Author: Anthony Butler
The music beat like an incessant drum.
Mirk Hartley leaned over the bar and sighed as he watched dancing Explorer crewmembers conga by, drinks in hand.
“Don’t know what they’re so damned happy about,” a voice said from down the bar, and Mirk sidled over to face Captain Baxter.
“You’re in better spirits, I see,” Mirk said wryly.
“Yeah right,” Baxter said. “I just came here to try and forget that I’m the first officer and I have to report to Vansen. Did you know I have to file reports now?”
“The horror,” Mirk said.
“And everywhere I turn, Vansen’s done some other stupid thing to increase ‘efficiency’ on the ship. I thought things were just fine when I was running the show.”
“I don’t remember there being any problems…specifically.” Mirk rubbed his chin. “Then again, I am only the bartender.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Mirk,” Baxter said. “You serve a very important function here. You don’t just serve drinks. You dispense wisdom. You help people. Like a counselor.” He sighed low. “Counselor.”
“You miss Counselor Peterman, don’t you.”
“Dearly,” Baxter said.
Mirk nodded. “Any returns on your communiques yet?”
“Nope,” Baxter said. “Not a one. I’m starting to think she never wants to talk to me again.”
Mirk thought about the Directors, and how he hadn’t heard a peep out of them in two years. According to Baxter’s report about the events that transpired on Earth of the 21st century, a war in the heavens was brewing between the Critics and a new power called “The Producers.” But where were the Directors? And why weren’t they speaking to him, their earthly conduit?
Of course, Mirk didn’t mention any of this to Baxter. “Maybe she’s just preoccupied,” he said, after a pause.
Baxter sank his head down on the bar. “Preoccupied with hating me.”
“Captain,” Mirk said, and leaned forward. “You need to snap out of this. You’re never going to wrest control of this ship back if you take on such a defeatist attitude.”
“I won’t? You mean I can? Wrest control?”
“I don’t see why not,” Mirk said. “You’re only as good as you believe you are. And if you believe you’re good enough, then you’ll be able to overcome Vansen, and figure out a way to get the ship back.”
“Damn it, Mirk, you’re right,” Baxter said, and pounded his fist on the lighted table. “I’m going to go to that damn Vansen and tell her what I think of her.” He slipped off the chair, stumbled, then gripped the bar and righted himself. “Just as soon as I sleep this off.”
“It’s synthehol, sir. You can disperse its effects with a single thought.”
Baxter looked at Mirk one long moment, then blinked. “Huh?”
“Nevermind.” Mirk took a breath. “Directors be with you. Have a nice night.” Mirk watched Baxter leave, then decided he would call it an early night. The loud music was giving a headache, and besides, he suddenly found himself with a lot on his mind.
After leaving the bar in the hands of Zordock the Bold, his Assistant Bartender, Mirk went back to his quarters and ducked into the closet in the back room.
Ever since Baxter returned to the Explorer, with tales of an epic battle between Leximas and Irma, between the Critics and an omniptent force known as the ‘Producers,’ Mirk had been worried. He’d submitted a report to Starfleet, detailing everything he knew. He told them probably more than they cared to know about the Maloxian faith and belief system. About the Directors and the Critics. And about the fact that there was no reference–anywhere–to the Producers. He was just as confused as the rest of them.
His thoughts, from time to time, now shifted to the Bermuda Expanse. Out there, in the Veltran system, the answers to his questions remained hidden.
He’d dismissed any notion of going there. The place had been blockaded after the last visit, Starfleet citing that the ramifications of open travel to the Delta Quadrant–and, it seemed, to other time periods– provided too great a risk for any unknowing ship to stumble into.
Still he knew the answers he required were there.
President Dillon reported that he’d gone there to find Leximas, and had learned nothing. But shortly after, the Directors, in their own way, spoke to him. The answer to Leximas’ whereabouts literally hit Dillon in the head, in the form of a book from his library. No question the Directors…or, possibly, these “Producers” had been the ones to guide Dillon in that direction.
Mirk needed some of that guidance himself, now, which was exactly what had brought him to his closet. His altar had been in the supply closet on Deck 11, until J’hana discovered it one day as she’d apparently been inventorying its contents with Tilleran. So Mirk had to hide the altar now in his quarters. He never told Hartley about it. Not that she would disapprove, but he figured it gave Hartley some measure of comfort to think that he didn’t zealously worship the Directors anymore. Whenever he brought up the subject, she would get uncomfortable. He didn’t want his faith to do that to her.
He pushed aside a pile of clothing, revealing a small, brass altar. He withdrew the plum he’d taken from his bar from his jacket pocket, squeezing it over the altar until it was coated with juice. Then he lit the candles.
“Directors, if you are out there, please hear my plea. I beg upon the fruits of your wisdom; please, squirt me with the delicious juice of your knowledge, so that I may sow your seeds and grow great trees where there are none…”
Nothing happened. Not that he was expecting anything to happen; but, he could at least say he tried.
He covered the altar back up and closed the closet, deciding to head back to the Constellation Club. Maybe he was better off not knowing what was going on out there in the ethereal eternity. That world really wasn’t for him anymore, anyway.
The next day, Mirk watched Hartley with a small smile as she finished off her second bowl of his famous chili, at their corner table in the Constellation Club. “How is it, my little fruit roll-up?”
“Delicious, as always,” Hartley said, pushing the bowl aside and burping with satisfaction. “Dessert?”
“You can have some. I’m fine.”
“You never even had any lunch.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Your third colon acting up again?” Hartley asked, her brow knitting in concern.
“It’s not that,” Mirk said. “Well, it’s partially that, but…”
Hartley leaned forward. “What is it?”
Mirk looked away, toward the stars that blazed toward them out the forward viewports. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s the Directors,” Hartley said.
“What? How could you…?”
She smiled and put a hand on Mirk’s. “You underestimate how well I know you, Mirk.”
“Don’t know why I would do a thing like that,” Mirk said with a small smile. “Anyway, yes. It’s the Directors. It seems like they’ve just…”
“Forsaken you? Again?”
“You should be used to by now. It’s obvious that they only show up when they want to.”
