let’s start you off easy to guage your abilities.” Bonita set down a padd in front of J’hana. “This is an announcement that will go out to Krinokom Communications and all the major powers in the alpha quadrant. Can you summarize this passage into one eye-grabbing headline?”
J’hana studied the padd and nodded grimly. “I believe so. How about this: ‘Starshine Cult now a bona fide religion. Join now or be destroyed.’”
“Fantastic,” said Bonita. “I’ll just leave you to type that up. Let me know if you have any problems.”
Problems aplenty, J’hana thought to herself and began typing.
“This is fantastic,” Tilleran said, curling her toes as a well-muscled,bald Tellarite man massaged his way up her legs and across her naked back. “Ooh, twist it a bit there, Sammo. Just a little bit more to the left….oooh!”
“V’lok’or to Laverne.”
Tilleran grimaced and tapped the control on her massage table. “What is it, V’lok?”
“I have news. Are you alone?”
“No, not exactly.” Tilleran leaned up and grinned at her masseuse. “Sammo, can you take five?”
Sammo bowed. “As you wish, Miss Depesto.”
Tilleran swung her legs down and sat up, wrapping a towel around her waist. “What’s the big deal interrupting my massage?”
“Some of us are actually getting work done on this mission, ‘Laverne,’” J’hana said testily. “In fact, some of us are discovering the Starshine Kids are preparing for a full-scale invasion of the Federation.”
“Not another invasion. Klingon, Romulan, Dominion, Voran, Multek, Leeramar. When will it freaking stop?”
“I do not know. I do know that your skills are required if we are to stop this cult from taking over the Federation.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Use those famed scientific and telepathic skills of yours to figure out how to combat the Starshine brainwashing technique. That is why you were sent on this mission, is it not?”
“Not exactly. I was sent to try to break through to Ashley Donovan, not deprogram the whole blasted Starshine populace!”
“Well, the mission parameters have changed. We must find a way to convert the Starshine converts back to their original state, or we’ll all be Starshiners in a matter of weeks.”
“No pressure, or anything. Have you spoken to, uh, Clyde?”
“Negative. He has been spending the day with Sesil.”
“Maybe he can get to Sesil’s invasion plans.”
“That is a distinct possibility.”
Tilleran slid off her massage table. “I’ll talk to Conway. You see if you can find a way to get Bonita aboard the Festiva. If I can get her up on a lab table, maybe I can find a way to combat the brainwashing effects.”
“That will not be a problem,” J’hana said huskily. “However, I would remind you that a large number of the senior staff of the Explorer have been brainwashed by the Starshine Kids before. Is one more convert going to give us the key to defeating the brainwashing technique?”
“We can defeat it, at least one person at a time, or else Captain Baxter and the rest of us would still be starshiney. But what we need to do is find a way to combat the effects on a much wider scale.”
There was a pause. “According to these figures, the scale would be something on the order of five hundred thousand individuals.”
“Then we’d better get cracking,” Tilleran said.
“I look forward to it,” replied J’hana.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE’S A COMMUNICATIONS BLACKOUT, YOU STINKING, HORRID, FOUL P’TAK!” Dwanok bellowed in his science officer’s face. The officer flinched at Dwanok’s gagh-infested breath. Klingon science officers typically got little respect.
“I mean just that, your largeness,” he squeaked, cowering behind his console. “We cannot contact the Explorer, or any other vessel outside Sytarnan space.”
“That’s why we lost contact with the Festiva.” Standing next Dwanok, Counselor Kelly Peterman frowned. She was decked head-to-toe in the sexy black fatigues she’d worn when she’d gone paranoid with the rest of the Explorer crew and nearly killed her husband. She had a mek’leth tucked at one hip, and a disruptor at the other, all courtesy of Dwanok the Large.
“Yes, that’s why we lost contact with the Festiva!” Dwanok repeated. “What of it?”
“Well, maybe their mission is going according to plan. Maybe if we barge in screaming a battle cry, we’ll disrupt the mission.”
“THAT IS A DISTINCT POSSIBILITY!” screamed Dwanok, turning his gagh breath on Peterman.
Peterman stepped back a few paces. “Just thought I’d point that out.”
“You convinced me to go on this escapade, for Kahless’ sake. We’ll see it through!”
“And how will we do that? Just barge in on the Starshiners and demand they give us back Ashley Donovan and Conway’s team?”
“If that is what it takes!”
Peterman rubbed a hand over her face. What was she thinking? Why on Earth did she want to barge into Starshine-held space to find this girl Ashley Donovan? Just to find out if this woman who’d had sex with her husband six years ago still had feelings for him? Why? Why? WHY? “Maybe we should just turn back.”
“NEVER!” Dwanok said, and collapsed into his command chair, which sighed with his bulk. “You don’t seem to understand the way Klingons operate.”
“Apparently not,” Peterman admitted.
“We will attack the Starshine Kids at their heart.” Dwanok pointed to a blip on a map on the viewscreen. “Their primary recruitment facility. We will blow it all the way to Stovokor.”
“But what if J’hana and the others are in there?” Peterman demanded.
“Then they will have a one-way ticket to the place where warriors go to celebrate their deaths. Consider them lucky.”
Just then, Benzra ducked in through the IKC Devagh’s rear bridge door. “There’ssssssss sssssssome leftover targ’ssssss feet sssssstew belowdeckssssss if anyone wantsssssss any.”
“That sounds great, my spindly thorax queen,” Dwanok cooed. He shoved out of his chair. “Peterman, you have the bridge. Keep us cloaked and on course for Sytarnan Three. We’ll attack in three hours.”
Peterman sat down in the huge chair. Her arms barely reached the armrests. She felt like a small child.
“Forward view, Zantar,” she said to the navigator, and sighed as the screen turned to the familiar view of onrushing stars. What in the world was she doing?
“What in the world did she do?” Captain Andy Baxter railed, pacing the conference room with his hands behind his back.
“Apparently, your wife took off with the Klingons to go destroy our last, best, chance of getting Ashley Donovan back,” Captain Jad Vorezze said. He was seated at the front of the conference table, hands folded placidly.
Lt. Commander Richards leaned forward in his chair. “She had to have a good reason to do that.”
At the back of the room, Counselor Telvin cleared his throat. He was seated between Lucille Baxter and Commodore Velara, the contingent from the USS Pathfinder. “I’m afraid I can answer that.”
Baxter glared at Telvin. “Oh no.”
“I told her she needed both sides of the story. She can’t just trust you, Captain. If she is to have peace, she needs to talk to Ashley Donovan.”
Vorezze stood. “Why the hell did you do that you blasted Vulcan?”
Baxter lept at Telvin. “You fat, pointy-eared son of a bitch!”
“Captain, I detest violence!” Telvin cried and lept under the table.
Lt. Commanders Larkin and Richards were on their feet. They grabbed Baxter, each by an arm. Richards was really hanging on for show; Larkin was plenty enough to stop him.
“Violence will not solve the current situation, Captain,” Larkin said neutrally.
“Listen to her, Andy,” Richards said. “Peterman and Dwanok are already gone. Smashing Telvin’s face in won’t bring them back.”
“But it’ll sure feel good,” Baxter said, struggling against Larkin’s steel grip.
“Be that as it may,” Velara said, “we have a more pressing issue at hand. The sanctity of this mission, which I believe we all can agree must go on unencumbered.”
“That’s for sure,” said Vorezze.
“So how do we stop the Devagh?” asked Dr. Browning. “They’re probably nearly at Sytarnan Three by now.”
“We’ll have to send another ship after them,” said Baxter.
“The Banshee can be ready to leave in ten minutes,” Vorezze said quickly.
“That wasn’t what I was thinking,” Baxter said, and turned toward Vorezze. “You said me and my crew were the best- equipped to go up against the Starshine Kids, right?”
“Then let us take care of this. We can send in the Escort. Granted, she can’t cloak. But she’s got SR shielding, which is nearly as good.”
“It’s risky,” Vorezze said, rubbing his chin.
“But the Escort is smaller than the Banshee. Less conspicuous. Besides, if this mission fails, we may need the Banshee to pull the whole lot of us out.”
Vorezze nodded. “Good point.”
“Well, then,” Baxter said, and turned to Larkin. “Commander, go get the Escort ready. We’ll leave in fifteen minutes.”
“Aye, sir,” Larkin said, and left.
“Am I to take it you plan on leading this mission?” Velara asked placidly.
“God damned right I do,” Baxter said. “That’s my crew, my wife, out there. It’s time I did something about it.”
“We’re coming with you,” Lucille Baxter piped up.
“Mom!” Baxter said. “Can’t I do anything by myself?”
“Not this thing,” Lucille said, and traded glances with Velara. “You’re looking at two-hundred and fifty years of experience between the two of us. Most of it is Velara’s, naturally. Don’t tell me that’s not good for something.”
“Besides that,” Velara said, “as your commanding officer, I order it. You will command the mission, but I insist I go along.”
“Fine,” Baxter said. “But nowhere does it say my mother has to come along. You stay with the Pathfinder.”
“But…” said Lucille.
“My ship, my mission, my choice!” Baxter said, and stormed out of the conference room.
“You two have issues,” Telvin said, ducking out from under the conference table.
“Get back under there!” Lucille growled.
“Well,” said Velara. “I suppose I will go pack. Come along, Telvin.”
“Nice bedroom,” Bonita said, surveying the bedroom at the rear of the V’lok’or/Depesto/Crabtree condo. “Very roomy. Do you and your two roomates, uh, spend a lot of time in here?”
“Sometimes,” said J’hana. “We like to experiment.”
“Really?” asked Bonita.
