Author: Anthony Butler
“This is the beginning of a brave new day,” First Gaff’igan said proudly as he stepped out of the transport ship and set foot on the new home of the so-called “nice” Jem’Hadar. Having rescued them from repeated attacks of a nefarious anti-Dominion force known as the Submission, the Dominion had now deposited them on a new world, the tiny, frigid, barely class-M planet of Elpa Three.
“Anyplace you call home,” Gaff’igan chuckled to himself as the other Jem’Hadar began carrying cargo containers out of the ship so they could set up camp in the clearing which, according to sensors, was just a couple kilometers ahead.
Early cartographic reports suggested Elpa Three was an ideal location for the “nice” Jem’Hadar to set up camp. It was out of the way, so it was an unlikely target for attacks (even Dominion ships rarely passed by it), and Gaff’igan was glad for that. Him and his brethren SO despised violence.
“I’ll get the kitchen set up and we can have some nice Ketracel shakes!” Bel’bivdevoe said.
“I’ll find the mugs!” the newly-hatched young one, Chaka’kan said merrily.
Gaff’igan nodded and took a deep breath, inhaling the crisp dusk air. One of his first orders of business would be to rename Elpa to “New Jem’Hada.”
He liked the sound of that. It had a noble, yet not too threatening, ring to it.
“First, there is a rumbling in the forest ahead,” Third Banan’aram said, approaching Gaff’igan.
The First nodded. “Yes, I can hear a slight rumble.” He nodded at Chaka’kan. “Check it out, Ninetieth!”
“But why do I have to check it out?” whined Chaka’kan.
“Because you are Ninetieth, and last, and therefore you get the crummy assignments.”
Chaka’kan sighed. “I hate being a kid.”
“If it makes you feel better, you will attain maturity in another seven point two hours,” Banan’aram said helpfully.
“Yeah, but that’ll take forever,” Chaka said as he shrouded and headed, invisible, off into the forest.
Gaffi’gan nodded with satisfaction. “He will make a nice addition to our group,” he said.
Moments later, Chaka’kan unshrouded and bolted out from the overgrowth of bluish plant life.
An odd kind of roaring could be heard in the distance.
“Report!” barked Gaff’igan.
Chaka’kan said nothing, merely bolted into the empty freighter. Shortly thereafter, Gaff’igan watched as the door to the freighter closed and the boxy ship climbed up and out of sight, beyond the clouds.
“What got into him?” asked Bel’bivdevo.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to have to give him a stern talking-to when he gets back,” Banan’aram said, just as another rumble echoed from within the woods.
“Fighting stance!” shouted Gaff’igan.
“We don’t have a fighting stance,” moaned Bel’bivdevo as the other Jem’Hadar in the scouting party, about a dozen, milled about curiously.
Then the trees parted and it came. Big, billowing, rippling, and making a sound that curtled Gaff’igan’s white in its tube.
“The gods have gone mad,” Gaff’igan said quietly, and he and the others ran full speed in the opposite direction.
“Look at her,” Lt. J’hana said, sipping her Andorian Blue Ale, elbows on the bar in the Constellation Cafe, as Mirk and Hartley looked on with her.
“She seems fine,” Hartley said, sitting next to J’hana.
Mirk stood behind the bar, arms folded. “I don’t know. She looks preoccupied to me.”
“Preoccupied is not the word,” J’hana said. “She is not the Ariel Tilleran we know.”
“People change, J’hana. So she doesn’t have this weird sex thing with you anymore,” said Hartley. “I can safely say it doesn’t bother me a bit.”
J’hana scowled at Hartley. “You are her friend too, are you not, Commander?”
“Well of course I am.”
“And has she spent much time with you in recent months?”
“Well, no, but…I’ve been kind of busy planning the wedding.”
J’hana nodded. “I understand. However, I cannot speak to her. She will not talk to me beyond official ship business and cursory smalltalk. Go over to her and find out what is wrong. You are the only person on this ship who can.”
“You’re just being melodramatic,” Hartley said, and sipped her Crescan ale.
“Come on, Megan. Do J’hana a favor,” Mirk said.
“And since when did you become the boss of me?” Hartley asked with a crooked grin.
“Since we got engaged. Didn’t I tell you Maloxian law requires me to make all your life decisions for you now?”
“Very funny,” Hartley said, and slid off her chair. “I’ll do it, but only because I love you.”
“I am sorry I do not feel the same way,” J’hana muttered.
“I was talking to Mirk.”
“Of course you were.”
Mirk and J’hana watched Hartley approach Tilleran.
“You were not kidding about the Maloxian law,” J’hana said.
“And you’ll shut up if you know what’s good for you,” Mirk said. “Here, have another drink.”
J’hana chuckled dryly.
“Okay, Miss Gloom, I want a report.” Hartley sat down opposite Tilleran and put her ale down on the table that overlooked the forward- streaking stars that signified the Explorer was at warp.
Tilleran turned in the opposite direction and kept reading her padd. “A report on what,” she said absently.
“On why you’ve been so damned secluded lately.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well, for example,” Hartley said, staring at the ceiling. “We don’t go shopping at Ship’s Shoppes anymore. You missed the white sale at Biggs’!”
“I have all the white I need,” Tillerann said, looking perplexed for a moment, then returning to her reading.
“Well, let’s see what’s got you so damned interested,” Hartley said. She leaned over and snatched the padd out of Tilleran’s hand. “Dominion ship movements? Why on Earth are you looking at this stuff? Did you become a tactical officer without telling me?”
Tilleran snapped the padd back from Hartley lightning-quick. “Excuse ME! That is my padd, now get your grubby human hands off it!”
Hartley looked up at Tilleran as the Betazoid stood up and turned around to head out of the Constellation Club.
“What the hell has climbed inside your ass!”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Tilleran sneered and headed out the door.
“Ari, speak to me!” J’hana called after her.
“Go away,” Tilleran snapped and left the club.
Hartley walked back over to the bar. “Another ale, Mirk, and keep them coming.”
“May I say, you did an excellent job, Commander. Perhaps you should be a counselor,” J’hana said gruffly.
When Tilleran returned to her quarters, she quickly punched a button on a jury-rigged panel on her desktop terminal. That would project fake sensor readings from within her quarters.
That done, her facial expression went from a deep frown to a relaxed smile, and then her face bulged out into that of a monkey’s, and her trim female physique in a Starfleet uniform blossomed into a bulky, muscular male body covered in black robes.
“Much better,” Jelo grumbled and sat down behind Tilleran’s desk. “Time to check my mail.”
He punched a control on Tilleran’s terminal and patched into a secret frequency that was hidden in the Explorer’s background ramscoop radiation trail.
The data streamed into the terminal. Reports from Fat Weyoun on the training of the undomesticated changelings. Then, suddenly, the data stopped streaming in, and ended on a decidedly negative note.
Jelo read the last few words, his eyes bulging in disbelief, and in one fell swoop his hand morphed into a sledge hammer and he smashed his terminal to pieces.
“Our orders are to change course immediately for Elpa Three,” Lt. Commander Nell Vansen said, hands draped behind her back, standing at the front of the bridge as Captain Andy Baxter and Commander Chris Richards stepped off the aft turbolift and headed down to join her, clad in shorts and t-shirts with numbers on them. Baxter sported an “8” and Richards a “88,” but Vansen had no idea what those numbers meant.
“You interrupted flag football,” Baxter snapped.
“With pressing Starfleet business,” Vansen said. “So how about you put your second childhood on hold for a minute and become a functioning captain for once in your miserable life.”
