Author: Anthony Butler
Commander Christopher Richards yawned as he pulled on his uniform jacket and walked around the corner he’d turned so many times on the way into Engineering. Not lately, of course, but back when he was Chief Engineer.
Now, of course, he was First Officer. A higher calling. No longer did he have to fiddle with engines, muck about with power cores and conduit and cabling. Nope, he was now a management-type, and in the last year, he’d settled nicely into that role.
“Thanks for coming on such short notice,” Ensign Ryan Stuart said, as Richards rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“I’m supposed to be off today.”
“Yeah, I know. But the dilithium crystal chamber is making that weird noise it sometimes makes, and you and Commander Hartley are the only two people on the ship who know what to do when it does that.”
“Weird noise?” Richards asked, then suddenly pretended to understand. “Ah, yes. The weird noise.” They walked up to the warp core, and Richards leaned in toward the crystal chamber. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
Stuart looked on. “You hear it, Commander?”
Richards glared back at Stuart. “Of course I do, Ensign. Are you trying to tell me I don’t have a…synergy…with the Explorer?”
Stuart held up his hands. “No, sir. Of course not!”
“You think that just because Hartley’s off on Beachtopia for her honeymoon, that the place will somehow fall apart?”
“No, I was just…”
“Don’t you remember how well this engine room ran when I was in charge?”
“It was…” Stuart looked down at his feet. “Um…fine.”
“Oh.” Richards threw up his hands. “Well, then, why don’t you just solve your little warp core trilling on your own then?”
“It’s actually more of a whizz than a trill, but thanks for trying, sir.”
“Whatever,” Richards called over his shoulder as he walked out of Engineering, leaving a perplexed Stuart behind.
He took the long way up and around the neck of the stardrive section, taking the rarely used Turbolift Shaft 6, passing off-the-beaten- path departments like Hydroponic Sorghum Production and Xenoproctology.
He was lost in his thoughts; feeling, as he had lately, listless and restless. He didn’t know what was wrong, exactly. He was feeling more and more comfortable with his post of authority on the Explorer, and had won several recent verbal sparring matches with Lt. Commander Vansen. Well, one or two at least. And he was seeing Lt. Madera, off and on, and that was going well. They really had a lot in common.
So why did he feel so damn low? What was missing?
It was then that Dr. Janice Browning slammed into him, and knocked him down.
She was in her black-and-red jogging suit, with the slimming vertical stripes and the Starfleet insignias on the ankles. She stopped, bracing herself on a guardrail, catching her breath, and looking down at Richards with a grin.
“Christopher, are you okay?”
“I’ll live,” Richards grunted, choosing to continue lying on the deck.
“I didn’t see you. Guess my mind was lightyears away.”
“I’d love to help you with that,” Richards mumbled, leaning up. “But I’ve kind of been crushed by a Browning.”
“Hardee har har,” Browning said, grabbing Richards’s hand and helping him up. “So…what’s up?”
“A little of this, and a lot of…well, nothing,” Richards said.
“Has Vansen been stealing your oatmeal at breakfast again?”
“No. I got her to stop doing that all by myself.”
“Hmmph,” Browning said, putting her hands on her hips. “Want me to give her a good talking-to anyway?”
“No,” Richards said. “It won’t help.” He walked down the corridor, and Browning looked after him.
“What’s up with you lately, Christopher?”
“Eh,” Richards said, and continued down the corridor.
Browning followed him. “I know that look. That’s the look you get when you want to talk about something, but want me to think you don’t want to talk. It’s classic.”
“Well,” Richards said, then trailed off and stared at the ceiling.
“Come on,” Browning grinned, putting her hand on Richards’s shoulder. “Tell me what’s eating you.”
“I guess it all has to do with…” Richards began, and suddenly Browning’s combadge bleeped.
“Sickbay to Browning,” came the voice of the Explorer’s Chief Medical Officer, Doctor Holly Wilcox.
“Go ahead, Holly,” Browning replied.
“Got a minute?”
“Why don’t I meet you in Space Tastes. I’ve got something to…run by you.”
“You’re in luck. I’m in my running suit!”
“Um. Okay. Wilcox out.”
Browning looked at Richards. “Sorry, Christopher. I’d better see what she wants.”
“Sure,” Richards said.
“How about I see you at lunchtime?”
“Uh-huh,” Richards said, and walked off in the opposite direction.
Browning watched him walk away, scratching her head.
Browning found Doctor Holly Wilcox on the patio in Space Tastes, nursing a coffee.
“Holly! Good to see you. Can I get you one of our delicious slug- o-muffins?” she asked, stepping back toward the rear of the restaurant and grabbing her apron from behind the old-fashioned 1980s cash register replica, with the digital readout and big, light-up buttons. Not that she ever charged anyone anything, but she’d taken to keeping it around just for the ambiance.
“No thanks,” Wilcox called back, as Browning reached behind the dining counter and poured herself a steaming mug of hot chocolate. Only at Space Tastes was hot chocolate brewing at all hours of the day.
Browning took her mug over to the patio and sat down with Holly, who seemed to be intent on the passers-by, the few crew and families who frequented the mall in the early mornings. They were there more for the exercise than anything else.
“So…what’s up?” Browning asked, sipping from her mug of hot chocolate.
Holly leaned forward, now intent on Browning. “Okay. You know how Starfleet Medical changes its commanding officer every year or so? How a doctor in the fleet is selected for the honor each year, to kind of perpetuate free thinking and creativity within the organization?”
Browning blinked. “Um, nope. But it sounds cool!”
“Well, Starfleet Medical selected me to take charge, and I told them I would.”
Browning cocked her head. “You’re…leaving?”
“Yep,” Wilcox grinned. “The medical ship Benton is rendez- vousing with us tomorrow afternoon to pick us up. All the paperwork’s done. It’s official. They’re even letting Dean come with me. They want to study him! Isn’t that great?”
