Author: Anthony Butler
Counselor Kelly Peterman smoothed her uniform and took a deep breath as she stepped forward, and the doors to Sickbay automatically swung open.
“Janice?” she called, stepping into the cavernous room.
“Over here,” a muffled voice called from the O.R.
Peterman walked toward the room, pushing a control on the doorpanel, so the doors swung open. “Oh. Hi, Janice. The computer said you’d be here. I didn’t realize you were on duty tonight. I thought you had a date.”
“I did. Heavy on the did,” Browning said, sporting a red operating smock over her black evening gown as she punched controls on a panel beside the bed, running from console to consoel, as a man laid still on the operating table. “Another five cc’s of monostatine. Stat!” she called out to Nurse Christina Chadway, who obediently pressed a hypospray into the man’s arm. “Clear!”
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Peterman said, taking a step back toward the door. “Maybe I should come back some other…”
“Again!” Browning said, punching a control on the panel again. The man shook, and then was still. “That’s okay,” she said, clearing a few strands of hair from in front of your face. “I’ll be done in a…”
“Asystole,” Chadway called out, looking at a monitor.
“Second,” Browning said. She looked down at the man briefly, then grabbed a padd, making notes on it. “Time of death twenty-one hundred.”
Peterman tried to keep her eyes away from the patient. She looked at Browning. “So?”
“How did the date go?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Browning pointed at the dead man on the table. “He’s dead. Dates don’t end much worse than that.”
“Oh…my…gosh. THAT’S HIM?” Peterman exclaimed, and pulled Browning into a hug. “Janice, I’m so sorry! What the hell happened?”
Browning nodded, and threw her hands up in the air. “I just wish I could have ONE date go well!””
“I never even met the guy,” Peterman said. “Who was he?”
“He’s a barber in the shop on Deck Thirty-Eight,” Browning said. “Kalic’s.”
Peterman’s eyes widened. “That’s Umberto! That’s Andy’s barber!”
Browning nodded. “How do you think I met him? Andy set it up.”
Peterman ignored all the questions that statement brought up, and instead probed Browning further. “I ask again. What the hell happened?”
“We’d barely gotten through appetizers when he keeled over.” Browning shrugged. “Face down into the bacon-wrapped shrimp.”
Peterman glanced back at Umberto. “That would explain the toothpicks in his face.”
“Yeah, at least I got the shrimp off them.”
“Janice,” Peterman said. “You didn’t…”
“Well, he wasn’t dead yet! How was I to know I’d be picking shrimp off a dead man?”
“My head’s spinning,” Peterman said, bracing herself against a nearby table.
“He seemed like a nice enough guy,” Browning said, entering some more notes in her medical log. “But the conversation wasn’t going so well. He didn’t make good eye contact. You know how I hate that.”
“Have you figured out what caused…the uh…death?”
“Massive brain aneurysm. Nothing we could have prevented.” Browning sighed. “Guess it was just his time. Oh well, there are plenty of fish in the buffet.”
“Your taking this well,” Peterman said, watching Browning walk out of the operating room.
“At this point, nothing surprises me,” Browning said, and shuffled out of Sickbay.
“Court martial?” Captain Andy Baxter exclaimed, staring in awe across the forcefield in the brig, as Captain Nell Vansen faced him from the other side, padd in hand.
She continued to read from the padd:
“To: Baxter, Captain Andrew J. You are hereby requested and required to appear before a Grand Court Martial on Pelonius Six, within twenty-four hours of receiving this communication. The charges against you include reckless dereliction of duty, failing to obey the direct order of a commanding officer, malicious mischief, and mutiny.”
Baxter arched an eyebrow. “Malicious mischief? Isn’t that a bit much?”
“I liked the ring of it,” Vansen said. “But, actually, ‘requested and required’ was my favorite part.”
“You’re enjoying this,” Baxter muttered.
“Much as you enjoyed defying me and stealing the Escort.”
“I did it to save Kelly from the Gorn, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
“Well, you won’t have to worry about that. I hear orbital construction supervisors are much more lenient than Starfleet captains. I can give you a nice reference, if you like.”
“You’re too kind,” Baxter said. “But I’m not going anywhere.”
“Oh, you’re going somewhere, all right. To Pelonius Six. You’re requested and required, remember?”
“I plan on being there,” Baxter said, folding his arms and trying his best to look confident.
“I can’t wait to watch them pick you apart,” Vansen said. “Oh, wait, I’ll be the one picking you apart, as I’ve been granted special dispensation to be Federation legal counsel!”
“Do your worst,” Baxter said.
“So you have someone in mind to plan your defense?”
“Of course I do,” Baxter said with a cavalier laugh, as Vansen turned on a heel and left.
Once Vansen as gone, Baxter turned around and knocked his head against the wall. “Of course I don’t!”
He was screwed. Vansen had him right where she wanted him. He’d broken Starfleet regs, there was no way around that.
He didn’t know very many high-ups in Starfleet. Admiral McGrath was in a mental institution. Commodore Velara was taking an “extended leave,” and his father was missing. So he was very quickly running out of people who might step in and help him plan a defense.
It would have to be someone who was used to breaking regulations. Someone slimy enough to have no compunction about bending the rules, and squirming around them. Someone who was at least as much of a jerk as Vansen. A worthy adversary. Someone who could stand toe to toe with her and not blink.
Someone heartless, and devious.
But Baxter didn’t really know anyone like that.
Then he realized he did. He snapped his fingers. “Of course!” He walked up to the forcefield. “Jailer! I want my phone call!”
Ensign Keefler looked up from his terminal. “Your what?”
“Your what?” Captain Conway asked, his brow furrowed, on the terminal screen at the security desk in the brig.
“My Defender. My official Starfleet representative.”
“Pete sake’s, Baxter, I’m two sectors away. Isn’t there someone on your ship who can do it?”
“The Defender has to be of command rank. And Vansen’s the only one on the ship of command rank. And she’s prosecuting.”
Conway rubbed his chin. “So, she’s going to try to spank you Starfleet style, eh?”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “That’s about the size of it. So, will you help me?”
“I never did like her.”
“And this could be a chance to embarrass her in a room full of her peers.”
“That does have some merit.”
Baxter leaned closer to the screen, as Ensign Keefler looked on from behind him. “Please.”
“My gosh, Captain, are you begging me?”
“Seems to me I got you out of a jam similar to this one a couple years ago. Need we mention the whole Maloxitarian incident?”
“No!” Conway snapped, leaning forward. “We need not. Relax, Baxter. I’ll pull your ass out of the sling it’s in. I’ll meet you there.”
“Thanks, Captain. I guess I owe you one.”
“I like the sound of that,” Conway grinned, and disappeared from the screen.
Steffie in hand, Counselor Peterman took a deep breath and punched the control on the door to her office. She noticed she’d been doing a lot of deep breaths at doorways lately, and resigned herself to stopping that.
The door slid open, and she gasped relief. Nothing had changed.
“Afraid I’d redecorate?” a voice asked from behind Peterman.
She turned, smiled politely. “Counselor Ryn,” she said, letting Steffie down to the floor to toddle around. Peterman wasn’t sure when her first steps occurred, although she was pretty sure it was some time during the jaunt to the 21st century, she was proud that Steffie was beginning to take small and uneasy steps. At the moment, she more or less clung to the couch. “I’d heard you were still aboard,” she said to Ryn.
“Nowhere else for me to go as of yet.”
“I assume Captain Vansen will be reassigning you?” Peterman asked, lifting Steffie into the crib beside her desk, then slipping around behind the desk and sitting down.
“Actually, I was planning to ask the Captain if I could stay aboard,” Ryn said, and stepped into the office, letting the doors closed behind her.
“Ah,” Peterman said, folding her hands on top of her desk. “In what, er, capacity?”
“Assistant Ship’s Counselor, of course. Forgive me for saying so, Counselor, but you’ve operated without a staff for far too long.”
Peterman beamed. “Counselor, I think you and I are going to get along just fine! Take a seat, we have a lot to talk about.”
“That’s an understatement,” Ryn said, and sat down.
