Author: Anthony Butler
GORN PREDATOR SHIP MINKTA EDGE OF THE FEDERATION BORDER
“This is the most intelligent caper ever carried out,” Predator-in- Chief Harth said, leaning forward, resting his muscular elbows on his muscular knees, delighting in the feeling of his leather tunic rubbing against his gleaming metal command chair. Four months as commander of the Minkta, his first command, and already he was crossing the Federation border to raid one of its more prosperous colonies, Archer IV.
“You are wise in all things, Pred-in-Chief,” hissed his Assitant Predator, Garong. “But should we not wait until we are actually in possessions of the spoils of our conquest before…gloating?”
“It’s my raiding party and I will gloat if I want to!” Harth shot back at him, his orblike eyes glittering. “Now take your station and ready weapons. I want to be raiding in ten minutes!”
“Yessss, Predator, immediately,” Garong muttered through his fangs. He stepped behind Harth and began tapping at the weapons controls, as the helmsman swung the Minkta into orbit around Archer IV.
Harth watched in satisfaction as blazing beams of green light shot out on the viewscreen, piercing the atmosphere of Archer IV and, undoubtedly, wreaking havoc on the colony’s capital city. Once havoc was created, his people would beam down and take whatever they wished. It was the Gorn way and, as the Predator movement intended, it was a way that was much more important than the so-called Gorn “government” and its overtures toward peace with the Federation.
“The colony is hailing us, Predator. They demand we cease firing at once. They cite the Seldonis Four treaty, as well as…”
Garong looked at his panel. “They are also sending a broadband distress call.”
“I tremble. Have the raiding party assemble in the transport bay,” Harth barked at Garong, and stood. “I want to go down there personally. It’s important my people know I’m the hands-on type.”
“Admirable,” Garong lisped. “However, you may want to wait before beaming down.”
“Wait until what?” Harth snapped.
Garong pointed at the viewscreen. “Until that Federation starship leaves.”
Harth’s big eyes got bigger as he saw the gleaming silver ship soar into orbit nearby, casting a pall over all his intricately woven plans. Starfleet wasn’t supposed to have a ship here. Why did they always have to come in and ruin his fun?
And yet there it was, Starfleet through and through. Forward- swung “saucer” section, glowing deflector, long, delicious nacelles throbbing with the power to pummel him. Harth gripped his armrest.
“Battle readinesss!” he announced, and his three bridge officers began punching more quickly at their stations.
“The starship has raised its shields and armed weapons. It’s coming toward us,” Garong warned.
“Warn them off!”
“They are hailing, demanding we stand down immediately.” Garong’s brow furrowed at his readouts. “And they add that we should ‘stop being so mean.’”
“They sound more imbecilic than your average Starfleet crew,” Harth mused. “Find out more about this vessel.”
“Sir, should we not leave before they fire? That ship is a match for our weaponry, especially considering the colony defenses have been raised and will soon deploy…”
“Find out where that ship came from!”
Garong looked at his readouts. “It appears the vessel is attached to something called the ‘Explorer Project.’”
“Never heard of it,” Harth said. “Doesn’t sound like a warrior group, though, does it?”
Harth rubbed his green, slimy chin, considering. “I have a feeling we are not dealing with Starfleet’s finest. Arm weapons. Instruct the Starfleet vessel to leave now or be destroyed.”
“Of course, Predator, I…” Garong squinted at his readouts.
“What is it?” Harth demanded, turning.
“They’re still coming toward us. Five thousand meters and closing.”
“Collision alert! Back us off, Trepath! Now!”
Trepath, the helmsmistress, did as she was told, raking her clawed hands over the helm console.
Harth gripped the arms of his command chair as the Minkta turned on a stubby wing and veered away from Archer IV.
“What is that crazy Starfleet fool doing!” Harth asked.
‘They appear to have lost attitude control,” Garong observed. “The ship is flipping end over end.”
“Lock a tractor on it, knock it off its course!”
“Too late!” Garong cried, ducking under his console.
“Too late for what?” Harth asked as suddenly the Minkta shook to its very rafters, as gleaming silver Starfleet hull filled the viewscreen, and Harth was tossed by the impact, clear out of his chair.
Sparks rained, panels exploded, and the already dim bridge went almost completely dark.
Garong eased himself out from behind his console, shoving a piece of paneling off his back. He looked at the remains of his panel, deciphering bleeps and a scroll of messages. “We are being hailed again by the starship.”
“Hopefully they are in worse shape than us,” Harth hissed.
“It appears they have sustained major shield damage and a few hull fractures,” Garong noted. “I cannot tell more than that, as our sensors have been badly compromised along with several other key systems.”
Harth climbed back into his chair, leering at Garong. “Tell me we still have weapons!”
Garong nodded. “Plasma torpedoes at your command.”
Harth squeezed his hand into a fist. “YES!”
“Should you answer that hail?”
Harth shrugged. “Might as well. Does our screen still function?”
“Then put them on. Where are your manners, Garong? For Protectors’ sake…”
Garong let out a low sigh and activated the viewscreen.
What Harth saw made his hearts swell with demented glee. THIS was his cunning adversary? This was really the best Starfleet could throw at him?
The person on the viewscreen looked very small in her command chair. She bore the pips of captain but didn’t look like a captain at all. She was petite…couldn’t be more than two meters. She had pale reddish hair, bordering on the orange, and it was swept, pixie-like, behind her ears. Her bright blue-green eyes sparkled as she looked, disoriented, about her bridge, and then out at the screen.
“Are we on?” she asked in a small voice.
“Oh, you are on all right,” Harth said, rubbing his hands together.
“Um….good. Let’s see. This is Anna Kimmel. Captain Anna Kimmel, of the Starship Tracker.” She looked at someone off-screen. “Oh. Right! Federation Starship Tracker! How ya doing?”
“Oh, I am excellent.” Harth looked back at Garong, exchanging a gleeful, toothy grin. He made a little forward gesture with his two fingers, and Garong began loading the plasma torpedoes.
“Well, I guess I really shouldn’t be asking that question, since you are kind of infringing on Starfleet laws, and I am supposed to be here to stop you from, you know, raiding that little colony down there.” Kimmel tugged at her collar. “You’ve got to excuse me. I’m still a little new at this stuff. Anyway, sorry for running into your ship. That was our helmsman’s fault. He got a little carried away. Like I said, we’re a new crew, and, you know, new at this stuff. So how are you?” She looked off- screen again, then nodded, giggling nervously. “Oh, of course, I asked that already. So…um, you ready to surrender yet?” She had a hopeful, cute little elfish expression on her face, complete with impish dimples, which almost made Harth want to spare her and her bizarre little ship.
“No, Captain, suffice it to say I’m nowhere near ready to surrender.”
“Oh.” Kimmel frowned. “Well. Let me just talk it over with my staff for a minute and see…”
“Oh, don’t trouble yourself,” Harth said. “I think I can put an end to this problem quite easily.”
“Yes. Garong, fire!”
Kimmel’s eyes went wide. “Crap!” She looked around her bridge. “Suggestions, anyone?”
There didn’t seem to be any. Garong obediently tapped the “fire” control on his panel, and Harth watched with barely restrained glee as the still-listing Tracker was dead in the path of two glowing purple orbs of light…
…and was just as suddenly towed out of the way by a tractor beam.
Seconds later, phaser blasts obliterated the plasma torpedoes, and Harth’s ship shook with a viciousness that could only be a pounding from another vessel’s weaponry.
Starfleet weaponry. Harth sneered. “WHAT WAS THAT?”
“Another contact, bearing 070 mark 174!” Garong called out.
“Shouldn’t we have, I don’t know, an early warning system or something?” Harth suggested.
“Our ship is badly damaged,” Garong said. “And now even more so. I recommend surrender, and quickly, before we are destroyed!”
“And what moron has Starfleet thrown at us now?” Harth asked with a low moan.
“Captain Andy Baxter, at your service!” The viewscreen twinkled to life, filled with the wide grinning face of Starfleet, all rosy-cheeked and bulbous and profane.
“Another volley will cause hull collapse!” Garong called out as the Minkta rattled. “Engines, as well, have been incapacitated. We must surrender!”
“That ship…what is it called?” Harth asked.
“The Explorer,” Baxter said, still on the viewscreen, hands on hips, glaring at Harth. “That’s our name, and don’t wear it out, fella!”
Stardate 56125.4. We are towing the Gorn Predator ship Minkta to Starbase 210, where, it’s to be hoped, the good Captain Harth will be tried for his efforts to pilfer Federation colonies, and where, I’m sure, the U.S.S. Tracker will…once again…undergo serious repairs.
“We were never so stupid,” Commander Christopher Richards said, sitting across the readyroom desk from Captain Andy Baxter. He slid a padd across the desk to Baxter. “Look at this list of repairs I got from their engineer. Most of them didn’t even happen during the engagement with the Gorn. Most of them happened while they were in normal spaceflight!”
Baxter sighed, leaning back in his chair. “Give Kimmel a chance, Chris. She’s only been at this for three months.”