“But if what the Captain and the others say is right, don’t you think now would be a great time for them to show up? I mean, if the Critics really are threatening a takeover?”
“Maybe they’re so busy dealing with the Critics out there on some other plain, they don’t have time to bother with us.”
“Or maybe they’re in trouble.”
Hartley nodded. “There’s really no way to know.”
“Yeah,” Mirk said, rubbing his chin. “None that I can think of.”
Hartley narrowed her eyes at Mirk. “What are you thinking?”
Mirk smiled, grabbing Hartley’s hands and squeezing them. “Didn’t you say something about knowing me so well…”
“I was just kind of hoping I was wrong this time.”
“So…will you help me?”
Hartley leaned forward and kissed Mirk deeply on the mouth. Then she leaned back and smiled at him. “What do you think?”
“A runabout?” Baxter asked, leaning on the tactical console as J’hana entered her security report from the previous night.
“That is the rumor,” J’hana said.
“But for what?” Baxter replied in a low voice. “Where do they plan on taking it?”
“Is it not obvious?” J’hana said.
“Maybe,” Baxter said.
J’hana sighed. “The Bermuda Expanse. Mirk wants to reconnect with the Directors. At any rate, I believe Captain Vansen is currently considering the request.”
“Probably getting ready to quash the whole thing, if I know her,” Baxter said. “But this is important to Mirk, I know it. I’ll go talk to her.”
“Is that really a wise idea?” J’hana asked as Baxter walked toward the ready room.
“I’m not planning on taking no for an answer, Lieutenant,” Baxter said, and pushed the call button on Vansen’s door. “This is a new Andy Baxter. Take notice. I plan on getting what I want, no matter who stands in my–”
The doors opened, revealing a smiling Lieutenant Commander Hartley.
“Thanks again, Captain. See you in a week or two,” Hartley said, sidling past Baxter and heading for the aft turbolift.
“No problem,” Vansen said. “Take as long as you like. I know this is important to Mirk.”
Baxter’s mouth hung open. “You…”
“Granted her request?” Vansen said. “Yes. As if it’s any business of yours. I believe they have a valid concern. Starfleet concurs. If we weren’t running medical supplies out to the Vegra system, we’d escort them ourselves.”
“Shouldn’t we be sending them with the Escort? And a full crew?”
“As always, you’re wrong, Captain,” Vansen said, her nose wrinkling joyfully. “Hartley and Mirk wish to keep a low profile. I respect that. Don’t you?”
“You’re so good at turning things around, making me seem like an idiot.”
“No, I think you do a pretty good job of that yourself.” Vansen returned to a padd she was reading, then looked back up at Baxter. “Are we done here?”
Baxter gritted his teeth, then backed out of the readyroom, stepping up to the turbolift just as Hartley was stepping in. “Commander, if you need anything…”
“We’ll be all right, Captain,” Hartley said, her face stiff with resolved. It softened, if only for a moment. “I’ll make sure to check in on Counselor Peterman while we’re in the neighborhood, sir.”
“Thanks,” Baxter said softly as the turbolift doors closed.
“Ready?” Hartley asked, walking up to the doors to the Constellation Club as he stepped out, a small satchel slung over her shoulder.
“Yep. Just giving Zordock the Bold a few instructions.”
“Must you really call him that every time?”
Mirk nodded. “He insists.”
“Well, it’s very bold of him to willingly take over the Club while you’re out.”
“He looks at it as a growth experience,” Mirk said. “Anyway, if I shut it down, no telling what Guinanco might do to get their grubby hands on it.”
“Yes. Shame about Janice’s restaurant.”
“Very much so,” Mirk said. “Now then, shall we go?”
Hartley hooked her arm with Mirk’s, as they walked down the corridor. “We shall.”
“I’m glad you decided to come along with me,” Mirk said, hugging her close.
“Was there ever a question?” Hartley asked lightly.
“Question,” Hartley said, laying next to Mirk in the cramped bunk in the back of the runabout Passaic as it streaked toward the Veltran system. Once they’d gotten underway, and she’d locked the course into the computer, they decided to head to the aft section and take a nap. It was always good to be awake and alert when one conversed with gods.
“Well, I was just wondering…rather than go through all the trouble of using a runabout, why didn’t you just, you know…teleport us to the Bermuda Expanse?”
“Hmm? Oh. Well…it doesn’t really work that way.”
“Last time I checked, you were gaining power. I figured something like that would be easy for you.”
“It’s not. Believe me, I’m far from able to completely control my powers.”
“I guess I should feel good about that,” Hartley said, snuggling close to Mirk’s chest. “I mean, as long as you’re tied down to this world somehow, you’re not going to run off and leave me to be omnipotent.”
“I’d never do that,” Mirk said, and kissed Hartley on the forehead. “I’d choose you over omnipotence any day of the week.”
“Sure you would,” Hartley laughed sleepily. “You just keep telling yourself that.”
“Look a them. Dishing out frozen yogurt and italian ice as if they didn’t have a care in the world,” Dr. Browning muttered to herself, eating her Black Hole Burger with extra cheese, on one of the benches along the upper-level walkway of Ship’s Shoppes, the Explorer’s mall. She’d sat out here several times, between shifts in Sickbay, and the rare times she was able to drag Plato along with her for some shopping.
Across the opening in the floor, through which one could see the buzz of activity at the lower-level shops, on the other side of the promenade, the restaurant that once was Space Tastes was currently being whored out as a trendy frozen yogurt and italian ice stand.
“Rura Penthe’s” had everything Space Tastes lacked, it seemed. Bright lighting, fast service, and large crowds. It wasn’t dimly lit, or intimate. And apparently everyone got EXACTLY what they ordered. How boring. People didn’t experiment nearly enough with their menu choices, Browning felt.
She munched on her sandwich and stared angrily at the Guinanco operation, completely oblivious to the fact that Captain Baxter was standing beside her.
“Janice?” he said. “Hello?” He waved a hand in front of her face.
She blinked, glancing up at him. “Oh. Hi, Andy.”
Baxter sat down beside her. “Hope this seat isn’t taken.”
“No,” Browning said. “It’s not located in that restaurant, so it’s fair game.”
