Author: Anthony Butler
Stardate 55404.7. Our mission in the Gamma Quadrant, so far, has sucked bigtime. We’ve had to kow-tow to annoying planetary leaders. Me and two fellow officers were made to become progressively younger to the stage of infants. My friends were shot down by enemies of the Dominion. My wife was interrogated by an omnipotent being. My science officer was kidnapped, briefly, by a rebel changeling. In short, the Gamma Quadrant and its assorted people have been a drag.
Well, now that’s all about to change. The Explorer has just entered orbit around Leposia Prime, home to one of the most affluent species known to the Dominion, and we’ve been invited to a really snazzy diplomatic party.
All we have to do now is make a good impression.
“Will you stop messing with that belt?” Commander Chris Richards said, standing in the doorway to Captain Andy Baxter’s readyroom as the captain stared once more at the reflection of him in his dress uniform in the large viewport behind his desk.
“Is the buckle too big?” Baxter asked thoughtfully, swaying to and fro in front of the window.
“No, it’s fine,” Richards lied, tugging the tunic on his own white and grey dress uniform. “Now will you come on? Our dates are waiting down in the transporter room.”
“Dates,” Baxter said. “I haven’t thought of Kelly and Janice as our ‘dates’ in a long time.”
Richards shrugged. “So we don’t get out much.”
“Why is that?” Baxter stared at himself in the window. “Are we getting old, Chris?”
“Perish the thought. And let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Did you show up for your shift today?” Baxter asked, glancing down at the duty roster, on a padd on his desk.
“Sure. More or less. Now let’s get to that party, buddy.”
“Umm…after you,” Baxter said, pointing toward the door, and he rounded his desk, following Richards out of the readyroom and onto the bridge.
He passed behind the command area, glancing down at the officer sitting in the command chair. “Sure you can handle this, Lieutenant?”
Lieutenant Susan Madera glanced up at Baxter, grinning. “I’ve been waiting a long time to sit in this chair, Captain. Of course I’m ready.”
Baxter nodded. “Take good care of her, Lieutenant.” He glanced around the bridge. Not an experienced face among the bridge crew. Ensign Adam Keefler at tactical, Ensign Koltz, the Tellarite, at science, Lt. Sefelt at ops, and Ensign Hildebrand at the helm.
Since when had he considered his people experienced? The mere thought that his senior staff was actually a competent, cohesive bunch scared Baxter beyond all reason.
He ducked into the turbolift. “Lieutenant Madera, you have the conn.”
“Aye, Captain. Enjoy the party!”
“What does that do?”
“That disassociates the molecules of the person you want to transport, darlin.”
“And what does that do?”
“That puts them back together.”
“What about that?”
“That zaps them down to the planet.”
“That’s where we put in the coordinates for where we want to send the person to, hon.”
Transporter Chief Lindsay Morgan patiently watched Plato look, awestricken, over the transporter console.
“Don’t let him get anywhere near those buttons,” Lieutenant Commander Nell Vansen snapped, strolling into the transporter room, looking professional and stuck up in her white and grey dress uniform.
“No problem, sweety.”
“And call me sir, not sweety. Why is that…boy…in here, anyway?”
“I’m watchin’ him while y’all are down on the planet.”
“We’all, meaning Doctor Browning as well?” Vansen asked, folding her arms.
“Yup,” Morgan replied. “I think she’s Commander Richards’s date.”
“This is a diplomatic mission, not a Spring social.”
“They did describe it as a ‘party’ in the invitation, ma’am.”
“I don’t care what the invitation said,” Vansen snapped. “We were not told we could bring dates.”
“Here we are!” Captain Baxter announced, strolling into the transporter room with Richards.
“Where are our dates?” asked the First Officer.
“We’re not supposed to be BRINGING dates!” Vansen said, grinding her teeth and glaring at Baxter and Richards.
“You’d think I’d deprive my pregnant wife of free exotic alien food?” Baxter demanded.
“This is not a cruise ship!”
“It used to be,” Richards countered.
“I’m trying to forget about that, Chris,” Baxter growled. He saw Plato and his eyes lit up. Like a child, Baxter had become completely distracted, although Vansen and Richards argued on behind him. “Hey buddy! Checking out the transporter systems?”
“Yup, Uncle Andy. Chief Morgan’s gonna let me beam some canisters around.”
“Figured it couldn’t hurt him any,” Morgan explained, as Baxter lifted Plato up onto his hip.
“I agree totally,” Baxter said, grunting as he shifted Plato around on his hip. “Gosh, you’re getting heavy. You’re going to be entering adolescence any day now, bud.”
“That’s what Mommy says.”
“Just promise not to give us any trouble when you get into your teens.”
“Uncle Chris said I can have my own shuttlecraft when I turn sixteen!”
“The relative mental age of sixteen, anyway,” Richards said, maneuvering around Vansen to lean down and give Plato a big hug. “You behave for your mom and I while we’re gone, okay?”
“Mom and I?” Baxter asked. “My, that sounds a little dad-like.”
“Is that a problem?” Richards asked, glancing up at Baxter.
“No…no, not at all. But Chris, a shuttlecraft. Isn’t that…?”
“Strictly forbidden!” Vansen cried. “I can’t believe you’d even CONSIDER it, Richards! Have you ever even READ a Starfleet regulations manual?”
“A what?” Richards asked, then returned his attention to Plato. “You be good for Auntie Lindsay.” He looked to Chief Morgan. “Thanks again.”
“My pleasure, Commander.”
“You are so darn sweet!”
Morgan blushed. “Well…”
Baxter dragged Richards to his feet. “Yes. Christopher AND his girlfriend appreciate all your help.” He ushered Richards over to the transporter pad. “Let’s get on with the show.”
“We are not finished with this argument,” Vansen muttered, stepping up to join Baxter and Richards.
“Are we ever?” moaned Richards, just as the large, double doors of the transporter room reopened to admit the rest of the beam-down party. Baxter let out a low whistle.
As if in slow motion, with long, graceful strides, they walked in. Baxter and Richards looked on with smiling pride, while Vansen just stared, slack-jawed.
