Author: Anthony Butler
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility.
Stardate 56778.8. The Explorer has spent the last ten days limping home to the Federation, after wiping out a particularly nasty race of separated consciousnesses–is that a word?–who wanted to take over Earth and the Federation.
Now that all that is overwith, I look forward to returning to life as normal. After a long, hard voyage, it’s finally time to get back to basics.
“Strike!” Commander Christopher Richards called out, leaning on his pool cue.
Baxter looked up from the green felt pool table in the Constellation Club, where he’d just sunk the cue ball. “The correct term is ‘scratch,’ Chris.”
“I don’t care what the correct term is, buddy, you knocked that white ball in when you were trying to sink the eight ball, so you lose automatically.”
“Why are we playing pool again?” Baxter asked, straightening and reaching back as the small of his back crackled in response. This stupid game required too much bending over.
“Because the holodecks have been taken offline until we put in at a Starbase for repair and refueling,” Richards said. “So no football, no lacrosse, and ABSOLUTELY no naked parasailing.”
“Even you said that felt good,” Baxter said defensively, walking up to the bar. “You know, down there.”
“We promised we’d never talk about that again,” Richards said.
“Your choice,” Baxter said, waving over to Mirk, who was speaking to another customer. “Mister Mirk. When you get a chance, a rum and coke for the two pool sharks.”
Mirk’s brow furrowed. “The who?”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “Me and Chris.”
“Oh. Are you finished with that table? Ensign Aiello wanted it after you.”
“It’s all yours.”
“I’m amazed, but it’s actually getting more use than the brain stimulator I used to have there,” Mirk said, and went over to the replicator to get the pair’s drink.
Richards leaned against the bar. “So. Been quiet around here the last few days, huh?”
Baxter nodded as he hopped onto a stool. “Yeah. And I’d just as soon keep it that way.”
“You and me both. Saving the Federation is hard work. I don’t know how those Enterprise people do it all the time.”
“I think they have stunt doubles,” Baxter said thoughtfully. He sighed. “Anyway, I’d better get home. You know, wife’s expecting me for dinner.”
Richards grinned as Mirk brought the men’s drinks and sat them down in front of them. “Glad to hear things are going well on that front.”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Baxter said, taking his drink from Mirk and downing it in one gulp. “Kelly and I aren’t having any problems right now because we’re not talking about them.”
“Please. I’ve had worse fights with Janice about muffins than what you’re going through with Kelly.”
“Then why does it feel like I’m a guest in my own cabin?” Baxter asked with raised eyebrow as he walked toward the exit. “Think long and hard about this marriage thing, Chris. It’s not for the timid. You still have a couple months to change your mind.”
“Yeah,” Richards said thoughtfully. “I guess I do.” After Baxter left, Richards’s eyes scanned the faces of the few crewmembers grouped in the bar, finally lighting upon Federation President Bradley Dillon, who was seated at a table far in the corner, near the windows. Oddly enough, his Special Secret Section was nowhere to be found. Not even his personal assistant, Gisele. He was just sitting by himself. And Richards never saw anyone who looked so terribly…alone.
Something–he wasn’t sure what it was–compelled Richards to walk over to Bradley’s table.
“Good evening, sir,” he said. “Nice night, isn’t it?”
“Hmmm?” Bradley asked, glancing at Richards, as if shocked to see him standing there. “What? Oh. Commander Richards. Yes. It’s so clear you can see the stars.”
“Hehe,” Richards said. “Funny.” He looked around aimlessly. “You…seem lonely, Mister President. Would you like somebody to talk to?”
“Great, because I’m really bored,” Richards said, immediately sitting down across from Bradley.
“Actually, I was planning an evening of quiet contemplation,” Bradley said, steepling his fingers and pressing them to his chin. “I have much to mull.”
“It wouldn’t interest you.”
Richards leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his drink. “I beg to differ. Just about anything would interest me at this point. There is a serious lack of activity around here since we were…you know…almost blown up coming out of the Bast ship.”
“Imploded,” Bradley corrected.
“Right. I guess people are still a little on edge.”
“They have good reason to be. We faced annihilation.”
“Yeah,” Richards said. “That annihilation. It’s a real bitch.”
“Commander,” Bradley said, looking at Richards. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“No,” Richards said. “Not at all. Just…you know…I was going to ask your opinion on something. Sort of a…matter of the heart.”
“Because I’d really rather be left alone.”
“Oh. All right. Say no more. Get back to, um, your mulling. Let me know how that turns out, okay?” Richards stood up and backed toward the door, then headed out. Time to stop putting off the inevitable.
His fiancee was back in his quarters and he desperately needed to talk to her.
“And Kelly Lynne, do you take Andrew Jackson, through obsessions and compulsions, in giant space amoebas and quantum singularities, whether he may be taken over by a malignant subspace entity or caught in and endlessly repeating temporal loop, in alternate realities and timelines, in the past and the future, as long as you both shall live?”
Peterman winked at Baxter and turned to Bradley with a determined look on her face. “Damned right I do.”
“You do?” Baxter called out as he shot up in bed, then looked around, rubbing his eyes.
“I what?” Counselor Peterman asked, looking up from the padd she was reading as she sat in bed next to him.
“I didn’t say anything,” Baxter said, leaning back again and staring up at the ceiling.
“Oh. I thought you did.”
“Maybe you’re hearing things,” the captain said quietly.
Peterman looked at him. “Was that a mind control crack?”
Baxter pulled the covers up a little further, to just beneath his nose. “Maybe a small one.”
“Well it wasn’t very funny.”
“I’m glad you’re feeling better, honey,” Baxter said, reaching over and resting his hand on Peterman’s stomach. “You know, since all the…coma.”
“I’m officially footloose and coma free,” Peterman said. “Doctor Browning cleared me to return to work tomorrow.”
“So soon?” Baxter asked, sitting up again.
“It’s been almost two weeks.”
“I know. But what you went through…it was traumatic…”
“Not as traumatic as being the kitty queen of the Dawg empire, and I was back on duty less than two weeks after that.”
“Oh yeah. I almost forgot about that.”
Peterman sighed. “I didn’t. Anyway, I’m fine. The Bast have been obliterated. They’re not going to hurt any of us anymore. The ship’s fine. We’re fine. Let’s just get on with our lives.”
Baxter looked up at Peterman, as she went back to reading her padd. “So, um…there’s nothing you want to talk about?”
“Nope,” Peterman said, still looking at the padd.
“Okay, then,” Baxter said, and rolled over. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Yep. Sure will.”
“Surprise,” Dr. Janice Browning said, appearing in the doorway of Bradley’s cabin adjoining his suite of offices, a bouquet of Vernasian tulips in one hand, and a pan of lasagne in the other.
Bradley looked different to Browning. He didn’t have that rosey- cheeked confidence about him. His cheeks looked a little more hollow, his eyes more thoughtful. She wasn’t sure what the explanation for that was, other than maybe the run-in with the Bast, but she didn’t care. She liked Bradley anyway, and she wanted to see where this relationship would go.
“Doctor,” Bradley said, gesturing for Browning to come in. “It’s quite late.”
“I worked a double shift in Sickbay. But I had some things on my mind and I realized I couldn’t go to sleep until I talked to you about them.” She tipped the bouquet toward Bradley.
The President gave a small smile. “I thought it was customary for the gentleman to provide the bouquet.”
“I’m not a customary woman,” Browning said, setting the lasagne down on the table in the corner kitchenette and looking around for a vase. “You have anything to put these in?”
“Computer, one vase, full of water,” Bradley said, and the replicator in the far end of the extensive room–three times as big as any other crew cabin–hummed to life.
“Replicators. Gotta love them,” Browning said, walking over to the replicator and taking the vase off the pad. She looked for a spot in the tastefully decorated–yet somewhat understated–cabin, and decided that the coffee table in front of the arched windows that looked out on the rear of the ship…both nacelles, and quite a bit of battle scarring credited to the escape from the Bast ship. She arranged the flowers a little in the vase and then looked at it, hands on hips. “What do you think?”
Bradley gave a small smile. “Perfect.” He draped his hands behind his back. “Now then, you were saying you had something to discuss with me?”
“You can start calling me Janice,” Browning said, stepping closer to Bradley. “I came…to talk about us.”
Bradley cocked his head. “Us?”
“You know,” she smiled, gently squeezing his arm. “Both of us.”
Bradley nodded. “I was expecting this conversation.”
“Is that a good kind of expecting?” Browning asked.
“Let’s sit down,” Bradley said, and led Browning over to his long, L- shaped, sectional leather couch. He gestured for her to sit at the end of the couch, and as she did, she sunk a bit in the leather. Wow. Luxurious.
He sat beside her, resting one hand on hers. “Janice…”
“You are an incredible woman. And, one day soon you will make some man out there in the galaxy very, very lucky.”
Browning studied Bradley’s eyes, then looked down at his hand, which was still on hers. “But let me guess. You’re not going to be that man.”
She actually thought she spotted some sadness in his eyes at that. “Part of me really wishes that I was. Unfortunately, I’ve got a job to do.”
“But you’ve done that job. You found the Bast…we destroyed them. They won’t be trying to kill you anymore…”
“I wasn’t referring to that,” Bradley said. “That leg in the journey is over, but there is far more to do. I’m the leader of the free quadrant, Janice. I have awe-inspiring responsibilities.”
Browning stared at him. “I can’t imagine.”
“No, I don’t suppose you can. But I’m grateful for the time we spent together. I truly enjoyed it. It made this whole experience…much more palatable.”
Browning stood up, looking down at Bradley, her hand still in his. “Well, that IS what I’m here for after all.”
“And, ultimately, I value our friendship far too much to risk it on a silly fling.” He squeezed her hand. “As you might imagine, I don’t have many friends.”
“I’m shocked,” Browning said flatly.
“That lasagne looked delicious,” Bradley said, following her with his eyes as she walked toward the kitchen table. “Let’s have a late dinner, and talk about those old times on Waystation.”
“So that’s it? Let’s just be friends?” Browning stomped over to the kitchen table. “I don’t think so.” She grabbed the lasagne pan. “And I’m taking my food back!”
“Janice, don’t let it end like this…”
“You’re the one ending it. Hope you’re satisfied,” Browning said, and walked out, Italian food in hand.
“Far from it, Janice. Far from it.” Bradley said, and sat back down in his chair.
FIVE YEARS AGO. . .
He hadn’t even said goodbye.
