Author: Anthony Butler
STARFLEET ACADEMY SIXTEEN YEARS AGO
Soon-to-be Ensign Andy Baxter stepped out of the domed auditorium and onto the presidio at Starfleet Academy, where hundreds of graduates gathered in the noonday sun.
Formal addresses, convocation, and special ceremonies were still held in the auditorium, but it served as not much more than a dressing room for graduation, and had been that way for decades. Baxter attributed that to the coming of one Boothby, a man more full of wisdom than the finest professor at the Academy. A man who’d been groundskeeper at the Academy so long that even the most tenured professor could not remember a time when he was not there. Even the Vulcans, who were long-lived and had good memories.
“Baxter,” a voice called out as Baxter strolled down aisles between the rows of standing cadets, in full glossy red and black dress, trying to find his row.
Baxter turned to see Alvin Ficker standing on the end of one of the rows, waving to him.
“What the hell do you want, Ficker?”
Ficker put his hand out, smiling easily. “To put our differences aside, of course. What else could I want?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” The last time Baxter and Ficker had spoken was two days ago, right after the final flight test, during which Baxter got a “D” and Ficker got the coveted “Third Place”
“Seriously, Baxter, I don’t know why you could possibly think ill of me. I didn’t rig your fighter to go off-course.”
Baxter glowered at Ficker. “I have my suspicions.”
“Are you really going to carry all that baggage with you?” Ficker asked. “Don’t you want to start off your Starfleet career with a fresh perspective, and a clean slate? No animosity?”
Baxter shrugged. “Not really.”
“Fine,” Ficker said, yanking his glasses off and cleaning them with the bottom of his uniform tunic. It was a routine that, behind his back, was referred to as “The Ficker Maneuver.” “You be that way. But while I move up the chain of command on the Yorktown, you’ll be stranded in Inventory for the rest of your life. It might do you well to make friends in high places. You’re going to need them.”
Baxter pushed past Ficker. “One thing I’ll never need, Ficker, is you. Go to hell.”
“You too!” Ficker called pleasantly after him.
Baxter pushed past Ficker, finding his row and poking his way by the other cadets, squeezing in between some red-headed boy and the snivelling Cadet Potter.
“Greetings cadets,” Academy Commandant Lezard said, taking the podium, staring out over the sea of newly minted Starfleet officers. The Benzite’s rebreather mask oozed vapors as he regarded the graduating class. “You’re all gathered here for a very important purpose. You’re about to embark on an exciting journey. A journey from which there’s no looking back. You’re Starfleet officers now. You’re going to explore. You’re going to boldly go where nobody’s gone before…”
Baxter nodded to himself, grinning at the Commandant’s inspirational speech. And that’s when he felt her eyes on him. When he turned and saw Cadet Kimmel several rows back smiling at him, nodding a greeting.
He nodded back, then faced front, determined not to miss anything Commandant Lezard had to say.
“…don’t you agree that’s important, boy?” Captain Harlan Baxter asked, peering over his glass of champagne at newly-minted Ensign Andy Baxter at the post-ceremony reception. The Legerdemain was still on deep-space duty, so his mother regretfully could not attend. But she sent her regards via subspace the previous day.
“What?” Baxter asked, glancing over Harlan’s shoulder at now- Ensign Kimmel, who chatted with Ensign Davies on the other side of the room.
“What Commandant Lezard said. About duty. Respecting authority.” He narrowed his eyes. “Were you even listening?”
“To every word,” Baxter said distantly.
Harlan snapped his fingers in front of Baxter’s face. “Snap to, boy! You’re a Starfleet officer now. Start acting like it.”
“Mhmmm,” Baxter said, gazing at Kimmel.
Harlan glanced back, following Baxter’s line of sight. “Kimmel.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Baxter said, and patted Harlan on the back. “I’m just going to go and…”
Harlan latched onto Baxter’s shoulder. He shoved him bodily through a nearby door into the adjacent room, a small kitchen where the catering staff were preparing appetizers and light fare for the reception.
“CLEAR THE ROOM!” Harlan snarled.
Seeing Harlan’s captain’s rank, the waitstaff quickly filed out, murmuring almost inaudibly amongst themselves.
“What’s your problem?” Baxter asked.
“What did I tell you about Kimmel, boy?” Harlan asked, pacing in front of Baxter. “When I tell you to do something, I expect you to do it. Up to and including steering well clear of Anna Kimmel.”
“Because she’d so obviously be a bad influence on me,” Baxter muttered. “She wouldn’t hurt anyone, Dad. She’s kind, sweet, decent…normal.”
“That’s what you think,” Harlan said abruptly.
Baxter cocked his head. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Just that, in time son, you’ll learn that not everyone’s who they say they are. Including Kimmel. Including me.”
“Dad,” Baxter began. “You can’t think for a minute that I’m going to stay away from Anna Kimmel unless you give me a good reason to.”
“I gave you an order! That’s a god damned good enough reason to—” Harlan lurched forward, clearly about to launch into another tirade. Then he pulled back. His look softened. He sighed, then looked up at the ceiling. He reached into a pocket on his hip and drew out a cigar. Sparking it with an as-yet unseen lighter and putting it in his mouth. He puffed and looked around aimlessly. “Fkkit, boyah. Ya dssrven explntn.”
“I do?” Baxter asked, surprised he’d won so easily.
“Yeah,” Harlan said, pulling out the cigar as he puffed a waft of smoke Baxter’s way. “So here goes. Kimmel is not what she appears to be. Actually, she’s more. A whole lot more…”
That conversation replayed in Baxter’s mind, more or less in its entirety, as the U.S.S. Tracker sailed toward Falkath Three, the flames of atmospheric entry burning at the edges of her hull.
“Ten seconds to impact!” J’hana shouted.
Captain Baxter and Counselor Peterman gripped each other as the planet on the Tracker’s viewscreen loomed large and close.
“I do too,” Baxter said, squeezing Peterman harder as he watched the ruddy brown continent below rush toward them on the viewscreen. Baxter felt like an orbital skydiver free-falling to a planet. The only difference was that instead of flying down with a traction parachute, he was riding a flaming starship that was most certainly not going to glide to a soft landing.
“Atmospheric entry!” J’hana called out. “Impact in four, three, two…”
Baxter pulled Peterman close, his eyes squinting shut, bracing for the impact he knew was to come.
But none came. Did he miss it? Did it happen so fast he was already dead?
Tenatively, he winked one eye open.
“I’ll be damned,” Harlan said.
There, holding at a steady distance, was the rust-colored underbrush that covered two-thirds of Falkath Three. On the viewscreen, Baxter could even see the underbrush waving slightly in the breeze.
“This is a surprise,” Ashley said noncommitally.
“It’s not a surprise to me,” J’hana said grumpily. “The Great Hive Mother has often teased me by opening her chubby arms to me. But has she ever taken me home? Never. Fwark this. I wanted to die.”
Peterman glared back at her. “Well I for one am glad we’re not dead.”
“But how…” Baxter said.
“Intervention from above,” Harlan said, and popped in his cigar. “Nw lts gedda fck rrta here.”
MOMENTS EARLIER. . .
“The Idlewild is holding at a position near Falkath Three,” Tilleran said from the science console. “The Tracker is…it looks like her orbit is decaying. She’s heading toward the planet!”
“Tractor beam!” Richards called out.
“We’re not in range,” Ensign Trent Layne said from tactical. He was usually the relief helmsperson, but the bridge had been a hectic place of late.
Richards turned toward the helm. “Get us in range. Susan, full impulse!”
“The two Orion ships are moving off,” Layne said. “They’re entering warp!”
“We have more important things to worry about. Grab that ship, Ensign!”