“Well,” Browning said, extending her hand across the table and shaking Holly’s. “I’m really happy for you.”
“I’ve written everything up in a memo to Captain Baxter. In it, I recommend that he reinstate you as Chief Medical Officer. His only other choice aboard is Doctor Ranowat, and we both know that Jarvay is far too unstable to run a Sickbay.”
“Reinstate…” Browning trailed off. “Um…wow. I never even thought about going back into Starfleet.”
Holly squeezed Browning’s hand. “Please say you’ll do it. Ensure everything I’ve done over the last year isn’t destroyed by that psychopath!”
Browning looked Holly in the eye, her eyes gleaming. “Well, jeeze. When you put it that way…you bet I will!”
Captain Baxter straightened his stack of padds at the front of the conference table and looked out at the assembled group. “All right. The Afternoon Staff Meeting will hereby come to order. New business?”
Lt. Commander Nell Vansen raised her hand. “Yes. I move we change the Afternoon Staff Meeting back to a morning meeting.”
Commander Richards raised his hand. “I move that Vansen is a petty, immature brat who doesn’t like any of my ideas.”
“I like the variety,” Baxter said. “Sometimes I’m not fully awake in the morning.”
“Like you’re any more awake now,” Vansen muttered.
“Move to strike that from the record!” Baxter snapped.
“I move we stop talking like this,” Peterman said, from beside Baxter. “It’s ridiculous.”
“It’s Robert’s Rules of Order,” Baxter said. “And I read somewhere that it helps keep order in meetings.”
“It’s working so far,” Tilleran muttered.
“Good one,” J’hana said, leaning back in her chair and patting Tilleran on the leg.
Baxter cleared his throat. “People! It’s my intention that these meetings be productive, and not degenerate into a silly spectacle where no real work gets done!”
“Hey everybody!” Dr. Browning called from the doorway, replete in her Starfleet uniform with the blue collar. “Look who’s back!”
“Janice! You’re back in uniform!” Baxter exclaimed giddily, and ran over to grab Browning in a hug. “The family’s back together!”
Peterman ran over too. “How’d this happen?”
“Holly quit to go take over Starfleet medical. She leaves tomorrow. I’ve got Sickbay back!”
“Why does nobody bother to tell me anything?” Vansen murmurred.
“Janice…” Richards said, looking up at Browning from his seat at the conference table. “Didn’t you WANT to get out of Starfleet?”
Browning looked over at him. “Well, yeah.”
“Didn’t you say you hated the monotony of being CMO?”
“Shut up,” Baxter snapped at Richards. “It’s great that Janice’s back. We’ll welcome her. Come, sit down!”
“Yes. Fun,” Browning said, as Baxter and Peterman led her over to the conference table.
“Can we get back to business?” Vansen suggested.
“NOW we can,” Baxter grinned. “So…did we have any business?”
“We’ll arrive in the Dulcet system tomorrow,” Richards said. “And, at that point, we’re supposed to go poking around for information on where we can find the Bast. Other than that, nada.”
“So that’s it?” Vansen asked. “That’s worth gathering the whole staff together?”
“It’s also about spending quality time around your friends,” Baxter said defiantly. “And your Vansens.”
“I give up,” Vansen muttered, and walked out.
“So, I suppose Doctor Ranowat’s going to take this pretty badly,” Peterman said, as she and Browning walked back down toward Sickbay.
“I think we’re just going to try to avoid telling him,” Browning said. “He’ll walk in one day and I’ll be in there instead of Holly, and I just won’t say anything about it. Maybe if we ignore the situation, it’ll all be okay.”
“Yeah. THAT’s healthy.”
“Is it?” Browning asked.
Peterman shrugged. “I’m not sure. So, are you excited about being CMO again?”
“I guess,” Browning said. “It should be easy to remember what to do. Just inject hypo here, cut there, ya know.”
“You don’t sound ecstatic about it.”
“Well, I’ve never been ecstatic about medicine. And yet I’m very good at it. Funny, huh?”
“Yeah…hehe…very good,” Peterman laughed nervously and looked away. “So…big promotion for Holly, huh?”
“Yes,” Browning said. “And interesting. I did some research. Did you know that sixty percent of the Chief Medical Officers in the fleet have been head of Starfleet Medical at one time or another?”
“Well, they gave the job to Holly, and she’d only been a CMO for a little over a year. And she got her MD over subspace!”
“That’s quite an accomplishment.”
“I was CMO for four years!”
Peterman stopped walking. A few steps later, Browning did too, and turned around. “What?”
“Don’t be jealous, Janice. It’s not like you.”
Browning folded her arms. “Who said I was jealous?”
“You don’t even really like medicine. So why would you want to be Chief of Starfleet Medical?”
“Maybe some authority would be nice.”
“You do have command of a whole Sickbay.”
Browning nodded. “You’re right. Maybe I’ll go boss some people around.”
“Good luck!” Peterman waved after her.
Counselor Peterman balanced her cat, Fritz, in one hand, and the leash of her golden retriever Charlie as she thumbed the entrance key to her office.
“Need a hand?” a voice called out, and she turned to find Richards approaching.
“Nope. I’m used to juggling animals.”
“I hope that’s just an expression.”
“Can I help you?” Peterman asked, as she walked into her office and ordered the lights on.
Richards walked over and sat down on her fainting couch. “Is this where I sit?”
“Where you sit to what?” Peterman turned as she sat Fritz down on her desk and unleashed Charlie, who immediately pounced on Richards’s crouch.
“Ooof!” he cried, pushing Charlie off him. “To be counseled.”
Peterman stepped in front of her desk and sat down in the chair opposite Richards. “You…need counseling? From me?”
