Author: Anthony Butler
Captain’s Log, U.S.S. Explorer, Captain Nell Vansen recording,
Stardate 57116.4. We are slowly adjusting to the return of Captain Baxter and Doctor Browning. Supposedly, we’ll be getting Richards and Peterman back as well, but I for one hope the whole lot of them decides to leave the ship sooner rather than later. It’s somewhat pathetic when people hold on to things long after their time has passed, isn’t it, computer? Oh, what would you know, you’re just a computer. The point is, I’m in command, and I’ve never been happier.
“Vodka and grapefruit, neat, and keep ‘em coming,” Captain Andrew Baxter said, bellying up to the bar at Mirk’s Constellation Club, as Friday night techno music thudded low and persistent in the background.
Baxter didn’t care, he just wanted to get drunk, as soon as possible.
“And none of that synthehol crap. I want the real stuff.”
Mirk, dressed in his customarily dapper Friday night attire (this time, crushed velvet) looked at Baxter askance as he served a Toronto Maple Ale to Ensign Alvarez from Stellar Physics.
“Real vodka? I don’t think I have any,” Mirk said. “But I can check the cellar. There may be a bottle of Chekov Farms left in there.”
“Good,” Baxter said, leaning forward on the bar. “And be quick about it.”
“What’s the hurry, Captain?”
“Don’t bother with fancy titles,” Baxter moaned, as Mirk stepped out from behind the bar and headed for the store room. “I’m no longer in command of the Explorer. It doesn’t matter.”
“Ah, yes. Captain Vansen does seem fairly…entrenched.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, looking in the small store room as Mirk rifled through bottles. “She’s firmly seated. And Woodall, the Explorer Project’s new director, seems like he’s content to keep Vansen in command.”
“Can a ship have two captains?”
“It happens on occasion,” Baxter said, as Mirk passed him back a dusty bottle of Chekov Farms’ ‘94. “But the results are seldom pretty.”
“Can you get a new ship?” Mirk asked.
Baxter uncorked the bottle and took a long, hard drag straight from it. He stared at Mirk, blinking. “A new ship? What’s wrong with this one?”
“Besides having Vansen in command?” Mirk asked, leading Baxter back to the bar.
“You’re exactly right,” Baxter said, leaning against the bar, staring down at its backlit surface. “I have to get another ship.”
“That’s the spirit,” Mirk said. “Bounce back. Show Vansen she can’t keep you down.”
Baxter pounded his fist on the bar, causing the glass of grapefruit juice Mirk had just sat in front of him to shake. “I can’t get another ship! This is MY ship. I’m not leaving.”
“Then you’re probably going to have to be subordinate to Vansen. Megan’s gone back to Engineering, so there would seem to be a slot open.”
“Bah,” Baxter said. “I can’t report to Vansen.”
“Seems like those are your two choices.”
“Nyet,” Baxter said, and guzzled more Vodka from the bottle. “I’m going to go find my Dad. He can straighten this out.”
“He’s gone off to find himself,” Baxter said dizzily.
“Those are all fairly substantial problems,” Mirk acknowledged. “Your wife gone, your father missing, your career in jeopardy. Yup, your life’s in disarray.”
“Thanks for summing it up so nicely for me, Mirk,” Baxter muttered.
“By the way, any more word on that whole end of the universe thing?”
“What? The pitched battle between the omnipotent Producers and the Critics? The possible end of all life as we know it? The fact that your gods, the Directors, are nowhere to be found?”
“Nope,” Baxter said. “No more news on that front. I told Starfleet everything I knew, which pretty much consisted of getting my brain fried when I tackled Irma and burst her ‘bubble of power.’ Apparently, I stopped whatever nastiness was about to happen, or at least delayed it a good bit.”
“But the Directors are still gone,” Mirk said, sounding a little distant. “And nobody knows where they are.”
“Yup,” Baxter said. “It’s a real problem.” He belched. “I gotta go. Thanks for listening!” He turned and walked out of the bar, nearly slamming into Counselor Ryn Trista, who had the hunky Crewman Brock Bartrum from Cargo Services on her arm. She wore a revealing, form- fitting black dress that glittered with what looked like golden stardust. She looked amazing. Baxter barely noticed her.
“Captain?” Counselor Ryn asked, looking from Baxter to the bottle in his hand.
Baxter stared at her as if she had two heads (and wasn’t from a species who actually DID have two heads). “Do I know you?”
“Ryn,” the Bajoran said. “Ryn Trista. I’m Ship’s Counselor.”
“Interim,” Baxter said.
“Well, it seems,” she said non-comittally. “Are you…okay, sir?”
“I’m going to get a drink, babe,” Brock said, and ambled over to the bar.
“I’m just GREAT, Counselor,” Baxter said. “Have a wonderful date with your hunky boyfriend. I’ll be fine.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Ryn called after Baxter as he left. “It’s casual! We’re just friends!”
“Eh?” Brock asked as he returned with two glasses of Andorian Ale, half-draining one of them, squeezing it in his meaty fist.
“Nothing, sweetheart,” Ryn said. “Just look pretty and find us a table where everyone can see us. It’s important to convey the image of a romantic couple. The counselor must mix with the crew, must be on their level, to truly be trusted by them.”
“I love ale,” Brock said, and belched.
Baxter sat in his quarters, the two-thirds drained bottle of vodka beside him on his desk, as he stared, dazed, at the spinning Federation emblem on his desktop terminal.
“Trouble, Captain?” asked Chaka’kan, the Jem’Hadar who continued to be assigned to the Explorer, under the auspices of learning more about human society (and for the more realistic reason that none of his people wanted him, due to the fact of his extreme lack of killer instinct).
Chaka had been a lifesaver. He’d always volunteered to take care of Steffie, and now more than ever, being, for all intents and purposes, a single parent, Baxter was pleased to have someone around to look after his daughter. The fact that Chaka belonged to a race that had once tried to annihilate humankind was something he preferred not to think about. Indeed, this particular Jem’Hadar had a heart of gold. And, as Baxter found out, was quite good at checkers.
“I’m fine,” Baxter said. “Just looking for my dad.”
“You have been drinking,” Chaka observed.
“Your keen Jem’Hadar senses tell you that?”
He shook his head. “No, sir. I can smell your breath from here.”
Baxter chuckled. “Whoops.”
“Am I to take it Captain Vansen did not yield command to you?”
“You’re to take it, all right,” Baxter moaned, and leaned forward, staring at his terminal screen.
“And Counselor Peterman…”
“Incommunicado,” Baxter said.
“As well as your Father.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, and glanced up at Chaka’Kan. “So, as you can imagine, I’m having a rough day.”
“Indeed.” Chaka bowed, then turned for the door. “In that case, I will leave you to your ruminations. I will be here at oh-eight hundred in the morning to resume my duties.”
“That’s nice of you to offer, Chaka,” Baxter said, smiling weakly.
“Babysitting is life,” the Jem’Hadar said, and left Baxter’s quarters.
“What a nice guy,” Baxter muttered to himself, then returned his attention to the terminal. “Computer,” he slurred. “Search Risa database.”
“Searching. No Harlan Baxter found.”
“Damn it,” Baxter groaned, and slammed his head down on the table. “Cross-reference hotel-motel industry reservation lists.”
Baxter looked up momentarily, staring out the windows. The stars were moving by so fast. The Explorer was warping. Warping at high speed. Away from his wife, his life, the family he knew…
“No Harlan Baxter found.”
“Great,” Baxter moaned. “Just great. Where’s a dad when you need one?” And the captain passed out.
“He’s been giving me dirty looks,” Commander Christopher Richards said, reclined in the easy chair in Commander Kristen Larkin’s quarters, his feet up on her coffee table.
Larkin walked up from the replicator, a steaming cup of raktageeno in her hand. “Here you go, Father. Enjoy.” She gently nudged his feet off the coffee table, then sat opposite him, on her couch. “Now then: Captain Conway has not been giving you dirty looks, I assure you.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I told him not to. And I believe my requests do carry some weight around here.”
“Maybe I’m just being paranoid,” Richards said. “I mean, Dave and I have been on pretty good terms the last couple years. I’d like to think we’ve mended whatever fences have been broken. But I’m sure he feels like I’m a distraction.”
“His feelings are irrelevant,” Larkin said. “You will stay aboard the Aerostar as long as you wish, on my authority. You have been through a trying experience, and we need time to reconnect. Captain Conway will respect that, or he will search for a new first officer.”
“You have done well for yourself, Kristen,” Richards said, leaning forward, elbows on knees. “It means a lot to me that your life aboard the Aerostar has been rewarding.”
“It has had its…” Larkin considered her words for a few nanoseconds. “Challenges. But, overall, yes, I have enjoyed my time serving under Captain Conway as his First Officer.”
