Author: Anthony Butler
This story relies heavily on material from the series premiere, “The Road to Nowhere, Parts One and Two.” The author strongly suggests a brief skim of said stories, if the reader hasn’t read them in a while. It may prevent headaches and partial brain damage. Then again, it may not. And if you’ve never read them, then why the heck not?
For Caleb and Madison, and the soon-to-be born “Question Mark”–they’re the real Next Generation.
“You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”
Irma Wilson free-fell through time. Months had passed since Mirk shoved her out of the space-time continuum, and oddly enough, she felt the passing of each day winding backwards. She’d smashed her bleepy-bleep Star Trek watch–which played the theme on the hour–after about the four thousandth bleepy- bleep.
Now she was alone, with only her thoughts, lost in a maelstrom of swirly colors and sound echoes. She was unstuck in time, as it were, and none too happy about it.
She thought hard about Andy Baxter and the crew of the Explorer. Especially that damned Mirk, who’d put her in this position in the first place. She really wanted her revenge. But how to take it? She was unstuck in time, and it wasn’t like she had the power to do anything about it.
Or did she?
Could she concentrate on steering herself into a faster- moving back-in-time conduit? Could she get her self stuck back into time, land herself somewhere that would be advantageous to her?
Irma screwed her eyes shut and concentrated the full force of her hatred for Mirk and the Explorer crew. If anything would conjure enough power to stick her back in time, that would.
As the tides of time swirled around her, building into a tidal wave that she would use to surf back to reality, Irma pondered one important question:
Where and when could she take advantage of the Aerostar crew at their most vulnerable?
USS AEROSTAR, NCC-83835 2374 STARDATE 51015
Newly-promoted Captain Andrew Baxter rode the turbolift up to the bridge, brimming with a sense of satisfaction at being promoted all the way from lieutenant, without much of a resume, save his ten years of experience as an inventory officer.
Perhaps things in Starfleet were changing for the better, Baxter pondered. He’d been on the command track at Starfleet Academy. All ready to get that favored helm position that would one day lead to a captaincy. He craved the red shoulders on the uniform.
Then a cadet named Alvin Ficker sabotaged it all for him. Baxter was routed to Inventory and doomed to a life of counting padds and iso-chips. Until quite recently, when Rydell, his captain on the Secondprize, informed him that he was promoted to Captain, and would take the Aerostar into a spatial disturbance known as the Bermuda Expanse to investigate ship disturbances. It wasn’t that great of a mission, but it didn’t matter. He had his own SHIP.
The turbolift suddenly sighed to a stop, and Baxter tensed. He’d barely glanced at the crew roster. He certainly wasn’t prepared to chat amicably with an Aerostar crewmember. What would he say to this mysterious person? How would he begin building a healthy relationship with one of the hopeful souls destined to serve with him?
The turbolift doors slid open, to reveal a large-ish woman in a tight-fitting Starfleet uniform. It hugged in all the wrong places, Baxter noted, and he smiled wanly.
“And your name is…” he probed.
“Special Attache Irma Wilson,” replied the large woman. “Starfleet assigned me to advise you about the ship disappearances.”
“I didn’t hear anything about a special attache,” replied Baxter.
“The arrangements were all quite last-minute. Starfleet Command has no sense of timing,” Irma said, rolling her eyes. “The paper-pushers don’t know what it’s like out here.”
“That they don’t,” Baxter said, a tad uncomfortable. He didn’t like the idea of any attache looking over his shoulder. But he did his best to show this Irma person a friendly face. She was probably just as scared as he was, and would probably turn out to be a valued asset to his crew.
“I think this is a great ship, Captain,” Irma said, after some moments of awkward silence. “She’ll serve us well.”
“Good crew, too,” Baxter said conversationally.
Irma nodded, quietly grit her teeth. “The best.”
USS EXPLORER, NCC-87968 2377 STARDATE 54994
“Face it Andy,” Counselor Kelly Peterman said, hands-over- eyes, as Andrew Baxter led her down an Explorer corridor. “You’re not very good at keeping secrets.”
“We’ll see about that. Keep walking,” Baxter grinned, gently tugging Peterman by the hand. “It’s not much farther now.”
“I know just where we’re heading. I checked Ship’s Reservations. You have the arena reserved. The whole crew’s probably in there right now.”
“You never know,” Baxter said vaguely. “Now stop looking for hints.”
“You should have let me plan this.”
“Then it wouldn’t have been a surprise.”
“See! You gave it away just now.”
Baxter led Peterman up to a pair of heavy double doors. “Okay. You can uncover your eyes.”
Peterman put her hands down. She read the writing on the door. “What did I tell you? The arena!”
“The arena it is,” Baxter said mysteriously and tapped in the entry code. The great double doors spread apart and opened up into…absolute darkness. “Right this way, my sweet!”
Peterman padded past Baxter into the dark room. “Let me guess… everyone’s waiting to jump out and say ‘SURPRISE!’”
“Guess again,” Baxter said. “Computer…lights!”
Soft mood lighting rose up in the huge arena, which Peterman immediately found to be filled with…no one.
“It’s empty?” Peterman looked around.
“THAT’s the surprise!” Baxter giggled. “Nice, huh?”
Baxter led Peterman up to a square table at the center of the arena, right where tip-off usually was during the basketball or splatterball games.
The table was set beautifully with Baxter’s signature Captain’s Edition Pfaltzgraff Federation china and two candles.
“Happy anniversary, sweetheart,” Baxter said, and turned Peterman to face him. He pulled her to him and kissed her.
They kissed for several moments, then gently pulled away from each other. “I have to admit,” said Peterman. “This is a surprise.”
“Computer,” Baxter said, and gestured for Peterman to have a seat. “Cue audio.”
“…something about the way you look toniiiiiiiiiight…”
“Elton John?” Peterman crinkled her nose.
“It’s all the dreaded computer seems to feel like playing lately,” Baxter muttered, and took a seat across from Peterman. “Computer, cut the Elton John. Play something more current, but still in the romantic vein.”
“Can you believe it’s been two years already?” Peterman said, reaching across the table to grab Baxter’s hands.
“Yeah, it’s amaze–”
“Our bond is whole, made by pure logic, you know I gotta stick my katra somewheeerrrrrrrrrrrrrre!”
“Oh for cripe’s sake, not T’Goro,” moaned Baxter.
“They call him a modern day Elton John, you know,” Peterman said, smiling.
“Unfortunately for us.” Baxter sighed. “Okay, computer, something classical from Earth. ROMANTIC, this time. Strings and piano.”
The computer responded obediently with soothing piano and violin music to the satisfaction of Baxter and Peterman.
“So…” Peterman said, reaching forward to tickle under Baxter’s chin. One of the captain’s most tender spots. “What have you got planned for din-din, you calculating genius?”
Baxter smiled. “Computer…energize!”
And the spread beamed in at the center of the table. Peterman looked it over approvingly. “Andy, you know me so well! Three flavors of hummus, veggie pitas, and gobs and gobs of salad!”
“All the stuff I love…” Baxter said with a plastered-on smile. “And half the fat. Yum yum.”
“You’re wonderful,” Peterman giggled, and reached for the wine bottle. “Red? Isn’t that for beef?”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “Computer…WHITE wine goes with chicken and vegetables.”
“Not since Martha Stewart revised her etiquette guide for 2377,” the computer replied quickly. “The new edition indicates that red wine should be served with chicken, vegetables, and fish. White wine is to be served with beef and protoplasm by-products.”
“Why the hell did she go and do a thing like that?” asked Baxter.
“Let’s not let it get to us…” Peterman said soothingly.
“They never should have frozen that woman and shot her out into space, so she could be appreciated by future cultures,” Baxter grumbled, kneading his napkin.
“Well, if it makes any difference, the wine is excellent,” Peterman said. She was already on her second glass. “Try some.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Baxter reached for the wine bottle, just as the doors to the arena parted, sending brighter light from the corridor streaming in.
Janice Browning stood in the doorway, and, upon seeing Baxter and Peterman’s table, rushed over.
“Ooooh….hummus!” she exclaimed.
“Can we do something for you, Janice?” Baxter asked, irritated. He’d announced his anniversary plans at the morning staff meeting, while Peterman had been in the bathroom, re- applying her make-up.
“Actually, you CAN do something for me,” Browning said, and circled around to face Baxter. She sat a padd down in front of him, right on top of a veggie-stuffed pita. “Accept my resignation. I quit!”
She smiled, and it took Baxter a moment to catch on. “You…you quit? You QUIT!” He laughed heartily. “Do you hear that, Kelly? She quits! She quits she quits she quits she quits!” Baxter stood and hooked his arm in Janice’s, twirling her around square-dance style. “Janice quits! She’s off my staff! She’s fired! Gone, daddy, gone!”
Peterman blinked. “Can someone fill me in here? Why exactly are we so happy that Janice quit?”
Browning and Baxter stopped dancing. They looked back at Peterman blankly.
“You never told her?” asked Browning.
“Slipped my mind,” admitted Baxter. He rushed to Peterman, took her shoulders in his hands. “Kelly…I made Janice promise me she’d stay on staff until you got pregnant!”
“You…” Peterman looked to Browning. “You QUIT!” Tears filled her eyes; she leapt out of her chair and into Baxter’s arms. He twirled her around and around. “She quit she quit she quit! SHE’S OUTTA HERE! YAHHHHHHHHHHHHH- HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
Browning giggled. “Glad I could make your day. Anyone else I can fire for you, Andy?
“Folks, it’s ALL OVER!”
Commander David Conway’s green and yellow Mellow Yellow NASCAR slid to a stop in the winner’s circle and he slid out, to be closed in on by a horde of fans.
“Thank you, thank you, thanks very much,” Conway gushed, as a gorgeous blonde woman in tight-fitting shorts handed him a trophy. He held it aloft. “This one’s for the fans!”
Another NASCAR, the Andorian Art Institute car, pulled to a stop beside Conway’s. Chris Richards slid out.
“You rammed into me!” he persisted, pushing through the crowd of fans that circled Conway.
“It’s a cruel world, Commander,” Conway returned, and went back to soaking in the adulation of thousands of pleased NASCAR fans. “I’ll rematch you at any time.”
“Forget about it.” Richards threw down his helmet. “Kristen told me you cheated. I should have been ready for it.”
“This coming from the android who rigged the race for ship’s commander a few months back?”
“No one can prove she did that!” Richards protested. “But I have dozens of cameras that can show you ramming into me!”
“It’s perfectly legal in NASCAR, buddy,” Conway said, and grinned as the tight-shorts girl kissed him on the cheek.
“Great race, Dave!”
Richards rolled his eyes. He didn’t even want to know what that “Bunny” character was for. “This is too much, Dave. If Andy weren’t out celebrating his anniversary tonight, I wouldn’t even be here.”
“And alas, he is, so you had the horrible luck of facing me on the NASCAR track, you poor bastard!” Conway grinned.
“You’ve been way to happy since Tyra Shar died,” Richards said. “Without her crushing your spirits, it’s almost unbearable to be around you.”
“Me and the Captain are getting along fine, so it must not be a problem with me,” said Conway, and he and Richards headed for the stadium exit. The hordes of fans trailed behind.
“That’s what makes it even worse,” harrumphed Richards. “First, you take my girlfriend, then you take my best friend. What’s next? You want to adopt Larkin?”
“There’s not near enough room in my quarters for her,” said Conway. “Anyway, I didn’t take Janice, and even if I did, she’s not your girlfriend anymore. If I recall correctly, Ensign Madera is.”
Richards sighed. “Not anymore.”
The cheering was becoming annoying. “Computer. Freeze program,” Conway said, and stopped walking. “What do you mean ‘not anymore?’”
“We broke up last night,” Richards said. And why exactly was he telling Dave Conway this, of all people? After four years, was it possible that he thought of this guy as a human being, and not as an utter nuisance? Not hardly.
“That makes total sense,” said Conway. “It explains why you’ve been so moody lately. So why’d you break up?” He almost sounded sincere, but Richards didn’t fool easily.
“We drifted apart,” Richards said dully.
“You mean she realized you still have it bad for Janice?”
“I don’t ‘have it bad,’” said Richards. “I just miss her. I miss things the way they used to be.”
“You guys both agreed to break up just before the wedding, as I recall,” Conway said. “Two years ago today.”
“I know,” Richards said, and studied his helmet extra close. “I kind of like to think of Andy and Kelly’s anniversary as the anniversary of the end of my relationship with Janice.”
“Man, that’s morbid.”
“But you still have a chance with her, Commander,” Richards said. “You shouldn’t waste it. She’s still alone– has been since we broke up. If I can’t make her happy…” Richards swallowed bile before he said the next bit, “…maybe you can.”
“You mean it?” Conway’s eyes lit up.
Richards shrugged. “I guess.”
“Computer, exit!” Conway called and rushed through the opening holodeck doors.
Richards sighed. “Don’t beat around the bush, Commander.”
The computer told Conway that Browning was just leaving the arena, down on Deck 14. He thought that a bit odd, as that’s where Baxter and Peterman’s anniversary was scheduled to take place. What could she have been doing there?
“Janice!” Conway called, huffing and puffing to catch up with Browning.
“Commander?” Browning asked. She had been strolling down the corridor, looking around as if she were seeing that same old corridor for the first time in ages.
Conway skidded to a stop, braced himself up against a bulkhead. “Janice, I, uhhhf….have to…humph…ooof…tell you something…”
“You’re hyperventilating?” Browning asked, looking Conway over with concern.
Conway shook his head. “Only a byproduct….ummmmf… listen…”
“Bridge to Commander Conway,” came the voice of Lt. Commander Larkin. “You have a communique coming in from Starfleet Command. Your eyes only.”
“My eyes only?” Conway asked, surprised. “You sure, Larkin?”
“I am positive. Would you like to receive it in your office?”
“Sure,” Conway said. “I’ll be there in a minute. Conway out.” He looked to Browning. “I have to take this. Come with me?”
“But Larkin said it was for your eyes only,” Browning said.
Conway shrugged. “They’re always recordings. No one will know.”
Browning giggled. “Good point. Okay.”
Upon arriving on the bridge, Baxter and Irma found Ship’s Counselor Peterman and Chief of Security J’hana in heated combat. And something vicious-sounding growled behind the readyroom door. He heard the sound of a phaser being fired. Baxter didn’t even want to know about that.
“Ladies! Ladies! STOP IT!” Baxter shouted, approaching the two fighting women.
The two women froze, looking at Baxter with the faces of two kids who had been caught stealing from the cookie jar.
Peterman blew her hair out of her face and let go of J’hana’s antenna. “Sorry, Captain.”
J’hana straightened and saluted. “Captain Baxter. It is a pleasure. I want you to know that as a warrior, and as your chief of security, I would cut off my arm and feed it to you to keep you alive. I would take a phaser hit for you. I would give you my very…”
“Okay, okay, great, just stop fighting and take your stations, we’re leaving in five minutes. Where’s Commander Conway?”
Peterman was checking her makeup in the side mirror attached to her computer console. “He’s in the readyroom, but it sounds like something weird’s going on in there.”
“What a surprise,” Baxter said, and looked back at Irma, who had so far been surveying the situation with detached amusement. “Irma, will you check out the readyroom for me? I want to get familiarized with the crew here.”
“Sure,” Irma said, and went into the readyroom.
Once she was gone, Baxter looked at Peterman. “Do I smell monkey s***?”
Peterman shrugged. “Why on earth would there be a monkey on the bridge of a starship?”
“Good point.” Suddenly Baxter heard a particularly searing phaser blast and a barely-feminine groan.
Baxter and J’hana rushed to the readyroom doors. Peterman continued to check her makeup.
Baxter keyed the door open to find his Executive Officer, Commander David Conway, looming over Irma’s unconscious form.
“Whoops,” he said noncommittally. “I was aiming for the dog.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Baxter said blandly.
“Please state authorization.”
“Conway Theta 229.”
“Authorization confirmed.” Conway grinned across his desk at Browning. He had the viewer sort of turned halfway between him and her so both could see. “Can you see okay?”
“Sure,” replied Browning. She leaned forward.
None other than Admiral Harlan Baxter appeared on the desktop terminal. “Commander, uh, Conway. This is Harlan Baxter, Starfleet Command. Got some news…”
“He’s always so casual,” Browning commented.
Conway nodded. “What the hell could HE have to tell me?”
“Yeah,” Harlan said, and leaned back in his desk chair. He sparked up a cigar and put it in his mouth, took a few satisfied puffs. “Yeah, we got this new ship…mmm, that’s a good cigar. Anyway, we, uh…yeah…”
Harlan leaned over and scratched his backside.
“Is he always like this?” asked Conway.
“After a filling meal, he is,” Browning said.
Conway shook his head. No wonder Captain Baxter was so dimwitted. By the time his father had imparted any fatherly wisdom, Andy had probably lost interest.
“Yeah, so this new ship, Aerostar-A…she’s a Prometheus. What a beauty.”
“Get on with it!” barked Conway. Of course it was a recording, so it kept on at the same speed.
“Well, she ah, she ah needs acamp’n.” Harlan said that last bit with the cigar firmly in his mouth.
“What?” Conway looked at Browning. “WHAT?”
“Computer,” Conway ordered. “Repeat, and augment!”
The image reversed a few seconds, then repeated:
“…she ah needs…ah…campn.”
Browning touched a finger to her nose. “She needs a captain!”
“What does that have to do with me?” Conway said blankly, as the Harlan message droned on. “What the hell does that have to do with…holy SH**!”
Browning lept out of her chair and leaned forward to hug Conway. “Oh, David, that’s the third piece of great news I’ve heard in the last fifteen minutes!”
Conway smiled as Browning hugged him. He squeezed back, leaned his head down on hers. “What’s the other good news?”
“Kelly’s pregnant, and I quit!”
“Well, those are some great little tidbits of news,” said Conway. He was still hugging her.
“Well,” Browning said, trying to squirm out from under Conway’s chin. “I’m sure you have a lot of preparations to make…”
“First things first…” Conway pulled back. “Janice…”
“Sure you can keep that book I loaned you.”
“We’ll keep in touch, sure.”
“No, you don’t understand…”
“One last physical for old time’s sake? Okay, I guess…”
“Janice, I want to be with you!” Conway blurted out across his desk, just as Lt. Ford poked his head in the office door with the ship’s fuel consumption report.
“I’ll just back right out,” Ford said, and ducked his head out. Then, as if as an afterthought, he poked his head back in. “Hahahahahh! Commander Conway’s a love machine!”
“Captain Conway is a love machine!” Conway called back, and Ford gasped.
“You mean it?”
“Yep,” Conway said, and smiled. “Now get out. And go find my boots. I think they need a good scrub.”
“Yessir!” Ford saluted, and headed off down the corridor.
Browning’s mouth opened and shut, but no sound came out. Finally, “David…did you say what I think you said?”
“Damn right I did. I want you to be with me, on the Aerostar-A.”
“But I thought we agreed…”
“Forget our agreement. We didn’t get together because the crew was going to get all bent out of shape about it. Well, I’m captain of my own ship now. If a crewman has a problem with us being together, I’ll damn well kick them off the ship!”
“David, I just don’t know…”
“Well, at least think about it,” Conway said. “We’ve got…” Conway looked down at Harlan on the screen, who was still mumbling unintelligibly. “Some unintelligible amount of time before we rendezvous with the new Aerostar. Hot damn!”
“I thought you’d like to see this,” Counselor Peterman said, as Baxter followed her into her office.
“See what?” Baxter looked around. Some of her possessions were still in boxes, but by what she’d already off-loaded, Baxter could tell immediately that she was a flake. Not the friendly, hippy type of flake that his former Counselor, Claire Webber, had been, but a very bizarre, pet-loving, cutesie pink throw- pillow annoying kind of flake. “I’m very busy here, Counselor,” said Baxter. “I’ve got one officer down, and one who shot her. There’s plenty of paperwork to be filled out, that’s for sure.”
“This’ll just take a minute.” Peterman turned her desktop terminal around to face her and tapped a control. “Look at this.” Baxter looked over her shoulder. Her perfume was exquisite. “Orion Slave,” by Vellik.
Baxter studied the screen. “Crew roster.”
“Yes,” Peterman nodded, as Baxter looked on. “And there is no Irma Wilson on it.”
“Damn strange.” Baxter rubbed his chin. He thought about growing a goatee. “Well, she told me she was a last-minute addition. I’m sure her paperwork just hasn’t caught up with her yet.”
Peterman straightened to face Baxter, aware that he was suddenly quite close to her. She took a few steps back, stepped behind her desk. “I thought you’d be a stickler for paperwork, coming from inventory and all.”
“I have my moments.” Baxter stood there, trying to think of something else to say. “Listen, this is Starfleet, not the Klingon Imperial Navy. People don’t sneak aboard our ships with murderous intent. Not unless they’re changelings. And what are the chances we’ve got one of THOSE aboard!”
Peterman’s howler monkey, Raphael, slowly and quietly sidestepped behind the Counselor’s couch.
“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday…”
“Oh, Andy,” Peterman said, leaning her head on Baxter’s shoulder as the pair slow-danced across the foul line and right through the three-point shoot/deathblow circle in the Explorer arena. “This is the perfect anniversary. I couldn’t think of a better time to get the news about our baby.”
“How about two months ago?” Baxter suggested, and kissed Peterman on the head.
“Let’s not get picky.”
“Kelly, what are we going to name him?”
“I don’t know. We should sort of figure out what sex the baby is before we go naming him or her, shouldn’t we?”
“I guess. Can you get any kind of feel for what sex… uh, it is?” Baxter slid his hand down to rub Peterman’s midsection.
Peterman giggled. “It doesn’t quite work that way, honey.”
“I remember, thank you very much.”
“Oh, that’s right, you had a Q inside you. How could I have forgotten?”
“I don’t know how. I talk about it all the time. Man did my feet swell.”
The Beatles played on, and Peterman sighed joyfully. “Nothing could make this day any better.”
“Conway to Baxter.”