That night, Peterman walked up to her and Baxter’s cabin, juggling Steffie and a padd detailing all that she and Ryn had talked about that day. Much of it had to do with her husband, a subject Peterman wasn’t very comfortable discussing as yet. There were also the usual reclamation projects. The update on Lt. Sefelt took three hours, in and of itself. Dr. Leonardo, the pet psychiatrist, was doing much better, after he got over the initial shock that the pet he was communicating with was in fact not Peterman’s cat Fritz, but an alien consciousness, the Bast. Ryn assured her that Leonardo was functioning quite well again, back at his old job.
The other insane doctor, Jarvay Ranowat, hadn’t faired as well. Apparently, while Peterman and the others were in the 21st century, he escaped from his cell and performed several unauthorized medical procedures. He was soon thereafter transferred to Tantalus.
Peterman stepped inside her cabin and nearly screamed.
She was facing a grinning Jem’Hadar soldier.
“Counselor,” Chaka’kan said.
“Chaka,” Peterman gasped. “You scared the daylights out of me.”
“I am sorry. Do you need new daylights?”
“It’s just an expression,” Peterman said, walking in and setting Steffie in her hover-walker, glancing as she scooted about on the floor. “Not to sound unkind, but what are you doing here?”
“I usually arrive to babysit Steffie at this time. Until recently, Captain Baxter had been assigned to evening shifts.”
“Man, Vansen is a bitch,” Peterman growled.
“Am I to take it that, now that you’re back, my services are no longer needed?”
“Not at all,” Peterman said. “I’ve got some things to do around the cabin. It would be great if you’d replicate some dinner for Steffie.”
“Of course. Babyfood is life.”
“Right. And thanks again…for everything. I understand you were of great help to Andy while I was away.”
“He needed it,” Chaka said simply.
“Well, I’m happy to report that all is well once again.”
Chaka bowed. “That’s as it should be. Excuse me.” And he walked off to the replicator.
Peterman walked into the bedroom, unzipped her upper tunic, and then tapped her combadge. “Peterman to Baxter.”
“This is Ensign Keefler. May I help you?”
“Adam, put me through to Andy.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that, Counselor.”
“I have strict orders.”
“I’m about to say that word that makes you uncomfortable in any social situation.”
“NO! I’m putting you through now.”
“That a boy.”
“Kelly?” Baxter asked, bleary. “Sorry, I was, uh, sleeping.”
“What are you still doing in the brig? She can’t hold you in there indefinitely.”
“Oh, my stay here will definitely end soon.” Baxter quickly laid out Vansen’s plans for him, as well as his counter strategy.
“Hold on.” Peterman sat down on the edge of the bed. “You’re getting DAVE to defend you?”
“Why not? He’s a fitting adversary for Vansen. Part of me is eager to watch them go at it.”
“I could have represented you.”
“You’re not of command rank. Sorry.”
“Well, I’m not letting her keep you in that cell one night longer. We have lost time to make up for, and she’s not going to stand in our way.”
“Kelly, don’t go antagonizing Vansen. At least one of us has to have a job.”
“Why? We don’t get paid. We have no expenses. What is there to lose?”
“Good point. Give her hell, Kelly!”
“Plato, dinner time!” Browning called out, ducking her head into Plato’s room. She saw the young, but matured, half-changeling boy sitting on the edge of his bed, tapping something into his padd.
“I’ll be out in a sec. Go away!”
“What are you doing?” Browning asked, stepping toward Plato.
He pulled the padd close to his chest. “Nothing! Get out of my room!”
“Plato,” Browning said. “It’s been a long day. Let’s not fight.”
“Then just go away. I need to finish this.”
“What are you writing?”
“It’s…um…nothing. School project.”
Browning nodded sagely. “I’ve written a few love letters in my life too, buddy.”
“It’s not a love letter. It’s not something silly like that.”
Browning smiled. “Here I thought you were plotting to take over the ship. How silly of me. You were just writing a love letter. Ha!”
“It’s not a love letter!” Plato called after her as she left. Once she was gone, he cradled the padd. “Mom doesn’t understand. She doesn’t realize how we’re meant for each other. You’ll see, though, once you read this.” He stared at the padd. “I can’t wait till you read this!”
Browning, meanwhile, walked out to the replicator to pull the rack of lamb out of the slot, when she heard the message chime at her terminal. She walked over and punched a control.
Chris Richards, in plainclothes, appeared on the viewscreen. “Janice?”
“Christopher. Nice to see you. How’s the circus?”
“We just pulled up stakes, actually.”
“Mmm. Are you having them with mushrooms?”
Richards cocked his head. “Stakes. It means we’re headed to our next destination.”
“Oh,” Browning said.
“Apparently, you and I are headed to the same place. I read in the Federation News this evening that Captain Baxter’s on his way to a Court Martial.”
“He…” Browning blinked. “What?”
“Yeah. Vansen’s apparently pressing charges for the whole Gorn incident.”
“That Vansen. I should have finished her off after I dumped the hot coffee on her that one time…”
Richards laughed. “If you only knew….”
“Well, I guess I’ve been out of the loop. Do you know where we’re headed?”
“Pelonius Six. Which is an outstanding coincidence, since the Breen Circus is currently headed for Pelonius Two.”
Browning’s eyes widened. “Really?” She quickly adopted a neutral expression. “I mean, that’s good.”
“I thought maybe you’d like a night at the circus. Bring Kelly. I’m sure she’ll need something to take her mind off all this court martial stuff.”
“Yeah. I know she’d love to see you.”
“I think you guys will be pleasantly surprised,” Richards said. “I think I’ve found a real niche here.”
Browning grinned. “I’m glad.”
“And what about you?”
Browning thought about her day, and its resulting body count. “Oh, a little of this, a little of that. Nothing new.”
“Great. Well, I’ve got to get belowdecks. Apparently the warp- impulse monitors are out of sequence again. See you on Pelonius.”
“Good luck,” Browning said, and punched a control on her terminal. “Looks like the circus is coming to town.”
The doors to the ready room opened.
“Yes?” Vansen said simply, looking up from her terminal.
The counselor stepped forward toward Vansen’s desk, leaning her hands on it. “I want you to let my husband out of the brig, and I want you to do it right now.”
“Hmm,” Vansen said thoughtfully, tapping her chin with a fingertip. “No.”
“Okay,” Peterman said. “We can play it that way. You keep him in there. But you should know that when he gets out, and when he gets command of this ship back, which he will, we will both make your life a living hell.”
“Witness my not caring,” Vansen said. “Oh, and witness my not being scared. See it? Not scared.”
“Why are you such a bitch?”
“Do I have to make a list?” Vansen said wearily.
“I mean it,” Peterman said, and sat down opposite Vansen. “You’re different.”
Vansen looked back at her terminal. “I don’t see how.”
“Andy told me how you’ve been acting. I’ve heard it from J’hana, Tilleran, and the others too. You’re…a whole new kind of mean. It goes far beyond professional now. Why?”
Vansen didn’t look at her. “I’m getting bored. Get down to your office, Peterman. While you still have one.”
“Oh, so you’re threatening me now?” Peterman asked, then laughed. “I guess I should have predicted it. You’re following such a simple pattern of aggressive behavior. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. Oh, that’s right. Because I was off the ship.”
“Get out of here,” Vansen said tersely.
“This is about so much more than Andy, isn’t it? This is about you.” Peterman’s eyes went wide. “You’re….you’re afraid you’ll be doing this the rest of your life. Exiled. Having to command a crew full of losers for your entire career.”
“GO,” Vansen said, staring down at her desk.
Peterman smiled as she walked toward the door. “You know where my office is. Sounds to me like you could use a visit.”
Peterman left just before a padd slammed into the closing doors.
“Who’s hungry?” Dr. Browning asked, stepping into the brig with a tray laden with food.
“Why, Doctor, that’s so nice of you…” Ensign Keefler said, standing.
“Would you be a dear and give us a few moments alone?” Browning asked, glancing from Keefler to Baxter, who sat in the nearby cell.
“I’m not supposed to…”
Browning picked up a plate off the tray. It was steaming, smelling of roasted duck. “This is my Duck a L’Orange. How about you step into the conference room across the hall and enjoy this while the Captain and I have a nice little talk.”
“I was told one of you might try to break him out…”
Browning wrinkled her nose. “Silly. Do I look like I can work one of those forcefield thingies?”
