Author: Anthony Butler
Captain Andy Baxter rolled over in bed, yawned, and blinked.
“Morning,” Counselor Kelly Peterman said, staring at him as he ran a hand softly down her face.
“Morning,” he said, smiling.
“Actually, it’s oh-three hundred,” Peterman corrected. “If you were curious.”
“That’s the problem with flying through space,” Baxter said. “There’s no sun to come up. And if there is a sun outside your window, odds are you’re in trouble.”
“Brilliant observation, sweetie,” Peterman said, turning, and curling herself against Baxter’s chest. “What woke you?”
“A dream,” Baxter said, wrinkling his nose. “Nasty one, too.”
“The McDonald’s dream?”
“No. This one was at the YMCA.”
“I thought it was fun to stay at the YMCA,” Peterman said thoughtfully. “I could have sworn I heard that somewhere.”
“Well you heard wrong. It was absolutely disturbing. Have I mentioned yet how happy I am not to be back in time anymore?”
“Once or twice.”
“How about how happy I am to be in command of the Explorer again?”
“You screamed it last night. Several times. While we…”
“I’m in command again!” Baxter shouted, hopping out of bed. “I think I’m going to go up and command the bridge for a while.”
“It’s Delta Shift, hon.”
Just then, a piercing wail echoed through the Captain’s cabin, and Baxter knew he’d woken Steffie.
“She’s up,” Peterman sighed.
“It’s my turn,” Baxter said, and started for the door.
“No,” Peterman said, and slid out of bed, gently moving past Baxter. “I was away for six weeks. I’ve got some catching up to do in the child- rearing department.”
“How about we both do it?” Baxter asked, clasping his hand around Peterman’s.
“That’s a great idea,” Peterman grinned.
“Are we disgustingly cute?” Baxter asked her.
“You’re half right.”
Stardate 57250.3. After several days of medium warp travel, we’ve reached the Halinon system, where we’ve been assigned to deploy Captain Vansen and her new command crew to begin their lengthy–as in twenty years – tour of duty aboard the U.S.S. Outlander.
Did I mention this was the Captain’s log? And that, since I’m the Captain, it’s my log?
Just thought I’d make that clear.
Anyway, life aboard the Explorer is slowly returning to normal, er, abnormal. However you want to put it. The point is, I’ve got my ship back. And as far as I’m concerned, everything else is trivial.
“It’s vital you return to Betazed immediately.”
Lt. Commander Tilleran rubbed her eyes blearily as she stared at the woman on the viewscreen in her office. It was far too early in the morning for this. “Mom. You’re exaggerating.”
“This is a matter of supreme importance. You realize, that as a daughter of the tenth house, you’ve got responsibilities that far exceed whatever piddling concerns you have board the Implorer.”
“Whatever. There’s a ceremony for you to attend here. And whatever personal feelings you have, you have a duty to your family, and your house, to make the trip.”
“I’ve been busy, Mother,” Tilleran said, adopting a more formal tone. “I have duties here. Things have been…unusual around here.”
“I don’t care if the ship explodes tomorrow,” Lia Tilleran snapped, not realizing that, in other realities, the Explorer actually had exploded already several times. Fate had just been kind enough to restore her to her previous condition. Tilleran wondered idly whether or not that would hold true for the duration of the Explorer’s mission.
“This discussion is over, Mother,” Tilleran muttered. “Call me back when you can be a little more civil.” She thumbed the channel closed, just as she saw J’hana glance in through the frosted glass windows beside the door to her office. Seeing Tilleran in there, the Andorian ducked through the double doors and entered the office.
“Are you busy, Imzadi?”
“Not at all. I just finished,” Tilleran said with a sigh, leaning back and crossing her arms.
J’hana stood there for a beat. “You are angry.”
“You’re damned right I am.”
“The anger drips off you like sweat. And not the good kind. The gross kind.”
“That’s nice.” Tilleran stared straight ahead, working her jaw back and forth thoughtfully.
Tilleran sighed again. “It’s not important. It’s trivial. Family matters.”
Jhana nodded. “You rarely discuss your family.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. We don’t talk much.”
“Perhaps you should rectify that.”
“That’s just the problem,” Tilleran said. “I happen to like having my parents at a distance. It….keeps things uncomplicated.”
“Family is important. I ritually attack a member of my family at least once a year. We have hot drinks afterwards. It’s titillating.”
“I love you, J’hana. But you’re bizarre. Even for an Andorian.”
J’hana bowed. “I’m pleased you think so.”
Tilleran turned away, staring at the readout screens on her wall, displaying live images of the Explorer’s various sensor feeds. “They want me to come to Betazed for the Crossover.”
“That sounds like fun,” J’hana said. “Are their hot drinks?”
“No. Crossover is a very serious tradition on Betazed. It signifies the passing of the family leadership role from one generation to the next. I’m the oldest daughter of the tenth house, so it falls on me to assume that role.”
“But you do not want to,” J’hana observed. “You’re not the family type.”
“That’s exactly it,” Tilleran said. “They can find someone else to lead the tenth house, for Rixx sake. Hire somebody. Let my sister Nekohl do it. I don’t care.”
“You have family obligations,” J’hana said. “You should honor their traditions. Take part in the symbolic ritual, then tell them you’re returning to the Explorer.”
“They’ll just try to convince me to stay. It’ll get ugly.”
“That’s why you’ll bring me. If negotiation fails, I will destroy them.”
“Thanks, Jan,” Tilleran said, leaning over and rubbing J’hana’s shoulder. “You don’t know how much it means to me, that you’re willing to kill my family for me. But I don’t think it will come to that.”
“Honor demands that you at least go to them and participate in this ceremony. You are a formidable woman, Ariel. You’ve never been one to hide from your obligations.”
“Not since I’ve had you on my side, at least,” Tilleran said distantly.
“As I’ve said. I’ll be coming with you.”
Tilleran thought about it for a long moment. She smiled. “All right. But you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Captain Baxter leaned back in his chair and smiled. Gosh, it felt good to be behind his desk again. He looked out around his readyroom. All of Vansen’s stupid certificates and artistic landscapes were pulled down. In their place, the Explorer crew sketch, various small-size, tasteful Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl action shots. His “Lieutenant Thomas Anderson” medal for Supreme Inventory Accuracy.
The office felt more like his again. On the end table, his models of the original Aerostar and Explorer sat. Not the dull, featureless models most captains had. These actually made sounds, and lit up. Useful for those times when he had to think about a mission, and could lose himself in thought for hours pitting the Explorer and Aerostar against each other in battle.
The door to his readyroom beeped.
“Come,” he said, looking up.
The doors opened, revealing Captain Vansen. She glanced at the small crate beside the door. “My belongings, I take it?”
“Yes,” Baxter said, gesturing toward the box. “I was very careful packing it. Unlike an incompetent captain, I took great care not to bend the edges on your certificates.”
“The true definition of command presence, for sure,” Vansen said distantly. She looked around. “You’ve certainly recreated your little hovel quickly, Captain.”
“Back to status quo,” Baxter said with a smile.
“And you actually think that’s a good thing?” Vansen laughed. “You have so much to learn, Baxter.”
“And so do you,” Baxter said, his eyebrows knitting angrily. “And, come to think of it, you’ll have plenty of time to learn. What was it? Twenty years?”