That was the part that hurt the most. She’d been there, all astral and glowing, and all he could think to say was “You’re leaving? I don’t believe it.” Of all the stupid…
“Mister Dillon,” a familiar voice said softly in the darkness of his bedroom. Bradley shot up in bed and looked around.
“Lexi?” Gradually, her form shimmered into existence a few feet away from his bed. “You did not think I would leave without saying goodbye, did you?” she said serenely.
“I…I didn’t know,” Bradley said. He smiled weakly. “I’m sure you’ve got a busy death ahead of you.”
“I do indeed. There is much to learn if the Critics are to be stopped. However, I felt the need to stop here first.”
“I’m glad you did. There’s so much I want to…”
“I understand…Bradley. You have been a friend and companion to me throughout my time here, and I thank you for that. You taught me the ways and customs of your people and extended me many kindnesses that I’m afraid I cannot repay.”
“But you did,” Bradley replied. “You already did. I’m going to miss you…more than you know.”
“Actually, I believe I do know,” Leximas said, smiling warmly. It was the first time Bradley had ever seen her smile like that. She placed her translucent hand on top of his; he could feel a rush of cold energy touching him.
“Goodbye, Lexi,” he said softly. “Goodbye…my friend.”
Then she disappeared, her body gradually fading from view as Bradley strained to commit her visage to memory.
A moment later, she was gone.
NOW. . .
“J’hana, that’s enough cuddling already. I’m supposed to be on duty!”
“You are a department chief. You should be able to set your own hours, as long as you show up for bridge duty,” J’hana said, laying next to Tilleran in the Betazed’s quarters, stark naked, and on top of the sheets, as usual.
Tilleran leaned up. “Is that what you do?”
“I do some creative timekeeping, yes. The captain is none the wiser.”
“Are you sure you’re the same person who keeps saying you’ll give your life for his?”
“I would,” J’hana said defensively. “And in return, all I ask for is a few extra hours to sleep in every now and then.”
Tilleran laughed as she swung her legs over the edge of the bed. “Now I really have heard everything. J’hana being lazy. That is a change.”
“What can I say, Imzadi?” J’hana asked, turning over and staring at the ceiling. “You have mellowed me.”
“Yeah, you’re really mellow,” Tilleran said, as she walked over to her closet to grab a uniform, and shrugged off her nightgown.
“Not when you disrobe in front of me,” J’hana said, beaming. “Then I am most assuredly not mellow.”
“Well, calm down and get dressed. You’re on the bridge in twenty minutes if I’m not mistaken.”
“Quite right,” J’hana sighed, and leaned up. “Will I see you in Space Tastes for lunch, then?”
Tilleran nodded. “Yep. If you get there before me, make sure we get our favorite booth.”
“I shall personally kill anyone I find in our favorite booth.”
“Sure hope you’re kidding,” Tilleran giggled as she zipped up her uniform front.
“I was kidding,” J’hana said. “Partly.” And she watched the Betazoid walk out of the cabin, grinning like an Andorian schoolgirl, but without the sharp fangs. “Oh, Imzadi,” she said to herself. “It is good to be back.”
Tilleran was still tying back her ponytail as she walked into the Science Lab One. “Mister Koltz, please start my morning off with something vaguely interesting.”
“I was just about to call you,” Koltz said, looking up from one of the supply cabinets in the lab, as the other science officers in the lab worked quietly at nearby consoles.
Tilleran smiled inwardly. “I’m glad you didn’t. What’s up?” But she knew before he said anything. Tellarites were so easy to read. “Our duonetic decoupler is missing.”
Koltz nodded. “I was getting ready to lay out the tools so that we could work on that implosion device we talked about yesterday,” Koltz said. Tilleran had been intrigued by the device she’d used two weeks earlier to destroy the Bast ship. Not that it could possibly have any peaceful implications, but she’d let Starfleet Security worry about that. “I was looking for the decoupler,” Koltz continued. “And it’s just gone.”
“Any sign of unauthorized entry?” Tilleran asked, squatting in front of the cabinet and looking inside.
He shook his head. “None.”
“And you’re sure it’s missing?”
“Hansen and Brevart searched all six labs with their tricorders. Nothing.”
“And nobody took it home with them?”
“It’s a duonetic decoupler. What would any of us possibly want with one?”
“What would anybody on the ship want with one?” Tilleran asked, rubbing her chin. “Nobody would need one of those things unless they were trying to cause a huge implosion, or change the space-time constant in some way.”
“Know anyone on board who might want to do that?”
Tilleran stood up. “Not exactly, but I have a pretty good idea of where to start asking questions.”
“You are fully telepathic again, aren’t you?” Koltz asked hopefully.
“Yes!” Tilleran snapped, irritated, and marched out of the science lab.
“Do you have an appointment?” Gisele asked primly, holding up a padd which presumably contained Bradley Dillon’s schedule as Tilleran loomed over her desk.
“No,” Tilleran said flatly. “This is a special occasion.”
“And what may I ask is that?”
“None of your business.”
Gisele smiled. “You’re going to have to do better than that if you expect to see the President.”
“How about this,” Tilleran said, leaning into Gisele’s face. “I want to question him about the matter of some missing scientific equipment. Some very sophisticated, very dangerous, and very restricted science equipment.”
Gisele pushed back in her chair a little bit. “Stop trying to see into my mind.”
“Oh, I wasn’t even trying,” Tilleran said, straightening. “But what a grand idea.”
Gisele stood up and backed away. “I’m a Federation citizen. I have rights. You can’t just go poking through my mind.”
“I can, and I will,” Tilleran said, nodding as if she was listening to a conversation in an adjoining room. “Oh. Okay. That makes sense. Thanks for everything, Gisele, you’ve been most helpful.”
With that, the Betazoid turned on a heel and left Dillon’s office suite. Gisele leaned over her desk and pushed a button. “Gisele to President Dillon. We may have a problem.”
FOUR YEARS AGO. . .
“Mister Dillon?” Yeoman Jones, Waystation’s Liaison Officer, asked hesitantly as Bradley sat, looking useless, on the floor of his Dillon Enterprises laboratory.
“Get out,” Bradley said flatly. He didn’t want to see anyone right now. The time pod he’d built had been destroyed. He’d never see Leximas again.
“I need to talk to you, sir.”
“I’m busy.” Bradley looked up at her, his eyes filled with so much sorrow that she was taken aback. All this over a stupid invention? She couldn’t believe it.
“It’s just a machine,” she said softly, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“No. This was my one chance,” Bradley replied hoarsely. “I’ve been searching for a year for this. I was going to save her.”
“Who?” the Yeoman asked.
Bradley smiled weakly. “Leximas. I could have gotten her before the Starshine Kids blew up her module.”
The Yeoman sat, and wrapped an arm around Bradley. “I had no idea you two were…”
“We weren’t,” Bradley said quickly. “But she was my friend…and I don’t have many.” Tears welled up in his eyes again. “I miss her, Tina.”
There was nothing to say. Instead, she just sat silently and held him.
NOW. . .
“President Dillon is building something with stolen parts from my science labs, in conjunction with some things from the Bast ship,” Lt. Commander Tilleran said, hands clasped behind her back, as she stood in front of Captain Baxter’s desk in the readyroom.
Baxter looked up at her. “You have any proof of this?”
She pointed at her forehead. “It’s all up here, Captain.”
“I can have a squadron of security officers storm the place in thirteen minutes,” J’hana said, leaning back against Baxter’s sofa and cavalierly resting her arm on a cushion. “Eight if I don’t make them spitshine their boots first.”
Baxter held up his hands. “Wait, wait, wait. We can’t just go storming the President’s offices with little more than your empathic impressions as proof.”
“I am TELE-pathic!” Tilleran said, putting her hands on Baxter’s desk. “There’s a big difference.”
“Even if he is building something,” Baxter said. “So what? He’s the President. Let him build whatever he wants. As long as he’s not bothering us.”
“If his experiment goes awry, it could bother a great many of us,” J’hana said. “And when I say bother, I mean kill.”
Baxter nodded. “Still, we need proof.”
J’hana got up and headed for the door. “I am on my way.”
“J’hana…” Baxter called after her. “Please, for the love of God, be discrete!”
J’hana shoved Gisele up against the back wall of her office. “Where’s Dillon?” she growled, spraying spittle across the administrative assistant’s face. “What’s he doing?”
“I don’t have to tell you anything!” Gisele replied. “Gisele to Anderson, Code Elegant Lucifer Boston Whaler!”
J’hana shook Gisele hard, lifting her up off the floor. “I don’t know what that code is, but it better be the ‘tell J’hana everything’ code.”
“Never!” Gisele replied. “President Dillon’s business is his own. It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than me. It overrides everything. You can’t interfere.”
“We shall see about that,” J’hana said, and dropped Gisele back to her feet, turning for the door. She’d only made half a turn when she suddenly whirled back toward the assistant and grabbed the sides of her face, pulling her into a passionate kiss. Gisele squeaked, then momentarily slipped into the kiss, sighing. Finally, she shoved J’hana away.
“What the hell was that?” she demanded.
“I kissed you. I thought I felt a…vibe between us.”
Gisele wiped her mouth, breathing heavily. “You were wrong!”
J’hana narrowed her eyes at Gisele. “So it would seem. Be that as it may, I will be returning. And with backup.”
“Do your worst,” Gisele muttered, stumbling behind her desk as Agent Anderson, head of the Special Secret Section, appeared in the doorway to the Presidential Suite, blocking J’hana’s exit.
“Exactly what I was thinking,” J’hana said, then glared at Anderson. “BE GONE!” she shouted, and shoved him out of the way.
“Are you all right?” Anderson asked, glancing after J’hana as she headed down the corridor and the door closed.
“No,” Gisele said. “We have a very big problem. President Dillon is going to have to move up his timetable.” She stared off in the direction J’hana had headed. “Meanwhile, I’m going to go bathe. I have sudden need to be clean.”
“Come again?” Anderson asked.
Gisele licked her lips. “Exactly.”
Moments later, Bradley Dillon emerged from the corridor leading to the other rooms of his office suite. “Have you dealt with the incursion?”
“For better or worse,” Anderson quipped.
“Good,” Bradley said, and headed back down the corridor.
“President Dillon,” Anderson called after him. “It would be far easier to assist you if you told us what you were doing.”
“You know all you need to. Now hold off the Explorer people. You won’t have to do it for much longer, but it’s imperative you keep them from discovering my plans.”
