Author: Anthony Butler
Stardate 57376.4. At long last, we’re nearing the Zendab Five outpost. I’m not sure why I’m even recording this log, since all this will probably be erased eventually, but Counselor Peterman has suggested that recording these logs, at least for the moment, will help me deal with the events of late. Events which I’m not sure even I understand. On the plus side, we haven’t had any kind of mission in a while, which is nice. And since this whole log will eventually be purged, I don’t even have to ask the computer to delete that last remark. Life is good, eh?
Captain Baxter stared out the viewports in the Constellation Club as the Explorer roared toward Zendab Five.
The music chugged and boomed around him, but it was all washed out, a distant memory.
“Seat taken?” a gruff voice asked from behind him.
“Nah. Sit down, Dad,” Baxter said, as his father hunkered down in the seat next to him, glass of whiskey and cigar in hand.
“Not far now,” Harlan said, sparking up the cigar and leaning back.
“Six hours,” Baxter said. “And far enough away from any Starfleet listening posts that we should be able to stay in orbit for at least a couple days while we try to figure out if Maura Drake left any indication of her whereabouts behind.”
“Orions,” Harlan said simply as he smoked.
“They should be long gone by now. Probably sacked the place as soon as they heard about the research.” Baxter leaned forward. “However, since you were assigned here a zillion years ago, whenever it was, you should know some secrets. Some access codes that maybe the Orions didn’t know.”
He pulled out his cigar. “Boy, I wouldn’t drag us all the way out here if I didn’t.”
“Glad we’re clear on that.”
Harlan narrowed his eyes at Baxter. “You got a problem, boy?”
“No,” Baxter said flatly, sipping his rum’n grapefruit and staring out the windows. “Not at all.”
“Because you’ve been acting damn peculiar ever since we set off on this venture.”
“I’ve been acting peculiar?” Baxter said, raising his eyebrow. “Who started this, Dad? Who went off on this expedition in the first place, without telling anybody? Not the least of which, me and Mom.”
“Need to know basis,” Harlan rumbled.
“We’re your family. We need to know.” Baxter sat his drink down. “But I guess we should be lucky you talk to us at all. Some people don’t even get that.”
“You got something to say?” Harlan asked, glaring up at his son.
Baxter stood up, turned around, and glanced across the crowded, black-lit club. Anna Kimmel was sitting at the bar, nursing a wine cooler. “No. But you should.”
He walked off, pushing past other crewmembers on the dancefloor as he made his way over to the bar.
“Can I get you anything, Captain?” Mirk said, wiping down the bar as Baxter approached it, just a few seats down from Captain Kimmel.
“No thanks, Mirk,” he said, and inclined his head at Kimmel.
“She’s been here about an hour,” Mirk whispered. “Hasn’t said a word to anybody. But perked up when your Dad walked in. Then she perked down pretty quick when he walked by without speaking to her.”
“Uh-huh,” Baxter said. “Mind checking on that thing in the storeroom for me?”
“Anything you want.”
Mirk nodded, understanding. “I’ll get right on it, Captain.” And he squeezed out from behind the bar as Baxter sidled behind it, stepping down to where Kimmel was seated.
“Can I get you a refill, Captain?” he asked her with a small grin.
Kimmel looked up. “Andy?”
“I work a nightshift at the club. Helps pay the bills. You know, Steffie’s college fund and all.”
“Funny. Where’s Kelly?”
“Working late. There’s been an upsurge in counseling appointments since we’ve gone off the Starfleet map.”
Kimmel looked down. “I know . Sorry about that.”
“It’s not your fault.” Baxter stared across the club at Admiral Baxter. “So…have you been keeping busy?”
“I’ve done like you said. Tried to relax. Catch up on my reading and stuff. Gribnar’s Thorn by Addlebrax was especially good. Thanks for the loan.”
“Andorian thrillers take a little getting used to, but they’re engrossing,” Baxter said, and tapped up another rum ‘n grapefruit on the replicator beneath the bar. As he sipped it, he leaned forward. “Have you, um…thought about talking to Kelly?”
“You know. Things. How you’re feeling?”
“I feel fine.” She shifted on her seat and stared at her drink. “Okay, it feels weird. Knowing I could have this power, and not having the vaguest idea when or how, or if it will ever manifest itself. But overall I’m dealing with it okay.”
“What about him?” Baxter asked, nodding in the direction of Harlan.
“I don’t know how he’s dealing with it.”
“That’s kind of the point. I notice he hasn’t talked to you much.”
“I think he’d rather I wasn’t born,” Kimmel said. “Would have saved him, and you, a lot of trouble.”
Baxter took Kimmel by the shoulders. “Listen. That isn’t true. Never believe that for a second.”
She smiled. “You’re sweet, Andy.”
“Shhh,” Baxter said. “Look…Anna…do me a favor. Talk to Kelly tomorrow. Set up an appointment. Have her shuffle her schedule if she has to. But spend some time with her. I, uh…I worry about you.”
“Okay, okay, little brother. I will, for you.” Kimmel grinned, put her hand on Baxter’s. “If you promise me you’ll work things out between you and your Dad.”
She sighed. “Yeah. Right.”
“Bridge to Baxter,” the voice of Commander Richards broke in. “You’d better get up here, sir.”
“Damn,” Baxter sighed. “I’ll be right up, Chris.” He looked at Kimmel. “Tomorrow?”
“I’ll do it.”
He grinned. “Good.” And he walked out from behind the bar, and out of the club.
Moments later, Mirk walked up, carrying a crate of pickeled Thalavian Eels. He’d been meaning to try to start up that craze again. With some new crew aboard, and with the crew badly in need of a distraction, he figured a fun-to-eat snack that slithered down the gullet was just what the doctor ordered. Or, the bartender, anyway.
Mirk set the box under the bar and walked over to Captain Kimmel. “Did Captain Baxter leave?”
“Yeah,” Kimmel said, pushing some hair behind her ear as she continued to sip her drink She looked around. “Busy night, considering.”
Mirk nodded. “Considering that non-essential personnel were evacuated? Yeah. But this place has a pretty big group of regulars. They like the dancing.” He sighed. “And the drinking. Yes they love the drinking. Especially when things are…so uncertain.”
“Yeah,” Kimmel said.
“Not that any of that’s your fault,” Mirk said quickly. “Not at all!”
“That ground’s already been covered by the last bartender, Mirk,” Kimmel said with a kind smile. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay,” Mirk said with a sheepish grin. “How about some pickled Thalavian Eels then?”
“Ummm…thanks, but I’m not hungry.”
“You’re sure?” Mirk asked, kneeling down to crack open the crate.
Mirk shot to his feet, looking around. “What?”
“I didn’t say anything,” Kimmel said.
“I…I heard a voice.”
Mirk scanned the bar crowd, the undulating shadows on the dancefloor. Lights passing over a multitude of faces, and Anna Kimmel staring at him innocently.
<Kill her before she destroys you all. And put back the Thalavian Eels. That craze will never come back.>
“Who are you?” Mirk demanded angrily, looking up at the ceiling. “Goddess, I swear, if it’s you, I’ll knock your entity from here to…”
<Now, now, Mirk. I thought you’d come to know this voice pretty well. We have, after all, had our eyes on you for a very long time.>
Mirk’s face went blank, pale. “Dir…Directors?”
<It sure as heck isn’t Creative Artists Agency.>
Kimmel reached out to touch Mirk’s arm. “You look pale, Mirk. Maybe you should go to Sickbay?”
He stared at her, his mouth agape.
<Now do us a favor. Kill the girl. The universe depends on it, Mirk. It depends on you.>
“No!” Mirk shouted, and ran out of the bar.
