Author: Anthony Butler
“You’re too late,” Jelo hissed as Browning ran toward him. He gripped a control on his wrist, and as Browning lept at he and Plato, they dematerialized…
“Mooooooooooooommmmmmmmmmm!” Plato cried, his voice growing fainter as the transporter took hold.
And Browning hit the bulkhead, falling to the deck in a heap.
“Baxter to Browning!” Baxter called over the comm. “What’s happening? Are you okay? Where’s Plato? Janice? Janice!”
Browning’s eyes fluttered open. Doctor Holly Wilcox was bent over her, looking at a medical tricorder with knit brow. “She’s okay, Captain. It’s just a mild concussion.” She punched a hypospray into Browning’s arm. “This should take care of any aftereffects.”
Captain Andy Baxter and Commander Christopher Richards stood looming over the dazed Browning, exchanging worried glances with one another.
Richards slapped his combadge. “Richards to bridge. Lay in a course to intercept that Dominion ship now, and engage at maximum warp.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” replied Lt. Commander Nell Vansen over the channel.
“What would make you say that?” Baxter asked, exasperated.
“Because our injectors were fried in that little firefight we just got into. Not to mention the fact that we suffered a good deal of hull damage, and are in a shipwide state of chaos because four garrisons of Jem’Hadar just finished wreaking havoc on the place!”
“So you’re saying we can’t go,” Richards said. “Then get the Escort ready.” He looked at Baxter. “Andy?”
“They nearly destroyed the Explorer, Chris. They’d turn the Escort into cinders before we knew what hit us.”
“We’ve got to do something.”
“I KNOW that.”
Browning grabbed a bulkhead railing and dragged herself to her feet. “Both of you shut up.”
They stared at Browning. “What did you say?” Baxter asked, aghast.
“He’s my son,” she said, and shuffled off down the corridor.
“Well,” Baxter said. “Follow her!”
“I was about to!” Richards said, and followed her. Baxter followed too.
“Wait just a minute,” Holly called, jogging after Browning. “I want to get you on a biobed, make sure there aren’t any lasting…”
“I’m fine, Holly,” Browning said as she stormed down the hallway.
“Where are you going?” Baxter asked her.
“I…” Browning stopped walking. “I don’t know.”
“We’re here to help,” Richards told her, tentatively putting a hand on her shoulder.
She nodded. “I know.”
Baxter stared up at the ceiling. “We should have known he would go for Plato.”
“We didn’t even know Jelo was on the ship,” said Richards.
Baxter stared at the floor. “It just figures.”
“J’hana to Baxter.”
“The Devagh II just arrived to render assistance. Oh, and your wife is burning up in a fire on Deck Nine. J’hana out.”
Baxter’s eyes widened. “WHAT?”
“I expect I’ll be meeting you there. J’hana out.”
“Come on!” Baxter said, and grabbed Holly’s arm, dragging her down the corridor, breaking into a run.
Richards and Browning were left standing there.
“Steffie,” Browning said. “I left Steffie in the restaurant.”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Richards said.
“I want to know she’s fine. Now.” Browning said, and headed down the corridor in the opposite direction.
Captain Baxter skidded to a stop at the doorway to the arboretum, where fire was blasting out, smoke billowing. Apparently the doors had been blown off.
Holly clamored into Baxter from behind, then braced herself on a bulkhead as Baxter surveyed the scene. “Captain…you can’t go in there!”
J’hana and two security guards raced up.
“Fire suppression systems must be out,” the Andorian observed.
“Don’t just stand there,” Baxter said, pulling off his uniform jacket. “Come with me and help me save Kelly!”
“You don’t seriously expect me to go in there,” J’hana said, hands on hips.
“Honorable death!” Baxter taunted.
“You had me at hello,” J’hana swooned, and followed Baxter toward the arboretum doors.
“Andy!” a voice choked, and Baxter turned around.
Peterman was slumped against a bulkhead down an adjacent corridor, with Doctor Jarvay Ranowat leaning against her.
“Kelly!” Baxter hurried over and knelt by Peterman, running a hand through her hair, smearing the soot from her face. “What the hell happened?”
“Jem’Hadar…torched the place…” Dr. Ranowat gasped. “I think they went…that way.”
“They’re gone,” Baxter said, as Holly tended to Ranowat and Peterman.
“The last thing I remember is chasing the doctor here through the woods,” said Peterman. “Then there was this big flame and…poof!”
“It made a ‘poof’ sound?” asked J’hana, observing, but giving the scene a wide berth.
“Whatever,” Peterman said. “The point is, the arboretum went up in flames. We saw Jem’Hadar using their rifles to flame the whole place.” She smiled. “If it weren’t for Jarvay here, I’d be dead.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Baxter said warmly, then looked to Holly. “Doctor?”
“Both are suffering from smoke inhalation,” Holly said, looking at her tricorder. “They’ll be fine with a couple injections.” She pulled a hypospray out of her labcoat and set it. She punched it first into Peterman’s arm, then Ranowat’s. “That should make you guys feel better.”
“Where…” Peterman rasped. “Where’s Steffie?”
“And baby makes three!” Yeoman Briggs said cheerily, handing Steffie to Doctor Browning. She was crying loudly, but the yeoman didn’t seem to mind.
“Thanks, James,” Richards said awkwardly, looking around Browning’s vacant restaurant. “Where’d everyone go?”
“Everyone scattered as soon as the Red Alert was lifted,” Briggs said. “Off to go back to their own cabins and hide, or find their loved ones, or whatnot. You know how people are.”
“Yeah,” Richards said. “Right. Well…thanks for looking after Stephanie.”
“Oh, she was a…darling,” Briggs said. “I’m glad to help. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find an appropriate post-disaster outfit.”
“I wouldn’t go ‘post-disaster’ quite yet, Yeoman,” Richards called after him.
“I’m so glad she’s okay,” Browning said, wiping the corner of her eye. “I was, I was worried something happened to her too.”
Richards wrapped an arm around Browning. “We’ll get Plato back, Janice. You have my word on that.”
“I’ll get him back,” Browning said, staring at Steffie. “I will.”
Stardate 55848.7. The Imperial Klingon Cruiser Devagh II, under Captain Dwanok “The Large,” arrived conveniently too late to prevent Jelo and his people from wreaking havoc all over the Explorer and stealing my godson, but we’re glad to have him around now, nevertheless, as we try to decide where to go from here.
“You don’t have to be here,” Baxter said, curling Steffie against his chest and, leaning toward Peterman, who sat next to him at the conference table. “You should be recovering.”
“I’m fine,” Peterman assured him. “My outfit’s a little charred, and I think my mascara is running, but other than that I’m fine.”
“You’ve never looked so radiant,” J’hana said, from the other side of the conference table.
“Remind me to talk to you when we get a minute,” Peterman said.
“Now then,” Baxter said, looking out over the conference table, handing Steffie to Peterman, who gratefully took her. “Mister Dwanok, I believe you know everyone.”
“Not everyone,” Dwanok said, looking at Vansen. “Not that it really matters. What’s clear is that we must help the Founders defend their planet from Jelo.”
“Not according to the Prime Directive,” Vansen said, tossing a padd down the conference table to Baxter.
“We’ve been helping them all this time,” Richards said. “Why stop now?”
“Because this is a matter internal to the Dominion. We can’t just effect political change. We didn’t get involved when the Cardassians took over Bajor, or when Bajor had its civil war, or when Andor had its civil war…”
“Aherm.” J’hana cleared her throat.
“Anyway,” Baxter said, flipping the padd back to Vansen. “I don’t give a damn what the Prime Directive says. If Jelo takes over the Dominion, I promise you we’ll be right back where we started, in a war we can’t win.”
“How do you know?” Vansen sneered. “You’ve never even fought the Dominion.”
“I’ve heard things,” Baxter said defensively.
Vansen yawned. “None of this is really of any great concern to the Federation. Before Jelo’s little insurrection, the Dominion was in a weakened state. After they go a few rounds with each other, they’ll be even worse. They won’t stand a chance against a unified Federation, Romulan, and Klingon front.”
“You WANT another war?” Peterman asked, as Steffie chewed on her hair..
“I’m not saying that. I’m just saying we’d win,” Vansen said, looking across the conference table at Commander DiSalvo. “Wouldn’t we, Sam?”
“Can I, uh, get a cup of coffee?” DiSalvo said.
“There are about ninety varieties in the replicator,” Baxter sighed. “Have at them.”
Baxter looked out over the group. “This isn’t just about the Dominion civil war, if that’s what it really is. This is about Plato. This is about getting back Janice’s son. My godson.”
“Here here,” Richards said, looking at Browning, who sat quietly in the seat next to him.
“We’re in no shape to rescue anyone,” Vansen said. “I already told you that.”
“We may not be,” Baxter said. “But he is.” He pointed at Dwanok.
J’hana nodded. “Your vessel is prepared for battle, is it not, large one?”
“It is, but…”
“We’ll need to borrow it.”
Dwanok looked at Peterman. “The last time we had a ‘joint mission,’ my ship was destroyed.” He was speaking of the time Peterman accompanied him on a mission to root out a cult that was trying to mass- convert the planet Earth. He’d crashed his ship then, and had a chip on his shoulder about it ever since.
“The Devagh-One died honorably,” said J’hana. “As will the Devagh-Two, if you are lucky.”
“There is no honor in a foolish mission.” He looked at Browning. “And there is no honor in risking life and limb to save a single being when a war is being waged.”
There were a few moments of silence.
“I think we can do them both,” Baxter said.
“Huh?” asked Richards.
“Well, Jelo has Plato. We take out Jelo, we stop the Civil War.”
“He makes a good point,” Tilleran piped up. “Rixx knows we all have a bone to pick with him.”
“Some more so than others,” J’hana growled. “Then it is settled.”
“I can see there is no further reason for debate,” Dwanok said, sounding off-put.
“Damn right,” Baxter said. “I’m going. J’hana will come with me. Richards, you’ll stay and get the ship ready to go protect the Founders.”
“I don’t think so,” Richards said.
“What do you mean ‘you don’t think so.’ I’m the captain, I gave you an order!”
“This isn’t just your fight!”
“It’s neither of yours,” Browning said. “It’s mine. I’m going, and the rest of you can fight about who else goes.” And with that, she walked out of the conference room.
“She debates well,” Dwanok observed.
“I’ll go talk to her,” Peterman said, rising, patting Steffie on the back.
“Readyroom. Now,” Baxter told Richards. He looked at Vansen. “You’ll lead the efforts to get the Explorer back up and running, Commander.”
“I guess I don’t have much choice,” Vansen sighed.
