Author: Anthony Butler
For someone far and away. . .
“…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. 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 Katherine Marie Peterman with all my heart. In all my life, I’ve never loved anyone more. Anyone.
“She’s my wife. She’s my wife, and I want her to come home.”
“Computer, freeze image,” Predator-in-Chief Harth of the Gorn Confederacy hissed. “You poor man. Your wife has left you, and you’re begging her to come back home. So sad.” He shifted in his chair. “Sad. Like having your ship and crew captured, collected, and imprisoned by the Federation like some Aldebran petting zoo exhibit!”
Aboard the Gorn Predator ship Minkta, Harth watched his viewscreen with intense interest. His golfball-like eyes bulged as he stared at the frozen image of Captain Andy Baxter, all weepy-eyed about his lost wife. Harth had followed the exploits of the Explorer since his imprisonment at a Federation penal colony and subsequent release. During that damnable existence, which bore only one achievement–his award winning forsythias–Harth focused on only one pure, overarching goal: Destroy Captain Andy Baxter.
He growled at the frozen image on his screen. Baxter, eyes welling with tears, begging ihs wife to come back.
Assitant Predator Garong stood beside Harth, his clawed hands draped behind his back. “Predator?”
Harth twisted around to look at Garong. “Well, don’t just sit there. Make course for the Waystation. Locate her transport, and follow it. But keep your distance. I don’t want them knowing we’re out there until it’s time.”
Garong nodded. “Time for what, sir?””
Harth clenched his fist into a tight ball. “To strike a blow for love, of course.”
“Nothing can possibly bring me down today,” Captain Baxter announced, stepping out onto the bridge of the Explorer.
“Can I at least try?” Captain Nell Vansen asked, looking up from the command chair as Baxter circled around and sat down beside her.
“Do your worst, Vansen,” Baxter said. “I’ve just found out the most terrific news, and I can’t imagine anything that would dampen my spirit.”
“Let me guess,” Vansen said, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “You found a way to sleep with your eyes open, so you can work the night shift and still get a full night’s sleep.”
“Shows what you know,” Baxter said mockingly. “I’ve already figured out how to do that.”
“Then pray tell,” Vansen said, hugging the padd she was working on to her chest. “What could possibly have put you in such a good mood.”
“Kelly’s coming back.”
Vansen narrowed her eyes. “Well, how nice for you.”
“Don’t strain yourself pretending to be happy for me. I know it’s not your style.”
“Glad we’re on the same page,” Vansen said, and returned to her padd.
“Kelly will be wanting her post as Ship’s Counselor back, of course.”
“Mmhmmm. We’ll see about that. Ryn’s doing a wonderful job.”
“Yes. She’s doing Kelly’s wonderful job,” Baxter said. “And when Kelly comes back, she can do someone else’s job wonderfully.”
“Perhaps,” Vansen said.
“You can’t ruin this for me, Vansen. Little by little, I’m putting things back the way they should be.”
“Oh,” Vansen said. “And I suppose your crowning achievement will be getting command of this ship back.”
“It’s a distinct possibility.”
Vansen chuckled. “No, it’s not.”
“We’ll see about that,” Baxter said, echoing Vansen’s earlier words. He turned to the console beside his chair. “So, what’s going on around here?”
“Besides our mission to Tarlan Four?”
“Um…I was of course referring to the mission to Tarlan Four.”
“It’s going fine,” Vansen said. “I think we’ve managed to coerce the Tarlans into joining the Federation.”
“They needed coercion?” Baxter asked.
“They’re very xenophobic,” Vansen said, and sighed. “This was all in the briefing, of course.”
“Refresh my memory,” Baxter said flatly.
“Fine. They’re xenophobic. We have to be very careful about making any sudden movements here. The negotiations are tricky. One wrong move and they’re going to turn us away, and Starfleet won’t be happy if that happens.”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “Let me guess. Dilithium deposits.”
“No,” Vansen said defensively. “Not at all.” She looked away. “Deuterium.”
“Whatever the case, Starfleet is vested in making this arrangement work. After the fallout with the Dominion, the Borg, and the Breen, and the rising hostilities with the Gorn, we need all the allies and resources we can get.”
“So it’s time to pillage neighboring worlds, is that it?”
“Where were you when we were actually briefing on this mission?”
“I’m sure I had something very pressing.”
“Why do I even bother talking to you?” Vansen grumbled, then returned to her padd.
“Beats me,” Baxter said, and hopped out of his chair. “I’m going to go down to the mall to find lots and lots of flowers to put in our quarters. You know, something understated but elegant.”
“Sure,” Vansen said. “Five minutes of duty on the bridge is a lot for one day.”
“Right back at ya,” Baxter said, flashing “thumbs-up” at Vansen as the turbolift doors closed in front of him. Man he felt good.
Peterman felt a lot as she sat on the Dillon Enterprises Transport Vessel Verdi Three, but she couldn’t quite figure out what all those feelings were yet.
The last place she really wanted to be was a Dillon-owned vessel, but she couldn’t be picky about how she got back to the Explorer. When she got back, she’d have to ask Baxter how he managed to convince Bradley Dillon to arrange for the airtime on the Associated Worlds Network. Bradley Dillon had to be responsible for that, since the delivery of the first class ticket on his travelliner arrived at the exact moment Baxter’s transmission ended.
Peterman didn’t waste any time getting off Waystation. She knew she had to go back to Andy, and soon. All was not settled between them, but she knew she could no longer avoid their problems. She also knew, whatever else happened, that she loved him. Hard as it was to face what had happened between them, she knew she had to. The alternative was just too frightening to contemplate.
“First time at maximum warp, sweetie?” an elderly woman seated beside her in one of the other wide First Class “command chairs,” said, stirring her from her thoughts. The First Class section of the ship was quiet, subdued, and dimly lit. This was, after all, considered a “red eye” flight.
“Hardly,” Peterman said. “I’m a Starfleet officer. I’ve been to all corners of the galaxy. Back in time, alternate universes, spatial anomalies. You name it.”
“And yet you’re such a young, pretty girl.”
“Well, thank you,” Peterman blushed as the graying, paunchy woman rubbed her cheek, a little disturbingly. “I think I do okay for a woman in her…mid…twenties.”
“I’m sure you do,” the old woman said. “So…where is it you’re going?”
“Back to my ship. The Explorer. Have you heard of her?”
The woman shrugged. “Can’t say that I have.”
“It’s a good ship. The crew’s a bit misdirected. A little neurotic. But they’re good people.”
“I’m sure they are.”
“What about you….I didn’t catch your name.”
“Elsie. Elsie Greenwood,” the woman said, shaking Peterman’s hand.
“What brings you on this trip?”
“Oh,” Elsie said, her creased, rosy cheeks glowing as she smiled. “I’m going to visit my son on Calder Two.”
“That sounds like fun.”
“Oh yes. He’s a colonial administrator. Very important boy, my son.”
“It’s important to love what you do.”
Elsie nodded. “And what is it you do, young lady?”
“I’m a Ship’s Counselor,” Peterman said proudly.
“Figures,” the woman said with a chuckle. “You probably have me all figured out already.”
