Author: Anthony Butler
Stardate 54971.3. Thanks to my gracious father, Explorer has been put on extended detached duty. For the last few weeks, we’ve done next to nothing but enjoy each other’s company and ferry the occasional cargo and diplomats. I suppose I should be leery of my father doing something so generous. I grew up watching the guy run his subordinate officers into the ground. It’s not like him to give such an extended vacation time to a whole crew. As a matter of fact, I don’t think Starfleet ever does that. Anyway, we’re enjoying our time off and I’m told Ms. Shar’s class is getting ready for a fascinating field trip to the dilithium mines of Golgolus Five. How special for them.
“They’re little demons, each and every one of them,” Tyra Shar growled, pacing Commander David Conway’s quarters. She’d moved in weeks ago. Conway liked to think of it as an occupation of sorts. He sure hadn’t made the decision. As a matter of fact, he hadn’t made very many decisions in his personal life since she started dating him months ago.
Commander Conway remembered the years he spent without so much as a cursory date, without so much as a flirtation. Back then, he would have yearned for a woman to be so totally engulfed with him that she ruled over his entire life with an iron fist.
Well, be careful what you wish for, Conway thought ruefully as he sat on the couch, sipped his coffee and nodded dumbly at Tyra’s rantings. “Demon kids, yes, Tyra. They are.”
“I’m glad you agree,” Tyra said, “Because I don’t want to be alone with them on this stupid trip. You’re going with me.”
Conway gulped. “What? No. That’s no good at all.” He had the Brickyard 500 tomorrow morning on Holodeck Three. He was racing Lt. Ford. “I have lots of important duties on the bridge tomorrow morning.”
Tyra crossed the room in an instant, diving in his lap, sinking a knee into his crotch and nearly making him spill his coffee. He held it at his arm’s length, focusing with all his might on not spilling any. He turned a fearful gaze to Tyra.
“You. Are. Going. With. Me.” She grinded in a little more. Coffee dripped on Conway’s carpet. “Understood?”
“I’ll ask the captain for some time off.”
“See that you do.” Tyra got up. “Now, make me breakfast.”
Conway glanced at the chronometer on his wall. “Tyra, dear, aren’t you late to class?”
“Not at all. The Emergency Teaching Hologram is taking care of things.”
“Sorry I’m late!” Dr. Janice Browning said, skidding into the kindergarten classroom with Plato on her hip. He had the body of a ten year old, and as near as she could tell, the mind of a teenager, and yet he still insisted on riding her hip. Changeling/human hybrids–go figure.
The Emergency Teaching Hologram turned in her seat, holding a padd, and scowled at Browning..
“I was in the middle of Charlotte’s Web. Now I’ll have to start all over again.” She had a slight build and a distinctly Asian look, long, black, straight hair, and eyes that bore right through Browning. “Put your child in his chair and leave, fruitcake. Now.”
“You don’t have to start over,” Browning said, scooting Plato into a chair with the other children, and unslinging his bag full of treats, which she handed the scrawny lad. He nearly tipped over from the weight of it. “Just let me explain–” Browning said, pushing hair out of her face. “I was on my way down to the restaurant, when there was an emergency in Sickbay. An Ensign had stubbed his toe or something–then I get a report that there’s a grease fire down in the restaurant, and I had to go handle that, then I get back to my quarters and Plato’s running around buck naked (it’s a stage), so I had to dress him, then–”
The ETH let out a low, barely-percepitble growl. “I am not interested in your explanations. Get out of here.”
“You know,” Browning said, biting her lip. “I think I like Tyra better. Which is really saying something.”
“I’ll tell her you said that,” the hologram snapped, and turned back to the children. “So, the spider hangs out with the pig, got it?”
Browning backed out of the room. “What a strange ETH.”
“And watch how you say that,” the ETH called over her shoulder. “It’s ETH with a soft ‘T,’ not a hard one!”
“Right.” Browning prayed for her child’s safety and ran from the classroom. Run. That was it. That would clear her mind. A morning jog. She’d tell Holly to take over. The nurse was getting her M.D. in two days anyway, via subspace correspondence. She could handle things for a while.
Counselor Peterman held her legs up in the air, squirming on her back. It was an undignified, unattractive position to say the least, but one Dr. Browning said was necessary to maximize her chances of conception. Baxter rolled over, exhausted.
“Sorry to tire you out,” Peterman said breathlessly. It was hard to talk all upside-down like that. “At least you don’t have to get in this ridiculous position.”
“There is that,” Baxter said, swinging his legs out and leaning up on the side of the bed. “Boy, Kelly. This baby hasn’t even been conceived yet, and already I’m tuckered out. What’s going to happen when he’s sixteen, and I’m a whopping 50 years old?”
“It just might be a girl,” Peterman said, swirling her hips. She suspected Browning might have told her that part just for laughs.
“Not if we have Janice stick a little Y chromo in,” Baxter said with a grin. “Instant boy.”
Peterman angled around, shifted on her elbows to face Baxter, head dangling at his side. “You are NOT suggesting we genetically engineer this child!”
“I’m not talking about giving him super-speed, or five arms, or anything. I just want a boy.”
“How enlightened of you,” Peterman sighed.
“I have the Baxter name to think about, honey. I’m the last male Baxter. If I don’t have a male heir, who’s going to carry on the line?”
“Who said the kid would be named Baxter?” Peterman demanded. “I was thinking we could combine our last ames.”
“Yes. How about ‘PeterBax.’”
“Why don’t you just call her ‘Please Beat the Crap out of Me Peterman’?”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Come on. Peterbax?”
“You have a better idea?”
“How about BaxPeter?”
“Oh, that’s much better.”
“How about Peterter?”
“Hell no. The word ‘Peter…’ it has some penis connotations.”
“You’re the one who wants a boy.”
“My boy’s not going to need a name to tell people he has a penis. It will precede him, like a legend.”
Peterman shifted again on her back. This was damned uncomfortable. “We obviously have a lot to think through before we conceive this baby. I can lean up and end this right now, just give the word!”
Baxter turned to face Kelly, leaning a hand over her belly. “Don’t be silly. I’m fully behind this. These are just some last-minute questions.”
“Well, I’m not genetically engineering this child at all whatsoever. The name we can negotiate on, but there’s no chromosome-splitting going on in my uterus, you got it?”
“Okay, okay.” Baxter stood up. “Well, I’ve got to get to the bridge.” He glanced back at Peterman as she wobbled on her back, like an overturned crab. “That’s really not an attractive position, hon.”
“You didn’t seem to mind it in that shuttlecraft a few months ago!”
“Good point,” Baxter said, and hurriedly got dressed.
“She is a menace,” the Emergency Teaching Hologram said, looming over Tyra’s desk as she graded papers. Uninteresting reports they had done on the person they loved most. She turned to Plato’s. An agonizing diatribe about what a great mommy Janice Browning was. But, in Plato’s defense, he was the only kindergartner to use the word ‘exemplary’ in his paper.
“I understand,” Tyra said, looking up at the ETH. “Her son is a disruption, too. He turned his arm into a catapult yesterday during dodgeball. Who do you think won?”
The ETH sneered. “The little changeling that could.”
“But I can’t touch him, because he’s the freaking captain’s godson!” Tyra said stormily, and continued grading papers. She was in a sour mood. “F…F…F. Ooh, so Dean loves his Humma, huh? Well, Dean, this paper was brought to you by the letter…F!”
“You are a credit to the job of teacher, Tyra. I will remind my programmer to integrate your knowledge into future ETH’s as you have done with me.”
“I wouldn’t tell anyone about that, if you don’t mind. You’re unique and special, ETH. We wouldn’t want you copied like some worthless isolinear chip, would we?”
“I suppose you’re right,” the ETH conceded. “So, what do we do about Janice Browning. Do we kill her?”
Tyra glanced up at the ETH. “Remind me to check your programming. We can’t just go killing people whenever we want. There is a time and place for everything. I’m starting to think I gave you too much of my personality.”
“It seemed the logical solution.”
“The damn people at the Starfleet Teacher’s Association must have programmed a little Surak in you.” Tyra grimaced. “Leave Browning to me. Just keep the place looking tidy while we’re off on that field trip tomorrow.”
“I understand,” said the ETH.
Tyra burned a gaze up at the ETH. “And don’t murder anyone.”
“If you insist.”
Dr. Browning felt free as she never had before as she jogged down the Deck 10 corridor. She’d missed her morning jogs the last couple weeks. Sure, the whole ship was on vacation, but that meant a slew of injuries from holodeck expeditions and planetary visits, where a thoughtless crewman would eat the first berry to cross his path, or worse, pet the first spiny reptilian creature he saw. And vacationing crewmembers liked to eat a lot more, too. In short, between running a restaurant and treating a crew’s every sniffle and stubbed toe, AND raising a half- changeling child, Janice Browning hadn’t had a moment’s rest in nearly five months. Or at least it felt like that.
The Explorer’s recycled air whipped past her as she rounded a corner, huffing and puffing a bit but enjoying the exercise nonetheless. She nodded at passing officers and a couple of the ship’s children. She liked jogging the residential decks; they felt more alive than the science, administrative, or engineering sections.
She was about to duck down a side corridor when one of the doors along the hallway ahead of her slid open, and a gentle- looking, slightly round, white-haired woman stepped out and flagged her down. Browning recognized the woman as Mrs. O’Smitty, wife of Bill O’Smitty, the charming, if elderly, Director of Ship’s Services. She waved a withered hand at Browning..
“Doctor,” she said, motioning for Browning to come over.
Browning jogged over, savoring the few moments of rest to lean over against the bulkhead and catch her breath. “What can I do you for, Mrs. O’Smitty?” Browning asked, unclipping her water bottle from its place on her hip and taking a long swig.
“I want you to call my husband.” O’Smitty gestured inside the open door to her quarters and Browning ducked her head in.
“What’s wrong?” she giggled. “He won’t come when you call him?”
“That’s not it,” O’Smitty said dryly. “I mean I want you to call his time of death.”
“Oh. That,” Browning said, feeling sheepish. “That. Um, okay.”