Anderson nodded crisply. “Of course, Mister President.”
“Good,” Bradley muttered. “If there’s anything I despise, it’s unwanted guests.” And with that, he disappeared down the corridor.
TWO YEARS AGO. . .
A voice called out in the darkness. “Bradley…”
Bradley Dillon shot up in his bed, the sheets pooling around him as he stared at the angel standing at the foot of his bed. Encased in light, looking much as she did before, Leximas could only be described as angelic. Was Bradley having a dream? Or was this really her standing there? He’d given up on ever finding her again two years ago when the time pod exploded, permanently preventing him from stopping her death.
But there she was, standing at the foot of his bed, robed as usual, except for the glowing, with eyes of serene silver.
“I have little time, so I must be brief,” she said, drifting over to stand beside his bed. “I have been on the ethereal plain for a long time now, and that has allowed for much contemplation.”
“Contemplation? Of-of what?” Bradley asked, edging closer to the edge of his bed.
She cupped his chin. “Of what is important in one’s life, and what is not.”
“Lexi…are you really here right now?”
She nodded. “In the sense that my essence is here, as you see it. But I am still, and will remain, very dead, I am afraid. The Starshine Kids were very efficient in obliterating my physical form. But there is still much I must do.”
“Are you…are you coming back to Waystation?”
She shook her head. “I am afraid not. I am needed…elsewhere. There is a battle about to be fought…an epic battle between good and evil involving a person named Irma. I can tell you no more.”
“Battle?” Bradley asked. “That doesn’t sound like you.”
“We’re often surprised by what we’re called on to do,” Lexi said, and traced a finger down Bradley’s cheek. “Like you, one day, will be.”
Bradley just stared at her blankly.
“You have so much to accomplish, Mister Dillon. You have a vast lifetime of limitless potential ahead of you. Do not waste it. Do not squander it. Live your existence to its fullest, and take notice of what in your life is the most important. Find it, hold on to it, and never, ever let it go.”
And she stepped backward, her fingers, which felt like gossamer on his cheek, drifted away, and he leaned toward her, even as she faded from view.
“We shall likely never meet again, Bradley Dillon,” Leximas said. “But know that I will forever care for you.”
Bradley just watched, silently, as she disappeared completely.
“Me too,” he said.
He didn’t go back to sleep that night. And he had a hard time sleeping a great many nights after that.
NOW. . .
“It’s a nice day for a white wedding,
It’s a nice day to start again…”
Janice Browning couldn’t get those lyrics out of her head. She was sitting in one of the patio chairs in the small deck area in front of Space Tastes, sipping hot chocolate and staring across the second level terrace of Ship’s Shoppes at Briggs’ Fashion Shoppe, Hair Cuttery and Interior Design Centre, where Chris Richards was standing in the entranceway, tapping his foot nervously.
He couldn’t see her. He was too preoccupied, too scared, probably, to really notice her. He had a lot more things on his mind this day than Browning.
And, Browning thought as she sipped, that was probably how it should be.
“Janice?” Richards called across the promenade at Browning as she sat there. “Hey, Janice!”
Browning blinked, startled. “Oh. Chris! I didn’t see you there.”
“Yeoman Briggs is programming my tux,” he called across the railings that surrounded the overlook into Level One. “Or at least he said he was a half hour ago. Now I don’t know what he’s doing. He just ran out, saying he got called away on a ‘project.’”
“He suffers for his art,” Browning called back to him.
“Can I come over and get a snack?”
Browning shrugged. “Nobody’s stopping you.”
Richards walked along the cross bridge from one side of the mall to the other, joining Browning on the patio in front of her restaurant. “What do you recommend this morning?”
“There’s a menu inside,” she said, and continued sipping her hot chocolate.
“Something wrong, Janice?” Richards asked.
“Nope. I’m dandy. How about you?”
“Excited,” Richards said. “I just took a big step last night.”
“I moved up the wedding.”
“That’s nice. When’s it going to be?”
“URP!” Browning coughed, spitting hot chocolate all over the front of Richards’s uniform. “Tomorrow?”
Richards nodded, looking down at the stain on his uniform with a frown. “Yeah. I thought you’d like to know. I had a change of heart last night.”
“I’ll try to make it.”
Richards sat down in the chair beside Browning and, disregarding his chocolate soaked uniform and scalded abdomen, took Browning’s hands and looked into her eyes. “Janice…it would really mean a lot if you could be there.”
“I said I’ll try, Chris.” She backed out of her chair. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get to Sickbay.”
“There’s a menu inside. Choose what you want,” she called over her shoulder as she walked away. “And try to stick with it.”
“The declaration has been made,” J’hana said in low tones. “There will be war.”
“I don’t think so,” Baxter said, pacing the front of the observation lounge as stars streaked toward the group assembled within, which included Tilleran, J’hana, Hartley, and Vansen. “Things just went back to normal around here. I’m not ready to go to war with the President of the Federation.”
“Not to mention,” Lt. Commander Hartley said, “That if we have too much shooting on this ship, it just may fall apart altogether. Have I told you how unstable the structural integrity field has been lately?”
“I’m sure that’s fascinating,” Lt. Commander Vansen said. “But the point remains, President Dillon is doing something untoward and certainly unscrupulous in his offices, and we, as Starfleet officers, those entrusted with protecting this ship, are responsible for finding out what that is.”
“Look,” Baxter said, planting his hands on the conference table. “I don’t know what those two things you said mean, but I know President Dillon hasn’t been altogether honest with us.”
“Maybe Counselor Peterman could talk to him,” Hartley suggested. “You know, the get more flies with honey approach?”
“Yes,” J’hana replied. “The Andorians have a similar saying. You get more flies with a flamethrower.”
“Lovely,” Baxter said. “But I don’t think Kelly is up to any vigorous counseling yet. She’s still recovering from her…you know…”
“Trying to kill us all?” J’hana suggested.
“She didn’t try to kill anyone,” Baxter sighed. “At least, not directly.”
“So you suggest we just sit and wait and hope nothing cataclysmic happens?” J’hana asked.
“At this point, I think it’s a little premature to say that Bradley Dillon has anything cataclysmic planned. Besides, we all have a wedding to plan for.”
“We do?” Vansen asked.
“Yes, Richards and Madera moved their wedding up to tomorrow evening,” Tilleran said with a grin. “I guess you weren’t invited?”
“I guess not,” Vansen said. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. I have a step aerobics class tomorrow evening.”
“I’m sure that will be fun,” Hartley said with a grin.
“If we’re all finished here,” Baxter said, standing up and heading over to the door. “I have a baby to change.”
“Yes, Captain,” J’hana called after him. “Go clean up poop, while the President endangers the crew you swore to protect. I hope you get streptococcus!”
“That’s a new one,” Tilleran said with a small smile.
J’hana shrugged. “I like to be diverse.”
Baxter passed Ensign Keefler on the way to his readyroom. “Any crying fits, Keefler?”
“Yes, sir,” the tactical officer said. “Lieutenant Sefelt thought he saw a Breen warship on sensors about ten minutes ago, and we had to sedate him.”
“I was talking about Steffie,” Baxter said flatly.
“Oh,” Keefler said. “Nope. She hasn’t made a peep.”
“Good,” Baxter said, and punched the control to open up the doors to his readyroom.
“One other thing,” Keefler said. “We finally received a communication packet from Starfleet. I forwarded the appropriate communique’s to your terminal.”
“It’s about time,” Baxter said. “It’ll be nice to hear what’s been happening in the old neighborhood.” He walked into his office and sat down beside his desk, punching up the new messages on his desktop terminal.
The first recording that popped up was from his mom, dated about a month ago.
“Andy,” she said, apparently sitting in her own readyroom. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself skirting about the edges of the galaxy while the rest of us do the real work of Starfleet. Make sure you get plenty of exciting rock samples.”
“Right, Mom,” Baxter muttered at the screen.
“You should be interested to know that Captain Kimmel got herself in another spate of trouble recently. She accidentally blew up a Tamarian freighter. She thought they were trying to hijack her ship, but all they really wanted was directions to Alpha Sigma Nine.”
“Super,” Baxter muttered.
“Nobody was killed, thank goodness. Everyone was able to get to an escape pod before the ship exploded. But, needless to say, Captain Kimmel had a lot of explaining to do at Starfleet command. The Tracker has since been relegated to cargo escort.”
“Stupid use for an Explorer program vessel,” Baxter said. “It was an honest mistake. If I was chastised for every ship I mistakenly blew up…”
“And your father and I have some news for you when you return. Nothing that can be talked about over subspace. But it is important.” She looked at something off-screen, then looked back at Baxter, seemingly boring into his eyes with her own. He hated how she could do that. “Andy, there are going to be some changes around here. You’re going to have to learn to adapt to them. You’ve no doubt had it easy the last few months gallivanting around the outer rim, but when you get back here, you’re going to have to face a lot of hard truths. I hope you’re ready for what’s to come.”
“What?” Baxter asked blankly.
Then she waved and blew kisses. “Bye-bye for now, Booty Butt! Pathfinder out.”
After Hartley, Tilleran, and J’hana left, Vansen remained in the observation lounge to go over crew roster reports. She was supposed to be doing this with Richards and Peterman, but since they were both occupied by the events of their silly, stupid lives, she was forced to do the whole thing by herself.
Not that she minded, however. It just meant she got to make all the decisions.
She was deep into the issue of Lt. Pomador’s choice of hairstyle when the comm chirped.
“Keefler to Vansen.”
“We just received a communication packet from Starfleet. I thought you’d like to know you have a priority one message in there.”
“Priority one?” Vansen asked, looking up. “Me?”
“Should I put it through?”
“No. Just sit on it until we return to Federation Space.”
“Yes you should put it through. And review Starfleet communications protocol for the rest of your shift. You’re obviously in need of some brushing up.”
“Fine…” Keefler muttered, and the channel closed.
Vansen muttered to herself about the Explorer crew’s incompetence and walked up to the observation lounge viewscreen, pulling up her message from Starfleet.
The Federation insignia popped up on the viewscreen, quickly replaced with the image of a Vulcan admiral, sitting behind a desk, presumably at Starfleet command.
“Lieutenant Commander Vansen. I am Admiral Velara, sector chief of the Sixth Fleet. Although you do not know me, please be assured that I sympathize with your current posting on the Explorer. At least as much as a Vulcan can have sympathy. I have watched your career with great interest since you left internal affairs for the Explorer, and believe you would be a good fit for a captaincy.”
