Author: Anthony Butler
The fact that her quarters were completely dark didn’t come as a surprise to Nell Vansen, as she leaned up in bed.
No, they were supposed to be, since she’d turned the lights off before going to sleep, after going off-shift, after a particularly trying nightshift of talking Lieutenant Sefelt out of the captain’s readyroom. Apparently, the always-neurotic ops chief had thought he’d seen a mouse at his feet. Vansen had assured him numerous times that it couldn’t be a mouse, until, while pacing the bridge and trying to talk Sefelt out, she heard a shrill squeak under her boot.
She’d stepped on the mouse, and killed it, much to Sefelt’s relief.
J’hana, however, was not happy, as she’d apparently been saving it to feed to her Klargian serpent beast. Vansen had tried to explain to J’hana that Klargian serpent beasts were not allowed on Federation starships, and J’hana promptly spat on her.
So Vansen went to bed after taking two showers (one sonic, one watery) and putting J’hana on report. Not that it would matter; she knew Captain Baxter and Commander Richards would do nothing about it.
Now she was stirred awake, and it wasn’t the fact that her quarters were dark that disturbed her.
It was the fact that someone was knocking on her door.
“What do you want?” she demanded, sliding out of bed and pulling a black silk robe on over her command red tanktop and shorts. Much more dignified pajamas than the Janeway-class nightgown, or the “Starfleet Petite” nighty, or Captain Baxter’s adolescent “jammies.”
“Mremrmmmmerumum!” came the muffled voice through the door.
“Just use the comm system for pete’s sake!” she said, approaching the door. It didn’t open.
“Rumpowermum!” It was a male voice, for certain, and an authoritative one. Not one of the crew, for sure.
Vansen ripped open the panel beside her door and pumped the manual lever, easing the door open, to reveal Federation President Bradley Dillon, holding a Federation-issue palm beacon up to his face.
”–out on every deck, from what I can tell, and nobody is telling me anything. The Captain and the First Officer can’t be found, and I want some answers,” Bradley was saying.
“You don’t halfway say,” Vansen replied, and peeked out of her door. It was true. There was no light coming from anywhere. The ship was dark. At least the gravity was still operational. Otherwise, she’d probably be glued to the ceiling about now. Vansen turned and glanced out her windows, and sure enough, the stars were totally still.
“This is an intolerable delay in what will no doubt be a very long voyage,” Bradley continued. “And I demand you find the reason behind it!”
“Sir…” Vansen ran a hand through her ruffled hair, attempting to pull it back in some kind of order. “If I knew how to fix what’s wrong with this ship, we’d both be a lot better off.”
“Have you any idea where the captain has gone? I have checked his quarters, and Commander Richards’s. No one is in either place.”
“Not even the whiny…I mean the captain’s baby?”
“As I said, the cabins were empty.”
“Maybe they finally decided they had enough of being Starfleet officers,” Vansen said, tying her robe on. No reason to put on her uniform. The place was pitch black anyway.
“I have no time for your sarcastic remarks, Commander.”
“Then feel free not to listen to them. I’m going to get power back on line.”
“Finally, someone who can bring some order to this place!” Bradley exalted.
“Beacon,” Vansen mumbled, and grabbed the palm beacon from Bradley’s hand.
“And how am I supposed to find my way around?” Bradley said, his voice getting fainter as Vansen charged down the corridor.
“Don’t. Stay where you are. It’s safer that way,” she said, adding quietly, “because that way I won’t kill you for getting on my nerves.”
Vansen bathed the corridors with her palm beacon. Since it was barely ship’s morning, there weren’t many crew around. The ones who were, however, were probably running around in Jefferies tubes trying to get control of the situation. That would be difficult, though, since the ship was so large, and there was no way for the duty officers to talk to one another, since the comm system was obviously down. She could hear the muffled calls of crew trapped in various rooms, obviously too stupid to figure out the door override controls. They could stand to sit tight a while. Wouldn’t hurt them.
Vansen pondered what Lt. Sefelt was going through at the moment, but decided it really wasn’t her concern. She had more important matters to attend to.
Right now, on the bridge, Lt. Commander Tilleran was the duty officer. Vansen figured Tilleran could take care of herself, and going to the bridge wouldn’t help matters anyway, because she knew exactly where the captain and the first officer were, and she wouldn’t even need to use the Jefferies tubes.
She arrived at Holodeck Five and knocked a pleasant “rat-a-tat- tat.” on the doors.
“Yoo-hoo. Anyone home,” she said dully. There was no response, which in itself didn’t surprise her much, since the doors were probably too thick to hear through anyway.
Vansen knelt beside the door and ripped the maintenance panel off, running her palm beacon over the array of isolinear chips. As she feared, the relays were burnt to a crisp. Some kind of overload in the holodeck mainframe that cascaded through the ship’s entire power system.
Easily bypassed. If anyone with a Grade 7 or above engineering rating had been nearby, the ship would be fully operational already.
Vansen tapped a staccato of controls on the panel beside the wall of chips, activating the primary Holodeck bypass. She reversed a few isolinear chips and punched up the main computer’s Reboot and Restore program.
Then she looked around. For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then the Restore program kicked in, and the corridor lights flickered back on.
So, too, did the holodeck doors open.
What Vansen faced was enough to make her want to get back into bed: Captain Baxter squatting on a checkered picnic blanket, wearing only swimtrunks, patting his screaming baby on the back, as she puked all over the orange-grid holodeck floor.
Counselor Peterman was laying nearby, staring idly up at the ceiling, and Doctor Janice Browning was kneeling beside Commander Richards, studying a bruise on his elbow.
“What the hell happened?” Captain Baxter asked, upon seeing Vansen.
Vansen stepped forward. “What always happens when you run the picnic program, captain.” She leveled a steely gaze on Browning. “THIS one overloaded the holodeck-replicator interface when she asked for her picnic basket.”
“But I–” Browning said.
“The thing was the size of a shuttlepod,” Richards admitted. “What the hell was in there?”
“You’ll never find out!” Browning said, letting Richards’s elbow drop to the deck.
Vansen looked around. “I assume you all understand that this is must never happen again.”
“I said I was sorry,” Browning mumbled.
“No, you didn’t,” Vansen snapped, and turned around. “Commander Richards, I’d get down to Engineering if I were you. There are bound to be some confused people down there dealing with a short-circuited warp engine.”
“Yeah,” Richards said, throwing a towel over his shoulder. “I was pretty much done swimming anyway.”
“And, Counselor Peterman,” Vansen said, stopping by the holodeck door.
“Lieutenant Sefelt, right,” Peterman said. “Better go hug and cuddle him a while. And, Andy…”
Baxter stared down at Steffie and the puddle of puke. “Yeah. Vomit detail.” He looked up at Vansen. “Shouldn’t someone go check on the bridge crew?”
“I’m going back to bed. The bridge crew can kiss my ass, Captain.”
“Commander Vansen,” a voice trilled over the comm system, causing Vansen to once again lean up.
She glanced at the chronometer on her bedside table, which thankfully, much like the comm system, was once again working. It was 0900. She’d only gotten three more hours of sleep. Not the sack time she’d been hoping for.
“The Federation better be under attack from the Romulans, the Dominion, the Borg, and shoe salesmen,” she mumbled.
“Actually,” Lt. Commander Tilleran’s voice replied. “You have a call coming in on subspace.”
“Oh,” Vansen said, swinging her legs around. “Pipe it down here, then.”
“You know, I’m surprised someone actually feels like talking to you,” Tilleran said. “It makes me wonder if you’re not really the assanine person you make yourself out to be.”
“I am. Trust me, Commander. Now pipe the damn call down here.”
“You’re welcomed,” Tilleran mumbled, and cut the channel.
Vansen got up and walked over to her desk, turning the desktop terminal to face her and sitting down. She punched a control, and the Federation emblem appeared on the screen.