“Approximately,” Vansen said, not missing a beat. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Better you than me.”
“You’re mistaken if you think I see this as a punishment, Baxter,” Vansen said. “I see this as sweet release. Starfleet has been nothing but a disappointment to me. The Federation has, too. They excel in the hiring and promoting of incompetents. How else do you explain the continued existence of the Explorer project?”
“Stupid luck?” Baxter offered innocently.
“Staggering ineptitude,” Vansen replied. “And I’m content to put as much space between myself and this hellish region of space as I can.”
“You’ll have no admiral to answer to for most of the trip. You’ll be your own boss. Nobody to fall back on if you get into trouble.”
“I. Look. Forward. To. It.” Vansen gritted her teeth as she leaned forward over Baxter’s desk.
“If you hate the Federation so much, why even stay?” Baxter said. “Why not quit? Join the Nybarite Alliance, or the Orion Syndicate? I’m sure they’re hiring.”
“Because I have hope,” Vansen said, and headed toward the door. “Hope springs eternal that, one day, by the time I return to this quadrant, the Federation will begin to make rational sense again.”
“Maybe,” Baxter said with a forced smile. “But don’t count on it, Vansen.”
“Oh,” Vansen said, standing near the door. “I almost forgot. I sent you a message this morning regarding the crew I’d be transferring aboard the Outlander.”
“Mmhmm,” Baxter said disinterestedly. He tapped up the list on his terminal. “Jeremy Gage. Naturally. Ryn Trista. Good choice. Koltz, Ayalla, Stone, and Collins. Fine, fine…”
Vansen smiled as Baxter’s eyes bugged out. “Lindsay Morgan! You’re taking our Transporter Chief!”
“I’ll see you in hell, Baxter,” Vansen said.
She picked up her crate, turned and stepped out through the opening doors onto the bridge. She stared around the bridge a moment, then ducked into the aft turbolift.
“VANSEN!” Baxter shouted at the top of his lungs.
As her lift descended, Vansen couldn’t help but smile.
Peterman stared into her cup of coffee, then out at the crowds passing by the patio on the first level of Ship’s Shoppes, directly in front of the recently-added Andorian Coffee shop, D’ahna’s.
“It’ll be okay, Kelly,” Counselor Ryn Trista said, sipping her Chai Tea with Zezztz blood. “You’re ready for this.”
“I don’t know,” Peterman said, sipping. “It still feels strange, sometimes.”
“It will for a while. But those times will be fewer and farther between,” Trista said. “Before you know it, you’ll forget your feelings of hostility, jealousy. All of those negative emotions that hold you back. You’ll move forward.”
“You’re right,” Peterman said. “You’re good at this.”
“First in my class at Federation University Counseling School,” Trista said with a smile, stretching back in her tight jumpsuit and letting her blonde curls unfurl down her shoulders. She glanced absently at the chronometer on the wall behind Peterman. “Prophets, I’ve lost track of time. I’ve got to be on the Outlander in an hour, and I haven’t even finished packing.”
“You’ll be fine,” Peterman said, as Ryn stood. “And you’ll do a wonderful job as the Outlander’s counselor.”
“Oh, I agree,” Ryn said. “I’ve no doubt of that. Same as I’ve no doubt you’ll be okay.”
“You know,” Peterman said. “When I came back to the Explorer, I think I was a little leery of you. I was a lot leery. But then I realized you weren’t trying to take my job. You actually wanted to help me, and, well…”
“Yes,” Ryn said. “I think we would have been friends too, given the time. But the Prophets have laid out a different path for us.”
“For better or worse,” Peterman said with a small smile, raising her cup to Ryn. “Good luck aboard the Outlander, Trista.”
“Yes,” Ryn said lightly. “See you in twenty years!”
“I don’t see how you can be so nonchalant about it,” Peterman said. “You’ll be away from the Alpha Quadrant for two decades! A lot can change in that time.”
“Most assuredly,” Ryn said, her eyes beaming. “But I have a chance to study personality development over twenty years. I’ll see conflicts, neuroses, outright mental disorders. Five thousand crew spending twenty years deprived of contact with any of the world they knew. It’s going to make for a fascinating study.”
“There’s job dedication for you,” Peterman said to herself as she watched Ryn walk away. “Five thousand people. How could they find five thousand people willing to run away from their problems for twenty years?” Peterman thought about that a moment, then quickly decided to think about something else.
“I wonder if we should have told them we were leaving,” Tilleran said, as she looked out the forward viewport of the runabout Passaic.
“I sent a message to the Captain,” J’hana said, leaning back in her pilot’s seat and putting her feet up on the runabout’s helm console. “We risked our lives and careers to help him save his wife. He owes us one. Besides, the ship’s on a drop-off run. They’ll be fine without us.”
“I guess you’re right,” Tilleran said thoughtfully.
“There are no more excuses, Ari,” J’hana said, and nudged Tilleran’s elbow. “Now then, we’ll arrive at Betazed in approximately thirty-two hours. That gives us just enough time for a thorough exploration of the aft compartment, and then a shower afterwards. Agreed?”
Tilleran glanced at J’hana, smiled. “Sure. I don’t see why not.”
J’hana whirled in her chair. “Right, then. Off we go!”
Captain Vansen met Lt. Gage as he was leaving his quarters, Starfleet-issue duffel in hand. “Ready?” she asked, genuinely smiling for the first time since she’d set foot on the Explorer.
“Yes,” Gage said, picking up step next to Vansen as the two headed for the transporter room. “I said goodbye to all my friends on the ship at the poker game last night.”
Vansen blinked. “You had friends on this ship?”
Gage nodded. “Parser. And Mick Cooley. Lisa. Fernando. Little Jim. Adriana, Felchstein, Barr, and Argulio.”
“Interesting,” Vansen said neutrally.
“Hal Simpson and Amanda Sinclair, too. And I can’t forget Shnarr.” Gage laughed to himself. “That Shnarr. What a character.”
“And there was a poker game?”
“Yeah, the weekly one. Down in Rec Room Four.”
“You were only on this ship for four months.”
“I know. I feel bad too, because I’m not going to be around for Dennison’s birthday.” Gage grinned. “It’s supposed to be a rager!”
Vansen shook her head. “When did you have all this time to make friends? Didn’t I work you hard enough?”
“You make time for what’s important, Captain.”
“Yeah, right,” Vansen muttered, still shaking her head as she and Gage walked into the transporter room.
“U.S.S. Outlander,” Captain Baxter said, stepping toward the front of the bridge as the massive Outlander swung into view on the main viewscreen.
It was massive. Surrounded by a framework of catwalks, the vessel cast an impressive shape. Her hull gleamed silver. She was long, daggerlike up top, but wide along the bottom, like a pregnant wale. But more graceful. She had a saucer/engineering configuration similar to other Starfleet ships, but everything was larger. The saucer itself, Baxter figured, was the length and breadth of the entire Explorer.
“It’s big,” Counselor Peterman said from her seat next to the command chair. She hadn’t wasted any time stealing her seat back from Vansen.
“Big?” Baxter asked, returning to the command chair. “It’s three times the size of the Explorer.”
“Big,” Peterman replied.
Baxter nodded. “No wonder Vansen wanted it. She always did have an inferiority complex. Now she has the largest starship currently in service.”
“Until they launch the U.S.S. Devastator.”