“I’m…well, I don’t know. You are a doctor. Doctors are pretty smart.”
Browning looked at Keefler, waving the steaming plate. “Orangey goodness!”
“Right,” Keefler said, taking the plate. “I’ll just be next door if you need me.”
“Andy,” Browning said, walking up to the forcefield as Keefler left. “How are they treating you?”
“Fine,” Baxter said. “Considering I live in a four-meter-square box and have only Keefler for company.”
“It could be worse. You could have been filleted by that Gorn guy.”
Baxter nodded. “There is that.” He glanced at the tray. “Food?”
“Your favorite. Grapefruit pizza.”
“Bless you, Janice.”
Browning walked up to the slot next to the brig which resembled a typical replicator. This one, though, was a little different. She slid the tray into it, pressed a control, and it fizzled away in a blue transporter beam.
Moments later, it appeared on the other side of the forcefield, in the replicator slot in Baxter’s cell. The controls on that replicator, of course, could do nothing except send the original tray back. Prevented prisoners from replicating all manner of nasty weaponry with it.
Baxter looked at the tray, lifted the lid, and inhaled the grapefruity smell. “Mmmmm… delicious. You even burnt the cheese a little, just like I like it.”
“No reason you should be malnourished, just because you’re locked up.”
“Don’t guess you put a phaser, or a coil spanner, or something useful like that in here, did you?” Baxter asked, inspecting the pizza carefully.
“No, silly. No more breaking rules. Let’s try to get through this one without involving any more prison for any of us.”
“That’s going to be tough,” Baxter said, taking a slice of pizza and munching on it. “Considering that, once we get to Pelonius Six, I may be stepping off this ship for the last time.”
“You think the situation is that grave?” Browning asked, pacing back and forth in front of Baxter’s cell as he ate.
“Vansen does have a pretty strong case against me.” Baxter smiled, chewing. “But I’ve got a secret weapon.”
“Captain Conway’s going to be representing me.”
“Conway!” Browning said, almost yelping. “Is that really a bright idea?”
“Anyone else you suggest?”
“I just…I can’t imagine you picking someone like him to represent you. I mean, it’s Conway.”
“It’s Conway versus Vansen,” Baxter said with a grin.
Browning thought about that. “When you put it like that…”
The door to the brig opened, and Peterman stepped in.
“Hey, how’s my…” she said with a grin, then saw Browning. “Janice!”
“Hi,” Browning said, waving. “Just bringing him some dinner. Figured he was tiring of brig food.”
“No doubt,” Peterman said, rocking back and forth on her heels.
Browning looked from Baxter to Peterman. “You two need some time…”
“Thanks, Janice,” Peterman said, as Browning hurriedly walked out.
“Thanks for dinner!” Baxter called after her. “Wow, she left quick.”
“There’s still some…awkwardness,” Peterman said, approaching the forcefield. “Probably will be for a while.”
“Ya think?” Baxter asked, palming another slice of pizza. “So…how’d your meeting with Vansen go? Am I a free man?”
“Yes and no. Actually, totally no,” Peterman said. “She’s a very bitter, angry woman.”
Baxter nodded. “So she wouldn’t let me go. Figures.”
“She’s angry at a lot more than you. I need to work on this. I think I can get through to her.”
“You thought you could get through to Bradley Dillon, too.”
“Hey…I did…sort of…after he transported us all back in time.”
Baxter chewed thoughtfully. “Do you really want to go there? I mean, do you really want to dig past the surface of Vansen?”
“If it frees you, and gets you command of this ship back, you bet I do.”
Baxter smiled. “I love you, Kelly.”
“Love you too,” Peterman said. “Get some sleep. You have a big day ahead of you tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “I’m not worried about it. What’s the worst they can do? Kill me?”
“What’s the worst they can do? Kill me?”
Skereeth watched the sensor feed carefully as it exercised its many tentacles, flexing the strong muscles within the cramped cabin of its one- man pursuit craft.
It bared its teeth and grinned, slime oozing from its gaping maw and pooling on the deck below it.
No, not kill you, Skereeth thought. But capture you. Immobilize you. Give you to the highest bidder.
Skereeth’s tentacles furled and unfurled giddily, as the small ship blazed toward Pelonius Six.
Skereeth would follow its orders to the letter. But the Orions never said it couldn’t have fun doing it.
“This is going to be a great show,” J’hana said, rubbing her hands together. “I do not know about you, Doctor Browning, but I am excited.”
“I hope you’re talking about the circus, and not Captain Baxter’s court martial,” Tilleran said from beside J’hana.
“Eat your shlarazz,” Browning said, leaning against J’hana’s chair as she eagerly devoured the squirming, many-legged, carapaced creature on her plate. “And be glad I imported some Andorian cuisine for you.”
“You’re too kind,” J’hana said, crunching on the prickly end of the shlarazz.
Tilleran wrinkled her nose. “It smells funny.”
“Of course it does,” J’hana said, waving the wriggling black thing at Tilleran. “It’s no good if it doesn’t smell funny.”
“I should have guessed,” Browning sighed, and sat down between the Betazoid and Andorian.
“More coffee, when you get a chance, Janice,” Tilleran said. “And less emotion…” She rubbed her temples. “You’re broadcasting like a subspace beacon.”
“Sorry,” Browning said. “I’m just worried about seeing Christopher again.”
“Bah,” J’hana said. “All will be as it will be.”
“She’s kind of right,” Tilleran said. “Look how well things turned out with me and Hartley, and her. Vansen could have gone much harder on us than she did, but instead all we got was nasty notes in our permanent records.”
“Hah,” J’hana chortled. “I have many nasty notes. I care not!”
“You’ll never make Lieutenant Commander again that way, sweetie,” Tilleran said. “At any rate, once Captain Baxter presents his case, I’m sure the magistrate will understand. He may get a suspension, maybe even a demotion. But he’ll get back on his feet. He has to.”
“That’s the spirit, Imzadi,” J’hana said with a toothy grin.
“You’ve got a little…shlarazz running down your chin,” Browning said, pointing.
“I know,” J’hana said.
Browning stood up. “Well, I’ve got to get changed. Christopher and I are meeting for lunch before he goes on tonight.”
“Are you going there before or after you go to Andy’s court martial to support him like a worthy friend should?” J’hana asked pointedly.
“J’hana,” Tilleran said testily.
“It is an honest question.”
“I’m going to be at both places,” Browning said tightly. “I’m going to lunch, then I’m going to the Court Martial, then I’m going to the circus with Kelly later on tonight. Hopefully, Andy will be with us.”
“Hopefully,” J’hana said dryly.
“I’ve got to go inventory my kitchen,” Browning said, rising and heading back for the kitchen.
“Was it something I said?” J’hana asked.
“Yes!” Tilleran snapped. “She’s very nervous about seeing Richards again. Not to mention all the stuff happening with the Captain, and with Counselor Peterman being back.”
“Yet you are not supposed to be reading people against their wishes,” J’hana shot back.
Tilleran stared at the closed doors to the kitchen, where Browning had gone moments ago. “Some emotions are so strong you can’t help but read them.”
“Ready to face the music, Captain?” Captain Vansen said with a grin as she faced Baxter across the forcefield.
“You’re happier than you’ve been since I came back aboard,” Baxter said wryly as Vansen keyed the forcefield control and allowed Baxter to step out.
“That’s because I’m getting rid of you,” Vansen said giddily. “Now let’s go.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Mister Keefler, if you will.”
Keefler followed Baxter, phaser drawn.
“Sorry about this, Captain.”
“Not to worry,” Baxter said. “You’re just doing what you’re told. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Too bad you don’t actually believe that,” Vansen said, leading Baxter out into the corridor. “Maybe we could have saved you all this trouble.”
Out in the corridor, a group stood blocking the corridor. Baxter smiled.
“Are we ready?” Peterman asked, standing in front of Hartley, Mirk, J’hana, and Tilleran.
“I’ve got two transporter rooms standing by,” Hartley said.
“This is cute,” Vansen said. “You all want to support your former captain.”
“Actually, we want to see you fall on your face,” J’hana said.
“If only I could fire all of you,” Vansen sighed, pushing past the group and leading Baxter toward the transporter room.
