Author: Anthony Butler
Captain Anna Kimmel leaned up from her bed and blinked tiredly at the spinning Federation symbol on the viewscreen in her quarters.
“What is it?” she asked, shielding her face from the light.
“We’re being hailed by an approaching ship,” the voice of Commander Barry Lowenthal, Kimmel’s first officer said, as Kimmel slowly swung her legs out of bed. “Looks like an independently registered Federation freighter. They claim they’ll only talk to you.”
“Don’t I feel special,” Kimmel said. “This isn’t like last month when you had a Bolian stripper beam over from a supposedly wounded transport ship, is it?”
“I promise you it’s not,” Lowenthal said with a chuckle.
“Good.” The petite, almost elfen, captain grabbed her robe off its nearby hook and slid it on, tying it at the waist. “Put them onscreen, whoever they are.”
The viewscreen came to life, and a smiling, bespectacled face looked back at her.
“Anna,” the man smiled. “I’m so glad to see you.”
“Alvin Ficker,” Kimmel said, trying to mask her grimace. “What are you doing way out here in the Kyatra Sector?”
“I’ve come to see you, Anna,” Ficker said.
“To interview you for my talk show.”
“You have a talk show?”
“It’s on Z band, frequency 11908, on Tuesday nights,” Ficker said, looking a little dejected.
“Sorry. I don’t watch much holo-vee.”
“You’d like my show, I’m sure. Anyway, I have a viewership of millions. And they all want to know about you.”
“They do? Me?” Kimmel pushed her reddish-brown hair behind her ears, which was about as far down as it reached. “Why would they want to know about me?”
“Because you’re a Starfleet Captain. And you rose from mediocrity, from a career that looked like it was on the way down the tubes, to a position of authority on a powerful Starfleet ship. It’s a feel- good story.”
“First of all, Alvin, thanks, but Nova-class ships aren’t exactly the most powerful ships in the fleet. They’re science vessels. Second of all, you should really probably interview Andy.”
“Baxter,” Ficker spat. “Not a chance.”
“Will the two of you ever just put your differences behind you?”
“I tried to kill him. Then I left him to die on an exploding ship, then I embarrassed him and his crew in front of the entire quadrant on my show. What do you think?”
Kimmel rubbed her chin. “I think I’m getting why you’ve come to interview me.”
“As always, my motives are completely transparent,” Ficker said with a widening grin as he leaned forward. “So you’ll do it?”
Kimmel shrugged. “Sure, I guess. Beam over.”
Ficker wasn’t her favorite person, but in a way she felt sorry for him.
Anyway, what was the harm?
Counselor Kelly Peterman stared over her foamy coconut lattee at her husband, who seemed intent on a padd on the patio outside Space Tastes. Steffie was sitting in her high chair, slapping her hands in some tapioca pudding and tossing it aimlessly at crewpersons who passed by. Peterman gave a passing thought to stopping her, but felt that might squelch her independence and creativity.
“Anything interesting there?” she asked softly.
Baxter didn’t look up. “Just some reports I’m going over.”
“Have you picked a first officer yet?”
“I’m going to ask Lieutenant Commander Tilleran. She has seniority. I know she doesn’t want to leave sciences, but she’s the only qualified senior staff person.” He looked up with a small smile. “Other than you, of course. But I know you wouldn’t want the job.” He looked reluctant. “Right?”
“Relax, Andy,” Peterman said, reaching across the table and touching Baxter’s hand. “I wasn’t asking because I thought you’d give the job to me.”
Baxter looked back down. “Good. Anyway, I’d rather not bring in anyone new. There’ve been enough changes around here, wouldn’t you say?”
“It’s time we got back to basics,” Baxter said, still reading.
They sat there another few moments.
“Seconds? Thirds?” Doctor Janice Browning asked, stepping out of the restaurant carrying a plate heaping with steamy toasted bagels.
“We’re fine, thanks,” Peterman said.
“Okay,” Browning said, and put the tray down on a nearby table. “If you see anyone walk by, offer them bagels.”
“Sure,” Peterman said distractedly, still looking at Baxter.
Browning slipped off her apron and slung it over her arm. “I’m going over to Christopher’s. I want to check on his new spine.”
“Do you usually make house calls?” Peterman asked.
“Only on special occasions,” Browning said, and bit her lip a little. She shook her head. “Anyway, I’ll catch up with you guys later. Have a great day!”
Peterman waved at Browning as she walked off, and returned her gaze to Baxter. “Andy, why won’t you talk to me?”
“We were just talking.”
“I mean REALLY talk to me. Why won’t you tell me what’s been going through your mind the last three days.”
“You know me. Dumb old Captain Baxter. Nothing goes through my mind.”
“Vansen’s been gone nearly a week, and her insults continue to echo.”
“Pity she won’t be around to witness the triumph of the echo over the insult,” Baxter said with a grin, looking up.
“Pity,” Peterman said. “Now talk to me.”
Baxter sighed. “This isn’t the place, Kelly.”
“Where is the place? You’ve barely said a word to me in the last three days. All you do is sit in your readyroom. Sit at your desk. You’re constantly on some comm channel or another. Something’s going on, and I deserve to know what it is.”
“Yes,” Baxter said. “You do.”
“So will you tell me?”
“I’ve been planning on it.” He looked around. “But we’ll do it back in our quarters. I’d like to keep this from any of the major news sources.”
“Do we have to leave separately to make sure we aren’t followed, like in those old movies?” Peterman asked with a giggle.
Baxter stared at her. “That’s not very funny.”
“I thought it was.”
“I’ve got to find my father, and I’ve got to tell him that the Orion Syndicate is on to him,” Baxter said staring out at the stars streaking by the viewports in their cabin, as Peterman set Steffy down on her Starfleet-issue “action mat,” a sparkly, quilted star chart that Browning had given her on her first birthday. She loved crawling on the big fluffy starmap, but seemed to spend most of her time curled up around the Klingon Empire. And, for some reason, she kept spitting up on the Cardassian Union.
Peterman walked up to join Baxter, resting a hand on his shoulder. “On to him for what? I thought you didn’t know why your Father had disappeared?”
“I didn’t. Until J’hana commed. And then it all began to make sense. And now I know exactly why he’s disappeared.” He turned to face Peterman. “I’m such an idiot. I should have known. I should have seen it!”
“Should have seen what?” Peterman asked. “You’re not making any sense.”
“I’ve been trying to find the Orions that J’hana met up with on Betazed. I’ve called in some favors, talked to some contacts at command and in Internal Affairs. I thought maybe if I could track down the ship that J’hana mentioned, the people who knew my name, who knew about my father, that I might get one step closer to finding him.”
“You’re planning on leaving, aren’t you,” Peterman said. “Were you even going to tell me?”
