Author: Anthony Butler
“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 and Fritz snuggled against her chest. “My, my. What an awful mess. How are we ever going to clean this up, Fritzy?”
Two minutes later, the doors to Counselor Peterman’s quarters swung open, and J’hana filled the doorway, breathing just slightly heavily, as she looked inside.
“Hi, J’hana,” Counselor Peterman said from her couch. Fritz the cat was in her lap, and she was gently stroking his fur and smiling. “I was just about to call you.”
Peterman pointed across from her, where Lt. Commander Ariel Tilleran lay sprawled in Captain Baxter’s barcalounger.
J’hana’s eyes widened as she rushed to Tilleran’s side and knelt beside the Betazoid. “What happened to her?”
“Good question,” Peterman said, seeming unconcerned. “She came in to tell me something that I guess she thought was important. But before we could get into any detail, she simply pass out. I have no earthly idea why.”
J’hana had stopped listening a few moments earlier. She tapped her combadge. “J’hana to Transporter Room Two. Emergency transport: Two directly to Sickbay.” She reached over and grabbed Tilleran’s wrist, then looked back at Peterman. “Meet us there, Counselor.”
“I’ll do my best!” Peterman said cheerily as J’hana disappeared.
Moments later, the shrill whine of Steffie, Baxter and Peterman’s child, could be heard from the baby’s bedroom. It was feeding time. Or maybe she had wet herself. Peterman couldn’t exactly be sure.
Fritz stirred in Peterman’s lap, walking in a circle, and laying back down. “Shhh, Fritz, shhh,” Peterman whispered. “The baby won’t bother you. Just relax. Relax and talk to me some more. I do so enjoy our little conversations…”
Captain Baxter rushed into Sickbay, Vansen and Richards hot on his heels, as Doctor Browning and Nurse Christina Chadway rushed to and fro around the biobed at the rear of Sickbay, where Tilleran lay, limp, with cerebral stimulators stuck against her forehead.
“Tell me something, Janice,” Baxter said, watching as other medical officers crossed in front of him quickly, delivering padds of information and hypos to Browning and Chadway.
“She’s in a fugue state, probably induced by sensory overload of some kind,” Browning said, studying the readouts on her medical tricorder as she ran it over Tilleran’s head, and comparing those to the information scrolling on a large screen above the bed.
“A coma?” Vansen asked.
“Essentially,” Browning said. “See, I read about it here!” And she tossed a padd to Baxter, which he quickly read.
“Glad you’re keeping informed,” Baxter said. “But we have bigger fish to fry right now.” Browning said nothing, but he knew at that moment she was thinking about fried fish as she worked on Tilleran. “Tell me how this could have happened.”
“I already told you. She probably had some kind of sensory overload.”
“Like a telepathic signal?” Richards asked.
“It could be,” Browning said. “But she is Betazoid, and a high-level one at that. She should have been able to handle it.”
“Her telepathic abilities were almost nil, as early as an hour ago. Then suddenly she gets pummeled by some telepathic impression, and it knocks her out cold?” Vansen asked.
“That’s as good a theory as any we have right now,” Browning said, injecting a hypo into Tilleran’s neck. “Tina, go ahead and modulate the cerebral stimulators.”
“What are you doing?” Baxter asked, stepping closer to the biobed.
“Trying to jumpstart her brain,” Browning said. “Stand back.” She glanced at Chadway. “Go!”
Chadway pressed a control on her padd and Tilleran’s body jolted. Browning checked a readout.
“Still nothing. Hit her again.”
“You are killing her,” a low voice said from the shadows in the rear of Sickbay.
“We’re trying to save her, J’hana,” Browning called over her shoulder. “Hit her again, Tina!”
Baxter winced as Tilleran’s body shook again. Browning injected her with another hypospray.
Chadway looked up from a readout. “Doctor, she’s starting to lose autonomic functions.”
“Damn it,” Browning said. “If we don’t get her on cerebral support, we’re going to lose her.”
“You mean…” Richards said softly. “Hook her up to the computer?”
J’hana stepped out of the shadows. “My Imzadi will not be made into a computer!”
“Just temporarily,” Browning snapped. “Until we get her brain functioning again.” Her look softened. “We don’t have a choice.”
“Do it,” Baxter urged.
“Isolinear conductor!” Browning ordered, shooing Baxter and Richards away as a medtech jogged up with a spider-shaped device she quickly slapped on Tilleran’s forehead, in between the two cerebral stimulators. Its little feelers pushed gently against her forehead. She pushed a control on top of the device and then pressed several panels on the monitor above the bed. “Prepare to switch autonomic functions over to computer control on my mark.”
“Program uploading,” Chadway said, glancing at the readout above the bed. “Buffer charged and ready.”
“Now!” Browning said, pressing another control on the spider device, as Chadway tapped a panel on the biobed readout.
Everybody watched the readouts.
“Tell me what’s happening,” Baxter said, as everyone else watched, agape.
Browning smiled as indicators all across the board lifted from red to green. “Autonomic functions restored. The computer’s keeping her running, Captain.” Browning touched Tilleran’s hand. “She’s out of the woods for now.”
“For now,” J’hana said hoarsely.
Browning nodded. “The computer can’t handle her brain functions forever. And eventually her brain will atrophy from lack of use. If I have to keep her like this for more than twenty-four hours, the Tilleran we bring back won’t really be Tilleran anymore.”
“Then I have a job to do,” J’hana said, spinning on a heel and walking toward the door to Sickbay.;
“Wait, J’hana…” Richards said, turning and putting a hand on J’hana’s shoulder.
“SHEVAT!” J’hana shouted, shoving Richards’s hand away.
“Go calm her down, Chris,” Baxter said as she walked out.
Richards looked back at Baxter, fear clear in his eyes. “M-me?”
Baxter nodded. “She’s got to keep it together. She may be our best hope of figuring out how this happened.”
“No,” Browning said from behind Baxter, as Richards walked out. “There is another.”
“J’hana!” Richards called out, jogging to catch up with J’hana as she marched purposefully down the corridor. “Where are you going?”
“To begin a thorough investigation,” she replied tightly.
“You need help?”
Richards chuckled dryly. “Is it just me, or are a lot of people storming off lately?”