“You are the Ship’s Counselor, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but…well, you haven’t really been one of my biggest customers.”
Richards nodded. “Well, I guess that’s because I’ve always been pretty satisfied with my life.”
Richards’s shoulders fell. “Not.”
“I see.” Peterman reached over to the table next to her chair and grabbed a padd. She tapped in some information and then looked up at Richards again. “Can you describe this feeling of…not?”
Richards leaned back on the chair. “Do people usually lie down or sit up?”
“Well, the couch is designed for lying down, I suppose, but everyone is different. Ensign Sefelt usually hides behind the couch.”
“I’ll sit up,” Richards said, leaning back up and resting his elbows on his knees. “I guess it started about the time Lieutenant Commander Vansen came aboard.”
“Ah ha,” Peterman said, and tapped something on her padd. “You feel a sense of competition?”
Richards rubbed his chin. “No, it’s been longer than that. I’d say I’ve been feeling kind of low since Larkin left the ship.”
“I see,” Peterman said, tapping some more. “You miss your daughter.”
“Yeah, but…well, let me see…”
Peterman watched Richards intently as Fritz climbed up into her lap.
“I guess I’ve been kind of out of it since Janice and I broke up. You know, the second time.
“Now we’re talking!” Peterman said. “Romantic woes. I’m good at those.”
“Haven’t you noticed? Look at mine and Andy’s relationship! Look at the wonders I’ve done with Mirk and Hartley!”
“What have you done for Mirk and Hartley?”
“I…uh, ordered the crab dip,” Peterman said quickly, then returned to her padd. “Tell me more about this, how you miss Janice.”
“Well, I don’t miss her, exactly. I miss the relationship. Having that constant presence in my life. You know?”
“Ah, so you want her back?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
Peterman huffed. “Well, do you or don’t you?”
“Sure is not a good enough answer, buddy. You’ve broken up with the girl twice, and she hasn’t had a decent date during either time you two have been apart. And you, on the other hand, have had a grand old time with Kris Larkin, Lieutenant Madera, and that Jorgan arc welder!”
“That was a one night stand!” Richards replied.
“And what has Janice had in the meantime?”
“I don’t know. I don’t ask about those things.”
“David Conway,” Peterman said flatly, and watched the blood drain from Richards’s face.
“I feel sick,” Richards said, gripping his stomach. “Maybe I’ll go to Sickbay.” He moved to stand, and Peterman shoved him back onto the couch.
“No way, bucko! You are not going to mess with that woman’s head anymore.” She pressed some buttons on her padd. “We’re going to work on you. No more dating until we fix your problems.”
“But my problem is that I’m not dating.”
“What about Madera?”
“Oh. I guess we are sort of…seeing each other…you know, really casually.”
“You’re just in it for the sex,” Peterman snapped, and tapped her padd.
“I am not! Don’t write that down!”
“I call ‘em like I see ‘em.” Peterman sighed. “Chris, this is an unhealthy pattern. You’re looking for solace in other people, when you should be looking for it in yourself.”
“Baxter to Peterman,” chirped Peterman’s combadge. “Honey, can you come up and sit with me? Commander Vansen just called me a schmuck!”
“Not now, Andy. I’m with a patient.”
“Anyone I know?”
“No! Go to your office and sit there until I can get to you. Peterman out.
Richards stared at Peterman. “You were saying?”
“Well, uh,” Peterman stammered. “Andy is…a unique guy. He has strange needs.”
“And so do I,” Richards said. “And I think it’s high time I got back out on the dating scene.”
“You never left it!” Peterman snapped, as Richards got up and walked out. She ran to her door and watched him head down the corridor. “You come back here! You’re a sick, sick man and you need my help!”
Peterman turned to find Lt. Howard Sefelt behind her. “I thought I was the only one you said that to,” he huffed.
“Oh…that? That meant nothing to me, Howie. You’re my most dysfunctional patient, I promise.”
“Talk is cheap,” Sefelt said, walking into Peterman’s office and diving behind the couch. “Counsel me!”
Peterman sighed and trudged back into her office.
Stardate 56256.4. We’ve arrived in the Dulcet system where, President Dillon tells me, we’ll find some clues to the whereabouts of the mysterious Bast, whoever they are, who are trying to kill Dillon.
Meanwhile, let it be known that Commander Vansen called me a schmuck yesterday and I am still not speaking to her.
“Real mature, Captain,” Vansen said, from beside Baxter, folding her arms as he watched Dulcet Seven loom into view on the main screen as Madera brought the Explorer into orbit around it.
“What now, Prez?” Baxter said, ignoring Vansen and turning to President Dillon, who was seated to Baxter’s right, in the chair customarily occupied by Richards. The First Officer, meanwhile, was late reporting in.
Bradley swivelled toward the science console. “Commander Tilleran, please focus your scans on the Southern Continent. You should locate a small concentration of buildings, at the center of an expansive desert.”
Tilleran leaned over her scans. “Stand by.”
“Shouldn’t we hail someone?” Baxter asked Bradley.
“We aren’t going to be hailing anyone,” Bradley said. “We’re going to beam down.”
“You and me.” He glanced back at tactical. “And J’hana. We could use some muscle.”
“And that you will have,” J’hana growled.
“I object, Mister President,” Vansen said.
“Big surprise,” Baxter muttered.
“First, because you are beaming down yourself, well knowing a price is on your head, and because you are choosing to beam down with a weak, incompetent captain and his psychotic chief of security.”
“J’hana is not psychotic,” Baxter said to Bradley.
“After hearing about her horrendous display with the Klingons, I’m more than certain J’hana will provide adequate security,” Bradley said, standing. “As for you, Captain, I intend to use you as a human shield.”
“He was joking, right?” Baxter asked Vansen.
“I thought you weren’t talking to me.”