J’hana sat down on the bed. “I know we just came by for lunch, but I thought we might sit down and get to know one another better.” She patted the bed. “I like to know the women I work with.”
Bonita sat down beside J’hana. “How well do you like to know them?”
“This well!” J’hana lept on Bonita and stuffed her tongue in the blonde’s mouth. Betwen tongue-jabs, she reached inside her lapel and hit a tiny button. “J’hana to Festiva. Energize!”
Tilleran grimaced at the scene as J’hana and Bonita materialized on the Festiva’s transporter pad.
“You’ve really crossed a line this time, Jan.”
J’hana stood up and brushed off her sequined vest. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is all business.”
“Sure it is.”
J’hana helped a dazed Bonita up to her feet.
“Where am I?” Bonita asked.
“The land of Oz,” Tilleran said, and poked Bonita with a hypospray.
Bonita’s eyes rolled back into her head and she collapsed into J’hana’s waiting arms.
“There’s a girl,” J’hana grumbled, and shouldered Bonita out of the transporter bay.
Tilleran followed behind, hands clasped behind her back. “So, did you have a good time wooing Miss Montagnieu?”
“I would not call it wooing. I was just doing my job.”
“Sure you were.”
“You are such a hypocrite! What about that massage you were getting this afternoon!”
“I was polling the local populace.”
“You were being poled, is more like it,” J’hana muttered, and lugged Bonita into the Festiva’s tiny medical bay.
“Very funny. Lift her up onto the table.”
J’hana grunted and shoved Bonita up onto the medtable and Tilleran began scanning. “This may take a while.”
“What do you expect me to do in the meantime?”
“I know!” Tilleran said, brightening. “You can take us outside the communications barrier and try to get word out to the Explorer. They might be interested in knowing about the Federation’s imminent doom.”
“That wouldn’t be a bad idea,” J’hana agreed. “What about Commander Conway?”
“He can fend for himself for a while.”
“That lunch was absolutely scrumptious!” Sesil said, as he and Conway strolled down the skylit concourse atop the Shinola Building. Looking over the railing that bordered each of the forty floors, Conway caught a dizzying view of the lobby on the first floor.
“Yeah,” Conway said woozily. “Nice big, gloppy bowls of oatmeal.” He quickly turned to look out the massive skylight that topped off the Shinola Building. “Wow, it is a pretty day out.”
“Yes,” Sesil agreed, nodding. “A sunshiney day. Have you given much thought to your initiation ceremony. Would you like our band to play that… what did you call it…Pink Floyd song?”
“That would be great,” Conway said.
“Great, Mr. Crabtree. I know you’ll enjoy your initiation.”
Can’t be worse than a religion that forbids coffee, Conway thought wryly. “So, Sesil, what’s next for the Starshine Kids?” As if I already don’t know, Conway thought. He’d spoken to J’hana and Tilleran during a bathroom break at lunchtime.
“I’m thinking of expanding,” Sesil said, gesturing widely with his arms. “More territory, more followers…more everything!”
“You don’t say.”
“Oh, yes I do!” Sesil said, turning a bright gaze on Conway. “Doesn’t that sound simply wonderful!”
“It sounds like a plan,” Conway muttered. He quickly brightened his expression. “A shiny, dandy plan!”
“There we go,” Sesil said, and stopped to stare over the railing at the forty floors below he and Conway. “I’m glad you like my plan, Mr. Crabtree.”
“Well, I do so love my condo, and my robe. And I can’t wait to get my head shaved!”
“Indeed.” Sesil steepled his fingers. “But when, in all the rush, will you report back to your Starfleet superiors?”
“Pardon?” Conway asked. His stomach dropped the whole forty stories.
Sesil stepped forward to look the shorter man squarely in the eyes. “I know your game, Mr. Crabtree. Or should I say Commander Conway?”
“H-huh…?” Conway said, stumbling backwards. He turned around to see two huge Vulcans standing behind him, arms folded. “Oh, hi guys.”
“You think I’m stupid, Conway?” Sesil railed. “I never forget a face, even if it is framed in blonde hair and a handlebar moustache. Your makeup person sucks!”
Damn you, Browning!
Sesil looked over Conway’s shoulder at the two huge Vulcans. “Well, we’ll just let Spunk and Torso here take you to their workout chamber and pummel some answers out of you. Does that sound good?”
“No,” Conway admitted, then looked up at the skylight. Clouds must have rolled in to block the sun. No, it wasn’t clouds, it was…f***.
Sesil glanced up to see what Conway was looking at. “Oh…oh no. Run!”
The Vulcan cultleader bolted for the elevator, just as the Klingon battlecruiser Devagh unleashed a barrage of disruptor blasts at the Shinola Building.
Counselor Peterman stood behind Dwanok’s command chair and stared at the carnage as the Devagh laid waste to the Shinola building and the outlying buildings of the Starshine recruitment facility.
Dwanok laughed uproariously as the Devagh flew through smoke and flame, blasting away with its disruptors. “Take that, you Starshine dogs! Burn like the rancid sewage you are!”
“I think we’ve made our point!” Peterman said. “Perhaps we should get out of here while we still can!”
“Never!” Dwanok cried. “Not while one Starshiner here still lives!”
“Maybe sssssssshe’s right, cuddlekinsssss,” said Benzra. She was hovering beside a nervous-looking Klingon at tactical. “We don’t want to overssssssstay our welcome.”
“Sir!” cried the tactical officer. “Three starshine warships closing on us fast!”
“Well don’t just sit there!” ordered Dwanok. “Turn us around and attack them!”
Peterman got another growly feeling at the pit of her stomach. This just felt terribly wrong. Was she getting an ulcer, on top of everything else?
That would really be unfortunate.
Lt. Tilleran stepped out onto the tiny bridge of the Festiva to find J’hana in the command chair idly watching the viewscreen.
“Any luck?” she asked.
“Only time will tell,” J’hana said. “I sent the message on a coded, secure frequency. We’ll see.” She was still ticked at Tilleran about the fight they’d had earlier.
“Well, I found some interesting things out about Bonita,” said Tilleran.
“She had a homing device.”
“I presume you destroyed it.”
“Yes, I did. But even so, I think it’s prudent that we change our direction before–”
Sparks erupted all over the Festiva bridge.
“Before THAT?” J’hana asked and lept for the helm. She pulled the Festiva into an intricate series of evasive maneuvers.
Tilleran sat down at tactical. “The cloak’s fried. I’m bringing up our shields.”
“Ready a full spread of multiphasic torpedoes and fire on my mark!” J’hana ordered and slammed the Festiva into full impulse. On the viewscreen, it darted in between the two attacking Starshine warships and blew past them.
“Multi-what?” asked Tilleran.
“It is good to know that one of us read up on the new technology on this vessel,” J’hana mumbled and steered the Festiva toward Sytarnan Two, a class-three gas giant.
Tilleran searched the tactical board, found multiphasic torpedoes, and fired. “There we go!” she cheered.
“Ariel,” J’hana said, ducking the Festiva into a maneuver around Sytarnan Two’s rings. “Did it ever occur to you that we’re probably at the wrong stations?”
“Fine by me!” Tilleran hopped out of her chair and slid by J’hana to fall into the front helm chair.
J’hana, for her part, hopped behind the L-shaped tactical console and began firing. “There now, that feels better!”
The tiny Festiva unleashed a furious barrage of multiphasic torpedoes at the Starhshine warships. The torpedoes phased right through the shields and hulls of the ships and blew up from the inside, gutting them like a couple freshly-cleaned gumvat beasts.
“Massive damage to the two ships,” Tilleran said, bucking the Festiva over a Sytarnan moon and shooting straight back for Sytarnan Three. “But we’re not doing too hot ourselves.” She ducked as a ceiling panel above her exploded and all sorts of ductwork spilled out.
“How bad?” J’hana asked, searing the two attacking Starshine vessels with high-powered, rapid-fire compression phasers.
“Bad enough that we have to crash!”
“Have you ever crashed a ship before?”
“Point taken!” J’hana fired two more spreads of MP torpedoes at the two starshine ships, which finished them off in a spectacular explosion. “At least we’re not under attack anymore.”
Tilleran held on tight to the helm and struggled to lift up on Festiva’s nose as she drove the tiny ship through the Sytarnan Three atmosphere.
“Hold on, J’hana!” Tilleran cried.
“That’s odd,” J’hana said. “I’m picking up a Klingon ship! It’s the Devagh!”
“Try to contact them!”
Tilleran punched at her controls. “They probably won’t even detect us, since we’re built to be camoflauged, and we’re crashing into the opposite side of the planet!”
“Oh well,” J’hana said. “At least I know Dwanok cares.” J’hana paused and studied her panel.
“Ariel, I know I’ve been mean to you, I know I still have feelings for Dwanok. But I want you to know…I still love you!”
“I…uh…love you too!”
“No you don’t. I heard you hesitate just now!”
“It’s because I’m trying to crash the ship. Give me a damn break!”
“Your mother is really mad at you,” said Telvin. He stood beside the command chair on the Escort’s tiny bridge; Commodore Velara stood patiently on the other side. “We had a bit of a talk before we left the Explorer. She only wants to help, you know.”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “Why the hell did you have to bring him along, Velara?”
“I promised our father that I would look after him,” Velara said solemnly.
“He must be so proud of his kids,” Baxter murmurred. “One’s a schmuck, the other a maniacal cult leader. Thank goodness he has you.”
“Suffice it to say, the holidays are unpleasant,” Velara admitted.
“What’s our ETA at the Sytarnan system, Larkin,” Baxter said, looking to his right to Larkin, who manned Science/Ops.
“One hour, four minutes.”