“That’s right,” said Baxter.
“This is not about who gets to save Plato, I just want to–”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Baxter said, as Richards stepped fully into the readyroom. Baxter marched over to the window, then turned around. “Chris, you’re my first officer. You have to show me some respect, especially in front of the crew.”
“Conway never did.”
“You want to be another Conway?”
“I want to let you know how I feel.”
“Then do it in private.”
“We’re all upset about losing Plato. Don’t take it out on me.”
Baxter leaned against his desk. “This isn’t about Plato, Chris. You have shown a total lack of concern for your job ever since you got it. Not to mention not showing a whole lot of respect for me. Isn’t it enough that I get it from Vansen? I have to get it from you, too?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. We usually agree on things.”
“It’s about a hell of a lot more than agreeing, and you know it. I…” Baxter sighed. “I somehow thought it would be a lot more fun for us to run this ship together.”
“It’s not always going to be fun, Andy,” Richards said.
“Yeah, I guess not,” Baxter said.
“So what do we do?” Richards asked.
“We figure out a way to be friends and run this ship at the same time.”
“Or you can’t be my first officer. Or…we can’t be friends.”
“Janice, wait,” Peterman said, jogging with Steffie, sliding into the bridge turbolift just as the doors were closing. She barely got in. Damn birthweight.
“What do you want, Kelly?”
“I want you to know that everything is going to be okay.”
Browning folded her arms and watched as Steffie mouthed Peterman’s ear. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Janice…Janice, you don’t know the first thing about fighting. I don’t know that you’ve ever fired a phaser. You can’t just go off half-cocked trying to get Plato back. Leave it up to people that know what they’re doing.”
“Chris and Andy.”
Browning gritted her teeth. “If it was your child…” She glanced at the bundle in Peterman’s arms. “If it were Steffie…would you let someone else go?”
Peterman didn’t reply.
“I want you to know that I officially object to everything you’re doing here,” Vansen said, following Richards and Baxter down the corridor toward the transporter room. They’d stripped down to vests and picked up phaser rifles from Ship’s Stores, after Baxter’d had a little argument regarding inventory regulations with the storekeeper.
“No surprises there,” Baxter said.
“Think of it this way,” said Richards. “If we don’t come back, the Explorer’s yours.”
J’hana jogged up to meet the group. “I have said my goodbyes to Commander Tilleran. Suffice it to say, you do not want to know what that entailed.”
“I’m sure I don’t.” Baxter looked at Vansen. “Take care of her, Commander. I expect to return to her intact.”
“That would mean you’re coming back,” Vansen said earnestly.
“That’s the plan.” Baxter stepped into the transporter room, where an always-cheerful Lindsay Morgan stood ready at the controls. “Three to beam out, Chief.”
“Make that four,” said a voice from the back of the room. Janice Browning was already standing on the platform, with Peterman standing nearby.
“Leave this to us, Janice,” Baxter said, standing up on the platform.
“Dwanok’s already agreed to take me. I’m teaching him how to stir-fry gagh.”
“I’m not a Starfleet Officer,” Browning said. “You can’t tell me what to do.” She reached down into the holster at her hip. “Look, I even brought my phaser.”
“Do you even know how to fire one of those things?” asked Richards.
“It’s been a while, but I remember the basics,” Browning said.
Peterman rolled her eyes. “This is going to be trouble.” Baxter looked at her. “What? I tried to talk her out of it.”
Baxter stepped down from the platform and walked over to Peterman. “Honey…”
“You don’t have to say anything. I know you have to go.”
“I was talking to Steffie,” Baxter said defensively, and kissed his daughter on the cheek. He looked her in the eyes. “You take care of your mom, okay?”
Peterman sighed. “Andy, get the hell out of here before I change my mind and make you stay.”
Baxter nodded. “Right.” He climbed up onto the transporter padd and nodded at Morgan. “Energize, Chief.” And as he dissolved, he gave Peterman a little wave.
Peterman’s shoulders fell, and she turned around carried Steffie out of the room.
“What’s wrong, Counselor?” Vansen called after her. “You’ve still got me!”
“You’re a real bitch, ya know that, Commander?” Ensign Morgan said once she and Vansen were alone.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Vansen said, and marched off.
“We’ve got Plato,” Jelo said, pacing the bridge of Rogue-42, the flagship in his fleet of usurped Dominion battlecruisers. “We’ve got Plato!”
“That much you have said,” intoned First Tenok’titlan, who’d been his eyes and ears (well, eye and ears–the guy had an eye patch) in the field ever since he had infiltrated the Explorer masquerading as Commander Tilleran, and subsequently was captured by the Dominion. Tenok’titlan had lead the first attack on the Explorer nearly a year ago, and was responsible for the second, more successful attack, in which Jelo escaped with Browning’s half-changeling son. “What I don’t understand,” Tenok’titlan continued, “is what you plan to do with him.”
“Well I certainly don’t plan to adopt him,” Jelo chuckled, then became completely straight-faced. “Open a channel on the Dominion Leadership Frequency. I want to talk to Odo.”
Tenok’titlan nodded, then punched a control on his console. “Of course. Channel is open.”
“Odo, this is Jelo. I know you’re hiding out there. I know you’re listening. I want you to listen very carefully. I know how much you treasure the half-breed changeling. I want you to know, if you don’t tell me where the new Changeling homeworld is, he’ll die. I’ll be waiting for your call. Jelo out.” He smiled primly at Tenok’titlan.
“You are wise in all things, Founder.”
“You bet I am. Now, let’s go see the boy.”
“Is anybody feeling a sense of Deja Vu?” Richards asked meekly, standing at the rear of the Klingon bridge.
Baxter and Browning sat in a corner next to him. J’hana was up next to Dwanok’s command chair, petting his warrior braids with great interest.
“No,” said Baxter.
“Not really,” said Browning.
“An alien quadrant. Someone important to us gets kidnapped…by Jelo. We split up to protect that alien quadrant and also rescue our friends. That doesn’t sound at all familiar?”
“Should it?” asked Baxter.
Richards shrugged. “I guess not.”
Baxter looked over at Browning and squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry, Janice. We’ll find Plato.”
“SILENCE!” Dwanok bellowed. “There will be no character development of any kind on my bridge. Only sulking…and BATTLE!”
“What’s got him?” Richards muttered.
“I heard he’s been trying to diet,” Baxter whispered. “And it’s not working.”
“There’s honor in dieting?” Richards asked.
“I guess,” Baxter said. “If the diet works.”
“If you two are done cavorting around,” J’hana said, pivoting to face Baxter and Richards. “You should know, we have picked up an ion trail that is positively identified as the Dominion cruiser that attacked us.”
“Good!” Baxter said. “That’s good, right?”
“We shall see,” Dwanok said.
“Your largeness, we are receiving a communique from Dominion command,” one of Dwanok’s officers, a dimintive young guy, piped up.
“Very good, Altrok. Put it on the screen.”
“Captain Dwanok…” Odo said urgently, then did a double-take. “And…Captain Baxter?”
“We are performing a joint mission. We are chasing the vessel that escaped with an Explorer crewmember. A half-changeling.”
“That’s…just what I was calling about,” Odo said. “You must rescue Plato.”
“What a novel idea,” Browning piped up.
“It is of the utmost importance.”
“We know that already,” Baxter said boredly.
“You don’t understand…the security of the whole Dominion depends on it.”
“How do you figure?” asked Richards.
“If we don’t tell Jelo where to find our new homeworld, he’s going to kill Plato.”
Browning shot out of her chair. “NO!”
“Our sentiments exactly,” Odo said. “You must rescue Plato.”
“How much time do we have?” Baxter asked, stepping up next to Dwanok.
“Just a little more than one of your hours.”
“We need to go faster,” Baxter said to Dwanok.
“Let us know as soon as you know anything,” Odo said urgently, and disappeared from the viewscreen.
“Increase our speed to warp nine,” Dwanok ordered Garaj, his helmsman. He looked at Baxter. “I would normally take offense to your mettling on my bridge. However,” he looked at J’hana. “Coitus is at stake. You may do what you will.”
“I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to go into battle,” Baxter said quietly to Dwanok. “But…” and he looked nervously at J’hana. “It goes without saying you need to win this one.”
Dwanok looked at J’hana, who nodded assent. “Glory will be ours.”
“Good man,” Baxter said, slapping Dwanok on the back. The giant Klingon looked down at Baxter, his mouth twisting angrily. “I’ll just go stand over there…” Baxter said, backing away.
“I don’t like this,” Vansen said, sitting in the command chair of the Explorer, arms folded.
“You act like you have another option,” Sam DiSalvo said, sitting beside her.
“Maybe I do.”
“Now, Nell…you were told by Captain Baxter to stay here and get the Explorer ready to protect the Dominion.”
“I was told to lead the efforts to get the Explorer back up and running. That doesn’t necessarily mean I need to be here the whole time.”
DiSalvo raised an eyebrow. “Where else would you be?”
“Getting reinforcements from the Alpha Quadrant.”
“That’s ridiculous, Nell. The Gamma side of the wormhole is being protected by three Dominion Theta-class battlecruisers, loyal to Jelo. They’re feeding falsified reports back to the Alpha Quadrant through the communications array, and they won’t take kindly to us trying to send contradicting reports.”
“We don’t need to send contradicting reports. All we have to do is destroy the array. That’ll be enough to get Starfleet’s attention.”
DiSalvo shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Nell…we just heard from Commander Hartley. She said the Explorer won’t be ready for another six hours.”
“The Explorer won’t be ready, but the Escort will be.”
DiSalvo covered his face. “You want to take that little old ship into battle against three Theta battlecruisers?”
“There’s not going to be any battle, Sam. Get with the program.” Vansen stood up. She looked at Tilleran. “Commander. You have the bridge. I am going…somewhere else.”
“I know what you’re planning, Commander, and you are out of your mind,” Tilleran snapped back.
“No, YOU better get out of my mind, pronto, you Betazoid bitch, and hold this ship together until we get back.”
“I’ll call the Captain!”
“And you think you’ll get him to turn around?” Vansen asked, trotting up to the aft turbolift, DiSalvo following behind.
“Probably not, but…”
“Enjoy the command while you have it. You’ve always wanted to try, haven’t you?”
“What makes you say that?” Tilleran demanded, as the turbolift doors closed in front of Vansen and DiSalvo. She pounded her console. “Who the hell is supposed to be telepathic around here?”
Peterman cradled Stephanie over her shoulder as she chased Lt. Commander Vansen down the corridor. “Wait just a minute. I have questions for you, Commander!”
“They’ll have to wait,” Vansen said, not bothering to slow down.