Baxter folded his arms. “Well, when you put it that way.” He glanced at Lt. Madera. “Lieutenant, divert course for–”
“I already did it. Commander Vansen told me to,” Madera said sheepishly.
“Just freaking great. Why do I even bother coming to the bridge?” Baxter said, heading over to the command chair and sitting down.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Vansen said, sitting down next to him. “You can always quit and give the ship to me.”
“Hah,” Baxter muttered. “That’ll be the day.”
“You’d have to get past me to get to that chair!” Richards said, shouting at Vansen across Baxter’s lap.
“No problem,” Vansen said flatly, as the aft turbolift door opened and Lt. Commander Tilleran rushed out onto the bridge.
“Glad you could join us, Commander,” Vansen said. “Man your post.”
“You are late,” J’hana whispered from tactical.
“Eat me,” Tilleran spat and ducked behind her console.
“Name the time and place,” said J’hana.
“What do we know about Elpa Three?” Tilleran said, ignoring her.
Baxter swiveled to face Tilleran. “I was going to ask you that question.”
“Right, right,” Tilleran muttered and stabbed at her panel. “Borderline class-M. Very small. Ice cold. The Dominion are sending their so-called nice Jem’Hadar there.”
“It’ll be nice to see them again,” Richards said.
“The Dominion lost contact with them this afternoon,” said Vansen.
Suddenly the junior-sized Ambassador Weyoun plunged out of the foreward turbolift, glancing over his shoulder at the viewscreen. “Are we there yet?”
“We just changed course,” Richards said. “We’ll be there in–” he looked at Madera.
“One hour, at Warp Seven.”
“Raise it to Nine!” Tilleran barked.
“Captain?” Madera asked, turning around in her chair.
Baxter raised his eyebrow. “You in a hurry, Commander?”
“I’m…just worried about those poor Jem’Hadar.”
Baxter shrugged. “Do it, Madera.” He looked at Tilleran. “You might want to run your suggestion by me next time, though, Commander.”
“Whatever,” Tilleran said, and resumed her scans.
Weyoun moved to stand next to Vansen. He glanced down at her expectantly.
She looked at him. “What?”
Weyoun looked away. “Oh, nothing…”
“You want my chair.”
“Well…” Weyoun twiddled his thumbs.
“But you’re too passive-aggressive to say anything, am I right?”
“Forget about it.” Vansen turned to glance at her data screen. When Weyoun was still standing there, she glared at him. “Go bug Richards.”
Richards sighed and stood up. “Here, Ambassador. At least some of us have remembered our manners.”
“Stuff it,” Vansen said icily as Weyoun graciously took his seat.
“I am very concerned about our Jem’Hadar landing party,” Weyoun said, leaning next to Baxter. “What if they have been attacked again by the Submission? Or worse, some of Jelo’s people?”
Tilleran’s face twitched slightly at that.
“We’ll get to the bottom of this, Ambassador, one way or the other, believe me,” said Baxter.
“These Jem’Hadar are not equipped to mount a resistance to any… threats,” Weyoun said.
“We’ll be there in no time,” Baxter said.
“I only hope we get there soon enough.”
Thank goodness that their stamina hadn’t been removed along with their thirst for battle.
Gaff’igan decided he was infinitely thankful that the Founders had decided to leave some Jem’Hadar abilities intact when they began re- engineering them to be “nice.”
Gaff’igan and his scouting party had sprinted seven kilometers before stopping to see if they were still being followed by that…thing.
When their combined excellent hearing told them they were not, they started looking for a place to set camp.
They’d made their way around a sizable mountain when they found what they thought might be the ideal place:
A crashed Jem’Hadar battlecruiser.
Or at least the front section of it. The larger back end was surely jettisoned in an attempt to allow what remained of the ship to soft-land on the planet’s surface.
The Jem’Hadar all seemed in better spirits as they jogged down the mountainside toward the crash site.
Perhaps there were weapons aboard, or communications equipment they could use to send out a distress call. Maybe there were some Jem’Hadar aboard who actually enjoyed fighting. They could battle that…thing…even though Gaff’igan was pretty sure it would be against even THEIR genetic code to do that.
The First and his men jogged around to the nearest entry hatch and pried it open.
“Beacons,” Gaff’igan ordered, and the others in the group quickly switched on their shoulder-mounted torches as Banan’aram led the way through the corridors of the darkened wreck.
“Life signs?” Gaff’igan asked of Bel’bivdevo, who was consulting a handheld sensor.
“One humanoid. We cannot tell much more than that because of the radiation being given off by this vessel’s fractured power nodes.”
“Banan…get down to the engine compartment and make sure those nodes are stabilized,” Gaff’igan ordered. Banan’aram nodded and indicated for two others to join him.
“Let us get to the command center and see what we can find,” Gaff’igan told the others, and led the way down the corridor in the opposite direction.
Gaff’igan was rounding a corner when he felt the hard barrel of a Jem’Hadar rifle being shoved against his skull.
“Don’t move, scumbag!” someone shouted at him.
He held up his hand for his people to stay where they were. “Please don’t hurt me!” he moaned.
“What kind of crazy Jem’Hadar are you?” the woman, in a tattered, grease-stained Starfleet uniform asked.
“Nice ones,” Bel’bivdevo said meekly from behind Gaff’igan.
“Who are you?” Gaff’igan asked as the woman lowered her uniform.
“A Starfleet officer. A very tired, very annoyed, Starfleet officer.” She sighed. “The name’s Ariel Tilleran. Nice to meet you guys. Anybody know a quick way off this planet?”
“Contact bearing oh-eight-two mark one-five-nine,” J’hana called out, disrupting the silence and and the game of Video Blackjack that Captain Baxter had been playing on his armrest monitor.
He looked up. “On screen.”
The gunmetal-colored freighter on the screen looked vaguely Dominion.
“It’s adrift,” J’hana reported. “One life sign aboard. Sensors identify it as the Dominion Freighter, named the…ugh. The Founders’ Pride.”
“That’s the freighter that was supposed to take the nice Jem’Hadar to Elpa Three,” said Weyoun.
Baxter nodded. “Hail them.”
Weyoun glanced at Baxter worriedly. “Our freighters usually carry a complement of at least thirteen.”
“Not this one, apparently.”
“We’re getting a response.”
“Go,” Baxter said, as Vansen rapped her fingers on the arm of her chair and Richards leaned lazily against Tilleran’s console.
A very frightened-looking Jem’Hadar appeared on the screen.
“Thank the Founders!” he cried. “Friendlies!”
“Some more so than others,” Baxter said, glancing at Vansen. “What can we do for you?”
Baxter looked back at J’hana.
“The ship is without power, sir. It appears the warp engines were improperly engaged and the auto-shutdown sequence was started.”
“I’m not a very well-trained pilot,” explained the Jem’Hadar.
“Where are the rest of your people?”
“I left them stranded on Elpa Three.”
“Why?” Weyoun demanded.
“Because we were being stalked by a terrible creature.”
Baxter frowned. “What…type of creature?”
“It was awful,” the Jem’Hadar moaned.
“You will have to tell us more if we’re going to be able to help you,” Vansen interjected.
“It was…it was a huge, raging beast with flailing tentacles and rows of razorsharped teeth…but the face, the face…it looked just like a…like a…”
“Spit it out!” Tilleran snapped.
“Dear God,” said Richards.
Weyoun swallowed. “In a manner of speaking.”
“Founder, changeling, shapeshifter, I don’t care what you call it. The thing is absolutely crazy,” the real Ariel Tilleran said, handing cartridges of Ketracel White to Gaff’igan and his men as they sat around a wrecked room that looked to be, at one time, a Jem’Hadar barracks.