“Ford, crank it up to warp nine point nine,” Baxter said to Lt. Ford.
“Aye, sir,” Ford said, tapping in the proper controls at helm.
“New ETA, forty minutes,” Larkin announced.
“Better,” Baxter said, and leaned back in the command chair.
“It is nice to see this ship being used for something in Starfleet’s interests, for once,” Velara said primly.
Baxter glared at her. “You know, you nag a lot for a Vulcan.”
“It was simply an observation. One that Admiral McGrath made many times in his reports.”
“Admiral McGrath can shove his…”
“Sir,” Lt. Brian Gellar announced from tactical. “We’re picking up some preliminary scans on longrange.”
“What kind of scans?”
Larkin called up the data on her terminal. “Massive fleet build-up. Wreckage of one Starfleet Escort-class vessel, one Klingon Vor’cha-class battlecruiser. And also we have recieved a coded, secure message seemingly sent from the Festiva about fifteen minutes ago, presumably just before they crashed. Lieutenants Tilleran and J’hana report they have recovered Ashley Donovan, and that the Starshiners will be invading the Federation soon.”
“When it rains it pours. Nine point nine five, Mr. Ford,” Baxter said urgently, and worked deep grooves into the arms of his command chair with his fingers.
“Once more into the s***storm, yes, sir!”
“Nice landing,” Dwanok said to Peterman, as he, she, and Benzra lead the pack of Klingon officers who didn’t die in the Devagh crash down a rocky mountainside toward the Starshine complex, or what was left of it.
“That was my first time at helm,” Peterman said, and glanced back at the Devagh wreckage. “Counselors are not taught to be ace pilots. Ask any of them!”
Benzra struggled with an awkward stack of phaser rifles, tricorders, and medkits salvaged from the Devagh. “We mussssssst put as much disssssssstance between usssssss and the wreckage as posssssssible.”
“It certainly is an eyesore,” Dwanok said. “Sticking out of the mountain and all.”
“Well, at least some of us survived!” Peterman said.
“‘SOME’ being the operative word,” Dwanok muttered. “Half my crew died.”
“And went on to a glorious afterlife in Stovokor, am I right?” snapped Peterman. Damn, her black leotard was riding up. How did commandos stand it?
“You’ve got me there,” Dwanok said grudgingly.
J’hana stepped into the crushed, cock-eyed room that once was the medical bay. “Good news,” she said to Tilleran. “Our hull is made of sensor-reflective material, so the Starshine Kids may not detect our wreckage for some time. However, our allies will probably not detect us either.”
“Lovely,” Tilleran said, hunched over Bonita Montagnieu.
“How’s our patient?”
“Took a few bumps and bruises in the crash, but none the worse for wear.”
J’hana studied the blonde woman. “I mean, how is her mind?”
“I see. Have you attempted to…penetrate her?”
“Extremely. But that is beside the point. Have you met with any success?”
Tilleran put her hands on her hips and sighed. “I wish I could say I have. Her mind seems to have been particularly ravaged. It’s as if they went in there looking for something particular.”
“They knew she was with Section 31,” J’hana said. “They were looking for the Federation’s most well-guarded secrets. Did they find them?
“Only time will tell,” Tilleran said.
“Is there anyway to override the programming done to her? Or is her brain too far gone?”
“I don’t know. Whatever remains of the real Ashley Donovan is deeply hidden under layers and layers of programming. They did a much more thorough job on her than on me, or Counselor Peterman, or the Captain.”
“We must get inside her mind, Ariel. The Federation depends on it.”
“You’re so sexy when you’re worried.”
“There is a time and place for that!”
“Right. Then how about you go make yourself useful and try to find the Devagh. I’m sure you’re worried about your boyfriend.”
J’hana sighed. “We do have an agreement about seeing other people, you know.”
“Hey, whatever tickles your antennae.”
At the bottom of a forty-story elevator shaft, in a cramped, dimly lit elevator with real faux marble walls, underneath two heavy, dead Vulcans, Sesil Abramowitz sighed.
“Is this how you pictured your life turning out, Commander Conway?”
Under Sesil, Conway grunted. He had at least three broken ribs, if the sharp stabbing pains in his side were any indication. “Not by far,” he rasped.
“At least Spunk and Torso broke our fall.”
“Yes, all that creatine made their bodies nice and malleable,” Conway said grimly. “How much air you figure we have?”
“At least an hour’s worth.”
“How long do you think it’ll take your minions to dig us out?”
“On if they come back. Haven’t you noticed the screams and cries for help have died down out there? Either they all died, or they all left. Either way, we are, as you humans so colorfully put it, screwed.”
“Sesil,” Conway said, shifting his weight off of his sore left elbow, “I have a feeling you’re not such a bad guy after all.”
“Thank you for saying that, Commander, but you’re wrong. I am as rotten as they come. I didn’t try to be. I just wanted to bring a little joy into people’s lives.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Conway admitted.
“You can see how I went into this with the best of intentions.”
“Everything just got all mixed up and perverted. Oh, Commander Conway, I wish I could just undo all this. Make things right again.”
Conway’s eyebrows perked up. “Sesil. You really mean it?”
“I’d just like a nice commune somewhere on Corsica. On a nice gonarr ranch. I’d love to try gonarr riding. I hear they’re lovely beasts.”
“Sesil, if we put our minds to it, we can put a stop to this Starshine business. You started it, you can finish it.”
“I’m afraid not. The Critics would just not understand. No, the simply would not allow it.”
“You think not?”
“It’s like when you sign on to do a job, they expect you to carry it through, right? Your superiors wouldn’t just let you quit Starfleet, would they?”
“Probably. We have people leave Starfleet all the time.”
“Really. Guess I got into the wrong profession!” And Sesil and Conway chuckled, until the dust got so thick in the elevator that they began choking violently.
The Escort streaked into the Sytarnan system and came out of warp. It swung around Sytarnan Three to come face to face with a fleet of five ugly-looking Starshine warships. Two were the bulky, half-Flarn-looking ones they’d come across in the Redlands, and the other three were the slimmer, more angular ships such as the starship Starshine. Even worse, red subspace vortexes spiralled open to either side of the ships, emitting swarms of small, arrow- shaped mini-ships about the size of a Defiant-class ship.
“Any sign they detect us?” Baxter asked, stepping toward the Escort’s tiny viewscreen.
“Negative,” Larkin said from ops/science. “However, I now detect a total of two hundred vessels, ranging in size. What do you suggest we do?”
“Scan for the remains of the Devagh and the Festiva.”
“Very well,” said Larkin. After a moment, she reported, “The Devagh impacted against a mountain in the northern hemisphere. The Festiva crashed in a valley on the southern hemisphere.”
“Donovan or Peterman,” Ford said. “Care to flip a coin, sir?”
Baxter seethed. “Don’t make me hit you, Ford.”
“He does address a peculiar problem,” Velara said. “The Festiva might hold the answers to what the Starshiners are planning and how to stop them. The Devagh surviors, on the other hand, include your wife.”
“Then the course is clear,” Baxter said, and sat back down in the command chair.
“See anything?” Conway asked, as Sesil stood on his shoulders, peering out the hatch atop the crashed elevator.
“Nothing but blackness, I’m afraid.”
“I’ll give you a boost, and you can climb out. Then help me out, okay?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Sesil said, and Conway thrust him upward.
Conway looked up at the hatch and waited plaintively. “All right, Sesil, stick your hand down.”
“Sorry, can’t do. I’ve got a Klingon invasion force to stop.”
“But, our talk….you said…”
“Lies, lies, lies, my dear old friend!”
Conway gritted his teeth as Sesil’s giggles vanished and the insane Vulcan shimmied his way up the elevator shaft.
“Vulcans don’t lie!” Conway snarled after him.
“Nutty ones do!” Sesil giggled, and he was gone.
Conway worked his jaw angrily, bunched up his fists, and screamed up out of the elevator shaft.
“We’ve got company!” growled Benzra.
Counselor Peterman shielded her eyes and looked up at the small dark blip on the horizon that bee-lined toward her and the Devagh survivors.
She put a pair of binoculars to her eyes and screeched with joy. “It’s the Escort! They came for us!”
“Your husband, no doubt,” Dwanok grumbled.
“I think it’ssssssss romantic,” said Benzra, as the Escort soared over them and dove down to hover just above their heads.
“You would,” Dwanok mumbled.
“Ahoy down there,” came Baxter’s voice over the loudspeakers. “Would you all care for a lift?”
“Don’t make me ask twice, honeybear!” Peterman cried out, and immediately felt herself begin to dematerialize.
Peterman, Benzra, and Dwanok, joined the others on the bridge.
Benzra in particular found the space quite cramped.
“How doessssss one maneuver in a ssssspace so sssssmall?”
“We get by,” Baxter said, and pulled Peterman into his lap. “Mr. Ford, head us toward the Festiva.”
“Aye, sir,” said Ford.
“You came after me,” Peterman said, smooching Baxter on the neck. “What made you think I needed your help?”
“The fact that you went off half-cocked with this chubby Klingon and his pals just because your therapist told you so. Isn’t that reason enough?”
“J’hana to Tilleran. I just got word. The Escort is on her way to pick us up.”
“Perfect timing,” said Tilleran, as she looked approvingly over the inert Ashley Donovan. “I just began a neurosynaptic induction sequence that I think might have favorable results in our patient.”
“I knew you would come up with something. I’ll prepare a–” J’hana said, then trailed off.
“Jan?” Tilleran asked meekly. Suddenly she looked down and saw reddish-pink energies envelop Ashley Donovan. She felt a tingle that signaled transport. But it wasn’t the familiar Starfleet tingle. This tingle was much much more sinister!