“She’s dangerously incompetent.”
“I was a little worried about that too, when we got back from the Gamma Quadrant and found out they’d given Kimmel a ship,” Baxter said thoughtfully. “But after a couple months of working with her, I can see the beginnings of…er…brilliance.”
“Brilliance,” Richards muttered.
“Yeah. They used to say WE were incompetent,” Baxter said, turning to look out at his window, the stars streaming by. “But look at us now!”
“Right,” Richards said, then smiled. “I have to admit, watching them screw up brings back some fond memories.”
“Anna will be fine,” Baxter said. “She’s no fool. She’s just not used to being a captain yet.”
“You don’t think you’re being the least bit biased?” Richards asked.
Baxter glared at Richards. “And what the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, she did go to Starfleet Academy with you, didn’t she?”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “I had a class or two with her. Yeah.”
“Annnnnd…” Richards leaned forward, resting his chin on his hands. “I seem to recall you had quite the crush on Cadet Kimmel at the time.”
“I did not,” Baxter snapped back. “And we are not having this conversation. Computer! Delete all that from the ship’s record. Now!”
“Delete all what?” the computer asked, with a chuckle.
“That’s the idea,” Baxter said, then stood up, grabbing the padd Richards had passed him. “I’m needed belowdecks on an important matter. You have the conn, Commander.”
“You’re going down to eat lunch and you know it,” Richards said, patting Baxter’s belly as he walked by.
“Don’t start with me today, Chris…”
The pair reached the door to the readyroom, looking out on the bridge, just as Lt. Commander Ariel Tilleran stood up from the command chair. “Captain…we’re being hailed by the Tracker. Rather, you’re being hailed.”
“Kimmel?” Baxter asked, rapping his knuckles on the padd.
Tilleran nodded. “Should I pipe it back to your office?”
“Oh, you bet you should,” Richards giggled, at which point Baxter threw his padd at him.
“Send it back,” Baxter muttered, and disappeared into his office.
“Isn’t it against regs to taunt and mock your captain?” Tilleran asked, stepping out of the command chair as Richards went to sit down.
“If it is, then you’d have to prosecute the lot of us.”
“Amen,” Lt. Madera said from the helm.
“Good point,” Tilleran said, and headed back to her station.
Baxter sat down behind his desk and punched the control on his terminal. “Baxter here.”
“Andy!” Kimmel said. Only the top half of her face was visible. Apparently, Kimmel was resting her chin on the desk in her readyroom, staring into her own desktop terminal. “Glad I was able to get through to you. My communications officer has a way of rerouting things by accident. I did get to talk to the High Chancellor of Drion Seven yesterday, though. Of course, I was trying to reach the engine room, but…whatever.”
“Nice,” Baxter said. “So…what can I do for you, Anna?”
“Do I suck at my job?” Kimmel asked, leaning her cheek down on the desk. “Am I the worst captain ever?”
“Nonsense,” Baxter said, waving a dismissive hand. “What about that guy a couple hundred years ago that tried to enslave a planet? The guy Kirk tried to stop. He was pretty bad.”
“Well, I don’t mean evil. I just mean, you know, plain old incompetent.”
“You are not incompetent! How many times do I have to tell you that?” Baxter asked. “You need to have a more positive attitude about things.”
“Yeah,” Kimmel muttered. “That’s what my counselor says.”
“How is Richard Simmons doing?”
Kimmel leaned forward. “Can I just tell you…Andy, he’s so irritating! His outfits… I mean, they’re definitely not regulation, I don’t think. And the sappy way he treats everybody. It’s enough to make me want to throw up.”
“He takes some getting used to. Remember, he is sort of a relic in the past. But Starfleet wouldn’t have given him a counseling license if he wasn’t qualified.” Baxter briefly thought of T’ron, then decided not to go there. “Anyway, I’m sure he’ll be of great help.”
“I will say this: I lost three pounds since he came aboard.”
“You weren’t fat to begin with!”
“Ah, you know, I had a couple love handles.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Baxter said.
“Well, guess not.”
The pair sat there staring at one another a few moments, then, mercifully, the comm system chirped.
“Richards to Baxter. Hate to interrupt, but you have a Priority One message coming in from Waystation.”
“Oh,” Baxter said. “Better take that.”
“Priority One, huh. Is there such thing as Priority Two? Man, you never hear about those. Guess cause they’re not as important…”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, nodding. “Make sure you come over here so we can grab a bite to eat together sometime, you know, when we aren’t in combat or whatever.”
Kimmel nodded. “Yeah. I can see your daughter, your wife, and, um, all those good things.”
“Yep,” Baxter said, nervously slapping the button on his terminal. The Starfleet emblem appeared, then was replaced by the grinning visage of Captain Lisa Beck. Baxter didn’t recall a time when she actually looked pleased to be talking to him.
“Captain Baxter! It’s nice to see you!”
“Um…” Baxter looked around. Did he get tossed into another of those pesky alternate universes? “What do I owe this pleasure, uh, to, Captain?”
“I’ve got orders for you to report immediately to Waystation. Drop whatever mission you’re on now. This takes precedence.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Baxter said, straightening. “You can’t just go ordering my ship to and fro without so much as a…”
“Oh, it’s not me ordering you,” Beck said. “I am merely the messenger. The order comes from the very highest levels of our government.”
Baxter felt like he was deflating. “The President.”
“Yes, President Dillon requests the pleasure of your company at once,” Beck said, lifting a padd and reading off it. “In order to…let’s see…receive an assignment of the utmost importance.”
“Guess I can’t turn the President down, can I?” Baxter said weakly.
“Oh, I’d venture that it would be a bad idea,” Beck said. “Now, when should I tell his high-horseship that you’ll be arriving?”
“ASAP, I guess,” Baxter muttered, and slapped the viewer control, banishing Beck from his screen. And why exactly was she so happy? Just for the pleasure of ordering him around?
“Bradley Dillon’s got an assignment for us, huh,” Counselor Kelly Peterman said, spooning whipped peas into Stephanie Baxter’s mouth. The infant was presently curled in Peterman’s arms as she and Baxter sat in Space Tastes, the Explorer’s onboard restaurant, one of the anchors of Ship’s Shoppes, the onboard mall.
“Yeah,” Baxter said, shifting in his chair that faced the patio. Outside, a couple crewman, mainly civilians, walked by, doing afternoon errands, or whatnot. “We’ll be at Waystation in a few hours.”
“Wonder what he wants us to do?”
“I don’t know,” Baxter said. “But I wasn’t thrilled to turn Harth and his vessel over to Anna and her people. I…I worry about her.”
“Oh,” Peterman said. “You mean the same Anna you keep telling everyone is the next great Starfleet captain? The one you keep informing all of us can ‘handle the job.’”
“Stop making air-quotes, honey. You know I hate it when you do that.”
Peterman smiled. “I think it’s cute that you and Anna were sweethearts at the Academy.” She frowned, suddenly, maneuvering the spoon into Steffie’s mouth. “Come on. Damn it! Eat!”
“We weren’t sweethearts.”
“Whatever you say. I’m not threatened. Really.”
“I think she’s up to the job. Dad wouldn’t have given her that job if he didn’t think he could do it.” He leaned against the table, looking at the disgusting mash of peas Peterman was feeding to Steffie. He wrinkled his nose. “She really likes that stuff?”
“She doesn’t throw it up. Need I remind you of the squash incident?”
“Oh. Right,” Baxter said sheepishly. “I’m just worried. Anna is perfectly capable…she just has a tendency to let things overwhelm her, and she doesn’t handle conflict well. I mean, I’m sure Richard Simmons will help her work that out…”
“What a smart career move for Richard.”
“Yeah, seeing that there aren’t really that many fat people around these days,” Baxter said. He looked around. “Where’s our lunch?”
“Don’t know,” Peterman said. “Have some peas while you wait.”
“Um, no thanks. Janice!” Baxter called. He got no response. Sighing, he stood up and crossed the restaurant, toward the kitchen in the back. What could be taking Browning so long? There were only two other people in the whole place. It was too early for lunch rush.
He heard lots of clanging in the kitchen, and when he opened the swinging door, he saw Browning racing from one end of the room to the other, bubbling pots of stuff in her hands, steam rising everywhere. Also running about were Mihala, her Yynsian waitress, and her son, Plato.
“Buddy,” Baxter said, kneeling as Plato jogged by with a loaf of bread. “What is this?”
“Part of mom’s new catering business, the Warping Gourmet,” Plato said. “We’ve got a bar mitzvah on Deck 13 at 1200, and a funeral on Deck 12 at 1300. Very confusing!”
“Shouldn’t you be in class?”
“Eh,” Plato said. “They just started Second Grade. I’m way beyond that. I’m really just there to humor them nowadays.”
“How nice,” Baxter said, and stood. “Um…Janice!”
“I know, I know!” Browning said, jetting this way and that. Baxter followed her movements like a cat following a ping-pong match. “You wanted the chicken satay and couscous. It’s almost ready.”
“I wanted the Chicken Marsala and fettuccini!”