“Oh, right,” Baxter said, following Bradley over to the science console.
“I’ve found the buildings you mentioned,” Tilleran said, then punched the scan up on the main viewscreen. The screen displayed an overhead view of brown, flat dessert terrain and several white, blocky pueblo-style buildings.
Baxter let out a low whistle. “Looks like a wretched, forsaken place.”
“The Dulceta are an underground species. Other than a small fleet of deep space vessels that ply the outer edges of the galaxy, the race spends most of its time living below ground. About ten thousand years ago, a nova in a nearby star system left the surface of the planet unlivable. The man we’re looking for is a retired pilot who once flew one of those deep space vessels.”
“How do you know he’s even still down there?”
“He’s not going anywhere,” Bradley said vaguely, and headed back to the aft turbolift. “Captain, Lieutenant. Time is precious. Let’s get moving.”
“Who’s leading this away team?” J’hana asked Baxter, stepping out behind her console and following Baxter back to the turbolift.
“Me,” Baxter said, then leaned in and whispered in the Andorian’s ear. “And if he tries to use me as a human shield, shoot him.”
“I would love to accommodate you, Captain, but I am in enough trouble with Federation authorities as it is.”
“Fine, be that way,” Baxter muttered, and the pair joined Bradley in the turbolift.
“Don’t you guys need a science officer?” Tilleran called after them.
“Do not worry, Imzadi. We’ll be fine.”
“You two are good friends, I take it?” Bradley asked J’hana as the turbolift doors closed.
J’hana opened her mouth to say something, but Baxter interrupted.
“They’re best buddies, yes sir,” the captain said quickly, then all were silent.
Commander Richards walked onto the bridge about ten minutes after Baxter’s away team had departed.
“Where is everybody?” he asked, walking down toward the front of the bridge.
“On an away mission,” Vansen snapped, wheeling around to face Richards. “And don’t you feel guilty that you weren’t here to talk Baxter out of being volunteered to lead the mission?”
“Why would I talk him out of it? I know how he likes leading away teams.”
“Because it’s the first officer’s duty to talk the captain out of leading away teams! Haven’t you ever read the first officer’s manual?”
Richards scratched his head. “There’s a manual?”
“Ahrg. We’ve already been over this.”
“So they went down to the planet?” Richards asked, sitting down beside Vansen.
“Yes,” Vansen said. “They’re scheduled to report in an hour or so from now. Until then, there’s very little to do, other than orbiting this planet.”
“I see.” Richards looked around. “Tell me, Commander. Are you seeing anyone?”
Vansen grimaced. “Mister Richards, whatever you’re doing, please stop before you embarrass yourself any further.”
Richards slid a little in his chair. “Nevermind. I was just curious.”
“Um…so…can I have the command chair?”
“But I outrank you.”
She turned to face Richards, smiling. “But I’m meaner.”
“Touche.” And he slid a little farther down.
“Neat,” Captain Baxter said, walking along the corridor that ran along one of the many underground tunnels of Dulcet Seven.
“Is he still talking about his Starfleet casual uniform?” Bradley Dillon grumbled.
“Indeed,” J’hana grumbled. “He always gets a rise out of the casual designs Starfleet comes up with for its undercover operatives.”
“This one has bell-bottoms,” Baxter said, looking down at his ankles, and the teal pants that matched his teal jacket and beige shirt. “How twenty-third century!”
“I cannot believe I have to wear pink,” J’hana muttered, caressing the phaser that was strapped to her thigh, hidden under the knee-length pink trenchcoat she wore.
“I hope you all see the sensibility of wearing a suit every day,” Bradley said. “Suits are forgiving, dark in color. They hide the body’s imperfections. Several of this variety can, in fact, be found on your very ship, at Dillon’s Supply Depot, located…”
Baxter stopped walking and glared at Bradley. “You’re not a hologram, are you?”
Bradley looked back at Baxter. “What would make you say that?”
“Because you sound like a commercial. And I know you have your holograms hock your merchandise.”
“Don’t be silly. I would have told you if I had decided to let my hologram go on this mission. Besides, this mission is too important to leave to a hologram.” Bradley coughed slightly, then lowered his voice. “The hologram is back on the ship….signing some treaties.”
“Then why must you prattle on about your merchandise?” J’hana demanded.
“Because,” Bradley said as he picked up pace walking again. “I did not acquire my substantial wealth by keeping quiet about my fabulous bargains.”
“Didn’t your wealth fall into your lap in one big stock payoff?” Baxter asked.
“That…” Bradley said. “Is classified. It’s a matter of Federation Security.”
“Right,” Baxter muttered.
“Look!” Bradley said. “Here we are.” The trio faced a large metal door, with a curvy tangle of alien writing on it.
J’hana wrinkled her nose at the scrawling. “What does it say?”
“I knew we should have brought Tilleran,” Baxter said.
“It says ‘Retired Pilots Club,’” Bradley said, then reached over to the panel beside the door and tapped in a long keycode sequence.
“Um,” Baxter said. “How could you tell?”
“And how did you know the code?” J’hana asked, as the door wheezed open and smoke billowed out.
“You two obviously aren’t used to dealing with an intelligent person.”
J’hana and Baxter looked at each other and shrugged.
“Follow me,” Bradley said, and lead the way through the smoky club, where several Ducleta sat around tables, playing domjat, drinking at the bar.
Since the corridor Bradley had led them through was deserted, this was Baxter’s first time seeing a Dulceta. His first reaction was horror at how fat everyone in the room was. More so than Pakleds, the Dulceta were an obese people. They weren’t very tall. The one that waddled by Baxter was two heads shorter than he. Their skin was mottled with brown and green spots, and their faces were ovoid, wide, with large, lipless mouths that seemed there just for intake of food. Worse, the Dulceta seemed to have no necks. Their heads seemed to just rise up out of their shoulders.