Baxter grumbled something to himself. “What?”
“Just wanted to tell you sir, they gave me my own ship. I quit. Enjoy the anniversary of your doomed marraige!”
“I’ll be darned,” said Baxter. “And we were just getting to be friends.”
“You’ll get over it,” Peterman said giddily. “There. I’m already over it! See how easy it is?”
Stardate 54994.7. We’ve been re-routed from our stellar survey of the Van Nostrin belt to go to Earth for the dedication of the USS Aerostar, 83835-A, the newest addition to the Explorer program. I go into this with mixed emotions. I’m quite happy on the Explorer, and I think the Aerostar-A will be a fine ship for Captain Conway. But it would have been nice if they would have at least ASKED if I wanted the new ship!
Captain Baxter stepped out onto the bridge. “How far are we from Earth, Larkin?”
Larkin turned in her seat at ops. “Two hours, at our present speed of Warp Six. The dedication ceremony is scheduled for oh-nine hundred tomorrow morning, so we will arrive well ahead of time.”
“Goody,” Baxter said, and glanced around the bridge. No one was in the center seat. “Where’s Conway?”
“In his office.”
“Isn’t he on-duty?”
“That is correct.”
“He should be up here then. Captain or no, he’s still my first officer until we get to Earth.”
“Shall I retrieve him?” Larkin asked.
Baxter sighed. “No. I’ll do it. You have the bridge.”
“I hearby resign my…no, that’s not right. I hope you accept my… nah, sounds too wishy-washy. How about ‘I quit!’”
Lt. Commander Richards bent over his desk down in Engineering and scratched his head. He’d been working on his resignation for nearly an hour, but couldn’t get it to sound exactly right.
The doors to his office slid open and Lt. Megan Hartley stuck her head in. “Chris…I’ve got a coupling out here I want you to take a–” She paused. “What are you doing?”
Richards turned over the padd he was working on. “None of your business.”
“Let’s see it.” Hartley stepped forward toward his desk. He grabbed the padd. She bent forward and snatched it. “Let’s see, I said!”
Richards tugged it back. “No!”
Hartley poked Richards in the ribcage and tickled. “Leggo!” In a fit of giggles, Richards relented, and Hartley read the padd.
“You resign?” Hartley asked. “Ten times, in ten different ways?”
“I’m trying to figure out how to phrase it,” said Richards, and he stood.
“Don’t you have your old one on file?”
“Can I have the padd back now?”
Hartley held it back. “Why are you resigning, anyway?”
“Because I am not ready to serve on a ship where Commander Conway and Janice are a couple.”
“A couple of buffoons, maybe,” Hartley said. “But they’d never get together.”
“I gave Conway permission earlier today. Trust me, he’ll be dating her by the end of the day.”
“They do not make any sense as a couple.”
“And a thirty-year-old engineer dating a twenty-year- old alien does make sense?”
“We’re talking about you, not me!”
“I thought we were talking about Conway and Janice.”
“Which involves you,” Hartley said. “You still love her, don’t you?”
“What does it matter.” Richards sat on the edge of his desk. “She made it implicitly clear who she wants to be with.”
“Women have ways of surprising you now and then, Chris. Before you do anything rash, why don’t you go and talk to her?”
Richards thought about it. “Nah…we’ve been apart too long. It would never work.”
“Either that, or it’s just what the two of you needed. Ever think of that?”
Richards blinked. “No, not really.”
Hartley smiled. “Go get her, Chris. I’ll look after things here.”
“Okay. I will! Thanks, Megan!”
Hartley swung around Richards’s desk, sat down, and put her feet up on it. “Don’t mention it. And, just in case you decide you still want to resign, just remember, I’m here to take care of things!”
Richards and Hartley walked together down an Aerostar corridor. “You’re being very difficult, Commander,” Hartley muttered.
“I read Counselor Peterman’s report, Lieutenant,” Richards replied. “There’s no way you can be an engineer on this ship. Not at this time, anyway. I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”
“But you’re my supervisor. She’s just a…a flake!”
“I have to go by her recommendation. For now, you’re a transporter chief.”
“It’s not fair,” muttered Hartley.
“What can I say,” Richards said. “You’re just going to have to deal with it. Meanwhile, I have to go try to re- assemble our new chief of operations.”
Hartley decided not to ask for further details.
The pair passed by Sickbay as they continued to their separate destinations. Just as they passed, the doors open to allow Irma Wilson to walk out.
“Excuse me,” she said, and shouldered past Richards. “I have a dog to find.”
Richards’s eyes went wide. “Didn’t I see her before?” he said to himself.
“Probably. It’s not that big a ship,” said Hartley.
“But she appeared when we were still in spacedock,” said Richards. “I wasn’t even chief engineer yet. I was just surveying engineering to make sure everything was in the right places. She mumbled something about looking for someone named Mirk, then disappeared.”
“People show up and disappear all the time, Mister Richards.”
“You don’t understand, Lieutenant. I mean she LITERALLY disappeared.”
“What can I say,” shrugged Hartley. “It’s a strange universe.”
On his way down to find Conway, Baxter ran into Dr. Browning. At least he was pretty sure it was Dr. Browning.
She was dressed in a shape-hugging silk red dress and wore thick red lipstick. Her hair was twirled up and crimped.
“Janice?” Baxter asked.
“What?” she asked casually, picking up step next to Baxter.
“You look like a…like a Dabo girl.”
“Thanks, I guess.”
“Where are you going dressed like that?”
“To meet a friend.”
Browning sighed. “You’ll find out soon enough anyway. Captain Conway.”
Baxter gasped. “Janice!”
“Andrew, I’m not going to argue with you about this. I know your feelings…still…” she straightened her dress. “Warp speed ahead!”
“Please don’t be upset with me. I’m going to the Aerostar-A.”
The pair came up to the doors to Conway’s office. Baxter was still thunderstruck.
“Enough,” said Browning. “Either be happy for me or just be quiet” She took in an unsteady breath. “I have to do this.”
“I told you, enough…” Browning paused. It wasn’t Baxter that time, it was Richards, barreling down the corridor toward her.
“Janice!” Richards called, running down the corridor, bouquet of flowers in his hands. He dropped to his knees. “Marry me!”
Just then, Captain Conway stepped out of his office. He looked around. “Anyone got a few packing crates?”
“We’re in the middle of something here,” Baxter muttered.
“WE?” Richards asked. “This is between me and Janice.”
Browning sighed. “Christopher, there’s nothing between me and you.” She turned to Conway. “I’m going to be with Captain Conway.”
“You mean you’ll go to the Aerostar with me?” asked Conway.
Browning smiled and leaned in to hug Conway. “Uh…yes!”
“CAPTAIN? AEROSTAR?” Richards asked, perplexed.
“My new ship,” said Conway.
“NOOOooooooooooooo!” cried Richards, and battered the flower bouquet into a thousand pieces against the ship’s deck.
“Take it like a man, Richards,” said Conway. “Besides, you gave me permission.”
Browning turned an angry look on Richards. “You GAVE PERMISSION!”
Baxter backed off down the corridor. “I’ve got a lot of…appointments. I’ll see you guys, uh, around. Bye!”
“More couscous, my little Yak-liver?” Mirk asked, hovering over Hartley’s plate with a steaming bowl.
“Please, no more,” Hartley said. She put her fork down as Mirk retook his seat across from her at the table in their quarters.
Since he’d moved in a couple weeks ago, Hartley’s quarters had taken on a much more festive tone. They had been spartan for quite some time, but Mirk had a knack for decoration. The room was now dressed up with plants and colorful fruit trees. And he’d switched out her Starfleet-grey furniture with some much more satisfying pastels.
“So, Richards wants Browning, Browning wants Conway, Conway wants Browning, and all three want off the ship,” Mirk summed up, spooning couscous into his mouth.
“That’s about the size of it,” said Hartley.
“Room for advancement for you, either way,” he said. “So it’s a good thing, right?”
“Sure,” said Hartley. “I just wish they weren’t in such a romantic… quadrangle, or whatever you’d like to call it. It makes me wish they had the kind of relationship we have.”
“All three of them?”
“Well, two of the three.”
Mirk munched thoughtfully. “Which two then?”
Hartley shrugged. “Beats me. I’m no counselor.”
“Well, whatever the case, I’m sure everything will work out for the be-be-be-beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeooooooooo!” Mirk’s eyes glazed over fiery red and energy bolts fired out of them, scorching the wall behind Hartley.
Hartley stared across the table at Mirk, whose eyes returned to normal. Smoke rose from his head.
“You okay?” she asked after a few moments’ silence.
“Yeah,” said Mirk. “That’s been happening for a while now.”
“Any idea why?”
“Not really. Just hope it’s not a bad omen.”
Hartley stood up to clear the table. “Well, as long as it isn’t hurting anyone.” She carried her plate and Mirk’s over to the reclamator. She sat them in the slot and turned on a heel. “Wait a minute. If it’s been happening for a while now, why aren’t our walls all scorched up?”
Mirk shrugged innocently. “Who knows?”
Hartley marched over to one of the bulkheads, where Mirk had recently erected an artful Navajo Indian rug. She ripped the rug down; sure enough, two scorch marks.
“I’ll go have myself checked out tomorrow, hon,” Mirk said sheepishly.
Stardate 51015.5. We’re on our way to the Bermuda Expanse. I’ve got to say, so far captaining is…well, weird. I’ve got a grumpy First Officer, a grumpy transporter chief, and a grumpy tactical officer. They’re all grumpy in their own special ways, but grumpy all the same. Then there’s the counselor, who’s cute but… well, a flake.
Captain Baxter sat in the center-seat, savoring the feel of the soft cushion underneath his rear end. It sure beat his seat down in the Jefferies tube on the Secondprize. Of course it did. He was captain. Captain. He loved the way it rolled off his tongue.
Baxter was stirred from his thoughts when Irma sat heavily down beside him.
“All checked out in Sickbay, Irma?” Baxter asked, trying to sound semi-friendly.
“Sure did!” replied Irma. “You’ve got…” she choked it out, “quite a Chief Doctor.”
“Her personnel record was…well, sort of favorable.”
Commander Conway glanced across Baxter at Irma, from his seat to Baxter’s right. “Sorry about shooting you, there, Irma.”
“No problem, Commander,” Irma replied pleasantly. “We’re all one big happy Starfleet family.”
“That’s the spirit,” said Baxter. “I think we’re all going to become great friends on this mission. I can just feel it.”
“If you say so,” muttered Conway.
“Say,” said Baxter. “Where’s Counselor Peterman, anyway?”
“Looking for her dog,” Irma said, and smiled devilishly. “He’s gone missing!” She fingered the bandage on her arm ruefully.
“That’s too bad,” giggled Conway.
“Yes,” Irma said, also giggling. “Too bad!”
Baxter looked at the two of them and shivered. Maybe he spoke too soon.
In his readyroom, Baxter thought of Conway and Browning and shivered. He wanted Janice to be happy, but not this way. Not with Conway, and certainly not off his ship. Who would make him bacon and eggs and grapefruit each morning, or, on the mornings Peterman ate with him, a bran muffin and a grapefruit?
Just as Baxter was about to open a channel to Browning and ask that very question, the doors to his readyroom slid open and Richards shuffled in, still carrying the bashed bouquet of flowers.
“Wasn’t that locked?” asked Baxter.
Richards shrugged and sunk into the chair across from him. “Who knows.”
“Well,” Baxter said. “What seems to be the problem?”
Richards glared at his friend. “‘What seems to be the problem? WHAT seems to be the PROBLEM?”
“Sorry. Couldn’t resist.”
“I should get off this ship. Give that art career another try. Maybe without Janice clouding my mind I can really get some work done.”
“I’ve got a better idea.”
Richards sighed. “What?”
“Be my first officer.”
Baxter slid a padd across to Richards. “Initial there and you’ll be a full commander. It’ll really raise your spirits.”
“You’re trying to cheer me up by promoting me?” Richards scratched his head and looked at the padd.
“What can it hurt?” asked Baxter. “You’re tired of engineering, and I can understand that. So why not give command a try? You can still resign if you don’t like it, but I have a feeling you’ll enjoy it.”
Richards read the padd. “Boss people around, huh?”
“The whole ship,” Baxter said with a grin. He leaned forward. “Just think of it, Chris. With us in command, things will go so much more smoothly. No fights over administrative decisions like me and Conway had. No silly arguments about who’s the better commander. Just fun and friendship. With you and me at the helm, the ship can’t go wrong.”
“Sounds like this is more for you than me,” Richards said, tapping the padd idly.
“Maybe so,” said Baxter. “But you still might find you enjoy it. Damn it, Chris, at least give it a shot!”
Richards shrugged and thumbed his signature on the padd. “Fine. My life can’t get any worse, right?”
Baxter stood and circled around his desk, clapping a hand on Richards’s shoulder. “That’s the spirit. Welcome to the team, Commander!”
“I thought Andy was coming down,” Lt. Commander Richards asked, as Irma looked tiredly over Larkin’s inactive body.
“He sent me in his place,” said Irma. Actually, Irma thought, I argued to go in his place. Just so I can get my hands on your big, fat, throbbing–
“Warp core’s acting up,” Ensign Stuart said, approaching the master systems table, next to which Larkin stood re- assembled but totally inoperative. Apparently, upon beam-in, she’d blown into dozens of pieces.
“I’ll go check it,” said Richards. “Stay right here…Irma.” He shot her a fearful look and headed for the warp core.
Irma smiled and looked around the engineering compartment. All the staff were humming happy tunes, checking the core for any sign of imminent breach. It was her time to act.
“I’ve got to admit it, Kristen,” newly-promoted Commander Chris Richards said, strolling down the corridor with Lt. Commander Kristen Larkin. “I’m extremely jealous.” He couldn’t get Browning and Conway out of his mind.
“As am I,” Larkin said, as they rounded a bend.
“I can only assume we’re talking about different things?”
“You assume right,” Larkin said. “I was next in line for command of the Explorer.”
“Your feelings are hurt,” Richards said, and stopped walking. Larkin continued a few paces, looked back quizzically and returned to join Richards. “That’s so adorable.”
“I do not believe so,” said Larkin. “My emotional program is generating a plethora of programmatic responses, including jealousy, anger, rejection, inferiority, pride, selfishness…”
“I get it,” Richards cut her off. “I’m sorry, Kristen. I can talk to Andy, if you like…to tell you the truth, it doesn’t make much difference to me.”
“That is unnecessary,” Larkin replied. “I have opted instead to pursue the position of first officer aboard the Aerostar-A.”
“You’re leaving?!” Richards gasped.
“That is correct. I believe Captain Conway will be receptive to my proposal.”
“Sure he’ll be,” Richards said, still shocked. “You’re a damn good officer. But I don’t want you to leave, Kristen. You don’t know how great it’s been having a daughter for these three years…”
“That may well be,” Larkin said. “In essence, you will still have me. I will simply be far away on the Aerostar.”
“It won’t be the same.”
“Change is an inescapable truth of life, Father,” said Larkin. “Neither of us can prevent it. We must instead use it to our advantage, as you have, and as I will.”
“That’s so mature of you, Kristen…I just…” Richards’s eyes began tearing. “I love you…” He reached out and pulled the androide into a hug.
Larkin sighed. “Weeping subroutines initializing…now you have done it, Father. I too am crying. I hope you are happy.”
“I am, Kristen. I really am,” Richards moaned, and cried on Larkin’s shoulder.
Reluctantly, Larkin cried too.
Richards rebooted Larkin and her eyes popped open. She glanced around engineering.
“Where am I?”
“You’re on the Aerostar,” Richards said, and he was looking around too. “Have you seen a large woman in an ill-fitting uniform around here?”
“No, sir, as I was just now activated,” Larkin replied. “If you like, I can perform a search–”
“That’s okay.” Richards tapped his finger on the master system controls thoughtfully. “Say, Larkin…have I seen you somewhere before?”
“I do not believe so.”
“Neither do I.”
Larkin stood there staring at Richards for a moment, then said, “I should go to the bridge.”
“Okay. See you around.” Richards headed toward his office, unaware of the pinging sound that resonated somewhere deep at the bottom of the warp core. Meanwhile, down in a Jefferies tube, Irma Wilson laughed uproariously.
“Poor Chris,” said Counselor Peterman, standing idly at the door to Browning’s quarters as the former doctor packed her things. “First he loses you, then his daughter, all to Commander
“This is hard enough, Kelly,” Browning said. “Do you think this is how I pictured things going? Just try to understand…ok?”
Before Peterman could respond, Plato rushed out of the back room, heaving a large bag.
“I got all your replicator chips together, Mom!” he said enthusiastically.
“Great,” Browning said, leaning down to kiss him on the forehead. “Go ahead and start packing your things.”
“I’m not guilting you,” Peterman said. “I’m just saying…from a pure counseling perspective, that Chris must really be hurting right now. It’s going to be a tough job helping him bounce back from this.”
“It’s time for me to go, Kelly,” Browning said. Then her tone softened somewhat. “I care a lot about you and Andy. And,” she sighed, “and Christopher. But I have to do this.”
“Chris loves you, Janice.”
“I know. I love him too. There were plenty of times I wanted badly to get back together with him.” She looked around. What else to pack up? “But now I’ve finally moved on. He will too.”
“I hope so.” Peterman sniffled. “Oh, Janice. Who’s going to help me with this baby?”
“Holly’s a great doctor, Kelly,” Browning said, moving over to wrap an arm around Peterman. “You’ll be fine.”
“But I was hoping you’d give me advice on how to be a mom, give me hand-me-down baby clothes, help me get through all those temper-tantrums…”
“What are you going to miss? Me or my parenting skills?”
Peterman shrugged. “Both?”
Captain Conway’s quarters were almost entirely cleaned out. Everything had been transported to the cargo bay and gathered into crates, including the items from his office. His coffee supply had been very carefully removed by ship’s security, and was standing by in the cargo bay, under a protective level 10 force field.
“Come on in,” Conway said, and sat down on his couch. He loved that couch. He considered taking it, then thought better of it. There was bound to be an even better couch in the captain’s quarters on the Aerostar.
Lt. Commander Larkin walked in. “I have a matter of some importance to discuss with you, Captain,” she said solemnly.
“You want to be my First Officer.” Conway’s eyes lit up. “Fantastic. You’ve got it. Can’t wait to work with you.”
Larkin appeared confused. “I did not have to beg?”
“Of course not. You’re an android. You have tactical scenarios and historical databases big enough to fill our ship’s computer. You’re stronger than a razorbeast and invulnerable to most weapons. You’d be the perfect first officer.”
Larkin seemed like she didn’t know what to say. After a few nanoseconds of indecision, she said, “I will be pleased to work with you, Captain. I shall prepare for departure immediately. I can be ready within the hour.”
“Excellent,” said Conway, and patted her on the back. “We’ll have a great time on the Aerostar.” Conway led her to the door. “Say, what gave you the idea you’d have to beg for your job?”
“Lieutenant Ford, sir,” said Larkin.
“Oh. He WILL have to beg.”
“I assumed as much.”
“See you in an hour,” Conway said, and added with a grin, “Commander Larkin.”
“Lieutenant Larkin, is that class of vessel on record?”
“No sir,” Larkin replied, as Captain Baxter watched the tiny, oblong freighter on the Aerostar’s viewscreen. “I cannot find a match in any Starfleet database. However, by design it appears to be a modified light freighter.”
“Cargo?” Baxter asked.
“Sir,” said J’hana, “I am picking up Starfleet equipment, photon torpedo launchers, sensor clusters, and tractor beam emitters.”
Baxter leaned forward and snapped his fingers. “That’s our bandit, I’ll wager. Ford, match course and speed with him. This mission may be easier than we thought.”
“Don’t count on it,” Irma said under her breath, at Baxter’s left. She’d returned from engineering just in time to watch the fireworks. Peterman was probably still searching for poor Charlie.
Larkin studied her panel. “Sir, the vessel is on a direct course for the Bermuda Expanse.”
“Curiouser and curiouser. Well, let’s follow this white rabbit and see where he leads us,” Baxter said.
“Dumb idea.” Baxter heard Conway mutter. On the other side of Baxter, Irma chuckled low and fierce.
“Do you have a better idea, Commander?” Baxter said, ignoring Irma.
“No sir, but I don’t know if it’s such a good idea, charging into that region, when every ship that goes in there is never heard from again.”
“I know what I’m doing, Conway. Trust me.”
“I feel like I’m being touched by a stranger,” Baxter sighed as Doctor Holly Wilcox continued on with his physical. She’d wanted a hands-on look at the senior staff as soon as possible, since she didn’t really trust Browning’s record-keeping. For goodness sake, there was a smear of raspberry jam on her desktop terminal screen that very well might have been there since the Explorer’s launch in 2375.
“I’m a professional, Captain,” Holly said, and sighed. “Now, cough.”
Baxter did, and Holly stood to face him as he sat on the biobed. “Good. Now let’s go over your tests, shall we?”
“Sure,” Baxter said, and nodded. As Holly looked over her medical padd, filled with all of Baxter’s test results, Browning crept into Sickbay, and headed to the office.
“Forgot my pizza sauce,” she said with a giggle.
“At any rate,” Holly said. “Everything checked out, except…”
Baxter gasped. “Except I have an awful degenerative illness that can’t be cured.” He stared at the ceiling. “Oh, why me God! WHY ME!”
Holly sighed again. “Not exactly, sir. I just detected a slight irregularity in your hairline.”
“In my…” Baxter touched the top of his head. “In my hair?”
Holly nodded gravely. “I’m afraid so. Listen…”
Browning suddenly stuck her head out of her former office. “Oh, Holly? Could you come back here and help me with something?”
“I’m a bit busy right now, Doctor,” Holly said. She didn’t feel right suddenly calling Browning by her first name.
Browning marched up to the biobed and grabbed Holly’s arm. “Now, Doctor!”
Holly let out a squeal of shock and Browning dragged her backward toward the office. “I’ll be right back.”
Baxter stared at himself in the reflection of the biobed monitor. “My…hair?”
