Author: Anthony Butler
The Explorer was a cacophony.
Day to day, the thoughts and feelings of her crew were a constant musical serenade in the mind of Lieutenant Commander Ariel Tilleran, the ship’s Betazoid chief science officer.
Now that cacophony had been reduced to a dull murmur, barely audible amidst Tilleran’s own thoughts, which were drifting steadily toward an inevitable conclusion.
She was losing her telepathic powers.
For six months she’d felt the strength of her abilities ebb away. Once among the elite telepaths of Betazed, Tilleran now had to concentrate with all her heart and mind just to pick up on an errant thought. And, oftentimes, even the most strong and clear thoughts, the ones that had become so commonplace to her when her strength was at its peak, were lost to her.
Such was the case as Commander Chris Richards stood in front of her console, arms folded, as Crossar Six spun lazily on the Explorer viewscreen.
“Commander Tilleran. You with us?”
Tilleran blinked and looked at Richards. “Hmm. What?”
“Are you with us? The away team?”
“The away team? Yes, of course,” Tilleran said, standing up from her L-shaped console and stepping out from behind it.
Captain Andy Baxter and Lt. Commander Nell Vansen stood at the center of the bridge, beside the command chairs, watching Tilleran as she moved toward the turbolift with the others.
“Be careful down there, guys,” Baxter said. “We’ll be ready to beam you up at the first sign of trouble.”
“Yes,” Vansen said. “Try not to get killed, if you can manage!”
J’hana walked up beside Tilleran at the doorway to the turbolift, as Richards pressed the call button. She peered with concern at her Betazoid companion. “Imzadi, are you well?”
Tilleran nodded absently, and lied. “Of course I am! Let’s get this away team on the road. We’ve got planets to see.”
“We have dignitaries to see, Commander. Questions must be answered regarding the Bast,” Federation President Bradley Dillon said, trotting up to join the away team as they walked into the opening turbolift. Two Special Secret Section guards, including their leader, Agent Anderson, brought up the rear as the team piled into the lift.
“And if they don’t answer our questions, Tilleran here will feel them out. Isn’t that right, Ariel?” Richards said with a smile.
“Uh-huh,” the Betazoid said, turning to face the wall of the turbolift as the doors closed.
“Why the long face, hon?” Transporter Chief Lindsay Morgan asked with a sweet southern smirk as the away team mounted the transporter padd.
Tilleran collected her tricorder from the equipment bay and holstered her phaser. “Hmm? Me? Oh, I’m just fine. I think you’re…just…imagining things.”
“Oh yeah?” Morgan asked. “What am I imagining?”
“Things,” Tilleran said flatly, and went up to the turbolift.
“Imzadi, we must talk, at your earliest convenience,” J’hana said from behind Tilleran.
“Sure,” Tilleran said absently, as Richards gave the order to energize.
Crossar Six, it seemed, was home to a large, interstellar race that rarely communicated with the inhabitants of the Milky Way’s core star systems. The planet was one huge, overpopulated city. Skyscraping buildings rose up all round Tilleran as she moved along one of the side streets toward the Hegemoniacal Palace, where the away team was scheduled to meet the planet’s Prime Hegemoner, Arpheus.
All manner of personal and multi-person transports buzzed overhead, carrying Crossarian citizens to and fro.
These rising steel buildings were a little intimidating to Tilleran. She imagined they were full of hundreds of thousands of Crossarians, and she should have been able to pinpoint the thoughts of them all. It would have even been a little overwhelming, but in a good way. It would have been a rush, a blast. But as it was, it was just a low hum.
“Getting anything, Tilleran?” Richards asked as he studied the area with his own tricorder.
“Nothing interesting,” she replied flatly.
“Sure about that?” J’hana asked, pointing ahead of them.
From behind one of those spiraling silver buildings emerged a troop of a dozen or so heavily armed Crossarians, encased in shiny black armor, their shiny burgundy-colored skin sheening in between the heavy plates. They all aimed long, slim, black rifles at the team.
Agent Anderson was already aiming his phaser at them. J’hana glared at him and growled low and in her throat. “Need you be reminded that I am in charge of security concerns?”
“I am in charge of the President,” Anderson said in measured tones. “The rest of this away team is irrelevant, including me.”
“I’ll remember that, when I personally lug your broken body back into the ship’s morgue.”
“You do that,” Anderson said, and turned back to face the troops.
“Gentlemen!” Richards said, holstering his tricorder and making no move for his phaser. “I am Commander Christopher Richards from the Starship Explorer. I come in peace. The Prime Hegemoner is expecting us.”
There was silence in the alley for several moments.
“Tilleran,” Richards said between clenched teeth. “Are you getting anything from them?”
“Difficult to say. This…species is hard to read.” Tilleran wished she had explained herself, her condition, earlier, before she was put in a situation where her lie by omission would put crewmates at risk, but her ego had won out. She didn’t want anyone knowing about what was happening to her, and until recently, when she’d told Hartley, no one had known about it. But now, that might all be moot, as the away team could very well be gunned down this instant. And she could have prevented it all, had her abilities been intact.
“Commander Richards,” one of the Crossarians said from inside his helmet. “We welcome you to Crossar. Instruct your team to follow us to the Hegemoniacal Palace. We are to be your escort.”
“Any reason we need an escort?” Richards asked, waving the team forward.
“No. We just thought it would be nice.”
Bradley Dillon stepped forward, easing past Richards even as Anderson followed closely behind. “Mister….troop leader,” Bradley said, addressing the Briganian who’d spoken to the away team. “I am very eager to speak with the Hegemoner.”
“And he, too, is eager to speak with you,” the troop leader said as Bradley walked with them, and the whole group proceeded up a long, winding path toward what seemed to be the largest building in town, an almost circular structure, made of interconnecting loops of metal, rising, it seemed, right into the clouds.
“I have a bad feeling about this, Imzadi,” J’hana said, resting her hand on Tilleran’s arm as the group moved up to the palace entrance.
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Something is telling me that these people aren’t being totally forthright with us. You getting anything?”
“Not right now,” Tilleran said quickly. “But I’ll let you know if anything changes.”
“Ladies and gentleman of the Explorer,” the troop leader, who was called Colonel Gradion, said, as the team entered a grand receiving room, with what seemed to be wide, circular door in the center of the floor. “I present to you, Arpheus, the Prime Hegemoner of Crossar.”
With a metallic whir, the door in the floor irised open, and a slim, long-fingered figure rose up from within, by means of some kind of elevator. He was mauve-colored, wearing a jumpsuit that seemed to be made up of interconnecting bands of jewel-encrusted metal.
“Federation President Dillon,” Arpheus said in a reverberating voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once, as Bradley moved forward to shake his long-fingered hand. “We of Crossar are proud to welcome you to our planet to discuss contact between our people and those of your….United Federation.”