“A handsome race, no?” Bradley asked, leading the group to a rear door, Bradleyed with more alien writing. “Private,” he said, and knocked.
“The one with the plethora of body hair looked like he would be a formidable lover,” J’hana said. “He reminds me of…some guy I knew.”
Baxter put a hand on J’hana’s shoulder. “Still miss Dwanok, huh?”
“I miss his substantial loins, pressed on mine, in the heat of…”
“Forget I asked,” Baxter snapped, as the door slid open, and the group edged into a dim room lit only by a few candles.
At the rear of the room, there appeared to be some kind of water purification tank, or fuel vessel, about the size of a shuttle, that dominated the room.
“I think we made a wrong turn,” Baxter said.
“No, we didn’t,” Bradley said, and led Baxter and J’hana up a wrought-iron staircase that went up to the top of the huge tank, which Baxter could see was open on top, and filled with fizzling, fluffy white bubbles. The bubbly water in the tank churned, as if it were alive. Baxter smelled a hint of lilac and apple blossom. On a second sniff, he smelled an overwhelming wave of body odor.
“Yep, he’s definitely in there,” Bradley said, and kicked the side of the tank. “Come on, Rogas. Wakey wakey.”
The water roiled more violently, then a wave of it rushed out, soaking Baxter’s boots and, sadly, his bell-bottoms.
An oval head, as big around as Baxter’s waist, rose up out of the froth. Baxter could make out a set of shoulders that extended almost the diameter of the tank. Who knew what else lay below?
“What do you want?” the massive thing groaned.
“Imagine the size of his…” J’hana gasped.
“Stand down, Lieutenant!” Baxter snapped.
Having grown tired of sitting next to Vansen on the bridge (and how could he have thought she’d be his type anyway?), Richards headed belowdecks to get some paperwork done in his office. That would probably take his mind off current events, and nothing appealed to him more than that.
Except of course the shapely Nurse Christina Chadway, who, in a skintight leotard, walked toward him down the corridor.
“Commander,” she said in her rich, thick British accent. “It’s good to see you. Care to join me for a brief round of kickboxing?”
“That’s cute,” Richards said. “But I was supposed to do some…” He watched Chadway pull her long blonde hair into a ponytail. “Kickboxing, about now, so yes, that would be great.”
“I’d be glad to walk with you to the ship’s gym, sir. Please, do lead the way.”
Richards gulped. Ship’s gym? He knew where the tennis court and the bowling alley was, that was about it. “Um, Ensign, how about you do the honors?”
“Very well, sir,” Chadway said, and began walking down the corridor. Richards followed. “I take it your workout clothes are down in the locker room?”
“Convenient, then, since the locker room adjoins the gym.”
“Hmm,” Chadway said. “My neck is sore from this morning’s yoga. Would you mind rubbing my trapezius muscle?”
“Uhm…isn’t that a little familiar?”
“You card!” Chadway giggled. “The trapezius is right here!” She grabbed Richards’s hand and placed it on the spot between her shoulder and neck. “Now just rub.”
Richards felt ridiculous rubbing as he walked behind Chadway, but if her full body sigh was any indication, she was enjoying it. Maybe this would be a good day after all.
He and Chadway rode the turbolift two decks down, where Richards was shocked to find the ship’s gymnasium, just two doors down from the tennis court. He made a mental note.
“Go ahead into the locker room and change,” Chadway grinned. “I’ll go start streching. I’ll be at the kickboxing ring.”
“Right, the ring,” Richards mumbled, and headed into the locker room. It was then that he realized, not only did he not have a locker, but he didn’t have workout clothes. Richards searched the locker room for a replicator, thinking surely that the ship’s technicians would put one there for clothing creation and disposal, and for Gorn Ade dispensation, but sadly he found nothing. Just lockers, benches, and a shower room with way too many nozzles. Richards had a thing about showering with other men.
Of course, that wouldn’t be a problem, since he was utterly alone in the men’s locker room.
“Afternoon, Commander!” a voice called, and Richards hopped one foot in the air.
“Uh…problem, sir?” Ensign Adam Keefler asked, as Richards turned around to face him.
“No, Ensign. You just scared me. Try not to sneak up on your superior officers like that.”
“Sorry,” Keefler said, unshouldering his bag and unzipping the front of his uniform. “Don’t mind me, sir. I’m just getting ready to go hit the weights. You have to keep in pretty good shape to keep up with J’hana’s security drills.”
Richards eyed Keefler’s bag as he undressed. “You have workout clothes?”
Keefler chuckled. “Doesn’t everybody?”
“Yes,” Richards said quickly. “But…I forgot mine. Could I borrow yours?”
“Of course you could, sir, but the only problem is, I’ve got a shift in one hour. I need to get my workout in before then.”
“Not anymore,” Richards said. “You just got the whole week off.”
Keefler’s eyes widened. “Really? The whole week?”
“Yeah. Just give me your clothes.”
“Keep them!” Keefler said, tossing his bag into Richards’s arms. “Now I can finally finish that afghan I’ve been knitting.”
Richards stared after Keefler a moment as he left the lockeroom, then quickly got undressed and dug into Keefler’s gymbag. What he found in the bag was disturbing to say the least.
“This is disturbing, to say the least,” J’hana said, as Rogas’ huge arms, easily the size of entire people, slithered out of the tank and propped up on its edges.
“Please don’t come out of there any further,” Baxter whimpered.
“Nonsense,” Rogas said. “I haven’t left this tank in years.”
“Not going anywhere,” Baxter repeated what Bradley had told him, finally understanding.
“So, why have you bothered me on my eight hundreth day of retirement?” Rogas’ saggy eyes rolled up toward Bradley.