“Too bad you didn’t give me my ship back,” Baxter told her. “Maybe I could have saved YOU all this trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” Vansen said, leading Baxter into the transporter
“It’s even less trouble for me,” Baxter said, mounting the transporter padd next to Vansen.
“I look forward to it!”
“I look forward to it more!”
“Energize, damn it!”
It wasn’t hard finding Richards among the hordes of Breen that milled about the campground complex of the Rat Dar Dar Kak Circus Troupe. For starters, he was the only person at the complex not wearing a beige and green environmental suit and matching helmet.
For another thing, he was a good head shorter than most Breen, much as Browning was.
“Christopher!” Browning called out, negotiating the maze of blocky cargo pods that seemed to be distributed on a desert clearing on Pelonius two.
“Janice,” Richards said, ducking past a group of passing Breen holding a pair of silver rings and an armful of spikes.
Browning glanced at the spikes. “What in the world are those for?”
Richards chuckled. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
“No. I’m just kidding. I don’t want to tell you because it’ll spoil the surprise.”
“What kinds of acts does a Breen circus have, anyway?” Browning asked, as Richards led the way toward what appeared to be the commissary module.
“You’ll see tonight. Like I said, I…”
“Don’t want to ruin the surprise. Yes,” Browning said. “Fair enough.” She approached the open window in the module, and a Breen leaned out.
“BRAT KARD KAR RAX RAK RAK RAK,” the Breen said in a metallic voice.
“What did he–?” Browning asked, looking at Richards.
He held up a hand. “Allow me.” He looked at the Breen in the window. “RAX RAX KAK KAK GARD BAK KAK KAK KAK.”
Browning’s eyes widened. “You speak Breen?”
“I’ve picked up a few phrsaes. Do you like ‘DAK’?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you’ll like it. It’s spicy.” Richards turned back to the attendant. “DAK DAK DAK. Oh, yes, and extra KRAK!”
“You amaze me sometimes, Christopher.”
“Wait until you see my act.”
“Can you tell me anything about it? No, wait, I know. You don’t want to ruin the surprise.”
“You’re catching on,” Richards said, as the Breen slid a tray of steaming bowls out of the window.
“Smells good,” Browning said, as Richards led her over to nearby table and chairs. “Then again, I’ve only studied Breen cuisine a little during my xenonutrition classes. And the one time I visited Breen, it was to visit Andy’s dad. And he did a lot of barbecuing.”
“Breen food is an acquired taste,” Richards said.
“And some of it is deadly to humans, right?” Browning asked, lifting one of the bowls to her nose, smelling the murky, bubbling gray liquid within.
“Yeah, I think.” Richards shrugged. “Who knows.” He pointed to a bowl of yellow glop. “I know that stuff is really good.”
Browning sipped tentatively from her bowl of gray gunk. “Mmmm…almost like marmalade mixed with chili.”
“Is that a good thing?” Richards asked.
“To me it is,” Browning said, and continued to guzzle the thick soup.
“Glad to see some things never change.”
“It’s only been six weeks,” Browning said between sips. “Not even that.”
“I can’t believe it’s been that long.” Richards thought. “Has it really?”
“Yup,” Browning said. “Not that much has happened. Other than the whole thing with the Gorn trying to kill Kelly. And Andy causing a mutiny. And some aliens trying to take over the ship. And Plato fleeing the ship and almost getting killed.”
“Same old stuff, eh,” Richards said.
“Yeah,” Browning said. “What about you?”
“I’ve been having fun. There’s no stress here. I just practice my act, then when showtime comes, I go out there and perform. It’s simple.”
“Yeah, but what if you fall? Aren’t you doing something with heights?”
“It’s sort of a balancing, trapeze-type thing, yes,” Richards said.
“So if you fall, I guess there’s a net…”
“Nope. No nets. The Breen don’t believe in them.”
Browning grimaced. “Easy to say when you wear thick suits.”
“I’ve never really worried about falling. I don’t think about it much.” Richards looked away thoughtfully. “Until you brought it up, just now, that is.”
“Oops,” Browning said.
Richards blinked. “Anyway, eat up. I want you to meet a few people before you’ve got to leave for the court martial. You have a shuttle in orbit?”
Browning nodded. “Yup.”
“I’m glad you could come,” he said with a grin. “Although I don’t really miss the Explorer, I do miss you.”
“I…” Browning said, and was cut off when a voice from behind called out.
“Chris! They’re having some trouble with the rigging on your third jump!”
Richards glanced over Browning’s shoulder. “I’ll be right there!” He sighed. “The Breen are great performers, but they’re not so good at engineering.”
“Good thing they have you.”
“Yeah, I suppose I wear a few different hats,” Richards acknowledge.
“That voice sounded human,” Browning said. “Is he…?”
“Pogo? No,” Richards said. “Although he looks somewhat like one. He’s a Changeling.”
“A Changeling?” Browning’s eyes widened. “HERE!?”
Richards rubbed his chin. “I guess you might be interested in knowing that. Maybe you can schedule a visit between him and Plato.”
“Is he visiting from the Gamma Quadrant?”
“No, no. He’s one of ‘The Hundred,’” Richards said, making air quotes with his fingers. “He was sent away from the Gamma Quadrant centuries ago to reach out and explore, then report back to the Founders centuries later. Or something.”
“Except he never went back. He actually protested the Dominion War, led some rallies, held speaking engagements on some of the far-flung worlds.”
“Doesn’t he realize the war is over? That he can go home?”
Richards shrugged. “He doesn’t want to. He came across the circus a few years ago, and found that he enjoyed performing much more than any of his political pursuits. He’s a smart guy, that Pogo.”
“I’ll say,” Browning said.
“It’s a mess in there.” Browning turned as a shadow fell over her. Muscular, tall, broad, humanoid in appearance, with a smooth face that seemed like it was sculpted poorly from clay. “Ah, you must be Doctor Browning.” He extended his hand. “Pogo.”
“That’s an interesting name,” Browning said, rising and shaking the man’s hand. What a grip!
“I’m not quite sure what it means,” Pogo said. “I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I like to bounce.”
“See what I mean?” Richards asked, beaming. “He’s brilliant.”
“Yeah,” Browning said.
“You have a half-changeling son, is that right, Doctor?”
“I would very much like to meet him. I don’t mix much with my kind. Although I suppose that’s mostly by choice.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Richards stood. “I wish I could stay longer, but I’d better help the Breen with that rigging, before they collapse the whole support structure in there.”
“Indeed,” Pogo said. “That’s why I came.”
“Let’s go,” Richards said, moving past Browning. He turned, slid an arm around Browning, and hugged her. “Thanks for coming, Janice.”
“Anytime,” Browning said thoughtfully, watching Richards and Pogo slip into the crowd of Breen, moving off toward the large, modular warehouselike structure that seemed to house the performance area of the Breen circus. “Anytime at all.”
Captain Baxter sat, hands folded on the table, in the front of the spartan assembly room, as a small crowd of Explorer crew and others from the Starfleet outpost on Pelonius Six filed in.
Peterman walked up to the waist-high gate just behind Baxter, and leaned over. “The Aerostar just entered orbit,” she said in a low voice. “Conway should be here soon.”
Baxter glanced over at the table ten meters to his left, where Vansen sat, reading a padd. “Hear that, Vansen? Captain Conway’s coming. Hope you’re ready!”
Vansen didn’t respond, merely extended her middle finger in his general direction.
“I hate her,” Baxter seethed.
“Yes,” Peterman said, reaching over and squeezing Baxter’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’re going to win this.”
“And then you and I are going on vacation.”
“I think we’ve both used up all our vacation time, but it’s a nice thought,” Peterman said. “Anyway, I’m here for you, sweetie. And J’hana is standing by, if anything goes wrong.”
Baxter glanced over his shoulder. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Jailbreak,” Peterman mouthed silently, and walked back to her seat in the first row, just a few meters behind the gate that separated the audience from those directly involved in the case.
“I sure hope you’re kidding,” Baxter said, and Peterman simply winked at him. He turned around to face the desk at the front of the room, flanked by two flags, one bearing the Federation seal, the other the arrowhead emblem of Starfleet. “Wonder when this magistrate is going to get here.”