“I hear there’s an hour wait in there sometimes,” Baxter said.
“You’re not making me feel any better,” Browning said.
“Sorry,” Baxter said, looking down. “Did you, um, here about Mirk and Hartley?”
“He’s not fighting a battle to save the universe again, is he?” Browning asked, balling up her sandwich wrapper and throwing it in a nearby trash can.
“Not that I know of. He just went with Hartley to the Bermuda Expanse. They’re going to try to contact the Directors.”
“Good,” Browning said. “I hope they find out what’s going on with the Critics. Seems like there are a lot of questions to be answered.”
“Yes,” Baxter said. “A lot of questions.”
“Did you want something in particular, Andy?” Browning said. “I have to be in Sickbay in a little while. I’ve got a tonsillectomy and a bowel resection. Hopefully I can remember which is which.”
“Yes. Funny,” Baxter said, never knowing when Browning was joking about things like that. “I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
“Same as always. Wondering where Christopher is. Wondering about Kelly. Wondering about my restaurant. Wondering about Plato. Just a whole lot of wondering.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “I know what you mean.”
“Did you know Plato’s birthday was last week?” Browning asked.
Baxter rubbed his chin. “I’ll be damned. Boy, time flies when you get thrown backwards and then thrown forward in it.”
“No kidding,” Browning said. “He barely stayed long enough after dinner to eat cake and open presents. Said he was meeting up with ‘a friend.’”
“Any idea who the friend is?”
“Maybe he has a girlfriend.”
Browning shrugged. “I hope he does. I hope he has things in his life that make him happy. I really do. I’d just like to know about them. To talk with him about them, you know? To feel included?”
“Must be a helpless feeling, not knowing what’s going on with him,” Baxter said thoughtfully.
“I wish I had control over something,” Browning said. “Just one thing. If I could just get one thing right, I feel like everything else would fall into place.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Baxter said.
“Well,” Browning said, and clapped her thighs, standing up. “No use bellyaching about it. Guess until I find something I can really be successful at, I’ll just go do some surgery.”
“Good luck,” Baxter said, as Browning walked off.
“Eh,” she said.
Baxter stared after Browning as she walked away. “Maybe it’s about time I began to operate, too,” he said thoughtfully.
Hartley and Mirk stepped out of the aft cabin and looked out the front windows as the Passaic automatically came out of warp, having arrived at its preprogrammed destination.
“The Bermuda Expanse,” Mirk said, awe-filled, as the roiling purple energy mass sat in front of them, almost daring them to go in.
Hartley sat down at the front console. “Good thing we were in this neighborhood not too long ago. We were still within a day’s travel.”
“It was my mistake not taking leave to come here when we were docked at Waystation,” Mirk said. “I should have, if only to pay my respects.”
“It’s not like the gods are dead,” Hartley said as she worked at her console.
“They might as well be,” Mirk said. “I haven’t heard anything from the Directors since they helped us escape from that timeline Irma created, where you and the Aerostar never went to the Delta Quadrant.”
“And you really think coming here is going to give you any insights you couldn’t have gotten on the ship?” Hartley asked.
“It’s worth a try,” Mirk said earnestly, sitting beside Hartley. “Go ahead and take us in.”
“Let’s just not hang around any longer than we have to, okay?” Hartley said, steering the Passaic into the massive spatial anomaly. “We don’t exactly have a great track records of good things happening in here.”
The runabout shook as it barreled in toward the center of the Bermuda Expanse.
“Sensors are useless,” Hartley said. “And the gravitic wake is no picnic, either.”
Mirk held onto the console in front of him, as the runabout shook harder and harder. “I can almost feel them, Megan.”
“Well, feel them fast, so you can ask your questions and we can get out of here.”
“Patience,” Mirk said, closing his eyes. “I can feel something coming. Something very big…”
Hartley nodded, idly looking out the front viewport. Her eyes went wide. “Mirk!”
Mirk opened his eyes and stared out the viewport. “That’s a starship!”
“What would gods need with a Starship?” Hartley asked, steering the runabout away from the looming ship. Not big compared to a ship like the Explorer, but many times over the size of the runabout.
It was a Federation starship, all right. Even through the melange of purple clouds, she could make out that it was Sabre-class. The compact one-level design, rear-mounted twin nacelles, and the stingray look of the primary hull gave it away instantly.
“What are they doing here?” Mirk asked, as Hartley checked her aft sensors.
“Following us, at the moment,” Hartley said.
“Could they be a science ship studying the Bermuda Expanse?”
“I don’t think we’re that lucky. Sabres aren’t for exploring anyway. They’re battleships.”
“Should we hail them? You know, say hello?”
“It’s worth a try,” Hartley said, tapping a control. “Runabout Passaic to Federation Starship. Please state your business.”
“Passaic. Please come to and lower your shields.”
“This feels wrong,” Mirk whispered.
“Unidentified vessel: Care to explain why?”
“We will explain why when you beam aboard, Commander. This is a direct order. Beam aboard, now.”
“I don’t like this,” Mirk said under his breath. “We need to get out of here.”
“We just got here. I thought we had to find out what happened to the Directors.”
Mirk’s expression darkened. “Well, they’re not here. If they were, they would have made themselves known by now. And, chances are, Starfleet’s come looking for the same thing. And who knows what they’ll want with us. With me.”
“They’re Starfleet,” Hartley said. “There shouldn’t be anything to be afraid of.” She looked down at her sensor readings. “They’re activating a tractor beam!”
“One big, happy family, eh?” Mirk said. “Evasive maneuvers?”
“That’s kind of you to say, Mirk, but this is a runabout, and that’s a full-sized Federation Starship. We’re no match.”
“You’ve got to do something.”
“What can I do?” Hartley asked, sending the Passaic into a dive, narrowly avoiding the lancing blue tractor beam. “I can’t evade them forever. Even with the sensor distortions in here, they’ll be able to track us as long as we’re in visual range. If we stay here, we’re as good as captured.”
Suddenly the Passaic shook, as the tractor beam took full hold.
“Maybe we should talk to them,” Mirk said nervously, looking around as he felt the Passaic’s engines strain against the other starship’s strong tractor beam.