Leading the way was Counselor Peterman, followed by Lt. Commander Tilleran, Lt. Commander Hartley, Lt. J’hana, and Doctor Janice Browning, all dressed in stunning glittery evening gowns of varying spectral colors, each accenting the particular woman’s physical traits. Large, black, and flowy to hide Peterman’s ever-growing tummy, tight and slit up the sides to accommodate Tilleran’s height and long legs, sleeveless to show off J’hana’s muscular biceps, lime green to bring out Hartley’s eyes and soft- toned and lacey to bring out all of Janice Browning’s sweet, cherubic qualities.
“Mommy and her friends look BOOFY!” Plato exclaimed, climbing up on top of the transporter console.
“Boofy,” Baxter said to himself. “That’s a new one.”
Vansen gaped. “What the f*** is this?”
“Haven’t you ever seen a group of well-dressed women before?” Lt. Commander Hartley asked, as the women mounted the transporter pad.
“It’s bad enough that half of you people have no business GOING to this function. It’s quite another thing that none of you are wearing your dress uniforms.”
“We just had Yeoman Biggs cook us up a little something from his eveningwear collection,” Peterman explained.
“You simply wish you had worn a beautiful gown as well,” J’hana said throatily.
Vansen moved to step down from the transporter pad. “Well, I’m certainly not going to be the only woman wearing a dress uniform. I’ll be right ba–”
Baxter clamped a hand down on her shoulder. “Now, Commander, you don’t want to make us late for such an important diplomatic function, do you?”
“I knew you’d see it our way,” Baxter said. “Up on the pad.”
“I will SO find a way to rectify this situation,” Vansen said stormily, just as the doors into the transporter room parted once again and Mirk and Weyoun joggged in.
“Are we late?” Mirk asked, running up to wrap an arm around Hartley.
“Very nearly,” Hartley muttered.
Weyoun stood in front of the pad, noting Mirk had taken the last available spot–the cargo pad at the center of the eight lighted discs that served to transport Explorer personnel to planet surfaces.
“It would seem I must take the next transport,” Weyoun said softly.
“No,” Vansen said. “You’re our Dominion Ambassador. You should come down in the first beamout. Somebody else step down from here.”
“Why don’t YOU step down?” Hartley suggested.
“I can’t believe we’re arguing about this,” Richards muttered.
“I’ll take the next beamdown,” Browning said. “If that’ll hurry things along.”
“Thanks Janice,” Baxter mumbled, looking to Weyoun. He gestured at the pad beside him. “Ambassador…”
Weyoun mounted the pad. “Thank you all. I had feared I didn’t really fit in with this crew. But now I realize I am lucky to be counted in your number.”
“Whatever,” said Richards. “Energize, Chief Morgan.”
“You look stunning, by the way,” Baxter leaned back and whispered to Peterman.
“So do you. Except for the belt.”
“Let’s not start this now,” muttered Baxter over the whine of the transporters energizing.
Once everybody had beamed away, Browning turned back to face Plato. “Now you be good for Auntie Lindsay.”
“‘Auntie Lindsay’ already got that speech from Dad,” Chief Morgan replied.
Browning stared, cockeyed, at Morgan. “Dad.”
“Oh, no. I’ve committed a faux pas, haven’t I?”
“I don’t know what that is exactly, but I don’t think you did.” Browning rubbed her chin. “Dad.”
“Is something wrong, Miss Browning?” Morgan asked, concern plain on her face. “I knew I shouldn’t have said…”
Browning leaned forward and hugged Plato. “That’s quite all right, Chief. Call down to me if you need anything.”
She quickly stepped up onto the transporter pad and turned around to wave goodbye to Plato as Morgan re-entered the coordinates.
“Energize,” she said, then softly repeated it to herself. “Dad…”
Browning rematerialized in what looked like an ornate hotel lobby. Emerald and sapphire crystal fixtures, floor, and wall accents everywhere. Light glinting almost blindingly off every surface. It was all a little bit overwhelming. Yet the one word that kept bouncing around in Janice Browning’s brain was…Dad.
Captain Baxter was shaking hands with a Leposian. Browning couldn’t be sure, but she thought it was female.
The mission briefing Richards had passed on to Browning indicated the Leposians were a species descended from wildfowl and the Leposians looked it. Tall, thin, a tad ostrich or emu-like. They weren’t exactly feathered, but did have downy, feather-like hairs adorning their heads and arms. Who knew what other secrets lie beneath those dressy baby blue silk-like suits the Leposians wore?
“Welcome, everyone,” the Leposian said in a chirpy, singsong voice. “On behalf of the Primast, we welcome you to Leposia. My name is Sartherd and I have the pleasure of leading you to tonight’s gathering.”
“Well, on behalf of the Explorer, the Federation, and the Dominion, just let me say this looks like a hell of a fine–” Captain Baxter began, before Weyoun stepped in front of him.
“Captain, if I may…” he said. He bowed gently in Sartherd’s direction. “Great ambassador of your people. I am honored to represent the Dominion Alliance to you and yours.”
“So, it’s an Alliance now, is it?” Sarthered asked, raising an eyebrow.
“That is correct. Our aim is peaceful coexistence and cooperation in a manner that benefits all our peoples.”
“They’re just copying off the Federation,” Baxter butted in. “Not that that’s a bad thing,” he quickly added. “As a matter of fact, we’re excited about the possibilities of a peaceful Dominion Alliance. That’s why we’re here to help that along.”
“You’ll forgive my people if we’re a bit skeptical,” Sartherd said.
“Admittedly, the Dominion has made some mistakes in the past,” Weyoun said. “Now it is time to heal.”
“That is something you will want to discuss with the Primast,” Sartherd said. “This way, all, if you please…”
“What a nice lady,” Counselor Peterman said, as the bustling group of Explorer folk headed out of the lobby and down a long, gold-carpeted hallway.
“Are you sure she’s a lady?” Richards asked in a low voice.
“I take it we’re headed to some kind of grand ballroom?” Mirk whispered to Hartley.
“That’d be my guess,” Hartley said, then winced, stumbling slightly. Mirk held her arm.
“Are you okay, hon?”
“I’m fine,” Hartley muttered. “I just can’t believe that in four hundred years they haven’t come up with a more comfortable version of the high heel.”