“What’s his problem? All I did was play a little Vanilla Ice,” Zordock the Bold, the bronze-skinned, four-armed assistant bartender and part-time house DJ said, walking up to the bar beside Kimmel.
“I…I don’t know,” Kimmel said.
“Well, fine, no more Vanilla Ice,” the Therrian muttered, turning around and walking back to the DJ booth, his four arms waving. “All right, everybody, who wants to go to Funkytown?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Baxter said, staring at the sensor contact on the viewscreen, as speed, engine, weaponry, and other data continued to feed onto the screen, updated by the second.
“It’s definitely the Orleans,” Richards said. “Same configuration of the ship that chased us halfway around Elrod Two-Twenty.”
“They entered sensor range nine minutes ago and are gaining on us. They’re a smaller ship, and slightly faster,” Tilleran said. “Once we reach Zendab, it won’t be long before they catch up.”
“They are tenacious,” J’hana said. “And this development keeps me from the dance floor. I am not happy.”
“We’ll all be off the dance floor…permanently…if the Orleans catches up to us,” Baxter said. He turned to Tilleran. “How could they have found us? The sensor-reflective forcefields should be masking us from sensor range. Ashley suppressed our warp field and engine emissions.”
“I’m not sure,” Tilleran said, looking at her panel. “They may not even have a direct bead on us. It could be they’re just following our subspace wake, which would mean they could only track us to within a parsec or two of our position.”
“But close enough to start snooping around,” Richards said. “And possibly find us in orbit of Zendab.”
“We’ve got to deal with the Orleans before we get there. If they figure out our destination, it won’t take a genius to figure out what we’re after,” Baxter said, walking up toward the back of the bridge. “J’hana, you and Tilleran coordinate. Find me a place to duck and hide. A nebula, or gaseous anomaly. Anything that shields our emissions completely. We’ll wait this thing out until they give up and leave the sector.”
“This could substantially delay our mission,” J’hana said.
“I realize that,” Baxter said. “But better than the alternative, which would be a whole task force converging on us once they realize what we’re doing. And when they find out, no doubt Section Thirty-One will too. And the Orions.”
“And all of the above would be very bad,” Richards would say.
“Very, very bad. Get to work. Let Richards know as soon as you have something, and we’ll change course.” Baxter turned around and headed for the turbolift.
“Should we contact Admiral Baxter or Commander Donovan?” J’hana asked.
“I suppose they’ll want to know,” Baxter said as the lift doors opened.
“Where are you going?” Richards asked.
Baxter stepped into the lift, then turned around and looked back at Richards. “Call me when we reach a hiding place.”
Mirk raced into his quarters, dashing back to the bedroom and flinging the closet open. He sifted through a pile of clothes. Hartley could be such a slob sometimes.
Underneath a pile of soiled tanktops, his altar lay, unused for a period of months.
He knelt there, and quickly uncorked the bottled papaya juice, drenching it over the altar, then sprinkling some on his forehead.
“Fruitiest beings on high, I beseech you, on behalf of the rich juices of the universe, reveal yourselves to me. Give me your words and your will. Let me know your vitamin-rich wisdom!”
Mirk sat there for several long moments, staring at the altar as if the wisdom would simply jump out of it and into his head.
<Nice theatrics. Good form. I give you a seven,> a voice said behind Mirk, and he nearly fell over from shock. He turned slowly.
There, in his bedroom, a giant eyeball stood, glaring at him.
<You’re getting the idea.>
He fell to his knees again. “Directors. It’s…it’s been so long since you’ve revealed yourselves.”
<Our timeline is our own. Postproduction is a lengthy process. It often delays the release of major theatrical productions.>
“You’re so right. So right,” Mirk said, and bowed his head. “Please, enlighten me. I think I’ve misunderstood. You said something about…about killing someone, and I’m not sure how to interpret your words.”
The massive iris widened, then clinched, as the eye regarded Mirk. <What part don’t you understand? The “kill” part, or the “her” part?>
“I’m uncertain,” Mirk said.
<Then let’s make this more certain. That woman, Captain Kimmel? Kill her. End her life and be done with it.>
Mirk’s eyes went wide as he stared up at the Director. “I can’t do that!”
Red blood vessels rose up around the eyeball as it quickly became bloodshot, shaking with rage. <You do not refuse the Directors’ request! You will do this thing, because it is our will, and because it is the only way to save the universe!>
The eyeball stopped shaking, and the red blood vessels disappeared. <Do you think that was too over the top?>
“It was fine. Now, with all due respect, please, you have to tell me more. Why does killing Anna Kimmel save the universe?”
<You’ve already figured that part out. You said yourself, to Captain Baxter, that a power such as hers was strong enough to offset the balance of power in this universe. To rip apart its very fabric. After long deliberation, we’ve decided this is a bad idea, and that the universe should probably not be destroyed.>
“There must be another way. You’re omnipotent. Just take away her powers!”
<Thank you for reminding us we’re omnipotent!> The eyeball chuckled dryly. <We almost forgot. Now then, all kidding aside, we cannot take away what we did not give. Sure, we can turn you on and off like a light switch, but this new, artificial power is a different matter altogether. Someone of her plane must be the one to pull the proverbial plug. To drop the proverbial hatchet.> The eyeball paused a moment, considering. <Well, I suppose it could really be a hatchet, if you wanted it to be, but we were going to suggest a poison of some sort. Something not too messy.>
Mirk stared at the floor. “I can’t do this. I…I can’t.”
<We are your gods,> the Directors thundered. <You must.>
<Would you rather be responsible for the end of your Universe?>
“Of course not!”
<Then it’s settled. Death. Let’s say…> And the eyeball pulled out a small padd. <What about tomorrow, lunchtime? Is that good for you? We’re pretty booked during the afternoon, but I suppose we could shift a few things around…>
“Tomorrow…lunchtime…” Mirk said blankly. “A-all right.”
<Once you complete this task, you’ll get your powers back, of course. Did we mention that? Oh, right. We haven’t talked to you since you married that engineer and lost all of your omnipotent abilities. Sorry about that. You know, one of those things in the fine print you never really pay attention to when you sign up. Anyway, we feel bad about it, so, yeah, you’ll have your powers back>
“But I–!” Mirk began, stepping forward, but the eyeball vanished instantly, leaving him alone in his bedroom.
“Mirkle?” Lt. Commander Hartley called, ducking into the bedroom. “I just got in from a refit of the shield modulators. Who were you talking to?’
Hartley glanced over at the altar. “Oh. That. Yeah, sorry about the tanktops.”
“That’s okay,” Mirk said, shrugging off his dinner jacket. “Look…I think I’m just going to go to bed.”
Hartley felt his head. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Fine,” Mirk said, and pushed his pants off, crawling onto the bed.
Hartley leaned over, put a hand on his chest. “Sweetie, your hearts are beating at warp speed!”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mirk said, and rolled over. “G’night.”
Hartley watched him as he closed his eyes. “So I guess sex is out of the question, huh?”
Baxter lay in bed, in his darkened bedroom, staring at the ceiling, his hands behind his head.
He heard the doors open in the other room, but didn’t bother to get up.
“Honey, I’m ho…” Peterman began, then ducked into the bedroom, a sleeping Steffie clinging to her shoulder. “Andy, are you in here? Why are the lights off?”
“Just thinking,” Baxter said.
Peterman sat down beside Baxter, cradling Steffie against her chest. “You wouldn’t believe the day I had. You know Ensign Metzger in Astrometrics? Normal enough guy, right? Well, he holed himself up in the arboretum, claiming he needed air and open spaces.”
“Holodeck wouldn’t help, huh?”
Peterman gently smoothed Steffie’s hair. “Most claustrophobics can sense the holodeck walls. So no…the holodeck doesn’t help every case. Some may argue it doesn’t help anyone, ultimately.”