“You’re an inspiration,” Richards said.
“I am not sure I am worthy of such praise, but I appreciate it, Father. I am sure you do an adequate job as well.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Richards blurted. “Whenever I do something right, it’s usually by accident.”
“I somehow doubt the veracity of that claim.”
“That’s nice of you to say,” Richards said, not really understanding what Larkin said. “So, what should we do today?”
“I go on duty in three point four minutes,” Larkin said.
“Oh,” Richards said. “Well, that’s understandable. I wouldn’t want you shuffling your schedule around for me…”
“I assumed as much,” Larkin said. “I am, however, working a truncated shift. I will be off-duty in four hours. At that time, I believe we should have dinner. The cafe is the appropriate locale.”
“I’d like that.”
“At that time, you will meet the man I am dating,” Larkin said, stood up, and left her quarters, leaving Richards alone, and wide-eyed.
“You want to make use of my…less than traditional…connections,” J’hana said in a low voice, as Baxter leaned against the tactical station on the bridge the next morning, his eyes red-rimmed and puffy.
“That’s right,” Baxter said. “I know you’ve got some sources, J’hana. You never told me about them, but I always knew they were out there. I need you to use them. Find my dad.”
“First, we must assume you are correct, and that I do have ‘sources,’ as you say. This is a fact I will confirm nor deny.”
“Second, why don’t you just ask your mommy?”
Baxter gritted his teeth, leaned forward. “She’s no help. I already tried. Twice. She’ll only say he’s on a ‘sabbatical.’ Whatever that means.”
“It sounds as if your father is not lost, but rather does not want to be found.”
“Well, we’re damned well going to find him whether he wants to be found or not,” Baxter said. “He left a hell of a mess behind, and he’s the only person short of the Commander in Chief who can override Woodall and give me back command of the Explorer.”
“And Admiral Nechayev has a distinct distaste for you, if I’m not mistaken,” J’hana pointed out, as she checked her controls.
“Let’s not get into that,” Baxter said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Will you help me?”
“First of all, I feel obligated to remind you that my ‘sources,’ as you call them, are in the business of killing in addition to finding.”
“So, just pay them half,” Baxter said, then caught himself. “Just be sure to tell them which half you’re paying for.”
J’hana nodded, avoiding eye-contact with Baxter. “Am I to assume this task should be undertaken…out of sensor range?”
“This stays between you and me,” Baxter said.
“Plotting a mutiny, Captain?” Vansen asked from behind Baxter, causing him to hop nearly a foot off the floor.
He swung around, quickly regaining his composure. “Captain.”
Vansen nodded. “Captain.”
“Just catching up with my crew.” He gazed at J’hana. “I’ve missed you so, you old blue softy.”
“The feeling is mutual,” J’hana said with a forced smile.
“Collecting letters of reference for your next posting?” Vansen asked, reading a padd as she walked down to the command chair and sat down. It grated Baxter’s nerves like fingernails on a chalk board (something he’d only become familiar with after his trip to the 21st century) to see Vansen sitting in his chair.
“On the contrary,” Baxter said. “I happen to think this posting will do fine.”
“Ah,” Vansen said. “Then you’re going to interview for the First Officer position?”
“Interview?” Baxter said. “Aren’t the four pips enough?”
Vansen kept reading her padd. “Nope.”
“How about the fact that I commanded this ship for six years?”
“Five, sir,” J’hana interrupted.
“Oh. Right. The Aerostar.” Baxter walked down to join Vansen in the command area. “Still. That’s a lot of time spent commanding this crew.”
“That would work against you, rather than help you, I’d think,” Vansen said. She grinned devilishly, and gazed up at him. “You’d want to work for me?”
It felt like bile in Baxter’s throat. “Yes. Sure.”
“That would give me a certain…sick pleasure.” Vansen hugged her padd close to her. “I intend mister Gage to succeed me when I move on to the admiralty. I had planned to give him the post.”
“He’s just a lieutenant.”
“You were promoted from lieutenant to captain, were you not?”
“I hardly see how.”
Baxter clenched his fists. “Fine. Keep the goddamned ship. I don’t want it. I’ll find one of my own.”
“Good luck with that,” Vansen said, waving over her shoulder as Baxter fled the bridge.
Richards spent the majority of the next four hours pacing his guest cabin. It was not as frilly as those on the Explorer, much more spartan, which seemed appropriate for a ship with an android first officer.
No, Richards corrected himself. Larkin had feelings now. She wasn’t the cold, efficient android she once was. She had moods as variant and colorful as any human being, including being in love, and he had to treat her that way.
He’d have to work up his resolve and endorse this choice of hers to be in a relationship, and show her that her father was behind her once hundred percent.
But first he needed some background information.
Richards didn’t know or trust many of the Aerostar-A crew. He was on friendly enough terms with Captain Conway, but this subject was much too sensitive for him. Richards doubted he kept track of Larkin’s dating habits anyway. Ford was a decent enough guy, but when it came to his views of women and relationships, they were antiquated and crude. He’d be no help.
So Richards went to the only other person on the Aerostar he could really trust to give him straightforward information on his daughter and her love life.
He arrived in Engineering less than an hour before Larkin was due to get off duty. Just enough time to get some serious dish before dinner.
“Lieutenant Kamtezen?” Richards asked, rounding a corner, and nearly bumped into a slim female ensign.
“Hi there,” the ensign said, and Richards grinned.
“Hastings. Jenny Hastings.”
“Nice to meet you, Ensign,” Richards said.
“I’ve heard a lot about you, sir,” Hastings said, pushing some stray whorls of blonde hair behind her ear. “Lieutenant Kamtezen speaks very highly of you.”
“He’s a good engineer,” Richards said.
“The best,” Hastings said. “But he says he owes all he knows to you.”
“Nice of him to say,” Richards said, glancing around. “Is he around, Ensign?”
“He’s with Beta Team doing a maintenance check on the port power conduit. But she…” Hastings blinked, shaking her head. “I mean he should be back any minute.”
That was odd. Richards nodded, overlooking the pronoun slip for the moment. “Mind if I wait here?”
Hastings leaned back against the master systems console at the center of the room. “I’d be delighted. Maybe you could tell me some of those stories from the Explorer. You know, the ones where you saved the day?”
“Hmm,” Richards said, wondering what exactly Kamtezen had told this woman. “Where would I possibly start?”
“How about when the Starshine Kids were surrounding Earth and you commanded the stardrive section of the Explorer. You were willing to give up the ship in order to save Earth. It was so noble!”
Richards smiled politely, and went into his recollection of events. Thank you, Kamtezen, he thought to himself.
He’d barely gotten to the Jem’Hadar attack on Doggett Three, and to Ensign Hastings’ first hint at a date, when the orange, scaly Kamtezen, along with several other engineers, hopped out of the rear maintenance hatch.
“Commander!” Kamtezen said, jogging over to Richards, tossing his toolkit over to another ensign to put away. “I had no idea you were coming down to visit Engineering.”
“Just wanted to see how an old pal was doing,” Richards said, and leaned forward gripping Kamtezen’s shoulder. “Jenny here has told me everything.” He lowered his voice. “Thank you so much. This was just what I needed to help me clear my head.”
“I’m…glad you think so,” Kamtezen said, leading Richards into his office as Hastings headed off to help the other engineers put away their equipment. “Are you sure you’re okay with it?”
“Of course I am,” Richards said, glancing out the observation window that overlooked the warp core, watching the strong gait of Ensign Hastings as she made her way to the storage locker. “Nothing like a little shipboard fling to clear the air, you know?”
“I think it’s more than a fling,” Kamtezen said.
Richards turned around. “Well, nothing’s happened yet, so it’s a little premature to…”
“You’re right!” Kamtezen said, holding up his hands. “Positively on-target. Nothing has happened yet. I swear!”
Richards cocked his head. “Are you feeling okay, Kamtezen?”
Kamtezen just nodded dumbly. “I’m not sure. Am I?”
“Anyway,” Richards said, walking over and clapping a hand on Kamtezen’s. “It’s good to see you. I’m sorry I’m not here just to catch up on what you’ve been up to. I’ve actually come seeking some information.”
“Anything,” Kamtezen said earnestly.
“Tell me who’s seeing my daughter.”
Kamtezen gulped. “So…that’s not what you were thanking me for?”
“What’s not what I was thanking you for? What? I was thanking you for telling Ensign Hastings so many nice things about me. What did you think I was thanking you for?”
Just then, the door bleeped.
“Come,” Kamtezen said in a small voice, rubbing his bald, scaly orange head.
The doors opened to reveal Commander Larkin. “Father!” she exclaimed. “I asked the computer to locate you. Actually, I interfaced with the computer. Much simpler, and more efficient, I should think.” She looked from Richards to Kamtezen. “Ah, and I see you and the new love of my life are getting acquainted. Good. I had thought this might become awkward.” She crossed the room over to Kamtezen, wrapped her arms around him, and kissed him deeply on the mouth.