“I’ve got to go,” Baxter said, and began to pace. “I’m not dragging the Explorer into this. I just got back command, and I’m not going to turn around and do something stupid like risk the lives of everyone on this ship just on my foolish whim.”
“Why not?” Peterman asked. “You’ve done it before.”
Baxter took Peterman’s face in his hands and pulled her forward into a hug. “I’m sorry, honey. After all we’ve been through, you’d think I’d learned my lesson about not being completely open with you.”
“At the least,” Peterman said, a little taken aback at how hard Baxter was squeezing.
“You have to trust me. Trust that I know what I’m doing.”
“That would be easier to do if I knew what you were doing. Remember that bit about husbands and wives talking about everything?”
“This is…bigger than that.”
“Bigger than….” Peterman looked up at Baxter. “Bigger than us?”
“Bigger than us, this ship, this sector, this quadrant.” Baxter stared up at the ceiling. “This is ridiculous.”
“You’re just now getting that?”
He turned away. “I have to tell you. I have to explain.”
“So far I’m in total agreement,” Peterman said, stepping up behind Baxter.
“But where the hell do I begin?”
“Try the beginning,” Peterman said, and gestured to the couch, where Baxter walked, and slumped down. Peterman sat beside him.
“The beginning,” Baxter said, and laughed dryly. “The beginning was a long time ago.”
“Before we met?”
“Before I left Starfleet Academy,” Baxter said. “Actually, it goes back to my first day at Starfleet Academy.”
“Your first…” Peterman said. “This has something to do with Alvin Ficker, doesn’t it?”
Baxter sighed. “Well, he was my first-year roommate. But you’re right, this does have to do with Ficker. And Lord, I wish it didn’t…”
“Is this the right room?”
Cadet First Class Andy Baxter looked over the padd he was reading and brightened. “This is C-106. You must be…”
“Alvin Ficker,” said the eager-looking cadet in glasses, stepping into the room, setting down his duffle bag and walking over to shake Baxter’s hand.
Baxter stood and shook the cadet’s hand. “Well, it’s nice to finally meet you. It’s been boring here the last couple of days. Classes haven’t started yet, I haven’t managed to get out that much.”
“Well, that’s all going to change,” Ficker said. “The way I figure it, we are going to one day be the toast of the campus, you and me.”
“You really think so?” Baxter said, sitting down on his bed, as Ficker sat down on the twin bed on the opposite side of the cabin.
“I make friends easily,” Ficker said, and opened up his duffle. “Here. I brought something for you.”
Ficker tossed a jar to Baxter and he caught it, reading the label. “Romulan jam?”
“Yeah. My dad is governor of a colony near the neutral zone.”
“Impressive,” Baxter said, raising an eyebrow. “My dad is Assistant Chief of Internal Affairs.”
“Really?” Ficker replied. “Well, then. It’s genetic. We’re destined for greatness.”
“We may even be captains one day.”
“Yes, great captains,” Baxter chuckled. “Everyone here says that.”
“But we’re going to do it, my friend,” Ficker said. “And you know how?”
“I haven’t a clue,” Baxter admitted.
“Sounds like a plan,” grinned Baxter, and he shook Ficker’s hand.
Much later that evening, Ficker and Baxter wound up in Boothby’s…a cafe off the central quad that cashed in on the wisdom of the Starfleet Academy gardener. Boothby had been trying to sue them over naming rights for years.
Both cadets slumped into a booth, downtrodden and covered in jam.
“But I brought some for everyone,” Ficker moped, wiping a dollop of jam off his cheek. “I thought the jam would be a sure way to get us in good with the other cadets!”
“But they didn’t really seem like the jam-eating type,” Baxter said. “Why couldn’t you have scrounged up some Romulan ale or something? THAT would have gone over wonderfully.”
“My dad won’t let me HAVE Romulan ale,” Ficker said ruefully.
“Too bad,” grumbled Baxter.
“Well, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re totally screwed,” Ficker said. “I’ll just have to try to think of another way to snuggle up to the other cadets.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t bother trying to snuggle up to them,” suggested Baxter.
Ficker was studying a screen that was inset in the table, scrolling some of the events that were scheduled for the cafe in the coming weeks.
“Look at this, Baxter,” Ficker said, pointing at the screen. “One cadet is going to have a coffeehouse night here. ‘Beans from Around the Galaxy.’ That kind of sounds fun.”
“Coffee-tasting is a stupid idea. What kind of cadet would be that interested in coffee? Anyway, it won’t go over any better than jam. We need to get our fellow cadets good and drunk if they’re going to respect us at all.”
Ficker folded his arms. “I prefer to take the high road.”
“Well I prefer to be liked,” muttered Baxter.
“Our first day as roommates, and already we’re having deep philosophical differences,” Ficker mused.
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll find a common ground,” Baxter said, as he heard the door to the cafe whizz open, and turned to see who was coming in.
“Hmm,” said Ficker.
“Yes. Definitely…‘hmm,’” said Baxter, as he watched a smallish girl with a certain…pixielike…quality, not to mention the pips of a first- year cadet, walk timidly into the cafe.
She was gorgeous.
Not in the normal way. No, she didn’t have long legs, or long, beautiful flowing dark hair, or a particularly curvy figure.
She was petite, almost scrawny. Her hair was bobbed about her ears, which poked through the hair in a sort of elflike way, and her eyes were iridescent green.
Baxter knew at that moment that this was the woman he would marry.
“WHAT?” Peterman exploded, leaning up. “For Pete’s sakes, Andy. I should have guessed this would be about a woman. AGAIN. But you had the nerve to say you thought you’d marry KIMMEL! This is the woman that can’t fly her starship out of a paper bag, isn’t it?”
“Captain Kimmel is doing the best she can,” Baxter said defensively. “Besides, I hadn’t met you yet. I can’t be punished retroactively for a comment I said in the past!”
“No, but you can be punished for repeating the comment now.”
Baxter smiled weakly. “I love you, Kelly, and I always will.”
“Yeah, that whole broadcast it to the galaxy thing only works once, buddy.” She folded her arms. “This story better get interesting…FAST. And it better not end like the one with that Section Thirty-One person, Ashley Donovan, with you two having sex.”
“Trust me, sex was the last thing I had on my mind,” Baxter said.
“She is the most radiantly beautiful person I have seen since I came to campus a week ago,” Baxter said, barely able to stop his mouth from being gaping, as he and Ficker looked on.
“My sentiments exactly,” Ficker said.
“This is a problem,” Baxter said.
“I’m not sure I see what you’re getting at,” replied Ficker.
“I think you know.”
“I really don’t.”
“Can I get a bagel?” They both heard the girl ask the man at the bar for the bagel and immediately turned their attention to her.
“Excuse me,” Ficker said to Baxter. He dashed out of the booth. “Would you like some jam with that? I have a jar, all the way from Romulus!”
“No you don’t,” Baxter grumbled to himself and hurried after Ficker.