The changeling taking the shape of Lt. Commander Ariel Tilleran looked on with intense interest. This was the first chance for Jelo to observe the Explorer crew as a unit since his days spying on them when they crewed the Aerostar. The dynamic was certainly different. Could Jelo say they were wiser? No. Older maybe, but not wiser. More neurotic? Definitely. Easier to trick? Most certainly. This would be an incredibly fun infiltration, Jelo thought. He was only sad that at some point, it would have to end.
But he had much to do until that time.
J’hana suddenly jabbed Tilleran in the side as the disguised changeling pondered all this.
“That is some dress Biggs prepared for you, Ari.”
“Thanks,” Tilleran replied, her voice sounding distant.
“Nice and tight.”
“Looks almost like you were poured into it.”
Jelo’s whole internal structure curdled at that. “POURED?” He threw back Tilleran’s head and laughed uproariously at that. “POURED into it? That is preposterous. I am a humanoid. I can’t be poured into a piece of clothing.”
“Relax,” J’hana muttered. “It’s just a human expression. Jeeze, you are no fun since we broke up.”
“Oh.” Tilleran stared at her feet. “Sorry.”
Lt. Madera yawned and studied a padd as she sat in the command chair of the Explorer.
She looked over the padd at the viewscreen. “Mister Sefelt, are we still in orbit?”
At ops, Sefelt glanced down at his readouts. “Um, yeah.”
“Good.” She went back to her padd. “Talk to you in another hour.”
“Morgan to Madera,” trilled the comm system.
“Bridge here. What can I do for you, Ensign?”
“Have you seen Plato?”
“Um. No. Wasn’t he supposed to be with you?”
“So he’s lost?”
“No, I was just asking. Never mind. Have a good one, hon!”
“Weird,” Madera said, and went back to her padd.
The feast was immaculate, or at least, it seemed so to Browning. She made no bones about going over to the buffet and piling several plates high with food before introductions had even been made.
“Something’s wrong with Janice,” Peterman whispered, nudging Baxter as he shook the limp hand of the birdlike General Nossit.
“How can you tell?” Baxter asked, as Nossit moved on to Vansen.
“She’s not even stopping to savor the flavor of anything!”
“Did she ever?”
“Of course she did.”
Baxter rubbed his beard. “I never realized.”
Sartherd skittered suddenly up to Baxter and gestured to a Leposian who was easily a head taller than all the others. Unlike Sartherd and Nossit, this Leposian had much brighter and fuller down along his chest and extremities.
“May I present Primast Lessat,” Sartherd sing-sang.
Baxter extended his hand to shake that of the grandiose Leposian, who eagerly took Baxter’s hand and pumped it.
“Captain, it is my distinct pleasure to meet you!”
“The pleasure is all mine, sir…ma’am…sir…”
“Please, Captain, our people do not recognize gender distinction. We self-impregnate,” Sartherd said through his clenched beak.
“Whoops. Five minutes in and already I’ve committed a bit of a diplomatic faux pas.”
“I’m not sure what that means but it sounds lovely,” Lessat said. “At any rate, do not worry yourself about the gender thing. Many species are confused by our ability to self-impregnate.”
“You should meet our Lieutenant Unlathi,” Peterman said with a giggle. “They have a similar biology.”
Lessat nodded. “Lovely.” It turned toward Baxter. “I would love to discuss your human mating process at your convenience.”
“Not on this diplomatic mission,” Peterman said, quickly ushering Baxter away. She yanked Baxter close. “We WILL NOT be having a repeat of the Beldana incident.”
“Please,” Baxter muttered. “I’m a married man. Besides, I doubt Lessat has the proper…you know…equipment.”
“Only one way to find out,” J’hana quickly said, dashing past Baxter. So much for getting to chat one on one with a world leader. The captain sighed and went to find Nossit again. At least that…thing had some interesting war stories.
He found Nossit chatting with Tilleran and Hartley about a fierce battle. Just from the Leposian’s stiff gesticulations, Baxter gathered he was quite old. Probably the oldest Leposian in the room.
“Quite violent, it was, yes,” Nossit rasped. “Many Leposians died in that battle. Of course I was still a bit of a treeling at the time so I really didn’t get to see much first-hand combat. There was a particular time, however, when my base was overrun by the Delleth sect, and believe me it was a real nest-burner!”
Baxter sipped from a cup that a passing Leposian servant had handed him. The liquid was warm and sweet, with a bitter aftertaste. Like raspberry coffee with too much sugar. “Tell me, General Nossit. How long ago was this little battle?”
Nossit’s eyes grew grey and dark, and it seemed to stare off into space. “That was no ‘little’ battle. It was the final battle. The one to end all battles. The one that brought the neverending age of peace to Leposia.”
“And when was that?” asked Hartley.
“Oh, well, when I was a child, that was easily seventy orbits ago.”
Tilleran nodded. “Judging by the movements of the Leposian sun, that would translate into about one hundred twelve Earth years. Anyone else want to try that mushy stuff by the meat tray? No…well I’m starved. Excuse me!”
Baxter watched Tilleran go, then turned to Nossit. “Are you telling me this planet’s been at peace for one hundred and twelve years?”
“Give or take,” Nossit shrugged. “Isn’t your Confederation similarly at peace?”
“Actually, the, uh, *Federation* came out of a nasty war with the Dominion not too long ago.”
“Three years ago to be exact,” Lt. Commander Vansen said, sliding in front of Baxter, blocking him from Nossit. “We believe that we’ve entered our own ‘Neverending Age of Peace,’ General. And we’d like you to be a part of it.”
Nossit stared from Baxter to Vansen. “I’m going to have to defer to Lessat on that. Excuse me.” And it plodded back off into the crowd.
“Nice guy, or girl, or whatever,” Hartley said, then walked off into another corner of the ballroom.
Vansen was about to walk off as well, but Baxter touched her shoulder. “Can I talk to you?”
She stared at Baxter with dark, impenetrable brown eyes. “What.”
“How many times do I have to remind you that I’m the Captain?”
“I know you’re the captain. At least you try to be, in your own little way.”
“Be that as it may…” Baxter said, feeling his temper already smouldering. “Be that…as it may…I think you could at least manage to let me speak on behalf of the Federation!”
“And scuttle our diplomatic efforts in this sector? I don’t think so. Why don’t you grow a brain and realize you’re in over your head? I don’t mind covering for you as long as it gets me a promotion, sooner rather than later, so why don’t you just save your breath and let me do all the talking. I’ll make you look good, and then you’ll be rid of me. Sound good? Great. How about you go over there and grab me another one of these tasty beverages while I go talk to the planetary leader?” Vansen stuck her empty glass into Baxter’s free hand and walked off.