“Why? Where are you going?”
“None of your business,” Vansen snapped.
“It is so my business. I’m this ship’s counselor!”
“Color me threatened,” Vansen smirked, and punched the control on a nearby door. The door opened, revealing a confused-looking Jem’Hadar.
“You busy?” Vansen asked.
“Not particularly,” Chaka’kan said, looking at Vansen, DiSalvo, and Peterman. “I just woke up from a nap. What is going on?”
“You’re needed. Won’t take long.” She grabbed Chaka’s wrist and pulled him out of his quarters.
“What’s this?” asked the confused Jem’Hadar.
“Where are you going?” Peterman demanded.
“For the last time, it’s none of your business. Stay here. Protect your kid. Try to stay out of trouble.”
Peterman stopped as Vansen and the others continued down the corridor. She looked at Steffie, who had resumed eating her hair. “Well, how do you like that? Ow!”
“I don’t care if it’s stir fried. It looks disgusting.” Baxter stared down at his plate in the Devagh II’s mess hall. “Are you sure humans can eat this, Janice?”
“You’ll be fine,” Browning said, staring at her own plate. Beside her, Richards was hungrily gobbling down the fried worms. “See?” She looked at Richards. Baxter did too.
“What?” Richards asked, slurping a worm. “I ate Klingon food for four months, remember?”
“How could I forget,” Baxter muttered, and pushed his plate away. I’m going to go see if these replicators know any human dishes.”
“I think I saw borsht in there somewhere,” said Browning.
“That’s comforting,” said Baxter.
“All hands,” called Weapons officer Tekno over the comm. “We will enter weapons range of the Dominion battlecruiser within ten minutes. Senior officers and pathetic, cowardly humans please report to the bridge immediately.”
“Guess that’s us,” Baxter mumbled.
“Nice of them to keep us in the loop,” Richards said, wiping his mouth.
“Yeah,” said Browning. “Let’s go.”
“That’s my name, monkey guy,” Plato said, standing on his head on the bench, inside the security field in the brig of Rogue-42.
Jelo looked at Plato with disdain. “I would link with you, if I thought I would learn anything useful from it.”
“I like to link,” Plato said.
Jelo cocked his head. “You don’t seem scared.”
Jelo knelt so he was eye-level with Plato, who still looked at him upside-down. “Why aren’t you scared?”
“I was at first. Then I realized my mom, and Uncle Andy, and Uncle Chris, would come and get me. I’m not scared any more.”
Jelo laughed. “You will be again soon, little boy. I will guarantee you that.”
“You’re just a funny monkey.”
“And you’re an impudent wretch!” Jelo growled, snapping to his feet.
Plato flipped back right-side up. “What’sa wretch?”
“Arhhhg,” Jelo smouldered. “I am wasting my time. Enjoy your time here, Plato. It won’t last for long.”
“Then where am I going?” Plato called after Jelo.
The Changeling didn’t respond.
“You were napping?” Vansen asked with interest, leaning forward in the command chair of the Escort as DiSalvo piloted, and Chaka’kan sat at the tactical console beside her.
“That is correct,” Chaka’kan said.
“I didn’t know Jem’Hadar napped,” DiSalvo said.
“Most of them don’t.” Vansen frowned at Chaka. “This one is a little…altered.”
“Thanks,” Chaka’kan said.
“What do you mean ‘altered’?”
Vansen sighed. “The Dominion are experiencing with methods for taming Jem’Hadar. Chaka’kan here is a member of that test group.”
“And why does he live on the Explorer?”
“Because the test group rejected him.”
“What was that snort for?”
Vansen got up and walked over to the helm. “No. Samuel. What were you snorting about?
“The Explorer is a ship of rejects.”
Vansen chewed her lip angrily for a few moments. “Some of them are rejects, yes.”
“So it makes sense for Chaka’kan to be there.” When he saw Vansen was still angry, he raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t talking about you, Nell.”
“Whatever.” Vansen stomped over to the command chair. “As I was saying, Chaka’kan isn’t like other Jem’Hadar. For instance, he sleeps.”
“I can also procreate. Which is funny,” Chaka said thoughtfully. “Since there are no female Jem’Hadar.”
“You might want to look into that,” Vansen said distantly.
“Indeed.” Chaka sat in silence a few moments. “So, did I miss anything while I was napping?”
“Shut up,” Vansen said to DiSalvo before he could say anything.
“Shouldn’t we be cloaked?” Baxter asked, leaning toward Dwanok.
“We are cloaked, you fool,” Dwanok bellowed.
“Oh. That’s why it got dark in here a few minutes ago.” Baxter nodded. “I get it now.”
Dwanok turned toward J’hana. “May I kill him?”
J’hana looked at Baxter thoughtfully. “Not yet.”
“We’re on attack vector. Jem’Hadar rogue ship in ten thousand kellicams,” Tekno announced from the weapons console.
“Very well,” Dwanok said, clenching his fists. “Ready us for battle. Prepare to drop cloak and fire all weapons.”
“Hold on just one second!” Janice Browning said.
“Would you like to target the weapons yourself?” Dwanok asked earnestly. “That can be arranged.”
“I don’t want to target the weapons,” Browning said, moving Dwanok’s chair to face her, something that took a Herculean effort. “I don’t want you to fire your weapons.”
“She obviously isn’t familiar with the way we operate,” Dwanok said to J’hana.
“We start shooting them, Plato could get hurt,” Browning said. “And that can’t happen.” She pushed up her shirtsleeves and looked around the Klingon bridge. “Anybody got a problem with that?”
“Janice…” Baxter said, resting a hand on Browning’s shoulder. “These are Klingons. Best not to annoy them…”
“Some help you are,” Browning mumbled.
“She has a point,” Dwanok rumbled, ending all debate. “This mission requires the precision of the dak’tagh, not the wild slashes of the bat’leth.”
“Nice metaphor,” Richards piped up from the back of the bridge.
“Begin finding a way to infiltrate that vessel,” Dwanok said to Browning.
Browning gulped. “Me?”
“He is your son, correct?”
Browning nodded. “Yeah. Uh…Christopher?”
“So NOW you need my help!”
“Get over here!”
“We are ready for transport. The field is stable and the cell is secure,” a Jem’Hadar said into his wrist communicator.
“Transporting,” came another voice, as Plato looked on at the cell across the corridor from his.
His eyes widened as he saw it, a roiling mess of heads and arms. It was gold-ish in color, and it filled the whole cell.
Happy faces, angry faces, sad faces…feet, clubs, knives, wings….
“Another Founder,” Plato gasped.
“Silence!” the Jem’Hadar beside the cell barked at Plato, who thumbed his nose back at the Jem’Hadar. Luckily Jem’Hadar didn’t \ know what that meant.
“This is the third cell we’ve put it in during the last cycle,” the Jem’Hadar said over the communicator.
“I understand, Second. We will continue to try to keep it contained.”
“Jelo has given orders to destroy the lifeform if we cannot control it.”
“But it is a Founder…of sorts…”
“Jelo is the Supreme Founder. His word is law. Do as you are told,” the com voice replied sharply.
“Of course, Second. Victory is life according to Jelo.”
“You are correct. Second Skip’tamalu out.”
“Don’t do anything,” the Jem’Hadar guard said to Plato, and exited the brig. Once he was gone, Plato inched toward the field that walled him in, watching the creature, or whatever it was, wail against the field just a couple meters opposite him.
“You a Founder?” he called across the hall.
The thing stopped its frantic moving.
“Fummmmblurrrrrrrr,” it rumbled.
“You’re not like the other ones, big guy,” Plato said. “You’re lots madder.”
“Yeah, I bet you are. You probably want to get out of there, don’t you, guy?”
Plato nodded. “I know what you mean. Look, you think you can bust open that cell like you did with the other ones? Maybe you and me together can find a way outta here?”
Plato grinned. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Crash into them?” Baxter said, leaning his chin into his hands. He sighed. “Four years of the finest engineering training in the quadrant. Fifteen years of countless star-hours logged in space, and the best you can come up with is ‘crash into them’?”
Richards swiveled in his chair at the (admittedly) small science console on the Devagh-II’s bridge. “I didn’t see you coming up with any bright ideas, and we don’t have much time. Anyway, it’s not a direct hit. It’s a grazing. Just enough to knock them out of warp and disrupt their shield regulators.”
Dwanok loomed over Baxter, Browning, and Richards. “The puny soap opera writer is right. If we cast a glancing blow on the Dominion cruiser, we may disrupt their shields long enough to lock onto Plato and transport him aboard.”
“And then we blow up,” Baxter said.
“Not necessarily,” J’hana said, standing next to Baxter. “The Klingons make their ships far more durable than ours. The Devagh-Two might withstand a minor collision with another vessel at warp.”
Browning looked at Baxter. “It’s an idea.”
“Not a good one, Janice.”
“It’ll will work,” Richards said, looking at Baxter. “Trust me.”
Baxter frowned at Richards. “Is this the friend or the ex-chief engineer talking?”
“It’s the first officer talking.”
“Knock them out of warp, knock out their shields, get Plato,” Dwanok said. He slapped Richards on the back so hard he fell out of his chair. “Good idea, you miserable human!”
Baxter put his hands over his face. “This can’t be happening.”
“Ramming speed!” Dwanok ordered his helmsman.
“Tha-tha-tha-things are, are, are n-n-n-n-n-not going well, F-f-f-f-f-f-fafafafaFounder.”
“Please elaborate,” Odo said tiredly to his Vorta Field Chief, “Stuttering Weyoun” as he sat on the craggy precipice of rock overlooking the smooth and shimmering (once again relocated) Great Link.
Weyoun paused to think about that. “Jelo’s fafafafafafa…FORCES….outn-n-n-number ours.”
“By how much?”
“Tha-tha-tha-tha-three to wuwuwuwu…ONE.”
Odo nodded. “Grim. So…any sign that they have located us?”
“No, but there are su-su-su-su-some odd readings approaching.”
“One Duh-duh-duh-duh-Dominion ship, one Kakakakakakakakakakakakaka….”
If Odo had eyebrows, he would have raised them both. “Klingon?”
Weyoun nodded. “But it cuh-cuh-cuh-cloaked a few mamamaminutes ago.”
“How close are they?”
“Any of our ships nearby?”
Weyoun shook his head.
Odo took it all in. He knew what had to be done.
“It’s time we made our stand, Weyoun.”
“You can cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh…count on muh-muh-muh- muh-muh–”
But before Weyoun could finish, Odo had already walked off and stepped back into the Great Link.
Weyoun idly wondered what he was up to.
