Author: Anthony Butler
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Of all the times and places she could be, Counselor Kelly Peterman didn’t understand why she had to be holed up in a beat up chevy station wagon, in the 21st century, with Bradley Dillon pouring his heart out to her about lost love.
She was still heartbroken over the news that Captain Baxter had some kind of…feelings for her best friend, Dr. Browning, and that Browning returned those feelings.
She was still trying to come to terms with the fact that she was alone on this trip with Irma Wilson and the twenty-first century Dave Conway and Andy Baxter.
And the person who, through all of this, was entirely responsible for what had transpired, for her and her friends being drawn back in time, and (indirectly) responsible for the strain this misadventure had put on their friendship…this person was reaching out to her for sympathy. For counseling. Apparently he’d come all this way to find the love of his life, only to find her happily married and in no way interested in returning with him to the 24th century.
In any other circumstance, Peterman would have sympathized greatly with Bradley. But in light of recent events, and the fact that this whole thing was all his fault, it was all Peterman could do not to slug the guy.
“…and the worst part is,” Bradley Dillon continued. “He’s just a…a guy.”
“Would you prefer Nick was a woman?” Peterman asked distantly.
“You’re not helping,” Bradley said. “Aren’t you supposed to be a counselor?”
“To be honest, Bradley, I’m not really in any shape to counsel you right now. For starters…” She glanced out the window idly. “Hey…who’s that?”
“Who’s…” Bradley glanced over his shoulder. “Lexi!”
Leximas had walked out of the pueblo and had taken Andy by the hand, leading him back toward her house.
Andy dumbly followed, looking almost entranced.
Bradley lept out of the car, Peterman fast on his heels.
“Lexi, what are you doing?”
“We must hide him,” Lexi said simply, and led Andy into her house. “There is danger coming.”
“Danger?” Bradley asked.
“Irma,” Peterman affirmed.
“Can someone tell me what’s going on?” Bradley asked. “Because I’m lost.”
Peterman took him by the hand and dragged him toward the house. “You’re not the only one with plans and schemes. Try to keep up!”
Moments later, Irma and Dave arrived at the station wagon with Kelly Peterman in tow.
“So what do I win?” the young, tan Kelly asked, sporting long, dark hair similar to Peterman’s, but in all other respects looking like a mirror opposite. Her hair was gelled, spiky. She wore a leather jacket, fishnet stockings, nose ring, and a “Ramones” t-shirt.
“You win a huge can of shut up,” Irma said, glancing around, peering inside the wagon. “DAVID! Where did he go?”
“Hey, that wasn’t very nice,” Kelly said, pulling her hand free from Irma’s big sweaty paw. “I thought reality TV people were supposed to be professional.”
“I don’t know where they are. I told them both to stay put,” Dave said. He turned, taking in the meditation ranch in a 360-degree turn. “They’re just gone.”
“YOU FOOL! You’ve risked our entire plan!”
“You told me to go looking for HER,” Dave said, pointing at Kelly. “I can’t be in two places at once.”
“Well,” Irma said, pushing up her polyester sleeves. “They can’t have gone far.” She sniffed the air. “They’re nearby. I can smell it.”
“So what do we do?” Dave said.
“You stay here, with her,” Irma growled, pushing Kelly into Dave’s arms and stomping off toward the nearest pueblo. “I’m going to look for the others. Don’t you move!”
“We’ll be here,” Dave said helpfully, and wrapped an arm around Kelly. “Just the two of us,” he grinned, and winked at her.
Kelly glanced at Dave, wriggling a little in his grasp. “So, uh, is this going to be on Fox or NBC?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dave said. “But you sure do smell good. Think we could get some coffee after this?”
“Where are the TV cameras?” Kelly asked, looking around.
“Up into the bedroom,” Lexi ordered with a wave on her hand, as she watched through the window, hands on hips, as Irma stalked over to a nearby pueblo.
Bradley resisted, but eventually gave in as Peterman shoved him and Andy up the stairs.
“Who was that lady?” Andy asked. “She’s beautiful…”
“She’s taken,” Bradley snapped.
“Both of you…MOVE!” Peterman shouted.
“I wonder what she’s planning,” Lexi said to herself, watching Irma talk to the resident of the pueblo next door. She shook her head. “Gods, I thought she’d been defeated.”
“This is whack,” Nick said, sipping a glass of freshly squeezed guava juice.
“It very much is whack,” Lexi said softly.
“She’s a friend of yours?”
“A mortal enemy,” Lexi corrected her.
Nick nodded and sipped his juice. “That’s deep, man. Anything I can do to help?”
Lexi watched serenely as Irma strode purposefully toward their door. “Yes,” she said. “As a matter of fact there is.”
Moments later, Nick opened the door to a fuming Irma, who shouldered right past him.
“Give them to me,” she bellowed, half belching from the pizza she’d eaten earlier.
“Whoa, man, you can’t just go barging into my place,” Nick said. “That’s really not cool.”
Irma whirled on him, staring at him with eyes of blazing fire. “I will barge where I want to. Now, if you’re hiding them, I want you to give them to me immediately, or I’ll…” Irma growled. “Sit on you.”
“SO not cool!” Nick said, as Irma sniffed the air.
“Up the stairs,” Irma said, and pounded up the staircase, Nick following cautiously behind.
“Nothing’s up there, dude! Why don’t you chill out?”
Irma walked up to the first bedroom door and kicked it open. She surveyed the room. Empty.
She walked down the hall, kicked open the second door.
The third door. This had to be it. The smell was thick in her nostrils. This was it. She kicked, the door flew open, and…
The window was open, drapes blowing in the breeze.
“NOOOOOOOOooooooooo!” Irma bellowed, shaking her fists, as she lumbered over to the window. They were nowhere to be found.
“Say, lady,” Nick said. “Maybe what you need is some nice, hot green tea, so you can sit back and think things through a little bit.’
Irma turned on Nick, fuming. Slowly, her fists loosened a bit and her shoulders fel. “That actually sounds kind of nice. Can I bring my friends?”
“The more the merrier,” Nick said, and headed down to the kitchen. “I’ll fix some hummus too.”
“Are they still in there?” Bradley asked, leaning over Leximas’ shoulder as she watched from behind an outcropping of boulders on the slope of one of the nearby buttes that surrounded the facility. It had been no easy task shimmying down the drain pipe that ran along the window in Lexi’s bedroom, and his thighs were feeling chafed. But then again, at this point, the rest of him felt chafed, too.
“Yes. Nick is stalling them,” Lexi said, and turned toward Andy. “You are the key. They must not get to you.”
“Why?” Peterman asked, as Andy looked on dumbfounded. “What could they want with him?”
“What would anybody want from me?” Andy asked. “I’m just a…guy!”
“Not you too,” Bradley sighed.