Tilleran sipped from a mug. “Thank goodness the Vorta running this ship liked hot chocolate.” She sighed. “It’s been a long day. You guys are probably exhausted from being chased by that thing.”
Gaff’igan nodded. “Where…where did it come from?”
“This ship,” Tilleran muttered, causing expressions of horror to cross each Jem’Hadar face. “They were actually trying to use my telepathy to control it. That’s a laugh.”
“It. What is IT?” asked Bel’bivdevo.
“A changeling,” Tilleran said. “But only in the loosest sense of the word. It’s actually several of them. At least ten. Wild and undomesticated. Maybe an evolutionary ancestor. Maybe a weak…er…link…maybe a genetic mishap. I don’t know. But whatever it was, it escaped from its containment chamber, killed all the Vorta scientists, as well as a slew of Jem’Hadar, ransacked this ship, including the engine room, and forced us to crashland here.” She sighed. “That’s about when I escaped. I watched that thing tear a hole in the side of this ship and go racing off into the woods. I guess it’s still out there. And as long as it is, I’m content to stay in here.”
“You say…they used you to try to control them?” asked Gaff’igan.
“Telepaths can’t read changelings. But I’m a rather powerful telepath, and these weren’t normal changelings. But I didn’t have any effect on them one way or another. I can tell you this though, they cannot be reasoned with. I’ve looked into their…well, eyes, at least during the times when that thing had eyes.”
“It must be destroyed.”
“An unusual proposition coming from a Jem’Hadar,” said Tilleran.
“We are not normal Jem’Hadar.”
“As I’m beginning to see.”
“Just one problem,” said Gaff’igan.
“We are averse to violence.”
“Just great,” Tilleran said, heaving a long sigh. “Of all the Jem’Hadar in all the bleeking quadrant…”
“How is he, Doctor?” Captain Baxter asked, looking over the Jem’Hadar soldier with interest as Holly Wilcox scanned him with her medical tricorder. He sat in the bridge conference room, literally shaking with fear, staring out the front windows and the stars streaking by, as if something was going to fly right through those very windows.
“Other than having a pulse that’s through the roof and being scared beyond all reason, he’s just fine,” Wilcox said. “We know little about the Jem’Hadar but we can tell this one is in an early stage of development.” She moved to sit down near the Jem’Hadar and study her tricorder readings.
“What are you? Nine days?” asked Vansen, leaning over the conference room table.
“Eight…eight and a half,” said Chaka’kan.
“Good guess,” Baxter said to Vansen.
“I AM the Dominion expert, after all.”
“Quite young,” Weyoun said needlessly. He looked at the Jem’Hadar. “What can you tell us about the beast that attacked you, other than that it looked like a Founder?”
“It was awful. At one point it swelled to a size as high as the treetops, and then it seemed to gush across the forest floor like a flood.”
“The perfect killing machine,” Lt. Commander Tilleran muttered from the far end of the table.
“What’s that, Commander?” Baxter asked, glancing over.
“Don’t you worry about that, Captain,” Tilleran said. At that, she got up and left.
“Has she always been this way, or is this something new?” Vansen asked, leaning toward Baxter.
“No, this is definitely new.” He turned to Chaka’kan. “Okay, um, little guy. Listen, we need your help to save the rest of your contingent and stop this, whatever it is.”
“I do not understand.”
“I want you to accompany us down to that planet and help us track that thing. That’s what Jem’Hadar excel at, isn’t it? Tracking?”
“Er, not this breed of Jem’Hadar,” Weyoun broke in. “Remember, these Jem’Hadar have had all their battle instincts removed.”
“Well, part of a Jem’Hadar is better than none at all, right?” Baxter said lightly. He clapped Chaka’kan on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, fella. I’m sure you’ll be just fine.” He looked at Wilcox. “Holly, why don’t you take him belowdecks and find him some White. I think we still have some samples from that time when Commander Conway was addicted to the stuff. We were hiding it in the Sickbay sample room.”
Wilcox nodded. “I know just where they are.” She looked at Chaka’kan. “Come on, I’ll show you the way. We’ll go see Counselor Peterman while we’re at it. You’ll love her.”
“Um…okay…” Chaka’kan rose on unsteady feet and followed Wilcox out of the room.
Once they were alone, Baxter looked at Weyoun and Vansen. “This is big trouble, isn’t it?”
They both nodded.
“A small version of the Great Link, focused only on killing and primal predatory instincts,” Weyoun said. “It will be a formidable foe.”
Vansen made some notes on her padd. “Right. Phaser rifles set to ‘kill.’”
“No!” Weyoun snapped. “They are still Founders. We must endeavor to help them.”
“And get killed in the process?” Vansen scoffed. “Not on my watch.”
“He does have a point,” Baxter said. “You know the Founders would get bent out of shape if we slaughtered several of their own.”
“Even if they are distant cousins,” Weyoun said. “Family is family.”
“Then why doesn’t Odo or someone come personally and do this?” asked Vansen.
Weyoun floundered. “Because the Dominion trusts the Explorer crew to get the job done.”
“They think we’re expendable,” Vansen said easily.
“That is simply not true,” Weyoun said.
“We’ll just show you who’s expendable, right Vansen?” Baxter said, standing up. “Oh, God damn. I just stepped in gum. Who left their gum on the floor!”
Vansen covered her face.
After Bel’bivdevo succeeded in restoring emergency battery power…just enough to light the ship and get the air recycles running, Tilleran and the nice Jem’Hadar on the ship moved to one of the more secluded areas to set up for the night.
“So…did everyone else aboard the ship die?” inquired Gaff’igan, looking around the room as Tilleran pulled blankets off its only bed…a rather huge one.
“Yup,” Tilleran said. “Including that fat bastard of a Weyoun. What a head case. That guy was so mean to me. I must admit to being a little pleased when I stumbled over his twisted corpse in the corridor.”
“That is a shame.”
Tilleran surveyed the room. “This is Fat Man’s cabin, actually. The big bed, the Balforous Seven posters on the wall. An industrial-sized replicator and plenty of leftover garga melons. It stinks of him.”
“Why are you captive here?”
“So a rebel changeling can infiltrate my ship and try to destroy it, along with the Dominion and its alliance with the Federation.” Tilleran actually sounded calm as she said that.
“Jelo,” Gaff’igan spat.
“You know him?”
“We know of him. The Dominion News Authority tells of his plan to convert Jem’Hadar to his service and take over.”
“What kind of odds do they give him?”
“Little, if any chance,” Gaff’igan said confidently.
“I think you’re being lied to,” Tilleran said. “I heard Fat Weyoun gloating, before that thing smashed him against a bulkhead. Jelo has lots of Jem’Hadar working for him. Jem’Hadar, who, unlike you, are dying to get into combat, and none too happy about the kinder, gentler Dominion.”
“They would not disobey Founders,” said Banan’aram.
“Depends on how you look at it,” Tilleran said, sitting down on the bed and leaning back. “Jelo is a Founder too.”
“These are violent times indeed.”
“Try not to think about it. ‘Night.” She stretched her arms out and closed her eyes as the Jem’Hadar stood clustered around her, staring at her. Moments later, she opened her eyes and leaned up on her elbows. “You know, you guys can go to sleep too.”
“Jem’Hadar do not sleep.”
Fifteen minutes later, the whole lot of them were asleep.
“I’m glad you came to see me,” Counselor Peterman said, yanking her golden retriever, Charlie, by his leash, through the arboretum.
“Any reason we couldn’t meet in your office?” Holly asked, as Chaka’kan looked around at the many large trees. Over the years, the Explorer gardeners had strived to develop a real “endangered rainforest” feel in the arboretum.