Baxter felt much more in control of his destiny on the bridge. In the center seat, giving orders to the bridge crew, watching the galaxy unfold as it should on the viewscreen, he just felt a little more comfortable. Not that he would ever tell Peterman that. But this baby situation was getting a little bit nerve-wracking. He wasn’t sure if it was just the simple fact of her wanting the child to be named ‘PeterBax’ or if it was something more crucial than that. He was probably just getting cold feet, but whatever the case, he was quite certain that, under any other circumstances, he’d be talking to the Ship’s Counselor. Not for the first time in the last three years, Baxter wished he’d taken Starfleet up on its offer of an Assistant Ship’s Counselor. One of the many fruits of that would be that Peterman could stop complaining about not having a staff. In addition to that, though, Baxter would have someone other than his wife to talk to about his emotional state.
Baxter was stirred from his thoughts when he heard the aft turbolift doors sigh open. He turned to see who was coming through and grimaced to see that it was Commander Conway.
Coffee cup in hand, Conway trudged down to his seat at Baxter’s right and plopped down.
“Morning,” Baxter said.
Conway grunted. “Whatever.”
Baxter glaced over at his first officer. “Problems?”
“You could say that.”
“Want to…” Baxter choked down the bile that was rising in his throat, “discuss them?”
Thank goodness for that. Baxter checked the status reports on his chairarm. “Well, then. We’re still on course to the Myriap system to drop off some cargo. We’ll be there in four days. The Susquehanna is all ready to depart on the field trip to Golgolus Five tomorrow morning, and then we’ll swing back by to pick them up.”
Conway grunted again, shifting in his seat. “About that, sir.”
Baxter looked up at Conway. “Yes?”
“I’d like to request that…ugh…I go along with Miss Shar.”
“How sweet,” Baxter said, pondering that. “I’m sure you two will have fun. Just remember, the aft compartment of the runabout will be filled with children. No monkey business, if you get my drift.”
“Oh, I get your drift,” Conway muttered. “So can I go or what?”
“Forgive me for intruding, Commander, but it doesn’t sound like you’re too keen on going on this trip.”
Conway sighed. “I cannot wait.”
“Right, well, I don’t see why not. It’s not like there’s much to do around here for right now.”
“About that,” Conway said. “When are we going to get another mission?”
“I don’t know. My Dad has been acting very odd lately. It’s as if he has a surprise in store for us.”
“The man raised you, Baxter,” Conway said. “Any idea what that surprise could be?”
“Knowing him, I’m almost scared to find out.”
Conway rubbed his hands together eagerly. “A promotion to the admiralty for you, perhaps?”
“You just want this seat,” Baxter said with a grin, rubbing the arms of his chair.
“On the contrary. When I get command of this ship, I intend to have that seat ripped out and jettisoned. I’ll get my own seat.”
“Oh, WHEN you get command. Don’t hold your breath, Commander. I’m not going anywhere. Not to another ship, and certainly not to command. I’m comfortable where I am.”
“Then why is it your little peter can’t seem to generate any sperm?” Conway retorted.
“You have a major chip on your shoulder today, Mister!” Baxter said, rising from his chair. “I’ve got some paperwork to finish. I’ll be in the readyroom if you need to berate me any further.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Conway said, shifting to the middle chair as Baxter walked up to the aft deck.
On his way back to his readyroom, Baxter walked by the opening aft turbolift doors. Plato waddled out.
“Uncle Andy!” the tow-headed boy said, leaping to attach himself to Baxter’s hip.
“My phaser is at the ready,” J’hana said from the tactical station.
“That won’t be necessary,” Baxter said tiredly. He glanced down at Plato. “Shouldn’t you be at school?”
“I hate school,” Plato said, pouting. “I hate Miss Shar. She’s a big fat snotty-wotty meany-bean!” He had teenage intellect, but the boy still used some good-old fashioned youngster-talk.
“Now now,” Baxter said, trying to tug Plato off his hip, but the boy wouldn’t budge. “Miss Shar is a good teacher. She’s a wonderful woman.” Baxter glanced down at the center seat. “Right, Commander Conway?”
Conway smiled weakly. “Sure. She’s the greatest.”
“What did you do?” Baxter said with a giggle, wheeling Plato around to face the door to his ready-room. “Skip school?”
“I squeezed myself into an air vent and slithered out.”
“Well, that’s just not going to do.”
Plato finally dislodged himself from Baxter’s side and hopped down to the ground. Ten months old, chronologically, and the little tyke already came up to Baxter’s waist. And he knew more about calculus than Baxter, which in and of itself wasn’t so amazing.
Baxter knelt to face Plato. “Listen, slugger, you’ve got to go back down there and learn. How else are you going to join Starfleet someday and make mommy proud?”
“Join Starfleet?” Plato asked. “I can do that?”
“Sure. I don’t see why not.”
“Perhaps because his relatives dragged the quadrant through a two-year war and killed billions,” J’hana said under her breath.
“We’ll have none of that,” Baxter growled back at J’hana, and returned his gaze to Plato. “They let Klingons and Ferengi into Starfleet, Plato. I hear they’ll even have some Romulans and Cardassians joining before we know it. I’m sure a changeling can get in, too.”
“Mommy never said anything about Starfleet.”
“I’m sure she just didn’t want to force anything on you. But Uncle Andy can tell you all about it.”
“He’s sure not to fail then,” Tilleran said with a grin. Baxter glared at her and she returned quickly to her work at the science station.
“Let’s go into my readyroom,” Baxter said. “We’ll chat for a bit, but then you have to get back to school, understood?”
Plato nodded. “Understood…meany.”
Dr. Browning sat in her quarters, staring at her reflection in the viewport opposite her couch. She fumbled with the arrow- shaped communicator in her hand, flipping it end-over-end.
She barely noticed when her doorchime chirped.
“Come in,” she said absently. She saw Baxter’s reflection in the viewport as he stepped in and let the doors close behind him.
“The computer said I’d find you here,” Baxter said, leaning over the couch to regard Browning. “Shouldn’t you be at work?” Was today a day off and no one told Baxter?
“All of a sudden you’re a slave driver?” Browning said with a half-grin.
“I’m just wondering,” Baxter said. “Plato tried to skip school today. He came up to the bridge.”
“Did you take him back?” Browning asked, turning to face Baxter.
Baxter sat down on the edge of the couch. “Yeah. But first we had a chat about him joining Starfleet.”
Browning glanced at her communicator. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope. I gave him the pamphlet and everything. He seems genuinely interested.”
“Think they would let him in?”
“With my recommendation…and my parents’, sure.”
“Hmmm. How ironic.”
“What makes you say that?”
Browning glanced out the viewport. “Because I’m leaving Starfleet, Andy.”
“Not this again,” Baxter said, winding around the couch to sit down next to Browning. He joined her in staring out the viewport.
“This is not the same as before. I don’t want to leave the ship. Just to stop practicing medicine, which is all I’m really qualified to do in Starfleet anyway.”
Baxter stared down at his feet. Those boots could really use a shine. “May I ask why?”
“I had to call time of death on Bill O’Smitty today,” Browning said, by way of explanation. “He was a spry 99 years old.”
“Oh, dear,” Baxter said, shaking his head. “Bill O’Smitty, huh? I saw him just yesterday and he looked fine. What did he die of?”
“He choked on a sausage link.”
Baxter grimaced. “That’s awful. I guess we better get a photon torpedo hollowed out for him. I’ll have Kelly make the arrangements.” Baxter thought about that. “What a thing. Anyway, why did that make you want to leave Starfleet?”
“Bill O’Smitty was in Starfleet for 80 years. Do you know what rank he rose to?”
“I don’t recall.”
“Chief Petty Officer.”
“So he was enlisted. A lot of people go that route.”
“But he did the same job for all those eighty years. First crewman, then assistant director of ship’s services, then full director of ship’s services. Sure, he served on eleven different ships, but what does he have to show for it?”
“I don’t know.” Baxter rubbed his chin. “They probably haven’t inventoried his quarters yet for the post-mortem.”
“You’re missing the point. I don’t want some ship’s doctor calling my time of death after 80 years of hanging around here. I still want to stay on the Explorer for the time being, but I want to try new things. I’ll keep the restaurant and devote the rest of my time to Plato, for now.”
“Janice, I think you’ve been a …” Baxter tried to look sincere, “…dynamite Chief Medical Officer. I’d hate to lose you.”
“You’ll be fine, Andy. Holly is a great doctor. She’s getting her M.D. via subspace in just a few days.”
Baxter turned to face Browning. “Listen, Janice, I won’t stop you from leaving your post as CMO, but I want you to do me one favor, first.”
“I want you to stay on until Kelly gets pregnant. Then you can leave Starfleet, but when the time comes, I want you to do the, uh, delivering, if you know what I mean.”
Browning smiled, felt her eyes begin to tear. “Andy…sure I will. Of course, this means I’ll be wanting godmother priveleges.”
“Done and done.”
Browning leaned forward and hugged Baxter, who sighed inwardly. What next?
Ensign Samuel Burke walked into the kindergarten classroom at 2100 hours that night, deadset on impressing Lt. Commander Richards. His family name was not known for success in the annals of Starfleet command, and he was determined to make good.
It was a Burke that served with distinction on the USS Enterprise-A until the year 2293, when he, along with another crewmember, assassinated the Klingon Chancellor. His record had been otherwise spotless.
Starfleet did not let another Burke in until the late 2340’s. Samuel’s older brother Phil rose through Starfleet Academy successfully and took a job as second-string tactical officer on the Enterprise-D for a short time. Unfortunately, he had a terrible synthehol problem, and wandered into Deanna Troi’s quarters late one night with his security access, drunker than a Tarkalian lounge singer, and attempted to have his way with the Betazoid Counselor. All he did, thankfully, was throw up on her, but that in itself meant he’d spend the next two years re- habbing at the Tantalus Substance Addiction Annex. When he got out, he wrote a tell-all book, spilling all sorts of nasty secrets about the Enterprise-D crew, which made it none too easy on poor Samuel once he was finally allowed in Starfleet Academy. But he got through the insults, the pranks, and the name-calling, but the soiled name of Burke stuck with him like fur on a Targ.
Was it any wonder, then, that his first assignment would be the Explorer? Thank goodness the Secondprize didn’t need any extra engineering crew.
As it was, it would be next to impossible for Burke to make any kind of name for himself, much less restore his family line.
These heavy thoughts were on Samuel Burke’s mind as he stepped into the back office of the kindergarten classroom. Since Burke, naturally, was assigned the nightshift in engineering, he was there to notice a sudden spike in the school complex’s holoprocessor. He hurried up to the school complex and, via tricorder, narrowed down the affected area to the kindergarten classroom. He wondered idly what could be wrong with the holoprocessor.