“Hardly,” Peterman said. “I just met you.”
“Well,” Peterman admitted, glancing at the woman. “I suppose I can tell a few things about you.”
“Tell me,” the woman said, and leaned forward.
“Well, you’re an older lady. It stands to reason you’re somewhat set in your ways.”
“Mm-hmm. If you only new the half of it!”
“And I saw the padd you were reading. Moon-jumping enthusiasts monthly. Being that you’re of advanced years, I take it you’re probably not planning on doing a moon jump yourself, but you’re probably reading the article to reminisce about something that happened in your youth. Which suggests to me you were probably very active back then. A bit of a daredevil, a risk-taker.”
Elsie smiled warmly. “How well you know me.”
Peterman shrugged. “It’s my job. I’ve got to be intuitive.” She leaned back in her plush leather seat and closed her eyes. “Not much surprises me these days.”
That’s when the first blast rocked the Verdi Three.
Alert klaxons wailed. The sleeping passengers roused, and shouts echoed up and down the aisles, on all twelve decks of the transport vessel.
“All hands, this is the Captain. We’re under attack. Please assume emergency positions and stand by….zzzzzt….”
Peterman stared at the ceiling. “Communications are being jammed.”
Elsie looked around fearfully. “I don’t like this…”
“No reason you should,” Peterman said, gripping the arms of her chair. She decided something had to be done. “I’m going up to the cockpit. Maybe I can help negotiate with whoever’s attacking us. I am a Starfleet officer after all.”
“Maybe you should just stay here,” Elsie suggested.
“I’ll be fine,” Peterman said, stumbling as another blast rocked the Verdi Three. Flight attendants flitted from aisle to aisle, calming the passengers and telling them to remain in their seats.
“Ma’am,” one of the flight attendants, a very prissy man named “Mitch,” said, holding up a hand to stop Peterman as she approached the doorway to the forward compartment. “You need to get back to your seat.”
“I’m a Starfleet officer, Mitch. I’m here to help.”
“I’m sure the captain and his crew have everything in hand,” Mitch said. “You need to go back to your seat.”
Peterman pushed Mitch aside, glancing down at his nametag. “Listen, ‘Mitch.’ Trust me on this one, I know exactly what I’m doing.”
Mitch reached out to grab Peterman by the shoulder. “Listen, missy, you’re not going anywh–”
But before he could grab her, a green field coalesced around her, and she disappeared in a whirl of verdant particles.
“I stand corrected,” Mitch gasped.
More blasts rocked the Verdi Three, and then all was quiet.
“All hands, this is the Captain again,” the comm system trilled. “Our attackers have moved off, but we won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. They destroyed our engines, and several other vital systems. Not to worry. A rescue ship has already been dispatched from Waystation. Sit tight.
“Oh, and good news! Dillon Enterprises has announced that, due to the inconvenience of this attack, ten percent of your ticket price will be refunded to you. Have a nice day!”
Elsie’s brow creased in consternation. She’d watched Peterman get beamed away. She looked down at her padd and started tapping information into it. Someone got to her target before she could, and she’d damn sure find out why.
The people who paid her to find and capture Peterman wouldn’t be happy to find out someone else got to her first. “Elsie” was many things, but a fool she was not. She knew one should never, ever cross the Orion Syndicate.
She’d better come up with an explanation fast.
One thing was for certain, Kelly Peterman was very important to more than one person.
“Flowers…everywhere?” Dr. Janice Browning asked, leaning forward as Baxter ate his triple-decker club sandwich at the makeshift table in Space Tastes. The kitchen was back up and running, and much of the furniture had been moved in, but some parts of the wall were still an annoying Guinanco pastel. It would take over a week to get all of the Guinanco influence cleansed out of the former Space Tastes, and to have Janice’s restaurant returned to normal.
But that was certainly a task worth doing.
“Yeah,” Baxter said, chewing and swallowing. “I had Briggs put together a tasteful display.”
“Oh, Andy. You knew he’d go overboard. He’s so…flamboyant.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know.” Browning sighed. “Anyway, I’m glad Kelly’s coming back. I know you’ve missed her terribly over these last few weeks.”
“It’s been awful,” Baxter said between bites.
“Yeah,” Browning said, staring down at the table.
“Oh,” Baxter said. “What about Chris? Have you heard anything from him?”
Browning shook her head. “Not a peep. I guess he’s having fun with the Breen Circus.”
“What is a Breen Circus anyway? Is it any different than a regular circus?”
“You got me,” Browning said with a shrug. “You know as much as I know.”
“Well, I know Chris will eventually come back. This is his home, just like it’s our home. He may be taking time to reconnoiter, but that doesn’t mean he’s gone for good.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re getting the person you love back.”
“Janice…are you saying you love Chris?”
“Haven’t I always,” Browning said softly. “I mean, hasn’t it always been that way?”
“Do you really want to go down that road with him again?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I want,” Browning said. “Luckily, it’s not something I have to think about, since he’s not here.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “I’ll have to try and contact him this afternoon. Maybe the news that Kelly’s coming back will encourage him to come back into the fold too.”
“Maybe.” Browning took a deep breath. “So, when’s Kelly getting here?”
“Late tonight. I’m fixing a late dinner, since she probably won’t eat on the transport. She hates transport food.”
“Who doesn’t,” Browning said. She licked her lips. “What are you making?”
“Kelly’s favorite. Vegetarian lasagna and creamed spinach.”
Browning crinkled her nose. “THAT’S Kelly’s favorite dish? I never realized…”
“She’s kind of a closet vegetarian. You know, that whole thing about eating something that has a face.”
“Even if the meat comes from a replicator?”
“She doesn’t see the distinction. Says it’s the thought that counts.”
“Hmm. I’ll have to remember that next time she comes into the restaurant.”
Baxter smiled broadly. “Which will be in the very near future.”
Browning put a hand on Baxter’s. “I’m glad for you, Andy. I really am.”
“Thanks, Janice.” Baxter put his other hand on top of Browning’s and squeezed. “I couldn’t have gotten through this without you.”
“Any time,” Browning said softly.
The two sat there in silence for a few moments.
“J’hana to Baxter.”
“Go ahead,” Baxter said, blinking, and pulling his hands away.
“Report to the bridge immediately. There has been a…development.”
“Tell Vansen I could give a crap about her mission.”
“This doesn’t concern the mission,” J’hana said. “It’s about your wife.”
Baxter never felt his feet hit the floor.
He burst out of the turbolift, heading directly for tactical.
“Give it to me, J’hana.”
“Details still coming through now. There’s a lot of confusion over there, sir.”
“Over where?” Baxter demanded, looking over J’hana’s shoulder at the readouts. J’hana looked over at Tilleran, who was poring over information that ran across the science console.
“One of you tell me something NOW,” Baxter ordered, his voice shaking.
“The transport craft Verdi Three,” Tilleran said. “The ship that Counselor Peterman boarded at Waystation. They were supposed to rendez-vous with us tomorrow on their way out to the Denab system.”
“I know all that,” Baxter said, turning back to J’hana expectantly. “WHAT HAPPENED?”
