Author: Anthony Butler
Stardate 56766.3. We’re on course, it seems, to rendez-vous with a Bast ship. I would like to state for the record that I did not set this course, neither did any of my crew. As absurd as this may sound, my wife’s cat set this course, and I’m damned sure going to find out how. Cat’s aren’t supposed to be able to do that.
Captain Baxter stared idly out at the stars blazing by the conference lounge window as Peterman, Richards, and Vansen sat before them, eyes red-rimmed, faces a little sallow, and wills all but broken.
Oddly, he didn’t seem to care. He just looked out the window.
“As you all may be aware,” Federation President Bradley Dillon said, standing at the front of the room, near the display screen. “This ship is on course for a Bast vessel, presumably the same one we encountered a day ago. Counselor Peterman’s cat,” he nodded in the direction of Peterman, who sat on the other end of the conference table from Baxter, “was the one who sent us there.”
“We’re aware,” Richards said.
“Yeah,” Vansen muttered, her face covered with scratches. “The damn thing nearly ripped my eyes out.”
“Yes,” Bradley said. “That was unfortunate. Luckily, though, we’ve captured the creature and put it in an observation chamber in Science Lab Two. As soon as Lieutenant Commander Tilleran is well, she’ll have an opportunity to study–”
“She’s in a coma,” Peterman snapped. “Along with our Chief of Security. And thanks to the Bast, neither of them may ever wake up again!”
“Because of Fritz,” Baxter said quietly, still looking out the window.
“Well then,” Bradley said. “I’m sure there are other science officers on this ship. We must move forward. There is much preparation to do before we meet up with the Bast.”
“You sound like we’re going to a social mixer,” Richards said. “When, instead, they put a hostile being on our ship to study us for the last six years. Then it got into our computers and took over the ship, sending it God-knows-where so the Bast can do God-knows-what to us. Do you really think they would have done all that if all they wanted was a meet and greet?”
“I can’t gauge their intentions at this time,” Bradley said. “Until I do, we have to prepare as if we’re entering a typical diplomatic situation.”
“Well, then,” Peterman muttered. “I’ll break out the fancy silverware.”
“There’s no need for sarcasm, Counselor,” Bradley said. “This is an historic occasion. The beginning of diplomatic relations with one of the most ancient and storied cultures in the universe. And you’re here to witness it.”
“True,” Peterman said. “Now that Fritz let go of the control he had on my brain.”
Vansen stared at her. “Do we have any proof that he has let go? I mean, for all we know, you could still be controlled by him. You should be kept under guard.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Peterman said. “I’m back to myself. Janice gave me a full brain scan. Andy…tell her.”
Baxter looked quickly at Peterman, then looked away, and stood up. “We have work to do.”
“Glad to see we’re on the same page,” Bradley said, rubbing his hands together. “Now then, Lieutenant Madera tells me that the Bast starship is on the edge of sensor range. We should be there in three hours. I expect a report on our readiness in one hour.”
“You’ll get a report all right,” Baxter said, turning for the door.
Bradley touched Baxter’s arm. The Captain stopped, looked over his shoulder.
“Captain,” Bradley said with a conciliatory smile. “It goes without saying that you and your crew have been through a lot in the last couple days. I completely understand that you may have …some animosity toward the Bast, and perhaps toward myself as well. But I must order you, explicitly, to do nothing to derail this mission. Do I have your word on this?”
“Sure,” Baxter said. “Cross my heart and hope to die.” And he walked out of the room.
“So…how do we get my ship back?” Captain Baxter asked, fifteen minutes later, hunched in a Jefferies tube outside computer core 2, next to Lt. Commander Hartley, who was busy zapping at an interface module with a protoplaser.
“Aside from you standing up to President Dillon and putting him in the brig once and for all?” Hartley asked wryly as she worked.
“Aside from that.”
“We have to get into computer core two and disable it.”
“We can’t even get in?”
“Hence being in the Jefferies tube.”
“What, is there a forcefield up?”
“Yes, and I don’t even know where the power is coming from. Captain, whoever crosswired these circuits is working on a level of intelligence I can’t even begin to understand. Every effort to get through is headed off at the pass. It’s like the computer is anticipating my moves and adapting to counter them. And the worst part is, it’s our own computer that’s doing it!”
“And to think, it was all done by a cat,” Baxter said, patting Hartley’s shoulder. “Keep working. You’re the only shot we have at evading the Bast. If we can’t get computer control back before we get there…”
“We’re cat food,” Hartley muttered.
“Something like that,” Baxter said, and squirmed out of the tube. “Keep me posted.”
“Where are you going?”
“To see a woman about a coma.”
“Give them both thirty cc’s of somnaline,” Browning said, moving from one comatose patient to the next, blowing her hair out of her face as she checked readout after readout, and crosschecked them with the readings on her medical tricorder, sparing a breath to bark an order to Nurse Chadway, or her other medtechs, in between.
“What’s the status, Janice?” Captain Baxter asked from the doorway to sickbay.
“The computer connection that was modulating the telepathic bond between Tilleran and J’hana failed. Now we’re losing them both,” she said, as she scrambled to plunge hyposprays into the necks of Tilleran and J’hana, who was now spread out on the biobed beside the Betazoid.
“Isn’t there something you can do for them?”
“Uh…yeah,” Browning said breathlessly. “Everything I’m doing.”
“Of course,” Baxter said. “I didn’t mean…”
“Andy, there isn’t anything you can do to help right now. I’d appreciate it if you just got out of here and let me work. Check on Plato for me. He should be getting ready for school about now. I’ll let you know as soon as I know something. Damn it! Neurotransmitter levels are bottoming out. Cordical stimulators!”
“Right,” Baxter said. “I’ll just…be outside. Somewhere.” And he backed out of the door.
“I know I don’t know the captain very well,” Ensign Koltz said, as he leaned over Tilleran with his tricorder, scanning her brain. “But I’d say he’s acting a little strange.”
“He’s been through a lot,” Browning said, tapping on the emitter controls on the cordical stimulator on Tilleran’s forhead. “We all have. Stimulators ready. Hit it, Chadway!”
Tilleran and J’hana both twitched suddenly.
“Hit them again!”
“Doctor,” Koltz said, looking up at Browning. “What if we can’t bring them back?”
“That’s not an option,” Browning said, as she watched J’hana’s eyes rapidly moving underneath her eyelids. Tilleran’s were doing the same. Briefly, she wondered what was going on in their minds. Were they conscious of what was happening? Browning decided there was no way to know, and just kept working.
“We are lost, Imzadi,” J’hana said, standing on the edge of a rocky outcropping, overlooking a white desert landscape, complete with a gleaming bright sun shining above in an azure sky. The Andorian and the Betazoid were at the edge of the outcropping, holding hands, looking out over the miles and miles of empty terrain that lay spread out before them, a hundred meters below.
“Lost is just a state of mind, Jan,” Tilleran whispered. “Isn’t this a lovely view?”
“It is a construct, taken from one of our minds. It must be yours, as I have never been to Vulcan.”
“I have,” Tilleran said. “And this isn’t Vulcan. It’s the Mojave desert. On Earth.”
“It’s not very attractive.”
“It’s beautiful,” Tilleran said with a sigh. “I guess my brain wanted to treat me to one more beautiful sight before it gave out entirely.”
J’hana looked at Tilleran. “Is that what’s happening? Are we both just going to fade out of existence?”
“It seems that way. We’ve lost control of this hallucination. That must mean that there’s some kind of malfunction in the world out there.” She pointed up at the sky. “Wherever there is.”
“Don’t you think there’s something we can do to help?” J’hana said. “I mean, it is our lives that we’re fighting for. We cannot just give up.”
“That’s precisely what we should do,” Tilleran said. “What’s the point? There’s only hurt and anger out there in the real world. At least here we’re safe here.” She walked toward J’hana and grabbed her hand. “Together.”
J’hana cocked her head and stared long and hard at Tilleran. “You’re still not right, are you?”
“Right?” Tilleran said, and smiled. “I’m more right than I’ve ever been.”
“Stop talking like that!”
“J’hana,” Tilleran said, and faced the Andorian, taking both her hands. “You’re still attached to that world out there. You’ve got to forget about it. Let go.”
“Never!” J’hana shouted, and pushed Tilleran’s hands away. She backed away from the Betazoid. “I cannot just end my existence. Not when there’s so much else to do.”
“What else is there to do, hmm?” Tilleran asked, raising an eyebrow. “Haven’t you already done enough?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve done nothing but fight all your life, J’hana. Don’t you want to rest?”
“I don’t need to rest. I need to help the Captain. Help the Explorer. I can’t do that if I’m dead!”
“But what if you had to leave me here?” Tilleran asked. “What if you had to live the rest of your life without me. Would it really be worth it, then?”
“You’re not Tilleran,” J’hana said flatly. “The real Tilleran would want me to live. You seem to be convincing me to die.”
“It would be easier,” Tilleran said, smiling wide and stepping toward J’hana. “You know, it’s so much easier to absorb you humanoids when you’re comatose. The brain doesn’t fight it. You just slip in, like one of your toddlers slipping into a pair of footy pajamas. Isn’t that a pleasing thought?”
“You are the Bast!” J’hana shouted, charging Tilleran and knocking her to the ground.
“That’s a pedantic name for a proud species whose accomplishments predate the existence of your race!” Tilleran said, clawing at J’hana’s face as the Andorian pinned her to the ground, gripping her wrists. “But let’s not fight,” Tilleran cooed. “Wouldn’t you rather…take me? Right here. Right now? I can provide you with a millenium of pleasure. Just give up your puny hold on the real world. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, you know.”
“Never!” J’hana spat, wrapping her hands around Tilleran’s throat and choking her.
“You’re killing your Imzadi!” Tilleran giggled playfully as J’hana choked her. Then, with a blnk, the Betazoid’s black eyes became yellow and slitted, and with unbecoming strength she pushed J’hana off.
J’hana rolled onto the ground, sitting on her backside, astonished. She stared at Tilleran, as she flipped her body up into a crouch with inhuman flexibility. She smiled, letting out a long, luxurious purr as she stretched out, and her hands became clawed, and her long,dark hair turned orange. Triangular ears poked out at the top of her head, and she sniffed at J’hana with a wriggling pink nose that sprouted whiskers, as she edged forward, a long, orange tail swirling behind her.
“Do you like me this way?” she cooed.
“Yes, but that’s not the point!” J’hana said, rising to her feet. “I do not know what your plans are, but you will assuredly fail!”
“What if I told you we’ve already won?”
“I wouldn’t believe you.”
Tilleran inched even closer, running one taloned finger along the side of J’hana’s face. “What if I told you I could promise you a most honorable death?”
J’hana stared long and hard at the catlike Tilleran, and her expression suddenly softened. “I would…listen to you.”
“I knew you would,” Tilleran giggled.
“Bitch!” a voice called out, and J’hana was startled to see Ariel Tilleran, without cat features, rise up behind the other Tilleran and clobber her in the head with a large rock, sending her in a heap to the ground. The cat-Tilleran struggled to rise up, but Tilleran knelt in front of her and brought the rock down repeatedly on her head. “I…hate it…when…the…bad guys…look… like me!” she cried as she smashed the rock repeatedly into the other Tilleran, until finally it just disappeared…leaving nothing but a faint grey scorch mark behind on the sandy ground.
“Ari…” J’hana said softly, grabbing Tilleran’s arms and lifting her to her feet. “Where have you been?”
“Looking for you!” Tilleran said, tossing the rock down to the ground. “Can I just tell you, my brain is huge! It took forever to get through it.”
“I agree,” J’hana said. “Have you any idea of how to get out of here?”
“I’ve been working on it ever since I lost consciousness. Have you been here long?”
J’hana wasn’t sure. “It feels like it,” she said.
Tilleran tiptoed out to the edge of the cliff and looked down at the rocky ground hundreds of meters below. “Jan, I hate to say it, but I think I may have an idea of what my subconscious has planned for us.”
“Please, do clue me in,” J’hana said.