Browning dragged Holly into her office and shut the door. “Holly, I forgot to tell you something.”
“Is this about the manicotti that’s in stasis in the morgue?”
Browning shook her head. “No, no. It’s Andy’s hair…”
“The guy is going bald, Janice,” Holly said worriedly. “And he hasn’t a clue. How could you have not known about this?”
“I have known,” Browning said. “Just before we left on the Aerostar’s first mission, the Secondprize doctor contacted me about it. Under orders from Claire Webber, the counselor on the Secondprize, no one is to ever tell him about that male- pattern baldness. It would push him over the edge.”
“Preposterous,” said Holly. “He’s got a counselor for a wife…!”
“Who agrees wholeheartedly with Webber’s prognosis.”
“There are all sorts of cures that we can try on him–”
“Doctor Aldridge on the Secondprize tried it all,” said Browning. “There’s nothing that can be done. Except for the eventual implants or toupee. But let him find that out on his own, Holly.”
“This is silly.” Holly turned for Sickbay. “I’m a doctor, not a counselor. I’m putting it to him like it is.”
Browning sighed. “You are the CMO now, Holly. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I’ll remember you said that,” said Holly. “Just do me a favor and don’t forget that pizza sauce.”
“I already ate it.”
Baxter left Sickbay feeling, well, sick. Holly gave him a detailed analysis of his shrinking hairline, coupled with courageous stories of people like Picard and (gasp, really?) Kirk who had made great careers for themselves, though bald. Then there was Sisko, who made himself bald on purpose. Baldness wasn’t just a disease he could live with, but it was entirely sheik. Still, Baxter was saddened by the awful thought of his dusty blonde mane being nothing but a wrap-around comb-over one day. He resolved to shave it all if it came to that.
He stepped into the turbolift and ordered it to the bridge.
When the turbolift opened up onto the bridge, Baxter found himself, not for the first time, totally and utterly confused.
Richards was in the command chair, and Ensign Sefelt was at ops. Madera was at helm.
Baxter stepped out onto the bridge and glanced around. He sighed relief; Tilleran and J’hana were still at their rightful stations.
“Isn’t this alpha shift, Commander?” Baxter asked, circling around toward the command center.
Richards shifted one chair to the right. “Yep,” he said simply. “Captain Conway drafted a few of your officers.”
“Would’ve been nice if he’d asked first,” Baxter said moodily.
“Remember, you two are growing to be great friends.”
“Screw all that, I want my android back.”
“Now now, Captain,” said Richards. “I’m her father, and if I can deal with the loss of Larkin, I’m sure you can.”
“You probably cried like a baby,” muttered Baxter.
“Like a baby who lost his blankie, sir,” Richards said.
“As long as that’s the case, I don’t feel so bad.” Baxter looked to Sefelt at ops. “Ensign, how long until we reach Earth?”
Sefelt turned in his chair. “I’m a lieutenant now, actually,” he said crisply. “And we’re on course for Earth at warp six. We’ll reach our destination in twelve point five minutes.”
Baxter glanced at Richards. “Who the hell promoted him? And why does he sounds so…not scared?”
“I promoted him, and Kelly thinks he might be cured of all his neuroses, just by the simple fact of getting promoted,” said Richards.
“Remember how you made me First Officer?” Richards grinned. “I can do that now.”
“Sure,” said Baxter. “It’ll just take a bit of getting used to.”
“You’re telling me. Conway’s office smells like wet dog.”
“I believe he used to wash Bucky in there.”
Baxter nodded and looked at the stars rushing toward them
on the viewscreen. Best buddy at his side, Sefelt and Madera doing a passable job up front. He could get used to this.
“Prepare us for arrival at Earth, Ensign Madera,” Baxter said.
“You mean Lieutenant Madera?” she asked impishly. “Chris promoted me too.” She glared back at him.
“To soften the blow of the break-up,” Richards explained quietly.
“Keep promoting,” replied Madera. “You’re not out of the woods yet.”
“Just man your post, Lieutenant,” sighed Richards.
“You’re really getting the hang of this command stuff, Chris,” laughed Baxter, “or should I say…Number One?”
Richards leaned his chin on his hand. “Oh, be quiet… sir.”
Conway leaned against the viewport in his now-empty quarters and watched spacedock loom into view as Explorer sailed into the Terran system.
Browning stepped up next to him, leaned her head on his shoulder.
“What are you thinking?”
“Trying to remember where I put Bucky,” Conway said thoughtfully. Finally, he snapped his fingers. “Oh, yes. Ford’s washing him. I told him he’d get full lieutenant for a weekly wash. Lieutenant commander for wash and pet-icure.”
“You’re certainly a born leader, Captain,” Browning giggled, and kissed Conway on the cheek.
Conway took a deep breath as Explorer swung up around Earth and headed toward Starbase One. “So…when are we going to have sex?”
“You really know how to romance a woman,” Browning grimaced, and turned away from the viewport.
“It’s just been a bit since I, uh, broke up with Tyra.”
“You mean since you killed her?”
“Same difference,” Conway mumbled.
The Explorer slowly drifted through the spacedock doors and Conway beamed. Over at the far end of the spacedock sat the silvery-white, four-nacelled, missile-shaped Prometheus-class Aerostar. Only the second Prometheus model cleared for active Starfleet duty. Supposedly, as the reports read, they got all the bugs out.
Browning carried two flutes of wine over from the replicator slots. “Now, Commander, let’s celebrate. To new beginnings…”
Conway watched as the Explorer drifted up next to the Aerostar-A. He blankly took the proffered wine glass and downed it. “Yeah, to new beginnings.” He belched.
Browning grinned weakly. “How romantic.”
“Nanny Nanny Nee, ya can’t catch me!”
“What the hell?” Baxter sat down, perplexed. The voice on the other end of the communication sounded young, full of mischief. Not the kind of voice he expected from a grand larcenist.
Conway leaned over toward Baxter. “I recommend we go to yellow alert, Captain.”
“Excellent idea. Go to yellow alert. Lieutenant J’hana, see if you can lock a tractor beam onto our friend.”
“At warp, sir?”
“It’s been done.”
“But it’s not recommended.”
“There may be a glorious death in it for you!”
“Locking on tractor beam, sir.”
“I like your style,” Irma said, leaning over to speak to Baxter. “I think we’ll make a great team.”
“Me too,” Baxter grinned, then glanced back at J’hana. “Engage tractor beam.”
A blue beam of light reached out at the vessel on the viewscreen.
“Success, Captain!” J’hana said with pride.
Irma looked on gleefully.
“Great,” Baxter said.
“Nanny Nanny Nye, your all gonna die!” The voice had actually become more mocking.
Baxter frowned. “I’m really getting irritated. Lock phasers on that ship, target their engines and fire on my mark!”
“Captain…” said Ford.
“Just enough power to disable them, J’hana, we don’t want to kill ‘em yet.”
“Captain…” Ford repeated.
“Phasers locked, sir.”
“Captain…” Now there was actually fear in Ford’s voice.
“What is it, Ensign?” asked Baxter, irritated.
“Sir, we’re headed straight for the Bermuda Expanse. We’ll be in the center of the disturbance in fifty-eight seconds!”
“Ho boy…” Baxter sighed.
“Maybe we could just let him go and take scans from outside the disturbance…” Conway suggested.
“That’s an excellent idea,” said Irma. “I agree.”
“I don’t know,” Baxter said. “We can’t just let him go.”
“Why don’t we pull back full on the tractor beam?” suggested Irma. She got up and stepped around to the Engineering control panel to her right. Usually an engineer manned that post, but none was available. She swung behind it. “I can configure the engines to maximum output. We can jerk him to a stop, I guarantee.”
“I think we can trust her, Captain,” said Conway.
“I tend to agree,” Baxter said, in spite of the fact that he’d never even been told what Irma’s department was. “Do your thing, Irma,” he said.
Irma did her thing, and panels shorted out all over the bridge. She cackled like an insane banshee, the struggling freighter on the viewscreen slammed to a stop, engines wiped out, and the Aerostar stopped too, just out side the purple roiling Bermuda Expanse. The tiny taunting ship flew on in.
One of Aerostar’s nacelles exploded outright.
The warp core dumped and exploded in a ball of gorgeous flame, pitching the bridge crew out of their seats and too the deck. Through it all Baxter wondered just what Irma thought was so damn funny.
The Aerostar’s power grid coughed up one last slew of electric sparks then shorted out altogether.
Then everything went dark.
Mirk shot up in bed, dripping sweat. “Nanny…nanny…?”
Hartley curled up next to him, didn’t open her eyes. “What are you mumbling about, hon?”
“Nanny Nanny Nee? What was I thinking?”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s what I said when the captain was trying to capture me in the Bermuda Expanse four years ago. Why did I say that?”
“He always figured you were just being a bastard,” said Hartley. “Does that make you feel better?”
Mirk shook his head. “Not really.”
“What had you thinking about that, anyway?” Hartley asked. She yawned and worked her eyes open.
“A dream,” Mirk said. “A really weird dream.” He neglected to tell Hartley that Irma was in it. No need to worry her needlessly.
“Didn’t you say the Directors teach that all dreams mean something important? Kind of how my dream about making out with you meant I really wanted to make out with you?”
Mirk chuckled. “Nonsense. I always say that to get girls.” He wish he didn’t have to lie to her. But she’d be likely to freak out if he said his dream probably did mean something.
But really, what were the odds that Irma was out there, right at that moment, some four years ago, somehow working to undo the future?
Mirk shuddered at that thought and leaned back in bed. Everything would look better in the morning. He was all worked up over nothing.
Everything was bright in the Baxter/Peterman quarters as morning lighting rose up throughout the living room. Baxter was at the replicator, fixing coffee and muffins, and Peterman was in the bathroom, preparing her hair sufficiently to celebrate the Aerostar-A’s send-off.
Charlie, the golden retriever, sat nibbling on a chewtoy, glaring from time to time at Pandora the Jack Russell terrier, who kept a safe distance up on Baxter’s barcalounger.
Fritz, Peterman’s kitten, meanwhile perched atop Baxter’s bookcase, right in between Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and “The Bridges of Madison County.”
“Muffins are ready, hon,” Baxter called out, and Peterman emerged from the bathroom, hair piled atop her head in an impressive, frizzy bundle.
Baxter grinned. “I like.”
They sat together at the breakfast table and Baxter buttered his muffin. “Say, honey, would you still love me if I were bald?”
Peterman stopped chewing. “What would make you possibly think you might go bald?”
Holly’d sworn him to secrecy. “Nothing. Just a feeling.”
“I’d still love you, for what it’s worth,” Peterman said, leaning forward. “But you won’t go bald. I’ll see to that myself.”
Peterman shrugged, sniffing back tears. “I don’t know. But I promise you, Charlie as my witness, I damn well will!”
Richards just happened to be waiting outside the arboretum as Browning jogged by. He knew her route implicitly.
“Morning, Janice,” he said, and picked up step beside her as she jogged.
“Still mad at me?”
“Are you kidding?”
“I could promote you. It worked with Lieutenant Madera!”
“I’m not in Starfleet anymore, but if I were, you’d have to make me an admiral.”
Ouch. “Janice, listen, I didn’t mean to give Conway permission to date you. I didn’t mean to put it quite that way. I just realized I was holding you back by…by staying attached to you. Dave knew that. And in spite of all his faults, he was a good enough man to stay away so as to not cause problems between you and me.”
“That may have had something to do with me,” Browning said. “I’m the one who told him he and I couldn’t be together, not as long as you and I entertained even the smallest notion of getting back together ourselves.”
“So now you’re not entertaining those notions anymore?”
Browning shook her head. “Christopher, I can’t do this.”
“Listen, I’m just asking you to think abou–OOOOF!” Richards tripped on a plastic shuttlecraft playset. Even as he fell to the deck, he knew Kassie Stuart was to blame. Her father Ryan had bragged nonstop about assembling that for her. Now Richards had crushed it, and worse, fallen flat on his face and lost sight of Browning.
“You smashed my toy,” little Kassie said stormily, looming over Richards. “Make me a new one!”
“No,” Richards grumbled and pushed himself up.
Kassie punched him in the gut. “NOW!”
“Okay, okay!” Ensign Stuart was getting serious demerits for this. And he could forget about that gratuitous promotion!
“I will miss working with you,” Commander Larkin said, in full dress uniform, leading Lt. Commanders Tilleran and J’hana to the transporter room. “It is an unfortunate truth of the promotion process.”
“You will be an excellent first officer,” J’hana said. “In addition, you will be missed here.” J’hana glanced at Tilleran. Nudged her in the gut. “Ariel…”
Tilleran glanced at Larkin distractedly. “Oh, yes. Congratulations, et cetera, et cetera.”
“Are you all right, Commander?” asked Larkin, dropping back to walk with Tilleran.
“I suppose. I guess all these changes on board are really starting to get to me.”
“She is lying,” J’hana said simply.
“Explain,” Larkin said to Tilleran.
“Okay, okay. I’m not really all that upset about you and everyone else leaving. That guy I was promised to back on Betazed keeps petitioning me to marry him. It’s stuck in the courts now, but he’s relentless. He keeps leaving messages on my Federnet account, and he appears on my viewscreen every time I turn around. It’s enough to drive a girl nuts.”
“Certainly there is a peaceful solution to your problem,” said Larkin. “Perhaps you can offer him an alternative to marriage.”
“He can’t be dealt with,” Tilleran said. “He’s got amazing lawyers. One of them is a Klingon.”
“I already offered to kill the man for her,” J’hana told Larkin. “She did not accept.”
“It was a nice thought,” Tilleran said comfortingly. “But in the end that would only make it worse. I can’t very well become a widow before ever getting married.”
“Whatever happens, Commander,” Larkin said, “please promise me that you will follow your heart. That, above all else, is of paramount importance.”
“This from an android,” Tilleran said with a chuckle. “Hilarious.”
“Paramount my shnarz-sphincter,” said J’hana.
“I do not understand,” Larkin said, but the trio reached the transporter room before they could discuss the issue further.
“Enjoy your move-in,” J’hana said. “We will see you at the ceremony in an hour.”
“I look forward to that…” Larkin searched her memorybank for a few nanomoments. “My friends.”
“Go ahead and energize, Megan,” Tilleran told the transporter operator.
“My name is Craig,” said the indignant operator. “Lieutenant Commander Hartley was promoted to Chief Engineer.”
Captain Conway stood next to Ford as he piloted the shuttle Earnhardt toward the Aerostar-A, in the customary, unnecessarily long, first go-round. Somewhere along the way, Starfleet had picked up the annoying tradition of having their captains circle the ship forever in a shuttle to get a feel for her looks and curves. Conway just wanted to get in and try the coffee processor already.
He liked, at least, that he was riding in on the Earnhardt. En route, he’d personally authorized that all the shuttles have their names changed to those of NASCAR greats. They had been artists or some silly thing. He personally preferred names like Earnhardt, Petty, and Jarret to Picasso, Matisse or Da Vinci. Of course, there was no shuttlecraft Gordon. Not on his ship.
“Coming up on the shuttlebay,” Ford said, after what felt like a year of circling the Aerostar.
“Excellent. Take us in, Lieutenant Commander,” Conway said pridefully. Bucky’s fur had never looked so shiny, nor had his toenails ever seemed so sharp and preened. They were even painted a pleasing sparkly green!
“I’ll be glad to, Captain,” Ford said with a wink.
Conway shook his head. He was going to find out just how much sucking up he could take. Not that he was complaining.
Conway and staff had an hour to get settled in on the Aerostar-A before dignitaries began arriving for the send-off ceremony. Chief among them was Federation President Bradley Dillon, who, thanks to the little matter of buying Earth back from the Ferengi, had sealed a deal with a shipyard in the Rigel system that would ensure that bigger better starships be built for some time to come.
As such, a new ship was granted to the Explorer project. It was Conway’s great luck to be put in the center seat. Then again, who else would they get? Who else had the kind of experience with the project that Conway had, the kind of experience needed to pilot the program into the twenty-fourth century?
And who else was so damned handsome?
Conway grinned and looked around his bridge, all white, gleaming and new, with a rear bank of science stations, smooth, streamlined tactical controls at his left, and an array of complicated-looking engineering controls to his right. The curved, one-piece console at the front of the bridge served as the station for conn and ops, harkening back to the joined “helm/nav” design from the days of the original Enterprise.
“Sir,” asked Larkin, who sat at his left. The primary change to the original Prometheus bridge design, besides some splashes of color, was that the command chair was no longer on a high-raised dais, all by itself. It was now sufficiently lower, on a level with the quarterdeck, and featured a trio of chairs similar to those found on Sovereign- and Galaxy-class vessels. Whatever the case, it was Captain Conway’s ship to command. All his…all forty shiny decks…
“What, Larkin?” he said, finally responding to the android’s inquiry.
“What, may I ask, are you smiling about?”
“I’m just thinking about the warp engine field tests, Commander,” Conway said, and turned away from Larkin. She made him uncomfortable, sitting there watching him. He hoped she’d quit that relatively early on in their mission together.
He thought about the empty seat to his right. No counselor yet. He thought about Telvin. He was really the only counselor other than Peterman that Conway knew. He wasn’t thrilled about Telvin, but how often did Conway go into counseling, anyway? They didn’t need anyone all that good. And more than likely, a tour with a top-notch operation like the one Conway planned on running would be just the kind of thing to snap Telvin into shape. He glanced down at the crew report on his chair arm, which pleased Conway to no end. The monitor on the chairarm was the size of a desktop terminal, and it folded neatly to the side when he wanted it out of the way.
Conway studied the crew roster on the terminal. With Benzra on her way in a couple weeks, despite the objections at Starfleet Medical (the Flarn doctor DID get him through a horrible symbiont situation, after all) there was just one more empty spot to fill in the senior staff. Chief Science officer. He wasn’t fond of Elton, and Dawson really only made a good backup.
He wanted people on his senior staff that he knew well, that he could trust. He’d have to call Alexa Lanham. Sure, she pushed him off a cliff back when they were married, but Conway had the capacity to forgive. Besides, Elton was still on the staff, and he nearly blew up the first Aerostar at a time when he had accidentally turned himself into a god-like being. Starfleet was definitely willing to accept a person’s willingness to change.
“Sir,” said Lt. Saral from ops. “All the members of the send-off party have beamed aboard. They have assembled in the cocktail lounge.”
“Good. Tell Spacedock control we’re ready to begin,” Conway said, shifting in his chair. It was a little lumpy, but he’d get the kinks worked out soon enough. “Larkin, call the dignitaries up to the bridge.” Conway reached down for the stainless-duranium cup that was fixed in the holder at his right. He put the cup to his lips and sipped the coffee. Perfect temperature. The blend was randomly selected and did not disappoint. “Community” coffee, tasting so pure and delicate, and only a bit sharp, straight from New Orleans. A mix approved by old man Sisko himself. “So this is what Earnhardt must have felt like on his first test-ride,” Conway said warmly. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
“What is he going on about?” Saral asked Ford as the two worked at the forward console.
“It’s best not to ask,” said Ford.
“Glad you guys could make it,” Baxter said, tugging at the collar of his white dress uniform and picking up step next to Harlan and Lucille Baxter as the group of dignitaries made their way up to the Aerostar’s bridge. Baxter’s senior staff brought up the rear.
Lucille glowered. “Harlan pulled me off an important diplomatic mission for this.”
“It’s a big day for the Explorer Project, darling,” said Harlan most seriously, chewing on a cigar. “You’re one of two, now three, captains assigned to Explorer ships. You have to attend.”
“It’s such a waste of time,” muttered Lucille. “Conway of all people. I just cannot believe it. That man is an imbecile.”
“Like I said, glad you guys could make it,” sighed Baxter. He glanced up to see the huge entourage moving toward him and rolled his eyes. “All right, you two. On your best behavior. Here comes the chief. Ugh.”
Bradley Dillon elbowed his way out of the cluster of Starfleet security officers and went to shake Baxter’s hand. “Glorious day to launch a ship, wouldn’t you say, Captain?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Well, I just wanted to thank you again for making it possible for me to be President of the Federation,” Bradley grinned. “It’s been absolutely fantastic. You know, I signed a treaty with the Gorn today. A TREATY!”
“I’m very glad for you, Mister President.”
“Oh, it’s been a roller coaster ride the last few months. But I’m not forgetting the little people. I sent a subspace birthday card to my brother just today.”
“Wasn’t Commander Dillon’s birthday last month?” Baxter asked.
“That’s neither here nor there,” said Bradley, and he ushered Baxter into the turbolift. Harlan and Lucille squeezed in with him, and then all the security guards.
Peterman, leading the pack of Explorer staff, huffed indignantly as she came down the corridor toward the lift. “Andy!”
“You can take the next car!” Baxter said as the doors closed.
“Have you told them yet?” she asked, and the doors sealed shut, cutting her off from the group in the ‘lift.
“Told them what?” Bradley asked conversationally as the lift made its way up through the bowels of the Aerostar.
Harlan puffed his cigar. “Yeah. What?”
“Kelly’s pregnant,” Baxter said quickly, and looked to Harlan and Lucille for reaction.
“About time,” said Lucille. “I thought the woman was infertile.”
“It did take a while,” Baxter said sheepishly.
“Your boys c’n swim!” Harlan chortled and puffed his cigar. “Well, that is some n’ws. Les smoke one!”
He withdrew a latinum cigar case and offered one to Baxter, who reluctantly grabbed one. Lucille snatched one too. Bradley looked at the case eagerly.
“I do love a good cigar, Admiral!” he said, and grabbed one. “What is this, a Mocambo?”
“Not at all. Havanna. The best.”
Bradley puffed happily at the cigar. “You have excellent taste, Admiral.”
Baxter puffed his cigar and tried not to choke. “This is great….ahch …Dad. Thanks.”
“Thanks for finally churning out a grandchild for us,” Lucille said, puffing on her own cigar.
Baxter sighed. “Least I could do.”
