Author: Alan Decker
For human males (actually, for most male humanoids), pregnancy is entirely academic. Sure there’s the initial shock of “I’m going to be a dad,” but after that, other than the symptoms exhibited by his significant other (morning sickness in humans, sneezing in Bajorans, berserker rages in Klingons, and excessive, uncontrollable sleeping in Andorians), there’s really nothing for the male to latch onto.
Then, in many humans, after a couple of months all signs of pregnancy vanish. The morning sickness has subsided, and, other than talk, there’s absolutely no sign that a baby is slowly developing inside of the woman in their life. If it was hard before for the male to grasp that he was going to be a father, it now becomes almost impossible.
I don’t see any baby.
And then one day he notices the bulge, the unmistakable, “there is something inside my wife’s abdomen” bulge.
That particular day, a Thursday, was the day it hit Captain Andy Baxter with a right cross followed by a rather well done uppercut.
People always say that a baby is on the way. Like Federation Express was just going to show up one day, have Baxter sign on the dotted line, then leave him with a shiny, new infant.
But that wasn’t the way it was at all. The baby wasn’t on the way. It was here. Inside his wife, Kelly Peterman, and growing all the time toward the day when it would enter the world and push him officially into dad-dom.
“What are you staring at?” Peterman asked, smiling serenely (she seemed to have picked up the smile just recently. Baxter wondered if it was just one of the extras with the whole motherhood package).
Baxter then realized that he had been staring, staring at his wife’s belly specifically as she lay in their bed. He shook himself out of it and went back to putting on his uniform jacket.
“Just thinking about the baby,” Baxter replied.
Peterman’s smile broadened, then suddenly she winced.
“Is it kicking again?” Baxter asked.
“Her!” Peterman snapped. “Your daughter is not an it!”
“Sorry,” Baxter said weakly. In Baxter’s defense, the pronoun slip wasn’t truly his fault. He’d been hearing about “the baby” for so long that he’d come to think of it…excuse me, her, in neuter terms.
Peterman pulled up her nightshirt, revealing her expanded belly. “Come feel.”
Baxter put his hand down on the surprisingly solid surface and waited.
“Did you feel that?” Peterman asked anxiously.
“What about that?”
“Come on. You had to feel that one,” Peterman prodded.
“No,” Baxter replied glumly as he pulled his hand away.
“Don’t be that way, honey,” Peterman said, moving to get out of bed. Instinctively, Baxter helped her to her feet so she could do empty her ever-shrinking bladder. Early in the pregnancy, Peterman and Janice Browning had explained to him how the baby would eventually push most of Peterman’s organs up into her rib cage and press down on her bladder to the point that it would barely hold a shot glass full of liquid. Frankly, it made Baxter nauseous just thinking about it.
“Janice said it will take some time until you can feel it. She’s inside me, not you,” Peterman continued.
“I know,” Baxter said, forcing a smile. Although, as much as he wanted to feel the kicking, he had absolutely no desire to trade places with Peterman. Thanks to Q, he’d already been through an abbreviated pregnancy, and that was more than he ever cared to experience. “I’d better get going.”
“Okay. Will you be free for lunch?”
“Absolutely. I’ll see you at Janice’s.” Baxter kissed his wife and headed out of the bedroom as she rushed into the bathroom to finally deal with the insistent pressure coming from her bladder.
Stardate 55257.4. Another day, another planet to go try to make friends with. The Dominion sure had a knack for angering the worlds of this quadrant…not that the worlds of the Alpha Quadrant are all that thrilled with them either. Anyway, the Explorer has been sent to the planet Enylrea to say hi in an attempt to get the Enylreans to established diplomatic and trade ties to the reformed Dominion.
“We don’t even get a picture?” Commander Chris Richards asked as Weyoun stood in front of…or rather below, the blank monitor in the Explorer’s conference room where the command crew had gathered for the mission briefing.
The decidedly short Dominion representative shifted his gaze to the Explorer’s first officer, his calm demeanor unwavering. “As I stated before, the Enylreans were doggedly defiant against the Dominion. All of our efforts to bring them into the fold were rebuffed. None of our ships were even able to reach Enylrea itself.”
“But this time we come under the flag of friendship, harmony, and other good stuff,” Baxter said. “The Enylreans are probably going to be skeptical at first, so we need to be all charm and diplomacy.”
“Then I suggest we lock J’hana and Hartley in the brig for the next few days,” Lieutenant Commander Nell Vansen said. She flashed a snide smirk at Lieutenant Commanders J’hana and Hartley. “For the good of the mission. You understand.”
“I’m perfectly happy to go to the brig,” Lieutenant Commander Megan Hartley replied. “But only after I’ve fed you to the waste reclamation system.”
“An excellent compromise,” J’hana said to Vansen. “We go to the brig, and you get a free trip back to where you came from.”
Baxter piped up. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we all pretend to tolerate each other long enough for the Enylreans to make nice with the Dominion? How’s that sound?”
“Dull,” J’hana said.
“Yeah. I’m for killing Vansen myself,” Hartley added. “Anyone else?”
Richards, Lieutenant Commander Ariel Tilleran, and J’hana all raised their hands as Vansen scowled.
“Fortunately for you, Commander, this isn’t a democracy,” Baxter said to Vansen. “All right, Weyoun, what else do you know about these Enylreans?”
“Regrettably, you now know as much as the Dominion. As I said, they rebuffed all of our attempts to meet with them. Not even a Founder was able to reach Enylrea, and none of our ships returned.”
“Woah! Wait a second,” Richards exclaimed, nearly falling out of his chair. “You said none of your ships made it to the planet itself.”
“Correct. That is because they were destroyed upon entering the Enylrea system.”
Richards turned to Baxter quickly. “Captain, I suggest we respectfully decline this mission.”
“You would,” Vansen muttered.
“You have a different opinion, Commander?” Baxter said.
“Obviously, we are not the Dominion,” Vansen said. “There’s no reason why the Enylreans should blow us up on sight.”
“Maybe they blow up everybody on sight,” Richards said, glaring across the table at Vansen.
“Any thoughts, Weyoun?” Baxter asked.
“My the Founders are glorious.”
“And thank you for that contribution,” Baxter said. “But seeing as how I’m the captain, I get the final say on this. We were sent to this quadrant to make new friends. The Enylreans could possibly qualify under that category, so we’re going. J’hana…”
“We will obliterate any obstacles in our path,” the Andorian tactical officer replied.
“Just keeping the shields up will be fine,” Baxter said as he glanced over at the chronometer under the wall monitor. “If there’s nothing else?”
“I would like to discuss efficiency issues in certain departments,” Vansen said. She locked an icy stare on Hartley. “In private.”
“As exciting as that sounds, it’ll have to wait for another time,” Baxter said, rising from his seat. “Dismissed.”
“But Captain…” Vansen said insistently. But it was too late. The room cleared in a matter of seconds with Baxter at the head of the stampede out the door.
Peterman smiled and waved at Baxter the second he stepped into Space Tastes. He quickly weaved his way through the lunch crowd to the table his wife had staked out for them.
“And how are my two favorite people in the universe?” Baxter asked after giving Peterman a quick peck on the lips.
“Starving,” Peterman replied. “Sorry, but I already ordered for me. I couldn’t wait.”
“That’s no problem,” Baxter said. “You’ve got two stomachs to fill.”
Janice Browning emerged from the kitchen a few moments later carrying a large tray, which she set down by the Baxter/Peterman table. “Here you go, Kelly. One large pepperoni and olive pizza and a size of cheese fries.”
“I thought you hated olives,” Baxter said surprised.
“They sounded good today,” Peterman replied, already scooping up a slice and starting to chew.
“What’ll it be, Andy?” Browning asked.
“Do you have any of that iacklesat left?”
“Sure do. One meatloaf ala Bajor coming up. You want coffee with that?”
“Please,” Baxter said. With David Conway, the Explorer’s resident caffeine fiend gone to command his own ship, Baxter finally felt the freedom to try the occasional cup of coffee, knowing that Conway wouldn’t be around to criticize his every selection. But rather than give up his traditional morning glass of grapefruit juice, Baxter had made lunch time his official coffee break.
Browning rushed back to the kitchen, leaving Baxter to watch his wife inhale a fistful of fries.
“Oh god these are good,” Peterman moaned. “You want some?”
“No thanks. If I don’t watch it, I’m going to gain more weight in this pregnancy than you are.”
Peterman stopped in mid-chew and glared at Baxter. “Are you saying I’m getting fat?” she said pointedly.
“You’re building a baby. Of course, you’re going to get bigger.”