“Yes. They are Starfleet, after all,” Hartley said, and brought the runabout to a full stop.
“Right,” Mirk said. “Then why do I feel like we’re about to do something really stupid?”
“Probably for the same reason I feel it,” Hartley said, pressing a control, dropping the runabout’s shields, just as she felt the familiar pull of a transporter beam taking hold of her.
“One italian ice, please. Isoberry.”
“You’ve got it, Captain!” the chipper teenaged girl behind the counter at Rura Penthe’s said, turning to call in the order to one of the other teenagers working in the preparation area. Baxter wondered where Guinanco got all those teenagers, and how they got them aboard the Explorer. Cheap labor, for sure.
He glanced around. It wounded him deeply to see Janice’s restaurant repainted in pastels, re-floored in a goofy yellow and blue checkerboard pattern. Plus, the line at the counter had taken thirty minutes. Apparently, Captain’s prerogative didn’t apply in a Guinanco establishment.
“Here ya go, Captain!” the redhead said with a wink, sliding the cup of frosty blue ice across the counter to Baxter.
“No need to be so formal miss…” He squinted at her nametag. “Kiki.”
“Oh, we call everyone ‘Captain’ here, Captian,” Kiki said with a small smile. “It’s part of our charm.”
“Yeah, I guess it is,” Baxter muttered. “Look, is your manager around?”
“Fancy Dan is in the back. He’s not supposed to be disturbed.”
“Fancy…oh, for the love of…” Baxter muttered. “Can you ask him to come out here? I want to talk to him.”
Kiki shook her head. “I’m afraid not, sir. He left explicit orders not to be disturbed.”
“Well, what if you told him the Captain…well, a Captain, of the Explorer wants to talk to him.”
“Do you mean Vansen?”
Baxter gritted his teeth. “No, I mean me.”
“You’re the first officer, right?”
“No, I mean…I guess I…” Baxter sighed. “Yes. I’m the First Officer.”
“Well, let me check and see.”
“You’re holding up the line, Captain!” J’hana growled from the back of the line, which reached out the doorway of the new establishment..
“Shouldn’t you be on duty?” Baxter called back to her.
“Touche,” Baxter muttered. “Look, I may need you to rough someone up for me.”
“I am on my break.”
“I’ll give you the rest of the day off.”
“I stand ready to assist you.”
“Just wait for my signal,” Baxter said, and looked up as a plump, grinny fellow with obscenely white teeth and a ballcap with the Rura Penthe’s logo emblazoned on it.
Baxter stepped out of the line so Kiki could wait on the next customer, leaning over the corner of the counter, behind which Dan stood expectantly..
“Is there a problem, Captain?” Dan asked with a wide grin.
“Yes there is, as a matter of fact,” Baxter said. “Your friends at Guinanco have taken over my friend’s restaurant. She’d like it back now.”
“Oh. You must be referring to Janice Browning.” Dan withdrew a padd from his hip pocket. “Guinanco lawfully acquired this space on Stardate 56986, when it was determined that Doctor Browning could be gone for a prolonged period of time. Captain Vansen approved the transfer of ownership.”
“Well, we want our space back,” Baxter said. “This was a restaurant that the people on the Explorer really came to like.”
“I’ve studied the numbers, sir,” Dan said. “And, honestly, Rura Penthe’s has more than doubled the clientele of Space Tastes. Now then…I do believe a small space is opening up on the lower level. Maybe she should put in for that one.”
“She won’t need to. She’ll be taking this one back.”
“I’m afraid you don’t have a proverbial leg to stand on, Captain. I can refer you to Guinanco’s legal department.”
“I have two legs to stand on, Mister,” Baxter said, and turned on a heel. “And I don’t need to contact Guinanco’s legal department. I’m going to Guianan herself.”
A dull quiet settled over the staff behind the counter.
“I wouldn’t suggest that, sir.”
“I don’t give a damn what you suggest,” Baxter said. He threw down his cup of Isoberry Ice, and it splattered on the floor. “And you can keep your foul, tainted ice!”
“Was that the signal?” J’hana asked as Baxter walked by.
“No. Nevermind. I’m going to settle this another way.”
“Fine. Can I still have the day off?”
“This isn’t so bad, actually,” Hartley muttered, leaning on her fist and staring at the blank wall of the featureless grey conference room aboard the vessel to which they’d been beamed. “If you don’t mind being bored to death.”
“Maybe that’s their plan,” Mirk said, sitting beside her, his dinner jacket unbuttoned. “Bore us to death.”
“That’s a good plan,” Hartley said. “There’ll be no evidence of the cause of death, other than the frightfully bored expressions on our faces.”
Mirk grinned. “Maybe we should thwart them, then. Find a way to stimulate each other…”
“Why, Mirk, you old…” Hartley grinned, sliding a hand down to Mirk’s leg.
“Ahem.” A woman stood in the doorway. How long she’d been there was anyone’s guess. “I take it you are Lieutenant Commander Megan Hartley? And Mister Mirk Hartley?”
“That’s right,” Hartley said. “What’s it to you?”
“We have some questions for you.”
The woman had an intense, questioning face. Long, dark brown hair, and wore a featureless gray jumpsuit and no rank insignia. It was definitely Starfleet-issue, though.
“We?” Mirk asked.
“My partner is running a bit late,” the woman said, walking in, carrying a padd, and taking a seat opposite Mirk and Hartley. “He just finished eating. It…takes a long time.”
“We’ve been sitting here almost three hours,” Hartley said. “The security officers who brought us here wouldn’t tell us why we’re here. And all you can offer in the way of explanation is that your partner takes a long time eating?”
“It takes him a really long time to eat,” the woman said, tapping on a padd.
“And you are?” Mirk asked.
The woman looked up, locked eyes with him. “Dallas. Samantha Dallas.”
“Our captain would like you,” Hartley said with a small smile.
“And why is that?” Dallas asked.
“Nothing,” Hartley said, her expression returning to a rigid glare. “Now tell us what you want with us, and we’ll be on our way. You can’t just keep us here.”
“And yet, amazingly, I am,” Dallas said as she paged through the padd. “You two have had an illustrious career, you know that?”
“We’ve had our ups and downs.”