“Oh. Who the heck was the other order for?” Browning asked, then shrugged. “Oh, well. Just be a dear and wait for a while longer. Mihala will bring out some hummus or something for you.”
“Isn’t that just mashed up peas?”
“No. You eat it with pita. It’s delicious. Now get out there before I beat you over the head with a frying pan!”
“Sheesh, all right,” Baxter said, ducking out of the kitchen and heading back to his seat.
“Well? Where’s my couscous?” Peterman asked, wiping Steffie’s mouth.
Baxter shrugged. “I have no idea.” He leaned forward. “Honey…does Janice seem, I don’t know, a little stressed, lately?”
“I have no idea,” Peterman said, echoing Baxter. He stared at her blankly. “Of course I noticed!” she said. “I’m the counselor, remember?”
“Oh. Well, what are you going to do about it?”
“I think it’s a good thing,” Peterman said. “She needs to occupy her time. I think her life has felt a little empty since she left Starfleet. You know, with only the restaurant to occupy her time.”
Baxter nodded. “Good point. I guess she never did get around to finding some bold new venture. Wasn’t she going to do something radically different with her life?”
“I think that’s where the catering company comes in.”
“That’s not radically different.”
“Baby steps, Andy,” Peterman said, sliding the plate of peas away and handing Steffie to the captain. “Besides, what do you want to do? Suggest a career change to her and have her leave the ship..again? You wouldn’t like that, would you?”
Baxter glanced at the doors to the kitchen, where he could hear Browning barking orders. “No. I would hate that.”
“Me too,” Peterman said with a grin. “I love Janice just as much as you do. I want to keep her here, at all costs. Even if it means holding her back from doing something truly terrific with her life.”
“You’re sure your our Ship’s Counselor?”
“I was being sarcastic,” Peterman snapped. “Sort of,” she added under her breath. “Work calls, speak of the devil. I’ll just grab something out of the replicator, I guess. See you at dinner!” She kissed Steffie on the forehead, then Baxter, on the lips. “Stay out of trouble, Andy. And keep her away from irradiated areas of the ship!”
“That only happened once, and I told you, it was an accident!” Baxter called after Peterman as she left.
Then Baxter heard the clattering of numerous trays falling, and sighed. He looked at the plate of mashed peas across the table from him. “Hmm. No. I’m not that hungry.” He looked down at Steffie. “Come on, sweetie. Mommy didn’t say anything about not taking you to bars.”
“Boy, things sure look busy around here,” Baxter said, grabbing the seldom-used kiddie seat that Mirk had slid across the bar to him, as the Maloxian directed crewmen from the ship’s moving crew. They were apparently setting up the Constellation Club for the next night’s wedding rehearsal.
“Couldn’t have anything to do with the impending nuptials, could it?” Mirk asked with a grin, then glanced past Baxter at the movers. “Oh…the gaming table…you guys can move that to the back. We won’t need that until the honeymoon.”
“Nuptials…” Baxter said, strapping the cooing, coiled up Steffie into her seat in the barstool next to him.
“Wedding…the upcoming wedding.”
“Of Megan and me.”
“Yeah, I know. Of course. When’s that again?”
“Next week!” Mirk said. “How could you have forgotten? We’ve only been planning for a year!”
“Hey, I’ve been busy! You try having a kid, see how hectic your life becomes.”
“Well, maybe I will!” Mirk retorted. “Maybe I will..right now!” He squeezed his eyes shut.
Baxter put out his hand, shaking Mirk’s shoulder. “No, no! At least wait till after the wedding, Mirk.”
The Maloxian sighed. “Oh. Yeah. The bastard thing.”
“Shhh…” Baxter said, covering Steffie’s ears. “Don’t say that around my daughter.”
“You humans and your obsession with wedlock,” Mirk sighed. “If it were up to me, this would be a very simple ceremony. Squirt some fruit juice, chant from the sacred scripts, complete the course of naked physical challenges of strength, and you’re done!”
Baxter nodded. “Sounds nice. But I think Hartley is thankful you guys opted to go with Terran wedding traditions.”
“Yeah, pelting the newlyweds with cream of wheat. Real nice tradition.”
“And how about shoving the cake into each other’s faces? Can’t you just see Megan reeling back and punching me in the face for doing that?”
“Well, I have to admit that’s pretty silly.”
“What’s pretty silly?” Lt. Commander Megan Hartley said, stepping up behind Baxter.
The Captain nearly hopped out of his seat. “Er…” He looked over his shoulder. “Um, you two crazy kids waiting one more day to go ahead and tie the knot. I should really just do the ceremony right now and get it overwith.”
“And deprive my Mirkles of shoving cake in my face?” Hartley said with a grin, leaning across the bar to kiss Mirk. “I think not.”
“I tried,” Baxter whispered.
“Root beer, extra bubbly,” Hartley said. She looked across Baxter at the cooing bundle next to him. “Captain, tell me that’s not your baby sitting there…in this…bar.”
“Done it before,” Baxter said. “I think Steffie likes all the flashy lights and techno-buzz music.”
“This is a wholesome environment,” Mirk said defensively. “Mirk’s is a family place.”
“You think?” asked Hartley.
“Well, I plan on bringing our offspring here.”
“You…” Hartley’s face softened. She grabbed Mirk’s hands. “You want offspring?”
“Well…eventually. As a matter of fact, I almost conjured up one of the little bastards just now.”
Baxter sighed. “Can you just get my Chicken Marsala out of the replicator and stick it into a to-go box?”
Mirk nodded. “Done.” Suddenly, with a little swirl of light, the box appeared, wrapped in a nice red bow, in front of Baxter.
“Mirk, how many times have I told you not to conjure stuff with your mind.” Baxter inspected the box. “Making food…out of thin air…without even touching it. It seems…unsanitary.”
“It’s getting cold,” Mirk said.
“Right, right,” Baxter said, scooping up the to-go box, and Steffie. “There. I’m leaving. You happy, Hartley?”
“Immensely.” Hartley beamed at Mirk, interlacing her fingers with his.
“Crazy kids,” Baxter said to himself, and walked out of the Constellation Club.
Baxter was busy trying to get Steffie down for her nap in his readyroom when Richards commed to let him know that they were entering the Veltran system, the star system where Waystation was located.
“Find us a docking port. Something not too presumptuous. Something in a nice docking arm, maybe,” Baxter said, stepping out of his readyroom, speaking over the din of Steffie crying. As soon as the doors to the readyroom closed, the crying was almost silent.
“Boy, that soundproofing that Hartley put in really works, doesn’t it?” Richards observed as Baxter stepped down to the command chair.
“Yes,” Baxter said, sitting. “But don’t worry, I can still hear her crying.” He pointed at his ear. “Remember? The chip?”
“Oh, yeah. Kind of like a child monitor inside your head.”
“Doesn’t it give you a headache?” Tilleran asked. “That cacaphony inside your head? All those voices….nevermind.” She quickly looked down at her panel.
“We’ve been granted clearance at Docking Arm 25,” Ensign Adam Keefler announced from tactical.
“Docking procedures, Susan,” Richards ordered of the helm officer.
“You know,” Baxter said, leaning toward Richards. “Docking just isn’t the same without J’hana.”
“No kidding,” Richards replied. “Have you…heard from her?”
“Not recently,” Baxter said. “As I understand it, nothing’s changed. Dwanok’s still in a coma since her last visit to the Imperial Hospital on Kronos. I guess she just goes to sit and watch over him.”
“You’d think the Klingons would get tired of waiting for him to wake up and just pull the plug. Comas don’t seem very honorable,” Richards said.
“Yeah,” Baxter said, nodding. “But I suppose the possibility of him waking up and getting the chance to die honorably and go to Sto’vo’kor is keeping him alive.”
“That, and J’hana watching over him,” Tilleran said. “They’d have to get through her to kill Dwanok.”
“Even though J’hana herself has a death wish that puts Doc Holiday to shame?” Baxter mused.
“Is he a new crewmember?” Tilleran observed.
Richards leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. “That woman… she’s hard to understand. An enigma, wrapped in antenna, and lust.”
“Yesss….” Tilleran said, prompting Baxter and Richards to look at her. “I said nevermind!” she snapped.
“For those who may be interested, we’re docked,” Madera announced.
“Good.” Baxter stood up. “Time to go hail the chief or whatever.”
“Want some backup?” Richards asked.
“Sure.” He sighed. “Tilleran, why don’t you call Lieutenant Commander Vansen up to the bridge. Her shift starts in a little while anyway.”
“Joy,” Tilleran muttered, and slapped her combadge.
“Oh, and remember to check on Steffie every few minutes. Call Yeoman Tunney up if you need some help with her. He’s always good at getting her back to sleep. Must be those songs he sings…that Cher woman. Does the trick every time!”
Sweat dripped down Nell Vansen’s face as her fists smashed into the punching bag, time after time, only cushioned by the tape wrapped around her fingers and palms. She stopped her onslaught a moment, then cleared some hair from her face and paused to catch her breath. The punching bag dangled there, mocking her.