“You’re talking about me.”
“Good guess.” Peterman looked at Baxter. “What’s going on?”
“We’re going to have to hide out in a nebula or something. The Orleans has found us again.”
“Captain Sullivan’s tenacious.”
“I knew she was a formidable woman back when the two of us had to babysit that group of Junior Redshirts.”
“She was from the Secondprize, right?”
Baxter sighed. “Not everyone from that ship was a dud, Kelly.”
“Oh, like the Explorer, then?”
Baxter chuckled. “Not exactly like the Explorer.” He kept staring at the ceiling. “You think…you think I should talk to my Dad? I mean really talk to him?”
“Isn’t that what I’ve been saying to you for the past month? When you’ll come down from the bridge long enough to really talk to me?”
“It’s been busy. We’ve both been tense. It’s not the best time.”
“Well…if not now, when?”
“When the time is right,” Baxter said.
“And when will that be?”
“I have a feeling both of us will know. And I have a feeling that time is coming up pretty soon.”
“Well, you know best,” Peterman said, and stood up, shifting Steffie from one shoulder to the other. “I’d better get this one to bed. I figure it’s a good time to put things to bed, don’t you?”
Baxter didn’t answer.
“That’s them. Has to be,” Agent Dallas said, pacing in front of Captain Sullivan, who sat calmly in the command chair next to Agent Batyn.
“Would you sit down?” Sullivan asked. “You’re making me nervous.”
“No,” Dallas said, and walked up to the bridge replicator. “Coffee. Extra large. Black.”
“Haven’t you had enough of that stuff?” Batyn asked.
“Just need a pick-me-up,” Dallas said, grabbing the mug out of the slot and sipping quickly. “Mmmm. I don’t know what happened, but did you notice how a few years ago, the coffee selections in Starfleet replicators got a lot better?”
“I don’t really drink coffee, so no, I didn’t really notice,” Sullivan said, returning her attention to the rapidly moving blip on the viewscreen. “So say the subspace wake you found IS the Explorer. How close can we get?”
“Within a parsec,” Dallas said. “And that’s when we send out the runabouts and shuttles.”
“Back to people looking out every viewport,” Sullivan said.
“That’s our only way to be sure, as long as the Explorer is running with sensor-reflective forcefields.”
“Space is big. It’ll be a longshot.”
“I’ve plotted a very specific search pattern. We’ll pen them in, don’t worry.”
“And then what?” Batyn asked. “Shoot them down?”
Sullivan drew a long breath. “If necessary, yes, I’ve got orders to disable the Explorer.”
“And it doesn’t matter that those orders come from Commodore Woodall, who isn’t even your direct C.O.?”
“He’s my former captain. If you’d ever served on a starship, you’d know that some things come before professional obligation.”
Dallas rolled her eyes. “Yadda, yadda, yadda.”
“You’re an impressive specimen, Agent Dallas,” Sullivan mumbled.
“I like her,” Batyn said, pointing a flipper at Sullivan.
Dallas slumped into the chair on the other side of Sullivan. “Well, all I ask for is some time to question some key personnel on the Explorer. Admiral Baxter chief among them.”
“I have a feeling they’ll all be answering questions when this is over,” Sullivan said.
Dallas sipped her coffee, then her head nodded forward, and she awoke with a start.
“When was the last time you slept?” Sullivan asked.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Do us all a favor and take a nap. You can use the couch in my readyroom if you like.”
Dallas shrugged. “I guess I could use some time to…plan.”
“Whatever you want to call it,” Sullivan said. “But it would help if both of you were sharp when the time comes to confront the Explorer. I have a feeling not everyone over there is as stupid as Starfleet thinks. We’ll need all the help we can get.”
“Of that you can be certain, Captain,” Dallas said, and stumbled back to the readyroom.
“What about you?” Sullivan asked, looking back at Batyn. “Can we get you a…tank… or something?”
“Actually,” Batyn said. “I understand some of the larger starships have their own….pools?”
Sullivan smiled. “Ensign Corsica. Get Agent Batyn a pool pass.”
“Ooh!” Batyn squealed, clapping his appendages.
“The system I-990 Oort cloud,” Commander Richards said, gesturing at the mauve expanse on the viewscreen as Baxter stepped out of the turbolift, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
“Impressive,” Baxter said flatly. “Will it block our sensor readings?”
“Completely,” Tilleran said, looking up from her station. “They can’t see in. But the downside is that we can’t see out, either.”
“I’ll take it,” Baxter said, and stepped down to the front of the bridge.
“So we wait,” Richards said, watching Baxter move down to join him in the command area. Richards shifted to the seat to the right and Baxter sat down in the command chair.
“We wait,” Baxter said. “We can’t afford to be found out.”
“How long can we afford to just sit here, though?” Richards asked.
“Long enough for the Orleans to pass us by.”
“Which could be days.”
Baxter leaned back. “I’m open to other suggestions if you have them.”
Richards pondered. Suddenly, he brightened. “We take the Escort out to Zendab Five! Her power signature is much smaller. The ship itself is smaller. She’ll be a lot harder to find. Harder to track!”
“And leave the Explorer here like a sitting duck?” Baxter asked.
“Nobody will even know she’s here.” Richards leaned in toward Baxter. “Anything else delays the mission–significantly.”
Baxter nodded. “You’ve got a point.” He thought about it a moment. “Okay. We’re going to do it. Distance from Zendab Five, Tilleran?”
“Three hours at maximum warp,” she said, already stepping out from behind her station.
“Just enough time for a hot cup of v’haspant, and to charge the phasers,” J’hana said, stepping out from around the tactical console.
“Tilleran, J’hana. You two are with me,” Baxter said, jogging up to the quarterdeck. “Richards, contact Ashley and my father. They’ll insist on going along. And have the Escort prepped for immediate departure.”
“What about Captain Kimmel?”
“She’ll stay here,” Baxter said briskly, and stepped into the aft turbolift. “Keep an eye on her, Chris.”
“The ship, or Captain Kimmel?”
“Both,” Baxter said, as Tilleran and J’hana stepped into the lift and the doors closed.
“Guess you’re not going with them,” Madera said from the helm.
Richards stared at the turbolift doors. “Guess not.”
Counselor Peterman picked up step next to Baxter as he walked down the corridor toward the Escort airlock. “Were you going to tell me you were leaving?”
“I was going to send a memo.”
“That’s not very damn funny.”
Baxter stopped, turning to look at Peterman. “The Escort is capable of slipping in and out of the Zendab outpost much more easily than the Explorer. It’s the smart choice. Which is funny, since it was actually Richards’s idea.”
“And what are we supposed to do in the meantime?”
“Crosswords?” Baxter suggested. “I don’t much care. Just stay out of the Orleans’ crosshairs. She’s out there, and something tells me Captain Sullivan will do just about anything to find us.”
“Her and Woodall are close.”
Baxter nodded. “And Woodall wants blood by now. Rank and file Starfleet types don’t take well to general mutiny, I’ve found.”
“Glad we got that cleared up.” Peterman leaned in and draped her arms around Baxter’s neck. “Be safe, Andy.”
J’hana glanced back at them as she neared the airlock. “Fear not, Counselor. If he should perish, I will bring back the corpse for you.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Peterman said, waving as Baxter walked off to join J’hana and Tilleran at the airlock.
Just then, Harlan and Ashley walked up.
“Ballsy move, boy,” Harlan muttered, as Tilleran cranked open the airlock door.
“Guess we’ll see, huh?” Baxter said, and ducked in, followed by the others.
“He got a problem?” Harlan asked.
“Just one?” Tilleran replied in a low voice. “Well…no…not just one.”