Baxter couldn’t see through the tears of anger clouding his bulging eyes.
“Problem?” Dr. Browning said, walking up with a mouth full of some kind of bready substance. Her hands were occupied with heavy plates.
“Sheesh, Andy, you’ve got a vein bulging out in your forehead. Try one of these things. It tastes like pita. You like pita, don’t you?”
Baxter glared down at Browning, grabbed the pita lookalike, and stomped off.
“Guess he doesn’t like pita,” Browning mumbled, and resumed eating. She snagged Richards with a free pinky as he walked by. “Christopher! We have got to talk.”
“I was just going to grab something to eat…”
“Have some of mine,” Browning said easily, lifting a plate up for Richards to peruse. “Just a little. Don’t get greedy!”
“Right.” Richards picked up an innocuous-looking cracker and popped it into his mouth. “You wanted to talk?”
“Yeah. It’s about Plato.”
Richards chewed the cracker. “I love that little guy.”
“Yes, I know. I know you do. And he really likes you too.”
“Really likes? Don’t you mean loves?”
“That’s what I said. He loves you too.”
“Oooh this is spicy. Can I have some of your drink?”
Browning faltered. “I don’t think it’ll help. It’s spicy too.”
“Follow me to the beverage table,” Richards gasped, and Browning did.
“It’s just…” Browning said, following. “I am worried about what he will think growing up. He doesn’t have a father figure in his life, after all, and–”
“He has me.” Richards grabbed a glass of murky green liquid from the beverage table and tossed it back. “Mmmm…kind of like kiwi.” He looked at Browning. “He also has Captain Baxter. I bet he ‘loves,’ the captain. But he just ‘really likes’ me. I see how it is.”
“See how what is?” Browning asked, feeling suddenly nauseous. “I cannot understand you and Andy and your silly competition for Plato’s affection. He needs both of you in his life. But he needs to understand what roles–”
“Rolls…that will cool my mouth down. Have you seen any?”
“Over there. You’re not listening to me.”
“Of course I am. You don’t want me to hang around Plato as much.”
“Why must you jump to such an silly conclusion!”
“Just calling it like I see it, Janice.”
“Christopher! I am trying to make you understand that a child’s psyche is at stake here. This isn’t about your pride, or Andy’s. It’s about my son’s welfare.”
Richards munched thoughtfully on a piece of bread. “Want me to sign up for parental rights?”
Browning stared, wide-eyed at Richards. “Ummmm…”
“Mull it over,” Richards said, and walked off.
“Christopher, come back here!” Browning said, juggling her several plates and following Richards into the crowd.
“Have you seen J’hana?” Lt. Commander Hartley asked, sidling up to Mirk, who’d just finished a lovely debate about mixing liquor and ales with a Leposian bartender.
“She disappeared out the door about twenty minutes ago with the Leposian Secretary of State. A…umm…thing named Prakish.”
“Nice to see she’s doing her part to foster good will.”
“Indeed. Did you try the pishlok? It tastes just like hasperat.”
Hartley grabbed one of the white squares stacked on Mirk’s plate and chewed off a corner. “Mmmm. But with steak sauce. A nice combination.”
“These folks know a thing or two about the hospitality industry.”
“Maybe we can get them to cater our wedding.”
“I assumed we’d get married after we got back to the Alpha Quadrant.”
“We may be here a while, so I was thinking the sooner the better.” Hartley bit her lip thoughtfully. “How about next month?”
“ARRCH!” Mirk coughed and then made a low gurgling sound. Then his mouth moved, but no sound other than a low rattle came out.
Luckily, Browning was nearby. Unluckily, she was weighed down with four plates of food, which she tossed to the floor unceremoniously as she dashed over to squeeze Mirk’s chest with repeated, rhythmic thumps (the Maloxian stomach was located much higher than in most humanoids).
With an audible, wet, “thwop,” a white square of pishlok came sailing out of Mirk’s mouth and landed in Trade Secretary Hassha’s drink.
“What the hell is going on?” demanded Captain Baxter. He jogged over to where Mirk was standing, only to slip on the pile of upturned plates Browning had left in her wake. His feet flew up into the air and the rest of him slammed noisily on the floor.
J’hana, meanwhile, was just walking in and adjusting the collar of her dress.
“Secretary of State Prakish is indisposed for the rest of the evening,” she announced. “And I am starved!”
Weyoun walked in shortly after. “I apologize for my absence. I had to use the restroom facilities. A dreadful shortcoming of the Vorta that the Jem’Hadar, luckily, need not worry about. Have I missed much?”
What he saw was a mess of food slopped on the floor, a dazed and messy captain, and half a dozen shouting Explorer crewmembers.
“Your incompetence has totally ruined this mission,” Vansen seethed as Richards and Browning dragged Baxter to his feet.
“Don’t talk to my husband that way,” Peterman snapped at Vansen.
“Stay out of this, Counselor.”
“Please, please,” said Primast Lessat. “There is no need for arguing or violence!”
“You never answered me. Do you want me to be Plato’s father or not?”
“What, next month isn’t soon enough? The mere thought of marrying me sends you into convulsions? Well, then, why don’t we just not get married, huh, bigshot?”
“I just choked! You’re making too big a deal out of this.”
“You choked alright.”
“Has anyone seen the Secretary of State?”
“I sated the Secretary of State, madam, or whatever you are.”
“I am SO bored. I’d love to just pour myself into a nice bucket…I mean bed. Bed.”
“Get out of my face, Vansen. As soon as we get back to the Alpha Quadrant, I’m letting you off at Deep Space Nine. Better yet, the next available asteroid. Better yet…here!”
“You have no authority!”
“Don’t talk to the captain like that!”
“You’re not even an officer so shut up!”
“Please, please!” Weyoun said, holding up his hands calmingly. “People, calm yourselves. This is a diplomatic function!”
“And disagreement of any kind is strictly forbidden on this planet,” Lessat’s voice trilled above all others. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you all to leave…”
“If you’ll excuse me, Lessat, I’m just discussing something with one of my officers,” Captain Baxter said, looking over his shoulder at Lessat, just as Lt. Commander Vansen shoved something closely resembling a pie into his face.