“I think we have to jump.”
“Down there,” Tilleran said. “Don’t you see? It would be a symbol of ending this existence. We’d splatter on the ground, and, for all intents and purposes, leave this existence.”
“With a splat,” J’hana emphasized.
“Right. But, after the splat, we’d wake up.”
J’hana nodded, looking out at the still, white, desert landscape. “What is the alternative?”
Tilleran put her hands on her hips. “We stay here and have a picnic.”
“Fine.” J’hana grabbed Tilleran’s hand. “Then we jump, Imzadi.”
“I knew you’d see it my way.” She inched toward the edge of the outcropping, J’hana beside her. “Are you ready, J’hana?”
“Are you sure about this Ariel?”
“Then I’m ready.”
“No regrets?” Tilleran asked softly.
“I regret nothing!” J’hana shouted and lept, dragging Tilleran behind her.
And Tilleran and J’hana fell, and fell.
J’hana and Tilleran sat bolt upright at the exact same time, causing Koltz to shriek in dismay, and causing Dr. Browning to choke on her ham sandwich.
“Urk!” Browning coughed, swallowing hard and staring at the readouts as she put her sandwich down on a nearby tray. “J’hana, Tilleran… how?”
“How is not important,” J’hana said. She looked around Sickbay. “We are alive, and that is what matters.”
Koltz stared at the two of them blankly. “Are you two…all right?”
“No,” Tilleran said, and slid off the biobed. “But it doesn’t matter. We have to talk to the Captain. The Bast are yet to come, and we’ve got to stop them.”
Browning held up her hands, stopping Tilleran and J’hana in their tracks. “Wait a minute. I need to look you two over before I let you out of Sickbay. Make sure there are no lingering aftereffects of your…mind trip.”
“But we have to act before it’s too late!” Tilleran pleaded.
“I’m afraid it already is,” Browning said.
“Where are we going, Uncle Andy?” Plato asked, as he and Baxter walked down the corridor.
“To find a place to hide out for a while,” Baxter said simply.
“Hide out from what?”
Baxter knelt beside Plato, looking in the shorter boy’s eyes. “The Explorer is on a very special mission. It could get dangerous. I need you…where I can call on you, in case things get to hectic.”
“You’re going to hide me so I don’t get hurt,” Plato said.
“You’re getting too damn smart,” Baxter sighed. “You could have at least humored me.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little childish?” Plato asked.
“Touche,” Baxter said.
“So where are we going?”
“The safest place I know,” Baxter said, walking up to a door and pushing the call button. The door slid open to reveal Chaka’kan.
“Ah, Captain,” the Jem’Hadar said. “Are you here to retrieve your child? I was just about to wake her and check her diaper.”
“I’m afraid not,” Baxter said. “I need you to take Plato and Steffie and go somewhere safe.”
Chaka’kan nodded. “The tactical situaton onboard ship is getting dire.”
“Glad you’re keeping up.”
“I’ve been watching the intraship news feed,” he affirmed. “And I believe the safest place to hide would be on Deck Forty-Two near the latitudinal impulse generator. It is not one of the more sensitive areas on the ship, and the interference put out by the engine should afford some sensor coverage.”
“I see,” Baxter said. “I’m glad the Dominion left a little Jem’Hadar wilyness in you.”
“Mostly for the purpose of cowering and running, Captain. I also have a terrific new recipe for mushroom casserole I would like to share with you, at the appropriate time.”
“Yum,” Plato said.
“And this is obviously not that time,” Baxter said, pushing Plato toward Chaka’kan. “Go, then. Get to that hiding place. Take whatever supplies you need. You might be there for a while.”
“And where will you be, sir?” Chaka’kan asked, taking Plato by the hand as Baxter walked off.
“Thinking,” Baxter said flatly.
Baxter stood in his quarters, staring out the windows, as he’d been doing a lot recently, trying to make sense of the stars streaming by.
He almost didn’t hear the doors open.
His hand rested comfortably on the phaser holstered on his hip.
“Don’t shoot,” a voice said behind him. “I think that goes with ‘love and honor,’ don’t you?”
Baxter turned to find Counselor Peterman in the doorway. She stepped forward, and the doors closed behind her. “Well?” she asked. “Are you going to put your phaser down, or what?”
He hadn’t noticed. He was aiming his phaser right at her, and it was set on maximum stun. Slowly, Baxter put the weapon down. “You can’t blame me for being cautious.”
“Janice explained to me about the way I’ve been acting,” Peterman said. “I even remember some of it.”
“I figured,” Baxter said, putting the phaser back in its holster and sitting down on his recliner, swiveling it to face the windows.
“Where’s Steffie?” Peterman asked. “Shouldn’t she be up from her nap by now?”
“I took her to Chaka’kan. He’s taken her to an out-of-the-way place on the ship.”
“Good idea,” Peterman said. “Keep her out of harm’s way as long as we can.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said hoarsely. “Something like that.”
Peterman walked to the couch and sat down, facing Baxter. “You know, Andy, some might say you’re taking this a bit too hard.”
“My ship’s in jeopardy, Kelly.”
“As it’s been a million times before. There’s more than that. Something’s wrong with you.” Peterman leaned forward, touched Baxter’s arm. “And I’m sensing it has something to do with me.”
Baxter resisted the urge to pull away. He turned a little to face her. “You have some telepathic abilities left over from your mind meld with the cat?”
“No,” Peterman said. “I have a mind meld with you. It’s called marriage, remember?”
Baxter’s face softened. “I…read your book.”
“My…? Oh, yeah. The book I was writing, when Fritz first started controlling me.” She blinked thoughtfully. “I can’t remember much of that.”
“Let me refresh your memory,” Baxter said, turning fully to face his wife. “You called it ‘Falling Out of Love: The Quarter Life Crisis and the Modern Twenty-Fourth Century Woman.’”
“Not a very catchy title,” Peterman said, rubbing her chin. “I’d have come up with something better than that. Then again, what do you expect? My cat wrote it.”
“You talked about how you weren’t happy with this marriage,” Baxter said. “That you were stuck in a rut. That your career was all just based on following me around. You were losing your identity. You needed to branch out. Get time to yourself.”
Peterman nodded. “I also carried on long, meaningful talks with a cat. I wasn’t altogether with it, Andy!”
“So there’s no basis of truth in any of that?”
“Well,” Peterman said, leaning back. “Maybe there’s…a teeny little bit of basis.”
“Uh-huh,” Baxter said. “But you didn’t bother to talk to me about it.”
“Because it wasn’t enough of a problem to matter. I’m happy with you, Andy, I…”
“You wouldn’t have written all that if you were happy. Damn it, Kelly, I can’t do anything to help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong with you. And you picked a fine time to pour your feelings out.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have read the book,” Peterman said. “If I recall, I told you it was private. I was revising it. I was probably going to do something about that title.”
“If I hadn’t read the book, I’d never know how you were feeling.” Baxter stood up and headed for the door. “But I’m glad I know now. Now I won’t be surprised when you leave me. When it gets to be more than you can bear. Where you actually have to physically leave the ship to get some perspective, some direction.”
“Now when did I ever say that?” Peterman said, standing, moving to follow Baxter.
“Chapter Fifteen, page two hundred and four,” Baxter said, and walked out.
J’hana paced back and forth in front of the specimen chamber that sat atop Tilleran’s worktable, as the Betazoid sat a nearby station and reviewed the information on her monitor screen.
“When will it wake up,” she snapped.
“When the stabilizing drugs run through its system,” Tilleran said. “Are you in any hurry to deal with that thing? Look at what it’s done to us.”
“It almost killed us,” J’hana said, sneering at the cat. “Not to mention the number of times it clawed at my face. I’ve been doing battle with that cat daily for six years. Now I find it’s being controlled by a nefarious alien race. And you don’t expect me to be itching for some payback?”
“Commander Richards was very specific,” Tilleran said. “All we’re supposed to do is interrogate it. Gather information.”
“Then vaporize it.”
<I assure you, Lieutenant, that won’t be necessary,> a voice said smoothly, filling the Andorian’s brain. She whirled toward Fritz, yanking her phaser out and aiming it at the cat in the specimen tank.
“Yes,” Tilleran said, turning toward it and pulling out her tricorder. “On a purely telepathic level. It’s like a telepathic all-call.”
J’hana walked toward Fritz, pointing her phaser at it. “Tell us everything you know, or I’ll kill you.”
<That would be quite pointless,> the cat replied, though his mouth didn’t move. It merely stared at J’hana, looking curious. <First of all, my knowledge would exceed every databank on this ship. Secondly, this body is just a vessel. Destroy it, and you do nothing to harm the Bast. My consciousness will merely seek a different host. Perhaps one of those nice Pomeranians…>
“Why can’t you inhabit a person?” Tilleran asked. “You seemed to only be able to influence Counselor Peterman, and block my telepathic abilities. But couldn’t you have taken any of us over with your…consciousness?”
<Unfortunately, the Bast are only able to inhabit creatures with simple brains. At least, creatures from your part of the galaxy. I must admit, your brains are among the most complex we’ve ever seen…for humanoids. We are still working out some kinks in the procedure.>
“And when you work out the kinks?” J’hana demanded.
<We shall absorb you, like we’ve done so many other races before. It is simply a matter of the food chain. You do understand that simple concept, don’t you? Survival of the fittest? Of course, in this case, it’s survival of the smartest, and oldest.>
“How old are the Bast?” Tilleran asked. “Fifteen million, twenty million years old?”
<You’ll have to go back a lot further than that to find our origins, Commander, although all that is somewhat irrelevant, considering your current plight.>
“And what plight would that be?” Captain Baxter asked, walking into the science lab.
“Captain,” Tilleran said with a nod.
“Tilleran, J’hana. Good to have you guys back with us,” Baxter said, taking a deep breath. “Fritz. Glad to speak with you at last.”
<I wish I could say the same,> the cat replied. <However, your nightly naked strolls through our cabin prevent me from having any more than a cursory respect for you. I’m sure you understand.>
“I understand that you’re trying to destroy us,” Baxter said, edging nearer the specimen case. “And I want to know why.”
<Short-sighted as ever, Captain,> Fritz said. <I’m surprised you didn’t grasp the fullness of our plan when you spoke with Doctor Leonardo. He did fill you in, didn’t he?>
“He mentioned something about the annihilation of the human race,” Baxter said, looking uneasily at Tilleran and J’hana. “I just assumed that was crazytalk.”
<You assumed wrong,> Fritz said. <The Bast will destroy your way of life as you know it. Your bodies will still live and function. You will still reproduce, and eat, and drink, and dance, and laugh. But it won’t be you living those lives anymore.> The cat actually grinned, its ears perking up and its tail swishing. <It will be us.>
Baxter chuckled dryly at Fritz, then turned around. “Not a chance, furball!” he cried, smashing his fist through the clear specimen tank and yanking Fritz out through it. He held the cat aloft, screaming at it. “You tell me how to get my ship back! You tell me how to stop these Bast! I’m through f***ing playing around!”
<Ever seen a ball of yarn?> Fritz’s voice calmly echoed in Baxter’s mind.
<You’re the yarn!> And the cat swiped a paw across Baxter’s face, causing him to drop it. Then it scurried across the floor toward the doorway as Baxter turned towards it, phaser drawn.
But J’hana was already on top of the cat, wrestling it to the ground.
“SHHHEeeeeeeeeeeeeearrgh!” J’hana growled, rolling on the ground with the cat as it hissed and scratched at her. “I will kill you, evil feline!”
Suddenly a phaser blast arced over J’hana, and she looked up, her hands wrapped around Fritz’s neck.
Baxter just shook his head. “Like he said, it’s not worth it. Just put him in a containment field. We have bigger cats to fry.”
<Try as you might, you will not be able to stop us,> Fritz’ voice echoed in each person’s mind as Tilleran placed him in another specimen chamber. <You will not even be able to slow us down.>
“We’ll see about that,” Baxter said, and headed out of the science lab, leaving Tilleran to clean up the mess.
“Captain,” J’hana called after Baxter. “How do you expect to stop these…things?”
