Author: Anthony Butler
Captain Andy Baxter surveyed the readout on his screen, cursing to himself. He looked back down at the panel, and studied his options. His next move could define much of his future, his family’s future. The Explorer’s future.
Baxter stepped out, and spoke in an authoritative voice:
“Are you sure this is the only class that’s open?”
Heidi Broomfield, Starfleet Academy Registration Assistant, octogenarians, and cat-lover, looked up at Baxter with barely masked disdain. “Is it the only one on the screen, Mister Baxter?”
“Captain Baxter, thanks,” he corrected. “I know I look young, but trust me, I’m a captain. See the pips?”
“I say, is it the only one on the screen, boy?”
Baxter narrowed his eyes. “Yes. Definitely the only one. But see, it’s at oh-eight-hundred. And I’m not really a morning person. A ten- hundred would be great.”
“Ten-hundred’s closed. Got oh-eight-hundred. If you’re not interested, you got plenty of cadets behind you who’d love to take your spot.”
“Well, now…” Baxter glanced at the woman’s nametag, and briefly wondered why ship-faring Starfleet officers didn’t wear them. It would help him a lot during those times he forgot an officers name, which was more often than he cared to admit. “…Heidi, I don’t want to get in a whole thing with you. But I’m not asking for any special treatment here.”
“Says on your profile here that you’re being assigned a re-take of Command Decisions Oh-one-hundred-one, for gross misconduct and insubordination.”
Baxter shrugged. “Jeeze. It sounds so much worse when you add the ‘gross’ part. Do you really have to call it gross?”
“Next!” Heidi shouted to the female cadet standing behind Baxter
He held up his hands. “Wait. Wait. I’ll take it. You drive a hard bargain, Heidi.”
“You’re registered. Now get outta my line.”
“Heidi, I love you. You’re my girl!” Baxter called out, as he jogged off. He got about halfway across the quad when he realized what had just transpired.
“I’m back in school,” he muttered to himself. “God damn it.”
Captain’s Personal Log,
Stardate 58011.6. The last day before classes goes by so quickly. Tomorrow I start the first day of a six-week crash course on command. I suppose I was lucky that Starfleet let me plea-bargain down to the accelerated class, or I would have spent all semester studying. As it is, I had to leave Commander Richards in charge of the Explorer, which is never a good thing to do for every long. Invariably, whenever I come back, people are always so laid back and…detached. And they look at me funny if I give them orders, like they’re not used to getting orders. Sometimes…just sometimes…I actually miss Dave Conway.
Anyway, it’s been more than three months since anything exciting has happened. Well, scratch that. The exciting things that happened three months ago never actually happened, according to Starfleet records. Nobody tried to destroy the universe, or stole a Section Thirty-One vessel. Nobody almost became a god. Nobody was exiled in order to avoid being hunted down by the same Section Thirty-One. And, quite certainly, nobody went rogue for six months and disobeyed countless Starfleet orders, resulting in a forced re-take of Command Decisions One-oh-one.
No, none of that happened.
I’m just back in school. God damn it.
“That’s it, Steffie! There you go, baby. Don’t look at me. Look at the goal. Drive, drive. Score, score!”
Captain Baxter walked up behind Counselor Kelly Peterman and glanced down at her. She was squatting on the soccer field sideline, hair falling in her face, a leash gripped in each hand as Boomer and Starbuck, her two pomeranians, bounded around beside her. “Kelly, what are you doing?”
“Coaching our daughter.”
Baxter looked out over the soccer field as a horde of toddlers drove to the goal, trailing a giggling Steffie as she kicked the ball home.
Peterman, for her part, was in a crouch, one hand planted on the ground, hair draped in her face, which glistened slightly from mid-day perspiration. “You’re back early.”
“I realized I don’t start class till tomorrow, and I’m not hanging around Starfleet Academy any longer than I have to.”
“I thought you were going to check in with some of your old professors.”
Baxter winced as Steffie was tackled out of bounds by a burly four- year old. “Penalty! Ref! That’s a penalty, damn it!” He looked down at Peterman. “Dear, why is our daughter playing soccer?”
“Huh?” Peterman asked, glancing over her shoulder.
“I said, Tom Landry, why is our daughter playing soccer? Let me rephrase that. Why is our two year old daughter playing soccer?”
Peterman stood up, hands on her hips, shouting. “Block her! Knock her down, Steffie! Do it for Mommy!”
“Why are you insane all of a sudden? Did you inhale some kind of gas? Is Earth passing through an anomaly of some kind?” He looked around at the gathered parents, coaches, and staff at the youth soccer meet. “Or are we in an alternate universe.” He stopped a referee walking by. “Excuse me, sir. Are we in an alternate universe?”
“If you don’t like my calls, keep your mouth shut!” the ref snapped, and headed back onto the field.
Baxter stood there, blinking. “Honey?”
Peterman turned to Baxter, blowing out an exasperated breath. “Steffie needs to work on her socialization. Do you know she hasn’t been talking to her classmates the last few weeks of pre-school? And last week, she belted Chrissy Harkins in the face with modeling clay. Of course, the bitch had it coming to her. The word among the other parents is that Chrissy Harkins has a major attitude.”
“Chrissy Harkins is three, right?”
“Yeah, but she’s cagey.”
“So you’re teaching our daughter socialization skills by having her beat up other little girls?”
“No. She’s competing. You should like this. You like sports.”
“I like football. If you’ve got to have her play a sport, why not football?”
“That’s ludicrous. She’s not even three yet.”
“But it’s the same thing! It’s a violent contact sport!” Baxter glanced onto the field. “And she just kneed that girl in the stomach.”
“No, baby!” Peterman called out onto the field. “No knees to the midsection. That’s a free kick, and you’re already two points down!”
“You’re scaring me, honey,” Baxter said. “I feel like the reasonable one right now, and that just can’t happen.”
“Look, it’s no big deal,” Peterman said, grabbing a bottle of GornAde off the ground and chugging it. She wiped her mouth. “This year in pre-school, Steffie will be starting logarithms and algebraic functions. Kids are learning faster in this century than ever before. Why not add soccer to the mix?”
A passing vendor handed Baxter a free program, and he quickly skimmed the text. “Because, according to this, little Kimmy Dershowitz has a sprained MCL and will miss six to eight weeks!”
“She’ll live. She was faking to get out of practice anyway. She’s a big baby.”
“Most of these kids were babies like four months ago!”
“Well, everybody’s got to grow up,” Peterman said, as a horn sounded, signaling the game was over. “Speaking of which, your daughter will now have to cope with the fact that she lsot. Are you happy? Your daughter’s a loser.”
Baxter smiled weakly as Steffie jogged toward him, her face grassy and damp. “Continuing a longstanding Baxter tradition.”
Steffie leapt into Baxter’s arms and hugged him tightly. “Help Daddy!” she cried.
“Yeah, okay. Let’s head home.”
“Do you have school tomorrow?”
Baxter sighed. “I so wish you were talking to Steffie and not me.” he tapped his combadge. “Baxter to Escort. Three to beam back to the house.”
“Well, it was a good idea bringing the Escort,” Peterman said, as Baxter and Steffie sat at the dinner table, and she adjusted the controls on the replicator in the kitchen of Baxter’s ancestral home in eastern Maryland.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “Oh, by the way. I got another nasty comm from the neighbors this morning. They say one wing is encroaching on their lawn.”
Peterman glanced out the kitchen window, where in the dusk night, the Peregrine-class scout ship’s running lights blinked innocently. She was parked in an open field next to Baxter’s house, wings up in landing position. “We could always return it to orbit.”
“Nah. I’ve got some stuff in there, and I don’t feel like beaming back and forth to get it.”
“Why don’t you just move the stuff in here?” Peterman asked, bringing steaming plates of spaghetti out and setting one each in front of Baxter and Steffie.
“Eh,” Baxter shrugged, glancing over the padd in front of him, at the daily news headlines from AWN Digest. “Hey, hon. The Explorer’s in the news.”
Peterman took her own plate out of the replicator, along with a drink, and sat down beside Baxter, glancing over his shoulder. “Oh no. It blew up, didn’t it?”
“No. What? No, it didn’t blow up.” Baxter cocked his head. “It says here that Joan Redding will be making a special trip to the Explorer later this week to interview a member of the command staff for a special segment on AWN’s popular morning news show, ‘Wake up, Starfleet!’”
“What’s the segment about?”