Suddenly the doors at the rear of the assembly room swung open, and Captain David Conway strode in, wearing his white dress uniform, carrying a padd and a steaming cup of coffee.
Vansen glanced back at him. “Isn’t that a bit much, Captain?”
Conway ignored Vansen and pushed open the swinging gate, stepping around to Baxter’s table. He sat down, setting his padd in front of him, and taking a long swig from his cup of coffee.
“I hope you got the strongest blend you have,” Baxter said under his breath. “You’re going to need it.”
“Relax,” Conway said. “I’ve studied up on this Admiral Wrenth guy. He seems reasonable enough, for a transdimensional lifeform.”
Baxter’s eyes bugged. “What? Transdimensional?”
Conway nodded as he read from his padd. “Yeah. Says here Wrenth is from a race called the Haldaxians. They only exist in our space- time continuum for a few hours out of each day. Man, it’s amazing it only took him seventy years to rise up through the ranks. A few hours a day…that’s like reaching Admiral after only three or four years.”
“How’s he supposed to make a ruling if he’s only here for a few hours?” Baxter asked.
“We’ll have to make our case before he disappears. Apparently, there’s some clause they put in specifically to address the logistics of dealing with someone of his race. We need to win or lose this case by the time he shifts back into whatever universe he comes from, or else you’re automatically ejected from Starfleet. That prevents me from trying to keep the Court Martial tied up indefinitely and causing a mistrial.”
Baxter glared over at Vansen, who shot a sly smile back at him. “That’s why we’re here, and not on some other outpost. She specifically selected this place as the venue so I’d get thrown out of Starfleet.”
“We haven’t lost yet,” Conway said. “I think we have a pretty strong case.”
“Glad you think so,” Baxter harrumphed. “I don’t suppose it’s possible to, you know, make a motion or something that we get a magistrate from our own universe?”
“There’s no time,” Conway said. “Any attempt to delay or mistrial will result in you getting booted from Starfleet. Doesn’t seem fair, really.”
“I didn’t even know we had this option,” Baxter said. “If I’d have known, I’d probably have court martialled you long ago.”
Conway grinned. “Well, then I guess it’s a good thing you didn’t know.”
Just then, a male Starfleet officer in a mustard-collared Starfleet uniform stepped in front of the desk at the front of the room.
“Ladies and gentlemen, all rise,” he said, then glanced at the chronomter on the wall, as everyone assembled stood up. “May I present, the honorable Admiral Klessarius Zagstelligan Wrenth.”
“How’d he get through a work shift if he only phases in for three hours a day?” Baxter asked quietly.
“Aliens’ Rights Act,” Conway said. “You really should read the Starfleet charter sometime. Interesting stuff.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, as suddenly the room was awash in bright white light. “What the hell’s happening?”
Conway pointed toward the front of the room. “Admiral Wrenth is happening…”
The white light seemed to flicker and waver, at first filling the room, then condensing in a mass behind the desk, binding itself up into a roughly humanoid form, pulsating, glowing much brighter now that it was concentrated in a smaller space.
The glowing humanoid, which seemed to be made of solid light, moved his head left and right, scanning those seated before him.
“You may all be seated,” he said in a booming, resonant voice.
Baxter sat down.
“This Court Martial is hereby called to order discuss the matter of Captain Nell Vansen versus Captain Andy Baxter. I remind you all that we now have less than three hours to come to a conclusion. So make your arguments succinct and clear. Just give me the facts. I’m a busy being. Now let’s go.”
Captain Vansen smiled, rising from her seat and stepping toward Wrenth’s desk. “Admiral, it gives me great pleasure to bring charges of mutiny, among others, against Captain Andy Baxter. Here are the facts….”
“…so Captain Baxter left the ship, against my explicit orders, and coerced several of my officers into going with him.”
“Captain, is this true?” Wrenth asked, turning to face Baxter.
“Well, I’d like to consider them MY officers. And they volunteered to come. I actually told them to stay on the Explorer.”
“I see,” Wrenth said. “But you left the ship against orders.”
“My wife was being held by a murderous Gorn captain who’d recently been released from Federation prison, and was out for revenge against me for putting him there.”
“Hi, your honor!” Peterman called out, waving from the audience. “And may I say, you’re a very beautiful being of light.”
“Your wife,” Wrenth said dryly.
“That’s my Kelly,” Baxter said.
“Admiral,” Conway said. “I object. Captain Vansen ordered Baxter to stay on the Explorer out of malice. She wasn’t acting in the best interest of the mission.”
“The mission to Tarlan Four? In which the diplomatic delegation specifically informed her that no one but her was to leave the Explorer for any reason, or it might collapse negotiations entirely?”
Conway nodded. “Yes.”
“So, what part of Vansen’s orders are in question?”
“All of them, really,” Conway said, and turned toward Vansen, who was leaning against her table. He stepped toward her. “She doesn’t like the Captain much, a fact she’s made abundantly clear since she came aboard the Explorer two and a half years ago.”
“Objection!” Vansen shot back, standing. “I’ve made no secret of my distaste for the Explorer crew, Baxter in particular, but it’s never impeded me in doing my job.”
“That’s debatable,” Conway replied. “Being that you insult the captain at every turn. You demean him. You degrade him. You put him on back to back shifts just out of spite. Not very professional, is it?”
“My professionalism isn’t on trial here!” Vansen replied, standing toe to toe with Conway. “And even if it was,” she said in a lower voice. “I’d put it up against yours, any day. I know your history, Captain. You’re a hateful person just like I am. Only I manage to get my job done at the same time. You might want to try it.”
Conway turned back to Wrenth. “That sound like a woman in her right mind to you?”
“Captain Vansen is correct,” Wrenth intoned. “Her professionalism isn’t the issue here.”
“But maybe it should be.” Conway stepped toward Wrenth’s desk. “Admiral, if I can establish that Captain Vansen was acting incompetently, wouldn’t that justify Captain Baxter disregarding orders?”
“Sir,” the officer standing beside Wrenth spoke up. “I remind you that you shouldn’t touch Admiral Wrenth. Human flesh that comes in contact with him disintegrates immediately.”
“Noted,” Conway said, and stepped back a little.
“If his disobedience was a direct reaction to Vansen’s incompetence, I suppose so,” Wrenth said thoughtfully. “In any case, you have one hour to prepare and execute that argument, and then the case is closed. I trust I’m making myself very clear.”
“Crystal, sir,” Conway said. “I request a brief recess.”
“Recess?” Baxter exploded. “But the guy’s only here for another hour!”
Conway whirled. “Shut up, Baxter!”
Vansen chuckled as she stepped back behind her table and sat down. “Even your defender dislikes you, Captain. And you actually think you can prove me incompetent? Hah! Good luck!”
“Granted,” Wrenth said, a little boredly.
“Oooh…Vansen!” Baxter growled. “I’m going to get you. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but some way, some how, I’m going to get you!”
“Do your worst, Captain,” Vansen said, as Conway grabbed Baxter by the arm and jerked him toward the lounge adjacent to the assembly room.
“We’ll be right back,” Conway called over his shoulder, slapping a hand over Baxter’s mouth even as he tried to yell back at Vansen.
Once in the room, and once the doors were closed, Conway fairly pushed Baxter back into a chair at the conference table and leaned over him.
“You’ve got to keep your mouth shut, Baxter. The whole case I’m trying to make here is that you’re being unfairly persecuted by Vansen. If you keep shooting back at her, I can’t establish that.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” Baxter said. “It’s just…she’s so damn infuriating!”
“You can’t stand your commanding officer.” Conway laughed. “I can relate. But if you’re going to defeat her, you have to show you’re the better person.”
“But I’m not,” Baxter said.
“But you have to believe you are,” Conway said, grabbing Baxter’s shoulders. “Now, if I’m not able to convince Wrenth that you acted diligently, then there’s a good chance he’ll want to throw you out of Starfleet. I’ve got a countermeasure planned. It’s a bit drastic, but it may just be our last hope of keeping you in Starfleet.”
Baxter leaned forward. “I’m listening.”
“We’re going to have you transferred to the U.S.S. Outlander,” Conway said. “I think I can convince Admiral Wrenth that you’d be a good fit over there.”
“But I don’t want the Outlander,” Baxter said. “I want to stay on the Explorer.”