“You are key in the events that will unfold in the future,” Lexi said. “Both in the next ten hours, and in the next three hundred years.”
“Cool,” Andy said. “Um, but how do you know this exactly?”
“I know many things,” Lexi said. “But at the moment, I’m uncertain as to how to proceed.”
“We have to get out of here,” Peterman said. “Put as much distance between us and Irma as possible.”
“I tend to agree,” Lexi said. “However, at the moment, we lack a vehicle.”
“I have a pile of cash,” Bradley offered. “Does that help?”
“Some things never change,” Leximas said. “But yes, that helps.”
“I still don’t get what those people want from me,” Andy said. “One of them’s my best friend, the other’s a…I don’t know what she is anymore. She’s been friends with us for years. Why would she suddenly turn on us?”
“Because of forces you cannot understand,” Lexi said softly, patting Andy’s face. “We must move quickly. The nearest bus station is three kilometers away.”
Bradley groaned. “Adding insult to injury. I just knew I’d have to ride a bus eventually.”
Right in the middle of tea, Irma’s ears perked. “Something’s changing,” she said. “She’s moving off…out of my range…”
“Who’s that?” Nick asked, leaning back in his butterfly chair and sipping tea.
“HER,” Irma growled. “That damnable woman.”
“I should really get back to my mom,” Kelly said, sitting between Irma and Dave on the couch, feeling very awkward. “Thanks for letting me play the…game…or whatever this is.”
Irma grabbed Kelly’s shoulder and shoved her down on the couch. “The game is nowhere near over.”
“I’ll start the car,” Dave said, and got up, heading quickly for the door.
“Sure you wouldn’t like some peyote first?” Nick asked, as Irma dragged a struggling Kelly out of the house.
“I don’t know what that is, but no,” Irma said.
“I wouldn’t mind some,” Kelly said, then winced. “Ow. You hurt my arm!”
“MOVE!” Irma thundered, and in an instant, the whole group was gone, filing into Dave’s car.
“Hey, not cool!” Nick said, rising from his chair and following the group out. “If I didn’t hate the police and everything they stood for, I’d call them right now!”
Irma shoved Kelly into the wagon, and turned on Nick as he stood in the doorway to the pueblo. She stared up at the sky, at the gathering clouds. “My power is rising!” she bellowed.
“Wicked,” Nick said.
Irma’s eyes turned red. “You have no idea.” She straightened her arm, palm forward, in the direction of Nick. “Be gone!” she said, and a red wave of energy shot out of her hand, slamming into Nick and knocking him back into the house. Another wave of her hand closed the door and locked it. Not that Nick would be getting up anytime soon, and not that he’d pose much of a threat to her even if he could.
The only threat to her was out there, bearing 35 degrees, and moving fast.
Irma jogged around to the driver’s side of Dave’s car and shoved him into the passenger seat as she squeezed herself in, revving the engine. “OUT OF MY WAY!” she growled.
“This is the most f***ed up TV show I’ve ever been part of,” Kelly said from the back seat. “And I’m from California.”
“She’s coming,” Lexi said, her senses alive and buzzing as she ran along the dirt road that led to the only bus stop in La Cienega.
“I’ve got to stop,” Andy said breathlessly, dropping to one knee, sweat streaming down his face.
Peterman wrapped a protective arm around him and knelt by him. “Andy, we have to keep moving.”
“Why?” he asked, looking up into her face. “What in the world did I do to deserve all this?”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Bradley grunted, trying not to show his own exhaustion.
Lexi looked at the grouping of lights in the distance as the sky darkened, warning of a mid-afternoon storm. The station was within sight now. “We must move quickly. Irma is gaining on us fast.”
“Who is this Irma?” Bradley demanded breathlessly, as the group resumed their jog toward the bus station.
“You don’t want to know,” Kelly said.
“Faster, damn it, faster,” Irma growled, stomping her foot on the accelerator of Dave’s car, sending it surging ahead as he clambered over the dirt road.
“Damn it, Irma!” Dave said, gripping the dashboard, his knuckles white. “This car wasn’t built for this. She’ll fly apart!”
“FLY HER APART THEN!” Irma shouted, and stomped harder on the accelerator, as rain began to pelt the dusty windshield.
“Quickly now,” Bradley said, gesturing Lexi, Peterman, and Andy onto the Greyhound Bus. “I bribed them for seats on the last bus heading east this afternoon. I don’t want to give them time to reconsider.”
Peterman sniffed the air and frowned as she shoved her way toward the back of the crowded bus. “This place smells funny.”
“You have a pretty mouth,” a shaggy-haired man said from a nearby seat.
“I can’t believe I used my vacation days for this,” Andy said, plopping down in the seat beside Peterman, as Bradley and Lexi squeezed into the seats behind them.
“I’m sorry Andy,” Peterman said, taking Andy’s hand and squeezing it as the bus got started. “I’m sorry you got pulled into something that isn’t your problem, again.”
Peterman smiled at him. “Nevermind.”
“He’ll live,” Bradley called from behind them.
Peterman turned back toward Bradley. “You, however, deserve ALL of this, mister!”
Lexi wasn’t listening. Her eyes had glazed, going silvery. She listened to the world as it breathed in and out. Felt the rumblings of the changing tides of time. She shivered. Irma was closing fast, and gaining strength.
But there were forces feeding her strength at the same time.
And all around them, lightening struck, and Lexi felt fire in her veins.
Irma cackled, her face lit menacingly in the flaring lightening that struck all around them as rain pounded down.
Ahead, about a thousand meters, through the thick rain that pelted the windshield, she saw the taillights of the bus, where she knew Lexi and the others had taken refuge.
She poured on the speed, Dave having already gone mute from fear, Kelly whining in the back seat about wanting to go home.
But Irma pressed on, gaining on the bus inch by inch.
The Critics whispered to her. Your job is almost complete, Irma. Finish it now. And victory will be yours…
“Lexi!” Bradley shouted, looking at her as her skin took on a pale, blue glow, and she stood from her seat, gliding into the aisle and resting her hands on the seats on either side of her. “What’s happening?”
“I am gaining power for the final conflict. They are guiding me now,” she said distantly.
“What the hell is happening?” Andy asked, almost blind from shock and confusion.
“The Directors!” Peterman said, snapping her fingers. “They’re intervening!”
“No…” Lexi said, her voice full of hollow tones. “I am guided by another power. The Critics succeeded in silencing the one true voice of the Directors. So a higher power had to intervene. I now speak for The Producers.”
“My God…” Peterman said softly.
“That is correct,” Lexi said, as the bus suddenly began to shake.
“Take the wheel,” Irma ordered, as the wagon pulled up behind the bus.
“I’m…I’m too scared!” Dave whined, both hands covering his face. “Don’t make me do it!”