When the turbolift opened up onto the bridge, smoke poured out. At first Conway thought there was some sort of electrical fire, but then he saw the reason: Harlan Baxter sidled out, carrying a padd under his arm. He, Lucille Baxter, and Captain Andy Baxter, as well as Federation President Dillon were all smoking up a storm.
He reached forward to shake Conway’s hand. “Congr’tulatns, Campn,” he growled, chewing his cigar. He took the stubby stogie out and withdrew his padd. “Captain David Conway, I hearby transfer command of USS Aerostar, NCC-83835, to you as of this date, signed Admiral Harlan Baxter, Starfleet Command.” He looked up at the ceiling. “Computer…transfer command codes and such, authorization Baxter Phi Delta Kappa Four Three Zero.”
“Command codes transferred. Have a nice command,” the computer said, and Conway beamed, rubbing his hands together.
“I’m in command!” he said joyfully.
“Let’s get on with this, shall we?” Baxter said, as the turbolift once again opened to admit Peterman, Richards, Mirk, Hartley, Tilleran, and J’hana.
“This is really good,” Bradley said, indicating the cigar he was smoking to Harlan. “Have any more of these?”
“A whole stash down in my guest cabin,” replied Harlan.
“Let’s have a look.” Bradley looked around the Aerostar- A bridge. “If you’ve seen one ship launch, you’ve seen them all, really.”
“Are you sure, Mister President?” asked Conway. He certainly wasn’t aching for Bradley Dillon’s company, but he appreciated the honor of having the Federation president along for the launch.
“Quite sure,” Bradley said, then extended his hand to Lucille Baxter. “Madam, would you give us the pleasure of your company?”
Lucille scanned the faces on the bridge. “Given my choices, absolutely.”
“Escort them down to the residence decks, Mister Gellar,” Conway said, and Lieutenant Gellar rose from his seat at tactical and led Bradley, Lucille, Harlan, and the whole security entourage, into the aft turbolift.
Once his parents were gone, Captain Baxter felt entirely more relaxed. He surveyed the bridge. “Quite a little place you’ve got here, Dave,” he said to Conway. “I’m sure she’ll be a great ship.”
“Big of you to say that, Captain,” said Conway. “Have a seat in my counselor’s chair.” He grinned at Peterman. “Even once I get one, he probably won’t be allowed on the bridge.”
Peterman smouldered. “Small of you to say that, Captain.”
“Spacedock has cleared us for departure,” said Saral from ops.
“Is the champagne bottle prepared?” Conway asked, grinning over at Baxter.
“Negative,” replied Saral. “They could not find champagne. They have substituted root beer.”
Conway sunk in his chair. “Well, it’s bubbly. Good enough. Tell them to launch the root beer. Mister Ford…let’s get underway.”
Ford nodded and swung around in his chair to face the helm controls. “Ready for full impulse once the…root beer…hits.”
On the viewscreen, the Explorer and Aerostar staff watched as a long-necked bottle of root beer sailed toward the Aerostar’s engineering hull and smashed against it.
Led by Conway, the assembled group clapped half-heartedly.
Aerostar shot forward toward the spacedock doors. The crew watched the departure angle on the viewscreen as the docked Explorer disappeared in the distanc.
Guided by Ford at at full impulse, Aerostar streaked out into open space.
Half an hour later, Browning stepped out of the aft turbolift. She circled around to stand by Baxter. “Andy, did you realize your parents are down in the crew lounge smoking cigars and drinking brandy, talking about politics on Tellar with President Dillon?”
“Frankly, it doesn’t surprise me,” Baxter said dully.
“It’s good to see you back up here,” Conway said, and touched Browning’s hand. “Have a seat here in Commander Larkin’s chair.”
“As you wish,” Larkin said gruffly, and stood so Browning could sit next to Conway.
At the back of the bridge, Richards smouldered, folding his arms. “Why am I even here?”
Next to him, Lieutenant Commander Hartley kept her fake smile on. “Because it’s the nice thing to do. Even I know that.”
Beside Hartley, Mirk was nervously tapping the science panel he was leaning on. He glanced around the bridge. Everything seemed filmed over with a kind of energy. He felt hot. What the hell was happening?
Tilleran studied the science panels with approval. “The science equipment on this ship is amazing. I could have a research field day.”
Next to her, J’hana growled. “But the Explorer’s facilities are adequate, correct?”
“Sure,” said Tilleran. “It’s not like I’m thinking of leaving.”
“That is…good,” said J’hana. “If you left, I would miss you. In the most platonic of ways.”
Tilleran clasped J’hana’s hand. “That’s sweet, Jan.”
Peterman circled around to the front of the bridge and Baxter gave up his seat to her. “Have a seat, honey. I’m sure that baby’s quite a load.”
“I’m a week pregnant, Andy,” Peterman said, but took the seat anyway. “I can’t feel anything yet.”
“Just in case,” said Baxter, and Conway rolled his eyes.
“Well, what now, Captain?” Browning asked Conway.
“We’ll do a quick run around the solar system. Pluto and back,” Conway said, and squeezed her hand. “And from there, eternity!”
“How cheesy,” muttered Ford from the helm.
Standing off to the side of the bridge, looking quite uncomfortable, Commander Larkin turned and headed for the rear conference room. “If you will excuse me, I have seen quite enough.”
“I’ll go talk to her,” said Peterman, and she glared at Conway. “Since you don’t have a counselor of your own.”
At the back of the bridge, Mirk clutched his chest. He could feel the energy building inside him. Something was definitely, definitely wrong. He squeezed his eyes shut as the energy grew too great to bear…
“Whatever,” muttered Conway, and he turned to head back to his seat. He locked eyes with Richards, who stood up by Hartley on the quarterdeck, and he felt a cold chill.
Browning saw them lock eyes. She looked from one to the other, feeling the awesome weight of what she was about to do.
Richards looked at her, with eyes that told her he wanted to be with her again, more than anything.
“Chris, I…” she said softly, and Conway glared at her.
And then Mirk exploded into a million particles of light.
The bridge was awash with white light, so blinding no one could see anything.
Hartley stared at the blank space next to her, trying to make out the shape that once was Mirk. “MIRK!” she cried.
“Someone tell me something!” Conway barked, shielding his eyes with his arm.
Saral’s hands navigated the ops console by touch. “We’re caught in some sort of space-time flux, sir!”
<We’re unstuck in time, folks,> came a voice from all around that was eerily Mirk’s.
“Where the hell are you?” Hartley asked angrily.
<I’m forming the energy field that’s surrounding you all right now,> Mirk explained. <It’s the only thing keeping us safe from whatever’s happened to the universe.>
“Just great!” shouted Conway. “I get my own ship, then the universe collapses in on itself!”
<Not quite collapsed,> said Mirk. <Someone has just rewritten time in her favor, and I’m damn sure I know who! What’s worse, I can only protect the area inside this sphere I’ve made. And I can’t keep us unstuck for much longer!>
“What will happen when your field collapses?” asked Tilleran.
<We’ll end up in the new timeline, hopefully with the knowledge that it’s not the correct one.>
“Mirk!” said Baxter, blinking through the blinding light. “You said only the people within this field are protected? What about Kelly and Larkin?”
<I cannot protect them.>
Baxter rushed for the conference room door, caught Richards out of the corner of his eye, doing the same; but J’hana beat them both to it–shoved past Baxter so quick he stumbled backwards, fell on his butt to the deck.
<Don’t do it J’hana! You can’t help them!> Mirk’s voice called.
“Saral!” Conway ordered, as J’hana disappeared through the conference room doors. “Go get J’hana and the others!”
Saral dashed for the conference room. The light got brighter.
<Stop doing that!> Mirk’s voice chided. <Aren’t you listening? I said you can’t help them!>
“SORRY!” Conway grumbled.
Baxter covered his eyes as the white light grew more intense, more intense, and electricity crackled all over his body.
“KELLLLLLLLLLLLY!” he called out,
…then everything went white…
“KELLLLLLLLLLLLLY!” Baxter shot up in bed, slammed his head on the ceiling.
What a nightmare. He was on the bridge of a starship, but not his own. People around him were shouting things, an eerie voice spoke to them, and he was worried about someone… someone called Kelly.
Baxter swung his legs around and hopped off his top bunk. He idly wondered why no one shared this cramped cabin with him. The rumors about the deck being flooded with radiation were exaggerated, anyway. He was living proof. He’d served on that ship, lived in that cabin, for twelve years, and showed no sign of radiation poisoning.
Except, of course, for the distinct impression that he was starting to go bald. There were also chances he wouldn’t be able to conceive a child. But without a girlfriend, that hardly seemed important.
Baxter stepped into the closet-sized sonic shower and switched on the soothing sound waves.
Halfway through, he dropped the soap.
Baxter sprinted, naked, out into his cabin. “I’m not supposed to be here!”
He rushed out into the corridor, to the shock of passing officers.
“I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE, DAMN IT!”
“You’re telling me,” said one engineer, and she hurriedly rushed by him.
Baxter looked around, looked down. “Ooh. Whoops.” He backed into his cabin and quickly got dressed.
“So,” said Captain Alexander Rydell, “that’s how you tell a Nausicaan beach party from a Nausicaan funeral dirge.”
“Fascinating,” said Commander Jaroch boredly, leaning on his science console.
Commander Travis Dillon shifted uncomfortably in his seat at Rydell’s right. “We could be doing many more productive things right now than discussing your vacation.”
“Be quiet, Dillon,” said Rydell, “or I’ll pull out my holoslides.” He smiled devilishly and Dillon immediately turned to his panel and tried to look very interested in crew reports.
Suddenly the aft turbolift doors opened and someone hurried out.
“I have a big problem, everyone!” Lt. Commander Andy Baxter said, and Alexander Rydell sighed.
“Is it already inventory time again?” he asked.
“It certainly is not,” replied Dillon. “We did inventory six weeks ago.”
“The problem isn’t inventory-based,” said Baxter. “I’m not supposed to be here.”
“I can confirm that,” yawned Jaroch.
“I mean I’m from an alternate universe.”
“Would that be a universe where inventory isn’t despised across the galaxy?” asked Emily Sullivan from the conn.
“Actually, it’s been eradicated in my universe,” Baxter said proudly. That got everyone’s attention.
“What kind of wonderful universe is this?” Rydell asked.
Baxter sighed. “One where I’m captain of a starship, have a beautiful wife…and soon will have a beautiful little baby…”
“This alternate universe is sounding less interesting by the second,” mumbled Jaroch.
“Commander Hawkins,” Rydell said. “Why don’t you escort ‘Captain’ Baxter here down to Counselor Webber’s office?”
“Computer,” said Baxter, as Hawkins retrieved her phaser and approached him. He pleaded to whatever deities protected spacefarers that his all-purpose command access still worked in this universe. “Lock down the bridge and flood it with anesthezine, and beam me to the Deck one conference room, authorization Red Seven Seven Omicron!”
“That code won’t work,” Commander Dillon said confidently, and slumped unconscious in his chair as Baxter dematerialized and the gas knocked out the bridge crew.
Baxter savored the irony of the situation as he dragged he limp bodies of the Secondprize bridge officers into the conference room for safe keeping.
Once they were all tucked away, he locked the room and proceeded to the command chair.
“Computer, re-instate bridge command, authorization Red Seven Seven Omicron. Recognize Baxter, Andrew Jackson. Transfer all command codes to me.”
“Command codes transferred.”
That was almost too easy, thought Baxter. He sat down and activated the tiny monitor on Rydell’s command chair. Time to find out exactly what went wrong.
As he paged through the Federation history books for the last four years, he heard a trill on his comm badge.
“Ford to Baxter.”
“Ford?” Baxter asked, glancing up.
“I’m down on the residential decks, sir. And I’m with a woman!”
“Alternate universe poon tang is great!”
“I bet so. How about joining me on the bridge so we can get back to our own universe?”
“Sure, why not. She’s asleep anyway. I like to be out the door before they wake up.”
“You’re a true ladies man.” Baxter closed the channel and returned to his studies, making a mental note to gas the hell out of the rest of the ship once Ford got to the bridge.
He looked up Aerostar. Apparently, the original one was still around, and commanded by Conway. It appeared to be a very low-level ship relegated to simple cargo and ferrying tasks. Less prestigious, even, than the Secondprize, by the look of things.
He found records of Tilleran and Hartley on the Aerostar, but no J’hana, Peterman, or Browning. Wait a minute…Chief Medical Officer Janice Conway. Oh no.
Even in this universe, fate conspired to link those two together. Baxter shook his head. It was probably a good thing he found no sign of Richards on the Aerostar.
He dug deeper into the history of the Aerostar. Apparently the ship suffered total engine failure just before entering the Bermuda Expanse. Mirk was captured later, by another crew, and the Aerostar was repaired and towed back to Waystation, thanks to the vigilance of… Baxter gasped…Starfleet Attache Irma Wilson.
…who was later found to be an imposter, and quickly shipped off to Tantalus.
At last a bit of good news. Irma sabotaged the lives of Baxter and his crew, but ended up at the Federation Funny Farm. There was some justice in the universe.
Reading further, Baxter gasped again. He’d been demoted back to lieutenant and returned to the Secondprize three days after being put in command of the Aerostar. Apparently Starfleet realized the error in their ways. That, or they found the Admiral Neilson changeling who’d authorized the whole thing.
He did a search for Kelly. The computer scoured its database, then came up with Tantalus, the Funny Farm itself. She apparently became a doctor and left the Aerostar, to do research on Irma.
Baxter was torn–did he take the Secondprize to the Aerostar to pick up his former crewmates, or did he go right to Tantalus to get Kelly and find out from Irma exactly what he needed to do to make things right?
And where the hell was Mirk, anyway?
“Another scotch and soda, sir?” Mirk asked, annoyed, and held up the tray for Harlan Baxter.
“Sure thing, boyah,” Harlan said with a grin and grabbed the glass.
Mirk had quickly calculated, upon arriving in the new universe, that he was put into service as a waiter for the chic Admirals’ Club on Earth to make up for stealing all that Starfleet equipment. Apparently, he was serving year four of a twenty year sentence. And the Federation claimed to be enlightened.
He had to get to the others. But he was stuck serving cold drinks to admirals. For some reason he was destined to stay in the food service industry.
He only hoped the others were faring better.
“Well, isn’t this…interesting,” Janice Browning said, and glanced over at Conway, who was next to her in bed.
“It’s certainly a shock,” said Conway. “Who knew we’d end up together,” and he looked around, “and apparently in the captain’s quarters on the old Aerostar.”
“She’s held up nicely over the last few years,” Browning said. “Unlike in our universe, where she blew up.”
“Indeed.” And Conway nervously steepled his fingers. “Well, let’s get on with it, then.”
“Get on with what?”
“Well, judging by the rings on our fingers, I’d guess we’re married. Let’s make the most of it.” He rolled over on top of Browning, who quickly slipped out from under him.
“I think not! We’ve got to find a way back to our old universe!”
“Hey, we ended up like this for some reason, and I’m certainly not one to complain. I’m a captain, you’re my wife. I can live with having a slightly lesser ship. Let’s just get it on!”
“You’re really starting to get on my nerves, David,” Browning said, and slid off the bed, realizing she was wearing her flannel PJ’s which were painted with Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches. Her PB&J’s. At least some things didn’t change. “Now where the heck are my clothes?”
“Do you realize where we are?” Tilleran said, looking around in shock as she and Hartley shared a round of Andorian fwarz-sharshers, blue-bubbly drinks with fizz and a burn that rotted your throat out.
Hartley nodded. “It’s the crew lounge on the Aerostar.”
“Creepy, isn’t it?” asked Tilleran. “It doesn’t even have Mirk’s nice decorations!”
“I sure wish I knew where Mirk was,” Hartley muttered. Then she looked up and grinned. “Hey, that’s Lennie, the Aerostar’s original bartender!”
Tilleran glanced over at the bar. “I can’t say I remember him.”
“I do, but only because I saw him back when I went back in time and tried to sabotage the Aerostar’s mission.”
“Well, good thing you didn’t do that,” Tilleran mumbled, and sipped her drink. She savored the burning in her throat. J’hana loved fwarz-sharshers. She tried not to think about that. They’d already determined she wasn’t aboard. Browning and Conway were the only ones from the senior staff who were on board the Aerostar. Who knew where everyone else was?
Commander Richards reeled back in shock as the crowd closed in on him.
“Autograph your latest one for us Chris!”
“Tell us what inspired you!”
“Who’s the ‘Janice’ you dedicated ‘Janice’s Nebula’ to?”
“Let me have your love child!”
“Back away!” Richards said, scrambling backwards across the slick floor of the arena-like museum. People everywhere scrambled for his autograph, or a lock of his hair, which he noted with annoyance, was long and in a ponytail.
“Love me, Christopher, love me!” cried one woman, who lept on Chris, crushing against him with a barrage of sloppy kisses.
He glanced up at her and sighed. “Fresca?”
“Formerly Jen Prescott, of Internal Affairs, and current Chris Richards enthusiast!” the woman shouted joyfully.
“You mean stalker!” a voice cried from the back of the room.
“I have to get out of here,” Richards said, and dashed for one of the exit doors. “You all need to get a life!” he cried over his shoulder.
How twisted, Richards thought, that his dream of becoming an artist came true just to evolve into a nightmare. As he headed out the exit door, he noted with great dissatisfaction that one of his paintings was of the Aerostar approaching the Bermuda Expanse, one nacelle blown off. What really annoyed him was that the shading and cross-hatching were ALL wrong.
Commander Travis Dillon awoke with a start.
“Commander, are you all right?” asked one Lieutenant Kristen Larkin, android and second-string ops officer on the Secondprize.
Dillon looked around. Everyone was still unconscious on the floor of the conference room. “I’m…okay, I guess. What about the others?”
“I cannot wake them,” said Larkin. “They inhaled too much gas. You, luckily, lost consciousness so quickly you did not have an opportunity to inhale as much as the others.”
“An old Starfleet trick,” Dillon said, rubbing his hands together. “Can you give me a status report?”
“Negative,” said Larkin. “I was en route to the bridge when I was told by the turbolift that the bridge was locked out. I asked the computer where you and the others were located, and it alerted me that you were unconscious in the conference room. I decided to investigate, and climbed in through the Jefferies tube.”
“Good thinking,” Dillon said. “Well, we have to get the ship back, at all costs.”
“Agreed,” she said. “Orders?”
Dillon thought a moment. “Why don’t you go out to the bridge and find out what’s happening. Try to disable Commander Baxter. If you can’t, at least report back to me and try to give me some sense of what he’s up to.”
“And what will you do in the meantime?”
“I will go into the Jefferies tube and supervise from there.”
“You mean you will hide in there?” asked Larkin.
Dillon frowned. “Get going, Lieutenant.”
“So what’s the plan?” asked Ford as he and Baxter leaned over the ops control panel at the front of the Secondprize bridge.
“The plan,” Baxter said, “is to get a message out to the Aerostar, and try to get Conway and the others to meet us at Tantalus so we can find out what damage Irma’s done, then go back in time and fix it!” “I see,” said Ford, and then he glanced over his shoulder. For lack of a phaser, Kristen Larkin wielded her arm high over her head, prepared to strike a killing blow on Ford.
“Larkin!” Ford cried, and rolled to the side just as the arm came crashing down on the ops panel.
“She’s not from our universe,” Baxter surmised quickly. He looked Larkin over: She’d made a huge tactical error by removing that arm. It left her on/off switch vulnerable. He kicked out at it with his foot, and Larkin quickly tossed her arm aside, grabbed the foot and upended Baxter with android-like reflexes.
Baxter crashed to the deck and Larkin returned her attention to Ford. She picked up the arm and swung it at him again. He crab-crawled backwards up against the viewscreen and she prepared to strike again, but Baxter lunged at her and stabbed his finger into her on/off switch.
The android slumped thankfully unconscious, unfortunately right on top of Ford.
“That was close,” Ford choked out and rolled the android off him.
“I’ll say,” Baxter said. “Get on the comm panel. Try to raise Captain Conway.”
“Faster than you can say ass-kisser, sir,” Ford said, and headed to the back of the bridge.
Baxter looked down at Larkin. “Sorry. I know this wasn’t your idea.”
“Quite correct, Commander,” said a voice over the comm channel.
“Dillon!” Baxter called out. “Where in the hell are you?”
“Oh, you’ll find out soon enough. Why don’t you save yourself some hardship and just surrender now. Make it easier on all of us.”
“You’ve seen one too many crimefighter movies, Commander,” Baxter said. “This isn’t where you chat with the hi-jacker and he tells you all his plans.”
“What makes you think I think it’ll go down like that?”
“Go…down? Please, Commander. I know you a little better than that. Face it, you’re a geek. You don’t have the guts or the smarts to retake this ship. Listen: We don’t want any trouble. We’re stranded in this alternate universe, and we just want to set things right. We’ll give you your ship back as soon as we find out how to put things back to normal, I promise.”
“And what’s your guarantee that our universe will continue on once you set things right?”
“I give you no guarantee, Commander,” said Baxter. “I’m no quantum mechanic. For all I know, you’ll cease to exist as soon as we set things right.” That was the wrong thing to say, and Baxter realized that as soon as he said it.
“Enough talk, Mister Baxter. We’ll just see if you can…put things back to normal, as you say.”
“Dillon, come here and let me gas you again. For all our sakes!”
“Never! Be ready to take a fall, Mister Baxter. Yippee ki yi yay, motherf***er!”
Baxter rolled his eyes as the channel closed. He looked to Ford. “If I kill him in this universe, it really won’t have an affect on ours, right?”
Ford shrugged. “At any rate, I got the Aerostar. Commander Conway said he’ll meet us at the Bermuda Expanse. I told him to expect a delay since we have to go to Tantalus.”
“Good thinking. Hope he didn’t raise any suspicion by diverting the Aerostar from its normal mission,” Baxter said, rubbing his chin. “Speaking of which, divert us to Tantalus.”