“Simple. We let them catch us.”
Fifteen minutes later, Counselor Peterman walked into the observation lounge, where the whole senior staff was gathered. Baxter, Richards, Vansen, Browning, Hartley, Tilleran, and J’hana. She was somehow heartened to see everyone back together, since recent events had seemed to be working to split the crew apart.
“Now then,” Baxter said, standing at the front of the table. “You know the Bast want to somehow absorb our species. Take it over. And it very well seems they’re going to use our ship as a means to do that.”
“When you say species, do you think that just means humans?” Hartley asked.
“No, I’m saying species as in plural.”
“Species is the plural of species?” Browning asked.
“Yes,” Baxter said. “But that’s not important right now. What is important is that we let the Bast succeed.”
“Oh, brilliant,” Vansen said. “Why don’t we invite the Borg to come join in while we’re at it? And what’s the Dominion up to lately?”
“Look,” Baxter said. “Hartley has figured out a way to unlock the computer, and give us access of that ship back. I’m going to have her do that. But we’re going to stay on course. What’s the alternative? We run away, and hope they don’t come to finish the job they started? Isn’t it likely they’ll just try again, with some other ship? Do you really want to be responsible for that?”
“Um…no?” Richards offered.
“That’s right,” Baxter said. “So we get inside that Bast ship and do as much damage as we can. We’re good at that, right?”
“Damn straight,” J’hana growled. “I for one am with the captain. We destroy the Bast, by whatever means necessary, even if it means destroying ourselves as well.” She smiled. “Especially if it means destroying ourselves!”
“Of course you would say that,” Vansen muttered. “You’re suicidal and stupid. As for the rest of us…”
“I say we do it,” Richards said. “If for no other reason than nobody thinks we can do it. I mean, we are still the laughing stock of Starfleet, right?”
“Last time I checked,” Tilleran said.
“Then let’s show them otherwise,” Browning said. She turned to Baxter. “We’re with you, Captain.”
“Good,” Baxter said, a little drily, and looked around at his crew. “Maybe I don’t say this enough, but I think it’s understood that I think a lot of all of you.” His eyes passed over Peterman. “All of you. Let’s go.”
The group poured out of the observation lounge, but Baxter didn’t move.
Peterman didn’t move either. She looked up at the captain. “Andy…”
“We don’t have time to discuss this, Kelly,” Baxter said. He stood and headed for the exit. “After all this madness is over, we’ll get separated, if that’s what you really want.”
“You can’t believe that’s what I want,” Peterman said, standing up and walking behind Baxter. “Not by any stretch of the imagination.”
“That’s what you put in your book,” Baxter said, his back to her.
“How many times do I have to tell you? My thoughts and feelings were warped, twisted, exploited.”
“They were still your thoughts and feelings,” Baxter said, and walked out onto the bridge.
President Dillon was standing there, at the center of the bridge, watching the senior staff take their positions. Peterman and Browning stepped up to the quarterdeck, and leaned against the railing that surrounded the command chairs.
“Captain,” Bradley said. “I trust you had a productive staff meeting?”
“It was productive, all right,” Baxter said. “Step aside, sir.”
Bradley graciously moved to the side to allow Baxter, Richards, and Vansen to take their seats in the command area. “Captain, let me be the first to extend the olive branch. I realize relations between us have been strained of late. But now that we are on a singular heading, on a unified course, I think it’s appropriate that we…bury the hatchet, as it were. Don’t you?”
“We’re going to bury the hatchet all right,” Baxter said.
“In the Bast,” Richards affirmed.
Hartley swung in behind the engineering console and sat down. “I’ve got all power systems under my command.”
“Loading torpedo bays,” J’hana said. “Standing by on phasers and transferring all power to the deflector’s emitter array.”
“We can also channel some negative ion energy out of the Bussard ramscoops,” Tilleran suggested.
“Good idea,” Hartley said brightly. “I’ll dispatch a crew to set that up.”
“What…what are you all doing?” Bradley asked, looking around the bridge.
“Preparing to give the Bast a hell of a fight,” Baxter said, steepling his fingers and putting them to his mouth. “You have any suggestions to add to the mix?”
“Just that such an act would be pure folley on your part,” Bradley said, his voice a little unsteady. “Not only are the Bast significantly more advanced than we are, they have total control over our computers…”
Baxter looked back at Hartley. “Commander?”
Hartley tapped a few controls on her panel. “Initiating core restart. We should have full computer control in another couple minutes. Weapons and tactical already at our control.”
“But Captain, how…?”
“I have a good crew, Mister President. A crew that’s going to defend this ship. And defend our quadrant. You may want to take a seat. This should be a good show.”
Bradley’s fingers worked in and out of fists. “Captain, this is not a game. This is a once in a lifetime chance to make a connection with a vastly intelligent species. We can use diplomacy to…”
“I think their intentions are already known,” Vansen said.
“But we have the advantage,” Richards continued. “Because I doubt they’ll be prepared for us to put up a fight.”
“We will be prepared,” J’hana intoned.
Baxter looked up at Bradley. “It was a very productive staff meeting.”
“You’re all fools,” Bradley said, walking up to the aft turbolift, where his entourage of security guards was waiting for him.
“You’re not going to stay around for the fireworks?” Baxter asked.
“I am going to a secure section of the ship, like any reasonable person would do.”
“Have a great time,” Baxter said, waving goodbye and turning back to face the viewscreen.
“Bast vessel on sensors, entering weapons range in forty-two seconds,” J’hana reported. She brought the image of the ship up on the viewscreen. It looked like the same ship they faced earlier. The one that was vacant, seemingly powerless.
“Power readings?” Richards asked.
“Off the scale,” Tilleran reported. “This is not the ship we faced before. Then again, I’m not even sure that was a real ship we faced before.”
Baxter turned toward her. “What do you mean?”
“Well, they were able to create an incredibly accurate hologram of an entire civilization. It’s not unreasonable to assume they did the same thing with that ship.”
“Why would they do that?” Vansen asked.
“To tease us, tantalize us. To pique our curiosity further,” Baxter said. “That’s been their game all along. They’ve lured us out there with rumors, tiny bits of evidence. They’ve reeled us in, feeding us clues the whole way.”
“And we took the bait,” Richards said.
“But they’re going to be the ones getting hooked,” Baxter said. “J’hana, don’t do a thing till we’re in the ship.”
“How can you even be sure they’re going to pull us into the ship?” Vansen asked.
“Hunch,” Baxter said, looking at the viewscreen as the huge, copper-colored, saucer-shaped ship loomed on the viewscreen, getting bigger and bigger until it filled the screen. Suddenly, a pair of gigantic doors on the underbelly of the ship began to part. Baxter faced Vansen and smiled. “You were saying?”
“Lucky guess,” Vansen muttered.
“Fritz’s preprogrammed course is taking us right into that aperture,” Madera reported from the helm. “We’re slowing to one-quarter impulse.”
“That’s fine,” Baxter said. “Let them guide us in.”
“Can I shoot yet?” J’hana asked, her fingers trembling over the weapon controls.
“Not yet,” Baxter said.
“Not till we get right in the middle of their belly,” Richards said.
“Like a tapeworm,” Browning added helpfully.
“Do any of you think we’re being hasty?” Peterman asked. “I mean, what if we really can reach out, connect to these people, and make them understand that we don’t mean them any harm?”
“They want to obliterate our species, you imbecile,” Vansen said. “I don’t think we need a Betazoid to figure out what their intentions are.” She looked at Tilleran. “No offense.”
“None taken,” Tilleran said with a nod.
“Of course,” Peterman said. “I guess I must just be a little delirious from all that brainwashing.”
“Should I take you back to Sickbay?” Browning whispered.
“No,” Peterman replied. “I want to be here. This is…this is all my fault.”
“It’s not,” Browning said in a hushed voice. “You had no control over what they were doing to you.”
“It’s still my fault. And there’s more…”
“Really?” Browning asked. “Like what?”
“There’s no time to go into it,” Peterman said, as suddenly the Explorer shook.
“They’re latching on with some kind of umbilical device,” Tilleran said. “They’re using magnetospheric struts to lock us into place.”
Richards leaned toward Baxter. “We’re in,” he said.
“So we are,” Baxter said. “J’hana, prepare to power up the weapons.”
“Prepared,” J’hana said with a low growl. “Bring it on, Captain.”
“Wait for it,” Baxter said, standing.
Richards looked over at Tilleran. “Are they making any attempt to contact us?”
“No messages coming in on any subspace or conventional band,” she said. “And I’m not picking up anything telepathically. Then again, I’m still not quite at full strength.”
“That’ll have to be good enough,” Baxter said. “We don’t want to give them a chance to hook into our systems.” He looked back at J’hana. “Lieutenant…”
“You mean it?”
He nodded. “Hit them with everything you’ve got.”
And J’hana did.
The Explorer let loose with a fury of quantum torpedoes and rapid- fire phasers. Beams lashed out of the deflector dish, and a red spray of ionizing radiation shot forth from the Bussard ramscoops.
Plumes of explosions lit up the viewscreen from every angle. Every deck of the ship shook as it unleashed volley upon volley. The torpedoes were rigged to carve their way deep into the ship before exploding, giving maximum clearance from the ship so as not to damage it. J’hana’d already raised the shields.
“Multiple impacts everywhere inside the ship,” Hartley reported. “We’re really running through our weapons supplies, too.”
J’hana was madly tapping at her panel. “Doing my best to unload the clip, Captain!”
Baxter clenched his fist. “Let them have it, J’hana.”
“Phasers overheating. We’re almost out of quantums,” Hartley called out.
“Switch to photons. Tap into the Escort’s weapons supply if you have to,” Richards said.
“Phaser power draining rapidly,” J’hana said. “Banks almost exhausted.”
“Ease off,” Baxter replied. “I think we’ve gotten their attention, at the very least.”
Vansen turned to Tilleran. “Can you tell how much we bloodied their nose, Commander?”
“Sensors are having difficulty penetrating their bulkheads,” Tilleran said, running her fingers over her panel. “There’s definite damage. Power fluctuations everywhere. But I can’t tell where at, and how much of it. And I still can’t read any definitive life signs.”
“Well, we’ve done what we can do,” Baxter said. “Time to get while the getting’s good. Madera, bring us full about, all ahead full impulse.”
Madera tapped on her console. “Captain, helm isn’t responsive. We’re still moored to their docking clamps.”
“Unmoor us!” Richards said, leaping out of his seat and running over to the helm.
Hartley slapped her panel. “It’s those damn magnets. They’re using a polarizing field I’ve never seen before.”
“Can you take them out with the phasers, J’hana?” Baxter asked.
“If we had any phasers left,” J’hana said.
Suddenly the Explorer shook again.
“Hull breach on deck twenty-six!” Hartley called out. “Forcefields unresponsive.”
“What are they doing?” Vansen demanded.
“Another hull breach,” Hartley reported. “Deck thirty-seven. They’re breaking through with some kind of tunneling conduits. Tapping into our power systems. Damage control, weapons and tactical…everything’s getting overriden.”
“General quarters,” Richards ordered. “Everyone but essential personnel report to your quarters and stay put!”
“Mister Sefelt,” Baxter said, looking to Lt. Howard Sefelt, who’d been gnawing on his fist most of this time. “Initiate security lockout, level one. Don’t let them get into our systems!”
“All hands, this is Commander Richards,” the first officer called out. “Intruder Alert. Remain at general quarters. All security personnel report to positions immediately.”
“Maximum-level encryption initiated, sir,” Sefelt reported cooly.
“Howard?” Peterman asked. “You don’t sound scared at all.”
“It’s because I’ve become so frightened I’ve lost my grip on reality, Counselor,” Sefelt said. “Please don’t try to convince me any of this is real. I might really lose it then.”
“Keep dreaming, Lieutenant,” Baxter said, then looked back at Hartley. “Well?”
“We halted their advances into our systems,” Hartley said. “But not before they got major control of the power distribution nets. We’re losing power everywhere.”