“FOOD BATTLE!” J’hana roared, and dumped a punch bowl full of a milky pink substance all over Vansen’s head.
Vansen whirled blindly and reached for whatever weapon was closest. Her hands seized on two large loaves of bread, with which she brazenly and repeatedly clubbed J’hana.
“Watch the antennae. Especially THAT one!”
“Can we please just LEAVE already?”
“Do you love my son or not?
“Stop playing mind games with me.”
“Take some responsibility!”
“Get off my back!”
“But there’s planning to be done!”
“Stop beating me!”
“I don’t give a crap about planning. I want a wedding NOW!”
“You’re getting drippings all over me!”
“I said you all needed group therapy and this just proves my point. I’m right after all. Ha–” Before she could complete her gloaty laugh, Peterman was creamed with a tray full of pishlok.
And about then, every Explorer crew member in the room was zapped into unconsciousness.
Lt. Madera stared at the chronometer on the arm of the command chair. “Well, I’m not going to wait up for them all night.”
Lt. Sefelt turned around in his seat at ops. “Ummm…should we call down to them and see how much longer they’ll be?”
Madera shook her head. “Absolutely not. I’m sure they’re having a great time. Far be it from us to interrupt that. No, we’re all going to bed.” She punched a control on the chair arm. “Signal nightshift and call up the Delta bridge crew.”
“Was your first try at command all you hoped it would be?”
“Yep. It was nice,” Madera said, walking with Sefelt to the aft turbolift. “I read two books.”
THE NEXT DAY
Baxter rolled over, yawned sleepily, and slung an arm over his bedmate, his life mate, the love of his life.
And he opened his eyes and screamed.
“In your dreams,” Vansen muttered, and rolled away from him.
Baxter leaned up. “This is not my beautiful life.” He rubbed his eyes.
“It’s about time he woke up,” J’hana muttered, looming over Baxter.
“Where am I?” The captain felt soft squishyness under him. He looked to see that it was some kind of pink, soft, rubberized material.
“In the best possible place for this crew,” Vansen snapped, climbing to her feet. “A padded cell.”
“I really should have scheduled that group therapy,” Peterman muttered, pacing.
“I really don’t think it would have helped,” said Richards.
“Are you questioning my counseling abilities?”
“Um…not at all.”
“Speaking of which, put us down for some relationship therapy,” Browning mumbled, and collapsed to the floor next to Baxter.
“Us too,” Hartley said, frowning at Mirk.
“So, Andy,” said Browning. “How are you going to get us out of this one?”
“This what?” Baxter demanded, climbing the wall of the cell to get to his feet. “What’s happened?”
“Isn’t it obvious you simple…I mean, Captain,” said Tilleran. “We’ve been imprisoned.”
“Committed is more like it,” said Peterman.
Baxter shoved up his shirtsleeves. “Well, I’ll just see about that.” He walked over to the glittering energy field that shut him off from the rest of the prison facility. “Excuse me. Jailer…or whatever you call yourself?”
A dull-eyed Leposian shuffled slowly over to the energy field. So far, Baxter had only met the cream of the Leposian crop. Obviously, now, he was meeting the blue collar crowd…whatever that meant.
“What do you want?” asked the dull-eyed jailer.
“I want to speak to Lessat.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think I want to speak to him?”
“No, smartmouth, I don’t think you are allowed to do that.”
“Could you confirm that for me?”
Baxter pondered that. “Well…we want out.”
“Hmmm. Too bad.”
Baxter scratched his head. “Can you at least tell me when we’re going to be let out?”
The jailer sighed. He pulled out a flat grey piece of metal and overlooked it. Must be the Leposian equivalent of a padd. “We haven’t had to impose this penalty in tens of orbits. We had to look it up in the statutes.”
“I KNEW IT!” Peterman called triumphantly from behind Baxter, who just rolled his eyes.
“Does that imply you’ll be sending in a therapist?”
“Never mind. So we get let out when we’ve resolved our, um, issues.”
“I don’t know. I was a treeling when we had our last civil uprising. I don’t know how they handled it.”
“Could you find out for me?”
“Well how do we ever get out?”
“That will be for the Master Lawsmith to decide.”
“I see.” Baxter folded his arms. “And when will we be informed of the verdict?”
“I have no idea. It’s lunchtime. Later.” The guard turned promptly on a heel and shuffled out a side door, leaving the crew for all intents and purposes alone.
“Wow, I really slept late,” Baxter said, turning back toward his fellow crewmates.
“If this is about the mess, we can reimburse you all!” Vansen called after the guard, but he had already closed the door behind him and showed no signs of returning anytime soon. Vansen whirled angrily on Baxter. “This is all YOUR FAULT!”
“My fault?” Baxter asked. “That’s rich. Who’s the one causing all the tension on the ship?”
“He’s got you there,” Hartley muttered.
“Hold on a second,” Peterman said, stepping into the midst of the group. “We’ve all got hurt feelings right now, for lots of different reasons. But the last thing we need to do is place blame. We need to work through our problems and then find a way out of here.”
“I think that IS the way out of here,” Browning pointed out.
“Regardless,” Peterman said testily. “I think the best thing for us to do is sit in a circle and talk about our problems one by one.”
“Please,” Vansen snarled, stepping off to one side of the cell.
“Doesn’t anyone on this crew respect me?” demanded Baxter.
“Andy,” Peterman whispered, pointing behind Baxter. “You have a big pishlok stain on your ass.”
Lt. Madera stepped out onto the bridge of the Explorer feeling rested and relaxed. Commanding was a piece of cake. Granted, they were in orbit… but really, she just spent the whole time sitting down relaxing. At helm, or ops, or tactical, even when a ship was in orbit there was something to do. But when you sat in the command chair…you just sat and watched the planet spin by. It was really quite meditative.
Madera suddenly felt a little less relaxed when she stepped out onto the bridge to find nobody there.
Nobody except Sefelt, who sat cowering underneath his ops console.
“I’m afraid,” he mumbled, drawing his knees up to his chest.
Madera stepped down to the front of the bridge and squatted next to Sefelt. “Afraid of what, Howie?”
“I’m afraid nobody’s here!”