“You’re quiet this morning,” Zordock the Bold said, as Mirk stood behind the bar, leaning on it and staring out at the slim breakfast crowd.
“Just thinking….about a promotional event for the Club,” Mirk said, and turned to Zordock the Bold. “Something to welcome Captain Kimmel aboard the Explorer.”
Zordock the Bold scratched his bald head with one of his four hands. “That sounds lovely. I’m sure she’d like that. She seems a little…withdrawn, if I do say so myself. I mean, she only seems to talk to Captain Baxter.”
Mirk nodded. “I noticed that. So what if we throw her a surprise welcome party while Captain Baxter’s away?”
“Captain Baxter’s away?”
Mirk shifted a bit. “I…heard.”
“Well…Yeoman Briggs is still aboard,” Zordock the Bold said. “I’ll meet with him and work on the particulars.” He stepped out from behind the bar and headed over to the door.
“There should be cake!” Mirk shouted after him.
“You want me to get a cake?” Zordock the Bold asked.
“No,” Mirk said. He stared down at the glowing neon surface of the bar. “No. I’ll take care of the cake myself.”
“…so what do you think?” Peterman asked, leaning back on her fainting couch as Dr. Janice Browning sat in the chair beside the couch, sipping hot chocolate.
“About what? About Andy’s need to settle scores with his father, or about your violating counselor-patient privacy by talking to me about it?”
Peterman leaned up. “Violating? Excuse me…he’s my husband. I can talk to you about him if I want.”
“Sorry,” Browning said. “Didn’t mean to sound all…official-y. I just can’t keep it straight. When are you talking to him as his counselor, and when are you talking to him as his wife?”
“Oh, who knows,” Peterman sighed, and leaned back down on the couch. “This job is hard. I’m thinking I might transfer to medical. It seems easier.”
“It is the way I do it,” Browning said, watching the steam rise from her cup of hot chocolate. “But then again, you sometimes risk sealing a sandwich inside someone.”
“Eww,” Peterman said. “I’d never have to worry about that with this job.”
“Yeah. This job is usually a piece of cake as long as you keep Lieutenant Sefelt happy.”
“These are extraordinary circumstances though.”
“Where is Sefelt, anyway?”
“In the kindergarten classroom. Working with clay. He’s regressing.”
“Is he okay down there by himself, what with the teacher and all the other kids off the ship and all?”
“If anything, he’s better off with nobody else around. I just don’t think it’s wise for him to be on the bridge during all this….hubbub.”
“Good word for it,” Browning said, tipping her cup at Peterman. “You want me to get you a drink or something?”
“Pink squirrel, extra stiff,” Peterman moaned.
“Don’t you still have patients?”
“You’re right, of course. Make that two pink squirrels, extra extra stiff.”
Browning chuckled. “You run a tight operation down here.”
“Approaching Zendab Five,” J’hana said from the tactical station beside the command chair on the Escort’s cramped bridge.
“Standard orbit,” Baxter said, glancing up at Tilleran, who sat at the helm.
Tilleran nodded. “Standard orbit, aye. Scanning the outpost for lifesigns.”
Ashley stood behind the command chair, arms draped behind her back. Harlan, for his part, leaned against the vacant science console.
“You’re not going to find anything,” Ashley said. “That outpost has been abandoned for forty years.”
“I’d rather be certain we won’t be running into any Orion scouting parties,” Baxter said.
“Orions are long gone,” Harlan mumbled.
“No lifesigns,” Tilleran said. “The air in the outpost is stale but breathable.”
“Then let’s saddle up,” Baxter said, shoving out of his chair. “Phasers, tricorders. You all know what to do.”
“I’m still fuzzy on that,” Ashley said, following the group through the doors that lead off the bridge. “What do we actually hope to find here?”
“Answers,” Baxter said flatly.
“They just LEFT?” Captain Kimmel asked as she stood next to Richards on the bridge, looking out at the blank mauve blanket that faced them on the viewscreen.
“A couple hours ago, yes,” Richards said. “I think the Captain felt it would be better if you stayed here.”
“I’m sure he did,” Kimmel said, and her anger suddenly receded. “I’m sure he did. What a guy.”
“Are you okay?”
Kimmel turned away from the viewscreen. “I just…I wish I could help.”
“I think you’re helping a lot right now by staying out of harm’s way,” Richards said, putting a hand on Kimmel’s shoulder. Being comforting was never really his specialty, but he figured he’d give it a shot.
Kimmel looked back at him. “But are we really out of harm’s way? Aren’t we directly in harm’s way…because of me?”
“Have you…have you spoken to Counselor Peterman?”
Kimmel gave a crooked smile. “Not in the way I think you mean.”
“Wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Richards said. “You’ve been through a lot. And you’ve got a lot on your mind right now. Stop by and see her. You might be surprised that you feel better after you talk everything out.”
“You know this from experience?”
Richards shifted a bit. “Well…I’ve heard things.”
Kimmel smiled. “Thanks, Commander.”
“No problem,” Richards said, and nodded for the security officers to follow Kimmel as she headed off to the aft turbolift.
“Main power’s out,” Tilleran said, bathing the dark control room with hre palm beacon as she glanced down at her tricorder. “Too bad we didn’t bring Hartley. Between J’hana and I, it will take an hour or two to…”
Suddenly lights sprung on throughout the room, and the long corridors that branched off from it.
“Done!” Ashley Donovan said, slipping out from a side access hatch. She looked around, at the upturned chairs, smashed consoles, felled girders. “The place looks like crap. I’d guess the Orions have already been through and taken or destroyed anything of value.”
Baxter beamed. “That was…impressive.”
“The Admiral had detailed plans. And I studied them. Easy.”
“If you want a spot on my crew after this thing is over, the offer’s out there,” Baxter said, as he ducked down the adjacent corridor.
“I think your wife may have trouble with that,” Ashley said. She laughed. “And I would, too.”
“Jealousy doesn’t become you, Commander,” Baxter said with a small grin.
“I wasn’t speaking of being jealous. I just think I’d have my hands full fighting off that Andorian’s advances.”
Tilleran flinched visibly, then returned to her tricorder. “The Orions were definitely here. The databanks have been purged. I’ll have to take a closer look, but I imagine we’re way too late to get any information that’s of any use.”
“Maybe J’hana and my father are having better luck in the backup computer core,” Baxter said.
Suddenly Baxter’s combadge beeped. “J’hana to Baxter. Zrreeeaz!”
Baxter glanced at Tilleran.
“That’s Andorian for ‘Eureka,’” she said.
“But what language is Eureka in?” Baxter pondered.
“You can wrap your mind around that as we head to the computer core,” Ashley said. “Come on!”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Peterman said, leaning in toward her desktop terminal as Mirk fidgeted on the screen. To her, he looked nervous. Ill at ease. Maybe business in the Constellation Club was really bad, what with the lack of nonessential crew aboard. “When did you want to do it?”
“Around…lunchtime,” Mirk said, his face looking a little pale.
“Perfect!” Peterman said, clapping her hands. “A surprise party! It’s just what I needed to brighten my day.”
“Glad I could help,” Mirk said. “So you think you can do your part?”
“Absolutely,” Peterman said. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll get her there. You just handle the surprise part.”
“She’ll definitely be surprised,” Mirk said, and closed the channel, just as Peterman’s door chime beeped.
“Come,” Peterman said, wondering how she’d convince Kimmel to come down to her office
Her doors opened, revealing Captain Kimmel. “Got a minute?” she asked.