As if on cue, the bridge lights flickered, then dimmed to emergency red. The viewscreen, which displayed nothing but smoke and sparks of the interior Bast hangar bay, suddenly blinked off.
Baxter looked around as, one by one, each console went dark.
J’hana slammed her fist into her panel. “We are powerless, Captain!”
“No we’re not, J’hana,” Baxter said. “They’ve just changed the landscape of the war. Break out the phaser rifles.”
“Captain,” Vansen said, walking up to Baxter. “You know I don’t respect you. I think you’re an idiot. And I really don’t care if you live or die. But I care greatly if I live or die. And you’re suggesting we go into man to man combat with…with a race whose physical nature is completely unknown to us. They don’t even register on sensors. And you want us to just charge off this ship and take them on?”
“No,” Baxter said. “We’ve gone to them. It’s their turn to come to us. We’re simply going to defend this ship.” He looked around. “Now everybody grab a weapon and clear the bridge. We’re moving to a better location.”
“Is there such a thing right now?” Peterman asked, grabbing Baxter’s arm as everyone poured into the nearest turbolift.
“What’s up?” Mirk Hartley said, as the bridge crew filed into the Constellation Club. “Did somebody reserve this place for a party without telling me?”
“We need your bar as an emergency shelter and command post,” Baxter said, his phaser rifle slung over his shoulder. “That going to be a problem?”
Mirk scratched his head. “Emergency what? Command huh?”
“Damn!” Lt. Commander Hartley said, stepping in front of Baxter to face Mirk. “I knew there was something I forgot to do.”
“You didn’t tell Mirk about the Bast,” Baxter said.
“Nope.” Hartley looked at Mirk. “Look, Mirk…”
“Let me guess. We’re being overtaken over by a Bast ship.”
“Essentially,” Hartley said. “Only we’re inside that Bast ship, and we tried to destroy it from within, but that seemed to only make them mad. And now they’ve locked our ship up inside theirs and are trying to take control of all our vital systems.”
“Figures,” Mirk said.
“How does it figure?” Hartley asked.
Mirk pointed out the large, rectangular windows at the front of the club, which showed the vast inner hangar of the Bast ship, which currently was smoking and burning in ruins from the Explorer’s weapons fire. “I can see everything through those windows.”
“We can use tables to barricade the windows,” J’hana said, flipping a table over and slamming it against a pair of windows. Silverware, plates, and other table dressings clattered to the floor.
“Yeah, like that’s really going to help with anything,” Vansen said.
“You never know,” Richards said, and helped J’hana flip over another table. “It doesn’t hurt to be ready for anything in a situation like this.”
“I need a drink,” Peterman said, heading to the bar. “Who’s with me?”
“Do you really think that’s appropriate right now?” Baxter asked, watching Peterman step behind the bar.
“This is a bar still, isn’t it?”
“I think Kelly has an excellent idea,” Browning said, joining Peterman behind the bar. “Considering how frayed our nerves are right now, we could all use a bit of loosening up.”
“Yes, I almost forgot Starfleet’s seminar on combat drunkeness,” Vansen muttered, flipping a chair around and squatting on it. “Somebody let me know when I can shoot something. Otherwise, I’m going to sit right here.”
“There’s not much we can do for now. It’s up to the Bast to make the next move.” Baxter glanced around the dimly-lit, red-tinted club. In many ways, it reminded him of the evening’s Mirk liked to call “Rave Night.”
Once tables had been pushed up against every window, Richards and J’hana returned to the center of the Club. “What if the next move is killing us?” Richards asked.
“Then we will kill them back,” J’hana said simply.
“That’s my J’hana,” Tilleran said with a grin, folding her arms. “Hey, Counselor. Let me have some of whatever you’re having.”
Dr. Browning emerged from behind the bar with a dusty bottle of orange-colored liquid. “There isn’t much back here to speak of, and since the replicators are down we’re going to have to go with the real stuff. I think this is Tellarite Sherry.”
“I have some kanar in the back,” Mirk said, as Peterman set a row of glasses up on the bar. “And a little Vulcan Infinite Absurdity mix.”
“This’ll do nicely,” Browning said, pouring the murky brown sherry into the glasses. “Let’s all drink to victory.”
Baxter paced in front of the bar, cradling his phaser rifle. “Isn’t it a little early for the victory party?”
Browning leaned forward against the bar. “Just being optimistic, Andy.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said, sipping from her glass. “There hasn’t been a lot of that around here lately.”
“I wonder why,” Baxter harrumphed and walked away.
Browning picked up her glass and downed it in one swallow. “Okay, Kelly. Story.”
“I sort of wrote a book about wanting to spend some time away from Andy,” Peterman blurted out in one breath.
“I can see how that might upset him,” Browning said, scratching her head as she filled her glass again. “Guys have a way of overreacting about, you know, divorce.”
“I don’t want to divorce him,” Peterman said, filling her glass again. “Divorced people are pathetic, lowlife…” Suddenly she met eyes with Vansen, who’d walked up behind Browning.
“You were saying?” she asked.
“Um…I was going to say ‘lowlife failures,’ but I didn’t really like the ring of that.”
Vansen grabbed the bottle from Browning and poured herself a glass of the thick, pungent sherry. “Maybe I just have the guts to admit when my marriage is over. Sometimes you just have to pronounce death. Am I right, Doc?”
Browning smiled politely. “This sure is some good liquor.”
Lt. Susan Madera pulled up a seat at the bar. “I know it’s a bad time to ask you all this, but have you guys decided yet if you want to be my bridesmaids?”
“You know, I’d love to…but I think I’m going to be busy that night,” Browning said quickly, and ducked out from behind the bar, heading over to a dark corner of the club.
“Did I say something wrong?” Madera asked, glancing back at Browning.
Peterman tossed back another glass of sherry. “Only everything, honey. Want a drink?”
Baxter peered over one of the upturned tables and looked out over the expansive interior of the Bast ship. The vessel was strangely quiet. Occasionally, a chunk of debris would float by, or the ship would rumble slightly, as if the Explorer were just settling into its metal trap. The silence on the part of the Bast was beginning to drive Baxter crazy. There was nothing. No hostile takeover. No attempt at extermination by radiation or gas. No move to do anything. Baxter idly wondered whether or not they’d crippled the Bast more than he first realized.
“Is it just me,” a voice said from behind him. “Or does it seem like we’ve crippled the Bast more than we realized?”
“It’s just you, Chris,” Baxter said, as Richards stepped up next to him.
“You all right?”
“Want to talk about it?”
“There’s nothing to talk about. We’ve just got to hold our ground. Keep the ship safe. No biggie.”
“I wasn’t talking about the Bast.”
“What do you know?”
“I know you think you read something incriminating in Kelly’s book. Which would be all well and good, if she hadn’t been brainwashed by her cat.”
“It does seem to keep coming back to that, doesn’t it?” Baxter asked. “It doesn’t matter. All that is immaterial if we can’t make it out of this mess.”
“There’s no question we will,” Richards said.
Baxter looked at him. “How can you be so sure?”
“Because I happen to know that fate looks out for us.”
“Fools, little children, and ship’s named Enterprise?” Baxter asked with a small smile.
“We’re not little children, and this isn’t the Enterprise,” Richards replied. “But I think we’ll find a way out of this, even if we have to fall ass-backwards into it.”
“Have you noticed something?” Baxter asked, looking back at Richards. “We haven’t heard a peep out of our President.”
“Maybe he’s trying to establish contact with them,” Richards suggested.
Baxter straightened. “You don’t think he’d….”
“Yeah, he would,” Richards said, and was already heading for the door, grabbing his phaser rifle off a nearby table.
“J’hana. Tilleran. You two are with us,” Baxter called out. “The rest of you sit tight. Vansen: You’re in charge.”
“Where are you going?” Peterman called after Baxter.
“To hail the chief.”
“The President is busy right now,” the voice of Gisele, Bradley Dillon’s personal assistant, said over the comm unit outside the door to his suite…which occupied an entire deck of the Explorer.
“I want to talk to him,” Baxter said.
“Well undispose him,” Richards said. “And get him out here so we can speak with him.”
“Maybe I can relay a message for you…”
Baxter leaned down toward the call panel. “He’s not there anymore, is he?”
“Your internal sensors are offline, Captain. I don’t think you can make that determination without them.”
“Wrong,” Baxter said. “I don’t need internal sensors to know what Dillon did. That goddamn fool went off to that Bast ship to try to make contact with them, didn’t he?”
“I can neither confirm nor deny that, sir. You would do well, however, to speak of the President with more respect.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, turning around. “I’m going to respect the hell out of him as soon as I get my hands on him.”
“Talk to you later,” J’hana said politely as the group headed back down the corridor.
“Flirt,” Tilleran said with a grin.
“J’hana,” Baxter said. “Take point. Take us to the nearest airlock. And be ready to blast the next thing that moves into smithereens.”
“Including our President?”
“Especially our President,” Richards muttered.
“Well, I don’t know about you guys,” Vansen said, looking around the Constellation Club. “But I’m not comfortable with sitting tight.”
“You just hate following orders, don’t you?” Browning asked.
“When they don’t make sense,” Vansen said. “I for one would like to try busting out of this place.”
“And just how do you expect to do that?” Peterman asked.
“Plowing out at full impulse would be my first choice,” Vansen said.
“How?” Madera asked.
Vansen turned to Hartley, who’d been listening to the conversation thoughtfully. “Certain engineers come to mind.”
“I could do it,” Hartley said. “I just need to tap directly into the systems and navigate a command path around the Bast technology. Technically, it’s possible. Unless, of course, their technology is far beyond ours.”
“Which, by all accounts, it is,” Browning said.
“Well, we’re going to try,” Vansen said. “The Captain did something wise for a change and left me in charge. So we go. You need any personnel to help you, Hartley?”
“Just an assistant,” Hartley said, grinning back at Mirk.
Mirk unbuttoned his dinner jacket and tossed it on a nearby chair. “Till death do us part.”
“Let’s hope we don’t have to test that,” Hartley said, as Vansen led them out of the Club.
“And what the hell do we do in the meantime?” Peterman asked, standing in between Browning and Madera. Sefelt had taken up a fetal position behind the bar.
“Probably gossip and whine about your relationships, but honestly I don’t care what you do,” Vansen called over her shoulder.
“How do you like that,” Browning muttered as the group left the Constellation Club.
“She’s totally wrong about us,” Madera said testily. “That’s not all we do.”
“Not at all,” Peterman said, and grabbed another glass, filling it with sherry. “So… did anybody notice a weird vibe going on between Tilleran and J’hana?”
“Is there some kind of vibe going on between you guys?” Baxter asked, as he and Richards led the way into the Bast ship. The corridors were empty, and according to Richards, looked much the same as the corridors of the vessel he’d investigated earlier, the one that now seemed to be only a holographic copy of the original. Yet there still were no lifesigns, no signs of beings inside.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Tilleran said. “We’re just really good friends.”
“Yeah, you used that one up about two years ago,” Richards said. “We’re all on to you.”
“Be on us if you like, Commander,” J’hana chortled. “But you may not like the results.”
“I was actually talking about more recently,” Baxter said. “You guys just seem…closer.”
J’hana took Tilleran’s hand. “We went through a near-death experience. That does bring couples closer. Captain, I take it you are analyzing our relationship because yours is crumbling before your eyes?”
Baxter’s face seemed to deflate. “Um…no, I was just trying to make conversation.”
“Real smooth, J’hana,” Richards said, as Tilleran’s tricorder began to beep.
“Picking up some strange power readings down the corridor,” Tilleran said.
Baxter looked down the dim corridor. “Ours or theirs?”
“Indeterminate,” Tilleran said. “We’ve got to get closer.”
“Great,” Baxter mumbled. “I don’t really want to get closer.”
“We must find the President,” J’hana said. “Before he does something foolish.”
“No kidding,” Tilleran said. “I wonder what he expects to get out of this whole thing.”
“Trade agreements,” Baxter said. “Fame, fortune. He’s risking all our lives for that. Boy, when I get my hands on him…”
“You’ll what, sir?”