“Good Morning, Captain,” Colonel Martin Lazlo said, and trotted out of the center turbolift shaft into Ops. “You wanted to see me?”
Captain Lisa Beck stood in front of the Waystation’s massive view-wall. She glanced back at Lazlo. “There’s something of a tactical nature I thought you’d like to take a look at.”
“Gladly,” said Lazlo, and he watched the movement of a Starfleet delta symbol on the viewscreen, overlaid on a map of the sector. He squinted at the registry number: NCC-83835.
“I don’t recognize the ship’s registry,” said Lazlo.
Beck glanced back at Craig Porter at sciences, who quickly posted a schematic on one of the smaller monitors beside the view-wall. “Nebula-class. USS Aerostar. Commanded by a guy named Conway. Came through here about four years ago, but you may not have run across them. Luckily. They’ve recently passed through this sector on a cargo run. To make a long story short, Starfleet just commed us to say that the Aerostar went off its course and refuses to respond to communiques. They asked us to investigate. I hailed them, and this Conway fellow was totally evasive with me. Seemed nervous about something. And damn rude, too.”
“Rude to you?” Lazlo asked. “That bastard.”
“Well,” said Beck. “Needless to say, I’m concerned. It’s a tad weird for a Starfleet vessel to change its course like that and to respond with such…” Beck smouldered, “attitude. I told Starfleet that, since we’re the closest outpost, we would send someone to intercept them, find out what they’re up to. Stop them if necessary.”
“My forces, as usual, are at your disposal.” Lazlo grinned toothily.
“I was hoping you’d say that,” said Beck, and she strolled toward the back of Ops. “It may be nothing, but if Conway has, for some reason, broken off from Starfleet, we have to stop him before he does any damage.”
“Would you like me to put my…specialist on it?”
Beck grinned wide. “Absolutely. Dinner tonight?”
Lazlo grinned wider. “Absolutely.”
Down in the Andorian restaurant, one of the most frequent customers sauntered in, causing the cafe’s occupants to shrink back in fear.
Baughb rushed for the kitchen, and began hastily preparing the usual meal. Gabavga, drenched in targ’s blood, with a side of fharbus.
The frequent customer arrived at a table, her table. Its current occupants, the elderly couple who ran the isolinear chip rental place, hurried out of their chairs and hobbled over to another table on the far end of the restaurant.
Major J’hana, Warrior Supreme of the Ninth Hive of Andor, turned a chair around, lowered herself into it, withdrew a curved, razorsharp dagger, and stabbed it into the center of the table. She wore a cut-off vest, grey camouflage pants, several dark tatoos, and the IDIC symbol hooked through a piercing in her right antenna. An odd choice, to be sure.
Baughb rushed out with the steaming meal and set it before J’hana. “Piping hot and still breathing a little, just like you like it!” Baughb said worriedly, glancing at J’hana as she surveyed the plate.
“Where is my twist of lemon?” she demanded.
The cursed chef forgot it!
Baughb rushed for the kitchen. “I’ll get it. I’ll just be a mo–”
In one swift, graceful action, J’hana plucked her knife out of the tabletop and hurled it at Baughb. It struck him in the shoulder with such force, it threw him a meter forward into the wall and pinned him there, helpless.
“Damn,” Baughb said, holding back tears. “That had nearly healed, J’hana!”
“Next time perhaps you will not forget my lemon twist!”
Baughb wept. “I’m sorry! I can’t be perfect!”
“You can try harder!”
Another waiter hurriedly yanked J’hana’s blade out of Baughb’s shoulder, wiped it off and returned it to its owner.
“Thanks,” J’hana said dully, and stabbed the knife back into the table.
“Glad to see you’re enjoying yourself as usual tonight,” a voice said from behind her.
“Lazlo.” J’hana stared at the knife in her table. “I have had a rough day. My entire battalion was wiped out in a confrontation with some Breen on Brysalis.”
“I can see how that would…”
“Why could *I* not die honorably?” demanded J’hana. “It is not fair.” She yanked her knife out of the table, picked a random person, and hurled the knife at her.
She turned to look at Lazlo. “Are you here for smalltalk or are you here to assign me another mission?”
“Another mission,” Lazlo said, and handed a padd to J’hana. She read the details, just as Beck had described them to Lazlo.
“Aerostar,” she said wistfully. “I once served on that ship.”
“I realize,” Lazlo said. “I know Starfleet life was cruel to you, Major. I’m glad Marine life appeals to you more.”
“I enjoy fish as much as the next woman,” J’hana muttered, “but what that Betazoid did to me was unforgivable. I was JUST trying to be friendly.”
Lazlo nodded. “I realize that, Major. Listen, if you feel like you can’t handle….”
J’hana rose. “Oh, I can handle it. Do not worry about me. J’hana to Docking Arm One. Have the Razorbeast prepared for immediate departure.” She looked to Lazlo. “Find me some more soldiers. Draft civilians if you have to.”
“Good to see you back on the horse, Major,” Lazlo said, and turned briskly on a heel, headed out of the cafe.
J’hana looked around at the gathered crowd in the restaurant, who looked much quieter than when she’d walked in. “I may never see any of you again. Pray I die a hero’s death on this mission.”
“That’s what she always says,” Ih’mad whispered to Baughb, who was still nursing his shoulder. “Maybe this time she really will die.”
Baughb sighed. “Could we be that lucky?”
“Time is running out for us,” Conway said, pacing in front of his couch, where Browning, Hartley, and Tilleran were seated. “I can’t keep the others off my back forever.” They’d been talking for quite a while, poring over the library information Baxter had sent them, about how this whole mess had been created simply because the Aerostar hadn’t been flung into the Delta Quadrant.
“Apparently I’m First Officer as well as science officer, so at least you don’t have a second-in-command to worry about,” Tilleran said helpfully.
“And I’m your Chief Engineer,” Hartley added. “With Janice as CMO, who does that leave on the command staff as a threat?”
“Did you hear that?” Conway asked, and walked over to his door. He hit a control and it slid open. Counselor Telvin Abromowitz fell forward, on his knees, dropping his tricorder to the ground. He scrambled for it but Conway stepped on it.
Hartley sidled over and grabbed it out from under Conway’s boot. She studied it. “Recording us, huh?” she asked.
Telvin looked up at Hartley. He nodded sheepishly.
“Baaaaaaad idea,” Hartley said, and punched a couple buttons on the tricorder. She tossed it over her shoulder and it landed on Conway’s ottoman with a thump.
BLAM! It exploded into a puff of tiny plastic pieces.
“I really liked that ottoman!” Conway railed.
“It’s an alternate universe ottoman,” Hartley said matter-of-factly. “What did you need with it?”
“Good point.” Conway turned his attention back down to Telvin. “You’ve been a very bad boy, Mister. And to think I wanted you for my counselor.”
“I don’t know what you all are planning,” said Telvin. “But I’m bound by my loyalty to Starfleet to try to stop you.”
“How quaint,” said Tilleran with a giggle.
“We’ve got to do something with him,” Browning said. “We can’t risk him jeopardizing our plans.”
“We could always kill him,” Hartley suggested.
Conway frowned down at Telvin. “Now that’s a bit rash, isn’t it?”
“Well,” Conway said, and brought Telvin up to his feet. “I wouldn’t dream of doing anything like that to such a valued officer.”
“Besides which,” said Tilleran. “I hardly think he’s capable of mounting a ship-wide revolt.”
“You’d be surprised,” Telvin said defiantly, mustering up some sense of pride. “I’ll find a way to stop you. I can get word to the ops chief Brazeau, helm officer Holly…chief of security Gellar!”
“No you won’t,” Conway said, and led Telvin back to the bedroom. “Know why?”
Telvin shook his head worriedly. “Because you’re going to spend the whole rest of this time locked in the bedroom closet. How do you feel about that?”
“You’ll get over it. Nighty night!”
“Can I interest you in some dessert, Admiral?” Mirk asked, hovering expectantly over Harlan Baxter. At the very least, he’d have to give some good service and get a nice tip. That would make this whole alternate-universe thing a little more palatable.
“Nah,” mumbled Harlan. “I have places to be, an Internal Affairs division to run…”
Then, as if on cue, his comm badge chirped:
“Yvonne to Baxter. We just learned of two Starfleet vessels behaving a little oddly.”
“Go on,” Harlan garbled.
“The Aerostar refuses to speak with Starfleet and got downright snippy with Waystation when they attempted to make contact.”
“Has Captain Beck sent someone out to investigate?”
“She sent Major J’hana from the Federation Marines. I guess you could call it an investigation.”
Harlan nodded. “She’ll get the job done. What about the other ship?”
“That’s…a bit more delicate, sir. It’s the Secondprize.”
“And where are they headed?” Baxter asked, without missing a beat.
“I see. Which of our ships is closest?”
“Good. She’s a fine ship, with a good skipper. Have Captain Ficker intercept them immediately.”
“Even though your son’s aboard?”
“ESPECIALLY since my son’s aboard,” Harlan said, and added, “Baxter out. Now, Mirk, about that dessert.” He glanced around. “Mirk?”
“I’ve located Richards,” Ford said, looking up from the rear library computer access on the Secondprize bridge. “Seems he’s a famous artist. Everyone around the quadrant loves him!”
“You’re kidding me,” Baxter said, amazed. “How about that.”
“Apparently he’s doing a show right now on Bolarus.”
“Can we get a message to him?”
“We can try leaving one at his hotel room.”
“Tell him we’ll swing by and pick him up. How late will we be meeting the Aerostar if we swing by Bolarus first?”
“Not long, if I take a few shortcuts.”
“What do you mean ‘shortcuts’?”
“Shortcuts like the one that got us from Earth to Waystation in a few hours. That’s usually at least a daylong trip!”
Baxter rubbed his chin. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope. And you know the legends about me and the Jovian run.”
“I don’t, but it doesn’t really matter. You’re Conway’s helmsman now.”
“Sorry, sir. It’s nothing personal. He’s just more receptive to my sucking up.”
“I totally understand,” muttered Baxter.
“Boy am I glad to see you!” Hartley grinned, leaning against the U-shaped tactical railing on the Aerostar’s bridge. On the viewscreen, Mirk looked extremely anxious about something. “Where have you been, anyway?”
“Servicing a slew of cranky admirals,” Mirk said. “My feet are killing me already. Bartendering is fine, but watering is a pain in the ass.”
“Is there a point to this?” Conway asked from the command chair. It was odd to see the stations on the Aerostar’s familiar bridge so unoccupied. Since they were breaking major Starfleet rules going to Tantalus, he had to send everyone that wasn’t from his normal universe home for the day. That left Tilleran at ops and Browning at helm, with Hartley running tactical and communications.
“Darned right there’s a point to this. There are marines after you, and Starfleet is moving to intercept the Captain.”
“And just how do you know this?”
“Because Harlan Baxter just ordered the Starfleet people after you. And the Marines, apparently, sent J’hana.”
Conway shook his head. “And how long until she intercepts us?”
Mirk waved his padd at Conway. “This thing doesn’t come with starcharts. I can tell you what the soup of the day is, and that’s about it.”
Conway sighed. “Thanks for all your help.”
“Can you call the captain and let him know about Starfleet chasing him down? I’m only on a five-minute break.”
“Sure,” Conway said. “Can I tell him which ship he’ll have to fight off?”
“You won’t believe it.”
“Let me guess. It’s the Explorer.”
“How’d you know?”
“It just figures.”
“Anyway, you won’t believe who’s in command…”
Conway rolled his eyes. “Ficker.”
“Well, I can see I’m wasting my time talking to you. You know everything already. Just promise to come by and pick me up before you go heading off to try and rectify the timeline.”
“Earth’s not exactly on the way,” Conway grumbled.
“I saved us from getting changed along with the rest of the time-line. You owe me, buddy!”
“He’s got you there,” Hartley said, glancing down at Conway.
“I don’t suppose you can hitch a ride?
Mirk waved the padd again. “Does it look like I can hail a starship with one of these babies, either?”
“Powers?” Conway suggested.
“Drained, thanks my efforts to preserve us from the timeline change.”
“Fine, then,” Conway said. “We’ll just have to arrive at Tantalus a little late. We’ll change course to go get you.”
“Thanks very much.”
“If we don’t get to you, you can pretty much assume J’hana creamed us.”
“Good luck with that, by the way.”
“Thanks EVER so much!” said Hartley, before Conway could comment.
“Pick him up already,” Baxter ordered, hovering over Ford’s shoulder as he worked at ops.
“Transporting now,” Ford said, and Richards suddenly materialized at Baxter’s side.
“Great to see you Chris,” Baxter said, clapping a hand on Richards’s shoulder. “Get our shields back up, Ford, and head for Tantulus, maximum warp!”
“Aye, sir,” Ford said, and brought Secondprize out of her Bolarus orbit. He shot her into warp and studied forward sensors. “Our path looks nice and clear for the trip to Tantalus, no real threats on the–”
Richards and Baxter paused on their way back to the center command chairs.
“What is it?” Baxter asked, turning to look at Ford.
Ford glanced back at Baxter. “It’s the Explorer, sir. On an intercept course right for us.”
“Of all the stupid ironic frigging luck,” Baxter grumbled, pulling at his hair. “Can you beat her there?”
“You know the Explorer, Captain. She can outrun the Secondprize with one nacelle tied behind her back.”
“Then you’re going to have to get creative.”
Ford turned to face the viewscreen. “Well, that’s what I’m best at. Second to sucking up.”
Richards glanced between Baxter and Ford. “Well, isn’t anyone interested in how my alternate universe experience has shaped up so far?”
“No,” said Ford and Baxter.
“Almost to Earth,” Browning said, studying the helm controls. “And let me warn you again, I’m no wizard at the helm.”
Conway shifted uneasily in the command chair. He’d forgotten how stiff the foam padding on the Aerostar chairs was. “Hopefully, you won’t need to be.”
“I’d guess again,” Tilleran said. “J’hana will probably still pursue us, even if we aren’t heading for Waystation at the moment.”
“Sure she’s tenacious, but…”
Tilleran glared at Conway. “Captain…trust me.”
“Betazoid instincts?” Conway ventured.
Suddenly a bleep sounded at Tilleran’s station. “That, and very good sensors.” She looked woefully up from ops. “I’m picking up a Peregrine-class ship on an intercept course, closing fast. Weapons range in two minutes.”
Conway lept out of the command chair and hurried to the ops panel. He leaned over Tilleran’s shoulder. “Can you identify it?”
Tilleran shot Conway an “I-told-you-so” look. “It’s called the Razorbeast. Listed as ‘Major’ J’hana’s ship.”
Browning looked to Conway hopefully. “Well, maybe she’s been saved from the timeline changes like the rest of us, perhaps…”
And the comm system chirped to life:
“Rebel Federation vessel: This is Major J’hana, Supreme Warrior of the Ninth Hive. I command an elite force of marines, all trained to destroy rogue Federation citizens. Give me one good reason not to blow you out of the stars!”
Conway glared at Browning. “You were saying?” He leaned over and tapped a control on Tilleran’s station. “J’hana, this is Captain David Conway. I’m on a secret mission for Starfleet. Keep your distance and DO NOT ENGAGE, do you hear me?”
“Of course, Captain,” J’hana’s voice replied darkly. “Simply provide me with your Starfleet top-secret indent-code and your mission number and I will confirm your orders with Starfleet intel.”
Conway gritted his teeth. “I can’t do that, J’hana.”
He sighed. “Because this is a top-top secret mission.”
“Doesn’t sound familiar.”
“Of course not! That’s what makes it top-top secret.”
J’hana mulled that over.
“She’ll be in weapons range in twenty seconds,” Tilleran called out.
“Weapons running hot?” Conway asked quickly.
“Hot and heavy,” replied Tilleran. “She’s got quantums and compression phasers on that little ship. Twice the armament of the Escort, or this ship.”
“I’ve thought it over,” J’hana finally said. “I’m still going to destroy you. We’ll sort out the details later.”
Tilleran’s eyes widened. “She’s going to come out of warp right on top of us!”
“Prepare for evasive!” Conway fairly shouted, and rushed back for the command chair.
Browning shuddered. She’d never piloted a starship this size before, and certainly not in combat. She pressed a control on the helm, which brought up a list of maneuvers. “Hmm. Delta sounds fun.” She punched a control and the Aerostar surged ahead, just as the first string of quantum torpedoes soared by.
“Good work, Janice!” Conway said, clenching his fist. The Razorbeast suddenly appeared on screen, weapons blazing. “Fire back at them, Tilleran!”
“On it,” Tilleran said. Full weapons control was transferred to her station. It was a lot to handle, what with ops and science operating off that panel too. Of course, there really wasn’t much need to scan anything, or… operate it, either. Tilleran fired everything the Aerostar had.
The tiny Razorbeast revolved on the screen like a paper airplane spiraling to the ground…it swerved in space and darted right toward them, quantums blaring. The Aerostar shook.
“Shields are gone!” Tilleran cried, and sparks poured from her station.
Conway held fast to the command chair as the blasts hit. He’d forgotten the Aerostar was a puny fighter compared to the Explorer. He’d almost taken that firepower for granted. “We’re not going to surrender. Janice, evasive pattern omega!”
“Where does that fall in the alphabet?” Browning asked frantically, as a blast pounded the saucer section, blowing clear through.
Conway held rigidly to the command chair. “We’re not going to last much longer in this fight, Tilleran! There’s got to be something you can use against J’hana…anything!”
Tilleran shook her head. “Her ship is tiny, but it outguns us three to one. There’s nothing I can think of to use against…her…” Tilleran paused. “Her!”
Tilleran scrunched her eyes shut. “Just a hunch!”
“What the hell is she doing?” Conway asked. Then, after a few moments, he noticed the shooting had stopped.
“You’re going to stop the attack,” Tilleran broadcasted. “Stop the attack, Imzadi!”
Suddenly the comm chirped again. “This is J’hana. I’m stopping the attack.”
“You’ll return to base. Tell your commander you failed.”
“I’m going to return to base. I’ll tell my commander I failed.”
“You’re really sorry you did that. You’ll be more considerate next time.”
“I’m really sorry I did that. I’ll be more considerate next time.”
“Goodbye, Jan,” Tilleran said softly.
J’hana coughed uncomfortably over the speakers. “I don’t know why I’m doing this. Goodbye, Imzadi. I shall always love you.”
Tilleran smiled. “Me too, Jan. Me too.” Once the Razorbeast veered off, Tilleran sighed. “I guess we still have an Imzadi bond, even in this universe.”
“Nicely done, Commander,” Conway said, and walked up to the front of the bridge. “Janice–get us to Earth, ASAP.”
“Not an easy feat,” she said, looking over her fried panel. “J’hana handed us a beating. The warp engines are in pretty bad shape.”
“Get down to engineering, Tilleran,” Conway said, patting the Betazoid on the back. “If anyone asks what happened, tell them it was just turbulence.” He’d nearly forgotten about all those Aerostar crew that were still hanging out belowdecks. “While you’re at it,” he added, as Tilleran made her way to the turbolift, “why don’t you start beaming the crew down to Mars or Venus or something. Tell them it’s a survival exercise.”
“THIS is becoming a survival excercise,” Tilleran mumbled and ducked into the aft turbolift.”
Travis Dillon slid out of the Jefferies tube and hopped down onto the deck in Engineering. He’d stripped down to his vest and ripped a swatch of cloth off the discarded uniform tunic. He wrapped the swatch around his forehead like a bandanna and pocketed the phaser he’d picked up along the way. Watching all those action movies finally paid off.
He scanned the engine compartment. Everyone was passed out, as he’d feared. Scott Baird was in his office, face-down in a plate of macaroni. When he woke up, he would NOT be a happy camper.
Dillon looked at the Secondprize’s warp core and shook his head regretfully. Regulations were QUITE clear about what to do in a situation in which the ship had been taken over. The crew were all passed out like proverbial lights, and he lacked the medical knowledge to revive them. He could always mount a frontal attack on Baxter. It wasn’t as if the guy was all that threatening. But he had to have a failsafe. He reached into the satchel he’d brought along and removed a plasma grenade and detonator. He knew as much about engineering as he did about medicine, but he knew where to shove that grenade in order to make his ship go “Boom!” If he got into it with Baxter and saw he’d be defeated, he’d punch the button and blow up the Secondprize. It seemed like the smart thing to do.
Mirk wrapped his arms around Hartley and the two stared out the Aerostar’s conference room windows, as the stars behind the ship stretched backwards infinitely. Earth had become a dot among the stars almost instantly once Aerostar went into warp. Tilleran got the engines fixed and Hartley had assisted in getting the crew beamed down to one of the abandoned outer Mars colonies. Afterwards, they swung around to get Mirk. Luckily, the planetary guard was at lunch or something.
The view outside the conference room window was rather pleasant, with the possible exception of the phaser scar, J’hana’s handiwork, which gashed down the engineering hull.
“Thanks again for coming to get me,” he said, and kissed her softly on the cheek.
Hartley grabbed his hand. “Thank you for saving us, Mirk. We wouldn’t be clamoring to get back to our rightful place in time-space if it wasn’t for you.”
“And I wouldn’t have ever had such a beautiful person to spend the rest of my life with, if it weren’t for you,” Mirk said, and leaned his head on Hartley’s shoulder.
“Mirk…” Hartley said softly. “I…you want to spend the rest of your life with me?”
“You mean you want to…”
“Yes, spend the rest of my life with you.”
“In other words, we should…”
“Spend the rest of our lives together, yes.”
Captain Baxter anxiously paced the Secondprize bridge as the Exelsior-class vessel hurtled toward Tantalus.
He wasn’t quite sure what he could accomplish by capturing Kelly and Irma. Would Irma talk? Could Kelly even get her to talk? Would she want to help him get the universe back to the way it was? He wasn’t quite sure he knew the answer to those questions. All he was sure of was that he didn’t want to jeopardize Kelly in any universe. He’d just have to watch and see how the cards would fall…
“Captain!” Ford called, looking up from the helm. “The Explorer’s closing on us. We won’t get to Tantalus for another twenty minutes. She’ll be in weapons range in under ten!”