“What do you feed a Founder?” Ninth Oran’gutan wondered aloud as he walked down the corridor toward the brig carrying Plato’s plate of “franks and beans,” something the historical computer said a half-human child would enjoy eating.
He approached the door to the brig. “Especially a multiple- composited undomesticated wild Founder.” He shrugged. “Maybe I will just ask.”
He hit the door control, but nothing happened.
“Maintenance has erred again,” he said, and plunked the door control again.
Then the door blew outward, and something bowled Oran’gutan over, smashing him against the floor and crushing several major parts of him.
“Sorry, guy!” a voice called out.
Oran’gutan turned his bashed head over to see the half-human, half- changeling child galloping down the corridor on the back of a grunting, six- headed, nine-legged, horselike creature.
“Oats and hay,” Oran’gutan completed his thought, then passed out, just as something smashed into the Dominion battlecruiser and knocked it out of warp.
Shortly thereafter, it blew up.
“I said MIGHT!” J’hana called out over the din of alarms and klaxons aboard the bridge of the Devagh-II as Klingons ran here and there, trying madly to fix things. “MIGHT not blow up!”
“Thanks for reminding us!” Baxter cried, holding on to Janice and Richards. “Could someone please tell me what’s happening?”
“In short order,” Dwanok grunted, gripping his command chair for all it was worth. “We knocked the Dominon cruiser out of warp. We did disrupt its shields. And caused a cascade power failure which ended in total reactor meltdown, which blew up the ship. I suppose you would consider it fortunate that we did transport all changeling lifesigns over to this ship before the vessel exploded. The collision, however, also caused us to ricochet into a nearby planet’s atmosphere, and we are about to crash into that planet. ANY OTHER QUESTIONS?”
Baxter looked at Richards and Browning. “Nope. That just about does it.”
“I SAID might!” J’hana cried, holding on to Dwanok.
“Did you say ALL changeling lifesigns?” asked Browning.
“I did indeed.”
“Jelo,” she growled, and ran into the nearest turbolift.
“Janice! Stay with us!” Baxter called after her.
“Like that’s going to help,” mumbled Richards.
“You shut up.”
“ALL OF YOU SHUT UP!”
“I SAID MIGHT!”
“I wonder what everyone else is doing,” Chaka’kan said idly from the tactical console of the Escort as it sped toward the Gamma side of the wormhole entrance.
“That really doesn’t matter,” Vansen said, pacing in front of the command chair.
“Do you really think we’ll manage to get word out to the Alpha Quadrant?” DiSalvo asked from the helm.
“I’ll bet our Chibrasian dinette set on it.”
“My mother loves that dinette set.”
“Do we have a deal?”
DiSalvo grimaced. “Deal.”
Baxter grunted. “Hrmmm. What.”
“No…” He rolled over. “You take care of the baby. It’s your night. I wanna…wanna get some sleep.”
“He is not dead,” a booming, barely feminine voice called out. J’hana.
Baxter’s eyes crept open. “Wha…where…” He winced, turning his head away from a glaring stream of sunlight. “Where is that sun coming from?”
“The crash put a permanent skylight on my bridge,” Dwanok bellowed from beside Baxter.
“Sorry about that,” Baxter said, rolling over, trying to get his vision to clear. “Is everyone okay?”
“No,” J’hana said.
As Baxter’s vision cleared, his eyes widened, focusing on the huge mass lying beside him.
“Dwanok…” he whispered.
“Do not get sentimental with me, weakling,” Dwanok rumbled. “It is but a minor flesh wound.”
Browning was kneeling beside Dwanok, running a Klingon tricorder over him. “Don’t be modest. You’ve got massive internal trauma and damage to several of your redundant organs. You need surgery.”
“I’ll be fine. J’hana…if you would be so kind as to pull that girder out of my stomach.”
“I have tried. It is wedged in tightly.”
“He’ll have to be beamed out,” Richards said gravely. “Of course, the transporters are fried along with the rest of the ship.”
“I will stay with him,” J’hana said, glaring at Richards. “The rest of you evacuate the ship and try to ascertain your bearings.”
“Can anyone be sure this thing won’t blow up?” Baxter asked.
“It might not,” J’hana said.
Baxter glared at her.
“A joke,” J’hana said. “Sheesh.” Dwanok let out a huge belly laugh, then coughed up blood.
“Take care of him, J’hana,” Baxter said, brushing himself off and standing. “And call a medic up here to stay with you. Maybe do something to keep him comfortable.”
“You obviously don’t understand Klingon medicine,” Dwanok rumbled, and passed out.
“Alrighty then,” Richards said. He looked at Baxter. “There are multiple changeling readings in the lower decks. We better track them down before they get off the ship.”
Baxter gestured to Browning. “Let’s find ourselves an offspring.”
“My sentiments exactly,” Browning replied.
Lt. Commander Tilleran sat idly in the command chair of the Explorer, staring at the still starscape on the viewscreen.
“Commander,” a voice said from behind her. She turned to see Ensign Adam Keefler at tactical.
“Go ahead, Ensign,” she replied.
“Getting some disturbing reports on Dominion ship-to-ship channels.”
“Reports of what?”
“The ship containing Jelo blowing up, approximately four parsecs from here…”
Tilleran’s brow furrowed. “That’s good, right?”
“…and the Klingon ship that rammed into it to crashing into a planet.”
Tilleran turned back around. She punched a control on the arm of the command chair. “Tilleran to Hartley.”
“What?” came the voice of a busy-sounding Hartley.
“Start your engines, Megan.”
“No chance. We’re still in no shape to–”
“That’s not a request, it’s an order.”
“What’s crawled up your ass?”
“Dwanok’s ship crashed a few parsecs away and we need to go rescue it.”
“What about Vansen? Aren’t we supposed to wait for her?”
“She’s a big girl. She can take care of herself. Get those engines going.”
“The woman means business,” Hartley grumbled and closed the channel.
“Lieutenant,” Tilleran said, stepping up behind the helm console.
“Already laying in the course,” Lt. Madera said.
Browning knew she was on the right track when a Klingon slammed into the bulkhead next to her, hurled as if from on high, through a gash in the Devagh II’s hull.
“Akustek…Chief Engineer,” the Klingon said groggily, as Richards helped him up.
“What the hell happened to you?” Baxter asked, looking up through the rip in the hull.
“Big…big…” Akustek began.
“This breach wasn’t made by the crash,” Richards said. “The metal is bent outward. Something did this from inside the ship.”
“Big,” Akustek nodded.
Browning looked in his eyes. “A Changeling?”
Akustek nodded. “Big Changeling.”
“Jelo?” Baxter asked.
Akustek looked at him askance. “This is not the time for desserts, human.”
“I don’t think it was Jelo,” Richards said. “But I have a good idea of who it was. Or what it was. C’mon. Give me a boost out of here.” He lept up and grabbed an exposed piece of tubing, hoisting himself up through the gash in the ceiling. Baxter sighed and lifted Richards up by his feet, pushing him all the way out.
“After you,” he muttered to Browning.
“That thing will kill you,” Akustek grunted. “I only wish I could watch.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Baxter said, boosting Browning up through the hole in the roof. That done, he looked up at Browning and Richards, who were standing on top of the hull. “Little help, guys?” But Browning and Richards bolted. Apparently, they saw something.
“Your friends seem to have a real affinity for you,” Akustek said, pulling himself to his feet.
“There are more than two ways to skin a sehlat,” Baxter mumbled. “You got a shuttlebay on this thing?”
“But of course. Right this way, sir,” deadpanned the banged-up Klingon.
“There they are,” DiSalvo said, of the three ships blockading the entrance to the wormhole.
Vansen nodded. “Weapons ready. Make a run for the communications array, and hope we can blow it up and get out of here before they realize what’s happening.”
“Shooting will do us no good,” Chaka’kan said helpfully.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because no one ever trained me to fire Starfleet weaponry, first of all,” Chaka’kan said, to Vansen’s chagrin. “Second, I think we’ll probably need to use our wits to get out of this.”
“He’s the damned strangest Jem’Hadar I’ve ever seen,” DiSalvo muttered.
“Thank you,” Chaka said. “Now, then, why don’t you make yourself useful, Commander DiSalvo, and pull us up to the lead ship’s ventral exhaust shunt.”
“Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” Vansen asked him.
“Of course,” said Chaka’kan. “It’s simply a matter of envisioning your goal and achieving it. Envision and achieve.”
“Doctor Ranowat tell you that?”
“Wrong, but a much better guess.”
“I give up.”
“A self-help chip. From someone by the name of Richard Simmons.”
Vansen covered her face. “I can’t believe we’re entrusting our fate to this kid.”
“I am not a kid. I am three weeks old.”
“I stand corrected.”
“Red Alert,” Tilleran said, rising from the center chair as the Explorer came out of warp. “Standard orbit, Madera. Shields up, Keefler, and all weapons at the ready.”
Mutterings rose up around the bridge as the staff went about their tasks.
Then the rear turbolift opened up and spat out Lt. Commander Hartley.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Hartley asked.
“Finding our lost people,” Tilleran said.
“In the middle of a Dominion Civil war, with a ship that’s barely pieced back together? Are you insane?”
“You’d rather we do nothing?”
“I’d rather we left it up to someone else.”
“There is no one else,” Tilleran said.
“Oh,” Hartley said.
“Full scans. Tell me if there are any Dominion ships coming, good or bad.”
“Don’t think I can tell the difference,” Keefler muttered.
“So,” Hartley said, looking at Tilleran. “How are things?”
“I twisted my knee in the holodeck last night,” Tilleran said. “But other than that I’m great. You?”
“Mirk accidentally sent my breakfast to another dimension this morning,” she mumbled.
“Not seeing anything on short-range. Moving to long-range scans…”
Tilleran nodded. “That’s a shame.”
“But when he tried to get it back, all I got was a concept.”
Tilleran nodded, as if she knew what Hartley was talking about. “Sure. Wait. A what?”
“Instead of giving me breakfast, he implanted a concept in my brain. Now I completely understand geometry. Did you realize that the sum of any two sides of an equilateral triangle is equal…”
“A whole fleet of Dominion warships incoming!” Keefler said. “ETA twenty-six minutes!”
“Still…all things considered, I would have preferred a bagel…”
“Get up to the engineering station, Megan,” Tilleran said, watching the viewscreen woefully. “All power to shields!”
“Gotcha,” Hartley said. “Should I go ahead and have everyone man the escape pods? You know, just for kicks?”
“Just fortify our shields, Megan.”
“Whatever you say, Miss Captain Sir.”
Browning had long outrun Richards. All that running around the ship had done her some good after all.