“I’m sure they’re just running late.”
“The whole group?”
“Maybe they had a late night.”
“Uh-uh. They’re not here.”
“What do you mean they’re not here?”
Sefelt wordlessly thumbed up at his console. Madera moved into the ops seat and looked over the readings. No Baxter, no Richards, no Vansen. No Tilleran or J’hana. No Hartley or Mirk. No Browning or Weyoun.
Madera marched back to the command chair. “Call Keefler and Koltz up here. And hail the planet.”
“But I’d need to sit in my chair to do that.”
“I think you can manage.”
“But we’re all by ourselves up here.”
“There are over eight hundred people on this ship, Howie. We’re not by any stretch of the imagination by ourselves. Now take a deep breath and take your station. That’s an order.”
“Wow. You sound commanding.”
“I do, don’t I? Ha ha. Now get in your chair.”
“Okay. Who wants to start?” Peterman sat, crosslegged, next to Captain Baxter, looking around at the eight other Explorer officers.
“Commander Vansen is a constant challenge to my authority,” Baxter said.
“I hate her,” chimed Richards.
“Good, good,” said Peterman. “That’s a place to start. What makes you feel that way, Chris?”
“She acts like she’s better than us.”
Vansen folded her arms. “Because I am.”
“See, that’s what I’m talking about,” said Baxter. “Constant insubordination.”
“Maybe if you two idiots would put your heads together and make one decent command decision, I’d leave you alone.”
“I can’t deal with this,” Richards said, and leaned out of the circle. Browning grabbed his arm and stopped him from leaving.
“Christopher, stay right there. You can use a little counseling.”
“So could you,” Richards snapped, then wished he hadn’t.
“What does that mean?”
“One thing at a time!” Peterman said in a raised voice.
“You don’t want a casual relationship. You want a father for your child, and I can’t be that. Not with ‘Uncle Andy’ constantly hanging around.” Richards glared at Baxter.
“Don’t you dare bring me into this, Chris.”
“You are constantly sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong.”
“He’s my friend!” Browning said. “He can stick his nose wherever he wants.”
“Well then you obviously don’t need me.” Richards stood up and, suddenly, was hit by an intense green beam that lanced out from somewhere in the ceiling. He slammed down onto the floor, looking dazed.
“You will continue being counseled,” a voice boomed around the group.
“I guess they’re serious about this therapy thing,” Hartley muttered.
“Well then,” said Peterman. She glanced up at the ceiling. “Thanks for the help. Now, shall we go further into this need for a parent, Janice?”
Browning stared at the floor. “Plato needs a dad.”
“He’s got a great godfather,” Baxter mumbled.
“That’s not enough,” Browning said, and looked at Richards, eyes tearing. “He needs a good dad. And Christopher, no matter how much I want you to be that, I know that you aren’t.”
“I could be.”
“No. No, I don’t think so.”
“And just why not?”
“First of all,” Baxter broke in. “You can’t commit to anything. You’re flighty. You’re only around for a good time, and then–”
“SHUT UP!” Richards snapped in Baxter’s face, then looked back at Browning.
“Did he just tell me to shut up?”
Browning turned to face Richards, taking his face into her hands. “You aren’t ready to settle down. And my son needs someone who is. So do I.”
“I don’t see where this is coming from,” Richards said. “I offered to sign up for parental rights.”
“But is that what you really want?”
“Think hard before you answer, Chris,” Peterman said.
Richards glared back at Peterman, then looked into Browning’s eyes. “Um…”
“Then that answers my question,” Browning said softly. “Christopher, I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
“Okeydoke,” Vansen said. “There’s one solved. Let’s move on!”
“Leposian Control, this is Lieutenant Susan Madera in command of the Dominion envoy ship USS Explorer. I want to speak to whoever is holding our command staff hostage.”
The angular head of Communications Sergeant Kofft bobbed in response. “I’m afraid I cannot do that.”
“Fire on them,” Ensign Keefler whispered from tactical.
Madera turned around and glared at Keefler. “I’m going to try diplomacy first, if you don’t mind.”
Keefler shrugged. “Sure, I guess you’re in command, so whatever.”
“Don’t talk back to me. I’ll replace you like that.” Madera snapped her fingers and returned her gaze to the Leposian on the viewscreen. “Now, Sergeant Kofft, I want to speak to my Captain. Now.”
Madera clasped her hands together. “That’s better.”
“This is Communications Colonel Grola. I’ve been told to tell you you can’t speak to your people.”
“This is getting us nowhere,” Keefler muttered.
“Shut UP!” Madera snapped under her breath. “Why can’t we speak to our people?”
“They are being held in protective custody for crimes against the state of Leposia.”
“Until how long?”
“Until they have been sufficiently counseled.”
“Counseled? What on Earth did they do?”
“Nevermind. What did they do?”
“They got in a gigantic argument.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised,” Madera muttered. “Still, that’s no reason to hold someone prisoner.”
“They also wrecked our grand ballroom, but that is beside the point. Arguing is considered a capital offense on Leposia.”
“That is the stupidist thing I’ve ever heard–” Madera began, then bit her lip. “I mean, how interesting. Your exotic rules intrigue me. Maybe we could talk about them over a nice hot cup of LETTING THEM OUT OF THERE!”
Madera covered her face. “Not this again.”
“This is Communications General Chazzik. What can I tell you we can’t do today?”
“Make it stop,” Madera sighed.
“I’m nervous, okay? I mean, I’m only 21 years old. That’s a little early to be thinking about marriage.”
“You said Maloxians normally get married at 17!”
“Well, I’m not a normal Maloxian. I’ve got godlike powers!”
“Godlike powers of being a pain in my ass. Look, do you want to get married or not?”
“Pick a date.”
“I’d hurry up if I were you,” Peterman prodded, glancing uncomfortably at Hartley’s bulging eyes.
“That’s a year away!”
“We need time to prepare.”
“I want a big wedding.”
“Oh, for the love of the Directors…” Hartley muttered.
“We’ll do it in the arena, while the ship passes through the Bermuda Expanse. A traditional Maloxian ceremony.”
“There better not be fruit involved in this,” Baxter mumbled.
“Oh, there will be all right!” Mirk responded.
Hartley sighed, staring at the ceiling. “Mirk, why haven’t you mentioned any of this before? I had no idea you wanted a big wedding. Or that you wanted a traditional Maloxian one.”