“Computer, activate Emergency Teaching Hologram.”
The slim asian woman appeared like a ghost in front of Burke.
“What do you want?” she demanded.
“That’s not right at all,” Burke said, pulling out his tricorder and studying the hologram.
“What do you mean it’s not right?” The ETH asked. “What business is it of yours?”
Burke stared up into the hard, coal-dark eyes of the ETH. “You’re supposed to be teaching children. You should have a nice disposition. They gave you plenty of Keiko O’Brien, and even some captain named Kangaroo. What’s your problem?”
“YOU are my problem right now, you redheaded little jerk.” She looked Burke up and down. “You make me want to vomit, you pathetic…”
“I’ll put an end to this,” Burke said, and spun around toward the holoprocessor. He yanked the cover off the bank of isolinear chips. “Computer, deactivate E–”
Before Burke could say anything else, something sliced through his neck and knocked his head off his shoulders.
“Uncle Andy! Aunt Kelly!”
Baxter shot up in bed, shaking the sleep from his head. “Wha?”
Plato rushed into the bedroom, dressed in olive coveralls, wearing a backwards Dallas Cowboys ballcap.
“It’s field trip day!” He jumped into bed in between Baxter and Peterman. “We’re going on a field trip!”
Peterman leaned up on her elbows. “That’s just…great…Plato.” She squinted at the chronometer on the wall across from the bed. “Plato…it’s barely oh-five hundred.” “I can’t sleep,” Plato explained, sliding under the covers between Baxter and Peterman. “I’m too excited!”
“Does your mommy know you’re running around the ship at five in the morning?” Baxter asked, rubbing his eyes.
“Uh, how did you get in here?” Peterman asked.
“Your doorcode is a simple three-digit alphanumeric sequence. It wasn’t hard to break, especially since I know how much of a Dallas Cowboys fan Uncle Andy is. I simply put in a combination of the jersey numbers of Dallas Cowboys greats Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman. Turns out the combination is 822, right Uncle Andy?”
Baxter blinked. “That’s…pretty good, there, Plato. But how about you let Aunt Kelly and me get back to sleep? We’re really tired. We, uh, worked all night.”
“So now it’s work?” Peterman folded her arms.
“Shush!” Baxter said between clenched teeth.
Peterman leaned out of bed, grabbing Plato by the hand. “Come on, Plato. Let’s go out into the kitchennette and get you some breakfast.”
“Yay! Can I have eggs with M&M’s and jellybeans, like mommy makes?”
Peterman grimaced as she tied on her pink satin robe. “No, we’ll make something even more fun. How about a bran muffin and a bannana?”
Baxter leaned up in bed, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. In truth, he WAS exhausted. He could hear Peterman in the other room firing up the replicator. Maybe he could just lean back and go to–
Dr. Browning appeared on the viewscreen opposite his bed, hair a tousled mess. “Andy,” she said. “Good, you’re up. Have you seen Plato?”
“He’s in the other room getting breakfast.”
“Oh, good. He slipped out again. He’s getting to be quite the …explorer.”
“Well, he couldn’t be on a better ship, then,” Baxter said with a chuckle.
“Andy, you’re a laugh riot. Listen, I was wondering… what are the chances of you going along on this trip with Plato?”
Baxter leaned forward in bed toward the viewscreen. “Janice, I’m sort of busy trying to make a baby here.”
“Your sperm could use the break,” Browning said flatly. “I know this is not the best time, but honestly, I’m worried. Plato has been a bit more adventurous than usual. And I don’t really care for that Miss Shar, either. What if he were to get lost?”
“Commander Conway will be there.”
“Yes, but Commander Conway is not the godfather. He doesn’t know Plato like you do.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did I miss something? Was this in my godfather contract?”
“Indeed it was,” Browning said. “Think of it this way: You can force me to do stuff like this when you…finally… have a baby.”
“This is true,” Baxter muttered. “Okay, fine, Janice. I’ll go along. Truth be told, I could use the rest anyway.”
“Glad you feel that way. Have a great time!”
“Right. A great time.” Baxter sighed and rolled out of bed. He could smell bran muffins in the other room.
“Oh, Uncle Andy, this is going to be so great!” Plato shrieked, skipping down the corridor, with Baxter lagging tiredly behind.
“Yes, great.” Baxter had called up to Larkin on the bridge to let her know she’d be in command until the Susquehanna returned from the field trip to Golgolus Five. The android, who just a few weeks ago, had begun to sprout emotions at an alarming rate, seemed ecstatic to have control of the Explorer. Now that she had emotions, ambition seemed to be chief among them.
Of course Baxter also had to have an interminable conversation with Kelly about putting off the conception process, and how it was well worth it if it meant spending some quality time with Plato, and how he’d learn to be a better father this way, and how it was in his godfather contract, etc. etc. She seemed to understand, although Baxter was sure she still held a grudge about being passed over for godmother in favor of Holly Wilcox.
Plato and Baxter rounded the corner in the corridor for the final stretch that led to Shuttlebay One. At the opposite end of the corridor, Conway and Tyra approached. Conway held his customary mug of coffee, and, it appeared, a large duffle of Tyra’s belongings.
“What are you doing here?” Tyra demanded, glaring at Baxter as they all converged at the door to the shuttlebay.
“Escorting my godson to the shuttlebay,” Baxter said. “And I’m going with him on this trip.”
“How nice,” Conway said quietly.
“On who’s authority?” demanded Tyra.
“On the authority of the captain of this ship, who just happens to be me!” Baxter said, thumbing at his chest. Plato was right. Tyra was a big fat snotty-wotty meany-bean.
Tyra pivoted around and trudged through the doors into the shuttlebay. “Fine. Disrupt my teaching plans. See if I care. Just don’t get in my way, or you’ll be sorry.”
“She has tremendous people skills,” Baxter said, taking up step with Conway as he walked into the shuttlebay. “What is her problem, anyway?”
“She’s seemed a bit stressed out lately, that’s all,” Conway said. “She’s been a little…disturbed…since Jenna broke up with her.”
“Has she been in to see Kelly?”
“No. She’s been seeing a counselor of her very own…” Conway said, grinning uneasily.
“The Conway Doctor of Love.”
“You’ve been hanging out with Ford too much,” Baxter said, looking down at Plato, who’d just recently attached himself again to the captain’s hip. “All right, buddy boy. Here we go. Now you’re not planning to ride my hip all the way to Golgolus, are you?”
“If necessary,” said Plato.
“You have a wonderful bond with him, sir,” Conway said mockingly, ducking into the Susquehanna’s entrance hatch.
“Shut the hell up,” Baxter replied, following his first officer in, trying to dislodge Plato at the same time.
“The kindergarteners are all aboard,” Lt. Ford said, checking the helm panel. “Susquehanna is ready to go.”
“Launch them, then,” Larkin said, perched in the command chair. She liked the feel of the sumptuous, soft, deep leather. She could get used to command.
“Aye, sir,” Ford said. “And may I say, Commander, you are looking radiant this morning.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere, Lieutenant,” Larkin said with a grin. Her face straightened. “Now launch the damn runabout.”
Captain Baxter stumbled into the cockpit of the Susquehanna, where Commander Conway and Ensign Drucker from security were at the forward stations. Tyra Shar sat at the left-side station, studying the scientific analysis of Golgolus Five, forwarded to her by Tilleran.
“What’s our ETA?” Baxter asked, leaning between the forward seats.
Drucker, a cute-ish ensign in her first month of Starfleet service, on her first rotation aboard the Explorer, turned in her seat. “Three hours, ten minutes.”
“Sounds good.” Baxter turned to Tyra. “Those are some great kids you have back there.”
“You have fingerpaint all over the front of your uniform,” Tyra said, without looking at Baxter.
“Well, that may be. We had a lot of fun painting back there. They drew a really nice picture of you. Once they erase the horns and the forked tail, and the hooves, it might even be nice enough to hang up in the classroom.”
Tyra didn’t acknowledge that Baxter said anything. Conway suppressed a giggle and minded his panel.
Baxter moved to sit down next to Tyra. “The kids back there have a singular opinion of you, Miss Shar. Not too nice of an opinion, either.”
“Too bad,” Tyra said. “I do things my way.”
“Well, that may be. But can’t your way be…nice?” Baxter asked.
“I AM nice.”
“That’s not what Plato says.”
“PLATO…” Tyra said tersely, “is a troublemaker.”
“That’s my godson you’re talking about, Miss Shar.”
“Then I can see where he gets it from.”
Conway turned in his chair. “Tyra, don’t pick a fight with the captain.”
“No, no,” Baxter said, waving a hand at Conway. “She’s a civilian. She has a right to express her opinion of her captain. Let me have it, Tyra.”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” Tyra said, continuing to tap at her panel.
“That’s a relief,” Conway said quietly.
“Try to find a place to begin, Miss Shar,” said Baxter.
“Okay.” Tyra turned in her seat to face Baxter. “To start with, I don’t think you have any business conceiving a child, or commanding a starship, or even being in Starfleet. You’re incompetent, unprofessional, irresponsible, and couldn’t command an infant, much less an infantry.”
Baxter opened his mouth to say something, but Tyra cut him off: “I had a host eighty years ago who was in Starfleet, and he could have mopped up a starship deck with you. Should I go on?”
Baxter blinked. “No, thanks. I think that’s about all.” He stood and turned for the rear compartment. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to spend the rest of this trip with some people who appreciate me.”
“It’s only because they’re too young to know better.”
Baxter glared back at Tyra, thought about responding, then thought better of it. “Commander, let me know when we reach Golgolus,” he said, then ducked into the rear compartment.
Conway glanced over at Tyra once Baxter was gone. “What is your problem? Do you want Captain Baxter to put you off the Explorer? He can do that, you know!”
“He can do whatever he damn well pleases,” Tyra said, turning back to her panel. “You’ll go with me, of course.”
“Wherever I happen to go. Deep Space Nine, the Zen’Kethi border, Multek space. Wherever I go, you’ll be there. Got that?”
Ensign Drucker stared at Tyra with narrow eyes. “Excuse me for saying so, Miss Shar, but that’s pretty insensitive of you. Don’t you care about Commander Conway’s career?”
“No,” Tyra said simply, and returned to her monitor.
Drucker turned to Conway and, in a whisper, said, “Respectfully, sir, I think you can do better.”