“They don’t say, but they’re hinting that she’s going to ask some questions about our role in President Dillon’s jaunt to the past, which they’re dubbing ‘timegate.’” He shook his head. “Ugh. Timegate. What a dumb name.”
“Are they still poking that dead horse?” Peterman muttered, watching Steffie eat. “No. Veggies first, baby.”
“It appears that Redding has a hot lead that may reveal secret motives behind President Dillon’s time-travel fiasco.”
“Why is it never President Dillon and the Explorer Folks’ time- travel fiasco?” Peterman wondered aloud. “For better or worse, we could use the galactic PR.”
“This isn’t good,” Baxter said. “I wonder who agreed to this.”
Peterman shrugged. “Who do you think?”
“I’ve got to make a comm,” Baxter said, and stood. “And no, I’m not finishing my veggies.”
“I wasn’t going to ask,” Peterman said, and scooped the steamed broccoli off Baxter’s plate, sliding it onto Steffie’s. “Just more for us aspiring atheletes, right sweetie?”
“No pushups!” Steffie cried out.
“I’ll be on my little ship,” Baxter said, glancing worriedly at Peterman, then dashing out the back door.
“I know the whole chain of command thing has always been sort of a myth on the Explorer, but this is ridiculous. Remember the last time a reporter came on our ship? Alvin Ficker nearly ruined us!”
“Joan Redding is no Alvin Ficker,” Richards said, easing back in his chair and staring at the monitor. “At least, she doesn’t look like him. Anyway, it’s just a quick interview. She’ll be here and gone, just like that.”
Baxter’s eyes widened. “Chris, are you sitting in my readyroom?”
Richards glanced around. “Well, yeah.”
“Because you commed and insisted on speaking to me privately.”
“That’s what the observation lounge is for!”
Richards leaned forward. “It’s booked for Ensign Sefelt’s birthday party this evening.”
“It’s Howie’s birthday?”
“Yes. He’s twenty-nine. Don’t even get me started on his fear of turning thirty.”
The anger seemed to drain from Baxter’s face. “Can you sign the card for me?”
“I suppose,” Richards said. “If you can tell me why you’re so on-edge.”
“Tomorrow’s my first day of school.”
“Oh,” Richards said, and tried to stifle a laugh. “That can be…trying.”
“Do NOT start with me, Chris.”
“I said nothing.”
“It was all in your smirk.”
“I think it’s wonderful. You’re going to learn so much. Who knows, you might even make the Commandant’s List!”
“Just remember to get there early. You want a seat in the front row. That’s where all the really good students are.”
Baxter gritted his teeth and pressed a control, closing the channel.
“Front row,” Richards chuckled, and stepped out from around Baxter’s desk, heading out onto the Explorer’s bridge.
“Commander,” J’hana nodded curtly, rising from the command chair.
“Lieutenant,” Richards replied, and stepped up to the chair as J’hana ducked back behind her console. “What’s our ETA at the rendez-vous with the AWN transport?”
“Ms. Redding’s transport will meet up with us in nine hours, twenty minutes, during the morning shift,” J’hana said, checking her readouts. “Would you like any special arrangements?”
“No,” Richards said. “I’ll just meet her in the transporter room. No reason to roll out the red carpet. She’s just a reporter.”
“Very good,” J’hana said, as the aft turbolift opened and the Delta Shift bridge crew filed out.
Richards eased out of the command chair and headed over to the forward turbolift, joined by Ensigns Ridley and Madera. J’hana and science officer Nash took the aft one. He inclined his head slightly at the Andorian as he ducked into the lift, and breathed a sigh of relief as the doors closed.
“Deck Ten,” Richards said quickly.
“Are you okay, Commander?” Madera asked as the turbolift wooshed toward its destination.
“The look on your face seems familiar. I can’t quite place it.”
“No reason you should. My facial expression says nothing, Lieutenant.”
“Anybody feel like going to the Constellation Club for drinks before we head back for Howie’s surprise party?” Ridley asked.
“I’ll join you,” Madera said with a sprightly grin as the lift opened and she and Ridley poured out.
“No, really, I’d rather just hang out by myself,” Richards muttered, watching the pair walk away. Not that he needed to spend any time with Madera right now. One badly conceived relationship at a time.
Still, it would have been nice to have someone to talk to. Life on the Explorer was definitely not the same without his closest friends aboard. With Baxter and Peterman off on Earth, and Janice and Plato gallivanting around the Gamma Quadrant, a full month longer than anticipated, no less, Richards days had become increasingly lonesome.
As Richards headed down the corridor, he considered speaking with J’hana. A frank, reasonable conversation between colleagues. Clear the air, establish parameters and boundaries. He needed to establish a safe and nurturing environment. Maybe that would prevent all this awkwardness.
He mulled this as he approached a door and punched in a keycode. The door swished open and he stepped in.
The door closed and he was bathed in darkness. Moments later, it opened again, and J’hana leapt in, slamming him into the back wall of the janitor’s closet before he could make a sound, and before the door could fully close.
“J’hana, I, urk!” Richards coughed out as the Andorian climbed him.
“Shut up, human, and enjoy this!” she commanded, as the room seemed to shake, and buckets fell off their hangers.
“But what if someone actually needs this room, you know, for janitoring!”
“The janitor was brought into the security office for questioning. I planted some Borg technology in his quarters. We’ve got plenty of time.” Richards winced as he felt his uniform ripping, and bit back tears as he felt clawlike fingers rake his skin.
Richards bore down on a mop head to keep from screaming, even though he knew his screams would go unanswered. There had to be a better way.
Why did relationships have to be so painful?
“Good morning!” Dr. Janice Browning grinned as she stepped off the transporter padd, luggage in tow. She jogged up to Captain Sullivan and threw her arms around her. “I’m SO glad to see you! You’re the first solid person I’ve seen in weeks! Not that there’s anything wrong with Changelings, of course.”
Emily Sullivan grimaced. Why did Browning feel like their relationship was one that included hugging? She gently broke Browning’s grasp and stepped back. “We’re happy to help. And besides, we were in the neighborhood.” She glanced at the transporter pad. “Is your son coming up on the second transport?”
“He’ll be along in a few hours,” Browning said. “He stayed behind to finish up saying goodbyes, and all.”
“Time passes differently in the Great Link, or so I hear,” Browning said with a shrug, then patted Sullivan’s back as they stepped out into the corridor. “And thank you for picking us up. It’s comforting to see a Starfleet ship after so much time away. Feels almost like home!”
Don’t get too comfy, Sullivan thought, but forced a smile. “Well, you’ll be back in the Alpha Quadrant in a couple days…”
“Yes. And what about the Orleans?”
“After we drop you and the others off at the rendez-vous, we’ll be heading out on a diplomatic mission to Leposia. Starfleet has extended our stay here for another three-month tour,” Sullivan said. “I guess it means we’re doing something right.”
Browning shrugged. “The bar was set pretty low. We got dragged into a Changeling revolt and killed a Weyoun. Captain Conley blew up a star system. And I think Captain Baxter’s mom accidentally gave warp drive to an iron-age species, or something.”
“We all have our…different styles…” Sullivan said politely, holding back an onslaught of sarcastic remarks…something she’d gotten rather good at during her tenure as captain. “Can I show you to your quarters?”
“No, don’t be silly. Ensign…”
“Ensign Coles, Doctor,” the slightly-built man replied.
“Ensign Coles here will show me the way.”
Sullivan nodded. “Suit yourself. Then I’ll head to the bridge and confirm our rendez-vous with the Dominion ship that’s headed to the Alpha Quadrant.”
“Yes. About time this exchange thing went both ways, eh?” Browning asked, gently elbowing Sullivan.
“Yeah, something like that…” Sullivan trailed off, then quickly headed off in the other direction.
“Nice lady,” Browning said to Ensign Coles.
“And fine-looking,” said the Ensign.
“What?” Browning asked.
Just then, a looming, scaly gray figure materialized in front of them and the Ensign shrieked, as he came face to face with a Jem’Hadar warrior.
“Doctor! I heard you were back on board,” Chaka’kan said. “I have a cheese and fruit basket for you back in my quarters,” he added with authority.
“AHHHH!” Ensign Coles screamed, dropping the luggage and running in the other direction.
“It is a very nice basket!” Chaka called after the ensign.
“Weird,” Browning said. “Haven’t you been on the ship for like three months?”
“Nearly,” Chaka said. “You would think the crew would get used to me. Perhaps if I walked around more.”
“Or if you stop using your camouflage field,” Browning suggested.