That emblem was soon replaced by the creased, brown paper bag of a face that belonged to Captain Jack Woodall. It was always said that there was a thin line between Woodall’s grimace and his grin, but right now Vansen was pretty sure he was grinning. “Commander Vansen!” he exclaimed.
“Captain…Woodall! It’s nice to hear from you.” It really was. After a somewhat embattled year serving on the Explorer, Vansen was relieved to see a friendly face, and someone she truly felt like talking to. She hadn’t experienced that in over a year, despite the fact that her husband had visited the ship a few months earlier. Sam DiSalvo didn’t count as someone she cared about seeing. Jack Woodall did.
The captain regarded her from the screen with his deep-set, scanning blue eyes. “Don’t you want to know why I called, Lieutenant Commander?”
“I’m curious, Captain. But I’ve got to admit, it would have to be pretty great news to cheer me up at this point.”
Woodall grinned. “I think this would qualify. You see, the Orleans just concluded a seven month mission, and when we put back into dock, I plan to retire. Hand in my pips. And that leaves us with an opening I think you’d be eminently qualified for.”
Vansen’s mouth hung open. She couldn’t speak.
“Well? Don’t you have anything to say?”
Vansen just nodded.
“Leave?” Baxter asked, staring up at Vansen as she stood on the other side of his desk. “But how can you do that?”
“Easy. I have vacation days saved up. Unlike some people I know who squandered their vacation days going to the Vega system to watch a minor league football team.”
Baxter leaned up, his face collapsing into a frown. He arranged some padds in front of him, in an effort to look professional, Vansen figured. He probably didn’t even know what was on the padds. “You may very well have vacation days saved up, and as much as I’d love to let you go your merry way, I’m afraid I can’t do it. You’re needed here. And if we were to drop you off somewhere, our ‘mission,’ to find the Bast would be severely delayed by picking you up. We already have to divert course to rendez-vous with Mirk and Hartley. We can’t afford another delay.” He lowered his voice to a mumble. “Or at least that’s what President Dillon tells us.”
“But I’d take one of our Cochrane-class shuttles!” Vansen said. “You’d only have to slow down a little bit for me to catch back up with you….” and Vansen lowered her voice. “If I even come back.”
“What is this all about?” Baxter asked, staring up at Vansen. It obviously bugged him that she was still standing, and thus was looking down at him. It made him feel inferior, Vansen knew, and she loved it.
“A personal matter,” Vansen said tersely.
“I see,” Baxter said, rapping his fingers on his desk. He picked up a padd. “This ‘personal matter’ doesn’t have anything to do with the retirement of Captain Woodall, does it?”
Vansen blinked. “How did you know about that?”
“Contrary to popular belief, I do read the memos around here. At least some of them. And I happen to know you used to serve on the Orleans. It only makes sense you’d go after the captain’s chair.” Baxter stood, now a head taller than Vansen, damn him. “And I also happen to know the Orleans is coming this way, on her way back from a deep space survey of Sector 8575309.”
“Maybe I just want to visit him since he’s in the neighborhood. Give him a pat on the back and wish him well with his retirement.”
“Yes, that would be a possibility,” Baxter said slowly, then slammed his hands down on the desk. “If you had a heart. But you don’t, Vansen. I know you. You’re after one thing only. Command of a ship. And if you can’t have this one, you’ll take the Orleans. Am I right?”
“Dead wrong. I don’t want this ship. I’d rather be the janitor on a garbage scow than command this flying loony bin. The Orleans is a real Starfleet ship, with a real Starfleet crew, who’s half-competent. That’s what I want, sir. And you have no business getting in the way of me getting there.” Vansen was now leaning in Baxter’s face. She could smell the musky odor of his Starfleet Red cologne, and it made her nose wrinkle.
“I’m not going to stand in your way, Vansen,” Baxter said, walking around his desk, toward the door to his readyroom. “As a matter of fact, I’m going to help you get there. I’m not granting you leave. I’m taking you directly to the Orleans, where I will personally give Woodall a ringing endorsement of you. Then you’ll get what you want and I’ll get what I want. Rid of you.” And Baxter regally gestured toward his door. “Ta-ta!”
“Captain, if I didn’t hate you, I’d kiss you,” Vansen said, and marched out of the room, a grin spreading across her face.
Things were really looking up.
“Define ‘oddity,’ Sullivan. We can’t afford to stop and smell every rose on the way back home. I have an appointment with retirement I intend to keep.”
Captain Jack Woodall ambled down to the front of the Orleans’ bridge, where Commander Emily Sullivan stood, hands clasped behind her back, regarding Woodall with an arched eyebrow.
“Oddity,” Sullivan said. “Noun. Meaning ‘a power build-up inside a planet’s core that seems to grow in intensity as we approach.’”
“As we approach?” Woodall said. “You mean as if it’s responding to us in some way?”
“That would seem to be the case,” Sullivan said, leaning over to check some readings on the console beside her chair. “The planet is a rogue, sir. Off the beaten path. It’s also reading as completely uninhabited. If there is some kind of alien technology in there, from an extinct race, it may be worth checking out. That is, unless you feel like you’d rather just get on with your retirement.” She grinned slightly at that.
“I think I have one more mission in me,” Woodall sighed, and walked back to the command chair. “Take us to the planet, and start scans. But be careful. If there’s an unusual power signature, the thing may very well blow up in our faces.”
“Sir, I’m shocked you’d think I was anything other than supremely careful,” Sullivan said, turning to face Ensign Markus Flagg, the Orleans’ helmsman. “Ensign Flagg, lay in a course for system DL-442.”
Flagg nodded, punching in the coordinates. “Yes, sir.” Sullivan never minded being called “mister” and “sir.” It made her feel more like she was on a real Starfleet ship. After a year of serving on the Orleans as its First Officer, she still wasn’t used to a competent, non-Secondprize operation. But she was enjoying the change of pace. That is, from a weird, silly pace, to a compent, forthright pace. And Woodall never picked up on her sarcasm, which was a bonus.
“What’s our ETA, Flagg?” Woodall asked, settling into the command chair as Sullivan walked over to join him in the seat to his right.
“Ten minutes,” Flagg said. “Should I alert the science departments to prepare to begin scanning?”
Woodall looked at Sullivan, nodding.
“Yes, Flagg, that’s a good idea,” Sullivan said. “Have the science departments begin their necessary preparations. And commend them on doing such a good job on that last nebula.”
“Indeed,” Woodall said.
Sullivan beamed on the inside, but didn’t let that betray her calm Starfleet demeanor. This is what it was meant to be like, serving on a Starfleet ship. Efficiency, order. Everybody knowing what they were supposed to do. Yeah, she missed the Secondprize, at least the people on the ship. But in terms of work environment, she preferred this. The universe was unpredictable enough. You wanted shipmates that knew their jobs well and could perform under pressure. The Orleans staff was more than capable of doing that.
Exactly ten minutes later, the Orleans pulled up near rogue planet DL-442.
“Readings,” Sullivan asked, turning to face Lieutenant Samantha Mulambwa, the Orleans’ science officer.
“Power reading has increased by three orders of magnitude as we approached. Now well within the terawatt range,” Mulumbwa said in her rich African accent. “Also reading a vast network of interconnecting caverns within the planet. Very little evidence of civilization on the surface; however, there do seem to be a number of dwellings beneath the three largest continents. Scans indicate the above ground ruins are at least a thousand years old.”
“A subterranean species?” Woodall said. “Well, it’s been a long time since Starfleet analyzed one of them.”
“Perhaps we should survey the planet,” Sullivan said. “Whatever is generating that energy signature is over a thousand years old. We might be able to discover new methods of power transfer and distribution.”
“Always thinking on your feet, Sullivan,” Woodall said. “But I don’t want to put your team in any unnecessary danger. Mulumbwa, can you vouch for the stability of that power source down there?”