“Do you think I’m pregnant or fat and pregnant?”
“Pregnant. Just pregnant,” Baxter said quickly.
Somewhat satisfied, Peterman returned to her fries, alternating between them and bites of pizza. “How’s the mission?” she asked between bites.
“Nothing exciting. We’ll be there in a couple of days, then they’ll either talk to us or try to blow us up. The usual. I think I may head to the holodeck with Chris tonight, though.”
“I don’t know. Maybe some football. Maybe that new rafting program he designed.”
“So you’re just going to head off and leave me with the baby then?”
“I’m just doing something with Chris. I’ll be two decks away. And it’s not like there’s much I can do to help you with the baby now anyway,” Baxter replied.
“Uh huh. I see. Is this what it’s going to be like a year from now when we have an infant on our hands?”
Baxter sighed. “You know I’ll be there.”
“Being there is one thing. Are you going to help at 0300 when the baby needs to be fed?”
“Aren’t you breast-feeding?”
From the sudden widening of Peterman’s eyes, Baxter got the distinct impression that he’d said something very very wrong. Something on the level of telling a Klingon, “You have the honor of a Romulan” or telling an Andorian, “Your antenna are crooked.”
“Breast-feeding!” Peterman shouted suddenly, drawing the rapt attention of everyone else in Space Tastes. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well…um…I can’t produce milk and you can and I thought that you were going to handle the feeding and stuff.”
“AND STUFF! What kind of stuff, Andy? Diaper changes? Baths? Potty training? Am I doing it all while your out gallivanting with Chris Richards?”
“Chris and I don’t gallivant,” Baxter said. “Now calm down.”
“Why the hell should I calm down? I’m having a baby with a man who wants nothing to do with the responsibilities of fatherhood!”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You might as well have,” Peterman snapped, shoving a bit more pizza in her mouth. In a split second, her expression shifted to complete revulsion as she spat the bite of pizza back onto her plate. “Get it away! Get it away!”
“But you wanted the olives,” Baxter said confused.
“I don’t now! GET IT AWAY!”
Browning appeared out of nowhere, snatching the pizza off of the table and tossing it like a frisbee through the open door toward the kitchen. Breathing heavily, Peterman slowly returned to normal. “Thanks…Janice.”
“No problem. I’ve been there. There was this time with a plate of scrambled eggs when…”
Peterman started turning green again.
“I need to lie down,” Peterman said, easing herself up out of her chair. Baxter leapt up and helped her finish getting to her feet. She accepted the assistance, then turned on him. “We’re not finished with this, Baxter.” She charged out of the restaurant…well, charged as much as she could…and headed off toward the nearest turbolift.
“What did I do?” Baxter asked.
“You didn’t get pregnant,” Browning replied as one of her waiters set Baxter’s meal down in front of him. “Kelly’s entire life has changed.”
“Mine has too!” Baxter said defensively.
“No offense, Andy, but no it hasn’t. And it won’t until that little girl is in your arms. Until then, you’re just a spectator.”
“That’s not my fault!”
“True, but what you need to do now is reassure Kelly that you’re ready and willing to be a father. You need to prove to her that you’re up to the challenge.”
Baxter chuckled. “I’m basically the father of everyone on this ship. I think I can handle one baby.”
Browning smiled knowingly. “Sure you can, Andy. Sure.” She headed back to the kitchen, laughing as she went in a way that made Baxter extremely nervous, even more nervous than the fact that Peterman had called him “Baxter” just before she stormed out of Space Tastes. That was never a good sign.
Well, it definitely wasn’t anything like white water rafting, Baxter had to admit as he and Richards stood before the gathered crowd.
“So what did you think?” Richards asked from beside him.
“You really didn’t seem to have your heart in it.”
“I’ve got other things on my mind.”
“Work-work or home-work?”
“Home-work. I think I upset Kelly at lunch.”
“You did. Janice told me all about it,” Richards replied.
“I think I had more privacy when you two were split up,” Baxter sighed. The crowd was starting to look a bit bored as they waited for the show to start.
“Not really. You told me everything anyway.”
“I guess that’s true. It’s just…I don’t really know what I did wrong.”
“Janice already explained that to you.”
“So she’s right?”
Richards shrugged. “Got me. I’m not a pregnant woman.”
“Thanks for the help.”
“Look. Just go home and be your usual adoring self. Kelly needs that more than anything right now. Show her she’s not alone in this.”
“That’s the best advice I’ve gotten all day. Anything else?”
“Yeah. Stop agreeing with Vansen.”
“What?” Baxter said surprised.
“You took her side in the briefing today.”
“I didn’t take any side,” Baxter said defensively. “I was just doing what’s best for the mission. And Vansen happened to be the one who also was concerned about it. That’s all.”
Richards muttered non-committally.
Baxter looked out at the crowd. “Shouldn’t something be happening by now?”
“Yeah. I just delayed the finale’ a little bit so we could talk. Computer, resume. Several soldiers stepped up behind Richards and Baxter as a hooded man checked to make sure the nooses were nice and snug around Baxter and Richards’s necks.
“Highwaymen, huh?” Baxter said.
“It sounded like fun.”
“Maybe it would have been more so if we hadn’t been caught.”
“Well, we shouldn’t have tried to break into the castle so early in the game.”
“True,” Baxter agreed.
“Oh well. We’ll know better next time.”
And then the trap doors opened beneath them.
Having survived a hanging already, Captain Baxter changed back into his uniform and returned to his quarters to face the firing squad commanded by his wife.
“Honey?” he said hesitantly as he entered their darkened living room. “Sweetie? Love of my life?”
“I’m in the tub,” Peterman’s voice called from the bathroom. At other times in their relationship, the words “I’m in the tub” would have been the cue that a romantic evening was in store, but in this case, Baxter didn’t hear a single trace of seduction in his wife’s words.
He moved quickly through the bedroom into the bathroom where Peterman lay floating in the bathtub.
“Hi,” she said simply.
“Are you all right?”
“Better now. Floating takes the pressure off of my back.”
“You could turn off the gravity in our quarters.”
“Too hard to get around. I’d rather do this.”
“Oookay,” Baxter said. “Anything I can do for you?”
“Go replicate us some dinner. I’ll be out in a bit.”
“Sure,” Baxter said as he turned and headed out of the bathroom. There was something larger at work here than a simple argument. If that’s all this was, Peterman would have had it out with him right there in the bathroom.
But she wanted to talk over dinner. No good could come of this.
As promised, Peterman emerged from the bedroom a short time later dressed in loose fitting pants and a top. She silently sat down at the table across from Baxter and took a couple of bites of the sirloin tips he’d replicated. With a bit of food in her, she looked up at her husband.
“Did you have fun with Chris?”
“We got hanged. It was kind of depressing really.”
“So how are you?”
“Honey, you know, whatever is happening, I’m here for you and always will be.”
“Andy, I think you need help.”
The statement came so entirely out of the blue that Baxter almost gagged on a large chunk of beef.
“Before you think I’m sending you to, god forbid, a counselor, I mean you need help with your parenting skills,” Peterman continued.
“I’m a good parent. Ask Plato.”
“Did you ever change one of Plato’s diapers?”
Baxter cringed. “NO! I don’t even want to know exactly how a half-changeling…um…potties.”
“What about feedings? Did you feed him?”
“I’ve taken him to lunch a couple of times.”
“My point exactly.”
“All right!” Baxter said exasperated. “I’ve never really dealt with a baby, but neither have you. What makes you so confident that you’re going to know what to do?”
“Mothers know. You, however, need lessons,” Peterman replied.
“So you’re going to train me?”
“Not me specifically, but I made the arrangements. Your quarters are now in Holodeck Five. I scheduled you for the whole week. You can leave for your duty shift, but otherwise you are to be in the holodeck.”
“Kelly, this is ridiculous! I don’t need a holodeck simulation to show me how to be a dad.”
“Have you read any of the fatherhood books I got for you?”
“Watched the birthing vids?”
“See you in a week.” Peterman turned on her heel and marched back into the bedroom.
“And that would be checkmate,” Baxter muttered glumly.
As the doors closed behind him, sealing him into Holodeck Five, Baxter found himself back in his quarters, or a very accurate simulation thereof anyway. Somehow he had the feeling that Peterman wouldn’t be kind enough to put a hologram of herself in here to keep him company.
A moment later, Baxter discovered that he wouldn’t be alone. Unfortunately, the hologram that materialized in front of him was not Peterman. Instead, a tall, lanky human male with black hair and kind eyes looked back at him.