“My, uh, door is being repaired,” Peterman mumbled.
Holly giggled. “Do you mean widened, Counselor?”
“No,” she said, and waddled forward.
“You are immense,” Chaka’kan said.
Peterman stopped and whirled on a heel. “I am PREGNANT! This is called PREGNANCY WEIGHT! If you Jem’Hadar got pregnant instead of being born in tubes, then you’re understand that!”
“She is very touchy,” Chaka said to Holly.
“She’s gotten worse as the pregnancy has progressed,” Holly confided in the Jem’Hadar. “Actually, by all rights, your way is better.”
“I think I can take it from here,” Peterman said. “Why don’t you be a dear, Holly, and take Charlie back to my quarters while I have a little heart-to-heart with Chaka here?”
“Um…” Holly said.
Peterman shoved the leash into her hand. “I thought you’d understand. “Bye now!”
Holly grudgingly walked off, cursing and yanking at Charlie’s leash. Peterman meanwhile led Chaka’kan to a bench and sat down with him. Actually, he sat down, and she lowered herself slowly, and with a grunt.
“Errh…there we go,” Peterman said, maneuvering around to face the Jem’Hadar. She crossed her arms over her swollen belly. “Now then. Let’s talk about you.”
“What is there to talk about. I am not yet nine days old.”
“Pretty young to be racing around in a ship all by yourself!”
“I had no choice. I was chased away by an insane wild creature.”
“And you feel guilty about abandoning the other Jem’Hadar, I bet.”
“Not especially.” Chaka’kan looked at something over Peterman’s shoulder. “Is that a belto leaf over there?”
“I doubt it,” Peterman said. “Look, we need to talk. I’m told you are going to be integral in stopping whatever crazy thing that attacked you. This is your chance to prove yourself to your comrades. Isn’t that important to you?”
“Well, it should be.” Peterman thought a moment. “Well, there must be something I can do to convince you.”
“I thought I’d find you here,” Commander Chris Richards said, walking up to join Peterman and Chaka.
“Christopher, I’m busy right now,” Peterman said.
Chaka’kan, meanwhile, dove from the bench and bowed before Richards. “The Warrior.”
“Now…wait just a sec,” Richards chuckled. “All I did was help your people out a bit…”
“There are legends of you.”
“It was like six months ago.”
“Some of us only live a few years. Legends grow quickly.”
Richards shrugged, looking down at the prone Jem’Hadar, then to Peterman. “Was it something I said?”
“I don’t know. But you’re disrupting a counseling session.”
“And you’re being cranky,” Richards said. “We’re almost to Elpa Three. I need to collect Chaka’kan and get him ready to beam down with the away team.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.” Peterman tried to stand up a couple times, then realized it wasn’t worth the effort, and instead dragged Richards down by the front of his uniform. “He is a very shaken young man. He’s still very upset about his encounter down on that planet. If you send him back, he may come totally unglued!”
“And if we don’t, nobody may never make it back from that planet,” Richards said. “The decision’s already been made. Good night!” And with that he left, and the Jem’Hadar followed him unquestioningly.
“Where the Warrior goes, I will follow.”
“Come back here!” Peterman cried, but didn’t have the energy to shove off the bench and follow Richards and Chaka. Actaully, a nap would be perfect. She curled up on the bench and fell fast asleep.
The real Ariel Tilleran awoke to a loud roar outside the cabin she and the other Jem’Hadar were sleeping in.
She darted up in bed, knocking over Bel’bivdevo and Banan’aram.
“Did you hear that?”
“Jem’Hadar do not sleep,” Gaff’igan said woozily, standing up and looking around the dim room, which was only lit by faint, pink emergency lighting.
“It’s the creature,” Tilleran said, zipping her uniform jacket. “Do any of you have weapons?”
“I have a paring knife,” Banan’aram said helpfully.
“I have a sewing laser,” said Bel’bivdevo.
“My kingdom for a phaser,” Tilleran grunted and then suddenly she heard a great rattling belowdecks. “It’s in the ship!”
“How can you be sure?” asked Gaff’igan.
Suddenly a huge tentacle ripped right through the floor, spearing one of Gaff’igan’s men right through the chest and tossing him aside like a rag doll.
“Call it a lucky guess,” Tilleran said, and motioned the group out into the corridor.
“What are we going to do?” Gaff’igan cried out, ushering his nine surviving men out into the corridor.
“Get the hell out of here.”
“How can we outrun something that can take any shape?” asked Banan’aram.
“We’re going to have to be creative,” Tilleran said. “Damn, there must be weapons somewhere on what’s left of this ship.” She thought back to the time when she was held captive there. “Come on. Do you guys think you can use a plasma rifle if you get your hands on one?”
“It should be a lot like the plasmic glue gun I use when I teach my arts and crafts class,” Bel’bivdevo mused.
“JUST MOVE!” Tilleran cried as the changeling beast poured out of the cabin they’d just left like a tidal wave and splashed into the corridor.
The group hightailed it for the end of the corridor as the changeling rolled like a wave after them. Just before it reached them, they dove through an open hatch and sealed it.
Tilleran led the way down a ladder as they heard the angry thumps of the changeling beating against the hatch, using who knew what type of nasty implement to break through.
“We don’t have much time to get you guys battle trained, and I’m a science officer, so that’s two strikes against us,” Tilleran said breathlessly as the group reached the bottom of the ladder and rushed out into the hallway, several decks down from where they’d begun.
Suddenly they heard the creature roaring down the crawlspace.
“And that would be strike three,” said Gaff’igan.
“You understand your orders, Vansen,” Baxter said, as he walked with his second officer down the corridor toward the transporter room. “Try to save the thing if you can.”
Vansen held up her phaser rifle. “Yeah. I’m going to try really hard.”
“Please, for the love of the Founders, understand it is just a frightened, underdeveloped creature that is only acting on instinct,” Weyoun said, walking on the other side of Vansen.
“Like J’hana,” Vansen said.
“Very funny,” J’hana said, bringing up the rear with Chaka’kan, Ensign Adam Keefler, and Lt. Unlathi, the towering, tentacled, genderless purple security officer.
“Just bring this weird-looking team back alive,” Baxter said, standing by the transporter room door as the group ducked through.
“Hey guys,” Transporter Chief Lindsay Morgan said with a grin and a wave. “Hear ya got a real scary mission. Now you don’t go gettin’ killed now, ya hear?”
“Shut up and energize,” Vansen barked.
Once the transporter room doors closed, leaving Weyoun and Baxter alone in the corridor, they exchanged a worried glance.
“I do not envy their mission,” Weyoun said solemnly.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “It’s small comfort knowing they’re going down there to fight that thing while we’re perfectly safe up here.”
The changeling masquerading as Lt. Commander Ariel Tilleran marched with purpose down the Deck 9 corridor. She stopped in her tracks as she saw someone coming around the corner.
It was Plato.
Physically, he resembled a 12-year-old, but Jelo knew him to be less than two years old.
“Hi, Aunt Ariel,” Plato said. “I was just going to class.”
“Um…good,” Jelo said, kneeling to face Plato. “What are you going to be studying?”
“Genetic manipulation. Mister Flemister says I’m a genetic miracle, what with my human and changeling DNA.”
“Mister Flemister is a smart man,” Jelo huffed. “Well I hope you have a good time in your class.”
“Where are you going?” Plato asked.
“On a little work assignment,” Jelo said lightly. She stood, then cocked her head, as if getting an idea. She looked down at Plato. “Hey, little guy. I have an idea. Why don’t you come with me?”