“In range in thirty seconds,” Layne said.
“What’s the Idlewild doing?” Richards asked.
“Nothing, I…” Tilleran said, then her face blanked. “I…by Providence, what the hells is going on over there!”
Richards glanced back at her. “What do you mean?”
“Somebody…something….big…” Tilleran said, and pitched, bracing herself on her console. She shook her head dizzily. “I…I’ve never felt anything like it.”
Browning raced up to the science console to check on Tilleran, while, on the viewscreen, the Tracker, red with the heat of reentry, loomed on the screen.
“Tracker in tractor beam range,” Layne said. “Man, that’s hard to say.”
“Stay on the ball, Layne. Lock on before we get caught in that planet’s gravity well!” Richards ordered.
Layne tapped a control, and a blue beam lashed out at the Tracker, then quickly died. A panel in the back of the bridge exploded as sparks shot out.
“Tractor beam inoperable!” Layne called out. He looked at his screen. “In addition to about a dozen other things.”
“Transporters!” Richards ordered.
“They were temporarily disabled when we reconfigured them to beam through the Tracker’s shields,” Layne said. “Lieutenant Commander Hartley reports it’ll be at least twenty minutes before they’re back up.”
“What about the Tracker?” Browning asked, hands protectively on Tilleran’s shoulders as she glanced back at Richards.
“They’ll hit the planet in ten seconds.”
“Christopher! Do something!”
“Like what? I’ve only got ten seconds.”
Richards stared helplessly at the viewscreen as the Tracker tumbled toward the viewscreen. “Hail the Idlewild. Damn it, I don’t know what’s going on over there. But if they’re in any condition to render assistance, they’ve got to…”
“Nice captain…that’s a good captain…” Alvin Ficker said nervously as he backed away from a bright, glowing Anna Kimmel, who stalked toward him angrily.
“My ship, my friends. You’d kill them?” she asked, actually sounding rather conversational, and as sure of herself as she’d ever sounded.
“I…it was an accident!”
“You accidentally rigged the ship to crash into a planet, and locked out all the flight controls?”
“You know, I’m really not comfortable talking to you in your current, eh, state….I think it’s best for all involved that I talk to a Federation Magistrate to sort all this out. I hear there’s a nice interdimensional being in a nearby system who can serve as arbiter. Good guy and all.”
“We’re way beyond magistrates, Ficker,” Kimmel intoned, and reached her hand out at Ficker, suqeezing it into a fist.
“Wh-what are you doing?”
“Undoing your dirty work,” she said, and squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating hard. “There. The Tracker is out of danger.”
“That’s nice for them,” Ficker said, tiptoeing backward, toward the aft turbolift. “You’re tired. You’ve had a …rough time of it. Why don’t you have a nap, and I’ll just go belowdecks and…putter about or something?”
Kimmel waved a hand at Ficker, slamming him against the bridge bulkhead. He landed on the deck in a crumpled heap.
“I must get to them,” the glowing Kimmel said, and she strode toward the turbolift, stepping over Ficker in the process. “Pray you never see me again, Ficker.”
She stepped into the turbolift. “Basement,” she said, and the doors closed.
Ficker was just coming to when he heard a great commotion from behind the turbolift doors. Sounds like metal rending, twisting, being shorn. Then the unmistakable “woosh” of decompression. It made the doors shake.
And he looked up, groggy and confused, as, on the viewscreen, a tiny, cylindrical turbolift flew by, aimed right at Falkath Three below.
“C’mon, hop down. I’ll catch you!” Baxter said, standing in the knee-high underbrush of Falkath Three as Counselor Peterman looked down skeptically from the maintenance hatch of the oddly hovering Nova- class starship, which held position–saucer pointed down–roughly six meters above the surface of the planet.
“I’m coming!” Peterman said. “Just give me a minute to gather myself.”
“Fear is your enemy, Counselor. Be not a wuss!” J’hana called encouragingly from her perch on a nearby rock.
“Hurry up,” Harlan said from behind Baxter. Peterman was the last one to get off the ship, waiting even until the thirty-six crewmembers from the Idlewild that Ficker had beamed to the Tracker, and the half-dozen Betazoids rescued from the Orion ship had hopped out of the escape hatch. It was more from fear of heights than lack of chivalry on anyone’s part.
“We’ll have to leave her,” Ashley Donovan said with a chuckle, as the crowd of personnel milled about, making their way into the Falkath underbrush.
“Oh, that’s just about enough out of you!” Peterman growled, and leapt out of the hatch, dropping into Baxter’s waiting arms.
He set her down next to him and looked around. “People…I think it would be wise if we made a hasty retreat.”
“Agreed,” Harlan said. “Ain’t no telling how long this thing’s going to be hoverin’ here like this.”
“Move,” Ashley said, pushing Baxter and Peterman ahead of her, leading the way ahead of the Idlewild crew and Betazoids, drawing a glare from Peterman.
The group hoofed their way along a vast plain that seemed to encompass the entire continent they’d landed on. There was no obvious indigenous life on Falkath Three.
“Faster,” Harlan ordered, nowhere near as out of breath as his son.
Baxter glanced fearfully over his shoulder. “Ummmm…”
The Tracker sat there, perched awkwardly, pointed like a dagger right at the planet’s surface, just hovering. Then it started to shake.
“GO!” Baxter shouted, and the group broke into a run.
The captain glanced back just long enough to see the Tracker flop backwards, her saucer slamming heavily into the ground with a deafening thud, sending a soft tremor down along the plains.
Dust kicked up. The whine of twisting duranium echoed along the plains.
“Not a moment too soon,” Peterman said softly. “What a close call.”
“Here comes another one!” J’hana poitned, as what seemed to be a flaming meteor came roaring out of the sky towards them.
The group spread like rats after a light’s turned on, diving into the underbrush as the flaming object slammed hard into the ground right near them, casting off smoke and the smell of burning metal.
Baxter leaned up, coughing. The black, twisted hunk was roughly cylindrical. And it had a pair of doors.
The doors creaked open, and Anna Kimmel, looking petite and harmless, hopped out.
“Wow, that was a close call.”
“You don’t see that everyday,” J’hana said, her antennae twisting.
“Ohhhhhhh man!” Anna exclaimed. “My ship!”
“Smashed,” Harlan said, staring long and hard at Anna.
“Did I do that?” she asked, eyes wide.
“No,” Baxter said. “But I’ve got a few words for the man who did.” Just then, J’hana’s combadge bleeped.
“Richards to J’hana. Everybody okay down there?”
She just shrugged silently.
“Everyone’s fine, Chris,” Baxter said, looking at Kimmel. “More or less. Now beam us up. We’ve got…a thing.”
Stardate 57256. The Explorer remains in orbit of Falkath Three, engineering teams racing to complete repairs to our engines and defensive systems. The pitched battle with the Tracker and the Orion frigates took their toll, but Lt. Commander Hartley tells me we’ll be operational inside of a couple hours.
Meanwhile, I’ve gathered the senior staff to discuss…a thing…that we’ve got to deal with. Something that Starfleet, maybe nobody, is going to be able to help us with.
Let’s hope they understand. Because I’m not even sure I do.
“Thanks for coming, everybody,” Baxter said, leaning tiredly against the front of the conference table as he looked out at all the faces gathered in the crowded bridge conference room.
His people were there: Peterman, Richards, Browning, J’hana, Tilleran and Hartley. Mirk too, at Baxter’s request.
Baxter glanced at Richards, an briefly wondered how it was that he was back in a Starfleet uniform. Last time they talked, Richards was adamant that he wanted to pursue more artistic avenues. He needed to have a long talk with Richards, but now wasn’t the time.