“Welcome to Baby Boot Camp. You must be Andy,” the hologram said.
“So how much has Kelly told you, Andy?”
“Only that I have to stay here for a week,” Baxter replied, not sure that he was thrilled that this hologram was so comfortable calling Baxter and Peterman by their first names.
“Wonderful. I hate for people to have any preconceived notions. But first, allow me to introduce myself. I am the Syntho-Dad 5000, but you can call me Ward.”
“That’s me. Now then, Kelly has requested that you be dumped right in rather than going through our usual introductory courses. I can see her point. That real baby isn’t going to give you time for an intro course, now is she?” Ward punched Baxter lightly on the arm and chuckled.
“What do I have to do?” Baxter asked, not feeling nearly as jovial as Ward.
“Just take care of the baby. Should you perform a CFF, I’ll return to reset the simulation.”
“Critical Fathering Failure. Basically anything that would result in the death of the infant. Don’t worry, though. I can’t see a responsible Starfleet Officer such as yourself having a CFF. Are you ready?”
“I guess so,” Baxter replied.
“That’s the spirit! Your simulation will start three seconds after I leave. Good luck, and most of all, have fun with your new baby as you enjoy the magic of fatherhood. Bye now.”
Ward waved and vanished.
“We’re approaching the Enylrea System,” Lieutenant Susan Madera reported from the helm as the Explorer dropped out of warp two days later.
Madera spun around and saw that Captain Baxter was otherwise occupied at the moment. He’d curled up as much as he could in the command chair and drifted off into an awkward sleep.
“Captain?” Madera said again tiptoeing closer to her sleeping superior officer.
“Allow me,” J’hana said, stepping over from tactical.
“Could I do it? Just this once?” Madera asked sweetly.
“Very well,” the Andorian said, obviously disappointed.
“WAKE UP!” Madera screamed suddenly, kicking the armrest of the command chair and sending it into a spin. Baxter jolted awake and lost his grip all at the same time and tumbled to the deck at Madera’s feet. “We’re approaching the Enylrea system,” Madera reported brightly.
“Find an orbit and get back to me,” Baxter muttered.
“Would you like to hail the planet before we swoop in uninvited?” J’hana asked.
Baxter groaned. “If we have to…” He straightened his uniform and tried to look a bit more with it.
“Rough night?” Tilleran asked from the science console.
“Nights,” Baxter said. “I just keep telling myself it’s only a baby.”
J’hana snorted. “An Andorian infant would have disemboweled you by now. Be grateful you are only being denied sleep.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Baxter to Richards, Weyoun, and Vansen. We’re here.”
“On my way, Captain,” Vansen replied smartly.
“I shall join you momentarily,” Weyoun replied with his usual soft tones.
“Yeah yeah. Be there in a second,” Richards replied finally.
“Any reply yet?” Baxter asked J’hana.
“We’re being scanned,” Tilleran interrupted. “Low level. Nothing dangerous.”
“Don’t do anything, J’hana,” Baxter said before the Andorian tactical officer could finish raising a jamming field.
“My apologies. It’s a reflex.” J’hana checked her console. “We’re receiving a reply. Text only. Welcome to Enylrea. In order to expedite your approach to our world, please proceed along the following flight plan.”
“All right then,” Baxter said. “Let’s go make some friends!”
The turbolift doors opened, allowing Weyoun, Richards, and Vansen to step out onto the bridge.
“Glad you could make it,” Baxter said.
“Have there been any signs of resistance?” Weyoun asked.
“We aren’t here to invade, Weyoun,” Vansen said.
“A poor choice of words.”
“Old habits die hard, I guess,” Baxter said, stifling a yawn. “In any case, the Enylreans have been quite hospitable so far.”
“You spoke with them?” Weyoun said surprised.
“Well…not directly. But they gave us a flight plan to the planet.”
“Um…what if this is a trap?” Richards said. “This could be exactly what they want us to do.”
“That is a possibility,” Weyoun added.
“Why would they want to trap us?” Baxter said. “We already told them who we are and that we’re here on a mission of peace.” Baxter turned back to J’hana. “You did tell them that, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” J’hana replied insulted.
“It’s not going to do anything for our image in this quadrant if we ignore the wishes of planetary leaders,” Vansen said. “We show a bit of trust, they show a bit of trust.”
The Explorer jolted suddenly, knocking everyone to the deck.
“What was that?” Baxter asked as the bridge officers scrambled back to their stations. He really just didn’t have the energy to get up at the moment.
“We’ve stopped!” Madera reported.
Tilleran looked over her readouts. “We’re in some kind of force field.”
“Told you,” Richards said.
“Source?” Vansen demanded ignoring Richards.
“The planet’s third moon. We’re now being held about 40,000 kilometers away from it.”
“We’re being hailed,” J’hana said.
“On screen,” Baxter said, pulling himself to his feet.
“Audio only. It appears to be an automated system.”
“Put it on.”
“Welcome to Enylrea,” a male computer voice said chipperly. “Your vessel will not actually be allowed to orbit our world; however, a greeting party from the surface will be here as soon as they’ve finished with other visitors. Current waiting time is three days. Thank you.”
“Three days?” Richards groaned.
“At least they do not seem intent on destroying us,” Weyoun said.
“Shall I attempt to blast our way out?” J’hana asked.
“No,” Baxter said, shaking his head. “We can play it their way.”
“Until they get bored and decide to blow us up,” Richards said, sliding into the command chair.
“What are you doing?” Baxter asked.
“Your shift is over,” Richards said. “Have a nice evening.”
“Goody,” Baxter said flatly. He seemed far less than thrilled.
As the holodeck doors closed behind him later that day, Baxter raced into the nursery to try to catch the little holobaby, whom Baxter had dubbed Demonia, before the inevitable occurred.
Demonia trailed off as Baxter scooped her small body up in his arms and began rocking frantically.
“It’s okay, baby,” he cooed. “Andy’s here now. Everything is…WOAH!”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! It was just the smell.”
Baxter rocked Demonia faster as he moved her over to the changing table and then set her down.
“Just relax. I need to change your diaper. Be good for Andy now.”
He hesitantly undid the self-sealing tabs (not to be confused with self-sealing stembolts) and peered inside.
“Uggh,” he gasped, staggering back. Programs like this really made Baxter wonder if all of this holographic technology was such a good thing.
Despite the odor and Demonia’s incessant wiggling, Baxter persevered and changed the little girl’s diaper. After three days of practice he was starting to feel a bit more comfortable with the whole operation.
“There we go,” Baxter said, after disposing of the dirty diaper in the diaper disintegrator. “One nice clean…” He trailed off as a new odor assaulted his nasal passages.
“You didn’t.” He leaned down and peered into the new diaper where a fresh pile of poo had been deposited.
And Demonia giggled.
Stardate 55259.2. Still in force field. No threat to ship. Four days have passed but no sign of…those planet people. Nothing to do but wait. Have to remain strong. Can’t let Demonia…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.
Baxter vaguely heard the door chime of his ready room sound as his head lay on his desk. A moment later, he had the equally vague sense of someone being in the room with him.
“Captain, we’ve waited long enough,” Vansen said firmly.
Baxter forced his head up, bleary eyes fighting to focus on Vansen. “Huh?”
“The Enylreans are well past their deadline. We haven’t been able to reestablish contact with them. I have to assume that either they aren’t coming or that this is some kind of test.”
“They could be testing our intelligence and resourcefulness to see if we are worthy to make face-to-face contact with them. If that’s the case, just sitting here is not helping our case any.”
Baxter nodded groggily. “What does Richards think?”
“I have no idea. We haven’t spoken about it.”
The room was silent for several seconds until Vansen cut in again.
“What are your orders?” Vansen said annoyed.
“Oh yeah. Talk to Richards. You two can deal with the Erniekins.”
“Enylreans,” Vansen corrected as she headed out of the ready room.
“Yeah. Them,” Baxter mumbled as his head made a beeline back to the comforting surface of his desk.
“What is the status of the force field?” Vansen asked as she stepped back out onto the bridge.
“Unchanged,” Lieutenant Commander J’hana reported from tactical.
“Can we blast our way free?”
“No. The field is far too powerful.”
“They must be expending a tremendous amount of energy to keep that thing up constantly,” Vansen said. “It’s going to have to drop at some point.”
“It will,” Tilleran said. “In approximately 126,000 years.”
“Explain,” Vansen demanded.
“The Enylreans seem to have tapped the moon’s core to power their field generators. They will not be exhausting that particular resource for quite a while.”
“Then we’re going to have to find another way to deal with the situation,” Vansen replied. “Computer, where is Commander Richards?”