Vansen’s eyes widened. “You don’t say…”
“And, to that end, I have recommended you for the captaincy of the U.S.S. Ari Fleisher, an Akira-class frigate recently out of the Utopia Planetia shipyards.”
“Akira…” Vansen grinned.
“Your promotion to captain will be effective as soon as the Explorer returns from its detached duty in deep space. That event should coincide with the conclusion of Fleisher’s shakedown, which is currently scheduled for Stardate 56904. Again, I am sorry we have left you out to dry on the Explorer for so long. Velara out.”
“Promotion…” Vansen said to herself again, rubbing her fingers together with glee. “Promotion! Captain!” She skipped out of the observation lounge, bypassed the bridge crew altogether, and headed down to the Constellation Club to get a drink. She deserved a celebration, even if she had no friends on the ship to celebrate with.
Bradley Dillon stood in the doorway to his lab as Gisele coyly attempted to peek over his shoulder.
“How do you classify this threat? Severe? Minor?” he asked, looking distracted. It also looked as if he had not shaved for a day or two. And it seemed he was wearing the same suit he had worn the day before. And was actually working WITHOUT his jacket on!
Gisele shifted from foot to foot. “I classify this threat as ‘J’hana,’ sir.”
Bradley nodded. “That’s all you have to say. I’ll step up my timetable.”
“Sir…” Gisele said. “I’ve been your assistant for several years now. I could better help you maintain the secrecy and safety of this mission if you’d tell me a little more about it. Certainly you can trust me.”
“I can’t trust anyone with this, Gisele,” Bradley said. “I’m sure you understand. Now I have a lot of work to do. Testing, and such.”
“Good day, Gisele. And thank you for the heads up. Please clear my calendar for the next two days.” And, as the door closed, he added, “And for every day after that, until further notice.”
TWO YEARS AGO. . .
“We shall likely never meet again, Bradley Dillon,” Leximas said. “But know that I will forever care for you.”
Those words still rang in his ears.
For some time after Leximas delivered her farewell message, Bradley Dillon had merely gone through the process of saying goodbye to her. Of finally admitting he’d never see her again.
She was the closest thing to omnipotent that Bradley had ever known. Surely, if she knew he’d never see her again, she was probably correct.
But there was something nagging at Bradley. Something about loose ends. He didn’t like the idea of giving up on her that easily. It wasn’t his style.
Bradley had conquered his two biggest goals in life: Money and power. He’d amassed a personal fortune that rivaled anything in the known galaxy. He ruled the United Federation of Planets. His influence in the affairs of the universe was as limitless as it got for human beings. There was really no other great hurdle to skip.
Except for one.
Bradley had never known love. Never a love so pure as Leximas’. Never felt the bond of kinship, friendship. The simple knowledge that another person cared for him.
These things were alien to Bradley. And even though he rarely put a high pricetag on that, especially in conversational circles, there was no denying that it was worth all his latinum, all his wealth and power.
He’d give it all to see Leximas again.
So he looked for her. Hired investigators from across the quadrant. A former Tal Shiar agent, an Orion Independent Persuader, a Nausicaan mercenary.
They’d all come up empty-handed.
There was no Leximas, not anywhere.
He’d even hired mystics from Vulcan, Bajor, and Betazed. They searched the ether for her. They studied his mind, his thoughts, his pagh, his lifeline.
And not one of them could tell him how to find Leximas. She truly was gone.
So now Bradley was down to his last resort.
“Pavarotti,” the voice of Waystation’s commander, Captain Lisa Beck, boomed over the speakers in the small bridge of Dillon’s opulent interstellar yacht. “You are cleared for departure. Enjoy the planning conference at Senegal. And, if you’re so inclined, don’t worry about coming back. If you find somewhere else to set up your headquarters, by all means, do it. We won’t mind!”
“Thank you, Captain Beck,” Bradley said dryly, and cut the channel. He looked up at the viewer as he worked the controls, piloting his ship toward the massive, purple and green gravitic disturbance just adjacent to Waystation.
It was called the Bermuda Expanse.
Bradley checked his sensors. He’d just moved out of Waystation’s active scanning range and was only a few hundred thousand kilometers from the edge of the phenomenon. He then hit a switch, activating Pavarotti’s sensor-reflective shielding. He didn’t want any misguided attempts at going in to rescue him.
“Entering stellar phenomenon,” the deep, basso voice of his computer said sternly. “Gravitic forces at zero point seven G and rising.”
“Compensate with inertial dampers,” Bradley told the computer. “Maintain attitude control.”
The stars on the viewscreen gave way to purple and green roiling mass as the Pavarotti dove into the Bermuda Expanse.
It was time for Bradley to know, finally, where Leximas was.
“All right,” he said, to nobody in particular. “Talk to me, Directors. Let’s have out with it.”
“Stationkeeping,” he told the computer. “Maintain our position with thrusters.” The ship rumbled a little as the engines struggled to keep the ship in place, in spite of the gravitic disturbances. Bradley admitted a little fear at treading into this phenomenon. It was known for grabbing Federation ships and sweeping them off to the Delta Quadrant, or worse, back in time.
Bradley shivered at that thought.
“Well,” he said. “Somebody talk to me.” He punched a control, opening hailing frequencies. “Directors. This is Federation President Bradley Dillon. I demand you speak to me now.”
Still no response.
He stood up. “Fine then. Fine!” He marched back to the airlock, grabbing a space suit off the wall and stepping into it. “You won’t talk to me unless I hop out there and meet you on your own terms, then we’ll do it the hard way.”
He yanked on a helmet and clasped the seal, activating the suit’s internal oxygen system.
“Let’s talk, Directors!” he called out, and stepped through the airlock hatch, throwing a lever that cycled the inner door closed and wheeled the outer door open.
And he was swept out into the vast, swirling expanse, caught in the gravitational eddies, like a leaf in the wind.
Soon thereafter, he lost consciousness.
Minutes later, he sat up, dazed, and saying, “Where…where…?”
Someone put a hand on his chest. “You’re safe, Mister President. You’re back on Waystation.” It was Dr. Amedon Nelson, Waystation’s Chief Medical Officer. “Want to explain why you decided to go out for a walk? In space?”
“It was…it was a…”
“There’s no need to explain,” Captain Beck said, folding her arms as she watched Amedon press a hypospray into Bradley’s arm. “I can see what’s going on here.”
“You can?” Bradley asked, truly surprised.
“It’s called ‘Nebula Jumping.’ I read about it in Federation Weekly. People amass so much power and wealth, they have to participate in ‘extreme sports’ just so they can feel alive. John Simms Junior was found floating in the Mutara Nebula just ten days ago. Poor guy had to be resuscitated for an hour. He’s still groggy.”
“You’re eminently perceptive as usual, Captain,” Bradley said shakily, sliding off the biobed. “Now, thanks to Doctor Nelson’s ministrations, I am fine again.”
“You sure about that?” Beck asked, as Bradley headed for the door to Waystation’s Infirmary.
“Quite,” he said, then turned and stood in the doorway. “One thing. How did you find me?”
“We always have you followed when you leave the station. Standard procedure. You see, we don’t trust you.”
“A wise precaution,” Bradley said with a small smile, and left.
Bradley smiled a lot, and nodded with recognition at the many crewmembers aboard Waystation as he made his way back to his quarters. Best to show a good face to the people. Let them know he was looking out for their interests.
But when he got back to his quarters, and the doors were closed, he sunk to the floor, leaning against one of his massive, arched bookcases, arms resting on his knees.
The dim quarters seemed so empty, especially now. As the stars spun lazily by through the viewports, Bradley wondered why the Directors hadn’t spoken to him. Maybe they had better things to do.
As it was, he was currently out of options. Going into the Bermuda Expanse had been his last resort.
Now he had to face the sad truth that he’d never see Lexi again.
So much for divine intervention.
Bradley sighed, and was about to stand up, when a book slipped off a shelf above him and fell to the floor.
As it fell, it flopped open, displaying two pages full of photographs.
“What’s this?” Bradley asked, picking up the book and standing up. He took it over to his desk and called for the lights to come on. He squinted at the photographs. He had forgotten that he even had this book. He could have sworn it had been left in storage on Earth.
It was the Dillon family scrap book, going back through generations of the Dillon line. Bradley’s father insisted there be some kind of “continuity” in the family. An appreciation of the family’s past, the roots, and how they’d arrived at where they were. How family was an important building block to the future. Bradley had argued as recently as last month to his father, who now lived on a retirement colony, that all that was moot, since he was the Federation President now, and could do anything he wanted. What did family matter, when compared to running an entire quadrant?
Yet here it was, opened to one of the early pages, to photographs from hundreds of years in Earth’s past. Ancestors of Bradley’s that were generations removed, who he barely knew.
And one who looked very familiar. He squinted at the picture of a robust, broad-faced, smiling man who stood, dressed in a tuxedo, his arm wrapped around the waist of a tall, elegantly-dressed woman with…shimmering, almost silvery eyes…
He gasped, ripping the photo from his sticky perch on the page. He held it aloft, holding it up to the light, his hand trembling.
He’d found her.
“Computer…” he stammered. “Access Dillon Family Database.”
NOW. . .
Captain Baxter was still wondering about that communication from his mother as he headed down to Counselor Peterman’s office. What was so important she couldn’t tell him over subspace? Did he really want to know?
There wasn’t anything else interesting in the communication packet. Just some notes about how the Romulan peace process was moving along agonizingly slow, how a few Cardassian splinter groups had united with the Orion Syndicate to attempt to steal and pillage their way back to a robust and economically-sound Cardassia.
And, apparently, wouldn’t you know, Captain Conway was NOT enjoying his time in the Gamma Quadrant. He’d spilled coffee on the Karemma Ambassador and pushed a Weyoun clone off a cliff on a routine away mission. Conway and his cliffs, Baxter thought with a giggle.
Pretty boring stuff, all in all. Baxter, nevertheless, was looking forward to getting back to Federation space and picking up the Explorer mission where it left off–close to eight months earlier.
He walked up to Peterman’s office door and punched the door call.
When there was no answer, he tapped his combadge. “Baxter to Peterman.”
“Go ahead,” his wife answered, a little breathlessly.
“Just wanted to know if you’d like to get some lunch. It’s kind of slow on the bridge right now. J’hana’s trying to bust into the President’s suite and my mom sent me an ominous message, but you know…whatever.”
“Actually, hon, I’m kind of busy right now.”