“I’ll order you to beat him up,” Baxter said, clearing his throat nervously, as he pressed on down the corridor.
“Doesn’t someone think it’s a bit fishy that we haven’t run into some kind of welcoming committee?” Richards asked.
“No,” Baxter said. “Fritz explained that the Bast want to absorb the human race. It’s very possible that, at the moment, they don’t have corporeal bodies.”
“What do they have then,” J’hana asked with a chuckle. “Battle droids?”
Baxter gulped. “Let’s hope not.”
“Well, they’ve got to find some way to get to us,” J’hana said.
“So…who do you think is crazier?”
Dr. Doug Leonardo leaned back on his bunk, staring at the ceiling of the brig as Dr. Jarvay Ranowat sat, crosslegged, on the floor and drew little shapes with his fingers into the carpet.
“You, by a long shot, sir,” Leonardo said. “If you were an animal, I’d have put you down long ago.”
“Aren’t humans nothing but big, clean animals?” Ranowat asked with a smile.
“You’re insane,” Leonardo said calmly. “Utterly insane.”
“Isn’t it nice we can hang out together now that the forcefields have fallen?”
“I don’t think nice is the word,” Leonardo said. “But it’s convenient. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anywhere I’d actually want to go at the moment.”
“Want to see what I drew? It’s a cat!”
Leonardo sat up. “You drew a cat?”
“No. There’s a real, live cat…right there! Ahhhhh…I’m scared of it!” Ranowat cried, and ran over to the security console, jumping on top of it.
<You should be scared,> the voice of Fritz echoed in Ranowat’s and Leonardo’s brains. <My dear, dear Leonardo. How good it is to see you again.>
Leonardo drew his legs up, wrapping his arms around them. “I don’t want to talk to you. I tried to get you to admit your true nature before, but you hid from me.”
Fritz padded up toward Leonardo’s bunk. <That’s because it wasn’t time yet. It’s time now.>
“Time for what?”
<Time for you to spring into action. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?>
“I’m not doing anything you say. You’re not George Saint Fluffersnuggles.”
<Fluffersnuggles died, in a freak catnip accident four years ago,> Fritz said flatly. <But you shouldn’t grieve for him. For the mind that controlled him….the mind that linked with you so many years ago, is alive still, in me. George and I, we were one and the same. When I was born, the consciousness passed on from him to me. I am now the vessel for the Bast, and it’s time I called on you again…>
“I don’t believe you,” Leonardo said, and buried his head in his knees.
Fritz hopped up on the bunk next to Leonardo, and gently nuzzled his head against the pet therapists’ side. <I don’t care what you believe, Doctor. You need only serve me. Will you do that?>
Leonardo’s eyes suddenly went blank and emotionless. He looked down at Fritz and smiled a fake smile. “Yes. Yes, kitty. What a good idea. Let’s go for a walk. Lead the way.” His eyes followed Fritz as the cat hopped off the bunk and headed for the door. “Hmm…what’s that? Oh, yes. I suppose I could find us some weapons somewhere. That will be great fun!”
“Right behind here,” Tilleran said. “Something big.”
Baxter stared at the large pair of doors. “You can’t be more specific than that?”
“Big and dangerous,” Tilleran said. “My mind’s telling me that, and my tricorder’s telling me that. You need any more information?”
“No,” J’hana said, lifting her phaser rifle. “We must go in there.”
“Not so fast,” Richards said. “There could be killer robots in there.”
“Forget the killer robots,” Baxter snapped. “That’s an absurd idea.”
Tilleran tapped a combination into her tricorder, an the door slid open.
The room was bathed in darkness. But in moments, the entire room illuminated. It was a warehouse, full rows upon rows–thousands, maybe tens of thousands–of long, metal tubes, about half the height of a person, with little rectangular windows in front of them. Within the tubes was only glowing, green, undulating electricity. In the middle of the room were a row of flat tables that resembled operating tables, and banks of computer panels, readouts, and robotic armatures.
“See,” Baxter said. “No robots.”
And then six, oval, spiderlegged robots dropped to the deck, surrounding the away team, wielding spindly arms tipped with blades and dangerous-looking rayguns.
“Well, not…many…robots,” Baxter corrected himself.
“Can’t I do something?” Lt. Commander Vansen asked, pacing Engineering as Hartley ran from console to console making adjustments, Mirk hovering beside the master systems display, looking useless.
“No,” Hartley said. “Just let me concentrate.”
“You sure I can’t recall some of your staff?”
“They’d only get in the way,” Hartley said, sliding under the EPS control console and yanking its access panel open. She slithered halfway in and began yanking at circuitry.
Vansen nodded. “Remind me to reassign your staff to an area where they’d actually be useful,” she muttered. “How much longer?”
“I still haven’t figured out the language of the Bast programming that’s infiltrated our systems. If I tweak the settings too much, they’ll end up getting total control of the ship, which I’d kind of like to avoid.”
“Good point,” Vansen said, as her combadge chirped.
“Baxter to Vansen,” the captain’s voice said. There was weapons fire blaring in the background.
“Go ahead,” she said warily.
“You know that robot you fought down on DL-442 a couple months ago?”
“Did it have six legs?”
“Was it black and silver?”
“Yup, as a matter of fact. Why?”
Vansen sighed. “Captain, do you need help?”
“No. Just stay put. We’ll keep you posted. Good Lord, Chris! Watch out! Baxter out!”
“Finally, I get to shoot things!” J’hana cried with glee, blasting at one of the spindly robots as it advanced on her, then leaping over it, firing behind her and blasting another that was coming toward Tilleran. For each robot she blasted, two more seemed to drop from nests of orbs in the ceiling of the room. They were everywhere.
“So…DL-442,” Richards said breathlessly as he ducked a beam being fired by one of the robots, then blasted it with his phaser rifle. “Bast homeworld?”
“I’ll take that bet,” Baxter said, blasting in a wide arc, taking out two advancing robots.
<You’re half right,> a voice suddenly boomed in everyone’s minds, causing them to drop their weapons and grab the sides of their heads. <That was but one of our many colony worlds. That, like others, has crumbled to dust, and it is time to start anew!>
“It is like Andorian easy listening music, only worse!” J’hana cried, dropping to her knees.
<Thank you for coming into our den. It is so much easier than trying to go get you,> the voice boomed in the din, deep and resonant, much like the voice that came from Fritz.
“What…do you want…with us?” Baxter groaned.
<We’ve said it before,> the voice of the Bast said. <We simply want your bodies. We wish to experiment on them. Is that so wrong?>
“YES!” Richards shouted.
<Oh, shut up and lose consciousness already.>
And all of them did.
“I just want to find myself,” Peterman muttered, shoving her glass into the reclamator and sighing when nothing happened. She forgot most of the Explorer’s systems were currently compromised. “Is that so much to ask?”
“Not at all,” Madera said, turning around and leaning he elbows on the bar. “That’s why I’m getting married. To find myself. And, find Chris, of course…”
“I know how you feel,” Browning agreed. “I’ve been trying to find a man I can trust and love for a long time, to no avail. Christopher’s the closest I’ve come, and he’s not really an option.” She looked at Madera and smiled weakly.
“That’s for sure,” Madera said.
“I know how you feel…” Peterman said softly.
“But you’ve found that love,” Browning said.
“Yes, finding the love sure is good,” Madera said wistfully.
“You have Andy.” Browning smiled, ignoring Madera. “He’s a great guy. He’s a really great guy. Isn’t that enough?”
“Of course it is,” Peterman said. “Well, no it isn’t. I mean…I love Andy. I do and I always will. But he doesn’t define me. I have other things I want to do. Things I want to be a part of that one day might not involve the Explorer.”
“So you’re really thinking of leaving Andy?”
“No. I was thinking…I mean…playing with the idea of leaving the ship. But leaving the ship and leaving my husband are two different things.”
“You might want to explain that to Andy,” Browning said. “He thinks you don’t love him anymore. I can see it in his eyes.”
“I’ve been trying. But all he does is shut me out. He’s just gotten carried away.”
“He’s hurt, Kelly. And can you blame him? The things you said in your book…”
“That wasn’t me. How many times do I have to say that? It was…”
“No,” Browning said, pointing out the windows in the doors to the Constellation Club. “Look out there. Coming down the corridor! It’s Fritz!”
“And Leonardo,” Peterman muttered. “That nutjob escaped from the brig. I knew we should have put some security down there.”
Madera gulped. “What should we do?”
“We have to stop him,” Browning said resolutely.
“No, we don’t,” Peterman said, and smiled. She grabbed a hand phaser. “We just have to follow him.”
“What about me?” a voice asked from under the nearby pool table.
“Just keep hiding, Howie,” Madera said.
“Gotta go to the bridge. Gotta go to the bridge,” Dr. Leonardo said, climbing the up the ladder in the vertical Jefferies tube. “Gotta get there. Size things up. Free us. Free us. Free us all!”
<Less talk. More climbing,> Fritz insisted, hanging on to Leonardo’s back, his claws dug in deeply. The doctor, in his current state, didn’t seem to mind.
Finally, after what seemed like an hour, Leonardo pushed his way through the hatch in the floor of the bridge, climbing out, breathless, in the center of the room and looking around at the empty stations.
“We…made it!” he exalted.
<Yes. We made it,> Fritz said, jumping up on the ops console. <Now help me disable this lockout on the Explorer’s systems.>
“Why?” Leonardo asked.
<Because, we have to get access to the Explorer’s transporters in order to start bringing their people on to our ship.>
“Why not use your own transporters?”
The cat licked his whiskers as his paws ran over the ops console. <Our transporters are on the…fritz, as it were. Our maintenance droids are currently trying to fix that. The Explorer did a lot of damage to us before we silenced it.>
“And we’re just getting started,” Counselor Peterman said, standing behind Fritz and Leonardo, with Browning and Madera at her side. She pointed her phaser at Fritz. Browning pointed hers at Leonardo. Madera couldn’t decide who to point her phaser at.
<Ah…my dear, dear Kelly!> Fritz’s mind echoed in Peterman’s brain as he turned from the console. <Maybe you know the proper combination to allow us access to your ship’s systems.>
“Maybe you can bite me,” Peterman said, walking toward Fritz.
<Another time, perhaps. Now, we have work to do. Quite interesting work, too.> Fritz turned back to the ops panel.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Browning asked, looking from Fritz to Leonardo.
<Can’t divulge that. Sorry.> And the cat continued batting its paws at the panel.
“Cat got your tongue?” Peterman asked distantly, stepping even closer to Fritz. She knelt by it, picked the cat up and held it aloft. “That’s okay. I know what you’re thinking.”
Peterman stared into Fritz’s eyes. “I have a special bond with all my pets, Fritz. You should know that. You used it to control me for long enough.”
<And now I’m done with you. So be gone.> Fritz tried to look away, but was transfixed on Peterman’s stare.
“Here’s a shocker for you. It goes both ways!”
<How can it…I mean…it shouldn’t…>
“Maybe not everyone spends their lives around pets like I do,” Peterman said, turning with Fritz toward the Jefferies hatch. “In any event, I know exactly what you’re doing. And you’re going to help me stop it.”
“Stop what?” Madera asked.
“A clue would be nice!” Browning said.
“No time to explain. Shoot Leonardo and let’s go.”
“Awfully sorry,” Browning said, looking back at a confused-looking Leonardo. “Maybe we can have dinner again sometime?” And she shot him in the chest, and he fell unconscious against the ops console. “Kelly, remind me to put a couple footnotes in the Hippocratic oath when this is all over,” Browning said as she and Madera slid down into the Jefferies tube with Peterman and Fritz.
When Captain Baxter opened his eyes, he felt dizzy and disoriented. “Where…where am I?” He looked around, and realized he was strapped to one of the tables in that warehouse like room. The spherical robots had all returned to their perches in the ceiling. Baxter glanced to either side of him, to find Richards, J’hana, and Tilleran all likewise strapped down.