“Can’t get much worse than that, can it?”
Just then, the comm system buzzed. “Baxter…this is Commander Dillon. This time…I’m coming for YOU!”
Baxter sighed and glanced back at Richards, who manned the engineering station, diverting power to weapons and shields. “Chris, start beaming everyone that we knocked unconscious into escape pods. Be ready to blow them out if necessary. I’ll get the weapons ready.”
“What about Commander Dillon?” Ford asked.
“Starfleet regulation 2146.4: If you’re trying to retake your ship, discard your comm badge immediately. We’ll have nothing to lock on to.”
Richards checked his scanners. “Either he did that, or he’s still in the conference room.”
“Exactly,” said Baxter, rounding his way up to tactical. “So start beaming already.”
After several anxious minutes, Richards reported that everyone was aboard the escape pods.
“Meanwhile,” said Ford, “Explorer will be in weapons range in one minute.”
“We’re going to be cutting this damn close,” Baxter said, leaning forward against the rear tactical railing.
“Close?” Ford asked, turning in his chair. “There’s no ‘close’ about it. Explorer will be on top of us in thirty seconds, and we’re still ten minutes away from Tantalus.”
“I can keep us operational until then,” Baxter said. “I’m fairly certain anyway.”
“Sir,” Richards asked. “How many times have you actually run a tactical station?”
Baxter waffled. “Well, once or twice.”
Ford rolled his eyes. “This should be interesting.” He glanced at his panel. “There’s a communication coming in from the Explorer.”
“Can’t wait to see who they put in charge of her,” said Baxter.
He cringed like no one had cringed before when Alvin Ficker appeared on the viewscreen.
Ficker seemed shocked. “BAXTER?”
“Ficker!” Baxter said ruefully.
“What are you doing over there? My records show the Secondprize is still under Alexander Rydell.”
“Things have changed, Ficker. I don’t have time to go into the specifics, but suffice it to say I don’t belong in this universe. Just let me pass and I promise the Secondprize won’t be harmed.”
“I can’t do that, Baxter. I have a duty to protect the Federation. Besides that, I don’t like you.”
“Let’s not let our personal feelings get involved here,” Baxter said, then winced as a torpedo crashed against Secondprize.
“You quite finished?” Ficker asked with a winning smile.
“Return fire!” Baxter called out, then realized he was at tactical. He punched the torpedo button and fired a full spread at the Explorer, targeting the port warp pylon, which in his universe had always been a little weak. Happily, Explorer’s warp pylon showed buckling, according to Baxter’s scan.
“Incoming!” shouted Ford.
BLAM! Another torpedo rammed into Secondprize’s shields, but Baxter was ready. He tapped the communications control. “You’re not going to try to negotiate with us, Ficker?” Baxter asked. “Not even some opening taunts?”
“You’ve already shown an unwillingness to cooperate, Baxter,” Ficker’s voice returned over the Secondprize’s loudspeakers. “And I did plenty enough taunting during that shuttle run in the Earth-Mars belt.”
“Still gloating about that, are we?”
“I’ve already rubbed the Explorer in your nose about as much as I can. Anyway, my victory at Earth-Mars was a far greater one in my mind.”
“How about this, you smug bastard. I know you cheated!”
“That’s…preposterous!” Another volley smashed into the Secondprize, this one jolting the saucer. Ford swung the ship port, faked starboard, then swung further port, finishing off with a rather inventive double-axle loop-de-loop.
“You disrupted my navigational computers!” Baxter said, and fired a spread of photons at the Explorer.
“How could you know that?” This time, it was a round of compression-phaser blasts.
“I’m from an alternate universe,” Baxter said with a tinge of pride, and returned those blasts in kind.
Richards grunted as he tried to reroute damaged systems and keep the Secondprize together. “You know, if you focused less on trading barbs with him and more on firing on him, maybe we’d WIN this firefight!”
“What an inventive suggestion!” Baxter groused and fired spreads of photons at the Explorer. “But I’m still not doing much damage to their shields. They’re at 70 percent and we’re all the way down to 30. Time to Tantalus?”
“Six minutes,” said Ford.
“Damn,” Baxter cursed, as more shots from the Explorer pounded Secondprize. “We may not make it after all. Blow those escape pods.”
Richards glanced at Baxter. “Into the middle of a battlefield?”
“Ficker won’t fire on those pods. He’ll detect lifesigns.”
“Can you be sure?”
“Just blow the pods!”
Richards fired every single escape pod as Ford brought the Secondprize swinging around.
The Explorer, hot on Secondprize’s tail, slammed to a halt as it ran into a wall of spinning pods.
“That slowed ‘em down!” Baxter said. “Those stupid, compassionate fools! Now, full speed, everything this bucket has…for Tantalus!”
“You imbecile!” Ficker cried, spinning his helmswoman around in his chair. “What the hell did you think you were doing?”
“We were about to run into those escape pods, sir.”
“So they have lifesigns aboard.”
“Well, they are rebellious lifesigns and therefore expendable. Plow us through.”
The helmsman stood. “Respectfully, Captain, heck no.”
“Fine,” Ficker said, and shoved her aside. “You’re expendable too, McNickle. Consider yourself fired!”
Ensign McNickle scratched his head. “Can you do that?”
“I’m a Starfleet Captain!” Ficker cackled and sent the Explorer diving after the Secondprize. “I can do anything!”
McNickle glanced back at Eno at tactical, who just shrugged.
Commander Dillon braced himself against the bulkhead as Secondprize rocked. “Damn Baxter,” he said to himself ruefully. “Probably attacking the Earth defenses by now! It’s going to have to be up to me. I knew it would come down to this sometime. It was just a matter of when and how.”
Dillon yanked open the emergency door to the upward- leading Jefferies tube. He climbed in and looked up. A long climb to the bridge.
At one time, he might have been afraid of such a climb. But Dillon was resolved now. Stupid Patty Hawkins. Choosing Jaroch over him. He’d show her what kind of man he was.
He put his phaser in his mouth and started climbing.
“More shots coming in! They’re right on top of us!” Ford cried as the Secondprize took its beating.
Baxter worked frantically at tactical, sending volley after volley back at the Explorer. It was no use. Explorer was just too well-equipped. He felt a fleeting measure of pride at that, then shrieked like a woman as an overhead conduit exploded and a beam came crashing down in front of him.
“That last hit fractured our hull on decks one, two, and three!” Richards called out, as Baxter ran down to the front consoles to divert ops control to tactical.
Baxter sat down next to Ford and started raking over the Explorer with Secondprize’s remaining weapons. “Time to Tantalus?”
“Get ready to beam us off this barge, Richards!”
“Aye, sir!” said Richards.
“Excellent idea, sir!” said Ford.
“Are you sucking up or just scared sh**less, Ford?”
“A little bit of both, sir!”
Suddenly a hatch in front of Baxter’s station, between the forward consoles and the viewscreen, sprung open. Commander Travis Dillon burst out, yanked the phaser out of his mouth, and pointed it around the bridge, shifting targets from Ford, to Richards in the back, and to Baxter.
“You all are under arrest!” he said proudly.
Over his shoulder, on the viewscreen, Explorer bore down, firing all it had.
“Look behind you!” Baxter pointed.
“You’d DARE try THAT one on ME???? That’s the oldest trick in the BOOK!”
“Sir, he’s wacked in a bad way,” Richards observed.
“Nothing like our Dillon,” muttered Ford.
Baxter, Richards, and Ford chuckled briefly at that, then turned their attentions back on Dillon.
“Only you,” Baxter growled, “would burst in at a time like this, claiming to arrest us, when meanwhile, another starship is out there already beating the living crap out of us! In moments, this ship is going to be a fireball and we’re going to be beamed down to Tantalus to put this universe right, and you as usual are not only late to the party, but you’re dressed all wrong and not even INVITED!”
Dillon blinked. “Are you quite finished?”
Another blast slammed into Secondprize, knocked it spinning off-course.
Everyone fell down.
“Are we being fired on?” Dillon asked quizzically.
“YES!” cried Richards and Ford.
Baxter fought a wave of vertigo and reached up to tap in the final transporter sequence that Richards had already started.
Dillon clawed at the ops station, dragging himself to his feet. “No you DON’T!” he cried, as the whine of the transporters warming up filled the bridge. He yanked a small, oblong object out of his vest pocket and thumbed it.
“BAXTER, YOU SON OF A BITCH, I’VE GOT YOU!” Ficker cried over the comm channel.
Dillon grunted inwardly. He was about to say that. “Who the hell is that?” he asked, and the Secondprize’s warp core exploded.
“Back off, back off!” Ficker cried, as he watched the Secondprize ignite like a sparkler on the Forth of July, saucer and engine pods exploding like fireworks, sending a shockwave out that smashed into the Explorer, sending it flying backwards, end-over-end, like an off-kilter frisbee.
“We were too close to it!” cried Commander Eno, grasping at tactical. “Shields down, hull failure on twenty decks, warp core breach imminent!”
“And it’s all your fault, Captain!” said McNickle, standing by the aft turbolift doors. He’d hit the call button a couple minutes ago, but the lift must have been delayed, what with the ship blowing up and all. “I guess the only satisfaction we’ll get from this is that you’ll go down with us!”
“Not quite,” Ficker said, and tapped a command into the helm controls. Goody. Transporters were still operational. For the next few seconds anyway. “Bye, now,” he said, as the Explorer’s warp core exploded.
From a far-off vantage point in space, it would have looked beautiful. Secondprize exploding in a bright-white fireball, casting off a huge shockwave, which subsequently tore through Explorer like a rag-doll, sent it flipping haphazardly backwards, caught up in the wave and eventually exploding too in an even more beautiful series of fireworks that rippled along the main hull, climbed up and over the saucer section and ripped it open like a gutted peach, a peach which finally, beautifully, blew up and spawned another, bigger shockwave.
From far-off, it would have looked beautiful. Close up, though, it was probably a royal bitch.
Alarms wailed throughout Tantalus Five’s primary mental health facility, known fondly as the “Federation Funny Farm.”
At the front desk, Bonnie Winters was fielding call after panicked call. Sensors were reporting two Federation starships in combat above the planet, and apparently both exploded.
That news sent the local populace into hysterics, of course. As with any real estate close to a mental facility, historically, Tantalus property was dirt cheap, and as such free range for any number of galactic rejects and scum. That was convenient, of course, since once they lost the last shred of good sense, they simply showed up at the front desk and ordered one straight-jacket, with all the fixin’s.
Bonnie Winters didn’t really like her job.
She began to like it even less when she looked up from her lit-up switchboard to see three officers in singed Starfleet uniforms march purposefully in, looking quite distressed.
The larger of the officers dragged another with him, a frantic-looking fellow in a Starfleet vest.
The larger officer dragged his companion up to the front desk, set him down, and politely rang the service bell.
Bonnie Winters stared at him dumbly for a moment. “Um…”
“We have one drop-off, and one pick-up.”
“What are you planning, Baxter?” the person he’d set down asked. “And why did you beam me off with you?”
Baxter glanced down at the upset fellow. “Because I’m not all that bad a guy. You need help, Dillon. I can’t quite understand why, but that’s not important. We just happen to be at the right place for you.”
“It’s all Jaroch’s fault. He seduced Patty, dear Patty, on the Nestron mission…”
Baxter rubbed his chin. “Nestron? That’s where I went when our brains were joined.”
“And which of you will be signing in?” Bonnie asked, after she finally regained her ability to speak.
“Shut up,” Ford said, leveling a phaser at Bonnie. Too bad the security officers were off locking down all the patients, what with all the alerts.
Baxter returned his attention to Dillon. “I can’t explain it all right now, Commander, but suffice it to say, in my universe you’re the one to seduce Patricia Hawkins. And, last time I checked, you guys were a totally happy and sane couple.”
Dillon blinked back tears. “You mean it?”
Baxter knelt and placed a hand on Dillon’s shoulder. “Count on it.” He crossed his fingers and grimaced. “Travis.”
Baxter stood back up and looked at Bonnie. “You can start the paperwork on this guy. And where might the Severely Mental Really Really Really Whacko wing be?”
“Down that hall, past the Slightly Wacko Wing, left, then left again,” Bonnie said, glancing down at Dillon. “What’s his problem, anyway?”
“He picked the wrong universe to be born in,” Baxter explained, and he Richards, and Ford hurried off down that corridor.
She nodded. “We get a lot of that here.”
“I think we’re making excellent progress,” Doctor Kelly Peterman said, glancing around the circle and hugging her data PADD. “You all realize you have some obsessive issues with Starfleet personnel, and I think we can help you get rid of those issues.”
Peterman had been working on this group for weeks. The short list included Irma Wilson, Gul Dukat, Rebecca Singer, a fellow who preferred to be known only as “Zero,” and of course, Thomas Riker. The “villains” support group was Peterman’s least favorite.
“Now I want you all to return to your padded rooms and think hard about what we’ve discussed. Take some time to reflect on the discussion. We’ll re-convene tomorrow at nine a.m.”
“I have a request,” Gul Dukat said, raising his hand politely.
“Go ahead, Elmo,” Peterman said encouragingly.
“Can we have less sprinkles on our donuts tomorrow morning. I don’t like them at all.”
“Sure. Whatever you like. Tomorrow we can workshop exactly why those sprinkles irritate you so.”
Dukat frowned. “It’s because they get stuck in my teeth.”
“So you say. But I think it goes deeper than that.” Peterman set down her padd and clapped her legs. “You all have a great day. As always, my office is open if you hit any rough spots.”
The occupants of the room gradually filtered out, until Irma was the only person left. Peterman stood and approached the large woman’s chair.
“Something troubling you, Irma?” Peterman asked, putting a comforting hand on Irma’s shoulder. “The sprinkles comment, perhaps?”
“Of course not, Doctor,” Irma said. “I was just curious. I’ve been here four years. Do you think there’s any hope of me being let out?”
Not by a longshot, Peterman thought, but said, “Of course. There’s always hope, Irma.”
“You know, theoretically, I can leave here at any time. I have powers you know.”
“Okay,” Peterman said, and sat down beside Irma. “Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, you’re telling the truth. In that case, why don’t you leave now?”
“Hey, three square meals a day, plenty of holotainment, and free backrubs. It’s a great deal. But frankly, after four years, I’m getting a little antsy. I want to go to Earth, visit the old homestead. Check on my Star Trek collection. I’d love to see if it’s still around somewhere.”
“Yes, this ‘Star Trek’ thing you keep mentioning,” Peterman frowned. “I’m not quite so sure I follow what Star Trek is all about.”
“You know all too well, Doctor,” Irma said with a wry smile.
“Irma, you’re not a well person. We can help you here. Maybe, some day, after extensive therapy, you can leave Tantalus. But for now, we’re the best thing for you. Will you trust me on that?”
“I suppose.” Irma thought about what Peterman’s said. “This isn’t because you’re still steamed about what I did to your dog, is it?”
Peterman grimaced. “Irma, that was a long time ago. Of course…I, uh, forgive you.”
“That’s a comfort,” Irma said. “Now you go ahead and run along. I’m sure your fiancee is worried sick about you.”
“Thanks, Irma,” Peterman said, and stood. “Glad we could have this little chat.”
Peterman walked to the door to the meeting room, and came face to face with Andy Baxter.
“Uh…” she stammered. Was he admitted without her knowing? It certainly made a kind of sense.
“Kelly, I know this is a shock to you, but you’re in the wrong universe. You have to help me get Irma to confess what she did to make the Aerostar not go to the Delta Quadrant, so we can go back in time and fix things, so me and you can be married and have a baby and so I can command the Explorer like I’m supposed to!” He took a deep breath. That was a mouthful.
“It’s wonderful to have you here with us,” Peterman said, and led Baxter over to the circle of chairs. “Let’s sit down and chat for a moment. You already know Irma, of course.”
“No, no, you don’t understand!” Peterman led Baxter to the circle of chairs and sat him down next to Irma, whose eyes lit up upon seeing him.
“I was wondering when you’d show up,” she said cooly.
“Irma, tell me what you did,” Baxter seethed. “Tell me how to make it right!”
Irma folded her arms. “Only if you ask nicely.”
Baxter turned frantically to face Peterman. “Kelly, you have to do something. Help me get it through Irma’s head that things need to go back the way they were!”
“Life unfolds the way it does for a reason, Andy,” Peterman said, and put a reassuring hand on Baxter’s knee. “You have to have faith in that.”
“Easy for you to say,” he muttered. “Listen, I know this sounds crazy. But I have someone to corroborate my story.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Hey, Ford! Richards? Where’d you guys get off to, anyway?”
Suddenly, as if on cue, Ford and Richards were led by phaserpoint into the meeting room. At the other end of the phaser, Alvin Ficker grinned like a Cheshire cat.
“Fancy running into you here,” he said noncomitally and shoved Ford and Richards forward into two of the circled chairs.
“Look,” Peterman said, “I don’t know who you are, but you can’t just come in and–”
“CAN’T I?” Ficker asked, waving his phaser at Peterman. “Aren’t I doing that right this minute?”
“This is a mental facility, not a shooting gallery!” Peterman said. “Security!”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” said Ficker.
“Darling?” came a voice from the door to the meeting room.
Baxter looked up.
Julian Bashir poked his head into the meeting room and looked around. “I came to see what kept you, and heard a ruckus…I…oh, my!”
“No…nonononononono,” Baxter said over and over again.
Richards winced. “This isn’t going to be pretty.”
Baxter surged forward, powered by pure bitter anger, and tackled Ficker Cowboys-style to the deck before he could even aim his phaser. The captain then proceeded to launch blow after blow on poor Ficker, not caring where his fist should land, but smashing away just the same.
“Why aren’t you attacking Bashir?” Ford ventured.
“Because…” Baxter said as he punched. “He’s…not…the…one…with …the…phaser!” Once Ficker was handily unconscious, Baxter stood, gripped Ficker’s phaser. He turned on a heel, set it to ‘stun,’ and quickly blasted Bashir. “THAT is for calling her ‘darling’!” The doctor dropped like a sack of stem bolts.
Peterman folded her arms. “Now that wasn’t very nice. Or very mature, either!”
“That sounds like my old Kelly,” Baxter muttered, and marched toward Peterman. “I can’t believe you’re dating that putz!”
“I am engaged to that…that putz!” Peterman said indignantly.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“What business is it of yours?”
“I’m your husband!”
“Not in this universe, pal!” Peterman replied.
“So you believe my alternate universe theory?”
“I didn’t say that! Don’t put words in my mouth!”
“Boy, we’re so good at fighting…kind of makes you think we’ve done it before, doesn’t it? Perhaps in another universe?”
“The only way I’d ever marry you IS in an alternate universe!”
“People, people,” Irma Wilson said, resting a hand on each person’s shoulder. They were both on their feet at this point, an in each other’s faces like umpire and hitter in a baseball game. “All this rage is not going to help anyone. Why don’t we all sit down together and talk this out?”
“Very good idea,” Peterman replied, tugging down indignantly at her lab coat. “And my poor Julian needs to get to a sickbay!”
“No time for that, I’m afraid,” said Baxter. “We’ve got to get out of here, and pronto, before your friendly security folk get here.”
Peterman once again folded her arms. “I’m not going anywhere!”
“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice,” Baxter said, and glanced back at Ford, who was checking out the hallway. “Ford, how’s it look out there?”
“Clear for now,” Ford said. “What do we do?”
“Find a comm panel. Hope the Aerostar isn’t too far away,” Baxter said, and yanked Peterman by the arm toward the door. “Come on…darling.”
“Watch it!” she scolded.
“You can grab Irma,” Baxter said to Richards, as Ford led the way out.
Richards grinned weakly back at Irma. “Joy.”
“Don’t worry,” Irma said. “I wouldn’t dream of being any trouble. I’ve quite gotten all that out of my system.”
Richards rolled his eyes. “That’s a relief.”
When Mirk and Hartley emerged from the Aerostar’s bridge observation lounge, holding hands, they drew the annoyed stare of Captain Conway.
Upon turning to face the viewscreen, Mirk was alarmed to see Irma Wilson staring back at him. He jumped, let out a small “urk!”
Next to Irma on the screen, Captain Andy Baxter looked more than a little uneasy.
“Nice of you to join us, Mirk,” Conway grumbled from the command chair. “Meanwhile we’ve diverted to Tantalus to get the captain. Apparently he sort of…lost the Secondprize.”
“Explorer too,” Baxter said sheepishly.
Hartley voiced Mirk’s thoughts. “What the hell is Irma doing there, Captain?”
“She’s fine,” Baxter said. “She seems really mellow after a few years in ‘group’ with Doctor Peterman.”
“DOCTOR!” Conway chuckled. “That’s rich.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, you bloated…!” Peterman stuck her head in between Baxter and Irma.
“Calm down, calm down,” Conway said, still chuckling. “We’ll be there in about an hour. Can you hold out that long?”
“I know a nice spot to hide in,” Irma said. “I’ll take care of these guys until you get here. That’s the least I can do to make up for everything I put you kids through.”
“You are Irma WILSON, aren’t you?” Mirk ventured.
“In the flesh!” she said cheerily.
“The one who pledged to kill me?”
Irma waved a hand dismissively. “Ah, bygones!”
“I’m starting to like this universe,” said Mirk.
“Not me. We’ll be waiting,” Baxter said, and blipped off the viewscreen.
Conway glanced at Mirk and Hartley as the warp-streaked starfield appeared back on the viewscreen. “What the hell were you guys doing in there for two hours?”
“Just talking,” Mirk said.
“Got a problem with that?” demanded Hartley as she took her station at tactical.
“Not at all,” Conway said. “Just wondering.”
“You know, people in a healthy relationship talk and discuss their feelings,” Hartley prodded, and looked at Browning. “How do you think Janice feels about all this alternate universe mess, for instance?”
“Pretty confused, probably,” Conway said easily.
“Though we haven’t talked about it,” Browning said pointedly, turning around at the helm controls. “Maybe we should reserve the conference room for the next hour?”