“Um…but I have to go to class.”
“You can skip class just this once. Going on a special assignment with the Chief Science Officer…heck, that has to be worth some extra credit.”
Plato shrugged. “I guess so..”
Jelo took Plato’s hand. “Now then, let’s get moving.”
Just then, Janice Browning came jogging around the corner.
“Plato! How’d you get so far ahead of me?” she asked, stopping to squat in front of Plato and pat him on the head. She looked up at Jelo. “Hey, Commander. I hope he wasn’t bothering you!”
“No, not at all,” Jelo said. “We were just talking about some of my plans.”
“Really,” Browning said. “Well that’s good.”
Jelo/Tilleran looked thoughtful. “Well. I’ve really got a lot to do. You guys have a great morning.”
“Always,” Browning said, and led Plato off down the corridor.
“Mommy, Aunt Ariel’s hands were real clammy. Not like a person’s hands at all,” Plato told Browning.
“Isn’t that nice,” Browning said, and resumed her jog down the corridor with Plato keeping pace at her side.
Jelo inwardly scolded himself for not simply killing Browning and taking off with the half-changeling child. He had the sneaking suspicion that Plato would be useful to him. Raising a half-human, half-changeling child as his own would mean a great deal to his new empire. He might even find ways of infusing other humanoids with changeling attributes, and that couldn’t possibly be a bad thing. Reducing a whole planet of people to liquid form and linking with them, convincing them to follow his every whim. Maybe that would be better than trying to train those primitive changelings that were wreaking havoc down on Elpa.
Either way, one thing was clear: Jelo had to get off the Explorer. Or, better yet…
The real Tilleran blasted a hole in the side of the Dominion ship with her plasma rifle and led the way out. “Come on! It won’t take that thing long to find us. At least in the forest we have a chance of staying out of its way.”
“We could simply shroud and allow it to pass by,” Bel’bivdevo suggested.
“But Commander Tilleran cannot shroud,” said Banan’aram.
“She seems quite capable of fending for herself.”
“No,” Gaff’igan said. “This should be a group endeavor. All for one, and victory is life.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Tilleran said, and fought her way through some underbrush as she heard the rumbling of the creature tearing its way out of the warship hull and plodding out into the forest after them.
“Tricorders to maximum scanning range,” Commander Vansen ordered, as her group fanned out along the mountain trail, less than a kilometer from their beam-in point on Elpa. “We’re not far from where Chaka’kan says his people landed. We should be picking up SOME lifesigns fairly soon.”
“No lifesigns,” J’hana said, consulting her tricorder. “However, I am picking up a significant amount of wreckage. Part of a Dominion spacecraft, by the looks of it.”
“Okay,” Vansen said. “We move that way. Everyone stay together.”
“Can I leave yet?” asked Chaka’kan.
“Absolutely not!” Vansen snapped.
Lt. Commander Hartley had her feet up on her desk, reading from her copy of “The Alien Wedding Journal,” when she noticed Lt. Commander Tilleran walking by the window that overlooked the main engineering compartment.
“Wonder what she’s doing here,” Hartley said to herself, and continued reading.
A couple minutes later, her curiosity got the better of her and she set the padd down, pushing out of her chair.
She walked out of her office to find the engine room oddly quiet. Just a minute ago, Stuart and Lexxin had been reconfiguring the main plasma manifold, and now…
“Hello?” Hartley asked, walking toward the railing that surrounded the warp core. “Anybody home? Tilleran? Stuart, Lexxin?”
She turned around, then gasped to see someone was standing right behind her. She quickly realized it was just Tilleran.
“Sheesh. Ariel, you scared the crap out of me.”
She had been standing by the port injector access panel.
“What are you doing?” Hartley asked.
“Just some tests,” Tilleran said, stepping toward Hartley.
“What, did Vansen get so pissed at you she transferred you to engineering?”
“So what’s the big deal?”
“The big deal,” Tilleran said, rolling her eyes thoughtfully. “The big deal. Well, I guess you’ve really had me thinking. I have been rather distant with you and my other friends lately, and I regret that.”
“No problem. We all go through our moody stages. Mine lasted about four years…”
“What I mean to say is that I regret not killing you sooner!” Tilleran screamed, her face twisting into a sneer. Her left hand shot forward, turning into a lengthy orange tentacle of goo that wrapped around Hartley’s neck, lifting the engineer kicking and screaming up into the air.
“Hope you’re not afraid of heights, Commander,” Tilleran said, her voice groing deep and husky. “I’d hate to scare you to death…” She levitated Hartley over the railing that surrounded the warp core. “When I’d much rather see you fall to your death.” And with that she released her grip on the surprised Hartley, sending her plummeting down.
With that, Tilleran turned back toward the warp core controls and went back to work.
Then something landed on her back.
“Get off my f***ing warp core you changeling bitch!”
She had obviously done a poor job of getting rid of Hartley.
“How did you survive?” Tilleran snapped, tossing Hartley off her.
“Grade school gymnastics!” she cried, yanking a coil spanner off a nearby spanner and charging her.
Tilleran’s body quickly spasmed upward into an archway, through which Hartley dove, smashing headlong into a bulkhead and falling to the deck in a heap.
“You must have done quite well,” she said flatly and returned to the engine controls.
Groggily laying on the deck, Hartley turned her aching head to see the unconscious bodies of Stuart and Lexxin laying off by the starboard power node. At least she hoped they were just unconscious.
She winced and pushed herself up, slapping her combadge. “Hartley to bridge…intruder alert…Tilleran is a change…is a change…”
And before she could say anything else, something slammed her into the deck and she was out for the count.
“Shoot it!” Tilleran cried as she led her motley crew through deep brush.
“Just aim and fire, aim and fire!” Banan’aram said shakily to himself, turning and shooting backwards at the roiling copper-colored mass that rolled through the forest like a wave with claws, spikes, and tentacles stretching from every surface.
Banan’aram blasted it with his plasma rifle. Sure enough, he blew sizable holes in the thing.
Then they sealed right up.
“Uh, C-C-Commander Tilleran!” he cried.
“Our weapons don’t hurt it!”
“Son of a Rixx! Doesn’t it just figure? Keep moving, people!”
“No more sleeping on park benches. It’s bad for your back,” Baxter said, as he and Peterman walked down toward the Explorer’s mall, to have breakfast at Janice’s restaurant, Space Tastes.
“Actually, I feel better than I have in a while,” Peterman said, looking down at her expansive tummy. “I’ll tell you one thing, I am ready to have this baby. I’ve never been more ready.”
“You only have to hold on another couple weeks.”
“That seems like an eternity. Who knew I’d get this big? I feel like I’ve got six bowling balls in here.”
“Now you know how I feel after eating Janice’s pot roast,” Baxter chuckled, turning to head through the doors into Ship’s Shoppes, just as his combadge chirped.
“Richards to Baxter,” came a quick, panicked voice over the comline.
“Meet me down in Engineering. NOW!”
“May I ask why?”
“Tilleran’s a changeling, the whole engine crew might be dead, and we are twenty minutes from a warp core breach!”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“Yeah,” Baxter admitted. “I’m on my way.” He looked at Peterman. “Get your ass into an escape pod. Grab Janice and Plato while you’re at it, and get out of here. Now.”
“Andy…I’m a counselor. I should be helping other people escape!”
“You’re also my wife. Let someone else do that. Just…” Baxter sighed. “Just go, okay?”
Peterman paused thoughtfully. “All right. But I don’t like it.”
“That’s the spirit,” Baxter said, kissing her on the cheek and rushing down the corridor.