“In one of my darker fantasies,” J’hana said, pulling uselessly at the metal restraints that clasped her ankles and wrists. “Either that, or the Bast are experimenting on us.”
“I’m actually glad it’s the latter,” Richards said. “I think.” He bit his lip. Maybe it would be hot. Him, J’hana, Tilleran…
“You okay, buddy?” Baxter asked, looking over at Richards.
“What? Oh. I was just, um, thinking about how this is a really bad predicament we’re in.”
“No you weren’t. You were fixating on J’hana’s comment and you know it.”
“Look, that’s not the point. We have to get out of this!”
<I am afraid that’s not an option,> that voice rumbled in everyone’s heads.
“Would you stop that and come out here and face us like a man?” Baxter asked. “Or isn’t that the problem? You don’t have any corporeal form!”
<Well, not yet. But that’s all going to change.>
“Aw, poor species!” J’hana spat. “No corporeal form. How sad for you! Poor little babies!”
<SHUT UP! We are going to insert ourselves into each of your bodies…>
“Sounds kinky,” Tilleran said with a giggle.
<I said SHUT UP! Then, eventually, we will absorb the rest of your crew. And then, all of Earth, all of the Alpha Quadrant. You will all further the Bast civilization.>
“What if we don’t want to?” Richards said.
“And don’t you dare say ‘resistance is futile,” Baxter said. “The Borg copyrighted that years ago.”
<Well, it is futile,> the Bast voice said haughtily. <Because once our minds inhabit each of your bodies, you will march back into your ship and force each and every one of your crew to undergo the same process.>
“Hey, mister!” a voice called from the doorway to the vast warehouse. “You wouldn’t be looking for a lost cat, would you?” Peterman asked, holding Fritz up by the scruff of his neck. “Look what mommy brought home!”
“Kelly!” Baxter called from his table. “Get out of here! NOW!”
“Can’t do that, Andy,” Peterman said, walking over to Baxter, Fritz curled in her arms. “Because I just had to find you, to be with you again.” She ran a hand along Baxter’s chest. “I’ve got to say, I like you like this.”
Baxter blinked. “Kelly?”
“It’s not her,” Richards said. “Fritz is controlling her again. Don’t listen to anything she says!”
“Your friend Chris has quite the brain on him,” Peterman said, stroking Baxter’s head. “Oh, my sweet captain. How much I would love to take the time to make love to you now, one last time.” She leaned down and whispered in his ear. “But we have so many more important things to do.”
“Like what?” Baxter asked softly, the fear plain in his eyes.
“Like us!” Madera and Browning stood in the doorway, holding phaser rifles.
“Like them!” Peterman said, and tossed the unconscious Fritz to the ground.
<What have you done?>
“Stunned that cat before he had a chance to get a hold of my mind again, for starters!” Peterman said. “Then found out where you were keeping my husband…and these other people, and brought in the big guns.”
“That’s us!” Madera cried.
“Blast anything that isn’t one of us,” Peterman said flatly, looking down at Baxter. “Are you okay, Andy?”
“No, but thanks for asking.”
“Janice! Come over here and help me get everybody untied!”
<You cannot do this,> the voice said in Peterman’s head. <You must help free us. Help us return to our rightful place in the galaxy.>
“Wish I could help,” Peterman said. “But I’ve got a husband to save.”
<Whether you want to help or not, you will.>
Peterman looked up. “How do you figure?”
<Because we still have control of you, whether Fritz is conscious or not. We don’t need those connections anymore. You are our conduit. You will be our gateway.>
“Sounds like…” Peterman said, then her face twitched, and her eyes glazed. “Sounds like fun.” With a far-off look in her eyes, Peterman limply swung her phaser around and blasted Madera, sending the helmsman falling unconscious to the ground as a droid came up from behind a surprised Browning and wrapped its spindly legs around her.
“Susan!” Richards called out.
“Yeah, don’t worry about me, Christopher,” Browning muttered as the robot gripped her tighter in its metal clutches. “I’m fine!”
“The Bast have Counselor Peterman’s mind again,” Tilleran said, her eyes going wide.
“Thanks for clearing that up,” Baxter said, looking at Peterman. “Honey, are you okay?”
“Just dandy, lover,” Peterman said, patting Baxter’s cheek. “Just dandy.”
Suddenly, a hole opened up in the high ceiling of the warehouse, and a many-pronged sphere riddled with green-glowy-tipped spikes descended to a point just above the row of operating tables where Baxter and company lie, and where Browning was tangled up with a droid nearby. It began to hum almost musically.
“So…who wants to have their mind blown first?” Peterman asked cheerily.
“Zhrat,” J’hana muttered.
“And we never even found President Dillon,” Tilleran said flatly.
Federation President Bradley Dillon stepped easily out of the subspace pocket he’d created and palmed the subspace pocket generator in his pocket, pressing the control that caused the breach in normal space to close.
He put his shoulder bag down and looked around the room. Yes. This looked right. The Dinarian he’d interrogated last year had given him a thorough description. It was all as he’d been told. Those blueprints he’d purchased had come at a steep price. But he wasn’t going to miss that moon, anyway. Real estate values in the Dinarian sector had been plummeting, of late.
The room looked like any other lab. Bradley presumed that, at some point, humanoids walked through this ship. And when they did, they used this lab as a staging ground to advance the staggering Bast technology.
It was technology much like Bradley had purchased from the Bast. Splayed open circuitry, console housings, fiberoptics and other devices Bradley couldn’t even describe laid all over the work benches. This was where that circuitry had been developed, the item he’d purchased from the Bast’s representatives years ago on Waystation. It was what led him on this search in the first place, because he reasoned a species that advanced had the other materials he needed to finish his device. And, much like the Dinarian had told him, it was all in this room.
There was never a price on his head. The Bast had likely forgotten about Bradley. He’d never even met with them. The beings he met, the strange, robed creatures who did not show their faces–they were just spokesmen, conduits. Agents of the Bast who existed only to scout new locations for Bast settlements. Bradley didn’t care what they wanted. He was getting what he wanted.
Bradley quickly ran his tricorder over every inch of every workstation in the dim room. His sources told him he had a good four minutes before the droids on the ship would respond to his presence, so the materials he needed had to be found immediately. In a perfect world, Bradley would have more time to study this technology. The research and development profit margins were staggering. He could remake his fortune four times over with some of the items in this room.
But Bradley was interested in only one item.
His tricorder bleeped as he passed over a particular circuit board. He’d found it.
He lifted it up, inspected it. It didn’t look special. But it was. Oh, it was. He took the board back to where he’d left his shoulder bag and knelt down. He opened up the bag and pulled out a triangular device about the size of a padd, but much thicker. He popped the casing open. If what his scientists had told him was correct, he’d simply have to slip the circuit board into its berth in the housing, and close it back up. Then the device would be complete.
The operation took all of thirty seconds. Pop, snap, click. He turned on the device. Its readouts flickered with information, the buttons glowing with power.
Was he ready? Was he really going to do this? Was he insane?
He quickly patted the bulge in his jacket pocket. He had everything he needed. He programmed his destination, and the appropriate time coordinates, into the device, and pressed a button.
Immediately, a glowing tear in space appeared in front of Bradley. But this one was much more vibrant and colorful than the subspace pocket. It was an altogether different phenomenon. One that would take him, finally, to his ultimate goal. All he would have to do is step through.
The rainbow void inside the tear swirled, almost as if to invite him in.
And then the tiny communicator pin on his lapel, shaped like the Federation emblem, bleeped.
“Vansen to Baxter. We’re about ten minutes from getting systems operational. Hartley’s done it!”
“That’s great, Vansen,” Baxter’s voice replied. “However, I’m a little…held up here on the Bast ship.”
“Should I send reinforcements?”
“No. No, just get the Explorer out of here. That’s your primary mission.”
“Don’t be brave, Captain. Be a coward. It’s what I’ve come to expect from you.”
“Leave as soon as you can, Vansen. That’s an order! And cut communications. Who knows who could be snooping!”
Then the channel went dead.
“Oh well,” Bradley said, tugging at his shirtsleeves. “I’m sure everything will turn out just fine.” He straightened his jacket, patted his hand over his hair to make sure it was perfectly in place, then prepared to step through the rift that yawned open in front of him.
Just before he did, something stopped him.
He wasn’t sure what it was. It wasn’t anything physical. It was something in his head. A thought.
The Explorer was in dire straits. So, too, was Captain Baxter and his away team.
He took another step toward the rift. He couldn’t worry about Baxter and his crew. Beyond that tear in space-time lie something far more important.
Besides, he knew the Explorer had been in tight spots before. As much as he disparaged them, he knew they were a good crew. They’d make it. They’d stop the Bast, and probably be glad that they’d apparently lost the President. All would be right with the world.
Then why was it he couldn’t step into that rift?
“Suggestions, people,” Captain Baxter said calmly, staring up at the glowing, pointy sphere that dangled over him and his crew.
“Lie back and let the Bast brainwaves enter you?” Counselor Peterman asked, kissing her finger and touching it to Baxter’s nose.
“I wasn’t talking to you, honey,” Baxter said. “You’re crazy right now.”
“Aw, snugglebuns,” Peterman pouted, kneeling by Baxter’s operating table and leaning her head on it. “Is that really what you think of me?”
Baxter looked at her. “Yes.”
“I’m so hurt.” She stuck out her bottom lip. “I was really hoping I’d be the first one to acknowledge that this marriage is over.’
“Don’t listen to her, Andy,” Browning’s voice called out. “That isn’t Kelly.”
“It’s not over,” Baxter said. “Once we get that…thing…out of you, you’ll make sense again. I know you will.”
“I have news for you, love-buddy,” Peterman said, running her fingers through Baxter’s hair. “Your wife has these feelings regardless of who’s controlling her. Didn’t you know that?”
“How are the Bast doing this?” Richards whispered, as Baxter glared at Peterman, his jaw working back and forth with building anger. “I mean, Fritz is unconscious. He shouldn’t be able to control her mind like this.”
“It’s not Fritz,” Tilleran said, looking all around the room, like a blind person seeing something for the first time. “It’s them. All of them. They’ve found a way in.”
“What do you mean?” Baxter said.
“Counselor Peterman is conditioned. Her mind is vulnerable. My powers are still weak, but I’m seeing it now. Just by sheer proximity, they’re jumping from Fritz’s brain to hers. They’re all channeling themselves through her.”
“If that’s true…” Browning said slowly.
“Oh, it is, it is, it is!” Peterman said, jumping to her feet and waving her arms in the air. “Hoooray for the Bast! Did you all know I used to be a cheerleader?”
“No,” J’hana said, pulling at her binds. “But it makes sense.”
“Get out of her head,” Baxter growled.
“Never!” Peterman said, leaning in Baxter’s face and licking his nose. “We like it here! We’ve been cooped up in this damned ship for too long. Centuries!”
“Since you used up the Crossarans,” Baxter said.
“Yes,” Peterman said. “Unfortunately, our methods have a way of burning out a species. Shame, too. The Crossarans really knew how to party. At least they did after we showed up.” Peterman looked up at the glowing sphere that was now humming louder, shifting in tone, as if the frequencies of sound were changing. “The real bitch is, our use of this particular female is going to blow out her brain in another ten minutes. And believe me, that won’t be fluffy or cute when that happens. But, as your Australians say, C’est la vie.”
“She’s losing it, Andy,” Browning whispered.
“J’hana,” Baxter said, turning his head to face the Andorian. “If you have a clever way to squirm out of your bindings, now’s the time to do it.”
“I am afraid I have already tried, sir. As Commander Tilleran will tell you, I am not as adept at escape from bondage as I am in hand to hand combat.”
“And you know this because…” Richards said.
“Not the point!” Baxter snapped.
“Besides,” J’hana said. “What would you have me do? Rip the ship apart with my bare hands?”
“You’ve done it before!”
“True, but not a ship this big. Even I have my limits. I’m sorry, sir. You’ll just have to let your wife die with dignity.”
“Yay!” Peterman said, clapping her hands.