“I thought the camouflage would help. The Orleans crew has not adapted to me as well as the Explorer crew did.”
“Not everyone is as used to the weird and unusual,” Browning said. “Although I have to admit, I’m a little surprised you spent the whole trip on the Orleans.”
“I’ve been a great help to them, when called on. I have translated star maps, examined archaeological relics, and scouted ahead on a few landing parties.”
“But is that why you’re here?” Browning asked, as Chaka picked up her bags and accompanied her down the corridor. “To help Starfleet explore the Gamma Quadrant?”
“It seems to be a useful occupation,” Chaka said.
“But it’s not why you’re here!” Browning said. “If I recall, you wanted to get back to your Jem’Hadar roots. You wanted to spend some time with your peers, show them how much you’ve grown.”
“Yes. Well, that plan did not last long,” Chaka said. “I spoke to the Regional First, and he indicated that I would be a disruption to the units under his command.”
“That’s ridiculous. You’ve protected me and the others on the Explorer so many times. You’ve fought bravely. They should be proud of you, like we are!”
“I am also a babysitter,” Chaka said, his shoulders slumping. “And, to them, babysitting apparently is not life.”
“Well, what do they know,” Browning said angrily. “They’re idiots.”
“They are my bretheren,” Chaka said. “Whether they realize it or not is of no import to me. I have found other ways to make myself useful.”
“Well, I think it’s a darn shame,” Browning said.
“I prefer to look at it another way, Doctor. This trip has reaffirmed for me that I belong in the Alpha Quadrant, learning and growing, so I can demonstrate the value of Federation life to the Jem’Hadar back here.”
“Don’t they have a guy on Deep Space Nine who’s doing that?”
“Perhaps. But can he make s’mores?”
“I doubt it.”
“My point exactly. Now then, let us deliver your luggage!”
Captain Baxter dashed across the quad at Starfleet Academy, leaping a gardener and juking to narrowly avoid running into a crowd of Red Squad cadets. Best not to make them angry.
He turned toward the James T. Kirk Command Building and ducked inside.
“Anybody know where Kirk Three-oh-five is?” he asked breathlessly as he jogged down the hall. “Kirk Three-oh-five?”
“Third floor,” a small voice said behind him. “That’s what the three’s for.”
“Oh,” Baxter said, glancing back at the smaller boy in a cadet’s jumpsuit. “That makes sense.” He headed over to the nearest lift and the boy followed him, watching as he pressed the call button. “You going to the third floor too?”
The boy nodded.
Baxter stepped in, watching the boy, who just looked at him with wide eyes. “How rude of me. Captain Andy Baxter.” He reached out a hand. “And you are?”
“Ethan,” the boy said, reluctantly taking Baxter’s hand and shaking it. “Ethan Piper.”
“Nice to meet you, Cadet,” Baxter said, stepping out of the opening lift into the crowded corridor as students filed into their classes. “What class are you heading to?”
“Command Decisions One-oh-one.”
“Oh,” Baxter said. “You’re in my class, then.”
“I thought Professor Blot was teaching…”
Baxter chuckled. “No, no. I’m not teaching the class. I’m taking it.”
“But you’re a captain.”
“Yeah. That’s what I said. But there was some, uh, stuff that happened. And yeah, I’m taking the class. Wait…did you say Professor Blot?”
“Yes. Do you know him?”
“Shouldn’t he be dead by now?” Baxter rubbed his chin as the pair approached the door to the classroom. “Blot was like a hundred when I had him for Command Tactics Two-hundred. Which was …” He glanced at Piper. “Several years ago.”
“I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you again,” Piper said.
“Yeah we’ll see about that,” Baxter said, and opened the door, gesturing for Piper to walk in first.
Sure enough, at the front of the classroom stood Professor Blot, in his bloated, wrinkled, blue grandeur. The Bolian hadn’t changed a bit.
“Baxter!” Blot rattled. “Sit right at the front where I can see you. Don’t want you sneaking out and stealing a starship again.”
“Sir, I think Admiral Nechayev directed Academy staff not to talk about that,” Baxter said meekly, ducking into a seat in the first row. Piper sat down behind him.
“You telling me what I can and can’t talk about in my classroom?” Blot asked.
“No. Of course not. I just…”
“Shut up!” Blot shifted off the desk and ambled from left to right, in front of the class. “Now listen up, you wastes of water weight. This is Command Decisions One-oh-one. It’s what we call the ‘challenge’ section. It’s for the crud at the bottom of the ration pack. For the lowest of the low, the worst of the worst.” He stared at Baxter. “And all the more fitting that Andy Baxter should be at the head of your class.”
Piper raised a hand. “Sir, can I ask…?”
“Shut up, Piper! I’ve heard about you and I’m not interested in your excuses. Just listen, and maybe you’ll learn something.”
“Gee, this’ll be fun,” Baxter muttered, and eased back in his chair.
Richards gingerly lifted a forkful of scrambled eggs to his mouth. It hurt to move. He was always sore the morning after his encounters with J’hana, and yesterday’s was no exception.
All he wanted was a nice, quiet breakfast alone in Space Tastes before he had to meet Joan Redding at the transporter room.
“Want some company?”
Richards looked up and some eggs fell out of his mouth. “Mmph. Tilleran?”
Lt. Commander Tilleran sat down opposite Richards and held up her hand. “Imhala! Could I get a Spanish omelette?”
“You can get whatever the replicator has!” Imhala called back from the kitchen.
“Boy, I can’t wait until Janice comes back,” Tilleran muttered as a server poured coffee for her. “Hard to believe, but I actually miss real food.”
“Yeah,” Richards said, glancing at a crew report on his padd. “No kidding.”
“I suppose you really can’t wait, eh?” Tilleran asked as she sipped her coffee.
“Are you reading my mind again?”
“Just making small-talk, Commander. I know you and Doctor Browning have had some…history.”
“Well,” Richards said. “That’s sort of in the past, isn’t it?”
“It would be much less confusing if it were,” Richards said, and blanched as he saw J’hana saunter in, flanked by Ensigns Albright and Keefler. A gregarious boss, she was known to take her top performing security officers out for breakfast once or twice a month to reward performance. Of course, she beat them mercifully during security drills, but that was just part of her charm, Richards thought.
“Boiling hot Fharvat, Imhala, and open up your blouse when you walk out here!” J”hana announced, as her and her officers sat down near Richards and Tilleran.
Tilleran averted her eyes. “Oooh. Awkward.”
“You’re telling me,” Richardosn said.
“What?” asked Tilleran.
Richards looked down at his breakfast. “Nothing.”
Tilleran stared at him, narrowing her eyes.
Richards stared at his eggs, trying desperately to think of his breakfast and nothing else. Eggs. Eggs. Eggs. Sex with J’hana and a side of eggs.
“Commander!” Tilleran exclaimed.
“What?” Richards asked innocently. “Stop probing my brain! You’ll find nothing there.”
Tilleran folded her arms. “You don’t have to get defensive. You aren’t the first.”
“Of course not. Many a man on this ship has fantasized about J’hana. I’m used to it.”
“Of course you are.”
“Sure. It’s not unusual to fantasize about doing such things with J’hana.” Tilleran cocked her head. “Although they sure are realistic fantasies.”
Richards shrugged. “Um…I’m an artist. I have a great imagination.”
Tilleran nodded as Imhala dropped her plate off and then moved over to J’hana’s table. “Maybe I should go try to talk to her.”
“Have you guys talked at all since…?”
“The breakup? It’s okay, Commander. You can say breakup. And no, we haven’t talked since then, other than a few brief exchanges about work.”
“She’s a harsh woman.”
“Yeah, I know.” Richards nearly choked on his mouthful of eggs, once more. “I mean, I can imagine. You know, with my great imagination.”
“I don’t think I’ve got much of an appetite,” Tilleran said, and pushed out of her chair. “I’m sorry. I’ll, uh, just see you up on the bridge.”
“Sure,” Richards said, watching Tilleran leave. On her way out, the Betazoid inclined her head at J’hana, who merely growled low in response.
“All’s well on the good ship Explorer,” Richards said, and returned to his breakfast.
“Hi Professor Blot,” Captain Baxter said, walking behind the bulging Bolian just after class. “Just had a couple questions.”
“What,” he snapped.
“Well, for starters, why didn’t you call on me the whole class?”
“Because you had nothing important to contribute,” he said distractedly as he thumbed through padds at his desk.