“Very well,” Irma said, releasing her grip on the wheel. The car seemed to steer itself. She stood up, easily splitting open the roof of the wagon. As it thundered along the dirt road, she climbed out and stood on its roof.
Dave glanced up, heard the heavy thundering of Irma’s feet on the roof as the car guided itself, and then passed out from absolute fear.
Sensing a window of opportunity, Kelly lept forward into the driver’s seat, grabbing the wheel and steering the Cavalier wagon hard to the left. “I don’t know who you think you’re f***ing with, lady!” she called out into the deafening thunder, as rain poured in through the hole in the roof. “But I’m from L.A. I know how to carjack someone!”
The wagon went into a sharp spin, squealing in circles off into the night.
But Irma was already airborne.
Lexi rolled her eyes upward as a huge thud sounded on the roof of the bus. “She is on the roof,” Lexi announced.
“Get down,” Peterman snapped, pushing Andy down beneath the seat, and pointing for Bradley to do the same.
“Lexi…wait!” Bradley called out, reaching out toward Lexi as she walked toward the front of the bus.
“This will take a moment,” Lexi said simply, and walked–no, glided–toward the front of the buss. She grabbed the door handle and yanked it, causing the door to whiz open and wind and rain to whip by. She effortlessly flipped herself out of the bus and onto the roof, as the bus driver looked on, speechless.
Finally regaining his composure, the burly man stomped on the brakes. But the bus wouldn’t stop. It wouldn’t even slow down.
It wasn’t long before everyone started shouting. The bus erupted into chaos.
Above, on the roof, Irma and Leximas squared off, like two ancient combatants, but wielding no weapons.
No physical weapons, at least.
They appeared not to notice or care that the bus was barreling down the bumpy road at over 60 miles an hour, and that rain, thunder, and lightening was coming down all around.
They just looked in each others’ eyes; Irma’s red, Lexi’s silver.
“I know now what you want,” Lexi said. “You will not, however, succeed.”
“And how do you know that?” Irma demanded.
“Because I know a great many things. I speak now for the Producers.”
“Oh, well how special,” Irma said. “So you think you’ll stop us from rewriting time?”
“It’s been done before, apparently,” Leximas said. “Twice now, is it?”
“Something like that,” Irma said. “Although, around these parts, we have a saying. Third time’s a charm.”
“Empty words,” Lexi said, stretching her arms out wide, as lightening licked her hands. “Now let us finish this!”
“Thought you’d never ask!” Irma shouted, and ran toward Lexi.
“I’m sick of today’s number one dance hits,” Captain Baxter said, punching a control on the radio as the Intrepid sped into the dusky night. “Let’s see if we can get a weather report. Looks like it’s storming up ahead.”
“Yeah,” Browning said groggily, from the back seat, just having stirred awake. “Any idea how far away we are?”
“An hour or two, I think,” Richards said softly as Baxter adjusted the radio.
Static blared over the speakers for a few moments, and then:
“….ports coming in now about a massive bus accident several miles East of La Cienega, New Mexico. Several were injured when the bus rolled over during tonight’s massive storm, which came on with little to no warning and is giving central New Mexico a real beating.
“Although there are no casualties listed yet, several passengers on the bus have been reported as missing.”
“Poor bus riders,” Browning said.
“Spokespersons for the bus line still have no comment as to the cause of the accidents, although several eyewitnesses have reported some kind of altercation having taken place on the roof of the bus.
“The combatants have been described as a large woman wearing polyester and thick glasses, and a slender, silver-eyed woman with slightly pointed ears.
“New Mexico State Police would not confirm nor deny those rumors, but ask that anyone with more information about the crash call them immediately.”
Baxter, Browning, and Richards stared at the radio a moment, dumbfounded.
“Irma,” Richards said.
“And some lady with silver eyes…” Browning said.
Baxter snapped his fingers. “Leximas!”
“Bless you,” Richards said.
“No. Leximas. Bradley Dillon came here to find Leximas. She’s tied up in this, I know it.”
“And she is…” Richards said.
Browning leaned forward, between Baxter and Richards. “Yes! Now I remember. She’s that being that helped Mirk fight off Irma when she came to the ship trying to destroy him.”
“And she saved the Explorer from blowing up when it was a cruise ship.”
“Again, thanks to Irma,” Richards said, slowly putting the pieces together.
“But before she was a ‘being,’” Baxter said, “She was a humanoid. From a race the Federation knows next to nothing about. And she lived on Waystation.”
“With Bradley Dillon,” Browning said. “Of course. That was before I went there to be a chef, but I remember people talking about her. When Waystation was being renovated, her cargo pod was blown up by the Starshine Kids.”
“And is it some coincidence that she’s here, now, in the same place and time Bradley Dillon brought us back to?”
“We’re nowhere near Baltimore,” Richards pointed out.
“It’s a small planet,” Baxter said. “There has to be a connection.”
“So now the two of them are battling it out again,” Browning said. “But over what?”
“We’ve got to find that out,” Baxter said. “Go faster, Chris. My guess is, we’ll find a lot of local authorities swarming around that bus accident. And Leximas and Irma can’t be far from there.”
Richards pressed harder on the accelerator, sending the Intrepid surging along down the highway. “I hope you’re right, Andy.”
Baxter gulped. “Me too.”
Police cars, ambulances, and a fire truck surrounded the smouldering wreckage of the bus, which had fallen quite clumsily on its side at some point during the battle between Irma and Leximas.
In the mad rush to escape the wreckage, Peterman had lost track of Bradley and Andy. She hadn’t even been sure what had caused the bus to tip, but assumed it had spun out of control as the result of the battle between Irma and Leximas, neither of whom were anywhere to be found.
She sat, spent, on the side of the road, legs drawn up, holding a bandage to her bruised forehead, and sighed.
“You look like shit,” a voice said from above her.
“Look, buddy, I don’t know who you are, but…” She glanced up. It was Dave Conway, dressed in fireman’s gear, complete with the oblong hat. Her first instinct said it was present-day Dave, but it wasn’t. He was older, paunchier. He was the Dave Conway SHE knew, for better or worse.
“DAVID!” she squealed, leaping to her feet and draping her arms around Conway, hugging him tight.
Conway grunted as Peterman wrapped her arms around him. “Um…glad to see me?”
“You have no idea,” Peterman said. “This has been the most f***ed up few weeks I’ve ever had…any of us have ever had.”
“Few weeks…” Conway said, then shook his head. He looked around. “The cavalry is here, Counselor. I beamed down with Larkin and Gellar. They’re tracking the others. Right now we need to quietly slip away from this mess without drawing too much attention to ourselves. You know, disappearing into the night kind of thing.”
“Larkin…Gellar!” Peterman exalted, crying. “I thought you guys would never come.”