“Because the Bast are after me. They’re trying to kill me, and it’s your fault.”
“The Bast? Who are they?”
“Don’t play stupid with me, Rogas!” Bradley snapped. Baxter watched him, his eyes bulging, and decided this was definitely a different side to the Federation President. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. Four years ago, you sold me a tip on a Bast privateer who would sell me some circuitry, and I bought from him in good faith, and now they want to kill me. You’ve got to help me track down the Bast authorities and explain myself, so I can go on with my life.”
Rogas chortled long and hard, sending streams of bubbly water into the air. “That, Mister Dillon, is hilarious!”
“He remembered your name,” Baxter whispered. “That is great customer service.”
“Shut up,” Bradley said. “Rogas, I’m not the small-time business man you once knew. I have a substantial fortune and am the president of the United Federation of Planets.”
“The what? Oh, yes, the Federation.” Rogas yawned. “I’ve heard of it. Doesn’t impress me.”
“And I have a powerful starship in orbit. It’s yours if you lead me to the Bast.”
“WHAT?” Baxter exploded.
“I said shut up, Captain,” Bradley said, his eyes wide, staring at Rogas. “A starship for the location of the Bast headquarters.”
“I have no need of a starship, Dillon,” Rogas sneered. “Why would I travel the galaxy, in this big tub, with no means of moving around? What would you have me do? Beam down to different planets in this tub just to see the different surroundings? Do I look like an explorer to you?”
“You could use the holodecks,” Bradley said. “Generate any environment you desire. Create characters…a date, perhaps…”
“I don’t care about dating. And I don’t care about leaving Dulcet. I plan on dying here.” Rogas rolled in the water. Baxter looked away as his…keel…came to bear.
“Perhaps some cologne?” J’hana suggested.
“An industrial food replicator. That’s my price!” Rogas sniveled.
“Done,” Bradley said quickly. “We’ll have it beamed down as soon as we return to the ship. Providing you have the information I need.”
“The place you seek…the Bast headquarters…if they even have one…is a moving target. Literally.”
Bradley nodded. “It’s a ship. I gathered that.”
“A generational ship,” Rogas said, and leaned forward, propping his barely existent chin on the edge of the tank. “Larger than anything you can imagine. Beyond the edge of the galaxy. Where stars are so sparse it can be months between solar systems.” Rogas grinned, showing rows of jagged teeth, like a shark’s. “The voyage is not for the cowardly.”
“We’ll go anyway,” Bradley said. He squatted to come face to face with Rogas. “Now give me coordinates.”
“Yeouch…eeee….yeouch…” Richards grumbled as he waddled out into the Kickboxing Room. He’d gone through several rooms, from the Tai Chi Arena to ThighMaster Centre, before finally finding Chadway’s chosen workout place. Man, the Explorer was big.
“Are you okay, Commander?” Chadway asked, standing in the center of the kickboxing ring, sweat already dripping down her face. She’d obviously been warming up.
Richards grinned, then grimaced again as Chadway stifled a giggle.
It was Richards’s own fault for not looking in Keefler’s bag before making the deal with the young security officer. Keefler’s weightlifting outfit was a one-piece neon green spandex jumpsuit that seemed to be cutting off circulation in every part of Richards’s body at once. The bottom of the suit came only barely below Richards’s crotch, and seemed to squeeze the most there. Richards had never noticed that Keefler was built so much smaller than he. Regardless, the outfit was at least a size too small.
“Nice…outfit…Commander,” Chadway says. “You fill it well.”
“Too well,” Richards muttered, and climbed into the kickboxing ring. “So, um, how do you do this?”
“I thought you said you kickbox?”
“Well, only when I can’t get into the weightroom. You know, I need a lot of space to power lift.”
“Sure,” Chadway said. “So then we’ll start you off with some beginners’ moves.”
Chadway stood in front of Richards, then took a fighting stance, extending one leg in front of the other, and firing both arms out so they nearly smashed into Richards’s face. He leaned instinctively back, but not back far enough. In a whirlwind of motion, Chadway’s leg came circling around, smashing into the side of Richards’s head, slamming him into the mat.
“Urg,” he croaked.
The young nurse knelt next to Richards. “Commander? Are you okay?”
“You just…took me by surprise. I hadn’t prepared my defensive…move yet.”
“Understandable. Why don’t we…oh, hello, Brock!”
Richards shook his head, trying to clear away the dizziness and stars.
“You don’t mind if my boyfriend joins us, do you? We can take turns hitting each other.”
“Sounds great, truffle!” a low, surly voice called, as two feet suddenly planted on the kickboxing ring, causing it to shake so hard that it flipped Richards over. He looked up to see a mountain of muscle, encased in a jumpsuit similar to his, but much better-fitting. “Brock” extended a meaty hand toward Richards. He reluctantly let Brock pull him to his feet, which the chisled man did effortlessly.
“Crewman Brock Bartrum. Cargo Services,” the man rumbled, as Richards straightened, coming face to face with the big man’s chest.
“Good to meet you,” Richards said. “I have a shuttlecraft I might need you to move later.”
“Haha,” Brock chortled. “Hope my little lady hasn’t hurt you too bad.”
“No, I’m still alive,” Richards said weakly. “Look, I need to go…”
“Nonsense!” Brock said, slapping a powerful hand on Richards’s shoulder. “I insist you stay and go a few rounds with us. Otherwise, I’ll think you were here just to flirt with my girlfriend, and then I would have to crush you. Haha!”
That’s an odd thing to laugh about, Richards thought, as Chadway wrapped an arm around Brock’s huge bicep.
“So, who wants to fight Commander Richards first?” she giggled.
“I’ll do the honors!” Brock grinned, cracking his knuckles.
Richards prayed for a quick death.