His father and Ashley Donovan were there as well. And then there was Anna. She sat at the end of the table, perched forward, elbows on knees, staring down at the table, glancing up at him every now and then with a flustered look. She didn’t understand her power anymore than Baxter did, and he’d be foolish to expect her to. There were only two people who did understand, and one of them was his father, who simply puffed on his cigar, chair angled to face the windows.
“Obviously, a lot has happened in the last twenty-four hours,” Butler said. Had it only been that long? It seemed like a week. A month.
“You can say that again,” Richards said, leaning forward. “Now don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re here, but mind telling me how you survived that crash?”
Baxter stared at Anna.
Harlan pulled his cigar out. “That information, boy, is on a need- to-know…”
“Anna Kimmel,” Baxter said. “She stopped the Tracker from crashing. Saved us all.”
“Well, that makes sense,” Browning said, raising her eyebrows. “Wait a minute…no it doesn’t.”
“Mind telling us how?” Hartley asked, avoiding eye-contact with Kimmel. “Because last time I checked, most of us had a hard time stopping falling ships with our minds.”
“Anna’s special,” Baxter said. “She’s…”
“Boy…” Harlan rumbled. Ashley Donovan, for her part, just looked on, amused.
“They’re in this mess with us, Dad, whether you like it or not. My crew deserves to know what the stakes are.”
Harlan shoved his cigar back in his mouth and turned back toward the windows. “Fffrgrowlgrp.”
“So what ARE the stakes, Andy?” Peterman asked, seated right by him at the conference table.
Baxter took a deep breath. “Most of you know that my father has been in Starfleet at least as long as most of us have been alive. A little less than forty years ago, he was the executive officer on the Starship Mercury. The Mercury was a science vessel that was assigned to a research facility on Zendab Four.”
“Right, Dad. It was Zendab Five.”
“Need I remind you, you’re sharing information that’s classfied Alpha Level One. Not even the Commander-in-Chief knows the whole story,” Ashley said, but didn’t sound that worried about it.
She shrugged. “It’s your ship. You’re the boss.”
“Right, well, while stationed on the Mercury, my dad met a woman named Maura Drake. Doctor Drake was working on human cognitive potential.”
Tilleran nodded. “I’ve studied Drake’s work. She was trying to develop a way to access the unused parts of the human brain.” She glanced reluctantly at Kimmel. “According to the science journals, she was never successful.”
“That’s not altogether true,” Baxter said. “She…she did succeed, a lot more than she thought possible. But she never documented her efforts.”
“Frkn Orions,” Harlan mumbled.
“The Orions got to her. Told her that she’d have to turn over her research as soon as it was completed, that the Syndicate would get proprietary rights to what would have been revolutionary technology.”
“So she faked the data,” Tilleran said, and her eyes widened. “She falsified her results!”
“But she was still a scientist at heart. She wanted to preserve her discovery, protect it. So she hid it in the only place she could think.”
Kimmel grinned awkwardly. “Me.”
“She used my dad’s….” Baxter shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “Well, dad contributed the…”
“Gaver some stuffinacup,” Harlan muttered.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “In nine months, Anna Kimmel was born.”
Peterman’s eyes grew wide. “She’s your SISTER!!?”
Browning turned to Kimmel. “You’re forty years old!? You don’t look a day over twenty-six!””
Kimmel shrugged. “It’s a genetic thing, I guess. And I moisturize, a little.”
The conference room erupted into whispers and gasps.
Baxter held up his hands. “Hey! Guys! Over here.” The conversation eventually died down. Baxter looked around at his staff. “Anna was sent to live with a foster family. Given a false identity. Maura Drake took an inconspicuous deep space assignment, planning on never being heard from again. The less visible she was, the less chance she’d be bothered by the Orions. A year later, my dad met my mom. Two years later, they were married. Three years later, I was born.” He couldn’t take his eyes off Kimmel. “And I was never told about Anna Kimmel. Until I met her at Starfleet Academy.”
“Frkn coincidences,” Harlan mumbled.
“You were attracted to your own SISTER!?” Peterman exclaimed.
Richards glared at him. “Andy!”
Kimmel glanced up, raising her eyebrows and grinning.
“I didn’t know she was my sister!” Baxter shot back. “And honey, please, stop trying to help me.”
“I wasn’t trying to help,” Peterman said, folding her arms.
“Only when I forced the issue, when I asked my father why I was forbidden to associate with this Cadet Kimmel, was I told the truth. And so, I left her alone. Nearly fifteen years later, she was put in charge of the U.S.S. Tracker.”
“Section Thirty-One has known of the Zendab Project since it’s very inception. We helped fund the damn thing,” Ashley Donovan said, leaning forward, folding her hands on the conference table. “When we learned of a renewed interest on the part of the Orion Syndicate in digging up Maura Drake’s research and bringing it to fruition, we made contact with Admiral Baxter and let him know that his…secret could be in jeopardy.”
“So they transferred Kimmel to the Explorer project. Made her captain of the Tracker so that my father could keep a close eye on her,” Baxter said. This part was more supposition than fact, but it made sense. He’d never thought to ask his father why he’d put Kimmel in charge of the Tracker. Part of him always thought it was a sense of paternal pride, of protectiveness. But all it had really been was strategy.
“So your father’s disappearance…” Peterman looked from Baxter to Harlan.
“The Orions were stepping up their efforts to get at Maura Drake,” Ashley said. “So Thirty-One assigned myself and the Idlewild to help Admiral Baxter find her before the Syndicate did.”
“And I take it you haven’t managed to do that yet,” J’hana said.
“Brg glxy,” Harlan muttered.
“The Borg? What do the Borg have to do with anything?” Hartley asked.
“BIG,” Harlan said, pulling out his cigar. “It’s a big galaxy!”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “And I’d say it’s safe to say the secret about Anna Kimmel is out.”
All eyes turned to the diminutive, youthful-looking captain at the other end of the table.
“I think my omnipotence is showing,” she said sheepishly. “When I found out Ficker had tried to kill you all….I kinda blew up.”
Mirk stirred, raising his eyebrows at the use of the word “omnipotence.”
Tilleran nodded. “I know. I felt it. That’s what’s gave me the mother of all migraines.”
Ashley looked at Harlan. “That hadn’t been anticipated. The genetic sequence in Anna’s brain engrams was designed to be passive. There should be no symptoms of cognitive progression.”
“I’d say the engrams are pretty damned active,” Baxter said. “She stopped the Tracker from crashing with a thought.”
“I think I kinda glowed too,” Kimmel said. “My memory’s kind of funny on that part.”
“I’d like to get her into the lab,” Tilleran said, looking back at Kimmel. “If you don’t mind.”
“Agreed,” Ashley said. “We have to find out if this is going to be a recurrence of her… enhanced ability.”
“Very well,” Baxter said. “But be gentle. Let’s remember, she’s a person, not a science project.”
“So to speak,” Kimmel shrugged.
“You’re every bit as human as any of us,” Baxter said.
“With the added bonus of being able stop a starship from crashing with a thought,” Ashley said. “Fun!”
“What about Ficker?” Peterman asked. “Any idea where he went?”
At this Baxter clenched his fists, gritting his teeth angrily.
Richards shrugged. “The Idlewild cloaked and left the system shortly before the Tracker crashed. We were in no shape to give chase.”
“And with the Idlewild’s sophisticated cloak, you’d have had no chance of finding her anyway,” Ashley said. “But Alvin Ficker doesn’t pose the key threat here. The Orions do. They left, probably after detecting the…change…in Captain Kimmel. You can be certain they’ll be back.”
“Or they’ve gone to continue the search for Maura Drake,” Baxter said.
Harlan pointed his cigar at Baxter for emphasis. “We’re sure as hell finding her before they do.”