“Well, it took us a while to find you. Larkin worked night and day for…well, a long while. Then it was a matter of fighting with Starfleet, the temporal commission…sheesh. Anyway, let’s get moving…” He gently gestured for Peterman to follow him. “Before my shift commander notices I’m fleeing the scene.”
“You did your homework,” Peterman said with a small smile. “Look, we’ve got a lot of clean-up to do here. Bradley Dillon…”
“I figured this was all his fault,” Conway sighed. “Why did Baxter let him on the ship to begin with?”
“Because he’s the Federation President and he didn’t give us any choice.”
Suddenly there was a beep from somewhere inside Conway’s jacket. “Gellar to Conway.”
Conway reached into his jacket and withdrew his combadge. He spoke into it. “Conway here. Report.”
“No sign of Bradley Dillon or anyone else from the missing list.”
Peterman grabbed the combadge, to Conway’s chagrin, and spoke into it. “No present-day versions of Andy or Captain Conway?”
“Nope, but aren’t you a sound for sore ears, Counselor,” Gellar said. “Glad to have you back.”
“Find them! They were in the bus with me when it tipped over.”
“I scoured the bus with the tricorder. And I’m now moving across the desert. If they’re out here, they’re nowhere within a fifteen mile radius.”
“What the hell,” Conway said. “They were here a minute ago, weren’t they?”
“I don’t know,” Peterman said, leaning her head on Conway’s shoulder. “I don’t know anything anymore.” And she just cried.
Conway blanched, and patted Peterman’s back as delicately as he could. “There…there, Counselor. We’ll get all this sorted out.”
What the hell had this bunch been through?
“Almost there, almost there,” Baxter said, gripping the dashboard. “I can see the lights in the distance. There! Turn down that dirt road!”
With the swarm of sirens that was undoubtedly the bus wreck still a few miles ahead, Baxter was about to tell Richards to go even faster when he noticed a lone figure standing on the side of the road.
“Chris! Slow down!”
Richards slowed, squinting at the figure in the rain. “Andy, I appreciate the sentiment, but we don’t have time to pick up hitchhikers.”
“We do when they look like her!” Baxter said, as the car drew closer to the figure by the side of the road.
“Andy, isn’t your marriage in enough trouble?”
Richards gasped, slamming on the brakes. “I’ll be damned. Larkin!”
Dressed in a twenty-first century Emergency medtech’s black outfit, and a clear poncho slung over that, it was indeed Larkin approaching, yanking the door open, and climbing in the back seat next to Browning, squeezing in on the opposite side of Steffie’s car seat. Amazingly, she’d slept through almost the whole trip, thanks in no small part to Browning repeatedly singing a soothing song she’d picked up from one of the local radio stations, called “Hey Ya,” to her.
“Captain. Commander. Doctor,” she said calmly, looking around the interior of the car.
“Please tell me you’re not the present-day Kristen Larkin,” Baxter said with a growing smile.
“I am, inasmuch as I am from the present-day twenty-fourth century.”
“Larkin!” Richards said giddily, reaching across the front seat and throwing his arms around Larkin.
“We have much to discuss,” Larkin said. “Although at the moment, I advise you to head that way…” She pointed toward a side road that led off from the wreck. “Captain Conway and Counselor Peterman will rendez-vous with us there.”
“Conway…” Browning said, as Richards did as instructed and veered off onto the side road, which was even bumpier and less roadlike than the dirt road they’d just been on.
“And Kelly?” Baxter asked.
“Yes,” Larkin said. “All of the missing Explorer crew have now been collected, save President Dillon.”
“I’d rather not save President Dillon,” Baxter growled, cracking his knuckles.
“Conway to Larkin. Do you have them?”
Larkin reached within her poncho and tapped her combadge. “Affirmative, Captain. I’ve retrieved Captain Baxter, Doctor Browning, and Commander Richards.”
“How’s your emotion program holding up?”
“Deactivated for now, Captain.”
“Keep it that way, Commander, and get to the rendez-vous. Now!”
Peterman gasped as the white Dodge Intrepid rolled up next to her and Captain Conway, who’d staked out a place behind some rocks some meters away from the smouldering site of the bus wreckage, and all the authorities swarming about.
“It’s them, isn’t it?” she asked softly.
“Yup,” Conway said. “Is there a problem? Would you like us to hold off on the rescue for a bit while you go get a manicure or something?”
Peterman glared at him. “No. Thank you.” Her heart sunk, felt so many things at once, as she saw Baxter through the foggy windshield, in the front passenger seat of the car.
“We’re gonna need a bigger car,” Conway said, looking at the group crammed into the Intrepid. “Especially since we still have to round up Gellar, and Bradley Dillon.” He snapped his fingers. “I’ve got just the thing! I saw an unmarked car some of the police detectives pulled up in. It’s perfect. I’ll be right back!”
“I think he actually likes to drive,” Peterman muttered, as Browning stepped out of the back seat of the Intrepid.
“Kelly,” she said, eyes imploring. “Come over here and get out of the rain. Steffie’s back here. I know you want to see her…”
Peterman glanced at Browning. “Thanks.” She walked over, hunched inside the car, and leaned in on the sleeping Steffie, kissing her on the forehead.
“Counselor. It is agreeable to see you again,” Larkin said from beside Steffie.
“You, too, Larkin,” Peterman grinned. “We were starting to think we’d never hear from anyone in the twenty-fourth century.”
“There are reasons for that,” Larkin said abruptly.
“Hi Kelly,” Baxter said softly from the front seat.
“Andy,” Peterman said, brushing a finger on Steffie’s cheek.
“I…” Baxter began, but just as he did, he was blinded by a pair of headlights.
A large minivan pulled up beside them. The driver’s side window rolled down and Conway stuck his head out. “Well, come on. Don’t you recognize a getaway when you see one?”
The group quickly filed out of the Intrepid and ducked into the roomier confines of the minivan, Peterman and Baxter awkwardly seeing to Steffie’s baby seat in the rearmost of the three bench seats, Richards and Larkin taking the middle, and Browning taking the seat up front beside Conway.
“Gellar just commed,” Conway said. “He’s got readings from back west, toward a ranch of some kind a few kilometers off. There’s some abnormal energy readings.”
“Let’s go then,” Baxter said, locking eyes with Conway. “And…thanks for coming.”
Conway shrugged. “I had nothing better to do.” He looked at Steffie. “Man, she’s fat.”
“Toddlers are supposed to look like that, you idiot,” Baxter snapped.
“Perhaps we should have Stephanie beamed back to the Aerostar before we go any further,” Larkin suggested.
Baxter and Peterman looked at each other, from opposite ends of the bench seat.
“Yes,” Baxter said.
“Do it,” Peterman said.
Conway called up to the Aerostar, and Steffie was whisked away in a whirl of blue sparkles.
“Ah, transporter beams!” Richards sighed from the seat behind Conway, his arm still wrapped tightly around Larkin.