“Commander Richards is in Space Tastes.”
“With his girlfriend no doubt,” Vansen said disapprovingly. “Vansen to Richards, meet me in Transporter Room Two. Vansen to Hartley. Report to Transporter Room Two. Tilleran, J’hana, you’re with me.”
Tilleran and J’hana exchanged a confused glance, then followed Vansen into the turbolift.
They arrived in Transporter Room Two five minutes later where Lieutenant Commander Hartley was already waiting, obviously annoyed at being ordered out of Engineering.
“Ya’ll need to go somewhere?” Transporter Chief Lindsay Morgan asked.
“We will give you the coordinates when we’re ready,” Vansen snapped as the transporter room doors opened allowing Richards and Janice Browning to enter.
“What’s she doing here?” Vansen demanded.
“I had some free time, so I decided to tag along.”
“This is Starfleet business, so why don’t you run along instead?”
“Well I’m the first officer, and I say she can stay,” Richards said. “Now why the hell did you drag me here?”
“We’re getting out of this force field. I’m leading a team over to the moon. J’hana and I will handle any Enylreans while Hartley and Tilleran work to shut down the force field. Tilleran, work with the Chief to find a way to beam over there.”
“Hold on a second,” Browning said, stepping in front of Richards. “What does Captain Baxter say about all this?”
“He said for us to deal with the situation.”
“Richards to Baxter,” Richards said irritated.
“What?” Baxter said groggily.
“I’m here in the transporter room with Commander Vansen and…”
“Just deal with the Enalreenies,” Baxter snapped. “Baxter out.”
“See,” Vansen said. “We’re going. I wanted to let you know so you could get up to the bridge and monitor our progress. I could have just commed you and told you to get up there, but I was trying to give you the professional courtesy of being involved.”
Richards didn’t get a chance to reply before Tilleran spoke up.
“There’s a small installation on the moon that appears to be the source of the beam.”
“I can get ya’ll inside, but it’s going to be a bit sticky,” Morgan added.
“Do it,” Vansen said, checking the power level on her phaser as she stepped up onto the transporter pad followed by Hartley, J’hana, and Tilleran.
“You’ve been surprisingly quiet,” J’hana whispered to Hartley.
“She actually has a reason for me to be going on this trip. If all I’m going to do is bitch at her, I’ll wait until I have something to be pissed off about.”
“Sensible of you.”
“I’m all set, Commander,” Morgan said.
Vansen looked at Richards. “You just sit tight, Commander. We’ll have this taken care of momentarily. Energize.”
Morgan activated the transporter, sending the away team to the moon in a flurry of molecules as Richards stood silently watching them go.
“Something wrong?” Browning asked.
“I’m not sure if I’m mad or not. On the one hand, if there’s an away team, I think I’m supposed to be leading it. But on the other hand, I really don’t want to beam over there.”
“Well you just head up to the bridge and be first officery. I’ve got to get back to the restaurant.” Browning gave Richards a quick kiss and walked out of the transporter room.
“Keep a lock on them, Chief,” Richards said to Morgan, then left for the bridge.
The away team materialized in the middle of an empty corridor. Overhead, bright lights blazed, causing the entire place to look very sterile.
“Charming,” Hartley muttered.
“Life signs?” Vansen asked, all business.
“I do not sense anyone other than ourselves.”
“Give me something a bit more scientific than your opinion,” Vansen said to the Betazoid.
“You doubt my telepathy?”
“Just scan the damn place,” Vansen snapped.
Tilleran pulled out her tricorder in a huff. “I do not detect any lifesigns, but I’m getting interference from a nearby energy source.”
“Probably the force field generator,” Hartley said.
“I would agree,” J’hana said. “Which direction?”
“That way,” Tilleran said, pointing off down the hallway. J’hana, phaser at the ready, stalked off down the corridor, followed by Vansen and Tilleran as Hartley, engineering kit in hand, brought up the rear.
After a short walk, they approached a large set of double doors that Tilleran had determined was the source of the energy field. Vansen had just moved to activate the door control when the voice of the Enylreans’ computer system interrupted her.
“We appreciate your enthusiasm to start your visit to Enylrea as soon as possible; however, your ship has not received final clearance. Please return to your vessel. Thank you for your patience. Current wait time is 3 days.”
“Three days! You said that four days ago!” Vansen said.
“All of our clearance specialists are busy with other visitors, but someone will be with you as soon as possible. Current waiting time is 3 weeks.”
“THREE WEEKS!” the away team shouted.
“Thank you for waiting. Your visit is important to us. Please continue to hold until the next representative becomes available. Current waiting time is 3 years.”
Hartley’s eyes bugged out of her head. “THREE…”
“Stop right there,” Vansen said, clapping her hand over Hartley’s mouth. “Or they may change it to decades.”
“Or worse,” Tilleran added.
“Then let’s get the hell out of here,” Hartley said, practically pushing Vansen aside so she could activate the door controls.
“We’re sorry,” the computer said. “You are not authorized to enter this room. Have a nice day.”
“Shall I provide the proper authorization?” J’hana asked, upping the power level on her phaser. But Hartley already had the control panel off and was busy rooting around in the system’s inner workings.
“If I can’t get it, then you can blow it up,” she said.
“I don’t recall you being in command of this away team,” Vansen said.
The doors slid open. “Bite me,” Hartley said with a satisfied smile as she strolled past Vansen into the next room followed closely by Tilleran, whose gaze did not leave her tricorder.
“This is definitely it,” she said. “Try to find a console.”
“We’re sorry,” the computer said again. “But this room is restricted. Since you have repeatedly ignored our requests to gain proper authorization, we have no choice but to respond accordingly. As such, you will be treated in a way appropriate to your biological requirements. Rest assured that you will not go into White withdrawal.
“White?” Hartley said. “Who do they think we are? Jem’Hadar?”
Another, more ominous computer voice suddenly blared out of unseen speakers. “Attention Jem’Hadar invaders…”
“Guess so,” Hartley muttered.
The voice continued. “…Stay where you are. Any attempt to cause further damage to this facility will be futile.”
“But we aren’t damaging anything!” Vansen shouted.
“Would you like me to?” J’hana asked.
“No! Find that control console and hurry before…”
The entire floor suddenly vanished, sending the entire away team plummeting into the blackness below.
Commander Richards barely looked up from the padd he was doodling on as Captain Baxter stumbled out of his ready room and headed toward the turbolift.
“Time to change the baby,” he mumbled. “Quiet baby. Quiet quiet baby. Must quiet baby be. Appease the baby. Happy baby mean sleepy baby. Sleepy baby mean sleepy Andy.”
The turbolift doors closed, shutting off Baxter’s incoherent babble.
A half second later it occurred to Richards that Baxter was leaving. His shift couldn’t be over yet. It was only… Richards checked the chronometer on the arm rest of the command chair.
1900 hours! The away team had been gone for over five hours.
“Sefelt, have we heard from the away team?” Richards asked Lieutenant Howard Sefelt at ops.
“AHHHHH!” Sefelt cried, startled out of his dazed stare. “Don’t scare me like that! It’s horrible on my nerves. OH! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I would never…”
“The away team, Howard.”
“I’ll check…um…no. Not a word. Oh no. We haven’t heard a THING. They could be DEAD!”
“Open a channel.”
“I can’t get through!” Sefelt wailed.
“Keep trying. Bridge to Transporter Room Two,” Richards said.
“Morgan here. What can I help you with?” the Transporter Chief replied.
“Do you still have a lock on the away team?”
“Beam them back.”
“All righty.” Richards heard the hum of the transporter in the background, which then rather abruptly stopped. “Um…sir, I can’t.”
“Why not?” Richards said as a pit grew in his stomach.
“I don’t really know. The transporter says it’s locked on, but it comes back with absolutely nothing.”
“I’ll be right there,” Richards said, already on his way to the turbolift. “Maybe it’s a problem with the targeting scanners on the transporter. We could augment them with…”
“Um…sir?” Lt. Madera interrupted, stopping Richards before he could leave the bridge.
“What is it?”
“If you leave, who’s in command?”
Richards looked around the bridge at who was left. Madera and Sefelt were still inexperienced as were J’hana and Tilleran’s backups, Lieutenant Adam Keefler and Ensign Koltz respectively. There was literally no one qualified to be in command. Of course, as First Officer, Richards was supposed to be in command.
“Morgan, you’re going to have to handle this one on your own. Bridge out.” Richards headed back to the command chair but couldn’t sit down. At this moment, being in command had him feeling rather useless.