“Or you could get to battle stations,” Tilleran suggested from ops.
“Come again?” asked Conway, as he smiled uneasily at Browning.
“Three starships from near Earth are converging on us. Report must have gotten out that we did away with the Marines and the Explorer. They probably have ‘shoot to kill’ orders now.”
“And they didn’t before?” Conway asked wryly.
“Whatever the case, we’d better get to Tantalus quick!” Tilleran said.
Baxter found more to chat about with Irma than Peterman in his his free hour in the broom ‘n meds closet in the Really Really Severely Obsessive Compulsive wing of the Tantalus mental facility. It would still be a few minutes before Conway (hopefully) arrived to pick him and the others up. Peterman was still standoffish about being “kidnapped,” Richards was sulking about Browning…either that or sulking about being trapped in an alternate universe, and Ford was no real conversationalist to begin with.
Irma, however, was a virtual fountain of conversation. She discussed everything from her old life on Earth to her experiences working as a “hitwoman” for the Starshine Kids, to her fruitful therapy sessions with Peterman on Tantalus. The woman had certainly led an interesting life for the daughter of a drive-in waitress from Backbay, Virginia. No doubt she’d done quite a bit more traveling than anyone in her graduating high school class, a point Irma had driven hard home during that talk-filled hour. Every now and again, Baxter would sneak a longing gaze at Peterman across the deep gulf of inches between them in the cramped closet. The real Peterman had his child growing inside her, this one couldn’t even stand to be with him.
That thought was quickly whisked out of his mind as the familiar tingle of matter transportation took hold and Baxter was beamed, presumably, to Aerostar, a veritable safe haven compared to the broom ‘n meds closet.
“Shields back up!” Conway cried, gripping the command chair as Aerostar swung around Tantalus, three starships on her tail on the reverse view of the viewscreen. Two Akira-class and one Defiant, by the look of it, Baxter surmised, then quickly took stock of the bridge. Panels seeped smoke, some were busted, a couple beams on the port side were collapsed. The Aerostar had been through hell. Richards ran back to the engineering console to see what he could do to re-inforce Aerostar’s battered systems.
“Been busy?” he asked Conway and approached the command chair.
“You could say that. Those starships have been on our tail since Rigel Seven.”
“Well, not to worry,” Baxter said, “Richards is here now to help Hartley keep this bucket together. We should be at the Bermuda Expanse soon, and this whole miserable mess will be over.”
“You make it seem so simple,” Hartley muttered.
Another blast rocked Aerostar.
“Get us into warp already!” Conway called to Browning, who tapped “engage” and gave her seat up to Ford.
“I’m diverting emergency power to the engines,” Richards said, tapping madly at the engineering panel. “We’ll make it to Bermuda Expanse way ahead of those others. But beyond that, this ship is fried.”
“Not an option,” Baxter said, looking back at Richards. “We need the engine power to slingshot around the sun. This ship is equipped with Warpin’ 77, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” Hartley said. “But we don’t need the engines or ‘Warpin’ 77.”
“We don’t?” asked Conway.
Mirk shook his head. “Nope. If I can just get into the Bermuda Expanse and contact the Directors, I can probably get us back in time to where we need to be to stop Irma from stopping the Aerostar.”
“Ah, now I see,” groused Conway.
“And this assumption is based on what?” asked Baxter.
“It’s what happened when the Directors gave me the opportunity to change history,” Hartley said. “Remember when I stole the Escort and we nearly did exactly what Irma did, but all we ended up doing is ending my relationship with Brian Gellar and making you and Kelly lacrosse champions?”
Baxter rubbed his chin. “Vaguely.”
“You are all two puppies short of a litter,” Peterman said. She’d stalked out a protected corner of the bridge in the front near the viewscreen..
“That’s why we need you!” Baxter said. “Don’t you see, you were OUR COUNSELOR!”
“Not a very good one,” muttered Conway.
“She helped you get over Lana Shar,” Baxter returned.
“Other than that…”
“She got you over your white addiction…”
“That was Janice.”
“Listen,” said Peterman, stepping forward to address the group on the bridge. “I’m not arguing that you all need a counselor. But I’m not it. I help plenty of people on Tantalus. Most of US only worked together on the Aerostar for a couple months.” She looked at Baxter. “Some only a couple days. I don’t know what caused you all to spontaneously go batty, but I think the best solution is for all of you to return to Tantalus and get some serious help.”
“Your suggestion has been noted and ignored,” Lt. Commander Tilleran said, and returned to her work at the ops station.
“ERRGH!” Peterman stomped her feet and walked into the readyroom, which sat adjacent to the left-hand side of the bridge.
Baxter sighed and trudged after her. “Kelly! Wait!”
The bridge crew was quiet a few moments. Those that had tasks before the ship reached the Bermuda Expanse set about them. Others, like Mirk, Browning, and Irma, simply looked around aimlessly. Conway glanced back at Browning. This was probably his best opportunity to get any time alone with her.
“Janice…you wanted to chat? Let’s chat!”
“Now you’re talking,” Browning said, and led Conway back into the observation lounge.
Richards cringed at the engineering station. Hartley looked back at him. Surprisingly, her expression wasn’t an amused sneer, but the wide eyes of real sympathy. “Chris, I know this isn’t easy on you.”
“That’s a hell of an understatement.” Richards pounded at his controls.
“Try not to think about that,” Mirk said, walking over to place a comforting hand on Richards’s shoulder. “Try to think about the alternate universe problem and this ship which is rapidly falling apart. Any better?”
Richards grinned mildly. “Much.”
“The idea of me running off was for you NOT to follow me,” Peterman muttered, sliding in behind the readyroom desk. Baxter saw immediately that the ready-room was Conway’s. The NASCAR and classic-rock memorabilia blanketing the walls was proof enough of that. The desk was cluttered, too. Not nearly as organized as Baxter’s…usually…was.
“I want you to understand why I’m doing this, Kelly,” Baxter said softly, reaching out to grab Kelly’s hand. She pulled it back. “For us and our baby.”
Peterman shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m telling you, Kelly–I swear I’m not insane.”
“I’ve heard that one before.”
“We celebrated our two-year wedding anniversary today, Kelly. Why would I make something like that up?”
“I was getting ready to ask you that very question.”
“Because I want you to understand why I’m doing this. Why I’m risking everything to put things back how they should be. It’s not so much for the others, for my command of the Explorer, which, incidentally, blew up…it’s for you. The other things I could live without…but you…you I couldn’t live without, because you’re a part of me, as sure as my foot or my brain, or my intestines!”
“That sounds sweet, sure,” Peterman said. “But you’re not the first delusional person to sweet-talk me. That Zero guy was QUITE the charmer.”
“I didn’t want it to have to come to this,” Baxter said, approaching Peterman. “But I do have a way to prove it to you.”
“That you and I, in another universe, were once intimate together…”
Peterman inched backward on the readyroom desk. “I don’t like where this is heading…”
Baxter crept forward. “Just humor me here…”
“Famous last words…”
Baxter leaned Peterman’s head gently backward and nibbled her ear. For most women, this would generate a pleasurable enough response. But for Peterman, Baxter knew…
“Sounds like they’re getting along better,” Tilleran said, glancing at the direction of the readyroom.
“Yeah,” Richards said, still hard at work keeping the Aerostar together. “Let’s just hope we don’t get that in stereo in a minute.”
Browning leaned back against Conway’s chest, as he sat on the conference room table, and the two of them watched the stars streak backwards out the conference room viewport.
“I can see how Mirk and Hartley found this appealing,” Browning said.
Conway searched for a response. “Um. Yeah, I guess so. It would be more appealing if I couldn’t make out those three angry dots coming toward us.”
Browning leaned forward a bit, squinting. “Oh, yeah, I see them.” Three grey dots hovered there somewhere in that blanket of stars. Three starships sent to stop the Aerostar from whatever they figured her crew was planning.
Starfleet was awefully paranoid in this universe. Browning wondered if that had anything to do with the Aerostar never getting trapped in the Delta Quadrant. Maybe the Dominion War had a different outcome without the Explorer crew around. Well, that wasn’t really likely, but…
“What are you thinking?” Conway suddenly blurted.
Browning looked back at Conway. “What did you ask me?”
“What are you thinking?”
“David…I’m so proud of you. What prompted you to ask me that?”
“You looked thoughtful…and Tilleran said women like it when you ask that kind of thing.”
“Funny she should suggest something like that,” Browning said, then frowned.
“So what are you thinking?”
Browning stared long and hard at Conway. She thought for several long moments, then, finally, said,
“Here they come,” Lt. Sean Russell said, looking up from his screens of tactical reports in Waystation’s Ops module.
“Is Lazlo ready aboard the Razorbeast?” Beck asked, and Russell nodded.
“He sends his regrets again about J’hana. He claims she’s suffering from burnout. Keeps muttering something about her ‘Imzadi.’”
“Maybe some time at Tantalus could do her some good.”
“Stranger things, sir,” said Russell. “Of course, he said some time at the mercy of the patrons down at the Andorian restaurant, without weapons, of course, and tied down, would probably do her some good, too.”
“He’s a vengeful bastard,” Beck said, and smiled. “I really l like him.”
Russell grinned. “I do too. But why do I have this nagging feeling that…”
“That what?” prodded Beck.
“That I left my replicator running.”
“Possible,” Beck said. “But right now, I need you at tactical. Raise our shields and prepare all weapons. We cannot let the Aerostar get into the Bermuda Expanse. Directors know what they’re planning.”
“You can count on me, Captain!” replied Russell merrily.
The Aerostar sailed gracefully into the Bermuda Expanse, sparks and fire streaming from its nacelles and engine section, weapons scorchmarks pocked along the saucer, matter and antimatter bubbling in the containment chamber.
But she made it.
Some might say it was Hartley’s prowess at tactical, or Ford’s maneuverable helm work, or even Richards’s engineering legerdemain.
Others might say it was blind, stupid luck. The kind of blind, stupid luck that powered Baxter and crew from the very beginning. That saying, about fools, little children, and ships named…well, you get the idea.
Still others might even say that it was ordained to be by a higher power.
But what the hell did those people know?
“Shields failing!” Hartley called out.
“Engines critical!” cried Richards.
“Starfleet and Marine ships in pursuit!” Ford pointed out.
“Hull structure buckling all over the place!” announced Tilleran.
“Hot coffee spilled all over the carpet!” screamed Conway.
Baxter and Peterman, looking refreshed, and Browning and Conway, looking, well, the same, had each returned to the bridge shortly before the fireworks had started, though it all seemed to happen so fast none could really quite recall exactly how it happened. The Aerostar simply guided them home, right where they needed to be. One more time.
“All stop,” ordered Baxter, and he stepped toward the front of the bridge, in front of Conway, which annoyed Conway to no end. He was still crying over spilt coffee.
“Try to contact the Directors, Mirk,” Conway said, stepping up behind Baxter. He was equal rank with the captain now, and not about to be out-commanded.
“We have worse problems!” Richards said. “Warp core is going critical and I can’t drop it!”
“Drop the core!” Baxter ordered, over the gently rising wave of alert klaxons.
“Weren’t you listening?”
“I ALWAYS LISTEN!” BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA- AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAM! went Aerostar’s warp core.
“Secondprize, Explorer, and finally, Aerostar.”
At sciences, Craig Porter ticked them off on his fingers.
“All in the last two hours,” said Beck, still in shock. “And what for?”
“We may never know,” said Russell.
“We probably should send a ship to pick up those escape pods from the Secondprize,” suggested Porter.
Beck nodded. “Go ahead and do that.” After a pause, she added, “I just can’t believe they’re all gone.” Beck stepped down to the front view-wall and stared at the roiling Bermuda Expanse, and the Starfleet and Marine ships hovering about, still taking scans.
Ops was silent for a few moments.
“Well,” Beck said, taking in a deep breath. “Back to work!”
At first Baxter thought he was dead. That was a reasonable assumption, given the fact that he witnessed Aerostar blowing up around him. Of course, that wasn’t the first time something of that nature had happened to him. Annoyingly.
But Andy Baxter didn’t die.
He found himself, annoyingly, back where he started on Aerostar’s first mission:
Hovering in front of a giant eyeball, in a purple-green cloud.
This time, however, it didn’t scare him, or even surprise him. Frighteningly, it comforted him.
<We’ve been waiting,> the eyeball said reasonably.
Baxter looked to either side of him. “Why isn’t anyone else with me? Mirk…Irma?”
<We’ve filled them in already. I guess you could say you’re the last to know.>
<We’ve thought over your request,> said the eyeball, sounding somewhat bored, <and, after much thought, we are going to fulfil it.>
“What request?” Baxter scratched his head. His stomach rumbled. Gastrointestinal discomfort was often a side-effect of floating in a weird semi-reality inside a giant swirling maelstrom like the Bermuda Expanse.
<Your request to return to the point in time when your universe diverged from this one. That was your desire, was it not?>
“Yeah, I guess so.”
<Then go. We can only send you back in time. We can’t defeat Irma for you.>
“So stopping her is up to us?”
<Everything, since you began your mission aboard the Aerostar, has always been up to you. We have merely been…guides.>
The eyeball floated in the purple-green miasma for a few moments. <Good question. Let me get check on that…> It disappared in the swirling gasses and then reappeared moments later. <We can’t tell you yet.>
“So this is how you’re leaving things,” Baxter said. “What’ll happen if we do succeed in returning our universe back to its rightful state?”
<All will return to normal; or it will not.>
“Thanks for that little piece of wisdom.”
<We never said anything about being omnipotent.> The eyeball disappeared again. Once again, it reappeared moments later. <Oh. Apparently we did. Sorry. On your way now!>
Then, everything went dark.
Captain Baxter looked around, strained his eyes to see. He saw shapes moving around in the darkness. Saw a few glinting surfaces. The seam of a doorway was visible several meters away.
“Hello?” he called out helplessly.
“You’re standing on my foot,” Lt. Hartley shot back immediately and Baxter lept back in shock.
“Sorry!” He glanced around, waiting for his eyes to adjust. “Where are we?”
“I think we’re on the Aerostar, back in time,” said Mirk’s voice.
“But WHERE on the Aerostar.” This from Conway.
“The Directors said they’d send us to a place where we wouldn’t have to be worried about being spotted by anyone,” Mirk’s voice replied.
“Okay then,” said Baxter. “Computer…lights!”
The lights rose up and Baxter sighed. “The Directors have a singular wit.” They were in the ship’s gymnasium.
Tilleran sat down on a weight bench. “I can honestly say I’ve never been in this room. I preferred the aerobics.”
Hartley sat down beside her and giggled. “You mean the AEROSTARobics?”
“Yes!” Tilleran exclaimed. “What a stupid idea!”
Doctor Peterman stared at them and harrumphed. “That was MY idea. And I thought it was creative.”
“That’s why I love you, honey, in any universe,” Baxter said, and suddenly was hit by a pang of guilt. If he fooled around with Peterman in an alternate universe, was that considered cheating? He’d never really thought about it. He had been too deep in the throes of ear-nibbling. And what with the ship exploding and the giant eyeball and such right afterward, he hadn’t had time to think about it yet. Oh well. No harm done. It wasn’t as if they had sex on the readyroom desk or anything. Just a little ear-nibble. Although, to Peterman, that was…
“ANDY!” Richards called, stirring Baxter from his thoughts.
“What’s the plan?”
“Oh. Plan. Right.” Baxter rubbed his eyes. “Um. Lessee.”
“We could find the past version of me and stop her from meddling in the mission,” the future Irma Wilson offered helpfully.
“You would do that?” Baxter asked, amazed.
“Sure,” she said. “Doctor Peterman explained to me that my attempts to sabotage the Aerostar were simply a way to act out on unvented agression. I have since vented that agression in more fruitful ways.”
“She built a four-storey dog house, complete with jacuzzi and tennis courts,” Peterman said proudly.
“You’re doing a wonderful job adjusting to the reality of this whole mess, Kelly,” Baxter said. “Has this little jaunt back in time convinced you that we’re telling the truth?”
“Honestly, you pretty much had me at the ear-nibble,” Peterman said, and grinned, but only for an instant.
“So we go find the past Irma,” Browning said, fiddling with the handle on one of the hovering exercise bikes. “Sounds simple enough.”
“WE don’t do anything,” Baxter said. “Most of us need to stay here. What if one of us runs into our double? How are we going to explain THAT to the space-time continuum?”
“I think it will understand,” Conway muttered.
“It’ll be a small team,” Baxter said, ignoring Conway. “Me, Irma, Kelly. Got it?”
“You won’t get any complaints from me,” Conway said. “I’ve spent more than enough time on the old Aerostar as it is.”
“And you could stand to do a few squat thrusts while we wait, too,” Browning commented.
“The old girl looks exactly like I remember her,” Baxter said wistfully, as he, Irma, and Peterman marched down the corridor. “She was looking a little banged up when we drove her into the Bermuda Expanse just now and blew her up.”
“Seems smaller,” Peterman commented. She glanced across Irma at Baxter. The woman was huge, so she could barely see him. “So…two years, huh?”
“Two years what?”
“And we’re happy?”
Baxter smiled broadly. “More than you could know.”
“I’ve been worried about being able to make a marraige work. Julian keeps complaining about all the pets I keep. Says it’s not hygenic or some such nonsense.”
“I have an understanding with most of your pets,” Baxter said. “I leave them alone, and they don’t eat the ass out of my pants. Some I even love. Like Charlie.”
Peterman beamed. “Charlie’s ALIVE in your universe?”
“Of course,” said Baxter. “Isn’t he in yours?”
Peterman glared at Irma. “Not exactly.”
Irma grunted. “Sorry about that.”
For some reason Baxter was inclined not to ask. “So where are we going?” he said, eager to change the subject.
Irma looked around the mostly empty corridor. “First, we need to figure out exactly WHEN we are.”
“Easy,” said Baxter. “Computer, what is the current time and date?”
“The current time is 0700 hours and 37 minutes. The stardate is 51015.”
“I arrived about half an hour ago,” Baxter said. “I stopped by my quarters to drop off my duffle bag and then headed for the bridge.”
“In the new timeline, I intercept you on your way to the bridge,” Irma said.
“Then we just have to locate me, and the past you won’t be far behind,” Baxter reasoned.
“Simple enough,” said Peterman. “Computer, locate Captain Andy Baxter.”
“Captain Andy Baxter is on Deck Nine.”
“There,” she said simply.
“He is also on Deck Fourteen.”
Baxter scratched his head. “What…oh, yeah.”
“We’re on deck fourteen,” said Peterman. “So process of elimination tells us the past you is on deck nine!”
“Pure genius,” Baxter said with a wry grin and led Peterman and Irma to a turbolift.
“Tiiiiiiiime, it’s on my side, yes it is,” Irma Wilson sang, “Tiiiiime, it’s on my side, yes it is! But yoooouuuuuu came runnin’ back to meeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”
The past Irma Wilson approached the turbolift door and hit the call button. Momentarily, Captain Andy Baxter would arrive and she would begin the process of undoing his and his pathetic crew’s future.
She kept humming that tune as she waited for the turbolift. It seemed to take longer than most turbolifts she knew, though she had to admit to herself she never spent that much time on Starfleet ships. Not the real ones, anyway.
Finally, the lift arrived with a BLEEP! and the doors opened.
And, with precision timing, there was Captain Baxter. Oh, and Counselor Peterman.
“Hi there!” Baxter waved. “Great to see you!”
And there was Irma Wilson.
Past Irma Wilson blinked. “Who the hell are you?”
Future Irma Wilson grabbed her past self in a meaty fist and dragged her into the turbolift. Peterman and Baxter, meanwhile, sidled out and inconspicuously took a side-corridor to find an unoccupied turbolift. They weren’t sure what Future Irma planned to do to past Irma, but whatever it was, it was sure to be unpleasant.
“Computer,” the newly-promoted Captain Baxter said. “Explain why the turbolift just changed direction?”
“The turbolift car was diverted to another track because of a maintenance problem.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well then, carry on.” Captain Baxter felt a tad self-conscious about that. He didn’t want the computer to begin hating him so early-on in the mission. The Secondprize computer grew to dislike him over their long and arduous relationship. He expected nothing less from the Aerostar’s.
“Is your destination still the bridge?” asked the computer.
“That it is,” said Baxter. “The bridge and beyond. This crew’s going to do big things.”
“Processor error. Please restate request.”
“Never mind.” Andy Baxter leaned back against the turbolift wall as the car resumed its ascent for the bridge. He felt pretty good about what he’d find when he arrived there. He changed his mind shortly after hearing monkey-screeching sounds.
It could only get better from there.
En route back to meet the senior staff in the gymnasium, something a tad strange happened to Baxter.
The world turned glowing white for a moment, and then he was back inside the Bermuda Expanse.
<Congratulations,> said the giant eyeball, once again floating in front of him. <All is as it once was.> This time, Peterman was right there floating beside him, unconscious.
“Really?” Baxter asked. “Irma set the timeline straight?”
<That is correct. We have allowed her to replace herself in the past, where she belongs.>
Baxter nodded. “Well, it’s about time.”
<Don’t get snippy with us. We’re here to help you. We always have been.>
“Okay. Then why has it seemed like you’ve done nothing but cause us trouble since we first ran into you?”
<If you think long and hard about it, you’ll see that things didn’t end up too badly in the end. If they did, then why did you struggle so hard to restore the timeline?>
“I don’t see your point.”
<Of course you don’t. You’re a blathering simpleton.>
<In the cosmic sense, Andy! The cosmic sense.>
“Oh. Okay, then. So my crew…they’re okay?”
<Right where you left them?>
“In the gym?”
<No,> the eyeball grunted. <On the Aerostar-A.>
“Can I join them?”
<After you fulfil one request. Not much to ask, right?>
The eyeball tilted toward Peterman. <Name your child after us.>
“Name it ‘Director’?”
<No, no no. Something with ‘eye’ in it will suffice. That is what you see us as, isn’t it?>
“How about we give you the middle name?”