“How do you know that? I had some very thought-provoking ideas on the Kevarian Gambit of 2305…”
“Maybe you did, but I didn’t want to hear it.”
“Can I ask why?”
Blot whirled. “Because you shouldn’t be here! And more importantly, I shouldn’t be here teaching you this class AGAIN! It’s ludicrous!”
“Starfleet was very specific in their ruling, Professor. They didn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation.”
“Admiral Nechayev’s an idiot. I’ve always thought so, and she knows it, and that’s one of many reasons why I’m here and not commanding a starship.”
“You’ve been teaching a lot longer than Nechayev’s been an Admiral, sir.”
“I have a lot more enemies at Command than just Nechayev. Including your father.”
Baxter gulped. “Well, I can’t do anything about that.”
“I always liked you a hell of a lot more than him, although that’s not to say I like you very much,” Blot said, looking Baxter up and down, squinting his beady blue eyes. “All the more reason I can’t fathom what’s brought you here.”
“I imagine you’ve read the abbreviated report.”
“I don’t need to know,” Blot said with a wave of his hand. “This is a waste of time. You don’t need this class. You passed it with a good, solid C nineteen years ago, and that should be that.”
“Professor Blot, it almost sounds like you took a liking to me back then,” Baxter said, clutching his chest. “Could it really be true?”
“No you idiot, I just wanted you out of my class. Now get out so I can plan for the next group of numbskulls. Oh, why do they always give me the idiots!”
“Thanks, Professor Blot. You’ve given me a lot to think about,” Baxter said, and headed out of the classroom.
“And don’t come back!” Blot called after him.
“What was that all about?” Cadet Piper asked, waiting for Baxter outside the classroom.
“What? Oh, nothing. Just, uh, reminiscing. What are you doing?”
Piper was flanked on one side by a slim, mousy girl with straight Browning hair that covered her face, who stared at the ground, and on the other by a portly, redheaded boy with freckles who breathed through his mouth. “Mathers and Sparks and I were just wondering if you’d like to go with us to Scotty’s for some drinks.”
“Ah, Scotty’s,” Baxter said. “Haven’t thought of that place in a while. What’s your pleasure? Rum? Vodka? Beer?”
“We’re all nineteen,” the chubby boy announced.
Ahhhh. So when Baxter first took this class, these cadets were busy being born. Yeesh.
“Oh. Well, chocolate malts it is, then,” Baxter said, and led the group down to the lift. He glanced out a nearby window. “Wow, it really is a beautiful day out.” He looked back at the pair that followed Piper, both of whom had also been in his class. “So which one is Mathers and which one is Sparks?”
“I’m Mathers. Colby Mathers,” the boy announced in a high, squeaky tone. “My Mom said I’d be the specialist cadet here.”
“Well, I’m sure you are,” Baxter said. He glanced at the girl. “And you’re Sparks?”
“Nat,” she said softly.
“Is that short for Natalie?”
She shook her head. “Natheena.”
“Your parents must have really loved you to think of that name,” Baxter surmised.
“Not really,” she said softly.
“Nat and Colby and I made fast friends,” Piper said. “As soon as we realized everyone else here hated us.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” Baxter said. “I had some hard times when I was here, but even I…”
Just then, two hulking cadets swooped up behind Piper and grabbed him by the back of his trousers, and scooped him out the window.
Baxter ran to the window, tried to grab the boy’s foot, but down he fell.
“Don’t worry, sir, there’s a mattress to break my falllllll…….” Piper quickly said as he dropped like a stone, and sure enough, hit a mattress that lay at the foot of the building.
Baxter turned to the other cadets and glared. “Just what the hell do you think you two are doing?”
“We always do this after the first class each morning,” the first cadet said. “It’s kind of a ritual.”
“It’s a stupid ritual!” Colby Mathers said, hiding behind Baxter.
“Damn right it is,” Baxter said. He tapped his combadge. “Baxter to section security.”
“This is an official channel for Academy Staff only,” a nasal voice replied over the comm channel.
“I’m a Starfleet Captain, God damn it.”
“Watch your language, mister. Your signal identifies you as a student. Please stay off all official channels. Good day, sir.”
“This isn’t over!” Baxter called to the two cadets, who had already started to walk off, laughing. “I’m going to talk to the commandant, and when I’m done, the two of you will be pruning rose bushes till you graduate!”
“Wow,” Mathers said, staring at Baxter wide-eyed.
“You stood up to them.”
“They’re just kids.”
“Not to us,” Sparks said softly, which Baxter soon realized was the only way she ever spoke.
“I’m okay!” Piper called from the bottom floor. “Don’t worry, I don’t think anything’s broken.”
“Something’s broken all right,” Baxter said, cracking his knuckles as he walked to the nearby lift and pushed the call button. “But it’s gonna get fixed REAL quick.”
“Mom, I’m home!”
“Come in, dear!” Browning said excitedly, rushing to the door to her guest quarters on the USS Orleans, as the doors parted and Plato stepped in, carrying a large duffel.
She wrapped her arms around him. “Sweetie, how was it? Did you get to say all your goodbyes?”
Plato shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”
Browning looked in Plato’s eyes. It was increasingly disturbing that the boy who she’d given birth to a little less than four years ago was now as tall as she was. Pretty soon, she imagined, he’d be taller. “What do you mean you guess? What’s the matter?”
“I just didn’t want to leave,” Plato said, setting his duffel down in the middle of the floor and shuffling to the nearby couch. “I was having fun talking to the Founders. I got to swim with them all the time, and I could hear their thoughts, and stuff. It was cool.”
“I’m sure it was…cool,” Browning said thoughtfully, walking up behind Plato and sitting on the arm of the couch, beside him. “But we agreed we would do this for two months. Then it became three months. And eventually, you know we have to get back to the Explorer.”
Plato looked up at her. “Why?”
“Because our friends are there. It’s our home, you know, where our life is.”
“But why does it have to be?” Plato leaned up, folding his knees under him so he could face Browning. “Mom, it was so much fun down there. They were teaching me things. Techniques, so I could shapeshift better.”
“Like this!” Plato said excitedly, and stared at his hand, watching it morph into a hoof.
Browning cocked her head. “Horse or donkey?”
“I’m not sure yet, but I’m working on it,” Plato said. “Because I’m part-human, I can never fully shapeshift. But the Founders taught me there was a lot more I could do with my abilities if I just put my mind to it.”
“That may be true,” Browning said, putting a hand on Plato’s shoulder. “And maybe we can come back again next year. But we have a life to get back to, and I think when you think about it a little harder, you’ll realize you miss that life too.”
“I guess,” Plato said. “So when do we meet up with the Dominion transport?”
“A couple hours. Just enough time to grab some lunch and talk about all the fun we had.”
“Being debriefed by Captain Sullivan and her senior staff, I think,” Browning said. “He’s been really helpful to them when he hasn’t scared the bejeezus out of them.”
“I want to see Chaka,.” Plato said firmly.
“Let’s get some lunch first, honey, then we’ll look him up.”
Plato shifted off the couch. “Fine, okay.”
“Don’t sound so enthusiastic. It’s not like we’re being trotted off to our death or anything.”
“Seems like it,” Plato shrugged.
Browning slipped an arm around his neck and squeezed. “Relax, kiddo. You’ll be back on the Explorer soon, and you’ll remember all the good stuff you left there, and wonder how you could have ever left it.”
“I spose,” Plato said reluctantly.
Just then, the comm sounded.
“Sullivan to Browning.”
Browning glanced up. “Go ahead.”
“A Dominion transport just entered hailing range and made contact. They’ve requested you and Chaka and Plato beam aboard.”
“Already? I thought they were a couple hours away.”
“Apparently there’s been a change of plans. Are you ready to leave now?”
Browning wondered whether she detected a note of anticipation in Sullivan’s voice.
“Yeah. We can get our bags together and be in the transporter room in a few minutes.” At this rate, why hadn’t they just left their bags in the transporter room. Or beamed them? Browning hadn’t bothered to ask.
“I’ll arrange to beam your luggage aboard the transport,” Sullivan said. “Meanwhile, head up to the transporter room. Sorry for the change of plans.”
“That’s okay,” Browning said. “I’m kind of eager to head back to the Alpha Quadrant anyway.” She glanced at Plato. More eager than others, she thought.
Richards was still aching as he ambled to the transporter room, trying to hurry his step so he didn’t miss Joan Redding’s beam-in. He was nervous enough handling her visit without Baxter there, and didn’t want to be late.