“You stupid punching bag,” she wheezed. “Think you can just sit there and hang from a chain, huh? Well…you haven’t met Nell Vansen yet. You and your stupid crew. Think you can outwit me? Think you can best me? HAH!” She struck out with a vicious left hook, then right, then pounded, alternating fists, pounding the bag mercilessly. “Take that you stupid…!”
“Tilleran to Vansen.”
Vansen straightened, grabbing the bag to stop it from swinging. “Go ahead.”
“Captain Baxter and Commander Richards are going over to Waystation and they asked if you could go ahead and come up to the bridge a little early. I just finished a double shift, so it would be nice if you could get up here and, you know, command.”
“Glad to!” Vansen said cheerily, then socked the bag one more time for good measure. “Just give me some time to freshen up.”
“Whatever you need.”
Vansen turned around to grab her towel and, as she patted her face with it, something dawned on her. “Vansen to Tilleran.”
“Why are we at Waystation?”
“Official orders from the President, as I understand it.”
“And nobody saw fit to tell me about it?”
“Apparently not. Bye now!”
“GRRRRRRRRR!” Vansen growled, pummeling the bag repeatedly. As she left the typically empty Explorer workout room, she wondered, not for the first time, what exactly she was doing on the ship, and where she got her joy from.
Then she realized she could use this opportunity to make Baxter and Richards look bad in front of the President of the United Federation of Planets, and everything was clear. That’s where she got her joy. Torturing Baxter and Richards.
Vansen tapped her combadge. “Vansen to bridge.”
“Madera here. Go ahead.”
“Say, Lieutenant…want a little more command experience?”
“Then take the conn for a little while. I have an errand.”
“Vansen out.” She hurried to the locker room. If she changed quickly, she could beat Baxter and Richards to the president’s office. Knowing Baxter, he’d probably get distracted by something in the station’s mall and that would hold up his arrival.
“Do my eyes deceive me, Chris, or does that lingerie have a jetpack?” Captain Baxter asked, staring in the storefront window of Nendegar’s Secret, the Breen lingerie store in Starfleet Square Mall, at the heart of Waystation.
“Your eyes got it right, buddy. That’s a jetpack. Marvelous.”
“Think Kelly would wear that?”
Richards shook his head. “Absolutely not.”
Baxter’s shoulders sunk. “Well, it was worth a try.”
“Then again,” Richards grinned. “Lieutenant Madera is still looking for ways to get more intimate.”
Baxter glared at his first officer. “Are you STILL stringing our poor helmsman along?”
“I just haven’t…laid in a course yet,” Richards said quickly, then ducked into the Breen shop. Baxter sighed and jogged in after him.
“Either commit to her or break it off,” Baxter said, ten minutes later, as Richards and he walked down the corridor two decks up from Starfleet Square Mall, heading to the offices of Dillon Enterprises, and the office of the President of the United Federation of Planets.
Richards stared at the pink bag he gripped dantily in his right hand. “She will look awfully cute in this.”
“At least you have your priorities in order,” Baxter moaned.
“Well, forgive me if some people want a little adventure in their relationships, as opposed to, you know, predictability.”
Baxter stopped walking and turned on Richards. “And what is THAT supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” Richards said. “Let’s go meet the president.”
Baxter held up a finger. “To be continued…”
“Ah-ha! A receptionist!” Richards quickly walked through the sliding glass doors that were emblazoned with the Federation Seal into the brightly lit blue and white reception area of the collaborative government/galactic union of planets office. The Dillon Enterprises offices had expanded beyond their three deck size since Bradley Dillon had…taken…office by purchasing the Federation for a measly 50 billion credits. Now they spilled over into Deck 23 and 27 of the upper saucer. Word around the station was, there were also satellite locations in a couple lower sections, but that was all Richards was able to get out of Nendegar (the owner of Nendegar’s secret) before she completed his transaction. And she only opened up after Richards threw in a couple containers of those delicious Nendy mints he’d heard so much about. But even then, there was the immutable fact that Breen don’t really talk that much.
“Do you have an appointment?” the pleasantly perky receptionist asked.
“Yeah,” Baxter muttered. “The…president…summoned us. We’re from the Starship Explorer”
“Let me just check with him,” the receptionist said, hitting a control on her desk. She disappeared in a flurry of transporter beam, leaving Baxter and Richards alone in the waiting room with a couple other assorted folk. Looked like a few people from Amnesty Galactica, and a perturbed-looking Ferengi.
“Did you see the carpet in the corridor?” Richards said. “I think it was a new color. Kind of mauve.”
“It was fuscia,” Baxter said. “Now, what’s this about predictability?”
“Oh, look! The receptionist’s back!” Richards said, as the receptionist indeed beamed back to her desk.
“The President will see you now,” she said smartly. “And,” she grinned at Richards. “My name’s Carlene.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Carl…”
Baxter grabbed Richards by the arm and dragged him down the hall, past a row of dark suited, largish men and women with sunglasses and phaser rifles.
“Who the hell are those guys?” Baxter whispered to Richards.
“You hurt my arm,” Richards muttered.
“I want to know who those guys are.”
“The Special Secret Section,” Richards said. “They’re the presidential security force that President Dillon instated. Don’t you remember the news story on the Associated Worlds Network?”
“I was watching Klingon wrestling,” Baxter said sheepishly.
“No wonder…” Richards said, his voice trailing off into low mumbles.
“No wonder what?” Baxter asked, as his eyes locked with one particularly ugly looking man in a black suit. He quickly averted his glance and continued on to the big double wooden doors with the Federation seal, at the end of the corridor.
Baxter punched the control next to the entrance, presumably to gain admittance, but the doors didn’t open.
“Insert tongue,” a monotone female voice suddenly said.
“What now?” Baxter asked.
“Insert tongue,” the voice repeated.
“I’m not that kind of guy,” Richards chuckled.
“Insert it where?” Baxter asked, looking around the doors. Suddenly, a little slot opened up at about shoulder level. Baxter leaned in and inspected it. “What the…?”
“Do it,” Richards said.
“You do it,” Baxter told him.
“Well, we’ve got to get in there. The president’s waiting.”
“Just do it.”
“You do it. You’re my subordinate.”
“There you go, rubbing that in again,” Richards sighed. “Fine. I can be the bigger man.” He leaned in and cautiously inserted his tonuge in the slot. “Hmm…mmmmph!”
“Extracting saliva sample,” the computer voice said. “Identity confirmed. Richards, Christopher, Commander. First Officer, USS Explorer. Fifteen years of service. Failed three courses at Starfleet Academy: Warp Core Dynamics, Thermal Regulation and Home Economics.”
“THRRRRBT!” Richards growled, pulling his tongue out of the slot. “That’s enough, computer!”
The doors still didn’t open.
“Your turn,” the computer said, and Baxter guessed she was talking to him. “Insert tongue.”
“I feel stupid.”
Richards rubbed his tongue. “Actually, it felt kind of cool.”
“Whatever happened to a nice, clean retinal scan,” Baxter asked rhetorically, and leaned in.
“I didn’t realize I failed Sociology,” Baxter mumbled as he and Richards walked (finally) into the President Dillon’s suite.
“Good morning,” said a woman seated at an expansive, oval desk, in front of a set of even grander double doors. She stood, prim and librarian-like, with a neatly-kept bun of brownish-brown hair kept straight and immaculate, and an unassuming beighe blazer and slacks combo. “I’m President Dillon’s Executive Assistant. My name is Gisele.”
“Nice to meet you,” Richards said, taking Gisele’s hand and kissing it. “Enchanted.”
“Your tongue is a little dry from the sensor slot,” she said, pulling her hand away. “We’re trying to get that fixed.”
“We’re here to see Dillon,” Baxter said sharply.
Gisele appeared to bristle at that. “The…President…has been expecting you for fifteen minutes.”
“We were delayed,” Baxter said quickly, glancing at Richards. “Official Starship business.”
Gisele stared at Richards’s bag. “Uh-huh. This way.”
The assistant lead Baxter and Richards through the grand double doors. They stretched, easily, a meter over Baxter’s head, and the captain wondered why such high ceilings were necessary in an office.
When the doors opened, Baxter noticed that Dillon’s office was like an art exercise in perspective. It was one long walk down a primrose path of fancy paintings of important Federation people, ornate rugs and divine leather (probably Tellarite, Baxter drooled) furniture and impressive latinum fixtures.
At the rear of the tunnel-like office, behind a desk as big as Baxter’s whole readyroom, Bradley Dillon sat, hands clasped over his lap, looking at the pair with dull skepticism. Behind him, stars twinkled, and a freighter drifted by, its docking lights twinkling.
“This may just be a monumental mistake,” Bradley said, breaking the silence, and bringing Baxter’s gaze back to him.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Richards asked, and Baxter looked at him.
“He’s the president,” the captain whispered.
Baxter looked to the left of Dillon’s chair, where Richards pointed, and sighed. “Vansen. Shouldn’t you be in command?”
“In so many ways,” Vansen sighed. “But for now, I’m content to cover up your mistakes, Captain.”