“Then that’s our next move,” Baxter said. “Once we get back up and running, we continue the search for Doctor Drake.”
Ashley leaned back in her chair. “And if you know what’s good for you, we’ll maintain radio silence. No contact with Starfleet Command. We can’t afford to risk the Orions tracking our position. They’ll send a fleet after us to get Kimmel.”
“Why not just get another Section Thirty-One ship?” Hartley asked. “They’re more capable of dealing with this sort of thing, aren’t they?”
“Section Thirty-One will stay out of the loop from here on out,” Ashley said. “We can’t risk talking to them any more than we can Starfleet.”
“There’s more to it than that, isn’t there?” Baxter asked.
Ashley said nothing.
“They want Kimmel as badly as the Orions do,” Baxter said. “It only makes sense. Think of the benefits to having a contingent of omnipotent operatives. If they could figure out how to adapt Drake’s research, nothing would stand in their way.”
“Your father and I have agreed,” Ashley said. “That can’t happen. Nobody can be trusted with this information. If it gets into the wrong hands, we could have a disaster of cataclysmic proportions on our hands. Which is why we really are on our own in this.”
“You Section Thirty-One folks are incredibly loyal,” Richards muttered.
“By the end of the day, I’m not going to be the only disloyal person in the room,” Ashley said. “We all are. Make no mistake, stopping this technology from getting into the wrong hands is more important than any oath we’ve made. To Section Thirty-One or to Starfleet.”
Baxter sighed. “I figured it would come to that.” He looked around the room. “Anybody object to that?”
The room was silent for a moment.
J’hana spoke up. “Frankly, sir, I’ve always wondered why the fwark we ever bothered following orders to begin with.”
“If anyone’s suited to undermine Starfleet and f*** up totally, it’s us,” Hartley agreed.
A slow, uncertain smile spread across Baxter’s face. “Then we know what to do. Anna, go with Commander Tilleran and Doctor Browning. They’re going to run some tests on you.”
“What about my crew?” Anna asked, standing and heading for the door as Tilleran, and Browning also rose from their seats.
Baxter blinked. He looked at Richards.
“They’re back on Breken Four,” Richards said. “We also beamed down Dr. Wilcox and a small security team down there a few hours ago.”
“Have we gotten a report from the away team yet?” Baxter asked.
“I instructed them to sit tight until we got back,” Richards said.
“Then as soon as we’re warp-capable, we’ll go to Breken Four and pick up the away team.”
“We’ll need to arrange for someone to pick up the Tracker crew,” Ashley said. “Someone we can trust.”
“I’ve got someone in mind,” Baxter said thoughtfully. “Meanwhile, someone from security will show you and my father to quarters.” He narrowed his eyes at them. “Separate quarters. Dismissed, people. You all know what to do…or not do, as it were.”
The room emptied. Peterman lingered a moment, watching Baxter curiously. Mirk stood up and headed over to the end of the table where Baxter stood, and Peterman took her cue to exit.
“I take it you didn’t invite me here to cater the after-party,” Mirk said.
Baxter nodded. “You remember about a month ago when you were apprehended by a couple of Starfleet Intelligence officers inside the Bermuda Expanse?”
“Of course. They were interrogating me about my powers…”
“That was the Idlewild,” Baxter said. “My Dad told me. They’ve been studying the Bermuda Expanse, and several ‘Redlands’ areas where the Critics once dwelled, throughout the neighboring sectors.”
Mirk immediately drew the connection. “Do they think this Doctor’s research is somehow tied to the Directors?”
“Something I didn’t tell everyone,” Baxter said, leaning against the back of his chair. “Doctor Drake wasn’t just trying to create a higher- thinking human. She wanted to create the first omnipotent human being.”
“Your people aren’t ready for omnipotence,” Mirk said quickly.
“And yours are?” Baxter asked, actually chuckling.
“That’s a debate for another time. Whatever the case, this Doctor’s research upsets the natural order. The balance between good and evil. And once that balance is thrown off, nobody–no thing–is safe.”
Baxter stopped chuckling. “Basically, we’re talking about the destruction of the universe as we know it.”
Mirk shook his head in disbelief. “And that tiny woman could cause it.”
“Not on my watch,” Baxter said, and draped an arm over Mirk’s shoulder, ushering him toward the door.
“You actually think we can do something to stop it?”
“We’re damned sure going to find out. Try to contact the Directors again. Meditate. Do whatever you can, use whatever resources you need.”
“I’ve tried, Captain, but I just can’t seem to…”
“Try harder,” Baxter said. “Our whole existence may ride on…”
Baxter was cut-off in mid-sentence. Before Mirk could react, he found himself alone, in a gazebo, overlooking a busy street-corner somewhere on Earth.
He sat on a wooden bench, watching the sun beat down on the asphalt, as old-style automobiles and horse-drawn carriages puttered by.
Jazz music fluttered out from the open door of a nearby bar, and he suddenly felt two strong, comforting hands rubbing his shoulders.
“First omnipotent human. Shows what he knows,” the voice cooed in his ear.
“You,” Mirk said, twisting around.
There she was, blonde and trim, dressed head to toe in a stately, gleaming, hip-hugging party dress, a cigarette lazily dangling from between her fingers. “Don’t kid yourself Mirk. You aren’t up for this. Maybe you were, at one time. But that was a different life for you.”
“What are you doing here?” Mirk asked, leaping from the bench and turning on the Goddess. “Are you mixed up in this?”
The Goddess yawned and draped herself on the bench, propping up her feet, dropping one foot off over the side, stiletto heel dangling playfully from one toe. “You really have no idea how human affairs bore me, do you? Silly Mirk. I’m no more mixed up in this than you are. And, unlike you, I’d like to keep it that way.”
“Please!” the Goddess giggled. “That’s just one Universe. There are plenty of others. Although I will miss Georgia. That particular part of your Universe is so lovely this time of year.” She shrugged. “Then again, that’s why I have my own Georgia here. And THIS one has Harry Connick, Junior. You can’t say the same for your Georgia. Which means it’s expendable.”
“My Universe is not expendable!” Mirk exclaimed.
“To me it is. Really, don’t paint me as the villain, Mirk. You know me better than that. I’m just not…interested. Find some of those eyeballs to play in your silly little game. I bore far to easily.”
“The Directors? You know where they are?”
“I can’t say I care,” the Goddess said. “But I do care about you, Mirk. Almost aas much as I love Georgia. That’s why I brought you here.”
“I’m feeling a sense of deja vu,” Mirk muttered.
“What can I say? When I want something, I’m fairly persistent about getting it.”
“Well you can forget about ‘getting’ me,” Mirk said. “If you won’t help me save the Universe, then send me back to the Explorer so I can have a chance to help those people.”
The Goddess leaned up, took Mirk’s hand. She didn’t look bored anymore. Her eyes implored. “Don’t you see, you silly boy? That’s just the thing. You can’t help those people. That little Kimmel person is more omnipotent than you at this point. Of course, she’s bound to self-destruct eventually, but that’s not my problem, is it?”
“Send me back now.”
“This is your last chance, Mirk. I don’t take well to rejection.”
“I think I made it fairly clear the last time I saw you that I don’t want or need your help. Get me out of here.”
“You really don’t understand me, Mirk,” the Goddess said, and stood up. “I don’t think you understand anything.”
“I said send me back.”
“Have it your way. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
She leaned in, and with breath that felt like a thousand summers, she breathed softly in Mirk’s ear. “Still…despite my better judgment…I wish you luck, Mirk.” And she kissed his cheek.
“…our ability to stop the Orions from getting control of Drake’s research. The Directors may be able to help us with that.” Baxter paused, looking in Mirk’s eyes. They looked glassy, distant. He waved a hand in front of Mirk’s face. “Anybody home?””