“Of Planets,” Richards said helpfully from behind Bradley.
“Thank you,” Bradley said with pursed lips, then turned back to Arpheus. “Prime Hegemoner, it gives me great pleasure to open diplomatic communication with your species. My sources have told me many grand tales of your civilization, and I wish to share in the wealth of knowledge that can benefit both our peoples, for many, many years to come.”
“Agreed,” Arpheus said simply, his sparkling blue eyes taking in Bradley and the rest of the away team. “We will all benefit from this meeting.”
Agent Anderson’s fingers played idly across the holstered handle of his phaser.
J’hana’s antennae twitched ever so slightly.
And Tilleran just squinted at Arpheus, concentrating the full measure of her dwindling powers on this planetary leader, trying desperately to find something, anything, to help her crewmates. Instead, all she got was….static.
“There’s also another matter. Such a small, insignificant thing. I hesitate to even bring it up,” Bradley said, draping his hands behind his back.
Arpheus studied Bradley with those sparkling eyes, and smiled broadly, inviting, it seemed, any quesetion Bradley had on his mind. “Please…” he said softly.
“There’s a race, called the Bast. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?” Tilleran had to give it to Bradley. He had an excellent poker face.
The Hegemoner’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “The Bast?” He put up a barely existent eyebrow. “Yes. We are aware of that race.”
“Then you know where we may find them?”
“That’s a very different question, Mister President. You cannot find a species which is in many places at once.”
“Yes, we’ve heard they’re nomadic. They haven’t been able to find a home planet for centuries.” Bradley leaned forward, expectantly. “But maybe you know where we can find one of their vessels?”
“We know much of the Bast’s whereabouts,” Arpheus said, nodding. “Unfortunately, we cannot tell you anything about them.”
“Something’s wrong,” J’hana said, so quietly only Tilleran could hear her.
“Yes,” Tilleran said. “I know. But I can’t figure out what.”
“Figure it quickly,” J’hana said, gripping the handle of her phaser.
“There must be some misunderstanding,” Bradley said. “I came here because I was told you knew all about the Bast.”
“We do,” Arpheus said. “But we are not here to tell you where they are. We’re here to give you a warning.”
Suddenly, the palace rumbled, vibrating at the feet of the away team.
“GO HOME! YOU DO NOT WANT TO FIND THE BAST!” Arpheus shouted, causing Bradley to stumble backward slightly.
Tilleran whipped out her tricorder and flipped it open, tapping at it and taking readings as the building surrounding them seemed to vibrate. “I’m getting massive EM readings. Damn it, what’s…”
“They absorbed us, and they’ll absorb you too! Leave before they find you!” Arpheus shrieked, grabbing Bradley and shaking him by the shoulders. That was all that Anderson needed. He stepped forward, his phaser out, and blasted the Hegemoner.
“You fool!” J’hana called out, shoving Anderson’s arm down, a split second too late. His phaser clattered to the ground, but not before a beam slammed into Arpheus’ chest.
And went right through.
“That’s it!” Tilleran said. “That’s why I didn’t get anything! Because the civilization on Crossar doesn’t exist. At least not anymore.”
Richards turned to face her, as the palace around them seemed to flicker in and out of existence, crackling with visible golden lightening bolts of static. “You mean…”
“This is all one giant holographic simulation.”
“You’ve been warned. Have a nice day!” Arpheus called out, as he, along with the image of all the Briganian troops in the room faded away, and the building itself winked away. In a shower of coruscating light, the entire city suddenly disintegrated around the away team, until they were standing in the middle of a large, open, grassy field. The sun, in an open and blue sky, beat down on them as they looked around the vast, and empty, landscape.
“It appears,” J’hana sneered at Bradley, “That your sources were somewhat mistaken about Crossar.”
“Yeah,” Richards said, looking at Tilleran. “It appears so.”
Stardate 56765.4. The away team has returned from Crossar Six, after coming to the conclusion that no species actually lives on Crossar Six, or at least hasn’t for a very long time. Now we have that all straightened out, I’ve convened a meeting to determine just what the hell is going on with my science officer.
“Okay, let’s get right to the point,” Captain Baxter said, leaning on the front of the conference room table, as his senior staff, and President Dillon, gathered around him. “What the hell happened down there?”
“The Crossar civilization doesn’t exist,” Richards said, turning toward Tilleran. “At least not anymore.”
Tilleran picked up a padd and paged through it. “Yes. Um…about that. I had the exogeography lab do a study on the planet. They contend that no civilization has lived there for over three hundred years.”
“Three HUNDRED years?” Baxter asked, then looked to Bradley Dillon. “Then how is it your informants told you they’d be here now?”
“They were mistaken,” Bradley said, and looked at Tilleran.
“I guess they were,” Baxter said, and also looked at Tilleran.
There was a big question hovering in the air, and nobody seemed willing to broach the subject.
Well, nobody but Vansen.
“Commander Tilleran,” Vansen said, turning in her chair toward the science officer. “Do you care to explain how you could mistake forty billion holograms for real people?”
“You obviously don’t know anything about Betazoids,” J’hana said standoffishly. “They cannot read all races. Tilleran probably deduced the same about the Crossarians. Is that not right, Imzadi?”
“No,” Tilleran said softly. “That’s not right. I didn’t realize the Crossarians weren’t real because I’ve been slowly losing my telepathic abilities. I can barely tell what any of you are thinking anymore.” She looked at Vansen. “And yet it’s perfectly clear to me that you’re a humongous bitch.”
“All right, all right,” Baxter said, raising his hands. “Nothing will be gained by infighting.”
“I disagree,” Vansen said. “Lieutenant Commander Tilleran put the away team in danger. She should at least be taken off-duty until the extent of her misdoings is apparent.”
“Misdoings?” Richards asked. “Last I checked, it wasn’t a prerequisite for your science officer to be telepathic.”
“It’s always been a nice bonus, though,” Baxter said thoughtfully.
“I’m not concerned about Tilleran’s lack of telepathy,” Vansen said, steepling her fingers. “I’m concerned about her lying. The last time she lied to us, she turned out to be a changeling.”
“That was hardly her fault,” J’hana spat, leaning in front of Tilleran and pointing at Vansen. “And you would do well to choose your words carefully, Vansen. I haven’t killed anyone in six months.”
“Is that a threat?” Vansen asked.
“It is whatever you make of it, you honorless be’atch.”
“Enough!” Tilleran said, shoving out of her chair. “None of you have to decide to take me off duty. I’m taking myself off duty. You all can find someone else to help you find the Bast. All I’m going to do is get you killed!”
And with that, the normally sedate Betazoid marched out of the conference room.
Moments of silence followed, interrupted only by wry chuckling from Vansen.
“It was only a matter of time before one of our crew’s missteps cost us dearly. We should be glad that holographic system didn’t include an assassination program.”