Richards just watched, gaping.
Kamtezen, for his part, let out a muffled squeak.
“What do you mean there ARE no other ships?”
“Should I rephrase it for you?” Commander Solara, Superintendent of the Utopia Planetia shipyards on Mars asked, arching her eyebrow slightly on Baxter’s desktop viewer.
“I’m just…” Baxter rapped his fingers on the desk in his quarters. “I can’t believe there isn’t a single ship out there that needs a captain.”
“You are obviously not up-to-date on our current practices,” Solara said. “To be succinct, since the conflict with the Dominion, Starfleet has taken measures to put an appropriate number of ships into service to compensate for those vessels lost during the war.”
“A salvage operation.”
“In a manner of speaking. We have repaired what ships we can, and, over the last year, constructed new vessels at an impressive rate. As recent as six months ago, Starfleet Command finished the task of crewing these new ships of the fleet. This, of course, includes finding captains.”
“So all the seats are taken, that’s what you’re telling me,” Baxter said, rubbing his eyes.
Solara glanced to the side a moment, looking at another monitor. “That is not altogether correct. There is one opening, but I hestitate to mention it.”
“What is it? I’ll take anything, at this…”
Baxter’s face fell. “Anything but that.”
“I am afraid that is all we have at the moment,” Solara said, folding her hands in front of her. “Now then, if you like, I can put you on the waiting list for the captaincy of the Outlander. There have been some construction delays; but, at present, she is scheduled to launch in five months. She is also supposed to be attached to the Explorer project, so you would benefit from having served for so many years on the Explorer…I suppose.”
“No, no. I can’t wait that long.” Baxter leaned forward. “Are you sure you can’t pull some strings, Solara? You know, as a friend of a friend?”
“In point of fact, the retired Commodore Velara is my cousin, not my friend. As for your relationship with her, that is none of my concern.”
“I’d like to think we developed a good working relationship.”
“Be that as it may, I am afraid there is nothing I can do for you. You may, of course, petition the Explorer’s current captain to post you as First Officer.”
“F*** that,” Baxter muttered.
“I believe this conversation is at an end.”
“Yeah, nice catching up with you,” Baxter said, and slammed his hand down on the end-communication button.
Just then, the door to his quarters buzzed.
“What,” Baxter muttered.
His doors opened, and Dr. Browning stepped through. “Hey there, Andy.”
“Janice!” Baxter said, his expression brightening. “Come on in, sit down!”
“Can we talk?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Baxter said. “Nice to know I have one friend left on this ship.”
Browning collapsed on Baxter’s couch. “I think I should leave.”
Baxter sat down beside her, turning to face her. “Come again?”
“This is not a good environment for me to raise Plato in. Too many bad memories.”
“Like me and Christopher. Like destroying your marriage. And do you realize Guinanco took over Space Tastes? They’ve turned it into a trendy frozen yogurt stand.”
Baxter gulped. “Janice, it’s not all that bad. My marriage isn’t destroyed. Things will improve between you and Chris. And…frozen yogurt IS kind of tasty.”
Browning sighed. “It’s all my fault, Andy. All of it.” Browning looked around, exasperated. “How did we get here?”
“Temporal vortex?” Baxter suggested helpfully.
“Very funny. You know what I’m talking about.” She leaned up. “Have you seen Plato lately?”
Baxter winced. He hadn’t visited the lad since he’d been back on the Explorer. Then again, it had only been a couple days. “No,” he admitted.
“He aged, Andy! He went from adolescent to full-blown teenager in a few months. I missed a crucial part of his upbringing!”
Baxter rubbed his chin. “Damn unpredictable changeling DNA.”
“Maybe I need to reevaluate my priorities. Go somewhere where I can focus on being a good mother.”
“Any idea where that might be? Cause I’d like to join you.”
“You need to be here when Kelly gets back, silly.”
“IF she gets back.”
“She will get back,” Browning said. “I know she will.”
“You just said my marriage was destroyed.”
“I exaggerated. Everything’s going to be fine.”
Baxter thought about that. “Yeah, I suppose so.”
“You’ve barely touched your dinner, Father. Is it not to your liking? Is your stomach having difficulty digesting the synthesized waste matter? Would you like an alternative nutritional supplement?”
Richards just stared at his fork, and the prime rib dripping with au jus that sat on the end of it. “No. No, Kristen. This is fine.”
“Would you prefer a different surrounding?”
“No,” Richards said. “This was very thoughtful.”
They were seated in Baltimore’s famous “Ruth’s Chris Steak House,” eating what would have been very expensive steak dinners in the 21st century. It was a lark, Larkin had said, to have dinner back in the very century Richards had been trapped in for three weeks.
Richards didn’t really get the joke; but, then again, Larkin had an odd sense of humor even before she got emotions. Since then, it was absolutely off the chart.
“More wine?” Kametzen offered helpfully, and gestured at Richards’s empty glass with the wine bottle.
“No, I’m fine,” Richards said, holding up his other hand. “Thanks.”
“I’ll have some more,” Kamtezen volunteered, and filled his glass for what must have been the fourth time. He drank the wine eagerly.
“If only your Bewhal blood chemistry enabled you to get intoxicated,” Larkin mused, touching Kamtezen’s arm affectionately. She had no plate in front of her. As she reminded everyone, androids don’t eat. Still, it made dinner all the more awkward.
“It’s worth a try,” Kamtezen said.
“So,” Richards finally said, putting his fork down. “How long has this…” He gestured from Larkin to Kamtezen. “Been going on?”
“About six weeks,” Larkin said. “Since the time I began working on the investigation into your disappearance in earnest.” She glanced at the Bewhal, her lip trembling. “He was so supportive, so helpful as I dealt with my conflicting emotions.”
“I trace it back even earlier than that,” Kamtezen said, leaning over and kissing Larkin on the cheek. “She had a bit of a…breakdown…about three months ago.”
“I went insane when I found out you had disappeared,” Larkin explained.
“She had to be…neutralized.”
“Doctor Benzra ripped me in half.”
Richards nearly choked on his prime rib. “Ripped you in half?!”
Larkin nodded. “Kamtezen was in charge of putting me back together.”
“I relied on a lot of your old diagrams, Chris,” Kamtezen explained. “And, as I looked deeper into Larkin’s background, your logs describing the construction of her brain, and the reconstruction of her body. The whole mission to Crysta, when you thought you’d lost her. Reading those logs, I began to develop feelings for her.”
“Feelings he expressed after a particularly stressful staff meeting on Stardate 56984.”
“You’re so exact,” Kamtezen said, gently covering Larkin’s hand with his. “You can see why I’m so taken with her, Commander.”
“Yes,” Richards said. “Please, um, call me Chris.”
“If you say so, Chris, I’d be happy to.”
Truth was, they made a nice couple. It did make a certain sense, Larkin ending up with an Engineer. He was an engineer, too, and, as such, knew more about the inner workings of Larkin than most, so…
“Are you two having sex?” Richards blurted.
Kamtzen blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Father, that is a highly inappropriate question,” Larkin said. “My emotion program is registering extreme offense.”
“I’m sorry,” Richards said. “I meant it as more of a…technical question, rather than a personal one. See, I didn’t design you for repeated…”
Kamtezen allowed a small grin. “I made a few alterations.”
“ALTERATIONS?” Richards exploded, standing up.
“You know, reinforced things, added gaskets and seals in the right places. The recycling system in itself is something of a work of art, if I do say so…” He glanced up to see a nearly-frothing Richards looming over him.
“Computer, end program,” Richards growled, and with a yelp Kamtezen fell to the floor as the table and chairs disappeared out from around him. Larkin, for her part, was still in a seated position, without the benefit of a chair. She then stood, and approached Richards.
“I believe the appropriate action on your part now would be to go,” she said quietly, then turned to see to Kamtezen.
“Kam, are you okay?”
Kam? Richards shook his head. “I’m out of here.”
Kamtezen just watched Richards walk out of the holodeck as Larkin leaned over him.
“Was it something I said?” he asked.
“No,” Larkin said, rubbing his smooth, scaly head. “You were just perfect, Kam. Father just needs time to adjust.”
“You just need time to adjust,” Counselor Ryn Trista said, sitting beside Baxter in the Constellation Club, as Baxter nursed yet another Vodka ‘n Grapefruit.
“Did I ask you?” Baxter slurred, looking up at Ryn.
“Not as such, no. But you appeared in need of counseling, so I sat down to…”
“I’m not interested in your analysis.”
“Perhaps you will be more clear-headed in the morning,” Ryn said. “I’ve taken the liberty to schedule you for a counseling session at oh-eight hundred.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Baxter said flatly.