He paced the command area, lost in thought as the other officers on the bridge watched him expectantly. They wanted guidance. They wanted orders. They wanted him to know what the hell they were supposed to do. This was so much easier in Engineering. When something broke, you fixed it. End of story.
But now he had four officers missing and no way to get in touch with them. His one option seemed to be sending another team after them, but what if they vanished to? Could he really send more people into such an unknown and potentially deadly situation?
He needed Captain Baxter up here.
“Bridge to Baxter.”
“Captain Baxter is unable to be disturbed,” Counselor Peterman’s recorded voice said.
“Oh come on!” Richards exclaimed. “Richards to Peterman.”
“Peterman here,” the counselor’s voice said. She sounded tired and annoyed.
“I need Andy up here now. Let him out of the holodeck!”
“Are we about to be destroyed?”
“Then you can handle it. Andy has a prior family obligation, and family comes first.” The comm channel closed with a firm click.
So much for that idea. Richards was on his own.
“All right, people,” he said finally. “What do we know?”
“We’re trapped by a big, super-powerful force field,” Koltz, a Tellarite said, his large nostrils flaring. “The field is being generated by the third moon of Enylrea.”
“And we’ve lost an away team and can’t blast our way out,” Keefler added.
“Is that all?” Richards asked.
“Well, yeah. Pretty much,” Keefler said.
“Did that help any?” Madera asked.
“Not really,” Richards said glumly. If only he could find a way to tap into the moon and siphon energy away from the field. Or perhaps they could use the Explorer’s deflector dish to somehow interfere with the force field enough to allow the ship to escape. Or maybe he could build a…
Richards shook his head in disgust. Every one of these was an engineering solution, each more preposterous than the last. Command was about more than engineering. He had to pull together the strengths of the ship’s various departments.
“All right. We know what the situation is, but what do we do about it?” he said, stepping in front of the viewscreen to face his bridge crew. Even with Madera and Sefelt here, Richards couldn’t help but think of this group as the second string, to use one of Captain Baxter’s football analogies. But now the second string had to find a way out of this.
No one spoke.
“Come on. There are no stupid ideas here.”
“Well…” Keefler ventured. “We could try and beam a bomb into the moon facility and blow the whole thing up.”
“Which would kill the away team,” Koltz said.
“It happens. Besides, they may already be dead.”
“NO!” Sefelt said in near panic. “No one can die! Can we try talking to the Enylreans first? If they have trust issues with the Dominion, I bet Counselor Peterman could help them.”
“I suppose we could try talking to them first,” Keefler said. “But I still think we’d better build a bomb.”
“How many conversations have we had with the Enylreans so far?” Richards asked.
“Counting the text message that gave us our flight plan?” Keefler asked.
“Two. Both automated. They haven’t answered our other hails.”
“Then let’s be a bit more persistent,” Richards said. “Continuous hails. All frequencies. Send Morse code using EM pulses. Anything to remind them we’re still sitting out here.”
Koltz snorted. “I seriously doubt they’ll understand Morse code.”
“Probably not, but the EM pulses will be really damn annoying.”
TWENTY MINUTES LATER…
“We’re being hailed!” Keefler announced.
“Yes!” Richards exclaimed triumphantly. “On screen!”
“It’s audio only.”
“Oh,” Richards said, a tad deflated. “Put it on.”
The automated voice started up again. “Visiting vessel, Enylrea appreciates your eagerness to reach our world, but there are procedures that must be followed. Please cease your transmissions immediately.”
“Increase the amplitude of our transmissions by thirty percent,” Richards ordered.
Slightly confused, Keefler did as he was told.
“Visiting vessel,” the automated voice said. “This behavior will not shorten your wait any. Our authorization experts are anxious to meet with our Dominion neighbors, but they are busy with other ships. Once again, please cease your transmission!”
“Increase the amplitude by another thirty percent,” Richards ordered.
Keefler’s fingers performed the ordered action. A split second later, the ship jolted. Sefelt immediately dove under his console for cover.
“What was that?” Richards asked.
Koltz checked his sensors. “Some sort of energy blast from the moon. Highly directed. Subspace transceivers have been overloaded.”
“I think that’s Enylrean for ‘shut up,’” Madera said.
“I guess so,” Richards said thoughtfully. “But why did they call us their Dominion neighbors. We aren’t a Dominion ship.”
“Maybe they assume any ship that comes their way is from the Dominion,” Keefler offered. “It’s what I’d do.”
“Possibly, but what if…” Richards trailed off as he checked the log readout on the armrest of the command chair. “Ha! We were scanned when we entered the system!”
“Yeah. And that moon has been scanning us once every half hour or so. So what?” Koltz said.
“So what? So they probably detected Weyoun, which led them to believe this was a Dominion ship!”
“That’s nice and all, sir, but I don’t see how it’s going to help get us out of here,” Keefler said.
“Agreed,” Koltz added.
“Maybe it won’t, but I have an idea. Richards to Weyoun.”
“I am here, Commander. In what way may I assist you?”
“You’re leaving the ship,” Richards replied.
The Vorta sputtered slightly before regaining his composure. “Here? I hardly think that’s possible…or in line with our mission objectives.”
“At the moment, our mission is to get the hell out of this force field, which means you’re leaving. Be in the shuttlebay in five minutes or I’m beaming you there. Richards out!”
“Go, Commander,” Madera said smiling.
“Let’s just hope he doesn’t get some Jem’Hadar to break my kneecaps when this is all over with,” Richards muttered.
Four minutes and forty-eight seconds later, the Shuttlecraft Marco Polo exited the Explorer carrying one rather perturbed Vorta.
“Back us off as much as you can, Ensign,” Richards said anxiously as he watched the shuttle recede on the viewscreen.
“We aren’t going to blow him up are we?” Sefelt asked in horror.
“All right!” Keefler said. “I didn’t think you could be such cold- blooded bastard. Phasers are locked!”
“Nobody’s getting blown up,” Richards said firmly. “Koltz, let me know when the moon scans us again.”
An hour passed…
“I thought you said it was every half hour,” Keefler said impatiently.
“Or so!” Koltz retorted defensively.
“Weyoun is hailing us again,” Keefler said.
“Just don’t answer,” Richards replied. “I don’t feel like listening…”
“Scan in progress!” Koltz suddenly shouted. “And now it’s stopped.”
“Well that was amazingly exciting,” Keefler remarked. “I’m so glad we waiting for…holy crap, it worked! The force field is retracting and reforming just around the shuttle. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“We’re light a few people,” Richards said. “Bridge to Transporter Room Two. Status report.”
“Sorry, Commander. I still can’t get the away team back. I’ll keep on trying, though,” Morgan replied.
“I’m sure you will,” Richards said. “Bridge out.”
“So much for that idea,” Keefler said. “Guess we’re just going to have to stay a few officers light. I have no doubt Lieutenant Commander J’hana is happy to give her life to free us of Commander Vansen.”
“J’hana can’t be dead!” Sefelt wailed. “If something could kill her, we’re all DOOMED!”
Richards took in a deep breath. “Everyone listen closely. Nobody is DEAD! Got it?”
“Oh, I’m so relieved,” Sefelt sighed.
“So what? Are we just going to circle around here and hope that Morgan gets a transporter lock before the Enylreans decide to come after us again?”
Richards ignored him. “Bridge to Engineering. I need the subspace transceivers up pronto.” He turned on Sefelt. “You get Captain Baxter up here now. I don’t care how you do it, but he needs to be on this bridge before I leave the ship five minutes from now.”
“Come on!” Keefler said. “You can’t leave too!”
“Yes, I can, and you’re coming with me. You too, Koltz. Richards to Doctor Wilcox, meet us in Transporter Room Two.”
“Damn he got bossy,” Keefler muttered as Richards charged into the turbolift.
“It’s called giving orders,” Madera said. “It goes with the whole being in command thing.”
Delirium had set in. That much Captain Baxter was sure of. On the bright side, he was enjoying it. The hallucinations swirling around on the blank wall in front of him were a marked improvement over the blank wall itself, which he’d spent hours staring at while rocking Demonia.
Right now the baby was staring up at him, her little hands digging tiny, but really sharp nails into his flesh as his hoarse voice struggled through the umpteenth rendition of his favorite lullaby from his childhood, “Hush, Little Horta.” At least it used to be his favorite. Now he thought his ears were going to bleed if he heard it again.
How long had it been since he’d had sleep. Real sleep. Days? Weeks? He couldn’t tell anymore. Cardassian prison camps were less cruel than this.
Then a voice broke into his thoughts.