“I don’t think there ever was any risk of that,” Dr. Browning said, sitting next to Bradley. She touched his arm. “Let’s just be thankful everyone’s safe.’
“Somebody needs to go talk to Tilleran,” Baxter said.
“Somebody like a counselor?” Richards offered.
Baxter stared down at the table. “She’s…busy. You know, Chaka’kan can’t watch Steffie all the time. Sometimes one of us had to.”
“So you’re saying your wife is too busy to talk to a troubled crewmember?” President Dillon asked.
“Yes!” Baxter snapped. He looked toward where J’hana was sitting. “Lieutenant, go talk to–” But she was already gone.
“Four Betazoid Brain Blasters, in rapid succession, and one puke pail, Mister Mirk,” Lt. Commander Tilleran said, folding her arms on the table and leaning her chin on them.
Mirk walked over to Tilleran, rubbing the glass bartop, all around the circumference of Tilleran’s folded arms. “Isn’t it a little early for all that?”
“It’s fifteen hundred.”
“Yes, but I usually only serve Bringloidi Bloody Marys around this time.”
“Make an exception.”
“Aren’t you on duty?”
Mirk nodded. “Care to explain?”
Tilleran looked up at Mirk. “Do you know what it’s like to lose the only abilities you have that make you special?”
“Of course you don’t. Nobody can know.” Tilleran stared down at the gleaming bar, and her blurry reflection in it. “Nobody can.”
“I just told you, I know what that’s like.”
“You can’t. Not unless you had powers that…” She looked up, grinned weakly. “Oh yeah. Those powers. But you’ve got them back now. You should be glad of that.”
“Yes, glad,” Mirk said quickly, dusting a random spot on the bar with his towel. “But back to your problems. What is this about losing powers?”
“I can’t read minds. At least not well.” She looked up at Mirk. “Like all I can tell from you now is that your stomach itches.”
“Yeah, I have a little bit of a rash…” Mirk lifted up his shirt.
“But don’t you see!” Tilleran said, lifting her head up. “I used to be able to know the thoughts of everyone on this ship. I could pinpoint a crewmember’s specific thoughts from thirty decks away. I could broadcast my thoughts into anyone’s mind I want…although I rarely did that because it always left me horny.”
“Poor thing,” Mirk said. “Do you have any idea why your powers are…weakened?”
“Not a clue, only that it seemed to start when we started on this providence-forsaken mission.”
“Seems like more than just a coincidence if you ask me,” Mirk said.
“But I should have told someone. I’ve been having problems with my telepathy for more than six months. But I never talked to anyone about it because I was ashamed. And I didn’t want to worry anyone needlessly.”
Mirk nodded. “But those aren’t the real reasons you never talked to anyone.”
“What? Yes they are.”
“Didn’t you just say something to me about ‘the only abilities that make you special.’”
Tilleran frowned. “Something like that.”
“I think that’s where your problem lies. You didn’t want people to know you’re losing your telepathy, because you thought that was all that you were good for.” Mirk leaned his hands on the bar, leaning in close to Tilleran. “There is a lot more to you than your telepathy, Tilleran.”
“No, there isn’t. My telepathy is what I contribute to this crew. It’s what I’m good at. J’hana fights, Counselor Peterman counsels. Hartley fixes things. Doctor Browning eats…”
“And all I do is serve drinks?” Mirk asked pointedly.
“What? No. You do more than that. You talk to people, like you’re doing now. You’re the next best thing to a counselor.”
“Oh, so you mean I’m good at more than just the one thing?”
Tilleran narrowed her eyes. “Yes.”
“So maybe the same can be said about you.”
She shook her head. “I’m the science officer. It’s what the nerds at Starfleet Academy do. Spock, Dax, Ephraphany. None of them had lives.”
“Oh, I think some of them did,” Mirk said with a small smile. “Anyway, the point is, you’re not just a science officer, and you’re not just a telepath. You’re intelligent, and witty, and cool under fire. You’ve taken command when you’ve had to and done a great job with that. And you’re Megan’s best friend on the ship. I honestly don’t know what she’d do without you.”
“Really?” Tilleran asked.
“Yes,” Mirk said. “And from what J’hana tells me, you’re also an excellent…” He fumbled with his hands a few moment. “Partner.”
Tilleran smiled slightly. “Thanks, Mirk. All those things are nice, but when it comes down to it, I kept something from my crewmates, and I endangered the away team, and the Federation President. My career in Starfleet is over.” She sunk her head back onto the bar top.
“It is as long as you think like that. You don’t think Captain Baxter will fight for you?” Mirk turned away, to take the order of another crewman walking up to the bar. He looked back at her. “Then again, if you’re not willing to fight for yourself, why should he bother?”
Tilleran got up and backed away from the bar, and nearly ran face- first into J’hana. “J’hana!” she exclaimed. “Don’t scare me like that. I hate it when you sneak up with no warn–”
The Andorian said nothing, simply sweep-kicked Tilleran at the ankles, taking her legs swiftly out from under her. The Betazoid fell hard to the deck on her elbows, and stared pragmatically up at the Andorian.
“I’m in no mood for flirting, J’hana.”
“This is not flirtation. This is serious business. Commander Vansen wants you stripped of your rank.”
“She can have it.”
J’hana reached, without looking, toward the bar, and grabbed a bottle of 2305 Vulcan Schnapps and smashed it against the bar, causing a spray of purple liquid to go everywhere. She then took the dripping, pointy half of the bottle still remaining and fell to a squat beside Tilleran, aiming it over her neck. “You will fight for your job, or I will fight you to the death.”
“That’s what I like to see,” Mirk said. “Couples working out their differences constructively. Damn shame about that Shnapps, though.
“Put it on my tab!” J’hana barked.
“Done!” And Mirk disappeared to assist another table elsewhere in the club.
“So…what do you say?” J’hana said hoarsely.
“This really means a lot to you, doesn’t it?” Tilleran said, scooting up to a sitting position.
J’hana let the broken bottle fall to the floor. “Indeed it does.” She stood up and looked at Tilleran. “Will you fight, or will you cower like a child, in a sick, drunken stupor?”
“I’m not sure if that’s a good analogy, but I think I’ll go with option number one,” Tilleran said, pulling herself up to her feet by the bar rail.
“Four Betazoid Brain Blasters,” Mirk said suddenly, hopping up from behind the bar with four frothing glasses of putrid-smelling grey-green liquid.
“I think I’ll pass,” Tilleran said, and walked out of the Club, with J’hana in her wake.
“I thought you would,” Mirk said with a smile.
“Ah, good. Lieutenant Commander Tilleran. Just thumbprint here and turn in you uniform, and your sidearm, and we can send you on your way. Take a shuttle, if you like!” Lt. Commander Vansen said cheerily as Tilleran and J’hana stepped out of the aft turbolift.