“Well, you tend to get cranky when I make decisions.”
“Do I, now?”
Mirk stared uncertainly in Hartley’s eyes. “…Yes.”
“Well, then, if you want to have a big, fruity, Maloxian ceremony, you’ve got it. I’m just glad you set a freaking date!”
“Do I still get to perform the ceremony?” Baxter asked.
“Everything’s got to be about you, doesn’t it?” Richards asked Baxter.
“I was just wondering. Sheesh.”
“Sure, Captain, anything you want,” Hartley replied, and smiled winsomely at Mirk. “As long as Mirk doesn’t do anything stupid between now and then to screw this up.”
“Another one down,” Peterman said excitedly. “Well, we’re moving right along. NEXT!”
“You’ve been distant since I rescued you from the Dominion…”
“I’ve just had some…issues to work through. I love you as much as I ever did, J’hana.”
”–didn’t realize my eating embarrassed you. I’m SORRY!”
”–if you don’t like the belt, that’s your problem. I happen to think it makes me look dignified!”
“Your violent, overactive sexdrive has caused one too many intergalactic incidents!”
“Oh, don’t go blaming ME for that!”
“You think a little counseling solves everything!”
“I think I may have a crush on one of you…”
“Why don’t you just have that baby already!”
“You never share your cookies with me!”
“You’ve been neglecting the plasma injector manifolds!”
“You can barely hold down a job. You’re late to work all the time.”
“Can’t I just come to ONE staff meeting?”
“I think someone’s finally taking our request seriously,” Keefler said, glancing at his tactical screen.
Madera swung toward him in the command chair. “What do you mean?”
“They’re sending a ship up from the surface.”
“Are our people on it?”
“They’re raising shields and arming weapons.”
“May I make a minor suggestion?” Keefler prodded.
“Sure,” Madera replied.
“Go to Red Alert. Shields up. Phasers ready.”
“Are they any match for us?”
“In a word, yes.”
“Better put them on screen.”
A red-feathered birdlike creature came on the viewscreen, looking almost the size of a Flarn. Madera shivered.
“I am Confrontationmaster Gondar. I have been told you are argumentative and you refuse to leave.”
“We just want our people back.”
“They require six cycles of psychiatric care.”
Madera glanced at ops. “Do the math, Mister Sefelt.”
“NOT acceptable!” Madera said aloud. “Now, Mister Gondar, I suggest you let my people go, or else I will get very nasty with you.”
“Our vessel is tactically superior to yours. We would prefer not to use force, but we will if necessary.”
“Can you give me a minute to think it over?”
“Sure.” Gondar disappeared from the viewscreen, replaced with the feathery Leposian seal and soothing mood music.
“All right.” Madera stood up and stepped toward the front of the bridge. She looked around at Sefelt, Hildebrand, Keefler, and Koltz. “All right, people. We’re the second string. Some of us are even the third string. But we need to come up with a way to get our people out of there. And we don’t have a lot of time to come up with ideas. Let’s put our heads together and see what we can come up with.”
“Do we have to?” asked Sefelt.
Peterman leaned back, planting her hands on the floor, and stared up at the ceiling. “My back hurts.”
Baxter reached a hand behind her back and started kneading the soft spot between her shoulderblades. “Better?”
Peterman’s eyes fluttered. “Much.” She looked around at the group. “I think we’ve covered a lot of ground today.”
“I think we’ve discovered everybody here is certifiably nuts,” Vansen said, then glanced at the somber, quiet Weyoun. “Except you and me. Right, Weyoun?”
Weyoun just looked around at the group, glassy-eyed. “I have been waiting for some time to speak.”
“You could have interrupted at any time,” Peterman said. “Share your thoughts with us, Weyoun. You’re part of this group. Tell us what you think.”
“I think this is a very troubled crew.”
“There’s a prize-winning observation,” muttered Hartley.
“I think it’s quite unprofessional to let personal disagreements get in the way of diplomatic relations.”
“He’s got a point,” said Baxter.
“This should never happen again.”
Baxter looked around at his crew. “I don’t think it will, Weyoun. I think we’ve learned we need to be more honest with one another.” He elbowed Tilleran in the stomach. “Right, Commander? Huh?”
“Um…yes,” Tilleran said warily. “Honest. Sure thing.”
“Good enough,” Baxter said, rubbing his hands together. “Let’s engineer an escape plan.”
“I’d like to see you try,” scoffed Vansen.
“We have neglected one important topic,” J’hana said.
“And that is?” asked Peterman.
“The conflicts between those in command of us.” She pointed at the trio of Baxter, Richards, and Vansen. “Is it not true that all problems start at the top?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Baxter said.
“I think she’s right,” said Browning. “How can any of us expect to get along if the three people in command of the Explorer can’t get along?”
“What kind of example are you setting for us?” asked Hartley.
“What did I do?” Baxter stammered.
“It’s what you didn’t do,” said Peterman. “You never established your authority with Vansen. Never let her know who was boss.”
“Not very hard,” Hartley said. “And you let Richards get away with murder. He always shows up late for shifts. He makes questionable decisions. Instead of confronting him about it, you just let him slide. Or you complain to your wife.”
“That’s not true! Sometimes I complain to Julie.”
“But there are never any repercussions,” said Peterman. “Are there?”
Baxter looked at Richards. “He’s my friend. What am I going to do, fire him?”
“Maybe if you threatened to do that once in a while, he’d behave,” Vansen grumbled.
“Don’t I get a say in this?” Richards asked.
“No,” snapped Vansen.
“Well, what about her?” Baxter asked the group, pointing at Vansen.
“Richards should do the same with her,” Peterman said. “Stand up to her. As your first officer, he should be dealing with the second officer, so you don’t have to. Then all you’d have to worry about is dealing with him.”
“And why didn’t you suggest any of this to me before, honey?”
“Maybe I was afraid you’d take he constructive criticism the wrong way.”
Baxter floundered. “That’s…ridiculous. I’m…glad about your input. I’ll really think it over.” He glanced at Richards, then Vansen. “Or something.”
“I think we have all learned a lot about each other today,” Weyoun said solemnly.
“I’ve learned I despise this crew even more than I thought I did,” muttered Vansen.