“Unfortunately, you are correct. Even worse, a lot of people are following those people, and gravely endangering their lives doing so.”
“You’d never hurt me, J’hana.”
The Andorian whirled, stopping Richards in his tracks. “I killed dozens of people to save Dwanok, yet I failed. I’ll kill ten times that many to save my Imzadi.”
Her face was in his, her breath hot on his cheeks, the slightly shorter woman having to stoop to get eye-to-eye with him. Richards swallowed hard, and felt an odd tingling as J’hana leaned in close to him. “I think it’s beautiful that you care about Tilleran so much, J’hana. But did you ever think you may be able to save her without killing anyone?”
J’hana turned around and continued walking. “Regardless of whether it helps my investigation or not, someone will die for this. Of that, you can be certain.”
Richards nodded as he stood there, deciding to just let J’hana walk off. “Well, that went well,” he muttered, and turned around to head back to Sickbay.
“It’s pretty cool, when you think about it,” Ensign Koltz, the Tellarite backup science officer said, leaning over Tilleran’s inert body, which now had several cables running from the spiderlike device on her forehead to a monitor on a nearby cart, which he was adjusting. “That the mind can be run by a computer. Pretty soon, we won’t even need our brains. We’ll just download ourselves into a computer and be done with it. Yep, that’s the wave of the future. Flying around in a starship with no brains.”
“I’m doing that now,” Vansen mumbled, then turned and headed for the door. “I’ll be on the bridge, making sure we’re not about to get blown up again.”
Koltz continued on, his eyes getting wider as he spoke. “Or maybe one big brain, controlling everything, Wouldn’t THAT be interesting?
“None of this is ‘cool’ or ‘interesting,’ Mister Koltz,” Baxter said, resting a hand on the edge of Tilleran’s biobed as Dr. Browning took readings and adjusted the interface between Tilleran and the computer. “My Chief Science Officer is near death, and I don’t know why. This setup can help us figure out what happened, and help us find out how to save her.”
“Yeah, like I said, it’s cool,” Koltz said giddily, wrinkling his pug nose. “We’re almost ready to boot up the memories. Anybody have any popcorn?”
“Yes,” Browning said quickly. “But that’s irrelevant right now.”
Suddenly the Sickbay doors opened, revealing Bradley Dillon and his usual entourage of Gisele and Secret Section guards. “Give me the bullet,” he said tersely.
“Something drove our science chief into a coma,” Richards said. “We’re trying to figure out what.”
“That’s not what I was talking about,” Bradley said. “I mean, what’s happening with the Bast?”
“We have more important things to tend to right now, Mister President,” Baxter said, not taking his eyes off Tilleran. “Namely, one of my crew.”
“I’ve told you before, Captain. Nothing is more important here than finding the Bast. While I regret what’s happened to your science officer, it’s not of paramount importance.”
Baxter gripped the edge of Tilleran’s biobed, his knuckles whitening. Before he could say anything, Richards calmly tapped his combadge.
“Security team to Sickbay. We need you to remove a disruptive passenger.”
“Who are you talking about?” Bradley asked.
“You,” Richards said, turning on him. “This is a Sickbay. You are not a medical officer, and hence, you’re a distraction. You need to be removed. Kind of like a disease, you know?”
“You are making a mistake, Richards. Don’t throw away your career with an emotional, ill-advised outburst.”
“You’re wrong, President Dillon,” Richards said, folding his arms as four security officers stepped in through the door into Sickbay. “It’s not emotional, or ill-advised. It’s my job.”
“I’m not going anywhere until one of you tells me about the Bast,” Bradley said.
“And here I am, fresh out of information,” Baxter said wryly, looking to Richards.
“Same here,” Richards said.
Bradley looked to Browning, who was maneuvering around the biobed, checking readings on her medical tricorder. “Janice…”
“I think it’s best if we kept our relationship purely professional, Mister President,” Browning said, without looking at him.
Richards looked behind Bradley and his posse, at the four security guards, led by Ensign Keefler. “Well, Mister President, it appears my guards outnumber your guards, four to three.”
“This is far, far from over,” Bradley said hotly, turning around and heading out of Sickbay, shouldering his way between two of the Explorer security officers. His group followed.
“Orders, Commander?” Keefler asked.
“Stand outside. Don’t let anyone else come in unless they’re bleeding profusely,” he said, then looked at Baxter. “Now then, where were we?”
J’hana sat down in the security office, in front of a wall of monitors, alternating views of a multitude of areas of the ship. She keyed the control console to give her a view of Tilleran, minutes before whatever happened to her.
After a few minutes of searching through video files, she found what she was looking for.
Flight recorder footage of Tilleran walking into her quarters. The Betazoid walked inside, put down a padd she’d been reading, and began lighting candles all around the room.
Setting up for a romantic night? J’hana wondered, raising an eyebrow.
Then Tilleran sat, cross-legged in the middle of the room, and stared up at the ceiling.
“Meditation,” J’hana said, in the empty office. Her security people had just left to go to Sickbay. J’hana trusted whatever the problem was would be dealt with promptly. She couldn’t be distracted with minor security issues at the moment. She needed to help Tilleran.
She had to increase the playback speed a little as it appeared Tilleran was meditating for quite a while. Then something changed.
Tilleran shot up to her feet and darted out of her quarters, as if controlled by some unseen force, like a lifesize puppet.
J’hana’s hands raced along the console, moving from sensor to sensor so she could get the best posible angle of Tilleran moving through the corridor, and to try to extrapolate Tilleran’s heading.
Of course it was obvious where Tilleran had been heading. Peterman’s quarters.
That was probably the first person J’hana would interrogate. Her antennae told her the counselor knew more than she was letting on. That would have to be determined, of course, after a long period of vigorous question-asking.
On the monitor, Tilleran wildly forced the doors to Peterman’s quarters opened and stormed in.
“Yes…” J’hana said, zooming in the visual and tying in the audio sensors. This would tell her what had happened.
But nothing happened.
The screen went black. All her screens went black, and J’hana smashed her fist into the console, rising up and bolting out of the security office.
Someone had tampered with HER security records. J’hana’s anger grew tenfold, as she hurried down the corridor to Peterman’s quarters, intent on getting some answers.