“It appears a Gorn attack crippled the Verdi,” J’hana said. “There were a few minor injuries…”
Baxter gripped tactical. “And…?”
“And they took Counselor Peterman. The Verdi is adrift in space. Waystation has dispatched a rescue ship.”
Baxter crossed the bridge down to helm, resting a hand on Lt. Madera’s shoulder. “Melissa. Set a course for the coordinates of the Verdi and engage at maximum warp. Now.”
Madera looked meekly up at Baxter. “I’m sorry, Captain, I can’t.”
“Captain Vansen left explicit orders,” a voice said from behind Baxter. Lt. Jeremy Gage must have just stepped out of the readyroom. “We aren’t to break orbit for any reason until the negotiations with the Tarlans have been completed.”
“This is different,” Baxter said. “This is my wife.”
“The authorities have been notified,” Gage said. “Waystation’s people are investigating the attack.”
“And you think that’s enough?” Baxter demanded.
“It will have to be,” Gage said, putting a calming hand on Baxter’s shoulder. “We understand this is a difficult position we’re in, but our orders from Starfleet are very clear. The mission with the Tarlans is top priority.”
“It’s not my priority,” Baxter said. “J’hana, Tilleran. You’re with me. Meet me on the Escort in ten minutes.”
Gage’s comforting hand came down on Baxter’s shoulder again. “I’m afraid you can’t do that, sir.”
Baxter shoved Gage’s hand off his shoulder. “Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do. I’m leaving.”
“No, sir. The Captain has ordered no support craft may leave the Explorer until the mission is over. Even a runabout leaving the ship may be enough to collapse the negotiations with the Tarlans.”
“Where’s Vansen?” Baxter growled, marching back up to the aft turbolift.
“She’s down on the planet, in negotiations. She’s not to be disturbed.”
“Mister,” Baxter said, narrowing his eyes at Gage. “You’ve got a lot to learn about following orders. There are times when Starfleet orders take a back seat to doing what’s right.”
“The authorities are taking the appropriate measures, sir,” Gage said, as Baxter punched the call button at the lift. “I suggest you go back to your quarters and monitor subspace channels. I’m sure they’ll have news about your wife soon. Then, when this mission is over, we can join the search.”
“It may be too late by then,” Baxter said, and ducked into the turbolift.
“Don’t make me stop you, Captain,” Gage said.
“Do your worst,” Baxter said as the doors closed.
Gage looked to J’hana. “Lieutenant, I think you know what to do.”
J’hana looked at Tilleran. “Yes, I believe I do.”
“May I ask what this is about, Captain?” Chaka’kan asked over the comm channel as Baxter rode the turbolift down to the bottom of the saucer section.
“No, you may not,” Baxter said.
“May I ask when you’ll return?”
“As soon as I can.”
“I will, of course, babysit your daughter. To do otherwise would be contrary to my mission. Babysitting is life.”
“Bless you, Chaka. Baxter out.”
Baxter yanked his combadge off and tossed it to the floor as he left the turbolift.
He punched his code into the access panel, groaning when the panel flashed “invalid code,” in cruel red text.
“Damn it,” he said, leaning his head on the airlock door. “Why is it that everybody on this ship is capable of stealing the Escort when they need to, except for me?”
“Mister Gage was quite adept at locking out your access codes,” Lt. J’hana said, walking down the corridor toward Baxter, phaser drawn. Tilleran was behind her.
“J’hana….” Baxter said, looking from the Andorian to the airlock. “I need your code.”
“I can’t give that to you, Captain,” J’hana said, training the phaser on Baxter.
“Sir, this will go easier if you do as I say.”
Baxter set his jaw, clenching his fists and steeling himself as J’hana approached him. “J’hana, don’t make me hurt you.”
The Andorian threw back her head and laughed. “This is no time for jokes, Captain.”
“Do what she says,” Tilleran said.
“Step aside,” J’hana said, then pushed Baxter away from the airlock as if he weighed nothing. Baxter slammed back against the bulkhead.
“Don’t do this…” Baxter said leaning up.
“Don’t do what?” J’hana asked, and aimed her phaser at the access panel to the Escort airlock. She blasted it, causing sparks to shoot out.
The door wheezed open with a puff of air.
“Come on, Captain,” Tilleran said, taking Baxter by the arm. “We’re losing precious time.”
“Gage could regain consciousness at any moment,” J’hana said.
“I love you two,” Baxter said with a smile. “I could kiss you both.”
“Please don’t,” Tilleran said, and jogged down the airlock to the Escort’s access hatch, quickly tapping in a series of codes, overriding the security lockouts.
J’hana waited beside Tilleran, tapping her foot. “Hurry, Betazoid. Time is of the essence.”
“Don’t rush me,” Tilleran said.
“You guys…didn’t have to do this,” Baxter said.
“Are you kidding?” J’hana asked. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve rained down mass destruction?”
“Got it!” Tilleran announced, and the hatch to the Escort slid open.
Revealing Lt. Commander Megan Hartley.
“Damn it,” Baxter said.
“Going somewhere?” she asked, flipping a coil spanner in her hand..
Baxter stepped slightly behind his Andorian security chief. “Beat her up, J’hana!”
“No need,” J’hana said. “She is on our side.”
“How’d you get in?” Tilleran asked, stupefied, as the group filed in and allowed the hatch to close behind them.
“Transporter,” Hartley said. “I used to be a transporter chief, you know.”
“Obviously, we forgot,” J’hana said, and the group set off down the corridor toward the bridge.
“I want you all to go back to the ship,” Baxter said, as everyone filed onto the Escort’s bridge. “I’m sure Vansen will go easy on you if you beam back right now.”
“Need I remind you that it was you and Counselor Peterman who disobeyed orders and came to my rescue when I was trying to save Dwanok?” J’hana asked.
“And you risked the ship to try to get Mirk off that Goddess’ ship,” Hartley said. “Twice.”
“We’re a family, Captain,” Tilleran said. “A dysfunctional family that doesn’t always get along, but a family nonetheless.”
Baxter took a breath. “Guys…”
“Captain,” Hartley said, sliding in behind the helm console. “I need coordinates.”
Baxter nodded at J’hana, a smile spreading across his face. “You’ve got them, J’hana.”
J’hana sat down behind the tactical station. “Routing coordinates to the helm.”
“Raise the sensor-reflective shields. Hopefully, the Tarlans will be none the wiser about our departure,” Baxter said, settling into the command chair.
Tilleran looked over the science console opposite J’hana. “The airlock’s opening up. About fifteen security officers are heading in.”
“Our airlock is sealed,” Hartley said. “It’ll take them at least a few minutes to get in.”
“Gage regained consciousness quickly,” J’hana observed.
“Rev up the engines,” Baxter ordered, gripping the command chair. “Detach when ready!”
“I’m going to need you to override the magna-locks, Tilleran,” Hartley said, tapping at the helm console.
“On it,” Tilleran said. “In five, four…”
Suddenly the comm system trilled to life. “BAXTER! This is Vansen. I know what you’re doing. Leave the ship, and I promise you won’t have a ship to come back to!”
Baxter nodded at Tilleran. “Go!”
The Escort shook as it dropped loose from the saucer of the Explorer.