“Starfleet was hunting you down at one point. For….practicing something called Maloxitarianism?”
“Yes. Then Starfleet tried to enforce the same religion,” Mirk said. “Confusing, isn’t it?”
“I’m not here to debate theology with you, Mirk.”
“So what are you here for?”
“To ask questions,” Dallas said. “To begin with, what brings you to the Bermuda Expanse?”
“A runabout,” Hartley said.
Dallas frowned. “Cute.”
“I thought so.”
“Let me rephrase. What is the purpose of your visit?”
“Vacation,” Mirk said. “My people revere this expanse. We consider it a place of thoughtful meditation.”
“Yoga does wonders too, you know. And you can do that from the comfort of your own ship.”
“Thanks for the suggestion.” Hartley started to stand. “Is that about it?”
Dallas held up her hand. “No. Sit a while longer for me, please.”
“We’d like to speak to a Starfleet representative,” Mirk said.
“Here I am,” Dallas said.
“Someone of command rank,” Hartley said. “Either the commander of this vessel. Or better yet, Captain Beck of Waystation.” Beck didn’t have much affection for the Explorer crew, but Hartley trusted her a hell of a lot more than the people on this ship. Something just felt…wrong about all this.
“We’ll send you back on your way soon. Once we feel like you pose no threat to our operations.”
“And what might those be?”
“I’ll ask the questions,” Dallas said. “Now, then. I take it your true reason for coming here was to attempt to contact the Directors. How did you plan on doing this?”
“With my mind,” Mirk said flatly. “I have a way of being able to do that.”
“And yet you haven’t yet.” Dallas made some notes on her padd.
“That’s enough,” Hartley said. “We’re done with your questions. You can shoot us if you want, but we’re not playing this little game anymore.”
“I see,” Dallas said. “Well, perhaps my partner can convince you to cooperate.” She tapped her combadge. “Batyn. Come in, please.”
There was a low rumble. The doors opened, and a huge, gilled, bug-eyed fishy purple looking being strode in.
“This better be good. I was only halfway through my brine platter.”
“Come, sit,” Dallas said, gesturing for Batyn to sit down.
“This is ridiculous,” Batyn said. “I’m not going to intimidate them.”
“You aren’t if you act like that,” Dallas hissed under her breath.
“He’s right,” Mirk said. “If you know anything about me, you’ll know I come from a race enslaved by the Flarn. They eat guys who look like that as appetizers.”
“Big appetizers,” Hartley said quietly. “But, yeah, he’s right.”
“Don’t give me that sob story, Mister,” Dallas snapped. “We’ve handled a Flarn before.”
“And almost been eaten,” Batyn interjected.
“Shut up,” Dallas said, drawing a glare from Batyn, then turned back to Mirk and Hartley. “We’re not here to intimidate you. We just want…”
“To ask us a few questions,” Hartley said. “Yes, you’ve said that a dozen times.”
“No. We just want the truth.”
“Well,” Mirk said. “We’ve given you that.”
“Not the whole truth yet,” Dallas said. “Because I happen to believe you’re hiding something.”
“Really?” Batyn asked her. “How can you tell?”
Batyn bit her lip. “A hunch.” She looked deep into Mirk’s eyes. “You’re not all there, are you, Mirk?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hartley demanded, leaning across the table.
“Your powers. They’re supposed to be substantial, aren’t they?”
“I suppose, by some definitions, I may be considered omnipotent,” Mirk said.
“Then dazzle us with a show of your powers,” Dallas said, gesturing at Mirk. “Levitate Batyn here. Better yet, turn him into a Tarkalian featherhawk.”
“Now look here,” Batyn said. “We never discussed…”
“You can’t, can you?” Dallas asked, peering at Mirk. “For the same reason you can’t escape from this room, or this expanse, even if you desperately needed to. Your powers are weak right now, aren’t they?”
“You don’t have to answer that, Mirk,” Hartley said, her voice shaking.
“He doesn’t need to,” Dallas said, standing. “I think we’ve learned all we need to know.”
“Now wait one…” Hartley said, clenching her fists.
“You’ll be released by morning. We’ll be back if we need anything else cleared up,” Dallas called over her shoulder, as she and Batyn walked out of the room.
“Featherhawk my fins,” Batyn said, ducking out into the hallway.
Once they were alone again, Hartley looked at Mirk. “You have a great pokerface, lover. You had them completely fooled. Now how about you transport us to the runabout, and then send this ship to the other side of the quadrant. And while you’re at it, give that Dallas woman a huge hemorrhoid.”
“I…I can’t,” Mirk said, locking eyes with Hartley. “She was right. My powers are weak.”
Hartley didn’t miss a beat. “Well, then. It’s up to me to get us out of here, huh?”
“Put me through, damn it!” Baxter demanded, pounding on the desktop terminal in his office–the First Officer’s office.
“I’m scrumptiously sorry, Captain,” the sweet-voiced Guinanco operator said, grinning at him from the terminal. “Guinan can’t be disturbed right now. She’s a very busy woman.”
“She runs a bar.”
“She runs an interstellar corporation. One of the more successful ones in recent history.”
“Whatever. Isn’t she still on the Enterprise-E?”
“That information is classified,” the operator said. “I can let you speak with our Vice President for External Relations, if you like.”
“No. I don’t like. I want Guinan, and I want her now. She’s going to turn over the rights to the space occupied by that blasted yogurt place on the ship, or I’ll hunt her down and give her an earful to listen to.”
“Guinan does not take kindly to threats, sir.”
“Well, she’ll take even less kindly to what I have in mind.”
“But isn’t that also a threat?”
“Don’t you get philosophical with me!” Baxter said.
“And you have a nice day,” the woman said, and cut the channel.
“Ohhhhh, damn you Guinan!” Baxter growled, slamming his fist down on his desk.
He’d just have to find another way. There were more than one ways to skin this cat, he thought.
Baxter rubbed his chin. That gave him an idea.
A beautiful idea.
“Are you sure about this?” Mirk asked, as he squirmed along the Jefferies tube behind Hartley.
“As sure as I am that this is access conduit J3-25. Same as the one on the Explorer.”
“But this is a whole different class of ship.”