“Captain!” came an addled voice over the comm. “That rogue planet is putting out a hell of a lot of power!” It was Chief Engineer Chull, the bombastic Bolian, interrupting in his charming, however inappropriate way. Sullivan smiled at that. Chull was the only officer who could be mistaken for a Secondprize crewman. He was blunt, obtuse, and usually said whatever was on his mind, which irritated most of the crew, except for Sullivan. It reminded her of her husband, another forthright and opinionated Engineer. But Chull wasn’t even aware of half the Terran terms that Scott Baird flung around, and he’d probably be more comfortable using Bolian vernacular to get his point across. “So,” he continued, “are we actually contemplating beaming down to this plupostic planet?”
“That’s a distinct possibility,” Woodall said. “Mulumbwa?”
“The power source is on the high end of the spectrum,” she affirmed. “Sensor readings are hazy at best in the areas surrounding the source. One thing is certain, the power source is stable and man-made.”
“Stable and man-made don’t usually go together,” Sullivan said, “But we’ll take your word for it.” She looked at Woodall. “Captain, I think it’s worth a look. It is, after all, why we’re out here.”
“Sir, caution is warranted,” said Lieutenant Brett Fontaine, the Orleans’ tactical officer. He was, without a doubt, the most flawlessly handsome man Sullivan had ever seen. The man, who had no visible physical flaws, also happened to exude absolutely zero personality. Not that it really bothered Sullivan. Personality or not, the man put naughty fantasies in Sullivan’s head just by standing there, arms folded, staring at his readouts, looking… delicious. Sullivan bit her lip and returned to task.
“Caution is warranted, perhaps,” Sullivan echoed. “But I think it’s a manageable risk.”
“We are in transporter range now,” Mulumbwa said, as the gray- blue DL-442 loomed big on the viewscreen.
“Standard orbit, Mister Flagg,” Woodall said, then turned to his first officer. “Form your team, Sullivan. Go down near the source of the power and try to determine what’s causing it.”
Sullivan stood up. “Aye, sir. Mulumbwa, Fontaine. You two are with me.”
“Good luck, Commander,” Woodall said briskly as Sullivan and her team marched crisply into the turbolift.
“We won’t be needing luck, sir,” Sullivan replied as the doors closed.
“We’ll see about that,” Woodall chuckled, just a few minutes before the red alert klaxons sounded, and all hell broke loose on the Orleans.
Baxter was on heading out of his readyroom when an alarming “bleep” sounded at Lt. J’hana’s station.
“Priority distress call, Captain,” J’hana sounded, tapping several controls on her panel and checking her screens. “It’s from the Orleans.”
Baxter turned to face the viewscreen. “Put it on.”
The image on the screen was a staticky visual of Captain Woodall, in the center of his bridge, bathed in the light or red alert.
“This is Captain Jack Woodall of the Orleans to any ship in range…including the Explorer. Please respond…we’re caught in some kind of–” Static overcame the screen and then it went dark, replaced with the array of stars the viewscreen usually displayed.
“That is the end of the message,” J’hana said.
Baxter walked around to the front of the bridge, where Tilleran was busily vacating the command chair in favor of her science console.
“Trace that signal,” Baxter said. “Find out where they were calling from.”
“On it,” Tilleran said.
“And page Commander Vansen. She may want to be in on this.”
“Think so?” J’hana asked archly.
Vansen looked up from her carry-on satchel. She’d been throwing together a few things, in anticipation of–finally–getting off the Explorer. “What.”
“It’s Commander Richards. Can I come in?”
“Why?” Vansen asked bluntly.
“Because I’d like to talk to you.”
“Just open up the door, please.”
Vansen sighed and turned toward the door. “Come.”
Richards stepped through, his shirtsleeves rolled up and his uniform front unzipped. “I just spent the last hour refitting the holodeck power relays and you won’t even give me the decency of a conversation.”
“You’re here now, aren’t you?”
“I just wanted to let you know that, while I was in Engineering, I spoke with Hartley on subspace. She and Mirk will rendez-vous with us in five days. She didn’t take kindly to having her honeymoon cut short, but after a nice, long talk I think she came around to my way of thinking.”
“You mean she yelled at you for a while and then closed the channel,” Vansen said.
“Um….maybe. But the point is, she’s on her way.”
“That’s good. We need our engineer back.”
Richards put his hands on his hips. “I was the Chief Engineer on this ship for four years. I kept her together pretty well.”
“I’m sure you did. Was that all you wanted to tell me?”
“No,” Richards said. “I talked to Captain Baxter. I hear you may be in line for a promotion.”
“It’s a possibility,” Vansen said brusquely. “What of it?”
Richards extended his hand. “Well, I wanted to shake your hand, is all. It’s not every day you’re offered the center seat.”
Vansen stared at Richards’s hand. There had to be some kind of motive behind this. “Are you hitting on me, Commander?”
“What?” Richards quickly withdrew his hand. “No, I just…I mean…I know we don’t always see eye to eye. As a matter of fact, we hate each other sometimes…but at the end of the day you’re at least a decent officer and I’m happy for you. Is that so hard to understand?”
“Everything this crew does is hard to understand,” Vansen said.
“You know, if you spent a little less of your energy hating us, this crew might function a lot more smoothly,” Richards mumbled.
“We won’t have to worry about that much longer, though, will we?” Vansen said, just as her combadge bleeped.
“Baxter to Vansen. You’re needed on the bridge.”
“What now?” Vansen sighed.
“Maybe Captain Baxter’s retiring too,” Richards offered.
“That’ll be the day,” Vansen huffed, and the two headed out of Vansen’s quarters.
“GONE?” Vansen exploded, staring over Tilleran’s shoulder at the readings on the Betazoid’s console. “What do you mean gone?”
“I mean the ship isn’t there. You want that in writing?” Tilleran snapped.
“How can an entire starship disappear?” Vansen said. “Are you sure we’re looking at the Orleans’ last known coordinates?”
“We traced the signal back to this point,” Tilleran said. “The Orleans was apparently in orbit of DL-442, a rogue planet in sector 8575101.”
“And then it just vanished?” asked Richards. “That’s peculiar.”
“Peculiar!” Vansen exclaimed, walking down to the command area. “It’s more than peculiar. It’s impossible. You can’t just….evaporate a starship. If it were destroyed, we’d see some signs of debris.”
“There is also no sign of an ion trail left by their engines that would signify them leaving orbit,” Tilleran said.
“Any wreckage on the planet?” Baxter asked.
“Readings are spotty. There’s a small power source emanating from the planet’s core that’s interfering with the readings.”
“Maybe that’s why the Orleans was in orbit,” Richards said. “To study the power source.”
“That still doesn’t explain where they went.” Vansen turned to face Baxter. “We have to go there. Find out what happened to that ship.”
“No kidding,” Baxter said. “If we can’t find the Orleans, we’ll never get rid of you.”
“As usual, Captain, you’ve cleverly gotten to the crux of the problem,” Vansen groaned, and walked over to the helm. “Lieutenant Madera, set a course for DL-442. Maximum warp.”
She looked back expectantly at Baxter.
“Oh, by all means, engage!” Baxter said. “Thanks for asking.”
“Don’t mention it,” Vansen said.
Vansen paced the bridge for the next hour, never once sitting down, to both Baxter and Richards’s extreme annoyance.
The bridge was, for the most part, quiet. The highlight came when Counselor Peterman called the bridge to inform Captain Baxter that Steffie had “gone poopie” on his Tellarite suede sofa.
But that was all about to change, Vansen thought, as DL-442 loomed on the viewscreen, big and grey.
“Standard orbit, Madera,” Baxter said, standing up and stepping toward the viewscreen. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
“Those power readings have been increasing steadily as we’ve approached, Captain,” Tilleran said. “They may be connected in some way to the disappearance of the Orleans.”
“Explain,” Vansen said.
“Well, I suppose it is possible that the planet’s core could generate enough energy to fire a beam capable of vaporizing the Orleans with no trace.”