Mirk blinked. “Yes, sir, I was just, uh…I was deep in thought.”
“Well keep thinking. And find a way to contact the Directors ASAP.”
“That may be easier said than done,” Mirk said, and followed Baxter out of the conference room.
Baxter sat in the command chair, watching thoughtfully as Breken Four came into view on the screen.
He glanced back at J’hana. “Lieutenant, contact the away team and let them know we’re here to pick them up.”
J’hana nodded and tapped at her panel. “Explorer to Doctor Wilcox. Please respond.”
“We left them down there for about a day,” Peterman said. “They’re probably not going to be too pleased.”
“I imagine we didn’t have a choice,” Baxter said. “Tilleran, keep an eye on the sensors. I don’t want the Orions sneaking up on us again like they did last time.”
“Sir, Doctor Wilcox confirms she’s more than ready to return to the ship. Her exact words were ‘It’s about frigging time.’”
“Ah, glad the good doctor is happy to see us,” Baxter muttered. “Drop shields, J’hana. Bridge to transporter room two. Lock onto the away team and beam them up.”
Richards shifted in his seat beside Baxter. “We probably shouldn’t stay in one place for too long.”
Baxter nodded as he shared a look with Peterman. “I’m inclined to agree. We’ll leave as soon as we complete the offloading of nonessential personnel.”
“We’re not taking anyone along on this wild goosechase that we don’t have to. There are families aboard, Chris. We’re not dragging them into this.”
Richards nodded. “Yeah. Good point.”
“You should probably make some kind of statement, Andy,” Peterman said.
“Yeah. I’m SO good at that.” Baxter shook his head, then punched a control on the arm of the command chair. “Captain Baxter to all hands. I’ll keep this simple. Due to…some technical difficulties we’re experiencing, we’re going to need to evacuate the ship for an extended period of time. I’m asking that all non-essential personnel report to Cargo Bay One for immediate evac down to the surface of Breken Four.”
Peterman let out a breath. “Nice job, Andy. Short but…”
“This means, of course, that pilates and tae-bo in the athletic center are canceled, as well as the poetry slam on Deck Twelve, and the lemur exhibit in the arboretum. Please evacuate….uh…quickly, without shoving. Don’t worry about us. The ship won’t explode or anything. Yet. This is just a….minor…pit stop we have to make because of….things with the ship…that are….wrong. Have a nice, er, time. Baxter out.”
Peterman and Richards both stared at Baxter.
“What?” he asked. “I can feel your looks on me.”
“Guess you never heard of the phrase ‘keep it simple, stupid?’”
“You’re calling me stupid?”
Richards stared at the ceiling. “It’s an expression.”
“Well, you’re right, I’ve never heard of it, dumbass” Baxter said. “Anyway, job done. Kelly, why don’t you get belowdecks and supervise the evac. I want everyone beamed down before the Aerostar gets here.”
“The Aerostar?” Richards asked. “They’re coming?”
Baxter nodded. “Conway’s not happy about it, but he agreed to meet us here and pick up our non-essential crew, as well as the people from the Tracker and the Idlewild.”
“I can only imagine his reaction,” Peterman muttered, as she stood and headed for the turbolift.
“Starfleet’s going to want to question our people,” Richards said.
“And they’ll find they know nothing. Not much different than us, actually.”
“I can’t believe Conway was so willing to go along with that,” Richards said, shaking his head.
“Conway’s been with us a long time. Beneath that irascible, nasty veneer, is a former member of our family. He’ll help us out.”
“Speaking of family, Andy, I…”
“Now’s really not the time, Chris.” Baxter appreciated Richards’s concern, and interest in his relationship to Kimmel, but there just wasn’t time. “I’m going down to the lab. You’ve got the bridge. Have Doctor Wilcox and Ensign Keefler report for debriefing as soon as they’re aboard.”
Richards watched him leave, then sat as the bridge fell silent, save for the bleeping of consoles and the officers moving from station to station.
“She really doesn’t look forty, does she?” J’hana asked idly.
“Back to your station, J’hana,” Richards mumbled.
Baxter found Kimmel sitting on the edge of an examination table in Science Lab One, wearing a blue medical gown and swinging her legs.
Tilleran and Browning stood on either side of her. Tilleran examined her tricorder as Browning checked the biometric readings displayed on the panel behind Kimmel.
“Well?” Baxter asked, looking from Tilleran to Browning.
“This gown itches,” Kimmel said with a giggle, shifting a bit on the table.
“She’s a perfectly normal human being, Andy,” Browning said in a low voice, nodding toward the back corner of the lab. Baxter followed her there, and Tilleran joined them.
“I’ve picked up nothing telepathically,” Tilleran whispered.
“There aren’t even any traces of those brain engrams you mentioned,” Browning said. “You’d think there’d be some evidence she had, you know…a ‘god mode.’”
“She was never meant to activate ‘god mode,’” Baxter said, looking back at Kimmel. “And the alterations to her genetic code were never meant to be found.”
Tilleran flipped her tricorder closed with a sigh of frustration. “Then it’s going to be awfully hard to try to predict or control whatever’s happening to her. Not if there isn’t some trace of genetic evidence.”
“I’m sure that evidence will be more than apparent when and if she experiences another outburst like that last one.”
“Perhaps,” Tilleran said. “But by then it may be too late to do anything about it.”
Browning nodded silently, and Baxter walked back over to Kimmel, putting a hand on her shoulder. “How are you holding up?
She shrugged. “Fine, considering I’m on my way to becoming Supergirl.”
“I think it’s more like Wonder Woman,” Baxter said with a smile. “But we don’t know if any of this will actually happen…again.” He took a breath. “Look, have you, uh….had any experiences like this before?”
“Where my powers suddenly…showed up?” Kimmel shook her head. “No. Not since…well, you know.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I know.”
U.S.S. SECONDPRIZE NINE YEARS AGO
Lieutenant Andy Baxter sat in Seven-Backward, staring at the onrushing stars as he sipped his drink and thought about the future.
“Drinking alone again?” Trinian, Seven-Backward’s bartender, asked, tipping her wide, round hat and setting another drink in front of Baxter.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “It makes it harder for Commander Baird and Ensign Mulligan to put super red hot sauce in my drink, if there’s nobody around to distract me.”
“You’ve had a tough time on this ship, haven’t you, Lieutenant?” Trinian asked thoughtfully.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “I guess I have. Not exactly command material, you know?”
“You’ve met our first officer, right?”
“Commander Dillon?” Baxter said. “No, but I hear he’s a great man.”
“From who?” she asked, pulling up a seat beside Baxter.
“Well, from him. Well, not him directly…just what I read in his autobiography.”
“A draft version. It’s on the ship’s information net. Along with Commander Jaroch’s studies of Breen insect larvae. Interesting reading.”
“I hope you’re talking about the larvae. Look, I wouldn’t really trust what Commander Dillon has to say about himself. He’s….not one of the more highly respected people on the ship. Although you’d never hear that from him.”
“How’s he able to carry out his duties as first officer if nobody respects him, and he’s not even aware of it?”
Trinian shrugged. “I don’t really know. But it’s never seemed to be a problem.”
Baxter nodded. “Yeah. Well, I can only hope to turn out half as good as Dillon.”
“I think you can set your sights a little higher than that, Lieutenant.”
Baxter beamed. “Captain Rydell?”
Trinian laughed, stood up, and patted Baxter’s back. “Don’t get carried away, now. Have a nice night, Andy.”
“Thanks,” Baxter said, and shrugged. “Not a problem.” He grinned, just as his combadge chirped.
“Hawkins to Baxter.”