“I’m afraid it’s not your choice. If you intend to remain in Starfleet, you must have an official reevaluation of your mental state. It’s standard procedure for all time-displaced persons, but I think it’s even more important for you. You’ve come back to a time and place that aren’t quite familiar, and it’s bound to be disorienting. You don’t know how you fit in anymore. That’s normal. We need to explore that.”
“Explore…” Baxter said distantly.
“I’ll see you in the morning, Captain,” she said. “I assure you, everything will be fine.”
Just then, the Red Alert sirens blared throughout the Constellation Club.
“Vansen to Senior Staff. Please report to the bridge. And no, Baxter, that doesn’t mean you…”
“Damn it,” Baxter said, and shoved out of his chair. He staggered toward the door to the Club. “I’ve got to get up there.”
“I wouldn’t recommend…” Ryn began, but her voice trailed off as Baxter ran down the corridor toward the nearest turbolift.
“What have we got?” Baxter asked as he stepped out of the turbolift.
“An intruder on the bridge,” Vansen said from the command chair. “J’hana, shoot him.”
At tactical, J’hana idly fingered the handle of the phaser on her belt. “Hmm…not, I think, today.”
Vansen groaned. “I figured you’d have a moral dilemma with that.” She sighed. “Fine, Captain. Come down here and have a seat. Just don’t get in the way.”
“Thanks for the invitation,” Baxter muttered, and walked down to the command area. Vansen was in the center seat, naturally, with Lt. Jeremy Gage seated to her right. The only seat left was the one at her left, which had been Kelly’s. More recently, it had been Vansen’s. But not anymore. Grudgingly, Baxter sat down in the seat at Vansen’s left.
Vansen looked down at the readouts on her chair arm. “To make a long story short, the Gorn have captured a Starfleet ship just on the other side of their border. We don’t know what type of ship yet, but apparently its mission is classified and highly important to the security of the Federation. We’re being sent to negotiate for the release of the prisoners.”
“Isn’t that a bit of a departure from what we normally do?”
Vansen narrowed her eyes at Baxter. “We’re Starfleet officers. We go where we’re sent.”
“Whatever,” Baxter mumbled.
“Time to the border, Ensign Ayalla?” Vansen asked of Ensign Ayalla, the bald Deltan woman, who sat at the conn station. Baxter thought Deltans were supposed to be the most alluring, gorgeous women in the galaxy. Ayalla was attractive enough, but nothing to write home about. Baxter wondered if all that Deltan stuff had been exaggerated.
“Thirteen minutes at our current speed of Warp Nine,” the woman said in a rich, soothing, exotic accent.
“Sorry, Ensign, I didn’t get your name,” Baxter said.
“We did add some new crewmembers in the last three months,” Vansen said. “It’s bound to happen.”
“Of course,” Baxter said tersely. “Welcome aboard, Ayalla,” he called to the helmsperson.
“Thank you, Captain,” Ayalla said, turning and looking at Baxter. “You should know, I’ve taken a vow of celibacy, so…”
“Oh.” Ayalla seemed off-put, then turned back to face the helm.
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel all warm and fuzzy,” Vansen said.
“I don’t feel warm and fuzzy, Captain,” Gage said quietly from his seat at Vansen’s right.
“I was kidding,” Vansen said. “Lighten up.”
“Yes, ma’am. Immediately.”
Vansen turned to Baxter. “Did I mention he’ll make a great First Officer?”
“I guess you’ve got it all planned out,” Baxter said. “Step in, take my job, fill all the remaining slots. Run me off my own ship.”
“It’s nothing personal, Captain,” Vansen said. “I just don’t like you, that’s all.”
“The feeling’s mutual,” Baxter said.
“Then let’s dispense with the bullshit posturing, and let’s figure out a way for me to move you and your dysfunctional family off this ship as soon as possible.”
“Before or after we settle the Gorn crisis?”
“After,” Vansen said. “Soon after.”
“Just want to make sure we have our priorities in order,” Baxter said.
Vansen laughed. “Don’t presume to tell me anything about priorities, Baxter. How about you be a good boy and stay quiet the rest of the trip?”
“How about you be a good girl and rot in h–”
“Black hole!” Tilleran suddenly announced, looking up from her sensors.
“What?” Vansen asked, turning.
“Oh, nothing,” Tilleran said, glancing at her panel again. “Must’ve been a sensor glitch.” She glared at Baxter, and mouthed “Be nice!”
Baxter groaned. “This whole thing is ridiculous.”
“This whole thing is ridiculous,” Richards said, pacing back and forth in Captain Conway’s readyroom.
“What thing?” Conway asked, leaning back in his chair. “The part about Larkin having romantic feelings for one of the crew, or the sex part?”
“Both parts,” Richards said. “But especially the sex.” He shuddered.
“All little girls grow up to be little women, at some point,” Conway sighed.
“What’s that?” Richards asked, turning.
“Oh, some stupid book Alexa is making me read. I swear to God, she’s trying to make me sensitive or some damn stupid thing.”
“I can see it’s working wonders.”
“You’re one to talk. Pulling the chair out from under poor Lieutenant Kamtezen like that.”
“It wasn’t on purpose,” Richards said.
“At any rate, I guess it’s only fitting you tap him on the ass, considering he’s done the same to…”
Richards turned a fiery glare on Conway.
“Anyways…” Conway trailed off.
“I need to do something. I need to stop her before she makes a huge mistake.”
“Like what? Like falling in love?” Conway stood up, walked over to join Richards in staring out the oval viewport that looked out at streaking stars. “We all deserve to find love in this life, Commander. Even me. And if I can find love, anybody can.”
“She really has turned you into a softie,” Richards said. “It’s kind of pathetic.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Conway sighed. “Look, you want me to tell you it’s not okay for Larkin to be dating Kamtezen? I can’t tell you that. I for one think it’s healthy. If the crew’s busy fraternizing, it means they’re not bothering me, and that makes me very happy.”
“I’m just not ready yet,” Richards said.
“Not ready for Larkin to be in love,” Conway asked. “Or not ready to be in love yourself?”
Richards looked at Conway. “What?”
“Doctor Browning stopped by to see me before she left. Ouch, buddy.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“We talked. About you, your wedding plans with Madera, the whole thing. She still loves you, Richards. Can’t believe you’re too dense to see that. I mean, for Pete’s sake, the whole thing with me was just a passing fancy. She’d no sooner end up with me than she would with Andy Baxter.”
Richards opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it.
“You and her are meant to be together, Chris. You’ll save the rest of us a whole lot of time and trouble if you just realize that and get on with it.”
“Marriage didn’t make you sensitive, it made you crazy,” Richards said, and headed for the readyroom door.
“Always glad to help,” Conway called after Richards, just as the comm system beeped.
“Bridge to Conway,” came Lt. Commander Ford’s voice. “You’re needed out here, sir. We may have…a…something on our hands.”
Richards had already left the bridge by the time Conway got out to his command chair. “Please tell me it’s worth getting me off my ass,” he muttered.
“You tell me,” Ford said as he headed back to the helm station and relieved Ensign Garrity. “We’re getting word of Cardassian privateer ships attacking a Breen cruiser in Sector 21928.”
“Damn it,” Conway muttered. “This Cardassian dust-up is getting worse by the month. Starfleet’s got to do something about it.”
“Meantime, the Breen ship is taking heavy damage, and the mercenaries don’t seem to be moving off,” Ford said. “We’re the closest ship.”
“Lay in a course for intercept. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have anything better to do today.”
“Pick up your wife from her Cardassian fact-finding mission?” Ford suggested.
“Oh, yeah. That was supposed to be today, wasn’t it? Well, we’ll stop the privateers, then head to Cardassia in time for dinner. It won’t kill Alexa to wait a bit.”
“You’re a good husband, sir.”
Browning stared at Plato across a dinner table laden with food. She’d gone a little overboard on the replicator. Then again, in times of emotional upheaval, she tended to eat a little more (which was saying a lot).
“You barely touched your ham steak, Plato,” Browning said, indicating a plate filled with slabs of ham.
“I’m still working on the turkey, Mom,” the taller, broader, and overall more mature looking Plato said as he picked at the food on his plate.
“You seem distracted,” Browning said, as she got an extra helping of wild rice.
“You’ve been moping around all day. You’ve barely said a word to me.”
“I’ve just been thinking about stuff.”
Browning nodded as she ate. “Care to tell me what?”
Plato shrugged. “Nah.”
Browning nodded. “I see. I guess you think I wouldn’t understand?”
“It’s no big deal.”
“Well, I think it’s a big deal. I’ve been away from you for three weeks, Plato,” Browning said, putting her utensils down and leaning forward. “Moreover, three months have passed for you since I’ve been gone, and what’s worse, you’ve gone from boy to man in the time I’ve been gone. We have so much catching up to do…”
“I’m not a man yet,” Plato said. “Far from it. Just a…just a boy.” He sighed.