“What’s your problem, Commander?” Tilleran asked archly as Vansen approached her. “I know you hate some people on this ship, but I’ve never done anything to you.”
“You picked through my brain without permission. And you took the last asiago cheese bagel at yesterday’s morning meeting. In my book, that’s just about enough.”
“Uh-huh. Well, I don’t like you either,” Tilleran said. “Oh, and you’d better get that mole you’ve been worrying about looked at, Vansen. You never know what it might be.” Tilleran patted Vansen on the shoulder as she walked up to the readyroom.
“Commander! I insist you complete this paperwork, or I will put you on report,” Vansen snapped.
“There are lots of places I’d rather put my thumb,” Tilleran said with a smile as she pressed the call button on Baxter’s door.
“Come,” the Captain’s voice said.
“Sir,” she said, stepping in. As the doors closed behind her, she could hear J’hana chuckling at a fuming Vansen.
Baxter looked up from his desktop terminal. Commander Richards was sitting on the couch near his desk. Both looked at her, small grins on their faces.
“That was quick,” Richards said. “You didn’t even give us time to find a replacement science officer.”
“I could tell she wouldn’t go through with it,” Baxter said. “She didn’t even pull her combadge off in anger and slam it down.”
“I noticed that!”
“This isn’t a joke!” Tilleran said. “I really was going to quit.”
Baxter folded his hands on his desk. “But you’re not anymore?”
“No.” She sat down next to Richards on the couch. “I’m not.”
“Do you want to tell us what happened down there now?” Baxter asked. He stood up and walked around his desk, then leaned back on it. “Anything would be helpful.”
“There’s nothing to say,” she said. “I just didn’t sense anything. But I figured that was because I haven’t been so good at picking up on thoughts lately.”
“Define ‘lately,’” said Richards.
“Since we started looking for the Bast.”
Baxter and Richards looked at each other.
“Thoughts?” Richards asked as Baxter worked his jaw thoughtfully.
“No. I’ve got a poppyseed stuck in my teeth. If only someone hadn’t taken the last asiago bagel yesterday.”
“Hey, let’s have one accusation at a time, here,” Tilleran said defensively.
“Right,” Baxter said. “So you think your loss of telepathy may have something to do with our search for the Bast.”
“I didn’t say that, but it’s certainly a possibility.”
“It’s one I’d like to look into. Go pore over our flight logs. See if you can find anything out of the ordinary. The whole nine yards–every level of scanning you have. Put your whole staff on it if you have to.”
Tilleran nodded, then stood. “I’ll look into it, Captain, but I can’t say I’m too optimistic. Telepathy has little measurable spatial frequency. It’s not something you can pick up on with the ship’s sensors.”
“Then when you’re done with the logs, go down and see Janice,” Richards said. “Let her do a full workup on you.”
“Full?” Tilleran gulped.
Baxter nodded. “Full. We’re going to find out what’s happening, Commander. We’ll get your head straight again.”
Tilleran walked toward the door, then turned around, looked back at Richards and Baxter. “Aren’t you guys upset that I didn’t come to you with this sooner?”
“We’re concerned,” Baxter said. “But we know, if you kept it from us, you had your reasons. That’s good enough for us.”
“The important thing is, we find out what’s causing this, and get your abilities back,” Richards said. “And who knows? This whole mystery might lead us right to the Bast.”
“Right,” Tilleran said, and slipped out of the readyroom.
Once they were alone, Baxter walked over and sat down beside Richards.
“I can’t believe she didn’t tell us,” he said.
“Yeah, really. What’s up with that?”
“Mind if I join in?” Lt. Commander Megan Hartley asked, leaning against Tilleran’s console as she pored through the sensor logs of the Explorer’s search for the Bast.
“If that’s a telepathy joke, it’s not a very good one,” Tilleran said, intent on her panel as she scrolled through teraquads of sensor information.
“I’m just concerned, is all. What have you got?” Hartley read the information over Tilleran’s shoulder. Even though the Betazoid’s telepathic abilities were severely limited, Tilleran smirked slightly at the realization that Hartley didn’t understand much of what she was seeing. But maybe it was the furrowed brow Tilleran saw out of the corner of her eye that tipped her off.
“Nothing conclusive on any of the scanning cycles,” Tilleran said. “Not that I thought I’d find anything. Telepathic energy doesn’t exactly show up on the ususal scanning bands.”
“It should,” Hartley said helpfully.
“Yeah,” Tilleran said. She leaned back and rubbed her eyes. “I guess I’m just going through the motions at this point. I’m putting off a visit to the doctor.”
“Doctor Browning’s going to check you out, huh?” Hartley said. “I guess it was going to come to that eventually.”
“Captain Baxter would have preferred sooner to later.”
“I’m sure he would’ve, Ariel, but the point is you came forward, and that’s what counts.”
“Hopefully I’m not too late.”
Hartley arched her eyebrow. “Too late for what?”
The maze of sensor data continued to track across Tilleran’s screen. “To stop whatever it is that’s having this effect on me.”
“I thought you figured it was just Betazoid puberty.”
“More like Betazoid hysterical blindness, but I’m becoming more and more certain that it’s no coincidence that my telepathy problems came up about the same time we started looking for the Bast.”
“Do you think they’re really capable of pulling something like that off? Blocking your telepathy?”
“If they are, they’re more advanced than any species we’ve seen to date. To blot out almost all of my telepathic abilities, from a long, long distance…it would take inconceivable technology.”
“Maybe it’s not such a long distance,” Hartley said thoughtfully.
“It’s time to take you for walkies!” Counselor Peterman exclaimed, carrying Fritz the cat out of her office and locking the door behind her.
“Kelly! Wait up!” a voice called from behind her as she walked down the corridor toward the turbolift. She didn’t slow down.
“Yes, baby. It’s walkies time. Walk walk walkies!”
Suddenly a hand clamped down on Peterman’s shoulder. Fritz, as if by instinct, lept out of her arms and clamped down on the face of the owner of that hand.
One Captain Andy Baxter.
“ARRRGHHHHHHHHH!” Baxter cried out, dropping to his knees as Fritz clawed his face.
“Honey, look what you’ve gone and done. You’ve upset him!” Peterman chided.
“I’m….so….sorry…” Baxter squeaked, peeling Fritz off his face and pushing him onto the ground. He looked up at Peterman, fresh, red scratch marks all over his cheeks. “Why…are you… walking…the cat?”
“Because he has to pee, silly,” Peterman said, gingerly scooping Fritz back up. “There now. Good boy.”
Baxter struggled to his feet. “But cats…they don’t walk. I mean…in the peeing sense. Look at him, he’s not walking now. You’re carrying him.”
“I’m going to put him down when we get to the arboretum.”
“But…cats…isn’t that what the litterbox is for?”
“Maybe for some cats. But not my Fritzy.”
“Honey,” Baxter said, jogging after Peterman, who made no attempt to wait for him to catch up. “You have been acting very strange lately. I need you to talk to me.”