“NO!” Baxter shouted. “No, I will not! And that’s not dignified!” He looked all around at the warehouse, filled with its columns of glowing tubes. “Get out of her, you sons of bitches. Take me instead!”
“Oh, but we will,” Peterman said, lovingly rubbing Baxter’s chest. “It’s sort of a package deal.”
“Get out of her, god damn it,” Baxter fumed.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Peterman said sweetly.
“I beg to differ.”
Baxter turned toward the source of the voice. It was Tilleran. Her eyes were squeezed shut. Sweat streamed down her forehead. She bit her lip.
“Imzadi? What are you…” J’hana asked, then paused, her antennae twitching.
“Remember that cliff, J’hana,” Tilleran said, her voice cracking. “Remember how we jumped off?”
“I am thinking of it now, Ari.”
“Picture the Bast as a great big boulder on the edge of that cliff.”
J’hana nodded, gritting her teeth. “Yess….”
“What’s happening?” Richards asked.
“Just a guess,” Browning said, “but I think Tilleran’s telepathic capabilities are slowly coming back.”
“Not…slowly…at…all, Doctor,” Tilleran grunted. “It’s just a matter of con…cen…tration. J’hana…push the boulder off…mmph…the cliff.”
Peterman suddenly doubled over, clutching at her forehead. “You stop that right now, you naughty little nymph! Get your shifty brain powers away from me!”
“BE GONE!” Tilleran roared, her eyes suddenly going wide open.
Peterman staggered back against Baxter’s table, laying across him, going instantly limp.
“Did we…do it?” J’hana said breathlessly.
Tilleran’s chest rose and fell rapidly. “I think so.”
<You did nothing,> the voices of the Bast once more boomed in the ears of the crew. <That was a meaningless and stupid gesture.>
“Felt good,” Tilleran said, catching her breath.
“Kelly…” Baxter whispered as Peterman lay over him. “Honey…”
“Hummnnnnnn…” she groaned.
Baxter wriggled. “Could you move an inch or so over? You’re crushing…important things.”
<Enough!> the Bast voice shouted, which got everyone’s attention. <The injection proceeds!>
“Well, then,” Richards said, looking around as the great sphere hummed louder, its pitch reaching a high whine. “I guess that’s that.”
“Goodbye, everybody,” Baxter said quietly, staring at Peterman’s still form. She was breathing. Not that it mattered. “I just wanted to say…”
“Save your final words, Captain,” a voice said. “You’ll probably need them sometime in the future.”
Baxter couldn’t crane his neck far up enough to see the source of the voice.
<Who the hell do you think you are?> the Bast demanded.
“Federation President Bradley Dillon. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? I, of course, have heard a great deal about you.”
Machinery cranked in the ceiling above, and several spheroid robots came tumbling down to the deck, landing on their spindly legs.
<You too will become a vessel for us,> the Bast said. <Just like all the others.>
“No, I don’t think I will,” Bradley said, reaching into his jacket pocket. “You see, I heard in my travels that the Bast use droids.” One of the robots clattered up behind him. He pulled out an oblong, silver instrument that looked like a pen or stylus. “That’s why I use the Dillon’s Pioneer Depot Automated Neutron Inhibitor. With the press of one button, it sends out an electromagnetic wave that shorts out all electronics within a two hundred meter radius.” And he pressed a button on the tip of the device. A blue wave shot out in all directions, and all the robots suddenly collapsed. “Available soon at a Dillon’s Pioneer Depot near you. Only ninety eight hundred credits.”
“Forget how mad I am at you,” Browning said as the droid that had captured her went limp. She ran over and wrapped her arms around Bradley, who had a brown satchel slung over his shoulder. “I’m still glad to see you.”
Bradley nodded, gently stepping away from Browning, shifting the satchel to his other shoulder. “Glad to be of assistance.” He looked at Baxter. “Captain, I trust you are well?”
“I’d be a lot better if you’d get me out of these bindings,” Baxter said.
“They’re electronic, Captain. Therefore, the neutron inhibitor…”
Baxter looked around, to see that Richards, Tilleran, and J’hana were already sitting up. “Oh. Whoops.” He leaned up, pulling free of the loose metal clasps, careful to hold on to Counselor Peterman as he threw his legs over the table. “You have a way out of here?”
“Through the corridors,” Bradley said. And he looked around at the glowing cylinders in the room. “If that’s all right with all of you.”
<You have come far to find us,> the Bast said, seemingly having gathered themselves. <You really want to leave now?>
“Oh yes,” Bradley said. “I got what I came for.”
“Yeah,” Browning said, and smiled. “Us!”
“Yes, that’s it,” Bradley said quickly.
<You will never leave this ship.>
“Let’s test that theory,” Baxter said, lifting one of Peterman’s arms around his shoulder as Richards grabbed the other one. They ran for the door.
<If you leave, we will only track you down. The human race will be ours.>
They ran to the door to the warehouse, Tilleran and Browning stopping to lift up the unconscious Madera.
Browning felt Madera’s neck, looked her over quickly. “She’s fine. “Let’s move.”
“The nearest conduit into the Explorer is that way,” Bradley said, ducking outside. “According to my schematics.”
“You’re remarkably prepared for all this,” Richards noted.
Baxter put up a hand, stopping everyone in the doorway so fast they all nearly bumped into him. “Wait. They’re right. We can’t stop them, even if we can get the Explorer out of here”
“It’s probably already gone,” J’hana harrumphed.
“You suggest we blow up their ship?” Richards asked. “Happen to have ten tons of carbonite explosive on you?”
“Your subspace pocket in a pocket!” Browning said, pointing at Bradley.
“His what in a what?” Baxter asked.
Browning nodded. “That’s how he got in there. I saw it.”
“It helps me get around,” Bradley said, nodding. “What of it?”
“Well, couldn’t you…I don’t know…tuck this ship into subspace with it?” she asked.
“It’s nowhere near big enough,” Bradley said. “Anyway, that wouldn’t do any good. They’d just find a way to get out.”
“Janice’s on to something,” Richards said, rubbing his chin. “If I could just remember my subspace physics…”
Baxter could hear the cranking sound of droids advancing toward them down the corridor. “Remember quickly.”
Tilleran glanced at the ceiling, doing calculations in her head. “A subspace field generator creates a hole in normal space. That hole has a specific gravity of…carry the twelve…then you add a factor of the subspace field stress dynamic…”
“Anybody know what she’s going on about?” J’hana asked.
Richards snapped his fingers. “Yes! You create an implosion!”
“Give it to me,” Tilleran said.
Bradley reached into his satchel and pulled out what looked like a handheld remote control. He gingerly handed it to Tilleran. “You know tampering one of these is against several Federation laws…”
“So is owning one,” Tilleran said, and yanked the casing open.
“My corporation will be billing you for that,” Bradley said.
“Tilleran…” Baxter said, growing increasingly edgy at the sound of droids advancing.
“I will buy us some time,” J’hana said, pushing up her shirtsleeves.
“But all our weapons were fried by that EM pulse!” Richards said incredulously.
“And?” J’hana said, and ducked out into the corridor. Moments later, much shrieking (mostly J’hana) and sounds of metal grinding could be heard.
“Damn,” Tilleran said. “I almost forgot. I’ll need a duonetic decoupler to change the gravitational constant on this thing.” She looked around. “Anybody got one?”
“I have a hairpin,” Browning said helpfully.
Bradley looked around at the group. He sighed, reaching into his pocket. “Coincidentally, I just so happen to have such an item.”
Baxter chuckled. “You’re kidding.”
“I’m quite serious, Captain,” Bradley said, digging around in his satchel. He pulled what looked like a bulky, triangular padd halfway out of the satchel. He flipped the casing open and gently tugged a cubical chunk of circuitry out. “I believe this should do the trick.”
Tilleran grabbed it and shoved it inside the casing of the subspace generator.
“There!” she said, twisting one diode and slapping the casing of the remote shut. “Now, matter will be forcibly pulled into the pocket. It’s a cascade effect. The more matter pulled in, the stronger the pull, eventually causing an implosion.”
“You’re really on a roll, Commander,” Baxter said with a grin. “Toss that thing in there and turn it on!”
Tilleran quickly tapped a sequence into the remote, then threw it back into the warehouse. It emitted a series of bleeps. Moments later, a small white tear in space appeared above it. For a moment, nothing happened, and then the remote itself rattled against the floor, as if pulled by an unseen force. Then, suddenly, it flew into the tear.
“Um,” Richards said. “How much time do we have?”
Tilleran shrugged. “Four minutes. Four seconds. I’m not sure.”
“You’re officially off your roll,” Baxter said, dragging Peterman out into the corridor. “Let’s move. Now, people!”
<What…what are you doing?> the Bast voice demanded. <Wait!>
“Sorry. We have previous engagements,” Baxter said, and left.
Out in the corridor, there was a mess of droid parts, smoking and sizzling, and one crazed-looking, bloody, Andorian, wearing a tattered uniform and an evil grin, was perched on one of the junk piles.
“I did a lot of venting,” she said, hopping off the pile and throwing an arm around Tilleran, leaning against her for strength and breathing hard. “I am ready to leave when you are.”
“Lead the way, Mister President!” Baxter said, as Richards helped Browning with Madera and the group jogged down the corridor.
More droids appeared, at either end of the corridor, as Bradley led everyone down a side corridor, toward a chute that led, presumably, to the Explorer.
“This is one of the many docking tunnels they attached to the ship,” Tilleran said. “Similar to the one we came in through. I have no idea what part of the ship it leads to, or if there even is a ship at the other end.”
“At this point, I’m not choosey,” Baxter said, pushing Richards and Madera, then J’hana, then Bradley through the cramped corridor. He glanced once over his shoulder, then ducked in with Peterman and scrambled through the chute.
“Everybody form up!” Lt. Commander Vansen called out, slinging her phaser rifle over her shoulder and looking out over the sea of security and engineering officers crammed into the corridor. “You all know the mission. We’re going in there, getting the captain and the others, and getting out. You see anything that looks even remotely like a robot, or a cat, and you blow it to kingdom come. Understood?”
“Understood!” everyone called out.
Beside Vansen, Hartley checked the setting on her rifle. “You know, according to the captain’s orders, we should be halfway to Vega by now.”
“I know. I’m a real bitch, aren’t I?” Vansen asked.
“Your words, not mine.”
“Move out!” Vansen called over her shoulder, swinging her rifle down in front of her and approaching the narrow, cylindrical tunnel that emptied out into the Explorer corridor, having been bored through the Explorer’s hull by the Bast. It was dark in that tunnel, and as Vansen looked in, she couldn’t help but think she saw shapes inside, moving around. Lots of rumbling. Yes, something was coming down that tunnel.
She held up her hand. “Everyone back up! Something’s coming through.”
“Great,” Keefler said. “We’re going to be invaded, aren’t we?”
“Not without a raging good fight,” Hartley called out. “Everybody ready on weapons!”
Vansen and Hartley backed away from the tunnel, just as Bradley, Richards and Madera, Browning, Tilleran, J’hana, Baxter, and Peterman all poured out, looking haggard and dazed.
“Nobody shoot!”’ Hartley called out. “Everybody stand down!”
“Unless you really want to!” Vansen amended, smiling at Baxter. “Captain. I was just…”
“Blatantly disobeying orders?” Baxter asked.
“Thanks,” he said, and pushed past her. “Senior staff, report to the bridge. All others to battle stations. Janice, get somebody to help you take Kelly and Susan to Sickbay. And check in on Plato and Steffie. Make sure they haven’t been giving Chaka’kan any trouble while we’ve been gallivanting around on the Bast ship.”
“Aye, aye,” Browning said, pointing to two ensigns as Richards leaned Madera and Peterman against the bulkhead. “You, you. Grab an arm. I don’t care which.”
“What’s happening?” Vansen asked, as Baxter shouldered through the corridor, Hartley, Richards, Tilleran, J’hana, and Bradley trailing behind him.
“The Bast ship is about to be very imploded. Tell me you have a way out.”
“We can fire up the engines, captain, but as far as getting through that door…” Hartley said as they squeezed into the turbolift.