“The layouts are modular. They’re much the same on all current designs. Trust an engineer, Mirk.”
“But do you know where we’re going?”
“Shuttlebay,” she said. “Why, you have any other sights you want to see?”
“Not really,” Mirk admitted.
“We’d better hurry, too. If this vessel is what I think it is, there security has got to be pretty good.”
“What do you think it is?”
“A Starfleet-style crew on a Starfleet vessel, that doesn’t seem to follow Starfleet procedures?”
“Section Thirty-One,” Mirk said. “The basis of Julian Bashir’s awful spy novels.”
“It’s sad that your knowledge of current events comes entirely from pop culture,” Hartley said.
“I’m a bartender, what do you want from me?” Mirk asked.
“He’s a bartender. She’s an engineer. Just how much trouble could they possibly get into?” Dallas asked, leaning over the conference table in the meeting room that had recently held Mirk and Hartley.
“I don’t want to be around to find out,” Batyn said. “That Hartley woman didn’t seem to like you very much.”
“I’m not afraid of her,” Dallas said. “Still, something about this whole thing bothers me.”
“What, us doing a favor for Section 31, or the fact that you got an unpleasant vibe from that engineer person?”
“We are not doing a ‘favor,’ for Section 31. We are following explicit orders from Starfleet Command to cooperate with the crew of this vessel, some of whom may or may not belong to the shadow organization Section 31.”
“Did you read that directly from our orders, or did you paraphrase?”
“I memorized the orders, okay?” Dallas asked. “Now what in the hell are we going to tell the Admiral?”
The doors to the conference room opened, and a cigar smoking man walked in. He pulled the smouldering cigar out of his mouth and blew out smoke.
“You don’t need ta tell ‘im anything. He already knows.”
“Admiral Baxter,” Dallas said. “Our…visitors…have disappeared. Internal sensors were nullified. They could be anywhere.”
Harlan Baxter nodded. “I know.”
“What do you plan on doing about it, if I may ask, sir?” Dallas asked, drawing another glare from Batyn. Why was he always glaring at her, anyway?
“What else? Let ‘em go,” Harlan said. “They can’t help us.”
“But they could go back to their ship and report our location.”
Harlan took his cigar back out. “We’ll be long gone by the time anyone comes looking for us. Plus, our holographic screens can project us as any ship we see fit. How do you think we got out of that business with the Gorn?”
Dallas had been debriefed on that mission, during which the Idlewild had been intercepted by Gorn while studying a Redlands phenomenon–similar to the Bermuda Expanse–in Gorn Space. Ironically, it was Hartley and Mirk’s ship, the Explorer, that was sent to negotiate for the Idlewild’s safe return to Federation space. If Dallas had been commanding, she might have handled things differently. Like with phasers and photon torpedoes.
“So you’re not going to be investigating the Bermuda Expanse any further?” Dallas asked, after a pause.
“Why would I? The Directors aren’t here.”
“But how do you know?”
Harlan clapped a hand on Dallas’ back. “I’ll put a commendation in your file. You and your fishy friend were a big help.”
“A big help in what?” Dallas asked.
“Shut up,” Batyn said under his breath.
“Don’t worry about that. Just go back to Earth and pretend none of this ever happened. We’ll take it from here.”
“Take WHAT?” Dallas demanded, as Batyn wrapped an arm around her shoulders and gestured her out the door. “What is this all about, Admiral? Why are you trying to hard to contact these omnipotent life forms?”
“Come on, Dallas. I’ll get you a coffee. And we can discuss the finer points of keeping your job.”
Harlan harrumphed as the two agents left. “Crazy kids,” he muttered, puffing on his cigar.
“You’re being soft,” a voice said from the doorway. Harlan didn’t need to turn around. He knew who it was. “Those people from the Explorer could be of great benefit to the mission. Especially the Maloxian.”
“Long as I’m heading things up, I’ll decide who benefits what, my dear.”
“Just trying to be helpful.”
“You’ve done enough of that.”
“Don’t forget, we’re partners in this. Ideally, I should be signing off on every decision you make.”
“This isn’t an ideal situation,” Harlan muttered, then chewed on the end of his cigar. “But I can tell you one thing. Mirk’s presence isn’t crucial to this mission. You saw for yourself. His powers are all but gone.”
“I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, or a bad thing.”
“It’s irrelevant,” Harlan said, and put his cigar back in his mouth.
“And what do we do, in the meantime?”
“We press on.”
The next day, Captain Baxter strolled purposefully down the walkway leading toward Rura Penthe’s, a squirming bundle stuffed in his uniform tunic.
“Captain,” Janice Browning said, picking up step next to him. “What in the world are you planning?”
Baxter winced as he felt claws dig into his chest. “A subversive maneuver, Doctor.”
“I’m throwing my cat into the restaurant.”
“He caused enough trouble on this ship. It’s about time he got us out of some trouble.”
“Isn’t that a bit…extreme?”
“I’m not sure Kelly would approve of using one of her pets this way…”
“Fritz will be fine. He’s more durable than you or I, and you know it.”
“Is there any way I can talk you out of this?”
Baxter shook his head.”
“Then I’d better have Sickbay standing by,” Browning sighed, and turned, heading back in the opposite direction.
Baxter walked up to the entrance to Rura Penthe’s. He calmly stepped through the door, unzipped his tunic, and set Fritz on the floor. “Go get ‘em, boy!”
The cat tore off into the crowded restaurant.
Moments later, meows and screams filled the air.
“My god! Is this cherry flavoring, or is it blood?!” one panicked patron asked.
Baxter had to step aside to avoid the rush as scratched-up yogurt patrons dashed out of the restaurant.
Several minutes later, after more hissing and screaming, Dan emerged, scratched and bleeding, holding Fritz by his tail.
“Is this yours, Captain?”
Baxter put a hand to his mouth. “My goodness. I was taking him for a walk and…well I guess he got away.”
“The damage is extensive,” Dan said, as Baxter grabbed Fritz and held him protectively. “We’ll need to close for at least the next few days.”
“Is that right?”