“About what?” she asked lightly, pushing a stray strand of hair out of her face.
“That’s a boring subject,” Peterman yawned. “Want to talk about something else? Like Charlie? Poor Charlie…poor, poor Charlie.”
“That’s more like it,” Baxter said. “Tell me what’s bothering you. You’re still grieving over him?”
“Cheer up, Charlie,” Peterman said distantly. “Wherever you are. You know it’s a better place.”
“You know exactly where he is,” Baxter whispered. “Cargo bay eleven.”
“Of course. In body, he is. But not in mind. Not in soul. Not in spirit. Those things, Andy, they can’t be contained.” Peterman stepped into the turbolift. “Don’t try to contain them.” She touched her index finger to her lips, then pressed it to Baxter’s, and stepped back a pace. “Don’t ever try to contain them.”
Baxter stared, agape, at Peterman, as the doors swung shut, cutting him off from her.
“Thanks for chatting,” he said quietly.
“Mind if I…mmphh…eat while we do this?” Dr. Browning asked as she munched on a large, juicy cob of yellow corn.
“Since you’re already eating, I guess not,” Tilleran said, feeling a little chilly in her blue Sickbay gown. She glanced around at the medtechs who walked back and forth with their sample containers and medical implements. Two other patients laid in wait on biobeds on the other side of the room. Tilleran watched Browning run a scanner over her as she held the buttery cob in the other. Little drops of butter dripped down her wrist.
Tilleran concentrated on Browning. The Doctor was always so serene. Her thoughts were always pure, simple; uncomplicated.
But now there was very little, if anything.
“Sorry if I seem distracted today, Commander,” Browning said idly, as she moved to the other side of Tilleran with the scanning wand. “I’m a little preoccupied. I’m thinking of asking the President to be my…steady guy.”
“I’m…sure there’s a better word for that, Doctor.”
“Eh, words are so unimportant to me. It’s the…”
Tilleran glanced over her shoulder at Browning. “What?”
“You were about to say ‘It’s the thought that counts.’”
“No, I wasn’t.” Browning looked up at the biobed readouts. “Commander! Would you look at that? Your neurotransmitter levels are off the charts. And not in a good way. I mean they’re barely detectable. And your psilosynene levels in particular are…they’re…hold on, I got some butter on my chin.”
“Let me see that,” Tilleran said, turning back toward the biobed readout screen. She studied the readings. “This can’t be. These levels…they’re lower than even a Betazoid child’s would be. They’re lower than Deanna Troi’s!”
“Is that bad?”
“It’s awful! I’m operating at one-tenth strength! The chemicals that govern telepathy…I’m almost out of them!” Tilleran slipped off the biobed. “We need to replicate some psilosynene. Stat!”
“Now, now, Commander,” Browning said, gently pushing Tilleran back onto the bed. “We’ve just begun to run tests on you. I’m not injecting anything into you until we figure out where those neurotransmitters went.”
“No buts. Now, speaking of, I want you to bend over. I need to gather some samples.”
Tilleran glanced around Sickbay. “Right here, in the middle of Sickbay?”
Browning nodded. “Drop your shorts, Ariel.” She patted her sensor wand against her chin thoughtfully. “Oh. Wait a minute. I already made you take those off.”
Tilleran sighed and slid off the bed, undoing the ties on the back of her gown. “You know, this place could really use some privacy curtains.”
“Nonsense,” Browning said. “We’re all professionals here. Hey…what a cute little tushy! Do you do squat thrusts?”
Tilleran left Sickbay a couple hours later feeling…somewhat violated. She briefly wondered if this is what the people she routinely mind-read felt like. Briefly.
“Imzadi, I wish to know everything,” Lt. J’hana said, picking up step beside Tilleran.
“What’s there to know?” Tilleran said. “Doctor Browning detected unusually low neurotransmitter levels and squeezed my buttocks.”
“One thing at a time, Ari,” J’hana said. “What did she do about the neurotransmitters?”
“She replicated more and injected them into me.”
“So you are better?”
“Not at all,” Tilleran sighed. “The neurotransmitters went away almost as soon as they were injected into me.”
“Went away? Went where?”
“Doctor Browning doesn’t know. She’s going to run some more tests. But it appears someone or some…thing…doesn’t want me to be a telepath.”
“So we are now characterizing this as a criminal investigation,” J’hana said, a cruel smile spreading across her face. “I am heartened to hear that.”
“That’s nice of you to say, J’hana, but I don’t think there’s anything you can do to help.”
“I beg to differ. If there is an entity on this ship responsible for your weakened condition, I will destroy it.”
“It may not be that simple.”
J’hana pushed up her shirtsleeves. “I will make it simple.”
“Mom, you’re a shizzoty!”
“I don’t know what you just called me, but it better have been complimentary,” Dr. Browning said as she finished clipping on her earrings and studied herself in the mirror. It wasn’t often she dressed up, and she was always pleased with the results. This evening, she wore a Briggs Original knee-length, v-cut, dark blue dancing dress. It was backless, front-enhancing, and had lace trim lining either side, running from shoulder to seam.
“Oh, it’s a compliment all right,” Plato said, trotting after Browning as she walked out of her bedroom and into the living room. “I heard Gilly Jenson call Miss Cornbrat that.”
“Miss Cornbrat is pretty shizzot,” Browning said thoughtfully. Becky Cornbrat was the third grade teacher. She was young, just months out of Federation University’s Ishikawa School for Teaching. Plato was attending third grade now, even though he was closer to sixth or seventh grade in mentality. He was growing up so quickly, the Explorer was running out of classes for him to participate in. Pretty soon, she’d probably have to start home schooling him. Of course, when she would find time for that was anyone’s guess.
“So why are you all dressed up?” Plato asked, as Browning rifled through her desk drawer for a hand mirror. She wanted to check her hair one last time.
“I’m going out with Mister Dillon.”
“I don’t believe I have romantic intentions with any other Dillon.” Browning thought quickly back to the few rare times she’d met Commander Travis Dillon, and decided that was a complete certainty.
Hmmm. What would their kids looked like if they got married?
Doctor Janice Browning-Dillon. Sounded a little snotty, but she could live with that.
She smiled, then realized suddenly that she was thinking way too far ahead. First, she’d ask him out. Then see where it led after that. That’s all she wanted to do. Figure out where this was going.
“Where are you going with this, Commander?” Captain Baxter said from the command chair, as Tilleran stood in front of him, blocking his view of the Siarti Three meteor storm on the viewscreen. He’d just come up to the bridge for some sightseeing, since they weren’t due to pass by any other interesting stellar phenomena for another week or two. He had to take this chance to look at something vaguely entertaining while it was available.
“J’hana and I think there’s some force on this ship responsible for my loss of telepathy.”
“A force connected to the Bast?” Baxter asked.