She had lost sight of the romping multi-limbed, gelatinous creature her son was riding on a few minutes earlier, and now was running purely on the desire to see her son. It turned out to be a more powerful fuel than even she realized.
Browning jogged up steep, inclining hills and skipped down the sides of dunes, falling over herself, clambering across the hard terrain.
And then she saw him.
Standing there, looking quite innocent, smiling at her.
“PLATO!” Browning cried, and collapsed at her son’s feet. She wrapped her arms around him. “Am I glad to see you! God, am I glad to see you!”
“I’m glad to see you too, Mom,” Plato said. “Now maybe you can help me take over this miserable, wretched planet.”
And Plato grew, taller, lifting Browning to her feet, lifting Browning into the air. He stared her in the eyes. “Children grow up so fast, don’t they?”
“Jelo…” Browning gasped.
“Oh, well done,” Jelo said, as his face and body shifted into the familiar, robed, monkey-like figure. He yanked her phaser out of its holster and hurled it into the distance. “Won’t be needing this where you’re going.” Then he dragged Browning along with him. “Now help me find that boy!”
“URK!” Browning choked, as Jelo dragged her over the next dune, toward a huge plateau that seemed very…very out of place.
Moments later, Richards, out of breath, arrived at the sand dune where Browning had just been.
“Ja…Janice…what…what…where are you?” He dropped to his knees, gasping. “Gotta… get in shape. Tennis just isn’t doing it.”
He then rolled over, wiping sweat from his forehead, and squinted as something seemed to blot out the sun and cast a long shadow over him.
That something dropped down next to him, landing on the sand with a thud. Its hatch opened, and Baxter looked out.
“Well, Richards, do you want a ride or not?”
Richards sighed and climbed to his feet.
“How long has it been?” Vansen asked DiSalvo as she twisted and turned in the Escort command chair.
“Do we go in after him?”
DiSalvo grunted. “We’re attached to the exhaust shunt of a Dominion battlecruiser, which, I may add, is being flanked by two other battlecruisers. I think we’d do well to escape with our own necks.”
“Since when were you a coward?” Vansen mused.
“I’m not being a coward. I’m just being realistic, Nellie.”
“Don’t call me that.” Vansen got up and checked the tactical console. “The proximity to their byproduct channeling plant is disrupting our sensors. I can’t get a lock on him.”
“He might be cloaked. And in point of fact, we wouldn’t be worried about saving your Jem’Hadar buddy if you hadn’t charged into this hornet’s nest in the first place.”
“Are you questioning my decision making?” Vansen fumed.
“Only my willingness to let it get this far before stepping in.” DiSalvo turned around from his seat at the helm. “I’m taking us back to the Explorer, Nell.”
“You’re going to do no such thing.” Vansen began fumbling underneath the tactical console.
“This was a bad idea, and I can’t believe I went along with it.”
“Because you trust me,” Vansen muttered, still looking for signs of Chaka as she felt around under her console.
“No, but I guess I do still have feelings for you. Wish I didn’t. Then this would all be easier.”
Vansen raised an eyebrow. “What would?”
“I outrank you, Nell. We’re going back to the Explorer. That’s my decision.”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” Vansen said, withdrawing the hand phaser she’d pulled out from under the tactical console and blasting DiSalvo. “And you can keep your stupid dinette set.”
She glanced at the weapon as DiSalvo slumped back into his chair. “Damn. It was set to stun.”
She heard a shimmering sound behind her and swung the phaser around, bringing it to bear on a surprised-looking Chaka. “Hey! I’m one of the nice ones, remember!”
Vansen frowned. “Did you succeed in your task?”
Chaka nodded. “Their targeting scanners have been…adjusted to your specifications.”
Vansen patted Chaka’kan on the back. “Well done. I didn’t realize you knew so much about Dominion ships.”
“I did grow up in the Dominion, for nine whole days.” Chaka grinned, then looked over to the helm, where DiSalvo lay unconscious. “Uh…what happened here?”
“Difference in opinion. Mind taking the helm?”
“Not at all.” Chaka walked over to the helm and shoved DiSalvo out of the seat, then sat down.
Vansen cracked her knuckles and studied the tactical console. They had one shot at this, and one shot only.
“Detach us from the cruiser’s exhaust shunt, and take us into firing range of the communications array.” She then brought up the controls for the tri-cobalt device she’d loaded into the Escort’s torpedo tube. “Get ready for some fireworks.”
“Just be ready. Keep an eye on those Dominion ships.” Vansen punched the firing control and watched the viewscreen. A blue, sparkling orb flew through space, connecting with the communications array and exploding it violently, causing a shockwave that knocked the Escort about like a buoy.
Vansen gripped her console. “Bring us about, Chaka’kan. Evasive maneuvers.” She punched up the Dominion cruisers. Sure enough, the lead ship was moving toward their position.
“They’ve locked on to us. Looks like they traced the trajectory of the tri-cobalt device,” Chaka reported.
“Just as I thought,” Vansen said. “Take us toward the lead ship.”
“Uh…right,” Chaka’kan said, and guided the Escort toward the lead Dominion ship, as the two others closed in. “Weapons heating up. Looks like they’re preparing to fire.”
“Does it now?” Vansen asked. “Let ‘em.”
“The lead ship is firing!”
Antiproton cannon bolts shot out of the lead Dominion ship, angled away from the Escort, and pounded the other two Dominion ships, which were closing in. Those ships, in turn, fired back at the first ship, and an all- out firefight ensued.
Vansen pounded her panel. “Yes! I think we’ve done enough here. Get us out of here. Maximum warp!”
“Which button is that again?”
And the Escort zipped away from the scene as the three Dominion ships opened fire on each other.
“Where is that damned Changeling beast?” Jelo spat as he dragged Browning up to the big, sheer, rockface that dominated the surrounding desert-scape. It lead up to a flat plateau, reminding Browning a lot of Montana. Not that she shared that with Jelo, of course.
“You mean the undomesticated Changeling…er…Changelings?” Browning offered, struggling to keep up.
“Whatever you want to call them. They’re a nuisance. And here I thought they could be a help to me.”
“Win some, lose some,” Browning said.
“Backtalk will not help your situation,” Jelo snapped.
“You think you scare me?”
Jelo grinned evilly. “You have to admit, it is pretty intimidating. The fact I escaped death.”
“You know, your buddies, Baxter and Peterman, and their friends, came and blew up the Romulan Warbird I’d been using as my headquarters.”
“I really hadn’t heard about that. I’d just assumed they’d killed you.”
Jelo smiled wide. “And yet here I am!”
“Don’t you want to know how I escaped?”
“To tell you the truth, I really don’t care either way.”
The changeling beamed. “It was superb. I went into a repair conduit, then slipped aboard the very Romulan scoutship your captain and friends escaped on. I masqueraded as a coil spanner and got taken aboard the Aerostar. Luckily, I escaped by pretending to be a piece of Counselor Peterman’s matched luggage, just before the Aerostar itself exploded. I remained aboard the starship Nixon until your people crashed it on Earth, and stowed away with the Starfleet salvage team out of Beijing.”
“But that is not the best part! I schemed and squirmed my way aboard a network of Starfleet ships, at the peak of the Dominion War, until I got on the Defiant itself and rode it into the Delta Quadrant, where I then spent the following years planning the rebel insurgence we now enjoy. Isn’t that…fantastic?”
“You know,” Browning said. “You escaped three exploding ships and made it deep into Starfleet Command. You might have actually used that opportunity to try and bring Starfleet to its knees.” She rolled her eyes. “You probably would have succeeded. Oh, well. Must not have occurred to you.”
“Damn you! No more talking!” Jelo wrenched Browning’s arm and dragged her up the side of the mountain. Arms extended from either side of his belly to grab handholds in the rock and lift her up.
As they moved up the side of the mountain, climbing onto a flat, jutting precipice, Browning spotted Plato. She kept her mouth shut, not wanting to let Jelo know he was near. But there he was, clambering up the mountain as if he were an expert climber. Yet another Changeling talent. Browning swelled with pride.
“There he is!” Jelo pointed, as they stood up on the precipice.
“Damn,” said Browning.
“Call out to him,” Jelo ordered.
Browning shook her head.
A tentacle extended from his ribcage, and he used it to tickle Browning’s armpit. “Come on, call your son, Janice! Call him!”
Browning giggled. “Uh-uh!”
“Call your boy!”
“Fine. Then just be a good girl and wait here,” Jelo muttered, clambering up the mountain after Plato. “Soon, my fleet will be here, and we will secure this planet, and I will have the Dominion!”
Browning charged up to the rockface, grabbing for Jelo’s foot as he climbed. “JELO!!”
A tentacle snaked down from Jelo and smacked her backwards, sending her to the ground. She glanced over the edge of the precipice to see the dizzying drop below. Sometimes parenting could be really hard. She looked up at Plato, squinting in the sunlight. “Get away from him, Plato! Get as far away from him as you can!”
“Mommy?” the distant voice called out.
“Just climb!” Browning shouted.
“Would you like some help?” a voice asked, seemingly from out of nowhere. Browning climbed to her feet, rubbing her sore backside.
“What do you mean nobody’s there?” Vansen asked, looking over Chaka’kan’s shoulder as he maneuvered the Escort toward the rendez-vous point.
“I mean there’s no sign of the Explorer,” Chaka replied helpfully.
“Damn. I leave Tilleran with command for a couple hours and she goes independent on me.” Vansen frowned, tapping buttons. “There. Her ion trail is still fresh. Follow it!”
“Uhhhhg….what…” DiSalvo grunted, from where he lie next to the helm console.
“Not yet!” Vansen snapped, blasting him again with her phaser.
“Time permitting, I’d like to know more about human marriages,” Chaka’kan said thoughtfully.
“No you wouldn’t,” Vansen replied.
“Find her!” Richards cried as Baxter piloted the Klingon shuttlecraft over the alien planet’s terrain.
“I’m trying. This whole planet is one big sensor-damper.”
“I wonder why that is?” Richards asked thoughtfully.
“I don’t know,” Baxter replied. “Maybe the Dominion is hiding something here.”
“What would an empire ruled by secretive changelings have to hide?”
“I really don’t know.”
“What do you mean you can’t find them?” Tilleran demanded, pushing Ensign Koltz away from the science console and tapping the controls.
“I mean, I can’t find them,” Koltz explained.
Hartley joined Tilleran behind the console, tapping another set of controls. “I’m boosting the gain as far as it can go.”
“Still not getting much of anything,” Tilleran said.
“I think we’re dealing with a very sophisticated dampening field.” Hartley chewed her lower lip. “I wonder if we can dissipate it.”