“We’d be able to detect that,” Vansen said. “No, the Orleans is out here somewhere.”
“Perhaps she is cloaked,” J’hana suggested.
“And why the hell would that be?” Vansen snapped. “You think someone beamed aboard, put in a cloaking device, then made the Orleans invisible…just out of spite? Or for a good time?”
“I am just trying to be a contributing team member,” J’hana growled. “But if you would not like to hear my ideas, you are always welcomed to kiss my shlarvus.”
“I don’t know what that is and I don’t want to know,” Vansen said. “Commander Tilleran, what can you tell us about that planet?”
“The planet may have been inhabited at one time, but it isn’t now. I figure the ruins down there are at least a thousand years old. Maybe more. Mostly underground caverns and dwellings. The magnitude of the energy readings, if man-made, would suggest a sophisticated technology at work. I can’t be sure exactly what’s down there, though, because of that damned power spike coming from somewhere below the planet’s surface.”
“Then we beam down,” Vansen said, heading up to the turbolift. “Tilleran, J’hana, you two are with me.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Baxter said, turning on a heel. “We don’t know what happened to the Orleans, or if in fact it might happen to us, also. We need to make more thorough scans before we go charging down there! And you don’t get to beam down until I say so!”
“You are such a child,” Vansen grumbled. “And I’m telling you, we won’t get to the bottom of this mystery without beaming down to the planet and taking a look around. Whatever happened to the Orleans, this planet is the cause.”
“She’s got a point,” Richards said.
“Oh, don’t you start,” Baxter said. “Fine, Vansen. Take your team down there. Take your readings. But at the first sign of trouble, I want you to beam up…double time. You got that?”
“Aye…aye…Captain,” Vansen said, pointing at Tilleran and J’hana. “Let’s get going, people.”
“Meanwhile, we’ll be looking for the Orleans from up here,” Baxter said. “You never know. We might just get lucky.”
“Don’t count on it!” Vansen sapped, as she, Tilleran, and J’hana disappeared within the turbolift.
“What does she know,” Baxter said, sitting back down in the command chair, as something beeped at Lt. Howard Sefelt’s console.
“Captain,” Sefelt said, meekly turning in his chair.
“That energy signature on the planet is growing exponentially.”
Baxter and Richards exchanged a quick, nervous glance.
“Think we should break orbit?” Richards asked. “Just to, you know, be on the safe side?”
“Nah,” Baxter said. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“She did not!” Lt. J’hana protested, as she finished materializing on the surface of DL-442.
“You must not have been paying attention,” Tilleran replied, looking out over the vast and uninteresting landscape–one charred and pitted with craters. The horizon was brown. The land was beige. It was barely a two-tone planet, at least on the surface. “But I swear to you, Chief Morgan winked at you when she engaged the transporter.”
“And what of it? Perhaps she was just being friendly.”
“Maybe she wants to beam you,” Tilleran replied, pulling out her tricorder and flipping it open.
“Maybe you’re both idiots,” Lt. Commander Vansen snapped, hands on hips, as she looked around the craggy landscape, which seemed to stretch for thousands of kilometers, with only boulders and craters to differentiate one landmass from another.
“Touchy,” Tilleran said, heading down a gravelly trail as she studied her readings. “Makes you think maybe Commander Vansen is missing something in her life, eh, J’hana?”
“Something I can provide,” J’hana said in a gutteral voice, withdrawing her phaser and pointing it forward–for no other reason than to feel useful and protective.
“A punching bag?” Vansen said, smiling with mock-glee. “How did you know?”
J’hana forged ahead, walking beside Tilleran as Vansen brought up the rear. “You are welcomed to punch me any time, Commander.”
“I’ll remember that,” Vansen said dully. “Can you tell me anything useful, Tilleran?”
“Besides that you’re obnoxious?” Tilleran asked, studying her readings. “How about this? The energy source we’re tracking is ahead about two hundred meters this way.” She pointed, then squinted at her tricorder and stared at the ground. Then she pointed down at the ground. “And two hundred meters that way.”
“Well, you did say it would be under ground. Can you get us to a tunnel, or am I going to have to order you two to start digging?”
“You would love that, wouldn’t you,” J’hana said, staring at Vansen.
“There’s a cave entrance just beyond that crater,” Tilleran said, again pointing the way as the group negotiated the rocky trail. “Up for a little hike?”
“Always,” Vansen said. “Let’s just get this overwith, so we can find the Orleans and–”
“WHOA!” Tilleran suddenly stopped, letting her tricorder drop to the ground. “What the hell!” She grabbed her head, dropping into a crouch.
J’hana knelt beside Tilleran. “Imzadi, I feel what you are feeling, but I don’t understand. What…”
“Gone…” Tilleran said slowly, looking up at the sky. “They’re all…gone.”
“Who?!?” Vansen demanded, but she had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach she knew exactly who.
“The…Explorer,” Tilleran said breathlessly, squinting in the misty glare of a far-off sun. “The whole crew. All…gone.”
Vansen nodded. “Right. And I’m sure your Betazed senses never go on the fritz, do they?” She sighed and tapped her combadge. “Vansen to Explorer. Please respond and tell your science officer she needs her brain checked.” Vansen stood there, tapping her foot, waiting for an answer. “Um…Vansen to Explorer. Please respond!”
J’hana tapped her own badge. “J’hana to Explorer.”
There was no response.
Tilleran picked up her tricorder, then stood and straightened her tunic. “Anybody believe me now?”
Vansen said nothing, merely trudged off in the direction Tilleran had pointed, toward the crater, beyond which, she’d find the entrance to the caves below the planet, and hopefully some answers.
“She is annoyed,” J’hana observed, as she and Tilleran picked up the rear.
“Aren’t you?” Tilleran said. “A minute ago, we were investigating the loss of a starship. Now we’re also investigating the loss of our own. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Honestly, no,” J’hana said, and took Tilleran’s hand.
“That’s sweet…I guess…” Tilleran said, and quickened her pace.
Thirty minutes later, after negotiating about a hundred meters below the planet’s surface, ducking through a spiralling network of caves, tunnels and cramped passages, the away team came to an open cavern, and J’hana nearly tripped on a stalagmite.
“ZHLARP!” the Andorian cursed as she pitched forward and slammed into the ground. “Stupid stalagmite,” she muttered, rolling onto her back. Only it didn’t turn out to be a stalagmite.
It was a petrified, lava-covered torso, emerging from the ground, arms upstretched as if he were swimming toward the surface. His horned skull, what part wasn’t covered in lava, looked to have been shorn of its skin long ago.
“Ah, and I was afraid we wouldn’t find any signs of life on this planet,” Tilleran muttered, aiming her tricorder at the lava-covered dead man. “I don’t recognize his species, but he’s carbon-based. Or was. Probably a member of this planet’s population.” She looked around. “That would certainly fit in with what I’ve observed about the geology of this place.”
Vansen, clearly impatient with the current predicament, whirled on a heel. “And that would be?”
“That this planet’s current state is the result of a massive volcanic eruption. One that happened, I’d say, about eleven hundred years ago.”
“So that’s why there are no thriving metropolises on the surface,” J’hana said.
“Metropoli,” Tilleran corrected.
“I think not,” argued J’hana.
“SHUT UP!” Vansen said. “Go on, Tilleran. What does that do for us?”
“Well, it finally gives me a topic for that paper I’ve been wanting to write for the Vulcan Science Directorate.”
“Great,” Vansen said. “But how the hell is it supposed to help us find our ships.”
“Oh, it’s not,” Tilleran admitted blankly. “But it does suggest that whatever technology is running that power source is probably long since disabled.”
“So much disabled that it couldn’t have possibly made our ships disappear?” Vansen asked.
“That I don’t know.”
“Then we keep moving forward.”
“There is, however, the possibility that, if the power source becomes unstable, it could explode and kill us all,” Tilleran said as she and J’hana followed Vansen into a tunnel that lead further down the path toward the power source.