Browning was in the front seat by Conway. “We’ve been kind of technology-deprived lately,” she explained.
“Well let’s get Gellar, find Bradley, and get the hell out of here,” Conway said, pushing the minivan into drive and stomping on the gas.
“Did you see the name on the side of the van?” Richards asked Larkin.
“Indeed,” Larkin said. “Although I believe it to be merely a coincidence.”
Once Gellar squeezed into the van between Baxter and Peterman, the group sped off, back toward the La Cienega retreat.
“So,” he said, looking from Baxter to Peterman. “What was it like living in the twenty-first century for three months?”
“Three months?” Baxter asked idly, staring out the side window. “More like three weeks.”
“Oh,” Gellar said.
“Where did you get three months from?” asked Peterman.
“I don’t know,” Gellar said, fumbling with his fingers. “Miscalculation.” He looked around aimlessly. “So…what have you guys been up to?”
“Nothing,” Peterman and Baxter both said flatly.
Larkin, meanwhile, turned to face Richards, who was still giddy over being reunited with his daughter. “Father, I am relieved you have not been harmed.”
“That’s a stretch, but…” Richards said, and glanced back at Baxter. Then up at Browning. “But…I’m okay.”
“We were quite concerned for you.”
“Believe me, we were too.”
“We have…much to talk about.”
“Like what?” Richards asked, staring at Larkin.
“Now is not the right time. We will speak later.”
Browning and Conway, meanwhile, sat in silence while Conway guided the minivan down the bumpy access road toward the La Cienega retreat.
Finally, Browning broke the silence. “So I guess the Explorer’s in orbit too, huh?” Browning said. “Funny they didn’t send a team…”
“They’re not here,” Conway said simply.
“What? I would have thought…”
“Now’s not a good time to get into that,” Conway said, and looked back, exchanging glances with Larkin, who just nodded.
“Sir,” Gellar called out, looking up from his tricorder “Energy readings spiking! We’re nearing the power source, whatever it is!”
Conway pointed up ahead. “It’s that bunch of buildings up there.”
“The retreat,” Peterman said. “That’s where Bradley found Lexi.” She looked at Baxter. “This was all about finding Lexi.”
“Why?” Baxter asked.
“He’s in love with her, Andy.”
“Idiot,” Baxter said, and immediately wish she hadn’t.
“Yeah,” Peterman said.
“You wouldn’t believe who won the Soccer Match on Acadia Six last week,” Gellar added helpfully, then glanced back at his tricorder. “Energy readings still peaking, sir!”
Conway put the pedal to the floor. “I’m going as fast as this bucket can go!”
“What the hell is happening up there?” Richards asked, as two vibrant glows could be seen from the large butte behind the pueblos that made up the relaxation ranch, lighting up the rainy night.
“I’d say our last missing person is right up there, in the middle of whatever that is,” Conway said.
“Irma and Leximas are there too, I’ll bet,” Baxter said.
“But where are the present day Andy, and Dave?” Peterman wondered.
Baxter and Conway looked at each other. “Oh, hell,” Baxter said. “Not us again.”
“They’re up there too, for all we know,” Richards said.
“What the hell is Irma up to?” Conway asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Peterman said. “The same thing she was up to, the same thing the Critics have been up to since the very beginning. They want to make it so we never go to the Delta Quadrant. So Mirk never reaches godhood. So the balance of power between the Directors and Critics shifts fundamentally, because of the lives of us puny mortals.”
“She’s going to try to get Andy and Kelly together.”
“So that we’ll never meet,” Peterman added, looking at Baxter.
“Or else you’ll be cousins,” Conway mused. “Ewww…”
“This is no laughing matter!” Baxter snapped. “If she succeeds, she’ll erase us from time!”
“Well, by the looks of these energy readings, she’s got a hell of a lot of ammunition.”
“I’m not sure that will help,” Peterman said. “Lexi is representing a higher power.”
“What do you mean?” Baxter asked.
“Let me guess,” Conway said. “The Prosecutors?”
“Close. The Producers.”
Baxter sighed and leaned his head back, staring at the ceiling. “Not another omnipotent group. Who the hell are they?”
“I don’t think that matters. But I think it’s a good thing that they’re here,” Peterman said. “They’re all that stands between us and temporal oblivion…”
“Great, just great,” Conway said. “Temporal oblivion. AGAIN!”
She stood there, in the midst of a great orb of crackling blue, calm and serene, electricity crackling at her finger tips.
Within the orb, Bradley Dillon paced around her, incredulous. “Answer me, Lexi! Why did you bring us here? Moreover, how did you do it?”
She still wouldn’t answer. She’d been that way ever since the bus flipped over, and Bradley’s world had gone temporarily black.
When he’d come to, he was here, with 21st Century Andy Baxter, standing within that great blue orb, on that great flat plateau, which Lexi had told him had been such a source of peaceful meditation. She hadn’t been kidding. This was obviously the place she’d chosen to make her last stand.
Through the distortion, much like the haze that falls over a road on a hot day, Bradley could see a very similar red orb. At its epicenter, Irma glowered, her hands likewise outstretched (but oddly and incongruously, they were outstretched in the Vulcan peace sign). Beside her, 21st Century Dave Conway and what looked like 21st Century Kelly Peterman stood, wearing leather and fishnet. She twisted defiantly in the grasp of Dave, who had his arms draped all over her.
“Can I keep her after this?” Dave called out, grinning devilishly.
“In your dreams, bastard!” Kelly shrieked, elbowing him in the stomach.
“You seem to be missing the point of this whole deal,” Irma muttered, then refocused her concentration on Leximas.
Bradley stood by and watched the staring contest between Lexi and Irma. Fury was building in him. Why did he do this? What was it all for? He risked everything, and he couldn’t even get Leximas to talk straight with him.
“LEXI!” Bradley cried out above the growing din, sounding like a warp engine on overload. “TALK TO ME!”
Lexi turned to face him, finally recognizing his presence. Her eyes gleamed bright silver. “It should be painfully obvious to you now, Bradley, that a relationship between us will never be.”
Bradley felt staggered. Despite the circumstances, that was a hard hit. “WHY?” he demanded. “Am I not…not good enough?”
“Nothing as corporeal as that, Bradley,” Lexi said, and her expression softened for a moment. “You are simply not destined to walk my path. I have been called on, by a great power, to speak for them, and to protect your universe.”
“Universe…” Bradley’s mind, however calculating, couldn’t grasp that. “This goes beyond the four quadrants?”
“Far beyond,” Lexi shouted over the cacaphony of building energy. “And you should know that you’ve played a vital role. You led us to this point, to this deciding moment. You were required to set this process in motion.”
“I was…required.” Bradley had been on the opposite side of this scenario many times in his business career. “I’m a pawn.”
“In human terms, yes, I suppose,” Lexi said thoughtfully.