Oooh, a bridge officer!
“You’re needed in Cargo Bay Three. The U.S.S. Dublin has arrived to transfer some supplies and the captain asked for a manifest report as soon as possible, so we can get on to our next destination.”
“The captain, huh?” Baxter rubbed his chin. “Did he mention me specifically?”
“Nope. I don’t think he’s even aware that we HAVE an inventory office.”
“Oh,” Baxter said. “Well, could you, um, let him know that we do?”
“Nope. Off you go. Thanks, Lieutenant!”
Baxter’s shoulders fell. “Yeah, anytime.” He tossed back the last of his drink and stood up, just as his eyes watered and red-hot fire burned through his mouth. He looked around angrily. “Okay, guys, where are you? How’d you DO that?”
Still wondering how Baird and Mulligan snuck up on him, Baxter arrived at the cargo bay, padd in hand.
The doors cranked open to admit him, and he stepped through, just as the transporter came to life, beaming in several large, cubic cargo containers.
“That’s the last of it,” a familiar voice said from behind one of the containers.
The Ensign at the transporter controls nodded, deactivated the cargo transporter, and stepped out of the cargo bay.
Baxter walked around the row of containers, gasping as he saw Anna Kimmel, now also a lieutenant, hunched over and scanning the item number off one of the containers onto her padd.
“Anna!” he cried out, and knelt down, pulling her into a hug.
“Andy!” she exclaimed, hugging him back. They broke from the hug and stared at each other a long moment. “You’re a lieutenant now? Congrats!”
“Same to you,” Baxter said. “Yeah, things are great.”
“With me too,” Kimmel nodded.
They both sat there nodding a moment. Then, as one, their shoulders fell.
“It’s not really that great,” Baxter said.
“Yeah, same here,” Kimmel said. “People call me Klutzy Kimmel.”
“That’s downright complimentary compared to some stuff I’ve heard.”
“Is it just me, or is this Starfleet stuff not what the brochure advertised?”
“It is,” Baxter said, thinking of Dillon. “For SOME people.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Well, we’re young yet. There’s always a chance we’ll get a lucky break.”
“It’s entirely possible. We can’t both be cursed with luck THAT horrible,” Kimmel said with a giggle, as a cargo barrel from a shelf up above tipped over, and came crashing down toward Baxter’s head.
Baxter glanced up, eyes wide. Time seemed to slow down.
“NO!” Kimmel shouted, and the cargo container stopped midair, inches from Baxter’s head.
Baxter stared at it. Then looked back at Kimmel. “Anna…”
“Andy, I….what the hell?”
Baxter sidestepped away from the container, just as Kimmel blinked, and the container smashed into the deck.
“I can’t believe it,” Baxter said to himself. “Dad was right.”
“Hawkins to Baxter,” the comm system suddenly bleeped. “I just registered a huge energy surge. Everything okay down there?”
“Baxter here. Everything’s fine. Must have been a sensor glitch.”
“Right. Well, I’ll send someone down to check things out anyway. Hawkins out.”
Kimmel sunk down onto the fallen cargo barrel, sitting on it as she stared at her hands. “How the heck did I do that?” She looked at Baxter. “And why aren’t you more surprised?”
“Because I….well…because there’s some stuff you should know, Anna,” Baxter said, and reached down to grab Anna’s hand and help her up. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“I guess,” Anna said, and looked down at the barrel, surprised it hadn’t slipped out from under her as she’d sat down. “You know, maybe I’m not such an impossible klutz after all.”
“You’re something impossible all right, but it has nothing to do with being a klutz…” Baxter said, and led Kimmel out of the cargo bay.
NOW. . .
“I’m actually glad you told me everything,” Kimmel said, as she and Baxter made their way down the residential deck, to a cabin near Baxter’s. “Although there sure were times I’d wished you hadn’t.”
“After what happened, it seemed like some kind of explanation was in order,” Baxter said, coming to a stop at one of the doors adjacent to his. He punched in a security code and the door opened. “Sit tight here, Anna. Get some rest. For now, that’s about all any of us can do.”
Kimmel nodded as she stepped into the cabin. “Do you think Ficker or the Orions will try to grab me up again?”
Baxter shrugged. “Hard to say. Anything’s possible, I guess. But let me worry about that.”
Kimmel stepped forward, then impulsively threw her arms around Baxter, hugging him tight. Baxter squeezed back, and they stood there, awkwardly, for a moment. Baxter stepped back.
“You know, uh, all this time…we’ve been pretending we weren’t related for so long…” He shifted from foot to foot. “I started to believe the lie.”
Kimmel smiled. “Well, no use in pretending now, little brother. Not on this ship, anyway.”
“It’s strange. I never really thought about what it would be like to have a sister, because I was so focused on keeping that little fact a secret.”
“Maybe once all this is finally over, we can do something to change that.”
“Maybe we can do something to change that now,” Baxter said with a smile, and stepped out of the cabin. He pointed at Kimmel as he walked off. “And be careful who you answer the door for. I mean it.”
Kimmel mock-saluted. “Aye-aye, Captain. You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Who said I was worried?” Baxter asked as the door closed. He immediately tapped his combadge. “Baxter to J’hana.”
“I want twenty-four hour security on Kimmel’s quarters. Two- twenty-seven, section alpha.”
“Brotherly love. Thing of beauty, sir.”
Harlan Baxter was sitting at a back table in Mirk’s, tossing back a double shot of whiskey as Ashley Donvan sat across from him, her feet up on the table, arms behind her head.
“I could get used to this life. Relaxing.”
“Don’t get used to it,” Harlan grumbled as he set his glass down. “This is a temporary arrangement.”
“How temporary? Until we find Maura Drake and eliminate the Orion Threat?”
“At the least.”
“Does mom know about her?” a voice from behind asked, and Harlan didn’t look back.
“Yer mom’s in the Gamma Quadrant.”
Baxter stepped up between Harlan and Donovan. “I guess that was intentional.”
“I’m gonna keep her clear of this fray, if that’s what you mean. No sense giving the Orions another target to shoot at.”
“No, they’ve got their hands full trying to kill ME,” Baxter said, and sagged into a chair. Zordock the Bold, Mirk’s Four-Armed Therrian assistant, trundled up to the table, three trays in hand.
“Drinks?” he asked casually.
“Grapefruit juice, neat,” Baxter said, and looked at his father. “Another, Dad?”
Harlan inclined his head toward his glass. “Keep ‘em coming.”
Baxter chuckled. “That’s my dad. Always ready for battle.”
Harlan cast a steady gaze at Baxter. “You better believe I’ll be prepared to act when necessary.”
“How about you act like a father and go visit Anna Kimmel?”
Harlan’s face was unreadable. “She asked for me?”
“She didn’t mention you by name, but I’m sure she’d like to talk to you. How long has it been since you two talked?”
“Few months ago,” Harlan said. “When I was still heading up the Explorer Project. I ordered her to Argossia to study a gravitational anomaly.”
“Touching,” Baxter said, looking at Ashley, who just held up her hands.
“Don’t pull me into this,” Ashley said. “I’m an agent of a shadow government, not a family counselor.”
“He’s not much more effusive with me than he is with the daughter he ‘created,’” Baxter said, making air-quotes. “It’s something Anna and I have in common.”
“That and the knack for gettin’ into trouble,” Harlan rumbled.
Baxter smirked. “AND the knack for getting you out of trouble, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Boy, this is no time for dancin’ around. You got something to say to me, say it.”
“Nah,” Baxter said, as Zordock brought his grapefruit juice. He took the glass and downed it, then stood up. “But I’ll let you know when.” He glanced at Ashley. “Commander Donovan, you may like to know that we’ll be at Breken Four in a few minutes to drop off the Idlewild crew. Anyone from that bunch that you want to keep with you?”