“I’m getting dizzy,” Richards said, steadying himself on nearby supply cart as he watched the zigzag footage of Tilleran moving through the corridors.
“No kidding,” Baxter said. “Can you steady that image a little, Janice?”
Browning shook her head. “Unfortunately, we can’t switch to the steadycam. This is what Tilleran’s eyes were seeing. It’s what your eyes see every time you walk down a corridor, too.”
“Then how come I don’t throw up every time I do it?” Baxter said.
“Your brain adjusts to the movement,” Richards replied. “Right, Janice?”
“In a sense,” Browning said distantly, still watching the monitor. “Okay. She’s coming up on a door now.”
“That’s my door,” Baxter said, surprised.
“That’s where she was found,” Browning said. “With Kelly.”
“Where’s Kelly now?” Baxter asked, looking to Richards.
“Don’t look at me. I was on the bridge with you.”
Baxter’s heart was pounding. “I want to know what the hell happened in there.”
“I think we’re about to find out.” Browning looked on as Tilleran’s fingers ripped the doors open and she stumbled through. The image shook violently as Tilleran seemed to collapse toward the floor. Then one, big, orange, furry image filled the monitor, and then it went dark.
“Let’s go,” Baxter said. “Now.”
J’hana reached the door to the Baxter/Peterman cabin and found Ensign Ryan Stuart there, packing up his tools.
“What are you doing, Ensign?” she growled.
Stuart looked up with a start. “Uh…I was just fixing the captain’s door. Counselor Peterman just put in a report that it was broken.”
“So she is within,” J’hana said.
“Last I checked,” Stuart said, then stood up, toolkit in hand. “Why? What’s going on?”
“It is none of your concern,” J’hana said, pressing the call button.
“I gave it a fancier call sound,” Stuart said.
“You must be proud,” J’hana said dryly. After several moments went by with no response, J’hana punched the button again. Then she tapped her combadge. “J’hana to Peterman.”
“I tell you, she was in there, just a few minutes ago,” Stuart said.
“Stand back,” J’hana said, backing up against the bulkhead.
“No, no…” Stuart said. “I just fixed that door.”
“And you will again!” J’hana said, and ran into the door, shoulder first, smashing right through it.
“Ouch,” Stuart said.
But the door didn’t even slow J’hana down. In one smooth motion, she removed her sidearm and aimed it in a wide arc throughout the cabin. “Counselor Peterman. Come out now. I need to speak with you. You will not be harmed unless you give me good reason to harm you. Good reason to harm you might include, for instance, hurting my Imzadi. COME OUT NOW!”
But no one was home. J’hana ducked into the bedroom. Nobody there. She then heard a yelping cry, and realized it came from the baby’s room. She bolted in that direction, smashing through the door to see Steffie lying in her crib, wailing.
“Silence, baby!” J’hana ordered, lifting Steffie out of her crib and holding her at arm’s length. “Tell me what you know! I demand you tell me everything!”
“J’hana!” Captain Baxter ordered from the doorway to Steffie’s room. “Put my daughter down and step away. Don’t make any sudden moves.”
J’hana didn’t turn around “You are impeding my investigation.”
“I’m trying to help your investigation,” Baxter said, crossing the room to take Steffie from J’hana. He curled her in his arms and her cries died down to whimpers, then stopped altogether. “Where’s Kelly?
“She is gone,” J’hana said simply, as Richards stood in the doorway to Steffie’s room.
“Computer, locate Counselor Peterman,” Richards said testily.
“Counselor Peterman is no longer on the Explorer.”
“Baxter to bridge.”
“Bridge. Vansen here.”
“Check all shuttles, runabouts and escape pods. Check the transporters and the Escort. Confirm no one could have gotten off this ship.”
“Anyone in particular we’re looking for?”
“Oh, so she got out of her cage again?”
“Just do it, Vansen! Baxter out!”
Baxter turned back to Richards. “Go with J’hana. Scour this ship. Find my wife.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to join you,” he said. “As soon as I take care of a…brown alert.”
J’hana hung back by the doorway as Richards left. “Captain, if Counselor Peterman is somehow the cause of–”
Baxter hummed softly as he set Steffie on the changing table and undid her diapers. “J’hana, if you hurt her, I’ll kill you.”
J’hana waited there a moment, then walked out.
“That’s a girl,” Baxter said, gently wiping Steffie’s bottom and spraying it with cleansing agent. “Your mom just left you, with no explanation. No big deal. I’m sure everything’s going to be okay. You just sit tight.”
Baxter slipped a new diaper on Steffie then lifted her up in his arms. “There. Cozy, honey?” Steffie cooed a little bit, and Baxter kissed her cheek. “Good. Glad to hear it.” He took her out into the common area, then looked around. Nothing seemed amiss. He expected at least some overturned furniture, signs of a struggle. When he walked back to the bedroom, he was surprised to find the bed made, everything in order. Kelly’s clothes were still in the drawers. The smell of her perfume was still in the air. Everything was in order.
“Baby, if you could talk,” Baxter sighed as he took Steffie out of the cabin, “maybe you could tell me what’s going on.” He had a job to do, and he couldn’t do it and worry about Steffie at the same time. There was only one place he could take her.
“Captain! It’s a delight to see you!” Chaka’kan, the incredibly nice Jem’Hadar said, welcoming Baxter into his lower-deck cabin as he brought Steffie inside. “I must admit, it’s a bit of a surprise to see you this time of night.”
“I need your help with something, Chaka,” Baxter said heavily. “I need you to take Steffie for a while.”
“I understand,” the Jem’Hadar said, lifting Steffie from Baxter’s arms. “And I don’t think there’s anything going on I can’t shift around a little bit. As a matter of fact, I was just about to make fondue. Steffie can help.”
Baxter wasn’t sure, but it seemed as though, since getting back from the Gamma Quadrant, Chaka’kan had gotten even nicer. “That’s a nice offer, Chaka, but I’d appreciate it if you kept my daughter clear of any…molten…foods.”
“Understood,” Chaka said, grinning as he set Steffie in the crib he kept in his quarters for her. “We’ll just leave her here then while I cook the fondue.”
“Good idea,” Baxter said. He leaned in toward the babysitter. “Listen, Chaka, I need you to do me a favor.”
“Anything, Captain,” he said accommodatingly. “As you know, babysitting is life.”