Bradley and Lexi both turned instantly to face Irma. The woman, bull-like, charged them, taking that moment Lexi’s guard was down to rush them. Her sphere, and Dave and Kelly, moved with her, as if it were one of those transparent spheres hamsters rolled around in.
Irma’s sphere crashed into Lexi’s, and Bradley felt his feet swept out from under him.
He found himself laying, disoriented, next to Andy, who seemed to have gone nearly catatonic with fear.
“Wh-what the hell is happening?” Andy choked out, crawling toward Bradley.
“I wish I could say,” Bradley said. “Just sit tight.”
“But why is Dave acting so weird? And who’s that girl with him? She looks…damn familiar…”
“Dave is undoubtedly under the control of the Critics,” Bradley said. “As for the girl. Don’t ask…”
The blue sphere was wildly flickering, as if that last jolt had weaken it. Now Irma’s sphere was pressed up against it.
“This is awesome!” Dave Conway cried from within the red sphere. “Like American Gladiators!”
“Without the muscular men,” Irma snorted derisively, glancing at Dave. She looked back at Lexi. “Back down now, silverdust woman. The Critics’ time is now. We are ready to storm the Studio Gates. To take what’s ours!”
“NEVER!” Lexi shouted, and threw her hands out at Irma, knocking her backward, nudging her sphere in the opposite direction. “The Producers rule the universe, and you can’t change that!”
“The Broadway play?” Andy whispered. “I’ve seen it. It’s okay…but rules the universe? It wasn’t half as good as Wrath of Khan.”
“Leave the Eugenics Wars out of this,” Bradley said, fearfully looking up at Irma. He glanced then at Lexi. “You are stronger, right? If you have the power, finish her already!”
“If only it were that easy,” Lexi said, her hands facing Irma, palm- out, sending a barrage of energy that rattled the joined walls of both spheres. “The Critics have struck us at a very pivotal moment in history. They have neutralized our first line of defense, the Directors.”
“And isn’t there a second line of defense?”
“The Writers?” Lexi said, and sighed. “They’ve disappeared. Apparently, they’ve been blocked, somehow.”
Bradley grimaced. “How convenient.”
“This is the end,” Lexi said.
Bradley pulled himself to his feet and stared at Leximas. “NO! It can’t be. I know you better than that, Lexi. You’re not the giving up type. You will stop this Irma woman. You’re stronger than her, and certainly a hell of a lot classier. If you believe in this cause, and I know you do, you’ll find the strength to finish the job you started.”
Lexi smiled at Bradley, the strain lining her face. “It is sweet of you to believe in me. However, I believe I am unworthy of your faith.” She stared out at Irma, who seemed to be drawing more power than Lexi was now, her red orb glowing and vibrating, shaking the rock beneath her. “It is a shame, too. In another life, in another universe, had this not been my destiny…” She took a long hard look at Bradley. “One can never say…”
Bradley took that in, and all the meaning that came with it. “That’s all I wanted to know, Lexi.”
“Thank you for being here,” Lexi said softly, and steeled herself against Irma’s growing onslaught, preparing herself for the end.
Baxter didn’t even wait for the minivan to slow down. He was out of the van and scrambling up the shaky metal staircase that ran up the plateau while the others were still unbuckling their seatbelts and talking about tricorder readings. All but for Peterman, however, who was hot on his heels.
“Andy!” she cried out. “Wait. Wait till we know what we’re dealing with!”
“I know exactly what we’re dealing with!” Baxter called over his shoulder, breathing hard, as he reached the top of the stairs. He looked out at the center of the plateau, frozen in his tracks. One red sphere, containing Irma, Dave, and a young Kelly, was butting up against a blue sphere, containing Leximas, Bradley, and the 21st Century Andy. “Okay,” he conceded. “Maybe I don’t.”
Peterman stood next to him. “Leximas and Irma…”
“Battle to the death?” Baxter suggested, and Peterman nodded assent.
“It’s not going well for Lexi,” she said, as the others hurried up the staircase to join them. “Something’s wrong.”
“She’s weakening,” Gellar said, looking at his tricorder. He turned to Conway. “Irma’s power levels are rising exponentially.”
“That bitch,” Conway said.
“If she collapses Lexi’s sphere,” Richards said, and Browning finished his thought.
“Andy and Kelly meet.”
“And the rest is history,” Baxter finished. “We can’t let that happen.”
“I’m on it,” Conway said, and reached into his pocket, squeezing his combadge. “Conway to Aerostar.”
“Ford here. Go ahead.”
“Ready phasers and target the energy distortion in front of us. Point oh five burst for starters. Fire on my command.”
“Which distortion?” Ford responded. “There are two of them.”
“The one on the left.”
“Is that my left or your left?”
Conway gritted his teeth. “Ford, you son of a bitch, listen up…”
“Aim on the sphere containing a fat woman!” Baxter called out.
“As a matter of fact, aim for the fat woman!” Peterman chimed in. “And aim far away from the good looking young girl with the questionable fashion taste!”
“And avoid the handsome, muscular guy beside her, too!” Conway added.
Baxter narrowed his eyes at Conway.
“Just fire phasers already,” Conway muttered, and waved for everyone to stand back.
Suddenly a thick red beam lanced down from the sky like a lightening strike.
Gellar looked at his tricorder. “No effect.”
“Increase to full-power burst and fire again,” Larkin ordered.
“Firing,” Ford said, and another beam seared down, superheating the air momentarily but doing nothing to the red sphere.
“Other suggestions?” Baxter asked, looking around at the group, feeling more like a captain than he’d felt in a long time. These people were, or at least were at some point in time, his crew, after all.
“Quantum torpedoes?” Conway suggested.
“And destroy the whole plateau?” Richards asked. “Great idea. With our luck, we’d all be ashes and the damn sphere would still be sitting here.”
“No,” Baxter said. “We need another option. Something more…primitive.”
Conway looked at Baxter. “Well, if J’hana were here, she’d probably just throw herself at Irma and try to wrestle her to the ground.”
“Yes,” Baxter said. “Yes she would.”
“Readings confirmed,” Gellar said. “The spheres can only repel similar spheres. One of us would pass right though.”
Baxter began walking toward the sphere.
Peterman grabbed his arm. “ANTHONY!”
“The energy in that sphere would probably fry every synapse in your brain!” Browning called out, running up and grabbing Baxter’s other arm.
“Not if I don’t have any synapses to fry,” Baxter said, twisting away from them. “I may not have started this, but I’m damn well going to finish it.” He looked at Peterman, touching her face. “What’s my alternative? That we’re never born? Or we’re born, and live different lives, but we never meet? I’m not going to risk that.”
“Captain, your course of action is ludicrous!” Larkin called after Baxter.
“Yeah!” Conway shouted. “If we’re going to throw someone in there, let it be Larkin!”