Ashley shook her head. “No. The last thing we need is a loose cannon on board trying to nab Kimmel when they find out we have no intention of turning her over to Section Thirty-One.”
“You DO like to live dangerously, don’t you?”
“It’s the only way to live. Make sure all those people are put off the ship. Get a head count.”
Baxter nodded. “I’ll take roll myself.” He looked from Harlan to Ashley, then silently backed away. “Have a nice night, you two.”
Ashley studied Harlan’s stone visage for a few moments. “He means well, you know.”
“He doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”
“Well, for better or worse, we’re in his hands now.”
Harlan downed his third whiskey and smacked his lips. “We’ll see. I don’t know about you, Commander, but I’m gonna have a cigar.”
“Light me up, cowboy.”
“Godspeed to you and your husband, Kelly!” Dr. Doug Leonardo called out, his hands held out in front of him. He walked up to Peterman as she stood in front of the large, heavy doors leading into Cargo Bay One.
“What’s with your hands?” Peterman asked, hugging her padd with the crew manifest on it to her chest.
“Oh, the boys are tugging at their leashes. They’re very excited to get off the ship.”
“Boys?” Peterman asked, looking Leonardo up and down.
“Oh, you silly. My twin shnauzers. Clint and Earl.”
Peterman stared at Leonardo a moment. “Oh! Clint and Earl.” She patted him on the shoulder. “Yes, that’s very good, Doug. I’m sure Clint and Earl will enjoy the trip. Make sure they have plenty of food and water, and that you let them out to walk a couple times a day.”
“We’re nothing without our pets, are we, Counselor?” Leonardo asked as he stepped into the cargo bay, seemingly tugged by the invisible leashes in each hand.
“I often wonder!” Peterman called after him, making a mental note to warn Counselor Telvin on the Aerostar about Dr. Leonardo.
She then turned and gestured a few more passengers in, checking their names off the list, when she felt a pair of smooth hands slide over her eyes.
“If you’re Orion, I don’t know where Kimmel is, and I won’t tell you!” she cried, rearing back her elbow to jab her assailant in the stomach.
“Relax, sweetie,” Yeoman James Briggs said in a soothing voice, as he pulled his hands away and stepped in front of her. She noticed he was wearing his blousy pants. What he referred to as his “genie” outfit. “It’s just your buddy James.”
“James,” Peterman said, glancing around. “Where’s your luggage. I know you’ve got that matched set of faux-leather Verducci handbags.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I just came here in person to tell you that.”
“James, no…” Peterman said. “It’s too dangerous. You need to beam over to the Aerostar with the others.”
“Are you saying I’m non-essential, baby? Who would do your hair while I’m gone?” He ran both hands through Peterman’s long, dark hair. “Tsk tsk. Split ends!”
Peterman blushed, smiled momentarily, then hardened. “I mean it, James. You need to go.”
“Sweetie! I’m a crewman, remember? I’m an ensign or something.”
“Yeoman,” Peterman giggled. “You’re a Yeoman.”
“Well….tell the captain….yo, James is staying.” He laughed uproariously and threw his arms around Peterman. “Trust me, sweetie. This will go well.”
Peterman sighed. “Why do I feel like I’m going to regret this?”
“Don’t you worry about a thing, Kelly. You’ll stop these Orions from doing whatever it is that they’re planning, and when that time comes I promise you, your hair will be stunning!”
Peterman pursed her lips. “How do you know about the Orions?”
“People talk in a hair salon, sweetie.”
Dr. Browning sat on her couch, leaning forward, elbows resting on her knees. She stared at the coffee table. “I can’t believe I’m doing this, Plato. But I’m giving you a choice.”
Plato shrugged. “I don’t get it.”
“You’ve got a choice. You can stay on the ship with me–knowing that there’s an element of danger to that. Or you can go stay with Mihala and her live-in boyfriend Looku in temporary quarters until this thing blows over.”
“No,” Plato said, and turned to face Browning. “I get that part. I don’t get why you’re giving me a choice.”
“Because you’re a big boy now,” Browning said, and took a deep breath. “I can’t just decide everything for you. You’re….you’re man enough to make up your own mind.”
“Like there’s any chance I’d leave? Get real, Mom!”
Browning touched her chest a moment and stared at Plato as he stood up. “You realize what you’re saying?”
“The ship’s been in trouble before. If you sent me away every time that happened, I’d have enough frequent flyer lightyears to travel the galaxy for the rest of my life.”
“This might be different.”
Plato turned to Browning. “It’s not any different to me.”
Browning lept up and threw her arms around Plato. “You don’t know how happy, and how scared that makes me feel, sweetie.”
Plato shifted a bit, then slid his arms around Browning, hugging her back. “So,” he said softly. “Does Lt. Commander Hartley need any help in Engineering?”
Browning pulled back and stared at him. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh. No reason.”
“You could have at least beamed us down with field rations,” Dr. Holly Wilcox muttered as she sat at the conference table off the bridge, with Ensign Keefler standing beside her. “We had to start snacking on the native shrubbery.”
“Sorry about that,” Richards said, pacing in front of the conference room monitor as J’hana followed him with her eyes. Slowly but surely, he was losing his limp, but he still looked a little stiff. That was natural though, as he’d only recently gotten a new spine. “But it was necessary to head off the Orions as soon as possible.”
“I get that,” Holly said. “Now what’s this I hear about us having an omnipotent Starfleet captain aboard?”
“It’s a tad more complicated than that,” Richards said, exchanging a look with J’hana. “I’ll have the lieutenant give you a full briefing. But thanks for your input. You’re both off duty the next ten hours. Get a meal and some sleep.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Keefler said, as Richards ducked out of the conference room, leaving them in J’hana’s tender care. He came face to face with Baxter, who was just coming off the aft turbolift.
“Holly and the away team are back aboard,” Richards said.
“Good,” Baxter said. “Kelly just commed. She says the crew from the Idlewild was offloaded, along with all our nonessential personnel.”
“I’ll miss the second-graders.”
“They’re third-graders now, Chris.”
Baxter nodded. “Indeed. You have an ETA on the Aerostar?”
“Any minute now. Do they realize they’re going to have a contingent of Section Thirty-One aboard?”
“I gave Conway a vague warning. But I think the less he knows the better in this case. He’s just dropping them off at a starbase. Where the Thirty-One people go from there is their business.”
“And our people will be temporarily assigned quarters on the starbase?”
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “And they’ll probably get interrogated like mad by Starfleet.”
“They’ve already sent a number of nasty comms. I think Commodore Woodall wants blood at this point.”
“I don’t care what he wants. The safety of Anna Kimmel is our priority.”
“Well, that and the Universe not getting destroyed,” Richards said.
Baxter put up an eyebrow. “Of course.”
“Aerostar on approach,” Trent Layne piped up from tactical.
“On-screen.” Baxter walked over to the command chair and sat down as Captain David Conway appeared on the viewscreen, brow furrowed. In the chair beside him, Commander Kristen Larkin sat, a blank look on her face.
“This is getting way too familiar, Captain,” Conway said. “This is the third time this year I’ve dropped everything to lend you a hand. It’s getting tiring.”
“Don’t get pissy with me, Conway,” Baxter said. “Just transport the crewmembers down on Breken Four up to your ship.”
“And you can’t tell me any more about this special mission you’re on?”
Baxter shook his head. “You wouldn’t want to know, believe me.”
Conway shifted in his seat. “You’re in trouble, aren’t you, Baxter?”
“I’m not the only one.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You’re not going to destroy the Universe, are you?”
“Nah,” Baxter said. “Well, not…me personally.”