“Thanks anyway,” the female cadet said. “I prefer cream cheese.”
“I’m Alvin Ficker,” Ficker said, taking her hand. “And I absolutely ADORE cream cheese!”
Baxter elbowed Ficker aside and smiled sheepishly. “Cadet First Class Andy Baxter. Reporting for duty as your friend.”
He heard Ficker make a gagging sound but screened him out.
“Well,” the cadet said, wide-eyed. “I must admit, I’m surprised. I haven’t made very many friends here so far.”
“You have two now,” Ficker said before Baxter could.
“I didn’t catch your name,” Baxter said, still trying to somehow inch a bit closer than Ficker to their newfound friend.
“Kimmel. Anna Kimmel.”
“Anna,” Baxter said. “That’s a beautiful name.”
“You know where it comes from?”
“The Sumerian goddess Inanna,” Ficker said quickly, butting Baxter aside.
Baxter stared at Ficker, shocked. “WHAT? Where do you come up with this crap?”
“Good guess,” Kimmel smiled. “So what are you boys doing tonight?”
Baxter resisted the urge to tell her “Whatever you want,” and instead said, “Oh, nothing.”
“I was going to go to Spock Library to study for a little while.”
“I REALLY need to study,” Baxter said.
“Classes haven’t even started yet,” Ficker said.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t get a head start,” Baxter said, and took Kimmel’s arm. “To the library, where we will read long, and prosper!”
“What about my bagel?”
“I’ll get it!” Ficker said, grabbed the plate right out of the waiter’s hand and rushed after Baxter and Kimmel out the cafe door.
Peterman glanced over at the chronometer on the wall. “Is this story going somewhere anytime soon? Stephanie will need to be fed again soon…”
“I know she will,” Baxter said. “But if I’m going to explain this to you, you’re going to need the whole story.”
Peterman sighed. “I’ll take your word for it. Go on…”
“I had no idea Vulcan had such a long and boring history,” Cadet Baxter said, scrolling through the terminal next to Kimmel. On the terminal on the opposite side of Kimmel, Ficker was looking up chemical compounds involved in the fabrication of deuterium.
“I heard that’ll be a fun class, though,” Kimmel said. “There’s a field trip to Vulcan. You get to climb the steps to Mount Selaya and everything.”
“I hear it’s just a tourist trap,” muttered Ficker.
“You’re signed up for Vulcan history, right?” Kimmel asked Baxter.
“Yup,” Baxter said, and leaned past Kimmel to give a “thumbs up” to Ficker, who showed Baxter a different finger.
“I’m sure that’ll be a fun field trip,” Ficker said. “You know, I’m getting a bit tired. I think I’ll get back to my quarters for a little nightcap. I just happen to have some Romulan Ale stashed under my bed.”
“Okay,” said Kimmel. “Have fun.”
Baxter tapped some commands into his terminal, which immediately shot over to Ficker’s terminal: “I THOUGHT YOUR DAD WOULDN’T GIVE YOU ANY ROMULAN ALE!”
“I LIED,” Ficker typed, then turned to Kimmel. “Care to join me?”
“DAMN YOU FICKER!” Baxter typed.
“I don’t really drink,” Kimmel said, “but thanks.”
“HA HA,” Baxter typed, and Ficker tossed a padd at him. It thunked Baxter in the eye and he fell face-first into his terminal, banging his head in the process.
“Whoops,” Ficker said. “I don’t know how that got away from me like that.”
“Oh dear,” Kimmel said, standing and grabbing Baxter’s arm. “We’d better get you to the infirmary.”
Baxter grinned as he winced and rubbed his eye, Kimmel ushering him away.
“Thanks for coming with me,” Baxter said, holding Kimmel’s hand as the nurse on duty at the Leonard McCoy Campus First Aid Station ran a tricorder over him.
“Not a problem,” Kimmel said.
“What’s that?” asked Baxter.
“Just an expression. One of the seniors in my building says it all the time and it kind of stuck on me.”
“You’re okay,” the Nurse said, and slapped Baxter on the back. “I’d keep off that eye for the next couple days if I were you, though. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a meatloaf cooling in the replicator.”
“Please tell me that nurse wasn’t Janice,” Peterman said. “I don’t think I could stand it if this story got any more complicated.”
“No,” Baxter said. “The nurse was nobody. Well, nobody important to the story. ANYway…”
Kimmel walked Baxter back to his room and they stood there by the door for a few moments.
“Well,” Baxter said. “Thanks again for coming with me.”
“Not a…prob…um, don’t mention it.”
“Well,” Baxter said, facing Kimmel as they stood by his door. “Guess that just about wraps things up.”
“Yeah. I’ll talk to you soon though, okay?”
“Okay.” Baxter leaned forward with eyes closed and lips pursed, then opened his eyes to see Kimmel walking away.
“Good night!” she called merrily over her shoulder. She hadn’t even seen him make the move.
Downtrodden, Baxter unlocked the door to his cabin and walked in, right past Ficker, and into the bathroom, where he planned on soaking in the tub until the next morning.
Baxter closed the bathroom door behind him, and he could hear Ficker thud against it.
“What happened?” his muffled voice asked.
“Nothing,” Baxter replied. “You happy?”
“Not at all,” Ficker’s voice replied, but Baxter could tell he was smiling just by the sound of his voice. “Listen, Baxter. One of us should actively try to date Anna. We’ll look desperate if we both clamber after her, and neither of us will get her!”
“Aren’t we desperate? Pete’s sake, Ficker, we ALREADY look desperate.”
“Says you,” Ficker harrumphed.
“Just go to sleep. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
“I’m starting to see where this is going.” Peterman leaned forward, took Baxter’s hands. “Let’s face it. You were never the forward type.”
“I’d like to think I’ve become more aggressive as I’ve gotten older.”
“You apologized the other night during sex when we bumped elbows.”
Baxter blanched. “Yeah. Sorry about that again.”
“So Anna was just the earliest example of such,” Peterman said. “I can accept that. We often think of loves that were never meant to be. Sometimes those are our fondest memories.”
Baxter narrowed his eyes at Peterman. “You’re sounding less like my wife and more like my counselor now.”
“You deal in your way, I’ll deal in mine.” Peterman leaned back and crossed her legs. “Now then, continue, Captain.”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “Right…”
Ficker was gone when Baxter woke up.
He hadn’t known the young cadet for very long but he knew that could only mean one thing.
Baxter jerked on his gray uniform and hurried out of his quarters to find the Boothby Cafe crowded, and to find Ficker and Kimmel sharing an omellete in the back corner booth.
Baxter walked up, cleared his throat.
Kimmel looked up from her plate and smiled. “Andy! Morning! Pull up a plate and grab some omellete!”
“Yes, please do,” Ficker said from between clinched teeth.