“Damn it, no!” Baxter shot out of his chair so quickly Peterman fell off his lap and slammed her butt on the hard Escort deck. “Larkin, track that transport!”
“Everyone was beamed up to a vessel in orbit. It is Sesil’s flagship. The Starshine.”
“Go after them!”
“Captain Baxter,” Velara said tersely cutting in between Baxter and the viewscreen as Ford sent the Escort dizzily tumbling up through the Sytarnan atmosphere. “Do you realize that vessel outguns even the Explorer. It will make mincemeat of us!”
“Not necessarily. You forget, a volatile Andorian and resourceful Betazoid are on board that vessel,” Baxter said.
“Will that be enough to turn the tide of war to our favor?” asked Velara.
“Do not question it! J’hana is a warrior incarnate!” growled Dwanok.
“Forget I asked,” Velara said, raising an eyebrow.
“It’s forgotten,” Baxter said. “Mr. Gellar, ready on weapons; Larkin, do whatever you can to find a way to get through and beam our people back here.”
“I have come to the realization that I prefer being in an office to field duty,” Velara said quietly as the Escort roared out of the Sytarnan atmosphere.
After extricating himself from the elevator shaft and hobbling through the emptied corridors of the Shinola Building for several minutes, Commander Conway deduced he was totally alone.
He’d used his hidden communicator to call J’hana and Tilleran, to no avail. Apparently, it was destroyed in the elevator crash.
So Conway did the next logical thing. He dug himself out of the rubble of the ruined building and ran down the street in search of help.
Just then, a shadow soared over his head and he looked up. Savior! It was the Escort!
“Down here!” he cried, waving his hands, wishing for a working communicator. “Down here!”
The Escort darted away and zipped up through the slowly dimming atmosphere.
“Don’t leave me!” Conway cried. “Somebody, anybody!”
“The fleet’s getting underway,” Gellar reported.
“Heading?” Velara asked, leaning over the tactical panel.
Baxter stared at the viewscreen. “Sector 001.”
“Is he right?” Peterman asked, looking to Gellar.
Gellar nodded dumbly. “Uh, yes, sir. How did you know?”
“It just figures.” Baxter moved to the command chair but found Peterman there. “Honey…can I get there?”
“Negative. You’re the one that got out so fast.”
“Fine. See if I care.” Baxter patted Ford on the back. “Follow that fleet, Ford.”
“What, we’re going to fight them off with just the Escort?”
“No,” said Baxter. “We’re going to trail them and wait for something fortuitous to happen. Maybe the Directors will pop up and destroy the fleet, like the Prophets did when that Dominion fleet tried to come through the Bajoran wormhole.”
“Keep dreaming,” Peterman sighed, and stared at the Starshine ships on the viewscreen.
“We have to stop them somehow,” said Baxter. “And just hope to high heavens that J’hana and Tilleran are working just such a plan. And where the hell is Conway, anyway?”
Sesil paced the oval arc of the Starshine’s bridge. “So, Laverne, or should I call you Lt. Tilleran?”
“Call me whatever you want,” Tilleran said easily, standing next to J’hana at the front of the bridge.
“And V’lok’or, or shall I call you J’hana?”
“You really think you’re intimidating us?” J’hana said. “Please. Tilleran and I have had sex more strenuous than this.”
Sesil stopped pacing. “The two of you…had sex…with each other?”
“That’s usually how it works,” Tilleran said.
Sesil rose an eyebrow. “This is interesting.”
“It’s been done before,” Tilleran said. “No big whup.”
“Not to distract you, greatness,” said a spindly Yridian, one of Sesil’s attendants. “But we have the matter of the Federation invasion to tend to.”
“In time,” Sesil said, and eyed Tilleran and J’hana lustily. “What would the two of you say to a good old fashioned romp in an antigrav chamber with yours truly?”
“I’d rather remove my own intestines,” J’hana spat, and suddenly flashed back to her high school graduation party. What a great night.
Sesil blinked. “Can I at least watch you two kiss?”
“Nope,” Tilleran said.
“Damn. Well, you’ll both change your tune soon enough. You, Tilleran, are familiar with the process. You’ll find we’ve refined it.”
“I saw a bit of your handiwork.”
“Ah, yes. Young Miss Donovan. She is at present recovering in our Sickbay.”
Tilleran smiled. “I also got the chance to see into her mind.”
Sesil’s smile wavered. “Good for you.”
“I saw what you were trying to hide.”
J’hana looked at Tilleran. “Pardon?”
“All along, we thought the Starshine Kids had so thoroughly delved through Commander Donovan’s neural pathways in order to get at Section 31 information. But that didn’t make any sense. Their weaponry is easily on a level with anything Starfleet or Section 31 has. So why would they be rooting around so much more deeply in Donovan’s brain than one of their normal victims?”
Sesil frowned. “You mind-reading bitch.”
“Donovan knew something that was very helpful to the Starshine Kids. She knew of a new way to convert people over to their way of thinking. A way that could be unleashed instantly on a mass populace. And that knowledge is why she went aboard the Secondprize in the first place!”
“It’s such a small world!” Sesil exclaimed. “Imagine the irony. Your current captain, on his former ship, had sex with a woman who was sent to the Secondprize by Section 31 to investigate several issues. Among those issues was a device created by one Dr. Tulson. A device capable of unleashing mind-altering waves of energy on an entire planet’s population. Now, six years later, we’ve harvested that knowledge from Miss Donovan and will use it on Earth itself, to make the whole blasted place Starshiney beyond all cure!” Sesil’s eyes were wide with glee as he told this to Tilleran and J’hana.
“One problem,” said Tilleran.
“And what would that be?” Sesil demanded, moving to inches from Tilleran’s face. The Betazoid didn’t flinch.
“Have you done a neural scan on Miss Donovan?”
“Not yet. Why bother. What could you possibly have done to–”
Tilleran smiled. “I wonder.”
Sesil reached over to a nearby panel and stabbed a control. “Sesil to Sickbay. Doctor Friesz, please check on our patient.”
“The Donovan woman!”
“Right away, sir.”
Sesil tapped his foot angrily. “You think you’re hot stuff, don’t you, Betazoid?”
“She is hot stuff,” J’hana said, grinning.
“Sesil, this is Friesz,” piped the comm system. “We can’t find any trace of Miss Donovan.”
“Well, what do you know,” Tilleran said. “Looks like my neural induction sequence worked.”
Sesil’s eyes darted around madly.
Tilleran grinned. “But what harm could she do, Sesil, really? She’s just a highly-trained member of one of the most secret, shadowy organization in the whole alpha quadrant. She’s been trained to walk in between the raindrops. To be invisible. What harm could she possibly do running amok on your ship?”
Sesil’s lower lip trembled. Finally, he stabbed the comm button again. “Sesil to security! Intruder alert! It is the Donovan woman. GET HER!”
J’hana smiled at Tilleran. “Nicely done, Ariel.”
“Why thanks, Jan.”
Sesil rubbed his hands together and looked from J’hana to Tilleran hungrily. “Well, we have a wait ahead of us. My people are tracking down your little friend Ashley, and it’ll be at least another four hours before we reach Earth. What’s say we retire to my quarters for a little…recreation.”
J’hana and Tilleran exchanged nervous glances.
He wants us, Tilleran thought at J’hana.
No kidding, J’hana replied mentally. What do we do?
Well, if he’s with us, that means he’s not helping with the search. That might give Ashley the chance she needs to overtake the ship.
But where does that leave us?
Humping a Vulcan cult leader.
Anything for the Fleet, Ariel!
Tilleran sighed. “Okay, Sesil. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Sesil squealed like a giddy schoolgirl. “Oh, shiney day!”
Lt. Commander Richards sat at the edge of the command chair on USS Explorer’s bridge and tapped his fingers on the chairarm.
“When are we supposed to hear from Vorezze?” asked Dr. Browning from beside him.
“Any minute now.”
Suddenly, Vorezze transported directly in front of Richards with a flicker of blue transporter particles.
“Ah, there you are!” Vorezze said.
Richards scrambled backwards in the command chair. “Don’t scare me like that! Captain Baxter may have tolerated it, but I won’t!”
“Listen,” Vorezze said, “I’ve talked to my superiors. The communication from J’hana and Tilleran seems to be on the level. Starfleet listening posts have already detected a large-ish Starshine fleet headed for Earth.”
“Starfleet doesn’t stand a chance against them,” Browning said softly.
“Maybe not,” Vorezze said, and smiled. “But Section 31 does. My orders are to gather a fleet of Section 31 ships and intercept the Starshine Kids before they can attack Earth.”
“Section 31 has a fleet?” Richards asked, and scratched his head.
“You bet your ass they do,” Vorezze said. “Now listen, I know your Captain and friends are mixed up in this, but the Explorer and Pathfinder are not to get in the fighting. This is now strictly a Section 31 matter. We’re professionals and we’ve been in this situation before. Let us handle it.”
“You guys sure do get in a lot of big firefights for a group bent on keeping a low profile,” Browning observed.
“Yes, well, it’s a constant battle to stay out of the headlines. Now, you and Captain…Lucille…Baxter…are to hold position until you hear otherwise from me or Starfleet. Is that understood?”
Richards nodded. “Perfectly.”
“Very well,” Vorezze said. “Wish us luck.”
“Luck,” Richards muttered, and Vorezze disappeared in a wisp of blue.
“The Banshee just decloaked and entered warp,” Ensign Sefelt noted from ops. “And we’re safe right here.”
“Not for long,” Richards said. “Sefelt, I want you to get all nonessential personnel into the saucer section and prepare to initiate the separation sequence. We’re going after that fleet.”