“But I do need to talk to you. How about you come down to my quarters?”
Baxter scratched his head. “Don’t you mean up?”
“No. I mean down. You know, my quarters.”
“Where you keep the animals?”
“Sort of. Just come on down.”
“Umm…okay,” Baxter said, and headed for the nearest turbolift. He suddenly had a very queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, but he was sure he was just overreacting.
“I’m moving out for a little while, Andy,” Peterman said, bouncing little Steffie on her knee as she sat on a newly-replicated couch in her old quarters, which, until very recently, had been nothing more than an animal barn.
Baxter sunk into the highbacked chair opposite the couch. “Moving out? You mean you’re leaving me?”
“No, silly,” Peterman said. “Nothing as drastic as that. I love you as much as I ever did. Maybe even more.”
Baxter nodded. “You just don’t want to live with me anymore. That seems reasonable.”
“Andy, you’re overreacting.”
“Yeah, most wives move out on their husband after three years of marriage.”
“Almost four,” Peterman said quietly.
Baxter looked at her. “I know.”
“I just…I need some time to myself.”
“That’s why you have an office,” Baxter said, and realized that sounded stupid as soon as he said it. “How long will you be doing this?”
“Until I get my bearings,” Peterman said. “Figure out what I want to do with my life. The first thing I have to do is re-read that book I wrote. See if there’s any truth in there, or whether it was just propaganda being fed to me by my cat.”
“The book’s finished?”
“All but the last chapter.” Peterman turned Steffie to face her and looked in the eight month old child’s eyes. “I guess I need some space, and some time. Then maybe I’ll be ready to revise the book, and write that last chapter.”
“Is it going to have a happy ending?”
Peterman glanced at Baxter, raising an eyebrow. “What do you think?”
“I think I love you,” Baxter said, rising. “And I think I made you a promise a few days ago that I’d do whatever it took to help you. If this is what that means, then so be it.”
“Whew!” Yeoman James Briggs exclaimed, walking in from the rear room, decked out in coveralls and a polka-dot kerchief tied around his head. He also wore elbow-length rubber gloves and knee-length rubber boots. “It’s a real pig sty back there. I mean…it actually is a pig sty.”
“You leave Thumper alone,” Peterman giggled.
“Sweetie, don’t worry,” Briggs said, falling onto the couch with Peterman and wrapping his arms around her. “Once we finish redecorating this place, you’ll never want to leave.”
Baxter glared at him.
“I mean, you know…” Briggs looked from Peterman to Baxter. “Oops. I seem to have made a faux pas.”
“Smells like it,” Baxter said, and walked toward the door.
“Wait!” Peterman exclaimed, walking up to join him, Steffie in hand.
Baxter looked at her as she approached him.
“We have to decide what to do about Steffie. I thought we’d switch off. You know, like you can have her on even-numbered days.”
“Fine,” Baxter said. “Anything. I’ll come by and get her from you tomorrow.”
“Don’t look so sad,” Peterman said. “This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a learning experience for both of us.” She leaned forward and kissed Baxter gently on the lips.
When Baxter pulled away, he looked at her, cocking his head quizzically.
“That’s a promise…that I’m coming back,” she smiled. “And…” She lowered her voice. “Don’t worry about James. You know we’re just friends.”
“Obviously,” Baxter said. “You’re not his type.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know what sucks?” Lt. Commander Hartley asked, as she leaned back against Mirk’s chest in the bathtub of their quarters, bubbles all around.
“Frenalian eels?” the Maloxian asked, gently rubbing a loofa sponge across Hartley’s shoulders.
“That, and the fact that I have to get up in fifteen minutes and go back to rebuilding the starboard power conduit.”
“Then you’ll get all dirty all over again, and we’ll have to do this all over again this evening,” Mirk said. “What a chore.”
“Yeah,” Hartley said, turning her head a little and closing her eyes. “Of course it’ll have to be quick, because we’ve got to be at Richards’s wedding at nineteen hundred.”
“Oh, yeah. They moved up the wedding. I’m going to have to check on the lobster pate.”
“Hasn’t that stuff been sitting around for a while?”
“It has a nine year shelf life,” Mirk said. “It’s still good.”
“If you’re sure…”
“Isn’t it funny?” Mirk asked, as he rubbed Hartley’s shoulders. “That just a few months ago, we were pacing around the ship, getting ready for our own wedding?”
“Does seem like a long time ago.”
“I was going to say that the time has gone by too fast. Before you know it, I’ll be a cantankerous old bartender, and you a wily engineer with gray hair.”
“Hey? Why am I the only one getting gray hair?”
Mirk smiled, gently pinching Hartley. “Cause I’m omnipotent.”
“Sure. Rub it in.” She grinned. “So, in this future you propose, are we grandparents?”
Mirk thought about that. “I suppose. Then again, to become grandparents, I guess you first have to be parents.”
Hartley nodded. “Following that logic, I’d say eventually one of us will have to get pregnant.”
“I hope that was not a joke about my Maloxian anatomy.”
“Not at all,” Hartley said. “Anyway, I have better hips than you.”
“You’re right,” Mirk said, and began kissing his way down Hartley’s neck. “I almost forgot.” He then gently turned her cheek so she faced him. “So…do you want to get started on that family or what?”
“Silly,” Hartley grinned. “We have fifteen minutes.”
“So we can do it twice,” Mirk said, and the two slid down into the bubbles.
Just as the door chime sounded.
“Go away!” Hartley shouted.
“It’s important,” Lt. Commander Vansen’s voice called back.
“Is the ship about to blow up?”
“No more than usual.”
“Then what is it?” Hartley growled, leaning over the edge of her tub.
“I want to promote you.”
Hartley and Mirk exchanged glances.
“I want to hear all about it,” Hartley said. “Just give me seven and a half minutes.”
“Oh, very well.”
“Actually, make it eight.”
“Whaddaya want, Andy, can’t ya see I’m busy?” Janice Browning asked, gesturing Baxter into her quarters and stumbling over to her couch, where she fell face down.
“I’m sorry,” Baxter said, gingerly stepping in and looking around. An array of colorful, empty bottles were all over the living room. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your getting completely trashed.”
“It’s just synthe-trashed. And before you suggest anything about me being a bad parent, lemme tell ya that Plato is spending the night with Lieutenant Fowler’s daughter. In separate beds I hope. She’s fourteen! He’s only two!”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” Baxter said, sitting down next to Browning. “Plato and I had a little talk about dating. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Browning leaned up, then winced, immediately wishing she hadn’t. “Damn! Dizzy spell. What are you doing talking to my son about dating?”
“It was just the beginner’s guide,” Baxter said. “You know, the guide I went by until I was twenty-nine.”
“Oh,” she giggled, leaning on Baxter’s shoulder and slapping him hard on the chest. “Then he should be safe!”
“Har har. Why on Earth are you laying in here drinking at seventeen hundred?”
“Because I’mma lonely,” she muttered, and fell across his lap. “Night night.”
Baxter looked down at Browning as she lay there. He felt useless. He gently patted her hair. “Janice…why are you…?”
“Hnnnkk….make me a pizza,” she said, squirming, burying her head in a pillow.
“In a minute,” Baxter said. “I want to know why…” He thought a moment. “Of course. Chris.”
“He’s getting married tomorrow, Andy,” Browning said, rolling onto her back and looking up at Baxter. “Married.”
“Yeah. But history tells us those things don’t always go off without a hitch,” Baxter said. “Look at what happened when you two were about to get married.”
“Don’t remind me,” Browning sighed. “What do I care anyway? Why should I begrudge him his happiness?”
“Is it because you maybe don’t think he’ll be happy?”
“No. He’ll be happy. Him and Susan love each other. They make a sweet couple. They’ll be just fine.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m surprised they’re going through with it.”
Browning leaned up quickly, then winced again. “You are?”
“Yeah. I always thought Susan was just tiding Chris over until he found someone he liked more.”
“Ya know…” Browning said, pointing at Baxter’s chest. “You might not want to mention that when you perform the ceremony tomorrow.”
“I’ll probably steer clear of it, yes.”
“Now temmy why you’re here,” Browning slurred, leaning on Baxter’s shoulder.
“It’s…nothing. I should go. You’ve got a lot on your mind…”
“No way!” Browning said, shoving Baxter back against the couch. “I’m yer friend. So temmy what’s wrong!”
“Not until you sober up,” Baxter said, folding his arms.
Browning rolled her eyes. “You’re no fun.”
“I’m serious. If you really want to talk to me, I need you with your faculties intact.”
“Faculty!” Browning said with a giggle. “Oh, fine.” She looked thoughtful for a moment, then when she looked at Baxter, her eyes were clear. “Man…that Frenalian scotch has a nasty ten second hangover. I’m all better now, though.”
“Good,” Baxter said, scooting down the couch a bit. “You were starting to scare me. I can’t remember the last time I saw you drunk.”
“It’s been a while,” Browning agreed. “Why doesn’t Bradley like me?”
Baxter stared at Browning a moment. “I thought we’d gotten to why I was here.”
“We’re back to why I’m here. Why doesn’t Bradley like me?”
Baxter took a deep breath. “Because he’s not a very nice person, Janice.”
“All I know is, he’s so focused on this mission of his, he doesn’t have any time in his life for love. You can’t compete with his ambition and greed. They’re endless. His ability to love, I would guess, is not.”
“But how can that be?” Browning asked, curling her legs under her. “I mean…he’s just a person. Just like us.”
“Sometimes I wonder,” Baxter said. “Especially if he could actually turn you away.”
“Twice,” Browning said.
“I tried again last night. I was rebuffed. With extreme prejudice.”
“See, I don’t get that,” Baxter said. “Doesn’t he see how beautiful you are?” He looked at Browning. “How sweet, and funny, and intelligent and…”
“Stop it, Andrew,” Browning said, putting a finger to Baxter’s lips.
“Brt it’s true,” Baxter said through her finger.
“I know, but I don’t want to hear you say those things.”
“Because. Because it doesn’t help me at all to know that you think them.”
“You’re going to find an amazing guy one day, Janice. And he’s going to love you. And you’re going to love him.”
“I already have,” Browning said, leaning against Baxter and wrapping her arms around him. “I–I already do.” They sat there embraced for a few moments; then Browning looked up at Baxter, strands of hair falling down in front of her face. “Now what did you come to talk to me about?”
He looked down at her. “I…don’t know anymore.” Then he leaned forward and kissed her softly on the lips.