“Well, I guess I’ll just scoot in, if you all really don’t mind,” Baxter said, and scooted in right beside Kimmel. Ficker’s eyes bulged.
“Don’t you have class in ten minutes?” Ficker questioned.
“Who knows,” Baxter said giddily, and dug into a hunk of omellete.
Baxter did indeed have class in ten minutes, and was consequentially late due to breakfast with Anna and Ficker. Command Strategies…taught by Mister Tuvok.
What a hard-ass. The man reamed Baxter out about how his lateness was illogical. Baxter spent the rest of class with his nose buried in a padd, as Tuvok rattled on about the needs of the many, the needs of the not so many, and whatnot.
As Baxter filed toward the door with the rest of the class, Tuvok waved him over to the front desk.
“Cadet. A word, please.”
Baxter skidded up next to Tuvok, trying not to look eager to leave, even though he was. He was supposed to meet Kimmel at the Campus Outfitters to buy hiking gear. She’d coaxed him into going to the Annual James Kirk Memorial Hike in Yosemite National Park.
“Yes, Mister Tuvok?”
“I have noticed you lack a certain…focus…during class. Perhaps you are preoccupied.”
“Yes, well…I am, if you really want to know. You see, there is this other cadet, and I kind of like her, but my roommate…”
“That was not a question, Cadet, it was a statement. May I ask why you signed up for Command Strategies?”
Baxter straightened. “Well, because I want to be a captain.”
Tuvok raised an eyebrow. “Indeed.”
Baxter didn’t like the impassive look on the Vulcan’s face. “Why, you have a problem with that?”
“Commanding a starship requires focus, dedication, time management, and a sharp mind. All of these seem to be lacking in you, cadet.”
“Were you ever a captain?”
“I hardly see the relevance.”
“You weren’t, were you? What are you, a Lieutenant Commander?”
“Lieutenant, actually. That is not the point.”
“So why ARE you teaching Command Strategies?”
“I have led several away teams and often commanded the bridge in my long Starfleet career, Cadet. Again, this is beside the point. We are talking about your future.”
“Well, I’m going to be a captain. That’s all there is to it.”
“Stubbornness alone will not enable you to achieve your goal.”
“There was another cadet here, long ago, who wasn’t that good at his studies, but who had the tenacity to get the job done. His name was James T. Kirk.”
“On the contrary, James Kirk was an excellent student.”
“Thanks for the words of encouragement, Mister Tuvok, but I have to be going.”
“If you are looking for advice, might I suggest dropping this class?”
“Might I suggest…” Baxter began, then mumbled something about Tuvok’s parentage under his breath and darted out the door.
He hoped, for his sake, that Vulcans didn’t have great hearing.
“How’d you get to be a captain again?” Peterman asked.
Baxter glared at her.
“Nevermind. Please, please. Continue…”
Once Baxter had arrived at the Campus Outfitters, Kimmel had already come and gone, or so said the attendant.
Baxter quickly scooped up some gear, had it put on his account, and returned to his dorm room to find Ficker showing Kimmel how to properly buckle the belt of her backpack, with his arms all draped around her waist.
“Well, look, it’s Alvin ‘n Anna!” Baxter said cheerily.
“Alvin wanted to come with us on the hiking trip,” Kimmel said. “So I told him it’d be okay if we made it a threesome.”
Baxter’s mouth dropped. He looked at Ficker. “You CAN’T be serious.”
“In the hiking sense, Andy. The hiking sense.”
“Oh,” Baxter groaned. “Well. That’ll be nice.”
It was, in fact, NOT nice.
It rained all day in Yosemite National Park, and the sun was shrouded in grey-black clouds.
By evening, the lights from the far-off Event Staff shuttlecraft grazed through the woods several klicks away at the end of the course, as rain and muck came down all around Baxter. It seemed to him as though it was raining mud instead of nice, clean water.
“Isn’t this fun?” Kimmel asked, trudging beside Baxter along a high-up ridge that was replete with towering trees.
On the other side of Baxter, Ficker kept pace, looking just as miserable as Baxter.
“I’m having the time of my life,” moaned Baxter. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that I came with you!”
“Can someone tell me WHY we’re doing this?”
“To celebrate the accomplishments of one of Starfleet Academy’s FINEST graduates,” Kimmel replied.
“Kirk,” Ficker said. “He’s overrated.”
“WHAT?” demanded Kimmel. “He saved this planet! A couple of times!”
“He was in the right place at the right time.”
“Speaking of,” Baxter said, struggling to keep up with Kimmel and Ficker. “Are you guys sure we’re following the right trail? I haven’t seen another cadet for over an hour.”
“The map doesn’t lie,” Kimmel said.
“Can I see the map?” Baxter asked.
“It’s in my pack. Just reach in and get it.”
Baxter reached behind Kimmel and dug around in her pack. “I’m feeling clothes, a tricorder, a phaser…no padds.”
Kimmel stopped walking. “I’m sure it’s back there somewhere.”
Ficker and Baxter both dug into the back of her backpack, yanking clothes and supplies out left and right. No padd.
“Okay, the joke’s over,” Kimmel said, mud streaming into her face as she stared at Baxter and Ficker. “Which one of you has the map?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ficker said.
“Thank goodness they made us leave our comm badges at camp,” muttered Baxter.
“It’s supposed to make us rely on our tracking skills alone, just like we’d have to do if we were on an alien planet and separated from our ship,” explained Kimmel.
“We wouldn’t have maps, either,” Ficker said. “That’s why I threw the map into a ravine about a kilometer back.”
Baxter and Kimmel turned on Ficker.
“WHAT?” demanded Kimmel.
“COME AGAIN?” Baxter shrieked, his voice raising a few more octaves than he would have liked.
“When we make it to the peak before all the other cadets, we can brag that we did it WITHOUT a map. We’ll be the toast of our class.”
“I don’t WANT to be the toast of my class!” Kimmel shouted. “I just want to get THROUGH the COURSE!”
“You’ve really screwed us now, Ficker!” Baxter growled, shoving Ficker with both hands.
“Don’t push me!” Ficker snapped, swiping at Baxter with his hand. Baxter bulled into Ficker, knocking him on his rear.
“BOYS!” Kimmel cried out with her tiny voice.
With a strained grunt, Ficker rolled Baxter off him and got back to his feet. Baxter did likewise, just in time for Ficker to knock Baxter off- balance with a stiff kick to the gut that sent him reeling backwards towards an outcropping of rocks that overlooked a long drop onto a steep slope, that led a good 100 meters into the valley below.
Baxter tumbled back onto his rear end and rolled over, grabbing a rock with one hand as his legs dangled over the 10-meter drop to the sheer slope below.
Ficker jogged over. “Oh, Andy, I’m sorry! How did it come to this!”
“Get me up, Ficker!” Baxter cried. Kimmel ran over too.