“You seem very mature,” Browning said. “I’d think we’d have a whole lot to talk about. About how you spent your time since I left…”
“I spent a lot of time with Megan.”
“Lieutenant Commander Hartley. Yes, I understand she and Mirk took you in,” Browning said. “That was very nice of them. Did you have a good time with the Hartleys?”
Plato shrugged. “I guess. Megan’s cool. Mirk taught me how to mix drinks.”
Browning’s eyes wideend. “Alcoholic drinks?”
“Yeah, he said he’d been doing it since he was thirteen.”
“Well, he comes from a very different culture from ours.”
Plato looked at Browning. “I came from a thousand-year-old culture that tried to enslave the Alpha Quadrant, Mom.”
“You’re half-right,” Browning said. “The other half is me. Human.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Plato resumed picking at his plate.
“Is that what this is about? You want to reconnect with your Changeling roots? I’m sure we can arrange a talk with Mister Odo. I think the Pathfinder is doing another tour in the Gamma Quadrant. We could send you off to stay with…er, Auntie Lucille, I suppose.”
“No,” Plato said. “That’s okay. I’ve been writing to Mister Odo.”
“Really? What has he had to say?”
“Stuff,” Plato said, and shrugged. “Can I go now?”
“Go?” Browning asked. “Where?”
“Lieutenant Madera’s band is playing in the Constellation Club. I want to see them.”
“The Constellation Club? I don’t know, son. That’s a little…”
“I won’t be long. Thanks!” Plato said, leaned forward, and gave Browning a peck on the forehead. “Later, Mom!”
Browning just sat there in her empty quarters a moment.
“When did I lose control?” she muttered to herself, and continued eating.
“Take us out of warp,” Vansen said, standing as the Explorer sailed into open space, just outside the Gorn border. “Scan for Gorn vessels.”
“Scanning,” Tilleran said.
Baxter stood up too, and wandered over to tactical. “J’hana,” he said casually. “How’s it going?”
J’hana tapped at her controls. “It, as you say, is going fine.”
“Any leads yet?”
“On my father’s whereabouts.”
“No,” J’hana said. “It would seem, if your father is indeed in hiding, he doesn’t want to be found.”
“Well, that just doesn’t make sense. By all accounts, he ran himself ragged trying to find a way to find me and bring me back from the past. Why would he just run off after that task was accomplished?”
“I’m sure I don’t know.”
“Care to share with the rest of the class?” Vansen asked, glancing over her shoulder. “I would be very interested to know if you were discussing whether or not that Type Three Gorn Destroyer out there was hailing us or targeting us with his weapons.”
“Oh,” J’hana said. She glanced again at her panel. “They are hailing us.”
“Be nice,” Baxter shot back at Vansen, and walked down to join her at the center of the bridge.
“Just shut up and stay out of my way,” Vansen growled, then pasted on a fake smile as the creepy, lizard-like face of a Gorn appeared on the viewscreen.
“Greetings,” the Gorn hissed. “I am Daveth Lerath. I command the Destroyer Keritas.”
“Pleased to meet you, Daveth,” Vansen said. “Is that nomenclature akin to an ambassador?”
“In a sense,” Lerath replied. “Except I understand that your ambassadors don’t eat their adversaries if negotiations fail.”
Baxter hoped he was joking.
“Not usually,” Vansen said, not missing a beat. “Then again, my negotiations have never failed, so I wouldn’t know.”
“You’re cocky. I like that.”
“I was hoping you would,” Vansen said. “Now let’s get down to business. I believe you have something we want.”
“Yes,” Lerath replied. “And you, in turn, have something we want.”
“And that would be?”
“The Minkta, and her crew,” Captain Baxter said from behind Vansen, who glared at him. “Captain Harth and his men.”
“Predator-in-Chief Harth,” Lerath said, and nodded. “Yes, that’s correct. We understand his ship and crew have been in Federation custody for over a year now. We demand he be returned to us at once. Then we can talk about returning your people.”
“No way,” Baxter said. “Harth assaulted a Starfleet captain and tried to take over her ship. My ship too.”
“My ship,” Vansen said, elbowing Baxter aside and stepping forward. “And I believe what my subordinate is trying to say is that we’d be delighted to review your offer and talk it over with Starfleet Command.”
“Make sure you mention to them that the vessel we confiscated is no more a courier ship than my vessel is,” Lerath said. “It is a Sabre class. And we all know your Sabre class is built purely for battle.”
“I’ll share that with Starfleet Command,” Vansen said.
“Don’t take too long,” Lerath said. “They haven’t had anything to eat in some time.”
“You aren’t feeding the prisoners?” Vansen asked.
“No,” Lerath said, with a hearty laugh. “I was speaking of the prison guards. Lerath out.”
Baxter clenched his fists. “We have to get them out of there.” He turned toward J’hana. “Lieutenant, assemble a strike team. I want the Escort prepped and ready to go in…”
“Just one second!” Vansen snapped, grabbing Baxter by the shoulder and whirling him. “Where do you think you are?”
“On my bridge,” Baxter replied.
“Cute,” Vansen said. “But it is very clearly my bridge. And, as such, we operate by my rules. No strike force. Not yet. We’re going to seek out a diplomatic end to this. That may actually end up in a successful mission. You do know what one of those is, don’t you?”
“God damn you, Vansen…”
“I love you too,” Vansen muttered, and turned on a heel. “Mister Sefelt, contact Starfleet Command. Advise them of the situation and request orders. I’ll be in MY readyroom.” She glared over her shoulder at Baxter as she stepped up to the back of the bridge and ducked into the readyroom, adding, “Gage, you have the bridge.”
“Damn her, damn her, damn her!” Baxter growled, and sat down in the command chair.
“Excuse me, sir,” Gage said, nudging Baxter. “I believe Captain Vansen said I have the bridge.”
Baxter glared at him.
“Right. I’ll just command from here. That’s fine.”
Captain Conway sat, arms folded, in the command chair as the Aerostar streaked toward Sector 21928. Beside him, Commander Larkin sat, cracking her knuckles.
“Look,” Conway finally said, breaking the silence. “Is something bothering you?”
“Why would you think that?” Larkin asked as she cracked.
“You’re cracking your knuckles.”
“All humans do it. It is an activity one does to quiet one’s nerves.”
“You’re not human. And you don’t have any nerves.”
“Touche.” Larkin showed Conway her hands. “However, Lieutenant Kamtezen has installed new knuckles, which are crackable.”
“That’s excellent,” Conway said. “But you do realize that humans can’t crack their knuckles twenty times a minute for a half hour straight.”
“I did not know my behavior was bothering you, sir. I will stop.”
“No, that’s not it. Well, yeah, it’s disturbing. But I have a feeling I know what this is about.”
Conway stared up at the ceiling. “Why’d I let that man on my ship? Family visits always screw things up.”
“He does not approve of my relationship with Lieutenant Kamtezen. Perhaps he feels I should find another mate.”
Conway bristled at the word “mate.” “Look, Larkin. He’s just having a tough time with this. He’ll come around, I’m sure.”
“I did not exactly like the fact that he dated the woman on whom my design was based.”
“Kris Larkin. Is that what this is all about? Revenge?”
“Indeed not. Although I have revenge protocols, they are not operating at present.”
“I am merely expAlexang this aspect of humanity.”
“But you could give a vole’s ass about humanity, Larkin. You’ve said so dozens of times.”
Larkin nodded. “True. However, after our visit to the future, at which point I saw my future self, a computer with no body, on a world populated by penguins that did her bidding, I found the whole experience somewhat…hollow.”
“So you’re giving humanity another shot?”
“That is the least it deserves. And, because the existence of human kind is largely based on sexual intercourse, I felt it best that I engage in that activity, to further my research.”
“Does Lieutenant Kamtezen realize he’s nothing more than your…science project?”
“The parameters of our relationship exceed experimentation, Captain. They have been well defined. We are secure in our love.”
Conway nodded. “That’s nice to know.”
“But I fear the relationship is the least of my worries. If Commander Richards does not approve of my love for Kam, and if I do in fact love Commander Richards as well…”
“Sounds like a paradox to me.”
“It has become quite a problem. It has significantly reduced my processing speed. By at least one-eighth of a nanosecond.”
“That is a problem,” Conway mused, rubbing his chin.
“Entering Sector 21928,” Lt. Commander Ford announced from helm. “Would the captain and first officer kindly stop talking about sex and return to the task at hand?”
“Not getting any, Ford?” Conway asked.
“Not at the moment sir. I haven’t been as lucky with women here as I was on the Explorer.”
Conway stiffened. “As you were, mister.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of, sir. I’m not getting laid as I once were.”