“But, Chris,” Ensign Madera said, turning in her chair at helm. “Our orders…”
“Are not about to be followed,” Browning said, cutting her off. “You should know better than that by now.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Madera snapped.
“Ladies, ladies,” Richards said, moving to stand between Browning and Madera, who were now both standing. “I know you both want a piece but I can only give so much.”
“For Pete’s sake,” Browning mumbled.
“Janice, I know you won’t like this, but you’re going to stay here with the saucer where it’s safe…”
“I’m not arguing with you,” Browning said. “I’ve got a son to look after, you know.”
Richards sighed. “I know. Madera, Sefelt, you two are with me. Janice, get a crew up here to man the bridge and find a safe place to hide out.”
Browning held Richards’s gaze for a moment. “I will.”
“And, if we don’t come back for any reason…”
Browning smiled. “Christopher, your girlfriend’s waiting by the turbolift.”
“Right.” And Richards dashed for the turbolift.
Lt. Hartley and Mr. Mirk rushed onto the battle bridge, just as Richards was about to order the saucer sep sequence.
“You called?” Hartley asked, leaning over the bridge railing.
Richards turned in the command chair to face him. “Lt. Hartley, you take tactical.”
“I’m honored, but I’m not really a tactical officer.”
“You’re the last person who handled tactical from the battle bridge, if I remember right.”
“You remember right,” Hartley said, and went to work at the tactical panel, which was embedded directly into the railing that surrounded Richards’s lone command chair.
“What’s my duty here, other than to look cute?” Mirk asked, straightening his long, white reverend’s jacket.
“We’re either blowing away your competition, or being blown away by them,” Richards said. “I thought you’d like to see it, either way.”
Mirk smiled uneasily. “No kidding.”
Richards turned in his chair to face the viewscreen. “Ensign Sefelt, begin saucer sep sequence. Mark!”
Hartley checked tactical. “We’re being hailed by the Pathfinder. Apparently, Lucille is ready to join us.”
Richards smiled. “I thought she would be. That’s her booty-butt we’re going after, after all.”
Hartley re-checked the panel. “And, scary enough, she actually refers to him as ‘booty-butt’ in the message.”
“Somehow I thought she might.” Richards watched on the viewscreen as the saucer drifted slowly away from the docking latches that connected it to the “neck” of the Explorer. “Tell ‘Lucille’ to follow us,” Richards said, once the separation was completed. “Ensign Madera, set course to intercept that fleet, maximum warp.”
“Course laid in.”
Madera turned in her chair. “In point of fact, Captain Baxter usually says ‘engage.’”
“Just go, damn it!”
Captain Baxter paced the overcrowded bridge of the Escort, squeezing by Peterman and weaving around Benzra. “Any activity from the fleet?”
“Negative,” said Larkin. “The only update I have for you is that Captain Dwanok’s elbow has been firmly planted in my side for the last three and a half hours and has begun to cause a disruption in my third nanocordical subprocessor.”
“That is a problem,” Baxter said. “Can we get any of these people belowdecks?”
“Heck no,” Gellar said from tactical. “It’s even more crowded down there.”
“Then you’ll just have to make do, Larkin,” Baxter said.
“Captain!” Larkin suddenly called out.
“I said you’ll just have to make do!”
“It is not that, sir!” Larkin said. “I just noticed a surge in activity from the starship Starshine.”
“What kind of activity?”
“A long list, Captain,” Larkin said. “From failure to the isodyne relays in the warp core, to a total short-out in the shield composite network. They are falling out of formation and coming to a dead stop.”
“Intercept them!” Baxter ordered.
“The fleet isn’t turning around,” Gellar said.
“The Starshine is where Ashley, J’hana, and Tilleran are. We have to get them before we do anything else.”
“Incidentally,” said Velara, “Sesil is over there too.”
“Good point. Get us in transporter range and bring all four of them aboard!”
“No good, sir,” said Gellar. “There’s just too much radiation from the overload in the isodyne relays.”
“Can we beam a team over there?”
“Sure. But we may not be able to get them back until that radiation’s cleared out.”
“Fair enough,” Baxter said. “Then let’s go.” He looked around at the crowd on the bridge, who all headed for the exit door. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Nellie! We can’t all go. Someone has to man the conn!”
Larkin nodded. “I volunteer, sir, since I have no personal stake in this matter, nor do I have any emotions at all.”
“Good thing too,” Baxter said, patting Larkin on the back. “You and Ford stay here. The rest of you,” he sighed, “including my wife, her therapist, the Flarn, and the lovesick Klingon, are with me.”
This was probably the strangest away team of all time.
Tilleran squinted her eyes in the darkness. “Did you feel something?”
“Like the jolt of coming out of warp,” J’hana replied.
“That was me,” Sesil said giddily from under the covers.
Tilleran ignored him. “Combined with the fizzle of total shield failure,” she said. “I’d recognize that anywhere.”
Sesil stuck his head out from under the covers. “What are you two talking about? Don’t you ever talk about anything besides work?”
“Seldom,” J’hana said.
“Well come on back under the covers! It’s not every day I get to play ‘campout’ with a couple of beautiful women!”
“He does have a point,” said J’hana.
Baxter and the others raced down the corridor, taking potshots at passing Starshine Kids with their phasers. The sheer factor of surprise overwhelmed the Starshiners.
“Did anyone bring a tricorder?” Baxter asked, blasting a bald Leeramar.
“I did,” said Gellar, shouldering his way to the front of the group. “Who am I searching for? Andorian? Betazoid? Delicious blonde?”
Peterman bopped Gellar on the head with the dull side of her mek’leth.
“Sorry,” Gellar said sheepishly. “Well?”
Baxter thought a moment. “All of the above.”
“I don’t think the tricorder can be programmed for ‘delicious blonde,’” Peterman muttered.
“I’m sure he’ll just look for a human. I don’t see many human Starshine Kids. Maybe it’s just because we’re generally less susceptible to suggestion.”
Velara, Telvin, Benzra, and Dwanok all laughed heartily.
“Hardly, Captain,” Dwanok said. “It is because humans are inferior warriors!”
“Whatever the reason,” Gellar said, “I’ve found only one female human signature. In the engine room, two decks down. The Betazoid and Andorian signature are both in a cabin three decks up with a Vulcan.”
“That would be my brother,” Velara said darkly. “Telvin, Dwanok, and I will go after him. The rest of you, find the delicious blonde.”
“Right,” Gellar grinned, and Peterman bopped him again.
When Baxter and the others reached the engine room, they found Ashley Donovan frantically working at the master controls, shoving aside unconscious Starshiners as she did so.
Baxter cleared his throat. “Ahem. Ashley?”
Ashley turned around. “Oh, hi, Andy.” She turned back to her panel. “Can you help me with…” She looked up again. “Andy!”
Peterman rubbed her eyes. “Let’s get this overwith.”
Ashley raced to hug Baxter, and enveloped him in a wet sloppy kiss. “It is you! It is really you! I’m sorry, my brain’s still a bit befuddled from all the brainwashing, but I’d recognize you anywhere. And nice goatee, by the way!”
Baxter shurnk away from Ashley, held up his hands. “Ashley, whoa there. I’m married.” He held up his ring finger to illustrate.
“Oh,” Ashley said. “And what little dominatrix finally stepped in to rule over you?”
“Ahem,” Peterman said, and stepped forward, feeling embarassed to be wearing her tight commando outfit. “Kelly Peterman, Ship’s Counselor, USS Explorer.”
“How sweet, you married your therapist,” Ashley said, and grinned. “That somehow seems fitting.”
“Yes, well, be that as it may, we have a serious situation on our hands. A fleet of Starshine ships is heading toward Earth. We have to cut them off.”
“The situation is worse than you think.”
“How ssssssssssssso?” asked Benzra.
“Wow, you do have a diverse crew,” Ashley said, then blinked. “Oh, right. Well, to make a long story short, the Starshine Kids plan on using a variation on Dr. Robert Tulson’s brain-altering device to convert entire planets over to the Starshine way instantly. Their first stop, obviously, is Earth.”
“Where is this device?” Peterman asked.
“I’ve searched a bit, and can pretty safely conclude it’s not on this ship,” said Ashley. “And what’s worse, I fragged the engines good, so we can’t even use this ship to go after the fleet.”
“We have a ship,” Baxter said. “But not one that’s capable of taking on a whole fleet of Starshine ships.”
“Then the whole of Earth, and the rest of the Federation as we know it, is gone,” Ashley said.
“Larkin to Baxter. Sir, the Explorer and Pathfinder just arrived and asked if they can render assistance?”
“Aw, Mom,” Baxter said sheepishly.
“They sure can render assistance,” Peterman said. She nudged Baxter. Ashley grinned.
“Oh, right,” Baxter said. “Yes, tell them to cut off the fleet heading for Earth immediately. They need to find a ship that’s got a mind-altering device and they have to destroy it! It’s the only hope Earth has!”
“And what shall I do in the meantime?” asked the android.
“Dock with this ship and prepare to receive some visitors.”
Baxter sighed. “Yep. Make room. Beam out my couchbed, if necessary.”
“That will be a tremendous help, Captain.”
Peterman shook her head. “She really is getting good at sarcasm.”
“Just like that, we have to blow up the ship that has the mind ray,” Richards said to Larkin, who waited patiently for his response on the viewscreen. “Like it’s so simple!”
“Those are your orders, father. Shall I call Captain Baxter for confirmation?”
Richards shook his head. “Don’t bother. We’ll do it. Don’t bet on us succeeding, though.”
“I will not.”
“Uh, good. Explorer out.”