In the wee hours of the morning, with the shift change to Alpha just about to begin, Bradley Dillon took a step back from his lab table and looked at his blinking, stark white, triangular device.
“It’s finished,” he said softly, gripping its handles, feeling its weight as he lifted it. “I’ve finally done it.”
ONE YEAR AGO. . .
“Nothing. We’ve got nothing,” Dr. Azar said, his image grimacing on Bradley’s desktop screen in his office on Waystation. “Every test, every prototype, has backfired with exceedingly undesirable results.”
“So you’re telling me you can’t rebuild the time pod,” Bradley said, steepling his fingers to his chin. “You can’t rebuild something you yourself built in the first place.”
“That time pod was a stroke of personal genius!” Azar retorted. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime invention. It was like gossamer…so delicate it could not be dissected, could not be studied, could not be replicated. It cannot be done.”
“I suppose I’ve been paying you for nothing, then,” Bradley sighed.
“Not at all,” Azar said, picking up a padd and looking at it. “My staff and I have come up with some suggestions that could help you achieve your desired results.”
“How about using Warpin’ XP. We could install it on the Pavarotti and you could use that to slingshot around the sun.”
“Impossible,” Bradley said. “I’ve already tried that. The Temporal Commission meticulously tracks the client license for that programming. I can’t get my hands on it. And nobody on that commission can be bribed. They’re imbribable.”
“You can’t buy it on the black market?”
“You obviously didn’t hear the news of Warpux, the Warpin’ clone. Some poor fool from Miradorn used it to go back and taste the best sandwich he’d ever made. He ended up erasing himself from existence.”
“How do we know he ever existed, then?”
Bradley shrugged. “The news.”
“Oh.” Azar consulted his list. “Well, I have others. How about the Guardian of Forever?”
“No. Too risky. There are bound to be questions…”
“The orb of time?”
“A very wise Cardassian once told me ‘don’t screw with the prophets.’ I’ve chosen to respect that advice. Next suggestion.”
Azar looked at his padd. “That’s really it.”
“Fine,” Bradley said, and leaned forward to cut the channel. “I’ll just find another way.”
Azar looked at someone off-screen. “What? No. I’m not even going to bring that up. We agreed we wouldn’t discuss…”
“Something else?” Bradley asked with a raised eyebrow.
“No,” Azar said. “It’s too dangerous. Too risky.”
Bradley leaned forward. “Tell me more.”
“Well, I have another device in development. A handheld variety on the time pod. It’s actually nearly in working condition. But it’s missing a key element that…well, hasn’t been invented yet by anyone in the Federation.”
“Well, it HAS been invented by a race outside the Federation. One you’ve had dealings with before. But I know it would be almost impossible to contact them…probably not even worth the trouble.”
“The Bast,” Bradley said. “Yes. Thank you for your help, Doctor Azar. I’ll be contacting you shortly. Please send all the schematics of that new device to me, on a coded channel.”
“Mister President, I’m not sure you want to go down this road…”
“That is for me to decide, Dr. Azar. Now then, you have work to do. And so do I.”
NOW. . .
“I’ve finally done it!” J’hana said, strolling into Tilleran’s room as the Betazoid slept. “Lights!”
“Wha?” Tilleran asked, rolling over and covering her eyes with her hand. “Jan? What are you doing here?”
“Get dressed. I’ve finally figured out how to get past the President’s security.”
“How?” Tilleran asked, sitting up.
J’hana smiled. “A little bit of cloak and dagger.”
“I do not believe I am comfortable with this idea,” Chaka’kan said, standing in front of Baxter’s desk in his readyroom, while Tilleran and J’hana sat on the couch.
“I’m not either,” Baxter said, looking at J’hana. “You’re asking me to send Chaka into the President’s suite like some kind of secret assassin.”
“Right, except he won’t be trying to assassinate the President,” J’hana said, then looked at Chaka. “Unless you really want to, that is.”
“I don’t particularly see a need to,” Chaka said, shifting from foot to foot. “Really, I’ve been trying to focus on my gardening lately.”
“And that’s a noble pursuit,” Baxter said. “Much better than stalking around, cloaked.”
“I haven’t shrouded in some time,” Chaka said.
“Then what better way to get your practice?” J’hana asked. “Send him in, Captain. Find out what Dillon’s up to.”
“You’re dying to know,” Tilleran said. “Admit it.”
“Glad you have your powers back,” Baxter muttered. “Okay. So we send in our shrouded Jem’Hadar. One question…how do you plan to actually get around his security measures? He’s undoubtedly coded every entrance to every room in that suite.”
“I’ve been considering that,” J’hana said. “And I think I know a way in.”
“She’s going to seduce the secretary,” Tilleran said with a grin.
Baxter nodded approvingly. “Well, J’hana, when you’re hot you’re hot.”
J’hana stood. “I will let you know.” And she walked out, followed by a reluctant Chaka.
Tilleran remained, sitting on the couch, as Baxter stood up and walked toward the door.
“Anything else?” Baxter asked. “I’m needed on the bridge.”
Tilleran looked at him. “No. Nothing else.” She smiled, gently shaking her head as she got up and left. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
Baxter watched her go. “What secret? Wait! Come back here. Damn it, why’d you have to get your powers back!”
“Nervous, Chris?” Counselor Peterman asked, leaning in the doorway to Briggs’s shoppe, watching as Richards turned to and fro, running his hands along the folds of his gleaming black tuxedo. Steffie was hanging on to Peterman’s back, snug in her little baby papoose.
“About what? The wedding? Nah. That’s a piece of cake.”
“Corvallan lemon butter peppermint cake, as I understand it,” Peterman said.
“Mmm. Sounds lovely.”
“I talked to James yesterday. Sounds like you have a very nice ceremony planned.”
“It’s going to be nice no matter what,” Richards said, sucking in his stomach a little bit and turning to the side. Yeah, he was definitely just as good-looking as he was the last time he tried to get married. “That’s what I realized yesterday, what set this whole thing in motion. I don’t need a big fancy wedding. I don’t need all my friends from Mayweather High School there. There doesn’t need to be a seventy-five piece band. I just want to get married. And I don’t want to procrastinate anymore.”
“Because you’ve done that in the past?” Peterman asked.
“Yeah. And I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.”
“You’re sure you’re not just rushing into this so you don’t have a chance to call the whole thing off?”
Richards glared at Peterman. “Are you actively trying to ruin my wedding day?”
“No. Just throwing something out there.”
“Well don’t throw anything else out there. Me and Susan are going to be very happy together.”
“I believe you!” Peterman said, holding up her hands.
“And if there are problems, we’ll face them. I won’t run away from them.”
Peterman narrowed her eyes. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”
“You know what it means,” Richards said. “You don’t really think you’re qualified to give marriage advice when you gave up on yours, do you?”
“I didn’t give up,” Peterman said.
“Yeah. You just need your space.”
“Maybe when you’re married you’ll see what I’m talking about,” Peterman said. “It’s possible to love someone with all your heart but still need some time away from him. It’s a natural part of our existence.”
“You sure about that?” Richards asked her.
Peterman turned around and walked out the door. “Whatever. I’ll see you tonight, Chris. Good luck.”
“Yeah,” Richards said, to himself. “I guess I’ll need it.”
“You ready?” Tilleran asked J’hana, as the pair walked up to the doors to the Presidential offices.
“Almost,” she said, then looked down at her tunic. She quickly zipped it about halfway down, then turned toward Tilleran. “Well?”
“Provocative, but not slutty,” Tilleran concluded.
“Oh.” She zipped it down a little more. “How about that?”
“Perfect.” J’hana then turned in the other direction. “How about you, Chaka?”
“I’m fine,” a voice said, seemingly from out of nowhere. “Did you really mean it when you said you’d take me out for ice cream after this?”
“No,” J’hana said, and pushed the call button.
Captain Baxter sat in the command chair, staring at the viewscreen. “Any word from Tilleran or J’hana yet?” he asked, turning to face Keefler at tactical.
The security officer shook his head. “Not yet.”
“Damn,” Baxter said. “It’s been an hour.”
“J’hana did instruct me to flood the entire area with deadly nerve toxin if she didn’t come out in two hours.”
“Belay that order,” Baxter muttered. “I keep telling that woman that we have anesthezine for a reason.”
Baxter turned back around and stared at the stars on the viewscreen. The normally crowded bridge was especially quiet today, what with Richards out getting ready for the wedding, Bradley Dillon plotting something, Tilleran and J’hana out to stop him, Peterman…keeping her distance…and Vansen…well, he didn’t know where Vansen was.
“Well,” Baxter finally said. “Anybody want to chat? About anything?”
Lt. Madera spun around in her seat at helm. “Can I tell you how beautiful my chiffon dress is going to be?”
“Shouldn’t you be getting ready for tonight, Lieutenant?” Baxter asked.
“Not at all,” Madera said. “I’ve been ready since I was fourteen.”
“I don’t want to know what that means,” Baxter said. “But you’re dismissed. You shouldn’t have to work on your wedding day. What heartless soul worked that little piece of scheduling? Nevermind. I just answered my own question. Vansen.”
“So, what’s your favorite fruit?” J’hana asked, leaning across Gisele’s desk, exposing her roiling blue cleavage, as Tilleran strolled about the waiting room.
“Melons,” Gisele said, then shook her head, looking dazed. She giggled. “I don’t know why I said that. I meant…gourds. Oops! I did it again!”
J’hana wrinkled her nose. “Are you flirting?”
“Maybe a little,” Gisele said, drawing on her desk in little circles with her finger. “What do you care? You’re taken, right?” She glanced over J’hana’s shoulder at Tilleran.
“Oh. Her? That’s just for sport,” J’hana said. “You have nothing to fear from her.”
“I see,” Gisele said, leaning back in her chair. “Well maybe she has something to fear from me.”
“I like the way you think,” J’hana said.
<J’hana,> Tilleran suddenly whispered in the Andorian’s mind. <I’ve got the codes. It was almost too easy. She was trying so hard not to think about them, all she did was think about them. Oh. And she’s not really interested in you. She’s just stalling you.>
“Hmm?” Gisele asked, plafully running a finger down along J’hana’s arm. “You’re so muscular, Lieutenant.”
J’hana grabbed both of her wrists as Tilleran walked up beside the Andorian. “Why are you stalling me, shevath?”