Ficker knelt down and grabbed Baxter’s hand. Kimmel grabbed his other hand.
“Don’t worry, roomie,” Ficker said sweetly. “I wouldn’t dream of letting you fall.” Then he let go. “Whoops. Slipped!”
And Baxter fell.
The unfortunate byproduct of that was that the diminutive Kimmel, who was about half Baxter’s husky weight, tumbled right along with him.
“Damn,” muttered Ficker, as the two cadets’ cries diminished in the wet night, and they tumbled out of view into the darkness.
“Bridge to Baxter,” came the voice of Ensign Keefler.
“AND?” Peterman asked expectantly.
Baxter glanced up. “What is it, Ensign?”
“The Passaic is on approach, sir. Lieutenant Commander Tilleran and Lieutenant J’hana are aboard.”
Baxter’s eyes moved. He seemed to be making a decision.
“Bring them in and then set a course for Orion space. The Insrigar system. Engage at maximum warp as soon as the Passaic’s aboard.”
“Sir? Aren’t we supposed to be delivering cargo to the Bersallis belt?”
“You heard me, Ensign.”
“You’re going to confront the Orions NOW?” Peterman asked.
“No time like the present.”
Peterman nodded. “I get that. But what do the Orions have to do with this admittedly lovely Starfleet Academy story?”
“Because they think they’re after me. But the one they really want is Anna….”
Captain Harlan Baxter puffed on his cigar, then took it out, and leaned forward in ihs chair as he stared at the muddy, battered pair of cadets across the desk from him.
“Again, Dad, I’m sorry,” Baxter said, sinking a little in his chair.
“Boy, I don’t want to hear excuses. I got pulled out of an important meeting with the Commander in Chief because my boy fell down a ravine and had to be fetched by an academy shuttle.”
“They really didn’t need to pull you out of the meeting for that,” Baxter said, shifting in his chair.
“Yeah they did,” Harlan said, and puffed again on his cigar. He stood up. “Your mother was worried sick about you.”
“Did they have to recall the Legerdemain from its expedition?”
“No. I told her I’d handle this.”
“Handle what, sir?” Kimmel asked meekly.
Harlan turned his back to Kimmel and stared out the window overlooking the Starfleet Command presidio. “Cadet Kimmel, will you excuse us?”
“Gladly,” Kimmel said, and hopped out of her seat, nearly tripping over her own feet to get out of the office.
“She’s nice, isn’t she?”
Harlan turned on a heel to face Baxter. “What the hell do you think you’re doing boy?”
“What do you mean?” Baxter asked, shrinking back a bit.
“With this girl Kimmel?”
“I like her. She’s….she’s, I dunno. She’s kind of clutzy. But she’s sweet. Sincere. Just the kind of girl I’m looking for. I feel like we have so much in common. I just want to get to know her better. I want to…”
“Well you can forget about it,” Harlan said flatly, and sat down.
Baxter blinked. “What?”
“You’re not to have a relationship, of any kind, with Anna Kimmel. Am I clear?”
Harlan leaned forward, his eyes dark and resolute. “Because I gave you a f***ing order, cadet. Yours is not to question why.”
“Do and die, yes, sir,” Baxter said, and stood, rigidly at attention.
“I’m sorry, son,” Harlan said, softening a bit. “Look, I realize you feel a connection to that girl. Probably something you don’t understand. But know that when I tell you that no relationship with you and Anna Kimmel can ever happen, I’m saying it for your own good.”
Baxter nodded, but still didn’t understand.
“WELL?” Peterman repeated, gripping a pillow and squeezing it for all she was worth.
“Well, that’s what brings us to now. To the reason the Orion Syndicate wants Kimmel, and not me.” Baxter turned to face Peterman, inching toward her. “Now what I’m about to tell you, you’re going to find a little hard to swallow. And believe me, I did too at first.”
“It’s okay, Andy,” Peterman said, gripping Baxter’s hands. “Just relax and get it out. We have all the time in the world here…”
Baxter nodded. “Well, you see…Captain Kimmel…”
Suddenly, the Explorer shook, and Red Alert klaxons wailed.
“All senior staff, this is Ensign Keefler. We’re under attack. Please report to the bridge. Like, now!”
“To be continued,” Baxter said, and bolted for the door.
“Damn right it will be. Wait up!” And Peterman raced after him.
Alvin Ficker sat next to Anna Kimmel on the couch in Kimmel’s readyroom, smiling broadly into the holocam.
“Roll it, Sam,” he instructed his cameraman, who leaned up and pressed a button on the headset he wore.
“Rolling, whatever that means,” Sam muttered.
Ficker turned to Kimmel, effecting what he called his “concerned face.” “Now then, Anna. You’ve been a captain for what, a year now?”
“Almost a year and a half,” Kimmel said, with a touch of pride.
“Hasn’t gone quite like you expected, has it?”
Kimmel cocked her head. “Well, there have been some…bumps…sure, but…”
“You ever think Starfleet dropped you in over your head?”
Her eyes widened. “No! I mean, sure, sometimes I screw up. But I try my best. And at the end of the day, I think I’m a pretty good captain.”
“So does Andy Baxter,” Ficker scoffed. “And look at him.”
“He IS a good captain,” Kimmel said, glaring at Ficker. She looked at Sam. “Cut the feed. I’m not going to do this anymore.”
“I think you’re taking this all rather poorly, Anna,” Ficker said in a soothing tone.
Kimmel folded his arms. “I thought you said your viewers wanted to know about me. You called it a ‘feel-good’ story.”
“And it will be. But first we have to lay the foundation. Explain what a failure you’ve been.”
“And then we’ll show how, in the end, you’re so much more than everyone thought you’d be.” Ficker’s eye twinkled as he pointed back at Sam. “Roll it, Sam.”
Kimmel shifted in her seat, wondering, not for the first time, if she’d made a mistake agreeing to this interview.
“Report,” Baxter said, as he and Peterman filed out of the turbolift.
“Orion frigates,” Keefler said, tapping at his panel. “Three of them. They must have masked their warp signatures within the radiation of a nearby solar flare.”
“I don’t care how they got here. I want to know what they’re doing here besides…” Baxter steadied himself on the railing around the command chairs as Explorer shook. “Besides kicking our asses!”
“That seems to be it at the moment,” Keefler said, as Tilleran and J’hana filed out of the opposite turbolift.
“I didn’t even get to unpack,” J’hana muttered.
“Take your frustrations out on the Orions,” Baxter snapped, and headed down to the command area. “All power to shields and weapons. Return fire. Helm, evasive maneuvers.”
“Aye, sir,” Lt. Madera said from helm.
“Do we bother trying to talk to them?” Peterman said, looking to Baxter.
“No point,” Baxter said, and turned to Tilleran. “Tactical view, on screen.” Tilleran threw the sensor feeds up on the viewscreen.