“I’m not sure that’s going to be an option. If Wrenth rules against you, there may be no other choice but to transfer. Otherwise, you’ll be out of Starfleet.”
“So what makes you think he’ll let me transfer to the Outlander, if he’s of a mind to put me out of Starfleet?”
“Because I’ve found out, through sources I can’t name, that the Outlander’s mission is going to be a little different than the other ships in our group.”
Baxter’s eyebrows raised. “What do you mean?”
“The Outlander’s going away for a long time, Captain,” Conway said. “Longer than any Starfleet ship has before. Twenty years, round trip.”
“TWENTY YEARS?” Baxter shouted. “Conway! What kind of solution is that?”
“Look, you can bring your wife and Steffie. You can select your own command crew from anyone on the Explorer who wants to go. Most importantly, you’ll have your own ship, and you’ll never have to see Vansen again.” He grinned. “Or me, for that matter.”
“You just want to get rid of me,” Baxter said.
“Nonsense,” Conway said. “Look, for this to work, you have to trust me. I know that’s not easy, but the alternative is kicking back on Earth and doing nothing for the rest of your life.”
“Well, I don’t want that,” Baxter said, but wasn’t sure he meant it.
“Don’t worry,” Conway said. “The Outlander thing is just a final solution. I’m pretty confident we won’t need it.”
“That makes one of us.”
Doctor Browning slipped in shortly after Conway and Baxter went into recess, maneuvering over to the front row, where Peterman sat.. “Did I miss anything?” she asked, sitting down next to Peterman.
“Just the opening volleys,” Peterman said. “Now Dave and Andy are in recess, coming up with some kind of master plan, I hope. How was your visit with Chris?”
“Interesting. Did you know there’s a changeling in the circus with him?”
“No, I didn’t. That’s nice for Plato.”
“Yeah. I called the ship and asked Plato if he wanted to go down to the circus with me. He said he didn’t want to.”
“You told him there’d be another changeling there?”
Browning nodded. “He said he didn’t care. Said he had better things to do. Can you believe that?”
“Boys will be boys,” Peterman said. “I wouldn’t take it personally, Janice. He’s a teenager now. He’s going through a tough phase, is all.”
“But he’s only three years old!”
“Maybe physically. But mentally, he’s a whole lot older than that. Older, in fact, than he was before we went to the twenty-first century. Give him time.”
Browning smiled. “Thanks, Kelly. You know, I’m glad you’re back.”
“I’m glad to be back,” Peterman said, and looked toward the front of the courtroom. “I suppose once we get this one last of business out of the way, we can finally have our family back together.”
“Yeah,” Browning said. “More or less.”
“Contact bearing oh-four-four mark two-six-five,” Ensign Keefler announced, looking up from tactical. “Small vessel. One occupant. Moving toward the planet.”
Lt. Jeremy Gage was seated in the command chair. “Put it on screen.”
“It’s…” Keefler trailed off as he looked at his sensor panel, pressing controls.
Gage turned around. “What is it, Ensign?”
“Nothing, sir. It vanished. Might have been a sensor echo.”
“Might have been. Regardless, coordinate with the Aerostar. See if she saw anything.”
“Thanks for your patience, Admiral,” Conway said, stepping back up to face Wrenth as Baxter returned to his seat.
“I have nowhere else to be,” Wrenth said. “For forty-two minutes, at least.”
“Right,” Conway said. He paced back, turning. “Captain Nell Vansen. Current commander of the U.S.S. Explorer.”
Vansen took a breath. “This should be good.”
Conway whirled, facing her. “Would you say you’re a good captain?”
“I’m not being questioned here,” Vansen said.
“As a matter of fact, you are,” Wrenth said. “I see no harm in answering the man’s question.”
Vansen rolled her eyes. “Yes, I consider myself a good captain.”
“Do you think you have the respect of your crew?”
“I could care less,” Vansen said. “Are you finished yet?”
Conway looked back at Wrenth. “Doesn’t care if her crew respects her.” He returned his gaze to Vansen. “How about like? You think they like you?”
“I care even less about that. They don’t have to like me. They just need to do their jobs.”
“Which is increasingly harder the less likable you are,” Conway said, and marched toward Wrenth. He tossed a padd on the Admiral’s desk. “As a matter of fact, I’ve got evidence gleaned from over two dozen log entries from Vansen’s senior staff on the Explorer indicating how much they dislike her. Moreover, they cite reasons why. And I think you’ll see a trend developing. A trend that shows that, lately, Vansen has been even less likeable.” Conway turned back toward Vansen. “Hey, I’m not the most likeable guy on my ship. But at least my crew respects me.” He thumbed over at Baxter. “Baxter here isn’t the most respected guy on his ship. But at least his crew likes him. Seems to me you have to have one or the other.”
“I don’t think it says anything about that in Starfleet regs,” Vansen said. “Although I’d be happy to check on that for you, Captain.”
“No need,” Conway said. “I already checked.” He picked a padd up off his table and tossed it on Vansen’s table. “The regs say nothing about being likeable or respected.”
“I thought not,” Vansen replied.
“They are, however, fairly explicit about a captain treating the crew with respect. Something you haven’t been known for since coming to the Explorer. And wouldn’t you say, of all those you disrespected on the Explorer, Captain Baxter has been the hardest hit.”
“That poor, poor man,” Vansen snarled, turning toward Baxter. “I’m so sorry I’ve been mean to you. I can’t imagine how hard it’s been, shlubbing through your insubordinate, ineffective, incompetent Starfleet life with me constantly on your case. If you ever did anything useful, it might just scare you into retirement!”
“That’s quite enough!” Wrenth bellowed, silencing Vansen. Conway just smiled.
“Sir,” Vansen said, reigning in her emotions and turning back toward the Admiral. “I respectfully submit that none of this has anything to do with the case before us today. Captain Baxter obviously acted against orders. His actions had nothing to do with my respect for him or lack thereof. He simply acted willfully to flagrantly disregard my orders!”
“He was going to rescue a member of his crew,” Conway said, turning on Vansen.
“Who also happens to be his wife.”
“Irrelevant,” Conway said, advancing on Vansen. “Show of hands, in the audience. Who here likes Captain Baxter.”
Dozens of arms were raised. Explorer and Aerostar crew alike.
Baxter smiled. “Aw, jeeze, guys…”
“And Captain Vansen?” Conway asked, arching an eyebrow. “Who likes her?”
Lt. Sefelt gingerly put up his hand. Peterman glared at him, and he quickly dropped it.
Vansen lept to her feet, whirling toward the group. “You think I care if you don’t like me? You can all go to hell for all I care. You and your captain can go straight to hell!”
“THAT IS ENOUGH!” Wrenth railed, glowing much brighter. “One more outburst like that, Vansen, and I’ll remove you from these proceedings.”
“Sir,” Vansen said, turning toward Wrenth, her voice shaking. “This is an obvious attempt to discredit me. I think you’ll see that…”
“Silence,” Wrenth said. “I’ve made my decision.” The being stood, stepping right through his desk, and toward both Vansen and Baxter. Conway, meanwhile, strode back to his chair and sat down.
“This should be good,” Baxter muttered.
“Captain Baxter, you did disobey Starfleet orders.” He turned to Vansen. “But Captain Vansen, you did nothing to inspire confidence or obedience in your crew. That has to count for something.’
“Enough,” Wrenth said. “Truth be told, this matter is too complex to settle in the ten minutes I have remaining.”
“But…!” Baxter rose a questioning finger.
“But I simply can’t find enough evidence to remove Captain Baxter from Starfleet.”
Vansen opened her mouth, but shut it quickly.
“However,” Wrenth said, turning toward Baxter. “There is obviously an untenable situation aboard the Explorer right now. One that flies in the face of efficiency and productivity.”
“No kidding,” Conway said.
“That’s why I’ve decided it’s best for all considered to separate the two of you.”
Baxter grinned. “Yes!”
“For you, Captain Baxter, to be transferred to U.S.S. Outlander, to assume command when she’s launched in four months.”
“Wow,” Conway said. “Great minds think alike!”
Baxter stood, opened his mouth to object, but Vansen stopped him, stepping out from behind her table.
“Wait just one second, Admiral,” she said.