He clenched his fist. “Engage!”
Hartley tapped a control and the Escort shot into warp. “So much for our careers,” she sighed.
“Eh, what were we holding onto?” J’hana asked aloud, to nobody in particular.
When Counselor Peterman opened her eyes, the first thing she realized was that she wasn’t on the Verdi anymore.
She looked up, felt a bright light shining in her eyes, and squinted.
“Welcome to the Minkta, Counselor,” a throaty voice said, from somewhere in the dark beyond. “I’m Captain Harth. Although I’m sure you’d figured that out by now.”
Honestly, she hadn’t. Harth…Minkta…why did those names sound so familiar? Peterman could feel her wrists bound behind her back, behind the metal chair she was seated in. She squirmed.
“I’m not going to tell you anything about the Federation,” Peterman said. “So if you’re planning on torturing me, you can forget about it.” She figured that was the thing most people would say in a hostage situation. She should know, she’d been in enough of them.
“I don’t want your stupid Federation secrets,” the voice hissed, and she began to make out a face in the darkness.
A big, toothy, bug-eyed Gorn face.
“I want your husband,” he said. “Preferably, impaled on something sharp.”
“Who, that imbecile?” Peterman replied, throwing her head back with a laugh. “I guess you’re not up on current events. Andy and I split up, weeks ago.”
The Gorn stepped forward. “My information is better than you think. I know you split up. And I know you were on your way back to him for a glorious reunion. Can I help it if I’m a little sentimental, and that I want to witness such an event?”
“Just what do you expect to get out of this?”
“Two dead people,” the Gorn said flatly. “You?”
Captain Vansen leaned over the conference table, facing the two people on the opposite side. “I want you both to tell me everything.”
Dr. Browning and Mr. Mirk looked at each other.
“Well…” Mirk said, taking a deep breath. “Tonight’s special is grilled seabass.”
“With lemon compote and glazed truffles,” Browning said.
“She’s serving dinner at my place until her restaurant reopens,” Mirk said. “I think it’s a great example of cross-marketing.”
Vansen pounded the table. “I don’t want to have to ask again, you two. Where’s Captain Baxter?”
Browning shrugged. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“It’s pretty much all over the ship,” Mirk said. “He went to go save his wife.”
Vansen glanced over her shoulder at Gage. “Find the Escort, Lieutenant. I don’t care how many favors you have to call in, I want you to find that ship.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Gage turned on a heel and headed out the door.
“What are you going to do, Captain?” Browning asked. “Stop him from rescuing Kelly? Help the Gorn?”
“There’s a certain way we go about doing things around here, Doctor. And although you’re wildly incompetent, I’d think you’d at least realize that.”
“I realize you’re a heartless bitch,” Browning said.
Mirk put a hand on her shoulder. “I think you’ve helped enough, Janice.”
Vansen stared at Browning. “Get them out of here,” she barked at Ensign Keefler, and turned around, heading out toward the bridge.
“He’s really done it this time,” Browning murmured, as Keefler led them out the other door.
“Yeah,” Mirk said. “They all have.”
Baxter paced the cramped Escort bridge. “Anything on sensors, Tilleran?”
“We’re just getting into sensor range of the Verdi now,” she said. “There’s another ship there.”
Baxter looked at J’hana. “Maintain sensor-reflective shields. Standby phasers.”
Tilleran looked up. “It’s the Wayward.”
“Waystation’s scout ship,” Baxter said. “Hail them.”
J’hana tapped her panel. “We’re getting a response.”
“On screen,” Baxter said, folding his arms.
Commander Walter Morales appeared on the viewscreen, behind the helm controls of the Wayward.
“Captain Baxter,” he said with a nod.
“What have you found out, Morales?” Baxter asked.
Morales seemed distracted. He looked from his screens, back to Baxter. “Not a whole lot. There’s a lot of latent radiation in the area from the Gorn weapons. It’s inhibiting a complete investigation.”
“I’m sure you have your best people on it.” He looked at Tilleran. “Get me an ion trail. Now.”
Tilleran’s hands scrambled over the controls. “It’s faint, sir. I’m not getting a clear reading.”
“I’ll try to boost sensor gain,” Hartley said.
Baxter looked back at Morales. “Have you been in regular contact with Waystation?”
Morales nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“I take it Captain Beck is not happy with me.”
“Is she ever?” He gave a nervous smile. “Captain, there’s been some developments. The Federation Council has engaged in very delicate talks with the Gorn. We think the Gorn will agree to send their own forces after Captain Harth. We’re not to interfere until this thing gets sorted out.”
“Or until he hurts my wife,” Baxter said grimly.
“Sir, I have direct orders from Captain Beck not to let you leave this system. You’re to power down weapons and take a position alongside the Wayward. We’ll escort you back to Waystation…”
Baxter held up a hand, interrupting him. “Look, Morales, I realize I don’t know you very well…” He took a deep breath. “Have you ever been in love, Morales?”
Morales pulled at his collar. “Sir, please stand down. Drop your shields. We can talk this over like reasonable people…”
“People who are in love aren’t reasonable,” Baxter said. “They do things they can’t explain. Things they never thought they’d do.” He stared at Morales. “You know?”
Morales stared at Baxter a long moment.
“Your signal is breaking up, Captain,” Morales said. “This latent radiation is playing havoc with our sensors.”
“Got it!” Tilleran said. “Ion trail. Four four six mark zero zero seven. Very faint.”
“Alter course, Hartley,” Baxter said. “Maximum warp. Go!”
“Godspeed, Captain,” Morales said.
“I owe you one, Morales,” Baxter said, returning to the command chair. Baxter knew Beck. He’d catch hell for helping Baxter, who wasn’t her favorite person to begin with.
“You have no idea,” Morales said, and disappeared as the viewscreen was replaced with a streaking starscape.
“Message coming in from Waystation,” Gage said, leaning over the tactical console. “Captain Beck reports that her rescue ship encountered the escort about fifteen minutes ago.”
Vansen leaned forward in the command chair. “Was there an exchange of fire?”
“Negative. Something about radiation,” Gage said. “Beck didn’t sound happy.”
“I can understand why,” Vansen said. “Beck would have liked nothing better than to drag Baxter into a brig.”
Lt. Madera turned around from the helm console. “Do we break orbit, Captain?”
“No,” Vansen said, after a pause. “The Tarlan assembly is still in session debating the treaty. It may be a few hours before they decide to sign it. Meanwhile, the diplomatic attachment is still hours away. We have to stay here and babysit until then.”
“Then what do we do?” Gage asked.
“We sit and wait,” Vansen said, clasping her hands and leaning back in her chair. “For the Gorn to kill Baxter, or for him to succeed, and make it back here in one piece.” She narrowed her eyes. “So I can kill him.”
Peterman squirmed in the hard metal chair as the light came on again. How much time had passed?
The face of Captain Harth came into view once again, as the massive Gorn lumbered forward out of the darkness.
“Good news, Counselor,” he said. “We’ve detected the Escort on long-range sensors. I believe your Captain Baxter is on board.”
“Great,” Petersen said. “Then I guess negotiations will be…”
“Not happening,” the Gorn said with a toothy grin. “At any rate, That tiny ship is no match for us.”