The three, squat, orange, blocklike vessels swarmed down on the Explorer like pregnant locusts, firing rapidly.
“One ship would be a fair match,” J’hana said. “But three to one gives them a distinct advantage.”
“You thinking retreat?” Baxter asked, glancing over his shoulder.
“Am I ever?” J’hana asked archly.
“Good point. Fire everything!”
The Explorer rained down quantum torpedoes on the nearest Orion frigate, blowing its warp nacelle off, then ripping a hole in its side, venting gasses and debris. Another shot and the vessel exploded in a white fireball that rattled the deck under Baxter’s feet.
“Continuous fire. All weapons. Come about and execute strategic maneuver Baxter Alpha….crap…I forgot the name of it.”
Madera glared back at him.
“Sorry! I’m really out of practice with this stuff. Just make something up, guys!”
The bridge crew worked feverishly as the Explorer pitched.
“Hartley to bridge,” came the call Baxter had been expecting since the first shot was fired. “We’re taking a hell of a beating down here, sir. Care to get us out of this mess anytime soon?’
“No. Find more power from somewhere and reinforce the shields,” Baxter said. “We can’t run. They’ll just keep chasing.”
“Orion bastards,” J’hana cursed.
“Is there something you’re not telling us?” Peterman asked.
“Please,” Tilleran said. “Don’t get her started.”
“Shields weakening, sections twenty-six, one, fourteen, and thirty- seven. And keep your mouth shut, Imzadi!”
“Did you say Section One?” Baxter asked, looking back at J’hana.
“Yes, among others. Did you also miss the snarky comment I made to Tilleran?”
Baxter braced himself as another shot rocked the ship. This one felt closer. Like, right at the bridge.
“Shields buckling all over,” J’hana said. “All hands, battestations! Prepare for boarding parties. Remember the clasped-fist fighting style. It’s mandatory!”
Baxter walked up to the helm, put his hand on the back of Madera’s chair. “Susan, put some space between us and the Orions. Then come around for another…” His voice trailed off as he felt the familiar buzz of a transporter beam locking on to him.
“FWARK!” J’hana cursed, slamming her fist into her console.
“Stop them, J’hana!” Peterman shouted. But he was gone before she could even finish her sentence.
“Both ships are moving off,” Tilleran said. “They’re going into warp!”
J’hana’s hands flew over her panel, uselessly firing at the vessels as they zipped away.
Peterman stepped toward the center of the bridge, looking around. “Well don’t just sit there, people! Pursuit course! Engage!”
Madera ran her hands over the controls, just as the helm console erupted in a shower of sparks, throwing her out of her chair to the deck, and other panels similarly exploded all around the bridge.
“We’re not moving,” Tilleran announced, looking over the readings on her console.
“Hartley to bridge!” came the once-again angry call of Lt. Hartley. “Whoever hit us, they hit us damn hard. Warp relays are shot. We’re looking at four to six hours repair time. Don’t come down here to interrupt me unless you want your face handed to you. Hartley out!”
Peterman stood there at the center of the bridge, catching her breath, looking around, as Tilleran stepped down to help Madera up.
“Medical team to the bridge,” Tilleran said. “Minor burns and lacerations, and a few injured extras.”
“Take us to warp as soon as the engines are fixed,” Peterman said to Ensign Trent Layne, the relief helmsman who’d been working the auxiliary engineering station, and who’d taken Madera’s seat when she’d been tossed out of it. “Stay at red alert. J’hana, shoot anything that moves out there.”
J’hana stood at tactical, seething, staring at the viewscreen in disbelief. “They took him! Twice, in two years, my captain was taken right out from under me. I should die for this.”
“Kill yourself later, J’hana. I need you right now,” Peterman said, and headed to the nearest turbolift.
Tilleran looked up from Madera’s side, following Peterman with her eyes as she stepped into the lift. Peterman could tell the Betazoid was keying on her emotions. Sympathizing, more than anything else. “Counselor…do you want me to take the conn?”
“Yeah,” Peterman said. “For the moment. Deck nine!” And the turbolift doors closed.
“Your neural receptors are firing perfectly,” Browning said, looking up from her tricorder and closing it as Richards, decked out in his blue, Starfleet-issue medical recovery pajamas, leaned up from his chair and into her arms.
“I feel silly…with you helping me around.”
Browning squeezed him. “You don’t have to. I’m your doctor. Just think of it as therapy.”
“You have better things to do.”
“Not at the moment,” Browning said. “How are you feeling? Do you have…sensation everywhere?”
“A little tingly. And stiff.”
“You ll want to take it easy,” Browning said, easing him across the room and into the chair by his desk. “Don’t overdo it with the walking.” She patted him on the back. “And NO full-contact sports for at least a month.”
“Damn,” Richards said. “And I just know Andy will be asking me to play lacrosse with him next week.”
“Resist the temptation.”
Richards smiled up at Browning. “You know I was never good at resisting temptation.”
Just then, the doors to Richards’s quarters chimed.
“Come,” Richards said, looking to the door as it slid open and
Peterman rushed through. “There you are, Chris. I’ve been looking for you,” she said breathlessly.
“Why?” Richards asked.
“You’re needed on the bridge, immediately,” Peterman said. “Didn’t you guys hear the red alert sirens? The ship being pummeled?”
“We aren’t exactly essential personnel anymore,” Browning said. “What’s the matter? Breen privateers again?”
Peterman shook her head. “Orions. They took Andy.”
Browning’s eyes widened. “WHAT?”
“Yeah. Look, there’s a lot to explain.” She turned to Richards. “I wouldn’t be asking you this if I had any other choice, Chris. But we need you. The captain’s gone, Hartley’s fixing the engines. You’re all we’ve got.”
“Tilleran or J’hana would be better,” Richards said, turning away. “I was never cut out for command. You and Andy know that.”
“Andy must have thought differently,” Peterman said, kneeling next to Richards. “He made you his first officer two years ago. And he needs you now more than ever.”
Richards looked from Peterman to Browning.
“Even if he wanted to come back, Christopher needs a couple more days to recover,” Browning said. “I don’t want him overdoing it.”
“Let me worry about that,” Richards said, and leaned up.
Browning took a deep breath, realizing she wasn’t going to be able to talk Richards out of this. “Fine. But it’ll be easier for you to get around if you have your doctor nearby.” She walked up behind Richards, taking hold of his arm as he walked toward the door.
“There’s still a chair up there for me, isn’t there?” Richards asked as he limped by.
She nodded as she followed him. “There always will be, Chris.”
“Thanks for coming,” a voice said, as Baxter looked up at the big, broad-shouldered man striding into the brig. The man was Orion, for sure, and wore a well-tailored black suit that complemented his green complexion well. He gestured around the room. “Welcome aboard the Salazar. My flagship. Not too ostentatious, is it?”