“In your absence, Commander Vansen and I have been having a wonderful conversation,” Bradley Dillon said, then gestured for the chairs in front of his desk. “Please, gentlemen, sit down.”
“I’m content to stand,” Baxter said, then watched Richards scoot down into the seat opposite Dillon’s desk.
“Damn this is comfy!”
Bradley smiled blandly. “Glad you like it.”
Baxter just leaned on the back of the chair in front of him. “What do you want, Dillon? We’re busy guys.”
“Like you said, he has no respect for authority,” Bradley said to Vansen, who just nodded and smiled.
“Neither did she, or she’d be back on the ship, in command, as she was ordered,” said Baxter.
“Can I help it if I wanted to have a brush with greatness before we left Waystation?” Vansen asked, her eyes fluttering. “I’ve idolized President Dillon ever since he took office.”
“She is a nice addition to your crew, Captain,” Bradley said. “I’d give her a promotion if I were you.”
“But you won’t,” Baxter seethed under his breath.
“Now then,” Bradley said, leaning back in his chair. “On to why we’re here.” He steepled his fingers. “I need you.”
“Nice sentiment, Mister President, but I’m afraid I don’t feel the same way about you,” Baxter smirked.
“Not you, specifically, you dolt,” Bradley snapped. “The Explorer. I need a more mobile command post.”
Richards’s eyes went wide. “Command post?”
“Yes. My offices, for the time being, are to be housed on the Explorer, effective immediately.” He slid a padd across his desk to Baxter. It didn’t quite slide all the way to the other side of the desk, where Baxter was sitting.
Bradley snapped his fingers. Suddenly, a thin man in a grey tuxedo scuttled up behind Baxter and Richards and picked up the padd, and put it in Baxter’s hand. Then he walked off, ducking into some hidden door in one of the walls of the office.
Baxter wondered how many other people Dillon kept in his walls as he read the padd.
“You’ll find your orders are quite clear,” Bradley said.
“From Vice Admiral Romano-Anasaki-Kihara himself!”
“The Associate Commander in Chief,” Bradley grinned. “You’ll find on that padd all the instructions for my offices, which will be located on deck fourteen of your ship. Everything that’s currently on that deck will need to be removed and placed elsewhere. The specifications are quite exact. I believe your Chief Engineer should have no problem with the refit. And, Waystation’s docking and repair facilities are of course, at your disposal.”
Baxter nodded, taking it all in. “No.”
“What do you mean ‘no’?”
“I mean, I don’t want to do it. Give the mission to someone else.”
“Ah, the classic Baxter catchphrase,” Vansen muttered.
“My catchphrase is ‘hop to it’ and you know it!”
“I’ve never heard you say that before,” Vansen said.
“Neither have I,” said Bradley. “And believe me when I tell you, there’s no way out of this arrangement. Your orders are confirmed. And, I assure you, Federation security is at stake here.”
“How’s that?” Richards asked.
Bradley twisted back and forth thoughtfully in his chair. “I guess you do deserve to know.”
“Damn right we do!” Baxter said. “Know what?”
“You see,” Bradley said, leaning forward and folding his hands atop his desk. “There have been a couple…well, attempts…at…circumventing my life.”
“People are trying to kill you?” Vansen asked.
“In a manner of speaking…” Bradley said, looking from Richards to Baxter. “It’s a complicated story, really…”
“Tell it,” Baxter snapped.
Bradley took a deep breath, as if he were about to say something important.
Then the lights all went out.
“Captain,” Lt. Commander Craig Porter reported from the science console in Ops. “We just lost power to Deck Twenty-Four.”
Beck walked over to Porter’s console and glanced at the readouts. “President Dillon’s suite. Oh, goody. They’re trying to kill him again.”
“It would seem.”
She sighed, glancing back at tactical, where Lt. Commander Sean Russell was nearly dozing. “Sean! Send in security!”
“What? Oh.” Russell snapped forward in his chair. “Is someone trying to kill the President again?”
Beck nodded. “You know what to do.”
The lights in Bradley’s office were quickly replaced with a dim green glow, and Bradley Dillon was on his feet, tapping madly at a button underneath his desk. “Damn. Transporters are out. They must have taken out the auxiliary power source.”
“They who?” Vansen asked.
“The Bast, or their mercenaries, more accurately,” Bradley said, walking around his desk. “Follow me.”
“The Bast?” Baxter asked, following Bradley toward the doors to his office. “The name sounds vaguely familiar, but…”
“I did business with them once before,” Bradley said quickly, flipping open a slot next to the big doors to his office and yanking down on a handle which slowly pumped the vast swinging doors opened. “When you and your ship rescued me from those technology-stealing bandits that ended up being the Starshine Kids.”
“Oh, yes,” Richards said. “I remember. Just before my wedding.”
“That ended up being my wedding,” said Baxter.
“Fascinating!” Vansen said. “So why are they trying to kill you?”
Bradley shrugged. “I owe them money. More on that later. Come on.” Bradley lead the group out of the office and toward Gisele’s desk. He stopped, thoughtfully considering something. “If power to the automatic doors is offline, then Brigance is still stuck behind the wall in my office. He’ll be no help.”
“You mean that guy who gave me my padd?”
“Yeah,” Bradley said. “Oh well. Time enough to worry about that later.” He reached behind Gisele’s desk and pulled out a phaser rifle. He pulled out three more and tossed one to Baxter, Vansen, and Richards. “Here you go! Careful with those, they’re top of the line and cost a fortune.”
“Why are you so heavily armed?” Baxter asked as they headed down the long hallway to the main reception area. Bradley was several steps ahead of the rest of them.
“Didn’t you get the fact that people are trying to kill him?” Vansen demanded. “Stay with the story!”
“I hate weapons, but you can never be too careful,” Bradley said.
“Hey,” Richards said, catching up to Bradley. “Where’s that assistant of yours…Gisele? Do you think they captured her?”
“No,” Bradley said with a small grin. “She can take care of herself.” He then looked around, his grin fading. “But I would love to know where the Special Secret Section is.”
“They were out here a minute ago,” Baxter said.
When they got to the reception area, they found the Special Secret Section. Or, rather, a pile of bodies that once was the Special Secret Section.
Baxter knelt and felt the wrist of one of the fallen men. “Hmm. Alive, but barely.” He stood back up.
“They must have come through here with a stun bomb of some kind,” Vansen said.
“And now they’re somewhere on my deck,” Bradley said in a low voice. “Probably trying to get to my latinum vaults.”
“I thought your money was all in some intergalactic bank,” Baxter said.
“I had it moved here. These are the things you have to resort to when an unbelievably powerful and mysterious alien race you know nothing about is trying to get you!”
“There must be a way to reason with them,” Richards said.
“These attackers probably aren’t Bast. They’re probably just thugs. Last time, it was Naausicans. I’ve had some of the attackers interrogated. They’ve never even met the people who hired them. Don’t know a thing except that they’re working for the Bast, and that I’m marked for elimination.”
“Nice setup you have here,” Baxter muttered.
“I would feel a lot better if I knew where those attackers were.”
“Madera to Baxter,” chirped Baxter’s combadge.
“Well, that’s comforting. The comm system hasn’t been jammed yet,” Richards said encouragingly.;
Baxter tapped his badge. “Go ahead.”
“We just received a distress call from the Tracker. Seems the Minkta has broken free of their tractor beam and Captain Harth has taken Captain Kimmel and her crew hostage.”
“Oh, not now!” Baxter moaned.
“What should I do, sir?”
“Concentrate on the problem at hand and leave that piddling problem to someone else!” Bradley snapped, looking around the branching corridors that led away from his suite with a growing sense of unease.
“Send another ship to the Tracker’s position and instruct them to get Kimmel out of that mess,” Baxter said.
“We’re the only ship in range,” Madera replied.
“Damn!” said Baxter. “Why are we always the only ship in range?”
“Orders, Captain?” Madera asked impatiently.
“Can you lock on to me and beam me to the ship?”
A pause. “No, sir. Your signal is being jammed by some sort of transporter shield.”
“Stand by.” Baxter looked from Richards to Vansen. “You guys okay handling this thing by yourself?”
“No!” the two snapped in unison.
“Absolutely not,” said Bradley Dillon. “This is a life and death matter!”
“So’s the other thing.” Baxter checked the charge on his phaser rifle. “You guys sit tight here. I’m going to find my way out of this transporter shield. I’ll call you if it’s clear to follow me.”
“You’ve had some stupid, lame-ass ideas before, Captain, but this one beats them all,” Vansen groaned.
“Some might call it heroic,” Baxter said. “If you ever had a friend, you’d understand what I mean.”
“I have friends, and I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Richards said.
Baxter patted his shoulder. “You just sit tight, buddy. You’ll hear from me soon.”
Bradley watched, rapt, as Baxter took off down one of the corridors. He then looked at Richards and Vansen. “So…which one of you will be taking over when the captain dies?”
“Me!” they both said in unison.
Baxter was out of breath by the time he reached the end of the corridor. Okay, so he was really out of breath after the first ten meters of his jog. He really needed to get down to the Ship’s Gymnasium…wherever that was.