“I’ll never tell!” Gisele spat. “I mean, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” She tried to work her wrists free, but J’hana’s grip was unbreakable. “Gisele to…”
Tilleran pressed a hypospray into the administrative assistant’s arm and she immediately went limp.
“We’d better get her to the brig,” J’hana said. “Do you have any idea what she was trying to buy time for?”
“No. I don’t think she knows either,” Tilleran said. “But whatever it is, it’s going to happen soon.”
“We have to warn the captain. But first, we have to get this lovely thing to the brig. Tie her up real tight…”
“Work first, play later, J’hana!”
“What are you going to do?” J’hana asked, as she walked with Captain Baxter down the corridor, just a few minutes later.
“Nothing fancy. I’m just going to walk in there and talk to the man.”
“Is that smart?”
“It’s smarter than a full scale ground assualt.”
“If you say so. Still, I will be monitoring from the bridge, and my forces will be standing by.”
“Captain!” Vansen said, nearly bumping into Baxter as he rounded a bend in the corridor. “I’m glad I ran into you.”
“What do you want?” Baxter asked impatiently.
“Just to give you this,” she said, handing Baxter a padd. “Something we’ve both wanted for a long time. My resignation!”
“Happy day,” Baxter said. “What do I owe the…” He looked down at the padd. “They gave you a ship?”
“Yes. Didn’t you hear? Any fool can get one. Oh, I forgot, you already know that.”
“And you’re already a fool.” Baxter continued down the corridor.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Vansen said as she walked off in the other direction. “I’m taking your chief engineer and your bartender with me. Hope you don’t mind. Later!”
Baxter stopped in mid-stride, wincing. “That bitch.”
“Stay on task, Captain,” J’hana said, resting a hand on Baxter’s shoulder. “We can find ways to torture Lieutenant Commander Vansen later.”
“Leave your fantasies out of this,” Baxter snapped, and continued down the corridor.
“Andy,” Doctor Browning said, ducking out of the nearby door to Sickbay. “Am I glad to see you. We need to talk.”
Baxter walked up to the nearest turbolift. “Yeah. We do.”
J’hana looked from one person to the other.
“Alone,” Baxter said, stepping into the turbolift and pulling Browning in with him.
“Try not to get blown up,” J’hana said helpfully as the doors closed.
“I’m so sorry about last night,” Browning said once they were alone.
“It’s as much my fault as yours, Janice.”
“No. It’s my fault. I was drunk.”
“We both had clear heads and you know it.”
“I don’t think anything’s clear.”
It was then that Baxter realized they were holding hands. “Stop that!” he said.
“You grabbed MY hand.”
“Oh.” He quickly let go and folded his arms. “Sorry.”
Baxter stared at the ceiling of the turbolift. “What were we thinking?”
“That we were both hurting and alone.” She looked at the floor. “Kelly told me everything at breakfast this morning.”
Baxter’s eyes went wide.
“Needless to say, I wasn’t as chatty.” She touched his arm. “She still loves you, Andy. I’ve told you that again and again. Just give her time.”
“Time doesn’t fix everything,” Baxter muttered as the lift doors opened, and Browning and Baxter came face to face with Peterman and Richards.
Baxter shrieked like a little girl and Browning punched him in the arm.
“Hey!” Browning said, dragging Baxter out of the turbolift. “What are you guys doing here?”
Peterman and Richards glared at each other, then Peterman pointed to Steffie, who was still riding in her pappoose on the counselor’s back.
“I’m here to give Steffie to her daddy.”
Richards looked at Browning. “And I’m here because I got your message. What the hell was with that? What do you mean you’re not coming to my wedding?”
“I can’t do it, Christopher. Please, don’t ask me again,” she said, and followed Baxter down the corridor.
“Where are we going?” Peterman asked, as she and Richards picked up step behind Baxter and Browning.
“To talk to Bradley Dillon,” Baxter said. “Find out what he’s been plotting.”
“He’s been plotting something?” Peterman asked.
“I had no idea,” Richards said.
“Makes sense to me,” Browning said.
They arrived at the door to Bradley’s offices, and Baxter looked at the others. “If you guys will excuse me…”
“Oh no,” Browning said. “I’m going in there. If he really is doing something that’s putting this ship at risk, more so than what he’s already done, I’m the most likely one to get it out of him. I’m the only one here who has a personal relationship with the guy.”
“As Ship’s Counselor,” Peterman said, folding her arms, “It’s my job to try and talk Bradley out of whatever he’s doing.”
Everyone looked at Richards. “What? I have some time to kill before the wedding.”
“Fine,” Baxter said, punching the door control. “Strength in numbers.”
As soon as they walked into the waiting room, Chaka’kan shimmered into view directly in front of them, looking breathless. “I am sorry, Captain. I got lost. This is a surprisingly large complex.”
“That’s okay, Chaka,” Baxter said, patting the Jem’Hadar on the back. “You did your best. You can run along now.”
“Could you go check on Plato?” Browning asked. “He should be getting out of school soon.”
Chaka’kan bowed slightly. “Babysitting is life.” Then he walked out of the room.
Baxter tapped his combadge. “J’hana…”
“Yes, Captain. We’re using Gisele’s codes to disable all the sensor masks, door locks, and forcefields in the complex. You should be free to move around in about twenty seconds.”
“What about the Special Secret Section?” Richards asked.
“They have been beamed, quite against their will, into the brig.”
“We’re going to have a hell of a time explaining this to the Federation Council,” Baxter sighed. “Oh well.” He turned toward the door beside Gisele’s desk and walked through, into the long corridor beyond. “J’hana, is there any indication Bradley knows we’re coming?”
“Sensors show he’s been in his lab all morning, except for a brief trip to his quarters about an hour ago. He hasn’t made any communications.”
Peterman looked at the rows of doors along the corridor. “And which one is the lab?”
“Twelfth door on your left,” J’hana said. “Homewrecker.”
“Was she talking to you or me?” Baxter asked.
“Why would she be talking to you?” Peterman asked.
“Onward,” Baxter said, charging down the corridor.
“What the hell is up with the two of them?” Richards asked Browning.
“Beats me,” Browning said. “Hey, look! More doors!”
Bradley Dillon stared at himself in the mirror that hung beside his workbench in the lab. His suit looked excellent. A little retro, maybe, but he admired the subtle navy blue tones and the swirls gold in that…that primitive thing they called a “tie.”
He wriggled it a little tighter around his neck, then straightened it, admiring the lines of his houndstooth jacket. Yes. He looked perfect. Every hair in place.
This was how he wanted to meet her.
No, not meet her. Reunite with her.
Once again, Bradley patted each of his pockets, ensuring he’d remember to bring all the necessities. It wouldn’t do for him to get where he was going only to realize he’d forgotten a major item.
He felt the small, velvet box in his right coat pocket. Yes, he had everything.
He walked over to the work bench, picked up the triangular device, and switched it on. Its console lit, and with a hum, it came online, displaying a string of information on its small screen.
“Excellent,” Bradley said, and checked, then re-checked the coordinates. He had to ensure that he arrived at the best possible moment. Nothing would be left to chance. He punched a control on the device, and it emitted a solid blue beam, breaking into the space in front of him and opening a twisting, crackling black vortex.
He’d made it this far. Nothing, nobody, could stand in his way.
Then the doors to the lab opened, and Baxter, Peterman, Browning, and Richards all walked in.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Baxter said, clapping his hands on his face in mock-surprise. “I thought this was the fitness center. I must’ve made a wrong turn somewhere.”
Bradley turned away from the vortex to face them. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Apparently you stole a little item from our science lab,” Baxter said. He pointed at the device Bradley was holding. “Is it in there somewhere?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“This is my ship, bucko,” Baxter said. “Everything that happens here is my business.” He reached for the device. “Now hand that over so we can get a look at what you’ve been up to. Determine exactly how much you’ve endangered this crew.”
Bradley pulled the device away from Baxter, stuffing it under his arm. “I haven’t endangered them at all, you imbecile,” he said, his voice shaking. “This has nothing to do with any of you. Just let me…let me do this.”
“Do what?” Peterman demanded, stepping forward. “Go through there–” she pointed. “–into God knows where?”
“I know exactly where,” Bradley said.
“What is this all about?” Browning asked, tentatively walking toward Bradley. “Why are you doing this?”
“It would take far too long to explain,” Bradley said, glancing over his shoulder at the vortex.
Richards stared at it, transfixed on the swirling yellow energies within. “Anybody got a tricorder?”
“I don’t need a tricorder to tell me that thing’s bad news,” Baxter said, and lunged at Bradley, making another grab for the device.
Bradley shifted it under his other arm, and backed away from Baxter, toward the vortex. “Thanks for having me aboard your ship. You’ve all been most hospitable. Think of it this way: In a few moments, none of you will have to worry about me ever again. I’m not your problem anymore. Now get out of this lab before it explodes. And I do mean that literally.”
“Bradley…” Browning said softly, as Bradley backed closer to the vortex, his feet now right at the edge of it.
“Goodbye, Janice,” Bradley said with a smile, and turned, leaping into the vortex.
“No you don’t!” Baxter cried out, grabbing for Bradley’s foot. He slipped, and fell forward.
Right into the vortex.
“Andy!” Peterman and Browning shrieked at the same time, then stared at one another. They both chased Baxter into the vortex.
“Sh**,” Richards said, tapping his combadge. “Richards to J’hana. We have a huge…”
And then it very quickly started to shrink.
Richards made the decision in a split-second. He jumped into the shrinking void.
The vortex disappeared, and then the room was very, very quiet.
Five minutes later, the room exploded.
Minutes after Richards had called her, J’hana was running down the corridor toward Bradley Dillon’s suite, Tilleran on her heels.
Suddenly, a huge explosion rocked the deck, sending them both flying backwards onto their backsides. Plumes of smoke and licks of flame billowed out of the shorn bulkhead that had enclosed the Presidential Offices.
“I was just joking when I told them not to get blown up!” J’hana shouted, as Tilleran helped her to her feet. The Andorian shrugged off Tilleran’s hand and withdrew her phaser, turning the setting up a few notches.
“It’s an explosion, J’hana,” Tilleran said, squeezing J’hana’s shoulder as they walked. “You’re not going to hurt it with a phaser!”
“I may have to cut bodies out of molten deuterium!”
“That’s it. Be optimistic,” Tilleran said wryly, and tapped her combadge. “Tilleran to Engineering. We have a major internal explosion on Deck Fourteen. Send damage control teams immediately.”