When Commodore Velara lifted the sheet in Sesil’s private cabin, she was greeted with a sight too grotesque and bizarre to put into words. Suffice it to say, Lieutenants J’hana and Tilleran, both naked, were tangled up with her brother Sesil in a most disturbing fashion.
“I do not know what to say,” Velara said quietly.
“Say you’ll join us!” Sesil cried out. Velara cringed. Her emotional control was about to go out the nearest airlock.
“Tilleran, J’hana, explain,” Velara said.
“He made us do it!” Tilleran said.
“We did it for the fleet!” J’hana said, then repeated, “we just did it for the fleet!”
“You both will be promoted for this,” Velara concluded dimly. She turned to Sesil. “Brother, extricate yourself from those officers immediately.”
Sesil winced and twisted around. “That will take a moment.”
Velara glowered. “Proceed.”
“Nice to see you again,” Telvin said meekly, waving at Sesil.
“You too!” Sesil said, wriggling his elbow out from behind Tilleran’s knee. “Would you like to join in?”
“Oh, no thanks.”
Dwanok hovered behind Velara and Telvin. He looked at J’hana and let out a loud belly laugh.
J’hana grimaced as she slid out from under the loop created by Tilleran and Sesil’s intertwined arms. “Something amuses you, large one?”
“It’s just…just…” Dwanok chortled. “This reminds me so much of our trip to Praxis!”
“Indeed,” J’hana said, and joined Dwanok laughing.
“Even I will need therapy after this,” Velara sighed.
“And it’ll be on the house,” Telvin said merrily.
Velara grabbed Sesil by the arm and lifted him up to standing. “You disgust me, Sesil.”
“I know,” Sesil said sheepishly.
“You have reduced our entire family to a shambles. You are an utter, total, embarassment. I have not said a word about you to father. He still thinks you are a real estate salesman.”
“Probably for the best!” Sesil admitted. Then he heard voices in the hallway. “Ah, the cavalry come to save me.”
Starshine Kids busted in through the door to Sesil’s cabin. Dwanok immediately launched himself at them, pummeling them with bare fists. They didn’t have the time to raise their weapons.
Velara shoved her phaser against Sesil’s forehead. “Enough! All of you, please lay down on the floor or I will kill your leader.”
Sesil grinned. “Thanks for saying ‘please.’”
“Think nothing of it.”
“Entering Terran system, right on the tail of the Starshine fleet,” Madera announced.
“Hartley, start searching for a brain-altering beam. Instruct Pathfinder to do the same.”
“That’ll be easy,” Hartley said. “We came across a few of them on our trip into the happy alternate universe.”
Richards nodded. “Who knew we’d ever be thankful for that trip?”
“You’ve got me,” Mirk admitted, hovering over Hartley’s shoulder as she searched.
“The Starshine ships are all descending on Earth,” Madera said. “The starships Salerno and Veracruz are closing in on them, along with a few small fighters.”
“They don’t stand a chance!” Hartley exclaimed.
“But they might distract the Starshine vessels long enough for us to find what we want,” Richards said. “Madera, take us into the center of the fleet.”
“Madera? Excuse me?”
“Susan, pretty f***ing please, take us into the center of that fleet!”
Madera did as she was told, and the Explorer stardrive and Pathfinder both dived into the cloud of tiny Starshine fighers and larger vessels, weaving around as those ships opened fire.
Richards held fast to the command chair as the Explorer rocked. “Come on, come on, Hartley!”
Hartley tapped her console, passing one after another multispectral scan of the surrounding vessels. “I’m trying. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack!”
“Well dig deeper!” Richards cried as blasts rocked the Explorer.
“Chris,” Mirk said, circling around to join Richards at the center of the battle bridge. “We have to account for the possibility that we won’t find the right–”
“FOUND IT!” Hartley exclaimed.
“Lock quantum torpedoes and fire!” Richards shouted. “Concentrate your fire on wherever that beam is located!”
“Yes, sir!” Hartley tapped away, then shrieked. “F***!”
“There are five more ships that have the same freaking beam!”
Richards sighed at the center seat, in the darkened bridge. “Then we’ll have to fight them all.”
“We’ll be blown to bits!” Mirk protested, as the ship rocked.
“You think I don’t know that?”
Velara met Baxter at the Starshine Ship’s airlock, with Sesil in tow.
“I for one am ready to leave,” said Velara.
Baxter looked around and did a quick headcount. “Do we have everyone?”
“Affirmative,” Velara said. Sesil was wrapped in a robe. J’hana and Tilleran were still tugging on their off-duty uniforms.
“You think you’ve won, don’t you, Baxter” Sesil sneered, as Velara shoved him in the airlock. “Well, think again. My ships are converting Earth’s population to loyal Starshiners as we speak.”
“Not if my mom and my Chief Engineer have anything to say about it,” Baxter snapped.
“You’ve made quite a niche for yourself in Starfleet, haven’t you?” Ashley asked, as the group squeezed through into the Escort corridor.
“Yep,” Baxter said. “Now everyone squeeze in tight so we can get the airlock shut.”
Crammed in the Escort corridor, the group held their collective breaths and sucked in their collective guts as the airlock wheezed shut.
Baxter tapped his comm badge. “All aboard, Larkin. Take us to Earth, lickity split!”
“Some big ship you’ve got here,” Ashley marveled, shoving Benzra’s multijointed elbow out of her face.
“This is just my companion ship,” Baxter said. “Wait till you see my big one!”
“She already has,” Peterman muttered, and pressed on down the corridor.
“Strike one up for the counselor!” Gellar cheered. No one else did.
“We’re up s*** creek!” Hartley cried, gripping tactical. “The shields are gone, ablative armor is losing integrity, and we’ve only knocked out two of five mind beams!”
“And what’s the good news,” Richards asked, coughing in the smoke-bathed battle bridge.
“Apparently, the pottery class on Deck 30 has not been canceled!”
“There’s the bright spot I was looking for!”
Mirk rushed up to the tactical railing, studied the damage reports coming in from all over the ship. He looked up at Hartley, who was tapping madly at weapons, blasting left and right at Starshine ships. “Megan, I’ve got to tell you something!”
“I’m sort of busy right now, Mirk!”
“This can’t wait!” Mirk said. “Listen, Megan, we’re all going to die here, right? This is a dead-end situation. We’re in the midst of a huge fleet of enemy ships and on the brink of blowing up. I have to tell you this now or never!”
“Make it quick!” Richards cried, as sparks poured out of a busted console to his right.
Mirk drew up his breath and shouted: “Megan, I love you!”
Hartley wrinkled her nose and looked at Mirk. “Really?”
“Really!” Mirk pulled Hartley toward him and kissed her, long and hard.
Richards smiled. “Well. It’s about time.”
Mirk and Hartley kept kissing, wrapped in each other’s arms.
And then Mirk began to glow.
And then the Explorer was hit by an antiproton blast from a Starshine ship, and its port nacelle was blown clean off, and another blast blew a hole in the engine section. Another hit the impulse engine and sent the stardrive listing away toward the Mars-Earth asteroid belt. The Starshine ships left it for dead and continued on toward Earth.
Escort sailed into the Terran system; Ford brought it out of warp just before hitting Earth, a maneuver he’d bragged about extensively and only now got the chance to put into practice.
“Scans,” Baxter ordered, tiptoeing to see the viewscreen over Benzra and Dwanok’s bulk. The bridge was now so crowded he couldn’t move in any direction. If anyone had to use the bathroom, there would be trouble.
Larkin checked her panel. “The Explorer stardrive is listing near the Mars-Earth asteroid belt. She took extensive hull damage and lost a warp nacelle. Life support probably will not hold out long. The Pathfinder, likewise, is dead in space near Earth’s moon.”
“And the fleet?” Velara asked urgently.
Larkin checked. “Aimed right at Earth. I am picking up debris from at least two other starships.”
“So much for the Terran Planetary Guard,” Baxter muttered. “Take us to those ships. Open a wide-band channel. Tell them we have Sesil and we’ll give them a choice of having J’hana or Dwanok gut him slowly if they don’t stop their attack.”
“They won’t listen!” Sesil said. “They’ll carry out this mission even if it does mean my death. That’s how determined my people are to populate this quadrant with believers!”
“If I could find you in this damned crowd, I’d strangle you, you Vulcan piece of s***!” Baxter cried.
“You tell him, Andy,” said a voice from the crowd, probably Peterman.
“I am picking up energy buildups from three Starshine ships,” Larkin said. “It appears they are activating the brainwave device.”
“Dr. Tulson would be proud,” Ashley muttered from somewhere in the crowd.
“And I never even inventoried it,” Baxter said. “Wait. Ashley. You weren’t just on the Secondprize looking for run of the mill Romulan spies. You were sent to find out how Tulson’s beam worked!”
“And I succeeded, didn’t I?”
“Yeah. You lied to me.”
Baxter shook his head. “I can’t believe it.”
“Now you know how I feel.” That was definitely Peterman.
“Fine f***ing time to gloat, Kelly!”
“Hey, no time like the present!”
“If anyone is interested,” Larkin announced, “a large fleet has just entered this system.”
“Who now, the Multeks?” asked Baxter irritably.
“Negative,” Larkin said. “The fleet is made up of Starfleet vessels. Prometheus, Akira, and Steamrunner-class. Some I cannot even identify.”
“Who’s leading the fleet?”
“The Banshee, sir.”
“Vorezze!” Baxter cried. “Put me through to him, now!”
“Aye, sir.” Larkin plunked a control.
“Captain Vorezze, this is Baxter. Three of those Starshine ships have brainwave devices. Concentrate your firepower on them!”
“And who told you this?” replied Vorrezze’s skeptical voice.