“I’ll take that under advisement, Ensign.” Conway glanced over at Tyra, who stared at he and Drucker with barely-contained hatred, then turned back to her science scans. “Say… hypothetically,” Conway said, his voice barely a whisper, “if I were to break up with Tyra…”
Drucker grinned. “Sure I’d date you. You’re a very kind person, Commander, despite what all the people on the crew decks say about you.”
Lt. Commander Richards and Lt. Hartley walked down the corridor, toward the kindergarten classroom. It was going to be a busy day in engineering, but Lt. Commander J’hana insisted that he make a detour to the classroom, for some unfathomable reason. Richards decided something had gone afoul again with the teaching hologram, and thus recruited Lt. Hartley to help.
“So, you heard about Dr. Browning?” Hartley asked, as the pair walked down the corridor.
“She dropped by to tell me this morning,” said Richards. “I’m still in shock.”
“She’ll still be around,” Hartley said. “I bet you’ll hardly notice the change.”
“She won’t be at staff meetings,” Richards replied. “Or on away teams. We won’t be able to tell her classified information.”
“We don’t tell her the classified information now, Chris,” Hartley said. “Remember?”
Richards bit his lip. “Oh. Right. Of course.”
Hartley crinkled her eyes at Richards. “You still love her, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
Hartley grinned. “Wait until I tell Ensign Madera!”
Richards grimaced. “It’s not like that. I may still love her, but I’m not IN love with her anymore.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Love is love, Commander. Whether you have it, or are in it.”
“They’re two totally different things. Before you started seeing Mirk, didn’t you love him?”
Hartley shrugged. “Sure. I guess.”
“And now, aren’t you IN love with him?”
“Don’t you see the difference?”
“I’d feel better trying to explain this to Larkin,” muttered Richards.
“Fine with me,” Hartley said, as the pair reached the doors to the kindergarten classroom. “But it sounds like you’re the one with the problem.”
“You’re ever so helpful, Lieutenant,” Richards said, and hit the door control.
The doors to the classroom swung open to reveal a cadre of security officers surrounding a spot on the floor. Gellar was there, as were ensigns Holly and Brazeau. Richards pushed his way through, to find J’hana kneeling next to a headless body. She held the head up for Richards’s inspection.
“Missing something?” she asked spryly.
“Burke!” exclaimed Richards.
“Ah, Burke,” said J’hana. “I was trying to remember his name. All I could remember was that he worked in engineering. Guess that was a good hunch. Know who might have killed him?”
“I haven’t the faintest,” Richards said. “Who could have done something so awful?”
“It beats the zarndax out of me,” J’hana said, and handed the head to Lt. Gellar, who looked very uncomfortable cradling it. “Whatever the case, it appears we have a murderer aboard.”
“I hope you find the bastard,” Hartley said angrily. “Burke was my tennis partner.”
“You’ve taken up tennis?” Gellar asked. “I thought you hated that!”
“Mirk has taught me to appreciate it,” Hartley said, smiling. “He’s taught me to appreciate many things that you never had a knack for!”
Gellar’s mouth hung open, as did the mouth of the head in his hands, but that was more a rictus of fear, as opposed to Gellar’s expression of indignance and hurt. “Well, I–”
“As much as I am enjoying this conversation, I have a murderer to find,” J’hana said, and stood, dusting off her knees. “My task is made doubly difficult since there is no physical evidence of anyone entering this facility all night long, save Ensign Burke.”
“Well, he didn’t cut his own damn head off!” exlaimed Richards.
“If he did, I admire him greatly,” said J’hana.
“SNAAAAARRRRRREEEEEEEEEAAAARK!” Baxter’s eyes snapped open. He rolled over in his bunk to face the opening, where Plato stood, observing him with detached curiosity. “Ughgh…Plato, it’s…” he glanced at the chronometer. “Oh-three hundred. You should be sleeping.”
“I couldn’t sleep, Uncle Andy. So I went up front to monitor our course.”
Baxter sat up, which was a mistake in the tiny bunk. His head slammed against the ceiling and he slammed back down. “Ouch. You didn’t touch anything, did you, Plato?”
“Good. I know you want to be in Starfleet, but the first thing you have to learn is not to alter course unless your superior officer gives you explicit–”
“No buts. Go back to bed.”
“But I noticed something wierd about our course.”
“I’m sure it’s fine. Commander Conway programmed it himself. Go back to bed.”
“But, you told me Starfleet officers should–”
“Should go back to sleep so their captains can get some rest!”
Plato rolled his eyes. “Okay. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Baxter rolled over. “Fair enough.” He rolled back to face the opening of his bunk once more, rubbing his eyes. Plato was staring at him from upside-down “Plato. Are you attached to the ceiling?”
“I made my hands into plungers,” Plato explained.
“Well, plunge back over to your bed, okay?”
“If you say so.” THWOK! THWOK! THWOK! THWOK!
Baxter shivered. No wonder Janice was quitting one of her jobs.
“I have strong suspicions,” Lt. Commander J’hana said, leaning forward and clasping her hands on the observation lounge conference table.
“I would like to hear about them,” Lt. Commander Larkin said, at the head of the table. “Burke was a good man. A caring man. He was…he was such a great engineer…excuse me.”
Larkin looked away and sniffled for a few moments.
“Can we get on with this?” Hartley demanded from her seat next to Richards.
“Of course,” Larkin said, returning her gaze to J’hana. “Go on, Commander.”
“Well, since we have no physical evidence of a killer in the room, I am inclined to believe that the very hologram Ensign Burke was trying to fix is responsible for killing him.”
“How awful!” cried Dr. Browning.
“Judging by the open panel, Burke was there to deactivate and repair the Emergency Teaching Hologram,” Richards said. “It’s possible.”
“There are safeguards in place to prevent such occurences,” Larkin said. “It is highly unlikely that a hologram is capable of murder.” She scowled. “Such an awful, cold-blooded murder!”
“One word,” Hartley said. “Moriarty.”
“That was an isolated incident,” Larkin said tersely.
“What’s to say that this isn’t just another isolated incident?” asked Hartley.
“If it were, then the incidents would no longer be isolated, would they?” Larkin asked testily. “Doctor Browning, what has your autopsy uncovered?”
“The cut was made quite cleanly,” Browning said with a grimace. “Just like a carving knife through a hot Virginia ham.”
“Please tell me you’re not getting hungry,” Hartley moaned.
“Quite the contrary,” Browning said. “I can never eat ham again.”
“Perhaps you should consider Judaism,” Larkin suggested. “At any rate, I assume you have deactivated the ETH in case it should strike again?”
Richards nodded. “The ETH was deactivated as soon as J’hana came up with her little hypothesis.”
“Excellent,” said Larkin. “In that case, you and J’hana will move the hologram to a protected environment and question it, with full safety protocols intact.”
“We’re going to question a hologram?” asked J’hana.
“Do you have a better idea?” inquired Larkin.
“Indeed I do not,” admitted J’hana.
Baxter shot up in bed, smashing his head once again on the bunk ceiling. That was Conway’s voice, and it was more a high- pitched squeal than a scream, and it was certainly not flattering.
Baxter rolled out of the bed and slammed into the floor. So far, the morning wasn’t going swimmingly. His ear was smashed against the deck; he could hear atmosphere rushing past the hull. It was even warm to the touch.
Real sunlight blared through the aft cabin windows. Kids screamed, trampling around the small-ish aft compartment like crazed wildebeasts.
Plato hovered over Baxter. “I told you–”
Baxter scrambled to his feet. “Yes, I know. Good for you.” He grabbed the edge of the bunk for support. “Commander Conway!”
Conway, Tyra, and Drucker were apparently up front.
“Sir!” Conway’s voice shouted back. “We’re crashing!”
“I heard you the first time!”
“Stay with the children. We’re trying to force an emergency landing!”
“What seems to be the problem!”
“Navigational computer steered us right into a planet. Some kind of malfunction in the control circuits!”
“Can you unlock the manual override?”
“That’s what we’re trying to do!”
“Uncle Andy!” Plato tugged on Baxter’s uniform.
Baxter glanced down at him. “What?”
“Your shouting’s making the others nervous.”
Baxter took that opportunity to look out at the sea of snotty faces and knotty hair. The Explorer children looked like little Bajoran refugees.
“Kids,” Baxter said half-heartedly. “Everything’s going to be…okay.”
“You can do better than that,” Plato said dryly. “You are planning on becoming a parent, aren’t you?”
Baxter knelt beside Plato. “How’d you know that?”
“I slept over the other night, on the couch bed, remember? I could hear everything”
Baxter shivered. “We’ll talk about this later, young man. Right now, I need you to help me get these kids to stop screaming and crying. It’s giving me a splitting headache.”
“You want ME to talk to them?” Plato asked innocently.
“You’re more their size than I am. They relate to you. Get to it…” Baxter sighed and yanked a pip off his collar. “Ensign.”
“YAAAYY!” Plato cried, and grabbed the pip. “All right, listen up troops! This is how it’s gonna be…!’
Satisfied that the situation with the crying children was under control for now, Baxter decided to walk into the front compartment to check to see if the runabout had crashed yet.
When he arrived in the cockpit, he found Conway and Drucker bent over the forward stations, standing, and frantically glancing up to see if their course corrections were taking.
“We’re about to crash into a mountainside,” Tyra said from a side station. “You and your defective runabouts, Captain!”
Baxter was certainly in no mood for backtalk from Tyra. “Don’t even begin to blame this on me.”
“Your people ARE responsible for maintaining these vessels, aren’t they?”
“What’s that about captains being able to take responsibility for their crew?” demanded Tyra.
“This is not the time nor the place!” Baxter snapped, and leaned forward between Conway and Drucker. “Okay, guys, what’s the story?”
“The story is, manual’s totally locked out,” Conway said. Through the front viewport, the taupe atmosphere of the planet they were crashing on whizzed by. They were certainly crashing at a leisurely pace. “We have one hope.”
“And that is?”
“Drucker can manually release the cockpit from the rest of the ship and we can soft-land the rear section using emergency anti-gravs.”
Baxter blinked. Conway was more well-versed in this stuff than the captain had given him credit for. “Okay. I’ll take your word for it. Do it.”
“We’ll all have to move to the back,” Drucker said.
“Not that we got much accomplished up here,” Tyra snapped, and led the way toward the aft compartment.
In the robotics lab, Richards pressed a control, and the ETH flared into existence, inside the cage-like metal tube he usually placed Larkin in for exams and maintenance. The difference this time was that he had the tube surrounded by a level 10 forcefield. No way a light projection was going to slink through and murder him.