“That was only a model. They’ll never build that thing,” Baxter said, his spine tingling at the idea of a ship even larger than the Outlander.
“It has to be big,” Baxter said. “It’s going to be out there for twenty years.”
“Twenty years without hearing from Vansen,” Peterman said, biting her bottom lip. “It’ll be bliss.”
“Do you think there’s any chance we’re going to miss her?” Baxter asked.
“Are you kidding?” Peterman replied.
“Just want to make sure we’re on the same page.” Baxter looked around. “So where the hell is everyone?”
Lt. Dan Elton was at sciences, and Ensign Keefler was at tactical. Madera and Sefelt were up front at conn and ops, but were working quietly. Madera had yelled at Sefelt earlier about him leaving his uniform jacket draped on her chair, and Sefelt had broken down crying, so they weren’t speaking to each other at the moment.
“Who do you mean? J’hana and Tilleran?” Peterman asked. “Who knows. I saw them down in the mall this morning getting breakfast. But they left in a bit of a hurry.”
“They must be planning a welcome back party for me,” Baxter said with a smile. “They’re so thoughtful.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said, and glanced at the console beside Baxter’s chair. “Hey. You have a message.”
“Oh,” Baxter said. “I knew that.” He punched a control on the arm of his chair. He frowned as he read the message that scrolled across the tiny screen. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“What is it?”
“Tilleran and J’hana went to Betazed. ‘Emergency family business.’”
“And they didn’t even tell you?”
“I guess they just did,” Baxter said. He sighed. “Well, I guess folks around here haven’t wasted any time going back to their bad habits now that Vansen’s gone.”
“They know there’s a passive-aggressive in command again,” Peterman said with a smile. “I’d say they’re relieved. Give them some time to unwind.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “I’m sure they could use a…” He wrinkled his nose. “Um…lover’s getaway.”
“Let’s not think about that, dear.”
“Speaking of lovers, and repression,” Baxter said, and looked around again. “What about Chris and Janice?” He tried not to make direct eye contact with Lt. Madera, who seemed to tense visibly and the mention of Richards’s name. Baxter was sure there was unfinished business between she and Richards, but was averse to getting in the middle of it.
Peterman sighed. “Chris’s temporarily lost the use of his lower body, and Janice’s taking care of him, remember?”
“I knew that. But Richards can still get around. It’s just incredibly painful and uncomfortable.”
“And I can’t seem to figure why he wouldn’t claw his way up to the bridge just to see this magnificent…” Peterman waved dismissively at the screen. “Big ship.”
“Still, she’s a beauty,” Baxter said, looking at the Outlander on the viewscreen. “Vansen’s a lucky woman.”
“Luckier than us?” Peterman asked, leaning in toward Baxter.
“Not on your life.” Baxter glanced back at Keefler. “Ensign…are Vansen and all her people off the ship?”
Keefler nodded. “The last group beamed off a few minutes ago, sir.”
“Then get us the hell out of here,” Baxter said. “Time’s wasting. We’ve got a vital mission ahead.”
“We’re delivering a shipment of frozen gourds to Ariadne Four,” Peterman said.
Baxter beamed. “Like I said. Vital! Lay in a course and energize, Madera. Maximum warp!”
“Christopher?” Browning asked, from the doorway to Richards’s bedroom.
“C’mon in,” Richards said, seated in his anti-grav chair, facing the viewport in his bedroom.
Browning stepped in with a tray, and sat it down on Richards’s bureau. “I brought you some lunch. Your favorite. Cheese sandwiches.”
“With extra cheese?” Richards asked, glancing back at Browning.
Browning nodded. “Of course.” She stepped toward Richards’s bed, sat down, and looked at him. “Are you okay, Christopher?”
“Yeah,” Richards said. “Except for the excruciating pain.”
“It won’t be for long,” Browning said, patting Richards’s shoulder. “I checked in on your new spine this morning. It’s replicating nicely. By tomorrow, it’ll be ready for implantation.”
Richards forced a laugh. “Ha. I guess that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘grow a new backbone.’”
“You could say that,” Browning said. She sat there looking at Richards for a moment. “You know, I really am sorry. About everything. I really didn’t mean to…”
“Cause me to fall to my near-death?”
“Well, to proclaim my love for you, you know, at such an inopportune moment.”
Richards laughed. “We’re all about inopportune moments, aren’t we, Janice?”
Browning chuckled. “Seems so.”
“Well…” Richards punched a control, swerving his chair around. “You’ve probably got a busy day to get back to.
“Not really,” Browning said. “I wanted to spend some time with you.”
“Funny,” Richards said. “I’m a captive audience.”
“That’s what your doctor tells me,” Browning said with a grin, leaning forward and touching Richards’s hand.
“You’re my doctor.”
“And don’t you forget it.”
“Speaking of doctors, the Doctor P’til show is on.”
“Mind-melds on live holovision,” Browning moaned. “What will Krinok think of next?”
“I think it’s rather brilliant,” Richards said. “I’d ask him for my writing job back if he hadn’t tried to kill me last time I saw him.”
“I can see how that would cause some hurt feelings,” Browning said, and grabbed the tray of cheese sandwiches, walking out into the living room, following Richards’s chair.
“Not that I plan on looking for other work,” Richards said, settling in front of the holovision as Browning sat the tray across his lap. “I’m glad to be back on the ship.”
“Even though, last we talked, you said you’d planned on being in the Breen Circus a while longer.”
Richards glanced up at Browning. “Plans change.”
“You’re telling me,” Browning said. “Something to drink?”
“Make it two,” Browning said, and went to the replicator. She brought the drinks back and handed one to Richards, then sat down on the couch near him and drank from her own frothy glass as Richards activated the holovision screen.
“Anything else I can get you?” Browning asked as she sipped.
“No,” Richards said, as the screen flared to life. “I think I’m good.”
“This will be awkward,” J’hana announced confidently as she stood next to Tilleran in front of the arching door to the towering manorhouse, which overlooked the Shoshoria Falls on the stylish lower west side of Betazed’s third largest continent, Alpharon.
“I’m glad you’re going into it with an open mind,” Tilleran said as she punched the door chime.
“I have no choice but to go into it with an open mind,” J’hana growled. “You’re all a bunch of fwarking mind readers.”
“You knew what you were getting into when you signed on for this, Imzadi,” Tillrean said softly. “As a matter of fact, I believe it’s you who convinced me to go.”
“I do not regret that, Ari. I simply have…reservations about how your family will deal with…us.”
“There’s a reason we haven’t visited home since you and I….coupled.”
“A very good reason, I’m sure.” J’hana harrumphed. “I happen to know how your family looks upon relationships of this sort.”
“Yes, whereas Andor is a model of enlightenment.”
“You take that back,” J’hana growled.
“I was complimenting your planet. Sarcastically,” Tilleran said with a raised eyebrow, as the door creaked open.
A large grey-skinned man stood in the doorway, filling it fully.
“It’s been too long, Mr. Mohm.”
“He is massive,” J’hana said in a low, husky voice, looking up at the huge manservant.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Tilleran said, as Mohm gestured her and J’hana into the house. “Mohm doesn’t…couple.”
“A shame,” J’hana said.
<It’s about time, darling,> a voice said in Tilleran’s mind.
“Mother!” Tilleran called out. “Where are you?”