Peterman headed into Ship’s Shoppes. “Attention everybody!” she cried, running from store to store. “Evacuate the mall and get to an escape pod in an orderly fashion! No shoving! The white sale is indefinitely put on hold! I repeat: THE WHITE SALE IS INDEFINITELY PUT ON HOLD!”
“Who the hell are those two guys?” Baxter asked as he picked up step next to Richards. On his way, he’d grabbed a phaser from a nearby storage locker.
“These are Ensigns Ryan Gelbart and Marla Covington. They’re security officers.”
“Why have I never met them?”
“They’re the third string,” Richards explained.
“No kidding,” Baxter said, motioning for the group to continue down the corridor toward engineering. “Any clue what we’ll find when we get there?”
“A changeling,” Richards said. “That’s all we know. And even that we’re not sure about. Hartley called up to the bridge to say Tilleran was a ‘change.’ So, unless she means ‘a change of pace,’ or ‘a changin’ into something more comfortable,’ I think we have a problem. Right after she called we registered a spike in both injectors. They’re locked. Even without going to warp the power feedback will be enough to build us toward a breach.”
“And you couldn’t shut it down from the bridge?” Baxter asked.
Richards shook his head. “Controls were flat locked out. Our ‘Tilleran,’ had access to pretty much every secure system on the ship.”
“What was Jelo’s motive in stowing aboard here?” Baxter asked. “And when did he…” Then he snapped his fingers. “When Tilleran was held captive on the Dominion warship. We never actually rescued her, did we?”
“And that’s only now catching on?” Richards asked.
“I didn’t hear you raising any suspicions!” Baxter snapped.
“Sefelt to Richards.”
“Go ahead,” said Richards.
“About sixty percent of the crew is in their escape pods. We’re loading more people into shuttles and the Escort.”
“Get ready to release the pods. We’re almost at Jelo’s position now!”
“Yes, sir. And…sir…”
“I WANT MY MOMMY!”
“You stay on task, Mister Sefelt, or I’ll find someone who will!” Richards said sternly.
“Um, yes sir.”
“He’s a good man,” Baxter said wistfully as the group arrived in engineering.
“Ahh, Captain, so good of you to come,” Lt. Commander Tilleran said, standing in front of the warp core.
“Commander!” Baxter said. “What a relief to find you here on the job. I guess you’re helping to restore the warp core to working order.”
“Not exactly,” said Tilleran, stepping forward out of the shadows, her jowls swelling into those of a monkey’s, her body rippling into a huge, muscular form, her uniform darkening to black. A silver cape morphed into place behind him. “Actually, I’m helping to destroy your ship.”
Baxter sighed. “I guess I’m supposed to be shocked that you’re not really Tilleran.”
“No, I realize your silly engineer ruined the surprise. I could just kill her!”
Richards held up his phaser. “But then we’d have to kill you.”
“Oh, yes. Then I guess I should just give up right here. Turn myself over to you and your thugs?”
Baxter raised his own phaser, stepping forward. “That would be a grand idea.”
“Just one problem with that.”
Baxter slammed right into a flickering force field and fell down.
“Warp core breach in eight minutes.”
“Sefelt to Richards. Escape pods away. AHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!”
“Well, it has been a real pleasure knowing you all, and I wish I could tell you the thrilling story of how I managed to escape the Delta Quadrant four years ago,” Jelo said. “But I have to be going.”
“And just where do you think you’ll go?” Richards asked. “You’re blowing up the Explorer!”
“Oh, am I?” Jelo said. He walked over and pressed a couple controls.
“Warp core breach canceled. Thanks for playing,” the computer replied.
“Baxter to all escape pods! Come back here!” Baxter called out.
“Too late for that,” Jelo said. “All outside communication has been severed.” He smiled widely. “I’ll just have to make sure I blow up all those escape pods and runabouts after I pick up my cargo and break orbit.”
“Cargo?” asked Richards.
“Yes, the failed experiment I call the proto-changelings. Poor things just need a good father-figure. Speaking of which, I should make sure to pick up that little tyke Plato before I blow up the pod with his mother and your pregnant wife on it,” Jelo said to Baxter, as suddenly his body rippled and remolded, until he resembled as Baxter himself. “Won’t little Plato be surprised to see his Uncle Andy come to save him!”
Baxter’s hand trembled with rage as he held his phaser on Jelo.
“From there, it’s on to Dominion Headquarters, where no one would question the friendly U.S.S. Explorer stopping in for a refueling and the total destruction of the most fortified position in the Dominion. After that, it’s all downhill from there, as you humanoids are so fond of saying. Ta-ta!”
Jelo pushed another control on a nearby panel and disappeared in a flurry of transporter particles.
Richards dashed toward the exit corridor, and smashed into a forcefield similar to the one Baxter had hit. They were trapped.
Baxter stared at the ceiling of the engine room, his fists balled up and shaking, his jaw moving angrily from side to side.
“JELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOOOOO OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
Then he stopped to catch his breath.
It was an uphill struggle, literally, as Tilleran and the Jem’Hadar tried to find higher ground. Considering the changeling beast was significantly greater in mass than them, they figured the only thing they had in their favor was altitude. And if they could cause an enormous landslide, they had a chance of crushing the thing, or at least slowing it down.
“Come on, you slowpokes, get to the top of the ridge,” she called, pointing with her plasma rifle. “Move, move, move! Are you Jem’Hadar, or lazy Vorta?”
“We are Jem’Hadar who excel at the arts and sciences!” Gaff’igan grunted, gripping handholds of rock and hoisting himself up, helping Bel’bivdevo and others up.
“You better start thinking of killing as an art,” Tilleran mumbled, looking behind her. “Or, on second thought, how about you carve up this mountainside and cause that avalanche we’ve been talking about!”
“Right, right! Attention, men, CARVE!”
And the Jem’Hadar blasted, as the great roaring thing surged up the side of the mountain.
“Weapons fire. Jem’Hadar plasma rifles. Seven hundred meters, THAT way,” Lt. J’hana said, her antennae twitching..
“Across a ravine,” Vansen said, hands on hips, looking at the mountain next to the one she and her team had been climbing. She saw great whorls of dust billowing up from the mountainside on the other side of the ravine. She slapped her combadge. “Vansen to Explorer. We’ll need a site-to-site transport. Stand by for coordinates.”
J’hana tapped her own combadge. “Explorer, come in.”
Chaka’kan looked at the others, frightened. “Uh, what does that mean?”
“It means we run, coward!” J’hana cried out, bellowing something loud and raspy in Andorian, dashing down the hillside with her weapon raised high.
“Commander,” Baxter said sharply, kneeling near the edge of the forcefield barrier keeping him out of engineering. “Commander Hartley!”
“MEGAN!” Richards called across the forcefield.
“Why don’t we just shoot the forcefield?” Ryan Gelbart suggested.
Baxter glanced over his shoulder at the young security officer. “Things in here don’t react well to phasers, Ryan.”
Richards shook his head. “Don’t they teach you guys anything in tactical school?”
“I went to Penn State.”
“Figures,” Richards sighed as Baxter turned back to face the inert form of Hartley.
“Megan! This is your Captain speaking! Extinguish all headaches and return your body to its upright position!”
Richards leaned against a bulkhead, burying his head in his hands. “Where’s Mirk when you need him?”
“He sleeps during the day,” Baxter said.
“He runs a nightclub. How else do you think he stays awake all night?”
“I just figured, what with him being omnipotent…”
“He still needs a good night’s sleep, Chris!”
“Would both of you SHUT UP!”
Baxter and Richards’s heads whipped around. “Hartley!”