Just as he arrived at the doors to the transporter room, they opened, and Redding stepped out. “Commander!” she exalted, as a holographer trotted behind you. “So good to see you. I’ve heard much about you and your ship.”
“Well, I’m just the first officer,” Richards said humbly. “So she’s not really my ship.”
“You’re just being bashful,” Redding said, patting Richards’s arm. She waved at her holographer. “Come along, Kado.”
The hulking Grenthelman with his green fur and bulging biceps snarled a bit and followed, adjusting the headset on his massive cranium.
“Howdy,” Richards said meekly to the cameraman, and leaned closer to Redding. “Does he double as your bodyguard?”
“You never know how an interviewee will react to an expose.”
“I never spoke much French,” Richards said. “So, what can we do for you?”
“I’d love to get a meal before we do your interview,” Redding said. “Is there anywhere good to eat?”
“Yes. Ship’s Mess, Deck Eleven,” Richards said quickly. There was no chance he’d risk running into J’hana.
“Have you eaten already?” Redding asked.
“Just now,” he said. “But I’d be happy to sit with you. I’ve cleared my schedule, so I’m yours for the day.”
“How fortuitous for me!” Redding replied, and took Richards’s hand, as he led her to the nearest turbolift.
Richards was already regretting his decision to spend the day with Joan Redding. Not only was Hartley ticked at being pressed into service as the watch commander, but he would now be forced to spend his day under a microscopic lense. He’d dealt with the news media briefly when he wrote for Days of Honor. They could be brutal, and could find ways to twist the most innocent of quotes into something harmful. He’d have to be on his toes all day.
“On your toes, Commander!” J’hana chortled, slapping him hard on the back.
“AHHHH!” Richards shrieked, turning to find the Andorian right behind him.
J’hana studied Redding’s cameraman. “A Grenthelman. We don’t get many of those around here. And sturdy too. How many kolar beasts do you eat per day?”
“Seven,” the Grenthelman rumbled. “At times, nine.”
“Then we better get started,” J’hana said. “The replicator will be working overtime.”
“Can I help you, Lieutenant?” Richards asked.
“Just thought I’d lend a hand,” J’hana said. “As Security Chief, it’s important to ensure the safety and well-being of visitors to the ship.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Richards said. “But don’t you have other duties to attend to?”
“No, I pretty much cleared my schedule.”
“Fantastic,” Richards said, as J’hana fell in behind his small group. J’hana was being nice, and that was so much scarier than her being vicious and cruel. Whatever her motives, Richards knew he’d be in deep, deep pain before the day was out. On the other hand, he’d probably also be having sex.
“The more the merrier,” Redding said, and took out a padd. “Now if you don’t mind, Commander, I’m going to start asking questions. We have a lot of ground to cover, and not much time.”
“S-sure,” Richards said weakly, quickly wishing he was somewhere, anywhere, else.
Baxter grumbled to himself as he made his way across the Academy quad. “Lack of evidence, my ass,” he muttered. He’d just come from a meeting with the Academy Commandant, and was told, after being chided for not setting up a prior appointment, that he didn’t have enough evidence to bring disciplinary actions against the cadets who pushed Piper out the window. And furthermore, even if he did, that these kids were just participating in rituals of youth, and some of these rituals were actually healthy.
“Healthy my ass,” Baxter said, and cut across the quad toward the transporter station, more than eager to head home to Kelly and Steffie.
As Baxter passed the Sonak Science Center, the doors opened and a bevy of cadets poured out into the sunlight, doubtless heading to Scotty’s for a drink.
Baxter dodged to avoid a few of the more reckless cadets, only to bump headlong into someone. “Excuse me,” he said, and glanced back at the person who’d run into him, who didn’t so much as stop. “I say, excuse me!” he called after the rude fellow. He stared at the back of the man’s head as he headed across the quad, back the way Baxter had come.
Boy, that egg-shaped cranium looked familiar. Baxter turned around and headed after the man, who wore a Starfleet officer’s uniform, not that of a cadet. The hair color was right. And in the distance, as the man hurriedly trotted off, Baxter caught the glint of something on his face. He was wearing glasses!
“Ficker!” Baxter cried, and broke into a run, shoving one cadet aside and leaping a pair who were kissing on the lawn, amidst the rosebushes. “You’re going to get a rash from that!” Baxter called over his shoulder as he ran faster. He’d nearly caught up with him. “Ficker!” he called again. “I see you there, you son of a bitch! Stop and face me like a man!”
Heaving for breath, Baxter forced himself to run a little faster as the man rounded a corner, ducking around the Sato Communications and Languages Building. “FICKER!” he called out.
When he rounded the corner, though, Baxter stopped stiff in his tracks, scanning the half-dozen cadets who were walking down the path.
Ficker or not, the man was gone
“Ahh, battleship gray,” Browning said, looking around her stark quarters and sighing. “The Dominion really know how to decorate, eh Plato?”
“I want to go to the bridge,” Plato said.
“First, I don’t think they call it a bridge. I think they call it something else,” Browning said. “And I don’t think you can just pop in unexpectedly. After dinner, we’ll see about a visit.”
“There may be changelings aboard,” Plato said. “Wouldn’t that be cool?”
“Yes,” Browning said. “Cool.”
Just then, her door chime rang. “Yes,” she said wearily, hoping a changeling hadn’t arrived to whisk away her son already. They’d been together for months, and Plato had barely said ten words to her.
The doors opened, and to Browning’s relief, it was Chaka’kan.
“Doctor,” Chaka said. “It’s a relief to see you.”
“Relief?” Browning said.
“Yes. Have you explored this deck?”
“No. We just beamed in twenty minutes ago. I’ve barely unpacked.”
“You were beamed directly to your quarters too, then?”
Browning nodded. “Yeah.”
“And no one from the ship’s command crew has come to greet you?”
“Nobody’s come,” Plato said. “Let’s go find someone to talk to, Chaka!” He raced up and grabbed the Jem’Hadar’s hand.
“That’s just it,” Chaka said. “I cannot locate anyone else. Further, I cannot travel to any other decks, or open up any rooms other than yours and mine.”
Browning shrugged. “No offense, Chaka, but the Dominion have a way of doing things oddly. They are from the Delta Quadrant, after all.”
“Gamma,” Chaka said.
“Whatever,” Browning said. “Anyone want something to eat? Let’s see if we can get those replicators working…”
So this is what the ship’s mess looks like, Richards thought as he watched Joan Redding chew dantily on her croissant sandwich.
J’hana, meanwhile, was seated with Redding’s assistant, Kado, at the table beside them. Richards tried to breathe through his mouth as much as possible, and avoid looking as Kado messily devoured the flank of kolar beast, which covered most of his and J’hana’s table. Which prompted the question…did kolar beasts come from Grenthalma? Or did the Grenthalman love of kolar beasts come after Grenthalma entered the Federation? Did they see some in a zoo, or what?
“…your first meeting with Bradley Dillon?”
“Hmm?” Richards asked, glancing back at Redding.
“I was asking what you discussed during your first meeting with President Dillon, when he came aboard the Explorer and set up his offices two years ago.”
“Oh,” Richards said. “Normal things. Administrative stuff. He asked to borrow some crewmembers for his security detail. He wanted to reroute some power conduits to his office suite, set up a chroniton emission chamber, you know…” Richards trailed off. “Huh.”
“I wonder if that had anything to do with….well, I suppose it did.”
Redding cocked her head. “So you didn’t think it odd that the President of the United Federation of Planets would decide to set up his offices on your ship, and on top of that, would need a science lab and access to a chroniton emission chamber?”
“Well, when you put it like that, sure it sounds suspicious,” Richards said. “But at the time, I suppose we weren’t given to question the leader of the free quadrant.”
“You’re being coy with me, aren’t you, Commander?” Redding asked. “That’s okay. I’ve interviewed the most evasive of politicians…Dillon himself. You’re not the first.”
“I don’t think I’m evasive, or a politician,” Richards said, honestly. “And I’m sure as heck not coy, whatever that means.”
“If you feel you have to protect the President, I understand. Loyalty is commendable.”
“After spending a year with him on the ship, and then going through the ordeal you went through during the time travel incident. It’s understandable that you might form a bond with him.”
“Bond? Are you kidding?”
Redding leaned forward. “Your relationship with Bradley Dillon wasn’t amicable?”