Cool. He was having audible hallucinations, too! This was a first.
Baxter looked down at Demonia. “Is that you?”
“Guess not,” he said, quickly rocking the infant back into something resembling contentment.
“Captain, it’s me. Howard Sefelt. I’m supposed to bring you to the bridge.”
“Can’t. Time to feed the baby.”
“The baby will still be there when you come back.”
“No. Time to feed the baby.”
“Please, sir. If Counselor Peterman finds out I hacked into her holodeck program, she could stop my therapy. Please come out of there,” Sefelt whined.
“No. Time to feed the baby.”
“I’m sorry to do, sir, but Commander Richards’s instructions were explicit. Please don’t hurt me.”
“No hurt. Time to feed the…” Suddenly, Demonia froze in Baxter’s arms. “Baby? Baby! BABY! NOOOOOOOOO!”
Baxter fell to his knees, clutching to the holographic baby as a transporter beam locked onto him and whisked him out of the holodeck in a cascade of molecules.
He reformed on the bridge a few seconds later, his arms now empty.
“It’s okay, sir,” Madera said soothingly as she helped Baxter into the command chair. “Sefelt just paused the program. You can go back soon.”
A huge grin started to spread across Baxter’s face. “No baby! I can SLEEP!” Baxter’s eyes closed and head lolled to the side in an instant.
“No no,” Madera said firmly. “You have to command the ship.”
“Richards’s turn,” Baxter mumbled.
“He’s taking an away team to find the first away team. You’re in command now.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but you have to. Would you like some coffee?”
Baxter nodded. “And a pillow.”
“Sefelt, get Captain Baxter some coffee, preferably one of Conway’s special blends. And hold the pillow.”
“Bridge to Richards,” Lieutenant Madera’s voice said over the comm system.
“Go ahead, Lieutenant,” Richards replied as he, Keefler, Koltz, and Doctor Holly Wilcox stepped up onto the transporter pad in Transporter Room Two.
“Captain on the bridge.”
“Good. We’re all set here.”
“Hurry back. I don’t know how long we can keep him propped up.”
“Understood. We’ll try our best. But if we’re not back in two hours, tell Captain Baxter to go for help.”
Madera hesitated for a moment. “Let me make sure I’ve got this. You’re giving me an order to give him an order to give us an order to get out of here.”
“Um…yeah. I think.”
“Yes, sir. Good luck. Bridge out.”
Richards made one last gut check to make sure he was up for this, then nodded at Morgan. “Energize.”
“I’ll keep the welcome mat out and the light on for ya’,” Morgan said sweetly as her hand ran along the transporter console.
Richards tried to memorize every detail of her smiling face to keep with him when he materialized into whatever hell they were about to enter.
As it turned out, hell was rather bland.
“I practically wet myself over this!” Keefler exclaimed, looking around at the empty corridor.
Koltz snorted derisively. “My hero.”
“Watch it, Mister Snout, or I’ll drop your ass.”
“Boys!” Doctor Wilcox snapped.
“Would somebody tell me where our people are?” Richards asked exasperated. Koltz let out one last snort at Keefler, then checked his tricorder.
“Hard to say, sir. I’m getting a lot of interference from a large energy source,” the Tellarite replied.
“How is that possible? Morgan said she had a clear transporter lock,” Keefler said.
“They could be sending a false signal to the transporter,” Dr. Wilcox said.
“If we can’t find them, we’ll retrace their steps,” Richards said. “Where’s that energy source? That’s most likely where they’d be heading.”
A short time later, the group arrived at the set of double doors leading to the energy reading. Richards immediately spotted the jimmied door panel where Hartley had evidently been at work. Now for the big question: Had Hartley’s attempt to get through the door worked? Or had it gotten the first away team captured or worse, killed.
“Are we going in?” Keefler asked.
Richards ignored him and pressed the door control rather than using Hartley’s bypass.
“We’re sorry,” a computer voice said. “You are not authorized to enter this room. Have a nice day.”
“How do we get authorized?” Richards asked.
“Only authorized personnel of Moon Base Zed and their guests are allowed in this room.”
“What if I told you we worked here?”
“I’d have to check the personnel list….Nope. You’re not on it.”
“Hey! You didn’t really check!” Keefler said.
“Yes I did. I’m very fast.”
“Most computers are,” Koltz said. “Don’t listen to my colleague over there.”
“Thank you,” the computer said.
“You’re welcome. Could I see that personnel list, though?”
“I suppose.” A list of names began scrolling down a small screen in the door control panel.
“There I am!” Dr. Wilcox said, pointing at a name on the list.
“Where?” the computer demanded.
“Right there. Nolinna Frell.”
“Oh yeah?” the computer replied skeptically. “What do you do here?”
Wilcox stole another quick glance at the screen again. “Thermodynamics!” she replied firmly.
“Uh huh. Okay. If you’re so smart, tell me what thermodynamics means. And NO helping from the rest of you.”
“We won’t say a word,” Richards said, sliding up near Koltz. The two officers quickly began fanning themselves and feigning sweat.
“It’s about heat!” Wilcox exclaimed.
“Wow. She’s good.”
“Now can I bring my guests inside?” Wilcox asked nicely. “Please.”
“You are authorized to enter,” the computer said as the doors slid open revealing the vast chamber inside. The room was dominated by a large glass dome in the floor which overlooked a deep shaft of churning molten rock with probe-like devices jutting out from the walls of the shaft at regular intervals.
“This is definitely the source of the interference,” Koltz said.
“That must be how they’re harnessing the core’s energy,” Richards said.
“Can we just shut it down?” Wilcox asked nervously. “It’s practically a volcano.”
“This control console may help,” Koltz said, stepping over to a console on the wall that ran the length of the room.
“Stand back,” Keefler said, pulling out his phaser.
“NO!” Richards shouted.
The computer spoke up again. “We’re sorry. No weapons or cleverly disguised Dominion operatives are allowed in Core Control. Please stay where you are while our Violation Response System activates.”
“What weapon?” Keefler said quickly, running toward the door and fumbling to holster his phaser. “I don’t have a…AAAHHH” The floor suddenly opened up under him, sending the security officer plummeting below.
But that wasn’t the extent of it. The floor continued to drop a section at a time towards Koltz at the console and Richards and Wilcox by the dome.
“Jump!” Richards shouted, leaping up onto the clear dome and hoping it wasn’t angled enough that he’d slip right off. Wilcox did the same as Koltz hefted his lumbering frame up onto the console.
“Keefler! Can you hear me!” Richards cried down into the blackness below. Evidently, the magma shaft was the only thing really extending up into the room. Otherwise, there was just emptiness below.
“I’m okay,” Keefler’s voice called up seemingly from nowhere. “There’s a drop, then a slide, then….MMMMPPH!”
“Oh that can’t be good,” Wilcox said softly.
“We apologize for the inconvenience,” the computer voice said as the floor began to reclose. “Please return to your normal activities.”
“Normal…HA!” Koltz remarked as he slid off the console back onto the floor. The room suddenly grew dim, the only light coming from the glowing magma below the dome. “Uh oh.”
“What did you do?” Wilcox said worried.
“I must have hit something on the way down.”
A deep rumbling sounded throughout the room, as though the shaft was about to erupt. Then it abruptly stopped as the computer voice began to speak. “Welcome…to Magma and YOU! Over the next hour, we’ll explore this amazing natural wonder and explain how we’ve harnessed its fury to make all of our lives easier.”
Richards let out a relieved sigh, then stepped to the center of the room. “Excuse me. Mister Computer?”
“I’m trying to do a show here,” the computer replied annoyed. “Can’t this wait?”
“Not really. I’d like to know how to get downstairs.”
“To the holding cells? Why would you want to go down there?”
“Well, he’s a corrections officer,” Dr. Wilcox said. “And since he’s my guest, I thought I’d try to show him our cells.”
“If that’s his thing…” the computer said. “So does this mean you want to skip the magma show?”
“If we could please,” Wilcox said.
“What a relief. That show a real pain in the processor. Just gather by the dome if you would.”
The remaining away team members did as they were told. Meanwhile, floor panels began dropping away one by one, starting at the door and moving closer and closer to the magma shaft. It took Richards several moments to realize that the panels weren’t just dropping away into nothingness. In this instance, they were halting their fall a prescribed positions until a staircase of sorts formed leading below.
“Watch your step. There’s no railing,” the computer said. “Have a nice visit.”
“Thank you,” Richards said as he started down the steps followed by Wilcox and Koltz.
After a long descent, the away team members found themselves in front of a blank metal door. No signs. No readouts. No nothing.