Conway sighed. “Just take us out of warp, for Pete’s…”
Larkin looked down at the sensor panel beside her chair. “Picking up a distress call from the second planet in the Beltora system. It is Breen, Captain.”
“Ford, set a course for that distress call, full impulse.” Conway pivoted toward Gellar at tactical. “Any sign of those Cardassians?”
“No, sir,” Gellar said. “The board’s clear. If they were here, they must have ducked out before we pulled into sensor range.”
“They’ll beat up on a defenseless transport, but they scatter when the big guns arrive,” Conway said. “Typical of mercenaries.”
“Big guns, sir?” Larkin said.
“Fascinating. Commanding a starship, for you, compensates for a measurable inadequacy on your part…”
“Let’s get on task here,” Conway said, clapping his hands together. “Stations, people. We’ve got a rescue mission to put together…” He glared at Larkin. “And a topic to avoid at all costs.”
Doctor Browning stepped through the double doors to the Constellation Club, and was immediately assaulted by the booming sounds of harp, keyboards, and electric guitars.
“What the hell is that?” she asked, pushing through a throng of thrashing music fans, presumably Explorer crew, to get to the bar.
“That is Explorer Starship,” Mirk said. “Lieutenant Madera’s band. I think they have a great sound. Kind of a mix of synth-funk and electro- boogie.”
Browning nodded, glancing up at the stage, where Madera strummed her harp, accompanied by Ensign Brian Stockton on keyboards, Yeoman Jack Tunney playing the bongos, and Crewman Brock on the electric guitar. Browning wasn’t certain, but she could swear Tunney was giving funny looks to Brock, who was wearing only a tight tanktop and tight leather pants.
“Have you seen Plato?” she asked, leaning on the bar.
Mirk nodded. “He’s up with Megan, near the front row. I swear, those two have a great time together. If she wasn’t old enough to be his mother, I’d be concerned.”
“She’s almost old enough to be YOUR mother, Mirk.”
“Details,” Mirk said. “Want a drink?”
“No, but I may afterward. I’ll let you know,” Browning said, as she gently pushed through the crowd.
After a few elbows–some given, some received–Browning arrived at the front of the crowd, where Plato and Hartley were swaying to the music, arm-in-arm.
“Mom!” Plato exclaimed.
Hartley looked at Plato, then at Browning.
“Doctor,” she called above the music, smiling, wearing an offduty olive-colored tankdress. “Hope you don’t mind me borrowing your son for a night out on the ship.”
“Actually, I kind of hoped Plato and I could spend the evening catching up!” Browning called over the music.
“Oh,” Hartley said, untangling her arm from Plato’s. “That’s understandable! Plato, go! Be with your mom!”
Plato looked at Hartley. “But I was having fun!”
“You’ll have fun with your mom.” She waved him away. “Go on. Get!”
Plato glared at Browning and shoved his way back toward the exit.
“Thanks,” Browning fairly shouted. “For everything!”
Hartley just shrugged at Browning, and continued swaying to the music.
But as Browning left, Hartley followed her with her eyes. And even though she kept dancing, truth be told, her heart wasn’t really in it anymore.
Richards walked into Engineering, and was met with a flurry of activity.
“Coil spanners, and lots of isolinear cable. We don’t know what we’re going to be dealing with over there. So it pays to be prepared,” Kamtezen was saying to his engineering crew, as the group milled about Engineering, no doubt readying for some important mission.
“Lieutenant,” Richards said. “Can we talk?”
Kamtezen quickly averted his eyes from Richards. “I’m a little busy, sir.”
Just then, Ensign Hastings shoved by Richards, holding a toolkit. “Excuse me.” Then she turned around, her ponytail almost flopping Richards in the face. “You know, I thought you were a great guy. Kam respected you. And you literally pulled the chair out from under him.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“If you care about your daughter at all, you should be glad she’s with a guy as nice as Kam. There aren’t many like him out there. And I guess there’s one less than I thought.” With that, she walked off.
“Sorry,” Kamtezen said, busy loading diagnostics into a padd. “Yes, you said that.”
“Look, I want to make things up to you. I want to try and give this thing a chance.”
“Maybe we can talk about this later,” Kamtezen said. “I have to get over to that Breen ship now. The Cardassians laid into her pretty bad. They’re losing life support and may be headed for a warp core breach.”
Richards nodded. “Cracked crystals?”
“You’ll need an isodyne coupler model 380.”
“We carry the 490 around here, actually. Much higher transfer rate.”
“Uh-huh,” Richards said. “Look, do you need an extra hand?”
Kamtezen thought about that. “We can always use another good engineer.”
Richards smiled as he shook Kamtezen’s hand. At last, a problem he could actually solve.
Richards, Kamtezen, and the engineering team materialized aboard the darkened Breen ship, turning on their palm beacons immediately to illuminate the silver and green corridors.
“Hastings, you and Venturi check life support. Richards, you me and the others are going for main engineering. We’ve got to get that core situation under control.”
Richards nodded, following Kamtezen and the others down the empty corridors.
“Where do you think everyone is?” he asked.
That’s when a door opened up, and a helmeted, metal-suited Breen lept out, slamming into Richards and knocking him to the floor.
“BRATTTTTTTT!” it announced.
“Found one,” Richards croaked.
Kamtezen withdrew his phaser as two crew helped push the Breen off Richards.
“We come in peace,” Kamtezen said, looking the Breen right in the…visor. “Do you understand me?” He showed him the phaser, then holstered it, and showed the Breen his empty hands. “Peace! You see?”
The Breen stared at Kamtezen and Richards a moment, then made a dull “Grart” sound, and barreled down the corridor at a fast clip.
“Guess he’s leading the way,” Kamtezen said, and gestured for Richards and the others to follow.
“Away team, this is Aerostar,” Conway said, leaning forward in his chair. “Status?”
“Moving along nicely now, Captain,” came the voice of Chris Richards. “We sealed the breach, and are just making minor repairs to the warp core casing. We should be able to get the Breen on their way in the next few hours.”
“Father?” Larkin exclaimed. “What are you doing over there?”
“Helping out, Larkin,” Richards said. “Which is what I should have done all along, instead of just getting in the way. I’m…sorry.”
“I am sorry as well, Father. I could have given you the news of my new love interest in a more…palatable way.”
“Don’t worry about it, Larkin. What’s say we finish up here and we’ll…”
Conway glanced at Gellar. “Lieutenant, what happened to that signal?”
“Jammed, sir,” Gellar said, his hands working over the tactical panel.;
“Source?” Larkin demanded.
“Four ships. Cardassian, Kelden-class, heading this way,” Gellar said.
“Damn it,” Conway said. “They didn’t retreat when we came. They went to go find friends.”
“So it would seem,” Larkin said gravely.
“Shields up,” Conway said. “Arm phasers and quantum torpedoes. Put us between those ships and the Breen vessel.”
Ford obediently steered the Aerostar around, just as the four Cardassian ships bore down on the Aerostar, weapons firing.
“Return fire, all weapons, multiple targets!” Conway ordered, as he felt the vessel shake and sway. “Who the hell is giving them weapons? They couldn’t be coming up with firepower like that on their own!”
“In another time, if it were another race, I would say it was the Cardassians,” Larkin said. “As that is obviously not the case, I suspect another race must be equipping the Cardassians with weapons.”
“Brilliant,” Conway said. “F***ing brilliant. Evasive maneuvers. Keep our flanks facing them. Don’t let them get at that Breen ship!”
“Aye, sir!” Ford called out, pulling the ship into a tight turn as the Cardassian ships angled around for another past, raining down weapons fire on both ships.
“Extend shields!” Larkin ordered.
“Hard to do, when they’re taking a beating!” Gellar called out.
“Do what you can!” Conway said.
Larkin held on as the Aerostar shook, hoping desperately that the two most beloved men in her life would get through this in one piece.
“More power to shields,” Richards called out, crossing the cramped Breen engine room, gesturing to the three Breen they’d run across. The translation matrix was spotty at best. He wasn’t sure if the Breen would know to divert power to or away from warp core containment. And he wasn’t even sure what polarity a Breen power conduit worked from.
Yet, still, he and Kamtezen, and the rest of the engineering crew worked feverishly.
The Breen ship shook.
“Where did they come from?” Richards said, holding a console as the shaking threatened to pull his feet out from under him.
“I don’t know. But they took us completely by surprise.”
“I know how that feels,” Richards said.
Kamtezen’s eyes went wide. “Power spike across the board! The crystal cracked again. Containment field fluctuating!”
Richards turned toward the thrumming warp core chamber, and the access hatch directly beneath it. “Damn it! Somebody has to get in that chamber and rearticulate the crystal.”
“With the radiation pouring off that core, I wouldn’t recommend it,” Kamtezen said.