<Should it matter? We communicate easily enough this way. Perhaps we should keep to our own sides of the house. Perhaps that would prevent any unpleasantness that might come about as a result of this visit.>
<Stop it, Mother!> Tilleran thought-sent, squeezing her eyes shut. <And stop probing my friend!>
“Yes!” J’hana called out in the cavernous marble foyer, her voice bouncing off the walls. “If you’re determined to probe me, do it in person!”
“My, my, darling, look what’s become of you,” a sing-song voice said, and Tilleran glanced up to the top of the spiral staircase, watching Lia Tilleran make her way down. She was elegant. She had all Tilleran’s features. Pale skin, iridescent black eyes, and an angular, dancer’s body. Her long, dark hair was up in tousled curls though, much more adventurous than Tilleran ever wore her straight hair. And it had begun to show slight streaks of grey.
“I know. I’m pretty happy with it,” Tilleran said defensively.
“That’s sad,” Lia said, reaching the bottom of the steps and crossing over to Tilleran and J’hana. “And I see you brought your Andorian sex toy with you.”
“A pleasure,” J’hana said, bowing slightly. If she was offended by that comment, she didn’t show it.
Lia looked from Tilleran to J’hana. “Well, is this what you do instead of marrying Crellus? Copulate with offworlders?”
“That’s none of your business!” Tilleran snapped. “I can’t keep you from my mind. I realize that. But J’hana’s is off-limits.”
Lia licked her lips, turning to face the Andorian. “That’s such a shame. Her mind is fascinating. So brusque, so filthy. So sick in every possible way.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” J’hana said, bowing again.
“You’re a grave disappointment,” Lia said to Tilleran. “We had high hopes that you’d become CEO of Betamax one day. The firm’s mortgage portfolio has tripled in the last four years. Not that you care.”
“I’m happy for you, Mom, I really am,” Tilleran said. “But you know I never had any plans to come back here to work in properties.”
“Do you know Crellus’ firm is even more prestigious than ours? Century Twenty-Five owns a third of Betazed.”
“Crellus must be very pleased,” Tilleran mumbled.
“His estate is nearby,” Lia said. “He’s kept himself close. You know, just in case.”
“In case of what?” Tilleran asked. “In case I should change my mind?”
“You were promised to him, after all, dear. You do have a certain obligation.”
“I only have the obligation to complete this ridiculous ceremony,” Tilleran said. “Give me control of the house, if you want to, Mother. But it’s not going to change the way I live my life. I’m going to go back to the Explorer and continue my Starfleet career. And there really isn’t anything you can do about it.”
“Stubborn little wench, isn’t she?” Lia asked J’hana.
“Indeed,” J’hana said. “One of the reasons I adore her.”
“Well,” Lia said, tossing up her hands. “I’m constrained to abide by Betazoid tradition. You’ve got me backed in a corner, limkit. I can only hope you’ll come to your senses one day.”
“You can keep hoping. It’s not going to change anything,” Tilleran called after her as she headed back up the stairs.
“There’s some food in the pantry. Your room is as you left it. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go drink myself into oblivion,” Lia called over her shoulder, and disappeared up the staircase.
“I really like your mother,” J’hana said, looking around the foyer with approval.
“How I wish you were being sarcastic,” Tilleran moaned.
Captain Baxter whistled a merry tune as he rode the turbolift down to the residence decks. It felt so good to be back in command of the Explorer. With Vansen gone for good, he felt better about his life and his career than he had in a long time.
And not only was he back together with Peterman, but the close-knit group of friends he’d been in since the start of his captaincy on the Aerostar more than six years ago was finally coming back together. With Richards back aboard, he looked forward to resuming the good times of old. Him, Peterman, Richards, and Browning. It was all so right.
He stepped up to the door to Richards’s quarters and hit the buzzer, straightening his tunic. It was about time he paid a visit to his good friend, and now seemed as good a time as any. Baxter could check to see if the guy was on the mend, when he planned on being back to the work. Some small-talk. Some ice-breaking. Maybe Browning would be there. That would help smooth things over.
Baxter rocked back and forth on his feet. Nothing to worry about.
Except nobody was answering.
He plunked the buzzer again.
“Damn it,” Baxter said. “Computer, locate Chris Richards.”
“Chris Richards is in his quarters.”
“Hm. Computer, override the door. Authorization Baxter Sigma Alpha nine-nine-seven.”
The door swung open and Baxter walked in. The cabin was dark. Was Richards unconscious? Did he fall? Was he hurt?
“Chris!” he called into the dark.
“Andy?” Richards’s confused voice came from the bedroom.
Baxter turned and headed through the dark toward the bedroom. “Chris, I’m sorry if I woke you, but I just wanted to…”
Suddenly Baxter’s knee slammed into a chair, and he flopped to the ground, falling through the doorway into the bedroom and hitting the ground hard.
“Computer,” he grunted. “Lights!”
He looked up. There was Richards, pulling sheets around him. And there was Browning, sitting beside him.
“Christopher!” she shouted, grabbing some of the sheets and looking sheepishly at Baxter. “Andy, I…that is, we…uh, reunited.”
“I see,” Baxter said, covering his eyes. “That’s great. I’m happy for you kids.”
“Yeah. Maybe we could talk later?” Richards suggested.
“I love that idea,” Baxter said honestly. “Maybe like, in a week.”
“Oh, it’s no big deal,” Browning said.
“It isn’t?” Richards whispered.
“I’m just trying to make him feel better, Christopher! This is awkward!”
“I’ll just limp out,” Baxter said, his eyes still closed as he turned and grappled for a hold on the door frame. “Don’t mind me.”
“Thanks for stopping by,” Richards said.
“Don’t mention it,” Baxter said, then stopped at the door to Richards’s quarters. “Just one thing. Aren’t you like, immobile below the waist?”
“I’m a doctor, Andy,” Browning said. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Allrighty then. Bye-bye!” Baxter said and dashed out of the cabin, nearly tripping over his own feet to get out to the corridor.
“This was a huge mistake. I never should have come,” Tilleran said, looking out the window of her richly decorated guest room as the sun descended behind the Ashara mountains. The room was so much unlike Tilleran, and so much like the rest of her family. Stone and precious metals. A regal, velvety red bed. Crystalline arched windows. Such excess. Tilleran shook her head.
“I’m having a fine time,” J’hana said, leaning back on the bed, hands behind her head.
Tilleran grimaced. “That’s because you’re under the mistaken impression that my mother was flirting with you.”
“She is an impressive woman.”
“Please don’t make me nauseous,” Tilleran said, clutching her stomach. “I have to prepare myself for the ceremony tomorrow. Why am I even doing this? I’m leaving the planet as soon as it’s over! What good is it for me to be head of the house?”
“If Betazoids are anything like my people, then ceremony means everything,” J’hana said. “It’s not as important that you be here as it is that you go through the motions. Make a good impression.”
“So this is just for the benefits of my guests.”
“And your extended family,” J’hana said. “Don’t you think they’ll enjoy your Crapsupper?”
J’hana shrugged. “Whatever.”
“You don’t even know what Crossover entails, do you?”
“I haven’t given it much thought. But I assume there will be nudity.”
Tilleran sighed and sat down on the bed. “Not every ceremony on my planet is performed naked.”
“Now that,” J’hana said. “Is a shame.”