“That’s the spirit,” Baxter said. “Now…let’s see about busting out of this joint!”
“The Explorer is leaving this system,” Subjunct Brakka said from the sensors console aboard the Leposian Confronation Vessel Impervious.
Confrontationmaster Grennik stared at the rear-end of the Explorer as it suddenly stretched into warp and disappeared into a pinprick among the stars. “Good. Communicate with Lessat’s office and let him know we have taken care of the threat. Meanwhile, I’ll be in my office, sharpening things.”
“Sir,” said Brakka. “We just got a strange sensor echo near the southern pole. Something grazing the atmosphere.”
“Note it in the science logs and have one of our Investigator Ships handle it. I’m sure it’s not a confrontation matter.”
Baxter and the others were in the midst of planning a complicated scheme involving faked illnesses, a rigged device made from J’hana’s garter belt and Peterman’s hair scrunchie, and lots of screaming.
They’d just begun to put the finishing touches on the plan, a plan Weyoun wanted no part of, when a Leposian guard walked up to the energy field and looked them over.
“You all have been working quietly on something for over an hour now.”
“That’s right,” Baxter said. “Is there a problem with that?”
“On the contrary,” said the guard. “The Psychological Ministry is happy with your progress. They believe you’ve conquered many of the conflicts among you.”
“Thanks,” said Peterman.
“You’ve made impressive progress in a short amount of time. Our people could learn much from you.”
“That’s what we were thinking,” Baxter said, with a smile.
The guard punched a control, letting down the field. It reached out a feathered hand to shake Baxter’s. “I am proud to say you are free to return to your ship, although you have been invited to attend another diplomatic event, if you are so inclined.”
“Sounds lovely,” said Weyoun, just as five beams of light appeared behind the guard, resolving themselves into Madera, Keefler, and security officers Unlathi and Reyes.
The guard turned, shocked, as Unlathi wrapped a powerful tentacle around it and tossed it against the prison floor.
“Finish him!” Madera called, out, and all away team members blasted at the guard with their phasers, stunning it unconscious. “Madera to Escort. Drop sensor-reflective shielding and begin emergency beam-out, Mister Koltz!”
“But–” Baxter said, a little too late, for he had already begun to dematerialize.
Supplemental. Due to a…misunderstanding…I am hearby recommending that the Dominion no longer pursue diplomatic contact with the Leposians, at least not for a little while. The differences just run too deep.
Meanwhile, the personal conflicts among my crew seem to be all but resolved, and I think we can all look forward to a much better working relationship from here on out.
“…found him crawling through one of the plasma coolant manifolds,” Ensign Morgan said sheepishly. “Luckily, it was empty.”
“I guess so,” said Browning, kneeling and running her hands through Plato’s mop of blond hair. “Be more careful, okay buddy? Don’t go running away from Auntie Lindsay when she babysits you!”
“Yes’m, I’m sorry,” Plato said, and turned, pouting, toward Chief Morgan. “Sorry Auntie Lindsay.”
“It’s okay, punkin,” Morgan said, and turned to head out the door to Browning’s quarters, just as Richards emerged from the back room with a cargo container brimming with clothes and other assorted knick-nacks.
“Are you sure we’re doing the right thing, Janice?”
Browning nodded, standing. “I think so. I’m just…so confused.”
“We don’t have to let it end this way.”
“Chris: Do you want a family? Right now?”
Richards opened and closed his mouth. “Um…”
“That’s what I thought.”
“No more Uncle Chris?” asked Plato, glancing to Richards.
“Sure, sure there will be more Uncle Chris,” Richards said. “I just have lots of important missions coming up, and won’t be able to hang around as much.” He looked to Browning. “Maybe some free time will be just what I need to get my career back on the right track.”
Browning nodded. “Maybe. Goodbye, Christopher.”
“I’ll talk to you soon.”
Browning nodded. “Mmm hmm.”
Richards leaned over and kissed her on the forehead, then knelt to hug Plato tightly. “Goodbye, buddy.”
When Richards stepped out onto the bridge of the Explorer, it was with a feeling of renewed vigor and determination.
“You’re fifteen minutes late,” Vansen muttered, not looking up from her padd. She was sitting in the center seat, which thoroughly annoyed him.
“I had important matters to attend to. Now get out of my chair,” he snapped, looming over Vansen. “Or I’ll demote you to Lieutenant. If you think I won’t, then just try me.”
Vansen locked eyes with Richards. He could see the calculation going on behind her eyes. Wordlessly, she shifted to her normal seat to the left of the command chair.
At that moment, Captain Baxter stepped out of his readyroom. “The Leposians were really mad at us. You should see the hate mail I’m getting.” He glared at Madera.
“Anybody could have made that mistake. How was I to know you had just been released?” she moaned.
“I tried to explain that to the Leposian authorities.” Baxter shook his head mournfully as Richards moved to the seat to the right of the command chair and Baxter sat down in the center. “They didn’t seem to understand.”
“There are plenty of other species out there for us to go out and recruit for the Dominion,” Richards said.
“And we can’t possibly royally f*** up EVERY mission,” Vansen agreed.
“Here here,” said Baxter, leaning back in his chair. “We’ll be just fine.” And he really felt that way. The Explorer crew would be just fine.
“Are you sure this is a secure channel, Greatness?” the Fat, sinister Weyoun said, staring out of the desktop terminal in Tilleran’s quarters.
The Betazoid’s face had swelled to resemble that of a monkey, the preferred visage of the changeling rebel known as Jelo.
“I have made all the necessary alterations.”
“I was concerned for you, Founder. I have not heard from you in two days.”
“I was trapped on a planet, on an inane mission with these idiotic people.”
“I am truly sorry.”
“How is our captive?”
“Not happy to be here.”
“I know how she feels.”
“Your leadership is truly missed here, Jelo. When can we expect your return?”
“As soon as the Explorer has been reduced to ashes.”
“And when will that be?”
“In good time, Weyoun. In good time.”
So what’s been going on with Mirk lately, you might ask? Well, in addition to being betrothed, whatever that means, Mirk’s being tracked by a fellow godlike being. Irma, you ask? Thank gods no. This goddess is much cuter, and seems to actually be on Mirk’s side. Or is she? Find out as Mirk is forced to make a choice between his crew and godhood…again.