“Not you again,” Wrenth said, not looking at Vansen (which made little difference, as he had no eyes).
“Transfer me to the Outlander,” she said earnestly. “I’ve seen the specs. She’s a bigger ship than Baxter can handle anyway. Put me there. And let me choose my own crew. Crew that are distinctly NOT Explorer people. Then let Andy have his precious Explorer. That’ll make everyone happy.”
“Captain Baxter,” Wrenth said, turning to Baxter. “Are you amenable to this arrangement?”
Baxter’s lip was quivering as he struggled to hold back yelps of joy. Tears of ecstasy were welling in his eyes. “I’ll…uh….I can live with it!”
“Don’t say a word, Captain,” Conway said, rising and bracing a hand on Baxter’s shoulder. “We really should have Vansen sign something to make this official.” He tapped a quick agreement into his padd and tossed it to Vansen.
“Gladly!” Vansen retorted, thumbing her signature at the bottom of the padd. “Anything to get off the Explorer.” She glanced back at everyone in the audience. “Far be it for me to go where I’m not wanted.”
“HA!” Peterman called back gleefully from the audience.
“I can’t believe it,” Baxter said, throwing his arms around Conway. “You really did it, Dave. You did it!”
“It was dumb luck,” Conway said, wriggling out of the hug and pushing Baxter away. “As usual. Nor for godsakes, get off me!”
“If you’ll excuse me,” Vansen said hotly, as she pushed past the audience toward the exit. “I’m going to go back to the ship and prepare my new command crew. And pack my things.”
“Better pack lots of supplies!” Baxter called after her. “You’ll need them!”
Vansen glared back at him curiously as she stepped out into the lobby outside.
Peterman ran up to Baxter and pulled him into a tight hug. “Andy! I’m so relieved! You did it!”
“Yes,” Baxter said, kissing her deeply. “Everything’s going to be okay now.”
“Glad I could help,” Wrenth muttered, turning back to his desk. “Now then, I’ve still got ten minutes left. I think I’ll go have a muffin. I do so love muffins…”
Baxter turned back toward the audience, raising his arms in triumph. “You here me, gang? Everything’s going to be okay now. Everything’s going to be just fi–”
A phaser blast seared by his ear, singing his hair.
Peterman pushed him to the floor. “Down, Andy!”
A monstrous roar filled the assembly room, coming seemingly from everywhere at once, and the gathered audience scattered, piling toward the door.
Baxter climbed under his table, pulling Peterman with him. Conway dove under the other table.
“Conway to Aerostar! Send security! Now!”
“What the hell was that?” Peterman said. “Where did that shot come from? And who’s roaring? The damn thing sounded like a rabid rhinoceros.”
“I don’t know,” Baxter said. “Maybe if we cower here for a while, the thing will go away.”
“Andy, I love you, but that sounds like a horrible plan.”
A window shattered. A chorus of fearful screams echoed through the assembly room. Impossibly heavy footfalls. Before Peterman or Baxter could react, the table above them smashed, and corded muscular purple tentacles lashed down upon them. One each wrapped them both, hurling them high into the air.
“Lieutenant Unlathi, you crazy….” Baxter began, then looked down into the gaping maw of the huge beast, with their rows of sharp teeth, slimy skin, and multiple whipping tongues.
“I don’t think that’s Unlathi,” Peterman groaned as she was squeezed by the thing’s thick tentacles. “They don’t have Unlathi’s pleasant disposition.”
“You come with me now!” the being bellowed, slamming Baxter and Peterman together and dropping them to the floor.
“Let’s not get carried away!” J’hana shouted, skipping over rows of chairs, hurling herself airborne, then piledriving into the thing, knocking it forward.
And straight into an unsuspecting Admiral Wrenth.
“My, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there. Excuse me, I…” The massive being screamed as they slammed into him. Although Wrenth wasn’t even staggered, his multidimensional energies were slowly disintegrating the Velvattian’s flesh. By the time it realized what had happened, it was too late. “Careful there, you’re…well, sorry about that,” the Admiral finished, as the last chunks of the massive assassin disintegrated with a meaty sizzle.
J’hana hit the ground, assuming her famous “battle squat.” She looked around, scanning for any other possible attackers, even as the last bits of the Velvattian evaporated.
“Strange,” Wrenth said, and vanished back to his native dimension.
Baxter rose slowly, helping Peterman to her feet, as the smell of fried Velvattian filled the air. “I think we’re safe, J’hana.”
J’hana rose from her stance. “I’ve never killed a Velvattian before. This is a day I will not soon forget.”
Baxter looked at Peterman, pulled her into a kiss, and broke the kiss, smiling. “Me neither.”
“You cower like a fool,” J’hana said, offering a hand to Conway as he climbed out from under the nearby table.
“I miss you too, J’hana,” Conway muttered.
“Anybody hurt?” Dr. Browning asked, running up, as the crowd slowly filtered back into the room.
“Just bruised,” Baxter said.
“Velvattian assassins do not come cheap,” J’hana said. “Someone has put a high price on your head indeed.”
“Probably Harth,” Baxter said. “But I can live with that.”
“We shall see,” J’hana said enigmatically.
“It is somewhat an anomaly,” Commander Kristen Larkin said, filing into the upper deck seating facing the three rings of the Breen circus, now dark, as the show was between acts.
“What, that someone would want me dead, or that he’d send a Velvattian to do it?” Baxter asked, walking arm in arm with Counselor Peterman down the aisle and squeezing into the row of seating with Larkin, Conway, Ford, J’hana, and Tilleran.
“That he would send only one person, and that the person would be so easily stopped,” Larkin said, as Baxter sat down. “More than likely, this will not be the final attempt.”
“You’d think we’d get better seats than these, being friends of someone in the show. These are nosebleed seats,” Baxter said, looking around. “I’m not going to get all paranoid like President Dillon was. I’m not going to let anyone spoil the day I got the Explorer back.”
“Although you may not have it for long if you are gutted and filleted,” J’hana pointed out.
“Where’s Janice?” Tilleran asked, kicking J’hana in the shin and glancing around, desperate to change the subject.
“If it were anyone other than you,” J’hana muttered, rubbing her shin.
“She said she’d be along. She wanted to check backstage to see if she could talk to Chris,” Baxter said. “I thought Hartley and Mirk were going to be here.”
“They said they had other plans,” Tilleran said.
“About what?” Conway asked.
“I don’t know, I didn’t even know they had plans,” Baxter said.
“No. I mean what was Janice talking to Chris about?”
“Oh, who knows. She’s been acting weird lately.”
“She has a lot to deal with,” Peterman said. “What with Chris being away, Plato being unresponsive, and…” She averted her eyes. “Other things.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “Other things.” Suddenly the lights in the center of the massive chamber went up bright. “Oh, look, the show’s starting!”
A bright glow washed over everyone’s faces, as a cascade of color and lights flickered by, and the show began.
“Wow!” Ford exclaimed. “Look at them go!”
“It’s amazing,” Conway said. “I wondered what a Breen circus would look like. And I have to say, this defies all my expectations.”
“It’s…” Baxter said, squeezing Peterman’s hand. “Breathtaking.”
“Look at them…the harmony…the symphony of movement…the grace, the subtle artistry and pageantry of it all,” Peterman gasped. “And in those bulky suits!”
“It is most glorious,” J’hana said, her mouth agape. “I am born anew, in a fabulous, throbbing egg sac.”
“Well put,” Larkin said with a nod.
Then the lights went dim again.
“Did I miss anything?” Browning asked, squeezing into the end seat, next to Peterman.
“Um..nope…” Conway sipped his drink. TEKAK was the closest thing to coffee they had at the Breen concession stand. It was overpriced, and cold, so already it had two strikes against it.
“Ya know,” Peterman said. “About what you’d expect from a Breen circus.”
“I’m still stunned,” Baxter said.
“Chris is on next,” Browning said. “He’s a little nervous, what with all of us being here.”
“That’s silly,” Baxter said. “I’m sure he’ll be just fine. I’ve heard he’s done this act dozens of times now.”
“I’m not sure that’s what he’s nervous about,” Browning said thoughtfully. “We talked. About him coming back to the ship.”
“And?” Peterman asked.
“He said no,” Browning said, looking down at her feet. “Said he needed this environment. That he felt less pressure here..”