“The Breen suits probably protect against that radiation,” Richards mused.
“Yeah,” Kamtezen said. “But we have no way of telling them what needs to be done. And, truth be told, I’m not sure these guys are so mechanically inclined.”
“Then there’s only one thing we can do,” Richards said. He clapped his hands on Kamtezen’s shoulders and looked him in the eye. “Strip for me!”
“Plato, come back here!” Browning called, jogging down the corridor after Plato. She thanked the Great Bird she’d done all that jogging over the years. Not only was she fleet of foot, but she had the Explorer corridors memorized. Plato wasn’t getting away that easily.
But the boy was fast.
“Plato!” she called. “We need to talk!”
Up ahead, she heard heavy double doors open and close. She went to her mental image of the Explorer’s layout and gasped suddenly. There was only one place he could have gone.
She arrived at the doors, punched in every code she knew, but couldn’t get them to open.
“Damn!” She tapped her combadge. “Browning to bridge. Lock down the shuttlebay!”
“Janice?” Baxter asked over the comm channel.
“I think Plato’s trying to steal a shuttlecraft.”
Vansen covered her face. “Not again.”
“He’s done this before?”
“He’s quite good with mechanics,” Vansen said. “Whenever he gets flustered, he heads off in a shuttle to go cool off. I’ve given him a dozen stern lectures on it, but it doesn’t seem to help. I’d have thrown him off the ship if I didn’t like the damn kid. But this is the worst time possible for a stunt like this.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “Because…”
“Captain!” J’hana exclaimed. Vansen and Baxter both turned to face her. “We have a shuttlecraft leaving bay one. Somebody overrode the lockouts.”
“Little scamp,” Baxter muttered.
“That little scamp is about to get abducted by that massive Gorn destroyer out there if we don’t reel him back in!” Vansen exclaimed.
“Do it,” Baxter called back to J’hana. “Tractor beams.”
“He’s already out of range. Heading into Gorn territory.”
“Damn it,” Baxter said. “Pursuit course.”
“You’re in no position to give orders around here anymore,” Vansen said, and Baxter felt as if he’d just been given a verbal vasectomy. Vansen then went over to the conn, resting her hands on the chair. “Ensign Ayalla, pursuit course. Full impulse. Sefelt, raise the Gorn. Inform them of the situation.”
Sefelt pulled on his collar nervously. “Uh-huh. Which is?”
“Escaped half-breed changeling.”
“That’s a new one,” Sefelt said, as he tapped at his console.
Baxter looked back at J’hana. “Why aren’t you running the comm system anymore?”
J’hana shrugged. “The Captain felt that diplomacy was not my strong suit.”
Moments later, Daveth Lerath was on the viewscreen, eyes, well, bugging. “Captain Vansen! This trespass into our realm is unacceptable. Have your reconnaissance vehicle turn around immediately.”
“That reconnaissance vehicle is being piloted by the son of one of our crew. He’s a harmless boy just blowing off some steam. We ask you, we implore you, to let us clean up this mess ourselves and return to our space. Then we can recommence negotiations.”
“Unacceptable,” the Gorn said. “You will concede to our demands and release Harth, his crew, and his ship, immediately, or we will destroy the shuttle.”
J’hana looked up from her panel. “The Keritas is moving toward the shuttle. Arming weapons. Sir…sirs…she has us beat by several kilometers.”
“But she’s in weapons range,” Baxter said. “Arm phasers and photon torpdeos.”
“Are you crazy?” Vansen asked. “We fire on a Gorn vessel, and the Federation is at war.”
“We don’t fire, and they fire on Plato, and that can’t happen,” Baxter replied, standing toe to toe with Vansen.
“I need another option,” Vansen said, returning to the center of the bridge, waving Baxter off as if he didn’t exist.
“Perhaps we should give them what they want,” Gage suggested.
“We haven’t heard from the Federation yet,” Vansen said.
“Keritas closing on the shuttle. Weapons range in five, four, three…”
“Do it, Vansen!” Baxter said. “A Captain is supposed to make snap decisions. Be a leader and make a f***ing decision, before it’s too late!”
Vansen didn’t even look at Baxter. “Sefelt, open a channel. Keritas, this is Explorer. We agree to your demands. The Minkta and crew will be released to you within the week.”
There was a long pause, and only the soft subspace static over the speakers could be heard on the bridge.
“Explorer, this is Keritas. That would be…acceptable.” Baxter could almost hear the smile on Lerath’s lips. “Return to your side of the border. We shall deliver your wayward shuttle to you, as well as the ‘courier’ vessel.”
“With the kid in one piece…” Baxter said.
“If you wish,” Lerath replied. “And be glad I was in a good mood today, or else matters might have turned out much differently.”
Vansen turned around and sank in her command chair. “Starfleet’s going to have me over a fence for this.”
“That’s the price of sitting in the big chair,” Baxter said, sitting down next to Vansen. “Still want to sit there?”
“More than you know,” Vansen said. “Find another ship, Baxter. This one’s mine.”
Baxter folded his arms. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“This will be fun,” J’hana whispered to Tilleran.
“Fire again!” Conway called out, watching the upper and lower aft sections of the Aerostar shoot off in different directions, running the three of the four Cardassian ships off with rapid-fire phaser blasts. “All modules, fire all weapons. Multiple vectors, full spread!”
“It is working, sir,” Larkin said. “Whoever designed multivector assault mode was not entirely insane, after all.”
“Thank goodness,” Conway said, as he watched the last Cardassian ship pitch and yawn under the barrage of the Aerostar saucer’s weapons. “Hold fire and hail that ship. Tell them to surrender and prepare to be boarded.”
Gellar checked his panel. “Getting no response, sir.” He looked again. “Oh, wait. Here comes one: ‘Die human scum.’”
Conway and Larkin exchanged glances. “That’s not good.”
“Warp core spike!” Gellar called out.
Conway lept to his feet. “Ford, get us out of here!”
The Aerostar saucer veered steep to port just as the last Kelden- class ship erupted in a blaze of white light.
After the shock wave passed, Conway fell back into his chair. “Whew, that was close.”
“That behavior was atypical of interstellar privateers,” Larkin said.
“Yeah,” Conway grunted. “These aren’t just bandits we’re dealing with. This is personal.”
Larkin nodded. “Indeed.”
Conway looked up at ops. “Status on the Breen ship?”
Lt. Saral looked over her readouts. “Heading once again for warp core breach, sir.”
“Damn it all,” Conway said. “Transporters, I want you to…”
“Stand by,” Saral said.
Several moments passed.
“Well?” Conway blurted.
“The breach has been averted.”
“Whew,” Conway said again, and leaned back against his chair. “That’s a relief.”
“However, there seems to be one fewer human lifesign. And no Bewhal life signs at all.”
Baxter tried not to stare at Plato as he sat opposite him on Janice Browning’s couch. It was amazing. The guy looked like he’d aged four or five years in the three months he’d been away. He barely recognized him. Not only that, but he didn’t look at Baxter with awe or love, like he had before. Now it was more like grim determination, even aloofness. Baxter wondered if it was really worth staying on the Explorer after all.
“You could have been killed,” Browning sniffled from behind Baxter, pacing.
Baxter knelt by Plato. “You realize you can’t go off on shuttles anytime you want, right, buddy?”
“I’m not a little boy anymore, Andy.” No “uncle.” Baxter winced. “You don’t have to call me buddy. You don’t have to sugarcoat things. I know I did wrong.”
“And you’re not going to do it again,” Baxter said. “Not without consequences. We can’t protect you from Vansen while she’s in command.”
“You don’t need to protect me from Captain Vansen,” Plato said. “I can take care of myself. That’s why I ran off. I just feel like, sometimes, I need to go. I need to run…”
“Well, you can do that on the ship, or in a holodeck,” Browning said. “But you can’t leave the ship whenever you want. Not without some supervision.”
“Unless I leave permanently,” Plato said, folding his arms. “Unless I go back to live with the Changelings.”
“Is that what you really want?” Baxter asked. “To go back to the Gamma Quadrant?”
He angled his eyes at Browning, shrugged. “Not really.”
“Then what do you want, son?” Baxter asked, standing up.
“To be treated like a man,” Plato said. “For you to deal straight with me.”
“That’s fair,” Browning said.
Baxter sighed. “We’re still out of sorts here, your mom and me. We’ve only been back a few days. It’s going to take some time for all of us to adjust to things around here.”
“Yeah,” Plato said, looking down. He looked up. “Say, where’s Kelly? And Chris?”
Browning and Baxter looked at each other.
“I’ll let you field that one, Janice.” He headed toward the door. “I’ve got to see a woman about a ship.”
“Say, Andy,” Plato called out as Baxter headed toward the door.
“If you really want to, I guess we could go fishing or something tomorrow. You know, whatever.”