Larkin looked at Conway. “Sir?”
“Well, you’re more durable. And, you’ve got a backup brain back on the ship.”
“Your concern for my wellbeing is touching.”
Conway shoved her toward the sphere. Baxter was already halfway there. “Don’t just stand there. Go! That’s an order!”
Larkin dashed off, but was too late.
Baxter had already broken into a run, Peterman and Browning chasing him with arms outstretched, but coming up empty handed as he dove at the sphere containing Irma.
He passed right through it, collided with the beastial woman, and knocked her off her feet.
The sphere evaporated with a soft pop.
And Baxter and Irma tumbled backward, down off the side of the plateau.
“ANDY!” Peterman cried out, half skidding, half tumbling, down the side of the plateau, uselessly gripping at the sides of the rockface, trying to slow her descent, watching the dust settle over Irma, who’d rolled to a stop face-down at the bottom of the plateau.
“Where the hell is he?” Browning asked, skidding to a stop behind Peterman, kicking up a cloud of dust of her own as Peterman surveyed the scene.
She saw Baxter’s sneakered foot sticking out from under Irma’s leg.
She recoiled. “He’s…under her.”
“My God…” Browning said softly. “No…”
Peterman pushed up her shirtsleeves and gripped Irma by an arm and an ankle. In school, she’d what happened when a rush of adrenaline hits persons in situations of dire need, often giving them inhuman strength. But she never really believed in that theory, or seen it in action, until now.
Peterman tossed Irma off of Baxter as if she were a rag doll.
And Browning was immediately at his side, feeling his neck for a pulse.
“His heart’s stopped!” Browning shouted, clasping her hands and pounding Baxter’s chest. “Get Conway. Now! Have him beam us both to sickbay!”
Peterman stared down, agape.
“That looked like a rough fall,” Gellar said, looking down at the steep incline of the plateau. “I hope he’s okay…”
“Been there, done that,” Conway said, folding his arms. “It really looks worse than it is. I’m sure he’s…”
“DAVID!” Peterman shouted cupping her hands around her mouth, scrambling up the side of the plateau. “Call your ship! We need emergency evac! Beam him up NOW!”
“Conway to Aerostar,” Conway said. “Emergency beamout directly to Sickbay.”
“Let me guess,” Ford said over the comm. “Lock onto the fat woman.”
“And the people around her,” Conway said. “It’s the Captain.”
“Who do you think. Do it, Mister!” Moments later, Baxter, Irma, Browning and Peterman all dematerialized in whorls of blue.
“Orders, Captain?” Gellar asked, as Conway turned around to see what had become of Lexi and the others.
“Give me a minute to…”
But they were all gone. All but Bradley Dillon, sitting, crosslegged at the center of the plateau.
Conway walked up to him, knelt. Larkin and Richards stood beside him.
“He will not speak,” Larkin said. “He does not seem to be in any discomfort, but I cannot get him to speak.”
“Damn,” Conway said. “This is going to be a hell of a mark on my temporal record.”
“Suffice it to say, our problems may be far larger than that,” Larkin said.
“Where the hell did the others go?” Conway mused, looking around.
“They disappeared,” Richards said. “Just after Irma’s sphere was destroyed.” He knelt by Conway. “What about the Captain?”
“I don’t know,” Conway said. “Everyone else beamed back to the ship.”
“I recommend we beam up as well,” Larkin said. “It would be wise not to risk any further contamination of the timeline.”
“You’ve got a point,” Conway said, and took in the vast skyscape of the nighttime desert one last time. “Let’s get the hell out of here. I f***ing hate plateaus.”
Peterman was pacing outside the operating room, running fingers through her hair, when the door slid open and Dr. Browning poked her head out. She wore a red surgical smock and cap, and haggard expression. “Kelly…you’d better get in here.”
Peterman ran through the door, racing to Baxter’s bedside. She stared down at Baxter, running a hand through his hair, touching his face. She looked up at Browning, tears in her eyes.
“He’ssssss not dead, if that’ssssss what you’re wondering,” Benzra blurted out.
“And they say I lack bedside manner,” Browning giggled nervously, yanking her gloves off and tossing them on the table beside her.
“He suffered extreme damage to hissss central nervoussssssss ssssssssystem, but it wasssssss all repairable. I ussssssed a radioactive isssssotope treatment. It was not unlike fricasssssee, actually.”
“I don’t know what you said,” Peterman said, kissing Baxter’s forehead. “But thank you.” She looked over at Browning. “And…thank you.”
Browning braced her hands on the bedside. “All in a day’s work. Well, actually, just a couple hours…”
Peterman laughed. She had no business laughing. She saw no reason to, given the outrageous circumstances of recent events. But she laughed anyway, loud and long, and leaned her head down on Baxter’s chest.
Her marital problems were far from over, and there would be hard work ahead, but she’d take those challenges when they came. Right now, she just felt like celebrating.
Bradley Dillon sat in his quarters on the Aerostar-A, blankly staring out the windows at the Earth in the distance, just past the huge white landscape of the moon that loomed close. The Aerostar had been, for the duration of its assignment, hiding behind the lunar body, and Bradley figured that was for the best. No use polluting the timeline with unidentified starship sightings like those Voyager fools had done.
He hadn’t spoken a word since the Aerostar crew had found him. Hadn’t wanted to. Hadn’t had any words for anybody, except of course for the one person who wasn’t there.
This was familiar territory. Leximas had visited him several times after her so-called “demise,” purporting to say goodbye. She’d done so moments before Captain Baxter had run headlong into Irma, disrupting and destroying the woman’s sphere with nothing but pure human will.
Everything after that was meaningless.
Bradley Dillon had succeeded in nearly everything he’d set out to do. So he was understandably shocked to find out that he’d more than likely be returning to the future empty-handed, after the Aerostar finished her clean-up work down on Earth.
He felt in his jacket pocket for that velvet box that was still there.
He was a fool.
“You’re no fool, Bradley Dillon,” a voice said from behind him. He knew who it was, and had actually expected he’d see her one more time. There were too many unanswered questions. And she, like him, abhorred loose ends.
“That’s debatable,” he said, without looking back at her. He couldn’t look at her. Not this time.
“Humans are known to fall in love,” Lexi said, her voice light and ethereal sounding. “Nick had fallen in love. And he was hurt too, when I told him I had to leave. Unlike most humans, he seemed to have no problem with the idea that I was going to live on another plain. He just kept muttering something about a ‘bad flashback’ as I disappeared.”
“So,” Bradley said. “Nick loses out too. That almost makes all this worth it.”
“I know you don’t really feel that way, Bradley.”
“You’re right. Nothing makes all this worth it.”
“One never knows what one may be called upon to do in this life, Bradley. I cannot ignore this call. Too much is at stake. The Producers need someone from this world to speak for them, to hold the line against the Critics until the Directors and Writers regain their strength. They need a bridge to humanity.”