“We’ll see,” Peterman said, saying a silent prayer that J’hana was aboard the Escort. And why wasn’t the Explorer coming? “But let’s not talk about that.” She smiled up at Harth, effecting her most confident grin. “Let’s talk about you, shall we?”
“You think you can ‘sweet talk’ me?” Harth asked, sinking to one knee in front of Peterman. “Find some clever way to convince me to spare your life?”
“Not at all,” Peterman said. “As I’m sure you know, I’m a counselor. It’s in my nature to want to help people. Especially people who are as deeply troubled as you are.”
“What makes you say I’m deeply troubled?” Harth asked, sounding taken aback.
“Because we can smell our own,” Peterman said. “Let me help you, Harth. Let me get you back on track.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re depressed, agitated.”
“I am bent on vengeance!” Harth snapped, rising to his feet.
“No. It’s a classic case of transference.” Peterman was slowly recalling where she knew Harth from. “You couldn’t possibly hate Andy that much. You barely know him.”
“He sent my crew and I to a Federation prison,” Harth hissed, leaning down in Peterman’s face.
“He took you away from someone you love,” Peterman said. “And that someone, I’m guessing, wasn’t available when you returned to the Gorn Confederacy.”
“Bah!” Harth spat. “What do you know?”
Peterman looked up at the Gorn. “Plenty. Plenty about distance, and disappointment, and heartbreak, and loss. I know because I’ve felt them myself.”
“You couldn’t possibly…” He narrowed his eyes at her. “This is a trick.”
“It’s only a trick of the trade,” Peterman said. “You’re heartbroken. I’m so sorry that things didn’t work out with you and her.”
Harth turned away, clenching his massive fists and growling. “Sirron was wrong to leave me. She felt I’d lost my station. That I’d never regain the power I once had, after having been made a laughingstock by the Federation.”
“You need to move on.”
“It’s useless,” Harth said, turning. “I’ll never find another like her.”
“There are lots of…” Peterman looked at Harth. “Lizards…in the sea.”
“None of Sirron’s beauty. Do you know, her incisors were nine centimeters long?”
“I know that’s what I look for in a healthy relationship,” Peterman said softly.
Harth collapsed next to Peterman, leaning his head in her lap. “I’m so stupid.”
“There…there…” Peterman said, not fully expecting her counseling technique to work so quickly. “It’s not so bad. You have your whole life ahead of you.”
“I’m such a fool,” he sighed. “Such a fool.”
“Don’t be silly,” Peterman said, sitting there, feeling somewhat helpless. Oddly, she wished her hands were free to pat the massive Gorn on the back. “We’ve all been there.”
“Have you?” Harth sniffed, looking up at Peterman.
Peterman thought about it. Despite everything, she wanted nothing more than to see Baxter again. And not so he could save her. No, it was more than that. She wanted him, maybe like never before, to be with her.
And she smiled. “No, I suppose I haven’t at that.”
Suddenly, the floor beneath her quaked.
Harth looked up.
“Predator, this is Garong,” a voice chirped over the comm system. “The Escort showed up, as if from out of nowhere, moments ago, and opened fire.”
“Andy…” Peterman said softly.
“Return fire! I’ll be right there.”
“It may be difficult, Predator. We cannot get a sensor lock. Her shields…”
“Disable that ship!” Harth seethed. “But don’t destroy her.” He stood, and looked down at Peterman. “I’d like to have fun with her first.”
“Have you not heard anything I’ve said?” Peterman asked.
“Yes,” Harth said. “And I’m glad we had this talk. Because now I can show you what heartbreak really is.”
“Well,” Peterman said, alone again in the dark room. “That went well.”
“Continue evasive,” Baxter said, resting his hands on the back of Hartley’s seat at helm. “Keep changing our heading and speed. Don’t let them get a lock. J’hana…”
“Dispensing fury, yes, sir,” J’hana said gleefully, gripping her panel as she fired the Escort’s relatively massive array of weapons at the Gorn starship.
On the viewscreen, the Gorn ship pitched and yawed, its shields flickering as the Escort pummeled it.
“Any luck with those shield frequencies, Tilleran?” Baxter asked, glancing back at the Betazoid.
“Spotty at best,” Tilleran said. “Their shields are a lot different than what we use. It’ll take time to find the right frequency to punch through.”
The Escort shook as a beam lashed out from the Gorn ship and pounded it.
“Keep working,” Baxter said. “Sooner, rather than later, would be best.”
“They must be tracing our fuel emissions,” J’hana said.
“I’m venting some excess deuterium from the nacelles,” Hartley said. “That’ll throw them off our scent for a while.”
Tilleran leaned over her console. “I should remind you, Captain, that the Minkta still easily outguns us.”
“I trust you guys,” Baxter said. “We’ll be fine.” Another blast crashed into the Escort, sending it spinning wildly, end over end. Baxter hit the deck hard, and leaned up. “Or not!”
The comm system buzzed to life.
“Captain Baxter,” a voice roared. “This is Harth from the Minkta. Stand down now and come aboard. We have to talk.”
“About what?” Baxter asked. “Me killing you?”
“No,” Harth replied. “About me killing that which you hold most dear.”
Baxter grabbed the helm console and climbed to his feet. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I have your wife, Baxter. And if you’re not on my bridge in thirty seconds I’ll let my claws do the walking. Are we clear?”
“We’re clear,” Baxter said, and glanced at Hartley. “Close channel. All stop. On my mark, you’re going to drop shields just long enough to beam me over. Then get out of here.”
“Respectfully, Captain, not on our f***ing life,” Hartley said. “We didn’t come all this way just to give you to the Gorn.”
“We don’t have time to debate this,” Baxter said, glancing at the viewscreen. “I can’t risk them hurting her.”
“Do as he says,” J’hana said in a low voice. “He’s the captain.”
“What was all that about ignoring orders and doing what’s right?” Tilleran asked. “Aren’t we no better than Gage and Vansen if we just blindly listen to you, and abandon you to the Gorn?”
“Quiet, Imzadi,” J’hana said, and glared at Tilleran.
She nodded. “Right.”
Hartley sighed and turned toward her panel. “Ready on your mark, Captain.”
Baxter nodded, straightening his uniform tunic. “Right. Good. Energize.”
She dropped the shields, and with a loud hum, the transporter came to life, beaming Baxter off the bridge. Hartley quickly put the shields back up, looking back at Tilleran and J’hana. “I hope you two are happy. By following orders, we just doomed both the Captain and Counselor Peterman.”
“Who said anything about following orders?” Tilleran asked.
“I believe the Captain did,” Hartley said.
“And since when did we start listening to him?” J’hana asked, and cracked her knuckles. “Gentlemen, lock and load.”
When Baxter materialized on the bridge of the Minkta, his first thought was of just how large Gorn are.
One could easily forget the size of a reclusive reptilian race who rarely dealt with Starfleet. Lately, though, they’d stepped up their aggression. But they were still just voices and faces over a comm system. Standing toe to toe with one of them was a different matter altogether.
And right now, Baxter was standing toe to toe with several of them.