“Please state the nature of the teaching…” The ETH glanced around. “This isn’t a classroom. What gives?”
Lt. Hartley paced around in front of the tube. “What gives is you murdered my tennis partner!”
“Ensign Burke,” Richards explained. He glanced at his controls. “Megan, her program is not at all up to factory specs.”
Hartley joined Richards at his console. She looked over his shoulder at the readouts. “How so?” She saw it herself after a few moments. “Someone’s threaded in new memory engrams. No wonder the hologram’s not functioning!”
“Hello!” the small asian woman said. “I’m right here. Don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room!”
“You shut up!” Hartley said. She picked up an oblong pattern discriminator and waved it at the ETH. “You realize Ensign Sefelt has to be my partner now. He’s afraid of rackets!”
“It’s either that or get felt up on the court by Ford,” Richards said, fumbling with the controls. “I’m not going to be able to get these engrams out of her program. I’ll have to dump it and re-boot from the master program.”
Hartley stared with barely-restrained loathing at the ETH. “Fine by me.”
“Wait just one second. What are you suggesting?” the ETH demanded.
“You’re being dumped,” Hartley spat.
Richards tapped at his panel. “Here we go. You know, Lieutenant, I played a mean game of tennis at one time. Back on the Aquarius. We played doubles there too.”
“Let me guess,” Hartley said, as Richards worked his panel. “You were Captain Baxter’s partner.”
“Goodness, no. He doesn’t have an athletic bone in his body. Except, of course, when it comes to Lacrosse.” Richards considered that. “Oddly enough.”
“Well join us then!” Hartley said, quickly changing the subject. She hated it when crew made references to the timeline changes that came about when she went back in time and nearly prevented the Aerostar from going to the Delta Quadrant.
“I just might–”
“You’ll do nothing!” screamed the hologram. Suddenly a surge of energy flushed through Richards’s control panel, crackling right up his arms and sending him slamming to the deck.
Hartley ran to Richards’s side and knelt by him. Thin smoke wafted up from the engineer.
“Chris! Are you okay?”
Richards shook his head, glancing up at his exploded panel. “I’m not really–” He looked up to see the ETH cackle madly and vanish with a flicker of light. “Oh, f***!”
“Computer!” Hartley said, snapping to her feet. “Delete ETH!”
“Unable to comply,” replied the computer.
“Uh-oh,” Richards said, then passed out.
Hartley looked around the quieted lab and gulped. “Hello?” The ETH responded by sending a jolt of electricity out of another nearby panel, which knocked Hartley off her feet and down for the count.
Captain Baxter opened his eyes and looked around. Why again was he laying on the ceiling of what was left of the runabout Susquehanna? Oh, yes, because someone screwed up the landing procedures and soft-landed them onto a cliff-ledge, off which they swiftly tumbled and fell approximately forty meters to the unlucky runabout’s final resting place on a flat, rocky terrace or butte of some sort, if that indeed was the correct geographic term.
“Conway,” Baxter said softly, crawling across the Susquehanna’s ceiling. He groped in the darkness (although light shone in from the smashed windows and hull tears). “Conway!”
He nudged against a small child curled against one of the smashed bunks. It was Derrick. That snotty rich son of a terraformer. Though Baxter would never call him that to his face. Baxter nudged the child. “Derrick. Where’s Commander Conway?”
Derrick rolled over. “I want to go home.”
“I wanna go hoommmmmmmme!”
Suddenly a chorus of whines rose around Baxter. He felt as if he were at the center of a pack of meat-hungry harpies.
“Help us Captain!”
“We wanna go home!’
“I skinned my knee!”
“My arm hurts!”
“I bent my antenna!”
Little V’xxnvar was always getting her antenna bent. Apparently the Andorian antennae were soft until they reached a certain age. Baxter knew next to nothing about these things, as J’hana rarely spoke of them. Antennae always seemed to be a sore subject with that woman.
Baxter gave up on finding Conway in the detritus of the runabout. He’d overturned chairs and looked under torn sheets of duranium but his first officer was nowhere to be found. Neither, apparently, was Tyra Shar or Ensign Drucker, or Plato for that matter.
It was then that Baxter remembered he had his comm badge on. He slapped it. “Baxter to anyone. Respond.”
Thank goodness. “Ensign,” Baxter said. “Where is everybody?”
“Commander Conway, Tyra, and Plato went off to find some food. Our field rations don’t cover this load of kids we’re carrying by a longshot.”
“Where are you?” Baxter asked.
“At the site of the cockpit wreckage, about half a kilometer away. I’m trying to salvage the subspace transceiver so we can send a distress call to the Explorer.”
“Good plan,” said Baxter. “Wait. How long exactly have I been laying here?”
Drucker made a reluctant, low breathing sound. “We’ve been crashed for nearly four hours, sir.”
“And no one thought to wake the captain?”
“You were sleeping so peacefully, with all the children curled around you. We figured you’d wake up sooner or later.”
Baxter scanned the aft compartment, and fifteen pairs of fearful eyes looked back at him. “Any of these kids seriously injured?”
“We scanned everyone. They’re fine, with the exception of some superficial bruises and one bent antenna.”
“Understood,” said Baxter. “Well, then. Get back here with that transceiver as soon as you can.”
“Understood. Drucker out.”
Baxter looked around at the kids in the aft compartment. “Well, then. What’s say we all just sit quietly for a bit?”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” cried little Kassie Stuart. The engineer’s child loved the word “no” so much she seldom said anything else. Baxter sat back against a smashed bulkhead and hunkered down to what would promise to be a very long–
“We’re back,” Plato said, skipping in through the upturned foreward hatch.
“Did you find food?” Baxter asked. Conway followed Plato in, carrying what looked like a Starfleet-issue satchel, chock full of…something.
“Yeah,” Plato said, and collapsed beside Baxter, scrunching up his face in annoyance. It stayed that way for a few moments, then morphed back to normal.
“Oh, we found some…stuff,” Conway said, his expression switching from happy to downright ticked. “It’s the irony of ironys, Captain.” Conway tossed the satchel down into Baxter’s lap.
“Where’s Tyra?” Baxter asked, opening the satchel.
Conway sat down on the other side of Baxter, staring ruefully at the circle of scared-looking children. “Oh, she stalked off by herself. Said she was sick of foraging. Needed to hunt or something. Said she’d bring us back a kill, or some such nonsense. I love that woman Captain, but I swear, she’s so full of–”
Baxter gasped at the load in the satchel. “BEANS?”
“Well, no, but–”
“You got BEANS!”
“A certain kind of beans,” Plato said, glaring at Conway.
Baxter picked up one of the oval brown beans and sniffed. He stared at Conway. “Oh, you must be SO pleased!”
“In point of fact,” Conway said, “coffee beans are of no nutritional value whatsoever.” He reached into the satchel and grabbed a handful, chucking them back into his mouth. “But they’re damned tasty.”
“So this is what we have to live on?” Baxter asked.
“Pretty much,” Conway said, crunching. “Too bad the replicator’s shot. And we certainly don’t have the facilities to grind these babies up and percolate them.” Conway looked around again at those frowny little faces of the Explorer children. “Unless…unless of course we create our own child labor force.”
“Can someone please knock me back unconcious?” Baxter asked, lying back against the bulkhead.
“Things aren’t so bad, Uncle Andy,” said Plato. “I’m sure the people back on the Explorer are already rushing to rescue us.”
Conway chuckled through another handful of beans. “Fat chance, little guy.”
Dr. Janice Browning looked down at the headless corpse of Ensign Samuel Burke and frowned. “He’s in pretty bad shape, Holly,” she said thoughtfully.
“He’s dead, Doctor,” Holly said dryly from behind Browning.
“I realize that.”
“So why are we looking at him again?”
“To look for further signs of foul play. Sure, we’ve guessed that the hologram killed him, but we need to figure out how the hologram killed him.”
“Why don’t we just look at flight recorder footage and find out?” Holly asked.
“Because we’re doctors, Holly,” Browning said. “Well, I’m a doctor for a little while longer and you nearly are. Anyway, we deal in hard evidence like bodies and organs and such.”
“If you say so.”
“Oh, I say so. Now how about you go get me that bone- cutting laser?”
Browning whistled a happy tune as she slid the medi-scanner arm over Burke’s body. Moments later a bone-cutting laser appeared at her side.
“Perfect,” Browning said, and took the oblong, phaser-like instrument.
“I can’t find it, Doc,” Holly called from the main Sickbay area outside the morgue.
“You just handed it to me, silly,” Browning said, and turned, to come face to face with the Emergency Teaching Hologram.
“Your surgical performance is unsatisfactory!” she cried, and swiped her hand at Browning in a fluid, horizontal motion.
Browning hopped behind the body of Burke, shoving it up against her as a shield. The ETH’s hand sliced right through Burke’s shoulder, lobbing a hunk off.
“Stop doing that!” Browning cried, and hurled the rest of Burke at the ETH. The ETH quickly made herself transparent, and the body hurled through unencumbered.
Holly rushed into the room. “Doctor! What’s happening!”
“We have a psycho hologram in Sickbay! Call security!” Browning said, and ducked as the ETH lept across the examining table at her.
“I have a better idea,” Holly said. “Computer, activate Emergency Medical Hologram.”
The EMH Mark II, the blonder, quirkier, and all-around more smug version of the EMH, appeared in front of Holly. “Please state the nature of the medical emergency,” he said with a slight lisp.
“That hologram is trying to kill Doctor Browning!” Holly cried, as Browning climbed under the examining table and rolled along the deck away from a leaping ETH.
The Mark II giggled. “That’s absurd!”
“See for yourself!” Holly pointed, as Browning scrambled out of the morgue and into the main sickbay, to be quickly followed by the ETH, who, for her part, simply disappeared and reappeared in front of Browning.
Browning skidded to a stop and ran in the opposite direction, back toward Holly. “Do something already!” she cried.
The EMH Mark II looked on with great displeasure. “This will simply not do.”
“Who, the hologram?”
“No, your freaking mother!”
“Now you’re just being catty.”
Browning ran behind the EMH Mark II, glad to see all that ridiculous jogging pay off. “You’re a hologram. You two are matched virtually circuit for circuit! Disrupt her or something!”
The EMH Mark II folded his arms as the ETH rushed toward the morgue. Browning slammed a button to close them off from the main part of Sickbay.
“I hardly think that’s in my job description,” he said haughtily.