“I thought that was what the bartender was for…”
“He has become part of the problem, I fear,” Lexi said distantly.
“So you’re leaving. I get that.”
“And take this as my solemn word, Bradley Dillon. We shall never set eyes on each other again.”
Bradley stood up, turned around.
“There will be no more plans, no schemes. This must be the end for us, I’m afraid,” Lexi said, and when Bradley finally looked at her, he realized she wore a beautiful white gown, and glowed a bright silver.
She stepped toward Bradley and took her in his arms, and kissed him full on the mouth, for what seemed like an eternity.
And then she was gone.
“So she just left?” Conway asked, leaning back in his chair at the conference room table, and groaned. “Well isn’t that just great! She f***s up the timeline, then doesn’t stick around to fix it. Omnipotent types. They’re all the same. Just in it for themselves.”
Bradley folded his hands atop the conference room table, and stared coldly at Conway. “She gave up her Earthly existence so that she could help save the universe.”
“And she couldn’t bother to wipe a few minds and put a few people back in their rightful places while she was at it?” Gellar asked from beside Conway.
“Perhaps she has a lengthy agenda,” Larkin suggested, from the opposite side of Conway.
“She did take care of it,” Bradley said, staring down at the table. “Everything. Every mind wiped, every person back where they belong. She did it in an instant, and without any risk of polluting the timeline further.”
“How do you know this?” Larkin asked.
“Because she told me,” Bradley said. “She didn’t have to use words. She just…left me with that knowledge.”
“You don’t mind if we confirm that, do you?” Conway asked, and nodded in the direction of Gellar, who stood up and headed out of the conference room.
“I don’t see why you’d have any reason to doubt her, Captain,” Bradley said, and stood. “Now if you’ll excuse me, this has been a very trying journey. I wish only to return to my quarters and get some much needed rest. I suggest that, in the meantime, you slingshot this ship back to the twenty-fourth century, forthwith.’
“Forthwith my ass,” Conway muttered to himself, and stood..
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” he replied, and walked with Larkin out onto the bridge.
VIRGINIA STATE MENTAL INSTITUTE SEVERELY MENTAL REALLY REALLY REALLY WHACKO WING NORFOLK, VIRGINIA
Irma Wilson looked at the familiar, padded walls and laughed. “You think this will hold me?” she screamed to nobody in particular. “Do you think the awesome power of the Critics can be kept held in this silly little cell?”
“SHUT UP IN THERE!” an orderly called, slamming his billy club up against her padded door, staring through the tiny slot. “I don’t want to have to medicate you again, lady!”
“You can’t stop me,” Irma said, almost frothing at the idea. “I’m going to take over the Universe. I’m going to be everything I want to be! And the Critics will help me. Right, darlings? Right?”
Lights flickered off throughout the ward as the time for “lights out” passed.
“Right?” Irma called into the darkness, but nobody seemed to answer.
Andy Baxter leaned up in bed and yawned. He glanced over at the alarm clock by his bed and groaned. “Six-thirty. Ugh.” He rolled out of bed. Why’d he feel so tired? Him and Dave must have had quite a weekend.
He stood up, pulled on his robe, and walked out into the living room, where Dave Conway had just put on a ball cap, and finished packing his duffle bag.
He looked up. “Hey there, Andy.”
“Dave,” Andy said, and squinted out at the sun that filtered through his patio window. “Do you remember much about this weekend?”
“Same as any weekend,” Dave said. “We re-watched the Star Wars trilogy, got a massive box of fried chicken, and argued about trivia deep into the night. I believe there was drinking, too.”
“Yeah,” Andy said. “That’s what I thought.”
Dave walked over to the couch to grab his jacket, when he saw a white piece of cloth sticking out from under the couch cushion. He tugged it. The white cloth, which was patterned with polkadots, just kept coming and coming.
Finally, he’d pulled the whole thing out, and held it spread in front of him, for his and Andy’s expression. “Something you want to tell me, buddy?”
Andy scratched his head. It was a massive pair of women’s underwear, at least a foot wide.
“You’re the one who slept on the couch ‘buddy,’” Andy said.
Dave shivered. “Maybe it was from the couch’s previous owner.”
“I don’t know,” Andy said. “But whatever the case, I have the feeling we’re better off not knowing.”
“Yeah,” Dave siad.
“Would you mind throwing those in the dumpster on your way out?”
Dave balled up the undies and stuffed them under his arm. “Sheesh…the things you do for friends.”
“Have a good ride back to Salisbury,” Andy said, patting Dave on the back. “If you pass through Annapolis, tell Chris and Janice I said hello.”
“I’ll try to work that in around the toy shopping,” Dave said.
Andy laughed at that, and watched Dave walk out to his car. He turned around and looked around his apartment, meticulously neat as usual. On the bulletin board by his desk was a picture of a girl he’d talked to online, years ago. He hadn’t heard from her in a long, long time. He didn’t
know why he kept the picture, or why he’d been drawn to look at it just then.
He pulled the picture off the bulletin board and slid it in between the books in his bookcase.
Andy Baxter had always complained about how hard it was to meet women. Maybe part of his problem was that he was stuck in the past.
He’d have to do something about that.
Bradley stepped out of the turbolift and onto one of the residence decks, more than ready to get to bed.
As exhausted as he was, though, Bradley felt a renewed sense of vigor. Like a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
His long search was now over, and that in and of itself was incredibly important to him. He anticipated getting the best, most deeply restful night of sleep he’d had in some time.
As he passed an adjoining corridor, he nearly bumped into Captain Baxter.
“Captain!” he said. “I was wondering when you’d get out of Sickbay.”
Baxter stared at Bradley.
“Yes, well,” Bradley said, straightening his jacket. “I am glad you are all right. I understand you took a horrible spill, and…well, I am relieved that you were not more seriously injured. All in all, I would say we all got out of this crises remarkably unscathed. Leximas imparted that to me herself, just before she left us for good. Regardless, I feel it necessary to offer you my humblest…”
And Baxter hauled back and punched Bradley in the face.
The President stumbled back against the bulkhead, and slid to the floor, grasping his aching nose as Baxter walked pst him.
“Save your apologies,” Baxter said, tapping the call button on the nearby turbolift. “We’re far from even, but I’m willing to settle if you are.”
Bradley just stared at Baxter as the doors closed, remembering part of that thought Lexi had put in his mind, during that long and all-embracing kiss, just before she disappeared:
“I have restored the timeline to its previous state, Bradley. I have fixed everything I can fix.
“As for the rest…only time will tell.”
When Baxter and company return to the 24th Century, there are more than a few…messes…to clean up. Are they ready to re- integrate into the future…er, present? Or will they find that they don’t know where they’re sitting “When the Music Stops”?