“You rescued her?”
“Bitchin’! Wait. She told you about her mission to find the brainwave device?”
“Providence be damned. We’re all getting fired.”
“Not if Starfleet is eradicated,” Baxter said testily. “Destroy those f***ing ships, Vorezze!”
“Right away, your highness.”
Suddenly, Baxter heard the unmistakable sound of the bridge doors opening and closing.
“Who just left?” he asked, looking among the mass of people and counting heads. He got a lot of “not me’s” in response.
“Sesil!” Velara called. “God damn it!”
“Well,” said Baxter. “Vulcans can curse after all.”
“We must find him!” Velara shouted.
“No crap. Larkin, you have the bridge.” Baxter squeezed past Benzra and Dwanok, shoved Telvin aside, brushed past Peterman, ducked around Gellar, J’hana, and Tilleran, and side- stepped Ashley Donovan to join Velara at the bridge exit. “Don’t go anywhere, you guys. We’ll be right back.”
“Anyone know any good jokes?” Telvin asked meekly. Someone jabbed him in the stomach and he quickly shut up.
Baxter and Velara raced down the corridor, sidling past Escort crew and refugees from the crashed Devagh.
“Any idea where he is?” asked Baxter.
“Straight ahead and down one deck.”
“Transporter bay,” said Baxter. “That makes sense. Excuse me, pardon me. Make a hole! Captain coming through!” Baxter considered what Velara had just said. “Mind telling me how you’re so darned sure of where he is?”
“He is my brother. We are in…contact. Unfortunately.”
“I hope you didn’t experience any of what happened with J’hana and Tilleran.”
“Luckily not.” Velara followed Baxter down the companion ladder to the lower deck and they ran for the transporter room, where they found Sesil pounding on the console.
“Work, damn it, work!” he cried.
“It would help if our shields were down,” Baxter said helpfully, leveling his handphaser at Sesil. “Now back away from the controls.”
“No! No, I’m going to join my bretheren in the conquest of Earth! It shall be done!”
“It shall not!” Velara said. “A fleet from Section 31 is currently making mincemeat of your fleet. Earth has been saved. We can use the brainwave technique to convert all of your followers back to normal. Your fifteen minutes of fame are over, brother!”
“NOOOOOOOO!” Sesil shrieked, covering his ears. “You LIE!”
“Can I shoot him now, Commodore?” Baxter asked.
“I will take care of him,” Velara said, and pushed up her shirtsleeves.
Sesil cowered behind the transporter cosole. “No…no…”
“Take it like man, brother!” Velara said. She picked Sesil up by the collar and shoved him against the bulkhead. She hit him with a one-two punch to the stomach, sweep-kicked his feet out from under him, and dove on him, smashing an elbow right into his head.
Baxter winced. “Ouch.”
“Get up, twisted man,” Velara said. Sesil staggered to his feet, and Velara round-housed him right to the face. One broken jaw, coming right up.
She twisted his arm behind him and slammed his face into the bulkhead. Broken face. She twisted some more. Broken arm.
She slammed his head repeatedly into the bulkhead until it left a bloody spot, then let Sesil fall limp to the deck, all the time with pure rage plastered on her face.
Velara stood with her back to Baxter for a few moments, then turned to face Baxter, a pure look of placidity about her once more.
“I am sorry you had to see that, Captain,” she said calmly. “Family business, you understand.”
Baxter looked, aghast, at the heap of Vulcan on the deck. “Is he…is he dead?”
“No,” said Velara. “But he will never play the lyre again.”
Baxter’s mouth hung open. “I’d guess not.”
“Can we agree, Captain,” Velara said, glancing down at Sesil, “that you never saw this unfortunate display?”
“Are you kidding? No one would believe me.” Baxter glanced one more time in disbelief at Sesil, then followed Velara back up to the bridge.
“Well?” Baxter asked, as he stepped once more onto the Escort bridge.
“The Section 31 fleet made short work of the Starshiners,” Peterman said, moving to hold Baxter’s hand. “Sesil?”
“Taken care of,” Baxter said. “Short work, huh?” He looked at Ashley. “That’s quite a little secret organization you’ve got there.”
“We like to stay humble.”
“And out of sight.”
Ashley nodded. “Which is why every ship in the fleet cloaked again. We’ll call the disabling of the Starshine fleet a happy…coincidence…and leave it at that.”
“People will have questions,” Baxter said.
“Section 31 has ways of covering its tracks,” Ashley said.
“Big tracks,” Baxter said.
“Don’t worry about us.” Ashley smiled. “Thanks for helping me out of that…fix I was in by the way.”
Baxter grinned. “You helped me out of a fix six years ago. Let’s call it even.” He winced as Peterman jabbed him in the gut.
“I’d better go,” Ashley said. “We still have to salvage the brainwave devices and go about converting all of the Starshine- held worlds. I trust you and your people can clean up this mess here?”
“We’ll take care of it,” Baxter said, grinning at Ashley. “Will I ever see you again?”
“Doubtful, but you never know.” Ashley looked at Peterman. “Keep him out of trouble, Counselor.”
“I’d have to quit my dayjob,” Peterman said blankly, and Ashley Donovan was gone in a whirl of blue.
“Cute,” Baxter said. “Section 31 blows in like a bad storm and then blows out just as quick, and here we are with bashed ships and a horrified Earth.”
“All in a day’s work,” said J’hana, and she nudged Tilleran. “Right, Lieutenant Commander Tilleran?”
Tilleran nodded. “Right, Lieutenant Commander J’hana.”
“What’s this?” asked Baxter.
“Velara promoted us,” said Tilleran.
Baxter turned to Velara. “Really?”
“You didn’t see what I saw. They were…involved with Sesil. Promotions were the best consolation I could think of.”
Baxter glared at Tilleran and J’hana, who barely managed to cover their smiles. “Yeah, I’m sure they need consoling. They probably liked it.”
“Sir, I am shocked,” J’hana said.
“Really,” said Tilleran.
“I am loathe to interrupt,” said Larkin. “But two crews are badly in need of help on the Explorer and Pathfinder. I suggest we offer our assistance.”
“Right, right,” said Baxter. “Thanks for reminding me. By the way, have any of you seen Commander Conway?”
Tilleran and J’hana exchanged glances. They shrugged.
“‘I ain’t got nobody…’” Conway hummed and kicked the dirt down in the empty Starshine village on Sytarnan Three.
He idly wondered what the hell happened to everyone. Were they all dead? Would he starve to death on this dusty hot planet, or just go mad with loneliness?
Or worse, would the fleet return with word that Earth and the rest of the Federation were all “shiney”?
Conway shivered and kicked the dirt. “‘…just a giggolo…’”
He wondered where the hell he ever heard that song.
“My poor, poor ship,” Baxter said, kicking aside scraps of duranium and pushing his way through the fallen bulkhead and ceiling debris to get into the Explorer’s engineering compartment.
“And by the way, I’m doing fine,” Richards said, ducking out from under the master console. Engineers ran to and fro, adjusting this and resetting that. The whole ship was a shambles, and it was a constant fight at the moment just to keep structural integrity up.
Baxter looked around engineering and frowned. “It really is a mess around here.”
Richards nodded. His face was grimy and his uniform torn. “We barely made it out alive.”
“Well, don’t worry about a thing. The crisis is over, and I arranged for us to get the first bay at McKinley station, even ahead of my mom’s bashed-up ship.”
“That is a relief. Do you think they’ll be able to get Mirk off the battle bridge ceiling?”
Baxter shrugged. “Only time will tell.”
“Mirk, you’re just being difficult,” Lt. Hartley said, staring up at the Maloxian, who was pressed flat against the battlebridge ceiling. “Just focus your mind. It can’t be that hard!”
“Easy for you to say,” Mirk grunted. “By the way, you’re a hell of a kisser.”
Counselor Peterman looked on worriedly. “This has all sorts of psychological implications.”
“So do you have your powers back or what?” asked Hartley.
“I’m not sure. All I know is I glowed and shot up at the ceiling. And here I am now.”
Hartley sighed. “What if I come up there and kiss you again? You think that’ll get you down?”
Mirk smiled. “Only one way to find out.”
“I’ll get a ladder,” Peterman said excitedly.
J’hana and Tilleran found an empty crew cabin to hide away in. It had been a hard task, the pair of them, along with Benzra and Dwanok, trying to figure out how to pair up, or triple up, or what have you. Finally they settled on J’hana and Tilleran, and then Benzra and Dwanok across the hall. That was how matters had gone in recent months, anyway. And that’s how they’d have to continue, everyone supposed.
“You’re upset about Dwanok,” J’hana said, staring across the bed at J’hana.
“And you’re upset about Benzra,” said Tilleran.
“It’s all very confusing,” J’hana said.
“At least we’re both Lieutenant Commanders now.”
“There is that.”
“Admit it. That thing with Sesil was fun.”
“It was moderately amusing.”
“I think the whole crew pretty much knows about us, Jan,” Tilleran said, shifting to a new topic. “We should probably just explain ourselves. Come clean with the whole, dirty thing.”
“I have advocated that all along.”
Tilleran sighed. “I have to work with these people. I’d like to have their respect.”
“And so you shall, or I will kill them.”
“You really don’t have to do that.”
“Just say the word…” J’hana’s voice trailed off as she studied the terminal screen on the far bedroom wall. It was tuned into UKN. On the screen, a familiar man with glasses and a well- pressed Benzareen suit was sitting in a fancy, high-back chair, addressing her with fingers steepled:
“Do you have romantic troubles? Do you have a sizzling secret you want to tell the whole quadrant? Think it’ll shock your friends and coworkers?”