“Is this it?” Wilcox asked.
“I guess so,” Koltz replied. “Should I open it?” The Tellarite reached from the handle.
“Hang on,” Richards said, grabbing Koltz’s arm. “Computer, can we go in?”
“Of course. I didn’t think you were going to walk all the way down there just to look at the door and come back,” the computer replied haughtily.
Richards stepped forward and activated the door panel unsure of what awaited him inside the next room.
Much to his relief, when the door swung, open he saw the missing Explorer crewmembers…
…and they definitely weren’t looking too good.
“Captain’s Log. Stardate…5…um…55…unnh…”
Baxter collapsed to the deck dead asleep.
“Come on, sir. Stay with us,” Madera said, pulling Baxter back to his feet. The coffee had been spectacularly ineffective. Actually, Baxter had fallen asleep while drinking and almost drowned in the super-sized mug Sefelt had brought him. “Let’s try it again.”
“No no. Need rest.”
“Later. Record your log now.”
“Record log. Record log,” Baxter repeated as he willed himself back into his chair and hit the log recorder again.
“Captain’s Log, supplemental. Away team still gone. Other away team still gone. Weyoun still trapped. Enylreans still silent. I’m still sleepy. Log done.”
Baxter’s mouth stretched seemingly forever as he let out the biggest yawn seen in the universe outside of new parents. “Nappie time,” he said, curling up in his chair again.
“A vessel is approaching from the planet,” Lieutenant Unlathi reported from tactical.
“Sorry, sir. No rest for the weary,” Madera said, propping Baxter back up.
“Make it go away,” Baxter whined.
“That’s your job,” Unlathi replied as they moved their tentacles across the tactical console, bringing the image of an absolutely massive starcraft up on the viewscreen. It was a bulbous monstrosity of some kind of shimmering black alloy, dotted with lights, beacons, and various weapons ports.
“How did that launch from the planet?” Madera wondered.
“It’s not real. I’m just dreaming it,” Baxter mumbled.
“Orders, sir?” Unlathi said. Unlathi tended to be a…being of few words.
“Raise the shields?” Unlathi suggested.
Baxter nodded. “Yeah.”
“And try to find Commander Richards,” Madera added.
“And flee!” Sefelt cried.
“Ye…noooo!” Baxter said groggily. He raised his arm as commandingly as possible. “Find…Richards.”
“I will do my best,” Unlathi said. It looked at Madera. “Just keep him awake.”
“I’ve got to fly the ship.”
“There must be someone on this ship with nothing to do right now who can help us.”
A slight smile crossed Madera’s face. She knew just the person.
“Well this may have been a wasted trip,” Ensign Koltz remarked, looking at the seemingly-lifeless forms of the missing Explorer officers as they lay strapped to rather-uncomfortable-looking metal slabs. A small tube inserted into each officer’s neck was supplying them with a steady stream of a pale liquid.
“It’s White!” Dr. Wilcox announced, checking her tricorder readings.
“White?” Richards said confused. “Why would they…oh yeah. The Dominion thing. Can we unhook them?”
“I think so,” Wilcox said, approaching the five dazed Explorer crewmembers. “Commander Vansen, can you hear me?”
Vansen’s head lolled to the side toward Wilcox as her deeply-stoned eyes gazed at the doctor blankly. Vansen smiled weakly and began to speak.
“Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies…”
Tilleran suddenly broke in.
“Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly…”
And then J’hana.
“A girl with kaleidoscope eyes!”
Next, it was Hartley’s turn.
“Cellophane flowers of yellow and green,
Towering over your head.”
“Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes,
And she’s gone.”
And finally, all five of them shouted…
“LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS!
LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS!
Dr. Wilcox turned back to Richards. “I can shut off the White flow, but we have to get them back to the ship as soon as I do, or they could die.”
“Let’s do it,” Richards said. “Before they find another song to butcher.” His hand was just moving to his commbadge when it activated on its own.
“Explorer to Commander Richards,” an unfamiliar voice said.
“Richards here. Who is this?”
“Lieutenant Unlathi, sir. I am manning tactical.”
“Sorry, Lieutenant. I didn’t recognize you there.”
“I am not J’hana. This is not the time for discussion.”
“Definitely not. We need to beam back to the ship immediately.”
“Convenient since we need you back on the ship immediately,” Unlathi said. “A large, heavily-armed vessel is approaching from the planet, and Captain Baxter is in no condition to deal with it.” Richards had to believe that that was the most words Unlathi had ever said at once.
“On our way. Richards out.”
“Not to derail your plan, sir,” Ensign Koltz said as Dr. Wilcox quickly detached Vansen and the others from their White pumps. “But how are we going to beam back? Chief Morgan was unable to lock on to this away team.”
“Oooh. Good point,” Richards said. “Hey, computer!”
“Having fun down in the dungeon?” the computer replied.
“Sure. Look, can we beam out of here?”
“Out of there? No. What kind of bad jailer do you think I am? There’s a jamming field around that room. Actually, you know what I did to the folks in there now?” The computer snickered. “They were emitting some kind of signal back to their ship out there, so I duplicated it and started sending it out from another position in the complex while keeping the real people locked up down there. Pretty clever, huh? Wait a second. You’re emitting the same type of signal! Don’t tell me you work for the Dominion too!”
“The Federation actually,” Richards replied. “But don’t worry. We’re the good guys.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“Well, if you don’t believe me, we’ll get out of your way. Could you lower the jamming field down here for a moment?”
“If it’ll get you to leave me alone sooner, sure. And go tell your Federation that this is one computer they don’t want to mess with.”
“We’ll do that,” Richards replied, tapping his commbadge again. “Richards to Morgan. Are you reading our signals?”
“All clear, sir,” Morgan’s voice replied. “But now I’m getting a duplicate set of commbadges from the first away team. The new ones are right by you.”
“Good. Beam us all directly to sickbay and have Dr. Browning meet us there. Energize.” Richards turned to Wilcox. “Janice’s got as much knowledge as anyone about handling human reactions to White after that whole mess with Conway a couple of years ago.”
“Don’t remind me,” Wilcox muttered.
A second later, the entire group dematerialized.
Richards and Koltz ran out of the turbolift onto the bridge a few minutes later. Well, Richards ran anyway. Koltz moved along at more of a leisurely waddle.
“Ow!” Captain Baxter’s voice exclaimed from the command chair. Ignoring it, Richards turned is attention to the matter at hand.
“Have they done anything yet?” Richards asked.
“We’re still here, aren’t we?” Madera replied.
“The ship appears to be waiting for us to make a move,” Unlathi said. “Of course, I cannot be sure.”
“Just keep those tentacles ready to fire,” Richards said, moving down to the command deck.
“Ow,” Baxter exclaimed.
“Something wrong, sir?” Richards asked, as he moved around to the front of the command area.
“Ow!” Baxter exclaimed. Seated in the first officer’s chair beside Baxter was Plato, who every so often stretched his leg out and kicked Baxter firmly in the shin.
“Hi, Uncle Chris,” Plato said with a wave. He kicked Baxter again.
“Um…what are you doing?” Richards asked.
“Lieutenant Madera gave me an order. I have to keep Uncle Andy awake.” Kick.
“Got it,” Richards replied, shooting a glance at Madera, who just shrugged. “We’ll take it from here. Why don’t you go see if you can go help your mother in sickbay?”
“Mom’s doctoring again? Great!” Plato said, leaping out of the chair and racing into the turbolift.
“A child of his age would find medicine interesting?” Unlathi said.
“He just wants to see blood,” Richards replied. “It’s kind of cool to someone who doesn’t have any. Sefelt, go ahead and send the Captain back to the holodeck.”
“Isn’t that a bit cruel?” Madera asked.
“Do you want Counselor Peterman out to get you?” Richards asked.
“And neither do I. Energize, Sefelt.”
Captain Baxter managed to squeak a soft “No” just as he vanished in a cascade of molecules.
“All right,” Richards said. “Hail that ship. Let’s see if someone will finally talk to us.”
“We’re getting a response,” Unlathi said.
“Let me guess. Audio only.”
“Not this time.”
“Really? Wow. On screen,” Richards said surprised.
The image shifted from the massive vessel outside to the face of a withered old man.
“GO AWAY!” he suddenly shouted, shaking a bony fist at the screen.
Richards didn’t quite know how to respond to that one.
“Spit it out, boy!”
“I’m trying!” Richards snapped. “Er…sorry about that. I’m Commander Christopher Richards of the USS Explorer, a vessel of the United Federation of Planets.”