“Despicable is more like it,” Richards said. “He and the Captain didn’t see eye to eye on anything. And none of us really trusted him, from day one. Which really makes me wonder why we didn’t question the chroniton thing. Huh. Oh well, it’s not like you can go back in time and try to fix your mistakes, eh?”
Richards and Redding sat there a few quiet moments.
“Well, maybe you can,” Richards admitted. “But it’s not a good idea.”
“Enjoying your conversation?” J’hana asked, leaning over toward Richards.
“Mind your own business, Lieutenant,” Richards said. “Don’t you have to shoot somebody, or something?”
“I’m thinking of someone I’d like to shoot right now,” J’hana growled, and shot her leg under the table. She must have had double- jointed knees or something, because her leg curved at an impossible angle, and her foot pressed against Richards’s crotch, causing a reaction halfway between pleasure and pain, which was par for the course, for the Andorian.
“Uuuuhhhhhhhhhnnn….” Richards moaned, scooting out of his chair. “Ms. Redding, would you like to head to my office so we can get set up for my interview?”
“Sure,” Redding said. “Kado, let’s go.”
“Thank you for your company,” Kado said with a belch, rising heavily from his table.
“You’re dismissed, Lieutenant,” Richards said to J’hana. “I believe Lieutenant Commander Hartley needs you on the bridge.”
J’hana glowered at Richards. “Very well. I will go. And I will have Doctor Wilcox clear a biobed in Sickbay.”
With that, she headed out of the Ship’s Mess.
“If you don’t mind me asking, who is the biobed for?” Redding asked.
“That’s, uh, confidential,” Richards said, watching J’hana leave. “Let’s go. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of questions…”
Captain Sullivan whistled merrily as she stepped out onto the bridge. She nodded at her tactical officer, the always-hunky Lieutenant Brett Fontaine, her chief tactical officer. “Lieutenant, any new developments?”
“Just one, sir. We’ve got a Dominion transport vessel on approach, bearing oh-one-three mark one-two-seven.”
“The one that just left with the Explorer people?”
Fontaine shook his head, looking up from his panel. “No. This is another one.”
Sullivan stepped down toward the center of the bridge. “That’s odd.”
“Yes, ma’am. They’re hailing us.”
“By all means, put them on.”
The viewscreen switched to the cramped view of a Dominion bridge. A tall, lanky Vorta who reminded Sullivan vaguely of some 20th century mucisian appeared on the viewscreen, and raised an eyebrow. “Captain Sullivan,” he drawled. Beside him, his Jem’Hadar First just stood there and glowered.
“That’s me. What can I do for you?”
“I am Yelgrun. I have been sent by the Founders to ferry your Doctor Browning, the changeling boy, and the so-called ‘friendly’ Jem’Hadar back from whence they came. Please arrange to send them to the following coordinates…”
Sullivan gaped. “Didn’t…um…didn’t we just do this?”
“I do not believe so,” Yelgrun said, and glanced at his First, who shook his head. “Is there a problem?”
“Yeah,” Sullivan said, taking a deep breath. “That’s for sure…”
“…welcome back to Good Morning Starfleet! It’s thirty minutes past the hour,” said Sal Trish, the effusive host of Good Morning, Starfleet!
“Joan Redding is with us today, live via subspace aboard the USS Explorer. But first, a little background on President Dillon’s time travel ‘incident,’ for those of you who haven’t followed the news in the last nine months,” Trish said, grinning at the holocam, resplendent in a glittering paintsuit. She was perched on a plush tan couch that sat in front of massive bay windows that overlooked a fake-painted Earth vista. Beside her were her earlier guests, Martha Stewart, who had come in from the planet Leeramar to shill for her new book: “Living Germ-Free Without Freaking Out,” and Kragg, a Klingon comedian who’d performed his bit for an ecstatic audience just moments earlier. Kragg had become a household name in the Alpha Quadrant for his routine, in which he called two human “volunteers” down from the audience, then berated them and their families for forty minutes, verbally assaulting them with all manner of insults. Whoever lasted the longest without lunging at Kragg won five bars of latinum. The other one was beaten senseless. The crowd seemed to like it.
Counselor Peterman curled her legs under her on the couch in the living room of the Baxter family home, watching the screen as Steffie did situps on the floor nearby.
“No more, mommy!” she called out.
“You’re almost done, sweetie. Just fifty more,” Peterman said distantly, watching Sal Trish. Wow, who did her eye makeup? It was so…glittery.
“…which brings us to today. President Dillon hasn’t been any more forthcoming with his motives, and all efforts to meet with him for an exclusive interview have been denied by his press secretary. So we turn to the Explorer, where Joan Redding brings us a live interview with Captain Andy Baxter, the Explorer’s commander, who witnessed much of Bradley Dillon’s intriguing plot, just as it unfolded…”
“Huh?” Peterman said, scratching her head.
“What’d I miss?” Baxter asked, jogging into the room and hopping onto the couch next to Peterman.
“Well, apparently, you’re about to give an interview…” Peterman said.
“Thanks, Sal,” Joan Redding said on the screen, seated in a “two- shot” beside Commander Richards, in what looked like the seldom-used First Officer’s office. Richards said it still smelled from the Dave Conway era. “Actually, Captain Baxter was unable to meet with us today. Instead, we’ll be meeting with Commander Chris Richards, First Officer of the Explorer, who’s in command while Captain Baxter’s away.” She turned to Richards. “Commander, where is Captain Baxter?”
Richards turned stiffly toward he holocam. “Captain Baxter is sorry he can’t be here, but he had to go to school today, so he couldn’t make it.”
“What the F***!” Baxter snapped.
“Why are you late, anyway?” Peterman asked, still staring at he screen. “You were supposed to be back twenty minutes ago.”
“I was chasing Alvin Ficker across the academy quad,” Baxter said, and leaned forward. “Now hush, I wanna hear this…”
“Ficker?” Peterman snapped. “HUSH?”
“All done my situps, Mommy!” Steffie called out, stumbling over to Peterman.
“Okay, hit the showers,” Peteresen said. “Practice is in thirty minutes!”
“Two-a-days?” the two-year-old muttered, and stomped off.
“Was my toddler wearing a pink jogging suit?” Baxter asked blankly as he watched the interview. “And how many two-year-olds know what two-a-days are?”
“No. OUR toddler was wearing a beautiful Sergio Gustavson pink jogging suit,” Peterman replied sharply.
“…which is pretty much when we started to suspect something was amiss,” Richards said. “I knew it was odd that a Federation President would need a chroniton generator in his office…”
“No you didn’t!” Baxter snapped back at the screen.
“And then what happened, Commander?” Redding asked intently, leaning toward Richards.
“Well, to make a long story short, Bradley Dillon went back in time, and we went with him.”
“Wow, that is really short,” Peterman said.
“I thought this interview was supposed to be about the Explorer,” Baxter said.
“Did you ever discover why President Dillon moved forward with his plan?” Redding asked.
“As a matter of fact, we did.” Richards chuckled. “It’s funny, actually.”
“Here it comes!” Peterman said. “Wait for it!” She couldn’t believe it. Richards was about to “out” President Dillon for his plans to reunite with Leximas, a time traveling being who’d shared time with him on Waystation, and did so nearly at the cost of his Presidency. Peterman had tried, and failed, to do the same, for purely therapeutic and professional reasons. Now, Richards would succeed where she failed, and he wasn’t even trying. He was just answering a question.
“So it turns out…” Richards began, and then the screen went blank.
“What the?” Baxter asked.
Then the screen came to life brightly, as booming classical music filled the Baxters’ living room. On screen, Bradley Dillon sat behind a massive oak desk, hands folded neatly in front of him.
“Good morning,” Bradley said, as the music slowly died down. “I’m here to talk to you about a problem that afflicts every Federation citizen.”
“That son of a…” Peterman began.
“Stress,” Bradley finished. “Stress affects all of us. We push on through our workaday lives, never considering that the frenetic pace is killing us. Isn’t it time you considered a vacation? Isn’t it time you planned a break from the monotony of modern life? Come to one of the hundreds of Dillon’s Spa and Resorts, opening quadrant-wide. Treat yourself. Be good to yourself, and visit a Dillon’s Spa and Resort today. Thank you, and may the Great Bird bless the United Federation of Planets. We now return you to your regularly scheduled program…”
The scene shifted back to Richards’s office. “Are we back?” Joan Redding asked, staring at the camera. “What happened?”