“What in the hell just happened?” Lt. Commander Vansen asked as she and Hartley met Tilleran and J’hana at the entrance to the offices, where smoke billowed out.
“Something blew up,” J’hana said.
“Again,” Tilleran said.
Everyone coughed as they pushed the halfway-parted doors open and elbowed in.
“Fire suppression systems are kicking in,” Hartley said. “The smoke should clear up in a couple minutes.”
J’hana shoved aside upturned office furniture, once plush and exquisitely clean, now charred beyond recognition, and bolted down that corridor, the others not far behind.
The group came to a door midway down the corridor and stopped there. J’hana ripped the doors open with her bare hands and stalked inside.
The room was a smouldering wreck. This was obviously where the explosion began. Furniture and equipment were melted into one big, molten mess.
J’hana grunted as she pulled a beam off the floor and shoved away a piece of bulkhead.
“Where the fwark are they?”
“All right, people. What do we know?” Lt. Commander Vansen asked, standing at the head of the conference table in the observation lounge.
Hartley, J’hana and Tilleran were seated around the table. Frankly, there were no other senior officers left.
“There are no bodies. No remnants of bodies,” J’hana said. “All indicators are, they did not die in there.”
“Then where’d they go?” Hartley asked.
“I’ve had three labs working non-stop, scanning that area, trying to make heads and tails of the readings,” Tilleran said. “There was a massive subspace field inversion about five minutes before the explosion. But that could have been anything.”
“But it suggests a breach in space-time, right?” Vansen asked.
Tilleran nodded. “It seems Bradley might have been trying to cross the space-time domain.”
“To enter a parallel universe, go forward or backward in time, or possibly travel a great distance in a very short amount of time. We can’t get more specific than that.”
“So, in my report to Starfleet, I should just say that four officers have disappeared, having been sucked into some kind of space-time breach.”
“It would have the virtue of being true,” J’hana said, staring at the conference table.
“I’m not satisfied with that,” Vansen said. “We’ve got to do better.”
“Bradley was very efficient in covering his tracks, Commander,” Tilleran said. “It’s quite possible we’ll never know what happened.”
“Even if he did purposefully open up a breach in space-time, why would he take the captain and the others with him?” Vansen asked.
“They weren’t going with him. They were trying to stop him.”
“Oh,” Tilleran said with a grim smile. “We must’ve forgotten to tell you about that.”
Vansen nodded. “Mm-hmmm. Well. I hope you’re all happy with the results.”
“I can kill you with one finger,” J’hana spat, leaping from her chair. “Now, unless I am needed elsewhere, I am off to brood!”
“Madera to Vansen. Has anyone seen Christopher? I mean, I know I’m not supposed to see him on our wedding day, but I tried to comm him to ask about the flower arrangements, and the computer said he wasn’t on the ship.”
“I’ll get back to you, Lieutenant,” Vansen said. “Vansen out.”
“Well, we’re going to have to come up with some kind of announcement,” Hartley said.
“That says what?” Vansen asked. “That we lost the captain and three senior officers in a wacky subspace accident?”
“The captain would have been able to pull off such a shipwide address,” J’hana said, and stalked out of the observation lounge.
“Imzadi, wait up…” Tilleran said, and followed J’hana out.
“Thoughts?” Vansen asked, sitting down next to Hartley.
“I think we have more to worry about than Madera’s wedding,” she said softly.
“Where are we going?” Plato asked Chaka’kan, as the Jem’Hadar led him by the hand to a set of doors.
“To see some friends of yours.” He looked at Plato. “They have…matters to discuss with you.”
“Can you stay with me?”
“No. But I will be available later, should you need someone to talk to.”
Plato watched Chaka walk away, shrugging. He pressed the call button.
Moments later, the doors opened up and Lt. Commander Hartley stood in the doorway.
“Hi there, kiddo,” she said. “C’mon in.”
Plato gingerly stepped into the cabin. He didn’t know Hartley or Mirk very well, and had never been in their quarters.
Mirk was sitting on the couch. He patted the seat next to him. “Come over here and have a seat.”
“Can I get you anything?” Hartley asked, pointing at the replicator.
Plato shook his head. “Uh-uh. Mommy’s making third lunch in a few minutes and I have to go down to her restaurant.”
Hartley looked at Mirk, her brow furrowed, then walked over to the couch, sitting on the other side of Plato.
“Listen, Plato,” she said, then bit her lip. She had to remember not to talk to him like he was a fully-grown adult, but not to treat him like a baby either. Was she sure she was doing the right thing? Or was she on the verge of getting in way over her head? Was she really ready to be a parent? Foster or otherwise?
“We’ve got to talk,” Mirk said, filling in the blanks for Hartley.
“About what?” Plato asked.
Hartley and Mirk looked at each other.
“About the future,” Hartley said, and squeezed Plato’s hand.
“It’s my fault, Imzadi,” J’hana said, staring at one of the knives that hung on the wall in her quarters. “If I was back on Andor, and I’d lost four people in my charge, I would take this ceremonial blade and run myself through with it.”
“But you’re not going to do that now,” Tilleran said softly from behind.
“No,” J’hana said. “However, I must do something.”
“Agreed,” Tilleran said. “But what?”
“Search for them. Search until I find them.”
“And how are you going to do that?”
She turned and headed for the door. “First step: Interrogate the hell out of the people that worked for Dillon.”
“Good idea. I’ll join you.”
Lt. Madera sat at a corner of the Constellation Club, still in her wedding dress, staring out the viewport as the stars outside stretched toward the Explorer.
“You know, you may want to take that off and fold it up, honey. It’s going to get wrinkled.”
Madera glanced over her shoulder, wiping a tear from her cheek. “Oh. Yeoman Briggs,” she sniffed. “I’m sorry. I meant to contact you. The wedding’s…”
Briggs walked forward and wrapped Madera in a big hug. He was wearing glimmering black pants and a blousy white silk top. He’d really dressed up for the occasion. “It’s just postponed a bit, honey. Just postponed.”
Madera buried her head in his shoulder. “But how do you know?”
“Woman’s intuition,” Briggs said with a giggle.
“That’s a funny thing to say,” Madera sniffled.
“I’m a funny boy.”
Madera squeezed him tighter. His shoulders were rock solid, she noticed. “Thanks for being here for me, James.”
“Think nothing of it, dear,” Briggs said, producing a handkerchief from his blouse pocket and handing it to Madera. “Here ya go, sweetie.”
She wiped her eyes, then blew her nose. “I wish there were more men like you in this quadrant.”
“Honey, when they made me, they broke the mold.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Madera said, hugging Briggs again. “But thanks.”
“Don’t mention it, sweetie.”
Madera wasn’t sure, but she thought she might have felt a little spark of attraction between herself and Briggs. Maybe being single again wouldn’t be so bad.
NOW. . .
“Captain on the bridge,” Lt. Sefelt said, turning at ops as the captain walked off the turbolift and walked down to the command chair.
“Report,” the captain said.
“We’ve arrived at Starbase Zero Zero One,” Lt. J’hana announced.
“Has it been three months already?” the captain asked. “Time just flew by.”
“Indeed,” J’hana said, then checked her panel. “Engineering reports all systems are prepared for docking. Starbase confirms an open berth in the refit facility. We are to report to grid nine, section H.”
“Make it so,” the captain ordered. “Any additional reports?”
“Admiral Baxter is standing by to beam over with an investigative team from Internal Affairs,” Tilleran announced from sciences.
“I thought he would,” said the captain. “Tell him I’ll meet him in Transporter Room Two. Have Commander Hartley meet me there.”
“Captain Vansen,” J’hana said, as Vansen stepped up to the aft turbolift and pressed the call button.
“What are you going to tell Admiral Baxter?”
Vansen folded her arms. “I’m going to tell him the truth. That we still haven’t found our missing people. That we still don’t have a President. And that I’ve got everything under control.”
THREE HUNDRED SEVENTY-SIX YEARS AGO. . .
Captain Baxter leaned up, gently rocking some weight off him, which he quickly realized was Counselor Peterman, Steffie, and Doctor Browning.
“What…happened?” he asked groggily, as he realized his hands and face were scratched by rough concrete ground. The sun beat down in his face so brightly he had to put his hand up to shield it.
Richards was two meters away, laying on his back and looking up at the sky. “I don’t think we’re on the Explorer anymore.”
“You’re kidding,” Peterman said, crawling to her feet. She glanced over her shoulder. “You okay, sweetie?” she asked Steffie who, still in her papoose, just cooed in response. “Yeah. I fluff a pillow two rooms away and you start screaming, but we jump through a subspace vortex and land on hard concrete, and you don’t miss a beat.”
Baxter climbed to his feet, helping Browning and Richards up.
“Somebody tell me where the hell we are,” Richards said.
“Not where, Christopher,” Browning said slowly, pointing. “But when.”
Everyone looked in the direction where Browning was pointing. They were standing on a busy street corner. But not just any busy street corner.
This was Earth. The tall buildings with no transporter arrays were proof enough of that. Not to mention the stench of fossil fuel, which Baxter still remembered from his prior jaunt into the past, and the rumbling of heavy, primitive, lumbering automobiles down the street beside him.
“Everything looks suspiciously familiar,” Richards said. “Anybody guessing late twentieth century?”
“Or maybe early twenty-first,” Peterman suggested.
“I don’t give a damn where we are,” Baxter said. “I want to know why we’re here, and how we plan on getting back.” He glanced around behind him. “President Dillon, care to tell us…President Dillon?” He blinked. The president was nowhere to be found.
“Guess we’re on our own, huh?” Richards said.
“Yeah,” Baxter said, as Peterman grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “Guess so.”
President Bradley Dillon stood, in his perfectly pressed, perfectly twenty-first century suit, wearing cologne circa 2003 and a wide smile, as he knocked on the apartment door.
When he really thought about it, this had been almost too easy. Memory Alpha had everything. Her social security number, credit card numbers, address, phone number, something called an “e-mail” address. All the quaint little tracking methods this century had to offer. He had appeared in Baltimore, Maryland only a brief cab ride away from her doorstep.
And now he was here, ready to meet with his destiny.
When there was no response to his knocking, Bradley knocked again, this time a little harder. The door creaked open, apparently having been just slightly ajar.
Bradley pushed the door open and peered inside the apartment. “Lexi?” he called, looking within. “Lexi, it’s Bradley. I…”
The apartment was completely bare.
Apparently, this wasn’t the end of Bradley’s quest, after all.
TO BE CONTINUED. . .