One particularly large one faced him, wearing a red sash, which he guessed denoted the vessel’s Captain.
“Harth,” Baxter said. “Where’s my wife?”
“Below decks,” Harth said, stepping toward Baxter, easily a head taller than the captain. He glared down at him with bulging eyes. “She’s not gravely injured, if you were curious.”
“I don’t suppose you give a damn about the Seldonis Convention, or the Hyperion Accords. Or the Metrons. Do you?”
“No,” Harth said. “Can’t say that I do.”
“This is a revenge thing, then?”
“Indeed,” Harth said. “Fight to the death?”
Baxter nodded. “Sounds good.”
“Seems I’m at a disadvantage either way,” Baxter said. “Why muddy the waters?”
“If I didn’t despise you, I’d like you, human,” the Gorn said, slapping Baxter hard on the back. That almost knocked the captain over, which only forshadowed the fierce beating Baxter figured he’d be due for very shortly.
“Sir,” one of the other Gorn spoke up.
“Not now, Garong,” Harth said between clenched, sharp teeth.
“We should dispose of these two hostages now and leave this system immediately. That ship out there that was fighting us moments ago has disappeared from our sensors. They likely went to report our location back to the Federation.”
“This fight will not take long,” Harth said, his eyes not leaving Baxter’s. “Once this is over, we’ll return to Gorn space.”
“And likely be disciplined.”
“Silence!” Harth said. “You have the bridge. I will be in the Battle Room.”
“I’ll see that the blood is cleaned off the floor, sir.”
“Good,” Harth said, and marched toward the nearby turbolift. “And make sure the maintenance crew gets the gore too. They left some gore behind last time.”
One of the Gorn guards shoved the barrel of his disruptor into Baxter’s back. “Move, human!”
“Fantastic,” Baxter gulped. “Just great.”
“But enough about me,” Chris Richards said, leaning against what appeared to be a shiny, red-striped metal pole, a thin sheen of sweat on his face. “How are things over there?”
“Funny you should ask,” Janice Browning said, leaning over the desk in her quarters. “Andy stole the Escort and went off with J’hana, Tilleran, and Hartley to save Kelly from the Gorn.”
“Wow,” Richards said, and paused thoughtfully. “Wait, Andy was able to steal the Escort?”
“I think J’hana helped him.”
Richards nodded. “Sounds like things are the same as usual over there.”
“In some ways,” Browning said. “Still, I’ll feel a lot better when Andy gets back with Kelly safely in tow.”
“I’m sure everything will be fine,” Richards said, and chuckled. “Haven’t you figured out yet that we always win?”
“Sometimes I wonder, Christopher.” Browning took a deep breath. “But enough about that. When, uh, when are you coming back?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Practice is really going well. I’m learning the trapeze.”
“Breen circuses have trapezes?” Browning asked with a raised eyebrow.
“They didn’t until I got here. I convinced them to add some acts with some Earthly flavor. You know, since we’re hitting several Federation colonies with large human populations. I think it’s a real hit. Once I learned the basic moves, it’s a piece of cake.”
“Don’t you need two people to make that work?”
“That’s what Warg is for.”
“Just this Breen I’ve been hanging out with. She’s really nice.”
“Uh-huh. So, just out of medical curiousity…”
“No. I haven’t seen what they look like underneath those suits yet,” Richards said. “But I have to admit to being a little curious. Maybe I’ll find out someday.”
“Sounds like things are going really well,” Browning said.
“Yeah. Who knows, at this rate, I may never come back.” And he laughed.
“Great. Great.” Browning glanced at her chronometer. “Look at that. Wouldn’t you know? I’m late for my shift in Sickbay.”
“Don’t let me keep you. Tell everybody I said hi.”
“I will, Christopher. Take care of yourself.” Browning closed the channel, stood up, and headed out the door. “Well,” she said, to nobody in particular. “I guess things could be worse.”
“Here we fight to the death,” Harth said tonelessly as he walked toward the center of the large room, walls plastered with bright red symbols. Baxter had to guess they were some kind of Gorn inscription, but he had no idea what they meant. Had something to do with carnage, though, to be sure.
The crowd in the room erupted in a roar of excitement as Baxter was led toward the center. Harth hadn’t wasted time setting up admission for this event. He was glad to see the crew was enjoying this so much.
Harth turned to face Baxter as the guards edged him toward the center of the room, in the middle of a large, painted red square.
“Here, one shall stand, and one shall fall. We will find out how much you truly want your wife back.”
“You’re going to rip me limb from limb, aren’t you?” Baxter asked, trying to sound casual.
“It’s to be hoped that you’ll struggle at first, and that I’ll have the discipline to prolong the experience for a while. But yes, that’s the gist of it.” The crowd launched into hearty laughter. Gorn laughter sounded throaty, forboding. Baxter didn’t like it at all.
“Good. Glad to know we’re on the same page,” Baxter said, yanking off his uniform jacket to reveal the vest and tunic underneath. He rolled up his sleeves. “Anything else I should know?”
“Probably,” Harth said, pulling his blade out of its holster at his hip and tossing it out of the square. “But it won’t change anything.”
“That’s reassuring.” Baxter glanced around. “So…this is the largest room you’ve got? Kind of pathetic. My battle with Chancellor Martok was held in a room three times this size.”
“The whole ship is watching via viewer,” Harth seethed. “And the match is being broadcast on tightbeam to the entire Gorn Confederacy, as part of Confederacy-Wide-Wrestling’s Blornsday Night Bloodbath package. Good thing too. They so love to see humans pummeled. And they’re getting rather tired of that Kirk footage.”
Captain Kirk, Baxter thought to himself, as he and Harth circled each other at the center of the square. Of course! The fight over Cestus Three. “Didn’t Kirk win that?”
“Not in the version we show.”
Damn. He should have watched that on the way here. Maybe he could have gotten a few pointers.
“Enough prancing about,” Harth said. “We begin. NOW!”
“Are we even going to get a countdown?” Baxter asked innocently. “Like a five, four, three sort of–” And Harth launched himself into Baxter, slamming the Captain to the ground.
“Guess not,” Baxter moaned, as he felt Harth’s fist connect with his ribcage.
“Andy…” Peterman said softly, flanked by two Gorn guards as she watched the battle unfold on the viewscreen opposite her chair. “Fight him, damn it! You fought Chancellor Martok and won! This is no different. Well, it’s a little different, but…”
She sighed. “Andy, you idiot. Why the hell did you do this?”
“You’re a fool,” Harth said, dragging Baxter up by the arm and swinging him down face-first into the floor. “You risked everything for her, and for what?”
“Spinal leg-lock!” someone screamed. Baxter didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded painful.
“Hadn’t thought that far ahead,” Baxter said, squirming backwards between Harth’s legs, then bringing both fists together and slamming them down at the base of the Gorn’s spine.
Harth whirled. “You idiot. Gorn are immune to the Standard Starfleet Attack Blow.”
“It was worth a try,” Baxter said, as Harth grabbed him by the back of the face and threw him against the nearest wall.
“Finish him!” fightgoers screamed, and Harth turned to face the audience.