Peterman giggled inwardly. “Absolutely! Come on in, sit down! Your timing’s impeccable. I just got an opening in my schedule…”
“They did a good job purging the mains,” Harlan muttered as Tilleran and Ashley hunched over the thick cylinder at the center o the cramped room just below the main level of the outpost. “They even got to the backup. And this one’s a tertiary backup at that. But they only wiped what was on the surface.”
“Genius,” Tilleran said, running her tricorder over the cylinder. “There’s a thin film of biomemetic liquid coating this core. It’s carrying gigaquads of data.”
“You painted data-bearing goo onto the backup computer core,” Baxter marveled.
“Your old man had some good ideas in his time,” Harlan said. “The Orions never even noticed it.”
“Once we get all the biomemetic strings scanned into the tricorder, we can take them back to the ship and decode them,” Ashley said, scanning the core with her own tricorder.
“Then it looks like we got what we came for,” Baxter said.
“And then some,” a voice said from the door to the computer core, prompting everyone to turn around.
“Then where the hell are they?” Captain Sullivan asked. Now it was her turn to pace the bridge, while Dallas and Batyn occupied the other two chairs in the command area, looking perplexed.
“I’ve told you,” Dallas said, drawing a deep breath. “We’ve spent six hours doing an exhaustive grid search of half the sector. If the Explorer was out here, we’d have found her.”
Sullivan walked toward the viewscreen, staring at the intersecting lines that made up the grid of sector I-990. Her eyes traveled the solar systems, studying each star, each revolving planet, each….
“Oort cloud,” Sullivan said, and stomped her foot. “They’re in an Oort cloud.”
“Which one. There are a dozen,” Batyn said.
“We’ll just search each one,” Dallas said. “But Sullivan’s right. Those clouds would prevent sensors from penetrating, and visibility in there is nil. Oort clouds in this system are especially thick and inhospitable.”
Sullivan turned around and walked back to her command chair. “Thank you, Frommer’s GalactiGuide. But I’d like to see for myself. Who’s up for a tour of all those Oort clouds?”
Batyn did not raise his flipper.
“You’re welcomed to go swimming again, if this is boring you,” Dallas muttered.
“Good,” Sullivan said. “Glad we’re all on the same page here. Ensign Flagg, let’s go.”
“Our sensors will be useless in there, you know,” Dallas said.
“Of course I do,” Sullivan replied tightly, gripping the arms of her chair.
“So how do you propose we find them?”
“We’re going to do what should have probably been done a long time ago. We’re going to flush the Explorer.”
Kimmel and Peterman sat in silence.
“Thanks again for the tea,” Kimmel said softly.
“Don’t mention it!” Counselor Peterman crossed and uncrossed her legs as she sat in the chair beside the fainting couch, where Kimmel lay.
“So I guess I should be talking, huh?” Kimmel asked, leaning up on her elbows.
Peterman nodded, with a small smile. “Generally, that’s how these things work.”
“Guess I don’t know what to say.”
“Say what comes naturally to you,” Peterman said. “You’ve got a lot on your mind, I’m sure, what with all this omnipotence talk.”
“Really haven’t thought about it much,” Kimmel said, lying back down.
“How can that be?” Peterman asked. “I mean, you’re talking about a life-changing experience. Developing powers to control space and time. And you’re not the least bit nervous about it?”
Kimmel shrugged. “If it happens, it happens. Not much I can do to control it.”
“What about your father? I mean, your biological father. Does it bother you that Admiral Baxter does nothing to acknowledge your existence?”
“I guess. But he’s got to live his life, you know? I can’t bear grudges against the guy. He has his own problems to deal with. Besides, I have two very good parents who love me a lot. What more can a girl ask for?”
“What about Andy? The brother you never could admit you had? It must be jarring to be near him again, after having to keep that emotional and physical distance for so long…”
“That’s, uh, kind of a negative way of looking at it, isn’t it, Counselor?” Kimmel rolled over and rested her hand on her arm, facing Peterman. “I mean, with all the other good things already in my life, I’ve now got a brother to share them with, and we don’t have to keep our family ties a secret anymore. That’s exciting!”
“Your ship was destroyed.”
“I spoke to Commander Hartley. It sounds like the Tracker might be salvageable, after all. And nobody was seriously injured, so…”
“The universe may be coming to an end!”
“How can I worry about something that’s totally out of my control? All I can do is try my best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Peterman tried not to look frustrated. “You’ve got a great outlook, Anna. But don’t you think it’s possible that you might be…suppressing, just a bit?”
“I suppose. But I feel fine for the moment. And isn’t that the best anyone can ask for?”
Peterman folded her hands in her laps. “Look at the time! It’s about lunchtime. Want to break and get some lunch? Maybe come back at this on a full stomach?”
“If you insist, but honestly, just talking things out made me feel a lot better.”
Peterman cocked her head. “Well, I’m…glad…I could help, I guess.”
“You’ve been invaluable.” Kimmel stood up. “So…Mirk’s?”
“You read my mind!”
“Doctor Browning?” Mirk asked, ducking into Sickbay with a large metal tourgh in hand. “Are you in?”
Browning’s head ducked out of the back office. “Mirk! Hi. I was just about to replicate some lunch.”
“Are you coming to the party?”
“Of course!” Browning said, crossing over to Mirk. “I just wanted a little…you know…snack.”
Mirk sniffed the air. “I smell pizza cooking.”
“A little snack pizza?” Browning asked with a shrug. Then she sniffed the air, and glanced down at the covered trough. “Wow…that smells good. Is that…?”
“My baked Ktarrian ziti. Yep. I’d pre-programmed the replicator to make it today for the Hammerstein boy’s bar mitzvah. Whatever that is.”
“And the Hammersteins are off the ship with the other non- essential personnel, and you forgot to delete the program!” Browning said with a growing smile. “I’ve done that myself many times at Space Tastes.”
“So, I thought, you know, if you wanted to have some for dinner, or whatnot, you could…”
Browning grabbed the trough. “Say no more, Mirk! I’m happy to take it off your hands!”
Mirk gave a small smile. “Somehow I thought you would be.”
“Want some?” Browning asked, as she hefted the tray back toward her and Dr. Wilcox’s office. It was really Wilcox’s, but Browning had a solid foothold on it, what with the pizza oven.
“No, I’m fine. Well, I’d love a glass of water, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Not at all. Just a minute!”
“That’s what I’m counting on,” Mirk said in a low voice, and, after casting a quick glance around the empty sickbay, jogged over to one of the medical cabinets and swung it open. He scanned its contents, finally coming across the object he desired. He reached in and grabbed it, stuffed it in his jacket pocket, and turned around as Browning emerged with a glass of water for him, and a plateful of ziti for her.
“Thanks, Mirk. You sure know how to brighten a gal’s day!”
“I do my best,” Mirk said, cradling the programmable hypospray in his pocket, nodding at Browning as he walked out the door.
“Don’t you want your water?” Browning called after him through a mouthful of ziti.
“Doctor Drake!” Baxter exclaimed, stepping to the front of the group in the computer core at the Zendab Five outpost.
“Maura!” Harlan said, shoving Baxter aside and climbing the catwalk stairs to join the diminutive, graying, auburn-haired woman at the entrance to the core.
“What were you saying about us being too late?” Ashley Donovan asked Tillerean.
“I don’t think I said anything about being too late.”
“Well, someone did.” Ashley looked at J’hana.
J’hana stared longingly at the blonde Section 31 agent. “Hmm?” she finally murmured.
Ashley sighed. “Nevermind.”
“What are you doing here?” Harlan demanded as Baxter climbed up to join him.
“I was going to ask the same thing. But, uh, my Dad beat me to it.”
Maura looked from Harlan to Baxter. “Your…Dad. You’re Harlan’s son?”
Baxter nodded. “Andy Baxter. Captain of the Explorer.”