Then there was a knock on the guestroom door. “Come,” Tilleran said, looking at J’hana askance.
The heavy wooden door slid slowly aside, and a slim young Betazoid tepped in. J’hana’s antennae perked. She couldn’t be older than nineteen. She had long dark hair that was twisted into a bun atop her head, with whorls and tendrils falling down. She wore tight black pants that looked like shiny vinyl, and an equally tight latinum-inlaid top that showed off her…innermost thoughts.
“You must be Nekohl!” J’hana said, nearly tripping over herself getting out of the bed.
“We’re going out tonight, Umladi,” the girl said with a grin, without acknowledging J’hana’s presence. Tilleran groaned.
“Do we have to?”
“Mother demands it.”
“My,” J’hana said, walking toward Nekhol. “Ariel never told me she had such a beautiful sister.”
“I’m sorry, my mom said I’m not supposed to talk to you,” Nekhol said, turning to Tilleran.
Tilleran stepped in between J’hana and Nekohl. “I’m sure you’ll have fun without us, Nek.”
“Mom said you have to come,” Nekhol said. “Besides, when was the last time you went out dancing with your little sister?”
“I think she’s right,” J’hana said. “We must go out. Where should we go?”
“Well, there’s only one place in town,” Nekohl said. “The Marketplace.”
“Then we shall go,” J’hana said, elbowing Tilleran. “Isn’t that right, Imzadi?”
Tilleran rolled her eyes. “Fine, we’ll go. But I don’t think you’ll have a good time.”
“Dancing with two beautiful women?” J’hana asked. “Why wouldn’t I have a good time?”
“Because it’s all business,” Tilleran said.
“Naked,” Baxter said, sitting at his desk in his readyroom, nervously tapping a padd on his desk.
Peterman sat in the chair opposite the desk, nodding thoughtfully. “So they were…”
“It wasn’t the heimlich maneuver, I’ll tell you that much.”
“And in Chris’s condition,” Peterman said. “Doesn’t seem wise.”
“Doesn’t seem wise for a lot more reasons than that,” Baxter said.
Peterman narrowed her eyes at him. “This doesn’t have anything to do with your…feelings for Janice does it?”
“No,” Baxter said. “I mean, I don’t have…that is…my feelings aren’t the issue here. As Janice’s friend, it’s my job to look out for her best interests, right?”
“Well, if she’s happy with Chris, isn’t that in her best interests?”
“Sure. But look at what’s happened. They broke up. They got back together. They broke up again. Chris proposed to another woman and left her in the altar. What, out of all that, suggests that they’d be happy together?”
“Isn’t that for them to decide?”
Baxter fumbled with his padd. “I suppose.”
“Sometimes the best way to handle a situation is to stay out of it,” Peterman said.
“No offense, honey, but that sure doesn’t sound like you talking.”
“Let’s just say I got some perspective while I was at Waystation.” Just then, the door bleeped.
“Come,” Baxter said.
The door opened to reveal Dr. Browning. “Andy, can we…oh, I didn’t realize Kelly was here.”
Peterman stood up. “I was just leaving.” She walked toward the door, smiling at Browning. “You guys chat. Catch up. I’m sure you’ll find something to talk about.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Baxter said.
“Just try not to kiss too much,” Peterman called over her shoulder as she walked out.
“Glad to see she’s over that,” Browning said with a small grin, and sat down opposite Baxter’s desk as the door closed.
“She’s made remarkable progress,” Baxter said. “Considering the way things were when we left her at Waystation.”
“Yeah,” Browning said. “Speaking of making progress…I guess we need to talk.”
“Say no more,” Baxter said, holding up his hands. “I think you and Chris should be free to make your own mistakes. I fully support a relationship between you two, and I am behind you one hundred percent.”
Browning cocked her head. “That wasn’t what I was going to talk to you about. I was going to tell you that you can expect Christopher to return to duty next week.”
“But now that you mention it, I wasn’t actually going to ask for your advice on me and Christopher.”
“Nor should you have.”
“Because it’s really none of your business, Andy.”
Baxter nodded. “I know.”
“Then why did you give me all that talk about being behind me one hundred percent?”
“Was there any question of that?”
“No, not, um, really.” Baxter scratched the back of his head. “How about I just not say anything else…ever?”
Browning gave a small giggle. “I know what happened this afternoon must have made you a little uncomfortable. But think about how uncomfortable I was with the Madera thing. Think about how uncomfortable I was, and still am, with the situation between me, you, and Kelly. I’m sorry, Andy, but as far as discomfort goes, I’m afraid you don’t have the market cornered.”
“I didn’t mean to….that is, I uh…”
“I appreciate the sentiment, Andy. Really, I do. But I think that, considering what’s happened between us, the less advice we give each other on romance, the better. Don’t you agree?”
“Yeah. Yeah, good point.”
“Good, then. Lunch tomorrow?”
Baxter smiled as Browning stood up. “Sure. Count on it.”
“Good. And next time you want to visit someone, ring the door chime!”
“Truly remarkable,” J’hana said, trailing Tilleran and Nekohl as they made their way to the massive, spherical entrance to the metal-plated, glowy-light strewn building that was dubbed, in glowing neonygen, “The Marketplace.”
“It serves its purpose,” Tilleran said, twisting in her tight silver chemise and glittery matching pants. They still felt a little too tight.
“You look amazing, by the way,” J’hana said in a low, gutteral voice. “And thank you for replicating me the…tight coverings.”
“You’ll blend right in,” Tilleran said, as they pushed through crowds of Betzoids to get up to the entrance.
Tilleran tried hard to wall out all the voices. The “excuse me!”s, the “pardon me!”s, the “ow, that’s your elbow!”s, and the occasional “hey cutie, don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Telepaths, especially high-order ones like Tilleran, did not do well in crowds. But that’s what the Marketplace required, and there was good reason for that.
J’hana flexed her biceps and grinned as she looked down at herself, decked out in spare, strappy leather crop-top and impossibly tight pants. “I am hotter than the hive mother this evening, ladies. Allow me to show you the way to the dance floor.”
“You may want to follow our lead,” Nekohl said, glancing back at Tilleran. “Has she ever been to a place like this?”
“Safe to say she hasn’t,” Tilleran said.
“I have been to numerous dance clubs,” J’hana said. “I believe I could show you a move or two.”
“In any other circumstance, I’d say you’re right,” Tilleran said. “But this is different. This is the Marketplace.”
“Oh, I see, so this is an ‘exclusive’ club,” J’hana groused. “Well aren’t I impressed.”
“You’ll see what I mean when we get in there.”
A little more elbowing, and some well-placed shoves from J’hana, and the trio had made it to the expansive railed balcony overlooking the packed dance floor below.
“Welcome to the Marketplace!” a voice shouted in J’hana’s mind. Damn that telepathic broadcasting. Music pounded everywhere, but J’hana couldn’t figure out which she was sensing with her ears and antennae, and which she was sensing in her brain. It was a disorienting feeling.
“Tonight is the night for deals!” the tinny male voice crowed in J’hana’s mind. “Tonight the Emzini is up three hundred notctars. Fourzine is for sale at a million noctars quadrangrally, and for a limited time, in Zone F, you can pick up your very own Sementhicator, for a paltry ninety silarias!”
“They do an awful lot of selling here,” J’hana shouted to Tilleran over the music.