“Yes. Right,” Baxter said. “Listen. I need you to take care of Steffie.”
“As you said.”
“But I need more than that. I want you to keep her in this room. Lock the door. Protect her. And don’t open the door for anyone but me.”
“Or Counselor Peterman?” Chaka asked, as Baxter headed for the door.
“No,” Baxter said as he walked out. “Nobody but me.”
“So let me get this straight,” J’hana said, gripping the handle of her phaser as she and Richards moved swiftly down the corridor. “We are looking for Peterman; however, the real culprit in all this would appear to be her housecat.”
“That’s the working theory,” Richards said.
“I see,” J’hana said. “And what proof do you have to back this up?”
“Fritz was the last thing Tilleran saw before she blacked out,” Richards said. “Her memory engrams showed it.”
“Perhaps Counselor Peterman hit her with some kind of…”
“It’s Fritz,” Richards said. “I knew that damn cat was trouble since the day I met him.”
J’hana nodded. “So you saw the cat physically injure Ariel?”
“Then how did he knock her into a coma?”
Richards shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe he’s a telepathic cat.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
ONE HOUR LATER
“So we’ve deduced that Fritz has somehow become telepathic,” J’hana said, standing at the front of the conference lounge, addressing the senior staff, minus, of course, Peterman and Tilleran. Everyone looked a little haggard, as this was the middle of night shift, and most of the alpha crew was usually fast asleep by this time.
Browning folded her hands on top of the table. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”
“Then you explain Tilleran’s loss of powers, or why she’s now, for lack of a better word…” Richards looked around the room. “Catatonic.”
“I can’t,” Browning admitted.
Baxter sat at the other end of the table, arms folded. “It doesn’t matter what happened. First, we’ve got to find Kelly and her kitty. Any progress there?”
Vansen shook her head. “We’ve combed the ship. We’ve got people in the Jefferies tubes and access conduits. Most of the crew is mobilized in this search, and so far they haven’t turned up anything.”
J’hana leaned over and braced her hands on the edge of the table, her fingers scratching the gleaming surface of the table as she spoke. “It’s as if she really did leave the ship.”
“No,” Hartley said, shifting back in her seat. “That’s impossible. No shuttle, runabout, or escape pod has left this ship since Kelly disappeared. The Escort’s accounted for. Nobody’s beamed off the ship. No one could have left this ship, short of opening a hatch and jumping out. And even that we’d know about.”
“Then she’s here,” Richards said. “We just have to find her.”
“Or she’s been vaporized by psycho kitty,” Vansen said.
“There’s a nice thought,” Baxter muttered. He leaned forward. “Look. I know we’re disoriented and confused by what’s been happening the last few days. Okay, the last few months. But we have a job to do, and I’m damned well sure we’re going to do it.”
“Can you remind us what, exactly, that job is?” Browning asked.
“It sure as hell isn’t finding the Bast,” Baxter said. “Wait a second.” He pressed a control on the table. “Bridge.”
“Bridge, this is Madera.”
“Susan, what’s our current course and speed?”
“We’re headed toward system HM-Six-Forty, where President Dillon says we may find clues as to the location of the Bast. He came up and ordered the course shortly before Commander Vansen returned to the bridge. He told me not to bother anyone with the details. Was that bad?”
“Never you mind,” Baxter said, and looked back at his staff. “He changed our course without even telling us. While we were scrambling around like voles with our heads cut off, he was still in intimate control of this mission. Of this ship. Of his obsessive search for some race which may or may not still exist. And we remain totally out of the loop.”
“That would be an accurate assessment,” Vansen said.
“Well, not anymore. Still there, Madera?”
“Good. Bring us to all stop. Thrusters at stationkeeping. Lock out helm controls on my order. This ship doesn’t move an inch until my next command. You got that?”
“Captain, I’m going to need authorization from two other command officers to lock out helm controls.”
“Present,” Richards said with a smile.
“And…accounted for,” Vansen said reluctantly.
“Good,” Baxter said, and stood. “It’s about time we all agreed on something. Now let’s go out there and shut this ship down.”
“Captain, I understand this ship has come to a halt,” Bradley Dillon said, picking up step next to Baxter as he and J’hana moved down the corridor. “Would you care to explain?”
“Your mission is on hold, Mister President, until I find my wife, my cat, and the cure for Commander Tilleran’s condition.”
“Not a chance,” Bradley replied, holding up his hand as if to stop everything. “There’s too much at stake.” He kept his voice low. “Captain, we’re too close now to stop looking. I cannot allow your shipboard crises to interfere with the goals of my Administration.”
“You mean your goals.”
“They are one and the same. And none of your business. Resume your course, Captain, or I’ll find someone who will.”
Baxter stopped walking, and turned to face Bradley. “No,” he said.
“Very well. Then you leave me no choice.” He pressed his cufflink. “Dillon to Vansen. Please take command. Captain Baxter has been relieved of duty.”
“Oh, really?” came Vansen’s response over the comm channel. “Wow, President Dillon. You’ve made all my dreams come true. Now I’m in command, and I get to tell you to go to hell too!”
“Go to…” He raised his eyebrows, smiling at Baxter. “I see. You’ve managed to somehow secure the allegiance of the one person on this ship whom I could have convinced to take away your command.”
“You’re welcomed to ask Richards if he wants the job,” Baxter said. “But I think I have a pretty good idea of what he’s going to tell you.” Baxter watched Bradley’s face for reaction. He was waiting for the Federation President to explode, throw a tantrum, scream and yell, cry…do something to indicate Baxter had won in this struggle of wills.
Instead, Bradley just smiled regally and backed away, waving for his entourage to follow him. “Very well, Captain. The fate of this mission is in your hands. Do what you must.”
“That was too easy,” J’hana said, as Bradley and the others walked away.
Baxter rubbed his chin. “You’re not kidding.”
“What now?” she asked.
“What now is, we search this ship again. Stem to stern. Every cabin. Tricorders, sensors. Naked eyes. Leave no stuff unturned.”
“I believe the expression is ‘leave no stone unturned,’” J’hana corrected.
“You see any stones around here?”