“Thanks for sharing,” Vansen muttered. “This way, right?”
“Lead on,” Tilleran sighed.
J’hana had just finished reciting the Andorian poem “Slashed Antennae Underwear” out of boredom when the group came to the end of one of the many, many tunnels they had traveled through beneath the surface of DL-442, and faced what, oddly enough, looked like a giant metal door, complete with code-key panel.
“And that was the last of She’vath’s great works. That was published just after she impaled herself on a yard ornament, then pulled it out of her chest and used it to kill all forty of her children. Supposedly she wrote another few poems before she died of blood loss, but they’ve never been found.”
“Is she still talking?” Vansen asked Tilleran, as the Betazoid ran her tricorder over the code-key panel and the door.
“Not sure,” Tilleran said, looking from her readings to the code keys. “I’ve learned to phase her out over the years.”
“What?” J’hana asked, her antennae going ramrod straight.
“Just hold your phaser and look pretty, darling,” Tilleran said, and flipped the panel open, reaching deep inside a webbing of wires. “Let’s see. There’s got to be an override switch in here somewhere.”
“I could blow up the door,” J’hana said.
Tilleran worked her arm up into the inner workings of the panel, extending her tongue to the side as she twisted. “Nope. Not necessary. There!”
And, with a metallic “click!” the door sighed open.
Tilleran glanced back at Vansen and J’hana. “This is a momentous occasion, guys. I’d guess that no living person has entered this room for over a thousand years.”
When Tilleran turned back around, she came face to face with a tall, dark-brown-haired woman in piercing blue eyes and a Starfleet uniform.
“Hi!” she exclaimed.
“You were saying,” grunted J’hana.
“Who the hell are you?” Vansen snapped, then cocked her head, stepping closer to the newcomer, who apparently was a member of Starfleet. “Wait a minute. I remember you…”
Hands on hips, the tall woman nodded. “Aw, well I am just so honored.”
“The Secondprize,” Vansen muttered. “Just what we need. Someone from the Secondprize.”
“Emily Sullivan,” the woman said, extending her hand to shake hands with the person nearest her, which happened to be J’hana, who leered at her. “Most recently of the Orleans.”
“Oh,” Vansen said. “Right. You’re ops, aren’t you?”
“I’m the first officer,” Sullivan said rigidly. “Commander Emily Sullivan. I did say Commander, right?”
J’hana shook her head. “Indeed not. But rank is such a meaningless thing. What matters is what’s inside a person. Like…guts…” The Andorian smiled viciously and Tilleran slapped her shoulder.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Vansen asked.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Sullivan said, motioning to someone off in the distance of the cavernous silver sheening room, open like a warehouse and filled with rows of blinking panels, a Christmas display of oscillating controls. “Hey! Mulumbwa! Fontaine! The cavalry’s here!”
“There are others here?” Tilleran said.
“Just my away team,” Sullivan said, as Mulumbwa and Fontaine jogged up from an open bank of circuitry, tricorders in hand. “We were stranded here a few hours ago when we lost contact with the Orleans.”
“Of course, Woodall would send down an away team,” Vansen said thoughtfully.
“Actually, the away team was my idea,” Sullivan said. “We came to study an energy signature that seemed to increase as we approached. My team and I followed the signature to this room–”
“How did you get around that vault door?” Tilleran interrupted.
“If you go one corridor over, you’ll find a hatch complete with a very easy to use door handle,” Sullivan smirked.
“Oh,” Tilleran said, staring at her shoes.
Vansen took a step closer to Sullivan. “Listen here. Only I can be sarcastic to members of my away team.”
“I wasn’t being sarcastic…much,” Sullivan said. “Anyway. The signature dissipated almost as soon as we got here, and when we tried to report back to the Orleans, they were gone. We even went to the surface to see if the planet’s geological makeup was interfering, but we still couldn’t get through to the ship.”
“We know,” J’hana said.
“The Orleans is gone,” Vansen said. “No trace. And now, apparently, the same thing has happened to the Explorer.”
“The Explorer,” Sullivan said, looking at Vansen and her team. “Oh, wait just one minute. You mean THE Explorer. Baxter’s ship?”
“Yeah, what of it?” J’hana hissed.
“Oh, nothing,” Sullivan said, looking around idly. “It…just figures.’
“Be that as it may,” Vansen said. “We’re the ones who came to rescue you, except now, of course, we need to be rescued too.”
“Have you figured out how all this stuff works?” Tilleran asked, gesturing around at the walls of equipment in the room.
“Not as yet,” Lieutenant Mulumbwa replied, holding up her tricorder. “The universal translator has been unable to come up with a language translation matrix.”
“I’ll take a crack at it, Commander,” Tilleran said, stepping over to look at Mulumbwa’s tricorder.
Sullivan held up her hands. “Wait just a minute. We got here first. I’m in command of this mission. We’ll proceed as I see fit.”
Vansen took another step closer, almost toe to toe with Sullivan. “Is that right?”
“I believe you’ll see that Starfleet protocol is on my side,” Sullivan said. She leaned in closer to Vansen. “And I think you’ll agree, my people are probably better suited to handle this than…you know…Explorer people.”
Vansen gritted her teeth. She wanted nothing more than to agree wholeheartedly with Sullivan. But the Explorer, love it or not, was her ship, and she’d be damned if she’d let some other command officer besmirch it, or horn in on her mission.
“We don’t have time for petty arguments, or your split ends,” Vansen snapped back at Sullivan. “We need to work together to find both our ships and get out of here in one piece. Arguing will solve nothing.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” Sullivan said. “As long as you acknowledge I’m in command.”
“Oh,” Vansen said, smiled, and walked away, turning a corner into another section of the cavernous operations room. “Tilleran, J’hana. Let’s get a look at some of this technology.”
Tilleran, who’d been talking to Mulumbwa, turned reluctantly, and followed J’hana and Vansen.
“That wasn’t an acknowledgment!” Sullivan called after the Explorer’s second officer.
“You don’t say,” Vansen replied, not looking back at Sullivan.
Sullivan folded her arms. “What a total lack of professionalism.” She bit her lip thoughtfully. “It was probably that comment about ‘Explorer people,’ wasn’t it?”
“Probably,” Fontaine said. “Look, if you don’t mind, I’m going to pass some time doing calistenics. Get myself loosened up in case I need to protect us from…something.”
Sullivan exchanged a heated glance with Mulumbwa, then nodded at Fontaine. “Good idea. Snap to it, Mister!”
“Commander,” Mulumbwa said, leaning in closer to Sullivan as Fontaine sprinted off and began bending and stretching his legs as he leaned against a wall. “Do you not think that we should combine our efforts with the other away team?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Sullivan said, rubbing her chin. “My instincts say I should just sit back and wait to see what happens.”
“How very uncommanding of you,” Vansen muttered.
“Excuse me, Commander,” Fontaine said, touching Sullivan’s shoulder.
“What?” Sullivan snapped, then her expression softened. This was Fontaine, after all. “What is it, Lieutenant?”
“Mulumbwa’s gone, sir. She was behind me just a minute ago. Then I turned around and…”
Sullivan looked around. Her science officer was nowhere to be found in the cavernous control room. It was now just her, Vansen, J’hana and Tilleran, and Fontaine.
“Nice job, Commander,” Vansen smirked. “You lose your away team members often?”
“Tried, but never succeeded,” Sullivan sighed. “Mister Fontaine, set your security tricorder to maximum scanning range. See if you can find Mulumbwa’s lifesigns.”
“Oh, so the answer is to scan!” Vansen said, turning to Tilleran and J’hana. “Silly me, I was actually going to walk around and LOOK for the missing person.”
“And get lost yourself?” Sullivan asked, calmly looking over Fontaine’s tricorder. Enjoying the musky Eau de Tamaria scent wafting off his neck. She made a mental note to get Scott a bottle for his birthday. “Be my guest!”