“Yes, yes, and yes,” J’hana said to the terminal.
“Then contact me, Alvin Ficker. I’ll put you and your saucy sexual partner on quadrant-wide vidivision. You can spill your guts to a man who cares. A former Starfleet captain with a heart of gold. Call now to reserve your special spot on my inaugural episode!”
“The captain will hate this!” Tilleran exclaimed.
“Let’s sign up!” J’hana said giddily.
Commander Conway staggered down the empty streets of Sytarnan Three. How long had he been there? Hours? Days? Time had lost all meaning.
He’d resolved that he’d never see another humanoid again, and if he did, that humanoid would probably be all starshiney.
Then he heard a wonderful jingling. That would have to be the angels of mercy coming to pick him up and drag him up to heaven. Just in time. He was really getting tired of Sytarnan Three.
He collapsed to the sand, limp. “Take me, angel! Take me up, I’m ready to go!”
“Get up,” said the most beautiful female voice in the galaxy.
“J-J-J-Janice?” Conway stammered.
“Yes, Commander.” Browning knelt down beside him, scanned with her medical tricorder. “You poor thing. You’re dehydrated, exahausted…and you haven’t eaten in hours!”
“Thank you so much for saving me,” Conway said, as Janice gently pulled him to his feet. “You know how much I love you.”
“Yes, I know,” Browning said, and patted Conway on the shoulder. “Just relax. It’ll all be okay.”
Browning kissed Conway on the forehead. “They’re all gone now, Dave. All gone.”
“Really?” Conway said, and brightened a bit.
“Uh-huh. What’s say we beam up to the Explorer’s saucer section and get you a nice cup of coffee?”
“I’d really like–wait a minute.” Conway perked up. “Just the saucer? And where the hell is the stardrive?”
“That,” Browning sighed, “is a long story.”
“I’ll bet,” Conway said, and collapsed in Browning’s arms.
“Ooof!” She glanced back at Saral and Puckett, the two security guards she’d brought down (on her very first away mission!). “You guys never saw this.” Saral and Puckett nodded dumbly. “Right, then. Browning to Explorer. Energize.”
“He’ll live,” said Nurse Holly Wilcox, studying Sesil’s readings in the sickbay on the embattled stardrive section. “Just barely.”
Velara looked on, with Telvin at her side. “A pity.”
“Pardon?” Holly asked.
“Nothing,” Velara sighed. “Can he speak?”
“For a moment. But I have to put him under in a bit, until we can get him to better medical facility on Earth.”
“I will speak with him.” Velara glared at Holly until she left.
Sesil’s eyes fluttered. “Velara…there you are. Where is my pet weevil?”
“Under the bed, Sessie,” Velara said, patting Sesil on the head. “Right where you left him.”
“My bar mitzvah is soon,” Sesil murmurred. “What shall you get me, Vel?”
“A Starfleet erector set, Sessie, for your very own.”
“Huh. That’s good.”
Telvin spoke up. “Sessie, it’s Telvin. How are you doing, little buddy?”
“I’m good. They took out my third appendix.”
“I know. You were a brave little Vulcan.”
“Telvin, you’re a mashugana putz.” Sesil giggled.
Velara shook her head. “He is quite deluded,” she whispered to Telvin.
“I’m clearing my calendar for him,” Telvin said. “Not that I had much of a clientele, other than that nice Counselor Peterman.”
“You will dedicate all your time to rehabilitating him?”
“I figure that’s the least I can do.”
Velara shook her head. “Telvin, between the three of us, I believe you are the least logical.”
“Sweet dreams, Sesil,” Velara said, and left Sickbay.
Stardate 54640.5. After two weeks, the Explorer is finally totally repaired and in one piece again. We are now en route to the Argolis cluster to study some sort of boring stellar phenomena. For once, I’m thrilled to be doing so. My information on what’s become of the Starshine Cult is foggy. Some ‘unknown’ force swept in and rehabbed all of the converts with some sort of brainwave-based ray. A Dr. Tulson is in the courts right now aruging over copyright violations. One thing is for certain, the Starshine Kids are gone for good, and it’s about time. I only wish I could thank my friend Captain Vorezze for all his help.
“This tiger suit is hot as hell, Kelly,” Baxter said, approaching his bed with some skepticism. He’d just finished painting stripes and whiskers on his face. “Plus, how am I going to get…the little captain…out?”
“Yeoman Briggs designed a flap especially for that!” Peterman exclaimed, hopping up and down in bed, donned in her own tiger suit. “He’s made quite a few similar suits for himself.”
“Euuuh,” Baxter said, and crouched down by Peterman. “I don’t know how to take that.”
“Don’t take it at all. Take me!” Peterman growled playfully and leaned forward to kiss Baxter.
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. “Prepare to be tamed, catwoman!” Baxter announced, and growled at the top of his lungs.
Baxter turned around. “F***!”
Peterman quickly buttoned the flap on her suit. “Captain Vorezze, please!”
“Sorry,” Vorezze said, sitting comfortably in the chair opposite Baxter and Peterman’s bed. “You know how it goes.”
“What now?” Baxter asked, folding his arms and sitting up in bed, trying to look dignified in his tiger suit. “No, let me guess. One of Peterman’s ex-boyfriends is trapped in Romulan space.”
“No, nothing like that,” Vorezze said. “I just wanted to let you know we converted all the Starshiners, and that the Alpha Quadrant is once again at peace, thanks to Section 31.”
“And in small part, to the Explorer crew,” Baxter added.
“Yes, well, them too,” Vorezze said.
“You know, we already knew all that. Something tells me you came just to get a peek at me and my wife!”
“Captain, please. I have my own family back on the Banshee. I just thought I’d deliver the information to you myself.”
“Well, thanks. Now, if you don’t mind, why don’t you deliver yourself on out of here.”
“With pleasure,” Vorezze grinned. “Be good, Captain.”
“I don’t plan on it.”
“Touche.” And the Betazoid Captain disappeared.
“Now,” Baxter said, adjusting his “tail” so he wasn’t sitting on it. “Where were we?”
“About to enter the wild kingdom,” Peterman growled, and pulled the covers up over she and Baxter.
“Get it all out of here,” Mirk said to the crewmen from maintenance, and looked unhappily around the empty room that had once been the Maloxitarian temple. The crewmen lugged another antigrav lift full of fruit baskets and candelabras out of the room, headed for the storage bay on deck twenty-three.
Lt. Hartley sat in one of the few remaining pews. “I’m sorry, Mirk.”
“It’s not your fault. When everyone found out the Starshine Kids were gone, they just lost interest. A few may have lingered for the last week or so, but in the end, they really didn’t have their hearts in it. Some were just here for the guava.”
“You tried your best to make a difference, Mirk,” Hartley said. “And even if no one else realizes it, I do.”
“Small comfort,” Mirk said, and sat down by Hartley. “I mean, really. I should be happy. The Starshine Kids are gone. Wasn’t that the whole reason behind having this stupid religion?”
“I suppose. But didn’t part of you want to think that you were actually adding something beautiful to the lives of your followers?”
“Yeah, but all that’s a load of dinghus. Maloxitarianism was a giant bummer for this crew for seven months.”
“But they stuck with it anyway,” Hartley said. “Because they love you.”
Hartley smiled. “And, I guess it’s long overdue, but I want you to know I love you too.”
“I know you do,” Mirk said, and took Hartley’s hand.
“Feel any powers coming on?” Hartley asked with a grin.
“Nope. I think the contact has to be a bit more intimate.”
“At least I was able to get down from the ceiling of the battle bridge.”
“This is true.”
“We should be glad of that and leave it at that. What do I need with powers anyway?”
“You make a good point.”
“No I don’t. I want my powers back, and getting them back by…well, by being with you, only makes it a sweeter deal.”
Hartley stood. “You don’t say.”
“Come on, Megan. We were meant to be together. You can unlock my powers. That has to mean something.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it does. But I have to find out WHAT it means before I go releasing a horny, powered-up Maloxian on the quadrant.”
“Mirk, I love you, but you’re bugging me. I’ll get back to you.” Hartley smiled at Mirk and stood.
“I’ll be waiting. In some other room, apparently, since my lease is up.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Hartley said. “See you for lunch tomorrow.”
Mirk watched her go.
Then a steely hot hand gripped his mind and squeezed.
<YOU’LL NEED THOSE POWERS, LITTLE BOY!>
<THAT’S RIGHT. YOUR FRIEND LEXIMAS HAS HELD ME BACK, BUT SHE CAN ONLY HOLD ME BACK FOR SO LONG. BE READY FOR ME. BE READY FOR A REMATCH. SESIL’S OUT OF THE PICTURE, BUT ME AND THE CRITICS ARE STILL OUT THERE, AND WE HAVE A BIG BARREL OF WHUP-ASS WITH YOUR NAME ON IT!>
The hand let go of Mirk’s mind and he nearly fell out of the pew.
She was gone, for the moment, and for that, Mirk let out a sigh of relief.
But she would be back, and Mirk would have to be ready for her.
Mirk ran out of the chapel. “Uh, Lieutenant Hartley…can we talk?”
The Explorer crew thought their troubles were over, what with the elimination of the Starshine Kids, etc. etc. But what a surprise to find out that their troubles have just begun, when J’hana and Tilleran pull them onto a sleazy talk show hosted by one of their most hated enemies. Will Baxter and the other senior staff tell all, or preserve even a shred of their public dignity and pride, assuming they had any to begin with? And what secrets will be unlocked in the personal lives of our crew as they’re asked to tell all to a rowdy audience? Find out, as we find out just why “Talk is Cheap,” next time on Star Traks: the Vexed Generation!