Transporter Chief Lindsay Morgan yawned and looked over her controls as she performed her usual periodic diagnostic before going off- shift. It was a typically slow day in Transporter Room Two. Other than transporting Lt. Commander Tilleran to the sickbay, and moving the away team to and from a possibly-Bast ship, she really hadn’t done much.
Well, okay. That was actually a relatively busy day. Especially since the Explorer had spent the last few months just plugging through the wilds of space.
Morgan shrugged. She didn’t mind if it was busy, anyway. She enjoyed having people coming and going in her transporter room. Gave her the chance to give them a smile, a kind word. The poor bastards needed someone to be nice to them, seeing as they were constantly at each other’s throats.
And if that person had to be her, well so be it. She was more than happy to offer those services.
Morgan looked over the readouts as the cycle ran its course. She was about to log off and head out of the transporter room when an odd blip came up on her screen.
“That’s odd,” she said, tapping a control. There was some data in one of the backup transporter buffers. A seldom-used pattern holding tank that was only brought on-line during emergency evacuations and other crisis situations. And, certainly, there should be no pattern in there.
She pulled up a description of the pattern. Human. Female.
“Hmm,” she said. “Well that’s certainly darned outta the ordinary.” She decided the most prudent thing to do was to materialize the pattern. God knew she didn’t want anyone to have to be trapped in the transporter. What an awful fate that would be!
She punched in the transporter sequence and ran the three sliders from top to bottom, bringing the pattern out of the buffer and materializing it on the transporter padd.
Morgan gasped as the pattern coalesced in a sparkle of blue into Counselor Kelly Peterman.
“Oh, my gosh!” Morgan said, stepping out from behind her console as Peterman stood there, limp, her eyes closed, and then collapsed forward right in Morgan’s arms. “Morgan to Sickbay! Medical emergency! I’ve found Counselor Peterman!”
Baxter was in Sickbay shortly after the site to site transport was complete, J’hana not far behind.
“Give me some room, Andy,” Browning ordered, waving Baxter back as she leaned over Peterman with her medical tricorder. She was laying on the biobed next to Tilleran. “Vitals normal.” She looked back at Baxter with a smile. “She’s okay. It’s just a little…um….catnap.”
“This is no time for jokes,” J’hana said. “Although that was quite amusing.”
“Thanks!” Browning grinned, then immediately became serious as she looked at Baxter. “As I was saying, Kelly is just unconscious at the moment.”
“Tell me more,” Baxter said, leaning forward, resting a hand on Peterman’s leg.
Browning continued to read from her tricorder. “There are elevated levels of adrenaline and endorphins…and there’s a slight chemical imbalance in her brain.”
“Chemical imbalance?” Baxter asked. “From what?”
“Probably from telepathic communication,” Browning said. “Similar to what happened to Tilleran, but not nearly as severe.”
“Telepathic?” Baxter asked, his brow furrowing.
“It was gentler with her,” J’hana growled. “That damn cat spared Peterman a grisly brain death but had no compunctions about turning my Imzadi into a kumquat!”
“We still don’t know what it is we’re dealing with,” Browning said.
“That’s an understatement,” Baxter said. “Can you revive her?”
“I don’t want to force anything,” Browning said. “It would be better for her to wake up on her own.”
“Fine,” Baxter said, and turned around. “Call me as soon as she wakes up.”
Browning followed Baxter with her eyes as he walked to the door. “Where are you going, Andy?”
“To interrogate the hell out of someone. J’hana, feel like coming with?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Captain, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am you’ve come for me!” Doctor Jarvay Ranowat shrieked, giggling with guilty pleasure. “I’ll make you the happiest man in the quadrant. All you have to do is kiss me. No. Kill me! Kill me!”
“Flood his chamber with anesthezine,” Baxter called over his shoulder to Lt. Unlathi, the Velvattian security officer. “Then get out of here. I need some…” He cracked his knuckles. “Alone time.”
Unlathi silently did as Baxter asked, and in moments Ranowat’s caterwauling grew silent, and the massive being slumped out of the brig, leaving a slimy trail behind.
“Wait, Lieutenant,” J’hana called out, following Unlathi. “You dropped one of your nodules.” She bent down and picked up something that looked like a cluster of blue grapes, except far slimier. Unlathi grabbed it with a tentacle. “Who knows,” J’hana said. “That little amalgam of glial cells may grow up to be a nice, big…something.”
Unlathi grunted and left the brig.
“I really understand that big, slimy lug,” J’hana said softly, then turned to Baxter, who approached the other brig cell, phaser drawn.
“Lower the forcefield,” Baxter ordered.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea, Captain? Those forcefields are in place to protect weaklings like you.”
“Do it,” Baxter snapped.
“The captain has no fear, J’hana,” a soothing voice said from within the cell. “And thus, he has no use for fear.”
“Whatever,” J’hana said, walking up to the brig cell and punching in a code.
“Captain,” Doctor Doug Leonardo, pet therapist, and recent attacker of Fritz, stood and bowed regally. “A pleasure, as always. I can tell by your bearing that you have important business to discuss. I take it the time of reckoning is at hand?”
Baxter aimed his phaser at Leonardo. “You tell me.”
“I assure you, Captain, that’s not necessary,” Leonardo said, gesturing at the phaser. “I wouldn’t think of hurting you.”
“You know what Fritz is,” Baxter said. “You know he’s a little more than an ordinary housecat.”
“Oh, yes,” Leonardo said. “It was as I tried to tell you. I laid it all out for you and your friends, quite elegantly, but you would not listen.” He looked around. “Instead, you locked me up in this place, with that madman next door, and forgot about me.”
“Sorry,” Baxter said, but didn’t sound sincere.
Leonardo folded his arms. He wore a simple two-piece olive tunic- and-pants set, standard brig issue. “And now you want my help.”
“That’s right. Tell me how to find Fritz. Tell me how to catch him, to stop him. Reverse the effect he had on my Betazoid officer.”
“You don’t ask much, do you?”
“And tell me what the hell he did to my wife.”
“What he did?” Leonardo’s eyes lit up. “He…did something?”
Baxter nodded. “He’s been controlling her.”
“You’re half right,” Leonardo said with a toothy grin. “Oh, Captain, it’s so much more complex than that.”
“I’ve heard enough,” J’hana said. “Kill him.”