She grabbed hold of the master systems console and pulled herself to her feet. It appeared that every movement hurt. “Wait till I get my hands on that guy…”
“Megan. I need you to focus!” Baxter called out. “You need to disable the ship’s power supply! Jelo’s planning to take the ship and blow up all our escape pods and everyone in them!”
“Including Mirk?” she asked woozily.
Richards looked at Baxter. “Guess he’s on an escape pod, not sleeping.”
“But I bet you he was sleeping before he was taken to the escape pod!” Baxter snapped.
“AHRG!” Hartley cried. “HE SLEEPS DURING THE DAY, OKAY? IT’S ESTABLISHED!”
“Ouch,” Baxter said. “What attitude. Listen, Commander Hartley, you need to disable the power systems. Jelo no doubt has all the control consoles locked out, so you’re going to have to find some manual way to shut down power all over this ship!”
“Pull the sequencer in the main EPS relay!” Richards called out.
“DUH! I’m an engineer too, ya know,” Hartley grumbled to herself, shuffling toward a console at the rear of the room. Grumbling something unintelligible, she crouched down and started yanking isolinear chips. She punched a gelpack and then pulled that out, her hand covered in goo. She then stood up and reared back, then kicked the console with all her might.
With a great heaving groan, all power on the Explorer shut down. Lights twinkled out, panels shut down, and the whole engineering deck was bathed in darkness.
After that, Baxter heard an audible thump, which he guessed was Hartley falling back into unconsciousness.
“So,” Baxter said. “All power. I guess that includes…” Suddenly, queasily, his feet lifted off the ground.
“Gravity,” Richards finished his sentence for him.
“Will our combadges work now that power’s down?” Baxter asked.
“One way to find out. Richards to Sefelt.”
“Sefelt passed out some time ago, Chris,” came the voice of Susan Madera.
“Am I glad to hear you,” Richards said. “Where are you?”
“On the Escort. So are you guys going to blow up or what?”
“Not today,” Baxter said in the pitch darkness. “Would you mind giving us a ride?”
“Don’t see why not. Stand by…”
The real Tilleran watched as rocks tumbled down the hillside and smashed into the creature. It made an unholy shrieking sound as it was pummeled by rock after rock. In a way she was sorry for it, but more importantly she was glad she couldn’t sense a bit of what it was thinking right now. She figured she was better off that way.
The Jem’Hadar blasted and blasted until there was no more rock left to dislodge, else they would tumble down themselves.
When the dust cleared, they were relieved to see a thick layer of rocks and not much else below.
Gaff’igan patted Tilleran’s shoulder. “We did it!”
Tilleran rubbed her chin. “Did we?”
Suddenly, two massive wings exploded out of the layer of rocks, then a massive hammer-shaped head, screeching with sharp teeth, orange in color with beady eyes, resembling an ancient Earth pterodactyl, looking really mad. The wings flapped, lifting the great creature into the air, until it was eye-level with Tilleran and the others.
“We come in peace?” Tilleran said weakly, staring at the creature, which was easily as big as the Escort.
The thing answered by opening its huge jaws and diving at Tilleran and the others.
“I’m ready to die,” Gaff’igan said simply.
Then, suddenly, a blue twinkling star flew up from below the mountainside, tore through the flying creature, and blew it apart like so much pudding.
Tilleran now understood how Browning could have made such a mistake, eating that one changeling, thinking it was pudding, as the blown up orange glops rained down on the mountainside below.
“Who–” Gaff’igan asked, but his question was soon answered as J’hana and Vansen, followed by Chaka’kan, Unlathi, and Keefler, climbed up the mountainside, covered in orange goo.
“Who else,” Tilleran said with a grin.
“Quantum bazooka,” J’hana said easily. “Used mainly for big game hunting on Kronos, and…” She met eyes with Tilleran. “What the shartz are you doing here?”
“Being replaced by a changeling,” Tilleran said quickly. “I’ve been held captive by Jelo’s people for the last three months, and it’s been hell.”
“But then, who the hell was on our ship all this time?” J’hana asked.
Everyone looked around at each other.
“ARE YOU ALL DENSE?” Vansen cried. “It was Jelo!”
“Of course,” J’hana grunted.
“We have to contact the Explorer immediately,” Tilleran said.
“We’d love to,” said Vansen. “But we lost contact with them a few minutes ago.”
“Then it may already be too late,” Gaff’igan surmised. He looked to Chaka’kan. “And what are you doing here?”
“Trying to help,” Chaka’kan said weakly.
“You should be pleased that our ability to get angry has been removed,” Banan’aram said. “Otherwise, we’d be very angry with you.”
“But since we can’t get angry, how about we get together for a White milkshake once this whole mess is overwith?” Gaff’igan said cheerily.
“I don’t believe these guys,” Tilleran said, rolling her eyes.
Just then, someone came running up the hillside.
“Captain Baxter?” Vansen asked as the portly commander huffed and puffed his way up the hillside.
“Yeah,” he said breathlessly. “That was quite a run from the transporter site. I’m so out of shape.” He looked around. “I trust you guys nailed that creature?”
“Yeah,” Vansen said. “What happened up on the Explorer?”
“Oh, some problems with Jelo,” Baxter said. “Not to worry, though, we got it all sorted out. But if you see a guy who looks just like me, blast him!”
“Will do,” J’hana sneered, just as Captain Baxter walked up from the opposite direction, also looking breathless.
“The air up here is so thin. Makes it hard to breathe,” he gasped. He looked around at everyone. “Well. I see we’ve all made acquaintances.” He looked at the identical Baxter. “And I see my changeling duplicate has shown up.”
“You mean MY changeling duplicate,” said the other Baxter.
Vansen rolled her eyes. “Oh for Pete’s sake.”
Suddenly Richards climbed up the hill from in between where the two Baxters had come from. “See, Andy, I told you my way would be quick…” He looked from Baxter to Baxter. “Er.”
“Well isn’t this a fine mess,” Tilleran muttered, hands on hips.
“Shoot them both,” J’hana growled.
“Don’t do that!” both Baxters cried in unison.
“I like that idea!” said Vansen.
“Don’t you folks have a, I don’t know, test, to figure out who the real captain is?” interjected Gaff’igan.
“No need,” said J’hana. “I know who the real Baxter is.” She swiveled her phaser rifle around to face the Baxter who’d arrived first. “You kidnapped Counselor Peterman four years ago. On my watch. You kidnapped the person I loved most in the world, then replaced her. You have been the one snubbing me the last three months, not Tilleran. For all of this and more, you will die, and I will be the one who is killing you.” J’hana bellowed a great, shrieking cry into the bright daytime sky, then blasted with her phaser rifle, while the surprised Baxter held up his hands in shock, crying out.
The blast hit him square in the chest, and he tumbled, end over end, down the mountainside.
“Damn thing was set on stun,” J’hana growled. “How anticlimactic.”
Everyone glanced over the edge to see the duplicate Baxter lying in the middle of the pile of glop which had once been the proto-changelings, a charred hole in his chest.
He stood, and when he did, his face blossomed into a monkey’s, and the hole in his chest filled back up. “Clever, J’hana! But you didn’t manage to finish me off!” He looked down at the goop at his feet. “But you did manage to kill this beautiful creature. And for that, you and all your friends here will die! And I will be the one who will be killing YOU!”
“Yeah, you and what army?” Vansen asked, pointing her phaser rifle down into the ravine. Every officer present did likewise.
“Don’t fire till I give the order,” the real Captain Baxter said.
“And that would be when?” Vansen asked, squinting in the sunlight.