“That’s all they do!” Tilleran replied, as Nekhol disappeared down the stairs into the crowds below, gyrating her firm belly and slinking up against the nearest group of Betazoids. “I probably should have told you this earlier,” Tilleran continued, as J’hana gaped at Nekhol. “On Betzed, all business deals, including properties, are done on the dance floor. Because so much of Betazoid communication is nonverbal, it makes sense to use a more…physical… method to work out complex business agreements.”
J’hana continued to gape as Nekhol slung a leg around the waist of another unsuspecting, and similarly-clad, Betzoid woman and pumped vigorously with her hips.
“Nekhol, for instance, is trying to unload our property at 3321 Shanklin Way. Mother’s been trying to make that deal for years now. But since she popped an achilles last year, she hasn’t been able to wheel and deal like she used to.”
“I should say not,” J’hana said, scanning the crowd. There was such a vocabulary of movement. Grinding, shaking, thrumming of body upon body. It all excited her, but at the same time, confused her, because she had no idea what it all meant.
Tilleran lead J’hana down to the lower deck, where the dance floor was. She studied the movements of the crowd carefully. She pointed. “Dintartech stock just went through the roof! And I see Scram Kelbrun is up to his old tricks. He just sold a pallet of faulty waste reclamators.”
“He’s licking that woman’s ear!” J’hana exclaimed.
“Yeah. He’s asking for residuals.” Tilleran waved J’hana forward. “This way. Most of the properties people are over in Zone D. And be careful! Don’t dance with anyone yet. You may unwittingly sell the runabout.”
“I’ll be sure to watch my back,” J’hana said, glancing with admiration at some of the men and women on the dance floor as the thudding music continued its maddening cadence.
“Laraphi!” Tilleran exclaimed, throwing her arms around a compact, squat-looking Betazoid, who seemed about Tilleran’s age.
“Ariel! When did you arrive?” the woman, decked out in a screaming pink leotard, asked.
“Just this afternoon. Let me introduce you…this is my Imzadi, J’hana.”
“You and offworlders!” Laraphi said, throwing her head back and laughing. “You’ll never quit trying to upset your family.”
“That’s not why I’m with her. But that is a pleasant byproduct.”
J’hana bristled slightly. “J’hana, of the Ninth Hive. It’s a pleasure.”
“Ever danced for deals?” Laraphi asked.
“Not financial ones,” J’hana commented, looking around. “So how do you know what you’re selling?”
“It’s all in the telepathy,” Tilleran said. “And in your movements. Hip-thrusts generally open negotiations. A squeeze closes them. Licks raise the asking price. Petting lowers it. A leg wrap indicates extreme interest in a product. And so on.”
“Naturally,” J’hana said. She then pointed to a couple in the crowd, vigorously kissing all about the mouth, face, and neck. “What about those two people?”
“Oh. They’re just making out. This is still a dance club after all.”
“So what do your parents do?” Leraphi asked.
Tilleran glared at her. “Not everyone is so obsessed with their family titles, Leraphi. J’hana’s….”
“My primary parental pair used to assasinate high-ranking government officials for a living. They’ve since retired, but it was good work while it lasted.”
“That’s…great…” Laraphi trailed off. She turned to Tilleran, kissed her on the cheek. “That’s a little one-bedroom that went for sale on Akromby Boulevard. You may want to look into it.”
“I’ll try,” Tilleran said, rubbing her cheek as Laraphi moved off into the crowd.
“Gotta try to sell those one-bedrooms!” she called out as she disappeared into the dancing multitudes, finding a nearby man and ramming him vigorously with her pelvis.
“I take it you’re not having as good a time as you’d hoped,” Tilleran said, affectionately nudging J’hana.
“Not what I was expecting, but very intriguing,” J’hana said in a low voice.
“Well, Betazoid business is all about the unexpect…” a hand tapped Tilleran on the shoulder and Tilleran turned around. “Crellus!”
He threw his arms her and lifted her, squeezing. “Imzadi-to-be!” he called into her mind, strongly enough that J’hana could sense it too. “How I’ve missed you.”
“Put me down,” Tilleran said aloud, and he did. “What are you doing here?”
“Closing a deal on a development project in Sapsa City that will net me a cool billion noctars.”
“That’s great,” Tilleran said. “I’m glad to see life’s working out so well for you.”
“It’ll be even better once we’re married,” Crellus said, beaming.
“You’re persistent, I’ll give you that,” Tilleran muttered, as J’hana interjected herself between them.
“Aherm,” she said in a low growl.
“Crellus,” Tilleran said, wrapping an arm around J’hana. “You remember my Imzadi, J’hana.”
Crellus bristled at the use of the word. “Your ‘Imzadi.’ Yes. I recall seeing you at that talk show a couple years ago.”
“You proposed to her,” J’hana said. “She refused.”
“She refused you as well, I recall,” Crellus said. “That was shortly after you hit me with a bouquet of flowers.”
“No offense,” J’hana said tightly.
Tilleran looked from J’hana to Crellus. “What do you want here, Crellus?”
“To speak with a childhood friend. Is that too much to ask?”
“I’m not a childhood friend. I was promised to you when I was two years old. We’ve barely spoken five times since.”
“But each time we’ve spoken, I’ve felt the magic.”
“I’m about to magically vomit,” J’hana muttered.
“J’hana, maybe you should go check out the rest of the dance floor,” Tilleran said, eying Crellus. “Let me and Crellus talk for a moment.” J’hana folded her arms, seeming rooted in place. “Really,” Tilleran said. “I’ll be fine.”
J’hana shifted from foot to foot for a moment, then disappeared off into the crowd.
“Remember not to dance with anyone!” Tilleran called out as J’hana walked away.
“Well,” Crellus said. “That J’hana seems like a nice guy.”
“She’s a woman,” Tilleran muttered, turning toward Crellus. “And she’s my Imzadi. And I’ll thank you to keep your probing mind OUT of my affairs, or I swear you’ll feel a telepathic backlash that will launch you into next week.”
“My, you’re fiery,” Crellus said with a grin.
Tilleran blanched. “In the last two years I’ve been replaced by a changeling and knocked into a coma by a cat. I have reasons to be moody.”
“No doubt,” Crellus said. “All the more reason to come back here.”
“No thanks,” she said. “I’m fine where I am.”
“On some space ship, in a dead-end job, running a sensor panel? Is that really what you want?”
“My job’s more complex than that.”
Crellus sighed. “Your mother is right. You’ve no idea what your potential is.”
“I’m happy with my potential the way it is.”
“I have a feeling you’ll think differently tomorrow,” Crellus said, and turned and walked away.
“What the hells is that supposed to mean?” Tilleran called after him as he disappeared into the crowd.
“Come in,” Richards said, swinging his hoverchair in front of the door to his quarters.
The door opened to reveal Captain Baxter, who glanced down at his friend. “Chris! Good to see you’re…clothed.”
“Yeah. That’s what happens when you bother ringing the doorchime.”
“Sorry about that,” Baxter said, as Richards pivoted his chair around and hovered over to the living room.
“Can I get you anything?”
“No,” Baxter said, moving over to the couch and sitting down. “Just wondering how you’ve been since the accident.”
“How I’ve been?” Richards asked. “Oh, I’ve been just fine. Except for the spine thing. And half my internal organs.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, suddenly twiddling his thumbs. “I can see how that would be a problem.”