“What hooey,” Baxter said. “Honestly I don’t understand what goes on in that man’s head sometimes. I never asked much from him as first officer. Hmm…I wonder who else I could get for the job.”
“I’d count Hartley out if I were you,” Peterman said. “Seems as though she never took well to command.”
Baxter glanced down the row. “Tilleran? J’hana?”
“Surely you jest,” J’hana said.
“Thanks anyway, Captain,” Tilleran said politely.
“What, am I that hard to work for?” Baxter asked, scratching his head.
“Shh, he’s going on,” Peterman said. She leaned over toward Browning. “Janice, you really should think about this before we leave the Pelonius system. Who knows when we’ll cross paths with Chris again. This could be your only chance to tell him how you feel.”
“How’s that?” Browning whispered. “Even I don’t know.”
“But you feel something.”
“Explore it. You owe yourself that.”
“I don’t want him to do anything he doesn’t want to do.”
“Maybe he doesn’t realize how you feel. You should tell him.”
The lights went up. There Richards stood, atop a high tightrope, a balancing stick in hand, clad in a tight, incredibly form-fitting silver suit.
“Where’s my imager!” Ford called out, exploding in laughter.
“He’s going from the tightrope to the trapeze,” Browning explained. “So the idea is he leaps off the rope, grabs the trapeze as it’s thrown to him, and swings to the pole on the other side, and grabs on.”
“And how is this entertaining?” Baxter asked. “I want the Breen back.”
“Shh. Andy!” Peterman scolded. She turned back to Browning. “I mean it, Janice. Think about it.”
Browning nodded. “I already thought about it.”
“Good,” Peterman said, smiling, as Richards moved slowly, shakily out toward the middle of the wobbly tightrope.
“I’m going to tell him how I feel.”
“Good,” Peterman said again, as Browning pushed out of her seat and ran down the flight of stairs toward the middle of the amphitheatre.
“Wait!” Peterman exclaimed. “I didn’t mean now!”
“Where’s she going?” Baxter asked, stuffing a handful of popcorn into his mouth. The menu was totally bizarre, but somehow they still managed to have popcorn.
Peterman covered her face. “I’m not sure, but I can’t look.”
“Christopher!” Browning called out, as Richards reached the end of the tightrope. Pogo waited, literally wrapped around the pole, on the other side of the ring. He swung the rope toward Richards, who reached out to grab it.
“Christopher!” Browning called at the top of her lungs. “You’ve got to come back to the ship. I think I still love you!”
Richards glanced as he reached out for the trapeze. “What?” And as he leaned forward, he grabbed at air, the trapeze having already swung out of reach.
“I think I still love you!”
“Um…” Richards fell forward, arms pinwheeling, and tumbled off his perch on the pole, plummeting to the ground below.
The crowd fell silent.
“Now THIS is entertainment!” J’hana cheered.
Stardate 57245.4. Captain Baxter and friends returned from Pelonius Two this afternoon, with a very injured Commander Richards in tow. I’m sure I don’t care. I am, though, admittedly curious about the assignment ahead of me, command of the new starship, Outlander.
By the way, this is my final log as Captain of the Explorer. May you all rot in hell.
Wow, I feel better already.
“Cracked femur. Four broken ribs. Punctured lung…” Browning read off the list of injuries from a padd while Baxter sat at his desk in the first officer’s office, wincing.
“Bruised kidney, broken neck, broken back, sprained shoulder, and a mild concussion.”
Baxter gulped. “Broken back? Can you fix that?”
“Oh, yeah,” Browning said, and sighed, plopping into the chair opposite Baxter. “But why must I keep having to operate on the people I care about?”
“What do you mean? Who else has there been, other than me and Chris?”
It was Browning’s turn to wince. “Oh, man. I completely forgot.”
“Umberto’s dead,” she said meekly.
“My barber? But you only went on one date with him!”
“What, you think it’s my fault? It was a brain aneurysm. Totally freak occurence.”
“Poor Umberto. He was a great barber. I don’t like the other guy. He has a lazy eye.”
“Still, all told, it was a good day, eh?” Browning asked.
Baxter leaned back. “Yes. Vansen’s gone for good. She’s clearing out the readyroom now. We’ll be at the shipyards in the Halinon system to drop her off in about a week. Then life goes back to normal.”
“Plus we got Richards back.”
Browning nodded. “He may recover from his injuries, but he’ll never fly on the trapeze again.”
“I suspect, after what happened, he may never want to.”
“Yes,” Browning said. “I guess you could say his dreams were crushed.”
“Literally,” Baxter said, and Browning winced again.
“What am I going to do, Andy?”
“You’re the doctor, you know best.”
“No,” Browning said, and leaned forward. “About Christopher? What do I do about him?”
“I think the same holds true,” Baxter said. “You know best.”
“Yeah,” Browning said. “Maybe I do.” And she got up and walked out.
Just then, Baxter’s terminal blinked. He leaned forward and touched a control. Captain Anna Kimmel of the U.S.S. Tracker appeared on the screen.
“Anna,” Baxter said, smiling. “It’s been a while since we’ve talked.”
Kimmel shrugged. “I know you’ve been busy,” she said with a sideways grin. “I just heard the news about your court martial…which ended up with you back in command of the ship?”
“Funny how those things work out,” Baxter said. “What about you? How are you doing?”
“I’m, uh, you know…the same.”
Baxter sighed inwardly. He was very protective of Kimmel, for reasons he rarely thought about. “What happened this time?”
“Nothing. Just a warp core thing.”
“Almost a breach. We got it figured out.”
“Anna…” Baxter sighed. “That’s the third time this year.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t have to dump it this time.”
“Good. Because I think I remember Starfleet giving you that ‘fresh out of warp cores’ song and dance.”
Kimmel nodded. “Yeah. They’re always ticked about something.”
“Well, things will look up. I see great things ahead for you.”
“That’s nice of you to say, Andy.”
“Shucks,” Baxter said.
“So, uh…I’m in your sector next month. Think we could get together, catch up? It seems like it’s been forever…”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, grinning. “I think that can be arranged.”
On the way back down to Sickbay, Browning passed Plato and Hartley. Plato was dragging Hartley by the arm, giggling. Hartley wore loose chemise, over a bathing suit, and Plato was in swim trunks and a t-shirt, cradling a volleyball.
“That was so much fun, Megan! Can we go to the beach again tomorrow?”
“If your mom says you can, and the holodeck’s free, sure.” Hartley looked up. “Hey, and there she is. Hi, mom!”
“Hello,” Browning said, looking from Hartley to Plato. “Son…is this why you couldn’t go with us down to the circus? So you could go to the holodeck with Lieutenant Commander Hartley?”
“He didn’t ask you?” Hartley asked, looking from Plato to Browning. “He told me he did.”
“He lied,” Browning said.
“You don’t have to know where I am all the time,” Plato said.
“We’ll talk about this later,” Browning said. “Right now, get back to our quarters.”
“But Megan and I were going to…”
“Back to our quarters. Now, Plato.”
Plato glared at Browning then stalked off down the corridor.
“Janice, for what it’s worth…”
“It’s okay,” Browning said. “It’s not your fault, Megan. I’ll straighten this out. Thank you…thanks for being there.”
“Anytime,” Hartley said, and watched Browning go as she continued on to Sickbay.
When Browning got to Sickbay, she walked up to the biobed where Richards lay unconscious.
As she watched him, his eyes fluttered open. “Janice..?”
“Yeah, Matthew?” she said, touching his hand.
“Next time you want to tell me you love me…”
“Could you wait until AFTER I come down from the deadly height?”
Browning giggled. “Yeah, I think that can be arranged, Matthew. Anything else?”
“Got anything to eat?”
“Hmm. Let me think about that…”
Ahh, Spring on Betazed. A time when young Betazoids turn to thoughts of love. Until Lt. Commander Ariel Tilleran and Lieutenant J’hana visit, however. There’s something fishy about the Real Estate business on Betazed, an Tilleran and J’hana must visit the sweaty depths of the Betazoid housing market, and call in favors from someone Tilleran would just as soon not deal with, to find answers. If that weren’t bad enough, it’s high time Tilleran introduced J’hana to her family. That should go well.