Baxter pointed his phaser down at the floor and blasted one of Leonardo’s feet. The doctor collapsed to the floor, cradling his smoking foot.
“You idiot! Why did you do that?” Leonardo shouted.
“Captain, I am impressed,” J’hana said. “I thought you were bluffing.”
Baxter calmly upped the setting on the phaser. “Next time I aim for something more vital. I don’t have time to piss around, Leonardo.”
“Of course not. Nobody has time to…piss.” Leonard sighed, limping back onto his bunk, and staring at Baxter with contempt. “You forget, Captain. I have the counseling profiles of this whole crew right up here.” He tapped his forehead. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“Then what am I thinking now?”
“That you’d rather be playing football on the holodeck than playing the bully. It’s not your part, Captain.”
“That much is true. But you’d be surprised at what I’m capable of when you put my family in danger.”
“Your family isn’t in danger,” Leonardo laughed, leaning his head against the wall. “You’re so small-minded, Captain. It’s the entire human race that’s in danger.”
Leonardo stared up at the ceiling. “It’s a shame, too. I rather like the human race. Don’t you?”
“It has its moments,” J’hana yawned, and looked sideways at Baxter. “Finish shooting him so we can go back to looking for Fritz.”
“Wait!” Leonardo said, holding up a hand. “I have a way to help you, and possibly to fix your Betazoid at the same time.”
“I’m listening,” said Baxter.
Leonardo leaned forward. “I take it she tried to get inside the cat’s mind?”
Baxter nodded. “Yes.”
“It overloaded her central nervous system. Started shutting off her autonomic functions?”
“Yes,” J’hana said, stepping closer.
“Someone’s got to get in there. Access her senses. That’s the only way to know for sure where Fritz is. Because believe me, Captain, that cat knows how to lay low. It’s what it trained its entire life for.”
“What do you mean?” Baxter asked. “It’s a damn cat. It’s the offspring of Nurse Bailey’ cat…” He rubbed his chin. “Fluffy, I think it was.”
“Fluffy for short,” Leonardo said wryly. “Its full name was George Saint Fluffersnuggles.”
“The name you were calling out when you strangled Fritz,” J’hana remembered.
“If only I’d been allowed to complete my task,” Leonardo sighed. “At any rate, Nurse Bailey and I were involved, for a time, before the Aerostar left for its cursed mission. And that cat, George Saint Fluffersnuggles, was mine. The bitch stole him right out from under me, in the midst of what I thought was the biggest discovery in all of pet psychology.” Leonardo stared out into space wistfully. “For a short time, my mind merged with that of Fluffersnuggles.”
“You’re ambitious. I’ll give you that,” Baxter said flatly.
“We became one, much like what probably happened to your wife. And I had proof of what I’d been looking for all along. Animal sentience. I thought I’d found a way to communicate with all of animal-kind. It was during this period that some of my most famous books were written, with Fluffersnuggles pushing me all the while, helping me squeeze the delicious thoughts out of my brain.
“Then, just days before Bailey left me suddenly, and took Fluffy with her, I realized I wasn’t dealing with one of Earth’s creatures. No, this housecat I had picked up from the animal shelter on Europa was much more than that. He possessed the mind…perhaps even the soul…of a member of a once-great species. Brenna ripped that away from me, and I’ve been searching ever since.”
He smiled wistfully. “Then, when your crew returned to the Alpha Quadrant, I resumed my surveillance. I could never find Fluffy, but I learned through one of my friends that Fritz belonged to your Counselor Peterman. So I found my way onto your ship. This mission President Dillon put us on just confirmed my hypothesis. It proved what I’d suspected all along. That Fritz being on this ship wasn’t just a coincidence. That little bugger made sure his ship was the one sent out into the wilds of space, on what seemed to be a fruitless search. But Fritz knew differently.”
“Please, please don’t say what I think you’re about to say,” Baxter whispered.
“‘Fritz,’ much like his father before him, is an ambassador for the very race you’ve been searching for all this time.”
“Well this is certainly a great big bore,” Lt. Commander Vansen said from the command chair. “Sitting dead in space, helm locked out, crew busy looking for a missing cat, and us with nothing to do.”
“That’s not altogether true,” Lt. Madera said, turning in her seat at the helm. “I’m working on all the RSVPs for my wedding and working on placecards for the tables at the reception. Want to see?”
Vansen shook her head. “Not really.”
“I didn’t see your RSVP on the list,” Madera said, turning and checking her console. “Did you forget to respond?”
“No,” Vansen said simply.
“Well, are you coming?”
“No,” Vansen said, then looked down at the readout on the arm of the command chair. “Still bored.”
“Well, Chris and I didn’t want you there anyway,” Madera pouted, and turned back toward the viewscreen. “And you can forget about coming to my bridal shower.”
“Darn,” Vansen said.
“And, with all due respect, Commander, stop being so sarcastic.”
“I wasn’t being sarcastic,” Vansen said, looking down at the command chair readout. “I just saw an EM spike in the main computer core. It was brief, then it vanished.”
“It’s probably just routine interference from a nearby pulsar or something,” Madera suggested.
“Still, I’d better go check it out. The rest of the crew is out looking for that stupid cat. I might as well make myself useful. And, honestly, a trip to the computer core would be more interesting than sitting here with you.”
“You know, you could at least try to fake being nice!”
“Why bother?” Vansen asked, and stepped into the turbolift.
“Where do we go now?” J’hana asked as Baxter walked down the corridor.
“You’re going to go take a meeting with Janice and Ensign Koltz. Find a way into Tilleran’s mind.”
“At what cost?” J’hana demanded. “You suggest we use her to find Fritz, even if it means causing her to deteriorate further? Perhaps beyond repair?”
Baxter stopped walking, and turned, putting his hands on J’hana’s shoulders. “If we’re to trust Leonardo, then getting in her mind, getting at whatever Fritz did in there, is going to free her, not kill her. We just have to figure out how to do it.”
“Of course, why should we not trust Leonardo?” J’hana spat. “He’s a lunatic, after all.”
“No,” Baxter said. “I don’t think he is.” And he started walking off in the opposite direction.
“And just where are you going, in the meantime?” J’hana demanded.
“This whole time Kelly’s been acting weird, she’s been working on some ‘major book,’” Baxter said. “I want to find out exactly what she’s been writing about all this time.”