“Thank you for that inspiring interview, Joan,” Sal said, turning to face the camera. “We’ve got headlines coming up at the top of the hour; but before that, we go live to Arraket Sabadejo, our on-the-spot weatherman, who is reporting from the terraforming project on Cardassia Nine…”
Peterman reached out and tapped a control on the coffee table, switching the holoscreen off. She turned to Baxter. “I guess we shouldn’t have expected the most powerful man in the Federation to let his dirty laundry get aired on quadrant-wide HV.”
“Yeah, but it’s okay for Richards to tell everyone I’m back in school?” Baxter asked, folding his arms.
“You’ll get over it,” Peterman said, turning to Baxter. “Now tell me about this thing with Ficker.”
“It’s nothing,” Baxter said. “Probably just my mind playing tricks on me.”
“Ficker is many things, but he’s not stupid enough to show his face around Starfleet Academy. He stole a Section Thirty-One starship. He’s going to be laying low for a long while, is my guess.”
“But I don’t understand!” Redding shouted into Richards’s desktop terminal. “This interview was slated as a thirty-minute spot. What do you mean he bought the airtime? He can’t do that! You’re letting him win! Why’d I come all the way out here, then?”
Richards sat back on the other side of his desk, watching Redding carry on with her news director, pounding the desk for emphasis. He wondered if that’s what he looked like when he was working behind his desk. Except for the fact that he wasn’t a woman, and he never pounded on his desk.
Finally, Redding reached forward and switched off the terminal. “Well, guess I’m going to be taking a little vacation.”
“Problems?” Richards asked.
“Bradley Dillon controls the media,” Redding said. “I guess we’ll never get the truth out there as long as he’s in power.”
“Aren’t you being a little defeatist?”
“Oh, you’re one to talk,” Redding snapped. “You’re covering for him, just like his staff, and everyone else I’ve interviewed.”
“I’m not covering for him. I told you what really happened. He did it all for the love of a woman.”
“If you’re going to lie, at least make up a believable one. Have you even met Bradley Dillon? He’s not got a sentimental bone in his body.”
“I’m pretty sure she was a magical woman, if that helps.”
“Your story is getting ever more believable,” Redding snapped, and stood up. “Well, I suppose Kado and I should get going.”
“Feel free to stay as long as you like,” Richards said. “We’re not really doing much else.”
Redding thought about that. “Yes. Maybe I’ll speak to a few more people before I leave. I may still be able to salvage a sidebar in the Federation News from this.”
“They look so sweet when they’re sleeping.”
Captain Baxter rolled over and glanced up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Wha…?”
“Don’t get up. And I’m not saying that to be polite. I mean don’t get up, or I’ll shoot you. And use your inside voice. Don’t want to wake your wife…because then, I’d shoot her too.”
Baxter turned over, leaned up on his elbows. “What the hell…?” He squinted in the dim light to see the dark figure seated opposite his bed. “I don’t even have a chair there.”
“I know. It was a pain in the ass to beam a chair in here. But we couldn’t have this conversation if I was sitting on your dresser. That just wouldn’t be civilized.”
“Who the f*** are you?”
“A prior acquaintance,” the man said. “With some friendly advice.”
“You’re from Section Thirty-One,” Baxter muttered.
“Astute observation. I believe the last time we met your father jabbed a cigar in my eye.”
“Roddick,” Baxter said, grinding his teeth. “Believe me, if I had a cigar right now…”
“Let’s not talk about what might have been, but rather what is, and what will be.” Roddick leaned forward. “Don’t waste a lot of time puzzling out how I escaped from Starfleet Security. Just know that Section Thirty-One doesn’t get into the habit of letting its operatives get captured.”
“But you don’t seem overly worried about someone jetting off with one of your fancy starships.”
Roddick nodded. “That’s precisely what I’ve come here to talk to you about. Captain Ficker.”
“Ooh, are you guys going to catch him? Do some kind of torture thing? Can I watch?”
“How quickly we move to the same side,” Roddick said boredly. “What I actually came to tell you is we plan to do absolutely nothing about Ficker.”
Baxter blinked. “How come?”
“Because it’ll be much more painful for you if we don’t.”
“That’s awfully petty.”
“You let one of our operatives, along with possibly the most advanced genetic project in the galaxy, slip through our fingers. You destroyed years of scientific work that could have led us to a discovery that would take humanity to the next level. You embarrassed us.”
“You’re welcome,” Baxter muttered.
“Just so you know, I could easily kill you now. And your little family. Poof! With an order from me, you’re all gone.”
“So why not do it?” Baxter asked angrily.
“Because letting you live, especially with Ficker out there gunning for you, is quite frankly a fate worse than death. Even without Ficker out there, I’d imagine I would be doing you a favor by killing you.”
Baxter worked his jaw indignantly. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re a joke. An incompetent, a failure. You’re back at Starfleet Academy, for God’s sake. Your shipmates may like you, but they’ll never respect you. And you’ll never, ever, live up to your Father’s expectations. Trust me, Captain, you’re far better off dead. And that’s a favor I don’t intend to do for you.”
“You know, Roddick, despite all you said about me, I somehow was still able to embarrass the hell out of your fine organization. Why do you suppose that’s true?”
“Because men plan, and God laughs, Baxter. See you in hell.”
Roddick stood up and walked out of the room.
Baxter leapt from his bed and dashed out into the hallway, to find it empty.
Peterman stirred, mumbling and shifting covers. “Come back to bed, Andy. Fluff my mountain worm pile…”
“Glad to see one person’s going to sleep soundly tonight,” Baxter muttered to himself as he returned to bed.
The next morning, Commander Richards stepped out of his quarters and headed for the bridge. He wondered briefly whether Joan Redding would be stopping by again, or whether she’d just pester other members of the senior staff. Either way, he’d better mention it at the staff meeting. It wouldn’t do for the Explorer to get involved in another media circus under his watch.
Richards’s thoughts were interrupted suddenly as a door beside him opened and he was dragged into a cramped supply closet. A steely arm wrapped around his throat and squeezed.
“URK! How many supply closets do we have on this ship!”
“Do you want her?”
“URK. What?” Richards choaked.
“Do you want her?” V’haspant reeked on his captor’s breath, and he knew it was J’hana. Nobody else he knew on the ship had forearms that were quite so muscular.
“Don’t be coy, human. Do you want the news woman?”
“J’hana, why are you being so weird?”
“If you touch her, I will kill you.”
Richards yanked at J’hana’s arm but couldn’t pull himself free. “You know, this has to be against like a dozen regulations.”
“Feel free to call security,” J’hana said icily.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I will not be used. I will not be a token in some silly human sex game.”
“I thought you liked the time we played twister.”
“I did. That’s not what I’m talking about. Love triangles serve no purpose. They’re weak, sophomoric, and so…so human. If three people are involved, they should be having sex together.”
“If you’re talking about Joan Redding, don’t worry. I have no interest in her.”
J’hana released Richards, and turned him to face her. “That’s a relief. I do not have to kill you.”
“Are you jealous?”
“If I were truly jealous, we would not be having this conversation.”
Richards gently put a hand on J’hana’s shoulder. “Look, I know you’re still hurting over Tilleran. But you’ve got to get over this and move for…”
J’hana grabbed Richards by the throat and hoisted him against the wall of the tiny closet. “Do not pretend to know my heart, Commander. Heading down such a path is pure folley.”
“You really need help,” Richards choked out.
“And do not pretend you can give it,” J’hana growled, letting Richards fall to the deck and shouldering her way out of the closet.
“I was going to promote you to Lieutenant Commander today!” Richards croaked, poking his head out of the closet.
“Keep your fwarking promotion!” the Andorian muttered and headed down the corridor.
“Starfleet Security doesn’t know anything. They’re useless,” Baxter said, munching angrily on a muffin as Peterman bounced Steffie in her lap.
“Maybe we should sleep on the Escort,” Peterman said, glancing out the window into the yard where the Escort was parked. “At least it has a security system, shields, weapons…”
“Roddick won’t come after me again,” Baxter said. “He accomplished what he set out to do.”
“Which is what? Worry you about Ficker?”
“It’s head games,” Baxter said. “And I’m not going to let it steer me off-track.”
“Well, then, what if Ficker comes after you?”
“I’m not convinced he’s even in this sector.” Baxter glanced at Peterman. “If we get all paranoid about this, we’re playing right into their hands.”
“Section Thirty-One’s, or Ficker’s?”
Baxter shrugged. “Both.”
“Tired, mommy…” Steffie moaned, leaning her head on Peterman’s shoulder.