Baxter was laying on a flat shelf, in a small cell, on some ship he could only guess was one of the Orion frigates. Problem was, nobody had been very forthcoming about what he was doing there since he was beamed directly into the cell. Matter of fact, nobody had come in to speak to him, until now. “I hope you’re comfortable. We’ve spent a long time preparing for your arrival,” the Orion added.
“I didn’t exactly have much choice,” Baxter said, rolling off what the Orions laughingly must have called a bed. “As I recall, you beamed me off my ship.”
“We doubted you’d come voluntarily.”
“That’s actually not quite true.” Baxter stepped toward the forcefield. “I don’t know who the hell you are, but I was just about to come looking for you. You saved me the trip.”
“Excuse me,” the man said with a regal bow. “How rude of me not to introduce myself earlier. I’m Noyo Potsran.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“You obviously don’t follow organized crime.”
Baxter shook his head. “Only when I gamble on sporting events.”
“That’s a shame,” Potsran said, and paced in front of Baxter’s cell. “But I assume you have heard of the Orion Syndicate.”
“Good. Then I’ll save you the backstory.”
“And that is?” Baxter asked. “Oh, wait a minute. I know. You want me to look the other way while you sell some shoddy stembolts to unsuspecting Yridian merchants.”
“You know why we’re here, Captain. So let’s stop yarffing around,” Potsran said, breathing hard through his nostrils as he eased himself around to face Baxter. “Why don’t we just talk, man to man.”
“You’re lucky, Potsran. I’m in a sharing mood,” Baxter said. “What’s on your mind?”
“I think the question is, what’s on your mind?” Potsran laughed.
“I don’t get it.”
“You will soon,’ Potsran said. “Of course all of this would be easier if you just told me what it is I need to do. How I…activate it.”
Baxter leaned back in his cell, clasping his hands behind his head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Thought you said you were in a sharing mood.”
“Not about that,” Baxter said. “Now, let me guess, you’re going to send some thugs in to torture me until I talk,” Baxter muttered, leaning back on his cot.
“Nope,” Potsran said. “We have other ways of finding out what we need to know.” He tapped a control on his wrist. “Vilso, have the Betazoids report to the room next door and ask them to do their thing.”
“You’ve got it, boss. They’re on their way,” a thick voice replied over the comm.
Baxter leaned up and sprung to his feet. “You have Betazoids.” It all made sense now. That’s what the Orion boss was doing on Betazed. Finding himself some living, breathing divining rods to help him find what he was searching for. What he, probably much in the same way his father had been, had become obsessed with.
“You can’t trust Betazoids,” Baxter said, stepping toward the bristling security field. “They’re not one hundred percent reliable.”
“Just be glad I’m not using Vulcans,” Potsran said dismissively. “I hear mindmelds can be kind of uncomfortable, if you know what I mean.”
Baxter squinted his eyes shut, trying to think of a way to block off his mind. “Potsran, this won’t get you anywhere.”
“Won’t it? I figure, use a half a dozen Betazoids, and you can’t go wrong,” Potsran said. “Just one, maybe you’re right. But six? If even half of them find out what I need to know, they’ll all be worth their weight in latinum.”
“How did you get them to agree to this?” Baxter asked. The average Betazoid was peaceloving, and didn’t cotton well to using mental telepathy against other species.
“How do you get anyone to agree to anything?” Potsran snorted. “I bribed ‘em. And they signed a contract agreeing to a mindwipe after all this is finished. Neat and tidy.”
“You thought of everything,” Baxter said. He turned to face the wall behind him. “But I bet you didn’t think of this!” He quickly started slamming his head against the wall.
“What the fook are you doing?” Potsran asked.
Baxter continued slamming his head into the wall, quickly feeling dizzy and lightheaded. “The smartest thing…I can think to do…I’m losing consciousness…”
Five minutes later, Baxter flopped to the deck, out cold.
Potsran chortled. “You’ve got spaceballs, Baxter. But I’ve got patience. And one way or another, we’ll find out what you got in that head of yours. I’m betting it’s a lot more than you think. A whole lot more. And it’s going to make me a rich man.”
“Thank God this thing has a back-massager built in,” Richards said as he eased into the command chair. He pushed a control on the chair arm, then frowned.
“What’s wrong?” Browning asked, sitting down in the chair next to him; what was usually the first officer’s chair.
“It’s offline,” he muttered. “Damn, the Orions really did hit us hard.”
Tilleran looked up from her station. “The good news is Hartley just reported in. We’ll be back up and running in a few minutes.”
Peterman was sitting in her usual seat (the seat at the left of the command chair that she’d reclaimed as soon as Vansen had left). “Good. The sooner we get on our way, the sooner we find Andy.”
“We’ve got to report this to Starfleet,” Richards said. “There may be some other ships in this sector. The Tracker’s not far, and there may be others nearby, too.” He glanced back at J’hana. “Are long-range communications running, Lieutenant?”
“Yes. One of the few things the blasted Orions didn’t knock out.”
“What’s her problem?” Richards asked.
“Besides the obvious? Don’t ask,” Peterman said.
“Raise Starfleet. Who’s in charge again, Woodall?”
Peterman nodded. “Ever since Andy’s father took that leave of absence.”
“He’s a good guy, if I remember right,” Richards said, staring at the viewscreen.
“Commodore Woodall is responding,” J’hana said.
“Put it on-screen,” Richards said, leaning forward.
The wizened face of Jack Woodall appeared on the viewscreen. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded. “And why are you in your pajamas?”
“Commander Christopher Richards, sir. I’m second in command.”
Woodall looked at a monitor off-screen. “Says here you’re ‘inactive.’”
“I was just reactivated. After having some minor…spinal surgery.”
“On whose authority?”
“Mine, sir,” Peterman said meekly.
Woodall blinked. “Aren’t you the ship’s counselor?”
“Yes,” Peterman said. “And I certify him ready for duty!”
“Me too!” Browning said.
“And you are?”
“Part-time doctor, full-time restauranteur, sir,” Browning said, giving a little salute.
“I’ll be damned,” Woodall said. “Vansen’s gone less then a week and the place is already a madhouse again.”
“With all due respect,” Peterman said. “It’s been a madhouse the entire time. Trust me.”
“Sir, we called with some important matters to discuss,” Richards said. “Our captain has been kidnapped by the Orion Syndicate. Counselor Peterman tells me this may have something to do with Admiral Baxter’s disappearance. We believe the Orions may be trying to use Captain Baxter to get to his father.”
“To what end?”
Richards shifted in his seat. “We’re not sure.”
Woodall turned in his chair. “I’ll put Starfleet Intel on it. Continue on your original mission delivering cargo to the Bersallis Belt, and we’ll let you know what we turn up.”
“Sir?” Richards said.
“Frankly, son, I’m not about to let a circus freak, a loopy counselor, and a restauranteur get into a fray with the Orion Syndicate.”