The eyeball let out an exasperated breath. <Fine. Ike if it’s a boy, Irene if it’s a girl.>
“Don’t you know what it’ll be?” questioned Baxter.
<Sure,> said the eye. <But we won’t spoil the surprise. Happy parenting!>
“Yeah, thanks,” Baxter said distantly, and disappeared.
“Chris, I…” Janice said, staring across the large gulf between she and Richards on the Aerostar-A bridge. She glanced around. “I’m really confused!”
Conway stood between them, perplexed. “What just happened?”
“We’re back,” said Hartley. “We’re back where we all belong!” She turned to see Mirk, who had not exploded in a ball of light as before. “MIRK!”
“And I expected some big showdown with Irma,” Mirk said, somewhat disappointed.
“You would have kicked her wide polyester ass!” Hartley giggled.
Richards stepped down from the quarterdeck to join Browning at the command center. “What were you going to say?”
“What do you mean?”
“Yeah,” Conway said, plopping into his command chair. “We’d all LOVE to know.”
Browning took a deep breath. “I was going to say, ‘Chris, I’m sorry. I don’t love you anymore.’”
Richards nodded. “Oh.” He turned for the aft turbolift.
She whirled him around. “But I had some time to think about it!”
“What do you mean ‘think about it’?” Conway demanded.
“David,” Browning said softly, turning to Conway, “I really do have feelings for you, but in the end it wouldn’t work out. I took a hippocratic oath to love life in all its forms…but you’re a bit too much even for me. I would kill you if we lived together.”
Conway folded his arms. “Fine. Go back to Richards. See if I care. I’ve got a brand new ship.”
Browning turned to Richards and smiled. “Glad you understand, Dave.”
Richards took Browning into his arms and kissed her long and hard, to the point where everyone else on the bridge lost interest.
Baxter, meanwhile, had immediately dashed to the conference room without so much as a “how do you do” to the rest of the bridge crew. He nodded to Saral who edged past him to return to her station, oblivious, apparently to what had transpired.
And there was Peterman, consoling Larkin about the soap opera the Chris/Janice situation had turned into, no doubt. She looked up at Baxter, who grabbed her and kissed her all over her face with a passion he wasn’t sure he’d ever felt before.
“My,” Peterman grinned, stumbling back against the room’s lighted conference table. “What brought that on?”
“An alternate universe,” Baxter said handily.
“I’ll explain everything.”
Larkin glared from Peterman to Baxter. “If you intend to copulate in this room, you are mistaken. This is a new, clean ship. I intend to invoke quite a few stiff rules against defiling on-board property.”
“Best of luck to you, Larkin,” Baxter said, and took Peterman in his arms out of the conference room. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have some catching up to do. It’s been… moments since I’ve seen my wife.”
“I still have to discuss…” Larkin said, following Baxter and Peterman onto the bridge. Her voice trailed off when she found Browning and Richards still kissing. “Ah. I see the situation resolved itself. Quite predictable. They simply needed some time apart.”
“Or else an alternate universe,” said Tilleran, all smiles.
“Would somebody please explain just what the sharnak is going on?” demanded J’hana.
“We’re on a road to nowhere,” Baxter said simply, and led Peterman to the aft turbolift.
Browning and Richards, meanwhile, had finally disengaged and hurried into the foreward turbolift. Mirk and Hartley joined them.
Ford was still at ops, looking around with glazed confusion.
Saral leaned toward him. “Can you please explain all of these unbridled emotional displays?”
“Alternate universe,” replied Ford.
Tilleran glanced at J’hana, who looked about ready to smash someone’s skull in. “Relax, Jan, I’m going to fill you in …over a nice hot cup of v’haspant in the crew lounge? How does that sound?”
“As always, you know the key to my heart, damned Betazoid,” J’hana said, and added, “and to my stomach as well.”
The two of them headed to catch the next aft turbolift car.
Larkin sat down and looked primly at Conway. “I take it your report on this so-called ‘alternate universe’ will be filed to Starfleet within the hour?”
“It’ll take a bit longer to write than that,” Conway said. He looked around. Tilleran and J’hana had just boarded their own turbolift car. Now it was only he, Larkin, Saral, and Ford on the bridge. “Now wait just a minute! Where is everyone? This is supposed to be MY inaugural cruise!”
Larkin smiled. “If it makes you feel any better, Captain, I am having the time of my life.”
Conway thought about that. “Can’t say that it does.”
EARTH SALISBURY, MARYLAND DECEMBER 1999
David Conway could have sworn he heard something rustling behind the shelves in the toy department at the Salisbury Target store.
It was almost closing time. No one should be in the department.
He put down the row of new Queen Amidala action figures (the ones with ten outfits) and poked his head around the corner.
Andy Baxter stepped out from around the shelf. “It’s just me. I was trying to surprise you.”
“Oh. Don’t bother.”
Andy reached behind his back and came up with a gift, wrapped in black paper with shiny star pinpricks. “Merry Christmas, Dave.”
“Gee, thanks,” Dave said, and grabbed the gift.
“It’s a Darth Maul lightsaber.”
“I already have five.”
“Then this is the sixth.”
Andy scratched his head. “Dave…why did we stop liking Star Trek all of a sudden?”
“It got annoying.” Dave tore through the paper and pulled out the long box. He smiled. “I can sell this for forty bucks at the flea market!”
“Glad you appreciate the sentiment,” Andy said. “But I wonder WHY Star Trek got annoying?”
“It just gives me a really bad feeling every time I see it.””
“Like it dredges up bad memories?”
“Here we go again with the mind-wipe theory. Why don’t you get a life?”
“Who’s working at Target at eleven o’clock?”
“At least I’m getting paid!”
Then there was another rumble behind the shelves.
“Did you bring someone with you?” Dave asked, then called out “Richards?! Janice?”
“No, I didn’t.” Andy peeked around the shelf, and a large woman in plaid polyester stepped out.
“Hello, boys,” she said sweetly. “I know it’s almost closing, but I wanted to get one of the Star Trek phasers. Call it a…souvenir.”
“We’re all out,” Dave said. He stared at Irma, cocked his head questioningly. Her stare was serene and piercing.
Conway backed toward the store room. “ I…could…check in the back.”
“That’d be great,” she grinned, and Dave dashed for the storeroom.
Irma turned to look at Andy. “So. Been a while, huh?”
“Pardon?” asked Andy. “Do I know you?”
“No,” she said. “I suppose not. But all that can change.”
“I want us to be friends, Andy. I was a bad person once, but you could say, I guess, that I killed that bad person and replaced her, so that I might live her life instead. Of course, you might argue that since I am that bad person’s future, I shouldn’t even exist at all now that I killed her, but why quibble over details, right?”
“Um…” Andy wasn’t sure how to respond. He’d had five philosophy classes, but this was over his head.
“Well, at any rate, let’s be friends,” Irma said, grinning and vigorously shaking Andy’s hand.
“Okay. Friends,” Andy said, smiling uncertainly. “For some unexplainable reason, I have a good feeling about you.”
Stardate 54995.3. After an evening of wining and dining aboard the Aerostar-A, and extensive inter-crew discussion about exactly what went on in the little alternate universe Irma created, we of the Explorer finally returned to our own ship and bid Conway and his crew a fond farewell. I know he’s going to take that ship to all new heights of…oh screw it computer, I can’t possibly say that with a straight face.
Captain Baxter looked across his desk at the person on his desktop viewer. He grimaced. He’d woken Alexander Rydell up.
“Sorry about that, Captain Rydell,” he said.
“Just tell me what you want,” Rydell said groggily.
“Well, I just wanted to ask how the old Secondprize was holding up. I’ve been…thinking about her lately.”
“The ship is fine. Bye now–”
“Wait!” Baxter held out a hand and leaned forward. “Captain…I wanted to ask you about Commander Dillon. How’s he doing?”
“You want to know about…Dillon?” Rydell rubbed his eyes. “Dillon’s fine. How about you call Counselor Webber and she can fill you in on the whole crew–”
“That’s quite all right.” Baxter leaned back in his chair. “I was just curious, that’s all. Watch out for that guy. He’s got a…delicate mind.”
“Listen,” Rydell said tiredly, “If you don’t mind, we’re on a whole different clock here. It’s the middle of ship’s night–”
“I’ll let you go then, Captain,” Baxter said. “Just take care. And take care of that old ship. It got me through quite a tough spot once.”
“I’ll, uh, remember that, Baxter.”
“And, if a large woman ever comes aboard telling you she’s a Starfleet liaison…don’t believe her!”
“And, Captain, most of all…”
Rydell rubbed his face. “Baxter…”
“Trust talking eyeballs. They’ll never steer you wrong.”
Rydell rolled over. “I need to get out of this line of work. Computer, end transmission.”
At that moment, Plato came running in through the doors of Baxter’s readyroom.
“I could have sworn I locked that thing,” Baxter said, and chuckled as Plato hopped onto the chair opposite the captain’s desk. “But I am glad you didn’t shimmy in through the Jefferies’ tube, like you did last week.”
Plato grinned at Baxter and nodded. “Guess where Mommy is?”
Baxter shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “I have a… good idea.’
“With Uncle Chris!”
“Yep. Uncle Chris.” Baxter nodded. “What brings you here?”
“They’re in mommy’s quarters building me a big present.”
Baxter covered his mouth, which was spread in a grin. “Really. That’s what they told you?”
Plato nodded. “I can’t wait to see what it is.”
“Yeah. Me either.” Baxter stood and rounded his desk. He squatted next to Plato. “I’m glad you’re staying on the ship, kiddo. I care a lot about you.” “Really?” asked Plato. “Aren’t you going to have a baby too?” “Well,” Baxter said. “Not me…technically, but my wife, yes she is.” “All that trying finally paid off, huh?” Baxter cleared his throat. “Yes, Plato. It did.” He stood up and headed across his readyroom. “Plato, you’re a growing boy. You’re going to be an adult soon, and wanting to make big decisions about your life. I want you to know I’m here, for whatever reason you may need me. Even if we’re in the middle of diplomatic negotiations, or in a firefight as a result of those negotiations, I want you to know I’m here, okay?”
Plato nodded. “Even after Aunt Kelly has her changeling baby?”
Baxter had to figure out how to explain to Plato that all baby’s weren’t changeling. He shrugged. Time enough for that later. “Yes, Plato. Even after that. And, as a symbol of my…being there for you…I want you to have this.” He returned to Plato’s side with something behind his back. He held out a football for Plato. “This is a game ball from one of the Dallas superbowls in the nineteen-nineies. The auctioneer never told me which one. I want you to have it.”
Plato reached out and took the football. He had to give it a little tug to get it out of Baxter’s hand. “Wow!”
“It’s very delicate. And rare. Be careful with it, okay?”
“Will do, Uncle Andy! Thanks!”
Plato ran out of the readyroom, and Baxter heard a loud THONK! and heard Lt. Madera cry out in pain.
Baxter shrugged and returned to his desk. Maybe he should have just given Plato a nice sweater or something.
“We are still at Starbase One undergoing last-minute structural enhancements and field tests,” Commander Larkin said, looking down at Richards from the large viewscreen in his bedroom. Apparently she was in her new office. Richards noted the starkness of it, wondered if she planned on decorating. Some penguin stuff here or there probably wouldn’t hurt.
“When do you ship out?” asked Richards.
“Lieutenant Kamtezen informs me that we will be certified for active duty within the week.”
“Kamtezen’s a great engineer, Kristen. He’ll serve you well.”
“I expect nothing less, Father.”
“Now, Kristen, try to loosen up. You’re in charge of a whole crew now. You need their respect, sure, but you also need to let them know you’re a human being…I mean an android being…that has feelings just like they do. At least as of one month ago.”
“The crew will respect me in time, Father. I am frankly more worried about how the Explorer crew will handle reporting to you. Captain Conway was fairly strict. He did not earn respect, but he did earn obedience.”
“Then I’ll be a breath of fresh air.”
“Just make sure it is not toxic air.”
“Larkin! Did you just make a joke?”
“I do not believe so.”
“Well,” Richards said, “Janice’s in the other room fixing omellettes. I guess I’d better get out of here. Just tell me this…what got you so upset that you had to run off from the bridge like that, just before the alternate universe took over this timeline?”
Larkin was silent a moment. “My emotional program was experiencing a burnout of sorts. The situation of late with Doctor Browning had become intolerable. Your feelings for her were affecting your personal life and job performance. My concern level for you was nearing maximum tolerance. I have learned that storming angrily from a room is an acceptable way of handling such emotional burnout.”
“Did it work?”
“Counselor Peterman suggested several therapy options which I will discuss with Counselor Telvin when he arrives.”
Richards smiled weakly. “Great. Listen, Kristen, you take care of yourself, and call your old dad once in a while, okay?”
“Affirmative,” Larkin replied. “You do the same, father.”
“Will do. Love you. Richards out.”
“…I love you too,” Larkin said after a pause and disappeared from the screen.
Just then, Janice Browning walked in, weighed down with a tremendous tray of eggs, country ham, piles of toast and four different kinds of jelly.
“So, where’s Plato?” asked Richards, as Browning hopped onto the bed.
“Playing catch with Dean,” said Browning. “Apparently Andy gave him a football. I hope Holly’s good at handling concussions.”
Richards nodded. “You and me both.” He grabbed a piece of toast off Browning’s tray. “Nice spread.” “Just a little something to replenish those much-needed electrolytes!”
“Little?” he asked with a wry grin.
“You’ve known me long enough to know my definition of little, hon.”
“In that case,” Richards said, smiling, “I love you a little.”
“Mffmfm tnmfmfm,” Browning said, stuffing a piece of buttery toast in her mouth. Richards was pretty sure she said “me too.”
Lieutenant Commander Tilleran walked into the security office and put a padd down on J’hana’s desk. “Have a look at this.”
J’hana set aside her security reports and picked the padd up. “It is a letter to your promised husband, informing him that you are succumbing to his terms.” She frowned up at Tilleran. “I am not pleased.”
“Let me explain.” Tilleran sat on the edge of J’hana’s desk. “By agreeing to his terms, I’m married to him in name only. It doesn’t say anywhere that I have to live with him. I’m staying here on the Explorer. He gets all my possessions, but all I have is a storage unit on Betazed anyway. I won’t miss that.”
“What if he comes to claim you?”
“Those agreements say nothing about owning ME,” Tilleran explained. “Anyway, he’d never come here to get me. He gets really spacesick. He had to take a slow-warp transport just to come on Ficker’s talk show.”
“Then I am pleased,” J’hana said, steepling her fingers. “For both of us.”
Tilleran nodded. “I realized something in that alternate universe. Without me, you became a hardened, awful, bitter, vengeful woman with nothing but hate in her.”
“An ideal Andorian woman if ever I heard of one.”
“But it wasn’t you. It wasn’t the warm, tender person I know you to be. I figure I sort of…complete you, whether the relationship is physical or not.”
J’hana cocked her head. “Incidentally, I prefer physical.”
Tilleran smiled, and shoved off the desk, headed for the door to J’hana’s office. “Don’t push your luck.”
Mirk whistled as he polished the bar-rails in the Constellation Club, preparing for the day’s onslaught of customers. Things seemed to liven up there quite a bit once he replaced the Elton John hologram with one of Billy Joel.
He didn’t look up when he heard the doors to the Club open. “We don’t open for another hour, so–”
“I don’t give a damn when you open. I want a crescan ale, and pronto!”
It was Hartley. Mirk looked up and smiled. “Oh, getting drunk before you head off on the first day of your second run as Chief Engineer?”
“Wouldn’t want to scare my poor little staff into submission,” she said, leaning on the bar. “At least not on my first day.”
“They probably remember the way things were when you were chief engineer before, Megan. Traumatic incidents tend to stay with you.”
“Har har. Get me an orange juice and be done with it.”
Mirk dove behind the bar. “So it shall be!”
Hartley tapped the bar as Mirk replicated her juice and grinned when he resurfaced with it. She took a sip. “So…”
Mirk resumed polishing the bar. “So.”
“While you were in the Bermuda Expanse, with the Directors…”
“Did you get to talk to them about your…you know, future?”
“They don’t like to talk about such things,” Mirk said. “But I did ask.”
“What did they say?”
Mirk thought back. “‘Duck.’”
“The animal or the action?”
Mirk shrugged. “You’ve got me.”
“Nope. Just the bit about what we needed to do to put everything right again.”
“What else did you expect them to say?”
Hartley traced a circle on the bar with her finger. “I don’t know…I guess I was kind of wondering if they had any marraige plans for you.”
Mirk shook his head, ducked behind the bar to get some more polish. “Not that I know–Oh, I GET IT!” He hopped back up and in doing so smashed his head against the lip of the bar and tumbled backwards.
Hartley climbed over the bar and hopped down to crouch next to the Maloxian. “Mirk, are you all right?”
Mirk lay prone on his back behind the bar, a glazed look in his eyes. “Marry me,” he said dizzily.
“Damn right I’ll marry you,” Hartley said. “You know, you’re pretty fragile for an omnipotent little guy. Do you want me to call Sickbay?”
Captain Conway had finally got everything from his office on the Explorer unpacked and stowed in the proper compartments in his readyroom. He looked around with great satisfaction and smiled. The ship was ALL HIS!
Then, BLEEEP! went his doorchime.
“Come,” he said, and tiredly fell onto his couch.
Larkin stood in the doorway. “A transport has just arrived with the additional crew you requested, including Counselor Telvin, Doctor Benzra, and Doctor Lanham.”
“Great,” Conway said, and stood up. He paused, hunched over, and glanced around the office.
“What is the matter, Captain?” Larkin asked. “Have you paused to remember all the great bygone moments from your time on the Explorer? I personally did so in point eight nanoseconds…”
“No, no,” Conway said, and grimaced. “I just pulled something in my f***ing back!”
“Shall I call Sickbay?”
“It can wait,” Conway said. “Bigger, better things, Larkin! Where’s Alexa?”
“Evaluating the auxilliary sensor manifolds,” Larkin said, suppressing a smile, “forty decks down.”
“Oh. Good,” Conway said with a barely-contained groan. “Lead the way, Commander.” And he hobbled after Larkin out the door.
Captain Baxter was walking along the upper level of the Ship’s Shoppes mall when he noticed Browning coming toward him, loaded down with fresh veggies from their stop at Vargas Three, probably for her cafe. He met her at the door to Space Tastes and punched the door control for her.
“Where are you off to this morning?” asked Browning. “I thought this was your day off.”
Baxter inclinded his head across the mall, over the railing that overlooked the first floor. “Briggs’s. Kelly’s waiting for me. We’re picking out some baby clothes.”
“Never too soon, Janice,” Baxter said. The two stood there nodding. It was one of the few awkward pauses with Janice that Baxter could remember. “So…” he said. “Um…you and Chris?”
“Back together,” Browning said, nodding. “We’ll just see how long it lasts.”
Baxter rubbed his beard. “Marriage?”
“One thing at a time, Andy.”
“But you’re staying here.”
Baxter smiled. “I’m glad. I didn’t want to seem overbearing, Janice. But honestly…I, uh…”
“You didn’t want me to leave?” Browning cocked her head and smiled. She leaned forward and kissed Baxter on the cheek. “Not trying to keep me here was the sweetest thing you could have not done.”
Baxter rubbed his cheek and smiled back. “Well, that’s sort of what I figured.”
“Well, I have to get cooking. Big day of eating ahead.”
“Yeah. Well, maybe you and Chris could join Kelly and I in the Captain’s Mess tonight. A little ‘back together’ feast. I’ll do the cooking, for a change.”
“Sure thing.” Browning ducked into the restaurant and Baxter smiled to himself, then turned to walk over to Briggs’s.
Three hours later, Baxter and Peterman arrived at their quarters, laden with a hovercart full of baby items.
“Done!” Peterman sighed, and collapsed on Baxter’s couch.
Baxter walked over to the corridor that led back to his and Peterman’s room. “You know, Kelly. We’re going to have to build a new room. I’ll talk to Commander Hartley about it after lunch.”
“I’m sure she’ll be ecstatic.” Peterman rifled through the items on the hovercart. “Are you sure the Li’l Proton Baby Jetpack was absolutely necessary?”
“I want my kid to be traveling among the stars early,” Baxter said defensively, and sat down beside Peterman. He wrapped his arm around her. “Besides, it says it’s safe for zero-gravity use.”
“I suppose so.” Peterman dug through the pile of clothes they collected. “Yeoman Briggs sure does have great taste in clothing. It almost makes you think…”
“Nothing.” She leaned back, curled against Baxter’s shoulder. She rubbed her stomach. “Nine little months, Andy.”
“Eight and three quarters,” replied Baxter. “Not that I’m counting.”
“And just to think we came close to losing it all,” she said, looking to Baxter. “Say…that reminds me. How did you convince my alternate-universe duplicate that you were really from another reality?”
Baxter stared at his shoes shamefully. “I…um…nibbled her ear.”
“Oh. OH! I see.” Peterman folded her arms. “Well, I hope it was good.”
Baxter looked up at Peterman. “That’s all I did!”
“That was quite enough!”
Baxter kissed Peterman on the head. Tilted her head so he could look in her eyes. “Honey, I may have been kissing her, but I was thinking of you.”
“SHE WAS ME!”
“Then why are we arguing about this?”
“I don’t know.” Peterman harrumphed. “Well, at least I know you have good taste in women.”
“There is that.” Baxter sighed. “Just promise me one thing, Kelly. Never, ever, ever marry Julian Bashir.”
“And…let’s make the baby’s middle name Ike or Irene. Okay?”
Peterman crinkled her nose. “What’s that?”
Baxter waffled. “Ummm…shut up and kiss me!” And he leaned down, kissed her long and passionately. “Computer! Lights off!” Baxter said, and leaned Peterman back on the couch.
Then everything went dark.
NOTHING! Well, something…
“All’s Well that Ends” - the final Star Traks: The Vexed Generation book. In about one month.
“…here we go…here we go…”