“But Janice says I’m on the mend.” He glanced out the window.
“Yeah, about that…”
“I love her, Andy.”
Baxter nodded, taking it in. “I know. I do too.”
Richards looked at him.
“As a friend, as a friend!” Baxter said, holding up his hands.
Richards narrowed his eyes.
“Okay. You know there was some…difficulty. But that’s all behind us now. I want you and Janice to be happy. I do.”
“It’s not easy. This relationship stuff.”
Baxter leaned back. “You’re telling me. Kelly is still acting a little…weird.”
“Give her time.”
“Yeah. Same with Janice. I’m sure they’ll both be fine, in time. Then things will return to normal.”
“Yup,” Richards said. “I’m sure once Kelly and Janice sort out their differences, everything else will fall into place.”
“Because nobody else has any differences,” Baxter said.
“Least of all us,” Richards said.
“Yeah. We’re good, right?” Baxter gently punched Richards’s arm.
“OW!” Richards winced. “The bone is still mending.”
“Sorry. So, you think the doctor will clear you for a game of pool next week?”
“I think by then I’ll be up and around, yeah,” Richards said, giving a small smile.
“Good,” Baxter said, slapping his thighs. He stood up. “It’ll be nice to have my first officer back.”
“I’m not going to be your first officer,” Richards said.
“Well, what else could you be?” Baxter asked. “Chief engineer is already taken, and you know how Hartley…”
“I’m not going to be in Starfleet. I’m going to work on my art for a while.”
Baxter wrinkled his nose. “Your art?”
“Yeah. Starfleet was never a longterm answer anyway. It was just something to do.”
“You and Janice are so alike,” Baxter said, rubbing his chin.
Richards shrugged. “Well, the circus thing didn’t work out. But I think I have a real chance at creative expression. I can’t explore that if I’m busy being first officer. And this ship is all about exploration, isn’t it?”
“Guess so,” Baxter said, heading for the door. “Hmm. So now I’ve got to find a new X.O. Wonder if Kelly would want the job?”
“There are so many reasons why that would be a bad idea,” Richards said with a chuckle.
“Yeah,” Baxter said, and walked out, still shaking his head.
“Sharzz! That must be one complex transaction!” J’hana was admiring a particularly flexible Betazoid who was bending backwards and planting her hands on the floor, while a male Betazoid slid under her and hooked his legs around her waist. Then, J’hana suddenly she felt a broad and muscular chest rub up against her from behind.
She glanced over her shoulder. “I’m not interested in any properties, but thank you,” she said stiffly, then glanced up at the owner of the muscular chest. “You’re no Betazoid,” she said cooly.
The large, green-skinned man grinned broadly. “And neither are you.”
“I’m here with a friend,” J’hana said, turning to face the man, taking in his sparse, spiked leather outfit with appreciation. “And you?”
“Here with a lot of friends.”
J’hana’s antennae twitched. “A…syndicate full of friends, perhaps?”
The Orion put a hand on his expansive chest, looking absolutely taken aback. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. I represent a reputable business. The Law-Abiding Organization.”
“Really. And what kind of business are you in?”
“Finding things,” the Orion said. “Finding people. Are you interested?”
“I’m no telepath.”
The Orion shook his head. “I know. But I’m sure you’re adept in other areas.”
“More than you know.”
“Think about my offer?”
“No, I won’t,” J’hana said, and took a step closer, grabbing the Orion by the front of his coat, and shouted: “But if you don’t get your slimy green skin out of this establishment in the next thirty seconds, I’ll splatter you all over this fwarking dance floor!”
The Orion didn’t bat an eye. “Our pleasure, young lady.” He backed away, tapping a control on his wrist. “Selvis. Primar. We’re moving on to the next target. Meet me at the rendez-vous point.” And he pressed another control, and disappeared in a blue transporter shimmer.
J’hana clenched and unclenched her fists, nostrils flaring, as Tilleran approached.
“What was all that about?” Tilleran asked. “I could feel your hate from twenty meters away!”
“Orions,” J’hana spat. “Orions!”
“There are…” J’hana looked around uselessly, angrily. “There are things I haven’t told you.”
“That much is clear,” Tilleran said. “Well, I for one am through here. Let’s stop somewhere and get a coffee. You can tell me…”
“Hey, Umladi!” Nekohl giggled, skipping up next to Tilleran and grabbing her arm. “Guess what I just did? I just sold a five-hundred unit housing complex in Hakabur City!”
“Wow. That’s great, Nekki,” Tilleran said. “You’re going to make Mom proud.”
“That’s the idea.”
“Yes,” Tilleran said. “Idea.” She thought about Nekhol as she turned to push her way toward the door to The Marketplace.
“Ariel! Ariel!” a voice called out, as J’hana picked up step next to her, still fuming.
“Laraphi,” Tilleran said, turning to see her friend jog up to her. “What’s going on?”
“I just got hired to a major consulting deal! Five point five grand noctars! For just six months of work!”
“What kind of work?” Tilleran asked.
“Finding people,” Laraphi said, and J’hana’s antennae shot straight up. “I’ve got to go to their ship and sign some papers tonight, so I’ll have to catch up with you later!”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” Tilleran said. “Stay in touch, okay?”
“Okay!” Laraphi waved, and Tilleran resumed her walk toward the door, still glancing sidelong at J’hana.
“We really need to talk.”
“Indeed,” J’hana said, shouldering past Tilleran and pushing her way out the nearest exit. “The Orion I spoke with told me something similar. That he was hiring people to ‘find people.’”
“Think there’s a connection?”
J’hana bristled as she stepped outside. “There’s always a connection. We need to investigate this matter. Your friend could be in grave danger.”
Before Tilleran could say anything else, she saw a green blur slam into J’hana and knock her on her feet. A hulking Orion loomed over her, with two others not far behind, advancing.
“What the hell was that?” Nekohl asked.
“Nothing. Get back in the club! Get security!” Tilleran called, waving Nekohl back. Obediently, her sister stepped back inside.
J’hana, meanwhile, easily tumbled from under her large attacker, flipping up into her famous “battle squat.”
Tilleran was more worried about J’hana’s assailant than J’hana, really.
The Orions closed in on J’hana. If they’d seen Tilleran, they didn’t care that she was there.
J’hana launched herself at the big guy, landing several kicks to his chest, knocking him backward.
“We’ve got a message for your captain, blueskin bitch!” the large Orion bellowed, grabbing J’hana by her arm and lifting her off the ground.
“You have a gripe, take it up with me, greenskin!” J’hana growled, twisting out of the Orion’s grasp.
“Troyan, we were told to keep a low profile!” one of the other Orions said between clenched teeth.
“This needs taking care of,” Troyan roared, and backed J’hana up against the club’s wall. “Now you tell your captain he’s being watched. And that when the time is right, we’ll have him, and everything his father worked for will be safely in Orion hands. Got it?”
J’hana looked up at the Orion, running her arm over her bruised lip. “Yes. Now I have a message for you: SHARAZZZI! I swear by the Hive mother, you will die at my hand!”
And she launched forward in a whirlwind of kicks and punches that sent the Orion stumbling backwards into his accomplices, and sent them both down in a heap.
Somebody must have requested beamout, because the pile suddenly vanished, leaving J’hana alone and punching the ground.