“It would make a certain amount of sense,” J’hana said. She, too, was blocking the viewscreen.
“Maybe it would, but until we have proof to back up that claim…”
“You can forget about turning this ship around. Dillon will never do it,” Lt. Commander Vansen said, leaning on the railing surrounding the command chairs.
“How long have you been standing there, Commander?” Baxter asked, turning in his chair.
“Long enough to know you’d better tread very carefully with this…‘investigation.’”
“Maybe if you’d lost your ability to be bitchy you’d understand my urgent need to put an end to this, Vansen,” Tilleran snapped.
“Touche,” Vansen said, walking around to the front of the bridge. “In point of fact, I’d like nothing better than to go back to the Alpha Quadrant before-ASAP. But I don’t think President Dillon is going to willingly give up on his mission to find the Bast.”
“One of my crew is being severely affected by this ‘quest’ of his,” Baxter rumbled. “And I’m starting to get very tired of driving through unexplored space on hints and hunches. At some point, we have to give up and go back.” He looked at Tilleran. “Maybe then Tilleran’s problems will resolve themselves.”
“I’d rather find the Bast myself and ask them why the hell they’re doing this to my Imzadi,” J’hana said. “Perhaps extract a little comeuppance while I am at it.”
“I have a bad feeling that we’re going to be on the receiving end of any comeuppance that’s being dished out around here,” Baxter said. “But the fact remains, we can’t go looking forever. At some point, we’ve got to acknowledge that there are no more big breaks coming in this case…”
Just then, a beep sounded at Lt. Madera’s helm console. She looked down at it, then turned back to Baxter. “Captain. We’ve got a contact bearing zero-one-zero mark one-four-eight. It’s a ship. A big one.”
“J’hana,” Baxter said calmly, as Vansen and Tilleran moved toward the science station. J’hana ran and lept over her tactical console, running sensor sweeps.
“Vessel configuration matches no known ship in our databases,” J’hana said, then looked again. “Correction. It matches the footprint left behind on Vespa.Three.”
“It’s Bast,” Vansen said quickly.
“Good bet,” Baxter said, looking to J’hana.
“It’s on the edge of sensor range, but I can already tell the ship is powerless. It’s dead in space.”
“We may have found the Bast, Captain,” Vansen said. “But we may have found them a tad too late.”
“We’ll see about that,” Baxter said, looking to Madera. “Lieutenant, set course to intercept that ship, Warp Nine. Engage!”
“This is a wonderful place,” Bradley Dillon said, as serene violin music poured over him and Janice Browning and he looked at her across the perfectly dressed table, in the dim light of the Gilded Tribble. “But I can’t believe you actually wanted us to patronize your competition.”
“The Tribble is a little fancier,” Browning said, popping another roasted artichoke heart into her mouth. “Besides, eating in Space Tastes is a little too much like being at work.”
“And the Constellation Cafe has some…unpleasant associations.”
“I’m sorry you pulled your hamstring last night when we were doing the Lambada. Mirk assures me that never usually happens.”
“Good thing I had a doctor nearby,” Bradley said with a smile, as Browning reached across the table and took his hand. He barely realized she’d done it, but suddenly there it was. They were holding hands.
“Bradley, I think we need to talk.”
Bradley stared at her, momentarily dazed. “Talk, you say?” For all the world, he maintained his composure. But in his mind–that was another story. “About what, my dear?”
“About where we’re going.”
“We’re going to find the Bast,” Bradley said simply.
Browning giggled. “That’s not what I meant, silly. I meant…where you and I are going.”
“Of course you meant that. Well, I would say we are going to be great friends.”
“Friends?” Browning asked, then grinned. “Do you see anything else in our future?”
Bradley squeezed her hands. Where was she three years ago? Before his life got so much more complicated. “It’s…hard to tell, Doctor.”
“I’ve told you before. You can call me Janice. Or whatever other names might come to mind. Girlfriend, perhaps…” she said softly, then leaned forward, kissing Bradley square on the lips.
“Baxter to Dillon. You’re needed on the bridge.”
Bradley pulled away from Browning’s kiss suddenly and looked toward the ceiling. “What is it?”
“We’ve located a Bast ship. It appears dead in space. We’ll be there a few minutes.”
“Do nothing, Captain, until I arrive. Dillon out.” Bradley stood, straightened his dinner jacket, and looked down at Browning. “Doctor, that was a superb meal.”
“But we just had appetizers…” Browning said slowly.
“And I will have to take a rain check on the rest.” He glanced at the waiter, snapping his fingers as he stood and headed for the door. “Sebastian! Give Doctor Browning anything she wants, and put it on my tab.”
The moustacioed waiter gulped, tugging nervously at his collar as he approached Browning. He knew her only by reputation, but that was enough to make President Dillon’s words sting with the heat of a thousand suns.
“What would madame like to have?”
“I don’t know,” Browning sighed, and leaned her head down on the table.
When Bradley reached the corridor outside Ship’s Shoppes, he glanced around to make sure he was alone. He had a few precious seconds before the Special Secret Section guards that were watching him from the promenade overlook came out to escort him to the bridge.
Bradley leaned back against a bulkhead and rubbed his face. “Keep it together, Bradley. Visualize the goal. You have to get there. You can’t let anything stop you. Nothing. No matter how…sweet…it is.”
Just as the double doors to Ship’s Shoppes opened up to reveal Agent Anderson and his men, Bradley had leaned back up, adjusted his tie, and groomed his hair perfectly into place.
“Gentlemen,” he said, gesturing for Anderson and his men to lead the way to the turbolift.
Richards was rubbing sleep out of his eyes when he walked out onto the bridge. He saw Baxter, Vansen, and Bradley Dillon standing in front of the command chairs, and the other senior staff at their stations– including, he noticed, Tilleran at sciences.
“Mister Richards, you will form an away team to go to that ship immediately,” Bradley said, looking back at him.
“What ship?” he asked, then looked at the viewscreen.
It was huge. Without a point of comparison, it was hard to visualize how big, but it was definitely big.
Saucer-shaped, smooth, featureless and coppertoned. It was vast.
“Oh. That ship,” Richards said quietly.
“Vessel is one hundred kilometers in diameter,” Tilleran reported. “Contains at least six hundred decks. But I’m not sure it’s all divided into decks. It appears there’s a lot of open space inside.”
“What’s wrong, Tilleran?” Vansen asked. “You’ve lost your scientific sense as well?”
“Not at all, Vansen,” Tilleran shot back. “I’m just saying, we don’t know what this vessel’s original condition was.”
“You could have simply said that.”
“You could simply bite me.”
“Ladies,” Baxter said. “The President just ordered up an away team. Let’s give him one, pronto.”
“J’hana, Tilleran,” Richards said, pointing to the two officers, then heading to the foreward turbolift.