“J’hana, Tilleran, with me,” Vansen said, thumbing in the direction of a corridor that lead out of the main control room. “We’ll find your missing crewmember for you, Sullivan. Meanwhile, you and Hunk Boy can sit around twiddling your thumbs.”
“I resent that,” Sullivan said. “I don’t twiddle.”
“Well,” Vansen said, walking off. “Whatever it is you do.” Once they’d gotten down the corridor a little ways, she looked over her shoulder. “Start scanning, Tilleran.”
“Don’t you think you were a little hard on her?” Tilleran asked as she studied her scans.
“I have no patience for imbeciles,” Vansen said. “And yet I serve on the Explorer. Intriguing.”
“Maybe we aren’t imbeciles,” Tilleran said. “Did you ever consider that?”
“Not really. What have you found?”
“A whole lot of nothing. My scanning range isn’t very good inside all this sheer lavignite.”
Vansen glanced around. “Well, there’s bound to be a door around here somewhere, or another corridor. J’hana, why don’t you double back and look for any anomalous…” She looked behind her and stopped in her tracks. No J’hana.
Tilleran turned around. “Where did J’hana go?”
Vansen tapped her combadge. “Vansen to J’hana.”
“Maybe my tricorder recorded…” Tilleran began, but Vansen snatched the device out of her hand.
“Let me see that.” Vansen scrolled back to a time index four minutes earlier, where J’hana’s lifesign could be easily seen following behind them. Then, suddenly, it was gone.
“People don’t just disappear!” Tilleran said.
“Oh, they don’t? Kind of like how starships just don’t disappear?”
“There’s bound to be some explanation. Let me check the duonetic bands.”
Vansen slapped the tricorder shut and clipped it to the loop at her waist. “There’s more to this than meets the eye. Let’s go back to that control room and pull every console apart until we figure out what that is.”
“Isn’t that what Commander Sullivan suggested to begin with?”
“Shut up!” Vansen snapped. “Come on!” And she turned around and jogged back to the control room, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Tilleran was still there. Wouldn’t do well to lose another away team member. As she jogged, she pulled her sidearm out and upped the power level to maximum stun. If someone tried to take any more of her people, she’d shoot them. Unless it wasn’t a person, and was more like an energy wave, in which case she was pretty much out of luck.
Vansen was out of breath when she reached the control room, holding her phaser at her side. “Lost…J’hana,” she said.
“No kidding,” Sullivan said, hands on hips. “About five minutes ago, I lost Lieutenant Fontaine. Just turned around and he was gone.”
“We’ve got to put your petty bickering aside and get to the bottom of this,” Vansen said.
“Yes,” Sullivan said. “I suppose it’s just up to the two of us.”
“And Tilleran,” Vansen corrected, then looked over her shoulder. “Oh, damn it to hell.”
Sullivan allowed a small smile. “Lose someone, Commander?”
“Shut up and open up that console over there. We’re going to rip apart every circuit until….”
“Whoa, there, Admiral,” Sullivan said, holding up her hands. “Let’s remember our ranks here. Lieutenant Commanders don’t give Commanders orders.”
“They do when they’re smarter and better at their jobs.”
“You heard me. You don’t deserve that post. It should have been mine. I should have been the one to replace Commander Taber after he died.”
“Too bad you were busy gallivanting around Internal Affairs at the time.”
Vansen stepped closer to Sullivan, her finger pointing almost right into the center of Sullivan’s chest. “There’s a reason I went into Internal Affairs. A very important one.”
Sullivan blinked. “And that is?”
“Something’s always bothered me about that time when Captain Woodall and I served aboard the Secondprize, during Captain Rydell’s absence. Your crew was just too…competent. After that mission, Woodall wouldn’t shut up about how efficient you were, how intelligent, and capable. That’s not the person I met when I came on board. And that’s not the crew of the Secondprize.”
“What ARE you implying, LIEUTENANT Commander?” Sullivan said haughtily, although her eyes betrayed a little insecurity at what Vansen had said.
“That there was some subterfuge on the part of Commander Dillon and the rest of you. To that end, I joined Internal Affairs, hoping to investigate that incident. Instead, I spent most of my time investigating corrupt admirals trying to take over the Federation. What a drag.”
“I’m sure you’re good at what you do,” Sullivan said, trying to change the subject. “But leave the commanding to me.”
“That is what I do. I command!”
“You could have fooled me. All you do is berate and abuse your people. That’s no way to earn their trust or respect.”
Vansen was now directly in Sullivan’s face. “I don’t need their trust or respect. I just need them to do what I say.”
“And you must be totally surprised when that doesn’t work!”
“It works fine!”
“Why do I find that hard to believe?”
Vansen turned on a heel and marched off, back down that corridor she’d been searching. “I’m going to find my people.”
“Don’t you think we’d be better off putting our heads together?”
“I think we’ve butted heads enough for one day, thanks,” Vansen called over her shoulder and headed down the corridor. She’d find answers. She’d be damned if she’d let Sullivan find them first.
She raced down the dim corridor, toward, literally, a light at the end of the tunnel. A pale glow that seemed to be coming from a window. J’hana had disappeared before they got a chance to get this far. She was so busy arguing with Tilleran at that point she hadn’t even noticed the window.
Breathless again, Vansen ran up to the window and pressed her hands against it. She let out an ecstatic sigh, then giggled, clapping her hands in celebration.
She’d done it.
Beyond that window, in a hollowed-out cavern, at stationkeeping, sat two perfectly-intact Federation starships.
Orleans on the left, Explorer on the right.
The windows were all dim, but the docking lights were blinking and the nacelles were lit, meaning the ships still had main power.
She slapped her combadge. “Vansen to Baxter.” A pause.. “Vansen to anyone on the Explorer.”
Vansen quickly pulled out the tricorder she’d nabbed from Tilleran and flipped it open, scanning. Her shoulders sunk. Readings were spotty due to the interference from the surrounding rock, but one thing was certain. There was nobody aboard either ship.
“Maybe Sullivan had more luck,” Vansen said, though not hopefully, as she turned around. “Then again, at this point I’d rather die than admit she’s right.”
At that moment, a hatch in the ceiling wheeled open, and six spindly metal legs emerged, touching down on the deck in front of her. Then a massive spherical orb attached to the legs lowered itself in front of her, beeping and blinking everywhere. Cycling sensors all over it coruscating, focusing on her, studying her.
“Species, unknown,” it said.
“I’m Terran,” she said defensively to the hulking droid, who easily filled almost the whole corridor.
“Species, unknown,” the droid repeated unnecessarily. Then a little monitor screen rose from the top of it. On the screen, alien language scrolled across. At the bottom of the screen, one big, red string of alien characters blinked incessantly. “Thirteen hundred forty-seven displacements. Calculating invoice. One moment.”
“Displacements?” Vansen asked angrily. “Invoice?! What, you kidnap my crew then expect me to pay you for it?”
“Total payment amount is nine thousand blapgors.”
“What the hell is a blapgor?” Vansen asked, irritated that this droid was asking her for money, of all things. “All I have is Federation Express!”
“That form of payment not accepted. Remit payment immediately in the form of blapgors, or we will be forced to exact retribution.”
“Ret…” Vansen frowned. “Uh-oh”
Suddenly one of the spindly arms of the robot flipped up and cracked open, exposing a whirring drill.
“Please be still. Retribution will take point five clapgors.”
“What’s a clapgor?” Vansen asked.
She took that moment of pause to leap over the spherical robot and run screaming down the corridor. “Commander Sullivan!” she called out, not caring anymore about rank. She was being chased by a homicidal accounting robot. Sullivan could have command of the stupid away team, even though most of it was gone now.
She heard the thing skittering down the corridor behind her on its little legs. And the worst part was it was catching up.
Vansen exploded out of the corridor and into the control room. “Emily….Commander Sullivan! You’ve got to help me stop this crazy…” She looked around. Oh no.