“Now then, at ease, crewmembers! This is a fight, not an execution. We’re going to have our fun before we kill the good Captain Baxter.”
Baxter got up from the wall, sagging against it, regaining his breath. “Thanks. I appreciate that. Really.” He looked around. “Hey, um, aren’t there supposed to be referees or something?”
“Fight back, weakling!” Harth screamed, and the crowd noise reached a fever pitch.
Baxter whirled, ran at Harth full speed, lept, grabbed the Gorn’s neck, and shook with all his might.
“Give me my f***ing wife!” he shouted.
“That’s the spirit, Captain. Entertain me!” Harth said, and flung Baxter easily off him.
Baxter rose to his feet and swung at Harth again. The Gorn grabbed his fist and pulled him forward, slamming him again to the floor.
Baxter skidded to a stop, staring incredulously up at the Gorn. “Have I even bruised you yet?”
“Afraid not,” Harth said, and yanked Baxter to his feet. “Okay. Three minute break.” He looked at the audience, drawing a finger across his throat. “Commercial time-out.”
Baxter scratched his head. “Commercials?”
On Waystation, Captain Lisa Beck leaned against a console in Ops, sighing. “Baxter should have just given himself up. Man, is Morales going to be in for it when he gets back.”
The images of Baxter being pummeled, which Beck was making a thorough effort to not enjoy, suddenly were replaced with an image of a Gorn female, at least, by the apron, Beck assumed she was female, standing in the middle of a dingy, rust-colored Gorn kitchen.
“Boy, this kitchen sure is messy,” she said, looking around. “That’s why I use Green Glow. Green Glow gets your floors, table surfaces, and eating slabs spotless, so you never have to worry about sloppy entrails or blood stains.”
Beck covered her face. Why did all the warlike races have to have disgusting eating habits? Well, except for the Andorians. Andorian food was just plain tasty.
“Purchase Green Glow now. And get the green glow back in your floors!”
“So,” Baxter said, resting against a wall, as the commercial ended. “That Green Glow stuff really work?”
Harth didn’t replied, merely grabbed Baxter by his face and yanked him back into the square ring.
Baxter’s arms pinwheeled. He spun backward, squriming out of Harth’s reach and rolling to the opposite end of the square.
He saw a Gorn soldier holding a holocam and ran up to it. “Somebody! Get me out of here! Get me…urk!” That’s when he felt Harth’s big strong hand wrap around his neck and drag him backwards into the ring, driving a knee up into his chest.
“You know what the real shame is?” he asked, lifting Baxter off his feet and holding him high in the air.
“I can’t imagine,” Baxter grunted, rubbing his sore ribs.
“You’re doing all this for nothing.”
“Yeah, you said that. You’re gonna kill me. Somesuch thing.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I know that you and she are separated; and that your marriage has hit an impasse. But I happen to know that your sweet wife, your darling Kelly…this person you would give anything to save…she doesn’t even love you anymore.”
“NO!” Peterman screamed. “Liar!” She glanced at the guard beside her. “That’s not fair. Have somebody tell him that’s not true. He can’t just lie to Andy like that.”
“You obviously haven’t been paying attention,” her keeper muttered.
Baxter reached down, gripping Harth’s hands with all his might, digging his fingernails in. He gritted his teeth, screwing up his determination. “That’s…where…your…wrong…Harth.”
He pried Harth’s fingers loose of his arms, and dropped to the floor, stumbling, then rising back to his feet. He backed away.
“Whether Kelly still loves me or not is irrelevant.”
“Oh, it is?”
“Yeah.” Baxter rubbed some blood off his face with the back of his hand. “Cause you know what? I love her. I love her with all my heart, and she’s worth saving whether she loves me or not.”
“You’d give your life for her either way, then?”
“In a heartbeat.”
“I’m truly shocked,” Harth said, throwing back his head and laughing.
“That’s what I was hoping for,” Baxter said, and leapt at Harth, punching him as hard as he could in the throat. With one foot he swept the surprised Gorn’s foot out from under him, and the giant came tumbling down, slamming into the deck. Baxter lept on him, raining punch after punch down on the Gorn’s thick skull.
Baxter punched, and punched, and punched, taking out every ounce of every feeling he’d had in the last few months on Harth’s hide. His distance from Kelly. The emotional distance, and the physical distance that followed. The angst, the irritation, the heartache, the void in his life, the hate, the love, the fear, and all the rest. He unloaded it all on Harth’s face.
Harth’s head lolled back. He was half conscious, as Baxter stopped to take a breather.
“You…will never…leave this ship…”
“Watch me,” Baxter said, crawling to his feet and stumbling toward the door.
At the same time, all the Gorn in the room poured toward Baxter, a living tidal wave of green, muscular flesh.
The door was in sight, but blocked by about a dozen Gorn.
Baxter darted toward the door, knowing it was useless. But he had to at least try.
Then the door opened suddenly, and all the Gorn in front of it went down, as blow upon blow was rained upon them. Jabbing, punching, slicing with a sharp, serrated sword.
And in the midst of the bodies, J’hana stood, eyes wild, breathing heavily. She stood there, ensconced in light, behind the two Gorn, grinning devilishly. “Captain, respectfully submit that we retreat.”
“Your timing is impeccable,” Baxter said, stumbling toward J’hana, stopping to pick up the disruptor rifle left by one of the slain guards.
J’hana glanced over Baxter’s shoulder at Harth, who stirred up from the floor, then fell back again, unconscious. “You fought well,” she said.
“I had something worth fighting for,” Baxter grinned. Then his grin disappeared as about twenty Gorn came rushing at him.
J’hana dragged Baxter back out into the corridor, as all the Gorn in the room poured out after them. “Those are the best times to fight. Hell, what am I saying. Anytime is a good time. Like now!” She raised her rifle and blasted two pursuing Gorn..
Baxter angled backwards, firing his rifle down the corridor, felling another pair of Gorn.
“Where are the others?”
“Freeing your wife,” J’hana said. “I understand there’s bondage involved.”
“Get your mind out of the gutter.”
“If you insist,” J’hana said, and blasted again, as she and Baxter cleared a path toward Peterman’s holding cell.
Hartley slung Peterman’s arm over her shoulder and jogged with her down the corridor. “We don’t have much time,” Tilleran said, pulling up the rear, checking her tricorder as she ran. “Twenty or so Gorn coming this way. Picking up J’hana and the Captain coming in behind them.”
“Twenty Gorn between them and us,” Hartley said, tapping the control on a door and hoisting her through into the cargo bay beyond “If it were anyone else, I’d be worried.”
“It’ll be a short fight,” Tilleran said. “I’m more concerned about pursuit.”
“Don’t be,” Hartley said. “Both nacelles are going to blow in about…” The ship shook violently “Now.”
“How…how’d you guys get aboard?” Peterman asked, pulling free of Hartley, determined to walk on her own.
“We used the Escort for what it does best,” Hartley explained.
“Gorn are getting closer,” Tilleran reported.
“Don’t worry about it,” Hartley said. “Anyway, we flipped her upside down, attached her to the bottom of the hull, and…kablooie.” She made an explosive gesture with her hands. “Made ourselves a nice, pretty doorway.”