“A starship captain,” Maura said with a broadening smile. “Why am I not surprised that Harlan’s son is a line officer. You have warp plasma in your veins, Harlan.”
“Hrmph. You don’t know the half of it,” Harlan muttered. “Now what the hell are you doing here?”
Maura flipped her blue labcoat over her hips and shoved her hands in its pockets. “Well, don’t act as if you’re glad to see me or anything, Harlan. It’s not as if we didn’t have something back then.”
“I put stuff in a cup.”
“Dad. PLEASE!” Baxter groaned.
Harlan shrugged. “It’s true.”
“Oh, you know it was more than that,” Maura said, stepping forward and putting her hand on Harlan’s chest. “We created life. Right here on this outpost. That has to mean something.”
Baxter cleared his throat. “Ahem. Doctor Drake, that life you created is about to cause the universe to have a giant migraine if the Orions manage to capture her and tap into her power.”
“So…you know?” Maura said with an eyebrow raise. “Remind me not to tell you any secrets, Harlan.”
“We know too,” Tilleran said, stepping up next to J’hana.
“Me too,” Ashley Donovan said, and stepped toward Drake. “Along with Section Thirty-One, a covert arm of Starfleet who–”
“I know Section Thirty-One,” Maura said flatly. “And I’m not afraid of them. They won’t succeed in tapping into my daughter’s power any more than the Orions will.”
“That power was never meant to be tapped,” Harlan growled.
Maura clasped her hands behind her back. “And yet, here we are.”
“And how did you get here again?” asked Baxter.
“I left behind an early warning device,” Maura said. “It was designed to alert me when anyone beamed on or off the station. When the Orions came, I found out immediately. But I was three sectors away. By the time I got here, they were gone.”
“Just as well,” Ashley said. “You wouldn’t have been able to stand in their way.”
“Oh, this old scientist has a few tricks up her sleeves,” Maura said. “At any rate, I got here well after the Orions trashed the place.”
“They didn’t find what they were looking for, then,” Harlan said. “The research.”
“Anything of any import was encoded on the biomemetic gel,” Maura said. “I assume you’ve discovered that little hiding place already?”
“Naturally,” Ashley said.
“Good,” Maura said. “That’ll save us some time. Once you get the data, let’s get back to your ship. I assume Captain Kimmel is there?”
“Of course. We’re all about happy family reunions,” Ashley said, then crossed the room in three swift steps, leaning down into Maura’s face. “But let’s get one thing perfectly clear. Any information pertaining to the ‘unleashing’ of Captain Kimmel will be destroyed, up to and including your neural engrams.”
“I hardly think it’ll come to that.”
“It might,” Harlan rumbled.
“First things first,” Maura said. “I take it our position here is vulnerable, and that we should leave immediately?”
“When she’s right, she’s right,” Tilleran said.
“Agreed,” Baxter said. “Let’s finish gathering the data from the computer core, then get back to the Explorer ASAP. I don’t want her sitting out there any longer than she has to. I’ve got a…bad feeling…”
“Nice party,” Plato said, nudging Lt. Commander Megan Hartley, who glanced distractedly around the Constellation Club.
“Yeah,” she said. “Have you seen Mirk?”
“I think he went into the storeroom.” Plato hitched up onto the barstool. “He’s making sure the cake’s ready or something.”
“Oh,” Hartley said. “That’s nice.”
“Yeah, I think so too.” Plato swivelled on the stool a bit, then turned to Hartley. “Hey, Megan! Want to see me detach my thumb?”
Hartley wrinkled her nose. “No. Not really.”
“It’s a cool trick. I just learned it yesterday. Well, by accident…but still…”
“Something feels…wrong,” Hartley said, glancing around. “Do you feel it?”
Plato leaned forward. “I feel whatever you want me to feel, Megan.”
“Well, it’s just that…lately I….” Plato took a breath, his cheeks flushing a bit. “Wow, this is awkward. I mean, I shouldn’t even be telling you. It’s just that, well…”
The doors to the Constellation Club parted, and all eyes were on the entrance. Lt. Madera stepped through, looking about meekly. “Uh, just me! But they’re on their way. They just got off the turbolift, so they’ll be here any minute!”
“Places, people!” Commander Richards ordered, ducking under a table. Everyone else likewise hid under their assigned tables in the club.
“Cut the lights, Zordock,” Hartley said.
“Zordock the Bold,” the Therrian corrected from behind the bar.
“Hi, Zordock the Bold,” Hartley said, mock-cheerfully, as she ducked behind a stool. “I’m Megan the Bitch.”
Zordock the Bold harrumphed, then punched a control, dimming the lights in the club. Then he likewise ducked behind the bar.
Plato sunk down beside Hartley in the darkness. “This is really exciting!”
“Yeah. Exciting,” Hartley said. “Hey…did you just detach your finger?”
“No. It’s still attached.”
“Then why is it touching my leg?”
“Oh. That. Um. Like I was saying, lately I really….”
Suddenly, light streamed into the room as the doors to the Club opened, and Counselor Peterman and Anna Kimmel stepped in.
“Must be a power outage,” Peterman said. “We’d better contact ship’s….”
“SURPRISE!” Everyone leapt to their feet and the lights came on full.
Kimmel’s eyes widened as she took in the scene. Crew were gathered around every table, clapping, as confetti fell all around her and a huge “Welcome Aboard, Captain Kimmel!” banner unfurled at the back of the club, and a blast of celebratory horns and trumpets sounded from every corner of the room.
“I’m…I’m speechless,” Kimmel gaped.
“We all wanted you to know how glad we are to have you with us,” Commander Richards said, stepping forward toward Kimmel, shaking her hand.
Peterman touched her shoulder. “You’re as much a part of this crew as anyone in this room, Anna.”
Meanwhile, Hartley scanned the room. “But where’s Mirk?”
“And where’s the cake?” Browning asked, glancing around from behind Richards.
Plato, unfazed, turned to Hartley. “So, like I was saying…”
<KILL HER!> The eyeball fairly shouted at a prostrate Mirk, in the cramped and dim-lit storeroom. <Do not question us! The Directors know all and our will must be done! Set the plot into motion, Mirk, and watch the sweet fruit of victory drip stickily all over you!>
Mirk stared up at the bulging eyeball. “With all respect, you don’t know what you’re asking.”
<Funny, because we just asked. Are you going to deny us this, Mirk? Will we have to find someone else to take up this task?>
Mirk’s brow furrowed. “Like who?”
<You don’t really think you’re the only one who can do our bidding, do you? Don’t be so vain. The universe doesn’t revolve around you.>
“I wasn’t…I mean….”
The eyeball rolled itself, exasperated. <Mirk, are you going to do this thing or not, because if you’re not, we really need to start thinking about an understudy.>
“No.” Mirk struggled to his feet. “I’ll do it.”
<Sure? There are no do-overs, little buddy.>
Mirk turned around, almost robotically, and grabbed the cake off the shelf, staring down at it. “I’m not going to disappoint you, Directors. I know this is a test. I get that. And I’m going to show you I can pass it. I’m going to make you proud.”
<We’re waiting,> the eyeball said. If it had a foot, it would be tapping.
“I’m crazy about you. I’m in love with you, Megan.”
Hartley blinked a moment, then lookd at Plato. “Huh?”
“Surprise!” Mirk said, his voice cracking a little as he rushed out, large sheetcake in hand.
“Mirk!” Anna said, clapping her hands to her face. “Wow. I didn’t expect all this. You shouldn’t have…”
“My…pleasure,” Mirk said, elbowing his way through the crowd and setting the cake down on the bar.
“Need a cake knife?” Browning asked, appearing suddenly at his side. “I just happened to bring one.”