“Don’t play dumb with me,” Dan said, stepping toe to toe with Baxter. He ducked back as Fritz slashed at him, grabbing him by the chest and holding on with his claws. “I know you planned this. Guinan will be informed. And you have no idea the kind of hurt you’re in for.”
“Bring it on, buddy boy!” Baxter said, and walked off, even as Fritz dug his claws into his chest. Truth told, he barely felt it.
“Not quite like our mall, is it?” Mirk asked, as he and Hartley sat in the Food Court at Starfleet Square mall, on Waystation.
“Bigger,” Hartley said through a mouthful of “what” from “Sandwich or What?”
“Not as homey,” Mirk said. “I kind of prefer our mall.”
“Well, it is on the Explorer,” Hartley said as she ate. “Which is home.”
“Yeah,” Mirk said. “Home.” He studied his…whatever it was…on a stick. “You haven’t asked yet. About my powers.”
Hartley shrugged. “I figured you’d tell me sooner or later.”
Mirk sighed. “It’s not an interesting story. They’ve just…faded recently.”
“Any cause you can think of?”
Our marriage, Mirk thought silently. “Nope,” he said.
“Weird,” Hartley said. “Have you had Tilleran check you out?”
“There’s nothing she can do. These powers…they’re not something you can just study in a lab and recreate. They come from…” He glanced over his shoulder, in the direction, he guessed, of the Bermuda Expanse. “Somewhere else.”
“Still, I think she should look at you when we get back to the ship.”
“Which should be sooner, rather than later,” Mirk said, glancing around nervously. “I mean, after all, we’re less than a parsec away from that Section 31 ship that abducted us in the Bermuda Expanse.”
“Relax, Mirk,” Hartley said. “This is a crowded station. Safety in numbers. They can’t very well nab us in the middle of a mall. Besides, I’m sure all those people have long since gone.”
Just then, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a tall, grey, scaly-looking individual standing at the to-go counter at Long John Archer’s.
“Sh**,” she said, ducking. “That’s the fish guy! He’s here!”
Mirk glanced over Hartley’s shoulder at the large piscean. “I see him. But what about his partner? She doesn’t seem to be…”
“You!” a voice shouted from behind, and Mirk desperately didn’t want to turn around.
“It’s Dallas! Scatter!” Hartley cried, grabbing Mirk’s wrist and dragging him out of his seat and into the Starfleet Square crowd.
“Batyn!” Dallas called out.
“What? I haven’t gotten my hush puppies yet!”
“Forget the hush puppies! Our quarry is here! In the food court! C’mon, follow me!”
“We have quarry?”
“Come on! They’re getting away!”
“You wanted to see me?” Baxter stood in the doorway to the readyroom.
Vansen gestured Baxter in. To his amazement, she was laughing. Looked like she was talking to someone on her desktop viewer.
“Yes, I agree. Sometimes club soda won’t get a stain out,” Vansen said, wiping a tear of laughter from her eye. Her expression grew rigid as she looked to Baxter, who’d sat down opposite her. “Well, I’m sorry to cut this short, but I have a…person…in my office. I need to go. We’ll have to have lunch next time I’m in your sector! Bye now!”
Baxter sunk in his chair. “Guinan.”
“Yes,” Vansen said flatly. “You may not realize this, but Guinan and I grew rather close during my brief stint as an Ensign aboard the Enterprise.”
“Hmm. I don’t think I care.”
“Do you know why she called?”
“I can’t guess.”
“You don’t have to guess, because you know.”
“She wants to discuss a Flavor of the Month promotion?”
“You unleashed your evil, fleabitten cat in her restaurant!”
“Correction,” Baxter said sternly. “I released that cat in Janice’s restaurant! And Fritz doesn’t have fleas!”
“Whatever the case, I was able to talk Guinan out of filing a complaint with Starfleet. She did tell me she didn’t plan on being as lenient the next time a…transgression…of this sort happens.”
Baxter nodded. “So does Janice get her restaurant back?”
Vansen sighed. “Against my better judgment, yes. Apparently, Guinan was content to move her operation into the smaller space on level one. Of course, her marketing department is hard at work figuring out a way to reassure their customers that cats won’t come flying into the restaurant attacking them anytime soon.”
“On this ship, you never know.”
“Oh, I know,” Vansen said. “I know that whenever you’re involved in something, it blows up in my face. I don’t appreciate it.”
“I didn’t realize I’d inconvenienced you,” Baxter said. “I didn’t intend to. It’s purely a bonus.”
“You’re a laugh riot, Baxter,” Vansen said, steepling her fingers. “Be glad that this particular problem sorted itself out. Next time I doubt you’ll be so lucky.”
“Do me a favor,” Baxter said, standing up. “The next time you threaten me, try to put some feeling into it. Posturing really isn’t your style.”
“Isn’t my…” Vansen trailed off.
“Later, Vansen,” Baxter said, and walked out of the readyroom.
“Since when did you get a spine?” Vansen called after him.
Mirk and Hartley ran, breathless, down the corridor, and stopped, once they’d felt sure they’d given Dallas and Batyn the slip.
“That was close,” Mirk said, gasping.
“Yes. I think it’s time for a strategic retreat,” Hartley said. “Before anybody else spots us.”
They looked up.
“Counselor Peterman!” Hartley exclaimed, as Peterman stepped out of what looked to be an office. They must have run to the “office park,” section of the station.
“Set up a private practice?” Mirk asked, glancing into the office.
“Something like that,” Peterman said. “How’s the ship?”
“She’s fine,” Hartley said. “She…uh…misses you, though.”
Peterman folded her arms. “Does she now?”
“Yeah,” Hartley said, glancing worriedly down the corridor. “We’d stay longer, but we’re being chased by Section 31.”
Peterman cocked her head. “Section…do I even want to know?”
“The less you know the better.”
“Should I contact Captain Beck?”
Hartley shook her head. “No. At this point, the fewer people who know we’re here, the better.”
“If you say so.”
“Do you plan on coming back anytime soon?” Mirk blurted, as Hartley dragged him back down the corridor.
“I don’t know,” Peterman said. “Tell him…tell him I just don’t know.”
The next morning, Baxter poked his head into the storefront that was once Rura Penthe’s, which was once Space Tastes, which would soon again be Space Tastes.