“Loopy?” Peterman asked.
“You forgot, I’m a part-time doctor too!” Browning protested.
Richards stared at Woodall a long moment. “Sir, respectfully, I’m not about to leave my best friend to the mercies of the Orion Syndicate.”
“Were you under the impression that there was a choice in the matter, son?”
“There’s always a choice,” Richards said. He glanced back, wincing a bit. “J’hana, where’s that cargo?”
“Cargo bay six.”
“Evacuate the bay and vent it to space,” Richards said, turning around to face Woodall again. “There. Our cargo just got delivered.”
“Son, you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. The smartest thing you could do is back the hell off and let the professionals handle this.”
“This job doesn’t call for professionals, Commodore. This job calls for the Explorer crew. We’ll be in touch. Richards out.”
“Now wait just–” Woodall snapped, as he disappeared from the viewscreen.
“Looks like your new spine is working perfectly,” Peterman muttered.
“In more ways than one,” J’hana said, licking her lips in wonderment at Richards’s assertiveness.
Richards swivelled his chair to face Tilleran. “I trust we’ve got a heading on those Orion ships?”
“Yes, but I’m going to have to extrapolate…”
“Do it.” He swivelled back. “Lieutenant Madera, coordinate with Tilleran to lay in a course to find those ships.”
Madera visibly stiffened at being addressed by Richards.
“Lieutenant, did you hear me?”
Madera swung around in her seat, her face beet red.
Peterman covered her face. “Here we go.”
“I heard you all right!” she shouted. “Those are the first words you’ve said to me since you got back from the twenty-first century!”
“They were?” Richards said, scratching his head. “I had no idea.”
“What do you think I am? Do I mean nothing to you? We were going to be MARRIED, Chris! Don’t you care?”
“I…” Richards said, looking blankly from Peterman to Browning. “Ladies, help me.”
“She’s kinda right,” Browning said, shrugging. “You could have at least written to her while you were in the circus.”
“You’re not helping,” Richards said through gritted teeth.
Peterman got up with a sigh and walked over to the helm console, resting her hands on Madera’s shoulders. “Susan, I feel your pain. I really do. Professionally, I think Mister Richards is a pretty good commander. But he’s a rotten boyfriend. He really is. And we need to explore that, together. Him, you, and I.” And she leaned down so she was face-to-face with Madera. “But we’ll need to do that SOME OTHER F***ING TIME!”
Madera shrank back a bit. “You got it, Counselor.” And she quickly swung back around to face the viewscreen.
“Helm is standing by,” Peterman said, walking back to her chair and sitting down. “Now let’s go bag us a captain.”
“That about wraps it up,” Alvin Ficker said, shaking Anna Kimmel’s hand vigorously as he stood up from the couch in her readyroom. “Thanks for indulging me.”
Kimmel gave a small grin. “I’m pleasantly surprised, Alvin. You actually asked some good questions. And you may have made me out to be more than just a bumbling incompetent.”
“I’ve tried to tell a balanced story.”
Kimmel winked at him. “Just don’t chop it up and edit it to me look bad, okay?”
“Oh, I’d never do a thing like that!” Ficker said.
“So when will this air?”
Ficker walked toward the door and stepped out onto the bridge. “I’ll let you know.”
“I’m eager to see how it’ll turn out.”
“Me too,” Ficker said, and nodded at Sam, his holocam man, who walked behind him toward the turbolift. “Say, Captain, would you mind if we stopped off at your shipboard drinking establishment before heading back to our freighter? We don’t have very good synthehol aboard, I’m afraid.”
Kimmel nodded as she walked to her command chair and sat down. “Of course. Help yourself.”
Ficker grinned. “Don’t mind if I do.”
“Have a safe trip,” Kimmel called over her shoulder.
“I’ll see you soon,” Ficker said, stepping into the turbolift.
When Baxter came to, the first thing he realized was that he had a splitting headache. The second thing he realized was that he was still in the Orion brig, and still facing Noyo Potsran. But he looked different. He was smug. Smiling broad; his face grand and expansive, his features pouched victoriously. “You’re a true original, Captain Baxter,” Potsran said, pulling up a seat under him and edging toward the flickering orange security field. “You really are. I underestimated you. I thought you were a pawn in this, but you actually have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Or at least, of what the stakes are.”
“How do you…I mean how could you…?”
“Betazoids can still probe you when you’re sleepin’,” Potsran grinned. “Or didn’t you know that?”
Baxter shrugged, leaning forward and cradling his head in his hands.
“Of course, like you said, they aren’t always reliable. Especially when they have to root through your subconscious, and your dreams. But you’ve got a lot going through your mind right now. Heart on your sleeve, as the humans say.”
“You’ve no idea what you’re screwing with,” Baxter said, leaning forward. “No idea.”
“I think it’s safe to say we do,” Potsran said, and stood, kicking the chair behind him. “We’re dealing with more power than us mere mortals have ever known. The key to understanding everything. To finally having a chip in the highest-stakes game in the Universe. To finally getting to play in the card game with the big boys.”
“You don’t know anything.”
“I beg to differ. Five out of six Betazoids agree. You’re not the one we want.”
“You’ll never get to her. My father will stop you.”
“Your father is two steps behind. He’s been all along. But then again, he doesn’t have the resources of the Syndicate.”
“We’ll see,” Baxter said, rising to his feet and stepping toward the security field.
“And six out of six Betazoids agree, the one we want is Captain Anna Kimmel. Your father could have done a better job of protecting her, don’t you think?”
Baxter gritted his teeth, balled up his fists.
“Thankfully, we at the Orion Syndicate think in terms of the big picture. I wouldn’t have thrown so many resources into capturing you without having a Plan B. And it’s a good thing your associate, Mister Ficker, was so helpful in suggesting that Captain Kimmel might be the one we’re looking for. I’m just surprised he’s right.”
“Ficker…” Baxter seethed.
“He was so eager to help us. Because, just like us, all he wants is a chip in the game. And now he has that chip. He’s there right now, with your Captain Kimmel. And, within the next few hours, he’ll be delivering her to us.”
Baxter trembled, staring daggers at the Orion boss.
“And we’ll get what we want, Captain.” Potsran leaned in closer to the field, his well-manicured whiskers twitching. “Our big chip in the game. Those secrets we’re all looking for? They’re all kept within that dear little Anna Kimmel. And I think it’s safe to say we’ll be able to pry them out.”
Baxter threw himself at the field, shouting:
“YOU BASTARD! LEAVE MY SISTER ALONE!”
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
Now that the true nature of Captain Anna Kimmel is known, will the Explorer crew be able to rescue her before Potsran can get to her? And will Captain Baxter be able to escape from the Orion Frigate? How does Alvin Ficker figure in? Where’s the beef? Answers to all these questions, except that last one, as our fearless crew gets “Sidetracked.”