“We don’t want any!”
“That’s your right,” Richards said diplomatically. “We’ll leave, but your force field is holding one of our shuttles.”
“Anything that jrackin’ computer does is not my problem! You shouldn’t be runnin’ around with Vorta anyway! They’re Dominion! Don’t you know that, boy!”
“Well, the Dominion’s not really the Dominion anymore,” Richards said. “We’re here representing them in a diplomatic matter. They’d like to establish diplomatic contact with Enylrea, and that’s all.”
The old man eyed Richards skeptically. “How do I know you don’t have a whole ship of Jem’Hadar over there just itchin’ to rampage through my bedroom!”
“Already did. But I’m warning you, if this is a trick, Glorina here is going to blast you all into such a big field of debris you’ll show up on starcharts!”
“And is Glorina one of your crew?” Richards asked, trying to start a hopefully-more pleasant conversation.
“It’s my ship, you moron!”
“Look, could you just meet with the Vorta? His name is Weyoun, and I promise absolutely nothing is going to happen to you.”
“Oh all right, but Glorina here will keep her weapons training on you. If you so much as flinch…”
“I get the idea,” Richards said. “We’re prepared to beam you aboard.”
“I suppose you want me to talk to that damn moon computer to get your Vorta back, eh?”
“Goulchik. I’ll call you when I’m good and ready.” Goulchik slapped the panel in front of him, abruptly closing the comm channel.
“Should I get Captain Baxter back?” Sefelt asked.
“No. I think I’m going to have to handle this one myself,” Richards said, heading toward the conference room. He had the sinking feeling that his few diplomatic skills were about to be needed. Between a crotchety alien and an annoyingly placid Vorta, he’d have his work cut out for him.
To Weyoun’s credit, upon his return to the Explorer he said nothing to Commander Richards about being trapped in a shuttle for several hours. Instead, he focused the gaze of his cold blue eyes on the old man standing before him.
“Mister Goulchik,” he said with a bow. “It is an honor to meet you.”
The Enylrean meanwhile was singularly unimpressed by the diminutive Vorta.
“Is this a jrakin’ joke?”
“I assure you that I am fully authorized to speak for the Dominion,” Weyoun replied. “Now what is your position with the Enylrean government?”
“I don’t have one. I’m the one with the ship, so I’m who got sent.”
“No government?” Weyoun asked confused. “Then who makes decisions for your populace?”
“Fifty people don’t need a jrakin’ government to make a jrakin’ decision,” Goulchik replied. “Not that we have many decisions to make anyway. Kulin or huver pudding. Will the blaatz be broiled or fried? Who goes first at canstalla? Well…actually that last one has caused an argument or two, but we worked it out with only one person breaking their hip.”
Weyoun shook his head. “My apologies for my ignorance, Mister Goulchik, but I cannot understand how a species with the technological might to withstand the Dominion could consist of so few people.”
“Species! Ha! We’re who stayed! The others all left years ago.”
“They left?” Richards asked. “Why did they do that?”
“Have you looked around this sector of space lately? The Dominion showed up, and the neighborhood went downhill real fast. Most of the planet decided that a sphere of dirt wasn’t worth the hassle, so they moved. With all those Dominion, drug-crazed Jem’Hadar running around, I guess you could call it, White Flight. They were all pretty sick of our sentient computers anyway. Jrackin’ bad idea, if you ask me, and I’m the dumb jraker that invented them.”
Richards rubbed his temples. “So who else stayed?”
“Just me and a few others who didn’t feel like trekking halfway across the jrakin’ quadrant.”
Weyoun chose his words carefully. “Are all of the others as…experienced in life as you?”
“You mean old?”
“Most of ‘em are older. I just kind of keep the bots running, call yingo numbers, and such.”
“Mr. Goulchik,” Richards said. “The reason we’re here is that the Dominion has changed its ways and is interested in reaching out across the quadrant for a new era of peace and mutually-beneficial trade. While your planet and the Dominion have long been enemies, now…”
“Commander Richards,” Weyoun said. “I apologize for interrupting your eloquent speech, but may I speak to you a moment in private?”
“Um…okay,” Richards said. “Sorry about this, Mister Goulchik. We’ll be right back.”
Weyoun led Richards just outside of the conference room.
“What is it?” Richards asked.
“I see no point in continuing. We may depart.”
“What?” Richards demanded. “He’s probably going to agree to diplomatic ties!”
“The Dominion has no interest in establishing ties with a retirement community. We should depart.”
“But after all that we went through with the moon…and the force field…and…”
Weyoun was already returning to the conference room. Richards pulled himself together and walked back in as well.
“Well, thanks for stopping by,” Richards said. “We’re sorry to drag you out here, but we appreciate your help.”
“So that’s it?” Goulchik said annoyed.
“I’m afraid so. I’ll walk you to the transporter room.”
“Don’t bother,” Goulchik said, tapping a control on his belt. “Bunch of jrakers.” He vanished in a flash.
“Excellently done, Commander,” Weyoun said with a nod, then strolled out of the conference room.
Stardate 55264.4. I HAVE HAD SLEEP!!! Yes, after an entire week of complete and utter hell, I have been freed from my bonds and allowed to return to my simpler life of old. At least rogue Vulcan cult leaders and insane Romulans will let you get some rest now and then.
Oh, about the mission, I guess it went okay, considering that we left empty handed and five of my people ended up in detox. Honestly, I don’t remember a remember a thing, but for some reason my shins are REALLY sore!
“Are you getting up already?” Counselor Peterman asked as she poked her head into the living room where Captain Baxter sat at his desk recording his log.
“Just reveling in my return to clear-headedness,” Baxter said, taking a glance at the chronometer.
He’d spent an entire week getting up at this ungodly hour, so it almost felt normal, frighteningly enough. But there was absolutely no way he was going to stay up this time. Baxter rose from his chair and headed back to the bed room.
“I watched some of the recordings from your time with the holobaby,” Peterman said as they slid under the covers. “You did great!”
“I don’t want to start a fight at this hour, but, honestly, it was a total nightmare.”
“I know,” Peterman said, snuggling close. “I programmed it to be. That way, when our real daughter comes, it will seem like a piece of cake. Night, honey.” She kissed Baxter on the cheek, then scooted back over to her side of the bed.
Baxter tried to fall back asleep, but couldn’t. His eyes kept drifting over to his wife’s gently bulging belly, inside of which dwelt his soon-to-be daughter.
She’d heard all of this.
And Baxter had this terrible feeling that she was just waiting to show him how wrong Peterman was.
“All the more reason to sleep now,” he told himself.
Unfortunately, his mind didn’t cooperate as Baxter stared wide-eyed at the ceiling above him.
“Look at him,” Commander Richards groused later that morning as he sat in Space Tastes with Janice Browning. Across the room, Weyoun sat at another table listening with rapt attention as Plato told one story or another about what was going on at school. “He’s so damn smug.”
“I don’t know. You can only be so smug when you have to use a booster seat to reach the table,” Browning replied.
“Well, Plato’s quite taken with our little Vorta.”
“Of course he is. Who wouldn’t like someone who thinks you’re a god.”
“Demi-god. Plato is part human,” Browning corrected.
“Don’t you think you’re taking this a little too personally?” Browning asked just before shoveling a large chunk of some kind of grilled Bajoran breakfast meat into her mouth. It wasn’t quite bacon. It wasn’t quite sausage. For all Richards knew, it could be fish.
Richards muttered a bit under his breath.
“Your ego will heal,” Browning said.
“My ego doesn’t have anything to do with it. Weyoun threw away a perfectly good chance at diplomatic relations.”
“No. You were thrust into command. Vansen was gone. Andy was basically gone. So you had to handle it, and you did. But now you feel like it doesn’t mean anything because Weyoun decided to leave Enylrea.”
“You and Kelly have been spending way too much time together.”
“So I’m right,” Browning said.
Richards shrugged non-committally. Browning reached across the table and placed her hand on his. “If it helps, I’m proud of you. You did a great job.”
“Thanks,” Richards said with a weak smile.
“Come on,” Browning said, pulling Richards up from his chair. “Let’s go taunt Vansen in detox.”
“Wow. I suddenly feel much better,” Richards said as he followed Browning out of the restaurant toward a far more entertaining way to spend the morning.
The Explorer runs into a new breed of Changeling on a far-flung Gamma Quadrant world, Jelo kidnaps one of the Explorer’s crew, and J’hana goes on a one-man, er one-woman, um, man-hunt, that is, Changeling-hunt, in an action-packed story that asks, just who is “The Weakest Link?”