“My God, she’s exhausted,” Baxter said. “Could you stop training our daughter for the next Duranium-man Triathalon, please?”
Peterman stroked Steffie’s back. “I’m just trying to do things to connect with our daughter. Do you realize how often we left her with Chaka last year, not to mention the tensions and stress of bouncing back and forth through time, fighting a godlike being, getting attacked by Section Thirty-One! It’s a lot for a kid to handle!”
Baxter leaned forward and put a hand on Peterman’s. “It’s a lot for you to handle too, sweetie. My guess is Steffie’s handling it way better than you are.”
“Don’t try to counsel me, and I won’t try to run your ship.”
“You already tried to run my ship before, remember?” Baxter said. He gently took Steffie in his arms and held her against his chest. “Look, I know you feel like you lost time with Stef, and yeah, we haven’t been the perfect parents recently, but we can’t get all those points back with one touchdown. We have to play a few series of good offense.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Baxter shrugged. “Just trying to keep with the sports metaphors.”
“Have I been crazy lately?” Peterman said, looking at the muffin on her plate.
“Yeah, a little bit.”
“Yeah, mommy,” Steffie muttered, and passed out asleep on Baxter’s shoulder.
“Jeeze, what’s gotten into me,” Peterman said. “Have I become one of those…”
“Moms?” Baxter asked. “Yes, I can safely say you are one of those.” He handed Steffie back over to Peterman and smiled. “Now how about you do something nice and relaxing with her, like go to the zoo or something?”
“She does like the animals,” Peterman said thoughtfully.
“Yeah, and you do too, Mom,” Baxter grinned, and leaned over, kissing Peterman, then Steffie, on the head. “You guys have a good day. And if you see anything out of the ordinary, contact Starfleet Security immediately. No. First contact me, then contact Starfleet security.”
“I get it, Andy. We’ll be fine,” Peterman said.
“I never had a doubt,” Baxter said, and stood up. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a field trip.”
Richards limped onto the bridge, just as Lt. Commander Hartley stood up from the command chair. “About time you got here, Commander,” she said, walking up to him. “We’ve been comming you for the last ten minutes!”
Richards blinked. “You have? I must’ve been a little out of it.”
Hartley stared at him a moment, his rumpled uniform and mussed hair. “Were you attacked?”
“I’m just not a morning person.” He looked around, at the officers dashing from console to console, exchanging reports and speaking to each other in hushed tones. “What’s going on?”
“We just picked up a transmission from the signal array near the Bajoran wormhole. The USS Orleans reported that Doctor Browning, Plato, and Chaka’kan have been abducted by Dominion insurgents, and their location is unknown.”
Richards’s eyes widened. “Insurgents?”
“Yeah,” Hartley said. “Apparently not everybody is happy with the kinder, gentler Dominion. Go figure.”
“Contact the Orleans,” Richards said. “And lay in a course for the wormhole. Maximum Warp.”
Hartley jogged up to the aft engineering station. “Engines are at maximum capacity. We can handle Warp Nine Point Nine for a short period.” She looked up. “But Chris, and far be it from me to be the diplomatic type, but we didn’t exactly leave a good impression the last time we visited the Gamma Quadrant.”
“Not to mention the last time we ran into the Orleans,” Tilleran piped up from her station.
“Then it sounds like we’d better be on our best behavior,” Richards said. “Engage, already. Time’s wasting.”
“I can’t believe this old heap is still in service,” Captain Baxter muttered, leaning against the aft science station aboard the USS Republic.
“Show some respect,” Professor Blot said from the command chair. “They don’t make starships like this anymore.”
“And there’s a reason for that,” Baxter said. He glanced at the readouts. “Look at all these rainbow colored controls. What’s the point of them? And this thing? It’s just a glowing round screen with lots of swirling color on it. How am I supposed to read that?”
“Not everything is about functionality,” Blot muttered.
“Hold on, something’s coming in over the fax machine,” Baxter said, as a nearby slot spat out a paper readout. “Yeah, real modern.” He glanced at it. “Yes, sir, it looks like we’ve successfully gone to warp one point one. We can increase speed to one point two if you want to shake the ship apart.”
Blot whirled in the command chair. “Would you shut up?”
Baxter stepped back a bit. “I’m sorry.”
Piper sidestepped over to Baxter. “I can’t believe how you stand up to him.”
“Oh, Blot’s a softie,” Baxter said. “He likes me, anyway.”
“Did you get bullied on like I did, when you were at the Academy? I mean, the first time?”
“Oh, I had my share of run-ins with the ‘cool’ cadets,” Baxter said wistfully. “Well, I guess you might call them ‘beatings,’ actually. But I won as many as I lost. Well, okay, that’s not true, but…”
“So how is it you’re so…tough now?”
“Me, tough?” Baxter chuckled. “What gives you that idea?”
“You stand up to people.”
“I guess…” Baxter shrugged. “I guess I got to a point where I just didn’t care what people thought of me anymore.”
“Wow,” snorted Colby Mathers from nearby. “That must be nice.”
“It’s just part of growing up. Or so the grownups tell me,” Baxter said dryly.
“Piper, you’re up!” Blot said, pushing out of the command chair. “Take the conn!”
“Me?” Piper asked, gulping.
“Yeah. Show us what you can do.”
“I…I don’t know.”
Baxter gave him a little shove. “C’mon, Ethan. Show us what you’ve got. The worst you can do is fail.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of!” Piper snapped, as Baxter ushered the reluctant cadet toward the command chair.
“We’re halfway to our target, planetoid Oh-two-Beta, in Sector Zero Zero Four,” Blot said, standing beside Piper, who shifted uneasily in the big, blocky command chair. “When we enter the system, tell the helm to take us out of warp and execute a standard orbit.”
“Out of warp, standard orbit, right,” Piper said, his voice shaking.
“You’ll be fine,” Baxter said from behind him.
“Shut up and get back to your station, Baxter!” Blot snapped.
“Right, right,” Baxter said, heading over to the science station.
Nearby, at tactical, Colby Mathers leaned over. “Do you really think Ethan can handle the conn?”
“I don’t know him well, but he’s a good kid. He’s smarter than he lets on. He’ll do fine.”
“Have you done this drill before?” Mathers asked. “Am I going to have to shoot something?”
“Only if we’re very, very unlucky,” Baxter said with a grin, patting Mathers on the back as some other cadets milled by on the bridge.
At helm, Nat Sparks looked up from her console. “We’re entering Sector Zero-Zero-Four.”
Piper looked at Blot. “C-come out of warp. Lay in a course for planetoid Oh-two Beta.”
Sparks did as she was told, and the Republic shook slightly as she slowed down.
Baxter looked around the bridge. Surely, after all this time, they should have been able to find a better practice ship. He snorted. The cooler cadets probably got to use a decommissioned Defiant-class or a prototype ship. As usual, the rejects were left with substandard goods.
Piper looked up at the viewscreen as the planetoid neared.
Blot jabbed him in the shoulder. “Standard orbit, kid.”
“Right, right. Helm, standard orbit.”
“Have sciences conduct a scan.”
Piper turned toward Baxter. “Sciences?”
“Yeah, no problem,” Baxter said, tapping at his console. “Let me just turn this colorful knob here. Then I’ll get out my viewmaster and see what’s what…” Baxter squinted at the scan. “Hmmm. That’s odd.”
Blot turned. “What?”
“Nothing. Just thought, at the last second, thought I saw a…”
Suddenly the Republic pitched violently, and Baxter turned toward the viewscreen, as space shimmered to reveal a arrow-head shaped, predatory-looking starship. The starship, though, wasn’t Klingon or Romulan. Her lines were distinctly Starfleet. Sabre-class.
Baxter stood up, stepping toward the center of the bridge. “The Idlewild.”
“You know that ship?” Blot asked, glancing back at Baxter as collision alarms sounded all over the bridge and cadets ran from station to station, surely not knowing what to do.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “I know it.”
And he watched the Idlewild’s phaser emitters glow. “Brace yourselves!” Baxter called out, grabbing the bridge railing as the Republic shook.
“Ficker,” Baxter said softly. Then Idlewild fired again, and Baxter stared at the viewscreen as explosions rang around him.
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
Ouch. Just when things were going well…well, except for the part about being stuck back in school, Captain Baxter stumbles smack dab into…well, what happened in Part One. And what of Browning, Chaka and Plato? Will Richards get to them in time? And what are Dominion insurgents planning to do with them? And why is Richards looking even more worn out now than he did before?