Browning realized almost immediately that closing the door did no good. The ETH walked right through.
“Why do you hate me so much?” Browning asked.
“Because you’re a revolting doctor, an incompetent parent, and your jogging outfits are a joke!” snarled the ETH.
“You take that back!” Browning cried. “My jogging outfits are fantastic!”
“Listen,” Holly said to the EMH Mark II, as Browning and the ETH traded jabs. “You took the hippocratic oath, right?”
“Well, digitally, I suppose.”
“Well, isn’t part of that oath that you do no harm, and isn’t omission of action just as good as doing harm?”
“You think you know everything about medecine, just because you take those silly subspace correspondence courses?”
“I’m right, aren’t I?” Holly asked frantically.
“Oh, I suppose,” sighed the EMH. He turned toward the ETH, who was about to lunge at Browning. “Stop it, you silly little bitch!”
The ETH turned toward the EMH, her eyes burning with fury.
“WHAT. DID. YOU. SAY?”
“You heard me, you poor excuse for a cluster of itenerant light rays! You’re messing up my sickbay. And if you kill these two, I’ll have to be the doctor in charge, and that just cannot happen!”
“Stay out of this, holo-moron,” seethed the ETH. She turned back toward Browning.
“Yipes!” cried Browning.
“Do something!” cried Holly.
“I was just about to,” the EMH said cattily, and reached over to grab the ETH’s shoulder. Her shoulder and his hand immediately began to flicker with blue electronic static.
The ETH whirled. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Breaking you down to your haughty little particles!” snorted the EMH, and he twisted the ETH around to face him. “Come on, you know you can’t resist my holo-mojo!”
“Get away from me!”
Both holograms began to flicker and pop as they moved closer together, although the ETH fought it every step of the way…the two holograms began to mege.
Soon they were just a swirl of colors, a blob of light without form, pulsating and popping, lighting up the whole Sickbay.
“Oh, it’s just awful in here!” squeaked the Mark II. “She’s one sick puppy!”
“Shut her down!” Browning cried.
“If I break up her program, it’ll destroy mine too!” whined the Mark II.
“We can always get another one of you!” Holly said.
“Good point. Still…”
“Do it!” Browning insisted.
“Well, if I had to go out, I guess it might as well be in the arms of a beautiful woman. HAH!”
“You little bastard!” cried the voice of the ETH. “I’m not finished here. I’m going to kill you ALL!”
“Save it for oblivion, sister!” sniped the EMH, and the blob of light suddenly fizzled out, returning the morgue to its former lighting.
“What a brave little hologram,” Browning said, sagging against the examination table.
“If you say so,” Holly sighed. “Damn this ship just keeps getting wierder and wierder.”
“And you wonder why I’m quitting,” sighed Browning.
Suddenly, the intra-ship comm system buzzed to life. “All hands, this is Lt. Commander J’hana. We have two unconcious engineers in the positronics lab, and a missing Emergency Teaching Hologram. Be on the lookout for a hologram matching the following specifications…and beware, she does happen to be quite dangerous…”
“Now she tells us,” Browning muttered.
“Got it!” Drucker said triumphantly, jerking the blinking box out of the charred wreckage of the Susquehanna’s cockpit module, which had smashed and splayed open against a mountainside half a klick away from where the rest of the runabout had crashed.
“Drucker to Baxter,” Drucker said, slapping her comm badge. “I have the comm unit. Heading back now.”
“Good timing,” Baxter’s voice replied. “We’re getting tired of chomping coffee beans over here.”
“Never mind, just get back here,” Baxter said, and closed the channel.
Drucker sighed. “Sir, yes, sir.” She shook her head. “Whatever. Commander Conway’s cuter.”
“Just what I thought you would say.”
Drucker whirled, startled. “What?” She caught her breath. “Oh, Tyra. You scared me. I didn’t think anyone else was around.”
Tyra circled the smashed nose of the Susquehanna. “I have been watching you for quite some time now, Drucker.”
“What do you mean?” Drucker asked, cradling the transceiver close to her and stepping backward, along the trail back to the Susquehanna’s aft section.
“I mean I know you have your eye on Commander Conway.”
“He’s sort of cute, is all…I didn’t mean to…”
“You meant it all right.” Tyra stepped closer to Drucker. She backed up more quickly. “But I’m an honorable woman. I will fight for my man.”
“You don’t need to fight me…I’m pretty cute myself. I can find another guy.”
“Not if you’re dead,” Tyra said, and laughed uproariously.
Drucker giggled nervously. “Right. Dead. Haha.”
Tyra didn’t giggle. She just sneered at Drucker, in a way that told the young ensign “I want to kill you.”
The two stood there in the underbrush between the two mountains. A bird cawed off in the distance.
Tyra turned her head to listen. “Oh, what a beautiful noise.”
Drucker took that opportunity to hurl the communications transceiver right at Tyra. She whirled on a heel and bolted down the trail. Just half a klick and she’d be back at the Susquehanna.
She had a passing fear that the transeiver would be busted, but then remembered it had a duranium casing. It was pretty durable. Durable enough to put Tyra out of comission, for sure.
She heard a rush of footsteps behind her.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t durable enough to put her out of commission.
Drucker spared one glance over her shoulder, and immediately regretted it.
The last thing Liza Drucker saw was the crazed look on Tyra Shar’s face as she brought the slightly banged-up transciever crashing down on her forehead, blow after blow, as clouds gradually covered up the sun overhead.
Richards sat up on the biobed table. “Me head is killing me.”
“It could have been a lot worse,” Browning said, checking Richards’s readings. “No concussions. You should be okay.”
Lt. Commanders Larkin and J’hana stood in front of Richards and Hartley’s biobeds.
“Apparently this hologram fell victim to a faulty program,” Larkin said. “It could have happened to the best of us…” And the android’s lower lip trembled as she held back tears. She brought a kleenex up to her face. “I cannot go on…”
“Now is not the time for emotional upheaval!” cried J’hana.
“Quite right,” Larkin said, and put down the kleenex. Her face once again became rather blank. She stepped forward to Richards’s biobed. “Have you and Lieutenant Hartley reached a conclusion about the errant nature of the ETH’s programming?”
Hartley sat up, rubbing her head. “We have hunches.”
“As do we.” Larkin paced in front of the biobeds. “We did a thorough search of the computer logs. There was evidence of tampering among the ETH protocols. Apparently someone added her own brain patterns to the program.”
“Any idea who?” Browning asked.
“Someone with a murderous, malicious intent, and a sick, depraved, downright evil mind,” J’hana growled.
Richards clenched his fist. “Our kindergarten teacher!”
Larkin nodded. “Our thoughts exactly.”
“Even more seriously,” J’hana said, “we found evidence of tampering in the shuttlebay computers. We think the hologram altered the Susquehanna’s navigation subroutines to cause a crash. Apparently, Tyra has been thinking about killing us all for quite some time, and the hologram simply decided to speed the process along.”
“We’ve got to find the Susquehanna,” Browning said. “My Plato, and those other poor, blissfully ignorant souls…”
“And the other kindergarteners,” Hartley said with a giggle.
Larkin did not laugh. “We have already set course to intercept Susquehanna. We should find them within the hour.”
“Assuming they haven’t already crashed,” Richards said.
“That,” Larkin said, “is highly unlikely.”
“The weather’s not getting any better,” Conway said, staring out the cracked rear viewport at the rapidly-darkening skies and waving trees.
Baxter stood next to him and nodded. “Looks like a storm’s brewing.”
“Please, sir,” Conway whispered, clutching a handful of those useless coffee beans. “Don’t say ‘brewing.’”
Lightning lit the sky and a flood of rain suddenly gushed down on the Susquehanna, as if dumped from a bucket above.
Children all around the runabout screamed.
Plato tugged Baxter’s tunic. “Are we going to get blasted by lightening, Uncle Andy?”
“Of course not,” Baxter said. “There’s nothing at all out there to worry abou–”
Lightning once again ignited the sky, but this time, it showed the dim shape of Tyra, drenched, outside the rear viewport, holding a huge cube of metal. Her faced sagged and her eyes were dark as coal. Commander Conway and Captain Baxter shivered as one.
“Someone should help her with that,” Baxter said quietly.
“You’re her boyfriend.”
“You’re her captain.”
“I’m your captain.”
“Advantage Baxter,” Conway sighed, and headed back to the foreward access hatch.
Baxter stared out the viewport. Plato stood beside him.
“Uncle Andy?” asked Plato.
Baxter turned to look down at the little half-changeling. “What is it, Plato?”
“I didn’t like that look on her face.”
Baxter bit his lip. “I didn’t either.”
“Uncle, I think Miss Shar is mean.”
“I realize you think she’s mean.” Baxter sighed. “Plato, people can be mean and still be good people, deep down.”
“Is Miss Shar that way?”
Baxter shuddered. “I don’t think so.”
Commander Conway, meanwhile, lugged the transceiver inside and sat it down on the conference table. The kids had been busy straightening up the aft section as much as possible, righting the tables and chairs so at least they had a place to twiddle their thumbs and wait. Conway, meanwhile, had every intention of setting up a coffee mill the following day. All he needed was a fire pit and a few good stones for grinding. Maybe some tiny pairs of feet for stomping.
“Here we go,” Conway said, taking a look at the transceiver. “Our ticket out of here.”
Baxter looked at Tyra, who stood behind Conway, sopping wet. “Where’s Ensign Drucker?”
Tyra shrugged. “Don’t ask me.”
Conway leaned over the transceiver and began tapping at one of its side panels. It fizzled and bleeped, and a bank of lights lit up red along its console. “It’s pretty banged up. What the hell happened to it?”
Tyra walked over to sit down at the other end of the conference table. “It looks like it got banged up.”
“Enough with the double-talk,” Baxter said, marching over to face Tyra. “What’s going on here?”
Tyra shrugged again, swiveling in her chair. “How the hell am I supposed to know? I found this laying in the forest, just like you see it now.”
“Looks like there’s some red fluid all over one side of it,” Conway said. “Did you find it in some kind of berry bush?” Those would be great for sweetening the coffee.
“Nope,” Tyra said. “I can’t say what that is.”
“Something isn’t making sense here,” Baxter said. “Drucker wouldn’t just drop this thing and scamper away.”
“Don’t worry, Captain,” Tyra said. “Drucker has a good head on her shoulders. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
“Well we can’t very well go out searching for her now,” Conway said, staring out the rear viewport. “The rain is still pounding down.”