“Start trying to find a way,” Tilleran said. “Meanwhile…”
“Incoming!” Ensign Keefler called out.
“Sheilds!” Tilleran shouted, running to the command chair.
“No, I mean…it’s the Escort.”
“Well why didnt’ you just say that?”
Keefler shrugged. “I just always wanted to say ‘incoming.’”
“Well, bring in the Escort before that Dominion fleet arrives. Vansen can have the conn back. I don’t want it.”
“Not enjoying the awesome rush of power?” Hartley asked as she worked at the science console.
Tilleran shook her head. “Not really.”
“There!” cried Richards. “On that butte!”
“That’s a plateau,” Baxter replied as he guided the Klingon shuttle down low toward the planet’s surface.
“No, it’s Plato! And Jelo’s dragging him up the side of that arroyo!”
“I’m sure it’s not called an arroyo,” Baxter replied. “Sounds more like a person’s name than a geographic formation.”
“Dive down and get him!”
“Who’s giving the orders around here?”
“Shut up and help me save Plato!”
“No. YOU help ME save Plato!”
Richards shoved Baxter and stabbed the controls, and the two wrestled as the Klingon shuttle dove down toward Plato and Jelo.
“Give me the bullet,” Vansen said, jogging onto the bridge, followed by Chaka’kan.
“Where’s DiSalvo?” Tilleran asked, relieving Koltz at sciences.
“And what’s a ‘bullet’?” Hartley asked, stepping behind the engineering station.
“Sam’s incapacitated, in Sickbay,” Vansen said. “Long story.”
“And should we really be letting Jem’Hadar on the bridge at a time like this?” asked Tilleran.
“This one is okay by me,” Vansen said, sharing a glance with Chaka’kan. “Have a seat.”
“I feel like I should be doing something useful,” Chaka said, falling into the seat next to the command chair. Vansen’s usual seat. “Like knitting.”
“Can we add him to the staff?” Hartley giggled.
“The bullet!” Vansen snapped.
“Still don’t know what that is,” Tilleran sighed.
“Tell me what’s been going on! And why weren’t you at the rendez-vous?”
“Oh. We came to save Captain Baxter and the others after they crashed into this planet, but we can’t find them, and a large force of Dominion ships are on their way to kick our asses, and the ship is barely pieced back together.”
“Great,” Vansen said. “So we’re basically doomed.”
“Unless you managed to get reinforcements from the wormhole,” Tilleran asked hopefully.
“I didn’t stay around long enough to find out.”
“Well, then, yeah, I guess we are doomed.”
“Anybody feel like a drink?” Hartley asked.
“Call down to your boyfriend and have him bring us up a round of something potent,” Vansen said. “I’m buying.”
“It’s nice to know you have a soft side, Commander,” said Tilleran.
“Shut the hell up.”
“I wonder what everyone else is doing,” Dwanok said as J’hana sat quietly beside him, changing the bandages around the giant beam that stuck through him.
“Whatever it is, I am sure it involves battle.”
“You wish you were out there.”
“There is no place I’d rather be than here with you,” J’hana said, mopping Dwanok’s forehead. “And that, of course, is a lie. I would love to be fighting right now.”
“Suffice it to say, you have aroused me.”
J’hana grinned. “I am no doctor, but that is a positive sign you will recover.”
“No, I will not,” Dwanok said, and took J’hana’s hand. “I am maimed. You must kill me.” He pressed a dak’tagh knife into her hand. “Run me through with this, and end it. It is the Klingon way.”
“Fwarks to you,” J’hana said. “You will survive this.”
“Perhaps, but I will be a shadow of the man I once was. I will be an invalid.”
“Maybe for the short term, but Klingons are resilient. You will be great again, Large One.”
“Kill me, J’hana…honor my last request, and I will see you in…Sto’vo’kor.”
J’hana thought about it for a moment.
“I would do the same for you,” he added.
“Quite touching,” J’hana said. “Still, I will see you through this.”
“You…dishonor me…” Dwanok grunted, then passed out.
J’hana shrugged. “I cannot say I will lose a lot of sleep over that.”
“Almost…there…” Jelo grunted, hunching Plato up over his back as he reached the flat top of the plateau.
Plato beat his fists about Jelo’s shoulders, which basically did nothing. “Let me go, you bad bad monkeyman!”
“Will you stop that, you wretched little urchin!”
“Give me back to my mommy!”
“I plan on killing your mommy, very soon, you little…”
“Not if we kill you first!” a voice shouted from above.
Jelo looked up. “What the hell is that?” A small, rust-colored craft hovered just above him. Someone stuck his head out, waving a phaser rifle.
Plato grinned. “Uncle Chris!”
“And your Uncle Andy!” another voice called out.
“Just steer, damn it!” Richards shouted back, then extended his hand down to Plato. “Grab on, kiddo!”
Plato reached up, but his arm wasn’t long enough. Not as if that was a problem. He concentrated, and his arm extended toward Richards’s.
“No!” Jelo shouted, twisting around as he clambered up the side of the rockface.
“Keep us steady!” Richards called into the shuttlecraft.
Jelo wrenched at Plato as Richards pulled on the boy’s hand.
“Come here and shoot Jelo!” Richards said.
“I’m trying to pilot,” Baxter’s voice responded.
“That’s right, it’s your Uncle Andy!”
“Shut up and steer!” Richards called, maneuvering his phaser rifle around so he could grip Plato with one hand and shoot Jelo with the other. “And hold my foot so I don’t fall out!”
“Sheesh,” Baxter muttered, reaching back with one hand and grabbing Richards’s extended leg, as he steered the shuttle with the other hand.
“Die, you son of a bitch!” Richards cried, blasting Jelo’s face.
“What are ya calling me, Uncle?” Plato asked.
“Not you, him!” Richards said as he blew a hole in the shocked Changeling’s head, sending him careening down to the base of the mountain.
Richards sighed and pulled Plato into the cabin of the shuttle, hugging the Changeling boy for all he was worth.
“Glad to have you back, buddy,” Baxter said, smiling to Plato. “Now let’s land this thing and find Janice.”
“Good…” Richards said breathlessly, hugging Plato. “Good idea.”
“Let’s us do that again!” Plato cheered.
“Maybe…later…” Richards gasped.
“Here they come…” Keefler said, letting out a low whistle as he watched the Dominion battlecruisers sail into the system. Looked to be about twenty of them.
“Red Alert,” Vansen said sucking back on her atomic fwarz- sharsher, an Andorian beverage Tilleran had recommended.
“Already there,” Tilleran belched, drinking her own fwarz-sharsher.
“Weapons to maximum,” Vansen said, stumbling back into the command chair.
“Can I make a suggestion?” Madera said from the helm.
“Sure, why the hell not?” asked Vansen.
“Can’t we just leave?”
“Not with our people down there,” Tilleran said.
“Yeah,” Vansen said. “OUR people.” She looked at Hartley and Tilleran. “You guys love me too, don’t you? Think of me as one of the gang?”
“Surrrrrrrre,” Hartley said.
“Yeah, right,” Tilleran said, bursting into giggles.
“We’re all going to die,” Madera moaned. “And nobody even offered me a drink.” She glanced over at Sefelt, who seemed very calm at ops. “Howie seems to be handling this well, though.” Then she realized his eyes were closed, and his head was bent forward a little.
“BRAAP!” Hartley responded. “I think he passed out about ten minutes ago.”
Madera sighed. “Great.”
“You stay here, and don’t come out, no matter what, okay?” Baxter asked, checking the settings on his phaser rifle as he and Richards ducked out of the shuttlecraft.
“Kinda like hide and seek?”
“Something like that,” Richards said, checking his own phaser rifle.
“Cool! See you guys later!” Plato said and shut the door to the craft.
“What a kid,” Baxter said to himself.
“You know, we’ve been pretty silly to fight over him.”
“Yes,” Baxter said. “It’s him we’re fighting over.”
“Of course it is,” Richards said, then looked at Baxter. “Who else could it be?”
“Hey, anybody seen Jelo?” Baxter asked no one in particular as they approached the rocky plateau.
“Captain, over here!” Lt. Commander Vansen said, stumbling down a nearby dune. “We just beamed down. All hell’s breaking loose across the Dominion.”
“We knew that already,” Baxter said. “Where’s the rest of the away team?”
“Just past that dune. Are you guys okay?” She looked from Richards to Baxter. “Where’s Plato?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Richards said, arming his rifle and pointing it at Vansen. “Jelo.”
“What are you talking about?” Vansen replied. “I’m your second officer!”
“You’re a changeling who has been a pain in the ass to us since day one,” Baxter said, raising his own rifle and aiming it at Vansen. “And this is the end of the road.”
“Captain…” Vansen held up her hands. “You really need to put that weapon down.”
“You’re not even trying to be Vansen,” Richards said. “You’re actually being nice.”
“People change,” Vansen said with a weak grin.
“Give up, Jelo,” Baxter said. “We’ve had just about enough of you.”
Vansen’s grin turned into a frown. “And just what do you think you will do with me? Kill me?” She sneered, her cheeks swelling, her lips pouting out like a monkey’s. “And violate countless Starfleet regulations?”
“I could live with that,” Baxter said. “How about you, Chris?”
“I’d sleep like a baby.” Richards took aim.
“Wait. I get to shoot her,” Baxter said.
Richards looked at Baxter. “Who says?”
“I’m the captain!”
“Oh, stop rubbing that in my face.”
In that instant, Vansen’s arms whipped out, like tentacles, and slapped the rifles to the ground, then slammed Baxter and Richards’s head together, swiftly dropping them both unconscious to the ground.
She slapped her hands together, slowly morphing back into Jelo. “Well, that was easy.” He glanced around. “Now, to find that little half- breed scamp.”
He turned to see the Klingon shuttle parked nearby and marched off toward it.
He turned. “What?”
It was a Vorta, standing behind him, just in front of that big plateau, appearing as if from out of nowhere. And he had a studder.
“Who are you?”
“How nice. Another reject. Why don’t you just run along and let me complete my mission.”
“C-c-c-c-c-c-c-c-c-c-can’t do that.”
“You have to be sta-sta-sta-sta-sta-sta-stopped.”
“And you’re going to stop me? You and what army?”
“Thu-thu-thu-thu-thu-thu-thu-this one.” And Weyoun stepped aside, and that huge plateau began to sink to the ground, turning golden. And out from it flowed Founder, upon Founder, upon Founder, upon Founder.
Jelo’s eyes grew wide. “Oh…”
Odo stepped to the front of the pack, accompanied by Janice Browning.
“You will be judged, Jelo,” Odo said.