“We’ll find a way,” Baxter said, folding his arms. He smiled. “We always do.”
Everybody poured out of the turbolift and took their stations quickly.
Lt. Howard Sefelt stood from the command chair, looking around at the rest of the crew.
“Are you all joining me on this holodeck exercise, or are you all holograms as well?”
“Whatever you have to tell yourself to get through this, Lieutenant,” Baxter said, then pointed toward the forward stations. “Take the helm.”
“We should play games like this more often,” he said giddily as he sat down at the helm. As she took her station, J’hana hobbled more than the others, but she didn’t seem to be feeling any pain. Rather, she was living off the sheer adrenaline of the moment. This moment–the combat, the violence, the sheer life-risking–was the happiest Richards had ever seen her, but he didn’t comment on it as he took his place down in the command center with Baxter, Vansen, and Bradley Dillon.
“Engines online, Captain,” Hartley said, swinging behind the engineering station.
“Mister Sefelt, take the helm,” Baxter said. “J’hana, give me visual.”
On the viewscreen, the vast and crumbling hangar of the Bast ship stood, still in ruins from the pummeling it had received earlier that day.
“Take us toward that hangar door, one quarter impulse,” Baxter said, pointing to the large, double doors on the viewscreen.
“Captain,” Hartley said, leaning over her console. “Our hull has been compromised in about twenty places. I don’t think ramming through a hangar door is going to help matters.”
“Then J’hana better arm the photons.”
“Already done, sir,” J’hana said. “What’s left of them.”
The Explorer let loose a stream of photon torpedoes, pummeling the twin doors. The ship rumbled as the shockwaves from each torpedo impact rolled over them.
“Shields to maximum. Reinforce the weakened areas of the hull!” Richards called out.
“Doors are weakened in several places,” Hartley said.
“Is it enough to get us through?” Vansen asked.
“Cross your fingers everybody,” Baxter said, sitting down in the command chair as the doors grew closer on the viewscreen, as the Explorer weaved around the debris in the hangar. “And grab on to something. Baxter to all hands: Brace for impact!”
“You’ve always wanted to say that, haven’t you?” Vansen asked, as everyone grabbed hold of their stations.
“Mister President,” Baxter said, gesturing toward the front of the bridge. “There’s an open seat at ops.”
“Gladly,” Bradley said, and walked over to the operations console and sat down. He gripped the edges of the console. “May your ship be as sturdy as the specs would indicate, Captain.”
“We’ll soon find out,” Baxter said, digging his hands into the armrests of his chair as the hanagar doors now filled the viewscreen.
“Contact in ten seconds,” J’hana called out.
“Captain,” Tilleran reported. “There is a subspace gravitational eddy right behind us and closing fast. That implosion we started…”
“…had better not reach us in less than ten seconds,” Baxter affirmed.
Tilleran just nodded.
J’hana looked at her controls. “Contact in three…two…one!”
The Explorer rumbled right into the hangar doors, butting right through them with its saucer.
Fingers of shredded metal dug into the saucer, dragging trenches along every inch of hull. Likewise, the bottom of the ship scraped the remains of the door as the Explorer, powered by sheer will, burst out of the Bast ship’s hangar.
“Implosion reaching maximum intensity!” Tilleran called out.
“Mister Sefelt!” Baxter said, as the Explorer shot free of the Bast ship. “Warp Two!”
Sefelt slapped his hand down on the button, and the Explorer shot into warp.
“Reverse angle,” Richards ordered.
Everyone on the bridge stood up and watched, as, on the viewscreen, the gargantuan, saucer-shaped Bast ship rippled like water, then twisted, then crumbled, like a piece of paper being balled up.
“Cap…” Tilleran said, her voice cracking, as her fingers gripped her panel. Her eyes went wide. She shook her head, as if to clear it, then looked down at the floor. Then looked back up, connecting eyes with the Captain. “We have lived for generations, and you fools ended us all. I hope you’re happy with yourselves. I hope you all…unnnhhhhhhhh…” and she collapsed at her panel, as on the viewscreen the Bast ship ignited in one big white plume, and then neatly disappeared into nothing more than a pinprick of light.
J’hana raced to Tilleran’s side, wrapping an arm around her. “Captain, I must get her to Sickbay.”
“Go,” Baxter said, still transfixed on the viewscreen as everyone on the bridge looked on, breathless.
Bradley Dillon walked up next to Baxter, leaning in close. “Captain,” he said in a low voice. “You realize we eradicated an entire species today.”
Baxter looked at Bradley, and grinned. “You know what? I’m okay with that.”
Stardate 56768.5. Our business in this part of space pretty much complete, we are finally on course to return to Federation Space. I’m told it will take about three months at Warp Seven, which is unfortunately the highest speed we can manage without running out of deuterium, or blowing up the ship.
Meanwhile, Doctor Browning tells me that no one suffered any profound aftereffects from our dealings with the Bast. Lt. Madera and Lt. Commander Tilleran have both returned to duty.
As for our ship’s counselor…well, she may take a little bit longer.
Captain Baxter stood in the doorway of Sickbay, watching in silence as Doctor Browning worked.
Moments later, Browning walked up to Baxter. She touched his arm, smiled up at him. “We were able to regenerate her neural pathways, Andy. All she has to do now is rest for a couple of days, and she should recover completely.”
“Can I speak to her?”
“She probably won’t wake up for another twenty-four hours or so,” Browning said. “But when she does, I know she’ll want to talk to you.” Browning’s eyes connected with Baxter’s. “I know she still loves you, Andy. She’s just been through a lot. Give her time, and I know everything will go back to normal. Trust me on this one.”
Baxter looked down at Browning, wrapped her in a big hug. “Thank you, Janice. For everything.”
“For what?” Browning asked, looking up at Baxter with a smile. “For patching up people? That’s kind of my job.”
“No. For being there for me through all of this, whether I realized you were there or not.”
Browning nodded. “It’s funny you should mention that. I was going to apologize for shutting you out. You know…with all the romantic stuff going on recently.”
“It’s been a tough few weeks. But it’s nothing that a few days of R&R in the holodeck won’t cure.”
“Or a few pizzas,” Browning said, and headed over to her office. “I’ve got one coming out. Want to split it?”
“No. I’ve got someone to talk to.”
“I told you, she won’t wake up until…”
“I know,” Baxter said, and smiled. “Go enjoy your pizza.” He walked over to Peterman’s biobed, where she lay, still and sleeping. Well, it looked like she was sleeping, with the minor difference that she wasn’t crying out in jibberish. Baxter pulled up a stool beside her bed and grabbed her hand. “Hi, Kelly.”
Unsurprisingly, Peterman didn’t reply.
“I’m sorry, honey. I’m sorry I’ve been too wrapped up in myself to realize you were in distress. And I’m not just talking about Fritz. I’m talking about everything.” He stared at her for several long moments, squeezing her hand. “And I know you can’t hear me. And I’m going to tell you all this and a lot more when you wake up. But I wanted you to know it anyway, if only subconsciously. Kelly, I love you more than anything in the world. And I’ll be with you, no matter what you decide you want in life. We’ll find a way to make it happen.
The components of the triangular device lay spread out on the work bench in Bradley Dillon’s lab. Part of the large suite he’d had built on Deck Fourteen included a comprehensive lab facility. He didn’t request any Starfleet technicians, though. He didn’t want them. Didn’t even bring any technicians of his own aboard.
This was the one part of his mission that nobody knew about. Not even Gisele.
Nobody could be trusted with this, so he had to work from notes, literature stored in several of his most highly-encrypted databases.
The fundamental principles were sound. The device worked. He’d tested it, and the tricorder readings were conclusive.
Now he just had a small setback. He’d given the duonetic decoupler from the unit to Tilleran, to help her blow up the Bast ship.
Not that he wasn’t thankful the Bast ship was gone, of course. He knew they’d done the galaxy a favor on that count.
But now he had to acquire another decoupler, and that would be tricky work. They were rare, and there was probably only one other such component on the Explorer. Getting past sensors and getting it without arousing suspicion would be difficult.
But, Bradley thought, as he looked over the components spread out on his lab table, he’d find a way to make it happen.
Everything depended on it.
Captain Baxter stepped out onto the bridge and breathed a sigh of relief. “Damn, it feels good to be heading home.”
“You said a mouthful,” Richards said, as Baxter walked down to sit next to him in the command chair. Stars streaked toward them on the viewscreen. Madera and Sefelt were at the forward stations, Tilleran at sciences, J’hana at tactical. All was right with the world.
“Everything going okay?” Baxter asked, bringing up the latest engineering reports on the console on his chair arm.
Richards nodded. “Hartley reports that repairs are ahead of schedule. They’ve patched up most of the holes, at least well enough to get us to a starbase for a refit.”
“Engines running smoothly?”
“We’ll be running on deuterium fumes by the time we pull into Federation space, but we’ll get there,” Richards said.
“Good,” Baxter said.
J’hana cleared her throat. “Half our phaser banks are burned out beyond repair, and we have but three photon torpedoes remaining.”
Baxter laughed. “Guess we’d better not run into any bad guys on the way back in, huh?”
“I would not laugh if I were you,” J’hana said. “In our current condition, I doubt we would last more than a few minutes in a fair fight.”
“Duly noted,” Baxter said, and settled a little in his command chair. It felt good. Like things were finally going to be normal again, after such a long period of…things being askew.
Baxter barely noticed the sound of the turbolift doors at the back of the bridge opening up as he paged through the engineering activity logs.
“Captain,” Vansen’s voice called out. “You won’t believe what we found in cargo bay six.”
“What?” Baxter said distractedly, still looking at his screens.
Suddenly, he felt something hop onto his lap, and looked down, his eyes going wide with shock as he saw an orange housecat stare back up at him, claws buried in his thighs.
“He must have somehow followed you guys out of the Bast ship,” Vansen said. “Guess you were too busy running for your lives to notice, huh?”
“Indeed,” Baxter said, lifting Fritz up and inspecting him carefully. “Have you…”
“We scanned his brainwaves. The only schemes he’ll be concocting will involve a scratching post and a ball of yarn. And maybe your sofa.”
“Good,” Baxter said, a little uneasy, and pulled Fritz free of his thighs. “How about you take him back to my quarters?”
“How about you kiss my ass?” Vansen asked with a sweet smile.
“Touche,” Baxter said, and took Fritz. “I’ll be back in a couple minutes.”
“Take your time,” Richards called after him as he ducked into the foreward turbolift. “And make sure to lock Fritz in!”
Baxter nodded. “Right.”
Baxter dropped Fritz on the carpet in his quarters as the doors wooshed closed behind him, and found a surprised Chaka’kan sitting on his couch.
“Captain! Should I call security to come destroy that animal?” Chaka asked, rising from the couch and staring at Fritz.
“Nah, he’s clean,” Baxter said, looking around his quarters for several moments.
“Steffie is sleeping,” Chaka said. “I noticed young humans sleep for an inordinate amount of time.”
“If you tried sleeping once in a while, you might understand why,” Baxter said, not really looking at Chaka. He walked back toward Steffie’s room. “Take the day off, Chaka. Do some gardening, or something. I think I’ll hang out here.”
Chaka bowed, and headed for the door. “As you wish, Captain. And, Captain?”
“Yeah?” Baxter said, standing at the doorway to Steffie’s room.
“I think you have a beautiful child. She will make an impressive warrior one day.”
“You never know,” Baxter said.
Chaka smiled. “I believe I do.” And he left.
And Baxter went into Steffie’s room, leaned over and stared at her as she slept, smiling at the simple beauty of his daughter lying there.
He tapped his combadge. “Baxter to Bridge,” he whispered. “Chris, why don’t you take the conn the rest of the day. I just realized, I have more important things to do.”
Did everything get settled aboard the Explorer? One would think not, because there’s still one story to go. Despite the events this story, there still remains much unfinished for many of the Explorer crew. Find out the ultimate goal of Federation President Bradley Dillon, and so much more, in the Year Six Finale!