“Janice?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, walking out from the back room, a paint covered smock draped around her. “Sorry about the mess. I’m redecorating.”
“Obviously.” Baxter looked around. The walls were bare, paint stripped in some places, repainted in others. The floor was being pulled up by members of the engineering and maintenance crews. Others were moving Guinanco materiel out of the storefront. The Space Tastes furniture and decorations were in storage, and were being carted out of a cargo bay at that very moment. “Say,” he said. “Why don’t you get Yeoman Briggs to help you?”
“He’s not speaking to me.” Browning sighed. “He’s not speaking to you either.”
“Why? What did I ever do…oh.” He nodded. “Kelly.”
“They were very close.”
“Well,” Baxter said, with a broadening smile. “You can reassure Mister Briggs that Kelly will be coming back soon, and that things will start returning to normal around here.”
Browning stepped toward Baxter, dusting off her smock. “Not to burst your bubble, Andy, but what makes you say that?”
“Let’s just say I’m taking action.”
“Absolutely not,” Federation President Bradley Dillon said over the viewer. Baxter was pleased. At least he got through to the man. “It’s a ridiculous misuse of resources.”
“Don’t think it was easy for me to call you,” Baxter said, leaning back in his desk chair. “You know you’re not my favorite person.”
“And yet still, somehow I sleep at night,” Bradley said icily.
“After all you put us through, you can at least do this for me.”
“I believe you said you were willing to settle, last we talked,” Bradley said, rubbing his chin. “Right after you punched me in the jaw.”
“Well, this is the settlement.”
“You don’t have much leverage,” Bradley said. “What’s in this for me?”
“The fact that, if this works, Counselor Peterman will very shortly be leaving Waystation.”
Bradley’s expression brightened. “Why didn’t you just say so? I’ll make the arrangements immediately. Dillon out.”
Mirk and Hartley lay awake aboard the runabout Passaic, next to each other on the aft bunk, as it zipped toward its rendez-vous with the Explorer.
“Do you think…” Hartley said, breaking the silence. “Do you think maybe you fulfilled your obligations to the Directors, and that they’re keeping you out of this on purpose? As a thank-you?”
“That’s not how they work, Megan, and you know it,” Mirk said. “Besides, the last thing I would want is to be left out of this. If the Directors are in trouble, I want to help them.”
“Then why in the world would they want to strip you of your powers?”
“Maybe they didn’t.”
“The Critics, then? I’d think if they were capable of doing something like that, they’d have done it before now.”
“It’s not the Critics’ fault,” Mirk said. “It’s my own fault.”
“What does that mean?”
Hartley pulled Mirk closer, and closed her eyes. “Well, whatever happens, we’ll face it together. You know that, Mirk, don’t you?”
“Always and forever,” Mirk said with a smile, kissing Hartley’s forehead. “Yes, I know.”
“Just like it should be,” Hartley said softly, drifting off to sleep.
“Yes. Just like it should be,” Mirk said distantly. He didn’t fall asleep.
Counselor Peterman yawned as she leaned back in bed, after another unsatisfying day working as a counselor on Waystation.
It wasn’t bad enough they already had a private contract counseling center on board. The sad truth was, nobody on the station seemed that mentally ill. At least, not compared to the Explorer.
Peterman sighed, punching a control, activating the large viewscreen opposite her bed. It was always easier to fall asleep listening to the holovision. That was the only way she managed to fall asleep, most nights.
The viewer lit up her darkened bedroom with that night’s offering…an episode of Sex on the Starship. The diaries of Ensign Cammy Brisbane aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid. Peterman loved the show, but it was the episode where Cammy nearly causes a warp core breach because she broke up with her boyfriend, and she’d already seen that one.
Not to mention the subject matter wasn’t particularly enjoyable to Peterman.
She leaned back in bed, pulling the covers up and rolling over. “Computer, deactivate…”
Then a voice interrupted her, as the screen changed colors, flashing the Associated Worlds Network logo.
“This is the Associated Worlds Network news room, with an all points update,” Joan Redding said, seated confidently at the news desk on the AWN set. Peterman grimaced. The woman was a classic Type-A personality. Peterman tried to tell her so once, but was rebuffed with extreme prejudice.
Still, she wondered what was important enough to break into regularly scheduled program.
Redding seemed to be taking cues from someone off-set. She nodded, probably receiving information from her auditory implant.
“Yes, we’re getting the new feed now.” Her brow furrowed. “What? But we can’t show that. We’ll lose all credibility.” She sat there a moment longer, nodding. “Fine, well. Fine. If the President wants it, I guess he gets it.” She turned back to face the viewing audience. “Live from the Starship Explorer, we have a message from Captain Andrew Baxter.”
Peterman gasped as Baxter appeared on a split screen with Joan Redding. He looked disheveled, excited, his hair out of whack. “Am I on?”
“Yes, Captain,” Redding said. “Just as a reminder, this broadcast is being sent broad-band, to every world in the Federation, and beyond. Trillions of beings are receiving this signal. Now I understand you have a message for your wife?”
“That’s right, Jean.”
“Whatever.” Baxter looked out of the screen, seemingly locking eyes with Peterman. She scooted near the edge of her bed. “Look…this is for Kelly. She’s my wife. Kelly, I hope you’re watching this. Like I said, she’s my wife, and I love her. I love her more than I ever thought possible.” He smiled broad. “But you already knew all that, didn’t you, Kelly?
“But, you know what? I figured there might be some people out there in the galaxy who didn’t know it. And I wanted all of them to know. I love Kelly Lynne Peterman with all my heart. In all my life, I’ve never loved anyone more. Anyone.”
Peterman felt the tears come, and saw Baxter’s eyes were filling, too.
“She’s my wife,” he said, his voice cracking. “She’s my wife, and I want her to come home.”
In fifteen minutes, Peterman was packed, and on the next transport off Waystation.
Counselor Peterman is finally returning to the Explorer. All she has to do is get there. That may be easier said than done, though, with Predator-in-Cheif Harth waiting in the wings. Can Captain Baxter rescue Peterman from Harth’s clutches, and will he have to defy Vansen and the crew of the Explorer to do so?