“No, YOU will be DESTROYED,” Jelo sneered. “My ships are swarming in right now. One order from me and they obliterate the whole lot of you.”
“Or we obliterate you,” Odo growled, “and the Jem’Hadar you serve will return to our control.”
Odo nodded. “Reasonably.”
“Well, you wouldn’t do a thing to harm me,” Jelo said. “No changeling has ever harmed another.”
Odo grinned. “Oh. Didn’t you get the memo?”
Jelo stepped backwards. “You…?”
“Killed a changeling. Yes, and I’m prepared to do so again.”
“You haven’t seen any undomesticated Changelings lying about by any chance, have you?” asked Jelo, trying to change the subject.
“We absorbed them. They have been made a part of the whole. They will develop higher thinking, in time.”
“Good for them,” Jelo said snidely.
While Odo and Jelo talked, Browning walked over to check on Baxter and Richards.
She knelt by them, running a hand over each of their heads. “You guys okay?”
Baxter winced. “Actually, we’ve been putting our heads together, trying to come up with a way out of here.”
“That’s all taken care of, boys,” Browning said. “Plato’s safe?”
“Yeah…” Richards muttered. “We put him in the shuttle.”
“Good.” Browning kissed him on the forehead. “You guys just sit tight. Mom’s going to take care of this whole mess.” She then kissed Baxter on the forehead. “Just sit tight.” Then she got up and found something lying on the ground, and picked it up.
“Order your troops to stand down, Jelo,” Odo snapped, advancing toward Jelo.
“Never,” Jelo said. “Kill me.”
“Don’t think this is an empty threat…”
“Oh, that’s exactly what I think it is.”
Jelo turned around. “I’m a bit busy. What?”
“I’ll see you in hell.” And Browning blasted him with the phaser rifle. Again, and again, and again.
At first, he was able to squirm around the blasts, but Browning just kept firing, until finally limbs were blown off faster than he could re-form them.
She kept blasting, smiling as Jelo’s monkeylike face seemed to expand and melt.
And then he exploded, spraying marmalade-colored gook everywhere.
“Never screw with somebody’s mom,” Browning muttered, letting the rifle clatter to the ground. She helped Richards and Baxter to their feet.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Richards said.
“Good idea,” Browning affirmed, and the trio walked off, leaving the entire collection of Founders scratching their heads.
“Somebody better tell me what the hell’s going on here,” Peterman said, standing at the front of the Explorer’s bridge and “Why is everyone drunk, and where can I get some?”
“Go belowdecks and spend your last moments with your wretched kid,” Vansen said woozily, draped over the command chair.
“Last moments? What are you talking about?”
Tilleran pointed at the viewscreen. “Look there, Counselor.”
And it was true. A fleet of Dominion ships was swarming into the system, and they looked awfully angry.
“And just little old us standing between them and the Founders’ homeworld.”
“That’s the Founders’ homeworld?” Vansen asked, looking up at Hartley.
“Hadn’t you figured that out yet?” Hartley asked.
“Please,” Tilleran said. “It was so obvious.”
“Guess I never thought about it.” Vansen looked up at Peterman. “Why don’t you just go belowdecks.”
“No,” Peterman said, sitting in the chair next to Vansen…her old chair. Damn, it felt good. “I demand an explanation.”
“Your husband’s down there. Alive. Maybe. We’re going to die trying to protect him and the others. But make no mistake, we’re definitely going to die.”
Keefler looked down at his scans. “Actually, Commander…”
“Crmrmm rrta wrrrrp.”
“Come out of warp.”
“Scan the system.”
“Llll rrpons atta r ddy.”
“All weapons at the ready.”
“Mrntrn rddd alert.”
“Maintain Red Alert.”
“Dear, would you please take that cigar out of your mouth?” Lucille Baxter glared at Harlan Baxter as he rattled off orders to Lt. Beth Monroe, and she translated them to the crew.
Monroe turned to Lucille. “Captain, he said to F***….”
“I know what he said,” Lucille snapped.
“Entering the system,” the Pathfinder helmsman, Ensign Fitz, said.
“Pssssitn rrr flt to prttct d’xplerr,” Harlan said, pulling his cigar out and blowing out a puff of smoke. “An somebody empty out my ashtray!”
“Position our fleet to protect the Explorer. And someone empty the admiral’s ashtray!”
“I like it better when I lead the fleet,” Lucille muttered.
Vansen stared at the viewscreen, in between fingers, which were mostly covering up her face. “I don’t believe it.”
“Six ships, lead by the Pathfinder,” Tilleran said. “Hey, check it out. There’s the Aerostar-A!”
“No kidding,” Hartley said. “I never thought I’d be glad to see Captain Conway.”
“We’re getting a hail from the Pathfinder,” Keefler said.
“By all means, on screen,” Vansen said, scrambling to her feet and trying to look sober.
“Yes, Admiral,” Vansen said.
“We’re in orbit around what we believe to believe the Founders’ homeworld. We were about to attempt to protect it from the encroaching Dominion fleet.”
Peterman fielded that one. “He’s on the planet’s surface, Admiral.”
“You’ve got to help us save him, I mean them, Harlan!” Peterman insisted.
“Srt trt. Wlll tk cr of ths.”
“What’d he say?” Tilleran whispered.
“Sit tight. They’ll take care of this,” Vansen said, smiling, and tumbling back down into the command chair.
She watched as, on the viewscreen, ten Federation starships swarmed around the Explorer in a protective pattern, and the Dominion vessels bore down on them.
And then the Dominion vessels stopped moving, and they just sat there.
“We’re receiving a general hail from the lead Dominion ship,” Keefler said.
Peterman glanced at Vansen, who was looking at her fingers.
“Hmm?” asked Vansen.
“On screen,” Peterman sighed.
It was a Jem’Hadar they didn’t recognize. He looked… apologetic, almost.
“Greetings, Federationers. I am Tit’fortat. On behalf of the Rogue Jem’Hadar Alliance, I wish to formally tender our surrender. We wish to rejoin the Dominion.”
“Ya don’t have to ask us,” Vansen said, and slid out of the command chair, flopping onto her back. “Check please!” she called out from the deck.
“She’s obviously never had a fwarz-sharsher before,” Tilleran explained.
“Can you tell me what made you change your mind?” Peterman asked the Jem’Hadar.
“We have just been informed that Jelo has been killed, by one of your people, apparently,” Tit’fortat said. “Since we have no Rogue Founder to lead us anymore, we have decided to rejoin the Dominion.”
“How loyal,” Hartley muttered.
“At last count, they outnumbered Dominion forces three-to-one,” Tilleran said. “So, technically, they still could take over the Dominion if they wanted.”
“Let’s not remind them of that!” Peterman snapped.
“We will just be on our way then,” Tit’fortat said, and disappeared from the viewscreen.
Then Tilleran looked down at her panel. “Looks like the sensor damper is down. I’m getting readings from the planet’s surface. Changelings. Billions of them. And a crashed Klingon ship. Human lifesigns. One Andorian. And Klingons.”
“Start beaming them up,” Peterman said. “Make sure Andy is one of the first ones you get.”
“Anything else?” Tilleran asked wryly.
“Nope,” Peterman said, walking into the aft turbolift. “That about does it. Transporter Room Two,” she ordered, and the doors closed.
Stardate 55838.9. The Explorer has returned to working order, and every other ship but my Mom’s and the Aerostar has returned to the Federation.
When questioned about how he assembled a small fleet so quickly, my father grumbled something unintelligible about “being in the neighborhood.” I think there’s more to that story, but I honestly don’t care.
At any rate, our tour of duty in the Gamma Quadrant is apparently over. Effective immediately, the U.S.S. Aerostar is taking over, and I can only say it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
The Explorer, meanwhile, is headed for a couple weeks of shoreleave back in the Alpha Quadrant. Anywhere in the Alpha Quadrant would be fine with me.
Meanwhile, Plato and his mom have been reunited. Me and my wife and daughter have been reunited, and, most importantly…
We’re getting rid of Vansen!
“They’re getting rid of you?” Commander DiSalvo stood in the doorway of Nell Vansen’s quarters, looking ironically at her as she stepped out of the steamy bathroom, zipping up her uniform jacket and pulling her hair back into a ponytail.
“That hasn’t exactly been determined yet,” she said. “And why are you here again?”
“You’ve been avoiding me for days.”
Vansen shrugged. “You’ve been aboard the Pathfinder.”
“I’ve been trying to contact you.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“You shot me.”
Vansen turned around, looking at her replicator. “Would you like a drink? Something to munch on? I’m famished. Is it night shift, or day shift?”
“You still hung over?”
“Please. It’s been three days.”
“Andorian beverages are not for the weak of heart.”
“I’ll try to remember that.”
“Why did you shoot me?”
Vansen took in a deep breath. “Because I know you, Sam. You don’t back down.”
“So in your dealings with other Starfleet officers, when they don’t back down, you shoot them?”
“No, but you’re not other Starfleet officers. You’re you.” Vansen led DiSalvo over to her couch and they sat down. “You were trying to undermine my authority in a life-or-death situation so I had to incapacitate you. Obviously, no permanent damage was done, so…why are you here again?”
“Ironically, to offer you a job.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, very much so. While you did…um, shoot me, you are also one damned good administrator.”
“I’m a good officer, Sam.”
“Yes. You’re a great officer. And your talent is being wasted on this ship.”
“I don’t see how.”
“Please. This ship is the laughing stock of Starfleet.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. What about the Secondprize? And the Edsel? Is that thing still even in service?”
DiSalvo took Vansen’s hands and squeezed them. “Nellie. You’re not listening to me. Your career is in serious jeopardy here. Ending your tour on the Explorer is the best thing Admiral Baxter could ever do. This is a dead end. If you take a second officer post on the Pathfinder, you’ll be a shoe-in for X.O. when Lucille Baxter retires and I’m made Captain.”
Vansen nodded. “And you’re sure you’ll be Captain?”
“So…you want ME to come and work for YOU.”
“And while we’re at it, maybe we can finally make a go of this marriage thing.”
“Well, you do make it sound enticing.” Vansen bobbed her head from side to side thoughtfully. “Um, let’s see. No way.”
DiSalvo let go of her hands. “So what if they don’t keep you on here? Then what? A freighter?”
“I’m a terrific officer, Sam. I certainly don’t need any help from you to advance through the ranks.”
He sighed, and stood up. “I just think you’re making a terrible mistake.”
“Well, it’s my mistake to make, isn’t it?”
DiSalvo paused by the door to Vansen’s quarters. “Yeah. I guess it is. See you around.”
“I doubt it,” Vansen said as he left.