“No,” Bradley said, touching Richards’s arm as he walked by. “Tilleran will stay here.”
“She’s the chief science officer,” Baxter said between gritted teeth.
“She’s a risk. We’ll take Commander Hartley. This mission requires engineering skills far more than scientific skills, anyway. We need to determine why that ship is dead in space.”
“And we probably need medical information on any bodies we might find in there,” Baxter siad. “Doctor Browning, report to Transporter Room Two.”
“You…really feel that’s necessary?” Bradley asked as Richards and J’hana filed into the turbolift, and the Secret Section agents followed.
“You’re serious about finding these guys, aren’t you? You’re going to need forensic help.”
“You are correct, Captain,” Bradley said tightly. “Please also page Commander Hartley to the transporter room.”
“Whatever you say.” Baxter watched as the turbolift doors closed. J’hana’s gaze never left Tilleran. He turned toward the Betazoid, and shrugged. “I’m sorry, Tilleran. Maybe it’s best if you work on this mystery from here.”
“Maybe it is,” Tilleran said, then walked toward the opposite turbolift, at the back of the bridge. “I’d better get belowdecks and run some checks on the lateral sensors.”
Baxter nodded. “Don’t be too long.”
“Am I wrong, or did President Dillon just tell you that you were right about something?” Vansen asked as Baxter sat back down in his command chair.
“I didn’t notice.”
“Stay tight, people,” Commander Richards said, switching on his palm beacon as soon as he and the others materialized in the cavernous corridors of the starship. It was premature to say it was a Bast ship. Nobody knew that for sure yet, and nobody was eager to venture even a guess at this point.
“It smells like death in here,” Janice Browning said, pulling out her medical tricorder and scanning. She’d quickly changed from her dress to her Starfleet uniform. “Wait a minute. Cancel that. It just smells old.”
“Your tricorder can pick up the smell of ‘oldness’?” Hartley asked with interest as she followed behind Browning.
“Well, oldness particulates, actually,” Browning said, then wrinkled her nose. “But yeah, kinda I guess.”
“Find me a computer console we can tap into,” Bradley ordered.
“Tilleran would have been good at doing that,” J’hana said, withdrawing her phaser, out of habit more than anything else.
“No lifesigns anywhere,” Browning said, still looking at her tricorder. “I’ll let you know when.”
Richards fell back to walk next to Browning, still panning his palm beacon around the coppery smooth walls of the corridor. “You sound awful professional today, Janice. Anything going on?”
“Should I tell Tilleran somebody found her lost telepathy skills? Or did you become telepathic on your own?” Browning asked wryly, not taking her eyes off her tricorder.
“No, Janice. I just know you. I know when something’s going on. Something’s going on.”
Bradley Dillon cleared his throat. “Let’s keep our focus on the mission.”
“Yes,” Browning said, looking at the back of Bradley’s head. “Let’s.”
“So she’s not talking to me,” Captain Baxter said, staring at the ship on the viewscreen as it just hung there, doing nothing, while his two best friends scoured it for evidence of the Bast. “She’s talking to me, but it’s just smalltalk. Crazy smalltalk. I don’t even understand half the things she’s saying.”
“I don’t understand half the things you say. Does that make you crazy too?” Lt. Commander Vansen asked idly as she sat next to Baxter.
“You’re not listening.”
“Exactly. You just got that?”
Baxter rapped his fingers on the arm of the command chair. “It wasn’t easy opening up to you, Vansen. The least you could do is meet me halfway. Try to act as if you care about my life.”
“I’m not a very good actor,” she said, studying a padd.
“Damn it, I’m running out of people on this ship to talk to.”
“You can chat with me,” Lt. Madera said, turning around in her chair. “I know all about marital troubles. You know, what with the engagement and all. Have you seen my ring yet?”
“A thousand times,” Baxter said. “Face the viewscreen and keep your eyes on your panel, Lieutenant.”
“Fine,” Madera snapped, then spun back around to face the viewscreen.
Lt. Howard Sefelt turned around and opened his mouth, but Baxter silenced him with a glare.
“That goes double for you, mister!”
Vansen glanced over at the console by her chair. “Captain, it’s been fifteen minutes. Tilleran should be finished with that diagnostic on the lateral sensor array now.”
“You’re probably right,” Baxter said. “Baxter to Tilleran. You’re needed on the bridge. We have a possibly-Bast ship in front of us and don’t want to be caught with our pants…and our science officer…down.”
“Understood, Captain. I’m almost finished here. Just need a few more minutes.”
“Make it quick, Commander.” Baxter looked back at Vansen. “So…know anything about marital troubles?”
“I’m divorced, remember?”
“Oh. Yeah. Right.”
“Well, I’ve surveyed this entire section,” Hartley said, closing her tricorder and approaching a platform where the rest of the away team was sitting, still going over sensor data from their tricorders. The platform, it seemed, was in a crook in the corridor, and possibly was a lounge area, according to Browning’s xeno-leisure-studies training.
“What did you find?” Bradley asked, standing up. A cluster of palm beacons shined at the ceiling, casting a glowy pall over the away team.
“No computer consoles I could even remotely interface with. What I did find out, though, is that this ship should be perfectly functional. There’s no sign of damage. There’s just no power going through any conduit.”
“Cause?” Richards asked.
“You’ve got me,” Hartley said. “If I understood the underlying technology a little better, maybe I could tell you. But it took me half an hour just to figure out what constituted a power conduit.”
“You could learn a lot from studying this ship, couldn’t you,” J’hana asked.
“Given enough time, we could redesign the Starfleet,” Hartley said.
“Did you find any particularly…interesting…technologies?” Bradley asked idly.
“Nothing beyond power and propulsion,” Hartley said. “Then again, anything beyond that may be so advanced I can’t even pick it up on my tricorder.”
“So, in a sense, we’ve found a whole lot of nothing,” Richards said, leaning forward onto his knees. “And that means we’ve learned nothing about the Bast.”
“I wouldn’t say that, Commander,” Bradley said. “I think we’ve learned a great deal about the Bast.”
“Like the fact that there are no bodies–anywhere.”
“Yeah,” Browning said, sitting down beside Bradley. “Generally, on a dead ship you find dead people.”
“Maybe the crew escaped.”
“And didn’t take their ship with them?” Richards asked. “Why would they just abandoned a perfectly good ship.”
“Who’s to say they abandoned it?” Browning asked.
“You have a distinct point,” Bradley said softly.
Then, suddenly, lights trilled on throughout the corridor.
“Power levels on the ship just went through the roof,” Ensign Keefler announced from tactical.
Baxter rose from his command chair. “Get our people off that ship. Now!”
“Hold on,” Keefler replied. “The amount of energy output over there is playing havoc with the transporter sensors.”
“Permission to cower, Captain!” Sefelt called out from ops.
“Not yet, Lieutenant, but I’ll tell you when,” Baxter replied.