“You think there will be some clue to Fritz and the Bast in there?”
“I really don’t care if there is.”
“Can I just say, I feel really honored to be included in this little ‘jam session,’” the chubby Ensign Koltz said, hands folded in his lap as he sat on the other side of Dr. Browning’s desk with Lt. J’hana.
“We’re thrilled to have you with us,” Browning said, putting a reassuring hand on Koltz’ furry paw, just as a “ding” echoed through the office. “Pizza’s ready.”
“Your pizza can wait,” J’hana rumbled. “We must find a way into Tilleran’s brain.”
“Right,” Browning said, tapping a control on her desktop terminal. “Betazoid brains. They have…lots of lobes.”
“You’re deactivating the pizza oven and putting your pizza into stasis, aren’t you?”
“That’s real cheese, J’hana!” Browning snapped.
“We’re all on edge here,” Koltz said helpfully. “What’s say we focus on the plan? Brainstorm! Really get into a team mode!”
“Stop babbling, or I will eviscerate you,” J’hana said calmly, staring at Koltz.
“Right,” Koltz said, and stared at the floor.
“Well,” Browning said, flipping through the crew manifest on her terminal. “There are no other Betazoids on the ship. There are some Vulcans, however.”
“No,” J’hana said quickly. “No Vulcans. Ariel had a bad encounter with some Vulcans some time ago. She would rather die than mind meld with one.”
“Well, J’hana, I really don’t see any alternatives. How about you, Koltz?”
The Tellarite just shook his head silently, still apparently mulling over J’hana’s threat.
“I believe the obvious alternative is looking us all in the face,” J’hana said, then looked from Browning to Koltz. “At least, it’s looking the two of you in the face.”
“J’hana, you can’t mean…”
“The Imzadi bond. It runs strong in us, even though Ariel has tried to deny it in the past. I know I can get inside her. Feel her.”
“We are talking about telepathy, right?” Browning asked with a nervous smile.
“Indeed.” She inclined her head out toward Sickbay. “You have her hooked up to the computer. That could modulate the telepathic connection between us, could it not?”
Browning shrugged. “I suppose. Our science officer is braindead and our counselor is unconscious. So it’s all guesswork.”
“You did attend a school of some kind, am I right?” J’hana asked, raising her eyebrow.
“Yes!” Browning sighed. “Fine.” She looked long and hard at J’hana. “But you do realize this would be as big a risk to you as it is to her. Are you really ready to sacrifice your life if this doesn’t work out?”
J’hana grinned wide. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Koltz stood up quickly. “I’ll get the neural interface cables!”
“I’ll get some pizza,” Browning said.
Captain Baxter noticed how quiet his quarters had become. No Peterman. No Steffie. No Charlie, or Fritz. All the other animals were down below.
He hadn’t had a cabin this quiet since he’d first become Captain of the Aerostar. And for that short stint he lived alone on Earth, when the Explorer was a cruise ship.
He sat down behind his desk and activated his desktop terminal. His desk. He rarely thought of it that way, of late. It had really become more Kelly’s desk, since she’d been on this book-writing spree.
Baxter reluctantly called up the file. He’d normally never violate a confidence like this. Kelly didn’t want him to read this until it was finished. But he couldn’t afford the luxury of giving his wife privacy. Not when her life, his life, maybe everyone’s life depended on what was held in that little file.
Not surprisingly, the file didn’t open when Baxter selected it. Instead, he got a password prompt. It figured Peterman would try to secure the file.
It took Baxter about one second to guess his wife’s password. He typed in “Charlie.”
Instantly, the file opened up for him, and laid out everything Kelly had been hiding.
Twelve minutes later, Baxter smashed the terminal up against the wall and ran out of his cabin.
“Neural patch-in is operational,” Koltz said from a nearby workstation as Browning monitored the connecting cables that led from J’hana’s forehead to Tilleran’s with a tricorder. The Andorian was seated on a stool beside Tilleran, her fingers interlaced with those of the science officer.
“Looks good from my end,” Browning said as she chomped on a pizza crust. “Sure I can’t interest you in a slice of pizza before you go under?”
J’hana shook her head. “I sort of lost my appetite when you showed me what the inside of my brain looks like.”
“But you eat entrails for breakfast.”
“Yes,” J’hana nodded. “Still…”
“Fine,” Browning said. “Then we’re ready when you are.”
“I am ready,” J’hana said, and looked at Tilleran’s closed eyes, filled with curiosity at what would lay behind them.
As the Browning initiated the computer connection that would facilitate a telepathic link between J’hana and her former lover, the Andorian instantly knew everything.
And knew nothing at all.
“Where am I?” J’hana asked, her voice echoing off grey-blue cavern walls. The sound of water splashing seemed to come from everywhere. In front of her, a vast wall of water blocked the entrance to the cavern.
“We’re behind the Ahani waterfall, on Betazed,” Tilleran said from behind her, and J’hana turned around, to find her Imzadi wearing a skintight azure bathing suit, her long dark hair in braids that snaked over her shoulder. She knelt, picked up a stone, and lifted it up for J’hana’s inspection. “See this? I kept this, to help me remember this visit to the waterfalls.”
“What’s so special about this visit?”
Tilleran stood up, crossed over to J’hana, and wrapped her arms around the Andorian’s shoulders. “Because this is where I first…became a woman.”
“Became…” J’hana said, her antennae twitched. “Oh. A worthy memory, indeed. Your lover…I take it he is gone? Or…she?”
“He,” Tilleran said with a laugh. “Just left. He was embarrassed. Said he had to get back to his ship. That he was stupid to fall for a Betazoid. That he couldn’t stand the idea that we knew all his thoughts. That he’d never date another Betazoid, ever again.” She shrugged. “He was wrong.”
“Why are we here?” J’hana asked, desperately trying to remember what she herself was doing there.
“I thought I would retreat to a safe place,” Tilleran said, backing away from J’hana, a fearful look now on her face. “It’s not a safe world out there, Jan.”
“I know,” J’hana said. “But it’s no reason to hide. There are people out there who need us. I…need you.”
“We don’t always get what we need,” Tilleran said, walking toward the wall of water. Behind it, rays of sunlight glinted in, filtered through as if the waterfall were a giant kaleidoscope. “But we get what we want.”