“It pleases me to think that nothing has changed here,” Commander Kristen Larkin said, strolling with Commander Richards down an Explorer corridor.
“I wouldn’t say ‘nothing,’” Richards said, as they reached the Constellation Club. “I think I’ve grown up a little bit.”
“Pardon me if I find that hard to believe, Father. You have always been sort of…unfocused. I find it charming.”
“I’m trying to become a better leader. I think I’ve made great strides.”
“I am relieved to hear that. My time as First Officer of the Aerostar has not been without its challenges as well.”
“Where is Captain Conway anyway?” Richards asked as the pair walked into the club.
“With the Captain, on the bridge, I believe.”
“Poor Andy,” Richards giggled.
“Richards!” Lt. Commander Zack Ford called out from the crowd, walking up to Richards and Larkin. “Good to see you! I just came back from the bridge. It’s still there, just the way I remember it!”
“Where did you think it would go, Ford?” Richards mumbled.
“I don’t know. I just figured it would look different.”
“Why are you people so obsessed with change?”
“Change is inevitable,” Larkin said definitively as she headed over to a booth. “If you can slow it down a bit, you are, as Captain Baxter would say, ‘ahead in the game.’”
“It’s so nice to see everyone here,” Mirk said, moving through the crowd, shaking people’s hands. “Lots of people from the Aerostar. Ahh, Mister Gellar! I like that moustache! Very fitting! Watch where you spill that, Lieutenant Dawson! Yes, by the kumquat, it actually feels like old times again!”
“Yeah, Mirk,” Richards said. “Old times. So how about you get everybody a round of Klingon ale on me, and keep ‘em coming.”
“You sure are generous with the free drinks, Commander,” Mirk winked, dashing behind the bar.
Richards, Ford, and Larkin found a table where Tilleran and Hartley were already sitting.
“You’re beautiful as ever, Megan,” Ford said, taking Hartley’s hand and kissing it.
“Cut the crap Ford,” Hartley said, rolling her eyes. “And take your mouth off my hand before I break it.”
“But I was just about to start sucking on your finger.”
“Do, and I rip out your tongue,” Hartley said cheerfully. “Did I mention I was engaged to a demigod?”
“Nice to see you again, too.”
“We’re still missing some people,” Tilleran said. “I wonder where Chaka’kan is.”
“Chaka who?” asked Ford.
“Chaka what?” asked Larkin.
“Our Jem’Hadar in residence.” Richards sighed. “Long story. Apparently, the Jem’Hadar don’t want him back, so he’s staying here. As for the others…Janice’s going to join us later, after Plato’s been put to bed. And Baxter and Conway are up on the bridge. I don’t know where Counselor Peterman is.”
“And J’hana…?” Hartley asked.
Richards just shook his head.
“Would you like something to eat?” Doctor Holly Wilcox asked, walking into the ICU, hands stuffed into her labcoat.
J’hana grunted something that sounded like a “no.”
“Okay.” Holly pulled up a chair next to J’hana, in front of Dwanok’s bead. She turned it around and sat down, leaning on the back of the chair. “J’hana…you’re going to have to face facts. He may never come out of this coma.”
“That is not acceptable. Do more,” J’hana ordered.
“I’ve repaired all the damage to his internal organs. But he lost a lot of blood. His brain was deprived of oxygen for a particularly long time. I’m surprised he’s even alive. I guess Klingons are pretty sturdy folk.”
“Yes. They are.”
“We just have to watch and wait.”
“You watch. I will wait.”
Holly nodded, standing up and patting J’hana on the shoulder. “Just promise me you’ll take a break soon to get some rest. And tell me if you need anything.”
J’hana just grunted again as Holly left the ICU.
“Well?” Peterman asked, waiting outside by the biobeds.
“Unresponsive,” Holly frowned. “Both of them.”
“I figured,” she said.
“Why don’t you go try to talk to her?”
Peterman shook her head. “It always becomes adversarial when I try to talk to her, and that’s not going to do her any good right now. We just need to give her some time.”
Holly nodded. “I’ll take your word for it.”
“She took Peterman’s chair?” Captain David Conway asked wryly, sipping from his rum and coke as Baxter sat next to him on the couch in his readyroom. “That’s hilarious!”
“Yep. And prompted Janice to dump scalding coffee on her head.”
“Really? I’ve got to meet this woman. Sounds like you’ve actually found someone that people hate more than me.”
“I think you’re underestimating yourself, Captain,” Baxter said, clinking glasses with Conway. “We’ll never despise anyone more than you.”
“Nice of you to say,” Conway muttered. “So…” he looked around, as if by looking around he could survey the entire Gamma Quadrant. “This a pretty decent gig? I mean, not too much administrative crap…just a little diplomatic flag waving from time to time?”
“You could say that,” Baxter said, grinning as he finished his drink.
“You’ve had the cherry assignment for way too long, Andy,” Conway said. “Things have not exactly been easy in the Alpha Quadrant.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah…” and Conway grinned. “There have been a few changes, like…well, I’ll just let you find out for yourself.”
“Oh, come on. You’ve got to give me more than that.”
“Not on your life,” Conway said, laughing maniacally as Baxter followed him out of the readyroom. “Now let’s head down to the party. See if Ford’s gotten a drink thrown in his face yet.”
“I’ll meet you there,” Baxter said, as he and Conway headed into opposite turbolifts. “I have something I’ve got to do first.”
“She’s adorable,” Lucille Baxter said, ducking out of the captain’s quarters. “She’s got my strong chin.”
“Rnd mah bulbous nose,” Harlan said, chewing on his cigar.
Baxter stood at the doorway, staring awkwardly at his parents. “Really. Hadn’t noticed. You guys heading over to the Explorer-Aerostar get-together?”
“No. Back to the Pathfinder. We have to return to the Alpha Quadrant. Unlike some vessels, we’re actually given assignments that matter,” said Lucille.
“Great,” Baxter said.
“Look, son,” Harlan said, pulling his cigar out. “We need to talk.” It must have been important if he actually pulled his cigar out.
“It can wait, Harlan,” Lucille said, dragging Harlan down the corridor.
“Thanks for coming!” Baxter said, waving goodbye. “Why am I kept out of the loop on everything?” he asked himself as he ducked into his quarters.
“Shhh,” Peterman said, cradling Steffie. “She just went down for her nap.”
“Being watched by my parents…must’ve been exhausting.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said. “You do realize they’re crazy.”
“Your mother left a homing device in Steffie’s diaper,” Peterman said.
“Yeah, I know. I wore one until I was seventeen.” Peterman shot Baxter an angry look. “Of course, we’ll dispose of this one.”
“Good.” Peterman held Steffie against her chest and gently rubbed her back. “Andy… you don’t know how glad I am that your mission went okay.”
“More glad than usual?”
She looked at Steffie. “Yeah. About twice as glad.”
Baxter wrapped his arm around Peterman, kissed her cheek. “And I’m twice as glad to see you two again.”
“That goes double for us.”
“Uh-huh,” Baxter said, and took in a deep breath. “Well, want to, uh…” He pointed toward the door.
“Sure, let me just shove our child under the couch and we can get going.”
“Right,” said Baxter. “Well, maybe we can take turns…”
“That’s okay,” Peterman said. “I’m beat. Go have fun. You can have Steffie all day tomorrow.”
“Maybe I can teach her to throw a football.”
“She can’t even sit up, silly,” Peterman grinned, as Baxter stood and kissed her and Steffie on the forehead.
“Night, Kelly. I love you.”
“Right back at ya, honey.”
Baxter bumped into Vansen coming out of a turbolift as he headed for the Constellation Club.
“Joining us, Commander? A little, um, farewell, before we send you off on your next assignment? Wherever that is?”
“I wanted to talk to you about that, Captain.”
“Um…” Baxter glanced down the corridor. He could hear the music from 100 meters away. It sounded like everybody was having lots of fun. “Right now?”
“Yeah. Look. I know Admiral Baxter…your, um, Dad, said that my work was done here. That you didn’t need a Dominion expert anymore, but I disagree.”
“We are kind of leaving the Dominion. Maybe you can go to the Aerostar and work with Captain Conway…” Baxter smiled inwardly at that notion.
“I was actually thinking I could stay here.”
“You…you’d really want to do that?”
“What’s the fun in managing competent officers?”
“I never thought of it that way.” Baxter thought about it. “Jeeze, Vansen. It sounds almost as if you like it here.”
“Not on your life,” Vansen said. “But…I fit here. You need me.”
“Who told you that?”
“I know you do.”
“Look, I think it’s great that you found a place here. But, honestly, I really felt the Second Officer position was unnecessary, and I’ve already got a great X.O. in Chris…even if there are some things that still need to be ironed out. At any rate, I’m sure you’ll find a great posting somewhere else…”
“I don’t need to look anywhere else,” Vansen said. “I’m staying here.”
“Ha,” Baxter said. “Well, luckily I’ve got some say in the matter.”
“Actually, you don’t.” Vansen handed Baxter a padd, which she’d apparently been holding the entire time. “I talked to Admiral Baxter before he returned to the Pathfinder. He saw things my way.”
“Damn it!” Baxter said, staring at the ceiling. “Sometimes…sometimes parents just don’t understand.”
“I’ll have my revised Alpha Quadrant duty lists on your desk first thing in the morning,” Vansen said, and marched off in the direction opposite from the Constellation Club. “Nice doing business with you, Captain! Enjoy your stupid little party!”
Baxter’s shoulders slumped as he dropped the padd onto the deck and walked toward the Constellation Club.
“What the heck happened to you?” a voice asked, and he looked up.
“Yeah,” Browning said. “Why do you look like you just had a frontal lobotomy?”
“I think we just made a deal with the devil, Janice.”
“Oh no. Am I going to have to fight HIM now, too?”
“Very funny,” Baxter sighed, and glanced down the hall in Vansen’s direction. “It looks like we haven’t seen the last of Lieutenant Commander Vansen.”
“Good,” Browning said. “She keeps us on our toes.”
“You’re glad about this?”
“Off course not. But you’ve got to roll with the punches.”
“You’re chipper. I guess getting offspring back will do that to a person.”
“Yeah,” Browning said, as she and Baxter stood outside the doors to the Constellation Café. “I just finished tucking him in. I…I love just watching him fall asleep, Andy.”
“I know the feeling,” Baxter said, thinking of Steffie.
“A lot’s changed, Andy.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “A lot’s changed.”
He took Browning’s hand and led her into the Constellation Cafe, hearing the sounds of laughter and arguing. “A lot’s changed, and nothing’s changed.”
END OF YEAR FIVE.