“Hey there, gang,” Transporter Chief Lindsay Morgan grinned as Baxter, Bradley, and J’hana stepped off the transporter pad. “Did ya have a good trip planetside?”
“I’m not in the mood for your downhome charm right now, Ensign,” Baxter snapped, then glanced over his shoulder as he followed Bradley out of the room. “Nothing personal!”
“Course not, darlin!” she grinned.
“See you later,” J’hana said in a low voice, then followed the others.
“Wait just one second, Mister President!” Baxter called out after Bradley, jogging to catch up with him as he moved down the corridor.
“What?” Bradley asked, stepping into the turbolift at the end of the corridor. Baxter and J’hana followed. “Bridge.”
“I’ve given you a lot of leeway, sir. I’ve let you set the mission parameters for my ship. You’ve taken an entire deck away from me. And so far, I have no idea what exactly it is we’re here to do. But you just offered to give my ship to that giant man down there, and I want to know why!”
“You’re under the misguided notion that this ship somehow…belongs to you, Captain. Romantic as that may seem, the Explorer is actually the property of the United Federation of Planets. As the President of the Federation, I am in control of that property. It’s mine to do with as I see fit. I’m surprised you can’t seem to wrap your mind around that.”
“Well you can’t just go giving starships away!”
“If it satisfies our goal, I will.”
“What do you mean ‘our’ goal? You act like this mission is vital to Federation security or something, when it sounds like all you’re trying to do is get out of an unpaid bill.”
“Captain, that is quite enough,” Bradley snapped. “I shouldn’t dignify any of your rabble with a response, but I’ll tell you this: This mission IS vital to Federation security. If the Bast give up on their efforts to use assassins to get to me, they may send a fleet in to do the job, and I guarantee they won’t stop with me. They’ll probably take out Earth along with me. I’ve seen their ships. They could do it.”
“Oh,” Baxter said, staring at his shoes.
“So, you see, losing the Explorer would be a small price to pay, in the big picture.”
“He’s got you there, Captain,” J’hana intoned.
“Shut up, J’hana.”
After getting beaten across the face, neck, chest, and waist from two sets of flying feet, Richards ambled into the locker room, undressed, and ducked into the shower.
Brock followed soon after, bareass naked under the jets of one of the showerheads, while Richards tried to avert his eyes on the other side of the shower room. At least with water-showers there was some steam, which seemed to provide a little privacy.
Why did the most flirtatious women have boyfriends?
Richards finished showering as soon as he could, and dashed out into the locker room to pull his uniform on. He left Keefler’s bag on the bench and limped out of the locker room, his uniform clinging to his still- wet skin. Luckily, Chadway and Brock were nowhere to be found. He’d have to remember to reassign Brock to the furthest section of the ship.
While he rode the turbolift to the bridge, Richards felt the slight vibration and stomach-rising feeling that accompanied a major course- change. He definitely needed to get to the bridge.
When the doors opened, Baxter turned to face him, standing in the center of the bridge.
“Glad to see you, buddy,” Baxter snapped. “Where the hell have you been?”
“Important ship’s business,” Richards said quickly.
“And why are you wet?” Vansen asked, from her spot next to Baxter.
Richards walked down to the command area. “Water main burst,” he said. “What’s up?”
“We found the Bast, or at least got somewhat credible information as to their whereabouts. President Dillon ordered us to make course toward those coordinates immediately, so we did.”
“Tell him the best part,” Vansen said.
“It’ll take us months to get out to where the Bast are.”
“Great,” Richards said. “I can catch up on my reading.”
“Like you ever read,” Vansen scoffed.
“Look, Chris, you’re going to have to go down to Engineering and run some stress tests on the warp engines. They’re going to be working overtime the next few months and we have to be ready for that. Check the dilithium reserves. Make sure we won’t have to divert course to a deep space station on the way out of the galaxy.”
“Shouldn’t someone in engineering do that?” Richards asked.
“Stuart isn’t experienced enough,” Baxter replied. “We’ve already ordered Hartley back from her honeymoon, so her and Mirk are already on their way to rendez-vous with us. But it will take them weeks to catch up, and until Hartley gets back, you’re in charge of engineering. And, for Pete’s sake, try to be on time!”
“Fine!” Richards said, and walked back into the turbolift. “If I’m needed, I’ll be in engineering.”
“You won’t be needed!” Vansen called after him.
“Must you be so mean?” Baxter asked.
The captain sighed and sat down in the center seat. “Guess I might as well get to work on those memoirs I’ve been meaning to write.”
“Like you could ever be a writer,” Vansen quipped, sitting down next to him.
Baxter opened up his mouth to respond, but before he could, the ship’s all-call sounded.
“All hands, this is President Bradley Dillon, with an update on the mission of the Explorer. We are currently on course for the farthest reaches of deep space, where, it’s hoped, we will find a mysterious spacefaring race called the Bast. Our mission is one of cultural exchange and exploration. This is, to say the least, one of the most ambitious attempts at space exploration in Federation History. And you’re all part of it. Congratulations. Please, don’t hesitate to talk to my secretary if you have any questions. Routine ship maintenance and upkeep issues can be addressed to Captain Baxter.”
“What the hell am I, the housekeeper?” Baxter railed.
“He’s certainly got a firm hold on this ship,” Vansen said.
“I’m the only one who gets to use the all-call,” Baxter pouted.
“If it makes you feel any better, I thought Bradley did a much better job than you ever did,” Vansen said.
“Thanks. That really helps.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“Could things get any worse?” Baxter asked.
“Browning to security!” a call suddenly burst on the bridge. “Doctor Ranowat just found out about my career change, and he’s got me pinned in my office! Request major backup, STAT!”
Baxter shot out of his chair. “Damn. J’hana, with me!”
“As always,” J’hana said, running into the aft turbolift with Baxter.