“Zordock the Bold will cut the cake,” Mirk said, and turned to the crowd. “Then you call can have a slice! Okay?”
The crowd cheered. As a rule, the Explorer crew loved cake.
Hartley stepped up to Mirk, looking a little pale. “Uh, Mirk…can we talk?”
“I’m a little busy right now.”
“I’m a little disoriented right now,” she said, and glanced over her shoulder at a grinning Plato. “Remember how I said that taking care of Plato made me want to have kids of my own?”
“Vaguely,” Mirk said, staring vacantly at the rectangular white, blue-iced cake as Zordock withdrew a large carving knife and began cutting it into equal sections.
“Well, nevermind about that,” Hartley continued. “It just seems…. kinda weird now.”
Meanwhile, Kimmel smiled as she looked down on the cake and read the “Welcome Aboard the Explorer, Captain Kimmel!” inscription.
Browning licked her lips. “Devil’s food? Petrokian spice? What is it, Mirk?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Mirk said, and turned around. He looked at Captain Kimmel. “Captain, you’ll do us the honor of eating the piece with your name on it?”
Kimmel nodded, taking the slice Zordock the Bold handed to her. “Sure. Love to.”
“Good,” Mirk rasped, then turned toward the back of the bar and walked off. “If you’ll, uh, excuse me.”
“Mirk!” Hartley called after him. “What’s been bugging you lately? Have all the men in my life suddenly gone crazy?”
“Did you want another drink?” Plato asked, suddenly appearing at Hartley’s face.
“No!” Hartley fairly shouted. “I mean…uh, no…just go have fun. Don’t get drunk. I’ll talk to you, um…later.”
“Aw…” Plato muttered and wandered back to the bar.
Hartley turned back toward her husband. “Mirk?”
But he was gone, lost in the milling crowd.
Mirk paced the storeroom, staring at the ceiling. “What have I done? What on Malox have I done?”
<You did what you had to do. Be proud you had the stomach to do it. You truly are capable of godhood, young man,> a voice boomed in his ears.
He glanced around. “Directors, show yourselves!”
<Oh, I think we’ve done enough of that for today, don’t you?>
“I mean it. I want some explanations.”
A huge eyeball appeared in front of Mirk, glowering at him. <That’s no way to address one’s god, boy.>
Mirk simmered. “Let’s just say I’m having my doubts right about now.”
<About what? Our authenticity?> The eyeball blinked, and beside it, a framed and signed certificate appeared. <Here’s the certificate. It’s signed and everything.>
Mirk squinted. “By who?”
The certificate quickly vanished. <Doesn’t matter,> the eyeball continued. <What matters is that you follow our directives to the letter. Are we understood?>
“I think so. Finally,” Mirk said, staring long and hard at the eyeball. He turned on a heel and ran out of the storeroom.
“Don’t eat that cake!” Mirk screamed, shoving crewpersons aside as he ran toward the bar and sprang into the air, tackling Captain Kimmel to the ground.
“What cake?” Kimmel asked, blinking up at Mirk from the ground as he leaned on her.
“What the hell are you doing?” Hartley asked, looming over Mirk.
“I was having some ice cream,” Kimmel said, rubbing a little of the white cream off her nose. “Honestly, I don’t much like cake. So I gave my piece to Zordock.”
“Zordock the Bold,” the Therrian boomed from behind the bar, licking his fingers as he shoved the last bite of cake into his mouth.
“NO!” Mirk leapt to his feet. “Medical emergency! Get this man to Sickbay immediately!”
“Mirk?” Browning asked, walking up, mouth half-ful with cake. “Whfts rrrng?”
Zordock the Bold’s mottled red skin suddenly blanched to pink, and he grimaced.
Mirk pounded the bar in impotent frustration. “Nooooooooooooooo!”
Then he let out a long, satisfying belch, and his coloring returned to normal.
“Nasty aftertaste, but not bad,” Zordock the Bold said, and went back to wiping off the bar.
Mirk stared up at Zordock, his face twisted with emotion, as the assistant bartender walked off.
“Problem, Mirk?” Richards asked, now part of a crowd that had formed around the young bartender.
“Uh…” He looked around sheepishly. “I just realized my icing was way past the expiration date.”
“Hmm,” Browning said, studying her fork. “Mine tastes fine. Can I have another piece?”
“S-sure,” Mirk said, and stumbled away, his shoulders sunken.
“Janice!” Peterman said through clenched teeth. “You’ve got to watch your figure! You want to be able to fit into your wed–”
“Into your what?” Richards asked, his eyes going wide.
“Welding outfit,” Browning said, glaring at Peterman. “I’m taking up welding as a hobby.”
“Mind telling me what all that was about?” Hartley asked Mirk.
“Misdirection,” Mirk said. “Look, if you don’t mind, I need a little while to try and process just what’s…”
That’s when a huge white rift opened over Mirk’s head, and a pair of fiery red lips emerged.
<We’re hurt, Mirkles,> the huge lips said, as everyone in the club turned and gasped in mute shock. <You didn’t buy our ruse. Too bad. Would have made all this so much easier.>
“Made WHAT so much easier?” Mirk asked. “What do you want from me?”
<Nothing much,> the lips said, opening wide. <Your obedience. Your submission. Your defeat. And being that you’re the last one left of your kind, you’re really all that stands in our way. So if you don’t mind, we’ll just eat and run…>
And the lips engulfed Mirk, swallowing him with a stomach- curdling smack.
“MIRK!” Hartley screamed, rushing toward the lips, leaping at them. But the lips vanished just before she could reach them, and left the engineer tackling air, falling to the deck.
Richards slapped his combadge. “Bridge, this is Richards. Red Alert. Scan the area for any unusual…”
Then the Explorer shook violently, jarring everyone in the room.
Hartley felt Plato’s arms sling around her waist. “Help, Megan!”
“Get OFF!” Hartley growled, pushing Plato off her and marching toward the door, stumbling as the ship shook again.
“Tactical!” Richards shouted. “Report!”
“Depth charges. From outside the Oort Cloud,” Keefler’s voice replied over the comm channel. “Unknown source.”
“I think we know the source,” Richards said with a sigh. “As if we didn’t have enough problems…”
“The Orleans,” Baxter said, standing on the bridge of the Escort, hands on his hips. On the ship’s small viewscreen, the Steamrunner-class starship sat outside the Oort cloud that held the Explorer, firing glowing blue orbs into the cloud.
“Holding position at fifty thousand kilometers,” Tilleran said from the Escort’s helm. “Firing high-yield graviton charges into the cloud.”
“And there’s no way to detect how much, if any, damage the Explorer is taking,” J’hana said.
“Well they can’t stay in there forever,” Baxter said.
Harlan stepped up beside him, waving his cigar at Baxter. “They’re going to stay in there as long as it takes to evade the Orleans. If she captures the Explorer, it’s all over. You get me?”
“Loud and clear,” Baxter muttered.
“We have to stop the Orleans,” Ashley said, stepping up on the other side of Baxter.
“How?” Baxter asked. “They’re a hundred times our size. Once we reveal our position, they’ll be on top of us in an instant.”
“Yes,” Ashley said. “Which will give the Explorer time to escape.”
“But how do we let the Explorer know we’re here?” Baxter asked.
“Flyby,” Harlan said, shoving the cigar into his mouth. “Flbl.”
Richards, Browning, Hartley, Peterman, and Kimmel filed onto the bridge, as Keefler stood from the command chair and went back to tactical. Ridley and Madera were manning ops and conn, respectively. Some supernumerary was running the science console.
“Keep us moving, Madera,” Richards said, taking up a position at the middle of the bridge as Peterman and Browning stepped up behind him and Hartley stormed over to tactical, still visibly shaken by Mirk’s disappearance. “Don’t let them zero in on us.”