He leaned against the door at the end of the corridor, which, if his memory was correct, led to even more corridors.
He smacked the button on the door repeatedly. “Why won’t this damn thing open?” He leaned his head against the door. “And…why me?”
The door suddenly slipped open, and he fell out, slamming into the floor.
“Captain Barker?” Lt. Commander Russell asked, helping Baxter to his feet.
“Baxter,” Baxter said, and looked around at the half dozen security folks Russell had lined up around him. “You found a way in?”
“Yes, sir. Want to help me search for a killer? The process is actually starting to grow on me.”
“Would love to,” Baxter said. “But I’ve got a…something else…to do. Do me a favor and go save the President. Thanks!”
Russell looked at Baxter quizzically as the captain tapped his combadge.
“Baxter to Explorer. You got a signal yet?”
“Yes, loud and clear,” Madera replied. “We’re ready to energize at your command.”
Russell just shrugged as Baxter dematerialized. “Why do I let anything surprise me anymore?” He nodded at his men. “Let’s go, guys!”
Baxter straightened his uniform as he moved toward the front of the bridge. Lt. Madera stood from the command chair and moved over to helm.
“Captain Beck is pretty adamant that nobody leaves until the president is secure,” Madera said, as she sat back down at her station.
“She is, is she?” Baxter said, folding his arms. He looked back at tactical. “Mister Keefler: Hail Waystation.”
“Aye, sir,” Keefler said, punching a control.
The annoyed and busy-looking Beck appeared on Baxter’s viewscreen.
“What are you trying to pull, Captain? And why aren’t you still on Waystation?”
“An emergency has come up, Lisa. I need to go. I’m asking you, as a friend, clear us for launch.”
Beck glared at Baxter. “Okay…”
“First of all, I’m not your friend. Second of all, don’t call me Lisa. Third of all, this is an emergency. Nobody leaves.”
Baxter nodded, still smiling. “All right. I tried to be a nice guy about this. Keefler: Arm phasers. Prepare to sever the docking arm we’re attached to.”
Beck narrowed her eyes. “You wouldn’t…” She looked at Baxter long and hard. “Yeah you would. Porter, let him go.”
Baxter smiled. “I knew you’d come around, you old softy.”
“I hate you,” Beck said, and disappeared from the viewscreen, to be replaced with an image of the docking arm drifting away as the Explorer backed away from Waystation.
“I know just how to make things up to her, too,” Baxter grinned. He looked at Keefler. “Have the transporter room beam our security specialist over to Waystation. Right where you beamed me out.”
Keefler nodded. “Transport underway. Hopefully you didn’t ruin its nap.”
“Hopefully I did. It fights best when angry.” He grinned at that thought, then looked at Madera. “Lieutenant, lay in a course to intercept the Tracker, maximum warp.”
“You know, I’d hate awfully to kill you now,” Captain Harth said, leaning over Captain Kimmel’s command chair, as the red alert lights cycled on and off around them. The rest of the bridge was clear, her crew having been stunned and tossed into the conference room. His men, five of them, stood in a huddle at the back of the smallish bridge, near tactical.
Everyone else on the ship had been gassed by anesthezine, shortly after the Tracker had, of its own accord, lost all power, due, ironically, to way too much power being put into the cargo bays to keep the Gorn crew pent up. They were still towing the Minkta, as far as Kimmel knew, but then again she wasn’t being told much. Just that the Gorn escape and subsequent takeover of the ship had been a fairly brief escapade. They were on her bridge with phasers in her face scant minutes after her tactical officer had told her that they’d broken out.
“Go ahead, kill me,” she said, in a voice that sounded braver than she really felt. “I’ve been a bad, bad, captain.” She pulled up her knees, leaning her head on them as she sat in the command chair, feeling totally helpless. “Just get it overwith already, okay?”
Harth knelt in front of Kimmel. “You know what? You are ferociously cute.”
Kimmel looked up, a faint smile touching her lips. “Really? You think so?”
Harth laughed. “Not really. I find all humans disgusting. Such soft, pink skin. Eeeeiik!”
“Laugh it up, Mister Greenjeans. I happen to know you won’t be laughing for long.” Kimmel struggled to sound threatening, jutting her chin just a bit, then leaning it back on her knees.
“I’m counting on it, precious,” Harth said, standing.
Kimmel seemed truly taken aback by this. “How come?”
“How come?” Harth looked around the bridge. “You have a fine little ship here, Captain. But I stress the word ‘little.’ Your friend that saved you…his vessel…now THAT is a ship. It will fetch a tidy sum on the Orion market.”
“And just how do you expect to get your hands on it?”
Harth withdrew a Starfleet phaser from its awkward place in his hip holster, which looked far more better fit for a bulkier Gorn sidearm. He slid it up against Kimmel’s neck. “How indeed.”
“Get me a bead on the President. Fast,” Sean Russell said, advancing down the corridor toward the presidential suite.
“We’re getting nothing,” Ensign Mike Waits said, tapping the side of his tricorder.
“They must have put up a sensor jammer,” Russell deduced.
“If only we had a good divining rod.”
Russell stared at Waits. The guy was heavily into reinacting ancient events with a group of “creative anachronists,” and sometimes he got a little carried away. But man, was he good with a sword. “I don’t think a divining rod would do us any good.”
Waits shrugged. “Just a suggestion.”
It was then that a rectangular panel came clanging to the deck from the ceiling, and the next thing Russell saw was a volley of swift sweep and roundhouse kicks, aimed all about his head, neck and chest.
“Someone do some shooting!”
“She’s too close to you!”
“She?” Russell asked, raising his eyebrow, an action which now was extremely painful, as he’d just been kicked in the face. He rubbed his eyes and stared at his assailant.
“Gisele,” he said flatly.
“You’re not an assassination squad,” the mousy administrative aide said to him.
“Last time I checked, no,” Russell said.
“Do you want us to shoot her?” Ensign Tidwell asked, still aiming his phaser at Gisele.
“No,” Russell said, rubbing his jaw. “She’s on our side.”
“You’re sure?” asked Waits.
“I didn’t know you could fight like that,” Russell told Gisele.
“I wasn’t just hired for my filing skills. Bradley wanted me to be his last line of defense. In case, you know, someone tried to kill him. Which, if you think of it, was actually pretty forward-thinking of him.”
Russell nodded dumbly. “He’s that kind of guy.”
Gisele pushed up the sleeves on her blouse, glancing about the corridor. “Now, where is he?”
“I was about to ask you the same question.”
“I don’t know,” Gisele said. “But we’d better find him quick, before someone, or something…”
“Mister Russell!” a smartly-dressed woman in a navy blue pantsuit said, jogging up along the corridor. She was followed by a man wearing a holorecorder headset. “And Miss…whoever you are! Joan Redding! Associated Worlds Network. What’s the status of the President? Do you know where he is? Is his life in danger?”
“She would fall into the category of a ‘something,’” Russell said under his breath. “Ms. Redding, not only is his life in danger, but yours is too. This is a secured area. You and your cameraman need to get out of here.”
“I’m not leaving without a report on the status of President Dillon!”
“Tidwell…escort these two out of here,” Russell said. “Gisele, you’re with me. You know this place, and Dillon’s security precautions. You know where he’ll go to hide if there’s trouble.”
Gisele thought about that. “I have a feeling…”
“My, this is a lot of latinum,” Commander Richards said, to no one in particular, as he sat on a pallet of latinum bricks. He glanced around the green-lit cargo bay, letting out a low whistle. “This is like that fort…on Earth. Where they kept all the gold.”
“I thought you dealt in credits, not latinum bricks,” Vansen said, standing by Richards as Bradley paced in front of the door to the cargo bay.
“I’ve got both,” he said distractedly. “And some other alien currencies. It pays to diversify your portfolio.”
“Remind me to hire your stock broker,” Richards said, then looked at Vansen. “That is, if I was interested in material wealth, but I’m not, because I’m in Starfleet.”
Vansen curled and uncurled her fists as she stood there. “We can’t just hide in here.”
“That’s exactly what we’re going to do, Commander,” Bradley said. “Waystation’s security people are doubtless on the case. I am in the most secure place on the station…maybe even in the sector. Nobody’s getting in here. This location is absolutely invulnerable.”
Just then, the door slid open, and a tall, muscular Andorian woman in a tight-fitting leather bodysuit strolled in. She aimed her arms at Bradley, and as if by pure thought, long, thin, serrated blades shot forward out of both sleeves. “Taste my fiery daggers of death, swine!” she cried out, her eyes wild with hatred.
Richards’s mouth gaped. “D’aht?”
The blades slid back up the Andorian’s sleeves. She slapped her face with both hands in shock. “Chris Richards? Could it really be you?”
Bradley blinked. “Ummm…”
Richards walked over. “What have you been up to?”
“Oh, you know, after Suva went and reformed on me, I had to go solo. The woman became so fwarking obsessed with the art world. Killing and conspiring just didn’t do it for her anymore. I really tried to find a new partner…but I realized that I was, ultimately, happier alone. You know?”