“And attracted half the Gorn Royal Guard,” Tilleran muttered. “Ten meters and closing.”
Hartley led Peterman through a cargo bay, toward a gaping hole in the hull, through which she could glimpse the dorsal airlock of the Escort. Peterman yearned for that familiar sight. Just as she heard loud thumps on the entrance to the cargo bay.
“That’s them,” Tilleran said, and Hartley glared at her. “I know, I know. Not worried.”
Suddenly the door blasted open, and two Gorn came running in.
“Megan!” Tilleran called out, tossing down her tricorder and yanking out her phaser.
“What can I say,” Hartley said, pulling her own phaser and moving in front of Peterman. “I was wrong…”
Tilleran and Hartley braced, upping the power setting on their phaser as the two Gorn ran at them.
And then they saw J’hana leap, airborne, at them from behind, grabbing their meaty necks, each to a fist, and slamming their heads together. They wrestled in a pile for several moments, until all were still.
And, with a roar, J’hana shoved the unconscious Gorn off her and rose to her feet.
“I’ve never felt so alive!” she bellowed, and walked toward Tilleran, slapping her on the back. “Let’s get drunk, Imzadi.” She glanced at Peterman. “Welcome back, Counselor.”
Baxter stepped up from behind, as Tilleran, Hartley, and J’hana shimmied down the hole into the Escort.
“Kelly…” Baxter said, and pulled Peterman into his arms, kissing her long and hard…just as disruptor beams sailed over his head.
“Reunion later?” Peterman suggested, and grabbed Baxter by the wrist, dragging him down into the Escort.
Personal Log, Captain Andy Baxter,
Stardate 57239.6. We are returning to the Explorer after a narrow escape from the bowels of the Minkta.
Meanwhile, I am in the Escort’s incredibly tiny sickbay, being administered to by a doctor other than my primary healthcare provider.
I can’t say I feel bad about that though, because…well, yeah….
“Hold still,” The Emergency Medical Hologram (Mark I) said, running a mender over Baxter’s fractured jaw.
“Ouch,” Baxter said, gripping the bed as the doctor worked. “You’ve got a very light touch, doc.”
“I’m sorry. It’s the McCoy in me,” the hologram said dryly.
Peterman leaned over Baxter, holding his free hand. “You got your ass beat, honey.”
“You should see the other guy,” Baxter chuckled, and a little blood trickled out of his mouth. “Oops. That’s not good.”
“You have severe internal injuries,” the doctor said.
“But he’ll live, right?” Peterman asked hopefully.
The doctor rolled his eyes and huffed. “Hmph. I suppose.”
“Just patch me up so I can get on with my life, Doctor,” Baxter said. “Enough with the pleasantries.”
“I wish I’d gone into sanitation,” the Doctor muttered.
“Andy,” Peterman said softly, ignoring the doctor. “I want you to know, what Harth said…about me not loving you…”
“Didn’t believe him for a minute,” Baxter said.
“Good. Glad we got that out of the way,” Peterman said, and leaned down, kissing Baxter gently on the lips.
When they parted, Baxter looked hard into her eyes. “But…about everything else…”
“Life’s too short, Andy. Life’s just too damn short,” Peterman said, and pulled up a chair, keeping Baxter’s hand in hers.
“Given the injuries your husband sustained, I’d say that’s an accurate assessment,” the Doctor said.
The airlock doors parted, and Baxter was the first to step (well, hobble) out.
He’d told Peterman about the state of things on the Explorer. Vansen’s deathgrip on command, Woodall being in control of the Explorer project, his parents inexplicably splitting up. He’d also told her about Plato’s growth spurt, the annoyingly efficient and professional Lieutenant Gage, the Guinanco takeover of, and subsequent return of, Space Tastes. Luckily, it was a somewhat lengthy trip back to the Tarlan system.
So Peterman, standing behind Baxter, was as concerned as anyone about the type of welcome they’d get upon returning to the ship.
Baxter glanced to his left. “Whew. Looks like I may have overreacted. And here I thought Vansen would do something…” He looked to the right. And found a phaser pointing right between his eyes. “Extreme.”
Vansen wielded the phaser, staring at him with narrowed eyes. “Brig. Now.”
“Captain,” Baxter said, holding up his hands. “Surely we can talk about this.”
She gestured with her phaser. “Now.” Without looking at Peterman, she said, “Welcome back, Counselor. You have an appointment with Assistant Counselor Ryn tomorrow to get you up to speed.”
“Oh, yeah, you give HER old job back without question,” Baxter mumbled.
“Shut up,” Vansen said, and gave Baxter a push down the hall. She glanced back at Tilleran, Hartley, and J’hana. “The rest of you, get to your quarters. You’re to stay there until further notice. Till I figure out what to do with you.”
“Might I make a suggestion…” J’hana spoke up.
“No,” Vansen snapped, and prodded Baxter down the corridor.
“All things considered, I think that went well,” Peterman said, with a deep sigh.
“Yeah,” Hartley said, stepping out of the airlock. “Maybe now things can finally get back to normal.”
“I don’t know about that,” Tilleran said, staring down the corridor after Baxter and Vansen. “I have a feeling our troubles are far from over.”
“You worry too much.”
Predator-in-Chief Harth held an icepack to his face and stared at the damage readouts on the viewscreen. “Engineer Porth, tell me you have good news.”
The engineer stood beside Harth, shifting from foot to foot. “Yes. Once we get towed back to space dock, it will be a matter of weeks before the Minkta is operational again.”
“WEEKS!” Harth exploded. “How can that be?”
“Their engineer was quite adept at disabling us. The engines are totally destroyed.”
Harth pounded his command chair. “NO! How am I to have vengeance if I’m stuck in space dock?”
“You may want to keep a low profile for a while,” Assistant- Predator Garong said from behind Harth. “Command is not pleased that you attacked a civilian freighter and caused an interstellar incident, then lost a battle to the death with a human captain.”
“But attack is what we do!”
“I believe they were more upset about the losing part.”
Harth growled. Just then, a trill rang at the tactical console. Garong leaned over and checked it. “Communication coming in. Unknown signal.”
“On screen,” Harth rumbled.
The screen lit up, filled with a green face. But it wasn’t a Gorn. He had a broadly-built, humanoid figure, well manicured, shiny black hair. Perfectly pressed suit. He was a businessman, all right. Harth’s mouth watered. It was fun to beat up businessmen.
“Who the hells are you, and what do you want?” he spat.
“Who I am is not important. What I want is, because it’s so perfectly aligned with what you want.”
“And what’s that?”
“To find and capture Captain Andy Baxter. That is still what you want, isn’t it?”
Harth grinned, baring his sharp, pointy teeth. “More today than yesterday,” he said.
During the rollercoaster ride of recent weeks, Doctor Browning has managed to keep a low profile. But when the Explorer passes close to a planet visited by the Breen Circus, Browning is faced with the opportunity to reunite with Commander Chris Richards. But to do that, she first must attend the Breen Circus. Having never visited a Breen circus before, this author wonders aloud just what the heck that might be like. Meanwhile, Captain Baxter has a heap of legal troubles to deal with, and finds help in the place he least expects.