The robot skirted into the room, meanwhile, and came to a stop in front of her, once more stabbing its drill-like tentacle toward her. Another tentacle, looking like a tiny rotor, came from the other side of the sphere and pointed at her as the thing advanced on her.
She backed away, pulling her phaser and pointing it at the droid. She upped the power setting several notches and fired. The blasts deflected off the droid, not seeming to slow it down.
Well, this was it.
After all her struggles to move her way up the chain of command, Vansen was going to die at the hands of a homicidal billing droid in the center of a vacant planet, long abandoned by whatever sophisticated culture once lived there.
It just figured.
Just then, a hand grabbed her arm from behind.
Vansen turned, alarmed to find that the hand was attached to nothing, just sort of sticking out of a rippling, mirage-like distortion in the air. Hanging, seemingly, in mid-air.
The hand then yanked her backwards, toward that rippling. Vansen glanced back at the skittering droid, quickly sized up the situation and decided she’d take her chances with the hand, letting herself be yanked, stumbling, right out of the room. . .
And onto a beach.
Vansen’s ankles tangled and she fell onto the sand, as waves crashed nearby. She heard whoops and hollers, familiar voices, as the sun beat down and she looked up.
“Sullivan…” she said darkly.
“Up for a game of volleyball?” Sullivan asked. She’d stripped down to her Starfleet tanktop and looked like she was already beginning to bronze a little in the sun.
“Fore!” a voice called out rather incorrectly, and Vansen leaned up to watch Commander Christopher Richards, on the other side of a volleyball net, leap up and slam a volleyball over the net.
It slammed into Vansen’s head and knocked her back onto the beach.
Then she saw what could only be Captain Baxter’s sizable backside come crashing down onto her face as he lost balance in mid-backpedal, trying to go for the ball.
It was at that moment that Vansen’s nervous system decided it had quite enough and generously allowed her to lose consciousness.
Lt. J’hana leaned over Vansen’s insensate form as Baxter climbed to his feet. Calmly, she said: “Interference. Do-over.”
Second Officer’s Log,
Stardate 56374.6. I should have known. All this time, I was looking for my missing crew in the middle of a desolate planet. What was I thinking? It only makes sense that they were transported to a planet three parsecs away by an immensely powerful transporter beam, while their ships were nestled inside said desolate planet.
It’s comforting to know that as me and my away team, and the team from the Orleans, slogged through the caverns of this planet searching, our fellow crewmembers were all lounging on a beach, drinking festive fruity drinks and playing archaic sports.
We were all wrong. We thought the former inhabitants of DL-442 were galactic warlords or brilliant scientists and philosophers.
Turns out they were just really good travel agents.
Lt. Commander Vansen sat, arms folded, to Captain Baxter’s left as the viewscreen in front of them showed what had, over the last few hours, been the only thing on the viewscreen. Uninteresting beige rock.
Baxter folded his arms, uncomfortably shifting from side to side in his chair.
“Problem, Captain?” Richards asked from Baxter’s right.
“I still have sand in my pants.”
“Poor guy,” Tilleran giggled as she worked at her console.
“Stop laughing at me,” Baxter said. “And figure out how to get us out of here.”
Lt. Commander Tilleran looked up from her console. “Lieutenant Mulumbwa and I have been consulting one another. Commander Sullivan has developed a plan to attenuate our ship’s deflectors to channel into the alient outpost’s computer.”
Vansen just leaned her elbows on her knees and rested her chin in her hands, sulking. “I would have figured out how to channel the deflector, if I’d just had a little more time.”
“That’s nice.” Baxter swiveled to face Tilleran. “Are you confident you can activate the transporter and put us back outside the planet, as opposed to…I don’t know…in the Delta Quadrant?”
“The alien transporter isn’t THAT powerful,” Tilleran said. “And yes, I think I am pretty sure we know how to do it. We’ll materialize right where we started, in orbit.”
“Not plummeting into the planet,” Richards said.
“No,” Tilleran said. Then, under her breath, she said, “Probably not.”
“Good, then,” Baxter said, clapping his hands together. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m feeling more than refreshed. Let’s end this vacation.”
“Some vacation,” Vansen muttered.
Baxter turned to face her. “What’s your problem? Are you still irked that Sullivan figured out how to return us all to our ships before you could? And all you could manage to do was get attacked by some bill- collecting robot?”
“That about sums it up,” Vansen said.
“I feel for you, I really do,” Baxter said flatly.
Suddenly the aft doors to the bridge opened and Federation President Bradley Dillon strolled out, followed by his assistant, Gisele, and two grey-suited security guards.
“Greetings, crew,” he said jovially. “I’ve come to join you on this most auspicious occasion.”
“Sitting in a cave?” Baxter asked wryly.
“No,” Bradley said patiently. “Getting out. And harnessing the incredible capabilities of this planet. Just think of the possibilities! You’re talking about a planet that can transport entire ships, and entire crews, great distances. The technology can even anticipate the needs of a crew and set them down in a locale as was appealing to them. They even provided replicated volleyball equipment!”
Richards nodded. “Yep, Mister President. This could be the biggest break in transporter technology in the last hundred years.”
“I wasn’t referring to transporter technology. I was talking about the leisure industry! The Federation can be THE standard in travel. I’ll finally put John Schade Junior out of business.”
“Someone clean the president’s greedy drool off the carpet,” Baxter muttered, turning back around to face the viewscreen. “Tilleran…”
“Mulumbwa says the Orleans is ready for deflector activation.”
“By all means,” Baxter said, pointing at the viewscreen.
“Yeah, the sooner the better,” Vansen grumbled.
Tilleran keyed a control and a deep blue field seemed to rise up in front of the viewscreen. The ship rumbled, just slightly, and the rock on the screen began to fade away.
“Is this what it was like when the ship was beamed in here?” J’hana asked from her station. “Kind of rumbly.”
“No,” Richards said slowly. “It was a smoother ride than this.”
“Hmm,” Baxter said. “Interesting.”
Seconds later, the view on the viewscreen was of open space, and DL-442 rotating serenely below.
“Ah, success!” Bradley Dillon said, clapping his hands together.
“Yeah,” said Vansen.
“Uh, Captain…” Tilleran said suddenly.
Baxter turned. “What?”
“I’m showing an intense power buildup within the planet.”
“Like the one that drew us here in the first place?” Richards said. “Those power signals must be designed to attract space travelers here. You know, the old bait and switch.”
“No, it’s more than that,” Tilleran said. She gripped her panel. “Captain! That planet’s going to explode!”
Baxter rubbed his chin. “You’re sure about that?”
Baxter jumped out of his seat. “Lieutenant Madera. Get us the hell out of here. Warp one! Engage!”
“Instruct the Orleans to do the same,” Richards added as the Explorer shot into warp. On the viewscreen, the little planet diminished in size. Seconds later, as the Orleans shot past the Explorer, that blue dot turned into a magnificent yellow explosion that sent a rippling energy wave out in every direction.
Baxter fell back into his chair. “All hands, brace for impact!”
The wave slammed into the Explorer and Orleans, knocking both ships end over end. Lt. Madera fought with her controls, gradually pulling the Explorer out of its spin and keeping it from smashing into the Orleans.
Everyone gripped their chairs as the Explorer gradually stopped shaking and drew to a halt.
Lt. Commander Vansen, meanwhile, sighed and pushed out of her chair, shouldering past Bradley Dillon and toward the aft turbolift.
“I need a shower,” she said dully as she stepped into the turbolift.
“Don’t you want to stay for the wrap-up conference with the Orleans people?” Baxter asked expectantly.
“Eh. Whatever,” Vansen shrugged as the lift doors closed.
Dressed in her crisp, freshly replicated “Internal Affairs Officers Like to Do it Thoroughly” t-shirt and red Starfleet sweatpants, Vansen was about to head down to the ship’s seldom-used workout room to hit the punching bag a little, when there was a chime at the door to her quarters.