“Transporters energizing,” Keefler said. He looked up from his controls. “We got them, sir!”
Baxter looked at the helm. “Madera…get us out of here! Maximum warp!”
“Somebody find Tilleran,” Vansen snapped.
She should have thought of this sooner.
Tilleran had one vast resource she hadn’t yet tapped into: The ship’s database had the writings and knowledge of one of the greatest telepathic minds on Betazed stored in it.
And, as Tilleran paged through the hundreds of articles Lwaxana had written (or, in some cases, had ghost-written for her), she came across one title that was of particular interest:
“SO, SOMEBODY IS BLOCKING YOUR TELEPATHY.
NOW WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?”
Lwaxana’s article included a powerful meditation that guaranteed any telepath worth her telepathic salt would find the source of the telepathic block, no matter how well-hidden it was. It was all a question of concentration and purity of purpose. Tilleran had both.
She sat there, crosslegged, on the floor in her quarters, eyes closed. It was simple. She just had to focus. Take that last scrap of telepathy she had and focus it on finding who or what was blocking her. It was a simple matter, really. Simple. Simmmmmmmmmmmmmmm….
And, like a switch being turned on, Tilleran’s eyes went wide and open. She glided to her feet and walked out of her quarters, feeling pulled, like a weight on the end of a fishing line, toward….
Well, she really didn’t know what.
“Captain, I demand you explain yourself immediately!” Bradley Dillon said, standing on the quarterdeck of the bridge, arms folded, his guards surrounding him.
“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. That ship came to life, you guys were in danger, I pulled you out. What’s so confusing about that?”
“We were there,” Bradley said, walking around to face Baxter, his composure, for the first time, showing cracks. “We were on the Bast ship. I know it. I felt it, as the power was coming on. We had a one in a million opportunity to observe them and ask all the questions I’ve–we’ve–come to ask them, and you pulled us out of there.”
“We didn’t detect any lifesigns,” Hartley told Baxter. “There’s no evidence anyone but us was on that ship at the time.”
“Take us back toward that ship at maximum warp,” Bradley snapped, turning toward Madera. She looked at Baxter. “Don’t look at him for confirmation. I gave you an order!”
“Understood,” Madera said with a small voice, and engaged the engines.
“Hey. Don’t talk to my fiancee like that,” Richards said angrily. “I can understand that you’re mad about losing contact with the Bast, but it’s no big deal. They were just there a minute ago, I’m sure we can…”
“Um….Chris…” Baxter said quietly, as the rest of the bridge crew stared at the viewscreen.
“These are the exact coordinates,” Madera said slowly.
“No readings. Not for light years in either direction,” J’hana said cooly from tactical, which she’d retaken from Keefler.
Bradley stared at the empty space on the viewscreen. “I…don’t believe it.”
“You’d rather I’d left you there? Let them take you, and Janice, and everybody…who knows where?”
“Yes!” Bradley snapped, marching back to the aft turbolift. “That’s exactly what I wanted you to do.”
His guards followed him in, and Browning jogged up to join him.
“Bradley, wait up!” she called.
“Not now, Janice. There is far more at stake here than your feelings. I’m sorry.” And President Dillon disappeared behind the closing turbolift doors.
“But I kissed you!” Browning screamed through the bulkhead at the top of her lungs.
“Again?” Richards asked.
“Why?” Baxter demanded.
Browning turned, looking sheepishly at the rest of the bridge crew. All eyes were now on her.
“It’s none of anybody’s business,” she said, then went down to the other turbolift and pressed the call button. She tapped her foot as she waited for the lift to arrive, trying not to look back at the quiet bridge crew that still had all eyes on her.
“Janice,” Richards said. “If you’d like to go somewhere, talk about this…”
“No need. It’s all pretty self-explanatory. I tried to start up a relationship with the leader of the free quadrant, and he turned me down. It doesn’t get any simpler than that!” The turbolift doors finally and mercifully opened, and Browning ducked in, and ordered the lift to the mall deck.
Those persons gathered on the bridge now quietly looked at one another.
Vansen finally broke the silence. “Has anyone seen Tilleran?”
Baxter sighed and tapped his combadge. “Baxter to Tilleran.” When there was no response, he looked up at J’hana. “Lieutenant…”
“You do not have to tell me twice, Captain. I’ll find her.” She walked up to the aft turbolift and punched the call button. Baxter neglected to tell her this actually was the second time he’d asked her to find Tilleran
“You’d better find her,” Baxter said. “Because we’re starting to run out of turbolifts.”
Tilleran’s pace quickened, but she had no control over that. Her Betazoid instincts and impressions now had complete domain over her body. All she could do was sit back and wonder where her legs were taking her.
The voice of Baxter, then J’hana, echoed over her combadge, barely perceptible as she marched like a toy soldier toward her unknown destination.
She probably should have taken that combadge off, but somehow couldn’t bring herself to. Not that it mattered. Tilleran had the distinct impression she’d find what she was looking for before anyone could intercept her.
But why would anyone try to stop her, anyway? She was doing what she should have done from the start.
She was using her scientific knowledge, paired with her Betazoid abilities, to find the source of the disturbance to her abilities. Maybe she was even going to find the secret of the Bast. She was doing the right thing, and she wasn’t risking anyone else in the process. Whatever happened, it would be on her head and hers alone. That’s how it should be.
That was the last coherent thought Tilleran had as she came face to face with a familiar pair of doors.
Her hand reached involuntarily out to the keypad and punched it. Nothing happened.
Then both hands reached up to the seam between the pair of doors, frantically pushing, fueled by a surge of adrenaline. First her fingernails, then her fingers, edged between the doors, and with unbecoming strength she shoved those doors apart.
A barely audible moan escaped from Tilleran’s lips as she stumbled into the room and collapsed to her knees, then to the floor, just as she felt something rough and sandpapery run across her forehead. She looked up, eyes wide, piercing into the tiny pair of eyes that looked back at her.
“It’s….it’s you,” Tilleran whispered. “You did this to me. But why…and how….you’re just…just a cat!”
Then Tilleran went limp, her dark eyes still wide and fixated on the cat. But those eyes were now dilated and lifeless.
“Stop licking her, pussycat. You don’t know where she’s been!” Counselor Kelly Peterman said, leaning over Tilleran’s inert form, picking Fritz up off the floor and curling him under her arm. Peterman clicked her tongue as she glanced down at the Betazoid as Fritz snuggled against her chest. “My, my. What an awful mess. How are we ever going to clean this up, Fritzy?”
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
Now that we know what Fritz is really up to, it’s up to the crew of the Explorer to find out why, and figure out what Counselor Peterman has to do with it. Is Peterman beyond helping? Can Baxter reach out to her? Can they find Fritz before the cat’s evil plans come to fruition? And…what are those, exactly? Find out all that and more in “Wild Cat Chase.”