“When I am damned good and ready!” Baxter asked. “You’re picking a fine time to be insubordinate!”
“I’m not insubordinate. I’m just a better leader than you!”
Richards shook his head. “I remember when we used to be explorers.”
While all this went on, the goop at Jelo’s feet began to bubble. Then it began to boil. Then it rumbled, along with the ground underneath him.
He looked down.
A geyser sent him flying into the sky. Only this geyser kept rising, until its bottom actually lifted off the ground, and the whole mass of liquid grew huge wings, and reformed into that fearsome pterodactyl-like creature.
“That is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen,” J’hana said in awe. “Nothing kills it.”
With Jelo screaming in its claws, the fearsome thing soared out of sight.
“Where the hell is it going?” asked Richards.
“I don’t care, and I don’t want to know,” said Vansen.
“Escort to landing team,” Lt. Madera’s voice called over the open channel. “We just saw a giant bird fly away from the planet, carrying Jelo. Should we pursue?”
“Negative. Contact the Dominion and transmit their coordinates. Let them worry about it. I think it’s safe to say that Jelo got just what he deserved, and that creature got just what it was looking for.”
Tilleran nodded. “I can’t read changelings, but I think it’s safe to say that thing was so cranky because it couldn’t find its captor.”
“Jelo,” Baxter said uselessly. “I can see why the thing wouldn’t like Jelo. I sure don’t like him. He’s not a likable guy.”
“Well, let’s hope we’ve seen the last of the whole lot of them.” Richards said.
Baxter looked at J’hana. “I just have one question. How did you know the other Baxter was the imposter?”
“Simple,” said J’hana. “You both arrived here out of breath. The first Baxter claimed he was out of breath because he was out of shape. You blamed it on the thin air. A transparent lie to satisfy your easily- bruised ego. Only the real Captain Baxter would attempt such silly lie.”
“I’m touched,” Baxter muttered.
“At any rate,” J’hana said. “I figured I had a fifty-fifty chance.”
Stardate 55657.7. Our escape pods have been collected, our crew restored, and we have set course for the nearest Dominion outpost to effect minor repairs and drop the ‘nice’ Jem’Hadar squad off for reassignment. For some reason, they just didn’t feel comfortable on Elpa Three anymore.
I’m pleased to say we suffered no major casualties from this latest brush with nastiness. Hartley took the worst of it with a severe concussion and an assortment of internal injuries, but I’m told she’ll pull through.
I’m also very happy to announce we’ve got our science officer back, although I must say, over the last three months, we barely noticed her absence. Well, because she had been replaced by a changeling.
“I want to ride the escape pod again!” Plato giggled as Peterman waddled with him clinging to her hand, and Baxter following, into Space Tastes, where Browning was finishing up with the last of the dinner crowd.
“You can ask your Uncle Andy. But I’m sure as heck not going with you. One time getting blasted away from the ship at full acceleration is fine with me,” Peterman said.
“Umm,” Baxter said. “Maybe next week.” He grinned uneasily at Peterman, then decided to go grab a table and a menu.
“I finally got all your vomit out of my hair,” Browning said, stepping out from the kitchen and handing a plate to a crewman. “Here you go, Larry. A nice plate of beef stroganoff. Enjoy!” Browning left the disgusted- looking crewman to take Plato by the hand. “Yessiree, your Aunt Kelly blew a lot of chunks all over the interior of the escape pod. Made it a very interesting two hours!”
“That was the best part!” Plato cheered.
“Well,” Peterman sighed. “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.”
“We’ve talked about this exhaustively,” Gaff’igan said, putting a hand on Chaka’kan’s shoulder. “And we have come to a very upsetting conclusion.” A tear streamed down his grey-scaled cheek. “We’ve got to let you go.”
“Pardon?” Chaka’kan asked, looking around at the other Jem’Hadar in the Explorer conference room.
“You can’t be in our group anymore. You left us to die there on Elpa. It’s just not going to work out between you and us. It’s…it’s…awww…” Bel’bivdevo collapsed into Banan’aram’s arms, sobbing.
Chaka’kan sagged into a seat at the conference table. “But then…where…where will I go?”
“That is the beautiful part,” Ambassador Weyoun said, standing behind Chaka’kan. “Captain Baxter has agreed to keep you aboard the Explorer as a member of my diplomatic attachment. Think of yourself as my bodyguard.”
Chaka’kan gulped. “Bodyguard?”
“Or, administrative assistant, if that makes you feel better.”
Chaka’kan nodded. “Much.”
“Drinks?” Gaff’igan asked, looking around at the other Jem’Hadar, and they nodded, leaving Weyoun and Chaka’kan alone.
“Well,” Weyoun said, clapping his hands together. “We have a busy morning ahead. Let’s go on down to my office and start organizing my appointment calendar, shall we?”
“Victory is a well-organized appointment calendar,” Chaka’kan sighed, and followed Weyoun.
“Hell of a thing,” J’hana said, sipping from her steaming v’haspant and leaning against the bar. “Hell of a thing.”
“Mm hmm,” Mirk said distractedly. “Listen, would you mind closing for me? I want to go check in on Megan again. Apparently she’s driving Holly crazy. They had to put her in a restraining field because she kept trying to leave Sickbay.”
“Restraining field…mmm…” J’hana said, then straightened. “Of course I will stay and watch over your bar for you.”
“Thanks!” Mirk said, yanking his apron off dashing out of the Constellation Club.
J’hana planted one hand on the bar, then hopped over it. “Okay, who’s taking orders here? Who wants to get fwarking drunk?”
“Me,” a small voice said. J’hana turned to face the doorway, and saw Tilleran standing there.
“Sickbay has cleared you to return to duty?”
“They checked me out,” Tilleran said, nodding and walking over to sit on a barstool. “I was a little malnourished, and badly in need of a sonic shower, but other than that I’m none the worse for wear. And you’ll be glad to know that it’s confirmed…I’m not a changeling.”
J’hana poured Tilleran a White Russian, her favorite drink, and slid it her way. “That is quite a relief.”
Tilleran nodded and sipped. “The Dominion reported they were able to capture and contain Jelo and the proto-changeling. They’re being transported back to Dominion HQ aboard a maximum-security troop transport.”
J’hana nodded. “Also a relief.”
“Apparently,” Tilleran continued, sipping again, “they need so much room to carry the linked proto-changelings, that they could barely squeeze Jelo into the same cellblock.”
“Nonsense,” J’hana scoffed. “There’s always room for Jelo.”
“Indeed,” Tilleran replied. She looked up into J’hana’s eyes. “I’ve missed you, Jan.”
“And I you, Ari.” J’hana felt the welcomed rush of the Imzadi bond rushing back into her mind. Every twinge of emotion in Tilleran resonated in J’hana’s mind.
“I’m surprised you didn’t detect that it was Jelo and not me,” Tilleran said after a long silence.
“You…that is, he, claimed that the Imzadi bond had been successfully broken and you, that is, he, didn’t want anything to do with me. I spent the last three months thinking you wanted nothing further to do with me.”
“You should have known I’d never want that,” Tilleran said softly.
“I know now.” With that, the security officer shoved Tilleran’s drink aside, took her by both hands, and dragged her across the bar, kissing her long and hard on the mouth.
After long moments in this embrace, J’hana released the surprised Betazoid and let her fall back in her chair.
“Yes,” J’hana said confidently. “Definitely not a changeling.”
Counselor Peterman’s been carrying Captain Baxter’s…um, love seed for quite some time. So when is she finally going to make with the screaming and birthing and all that other blessed event type stuff? Well, if it isn’t in this story then this coming attraction really sucks.