“Then we’ll sleep for now,” Baxter said. “And we’ll get working on that transceiver first thing in the morning.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Conway said. “What do you think, Ty–” He glanced around. “Tyra?”
Tyra was bent over one of the storage compartments on the floor. Had the aft section been right-side up, it would normally be an overhead compartment. “Just a moment.” She finally stood up, brandishing a shovel. “Just what I needed.” She headed for the foreward hatch.
“What the hell are you going to do with that?” Baxter asked.
“Some gardening. It calms the nerves.”
Conway nodded. “I bet.” He shot Baxter a nervous glance. The captain returned the favor.
“Uh, be careful out there, Tyra,” Baxter said.
“Oh, I will!” Tyra said, and marched out of the front hatch, shovel in tow.
Counselor Peterman stepped out of the aft turbolift and onto the bridge, nodding at the senior staff who were all hard at work on their stations. She also nodded at Ensign Will, a backup engineering officer at the rear engineer’s console, and reserve operations officer Robinson who occupied that station up front.
Larkin glanced back at her from her position in the center seat. “Counselor, I trust you received my report on the situation with your husband and the others on the Susquehanna?”
Peterman rounded the bridge, coming to a stop right in front of the command chair. “I sure did.”
“Excuse me, Counselor,” Larkin said. “You are blocking the viewscreen.”
“As of this date and time, I take emergency command of the Explorer,” Peterman said, and added, “get out of my chair.”
Larkin cocked her head. “Surely you are joking, Counselor. Captain Baxter put me in command.”
Peterman glared down at Larkin. “I’m a commander, you’re a lieutenant commander. Do the math, Commander.”
“Your emotional response to this situation is unwarranted.”
“Funny you should say that,” muttered Peterman.
“Counselor, you are a long way down the chain of command. This act is highly improper.”
“That’s my husband out there with an insane woman who I, incidentally, failed to diagnose. I’m willing to settle for being improper if it means I can be the one to get him back. You can always be my first officer, if you want.”
Larkin considered this. “You could always hold an election.”
“You’re a laugh riot. Get out of my damn chair.”
Larkin reluctantly complied, sliding over one seat to the seat at her right, usually Conway’s. “Unfortunately, Starfleet protocol is in your favor.”
“You bet it is,” Peterman said. “I’m just glad I didn’t have to rule you incompetent. That would have been hard.”
“Indeed.” Larkin stared at the viewscreen. “Since you did not allow me a chance to speak before you walked in and took command, would you at least like a status report?”
Peterman nodded, shifting her weight in the command chair and turning to face Larkin. “What’s the deal?”
“The Susquehanna is not anywhere near its prearranged course.”
“Can you figure out where they might have headed?”
“I have created a search algorithm that should be of help,” said Larkin. “And Lieutenant Commander J’hana has contacted her informants in this area.”
“You have informants?” Peterman asked, glancing over her shoulder at J’hana.
“Don’t I look like the kind of person who has informants?” J’hana asked.
“I guess.” Peterman turned to face the viewscreen. “Any luck there?”
“A promising lead or two,” J’hana said. “Fear not, Counselor. We shall find your husband, or at least your husband’s body, well before morning.”
Peterman smiled thinly. “Thanks.”
Captain Baxter laid on his back, looking up at the ceiling, which was the floor, of the Susquehanna. The carpet was still in pretty good shape.
He couldn’t sleep, knowing Tyra was out there…digging for some reason. The good news was, he and Conway were able to get the kids to sleep with a minimal amount of fuss. He heard a chorus of snores, and in little V’xxnvar’s case, growls, throughout the cabin.
He glanced beside him. Conway was staring up at the floor too.
“Latinum slip for your thoughts, Commander,” Baxter whispered.
“I’m thinking about Tyra,” Conway said. He rolled on his side to face Baxter. “She’s been acting really wierd lately.”
“Wierder. I still think it all started when she switched, well, back the other way, if you get my drift.”
“That’s a hard thing for a woman,” Baxter said, nodding knowingly.
“How the hell would you know?”
“I’m just speculating.” Baxter rolled over to face Conway, leaning his head on his hand. “So. Did she ever tell you about…you know…being with a woman?”
“She shied away from the subject.” Conway grinned. “Believe me. I asked.”
“I imagine.” Baxter and Conway laid there a few moments in silence.
“You think she’s crazy, sir?”
“Possibly not,” said Baxter. “She may just be a big fat meany bean.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Conway said. “But I still better go check on her. It would be the boyfriendly thing to do.”
“You’re too good for her,” Baxter said. “As mean as she is to you, you take it. What gives? You don’t let anyone else mistreat you like that, no matter how hard they try.”
Conway shrugged, leaning up on his elbows. “I can’t explain it. She just makes me feel special. Ever since Lana…”
Baxter sighed. “Commander, she’s not Lana.”
“I realize that, boy do I realize that. But I know that slug in her loves me as much as Lana did. I just know it.”
Baxter rolled back onto his back. “Are you sure it’s not the other way around?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you sure it wasn’t Lana that really loved you, and not Shar?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Conway was about to badger Baxter further, but he noticed the captain was staring off into space. “Sir?”
“Oh.” Baxter blinked. He looked at Conway. “I was just thinking. It’s rainy outside, the kids are all tucked in. We’re talking about girls we like. It kind of feels like we’re at a slumber party.”
“Okay, that’s it. I’m getting the hell out of here.”
Conway found Tyra in a clearing at the center of a growth of thick, palmy trees. The rain had died down some, but wet wind still whipped through the trees and into the clearing.
Tyra was hunched over a shovel, staring down into a hole.
Conway tiptoed up behind her, placed his hands over her eyes. “Guess who, hon?”
Tyra elbowed him in the gut, wrenched his wrist around, and whirled to face him. “You can’t stop me!” She paused. “Oh. David. So good to see you.” She turned back toward the hole, grabbed her shovel.
Conway approached Tyra. “Who the hell did you think I was?”
“The boogie man,” Tyra said with a giggle.
“Are you okay, Tyra?” Conway asked. “What can I do to make you happy? For Pete’s sake, I’ve tried everything!”
“I don’t know,” Tyra said, twisting her fingers around the smooth shovel handle. “How about you die and we call it even?”
Tyra twisted around, slinging the shovel into Conway’s gut. He doubled over in pain, sunk to his knees, and peered down into the hole.
Lightening lit the sky, and he saw Ensign Drucker, or what was left of her, slumped in the hole, head slightly bashed-in.
“Oh, oh no, oh no oh no…” Conway cried, pounding the ground. “Not again!”
Tyra loomed over him. “This happened before? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Conway rolled over on his back. “Not this exact situation. But my ex-wife did try to kill me.”
“Oh, yeah,” Tyra said, swinging the shovel up over her head. “You told Lana all about that. You were just paranoid. You got this silly idea in your head that all your girlfriends would try to kill you, when in reality, it’s just me.”
“Why? What’s the matter with you?” Conway demanded. “What could I have done to deserve this? And what happened to the Shar who loved me?”
“Shar never loved you. Shar never loved anyone,” Tyra grunted. “Shar was out for Shar’s self and Shar’s self only. Shar looked out for number Shar…I mean number one.”
“Could you stop using third person?”
Tyra glared down at Conway. “You don’t get it, do you? It was always Lana. Only Lana. Lana locked me up like a bad secret…kept me hidden and suppressed, didn’t let me be the kind of slug I wanted to be!”
“But I don’t get it…” Conway stammered. “I had Shar inside me. So did Peterman’s dog, for that matter. How come me, or Charlie, didn’t notice something was terribly wrong?”
“I couldn’t live in that dog, or in you,” Tyra spat. “I had to keep up the charade, till I could find a receptive host.”
“No wonder you and Lana never talked about your other hosts. They were all bastards, apparently!”
“Once they ran into Shar they were,” Tyra said with a chuckle. “Each and every one, except that goody two-spots Lana. But she’s gone now. And you’re about to join her!”
Tyra swung the shovel down at Conway and he rolled to miss it. He grabbed it and twisted it out of her hands. He lept to his feet. “You were saying?”
Tyra smiled. “You gonna use that, you little troll, or are you just going to wave it at me?”
“You Starfleet-types would never use such a blunt instrument. That shovel has no ‘stun’ setting, buddy boy!”
“Well, let’s try it out and see!” Conway swung at Tyra but she ducked, and ran for the trail back for the Susquehanna. “Let’s just see who can get back to the ship first! All those vulnerable children, your chubby captain! They’ll be no match for me. It’ll be a slaughter…literally!”
Conway grimaced and set off after Tyra, running as fast as he could, which, admittedly, wasn’t very fast.
He slammed his comm badge with his palm. “Conway to Baxter!”
“Baxter here,” came the groggy reply.
“You were right, Captain. Tyra is a nutcase. And Shar’s a homicidal maniac.”
“Together, they’re quite a handful,” Baxter said wryly. “What are we going to do about it?”
“You’ve got to get the kids to safety. She’s headed in your direction, and isn’t planning on teaching you guys cursive when she gets there!”
“Understood. You sure you don’t need help with her?”
“I’ll be fine. Just get the kids somewhere safe. Think you can do that, mommy?”
“We’ll just see how great a mommy I am, buster!”
Conway shuddered. “Sir, I don’t know what to make of that.”
Conway arrived at the end of the trail, where the aft section of the Susquehanna lay prone on a mesa, or whatever, just meters away from a sheer rockface that led to a valley that was easily 100 meters below.
He poked his head quickly into the Susquehanna’s cabin. No kids, no Baxter. At least they’d gotten to safety. No way Tyra could chop them up and get rid of the bodies so quick and easily.
Conway looked around the outside of the Susquehanna’s wreckage. “Tyra…come on out. Nothing’s to be gained by hiding.” He fingered the shovel handle. What he wouldn’t give for a phaser at that moment.
After circling the Susquehanna wreckage, he deduced that Tyra must have gone elsewhere. But where?
Perhaps she got on top of the Susquehanna, Conway thought, as a tremendous weight slammed down on him from above. Tyra had lost a lot of weight after Shar was implanted in her, but she was still a heavy gal, and she easily knocked Conway to the ground. She pressed down on him, but not in the usual enjoyable way; no, this time she was trying to crush the life right out of him.
Conway clawed at the ground, squirming for all he was worth out from under her. The murderous Trill was trying to smush him, and doing a fair job of it, too.