Baxter smiled. “All right.”
Browning sighed as Baxter left. “Now then,” she said. “Maybe I do need to stop treating you like a little kid. Let’s set up a curfew. Something reasonable. And before curfew, you can go wherever you want.” Plato’s eyes lit up. “As long as it’s on the ship. And doesn’t put you in imminent danger.”
“The Breen vessel is hailing us,” Gellar said.
Conway leaned forward. “On screen.”
Two Breen in environmental suits appeared on the screen, squarking in that familiar metallic tone that so grated on Conway’s nerves. He hated dealing with the Breen.
“Get on with it,” he growled. “Tell me my people are dead. I can handle it.” He glanced over at Larkin, who was biting her trembling lip. He could handle it, but she probably couldn’t.
Just then, one of the Breen removed his helmet, revealing the head of Commander Chris Richards, looking rather small in the big Breen suit.
“Sorry about that. I forgot what we sounded like with the helmets on.”
“Chris?” Conway asked. “What the hell happened?”
“Kamtezen and I coaxed two Breen out of their suits so that we could crawl into the warp core chamber and repair the dilithium crystals. Damn handy, these suits are.” His eyes widened. “Damn. I forgot. Those two guys are still down in cryostasis. Gotta do something about that…”
Kamtezen removed his helmet, and Conway could swear he heard Larkin swoon.
“So you’re both okay over there?”
Kamtezen nodded. “Yes. For the moment, the ship’s in one piece.”
“What do you mean, for the moment?”
“The warp core’s going to need to be closely monitored during the trip back to Breen space,” Richards said. “And it doesn’t appear that anyone on this crew is fit to handle that job. They’re apparently circus performers of some sort. A couple of them have basic maintenance training, but not enough to ensure that they make it to port in one piece.”
“That’s their problem,” Conway said. “Tell them to dump their core and we’ll tow them to a Starbase. They can find a ride home from there.”
“I think I have a better idea, Captain,” Richards said.
Conway chuckled. “I’d love to hear it, Chris, because I can’t just give them an engineer.”
“Actually, you can.”
Supplemental. The Explorer is holding position just outside of Gorn space, awaiting the arrival of the Federation courier ship recently released back into Federation custody after what I’m sure was a harrowing few days with the hostile and irritating Gorn.
I can relate.
Meanwhile, Commodore Woodall has already contacted me to let me know how displeased he is that I lost all our bargaining posture with the Gorn just because a shipboard brat wanted to take a joyride. I didn’t even bother trying to explain. What’s done is done. Captain Harth and his ship, the Minkta, have been released, remanded back over to the Breen. Whatever havoc he wreaks on the Federation now will no doubt be blamed on me.
This probably isn’t the last hit my career will take, but I knew that when I signed on for this job. Still, I can’t help but blame one person for the ringing headache I have right now.
Captain Andy Baxter let out a long sigh as he stood outside the readyroom.
“Come,” a tired voice replied.
Baxter ducked into the room, wincing again at Vansen’s choice of decor. It was just so… modern and professional. Certificates for meritorious conduct, abstract art, frilly plants and throw pillows. It was all just so…not him.
“What do you want, Baxter?” Vansen asked. “Haven’t you bugged me enough today?”
Baxter stepped into the room, letting the doors close behind him. “Actually, I expected you to thank me.”
Vansen’s brow creased. “What for?”
“For helping you make the right decision. For advising you. For keeping you on course.”
“You’re giving yourself way too much credit, Baxter. I’d have made the same decision whether you were there or not. It just happens that I had to be irritated by you while making my decision.”
Baxter leaned forward and planted his hands on the desk–her desk. “You need me.”
“Like a hole in the head.”
“You’re going to go far in Starfleet, Vansen,” Baxter said. He turned around and gestured grandly at the readyroom. “One day you’ll leave all this far behind.” He turned to face her. “Wouldn’t it be nice, before your career really kicks into high gear, to be able to truly boss me around?”
“This is the most pathetic plea for a job I’ve ever heard,” Vansen said.
Baxter leaned forward again, this time with fire in his eyes. “Okay, how about this: If you don’t name me first officer, I’ll stay on this ship as a civilian resident. I’ll resign my commission and stay here, indefinitely.”
“I would, and believe me, if you think I’m making your life miserable now, you haven’t seen anything. And since I’m a civilian, you not only wouldn’t be able to order me around, but you’d also have to protect my life with yours.” He gritted his teeth. “Or you could have me under your thumb. Reporting to you. Constrained by my Starfleet oath to do your bidding. No matter how…loathsome I find it.”
“When you put it like that…” Vansen said, a slow smile spreading across her lips. “I’m liking this idea more and more.”
“Thought you’d see it my way.”
Vansen locked eyes with Baxter, her smile instantly fading. “But what prompted you to do this? What made you so eager to swallow your pride?”
Baxter thought of his ship, his wife, his daughter, his best friends, and his godson, and it was his turn to smile. “Because some things are more important than pride, Vansen. See you in the morning.”
“Zero hundred,” Vansen corrected. “You can start with night shift.” She grinned. “Followed by day shift.”
“Thanks, ever so much!” Baxter called over his shoulder, and left the readyroom.
“You cannot do this, Father,” Larkin said, sitting uselessly on the edge of Richards’s guest bed, hands folded in her lap, as he gathered his few belongings into a satchel and slung it over his shoulder.
“It’s the right thing to do, Larkin,” Richards said. “I’ve got a lot of things to think about, and I thought I could do it here. But all I’m doing is getting in the way of the relationship you’re trying to build. I’ve messed up enough relationships already. No need to add another.”
“But I want you here,” she said.
Richards turned around, pulled the android up into a hug. “And I’ll always be here, just as you’ll always be with me.”
“That makes no sense.”
“Parenthood never does,” Richards said. “Tell Kamtezen I’m sorry. And, when and if I get back to the Explorer, I hope you two come visit.”
“I would like that,” Larkin said. “Would you like me to walk with you to the transporter room?”
“No need,” Richards said, and smiled. “I think I’ll be okay on my own.” And he walked out of the room and down the hall, whistling all the way.
Once the doors closed, Larkin tapped her combadge. “Kammy, you can come in now.”
And the door opened, allowing Lt. Kamtezen to come in. The engineer had been waiting in the conference room across the hall. “Is he gone?”
“He has departed,” Larkin said, standing up and wrapping her arms around Kamtezen.
“Whew, that’s a relief,” Kamtezen said, as they embraced.
“Do you think we should have told him?” she asked.
“I think he has enough to deal with at the moment,” Larkin said, pulling Kamtezen close and kissing him deeply on the mouth.
“Maybe you’re right.”
Once Steffie had been put to bed, Baxter returned to his desk and sat down. First thing tomorrow, he’d unpack these boxes that had piled up in his quarters. It was time that this place resembled a home again, even if all wasn’t quite as it once was.
But right now, he had news, about his new post on the Explorer, and all that had transpired since he’d come back aboard. There was only one person in the universe he wanted to talk to.
He punched a few controls, opening up a comm channel to Waystation, requesting the guest quarters of Counselor Kelly Peterman.
The system hung there, Federation emblem spinning, for several moments.
Finally, a message popped up on the screen, blinking in big, ugly, block letters.
“RECIPIENT UNAVAILABLE. RECIPIENT UNAVAILABLE. RECIPIENT UNAVAILABLE.”
“Figures,” Baxter said, and closed the channel, leaning back in his chair. “Nobody’s where they’re supposed to be lately.”
Aboard the U.S.S. Idlewild, which had broken off from the Explorer and set a course for its next destination, a lone figure sat in the vacant ship’s lounge and stared out the window, watching the Explorer disappear in the distance as the Idlewild lept into warp.
He leaned back, took several long puffs on his cigar, and put his feet up on the table. “Sorry, boy, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
The doors to the lounge parted, and light poured in from the corridor outside.
“Do you ever sleep?” a voice asked from the doorway.
Admiral Harlan Baxter looked at the shadowed figure and laughed. “Not when I’m on a mission, young lady. We got caught by the Gorn while we were on maneuvers. I got careless. But no more slip-ups. I won’t blink an eye the rest of the way.”
“That’s not what this is about,” the lilting voice said. “You’re worried about Andy.” The woman leaned against the doorframe, her lean, graceful figure making a pleasing silhouette even as a plume of cigar smoke passed by her. “You’re afraid he’s going to die before all this is over.”
Harlan leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. His gaze stiffened into one of pure, unbridled resolve. “That, my dear, is the least of my f***ing worries.”
Counselor Peterman thinks a visit to Waystation is just what she needs to clear her head and get her affairs in order. What she finds, though, is that she’s not the only one who needs help. Will Peterman be able to help President Dillon work through his emotional problems in time, and will she be able to work through her own? Find out in the new story written by Alan Decker!