“I have the conn!” Vansen said, before Baxter could, as the doors closed.
“J’hana to all security, converge on Sickbay. We have a Type Three Security Alert. You know what to do, people.”
On hearing that call, Richards immediately diverted the turbolift he was taking to engineering, so it would stop nearest to Sickbay.
His first urge was to let security handle whatever the emergency was, but then he realized that it wasn’t just Sickbay anymore. It was, once again, the Place Where Janice Was. And if there was a problem there, he needed to help fix it.
He figured, as he ran down the corridor, he’d beat security there by five or six minutes.
Richards walked in to Sickbay, not sure of what he’d find, and wishing he’d grabbed a phaser, only to see an enraged Jarvay Ranowat pounding against a giant cube of aluminum that was propped behind the doorway into Sickbay. It looked to Richards as if Browning had shoved the oven into the doorway of her office to keep Ranowat out.
The enraged physician cast a look over at Richards. “I knew it! As soon as I saw this pizza oven in her office, I knew that she had taken Sickbay, and not me! God, all I wanted to do was heal people, and she won’t let me!” He pounded the pizza oven, denting it in several places.
“Watch it, buddy! This thing’s out of warranty!” Browning called from deep within her office.
“Give me Sickbay!” Ranowat shouted.
“Never!” Browning cried. “I’m going to be the best doctor I can be, then I’m going to be Chief of Starfleet Medical. You wait and see!”
“You couldn’t manage your way out of a pile of synthetic skin, Browning!” Ranowat seethed.
“Eew,” Richards said, sidling over to a cabinet and shoving his hand into a drawer. “Hey, Jarvay! Why don’t you come over here and talk to me for a minute.”
“I’m not interested in talking. I want to be Chief! Chief chief chief!”
“We all want to be chief, Jarvay,” Richards said slowly. “But we don’t always get what we want.”
“Stop quoting ancient rock groups!” Jarvay snapped, turning to face Richards.
He kept digging in the drawer. Finally, he found what he wanted and gripped it tightly.
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size,” Richards said, as Jarvay advanced on him, momentarily distracted from Browning.
“I’m taller than you,” Ranowat seethed.
“Isn’t everybody?” Richards muttered, and pulled the thing he’d been looking for out of the drawer, holding it up shakily as Ranowat walked toward him. “Now don’t move, or I’ll use this on you!”
“An ice cream scoop?”
“Damn you, Janice!” Richards cried, staring in horror at the object in his hand. Ranowat slapped it out of his hand and reared back to punch Richards.
And then it hit Richards. Both Ranowat’s fist and an idea. He’d been thinking like a first officer, only interested in the action, and not like an engineer, searching for possible solutions. “Richards to Morgan!” he shouted suddenly, backpedaling away from Ranowat. “Lock on to Janice and beam her out of Sickbay at once!”
“You got it, precious!”
Upon hearing this, the big bear of a man roared and charged at Richards. “Me too!” He quickly added. Moments before impact, Richards felt the welcomed sensation of dissolving.
“You saved me!” Janice Browning cried, and wrapped her arms around her savior, squeezing tightly. “Oh, how can I thank you?”
“Just doin’ my job, Doc,” Chief Morgan replied, giggling as Browning hugged her, and as Richards looked on with disgust.
“Nonsense. You went above and beyond.”
“Yeah, her quick thinking sure did, um, help…” Richards said, walking up behind Browning. “I did too, you know.”
“Ah, Christopher,” Browning said, and turned, putting a hand on Richards’s shoulder. “You’ve always been there for me.” She sighed. “Well, back to work! Duty calls!”
Richards stared after Browning as she walked away. “You’re welcome!”
Just as Browning walked out, Baxter ran in, phaser drawn, flanked by ten security officers, and J’hana.
“Where is she?” he asked.
“She’s fine. We beamed her out before Ranowat could do any serious damage.” Richards winced. “To her.”
“Good,” Baxter said, lowering his phaser. He glanced at Morgan. “Good work, Chief. There’ll be a commendation in your record for this.”
“And dinner in the captain’s mess,” he added. “With the captain.” He grinned. Then his grin faded. “And his wife. And his child.”
“Well, gee…Captain, I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything. Just keep up the good work, Ensign!” Baxter said, and turned to walk out of the transporter room.
“Captain!” Richards called after Baxter. “What happened to Ranowat?”
“Oh,” Baxter said, turning. “We had him cornered in the specimen lab, when Nurse Chadway came in from the other side of the room and kickboxed him into unconsciousness. She’s quite a little fighter. Did you know that?”
“I’m aware,” Richards muttered, as Baxter walked off.
“Take the day off, Chris. You’ve had a tough go of it,” Baxter said. Before Richards could thank him, he added, “But we’ll need you on the bridge tonight. Someone gave Keefler the week off and we’re terribly understaffed.”
Richards sighed as Baxter walked out of the room. “Aye, Captain.”
“You know, Commander, I realize it was you who really saved Doctor Browning,” Chief Morgan said.
“Really?” Richards asked, turning.
“Yeah,” she said, running her finger in circles along her console. “I think it’s romantic. You know, the ex-boyfriend coming to the rescue.”
“Yes. Ex,” Richards said, thinking long and hard about his situation.
“Wish I could find a man like that,” she grinned, looking up at Richards with baleful, doe-like eyes that fluttered ever so slightly.
And Richards’s expression brightened. As if emerging from a long sleep, he looked at Morgan and grinned, then slapped her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you will, Ensign. Just have patience!”
And then he turned around and walked away.
President Bradley Dillon has not been the most popular guy on the Explorer since he sent it on what seems to be a wild goose chase for the Bast. But what are his real objectives? What’s this guy all about? Find out a little bit more about President Dillon and how he spends a typical day, as some unknown force works to foil his plans and he has dinner.