“Yeah…right…” Richards said slowly.
“So, how’s J’hana?”
“Do NOT go there!” Richards chuckled.
“Excuse me!” Vansen said, stepping up behind Richards. “This woman has been sent here to kill the President.”
“Yeah,” Richards said, shoving D’aht’s shoulder. “She’s quite the card, all right. She tried to kill us all a few years ago, during the short- lived Andorian civil war.” He looked at Bradley. “Watch your step around this one.”
“Yeah,” laughed D’aht. “I still have to kill the guy. Orders are orders.”
“Sure,” Richards said.
Bradley walked up to D’aht, gripping her by her shoulders and turning her to face him. “You! Tell me who your contact is! How do I get to the Bast and explain myself! Get this stupid death sentenced removed?”
“You’re fwarking up the wrong tree, human,” D’aht spat, glowering down at Bradley. “Mine is not to question why, it is but to kill you and watch you die.” And with that, she reared back with her left arm, snapping the long serrated blade out of her sleeve again, and thrust it at Bradley.
It went right through him.
“So…Dwanok’s common-law wife Kessica seems hell-bent on pulling the plug on his life support machines,” J’hana said with a rattling sigh. “But forget about my piddling problems. What is going on over on your end, Imzadi?” The Andorian glowered out of Lt. Commander Tilleran’s desktop terminal.
“Oh, a whole lot of nothing,” she said, drying her hair and wrapping a towel around it, hugging her robe around her. Her quarters were still a little steamy from the shower. She decided to have the wet kind, as opposed to sonic, as a treat since she’d pulled a double shift. She always liked that damp feeling just after. Kind of like…she shook the thoughts from her head, and smiled at J’hana. “You know, same old. We’re docked at Waystation right now.”
She glanced out the viewport, expecting to see the docking arm and upper saucer of the massive station outside her window. Instead, all she saw was streaking stars. Her eyes went wide, as her brain was flooded with a rush of thoughts from crew all over the ship scrambling to battlestations. “J’hana, I’ve got to go…”
“Yes, well, I suppose I’ll return to tending my comatose boyfriend. It is all right that I have a boyfriend, isn’t it, Ari?” J’hana asked, her eyes narrowing.
Tilleran wasn’t listening. “I’ll catch up later. Something’s wrong…” She hit the desktop terminal, closing the channel to Kronos. She tapped her combadge. “Tilleran to bridge.”
“Baxter here,” came the reply, as she yanked on her uniform trousers over still-wet legs. “I was just about to call you. We’ve got a little…thing. We could use your help.”
“I’m on my way.”
“Take your time, take your time. We won’t be heading into battle for a good six…seven minutes.”
“How comforting,” Tilleran muttered, and zipped up her tunic, dashing for the door.
“Nooooooooooooooo!” Vansen yelled as D’aht ran Bradley Dillon through with her blade. She charged the Andorian, tackling her to the ground, pinning her arms. D’aht flipped her over, and the two proceeded to roll on the ground, knocking against one pallet of gold bricks after another, like pinballs hitting flappers.
Richards just looked at Bradley with total confusion. The blade had gone right through him.
“What are you looking at?” Bradley asked pleasantly.
It went THROUGH him. As if he wasn’t even there.
“You’re a hologram!” Richards shrieked. And D’aht and Vansen looked up from where they were restling, Vansen on top, blowing tussled hair out of her face.
“Come again?” Vansen demanded.
Bradley smiled, looking down at D’aht. “I am indeed a simple projection.” He smiled broadly. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, and such. Sorry to disappoint you, ma’am, but today is just not my day to die.”
“ZHARNAFWARKINIT!” D’aht seethed.
“Oh shut up,” Vansen replied, socking D’aht in the face, rendering her completely unconsciuous.
“RROOOOOOOOOOOOOARRRRRRRRRRRR!” Voluminuous and multiple purple tentacles wedged open the door to the vault, and a towering, roaring creature lumbered in, swinging its proturberances about and slipping them around Richards and Vansen, hoisting them both in the air.
“You’re a little late, Unlathi,” Richards said calmly as the androdgynous Velvattian security officer held him aloft. “But nice effort, anyway.”
“Friend of yours?” the Bradley hologram said, looking up at the beast, which wore a loose interpretation of a Starfleet uniform stretched over its gargantuan body. Tentacles extended from multiple sleeves. Those tentacles parted to reveal a vertical mouth with multiple rows of teeth, and four compound eyes that oscilatted as the thing observed Bradley.
“Security Specialist,” Vansen said, as Unlathi let her and Richards down.
“That’s right,” Unlathi said, and slithered out of the room, leaving a healthy (and flowery-smelling) slime trail in their wake.
Richards dusted off the front of his uniform, as Vansen pulled her hair back into its loose ponytail.
“So,” Vansen said to Bradley. “Where are you, really?”
“Oh, a secret location deep underground on a planet in this system,” he grinned. “I figured the Bast would try to do me in one more time before I transferred to your ship. Better to expose their plans than to fall victim to them, right?”
“Were you going to fill us in on your little plan?” Richards asked.
“Didn’t I just do that?” Bradley asked.
“Since you’re just a hologram,” Richards said, “would it be okay if I punched you in the face?”
Just then, Gisele and Russell burst in. The secretary took a traditional jujitsu fighting stance, surveying the room.
Russell waved his phaser around the room. “Everybody okay?”
“You’re late,” Vansen muttered, and walked out.
“Four minutes to intercept,” Keefler announced as Tilleran and Hartley both emerged from the turbolift. Tilleran sat down at her station, and Hartley took Engineering, on the other side of the bridge.
Baxter was standing in the middle of the bridge, staring at the streaking stars on the viewscreen. “Tilleran. Scanning range?”
“Um…” She looked down at her panel. “Yes. I’m picking up the Tracker, and the Minkta in its tractor beam.”
Tilleran furrowed her brow at her readouts. “On the bridge, with about ten Gorn lifesigns. Half a dozen other Gorn are assembled throughout the ship.”
“And the Tracker’s crew?” Baxter asked.
“The full complement’s there, but according to biosigns, they’re unconscious.”
Baxter nodded. “At least nobody’s been injured.”
“I take it you have a plan, Captain?” Hartley asked, leaning on her panel.
“Oh, yeah,” Baxter said. He jogged up to Tilleran’s panel. “I take it we have the Tracker’s prefix code on file?”
“Yeah.” Tilleran tapped a few controls. “Starfleet set it at One- Two-Three-Four-Five, to make it easier for Kimmel and her crew to remember.”
“Super,” Baxter said. “Plug in those numbers and prepare to use the prefix code to drop the Tracker’s shields.”
“Right,” Tilleran said, and began inputting the sequence.
“The Gorn are a little thickheaded, but they’re not stupid,” Hartley said. “They may have already reset the Tracker’s prefix.”
“Nonsense,” Baxter said, looking at Tilleran. “And even if that’s the case, Tilleran here will be able to tell as soon as we talk to the Gorn.”
“Um…sure,” Tilleran said. “There. Prefix code ready.”
“Great,” Baxter said, turning toward helm. “Susan: Take us out of warp just off the Tracker’s bow.”
“We’re being hailed by a Captain Harth,” Keefler said, as the image of the Minkta and the compact, Nova-class Tracker swung into view on the viewscreen.
Baxter walked back toward the middle of the bridge. “Put him on.’
The viewscreen was overtaken by the view of the Tracker’s somewhat smaller bridge. The Nova-class ship, looking like a miniaturized version of a Soverign-class ship, was mostly used on science missions, although one of the Tracker’s sister ships, the U.S.S. Equinox, did have an evil captain who killed a bunch of alien creatures in order to try to escape from the Delta Quadrant.
Meanwhile, on the viewscreen, at the center of Kimmel’s bridge, a muscular, green, leather-clad Gorn was standing, his arm wrapped around the neck of the elfish Kimmel, a Starfleet phaser pressed to her cheek.
“Captain Baxter! How nice to see you again!”
“Likewise, or whatever,” Baxter said. “Let her go now, and I won’t blow you back to the glass tank you came from.”
The Gorn’s wide lips creased into a smile, showing his large, conical, pointed teeth. “You get to the point, Captain Baxter. I like that.” The smile turned quickly into a sneer. “Now, allow me to get to the point. Turn over your vessel to me immediately, and I will spare the life of your fellow Captain.”
“Turn over?” Baxter asked.
“Yes. We will lock you and your crew in the cargo bays and take you to the nearest barely habitable planet and leave you there. It’s certainly a better option than the alternative.”
“Which is that you’ll shoot my friend, there, and then we’ll blow you and your friends up.”
“And kill the crew of the Tracker?”
“Maybe,” Baxter said quickly, then looked back at Tilleran, whispering. “I’m dying over here. You ready to put in the prefix?”
“No buts! You haven’t picked up on anything from Harth? Anything that would lead you to believe he changed the code?”