“Struc…Structural integrity down to ninety-five percent,” Hartley said. “We won’t be able to stay in here forever.”
“We don’t need to stay in here forever,” Richards said. “Just until the captain comes back.”
“The Orleans may have already captured him and the others,” Peterman said.
“In which case we’re needlessly endangering the crew,” Browning said.
Richards paced the bridge. “I’ll take that chance.”
“We’ve got to give Andy the benefit of the doubt,” Kimmel said.
“How long will we wait?” asked Peterman.
“Minor hull breaches will start forming in six hours,” Hartley said, running her hands across her panel. “And where the hell did those f***ing bastards get off taking my husband? WAIT until I find them!”
“Hold on, Megan,” Peterman said soothingly. “One crisis at a time!”
“I know, I know,” Hartley muttered. “Reinforcing shields at critical areas.” The ship shook again, and she grabbed her console. “But I don’t know how much good that’ll do.”
“We’re going out,” Richards said stiffly, pulling his uniform tunic down.
“To give ourselves up?” Peterman asked. “Is that wise?”
“We’re not giving ourselves up,” Richards said. He looked at Kimmel. “At least not without a fight. Madera, lay in a course out of the Oort cloud, full impulse. Keefler, ready on weapons.”
Just then something bleeped at Keefler’s panel.
“Contact entering the cloud! Our sensor reception is hazy, but it looks like the size and shape of the Escort!”
“Stand down!” Richards ordered. “All stop!”
“She’s heading toward us at full impulse,” Keefler reported. “And hailing.”
The fuzzy image of Baxter appeared on the viewscreen. “Chris! No time to explain! Orleans out there! Head out of the cloud in the opposite direction! Rendezvous at Beta Coradine!”
Then, just as quick, Baxter disappeared from the screen.
“The opposite direction of what?” Browning wondered.
“The opposite direction of the Escort!” Peterman said.
“Do it, Madera,” Richards said, pointing at the viewscreen. “Full impulse!”
“Escort is leaving the cloud,” Keefler reported.
“He’s betting he can distract the Orleans long enough to let us escape,” Kimmel said softly.
“He’s a great guy that way,” Peterman said.
“Yeah,” Browning said.
Richards rolled his eyes. “Please!”
“We’re clearing the cloud!” Madera announced, as the yellow cloud cover disappeared from the viewscreen, revealing an open starscape ahead.
“Lay in a course for Beta Coradine, Lieutenant Madera. Maximum warp. Engage!”
Madera did as she was told, and the Explorer shot into warp.
“Any sign of pursuit?” Richards asked, glancing back at Keefler, who shook his head.
“We made it,” Browning said.
“Forgive me if I don’t celebrate quite yet,” Peterman said.
The Escort shot out of the cloud so quickly it was almost on top of the Orleans.
“Damn!” Sullivan said, glancing up at the viewscreen as the Escort swooped down at them. “Where’d she come from?”
“The cloud, sir,” Fontaine reported from tactical.
“Obviously,” Dallas said from beside Sullivan, folding her arms.
“Get a tractor beam on that ship,” Sullivan said. “And open a channel.”
“They’re already hailing us,” Fontaine said. “And they’re beginning evasive maneuvers. I can’t lock on.”
“This should be good. Keep trying to lock on, Lieutenant. And put them on screen.”
Baxter appeared on the viewscreen, looking surprisingly relaxed in the command chair of the Escort. “Captain Sullivan! Long time no see!”
“Yes,” Sullivan said flatly. “What’s new, Captain?”
“A little of this, a little of that…”
“Well, about…‘that,’” Sullivan said. “Commodore Woodall has some questions about ‘that.’ He wants you to report to him immediately.”
“And he sent you all this way to lead the way in? How thoughtful of him.”
“He’s a great guy, when you get to know him.”
“No doubt,” Baxter said, nodding. “Unfortunately, I can’t help you.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Sullivan said. “Captain, if you would just behave yourself, and tell me where the Explorer is, this will all go much easier.”
“I’m afraid there’s far too much at stake, Captain Sullivan. I think you’d understand, if you were in my place.”
“Maybe I would. But I’m not. I’m in my place. And that means I have to ask you to stand down. Captain.”
“Nothing doing. Captain.”
“Where is Admiral Baxter?” Dallas suddenly blurted, leaping to her feet and stepping out in front of Sullivan. “Why is he so obsessed with the Directors and the Critics? What do they have to do with his research? And with Section Thirty-One? And why is it all so important?”
Baxter blinked. “Who the hell are you?”
“She gets that a lot,” Batyn said tiredly.
“Somebody get her off my bridge,” Sullivan said, exasperated.
Batyn looked around a few moments, then realized that was his cue. He stood and gripped Dallas by the arms, dragging her into the turbolift. “So sorry about this,” he said to Sullivan. “I swear, you can’t take her anywhere.”
“This isn’t over, Baxter! I’ll have my answers! You can bet on that!” Dallas shouted as Batyn pulled her into the turbolift.
“Have a nice day!” Baxter waved after her.
Sullivan glared at Dallas as the lift doors closed, then turned her attention back to Baxter. “Captain, I’m afraid there’s only one way this can go.”
“Agreed,” Baxter said.
“And neither of us want to fire on the other.”
“True,” Baxter said.
“The Escort just went into warp,” Fontaine called out.
“Pursuit course. Match speed and increase to overtake.” Sullivan stepped toward the viewscreen. “I’m faster than you, Andy. Let’s stop this craziness before one of us ends up doing something really stupid.”
“Far too late for that I’m afraid,” Baxter said.
“Then we’d better hope you have a higher power looking over your shoulder,” Sullivan said. “Because…”
That’s when the Orleans snapped out of warp, skidding into a nearby system, spinning out like a hydroplaning car on an icy road. It finally rolled to a stop, its engines dark.
Sullivan stumbled to her feet moments later, and found the Orleans bridge red with emergency lighting, her crew mumbling about dinged elbows and bumped heads.
“Sullivan to Engineering! Report!”
“Engineering. This is Chull. I don’t know what hit us, sir, but it knocked out all relays from here to the navigational deflector. The warp core sub-processors are fragged too. We’re not going anywhere for two, maybe three weeks.”
Sullivan stared up at the viewscreen and sighed. “Prepare a coded message to Commodore Woodall at Starfleet Command. Looks like we’re out of the hunt…”
“WHAT?” Baxter demanded, turning toward J’hana.
“She just…stopped,” J’hana said. “Engines went dead.”
“Explain,” Baxter said, turning to Tilleran.
“Exactly what J’hana said,” Tilleran said, staring, befuddled, at her monitor. “The Orleans just…stopped.”
Just then, the aft doors opened, and Dr. Maura Drake stepped through, glancing about inquisitively.
“I hope I’m not intruding…”
“No,” Baxter said, still gaping at the viewscreen, and the reverse angle that showed the Orleans was no longer pursuing. “As a matter of fact, your timing couldn’t have been better.”
“Good. I take it we were able to evade the Orleans.”
“Surprisingly,” Ashley said, looking at Harlan.
“I guess we should just count ourselves lucky, eh?” Drake said.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “Lucky. Lay in a course to rendez-vous with the Explorer, Tilleran. Sooner the better. We need to wrap this thing up.”
“Trust me,” Drake said, putting a hand on Harlan’s shoulder and squeezing it. “We will.”
The Explorer continues along on its mission to find the nature of Anna Kimmel’s powers, while Lt. Commander Hartley searches exhaustively for a certain missing bartender. Problem is, Mirk ends up in a place he just may not want to leave. Will Hartley be able to convince her husband that “Southern Charm” isn’t exactly what it’s cracked up to be?