“What,” she said, falling onto her couch and drawing her knees up to her chest.
“It’s Captain Woodall. It’s Jack. Can I come in?”
“Captain Woodall?” Vansen asked, her eyebrows raising. “I had no idea you were still aboard.”
“Commander Sullivan and I were just about to depart. I insisted we stop by your quarters before we left.”
“Oh,” Vansen said sullenly. “You’re both here.”
“Please let us in,” Sullivan’s voice said over the comm. “There’s something we need to discuss.”
“Fine,” Vansen said. She gestured at the door. “Enter.”
Woodall strode in, glancing about the dim cabin. Much like everyone on both ships, save the two away teams, he looked rested, refreshed, an tan. “Boy, the dress code on the ship is worse than I thought. Baxter lets you go to the bridge in that attire?”
“I’m off-duty. I just took myself off rotation for tonight on the grounds I was chased by a maniacal robot.”
Woodall nodded. “I know how distressing that can be.” He looked around absently as Sullivan stood by him. “Look…” He sat down in the chair across from Vansen and leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees. Sullivan, for her part, stood by him, hands clasped behind her back. “Remember that job offer we discussed?”
Vansen put her feet back down on the floor and leaned forward, a smile starting to spread across her face. “I seem to recall it…”
“Well…” And he looked back at Sullivan. “I haven’t discussed this with Commander Sullivan yet, but I am sure she’d be in full agreement. As a matter of fact, I believe you two would work rather well together.”
Yeah right, Vansen thought. Her first order of business would be to send Sullivan packing and find a real first officer. Maybe DiSalvo. Bossing around her ex-husband would certainly be a kick.
“I tried to convince Captain Woodall otherwise, of course,” Sullivan said stiffly. “But he seems to see something in you that…I don’t know…everyone else in the universe…does not.”
Vansen wrinkled her nose at Sullivan then turned back to Woodall. “Captain, I…I just want to thank you for believing in me. It means a lot that you think I’m fit to replace you. And I promise I won’t let you down. I’ll live up to every…”
“Wait a second,” Woodall said, holding up a hand. “I said nothing about replacing me. Commander Sullivan will be promoted to Captain after this mission, and she’ll take over command of the Orleans. I was recommending you as her First Officer.”
“First Officer…” Vansen said, her mouth dropping open and staying that way.
“You’d be promoted to commander, of course,” Sullivan said, not sounding very enthusiastic about it. “And I’m sure, eventually, we’d learn to get along. I have a long history of working with difficult, obnoxious people. I’m sure you’d fit right in. The job is…” She stared at her shoes. “Yours if you want it.”
For a moment, Vansen’s face sunk into a desperate, hurt scowl. But just for a moment. That scowl suddenly became a bright, cheerful smile as she rose to her feet and clasped her hands on Sullivan’s shoulders.
“I’d be delighted…” Vansen began. “If you’d get off my ship before I have to beam you out into space myself. You can take your job offer, and your new ship, and fly it into a pulsar for all I care. I’d rather teach math to Pakleds than work for you. Got it?”
Sullivan didn’t really react. Just looked to Woodall. “I told you that’s how she’d react.”
“You’re making a big mistake, Vansen. Staying on this ship…it’s a curse. Your career will be shot if you stay much longer. Then you’ll never be a captain. Is that what you want?”
Vansen walked Sullivan and Woodall to the door. “You’re the one that made the mistake, Jack. In thinking that Sullivan is anywhere near as good a commander as me.”
“He’ll have to take your word for that,” Sullivan said smartly, and turned to head off down the corridor.
Vansen narrowed her eyes at Woodall. “I used to think you believed in me.”
Woodall stared back. “And I used to think you were command material. I guess we’re both wrong.” And he, too, headed off down the corridor, and the doors to Vansen’s quarters closed, leaving her alone inside.
Four days later, in early morning, Counselor Kelly Peterman and Doctor Janice Browning stood together in the shuttlebay, yawning.
Browning took a long sip of hot cocoa from her Space Tastes to-go cup and Peterman shifted the bundle that was Steffie in her arms and gripped Charlie’s leash in the other. The golden retriever sat obediently at her side, stopping every once in a while to sniff Steffie’s bottom.
“They should be here any minute,” Peterman said.
“You’d think there’d be more of a welcome party for them than just us.”
“It’s a busy ship,” Peterman said. “What with…you know…”
“I guess it was inevitable,” Browning said. “An expected reaction. Shouldn’t you do something about it? Talk to her?”
Peterman frowned at Browning. “Are you kidding?”
“Right.” She sipped. “Bad idea. Well, look at it this way. We all got a nice day of vacation before…you know.”
“I got stung on the leg by a jellyfish,” Peterman mumbled. “Well, it looked like a jellyfish. But do jellyfish stings cause your leg to grow scales?
“You’d better come to sickbay later today and let me have a look at that. Before the scales go up any…farther..”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Browning and Peterman were stirred from their conversation when the large hangar bay doors opened up and the runabout Passaic glided into the bay and landed softly.
They walked up to the hatch as it swung open and Lt. Commander Megan Hartley and Mister Mirk Hartley stepped out, she in a golden sarong-type dress and he in a bright tropical shirt.
“So what’s the big emergency you all had to call us back from our honeymoon for?”
“It’s a mysterious alien race hunt,” Peterman said quickly.
“Oh,” Mirk said knowingly. “One of those. I’d better get to the bar.”
“After you unpack the runabout,” Hartley said, pointing back into the hatch of the runabout. She kissed Mirk on the cheek. “Now get along, little Mirkie.”
“Um. Right…of course.” And Mirk turned around and headed back into the runabout.
“So we’re headed into deep, deep space, and let me guess. Chris Richards has fouled up my engine room.”
“I wouldn’t say…fouled,” Browning said. “Maybe…disarranged?”
“I don’t think that’s a word,” Peterman said.
“Oh well,” Hartley said. “Mirk and I pretty much had sex in every way possible. It was starting to get old.”
“Terrific,” Peterman said, hooking her elbow around Hartley’s and handing Steffie to a surprised Browning. “Why don’t you tell us all about it over breakfast in Space Tastes.”
“I have a heart transplant, but I can probably push it back,” Browning said as the three walked toward the door to the shuttlebay, which promptly open, revealing the wicked smile of Lt. Commander Nell Vansen.
“Welcome back, Lieutenant Commander!” she said sweetly. “I hope you got a lot of rest. You’ll need it.”
“We were just heading to breakfast,” Peterman said. “Can we get you anything? Poisonous?”
“No thanks, you go ahead and add to that leftover babyweight. I’ll pass,” Vansen said, then turned to Browning. “You have a heart transplant to get to.”
“I was going to get around to it,” Browning said sheepishly.
“You’ll do it now. Get up to Sickbay!”
“Sheesh. Fine,” Browning said, handing Steffie back to Peterman. She then shuffled off to Sickbay.
“And you…” Vansen turned to Hartley, who didn’t seem impressed.
“You left these engines unattended for three weeks and it’s high time you did something about them. Go down there to engineering and start working. I don’t care if you and every other engineer has to pull triple shifts. I want those engines back up to ninety-nine percent by tomorrow!”
“What are they at now?” Hartley asked.
“FOURTEEN!” Vansen snapped, and stormed off down the corridor.
“Fine,” Hartley snapped back. She turned to Peterman. “What’s gotten into Vansen? She’s worse than ever.”
“Oddly enough,” Peterman said. “I think she finally decided she likes it here.”
Charlie the golden retriever has been a loyal and funloving pet for Counselor Peterman and the Explorer crew for more than five years. But what happens when his life is endangered by a deadly radiation that surrounds the ship. Can the crew band together to save their beloved pet, or will Counselor Peterman find herself making the ultimate sacrifice? Find out in this (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) very special episode.