“Well…” Tilleran couldn’t be sure. She’d never been able to read Gorn, which was an oddity, since other Betazoids could. She was ranked in the tenth percentile as one of the most powerful telepaths on Betazed, but the reason she didn’t take her place among the all-time greats…the Lwaxana Trois and the Tam Elbruns…was because she could never read Gorn, silly as that may sound. And it was something she never told anybody. And, wouldn’t it figure, here she was, being asked to read a Gorn. What was she suppose to say? Can’t do, Captain? Instead, she said: “I’m not picking up anything unusual from them, Captain.”
“Good enough for me,” Baxter said. “Put in the code, now!”
Tilleran sighed and punched a control.
Baxter turned to face the viewscreen, a smile spreading across his face. “Take that, Mister!”
Harth looked puzzled. “Take what?”
“Don’t look now, but we just lowered your shields.” Baxter nodded back at Hartley. “Commander, lock on to Captain Kimmel and beam her out of there.”
Hartley frowned at her panel. “Captain, I can’t get a lock. The Tracker’s shields are still up!”
Baxter gulped. “Tilleran!”
“No more games!” Harth shrieked suddenly, blasting his phaser in the air. He shoved it back up against Kimmel’s neck. “Give me the Explorer now, or I’ll kill her!”
“Okay, okay,” Baxter said, holding up his hands. “You win.”
Harth seemed surprised. “I do?”
“Yeah,” Baxter nodded. “And to convince you of my sincerity, I’ll beam over there now to officially surrender. We can even sign a little proclamation, if you like. After that, you can take me as a prisoner of war…then we could get a coffee, or something, maybe.”
Harth narrowed his nictating eyes at Baxter. “Are you trying to trick me?”
“Certainly you and your men can handle one unarmed human.”
“Good point.” Harth nodded at someone off-screen. “I’ve just given the order to lower our shields, so you can beam over now. I will have my assistant prepare the necessary paperwork, and…”
“Their shields are down, Captain, I’ve got Kimmel!” Hartley exclaimed.
“Wow, that was easy,” Baxter said with a smile. “Keefler: Lock phasers on their bridge and fire!”
Harth watched Kimmel disappear right out from in front of him, and he fired his phaser as she dematerialized, but he was too late. Right after that, Baxter watched the bridge explode into a shower of sparks and flames, knocking Harth and his fellows to the deck.
“Take a team over there and secure that ship, Mister Keefler,” Baxter said, walking to the foreward turbolift as Keefler headed into the aft one. “And bring Doctor Wilcox so she can start waking up the crew.”
“Where are you going?” Hartley asked.
“Transporter Room Two,” Baxter said, and gave Tilleran an odd look as the doors closed.
Baxter met Captain Kimmel in the corridor near the transporter room. She’d been on her way to see him.
The shorter woman ran to wrap her arms around Baxter in a tight hug.
“Thanks for saving my ass again, Andy,” she said, and squeezed.
Baxter squeezed back. “Eh, what the hell. I had nothing better to do.”
“I’m going to change things, Andy,” Kimmel said, pulling back from the hug. “I’m going to make sure the Tracker crew doesn’t embarrass the Explorer Project again! We’re going to be a respected crew…like yours!”
Baxter giggled. “Well, depends on what you mean by the word ‘respected.’”
Baxter nodded, smiling. “I’m glad.”
And the two stood there in the middle of the corridor, awkwardly.
“Peterman to Baxter.”
Baxter tapped his combadge. “Yes, honey?”
“Did we just go into battle?”
“I’m afraid so. It was a quick one, though.”
“Well, it’s time for Steffie’s nap, and she wants you to read to her from Zakbor, the Raging Breen. Actually, I want you to do that. I have no idea what she wants, what with the not talking and such.”
“I’ll be right down,” Baxter said, tapping the channel closed.
“How is Steffie?” Kimmel asked, as Baxter walked with her down the corridor.
“She’s growing fast. She’ll be as big as a…lamp…any day now.”
“That’s good.” Kimmel sighed. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I have work to do. Making my Tracker the best ship it can be.”
“I have total faith in you, Anna,” Baxter said, and watched Kimmel step into the transporter room. Once the doors closed, he sighed. “Well, maybe not…total…” And he headed down to see to his daughter.
Supplemental. We’ve arrived at Waystation, where Captain Harth and his marauders will be kept, along with their vessel, until Starfleet can figure out what to do with them.
Meanwhile, the Tracker has put in at Waystation for repairs, and I am busily preparing to take on one or two…guests.
“I don’t suppose there’s any way to fight this,” Baxter said, after President Dillon, Gisele, Brigance, his manservant, and Vansen and Richards, all materialized on the transporter platform.
“Oh, you can fight it,” Bradley said, moving briskly out of the transporter room. “You just won’t win.”
“Have yerself a nice visit to the ship, now!” Ensign Lindsay Morgan said, waving cheerily to the retreating group.
“You missed a hell of a good time, Andy,” Richards said, as Baxter watched Dillon and his entourage leave. “And we got to see D’aht, the Andorian mercenary. Remember her?”
“Oh, good old D’aht. How’s she doing?” Baxter asked.
“Tried to kill us,” Vansen muttered, and left the room.
“Anything that upsets Vansen so has to have some merit to it,” Baxter said.
“Yeah,” Richards agreed. “So…did you get Captain Kimmel squared away?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you were right, Chris. Maybe she has no business running a Starship. I mean, she crashed the ship into an enemy vessel and then got taken over, all in the same day.”
“At least it was an enemy vessel,” Richards said encouragingly.
“Yeah,” Baxter said, and smiled at Ensign Morgan, as he and Richards left the room.
“What now?” Richards asked.
“I guess we proceed with Bradley’s ‘mission,’ whatever that is.”
“Could you stop making air quotes? I hate it when you do that.”
Baxter scowled at Richards as the two walked down the corridor. “If that weren’t bad enough, I have a communique from my Dad waiting. I don’t think he’s pleased with me.”
“How could that be? All you did was disobey a station commander and the leader of the Federation.”
“Yeah, but I had good reasons…”
“I don’t give a damn if you did have good reasons,” snarled Admiral Harlan Baxter, over the subspace link on the desktop terminal in Baxter’s readyroom. Baxter sat at his desk and frowned at the screen, feeling meek and small. “You can’t just go off and do whatever you want. This is a military organization, son. We follow orders, and the chain of command. And if you ain’t noticed, the chain of command starts with the president.”
“Like it or not,” Baxter sighed.
“Well, you better get used to it,” Harlan said, leaning in to accentuate his point by waving his lit cigar at Baxter. “And you better straighten your act up. I won’t always be around to clean up after you.”
Baxter cocked his head at that. “You won’t?”
“Nope. Welp, gotta go.” Harlan stuck his cigar in his mouth and punched a control. The desktop viewer went blank..
Baxter leaned back in his chair. “Now how do you like that?”
“I do not like it at all,” Lt. J’hana said as she sat on her hard bunk in the Klingon New City, on Kronos, just a few blocks away from the Imperial Hospital, where Dwanok was being kept alive, had been for three months…barely.
“I do not care if you like it,” Kessica, Wife of Dwanok the Large, Interim Ruler of the House of Dwanok the Large, said over the small viewscreen in J’hana’s rented room. “You have no say in this.”
“On the contrary! As his parma’chai…”
“You are NOT his parma’chai! You are no better than a backwoods slut who would sleep with Ferengi! Your relationship with The Large One meant nothing!”
“I beg to differ, Kessica,” J’hana said stormily, as she stood and approached the monitor. “Dwanok and I…we shared many things. Much more than just a bed. More than you could ever understand.”
“Dwanok is never waking up,” Kessica snapped. “He has no chance of honorable death. I must gather up the shambles of his house and proceed with my life. Dwanok will be removed from life support, and there is nothing you can do about it.”
J’hana cracked her knuckles, her antennae twitching with growing anger. “We will see about that, you putrid shevath!”
“Ptooook!” Kessica cried, and the channel went dead.
J’hana glared darkly at the screen, gritting her teeth with barely consumed hatred. She must take action. Now.
Suddenly, the panel bleeped.
“Incoming subspace transmission from U.S.S. Explorer,” the voice of the space-to-land operator broke through.
J’hana tapped a control on the wall panel. “Go ahead.”
Lt. Commander Tilleran apperared on the screen, leaning forward, with a bubbling Tamaran fizz in her hands, sipping sullenly. “Imzadi, I’ve had the worst day. Can we talk?”
J’hana felt for her Imzadi, that she’d had a bad day, but her other love’s life was at stake, and she had to act to save him. Tilleran’s problem would wait.
“I would love to help you, Ari, but I will have to call you back,” J’hana said, turning to grab her duffel bag off the rock hard bed.
“Where…where are you going?” Tilleran asked, leaning in toward the screen.
“To war,” J’hana said, and punched the channel closed.
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
Over the last five years, we’ve never seen Lt. J’hana completely unleashed. But when the Klingons threaten to euthanize the comotose Captain Dwanok, her temper flares and she becomes a one- woman killing machine that will stop at nothing to protect her lover. Parents, don’t let your kiddies read this one! It’s bound to get nasty.