Conway rolled his eyes. “You’re right, I don’t want to know.”
Richards stepped toward the command center. “Take care, Kristen. It may be a while before we talk, but…”
“Say no more, Father,” Larkin said. “I am sure you have many tasks to attend to. I will be fine.”
“You’ve deactivated your emotion chip, haven’t you?”
“Until you let me know you will be okay, yes. I felt that would be prudent.”
“I did too,” Conway said with a sigh.
“We’ll be fine, Larkin, don’t worry,” Baxter said.
“I will not, due largely to the deactivation of the chip.”
“Love you too, Kristen,” Richards said with a grin.
“I am incapable of love at this time,” Larkin said.
“Same here,” Conway said, and punched a control on his chair arm, shutting off the channel.
Just then, the aft turbolift doors swung open, and Counselor Peterman walked in, followed by Anna Kimmel.
“Andy, do you realize your sister was left all by herself down in her quarters, with only Marco and Sumter from security to talk to?”
“Yes,” Baxter said, staring at Peterman. “Because I left her there. So she’d be safe.”
“Well, it was quite rude. She needs to be kept in the loop on all these things,” Peterman said, wrapping an arm around Kimmel’s shoulders and ushering her toward the command chairs.
“I do?” Kimmel asked, looking at Peterman.
“Yes, dear,” Peterman said. “Now Andy, you can’t just ignore her. She’s….” Baxter could tell Peterman was still having difficulty processing everything. “A relative. You need to pay attention to her.”
“She’s not a baby, for godsakes,” Baxter said. “Um…speaking of…”
“Relax,” Peterman said, and sat down beside Baxter. “Steffie’s fine. She’s been staying with the Hammersteins on Deck Eleven. I dropped her off there shortly after you were kidnapped by the Orions. And I just picked her up and took her back to our quarters, where Chaka’kan is looking after her, so that the Hammersteins and their kids could evacuate.”
“The Hammersteins,” Baxter sighed. “He’s an idiot and she’s a kleptomaniac. Hopefully they decide to put down roots at whatever Starbase they end up at.”
“She’s seeking treatment!” Peterman snapped. “And he’s NOT an idiot. He’s just…slow.”
Baxter rolled his eyes. “Well, I hope Steffie had a good time.”
“Too good,” Peterman said with a frown. “We missed her first words.”
Baxter gaped. “WHAT?”
Peterman nodded. “Apparently, she said ‘blorp.’”
“Oh. That’s not a word. You worried me there for a minute.”
“Blorp is a delicacy on Adirak Prime.”
“Well I’m not counting it.”
As Peterman and Baxter bantered, Kimmel made her way around to the science console, where Ensign Layne was studying the readouts.
“Everything okay there, Ensign?” she asked, glancing innocently over at the panel.
Layne looked up at Kimmel and smiled. “Actually, it is now.” He reached under the tactical console and withdrew a phaser. “Don’t move!”
Baxter, Peterman, and Richards whirled to face the tactical console.
“Layne, what in the hell are you doing?” Baxter demanded.
“Correcting a tactical miscue, Captain,” the ruddy-faced Ensign sneered. “Made by our good friend Commander Donovan.”
“Sh**,” Richards said, looking at Baxter. “He’s Section Thirty- One!”
“And you’re a freaking genius,” Layne muttered, glancing down at his panel. “Oh, and Captain, it pleases me to report that the Aerostar-A has just departed at warp, carrying away all witnesses to the horrible accident that’s about to befall your ship.”
“What do you mean?” Baxter asked.
“You’re an operational risk. The Explorer, unfortunately, needs to blow up. Thanks for offloading those non-essential personnel for me. It’ll make the report look a lot cleaner if only essential Starfleet crew are wiped out in this operation.”
“What are you going to do with her?” Baxter asked, his voice shaking.
“Same thing the Orions and Starfleet Intel want from her. We want to use her to expand our knowledge of the galaxy,” Layne said, and then smiled broadly. “And our control over it.”
Kimmel backed slowly away, her hands up. “Would it change your mind if I told you that you really don’t want to do this?”
“Nah,” Layne said. “I’m afraid it really doesn’t make a bleeding bit of difference.”
Baxter exchanged a look with Richards, mouthing “What now?”
Then the doors to the conference room, at the front of the bridge, slid open, and J’hana stepped out, followed by Keefler and Dr. Wilcox.
“…which is why I no longer shave there,” J’hana said, then looked up to find the bridge crew sitting stiffly at their stations, all staring blankly at Layne, who had his phaser leveled on Anna Kimmel.
“Do not underestimate me, Lieutenant,” Layne said, not taking his eyes off Kimmel. “I’ve activated a forcefield around Captain Kimmel and myself.” He tapped on his panel as he spoke, but did not look away from Kimmel. “And in a moment, the two of us will beam to the Escort, so I can deliver her into the waiting arms of Section Thirty-One. Mission accomplished, you might say.”
J’hana held a steady gaze on Layne, her body rigid but unmoving. She said nothing.
“Lieutenant, don’t do anything crazy,” Baxter said, waving a hand in J’hana’s direction.
“Listen to your captain,” Layne said. “I have superior training. This forcefield protects me. And even if you could shoot down this forcefield, I’ll be long gone by the time you break through. And if you make one wrong move, I’ll shoo–”
That was that. J’hana’s arm moved lightening-quick, the rest of her body remaining completely still. Her sidearm was out, her arm swung around and fired a seemingly blind shot at a bank of consoles to the right, causing them to explode in a shower of sparks. All that in less than seconds.
Then she swung her arm around and blasted Layne’s hand, knocking the phaser out of it. Another shot at the center of his chest felled him. Apparently he hadn’t been informed that bridge forcefields were controlled by the ODN junction J’hana had just blown up.
And just as quick, J’hana’s phaser was back in its holster.
She glanced around with satisfaction. “Enough fwarking around. Let’s get on with this mission already.”
Kimmel stared, mouth open, at her, as she casually stepped up to her console, kicking Layne’s limp body away from it.
She tapped a few controls, then looked up. “Console secured, Captain.”
“…thanks,” Baxter said limply, then fell back into his chair. “You might want to have someone transport Layne down to the surface. Section Thirty-One will pick him up…eventually.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Keefler said, and strode up to tactical, hooking his arms under Layne’s and dragging him into the turbolift. Dr. Wilcox followed hesitantly, casting one more curious glance back at J’hana.
Peterman plopped down beside him. “I need a vacation,” she sighed.
“Well, we’re no longer reporting to Starfleet. That’s a vacation of sorts.”
“You’ve got a point,” Peterman said with a small laugh, as Anna Kimmel circled around to join them.
“Please tell me this kind of thing is not the norm around here,” she said.
Baxter and Peterman exchanged glances. “Actually,” Baxter said. “It’s not. We’re sort of in uncharted territory now.”
“Did I miss something, or isn’t that what Starfleet’s all about?” J’hana asked, leaning on her panel.
“She’s right,” Baxter said, as Kimmel walked around to stand between Richards and Baxter’s chairs. “We’re headed for unexplored territory. In a lot more ways than one.” He gave Kimmel a small grin, then swivelled toward the helm. “Lieutenant Madera, set a course for the unknown. Maximum warp.”
Madera turned in her chair to face Baxter. “Where’s that, exactly?”
Baxter shrugged, pointed at a random star on the viewscreen. “Uh….that way.”
Counselor Peterman’s days are quite busy now that the crew is on a mission to save the Universe. That tends to weigh heavily on folks’ minds, and the Explorer crew had enough neuroses to deal with beforehand anyway. And as if the crew didn’t have enough to worry about, wait till they see who’s….tracking them. If you want a piece of the Explorer crew, you’d better “Take a Number.”