“Stop talking in riddles!” J’hana cried. “There is a great evil loose on the Explorer, and you hold the key to stopping it. Think, Imzadi, think! How do we stop that shtarrred cat!”
“It’s not a matter of stopping him,” Tilleran said, reaching out to touch the water as it trickled in front of her, sending a spray onto her face. “He’ll just find another host.” She turned around. “We have to get to the root of the problem. We have to find the nest.”
“Cats have nests?” J’hana asked.
“This one does,” Tilleran said thoughtfully. “A big one. I saw it…in his mind…briefly.”
“Where do we find it?”
Tilleran looked back at J’hana, then shook her head, laughing gaily. “Silly Jan. We don’t have to look. It’s going to find us.”
Counselor Peterman’s eyes fluttered open. “Where…” she whispered, but her mouth was parched. She leaned up on her elbows. “What…happened?”
“Kelly. You’re up!” Browning was immediately at her side. Peterman heard beeping everywhere. Soft, white light. She was in Sickbay.
“Yes,” Peterman said, looking at the concern on Browning’s face. “Of course I’m up…and dizzy.” She leaned back down. “Please start explaining things. Now would be best.”
Browning brushed a hand across Peterman’s forehead. “I wouldn’t know where to start. What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I remember…” Peterman said slowly. “I remember everything. But mostly, I remember being confused. And I remember…” Her eyes widened. “Fritz!”
“Keep talking,” Browning said, glancing at something over her shoulder. Peterman didn’t know what was so interesting, but she could here Ensign Koltz calling out information about “vital signs” and “neurological connection.”
“Fritz…was…he was not Fritz. Not the Fritz I thought he was. He was…”
“You’re okay now, Kelly.”
“He was controlling me!”
Browning nodded. “We kind of figured that.”
“For more than a month!” Peterman leaned up, put a shaky hand over her mouth. “Janice. Am I crazy?”
“Not anymore,” Browning smiled. “Just try to breathe. Relax. Everything’s going to be fine.”
Just then, the lights throughout sickbay flickered.
Browning looked up. “What the–?”
“Doctor! We’re losing the connection!” Koltz called out, and Browning immediately rushed over. Peterman slid off the bed, and, on uneasy legs, stepped up to join her.
“What’s happening?” Peterman asked, shocked to see Tilleran unconscious on the biobed, and J’hana, sitting upright beside her, equally unconscious. “This…this is all because of me.”
“Nonsense,” Browning said, as she pulled out her tricorder and ran it over both patients. “Divert power from any system you have to, Koltz. Keep that connection going. If it fails, while they’re joined…”
“We’ll lose them both,” Peterman finished the thought.
Then the comm system bleeped to life: “Vansen to J’hana! I need security in the computer core on the double! Fritz is in here! I caught him shredding the place!” There were loud cat shrieks in the background. “And he’s not very happy to see me!”
“Vansen, this is Doctor Browning. J’hana’s not really available right now.”
“Well, send somebody down here. I’ve got….”
“Cat scratch fever?” Browning offered.
“Oh, shut the hell up. And thanks for nothing! Vansen out.”
Browning sighed. “Browning to Baxter.”
“I’ve already heard. I’m on my way.”
“There’s something else,” Browning said, looking at Peterman with a smile. “Your wife’s awake!”
“Fine. I’ll deal with it later. Baxter out.”
Peterman and Browning exchanged confused glances, just as Koltz called out:
“Doctor, something’s gone haywire with the computer core. I can’t maintain the connection!”
Browning rushed up to Koltz’ side, looking at the readings. “Dump it to the other core. Quickly!”
“I can’t. It’s…” Koltz looked up from his readings. “It’s too late. I lost the connection.”
“Shoot to kill,” Baxter said, tossing a phaser rifle to Commander Richards as they met up in the corridor outside the computer core. Five other armed security officers, led by Ensign Keefler, raced up behind them.
“We are still talking about a cat, right?” Richards asked.
“Damn right we are,” Baxter said, and keyed the door to the computer core open.
Lt. Commander Vansen stood in the doorway, face scratched and bleeding, lip and cheek swollen, uniform shredded, holding a limp orange cat by the scruff of its neck.
“One knocked out kitty, as ordered,” she said woozily. “Permission to lose consciousness.” And with that, she fell to the floor, Fritz in hand.
Baxter knelt and pulled Fritz from Vansen’s curled fingers as Richards raced into the massive cylindrical room where the computer core was housed. He walked up to a workstation and started tapping on the console.
“Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” Baxter muttered to himself, as he looked in Fritz’s eyes. He felt the cat’s neck. Still a pulse. Good. The cat would be interrogated. Baxter couldn’t believe he was even thinking such a thing. Yet here he was. He looked up at Richards, who frantically ran his hands over the computer controls. “Chris? How bad is it?”
“Bad,” Richards said. “We lost the main core.”
“So?” Baxter asked. “That’s what the backup core is for.”
“True,” Richards said. “Just one problem, though.”
Suddenly, Baxter felt an almost imperceptible thrum beneath his feet. The engines had just come online.
“Baxter to bridge!”
“Madera here. Captain, the engines just started up. The backup computer core isn’t recognizing your helm lockout.”
“Lock it out again!”
“I can’t. Manual override isn’t working. Captain, we’re laying in a course. Zero four zero, mark two seven one. Warp nine!”
“Who told you to do that?”
“I’m not doing it, sir!”
Baxter and Richards looked at each other, as Baxter held the unconscious Fritz in his hands, as they both felt the ship leaping into warp.
And Bradley Dillon walked up behind them, surrounded by his armed entourage. He rubbed his hands together, looking like a man victorious.
“Your service to the Federation is noted, and is most appreciated,” Bradley said. “But I’ve sat back and watched events unfold for long enough. It seems, Captain, that your cat is taking us straight to the Bast. Hope you don’t mind if I take over from here.”
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
This is it. The crew of the Explorer comes face to face with the Bast. Sort of. Are they ready for this meeting of the minds? What is Bradley Dillon’s plan, and how do the Bast fit into it? Has everyone been honest with each other, and if not, who’s keeping secrets from who? The answers may surprise you. Then again, they may not.