“Enough!” Tilleran ran up to her and lifted her by her shoulders. “J’hana, it’s over!”
Finally, J’hana seemed to calm, and looked up at Tilleran, suddenly seeming downright placid. “We need to return to the ship. Captain Baxter is a marked man. He deserves to know. And I must be there to protect him.”
“We’ll call him on subspace tonight. Then we’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
“That is sufficient. But first we go for coffee.”
Captain Baxter yawned and slipped out of bed, gently rolling Peterman aside and sliding his legs around. “Baxter here. What is it?”
“Subspace message from Betazed, sir. It’s J’hana,” the voice of Ensign Adam Keefler said over the comm system.
“Pipe it through to my desk,” Baxter said, and tiptoed out to the living room, leaning forward on his desk and punching a control on his monitor.
J’hana’s face appeared there, Tileran standing nearby. “Captain,” she said. “I’m sorry to wake you.”
“What is it, J’hana? You didn’t break the Prime Directive again, did you?”
“Not that I know of.” J’hana glanced at Tilleran. “Sir…you should know, we saw some Orions here tonight. They delivered a message, quite soundly, for you.” Baxter wondered why J’hana was rubbing her jaw.
“For me? That’s weird. What is it?”
“You’re being watched. And they’re going to capture you.”
“Eh, I’ve had death threats before.”
“This is the Orion Syndicate, sir. One doesn’t take their threats lightly.”
“Good point. Mind taking care of this for me?”
“I’ll pursue the matter, Captain,” J’hana said. “But there’s one other thing.”
“They said something about your father. About everything he’s worked for falling into Orion hands. Does that make sense to you?”
Baxter blinked. “Nope. I think it’s just a scare tactic.”
“My thoughts exactly. Fear not, sir. I will be back on the ship tomorrow afternoon. I will see that you don’t come to harm.”
“I never had any doubt, J’hana,” Baxter said with a smile. He tapped the channel closed, and his smile disappeared. He stood there, staring at the blank terminal screen for a moment.
“Andy?” Peterman asked groggily, standing in the doorway and shrugging on her robe. “Is everything okay?”
“No,” Baxter said. He collapsed into the chair at his desk. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner. Everything my father worked for. I should have known…”
“Should have known what?” Peterman stepped up, put a hand on Baxter’s shoulder.
“I can’t talk about it,” Baxter said. “Not yet.”
“Andy,” Peterman said, watching as Baxter stood up and headed back to the bedroom.
“I said I can’t talk about it!”
“You still haven’t told me why you hate the Orions so much,” Tilleran said, standing by J’hana at the front of the main ballroom of the Tilleran estate the next morning, as family members milled about, preparing for the Crossover. She was still groggy after a fitful night and little sleep. Really, it was J’hana who was fitful. “As a matter of fact, you’ve said next to nothing since we left the club.”
“I’ve had much to ponder,” J’hana said.
“About the Orion Syndicate?”
“Among other things.”
“Why do you hate them so much? I mean, besides the fact that they’re an evil, militant crime organization?”
“Oh, that? They killed nineteen of my cousins.” J’hana leaned back on her feet and glanced around idly, as if picking targets from around the room. “But that wasn’t what I was thinking about. I’m wondering why they want the captain so bad.”
“I’m sure they have their reasons.”
“But I want to know them.”
“I’m sure you’ll find out.”
“Yes,” J’hana said.
“Ahem. Ladies and gentlemen!” Lia said from the podium at the front of the room.
“Here we go,” Tilleran said with a sigh.
“You still going to recommend your sister for the job?” J’hana whispered.
“If my mother will let me. Knowing her, she’ll have some sort of gripe about it,” Tilleran muttered.
“I said…AHEM!” Lia snapped, glancing down from the podium at Tilleran. “This is an auspicious occasion. Today, I get to witness my daughter, the pride of my family, take over our Betamax.”
Tilleran glanced up at Lia, whispering, “Mom, about that…”
“Hush,” Lia said under her breath, and grinned out at the gathered Tilleran family members. “I’d like the new head of our house to step forward and claim her rightful place. Give a big Betamax welcome to…”
Tilleran rolled her eyes.
“WHAT?” Tilleran’s eyes went wide.
“Weren’t you going to suggest that?” J’hana whispered.
Nekhol emerged from the audience and stepped up to join Lia at the podium.
“Thanks, everyone,” she said, to booming applause from the extended Tilleran family. “I have so many people to thank for this, I don’t even know where to begin…”
“Make it quick,” Lia said between clenched teeth.
“I want to thank my mother!” Nekhol giggled, then stuck her tongue out at Tilleran.
“Oh, for providence…” Tilleran muttered, covering her face with her hand.
“Let’s have dessert!” Lia announced, and stepped down from the podium.
“That’s it?” J’hana asked. “That’s your big, extravagant, weird alien ceremony? An announcement, clapping, and dessert?”
“You were expecting a bloody consecration?” Tilleran asked.
“Mister Mohm, cut the cake!” Lia announced as she walked by Tilleran, who quickly grabbed her arm and pulled her aside.
“What the hell was that, Mother?”
“What was what?”
Lia smiled. “I am, or was, the head of this house, dear. Naming my successor was my decision.”
“But she’s a nineteen year old girl!”
“And a far better businesswoman than you’ll ever be.” Lia smirked. “Plus, she’s got much better hip flexibility, and she actually wants to be here.”
Tilleran rolled her eyes. “Mother, you brought me all the way to Betazed just to embarrass me, didn’t you?”
“Why do you ask?” Lia said with an innocent smile.
“You’re sublimely hateful,” J’hana said, standing behind Tilleran. “I love that about you.”
“Don’t encourage her!” Tilleran snapped, glaring at J’hana. She turned back to her mother. “I cannot believe this. And I cannot believe I fell for it.”
“Well, no sense wasting time feeling sorry for yourself. Now that you’ve lost out on becoming head of our house, marrying Crellus is really your only option.”
“No,” Tilleran said. “I have another option. Going back to the Explorer.” She glared over at the cake table, where Mr. Mohm was busy carving slices of cake, and a beaming Nekohl was licking her lips. “WITHOUT dessert.”
“Aw,” J’hana grimaced.
“Suit yourself, darling. But you really shouldn’t be a poor sport. Congratulate your sister.”
“I’ll send a card.” Tilleran stared at her mother with dark eyes. “J’hana, we’re leaving. Right now.” The Betazoid turned on her heel and walked toward the door.
“Send my regards to that ship of yours,” Lia called after her. “It’s all you have now, dear!”
“Rot in the hells, mother!” Tilleran called back over her shoulder.
J’hana glanced around awkwardly at Lia, and some of the other gathered family members. “Nice meeting all of you. Anger, violence, bloodshed and lies. Reminds me a little of my family.” Her antennae fell slightly as she looked around. “Um, if it’s not too much trouble, can I take a slice of cake? To go?”
The last several months haven’t been easy on Andy Baxter. True, he’s managed to patch up his marriage, and retake command of the Explorer, but there’s still a matter of a missing father, and mounting evidence that someone wants to capture him. Now that he knows that it’s the Orions, what’s he to do with that information? What anyone else would do, of course. That’s right, it’s time for a flashback to Starfleet Academy. Confused? Wait till you read the story. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the command chair, the Backtracking begins!