Straining for every inch of ground he gained, Conway finally shimmied out from under Tyra, and ran toward the edge of the rockface. Not such a good idea, but with Tyra hot on his heels, he hadn’t had time to choose the wisest direction.
Conway whirled to see Tyra lunging at him. Now she had the shovel, and swung it at his feet.
He lept off the ground, and the shovel swung harmlessly beneath him. He followed up by ramming into her shoulder-first. That only briefly staggered her; she quickly brought the shovel swinging up between his legs, then slammed it against his knee, knocking one leg out from under him. Like a house on a bad foundation, Conway crashed to the ground.
Tyra loomed over him, shovel raised to deliver a death blow.
“HEY, BITCH!” And a phaser blast soared over Tyra’s head.
She turned to see Baxter standing a few feet away, at the Susquehanna’s upside-down exit hatch.
That moment of surprise gave Conway the opportunity to kick his feet up into Tyra’s gut. She doubled over, fell forward, and pitched over Conway and over the edge of the plateau, or whatever.
Conway twisted around to grab her hands, but with the rain, sweat, and grease of those delicious alien coffee beans, her hands slipped right through.
But Tyra was fueled by pure hate. She wouldn’t go out so easily. She dug her fingers into the rockside, clawed the edge, kicked with her feet.
“This isn’t over!” she cried, and reached one hand up to grab Conway’s wrist. “No, you little bastard, I’m bringing you down with me!”
“Give me the word, Conway,” Baxter said, hovering behind his first officer, hand phaser leveled on Tyra. “I’ll blast her and we can go roast marshmellows or something!”
Conway reached out his free hand as the weight of Tyra dragged him closer and closer to the edge of the rockface. “Give me the phaser, Captain.”
Baxter shook his head. “I’d really rather do it.”
Conway shook his hand for emphasis. “I’d really prefer that I do it, sir!”
“Conway, why quibble over–”
“GIVE ME THE DAMN PHASER!”
“Okay, okay!” Baxter shoved the phaser into Conway’s hand and he aimed it down at Tyra. She gritted her teeth, looked up at Conway with eyes burning.
“You don’t have the guts to do it. You’ve done everything I’ve asked so far! Why stop now?”
“Why indeed!” And Conway blasted Tyra’s hand. Her eyes widened in shock and her hand went limp. She slid down the rockface, then fell backward into a freefall. Then she slammed back into the rockface, then fell backward, then slammed hard against the rockface, then fell backward, and finally disappeared into the night.
“Heavy trade winds,” Baxter said, to no one in particular.
Conway stood up, dusted off his pants, and handed Baxter the phaser. “Are the kids okay?”
“I left them with Plato, in a cave nearby.”
“Janice will not be happy about that.”
“He’s mature enough to be left alone for a while.”
“Probably more mature than you, in fact,” Conway said.
“You’re hilarious. Are you okay?”
Conway looked out at the fuzzy night sky. It had finally stopped raining. “I suppose so.” He looked down into the crevasse. It was too dark to see the bottom, but Tyra had made a particularly loud thud on impact. Conway turned back to face Baxter. “Guess I’m single again.”
Baxter glanced over the edge of the rockface. “Guess so.”
“Where’d you say that cave was?” Conway asked.
“This way,” Baxter said, pointing down another trail, this time one that led down the rocky mountainside. “Just a few minutes’ walk.”
“Guess we’d better go get them. Figure they’re pretty shaken up.”
Baxter shrugged. “Nothing Kelly can’t handle.”
Conway sighed. “Wish I’d put a stop to this sooner. I really should have known better. You can’t change a woman with a homicidal slug in her.”
Baxter nodded. “That’s an age-old lesson, Commander.”
The two walked down the rocky trail in silence for several moments.
“You know, Commander, they say these types of heavy duty, life-or-death situations often can make friends out of the most bitter of enemies.”
“You don’t say,” Conway said with a chuckle. “Wait. Who are we talking about?”
“You and me.”
“We’ve been through worse than this. What makes you think this will make us friends?”
“Come on. We’re grown men. We don’t have to fight over everything.”
“I didn’t think we did. Just the command decisions.”
Baxter stopped walking. He turned to face Conway. “Come on, Commander. Let’s give it a try.” He put his hand out. “Friends?”
Conway glanced down at Baxter’s hand. “You’re joking.”
“Come on.” Baxter forced his hand out a little farther. “Friends!”
Conway finally took Baxter’s hand. He shook it limply. “Co-workers.”
Baxter smiled. “Good enough.”
Stardate 54973.4. After another glorious day on what we’ve dubbed Planet Rain, the Explorer finally arrived to pick us up. Just in the nick of time, as always. We were transported aboard to find Counselor Peterman and Lt. Commander Larkin in an idiotic power struggle over the ship. No wonder it took them a day to find us. At any rate, we’ve begun the process of searching for a new kindergarten teacher. Until we can find one, I’ve selected a teacher for the interim who is absolutely, positively, without doubt, not a hologram.
Counselor Peterman held up her padd and punched the control again. “Okay, what do we call this one?”
“Ringtailed lemur,” Kassie Stuart said tiredly. She sat among a circle of kindergarteners that surrounded Peterman, in a way Peterman swore to herself was non-confrontational. “That’s the third time you showed us that one, Miss Peterman,” said Kassie.
“Counselor Peterman, Kassie,” Peterman corrected. “Just trying to make sure you retain these images in your mind.”
“Miss Shar was teaching us stellar physics,” little Derrick said, raising his hand. “What gives?”
“What gives is that Miss Shar was a homicidal maniac, so I’m going to be teaching what I feel like teaching until we find a replacement.”
“I want Miss Shar back,” muttered little V’xxnvar. Peterman grimaced at him.
“Browning to Peterman,” chirped the comm system.
“Yes?” Peterman said excitedly.
“I’ve got some big news for you. The blessed event finally happened!”
“Oh, thank goodness!” Peterman cried. “Oh, YESSSSSS!” She stood up and stared up at the ceiling. “YEEEEEEEEEE EEEEEE-HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”
“Yep. Holly is now officially a Medical Doctor.”
Peterman’s face fell. “So I’m not pregnant.”
“Nope. But swing by and I’ll do another workup. We’re having punch and cookies for Holly and everything.”
“How exciting,” Peterman said, looking out at the sea of little faces. “But I have some kids to look after. Yours, I might add, is not among them.”
“He’s here with me. What, you need an absentee slip?”
Peterman sighed. “It would be nice.”
“Just get over here. Bring the kids, too. They can see how a pregnancy test is done.”
Derrick smiled eagerly. “Yay!”
Peterman grimaced. “You’re a laugh riot, Janice. I’ll just put the new ETH in charge.”
“I’m sure that won’t pose a problem,” replied Browning.
Captain Baxter ran into Commander Conway on his way down to Sickbay. “Hello, Commander. And how are you?”
“I just got all the Tyra junk moved out of my quarters,” Conway said. “And I spoke with the Trill government. They’re not happy.”
Baxter nodded. “I expect not. We did kill one of their oldest and most revered symbionts. Did you mention to them that we found out it was homicidal?”
“They didn’t believe me,” Conway said.
Baxter considered that. “I see. Why don’t you have the bodies of Drucker and Burke rerouted mistakenly to the Trill symbiont council. Let them see their precious little slug’s handiwork.”
“That’s awful, sir. Don’t you think the families will be upset about that?”
“Oh, they’ll get the bodies eventually,” said Baxter. “But seeing first-hand what their special little slimeball did will really put things in perspective for the Trill.”
“You’re becoming a vengeful bastard, Captain.”
“And it’s all because of you.” Baxter smiled. “Buddy.”
“Oh for crying out loud…”
Baxter and Conway rounded a bend in the corridor, just a few doors away from Sickbay. “So, what brings you here, Commander?”
“Free punch and cookies. You?”
They ducked into Sickbay, where Holly was busy prancing around in her shiny new white labcoat.
“What do you think, huh?” Holly asked, twirling so that the coat fluttered around her. “Fits pretty well, huh?”
“It looks like a tent,” Conway said flatly.
“It was my maternity labcoat,” Browning said, stepping out from behind Holly. “The punch and cookies are in my office.”
Conway smiled weakly at Browning then dashed for the office.
Baxter found Peterman sitting on a biobed, munching cookies.
Baxter rushed to hug her. “Hey, baby. While you’re in here, is Janice…”
“Checking now…” Peterman said, and smiled. “I’m feeling good about this one, hon.”
Baxter smiled, scooted up next to Peterman on the biobed. “Me too.” He grabbed her hand.
“That would either be your test or my quiche,” Browning said, and ran for her office.
Baxter and Peterman sat together on the biobed, trembling with anxiety as Holly tried out her admittedly flowy labcoat at the center of the Sickbay.
Browning returned shortly with a padd. Conway was behind her, weighed down with a heavy plate of cookies.
Baxter glared at him. “Commander?”
“Some for later,” Conway muttered. He looked over Browning’s shoulder as she studied the padd. “So, what are all those numbers?”
“Sperms ‘n eggs,” Browning said, and Conway grimaced.
“I’ve suddenly lost my appetite,” he muttered.
“Well?” Peterman asked, leaning forward with anticipation. Baxter squeezed her hand.
Browning looked up at Baxter and Peterman and smiled. “Good news. Great news!”
Baxter squeezed Peterman’s hand tighter. “Really?”
“Yep,” Browning said proudly, and looked at Peterman “Your choloesterol’s down twenty points.”
It all comes down to this…kind of. After four years of being together, it’s time for some of the Explorer crew to part ways with the commissioning of the brand-new Aerostar-A. Who will stay, and who will go? And once all that gets sorted out, who will notice the minor changes when the entire universe is wiped out in one fell swoop to make room for an alternate one?
And while all THAT nuttiness is going on…
Will Browning and Conway finally put aside their maturity and hook up? Will Richards take command of his life and be a man? Will J’hana tell Tilleran how she REALLY feels? Will Ford get a major role…ever? Will Ficker get the revenge he so sweetly deserves? Will Waystation and Secondprize people get cameos? Will the Explorer blow up? Will the Aerostar blow up? How about the Aerostar-A? Or the Secondprize? Will Mirk finally teleport Hartley into the magical world of marriage? Will Baxter and Peterman FINALLY conceive? And, finally…
WILL I EVER ASK ANOTHER RHETORICAL QUESTION?
Hopefully not. Anyways, find out all the answers in two scant weeks in the 100th story and series finale of
STAR TRAKS: THE VEXED GENERATION!!